When was the last time you raced round a Grade 1 listed building? If you were at the Morvélo CityCross 2 then you can say it was last weekend, if you weren’t then you’ll probably never get the chance to say that you have, or ever will. Which is a shame as it was bloody brilliant.
After the success of the inaugural CityCross at Shroggs Tip earlier in the year the event revisited the delights of Halifax but relocated to a new venue at The Piece Hall in the town centre and a return to what CityCross was supposed to be before a last minute venue change had the first race run round a more traditional scruffy parkland environment rather than the urban adventure playground that was originally planned.
The Piece Hall is something unique, it was opened way back in 1779 as a market for local cloth manufacturers to sell their goods (a “Piece” is a length of cloth 30 yards long), and it’s the only such building still in existence. When that side of the textile trade died the Piece Hall has adapted to become a wholesale fruit and veg market, a public events arena and now today, for one day only, a cyclo-cross venue. The building is due to be renovated and refurbished soon so there was a brief window of opportunity to put on something as stupid as a cyclo-cross race, the race organizers and the council grabbed the chance to create an historic one-off once in a lifetime event. It also opened the possibility to race where Bob Carolgees used the toilet, but that’s a story for another day.
The course was about as far removed from your usual “ride around the edge of a field, jump over some planks, repeat for an hour” cyclo-cross course as you could get. Contained wholly within the walls of the Piece Hall it was only the start stretch that ventured outside, a brief sprint up a dark and damp cobbled street before turning right through the gates of the building and then left up the sloped side of the courtyard straight into the Lazer Sand-Trap, which was deep dump of Jewsons finest, or rather, tall, and caught out most everyone.
Then you had to negotiate the Castelli Spiral of Doom which turned in and around itself in a confusion of course-tape, on off-camber cobbles, whilst trying not to get the front wheel trapped in a trough between two sets, making it difficult to work out if you were in front of someone or trying to chase them down. Without getting dizzy you went under the Lezyne bridge and onto the first bit of grass, which was mostly very slippery mud, left-hand corner, right-hand corner, downhill off-camber right hander with an optional Morvélo berm and then up some metal steps for the Bont Podium Dash, a run across the back of the stage to ride down a ramp the other side. Oh, sometimes there was a smoke machine on at full steam inside there, making it impossible to see where the exit was.
Onto more muddy grass with tight slow bends and corners back onto cobbles again to get speed up to launch over the Lezyne bridge, two right turns on cobbles, grab a cup of Dark Star Beer if you’re a Novice, along the Cobble Sprint straight that allowed a spurt of speed for, oooooh, two seconds, bump up a kerb onto grass and some more tight twisty corners that might have been quicker to run, down a kerb on to cobbles again, sprint up the slope to the finish line and repeat for about 20 minutes. It was a tight, twisty confusing compact course, and with all that going on one that favoured handling skill, elbows and finesse over fitness and raw power.
It’s not only the course that’s a little different to your standard Sunday morning fare, in CityCross the race format is unusual too. It’s not a simple race around for everyone, instead the racing takes the form of a series of Motos that culminate in a Final for each category. Each Moto, or qualifier if it makes it easier to understand, is about 20 minutes long, and the top 50% of each Moto go through to their respective Final. If you were a Senior, Vet or Novice and failed to qualify you were given a reprieve and the opportunity to race the Final via the Last Chance Qualifier where the top half could squeak through. So if you did it right, or wrong, you could race three times in the day.
The only thing that could be described as traditionally cyclo-cross was the weather, it was cold, but then it would be in Halifax in November, and although things started promisingly with crisp blue skies it wasn’t long before heavy showers began to clatter through, joining up at times to form prolonged attacks of heavy rain. It turned the cobbles greasy, the grass to mud and then muddier still and wet air mixed with the sand from the sandpit and grit from the stones to blend an effective bike component destroying paste.
The competition started early with the Under 8s and worked it’s way through the day through U10 & U12, Novices, Youth, Juniors, Women, Vets and Seniors so there was always some racing to watch. Kids with competitive dads raced on carbon wheels against nippers in shorts and t-shirts on little jumpy mountainbikes, men on full-suspension rigs tried to keep up with novices on tubulars. With each Moto being only 20 minutes long there was no other option but to go flat out from the gun, making for close and exciting racing; skids, stumbles, crashes and over-the-bars moments, pointy elbows, punctures, snapped mech hangers and broken rims……
To keep you going through a long day of heckling, encouraging and cowbell ringing, or for sustenance between races there was a range of fine edibles to choose from; a hog roast, wood-fired pizza, some nice cakes served from an old Citroen H-Van, because it’s not a bike event without an H-Van is it, proper coffee and a large beer trailer with real pint-pulling taps to celebrate a good result.
The top tip for spectators was to make it up the stone steps and onto one of the galleries that surround the Piece Hall courtyard from where you could see the whole course laid out in front of you, so there was no need for the traditional trudge round a bleak damp windswept field to catch bits of the action, you could watch it all from under cover, which was handy as the wet dumped out the sky once again. And whilst you were up there you could look at and buy all sorts of bike related things. The rooms that used to sell material hundreds of years ago had been taken over by cycle traders; there were photographic prints from Joolze Dymond, art prints from Anthony Oram and Rebecca Kaye, bikes from Orange, Felt, Ridley, Genesis and Feather Cycles and more pretty cycling things from Victor & Liberty. There was no excuse to be bored.
When it came to the Finals those very galleries became part of the race course as the tape was redirected off the courtyard and riders sped their way along three sides of the Piece Hall along floodlit corridors. Not your usual race track, but as you may have gathered by now CityCross isn’t your usual bike race. The walkways were narrower than two sets of handlebars making it impossible to pass so it was important to race tactically if you didn’t want to get held up, and as the top three of each category would each receive a cobblestone from the Piece Hall as a trophy in Paris-Roubaix fashion, a little piece of history as well as a vast array of bike related prizes, there was plenty to scrap for.
The finals were where the Morvélo CityCross 2 truly came alive. It was night, when was the last time to did a ‘cross race in the dark, cobbles glistened in the rain, the race went from shadow to light and back again, and after the slow technical serpentine turns of the courtyard racers did everything they could to create speed and gap riders down the corridors, brakes squealing in anger as they negotiated the ninety degree corners. Serious racers knew that if you got into the corridors first on the last lap then you were going to win which led to some exciting manoeuvres.
And that was it, a full day of racing in a unique environment, a never-to-be-repeated opportunity. I disappointedly didn’t make it to the Final to get to race through the corridors, but at some point in the Last Chance Qualifier and failing to make that Final by one place I’m teetering round a wet corner trying not to crash because I’ve done that three times already because my brakes have succumbed to the mix of sand and grit and water and aren’t working at all, and the rest of my bike is making horrible grinding noises, I’m getting very very wet from the rain, desperately hunting for traction, it’s dark and cold, a selection of indie and dance tunes are pounding out of large speakers and it sounds like The Fall are on right now, I don’t like The Fall really. By rights I should be right miserable. But instead I am laughing, this is both absurd and wonderful. I will soon forget the 12 hours driving time and the expense of traveling the length of the country to do this, because it’s like nothing I have ever done before. Racing round a Grade 1 listed building is stupid and fantastic, I’ll probably never get the chance to do it again. CityCross will happen again but it’s never going to happen again here, if you missed it then you missed out.
Photos courtesy of Joolze Dymond
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.