Category Archives: Cyclocross

Nats Podium

2016 Cyclocross Season Recap

The Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference’s Cyclocross (ECCC:CX) season spans close to two months in the fall of every year: from mid-October until early December. This year’s collegiate CX calendar was very similar to the previous one: It started with two races in New Hampshire (Hanover CX and Pumpkincross), followed by HPCX in New Jersey (hasn’t been a collegiate race in a few years); then NohoCX (formerly CSI); then the Supercross Cup in Suffern, New York (with a new venue); then the Thanksgiving weekend race in Fitchburg, MA; and, finally, the Eastern Collegiate Cyclocross Championships at NBX in Warwick, RI. The only thing after that was Nationals, which took place in convenient driving distance at Riverside Park in Hartford, CT.

MIT Cycling was represented at every single one of these races; mostly with only two riders (Julie and myself), but peaking with six eager souls on the final weekend of the season. Here is a short breakdown of the highlights of the season, which was dominated by warm and dry conditions (with a few exceptions).

Late September, we welcomed some special visitors: Oliver and Claudia from Biognosys, one of our amazing sponsors, stopped by and Oliver joined me in participating in a Wednesday Night Super Prestige (WNSP) training race.

Biognosys' visiting

While some individual riders’ training plans may have started earlier in the year, the official kickoff for our team happened late September with two 3-hour long CX skills clinics lead by CX legend Adam Myerson (Cycle-Smart). Cyclocross newcomers and veteran riders alike learned, unlearned, relearned, and tweaked skills ranging from dis- and remounts, to efficient carrying and shouldering, to choosing lines through corners, and cleanly riding off-camber turns.

Cyclocross skills clinics with Adam Myerson.

These clinics sent us well-prepared into the races: Julie, participating in the UCI/Elite races, raced herself to the top of the collegiate “Women’s A” podium in almost every single race; I competed in the collegiate “Men’s A” field for the first time and also consistently gathered points for the team (however, at a much smaller scale). Dmitro and Emma earned points on two race weekends. And Kate and Laura celebrated their CX debut with great results in the final two races.

Out of the 11 individual race days across 5.5 race weekends (Fitchburg was only a single-day event), I want to highlight two races that stood out to me:

  •  Supercross Cup in Suffern, NY: This race took place at a new venue this year (Rockland Community College). First impression: Very wide and hilly course, with some very fast descents, a lot of off-camber sections, and lots and lots of climbing. What made this race particularly special was the weather: On Saturday we raced in dry conditions with temperatures around 70 degrees. The course, which was mostly on grass, was fast and best suited to good climbers. Sunday’s race on the other hand was on the same course, but mostly reversed – this includes the weather. The conditions couldn’t have been more different to Saturday’s: temperatures had dropped to around freezing over night and it had rained and snowed (and kept snowing lightly on and off during the day), the course very quickly turned into a crazy mud-fest. It was cold, muddy, windy, and wet – simply put: just beautiful! Due to setup of the course, completely new challenges emerged: long sections of off-camber were not rideable due to the slippery mud; lines kept disappearing in he mud from one lap to the next; lines weren’t accessible due to course tape blowing into the course; long run-ups and deep muddy straights turned into a fitness challenge. Great race! Let’s hope the venue allows the race to come back next year! Julie was able to heroically take the Collegiate Women’s A podium on both days. I ended up 15th (Sat.) and 16th (Sun.) in the Men’s A field.
  • NBX / ECCC:CX Easterns: As mentioned earlier, we had six racers participating in this final race weekend. In addition to the usual CX-squad, this included two CX-newcomers (but experienced MTBers), Laura and Kate, as well as two racers who attended the NohoCX race as well, Dmitro and Emma. Laura (first CX race!) and Dmitro shredded the course on their mountainbikes, passing other riders on many rooty technical sections of the course. Kate, starting from the very back (first CX race!), rode to the top of the Collegiate Women’s B podium on day one; a mechanical in the final lap of Sunday’s race moved her back to place four in Collegiate Women’s B of the day. Emma raced herself to the top of the podium in both her races. And finally, Julie earned 1st (Sat.) and 2nd (Sun.) of the Collegiate Women’s A podium.

