Cyclocross Season Report - Tom Foster

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Autumn can be a bit of a dark time for cyclists and triathelets. Your last race is done and dusted in September or sometimes October and then all you can see isthe dark, wet, cold winter laid out ahead of you until April or May when you can conceivably consider riding outside in shorts again.

Many pro cyclists will take a whole month off – not touch a bike for all of November and into December. In fairness, this is justified given the amount they ride and level they compete at. From a psychological point of view as well as a physiological one it makes sense. That said most age group athletes do not train to that level, so physiologically there is less need for this training hiatus – not so say this is the case in all people, and there are definite positives to a bit of time off e.g. after Ironman. But 2 or 3 weeks is probably enough for most people before getting back to some sort of structured training. Psychologically however it is different. So how do you balance the feeling of dread when someone says ‘Sunday ride? 3-4 hours?’ and its below 5 Celsius and raining vs having enough time to mentally get over something like Ironman or a full season of competitive triathlon.

As a triathlete and having done long distance last season there were a couple of weaknesses that I was looking to address.

  1. Bike handling, I have never been a strong bike handler
  2. ‘Short Power’ – Punchy hard efforts are not my strong point

 Last season I made a foray into the crazy world of cyclocross. I found my handling improved and the stochastic nature of cyclocross should fit well with improving short power. If you think trying to explain triathlon is difficult to your colleagues then trying to explain ‘cross is nigh on impossible:

‘So you ride around a field/park in the mud, and have to get over hurdles and up steps with your bike’

‘Oh so it’s like ‘Tough-Mudder’ but with a bike’

Queue frustration in trying to explain that it is one of the oldest disciplines in cycling, steeped in history and tradition etc.etc. 

Cyclocross is extremely popular in Holland and Belgium, where there is a world cup series that is fiercely competed for. Some of the skills exhibited here will blow your mind. Just Youtube Matthew Van Der Pol or Wout Van Aert.

On a lesser scale, but still hard fort, there are a number of local leagues across the UK that run through the autumn and into winter. Being in Surrey I’m caught between two leagues (London and Wessex) so I have a multitude of races to choose from. However, most of the Wessex races are easier to get to so I tend to favour these. They also had the added benefit of having a novice race too (shorter – 30 mins rather than 1 hour and a smaller field) 

The Wessex league is 13 races across the season I did 4 races:

Round #4, Basingstoke 8/10/17

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First race of the season. Safe to say I was bricking it. I had ridden my ‘cross bike in practice but this would be the first time in anger. (Last season I used a 29er, then managed to borrow a ‘cross bike for a couple of races). We arrived into the fun fair that is a cyclocross race – the men’s senior race is always last on so it’s always busy by the time I arrive: Vans everywhere, people warming up on rollers, with their ‘soigneurs’ (wives and children) prepping their spare bikes and wheels. I’m flapping a bit at this point, a triathlon is fine, I know exactly what to expect and the running order, but this although not more complicated was different so caught me a little off guard. I manage to get 15 mins of warm up in, which is basically enough time to slow ride the course and repeat some of the more difficult bits. Then it is time to line up. As it is such a nice day and the course is dry the field of riders is massive! The starting ‘grid’ is 8 across. If you’re really good, you get a ‘call up’ that is based on your league positioning you get to take spot near the front. Once the call ups are done it is a semi free-for-all to get onto the grid. As I was a little apprehensive I decided to settle near the back so I would have a bit more breathing room.

The gun fires, there is a mechanical ‘click, click’ of people clipping into their pedals and the field accelerates up the course. Some of the first turns were quite tight, but people were being quite sensible, other than one or two. In hindsight I should have been more aggressive here; it’s a good opportunity to get ahead of people who are likely to slow you up later. The rest of the course was right up my street: quite a lot of longish drags and relatively few technical sections. I had a good battle with one guy for most of the race, that is the thing about ‘cross –races within races, I eventually go away from him on a technical section where he made a mistake. After about 3 laps the leaders tend to come around and lap you – this is standard and there is no shame in it. In fact I love it, it’s a great opportunity to see what lines they are taking and try and follow. My lap times usually pick up in the second half and I noticed I was coming back to a group that split off from me after about 1 lap. I managed to pick off a few before the chequered flag.

I managed to finish 46th of 69 starters, so I was quite pleased as I started somewhere on the 8th row of the grid! 

Round #6 Spartsholt 29/10/17

Spartsholt was my 2nd ever race in 2016 when I did the novice race. So I thought I was better prepared. I managed to get a good warm up/recce ahead of the race this time. Good job I did, as this was a technical course!

