CX commentary: Doing it wrong can sometimes be right

After years of taking cyclocross a little too seriously, a poorly planned race day revives the spirit of racing around in the mud.

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I rolled up to the start line unprepared, in a snowy field, with a muddy cyclocross track ahead of me. I didn’t warm up due to my late arrival at the venue. I missed my call-up to the grid because I was peeing. Tire pressure? It was pure guesswork. I didn’t have a spare bike in the pit if things went wrong.

My seat-of-the-pants approach stood in stark contrast to how I used to approach cyclocross races. For more than 10 years, every autumn weekend, I would carefully pack my car before each race. I would warm up thoroughly. I always pre-rode the course.

This past Sunday, I tried a new approach: winging it. The Spencer Powlison of five years ago would have freaked out. Here’s the thing: I found that carelessness might be the first step toward being carefree.

My relationship with cyclocross has changed a lot since my first season in 2005. In those days, cyclocross race entries were cheap, beer hand-ups were plentiful, and the racing was grassroots — for better and for worse. There was wild variation when it came to course quality and organization.

One thing was consistent from week to week, though. Everyone was there simply because it was fun. The racing was seriously hard but not that serious.

After that first season, my approach evolved. Results became more important to me. Cyclocross’s popularity grew rapidly, and I became fixated on the fall season. I watched hours of European ‘cross racing on Internet streams. Maybe I thought I had to emulate Sven Nys. Or perhaps all of the hype around ‘cross nationals and UCI races ignited my competitive urge. No matter the root of this obsession with being “pro,” I ended up with a quiver of carbon fiber tubular wheels, elaborate training plans, and an encyclopedic knowledge of call-up procedures. I swapped carbon-rim brake pads on, and off, and back on, again and again, week after week.

After almost 10 years of the “pro” approach, I found myself not having as much fun anymore. And like many racers, I evolved and changed. I sought out a new experience.

I decided to only race singlespeed cyclocross, hoping to revive the simple grassroots spirit that first got me excited to race through mud and snow when most people are smart enough to stay indoors and watch football. It was a step in the right direction, but I was still treating these races like, well, races. In the back of my mind, I hadn’t fully escaped the serious mentality cultivated over the course of 100+ cyclocross races.

That was until Sunday, at Cross of the North in Fort Collins, when I did everything wrong but it ended up right.

It isn’t ideal to show up unprepared. It is pretty painful to start a ‘cross race cold, without any warm-up. Hopping in two races on the same day is maybe a little excessive, and doing an open race on a singlespeed is not the best way to win (unless you’re Travis Brown).

But once the starter’s whistle blew, none of this mattered. Sure, it took me a few corners to figure out how my tires were handling the slushy mud track. Without having previewed the course, I blew a few critical lines on greasy off-cambers, with comical results. However, it almost felt like the lack of a scripted pre-race ritual made the race itself the true highlight of the day.

Bike racing is downright simple. Every so often, I need to remind myself of that because my natural inclination is to overcomplicate things, to let my competitive urge take over.

It is okay to care about racing, to put in the time and effort to be your best. I’ve been there before, I’ll probably go there again, and there is joy to be had in that pursuit. But take it from me, the essence of ‘cross racing — any bike racing — has always been having fun. If it takes a muddy, painful misadventure to put everything in perspective, then I say screw the warm-up, forget the pit bike, and grab that beer feed.

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