Back in October I got an email from Keith Allam, a chap I ride with when at the in-laws down in Winchester. Keith mentioned that he was trying to organise a Cyclocross race at Sparsholt College for VC Venta – the local Winchester cycle club, and one with a burgeoning racing scene having already put on a Criterium and hosting regular kid’s workshops at a local park and ride.
Always up for a challenge, I decided to throw my hat in the ring, and was promptly joined by Will Ranoe and Nathan Hoy - our regular Thursday night hill climb sessions having given us a fondness for the taste of lactic acid.
Preparation is key for such a technical discipline as cyclocross – from skills such as flying dismounts and remounts, running with the bike over your shoulder, down to picking the right kit, with riders such as Mike Cotty (the eventual winner) telling us about the preference for tubular tyres running at ridiculously low pressures.
Preparation for me involved getting my vintage Cro-Mo Steel Hardrock Sport out of hibernation, and sticking some skinny mud tyres that Nathan gave me on it. I rode it for about an hour in the weeks prior to racing.
Nathan locked out his forks on his Felt MTB, and fitted mud tyres.
And Will went and bloody bought a Tomasso CX bike for £300 from ebay, and spent a week thrashing it to and from work, nabbing Strava KOM’s en route.
The day before the race...
Eager for a bit of advance knowledge I agreed to help Keith and the lads lay out the course down at Sparsholt Agricultural College. Armed with hundreds of posts and some tape we followed Keith around the two mile course, complaining at every turn that Keith was being horrid, mean and generally unpleasant to those of us who had to ride the course. I got a chance to have a brief ride around, but was fully aware that it would be different come race day, as at the time there wasn’t any mud...
The course involved a lot of hairpin turns, a section of woodland, a couple of long exposed straights, a few technical trips into golf bunkers, some sharp but brief climbs, and one long hump up a hill that rapidly turned into a mudbath, and a place where some major time was made and lost in the race.
The sun was shining, and the course looked tough, but fun.
I woke up on Sunday morning, feeling somewhat refreshed by being allowed to sleep in and have breakfast in bed!
Tyres were cleaned, and bike packed in the car, before spending the rest of the morning pacing around and generally not handling waiting very well.
And it started to drizzle...
I headed off to Sparshiolt for 12, meeting up with Nathan so that we could sign on, have a recce of the course and watch some of the other races. The Juniors were flying around when we got there – although the length and difficulty of the course reduced their race to only 2 laps. We hopped onto the course when they finished and Nathan picked out the bits where he felt time could be lost or made up, and gave me an impromptu MTB skills workshop, much appreciated!
Will turned up at 1pm, with the idea of getting on the course once the Vets & Women finished, however as time ticked down to our 14:00 start they were still on the course racing – we gave up on getting another look at it, and headed to the start – Will was going to have to race the first lap blind.
14:00 rolls past, no sign of a commissaire, getting more anxious, and cold, down the starting straight.
Nathan gets cramp in his legs, possibly not at the best time.
Commissaire’s from British Cycling turn up, lining up the seeded racers in neat lines of four, with us rabble piling in behind.
“There will be a whistle in the next fifteen seconds, then you go”
Clip in. Stamp. Sprint. Everyone trying to get to the first corner, to get ahead of the logjam of other riders. Then up, off the hardpack road and onto the grass, or what of it remains, a clear racing line of mud having been formed by the four previous races. Down a sweeping track, onto rough grass, and disturbingly named “babies heads” – lumps of earth with turf on top.
Sweep left then up a steep slippery bank. Following Nathan’s advice I hit it as fast as I could, spinning lightly, staying on the bike. This worked, and I flew past 3 other riders who were dismounting and remounting at the top. By this point the race had started to thin, and fitness was already showing, with the top riders haring off and forming leads.
We swept down again, then back up another brief rise, before a longer flat section where I struggled, losing a place or two before grabbing one back on the corner, using all of the bite of the mud tyres to take a really aggressive line late through the inside, and forcing another rider to back off – this set a pattern for the first lap, drop time on the straight, try to make it back on a corner, although the sprinting out of each corner would soon start to take it’s toll.
