Category Archives: Cycling

Three Perils of Mountain Biking and Tips for Avoiding Them

After keeping you all in suspense, I’m sorry to report that mountain biking was uneventful and that I was awesome at it…or, something like that.  Honestly, although I had some concerns about trying mountain biking, I truly thought I was going to be really good at it.  I’m athletic and have good biking endurance from commuting and riding my road bike.  I was slightly off in my confidence and assesment of skills – just slightly…

The drive up to Raystown was per usual:  me as dj, a stop at Burger King for lunch, and meandering through a mix of quaint and sketchy little towns.

The always classy Breezewood Motel

By the time we made it up to the Susquehannock Campground (the primitive sites, instead of where we usually stay at Seven Points) on Friday, we decided just to set up camp, make dinner and hang around by the fire – no riding just yet.  So I joyfully sat watching the fire lick up the logs, sipping on my oh-so-tasty Avery IPA (hoppy, delicious craftbrew in a CAN), blissfully ignorant of things to come.  

Saturday morning, we swung over to Rothrock Outfitters to pick up my women’s specific bike. 

The folks at Rothrock are super chill and very friendly.  They tightened up my bike, gave me an extra tube, I signed a waiver and I became the proud renter of a Scott Contessa 50.  I will say, I highly recommend using these guys.  They also have kayaks for rent, camping gear, and even Ruff Wear equipment for your adventure dogs!  Plus, their shop is pretty cool and is just 15-20 minutes from the campground in Huntingdon, which is worth checking out itself.  

Back at camp, it was time to set sail on my maiden voyage.  My initial concern with mountain biking was the tree roots and rocks on the trail.  Ryan assured me that you don’t really notice them and you just kind of pop over them.  I was skeptical.  But, after riding on the road by our campsite to make sure my seat was adjusted properly, Ryan had me “off-road” through our campsite.  I quickly saw that rocks and roots were of no concern and I was now feeling unstoppable with my one major concern now pushed aside.  Silly…

Peril #1 – Speed

As I very quickly learned, so many mountain bikers like the trails at Raystown because of their “flow”.  I just thought this meant the trails were smooth.  Basically, it means that the trails are built in such a way so that you can build speed and momentum and rarely pedal.  To me this meant I was stuck in a maze of rocket boosters propelling me toward trees and off of cliffs at warp speeds.  Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but let me explain my fear of speed…

I got my first big girl bike for my 5th birthday.  I had picked it out and was super excited.  But, once I got the bike, I was terrified to ride it.  Without the safety of my training wheels there were too many unknowns.  How was I supposed to balance the bike, steer and pedal all at the same time?  Wasn’t I bound to crash and get hurt?  I would not get on the thing – how could my parents even buy me such a unsafe gift?  Finally, my mom gave me a deadline.  If I did not ride the bike by then, she would sell it to another little girl that would.  So I pouted for a week, waited until the last day, got on the bike, started crying as my dad jogged along side of me and just like in a movie, tipped over as soon as I noticed he was gone.  I was like this with lots of “daring” acts – rollerblading, water slides, cliff jumping, etc.  Not exactly Evel Knievel.  

So, back to the mountain biking…the first trail we were on was ok, but was enough to get me a little nervous.  I felt much more out of control then I would have liked.  Then we went onto the hydroloop.  This loop was complete with a lakeview.  Lovely for those who aren’t worried about falling off the trail and tumbling down into the lake, but for me it just increased my anxiety.  I was on my brakes practically the entire time trying my best not to pick up any speed whatsoever.  At this point, I learned that using the rear brake caused my bike to fish tail a little bit.  Usually this wouldn’t be that problematic, but at my slow speed fish tailing combined with roots and rocks made for a little bit of a challenge.  So, I started using my front brake…(a hint of foreshadowing here).

Then we hit the doe trail – my favorite!  It was flat and mellow and everything I thought mountain biking was going to be.  I pedaled and was in control of my own speed.  It was a nice bike ride through the woods and it was awesome!  The trail was punctuated with a couple little rock gardens that I actually was able to navigate and was really beginning to like this. 

The doe trail connected to another and we wound our way to a nice scenic overlook, where we stopped to take in the view, take a little break, and snap a photo!  This was just like hiking, but faster!  I could get into this.

