29 December 2011

On Cyclocross

There are very few sports in which a person who loves fitness as much as they love beer can participate. Beer league softball certainly puts a focus on beer - it's in the name, after all - but ever the most dedicated beer leaguer would have a hard time making an argument that playing the game does much to help keep competitors fit.

I attempted to be fit once, and bicycling was my method. Before Hoosier Beer Geek, I filled my summer evenings with lonely bike rides all over the south side of Indianapolis, getting to know the areas around the city I hardly knew. The art of getting lost was great motivation, and kept things interesting. But as the roads grew more familiar, I lost something in that love of cycling. My motivation for miles was replaced with beer, and the fitness went away, a pound at a time. I found myself at 30 pounds past my best weight, and looking for a way to rekindle my cycling romance.

And then I learned about cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a different kind of bicycle racing, combining road racing-like bicycles with courses that combine roads, grass, trails, hills, and obstacles. But more importantly, cross looked extremely fun, and included beer.
There are many stories about the origins of cyclo-cross. One is that European road racers in the early 1900s would race each other to the next town over from them and that they were allowed to cut through farmer's fields, over fences or take any other shortcuts in order to make it to the next town first. This was sometimes called steeple chase as the only visible landmark in the next town was often the steeple. This was a way for them to stay in shape during the winter months and put a twist on road racing. In addition, riding off road in more difficult conditions than smooth pavement increased the intensity at which the cyclists were riding and improved their on-the-road bike handling abilities. Forced running sections, or portage, were incorporated to help deliver warm blood to the feet and toes, as well as exercise other groups of muscles. (source: wikipedia)
You may have noticed that beer wasn't mentioned in the wikipedia article. But I had seen pictures, and read stories. With that in mind, I bought an expensive bicycle, and promptly started not riding it very much.

But the idea of cyclocross was still in my head, and as the season kicked into gear, I started tweeting about it. It wasn't long until some local cyclocross racers caught on to my tweets, and called my bluff. Would I like to do a little practice? I guess I would. That I crashed on my first go around might have been a sign, but after that initial practice I felt pretty good about it - nervous and clueless, but I figured at worst I'd finish last, comfortable and happy that I'd made it through my first race.

About a month later I had finally registered for that race, with no fitness base apart from evening on an elliptical machine at my gym. I hadn't been on a bicycle since that previous month's practice, and my seat time prior to that outing consisted of random 23 mile round trips to and from work. I was unprepared, but not worried. I was just going to enjoy myself, and then enjoy the beer rewards afterwards - a perfect introduction to the answer to all my fitness and beer related problems.

It didn't work out that way.

On race day I woke up early. Multiple times. I had drank the night before (it was a weekend, after all), but I'd kept everything in check. I had bowl of cereal despite the fact that I don't normally eat breakfast. My stomach was unhappy, a combination of nerves and Captain Crunch. I sat on the couch and waited. I got impatient and headed to the race.

In bike racing there are multiple categories, sort of like JV and varsity, but with even more classes. My race would be the last of the day, with the largest field, and the slowest competitors. I had time to kill. I was three hours early and had already pinned on my number. I started to warm up. I checked out the course between the other races. The course was fairly flat. Muddy. That should be fun. I was surprised at how much just warming up wore me out, but I put it down to nerves. I had no illusions of finishing anywhere but last - I had even told friends that last was exactly where I expected to finish - so there was no pressure.

While it may not look like it, this beer was consumed in-race.

Because I had registered early, I started ahead of a few folks. It didn't take long for me to fall through to the back, but I was OK with that. My first race was to be a learning experience. I was measuring my effort. The first lap was harder than I had expected, but there were still a few people behind me.

But as the race went on, I just got passed. And passed. I passed no one. I couldn't put up a fight, as I could barely breath. There was nowhere to hide, and nowhere to recover. While the course was flat, the fact that it was muddy everywhere meant there was nowhere where any form of coasting was an option. And since I was barely moving to begin with, anything less that a full effort meant I would have been completely stopped.

My lap times were remarkably. Remarkable in that I was down 3 minutes to the leader in that first trip around. Remarkable in that I was dropping about 30 seconds per lap. I had certainly found my groove, and it was slow.

But there was redemption. I did accept two beer hand-ups.

The beer hand-up might be my favorite part of cyclocross. While riding the course it's not unusual to be heckled by spectators.
"Welcome to the race! Unfortunately it passed here five minutes ago!"
"Your plan to solo off the back is working brilliantly!"
But those same spectators are usually accompanied by friends holding beer. Beer they want you to drink while you're racing. Beer isn't the only hand-up. Sometimes it's cash. Sometimes it's bacon. Sometimes it's babies. Ok, it's never babies, but who'd want a baby anyway.

I finished a lap down. Second-to-last in class, and considering that the other guy's bike broke, that put me way down the list. Of hundreds of competitors, I was very close to the worst. (I did finish ahead of some guys in the 45+ age group.) By the race's end, I thought I might actually die. It was really, really hard.

In the week that followed my thoughts on cross ranged from "that's crazy" to "that wasn't so bad" to "I should do that again soon." I didn't participate the following week, instead visiting the race to drink and take photos. While it wasn't the same kind of rewarding, there was still a sense of happiness around the thing, as I'd found a reasonable excuse to get a little drunk on a Saturday afternoon.

What I'm saying is that I'm not advising that you go out and try cyclocross. It's not for everyone. I'm pretty sure it's not for me. But what I am saying is that if you're into honest efforts, beer, heckling, and the outdoors, then cyclocross is worth checking out. Grab (or bring) a beer. Wander around the course. And maybe the next time you'll find yourself out there, wondering how the hell it all happened.

The final cyclocross race of the 2011 season takes place on Saturday, December 31st, at Trader's Point. The race will also be accompanied by a mountain bike race, if you're into that sort of thing. More info here.


  1. Nice article, Mike. Save those expensive bikes for taco rides. ;-)

  2. Oh, Mike, that was a really great piece. Thank you for that. It looks inviting, like I would love it, except for that part where you said something about if you went even a tiny bit slower you'd be stopped. That doesn't sound very encouraging. I have a hard enough time going to run in my Thursday basketball nights. Sounds like a lot of fun though, in a really painfully enticing sort of way. Are you a masochist?

  3. Well after the race I said I'd never do it again. During the race I said "we paid money to do this?" to a competitor. Afterwards a friend said "you're not going to get that workout on a trainer", and really, he's right. There's nothing quite like giving your all and having your ass handed to you anyway.

    I just need to do it with a little bit of fitness to see how much difference it makes. Then, maybe, I'll give it up for good.

  4. I'll third the motion and say what a wonderful piece this is, Mike. Sounds like an activity to check out.

    Another exercise/drinking combination to note is hash house harriers. It's slightly different in that it explicitly combines running and beer (it's actually in the constitution of the original HHH group). Indy has a group called Indyscent Hash House Harriers that I always meant to check out back when I actually ran.