Finally, here are the ECCC:CX omnium results of our team — after a full season of racing. First, the highlights:
1) Julie van der Hoop took the women’s A collegiate podium in the season overall; AND
2) MIT Cycling ended up 3rd in the combined omnium of this season. This is a particularly great result considering that (a) the team was represented by only two racers for most of the race calendar (with Julie accumulating the majority of the points) and (b) the top spots on the podium being taken by much larger teams with high attendance throughout the season.

Here are the overall season results for all participating riders:

  • Julie van der Hoop: 1st of 14 in Women’s A (11 races)
  • Tobias Ehrenberger: 14th of 32 in Men’s A (10 races)
  • Emma Edwards: 12th of 28 in Women’s B (3 races)
  • Dmitro Martynowych: 25th of 45 in Men’s C (3 races)
  • Kathryn Lawrence: 13th of 28 in Women’s B (2 races)
  • Laura Treers: 27th of 28 in Women’s B (2 races)

What about Nationals?“, I hear you ask. “Incredible” is my one-word answer.

With Nationals taking place in New England’s Winter (first week of January), it was to be expected that the weather has the potential to make the races interesting. And that’s exactly what happened. Nationals took place over the course of almost a week, starting on Tuesday with open races, collegiate races on Wednesday and Thursday, some other races on Friday and Saturday, and ending on Sunday with the Elite races. While the overall course layout stayed largely the same over these six days (some sections were taken out, depending on conditions), the course surface was completely different every single day:

  • Heavy rain all of Tuesday quickly turned all grass on the course into slushy and wet mud. A steep downhill section became a spectator-friendly slip-and-slide extravaganza.
  • Wednesday morning (our race day!), the rain had stopped and temperatures had risen to close to 50 degrees; Tuesday’s wet mud had turned into deep and sticky mud that clung to every part on your bike, especially parts that you didn’t want it to stick to: pedals, rim brakes, and drive trains. Many sections became unrideable for mortals like me; yet carrying a bike weighing three times its normal weight didn’t make these sections much easier. For obvious reasons, riders having the luxury of a pit-bike switched bikes twice a lap, thereby avoiding two long muddy sections of the course by riding through the double-entrance pitand collecting a clean bike as reward for this smart choice. Due to these challenges the race organizers cut a few sections of the course during the day to avoid short 2-lap races in the later part of the day.
  • On Thursday, things were different again: Temperatures had dropped well below freezing and all the ruts in the muddy ground had frozen overnight. These ruts made for a bumpy ride and riders had to be careful to keep their front wheels out of trouble. Needless to say, many riders flatted, and many more were sent to the ground. On the bright side, lap times were much faster again; so previously removed sections of the course were added back in.
  • Friday’s conditions were similar to Thursday’s, but a bit colder.
  • On Saturday, snow built up on the course over the course of the day.
  • And Sunday, the elite riders had to battle a generally abused and frozen course, topped with ice, snow, and a bit of mud here and there.

Again, pretty much everyone had expected challenging conditions, but nobody expected that the challenges would be different ones every single day. Kudos to the organizers!

Julie’s and my race took place on Wednesday in the muddiest of conditions. After my race (43rd – mud mud mud, and challenges as described above — what more can I say?), I had my first experience being part of a pit-crew. Julie had a great start and stayed in the top 5 for the entire race. We made sure she could switch to a shiny mud-free bike every half lap and she was able to round out her career as an MIT Cycling racer by finishing fourth in her race. In the Nationals Omnium, MIT Cycling took place 14 out of 38 schools attending (bear in mind we only had two racers attending).

Nats Podium

Finally, I want to direct you to all the pictures I (and others) took at races this season: Google Photos. For some races I even mounted my GoPro — here’s my playlist:

What now? MIT Cycl(ocross)ing will be training until the leaves start falling and the days get shorter again. Hope to see you at some races in the fall!

Stay muddy!

Tobi after Supercross Day 2.
Tobi after Supercross Day 2.
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A #cxnats perspective

I’ve written this blog post about five different times. Sometimes I wrote the post to focus on the race or the course (or its features). Other times, I focused on the food (hello, it’s Asheville).

