It’s been pointed out to me that I could possibly ride the cyclo-cross race tomorrow, I have the bike and all the kit so there’s nothing much really to stop me. I’ve even pre-ridden the course so know what to expect and when to make my move. I’ve got a race licence so I can prove to the Belgian organisers that I’m not just some chancer that’s going to get in the way. Well not for the first lap at least. First half lap.
Tomorrow’s cyclo-cross race isn’t any old cyclo-cross race round a field out the back of an industrial estate though, it’s a race in Belgium, the heartland of ‘cross, where everyone’s quite good. It’s also a Superprestige cyclo-cross race, so, um, not a fish-n-chipper. For reasons that I can’t quite explain knowing that I will have my arse handed to me on a plate, with frites and mayo, is quite appealing. It’s good to be reminded of one’s own humility.
While I’m pondering exactly how long I’ll stay on the course before I’m unceremoniously directed back to the showers I realise that I actually don’t have my race licence with me after all. The last race I did I forgot to collect it from the sign-on tent, it was raining and I was grumpy after a race of mechanicals and just wanted to go home. No licence, so no race. This is indeed a happy accident. The decision is gently hammered home when a second Westmalle Dubbel is placed in front of me. Damn.
All this bottom-lip chewing heart palpitating race angst is going on in Gavere in Belgium, just south of Ghent. I’m here for the Superprestige Gavere cyclo-cross race to ride bikes and watch the racing, but not ride bikes during the racing. There is also some fine beer, because it’s Belgium and it is mandatory.
Gavere, or Asper-Gavere to be more correct, is a tough cyclo-cross course, up there with Koksijde and Koppenbergcross in terms of infamy and known as the Paris-Roubaix of cyclo-cross. It’s situated inside a military base, so has that Koksijde feel, but where that course has sand Gavere has mud, a lot of gradient and pear trees. And a castle. I’m here as a guest of Ridley, a bike company whose brochure blurb states “is Cyclocross” and that’s no bombastic boast as their bikes can be found under any number of the best riders on a Sunday. They’ve lent me one of their X-Night carbon ‘cross bikes, dripping with SRAM’s new CX1 drivetrain and hydraulic brakes to slither around the Gavere course on the day before the race. There’s not many sports you can play on the same field as the Pros so you can see just how woefully you would fare and how easy they make the impossible look.
We’ve done a walk around the course and pointed at things of note, like mud, and puddles, and deeper mud, and now it’s time to let the on bike flailing commence. I’ve done enough cyclo-cross races, I’ve done more than enough mountainbike races and the Asper-Gavere course is one of the toughest race loops I’ve ever had to pedal around. And this was just riding around a few times and stopping and looking at lines, no racing, no bumping elbows, no burning lungs, no frustrating numpty moments, no effort induced tunnel vision, no last-lap tired and floppy crashing. No being shouted at to “Dig in” when you patently are. Just completing a lap was quite horrible as is.
There are only two places on the course to relax, take a breath and compose yourself for the next sticky slippery thick muddy onslaught; the tarmac of the start/finish straight and the flat gravelly section at the bottom of the course alongside the river, every other part of the Gavere requires extreme concentration not to fall off or maximum effort just to maintain forward momentum.
From the start the course wiggles around the castle buildings before dropping into the trees and veering left, an off-camber slidey left that shoots riders alongside the orchard of pear trees that characterize Gavere and give you strange sweet fruity wafts as you’re gasping for air. If you’re a contender you’ll want a good start here not to get embroiled in the mid-pack carnage. The course opens out into what was once a corn-field and is now a ploughed corn-field, a waterlogged ploughed field, it’s effort enough to walk through in Telenet wellington boots let alone ride on a bike. So no-one does, this is a running section as the course cuts and turns its way across the ankle-deep mire. Remount at the last corner and try and survive the short descent to the 90 degree right hander by committing to the rapidly forming rut that catapults you towards the left turn down a scary steep section into the bottom corner of the field that hairpins straight back up again alongside more pear trees.
Carry. Hop back on for a brief straight section that’s cheekily off-camber, try and stick to the high line, left-hand down and around a tightening right corner that looks easy but is too easy to get wrong into a short sharp up and left to traverse under the castle and through the pits area. Riders will be swapping bikes every time they pass through here tomorrow, their bikes will be bollocksed.
After the pits it’s the infamous chute of Gavere, a steep and incredibly greasy downhill that wouldn’t look out of place on a mountainbike course. Pick a line, go loose and try to stick to it. The course tape is amazingly strong and can actually catapult you back on track, but try not to crash into the inflatable barriers at the bottom. This will be a crowded and noisy spectator spot tomorrow and they wouldn’t be disappointed. Sharp left at the bottom to a steep little climb that’s rideable if you’re at the front and not stalled by traffic, right down the hill into the Jupiler loop and down onto the hardpack by the river. Take a breather along here before tackling the long long climb that’s ankle deep in mud back up through the woods towards the castle again, a final turn through the pit area, a grinding suction-heavy demoralizing climb to the top of the hill and it’s just the bit that parallels the start straight to bump along before turning into another lap. Repeat for about an hour.
