I’m not even gonna say the classic phrase about cyclocross, but it has fallen on deaf ears in my case for a few years. There are many reasons, but now looking back, I am kicking myself that I hadn’t seen what I now know. It doesn’t have the glamour of road riding and racing (or what I perceived to be road riding and racing in my mind) and didn’t have the excitement of mountain biking- so what was the point? However, this viewpoint started to shift at the start of this year, and slowly picked up speed, until today- it took off entirely.
I am very aware I am preaching to the Belgian choir here- those that know, know. And therin lies something very special about cyclocross. It feels extremely insular yet is extremely welcoming to anyone wanting to discover it. People stare at you after the race in anticipation of your reaction- like when I cook my wife something other than pizza and am so proud of myself. They want you to love it, to join the club, to get hooked. It is a shared hardship between racers that is extremely competitive yet always friendly.
I’m sold, sign me up for the rest.
Stanmer Park is the first round of the brilliantly organized and run London and South East Cyclocross League. Blessed with and bathed in glorious sunshine, I was regretting my decision to wear my new CX skinsuit- designed for colder conditions, but new kit has to be worn whatever the weather.
Sat opposite to the classic Big Dog course in Brighton, Stanmer is an open, fast and flat course for the first part, followed by two climbs with a bumpy descent, with an off-camber fast turn and hairpins between. It then descends from high in the woods and twists through on very sandy and loose terrain, with roots everywhere. Being smooth is crucial and a trust in your tyres and pressure choices is key. There was some super slow corners and some fast ones, a really good mix to keep you on your toes and really pushing hard. The course then ventures out onto grass once more, over two hurdles and back to the start again. A really good layout that gave a real mix of terrain and challenges- it made for great racing as riders with different strengths dominated different sections.
The youth races started the day off with super close and fast racing, along with supportive parents giving the right amount of encouragement- something great to see and hear! The kids were loving it and really giving it their all, regardless of the speed- it was clear that they just enjoyed racing their bikes- and that’s what it is all about- the skills and mental fortutude they are building will serve them extremely well in years to come- something seen when the Juniors then hit the course…
I’ve done a proper write-up for the Vet 40 and Junior race so if you want to see that, check out the London and SE league website. The field was massive, and fast. The racing was superb and got me excited for what was to come- watching them also helped with some line choice and tactics with regards to wind and when to go hard. The Blazing Saddles boys represented brilliantly and came away with some great placings.
I didn’t see too much of the Vet 50 and ladies race as I was practicing my mounting and remounting- incase I had forgotten since last Saturday. What I did see though, was a fine display from all riders and some really good racing through the woods- proving the smooth is fast rule!
The all-new green flag was put up to allow riders on the course and Seb and I got a few laps in, checking out some lines and seeing what the grip was like- my Mud Wrestler tyres felt very predictable and the pressure seemed good. We missed the bell for lining up though, so had to race down the hill to get in the line…
As it was my first proper cross race, I was gridded back in 47th place and around 6 rows back. My aim was just to make up places and focus on just being smooth and seeing what lap times I could do.
All this obviously went out the window as soon as the start horn went and I saw the slightest gap. It was great to be able to race aggressively yet safely- something I’ve always decided against when riding road bikes due to the consequences being so high, and it therefore costing me places. But on grass, I could race properly and it paid off straight away, getting me up to 30th by the wooded section- including a hairpin overtake that ended up with me overcommitting whilst overtaking Paul from Southdown and nearly taking out JP from Blazing Saddles, he avenged the move with a similar one which was absolutely fair and then disappeared on his way to an 8th place in his first race- the guys a monster!
The practice round the fields I’ve been doing definitely helped and allowed me to make up some more places by the end of the second lap- particulary round the fast grassy corners. The rush and adrenaline started to wear off and I realized that I was on the absolute limit. I steadied myself/tried to breathe actual oxygen but that allowed a group to catch me. It was a blessing though as it gave me a chance to follow wheels through the woods and get a good recovery in, along with shielding myself from the wind on the fields.
We began to reel in some other riders and by the fourth lap I was ready to push on again. I jumped across to fellow SquidSquad rider Seb who despite never actually training, is still rapid up hills and super fast in the woods. Sadly though, his recurring knee problem came up again and with Three Peaks in a few weeks, it wasn’t worth the risk, so he bowed out and left me with Charlie from Southdown Bikes and Ryan from Crawley- Charlie being mega fast on the flat and hills and Ryan being mega fast through the woods, with me being a bit of both, but not as quick as either!!! This led to a brilliant few laps of racing, with a few cameos of other riders- namely a Brighton Mitre dude who overtook me brilliantly only to spectacularly crash on the next corner, I didn’t see him again but I did ask if he was ok as I passed him!
With two laps to go, I made my move on the fields, thinking that I would be closely followed, I saw I had a gap and went as hard as possible, with no thought to what would happen when I hit the hills. Ryan gave chase by the time I was on the first climb which encouraged me to keep on the gas. I managed to get round the woods with a gap still and pushed more than previous laps, finding some more grip somehow. It was then down to a last lap TT where I gave it my all with some shouting from Seb to help. I was so concentrated on who was behind me that I didn’t realize I was closing in on some riders infront, but it was too late by the time I crossed the line, and I couldn’t have gone any harder!
I ended up in 22nd place in category and 25th overall, which considering my starting place, I’m absolutely delighted with. The practice paid off and I learnt a lot from a proper race effort round a great circuit. There’s still a lot to learn but I’ve most definitely been hooked. The beauty of it is you can be racing for first or last- it doesn’t matter, everyone has a goal and battle. Mine is now to get top 20, and a sweet remount picture.
A huge thank you has to go out to all the volunteers, commisaires, sponsors and organisers that make it possible- it really is a monumental task, especially at the first race of the season. It went brilliantly and is testament to the superb organization from the league, BC and Brighton Excelsior who hosted.
Next up is Three Peaks- an entirely different challenge and one that will be just a great experience rather than chasing a time or result (sub 4 hours though yeah?). Keep an eye and ear out for the blog and podcast we’ll be doing all about our trip up North.
Then its back to racing in the League and hopefully I can make all Sussex rounds plus a few London ones to get 8 or more in before the season ends.
Bring on the mud.