How to Win Women’s Cyclocross Open Category

Thanks to Kelly Pinheiro for this guest post about her experience racing cyclocross in Florida. 

Not a lot of women race bicycles. I am seeing more and more women riding bikes, but the majority have yet to step up to the plate to race their bikes. This was evident in my experience cross country mountain bike racing and maybe even more evident in cyclocross racing. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they are not racing their bikes because they have family and or job obligations. Some women say that they are not in good enough shape or that they are afraid of some of the course obstacles. Some say that they do not want to feel stressed or be watched if they are not good at the cyclocross “form”. I spoke to one person who said they did not want to be made fun of when they rode past the hecklers.

What many women do not know is that they are missing out on having fun. They are missing out on a killer work out. They are missing out on learning better bike handling. They are missing out on beer and gummy bear hand ups. They are missing out on the costumes or funny bikes that people bring to cyclocross. Even more importantly though, they could be missing out on being a series champion.

So, people like me reap the reward of their absence and race attendance inconsistency. My name is Kelly Pinheiro and in December 2018, I came in 3rd overall in women’s category 4/5 but most importantly, I came in 1st in the women’s pro 1/2/3/open category in 2018’s Wicked Awesome Racing (W.A.R.) series.

I barely trained for it. I was way heavier than I wanted to be. I never had fresh legs for the women’s open race as it was my second race of the day. My cyclocross mounts were disasters. I was not racing at my fastest pace. Heck, I would often get lapped by my competition. I got heckled……mainly by my own husband. But I managed to win that series championship jersey. All I had to do is show up and finish.  

For those who are not familiar with cyclocross……Cyclocross is a form of bicycle racing that typically takes place in the fall and winter and consists of many laps of a short course. The bike one uses for cross is like a road bike with knobby tires. Usually a cross course features pavement, wooded trails, grass, sand pits, mud, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly and effectively dismount, shouldering or carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and then remount. There are multiple categories, some of which are age related, and some are class category related. Women typically get the shaft on the age division as there are simply not enough women that race to suit the demand of age divisions.  

What’s interesting is that you can race more than once and more than one day. Some people race up to 3 times in a day on both Saturday and Sunday. When I agreed to race the series, I thought I would race the 2 women’s categories offered; pro/cat 1/2/3/open and category 4/5. I also decided I would race both Saturday and Sunday. My goal: to gain some fitness, improve my bike handling skills, to make new friends, and to have fun.

I never envisioned this sort of win. I did not enter the series with even a third-place finish on my mind. I honestly just wanted a good work out. The problem is that I am married Nat Pinheiro, also a cyclist, who planned to commit to the 2018 the W.A.R. series.

Why was this a problem? Well, if he raced two races a day, on both Saturday and Sunday, then my chance to ride a bike would be limited and my bike fitness would fade. I mean, sure, I could ride a lap in between races but it would not have been the quality fitness that I craved.  So, the only thing I could do since my husband was going to commit to an entire series was to race.

But based on two cyclocross races I did in 2017 where I came in last in women’s category 4/5 and got lapped by the leading women, I knew I had to bring my fitness levels back to a level where I am not placing myself in cardiac danger. I also had a friend who thought she was going to race the series but instead bought a house, got engaged, and eventually married right in the middle of cross season; again, our plates get full sometimes and priorities get in the way of having fun and gaining fitness.  

So, six weeks before the start of cyclocross season, I added in 2 extra weekday rides (if I had the time) including the dreaded interval training where you ride your bike as fast and hard as you can, trying to sustain a maxed out heart rate for multiple minutes multiple times. Nobody likes intervals. It is straight up torture. I spent my weekends trying to ramp up those base miles with 25-50-mile road rides.

But there was a slight problem with only working on fitness; in cyclocross, you mount and dismount your bike so frequently that you need to learn how to do it effectively and efficiently.  If cameras were around, you need to do it eloquently. I mastered neither effectively, efficiently, nor eloquently and there is photographic proof. I became confident with the dismounting for the most part, something that you do on the left side of the cross bike.

I am so used to getting on and off my bike from the right side that habits are hard to break; and it would bring the heckles to the yard, especially from the husband.

But this remounting thing that cyclocross riders do, this flinging of your body back onto the bike with your body flying in the air almost horizontally and landing perfectly on your saddle and then getting your feet onto the pedals and speeding off…. Yeah, my brain does not allow for this:

I have a crummy back that Is loaded with arthritis and disc degeneration. I have had so many episodes where my back goes out and I cannot straighten up or bend over or rotate. I have had so many close calls to needing surgery. I have been told my spine looks like the spine of an 80-year-old (so what is it going to look like when I am 80?). I am afraid to fling my body onto my moving bicycle and simply enough, my brain does not allow me to do it, even though I want to. I do.

