Cyclocross Chronicles

It’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to play around with my beater bike and try cyclocross. Here’s the scoop.

What I did:

When my knobby 32 mm tires came, I glued them onto the wheels I built last summer.

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Aren’t those gorgeous? Plus, for traction, cyclocross tires use much lower pressures than road tires. Low pressure = comfort. These have 40 psi in them, and that feels perfect for all kinds of terrain.

I removed the water bottle cages.

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The cages would get in the way when you have to put your arm through the frame to carry the bike on steep or unrideably-muddy stretches. Since the longest cyclocross competition lasts about an hour, there is no need for hydration en route.

I switched to a shorter stem and raised the bars a bit from where they were before.

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Because the speeds are so slow compared to road rides, there is no need to maintain a streamlined aerodynamic position. Also, the shorter reach helps to maintain control over rough sections.

Because I had to remove the old handlebar tape to change stems, I replaced it with cotton twill cloth tape.

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Where has this been all my life? Granted, after a half dozen rides it is starting to look dirty, but this is not about style. This tape gives me incredible grip without feeling tacky or spongy like others do. I like the feeling of firmness and control.

I changed the saddle.

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I took this one from an old mountain bike. It’s not leather, but in cyclocross the tires constantly throw mud and water up onto and under the saddle. The synthetic composition of this one will withstand the elements much better. Also, this saddle has a narrower profile than the ones I use for road cycling. This makes things easier when I need to dismount to run or remount after running.

I swapped for the double-sided pedals that had been on my mountain bike.

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Because cyclocross necessitates transition from riding to running and back so often, I thought it was much more important to have these on this bike than on my mountain bike.

I left my gearing alone.

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Combined with a 39-tooth small chainring, this 14-28 five-speed freewheel gives me all the range I need.

I kept the moustache bars.

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These are much wider than those I would use on a road racing bike. but the wide stance gives me lots of control and stability on downhill and technical sections. Also, these bars put your hands in a great position for climbing, much better than drop bars.

So there she is:

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(Gratuitous shot of bike and new-to-me workstand.)

I’m so proud of her. So now that I have a dozen rides under my belt, what are my thoughts on cyclocross so far?

Things I like:

I stay warm. For one thing, he speeds are much slower than those of road rides. There is no easy riding on a cyclocross trail. You’re either riding through grass, thick mud, or snow, and when you can’t ride any more you pick up the bike and run. Also, the trails are generally narrow openings in woods, protected from most of the wind. In all the years I’ve been cycling, I have never found a way to keep my hands and feet warm while riding on the road in cold weather. You name a glove or boot or overshoe that is guaranteed to keep you warm, and I’ve tried it, unsuccessfully. On the other hand, this past weekend I finished a ride having worked up a lather sweating, while wearing normal wool socks and thin running gloves. When I checked the temperature, I was shocked to discover it was 34 Fahrenheit. I never could have lasted if I had been on an open road at 17 or 18 mph.

The rides are shorter. Bicycles are such efficient machines that it normally takes three or four hours to get a worthwhile workout. That’s fine in the summer, but winter evening comes much earlier, and I like to pack in as much activity as I can in a day. Because you work so much harder just to maintain your forward momentum in cyclocross, you can get a decent workout in an hour. ¬†For me, that means being able to go home, clean the bike, shower, read for a while, and still go out with my wife for sushi before it gets too late.

There aren’t the usual road hazards. Whether it’s traffic, glass and other detritus, or red lights and stop signs, there are lots of things that can break up road rides. I’d much rather avoid a tree root that nature put in my way, or stop for a family of ducks to cross my path, than deal with anything man-made.

 

Things I don’t like:

People walking unleashed dogs. In the state where I live, dogs must be on leashes when they are in public. But no matter where I go, there seems to be someone who can’t be bothered to leash his pet. So here I am, trying to maintain control of a skinny, light bike on a technical trail, and along comes Fluffy, running into my path and jumping up on me when I stop so I don’t hit him. Invariably, the owner lollygags around the bend and says, “It’s all right. He’s friendly.” Well, you might be friendly too, but if you jumped on me, that would be assault, pal. I love dogs, but you don’t know that. It takes a really selfish, entitled person to assume someone else doesn’t mind being jumped on by a dog.

