Remembering the good old days. Photo courtesy of Lee Waldman
After a nasty crash and injury last year, Lee Waldman is back in action and back to sharing his exploits.
To begin, I want to offer my apologies for not having written in so long. I used that time to regroup and re-energize. It’s been a challenging year. Ruptured hamstring last November. My father’s passing in February. Not a good way to spend cyclocross season. Not wanting to whine, and never wanting my writing to become boring or redundant, a break was necessary.
It’s now June. The hamstring is getting stronger. My goal is full recovery by October even though I’ll race short track this summer and start the ’cross season, as usual, in September. I can’t expect much to start, but I’ve got to start somewhere. My struggle now is to stay positive and motivated through the inevitable sorry finishes, struggles to recover, and just bad days. Wish me luck.
This morning Dexter the dog and I were running. While he sniffed and did his dog-like “business” I listened to our local NPR affiliate interviewing retiring sports columnist Rick Reilly. His writing has always shown wit and an ability to view sports through a completely different lens. When asked what interested him the most in sports, his reply was intriguing. His focus had been on the people and events that never made the highlight reels or the sports pages. That started me thinking. After so much time as a cyclocross rider, what made me take a second glance? Who had I met that left a lasting impression on me? Why? What stood out after almost 30 years of racing ’cross? And I started thinking back to the beginning.
When I first jumped into ’cross, it was in its infancy in Colorado. Our entire season was a mere three races including our state championship! Now, the racing calendar is so full that promoters are arguing over dates. We start in early September and don’t finish until right before Christmas.
Back then, the courses were truly of the jungle ’cross genre: extremely narrow, resembling single track mountain bike trails more than the groomed three-rider-wide-at-the-minimum courses that we all expect these days. When I began racing, the venue of choice was Chatfield Reservoir in southwest Denver. It had anything and everything you could imagine to make a truly challenging ’cross course. There were rocky beach runs that took forever to navigate. One wrong step could result in a sprained ankle. We had narrow chutes that qualified loosely as descents. They were mostly erosion channels.
With my lack of courage and technique, I ran down more often than I rode. I’ll never forget the course that included loose dirt cliffs where we shouldered the bike on one side and dragged ourselves up and over the top with the other. It was typically two steps up and one back. At the top, if and when you finally made it, you needed to empty the loose dirt and rocks out of your shoes before you could comfortably pedal again.
Back then there was no limit on the number of barriers, or the size, or the composition. They ranged from branches strategically placed in the middle of an asphalt section to three-foot high logs, often too high for the juniors to get over. Everything I know about technique, I learned back then.
On of my all time favorite course features though, was a pond. The promoter had actually routed his course directly through the middle of a knee deep, 20-meter long pond. That, in and of itself was of a challenge. The entry and exit to this particularly heinous feature were something else.
Picture this: You’re “racing” along a relatively wide, for that era, section when the course suddenly narrows to be barely wide enough to ride and dismount. Suddenly the course turns south and you “drop in.” This is no gradual descent into the water either. As I said, you “dropped in,” as in dismounting and leaping in, all the time hoping that the bottom was solid.
After slogging through to the other side, the exit wasn’t much better. It was slick and mucky, requiring those same rock climbing skills as the aforementioned cliff. The crowds loved this feature and there was the requisite cheering and heckling. It was the kind of feature that we would shake our heads at today, but back then we took it in stride and LOVED it.
I’m not sure that I’m ready to return to the kind of ’cross racing that we did 25 years ago. It was exciting then because I was learning about the sport. Like most things, it’s easy to look back with a certain air of nostalgia. Narrow single track with little room to pass, multiple sections of obstacles, unrideable drops and climbs were part of our experience. I was also much younger then. But it was fun! It was raw! It certainly was a challenge. I don’t think I’d be the racer that I am today without those early experiences.
What do you, those of you who’ve been racing for a while, remember about ’cross in the old days? Rivat shoes. Rigged-up toe straps with flippers on the bottom to aid reentry. Bar end shifters that were lighter and probably more reliable that what we use today. Brakes that sometimes worked, if you were lucky. I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime I’ll be trying to get back into racing shape and thinking about the people, places and things that sum up my history in ’cross. Hope you like it.
Go ride your bike.