Here is a brief history of my experience of riding off-road:
- Zipping across the grass at Hove Park to use the public toilets after too much Leffe whilst watching the racing on a Friday evening.
- Pushing an old bike up a big hill in Woodingdean, whilst swearing incessantly at my then-boyfriend whose stupid idea it was to go that way.
- Slightly drunken 2am short-cuts across parks in Brighton.
Now that you know what an expert I am, let’s talk about all the top-spec bikes I’ve spent thousands on.
I’ve ridden 4 bikes in my adult life:
- Lady Bike. Inherited from my mother. Used for shopping (it had a basket), and occasional seafront spins. Stolen from outside my flat in 2011.
- Rust Bucket. Donated by a friend after my other bike got nicked. It didn’t much like changing gear, and eventually ended it’s days on that hill in Woodingdean.
- Claud! My first proper road bike and the best thing that ever happened to me (no, really). Lover of Sussex roads.
- Annie the Single Speed. A long term loan from my favourite bike mechanic. Rarely leaves the city.
So, as you can see, I’m well equipped for a foray into the muddy world of cyclocross……
Having been to my share of CX races as a spectator or helper, I decided it was probably time I gave it a go myself. There’s something about the atmosphere around cyclocross racing that appeals to me far more than road racing. Yes, it’s a proper competitive sport, and at a high level there’s nothing particularly light-hearted about it. But with the existence of events like Muddy Hell, City Cross and races like White Chalk Hills CX, it’s obvious that there’s a really fun side to the sport. (Also, there often seems to be beer.)
Riding Cyclocross really is the best fun you can have on a bike. Road riding is all about style, finesse and panache, the history and the suffering. Cyclocross is about the fun, suffering, mud, friends and beer.
Mark Tearle, after Muddy Hell 2012
The perfect opportunity presented itself in the form of a women’s CX rider development session, at Herne Hill. The session is aimed at novices, and you can even hire a CX bike as part of the cost of the day, which is only £6. BARGAIN. I booked in with my friend Monika, taking comfort in the fact that she is also a total newbie.
The ‘cross course at Herne Hill is being developed at the moment – and it’s starting to look brilliant. Whilst they’re still digging bits of it the mud is more churned up than usual, and thanks to the rain we’ve had recently the mud is also more….muddy. Getting muddy doesn’t bother me – in fact I really like it – but keeping my bike upright in the mud does worry me. Especially when the bike you’ve borrowed doesn’t really fit you, and the brakes are mostly there for decoration.
I am always a bag of nerves when it comes to new things. If you asked the me from 2 years ago if she would like to go on a CX training session, she would have laughed loudly, told you to piss off, and poured a gin (I will probably still do the third one of those). The 2013 edition of me is a bit better at trying stuff, especially if it’s on two wheels, but still gets just as scared.
It felt completely alien and unnatural riding a bike in thick mud, over bumps, down slippery slopes and through trees. After 5 minutes I considered running away and giving up (no change there). Then I thought about how terrified I used to get going down fast hills on my road bike, and that after doing it lots of times it stopped being scary and started being the best fun ever.
The first time around the course I stopped and pushed my bike countless times. “A BUMP? I CAN’T RIDE OVER THAT!”. The second time I got off the bike slightly less. I even rode a medium sized bumpy-humpy-jumpy-thing and squealed with excitement when I didn’t fall off. By the third time, I was no less scared, but actually starting to enjoy bits. The concentration involved in staying upright is far, far more than when riding on the road. I’m glad there were no cameras, because I dread to think what kind of faces I was pulling.
There is one very steep section on the course, it’s only a couple of metres, but it’s short, sharp and slippery in equal measure. Going up it was fine…with little to no grace I’d jump off the bike and run up it. Then the instructor said we were going to go around the course in the other direction, which meant going down it. I will save any build up or suspense – I didn’t ride down it. I was too terrified. Next time I will be courageous. Maybe. Monika rode down it and ended up on the floor. She is a braver woman than me, and I salute her and her very muddy arse.
I was very aware of how painfully slowly I was travelling 90% of the time. Had I been going faster I wouldn’t have had to get off the bike so much – hitting thick sections of mud when you’ve got some momentum going is always going to be easier than dragging the bike through it at walking pace. So, I need to get braver, which means going faster, which means riding more of the course, which means having more fun. Sounds simple enough – I best get practising.
Today I ache all over. It’s the good kind of ache, though – the kind that reminds you that you didn’t spend your whole weekend on the sofa.
So, in conclusion: cyclocross is utterly stupid. It’s really hard, and really scary, and you’d have to be an idiot to do it. And I think I’m going to do it again very soon.
(There is a second women’s cx session at Herne Hill in December, as well as a men’s one. There are details here, if you want to borrow a bike then you need to book in advance.)