Tessa Clare, hanging out pre-race. © Devin Riley
Tessa is in her second year of cyclocross and rides for Threshold Cycling. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and works as a guidance counselor in Lexington. When she isn’t racing ’cross she is mountain biking with her fiance and dog, snowboarding, playing basketball, or dancing to 80s music. The only thing she enjoys more than cyclocross is a good dish of macaroni and cheese.
Downeast Cyclocross: what a weekend. Weather report for the weekend said 60s and sunny with only a 10% chance of rain. This is what I packed for and this is what I expected. What I did not think to consider was the week of rain we had just had. Upon arrival, my first clue something was different was the line at the bike wash … before the races even started. Half of the course was a pit of ankle deep mud, the other half was a little better, but still included several pockets of mud.
In general, I like mud. It’s what got me interested in cyclocross in the first place. I am not a cyclist. Even now, in the middle of my second season of racing cyclocross, I don’t think of myself as a cyclist. I’ve never done a road race, don’t plan to, and rarely ride on the road except in the summers once or twice a week to get ready for cyclocross. Growing up I played softball, basketball, and I ran track. In college, I high jumped. I have never liked endurance sports. My fiancé is a cyclist. He loves it all, road, mountain, and cross — he even works for a cycling company. He was the one who convinced me to try mountain biking, a sport I have grown to love. It was watching him race cyclocross at some random high school on a pretty terrible rainy day that got me hooked. At first sight I wanted to do it. It was muddy, hard, and it looked so athletic. I love a good challenge and this looked challenging. The 40 minutes of pain was daunting, but I was willing to try it if it meant I got to jump over stuff, run up muddy hills, and end the race looking like a disaster.
So here I am, in my second season of cyclocross and I was going to get muddy. I got a decent spot in staging, towards the back of the middle, but to the side. At the start we sprinted up a paved hill, onto gravel, around one of several barns, through some fun turns on a grassy hillside, and then we hit it.
The mud. On average my laps took about 10 minutes. Of those 10 minutes, I bet I spent more than half running with my bike through thick, peanut butter mud. The first mud section was incredibly long, with a couple short sections in the middle that were semi-rideable. Some women just shouldered the bike and ran the whole way, others like me tried to ride what we could. I still don’t know what was more efficient, but regardless, it was slow. At the end of the first mud section, you reached the top of a small hill and got a short, turning section of downhill to recover maybe a fraction of what you lost. Then you hit even deeper mud to run through, another short ride-able section, more mud to run, and then into the woods. The woods seemed like a relief, dry ground with a great downhill you could fly on.
But at the top of the hill was more mud with tricky roots and a quick right turn as you emerged back into the field where more slippery, sliding mud was waiting. This mud was mostly rideable, with a short, steep hill at the end where many a crash occurred. This led into some quick turns, and of course, more mud to run through. Finally, the first half is over and you get to head past the barn to the other side, where some fun technical sections with grassy hills, barriers, and a ride through a barn await. This might be considered the “recovery” section of the course, but it was short. After some more grass, you hit the pavement and start all over.
The 3/4 women’s race only did four laps, but it was more than enough for me. I was doing OK, chugging along, but heading into the woods on the third lap I hit the wall. I could hardly run, my remounts were pretty pathetic, and I wanted to stop. I labored through the rest of the lap and started my fourth, just desperate to finish. It was the most difficult race, mentally, that I have ever done. Despite how miserable I felt, my place was decent and I earned my first ever Verge points. After having my ego handed to me last season, when I found out how hard cyclocross is and how out of shape I was, my goal this season was to come back as a Cat 4 and finish in the top half of the 3/4 races. While I just missed the top half, the field was tougher than previous races and I felt satisfied with my result.
After the beating I took Day 1, I was very nervous about Day 2. I didn’t know if I could do it again. But without something like a broken leg or a snapped derailleur, I knew I had to do the race. Late afternoon rain on Saturday meant the course was just as wet and muddy as Day 1, but the course had been rerouted to avoid some of the deeper mud sections. This meant more time on the bike and less running, but you couldn’t avoid the mud altogether. My staging position was pretty much the same and the start was similar to Day 1. This time the first half had only three major mud sections, the first two being mostly rideable, the third forcing you off the bike. Then back into the woods, up the hill, sharp right back into the mud with the same short steep hill that had been causing trouble day 1. The course then shot over to the other side where the barriers had been moved to a much better location and the up and down turning sections were really fun. I could have ridden this side all day, I love twisting sections and off-camber turns on hills.
Despite how much fun I had riding them, I managed to fall three out of my five laps, likely because I have a habit of taking turns a little too fast. The course changes were not major, but they were enough that I was feeling pretty good, much better than the day before. The faster conditions meant more laps, but it also meant less work to go a faster pace. I finished the race in the exact same spot as the day before, but feeling much stronger. The field was bigger as some girls had ridden in the 1/2/3 race the day before and dropped back down Day 2. Given that the competition was a little harder, I was happy with my finish, especially as it meant more Verge points.
Both days were tough races and I was spent. My legs were beat up and my shoulder was covered in purple bruises from shouldering the bike so much. But this is exactly why I race ’cross. I love that it’s hard. I love that it’s athletic and not just anyone can jump in a race and do well. You have to have endurance, sprint power, handling skills, and you have to like to get dirty and beat up. But I particularly like showing up at races and there are 40-100 other women in my race who feel the same way. All in all, it was another successful and muddy weekend of cyclocross.