I was feeling sort of confident so I started a little further up the pack. The first stretch of the race played to my strengths, but then there was ‘the bank’. It was probably only 8m long but it was SO steep, and really rutted from the vets/women’s race that had been on before us. Safe to say, I had a squeaky bum moment and decided running it was a better option. I was probably quicker than most people riding it, but the trouble with running is that you have to dismount and remount – this is an art form, but even done well you will lose time. I don’t do it well so I was certainly loosing time! The other feature that caused me trouble was the off camber turns: just when I thought I had the hang of it, i got complacent and lost the back end of the bike over a root. This resulted in me going down quite hard on the expensive side of the bike. I pressed on, but all was not well. Shifting on the rear mech was compromised so I couldn’t get into the 30T on the back. Any hope of riding steep hills was out of the question! I pressed on and finished. 53rd out of 68. A bit disappointed, but given the circumstances I was quite lucky to finish. Spare bikes were looking more and more appealing!

Round #9 Droxford 19/11/18

I was feeling good. Training was going well (seeing good numbers in turbo sessions as well as in running) I had just got my Van so I was now very much in keeping with the ‘cross scene! Plus it was dry and sunny!Screen Shot 2018 01 29 at 17.26.56

I had arrived mega early to the race, adamant I was going to have a good warm up and course recce. I had even brought my turbo trainer – what a pro! The course looked like it would suit me not too technical but plenty of up and down so my light weight would help. One sketchy section – a steep downhill with a cheeky hairpin bend – aka hecklers hill! I managed 2 warm up laps, and devised a strategy for how to approach the course, then jumped on the turbo for a 15 min warm up. God I felt so prepared!

I didn’t have the best start, but I was riding well, and was in amongst the mid pack. But then, disaster. Going up the main climb by chain jumped off the biggest sprocket of my cassette and jammed between the spokes and the back of the cassette. I lost 5 mins in one lap trying to sort it out. I concluded that despite my efforts to fix the damage caused at my off in Sparsholt there was a more significant issue with my rear mech. So I was limited from 22 gears to about 6. DNFing crossed my mind (mainly from frustration), but I carried on. I started to be lapped by people I should have been racing against. But I was managing to stay with them, and although I wasn’t racing them directly I was proving to myself that I was as good as them.

I ended up 50th out of 57, my worst result yet. But I had shown myself that I was getting better.

Round #13 Crabwood CC – Southampton 28/01/18

There was a pretty large gap from my last race to this one. In the intervening period I had got my bike fixed (new mech) and some new wheels (hubs were shot). I was undecided about doing this race, but the weather was good (warm, not raining) so it seemed like a good shout.

We arrived to something that looked like the Somme. There wasn’t a section of the course that wasn’t cut up and rutted. The veteran’s/women’s races were going on, it just seemed that people had taken to pushing their bikes around the course rather than riding it. Non-cycling on lookers were just standing around open mouthed at the scene in front of them.

My warm up was mainly spent establishing just what part of the course was actually ridable rather than ‘warming up’. Turns out 30% was probably running and 70% riding. 

The first section after the start grid was the worst, 100m of bog. We lined up for the start, with everyone off their bikes. Ready to carry. This was going to be a battle.Image 5

The gun went, utter chaos broke out as people ran with their bikes into shin deep mud. Everyone was going way too hard, there was no way people were going to be sustain that intensity for an hour! I managed to get through the first lap only crashing once. I noticed that I was catching people on a lot of the carries so I was burring myself to make up time there. The carries we really painful, not something I had practiced a lot so i was trying to get used to the best way of doing it. As the race progressed and I was lapped by the better racers I was able to stay on the bike more by following their lines and planning the bits where I would run a little better. For the good racers, bike changes were key: Guys had at least one spare bike, plus a petrol jet wash to clean the bikes as they came in. My bike must have weighed a couple of additional kilos in mud by the time I had finished. It was absolutely brutal. 

I finished 24th from 41. Battered and bruised (my shoulder and ribs bashed from the bike!). But with a huge grin on my face.

Safe to say I think I have been bitten by the ‘cross bug. So really looking forward to next year and seeing what I can improve on again. My bike handling has got so much better and my power is much* (*all relative but even 1-2% is a lot for me!) increased on what it was previously.

Things I have learned this season:

  • Courses vary massively – must do proper course recce
  • X1 set ups are the way forward – I hardly used the big ring!
  • Practice carrying the bike –it’s more technical than it looks
  • Linked to the above – maybe some shoulder padding would be good
  • Warm up and pre-race prep needs refinement
  • Practice technical stuff