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Biscuit head jam bar. Yes, jam bar.

Go to Biscuit Head. You’ll thank me.

This time, I’ll focus on my top three things about the trip:

I was among friends and family: we spend a lot of time on our bikes together, and I’m happy to love the people that I race with (and oftentimes against). We stayed in a house with other ECCC racers from Dartmouth, Harvard, and Wentworth, many of whom were also teammates on Green Line Velo.

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Leslie during the Collegiate Relay. Photo: AJ Moran

It was fantastic to travel together, cook together, hang out together, and support each other from the sidelines and at home.

It was Colin's first time at Nationals!
It was Colin’s first time at Nationals!

My parents also came to watch; right after seeing their first cyclocross races at Canadian Nationals in October, they asked “so… when’s Asheville?” I also loved seeing so many friendly and familiar faces – the NECX has an amazing community.

Also, team dog.

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Team dog – always a good idea.

I accomplished some goals. Nationals marked the culmination of my season where I’d set big goals and accomplished them. I’d set out to go race at Canadian Nationals, finish the ECCC season as the series leader, and finish top 5 at Collegiate Nationals.

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First lap in. Photo: USA Cycling via Twitter

Though I didn’t think I could do it at times during the race (even Richard Fries announced “Julie van der Hoop – today might not be her day”), I came back from having dropped from 4th to 9th in the second lap.  With one lap to go, I was on the wheel of 5th place. I passed her over the barriers and went hard. The gap just opened from there. I crossed the finish line smiling. I saw Corey at the finish line waiting for me, gave her a hug, and cried.

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Corey finished 22nd – with no broken wrists this time! Photo: Weldon Weaver
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After the D2 Collegiate Women’s Race. Thanks, mom.

I had fun. With all the goals I set this season, it was easy to forget why we do this in the first place – it’s challenging, it’s strange, and it’s just plain fun. It’s nice to be able to laugh at yourself (especially in situations like these). The charity donut race for the iDream Athletes Foundation was a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the end of the season.

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AJ Moran has been training all season for this.

I haven’t eaten five donuts in a week in my life, let alone in 17 minutes while racing four laps of a shortened course. Corey and I, along with our Green Line Velo teammate AJ Moran, had an absolute blast. We did it for the kids, you know?

xxujc

Since nationals I’ve biked zero hours and eaten zero doughnuts. I’ve had two weeks to reflect on the trip, to retire that skinsuit (thank god for new kit) and to start thinking about the upcoming ECCC road season. What goals will I set? Who will we travel with? How much fun will we have? And of course, where will we eat in Asheville at Road Nats in May? #priorities.

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Nearing the end: Mid-season CX recap

This ‘cross season, we’ve had it all: dust and heat at GP Gloucester, flurries at Pumpkin Cross, mud at Supercross, and frost in Fitchburg. The last ECCC weekend is upon us – Dec 5 and 6 will be the Conference Championship held at the NBX Gran Prix of Cyclocross in Warwick, RI.

MIT currently sits in 3rd place in Division II in the conference, head-to-head with Dartmouth but well behind Army’s solid lead. Heading into Easterns, MIT racers Tobias Ehrenberger and Alex Springer are in 4th and 5th in Men’s C and B divisions, respectively. Corey Tucker could crack the top 5 in Women’s B. Emma Edwards and Anne Raymond had great performances at the Cycle-Smart International weekend, putting them in first and second for Women’s C. And, here’s hoping Julie van der Hoop can take home the top spot in Women’s A.

Here are some great photos of the team throughout the season.

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Jen on a descent at Hanover
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Alex through the mud at Supercross
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Julie hits the run-up at Keene Pumpkin Cross
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Anne over the barriers at Hanover
More barrier action
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More mud at Supercross. There was a LOT.
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Switchbacks on the beach at Hanover
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Julie on the run-up at Cycle-Smart International
Some great fall colours at Supercross
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Tobi at Hanover
We could watch these for days.

Wish us luck at Easterns, and as we prepare for Nationals in Asheville in January!

