Saturday, 9 January 2010


I had been planning to post a little retrospective of my 2009 season -- which, as I've been reminded, was a pretty successful one -- but in the meantime, I thought I'd write a bit about my latest adventure in cycle racing: cyclocross, aka off-road riding on a road bike with knobby tires. This winter, what with the unusual cold weather creating icy roads and freezing windchills, cyclocross has been my saving grace to get outside on otherwise snowy and unrideable days, not to mention a welcome escape from the indoor turbo trainer.

Snowy conditions can't stop the cyclocrosser! (photo Roger Merriman)

My off-road skills have never been awesome (something I'd like to work on once I buy a good mountain bike), but cyclocross doesn't tend to have much in the way of technical climbs or descents. It's just good old-fashioned mud, grass, short sharp run-ups, off-camber corners, and the occasional unjumpable barrier thrown in for fun. In fact, it's become such a popular sport the past few years that even the BBC sent a sports reporter out to investigate, who filmed this video (watch for me to overtake him at 30 seconds in, ha ha).

What goes up... (photo Jim Ley)

Enjoys the ride down! (photo Jim Ley)

Having both the outer path of Richmond Park (my favourite running loop in dry weather) and Esher Common/Oxshott Heath close by means I can be out practising my riding skills on wooded trails and open fields within 15 minutes of leaving home. And whereas a similar park area in Canada might have a few trails here and there, wonderfully old heavily populated England means dozens of criss-crossing paths in every direction. I can easily spend two hours playing in a few hundred acres and never ride the same path twice. The same goes for races: a small bit of single-track and a football field can make up a course that takes 10 minutes to traverse!

London League CX race 03-01-2010
A mile-long course in the space of a few acres.

As for race skills, years of riding a city bike around the Netherlands had already perfected my coasting dismount, and triathlon transitions meant I was good at jumping on the bike at speed too (though in cyclocross you already have your shoes on!) Running up hills: no problem, in fact the more running in a race, the better I am relative to other riders. But the wet grassy corners and giant ruts of mud everywhere have required me to up my game lest I crash more often than not, or worse yet, take someone else out. Thankfully taking a tumble in cyclocross usually means a soft landing, though embarrassingly often in front of a crowd of cheering fans.

Not so gracefully negotiating a corner. (photo Jim Ley)

The imfamous Herne Hill "hurdy-gurdies". (photo Jim Ley)

The races last about an hour with anywhere from five to ten laps of the course to complete. Add in a mass start with up to 100 riders and the first couple of laps are usually quite chaotic. But as a flat-out 60-minute training session, you couldn't ask for a better workout. By the end my quads are burning and my lungs bursting, but I always finish with a smile on my face.

A typical race start. (photo LondonCycleSport)

Jumping on and off the bike. (photo LondonCycleSport)

The mud flies! (photo LondonCycleSport)

Surprisingly, I've managed to pull off some good finishes in my London Cyclocross League races so far, though after a disappointing 4th place last race -- 38 seconds behind 3rd place and all of that lost in the first lap -- I can see I need to work on my starting position and effort if I want to improve. The women usually race with the main group, so call-ups (being placed in the front few rows) are rare. It just means I need to get to the start line earlier and hold my place aggressively so the late-comers can't push their way in front of me. With a hard first 30-60 seconds to maintain my position in the group after the gun, I'm hoping to keep from getting caught behind slower folks. Starting near the front also means I can stick with some faster wheels longer to take advantage of the draft through the open parts of the course. Time will tell how this new tactic works for me!

Sometimes the bike takes a beating. (photo Jim Ley)

But often the rider does too!


James Sennema said...

Maryka, why don't you take up something more reasonable, like fell running? Isn't there a fell running contest where you have to run up and down the three highest peaks in Great Britain - Snowden, Ben Nevis and one other one - within 24 hours?

Uncle James

maryka said...

Fell running is more a northern thing I think, where they seem to be a bit nuttier than we down south. Besides, we really don't have any fells nearby! I think I prefer to ride rather than run up hills anyway.