My first cyclocross race: Tales from a spectator, a teenager, a mum, and a national champion

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It can be nerve-wracking to try something new, and taking on an unfamiliar challenge on the bike is no exception. At the start line, experienced racers can look so confident and focussed that it is difficult to imagine they ever felt that queasiness in the pit of their stomach when lining up for their first race. The reality is that everyone has to start somewhere. Four women, ranging from experienced racers to recent recruits, share stories of the nerves, disasters and triumphs at their first cyclocross race.

THE SEASONED SPECTATOR

Clarissa Torcasio

Clarissa Torcasio had never raced before. In fact she had never really been into competitive sports at all. Torcasio, who is in her 20’s, had been cycling for about a-year-and-a-half, mainly to commute, and came to the sport of cyclocross after time spent cheering from the sidelines.

“I was a really well-seasoned spectator because my partner was racing cross. The girls riding around were really amazing and there was a big mix of age and skill and shapes and sizes, and they all seemed to have a really good time. Because everyone was so encouraging I thought maybe I should give it a go,” said Torcasio.

Preparation and anticipation

Torcasio signed up for the women’s skills development sessions run by Fields of Joy in Melbourne, which boosted her confidence on the bike. With a few skills sessions under her belt, she committed to doing her first cyclocross race.

It was an early season race but the wintery weather had already well and truly taken hold.

“We were busy in the morning but that was good because I was distracted. But as we were driving out to the course and I saw hail, I became really, really panicked. I couldn’t speak in the car, I thought I was going to be sick,” said Torcasio.

“I tried to put on a brave face when I got there but when it came time to do the warm-up laps I just had this internal monologue of: ‘What are you doing? Why did you think you could do this? This is the dumbest thing you have ever decided to do.’ Then my warm up laps were really terrible and actually made me feel even more stressed out before the race.”

The race

“When I was lining up I just wanted to stay at the back but then I realised that it was the first race for quite a few of the girls around me as well and they were just as nervous as I was,” said Torcasio.

“Once I got out there I just tried to stay on my bike and just go at my own pace. I got some really good advice before starting that if you are not going to win it just have fun. I tried to keep that in the back of my mind.”

After the finish line

“Oh my god what a feeling!” said Torcasio. “To have that sense of achievement. I didn’t care where I came in. I’d beaten my own personal goal of just trying a cyclocross race. The feeling at the end of it is a little bit addictive. It makes you want to do it again. I don’t know that I will be winning races, but I will definitely be riding some more.”

THE TEENAGE MOUNTAIN BIKER

TeaganAtherstone1

Teagan Atherstone was 14 when she lined up for her first cyclocross race a few months ago in the small but cycling mad town of Mt Beauty.

One of the toughest courses of the Victorian Cyclocross Series, there was plenty of slippery mud and ample climbing, but the junior ranks were thin –as they often are in the relatively new sport of cyclocross in Australia –so she lined up with the B grade women.

This was by no means her first race. She has taken on the Subaru Australian Mountain Bike National Series twice as well as the Australian Mountain Bike Championships, where she earned a bronze medal in the under 17 cross country. She made her debut on the road early in the year and, at the urging of her coach, decided to try cyclocross, too.

Preparation and anticipation

“I borrowed a bike from my coach and I just decided to give it a go,” Atherstone told Ella CyclingTips after her first weekend of cyclocross racing. “I was quite nervous because it was my first cyclocross race so I really didn’t know how I was going to go.”

The race

The first challenge was working out how to deal with an unfamiliar style of bike. “The bike was really odd because it is like riding a mountain bike course on a road bike. The bike handled differently,” said Atherstone.

The second challenge was the long stretches of slippery mud. “The mud is different in mountain biking. There is not so much of it, but the mud was good. It made it a bit more of a challenge,” she said.

“Once I got out on the course I just decided just to ride and just to finish it. So I did and that was pretty exciting,” said Atherstone.

The modest teenager did far more than just ride and just finish. The race start was combined with women’s A-grade and even though Atherstone was dealing with different conditions and equipment under race conditions for the first time, she wasn’t just content to watch what those in her own grade were doing. She chased the back of the A-grade field and set herself up for a jump onto the podium. She kept up the pace throughout the race, enjoying the edge her mountain bike skills gave her on the technical course and was the first B-grade rider across the line.

