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December 8, 2015 3 comments

When Cross Makes You Cry

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By Juliet Elliott
When Cross Makes You Cry
"I just don’t understand. That’s the pure definition of masochism if it only feels good once it’s over." I’m on the phone to my Mum, telling her how I spent my Sunday afternoon and her suspicions that I’m just a little bit barmy have been ramped up a level. The activity we’re discussing is cyclocross and I’m just done explaining how the day’s race was so hard that I nearly puked and cried. “It just sounds horrid,” she continues. “I don’t know why you would do such a thing.” Rewind a few hours and I was asking myself the same thing. Cyclocross is a form of bike racing that takes place in the winter months on a variety of predominantly natural surfaces, participants racing as many laps as they can of an incredibly slippery, muddy course with obstacles that might mean you have to dismount and carry your bike. Good bike handling skills are essential and unlike road and crit racing, there’s no drafting or hiding behind your opponents for some brief respite; cyclocross is an all-out solo effort that puts you in the red from the minute you begin pedaling. It’s a brutal, roughly hour-long assault on your body and mind, and one that I wasn’t even sure I was up for. My expectations for the race were extremely low; my prior experience of cyclocross was limited and primarily negative. I’d done a grand total of three races before –a traditional cross race on school playing fields (that I hated), what was meant to be urban cross race but ended up taking place in a disused tip (that I hated) and Rollapalluza’s legendary ‘Muddy Hell’ Halloween cyclocross, which was fun because I just didn’t try very hard, so unlike the other two I could actually breathe. But despite those other races, I did actually want to like cross and after a summer of crit racing and my first ever attempts at training, I was keen to give it another go for a variety of reasons:  
  1. To see if I really am any fitter
  2. Because I live in Devon and there’s not much going on
  3. To check that I still hate it, because surely thousands of people can’t be wrong.
  In order to give myself no excuses, I’d taken the opportunity to borrow a fellow Mid Devon Cycling Club member’s Ridley cross bike, jacking up the seat and swopping out the stem in order to make a 5ft 2 women’s pride and joy fit my 5ft 8 frame. I’d also put on the new Cambium C13, Brooks’ new lightweight racing saddle, but that’s where the preparations ended – I’d ridden the bike for approximately 200 metres. Lining up at the start with a crowd of at least 60, I was excited to get going and see how I’d fare. I tried not to focus on the reason I’d been able to borrow the Ridley being because its owner Nicky had slipped out and broken her ankle in three places when racing the week before. We were a huge mix of ages, abilities, shapes and sizes, with just one thing in a common – a madcap desire to peg it around the slippery school grounds despite 40 mile-an-hour winds and a section of the course that was nicknamed ‘torture fields.’ Feeling slightly unsure of myself, I made my first schoolgirl error by starting quite near the back of the field, so when the race started I immediately had to navigate my way round some of the slower riders. I decided not to go out as hard as I had in the other races, instead just settling into a steady pace and trying not to waste too much energy by riding on the least muddy bits possible and trying to anticipate which gear I’d need before I needed it. After winding my way through some tight trees, I rode across an open stretch of grass towards the more technical lower section of the course, which included steep ascents and descents, switchbacks, steps and mud like glue. Taking a sharp corner out of the trees towards the slippery bottom field, I caught sight of a fellow Mid Devon CC member on marshaling duties, calling out to him, ‘this is such fun!’ Intent on riding the course well and trying to put a foot down as infrequently as possible, I hurtled through a series of tricky switchbacks on the grassy hillside, my tubular tyres giving me good grip as I plowed my way up. Along a gravel section, up some stairs with the bike slung over my shoulder, then it was back on the bike for a really fun section - up, down, up and down some banks before pegging it back towards the start. I was loving it. The second lap was equally enjoyable and I continued on my merry way, picking off competitors where possible but mindful of not going too hard as I was worried I might exhaust myself too early. The race continued, getting progressively tougher as I tired and the ground became more churned up, but it was going well and when I glanced at my Garmin to see how long we had left, I thought ‘this is going to be very tough, but I think I can do it.’ That’s when it started to go wrong. About 40 minutes into the race, I started trying to muscle my way further up the field, figuring we were nearing the end and that I should be able to finish without bonking - when your energy plummets so much that you’re basically incoherent. I decided that it was time to go all out and try my damned hardest, so I ‘d set riders in my sights and try to get round, no matter how hard it felt. Sometimes it worked, other times, I’d over cook it on a corner, lose my grip and waste lots of energy trying to get traction. Other times I’d sprint around them, run out of energy and then get overtaken again. Another big mistake was running one of the mega slippery sections near the start/finish line to see if it was quicker than riding it. Turns out I’m terrible at running and it near enough sucked the life out of me. I was now seriously flagging, all the spurts of effort having really taken it out of me but as we’d been nearly riding an hour, every time that I wanted to stop pedaling, I pushed on through, determined not to spare an ounce of effort and to push myself harder than ever before – if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from racing and training this year, it’s that you can always try harder and you can keep going much longer than you think you can. I summoned every ounce of strength, pushed harder than I ever thought possible…. then as I came to the start/finish line I saw that there were still two laps left to go! I very nearly cried – I was so maxed out and in heaps of pain, yet I still had to go around twice more? I’d been riding for an hour already! I’d seriously misjudged things, not really understanding how the timing of cross racing works. Cursing bitterly under my breath, I ground my way back across torture field, thinking ‘I sodding hate cyclocross. I knew it! Why have I paid twenty quid to make myself nearly puke and cry?’ Barely able to breathe or turn the pedals, I dragged my sorry self around a course I now despised, hoping that there’d been some mistake, but nope, I had to go round again. I got off my bike and collapsed in a messy heap, unable to carry on. Then I gave myself a talking to and finished the damn race. I found out later that I'd actually won! In writing this piece, I was hoping to find some clarity about our motives for racing cross, because it’s not just me who finds it hard – everyone I spoke to about the race said it was horrible, but they said it with a smile on their face. So what is it about cross that keeps bringing people back? Why did I enter another race when ‘I hate cross,’ myself  and why am I now checking the calendar for the next one? I’m not really sure what to tell Mum. I’m not altogether able to dispel her fear that we are all masochists; maybe she’s right. It is actually extremely weird to want to push yourself so hard that it brings tears to your eyes, but there’s something about the journey to that point that I very much enjoy, and I think there are few bike events that allow you to explore such a wide range of emotions. My husband has a theory, that cross racing taps into a human’s primeval needs and by picking off and overtaking riders en route, what we’re doing is akin to ritualized hunting. We’re powered by a flight or fight mechanism that we’ve switched on by pushing ourselves to the brink, and it’s something that we crave now that our lives are so comfortable and we don’t have to fight for survival. I don’t know. I’m none the wiser really? What do you think?  
Well Done


Richard V.
Richard May 23, 2016 at 6:42 PM
Thanks Donna! I was hoping I'd hate it a little less now that I'm fitter than I used to be, and I did... for the first 40 minutes!
Juliet May 23, 2016 at 6:42 PM
Juliet, you're a braver woman than I. I tried it once, hated it and never had a smile on my face. Once was enough for me! It took me right back to my younger days of athletics training and battling through cross country running races in my challenge to keep my fitness up for sprinting in the summer months.

I'm so impressed that you tried it three times and are now considering a fourth!
Donna May 23, 2016 at 6:43 PM