For the uninitiated, cyclocross racing originated in the early 1900s – when European roadies would do battle, racing on and off-road to the next town. Races are generally around one hour, eye-balls out, nothing left in the tank at the end.
The bike are funny looking road bikes with knobbly tyres, and there’s usually a lot of mud, and some man made obstacles to tease riders into leaping off the bike and running.
Around this time last year, I borrowed a cyclocross bike from work and enjoyed a few rides off-road. I considered racing, but not long later I was logging the road miles and never quite got round to it. This year, I borrowed the newest model and finally got round to taking a plunge into the mud bath.
The Pinnacle Arkose Women’s One 2015 Bike has been tweakeed very slightly from the 2014 model – the fork rake/offset has been increased, reducing the steering trail. The geomatery edit places the front wheel a little further forward, but the trail figure is kept low – this all comes to mean the bike feels super nimble, without feeling twitchy. Some of the tubing has also been put on a diet, too – so the bike is a little lighter. For an entry level model, retailing at £700, I’m genuinely incredibly impressed (review coming to the Evans Cycles blog in around 2 weeks).
My confidence in the bike means I’ve been exploring the land around me – Coulsdon Common, Kenley Common, Happy Valley, and the North Downs – over the past few weekends, and confidence in myself has gradually begun to grow. With no off-road experience, I struggle still with technical sections, my cornering and root-negotiation leave a lot to be desired – but when a notification goading me into the London X League Round 7 came my way, I entered.
The Race: London X League Round 7
The event, at Addington Park, was mapped out on the League website – and the majority appeared to be on grass – no trails, no roots, nothing really to be intimidated about, save for two ‘obstacle’ sections, and a portion I named the ‘helter skelter’, where the course tape dictates riders circle around a central point for a few turns.
I entered the 2 days before the event, but made sure I stuck with my planned run and gym session the day before – for a summer TT I’d usually take it easy, but over winter the focus is on preparing for spring triathlons and time trials, not being ‘on form’ for a CX race, so I decided to start as I meant to continue.
On the morning of the race, I became aware every ‘advice for your first cyclocross race’ article focused on mounts and dismounts, so I headed out for half an hour in which I hoped to learn the skill. Having practiced triathlon flying dismounts (which I’ve never used in a race..) this wasn’t too tricky, but I did note I became incapable as soon as a dog walker shared my path – this didn’t bode well for using them in the race, sharing the ‘track’ with other riders.
Regardless – despite hammering rain, Mr RideWriteRepeat (he’ll hate that..) and I headed off to Addington. Harder races are fueled by more mud – and this was going to be a baptism of the stuff, with some howling wind to set it off.
There was time for one warm-up lap, and we were off. The women’s race was within the Vet mens event, but there were approximately 20, maybe 25, of us – I was impressed by the turn out. Of course, also aware that most people who take up CX are experienced summer roadies, so a little intimidated, too.
There were some beginners, as well as some really experienced riders – including Louise Mahe (Team Mulebar Girls), who eventually took the win, and Claire Beamont (Vicious Velo) who was second, plus Emma Lewis (PMR Toachin House), third.
Back to my race. We were told there was 15 seconds till the ‘Go’, then came the ‘Go’.
Within around 20 metres, a huge clump of mud flew off another rider’s wheel, directly into my eye – and I spent the next half lap trying to remove it. After one incline, we were on the helter skelter, and I was trying to follow the lines led out by women who seemed to know their stuff.
A rider I’d been speaking to before hand (coincidentally who I’d been to school with) lost a wheel in the mud in front of me, but jumped up again and was on her way as I passed – reassuring to see that crashes in this stuff rarely hurt.
Our already mud coated peloton headed round a bend, to obstacle one (wooden planks), up another hill, round some bends on the muddiest section, then over two man-made hillocks which were an opportunity to get us off the bikes and run again, before some switchbacks to lap two.
I had my own face-plant moment, on the first or second lap, right in front of my husband who was kind enough to capture it. It was on the muddiest side of the course, and my wheel just flew out beneath me. I got back on though, no harm done save some slightly more slippery hands.
It was following the man-made hillocks that I discovered my lack of a crucial skill that was going to haunt me all race. At every re-mount, I simply failed to clip in – and wasted quite some time trying.
