Is cyclocross the most unpredictable of cycling disciplines?
Almost all cyclocross riders – from young juniors to seasoned elites – utter the same phrase when speaking about their chances before a race: “anything can happen.” It sounds trite, but they say it because it’s true. Out of all the cycling disciplines, cyclocross could be labeled the one with the most factors outside of fitness and bike skills that can influence a rider’s race results.
These factors showed themselves to all age groups during the 2013 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships, from junior to elite and masters cyclists. Some of them, race length for example, apply to other cycling disciplines. It’s the combination of factors that makes a cyclocross race probably the most difficult to predict, except maybe when there’s an extraordinary rider whose engine and skills give him or her – Logan Owen, for example – a clear advantage regardless.
Track conditions. Mud covered the protective glasses riders wore in almost all categories at nationals. Try to swab it off and an opaque brown film forms that obscures ruts in the course which can toss a rider over the handlebars. Take the glasses off and this can happen when dirt and mud spray off wheels: “ I couldn’t see,” one 13-14 junior said, as she wiped mud off her face after she finished.
Equipment issues. At the end of the male junior 13-14 race, one young man dismounted his bike and with eyes ready to drop tears said, “My bike stopped working.” Then he shoved the bike toward an adult.
Almost every rider at ‘cross nationals experienced some kind of bike problem during the race. The course conditions and weather froze chains, clogged and disabled brakes, and increased the chances of crashing and damaging components, like when Nicole Duke (Alchemy Bicycle Company) crashed and broke a shifter which cost her not only gears but rear brakes. Conditions during the nationals men’s elite race were “brutal on the bikes,” Danny Summerhill (UnitedHealthcare) said after finishing fourth in the race. After a great start that placed him in second position after the holeshot, Summerhill flatted; he also said at one point his rear wheel came out.
Brady Kappius (Clif Bar) summed it up this way when comparing ‘cross and MTB disciplines: “Cross bikes are really just road bikes and the equipment isn’t often designed to work in the extreme conditions as well as on the mountain side.”
Bike problems can be mitigated with a second pit bike and a team of experienced staff in the pit who can assess the damage and replace parts in minutes. Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) credited her mechanics and crew as vital to her elite women’s nationals victory.
Knowing how to get to the front of the powerwasher line helps too. Brandon Dwight (Boulder Cycle Sport) crewed in the pit for teammate and winner Russell Stevenson during his masters 35-39 race. Dwight ensured Stevenson wouldn’t have to exchange bikes for one loaded with an extra eight pounds of mud by announcing at the powerwasher line, “I have a leader,” which earned him fast service.
The younger junior wasn’t the only frustrated rider at ‘cross nationals. When asked about his race after the finish, Ryan Trebon of Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com said he was frustrated, more than anything else with his frozen cleats. After managing to get clipped in, he’d hit a bump and his shoes would pop out of the pedals. Another rider said he rode clipped in for only 50% of the elite men’s race.
Race length. Cyclocross races are short – typically between twenty and sixty minutes depending on the category. So stopping to wipe off glasses or adjust equipment sucks up valuable time. As Kappius pointed out when asked about the thesis for this story, it’s hard to make up time in a short race when a rider has an issue with something that can or will slow her down.
A short race also makes mistakes more costly. If a rider gets caught on a tape stake in a corner and competitors pass him, there might not be enough time to catch up and regain the position he had before the mistake. And it’s possible for this very reason that the stress level in a ‘cross race is elevated compared to other disciplines, although this would hold true for track events as well.
Despite the cruel and multi-factorial punishment a cyclocross race can dish out, racers like Garrett Gerchar (Boulder Junior Cycling) persist and finish. He started the national championship junior 17-18 race on the heels of a strong season. Promise rose out of the mist at the start line. Then just hundreds of meters after the whistle he came down with a good portion of the field on the first sweeping turn.
But that wasn’t the end of the challenges he’d face that morning.
“I just slid out and then I got up and a kid tried to go around me and I got taken out again,” he said, speaking about the start. Gerchar normally rides gloveless and that’s how he started at nationals. The crashes tore skin off his right hand. He raced for fifty minutes with blood running down his fingers.
Twice his chain fell off and he had to dig it out of his cassette. When asked if he stayed upright after the early crashes, he said, “Pretty much. I had a few tumbles but nothing too major.”
How did he feel about his second nationals outing? “It wasn’t a good race for me. I know I could have done better if I hadn’t been so distracted earlier from ripping my derailleur off during pre-ride…” Gerchar finished twelth.
Cyclocross racers all have their reasons for why they return race after race. Despite frozen hands that make them bend over and cry “argh” post-race, leg cramps that prevent them from leaving the finish area, and crashes seconds after the start that force them to begin a race by running over a kilometer with bikes on their shoulders to the pit to exchange them for working machines, most do it because – looking at the forest for the trees, it’s fun.
After a men’s elite race that left many relieved to have finished in one piece, Kappius was elated.“It was awesome,” he said in reply to a question about how he liked the frozen course. “It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a cross bike. I loved it.”
If it seems unfair that some riders have a great race and others a bad one, well, that’s because anything can happen.