Beginning to race cyclo-cross at 50

Last year my son discovered cyclo-cross through our local cycling club and he really fell for the sport in a big way. As a result, we spent many weekends through last winter at cyclo-cross races and training sessions. At every race, most of the dads of the kids who raced, also raced. Every time this happened, my son said to me, “Dad when are you going to try a race?” So obviously I said “Next year Son” & promptly forgot about it, or at least hoped he would.

However he didn’t and I’ve had to walk the talk this year. I turned 50 in the summer, so I’m now a young man again in the 50 plus age category in the London and South East cyclo-cross league.

Until mid-September, I’d never competed in a bicycle race in my life. To be perfectly I honest, I’d not had any inclination to race. I’ve been perfectly happy as a MAMIL ambling around the countryside at a canter, riding a few sportives here and there. Social riding has always been my favourite thing about road cycling.

I’ve always been a “roadie” too. Apart from one attempt at the White Chalk Hills Ultracross back in 2014 on a borrowed Kinesis (thanks to the kind folks at Kinesis), I’d not really ever ridden off-road. I’ve still never ridden a mountain bike to this day. In 2016 Trek were kind enough to loan me a Crockett to review, which meant I had to find some off-road routes and thanks to some local experts I did. I liked the Crockett enough that I bought it rather than send it back. So I had the bike on hand to race with (something my son kept pointing out all of last cyclo-cross season).

After a month off riding in July/August, which eliminated a chunk of fitness, I started to work towards a first cyclo-cross race. This was at Crystal Palace in London. I had no idea what to expect to be honest and the first race was quite a shock. On the plus side it was a hot and sunny day. On the down side, I had no technical skills at all and no real fitness – certainly not of the flat out, full gas variety.

Off the start line from near the back of the grid, I managed to make 5 or 6 places to about 2/3rds of the way down the field. After about 4 minutes of a 40 minute race, I was utterly spent and thought how on earth will I last another 35 minutes? I gradually started losing the places that I’d gained at the start. Mainly through a lack of fitness but also through a lack of skills.

Showing a complete lack of race craft I also launched a sprint for the finish line far too early and got pipped on the line by a clubmate. Only a few minutes before the end of the race I’d been lapped by the leader and was absolutely thrilled that it would stop me from having to suffer my way around another lap. Hardly the attitude of a racer.

When the dust settled and after I’d lain on the ground for a few minutes, it turned out it hadn’t been a disaster. I finished 39 out of 53 in my first attempt. I’d found the technical bits difficult and it had mostly been dry & hot. My son was pleased and in his eyes, I now needed to ride the entire season.

Helpfully my club began running evening training sessions on Thursdays and this has been enormously useful. But at this point of the autumn it had been dry with little mud.

That changed for my next race at Leeds Castle which was very muddy in comparison and cold and pretty slippery. The change in weather saw the field size drop and again I made a good start and nearly managed to keep up with the bunch that comprised the top 20 for the first half a lap before I was knackered and fell away again. I slipped and slid my way through the muddy sections having basically no clue how to ride them. I think I only fell off once trying to follow a rider lapping me at the same speed as them through a slippery section. I couldn’t.

However, the result of smaller field meant that I finished in the top 30 for the first time in only my second attempt. 27th out of 37th. I can’t say I was enjoying cyclocross at this point apart from the one or two points in each lap that I could ride a corner or so quite competently, the remainder of the time I was a fish out of water without a clue how to ride or race.

This was patently obvious in the photos I’d been spotting of myself racing. A theme had emerged, I either looked like I was about to throw up … or terrified. There was some truth in both of these. I was finding the pace needed to ride at during the race simply beyond me and my lack of technical skills meant I approached each technical section with at best trepidation.

The absolute best part of the racing though was how welcoming, friendly, encouraging and helpful people are – not just in my cycling club but also the wider cyclocross community in general. People have been great even when I most certainly have not.

As a roadie, I’ve had to pretty much learn to ride a bike all over again and whilst you can most definitely teach an old(ish) dog new tricks, they don’t necessarily come as naturally or as quickly as one would like. For example, in the slow switchback bends you get in cyclo-cross, I’ve discovered I can’t turn left nearly as naturally as I can turn right, so I’ve had to learn to turn corners over again.  Off camber riding has proved very challenging for me especially when it’s steeper. I know I’m not the only one but as the seasons progressed, I’ve crashed more and more. Not less and less.

