Against my better judgement, I agreed to have another go at cyclo-cross racing last weekend, joining the Evans Cycles' team for the final race of this season's London league. I last tried my hand at the sport a year ago, finishing a not too shameful 23rd out of 56, and even helping my team to second place. Nevertheless, I can't say that my beginner's fortune left me with any great appetite to become a regular.
For those who have never heard of this masochistic sport, cyclo-cross is effectively a combination of road and mountain biking, where riders use something resembling a road bike, fitted with off-road tyres, to plough around a field or wood for about an hour. The race courses are usually between 2.5km and 3.5km long and, like hamsters, competitors race round and round until a bell rings to signal the start of the last lap.
To make things interesting, the course usually includes at least one obstacle and a few chicanes, and if you feel like you're not making much progress in the saddle, there's nothing to stop you hopping off and proceeding on foot with the bike over your shoulder (although the best cyclo-crossers seem to take pride in rarely, if ever, having to get off their bikes).
As a former long-distance running enthusiast, last February's mud-bath conditions, in a north London park, had suited me. While my fellow competitors insisted on making slow progress on their bikes, I gained plenty of places by ditching my pride and jogging past them with my bike on my back. This year, alas, the course was much drier, and faster, and I finished up a not quite as impressive 45th out of 70. There was one consolation, however – beating former Chelsea and England footballer Graeme Le Saux, who had decided to try the sport for the first time and, like me, had signed up as an honorary Evans team member.
Le Saux may turn out to be the next unlikely hero of the cycling world. Having retired from professional football just over two years ago, he's quickly become an enthusiast in all areas of the sport – encouraged by his friend, Gary Smith, the founder of Evans.
He tells me he's now hoping to use his profile to help promote the sport, and to improve facilities and infrastructure for those in the South-east. Astonishingly, his decision to take part in a cyclo-cross race, set in freezing conditions in a field next to Dunsfold Aerodrome (better known as the test track for Top Gear), was just for the craic. I can't imagine seeing such enthusiasm from most other retired football players.
Cycling is in need of a high-profile ambassador – someone who can prove to the masses that you don't have to be a lycra loony to enjoy the sport – and Le Saux fits the bill rather well. Let's hope he sticks at it.
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