You knew it was coming, the post apocolypctic account of a season in the mud, I did warn you in November!
For the uninitiated, and I can’t think there are many, please do yourself a favour and watch the World Championships that recently took place in Hoogerheide in the Netherlands.
What you will witness may be as foreign as tennis in a swimming pool but this my friends, is the reason you have, well, knobs on your rubber! This is the sport that put the ‘n’ in nails and the first taste of blood in the back of your throat. This is cyclocross!
The start is an art form, you thought short course MTB was hardcore, think about trying to launch what is effectively a road bike at crit pace into a rutted field, a hairpin corner or a single track surrounded by trees covered in padding. It is hyper aggressive, there are no friends in that instant. You push until the course dictates that your speed is now stupid then you settle into a workout that is 2 parts assault course 1 part cycling. ‘Recovery’ happens well within anaerobic threshold and you can forget about bottles, gels and little moments of freewheeling to get your breath back.
Stop pedaling, you stop, want a drink, you cant, there are no cage bosses on your bike and its illegal to get a hand up under 23deg C. The circumstances that evolve into your race finish result will depend on the following, skill, weather, luck, preparation, fitness and determination. Riders never really quit, I’ve seen guys run 2 laps with a decimated bike just to place 40th. The weather always seems to enforce a determination in cycling. In Cyclocross you can be assured the weather will test everything from your morale to your physcial ability to function effectively.
Cyclocross is heroic.
So have I bigged it up enough? Ready to sell the mtb? Not so fast.
At season end around the UK and most of Europe leagues are finishing, riders are tired and bikes are worn out. The last race on the calendar for most will be a team format, 4 riders, best of 3 across the line, trophies for the season, drink a coffee, have a laugh, happily jet wash those bearings for the last time.
As a predominantly 2 man army this year Rusty and myself were scrabbling for friends, we thought we had a win in the bag by employing skinny suffer junkie Will Hayter and our star of the future young Jamie Francis to make what had to be our best shot at the glorious title of ‘London Cyclocross League Team Champions 2013/14’, rolls off the tongue that doesn’t it!
Race day rolls in and we are a man down, Jamie’s rigorous training had stuffed him up and the fact everything tends to happen in a cross race that shouldn’t, we were worried our challenge may get scuppered by the inevitable broken chain, mech, seat pin, brake, tub, wheel, you get the idea. Our call-up was reversed so we could slingshot Rusty, the 5 foot ruffian out the start gate, I could wage elbow war with the bigger guys and Will (riding a single speed mtb with tractor tyres) could barge his way through the crush of bikes at the first farm gate entry onto the circuit proper.
A more ruthlessly cruel course for anyone running one gear and low mud clearance I can’t imagine, Will’s first lap was testiment to his speed, his last lap a testiment to his insanity! Farm track to field, back into farm track and forest followed by grass climb into brutal crosswinds followed immediately by an off camber hard pack zig zag climb to the finish. The organisers had somehow designed sections so comically awful riders were working in pained slow motion to the delight of the yelling bell ringing supporters lining the course.
‘Viscious Velo’ the luminous punks in lycra, ‘Velo Club Londres’ the track based die hards and ‘East London Velo’ the dark horses were our main opposition. Viscious had employed the services of the fastest super Vet on the circuit Darren Barclay, this guy barely ever sees a finish lower than 5th. Unfortunately strict rules dictate team makeup and Viscious found themselves out of contention for the team prize before they even got going!
As Jules Berks from VCL set the pace Rusty chased hard to defend against the ever present Phil Glowinski. Phil has sublime skills on the bike and not even a rolled tub really slowed his progress. Me I was in a bucket of hurt, a good start followed by some sketchy lines in the woods meant no cover for me in the exposed area, I was doing everything to get back up to the front 5 or 6 but the harder you push more and more mistakes creep in. None of us were running a spare bike and the mud soon added a few kilos to the bikes and really started to play havoc on the gears.
In the closing laps I felt like the race was never going to end, you have team mates and they’re burying themselves, hammer, hammer and a little more hammer, make it stop!
Mercifully we rolled in, just Will left out on the circuit fighting to move his now ludicriously heavy bike. There is nothing pretty about a cross finish, today we could at least laugh at another season ticked off and chuckle as Will swore he’d never join us again, oh come on, that was fun, besides 2nd place makes it all worth while right?
Bike washing, prize giving, get back in the Mini (yep its all about practicality this sport) and head home warm and fuzzy, the tradition of the sport seems to reach something road cycling sometimes misses, you connect with riders around the globe, there is a kinship and a mutual respect. As we bump along the rough roads of Southern England in our tiny rammed packed car we state emphatically ‘two bikes next year, we definitely need two bikes’ Oh hell, see you lot next season!