The freshly painted white barriers are a piece of cake. I confidently release from my pedals, hoist my bike, scoot workmanlike over the 15-inch boards and begin to run up the paved path. That's when disaster comes calling. The metal spikes screwed into the soles of my cycling shoes spark and skid on the macadam with the sickening sound of a car wreck. No traction whatsoever. I tumble across the gravel path, arms, legs and mountain bike flailing about in a spastic somersault of futility. So much for warm-ups. I haven't even made it to the start line of my first cyclocross race, and I'm already road kill.
I had a good reason for installing those spikes. Not long ago, on a raw December day, I stood on the sidelines as cyclocross racers from all corners of the United States stampeded a course at Fort Devens, just west of Boston. A hard New England wind, the kind that burrows into your marrow and makes a mockery of "weather-proof" clothing, blew through the old Army post. Hundreds of bundled spectators tried to keep warm, hollering encouragement. A cacophony of cow bells filled the late morning air as racers chugged by, their breath steaming like so many Clydesdales from a moody Budweiser commercial.
"These guys are nuts," I thought to myself. The faces of many racers were covered with what one friend delicately referred to as the "snot mask."
"Gives them that sexy glazed-doughnut look," he says with a grin.
Very attractive. The pace was lightning quick until racers ran smack into the Wall of Mud. One section of the course, built on a short, steep hillside, had thawed overnight, leaving a viscous muck that offered all the purchase of an oil slick. If racers didn't have momentum, they were toast. The yellow course tape funneled riders right to the bottom of the slippery slope, and the resulting pile-up was pure trench warfare - brightly colored racers flopping around like brawling mud-wrestlers, wallowing in the rich New England filth, grabbing for traction, bikes, each other.
Some spectators winced. Some howled. Most had to wonder why anyone would put themselves through that. How do you explain the attraction to something as excruciating and nerve-wracking as cyclocross? Not to watch, but to participate. Road racing's off-beat, off-season cousin makes perfect sense for spectators. It has all the elements - thrill of victory, agony of competing - confined to a viewer-friendly course. You get daring drop-offs, lung-scorching run-ups and hurdles, the ever-present potential for carnage, furious action in the pits, and often wild sprint finishes, wrapped up in a blink-of-an-eye 60 minutes.
I admired these racers as they came by in waves. Elite athletes and weekend warriors alike. Some svelte, some on the soft side. Some with the look of death, some exuding a gritty determination. All gutting it out.
"There's no posing here," says Marla Streb of Team Yeti shortly after the women's race, goose-bumps sprouting from underneath her Lycra outfit. "It hurts. A lot. And the rewards are very subtle. But life is almost too easy today, with everything at the push of a button. This is suffering, and there's something about suffering I like. It means digging deep."
Add to this recipe the embarrassment of being pulled off the back. At its heart, cyclocross is a war of attrition. To avoid confusion at the finish line, slower riders are yanked unceremoniously by race officials if they're being lapped by the front-runners. For racers, the prospect of physical distress pales by comparison to this blow to their ego.
Despite the misery on display - the "parade of pain" according to the announcer - I couldn't watch without being intrigued, and without a creeping desire to try it. I never learn. The post-race celebrations were contagious, and none of the racers - save those few unfortunates who suffered separated shoulders crashing on the hillsides - seemed any worse for wear. Instead, they were positively giddy with achievement.
That is the dark attraction of cyclocross, and my quandary. I long for that post-effort endorphin rush the way my 3-year-old lusts after dessert. But unlike my daughter, I know I've got to earn that little fix (MaryAlyssa might disagree - we do make her finish her peas). Endorphins are the pleasant byproduct of exertion. The greater the effort, the greater the reward. That can be a painful pursuit.
My approach to these masochistic endeavors mirrors that of Philippides, the legendary Greek messenger who, on a blistering day in 490 BC, ran 26 hilly miles from Marathon to Athens to report the Athenian Army's victory over the Persians. Like Philippides, I figure I can do anything I put my mind to, if only for a short time. Of course, I conveniently forget that Philippides, exhausted, promptly dropped dead at the feet of his superiors after delivering the good news.
