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Riding the Scheldecross Antwerpen cyclo-cross course

Crippling fear and slower than six year olds? Getting to grips the hard way on the Schedlecross cyclocross course

I’m atop one of the bergs that characterise the Scheldecross course, Antwerp, looking down at the base as Belgian children – probably not more than six years old, some of them – throw caution to the wind and barrel down the other side past me.

I’m aghast and struck with unexpected and crippling fear. Long ago in my childhood I used to ride my mountain bike in the local woods, up and down narrow tracks and steep downhill sections. I was never the best, nor the fastest, but I seldom came off. But here and now, I can’t let go of that fear.

A minute passes, then two. Three, four, five. Countless children arrive at the top and don’t hesitate in dropping down the precipice, while some very little humans – barely older than four, surely – have their dads help them to the base, holding their saddle and running behind them as they throw caution to the wind.

Ashley Quinlan, cyclo-cross bike, Antwerpen, Ridley, Lazer Z1 Aeroshell
The Scheldecross course is not one for the faint of heart

It’s a typical Wednesday afternoon in Antwerp – these children have left school early so they can ride around the course. Although, when I say ‘typical’ it’s the Wednesday before the Scheldecross race (subsequently won by Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel), and the atmosphere is tinged with a hint of anticipation and expectation. Closed Coca-Cola stalls and pop-up snack shops are dotted around the course, with portable toilets and sanitary basins stacked into a corner near the start/finish straight, ready for distribution, while the media and dignitary centre is halfway through it’s construction.

Everywhere: happy faces, excited for the action to come, and loving every second of their playtime on the course. And here I am; a lousy Brit, completely unable to let go of the brakes and roll down the hybrid grassy-sandy-muddy downhill.

Finding my groove

In the end, I give in and decide to dismount and walk the descent. I know I’m no cyclocross rider – this is genuinely my first experience – so I realise that in the absence of a sage coach or mystical Flemish masterclass, I’m going to need to build confidence all on my own. I remount my unfamiliar Ridley cyclocross steed, complete with unfamiliar Shimano SPD pedals, and ride off into the flat areas of the course.

Some areas are cordoned off for maintenance, so I never get the chance to do a full circuit – I don’t fancy being assassinated by a series of workmen with chainsaws and industrial strength leaf blowers – but I still get to ride (and run) the beach section.

I proceed over the grassy parkland, following the narrow barriers as I get used to allowing the 32c front tyres to bite and run over the uneven surface, heading towards the beach. Over a tarmac section, splashing through a worn piece of course and muddy puddle in the process to see how the bike reacts. It’s straight and true, and I’m glad I’m running 40-50psi – helping the bike to settle and the tread to bite as I build my confidence.

Ashley Quinlan, cyclo-cross, Antwerpen, Ridley, sand
Finding rhythm on the Antwerp course is tough, with sand aplenty

All too soon, though, I encounter the beach section and all rules are thrown out the window. Riding through sand isn’t for mortals – and it’s no surprise when I’m forced to dismount at the first switchback corner. I drive and drive and drive my legs, pushing as hard and fast as I can to keep the traction (what little of it there is) underneath my rear wheel.

It’s a losing battle. With every furious pedal stroke, I lose precious momentum at the cost of a huge amount of energy and I’m forced into a hurried dismount to avoid toppling over on top of a passing teenager.

But it’s not over: I swing my bike over my shoulder and run, desperately searching for the most solid patch of land I can find as I attempt to beat this boy to the end of the section. Obviously, I fail – by the time I make it to the end if the section, he’s hopped back onto his bike with the grace of a lad who’s been doing it for most of his life, leaving far behind the newbie.

Ashley Quinlan, cyclo-cross, Antwerpen, Ridley, sand
A familiar image on the sandiest sections…

I remount, and fail to clip in. The sand that I’d trawled through to make it to this point had clogged up the cleats, so I whack the base of the shoes against the pedals as I roll forward in an attempt to unblock them. Eventually I succeed – another group of children happily riding past me – and I clip in and roll around the curvature of the river to the marshland section.

