Cart, sleigh & horse: Cyclocross season reviewed

I’ve been a bit low on finding the time to blog the last few months.  In some ways the world’s moved on. I don’t need to paste a link to a video or anything on this blog anymore because the sharing thing’s taken care of by Twitter and Facebook really. But there are some things I need to record on here for my own purposes and get off my chest and into print. (Well… webby print. You could print it if you wanted – you know what I mean)

Without having had time to go through things bit by bit, I’m going to sum up my cyclocross season. If there’s any one thing that floats my boat, it’s cyclocross… for whatever reason – the sport that keeps giving with one hand and taking away with the other.  It’s cruel; it’s tough at times, grim at times, light-hearted and sociable at others. I love it and no matter what it deals out I’ll always be back for more.

My season properly ended three weeks ago.  There are more races to be run out there, but for me – struggling as I do to reconcile hobby with a busy family and work life, I finish my racing after the end of the National Trophy series. The round at Rutland Water left me with the usual sore legs, the odd bruise, and a stiff neck and back; they’re all normal really – but it’s the ‘final, final’ event – Hit the North – that has tied up an odd 2010-11 season.

Comme Ci, Comme Ça

In summary, it could have been so, so much better. It had its highs – and a good few of them, but perhaps not as many as I’m used to.  I have had to dig a bit deeper than normal to pull out the moments of deep satisfaction.  The Three Peaks was one of them – leaving things fairly late in preparation paid off and I came into the race having conditioned myself well for the atypical course. I certainly didn’t have any training fatigue or any anxiety about having under-prepared – I was just ‘ripe’ and felt great on the day.  The race itself saw an early reality check as suddenly I was doing battle with a serious mechanical and no alternative bike. (…full story here).  However, somehow managing to pull a good finishing position AND not have broken any bones seemed cause for celebration of sorts.

Celebration was short-lived.  Abergavenny two weeks later (Round 1 of the National Trophy) was a wake-up of gigantic proportions.  My first ever veterans-only race and I can say now that I was not expecting such a hammering.  I normally struggle with high speed races a bit after the endurance and technical nature of the 3 peaks, but somehow I thought I might get away with it this year… In simple terms, I didn’t.   A reasonable start was followed by an all too familiar slip down through the field until I accepted that a top 8 finish (my goal) was out of the question.  Then top ten slipped by and looking back now I was slightly humbled by my 12th place.

A longish break for me in the series next as I had decided the over-nighter and long trip to Southampton wasn’t for me (or the family!) and I managed to squeeze in a chipper – a local North West league race at Northwich.  This was a lovely day out with both girls riding the under 12s race, wall-to-wall autumn sunshine and a no-pressure race for me.  I ended up 1st veteran and 5th overall which was about right. It didn’t really matter – had a beaming smile and a great day.  Pretty faultless on the bike and engine seemed to be firing.

The cracks appear

I developed what had started to become a bit more than a niggle – a fairly incessant ache in my lower back / pelvis.  I’m still not certain what had brought it on but I was a bit uneasy going training. I crumbled when after one training session my whole right thigh went numb and didn’t stop being numb.  I went to my GP and got a physio referral and some pain killers for a back ache that was really hampering my sleep.

Luckily, there was no big race for a couple of weeks and I managed to sneak in another chipper at St Helens, where I enjoyed the first real muddy slog of the season.  I finished well again and a flying Matt Denby took the win and woke me up to the type of competition I had in the vets races.  Still – a local league’s good for morale and of course for bike handling skills so it was an enjoyable day.

Mallory ParkThe Mallory Park round of the National Trophy (round 3) was the following week. In my favour it was muddy and technical and with not too much climbing, so I could get away with spinning a small gear and hoping the back held together.  I’m not sure what happened when we started the race after two sombre minutes’ silence, but the usual lull I experience after a good start didn’t seem to happen.  I was fighting for a much more respectable 6th / 7th / 8th place and felt in control.  Eventually as the race wore on, I stayed upright whilst others around me had bad days and I finished fifth.  I was really happy even though I knew it was really only because a couple of others had bad days.  My green muds (right) had been an utter Godsend and probably enabled me to hang on in the bends that others couldn’t.

Fairly buoyed by the race, I had a spring in my step and motivation to train well the next couple of weeks.  I had physiotherapy and although a bit of traction and manipulation relieved things I still felt a bit down about it.  It’s swimming against the tide when you’re injured. It’s not an easy ride anyway in sport but having something like that is something else to weigh on your mind.

Then came the motivation I needed to make me enjoy it all without having to try – a very big, very white load of snow.

