Friday, 5 July 2013

Back in two it

New Zealand's cyclocross season has begun with a hiss and a roar, from the chilly southern depths of Otago through Canterbury to Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington and the Hawkes Bay. I've had races the last couple of weekends, the first being race one of the Bike Hutt series at Harcourt Park in Upper Hutt. I designed the course for this one, hoping to be able to re-create a little of what I experienced in my time riding overseas. It's a beautiful park, almost entirely devoid of dog shit, with a neat combination of grassy banks and treelined singletrack. Unfortunately the huge storm that I wrote about in my last post had barged through right the way up the Hutt valley and toppled many of the trees on the course. Because of this the lap was shortened roughly by half, but with about a hundred off-camber corners it managed to stay challenging and entertaining, without being too repetitious. There had been plenty of rain in the preceeding days to overload the draining capacity of the ground, so combined with a clear calm day it was the perfect introduction to cyclocross: whether as the beginning of another season or for the first time.

Photo: The Bike Hutt
There were about 20 people in the A grade race, most of whom were on dedicated cyclocross bikes. So far the growth of cyclocross in New Zealand seems to have come predominantly from those who otherwise ride mountain bikes. It was great to see some new faces out, exclaiming about how much more exciting it is than racing on the road, their usual mode of recreation and competition.

My last race was in Hoogstraten, Belgium in early February - hovering around freezing there was the most perplexing and excruciating combination of snow, mud, ice and water about the course that I could ever have imagined. I found it to be rather tough, and things didn't go my way.

Photo: Peter Schepens
Thankfully June in Wellington is a much more mild climate, and thus makes for a much easier transition into the lung-searing intensity that is a cyclocross race. There were a few of us together for the first lap, after which I managed to get a gap on Brendan Sharratt and Tom Bradshaw, which I was able to hold onto for the rest of the race.

Photo: David Connor
It had been a while since I'd ridden my tubular tyres, so as a precaution against damaging them through rough riding I put in a bit more air than I would have a few months ago, and did my best not to brake while skirting around the various twisting muddy bends.

Photo: David Connor

Andrew Kerr made this video of the B race, sliding around in the thick of it.

The following weekend I had hopes of getting up to Havelock North for the first round of the NZCX national series. In the week leading up to it I needed to warrant and licence a car I was borrowing, and renew my driver's licence. I was able to do all this just in the nick of time, and made my way up to the Hawkes Bay on Saturday.

It felt like about 5º warmer than in Wellington, and totally windless, and with the sun shining yet again it was another perfect day for riding in the mud. Not too much mud, but enough for it to get stuck in and around your pedals and cleats, and it also facilitated the unwanted gravitation of lots of the dry dead leaves that were lying around on the course. I knew to expect some very good competition, namely in Gary Hall, our current national champion. Also present were Dunedin's Scott Lyttle and Bay local Josh Page. I figured I had nothing to lose by going all out from the gun, and doing my best to keep up the pace. After a section of barriers that were only 20 or 30cm high, therefore within my range for bunny hopping, I got to the front up a steep climb and lead the way for the first 20-30 minutes of the race.

Photo: Cycl1n
Gary and Scott were close behind me for this time and as is always the way in a race such as this, I was going as hard as I could while questioning whether it was too much and could I hold them off. I imagine they were feeling pretty similar, and after what I think was about half an hour Gary came past me and accelerated off ahead. My chain slipped off below my little chainring at the top of a bike carry section, and after a few seconds' worth of floundering I got it back on and was able to pedal once more. However the mud had crept its way around my cleats and the gummy grass was thick in my pedals, making it difficult to engage them together. I started to lose focus and went a bit wide on a corner, wrapping my crankset up in course tape, ruing the simple errors that were now costing me valuable time as I untangled my steed. We now had three laps to go and Gary was out of sight from nearly all points on the course.

Photo: Cycl1n
I strung together a couple of steady and accurate laps, and before long was able to see the figure of our national champion ahead of me again. Towards the end of the last lap I soaked up the support of my friends and family who had staked out several points, and drew forth numerous ragged breaths to make it back to Gary. It was only in the last 50 metres or so of the race, as we slid through the boggiest section that I managed to get a faster line and slither to the final corner just in front. Unfortunately because of the angle that I approached it by I didn't think I'd be able to make it in an upright fashion. So I jumped off to run through, only to then lose my footing as well on the slippery ground. I don't know if I took Gary out exactly, but I definitely got in his way, and I felt bad for this. It was totally unpredictable so I don't think it justifies feeling this way but it was an anticlimactic final few metres over the finish line. Gary wasn't phased and we both aknowledged the great race that we'd had, and next time I'm sure will be another close affair.

Intended course of action. Photo: Cycl1n
The next few weeks' races will be back in Wellington, before I potentially go to the next round of the national series in Blenheim on July 21st. My hopes of getting to America to race later in the year are still smouldering away, and I may have some more to say on this in the next while. Likewise with Belgium, it may be that de snor is niet achter de rug.


  1. Nice to know that on this time of the year you can still race cyclocross! Here in Portugal thera are 40ºC during last days, so, no mud, and no cyclocross fun!

    Hope to continue reading some nice stories from you ;)

  2. Maybe you're going back to our little Belgium?? Yes!! Great news. :)