Think mud, think tight bends, think challenging steep banks and obstacles. Today’s Western League CX race at the old Cadbury’s Factory was one not to be missed.
VC Walcot were the hosts for this week’s CX episode and boy, did they put on a show. When I first rocked up at the course, signed on and headed over to the hub for a quick warm up recce lap, I was disappointed. For as far as you could see, the course was flat and grassy, twisty and looping with the anticipated snail spiral. I knew it would be like Hengrove, a fast, non-technical course where my lack of fitness left me in the dust.
I soon discovered how wrong I was. After noodling around on the grassy sections and a few slippery corners near the start, the trail headed to a wooded embankment where we were met with a sharp muddy climb and tight bend round the trees. After the rain the day before the track was muddiest it’s been in the league this season, but thankfully today the sun was out in full force, unusually warming for mid November.
The track looped up and down along the bank a couple of times until heading up a higher, steeper mud bank that I knew I had no hope of getting all the way up. I gave it all I had and pushed three-quarters of the way up before unclipping my foot and trying to launch the bike the rest of the way up, desperately trying to find a decent foothold in the slippery earth. On the other side, a sharp descent followed. The marshal advising me that there was an easier way down further along if I didn’t want to try it was like a red rag to a bull – ‘no thanks, this is good‘ I replied and sailed down to the next bend. Thank goodness I didn’t stack it there.
The last technical part that I attempted on the practice lap was the barriers. Out near the hub and start line, they were already drawing a small crowd. Unlike previous weeks, these barriers were much smaller, perhaps only six or eight inches tall. Having been taught to bunny-hop curbs a few weeks before, I knew I had no excuse, so this was my big chance. Terrified and trying to think positive, I headed straight towards the barriers, heaved up on my bars over the first and with nearly no momentum left over the second. I wobbled and stumbled, half on and half off the bike after my back wheel landed, and promptly ended up on the floor. As I found out at Stroud, that’s the best thing that can happen, cos if you fall off in practice, it can’t get any worse in the race. You’re invincible.
The whistle sounded and it was time to line up at the start. The huge field of nearly eighty Vets started off first followed by us eleven women. A real mix as ever – seasoned cyclocross riders, first timers and everything in between. I just love the atmosphere of this winter sport especially amongst these fellow ladies, all encouraging and cheering each other on as we went endured the forty minutes of leg-draining effort. Only I didn’t get to race with them for all that long, as I fell back off the leading bunch to the midfield.
The most entertaining part of today’s race was definitely those barriers. They were small enough that most people were attempting to ride over them, yet many didn’t possess the skill or experience. I was one of those people.
Close to the spiral, you could look up and watch people attempting or dismounting over the jumps before you approached. Seeing some of the veteran men going head over handlebars was not a brilliant confidence boost as you approached the obstacle, but I reminded myself that I had done it in practice OK eventually and this would be no different. I headed straight for them again, calling out ‘in the middle!‘ ahead to the two ladies who had dismounted and chosen to run over rather than ride. First wheel up and over, and then slam – I hadn’t lifted up the back, which had hit square on to the rigid plank and flew right up behind me. It all went into slow motion as the gathering crowd gasped and I anticipated flying over my front wheel and landing straight on top of the second barrier. I don’t know what I had done so right to deserve it, but by nothing short of a miracle I managed the most spectacular save of my cycling career (if I do say so myself, confirmed by several onlookers after the race), back onto two wheels and scooting around the second barrier much the delight of the astonished, applauding crowd.
I hadn’t learn’t all that much from the first lap as I fluffed the second attempt too. Keeping enough momentum to get over the first barrier (successfully this time) and then do the second was difficult, as there was only a few metres and not much time to get a pedal stroke in. I just about made it over and veered left into the fencing, getting tangled up in the tape that marks out the course. One chap shouted ‘take it with you!‘ as I tried to break free, so I put the pedal down and sure enough broke out of the mess in time for the next bend. At least I’ve been providing plenty of entertainment for the spectators today…
The mud bank was a really tough part of the course, and I can see why most preferred to ride it, if they could. The thick, sticky earth clogged around your tyres and as soon as you step off became so embedded into your cleats and pedals that it’s nearly impossible to clip back in. The descent was the best part and a real thrill, well earned by struggling with a bike up the climb that was growing heavier lap after lap.
I’m getting the hang of this now. Not racing faster, perhaps improving a little technically and getting more ballsy, but more getting the hang of enjoying it.
Getting the hang of not putting any pressure on myself to come in the top places, to not be too disappointed when I get passed by the other women and watch them sail off into the distance.
Getting the hang of supporting my fellow riders, irrespective of ability or aim, making some really great friends and meeting some ace new riders too. And hey, coming 7th out of 11 women is just the icing on the rather delicious cake.
Cyclocross, I think I’m catching the bug.