Wednesday 8 May 2013

Anatomy of a 'cross race

I once tried riding a cyclocross race 'easy'. It was a lesson in abject failure. Lulled into a false sense of security of how it would be a pleasant training ride, by the time I found myself on the deck for the third time, I realised that there was no such thing as an 'easy' 'cross race. An easy 'cross ride perhaps, but when you throw a hundred or so fellow riders, a slick muddy course and a way too casual attitude together, you get a mix that guarantees incompetence and ineptitude. 'Cross requires focus and commitment and makes very specific physical and mental demands, regardless of your ability or experience

And so to the musing I was doing recently as the new (summer) 'cross season started. That's the thing - nowadays you can race 'cross for pretty much 9 months of the year, morphing from (usually) fast and dry summer 'crosses into biblically wet and muddy winter races with only the deranged 3 Peaks Cyclocross in September to confuse the issue.

Some have written about the physical demands of cross, but what does it actually feel like to race, and what does it tell you about yourself?

Whilst I don't buy into that whole 'pain cave' thing where people try to outdo superlatives about how hard it is, there is no doubting that 'cross is hard, physical and to be honest slightly unsettling to take part in. The start is not necessarily always the hardest bit physically but is always demanding in some way - get a clean start off the line and you will be riding close to your maximum physical and technical ability anyway as you try and capitalise on your position. Get a rubbish start and things get harder. You'll still be riding pretty much full gas but mentally things just got a whole lot more difficult. Some of the fiercest battles in 'cross races occur back from the front end of the field, in the mid pack as, in the growing fields we've seen over the last few years, legions of grizzled competitors fight for every corner, every scrap of rideable line.

A bad start can finish you if you're not careful. In your effort to claw back places you try too hard, go into a sketchy corner too fast or over-accelerate on a straight and overshoot when the course turns and before you know it you've lost another 5 places. Let your mind wander or panic and things can go from bad to worse. Calmness whilst all about you are losing their heads is the key to the game. Easier said than done.

Survive the melee of the start and you try and settle in a bit. I say settle in, as far as maintaining a lung bursting effort, staying upright round the course and avoiding marauding fellow competitors conveys a notion of 'comfort'... Either move up if you can, usually by being smoother and more efficient, or hold your station. If you start sliding back, once again things can get more difficult as panic can set in. Panic usually means mistakes which, like casualness means an encounter with flora and fauna around the course (including course tape) or intimate contact with the ground.

And so to the finale. Hopefully a triumphant gallop around the last couple of laps, in control and looking imperious. Alternatively, it may well be an undignified fight against dwindling physical resources, increasing technical ineptitude as fatigue fogs your reactions and sometimes a fight against a madly clogging bike that threatens to give up working at any moment. As I have been blessed with riding a pair of 'anti-clog' Planet X disc bikes, I can no longer use this excuse and am left with my own ineptitude as the likely cause of backwards progress at this point.

The end of a 'cross race is always a bitter sweet affair - the relief that the physical pain you've just been though is no longer there is strong, but tempered with the knowledge that somehow you've got to get your (almost guaranteed) filthy body and bike(s) back into or onto the car and home again in a vaguely presentable state to greet loved ones who doubtless will be waiting with bated breathe to see how you got on.

Pic: Joolze Dymond

But that's where we come back to summer 'cross - all the trials and tribulations of winter 'cross but without the muck. Mostly.


Unknown said...

Absolutely bang on this. Everything you describe is exactly as it is for me, especially the last part of the event seeing chasing riders closing in fast as the more tired I get, the more silly mistakes I start making.

I too have tried riding one 'just for training" to work on technique. Not a good idea, not least because you end up being held up on the bits where you wanted to practice and then frustration sets in and you end up going harder than you wanted to, just to get some space fotr the next dismount.

A nice post.

crossjunkie said...

Thanks - rather than 'playing' at racing, it's best to find a little cross circuit near you and (with a slightly faster friend) do some hot laps. You can be under pressure when you need to be, but able to hang out a white flag and have a breather when you start seeing stars :-) Essentially, ride the tech stuff really hard and the simple stuff easy. Really brings on your ability to keep going hard in races even when things get tricky.