Nor do I wish to mimic the post-race expectorations of a teammate, John M. A tightly-wrapped bundle of muscle and sinew, John has an amazing capacity to endure pain while ignoring the millions of synapses firing away, telling him to stop pushing so hard. In two races last year, John burst across the finish line only to get violently ill moments later. Not a pretty picture.
Shoving such unsettling thoughts to some faraway recess of my consciousness, I sign up for my first cyclocross race. The event is being put on by my club - Essex County Velo. I take comfort in the knowledge that it's close to home, and I'll be surrounded by friends. I peg false hopes on the date - October 16 - my daughter MaryAlyssa's birthday. My wife's only concern? "You'll be back in time for the party, right?"
Cyclocross combines the lore and lure of Europe's rich cycling tradition. Eclipsed in the past 15 years by that decidedly American phenomenon, the mountain bike, cyclocross was cooked up by some enterprising cycling buffs in Europe in the late 1940s as a training regimen for road racers to maintain fitness through late fall and winter. To a newcomer, this bizarre hybrid looks oddly similar to a mountain bike race. Don't be fooled. Mountain bikes are only allowed in "civilian" class races (sans bar-ends).
Top-level cyclocross racers use bikes more like their road brethren, albeit with wider, knobby tires and cantilever brakes. Cyclocross races "just" an hour, allowing for more intense effort. Courses feature shorter loops than the typical mountain bike venue, allowing for more urban settings. Man-made obstacles, or barriers, are added specifically to force racers off their bikes, thus requiring a fair amount of running to complement their pedaling. And, like a NASCAR race, there are frenetic pit stops where racers can exchange muddy bikes for clean ones (by contrast, mountain bikers must carry their tools and perform their own repairs during a race).
In short, cyclocross is a wild mix of road race, off-road race and steeplechase. Like Europe's other choice exports - British wit, French champagne, Italian tailoring and Spanish olives - it has developed a strong following here, particularly in the northeast, northwest, and the mountains west of Boulder, Colorado.
To prepare for my race, I attend my club's mid-week cyclocross practices. Like most neophyte 'cross racers, I simply modify my mountain bike - remove the barends, swap out fat tires for a skinnier model. I'm not worried that my teammates spit me out the back like a watermelon seed. These guys have been racing all summer. I console myself with the self-congratulatory notion that I'm in decent shape for a guy my age. I'm far too mature (read: old) to worry about results. I have no desire to see my performance etched in legend. No, I just want to finish the entire race and not get lapped. Not the grist of a high-priced motivational speaker, but enough for a 40-something father of two. I also sidestep any discussion about the pits. Truth is, unless you're lucky enough to have several bikes and friends who don't mind spending an hour freezing for the simple pleasure of scrubbing mud off your bike, you won't be making any pit stops during the race.
ECV's Stu Thorne, a veteran 'cross racer, patiently tutors me in the nuances of cyclocross's signature maneuver - clearing the obstacles. Watching accomplished racers perform this cycling sleight-of-hand is all grace and style. They approach a set of barriers at full speed, swing their right leg over the saddle, click out of their pedals, dismount, begin running while shouldering their bikes, jump over the barricades, set down their bikes, hop aboard, click in and pedal off. This happens in a continuous, fluid motion with almost imperceptible speed loss. It appears as effortlessas as figure skater Michelle Kwan calmly nailing a triple axle, or Michael Jordan executing a coast-to-coast jam. I'm not so gifted. Of course, if a pedal cleat fails to release, the resulting blood bath of bike and rider cartwheeling in a blur of flesh and metal and wooden barrier can be gut-wrenching.
Oddly, this possibility doesn't bother me as much as the remount. Hopping back onto the bike is especially frightening, given our anatomy. Stu assures me he's never injured himself. The key, he says, is to land on my inner thigh, not my naughty bits. Plus, I need to focus on engaging my cleats and pedals cleanly. Otherwise, I risk having my feet fly off the pedal, with the potentially disastrous results to my underside.
