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Getting ‘cross…

| Blog, Cycling Plus | 01/10/2012 14:53pm

There’s no doubt that the cycling is now well and truly mainstream. The fantastic events of the summer have created huge interest from the media and inspired thousands of new riders to pull on the Lycra and take to the tarmac. Despite all this publicity, there remains one branch of the sport that remains resolutely quirky. Described by one journalist as the “ugly redheaded stepchild of cycling”, cyclocross remains sidelined in this country – its dedicated band of followers plugging away on small local courses with little or no publicity. Now Rapha are hoping to change all that, bringing a taste of Flanders to the UK with their Supercross Series. Liking the sound of that, Andy Ward decided to give cyclocross racing a go.

Until recently I knew virtually nothing about ‘cross. Most of my opinions were based on a fantastic video clip of a 1950s race taking place in Yorkshire.  This was a tough sport, that involved throwing your bike in a river and then jumping in after it.  As unappealing as that sounds, I wasn’t going to be put off. Taking advantage of the Bike to Work scheme, I was soon the proud owner of a Cannondale CAADX.  Great though the bike was for commuting, it seemed wasted on tarmac and I started looking around for local races. Two events drew my attention – a couple of floodlit events at Beaumont Leys and the second race of the Supercross series, just down the road at Lutterworth.

Having bunged my entries in, I decided I perhaps ought to try and obtain some of the necessary skills. Fortunately, fellow Leicester Forest CC member Alan Bontoft, was willing to show me the ropes with a practice session at the Beaumont Leys course. After a bit of practice at dismounting, hurdling and remounting (an eye-wateringly troublesome manoeuvre for me), Alan took us round the course itself, taking in large sections of an old BMX track and some improbably steep banks. After a few laps I found myself grinning widely – this was the most fun I’d ever had on a drop barred bike.

Race night at Beaumont Leys arrived. The event had attracted a wide range of abilities from hardened veterans to complete newbies like me. Carbon fibre mixed with old steel mountain bikes as we gathered on the start-line at Leicester Speedway. The race would begin with 3 laps of the gravelly track before hitting the off road sections and heading out of the stadium. With 50 riders taking part, I was feeling nervous – my last attempt at a mass start circuit race had finished with me nursing 18 stitches in my chin and one less tooth. I was told that a fast start was vital in cyclocross, but was content to let the field go ahead, sit at the back and find my feet.

Racing out across the car park and onto the BMX track, I found it an entirely different beast under floodlights and I was glad of the chance to take it at my own pace. The first couple of hurdles went surprisingly smoothly, but I took the first tricky corner at a speed that would not have scared a granny on a mobility scooter and found myself well and truly last. Still, I got round in one piece and back into the stadium where I dared to overtake someone as I finished my first lap. I had a long way to go, cyclocross races last for a set duration – this one for 45 minutes.

Managing to stay rubber side down, I started to pick up the pace and cope with the occasional alarming front wheel slide on the varying surfaces. The laps ticked by and as fatigue set in, my remount “technique” provided light entertainment for the small group of spectators. Eventually, just when my legs were telling me enough was enough, the bell went for the last lap and I found a bit more to get me home. Forty five minutes had turned out to be exhausting, but exhilarating. I hadn’t fallen off, had all of my teeth and hadn’t come last! My cyclocross racing career was up and running and I was hooked.

Andy finished with all of his teeth!

I now can’t wait for the Supercross on the 27th October. As much as I had enjoyed my first race, the atmosphere at the end was a bit flat as riders just packed up and went home. I’m told that this is in sharp contrast to the experience in Belgium and the US, where cyclocross races are seen as mini-festivals, attracting huge family crowds. Rapha are hoping to create the same feel, with live music, plenty of noise, cowbells, food, drink and silliness. I’ve entered the Vets category, but also fancy a stab at the “fun” race with its tequila corner and wall of foam. As well as mugs like me, some of the best elite riders in the country will also be racing, taking it a bit more seriously and giving me a chance to pick up some tips at close quarters. Entry is free to all spectators, so come on down, have some beer and frites and laugh at my comedy remount technique.

Andy's team-mates pretend not to notice the hay...

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