I was rolling along the quiet terraced streets on the approach to a park I’d never heard of when a bike pulled alongside. The knobbly tyres of the sleek dropped handlebarred crosser matched my own and there was no need for introductions. “You done this before?” I asked. A nod. “Friendly?” I enquired, more about the terrain and pace than the people. “As ‘cross races go.”
As ‘cross races go, I’ve only ever done the 3 Peaks. It appealed to my mountain biker’s sense of thrill; could the bike go anywhere if the rider was willing? I remember, distantly as it was many years ago and before I gained my children (for I prefer this phrase than ‘losing my fitness/life/freetime/sleep’), the addictive buzz of seeing who would crack first on the rocky, stepped descents – my body, brain or bike.
Pat and I registered and rode out for a recce. “You’ll enjoy this”, he said, nodding towards the woods. A tight chicane and jagged rocks followed, then short intervals of singletrack threading through the trees at the edges of the meadow. But mostly we looped across the common. I wondered where The Thrill was lurking.
Other riders barrelled past us; skinsuits and long socks more Euro than Enduro. No time for friendliness. Last race of a furious season. On the hour, the grey commissaires gridded the riders, like Formula One but in a suburban park amongst dog walkers.
At the flag, the furiousness hit me full in the face. To even hold the tail-end-Charlies required gurning and grunting the likes of which I though was behind me. There was so much sweat and most of it was my own. Then there was panting. Each lap I leapt off to clatter across uneven rocks and through the stream, which made the panting worse. Finishing, 59 scorching minutes later, made it better.
‘Race cough’, how I’ve missed you, and the bloody taste of exertion, the post-race jitters and next-day hunger, all for less than an hour’s pedalling and zero descent. But I’m still thinking about it, scouring the net to find more timed suffering.
It turns out that cyclocross the Belgian way, with speed and sweat and skinsuits (and swearing), is absolutely about thrill. Next time, I’ll hitch my socks a little higher and try not to get lapped twice.
Photos with kind permission of Will Acworth (Bristol CX).