So I practice religiously, on my street, outside my front door. Clicking out and clicking in. Dismounting and remounting, again and again, under the quizzical gaze of MaryAlyssa. She asks my wife, Lauri, "Why can't Daddy stay on his bike?" Lauri good-naturedly tells her "Daddy is doing his special tricks." Every Wednesday in September, I show up at the ECV training sessions, endure sadistic drills known as Madisons (all-out efforts reminiscent of wind sprints from high school soccer practice), and count down the days to the race.
I'm up early on October 16, not from nerves, but because our youngest, Brynne, decides she needs a bottle more than dad needs his sleep. In a caffeine-induced haze, I toss my bike atop the family wagon and head for Gloucester. The venue is striking. Held at scenic Stage Fort Park, on the edge of Cape Ann, the race course looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, the same body of water that swallowed the Andrea Gail in Sebastian Junger's haunting "The Perfect Storm." On this day, however, there isn't a hint of foul weather. Dawn breaks gloriously over the horizon. Temperatures are mild, with an invigorating sea breeze blowing in from the ocean. I can't believe my good fortune.
A friend, Todd, and I do a couple of practice laps to familiarize ourselves with the intricacies of the twisting course - where are the run-ups, the obstacles, the fast sections? Since we're competing in the civilian's category, our race is slated to last 30 minutes. I estimate the race will go three laps, tops. I can handle that. We start on the road that runs through the park. A young teammate, Jesse Anthony, who will later be crowned national champion, urges me to get to the front of the crowded starting line. "Relax, Jesse," I reply in an accidental but unmistakable parental tone. "I'm just here for the experience." A race official explains that the remaining number of laps will be posted near the start/finish area, ostensibly so we can gauge our efforts. I chat with my competitors, hoping my self-deprecating humor masks my nervousness.
At the crack of the starter's pistol I lurch violently, with all the finesse of snapping the trusty kitchen blender directly from "off" to "liquefy" with no warning. Like the blender, my system recoils. Within seconds, all I hear is my own deep breathing and surging heartbeat from inside my head, as if my ears are stuffed with cotton. I hold my own with a pack of racers as we drop into the twisty portion of the course, ignoring the greyhounds, including Todd, who leap off the front.
Slowly, my breathing and legs catch up with my soaring heart rate, and I settle into a labored-but-not-entirely-uncomfortable rhythm. The second shock to my system arrives near the end of Lap 2. Passing through the start/finish line, I spy the sign indicating the number of laps remaining - 4! I'm stunned. Six laps total! Twice what I anticipated.
For the next two laps I chase after a group of juniors, muttering expletives as these little urchins one third my age and half my weight go rambling by. My heart, clearly maxed, continues to hammer some tribal beat in my frontal lobes with a ferocity unmatched since my college frat-party days. All the while, my cleats and pedals are waging war, stubbornly refusing to cooperate with each other.
At the beginning of Lap 3, I grab a water bottle from an unsuspecting bystander who was holding it for another racer. There are no Miss Manners in cyclocross. Lactic acid begins pouring into my thighs. By Laps 4 and 5, I'm no longer running and leaping over the obstacles. Any spring I had has sprung. Trudging, or walking, is more my style. The beautiful panorama of the Atlantic is lost on me. I'm unable to see anything except the racer just ahead. With the help of cheering teammates, I keep moving forward, somehow resisting the temptation to quietly sneak off the course.
On my last lap, I put on an extra burst, and my breakfast comes perilously close to an encore visit. I think briefly of John M., swallow hard and ease off the throttle. I rumble over the last hurdle, and hop on my bike one last time. And a wonderful thing happens - my cleats find the pedals like a dog finds a bone. I snap in with a smooth, resonant double "Click!" Such a little victory, such remarkable results. A torrent of energy courses through my legs. As I drop onto the last stretch of pavement, I push the chain onto the big ring. A firm believer in the Satchel Paige adage, "Don't look behind, someone might be catching up," I focus on the specs of dirt flying off my front tire, urging me on. I cross the finish line with a time just over 45 minutes, barely managing to dodge the humiliation of getting lapped and being pulled from the race.
My placing? Dead center of the pack - 20th, out of 40 starters. I'm exhausted, and ecstatic. I've earned my little endorphin high, and that piece of cake waiting for me at my daughter's birthday party.