Mud for Breakfast and Bananas for Lunch, Holimont Cyclocross on a Single Speed

Picture this:

The leaves are golden yellow with bright hues of orange and beautiful specks of red. A few of these nature painted leaves slowly make their short and sweet flight to the ground as you walk through a splendid park near your house.

As you crest the hill you see a big group of people riding, what looks to be road bikes, in and around an oddly shaped and taped course. Suddenly, as you get closer and continue staring in disbelief, you notice them hopping off the bike, throwing it on their shoulders, and jumping little barriers. They then hop right back on and pedal until what looks like their heart might explode. And to top it all off they are all wearing skin-tight spandex, colored more brightly than the autumn leaves.

This isn’t a strange dream your crazy mind thought up, this is actually a real thing called Cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a very specific type of bike racing. For the most part, the course is off-road but there are sometimes portions of pavement included in the course. You can expect to encounter grass, dirt, mud, gravel, sand, and a whole slew of other assortments and combinations. – CX Magazine

My First Race This Season

Last weekend I competed in my first ‘cross race of the season at Holimont in Ellicottville, NY. It was another one of these unseasonably warm and incredible days that we have been enjoying this year. The sky was a perfect blue with just a slight breeze and the prettiest leaves to remind everyone that yes, despite the temperature it is Fall.

As I have done the past few years, I decided to race single speed. For people not in the bicycle world, this means I only have one gear. With no option to make it easier for going up a hill, the only remedy is to stand-up, crank harder and make the legs burn!

The course, being at a ski mountain was super hilly. The first section took us up a windy serpentine route to the top of one trail before heading down, continuing the twisty turns over the rutted grassy terrain. Eventually, a right turn took us straight down a trail, over a drainage ditch, through some gravel to the base of the mountain, and right into a hairpin left straight back up.

All of this accounted for about half of the 7 to 8-minute long course. This type of racing is a balls-to-the-wall sprint no matter what your level may be. For single speed and intermediate racers, it lasts about 45 minutes. If you’re a beginner (Category 5), it’s normally a half hour. And anyone more experienced than Category 3 is an hour.

Although this seems like a short amount of time, you have to realize that you are racing against fierce competitors and your heart will be beating on your chest. Your lungs will be sucking the sweet oxygen-rich air the entire time and will barely be able to keep up. Your legs will begin to burn with lactic acid, and if you’re unlucky you might start to feel some cramps in your quads or calves that halt you in your tracks. But the only option is to keep spinning until you finish your last lap, signaled by the bell.

3. 2. 1.

The horn blows and the clicking sounds of bike cleats snapping into pedals prevail over the cheers of the small crowd. Starting on the line, I decide not to get to the front of the pack but to settle in the 3rd position for a bid, and not to explode on the first climb.

The course start is grassy and rutted. I switch between sitting and standing positions in order to get the power I need just to keep up. Our pack of 14 continues to crawl up the hill, and although I know many are behind me, I don’t know how close. I assume the worst—that they are breathing down my spine.

As we climb the ski slope, it begins to angle out. My body has gotten used to the heavy breathing. I try to control it and pace myself but my main goal is not to lose my paceman in 2nd.

Minutes, no probably seconds later, I am passed by one guy, but that’s ok. It’s still only lap one. Amidst the heavy breathing and being pushed into 4th, our pack is passing the back of the Cat 5 guys, weaving in and out, waiting for the perfect opportunity to pass without losing momentum.

We get to the top of the hill and finally start the descent. It keeps the theme of grassy and rutted. Downhill is a relief, yet it’s not a break. Everyone is still pedaling at full force to gain any lead possible.

My front tire compresses as it hits the base of the muddy rut. My elbows and knees bend in unison like the massive shock absorbers they are and the brown water covers my legs and face. I barely tap the brakes and keep my speed going, passing another guy on the right just before a slight left that points us directly downhill.

Full speed ahead once again for about 30 yards before the hairpin left turn and I need to pull both levers hard to whip the rear tire around. I point the bike uphill for a few pedal strokes before the hay bales. At this slow speed I can’t bunny hop the hay on the bike so it’s time for that signature cyclocross move of jumping off the bike, jumping the obstacle and hopping right back on.

It goes well, I jump back on and clip my feet back in for a couple of seconds of uphill work. Just seconds later we are turning downhill again, cruising strong into the other section of the course.

A short uphill at speed, nearly a jump, then a 90-degree left into a slight downhill, off-camber, grassy alley. On the left there is a pond, and on the right a hill. “Don’t fall here,” I am thinking.

All of this until the U-turn, and then I cross a small bridge at full speed before having to jump off the bike again and hop two barriers back to back. After, back on the iron horse.

