Learning Curves

Posted by on Oct 19, 2010 in Bike, Races | One Comment

Photo by John Shafer

Cyclocross is wholly different than anything I’ve ever tried before.

How so?

There is no place to hide.

Weaknesses are laid bare with alarming clarity. And while that can be true of mountain or road racing, the small and fast nature of ‘cross courses mean that spectators are going to see the flailing and mashing over and over. And for 50 minutes. But it also means that as a rider I have the opportunity to practice difficult corners, obstacles, or run-ups again and again. In fact, as a complete novice, I have no choice but to treat each ‘cross race as an intensified and competitive training session. A clinic. Despite what my legs might be capable of, I simply do not have the skill set to be at the front of the race. Not when the course consists of an infinite number of 180 degree turns through wood chips, slippery grass and dustbowl rodeo arenas. Which was exactly what the course at the State Fairgrounds* had in abundance.

It was spectacular.

The course. Not my riding.

*Was I the only one at the Fairgrounds that felt like I had stepped into 1972? There is something entirely creepy about that place. But in an awesome sort of way. I rode around the grounds looking for that wish-machine that turned David Moscow into Tom Hanks in Big.

The challenge—and the learning—is what is making cyclocross so much fun. That, combined with the fact that every week brings a new course and a new style of riding, is creating a sense of discovery for me. I love to ride my bike. I love to race my bike. But for the last 15 years I’ve raced almost completely within the familiar realms of singletrack and fat tires. And while I’ve challenged myself with new and difficult events throughout the years, I’ve never ventured too far from the comfort of my own established skill set. Until now. And while gliding through a tight, slippery corner looks easy enough, it is surprisingly difficult. Especially for one prone to err on the side of caution, such as myself.

But as Saturday’s race progressed, and mostly without me, I became a little more confident in my ability to handle the skinny tires and the variables of the terrain. I was able to pedal more cleanly and quickly through the turns and the dirt and the grass. Not that I was clean—just cleaner. Afterward, I contemplated two things: A) How is it that my legs are so damn sore after less than an hour of racing, and B) Cyclocross is an opportunity to become a much better bike handler. And that was something that excited me. One of the inhibiting factors that I’ve always struggled with—on any bike—is handling. I can mask that somewhat on the mountain bike, and I don’t race on the road.** And so, other than passively trying to improve my switchback or downhill skills out on the singletrack, I’ve never given the matter any serious thought. But I’ll have to now.

That is, unless I’m satisfied finishing as pack fodder every Saturday. And while I may never win, I’m simply too competitive to merely enjoy ‘being a part of the race’. I want to race. And race hard. Even if that means finishing as pack fodder, at least I’ll know that I’m tapping out my own physical and mental capabilities. Rather than, as I am now, flailing through the course comically and absurdly.

**And I have no plans to.

Bart Gillespie, who is one of the smoothest bike riders I’ve ever seen, asked several intriguing questions, and made some insightful observations at his own blog. One of which I found especially so: “We spend hours practicing dismount/remount technique only to use it once or twice per lap when really the bigger bang for our buck might be practicing leg speed and cornering, which would be useful throughout the entire lap.”

This illuminated a light bulb for me. I consider my run-ups and my barrier jumps to be adequate. Not spectacular. Not remarkable. But good enough—for now. But I wonder what sort of progress through the field I might be able to make if my cadence and my cornering were improved upon, even just slightly? Can I be just 1 or 2 percent more efficient? 5%? 10%?

And if so, then how can I translate that to my mountain biking? Is it possible to be 10% faster due entirely to efficiency and skill?

I intend to find out. Although, I’m not sure how… just yet.

Exit Question: How?

1 Comment

  1. Errin
    October 19, 2010

    Great post. I’ve been wanting to try ‘cross this season too. It hasn’t happened yet, but on Sunday I was at a bike event where they had a ‘cross event happening. I just watched, with awe, the smoothness at some of the riders. I agree with you, the slow, off camber turns on wet leaves are the most technical, maybe intimidating, aspect of it. Makes me want to try it though.

    I want to do a 24hour MTB solo race too, and I don’t have a bike for either yet. Not sure which to try first. Guess it depends on what bike shows up first right?

    Great blog, thanks for sharing!


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