Sometimes I think that the appeal of cyclocross is similar to that of lightweight camping or bivvying out for the night. The experience itself is usually quite hard work and can be downright miserable – but the fun is to be had either side of that misery. Before the event, you have the great fun of shopping for the specialist gear and piecing together bits of gear that might not normally be expected to work. Then, afterwards, you can immediately start on the tall tales and reflection on a fun experience. This experience gets more and more fun as time dims the actual pain of the race or the misery of a cold or wet night in the woods.
So it has been with my cyclocross racing this year. It started, I guess back in January when I organised my own cyclocross race under British Cycling’s ‘Go Cross/Go Race’ scheme, which is a pretty painless thing. Cyclocross just needs a town park and some likeminded volunteers. My race wasn’t in the official handbook and wasn’t confirmed until less than a month before the race, but word of mouth soon got round (it used to be a regular venue 15 or 20 years ago apparently) and I had 40 Under 12s, 40 Under 16s and 110 Seniors and Vets racing, including half of the following week’s National Champs top ten.
I decided I’d give ‘cross racing more of a go this winter, and, with several free weekends (a rarity for me) looming, I got to building up a ‘cross bike. Needless to say I got carried away and within a few weeks had an Ibis Hakkalügi frame and had bought some rare Cane Creek carbon tubular wheels. I added to this with some top-shelf road stuff that had been waiting for a bike to put them on – SRAM’s Force Double Tap levers and Force Cranks. Some TRP cantis were robbed off my vintage Rock Lobster ‘cross bike, with carbon-specific pads added. All I needed to finish it off were some Salsa Rasta QRs (the only worthwhile aftermarket QR in my opinion). I also fitted a Salsa Crossing Guard chain guard as I was running 1×10, but then went to a Paul Components Chain Keeper so as to avoid running a seat tube mounted ‘finger’ to keep the chain on. Plus, running a 39T ring looked a little weedy with the big, shiny Salsa guard. I’m even tempted to go down to a 34T… Though perhaps I should just get stronger instead…
We have a great ‘cross scene here in Yorkshire (www.yorkshirecyclocross.org.uk) and there’s a race at least every other weekend. It’s a tenner to enter and races last 45 mins for the Vets, or an hour for the Seniors. It’s a very friendly scene and, despite being home to some of the country’s best racers, the races are great fun, whatever your level.
Racing on a cross bike is an interesting experience of you normally race (or even just ride) a mountain bike. For a start, the pace is flat-out from the gun. After ten minutes I usually find I have to force myself to ease off a little before I pop a valve or something. But it’s the way the bike handles that’s of most interest. You forget how much traction and compliance/forgiveness that fat tyres and front or full suspension gives you. Not to mention the ability to hit rocks and roots flat out. A ‘cross bike has precious little traction, and good line choice is essential to staying smooth and fast. On the other hand, though, it’s amazing what you can get away with – seemingly slick, steep climbs can be bested with a bit of good leg power and technique. Sliding, drifting front wheels become an exercise in feel, rather than panic and you start to discover the secret world of traction that can be found at the outer edges of the muddy line.
At the end of the hour, you feel spent and rather broken, yet somehow virtuous that you’ve got up and out of the house early on a Sunday, thrashed yourself round a race course as fast as you can, and yet you still have the majority of Sunday afternoon free for more traditional pursuits like the pub, roast dinners and B&Q. Even if, like me you’re rarely going to be appearing in the top 50%, it’s still a surprisingly addictive pastime.
And then on Monday, you can return to work, casually mentioning that you’re a bit tired as you were racing at the weekend, and then get on with looking on the internet for gadgets and techniques that might make you faster. Not that it really matters, but that’s the fun of it.