Sometimes sand hurts

An Ode to CSI: Cycle-Smart International, NOT Crime Scene Investigation

One week separated from Cycle-Smart International, and I’m already nostalgic. This was my second year racing at NoHo (Northampton for the uninitiated), and for the second year, it was my favorite CX weekend of the season. Why? Let me tell you…and maybe next year you’ll go race it and see for yourselves…

Remounting like a doctor
Remounting like a doctor

The second collegiate race weekend, and one relatively close to Boston means we usually have a pretty good racer turnout. This year, there were six of us (five women and Tobi), and we witnessed the reemergence of our resident doctor (almost) doctor Morgan for her first race weekend in about a year. We had a broad range of racing categories represented which meant lots of racing to watch and lots of racers to cheer on throughout the day. This is mostly attributable to Julie racing her first UCI race ever and admirably making the most of a mechanical filled day 1 by taking a maple syrup hand up and getting her neutral bike really, really sticky. There were some awesome finishes too: Anne and Emma both taking top 10s in the women’s cat 4 race over the course of the two race days.

Julie coming in for some maple syrup
Julie coming in for some maple syrup (special appearance by Smith Anderson)

Having all those friends cheering you on are what can make a race weekend fun…but what makes it great are the courses. The NoHo courses are impeccable. They are a perfect mix of challenging while not being terrifying. The courses at Providence are arguably the most intimidating, Hanover maybe the most technical, and the courses at NoHo are a terrific middle ground. Everything is rideable, unless they really intended for you not to ride it (still working on those barrier hopping skillz…), but parts definitely require some skill. There’s a rough run up, a deep sand pit, some tricky off-cambers, and a pretty steep downhill pitch. There’s also lots of power riding. If you listed CX course requirements, NoHo’s got it…except for mud. Thank god.

Sometimes sand hurts
Sometimes sand hurts

And finally, the intangibles. Those little things that can put a weekend over the top…things that you only get at special races and special venues. Awesome food trucks? Giant podium cookies? A really cool town to hang out in after the race? (I will refrain from an ode to Northampton, but it’s cool there, alright?) Microbrewery with a CX film festival? Check, check, check, and check. NoHo has it all.

Too much fun!
We were having too much fun eating cake and drinking beer to take pictures of our night out…

So, for all of you CX racers, or maybe future CX racers out there…I’m sorry you missed such a good time this year…but take it from me, NoHo is the best race weekend of the year, go see for yourself…

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Early-Season Cyclocross

To get primed for the upcoming ECCC Cyclocross season, MIT racers hit up some of the biggest events in the National CX calendar over the last few weeks: the Grand Prix of Gloucester and the KMC Festival of Cyclocross in Providence, RI. A mix of veterans (and alum!) and first-time racers hit the difficult courses and with fantastic results.

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Matt Li comes through the paved section on Day 1 of GP Gloucester. Photo by Ernest Gagnon.
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Anne Raymond faces the infamous GP Gloucester run up fresh with new skills from our clinics with Adam Myerson. Photo by Ernest Gagnon.
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Julie remounts after the barriers.
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Corey Tucker rides one of the many KMC flyovers.
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Emma Edwards’ first CX race was on one of the toughest courses that we’ll see this season. Congrats!
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MIT Women after Providence

 

The ECCC Season is now upon us, and we couldn’t be more excited for what it’ll bring. If you’re in the area, stop by to cheer and spectate! See the ECCC Cyclocross Calendar for more details.

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CX Nats 2015: “Everything will change. Everything has changed.” (The Patriot)

Almost exactly a year ago, I watched CX Nats in Boulder, sitting on my trainer. I cheered on MIT’s Chris Birch racing for JAM Fund in the women’s elite race. It looked frigid.

Even though I only had two ‘cross races under my belt, I had been bitten by the bug. Sitting on that trainer, I made a goal: Cyclocross Nationals 2015, in Austin TX. Because it would be warmer.

#Tweetsfromthetrainer: Watching 2014 Nationals on the trainer got me stoked for this season.

Ha. As we packed our bikes for Austin, our race-day forecast read “ice pellets.”

