Readers of this blog may recall that my previous encounter with cyclocross did not end well. Rather, it ended with me freaking out about the mud and my lack of skills, throwing my metaphorical toys out of the pram, and going home after just one lap. I am, however, quite stubborn, so after I had defrosted I decided to give it another go and entered the West Lothian Clarion novice race.
I did this particular race last year. It’s a really well-run event, a day of races for juniors and novice women, with coaching beforehand. Last year I learned to corner (it was a Clarion coach that day who first taught me to look through the corner – what a revelation!). I couldn’t, however, even attempt the mounts and dismounts. When I tried to swing my leg over the bike I was convinced I was about to fall off. Since then, though, I have mastered the knack, although up until yesterday I could only do it with a nice, flat, straight approach and plenty of time to think about it!
I felt pretty good yesterday, with none of the nerves that plagued me before Plean. I’d ridden this race before, I knew what to expect, and a couple of my club mates from Stirling were there, as well as a few familiar faces from other races. The chief commissaire, Colin, is also a friend from Stirling (and he gave me strict instructions that there was to be no DNF this time!).
Yesterday’s coaching session was split into four stations, and it probably really helped my confidence that my group was sent to practice the hurdles first. A dismount with a straight approach! No problem. A bit of practice and I was flinging myself off the bike with merry abandon. The skill I had half-learnt at the coaching sessions I attended in Stirling back in November suddenly clicked. Yesterday’s coaches then told me I should learn to dismount on the other side, too, but baby steps and all that…
After two hurdles we had a session on mass starts (which I think I am gradually overcoming my fear of, my panic at Plean notwithstanding). Then it was on to some lovely muddy hairpins (I just couldn’t seem to get round one of them, so my newfound ability to hurl myself off the bike and run up the hill came in very handy). Finally there was a steep incline, which by this point was nicely churned up, followed by a pretty muddy off-camber section. More dismounting and running!
The two hours of coaching just flew by, and then there was just time to collect my timing chip, pin my numbers onto my jersey, and ride a practice lap of the course (including a bit of single track with some tree roots that I was glad to get a preview of).
Then it was time to get to the start line!
I had actually planned to start further forward, but somehow ended up nearly at the back of the grid. But I knew that the first section of the course was wide and slightly uphill, so I was able to power past quite a few people and was in the front half of the field by the time the first bottleneck occurred on a tricky corner.
Somehow everything just came together. I wouldn’t say my fear of the bike slipping was completely gone – I may have let out the odd surprised shout when I momentarily lost a wheel here and there – but it didn’t paralyse me as it has before. I think the bit of mountain biking I’ve done in the meantime probably helped; I felt I was using my weight to control the bike much more effectively than before.
After a couple of laps I was surprised, as I passed the start/finish line, to hear the announcer saying that I was in the top 20. That spurred me on! I think it was actually only overtaken once during the race, and I overtook quite a few ladies, mostly by using my new signature “tactical dismount and run like hell” manoeuvre. I even lapped a few people! I think I can categorically say that has never happened before. I know that if you’re lapping someone you’re supped to shout “rider!” and they let you past, but unless you’re right at the front of the race how are you supposed to know if the person in front of you is about to get lapped or just overtaken? I didn’t dare shout, just in case.
I learnt lots of things yesterday. I learnt that I can control the bike when it’s muddy and slippery. I got to practise some overtaking tactics (my favourite was to overtake a lady on a mountain bike just before heading into the single track, thus ensuring that the woman who was right on my tail got stuck behind her). Most of all, I learnt that cyclocross is awesome.
And in case anyone is wondering – I did manage a top 20 finish! 17th overall, and 11th senior (out of 43 finishers). Pretty pleased with that!
(And thanks to Chris, as usual, for being my driver and photographer – and also purchaser of delicious tea and cake afterwards!).