I got cross

For the past 4 seasons I've pulled out the Cross bike and thrown myself into a couple of B races during the season. The results are always identical - I get pummelled in the 1st race and improve a bit in the second race before packing it after the 3rd, promising to give it a better go next year.

As a result the only thing I find missing at cross races are large egos… and I quite like that.

I always start too late, everyone’s had 3-4 races under the belt and it’s a tall order not to get lapped let alone finish. This year (2015) I had a plan - a ropey plan but it’s a plan none the less.

Here it is:

  1. put in some off-road “training” over September.
  2. enter all the races I’m fit to ride.
  3. finish all races AND without getting lapped.
  4. get gridded at least once.
  5. aim to finish a race in the top 20 toward the end of the season.
  6. enter the Ulster Championships and not make a tit of myself.

Here’s what I’m starting out with. I know there’ll be additions.

GEAR: Lake MX330 shoes, light full finger gloves, base layer and club kit, few caps, 3 changes of clothes (warm up, race, dry change), baby wipes, towel, 2 litres of water (washing),
BIKE: Kinesis Crosslight 5T frame, Ambrosio Excellence rims and Zenith hubs, 32mm Michelin Mud 2 tyres, Tektro Oryx Brakes + Rim Wrangler pads, 9 speed Ultegra bits and bobs. 46 x 36 chainset. Cheap SPD pedals.
The bike was put together over a winter a few years ago from odds and ends lying about the shed. The only thing really CX specific is the frame and tyres. (see costs at end)

I’ve documented each race, what each course was like, what I learned and what progress I made and what I can take into the next race and next season if I’m still about. I’ve scored speed/mud out of a combined total of 10. The muddier the course the lower the speed and v.v. “Technical” refers to the amount of off-road “skill” required - 10 for break-neck technical - 1 for no real off-road skill required. Tyre pressures are recorded along with position and points awarded. Points are awarded for top 30 places which keeps it interesting and competitive.

CX Diary, 2015

Pre season

I can’t ride off-road for shit. I like the idea of it but in practice I’m too timid. I ride off road like I ride on-road, trying to avoiding twigs, holes, stones… everything that looks slightly dangerous. I need to be able to ride in a straight line over everything. With no real dedicated off-road course locally (or anywhere for that matter) I use Peatlands Park a few miles from the house.

The goal here is to get used to riding a mix of terrain - and more importantly to do it at speed. Peatlands is essentially a park built on a peat bog with single track, bark paths, grass, lots of shin-deep leg sapping muck. There are bits where the bike has to be carried, lots of roots - essentially it’s got it all, in abundance.
There’s a 10km trail looping around the outskirts of the park - roughly the length of an average race. Takes around 45 minutes to cover it all. It’s ideal CX terrain. I’ve put in 3 sessions per week over September in the run up to the 1st race. Let’s see if there’s any payback.

Round 1: Lurgan Park

It seems a lot of people have also made plans. 1st race of the season usually attracts 30-40 riders. 100 have entered for Lurgan park.  With no gridding all 100 riders are stretched across the park in one long line waiting for the gun. Think of the battle scenes of Braveheart mixed with the chariot race of Ben Hur and you’re close. The 1st corner ramps up to a section of banks and planks - it takes 1 minute for everyone to file through this section. Chaos but brilliant.

Speed: 8 - the course was fast, not necessarily me.
Mud: 2 - firm flowing course with some brutally tough switch backs on a steep bank at the back of the park.
Technical: 2 - nothing that called for much off road ‘skill’. A quick down ramp saw a lot of riders separated from their bikes at speed and with a fair bit of altitude.
PSI: 35 x 2 (could increase this to 40, 42 as course was firm)
Position: 46/100
Points: 1 (for finishing)
What I learned: Brutally hard from the off - nothing really prepares you. Pre race training helps - a lot. Finished without getting lapped. That’s one box ticked. Still not near fit enough. Skills nowhere near good enough but a massive improvement from last year.
Verdict: happy with that.
Upgrades: bike held up OK.
I’ve started training with the Island Wheelers in Windmill Wood on Thursdays - it’s a tough technical course that appears in Round 3.

Phoenix Trofee:

Not a race I was looking forward to. I’ve seen races here before and they always look tough. Lots of off-camber corners with photographers (vultures). 
A good splash of rain on race day meant it got slippy but not sloppy. The lack of a MTB race meant it didn’t get too cut up either
Sand featured heavily with 10-15m sand pit followed by a section of steps. I could hear my rims grind down to the tubes everytime I touched the brakes. Clipping back in was impossible. Fell on 1st lap and lost 10 places instantly but managed to claw them all back eventually. It’s a rooty gnarly course in and around the start/finish area where lots of riders came off.
Speed: 5
Mud: 5
Technical: 5
PSI: 35 x 2
Position: 37/90
Points: none (separate competition not part of the league).

