Cycle Cross Thetford Forest and Racing Ralphs

Following Trevor’s encouragement six Icycle amigos signed up for and participated in the ‘Thetford Enduro’ cycle cross event.   I appreciate that you may not immediately recognise some of your fellow club members when they aren’t in lycra, so I’ve inserted a picture below


The six amigos were:

Rob Martin Smith, Gary Cairns, Trevor Marshal, Simon Strong, Duncan Murray and Stu Brown

My personal reasons for taking Trevor’s challenge  were that I owned an old cycle cross bike and had never ridden competitively.  Well when I say owned a cross bike, having serviced it in preparation for the event I ended up with fitting new tyres, tubes, crankset, bottom bracket, cassette, cables, brake blocks and bar tape it reminded me of what Trigger said in Only Fools and Horses “this old broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time..”

I hadn’t planned the new tyres but having taken off my old ones the day before to check them it appeared that it was only the flint and glass that was holding them together. So I paid a visit to Transition Cycles on Saturday afternoon and Robin having ridden at Thetford first suggested “Racing Ralphs”, not sure if I would do another event, I decided to avoid the more expensive knobblies and instead went for a cheaper pair of specialized armadillos which in hindsight they were probably the worst and best tyre I could have chosen.  Worst because of the rolling resistance from the full tread and best because they are bomb proof hence no punctures.

The course was located close to Brandon Country Park, on arrival at the course and having parked the car; Rob leapt out of car and immediately started to mark out his territory. I was not sure if he was scaring off the local wildlife or applying his scent to intimidate other riders. Whatever reason, there was clear relief in his face.

Having arrived 90 minutes early we preceded to the registration tent, as we walked over the Under 12’s event was just finishing with two riders sprinting for the line; the lad in front appeared to be far too small for the bike but nevertheless held off the attack to win this battle.  It was to become apparent that they were racing for second and third respectively, the lad who came second was slumped next to his delighted parents struggling to catch his breath, 5 minutes later as the prizes were rewarded I worked out why a tyre company would call a cyclo-cross tyre “Racing Ralph” as the young man who had secured second place was physically sick, having wiped his mouth he went to collect his well earned prize (#5).

Having registered the 6 amigos met to discuss tactics, it was agreed that we would only buy hot drinks for the ‘chuck wagon’ as the head chef was currently outside smoking a fag with an apron covered in grease, preferring to use his hands rather than utensils when cooking the cheese burgers. Anyway, in terms of race tactics we had none or at least none we were sharing with each other!

Duncan, Simon and I decided to check out the start of the course, from the start finish straight it was about 100m to the first left hander, the course narrowed with the right hand line cutting across the corner, so I decided it would be best to start on the right. The course was undulating and on grass for the first 1.5 miles, I can remember Trevor mentioning it was all on fire lanes and I had half expected a lot of gravel tracks.  Having cycled the first mile, we turned back.  Now perhaps it would have been wise to have cycled a full lap to learn the course but that would have taken some effort and we would have missed the surprises.

Eventually we all were positioned in our respective groups on the track, seniors, old gits, ladies and juniors. The event was well attended but dominated by males with plenty of Mamils, dam more competition. The commissioner explained the rules and that it was for the person over taking to come off the racing line indicating to the rider in front whether they would pass on the left or right. Having briefly read the rules on British Cycling, this was a small but welcomed deviation from the normal  race rules where the slower ride yields.

The groups were set off in two minute intervals; I opted for a position on the right hand side of the course whilst all my icycle buddies were on my inside. Anyway the whistle sounded and we were off, sure enough I was caught up in the race for the first corner, not going to give up my position I looked ahead for Trevor with the intent to check the lines he was taking, to my surprise after about a ¼ mile Trevor come alongside me and congratulated me on my start as I was straining to catch my breath, this feeling continued for the next 5 miles. Within the first couple of miles the field started to spread out creating gaps on both the inside and outside lines allowing you to adjust your line depending upon how bad the bumps were. In addition to my lungs working overtime the other factor that I wasn’t prepared for was the arms, feeling every bump, regularly adjusting the hand position on the bars to compensate for the lack of front suspension and arm strength. Perhaps another lesson in terms of tyre pressures, I had the minimum recommended but at 75 psi it probably illustrated why the tyres were less suited to the conditions.   Oh well only another 43 miles to go, in practice the race was going to be approximately 3 hours and I didn’t have a hope in hell to complete 9 laps in that time.

Soon all the other 5 amigos had all past me, I still couldn’t catch my breath, clearly gone off too quick. I decided to change the triple from the middle to granny ring to aid the recovery at least this started to work and slowly I was getting the breathing under control, no need for salbutamol just yet.

Having covered the first 1.5 miles on grass the course turned left with a very short climb up a sandy hill, the tyres were spinning  and ploughing a lovely furrow in what turned into one big sand pit. Finally the first ‘fire lane’ came into view opportunity for recovery and a drink? This is when I realised my next mistake bottles!  The taste of Suffolk’s finest grit with electrolyte has to be tried to be believed, having said that I’d had some Adnams ales that have tasted similar at Bedford’ Beer festival.

The gravel fire lane was strewed with lumps of flint which had started to takes its toll on the field, with many riders stopping with punctures, the lane arrived at the pits so I knew 2.5 miles done. The course then looped into the forest, under the canopy, initially it was bumps and berms reminding me of my bmx days I was at last enjoying it, but this was short lived as the course changed to moss, almost immediately any speed I made had disappeared in an instant, it was like cycling through treacle.

