I decided I’d dip my toes into the world of cyclocross racing this year. I’ll admit, riding on grass has never inspired much excitement for me, but I see some serious skill and fitness gaps in my racing, and I think cyclocross might help me target those weaknesses. So I bought a used bike and I’ve been riding it every chance I get.

As per everyone’s recommendations, the frame size is slightly smaller than my road bike, so it feels slightly awkward right off the bat. My first major observation is with cornering. I enjoy railing the corners on my mountain bike. But when I execute the same move on my cx bike – my wheel washes out, the tire rolls, my pedal clips the ground or a tiny obstacle bounces the wheel right out of the turn leaving me covered in grass and bruises. On more than one occasion, I’m baffled to see grass sticking out from between my rim & the rubber.

Then there are the remounts. People who can do this move make it look so easy and graceful. I feel like a lumbering elephant. Shouldering the bike is painful.

As frustrated as I am, I know I just need to keep at it. Keep working the drills, keep retraining my muscle memory. Yes, I’m coming in near dead last at the Wednesday World race heats, but it will come. It WILL come. In the meantime I remind myself that all the sprinting, the interval training and the race starts will ALL directly impact my MTB racing — at least, I hope it will…

CX race #1 – Granogue.

Kristine ContentoAngell at Granogue, photo by Eloy Anzola I really like this course. Some sections run through the woods, there are a few tiny roots and rocks, a little wooden bridge section, lots of punchy climbs throughout, a couple sweeping off camber descents and turns. The atmosphere is great. Lots of people, lots of cheering, hecklers screaming on the toughest of the climbs. I had planned to pre-reg, but it closed the Wednesday before the race instead of Friday, as is typical of a mtn bike race. Start positions are based on registration order, so that puts me in the back row of over 50 women. For mountain bike races I arrive between 1 and 1.5 hours ahead of my race start, get through registration and then get my gear on. This formula, however, does not translate to cyclocross, so I’ve missed my chance for pre-riding the course.

Despite all these newbie mistakes, I’m excited to race. Fellow racers have given me the low down on the lines and I’m ready to roll. The best piece of advice – watch the other women for potential pile-up and bottle necks.

The official starts calling up the racers and I get increasingly anxious as more and more people pile into the starting blocks. I’m in the very last row. The whistle blows and the front charges off. A few moments later I’m able to start moving. The prologue is a long gravel road with grass on either side, so I move to the left edge and start weaving through the women, knifing my way towards the front. The last time I was in a peloton of this size, I ended up with a titanium elbow. My eyes are alert for anyone acting sketchy.

Into the first tree section, a squirrelly rider slips on a root and takes another rider down. The pack comes to a near stand still. I’m on the outside edge along the trees, and hold my position – slowing into a track stand. Women are putting feet down. The pack starts to open back up and as the other ladies start clipping back in, I push into the pedals and sneak around them. Teammates had said CX is about optimizing seconds here and there through the race. I see what they mean. That split second I saved not clipping out gave me the chance to pass another dozen women.

I focus on keeping a steady pace and no mistakes. Cornering feels slow, especially the off-cambers, I stay on the hoods for the descents and can feel myself babying my speed. There are a few steep climbs, I climb these standing. the heckle pit is great – people are screaming encouragement inches from my face. I don’t look at anyone, I don’t want to lose focus for even a second. The women who can’t make the climbs on their bikes are losing a lot of time. I won’t step off. No mistakes. Each woman I pass has more women in front. I hunt them down, but I have no idea who’s in my class and where I am positioned in my class. Doesn’t matter. I just keep pushing.

Finally I’m rounding the last corner, I push through it and sprint through the finish.

I spin down for a few minutes and head back to the team tents. I’m not prepared for the splitting headache that hits – apparently a common side effect of racing CX. The scoring is a disaster, I don’t see the results until 4 hours later. I finished 3rd! Awesome! Everyone tells me this course is not a typical CX course…. bummer, I really enjoyed it.

Kristine Contento Angell cx podium

CX race #2 – Nittany.

I arrive 2 hours early and am able to pre-ride the course a few times. The scene here is much bigger than last weekend. This course has a lot of long mainly flat grass sections, lots of turns and a huge mud pit. There is also a steep climb into a sharp turn followed by a log, which I think will cause a lot of people trouble.

Kristine Contento Angell at Nittany CXAgain I have a last row call-up having missed pre-registration. The field is huge, row after row get called ahead of me, and I’m really feeling anxious. I promise myself I won’t miss another pre-registration this season.

The light turns green and the pack starts to shift. It takes a seemingly long amount of time until I can actually start pedaling. The grass is slick from the gentle rain and the pack moves slowly. The girls who push the pace as slipping out and getting squirrely. The metal barriers limit any chance to work through the pack. Heading around the first turn the riders spread out and I can start weaving through the traffic. The mud pit is a disaster. I hop off and start running past riders. Out on the other side, the bike is clogged with mud, heavy, the brakes squeal as the mud rubs off.

