Ian Osborne tries his hand - and legs - at the fast and usually muddy sport of cyclo cross
Things are taking a turn for the surreal. While it may be getting dark, I can also feel a heavy, black blanket smothering me. I guess this is the start of what people call burying yourself, getting in the hurt box or digging deep. Whatever you want to call it, my vision's of the tunnel variety and the sides of my world are getting just a little too claustrophobic for comfort. Knowing there are only a couple of laps left, I ignore this dark demon and push harder on the pedals, fighting myself. I can't believe I've become my own nemesis. As everything tightens further, I lock into this zone of pure hate and suffering, embracing the moment.
The line in front is barely visible as the sun falls further and the evening turns into night. I'm so far up the sore tree I'm swaying from the highest branch, but I know staying upright is of the utmost importance right now. My aching body tries to stay at one with the bike as I roll into the 180-degree corner trying not to slide in the now muddy and slippery main line. As the bike straightens, I push everything into turning the pedals. My quads scream in agony but they're just going to have to deal with it because right now, in the latter stages of a cyclo cross race, I certainly don't have time for stunts, moaning muscles or backing off. Once again, those good chaps at Cycling Plus have called on their favourite little stunt chimp and thrown me into a pond of underfed piranhas right before dinner.
Cyclo cross has been one of those sports that seemed a little crazy to me. If you want to ride offroad, surely a mountain bike is the perfect tool for the job? Anyway, I'm always happy to try anything in the name of work, so a roadstyle bike it'll be. Those nice blokes over at Kona have leant me a Jake the Snake, their top of the range cross rig and a bit of a legend in this world, I'm told.
Off-road road bikes
So what is this cyclo cross malarkey? Well, it's like cross country mountain bike racing, only on a road-style bike with chunky knobbly tyres, canti brakes for extra stopping power and a slightly more upright riding position compared to the road. It takes place from early autumn through winter, and the season is all done by the time spring arrives. The races themselves usually have lots of short laps around a mile or so in length, and race times vary between 45mins and an hour. So it's balls out and redlining all the way.
The image of cyclo cross is that it's more about getting off and slinging your bike over your shoulder and running up steep slopes or over tough obstacles than riding. While this does happen, the reality is that it's rare and if it does go on it's for a short time only. Luckily, the bikes are light. The courses are technically less demanding than mountain bike routes, and usually take place on grass in parks or school playing fields. So don't be put off thinking you need to be some sort of über biker to race.
As for the history, 'cross goes back to the turn of the last century when a young French army private by the name of Daniel Gousseau - who later became secretary general of the French Cycling Union - was cycling through the forests with his horse-mounted general. Enjoying the ride so much, Gousseau ended up inviting friends along to ride the same trails. It wasn't long before the testosterone got the better of them and impromptu racing took place. This led to organised events and cyclo cross racing was born.
While this French indulgence was relatively underground, its importance grew when Octave Lapize credited his 1910 Tour de France win to this offseason offroad sport. In 1924 the first international race took place in Paris but it wasn't until 1950 that the first World Championship race took place. This was won by 1947 Tour winner Jean Robic. Since then, a truly international scene has grown up around the world. Even seven times Tour winner Lance Armstrong was known to race cyclo cross during the off-season.
Lapping it up
Armed with a less than subtle neon orange bike and my usual cycling kit, I have everything I need. The weather appears to be playing ball, with cloudy greyness as we arrive at the Rugby event, the car park bustling with people and bikes, and race chatter filling the air. Being new to this, I'm keen to get out and ride the course to see what I'm in for, and to see what it's like riding offroad on what looks and feels essentially like a road bike. A quick lap round and all's good. There's some singletrack, plenty of grass, a whole load of taped 180-degree switchbacks and a slightly technical elevated section.
I feel a whole load happier having ridden the bike and the course. I won't go so far as to say confident because I haven't ridden any of the sections at speed. I spot a queue of riders hanging around a table in the corner of the field and join the line to sign on. Instantly, I feel the tension as the riders don't say too much. Apart from a small greeting among friends, a quick laugh and joke, I can see these boys and girls mean business and hammering bikes is all they're truly concerned about. Then it starts to rain, nothing heavy but enough to add some slippery fun to the proceedings.