This leads into the hardest section; A long mud bog comprised of two sections and another hairpin turn uphill. The first mud pit is about 20-feet-long and I ride it, keeping left on the edge of the pond. It’s rideable but tricky to keep speed.

As the mud subsides and my tires gain traction on the grass, all of the sudden I hit the second mud pit. This one is deeper but still rideable, and again, I keep left. Keeping to the outside of the turn and slowly riding up the hill, I pass the start/finish line. No lap sign is posted yet…this could go on for a while.

The laps continue and my legs begin to burn. My training has been lackluster this year and short, hard riding is not my natural strong suit.

All Aboard The Struggle Bus

As the laps pass by, I also get passed by. These strong single speeders are eating up the course, and I’m trying my best to hang on, but it doesn’t always happen.

Lap three, maybe four, my buddy Dave Less passes me. Dave is one of the strongest single speed riders I know in the Western NY area. Never underestimate his power. I consider him a strong competitor and like racing against him because I know he is ultra competitive. Today I just don’t have it, and I can’t keep on him.

There’s a slight uphill and Dave’s already a few feet ahead. Within 30-seconds, those few feet turn into fifty. I keep him in sight but my legs, and my mind, they don’t seem to be in the game today.

My breathing is uniform. Although heavy, I keep each breath in check, knowing my lungs and heart and what they are capable of. At this point in the race, I know how much faster I can spin and how long I can stand until I reach my upper threshold heart rate. I stay below it, slightly less than the point of absolute exhaustion.

Looking back, I know I should have pushed it harder. I know I even thought that at the time, but that thought didn’t transfer into my legs. I continue to crank, push, and pull each pedal, trying to keep it as effortless as possible. Effortless certainly isn’t possible in a race though.

Slowly pedaling up the mountain, a right turn, and I lean in. Standing up and pushing it hard, I pass a competitor on the inside line. Next a straight away, and another turn, still uphill but my pace quickens to put space between myself and that newly passed racer.

I stand up, push hard on the pedal and begin to make my next right-hand turn, taking an inside line. My weight is forward and suddenly my front tire loses traction. The force rips me off the bike.

All at once my breath quickens, my body moves as fast as possible to remedy the unexpected setback. I get up, straighten out the bars, clip my right foot back in, and continue.

I even keep my place, although that racer behind me definitely enjoyed my misfortune, or more accurately, my sloppiness. Once this happens in a race I know that my body is losing stamina. I have started to push its’ boundaries and it is fighting back by reducing my technical competence. What a crappy feeling.

As the race continues, the mud thickens with the water beginning to take over the course.

This pasty, sticky, greasy mud slows me and tries to stop my tires from rotating. It takes a massive effort to keep any momentum but I know that I have to keep moving. The only thing in my mind is willing myself to finish this race.

Must, Keep, Going…

Now it’s the end of the seventh lap and I am slowing more as I approach the last and by far the largest mud pit. I notice another guy taking the right sideline, trying to avoid the greasy section. It seems to go well and I decide to abandon my previous line and give it a shot.

I pedal hard trying to keep my balance and keep the tire traction. All of the sudden my front tire falls deep into what seems like an endless hole. It must have been at least the depth of half my wheel!

I think it happened in slow motion, but all of the sudden I was going forward and over the bars, flying like Superman and head first into this soupy brown mud.

I hear a loud “WAHOOOO” from the crowd, and as quickly as I am in the mud, I am out. Hastily dragging my bike through the rest of the pit, I hop right back on and finish up my last lap.

I finished that last lap tired and totally worn out. As soon as I passed the finish line, I rode slowly to the car and downed a liter of water, ate a banana and a PB&J sandwich made with the last slices of my homemade bread, and it’s exactly what I needed.

You Don’t Have To Win, But You Have To Try

Although I did not finish this race as well, as I would have liked, what could I really expect? I raced against some of the fastest guys in the area and I haven’t been riding enough lately to really compete.

I love riding and love racing. It pushes me to ride harder and be better. Racing reminds me that I have so much more to work towards athletically and that no matter how good I am I can always shoot for better. And there’s plenty more cyclocross (or ‘cross) to be raced this year.

This race has also got me thinking about all of the mountain bike races for next year and about training. I think this will be the first year I really try to follow a training plan. More on that in the coming months!

And finally, I have to say a big thank you to Greg Culver for running the race, Jon Rosen for scoring it, Ron Grucela for snapping photos all day, and to Holimont for hosting a great ‘cross race for all!

Ryan Sarka
Ryan Sarka

Brand Ambassador & Writer

Cyclist, climber, snowboard mountaineer, triathlete, and engineer. Founding member of Between The Peaks. Bikepacked across the entire U.S.

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