Cross really IS Boss…

Spend any time on social media towards the end of the road racing season and you’re sure to stumble on the #CrossIsBoss and #CrossIsComing hashtags on your news feeds. At the end of a long season, racing Cyclocross is probably the last thing anyone would want to do, much preferring to indulge in some well-earned time off the bike and start work on that dad-bod physique. But not me. I’m pretty obsessive about riding my bike, possibly down to a fear of losing fitness or putting on weight and having to put in a lot more effort to shift it, or maybe i’m just happiest when on two wheels, whatever the answer racing a season of Cross is sure to keep you in shape and (in theory) will act as a nice stepping stone for good form next season, plus its a damn sight more fun that sitting in your garage for hours on a Turbo Trainer!

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Last season I borrowed a friends CX bike just to have a go at a couple of the local races, unlike road racing there were a few races practically on my doorstep. Initially It took a bit of getting used to with the wide, nobbly tyres feeling pretty odd and I couldn’t quite get my head around riding a kind-of road bike, off-road! After a few rides on some of the local cycle trails I was hacking around the more demanding mountain bike runs and exploring the ragged coast paths quite comfortably, what a fantastic and versatile bike this was proving to be!

 

Now that I’d honed my (very basic) cyclocross skills I entered my first race, still very much unsure of what to expect from it. Surprisingly I found I didn’t suffer with the pre-race nerves quite so much, maybe because I was an unknown and nobody expected me to do well, I found this quite a nice feeling compared to the pre-race nerves I usually battled with before TimeTrials or Road races. The Newquay round of the SWCXL (South West Cyclo-Cross League) would be my first ever ‘Cross race so that morning I did a last minute YouTube browse to see how the remounts and dismounts were done! Nothing like leaving it to the last ey? I packed my usual race kit and away I went.

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It was a baptism of fire on a super muddy course with a lot of running, my first ever remount took place in the race and i’m glad to say it went a lot smoother than expected-thank god for YouTube! I started at the very back of the pack and spent the duration of the race trying to battle my way up to were I should have been to start with. It was like nothing I’d ever done before; a maximum effort for an hour, there would be no let up and certainly no “pacing” involved. Age was by no means a advantage, I was probably one of the fittest riders there, but my CX bike handling certainly left a lot to be desired for with the smoother guys proving that whilst slow and steady wouldn’t necessarily win the race, it was an effective way of using your energy more efficiently. In the end I surprised myself and didn’t do too badly; beating a fair few seasoned CXers and finishing in the top half of riders. I was completely exhausted and very muddy but I’d absolutely loved it and I was hooked. Cross could well be boss.

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Whilst I was enjoying the races, having great fun and a getting a serious workout, it was more the cross riding I was doing outside of racing that was proving to be the most fun. Previously I’d be out in all weathers trying to force the miles in, slogging it into a howling headwind or getting drenched in the torrential Cornish rain, I wouldn’t particularly enjoy these rides, I just saw them as “necessary”, whereas in truth I wouldn’t be getting too much out of them other than a cold. I could go for a CX ride at a solid pace for a third of the distance and be sure to get way more out of it, plus I’d have a lot more fun.

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Having an off-road bike allowed me to explore the places and paths I’d only previously ridden past but never ventured down, Cornwall has got loads of designated cycle paths and some pretty ace mountain bike routes to tackle, but they’re mostly through woodland and around lakes, so a CX bike was a great tool to explore with rather than battling with a bulky Mountain Bike. I’d ride on parts of the well-established trails then I’d hike myself and my bike over fences and fields to make my own routes and create different loops. It opened up a whole new world of cycling right on my doorstep that was previously unavailable to me, among other CX adventures I even found myself on an old disused airfield once where my inner explorer came out to play and I took the chance to “Surf” a Canberra Bomber!

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I entered a few more local races and got progressively better at the technical side of cyclocross, my dismounts became much smoother and I began to stagger or gallop a lot less when running into my remount. As I rode and raced more I began to steadily start climbing the results list until I was inside the top 10 regularly. Being a “Roadie” who had previously only really dabbled in the dark arts of Mountain Biking -and not since I was younger- I found the handling of the bike and the way it would react in different situations quite foreign. I tried to get out at least once a week on my cross bike on a steady loop with mixed terrain, to try and teach myself how to react to changes in terrain whilst still trying to put down power. The muddier and more slippery it got, the more fun/challenging it became to try and put down power without the back end sliding out, or trying to not “dab” with my foot. It resulted in a lot of muddy spills and a lot of boil washes!

