Here’s the latest missive from my special ‘cross correspondent Rich Mitchelson. I have precious little to write about just now, though this may change soon…
Another crisp, blue autumn sky greeted me and Mechanic Dad on the morning of October 23, as we hit the roads to Alexandra Palace for the Rapha Supercross.
I was entered in the Seniors/Vets/Women/Juniors race that preceded the main Elite race and arriving early gave us both a chance to walk the course and get a feel for the place. That feeling was one of dread, with Dad using words like “Bugger! This is steep”. It was a course for the climbers, particularly those with pick axe, crampons, oxygen and survival gear… Two main sections of climbing were set to sap my legs each lap: one shorter and much steeper effort and one that was aptly described as a long drag; it was both long… and a drag. All in all the course was a stiff challenge for a ‘cross new boy and I knew it was going to be my toughest test of the three so far.
As well as the climbs the course setters had added in the usual obstacles, hurdles and steps. Having little opportunity to get out for some technical practice recently, I should have spent more time on the hurdles, studying them and working out the best line of attack [dismount and mount included] pre-race, but again, these are lessons learned for my next race.
One lesson duly learned from the previous race meant I arrived first in the start area [yes first! Looking back it seemed a little extreme]. I sat for 5 or 10 minutes composing my thoughts about the first bend and steep incline which followed it. I knew with 140 riders it was going to be pretty full on… the cycling apprentice often uses the term ‘harum scarum’ which sums it up brilliantly. Now surrounded by riders, I chatted to some who were looking to do very well in the race, I was in the third line of riders and, as no-one was seeded, I was pleased with my start position. Looking behind, I saw a mass of helmets and sunglasses, wheels overlapped as riders edged forward around me, but with my elbow sharpened I was able to hold my own.
I clipped in, checked my gearing for the start and waited…
“I WILL START YOU IN THE NEXT 15 SECONDS” here we go again i thought… WOOHOO!
The 100m from the start line to the first bend was a mass of dust, riders, tyres and elbows. I pushed as much as I could but soon things strung out as the top riders hit the steep climb and I worked hard holding wheels, deciding to keep myself just on the edge of the red zone… there was an hour to go and a shed load of climbing left to go.
I wound my way round the course, and back down into the area holding most of the crowd. The noise was incredible, the cowbells [provided free by Rouleur magazine] and shouts of encouragement made the race something really special and, as I made my way over the hurdles for the first time and away towards the long climb, I knew this race was going to be amazing.
I got to the top of the long climb, shouldered the bike [looking at the Elites later I should have just picked it up from the top tube... lessons... always lessons] and climbed the steps quickly, placing the bike back down and getting back on before riding into a long section of off-camber tight technical descents. As I passed through trees and around roots and bushes I tried to keep as clean a line as possible.
Suddenly, on a bend completely covered with acorns, I hit the deck. Suffering nothing more serious than a grazed knee and dented confidence I picked up the bike, let out some expletives and pushed on. I was determined to sprint for the line each lap, the paved section being a good place for me to make up time on other riders. Slowly but surely I found myself in a group of riders moving at a similar pace. ‘Cross is odd like that, all of a sudden you find you’re racing a group of guys, and that’s your race; the top riders may pass you but it doesn’t register. They might be also riding National Trophy or even heading to the National Championships later in the season, for you in that moment, this is your race, and it’s ON!
For lap after lap my group made its way around the course. At some points there were five of us, then as the minutes ticked by it got smaller, down to three. Each lap round Mechanic Dad was shouting times from the pits, letting me know how much longer I had to suffer. The three of us traded blows all the way to the death… with three laps to go I was cooked, the weather made me super dehydrated and soon I was caught by the other two as I had pushed on and gained some time over them. Sitting together on the long climb I was desperate to stay with them, but, as I was lighter than them I used it as a moment of respite, sitting on the back and trying to catch my breath from somewhere.
I reached the steps and the whole crowd got behind me, one of the guys I follow on Twitter was cheering for me and everyone joined in! The sound of screams, shouts and a really loud Vuvuzela as I ran up the stairs lifted my spirits no end. I managed to hold onto the two others’ wheels for another half a lap, but as we reached the start/finish straight once again my head dropped… I ground my way up the climb just after the start [that now seemed Everest-steep] and pushed on with all I could muster.
Rounding the final bend I sprinted with all I had against a guy next to me… I can’t remember who won… everything had gone a bit hazy by then.
I was exhausted, but shortly afterwards I heard the Elite riders ripping up the start line and into the woods around me, the screech of brakes screaming from behind the trees now orange with autumnal brilliance. So I changed my clothes and headed in jeans and a t-shirt to join the masses of cheering supporters now surrounding the lower part of the course.
Sitting on the soft grass with a wonderful Belgian beer, pie and frites I thought, as the pro guys made it look all too easy, that this had been a really memorable day and race. I had considered entering the novice race – after all, that’s really what I am. But as we drove home to Brighton I knew that by racing the full seniors’ course I was one step closer to earning my stripes as a proper racer. Next time the lessons learned from this race, like the other two races I’ve done, will be put to good effect… Bring it on.
Epilogue: I came 72nd out of 106 finishers, my best result to date. However, there were 140 people due to start my race, so even allowing for a few no-shows I am closer to my goal of getting among the top half finishers by the end of the ‘cross season. I will consider that a small victory for a ‘cross noob!
I am improving, and still training hard in the gym, on the road and in the fields around my Sussex home. The enthusiasm to train this hard through the autumn, soon to be winter, can only help my legs come the spring when I return to road racing.