If you read about my last cyclocross race, you’ll be amazed that I even went back for more. Hengrove was a real challenge, both mentally and physically, yet it taught me some very important lessons about what not to do before a bike race.
With the last week’s mistakes in mind, I planned for success at Stroud. Not expecting anything, not even aiming to not come last, today was all about having loads of fun and getting very muddy with some very good friends. Having been a little disappointed doing my first ever Hill Climb on Belmont Hill courtesy of UoBCC the day before and coming last, I needed to teach myself not to have unrealistic expectations.
It started the night before – no beers this time, a healthy, hearty dinner and an early night. We met the crew in the morning for a quick coffee and we were soon off in James’ van up to Stroud for this week’s instalment of the Western Cyclocross League. We were all buzzing bound for Stratford Park, and it had nothing to do with the caffeine. It was Jon’s first race of the season and a chance to try his new steed, James and Hana were keen to race and our very own CX star John was feeling on form.
Arriving in plenty of time this week, we met fellow Bristolian, ‘Yellow Steel‘ Dom, pinned up with our numbers and set off for a recce lap. I rode with the boys, not having to push hard as we steadily navigated around the course. This seemed to be mainly grassy, very little mud and the weather looked set to stay dry and bright, but I’d overheard one woman worrying to her friend about the section in the woodland up ahead.
A tight bend around a large horse chestnut upturned one senior on his first lap. Mental note to go steady and wide on that one. Through the grassy bends, we were approaching the woods now. I let the boys go ahead of me – they would be able to show me the best line and also not see when I stacked it! There was a muddy drop off, so I slowed, leaned my weight back and went for it. Just having a little MTB experience is really helpful when it comes to technical parts of the course like this.
I was secretly chuffed that I’d managed that. I was keeping up with the boys, albeit on a very steady warm up lap, but it still felt great. A short flat section now, bombing along on the muddy wood trail and – oh wait – we’re stopping – stopping – oh dear…
The best bit about falling off in the practice is that you can just laugh as you’re laid there, still clipped in and wrapped up in the mangled old wooden fencing. Cyclocross, although still a race, doesn’t seem to be taken all that seriously so you can have a real giggle. The chap behind me was reaching out and trying to help me up but being my stubborn self I wouldn’t let him, instead picking myself up and hopping straight back on which he seemed to be quite surprised by. I insisted that I was fine – I really was – there had just been a sudden pileup in front of me and I hadn’t been able to stop in time to avoid them. Now that I’d fallen off already I was much less fearful which I’m sure went on to help in the race.
With a practice lap under my belt and having done a few dismounts – my new skill for the week – it was time to get going. A quick gel and we all ready to go in a bunch, veterans and ten ladies. Vets off first and a minute pause before we were off, all heaving our CX bikes up the grassy hill, vying for top spot. Iwona Szmyd was off on her MTB, miles ahead in no time, there was no competition for her – an amazingly strong woman.
The first lap cut out the woods, we thrashed around on the grassy loop, soon spreading out. It wasn’t long before we were catching up the laggards in the vets. ‘On your right‘ I called out for the first time ever, and when he was out of earshot I turned around to Hana – she could already tell I was super excited to have passed someone!
I hung on close to Hana for a while before her stamina exceeded mine and I started to drop back further. I didn’t have a Garmin today which was probably for the best, not noticing my ridiculous heart rate through the roof or how much longer I had to endure.
Second lap in, we headed for the woods. Where some of the other ladies slowed, I put full faith in my bike and went for it again, what was the worst that could happen? I’d already fallen off, it couldn’t get worse! It paid off, and taking a different and slightly sneaky like up through the vegetation and between the trees in the woods avoided having to get off for the steep muddy bank, saving further time.
Back out on the grass, I would lose some time as I wasn’t as fit as many of the other ladies. In cyclocross it really doesn’t matter – at least to me, it’s more a personal test of fitness and building skill. These next few laps were hard, getting into a rhythm, learning the best lines on the corners, tough work climbing up those grassy banks.
We had a full support crew this week, with James, John, Dom and Jon cheering and heckling from the pits. On each lap there was one dismount for two hurdles, and I proudly perfected my dismount in time to pick up the bike and leap over each one – another improvement on last week.
After a few laps I caught up with Hana – I had been cheering her on from a way back and now she leaned over and echoed exactly how I felt; I wont repeat the expletives. She took a swig from her drink and handed it over to me; she was my saviour. I had been so, so thirsty and I’m sure this saved me for the second half of the race.
Going into the woods, Hana was a little more nervous, but out on the grass she was always much faster than me, so all in all we stuck together for the last few laps. I can’t explain how much it helped having someone else to ride with, and not only that, one of my closest biking friends.
I had started to enjoy it, still all-out leg-burning pain, but the thrill was immense, and I felt like I was really starting to get the hang of it. With every dismount and every technical section my confidence grew, and hey, we weren’t last! Soon it was the last lap, Hana and I still riding together and egging each other on. The thought crossed my mind – what should I do? Should we sprint for the line – it was a race after all? Or come in together, as it was our collaboration that had helped us both so much?
It was a Brownlee Brothers moment as we crossed the finish line arm in arm. I was so pleased when Hana had reached over fifty metres or so from the finish and placed an arm on my back and I’d done the same. We’d got through it together, so we took glory together.
After the suffering and disappointment of the previous week, I am struggling to put down in words the euphoria that I felt finishing that race. Joking at first with their disappointment about our friendly finish, the boys congratulated us on the race, getting ready to get going themselves next.
What’s more, looking later at the results, Hana and I had come joint 6th out of ten women, that’s a vast improvement on last week and shows what can be achieved with proper preparation and a little help from my friends.
So we didn’t get muddy, but we certainly had a hell of a lot of fun. An important lesson in enjoying it first, results can come later.