Andrew Bernstein is a cat 3 road racer giving his first ‘cross season a try. This is his first entry in an ongoing column for Cyclocross Magazine.

It’s Still a Bike Race

by Andrew J. Bernstein

Noob ‘crossers discuss the finer points of the re-mount with Joe’s Garage pro Alec Donahue“You don’t want to whack your head with the saddle.”

This sage advice, given to me by Alec Donahue, a pro ‘crosser on the Joe’s Garage team out of Haydenville, Mass., seemed obvious enough. After all, if the saddle is safely under your keister, where it belongs, it would take a pretty spectacular crash for it to hit you in the head. In that case, the saddle would be the least of your worries.

But this is ‘cross, and down is up, bikes are for carrying, hills are for running, and barriers are for tripping over – uh, I mean, “jumping over.” That’s a lot for a roadie like me to swallow, but Donahue, teaching the fundamentals to me and a group of noob ‘crossers at a recent clinic held by NYCross.com in Troy, New York, kept dishing it out.

“When you get back on the bike, try to land on the inside of your thigh, and then slide the rest of the way onto the saddle.” For me, who was trying ‘cross for the first time, what I needed were some stern warnings. What Donahue wasn’t telling me was biting me in the ass – or, in the case of my saddle – hitting me in the head.

As my fellow crossers and I rolled around the grassy field, practicing the skills Donahue hade made look so easy, I developed a few of my own points to underscore his.

Try to land on the inside or your thigh,” soon turned into, “In god’s name, whatever happens, do not land on your nuts again!”

“You don’t want to whack your head with the saddle,” became “Maybe you should just push the bike up the hill.”

And “Those of you using mountain bikes will be at a slight disadvantage,” morphed into “How could my bike possibly weigh this fucking much?!”

Practicing off-camber turns at NYCross ClinicAnd yet, there I was, running up a hill, jumping over barriers, and carrying a perfectly rideable bicycle, all in the name of … well, certainly not in the name of fun. Fun stopped the moment I fell sideways into the mud and landed on top of my bike while attempting the run up. And certainly not in the name of keeping my fitness either, since October is usually my time to get fat. Then what? Then this foolhardy adventure must be in the name of peer pressure.

For some reason, everyone here in upstate New York is ‘cross crazy. Everyone, except me, that is. After six and half months racing on the road, I’m tired. I’m ready for some relaxing centuries, beer, pizza, ice cream, and maybe even some hiking, which would segue nicely in to some cross-country skiing. But everyone else around here is all fired up for ‘cross, and what am I going to do? Sit around the house when everyone else is out hitting themselves in the head with their saddles and landing on their nuts? Of course not!

So, if I was going to race ‘cross, I figured it would be best if I gave myself every possible advantage. Unfortunately, money is tight, so a new bike was way out of the question, but my old, rarely-used hard tail would be an adequate substitute. Of course, that’s about as much of an advantage as climbing Col du Tormalet with an anvil in your pocket, but it was better than not having any bike at all.

In search of some kind of advantage, I prevailed upon Eric Schillinger and the good people who run the NYCross.com series, New York’s premier ‘cross racing series, to let me attend their clinic, just a week before the six-race series got underway. And that’s how I wound up in Troy, on a sunny Sunday morning, with Donahue skeptically evaluating my stutter-stepping remount and my lazy-man’s approach to the run-up.

“I’m a really good roadie,” I imagined telling Donahue over a couple of beers and a vicodin after the clinic, an ice bag wedged into my groin. “People fear me on the road, I swear! You should see me climb!” But pretending to talk myself up was no use. A lanky college kid floated by me on the barriers, carbon wheels swishing through the grass. A man my father’s age with a single speed passed me on the run up – and he was riding!
I finally found a few people cruising at my speed. It was a group of kids from a local junior racing team. I found myself riding alongside them after a twisty section through a stand of pine trees.

“Maybe we should stick to road riding,” one of them said to his friend. I looked right at him.
“I’m so with you, man,” I said.

Shortly thereafter, I attempted another re-mount, but didn’t have my pedal in the correct position, and it spun around and whacked me in the shin, giving me an SPD-shaped bruise to match the lump on my head.

“I just don’t get it,” I thought to myself. “How is this fun?”

But then it was time for a practice lap. Suddenly, all 30 of us were going for a tight corner at the same time, and my fat tires allowed me to stick the inside line when everyone else had to go wide. “It is so on!” I said to myself, as I stood and sprinted to the foot of the run up.
I’d gotten so preoccupied with trying to learn the skills that I’d forgotten the most fundamental element of the discipline: I might be getting on and off my bike and running and jumping, but it’s still about who gets around the course the fastest, and that’s a language that even I can understand.
So, once my wounds and ego heal a bit from this weekend’s bruising, I’ll give it a shot. That way, I’ll almost certainly get beat up, but my friends won’t miss me, and who knows, maybe I’ll even have fun.

Andrew J. Bernstein is a category 3 racer on the road, category 15 ‘cross racer, and a writer based in Saratoga Springs, NY. You can read more about his cycling exploits on his blog, www.blue-mondays.blogspot.com, or contact him directly at [email protected]. For more information about the NYCross.com series, visit www.NYCross.com.