By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
Elise Ehrheart didn’t see her bike crash coming. She went down fast and hard last Saturday at the Central Coast Cyclo-cross race in Monterey.
It was her first cyclocross race in eight years. She was excited to finally be back in the saddle, but in a split second, her worst fear was realized.
She was charging down a steep, bumpy section at Fort Ord on her carbon-fiber cyclocross bike — a lightweight bike that is built like a road bike, with narrow tires and dropped handlebars but also with knobby tires. The trick is the bike must also be maneuvered like a mountain bike on technical, off-road terrain. As she was braking in the dirt, one hand flew off the handlebars, throwing her off balance.
“I knew it was all over,” Ehrheart, 33, of Santa Cruz, said of her inevitable somersault over her bike to the ground.
Cyclocross season has arrived, indoctrinating newcomers with its telltale spills and mud splatters. For Ehrheart, taking the bumps and bruises has been more fun thanks to the guidance of her teammate and friend Courtney Dimpel.
She credits Dimpel with helping her stay focused mentally and physically in the demanding sport. To prepare for the fall and winter cyclocross season, the pair trained together for weeks, pedaling more than 100 miles a week on their road bikes. (The sport originated in Europe as way for road racers to stay fit for their spring and summer racing.)
Commonly called ’cross, it’s the only bicycling race that requires riders to leap on and off the bike, carry it up steep hills, lift it over barricades, then jump back on — all at breakneck speed. Bike-handling technique, speed and aerobic endurance are crucial while negotiating sand, rocks, tree roots and wooden barriers, typically placed in pairs. One misstep can mean a painful mistake: crashing into a barricade, getting a flat tire, or, like Ehrheart, doing an “endo.”
As accidents go, Ehrheart was lucky.
“I jumped up really quick, dusted off, picked the plants out of my wheels and clothes and jumped back on. I had a few cuts and bruises, but nothing too bad. The crash was my highlight and my lowlight at the same time,” Ehrheart said. “I was very nervous and fearful of crashing. I feel like it’s out of my system now. It’s a relief.”
None of her competitors even passed her on the course or witnessed her tumble.
“No one was around, so there are no pictures of it,” she said with a laugh.
Better yet, she battled her way to second place in the women’s beginner division during the taxing 30-minute event, which was the inaugural race of the CCCX series, now in its 19th season.
“There was one short, super-steep uphill and one long grueling pavement section. My mouth was completely dry the first two laps, my heartbeat and adrenalin were up,” she recalled. “I was giving 100 percent non-stop for the entire race.”
That will become the norm for Ehrheart and Dimpel over the next few months. The two plan to carpool nearly every weekend to a variety of races in the Bay Area, aiming for 14 races. They both seek the holy grail of cyclocross: To ride as many laps as possible around the looping course during the allotted time, which ranges from 30 to 60 minutes, depending on skill level.
At first glance, the pair may seem like an odd match for training because Ehrheart is a relative beginner while Dimpel is a seasoned pro. Dimpel, 33, of Capitola, has a decade of bike racing experience and has raced professionally extensively. Yet the two women have bonded as the only local members of Team Foundry. The small bike manufacturing company based in Minnesota is linked locally through Bike Station Aptos, where store owner Joanne Thompson sells the bikes.
Ehrheart, who works at Ecology Action, and Dimpel, a paramedic, feed off each other’s energy.
“It is so fun for me to show her all my favorite routes during our training rides in Santa Cruz and Monterey,” Dimpel said. “The process of training for ’cross has not been a chore, it’s an adventure. It’s inspiring to me to see how much Elise has improved over the summer. I love watching her progress and fall in love with sport. I’m helping her out and she’s helping me out to be motivated and keep reaching.”
For her part, Ehrheart said, “Courtney has been a tremendous inspiration for me getting back into cyclocross racing. I have really stepped it up. I push past my comfort zone most of the time. She is a natural coach and mentor.”
Just as important to them both, however, is becoming part of the cyclocross fabric of racers.
“It’s like a big family for every race,” Dimpel said. “There’s no attitude. It’s friendly and encouraging. Friends on the sidelines are yelling your name and ringing cowbells. It’s fun and encouraging. That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Ehrheart agrees, “For me, ’cross is the epitome of bicycle culture — community, camaraderie, hard-work and just plain fun.”
Karen Kefauver (www.karenkefauver.com) is a freelance writer and avid cyclist who covers sports and travel and is based in Santa Cruz. Her Spin City bike column appears monthly and was launched in 2009.