My cleats were swimming with mud and I had no idea which part of the pedal I was trying to connect to. Every time I’d watch 2 or 3 riders leave me standing in the mud trying to get on, and then I’d chase them, catch up around half way round the next lap, sometimes overtake, only to start all over again at the next re-mount.
It was around the last two laps that I learnt what needs to be done: hop onto the bike, simply put feet on the pedal, somewhere, and think about clipping in later down the line. If feet still don’t connect, whack the pedal with your shoe to clear the mud – but unfortunately that learning came a little too late for this race.
Regardless, I kept up my game of cat and mouse – drop off at the dismount, catch up, drop off, catch up… I found myself re-meeting a few women who had charged off at the first lap, but rarely managing to overtake, and where I did, I soon saw them riding away after the dismount section..
The pattern continued for 45 minutes, when I finally heard the bell. It occurred to me then why cowbells are so intrinsically a part of cyclocross racing – that sound of the bell is so blissful – the suffering (it is suffering..any race less than an hour means suffering of the best kind) is almost over.
The final remount presented a final opportunity for me to flail around, trying to clip in, but I had a chance to exchange a few words of encouragement with other riders I’d been cat an mousing with for the past 50 minutes. People always say that CX is an incredibly friendly sport – and it is – you’ve got to be friendly with people mad enough to race adapted road bikes around muddy fields for fun. The pack is hugely varied- you’ll met everyone from competitive racers, to brand new beginners on mountain bikes and wearing baggies.
In the final 20 meters, a female rider came past me – that was irritating – the track was pretty slippery by that point, having had many wheels skidding over it, and I wasn’t about to start looking around me to check no one was there. I’m not sure exactly where I came (results still pending, lots of women ahead of me, a fair few behind I think but it all does get quite messy so hard to tell), but I wasn’t mad keen on losing an extra place – but then I wasn’t there to achieve, only to have fun.
If the goal was to have fun – I nailed it. I finished beaming.
Around 50 minutes of hyperventilating, a lot of glorious mud, and some ‘banter’ with the other girls – what more could you want? CX provides the immediate competition of a crit (as opposed to the individual clock chasing of a TT/tri), with a softer landing, and more technical handling skills that break the bunch up,too.
My fist cyclocross race advice
My morning ‘advice for your first cyclocross race’ googling wasn’t madly successful, so I thought I’d pipe in with my own suggestions. I’m sure experienced riders will be able to provide a lot more of these, but here are the 8 pieces of advice I wish I’d listened to:
1) Learn to dismount and remount. Really. I was frustrated to read that advice this morning, since it’s not a ‘listen and do’ nugget, like ‘pump your tyres to 30 psi’ – you actually need to practice. But seriously, if you have left yourself time – do it, it makes so much difference. When your pedals don’t connect to shoes, bash the shoes on the pedals.
2) That listen and do nugget above about tyres? Listen and do – if you’re a roadie, forget everything you know about tyre pressure – lower is better (to a point). Tyre pressure is weight dependent, and condition dependent (lower for muddier) but you should be looking at the 20s and 30s, not the 120s of road tyres. Make sure your tyres are race and mud friendly – often the tyres that come on a bike are not, so read descriptions and reviews, and choose a CX race tyre for muddy days out (assuming it’s winter and wet).
3) You probably don’t need arm/leg warmers, you’ll get hot (I ended up racing with mine in my pockets, having taken them off on the start line).
4) The most competitive riders shoot off on the gun. If you want a podium, follow them or fail. A lot of other riders also shoot off, they dropped me quickly, but the tester in me was pleased to find I caught them about half way in (sadly didn’t stay ahead, since I’m apparently incapable of clipping in quickly!)
5) Glasses with clear lenses = good idea. They can, I admit, mist up in the rain, but that clump of mud in my eye really did cause me problems, and actually I’m still seeing a bit blurry.
6) In really muddy sections, stick to the grass. The mud gets more slippery throughout the race, so grass will become your close friend by the end. Ideally, pre-ride the course (just one lap) so you know where the tricky bits are.
7) It’s a cheesy finish – but enjoy. It’s awesome fun.
PS – also:
8) Take a jet wash