The Finesse of Cyclocross

The Finesse of Cyclocross

There been so much achieved throughout October that it’s been hard to try and articulate it into a worthy read without it turning into a 10-page essay.  First off was the cancellation of the L’etap London by Tour De France which had been postponed because of the weather conditions.  As I was supposed to be riding in the medium route of around 98 miles and had a hotel booked in Stratford City, there was no point cancelling it and so spent the time making the most of the weekend letting my hair down and then chose to do my own century ride on my return home.  Fortunately, Monday was better weather than the weekend, so set off early to ride the 105-mile route that was part of my cycling clubs’ annual event which, thanks to a road closure and a toss of a coin meant I ended up riding 113 miles.  

I was also keen to test out my new Aqua Helix 2.0 bib shorts and matching wind jacket that had arrived a few days earlier and it didn’t let me down. I’ve said it before; quality bib shorts are just as an important as having a correct bike fit.  The chamois in these Aqua bib shorts is made from HX8 Carbon Italian Chamois and are so comfortable and just perfect for the long ride. It is always worth investing in a pair of quality bib shorts, not just because they look nice, you need a material that performs well, whether its wicking away moisture, a fit that doesn’t restrict and a good quality chamois pad, which to me is the most important part. The chamois in the Primal shorts are thick enough to go up against even the most razor-sharp saddles due to the way the foam padding forms and moulds. Another plus for me, the aqua range matches my bike.

Next up on my list of things I had planned to do for 2018 was cyclocross, in particular coached sessions. Cyclocross is one of the oldest cycling events also known as steeplechase and takes part off road. You can read more about it on the Primal blog https://www.primaleurope.com/blogs/news/a-quick-history-of-cyclocros. In order to ride cyclocross you ideally need either a CX or CGR (gravel) bike which is like a road bike but with a noticeably wider clearance in the forks than a road bike and that has wider, sometimes knobbly tyres (like Rocket Ron’s) and using either double sided SPD pedals or flat pedals rather than road bike clip in pedals. You can try it using a mountain bike too!

I had been wanting to learn the skills needed for CX for a long time so when the opportunity came, I grabbed it (with one arm under the frame).  Matt our cycling club founder, now president and owner of FlatoutCycleCoaching aka FOCC was holding the sessions at the motor cross and Insane Terrain track a few miles up the road at Washbrooke Farm in Doddington.  Over the summer I had spent time riding around the varied course testing the gravel track, forest route and the grass and mud tracks for an event a friend is looking to hold next year so it was nice to be back on familiar territory and with a rough idea of how the sessions were going to go. Knowing Matt as we all do, riding with him and knowing his high military standards through racing for the Army CX Team we knew he was going to make us work hard, (we were a little scared in the funniest sense) but despite the eeek of it all I was really looking forward to learning how to handle the bike and learn lots of new skills.

Session 1: Finesse.

Arriving at the track for the early Saturday morning session, lots of motocross teams were setting up for their event on one of the main tracks and I was quite glad we weren’t going to be riding on the gravel but instead practising on the grassy figure of eight section with a few muddy mounds and cambers.  It was very early, very sunny but very chilly and so I layered up with the addition of my new Shasta Traceuse Hoody to keep me warm. I love the contrast of the teal lining in the hood against the black and white check.  I also like that it has thumb holes in the cuffs to keep my hands warm.  We started the sessions learning about a number of important considerations like seat position, tyre pressure and getting rid of any unnecessary things like bottle cages and tool bags.  The new seat position on my Ribble CGR had to be different from my road bike position due to having to swing my legs over the bike or to dismount while moving.  This was a weird concept that made hard work on my legs as I peddled but necessary because of the time spent getting on and off the bike. We got stuck into learning about race starts, dismounting, running mounts and carrying the bike with finesse, which in laymans terms was the way in which you handled the bike (smoothly) that would in turn help shave minutes off your race.  We finished with a mock race situation combining all the skills learned in this session. I’ll say now, I thought my lungs were going to combust. The effort required to move my bike either pedalling or carrying over bumpy muddy grassy terrain in a race situation was hard work.  Having coached girls and ladies’ football and played myself until last year, I can only compare it to match day fitness, it was like an extreme HIIT workout…but I absolutely loved it. Goodness knows how I would do in an actual CX event though.

