She only raced twice, and she didn’t finish near the front of the field. Still, that’s all it took for Olympic triathlete Sarah Groff to catch the cyclocross bug this fall.
A fourth-place finisher at the 2012 London Games — and the first American woman to medal at the ITU world triathlon championship — Groff tried her hand in cyclocross this fall following a typically relaxed triathlon season that follows a high-pressure Olympic year.
Groff, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, raced twice in New England in November, and was somewhat elusive about her results in a pair of Cat. 1-2-3 races.
“I was, maybe, in the top half,” she said. (She finished eighth out of 16 at the November 9 Paradise Cross Frenzy in Windsor, Vermont, and 11th out of 30 at the November 17 Boston Road Club Shedd Park race.)
“I’ve had this idea in mind that I wanted to try cyclocross over the past two years,” Groff said. “I’m pretty good friends with [Cal Giant rider] Elle Anderson, who is just killing it this year. I always loved watching cyclocross races, and I was always paying attention to it, especially with the world championships [in February] in Louisville. I have been watching Elle do well, and thinking to myself, ‘This is just an awesome sport, I would love to do it.’
“But every year I would come up with excuses in October, when my triathlon season was over. I would be mentally and physically tired, and I wasn’t ready to go out there and embarrass myself. I’m terrible technically, but this year, because I had a more relaxed triathlon season, I had no excuses to not do it. I finally told myself, ‘It doesn’t matter, check your ego at the door, just try it out.’ I was not very good at it right away, but you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Groff said she picked up a few tips from, of all things, watching YouTube clips.
“I studied up on how to do mounts, and dismounts, because when push came to shove, it’s very different than triathlon. But you’ve gotta learn from somewhere. I was getting stressed before the races. I really didn’t want to get lapped, I didn’t want to be last, I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but I finally realized that I’m not horrible at it.”
At one point earlier this fall, Groff joked in an email about racing under a pseudonym. Asked if she was recognized by anyone at the cyclocross races, Groff, who is sponsored by Scott and Shimano in triathlon, just laughed.
“A few people recognized me,” she said. “There was a woman at a start line, who said, ‘I was cheering for you in London.’ I was trying to be anonymous. I figured as long as I’m not pissing people off, I was okay. I am not really well versed in the technical side. I only had one girl curse at me, at the first race.”
Describing herself as “über competitive,” Groff admitted that it was frustrating to struggle in an endurance sport, but added that it was also exhilarating.
“I couldn’t help but think … if I was really fit, and my technical skills matched my peak fitness, I know I could be pretty nasty at this sport,” Groff said. “But I have very below-average technical abilities, and I was not very fit. And I had to be at peace with that.
“It was a good lesson for the future, because some day I won’t be super fit, when I’m not a pro athlete who sits around between workouts. I kept telling myself that with a couple of good months of hard cyclocross training, I could beat these girls, and I had to remind myself, ‘Let’s just relax a bit and be okay with being average.’”
Groff won’t take a start at the national championship race in Boulder, Colorado, in January, but said she would consider entering next September’s CrossVegas, a non-technical, fitness-oriented race held at the end of her triathlon season, with the bulk of the North American cycling industry in attendance. She added that she is committed to competing in triathlon through the 2016 Olympics in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil, suggesting that she would recalibrate any future racing plans then.
“The best part about these cyclocross races is that it is something I can be super fired up about once I’m retired from triathlon,” Groff said. “I’m sure I will want to keep racing and stay fit. At these cyclocross races, I have been lining up with high school kids alongside women in their 40s. That’s unbelievable. I’ll be one of those women in my 40s. It’s not going to be my next career, but it is definitely something I could be passionate about as a hobby.”
Anderson, who has become the biggest breakthrough story in U.S. cyclocross in years, finishing atop the 2013 USA Cycling Pro Cyclocross Calendar standings, said she believes that Groff possesses the fundamentals to become a national-level cyclocross racer.
“From what I know of Sarah’s racing, she tends to perform the best in the worst conditions in triathlon — the rain, or the cold — which would set her up well to transition to cyclocross,” Anderson wrote in an email. “Additionally, cyclocross demands more from a cyclist in terms of core and upper body strength as well as the ability to run. As a triathlete, Sarah would definitely have advantages in these areas, in terms of her strength from swimming and running.
“If she can develop the technical skills to ride in mud, sand, steep ride-ups and sharp corners, I think she’ll be all set.”