Surviving your first CX Race
You’ve been training, and you think you’re finally ready to pin a number on and show the world you’re a CX superstar! You might be, I haven’t seen you ride. Here’s some things you should bring with you to make your day go easier, and some things to remember once you get there.
I have used masculine pronouns throughout this piece, but most of them can be replaced with feminine with no loss of meaning, other than the stuff that dudes exclusively do, like murder themselves for the hole shot and whine about coming in 33rd vs. 34th place. I don’t want anyone to feel left out.
You will be stressed out on race day. There’s always a million things to remember to bring, it’s always ten minutes further away than the directions say it is, and so you’ll probably be running late. Hopefully this list will help make it go a little smoother.
First of all, figure out how long it’s going to take to get to the race. You want to arrive at the race AT LEAST one full hour before your race starts. Ninety minutes is even better if you are a person with friends who like to say hi to you, and you need to have a pre-race poop, and you like to get warmed up before you turn yourself inside out. (You probably do need that pre-race poop.) You should eat some complex carbs a couple of hours before your race starts, so figure out if you’re going to be driving while you do this. Don’t wait until race day morning to figure this out, you have enough stuff to stress out about then as it is.
The Night Before:
Pack Your Race Bag. If you already have a USA Cycling license, make sure it’s in your wallet. You should designate a medium sized bag to be your race bag that travels with you to every bike race you do. You should put your cycling shoes in the bag first, so you don’t forget them. Don’t be the guy (TIM HAYES) who shows up to a race with no shoes. You should then put your helmet in the bag. Then put the rest of the crap you’ll need to wear in there: skinsuit, (or jersey and shorts), base layer, cycling socks, arm/knee/leg warmers, riding glasses, Heart Rate Monitor Strap, Garmin/cyclocomputer. Chamois cream and sunscreen and embrocation and bug spray. Throw some chain lube and a bicycle multi-tool or some allen keys in there, in case you need to make a last minute adjustment. It’s not a bad idea to put a simple first aid kit in there- some gauze pads, some bandaids and a little hydrogen peroxide, or just go buy a $10 first aid kit and be done with it. A handful of safety pins (to pin on numbers) are not a bad thing to bring with you, in case the race promoter runs out before you pick up your number. Also throw a beach towel in there, both for changing into and out of cycling clothes and for cleaning up post race. If the weather is wet, you should bring two or three towels, and a garbage bag or two, for wet/dirty clothes.
You should pack this bag the night before to save your legs from tearing ass from your bedroom back to the garage to the kitchen and back to the bedroom 23 times on race morning.
If you plan to bring spare wheels to the race, it’s a great idea to label them. Use a sharpy and some 3×5 cards. Write your name and your club name and your phone number on the cards, and scotch tape the cards to the spokes, or somehow secure the cards to the wheels. However you do it, make it so the cards can be removed easily should you need a wheel change, but not so easily that the cards will fall out and blow away.
Got everything? Go to bed. Sleep the sleep of the well-prepared.
Ok, it’s Race Day Morning! Are you ready for this?
Hydration Get a cooler. Bring at least 4 full bike bottles of water. The warmer the temperatures, the more water you should bring. Bring any drink mix and/or soda and/or Red Bull that you like. I’ve found that the warmer it is, the less I like drink mixes. This is a personal thing you should probably have figured out for yourself by this point of your cycling career. It’s a good idea to bring a gallon of water with you as well, both for hydration and post race clean up. If you are over 21, you might want to bring some adult beverages with you. You should be discreet with these beverages, some venues do not allow them. Definitely do not walk up to a USA Cycling official and offer them one during the event. Wait till the end of the day for that. If you think the promoter of the race put on a great race, a cold adult beverage or six at the end of the day is a great way to show your appreciation. Be mature, be responsible, don’t be drunk if you have to drive. End of speech.
Food If you will still be driving when you get to the two hours before race time, you’ll need to prepare and pack that up, or pick it up along the way. A bagel, an egg sandwich, a bowl of oatmeal, a peanut butter sandwich, whatever you like best for your two hour meal.
