‘Cross is Coming, is Here, and Always Has Been: CX Practice in New York City

In the heart of New York City, where towering skyscrapers cast their imposing shadows, a hidden haven of summer grass, plastic cones, makeshift barriers, and camaraderie emerges every Wednesday evening from late August to early November. Randall’s Island, a patch of green in the midst of New York City’s concrete jungle, becomes an unlikely sanctuary for cyclists of all kinds seeking the ever-so-special and thankfully still alive-and-well discipline called cyclocross.

Continue reading Angelo Calilap‘s account of NYC’s longstanding ‘cross practice hosted by King Kog accompanied by a wonderful image gallery from Andres Cevallos…

It’s never not awkward when I’m leaving the office to go to practice. My colleagues know that I’m almost out the door when they hear the helmet straps click and the BOA ratchets clack on my shoes. It will also never not feel strange as I head out the door in full lycra either. “See you tomorrow!” I shout out loud  over my freehub body ticking through the pawls as I head out for the day.

As I roll up 6th Avenue (at 40 PSI), navigating through the madness of rush hour foot traffic, headed to Randall’s, I go through the cross practice checklist in my head. Something I should have done last night. Anyways:

Lights. Check. Hopefully they’re charged.
Bottles and snacks. Check.
Damn you, taxi. Why did you try to make that left in front of me, are you fucking crazy?
Flat kit. Check.
Tire pressure gauge. Dammit, I forgot it again. Hopefully Mark has his. He always does. 

I cut through Central Park, head east, and turn left on 1st Avenue – doing my best to navigate through the streets to avoid all the glass I can to make sure I make it to practice without a puncture. I turn right to 102nd and cross The Ward’s Island Bridge, where for some reason, I question my fitness literally every time I pedal up to cross the Harlem River to get to the island.

This feels hard.
It’s because I’m riding cross tires, probably.
Maybe. It’s definitely the tire pressure that makes it feel hard.
No way this is 200 watts. It feels like 300 watts.
I hope I get better at turning this year.
Damn, I hope I have enough legs for the hot laps.

I follow the bike path towards Field #74 – no punctures today, hooray. The island unfolds its treasures along the way, revealing a mosaic of life in motion. Scattered persons and couples dot the sprawling green expanse, claiming their own pockets of tranquility to bask in the coming sunset. The island becomes a refuge, a place where the day’s stresses are shed, replaced by a sense of calm that permeates the air.

I’m always a little bit early because the office isn’t that far. There’s usually just one or two other people there before me. Sometimes they’re strangers. Sometimes they’re people I’ve raced with for over a decade. Regardless, a warm and friendly hello. Cross practice is warm and friendly. Don’t forget that. No jerks allowed.

As more people arrive and congregate around the selected picnic tables for the night (this changes weekly for some reason), the course begins to reveal itself thanks to Keith. I’ve known Keith since the track-bike days going way, way back in the day. He’s been the organizer of cross practice for a few years now, and does it out of pure love for the sport and in the spirit of community. A true OG.

I’ve been coming to practice for years, and it still boggles my mind how Keith can just take a stack of a hundred orange and green cones and assemble them to magically make a course filled with technical turns, off-cambers, climbs, run-ups, and more.  It’s like watching a puzzle come together in real time.

It’s 7 o’clock now. Keith hops up on a picnic table in his signature blue Shimano shoes and tells everyone to gather around. Riders are still rolling in as Keith explains what practice is and isn’t. It’s for everyone – from seasoned racers to new riders. It’s not that serious – meaning that we’re all here to learn, improve, and support each other. Riders are still rolling in at this point. A late night at the office maybe, or shit, you rode here all the way from New Jersey? Another reminder that cross practice is warm and friendly. Don’t forget that. No jerks allowed.

A few people raise their hands, some half-blushing and embarrassed, others enthusiastic, when Keith asks who’s never raced cyclocross before. I actually love that he does this. It lets the seasoned cross practitioners know who might need some extra love, encouragement, or assistance during practice. I’ve been coming for years myself, and still enjoy the critique from the cross vets. Keith invites all the newbies over every week for a basics sesh, so that everyone can learn a new skill together. Racers who are looking to shake off the cobwebs also join in, along with veteran elites who chime in with personal pointers during each session.

It’s about 7:15. The soccer field lights come on and the sun is starting to set. Basics sesh happening on one side of the field, while the rest of the riders get acquainted with the course. Mark, Keith’s King Kog teammate, usually leads the first few laps, and yes, he did have a tire pressure gauge. We’ll try 20 PSI tonight. Thanks Mark.

The first few laps are relaxed, as we all familiarize ourselves with this week’s course and get acquainted with each other. As a terrible-turner, I always try to stick with the wheels of the Cat 2’s and 3’s, watching carefully and taking mental notes as I follow their lines. After a few warm up laps, I decide to try to keep up with the handful of people trying to make it spicy. Everyone is still riding at their own pace at this point. A newbie comes in too hot and eats it. They stick a thumb up – they’re okay.

As I try my best not to touch brakes on the more technical turns marked by cones and garbage cans, Keith’s basics group could care less about what the lappers are up to, focused instead on the basics of mounting, remounting, etc. With every lap I see some riders getting more comfortable and confident in their technique. I’m reminded that I should practice my technique, too. Maybe next week.

Keith rounds everybody up again to gather around the picnic tables. It’s 7:45 now. Under a now-purple sky, riders reach for bidons before the next part of practice. Blinky lights come out of handlebar bags and backpacks and are installed onto handlebars and seatposts since it will soon be dark. I celebrate in my head when I press the power button on my front light, because it is indeed charged. I plan to stay for another 15 minutes. Daddy duty calls and I want to get home in time to help around the house because cleaning up dinner after a one year old is something I’d like to help with, especially since I spent most of the evening riding bikes on the grass with others.

A few heads ride off and start to do more laps. I tag along. I’m feeling a little more confident now. Less brakes being squeezed than compared to 45 minutes ago. Not as dependent on the wheel in front of me to take the best line. The pace picks up and the technique and experience of the cross vets begins to show as they begin to string us out one by one. Half a second here. Half a second there. In cyclocross, it all adds up. Before you know it my confidence turns to humility, as w/kg on the road doesn’t mean as much when you’re not going in a straight line on a smooth road, protected within the peloton. This is cyclocross, where every ounce of hesitation compounds as you navigate through a race course, and holy shit is it fun.

I press the lap button on my Wahoo after I get dropped and pull the plug. Time to go. Practice is still on for another hour, but the ride home is longer than I’d like, and it’s my turn to take my son to daycare tomorrow morning so I should get back soon since it’ll be a long day. I ask around for a pump so that I’m not rolling home on 20 PSI and someone hands me a floor pump that they brought from home to share with the cross practitioners. So fucking kind. I say goodbye to the homies I can who aren’t pre-occupied with their own version of practice and give a nod or a smile to the strangers I connect eyes with as I roll away. I hope to see them back next week. I think I will.

I make my way back home to South Brooklyn with a bit of FOMO. As I’m crossing over the East River I can see the small group of blinky bike lights from afar in the darkness. After every practice, everyone goes and gets pizza. One day I’ll stay late enough to join. I’m not even halfway over the bridge and I think to myself:

This feels hard.
It’s because I’m riding cross tires, probably. Maybe.
It’s definitely the tire pressure that makes it feel hard.
No way this is 200 watts. It feels like 300 watts.
I hope I get better at turning this year.