Cyclo-Cross: Taking the Bike for a Walk

This morning was the second annual Odd Down clagfest. It’s a grotty, filthy, bike-destroying assault on the sensibilities. As such, it makes perfect sense to spectate, armed with a cowbell and a strange pink honky horn thing.

More cowbell! More pink honky horn thing!
More cowbell! More pink honky horn thing! (pic Africa Mason)

I love watching cyclo-cross. It’s the most bonkers of all the disciplines and you get to see a wider range of suffering and confusion than in most other events.

Man takes bike for stroll
Man takes bike for stroll

The course deviates through the woods hanging off the back of the Odd Down road circuit. Recent heavy rain had reduced the course to a quagmire. Even better. There was a huge field of riders, even more than last year, well over 100. Cyclo-cross is growing in popularity more quickly than any other branch of the support, in part because it’s accessible and there is a perverted camaraderie amongst the groterati, a collective insanity that can also be seen at hill climbs. The strongest, luckiest rider wins. 5 years ago you’d be lucky to lure one man and his dog out to a race day in Hengrove Park, which is stretching the definition of ‘park’ a little bit, unless by park you mean scrubland with a disused runway in the middle and some ruined industrial buildings, the playground of the NEETs. And the cyclocrossers. Next year i’m half-expecting to see a Fritewagon and bar selling Duvel, pumping out furious Belgian techno trance to an enraptured audience of low-country cyclofanatics – otherwise known as “all Belgians”.

Could do with a quick clean


I staked out a spot in the woods and heckled like a madman. I rang the cowbell in Oli Beckingsale‘s face. A crowd formed and we cheered anyone who managed to ride their bike for more than 10 metres. The slope all but defeated them, making it the perfect spot to see crashes and some proper bike breakage.

Champion versions
Champion versions

The birch woodland echoed with the sound of derailleurs snapping. At the beginning the riders seemed to enjoy the challenge, revelling in the support and even smiling on occasion. By the end, all smiles had ceased, glassy eyes stared outwards, each orb a disconsolate and unthinking window into a mind shattered by the experience. A ghostly legion of pallid cyclists trudged onwards, destroyed in body and spirit by the accumulated trauma of 60 minutes in the woods. In years to come the locals will speak in hushed tones of the hauntings in the woods, how come January, if the weather is right, you can hear the sound of metal on mud, a hoarse tangling of twigs and chains, and the heavy, syncopated breathings of tortured souls condemned to circle through the undergrowth with bicycles wrapped across their heaving shoulders.

The Gidmeister gives it some beans
The Gidmeister gives it some beans

All of which made for a startling son-et-lumiere show. It was fantastic. Hats off to the amazing VC Walcot, a club committed to cycling and the community and a rich example to all clubs of what grass roots sport can look like.

Rough Stuff: The Madness of Cyclo-Cross

Cyclo-grot. Winter sport of choice for filth fans.

This weekend i headed out to the Odd Down circuit with Trotters (of Hamilton Wheelers fame) to spectate at the club’s nominated trophy event. Cyclo-cross is spectator-friendly; the race is usually on and around a short circuit, comprising of about 8 to 10 laps. All the hardy onlooker has to do is stake out a suitable location and wait for the filthy, mud-caked racers to come past. It was lovely and claggy under tyre; creating challenging conditions for the (fool)hardy bike riders. Trotters and I watched the enormous field charge away from the flag; there were a hundred on the start sheet, an almost incomprehensible figure that suggests the numbers opting to ride competitively is on an exponential upwards curve. Good luck gaining entry to Cat 4 circuits next season, newbies.

After a lightning quick blast along the road race circuit, the peloton squeezed through a tiny gate and headed into the wilds. Therein followed a classically circuitous meander through scrubland before hitting up the bmx circuit for a few endos and some spicy 360s. After that it was down to the woods for a bit of proper sketchorama offski, followed by a deadly climb up a slippery slope. Arch-Cross supremo, Charles Coleman, designed the course and threw in a couple of hurdles at the end. It was a right derailleur-breaker and there was a satisfying number of strange and terrifying mechanical problems, mostly caused by the dense layer of clag coating any exposed metallic parts.

Greener gets serious and takes his bike for a walk in the woods

It was savage and exciting to watch; a stream of riders mullering it into a state of exhaustion, coping with the conditions and the terrain with varying responses from the fatalistic to the exhilarated. I took it upon myself to cheer and heckle uproariously, getting into the spirit of the ‘cross and waving the cowbell with violent abandon. Somehow Trotters and I managed to find a prime spot in the middle of the course – and by ‘middle of the course’, i mean in the actual middle of the course: hiding behind a tree with racers passing on either side, ambushing them with nothing more than a camera, cowbell, wooden spoon and saucepan.

Helping Tom with some kind words

Dave Atkinson joined us halfway through, then a few other people who were at first diffident, before suddenly getting into character, cheering and jeering in equal measure. Those who managed to ride up the short but impossible climb received the biggest cheer.

