How did it come to this? Sweaty, filthy, slightly injured and humiliated, and yet they said it would be good for me. That's why I got conned into this fiasco. Good for me?
The scene, though I'm reluctant to consider it, was an ordinary field in Brittany one late November afternoon. I'd been told beforehand this was the home of French cycling and it would be my duty to provide a show for the followers’ entertainment. That was all very well, but unlike the locals, I hadn't been to church that morning and though my religion might be pedalling, my beliefs (or lack of them) had wavered. The promise of gold, silver and frankincense still to come in lieu of my appearance are neither here nor there, for I know what I have received in the past one hour and five laps hasn't made me truly thankful.
I had carefully prepared my entrance into the world of cyclo-cross. This had been a long-term plan with many enthusiastic collaborators involved. In the summer, we'd sourced the tubing from Reynolds and one of the team mechanic's friends to put them together with care and attention. I had a pukka machine for my winter conditioning.
That was one of the main reasons for the plan: conditioning. Cyclo-cross would stop me getting too unfit, improve my bike handling and harden my resolve to suffering. I had listened carefully and succumbed to the propaganda so here I was, in a field, in Brittany, in November.
I ought to have known from the training rides I'd done this wasn't going to go well. Every time I went out to develop my skills on the crosser, something bad would happen and any attempt at training was lost. Punctures, breakages and falls were the reward for my commitment. And I was committed, not just going out on a nice smooth track through the woods on dry, sunny days.
And that's why I was in a field with a motley crew of fellow victims wearing a number on my back. The race started badly, as that was something I hadn't practiced, but I can't blame the lung-bursting sprint to the first obstacle for the resulting fiasco. I couldn't blame anyone or anything for my performance, because I had all the gear and no idea how to use it under competitive circumstances. Out on my own, slipping and sliding was half reasonable – I made progress – but any upping of the pace just upped the failure rate.
The first turn at the bottom of the grassy bank set the scene: off-camber and getting sloppier by the minute. It wasn't so much a corner as a mantrap for the untalented. I fell off, so then I had to run up to the top. Second time down, I could wobble round the corner and make it half way up the climb before I messed up over a twig or something slippery, and again I was on foot. The third descent was the worst, as there was a tree trunk to get over – not so big that you couldn't jump it if you were good. But I wasn't, and you guessed it, I was employing shoe power again. Once back up the grassy bank for the third time, there was a muddy section through some rooty trees and then it was zigzags across the field to the start-finish area.
After a few of laps of trying to ride, but mostly running, I was knackered. I had no idea who was in front, behind, or – like me – just plodding round. Then to add insult to injury, I started to get lapped by those proficient in the art of staying upright and negotiating obstacles at the same time. Every passage through the finish became something of an embarrassment, with the announcer identifying me and whipping up the crowd as if I was doing something useful.
Despite it being the Sabbath, drink was being taken, so there was much merriment at my plight, and even though there was some encouragement, I began to develop a definite opinion for my future involvement with the crosser.
The most vocal crowd was at the first off-camber bend where the best crashes were happening and, to be fair, that's exactly where I would have watched from given the resulting spectacle. They roared if you got round without falling off and they roared even louder if you landed in the mud. You only got booed if you chickened out and dismounted, so I accepted my fate lay with the gods, and not a well-judged mix of tyre pressures and dexterity when I came off the brakes and asked the front wheel for a change of direction. There was the unwritten rule of having to finish to earn the appearance fee, so I got on with it in true professional style. Only an injury requiring stitches would be sufficient excuse to stop and I wasn't desperate enough to throw myself on something suitably damaging.
Like the Irish mile, the cyclo-cross hour feels longer than it ought, but just as I was retreating into a zombie trance, I heard the bell signalling the final lap for the leaders, and slowed so that they passed me again before the line. Ever the pro, that meant I wouldn't have to do another circuit and there might be hot water left when I got back to the hotel room for the shower. Who had won wasn't my concern. All I wanted to do was get cleaned up, collect the cheque and get out of there, pronto.
Knowing I was facing a long drive home, I wasn't looking forward to ruminating over my ordeal as the kilometres ticked past. Was this it? Am I that bad? Was this what I needed to maintain my condition? Too many questions and too few excuses.
I felt I'd been assaulted, both physically and mentally, so once I cleared the post-race reception, I went into the courtyard where the bikes had been cleaned and stored. And there I found team-mate and enthusiastic cyclo-cross rider, Ronan Pensec, examining my steed.
“Nice, isn't it,” I said to him.
“Yes,” he replied
“Do you want it?” I said.
“You can have it, I'm not doing this again.”
“How much do you want for it?”
“I don't know. I don't really care. Just say a number. There's another pair of new wheels in the car and you can have all the spare tyres I have at home as well. I'll bring them to the next get-together in December.”
“Are you sure?” Then he named a figure which will remain forever a secret, but lets just say if it was eBay then he got a bargain.
“Done” I said.
And with that happy ending my cyclo-cross career was forever over after one race. To put things in perspective, Marmite I tried twice.
From Rouleur issue 51
Benedict Campbell's film "For the Love of Mud" on Vimeo