In fact, when I arrive it’s a three-way split between a damp sandy, muddy, grassy surface, complete with worn tracks and little rollers that you need to attack to ride through. It’s now or never to try to at least approach conquering my fear and I don’t even think about stopping, throwing the bike down the little drops, up the small rises and thundering my legs to power through the soft bases, tyres scrambling for purchase.

The start of something new?

Exhilaration – I’ve made it! Now, I absolutely know there will be some seasoned ‘cross riders reading this, wondering what I’m going on about. How hard can it be, you may ask? Why not have someone who’s an experienced ‘cross rider tell us what it’s like? Truth be told, I asked myself those very questions as I rode round to the start point of the loop once more, again and again, each time trying to build more speed and confidence into my riding.

But that’s just it – I’m terrified, yet I’m also having the best time as I discover new confidence on this alien course. I didn’t know I could do this, and I’m doing it on one of the most characterful courses on the ‘cross calendar. If anything, it shows that even someone like me, a pure roadie, can also be swayed towards the charms of the cyclocross course – all the while sweating profusely in nervous anticipation of the seemingly randomly placed obstacles and unconsolidated surfaces.

A few laps pass, with multiple dismounts permeating my efforts and one (thankfully unseen by a camera – just a couple of elderly spectators with coffee flasks in their hands) spill in which I land awkwardly and embarrassingly into a sand pit, just misreading how slow I was actually travelling, and failing to unclip in time. Time flies; before long time begins to approach for our party to leave.

Ashley Quinlan, cyclo-cross, Antwerpen, Ridley, sand
Antwerp provides the dramatic backdrop for the characterful course

But before I leave, I want one more crack at the high mounds – and after stopping to take a few photos of my colleagues succeeding – I hand my camera to one of them, and tell them I’ll meet them back at the start point. I need to concentrate, and not have the pressure of the lens on me. All I want is to be brave enough – mentally strong enough – to roll down one of them and to be able tell the tale.

I attack the uphill section, driving, driving, driving, until I make it halfway up and am forced to unclip. That’s all I have, but that’s ok – I’ve only seen one person make it up the entire time I’ve been there, so I’m in good company. I put it aside though, and remount at the top edge of the climb, picking my line ahead of me, planning to follow the diagonal trajectory that everyone else deems to be taking. “How hard can it be…”

And so, it’s at this point the story comes to it’s climactic conclusion – a triumphant rebuttal of my fear, succeeding where I never thought I could in the face of my own mental and physical limitations. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to end.

Ashley Quinlan, cyclo-cross, Antwerpen, Ridley, sand
Another dismount – it’s not easy to admit defeat

There’s never an easy way of admitting failure – we all want to succeed, and when we don’t it can be so very embarrassing and deflating. But as I approached the crest of the descent, successfully clipped in and with no pressure from behind as a clear track opened around me, the devil in my head kicks in, and applies my brakes suddenly. I’m devastated, disappointed, downright confused at my inability to just roll over the crest.

I know it’s game over – I’m simply not brave enough, yet – but I want to finish on a high, and roll round the lowlands of the course once more, attacking the sandpit with continued comedic effect one last time, and attacking the rollers on the marsh section, before heading back at speed.

And that, I think, is what I want to take from my experience on the Scheldecross course. Despite the crippling fear, the uncomfortable nervous sweating and the frustration of having to dismount every thirty seconds or so, I’ve had a taste of the action, and I think I want more. No, maybe I’ll never want to actually do a cross race, but I’ve had my eyes opened up to a new way of riding a bike that can be as exhilarating as climbing an alp or descending off a Pyrenean col, or powering over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

As long as ‘cross can provide this much fun, despite the difficulties I had, why wouldn’t I give it another go? Only maybe next time, I’ll start on my local course first.

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