At the overlook

Then came berry trail…

The berry trail had overgrown thorny bushes that snagged at your skin and pulled and scratched as you rode past.  I have many little scraps from these and I couldn’t help but think that this was the dumbest thing ever and nobody could think this trail is fun.  It just got worse…a set of rollers.  These rollers were downhill and I was going way to fast for my own liking.  I couldn’t stay completely on the brakes so I had to pump them.  Then it got to a point where I couldn’t really control my speed at all and I caught air off of one of the hills. I panicked, slammed on my brake (the front one) and caused the bike to buck me off into the thorny berry bushes.  This leads to mountain biking lesson #1 – do not slam on your front brake because you will get bucked off.

Scratches from falling in the bushes

Unfortunately for me, I’m a slow learner and I bucked myself two more times after this.  On one such occassion, I landed against a log.  I have a lovely bruise on my back to remind me of why you should not ever jam on the front brake.

Peril #2 – Feet Positioning

For a little while, we hit some parts of the trail that “suck” – climbs.  I liked these parts.  Although they are a lot of work, I was in control of my speed and direction.  During some of the climbs, I would get a little squirrely and the bike would start zig-zagging up the hill.  Ryan gave me mountain biking lesson #2 – keep your eyes three feet ahead of you and your bike will track straight.  Genius trick that worked like a charm!  These parts I did fairly well on. 

As we kept riding I was feeling more and more confident.  Then came mountain biking lesson #3 – keep your pedals level with one another.  Even when I ride my road bike, I usually ride with one foot down and one up when I’m coasting.  I took this same stance to mountain biking.  Well, what happens when you do that on mountain biking trails is you catch your pedal and/or foot on the ground, a rock, a root, etc.  Lucky for me I only hit the pedal and it just startled me.  You can really, really hurt yourself doing this so DON’T.

Ryan ripping around showing me how it's done - level pedals!

In addition to keeping your feet level when you can, you should also keep your feet on the pedals.  Seems pretty obvious, but trust me, it isn’t always your natural inclination or the will of whatever physics is going on.  I was not using clip pedals for very obvious reasons, so I had flat pedals and tennis shoes on.  On a few occassions my foot slipped off of the pedals.  Most of the time it was just an annoyance, but once it caused me to slip off the bike.  Luckily, it was just on a climb.

Beyond the things out of your control, there is also fear.  My fear came into play during the banked turns, or berms.  While experienced people will say they are fun and easy and your bike will naturally go around them, I say that they are horrific.  I rode through two or three and was convinced I was going to wipeout, so I took my feet off to brace myself or to try to cushion my landing or whatever was going through my mind…I don’t know.  Well, Ryan informed me that if I kept doing that and did fall or catch my foot on a root or rock, then I would break my ankle or leg.  So, do not do this either.  Keep your feet on the pedals and level.

Feeling good despite 3 falls (feet still not level...)

Peril #3 – Shit Happens

After three falls and a handful of close calls, I was still a little shaky on this activity.  Just when my confidence was getting up, I would fall again or almost fall.  Then toward the end, I decided to go for it.  The last set of rollers were pretty level, instead of downhill, and the turn at the end seemed gradual and easy to make.  So, for only the fourth or fifth time all day, I completely let off of the breaks and rode through the entire section.  I was gaining speed, pedaling right off the jumps, and genuinely having fun and loosening my death grip on my handlebars.  Then, before I knew what happened, I had wrecked HARD and was lying face down half on the trail, half not.  WTF?!?

After Ryan helped pick me and my bike up, he showed me where the trail washed out and why I had wrecked.  I took only the tiniest bit of solace in the fact that there were tread marks from where other bikers had clearly done the same thing.  Still, I was in too much pain to really care that much.  This lesson I call shit happens.  There is not much in way of tips for avoiding this.  Everyone wrecks at some point.  It may be something you did, or it might be a fluke thing in the trail, or an animal stepped in your path or whatever.  Unfortunately, my wreck had some very mean consequences…

I scrapped the hell out of my elbow, which continues to throb even as I type this.

War wound

Different shot of my arm

Then, I must have hit my thigh on my bike or something because I have a scrape across it which is surrounded by a bruise bigger than my hand.  It hurts to walk or touch – you’d be surprised how much you touch your thigh or rest things in your lap.  It sucks.

