Part one of Matt’s reflections on a first season racing cyclocross. Will it be his last though..?
As a kid, I was never much into falling over and getting muddy. This was unfortunate. Being a grammar school boy it was expected that, from September through to Easter, myself and a load of other kids who’d been stupid enough to pass their eleven-plus would spend one afternoon a week freezing our tiny pubescent nuts off in a corner of a Surrey field, also known as a rugby pitch, waiting for that moment when the ball might finally head in our direction. While in my case secretly hoping that it wouldn’t.
I remember talking with my brother the night before my first games afternoon, as I polished my pre-owned boots and packed the rest of my kit into a duffel bag. “I’m quite looking forward to playing rugby tomorrow,” I squeaked. “You won’t be after you’ve played it…” he snorted in reply, wise beyond his 16 years.
That first afternoon of oval-ball action took place, as is traditional, in hammering rain beneath leaden skies, and was devoted to learning basic skills, which were demonstrated with the help of volunteers. I say volunteers; I don’t know whether the other kids had paid off our teacher with their tuck-shop money or what (he did drive a very nice Triumph Stag), but the volunteer generally seemed to be me.
Skill number one was the tackle, which involved me running at our “coach”, who duly smashed me to the sodden ground. We were told that to avoid this outcome we should practice the hand-off, a demonstration of which also resulted in my being smashed to the ground, only this time without the ball.
Passing. How dangerous can that be? Let me tell you: pretty freakin’ dangerous when a 100kg Oxbridge Rugby Blue decides he’s going to put all his public school heartiness into fizzing one at you from five metres. I put my puny hands up as the egg of doom hurtled towards me at head height, but resistance was futile. That old-school leather ball, now waterlogged and encased in mud, must have weighed about the same as 11-year-old me, and while my attempt to catch it might have scrubbed off a couple of feet-per-second it still found its mark smack between the eyes at near-supersonic speed. No amount of Welsh blood coursing through my veins, or indeed pouring out of my nose, was going to convince me that this was a sensible way to spend an afternoon, and the only saving grace of being led off injured was that I avoided being involved in demonstrating the art of rucking.
We were supposed to bring two jerseys to rugby, a white one and a dark blue one, so that we could be split into teams for practice matches. On days when some boys forgot to bring both, we simply played with uneven teams, and if the imbalance was such that practice looked like turning into a home-counties version of the Pamplona bull run then there was always the option of shirts versus skins. This is not a great idea. Running around on a sleety December day dressed only in shorts and oversized boots (my mum allowed room for growth, possibly a flawed approach because in order to grow one has to remain alive), while being periodically trampled not only has little to commend it, it’s borderline child-abuse.
That was 1973. Little could I have guessed that, four lifetimes into the future, I’d be tightening up rugby studs again. Only this time, instead of screwing them into the soles of my Adidas Flankers, I’m winding them into the toes of my S-Works 6 mountain bike shoes, one of a triple-crown of kit adjustments that I’m making before my next foray into the world of ‘cross. There’s been a lot of adjusting since my first race back at the start of October. Adjusting of kit, for sure, but also adjusting of riding style as the season has progressed, courses have become more technically demanding, and the winter weather has joined the party. First things first though; let’s rewind a little to my cyclocross debut…
Kinesis London X League Round 4, Happy Valley – Finishing position 26/48
Egg-chasing parallels aside, I turned up at my first ‘cross meet with a feeling distinctly reminiscent of a first day in school. There were myriad trivial questions to occupy the build up – where do I sign on, can I practice the course, is it bad form to wear knee warmers in the race – as well as proper grown-up ones about technical stuff like tyre pressures and gear ratios. Okay, so forget gear ratios, because they are what they are by this stage – 46/36 at the front and 11-28 at the back, in case you’re interested – so let’s think about tyre pressures as that’s the kind of thing that experienced racers think about.
Of course, experienced racers find these questions easier to answer because they have, erm, experience. I do not have experience. Fortunately, I have clubmates racing who do have experience, so I will ask them, starting with my friend Bruce. He’s running somewhere in the low twenties, and can scarcely conceal a smirk when I tell him I have my Specialized Tracer Pro tubeless boots at 45 psi. “But it’s the minimum recommended on the sidewall,” I opine, watching his expression change from mirth to pity. I spot another friend, Olly, who doesn’t have experience but is the kind of guy who will have done his research. 27psi. That’s a strange number, so clearly it must be based on informed opinion. “Not really, I just went for a slightly random figure because it would seem like I’d put some thought into it.”
