Cross Training

Last night, in my ongoing quest to either kill or humiliate myself on a bicycle, I attended a Cross Lab, a locally run series of technique and workout sessions meant to prepare riders for the impending cyclocross season. What is cyclocross you ask? Well, according to a recent issue of Bicycling magazine, “Cyclocross was developed in the early 1900’s as a way for road racers to squeeze in off-season training. Riders do laps, usually about 3 kilometers long, often through mud, sand, grass and even creeks. They dismount and carry bikes over manmade or natural barriers. Cyclocross bikes are generally beefier versions of road bikes. Races last between 30 and 60 minutes.” And apparently nobody gives a shit what you wear or ride.

Sounded good to me, I’ll try anything once. I was thrilled to find out that the Cross Labs were free and open to anyone wanting to try out the sport, without committing to the potential all-out public humiliation of a race.

As I raced home from work (this is my primary, and so far, most successful form of racing) I agonized about what to wear. Would it be mostly roadies? Or mountain bikers? (by the way, if anyone knows the current “PC” term for “Mountain Biker”, please let me know). I had already decided to use the hubby’s mountain bike, since at 40 pounds it weighs about half of what mine does. Neither bike is equipped with clipless pedals or even cages, but given my complete lack of cyclocross skill, I figured this would be the least of my worries.

While doing some research (ie. surfing), I read in the cyclocross regulations that “end bars” are a big no-no. A quick Google confirmed they are the extra bars that stick up or out from traditional straight bars. Shit. Hubby and allen key to the rescue. As I swapped my high heels for running shoes and stuffed a peanut butter sandwich in my mouth, he wrestled the end bars off his bike, convinced I’m sure that this was the least of the indignities it would suffer. I was only slightly horrified when I saw he had taped the exposed metal ends of the remaining handlebars with my son’s yellow hockey tape that has smiling pictures of hard-boiled eggs on it.

There was a good turn out, all ages and skill levels. Jayson and The Kids were there (they must think I just can’t get enough of them kicking my ass), as were some folks from FOG, and others I recognized from the crits.

Once we got going it wasn’t long before I saw the appeal of cyclocross. Our warm up consisted of tearing around a grassy field, around corners, between trees, and up and down hills, some so steep you have to get off your bike and run it up. Up until now I have been strictly an asphalt kind of gal so this was completely foreign to me. “Hey! Slow down!!” I felt like saying, “We’re riding on the GRASS!!” Normally in road riding, grass is bad. You only ride on grass when something has gone terribly wrong. But this was fun. Crazy like when you were a kid fun.

After the Flattening of the Grass, otherwise called the “warm up”, Gary Sewell did a great job of explaining proper mounting and dismounting techniques, which are used to clear the barriers found on a race course. Unlike a normal mount and dismount off a bike, where you would slow down and stop in order to not kill yourself, the cross technique is done “on the fly” so as not to slow you down. When done correctly, it is a fluid and continuous movement. I watched in absolute amazement as he had someone (obviously a seasoned cyclocrosser) demonstrate:

Jumping and landing on a moving bicycle was not something I had anticipated having to do. Incredulous, I pulled Gary aside to go over the technique in more detail and he patiently reviewed the steps. My first few tries were exceptionally painful as I tried in mid-air to blindly guess at the position of my saddle. But after about 10 tries, to my amazement I was getting the hang of it, not before thanking God in all His great wisdom for not endowing me with testicles.

Next we were informed we would be doing a series of “off-camber” turns. According to the Honda Motorcycle Website, which I refer to often for linguistic inquiries, off-camber turn means that the road slopes towards the outside of the turn. Which makes your motorcycle (or bicycle in this case) want to slide towards the outside more. So they set up a series of flags we needed to zig zag through horizontally on the side of a really steep grassy hill. Gary promised by the end we would think he was the devil, and carnage indeed ensued.

After that, we had a 10 lap mock race that included all of the aforementioned skills. I lost count after about 4 laps as the oxygen level to my brain decreased dramatically and I tried desperately (and I think unsuccessfully) not to be last. I was lapped twice.

Cyclocross is a weird and wonderful mixed-marriage between road and mountain biking, two completely different bike cultures that rarely see eye-to-eye. Here, anyone can get the benefit of a high intensity work out, and improved handling skills, all while having a lung-searing, ball-busting good time. I’m told the races are muddy and family friendly affairs, though I suspect most people swear like sailors when they fall. So get out there, bring your kids, your hockey tape and your sense of humour. Check your ego and attitude at the door. You’ll be glad you did.

For more information about the local cross scene, check out the MCA website, FOG, or the Cyclocross Manitoba blog.