Giant bruise on my leg

I also managed to smash the area right below my lower abdomen.  I have a nice cut there as well, and what cut would be complete without a bruise?  Don’t worry, fist sized bruise there as well. This one really hurts.  No movement without it hurting.

Overall, I still enjoyed my time mountain biking and had I only ridden on the beginner’s trails, I would have been fine.  Also, if you aren’t pre-disposed to be a speed-fearing spaz, you won’t buck yourself off.  Really, I should have only wrecked the last time.  Still, even just that one time, well…especially that last time, was a tough fall and I am definitely still feeling it.  If you do go, which I would still encourage most people to do, keep in mind the following tips:

  • Start on beginner’s trails and work your way up
  • Try not to let fear get the best of you and don’t over think things
  • Do NOT slam on your front brake or you will get bucked off your bike
  • Keep your feet on your pedals and level whenever possible
  • Look three feet or so ahead of you to keep your bike tracking straight

The night was spent nursing my wounds with some cold beers, delicious burgers, Ibuprofen and ice.  There was no way I was riding in the morning, so Ryan went out on his own and I cleaned up camp.  After returning my rental bike, Ryan and I explored Huntingdon a little bit.  We were going to go to Boxer’s Cafe, which is supposed to be awesome, but it was closed on Sundays.  We’ll have to get it next time.  

We drove around a bit, passed Puff convenience store (specializing in cigarettes) and then decided on pizza!

We had some tasty mozzarella sticks before moving on to a truly delicious white pizza with garlic, cheese and tomatoes courtesy of the Original Italian Pizza.

Great pizza... and cheap beer to go!

It was certainly a much better choice then the strangely named restaurant at the campground marina, which has mediocre food and bad service.  However, hilarious slogan of “what would life be without memories”.

With bellies full of pizza, we decided to rent kayaks and paddle around the lake for awhile. A safe and gentle activity for my sore and recovering body.

Until next time…

Mountain biking/mother nature – 1, Heather – 0


Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Camping, Cycling, Food and Drink, Travel


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Friday Escape – Into the Woods

Later today I will be headed out of DC to my primitive campsite at Raystown Lake.  Though not my first time camping at Raystown, this will be my first time mountain biking there – or anywhere for that matter.  As anyone who knows Ryan can tell you, he loves bikes of all sorts.  Usually when we go camping he finds some time to either go out on his own or hits the trails with some of our biking friends.  Meanwhile, I occupy my time reading, kayaking or drinking beers and hanging out by the fire.  Trust me, I’m perfectly content with this set up.  However, there has always been a part of me that wondered about the appeal of mountain biking.  I like the wilderness, I like hiking and I like biking….perhaps I would like mountain biking?  On the other hand, the idea of launching myself off of a rogue root or rock and into a tree sounds horrifying.  Still, I have to give it a try and this weekend will be my maiden voyage!

I did a little research and the good people at Rothrock Outfitters have a short lady sized bike that I’m going to rent.

Will I become hottest thing to hit mountain biking since I don’t even know what -or- will I get my ass handed to me by mother nature?  I’ll find out tomorrow, but you all will have to wait until Monday.  Wish me luck!


Posted by on July 8, 2011 in Camping, Cycling, Friday Escape, Travel


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Tour of the Battenkill

As I described in my last post, The Tour of the Battenkill is America’s toughest one day race and America’s “Queen of the Classics”.  It’s a one day road race a la the spring classics circuit in Europe, which includes the famed Paris-Roubaix.  Battenkill takes place in Cambridge, NY every year and similar to the rolling farmlands in Europe, Cambridge is, in a word, rural.

Given Cambridge’s size, we stayed in neighboring Saratoga Springs.  Although Saratoga is known for its mineral springs and baths (which we sadly did not have time for), the thing you will notice throughout the town is horses – horse statues and horse photos everywhere!  This is due to the big horse racing scene at the Saratoga Race Course.  But, we were concerned with a horse of another color…..(horrible joke? Yeah, but I just had to make it).

