You never grow out of messing around in mud
The first ‘proper’ road bike I bought wasn’t proper at all. It was in fact a cyclocross bike, made by Bianchi. It was, I had calculated, a good compromise because I was unsure whether I wanted a mountain bike or a road bike. There was also a toss-up between fixed gear, which was becoming a bit of a thing, and derailleurs. Thank God I chose the latter.
This cross bike had slicks on it before it even left the shop and has only had its knobblies fitted on a couple of occasions since. I’ve learned a lot since, about frames and wheels and components and groupsets. My opinions and tastes have been shaped and re-shaped and I look back on that bike, now languishing somewhere in the depths of the shed with a nostalgic fondness. I knew all the time that a cross bike wasn’t a road bike really but I didn’t realise that the reason for my inability to keep up with anyone was that it had mountain bike gearing, or that the stacked front end might have been comfortable but it wasn’t slammed, didn’t give me a sufficiently aggressive stance.
I remember the buzz when I brought that bike home on the train, gazing adoringly. Then there was the first time I went out in a pair of Rapha city pantaloons (remember them?) and a classic softshell.
Over the years the buzz has not so much diminished as morphed. It has become milder as cycling has become an ever-larger part of my life. I still get the thrill, but I’ll never be able to recreate that feeling over enthusiasm when I set out on my voyage of road cycling discovery.
At least I didn’t think I’d be able to recreate it, until I took part in my first cyclocross race. A whole new world of cycling has opened up to me. This isn’t just off-road riding, I’ve got a country park close by and I’ve tried riding through the mud over there. No this is more than that. It’s the event, it’s the race, it’s the spectators all wrapped up with their woolly hats and scarves and down jackets, the food stalls, the atmosphere. The atmosphere that makes a grim autumn Sunday something to look forward to, that gives you a reason to get out of the house when it’s raining.
Cyclocross is simply a great way to spend a day. The adult equivalent of kids jumping in puddles, is a comparison Emma Ossenton, organiser of the Rapha Supercross at Shibden Hall gave it and she’s right. It’s like mainlining fun, even if it doesn’t feel like it when you’re actually taking part.
And I’ve discovered it now. It was there all along, within reach, and now I’ve dipped my toe and found it quite inviting. I feel like I’ve found the cycling equivalent of the second layer of chocolates in the box. There’s a whole new world waiting for me to discover and it’s muddy and it’s filthy and will quite often be painful as I faceplant for the umpteenth time.
It’s the sense of abandonment that comes with riding off-road and the thrill of the race, brought into even sharper focus by the fact that I’ve never raced before. I’ve watched grand tours and town centre crits but never been there at a grass-roots amateur race, where the kids take it even more seriously than the adults.
Just as all those years ago I saw the roads as routes to cycling happiness I’m now looking at the countryside with similarly rose-tinted glasses. No cars to worry about, only wandering rabbits to worry about.
Rather than the grim grey bleakness of winter I see a multitude of muddy fields ahead of me, all ready to be raced over, sweating out of my eyeballs, my mouth full of grit, a stray ear of corn most likely sticking out at a random angle.
I have seen the future and it has knobby tyres and (squealing) disc brakes and much enjoyment. Cyclocross has rekindled the kid in me.
It’s not as if I’m the first to have discovered this - far from it. Cyclocross in one form or other is almost as old as cycling itself. I am incredibly late to the party, as it happens. But it’s better to arrive late than not arrive at all.
And you know what? I might even dig that old Bianchi out from its resting place and give it a bit of a spruce up. It would be nice to give it the life for which it was intended.
This column first appeared on www.thetimes.co.uk/onyourbike on October 23 2015