Cyclocross, as a sport has always seemed a bit strange. Somewhere between leaping over fences and skidding down Scafell Pike is the chance to ride a bike in a way that more traditionally resembles cycling. We decided to get into this new sport on road bikes, by accident. We hadn’t anticipated falling off, or the amount of falling off.
We hadn’t anticipated a lot of things: the endless soaking rain, my ability to giggle ceaselessly through it, and our final understanding of why the last luminous cyclist we’d seen had headed off up the 16% incline up towards the ridges than ran across the skyline rather than follow our gravelly route. We were armed with a newly-purchased OS map and ready for the outdoors, heading across the North Downs for the Wiltshire ridgeway on road bikes and too much enthusiasm. But let’s start back at the beginning, before I head-planted on wet chalk and Alex needed some stitches.
The allure of heading to Wiltshire was Race to the Stones, a 100K and 50K trail running race. Ultra-marathons as a spectator sport, do not normally get me out of bed on Sunday mornings. But a side-effect of running with Run Dem Crew is that you get to see people do some spectacular things and this specific Sunday, some of my favourite people were about to go and do something amazing.
It was Sorrell’s doing. Sorrell is blonde, mid-20s, with an infectious grin and a capacity to believe in humans impressing themselves. She likes to run quick marathons and 60-odd mile races, and she tends to come in the top three females when she does so. As such, she has a banging silverware collection from it (I presume). I have to guess this, because she’s not hot on bragging. She is, however, keen on encouraging other people. People trust her to trust in them, and giving people this faith in themselves is amazing. It’s magic.
This summer her project was WMN RUN 100, to encourage 50+ people from Run Dem Crew to run Race to the Stones. Her focus was on getting women involved, because ultra marathons tend to be dominated by people who are not exactly young and are not very female (a slightly crass but not exactly inaccurate generalisation). This is why a large number of people (none looking like your average ultra marathon runner) turned up in a field at the weekend to take part in Race to the Stones, ready to run through the night with head torches, all the way to some ancient rocks that have been described by some as “a small version of stone henge.” To give it a bit more credibility, it’s the oldest path in the UK and it leads to Avebury Stone Circle. It is very hard. This is without the torrential downpour.
This is where we joined in. We’d known we were going to struggle to catch up to the runners when we found ourselves on a train departing late from Paddington. The train itself was on time but we were running three trains late. Instead, we figured we’d just treat the journey to the finish line as an adventure between us, and catch people up towards the end. We poured over the OS map on the train. Route 45 is a long ass route that goes from Salisbury through Gloucester to Swindon. We start from Swindon station, passing some surprisingly cool stuff and eventually pick it up near after hopping over the M4 on some sort of fun multi-storey carpark ramp made just for bikes.
Disappearing into the countryside, the route is lovely. It’s all tarmac, twists and hills. It’s only when you hit the ridgeway – a route that the map firmly suggested continues to keep up the pretence of being a cycle path.
It started pissing it down. Three mountain bikes came pedalling the other way, grinning. We passed a field that felt familiar – throughout the day we’d seen gorgeous photos of fields popping up Instagram as friends ran through them. In front of us is a path that’s pretending to be a B-road.
Our legs get covered in dirt. I regret having low slung gear shifters, grabbing grit every time I use them.
We both delight in the fact that we have caps which make everything magically better. I find myself gleefully shouting “caps not hats”, irrelevant of how much sense this makes. (On this note, Tom Southam’s written a beautiful ode to the cap, that always sticks in my mind and is well worth a read.)
We find ourselves at the bottom of the hill that promises to turn into the ridgeway. Route 45 snakes around around and up it. A luminous yellow cyclist sticks to the road, disappearing up. We’re happy with route 45’s indirectness. We’re muddy and optimistic.
Eventually the route spills back out onto the main road. Large orange arrows point up route 45 and we realise we’ve reached the actual race course of Race to the Stones. For a while it’s beautiful. We pass runners, chat about their legs, watch two chaps delight in falling into puddles and sniggering at each other.
Then it all changes. The path morphs into something far from flat. There are three or four grooves leading forward to choose to cycle down, all made of grass and mud. It’s a challenge. An oddly fun one in parts, and my back wheel has a field day skidding everywhere. In moments it clicks. ‘I could use a Cyclocross bike,’ I think, reminiscing of a powerful (though rather long) Cyclocross film Look Mum No Hands showed back in Spring.
I’m doing this. I genuinely believe that our cycle ride is just like the film – like the really mad Cyclocross scenes. And if it isn’t, it feels like it. For seconds, minutes at a time I think it is fun. The entire sport suddenly makes sense. A weird, mad sense. It is amazing. The scenery is exactly the same, too – wild and remote, and when I can I take a second to look up.
But we are on road bikes, and it cannot last. There’s no stability, the tyres are too thin. We both go down. I haven’t fallen off a bike since I was 16 – it’s oddly refreshing to do it, giggle stupidly at the cut on my hand and think ‘that wasn’t so bad.’ But when I looked up, Alex is on the floor and he’s got a pedal-shaped hole in his knee and a grimace.
“So it turns out road bikes aren’t cyclocross bikes in disguise. Torrential rain in the North Downs turned a rutted chalk track into a muddy ice rink. Ended up on my back with a pedal embedded in my left knee. A very pleasant trip to A&E at the Royal London on the way home patched me up with three stitches and some hefty painkillers.” – Alex Instagrams later, along with a picture of his socks on a hospital bed.
We walk the rest of the way to Avebury, catching one of our friends running her last 2K of the race with a broad grin on her face. We cheer her home, and it’s all kinds of magic. My brilliant friends have, of course, done fantastically and are all grinning with medals on. We arrive grinning, bleeding, in varying degrees (I have a small scratch that I’m hamming up for literary purposes). “We cycled along the ridges,” we beam. “You’re mad,” says one of our friends, who is an expert in any outdoors sport you can name and regularly mountain bikes. He looks bemused. Alex trots off into the first aid tent.
Later, he gets patched up in the Royal London Hospital, and says something very lovely:
“I’ve spent a little time in hospitals over the years, but only recently have I started thinking more about what the NHS means to me, and what it represents. I know it could do more and do it better, its scandals have been rare but shocking, and the challenges it faces in the coming years are huge. But lying there on the trolley thing, I couldn’t help but marvel at what the NHS strives to achieve every day: that it meet the needs of everyone; that it be free at the point of delivery ; that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay. I bloody love that.”
No cyclocross bike purchases as yet.