Within a few a minutes and with the formalities taken care of, I line up with about 60 other riders, both male and female and covering a massive age range, ready for the off. I decide not to hammer it too hard in the sprint-style start to avoid having an accident and possibly heart failure. Everything goes quiet and the tension hits new levels. Suddenly, the high-pitched shriek of a whistle fills the silence and a blur of riders pull away at warp speed. I have no choice but to follow those in front and I'm up out of the saddle and cranking like a loon. The first corner is carnage with no one wanting to give an inch. I lean on someone inside of me while several others are all leaning my way. We're so close I can smell both the sweat and the testosterone being given off by this pack of rabid animals. Somehow we all get round upright and in one piece. While others are giving it loads, I decide that a sensible race is the way to go. Too much too early will leave me clawing for life in the later stages. I suck up my macho pride and let many ride off ahead.
As we hit the singletrack, my mountain biking past comes in handy. While some struggle, I hit the lines and keep the Snake pedalling at warp speed. At the end I'm spat out into a tight 180-degree corner. I go wide then nip inside, taking a few riders in the process. Even though I'm trying to take it easy my breath deepens and my heart pounds. I back off a little in the open grass section, trying not to get too excited at passing a couple of riders. It's still early doors, I keep reminding myself.
The course flows around several rugby pitches before we hit a big taped section; this is essentially a right-angled corner followed by a series of tight hairpins. There's certainly not much room for passing.
Out of the last hairpin I pin it, catching several riders, though unable to pass any as the track narrows. We hit another hairpin and I decide to give it a little in the vain hope that I might pass these riders in the next wide straight. I make my move before the next turn but it leaves me panting like a dehydrated dog. Pleased with myself, I feel great but have to keep myself in check. The competitor in me is aching to chase down the guy in front, while logic is screaming at me that it hasn't even started to get hard yet, so be patient.
As we head towards the elevated section I'm shocked to see a rider get off and carry his bike across, delaying the chasing pack. As I hit it a bunch has formed as a consequence, and with no room for passing there's no choice but to slow down. As we drop off this section around a tight 90-degree bend the pack breaks up as the riders ahead zoom off at silly speeds. By the time one lap's complete my legs are burning, my heart pounding and I'm gasping for breath. So much for sensible pacing. For the next couple of laps little happens apart from catching the odd rider. I don't open the throttle too much, trying to keep things steady. A quick look at my watch tells me we're over halfway, which means things will start to get harder soon. The pack of riders in front certainly looks to be paying the price so I decide to make my move. Off the elevated section and across the open grass, I change down and push on the pedal. I pass them all and hit the right-hand uphill turn out of the saddle. I'm past, but they've jumped straight on my tail.
Not happy being train driver Osborne, I think fast and hatch a plan on the hop. Into the singletrack I keep it steady but not too fast to give my legs a break. The pack sticks to my rear tyre. Into the tight 180, I ride the standard line but instantly drop it down a few clicks, stand up and give it stick. I build a gap as the others are still in the turn. I have no choice but to suffer if I'm to stop them getting back on the express. I ride hard for the rest of the lap and open a good lead. By the end I'm paying for it, though, and try to bring things back to steady without giving any ground.
Burn, scream, ache
For the next couple of laps I continue to ride steadily while keeping an eye on the chasing pack. Along the way I pass a few more riders and lap some of the slower ones. Fatigue grasps my body and pain rises through my burning calves into my thighs and up to my screaming shoulders and aching arms, which are realising suspension really does smooth things out. And let's not forget the remote parts that I didn't even know could hurt. I just want the aching to stop, but at the same time this is a place I like to be - embracing the challenge.
With darkness kicking in, I hear a more than welcome bell as I pass the finish line and know that there's only one more lap to go. I decide there's nothing left to do but give it my all to make sure no one catches me, and in some strange sort of way hope that I might catch just one more rider before it's over. Along the way I pick off several of them and keep trying to dig deeper. Whether I'm going quicker or need to do this to keep the same pace I don't know. In fact, right now I just don't care. All the obvious lines are muddy and more slippery than a snake's belly, as I just keep hitting those pedals and reminding myself not to crash.
All's going well when suddenly I hear the noise of bikes. Surely the chase group hasn't got me this close to the end. Please, no. Fortunately it's the lead group. I'm gutted to be lapped so close to the end but pleased I've held off the chasers. I fall across the line shattered, haggard and aching from head to toe. Strangely, a silly grin fills my face and someone switches on the endorphin button. I couldn't be happier and have fallen in love with this fast and frenetic sport. Cyclo cross is great. The fact that it has such broad appeal to road, mountain and BMX riders, all of whom can bring their skills to the table, makes it unique. It's a cheap, easy and good way to stay fit while keeping the racing fever over winter.