The cyclo-cross season has come to a close; my first campaign unraveling the mud-slopped world of knobbly tyres, sandpits and hurdles is at an end.
My final lung-busting effort of the season came at the Cyclopark in Kent, where the host club, BigfootCC, put on superb day of racing on another varied (but windswept) course. Wherever I've been this season, the event organisers have shown imagination to create a course which makes the most of the local terrain, while also including the various obstacles which make cyclo-cross so unique. The Wall of Leeds Castle still makes my legs hurt just thinking about it.
In my last blog, I mentioned how the final round of the London Cross League was cancelled. Unfortunately, what I had then planned to be my last race, the LCCA Team Championships, also suffered the same fate after a very late change of heart by the land owners.
Still, it's been a whirlwind insight into the world of cyclo-cross racing over the past few months. I've thrown myself into the deep with my first senior race, learned about the intricacies of tyre pressure and kit choices, and watched Great Britain's young guns tear it up at the World Championships.
I've also put to bed any preconceptions I had about cyclo-cross. So, for the final instalment in this series, I thought I'd break down some of the barriers that might be stopping you from racing cyclo-cross.
"I don't have a cyclo-cross bike"
Well, this one is easy. You don't need one. At every race I rode this season, I saw a number of riders on mountain bikes. Sure, the majority of racers were on cyclo-cross bikes, but there were riders fast and slow on fat-tyred MTBs.
Most local leagues will permit mountain bikes, so if you've got a knobbly-tyred steed in the shed then you're ready for action. While a dedicated cyclo-cross bike will be faster in the majority of circumstances - it will be lighter and more agile, for starters - you can wait until you've caught the bug before taking the plunge.
If you do decide to buy a cyclo-cross steed, chances are it will be the most versatile machine in your bike shed. While high-end machines like the carbon fibre Ridley X-Night I've been riding will be designed specifically for the rigours of cyclo-cross racing, more affordable entry-level and mid-range machines, like the aluminium Ridley X-Ride further down the range, will likely have mudguard and rack mounts, a relatively relaxed position, and a versatile spec to make it equally well-suited to racing cyclo-cross, hacking around your local mountain bike trails, commuting to work, or all-round winter riding.
"Racing is intimidating"
There's no escaping the fact that pinning on a number for the first time is a daunting experience, whether that's in a road race, criterium or cyclo-cross event. However, of the three disciplines - and I'm discounting time trialing here, as it's a solo pursuit - cyclo-cross racing is without doubt the least intimidating.
There's a sense of community to cyclo-cross races. Every race I turned up to had an inviting atmosphere, with friendly faces, supporters offering plenty of encouragement and committed volunteers at sign-on or marshaling the course. None of the macho posturing which can accompany some crit races.
Dyed-in-the-wool racers have been on the circuit for years and welcome new riders, getting their first taste of 'cross, while newbies like myself are able to line-up race without fear of being shown up or outclassed. Speaking of which...
"I won't be fast enough"
Not only is cyclo-cross a friendly introduction to bike racing, it's open to riders of all abilities. It's something I've mentioned previously in this series, but it's worth touching on again.
Sure, the whole field starts together but once the flag drops everyone quickly spreads out over the entire course. Call it natural selection but, unlike a criterium, there's no bunch to get dropped from, nor do you have to worry about lasting the distance as you would in your first road race - cyclo-cross events last only an hour. To a certain extent, it combines the best bits about a criterium and time trial - you have other riders to compete against but you're ultimately fighting to produce your best performance.
There's no getting away that cyclo-cross racing is bloody hard - it will test your physical and technical limits on the bike, make no bones about that - but it also lets you find where those limits are on your own terms.
"It's too cold"
Cyclo-cross is understandably described as a winter discipline - every season there are calls for CX to be included in the Winter Olympics, not least this year with the Games on-going in South Korea. Indeed, the 2017/18 international CX season came to a crescendo in near-freezing temperatures around a heroically muddy course at the World Championships in February - that's about as 'cross as it comes.
But if the idea of racing through the depths of winter doesn't sound all that appealing - and I can appreciate that after freezing myself through one race just before Christmas - much of the domestic season is actually concentrated in autumn and the early stages of winter, at least where I live. It catches me out every year. I've always fancied a crack at 'cross but then the season rolls around quicker than expected.
Take this year's London Cross League, which started on September 4 - in fact, there were eight opportunities to race before November even arrived. If you can't stand the idea of racing through winter, that shouldn't be enough to put you off 'cross. And that's before we even get onto the growing number of summer cyclo-cross races.
"We're not very good at it"
Success breeds success. Success provides inspiration. Just look at how the success of Great Britain's two sirs, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, has paved the way for track and road riders to follow. The same is about to happen with cyclo-cross.
Cyclo-cross in no longer a slightly weird, niche discipline within cycling, best left to the Belgians and anyone else brave enough to get in on the action. Great Britain's success on the road and track is beginning to transfer to 'cross, with Ben Tulett winning the junior men's title at the worlds and Evie Richards re-claiming her women's under-23 rainbow jersey in Valkenburg.
And then there's 18-year-old Tom Pidcock, who has been tearing up the cyclo-cross scene in recent years, most recently winning the under-23 World Cup title at the first time of asking.
The future is bright for British cyclo-cross, whether it's tomorrow's superstars making waves on the world scene, or race organisers attracting ever bigger fields to local events. Fancy getting in on the action? See you next season.