Drawn to the Cross

The end of the road season means the beginning for cyclocross. Cyclist sends cross-virgin James Spender to get to grips with the grubbier side of the sport

My stomach is like an explosion in a lepidopterist’s display case – the pre-race butterflies are now bouncing off the walls from the large quantity of energy drinks I’ve been downing since midday. I should know better, but ever since I was told by a seasoned racing mate that the key to cyclocross is to ‘pedal till you can taste blood, then pedal some more’ I’ve been convinced that the next 45 minutes are about to be some of the hardest of my cycling life, so I’m determined that at least a lack of fuel won’t be my downfall. I’ll worry about the type 2 diabetes later.

New kid in school

For anyone new to this sort of thing (as indeed I am), cyclocross is what happens when you tell a bunch of masochistic road cyclists that the season’s over and it’s too cold to go ride bikes. I’ve always assumed that cross riders are the hollow, wild-eyed hardmen of cycling, but instead what I find at this last leg of Rapha’s snowballingly popular Super Cross series are some of the most welcoming and encouraging folk you’ll ever meet through cycling. Sure, its pace is frenetic and undoubtedly tough, but with cross you’re all but guaranteed to finish with a smile, even if you are a little bit sick in your mouth at the same time.

This is the second year that clothing brand Rapha has hosted its Super Cross series, involving three races during October: one in Yorkshire, one in Leicestershire and the one I’m at, which is at London’s Alexandra Palace. To give the events a true Belgian feel (Belgium being the spiritual home of cyclocross), each race comes complete with tents full of beer (Belgian, of course), chips and waffles. The atmosphere is pumped up with live music and excitable commentary, all of which is drowned out by the sound of cowbells from the crowds. It’s a proper day out, even if you’re not on two wheels.

Unlike a normal road race, where the pace builds gradually and groups form naturally, cross functions much more like F1: previous rider success is awarded with a gridded spot, and those who get away quickly tend to stay on top. Thus, after the ability to bust a lung from sustained effort, the next most important thing in cross is how quickly you can clip in to your pedals. So, with my left foot clipped in at one o’clock and right SPD angled tactically just off horizontal, the gun goes and I push down hard on my left foot and thrust a well-aimed right shoe at the waiting pedal. And miss. Which results in me swerving and flailing my leg around into the path of those who are trying to pass me. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, kick ’em.

Losing battle

I’m well down now and the rest of the race is more about damage limitation than success. My uphill struggle is compounded as the course wends through a copse and up a steep grassy bank towards the palace. But, with dozens of spectators shouting encouragement and clanging their cowbells, I manage to power up to the top of the main climb, even passing a few people on the way. From here the course winds back down onto some awkward off camber knolls, which grow progressively more slippery as the race wears on.

Once back through the trees and over the gravel, there’s an awkward descent followed by a tight left-hander. Judging by the thickening crowds this is a corner that will see some crash action, and sure enough up ahead I see a rider fishtail down nervously and overrun the corner in spectacular fashion. Sadly for me this is not an exclusive club, and I quickly follow him into the crowd as one onlooker shouts helpfully, ‘It’s easier if you don’t use your front brake!’ Cheers mate.

After a switchback and another fast run through the trees, it’s time to negotiate a set of hurdles. In cyclocross you’re forever slowing feverishly to round corners then laying down the power as you exit onto the straights, so I was grateful for the F4X’s generously boxy BB30 tube cluster and tapered 1.5in head tube that stoically ensured my watts didn’t evaporate into inefficient frame flex.

There aren’t many more plaudits that haven’t already been given to Shimano’s Ultegra 6700 groupset so I won’t try to add to them, suffice to say that it didn’t skip a beat as I slammed the chain remorselessly up and down the cassette.

For the muddy conditions at Alexandra Palace the Vittoria Cross XG Pr clincher tyres weren’t entirely convincing, but then as a long-term prospect (which the Felt undoubtedly is), you’ll more than likely be looking to upgrade the F4X’s own-brand wheels to a set of tubulars, where the tyres can be run at significantly lower – and therefore grippier – pressures without the worry of pinch flats.

This is another peculiarity of cross: at certain points on a given course, riders will be expected to dismount, shoulder bikes and leg it over a series of stacked up wooden planks. In general this is fine, but when it goes wrong it can be catastrophic, with riders launching themselves and their bikes full length into the air as they trip over the hurdles. Luckily I’m in no danger of this as the malicious planks are on an incline so I’m carrying zero speed as I dismount, but I fail to clear the section unscathed, my overzealous remounting promoting one testicle to the centremost point of a hamstring-saddle sandwich.

And repeat

One more climb and a near-miss later, I’m approaching the line that will signify my first lap. It’s been quite an ordeal already, but yet somehow despite burning lungs and straining legs I’m already envisaging all the things I’m going to do better during the course of the next lap. And that’s the thing with cross. Yes it hurts, but it somehow makes you want more.

Six laps later and a sprint for the end and I still can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the other riders’ indomitable spirit or just a case of good old-fashioned mud, sweat and tears – but whatever it is, I haven’t got off my bike with a grin that big for quite some time.