When I first started working as the online editor for Cyclocross Magazine and first started writing this column, nearly a year ago, I had big goals for myself.
“My personal goal, which was super-top-secret until now, is to podium overall in both the MAC series and the Verge series in the Women’s B field this upcoming season.” My goal was also to have a killer road season, and get much better at handling for cyclocross. As I quickly realized, my road season wasn’t bad, though it was far from amazing, and my goal to improve on handling, while somewhat realized, was far from perfect. And I admit: I didn’t live up to either of my original goals. In my defense, that is only because I “Cat-ed” up to a Cat 2 after spending one week racing in the B field. But still.
This year, I have a new goal in mind, and I think it’s pretty do-able. I want to get that UCI point that eluded me in my first elite season (two different times, it eluded me by a single spot!).
So, with a book deadline looming and a serious road season becoming less and less realistic, I looked back at that “getting better at handling” goal and realized that a mediocre road season may not be the best bet for helping ride those technical hills, or descend down scary slopes. Rather, I turned to the one type of biking that I’ve rarely done: I decided to take up mountain biking.
And you know what? It’s a lot of fun.
I did my first mountain bike race last weekend, on an old MTB that I bought for $100 from a friend. It had been sitting outside (shame on me!) behind my parent’s shed for eight months, since the last time I rode it. That would be the seventh or eighth time I rode it: I haven’t had much by way of practice. I had no intention of racing, but had lugged the bike here during my move. It was Friday night in a bar that I was convinced to sign up for a race on Sunday. I blame peer pressure from the entire table of mountain bikers.
The day before the race, I found myself in a bike shop in Hadley, Massachusetts, feeling pathetic and un-bike-racer-like as I trekked in with my hunk-of-junk MTB. Not a great introduction to the mechanics there, who I’m pretty sure were snickering as they bent over to inspect it. “Think it’ll be race-ready?” I asked.
“It’ll make it through one race,” one of them replied. “Maybe.” To their immense credit, the guys at the shop managed to replace my chain, adjust my brakes and generally maintenance my bike right then and there, so I left with much more confidence than I walked in with. I’m pretty sure that without them, I wouldn’t have made it through the first 200 yards, let alone the whole race. Of course, maybe riding the bike rather than just getting it looked at would have been smart, but then again, I wasn’t really worried about doing well in the race.
That said, there’s no such thing as not trying your hardest in a race, in my book. Especially when you pay for entry. So when I showed up at the course, nerves and a healthy dose of terror started to seep into my outward calm. I started to panic. Luckily, I had some amazing friends who took me on a pre-ride, for better or for worse. I couldn’t make it up anything, I couldn’t make it down anything. I felt incompetent and frozen in place.
This was not going to end well. To make matters worse, people I knew from cyclocross (the entire New England cyclocross scene, it felt like), were there, and they were all telling me that I was going to do great. “I am going to die,” I insisted.
“I’ve never done a mountain bike race and I’ve barely been on this bike. And I didn’t even make it 50 feet into the woods before crashing,” I reasoned with Niall Gengler, a local MTB-er and framebuilder who was telling me I’d be great.
“Good point,” he said thoughtfully. “Just don’t crash too hard.”
I lined up at the start and angled my way to the front, because somewhere in my panic-stricken brain, there was still a competitive urge to grab the holeshot, even if I didn’t have a clue what to do with it.
We started and while I didn’t get the overall holeshot, I did grab the under-35 holeshot and headed into the woods. Where I promptly crashed. But thanks to cyclocross, the crash turned into a hill run and I managed to maintain a solid placing. Suddenly, adrenaline had kicked in and the rocks that had tripped me up on the pre-ride, the sketchy descents, the flat-out ridiculous hills … they were fine. I was fine.
My heart rate was probably about 190, but I was fine.
I traded places with a few women, lost track of where I was, got slightly faster at taking corners, ran up a hill to Colin Reuter of crossresults.com yelling, “Running is still watts!” and realized that, sure, my technical skills still – quite frankly – suck, but I was doing OK.
I hit the last descent, down three huge chunks of rock, with a girl behind me screaming, “Go, go, go! They’re right behind us!”
I went. I have no idea how I let go of the brakes, but I did, and we raced for the finish. When we crossed the line, her friend told us that out of the women in the Sport Category (Cat 2), I was fifth and she was sixth. Since the category was also divided into above-35 and below-35, our placings were actually second and third. First race, first podium.
The downside? No one believed me when I said that I honestly hadn’t thought I would do well in the race.
The aftermath? I might just be a mountain biker. Well … scratch that. Cyclocross will always be my main sport, but I think for the summer, I’m going to try a little experiment, and rather than focus on the road, I’ll devote what there is of my spare time to riding the thicker style of knobby tires in the woods for a change. I have high hopes that it will improve my handling skills, or at the very least, make me less scared of silly things like flyovers on cyclocross courses.
And OK, maybe my lack of technique was noticeable: when I ran over from the parking lot to the podium, I was late, so I sprinted. When I got there, one of the women in my race came up and – being very nice and entirely complementary – said, “Wow, you’re really fast at running. Maybe you should take that up instead.”
If you want to read more about my training, racing and editing exploits, you can find the painfully full version of events on my Twitter page.