By athlete and general blog genius Tom Williams
There is a luxury hotel near where I live that charges £130 for the privilege of having your face covered in mud and listening to whale music for an hour. This will allegedly make you look younger. It will definitely make you poorer. Although apparently you do get 2 free slices of cucumber.
As proud Yorkshireman the idea of paying for mud is ridiculous. We have plenty of mud in Yorkshire. And it’s free. Not only this, but as a time-crunched triathlete the idea of wasting an hour listening to whale music instead of getting some training done is equally unappealing. But never fear, I have a solution. Something that ticks all these boxes (apart from the free cucumber): Cyclocross.
As the triathlon season draws to a close, the triathlon media will be struggling for content and so will almost certainly run an article entitled; ‘Things to do in the off-season.’ One of their suggestions will be to have a go at cyclocross. They will cite reasons such as improving your bike handling and your ability to mount and dismount. But as I was going to find out, there are plenty of other reasons to have a go at cyclocross.
In order to start my cyclocross journey I sign up for a North Wales Cyclocross League race. I’m allowed to use my mountain bike so (un)fortunately I don’t need to buy a new bike. Arriving early I decide to use my time productively, so I sit in the van and read Cycling Weekly’s ‘Guide to Cyclocross for beginners.’ What could possibly go wrong?! Errr…..
Having signed on I watch some of the earlier, shorter races which are on the same course we will be on. What is most noticeable is that with every passing lap, what had initially looked like a nice grassy course is progressively becoming a quagmire. Still, at least they’re not charging for the mud.
Twenty minutes before the main race we are allowed onto the course for a practice lap. In my head this is just mountain biking on grass. I love mountain biking. So this should be great, right?! Brimming with enthusiasm I bomb down a grassy slope, into a muddy, tight right hand bend…and… crash.
I believe the standard phrase for a soft landing is; ‘like falling into a pillow factory.’ This has always seemed a strange metaphor to me. Quite apart from a hard roof, I imagine a pillow factory is actually full of equally hard machines. And even if you did land on a pile of pillows you would presumably then have to avoid the crowds of angry bald ducks who didn’t really want to give up their feathers to help M&S customers have a better nights sleep. I digress.
The point is, if you are ever going to fall off in a race, do it in a cyclocross race. Deep mud really does make for a soft, squelchy, and surprising warm, landing. As I lie there contemplating angry bald ducks it occurs to me I’m lying in the middle of the course. I scramble out of the way and try again. After a further three minutes of pedalling with absolutely no traction whatsoever I realise I have made the classic rookie cyclocross mistake; tyre pressure. I stop and let my tyres down to as low as I think I can get away with. The difference is impressive, in that I am at least now able to propel myself in a forward direction.
Having completed the practice lap we all line up for the kind of briefing I can get on board with:
“Errr…is everybody ready? Go!”
The first lap is around a field to spread us out and then onto the narrow course. The first few corners could probably best be described as ‘interesting.’ Then we all come to a halt. Everyone in front is jumping off their bike and running the technical section. Running thinks I, I can do that! In my enthusiasm I leg it past several competitors before realising I now need to try another key element of cyclocross for the first time; the running mount.
If any of you plan on having a go at cyclocross I would strongly recommend practicing the running mount before trying it in a race situation. It turns out that crashing your under-carriage down onto your saddle from a great height smarts a tad. But hey, I didn’t want any more kids and it’s cheaper than a vasectomy.
As the race goes on I’m starting to feel more and more confident. I’m finding more grip, repeatedly getting up the steep slopes that some others aren’t and have the running mount pretty much nailed. Admittedly this has been a steep learning curve and my gentleman’s area is also pretty much nailed. But hey, I’m staying positive.
Then as I pass the timing tent the marshal shouts:
“Well done. Thats half way.”
“Half Way??!” I shout. Although this comes out in a very high falsetto.
“Your joking??!” I squeak, equally high-pitched.
I’m knackered. That was only half an hour?! I grit my mud-filled teeth an get on with it.
What the triathlon media promoting cyclocross will fail to mention is that it is really bloody hard! Many of you will have done an ‘Under-Over’ session on your turbo trainer at some point. The idea is that you ride just above, then just below your threshold power for a few minutes at a time. Cyclocross is like the under-over session from hell. MAX effort up a steep bank, 3 whole seconds recovery to descend it, MAX effort up the next one, then settle into way-over threshold power up a long grassy slope, this becomes just under-threshold as your heart explodes. You then get another 3 second recovery to navigate an off-camber muddy 270-degree turn, then go hard again. Simply repeat this process, interspersed with short hard runs. For an hour.
Anyone who follows road cycling will know that the most of the next generation of pros bursting onto the scene have all come from cyclocross. Having tried it, its easy to see why.
The other great thing about a cyclocross race is that you have absolutely no idea where you are in the field. You are simply racing the person ahead or behind you whilst exploring the limits of your aerobic threshold. And I definitely saved £130 as my mud face-mask is firmly in place. Indeed it’s being topped up almost continually. Bet you don’t get that kind of service in an over-priced spa.
The second half seems to pass faster than the first and after a last lap battle I cross the line well and truly spent. My warm down consists of riding around the car park a few times hoping the rain will wash some of the mud off (it doesn’t). Once my heart rate recovers from what in some situations would be considered a medical emergency, I dismount and realise I’m grinning from ear to ear. At least I think I am. It’s hard to tell through the mud.
So would I recommend a triathlete having a go at ‘cross (I am now technically allowed to call it ‘cross as I have actually done it)? Definitely! There are the various technical reasons but to be honest its just brilliant fun and a really hard effort. The perfect winter training then!
And as an added bonus, I now have the face of a 23yr old.
All the best for the off-season.