It used to be the case that temperance, turbo training, skill and mechanical nouse were enough to ensure you were a contender in the underground brotherhood of domestic British cyclo-cross racing.
If more than 50 riders turned up for the senior men’s race at a National Trophy, the UK’s six race series of UCI sanctioned events, you were unlucky. If more than 40 riders finished you were unlucky.
If you got lapped, you were unlucky.
If you didn’t finish in the top 30, you were unlucky.
How times change.
Things haven’t been going great for me this season. I could blame the half-dozen Belgian full-timers who religiously cross the channel once a fortnight to bag our UCI points; I could blame the Under 23’s, who remain too few to support a race of their own, but too numerous to allow much room for the talentless, hardworking privateer everyman; or I could blame the gridding system, which rewards the best riders while punishing the worst.
I could blame any number of factors, but the real culprit is Talent, or a lack of.
Cyclo-cross, for so long a true stalwart of glamour-free cyclesport alongside 24-hour time trials and audaxes, has become the belle du jour, enticing hugely talented riders from across the cycling spectrum.
Mountain bikers: check; crit specialists: present; roadies: here sir!
There’s still no money in it, in this country at least, but the competition has become fierce. To get a result nowadays you need to be an athlete, not just a grafter.
I can’t be bitter. Talent was always going to usurp the virtues of temperance, turbo training, skill and mechanical knowhow eventually. And hey, I had a good few years – I mean at first I couldn’t believe my luck: there were only about three of us taking it seriously, and the results came thick and fast. And while I was getting those decent results I was having about as much fun as you could possibly hope to have with a heart rate of 180bpm on a cold, wet and muddy Sunday afternoon.
No, it’s nice to see some new blood discovering the joy of CX, and the string of bad results won’t put me off.
The cyclo-cross weekend has become part of my routine now. Travelling up on a Saturday; stretching the legs on the turbo in the hotel room on Saturday night; eating a fried breakfast on Sunday morning before getting to the course at 9.30am to assist the veterans and women on the team.
That’s one of the nice things about cross: shorter races mean you can help each other out, working in the pits for your team-mates, them returning the favour later on.
Then at midday it’s into race mode. Get dressed and onto the course; experiment with tyres and pressures; practice the technical sections to get them down pat; eat, drink, back on the turbo to warm up for the race.
The racing itself invariably flies by, almost unnoticed: getting it over and done with is as much a relief as a pleasure. Instead it’s the banter and the processes around the racing that become the story. The van loads of wheels, the container loads of kit, the piss-taking and the practicing – cross quickly becomes a lifestyle.
This weekend we’re going to Bradford to race at the fearful Peel Park – a natural bowl with a steep, slick and slippery off-camber descent that has proved to be a crowd favourite every year I’ve been racing. With the weather finally turning wintery, it’s likely to be complete hell.
I can’t wait.
The photos here were taken a fortnight ago at the National Trophy race in Derby. I finished 41st, six and a half minutes behind the winner, Floris de Tier of Belgium. If I can avoid getting lapped in Bradford, I’ll be a happy man.
Andy is a member of the ViCiOUS VELO team of wastrels and ne'er-do-wells.