Last year, we discovered a new sport: cyclocross.
Actually, “sport” is a bit of a misnomer, because cyclocross is less a sport than a curious genre of competitive masochism. It resembles a sport in that it plays out in what appears to be a race. But it is so much more than that. It is a parable. A battle. A measure of gastronomic fortitude. An epic test of one’s ability not only to suffer, but to suffer publicly, deliberately, while being heckled by cowbell-ringing spectators offering refreshments which, if you’re not already on the verge of puking, should get you there.
Did I mention that it’s really, really fun? Cyclocross has been called “a cult sport within a cult sport,” a sort of steeplechase on road bikes modified with knobby tires. The contrived, winding race courses, often held at an urban park, involve slogging through sand pits, sloshing through mud, dismounting and hefting the bike over obstacles, and carrying it on your shoulder while running up hills too steep to climb. You do as many laps, as fast as you can, for 45 brutal minutes (women´s division) to 1 hour (men’s). If you imagine your heart rate as an RPM dial, you spend every minute in the red zone.
It would be an utter sufferfest were it not for the fact that spectators sometimes put down their cowbells and horns called “vuvuzela,” which sound like dying water buffalo, to offer so-called “hand-ups” to racers on the course. These include, but are not limited to, beer-ups, cupcake-ups, and dollar bills, waved furiously at racers who are all lungs and legs, but expected to partake nonetheless if they have any self respect.
We started racing last year on our mountain bikes, which made for good heckle material, because carrying a full-suspension fat-tire rig over your shoulder makes you look like a Humvee in a land of MiniCoopers. Luckily, we were able to offset our handicaps with our adventure-race honed capacity for massive suffering.
And we did downright respectable.
This year, we got a cyclocross bike. Built like a road bike, they have skinny tires with aggressive tread, drop handlebars (think Tour de France), and no water bottle cage, because that would get in the way of threading your arm through the frame, onto your shoulder. (All the better to run with, my dear.)
But in my first race on my new bike (which, appropriately, says CROSS all over it), I went over the handlebars twice, almost getting run over by a competitor in the process. I went back to my mountain bike after that, embracing the well-deserved heckling that ensued. Fortuitiously, that race was the Halloween race in Tuscaloosa, and I raced in a SuperWoman getup. I have to say, few things feel radder than riding fast with a shiny red cape flapping behind you (except when you think the cape is a racer on your wheel).
A couple of weekends ago was the Alabama State Cyclocross Championships, a night race held at a baseball complex in Anniston. It had an epic sand pit, lots of hairpin turns, and a few barriers to hop over. It also had unprecedented handups: beside the Beer Fairy (who wears a purple tutu, purple
wings, and heckles like a drunken sailor in a bar fight) we had bacon-ups, and after that, waffle-ups, still hot from the waffle iron, and dripping with syrup. And after that, there were $10 bills stuffed in beer cans in the middle of the race course.
“Tough” doesn’t begin to describe this race. It was a fitness course, with fewer technical elements (barriers, dismounts) and more wide-open stretches of grass on which to shift into the big ring and hammer. My late dad’s best fatherly advice came in handy. His favorite words of wisdom were, “Tough luck, cream puff,” and “Suck it up!” My good pal Maaike, the friendliest badass I have ever met, who has been nicknamed “Can’t Dutch This” because she was born in a country where they ride out of the womb on two wheels, was leading the race for the Alabama State Champs. My other pal Karen, who is a lovely menace on a mountain bike, was hanging on my wheel, despite her fat-tire disadvantage on a grassy course.
We stayed in these positions for three of the four laps. I figured it would hold. But in the last lap, Maaike, who is on a first-name basis with the top of the podium, was showing signs of flagging. We slowly reeled her in. With half a lap to go, I figured I’d catch up and give her a few words of encouragement (well, only because I haven’t yet learned how to heckle in Dutch), and hang just long enough for her to say something nice before dropping me on the way to the finish line.