MUD, SWEAT AND GEARS
Flying mud, falling bodies and a breathless dash for glory: this is the fast and furious world of cyclo-cross. Legend has it that the sport began in the early 1900s, when hardy Frenchmen would challenge each other to ride as fast as possible to the next village via the most direct route they could find. This meant a bit of road, a bit of farm track, maybe crossing a field or a river, jumping a hedge and riding on.
The races gradually became more formalised, as road racing cyclists used them to keep race-fit over the cold season; the intensity of muddy riding and the changes in terrain honed their bike-handling skills and the running, bike-carrying and leaping over obstacles worked different muscle groups and helped keep frozen fingers and toes warm. The mud, the frantic pace and the frequent tumbles made cyclo-cross as exciting to watch as it was to ride, and it soon became wildly popular across Europe.
As one of the dominant cycling nations in the world, perhaps it's unsurprising that cyclo-cross has a devoted and steadily growing following in the UK. Although the sport is biggest up north, the West Country's got its fair share of 'cross fans, like local legend Craig Denning, who's raced at international level and been Western Divisional Champion five times. He now runs Dream Cycling – the most successful cyclo-cross team in the South West.
"I love how accessible it is," he says. "Anyone can give it a go. It's wet, muddy fun, and I also like how quick it is – the races are usually finished in under an hour, so it's a real burst of excitement rather than a whole day's slog."
Business Cards From Only £10.95 Delivered www.myprint-247.co.ukView details
Our heavyweight cards have FREE UV silk coating, FREE next day delivery & VAT included. Choose from 1000's of pre-designed templates or upload your own artwork. Orders dispatched within 24hrs.
Terms: Visit our site for more products: Business Cards, Compliment Slips, Letterheads, Leaflets, Postcards, Posters & much more. All items are free next day delivery. www.myprint-247.co.uk
Contact: 01858 468192
Valid until: Sunday, June 30 2013
Races in the Bristol area are part of the Western League, and are community-spirited, volunteer-run affairs. There might be a few strips of tape to mark the course, a trestle table with a Thermos flask holding down the entry forms. The riders themselves add some colour, but there's minimal showiness and no over-serious bike snobbery.
That's not to say it isn't exciting. Far from it. A typical race has a jostling massed start, followed by ten or so exhausting laps around a two-mile course, usually in a public park.
The circuit will include a few steep banks and various masochistic obstacles that mean riders have to dismount, shoulder their muddy bikes and run for short stretches before leaping back into the saddle and riding on.
"The varied terrain and the obstacles really test your technique," says Craig.
Although the main cyclo-cross season is in autumn and winter, spring is in many ways a better time for first-timers to start, says veteran 'cross rider and Severn Road Club member Mark Horton, who helps to organise the Western League's summer schedule.
"The weather and thus the riding conditions should be better (last year notwithstanding) and for the summer series there's no need for British Cycling membership, so you can just turn up and ride."
Mark got hooked on cyclo-cross after his son Darren started racing, at age seven.
"He was on the track before I was," says Mark. "I used to take him along for the youngsters' races, and one day I thought 'I've just got to have a go at that, too'."
Apparently, seven is not too young to start.
"As long as there's an adult who can go around with the child, there's no lower limit really," says Mark. "We've had three- and four-year-olds racing. We'll reduce the circuit to maybe a couple of laps for them, and they all get a Mars bar for finishing."
There's no upper age limit either; the largest race cohort is often the "veterans" – those aged 40-plus.
"I'm 59," explains Mark. "The chap who organises the Cheltenham round is the same age, but he gets out a lot more than I do – if I can keep up with him, that's a feather in my cap!"
Part of the appeal of cyclo-cross is that you never lose sight of the action, even if you're among the slowest taking part.
"There's always someone coming round behind you," says Mark. "Some of the good guys might be 50 per cent quicker than the slowest riders – on an average race I might get lapped twice by the leaders.
"But there's no elitism about it, there's always somebody who's the same ability as you who you can have a battle with, which keeps it exciting."
The short, looping circuits also make cyclo-cross a great spectator sport, with the leaders coming past again and again, so you get to see them battling it out every six or seven minutes, watching as the drama unfolds.
Having compact courses in open parkland also means you can move around mid-race and see the riders conquering all of the different challenges around the track.
Everyone involved speaks of the friendly, inclusive nature of the sport, which has helped boost cyclo-cross' grass-roots popularity.
"The scene in Bristol is steadily growing," says Mark. "We did have a position some years ago where there were more organisers than competitors showing up, but now we're running fields of 50 or more racers, and there's a real buzz about it."
To begin with, you can enter on an old mountain bike or a sturdy road bike with knobbly tyres and fairly low gears to help cope with inclines and mud.
Purpose-built cyclo-cross bikes look a lot like road racing bikes, with slim frames and narrow, heavily treaded tyres, but they have mountain bike-style cantilever brakes to allow for mud build-up.
A good 'cross bike is also fairly light, so it can be easily slung over a shoulder when needed, and many have high ground clearance so the chain wheel doesn't get bashed on uneven ground. Bought new, they start at about the £800 mark, with models like the Ridley X-Bow.
A little more will get you a Genesis Croix de Fer (about £1,100), or a proper wedge (think £1,500-plus) wins you something like Van Dessel's wonderfully named Gin and Trombones, or Full Tilt Boogie.
It's easy to spend upwards of £3,000 on a top-end model. But as with most cycling subcultures, there are plenty of people getting out there and doing it on cheap second-hand machines without any problems.
Seasoned racers often bring more than one bike, and when the going gets really muddy they'll swap bikes every couple of laps. A support team of friends on the sidelines clean off and prepare the muddy bike ready for the next lap's swap-over. But again, such luxuries are far from essential for beginners looking for a bit of muddy fun. All you need to do is sort yourself a suitable bike and a helmet, find out where your local race is and turn up. Entry fees are typically about a tenner, and there are ten local events scheduled for the spring/summer season, kicking off in Cheltenham on May 15.
The first Bristol fixture is in Hengrove Park on May 22, followed by a thrash through Warmley Forest Park on May 22 and a blast around Oldbury Court Estate on June 5.
Full details of these and the rest of the season's muddy meet-ups can be found on the British Cycling website. Check the calendar to find one that suits, then get out there and get 'cross!
Visit www.britishcycling.org.uk/ cyclo-cross.