The night after my first-ever cyclocross race—Star City CX’s “Angry Serpent” at Van Dorn Park—I was too jazzed up to sleep. Across the hall in the dark of my daughter’s room, Jeffery the Hamster kept spinning his squeaky wheel. And the hamster in my squeaky head was just as tireless—spinning those laps again and again.
Cross racing is both lower key and higher octane than the ultra-endurance gravel races I’d cut my 39-year-old teeth on last year. What Gravel Worlds pulls out of you in half a day, cross racing crams into half a luscious, muddy hour.
The welcoming attitude that permeates Star City CX—from its give-us-a-try website to its all-level CX School, to the friendlies running the registration table—helped me tamp down the anxiety and just open up to the fun of racing.
While the culture is friendly, I don’t want to undersell the field’s competitiveness. For the Category 3-5 B-race, we staged six wide and maybe eight or nine deep. Our B-list status notwithstanding, I looked around at these lithe, shoulder-to-shoulder riders, skinny as timber wolves, and realized friendly only stretched so far.
Sure, they’d shake my hand. They’d eat my liver, too.
Pre-race is about the only time I can hang with Marty Killeen. (Photo, Matt Pearson)
To combat thoughts like these, I focused instead on my set of four realistic goals, listed here in order of priority:
- Eat zero trees.
- Have fun with this.
- Give yourself a great workout.
- If 1-3 are going well, see if maybe you can make your bike go faster than a few other guys’ bikes.
Friends, I went four for four.
That’s not to say it went smoothly. I don’t yet have the necessary aggression to start well from a bunch. I know damn well that everybody and their dog is going to hammer it out of the gate, yet I still find a way to be startled by it. The shouldering, the weaving and jockeying. I haven’t trained myself out of the mindset of: “Goodness, me! Well, if you want it that badly, then, by all means, sir, after you!” I tend to let off the gas and give ground.
In a 30-minute race with timber wolves, this is bad strategy. But it had a perk on this evening. Giving ground meant I was far enough back to avoid a nasty pileup of beautiful bikes and their skinny operators. A glob of them went down before we’d even left the short stretch of pavement and entered the course proper. Marty and I swung left around the bloodshed.
On the periphery of that carnage stood Tony. He hadn’t gone down, but had swung his back end out so viciously to stay upright that he tore his tire and bent his rim. His race was done at 40 meters.
Tony Black’s race ended way too early. (Photo, Matt Pearson)
While I counted my blessings, Marty launched. I lost contact and would never regain it. (Marty is a fast man.)
The path went single file, and I found myself toward the back of a train of riders. After just a couple bends, I surmised two things. Relative to me, this train mostly had weaker legs and stronger skills. I gained where gas was involved. I lost where finesse was necessary.
My practice laps told me where my passing opportunities would come. I waited for those stretches and focused on cornering cleanly. Meanwhile, the riders who’d earned better positions through their aggressive starts pulled farther and farther ahead.
I stayed opportunistic, with each pass moving me to a stronger rider—like the progression of foes in a videogame. As my tank emptied, the fuel required to pass again grew higher. But so did my confidence.
My teammate Mike is the one who taught me interval training. He didn’t care so much about increasing VO2 thresholds or maximum watts. “Sure, this is good for your cardiovascular system,” he told me. “But what you’re really training is your mind. You’re teaching yourself how to hurt without panicking.”
He told me, “Your brain is going to draw a redline long before your legs.” The more familiar that pain is to you, the longer you can keep your mind away from that red crayon.
Mike Suing’s not messing around, people. (Photo, Matt Pearson)
The idea of that familiarity helped me. My pain rose, and I thought, “Oh, I was expecting you. Go ahead and have a seat. We’ll be with you in a moment.” And I began to compare the relative obedience of my pain to the tantrums pain appeared to throw in my neighbors.
Eventually, I reached the section of the field where the wolves were skinnier, their bikes and their tattoos more expensive. I told myself I belonged up here behind this fast guy. Then I told myself I belonged in front of this fast guy. I passed him, cornered hard to the right, slid out in the mud and took us both down. He was gentleman enough not to holler, “You f***ing amateur.” But that’s what I yelled at myself.
Muddied, but not bloodied, we popped up and kept racing. And it struck me how much fun this was.
Yeah, I had a milquetoast start. My early cornering was dull. And I refuse to even describe my awkward dismounts and time-hemorrhaging remounts. (Think ostrich on ice skates, if you must.) Those cumulative errors were too much for me to pull myself into the race’s front third. Still, underneath the pain, I was a muddy kid, happily scribbling away on construction paper with every color in the box, save red.
The course kinked in the middle so that with half a lap remaining, I was within earshot of the finish. Just then, I got to hear them announce Mike taking third, and I felt proud. I didn’t quit racing there. I rode as hard as I could to the line—trying (and failing) to pass one last rider. But the finish isn’t always the point where you touch what you’re reaching for.
For me, for this first race, it was that feeling of celebration in my chest with half a lap to go. It was that moment when I realized there would be a podium. And on it, the guy who taught me to make my pain sit down would be one of the three standing up.
How could I sleep after that?
P. S. Afterwords, I found the guy I took down on the course and apologized. He laughed. “No worries,” he said. “That’s racing.” What’d I tell you? Friendly.