After a long drive, many tolls, and an unfruitful quest for the oddly allusive Whopper Jr., we made it to Saratoga Springs and checked in to our room at the Hampton Inn and Suites.  If you are wondering about the Whopper incident, don’t worry, that will be explained in a later post – an expose on rest stops.  The hotel lobby, of course decorated with horse racing memorabilia and statues, was open and nice and lead us to the incredibly friendly older lady at the concierge desk.  She gave us our keys, went through the usual spiels and then informed us of the noise policy – 4 warnings and you’re done.  FOUR!?!  Stark contrast to our ridiculous Philly encounter with the unnecessarily rude, pantless flight attendant.  In addition to their friendliness, the Hampton Inn had an awesome free breakfast and the beds were very comfortable.  I would highly recommend staying there.

A quick drive through farmland and a slightly sad mix of antique stores, empty store fronts and abandoned houses, and we were in Cambridge so that Andy and Ryan could check-in and pre-ride part of the course.  That left me free to roam and check out the town.

Almost as prevalent as antique shops are the number of churches.  Although I am not religious, I am a fan of religious architecture and art.

Lutheran Church in Cambridge

Two houses down from this church was a similar white church.  If you turned right at the next intersection and walked for just a few minutes, you would come across another set of churches practically across the street from one another.  One was not so interesting looking and of course had a giant pro-life banner out front…the other one was beautiful.

© 2011 Heather Freitag

Cambridge was really flourishing in the early 19th century as an agricultural town.  Besides having the farmland, the Rice Seed Company set up shop in Cambridge and was the second largest and profitable seed company at the time.  As such, Mr. Rice was a “seed tycoon” and built a mansion for himself and his wife, which is now the Rice Mansion Inn, a bed and breakfast.

© 2011 Heather Freitag

As a complement to the farmland and seed production, Cambridge was also home to the Cambridge Steel Plow Company, which manufactured the country’s first all steel plow.

© 2011 Heather Freitag

To be able to ship all the farm products and equipment out, the town depended upon the railroad.

Old Tracks

With the dependence on the railroad and the travelers that came to town on the trains, the town was in need of a place for the people to eat and sleep. Cue the construction of the Cambridge Hotel in 1885.  Unfortunately, during the race weekend, the hotel was shamelessly splattered with event sponsor banners.  Still, the building is exactly what you might imagine – something out of a western movie or a part of an Oklahoma! set.

© 2011 Heather Freitag

The shops and diner (yes singular) that dotted Main Street were what you would imagine from an old, small town.

The Village Store

Local Artwork

Small Diners

Lots of Patriotism

In my Friday Escape post about Cambridge, I mentioned a coffee shop called Uncommon Ground that I was hoping to stop in to.  Luckily, the shop opened for the weekend because of the race.  So, after some wandering, photo taking and a pop into the antique shop, I headed over to Uncommon Ground for a caramel latte.

Inside, as I waited for the barista to make my tasty beverage, an old man eating a banana struck up a conversation with me.  We talked for a bit, when his wife (who worked at the cafe) came by to eat some more of her banana.  She had evidently ripped a piece of the banana off, and then had pulled away for work.  In her absence, the freed portion of the banana rolled away from the rest and was at the other end of the counter.  She immediately observed, “Oh! My banana must have rolled away!”  To which her husband replied, “Do you suppose that’s how cavemen invented the wheel?  That they were eating a banana and part of it rolled away?”  His wife just shook her head and walked away, so he turned his questioning glance toward me.  I smiled and said maybe, but I really wanted to burst out laughing.

Latte in hand, I left the old man in his banana and the wheel quandary and headed outside to enjoy the sunshine on the patio.  As I sat sipping my latte, a man come out of the cafe with a plate of salad, surveyed the already full tables, and resigned himself to eat his salad standing.  I was taking up an entire table by myself, so I told him that he was welcome to join me.  The two of us got to chatting and I came to find out that he was also in town for the race.  Not surprising, lots of people were.  But, he was not there to race or to support a racer….he was there to support the cafe.  Common Ground is owned by a commune and since they knew they were going to be open for the weekend, which they normally aren’t, and that they would be very busy pumping racers with coffee, they asked some other members to come into town to help.  And here I thought Common Ground was a play on coffee grounds and a message on diplomacy and getting along with your fellow man.  Instead, it likely represents the ideals of the commune.