Ridley have a lot of cyclo-cross bikes to pick and choose from, it’s probably the widest range of CX bikes on the market with something for the professional all the way down to the have-a-go privateer. Each one of them is a ‘cross bike for racing cyclo-cross on, because cyclo-cross bikes are for racing on in Belgium, they’re not some hopped up tourer with fat tyres, lazy geometry and rack mounts for commuting on. If you want to ride to work in Belgium you do it on an unfashionable beast of a bike better suited for the job with full mudguards, a rack, a chainguard and probably a dynamo and a built in lock. Thanks to constant feedback from Pro riders Ridley design their ‘cross bikes with higher bottom-brackets to clear obstacles and the ability to power out of corners sooner, horizontal top-tubes for easier shouldering and an aggressive stack and reach that might feel nervous to the beginner but are perfect for the race course. I’ve got no excuses then.
This Ridley X-Night has a full CX1 groupset on, SRAM’s new 1x11 cyclocross specific drivetrain created by mashing their XX1 mountain bike and road bits together. The whole 1x concept is nothing new, it’s been around in the mountainbike world for some time now and is commonplace enough that there’s a whole slew of companies both big and small making specific parts so you can adapt your current set-up without necessarily buying into a whole specific system. Having a single ring drivetrain is nothing new in the cyclo-cross world either, racers have been doing it for years for the simplicity, minimal mud-clogging and the lack of need for a full spread of gears for most CX courses, but it’s always been a bodge of parts, this SRAM CX1 groupset is the first to be designed as a whole. And it’s got hydraulic disc brakes too.
What makes the CX1 different to previous single-ring efforts is that it doesn’t need any devices to keep the chain on, the X-SYNC chainring with its alternating wide-tooth/narrow-tooth meshes with the thick and thin links of the chain to keep the chain stuck to the chainring, the total opposite to normal chainrings that are designed to help the chain fall off to ease shifting then. The thick tooth of the chainring is even cross-shaped so it fits perfectly inside the outer-plates of a chain. Combine this with the SRAM Force CX1 rear derailleur with a clutch mechanism that keeps the chain tight no matter what terrain you’re bouncing over and that chain should never pop off. The rear derailleur also uses SRAM’s 1:1 shifter cable travel to derailleur pull ratio which means it should be less effected by mud and the X-HORIZON design which means the mech only moves horizontally across the cassette as opposed to the slant parallelogram of other mechs, meaning ghost shifting should be a thing of the past whilst also reducing shifting force. All handy attributes in the shitty cut and thrust of ‘cross racing.
Give it a year and we’ll be seeing road bikes using a single-ring up front and a suitable 11 speed cassette out back. With your 22 speed bike there are gears that you don’t use, and gears that are replicated, so that slims down the difference in numbers a bit. Take away what you don’t need, make the system simpler and lighter, away you go.
The nicest thing about all of this SRAM CX1 isn’t the shifting, which is crisp and quick and never skips a beat, what’s impressive is nothing to do with the tech aspects of the groupset, it’s more visceral than that. First off, it’s quiet. With the chain running in a straighter line, unencumbered by running through a front mech cage and under tension at all times thanks to the derailleur’s clutch mechanism the chain’s not rubbing on anything, and it’s not slapping about on the chainstay every time you go over a bump. There is no drivetrain noise or chain clatter at all, it makes the bike feel smoother and it feels faster, a nicer experience, and the paint on the top of your chainstay will love you.
And even more difficult to put your finger on and understand how or why it should happen, but having only one shifting lever and only having to think about gears with one hand bizarrely frees up the bit of the brain that would normally be concerned with the machinations of a front mech to focus on other things like staying upright, line choice and remembering to breath. A new level of simplicity allows another level of concentration. I’m not sure how that works but it does.
Having brakes that work every time, all the time is a bonus to helping with a cyclo-cross presence of mind too. People have a habit of getting over-excited about all the available power when it comes to talking about hydraulic brakes on road and CX bikes, but they’re missing the point, by a lot. Discs on road, cross or any kind of bike offer both predictability and control in all weathers, something that’s especially useful on a wet and muddy cyclo-cross course such as here. The power’s there if you want it, skids aplenty if you so desire, but the human brain is pretty good at how hard it needs to pull a lever to get the braking it wants and the modulation and control on these SRAM hydraulic stoppers is fantastic. Finger-tip finesse at all times, what’s not to love?
But despite the world and his wife clamouring for disc brakes on road and cross bikes the Pros see things differently and are for the most part are happy to stick with traditional cantilevers. Weight is an issue at the top tier, especially in cyclo-cross where a lot of carrying is involved, so that’s one reason, another is that the good guys don’t need to use their brakes so much, because they know how to ride a bike unlike us choppers, so braking is less of an issue.
