I have a new nemesis. A sport that is so ridiculous it has lured me in by its apparent hilarity, and then slapped me in the face with its muddy, icy, slippery horror.
That sport is cyclocross.
I have a cross bike. I bought it when I was just taking up cycling, and planning to do the Scotland Coast to Coast. During the 3 years since I bought it, I have ridden it for probably thousands of miles. On the roads. And most likely less than 100 miles off-road.
Ever since I bought this bike, I’ve liked the idea of doing cyclocross. A sport that involves riding around a muddy park on a glorified road bike, including obstacles that are deliberately designed so you have to pick your bike up and carry it? How could you not love the idea of something so ludicrous? I also wanted to develop my bike-handling skills. Jumping on and off the bike in a very cool-looking manner? Sign me up!
Well, that’s what I thought. I even signed up for the West Lothian Clarion Last Gasp novice race last winter, which was handily preceded with a 90 minute coaching session. I was pretty hopeless – I couldn’t even swing my leg over to do the dismount while moving – but I did learn to corner properly, and I enjoyed the race.
So when my club decided to put on its own cyclocross race (after a hiatus) I signed up. I also signed up for a series of 4 coaching sessions in the weeks beforehand, and turned up in the torrential rain along with a dedicated and hardy few to ride increasingly muddy laps round a local park under the watchful and very patient eye of our coach, Rob.
I was dreadful. I was slow, panicked every time the bike slipped even a little, and could only do the flying mounts on one occasion. On my own. In the dark. I got increasingly frustrated and freaked out, to the point where I confess there were tears on a couple of occasions. It was completely irrational. There I was, a 30-something, professional adult, getting so worked up I was in tears because I couldn’t ride my bike up a muddy hill. It wasn’t even that I physically couldn’t do it – of course I could. It was something in my brain that started shouting, “What are you doing, you lunatic? You can’t ride off-road! Your bike-handling skills are rubbish and you’ll fall off!” (It didn’t help that I actually did fall off both my mountain bike and my cross bike recently).
Still, I soldiered on. I love racing, I told myself. Once the whistle goes my inner race monster will surge to the fore and I’ll be riding through the mud without a care for my own safety. To be fair, once I’m in a race I’m generally much more reckless than usual, so this wasn’t an unreasonable prediction.
So yesterday I lined up on the start line of the Plean CX race. It was cold. It was wet. It was actually snowing. Mass starts are among the (many) things that scare me, so I put myself at the back of the women. Unfortunately, due to some sort of timing issue, the commissaires decided to start the vet 50 men off at the same time (instead of after a 30 second delay, as was planned). So suddenly, instead of being at the back, I was in the very middle of the pack, with the fastest vet 50 men trying to get past me.
I didn’t even try to pedal. I just sort of did an undignified hop, scooting along with one foot clipped in, until I was right at the back of the field. I then sort of limped around the first lap. I did manage to overtake one lady who had a problem with her pedal and couldn’t get clipped in, but even the two women on mountain bikes were zooming off ahead of me as soon as we hit the first remotely muddy bit. All the skills I had sort-of learnt (even basic dismounts) went right out of my head. All the bits I had practised riding in two previous trips to Plean were muddier and (to me) infinitely more scary.
To be honest, I didn’t even try. I was scared, and frustrated, and felt utterly stupid that I was so a) unskilled and b) wimpy. I finished one lap (although apparently my friends on the finish line were starting to worry about me) and got halfway through the second before deciding that I was really, really not having fun.
So I quit. For the second time ever, and the second time this year, I dropped out of the race. I quit, I went home, and I spent the next couple of hours trying to warm myself up again.
Then I entered the Last Gasp again.
See you, cyclocross? You think you’re so scary, with your mud and your ice and your obstacles and your terrifyingly competent (but very friendly) competitors. See you? I’m going to go away, and practice, and I’ll be back. Just watch me.