Stephen Shrubsall steps into the wooded, off-road unknown to take on his first cyclocross race. The experience doesn’t turn out quite as he expected...
There comes a time in a chap’s life when he should spurn the hark of the hallowed public house and do something slightly less beer and crisp related of an evening. Something, perhaps, that encourages the stomach to shrink, rather than continue its dogged quest for world domination. Something, maybe, that promotes a sense of wellbeing and self worth, not a dull headache and a lingering taste of chilli sauce on the belch.
That something, I surmised after eavesdropping on a conversation between two of my colleagues at work, was to participate in a summer cyclocross event. It sounded just the ticket; a perfect introductory rung on the ladder to my eventual goal of mental, spiritual and physical greatness; a wholesome little pootle around the woods exchanging friendly banter with fellow competitors and generally having a jolly nice time. And let’s not forget that I was a Grifter owner as a child — those erstwhile meanderings around the local park could very well earn me a podium place.
And so it came to pass that on a balmy Thursday evening, in the grounds of Bethlem Hospital in Beckenham, London, I found myself amongst the cyclists amassing at the start of the course. The London CycloCross League Summer Series, a quartet of races held in South-East London during late July and August, was now in its third week, and although I was a little late to the party, and considerably larger around the midriff than anyone, anyone, else present, not a single eyelid was batted and I was welcomed into the fold with (wide) open arms.
After the youngsters — little people with big hearts and ferocious determination etched into their expression — had finished their race, we, the ‘seniors’, set off en masse to recce the route. The two-mile loop, it seemed, had been designed to advocate speed and comprised largely of tracks etched into fields with only two short sorties under canopy cover to challenge technical ability. Speed interspersed with technical ability — I’m not entirely sure I’m ready for an hour of this. And what’s that? I could’ve sworn I’d just heard the gentle ahoy of The Jovial Sailor on the crest of the breeze.
But alas, after completing the warm-up lap, which rose above all expectations due to setting my thighs on fire, the cyclo-cross collective were hustled towards the starting grid and eventually issued the order to begin.
I immediately found myself bringing up the rear of the slowest group in the race — or last, if you will. Objection your Honour! This was absolutely not part of the plan! From the outset I had been alarmed at the pace being set. These people were in a hurry, and it was evident that they weren’t going to hang around for the wheezing fellow at the back, regardless how utterly pathetic it made him look.
Things were indeed desperate. If the situation was to be rectified I’d have to harden up; I’d have to mine deep into my physical and psychological being and unearth the raw power within. Or, of course, I could slink off to the nearest pub for three pints of John Smith’s and a packet of pork scratchings.
The decision to continue was almost as agonising as the screaming inferno in my lungs and the traces of molten lava running through my legs; but after a gargantuan effort to regroup with the backmarkers, I finally settled into a manageable rhythm and the first lap was completed relatively unabashed though in a large amount of pain.
And to think I’d paid a tenner for this; parted with a crisp 10 pound note for what essentially boiled down to an hour of torture. It’ll get better, I told myself. Somehow, fundamental biophysics will be defied and I’ll meet the chequered flag in fine fettle, and not the hyperventilating wreck of a person I currently am.
Things, of course, did not get better. They got much worse…
After the second lap, which featured a heightened quota of heavy breathing and, yes, dry gagging, I’d become somewhat endeared to the wooded sections. For the wooded sections were a place of comparative tranquillity where one could seek solace away from the purgatorial lengths of grass track on which one was expected to, and I use a cyclists’ term here, ‘let it all hang out’ — a term for them, anyway.
So whenever faced with the darkened entrance to a stretch of glorious forest and its slow moving singletrack paths, I breathed a little easier and cherished every second spent amid the foliage — until I hit a root and went over my handlebars that is. Despite the fact that I’d somehow managed to cushion the landing with my right buttock, it certainly didn’t detract from the fact that I was having a thoroughly rotten evening — and to cap it off I was now back in last place.
Yet it was at that moment, while reeling around on the floor with a mouthful of dirt and an imbrued laceration to the backside, that I happened on a moment of cyclo-cross clarity — this was it, this was living. You can keep your public house and its tremendous range of cask ales and starch-based snack treats. Keep it! Give me mud and ruts and inconsiderately positioned lengths of lumber; give me lush green grasslands and a bracing crosswind; give me the clatter of a rear derailleur and the rasp of a front brake; give me sweat-sodden Lycra and muck-flecked footwear…
In spite of my newfound optimism for the task, I still rolled over the finish line in a lowly fourth from last place; not quite the sparkling debut that I’d foolishly anticipated, but it was nonetheless chalked up as a personal victory — for that must surely be one of the toughest tests on two wheels.
Cyclo-cross, as well as being a superb workout, is a great way to socialise with like-minded people. Down-to-earth, friendly and helpful would be just a few ways to describe my peers on the day, regardless of the level at which they performed. Even when being lapped at speed, I’d usually hear a polite “just coming to the right of you, old chap”, or “just gonna squeeze past on your left” — really rather humbling considering the magnitude of effort being put in.
To enter a cyclo-cross race is easy: show up, sign in, pay an entry fee (£10 in my case), and get stuck in.
There are friendly, accessible winter leagues held all over the country from early autumn onwards, running all the way through to February, so you’ll have plenty of chance to hone your skills and increase your fitness and stamina as you go along.