“Swallow a tablespoon of olive oil before the race, it will make the vomit come up easier.”
I still remember these wise words when I asked around for snippets of advice just before my first ever cyclo-cross race, even though it was half a lifetime ago. I was popping my ‘cross cherry at the request of a magazine editor who suggested that as I happily embraced both road and mountain bike riding, should have a go at this worst possible combination of the two, and what was at the time a very clandestine corner of cycle sport.
My chosen race was being held in the local park on a true to cliché grey and miserable Sunday. It felt a very subdued if-you-know-you-know affair, trestle table sign-on out the back of a car and two men and a dog looking on offering platitudes of encouragement to the meagre handful of racers as they slopped round.
With a lengthy MTB heritage I thought I’d have plenty of off-road smarts on my side; I’d even wriggled into the top ten in some races, and figured that I might be pretty handy and could show these dirt roadies how it was done. This was a huge error of judgement...
In my poor defence I was riding pretty much a touring bike that was a bit too large, massively overgeared for the task and had rubbish mud clearance, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that I was severely outclassed by most everyone, and lapped by the two leaders as they danced like ballerinas over a series of natural rooty obstacles while I carried my bike stumbling and lumbering like the waddling duck in cycling shoes that I was.
But, I was hooked. I love riding off-road, I like dropped bars and I absolutely relish the absurdity of riding and racing off-road on dropped bars on a bike that’s barely fit for purpose. That lanky orange touring bike thing gave way to a better-fitting, spindlier silver Alan ‘cross bike that was hilariously al-dente on road, but comfy as a sofa on bumpy stuff. The brakes barely stopped, the tyres barely gripped, it was frequently terrifying and I lent it to a friend and never got it back. But it led to the celeste one, and then the black one, and the red one and the green one and the other red one, and the titanium one and the orange one, and the olive green one that should have been grey but they got it wrong, and the pink one and any number of other ones I got to borrow for a bit.
Even preceding all of this, there was the drop-barred mountain bike that was supposed to be a fun rufty-tufty working-in-a-bike-shop parts-bin-special road bike something-or-other, before unfortunate circumstances had it pressed into proper mountain bike duties for a summer season. Even peering through scratched, dusty and smeared rose tinted lenses it was the best fun bike I’ve ever had.
I’m not sure what it is, but something about a cycle-cross bike just dovetails with my psyche perfectly. If I was forced to choose just one bike to ride forever it would be something within the cyclo-cross gene pool. Speedy enough to ride on tarmac, yet adaptable enough to poke down a dirt track or across a field and with a bit of skill and tongue-out concentration, you can thread a manageable course over more craggy terrain.
I think they pander to my wonderwhatsdownthere inquisitive nature, and a love of rides that aren’t too fussy what surfaces they traverse. In recent years this dirty dropped bar love has happily morphed into riding gravel bikes. After a long history of grunting up climbs, being mostly out of control and getting punctures on too many descents, the current poster boy of cycling’s capable gears, reliable braking, stable geometry and comfy fat tyres that don’t hole or tear at the merest sniff of thorn or flint have been an absolute epiphany. Gravel bikes have transformed my riding and extended my horizons, albeit into much longer and slower rides as opposed to shorter, faster and punchy ones.
Getting back astride an old school cx bike with twitchy handling, archaic cables and levers for stopping and tyres that are only marginally fatter than those now on my long distance road bike is an interesting experience (let’s call it 'involving'). Luckily I like bikes that give lots of, um, 'feedback' and require lots of, um, 'input'. Lounging atop a saddle noodling about while agitating the handlebars a bit when necessary isn’t really me.
Things have also progressed massively in the last few years with current cyclo-cross bikes, which are slowly returning to their niche status as the gravel dynasty holds sway, and are a world away from what I started on with efficient, confident, user-friendly gearing, and with the ability to brake without having to fax in the request.
Those discs vs canti discussions seem to have totally disappeared from the internet. All the stuff of dreams from an era where I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time replacing brake blocks, patching tubes, greasing bearings, looking for the 13mm spanner, lubing cables to get another few rides out of them and endless hours sourcing various widgets, bent bits of metal and the perfect cable hanger just to make things work that tiniest bit less shit.
While I love riding a cyclo-cross bikes, I have only been keenly enthusiastic rather than obsessed about racing them most of my time has been spent just dicking about inappropriately on the hills out the back. My racing has been sporadic with enough weather-related and illness excuses, and I also have a strong travel-to-race-time-ratio conscience which puts a lots of events out of reach. A five-hour round trip to do a sub-hour race somewhere way over there just doesn’t work out for me; travelling twice to Halifax to do a race convinced me of this the hard way, and not just because it was Halifax.
An hour and a half to get to the venue is my cross commute window, tops, but if I can ride to a race, cadge a lift, catch the train or a mix of all three then I’ll get up early on a Sunday and already have supper planned, a beer in the fridge and what TV show I might gently fall asleep in front of for later.
