Wednesday, July 10, 2013

London Calling, It’s Time to Race: Summer Cyclocross Series, East Croydon, London

When I first heard about cyclocross racing in the fall of 2011, I knew this was a type of racing I wanted to try. It promised to be both challenging and fun. At the time I was still living in Indiana and riding a child size mountain bike as my primary mode of transportation. I did some investigating into different types of bikes and begin dreaming and saving for a cross bike. I moved to Lincoln that winter and few months and several sacrifices later, I walked through the door of my tiny apartment wheeling a brand new orange and black Kona Jake. I was elated.

Sadly, my time in Lincoln was far too short. After spending hundreds of miles on delightful gravel roads, racing with an amazing team and meeting wonderful people I moved away in August to prepare to move London, England to begin my PhD studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. While I was thrilled to be moving forward in my professional goals, I was disappointed that I would not have the chance to do a US cross season. I spent autumn studying furiously for my comprehensive exams, while Jake lay tucked away. I watched as my teammates raced and realized that at that moment in my life, my only role was to be a student. I could get back in shape after my exams.

I passed my exams in February and set my sites on whipping myself back into racing shape. I spent my mornings running and my evenings cycling. While I was in Canada doing on site research at SnoLab, I stumbled across the London Summer Cyclocross series online and decided I would find a way to get there and race. (Living in a country with a mild climate has certain advantages.) Integrating into the London cycling community has been difficult, so I hoped this would also be an opportunity to meet other athletes who love to ride bikes. The summer series is a go cross event. This means that racers do not need a racing license and the categories are larger.

The first event put on by the series was training. I desperately needed some instructions and my pre training has been fraught with sports injuries so I went to make up some ground. A large size group with quite a few women showed up for training and I was hopeful I would have a strong start. That night was a disaster for me. I was nervous. I couldn’t get around the corners. I panicked before obstacles and was unable to do a proper dismount or remount.  And forget going down hills. (For those of you who do not know, I raced Odin’s Revenge last year and took a nasty fall going about 35 miles an hour that resulted in a concussion and getting lost without water in 100 degree heat. I have been very downhill shy ever since, but getting braver every week.) To make matters worse, I spent all of the down time trying to talk to people with little success. I left feeling devastated. The train ride home was miserable. I contemplated giving up on the whole series.

When I got home, I reached out to Elisabeth. I needed coaching and encouragement if I was going to stand a chance at having a good first race the following week. (I love having a team that I can reach out to even though I across the ocean.) She told me to race like an American and have some fun. Nothing will make you prouder of the country you come from than leaving it and realizing how awesome it was to live there. The race should be about fun. There is no shame in walking any obstacle if it means I will be faster. So my mind was set. I was ready to represent Sheclismo in the UK.

Monday came and I left work early to get my race. (I have an awesome advisor who understands the importance of bikes.) I arrived on the race grounds with plenty of time before the start. I collect my number, swallow my nerves and decide to start talking to the other racers as they arrive. The youth races occur before adult categories, so we are all waiting to do practice loops. The crowd is completely different than at the training events. There are so many people who will be racing for the first time and we are talking about our love of bikes and encouraging one another. There is even a writer there who as actually heard of the gravel races in the American Midwest. I have desperately missed that type of community and it feels so good to be back.

When we get on the track for a practice there is only time for one loop. I decide to use this time to map out the course and make choices about the obstacles. Before I arrived, I had decided to ride with platforms to have one fewer obstacle to calm my dismounting nerves. While doing the practice loop I notice there is one steep decline that leads in to a steep incline. I make the choice that I am going to run both every time. I will much faster if I am not struggling through crash anxiety. This race is about me and it is not about winning. I want enjoy quality time with Jake doing the type of riding I purchased him for. I can focus on speed later.

After the loop we line up to start. In this race the women race with men, though we are in separate categories. There are around 50 racers, and only four women. It feels like a physics conference. The racer next to me at the start has been racing mountain bikes for over 30 years and this is also her first cross race. They give signal and we are off for an hour on the course. I spend the first lap being towards the back with another first timer. The course has stretches through the woods, a long trek through the grass, a few obstacles, and high grass with tight corners. I over take the rider in front as I go around for lap two with a wave of encouragement. I am trying to focus on my strengths. The words of Sydney Brown are in the back of my head. “You have a good pace on the flats, use this to your advantage.” I am trying to ride the grassy sections with a strong pace to make up for how awkward I am at the obstacles. Most importantly, I am having a blast on the bike. I cannot stop myself from smiling. This is the type of fun I remember having back in Lincoln. I am sailing around corners, being brushed by stinging nettles, feeling ever-changing terrain under my tires, and chasing pheasants off the track.

I also making mental notes on areas I need to improve. I need to learn how to corner better. I have to learn how to push myself harder and ride faster. I have become too used to endurance riding and running. Expending myself in an hour feels like a foreign concept. I can work on these challenges. I can be a better racer.

Alas, the race seems to go by all too quickly and I am now on my final lap. I ride this at the pace I should have ridden the entire race. I know that I am not as tired as I should be, but I can still have a strong finish. I cross the line and I have finished my first cross race. The course was so big, I have no idea how I have done compared to the other women, but I am delightfully sweaty, panting, and still smiling. I feel I have represented the Lincoln cycling community well and I could not be prouder to be wearing my Sheclismo team colors.

At the end of the race, the winners in each category are announced. I am not expecting to go up, since I did not ride as hard as I should. Then I hear my number. I am second for the women. Two of the women were unable to finish and dropped out midway. Sometimes, endurance pays off. It feels wonderful to place and bonus, I received £20 of vouchers that more than cover my entry and travel costs. I am so excited to race again next Monday. I know can do an even better race, assuming I am not too drained from the half marathon I will be running this coming Sunday. From here on out, it is all about speed.

Last time I blogged for Sheclismo, I encouraged new riders to race and I would like to take another opportunity to do the same. Racing is an excellent way of learning how to train to become better. It is okay to take it easy your first race if that is what you need to build confidence. You may even finish stronger than you expect.

Happy riding and I’ll let you know how the rest of the series shapes up.

During the race.

1st and 2nd place for the women (We were both confused about what to do)

Still smiling at the end of the race.

This is a late edition, but here is the video that was taken from this week's race.

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