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For 2017-2018 I hadn’t pre-registered for the SWCXL as I thought i’d only do one or two of the rounds, this would backfire as you could only be “gridded” if you had pre-registered. The gridding process is still a mystery to me today, the idea is that the 40 best riders start at the front with the rest of the field filling in behind, this ensures that the riders who are going for the series overall don’t get held up behind the riders -such as myself- trying it out for a round here and a round there. I only found this out afterwards unfortunately as I quickly discovered I would be beating 25-30 of the gridded riders but yet each week I’d still start off behind everyone again, frustrating to say the least!

I raced a few more events, including an especially muddy one at a Farm in Saltash, the course took you through the farm, skirted the cattle shed, through a sandy equestrian pit and onto the boggiest field i’ve ever tried to ride through- It quickly turned into a running race with many riders pulling out due to mud-induced mechanicals. I managed to finish the race but with only a few gears left. I’m still not sure if it was mud we’d ridden through or…

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Once my first season was over I kept riding cross semi-regularly throughout the dark and muddy months at the start of year, before returning to training on the road again. I primised myself I’d buy my own CX bike and take the league more seriously the following season, I would pre-register and hope to prove to myself and others that the mild success I’d enjoyed wasn’t just a flash in the pan and I could push on and better myself in the new season.

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Fast forward 9 Months…after a largely successful season of road racing and time trialling, the familiar “cross is boss” and “Cross is coming” hashtags were starting to appear on my news feed, just like the previous year it had crept up on me yet again! I quickly set to work finding all the kit I’d stuffed in a box at the close of last season and with the help of my Local Bike Shop, I managed to get my hands on a 2019 Giant TCX slr, a tidy upgrade from last seasons’ borrowed bike. The TCX had hydraulic discs as apposed to the Cable brakes I’d previously run, Tubeless tyres and a Sram Rival 1x 11 groupset. I was excited to try the tubeless tyres out, the idea of running at a much lower pressure with no risk of a pinch flat was surely a cyclocrossers’ dream. I was also curious about getting to grips with the 1x groupset, I’d run a double chainset last season and never once used the”big” ring so it made sense to me to bin off the double.

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For the 2018-2019 season I pre-registered for the league, five whole english pounds. This meant I’d be eligible for gridding among the top riders and not waste too much energy battling to get into a good overall position, I also swapped out my Stock Giant wheels for some lightweight, racey looking Mavic Kysrium wheels, this would give me a spare set to put in the pits incase of a mechanical. Marginal gains and all that.

Unfortunately, in Cornwall we have a limited number of races with only so many people  -understandably- willing to do the organising of events, usually each cycling discipline has it’s own dedicated few that will host semi-regular races. This is great and they do a fantastic job, hats off to them I couldn’t do it, however the dedicated few seem not to communicate with one another or check apposing race calendars, this means that there’s nearly always a few weekends where there are no races and then other weekends when there’s a criterium or road race on the Saturday and then a TT or CX race on the Sunday, with the ever longer racing season this is becoming more and more of an issue. I may be slightly out of line writing this as I’m one of the few riders who race multi-discipline, most of the people I compete against only race in one discipline, either way I missed out on or did poorly in plenty of races due to calendar clashes and CX suffered the same; sadly I didn’t get to ride the first few rounds of the SWCXL due to finishing off my TT season. Annoying.

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My first race of the 2018-2019 CX season would be a hilly course, a long drive up and over the Cornish border away in the grounds of  Escot Park. My legs felt horrendous in the warm up and on the course recce but seemed to feel okay in the race, don’t get me wrong, they still hurt, but they never got any worse. I would be gridded for the first time ever albeit near the back. The race started with a long dragging climb to the very top of the park before weaving back down through the turns to start the first full lap, It was a bit of a shock to the system having not competed in cross for a year, with my heart rate soaring and my lungs burning throughout, a flowing course helped me to find my feet in the tight turns again and my race fitness ensured I could overtake many on the climbs,  I surprised myself by riding every technical section of the course no matter how challenging and despite being gridded near the back I still managed to sneak into the top 10. For my first cx race of my season I called that a pretty good result.

