My First Cyclo-Cross Race (Cestria CC, NECCL at Meadowfield, 8 Oct 2016)

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Yours truly completes his first passage over the finish line, closely watched by the “blazers!” (Photo courtesy Angus Brown)

For some time I have been thinking about trying Cyclo Cross, a increasingly popular branch of cycling. Having possessed a cross bike for some years which I have used as a winter bike, I considered the prospects of making it ‘cross worthy’ and giving racing a go. I had lots of encouragement and great advice from clubmates and didn’t spend that much money on the conversion:

  • removing mudguards: this should have been straightfoward but I discovered that the bolt securing the rear mudguard to the frame was seized and corroded. Fortunately the very good people at Cestria Cycles were able to drill it out for a modest cost of £10.
  • cross tyres: again, having had a lot of useful advice, I opted for the Schwabe Land Cruiser 35 tyres. While not a specific cross tyre, they’re capable of excellent grip in reasonable conditions. Cost £16.20 for a pair from Halfords if you can get them (price includes my 10% British cycling membership discount)
  • inner tubes: having discovered my 25C tubes did not inflate the 35C tyres, a trip to nearby Evans resulted in 2 x Specialized 28-38C tunes for £9 (including Cestria CC 10% discount).
  • MTB shoes: with my own being worn and having little grip on the sole, I decided a pair of shoes would be useful. Wiggle had a pair of Shimano MT34s for £35 including P&P which have been great.

I already had a decent set of newish MTB pedals, so was all set for the big day with a total outlay of about £70.

Mal Gray had organised cross training sessions in August, but I was not able to make them. Having tried the bike on the road and experimented with different tyre inflations, I set off for Meadowfield a few days before the race. There I practised turning the bike, climbing the slopes and generally getting used to the setup. The one thing I didn’t consider was dismounting; in all cross races you need to get off and on your bike efficiently.

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The comeback kid Gareth Clark (Photo courtesy Ray Haldane)

On the day of the race I appeared in plenty of time to try the course. Mal’s ingenious course was a challenge to the novice but fortunately the weather had been relatively dry and there was no slippy mud. In practise I was comfortable on the climbs but the turns needed a bit of confidence and I was slow. Having gone round the course a few times, I said to myself that I would keep out of people’s way, try and follow some useful wheels and enjoy myself. I’m no novice to road racing but this was a different dimension.

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Charge of the Light Brigade; your author sensibly stays well put at the back at the race start (Photo courtesy Angus Brown)

Due to the size of the Senior/Vets/Ladies field (there were a fantastic 76 starters), the race was started at the far end of the soccer field with everyone sprinting towards a quite narrow gap in the tape. We had been warned to keep to the tracks and not stray onto the tarmac since the fields were open to the public (all of whom sensibly seemed to keep off the common). When the starter’s whistle went, there was the syncronised sound of cleats binding, followed by a re-enactment of the Charge of the Light Brigade (who might have been more successful on bikes). I sensibly decided to stay at the back and let the marauders take the initiative.

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Drafting behind Paul of MTS (photo courtesy Ray Haldane)

The course was superb and I enjoyed every minute. As planned, I tried to stick behind some experienced wheels and mainly follow them which proved quite successful. There were many angle and corners, a ‘serpent’ section as well as one short climb and two steeper ones. The one aspect which was really useful was watching people’s lines into the various corners and the variety of techniques on display. Just before the finish line there were two hurdles; a smaller one which a more experienced ride might bunny hop were it not for the larger one which you would not. The dismounting took me by surprise on my first lap and I more-or-less came to a complete stand. The remount was better and that was the end of the first lap.

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First passage over the large hurdle and not looking very comfortable (Photo courtesy Angus Brown)

I managed to pass a few people on the climbs (with some of them getting their own back on anything flat and technical. Towards the end the frontrunners began to lap me; one great aspect of the course design was that you could see them coming in many sections and I let them through. Once I tried to follow one of them and nearly went into the tape, much to the amusement of clubmate Ian Gardner! There were marshalls on the perimeter of the course as well as at the finish, and they did a great job encouraging people as well as checking riders kept on course.

Your author at work (photo courtesy Ray Haldene)

Your author at work (photo courtesy Ray Haldane)

Towards the end I asked Richard Nichol, club marshall and teammate, how many minutes were left, thinking there must have been about 15 or 20 left. To my amazement he said about 5 minutes; and when I crossed the line next I heard the bell. My final lap was my best; while my 6:31 was nowhere near the winner’s 5:09 (or thereabouts), I was really pleased when I crossed the line since I’d managed to stay upright and not (to my knowledge) blocked anyone else.

Will I do it again? Definitely – it was a super workout and I loved the technical challenge. Many thanks to all who made it possible, in particular the exceptional Mal Gray who thoroughly organised every aspect of the day, the NECCL, club marshalls (who gave up a considerable chunk of their Saturday), teammates and photographers and everyone who turned out to cheer us on.

Peter Scott