A beginner’s guide to cyclo-cross – part three: Christmas ‘cross racing

A windswept, wet and cold festive thrash at Ford Manor Farm

“I’ll come and watch you in the summer,” she says.
“Cyclo-cross is a winter sport,” I reply.
“Why the hell is it a winter sport?” she retorts.

Convincing my other half, who has had an aversion to cycling since riding from London to Paris five years ago, to stand in an isolated, wind-swept field, in freezing rain and in the middle of December, was always going to be a tall order. She had a point, to be fair. With an Arctic wind whistling and rain beginning to fall as I packed the Ridley X-Night into the car, there was more than a hint of temptation just to stay at home.

But while the number of summer CX races is quickly growing, winter remains core cyclo-cross season. Thick mud, single-figure temperatures and frozen fingers are what ‘cross is all about, right? So I made my way down to Ford Manor Farm in Kent for round four of the East Kent Cyclo-Cross League. Eight days before Christmas, it was a chance to earn a couple of extra mince pies over the festive break.

The Ford Manor Farm course is inspired by the iconic Koppenbergcross (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)


A heavy cold put paid to the first half of December, including a round of the London ‘cross league in Addington (frustratingly, one of my more local races), so I arrived at Ford Manor Farm having not ridden for nearly two weeks. An hour of cyclo-cross racing at full gas is one way to blow out the cobwebs, I suppose, but it meant I was short on anything resembling fitness.

Having seemingly forgotten almost every lesson I learnt earlier in the season, I arrived in Kent with 30 minutes to setup the bike, sign-on and ride only half a practice lap, before taking my place on the start line just as the ice-cold drizzle began to get heavier.

One of the great things about cyclo-cross, I’ve learned, is the variety of courses. Of course, there will be some common features found almost anywhere you ride ‘cross – barriers, run-ups, off-camber corners – but every course has its own character and offers a unique challenge. The Ford Manor Farm course is inspired by the legendary Koppenbergcross. It may not have the iconic cobbled climb of Flanders but draws inspiration from the race with a technical wooded section and a series of tight, twisting, off-camber switchbacks.

Not that I’d given myself enough time to truly familiarise myself with the course beforehand. I’ve come to learn just how important a proper practice lap is – or ideally a couple, one as an initial recce and one at something approaching race pace, if you can squeeze them in between your race and the preceding event. That’s even more important on technical courses like this and if you’re a relative beginner like me.

So I watched the majority of the field ride away as we entered the woods for the first time and I seemingly spent an eternity contemplating whether to ride or run the heavily rutted trail, which by this point in the day had been well and truly worked over by the four races held earlier in the afternoon. I stumbled through the woods as most of my competitors disappeared into the distance – not that I could stick with them, anyway.

The men’s vets race attracted the biggest field of the day (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

Cyclo-cross is a true test of both fitness and technique. Even if you’ve got the legs to match Tom Pidcock, if you can’t stay smooth through technical sections and confidently handle the toughest features, you won’t make an impact at the sharp end of the race. Equally, if you’ve got the technical skills of Mathieu van der Poel and the fitness of a 60-year-old chain smoker, you might want to re-evaluate those dreams of standing on the podium.

I’ve got a lot of work to do in both respects but, in many ways, that’s to miss the point of cyclo-cross. I quickly found myself engaged in a battle with two riders, one just in front of me and one chasing from behind, as I began to find my flow on the course, eventually deciding to run most of the wooded section, then making up ground on the steep, explosive climb found later in the lap and slowly becoming smoother on the two slippery, switchback descents.

Ridley CX comp

I started to feel at one with the bike after so much time off and, just as importantly, began to get familiar with the course – even if I was kicking myself for not doing both before the actual race had started. As the lap board went up, I quickly picked off a couple of faster starters and ended up finishing about two-thirds down the field, just as I had at Leeds Castle (albeit from a far small number of entrants).

While racing may look daunting to the unitiated – and, sure, you need to be a super-strong (and complete) rider to win a race – it’s also totally inclusive. In the senior men’s race I rode at Ford Manor Farm you had the fast blokes in skinsuits at the front, but in the same field there were also newbies like me, club riders, cyclists in Christmas fancy dress. Riders of all shapes and sizes competing against one another.

This spectator was well-suited to the ice-cold conditions (Pic: Dave Hayward Photos)

There were carbon bikes and steel bikes; cyclo-cross bikes, gravel bikes and mountain bikes; and earlier in the day, races for women, vets and kids. You can enter in advance or just turn up on the day, it’s friendly and you don’t need a British Cycling licence. Everyone was there to race and test themselves, regardless of ability.

It’s far from glitz and glamour, but cyclo-cross is bike racing at its most egalitarian. It’s for the fast and the slow, it’s thrilling and punishing, and, with British riders winning some of the biggest ‘cross races on the European circuit, it’s a sport on the up. Even if it does take place in winter.

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