Support BikePortland - Journalism that Matters

A newbs-eye view of ‘cross: Fighting fear with practice

Posted by on October 9th, 2014 at 10:33 am


Training ground.
(Photo by Ben Salzberg)

There’s just one race left in the Blind Date at the Dairy cyclocross series and I’ve got my work cut out for me. With the exception of my wipe-out in Week 2 that left me in 14th place, I’ve been stuck in 3rd and can’t seem to budge. The rider who has been finishing first usually does so with such a large margin that I can’t even see her after the first minute of the first lap.

That’s quite a gap to close, but I’m an unreasonable person and let’s be honest – I want to win.

I know from my extensive experience in adult beer-league kickball that practice is essential to improving on-field swagger as well as performance, albeit to a lesser degree. So I’m ready to put some work into this. But where to begin?

For me, cyclocross can be broken into 3 categories: things that are hard, things that are tricky, and things that terrify me.


The crowds at Champman school: So much for secret training.
(Photo by Rebecca Hamilton)


The uphills, for example, are hard things. But I love them, as I love anything that can be conquered with sheer stubbornness, and I look forward to working on them. The hill behind Chapman Elementary School in NW Portland near my home provides a magnificent combination of grade and gritty surface texture to practice power pedaling and run-ups.

“Over the past few years I’ve become extremely good at controlling everything in my life, at being safe. But in cross it’s apparent that the things I do to keep myself safe are exactly the things that are holding me back.”

Unfortunately, this time of year it also provides spectators with prime seating to watch the Vaux Swift chimney tornado, and so things that I’d rather practice in a secluded environment (like running uphill while carrying a bicycle hell-bent on attacking me) have become another part of the Swift-watching spectacle for the entire neighborhood. Despite waiting until the crowds thin out and finding the most out-of-the way path possible, I can still feel quizzical and slightly disapproving eyes of dutiful parents on me as I run repeats, bike in tow. “Your children are dirt-sledding on flattened Cheerios boxes,” I think to myself. “Let’s not get judgey here.”

Tricky things – like mounting and re-mounting, jumping barriers, and rounding tight turns in gravel – are fun to practice because I now have a practice friend. Emily is in the Beginners Women category with me. She works in concrete, drives an art car, and brought a hip flask of gin with her the first time we met up to ride. We ride up to Mt. Tabor and play follow-the-leader, using the basalt auditorium seats as barriers and carving hairpin turns on the mountain bike trails. This is my new Sunday morning and I’m nothing short of enchanted.


Training partner.
(Photo by Ben Salzberg)

Working on the hard things and the tricky things have thus become highlights of my week. But there are still the scary things that must be learned – namely, going downhill.

There are a few steep, curving downhill sections on the Alpenrose course, most of which terminate in a sharp curve (or a tree, if you don’t make the curve). They absolutely shake me. If I were a squid I would ink and flee. The brink of a downhill is where I forget to breathe, where my heart turns into a hummingbird and my whole body locks down onto my disc brakes like a vise — you would be truly impressed at how slowly you can inch down a hill if you really try. It’s not a great racing technique, however, and this is unsurprisingly where I often get passed.

I’ve spent some time thinking about it — which I have time to do, going down hills at 0.0001 mph – and I realized that it’s not a fear of falling that scares me. The thing about descents is that I don’t get to have full control. I can manage my balance and the direction of my line somewhat, but gravity is ultimately calling the shots.

Dropping a hill would mean letting go of the brakes a little and working within the context of something else that has more power than me. Over the past few years I’ve become extremely good at controlling everything in my life, at being safe. But in cross it’s apparent that the things I do to keep myself safe are exactly the things that are holding me back.

So I practice feeling unsafe. I ride back a few miles into Forest Park on Lief Erikson road and find a firelane. I walk up five feet, align my bike, and let it drop. Six feet, and drop. Now six and a half feet – drop. Again and again and again, I practice releasing my death grip on the brakes. I practice being scared and uncomfortable and being OK with it.

After a week, I’m still braking but at least I’m breathing. The feeling goes from the full-blown terror-panic of finding your kitchen on fire to something more interesting – more akin to the freaked-out exhilaration of telling scary stories in the dark at summer camp, in that half-instant before your counselor bangs on the cabin door with a tennis racket and sets everyone shrieking.

And that’s how this newbie has been training. In a few hours, I’ll see how it pays off. Good luck to everyone out there tonight!

— Read more of Rebecca’s “Newbs-eye view of cyclocross” here.

[Publisher’s note: The final Blind Date at the Dairy race was last night (Wednesday). We’re happy to report that Rebecca’s training paid off: She finished second! Just eight seconds off the leader. — Jonathan]

NOTE: Thanks for sharing and reading our comments. To ensure this is a welcoming and productive space, all comments are manually approved by staff. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for meanness, discrimination or harassment. Comments with expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia will be deleted and authors will be banned.

Leave a Reply

6 Comment threads
3 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
9 Comment authors
BenF.W. de KlerkJonathan GordonPNPRebecca Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Yowza, bike must weight 28 pounds set up that way, including rack and u-lock (!). I’d be too much of a weenie to hoist that around.

F.W. de Klerk
F.W. de Klerk

And she’s wearing a helmet to boot! ; )

Patrick Barber

Jonathan this is great but for the first few paragraphs I didn’t realize it was a guest writer since the standard byline is to you. Am I missing something?

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Yikes. My mistake. Thanks for noticing Patrick. I’ve changed the byline.


Congrats Rebecca. It’s been inspiring to follow your cross season via this column. You’ve got a nice writing style.


Hey Mike,
Thanks so much. Putting my writing up on BP is the only thing that freaks me out more than the steep downhills so I really appreciate that 🙂


Rebecca, as a fellow writer, I understand your freak-out about making your writing public, but you’re an excellent writer! I laughed out loud at your line about being a squid (“ink and flee”). Perfect.

I also agree with you about riding downhill. There’s a short, but scarily steep hill in the wilds of Washington County that never fails to make me feel as if I’m about to land on my forehead. All I can think is “if I fall now, it’s really going to hurt.” Not a good mantra, but I can’t help it.

I’ve loved reading about your experiences, and I hope to see more.

Jonathan Gordon
Jonathan Gordon

I love this series! I’m hoping Rebecca finds other ways to contribute to BP now that the Blind Date series is over.

And congrats on 2nd place!


Those photos are by Emily Hall and Rebecca, not me BTW. I was at home doing homework while they were practicing!