Forest of Dean – the one where coming last tasted so sweet. Or maybe of mud, grit and decaying leaves. Yeah, maybe more like that.
After making it through a practice lap before the start of the today’s race, it was soon evident that simply getting though forty minutes in once piece would be a mighty achievement. This week’s edition of the Western Cyclocross League took us to Coleford in the Forest of Dean, expertly hosted by Royal Dean Forest CC. Having only been to the Forest a few times to ride the awesome MTB trails, I should have had a better idea of what was to come.
A hardtail would have really done the trick. The first third of the course seemed straight forward enough, on a grassy clearing with a few sticky bends that were churned up more than previous races due to the heavy rain. One stretch hid a track-wide dip that filled with water, leaving your shoes dripping. This was more what I expected cyclocross to be – we’d had it too good for too long with this dry autumn.
The next third headed into the woods, and this was really when I wished I’d picked up the other bike. After a sharp drop and corner, the course twisted through the trees, over hidden roots and slippery fallen leaves. The corners became more and more treacherous as the race went on, mud carved up by the many riders. ‘Commit to the rut‘ I thought to myself, ‘let the bike go where it wants to‘ – watching Wout van Aert and Sven Nys battle it out last night on TV had inspired me somewhat. Every corner became and obstacle to tackle, muddy straights a slip and slide, roots popping up out of nowhere to catch you off-guard.
Next the trail dropped onto the fire road, and descending I could finally click up a few gears and pick up some speed, trying desperately to dislodge the growing mass of mud, and leaves entangled between my front wheel, forks and the canti brakes. The gravely road then cornered and headed up, taking two detours up steep muddy banks and down again, which like the majority I dismounted and pushed up. Getting a footing in these steep banks proved difficult to start, but after a few laps they were churned up enough to get purchase where other people had ran before you.
The final third of the course was – excuse me for a second here – a real bitch. Off the fire road you had to dismount to get up over a log and onto an incredibly muddy track. Tightly winding between the trees with mud deep enough to cover your shoes and small tree stumps eager to trip you, there seemed no point in even trying to ride this part. Most riders either wheeled their bikes or popped them up onto one shoulder to attempt to run along the track. As it went on, deeper ruts cut across the course, testing the most skilled riders. With the sticky, clagging mud, it was simply faster to run.
Finally out of the woods – the trail headed out onto the grassy start , ready for another round. Unlike previous courses where I found that I got better as the race went on, trying different strategies for each feature until I was confident in the one that worked best, here the course threw up new challenges on every circuit. Each corner or obstacle was a different case each time round, and you’d suddenly find yourself sprawled on the floor, face in the dirt, even though you’d ridden it fine three times already.
Coming last and proud
So three laps, three spills and a whole ride of thrills later, I was glad to cross the finish line. Not in the slightest bit miffed that I came last, but rather chuffed that I’d managed to get through with no broken bones or bikes. Not many people would be silly enough to try it! Taking a whole lot of mud home and a knee that closely resembles half an egg, it will be an especially memorable course, but one I’ll be glad not to be riding again anytime soon!
Thanks to RDFCC and all the supporters for your ace work and top cheering. Photographs thanks to Jason Veall. Not to forget thanks for my CX rival and friend Clare Broady for keeping me focused in all that mud.