Cyclo-Cross: A bike that's a mix of heaven and hell

If you don't mind mixing your pleasure with a dose of pain, Richard Lofthouse has just the thing....
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As soon as my wheels took off I knew I'd crash, and I did, spectacularly, according to those who saw it. A cartwheel in the air with the bike still attached to my cleats, followed by a landing on my head that broke the helmet, bent the bike and smashed my sunglasses.

Tumbling to a halt on muddy turf, I pranced up like a wild animal, dragged my bike off the circuit, rose unsteadily to my feet and into the face of a medic. Without compassion she said, "You know you can continue if you want to." At which point I said to myself in a jumble, "If I can continue if I want to then I should," before jumping back on, nearly falling off again and then riding two more lung-busting laps of the treacherous circuit at Stanmer Park, Brighton until, mercifully, the race ended.

This is the world of cyclo-cross, or the traditional winter sport of roadies who want to keep fit in the "off season". Except that, as my colleague James Daley also notes, the off season is increasingly mild because of climate change, and the discipline is exploding in popularity in the United States.

Halfway through my first season I can say it's brilliant. For someone who grew up loving bikes but shying away from the competitive side of cycling, it's been a revelation.

Cyclo-cross caters to a wide range of ability, off-road riding is plain good fun, all ages and genders are welcomed and there is a deliciously English eccentricity surrounding everything from the 50p scalding cup of tea from the boy-scout urn before the race to the school playing fields you often race on, invariably strewn with crisp packets recently shredded by the local authority lawn mower.

The London League season began on a hot day last September at London's Eastway circuit, and I turned up with nothing more than my £10 race fee, a £12.50 British Cycling provisional race licence and my daily commute -a Dawes touring bike - sans mudguards but with the addition of knobbly cross-tyres.

Kids' races preceded the youth, senior and veteran events. So the circuit was a mêlée of toddlers, families, bike roof-racks and kit. As the 13.00 start approached, I started to get very nervous, having never taken part in a proper race before, let alone an off-road race with a field of nearly 100 riders.

But as the start whistle went and the cleats clipped fiercely into place, I realised there was no reason for this to be anything but fun, even if it hurt like hell.

I was right, and did it again the next week, and then again at farms and schools across Kent and East Sussex over the following weeks.

Highlights included eating a piccalilli and cheddar roll at the Reed Court Farm venue; ending the race at Brighton after my big crash, happy to come 72nd out of 92 riders, and taking delivery of my first real 'cross bike, a beautiful Condor Baracchi model with a carbon rear triangle plus the signature cantilever brakes and large clearances for mud.

Lowlights include puncturing at said piccalilli venue after only 20 minutes and with no spare wheel, and every spinning class I have attended at my local gym in order to be fit enough to race.

At 34, I have also realised that aside from age, ability and fitness is all relative at this level. The gridded, leading riders are ultra fit, deeply talented athletes, while some of the veteran riders are unbelievably good.

But the real highlight is just taking part, handling the bike to its limit and feeling exaltation for completing a race intact. At a certain point in an hour-long race, usually on the penultimate lap, nerves dissipate, the field thins out, technique relaxes and you get a second wind of energy.

I don't know if anyone else has written about cycling in terms of motoring, but if you really want direct steering, under-steering and over-steering, then try two skinny, mud-clogged wheels on a bumpy downhill path scarcely three feet wide with any combination of stones, exposed tree roots and smeary mud.

The true equivalent is driving on ice or soft sand, where the whole vehicle begins to shimmy. That's what the bike does on a wet Kent playing field, and it's quite unnerving if you're trying to go as fast as possible. Crashes are normal; the point is to crash well and not into a hard object such as a tree.

My persistent error is to carry too much speed into a corner, whereupon the "under steer", usually straight into a bramble bush, is simply to avoid falling off. Then there was a corner on the Brighton circuit where a hairpin right-hander at the base of a descent also included a steeply off-cambered path glistening with mud. Worse than ice, I thought to myself, and I was right: the rider behind me went down heavily.

There is a moment in every race where you see red, get into a killer state of mind and overtake the rider in front, and maybe another, too, piercing your lungs along the way and gasping so hard for breath that you can't even pause long enough to gulp water.

It's not for everyone, but highly recommended for anyone who likes a challenge on the weekend - the evolution of what was called "the Sunday scramble" 50 years ago.

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