By Karen Kefauver, Spin City
What motivated me a decade ago to wake up early, pack a ton of gear in the car and drive to a race was the crazy amount of fun along with the fantastic friends I made (and still have to this day). I competed at the intermediate level and did a decent job of racing around the course, leaping over wooden barriers, running up steep inclines and dodging fellow racers. I was always listening for the bell that indicated the final lap of my 45-minute race, which meant sweet relief was on the way. I never pushed myself to the point of utter exhaustion. In fact, I had such a good time that at one point I was nicknamed “Smiley.”
Nowadays, I still smile at the races — but from the sidelines.
Yet, my sparkly purple ‘cross bike continues to see some action. Sometimes I pedal to the West Side and visit the man who built that bike from scratch, Paul Sadoff, of Rock Lobster.
In January, Sadoff, who launched his bike building business 30 years ago, along with members of his Rock Lobster ‘cross team will head to Reno to compete in the USA Cycling’s Cyclo-cross National Championships.
There is one Rock Lobster team rider in particular. Michael Landry, a 27-year old Santa Cruz native and Santa Cruz High graduate, is excited about this year’s nationals. He just won the Connecticut State Championships of Cyclo-cross on Nov. 5 and earlier in the season won the New England Road Race Championship. Landry, who is a Yale mathematics doctoral candidate and living in New Haven, still has to qualify to race at the top level at ‘cross nationals but is eligible to race in the collegiate event. He’s currently ranked in category 1 by USA Cycling, which is the highest level without being a pro.
I talked to Landry on the phone about cyclo-cross, the fastest growing segment of bike racing in the U.S., and a sport well known for its break-neck pace and all-out anaerobic demands.
Spin City>> How do you describe cyclo-cross to people who have never heard of it?
Landry >> It’s like racing modified road bikes off-road on a course in which there are a lot of obstacles. You have to keep up your momentum and maintain as much of your speed as possible. It’s a real technical challenge for me. There are a lot of skills you have to have. It’s really fun to be in the race and be 100 percent focused on skills. A lot of times that doesn’t happen in a road race. It’s hard to maintain focus while you are all-in physically.
Spin City >> What are the best and worst parts of a ‘cross course for you?
Landry >> I do best on courses that have a lot of elevation. I like run-ups a lot (running up a steep section of the course) because I have a running background. I still think I have a of work to do in muddy conditions. I had a pretty bad race in the mud my second race of the season. Part of that was because I didn’t have appropriate tires. You have to have good traction or you end up falling a lot. I fell four or five times. Falling is going to happen if you race cyclo-cross. You kind of just have to it not phase you that much and keep racing.
Spin City >> What’s your sports background?
Landry >> I was a runner at Santa Cruz High, track and cross country. I started ‘cross racing and did six or seven races during high school. Then I had an injury (plantar fasciitis) and stopped during the rest of high school and undergrad (UC Berkeley). At grad school in Connecticut, I needed to do something other than math and remembered how much I liked cyclo-cross racing as a kid and decided to get back into it.
Spin City >> What is the New England race scene like?
Landry >> There are great races around New England. I started training more and more and then I was training every day and trying to race every weekend. I was really excited. It was extremely fun. I also started road racing and got really into that, too. I am more of a road racer than ‘cross racer. Last weekend in Massachusetts, I raced in freezing cold temperatures. Slick sections turned icy. This weekend in New York is supposed to be high 40s. I just dress warmly and stay positive.
Spin City >> How did you get involved with the Rock Lobster ‘cross team, launched by Paul Sadoff?
Landry >> I met Paul as a kid, growing up. He was our neighbor. I don’t even remember when I met him. Another family friend, Greg Foy, encouraged me to race. He took me out to the woods in Wilder and taught me how to dismount and remount and let me use his bike in my first race. Now I’m on the Rock Lobster elite men’s team for the second season. Everyone on the team is pretty good friends. Everyone performs at a high level but we still went out dancing at ‘cross nationals (in 2016) and made meals together.
Spin City >> What kind of training do you do?
Landry >> This time of the year, I ride 10 to 12 hours a week. Sometimes, I do drills in the park, set up some cones and practice turns. I may average 150- 250 miles of riding in a week depending on the terrain.
Spin City >> What is the social scene in cyclocross?
Landry >> That’s been really satisfying. Being my third season, I know a lot more people in New England racing cross and racing in general. I used to go cross races and not know anyone. I’d race and go home and now I see all my friends and talk and hang out. There’s a group of guys that travel to New England to all these UCI races that I am doing.
Spin City >> How was the state championship for you?
Landry >> I was racing against my coach. He and I went back and forth a little bit on the course and he got a flat tire. That’s just part of racing. The idea of being the best in your state is pretty cool. I’m sure there are people in Connecticut who are probably faster than me but it’s nice to say I’m the state champion.
Spin City >> How do you feel about the upcoming cyclo-cross national championship in Reno in January?
Landry >> My main goal of the season is to qualify to race at the elite level, which means I have to finish in the top-ten at a UCI race. I plan to do about six more UCI races, including a road trip to a North Carolina race when the semester ends. I don’t feel pressure about the nationals. I try as much as I can to stay pretty relaxed.
Spin City >> What’s your advice for someone who might try the sport for the first time?
Landry >> I’d say that ‘cross is the most accessible discipline in cycling. It’s the easiest to get involved with. You can race pretty much any bike. You could race a mountain bike if you don’t have a ‘cross bike. You can even race your commuter bike if you really want to. It’s a growing discipline and people are excited about welcoming beginners. It’s no coincidence I started with ‘cross when I wanted to get back into cycling.
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.