Words by Rachel Cannon
When you live in the middle of DC, work irregular hours and don’t have a car, it’s really difficult to go on a casual off-road ride. And yet I love riding off the road because it takes away the one thing I hate about bicycling—cars! I have a beautiful cyclocross bike that doubles as a road bike, but redlining through laps for 40 minutes and getting ensnared in barriers isn’t, I found out, my idea of fun. So I decided to sign up for Monster Cross.
Given my technical skill level (non-existent) and level of training (none), I played it safe and signed up for the 25-miler. At the front of the line, where all the fast people were gathered for the full 50-mile race, things seemed quiet and a little tense. Back where I stood, people were making various self-effacing comments and admiring each other’s weird gear. The girl in front of me wore ski goggles over her helmet even though it was a balmy 60 degrees outside. I had ridiculous aviator sunglasses on.
I watched as the pros started off in a swarm, swirling down the roads that started the course. My heart started to beat a little faster as I suddenly remembered that despite the joking commentary, I was supposed to be racing. The last time I competed in a race (DCCX), I got so overheated and stressed out that I stopped mid-course, ripped off my cycling cap, threw it aside, and ultimately got DFL. That was in October.
The Mini Monster riders shuffled our way to the starting line as the race coordinator gave us some pointers about the course and said something about a hilly mid-segment. Whatever. I just wanted to start. Finally the siren sounded and off we went. The girl from my team that I’d been chatting with took off like a shot and ultimately won first place.
Here was my thinking: I wasn’t going to win, I don’t know how to race in a pack and was terrified of careening into someone, and I just wanted to have fun. So I kind of hung to the back as I watched all kinds of riders, including mountain bikers, most of the cyclocross folks, and unicyclists pass me (OK, ouch, that was a little hard to watch). The first part of the course was super easy—just winding downhills. I coasted most of the way until the course turned into the woods.
My internal monologue went thusly: Yikes. OK. I have no fucking clue what I’m doing. I’m supposed to—what is it? Not use my rear brake? Use my rear brake more than my front? What? Should I be standing this much? Christ, those pebbles are big. Ah, fuck, that guy just passed me on a fat bike. OK, Rachel, stop worrying. Just ride. Keep your wheels rolling. STOP RIDING YOUR BRAKES, DUMBASS.
That last part became my mantra: STOP BRAKING. I said it out loud to myself rather often. I do know that the key to riding off the road is that speed gets you over tough terrain. Problem is, when you’re freaked out about crashing, you want to ride slower, so you ride your brakes, which means you crash, which means you worry more, which means you ride your brakes more. It’s a vicious cycle that I know all too well.
For most of the course, I was riding alone, and eventually, the sunshine, woods, and concentration on continuing to move forward started to win me over. My bike (a Felt F5X) and tires (Challenge Grifos) handled amazingly well. After a very bumpy rocky segment towards the beginning, I hopped off to let some air out of my tires, and that helped. At about mile 6, I realized that I did, in fact, have a fucking clue what I was doing. Around mile 8, the worry mostly disappeared and I started having fun. I’m good at climbing, so I started to pass people on the uphills, and when another road segment hit, I destroyed the mountain bikers (including the woman in the ski goggles). Yeah, OK, they all owned me once we got back to the downhills in the woods, but I had my small moments of glory!
My favorite part of the race, by far, was riding through stretches of mud. My tires bit into it like it was hard asphalt, and I enjoyed finding my line through especially nasty segments.
There were a couple of scary moments. One of my teammates had mentioned a bunch of people crashing at a stream crossing last year so naturally, I got freaked out by all the stream crossings and ground to a halt at each one. But that’s the most beautiful thing about cross—you can always jump off your bike and carry it over an obstacle.
By the end of the race, I was so relaxed and unconcerned about my finish time that I stopped to eat a Clif bar. I passed an aid station and asked a guy how far the end was. He said, “Oh, it’s just around that corner. You’re almost there!” As I came up the last hill, a volunteer said, “Fastest climb I’ve seen up that hill!” I found myself wishing that I’d signed up for the 50-miler, but I was also incredibly tired, thirsty, and happy to eat some biscuits and mashed potatoes at the end.
Ultimately, I placed 20th out of 29th. But hey. It’s better than DFL. The only thing that I regret was not looking like a total badass and having mud spray all over my face—I wasn’t going fast enough for it. Next time!