Join Andrew Bernstein as he embarks on the adventure of his first season of ‘cross and reminds us of our own newbie days. In this third installment, he makes the jump to big-time cyclocross racing in Gloucester, and at the same time, upgrades from a mountain bike to a real ‘cross bike. The first installment of his column is here, and the second is here.
100 racers stacked in front of me. Cowbells clanging, fans yelling from the distant start/finish. An ocean breeze carrying the slimy scent of cheap adult beverages down from the beer tent. It’s the start of the B race at the Erdinger Gran Prix of Gloucester, and I think I’m going to wet my chamois.
“Gentlemen, go on the whistle!” yelled an official over the racket. Another racer elbowed past me into a non-existent gap between two others, nearly knocking me over in the process.
“Gentlemen?” I thought, as I righted myself, took a deep breath and got my pedal back into the 2 o’clock position.
The official is yelling again: “Five! … Four! … Three!…”
“Welcome to the big leagues,” I thought, realizing I was in a little over my head, especially considering this was only my second ‘cross race in 2008, and my third ever. To make matters worse, this wasn’t the laid-back NYCross.com races that I’d become accustomed to back home. No, this was part of the highly competitive VERGE series, like, people here actually care about doing well, whereas, I’m really just here for the ride.
Racing Gloucester, the most-storied east coast ‘cross race, had seemed like a pretty decent idea a week prior.
“Sure,” I thought, “I’ll drive to Boston, stay with a friend, see what I can do in the race, and check out the scene.”
Now, “seeing what I could do in the race,” felt foolhardy at best.
If I kicked this column off with a quest to find some kind of advantage going into my first real ‘cross season, I seem to have fully transitioned into a quest to give myself every possible disadvantage.
Not only was I lined up in the last row of the 100 or so racers in Gloucester’s B race when I should have been in the D or E race, if there even is such a thing, but between my legs, is a new ‘cross bike that I’ve only just ridden for the first time from the car to the start line. This is about to be a bad scene, I thought.
“Two! … One!”
The whistle blows and we’re off, racing up the hill to the finish line, then diving right onto a grass field for a series of sharp turns. Even at the very back of the field, where, if this were a road race, things would be pretty calm, racers were aggressive, elbows flying, hips bumping and grinding, the whole deal. Yeah, I’m in way over my head.
I spend the first two or three minutes trying to find the brakes on my brand-new bike, and find myself up against the tape on the outside of a right-hander, when I don’t grab them in time.
I eventually get my fingers on the brake levers just in time for a rider to cut me off in the next corner. Cursing, I try to shift. Clicking down just one cog seems to take forever. F@#king nine speed.
I’m up out of the saddle for a moment, trying to stay in contact with the racer ahead of me, only to have to jam on the brakes again as the rider in front of me slows for another turn.
Yup, this was a bit more aggressive than the Central Park race in Schenectady, and learning to ride a new bike isn’t making the going any easier.
Obviously, I love getting a new bike as much as any racer, and, under ordinary circumstances, this would offer a great advantage in a ‘cross race. But such was not the case for me.
I picked up my new bike up nearly a week before the race, but fate and the realities of interstate commerce kept me from installing my new SRAM crank until the night before the race. I rode the bike for the first time for about 15 minutes before my start. The bike felt a lot faster than my mountain bike, and after a few minutes, I was able to dial the saddle height, so I was good to go, right? Hmmm….
The first lap had started shockingly fast. It was hot and dry, and a cloud of choking dust billowed into the air as soon as we hit the first dirt section. I’ve been told that position is everything, and although I had passed a bunch of people on the road section, I was having a hard time holding my position through the turns, and not being able to find my brakes wasn’t making life easier.
There was a huge log jam at the off-camber, uphill, barriers. There was no point in running, since the narrow course was clogged with racers scrambling up the incline, all while happy racing fans in the beer garden cheered and occasionally sloshed some frothy refreshment in our general direction. In a fleeting thought, I wondered what would happen if I grabbed someone’s beer and chugged it on the way up, but I soon realized that this was Gloucester, and this was serious business. Drinking would have to wait.
Although preoccupied with not loosing any spots on the run-up, I was gratified to notice how light my new bike was. Even if I wasn’t sure how to make it stop or how to change gears efficiently, the shoulder-crushing weight of my old Trek mountain bike was gone. Little did I know I’d be missing that that heavy mountain bike in just a few short moments.
At the top of the run-up I did my usual stutter-step remount, and got rolling again, just in time to feel my butt cheeks clench in anticipation of a coming reaming… I grasped the bars in white knuckles and dove into an off camber section.
The course ran down a hill into a right turn. The slope was hard packed, and ruts ran crosswise on its face. I had about 40 psi in my clincher tires, and without the suspension fork I’d become accustomed to, I bounced all over the place as I tried to rein the bike in before hitting the turn at the bottom of the hill. Eventually, the rear wheel locked up and I slid sideways through the turn. Coming out of the turn’s far side, I was equally surprised to have survived the obstacle, as I was to have not crashed. Less air pressure next time, I thought.
Wishing I could take a moment to collect myself and understand what the hell had just happened, I got out of the saddle, and raced up the next incline before diving toward a baseball diamond. Then came a long, straight section along a sea wall where I was able to use my big ring, which, at 46 teeth, feels woefully inadequate when compared to the 53-tooth ring on my road bike.
But any chain ring-related inadequacies were alleviated when I was actually able to pass people on the long straight away. Teeth enough, I suppose.
Moments later we rolled into a section of tight turns on a grass field. There was a little gap in front of me, and I desperately wanted to get across it and pass the racer in front of me. I was racing through the long series of turns. I was finally within a length of the guy in front of me, with only one turn left before the sand pit, and once again, I wished I was on a mountain bike.
Eager to slingshot straight past the racer, I went into the turn a little too hot, and before I knew it, I landed on my ass in the grass, a dull pain emanating from my tailbone. Chastened, I remounted and resolved to ride a little more conservatively.
I did eventually catch and pass that racer on the next road section, but he was much faster than me through the technical sections. The remainder of the race passed with me trying to remember how to shift, struggling to find the brakes, and testing the limits of my skinny tires. In the end, I got out-sprinted on the line, and wound up 83rd out of 100. Not too shabby, all things considered.
Now that I know a little more about my ‘cross bike, I could be a force to be reckoned with at my next race. Of course, knowing me, I probably won’t touch the bike again until my next race, in which case I’ll probably be learning to ride it all over again.
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 learn more about him and his blog here, or contact him directly at [email protected]