Back down a thickly grassed slope, and up to the finishing area, with two hops through gravel pits, and the pleasing feeling of flying past three riders in one section, before a long downhill straight to the bottom corner, where I promptly surrendered those places again. Another hairpin, stamping out of it and spinning my way up a slippery slope towards another set of switchbacks and a chance to stick a wheel in front again before bouncing through a golf bunker and into a twisty section through some small woods.
Out into the daylight again, and into the howling gale and horizontal rain we went, heading down to the south west corner of the course, and a hairpin before running straight at a steep muddy hillock. Having fallen on my arse the previous day I dismounted and ran the climb, then down the other side, cutting as close to the tape as possible, and making a somewhat clumsy attempt at a remount on the other side.
The next section was somewhat flat, and very exposed to the wind, and I started to lose contact with the riders who I’d been battling with for most of the first lap, simply unable to cling onto their wheels, and with no way of stopping them coming past and haring off up the track. Through a few hairpins more, then back onto the hardtrack where we started, but going the other way (no idea what Will was thinking here having no prior knowledge as to the course layout!).
After this came a short period of intense hell. A sharp right hand, and weaving through the trees killed all momentum, before we hit a quagmire of mud, and then a short bank followed by a longer one. Some tried to ride it, most of them failed, I got off, shouldered the bike and sprinted. Or squelched. Cursing the heavy steel frame, and brake cables cutting into my shoulder, I made it to the top, and promptly felt like I wanted to vomit – running having pushed me completely into the red.
The next section of switchbacks was the muddiest section, with a judiciously chosen racing line on some of the rare grass letting riders make up huge amounts of time, and a badly chosen one (ahem, that would be me then) resulting in spinning and burning up more energy pointlessly. Weave through the trees then drop down a muddy slope back onto the course where we started, to a cheer from Dave who was marshalling as a I lost it going down the slope, and only just caught it when I hit the bottom.
From this point on I’d lost touch with most of the other riders, bar the occasional shout of encouragement to and from Nathan and Will when the course meant we were within hollering distance. There was a chap called Paul stuck on my wheel though, and I was sure that there were other riders behind me as well. Racing was conducted in near silence – it was too hard to do anything but breathe, and the wind was too loud to hear anyway.
Laps were reduced to thinking about the next corner, the next bump, the next rise, and trying to minimise time and momentum lost on the straights, before making an effort to push it on the corners as much as I could. The next time I looked at my Garmin 45 minutes had passed, and the sign on the finish straight said “2L APS”.
TWO?! Crap! That’s another 4 miles of this!
On we go again, still closely matched with Paul, though by now losing braking ability and gears getting clogged up with mud and grass. I lost him near the end of the lap, not able to respond as he caught the wheel of a guy lapping us, and shot off up a straight. This pretty much destroyed my motivation and hope, but a glance back saw that the guy behind had got closer, and was only half a straight away. Time to push on again!
I built up a bit of a gap again, and found myself enough time to clear some of the dirt and twigs that were making my rear brake bind on, before hearing the bell, and knowing that I just had to survive one final lap – a lap that felt unbelievably long, and with the wind and rain picking up by the second. Thoughts of ale were strong in my mind at this point.
The last section loomed, and Will, Nathan and Anna shouted encouragement (they’d finished long enough before to be able to shout again, some effort). Through the gravel traps, praying that I didn’t choose that moment to go arse-over in front of everyone, then across the line, FINISH!
Caked in mud, soaked from rain and sweat, muscles (legs, arms, hands, feet...) full of lactic acid, but buzzing from having finished we headed into the warmth of the cafe, opened a beer and checked the results. Will and Nathan finished 12th and 15th respectively, earning themselves a bottle of fine plonk each, and I limped in 22nd out of the 25 starters.
Mike Cotty (Wheelbase Cannondale) romped to a win, lapping everyone from 9th place downwards.
The overall atmosphere was brilliant, with everyone being massively welcoming, and some full-blooded but fair racing on a tough conditions.
Next race is in Southampton on 29th December.
So, who’s coming with us?
(Full results from 15th December)