I Am Not a Cyclist. But I Tried CycloCross Anyway.

Covered in mud and getting ready for a flying dismount.

As I have been off the running and racing circuit this fall I’m trying my hand at a new sport, cyclocross (CX), which is a combination of road and mountain biking. I’ve been commuting on the bike, and I like trail running, and a friend had just upgraded her bike, so I’m able to borrow the one she used last year (and it’s pretty sweet!). All in all, it seemed like a good fit!

In CX, cyclists race a course of 1.2 to 1.8ish miles on grass and mud, taking sharp turns, and hopping over mandatory obstacles for 30-60 minutes. A few of my local friends are really into it, and when I watched the events several years ago I admired the riders and thought man these people are intense!

My first CX practice I was extremely nervous but I managed to survive and have fun. It was definitely not love at first ride but it was tolerable, and a good workout. My lack of bike handling skills were readily apparent, but a 30 minute race seemed doable with some practice. After 4 or 5 practice rides I was feeling confident I wouldn’t die at my first race despite my crash/bruise to ride time ratio being relatively high!

Then I got to the race site.

One of these riders looks like she is afraid for her life. (hint: It’s me, not the little kid in the front)

Envision a small park with yellow tape winding all around, many sharp turns, and a LOT of mud. Not having practiced with physical course barriers I found out very quickly that my poor bike handling skills were going to be a very serious problem. I did not have much time for a warm up lap and finished the loop just before the start. I promptly began having an anxiety attack. I could not calm down.

(Note the children who are about to pass me as I ran my bike down the hill that small children were not afraid to ride, and I get back on the bike very slowly. I believe at the end I am saying this is the stupidest thing I have ever done.)

My first loop I felt completely out of control. My competitive self did my best to stop panicking and ride as fast as I could, but getting friendly with several tape barriers meant after one lap I was very far behind the field, including all the children. Not only was I freaking out and not having fun but I was frustrated by being so far behind everyone! The most humiliating moment had to be one where not only did I go off course but I got wrapped up in the plastic tape barrier and repeatedly had to untangle myself.

(Here I demonstrate how to hurdle CX barriers, and then I demonstrate how to get back on your bike as slowly as humanly possible)

I am not sure what possessed me to keep going after one loop, but I did manage to force myself back onto the course for another two loops to get my 30 minutes worth of money out of the event. I set aside my pride and instead of trying to ride the areas where I had gotten tangled in tape before (where my boyfriend teased, you said you wanted to break tape!) I got off the bike and ran it (most running I have done in 7 weeks! Woohoo!).

I managed to catch back up to a friend toward the end of the second loop and went back and forth with her and another rider the last loop. I had serious doubts about staying on the bike but my competitive nature won out and eventually I reached the finish. But even after that tiny victory I found myself fighting off tears of frustration, trying to figure out why I had not had any fun during this race and what was so dissappointing.

(This is where I inform my very skilled cycling friend that CX is not for me. Note that I am actually riding relatively aggressively at this point, but already fretting about the giant mud pit I am about to go through. I’d also like to note that while I am struggling with the simple skill of staying on my bike, my friend is riding alongside, cheering, and taking video.)

It has been a few days and I have committed to another CX race, but in the meantime I did some soul searching and my realization is that my strengths as a runner just are not the strengths I need to excel in cycling:

I like being a leader! In CX I am bringing up the rear, in cycling practice on the road I am uncomfortable sitting on someone’s wheel and drafting, I am not used to following.

I like being in control! In CX  I am clumsily avoiding barriers, or even more clumsily crashing into them, and I am struggling to stay balanced and have repeatedly hit the ground.

I like long efforts at a sustainable but difficult pace! In CX any long stretches I get only serve to propel me ahead of those that will promptly blow by me when the technical turns and muddy sections come upon me again. You are constantly going at max speed and heart rate then tackling a turn or a hill. It’s basically 30 minutes of all out effort with technical obstacles to hinder any sustained effort.

I don’t have patience. All of the skills required for me to get better at CX will take patience. I will have to spend time training myself how to mount and dismount my bike while in motion, how to sprint all out when I come out of turns, how to stay balanced when navigating tight turns in a pit of mud. These are most like those items I avoid in my run training like drills, or form modification because I don’t have the patience for them.

