I like to set a few cycling goals/targets each year. They can be very specific, like “take 30s off your 10 mile TT PR” or a bit more vague and “challengy” like “do some more of the 100 climbs”.
One of this year’s challenge goals I set myself was to “take part in a cyclocross race”. I’ve always thought it looked fun. But until last September, when I bought a gravel bike, it wasn’t a realistic option. I also have a bit of an aversion to wet rides and mud, so I was thinking “early season, before it starts getting wet” would be a good bet. The chances are, if I really enjoy it I might keep going and “get over” the mud thing (but we’ll see).
Having watched a bit of CX on GCN and done a bit of reading about it, it seems like it ought to be a reasonable match for my power profile (“puncheur” according to the Coggan chart).
So when I found out there was a summer series in July at Milton Keynes, I signed up. The first race is July 13th, which gives me a little under three weeks to work on some skills (mount, dismount, shouldering the bike etc.). I’m under no illusions about having a chance of winning anything. I don’t really care about that. This is all about fun and trying something new.
I didn’t do much specific training, but did start to do a bit more gravel riding on bridleways and a bit of practice mounting and dismounting with my SPD MTB shoes. I joined a couple of club 50:50 rides too, which are a lot of fun if you have a gravel or mountain bike. The only thing I haven’t really tried is running with the bike shouldered, but I’ll have to learn that on the hoof (along with lots of other things, no doubt).
Preparation the day before
Remove bottle cages, light, mudguard and saddle-bag. Gave the tyres a good clean and pulled two thorn ends from the front and one from the rear. Topped up sealant and let the holes seal. They’d been stable for months, but now was the time to ‘deal’ with them. Ensure spare wheelset ready for use. Prepare support gear.
The National Bowl at Milton Keynes is an excellent venue for cyclocross. The parking is right next to the course. You park, walk over to the registration gazebo, swap your British Cycling card for an electronic leg tag (timing chip), pin a number on your back, then off for a sighting lap before the race. That’s it. All very simple and straighforward, and it worked like a well-oiled machine.
After Race 1
I can’t have been trying hard enough as I didn’t fall off. Other people I talked to crashed multiple times. I did break my saddle though, jumping back on after the hurdles, which I was quite upset about. But it’s a race, so I just got on with it. I enjoyed the technical bits very much. Several near misses, lots of wheels sliding in the dust – and it got dustier and slidier in the foresty sections with each lap. I only put a foot down a few times. Got pretty good at the hurdles too. But I was just in survival mode for the last three laps. I had nothing left. At the end, I coughed up a nasty green thing and my lungs were burning, my face felt very hot and I’d really had enough.
It was a race. I gave it my best, but I could have happily abandoned at any time in the last 2-3 laps. Thankfully, I won my category easily (over 50s males with broken saddles). Actually I was 7th in Vet 50-59 men (beating 4 others in the same category) so, most importantly, not last! 27th out of 44 starts overall in wave 1. Arunas also raced and came 22nd overall and also beat 4 others in his more youthful age category.
Did I Enjoy It?
Honestly – as I write this a couple of hours after the race – I’m not completely sure. I think so. At 40 minutes, it was a bit long for me for an all-out effort (183 BPM average heart-rate). It’s very “surge and not quite recover” oriented and there’s nowhere to hide on the technical hilly bits. You can’t let up there or you’ll stop. I think the only way to tell properly is to sign up for next week’s race and have another go. Next time I’ll use a different sort of saddle.
Being relatively light and punchy, I found it easier passing people uphill than on the flat – Watts per kilo mattering more than raw Watts. Some were struggling with bike handling on the short, steep, grassy inclines. I also found that sometimes you get slowed down by ”traffic” – other riders – particularly on sharp bends, technical sections and obstacles. At one point, going up a sharp dusty slope, someone stopped abruptly in front of me (wrong gear), which made it rather difficult to get going again. I once did similar to someone else though – it’s part of the game.
After a few laps, I was rather pleased with my hurdling. I was getting quite fluent at it by the end. CX does seem to be an event where skill can overcome raw power and there is time to be gained. Clipping back in went well most times, but there were a couple of fumbles.
In one respect I was lucky. On my penultimate pass of the finish line they told me “2 laps to go”. I couldn’t quite believe it (I swore) as I’d already been out 35 minutes and was suffering (are we nearly there yet?). I was also already throttling back just to be able to get round. But half-way round that lap, I was passed by three riders who looked like they knew what they were doing and disappeared pretty quickly. One of them must have been the race leader because at the end of that lap I got the chequered flag and could stop. I did 8 laps and the winners did 10. They stop everyone at the finish line after the race leader finishes, and then you get to see how many times you’ve been lapped.
Let’s Do It Again
I did go back to race again on 20th July. This time I was determined to pace myself better and not let the heart-rate get away from me. The course layout was different – a bit more climby and twisty with some vicious uphill hairpins, no hurdles, longer – using the full size of the MK Bowl. I did seem to pace myself slightly better, but still came away with an average heart-rate of 183 bpm again. But no burning lungs this time. The highlight of my race was passing two riders at once up a very steep section. I was behind two guys. The one in front of me started to pass on the left, so I took the wider line and went to the right, smashing past them both with a surge of effort – eliciting a “ya bugger” from the guy who went left. I giggled to myself. (He caught me later, but is in a different category).
It was definitely a more physically demanding course and I enjoyed it. But it is a very hard effort – 7 laps of a longer course came in at 6.12 miles and 192m ascent (5.56 miles and 147m in race 1). I was closer to crashing – my front wheel washed out on a dusty path coming out of the trees. I put my left foot down and stayed up, but got a face full of leafy twigs. I managed to control all the other slidey bits though. This time I was out there 44 minutes coming 14th out of 23 (Arunas was 12th) overall. I was 4th out of 6 in my age category, Arunas 4th out of 5 in his. We were rather lucky with the weather. The day before the race it hit 38°C but race day was 23°C. A couple of minutes after we finished, it poured with rain, which would have made some of the grassy slopes quite slippery for wave 2.
Next day we got the league results tables and I was very surprised to be in position 1 for “Vet 50-59 men” as I am by no means the fastest (7th and 4th proves that). Arunas sits in 3rd place for “Vet 40-49 men”. It turns out that several people switched between wave 1 and wave 2 and there’s a separate league table for each wave. It also means that if I can complete all four wave 1 races and get no worse than 10th position (7th and 4th so far) I would likely win my age category. With smallish entry numbers, the points system favours completing all four races over winning three of them. You’d get 448 points for four 10th places versus 450 for three wins. So I guess I’ll keep going. That’s how they get you, right? Is it too soon to start looking at CX bikes?