Top Barn, Worcester
GCN commentators tell us that cross’ racers “love the mud”. This is not true. In reality cross’ fans love watching cross’ racers torture themselves in the mud. This line is used simply to justify their unlikely form of masochism. Cross’ racers do however respect, fear, examine, classify and, most importantly, discuss the mud. It is perhaps second only to the pressure and choice of tyre on the list of CX talking points.
So it was, that, as we arrived in Worcester under leaden skies on a bitterly cold Sunday, 28-Nov-2021 for the West Midlands Regional CX Championships (and round 11 of the West Midlands Cyclocross League), chat among the rides was of mud and the role it would play on the day. This meant every conceivable meteoric permeation was considered, every line forensically examined and choice of tyres and pressures agonised over. Consensus was a course that was slippery, but not too much, ride-able and reasonably fast, further improved from previous rounds and overall well received. Hopes were high of remaining upright and staying competitive for the duration: provided the pressures were right, the weather stayed dry and the lines were good.
With every layer available in the kit bag donned to beat the cold, course practice began. Tips were passed on from those who had ridden earlier and technique carefully honed. Efforts were moderated; enough to warm up and test the trickier sections at race pace but not too much to risk the tank being anything but full for the race. A few precious minutes of moving to keep warm were then sacrificed to watch the ladies riding in anger. With the white, red and blue of national champion, Harriet Harnden, at the front of the field this was judged to be worth risking for a lesson on the optimal line through one of the most crucial early off-camber corners. Her cautious display did nothing to reassure.
Gels, bananas and bars were finished. Tyres were checked, tweaked, rechecked and tweaked again. Riders rolled down to the start. The slowly circling crowd gradually grew and the conversation began to fade as thoughts turned fully to the job at hand. Gridding was quick and business like with warm-up gear bagged and deposited to one side. The briefing was succinct and then it was time. Countdown from a minute. Then 30 seconds, all eyes front, bodies tense, focus laser-like. The whistle went and for a moment time slows down as we begin, turn the first pedal stroke and clip-in. And then we are racing.
The pace was fierce from the off. My start as good as I could have hoped with a few places made up early on. Adrenaline was coursing and it was full gas shoulder to shoulder through the first few corners to hold position. On the pedals, off the pedals, concentrate, line, go again. Matches were being burnt like there was a limitless supply. No matter, go all in and hold on until things calmed down 1-2 laps in then recover and consolidate. Plenty of time to move up later.
Only things didn’t calm down. That particular memo it would seem never made it beyond me. Everyone had arrived with purpose and no one was taking prisoners.
As we passed the grid for the second time I realised that, to mis-quote Tom Jorden from Top Gun, “my ego was writing cheques my body couldn’t cash”. The heart rate on the Garmin was off the scale and the legs were on fire. It was time for a reality check. I eased off, slightly. As every muscle in my body breathed a collective sigh of relief the wheels ahead started, slowly, to slip away.
Time in a cyclocross race is impossible to quantify. While the computer diligently ticks off the seconds and minutes raced, the number has no apparent relationship to the perceived elapsed duration. Those first two laps had passed in what seemed like the blink of an eye. The third lap took a lifetime. My body and mind were locked in battle, the latter trying to convince the former to give more than it could. Fear and hope also raged against each other; perhaps the gap to those ahead was holding but then again perhaps those behind were now closing. The yo-yo effect of the corners, cambers, climbs and boards served only to make matters worse as time and distance both became increasingly fluid.
Eventually however, a rhythm of sorts was established. It was possible once again to count the laps and hold position. The corners started to flow and lines became more intuitive. Those ahead were out of reach but not out of sight. Those behind seemed finally to be no longer right on the wheel.
As sleet started to fall about half way through I believe I may even, for just a moment, have smiled. We do, after all, do this for fun. We don’t love the mud, but we can appreciate how it makes things interesting and the small moments of victory when we get the corner just right, carrying speed and accelerating hard on the exit, are disproportionately gratifying.
With lifting spirits time again moved faster as we worked through the second half of the hour. The spectators who had braved the weather with cow bells and shouts of encouragement were fantastic. Every effort was cheered, every slip commiserated and every obstacle cleared celebrated. The performance enhancing qualities of man with a microphone broadcasting your name were like magic; uncovering reserves considered previously unreachable.
And so again, in a blink, three more laps were done, the board was showing 1 and the bell was ringing. The last lap was impossibly hard but also, somehow, easy. With the end in sight and a championship placing, no matter how modest, in the offing, the mind finally got the better of the body. The screams of agony from the legs, the back, the arms, hands and neck were ignored. Focus was on pushing the pedals harder and faster than they wanted to turn. There was nothing to hold back, everything was to be left out there, between the tapes and in the mud. Kicking out of the final climb the sprint to the line emptied the tank. No places were gained nor medals won but the sense of achievement, of finishing flat out having given everything, was immeasurable.
Despite the swiftly darkening skies spirits at the finish were light. Moments were shared with others in a way only possible when you’ve all collectively pushed yourselves to breaking and beyond. Missed opportunities were wistfully recounted but quickly forgotten and warmth of camaraderie keep the quickly chilling evening at bay. As bikes were loaded on to cars and muddy kit exchanged for warm layers a sense of satisfaction settled.
Everyone had won but simply getting out and riding their bikes as hard as they could in a field with others who shared the same passion. Competitive positions (10th for Gerry Scott, RLSCC in the Vets 50+ class, 21st for Andy Taylor and 23rd for Alex Craig, both RLSCC in the Vets 40+ class and a very impressive 2nd for Andy Wearing, KWCC also in the Vets 40+ class who trains with us at the Peddlamanicas sessions on a Thursday evening) simply made victory even sweeter.
Cross’ racers don’t love the mud. But we do love what it lets us to do, the fun we have doing it, the memories it helps us create and the stories it allows us to tell.