My goal for cross nationals was to qualify, go, and finish. Once I’d made the nationals team, my expectations didn’t change: I knew I’d be starting in the third or fourth row, I knew it was going to be a technical course, and I knew that this was my first national-level cycling event.

When we arrived in Austin, I expected to be blasting some good pump up music (read: 1989) in our minivan as we traveled to and from Zikler Park. Joe Near had other plans: our hosts, teammate Katie Maass and her parents, owned a copy of the Patriot. This played on loop (with some worthy scenes replayed for effect).

Forget Taylor Swift, The Patriot was our pump up soundtrack. Joe Near approved.

Our races included the collegiate relay (no, we don’t all ride the same bike), and the men’s and women’s D2 collegiate fields. Friday evening’s relay was on hard-packed, near-frozen dirt. The course was so fast. There was minimal mud, next to the pits, to be avoided.

Matt Li on the relay lap, too fast for Tim Myers’s shutter speed.

After a night of rain, we arrived for Saturday morning’s pre-ride, to the sound of a military marching band on the DVD player. Matt wanted to do “at least one lap to see what had changed.” Everything had changed.

Oily. Tacky. Slick. Heavy. Slippery. Mud. This called for major changes in equipment (“get me the horse blanket”), but also strategy. While Friday’s race involved two or three dismounts for barriers and stairs, Saturday’s conditions favoured running.

I thought this was a biking race (Photo: Ali Engin)

The conditions led me to change my expectations: it was going to be a gong show, and it was going to be fun. Whatever happened, happened. And what ended up happening was fantastic, for me.

Our trip to Austin involved change and surprise for all of our teammates: Corey could not have expected her race to finish in the emergency ward, where she had a broken wrist re-set. Joe got a USA Cycling neck tattoo (ok, temporary). Chris had a surprise visitor, walked away with a fancy new necklace, and didn’t expect to be racing the elites on Monday (postponed from Sunday).

Chris Birch with the bronze in Women’s D2
Corey’s wrist… enough said.
Joe Near on one of the slickest and steepest elements of the course. Zoom in for the neck tattoo… (Photo: Andrew Davidhazy)

What else did we do in Austin? We hit the off-season hard, with the flagship Whole Foods, brownie sundaes, breakfast tacos, lunch tacos and dinner tacos, and of course some brisket (“dog is a fine meal”). We went bowling in a bar (Corey won, single-handedly). We watched the Patriot, twice.

But that didn’t stop her in beating us at bowling.

Now, we’re back, our bikes and kits finally clean. We finished 7th in the relay, and 7th in the omnium. Lucky numbers for next year. And for me, everything has changed. I placed ninth in my first cyclocross nationals, when all I wanted to do was qualify, go, and finish. Who knows what next year will bring. See you in Asheville, where I’ll be praying for mud.

Concerned face, loose brakes, and lab gloves. (Photo: Andrew Davidhazy)

PSYCHLOCROSS 2014

(courtesy of Joel Hawksley)
(courtesy of Joel Hawksley)

With the 2014 cyclocross season over, we can all finally take a breather from the relentless string of races and reflect on the past four months. For those of you unfamiliar with cyclocross, think of it as offroad criterium racing on a knobby tired road bike with obstacles (logs, barriers, stairs, flyovers, run-ups, sand, endless turns, yadda yadda).

Sound ridiculous? It is.

Fun? Most definitely.

Julie van der Hoop demonstrating a perfect bike remount.
Julie van der Hoop demonstrating a perfect bike remount on a bike that’s not even hers. (courtesy of Chris Trabulsie)

I’m obviously biased, but I feel that the cross season is arguably the most challenging discipline to train and race. As the season progresses, the temperature begins to plummet, the sun starts to avoid us, and the skies have a tendency to spitefully open up. Throw in a healthy mixture of fitness and high technical skills, this sport is not for the faint of heart or for those watt factories terrified of turning.

Colin Kennedy slaying the finish of a race (Shedd Park).
Colin Kennedy slaying the finish of a race (Shedd Park).

