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Cyclocross for the uninitiated

Cyclocross for the uninitiated

Fiona Russell (aka Fiona Outdoors) is a Planet X sponsored rider and blogger, who you may remember from her heroics is reaching and racing the World Age Group Triathlon Championships in London this last summer. Now, she's taking her first steps into the heady and ultimately addictive world of Cyclocross.

Cyclocross is easily one of the fastest growing winter sports in Scotland, and perhaps in the rest of the UK (although I have not seen the stats). Up north, where rain, off-road trails and enthusiastic cyclists are in plentiful supply, this mud-and-madness cyclocross race has taken off.

In the last decade, races have grown from total entries of a few dozen to many hundreds. Over the past few years, several categories, including kids, women and Vet men have suddenly exploded.

As Davie Graham, secretary of the Scottish Cyclocross Association, told me: It's been amazing. Suddenly everyone has a cyclocross bike and fancies giving cyclocross racing a go.”

Davie reckons there are several reasons why cyclocross has grown. He says: Cycling in general has become very popular and this has led to lots more people looking for a way to stay cycle-fit in winter. Cyclocross is great because the events are short but challenging and perfect for winter conditions.

In addition, there are many more men taking up cycling. Cyclocross has witnessed something of a MAMIL-isation with the Vets 40-plus age group being the biggest growing category.

And on top of this, many people are buying cyclocross bikes to cope with increasingly pot-holed roads. The cyclocross bike is a great choice for commuters. Then, once they have the bike, cyclists realise they can take part in cyclocross events.

Newbie cyclocross rider

I am in the third category. I bought a Planet X XLS Cyclocross bike to cope with the poor condition of Glasgow's roads. I thought I would also use the bike to get into town on the canal and river cycle routes. Then, as soon as it arrived, a friend suggested I give a cyclocross race a go.

I am a committed roadie and have rarely ridden off-road, even on a mountain bike. But I love a new challenge – and I happen to like the mud and wet of running in winter. I imagined that I might also enjoy the mud and wet of cyclocross. My problem is that I have very little technical skill on off-road trails but I was told I would be fine. Just give it a go, my friends encouraged.

My first race was at Falkirk, in central Scotland. This is a Scottish Cyclocross series event (one of six). It is considered one of the best races for beginners. The course is mostly on grass and includes a couple of steep ascents, some cambered stretches, two man-made obstacles, numerous tight corners and a whole lot of mud, gloop and madness. The aim is to race as many laps in a given time (kids race 30 mins, women and male vets race 40 minutes and senior men race 60 minutes).

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for but after one reccie lap I realised I’d be lucky to stay upright for the 40-minute race. But I gave it my all and enjoyed almost every second of it, despite feeling my legs and lungs bursting with the exertion.

I know I cycled with too much care and I was painfully slow on the corners but I didn't fall off once and I found enough sections to push fast and hard to make up for my lack of off-road bike skills. The Falkirk race had a record entry of 388 riders and more than 30 women. I was delighted to come home second lady vet and 10th woman overall.

Mud + cyclocross = very muddy bike

After the race I was stunned to see how muddy one bike can become. It took a lot of washing down to bring the Planet X XLS to renewed shininess. On top of this, every bit of skin outside my cycle kit was caked in mud. This might not be everyone’s idea of a fun afternoon out but I couldn’t stop grinning.

Cyclocross event number 2

The next cyclocross event in Scotland is a non-series event but it's staged only 25 minutes from my home, at Loch Lomond, so it would have felt rude not to go. The weather was tragic (torrential rain and winds). The course was far tougher than Falkirk and much, much muddier. (I couldn't have believed this possible but it was!).

While a year of cycling fast and flat on my Planet X TT bike (during my world champs triathlon bid) has left me strong and fit the technical nature, and the depth and mass of mud left me flailing in this race. I pushed hard for the entire 55 mins and managed six laps but I came home in only 4th vets place this time.

The race included lots of winding trails, long stretches of gloopy mud and grass, steep ascents, bonkers cambered grass sections, man-made obstacles and some bits of tarmac. I think it was only when I reached the tarmac that I felt like I was a proper cyclist! For the rest of the race I struggled and cursed and pushed and whimpered but I still found myself smiling.

I might not yet be a good technical cyclocross rider (in fact I am pretty hopeless) but I really loved the challenge. I raced my legs until they filled with lactic acid and pushed my lungs until I was gasping for breath. I can’t think of a better way to challenge my cycling fitness over a short distance and during the winter.

What next in cyclocross?

I plan to have a few cyclocross skills lessons. I have friends who are very good at off-road riding and they have promised to show me a few tricks. I need to practise climbing short, sharp and steep ascents, as well as getting on and off my bike at speed (this type of racing demands that you climb off and on your bike at regular intervals).

It's rare in your mid-40s to find a new sport that really grabs your attention. I think cyclocross might suddenly be my favourite winter sport.

27 November 2013

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