Llanishen Calfburner – Welsh Cyclo-cross League Round 1
I entered my first ever Cyclo-cross race at the weekend: Round 1 of the Welsh Cyclo-cross league at Llanishen High School in Cardiff.
A new Challenge
I’d never done any Cylco-cross before, I’d never even seen a Cyclo-cross race and therefore had no idea what to expect. I had watched a few videos of Cyclo-cross on YouTube and had read a few articles online so did at least expect mud, muscle aches and mayhem, along with some more mud. I also expected to be pretty bad at it. When it comes to the three sports of triathlon I’ve always said I don’t have a particular strength. I tend to be above average at all three, so when you put all three together I do fairly well. That said, if there’s one sport that more people beat me at in a Triathlon then it’s cycling. there are a lot of strong cyclists out there and they are often drawn to triathlon, but I guess many of them aren’t strong swimmers or runners. This becomes evident when I go cycling with a cycling club too, as I’m not usually one of the strongest.
Unlike triathlon which is a sport that attracts people of all abilities from all walks of life, Cyclo-cross is a fairly niche sport that tends to attract cyclists. That means that even the slowest people there are likely to be pretty good cyclists. On top of that, Cyclo-cross involves lots of mud, lots of off-camber riding, lots of tight turns and some close contact racing. When it comes to cycling, either on-road or on a mountain-bike then I always get left behind on the technical sections. Give me a long climb and I tend to pull away from people, but anything downhill, twisting or technical and I’m not so good. So, cycling is my weakest link in general and technical cycling, in particular tight turns and mud are my cycling achilles heel – Cyclo-cross was always going to be a challenge for me.
A challenge, that’s probably why I was doing it. I’m unfit at the moment, haven’t done any real triathlons for a while and fancied something different. I have too many performance expectations of myself when I turn up to a triathlon, expectations that I can’t achieve at the moment. Something new such as Cyclo-cross was going to be a completely different experience. I was expecting to be quite bad at it. I was expecting to struggle. I was expecting to fall off, and I was expecting to be last (or very nearly so). With expectations like that of myself at least I was unlikely to fall short – all I had to do was turn up and start and it would be a success.
It was of course also a good excuse for a new bike – A Viner Super Prestige Cyclo-cross bike that I’d bought a couple of weeks prior to this first race.
Welsh Cyclo-Cross League Round 1
The veteran race of round 1 of the Welsh Cyclo-cross league started at 12:15 pm. It was 2 hour 45 minute drive to the venue and I didn’t want to get there too late, so I left at around 6:30am. With a stop for petrol that got me there at around 9:30am. The drive down was nice. First I drove through the mist and murk of the Cambrian Mountains as the sun was trying to break through. At times there were great views along mist clad valleys, other times there would be shafts of misty light beaming through the trees. It was a chilly morning in the mountains though with temperatures around 3ºC. I then headed through the Brecon Beacons for yet more mountain and valley views, but this time without the mist, just glorious sunshine as the temperatures rose. The sun was still blazing when I arrived and the temperature was now up around 14ºC. Surely with conditions like this there wouldn’t be too much of the dreaded mud? I registered and was surprised to see a huge cake stall in the registration tent – things were looking up! I was given a number and a timing chip but was still unsure of the entire format of the day so now wanted to take a look around and get a feel for it.
The kids races were just getting underway. There were races for:
- Under 8s
- Under 10s
- Under 12s
- Novice Women
- Veteran Men/Women
- Senior Men
- Junior Men
I rode across to the field where the action was to see loads of children all riding their bikes around a shortened course. The field was strewn with bits of tape marking out the course but it was difficult from here to tell where I’d have to go.
It seemed like a really nice family event with loads of children and parents helping them out. Most looked fairly serious about their cycling though with even many of the younger children warming up on turbo trainers in the car park.
The fact that the children were only using a small section of the main course meant that I was able to ride around a few of the other sections. It didn’t seem too bad. Lots of grass that now seemed quite dry, except for the areas still in shade. One slightly muddy section and a sand pit that I decided I was going to carry across rather than attempt to ride it.
I headed back to the car, had a drink and started to get ready. All around me very fit looking cyclist people were wandering around with spare bikes and wheels that they were depositing in the pits. They were preparing bikes and warming up on Turbo Trainers. There was none of that for me, I just pinned on my number, attached my timing chip to my ankle and got my one and only bike (without so much as a spare inner tube) off the back of the car. The youth races were now on and they were using the full length course so I watched a bit of that and bumped into someone else called Jason who was also a complete newcomer to Cyclo-cross. Like me Jason only had the one bike and no spares and had never been to such a race before. At least I wasn’t the only one!
