As soon as autumn rolls around, triathlon training in most of Canada gets more difficult. I think this is most felt in cycling, since it is the most time consuming of the three disciplines, and you feel the cold more when your zooming along that fast. Somebody came up with the sport of cyclo-cross as a kind of end of season training for road and mountain bike cyclists.
At first glance, you might have trouble telling the difference between Cyclo-cross and mountain biking (at least, I did). Indeed they both involve getting muddy - in fact, Cyclo-cross can be performed with a mountain bike. While I'm no expert, I don't think mountain bikers dismount and carry their bikes over obstacles in most circumstances, whereas this is fundamentally part of Cyclo-cross. Overall, it struck me as a little less 'extreme' and more friendly to novices since even an old road bike would have been acceptable (though a little tricky). I'm getting ahead of myself by giving my impressions, first I want to tell you the story of how I ended up trying this out.
A Cyclo-Crosser jumps a barricade, carrying his bike. I have a bunch of photos like this. I have a lot to learn about settings on my camera - especially those dealing with low-light and action photography.
What I saw was a course sketched out with police tape and little flags that went up, down and alongside the less steep parts of the ski-hill and some 40cm barriers to be hopped over. I apologize for the poor quality of pictures; photography is not my strong suit, and never will be.
I spoke briefly with Craig, who was directing the cross riders on how many laps they still had before quitting time, and got a feel for whether I would even be able to attempt this thing. It sounded like my old mountain bike would be alright, if less than perfect for gripping and steering under some circumstances. At any rate, I resolved to show up a week later ready to go.
One week later, I pulled into the parking lot wearing my cycling gear, with a helmet, and an old Cateye light that drew a few laughs from more hard-core cyclists I had to purchase a one-day licence from The Ontario Cycling Association and once my admission for the night was paid, they suggested I hook up with one of the more experienced riders for tips on how to navigate the course. The usual format for the evening is to spend time at each station in a kind of 'lesson-circuit' before participating in a race to finish a certain number of laps of the mile-long course, but they opted to forgo that since it was near the end of season, I suppose.
I approached a man named Pierre and asked him to show me the ropes. After a few jokes about how this would turn into a new obsession which would threaten my marriage, he gave my bike (an old hybrid that I use for commutes and more recreational riding with my son) the once over.
The 'Before' shot... even if it is technically an 'after cleaning' shot.
Then we were off on the course. As we rode, Pierre gave me general tips on bike handling that allowed me to get traction going uphill and around the sharper turns, of which there were plenty. Every few hundred meters he'd have us stop so he could point out specifics that I was maybe doing wrong, or specifics of the course to watch out for. In particular, he identified a way of looking where you're going (not where you are) that helps you balance and set up your turns. There was one hairpin turn I didn't make all night - it was set up in such a way as to purposely slow riders down so that they wouldn't accidentally hit a pipe from the ski hill's snow making equipment.
One of the most unique features of Cyclo-cross is barricades, where you dismount, pick up the bike, and hurdle over a 40cm (a little over a foot) barrier (or two). Apparently I'm not the first beginner to find this aspect the most exciting; good technique however, requires calm grace and not holding your breath as you hop over.
After a couple of laps, Pierre left me to give it a try on my own, which not only amped up the adrenaline factor, but also took a bigger toll on my cardio-vascular endurance; without the pointer sessions to catch my breath, I could really feel each and every lap.
The 'After' shot. Notice the mud and grass caked everywhere.
I found Cyclo-cross to be very different than most of my training rides that I do for triathlon. The twists and turns demand a lot more mental attention; no more 'zoning out'. In fact, bike handing is much more of a priority overall as it becomes a struggle just to stay on the bike. The slippery grass and mud keep you in the lower gears and higher cadences, while the up-and-down of hills (and the bursts of strength you use to pick your bike up and jump the barriers) make it more of an interval workout than I've had in a long time.
Here's a video from my last lap (I had my camera helmet-mounted); it's a little dark and shaky - rest assured I could see fine.
Describing a cyclo-cross ride in short is easy: it's the way you used to ride your bike when you were a kid: Without consideration for destination, appropriate terrain, keeping clean or anything but having fun. Despite how much fun I had, and my desire to do it again soon, cyclo-cross isn't threatening to become an obsession to me. After all, in the multi-sport mind, everything is just cross training for something else!