Many of us set goals for the season, follow some sort of training plan, and hope that these things lead to more ‘cross fun. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Here’s another entry to our “Spirit of ‘Cross” essay contest, by John Parbst, that addresses just this issue. (View the growing list of published Spirit of Cyclocross Essay Entries here.)

The Season Not Taken

Robert Frost - by flickr user adam.riggallI intended to follow the crowd this cyclocross season. Among my stated goals were to have my screaming roadie shorts tan fade into a mellow knicker blend, wipe out both the stutter-step and “soft bits” landings on my remounts, and relish the sensation of a complete loss of control in the sand. These were the small details that occupied my transition from road to mixed terrain as the sun began to dip lower across its southern arc in September. Actually, now that I think about it, my larger goals were set down in ink and paper months earlier.

Way back in December of 2006 I crafted my list for the upcoming cross season: #1—Lose a bunch of the freakin’ weight that had been hanging on since the whole aging/kids/career years beat me into submission; #2—Follow a structured, but modest, training plan with a focus on peaking for fall cross season. Nothing terribly pro here, just some foresight and structure to give meaning to hours spent in the saddle; And #3—For once, don’t suck. This goal was simply a matter of making every effort to avoid the dreaded One Lap Down/DFL/DNFs in the lowest category possible. Solid, unobtrusive mid-pack finishes slogged through my imagination as I built in my head a collection of posted results for the year.

Things were going pretty well on items #1 and #2, however with item #3 on the horizon things changed somewhere in a yellow wood.

A week after the Labor Day crowds dispersed leaving the forests for hunters and cross nuts, I was out rocking my new bike through some dry, dusty singletrack on a local trail when I entered a root-filled corner perhaps a bit too hot, lost my line on the exposed wood, and slapped the baked ground like a wet fish. No big deal, really. I suffered some bruises and a couple of small cuts. The cross rig was fine. In hindsight, though, that bend in the trail, those roots, the bounce off hard, packed dirt started me down the less traveled path this season. The ghost of Robert Frost and that damn poem we read in high school would haunt me throughout the East Coast woods.

My first race of the season in New Jersey went about as I had hoped. The course was flat and grassy fast. As luck would have it I reg’d in the Cat 4 field where they were giving away a new frame to the winner of the hole shot, a tantalizing early-season offer that brought all the healthy young bucks into the fray. At the end of it all, despite finishing near the back, I was pleased that my lap times would have put me near the front of the 45+ field. I made a mental note to self that I might be better suited to join my compatriots in the Masters races rather than slugging it out with the snarling 20-somethings in the 4 races. Next up was the start of the big fields and big names at the Long Island UCI race weekend.

Unlike the Jersey course, this one was filled with challenges like rock-filled ditches, powder-soft runups, wheelie-popping climbs, and some nasty sand and off-camber corners. Hey, that’s cross right? The piecing together of terrain makes all the difference, and this course beat me up. I did, however, manage to finish Day 1 near the back once again, but one lap into the course on Day 2 brought on some type of nausea-induced funk that sent me ducking under the tape just past the start/finish line. Blah. Oh well, three cross starts into the season and I had two finishes plus one lap of fun. I also had a chance to settle into the vibe of the season, to drink and dine with both old and new friends, to heckle, and to marvel at the likes of Trebon and Compton and Johnson and Bessette and even Vervecken making it all look so easy when I knew from experience that it wasn’t.

And speaking of experience, my experience at the cyclocross venues grew more bizarre in the coming weeks. Next, Gloucester. What happened there? Missed my start, plain and simple. A miscalculation of distance and time from my hotel combined with a bump of traffic outside Boston and I found myself pulling into Stage Fort Park just as my race broke up the first hill. A couple of weeks later back in New Jersey and this time I lost my line on a—ready for this—PRACTICE lap, tore through the course tape, and banged a knee hard on a stately pine. Yet another DNS.

The knee is still sore. This past weekend I didn’t even attempt to race and instead took my daughter to the USGP in Trenton, New Jersey for some spectator fun. My competitive season, I may well tell with a sigh ages and ages hence, might be over.

But here’s the thing: For me this season was an unqualified success. I can hear the sniggers of laughter coming from those in the triathlon trade, the runner’s clubs, and the sweltering summer roadie crews. Results, man, where are the results? How can someone claim success in a season filled with near the back finishes, bonehead miscalculations, broken course tape hijinks, and a sore knee that throbs any time atmospheric pressure takes a dive? The answer is that I’m in the best shape I’ve enjoyed in 20 years, the hours I spent racing and not racing at various cyclocross venues were among the most fun I’ve had, from C races to elites I saw some of the most dedicated and talented athletes anywhere drop mounds of sweat and skin in gargantuan efforts to win small prizes, and I came away from the season with a new collection of people I call friends.

I’ll admit to being at the front of the line ringing my cowbell when the call comes out to promote and grow this sport of ours, but before we take that dive I want to ask a question: Is this what we want? We got a good little thing going on here. We’re already on the road less traveled, and I don’t know about you but it makes all the difference for me.

Shhhhhhh…I think Frost and all the cyclocrossers out there got it right.