Like many skiers, I try to incorporate a lot of variety into my training. Variety ensures that my training is well-rounded, and makes it more fun than doing the same thing day after day, week after week. Variety can mean new places to train, different workout formats, or trying entirely different sports.
One sport that I've recently gotten into is cyclocross. For readers unfamiliar with 'cross, imagine if you took a criterium bike race and held it on a nordic ski trail. Cross is a little bit road biking, a little bit mountain biking, a little bit cross-country running, and a little bit of madness.
I was attracted to cyclocross because of its similarities to skiing:
â€¢ It exercises the whole body;
â€¢ It requires stamina, strength and speed;
â€¢ It utilizes trails with aerobically challenging terrain
â€¢ It requires tactics and race strategy that are fundamental for mass start ski races and sprints;
â€¢ And it requires mental toughness to battle the elements such as mud, rain, and cold.
I could tell you that these are also the reasons I've become a fan of cyclocross, but I'd be lying. The real reason I'm hooked on cyclocross is that its a freakin' blast.
Now keep in mind that I've never been a bike racer. I've always enjoyed biking (both road and mountain) as part of my ski training, but I never did much racing. Road racing was never my thing, and I never seemed to get a great workout in mountain bike races because I am not a great technical rider. True story: I once did a bike/run duathlon where we had to run one lap of a single-track course, then hop on our bikes and ride the same lap again. I was the only person in the race who ran the loop faster than I biked it! But nevertheless, cyclocross attracted me with its potential for good ski training. And, yes, knowing that it was perfectly acceptable to jump off the bike and run, if that was faster, helped too.
One Saturday last October, I woke up to sunny skies but with no plan for the day. I remembered that there was an Arctic Cross cyclocross race that morning, and decided that, after years of saying “I should try that,” I finally would. So I loaded my hard-tail mountain bike in my truck and headed to a small park in downtown Anchorage.
When I arrived, I was glad to see some familiar faces from the nordic skiing world. Patrick McGownd, the Toko ski rep for Alaska, was sitting behind the registration table. He greeted me warmly and explained the race format. The course loop, designed by skier Bruce Ross, was about a mile long around a grassy park. It was a mass start race, and everyone would race for at least fifty minutes. After the fifty minute mark, the leaders would do one more lap, then finish. Once the winner had crossed the line, everyone else would finish up their current lap. Places would be determined by the number of laps done, and the time it took to complete them. Given my lack of experience, I was relieved to hear that lapped racers did not have to pull out of the race.
I was feeling a little self-conscious about showing up with a clunky mountain bike instead of a cyclocross bike, but at the start line I noticed that more than half the field was on mountain bikes. Sure, there were plenty of experts with tricked-out 'cross bikes. But in general, it was a low-key crowd of all ages and abilities, and varying degrees of tech-weenie-ness. I was glad to see that this was a sport I could try without needing new gear.
My plan was to start at the back, go easy for a couple laps to see what cyclocross was all about, then maybe pick up the pace. I went to the back row, and casually mounted my bike when they said “Go!” And then my conservative strategy lasted all of ninety seconds.
Despite my lack of cycling race experience, the race environment immediately felt comfortable and familiar. The race seemed to flow much like a mass-start ski race. It was good riding – off-road but not technical, at a speed similar to skiing. We cruised along the edge of the park, then climbed up the course's big hill, which took about 45 seconds to ascend. I hammered up the hill, built speed across the flat, and then focused on recovery as I headed back down the hill, just as I would have if I was on skis. Any hope I had of holding back and being conservative immediately went out the window. My ski racing instincts had been triggered and it was futile to resist.
After some winding back and forth, and up and down, we dropped back down the big hill. At the bottom, we had to dismount and run (carrying our bikes) up a few flights of stairs, then jump back on, pedal around the edge of the park, jump off again to hop over a couple small hurdles, then back on to complete the first of about nine laps. The loop probably took about seven minutes. As the laps ticked by, I steadily moved up through the pack. I was fired up by attacking the demanding hills, and I loved the change of pace provided by running and hopping over obstacles. I passed all the people on mountain bikes and was starting to pick off a few of those on 'cross bikes, which made me feel good. I crossed the finish line well behind the leaders, but somewhere in the top half. I was grinning ear to ear. THAT was FUN. I immediately made plans to race the next weekend as well. My second race involved a lot more mud than the first, but it was even more fun. Possibly because of the mud.
Sadly, that was the end of the 2007 'cross season. Since then, I've been looking forward to Arctic Cross 2008. I'm thrilled to have found a sport that is so similar to skiing, yet so new and exciting. My goal for this 'cross season is to once again to use the races as training for skiing. I hope to get in some good, fast workouts without taking it too seriously or getting overly competitive. Of course, the shiny, new cyclocross bike in my garage might have slightly different plans.
Fall is the season for 'cross racing, so if you are interested, start looking for events now. If you are in the Anchorage, Alaska area, be sure to check out the Arctic Cross series at www.arcticcross.org
Cory Smith is a former editor of FasterSkier.com who now ski races for fun. You can read about his outdoor pursuits at www.endurefun.com