To put it another way, it’s not a matter of “will I crash?”….it’s more akin to “when will I crash?”. The unpredictability of the terrain, obstacles, and the riders around you makes this statement more true than other sports and in doing so, adds an intense hyper-vigilant mental aspect.

Don’t follow that dude’s wheel, he crashed you out last race.

Use that rut to the right of roots before the third turn after the second run up.

Yet even with all these potential deterrents, this season has been one of the most well attended in recent memory. Not only has this season had returning vets, but more substantially, newcomers. I stand by my statement that it only takes one race to get hooked, and if you ask anyone that first tried it out this year, I think they’ll agree – even if they mechanicaled out of their first race.

The MIT team participated in a circuit of races in the New England ranging from Hanover, NH down to Stony Point, NY. While you can practice in a field with cones and barriers all day long, the best way to really hone your skills is during a race. We raced in both ECCC and regional USAC races to get as much of this battle hardened experience as possible.

Morgan Hennessy gettin' up and over a steep section (Canton, courtesy of Geoff Martin)
Morgan Hennessy gettin’ up and over a steep section (Canton, courtesy of Geoff Martin)

The culmination of the regular season happened in Warwick, RI at the ECCC Easterns. In true spirit of the season, we had a strong showing at all skills levels and it was fantastic being able to heckle so many people throughout the day. Some of the notable results of the day and season included:

Easterns
MIT – 2nd
Men A – 6th, Joe Near
Men B – 8th, Ben Eck
Men C – 2nd, Matt Li
Women B – 2nd, Julie van der Hoop
Women C – 3rd, Katie Maass

Overall
MIT – 3rd (2nd Division II)
Men A – 6th, Joe Near
Men B – 7th, Ben Eck
Men C – 2nd, Matt Li
Women A – 4th, Chris Birch
Women B – 2nd, Julie van der Hoop
Women C – 6th, Katie Maass; 8th, Morgan Hennessy

Turns upon turns at Rapha Supercross, Gloucester (courtesy of C.Mcintosh)
Turns upon turns at Rapha Supercross, Gloucester (courtesy of C.Mcintosh)

While the regular season is over, the new year still holds one more capstone race, nationals. We’ll be sending 5 riders: Christina Birch, Julie van der Hoop, Corey Tucker, Joseph Near, and Matthew Li. Nationals will be held in Austin, TX this year and based on preliminary course previews, it will prove to be a fast race. Stay tuned for a report in the new year.

It’s been been a fantastic season. There have been enumerable good times with early morning drives and stinging heckles that have really brought the CX family close together. Although there’s still one more race coming up, I’m already eager to fast forward to next season!

The ladies of MIT Cyclocross celebrate their finish at Quadcross!

When in doubt, just race! Quadcross 2014

Somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to try cyclocross.  I suppose all the stories about bacon and beer handups and ridiculous photos of people leaping onto bikes wearing cat leggings finally seeped into my brain.  So I purchased a tiny black, red and blue Crux with sweet disc brakes and after a few frustrating and bruise-filled mornings in Danehy Park learned to mount and dismount the bike, and somehow stumble over the practice barriers.  Naturally, after about two cumulative hours of ‘cross practice, I was already itching to race despite being woefully underprepared (the best training is racing! -JVDH).  So off to Quadcross I went.

I arrived on race morning  to pre-ride the course with our captain Matt Li, who explained the best way to approach each section of the most technical course I had ever ridden (uhhh, where’s the pavement??). I was in turn both exhilarated and completely terrified at what I was about to do.

We were the first race to go off, and I lined up at staging with my four other MIT Women teammates, feeling excited and mentally focusing on two goals – don’t get hurt, and have some fun!  I am still nursing a shoulder injury from road season so I was especially concerned about the first one.

Powering through a flat section of the course at Quadcross
Powering through a flat section of the course at Quadcross

Before I knew it the gun went off and we were sprinting down the chute into the first turn.  For anyone not familiar with ‘cross, the start is the most important for positioning yourself in the race, and is an all-out sprint and shoulder/elbow/hipcheck-fest.  Since I was a n00b, I totally botched this part and managed to end up in last place because I dismounted on a hill and couldn’t clip back in.  Meh.  During the course of the race I was able to pass a few riders by motoring up the steepest parts of the course and staying upright in the tight, technical turns.  The most difficult section by far was a sandpit containing 2 tight turns which I (VERY STUPIDLY and to the amusement of all watching) tried to ride, but which everyone else figured out was necessary to run through.  I fell on the first two laps and then finally realized I had to dismount and run for the last two laps. I was able to complete the entire race without being lapped by the leaders and was incredibly proud to cross the finish line.