This is not getting me very far, so I settle for 30psi and set out on a practice lap. As I come to a wheel-spinning halt on a greasy, off-camber, climbing hairpin I deduce that this is still too much, so I let a bit out. I don’t know how much because gridding is about to start and it’s too late to go grab my pump and check. Let’s reckon they’re down to about 25.
For those unfamiliar, gridding is a process designed to ensure that the quicker guys start near the front of the pack, with the novices and no-hopers at the back, in an effort to lend some vague form of order to the cavalry charge into the first corner. Based on a mixture of recent results and, in the early season races, the previous year’s form, riders are called forward in descending order of merit, and once the best couple of dozen have been called up the pudknockers take their place at the rear. It’s a sensible enough procedure, reminiscent of picking sides at football when you’re a kid, and with the same morale-sapping effect as you vainly wait to be summoned forward, your self-esteem dropping with every name called out that isn’t yours.
As it happened though, lining up on the back row of the grid fitted in well with my race strategy, which was to let everybody else go while I found my feet, before working my way through the field. So far, the plan was working perfectly.
A blast on the starter’s whistle and we’re away. Everybody else goes hell for leather into the first corner, but I’m sticking to my game plan and not getting over-excited, letting the field thin out before I start to claim a few scalps. This thinning out occurs pretty quickly in most races because tight corners mean there’s generally a pretty narrow racing line, and as today’s course has a lot of hairpins and 90-degree turns it’s not long before we’re in single file.
Happy Valley is actually a pretty benign course, and perfect for your first race; it’s laid out largely on flat, open, grass parkland, with three stretches of single track through wooded copses, none of which is very demanding, and a 100 metre ramp that is easy to ride up, but hard to ride up fast. Today, there are no dismounts or bunny-hops required and the climb where I had my wheel-spinning experience during practice is the only vaguely technical corner. Keeping my weight over the rear wheel, together with that drop in tyre pressure, seems to have sorted that, so after a lap to get my bearings it’s game on.
I develop a tactic. Two of the single-track sections are preceded by fast, flat, open stretches, the third by the ramp mentioned earlier, so I give it maximum Heinz on these approaches knowing that if I can make a pass I’ll be able to take a breather once we’re in the trees, because the course is too narrow to try anything there. I also realise that I have a bit more confidence through faster corners than some other riders, so rather than get blocked and have to brake in the turn, I hang back with the aim of carrying more speed through the exit and getting a jump there.
Simple tactics, but they get me into the midfield by the end of the race. I haven’t fallen off, I haven’t been lapped and I’m not last, so I’m pretty pleased with that. I also know that I can run those tyres at 25psi. I am gaining experience.
East Kent CX League Round 2, Newington Community School – Finishing position 10/27
Seized with enthusiasm due to Happy Valley not being a total disaster, my eagerness to get as many races as possible under my belt saw me head over to Ramsgate for this one, and I’m glad I did. The course, laid out in the school grounds, was largely level with a mix of right-angle turns and hairpins linked by straights, characteristics that seem to be typical of the flatter ‘cross circuits. There were a couple of hurdles to negotiate, together with a twisty section spiced up with half a dozen logs laid across the course at 10-20 foot intervals. This was slightly troubling, as I had neglected to practice my bunny-hopping or running remounts, and the obstacles meant I was going to need one, the other, or both.
On the positive side, weather was glorious, with Indian summer sun warming the air and ensuring a fast, dry surface. I’d made my first mods to the trusty Trek Crockett as well (I don’t generally need much of an excuse to buy stuff) and fitted a single 40T ring up front, with 11/32 cassette, so gaining a slightly lower bottom gear while sacrificing top end. Looking at my Strava data from the previous race, though, I saw that I’d seldom gone much over 32kmh, so working on the basis that pushing 40/11 at 90rpm would give me around 10kmh over this I figured anything more was unnecessary. The lack of a front mech meant one less thing to go wrong and one less shift to think about, but more importantly the set-up looked cool, especially with a cute little Wolf Tooth GnarWolf chain guide fitted, there just in case the narrow/wide Rotor chainring didn’t perform as advertised. All things considered, I was confident as I waited at the back of the grid for the whistle (my result from Happy Valley carrying no weight in the East Kent League).
After two laps some truths were crystallising. The bulk of the course suited me, and I was cornering quickly and confidently, carrying speed well and sweeping past riders on the exits of faster turns, but I was getting burned on those hurdles and the log-run, losing places that I’d gained elsewhere. I needed to learn. Fast.
