A local race this week. A classic. Stadt Moers. People have been hanging out doing cyclocross races in this park for donkey's years - me included and after the last few races being 'far afield' Trophies it was a delight. No stress (not that I've been stressing out all that much about any racing this year), no pressure, no long drive to get there or crazy early start, just a chilled out morning, chuck some bike stuff in the van after a late breakfast and spend those pre race couple of hours at the venue chatting to anyone and everyone in the pits. Ace. The NW scene is full of brilliant people and is was a nice treat to just hang out.
The course, after the last couple of very technical Trophy routes, was exactly what I was looking for. Plenty of opportunity to put power down, with corners that rewarded keeping the pedals turning and picking your line, some snaking trails through the woods and plenty of MUD! Yay! Strength sapping, wheel grabbing, tyre sliding mud. Super. I don't want to say "old school cross" because that brings about grainy film memories of riders in soggy wool jerseys flinging steel tubed bikes over streams in some remote countryside, but definitely not "new skool" almost-mtb, man-made Scalextric either. "classic cross"? Whatever. It was, frankly, great fun.
With no chance to swap the damaged tubular on the Vitus after South Shields last week, I'd intended to do as much of the race as possible on the Planet X. The muddy nature of the conditions were playing into my hands a bit with the Limus tyres on it offering acres of grip - perhaps they're not quite as 'fast' as the Super Muds on the Vitus, but on a course where just 'getting stuck in' across the heavy ground was key, not having to think about how you were taking the bends (because you knew the tyres would bite) was - I hoped - the way forward.
Quite a sedate start - in effort, I mean, it wasn't fast speedwise simply because the ground was getting very cut up and hard going from the get go - which I was fine with. I saw Lewis Craven roll past, catch up to Chris and sort of waft into the distance as I settled in a bit and built up to race pace. Whatever. I'd chase him down later (and you can stop laughing at the back at that). I settled down into, essentially, TT effort, making sure I stayed upright in the corners rather than trying to hit them flat out and building back up to somewhere around threshold without really peaking the heart rate at any point after each one.
The heavy going, but not too soggy ground conditions changed very quickly after a lap as a proper, full on, thrashing down rain shower battered us. I could tell it was really heavy because, well, I noticed it. It's very rare that I spot the weather while racing, in fact that last time I can remember it was during a NW race in Beacon Park a few winters ago, when the freezing rain / sleet / snow / sleet / freezing wind caused a huge sense of humour failure, leading to a full on tantrum from me, when I crossed the finish line in a state of cold-numbness, didn't slow at all and rode straight to the van, completely ignoring all the people in the pits who'd been putting up with the same conditions as me to support me, where I just sat with a towel round me having a sob/shiver/grump while vowing to give up bike riding for ever... Anyway, I digress, the heavy rain added a fresh slop to the course. Ruts began to form (and were needed to get through the heaviest sections with any speed at all, the swoopy sections in the woods became super heavy going grinds and everything got an extra dose of toughness added to it.
With the ground cutting up more and wheels sinking deeper, hidden rocks and roots started making an appearance and, at some point, I clouted one too hard with the front wheel and punctured. It was so wet by this point that I actually didn't notice at first, in fact I rode past the pits thinking "I'm getting ace grip right now" before realising, just as I passed the pit exit, that the tyre was folding round the rim as the last of the air escaped. Oh arse. Half a lap with a completely deflated front tyre put paid to any thoughts of speeding up to see if I could close the gap to Lewis (seriously, stop laughing, he wasn't going flat out, I could tell on the sections of the course where I could see that far ahead...) but thankfully the fields were soft enough for me to just keep grinding round on it without having to worry too much about destroying the wheel. A long half lap later (it always feels like that when you're nursing a damaged bike round) I swapped to the Vitus and set about essentially nursing that bike with it's falling-apart-but-at-least-inflated rear tub round. It seemed to be OK and with a gap both on front and behind me I, I don't want to say "cruised" because it's not cruising by any means, kept everything controlled and steady for a few laps.
The cut-up singletrack in the woods as starting to make tyres dislodge more and more buried stones and with a couple of laps still to go I noticed the gears start to clog up with that debris. Wonderfully, Andy and Angela in the pits had cleaned the Planet X and swapped the punctured front wheel with a spare I had, with an intermediate tyre on it. Given how slippery and churned up everything was getting, intermediate tyres were never going to be a race winning move, but - just like with the flat tyre earlier - it wasn't an instant disaster either, OK the corners were more of a handful, but somehow that made them even more fun. There was a lot of extra steering done through the singletrack as the front end swung around as it felt, with no effect on direction, but again I stayed upright for long enough for Andy and Angela to, again, get my spare bike clean enough to swap back to. The last lap being ridden on a hastily scrubbed clean bike with a properly knackered rear tyre was only, to my mind, going to end one way. Not "if" but "when" would the tatty carcass give way and blow... I do' tmind a bit of running in cyclocross so I settled back (gingerly) and steeled myself for the inevitable pop.
Pop! To my delight, I'm only a couple of straights and a few corners from the finish when it gave up and the bike is still rideable even with it flapping about so I get round the last few bends upright and in the saddle. Miles back from Lewis but given the mechanicals and not reeeeeaaally going flat out I'm happy enough, even if my bank balance isn't...
Thank you to everyone who helped put that (and every other) race on. These local races are the real lifeblood of the sport and really are made even better by the ace people turning up and taking part and it was great fun just hanging out, talking bikes, making plans and all that social nonsense :)
It should go without saying but I'm saying it anyway, HUGE thanks to Lee at Advance Cycle coaching who's given me the sort of fitness to 'tempo' my way round a race and still be going fast. Proper fitness, that.