Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Thing About Cyclocross aka "CX" (PART I)

I'm a relative newbie on the cycling scene. I just finished my third year of road racing; I raced my first real mountain bike race this summer; and I am launching into my second season of cycloross. My newbie status qualifies me to offer, perhaps, a fresh perspective on what CX (note that I am sufficiently educated to refer to "cyclocross" as "CX"; that is because I am innately hip) is and how to ride a CX race. Arguably, my "fresh" perspective differs and, depending on which way you look at it, is a bit more informative than one who is established and entrenched in the CX tradition. You can think of me as a John Calvin of CX, and think of Bart or Ali as the Pope. (BTW, Ali, are you muslim or are you related to that boxer whose name was Ali? Just wondering. And Bart, was Bart Simpson named after you or the other way around? Again, just wondering.)

Most of the time I try to be politically correct. I'm relatively conservative though I tend to lean toward the green (the trees, not the money). So although it pains me to say this, there's really no way of avoiding saying that CX is the mongrel bastard child of cycling. It's a "cross" between the elegant form of road racing and the highly efficient form of mountain biking -- mountain biking's achievement is taking the cyclist over mountains that used to require walking, which cyclists are adverse to, or horses, which cyclists . . . actually, no comment. For those CX purists, I know that cross existed before MTB and there is the argument that CX was quite possibly was the first form of RR, but this is my analogy and I believe that it is quite illustrative -- to a Newbie anyway. And the analogy actually furthers my argument that CX is a mongrel bastard. I ask you, if RR is CX's father, then why the knobby tires, and why the ugliness and messiness? If MTB is CX's father, then why the drop bars and why the skinny tires? Hah!! Clearly CX was abandoned in its youth by its father and was denied "proper" nurturing. By way of another analogy, CX is like the child of burly Alaskan husky and a sleak Greyhound. That's right, eeewe. . . .

Just because CX is the mongrel bastard doesn't mean that there are not compelling reasons to try it or that you shouldn't try it. After all, there is a lot of hype around CX. It is being heralded as the fastest growing niche in bike racing. Soon, any noteworthy stable will include a road bike, mtn. bike, and a cross bike. Of course, you don't want to own a CX bike just because it's hip, which leads me to an astute question: what is my cross bike good for?

What is my cross bike good for?

Any CX apologist, which I declare that I am, must be able to address this question. After all, face it, a CX bike can't keep pace with a road bike on the road or with a mtn. bike on the trails. A shallow-sighted roadie or mtb'er might immediately write off CX bikes as being "slow." Fair enough, but what if you want to ride the pavement AND the dirt? In a sense, only the pure cyclist will understand the value of a CX bike because the pure cyclist will be driven to explore and ride all roads and trails, whether paved or dirt. The value of the CX bike is that you can effectively ride the road and a lot of dirt in one ride.

I have to acknowledge, that in SLC, there aren't a lot of unpaved roads, and that the trails in the mountains are generally unsuitable for CX bikes. There are exceptions though. For example, I don't like to drive anywhere. So, it's convenient for me to be able to ride my bike up Millcreek Canyon, hit some of the mellow trails, and ride home. If you're inclined to ride from Jeremy Ranch to East Canyon, a CX bike can come in handy. However, if you live in a non-urban environment, I daresay that the CX bike is the ultimate machine. For example, I grew up in a rural town in central Utah where the only paved road was Main Street (if anyone from Gunnison reads this, you know this is an exaggeration and hyperbole on my part). If you were lucky, you could find a rough, pot-holed chip seal road, but usually, you were relegated to hard-packed gravel dirt roads. And in rural towns like Gunnison, there are endless dirt roads through the hills, linking other towns, mountains, and canyons. The possibilities are endless and all of these roads are suited to a CX bike. Of course, a mountain bike works, but in many cases, I think it is overkill -- a CX bike is actually faster. In fact, I dream of a road-style race on a CX bike on rural dirt roads. Maybe one day I'll try to make that happen.

I've postponed the obvious: perhaps the single, independent reason to own a CX bike is so you can race it.

What is a CX Race?

CX races, like CX bikes, are the mongrel, bastard child of road and mtb. races. If you think about it, cyclocross courses are comical. That's because everything in CX is a paradox -- yet people, for some weird reason participate. In a CX race, the sprint comes at the beginning of the race, not the end; skinny, but knobby tires are used; parts of the courses are on pavement, other parts are on dirt, other parts are on grass; mud and single track is involved, yet road racing tactics sometimes come into play; good CX'ers use lots of fast twitch muscles and sprint several times a lap, but competitive CX'ing requires major slow twitch endurance; and then there are the barriers. Who the heck invented barriers? Barriers are, in and of themselves, paradoxes; is CX's father a horse? I mean, horses jump barriers, but why cyclists? Perhaps this is what happens when a bunch of drunk Belgians on bikes get together in the off-season. "Hey, let's ride our bikes through the mud in the park. . . . Bet you can't ride your bike over that barrier. . . ." Note that I've refrained from even mentioning sandy run-ups. All these characteristics, and many more, combine to make cyclocross so comical, so gruelling, and so paradoxical that doing it is actually fun. To the dude whose idea of fun is a bag of chips and Sportcenter, whatever . . .

How do I prepare for my first cross race?



The Ballistic Hornet said...

Nice blog! Good luck this season and get muddy!


Piotrek said...

Epic, but I still don't get it. Where does Hell of the North fall into this?

Facelessghost said...

There is no excuse for the Hell of the North's existence.

StupidBike said...

A dirt road with a few pebbles with 4 90 degree corners and 4 straight aways and no elevation, is nothing like a CX course, even if it is raining.

It is a good workout for the legs, but, to me, at least, it is just above riding the trainer in the basement.