The Courage to Try


Watching a recent beginners’ cyclocross race, my son and I noticed a middle-aged woman riding a commuter bike, complete with upright handlebars, fenders and a rear rack. She was a marked contrast to the other racers on purpose-built cyclocross bikes, wearing club jerseys with sponsors’ logos. As the pack rode off into the mud, we could not help but smile. What was she thinking, entering a race equipped like a commuter?

When the riders came by after the first lap, the “commuter” was near the back. Approaching the barriers, she slowed deliberately, got off her bike, picked it up, climbed over the barriers and remounted. It was a far cry from textbook cyclocross form, but she was smooth and fluid and fun to watch. Most of all, I admired her for putting herself out there, unafraid to be last. I hope she had a good time, but most of all, I am glad she tried something that must have intrigued her, without the inhibitions that so often make us hesitate.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

Spirited rides that zig-zag across mountain ranges. Bicycle Quarterly magazine and its sister company, Compass Cycles, that turns our research into the high-performance components we need for our adventures.
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30 Responses to The Courage to Try

  1. tony dadson says:

    She couldnt have nearly as entertaining as all the middle aged guys in stretch lycra in your photograph.

    • Even the middle-aged guys are probably going out of their comfort zone by entering a race at all. You really need to be sure of yourself to break free from the “look like a racer” mentality and wear clothing without logos… and not everybody is there yet.

      • Rod Bruckdorfer says:

        But, Jan, you are middle aged. 🙂

      • tony dadson says:

        must be something wrong with me then because the only guy i’d feel comfortable looking like is the guy in the orange jersey (you?) and even at that i’d probably use andiamos and regular shorts on top.

      • I think the message is that there isn’t anything wrong with anybody, no matter what they choose to wear, or how they choose to ride. There are some practical considerations, though – you need tight-fitting shorts if you want to jump onto a moving bike without your clothing getting caught on the saddle and risking a fall.

        The more people wear and ride just what they like, the more accepted it will become. It’ll be great when people start looking at the cyclists again instead of their bikes and clothing. Of course, the bike industry focuses on the bikes and clothing, since they sell that, rather than the skills and form that can be learned for free.

  2. Stephen Green says:

    Congratulations to her. Did she finish? I hope so. People like her are an example to us all.

  3. Rick Harker says:

    Most people, like sheep, are afraid of being different to the norm. They like the familiarity of chain stores that have the same layout in every store.
    Here is someone who wants to challenge not just someone else but themselves too.
    I never entered events for the reasons of being out of place or holding the lantern until a few years ago. Now I find I’m having fun with like minded people (sort of) who ride for many different reasons.
    Whether you challenge yourself, or other riders, you’ll never know until you try.

  4. Rod Bruckdorfer says:

    By-the-by, I look forward to the Winter issue of BQ and you and your son’s experience racing CX together. 🙂

  5. Thomas Dusky says:


  6. DummyDiva says:

    I know I’m getting “looks” and aware of probable unheard comments when I do a long organized ride with moustache bars! And I’m wearing lycra (no logos thought (-:).

    • I am re-reading Bernard Déon’s Paris-Brest-Paris book, and even in 1891, when PBP was first organized, cyclists already were a cliquish crowd. PBP’s goal was to make cycling accessible and popular for all, and predictably, cyclists were opposed to that idea. There still is some of that, but at least in cyclocross, there isn’t all that much of it. I used to get more comments in randonneuring, where people told me that I’d be faster if I changed to STI, narrower tires or whatnot… or conversely, that I shouldn’t care about my speed. Even that has stopped in recent years…

      Kudos to you for riding what you like and what works for you. It’s easy to focus on the negative, bou probably also get many admiring glances from others and positive comments after you’ve passed them.

  7. Conrad says:

    I’m one of the middle age guys in lycra team kit…. I think we all realize even though we don’t say it- that the team kit is totally unnecessary, at least for cyclocross. In local races- there are very few real pros, even in the elite race. If you race enough then maybe you spend some time with some like-minded people to race and train together and that is your team. Nothing wrong with that. But if you are like me, you maybe have time to show up for a local race once a week and commute to work on a bicycle. Any training ride starts at 4:30 am due to work and family stuff- so you’re training by yourself! Then there is not much point to being on a team. You can purchase nice looking merino jerseys and shorts for about the same cost as the team kit, with soon-to-be obsolete logos all over.
    So by all means just show up and race cyclocross with whatever you have, and have a good time.

  8. David Pearce says:

    I think it’s a very cool post of yours, Jan, and also your comments in response.

    With all of the exactitude and science that goes into your riding, it was just heartwarming to me to read your words here. Bicycling is, after all, very personal, and people ride for many different reasons and in many different ways. We all just jump in our cars and go places, but very few of us change the engine for each different type of driving. WE are the motors for our bicycles, so we have to be open to a diverse set of biking interests, levels & Styles. Thanks, & have a great Thanksgiving! (I was under the misapprehension it was tomorrow, until someone set me straight!)

  9. Larry T. says:

    I find it interesting there are so many “racing cyclists” out there who have never pinned on a number and actually RACED. They “know all about it” from watching TV and reading magazines but are really clueless as to what SPORT is all about. So many seem afraid to find out they’re not-so-good, so instead they engage in fantasy contests, racing for finish lines only they know the location of so they can “win”. As I get older I find myself having less patience with these folks – the ones who are all talk and zero action. For me, anyone with the guts to pin on a number and get out there is a much more a winner (even if they come in last) than the fastest riders who are afraid to get out there and let everyone see whether they truly are any good – or just full of hot air. THAT is what sport is all about…answering that question.