My third race of the season was at Herne Hill Velodrome in London and here again it was unseasonably warm and dry, which was very helpful for me. It’s also not the most technical course with the exception of “Big Bob” which I didn’t attempt to ride.

I’ve been trying to work on my fitness, with limited success but at Herne Hill I managed to finish in the top 30 again (29th out of 40) and was very close to finishing on the same lap as the winner. In fact I thought I had. I could see the leader slowly catching to lap me and I rode as hard as I could to keep in front. I got to the finish line about 10 seconds in front of him and the guy with the chequered flag said to me when I passed the line in front of him that I could stop there. I thought I’d not been lapped but the results later said otherwise. I wasn’t happy but there you go.

My next race was at East Bysshe in Surrey and to date has been the highlight of my season when I most definitely did finish on the same lap as the winner, less than 6 minutes behind the winner. It was a fun course and not enormously technical. My fitness had improved a touch and I was frankly really pleased with how I rode. I finished 34th of 54. If not for a small off where my front wheel washed out half way round the last lap when I was on the back of a group of 5 riders in front of me, it’s not impossible I could have finished higher up but the 10 seconds or I lost stopping, running and getting on the bike dropped me off that bunch and I couldn’t manage to chase them back down. So who knows but it was the first ‘cross race I’d more enjoyed than endured, which was a really nice feeling …. and a novel one!

The next round my son and I raced at was at East Brighton and for me it was a lowlight of the season. The lowlight so far in fact.

Parts of the course I thoroughly enjoyed but my lack of technical skills were my undoing. There were two pieces of the course that I simply couldn’t ride. I crashed on them on the practice lap and I crashed every lap in the same places – It felt like I crashed about 10 times. It can’t have been that many but it was at least 5 times and each on my drive side, so I bent my mech hanger. This meant that when changing down to ride up some steep muddy climbs, my chain popped in between my cassette and spokes and got stuck. The first time it happened after 30 seconds or so of yanking I got the chain out and kept riding. Whilst I told myself not to change down that low again, in the heat of the moment I did exactly that the next lap and got it properly wedged.

I tried for several minutes to free the chain but couldn’t. So I gave up and walked off the course carrying my bike. A club mate saw me and came to help. It was very kind of him and after a minute or two more he managed to free the chain and urged me to jump back on the bike but my head had completely gone. I’d lost the best part of a lap from where I’d been (near the back of the field thanks to all the crashing) and I thought it was pointless continuing to just keep crashing on the same corners, which were steep off camber drop offs.

So I sat out the last couple of laps thinking I’d DNF’d and would get no points anyway. It was a great example of how you can lose perspective in the heat of the moment. When I got home and saw the results later in the evening, I saw that I’d been recorded as a finisher and had even picked up more championship points. It turned out to be quite a positive learning experience in a number of ways and that’s something about cyclo-cross – there is just so much to learn. It’s a continuous learning experience for almost everyone racing. I should have kept riding and trying different ways of riding that particular section of the course – I’ve realised subsequently that I was probably crashing because I was moving my weight back too far and unweighting the front wheel, letting it wash out on the descent. I’ve also learnt that for someone like me, just keeping going is more practice and that I won’t improve my skills without just doing the riding. As much as I’d like to, I can’t learn how to ride cyclo-cross on Zwift. I have to get out in the mud and crash and keep trying.

The next round we raced at (my son and I) was Frylands, just a week or so ago from when I write this. We had planned to go to Frylands last season when just my son was racing but when we woke up, snow was bouncing off the windows at our house and we thought surely it’ll be cancelled. Of course it wasn’t & we’d felt bad that most of our team mates had gone when we hadn’t. So this year, there had been lots of rain not snow but we went anyway.

My son had his best ever result finishing 6th in his race in very muddy and claggy conditions. I found the conditions challenging and got off to an ok start. There was a long draggy climb that in my race everyone was “running”. I couldn’t run it so walked up it and as the race settled down, I found that there were bits I could ride quite well and catch people in front but then I’d get to muddier bits and fall back again. Speaking of falling, I crashed a couple more times. One on a gravel descent where I lost my front wheel and made the crowd go “Ooh” as I hit the deck. I didn’t hurt myself but I did crash on my drive side again and it wasn’t long before I was getting gear changing issues combined with all the mud. Another silly crash, where I should have kept running but wasn’t fit enough and thought it might be easier to try to ride. It wasn’t.

