An uphill struggle, and that was the easy bit
The front wheel went first, losing traction on the mud and slipping from under me. I slammed on the brakes and that was when I went over the handlebars.
It was the first time I had fallen off a bike in years and it didn’t hurt a bit, because I was going at around 0.5mph, perhaps slower, and the grass cushioned my fall. My pride was another matter entirely. I had fought hard to achieve my place in the race and with each passing second I spent floundering on the ground and trying to get back on my bike while sliding further down the gradient the course was crossing, my position was slipping away from me.
What’s more I should have been ready for that corner. It was the very one I had been told to watch, steeply sloping and already slippy from a few previous races. I could have come a cropper on any of those turns, though. Dozens did.
Spills are part and parcel of cyclocross. Mud and grass and the smells of the countryside characterise a sport that is actually more than 100 years old and takes place largely in the winter months. The first documented race dates back to 1902 in France, and was called the National Championship Cyclocross race. The sport soon spread rom there, to Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy. In the 1950s the UCI got involved and it gained a foothold in the US in the seventies. It has taken a while but cyclocross in the UK is now almost as popular as road racing. Such is its inclusivity that races have become family days out, with kids’ races held ahead of the adults and the sort of light-hearted atmosphere that can only come with skidding around in the mud.
The first heats of the 2015 Rapha’s Supercross series took part at Shibden Hall, just outside Halifax in Yorkshire on a bright, breezy autumn day with leaves dropping from the trees like confetti. A prettier sight you’d have been unlikely to see, especially the view down the hill to the boating lake - the steep hill upon which the majority of the course ran. I, along with 150 or so other competitors were expected to traverse this hill on switchbacks that folded back on themselves tighter than a lower intestine.
It was never supposed to be easy, and the course designed by Emma Ossenton, who has something of a reputation for tough circuits, made sure there was almost no respite. Those switchbacks ran down to about 50 yards of pavement before veering up through the woods on an incline that hit 21 per cent at its steepest and which Emma latter conceded had been compared to the Koppenberg in Belgium. At the top of this was a mud bank and then a set of steps which you had no choice but to dismount and run up before the course looped past the hall and the race village along a path and down through the switchbacks again, which, I neglected to add, also incorporated hurdles. It was the classic cyclocross course, but tilted.
It would have been so easy to have just pulled into the race village, with its whiff of coffee, pancakes and pizza, families milling around, shaking cowbells in support. There was even beer. The thought crossed my mind on each one of the seven occasions I passed.
Kati Jagger from Rapha chacterises cyclocross as “type-2 fun”, something you enjoy only after the event when looking back on it with relief it is over. For a few minutes I considered it type-3 fun - something that you thought you would enjoy but ultimately wonder what the hell you were doing. Like Pooh sticks. I was definitely having a type-2 time of it as I scooted along trying to gain purchase on my pedals again.
The race had started uphill to minimise start-line carnage, presumably, before peeling off into the lower half of the course proper. I had positioned myself towards the back of the field, partly because I had no level of experience or fitness to place myself further forward and also because I was a bit late to the party, rolling up only seconds before the start. As soon as the race began it was clear I had made the right decision. The front bunch set off like greyhounds out of a trap, yards ahead before I had even started pedalling. By the time I was midway up the big Belgian-type hill for the first time my heart was beating at a rate I had never previously thought capable. And that was essentially it for the rest of the race, red-lining in terms of effort. Muscles were aching in places I didn’t know I had muscles, my lungs burned, the urge to throw up was overwhelming, strange things were happening to me physically.
A cyclocross race is a physically draining experience. It is all-out from the beginning and there is virtually no respite. It is an exercise in exhaustion management, made worse by the fact that you set off without a bottle of water because you’ll basically have no time to drink it and there’s no point carrying the extra weight. The fact I was inwardly screaming and outwardly grunting and apparently getting no further up the field merely signified that there are a hell of lot of people who are fitter than me.
It got to the point, around the third time around the circuit, when the lead riders began to lap me. “Coming past on your right / left” they would say in quick succession as they rattled past spraying chunks of mud into my face. At first I felt humiliated and then a little bit annoyed and then relieved when it dawned on me that in a race which finishes when the lead rider crosses the line after an hour, every time he lapped me would be a lap I wouldn’t have to complete. Towards the end I was willing them past.
And then it was over, the course closed, we were ushered off and into the finish area. I had finished in 99th place, 38th overall. There weren’t many people behind me, ten I think, but I didn’t finish last, which was the aim. Around about then, as my friends and my beloved rushed over to greet me with a bottle of electrolyte drink, telling me I looked “grey” which would have been concerning if I wasn’t too knackered to worry about it, I started to understand the concept of type-2 fun. I was exhausted but glowing, and buzzing with the thrill of the previous hour, and the knowledge I could descend on the food stalls of the race village in a frenzy of guilt-free eating.
That tumble was already a distant memory.
Many thanks to Emma for the use of her Kinesis Crosslight. A superb cross bike even if the brakes would appear to be a bit sharp.