The man, who shall remain nameless, was very nice and I really enjoyed talking to him.  Still, the idea of a commune is a little strange to me.  Removing legal issues, the idea of pooling resources seems ok.  It’s like a large family.  But, there must be some spiritual component or something, because they all dressed and looked alike, and not in a consumer-driven, cookie-cutter jcrew way.  All of the men had long hair pulled into a low ponytail and long scraggly beards.  All of the women were very homely looking, had long hair pulled into ponytails, flowing long-sleeved blouses and either ankle-length skirts or fabric pants.  I am NOT talking about a fashionable maxi skirt for the beach or the bizarrely back MC hammeresque pants.  I am talking frumpy peasanty-looking clothes.  It all seemed a little cultish to me, but to each his own…plus, my latte was really good.

Back in Saratoga Springs for the night, Ryan, Andy and I wandered the streets in search of food!  Everywhere on the main road seemed packed, so we cut down a side street and found Gaffney’s.  Gaffney’s was a great little neighborhood pub, had decent live music, and absolutely excellent pasta.  All three of us were very impressed and surprised at how good our meal was.  I highly recommend Gaffney’s.


On the drive over to the race, there were some last minute strategy conversations going on in the car.  I’m not a racer and had nothing to add on this front, so I sat quietly and stared at the animals as we passed.  Then the talk turned to nerves.  Here was somewhere where I could jump in – I’ve seen my fair share of inspirational sports movies (probably my favorite genre of movie), and I can, and often do, easily quote Remember the Titans.  So, I offered this nugget of advice, “Turn those butterflies into attack eagles!”  Probably some of my best work – Coach Boone would be proud.

© 2011 Heather Freitag

Here’s where I would love to post all of my sick photos from the race:  large peleton shot stretching through the rolling farmland, racers both coming in and going out of a covered bridge, oblivious cow chewing his cud in the foreground as racers fly past him, up-close shot of two guys battling it out around the corner, and of course, Ryan’s awesome victory/pain face as he crosses the finish line….

Instead, I couldn’t see most of the course at all and I spent 45 minutes perfecting the magazine worthy finish shot for Ryan only to have my efforts wasted and foiled by my own idiotic move.  As I waited for Ryan, the wind was picking up and tossing dirt and debris around, so I placed my lens cap back on.  When Ryan rounded the corner and headed down the straight away toward the finish, I got excited and started cheering for him.  I had already set up my shot, so no need to worry.  He came closer and I bent over to take my perfect shot only to, you guessed it, have my LENS CAP ON!!!  What an ass.  I was pretty pissed.  But, Ryan did great!!! 16th out of 50 in his category.

Go Babe Go!

His friend Collin, who was in a different category got 4th and was super stoked!

Ryan’s other friend Andy also did well and finished in the middle of the pack in his category.  If you’ve been to a bike race as a fan or a racer, you already know the importance of food and beers after a race!  An Irish pub is an excellent choice, and our pub for the night was The Parting Glass.  Decent burger, good beers.

Next morning, and not to be confused with Common Ground in Cambridge, we went to Uncommon Grounds in Saratoga Springs.  Very good chai tea latte.  Then it was time for our long journey home.

All in all, Cambridge and Saratoga Springs were pretty cool.  Oh, and I have to add, a local dairy farm brought fresh chocolate milk to the race….I LOVE chocolate milk and this chocolate milk was stuff of legend.  So tasty.  I’m already looking forward to having more next year.  I will also NOT be bested by my lens cap again and I will get a shot of the famed covered bridge.  For now, here’s one that Ryan took of Andy with the bridge in the background during their pre-ride of the course – just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

See you next year Battenkill!

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Posted by on April 16, 2011 in Cycling, Travel


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Friday Escape – New Zealand!

So, February’s issue of Outside Magazine features an awesome article on New Zealand that is totally unfair because now I can not stop thinking about going.  Of course New Zealand isn’t new to Outside or to anyone that is in to being outdoors.  In fact, it should already be close to the top of any adventurer’s travel list.  But this article just hit you with everything all at once.  

Of the two main islands-the North and the South Island-I think that the North Island would be where I would start.  According to the article, you can go yacht racing, trout fishing, mountain biking, visit volcanoes, dip in the hot springs, see crater lakes, and do some under-the-radar surfing.  Two of New Zealand’s major cities—Auckland and Wellington—are also on the North Island along with most of the native Maori culture.  Not to mention that there are beaches and stunning scenery everywhere you look.  Work up a thirst in all of your adventures?  You can go wine-tasting.  Really, what can’t you do in New Zealand?!  For the more daring, you can even go bungee jumping.  As you may recall from my other post, bungee jumping is probably not for me.