Death grip? Check! Look of terror? Check!

And herein lie the lessons I assume I am supposed to take from all this self humiliation (not to mention all the bruises).

1) I need to learn how to follow, and just because I am not leading the pack doesn’t mean I cannot play a mentor role. I need to learn how to better trust others in practice and racing and to “let go” of the reins.

2) I need to tackle my fears and learn how to accept perceived failures. My perception of being out of control is mostly in my head. I need to bring my sillier and exuberant side to these situations where I am most afraid and just go with the flow!

3) I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I need to learn how to push the limits of my heart rate and speed and get out of sustainable mode.

4) I need to learn patience and strive to address all the technique type items that don’t come along with building a huge aerobic base of miles upon miles.

I am not going to pretend that any of this is easy for me. After all I am not a cyclist, I am a runner. I’d much rather be back in pre Boston training land chugging along happily playing to my strengths and setting my sights on my next running goal, but with my injury still hanging around I’m going to try to see the bright side and use this opportunity to focus on improving my weaknesses as an athlete. And unlike running, my next race will be one where I focus on not breaking tape!

A gal on a mission to save Cuyahoga County streams one storm water facility at a time. An ex runner of many facets including marathons, pacing, ultras and more. Chronic left side issues have me cycling more than running these days but I'm attempting to get back to my running roots.

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  1. Your expression in the group photo looks like “what was I thinking??” I am so impressed that you gave CX and try and that you are going back for more! All the things you didn’t like about it (follower, lack of control, variable effort) are all the things I hated about the steeplechase in college. I gave up on it without even trying to to attack the things that made it difficult. Even though CX isn’t running, it is clear that it is going to make you a stronger competitor!

    1. I was seriously trying to not break down in tears at the start! I was Freaking Out! Here’s hoping I learn something from this experience! And yes perhaps it will make me a better runner in the end 🙂

  2. How come you chose to try cyclocross instead of just plain old road biking? I can see the appeal of having a free (that was SO awesome of your friend) bike to try out, but at the same time I wonder if you might not find more of a connection to the bike if you work at it as an endurance sport the way you did with running?

    1. I wanted to race, and to be quite honest crit racing on the roads is probably too dangerous for me. They go incredibly fast and you are all cycling inches from each others wheels. I’m not strong on the bike and I am not confident or controlled enough to cover any type of moves in that sort of event, if I was lucky I’d get dropped, unlucky, major crash and road rash :/ someone gets injured at every one of those races, major bike damage, just not my thing.

      i’m doing decent length rides to and from work so i get in my endurance that way, and i keep planning to have one long ride on weekends. but they are just rides, not races. to my knowledge there really aren’t many “marathon” type events in cycling around here on the roads. all the long events are just rides.

      i think cycling events are sort of inherently a “drafting” sport which is something i am just not too keen on. that’s why i prefer triathlon like riding (not ITU) where you aren’t allowed to draft! but in order to do a tri right now I’d have to be running 🙂

  3. Elizabeth!!!!!!! I’m so proud of you!!!! I think that it is so awesome that you tried this and are committed to trying again. I also think that it is awesome that you’ve been able to look inside and see exactly WHAT was causing you to feel uncomfortable! You’ve had a bunch of changes over the past year or so and I think this is just another opportunity to grow and learn from your journey. One of my favorite things about you is that no matter what is going on or how hard things are you always have that little twinkle in your eyes of a smile waiting to come out to the world. Keep it up chica! <3

  4. Elizabeth, I think it’s really inspiring what you did! It takes a lot of courage to jump on a bike and do a race. The experience looked difficult and fun, and a little shell-breaking. It gives me more motivation to do things; things that I haven’t done because I’m afraid of them or that I won’t like them.

    1. Thanks Kelsey, I certainly did not feel brave while I was doing it, but I am glad I didn’t wimp out! I think one of the things I have been missing while I was so focused on becoming a faster marathoner was trying new things, I tend to only do things I am good at, and forget that perhaps things I am not so good at could be fun too. And that there are certainly many positives in having to actually work hard at something that doesn’t come naturally.