A bit further on and I tore off my rear mech quite spectacularly. I’m not quite sure whether it was the mud or crash that caused it or both but of course it happened about as far from the end of the lap as it could and I had to carry my bike for about 10 minutes to get to the end of the race. I was delighted to hear the bell as I walked and to see the leader lap me about 6 or 7 minutes later. Amazingly I only lost 4 or 5 places walking half to 2/3s of a lap back to the end. So after all that I ended up finishing 29th out of 43 on a day where loads and loads of people tore mechs off.

I’ve now completed 6 out of 9 rounds so far in this year’s London and South East Cyclo-cross league in the Vet 50’s category. To “complete” the season I only need to finish one more round, which I hope will be next weekend at my club’s own round of the championships. There are only two more rounds after that (and the team championships), so if I do those two rounds I might be able to drop my worst scores (if I do better than my previous results).

I’ve found cyclo-cross to be a very challenging if hugely welcoming branch of cycling. I’m still not fit enough and I’ve caught my second cold of the winter, which hasn’t helped as it’s necessitated reduced training. Likewise, I’m still poor technically but am trying to improve as best I can.

I’m staggered at how fast and fit the leaders are. It’s really impressive and quite inspirational. Cyclo-cross is very welcoming for all of the family too. Kids race, brothers and sisters race, Mums and Dads race. All ages and abilities and all kinds of bikes including the latest and great ‘cross bikes to bikes that are 10 years or more old. There are plenty of people riding old bikes in the top 10 – it’s not all about the bike in cyclo-cross, so don’t think you need to spend a fortune to get involved.

Cyclo-cross is a really terrific part of cycle sport and deserves to be so much more popular. The bike skills that all riders learn are fantastic. Each course will have some bits that you love and bits that really challenge you. I still have basically no idea how to get as fit as I need to (catching colds isn’t helping though – nor did the month off the bike before the season) but I’ll keep working on it. The season is actually quite short too, it’s only got another 6 weeks or so and it’ll be all over for most riders.

Treating each race like a training ride has been helpful for me and it’s only a recent realisation.  Riding in the races is the best technical training I’ve had even considering the excellent training sessions my club has run, which have been hugely beneficial.

It’s taken me a while to “like” cyclo-cross racing as I don’t ride a bike to suffer or to push myself to the limits. It’s not possible to ride cyclo-cross without aspects of those things and without crashing. In my case quite a lot. However apart from some relatively minor bike damage and a few bruises, I’ve not hurt myself and my pride has adjusted down to my lack of competence. One of my club mates has even managed to get a photo of me smiling during the East Brighton race and that was quite a moment for me. For me, as much as the physical, or skills side of cyclo-cross I’ve needed time for my head to get it in the context of how I’m progressing with it.

I’m not an enormously skilful rider, I have no huge reserves of natural talent. I’m not particularly strong or powerful and I find it hard to improve my fitness given a busy day to day life. However cyclo-cross has been less judgmental of my abilities than I have. My son continues to fall more in love with the sport and it’s been winning me over too, little by little week by week.

Racing cyclo-cross for the most part very averagely has made me look at cycling differently and it’s opened my eyes to riding away from tarmac and from traffic. From time to time I’ve lost my mojo as a roadie and cyclo-cross is a challenging but hugely welcoming new challenge. It’s also something I can do for the next 20 years with my son if I want to. I know that many of my club mates will make this part of their winter for the next 20 years and I think I’d quite like to be there with them.

Another huge plus of cyclo-cross racing is that as I’ve found/proven, you really can start it at any age. Regardless of how fast or slow you are are, there will be people riding at the same pace as you to race against. It really is an all ages and abilities sport. A further plus as an “older” rider is that the science on aging and sports performance says that you can continue to improve at any age if you train/ride with intensity and cyclo-cross delivers on the intensity part in spades. I had no idea my heart rate could go that high any more and in fairness it hasn’t for years!

If you think you might like to find out more, check out your local cyclo-cross league, go and watch a race and speak to anyone racing from a local club to find out more. Expect to find it challenging but ultimately fun and expect to crash quite a bit, especially if you’re a roadie.

You can find out more about the London & South East Cyclo-cross League here: http://www.londonxleague.co.uk/

Thanks for reading.


Photo credits: Chris Lanaway/Kinesis Bikes, Glen Whittington & Mat Massini