Plus, the part of the article that really hooked me and keeps playing in my mind is the idea of touring around New Zealand in an RV – brilliant!  And with the right travel companions, completely awesome!!!  Obviously, you would need to be renting one and this company offers varying sizes.  I truly don’t know if I can think of anything more fun that driving around in one of these things with some friends, great music coming through the stereo, some tasty snacks, maybe some Snapple, stopping off wherever we want (New Zealand does not require you to camp at a campsite) and doing tons of cool shit along the way.  Feel like kayaking today? Sure.  Little hiking adventure?  Why not?  Lounge on the beach – yes please! 

If that doesn’t excite you, then I don’t think I want to know you.  However, I’ll give you another angle – maybe you are enticed by the fact that this place is so amazing that it served as the location for the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings. 

Basically, a trip to New Zealand would just be fantastic.  Make sure you allow yourself at least 2 weeks and bring along people that can appreciate it and have fun with you!  Until I can afford this sum of everything awesome trip, I’m just gonna keep dreaming about.  For now, off to the bar for $1 PBRs!  It’s close to embarking on a road trip in New Zealand….right?


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Friday Escape – Bend, Oregon!

In a few days I will again be embarking on a trip to the Land of Exceptional Beverages.  Ryan will be racing in the 2010 Cyclocross Nationals out in Bend and I’m going out to watch, partake in the festivities surrounding the Nats and drink as much beer as possible.  If you are wondering what in the world cyclocross is, HERE is a rundown.

Or, to sum it up, cyclocross is pretty legit.  Of course people say it’s fun, but they also say it’s painful and it’s not hard to imagine that a few minutes of this would be enough for anyone to start to wonder why in the hell they are doing it.  There is obviously just something about it.

I know it might slowly be dawning on some of you, as it has been creeping up on me as well, that it is already December.  That means, yes, this race is in the cold and the snow.  It will not be warm by any means.  All the more reason for me to get bundled up in my pouffer, a ridic hat of sorts, some wool leggings and my trusty galoshes/uggs depending on the sloppiness of the course.  There will also be plenty of “yarn” for me to fashion into a warm, liquid blanket.

In addition to the races, there will be a lot of events to entertain the racers and their friends and family.  One such event is run by a fellow Minnesotan, Charles Youel, and features bike art from local artists – it’s called artcrank, and I am looking forward to seeing what the Oregonians put forth.  The show is part of a broader art show that will be taking place throughout the city.  Maybe we’ll even pick up an original piece for our walls!

And of course, there will beer…lots of beer.  Naturally, I’m excited to throw back some of the great beers I quickly grew to love from Deschutes and Cascade, or the extra yummy Rubinator at McMenamin’s.  But, I’m also excited to explore more of the beers at 10 Barrel.  Their Apocalypse IPA was fantastic and I can’t wait to see what other deliciously brewed beverages they have to offer.  I’m not too worried about missing any opportunities, as each night there are parties to cap off the day of racing and I’m assuming their will be beers a-flowin’ during the day (for the spectators, of course).

If you are going to be out there, or if you are just curious, or if you feel like you just aren’t quite jealous enough of my trip, HERE is a full schedule of the events.

So yes, in just a few days I will be knocking back mind-boggling good beers, giving people plenty of cowbell, taking lots of photos, viewing original bike art, and just having an awesome time in a fun town.  Now if only it could come sooner…

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Posted by on December 3, 2010 in Cycling, Friday Escape, Travel


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I’m here for the bikes, beers and cowbells

My boyfriend Ryan loooooves bikes – all types of bikes.  In our tiny troll dwelling (English Basement in a rowhouse on Capitol Hill), he has 2 BMX bikes, a road bike, a mountain bike, a GIANT beach cruiser and his cyclocross bike.  While we are at it, let’s throw my one bike into the mix.  For all the math whizes out there, that is a grand total of 7 bikes in our little space.  So yes, he loves bikes.  He started out with BMX and mountain bikes when he was a kid.  Here in DC he got into road racing a few years ago.  This summer he discovered what has become his favorite bike medium – cyclocross.  I will say that it is far and away my favorite from a spectator standpoint.