So begins the long grass sections. Ugh. These suck the power right out of my legs. I push on. I pass women, women pass me. Cornering feels slow, the roll up is clogged with riders. It’s getting slick. I decide to run it, weave through the girls recovering from the failed ride up, hop the log and remount. There are few turns and then more long grass sections.

Kristine Contento Angell Nittany, working hardI try to ride through the mud pit on the next few laps. It’s the consistency of thick peanut butter. It’s slow and painful. Probably would have been smarter to run it. Each lap the grass sections feel longer and longer. I try to focus on picking good lines for cornering. I keep quiet making passes. There is a lot of back and forth with other riders. I maximize the little roll up. I’m happy to ride it cleanly each lap and make up a tiny bit of time.

The back grass sections aren’t total torture and I latch onto other riders to help keep the motivation up. The corners get progressively chewed up and slipperier each time through. I’m mostly satisfied with my dismounts and remounts. They aren’t pretty, but they don’t disrupt my rhythm too much either.

I push a bit harder at the end of the last lap, happy with a smooth line and a kick through the finish. Final position is 14th of 49 finishers. Hmmm. OK.

CX race #3 – Mill Creek.

I don’t have high expectations heading into this race. I spent saturday at the NJ motor sports race track, thunderbolt on my Kawasaki636. It was a long and intense day, physically and mentally demanding. I’m just looking for experience on the CX bike and to stay in that high intensity effort zone for as long as possible.

There are only 7 women in my field. My front roll call up is pretty useless, as there is only 1 row. Ha.

The whistle blows and I grab a 3rd position spot, hoping to stay here as long as possible. The course has plenty of long grass sections, some steep climbs and off camber turns. There is a head wind on the back side that really makes the flat grass torture.

As the first lap progresses, I lose a few places. I try to hang onto the other TEAM EE women, but I can’t seem to keep up on the long grass straight-aways. The gap widens. I try to make up time in the corners. I repeatedly clip my pedal and wash out my wheel. Ugh. I have to back off.

The laps repeat, I lose another place. I feel like I’m treading water. More laps. This race is LONG. My back starts to flare up. I realize standing and pedaling helps loosen it up. It also boosts my momentum. Into the finish, no one is around, but I sprint through the final turn and empty the tank anyways.

Final position: 5th of 7. Not pretty, but it’ll do.

Kristine ContentoAngell cx with elite endurance women

CX race #4 Hippo.

The race course is compact, weaving tightly around itself. The start of the course s-turns gradually up a climb with two small step ups. The top is a series of U turns – going up and down the same hill, then a long descent, 2 barriers, lots of ruts, and plenty of dust.

I have a first row call up, but I don’t actually want to be in first row today. I want to sit on my teammates wheel – one that creamed me last weekend – but the official won’t allow it, so I put my wheel on the line. The whistle blows and everyone charges off the line. I settle into 2nd position.

Kristine Contento-Angell cornering at hippo cx

As we progress up the first climb I lose a place but stay with the lead group. The pace was strong and steady. I decide to stand and grind each of the short uphills. Slowly the lead group stretches out and I bleed a few places. There is a long descent near the end of the lap that I focus on hitting faster and faster each time. I’m flying down it, dust flying up behind me, straight-lining the slight S bend near the bottom for optimum momentum.

I’m loving the turns along the hillside too. As each lap passes and I notice I was starting to maintain speed through the corners, railing as hard as I could before losing grip.

Finally. FINALLY! The CX skills are starting to come together. I finish in 4th place.Kristine Contento-Angell cornering at hippo cx

Kristine Contento-Angell digging for the finish at hippo cx

CX race #5 Bubble CX.

This course has a ton of variety – long stretches of sand, steps, rutty grass field climbs, rooty single track and a off camber u-turns along steep hills. Being the day after Halloween, costumes were encouraged.

My back blew out on the grassy rut section and I couldn’t get the pain under control. I was happy to simply finish out the race with a 6th place finish.

 

Kristine Contento-Angell with wings at bubble cx

CX race #6 Westwood Velo CX.

Possibly the strongest cross race I have all season. The course has some mountain-biker friendly sections of steep descents and loose climbs. I have a great start and a strong first lap. I’m railing the corners and powering through the flats. Finally, everything I’ve been practicing was coming together.

Heading into the second lap I’m still near the front of the pack, though the leaders are increasing gap, I decide to push the speed through the corners a little harder. I slide out on a wet s-turn, find my chain has dropped and bleed two spots while getting the bike rolling again.

I get right back into a strong rhythm. I’m standing frequently which keeps my lower back pain under control. I don’t make any further mistakes and the pace is one of the strongest I’ve held all season, but it’s not enough to gain back any time, so I finish in 5th.

I’m very pleased with entire day, it feels like one of the strongest races I’ve had so far, so I decide to call the CX season to a close on a positive note.

Kristine Contento-Angell running up at westwood velo cx

Kristine Contento-Angell's Reality Check | Monday, December 14th, 2015

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