Suddenly, something new was about the place and it turned the season into a very different period.  I’d raced once in proper, proper snow (not just a course with snow on it, but a course where you can’t touch the course because it’s all snow even under your tyres) but it was a really long time ago.  The North of England CX Championships were always going to be a bit special being so near to Wheelbase HQ and at the most picturesque sporting venue you could dream of… but temperatures of -4 degrees and 5 inches of solidly frozen snow made it almost surreal looking back.  The back was generally playing up still so I didn’t put any pressure on myself – I just wanted to ride and enjoy the experience.  In the end, 5th place was okay on a course where I slipped backwards every time it went uphill (I simply couldn’t get out of the saddle with back ache)… but most of all it was just such an enjoyable race in all sorts of ways.

Peel Park CyclocrossPeel Park was next – the Bradford course has been kind and cruel to me over the years but I love it through and through.  This year’s race didn’t go my way – all my doing – because I basically over-extended myself on the first lap trying to close a gap. That was it for the next ten minutes – I watched rider after rider power past me and I could do little to stem the tidal flow.  Still – you always know you’ve raced at Peel Park and I’ve got to love it.

A shortish break again over Christmas time.  Finally got a physio sorted and some traction and manipulation helped me – over a few visits – to get the feeling back in my upper thigh.  Things like that play on your mind as well as affecting you physically.

The Yorkshire ‘chipper’ race at Todmorden is as local as they get for me, despite being over the border, and its legendary cobbled climb and long descents make it very much out of kilter with many ‘cross courses.  It’s a killer, but it’s fun at the same time (a bit of a pattern emerging, here).

2nd Jan was a cold day – and it was a relief to get racing.  I decided to ride the veterans race despite needing the extra leg-time the senior race would have provided a week before the nationals.  As things turned out, it was only 1 lap shorter than the main race, but it got me home earlier (the day before Katie’s 40th!!).  All good here.  Smooth ride with no major slippages and finished 3rd.  Great to race with Phil, too.

A pattern emerging

National Cyclocross ChampsThe national champs themselves were the typical race of the season for me.  A great course – albeit one with a few too many dead turns for my liking (but that’s just ‘cross).  The mud that I tend to like, and technical enough to not be a flat out fitness test.  But like the rest of my season, it’s the faster parts where the gaps showed – and I was simply losing wheels and pace on the open, straight, faster bits.  Despite some fairly good training (or as best as I can squeeze in in this manic life), I was just ‘there’ – riding in about 14th or 15th for much of the race before finally getting my act together on the last lap and finishing 12th.  There was a number of times when I thought to myself ‘I’m not letting this wheel go’ then watching rider after rider slip out of reach for no apparent reason.  Frustrating, but I was getting used to it!

The Rutland race is the last national trophy race in the calendar now by a sort of tradition.  The course there is one I love for its mixture of fast, tech, slippery, and downright slow parts.  It tests your flow to the limit and if you don’t flow through and out of every corner you soon see large gaps opening up in front of you.  This time round I seemed to get it right in the first lap.  A good start, and a calm demeanour seemed to make the first lap seem positively enjoyable.  Then, with the inevitability of death itself, I went ping into a simple, short headwind stretch, and I was down to 7th… then ninth… then 13th… it was like ground hog day.

Eventually finishing 12th yet again, I must admit I enjoyed every moment of the course and the race, somehow.

So the ‘formal’ part of the ‘cross season was over, and just the rather informal Hit the North race coming up in Feb, I could start to think about springtime, lambs, bluebells and things. Hit the North was ace.  Like the bastard brother of a hard, 1hour cyclocross race, the 2 hours of Hit the North were predictably harsh and unlovable.  But like the bastard brother, somehow lovable through respect at the same time.  There’s a full story here but the race was made very interesting for me due to a totally new bike to test out there, and by rock hard clincher tyres through necessity on the brick-strewn course.  Fun, but only true fun when it had stopped.  Second place sounds a bit better, but to be realistic it’s where I should have finished in the field.

So that was it.  Not that many races as usual.  No wins to cherry pick a high from, but equally nothing to get me depressed.  I rode this whole season thinking how lucky I am to be doing all this.  The friends I see… the fellow competitors and combined mutual respect with healthy piss-taking.  It’s a wonderful thing to be involved in.  I love my cycling and cycle racing, but ‘cross still does it for me more than anything else, somehow.

That said, it’s a lovely feeling too to put the bikes out to graze for the summer and move on to road and MTB riding again.  I heard a great Yiddish proverb very apt at this stage in my cycling year:

In winter, the cart rests, in summer, the sleigh rests.  The horse has no rest.