I had a paper round when I was a kid. I still remember all the houses and all their newspapers. The ones with the letterboxes too small for the weekend supplements, or the ones where the letterbox would snap shut as the paper dropped to the mat, leaving you fractions of a second to pull back a gloved hand. The smell of damp newspapers still wheels me back to those mornings, racing the route on my grandma’s burnt-orange shopper. Three speeds, all of them slow.
I hated autumn then. It meant darkness, cold and probably rain too. Heavy woollen gloves and wet shoes. Spring was hard to imagine: 10,000 newspapers away.
They’re still very easy to conjure up – those childhood feelings that don’t ever seem to disappear – but autumn is different now, because now, autumn means cyclocross.
I’ve been racing ‘cross for eight years now, watching it grow from a sideshow spectacle to become the thrilling, thriving main event. It’s a sport that I love and a prospect which makes the end of summer easier to bear. For my kids, Halloween, Bonfire Night and conkers make the run up to Christmas more tolerable; for me it’s Sunday’s race.
(If you’re new here and want to know more about the sport, the piece I wrote for Cyclocrossrider might serve as a good primer)
So far, the season has been a good one. I’m writing this in a euphoric haze, the morning after my best ever result in a national race (more on that shortly) and I’m extra motivated to keep hold of this new-found form.
This year I raced my mountain bike all through the summer, winning the V40 category at the MSG Eastern Series and at Beastway, as well as becoming the regional V40 mountain bike champion. This has meant 18 races between March and September and has ensured that my training and riding has been pretty consistent now for 12 straight months. It’s done me good.
My riding life is complementing my working life and I’m managing to get out on my bike two or three times a week. I’ve finally worked out how to put a bike together and have invested in some new wheels and tyres. I’m eating right, I’m doing my press ups and I’m drinking wine by the glass rather than by the bottle.
All these things and more mean that, for the moment at least, I’m winning my local races and I’m getting closer to the front when I’m racing against the best in the country.
At the local, weekly Eastern League races you grow accustomed to the same faces and the same team jerseys. Your rivals are always the same, give or take, and by halfway through the season, you know where you stand and how you stack up. It’s one of the things I enjoy about the sport – the familiarity of it and the unusual combination of intense competition and happy, familial sociability. I highly recommend it.
For me, the National Trophy is a different proposition, although the basic good-natured, in-it-together vibe seems to always be in evidence.
With six races over the course of the season, attracting the best riders from the UK and beyond, everything steps up a notch. The first two rounds were in Scotland and Derby and too far from home for me. If you’re travelling those kinds of distances, you really need a team behind you to make it worthwhile and, with no one in the pits, the risk of a broken bike and a wasted journey is just too great.
The round three event (staged by the fantastic Crawley Wheelers at the South of England Showground) was close enough though and, although the forecast looked grim, my teammate Roger and I thought it worth the trip to Ardingly to test our legs against the UK’s finest ‘crossers.
The sun even shone! The muddy course dried out as the morning’s races went on and, by the time we lined up for the V40-49 race, the final event of Day One, conditions were perfect.
Whistle. First push and on. Clipped and trying to find a gap to get from row three to the front. We stream into turn one, from eight bikes wide to two, with all the swearing and elbows and clashing metal that this entails.
As the bunch strings out I find myself in, what, tenth place? Calm and careful, although my heart rate says otherwise. The big guns are just ahead and here I am, feeling no better or worse than I always feel after the scramble off the line, but surprised to be keeping this company. Riders caught, passed and dropped. We are places three to five, battling to stay smooth and in contact, as first and second storm on up ahead. The pace is relentless but you need to stay on, because when it eases, if it ever does, you have to be there already. Laps pass and I try not to look as we charge past the board, but then the bell rings and there’s no hiding from it. No one close behind and the battle for third is on. One lap to go.
I stumble again at the hurdles and the gap stretches out – they’re ahead now. If I was watching this from the sidelines, I‘d be wondering why the guy in blue wasn’t closing that tiny gap to fourth. My legs have the answer to that question. But as I round the corner onto the finishing straight they slow, each waiting for the other to lead the charge. For a moment I think I have a chance. But then they’re away and my legs aren’t my own and I roll in, a handful of seconds back.
It was a great race and a result that I still can’t quite believe. Maybe I can go faster? I’m looking forward to finding out.
Thanks, as ever, to Mike at Push Cycles in Stoke Newington for mechanical support.
Thanks to Rob Flinn for the photos