Rebecca Gross is an American cyclocross racer who has made a habit of racing across the pond and taking on some Europe’s hardest courses and fastest racers. Gross is back in the States after a European campaign, and should be returning soon. She checks in with a column that gives us insight into her cyclocross history and motivations.
Racing comes with a fair amount of stress. Self-imposed and definitely low on the scale of life priorities list but stress nonetheless. I believe it is a healthy stress, a stress that means you have all your ducks in a row, you are prepared for the unexpected, to test your fitness, your adaptability, your skill, your luck.
My first full season of cyclocross was in 2011 following a ten-year stint focused primarily on the mountain bike. I had tried cyclocross previously…. once. But in its introductory stages of Boise, Idaho representation I had found it boring. What was likely the promoter’s first attempt at piecing together a cyclocross course left much to be desired: slow, loopy, thick grass track that zig-zagged through an open field… and dry conditions. ’Cross never took for me until I discovered technical courses.
Fast forward to 2020 and I relished a year away from my typical travels, travels which got more illustrious each consecutive year. I progressed from a full season at home with two local races per weekend and the local UCI events (Colorado had two separate weekends back then), evolved to cap the seasons with a trip to nationals, then proceeded to chase the full domestic UCI travel circuit across the country, continuing outward to starting my domestic season with a trip to China, branching out to Europe to finish off the late block in January and February, and then finally basing the majority of my racing overseas.
The time I suddenly had in 2020 to stay home and head up to the mountains, to bask in the golden glory of the fall colors, to last chance to ride the mountain peaks before the snow flies, to spend with my COVID pod family to celebrate the holidays, carving pumpkins, cooking thanksgiving dinner, wrapping presents, watching fireworks while bundled from the New Year’s Eve cold, was amazing. I didn’t miss racing at all. I would reflect back to that stress piece: start line shivers, waiting for the whistle to go off, elbows thrown, brakes screeching, diving into sloppy, frigid, scary courses and emerging covered in mud, just to finish off with hours of cleaning to do it all again the following day.
This season was always up in the air. My bikes had sat in storage since I returned from Europe in January 2020, they were in the same sad shape I had left them in, being too weary from a long season of racing and travel to bother with the overhauls. They sat through the summer, getting used a few times under the guise of “gravel.” The evolving parts shortage continued to worsen rather than improve and with parts suddenly scarce it became what could I salvage and get by with rather than replace and rely on.
A 2020 Filled with Goals, and then…
I had been motivated in the spring of 2020 to rest and rebuild, to do training right, and to be in the best shape of my life with USA Cycling Mountain Bike Nationals taking place in Colorado for a second year. I had taken silver in 2019, I was motivated to improve. With the lockdown it was easy, I did my work, I went out to train, no one to see, nothing to interfere with my day. The lockdown was an introvert’s dream come true. I built up my fitness properly and as I approached my 40th birthday, was proudly in some of the best shapes of my life.
Then events started falling off the calendar. They waited until the last minute to can Nationals, postponing the date a few times before finally throwing in the towel. And with that figurative towel went all of my motivation. My training turned into long exploratory rides, how far could I go in a day? How deep into the mountains could I get from my doorstep? How many feet of elevation gain? Could I ride every trail system in the area all in one day? (disclaimer: there’s a whole bunch of them). Fitness turned into exploring, the intensity went out the window, and racing took a back seat in the grand scheme of importance. After all, we were in a global pandemic, how could one think chasing start lines were more important than hoarding toilet paper or social distancing?
So fast-forward back to the present. I wasn’t going to do it, I watched one prominent rider after another back off from the grind, I could relate, I wasn’t that kind of fit, my equipment wasn’t up to standards, traveling seems frivolous if the unnecessary risk of being exposed to the virus, did I want to compare myself to others when I wasn’t sure I had what it took any longer? The mountain bike is more fun to train on; go hard, climb up a hill, then reward yourself with a rally down, plus that bike actually still worked.
From ‘Cross Practice to World Cups
But my tight-knit neighborhood is full of cyclists and I was drawn out to practice, then to a practice race, then to a local race, and then across the country for a UCI race. I had no interest in the first block or racing in the U.S.—Hot, dry, fast racing doesn’t suit me and the amount of driving was outrageous. My UCI race surprised me. I was in the mix where I should have been for my power-wise, I just needed a bit more pop, a bit more confidence, a bit more fight, and a bit more tech to be satisfied with my day.
Not one to generally be considered impulsive, I packed up and headed to Ireland for a C2. After all, I’ve never been to Ireland. Traveling light for an EU campaign, figuring I’d be there a week or so tops, I brought exactly zero spare wheels, a few old skinsuits (mine are still actually in production), three rain jackets, and one hell of a whatever goes are gonna go attitude.
So here I am. Doing this thing; no real plan, no kits, no tire choices, no racer cards, worn-out everything, but a massive and wholesome appreciation for this sport. Belgian folks respect the heck out of foreigners—Americans and the stigma we can’t seem to escape even more so—who are willing to put it all out there on national prime time TV to participate in this crazy sport they downright worship.
It feels so great to be back, the same friendly faces find me, I actually hear my name on the course, in that special way they have here—no heckles or shouting: they lean in over the course tape blowing clouds of cigarette smoke and fist pump me over their beer and frites “Come on Ree-becca!!” The random photo requests don’t weird me out, the elbows were thrown to match every centimeter of space that will be taken from you if you don’t hold your own on course. Skill is a match for power, technical ability is a deciding factor for speed.
And that stress? It’s definitely healthy. After a year of allowing my introvert to thrive, I’m back to growing as a person. To accept challenges and push my limits. From meeting new people, having new experiences, to evolving myself as an athlete. To never accept the “you’re too old to,” or the “why don’t you just settle down[s].” This sport is my happy place and that stress helps me to thrive.
Thanks for reading!