Monday, October 4, 2010

Gran Prix of Gloucester Cyclocross, 2010

For all of my enthusiasm about bikes and cycling, I've never really been into bicycle racing.  I enjoy riding too much to take the fun out of it by competing seriously, and I know I'm not talented, young or strong enough to be particularly good at racing at this point, anyway.  And apart from a stint over a decade ago where I watched open-wheel racing pretty regularly, I've never been sucked into regular TV spectatorship of any sports.  TV is great for amplifying the action and talent, but for me the fun of a sporting event is tied tightly to the experience of being there.  So as for bike racing, I don't do it, I don't necessarily understand the tactics of it, and I don't really watch it on TV (the TdF or otherwise).

But I don't dislike it or anything, and going to see the TdF is on my bucket list somewhere after going to see the 24 hours of LeMans. So when I heard about the Gran Prix of Gloucester, one of the bigger cyclocross events in the US, hear tell, I had to check it out.

I don't know a lot about cyclocross, and won't pretend to, but the jist of it is road-ish types of bikes being raced on a broad variety of terrain, from pavement to grass, dirt and mud.  The races (at least these races) are timed events, not distance events.  They ran for an hour, or about the length of one of my typical workout rides.  But riding competitively, over grass and dirt and what-have-you for an hour is an entirely different animal than going out for a workout ride on the road, of course -- far more intense.  I have a hard time imagining that, honestly.

The bikes sit somewhere between road and old-school mountain bikes.  Their frames look like road racing bikes in terms of their geometry and overall shape, and they run 700c wheels and drop bars like racing bikes.  But they're also generally equipped with cantilever brakes (to keep the tire clearance nice and open, vs. caliper brakes), lower gearing for hill climbing, additional brake levers on the bar tops, and knobby (if narrow) tires.  The riders' posture in the saddle is very much like a road riding posture, and it looked to me as if they use the saddle most of the time, rather than spending the race standing up and using body english like on a mountian bike.

Just to dwell on the hardware a bit more, it was cyclocross bikes that got me thinking differently about cycling a few years ago.  Way back in the day, my early ten-speed bikes were generalists, and I rode them anywhere I could on lightly treaded road tires.  Not sand, so much, but dirt, grass and even snow sometimes.  Then over time, my road bike purchases became more and more specialized in favor of road use, to the point where my recently retired Kestrel could be really twitchy, and seemed to want only to crash on gravel, grass or other unpaved surfaces.  Some of this was undoubtedly the narrow and high-pressure tires I was running on the Kestrel and Shogun before it, but I'm sure it had to do with the bikes and their geometry, as well.

But a cross bike?  Gosh, they look a lot like road bikes, and just look at the terrain they're piloted over.  Seeing them years back started me thinking about more rational road bikes, and that ultimately led me to a couple of projects rebuilding vintage road frames into all-around bikes.  My Schwinn Sports Tourer wears lightly treaded Panaracer Pasela tires, and can be ridden on dirt paths, grassy trails and other uneven surfaces without fear of crashing.  It's not as fast as my Kestrel was, but I can ride it most anywhere I want. And while my Motobecane Grand Touring (also shod with Paselas) is a little sketchier than the Schwinn, it too is a far better ally off-pavement than the Kestrel was, without being meaningfully slower than that bike.  I think it's fair to say that I have a restored appreciation for cycling versatility, thanks indirectly to cyclocross.

This was my first time at a cyclocross event, and really, I just dipped my toe in.  I had the girls, and they were more interested in the beach and the playground than the racing.  And I had my dog, who can be a handful around other dogs while on-leash, which makes it hard to bring him places.  We watched most of one race, and then walked around the vendor tents that had been set up for a bit, seeing what was there.  We saw and waved to my wheel-building instructor, Dave, at the Pedro's tent (he races with Pedro's sponsorship), but he looked busy and we didn't bug him (he told me in class later that he'd placed in the 30's of some 90 riders -- pretty good!)  Then, after a bit, we watched the first few laps of the elite womens' race, before starting to make our way along the course and back to the car.  Next time I won't bring the dog, I'll bring a picnic, and maybe invite some friends who'll appreciate the event more than my kids did (no slam on the kids or the dog, there).  It was fun, though, and interesting -- and most importantly, I know what to do differently next time.
All for now,


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