What I learned: good brakes mean you hold your speed and can brake late.  I’m braking too early and scrubbing off too much speed into corners because I’ve shit brakes. 1 second a corner probably equates to 60 seconds per lap. That’s a lot of time. Sand needs power, steady, high cadence and a good deep furrow - managed OK.
Verdict: Happy with that - great racing and course. Atmosphere always brill on this course.
Upgrades: brakes need looking at. Ordered CX90 Cantis with some Koolstop Dura Pads. £60

Round 2: Necarne, Irvinestown

Bit of a trek up here today but a fantastic looking circuit, it’s dry if a bit cool. Didn’t fit brakes - not before a race day. So riding with practically no brakes - a firm, flat(ish) course meant brakes weren’t a major issue (apart from break-neck bank). Strange surface through horse arena and also a dozen steps to hawk the bike up. Looked bad but rode fine. Great twisty section in front of House to the finish - in the wet it would be a completely different course.
Speed: 9
Mud: 1
Technical: 3 - firm and fast.
PSI: 40 x 2
Position: 27/80
Points: 5

What I learned: Tighten cleats regularly - right cleat came loose and couldn’t clip out or clip in at will. A real pain.
Verdict: Got my first gridding of the year! That’s another box ticked. Remember to take your feckin’ scarf off before the race (Boilin’). CX starts are possibly the most chaotic thing you may ever experience on a bike - play the hand you’re dealt, try and hold your position as there’s always opportunity to move up during the race.  Recognise your own race early and get stuck in - play to your strengths.  Great race - right to the finish. Some superb battles right throughout the race. Inching closer. Picked up points too!!! (top 30). Equipment does take a bit of a severe beating from race to race - need to keep on top of it all.
Upgrades: bike held up OK but brakes need changed ASAP. My bars are shit - not compact enough. 100% riding on the hoods can be a bit sapping.

Round 4: Windmill Wood, Dungannon

a place I grew up in and know well. Raced here a few times and died a horrible death each time. Brutally hard course - probably the toughest and most technical of the whole series. Practiced the new course in the weeks leading up to the race. Quietly confident about getting close to that top 20 place early in the season as I can see technique improving slowly. This course is out to stop you - loads of options to lose time, fall and banjax yourself and the bike. It’s a course that favours really good technique as opposed to brute force and power but brute force and power is needed as it’s deceptively hilly.
Speed: 6
Mud: 4
Technical: 8
PSI: 40 f 35 r (found tyre was rolling off front when coming at angle onto tarmac)
Position: DNF/80 - calf strain on 1st running section. Thought it would ride out. Got worse on lap 2. Bailed after lap 3.
Points: 0

What I learned: never be quietly confident. Warm up off the bike as well as on. Stretch everything well before the race. Should have fitted studs for the running section - a slip probably caused the strain. Get in the car and go straight home - not finishing isn’t worth sharing with anyone.
Upgrades: Brakes worked great - if noisy as hell. Front brake squealing like an intercity express train. New bars (from the shed) and bar tape, £10. New bars are just as bad as the old ones, I can see more money spent in the coming weeks. Pedals also need looking at - mud clearance is a factor. On 2nd lap I couldn’t get clipped back in and lost 5 places easily. M PD9000 - £60
Verdict:shite, shite and more shite! Pulled calf muscle doesn’t bode well for following weekend. Feet up and see how it goes midweek.

Round 4: Seapark, Larne

Position: DNS: the calf pull didn’t heal in time.
What I did: A light cycle on the Wednesday went OK. Did some offroad stuff on Thursday - went OK. New pedals feel so superior - incredibly so. Equipment is a major factor compared to road cycling.  Flatted after 2 miles on Friday and walked back. Calf held up OK. Did small kids cycle on Sat and thought - “I’ll give this a good test” out of the saddle, pulled up and it snapped again. Sat spent with ice and leg elevated. Square one. I’ll be missing round 5 too. Need to keep up longer cycles and introduce running early in the Sept. That’s 3 races lost on account of a poor warm up! Big lesson there. STRETCH STRETCH STRETCH and light running earlier in the year.

