The traffic on the way to Round Four of the LCCA League was slow and arduous and I remember looking at a queue of drivers waiting to get into the garden centre – I wondered why no one cared about the garden centre (or even about being outside) in the week, but suddenly it was the place to be. I wondered what they were looking for and if they’d find it. But anyway we were almost at Herne Hill velodrome, the site of the 1948 Olympic Track racing, for an hour of the fastest paced action in cycle racing…
Herne Hill CC had transformed the velodrome’s infield and its surrounding scrub land into a fantastic ‘cross track – narrow and technical out the back with a fast and interesting infield, the course had something for everybody. I met up with Richard Westover in the morning to sort the bikes out and drive up to London for Richard’s first ever ‘cross race.
Nervously Richard climbed aboard my spare Boardman CX Pro for his warm up lap, but he carefully and intelligently spent his time getting to know his new alien sport. More used to Triathlon racing, where most things can be tested and organised beforehand Richard was now immersed in a world where the conditions were not just unfamiliar, but also constantly changing lap by lap.
I’d noticed this on lap two of the race when well over a hundred riders had thrashed their way through some interesting new lines that Herne Hill CC had cut out of the surrounding scrub land. You could tell straight away that it was going to be busy race – the track was getting severely beaten up as riders desperately squeezed past one another. The organisers had thought carefully about introducing a support race one hour before our race, but in the end most riders opted for the main race, meaning that by lap three we were already lapping some of the slower racers, which didn’t do much for everybody’s nerves and/or patience.
Faster riders are easy to target on the infield section as you loop back and forth, exchanging glances across the tapes – likewise it quickly becomes apparent who’s using you as a target and whether they’re making, or losing, ground. At the halfway point I was gasping for air in the autumn sun, but was racing closely with a group of three riders. I made my advantage on the technical sections, squeezing past riders when I could, but losing ground when it came to slogging around the powerful infield.
With three laps to go, plenty of racers had fallen by the way – every time I passed the pits there were more and more riders suffering with broken chains, trashed rear mechs and punctures. With so many riders on course it was becoming difficult to find ways past them.
The lapped riders were becoming frustrated by being lapped. It’s normal to lap riders (and all riders are welcome at races), but some people really did seem to be struggling – however it was hard to be sympathetic to some of them, especially when they were trying to force their way up the inside of you into tight corners, whilst swearing at us faster riders! The thing is that there are actually lots of room for us all to play and it’s a lot safer for everybody if slower riders carefully let faster riders through and likewise if faster riders intelligently call which side they want to pass on. I found that in my rookie season it was always quite easy to anticipate how the leaders would want to pass and where they would come through when they were lapping me. As my primary school teacher told once told me, “patience is a virtue”.
Mr. Buller’s wise words had clearly not been heeded by everyone, but by the end it didn’t really matter anyway – I’d become so accustomed to passing riders in the same places that it was now second nature and I’d reached that Zen moment when you’re just riding in a tunnel. You stop thinking about gear changes and braking and you’re body goes onto auto pilot. The upside of all the traffic was that I now had a sizeable gap back to the rider behind me – the downside of course was that the rider ahead of me, that I’d been so comfortable racing with earlier on, had a similarly large gap back to me. This left little chance of the last big effort on the last lap.
As I entered the infield for the last time I could see that rider crossing the line – I must have been about 20 seconds shy of him in the end, in 19th place, with no option to attack – but that was no longer my focus. Crossing the line, not only was I sure that I’d given my all, I’d also had a bloody time. It was a moment of realisation (not a “life changing experience” or any of that bull shit but), I’d put so much pressure on myself last week and had a crap race as a result when I should have just concentrated on having fun. Don’t get me wrong, I want to race and I want to race hard, but if you’re not having fun then what’s the point right?
One of the best things I’ve found so far this year is all the friends I’ve made by helping support and engage with riders via my “guest bike”. I’ve always found Road racing very hard to break into and likewise you have to be in with the in crowd at Mountain bike races, but at ‘Cross races people seem to forget about all that bollocks and concentrate on racing their bikes. Once we’ve raced as hard as we all possibly can do, we all have a cuppa and a chat (my resounding memory of road racing from this summer unfortunately, was riders grumpily handing their numbers in at the end and jumping in their Audi’s and Mercedes without even saying goodbye to one another).
Each of the riders so far on the guest bike (Peter Douglas, Jonny Young, Richard Westover and Pete Lawrence on his own Boardman CX Team) have become close friends and the support that we give each other, as well as all our other friends, is invaluable when it comes to enjoying what we do. All of us support one another, we all pay hundreds of pounds worth of entry costs, bike repairs and transport throughout the race season off our own backs and so small friendships quickly develop into important relationships. From outside of the sport it’s hard to understand, but if you take even a small amount of time to come and watch a cross race you quickly learn a thing or two about racing bikes, as well as a few lessons in how to live. You won’t find that in the shopping centre on a Sunday.
Many thanks to HHYCC for putting on a great event, to Oskar, Richards Dad, Richards Sister, Pete, Pete’s daughter (as well as anyone else who complimented me on my beard) for the shouts. Also thanks to John at Cross-Crazy/UK Cycle Sport , Richards Dad, Oskar Scarsbrook and Dave Hayward for the photos. Finally you can see John’s video from the race here!
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