Spoke Magazine

Champing at the Cyclocross Bit

Posted by alex on Tuesday September 3 2013

While the quietness of late could have fooled you into thinking the Cyclo X Files were laying down in preparation for some sort of Triassic extinction, this was not the case. Like the dawning of the Jurassic period that followed, some 200 million years ago, words shall now be forthcoming like lava from the central magmatic Atlantic province. So it was indeed briefly the case.

What has happened in the meantime is the evident takeover bid launched by Emirates, who now have exclusive ownership and rights over our fair country and its nomenclature. Thanks to their reciprocal arrangements with various airlines and services around the world however, you can also call it South African New Zealand or Budget New Zealand without fear of legal retribution.

In the midst of all this tectonic movement and the influx of corporate sponsorship of our country, the cyclocross season has been somewhat overshadowed. While we all focused our eyes on swaying television screens following Emirates New Zealand’s cutthroat racing on the waters of San Francisco bay locked in a neck and neck battle against some sort of courtroom injunction, there were hundreds of riders getting muddy of face and chesty of cough all over Emirates New Zealand.

Photo: Amy Taylor

The Emirates New Zealand Cyclocross National Series (which for simplicity and legibility I shall refer to as ENZCXNS) has just wound up its 7 rounds from Rotorua to Dunedin, with the season reaching its zenith just over a week ago in central Otago. The Emirates New Zealand Audi Quattro Winter Games (ENZAQWG) joined the party (though it was a corporate event, by invitation only) to make a series of three great races in Wanaka and Queenstown.

Descending the length of the country.

The first race, on Wanaka’s lakefront in the evening on Thursday August 22nd, was a short course around the I-site carpark and surrounding sections of grass, beach and dinosaur park. There was also a rather surprising truckload of snow at one point of the course, forcing riders to dismount and then clamber/scramble as best they could to the other side. Kids were racing around in the gloomy twilight, that intermediary phase when there’s barely enough sunlight but the floodlights haven’t quite kicked in. Men, women and allcomers started together at 7, as light rain began to fall on the previously firm, dry ground. Following closely behind local Wanaka cyclocross legend Gavin Mason for the first half lap, I made it safely through the windy and now slippery circuit, popping out in front after the 50-odd metre sand section. I mashed through the snow as best I could, only to have my chain drop when I went to remount. I attempted the initial desperation- and momentum-fuelled stay-on-the-bike-and-just-shift-up-like-crazy technique while maintaining a soft pedalling motion, but to no avail as my chain was far more interested in relaxing on the bottom bracket shell. After a sufficient amount of time and number of riders had passed I was back on track and once again into the familiar feeling of terror/enjoyment of riding at speed through the dark around precarious objects while trying to pass riders going more or less the same pace as me.

The race was abbreviated to 30 minutes, by which time I had managed to get back into 3rd place but was now a significant distance back from the leading duo of Logan Horn and Scott Lyttle. While I had hoped to go better, I certainly felt better and more alive after the short sprint-fest – having been sedimented on my bottom by the 10-hour drive down from Blenheim the night before.

Photo: Amy Taylor

Two days later on Saturday we found ourselves still in Wanaka at Lismore park, for the Emirates New Zealand BikeNZ Cyclocross National Championships (ENZBNZCXNC). Without the usual week to recover between races, which is the norm in this still-young Emirates New Zealand Cyclocross Scene, I was curious and somewhat anxious about how I would be feeling and ride against others who had either raced the other night or had arrived fresh for the national title race. With a field of very closely paced riders from around South African New Zealand, it was the closest we’ve come to a true national representation at a cyclocross race.

Brendon Sharratt lead us through the first half of the lap, only to be ejected from his bike crossing through the Truckload of Snow: The Sequel. Gary Hall was close behind him but managed to get going again quickly and maintained his lead for the next half hour or so. I was riding in 2nd between Gary and Scott, not close enough to get any aerodynamic advantage but not giving any away either. While the course was bone dry and even a bit dusty amongst the tough grass, there were still plenty of opportunities to slide out of control around mis-judged off-camber corners, and plenty of short climbs to keep one’s heart going at a brain function-supressing rate.

Photo: Amy Taylor

At the halfway point nothing much had changed, and it looked like the race would come down to a battle of attrition for the top 4 or 5 places. Brendon had caught back up to Scott, who was close behind me, with Gary still ahead by about 5 or 10 seconds. While I was considering the possibilities, including the thought that winning was increasingly becoming an impossibility, Gary stalled in the snow up ahead. I caught up to him and followed closely until after the short section of singletrack with a step down and tabletops. As we went briefly uphill I found myself accelerating to pass him, my subconscious seemingly in control of my body, but hoping I wouldn’t mess everything up with a stupid mistake. The next hill was the biggest of the lap, semi-sealed but of a gradient that made life almost too much to bear. I rode as hard as I could up it to get a gap over Gary, utterly frazzling my entire being to the point where I didn’t think I could go on riding once I’d made it to the top. I was sure I had done myself in and would drop off the course and collapse, a burned-out husk.

Photo: Amy Taylor

Photo: Amy Taylor

As is the way with such things, you can only know how you yourself are feeling – and guess relative to that the state of others. All I could do was try and keep myself pedalling, and monitoring the gap at certain points of the course I was surprised to find it wasn’t decreasing. I still don’t know which is worse: the terror of being in second place and not catching the leader, or that of leading and fearing capture by second place. The stakes were high for the race for the Emirates New Zealand National Jersey, so after cutting it fine through numerous sections in a bid to evade Gary I found myself on the last lap, leading but only just. I concentrated on smoothness at the cost of some speed, pleading with myself not to make any costly mistakes.

Fortunately I managed to avoid any such misdemeanours and crossed the line still ahead to become the Budget New Zealand BikeNZ Cyclocross National Champion for 2013.

Photo: Amy Taylor

Photo: Redwood Revolution

The following day we continued both the ENZCXNS and the ENZAQWGS in Queenstown, at Wynyard downhill park. Quite in contrast to the previous days’ courses, this one featured significant altitude change and a range of downhill tracks to negotiate. Most of them in generally the reverse direction. Some people had to return home early, and of those who came there were several who pulled out for various reasons, so by the end of the race it was a rather small field taking part. There was enjoyment to be had riding the ramps and doubles, if not so much for the long bike carry up from the low-point of the course.

With the Emirates New Zealand Cyclocross Season out of the way now, I’m looking towards the first ever Chinese cyclocross race in Yanqing, Beijing on September 21. I’m heading over there with fellow Emirates New Zealand BikeNZ Cyclocross National Champion Jenna Makgill and our mechanic and logistical expert Paul Larkin, for what will surely be a great experience.

Just as Spring is dawning and people are happy, cyclocross beckons from distant shores and so will the pre-historic cycle begin again with curious adventures and slightly fewer cold-blooded creatures.

  • Mark

    Awesome effort Alex! I look forward to your report from China.