Personally, I’m a fan of sugar immediately before my races- Gu, Clif Blocks, Hammer Gels, Sports Beans. Whatever. Other people like PowerBars and Clif Bars, and still other people like fruit or sandwiches. So bring whatever you’re going to eat right before your race. Remember, you will probably have some nerves, so whatever you eat should be easy on your stomach. This is something you’re going to eat right before your event starts for quick energy, so err on the side of simplicity here. Gels drop 100 calories into your system very quickly- they work.
You should also have some post race food, preferably with some protein. A sandwich is perfect. So make your favourite, and throw it in the cooler. Or a salad. Or some leftover pasta. Whatever you want, but you should probably eat something once you finish racing.
Packing the car
Put your bike in/on your car. Put the cooler and the race bag in the car. Double check that you have your helmet and shoes. Throw some lawn chairs in the car. Put your spare wheels in the car, and a spare tube, too, if you’re riding clinchers. Your bicycle floor pump and a digital pressure gauge will help you a lot. Got a cowbell? Bring it. Going to a cross race is more than just doing your event and packing up and heading home. Stick around, make some friends, cheer for your new friends, enjoy yourself. Got room in the car for an ez-up tent? Throw it in there. Shade is good. Did you remember bugspray and sunscreen? Great.
Drive to the race. You should be drinking water in the car, not just coffee. Hydrating is important.
Once you get to the race
Park with the rest of the people with bikes on their cars. If you arrive at a park and don’t see cars with bikes and a bunch of plastic course tape festooned all over the place, you’re at the wrong park, and you need to consult the GPS again. I’ve done this. More than once. It’s a terrible feeling. You’ll probably yell at your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband/kids if/when it happens. I did. I had to apologize later. A lot. Don’t do this.
Ok, so you’re parked. First things first, either find the bathroom, or find registration, whichever seems most important to you at the time. At registration, ask them what side your numbers will be pinned on. If you don’t know how to pin on a number correctly, please read and memorize this. Go ahead, read it, we’ll wait.
Do NOT pin your number on the middle front or the middle back of your jersey at any FLCX race. Ever. Once you’ve picked up your number, and destroyed a portapotty with your nervous poops (EVERYBODY POOPS!) head back to the car. Once there, pin your number, or let your significant other do it for you. Take your bike out/off of the car, and make sure the tire pressure is where you like it to be. Make sure your spare wheels have slightly higher air pressure in them. The reason for this is in case you pinch flat the race wheel, the replacement wheel shouldn’t suffer the same fate. Change into your kit. Take your wheels over to the wheel pit. It should now be about 50 minutes until your race is scheduled to start.
Pre-ride the course. If there is a race going on, do everything in your power not to get into a racer’s way. If one comes up behind you, move to the side, slow down, and be predictable so they can pass you without slowing down. Equally important, do not ride past the start/finish line, you’ll screw up the timing people and officials, and probably get yelled at. Your first pre-ride lap around the course should be a slow pace, so you can note the best line through corners and around/over obstacles. If a section looks especially tricky, stop and watch how a few other riders navigate it, or ask someone else how they got over/through/around it. Your second pre-ride lap should be a little faster. If time and course traffic will allow a third lap, go for it, again, a little faster. You should have worked up a pretty good sweat by now. Head back to your car, and drink some more water. Try doing a 2-5 short sprints, just maybe 10 seconds worth of all out effort, either on pavement or on some flat, vacant grass. Don’t sprint into anyone. You don’t want to exhaust yourself, you just want to prepare your body for the coming race effort. Do as much as feels comfortable to you.
