#crossiscoming, or so they keep saying, so I thought I’d give it a go.
It all happened a bit quickly. I tested some road bikes this summer with Bike Radar, and I sat on a Liv bike for the first time. Subsequently, possibly simultaneously, I fell in love with the brand, all made rather more intensely passionate by discovering their work such as the Actually, I Can, campaign, and their support of the brilliant Afghan Cycles. So when I heard about their Cross bike just for women, the Brava, I didn’t have to shop around too much to find what I was looking for — my first ever knobbly drop handled shiny new digit to my N. Yes, I know that was a mouthful, but a tasty one.
Thus it wasn’t long before I had my mitts on a Brava. I rode my new Livster on the road, just the once you’ll understand, before I was asked if I wanted to join in the fun at the first Western Cyclocross League race of 2016. I dithered a bit. Should I take to the mud without any practise, ever, in someone else’s MTB shoes? The answer to that was clearly, ‘no! don’t be so silly.’
Pre race wobble
And so, two days later, I reported for duty as 7th woman racing that first race of the season amid over 100 men. Seven women, as I understand it, is a turn up for the books. I gingerly tested the course, one loop of single-track woodland involving much slippery mud, roots, knobbly ground, wiggling and zig-zagging around trees, the route marked out with tape, a log, a few ‘fast’ flat bits of grass, and a slippery slope, just for good measure. My tires skitted about this way and that; I thought I was going to fall off a few times. ‘What am I doing here?’ I thought. I felt a bit bad, because not only, I realised, would I be learning on the job, but probably getting in the way of scores of men wanting to win the league. I got back to the start line, and whimpered outwardly, ‘I don’t think I can do it.’ Rarely these days do I feel such a strong sense of I-need-to-bail. I looked down at my quivering hands, and felt a growing pain in my chest. The folk I was with were wonderful, and offered much encouragement and smiles. I plaited my fellow rider’s hair for her, which calmed me in some horribly stereotypical fashion, and then I was ready-for-the-off as I’d ever be that day.
The Senior Men went off in a flash, and two minutes later us Women were sent off with the Vet Men, all in a muddle. The first lap was like rush hour on the London Orbital but on bikes in the woods, and pleasingly, although taking it steady, my absolute terror of the first lap was somewhat pacified, replaced now by just medium terror, alongside utter concentration, grimacing of jaw and uttering ‘c’mon!’ statements around tight corners to myself.
Eight laps and 45 minutes ensued, in lessening terror, and growing enjoyment. The chest pains faded after two laps (18 minutes), replaced with really big grins as I began to sort of ‘get it’, yet losing count of the number of near collisions and falls I’d had. My favourite bit was unclipping, jumping over a log, running with my bike, picking it up to run down a little slope, and up quick as I can, up the other side, jumping on and clipping in again almost simultaneously, mud flying off shoes, and peddling away, lactic acid burning my legs and a requirement for more breath burning my lungs. I was also getting a headache.
The biggest surprise of the day
I was taken aback to discover just how utterly friendly everyone was. I was mindful, and did my best not to hold anyone up. I learned pretty damn quickly to hold my line, rather than hang to the left or the right on the single track and assume where people wanted to pass me. They’d shout ‘on your right!’ or ‘on your left!’, somewhat loudly, and slam past in a boom of breaking twigs, flying mud, beads of sweat, and — here’s the thing, chirps of ‘thank you ever so much!’. Honestly, at this point if they’d gone on to shout ‘have a nice day!’, I wouldn’t have so much as raised a sweaty-now, but expertly groomed eyebrow.
There were exceptions of course. A handful of times I got shouted at, and given I was FULLY aware of my position as beginner female, doing my best not to be a nuisance, I did feel a bit unsettled by it, but I got it, and tried to be tough, I was racing CX after all. The worst holler was when I was in the midst of running down the slope with my bike. A man screamed ‘GET OUT OF THE WAY!’ which was not going to magically make me run, whilst holding my bike, any faster.
Do you know what though? I made it to the end. I totally misunderstood the rules and did an extra lap for absolutely no reason, rendering me alone on a spookily-quiet now course. I placed 5th out of 7 women, and 65 out of 69 Women and Vet men.
I am no stranger to being outnumbered by men in races, but this was the first time, ever, that I was in front of them on a single lap course! Juliet Elliot, an amazing cross rider, wrote a fantastic article for VeloVixen about being a newbie. On overcoming first race fear, and as she rightly points out, don’t deny yourself an experience because you are more exposed as a women. It’s right to be aware of others, but we all start somewhere, so I’ll see you the next race, thanks very much.
Cross is coming, apparently. Actually, cross came, and I loved it – if not a little traumatised by the experience.