“What is so great about cyclocross?” An often muddy field, potential bumps and bruises, cold, wet,… Really?! It’s fun?!

I asked my wife Jen to explain all …

As the wife of a life-long cyclocross rider, at the beginning of this season I still wasn’t sure.  I’m not totally new to the sport and I love cycling (all sorts, road and off road).  I rode cross for a season back when I was new to cycling as a whole, back before children, back when I thought there was always another chance, another year.  But I didn’t love it.  For me, standing on the sidelines holding a bottle (because you could back then) was crazy.  It would be better to join in, since I was there.

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Back in the day

This time it’s different…I have new motivation.  After child birth my joints stopped working, quite literally.  I tried to get back on my bike and felt unbelievable pain in my knees, and they were swelling up.  Over time they became worse.  I couldn’t walk, let alone ride.  It took a long time to get a diagnosis (psoriatic arthritis) and even longer to find find a solution.  That road is a whole other story, but when I was lucky enough that the drugs worked, I wasn’t going to sit still any longer.  I wanted to get back out and get my fitness back.  And that’s how it started.  In fact, it really started when I downloaded Strava.  As a motivational tool for cyclists it’s hard to do better, and if you are starting from stationary then even more so; the improvement was dramatic.

After a year or so of riding for fun (and Strava segments) once or twice a week I was very keen on getting off road.  I dropped numerous hints to the elves about the possibility of a mountain bike for Christmas.  The elves decided that I didn’t want a mountain bike at all; what I really needed was a cyclocross bike?!  And then it began.  I joined a mountain bike club and, assured by Alex that I would be fine, proceeded to rock up to a mountain bike ride around the south downs wearing lycra, with a bottle cage, and a bike with no suspension and very narrow tyres.  Turned out everyone was lovely and I did manage to keep up.  I also had lots of fun.

By the winter, Alex was back in the mix in the Wessex League senior races.  I was back supporting.  I was in the pits getting muddy, but I wasn’t sure about racing myself.  The races were different now: there was a separate women’s race.  I was happy all those years ago to end up a good way down a field of men and get a bottle of wine from a raffle stand as a prize for finishing.  Now, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’m perhaps a little too competitive.  I thought I was good on a bike.  I didn’t want to ride with a small field of women and end up at the back, to shatter my illusions.  Ignorance was bliss.  Strava was my safety net; Strava was racing under cover.  This would be real!  I entered the novice race … twice.  I was first woman … twice.  Actually, I was the only woman.  I needed to dive in and do this properly.

Now that my eldest son was entering the U12s: “it’s not the winning Mummy, it’s the taking part”.  Of course it is.  You can always take something from the races, if you try your best.  So I did, and I did.  I can’t even remember what position I came now, but I was cornering well and I was racing against someone in each of the races.  For me however, it was type 2 fun: the build-up, the nerves, the trying as hard as I possibly could for forty whole minutes or more was fun after the event.  Looking back on it, I loved it, but during? Not sure.

This year something changed.  This year, I met Laura Bailey and Lindy Larkin.  This year I went to Belgium.  This year I discovered that it’s so much more than the race.  The first Wessex League event was in Newbury and I went expecting something similar to the year before, but there were so many more women.  On the penultimate lap I rammed my bike into a hurdle, spent a whole minute trying to put the chain back on and lost three places in the process.  I had learnt a valuable lesson: cyclocross isn’t just bike riding, it takes practise.  It was still type two fun, but the fun bit was now FUN.

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Fighting it out with Lauren Cracknell at Swindon [photo by BOB B]

The thing with cyclocross, and anyone who’s done it will tell you this, is that you are always battling, jostling for a place with someone.  In Oxford this year there were nearly 60 women in my race and it was certainly a case of “the more the merrier”.  When the race is over the sense of camaraderie and competition is incredible.  We all try our best during the race to beat each other, and are really happy when we do, but we never want to see our rivals crash out or fail to finish from an unlucky mechanical.  There is a sense of community.  People bring their families and stay all day.  The women race, then rush to the pits to wash and fix bikes for their partners.  Dads pit for their children, then get changed and head off for their own battle.  There’s always someone to help and advise, and a great many people with huge smiles on their faces.  Laura and Lindy, in particular.  It took them much less time than me to ‘get’ cyclocross, but their enthusiasm is infectious.

Then, my dear husband entered a race in Belgium, and the kids and I were his pit crew. And it was the same…we were made to feel welcome throughout.  But, what changed how I looked at racing was watching Sven Nys (of course!)  Not during the race, but before hand.  He spent a very long time discussing with his coach at great length what the best way was to ride over or through a ditch.  Crazy, but every race is a puzzle.  Every race is different.  The lines you choose to take depend on your own particular skills and the practise laps are the best bit.  Work it out, test it out, and then during the race, execute it.  It’s difficult, but we do these things ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard’.  The race is where you execute the plan, and a successful race is ‘when a plan comes together’ (whatever position you finish in).

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Sven shows us how it’s done

Yes, the mud, and the ice, and the cold is there, and the conditions often change throughout a race, but that just makes it more interesting!  So, that’s why I have changed my mind about cyclocross, and I hope some other ladies might read this and give it a try.

Jennifer Forrester

[feature image BOB B]  

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