Cyclocross is a gut-wrenching, exhilarating, terrifying experience which pushes you to your limit both mentally and physically. I did things on my bike that I never thought I could do, and that was truly awesome.  The spectators were incredible and the atmosphere friendly, plus there was ample food and adult beverages to enjoy. I learned more in that 40 minute race than I probably could have learned in hours of biking around in a park or on trails.  CX is something you have to experience firsthand… you can’t train for all the obstacles you’ll find in a race.

The ladies of MIT Cyclocross celebrate their finish at Quadcross!
The ladies of MIT Cyclocross celebrate their finish at Quadcross!

Finally, perhaps my favorite part of the day was cheering on my teammates after my own race was finished – CX is a really, really fun spectator sport! If you can’t tell, I’m already hooked and signed up for my next race, Rapha SuperCross in Gloucester, MA!  I definitely recommend checking out a ‘cross race – I guarantee you’ll have a fun time, whether you race or not!

Cross Nationals 2013 Report (by Christina Birch)

Cross nats for me was more than just 45 minutes of mud. It was a year of waiting, of hard work & wavering confidence, …and immense support from friends and family. I rolled my ankle and snapped a ligament in half just two weeks before Nationals in 2012. I couldn’t walk, let alone race my bike. It was devastating, and “next time” was a whole year away. I trained and raced to keep busy, almost not caring about cross in the middle of road and track seasons (which in themselves were so fun and rewarding, how could I care about cross nats?) But when the week of nationals finally rolled around again, I don’t think my resting HR dropped below 100.

I’d done my homework: the training, all the races that were “just practice” for nationals, stalking my competitors’ performance on crossresults.com… And I was more nervous for the collegiate race than any race I’ve ever done. My competitors were all Cat 1s (I’m a “New England 2”) and lots of talent was predicted to finish in front of me. The course conditions were ugly: sloppy slippery mud with no grass or traction to be found. It was also just starting to fall below freezing, so the mud was coagulating, and quickly. Within a few pedal strokes, derailleurs, cassettes, and pedals/cleats were saturated with gunk and unusable. There was nothing for tires to hold on to. I ran 18 psi… effectively flat, bottoming out… to try to get any traction at all.

The whistle blew for the starting sprint (a sprint on 18psi soft casing tubulars is… sketchy) and we launched ourselves into the mud pit. Two women in front of me immediately exploded in the mud, lost all traction, and found themselves going perpendicular to the course (yet opposite to each other). I vaguely remember one girl in blue kit staying upright and passing me on my right. This would have been Erica Zaveta, who won the race. The D1 women were given >1 min head start, but we still caught them by the 3rd turn in the course. I pitted immediately, having raced less than half a lap, and took a fresh bike for the hill. In the traffic of the back end of the D1 field, I lost sight of Erica, had to run the hill, and occasionally put a foot down because of other riders. The gap to 1st was probably established on this lap, when traffic was highest, and it grew. She had a great day. I tried to focus on my immediate task: This line, pedal here, slip-and-slide here, tri-pod this corner on the descent, attack up the stairs, sprint on the pavement, passing riders where I could. I was surprised to find myself never having crashed.

Birch in the Collegiate CX Nationals Race
Birch in the Collegiate CX Nationals Race

Pitting was essential, both in the Collegiate race on Saturday and in the elite race on Sunday. I can’t emphasize enough how my good races both days were a DIRECT result of Andrew, Joe, and Zach’s help in the pit and along the course. The mud was SO bad, you HAD to pit every half lap for a new bike to be competitive. I’d come barreling into the pit with frozen hands and no coordination, clumsily pass off a dysfunctional bike, grab a new one, and in 7-8 minutes, I’d be back on the other side of the pit for the bike. In the meantime, the guys’ jobs were to pressure wash the bike and make sure it was rideable, AND get information to me that the bike was ready and I could come to the pit (there are penalties for just riding through the pit)… and they had to do this in under 8 minutes while competing with other riders’ pit crews.