It should now be about 15 minutes until your race starts. You should eat a gel now, and wash it down with plenty of water. You should have a full bottle of water in your bottle cage, if you’re using one. At 10 minutes til race start, you should head over to staging. Staging is a corral where you wait for the officials to start your race. Ideally, you should get there earlier rather than later, so you’re closer to the front, and have less traffic in front of you at the start, particularly if you have designs on winning. The officials will call everyone into the corral, there will be some nervous dick jokes, and a few guys will complain about how bad they feel, and how sore their legs are. Almost invariably, the guy who complains the loudest will be the fastest guy in the race, unless it’s me complaining, in which case you should believe me, because I REALLY WILL GO SLOW.
Finally, the official will call all riders in your race to the line. Some races have Call-Ups, where certain riders, usually the guys who are leading the rankings or points standings, are called out of the bunch to start on the front line(s). If they didn’t do call-ups, then it’s pretty much a free-for-all as to who gets to be on the front line. If you can be on the front line, and you’re confident you can get off the line quickly so you don’t get swarmed immediately, then get up there. If you’re not confident, start towards the back.
Finally, they will say “GO” and start the race. Here’s what you’ve been waiting for. Most courses start with a long straightaway, or at least a gentle curve, that leads into a tight turn, a hole in a fence, or a section of trail thru some woods. This is referred to as the holeshot, and the guy who gets there first is the one who “won the holeshot.” This is terribly important to the guy who won the holeshot. Sometimes, he will even win a prize, but not very often. Usually, he just gets to brag to all his buddies about it. Sometimes, that’s the last time you’ll see that guy, too- he’ll just keep going and win the race.
Bike racing, and indeed all forms of human powered racing, is in large part about pain management. How hard you can push yourself, and indeed, how much pain you can endure, will ultimately determine your result. If this is your first bike race, then you should go into it with the mindset of “I just want to finish” because you’re probably going to go out too hard and fast at the start and then want to die, only to find out there’s still 20 minutes to race. You’ll do this because you don’t know any better. THIS IS TOTALLY NORMAL, EVERYONE DOES THIS. Just as with time trialing, the best plan is to go as hard as you can for as long as you can, and then back it off a couple notches until the finish. Maybe as long as you can is only the length of the holeshot, and maybe it’s two laps. You just have to find a manageable level of pain that you can hold onto for the duration of the race.
This is how you learn how much you can take. This is the amazing part of Cyclocross. Because most of the time, for most people, all of the pain, the lactic acid, the gasping for air, the sweat in the eyes, the thrill of hitting 19mph on the downhill after churning through thick grass at 8mph, of staying ahead of the rider behind you, or catching the one ahead of you, all of these things coalesce into the most delicious cocktail you’ve ever sipped. Or slurped. Or gulped. I don’t judge. And the best thing about that cocktail is that it’s different every race, and the more times you try it, the better it gets. And it doesn’t hurt your liver, unless you take too many Handups…
Handups are prizes or gifts handed to racers by spectators. They are technically illegal, but it’s hard to control spectators on some sections of the course (wink wink, nudge nudge). Handups can be almost anything, but are usually dollar bills or food items that will probably make you puke while exercising, such as bacon or cookies or doughnuts or bacon doughnuts or even beer. You don’t have to take these handups, but you will earn fans quickly if you do. I even won a trophy at Swamp Cross last year for taking the most vegan ginger cookie handups. Obviously, I have lots of fans.
Speaking of fans, we should also discuss Heckling. Heckling is a tradition in Cross. Heckling should be good-natured razzing. As a racer, you should be concentrating on your race, but sometimes someone says something so funny that you have to acknowledge it. Do so- tell them “good one!” or even just laugh. It’s ok. Most spectators will be supportive and cheer for you, whether you’re in first or fiftieth place. This is another reason that Cross is awesome.
After your race, you should rehydrate, because you probably didn’t have time to drink during the race. So drink at least a water bottle’s worth before you crack open that well-earned frosty adult beverage. Ride around a little bit. Get your wheels out of the wheel pit. Then get cleaned up, changed, and cheer on the next race. Eat your post race meal. Once the day’s races are over, pack up the car, and that’s pretty much everything I can think of to tell you about your first CX race.