“Don’t shave on race day; you’ll lose all you power!”
I was apprehensive about what was to come at the beginning of the weekend. Last year had been good to me and I’d achieved a lot of the things that I wanted, but with a fresh year, new challenges present themselves. You have to constantly push yourself to go that bit better, but you’re always worried that maybe one day it won’t happen. My first race of the year followed a break of five weeks, which started off with two weeks of virtually not even touching my bike. Three good weeks of road training followed, but as my friend said at the end of morning warm-up, “that can be tricky, even if you’ve got the legs, the road doesn’t always transfer to a good cross race”. He also told me that I had, “some very white legs”! “Freshly shaven”, I quipped to which he replied, “arghhh, don’t shave on race day, you’ll shave off all your power”! This did nothing to settle my nerves.
An odd little regulation in cross racing says that if you don’t affiliate to the league (by paying a further fee) you don’t get gridded. I don’t have an issue with this because the point of it is to get local clubs to promote and organise races and therefore keep the league alive. The London Cyclocross League is in fact more than just alive, in part due to this rule, with more than a hundred racers on the start list at the majority of events in ‘11/’12. It’s a good time for riders and organisers alike, but not so good if you’re not affiliated.
I hadn’t paid my grid tax[i] and so lined up with a few other fast riders who found themselves in the same position. With over 180 riders we could barely glimpse the guys that we wanted to be racing with, but there would be no time to sit and cry about it. Apart from the fact that we sat on the grid for about ten minutes whilst the organisers made sure that everybody had a different number! – I started to wonder if saving my affiliation money had been the right choice?
Anyway, when we finally started riding our bikes my plan had been to sprint as hard as I could, with my nice warm legs, down the inside of the first corner and try and stay off the loose gravel. Of course I found myself, and my freezing cold legs, squirming about all over the outside of the first corner deep in the gravel. So deep in fact that I found some grass on the outside of the corner, which I hadn’t even spotted in my recee, so I decided to make use of that instead. This worked (kind of) with me passing a good few riders until two guys right in front of me decided that they’d really prefer it if their clothes were dirty. One promptly locked bars with the other and I had to hit the breaks to avoid their flailing bikes and limbs. I did however manage to keep it in the big dog[ii] and I don’t think I lost too many places thanks to the aforementioned flailing which must have held everyone up and not just me.
There was unfortunately now a gap to bridge and I was out of the saddle for most of the first lap, before catching a little group including a couple of fast Dulwich Paragon riders and Simon Scarsbrook. I caught my breath before attacking and bridging the gap to the next few riders. I could see Russ Jones and Dougie Fox up ahead so I carried on working to get to them. With three laps gone and three to go I’d made my way through a fair few riders, but the Dougie was sustaining the same gap of around about 50 meters or so which was frustrating me. Russ had made his attack and I could no longer see him, but I could just make out some other potential targets.
My form certainly wasn’t what it had been before the yuletide break and lots of the other riders will have been doing lots of road training ready for the upcoming season, which is completely different to the cross country training that I’ll be focusing upon. Even so I didn’t think that I was losing too much on the fast sections, taking a headwind or two in my stride, but the technical sections were where I could do the damage. There were a lot of back markers to get through and if you’re confident in the singletrack it’s easy to choose where to pass people. Other, more road biased riders, struggled to find a way through and I often came out of the twisty bits with a sustainable advantage.
With two laps to go I came in hot on the penultimate corner and Martin O’Grady cut me off with a completely different line. I love racing Martin, it’s always really hard but fair and both of us become utterly focused on winning. He doesn’t get flustered and I’ve learnt lots from racing him – this time, three or four corners later he’d made his way through a group of four back markers that I was now stuck behind. This is why it’s so important to fight for the advantage in every single corner.
Stuart Nisbett came past me into the tight switchback/pit area and told me to stay with him, “there’s still time to catch them” he said. I tried to go with him, but just couldn’t hold his wheel, he was working so hard, but he’d got caught up a few times in the singletrack sections with slower riders now becoming a constant battle. O’Grady pulled the same trick into the finish area with one lap to go, but I was ready for it and took the same line. He like Stuart was motoring but, I managed to stay with them this time and over the first part of the lap we made our way up to a very strong group featuring, Nisbett, Fox, Liam Jamie Cowell, Stuart Lockyear (I think), Craig Joy and now Martin O’Grady and me.
The first casualty from the group was Dougie Fox who clipped Martin’s rear wheel, sending him into the trees. O’Grady had blasted straight to the front of the group and was now controlling the pace and I was last, but one. As we went into the most difficult section Craig began running which forced me to do the same and this shockwave, which is often responsible for hold ups on the first lap, took care of the rider behind me who struggled to get back into his pedals. We flew past some now stationary back-markers on our way to the base of the final climb, but O’Grady altered the pace all of the time, whist I selected the big dog, ready for an all or nothing final climb.
I wasn’t sure what everyone had left, but I knew that the final section at the top of the climb was not going to allow much sprinting. My tyres, bike or something, seemed to be finding grip on the hills that eluded most of the other riders so I decided to roll the dice and just go flat out. Liam looked across at me as I came around the outside, Craig was waiting to attack but obviously didn’t want to go just yet and I took Nisbett completely by surprise when I dived up the inside at the top of the climb. As I leaped the plank and ran up the bank onto the final section I thought to myself if you can just get into those pedals quickly you may have a chance.
It may have been the best hurdle I’ve ever negotiated because I barely slowed before my feet were in and we were going again! I’m usually bloody awful at cyclocross obstacles, but even having nailed it I knew I wasn’t safe. As I came past O’Grady he tried to tell me that I was okay because he is racing in a different age group, but I still didn’t know if my attack had worked – I didn’t dare look back, I just rode as fast as I could. It was only when I came to the last corner and I could see the rest of that group behind me on the switchback that I knew that I’d done it and only then that I allowed myself a small smile.
We’ve still got some work to do to finish in the top ten every week, but I was pleased with how everything went and particularly happy with the last lap. I kept a cool head, thought carefully about when to make my attack and didn’t give up, even when some of the lads around me seemed very strong. I struggled with the start, but I made the best of it and some of the guys I was racing with on the last lap were in the same boat. If I can bring a bit more power with me to the ‘12/’13 season, we’ll be on for some good results I reckon.
I may have to think about my affiliation for next year!
[i] Affiliation – As well as having paid for BC membership, a Racing Licence, to be in a club and your entry fee at each event, you must also pay a further fee to affiliate to the league. This is so that a man (who doesn’t race) can assign you points to say how good you are and if you deserve to be anywhere half decent on the grid. The man (possibly a different one – I don’t know how many Grid Tax Fairy’s there are) will also put up results on the website (sometimes within days of having raced, sometimes longer for inexplicable reasons). Often the first ten results will appear on their own and so, a week after the race, when you email the secretary to find out how you got on, he’ll copy you into another email to someone else asking where the results for the “minor places” are, before you eventually find out that you finished 14th out of 140. Sometimes, when you compare this with the feeling of coming in the top 10% of a cross-country event for example, where the results are published as soon as the race is over, you wonder just exactly what your “affiliation” is paying for – is it just a Grid Tax?
[ii] The larger of the two front chainrings. Also known as the Big Ring when describing a climb, i.e. I Big Ringed the whole bastard climb because I’m a man!