A London cyclo-cross champion shares the thrills of racing his bike through mud and snow
London cyclo-cross champion (and artist) Matthew Webber gives us pilot's-eye view of what it's like to take part in this thrilling and rewarding winter sport.
Why you should take part in cyclo-cross...
Last night’s snowfall has turned this secluded corner of south London into a winter wonderland; the vivid dots of club-coloured Lycra are picked out sharply in the distance against the pure, white canvas of the Herne Hill in-field.
It won’t be white for long...
As the youth riders slide and swerve their way through the snow in the first races of the day, a muddy brown path quickly forms, marking out the course for the riders who follow.
I’ll be one of them, racing in the final round of the London and South East Cyclo-Cross League, a championship that comprises 14 off-road races taking place throughout the winter at venues across the region, including this one, at the historic velodrome.
If you’re a bike-lover of a certain age, you might remember seeing cyclo-cross races on Grandstand in the early 1980s, with mud-covered cyclists powering their racing bikes round country parks and sports fields, hurdling obstacles and shouldering their bikes to clamber over impossible terrain. It fired my excitement then as it does now, a grown man approaching 40, still itching to head out on his bike at the drop of a cycling cap.
You won’t see much cyclo-cross on the BBC these days, but the sport is enjoying a surge in popularity in the UK, largely due to its accessibility, but also thanks to online coverage of the big continental events, where the superstars of 'cross show us mortals how it should be done.
In Belgium especially, cyclo-cross riders are revered in a way that a Premiership footballer would understand very well. The big races are attended by tens of thousands of race fans, all trudging through the mud to cheer on their chosen hero.
Breeding ground for champions
Perhaps it will never garner such huge support in the UK, but the number of competitors is certainly growing, and events such as the Rapha Super Cross, which toured the UK in a three-race mini-series at the start of the autumn, are bringing some of that excitement and glamour to ‘cross fans on these shores. The UK has also produced several riders who are now competing professionally on the World stage, including our current national champions, Ian Field and Helen Wyman.
Field honed his skills in the London League, winning the championship in youth, junior and senior categories. He has fond memories of the experience. He said: “The London League’s a great way to get into competitive cycling, because it hangs onto the friendly and enjoyable elements of a Sunday afternoon ride. No matter what your level is, you’ll always find someone to have a battle with and a cup of coffee with afterwards.”
Sixty riders on the start line today, steaming and stamping, trying to stay warm during the pre-race briefing when we’re told: “Be nice to each other”. It’s a nervous time, especially today as we eye the racing line, a choice of slick mud or deep snow, two evils we won’t really get to choose between as we jockey for position at the start of this hour-long race.
During the first few corners the bunch thins out and we begin to settle into the race, testing our limits as we slide round corners and skid into bends. Riders swerve, fall and are up again; there’s barely time to overtake before they are back alongside and trying to get ahead.
An hour is a long time...
Simplicity’s the name of the game
For me, the biggest appeal of cyclo-cross is its simplicity. As a kid, I would spend hours charging round our back garden on my Raleigh Arena racing bike. My 50-metre lap was made even more fun by a liberal sprinkling from the garden hose and the careful positioning of my house-brick chicane. This is the spirit of cyclo-cross racing. Have you got a bike, a crash helmet and £12? Congratulations: you’re a cyclo-cross racer!
You can now spend your Sunday afternoons from September to February banging elbows and buzzing tyres with like-minded folks from across the land. Every region has a league that you can join (with races organised by volunteers from participating clubs), and every league will have someone that’s just a little bit quicker than you are, someone that you’ll be hoping to beat whenever you line up at the start.
Join a club, do some training, and practise your cyclo-cross skills (the running remount is a good one to master early on). The riders who had seemed so out of reach in your first race won’t be quite so far ahead when the next race is run. It’s a levelling sport: you may not have the strongest legs, but if you can stay upright when all around are in a hedge, then you may be surprised at how well you can do.
Like any branch of cycle sport though, despite its simplicity, it’s still very easy to get caught up in a frenzy of carbon-fibre consumerism. Cyclo-cross, perhaps more than any other form of bicycle racing, is prone to kit-fetishising of the first degree. If you’re so inclined, the technical side of cyclo-cross is a fascinating treasure-trove, where old-fashioned techniques and technology rub up against the shiny and new, and where you need deeper pockets than the average Lycra skinsuit provides:
“Cross racer, eh? Might I suggest this hand-made tubular tyre from the Netherlands? It’s £100 and will take a week to glue to your wheel. Of course, you’ll need three pairs with different treads for different conditions...”
Serious riders will have at least one identical second bike and a set of spare wheels in the pits, as well as someone to wash or repair their bike during a race if the conditions demand it. It’s a winter sport, and thick gloop and fine-tuned components are not a match made in heaven. This season was a dry one in the south-east, but a race that I entered in the Peak District left me with only one working gear and a mud-clogged bike that weighed four times as much as it should.
I edge ahead of my nearest rival before we head into the trees, trying to stay smooth through the next few corners, hoping to get a gap. I glance back and I’m on my own. I try to focus and remember my lines. It’s all about corners on a day like this. The lap board says 1 to go; the bell rings in agreement.
I won the race at Herne Hill and, after a season-long battle with Sylvain Garde of La Fuga Sigma, I won the league too. I’ve made new friends, learned a lot about bikes and a bit about myself; but mostly I’ve enjoyed riding my bike more than I have since I was a kid. I can’t wait for autumn...