The bike was fantastic, a real upgrade from the bike I rode last season, the hydraulic discs gave me much more confidence on the technical parts and allowed to me brake a lot later safe in the knowledge i’d slow down! I got to grips with the 1x fairy quickly, I’d previously run a double chainset but only once got into the big ring, so binning off the double seemed a wise choice. My tyre pressures were still too hard but I was sure that as the season went on and my confidence in the tubeless system grew i’d start running them lower and lower.

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The next round was an especially windy course, once again up over the Cornish border, this time in Coxleigh Barton. The course would be relatively flat with long straights between patches of tight turns and hurdles, at first glance it was an unimaginative course with very dry conditions, but with the strong winds blowing, it turned out to be quite interesting. Despite the bitterly cold wind I was looking forward to the race, I was gridded much higher this round but wouldn’t benefit from my competitors lack of climbing like I had in the previous round. I tried to make the most of my positioning by going super deep from the gun, I’d narrowly missed the tail of the lead group by misjudging an off-camber turn, this would prove to be crucial as once I’d started losing ground I found myself in no mans land and got torn apart by the wind. The groups I’d previously passed started creeping up on me and I battled to hold my position. I ended up finishing way outside of the top 10 in 20th. It had been a tough course but a worthwhile experience in going to hard and paying the consequences! Onwards and upwards.

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The Falmouth round came around quickly -finally a Local round- and would be held on the Cornwall 4X track, this meant an interesting ride over the burms and around high banked corners to the bottom of the field before the inevitable long hike back up to the start to do it all over again. It was certainly a “Marmite” kind of course with a few disgruntled riders saying it wasn’t a ‘Cross course, but I was determined to make the most of my forever improving gridding position despite the previous weeks implosion. The race was solid and definitely one of the tougher ones I’ve raced, I enjoyed the long dragging climbs, spinning up them passed the guys on Mountain Bikes, but succumbing to their superior braking and traction on the technical downhills, burms and jumps. 16km and close to 500meters of elevation later it was over. Another largely successful outing in the Giant-Helston colours saw me hang on for yet another top 10, not bad for my first “proper” season. Roll on Regional Championships.

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I had fond memories of last seasons’ Redruth CX round so I was looking forward to this years offering, not least because it was also to be the Regional Championships. Being the “Champs” meant that each age category would race individually; U14’s, U16’s, Juniors, Seniors, V40 etc… so it would be easy to see who you were racing against and not get caught behind the sea of other riders. Unfortunately the numbers were down a bit for my race, maybe it being the Regional Championships had put a few off, or maybe it was the torrential rain that had helped turn the course into a full on mud fest!

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Although the Juniors only race a section of the course, I watched on making mental notes of the lines they were choosing to ride and looking to see the potential problem areas. Their race now over, it was time to peel off my warm DryRobe and get into my skinsuit ready for a course recce on the torn up surface, there were a few changes to the course from last year, notably a short sharp climb through the trees, the exposed roots would mean running too lower pressure would prove uncomfortable. Also new for this year was an off camber switchback climb, this would be a tricky one to navigate.

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I was gridded as 9th, just one row behind the leaders, the closest to the front I’d been so far. We got underway with a sprint out of the blocks, I got off to a good start along the back straight before the first tight corner, the leaders in my sight. Having had such a good run of dry races this season, the wet, muddy ground was proving quite tough going, the corners and turns became danger spots where you could gain or lose position quickly. Previously the courses would get progressively wetter as the season went on, but not this time, it was bone dry to slop, just like that.

