David Arthur goes cyclo-cross racing (pic: www.londoncyclesport.com)
Cyclo-cross racing was born at the turn of the last century when road racers took their bikes off-road through fields, down muddy paths and over fences as a way to keep in shape during the bleak and cold winter months. It quickly became popular, with the first French National Championship in 1902, followed by Belgium eight years later and quickly expanding into neighbouring countries.
The principles of cyclo-cross racing are simple: a modified road bike with extra clearance for mud and space for wider knobbly tyres, re-routed cables and cantilever brakes being the key differences on the bike front. For courses you can expect a mixture of muddy paths, grassy tracks and gravel trails interspersed with short sharp hills and, most importantly, obstacles such as sandpits and boards which require dismounting and carrying the bike.
Races are typically an hour long and require a good deal of aerobic fitness and a stomach for pain. Despite this the cyclo-cross scene is startlingly popular and growing in size every year. It’s not hard to see why it’s so popular; races last just an hour, racing is close and frantic, it’s a good way to keep your fitness up through the winter and, above all, it’s a lot of fun.
I’m not a ‘cross convert though; I love to hate it. My first ever ‘cross race, when just a green teenager, left a bitter taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t until last winter that I ventured forth again. After dabbling in a few just for fun, I decided to do exactly the same again this winter, purely for fun mind.
Pain, it seems, is a crucial aspect of ‘cross racing. It is pain unlike any which I’ve experienced before, something I was reminded of quite brutally during my first ‘cross race of the season yesterday. The London Cross League is brimming with enthusiasm and attracting huge fields every weekend, so I headed to Hillingdon, west London last Sunday for the sixth round of the series.
Over a hundred seniors lined up on the start. The regular and overall contenders were called up one by one to be ‘gridded’ at the front. Once they were in place the Commissaire waved the rest of the riders, a gaggle of super-keen riders of all ages and abilities, to take up position behind them.
Bang! The start was ballistic. It was elbows coming at you from all angles. Ducking and diving, I was able to get clipped in quickly and nipped past a couple of riders. Spotting the slimmest of passing opportunities, I dodged left to the edge of the long Tarmac section being used just for the first lap, hit the gas and accelerated through the bunch. Switching left, the course tape directed as onto the first off-road section, a tussocky grass section and I worked hard to keep pulling as the riders at the front surged away.
Clicking cleanly down four sprockets, right pedal at the 12 o’clock position, I cranked the bike over for the sharp 90 degree right hand corner into a steep bank, with several riders either side of me. Blasting halfway up on pure momentum alone, I was then out of the saddle and turning the pedals hard. Past a slower rider struggling at the summit and I was into the first of the narrow grassy singletrack sections that popularise this course.
For the rest of the opening couple of laps, fuelled by a high-octane mix of adrenaline and the SIS Smart-1 caffeine gel I had downed just 15 minutes prior to the race start, I was like a raging bull. Images of Sven Nys and Niels Albert flashed through my head. For a short while, I was a cyclo-cross god.
But then the wheels of my over-enthusiastic wagon, one by one, began to fall off. My race began to unravel early. It began with the one obstacle on this course. My Achilles heel is getting back onto the bike at speed without losing my position in the race. These obstacles, a peculiarity to ‘cross racing, usually consist of two bottom bracket height planks spaced some six foot apart, and require the rider to dismount, run, hop and skip frantically over them while holding the bike aloft or slung over the shoulder, and hopping back onto the saddle – all done at high velocity and all the while trying not to lose position. Watching the professionals is like watching a perfectly choreographed ballet. I was anything like.
And things only got worse. Having pushed myself deep into the red on the first couple of laps, I tried but failed to bring my raging heart rate back down to a less painful zone, and was helpless as rider after rider zipped past me and shot off into the distance. Damn it all to hell, how can this be happening! The middle 30 minutes of the race was all about damage limitation, trying to hold back my lungs which were attempting to escape out of my mouth and plainly failing to ignore the red hot searing pain emanating from my leg muscles, all while trying to not loose too many more positions. It was a long, hard battle.
Somehow I managed to keep myself in the top 30, at least that’s roughly how many riders I estimated to be ahead of me. With the lap board showing just a few laps to go, I briefly enjoyed a second wind and was able to set about pulling back some riders who had previously flown past me. A couple of sneaky passes here and there, other riders going backwards having clearly exerted themselves too hard early on, and I was soon within sight of the top 20. In the end, crossing the line to a huge sense of relief, I finished 24th. Not too shabby for my first race of the season, I don’t think, and I had even managed to avoid being lapped by the leaders, so a result all round.
And now, sitting here at my desk reminiscing, with the pain all but dissipating from my body and a dull ache in my legs, I can say what jolly fun I had. The closeness of the racing, the tight and twisting nature of the course, the pain, the suffering and the glory of finishing without being lapped.
Now, when’s the next race…
Things I learnt
1. Ride a practise lap at race speed to better set the tyre pressures; I had far too much air in my Rocket Ron tyres
2. Make sure the saddle is properly tightened into the seatpost
3. Practise remounting a bike without damaging the haemorrhoids
4. And finally, learn to embrace the taste of blood; it seems to be a requirement to successful ‘cross racing!