What all of this adds up to is a bike that I simply don’t have to think about over several practice laps of the muddy, slippy, sideways, scary Gavere course. Which is exactly what you want. The X-Night didn’t throw any handling howlers and seemed to be significantly more confident over the terrain than I was, I guess that’s the ‘cross heritage shining through there. Just thwapping away at the right hand shifter seemed to produce the right results, even if the chain did dump itself off the chainring on a flat bit for no discernable reason. Pretty sure that’s not meant to happen. But if I had to race tomorrow I’d be happy to do it on this bike, I certainly couldn’t use it an as excuse, I’d have plenty of other ones anyway.
Thankfully I’m just a spectator, which isn’t a dismissive term here. Unlike cyclo-cross in the UK the sport is a spectator rather than a participant led sport with the vast majority of spectators in Belgium never having been astride a cyclo-cross bike. Cyclo-cross is on the telly, with a level of punditry we’re likely to get with football and it makes the front pages of the newspapers, it’s pretty much their national sport. The riders are heroes in the flat countries, there are rider fan clubs, they hire coaches to travel to races, they wear warm coats with their favourite rider’s name emblazoned across the back, beanie hats with their names knitted in, and huddle under branded umbrellas.
Sven Nys is their hero, he’s almost a God. You can tell where Sven is on the course simply by following the wave of crowd noise. It must be a pain if you’re Not Sven, because no matter how good you are, and there are plenty that are as good and better on a day than Sven, you’ll never be Sven. You can be a Van der Haar, Van der Poel, Vantornout, Pauwels or Meeusen but you’ll always be in the shadow of Nys. To be fair, when it comes to Superprestige races he has some form, having won 13 of the series in previous years, not to mention being World Champion twice and National Champion nine times, so he has the right to be popular.
Despite being fans they’re not overly inclusive and remarkably disinterested in those other than their chosen few. Race days have a whole schedule of racing that starts at ten in the morning and works its way through Juniors, U23 and Women before it gets to the Elite men at some point mid-afternoon. The crowds only really turn up at halfway through the women’s race to watch the top men, before then spectators for what some would wrongly call the support races are thin on the muddy ground.
Come the Elite race every single inch of the barrier tape is accounted for with spectators, and there are certain three-deep crowd hot-spots where excitement is expected, today it’s mostly on Gavere’s steep chute section and subsequent run-up. Just so spectators don’t have to move too far from this spot there are portaloos and a beer tent at the bottom of the hill. It’s busy all day.
If you’re keep to watching each and every race and not just turn up for the Elite like the pro spectators do then you’re in for a long day, especially if you start drinking at 10.30, which seems to be perfectly acceptable. There are three ways to spectate at a Belgian cyclo-cross race; you can stake your claim at a likely spot and stand there all day slowly sinking into the mud. You can wander around the course to capture the action in as many places as possible, this requires a detailed knowledge of the course layout, where the short-cuts are, and a sharp pair of elbows. Or you could just stand in front of one of the massive screens that are stationed about the place, on the plus side this allows you to see 100% of the action and not miss out on the winning move, which is bound to happen where you’re not standing, on the other hand you’re just watching TV, outside.
There is a fourth way to watch a CX race, but that doesn’t actually involve any spectating, and a lot of people have turned up at Gavere to do just that and not watch any of the racing. On top of the hill, in the shadow of the castle, is a massive beer tent, it’s a marquee that could hold a very lavish wedding party but it’s a lot more basic than that. It’s a tent, a floor and a bar. It sells beer and it plays music, very loudly. If you like a mix of cheesy pop and euro-techno at a volume to make your nose bleed whilst you get gently and incredibly pissed over the day then this is the place to be. The cyclo-cross race being thrashed out outside is coincidental. There aren’t even any screens inside the tent showing the racing so you’re not going to be distracted from the beer and dancing around like a fool. The brief appearance of the dancing girls on stage might avert your gaze though. I’m not sure why this type of bike race spectating hasn’t taken off in the UK, it sounds tailor made.
The Gavere race whittled itself down to Meeusen, Pauwels and Vantornout who fought it out in a real war of attrition for the top spots. Each of them was on Ridley bikes so our hosts were a little bit excited at a possible podium clean sweep. Spoiling this little party was Sven Nys who slowly winched his way back from a long way adrift and in the last gasps of the final lap overhauled Meeusen right in front of the crowd that stuffed the pits area. Things went a little mental. It’s usual to see racers look a little bit tired at the end of a cyclo-cross race, it’s rare to see them look so completely and utterly spent. This was a tough race, the last few laps was like watching three men punch each other until no-one could get up any more whilst one quietly and efficiently hauled himself towards them almost unnoticed. It wasn’t necessarily a case of who was the fastest, but who was the most belligerent.
And with that, as darkness swept across the course the crowd that was outside dispersed. Those that were inside the beer tent stayed there, making the beach of plastic glasses floor bounce as the Eurotunes cranked up even louder, and they cared less and less whether there had been racing or not.
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