I want to because it looks so cool, but my brain will not let me so I am caught being photographed getting back on my bike like a dingus; stopping, putting my right leg over the bike and right foot on the ground, then placing my left foot in the pedal and then my right foot on the pedal and then pushing off. No momentum. It is not aesthetically pleasing. It is not efficient. It is far from eloquent.

But worse yet, you have an audience and it happens in front of your peers. Peers with cameras and megaphones. Its embarrassing.  But did I mention I won the series championship?

I am not new to racing. I am a former mountain bike racer who started to race in 2015 at the ripe age of 39. The Hammerhead 100 was my first race; I did the 25-mile portion and came in second to everyone’s surprise. It gave me some confidence to try other races. I entered the Florida State Championship mountain bike racing series in 2015 with zero expectations and because my husband was also racing, and I did not want to lose day of riding a bike because the husband would be off and racing and I would be spectating. I attended every race, never podiumed but ended up 5th overall and awarded at the end of the season.

I stepped up my game the following year with a new race specific bike, being on a racing team and being coached. I trained hard for 9 months, 4-5 workouts a week. I was becoming fast and efficient. I could finally ride with my husband and his friends and not be too far behind. I was impressed with what I could do with a now 40-year-old body that was never ever athletic. In high school I even made fun of by athletes, jocks, and cheerleaders. I entered the 2016 FSC race season hot and ready to shred and hopefully to win. While pre-riding Ft. Clinch at Amelia Island in race number 5, I had an incident where I had to unclip forcefully and land hard on my feet which jammed up my back; I think I had my worst finish that season, placing 5th the following day. But the sad part was that was where my 2016 race season ended. With a 1st place standing, 5 races in, with only 2 more to go, I had to stop racing. I had to stop training. The pain in my back and down into my left leg was so severe I had to stop working. I could not tolerate standing or walking. I could only crawl, like a baby, on my hands and knees.  I had a severely compressed L3 nerve from a L4 disc protrusion that slowly but temporarily paralyzed my left quadricep, causing severe pain in the anterior thigh, numbness in the inner part of my lower leg, leaving me with atrophied quadriceps. I was a candidate for surgery. After a couple of rounds of steroids and pain meds, along with intense physical and aquatic therapy, I recovered with less pain than I normally have.  But my bike fitness was non-existent, and my riding confidence was squashed. I only casually rode my bike a weekend here and there for about a year and a half.

And then we met The Bikery owner Taylor Norton (pictured above doing the remount beautifully) who tried to convince us that cross racing is cool and that we would love it. Taylor is a veteran cross racer and has earned a few state championships. The Bikery is one of our local bike shops in St. Petersburg; and it is cool with its impressive display of vintage, Moots, and Cannondale brand bikes. They have great coffee and they serve craft beer.  Nat took the bait and checked out a race in Dade City put on by Wicked Awesome Racing. He rode the course with a fat bike. He wanted in. We did not need another bike in our house, but he was too excited and intrigued by cross.

He was burnt out from mountain bike racing but enticed by how the fun of the cross race outweighs the stress of the race. I thought the sport was silly and goofy; I still feel that way, that the jumping over barriers and getting off the bike and carrying it over things is weird and silly.  He bought a cross bike and raced at Haile’s. He had so much fun despite how intense cross racing is. He attended most of the W.A.R. races and ended up in 3rd place in men’s cat 4/5, all without having to train his face off.  

I watched, I spectated, I handed water bottles to him (some people do not use a bottle cage in cyclocross, which is also weird to me). But I did not get to ride my bike the way I like to ride my bike, which is on both Saturday and Sunday. My friend Sara Campbell, who I met at the cross races, worked at Flying Fish bikes in Tampa and hooked me up with a sweet cross bike.

It is a Cannondale SuperX with amazing neon fork graphics. It was way too nice of a bike for someone who never rode cross or gravel before. But Nat said I should buy it. So, I did.

My first time riding it was at a W.A.R. event where I came out of race retirement and raced. I was pumped to have my bike friend and former race competitor Cynthia Morales Manfredi race with me. She had a new bike and wanted to break it in as well.  

Ten seconds into the race, I was at a zone 6 heart rate and going like only 8 miles an hour. It was pathetic. It was torture. I was lapped by the race leader maybe twice. It sucked. But I did it even though I came in last. I raced again at an event in Orlando with similar results, lapped and coming in last with immediate zone 6 heart rate and slow speed. But being a part of the cyclocross race scene here in Florida is nothing like the road and mountain bike race scene. Everyone is so friendly, funny, sometimes goofy, with most people just out to have a good time versus being stiff and serious (well there are a few out there that are super serious so get out of their way).