Session 2: Where There Is Grass There Is Grip

This weekend was wet and muddy and yet perfect conditions for cyclocross, putting into practise the finesse skills we had learned in session 1 but adding in cornering and carrying the bike.  It was still a work in progress practising finesse and handling the bike smoothly, I felt so heavy handed when it came to showcase some ladylike decoram when placing my Ribble on the ground gently once I had completed an obstacle. But just as I am annoying in the office opening a bag of nuts loudly when someone is on the phone was the hollering from Matt to remember the correct way to place my bike down quietly, gently, and without bouncing.  I eventually got it and the final part of the session was a three-lap race around the course taking the bikes over the shoulder on a mount and handling tight hairpin bends which were set out using cones and poles on the now soggy churned up mud. By the end we were eating dirt and were covered in soil and grass and were so exhausted all we could do was laugh.  I looked down at my legs that were covered in mud and gravel. Where my bib shorts and Floral Explosion socks had covered me were clean lines while my face, legs and arms were a filthy, even the dog looked at me annoyed that I could return home muddier than her. It was definitely a fun yet exhausting session.

Session 3: Oh!

Arriving at Washbrooke, it was a blustery morning across the open fen and the session started off on a wobble after the wind had caught Matts bike which was leaning on a fence and blew it over. The sound of the crack made everyone go wide eyed seeing his custom carbon Trek CX bike laying on the floor. After a quick inspection it turned out to be the nipple in the spoke that had cracked inside the tyre. Matt was not happy but as any good coach would, carried on (though rattling) with the session even though I would have been wanting to cry a little and go and get it fixed ASAP especially knowing I had an important race the next day as he had, but as it was pointed out CX can be an expensive sport when it comes to bike repairs which can be a downside if you are not able to fix the problem yourself, have someone who can or have a spare bike, BUT don’t let something as ‘minor’ as this put you off having a go at this.

Having put into practise the skills from last two sessions, adjusting the tyre pressure required for the conditions it was good to see an improvement in my overall performance and bike handling with my running remount, swinging my short legs over the bike and pushing off and dismounting on the bike.  As with the other riders on the session we were all eager to keep trying new things on the bike and this session was learning how to ride off camber.  Keeping the cadence high and looking ahead, I navigated along the lumpy cambered section through the cones and down the other side and was pleased I was able to do this without keeling over.  The rest of the session was spent practising front and rear wheel lifts before trying bunny hops and finishing the session with all the skills learned from the last 3 weeks into a long 2 lap race situation, bracing myself to power away once the command was given by a 20 second window of warning.  By the end, my face had some form of brain freeze through the excursion and the cold air.  Over the course of the week I had tried to practise the bunny hops and lifts on both the Ribble CGR and the road bike.  It was also a good excuse to watch some of the cyclocross races on Eurosport to study their technique and admire my trophy bruises and scratches from the session where I had caught my self on the pedals or bruised my arm shouldering the bike.

