CX in the City.

I competed in my first Cyclocross (CX) event yesterday. When you are carrying a knee injury (as I am) you start to look around for alternatives to running, and CX has been lingering in my conscious since spotting an event at Foxlake in Dunbar, right after I had completed a trail race there at the beginning of the year. It turns out that this event was actually a season-closing one, so I decided to wait until the new season before giving it a go (unlike Triathlon, which I finally got around to doing recently, but had *never* intended to).

Since the Triathlon a fortnight ago, I’ve managed to pick up my new mountain bike and I decided to use it for yesterday’s event. I didn’t really have a choice, as I don’t have a Cyclocross bike (although I could have perhaps borrowed one) but I took some advice from Jo Thom – runner/triathlete/cyclist extraordinaire and all-round nice person – who I noticed had competed at Foxlake on a mountain bike, and she urged me to use my mountain bike to see how I get on.

I suspect most people don’t really know much about Cyclocross. I didn’t either – it barely registered with me until I witnessed it first hand – so it’s worth just outlining the basics:

History: Cyclocross is typically an autumn and winter sport, with the northern hemisphere season running from September to February.  The sport is strongest in the traditional road cycling countries such as Belgium (Flanders in particular), France and the Netherlands. European road racers in the early 1900s used CX as a way for them to stay in shape during the winter months so its origins are certainly much older than mountain biking, for example.

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Cyclocross, 1930s-stylee.

Race format: Races for senior categories are generally between 30 minutes and an hour-long, with the distance varying depending on the ground conditions. Long-format races, in which riders compete cross-country for distances up to 100 km, also exist. Examples include the Three Peaks Cyclocross, a 61 km race (which a couple of riders from my club, Carnethy, completed last weekend http://carnethy.com/2014/10/three-peaks-cyclo-cross-28th-sept/).

Equipment: The clothing is the same as for road cycling, with the exception of the shoes, which tend to have SPD mountain bike-style cleats for quick release, and, as I experienced yesterday, you get very warm so less is more is the order in terms of upper body clothing (I wore a thin base layer which was a bit of a mistake). The bike is where the real difference happens. You really need a specialised CX bike to be properly competitive, although it has occurred (rarely) that races have been won on a mountain bike, [Carl Decker doing so in an Elite Race in recent years]. In short, they are closer to road bikes than mountain bikes. In fact the only real differences from CX to road bikes (without getting into *too* much detail) are the brakes (Cantilever brakes are the norm, although the UCI has now lifted the ban on disc brakes, so we are starting to see CX bikes being manufactured with them), the wheels are generally a bit further from the frame to allow mud to pass through, and the tyres, which for obvious reasons, are knobbly (that’s a technical term). Also, but not always, there tends to be a more simple arrangement of gears, with fewer options. That’s about it really.

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Cyclocross race tyre with cantilever brake.

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Simple gearing system and SPD pedal.

So when the Scottish Cyclocross Series races were announced I was quick to enter the first one at Callendar Park. This weekend has always been fairly light on hill racing (which is one of the reasons why I chose it for the Fife Coastal Path Relay last year) and I knew anyway that (in addition to the recent Triathlon) I need to keep having competitive events in the diary to keep me sane while I wait for the knee to get sorted*

*Update on knee: Since my last blog I have seen both my GP and an orthopaedic surgeon. The surgeon (without the benefit of confirmation by MRI scan) has surmised a meniscus tear that has developed into a Baker’s cyst, a benign swelling caused by a sac of synovial fluid behind the knee-joint, which would explain my inability to fully straighten my leg, and the discomfort when trying to do so.

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Mum, what’s happening to me?

So surgery beckons methinks, although if the scan shows a tear that can heal itself I may just need the cyst aspirated [My friend Mary Lye, to whom I mentioned the prognosis, suggested they would use ‘a fucking big needle attached to a vacuum cleaner’. Thanks Mary.]

So to the event itself. I familiarised myself in advance with what the course might be like (A variety of terrain is typical, ranging from roads to paths with short steep climbs, off camber sections, lots of corners and, a defining feature, sections where the rider may need, or would be best advised to dismount and run while carrying the bike. Under-tire conditions include asphalt, hardpack dirt, grass, mud and sand. In comparison to cross-country mountain bike events, terrain is smoother. Less emphasis is put on negotiating rough or even rocky ground with more stress on increased speed and negotiating different types of technical challenges.) so looked on YouTube (it always has the answers) and it turned out not only was there last year’s race on the same course (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iuxfd0eWJGQ), and the same category as I would be racing, V40-49, but the organisers had helpfully posted a link of a lap of the route for this year (minus the obstacles and barriers, of course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xah1y-f75Ko&sns=tw), so with research done I was all set.

I took my bike on the train to Falkirk High Station arriving early as I wanted to see some of the other race categories, and (more importantly) scope the course and take advantage of the test window to actually ride it. When I arrived at Callendar Park (home of previous National XC events, I remembered) there was a throng of activity – this was clearly a well organised event and some of the younger kids’ events were already taking place (we had to wait until later for our registration as due to sheer numbers (469 in total took part, across all categories)). Callendar House provided a magnificent backdrop and was where the prize giving would take place.

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A bike thief’s dream.

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Registration.

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Callendar House, where I wouldn’t be receiving a prize.

It turned out that the V40-49 would be even later than billed (around 2.30pm), so I had time to kill. I decided that I needed to get my bike ready (and given that it is a hard tailed 29″ wheeled-machine I had a good start). I locked the front shocks, as advised, and removed the lights, reflectors, bell and pump, to make it as clutter-free as possible. In retrospect, there was very little in the way of flat straight sections, so having my shocks working may have been slightly better, but I doubt there was much in it. The removal of mud guards (one of the bike stipulations) would have been a pain, but since I hadn’t fitted them anyway, I was good to go!