    • Giovanni Calcagno says:

      Well said

    • Jonathan says:

      So you’re saying that riding a bike is pointless unless you have a number pinned on?
      Ever heard of riding for the sheer joy of riding? Not everyone has the desire to prove themselves to their peers, some people just like riding bikes: if they can do it with a few mates then why not? The sort of attitude you’re espousing is more likely to drive the timid away rather than encourage them to get involved. Alpha male chest beating doesn’t solve anything.

      • I think you misunderstand. The point is that whatever you want to do, you should just do it. Pin on a number, if you are curious about it, without worrying what you’ll look like and how you’ll finish. Or ride without a number, if you prefer. Ride fast or slow, but be yourself.

        If you look around our ride reports on this blog a little more, you’ll see that we are far from the thought that “riding is pointless unless you have a number pinned on.” In fact, most of our rides are just outings with friends for the “sheer joy of riding.” Even though we love randonneuring, we don’t need a medal or credit toward a mileage goal to make a ride worth while.

  10. Giovanni Calcagno says:

    I am living in Italy and English is not my mother language but I’ll try to explain my position anyway.
    I have a full suspended mountain bike, some road bikes (steel and titanium), a Bike Friday NWT and a 26″ steel touring bike with full fenders and racks.
    I wear baggy shorts with cotton shirts (especially in the summer), lycra bibs with club cycling jersey, wool jersey, SIDI shoes, SPD sandals (even with socks!!!!)cycling caps or helmet….it depends on my daily mood, weather, temperature, chosen bike and terrain.
    I don’t mind what other people wear or ride as long as I can wear and ride what I like.
    If it’s fine for you is fine for me too.
    I tend to judge people for what they have in their heart and brain and not for what they wear or ride.
    I am sure the lady you mentioned didn’t care what other people was wearing or riding.
    Jan, too bad you didn’t take a picture of her ( obviously you was racing too), next time you’ll meet her please tell her she has all my respect.

  11. robertkerner says:

    Good for her. I didn’t finish my first cross race because I blew up on the first lap and thought I’d either have an asthma attack or puke! And I haven’t had the courage to try this year for fear of having to drop out again. It takes a lot of courage to try something unfamiliar or something you know you will not be “good” at.

  12. Joel Niemi says:

    Reminds me a bit of Ernest Gagnon, mentioned a few years ago on NPR: and

    Nothing wrong with getting out to ride. Hope she comes back to race again.

    • David Pearce says:

      Wow, talk about the importance of being earnest, hat’s off to him! I hadn’t heard that story, thanks for the info. I often say to my Sister when she beats me mountain biking, “Hey, I’m carrying a whole extra bicycle on my bicycle!” (30 lbs. of my 180 lb. frame). And I hope when my randonneur is done I’ll pedal off some of that excess poundage. Ernest had lost “8 bicycles” in his quest up to the time of the story. That’s alright! Well, bless him to find the courage to get out there and try.

  13. Peter Vanderlinden says:

    I did a few cross races last year in running shoes, board shorts and a t-shirt. I was amazed at the looks I got. Even while I was racing people would comment about my attire… my shoes mainly. The first race I participated in I raced Clydesdale and that added more to the comments. I am slender but weigh 220, it was first time entering a bike race at all, I didn’t know what to expect. Ultimately, I decided to not race anymore. I wish I had the confidence that this woman does, because I really liked it. I just made up my mind, next year I am getting back into it and who knows I might decided to wear my chaco’s this time. lol.

  14. nellegreen says:

    Chapeau to the commuter cyclist entering her first race, she may become the someday state champion. Many of the cyclists that attended my Portland cyclocross clinics used whatever bikes they had and went on to the experiences they sought. Some continued into the sport of bicycle racing and others learned what they needed and moved on. This is the beauty of cyclocross. It compresses the learning curve and teaches adults to live like a kid again, if only for that short time.

  15. rodneyAB says:

    without knowing any details, other than seeing photographs of the participants, in the SF bay area there is a cross dressing cycle cross race, the women try to dress like men, and the men dress up like they think women dress. . . bizarre and hilarious

  16. heather says:

    What does middle aged mean these days? Anyone in top physical shape can take heart in knowing their body/health age is much lower than their chronological years…but anyway, it’s good to encourage people to try. She obviously wanted to try but didn’t have a bike for cyclocross. Maybe she raced cyclocross in her past but life/parenting shed all of that and she had to use the bike she had? Lack of finances and a sense of now or never? She may have felt totally dorky, but she did it. I think I would have felt very self conscious, especially as a woman. Although plenty of women race, and the races are co-ed. It would have been interesting to find out how she did for her women’s age group.
    And didn’t the likes of cyclocross and path racing start as a challenge with perhaps only putting on some wider tires? It could take me a million years to get a cyclocross bike. Are mountain bikes still allowed or just for children? I for one cannot ride with drops, so is it just bad form to use upright bars in cyclocross? I would love to try cyclocross but there are no events in my area as it is all mountain biking on a level I never encountered in my mtb days(it was more or less trail riding and cyclocross type obstacles).

    • Mountain bikes are still allowed. You can ride what you want. I raced the first few races of the season on a 700C randonneur bike (with fenders, lights and rack removed), because my ‘cross bike wasn’t ready. Cyclocross is much more welcoming than any other form of racing. Give it a try, you might like it.

  17. Paul says:

    Don Draper (Mad Men) says that advertising works because people want to know that they are all right or part of the herd. Nobody wants to show up for a race with 100mm of seatpost showing or with tube socks. However, on our Sunday ride last week a young 125lb engineering student went along and he would sit at each stop sign with his $349 Marin Hybrid, waiting for us.
    Ride whatever fits you and measure yourself against other humans by your generosity alone.

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