Sitting on the front row at the start of my first cyclocross race since the 2009 season, a friend heckled from the other side of the start line: “Hey Morgan, what does this say about the Spirit of Enduro?”
I was kitted up in bright blue shorts and jersey, with matching helmet and gloves and my Marx socks, perched on 110mm 29er. It’s unusual to see someone at a cross race in baggies, but I felt it was part of the deal. I race mountain bikes now. I don’t actually have a cross bike any more, and my old Mighty skinsuit would look pretty funny on the wagon wheeler. “Someone told me this was an Enduro race… they’re only timing every second lap.”
But I feel like the real reason I got called out on that start line wasn’t for my garish Enduro race kit or my fat tires; it was because I was lined up with the Citizen category. You see, I haven’t had a race license in a few years – been riding dirty, as it were. The first race of the season was coming up and I wanted to dabble in some cross-dressing – but you need to buy a $99 (admittedly discounted from $143 for the fall) UCI license in order to race anything above Citizen. The alternative? Pay $10 for day insurance and race with the proles.
It’s really the logistics of racing that turn me away from it, and the thought that I have to race 10 CX races to “pay off” my license is definitely not cool. Then I pay $25 to race ($30 if I don’t pre-register) and wake up early on a weekend to drive somewhere out into the suburbs to ride my bike around in circles for an hour. Alright, so it sounds like I’m complaining. I am. But I’m not. I’m just saying, this is a big part of why I stopped racing in the first place.
A New Beginning.
If there’s a stop, there has to be start. Cyclocross is a great discipline in that you can come from either a mountain or a road background and still find things to love about the sport. When I first tried it, there was a race being held a sweet couple kilometres downhill from my house. A friend hooked me up with a set of knobbies for my 30-year-old, single speed converted, steel road bike (ironically, very close in geometry to what are now being marketed as “gravel” bikes). We derped our way down the hill to get loose on some grass. I hadn’t ridden off road in well over a decade, and it was the beginning of a slippery slope.
Now, I’m sitting atop a carbon XC bike with carbon wheels and a dropper post – worth in the neighbourhood of forty times the bike I started racing cross on. Amidst a group of guys with bikes like that old Sekine – their commuting and touring bikes de-fendered and knobbed up – as well as some carefully curated CX race bikes under nervous racers, I felt like a dick. And to be honest I had actually come up with the title of this piece days before the race even happened. I was just hoping – knowing the Citizen category can be well contested despite its name – that I’d have some competition to make for a fun race.
The gun went off (that’s a lie – it’s a bell but I wish it was a gun) and my friend Matt was blowing himself up for the holeshot. One chance at glory and he got it. I grabbed his wheel around the first corner and sat in, looking back to see a good 20 yards between us and the peloton. We maintained this gap off the gravel and into the grass. I dropped my seatpost and honked a gratuitous amount of rear brake as we approached a hairpin corner peppered with cowbell-ringing spectators, and proceeded to hop the barriers for the first time.
More grass and loose gravel as the course started to turn off camber and uphill. Matt admitted he just wanted to lead the race for half a lap and started to trail off. The 20 yards had doubled and we approached “the run up”. Something in the UCI rulebook states that a cyclocross race must have you get off your bike a minimum number of times per lap. Having hopped the barriers, I was hoping to make this number of times zero.
It’s a bit of a shame that this race course has the best singletrack on the entire Vancouver CX circuit. The course designers – now mountain bike buddies as well – had extended the dirt trail in the woods up a second “run up” to double the descent, and the bench cut and corners are actually better than a lot of mountain bike trails. The reason I say it’s a shame is that this nugget of fun will be replaced with drivetrain-killing sand and wet, off-camber grass for the rest of the season.
I worried that my 36 tooth big ring and 12-36 cassette might not be enough for the flats, but here on the dirt it was just right. I crested the first of the climbs and started catching the back end of the Cat. 3/4 group that had started a couple minutes earlier. The second climb had a hell of a dust bowl corner at the bottom and staying on the bike proved challenging, but possible. Hooting and hollering through the descent, then one flat corner at speed and down a gravel doubletrack, not quite out of gear. I passed on a beer handup coming out of the Alder forest and finished the short climb back to the start.
I sat up and took a few cheeky swigs from my water bottle (it’s blasphemy to put a bottle cage on a cross bike) as I passed through the start corral. Over the megaphone, race organizer Matt Hornland berates me “GOOD LOOK, WRONG BIKE MORGAN TAYLOR.” I had bribed him with a burrito. Three straightaways of flat gravel with 90-degree corners, then on to the barriers and through the grass approaching the run-up. I spied a Republic Bicycles jersey picking his way through the 3/4 group.
Up the run up, continuing to pick off category riders, and down the singletrack. Back down into the flats. Zig zag through the Alder patch. And there was Mr. Republic, negotiating the Alder slalom a few corners back. Alas, the adversary I had been hoping for. He caught me on the flats at the start/finish line and went for the pass. I wasn’t out of gear, but I wasn’t really into hustling here. Monika would be disappointed if I didn’t go for it though.
I kept him within striking distance through the barriers and the grass and passed as he hurled his cross bike up the run up. “What’s your name man?” “Arlen.” “Arlen I’m Morgan…” as I billy goated up the climb in my 36/36 gear. “Nice to meet you!” I’d met Arlen’s boss at Republic in that 2009 season. We worked our way out of the Citizen category together and had developed a friendship over race battles with a few other guys.
Logistics and all that other shit aside, this is what I love about racing. Getting together with old friends and making new ones. Pushing each other to go harder, and finding out where each other’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Like a yo-yo, I pulled away from Arlen on the technical and got caught on the flats for another two laps. I bobbled the second run up and lost some distance, but we were starting to lap the Citizen group and Arlen got stuck in traffic. “You have to tell them you’re going to pass, and then do it” I said when he caught me again.
On the final lap we were neck and neck at the bottom of the run ups. I cleaned the climbs and pulled a gap again. In the Alders I saw him coming through, and was yelling in encouragement. I asked the spectators to egg him on. (Side note: if you don’t blow yourself up on the last lap of a cross race, you’re doing it wrong.) He gave it his all. But I crested the rise approaching the finish he hadn’t closed the gap. I was blasting up behind Matt of the holeshot, who was chasing the guy who had heckled me for my Enduro kit. My yelling turned to him. The end of the race. One last push. Go get him.
I was anticipating a sheepish awards ceremony, but all was good. Hornman had decided to give the actual prize for the winner – a Chrome Citizen messenger bag, how cute – to Arlen, and gave me a big bottle of beer. Perfect – this is what cross is really about. Time to go heckle the Elite men.
At the end of the day, it’s not about what bike you’re racing on, or what class you’re racing in – it’s about getting out there and having fun with old friends and new friends. You can have fun racing cyclocross on your shitty old mountain bike as much as I did on my shitty old road bike years ago. The Citizen class is a great place to get your feet wet, but I feel bad racing there even though my current unlicensed status only allows it.
While I had a great time at my first cross race in a while, I’m hesitant about committing to a full season. I did that in 2009 and the logistics of it killed me. I fell into mountain biking and never really looked back. But the next race is at the same venue down the street from my old house, and the good stuff will have me out there even though I’m not certain I should ever race Citizen again. I should, however, get out for some training rides with my cross racing friends, which in my circles now would just be called a “mountain bike ride”…
Do you have any confessions to make?