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Author: Rebecca Hamilton (Contributor)

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

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


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]

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A newbs-eye view of ‘cross: How to win over the crowd

A newbs-eye view of ‘cross: How to win over the crowd

Cross Crusade 2010 #2 - Rainier-75

Currying favor with ‘cross crowds is easy once you know the secrets.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

Spectating at the cyclocross races is entertaining, educational, and usually results in fewer stitches than racing yourself. I recommend it for anyone who’s feeling cross-curious.

For starters, you can learn a lot about proper technique from watching the more experienced riders. For example: if a racer can’t ride up a hill, they must run up it while carrying their bike. My bike and I have not yet figured out how to do this together; it’s awkward and I imagine we look like siblings slap-fighting each other in the backseat of the family minivan. In watching the Cat A racers, however, you see that there is an exact timing to the steps of a successful re-mount, a way to carry a bike that minimizes your chances of taking a pedal to the ribcage.

Cross Crusade #1 Alpenrose-46-46

Cat A racer Tina Brubaker shows textbook shouldering technique.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

You can also learn a lot about cyclocross fans. From a sportsing perspective, they’re an odd bunch: unlike fans of pro football or golf, winning matters nothing to them. These people are driven by a completely different set of values.

Cross Crusade at Alpenrose-33>

‘Cross fans are indeed a special breed.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

And as a racer, it’s important to understand those values because being cheered by the crowd – and heckling, teasing, and direct taunts absolutely count as cheering – is a weirdly powerful thing. I don’t understand how it works but it does. Even if you are riding as fast as you think you possibly can without blowing out a lung, when someone shouts “GET IT, girl! Pass that rider!” you suddenly can – and you do. As a racer, you want this power.

So how do you win the crowd? If not winning, what is it that inspires these people to yell themselves hoarse on behalf of total strangers?

After my races are over, I’ve been joining the crowds to watch the Cat A/B races at the most popular spectator spot– the top of a huge, steep, muddy hill on the back side of the course. These are the things I’ve noticed getting the love:

Badassery. Plenty of racers are able to ride up the hill for the first lap or two, but the precious few who are still gunning it on Lap 5 get a lot of noisy respect. Thus, the lady in the skirt who is still pedaling with a fury and passing lesser mortals pushing their bikes on the last lap gets a resounding chorus when she launches over the top. The dudes popping wheelies at the crest of the hill are beloved by all.


Support from the crowd keeps Julia Himmelstein smiling right when she needs it most.
(Photo by Kelley Goodwin)

Suffering. Someone who is deep their pain cave, slipping up the hill with their handlebars smacking them in the face, will get more cheering and encouragement than someone who appears moderately well-equipped to handle the challenge. The crowd responds positively to visible misery – we’re horrible people like that. So if you’ve got 3 laps left to go, your heart is about to explode, and you can’t believe you paid money for the privilege of dissolving your own leg muscles in lactic acid, go ahead and let that agony show.

Bend Cyclocross weekend 2-82

When all else fails, wear a crazy outfit.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

Pizzazz. Towards the end of the races, it’s gotten dark and the spandex onesies all start to look the same. It is at this time that any rider with distinguishing apparel or bike décor becomes an automatic crowd love magnet. Fake tuxedo shirts, BEER socks, and colored wheel lights reap far greater rewards at a cross race than they do in normal life; the woman racing in a silver sequined shirt who sparkles like a disco ball under the course lights has a cult following. These racers are not necessarily the best, but they are the shiniest. We’re just a bunch of magpies out here.

In this category, non-team riders (with their broader flair options) seem to have a clear advantage. With one notable exception, that is…

Cats. All right, meow. Most teams have smug, Tour de France-y outfits that pay homage to the high-tech laser company or brewery that sponsors them. They look aerodynamic but they’re not exactly crowd pleasers. Then there’s the team that covered their entire get-up with kittens. Seriously – kittens. It gives the fans so much to work with… perhaps too much. Every time a Ruckus Test Team racer rides by, it sets off a very distinct reaction.


(Photo: Ruckus Test Team)

I can’t think of another situation where I’ve been surrounded by 30 meowing adults. If you can, I don’t think I want to come to your house parties.

After three weeks of observation, these appear to be the stand-out values of a typical group of cyclocross fans, the things that people truly respond to. Bear in mind that this particular race series is alcohol-free; other crowd priorities may surface when beer gets involved. But in the meantime, interested racers: if you want to win a race you should practice, eat a bunch of kale and bring your A-game. If you want to win the crowd, bring your triumphant struggles, pain and suffering, sparkles, and kittens.