We managed to find the start line and once the youth race had finished had time to ride around the course a couple of times ourselves. It was certainly tricky in places with some very slippery, steep off-camber corners, a few steep little rise from standing starts and of course, barriers to jump over, some tight turns and the sand pit. Jason and I rode around together, but I couldn’t quite tell how hard either of us were going. I was taking it fairly easy but it was clear that going around here at speed was going to be tough. It was going to be hard work and by the second lap it was already considerably more muddy than it had been on the first.
We lined up on the start line and made our way towards the back. None of us were here to race, we were just seeing what it was all about and getting a feel for it. I hoped it was going to be good fun, a good means of re-gaining some fitness and a way of improving my bike-handling skills / confidence. With this in mind there was no need to start at the front as I’d only get in other people’s way. There was a bit of confusion at the start though as it was supposed to be the Over 40’s, Over 50’s and the Women all going together. However, as we lined up they tried to corral us into the various groups so that we could all start with our respective age / gender groups. It didn’t quite work though and before we knew it we were off in a mass of bikes jockeying for position.
The start was fast and frantic and everyone just seemed to be streaming past me so by the time we got to the first corner I was pretty much last. I looked behind me and saw no one but Jason. We were at the back and had clearly started more conservatively than everyone else. I soon got into it though and the people in front weren’t pulling away too quickly. The first lap was a little hectic with crashes all over the place. A few people fell off in front of me on the steep, off-camber bend that I had intended to take cautiously. There was no way through with bikes and bodies strewn across the floor in front of me so I was forced to stop and jump off my bike – not such an easy thing to do on a steep slippery bank but I managed to do so and continued on my way. I’d now overtaken a few people and was going well.
As things strung out a little I was able to pick my lines better and started moving my way up through the field. I’d tend to drop back from people in the twisty sections but would catch and overtake people on the straighter, faster parts. I enjoyed the bit on the top field as it weaved it’s way up and down a little bank. There was no let up though and it was full-on action and a hard effort all the way. I looked at my watch at one point and saw that my heart rate was up at 170bpm. My Heart Rate usually only touches around 163-164bpm even when doing flat out VO2 max efforts, it was now at 170bpm and staying there – clearly I was trying hard.
Round and round we went, gradually getting a feel for the course and the amount of grip I had from my tyres. The little inclines were getting harder on each lap though and my legs and lungs were burning. I’m, still not sure of the exact format, but I think the leaders ride for 40 mins and then do one final lap. Those of us behind them finish after the leaders finish their final lap, regardless of how many laps we’ve done. However, as I crossed the finish line I saw a guy holding up a ‘2 laps to go’ sign. Still quite a way and by now my legs and lungs just wanted it to stop. I continued pushing though and overtook a few more people. I’m not sure if I was lapping tail-enders or actually gaining places but passing people always feels good. I was now onto the final lap and even managed to pick up the pace a bit. I was sprinting out of the corners, feeling a little more confident in the bends and was even starting to get the hang of the dismounting, carrying and mounting for the sand pit and barriers. Finally I took the chequered flag and started a cool down lap.
I was glad it was over with but at the same time couldn’t wait to do it again. I have no idea how I did or whereabouts I placed and the results have yet to come out. It was however a success all round. I didn’t crash, I didn’t throw up and I wasn’t last. I probably wasn’t far from the back mind you so there’s plenty of room for improvement. I need to practice my cornering skills and gain some confidence on the bike, I need to lose some weight and gain some fitness and maybe get a slightly faster start. I’ll never be up at the pointy end as Cyclo-cross was never going to be the sport for me but hopefully it’ll make me a better bike rider.
After a cool down lap I met back up with Jason, had a chat and re-lived a few moments from the race. I then returned my number and timing chip, had a cup of tea and cake and watched the seniors race to see how it was done. I’m pleased to say that there were a few people in the seniors race that were definitely slower than me, a few that were more tentative than me on the tricky sections and plenty that crashed more than me. There were of course some very fast racing snakes too!
It’s a long day out thanks to the 3 hour drive at either end of it, especially for what was 45 minutes of bike riding, but it was good fun and I’ll be signing up to some more. I do think that the sunny weather and good conditions may have lulled me into a false sense of security though. From what I’ve seen it’s usually a complete and utter mudfest and I may not fare so well in such conditions.