There’s something about the exquisite please-make-it-stop pain for a short period of time that is your lungs ripping themselves a new lining and your thighs stretching at the seams in your bib shorts when you’re within the tapes that is intoxicating. There’s little room for nuance or niceties, just full gas and a bit of guile if necessary from the whistle... and yet, somehow it all magically disappears four and a half minutes after you’ve finished, you’ve got your heart rate close to normal and you’re replaying all the silly mistakes you made and wondering how you could do better next time. The intensity of effort and concentration and how it punishes you instantly and harshly if you get it the slightest bit wrong entices me.
The wilfully dragging your bike through the worst conditions you can imagine is not in any way sensible or explainable. Trying to ride where it’s impossible to even walk, trying not to think how much that grinding noise coming from your drivetrain is costing, wondering if the next gear shift will be the one that rips the clogged rear derailleur off on a whim, or pondering how many times you can clonk your soft rear tyre on that protruding rock each lap before you actually do puncture.
There’s a saying in sailing that it’s like ripping £50 notes up whilst you’re standing in a shower, and cyclo-cross is jut like that, but £20 notes and stood in a dirty puddle... okay, more like £50 if you’re fancy and running Di2 and carbon whatnot.
When you’re finally home and have pre-washed all your clothes several times before putting them in the machine, and chucked the bike in the shed to maybe deal with tomorrow, there’s the wonderful tiredness and well-used ache that washes over your body like an incoming tide that makes stairs hard when it’s eventually time for bed. You can feel your leaden legs sink deep into the relief of the mattress just before you conk out.
Alongside all of this it’s the cycle sport I’ve always considered to be the most welcoming and inclusive. Crabbing along a muddy playing field embankment is a great leveller, and no-one knows who you are behind a layer of mud. It’s a short hour of racing which doesn’t absorb your entire day, there are tons of categories so you’re always amongst your own, and no matter where you might be in the field, be that 1st or 51st, there’s always someone to race against: the one you catch on the climbs but always out-corners you on the twiddly bits in the middle, the one that’s always on the opposite bend on the 180 degree turn on the course that you can never quite bridge to, the one whose name you will never know but battle with race after race with a nod at the start and handshake, smile and brief chat at the end.
The shared experience of whatever gritty onslaught has happened in the last hour forges respect and friendship amongst combatants.
And so, after a nearly three-year hiatus, I’m putting myself back in the fray.
There’s been that bit of a thing that got in the way of being in the proximity of heavily breathing people, and then there was a period of me feeling grotty with an added smidgen of 'can’t be arsed'; but the first race of this season is only a few kilometres up the road, which removes a lot of excuses. The ride there hardly even counts as a warm up.
I’m hoping it’s going to be a gentle reintroduction to the hurting. The last race I did was a tape-to-tape sticky trough of mud, and a I stole a decent result purely because both myself and my bike were belligerent enough to get round in one piece.
Today it’s warm and dry and the course looks a lot more benign (it wasn’t) and there will be time afterwards for sitting in the sun with friends and beers to watch the later races, and then spend too long outside the pub on the way home.
Not every moment of ‘cross is the typecast mud, mizzle and misery. As I pedal up to the race arena that’s out the back of a farm and set in the natural bowl of a fold in the hills – decorated with a web of red and white tape for the day – I exchange a few smiles of recognition with people who have every right to have forgotten me, and the man at the sign-on notes my name and comments that it’s been a while. I mumble my apologies and retreat to ask someone to pin my number on for me for the first time in ages, and the familiar nerves start to tickle and the mouth starts to dry like I’d never been away.
I’ve been in the results landfill, I’ve finished top ten, I even led a race for the briefest time just by getting a good line on the outside and holding everyone up for a quarter of a lap with pointy elbows and deliberately poor line choice.
I’ve punctured there, and there, and DNF'd at the same race venue every time I’ve visited because of it. I came very very late to the world of tubs and instantly realised that I’d been missing out. I almost did a Superprestige cyclo-cross race. I’ve raced on a beach. I’ve not done the 3 Peaks because I don’t like walking. I’ve snapped a chain in the sprint away from the start and felt the fear of a pack of riders at full chat swarm round me.
I’ve raced in rain, hail and snow, and in ice-creams afterwards sunshine. I’ve broken my arm on the ride back from the race. I’ve stood on the same corner all day and replaced race tape every time someone slowly drifted across the off-camber muddy corner into it. I’ve watched a nice field turn to mud, and an entire venue slowly become a lake, and sometimes I’ve turned up just to hurl encouraging abuse from the other side of the tape at friends doing their very best. I’ve also stood in mud and sand all day getting slowly deeply cold trying to warm up on Belgian frites and beers, watching riders do it properly.
I’ve hated and enjoyed every single minute of the stupidity of it. I have, however, never been sick...
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.