As I continue my slow, turbo trainer-centric build up to the new road racing season, Rich Mitch continues his cyclo-cross odyssey around the forests and school playing fields of the South East. Here’s his latest race report…
Unseasonably mild. This seems to define my first cyclo-cross season. Never the Somme like conditions where I’d be crying out for a second bike or pressure washer. As we arrived at Wilmington School and the sun was bright I knew the conditions would be good under tyre, dry, perhaps softish. There was however, a biting wind, strong in the fields whipping across from the Thames Estuary, which meant I’d have to think smartly, perhaps sitting in wheels and biding my time to pass others so as not to waste unnecessary energy.
I signed on, a small part of the school designated to cyclo-cross racers for the day (other than the fields). The cakes, sandwiches, and other treats laid on by the team behind today’s race, Team Darenth, were pretty impressive; the thought of a hot brew and cake later was lovely.
I picked up my number – I was first to sign on so had the auspicious task of being number 1… It didn’t come with any sort of godlike light, magical powers or skills so I pinned it on as normal, somewhat disappointed. Elli was once again here to cheer, shout and take some pictures. She sat in the car while I set up the bike, checked tyres, had food and wrapped up against the wind. I headed out onto the course for my warm up, leaving my cheering squad snug in the car reading.
After dropping the spare wheels into the pits, hoping I’d not have to use them as always, I set out on my warm up. Covering the course twice in the time I had was a few times less than normal, especially compared to the compact courses found at places such as Herne Hill. It was interesting to hear the various thoughts on the course from other riders; some thinking it was too narrow and technical, others thinking it was fine and a very English cross course.
I found the Wilmington course tricky, I won’t make out it was easy at all. The single track sections were crisscrossed by roots, which were damp, slippery and tricky. My tyres felt like they were coping well, but I took a little air out and things really improved. The single track opened out onto large wide fields, school fields around football pitches etc. and this was where I knew I could open it up and really push on. I continued my warm up around the field which held the start area, spinning the legs as best I could to get loose and trying some practice starts and bursts.
The sun shone as some 100+ riders stood waiting to be gridded. The chosen few were called forward, and I got right up behind them, ready for the start. I checked my gear, clipped in and…
As the first four lines of riders sprinted off my foot found my cleat and I was off, my best start of the season so far. I was able to push up into the seeded riders and luckily only had a short wait at the first pinch point on the course. Knowing there would be another coming up I really drilled it and as we hit the second and pretty slow single track section I knew the start had done its job. The technical manner of the course soon had riders with more experience passing me but it opened up again soon enough and I could hit the power again maintaining my place in the line of riders I’d found myself with.
The first lap passed and I’d got into the flow of things quickly, I guess that’s what comes with more experience, the sharp climb half way round took us riders into the most technical section of the course, narrow enough for only one rider, lined by trees waiting to knock you down if you slipped off course. I wiggled and waggled my way through, making sure to keep my pace as high as my nerve would dare. At the end of this section we headed back down to the fields via what I heard one child describe as “The Death Trap” a tight hairpin on a sharp muddy descent, it was a foot out sweep around type affair, but heading towards trees at race pace was a new experience and nerve jangling at the best of times, especially after a root had sent me flying off the bike into a set of brick steps. My pride was bruised more than anything but it did dent my confidence. I knew I just had to keep pushing and my confidence would grow again, which it did.
I was keeping my speed high across the open fields and as the half-way point came I still felt strong, so upped the pace. The riders around me slipped behind and it was only with two-and-a-half laps to go that the leaders passed me. Both Matt Webber and Darren Barclay were really shifting, making light work of the course, but it was at least another half a lap until Sylvan Garde zipped by and then only two more came by before the finish. Sure, the course was long, but so was Reed Court Farm and a whole raft of guys had nudged their way through at that race.
The last lap began, the bell rang, and as Ciaran O’Grady and Jules Birks in 4th and 5th disappeared into the distance I made my final move. I had more left in the tank, a feeling I’d never experienced. I got out of the saddle, slipped it into the big ring and pushed my legs harder, faster. I wanted that result.
Elli shouted loudly, telling me to dig in, push on and all the great phrases a knackered bike racer might grab some sort of inspiration from to make him or herself hurt that bit more. She was there each lap and it really helped.
As the final half a lap came around I spotted the rest of the leaders, names of winners that are imprinted on my head as they often get past me so early on. Mick Bell, recent national champion in his age group. Jack Finch, Junior rider extraordinaire. Kevin Knox and Paul Sheers, Vicious Velo fast men. I had a goal: they weren’t getting past me. I gritted my teeth and as the final bend came into sight and the wind battered into my face I knew I’d done it: they were still behind me, a small victory for some but not me!
There were few riders in the finish area when I came in, I knew I was one lap down and a large amount of guys were still racing. But how many? I had no idea and as I went to pick up the wheels and spin out the lactate from my legs I had that tell-tale grin across my face. Brilliant…
I came 55th out of 128 finishers. I’d done it – made my goal for the season, to finish in the top half of the table. It was a great feeling to know I’d moved up the finishers on such a technical course and now I’m really looking forward to the final two races.
My fitness is up and my spirits high, buoyed by the fact that I’ve only just found out I’ve been picking up London League points pretty much all season. My result at Wilmington School will hopefully net me a clutch more. So the goal has been re-set; to work my way onto the start grid, to be called up in front of the others and take my place among the other racers.
Perhaps this is a lofty goal, but whether it’s this season or next I’ll get there. Bring it on.