Fall arrives, its iridescent array of hi-viz foliage bringing apple cider, nutmeg, and pumpkin pies—fragrances that go well with eye-burning camphor and the metallic taste of blood during high levels of exertion. Baseball is out, football is in, and cyclocross racing takes the holeshot, romping in with nary a hint of vacillation. Yes, I’d be remiss to not have my own take on our area’s beloved 2-wheeled sport, however I wish not to crowd the net with another cross tell tale. This one is different though, and happened over a decade ago. For those who know me in person, imagine a slightly younger version, fewer scars, fewer broken bones and with more, no, with actual hair. Over the course of the first season, I made friends, joined the scene, made some more friends, and in the fall of 1998, was introduced to a spectacle I had not seen before. Sure, I had watched cyclocross videos on wacky sports shows way back when, but to me, the barrier jumping, mountain bike-meets-muddy-circus tricks while gasping for air piqued my interest in ways I could not explain.
That year I had done collegiate road racing in extreme conditions (cold, rain/snow and general awfulness), plus a full road season. Yes, I loved it, and those were activities that were familiar to me as I had been racing since my teens. I knew how to handle my bike, understood the dynamics, etiquette and quirky rigors of the sport, won a few races, did lead out duties, no brainer. However those were road events: You go, race, do some minimal hanging out, get out of the chamois ASAP, debrocate and go home. That was my understanding at the time. And I understood nothing.
In 1999, Italian World Champ Daniele Pontoni was scoring some extra Lire by doing a few select events in the US, so naturally he gravitated to New England. I didn’t actually see cross as cycling (still don’t), but a parallel world where the almost bizarro breathed, moved, existed. Some rules of physics didn’t seem to work for those whose talents exceeded everyone else’s combined. So there he was, not taller than five feet and change, on his tiny Guerciotti, all serious, all skills, oh so impressive skills. I had never seen someone so tiny be so quick and graceful while handling roots, drop offs, off camber turns. I kept rubbing my eyes, expecting to see a giant hand operating cables and pulleys from above; was this what folks described as “walking on air” when they referred to Michael Jordan? Pontoni glided through the course with such speed, his mounting and dismounting so quick and efficient, his little cleated feet moving at a blur that now conjure images of Bolt’s cartoonish leg speed.
This was all glaring evidence of years of perfect practice making perfect execution in such a way that I could barely keep up and make sense of what he did, or how he did it. In his wake on that particular race was Bart Bowen (former US road stars and stripes), trailing him heroically on a busted rear tubbie, racing the last lap or so on his rim, a feat of determination and grit one doesn’t get to see often. It was a veritable spectacle, and I was mesmerized. The alternative to road cycling appealed to me, especially because the excessive road racing would burn me out. Besides, the cross atmosphere was great: at most races the fields would be full, attendance was respectable, there were families, young kids, dogs, tents serving beer, varieties of barbecues, freebies. People genuinely seemed to have fun and I wanted to try it myself, very badly.
I eventually got a bike, one of those “glued and screwed” Guerciotti-badged Alans. Older (refined) folks will remember those. It wasn’t that difficult to find a suitable machine that was more than enough for my super below average skills. What I didn’t know is that road skills are not necessarily transferable in a cross event. My first few practices were ok; I figured the mount/dismount pretty quickly but just couldn’t stay on the bike. Drop off sections, zigzagging through off camber, muddy stretches, I tried to hammer through everything and inevitably would crash, be thrown off the bike or just find myself here, bike there, not understanding why I just couldn’t do it. Riders I could drop with half a leg on the road would just cruise by me as if I were standing still, a slobbering mess barely able to land a trick properly. I tried for a season, sucked epically, and hated it. My morale was in the gutter, the body was tired and I was getting frustrated with all the extra equipment and compulsory repairs: constantly replacing cables, pads, chain, cleats, you name it. Cold rain and a few more head-first crashes sealed the deal and after a season, I quit the sport. Cyclocross, that is. Not road.
Then I figured it out: The bandido appeal that cross exerts on people, the supposedly underground nature, the folks racing in costume, the mandatory fun, the beer; this is all a ruse, a lure. The block party ballyhoo disguises the underbelly of an animal that is out to get you to suffer mercilessly. Cross is very hard, like chunk-blowing hard. It demands a lot in terms of focus, skills, strength and equipment. And for those who go “hey, c’mon, let’s have a good time”, please don’t pretend you’re not interested on finishing well, earning a front row start, or that you haven’t been rehearsing the holeshot move in your head about a 1000 times before you go to bed.
Trying to seduce roadies under the guise of “road bike with knobbies” is a facile mind trick to persuade new comers; dangle the beer and the cowbell and they’ll come. Look, I am not trying to write a diatribe of what blows and what doesn’t. This is not the objective. After years living here and understanding, watching and appreciating the tenacious beauty of cross, it dawned on me that cyclocross is its own sport, has its own set of rules, requirements, and codes that I wasn’t able, competent or willing enough to crack.
Do I love cross? Absolutely. It provided me with a sense of awareness of what I can and cannot do. It takes a certain kind of person to be a cross racer, and it taught me the obligatory skills to live comfortably in the perpetual uncomfortable zone that is so characteristic of the sport. And those are skills that are actually transferable to many aspects of our daily existence.