Getting Cross

Source: Velo News

I vaguely remember disembarking the train on to a freezing platform at 8am, a light dusting of snow giving a picturesque touch to an otherwise dull urban scene.

I can also recall re-assembling my old steel Diamond Back, pumping the narrow Onza tyres up hard and setting off to find the Birmingham University campus fields for registration.

What is left seared on my psyche is the hour of pain that ensued, sprinting repeatedly across three football pitches, dragging my bike up the obscenely steep slope that separated them, over the log, down the track and repeat. Claggy mud hauled at my already clogged wheels, lungs burned, the taste of blood sat in my throat – and the race was mayhem. Riders everywhere and no real indication of who was winning beyond the occasional blur of top riders speeding past on bizarre, drop-barred machines. The 1999 Student National Champs was my first foray into the world of Cyclocross and if it wasn’t for an unpredictable set of circumstances, it would certainly have been my last.

Fast forward to the present day and much has changed, particularly within cycle sport. Mass participation, media coverage, Olympic success, Tour victories and a general acceptance of lycra as a form of clothing. My degree did little to shape my future career and fortunately these days I’m paid to sit on a bike but get my competitive buzz from the brutal climbs and technical drops of fell running. Training for me involves beautiful days scaling peaks in often horrific conditions deep within my beloved Mourne Mountains. Unfortunately, last November all of that had to cease, a result of a mystery injury that tore deep into both calves, rendering running all but impossible but incredibly luckily impacting little on my ability to ride. My physio prescribed strengthening exercises for the injury and a biking programme to maintain fitness that helped retain sanity, but couldn’t quench my competitive urges. Astutely recognising the twitchiness that was brewing, he kindly lent me his Cross bike which was set up as a tourer, panniers attached, road tyres on and coated with layers of oily dust from various continents. I think Robbie knew that at the very least he was going to end up with a happier client and a much shinier bike!

Don of the Park

So, the inevitable happened. Within a week, the tourer had been stripped, polished and rebuilt in a totally different guise. Front mech ditched, racks removed, knobbly tyres fitted and the joy of new bar tape, it was looking lithe and ready to race. Next stop was a quick scan of Google to check the upcoming dates in the Ulster CX series and a target was picked, the local round in just three weeks’ time was scheduled for a new venue at Donard Park, just down the road for me. If I was going to be humiliated, at least I wasn’t going to have to drive far for the privilege.

I say humiliated but secretly I had a quiet confidence. As a professional MTB coach and current Northern Irish hardtail Enduro champion I’m happy that I can handle a bike, and as an Irish International mountain runner, albeit an injured one, I can certainly run well. In theory, I have the perfect combination of skills to excel at Cyclocross, unfortunately it only took a few seconds of practice to blow that theory apart.

I’d hooked up with my mate Graham, himself a relatively new convert to the CX scene but as a rapidly improving proponent who is starting to trouble the top end of races, he was the ideal coach to give me the rapid introduction required. He laid out a series of cones on the slightly damp grass in a vague figure 8 without the crossing in the middle, we started opposite each other and commenced a frenzied pursuit. As a naturally competitive sort I pushed hard into the sharp corners and it became immediately apparent that this bike was unlike anything I’d ridden before and required a totally different approach. The bars so narrow, seat right up my arse, centre of gravity so high, and so light at the front that every time I laid down the power the wheel lifted alarmingly. If I’d had to design a machine that felt sketchy to corner and instantly made me feel like a beginner then it’d have shared exactly those attributes. Over the next hour I did improve massively, even eventually managing to overhaul Graham in the pursuit but it’d been a humbling experience and a very useful reality check.

Nevertheless, influenced by Graham’s assertion that everyone races the ‘A’ Class, despite my misgivings I went home and registered for the upcoming race in with the fast boys and got stuck into some sickening sprint sessions on the turbo trainer as a desperate last minute attempt to tune up my fitness.

Source: Bike Radar



Race Day

Race day came in fast and I was feeling suitably unprepared as I signed on and commenced my warm-up spin around the field. Despite the familiarity of pre-race routine, the usual swagger that accompanies my running efforts was clearly not in evidence. In truth I was terrified, the prospect of the immediate pain of intense anaerobic effort combined with the unfamiliar technical aspects had me reeling. The supposed friendliness of familiar surroundings had ultimately backfired as a big crowd of friends and acquaintances in attendance actually increased my apprehension. My intended tactic of going hard from the off and avoiding the mass carnage behind was dashed by a gridding system that showed no favours to newcomers, I’d start right at the back and be forced to weave through.

Gun fired, mad sprint and numerous gaps instantly closing in my face destroyed aspirations of getting near the business end of the race. I kept seeking to advance with increasingly desperate moves but ultimately saw sense and backed off after clipping another rider’s mech with my front wheel. With the twisting nature of the course I could see the leaders rounding corners just fifty metres ahead – but they may as well have been on another planet, that distance would never be closed.

The next hour settled into a repetitive sequence of passing riders on the more physical opening half before being closed-down on the more technical second half. I simply couldn’t prevent both wheels drifting in every corner regardless of the technique chosen. Physically, my body calmed down following the initial shock but unfortunately technical deficiencies were providing excessive recovery time and as the bell rang I wasn’t anywhere near as drained as I should’ve been.

Top of the B’s with too much pressure

I finished 19th and the effort, although substantial at first, hadn’t been anywhere near as arduous as expected. I was pleased to see that my time would have won the ‘B’ race, justifying my category choice, but was annoyed that my skills hadn’t been good enough to allow me to really empty the tank. All that paled into insignificance though relative to the massive enjoyment of the close-proximity, shoulder to shoulder nature of the racing. It was brilliant! Enduro racing sees very little overtaking and mountain runners are usually well dispersed so I rarely get to experience that kind of competition.

Packing the bike into the van, I got chatting to a friend who has been around Cyclocross for a while and told him of my traction issues. He squeezed my tyres and laughed, revealing that 60psi is about four times harder than anyone else out there. Embarrassment mixed with relief, delighted that my handling wasn’t the primary problem but shamed at my rookie error. I didn’t need a reason to return after having such a fun time but now I feel compelled to, just have to maintain this running injury!

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