Join Andrew Bernstein as he embarks on the adventure of his first season of ‘cross and reminds us of our own newbie days. The first installment of his column is here.

by Andrew J. Bernstein

I think I’m getting closer to understanding this whole ‘cross thing. It’s a bike race, and that’s always a good time, but there are still some things about the sport that don’t add up.

First of all, ‘cross races aren’t fun, and yet everyone looks forward to them. Second, the sport involves carrying bikes and running, rather than just riding. No one likes getting off their bikes on a mountain or road ride, right? Third, the season extends into the beginning of ski season, and well into drinking season, and drinking or skiing tend not to mix well with racing. Taken individually, those factors don’t seem likely to come together to create such an addictive sport, and yet, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in ” Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” something works when all the odd bits come together.

In an effort to put my finger on exactly what it is that makes ‘cross so captivating, I did my second-ever ‘cross race last week in Schenectady, N.Y. Surprisingly, I won.

Just kidding.

No, I didn’t win. Not even close. But, like I said, I’m starting to get a sense of what this is all about. I went into this race the same way I imagine approaching a vision quest deep into the Himalayan massif; I intended to venture deep into my soul and the soul of the sport. Rather than venturing into the mountains with only a shirt on my back and three grains of rice, I had my heavy and unwieldy mountain bike by my side.

I was hopeful that I would learn something from this adventure, that I would either come back from the abyss with new insights into myself and the sport…but there was always the risk that I would wind up a frozen carcass on the side of a mountain.

Lying in bed waiting for the alarm to wake me up, I could feel the frostbite trying to settle in as I pictured myself stumble on my re-mount and crashing into the course tape, but at the same time, I was rubbing some sticks together in hopes of sparking a fire, so that I might cook my three grains of rice and make it back to civilization with some idea of why we do it.

I finally woke up on the morning before my second race still on the fence about whether or not to make the drive down to Schenectady for the Central Park Cyclocross race, the second event of the series. I wanted to confront my ‘cross destiny and seek out answers, but I was tired, lazy, and I didn’t feel like suffering. And really, how often do you feel like suffering?

As I often do when I don’t really want to do something that I know I should do, I started looking for excuses not to go.

I looked outside. It wasn’t raining.

I checked the weather. It was warm.

I gave my old mountain bike a quick once-over. The tires even already had air in them.

Out of desperation, I glanced into my closet. Plenty of clean cycling clothes were folded neatly inside.

So, I sighed, knowing I could no longer forestall my date with destiny, pulled on a pair of bibs and headed out to the car.

There was a master’s race one the course when I arrived, so I watched in wonder as the racers hopped over the barriers and strode up the run-up. I briefly wished I’d brought a cowbell, but then I realized there was no room for external focus on this, my vision quest. I studied the course, trying to learn the fastest lines around the course, half-heartedly thinking that a little study might make the journey less trying.

The promoters had set a course that wound through the park, making use of its many natural features. This is probably normal for ‘cross, but to me it was new and wondrous, as it should have been. Walking across the tundra and over mountains was never meant to be a mundane experience.

Like Luke Skywalker learning that Darth Vader was his father, I had a strong sense that I was about to come to a painful realization as I got ready to line up for the start. In search of some clue, I took further stock of the course. It had two run-ups. One was a loose dirt slope that was too steep to ride. The other would have been rideable, but promoters had placed three wooden steps across it to dissuade such practices.

There were the obligatory set of double-barriers, and, for some reason, a large log that was definitely too large to ride over. In fact, it was almost too large to jump over.

The race started with a mass gallop off the line. Though I’m a complete ‘cross ignoramus, some sixth sense told me I should be near the front of the group on the start line, so I snuck my way into the front row. But when the whistle sounded, my inadequate mountain bike wheels didn’t accelerate nearly fast enough, and I soon found myself at the back of the pack. No matter, I was confident that the universe’s signals would surely guide me to the front of the race in short order.

While waiting to earn the mystical secret of ‘cross and for the Himalayan spirits to transport me through the field, I fell in with one other racer, a talented roadie like myself, also suffering through a ‘cross race. We looped around the course, tripping over the giant log, grimacing up the run ups, and trying not to crash in the tight section through a pine forest.

And then something dawned on me: I was getting better as the race went on. Although I wasn’t getting any closer to the front of the race – in fact, I was getting much farther from it – I was riding better through the technical turns and obstacles.

And this is where my hard-fought vision came to me: I’m a decent road racer. Generally speaking, if I start a road race, barring any mishaps or equipment problems, I can expect a good placing. ‘Cross is a whole different ball game, and mostly because it places a strong emphasis on my weakest skills: namely, quick accelerations and tight turns on questionable terrain.

Think of asking Will Ferrell to play it straight. Think of asking Cindy McCain to vote Democrat. Think of trying to mate Shimano STI levers with Campagnolo derailleurs. Those things just don’t work (unless you are CXM’s Bike Hacker), and until this day, that is how I regarded my relationship with ‘cross: I could try, but it just wasn’t going to happen.

After getting gapped in every turn, the mountain gods suggested that I make my turns sharper, pushing me to go a little faster than I felt comfortable.

And it worked. As the finish line approached I could feel myself hovering back across the frozen Himalayan tundra. I mean, I didn’t finish well at all and my hip flexors were so sore from the constant mounting and re-mounting that I had a hard time walking for the five days after the race, but by the fifth and sixth laps of the 45-minute event, I felt much more confident going through the tight dirt turns, and confidence is worth more than some paltry prize.

Perhaps my next race will go even better. And if the ancient wisdom holds true, these improved off-road riding skills that I’m learning through ‘cross might even translate to the road. But I’m agnostic, so I’ll believe that when I see it – Himalayan gods or no.