As I tick off the eternity until my date with 3rd Cat destiny in Portsmouth, I’m not going to have a fat lot to report on. The training slog is boring enough to do, let alone to write about.
But while the road season is winding down to a close there begins a very different sort of bike racing, one that sees lots of frankly crazy individuals gathering in dark and muddy corners of the South East. This is cyclo-cross, which, as its name suggests, is like motorcycle scrambling only on pedal bikes.
Among those trying out ‘cross for the first time this season is my team-mate and friend Richard Mitchelson, and he’ll have a regular guest slot throughout the winter to keep the blog’s competitive fires burning while I scoff mince pies and drink real ale.
Here’s his first instalment, from the London/SE Senior Cross League meet at the Redbridge Cycle Circuit, better known as Hog Hill…
Me and my new soigneur/mechanic [my dad, Paul] arrived at Hog Hill on a surprisingly bone dry Sunday. It had been pissleing it down the night before and I was expecting some serious mud. Signing in and watching the youth races gave me a feel for the new scene I was taking part in for the first time: everyone was super friendly, with tips and hints about the course and racing generally. The elite riders mixing it with the novice guys meant it had a great ‘all in together’ feel, too.
Dad found the pits and I started to warm up on the course; it was very tough and very undulating – the top guys climbed 600m in their hour’s racing. But after a couple of laps I felt all the time spent practising on the South Downs had paid off, helping me clear the hurdles and get up and over some very steep climbs. There were also a couple of BMX-style burms, which I managed to get some pretty sweet but terrifying air off on the first lap, almost ending my race as the off camber left hand bend with a fence post came hurtling towards me.
Heading back to the start area we lined up, then the 30 or so seeded riders were called up. After that it was a bit of a free for all to try and get a good position behind them. I knew this was going to happen, so secured a really good spot and got ready. In total the field was about 115ish riders, and the thought of us all heading towards the first very narrow single track section was a little on the nerve jangling side. But I came to the conclusion that this is a race, elbows out and I was going to push hard to see who I could keep behind me…
The start was something new… instead of the Surrey League’s relaxed “Away you go then”, the starter here counted us down, and with the shout “30 SECONDS” the sound of 115+ riders clipping into pedals got my adrenaline pumping… “10 SECONDS”… oh shit this is really going to happen… “GO!!!”
Starting on the tarmac section of the Hog Hill road course we climbed up towards the start/finish area and round the first bend towards the single track and a very tight, gravelly left-hander. I moved up well on the outside, aware of the squeeze that was coming, riders moving and jostling all over the place. I just kept pushing on…
And the race was on… I held my lines and kept as smooth as possible, trying to predict the gear changes I needed before climbing and dropping back down again. Half a lap in and the seasoned campaigners were moving on, much better used to the pace and descending at a higher speed than a noob such as myself. Soon the madness settled, my breathing became harder and I knew I was in for an hour of hurt.
At around 30mins in the elite riders caught me. No, lapped me, making things look super easy they made swift work of getting past my snarling, rabid self. After that it was a case of holding onto wheels for as long as possible, following people to see the best way in and out of tight corners and steep descents.
The constant barrage of corners, drops, hills, longer climbs and other riders meant for a concentration packed hour, and soon Dad was shouting “15 minutes to go” from the pits. I was desperate to suck in more air than seemed humanly possible. When I thought I couldn’t carry on I found myself shouting encouragement in my own mind, getting out of the saddle, chasing a wheel…
The bell lap finally came and with aching bones and very sore limbs I dragged my body onto the tarmac and back around for one last portion of punishment. The tank was empty, in fact it had been empty for some time, but I wanted to finish as strongly as I could.
As I dropped down to the lower part of the course I knew I was enjoying it and the end of the race would be prize enough. Leaping the hurdles and running the bike onto the tarmac, I climbed back on and sprinted for the line. In my head it felt like a poor show, and a 73rd overall for that much hard work seems a little disappointing. However, considering it was my first race, and there were 115-odd riders at the start of the hour, I was satisfied to know I had beaten a fair few.
It’s onwards and upwards and my preparation can adjust now I know what’s really required. I am hooked, though, and while I was very heavy-legged and sore this morning I know it is really going to help my road racing come the spring. In the meantime, I can’t wait to do it all again soon!