Sitting on the grassy starting line surrounded by a hundred other cyclists, the announcer called off “Two minutes to the start of the men’s 4-5 race.” Chills shot up my spine and butterflies lit up my stomach as I awaited the buzzer. Dozens of clicks could be heard echoing across the field as riders around me clipped into their pedals. Finally, the buzzer screamed and we were off in an explosive start. I was competing in my first cyclocross race: The Cheshire Cross CX Race and the Connecticut Cyclocross Championships.
Cyclocross is a form of cycling that merges road cycling with mountain biking. Racers ride bikes that look a lot like road bikes but have slightly wider tires for more traction on the grass and mud. The race took us through a combination of grassy fields, sand pits, and single track mountain bike paths. Throughout the course, super steep sections forced you to dismount your bike and sprint up the muddy slopes. Each lap was about 2 miles long, and took around 8 to 10 minutes depending on your strength. For this race in particular, the winners did five laps.
I initially decided to compete in the race in mid-October. For some time now, I’ve wanted to do a CX race, so I jumped in and signed up for it. Normally, fourth class cadets don’t get to leave the Academy until noon on Saturday, but I requested to leave a little early so I could race. Generally, if you ask to get special liberty (like spend Friday or Saturday night away from the Academy) and it’s related to athletics or family, it’ll be approved. In other words, if you want to do a sport that isn’t offered by the Academy, you can make it happen.
In the past, I’ve competed as a road cyclist, so this was a pretty dramatic move for me. I’m used to riding on smooth pavement…not rocky, sandy, rooty, muddy tracks. With these changes, a whole new set of challenges followed. I had hop off and on my bike while running to sprint up hills or over logs. I had to avoid hitting trees on the steep and windy descents. These challenges made the race that much more fun and exciting though.
Racing hard out of the starting line, I managed to work my way up through the crowd into the middle of the pack by the time we hit the narrow trails halfway through the first lap. Sprinting up the first hill, I was a little surprised when I heard a spectator holding a beer yell “Walk your dog, ride your bike”. I couldn’t help but laugh a little. It turns out cyclocross has a culture where the spectators heckle the riders in good fun. By the time the second lap came around, I was racing well and feeling great… That suddenly changed though.
About a third of the way through the race, I got a flat in my back tire. Suddenly it felt like my bike tire was gliding on butter whenever I went through a corner, which is not a good feeling when you’re passing less than a foot away from trees at 20 miles an hour. Immediately, I decided just to race through it rather than trying to fix it or drop out of the race. My previous race, the regional triathlon championships, ended early for me when I had a major mechanical issue. I wasn’t going to have a repeat of that.
For the rest of the race, I struggled to control my bike on the corners and push it through the rough terrain. That being said, it was refreshing to get into a completely different type of race. Change isn’t always a bad thing. In the end, I would estimate I finished mid-pack…about what I was expecting. Crossing the finish line, it was super cool to have one of my triathlon teammates, Sam Roets there supporting me. Sam has been an amazing mentor for me and he’s one of those cadets I really aspire to become a lot like.
One of the things that the race highlighted about the Academy for me is that if you’re interested in doing something, like a CX race or a marathon or starting a club, you only have to take the initiative to make it happen. Your shipmates and mentors will be there to support you. This is a pretty great feeling, because you know if you’re a leader or are motivated to make something happen, you’ll have your best friends and shipmates behind you to help it a reality. Just as I’m comfortable asking anyone for help with my homework, I’m comfortable enough to pursue opportunities like the CX race even with the constraints that fourth class year can bring.
For now, I go into winter training mode until the next semester, when my training will transition to focusing on preparing for the Collegiate Triathlon National Championships. This race definitely got me excited about the coming months though… Big things are coming in the future.
More about Evan.