— Check out more from Rebecca Hamilton here. And by the way, we’re planning lots more cyclocross coverage this season and we need sponsors to help make it happen. Get in touch if you’re interested!

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A how-to guide for the ultimate carfree Crater Lake rim ride

A how-to guide for the ultimate carfree Crater Lake rim ride


Let’s hear it for Oregon’s National Parks Service staff and Travel Oregon. They’ve made carfree Crater Lake a reality. And it is good.
(Photos by Rebecca Hamilton)

As we mentioned in the Weekend Event Guide, Saturday is the last day this year to experience a carfree ride around Crater Lake. Contributor Rebecca Hamilton experienced it last week and has some tips to share.

Crater Lake National Park will host its last carfree day of 2014 this Saturday, September 27th. Although the West Rim Drive will remain open to motorized vehicles, the East Rim Drive’s 24 miles (of the 33-mile loop) around the caldera rim are yours to enjoy on foot or two wheels without a single stop sign or RV along the way.

I joined a group of Portlanders who traveled south and tried this out last weekend. We picked up a few tips worth knowing if you decide to go:


It took two fairly strong cyclists on road bikes about four hours to complete the loop, which included generous time spent stopping at overlooks and reading informational signage about Park ecosystems. Experienced cyclists who don’t care about scenic beauty or the lifecycle of the Clarke Nuthatch could ride it much faster; but why rush? Stop for the vistas and save the wind sprints for the less breathtaking stretches of road in your life.

Check the weather

At 7,000 feet, the weather can make or break your day. While our group last weekend enjoyed blue skies and 85-degree weather, it’s telling that no one who went on last year’s September carfree days would even consider the invitation to go again due to traumatic memories of something they referred to as the “thunder snows.”


Leave the cars behind!

It’s not the Springwater Corridor

You’ll be doing + 3,000 feet of climbing and the elevation adds an extra challenge for those accustomed to breathing the oxygen-dense air of Portland. The loop won’t faze a determined commuter but this is definitely not a beginner’s ride. 

Ride counterclockwise

For 90% of the ride, one direction is as good as the other. If you go clockwise, however, you’ll be ending your peaceful, pleasantly exhausting ride with 3 miles of climbing up a 4% grade in steady traffic. It’s do-able but feels like ending a yoga class with a fire alarm. Bonus: if the day is hot, the counterclockwise trip will put you at the Cleetwood Cove jumping/swimming spot at about mile 22 of your ride. 

Road bikes are recommended

This is a ride of both long, sustained climbs and glorious 5-mile descents, so an average rider may be most comfortable on a bike with a wide gear range and thinner tires. All our mountain-bike riding friends made it, however, and we did see a few SuperParents riding with kids on tag-alongs. Anything is possible if you’re willing to put the work in. The people on tandems looked like they were having most fun, at least on the downhills.

Check your brakes

Most of the descents are less steep than what you’d find coming off of the West Hills, but they’re long and you pick up a lot of momentum after several miles of downhill. There are also a number of places where the road has been damaged by freeze-thaw cycles or rockfalls that require quick responses when you’re travelling at speed. Replace borderline brake pads and tighten loose cables before you go.

It’s a real volcano

There aren’t any snack vending machines or drinking fountains along the way so bring what you need. There is a primitive restroom located halfway around at the Whitebark Pine Picnic Area.


It’s no understatement to say that this is one of the Great Experiences of Oregon. The chance to bike around the rim of a car-free Cascadian volcano caldera filled with a lake that created its own shade of blue is either why you moved here from Iowa or why you’re native Oregonian and will never leave. 
Just be sure to check the weather report for those pesky thunder snows.


Friends make it even better!

Here are a few more resources:
Official Crater Lake National Park Bike Map (PDF)
GPS of the counter-clockwise route with elevation profile
— Official National Parks site: Vehicle Free Days on East Rim Drive

Have fun! And make sure to comment or Tweet @BikePortland to share your photos and reviews of the ride.

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A newbs-eye view of cyclocross, part two: Learning the hard way

A newbs-eye view of cyclocross, part two: Learning the hard way

Blind Date at the Dairy race-16

How did our guest author do her second time out?
(Note: That’s not her in the photo.)
(Photos by J. Maus/BikePortland)

This is Rebecca Hamilton’s second article in a series about her introduction to cyclocross racing. Read last week’s installment here.

