Legs like jelly, lungs burning and heart beating out of your chest, cyclocross is a discipline that has to be experienced to be believed. Take over a hundred cycling enthusiasts with an adrenaline addiction, a grassy field with some ribbon tape boundaries, some steep climbs and drops, autumnal weather and sixty minutes on the clock, and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty epic racing.
As a first-timer, getting into cyclocross seems quite a challenge. Specialist lightweight bikes with knobbly tyres and more clearance than a road bike seem to be almost essential, but many use mountain bikes when trying the sport for the first time. On the plus side, this can make the slippery descents and the muddy cut-up corners much more stable, but hauling a sturdy, heavyweight hardtail around the 2km circuit certainly seems to slow you down. Or at least that was my excuse.
Netham Park in East Bristol was the setting for today’s course, hosted by Severn Road Club as part of the Western CX League. With over a hundred racers in the adult category, it certainly seems to be a popular choice as the nights draw in and the weather turns. Somewhat disappointingly, the number of women riding could be counted on two hands.
After a warm up legspin, the swarm of riders set off on the flat, with the keenest racers flying off the front of the pack. A bottleneck soon developed at the obstacle as riders hopped off bikes – from perfected dismounts to clumsy stumbles – to get over the plank and back on again to ride down the muddy wooded track. Before long, as riders of all abilities pushed on through the first lap, the distance between jostling cyclists grew.
Being new to the race and incredibly slow, its a very sociable sport. Perhaps at 100% HR you should just keep your head down and crack on, but it’s too much fun cheering on all the racers lapping you and egging on your friends. Despite being very windy and the clouds threatening with the odd sudden downpour, the turn out of supports dotted around the course was impressive, from the old man giving an appreciative nod to the young couple practically deafening you with cowbells on the steepest climb, screaming at you to dig deep. It all helps.
The bell ringing for the final lap was like the sound of heaven. Don’t get me wrong, the adrenaline rush of nailing it down the banks and trying to get the corners spot on was all great fun, but there’s only so long you can keep pushing giving your all.
One final push, hauling one aching body over the timing mat finish to join the rest of the riders, it seemed that it’s not only first-timers were suffering. It’s not the kind of race that you enter halfheartedly, and certainly not the kind of race where you can ‘sit in’ for the majority and attack at the end – it’s simply sixty minutes of all-out lung bursting effort, jostling for position and trying to keep the rubber side down.
By some sort of miracle, the lantern rouge was not mine today. Out of sixty three vets including eight women, I managed third-to-last. But who cares, for me it was the experience of the race, the adrenaline and the torture, the community of it, the supporters in disbelief that I was still smiling (is my pain face that obvious?) and being able to support friends who did incredibly well.
There’s a first time for everything, it may be absolutely petrifying and you may be horrendously unprepared, but unless you simply throw yourself in at the deep end and experience the full thrust of it, you’ll never know what you might be missing out on.