After the finish line

The teenager not only managed to secure a first place in women’s B grade in her first race but then did it all again the next race of the series the following day. “It’s pretty exciting, a bit different and a new challenge,” said Atherstone.

THE SUPPORTIVE MUM

karenwilkinson2

Karen Wilkinson first tried out cyclocross nearly a decade ago in the United States, where the sport boasts a far more established presence than Australia. Wilkinson, who is now in her 50’s, followed her eldest son into racing. The mother of three boys was no stranger to competitive sport, having been a swimmer and a triathlete in her younger years, but cyclocross was her first foray into stand-alone bike racing.

Preparation and anticipation

“My son had just started, so I practiced while he practiced and then another friend’s mom said ‘let’s race’. I said ‘sure’ and there you have it,” said Wilkinson.

“I thought I would do cyclocross because I would be less likely to get hurt than in road racing. I was just going to go and have some fun but I was a little nervous because there were a lot of people out there that knew me.”

The race

“I was doing surprisingly well and started getting a little more competitive,” said Wilkinson. “I had just moved up into second place but unfortunately, I didn’t really know how to corner very well. I was on a pavement section and went through a very large puddle and didn’t realise the pavement wasn’t smooth under the water. I hit a big hole and sheared across the pavement on my elbow.”

“I ended up having an open fracture in my elbow and I kind of sheared the triceps off of it,” she continued. “I didn’t realise how bad it was. I just thought that I needed to get an x-ray…then when they were rolling me into the operating room I realised that I had done a number on myself.” Wilkinson.

After the finish line

Despite the tough introduction to cyclocross racing, it didn’t turn Wilkinson or her son off the sport.

Wilkinson was out with her injury for the rest of the season but she was determined that the accident wouldn’t put an end to her racing. She took up road racing in the spring and then went back to cyclocross when the new season started.

Ten year on she is still racing and her son is now a professional cyclocross and road racer.

“It was really something that I could get better at, something new and a challenge. I could see how much fun my son was having and out there and I was seeing lots of women doing it so I thought I could, too,” said Wilkinson.

“I want to have fun racing. That’s why I like cross,” she said. “At the end of the day, with cross it is about getting out there and giving it your best.”

THE THREE-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPION

2015 National Cyclo-Cross Championships Essendon Fields 09 Aug. 2015. Photo: Con Chronis

Lisa Jacobs first ventured into the sport of cyclocross in 2012. She was in her early thirties at the time and was already an experienced road racer and competitive mountain biker. Jacobs was training for the Tour de Timor –a multi-day mountain bike stage race –when she heard about a cyclocross race in Melbourne that was part of Australia’s first National Series. It seemed a good way to spend some more training time out on the dirt, even if it wasn’t on a mountain bike.

The preparation and anticipation

“My bike sponsor at the time gave me a cross bike which was a pretty entry level bike, but you didn’t need anything fancy,” said Jacobs. “I got it the night before the race then I remember just practicing a couple of dismounts that morning so I didn’t look absolutely stupid and then rocking up. I had no idea about things like tyre pressure. The fun thing was that everyone was kind of in the same boat. After spending the year doing NRS (National Road Series) racing, and having spent time overseas in some really intense environments, to race for fun was just so lovely.”

However, that didn’t mean there were no pre-race jitters.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking because there were a lot of challenges. The terrain was challenging and it was all new,” said Jacobs.

The race

“I remember thinking that was the hardest format of racing I had tried because it was just so physiologically demanding,” said Jacobs. “You are only racing for 45 minutes but you are just at the limit the whole time. I remember thinking ‘wow that was hard’ but just the idea that you could put anything in a race, like a gravel pit or a creek crossing, and you could decide as a rider how you tackled it… I found that pretty cool. “

After the finish line

“There were no expectations, there was nothing riding on the outcome. I was only there to enjoy it and I found I not only enjoyed the atmosphere but the kind of racing as well. It was the first time in a long time that I had looked forward to racing,”

That enjoyment was what Jacobs said drove her to continue with the sport. She has now taken out the women’s title at every Australian National Cyclocross Championships held. She won the green and gold striped jersey for the third time this month, despite having had a less than ideal run-in due to injury. Jacobs is now aiming for a top-20 finish in the 2016 World Cyclocross Championships.

 

Have you tried cyclocross yet? How did it go? Tell us in the comments below. 

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