At this point the mental strength was need, when I was asking myself “what am I doing”, “where is Trevor I’m going to kill him” (if only I could catch him). Fortunately a gentlemen nearly as old as Bob Tate saw me struggling and said “Dig in” as he rode past me, this was all the incentive I needed, so I watched him dismount as he approached the technical section (tree trunk laid across course), copied his technique and then ran past him as he lifted the Zimmer frame over and shopping basket over.

It was then a mixture of fire lanes and grass for the next couple of miles, prior to the final climb up a fire lane to the start finish. The climb wasn’t particularly steep, it just felt like it, the mountain bike riders weren’t bothered by the boulders strewn across the lane, whilst all the cyclocross riders avoided the rocks and sought refuse in the gutters and grass verges, which of course were full of yet more sand.

Having completed the first lap I could see Simon in front, spirits lifted, now all I need to do was catch him. After about a mile I spotted a female rider looking dejected and moving off the course, thinking she may have a puncture I asked “have you got a spare?” to which the reply was “no, I need a seat post, can I have yours?” to which I thought about giving her mine its carbon wrapped you know, but I decided chivalry was dead and Trevor did say it was everyone for themselves.

This generous streak didn’t fade as half a mile later a male rider was running with his bike, chain in his right hand. This time I offered a split link, but he said thank you but he would run to the pits and get his spare bike treating it as a duathlon, he only had about 1.5 miles to run.  I wasn’t sure if in accepting the mechanical assistance (spare) he would be breaking the rules hence his reason for declining the offer or whether he was just a masochist, if he was the latter then probably well suited to Cyclocross.

I completed the lap, particularly impressed with my efforts in the technical section with a 5.9 for the dismount. Now time for a bite of the frusli bar washed down with some more Adnams ale. So with the bit or should I say grit between my teeth I managed to catch Simon, he was clearly enjoying it as much as I was and after a brief chat I moved on in search of Duncan.  Just as I left Simon the gentlemen with the broken chain came past, he slowed and thanked me for the offer before roaring ahead. On the next lap the same gentlemen passes me just slightly earlier than last time, this is when the mental arithmetic gets tested, has he lapped me again, did he break down again? After pondering these questions for far too long (50 mS), I decide to ask him next time he passes me as I’m struggling to remember what lap I’m actually on. The number of retirements appears to steady with riders walking back to the start via the most direct routes.

So I start the next lap, expecting the masochist to pass me again, he doesn’t, only explanation is another retirement. I keep seeing Rob he’s about a mile in front of me; he is always ‘coming out’ of the forest as I’m going in but no sight of Trevor or Stu. As I pass Rob, I shout encouragement but he appears to be preoccupied looking down at the floor before carrying on. Thinking it’s some new hazard or his bikes developed a fault I check on the next lap. As I approach Rob again (through the trees) I see Rob quickly dismount pick up a banana and then eat it. Rob explained later that he’d ran out of food and having seen the banana the previously lap, nowhere near the official ‘feeding station’ he couldn’t just leave it there and anyway his tapeworm was getting hungry.

On the next lap Duncan’s at the official feeding station, so I pass him and continue the next lap. Duncan catches me up and confirms we’d started the final hour. It’s a good job because the Adnams is running short and I’d eaten the rest of the frusli bar about 10 minutes before.  I continue to circulate with Duncan slightly in front, but I’m catching him on the hills. With energy stores running low we start the next lap (turned out to be the 6th and final for me). I’m descending down one of the faster parts using the opportunity to save some energy, I get the call “Gary on your left” it’s Trevor, had I forgiven him or had I forgotten I was earlier going to kill him anyway I made some room and Trevor passed me, I follow his aggressive line round the sand pit corner and up on to the fire lane.

Next it was Stu coming up behind me, having a small grope of my backside, not that I couldn’t actually feel much. Stu of course is looking great, perfectly preened hair and that all over spray tan, no sign of any muck as he roars past in search of Trevor.

I turn onto the fire lane and start climbing the hill towards the start finish straight, I’m now catching Duncan and pass him give him some encouragement, as I approach the final corner one of the race officials shouts at me.  Whatever he says doesn’t sink in as the breathing is laboured again, but I quickly make it out the leaders are on their last lap and at the bottom of the climb. He says that I can go and do another lap or wait there and take the chequered flag once they go past. Having completed 6 laps (I think) which of course is only 30 miles I decided that the punishment can stop. Duncan arrives at the same location and he also didn’t need too much persuading to yield the line and let the leaders pass. They fly past and we start the final 50m towards the finish, so I encourage Duncan for a race, not waiting for his reaction I take the chequered flag, the race is over.

Duncan and I make our way round and find Simon on the ground recovering from his race. Duncan asks Simon if he has anymore food or gels, Simon says sorry he gave his last gel to Rob on the last lap.  Not surprisingly, the next one to finish is Rob, followed later by Stu and Trevor.

We chat after the race having stuck to the tactics and not eaten at the “chuck wagon”, even Rob confirmed he hadn’t had any. We make our way back to the cars to load up the bikes.  It’s a quick chance for Rob to mark his territory again, before we get in the car ready to leave.

Duncan and Simon were parked a couple of cars over, it is then with disbelief Rob and I see the Domino’s pizza delivery. Duncan insists that it was more than 30 minutes late so he won’t be paying for it, before tucking into a huge slice. Rob’s lips are salivating by this time, no not for the pizza but he sees another banana on the road side!

On the way home Rob and I only stop twice at the service station, once for us and once for Rob’s tapeworm. Would I do it again? Well never say never but not without changing the tyres,  using the hydration backpack and more food for Rob!

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