It’s Week 2 of the Blind Date at the Dairy cyclocross series and here I am again, back for more.

“I’m a bottle rocket in tailspin and I know it, but I’m too drunk on my newfound velocity to stop.”

I wander over to where Portland Bicycle Studio leads their skills clinic and someone waves me toward the group. I know who that is – it’s Molly Cameron. I’ve met her once before, back in June when her shop was opening early to show the Tour de France. She’s quite nice. “You can leave your bag at our tent if you want. :et us know if you have any questions.”

I do have a question. I’ve only had skinny-tire road bikes before and last week’s race was the first time I’d ridden on the fat, knobby tires that all the cyclocross kids use. They kind of weird me out. “What pressure should my tires be at? I’ve got these at about 80 psi. Sound about right?”

Molly looks at me for a moment and blinks.

I know this look. It’s the same look that my family in Ohio gives me when I tell them what I’m doing with my life here in Portland. A look that says, “I can’t tell if you’re kidding. I’m concerned that you might not be.”

“Well, so… you want to be running at less than half of that. Go let some air out of your tires.”

To forty? Who runs their tires at 40 psi? That’s practically a flat. It would be like riding on gummy worms. I know I had my tires pumped up high last week and I did OK. I hold out a moment to see if she’s being silly. She’s not.

Molly runs a bike shop and I’ve heard she’s a pretty good cross racer, so I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt [Editor’s note: Molly is a veteran professional racer.]. But I’m still suspicious as I hiss the air from my tires. As the Beginner Womens category lines up at the start, I ask around. “Hey, how’s it going? What pressure you running there?”

And once again, we’re off! Immediately I can feel that something is different. Last week I’d been rattling around so much that by the end it felt like I’d just had a half-hour seizure (which I’d assumed was normal) but now I’m gliding over the rocky straightaways like butter across a hot pan. And I seem to be faster… What’s going on?

I cut through a gravel swamp and snake through a series of curves as words from an ancient physics class form Tetris pieces and and fall into place: suspension losses-contact patch-traction-friction-rolling resistance… The tires! The pressure! Molly totally knows what she’s talking about. I’d started somewhere in the middle of the pack but I’m steadily passing riders left and right until at some point, there’s no one ahead of me. I accelerate.

But it’s not the smooth, controlled acceleration of a NASA shuttle launch. I simply do not have the bike handling skills to match my speed upgrade, which wouldn’t be a problem if I had the sense to slow down once my corners started getting sloppy. But I don’t. I’m a bottle rocket in tailspin and I know it, but I’m too drunk on my newfound velocity to stop.

Blind Date at the Dairy race-8

Inevitably, gravity does the stopping for me.

And now I am off the track having a pitiful conversation with my rear wheel. “Spin,” I explain helpfully. “Grrrrrrngggk,” it retorts, and mutters something snarky under its breath about speed not being a substitute for control. We glare at each other as every rider I’d passed now passes me by.

A guy from the crowd steps over and I have a small heart attack as he bends the derailleur hanger back into position with his hands. That may or may not be the right way to do that but hey, the wheel is spinning again.”Is your leg OK?” he asks as I re-mount.

What leg? I look down. Hmm… eww. But I’ve got no time for that now. I’m from the Midwest (regional motto: “Suck it Up & Walk it Off”) and I have a race to finish.

Which I do, in 14th place. Eleven spots lower than last week. Womp-womp.

My lower leg and ankle seem to have gotten tangled in the chainrings during my crash. It’s not horrible (my best friend will later tell me that it looks like I got attacked by a dachshund) but it could use a few Band-Aids. I shuffle over to the First Aid station and have a seat while the medic works on another racer.

As I sat there, I realized I never really understood why there were teams for cyclocross racing. This isn’t like a road race where you need a coordinated pack of riders to block wind for the sprinter. Maybe there’s a bulk discount on spandex onesies? Otherwise, why bother?

I watch the racer beside me. The medic is cleaning some furious-looking scrapes and it just has to suck. But she’s got three – count ‘em, three – teammates around her. Someone’s got an arm around her, someone’s giving her a hand to squeeze, and her team manager is distracting her with jokes. “I’m sorry, hon. We’ve got no choice but to amputate.” She’s laughing even as the medic pulls gravel from her knee.

Aaaah. Teams.

Tire pressure, trusting advice, and teams — that’s about all the learning I can handle for one night. I’m heading home. I’ve got seven days to learn how to ride my bike before the next race.

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