Cyclocross is extremely demanding on the body. There is no time for recovery. You constantly pedal and waste so much energy getting off and on your bike. You lose energy running across the sand pit. Your legs scream as you run up a hill with your bike on your shoulder. All with very little time for recovery. The shorter courses were the most difficult, as they took out the steep and technical portions of the race course for the cat 4/5 races. I knew I was not going to do well with only 6 weeks of training but said, “Yes, if it means I can race myself fit.” To my surprise, I had good starts with cyclocross. It was part of my training for mountain bike racing, but I never started well in mountain bike races. But it transferred well into cross. I was usually cycling into the grassy course in first place from a fast parking lot sprint but once I hit the grass, my glory was destroyed.

I did not have the fitness to sustain that pace. My competitors would soon get around me and even end up lapping me. But those fast gals did not show up every race. There would be a familiar face from time to time, but the women’s pro 1/2/3/open class was often vacant, maybe two to four women. There were races where it was just me out there.

And there were those dreadful pathetic remounts with photographers right there to catch how pathetic I am at remounting. So sometimes I would just own up to my shortcomings and would pose or be silly or crack a joke. No sense beating myself up over something I thought was impossible to master. And it was ok.  I did not die. I did not have to be cyclocross perfect. I just needed to be there and present.

Honestly, I was not heckled that much; my husband maybe was my only heckler. I was mostly cheered on and encouraged. Jemma Coleman is the best for shouting words of encouragement. And then she would be there with her camera, so I was like, do not get off your bike and walk through the mud, ride through the mud like a bad ass.

Or Jemma would be standing at the bottom of a drop that scares me because there is a hair pin turn followed by a steep, off-cambered drop but since she has a camera and she’s cheering for me, it caused me to overcome a lot of my fears, completing the task successfully. Or she would be standing on top of a super steep climb that I had been walking my bike up as I would be too tired to ride up, but she was there with that dang camera, so I better complete the climb without getting off my bike. So really a lot of my success in cross is because of Jemma. Seriously. (Editor’s note – Kelly is a badass and succeeded because she pushed through and reached for her inner strength. But I’m always happy to cheer and my heart is happy hearing that it fortified Kelly’s inherent drive and effort!)

I know a lot of fast bike-riding women. I have tried to talk them into racing cross. They will race a cross country race but not a cross race. They will race in road crits but not a cross race. Here is the thing about cross: there’s far less pressure. You are not 20 cyclists wide, aiming for a 2.5-foot-wide trail. There is enough space to get around the slower cyclist if you need to get around the slower cyclist. If someone is not going to make a climb in cross, you have space to get around them, so there is way less bitterness about other racers messing up your race flow. Mountain bike skills will help a racer transition into cross. Your roadie legs will only assist you to go super-fast in cross. Your triathlete cross training will come in handy in cross as there is a decent amount of running. And if you stick with it, you might just race yourself fit and get rewarded with a series championship jersey. Not to mention, there are beer and donut hand ups that are offered to you. You will get heckled if you do not take those hand ups. There is money sticking up out of the ground for you to grab as you climb up the dirt mound that is too steep to ride.

Cross reminds you to not take yourself so seriously and reminds you to be a kid again and have fun. What is also nice about cross is that the crash factor is reduced. No crashes for me this this past season.  You do not even need a cross bike as Mountain bikes are allowed, but you will be heckled and maybe playfully dissed if you did well racing on your mountain bike, but… after dragging your bike up a steep hill on, you will figure out the lighter the bike, the better. If Kelly can get out there and race cross, anyone can do it. And when you finish a race, you will say, “That was the hardest thing I have ever done” and then look forward to signing up for the next race. You will have earned that after race beer.

You have now earned the right to heckle the next crew of racers that were scheduled after your race and yell out “Even I made that climb!” because it is OK to politely dis other racers. Heckling is fully encouraged and even mandatory. Spectating is the best part of cross but is best after you’ve completed at least a race or two. I hope to give it a go again this 2019 race season.

So if I can do it, I know a lot of you gals out there can do it.

Cyclocross……do it for the fitness, stay because you might win a championship jersey.

To find out more about the 2019 Florida Cyclocross Season, follow the Wicked Awesome Racing Series page and request to join the Facebook group for FLCX. You can also check out USAC cyclocross races in Florida by visiting the USAC website.

Here is the tentative 2019-20 season schedule to date. Watch for updates and additions via the above sites and especially the Facebook group.

9/28-29 WAR I
10/12-13 WAR II
10/27 Spooky Cross
11/2-3 WAR III
11/16-17 WAR IV
12/7-8 WAR V
1/4-5 Swamp Cross

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