The mud made the lap times LONG: 15 minutes or so. It also meant you had to fight for every foot of progress you made on course. And it meant that you needed a GOOD, attentive pit crew. I had all those things and I finished 2nd… passing every other D1 rider except Kaitlin Antonneau (a pro rider for Cannondale who was on the USA team for Worlds). I’m supremely happy with my performance, since the race was both a real test of fitness and of handling. Though I wish I could have brought home the stars and bars, it gives me something to fight for “next time”.

Sunday was the elite race, and after Saturday, I had absolutely ZERO leftover anxiety. I was starting waaaaay, way back, 6th row: the last UCI ranked rider, 41st, in a field of 80 or so. It was wonderful to see so many New England Cyclocrossers in the rows in front of me: women I’ve been racing all season and beating or losing to, but friendly faces nonetheless. The temp had warmed up to 10-15*F by now, but I had a secret weapon…. BATTERY HEATED GLOVES! They’re almost embarassingly cozy, and maybe the red LEDs say too loudly “I’m not really here to race.” I hoped I proved those thinkers wrong!

The sprint was chaos and I held back a bit to stay out of trouble, since the U23 field before us had had a big crash on ice in the starting chute. What was a mudbog just 24 hours before was now deep frozen ruts. Stubborn, insistent, immobile ruts. If you put your wheel(s) in one, your bike was goign to follow, no matter what speed you were carrying. There were two pseudo-good-lines in the course from races prior, about 6″ across, but during the first few minutes of racing, they were saturated with riders– and those riders weren’t staying on their alloted 6″ trail. People and bikes were everywhere. I rode light on the front wheel and powered at a near sprint in the middle of the lane, right over all the ruts people were avoiding, dodging left and right when crashes happened on the sides. This strategy seemed to work. The mud on the hillsides was frozen now too, so I could actually sprint up on the bike, not run. But again, lots of rider traffic. I’m a terrible descender, but today, I felt light, unworried, veteran after yesterday, so I went down the mediocre lines at high speed, passing rider upon rider. It was an AWESOME feeling. My legs felt great (or numb?) and I sprinted up the stairs (I had two Toastie-Toes in each shoe, AND duct tape over the vents) passing more people there. I attacked at all the right places, rode technical sections well enough most of the time. My second or third lap I endoed HARD in a rut (oof), bent my rear derailleur, twisted my saddle and my shifter out of line, and dislodged my rear brake’s saddle cable… Just before the descents. Initially I crashed a fair bit (that kind of crashing where your front wheel washes out and you sort of “run” over your bike and down the course without falling over but have to run back up to retrieve your bike…) but then discovered you don’t really need any brakes on the descent. Holding your breath helps some… I pitted again, THANKS SUPER AWESOME MIT SUPPORT CREW, got a fresh bike and continued on. When my pulleys froze and my chain skipped over ice in the casstte, I also pitted.

I crossed the line, feeling AWESOME. Regardless of the result, I knew I’d raced to the best of my technical ability, and I felt fresh compared to the day before. I did not expect to have finished… 20th! My lap times decreased continuously and my last lap was two minutes faster than my first. Maybe the best feeling of all, however, was passing Erica (the D2 champ from the day before) at the start of the last lap, and putting 30 seconds into her by the end. Ultimately, the elite race was THE FUNNEST CROSS RACE I HAVE EVER DONE. And that’s over ones I’ve won. Because it was technical, mental, physical, and required a team.

Things I learned from CX nats:
1. My MIT teammates enabled me to have great races. Without them, there would be no story to tell.
2. The support of our MIT team sponsors that enabled us to race at nationals are part of the reason I have two great new race memories!
3. Pitting is CRITICAL
4. A “New England 2” is really a 1 everywhere else.
5. The worse the conditions, the better I race!

(Do I need to emphasize my teammates again?)