Cyclocross: mud, trees and beer

Somehow, I manage to stay upright.

“I’m not going to be able to make the race anymore, do you want to take my place and borrow my bike?”

Gee, well, there went my plans for staying warm and dry on an autumnal Sunday.

I’d said yes to entering the women’s race at round 8 of the Oxonion/Wessex cyclocross league, which at just half an hour’s cycle from my doorstep, was too good an opportunity to turn down. That didn’t stop me from getting rather nervous. I hadn’t been doing much proper cycling since I got back from hiking in the Alps so wasn’t exactly at race-fitness. The only experience I’d had with cyclocross was a summer’s evening messing around in the park on my stripped-down hybrid as one the guys tried to impart some of his cyclocross wisdom. After half an hour I still couldn’t manage the moving dismount without kicking myself, so it was fair to say I wasn’t a natural. It was though, a lot of fun, and a sharp contrast to the serious road, TT and crit races I’d been doing.

Cyclocross, for the uninitiated, is raced on a cyclocross bike (basically a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike), around twisting laps of a field, with obstacles such as fallen trees, roots, and stairs, all generously doused in mud. From what I could tell, the winner was whoever drank the most beer and was covered in the most mud. Unless my Condor club mates had been joking…

Look how graceful my hopping is. If only I could do it on the bike. Photo: Gareth Ardron.

I arrived a couple of hours before the race start, to sort out sign-on, have a look at the course, cheer on club mates in the men’s novice race, and have several nervous wees. There was a bit of a delay in starting, and as winter was making itself known, I tried to stay warm spinning up and down by the side of the track.

There were 57 in the women’s race which was fantastic, the biggest field I’ve raced in. Unfortunately we were set off a couple of minutes behind one of the men’s veterans races, which meant we shared the course with 60 of them too. Lining up at the start line with a row of pink Condor jerseys was pretty cool though.

The ones taking it seriously sped off, but as went through the first chicane section we were pretty bunched up still. Two thirds of the lap was on grass fields, the other third in narrow twisting woods. There was one serious obstacle, a double deep ditch around a corner, which I wimped out of attempting to ride, and ran whilst carrying the bike. Then there were some logs and planks which the pros bunny-hopped, the others got off and ran over. This was an entirely new skill set to me, and one which I clearly needed to work on. My dismounts were okay; swing right leg over round the back of the saddle, coast on one pedal, then run off and carry the bike. My remounts, however, had all the grace of a tortoise trying to climb a tree. Nevertheless, it was probably the most fun I’ve had whilst racing. I say racing, I was just trying very hard not to crash. I did almost face plant a tree, but ducked just in time.

See, wasn’t just me who got off the bike! Photo: Andy Ruane.

Just as I reached the wooded section on my second lap the men started to catch up, which meant I apologised quite a lot for being in their way. Most of them were polite and gave plenty of warning to keep over, I’d hear afterwards how a couple had got really angry at not being able to overtake. There’ll always be one.

Somehow I always forgot to look at the ‘laps to go’ sign at the end of each lap, so I was never really sure how long I had to go. In cyclocross, unlike road races, everyone finishes when the winner does – meaning people will end up going different distances, depending on how many times they got lapped. I ended up being the last one to get to do another lap (5 in total, about 50 minutes), which whilst fun, was friggin knackering. The Condors in other races, and those who had just come to watch (heroes), had placed themselves next to a chicane section near the finish, and it was pretty motivating to have a wall of pink noise erupt whenever you went through.

Eventually it was over, and after my heart rate returned closer to normal, we celebrated Belgian-style (beer), and compared notes on how we’d tackled the roots, rock hard mud moguls, ditches and logs. I have neither the space nor money for another bike (despite what club mates might say), but cyclocross is definitely a sport I’m keen to try again. Might even try a running re-mount next time…

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