My heart is racing and legs screaming; I wipe away the mud that’s flicked onto my face and fix my eyes firmly on the rider in front.
This is Rapha Super Cross at London’s Alexandra Palace; the final event in a three-round series of cyclo-cross racing which has brought with it a Belgian blend of mud, sweat, frites and cowbells to the UK.
I’m racing in the novice category and every inch of the mile-long course is a true test of a rider’s mettle. My race is the last of the day and the course is a mud-bath, heavily chewed up by knobbly tyres over the previous five hours of racing.
I’m playing catch-up having raced away from the start line close to the back of the 50-rider field after losing my bike in the Le Mans start. The atmosphere on the start line was relaxed, riders chatting with nervous excitement ahead of the race, joking about the seemingly treacherous course which was about to be ridden, but every rider’s game face was on once the flag dropped.
The start in cyclo-cross is crucial; a race to clip-in, sprint out of the blocks and fight for position going into the first corner, which, at Alexandra Palace, is a steep climb up a concrete path before the course heads off-road and into the mud.
The Ally Pally course is one which is, by all accounts, tough by UK cyclo-cross standards. The palace, built in 1873 as north London’s equivalent to Crystal Palace south of the river, sits high on a hill, affording superb views across the capital, with the steep slopes in front of the ‘People’s Palace’ providing the battleground for day’s races.
It’s a course characterised by steep climbs, equally steep descents, and slippery and super-technical off-camber sections. Cyclo-cross courses are littered with obstacles, and soon after the start I’m forced off the bike for the first time. A steep grassy bank has become unrideable and a bottleneck develops. I seize the chance to jump off the bike, shoulder it, and sprint up the bank to make up a few places.
Cyclo-cross racing is essentially a prolonged interval session, with little time for recovery between each effort. It’s fast, exhilarating and excruciating, and a true test of technical ability – a test which soon brings me crashing down to earth and eating mud after mis-judging a steep, rooty and claggy descent.
It’s a course of two halves and, back on the bike, I’m into the section of the course which is lined with hundreds of cowbell-touting spectators – and for good reason. Riders are sent through the ‘Wall of Foam’ and round what is now nicknamed ‘Crash Corner’ before being confronted with the ‘Tequila Shortcut’. I take the shortcut twice over the course of four laps, cutting out perhaps 100 yards of the track but forced to down a shot of tequila as punishment. Riders who don’t take the shortcut are heckled by the crowd.
As the race progresses I begin to find some rhythm and start to let the bike flow underneath me, allowing the wheels to find their own way through the mud, and unclipping a foot at any tricky corners in order to take them at a respectable speed.
Cyclo-cross is often touted as an accessible introduction to bicycle racing and the feel-good vibe and fun atmosphere of Rapha Super Cross only added to that, even if my competitive streak ran red hot in the heat of the race. Unlike road racing, when there’s essentially a minimum requirement to keep up with the bunch, cyclo-cross races quickly become strung out over the length of the course.
In fact, unless you’re at the head of the race, it’s difficult to determine exactly what your position in the field is. The fun comes in the continuous battles with riders in front and behind you. The rider ahead the carrot and the chaser on your wheel the stick.
I begin to pick off riders, while occasionally throwing my head back to keep any chancers at bay. Confidence comes streaming back after my crash into the trees on the first lap but the racing is no less painful. A quick glance at my Garmin tells me we’re only 20 minutes into a 40-minute race.
But any thoughts of quitting, of letting up, are soon cast aside as the opportunity to catch another rider presents itself, or when it’s time to confront the steep climb to the palace again, or when the mind is focussed on the trickiest parts of the course. In fact, there’s little time to think about anything but finishing and the cheers of the crowds – crowds far bigger and more raucous than nearly any other amateur cycling event – fuel the fire – a fire which is hotter after each shot of tequila.
I pass through the start/finish area for the third time and the bell rings to start the final lap – time to empty the tank and focus on producing my best lap of the race. I sprint over the finish line, past the chequered flag and collapse over the handlebars.
I’ve broken my cyclo-cross duck. It’s a discipline I’ve always enjoyed but one I’ve never ridden competitively. I’ve caught the bug and, once I’ve replaced the air in my lungs, there’s time to enjoy the rest of what Rapha Super Cross has to offer: a mini cyclo-cross festival which, having travelled down overnight from the previous round in Leicestershire, includes Rapha’s Mobile Cycle Club, a DJ, and beers, frites and espresso in equal measure while watching the day’s elite race winner, Paul Oldham, take to the podium along with his Hope Factory Racing team-mates, who take the overall series crown.
This is how racing should be. Rapha Super Cross – super-slippery, super-painful and super-fun.