Diary of a cyclo-cross racer: Richard Mitchelson's fourth race of the season...
Rich headed to Ally Pally at the weekend for Rapha's final SuperCross cyclo-cross race
As soon as the entries opened online I was there, typing in my details like a loon. Last year's Rapha Supercross was one of the hardest races of the calendar but the most awesome at the same time. The course is tough but the amount of people that turn out to cheer us on and the festival atmosphere lifts you and makes it really worth the kicking you get. A couple of days after racing I'm still sore but every ache and pain brings back memories of the cheering/jeering people and the fun that was had. I guess it's worth it for that moment of local cyclo-cross mid pack mud plugging glory.
Luckily this year me and my wife stayed as local as you get, as my wife’s sister lives within flobbing distance of the course. So on Saturday we headed up from Brighton and I settled in for a chilled out night of good food, chat, tv and roaring fires. I felt a little nervy as I knew the next day was gonna hurt, but I was relaxed and most importantly looking forward to it. My legs had started to feel better after the cold left my system and I knew that I could've done a bit more training, but life sometimes deals you these cards, and I'm not one to dwell what could have been, just make sure you away from the race knowing you've raced as hard as you can on the day. No regrets.
A quality breakfast and the car packed and within five minutes I was strolling through the trade village to the sign on. I had my routine down from previous races so I knew exactly when I needed that gel, put things in the pits and get on the course for a warm up and then to the start. It was a cold day, the previous nights rain [see muddy hell videos] had left London damp, but not sodden. Perfect cyclo-cross conditions.
The fresh wind meant I was never going to over heat and I stayed relaxed and caught up with old friends and new ones, including road.cc's own Dave Arthur [who raced like a pro in the same race as me later.] Some people knew me from this blog and from twitter and strode up and introduced themselves, that’s the great thing about cycling I guess, you always have something in common with someone and as long as they're a friendly face I'll happily stand and talk the hind legs off any type of donkey. My wife was due to join us with my sister in-law and her husband a bit later, so I knew I'd have quite a big cheer squad come race time.
The race was my first ever race on my new wheels. The Strada Major Toms had been sorted out for me by Jonathan at Strada a month or so before, and the Velocity rims laced with Sapim spokes on Hope hubs are brilliantly light, stiff and responsive. I gave my bike to a mate to hold onto while I pinned on his number and I got some very encouraging noises back about the weight etc... you know how riders are... *lift a couple of times* *eye brows raise* sometimes followed by the phrase "ooooooohh very nice." If I'm honest that’s never happened to me before, so for this guy, a usual top 15 finisher to say this gave me some confidence.
The process was really tailored to my needs, weight and riding style. Quality. I was also riding out on some Challenge Grifo tubs for the first time, people had told me that this was what 'cross was all about and it would really help my confidence and handling, especially in the mucky stuff. They were right, even riding on second hand jobs like I was the difference was really marked.
Having picked up a digital pressure gauge [another tip] I was able to accurately bring the pressure down to 25psi and it was like riding on a very grippy rubber magic carpet, the bike floated and I was able to get more speed and carry it through the corners. By having this confidence my cornering has improved because I'm not always worried my tyres are to hard and that the bike will disappear under me. So I was set. Everything was ready. I headed out on my warm up lap.
The weight of the bike was noticeable straight away on the large amount of climbing on the Alexandra Palace course, steep uphill sections made way for off camber muddy sections and even muddier descents. The lower part of the course was the faster for me, and as I set off on another half lap warm up I really started to enjoy myself and feel like this could be a good.... BANG...
Coming down through the woods to the start/finish straight I must have turned a bit sharp and I stacked it. Luckily I wasn't going too quick at the time and no harm was done to the bike, my kit or helmet. But it did hurt, and my side is smarting from a little dose of road rash and bruising. I laid on the ground and checked I was okay, nothing broken. I picked myself up and got out the way of the others. It turned out the corner was going to be the nemesis of a lot of riders that day and soon the corner was adjusted to make it a little wider so you could ride on more of the grass. The confidence I'd built had taken a real bashing and as I gave my warm kit to my wife I knew I was going to need to race more smart when that corner came round again.
Unlike last year where the start was a bit of a free for all, this year guys were gridded. I'm use to it, so was in a pretty good spot once we could move forward. The field of Seniors in my race was much smaller than I'm used to as we were racing as just seniors. Normally we have Vets, Women and Juniors to race and so as I looked round all I could see were the big hitters from my London League races and some other pretty handy looking lads from other leagues. I checked my gear, clipped in and waited.
"I WILL START YOU IN THE NEXT 10 SECONDS... GO"
We all got off cleanly but then a guy must have pulled his foot out and instead of riding into the back of him I had to put the brake on. I was quickly round him and onto the steep paved section. More riders had issues I think choosing the wrong gear and were unclipping, a moment passed and I was round them and away.
After racing last year I knew that if you race beyond your limit to soon you go backwards on the last two laps. I pushed hard but held a little in reserve. Each lap the amount of mud and climbing took its toll and I was pleased with the pace I set out at. The earlier crash also knocked my speed but as the race progressed my laps seemed to get quicker and quicker even as the course cut up more and more.
I spotted a rider I knew [and who's pretty handy on the road] and latched onto his wheel, it was a good move, he was waiting for me to come through but i knew I was in a good place and going at a pace I could maintain. We stuck together for a lap or more and gave me time to get used to the course, and forget about the earlier stack. I was back in the race and I was ready to push.
I noticed he was slowing and I made my move, he pushed to stick with me but after a couple of digs I was on my own. I had no idea if it'd stick but I was gonna give it my all to get away and pick off more riders. As the race passed half way I noticed the riders who'd gone off to hard were dropping back, each lap I felt like I was picking them off one at a time. The tubs allowing me to corner well and maintain speed where others were slamming on the brakes and crashing.
The overall winner, and all round legend of off road riding Nick Craig lapped me twice... he was motoring and I mean MOTORING. I think he could've stopped for a brew, had a rub down, changed kit, had his dinner and then finished ahead of me. But it was inspiring to see how fast you can really go with years of experience and legs of steel.
The course was getting slick and I was learning to brake with confidence on the off camber descents, drifting my rear wheel out where I had to and staying well clear of the front brake to stop the bike throwing me off. The final lap bell rang out and it was time to empty the tank. My legs hurt and my lungs rasped but with each section done I told myself I don't need to race that section again and to push on harder. It felt like my quickest lap, and as I dropped onto the start/finish straight for the final time I hit the drops and sprinted as hard as I could, much to the appreciation of the large crowd cheering me on. I was done. I slowly got my breath back, and one of the brilliant volunteers took the electronic timing chip from my fork [something new for me, and which makes results instant and accurate... nice]
Rapha SuperCross was a brilliantly organised, fun event with a top quality course and field of riders. It's the highlight of my 'cross season because the noise and atmosphere is like nothing I've come across in local grass-roots racing. I can't wait to do it again. This year I was 54th out of 78 riders. With that field, on that day, on that course I'm pretty pleased with the result. It was tough going, but I'd not have it any other way. I want to thank all the people that made it so awesome, who gave up there own time to make this event so great. See you next year! I'll be back!
My next race is Stanmer Park in Brighton. See you on the start line.
Thanks to Elli Mitchelson, Gemma Atkinson and Oscar Scarsbrook for the photos