With no triathlon or time trial scheduled for this weekend, I finally ran out of excuses not to toe the line at the local summer cyclocross series being held at Marlborough College. I missed the entire 2017/18 winter ‘cross season due to some issues with selling and buying bikes, so I was reasonably keen to justify having a cyclocross bike (or two…) in the shed.
The race series (this was three of four, so had already missed the first two races due to travel and time trialling) is organized by The Marlborough Bike Company, a friendly new bike shop. The races all take place within the grounds of the prestigious Marlborough College. As a summer series, the predominant surface was grass, although the course designers had taken the opportunity to create some tight technical sections as well as punchy climbs.
I took the bike ‘as was’, fitted with the standard Schwalbe X-One Allround tubeless tyres (I have had mixed views on these tyres, which seem quite fragile on the stony trails up on Salisbury Plain). I had not tested these tyres on grass before, but I didn’t think it would be worth the cost of getting some specific grass tyres for what might be just one race.
I was allocated a slot on row two of the start grid and after a bit of a race briefing and back-chat, it was time to go. Although I got clipped-in to the pedals okay, I was ill-prepared for the ferocity of the start. For what was going to be a 40+ minute race, the guys around me were all going off fast!
We negotiated the first few corners without mishap and it didn’t take too long for the 25-man field to thin out. What surprised me most was that I was losing a place here or there on the longer straights. As a Time Trialist, I thought I had good power and that I was more likely to be losing ground in the more technical sections (accurate brake control and cornering skills are arguably a little less important in time trials!). But I was wrong, and it seems some of the guys around either just had more power or were willing to dig deeper on the straights, knowing they’d get a small rest through the corner.
Within a couple of minutes of the start, my heart rate was already up at 92% of max, so there’s no doubt I was trying…
As the last race of the day, the course was a little cut-up already (although nothing like it can be at winter races) but on the whole there was good grip on the grass and the tyres were biting reasonably well. I was impressed with how they dug in on some of the climbs, only losing traction on the really slippery stuff or when I got too much weight over the front of the bike and unloaded the rear. My lines through the corners left a lot to be desired, however, so a lot more practice required there!
By 20 minutes, I was pretty tired (I’d had a big training week, that’s my excuse!) but with 20 minutes or more left to go I tried to just treat the race as another training set and get some practice on the corners and climbs. It was fairly lonely with just 25 of us spread over a 1.5km loop. I made a few overtakes and laps of slower riders, but as I was about a minute into lap nine, I heard the ‘lap bell’ go off behind me.
I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I didn’t want the embarrassment of being lapped by the leader, like I was in my first-ever CX race back in 2016. On the other, I’d happily do one less lap!
The rain that had been on and off all morning started again. In the immortal words of Peter Kaye, it was “that fine rain that really soaks you through”. Into the second half of the lap and the words I didn’t want to hear: “leader coming through”.
I moved to the outside of the track to give him priority and then tried to take back in behind and see what I could learn. What I did learn was that keeping with him wasn’t that difficult. Why then had he managed to put 1.5km on me over the space of 40 minutes? I guess it’s just tiny increments – better lines through corners, faster acceleration out of them, slightly later braking. It was good to sit behind him for a bit and just see the lines, braking points etc.
I crossed the line just behind his arms-raised victory. I guessed that was my race done as well, but as I was overtaken on the bell lap, I wasn’t 100% sure, so put an extra lap in just for fun! (it turns out I didn’t need to do the extra lap and it wasn’t recorded).
So that was it, a rather ignominious return to cyclocross racing after 18 months or more. The final result, 13th out of 25 (it was an 18+ race comprising all junior, senior and vet age groups). My worst CX result in a while! But if nothing else, hopefully a good solid anaerobic workout that was very different to my usual time trial training.
I was gutted to have been lapped during the race, but I guess at least I can take solace in the fact that the course was a super-short 1.5km and on a longer course I probably would have survived on the lead lap. It’s certainly something to aim for if I manage to compete in any of the winter races this year.
I have a couple more time trials and a triathlon to do before then. So for now, the training focus is still firmly on those. But after that I need to make a choice as to whether I just do the odd CX race over winter for fun (and keep my training focus on time trialling) or whether I actually put some training focus into ‘cross in the hopes of doing well (which for me would be finishing in the top 25%) in the series. Something to think about. But to do well in cyclocross, I suspect I need to do a few things:
1. Concentrate on ‘burst’ power and acceleration – getting out of corners quickly, digging deep on the straights and getting used to ‘micro recoveries’
2. Cornering practice! Especially tight switchbacks
3. Think about tyres – the Schwalbes are okay, but they will struggle in winter conditions. I need to find some tubeless options for when it gets really mucky
Thank you to The Marlborough Bike Company and EventRex for a fun race and congratulations to all that raced.