Round 5: Bangor

All that was missing form this course was a diving board.
Position: DNS. Calf not great. Few small tests off the bike.
Upgrades: New loofah for the shower (£5) - best upgrade all year: Bottom bracket gone £25 : £25 Ambrosio Wheel Equilibrator (brass plate) £12!!  FFS! Tighten everything.

Round 6: Craigavon

Lots of stretching before leaving the house. Did a good warm up with lots of running. Felt slow but confident I could finish at least.
Mud bath of a course with lots of running. Uphills were unrideable - put the calf to a good test. 6th row on grid, that was a huge advantage!  Started very sluggish. Fitness totally gone, spat out the back immediately but picked up the pace after the first lap. The back section of the course was firm and give good opportunity to start moving a few places through the field. HR got up and going eventually and I felt good enough to finish top half at least.
Avoided the steps on the second lap by taking the bank to the side - pinched a kerb and flatted instantly. Went straight to the car!
Speed: 3
Mud: 7
Technical: 5
PSI: 40 f 35 r (more pressure in rear would have stopped flat - but needed for mud).
Position: DNF/70 - flat.
Points: 0

What I learned: definitely get stuck back in - as all interest had almost completely gone. Lack of fitness means nothing goes smoothly. Leg held up which was the biggest plus. Stick to the course and don’t be a smart arse. One mistake and it’s all over. Set of tubs would not have pinched flat but I’d still have made a mess of it somewhere along the line. Back on track anyway. Fitness is like a game of poker, the chips are hard won but very easily lost.
Verdict: Disappointed not to finish or get more of a race but happy to be back at it.
Upgrades: new tube. £5.

Round 7: Ormeau Park, Belfast

So after 4 weeks of limping, DNFs and DNSs I’m off to Belfast and Ormeau Park and expecting a damn good kicking. A new course this year with less single track and more open grass areas. The amount of rain falling this season has seen conditions getting heavier and heavier each week. The course was certainly on a par as most technical so far - lots of corners, break-neck descents, climbing, running and muck. No real opportunities for stupid mistakes.
Tried to make up for lack of fitness by being a smart arse (again) and cutting corners, avoiding running and in the process falling over, riding into bushes, getting tape wrapped around things and being incredibly shit. As with the previous week when you try and be a smart arse things go wrong. Early on it was plain to see that riders who i was competing with 4 weeks ago are now 10-15 places ahead. If there was any doubt about the benefits of riding CX - they were plain to see. I got a damn good kicking. I enjoyed every second of it.
Speed: 3
Mud: 7 - this was more like plasticine than mud - straight out of the River Lagan. The bike ground to a halt on a number of occasions.
Technical: 8
PSI: 40 f 40
Position: 49/87 (Lapped! FFS!)
Points: 1 (for finishing)

What I learned: I learned that I was pure shite, that a few weeks without a full race sets you back more than a few weeks. Getting frustrated doesn’t help - just need to accept what’s in front of you and deal with it honestly. There are life lessons there too.
Verdict: Disappointed to get lapped but better than last week - that’ll do.

Round 8: St. Colum’s Park, Derry

Weighed this up for a few days as it’s long oul trek up to Derry and the conditions (rain, rain, rain) hadn’t improved all week. I was fit to ride so I stuck with the pre season plan and packed up and set off early. The rain was coming in sideways over Glenshane with waterfalls springing out through every gap in the hedge.
Probably the best flowing course all season - up there with Necarne. Tough as hell. Long flat sections broken up with seriously steep down sections and uphills, massive off camber banks and a lap of the the all weather track to finish. Tons of opportunity to kill yourself. However with improving technique and fitness everything was rideable which made for a great, hard fought race. Still way, way behind the guys I was mixing it with at the start of the season. Calf went again on the run!
Speed: 6
Mud: 4
Technical: 7
Position: 20/33
Points: 10

What I learned: stick to the pre season plan - in my case “go to every race you’re fit to ride”. Support the race organisers as they put a huge amount of effort in and deserve the satisfaction of seeing people out there racing. Got that top 20 that I’d been aiming for so well worth the trip but more importantly it was a great day out on a great course with great individual battles. I need to start running again - that needs serious attention next season.
Verdict: Great day out, great course, great race, great finish and in the top 20, even though there was a small field.

