When winter snow makes the high roads in the Cascade Mountains impassable, we turn to cyclocross. It’s our preferred winter sport – challenging, fun and a great way to hone our skills for the big summer gravel adventures. The skills of ‘cross are less about jumping across barriers – although that is fun, too – and more about learning the feedback from your tires. Being able to feel how much grip you can lean on is a useful skill for gravel riding. When you push your bike to the limit and beyond, you learn what it feels like when the tire is just before the point where it’ll slip. You’ll also learn how to recover when your bike slides. And if you don’t recover, speeds are slow and the mud is soft…
Last weekend was our big ‘cross race here in Seattle’s Woodland Park. The ‘cross course winds through tall trees, and it often feels like you’re right in the Cascade Mountains. Riding here is fun in itself, but racing in these surroundings is special.
Lining up in a pack of racers isn’t something I do often these days, but these aren’t the pro and elite racers. We’re here for fun.
That doesn’t mean we aren’t racing hard. I’ve never been a great sprinter, but at least I’ve honed my clip-into-the-pedal skills during many years of urban commutes.
Everybody races for the ‘holeshot’ – the first corner where the pack fits only two abreast. If you make it in the top ten, you can enter the corner with minimal braking. Somehow, I managed…
The barriers are another great place to make up positions. Time your steps just right, lift the bike just high enough, jump across the barriers, and vault back on the bike with almost no loss in speed: It’s a lot of fun.
I love that ‘cross is such an inclusive the sport. Right after our field, the Clydesdales started. Which other cycling event has a category specifically for riders weighing more than 200 lb (91 kg)? Make no mistake – these guys are strong. So strong, in fact, that their bikes seem almost weightless: They lift them like toys as they rush across the barriers.
In ‘cross, you ride multiple laps of the same course, so you can try different things each time. Which line is fastest through this corner? Can I carry a little more speed here? Can I stay off the brakes during this descent? It’s a great way to hone your skills.
You also learn to read the surface. The soil of Woodland Park has areas with sandy loam, where grip is excellent even in the wet…
… and others with clay that can be very slippery.
The last lap was the most fun. Traffic had cleared – I was behind the truly fast guys – and with the finish approaching, there was no need to keep anything in reserve. Now I could let the bike fly. My old Alan is a well-known fixture of the peloton by now, and I don’t get many questions about it any longer. It still works as well as it did when it was new, and when Alans won every ‘cross championship title in sight. Everybody knows that the tires determine a ‘cross bike’s performance, anyhow.
At speed, the spinning tires clear the mud out of their tread – provided there is enough open space between the knobs. ‘Cross tires grip better the faster you go. Some of that mud flies in your face, but that is all part of the fun.
When the finish line came, I knew that I was in the top-10, but had no idea about my exact placing. It really didn’t matter – now was the time to chat with friends and acquaintances, then head to a bakery nearby… If you’ve been thinking about ‘cross, give it a try – chances are you’ll like it!