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The lean machine.

We finally registered and were issued with a small number for our right arms and a timing chip for the leg. The timing chip was important as this is how it works: The leading racers will race for the prescribed 40 minutes (numbers of laps varies depending upon length and difficulty of course), or thereabouts, and depending upon the leading rider’s position at that time, they will hear a bell which will indicate a lap to go. Slower riders will do this ‘extra’ depending upon their position in the pack. If they are lapped (are a good number are, given that a lap yesterday was only around 6 minutes), then they will finish the lap they are on when the leaders finish. So, as an example, the leading bunch yesterday completed 8 laps of the 1.3 mile circuit, with the rest just doing 7, and this is reflected in the results.

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At this point, Andy from work (not his real name) turned up for a nosy and we had a wee watch at some of the other races, trying to take note of where not to fall and get run over by the other riders. I also had a scan at the start lists to see if I recognised any names from the hill running community and I spotted 3: Tom Owens (who needs no introduction) was in the Senior category (off last, as the flagship category), and in my category (off second-last) were Andy Kitchen (previous 2.22 record holder for the Pentland Skyline Race) and sometime Carnethy member Russell Stout (who, I remembered, had completed the Marathon des Sables – handy experience if there was sand on the course [there wasn’t..])*.

*Tom finished 9th in the Senior Category; Andy and Russell were 31st and 58th respectively in my category (I was 67th).

So it was time for a recce. I cycled slowly around the course, taking photos and noting where I might need to get off the bike. There seemed to be 3 spots: the artificial steps, a steep section near the wooded section and potentially a couple of others, depending on volume of bikes. Aside from that, the course looked firm and surprisingly free of mud. Last year’s video looked very muddy, so it just shows how dry the last month has been.

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A un-reckless recce. Picture: Andrew Logan

So to the race. I made a beginner’s mistake when called to the grid by positioning myself at the back. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was to spend most of the race making my way through the field (I think I only lost places when I crashed – more of that later). I genuinely assumed that I would struggle not to finish last here (as opposed to the Triathlon, where I secretly thought I would be stronger than some competitors due to the cycle/run elements), so for that reason I went for the back of the grid. However, the things that counted against me before the race (the wrong bike, lack of experience, bad knee) were mitigated by having a bike that was actually fit for purpose, a course that didn’t involve coming off the bike very often and, as it turned out, better fitness levels than a lot of those around me. The latter is important as it is full-on for the 40+ minutes and there are no stops (apart from pit stops), no time for drinks, food or anything else. It’s power pedaling at its best. So maybe I shouldn’t have started right back there…

The pistol went off and we started. As I was at the back at this point I was expecting to be hanging on to those near me, but in fact I was wondering what was holding them up! So I manoeuvred my way past riders steadily and surprised myself how easily I was overtaking them. Maybe my tyres were gripping better, or I had more nerve, or better fitness. Either way, I was making decent progress and enjoying it. The section below came quickly and as there were still lots of bikes around me at this point, we had to get off and climb as the pace slowed down dramatically. All subsequent laps however, allowed us to ride this section.

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Loose gears required here. Picture: Rob Simpson

It was then our first taste of the steps. Experienced riders are very quick at dismounting, picking up their bike, hopping up the steps and getting back on the bike in short order. I was okay at it but it needs work, but I did remember to put my bike down on the downside of the brow of the hill after the steps to make cycling off again much easier.

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Lift, run, step, drop and go. Picture: Sean Clark

Just after the next turn I had a mini disaster (well it’s Lynch we’re talking about here). Upon turning tightly around a tree, I skidded and my bike managed to break some barrier tape, entwining it in my gears and derailleur. I picked myself up and looked at the mess, while riders shot passed me. Could I carry on? I got back on the bike and tried some gear changes. The tape was causing the chain to slip off the cogs and I thought all was lost, but then I found a small selection of gears (namely set 3, gears 1-3) that I could use, so I carried on and they actually served me well throughout the race. At this point the announcer declared that we had been riding for 9 minutes and I was beginning to warm up (that base layer was a mistake) and from there I continued to make up lost places and generally enjoyed myself. The mountain bike was great on this terrain and really only lost a bit on the flat fast sections whereas on the descents I was able to bounce past people. The next time check was around the ‘3 laps to go mark’ and I was beginning (slightly) to feel the energy levels dropping a bit. Here there was a shout of “Rider down!” as we summited a small hill and we saw a rider lying prone, receiving treatment for a fall. With the shout of a couple of laps to go I was lapped by the leaders, meaning that I wouldn’t be doing the same number of laps as them, which was a shame, and (as I found out at the end) there only about 13 places between me and the final full-lap rider (I probably lost quite a few of those when I was stopped) so that has to be the objective on the next event.

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Needing a poo. Probably. Picture: Martin Young

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Picture: Bob Marshall

And then it was all over! And what fun it was. Without doubt one of the best things I’ve taken part in. And I did okay too, for a first attempt, finishing 67th out of 108 finishers in the V40-49 category. It was then a case of getting a quick drink, working the tape out of my chain rings and off to the train. A great day out. So great, that I’ve entered Sunday’s event at Strathclyde Park. Sorry Shane (organiser of this: http://www.carnethy.com/ri_skyline.htm), but I won’t be a helper on Sunday…

Results (V40-49) here: http://www.mylaps.com/en/classification/3302477

Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8ONFbPaox8&feature=youtube_gdata_player

A set of pictures from Bob Marshall here: https://picasaweb.google.com/113562417702657933373/CallenderParkCycloCross2014

and from Martin Young here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mynder85/sets/72157648355074226/

Strava upload here: http://www.strava.com/activities/203668796

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