The Blunderer’s Guide to Cyclocross

How to become a cyclocrosser in I don’t know how many probably not so easy steps.

As the road racing season is drawing to a close, some turn to cyclocross to get themselves through the winter. As I’d joined Swift Leiden in the beginning of the year, and done satisfactory (at least to me) in the club competition, I’d thought it’d be fun to also enter into their cyclocross competition. Having never done anything that even comes close to cyclocross, not even on my ATB (as I use that bike exclusively for beach races), I have no idea what I’d gotten myself into. Well, read all about it here!

October 3: after yesterday’s fiasco, where I pulled out of the first training on accounts of being a liability to the others, I tried to figure out what’d gone wrong. Granted, the course was a bit more challenging than I’d be comfortable with, but there was more to it than just that. I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that I felt like having insufficient control over the bike. I found a couple of reasons why that might be. First of all, I’ve never been on a crosser, apart from a few test rides to get the settings sort-of correct. The geometry of a crosser is different from a road bike, so its handling is different, too. Second, even though I’d tinkered with the settings, there’s no guarantee I’d gotten it right. Third, I might try riding in the drops rather than using the brake grips. So the plan was to try again this afternoon, but with some changes. I’d lowered thr tire pressure, and I’d be riding in the drops.

Arriving at the course, I turned out to be the only one there. Well, at least I’d be in no one’s way. My plan was to redo yesterday’s training. After going through the first couple of bends I’d figured out that riding in the drops was actually harder than holding the grips, which by itself was sub-optimal already. So the plan was in tatters in about five minutes. So, what’s next?  While noodling around a bit aimlessly, I spotted a single bush in the grass. Just as an exercise, I decided to try to ride the smallest circle around it. That turned out to be harder than I thought. After four or five full circles I started to feel a bit dizzy, so I circle around the other way. Equally difficult. Riding ’round in circles gets boring pretty fast, so I turned to riding figure-eights by just adding another circle. That was actually more useful than riding circles, as I found out that a left turn – right turn conversion is made easier by shifting your weight. Slowly but surely, I was getting more control on the bike. Back to those first set of bends. Lo and behold, they were now easier to ride through! Progress! After a few more passes both ways, I felt I’d done enough here for the day, especially because the tire pressure was a bit too low.

At home, I upped the pressure, and started looking for somewhere to train a bit more. There’s plenty of grass around, but it’s all just a little bit too nice to lay down some tracks in it. After some driving around, I found twenty trees, all spaced about two meters from one another. Perfect to slalom through! After doing a few passes, I decided to turn the bars a bit more upright as I felt I didn’t have complete control yet. It was getting much better compared to yesterday, but still. After turning the bars, I went back for a few more passes. Yeah, big improvement. Now, I can go faster, and when moving my weight back on the saddle, I can even slide the back wheel into the curve. Now, that’s a neat trick!

October 4: well, if you want to cross, you better bring your shoes… The plan was to train some more on the club course after work, but as I left the shoes at home, and having an appointment later in the evening, that plan fell through. So after work, I went straight home, and did some zig-zagging through the trees that I found yesterday. Being on a crosser is something I have to get used to, I now found out. On the first couple of passes through the trees, it was almost just as awkward as yesterday, although I went through them somewhat faster. Thankfully, after those first passes, I got into the rhythm, and things got a lot easier. I also found out how sliding the back wheel  works: you push the bike down when steering into the bend, and when it’s slippery enough, it’ll slide out. And as you’re now into the bend, the bike rises, and the back side’s OK again. I just love finding out this sort of stuff.

October 5: having both the helmet and the shoes in the car, I went to the club course. On the recce-ride, I noticed that the bend where things went so wrong on Tuesday had been altered. Rather than halfway into the descent, it now is placed at the bottom, so when you miss it, you don’t career into harm’s way. As if they’d know.

The first thing I did was to go back to those bends from Tuesday and Wednesday. However, due to the copious amounts of rain that fell during the past days, it was slippery as hell. Still, I had a few good passes through it.  After adding the to and fro from the bottom section to it, I went to the second section. I only did that one once. The bend at the bottom went OK, but the grass and mud were so slippery, there was no way to bike back up. No point repeating that…. So, next up, the dreaded descent. Well, the new version. First pass went sort-of OK, not too fast, maybe a bit too cautious. Second pass went better, more smoothly. The third time, the back wheel slipped down… Nothing bad happened, fortunately. I then combined the first section with the third, and that was sweet. Didn’t go too fast, that’s for later.

Now, there’s a ride tomorrow. I did a recce on the way home. It looks flat, so who knows? I just might….

October 6: I decided that I don’t want to be a mere hindrance to the others, so rather than going to Alphen, I postponed my debut in cyclocross by (at least) a week. After doing some chores at the house, the rain had stopped falling, and I went out for a ride. So far, I’ve only found those twenty trees to train with, and that’s not much. The goal for today was finding more training tracks. That proved fairly hard to find. Most grassy fields were nearly submerged, others were sandy, so not very usable to train bike control. I did find a bunch of single tracks, but officially they’re off-limits as they’re intended for horse-back riders. They’re good for building stamina, though. I’ll probably make a revisit tomorrow.

October 7: today, I went out on those single tracks. As I rarely ride there, I had no idea where I was going. It showed.  Taking the first footpath took me in the opposite direction, I found out. Rather than going back the same way, I checked whether the route along the Amsterdam-Rijnkanaal was already opened. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and I had no other option but to go back to where I took the left to the footpath…

After this  small mishap, I did get to the single tracks, and were they hard to ride. Not only because they’re extremely bumpy, but also half of the time, a well-paved cycle- or footpath runs right next to it. It’s very hard to resist taking them instead. As for my cluelessness as to where I was, at some point I thought it cool that I could follow some tracks, only to realize a few twists and turns later that those tracks were mine. I laid them there yesterday…. Going back home took me though some water, after which all grease had been removed from the chain. As the squeaking became pretty unpleasant, not only did I have to clean the bike, but the chain as well, and lube it.

October 10: yesterday evening, I had the second official training. The first practice run went OK, down a slippery steep slope, make a 180, then climb out of this pit (just doable for me), two switchbacks, over a grassy ridge, down again building speed, and going up the steep slope just meters next to the starting descent. I managed to do that twice or thrice before being completely out of breath. It’s becoming clear to me that I lack raw power and stamina, and that I’m overweight for this stuff. The second run pretty much was the first in reverse, but as the slippery steep slope was near impossible to climb, the trick here was to jump off the bike at the right moment, and walk up the slope. I only did that once, as when I jumped off the bike, I pulled the very same muscle I injured a week before. So I skipped that part, and did a couple of all-out descents. The third practice run was riding two by two through some switchbacks, and going up and down the side of a hill. I skipped that one, as I felt that I wouldn’t have sufficient control for that due to that pulled muscle as it still was painful. I did join the bunch for the final practice run: a tarmac race over about 300m, just to train the start. Man, that was hard! We did it three times, and I felt pretty wasted each time.

Today, I repeated a few of yesterday’s and last week’s exercises. I did one descent I skipped last week, fiirst time wenk OK, second time not so good. That’s on the list for tomorrow. Also on the list is the dreaded descent where I went down last week, as I didn’t really get around doing that one today. Lastly, jumping off and on the bike will be on the list. I may even combine that with jumping over the bars that have been laid down.

I’ve heard that Lisse has a pretty flat course, so I probably will start there on Sunday. Saturday is still undecided. There’s one at Sloten, which probably is also flat, but I may also opt for a 50km tour.

To be continued.

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