I’m on the last lap of the last cyclocross race of this weird season. The ground is brick hard after the driest April in these parts for years, so the racing is fast.
Tubeless instead of tubulars were the obvious tyre choice. I’m running these Challenge file treads, pumped up way beyond 30psi. This dry, dusty stuff is unfamiliar ground for a CX race in the North West of England, not least because we’re actually (say it quietly in case people hear!) in Yorkshire.
All the racing in this Covid season has been on the Broughton Hall estate, near Skipton: a big-sky expanse of sheep fields, singletrack through some woods (those 250m of strade bianchi were custom-built for us by the very good people at Hope Tech down the road in Barnoldswick, which is sponsoring the league and our racing this season). There are fast off-cambers, a run-up through a small quarry pit (amazingly, the strongest can actually ride up this thing!), a short, loose gravel path, then a long, draggy ascent across another wide field running parallel to the main road, with the mass of the Pennies and the Dales stretching across the horizon to the North - if you ever get a chance to glance up from the track at the scenery.
Earlier in the season, this same course felt like the trenches, like most cyclocross races in this part of the country. There was snow on the hills, and slippery, heavy, grass-filled mud forced me off the bike time after time. Many of the long “running” sections were a grim slog, trying to make trudging look like running, with your bike, shoes, legs, and your skinsuit caked in the stuff.
Today, instead, the muddy ruts are baked hard. Wrists, shoulders, forks, headset all get hammered as the ground pounds back and clouds of sandy dust rise from under our wheels.
My heart rate is fast – the Garmin graph later shows it constantly at about 96% of max since the starting whistle 44 minutes ago. I’ve hit this sharp downhill left-then-right chicane five times and I know this will be the last time. There’s a short, steep, four or five hard pedal strokes embankment turn after this, then into the swooping corners at the top of the course, down to the jump across the double hurdles, a fast turn through a berm-y corner, and the final uphill straight to the finish.
I know I’m well down the field. There are more than 70 riders in the men’s race and another 30 in the women race. The front few from each bunch have already lapped me – Dave, Steve, Bill, Amira, Becky, Sophie. I’d been able to stay with Simon for a while in the opening laps – he’d always finished a handful of places ahead of me last season and I had hoped that I might at least hold his wheels this year, but this was the first time we’d raced against each other this year, and he was going well. By lap 4, he’s ridden away and he’s more than 30 sec in front of me. Still, Giles – last year’s regional champion - was standing by the quarry edge and called “good effort, buddy” to me as I remounted after the run-up. So, time to keep pushing.
Neil had also been ahead of me; I thought I was still in with a chance of catching him, but at the start of the back straight I saw him standing with his bike on the wrong side of the tape, hit by a mechanical – again. A generous shout of encouragement from him, and a smile, as I press on towards the finish.
Graham’s also at the end of the back straight. Lapped earlier by the leaders, he’s missed this final lap. Just before I hit the corner, I hear his rich, warm Lancashire smile as he calls: “Go on, Peter!”
Then I take the corner fast.
I’ve always tried to encourage members of Salford CC to give cyclocross a go because if you fall in a race, you just get muddy, pull the gloop out of your chain, jump back on, kick the pedals and go again.
That’s not the way it works when the ground’s this dry and your rear wheel washes out under you. Three days later, my left shoulder still feels like someone kicked me, not the pedals. But that scraped knee and forearm take me back to primary school days: skinned knees and a telling-off from my mum after me and a guy along the street came tumbling home from what seemed big bike adventures down towards the river or the canal.
Suddenly, you’re not a grown-up who’s spent months training for these things: hours on the turbo, weeks of lunges, squats and planks, studying tyre treads and pressures, torqueing bolts and getting saddle heights just right. You’ve hit the ground, with a bump, like a kid again, just learning to ride a bike.
Why would you spend your time deliberately doing stuff which is always hard, and often hurts?
Well, the bike wasn’t damaged, and I had a race to finish. What else is there to do?
Because – look around you – there are other kids here, racing on tiny bikes; their big brothers and sisters are here, fighting for league places and recognition among their peers; their parents are here, some to support their kids, but lots are racing here later as well. There are older mothers and fathers, their kids have grown and flown, leaving them more time to train and race themselves. There are grandparents, some of them are racing here. There are friends, rivals. Friends.
Yes, it’s competitive. It’s hard - “That’s ‘cross for you,” everyone always says - and it’s really hard when you can’t do as well as you’d hoped. But there are lots of smiles and companionship, people help one another, and cheer their rivals on, because they know it’s hard for everyone.
Dave Haygarth, father, racer, motivator and organiser of this amazing Living With Hope series calls them “the glass half-full people”. Racing cyclocross seems to bring out the best in people. These races seem to have brought out the best of people, too. Dave is full of thanks and admiration. I think we all are. I am.
This sport only happens because people volunteer their time: the time to build courses, to stand for hours in cold carparks directing vans full of bikes to an empty space, their frozen fingers noting riders’ numbers and lap times, their advice on how to hold the racing line through a precarious off-camber when you know they’ll be chasing you down and lapping you once the race is on. If you want to race in this league, you also have to volunteer some time. It’s how it works. It’s the only way it works.
And just look around you. The sun’s out. The lockdown is lifting. People are smiling. People are together.
People were only able to come together over that dark, frightening winter to race their bikes in the mud when most amateur sport was banned, because of hope: hope that people would come, that they’d follow the Covid rules, and that they’d want to come back for more.
They did; they did; they do.
So it’s the last cyclocross race of this long, hard, dark season.
In the car park, we ask each other about summer plans: hill races, crits, TTs, training again. We’ll see you soon, because it’s September soon, then #CrossIsComing again.
I hope I’ll do it better then.