Session 4: That’s a wrap

Unlike other parts of the UK that were engulfed in heavy rain all week, for our last session we had smug sunshine.  It was so warm it was like summer which was great for mid-October and so decided to wear my Polkaline Jersey. As a sport cut jersey, its less restricting than a race fit jersey so fitted well enough to throw yourself and your bike around with ease.  With the amount of use this jersey has had over the last 2 years it still looks as good as new too.   After warming up riding around the track, practising riding off camber or bunny hops the guys were sweating, I was glowing (that’s my attempt at being more ladylike). Thinking we had practised all there was for this course we were apprehensive when Matt then showed us the next stage in the session which was learning the art of dismounting while moving half way up a camber.  We all had a go at it and it was one of those things that looked easier when he did it than when I tried.  There were a few shrieking moments from myself and Tracey (the only other female in the group) as we tried not to bottle it every time we rode up the base of the muddy mound trying to step through, unclip and dismount on the up, shouldering the bike to carry it while running, over the mound placing the bike down with finesse and then remounting on the move making sure the pedals were kicked back and in position ready to push on along the course. By the time we had mastered that part we were ready for the next bit, riding up a much bigger mound and descending in the correct position that had been demonstrated yet again, effortlessly by Matt along the dusty camber to the jaw dropping whisper from Barry and Vince that Matt really was a God as the other guys agreed in awe and harmonious sync (honestly you guys!).   It was time for me to have a go at this steep descent, although looking at it was less intimidating at the bottom than when up the top. From the bottom it was like a mole hill, at the top it was like Ben Nevis and I was ready to scream a big girl scream on my way down.   I’m a little apprehensive on a downhill thanks to the memory of me at 5 years old flying down a slope on my chopper bike trying to chase my dad on his racer and going over the handle bars after pulling on the front brake at full force.  The memory of my big fat lip, wobbly tooth and scabby nose still sticks with me but then if you didn’t at some point pretend you were a stuntman as a kid did you even have a childhood…If I wasn’t falling off bikes, I was falling out of trees.

Taking a long ride up to the big mound was hard going as the earth was quite dry and dusty, trying not to slip I reached the top by keeping the cadence high and made my way along the bank to the other side thinking of the foot and pedal positioning and my body and arm positioning that Matt had demonstrated to us, then whoosh…. down I went before flipping off the bike and rolling in a heap of grass and nettles. While rolling I could see Matt running towards me to see if I was okay.  Quickly getting up I fell about in a fit of laughter listening to the heckling from the others about having to be the most dramatic.  Dusting myself down I picked up my bike and realised I had buckled my back wheel.  Fatboy had managed to bend his bottom bracket earlier in the session falling on the camber so it was fortunate I could use his rear wheel and carry on to complete the session and it was good to see the youngest member of Chatteris Cycling Club, Lewis, Matts 8 year old demonstrating his fearless bike skills (in-between doing the floss) and showing the group how he has progressed in his CX technique through coaching and racing in the youth section of the Eastern Region League

Finishing the final session with the long two lap race, Matt definitely made us work to our max, watching each of us as we gave it our all, racing the bikes around the course while encouraging us and reminding us on technique but it all goes out the window when you know someone is about to get by you and the sound of laughing and screaming from myself and Tracey as we raced to the finish line was funny, hard going but again satisfyingly exhausting.

The combination of riding on a wider tyre at a pressure of around 30+psi in the wet and mud, combined with a lower seat position, trying to shoulder and run with the bike was tough. Learning to dismount and carry the bike around a corner with finesse and remount was great fun and one skill I enjoyed practising. The skills learned were invaluable and was something we all had so much fun doing that we felt a bit sad it was all over.  We all agreed we would all like to continue with more sessions and to take part in a race event eventually.

With the Cyclocross Eastern Region League already halfway through the season there is still an opportunity to attend or watch at least one to get an idea on what to expect in the women’s section.  In the meantime, it is a case of practising everything I have learned over the next few months and making the most of weather changes (muddy is good).  Cyclocross has got me hooked and I can’t wait for more of these coached sessions to then go ahead and take part in an official event.  It has also had me considering the level of fitness required for this and as mentioned earlier its like match day fitness, even if there is a good level of fitness already in you, you have something to work towards as it felt like an intensive HIIT session but one that saw improvement in fitness quickly even over the space of 4 weeks.  If you get a chance to have a go, I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a lot of fun…..a lot of big kid fun.

Meanwhile I best crack on with some training runs having been accepted through the ballot to run my 3rd London Marathon in 2019. Why do I put myself through these things…because I am a sucker for a challenge?

So until next time ride safe, keep warm and Ride Primal