Cyclo-cross racing is a religion in Belgium, where during the winter months ‘cross fever grips the nation. A fact backed up by it being the most televised sport in the small country.
Last Saturday this same fever gripped London’s Herne Hill Velodrome when several hundred keen ‘cross racers and followers gathered beside the decrepit grandstand that once hosted spectators at the 1948 Olympics, paint now peeling off from years of neglect, for the inaugural Rollapaluza Muddy Hell.
Rollapaluza, synonymous with the revival of another traditional winter sport, roller racing, decided to venture forth into the world of cyclo-cross racing with a Belgian-inspired event; a night-time cyclo-cross race.
And, as I pedal up the road that leads into the small Velodrome complex, the sun already set and full moon glowing high in the clear sky, a strong smell of hot dogs floating on the cold crisp air, it is clear that Rollapaluza have hit on a winning formula. The place is packed to the brim.
Nestling in the main arena are banks of large floodlights, bathing a narrow and twisting course that switches back and forth across the grassy infield like a giant snake, diverting through the beer tent, by now unable to contain the punters flocking for alcohol, over several obstacles including planks, ramps and a ‘roller’ section, before disappearing out of the Velodrome into the darkness of the surrounding woodland.
A party atmosphere is in full swing. Children running around in ghoulish costumes, riders getting into the Halloween spirit and dressed to the eyelids in wacky outfits. There’s a race already in progress, the crowd erupting into huge cheers every time a rider fluffs or crashes unceremoniously over the obstacle hidden within the beer tent or at the sight of a fancily dressed competitor rushing through.
I’ve entered the senior race, the main event of the evening. There’s around 60 riders jostling for a good spot on the start. As is the way, the usual high finishers in this season’s ‘cross league get gridded at the front; a pukka start awaits them. Meanwhile, behind these two rows of riders, it’s elbows at dawn as the rest of the bunch jostle, shove and push each other for a spot as close to the front as they can manage. The red mist is descending all around. Handlebar and helmet-mounted lights flicker into life. A last minute test to ensure one’s chosen illumination device is functioning properly.
The race starts. Adrenalin floods the body. The main arena is floodlit, but there’s still not much light. I follow the dazzle of wheels ahead. I pass a few riders. A good start, I make up several positions around the first grassy section. Following the inner perimeter of the main arena, the course then turns right and across the concrete surface of the track, through an opening in the wooden fence lining the entire Velodrome, and we’re leaving the haven of the floodlit main arena.
Dropping steeply into a tight right-hand bend and the course suddenly narrows, becoming a sinuous string of singletrack. The bushes lining the trail are high, the lights picking up the curvature of the trail just a few metres ahead of the front wheel. It’s narrow tunnel of vision, eyes concentrating on the rider ahead. Heart rate racing, I feel a high unlike any experienced before. A huge smile breaks across my face. “My god, this is thrilling,” I think to myself.
Left. Right. A flick of the body weight, knee out and hook up the left hander, and I sweep beautifully through the tricky corner. The rider ahead hits the nasty bumps just on the edge of the trail. He’s pitched off-line and into the undergrowth. I hurtle past.
The course continues to shift direction at whim, over short steep banks, around loose gravel corners which require a delicate slow in, fast out approach. Racing through more narrow trails, over a bank, push hard on the pedals, across the lumpy sandpit. The riders are really stringing out now, motion blurred trails of light dance and bounce up ahead. A switchback takes us back into the technical wooded section once more, and affords us a quick look back at who our chasers are.
A few more twists, turns, slow tight corners and fast sweepers, and the course heads back into the Velodrome main arena, the course diving over the banking of the track. A sudden boost of speed and the highlight, at least for the spectators, of this unique course is next. Racing into the beer tent, now absolutely heaving with alcohol-fuelled, ‘cross-mad spectators in true Belgian style, there’s the first of several obstacles. This one requires a dismount. While the majority of the course is technically challenging, a messy and fumbled dismount and remount can loose a fistful of seconds, not to mention the embarrassment of nearly slipping up in front of so many spectators. I’m deafened by the roar of the crowd as I blast though.
This part of the course is a straight narrow section, with the beer tent at one end of the straight and at the other, a pair of huge ramps. Spectators flank both sides of the track, each lap leaning every further over the tape to shake their fists and shout encouragement, the brightness of the huge floodlights and camera flashes popping constantly all around. It’s a cacophony of sound. My peripheral vision is blurred, the mind focusing narrowly on the course ahead. My brain is working at 100% to keep my attention on the rivet. My heart rate is racing at a hundred miles per hour now. I can feel it trying to burst out of my chest. The pain is unbearable, but at the same time the immense thrill of the race is exhilarating.
After a few laps, the heart rate now settled into a comfortably painful level and the blood flowing more freely to my now warmed up legs, I settle into a steady rhythm. The pain from my chest is barely manageable, it feels like my heart wants to make a run for it, my legs muscles are screaming, made worse by the rhythm-destroying running and jumping over obstacles. It’s an hour of riding on the absolute limit. There’s nowhere to rest. Nowhere to hide. The technical course allows little respite, no opportunities to freewheel and grant the legs a brief pause, and the dismounting brings pain to new parts of the body.
An hour passes as if it were five minutes. I’ve no idea where I am in the overall scheme of things. I get lapped by the two leaders, storming along at some ridiculous pace, towards the end. Some obviously taking it very seriously are off-set rather beautifully by the number of fancy dressed riders (and some not riding any slower as a result!). Everyone had fun tonight, and I can’t wait for the next one. In fact, how about a few more night time cyclo-cross races this winter, guys? Night time ‘cross racing could just be the Next Big Thing.