That’s it. My dislikes constitute a really short list. Notice, also, that the dislike list has nothing to do with cyclocross itself. Unleashed dogs can ruin any activity I want to keep to myself.

There really is no satisfactory way to avoid the presence of others.

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Go Your Own Way

Because I’m such a confirmed curmudgeon, people always assume I’m against every innovation and change in the way things happen. Not true. However, in order for me to embrace a change, I need to be convinced that the new way helps me do what I already need to do, and do it better or more pleasantly than I could before.

Here’s an example: twenty years ago, I completely embraced the pay-at-the-pump concept of buying gasoline. I was willing to drive miles out of my way to a station that allowed me to use a debit card (no chance of getting in trouble by spending money I don’t have yet) at the pump, rather than going inside and having to talk to someone. By eliminating unwanted human interaction, that technology has made my life better.

It didn’t stop with gasoline, either. Paying at the pump made me realize how much I hated carrying cash and having coins rattle in my pocket. Now I simply don’t spend money if currency comes into play. I can’t remember the last time I had cash in my wallet. (It took me years to see the hideous redesign of U.S. money. But I care less than I wold have when I was young. I simply never use the stuff.)

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(Yuck.)

 

Here’s another: my wife and I were among the first of what are commonly known as “cord cutters.” More than a decade ago, we realized that we paid a princely sum for cable television each month, and we had hundreds of channels coming into our house, but nothing we wanted to see was ever on. Perversely, we felt obligated to look for programs to watch because we didn’t want to waste what we paid to the cable company. We lost whole evenings scrolling through the channel guide (admit it: you have, too), and we’ll never get that time back.

When we finally cancelled our subscription, this was such an unusual phenomenon that the cable guy could not believe it; even when he was on our doorstep collecting our boxes, he kept offering price reductions and extended contracts to keep us captive. I had to tell him five times that we were really sure what we were doing.

We began streaming our programming through a dedicated computer connected to our television and stereo.

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(The box that started it all.)

You see- we don’t fear technology, but we make it work for us rather than the other way around. All these years later, we cannot imagine having to watch something when the network decided it’s on and having to sit through commercials, or not being able to pause and refresh our martinis. Sure, the cable companies have since caught up by offering video recording capability and allowing you to skip commercials. But we figured out how to do it first because it made our lives better.

So, what made me think of all this now? The way we do holidays, like the Thanksgiving that has just passed. Like our electronics, our holidays exist to serve us, rather than our serving them.

Early last week, one of my wife’s co-workers asked her if she was “ready for the holidays.” For a moment, my wife did not understand the question because holiday stress is so far from our experience. Before we ever met, we had both realized how sick we were of racing around fulfilling perceived obligations when we should have been relaxing and enjoying time spent with the people closest to us. When we first moved into our house, we decided to be the hosts of Thanksgiving and Christmas so we could avoid the travel and the commotion of dropping by a gathering only to rush out to the next appointment.

This was a good start, but it still meant her daughters (and whatever boyfriends/husbands were in tow) could only stay for part of the day. The solution? Move the day. There’s nothing magical about the fourth Thursday in November. Turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes taste just as good on Friday or Saturday!

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I guarantee we use more butter than you do.

Only now, our loved ones get their obligations out of the way when society demands, then spend “our” Thanksgiving relaxing with appetizers, cocktails, a roaring fire, an old-time radio show, a puzzle, a walk with the dogs, a meal, a James Bond movie (we don’t call it “Family Bonding” for nothing), a nap, some stargazing, or WHATEVER ANYBODY WANTS TO DO. No pressure. No expectations. But real thanksgiving for what we value. Now, everyone who has experienced our version can’t wait for it.

Some people have actually said to us that our holiday “doesn’t count” because it doesn’t happen when the [retail] calendar decrees.

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All I can say is, I’ll think about you from my comfy couch while you’re standing in line to buy some gadget that’s already obsolete. And, trust me, I’ll be giving thanks.