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As the race went on, the gaps began to appear with the pack breaking up into loads of small groups and pairs. The leaders group contained three, another group of two and then me in my group of two. I wanted to do well and had aspirations -albeit small- of a podium place,  I was up against a crop of strong riders, namely my friend Steve Lampier, formerly of JLT-Condor and Nick Blight who had recently raced the masters championships in Belgium. The conditions ensured this was the hardest CX race I’d done to date, I kept glancing down to my mud-spattered Garmin to check my Heart-Rate, I can safely say it reflected my effort, soaring well over 185+. As the course got torn up more and more, the climbs became more ragged until the only option was to shoulder the bike and run. After a long tussle with one rider I thought I’d succumbed to the strong pace being set, finding myself being distanced over the laps. I kept riding at a solid pace keeping calm and slowly reeling him back in before finally capitalising on a mistake my ever-tiring opponent made with three laps to go. Once clear I now found myself alone between groups, the fatigue was really setting in now and I knew I had to dig deeper than I’d gone before, I could feel the rider behind me trying to catch back on so kicked with what little I had left, determined not to be caught. If I could see my next marker up ahead I was confident I’d have a reasonable chance of clawing my way back on to his wheel.

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As I entered the second to last lap circling around the top playing field, it was clear I wouldn’t be catching back on, I couldn’t see the rider ahead but also I couldn’t see the rider behind, I was well and truly in no-mans land now. With podium ambitions very much scuppered I dug in again just racing to finish with a good time now, my heart was still pounding and my lungs were burning more than ever. Halfway around I heard from one of the Marshalls that Lampier was chasing hard and I was probably going to be lapped, I kept looking over my shoulder and sure enough there he was. We entered the far field together,  I battled onto his wheel holding it for a while and trying to match his pace, we took the corners together dropping down to the lowest of the three fields before he proved way too strong and dropped me on the climb as he powered on to take the win by a long way. I crossed the line shortly after with my head high to take 5th, a fair result on the day.

There were fist bumps and high fives aplenty at the finish, with myself and my opponents relieved to have finished the punishing parcours. The talk quickly turned into a course-digest, we discussed the tricky parts and laughed at the crazy amount of mud there was! The event had been well organised with hot food and drinks available and Redruth school even opening up their showers and changing rooms for us; I half-heartedly rinsed off the worst of mud before heading up to watch the podium ceremony and hen to cheer on the Veterans race, if the course hadn’t been torn up before, it certainly was now, I didn’t envy them one bit having to tackle the course now.

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With the Regional Champ’s done and dusted it would have been time to turn my attention to the next round at Mount Edgcumbe, however this round was to be cancelled a week before, there was no real explanation either, it was just posted on the CX Facebook page. Including Edgcumbe, that meant that there had been 4 rounds of the series cancelled, i’m sure they all had their valid reasons but it was annoying that -as before mentioned- the earlier rounds clashed with other races and now towards the end of the series there were a number of empty weekends. But like I said, i’m sure they have their reasons and i’m not going to dwell on it too much.

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That leaves only one more round in the series, once again over the border at Torbay on the 6th January, having had a longer than preffered lay off from CX racing I think i’ll see how I feel nearer the date, for the time being I’m quite happy getting out and about on the trails and enjoying care-free riding, who knows I may even “accidentally” stumble on the airfield again. Off the bike I’m quite looking forward to over-indulging in Christmas and trying to eat my body weight in Cadbury’s Heroes, with the Quality Streets finishing what the Heroes cannot!

If there’s any sort of conclusion to this installment its this; Cyclocross is one of the most friendly and social disciplines to be a part of, everyone involved is always so encouraging and supportive of new riders. The organisers do a grand job of running the events and designing courses, but they need riders and volunteers alike for these races to go ahead, so why not give it a go in 2019? Sign up for a race or just participate in the “have-a-go” sessions usually ran between the races. If racing isn’t your cup of tea then fair enough, there’s so much fun that can be had “off-the-road” on a cross bike.  One of the local clubs I ride with now runs a Cross-Bike club ride two sundays of the month instead of the usual mud-guard clad road bike ride. My attitude is that you’re probably going to get covered in mud and soaking wet on the road over the winter anyway so why not embrance it, have a bit of fun and go ‘crossing, after all, Cross Is Boss.

N+1 and all that…

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Thanks for reading my latest installment, I hope you’ve all had a great Christmas and I wish you all the best with your endeavours on and off the bike in 2019.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Now, Just Go Ride…

 

 

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