Sunday, January 22, 2012

Falling into the Lifeboat: How I Won a Bike Race

The Captain of the Italian cruise ship who ran his craft aground in the Mediterranean last week claims he didn’t intentionally abandon ship before everyone had evacuated. He said he tripped and fell overboard into a life boat. I’d be completely incredulous about that statement if I had not had won a collegiate bike race last Sunday the way I won it.

The event was an odd cycling competition: cyclocross. Born decades ago in Belgium in the offseason of the road cycling season; cyclocross uses basic road bicycles with knobby tires and wider cantilever brakes. The courses are on grass, sand and mud and include steep hills and obstacles that require the competitors to jump on and off and carry their bikes. Cyclocross or just “cross” is road cycling’s less serious, unpolished, less well-known brother: Jimmy Carter’s Billy, Bill Clinton’s Roger. Where road cycling is replete with written and unwritten rules and tradition, millimetrically built and adjusted bikes and laser focused competitors, cross has hecklers, unstructured courses and competitors who may pause at an obstacle to pick up dollar bills staged by fans. Cross is done as laps on a closed course. The race goes on for a stated period of time (30, 45, 60 minutes) before the officials at the start/finish line hold up signs that tell you 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 laps to go.

The fact that cyclocross is less stuffy and structured don’t mean it ain’t hard. The fact that you’re on changing and slow surfaces and jumping on and off the bike and jumping over stuff with your bike over a short, intense timeframe makes it incredibly hard. The correct tire inflation is really crucial. On a road bike you’d normally want maximum tire pressure for reduced rolling resistance and easier speed. With cross, though, you want to have less air in your tires so they’ll spread out and grip the ground better. So you’ll see guys at the start line of a cross race reaching over and squeezing the tires of other competitors like dogs sniffing each other. Key to being fast in cross is getting on and off the bike quickly, so you learn to dismount while the bike is moving and to mount the bike by running and jumping up onto the saddle while the bike is rolling. As you can imagine, this “flying squirrel” mount is a little unnerving and requires a great deal of taintal awareness. Microsoft Word does not recognize the adjective version of the polysemic “taint” but you get the picture. The flying squirrel mount, like many other things in life, requires total commitment to work. A guy who attempts a “lazy squirrel” may be singing soprano.

I did my first cross race in Houston back in December with cyclocross wizard Brian Hare and I got beat down pretty bad. A guy collided with me on the first lap and knocked me over and I dropped my chain and had to get it back on. The course was really tough and I got so gassed and my lower back hurt so bad from the steep hills that when the race was over, I laid down in the grass and stuck the back of my helmet in the soft ground and just stretched out there until my chest stopped heaving. I knew what I needed to work on, though, and I prepped as best I could for our A&M Cycling Team-sponsored race on January 15th.

For this, my second cross race, I raced with the Men’s B’s. We set it up as a South Central Collegiate Cycling Conference race (we’ve got 16 other teams in our conference), but the proximity to the start of school, the holiday, and the fringe nature of cyclocross resulted in no competitors from other schools and it wound up being essentially an A&M intramural race. The first couple of laps I was just focused on not being last, but I passed a couple of guys who faded and a couple more who made errors on some of the obstacles. Then the “flat-o-rama” commenced. Through the course of the race, one after another, guys in front of me would have flat tires or mechanical malfunctions. Part of the course went down a trail that had some sharp little rocks among piles of leaves and I suspect that tires with too-low pressure flatted against the edges. As a result, with about 4 laps to go I found myself leading the race with Carlton Mathis, a big studly guy who’s a strong rider, right behind me. With 3 laps to go he passed me and started to pull away and I knew I didn’t have the steam to catch him. Then, with a little over 2 laps to go I could hear that sad whomp, whomp, whomp sound and Carlton pulled over with a flat. I did my best to hold off the guys riding hard behind me and came in with a win. When I got close to the finish somebody yelled, “It’s not a win unless you post up, Mark!” so I sat up and gave 2 thumbs up as I finished. I knew the win had very little to do with my ability and everything to do with the other riders’ misfortune, but a W’s a W. Maybe the first ingredient of winning is just showing up. Good-spirited accusations of my underhanded win immediately started. I heard somebody laugh and say, “Hey, no fair tackling the other riders, Mark.” Willie Allen accused me of having snipers hidden in the treeline armed with tire-flattening dart guns. All in good fun.

So if we do this next year I’ll be racing with the Men’s A’s, a group of more skilled and experienced cyclocrossers. And I really don’t see the other schools not sending some strong riders next year. So that was probably my one and only cross win. Unless . . .