October 17, 2013

by Meredith Powlison

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of pouring rain. Tugged from my light sleep, visions of slippery corners, grimy caked-up cleats, and thickly muddy climbs raced through my mind. Thunder rumbled outside my window. I took a couple of deep breaths, letting the cyclocross wipeouts I?d seen on Youtube fade from my mind so I could get back to sleep.

The nerves settled back in when my alarm buzzed at dawn. The slick pavement outside my window reflected back the streetlights, and rain dripped from the eaves as I pulled a shot of espresso from our machine sporting a sticker of Cipollini in the drops and yelling to me, ?Cipollinissimo!? Alright, alright, I thought, I will go race a bike.

Mud may be synonymous with ‘cross?the short-course, obstacle-filled fall favorite of many a racer and spectator?but no matter. I had never raced cyclocross before. In fact, I had never even raced a bike before. Mostly, I was an asphalt-loving commuter and road rider who shirked from anything besides a smooth road. I was, as someone had pointed out the day before, ?jumping off the deep end.?

Fortunately, I found a little peace of mind as I focused on some of the lessons I learned the day before the Providence Cylocross Festival at the Luna Chix Clinic. Spending four hours with pro Katerina Nash (who would go on to win both her races that weekend and looks like a nimble gazelle on her bike) and the other ?cross racers in the Boston chapter helped me figure out the best way to bail off my bike before obstacles (dismount), sherpa my bike over barriers and stairs (shoulder), hop back on the saddle afterwards (mount), and steer smoothly around sharp turns (corner).

It was an emotional weekend for the Providence ‘cross races with the tragedy of Oct. 3?Amy Dombroski had led the same Luna Chix Clinic here a few years before?so we took a moment of silence for her to start off the clinic (and later that weekend, a silent lap on the course).

Our riding began with a solid hour working on ‘cross skills on an open field in between bouts of rain, with Katerina and the Chix watching each of us 30 ladies and giving us pointers. I discovered that many of the women in the clinic were relatively new to ‘cross, and even bike racing in general, so we were figuratively in the same shoes.

Lining up to practice going over barriers at the Luna Chix clinic.

I worked on dismounting by unclipping my right pedal, swinging my right foot around the back of the bike, and unclipping the left pedal while simultaneously reaching for the top tube with my right hand. I practiced Katerina’s tips for getting back on: tighten up through your quad and inner thigh before swinging your leg over the saddle, so that your inner thigh is stabilized when it meets the saddle.

The Luna Chix watch us and critique our barrier-hopping skills.

Katerina Nash (blue jacket) shares her gems of wisdom while we hide under the trees of Roger Williams Park during a rain storm.

We then meshed those two moves together with a mini obstacle to carry our bikes over. (Fortunately my bike was super light?and might I just say, divine? I was riding one of Mo Bruno Roy‘s bikes, a custom Seven Cycles titanium one, lent to me for the clinic through the generosity of Mo and Matt of the MM Racing team. It was heaven.)

My oh-so-sweet ride for the clinic. Thanks Mo and Matt!

Once we?d gone through these techniques, we headed over to the weekend’s course. Katerina talked us through various tricky sections: a fly over (basically a tall ramp with steep sides), stairs (keep right to avoid the rocks on the way to them!), two sets of barriers spaced so as to make both running and riding options between and over them (I opted to run and shoulder my bike the whole way, meaning one less mount/dismount I?d have to do), and some tight, windy corners (stay in the drops for more stability). We took one more spin around the course afterwards before meeting up for a Q&A with Katerina.

After the racing on Saturday, it was time to relax with a beer and take in the scene.

That day of practice helped me motivate on the morning of the race, and the rain let up on the way to Roger Williams Park. I was even more assuaged as I took a warm-up lap on my Cannondale CAADX rental, from Newport Bicycle in my cozy town of Newport, R.I. The course was definitely muddier than yesterday, but the tackiness actually made things a little slower (which was comforting to me) and the grippy ground helped me pedal up the steep inclines. Maybe mud wasn’t so bad.

As I moved over to the staging area before my 10 a.m. start, I was surrounded by familiar faces from the day before. We chatted about the course and how it had changed overnight, how many laps we?d probably do in our 40-minute time window, and?yes?nerves. Turns out I wasn’t the only one.

I was planted in the second-to-last row in our 130-strong women’s 3/4 field, so I worked to stay in front of the few women I started ahead of as we moved off the pavement and into the first turn. I tried to keep my eyes ahead and anticipate the next turn on the course (Katerina’s tips). I dismounted my bike pretty smoothly ahead of the obstacles, and while I had trouble a couple of times clipping in once back on my bike, I held on and tried to be patient.

Cross takes a lot of coordination. I get ready to hop back on my bike after the stairs.

Heading into a tight 180-degree turn.

Our race was four laps, and by the second one, my lungs were burning. It was, as Katerina had said, an all-out sprint. For a moment, I wondered if I could really do two more. But then the next set of stairs appeared in front of my handlebars, so I hopped off and kept going.

I slowed down my pace slightly by the third lap, knowing that I couldn?t maintain the effort I was giving. I was only ahead of a few ladies, and for most of the lap I was on my own, so I made my goal to not get lapped.

Up and over the flyover. 

I kept plugging away and took one gentle spill on the third lap as I approached a young girl at the tail end of the junior’s field that had started just after us. She dismounted ahead of me, and I realized that I couldn?t get around her, nor unclip in time, so I fell off to the side of my bike. She turned around, concerned that I?d fallen.

?Oh, it’s okay!? I said, not wanting to dissuade her from the awesomeness of biking. ?Are you having fun??

?Yeahhhh,? she sighed, as she huffed her bike up the incline.

As I pedaled toward the end of my fourth lap and hit the last stretch of pavement, I moved into the drops and picked up my cadence: one last, final push. My face was flushed, my breath was short, and my legs were shaking. I finished ahead of only a few others, but it didn’t really matter. I had done all four laps, not gotten lapped, and given it everything I had.

Relieved and psyched to cross the finish line after four laps.

As I moved off the course and caught my breath, I found myself once again surrounded by the same ladies I?d started next to and done the clinic with. High fives, laughs over falls, and stories from the course followed.

‘Cross has a lot going for it. The mud, for one. The challenge and discipline needed to make it happen. Bike skills, endurance, and strength. The cheering and heckling that you get to be on both ends of during a day of races. Beer. But the best part, I think, is the community. The Luna ladies helped me get around the course, the Roys and Newport Bicycle hooked me up with bikes, and my fellow ‘cross clinic-goers were there from start to finish. As a first-timer, that made all the difference. 

Meredith Powlison makes her two-wheeled commute from Newport, R.I., each weekday to Sailing World magazine (www.sailingworld.com), where she works as the associate editor and volunteer lunchtime yoga teacher. If she’s not on the water, she’s on a bike, a yoga mat, or a mountain.

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