Next time through the logs, which were about the diameter of a telegraph pole, I popped the front wheel over the first one and just pedalled the rear over before wobbling on to the next and doing the same again. Not exactly elegant, but marginally quicker than running them. On the following lap I hopped the rear wheel over too, and as my confidence grew and my lap times improved, an interesting prospect began to materialise. I had a hare to chase.
Cross races are divided up into age categories – seniors aged 18+, veterans between 40 and 49, and veterans aged over 50 – and if you’ve been doing your maths you’ll have realised that I fall into the oldest of these groups. I’m also the only rider from my club currently competing in this bracket, so while at Happy Valley I’d had fun mixing it up with random other old blokes, dicing with a clubmate or two would definitely have added a certain extra frisson. In the East Kent League, vet 50s are lumped together with the vets 40-49, and as the mighty Southborough & District Wheelers had riders entered in that category, my burgeoning skills meant that a different game was potentially afoot.
A couple of hundred metres ahead of me I spied my fellow Wheeler, Bruce. The bunny-hopping was improving with every lap, and the deficit to Mr Low Twenties was reducing, and the twisting nature of the course made it very easy to reference the gap. As I arrived at one corner he might be twenty metres from another, whereas the previous time around he might have been through it already, but the switchbacks also meant that he could see me as clearly as I could see him, and adrenaline works for the hunted just as it does for the hunter. Overall though, I was reeling him in.
A little over two laps to go and I push it too hard into a hairpin. The grass has been scrubbed away, my front wheel slips on the bare earth, washes out and dumps me on the ground as mercilessly as a sadistic games teacher. No time for self-pity. I’m straight back on the bike and riding like a man possessed to make up the time, and at the same spot two laps on I’m snapping at Bruce’s 22 psi heels. He’s sprinting out of every hairpin and dead turn and I’m sprinting after him, which is not so helpful because a sprinter I am not. The race is running out and I’m not going to pass him this way. I’m quicker, but not where it matters, so think, think, think.
As I’d been doing some practice laps earlier in the day, another mate – let’s call him Tim – had demonstrated a manoeuvre called the block-pass, the essence of which is that you wait for your opponent to take a wide entry into a hairpin and then place yourself alongside him on his inside, ruining his line into the corner. Okay, so it ruins your line too, but hopefully it has ruined his more, unless he sticks to it and elects to take you both out. Bruce is a civilised kind of chap though, he wouldn’t risk doing that would he? I predict no.
There are four corners remaining: A 90 left, a hairpin right, another 90 left, a final sweeping 180 left, then 50 metres to the line. I get a good exit from the first left, Bruce is heading wide into the hairpin, but as I line up for the inside I see a flash of Southborough colours just to the side of the track. “Come on dad, you can beat him!” it implores.
Being that as I write it’s pantomime season, this should be the point at which the villain finds his conscience and gives way to the valiant father, letting him win in order to bring a smile to a young boy’s face, but…
It’s not my child yelling.
And I’ve always liked Captain Hook.
So I stick it up the inside.
As I’d gambled, Bruce chooses to remain civilised and doesn’t turn in on me, but instead opts to get mildly entangled with the tape that marks the course boundary while I sweep on to 10th place and a single, precious, BC point. Which I would have received anyway, with us being in different age groups. Make of that what you will, but I call it racing.
Second event down and I’ve learnt two new skills: the bunny-hop and the block-pass. I’ve also learnt that you can’t push the front end like you can on tarmac, and improved my max heart rate by three beats per minute. It’s been a good day.
None of which explains why I’m screwing rugby studs to my MTB shoes, swapping in a shorter stem and fitting a mountain bike rear mech. My next blog will, but in the meantime let’s just say that two steps forward are frequently followed by one step back. Occasionally two. Surely not three..?
Matt’s ‘cross rig currently comprises:
- Trek Crockett frameset
- Shimano RS685 hydraulic brake/shifters
- Rotor InPower powermeter fitted with single 40 tooth narrow/wide chainring, and Wolf Tooth GnarWolf chain guide
- Shimano Deore XT rear derailleur with Wolf Tooth Tanpan cable-pull adjuster
- Shimano 11-40 11-speed cassette
- Mavic Ksyrium disc wheelset, converted (against manufacturer’s recommendations!) for tubeless using Red Seal rim strip
- Specialized Tracer Pro 2Bliss tyres, set up tubeless using Bontrager latex sealant
- S-Works Romin Evo saddle
- 3T Ergonova Team handlebars & 3T Arx Team stem