Wednesday 11 November 2009


Now the dust, or rather mud, has settled on last weekend's NW League race at Brockholes, it feels timely to visit some of the issues raised by this soon to be legendary mudbath.

Photos from the event have given some insight into the problems encountered with a very tough, saturated grass based course, overhung and surounded by trees:

Pic Dave Haygarth

However, with the express intention of starting a bit of a debate, I want to take issue with some of the comments overheard at the event, most of which can be summarised in terms of a moan about the conditions, the amount of running or getting off the bike and a general dissatisfaction about a perceived lack of riding throughout the length of the course.

I should preface this slightly and say that for my 4 year old, the complete bog near the finish was clearly too much and she exited the U12 race somewhat tearfully. Also, that the number of broken rear mechs in the Senior race was well into double figures and Stuart Reid claimed first prize in that category with not one but two Dura Ace rear mechs that met their demise. Some riders were reduced to regularly stopping and clearing out their clogged bottom brackets, brakes and forks. Clearly conditions were on the tough, nay destructive side.

This though is the point - of cross. The necessary skillset of a cross rider is in fact an incredibly varied thing. Cross is not riding fast at all times, without getting off and without encountering natural obstacles. It is not about the steady pacing strategy of a time trial, the smooth fast flow of a bunch in a road race. It is about finding an easier line, a quicker technique on or off the bike, about agility, about grinding it out sometimes.

Cross is also a winter sport. Deliberately. Whilst modern summer crosses can be great fun and useful to keep the body's memory of high intensity, cross's roots can be traced way back to the turn of the century, a time when the Tour de France was more about survival and cross was invented and practiced expressly for 'the physical education of the cyclist'. A fab article by Eugene Christophe from 1921 clearly illustrates this paradigm. Check it out for the photos by way of demonstration.

I dont want to take the discussion down some macho dead end alley, but cross is and should always be challenging. It should throw different challenges at you according to the course, it's condition and the natural or not so natural obstacles along it's duration.

Going back to Brockholes (and I will be, unlike some apparently) the course was heavy. Biblically so in places. It required a minimum of 2 runs. It clogged bikes up and those with either 2 bikes, or God forbid a crew with a jet wash, were at an advantage. But amongst all this, this particular achtervolger rode in the big ring around the entire course for the length of the race. Hardly a bottom gear grind. I did however get off and run quite a number of sections that were (just) rideable. Why? Because it was quicker, and cross is about being quicker than the riders around you. My hours of drills on and off the bike, over obstacles and during off road intervals paid off and I was able to employ the skillset I had developed over time, to it's maximum.

I like most other riders have my preference for certain types of course. I make no bones about saying this was one of them, but equally do not shy away from fast, crit style courses with the kind of tight turns and confined tracks that my 6' 5" frame copes less well with. It's still cross, and I have to be able to cope with whatever comes along. Where I struggle, I work on that weakness and as a result this year my cornering technique has been a lot better, whilst my running and speed off and then on to the bike remains a strength.

Let me know your thoughts - for me it was simply a cross race that required a strategy like any other race, and that strategy required getting off the bike several times a lap. That adaptation to conditions is why, for me, cross is so engrossing. The cleaning up afterwards though was a different matter!

On a purely observational note, I noticed a large number of 'modern' style cross bikes, quite high end models, that were simply unable to cope with the amount of mud and leaves. My trusty, rather old skool Planet X Oom Johan(s) have great clearance, slack angles even and this showed in the fact that they kept going without missing a beat. The clearances on more exotic frames have got tighter, reflecting the trend of the day and what the Euro pros are riding. This however falls a little flat without the pit crew a Euro Pro has and the access to a jet wash every lap or so. Food for thought......

Oh, and Green Michelin Muds on tub carcasses are better than Rhinos in a straight shoot out. Better cornering and less prone to clog (interestingly) when things are super sticky. The positions might be reversed in really sloppy thin mud though. Maybe.


Mark said...

Brockhole - great course great venue and well organised. Results need to be posted far quicker very frustrating to wait so long.
I like you was dismayed to hear negative comments regarding the course. If people could stand back and look to the positives i.e. it is another venue for us to ride, another club is getting involved in promoting our choosen sport and people are seeing cross!
Yes you had to run a bit more than some courses and yes you had to unclogg your bike, but we all did and as Alan points out, it is "CROSS" not a road race, TT or crit.
On some sections I rode and was quicker than riders off their bikes and on other sections I found it quicker to be off the bike - as a first year cross rider I thought this is what it is all about?
Maybe the course could have done with a few pre rides to bed it in and maybe, next year, if the weather is dryer before the event, the talk will be of how fast the course is?
One thing is certain if we are too quick to condem a venue then we will lose out, clubs will not put the effort in and venues will be lost.
If you struggled then do as Alan and I have done and look at your skill set, see where you are lacking and work on improving. For me it is now about running and I have already looked at developing this into my training. Just as I have worked on my fitness, dismounts and remounts and crossing hurdles.
So before you let rip with a string of negativity think of the potential that the venue has and the work Lakes RC put into staging an event for YOU.
I crossed the line caked in mud but smiling - I had completed a tough race, my body was battered, my bike clogged but I will in the words of Arnie "BE BACK"

Otleyrich said...

Great course, great venue and fantastic organisation; loved it. Surely as Crossjunkie has so eloquently pointed out, part of the art of 'cross is being able to cope with difficult conditions. The skills and tactics (what sections to ride and when)are part of the attraction. I found Brockhole a challenge having not ridden in those conditions for a long time and it took a while to get the 'feel' of it but surely we don't want 'cross courses turning into sanitised hardpack/grass crit 'MTB trail-centre' type of affairs?

I sympathise with those who damaged mechs etc I managed to do the same at a very dry non-muddy Graves Park through an inopportune stick in the rear wheel but I don't think we can get rid of trees and leaves ;->

Deep section carbon rims, two bikes a jet wash. They all would have helped (or just given the opportunity to break some more kit)but if you haven't got them it just means you adapt your approach; run more, stop and clear your brakes, fork, chainstays, seat stays rear block relish the mud and outdoors especially the lovely Lakeland scenery. I can't wait for next year (with my second bike and deep section rims if Santa is kind)!

Dave Haygarth said...

Couldn't agree more Alan. Glad you took the time to write this. It's okay for me to be smug here with a jetwash and very capable team in the pits, but (as your big rin comment backs up) some conditions are just better for certain riders. Cyclocross is just that.
Rob Jebb, Peel Park National Trophy race 2007, first place: Conditions.
Thijs Al, Zolder World Cup, 2008: Conditions.
Everyone's got their favoured conditions. Mine are mud, slogging, and cold. Some people's aren't. It's not about being a hard man. Well... not much.