If you are like I was, and I imagine most of you will be with me on this one, you have no idea what cyclocross is.  Cyclocross, or just cross, started in the early 1900s in Europe (imagine that) as a way for road racers to stay in shape in the off season.  Thus, races are typically held in the autumn and winter months.  Often, the races were “steeple chases,” because riders could cut through fields, forests, streams, etc. to get to the finish which would be in a neighboring town.  Usually as riders raced, they would keep the only visible landmark–a church steeple–in sight so that they knew where they were going.

Cross became popular here in the US in the 1970s and many of the features of cross hearken back to its earlier roots.  Courses now are off road and on grass, dirt, sand, mud, snow, etc.  Each course also has at least one spot that is a run-up where the rider must dismount the bike and run with it.

Ryan shouldering his bike

There are also barriers that require dismount.

Hup! Hup!

Most of the barriers and run-ups are placed around the areas where fans can see…mainly, the beer and food tent/pavilion.  Partially due to its European roots and probably also because it’s so cold during the race season, most of these events have some sort of beer sponsor…

Sponsored by Duvel and Ommegang

…and usually have Belgian foods (sausages, waffles, frites) and other food too.  Why Belgian food?  The Belgians are big into cross, and cycling in general, and have been fairly dominant in cross racing.  So, many of the traditions in American cross are taken from Belgium.  This explains why you will often see Flemish flags at cross events.

Lion of Flanders

However, at one point the Swiss were big contenders on the cross scene as well and as far as cross culture goes, they made a big contribution – THE COWBELL.

2009 Bend Cross Nats Cowbell

At any cross race there will be numerous cowbells that people ring as racers come by.  According to this account, the cowbell was a cheering aid that the Swiss cross team borrowed from Swiss skiers.  Then, the idea was imported into the US when the Saturn-sponsored team decided to give out cowbells as a gimmick.  And now, cross races have a fever….and the only prescription is…more cowbell!  I know, I know, easy joke but I guess it had to be made.

In addition to the awesome food, beer drinking and frantic cowbell ringing, cross just has a cooler vibe.  It’s more relaxed.  And to be honest, from the spectator standpoint, it’s just way more fun to watch.  There are the barriers which add an element of interest and an opportunity for debacle.  If America’s Funniest Home Videos teaches us anything, people generally find some sort of enjoyment, amusement or entertainment when other people get hurt.  I’m not afraid to admit that my favorite part of that show was always the rapid-fire montages of people getting hurt.  So, the barriers are a great spot to hang out, snap some good photos, and see if anyone trips up.

Plus, you still have the elements of most sports-watching that people love – you can dress up, be belligerent and cheer loudly (again with the cowbells!).  For most sports, people don’t necessarily dress in “costume” but really, when you have your team colors painted over half of your body with some crazy colored afro wig, you aren’t exactly in everyday attire.  Unless you are a clown by trade, in which case I apologize.  In cross, people wear whatever costumes they feel like wearing.

Captain Morgan or Hook or some sort of swashbuckler

Turkey hops barriers with riders

Even the riders themselves sometimes don a costume…

Cycling...a way to "clean" the environment

Piggies love the mud!

There are even some races that have a TANDEM race category.  Whoever thought of a tandem bike is nuts.  Even on what should probably be “leisurely, fun” rides with a significant other, these bikes obviously bring out some sort of inner demon in people.  We just aren’t meant to be attached – it’s unnatural!  I mean, the tandem is nicknamed the “divorce horse.”  Sounds disastrous to me.  But, in the races, it’s usually teammates or friends on the bikes.  Maybe slightly less detrimental to the riders home life, but stressful nonetheless.  The tandem course is not modified so the riders must navigate the dismounts and barriers while trying not to kick each other in the face and be able to handle the bike through tight turns on the course.

Fitting for TOMS one-for-one campaign!

Bottom line is people are loving cross, fans and riders alike, and it’s becoming more and more popular.  I’ll be off to the cross nationals in Bend, Oregon this December so I will be sure to do a follow-up post then!  In the meantime, there are many websites devoted to cross, but one blog in particular seems like it would be informational and entertaining to someone who is new to the sport.  Plus, I like the name: Mud and Cowbells.  If you ride a bike, you should look into racing cross.  If not, convince one of your bike-riding friends to take it up so you can go throw on a costume, drink tasty beers, watch some cross, and of course, ring some cowbells!

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Posted by on November 10, 2010 in Cycling


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