Me, Trotters, Big Dave and Charles give it ‘more cowbell’

I made a short and slightly old-school audio slideshow. It would have been a lot easier to make a video, but i’m nothing if not anachronistic.

“Cycling City” My Ass

This weekend heralds the BSCC cyclo cross competition, kindly organised for us by Dream Cycling. Like last year, it was was scheduled to take place in Hengrove Park. Bike racing has been happening in Hengrove Park for many many years. The amazing clip below features Bristol South and other local clubs taking part in the Goram Fair.

Which makes it all the more bizarre, myopic and specious that the council have decided to revoke all permissions for cycle races on council leisure grounds, leading to huge disruption for the Western League Cyclo-Cross, a popular grass-roots event held every winter, appealing to young and old alike. Here is last year’s event:

Note the enjoyment, the nigh-on empty park, the scenic detritus lining the edge of an unkempt park, the willingness of the cycling fraternity to use the leisure facilities in the first place. Now consider the ridiculousness of the decision by the Council.

“the Council stated that a wet summer, coupled with budget cuts, meant that they weren’t prepared to put cycling events on and risk damage to facilities”

Cyclo-cross uses the edges of the park. It cuts up the surface for a brief period of time before nature repairs the damage. The council hasn’t agreed to curtail other activities – football and rugby – that turn entire penalty areas into quagmires for the duration of winter.

For a supposed cycling city it’s a disaster. It’s a ludicrous decision that flies against common sense. I’ll even ignore the fact that Hengrove looks like a dogging spot for sallow smack addicts, still has a bloody massive runway through the middle of it and is about as appealing as a weekend in Chernobyl. In fact, it’s probably the only park or garden in the country that actually looks better with a couple of tyre tracks from some cyclo-cross bikes for a few days. At least it’s being used.

There’s a thread here. Maybe when Bristol Council defended itself in March 2011, saying it would take time to gain the benefits from the £11 million investment as a cycling city, maybe this was what they were referring to. Meanwhile a fistful of shonky mayoral candidates clamour to rip out cycle lanes and reassert the car as the fulcrum of city life. Plus ca change.

More reasoned argument here.

1962 British Cyclo Cross Championships

john atkins at Tingley in 1962

It’s currently the middle of the cyclo-cross season. Or, as i referred to it in the pub during the Ale Rave, ‘the cycling cross’. Cue much merriment from resident master of the rough stuff, Steve. Some time ago i posted a video of a cyclo-cross event from back in the day, when men were men and cyclo-cross was savagely brutal. That particular video went quite mainstream and can be seen in a variety of places.

I’ve recently stumbled across another one, filmed at the 1962 National Championship by members of the Morley CC ‘Film Unit’. It’s quite exciting that the Morley had a film unit. The half hour film features Beryl Burton winning the women’s race. The event takes place on open farmland at Tingley, near Wakefield.

utter filth

The men’s race features a battle between John Atkins and Harry Bond. Atkins was the pre-eminent cyclo-cross racer of the era, winning the title 12 times and the 3 Peaks three times. He came 2nd four times during his seventeen year career.

At Tingley most of the competitors seem to spend most of the race carrying their bikes. Some of the obstacles are almost insurmountable, and as the course cuts up the parcours become more and more treacherous.

a staggeringly high wall with a stranded and confused rider

All of this makes for excellent viewing and the healthy crowd are massed at the stream to watch the riders stumble and fall. Several of the competitors opt to jump across the gaps whilst shouldering their bikes; this is terrifying.

The full film is available to watch at the Yorkshire Film Archive.

Cyclo Cross

Cyclo-cross in the UK is increasingly popular, the recent Rapha Super Cross event put a spin on the Belgian version and saw huge crowds turn out at Ally Pally. it’s a slightly demented sport and a weird hybrid of lots of different things. it contains the mass start element of the road race, but once out and about there is no drafting benefit, so it becomes a series of intervals, thus suiting the stronger riders who can cope with sudden acceleration and the changes in tempo. it’s also incredibly technical, needing skills both on and off the bike. the dismounts can cause people real problems:

in contrast, at the recent ‘Muddy Hell’ event at Herne Hill in London, one of the more surreal and spectacular pieces of skill entertained a beer-soaked crowd, the technical bit came through the beer tent – an inspired piece of promoting.

i tend to avoid cyclo cross for the same reason that i avoid pottery classes and working with livestock, namely that  i don’t enjoy getting covered in shit. nonetheless, it makes for a great spectator sport. the western league promotes  a series of events in parks most weekends. today it was the turn of hengrove, an odd disused airfield that seemed to be popular with psychotic dog walkers, as well as the aforementioned cyclists. a great mix, i guess, unless (or maybe if) you’re cadel evans.

there was a large field, over 50 riders, including simon richardson of sigma sport. it was really great to be watching a race instead of riding. i was able to relax and chat to people, enjoy the atmosphere, rather than feelthe pressure associated with competing. i took my camera and shot some footage. it’s the club’s nominated trophy event so there was a bit of a ding-dong battle between steve green and kieran ellis.

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