All season long my pal Richard Mitchelson has been trying out the sport of cyclo-cross and reporting on his exploits as a guest writer for the blog. Here’s his eighth and final race report, so thanks a million Rich for keeping the blog fresh and interesting throughout the long winter months, it’s been a pleasure having you on board.
From here on in, though, it’s back to 100% me, 100% road racing. The skies are clearing, the temperature is rising, time to get it on!
The final race of the season saw me and Elli heading just up the road to Great Walstead School near Lindfield for the London League Team Championships. For the first time this season we were experiencing truly Baltic conditions, with the mercury barely touching freezing all day and a thick layer of snow covering the South Downs when we left home, so I knew this was going to be a really tough day.
The day before a race I normally take it a bit easy, perhaps a light-ish road spin. However, this time I’d been up on the South Downs on my new MTB for about four hours, forging a path and sometimes walking through almost knee deep snow in places. My legs were not quite ready for the race, but I’m not one for excuses and was determined to try and give it one final huzzah before the season was out.
Tea, coffee, cake, rolls of all natures. Crawley Wheelers had put on what can only be described as an epic spread. The sign on hall was the school’s café, which was more than ample for the hordes of hungry riders descending upon it from all reaches of the south east. I’ve been riding with the lads from Crawley Wheelers a few times this season and they are a top bunch: friendly, welcoming and more than happy to pass on some skills to a novice ‘cross racer such as myself.
I layered up. Having packed about every piece of kit I owned I found myself wearing most of it on my warm up. I headed down to the course and got in a few laps to get used to things. Conditions under tyre were very, very slippy, which seemed to please some, but concerned most. Ice, snow, mud, roots… the whole gamut of fail items were there – I found myself trying to keep things steady and smooth rather than hard and crash worthy.
This recklessness clearly comes with experience, or perhaps on the day the will to go completely balls out, as I had done in my previous race, just wasn’t there. Falling off seemed part of the fun, and it’s a mental barrier I’ll have to overcome next season to move up in the rankings on courses like this one. Those that pushed to the very limits of their grip and beyond tended to really motor, the concern of hitting trees, the ground, icy ruts etc. missing from their minds in the heat of battle.
One final use of the nearest bush and I was ready to go. It was still bitterly cold and I chose to race with my gilet under my long sleeved jersey; this kept me warm, perhaps too warm. But at the time I was happy with the choice. We lined up waiting for the off, nervous and excited faces everywhere. For the final time this season i heard “I WILL START YOU SOME TIME IN THE NEXT 30 SECONDS!”
COME ON! I thought as I clipped in. The start section was a snow covered field and, as everyone tried to put their power down, riders were slipping and sliding trying desperately to get away as best they could.
I followed wheels and kept my head up looking for places to get through. Within the first hundred metres three or four riders went down, some pretty spectacularly, the full over the bars dive style. I took evasive action to get round them and the ice under my wheels took me well off course, but soon I was back in the line trying to move up, though with little space to do so it was proving tricky. As riders slowed for the first major corner I leapt from the bike and ran quickly around a handful desperate to pick up places. As I remounted I knew they’d be keen to get past again and I got the elbows out through the very narrow single track, holding my line. The feeling of holding riders at bay with pretty much anything you can is a great one, the tight nature of the wooded section of the course kept things close for some time; one guy shouted “rider right” and I moved directly into his path, it was far too soon for people to lap riders and I knew that trick all too well: door closed, no entry. The line of riders I was part of traded blows for a fair few laps until things started to spread out, some moving on, some slipping away and me… stuck somewhere in between.
I felt right on my limit, I was working hard and seemingly not getting a lot for it, it was frustrating but on the open, muddier sections I got down on the drops and sprinted until I had to pile into the next snow filled bend.
The race unfolded and I started to feel like I had the rhythm of the course, the two “bomb holes” proved a huge amount of fun, dropping into a short but very steep ditch to either a sharp hairpin and back up the other side, or the other one which was a straight down then straight up. They were my favourite sections, they broke the laps apart and I found I could focus on each section in between them.
As the laps ticked by, it was tricky to see any other riders catching me up as the course was so winding and tight. About 40mins in Matt Webber came through me like a man possessed, Elli told me later that she had never seen someone ride those conditions so fast, or fall so many times. He was a man on a mission: having just won the London League I had a feeling he’d be out to prove in the final race that he was the man of the moment.
Soon afterwards, the usual faces wormed through gaps to overtake me. The boys from Vicious Velo were doing a particularly fine job and looking like they were more than comfortable taking the team prize [which they did.]. My lower back was screaming at me, lungs sore, teeth full of muck, and as the final lap bell of the final race of the season rang loud in my ear I knew I was going to try and open it up as much as I could on this, the last push.
One closing burst and that was it. I crossed the line with a fair few riders behind me, but as always at that moment in time it was the last thing on my mind. I collapsed on my bars gasping for air. Simon Scarsbrook, a rider I’ve been good friends with this season, shook my hand and that was it. Done. I hurt a lot, it was the most challenging of all the courses I’d raced on, and I was hurting for a day or so after.
We went back to the car, chatting with riders and friends about how their race had been, some crashing a lot and suffering, others relishing the slippery conditions and using their experience and balls to move up the standings. In short, a top race was had by all. I sat, warm and dry in the cafe after with a well-earned tea and cake and was already planning for next season. Seven months to go. I can’t wait.
Big thanks Dougie Fox of Crawley Wheelers and his team who did a fantastic job with the course, tight, twisting and tricky best summed it up from my experience and it’s a course I can’t wait to race again.
In the end I came 76th out of 117 finishers, with a fair handful of DNF’s. I must admit to being disappointed by the result; it’s funny that it mirrored my first result of the season. But I know that there would be no way I could have raced in those conditions back in September without probably killing myself or finishing dead last, so that’s a plus point for sure.
After contesting half the races on offer I finished comfortably within the top half of the points scorers’ table for the London league. This was better than I thought I’d do and next season I’m planning on doing a lot more racing. I found when I strung two or three races together in close succession I showed real improvement and that’s what I hope to do more of next season.
The sport of cyclo-cross has me in its clutches; I feel like I’ve found an area of cyclosport I can really get my teeth into and have fun doing. The next step is to get some tubs and experience the marvel in grip that comes with them. All the racers I have spoken to, and there have been a fair few, have said that’s the best next step I can take to help me improve.
I’ve also gone and bought a MTB and plan to race it this spring/summer to get used to the single track and technical bike handling needed in ‘cross racing. I know that once I improve my riding on the rough stuff I can move up the standings for sure, it’s been my Achilles heel this season and, with conditions being dry most of the season, I’ve got off pretty lightly. I’m still going to train on the road with the Bayeux Cycling Team as getting in good, solid road miles will also help a lot.
So for now I’m taking a week or so off the gym: no intervals, tababta, weights etc. My head and body need a proper rest before I start racing the MTB in a month or so.
I want to thank all the people that have given me advice and helped me this season, it’s been a massive learning curve, steep at times, but the knowledge that has been passed down to me has helped immensely. So thanks to:
Andy Waterman, Paul Sheers, Ben Spurrier, Claire Beaumont, Simon Scarsbrook and his lad Oskar [top photos], Alan Dorrington, Dave Haygarth, Jo Burt, Stef Wyman, Ian Field, Jules Birks, Philip Glowinski, Ian Cleverly, Dougie Fox, Mark Smith, Stuart Nisbett, Andy Powers, my team mates at the Bayeux Cycling Team, Martin Green for letting me write this drivel on his blog and my fiancée Elli, who is the most patient, supportive and all round awesome person in my life. I love you!
See you all in September!!!