‘Cross is a curious sport. Fast, furious, relentless, tough and lung-busting, it’s a real challenge to the cardiovascular system. And that it takes place purely through the winter, when the weather is far from agreeable, makes it a recipe, if there ever was one, for some real mud-in-your-eye action.
My first ‘cross experience was some 10 years ago, when I was a wide-eyed curious teenager, but a severe lack of fitness and inappropriate bike didn’t result in a high placing. In fact, I remember pulling out when the leaders lapped me about half an hour into it. So I consider my ‘cross race last weekend my proper debut into the weird and wonderful world of cyclo-cross racing.
So, last Sunday, I lined up with 70-odd ‘crossers of varying levels of shiny kit and ability for Round 10 of the Mosquito London Cross League. The league uses courses dotted variously around the South East area, and it was not much more than a short hop and skip to Penshurst, Kent.
However, my debut nearly didn’t happen as when, pulling back my curtains while eating a steaming hot bowl of porridge, the street and all the cars were covered in an impressive layer of snow. The snow would soon melt away and be replaced by a cold, heavy rain that lashed at the car’s windscreen for the entire drive there. Somehow, miraculously, the rain shifted away, the clouds parted and a magnificent blue sky cam out to overlook proceedings. The damage to the course had already been done however, with large sections now resembling a bog. But none of this deterred those lining up.
I’m not sure what happened to the layout of the course: ‘cross races are legendarily run (I’ve always believed) on less than challenging courses around a park or school playing field. This was anything but, and a mountain bike might have been a more appropriate tool: up, down, big sweeping turns, off-camber sections, rocks and some impressive switchbacks brought handling skills to the fore. Those that lacked finesse, control and the willingness to find the limits would struggle and slither around in the gloop.
It was a hard slog. Right from the moment the flag dropped there was an almighty push, shove and squeeze for position along the uphill start and into the first corner. Elbows out and poised to hold off brave challengers on the inside, it was a bracing start, to say the least. The twisting sections later into the course were a test of nerve, with the brave surging to the front and the timid struggling to control and steer the bikes through the thick and slippery mud.
The course got more and more slippery. The off-camber sections became wider and more un-rideable as the race wore on. Riders’ bikes began to struggle under the conditions, with drive trains beginning to sound like a tin of metal bolts being vigoursly shaken. And brakes too, fading more and feebly refusing to slow the bikes’ progress.
While I started tentatively, keen to not hit the red too soon into the one-hour race, this was hard to avoid as it was a balance between keeping up with riders I visually thought I should be able to keep pace with, and not exceeding my limits. I don’t think there is any way but to go flat out for the entire race though, at least judging by just how startlingly quick everybody took off around that first lap.
I hung in though. And several laps in started to get a feel for what is my first ever ride on a cyclo-cross bike, and the unique handling characteristics of a narrow and knobbly tyre’d ‘cross bike. Being a keen mountain biker for most of my cycling career had endowed me with enough skills to ably negotiate the trickiest sections, but the relentless pace on the flats and hills, and the brief sections of required dismounting and shouldering of the bike, turned my legs into heavy leaden lumps.
My race ended prematurely, with a puncture roughly around the halfway point of the race, producing an ugly DNF beside my name in the results. How can all the pain, agony and lung-ache I endured be summed up by three capital letters. Until next week, when I hope to put a digit (or two) beside my name when I head to the next round of the London League.
‘Cross racing. An utterly mad, but bizarrely enjoyable sport. I think I might, just, be a convert.