Round 9: Falls Park, Belfast

Lots of talk from previous season about how good a course this was with many pushing it for the Provincial championships or even Nationals. The course had the potential to be fantastic but for a rider of such shit ability and fitness this was going to be a challenge. The relentless rain over the past few weeks had turned half the course into a thick, ankle deep soup of thick muck with the second half a blanket of leaves. The race is named “the race of the fallen leaves” - they were all stuck to me and the bike at the finish -  It was like getting tarred and feathered. I knew I was fecked from the start so I reset the goal to (a) finishing and (b) not getting lapped.
Speed: 1
Mud: 9
Technical: 3
Position: 41/60
Points: 1

What I learned: I now know why you need a second bike. Not getting lapped by fellas with 2 bikes and a team in the pits was a result for me. -  I know what a really, really muddy course feels like to race in. The car wash at the BP Petrol Station opposite the course was choc-full of bikes getting hosed down afterward! If things are going shit, just readjust your goal - never bail out.  You need to be able to run - on a course like this it’s as important as riding. I devised a new mud rating for courses.
New Mud Rating: Weight of bike before race (9kg) - weight of bike after race + mud (13kg). Work out weight gained (4kg), expressed as a percentage. Falls had a mud rating of 44.4%. I had to go back and regrade all the previous races based on this course


Verdict:  I was pure balls on the Falls but was delighted to get the bell and finish.

Ulster Champs: Maghera.

DNS - I pulled a muscle in my back the week before - ruled that race out. I went up and took some pics instead. It was a lot easier.
Here are the pics.

Conclusion: How did the pre-season check list go.

put in some off-road training over September: Yes, this paid off but starting in June would be even better - especially if you’re not racing at open level, running, competing XC or Duathlon/Triathlon.
enter as many races as I’m fit to ride: Yes - rode everything I was fit to ride.
finish all races AND without getting lapped: No - lapped in Ormeau.
get gridded at least once: Gridded in 4 races. Getting gridded doesn’t mean a great pile, it’s encouraging, indicates that you’re going in the right direction plus it’s a bit of banter getting your named called at the start line.
aim to finish a race in the top 20 toward the end of the season: Yes - top 20 in Derry… Just!
enter the Ulster Championships and not make a tit of myself: No - wasn’t fit to but did get some good pics.
Points Total: 18 (I shook up the world, I shook up the world!!!!!)
Cleaning the bike eventually becomes chore, especially when it takes longer than the race took.

So where now? I’m just going to mosey about the club rides for a bit and get some enthusiasm back again. You lose touch with the club very quickly but it takes little effort to hook back up and start enjoying the bike again. Spring will hopefully see the start of running. I need a better engine all round. A few duathlons wouldn’t do any harm. Club races should keep things ticking over and maybe a few open road races toward the end of the summer… but I doubt it - the interest really isn’t there. New bikes are always the answer to every ill. I’ve had 4 years out of my current frame and it owes me nothing. Hope to encourage a few more club members to line up next year as well - although having read this they might decide against it.
Things start again 1st March - starting with a re-read of this diary.

Entry Level Costs:

So how much would it cost to get into the sport - real entry level costs.
This includes the bike and the costs of racing a typical season.

Bike: I’d built the bike up in 2012 for about £350 from a 2nd Ebay frame + tyres, 9 speed bits + training wheels in the shed. I’m certainly no bike mechanic but try and bodge as much as I can to keep costs down plus it’s all good to know. I’ve learned that equipment is important, more so than on a road bike but only if you really want to compete - a mixed bag of odds and ends from the shed certainly doesn’t stop you entering a race and competing.
Race fees: 10 x £12 £120
Limited Competition License: £60
Upgrades: Brakes £60, tape £10, pedals £60, pads £10, Tubes £5 (£165), BB £25.
Total: Call it £350

So all in all about £700 in total… give or take - throw in £50 for diesel over the season
rounding it up to £750 in total.

Not bad for a good rideable bike that’ll do you for years and 3-4 months of brilliantly organised events, great atmosphere and competition.

Cyclocross is unique and it’s honest (apart from the odd motor here and there). To be a great cross rider you need superb bike handling, incredible power/fitness and good maintenance/knowledge/selection of your equipment - all 3. To win a road race you don’t necessarily need the bike handling or for that matter the quality equipment. There’s no “sitting on a wheel” or “finishing in the bunch”. It’s you against the course, first and foremost. There’s loads of shoulder to shoulder racing but take your eye off the course and it’s over in a fraction of a second. Times and positions are published so there’s no kidding yourself. There’s no “I rolled around in the bunch”, “I finished in the group” malarkey.  Bail out, finish last, get lapped…. it’s all up there in black and white… second by second, lap by humiliating muddy lap… for everyone to see.
As a result the only thing I find missing at cross races are large egos… and I quite like that.

Me… going fast… in reverse.

The Phoenix Trofee, Lady Dixon Park, Belfast