Fear sign © Dryhead via Flickr
Fear: precisely what we want to avoid. © Dryhead via Flickr

by Molly Hurford

All right, this time I lied a little in the title. This post is very much about fear.

What I want to talk about is how fear can be a limiter for us as racers, when it comes to achieving our goals. That goal can differ from racer to racer, from making a goal to win at Worlds in 2013 in Louisville all the way to taking a first set of barriers, but the fear is often the same. It’s how a racer approaches the fear that makes all the difference, or at least, that’s what I’m coming to learn.

This week, we introduced a new feature of the site called Newbie News, which is designed to help new racers learn some of the ins and outs of the greatest sport on earth, confront their fears of race components like barriers, bunny hopping or dismounts, and give riders a chance to ask questions that they might have been afraid to ask otherwise. (You know the saying ‘there are no stupid questions’? Yeah, that’s extremely true in cyclocross.) The Newbie feature is hugely important to me, because we’ve all been there. At some point, even Katie Compton was a newbie. And not too long ago, I was seriously new to the sport. I’m still new enough that I’m learning a lot as I post these articles and it’s my hope that some of you will be learning along with me.

That leads me to something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: fear and its limiting impact on our lives, and in particular, in cycling. I was out on a mountain bike ride with my good friend Mark last week (consequently, you can read more about him today in the Collegiate Chronicles) and I realized that while my technical skills are improving, my biggest limiter is still my fear. I tend towards panic sometimes, which is never a good thing when on a singletrack. It’s even worse when you’re on a steep downhill, realize that it goes through a tiny stream and then up a steep hill, and slam on your brakes mid-descent. Yep, I’m definitely still learning.

Actually, riding with Mark reminded me about my first few times out on the ’cross bike. I wasn’t serious about it at first, and did my first race having never even ridden my borrowed bike before. It was a super muddy course and it didn’t take long before I was completely dropped. By everyone.

Molly at Highland Park Cyclocross 2009 © David Hurford

Me after HPCX, my second ever cyclocross race. © David Hurford

Still, I had a blast. And when I realized how many collegiate points I had racked up for our team just for being a female racer, I realized I wanted to race more. So I did. And no, I didn’t really do any more practicing. There were the moments where I would attempt dismounts in my backyard, where I was reminded of that forgotten moment when I was thirteen years old and at a snowboarding lesson and my instructor told me I was “goofy-footed.” Because I’m left-foot dominant, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to dismount on the non-chain side of my bike and remounting was just hopeless. I didn’t do terribly that season, thanks to some basic cardio fitness that helped out when the course was less technical, but I certainly didn’t do great. But that’s what cyclocross is about: I had an amazing time, met even more amazing people and at the end of the season, I was left with the serious, overwhelming urge to do it again.

Last season, I made the same mistakes: I started racing the week after an Ironman, having put exactly zero hours into cyclocross-specific training over the summer. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was no longer okay. I wanted to be a real racer, actually racing, not just putzing around on the course and taking 30 seconds to get back on my bike after the barrier section. When I started practicing in earnest, I realized that the reason I hadn’t ever learned to remount or dismount properly wasn’t really a lack of time … it was my fear of not being able to do something right. Because of that fear, I was pretending to myself that I didn’t have the time to put into learning these skills.

Admittedly, there’s something scary about remounts, even now: you’re running with your bike, then jumping and hurling some pretty sensitive parts at it and hoping for the best. Still, if I was going to be good at racing, remounting needed to be factored in. And this is where Mark comes back into the picture. The Rutgers University Cycling Team holds Wednesday night ’cross practices in a field on one of the campuses. We were at practice and when everyone else was packing it in, I told him I needed to learn to remount. He gave me some pointers and said, “Go try it.” So, I took off with the bike at a run. And kept running.

“Try walking and hopping on,” he suggested. So, I took off with the bike at a walk. And kept walking.

Frustrated, I finally decided to just run and try it, steeling myself for the inevitable fall that I knew was coming. I started running, closed my eyes and hurled myself at the bike. Rather than feeling the intense pain of barrel-rolling with my bike, I looked down and realized I was now astride it, and Mark was cheering. I tried it again. It worked.

Then, I got cocky, making all of my remaining teammates come watch me like a little kid who just learned how to ride a tricycle and wants to show off. They laughed at me, but I know they were proud.

It’s moments like those that define us as cyclists and racers, I think. The moments where we ask ourselves, “Can I really do this?” I always want that answer to be yes. Fear can be a limiter, but it can also be a powerful motivator: if we make it a point to work at conquering those fears we have about riding, then I think that’s the way to become a better racer. (That being said, it may lead to a few bruises too.)

Last week, I talked about my goals for the season. Putting them out there was scary enough, but living up to them is a terrifying prospect. I know that there are going to be races where conditions aren’t great, that there are sections that will make me cringe looking at them, that some descents will look like they go straight down. Those fears are fine to have, but I refuse to let them define me or define my cyclocross season.

Corny as this is (and it really is), there’s a great song called “No Fear” in this kid’s movie called The Swan Princess. In it, there’s a great line: “No brakes, no sweat and no regrets!”

I need to remember to have it playing in my head next time I hit that descent into the stream.

So tell me: what are your fears in cyclocross?

Drop a comment below and let us know.

If you want to read more about my training, racing and editing exploits, you can find the painfully full version of events here: Molly’s CX Adventures.