Rapha Super (Cyclo) Cross | A Tale of Hell, Fire & Breasts
We took off our blinkers and sent two of our finest to take on the challenge of the Rapha Super Cross double–header weekend...
We’ve never featured Cyclo–cross in Dirt before. It’s kind of the kooky, bastard offspring of road racing…maybe the original off–road racing? So we took off our blinkers and sent two of our finest to take on the challenge of the Rapha Super Cross double–header weekend – CX semi–regular Steve ‘the Butcher’ Walker and CX virgin Rod Fountain. The Butcher takes up the story from here…
DIRT ISSUE 130 - DECEMBER 2012
Words by Steve ‘the Butcher’ Walker and Rod Fountain. Photos by Duncan Philpott (Lutterworth) and Angus Muir (London)
Hell is divided into different parts, from worst, to least worst. Hell has many parts and chambers. There are fire pits of different sizes. Worms wriggling and devouring flesh and the degree of torments varies at different parts of Hell. However, Jesus told one of the witnesses, “My sons, all the suffering on the earth, concentrated in just one place (in this case Lutterworth, Leicestershire) is nothing, NOTHING compared with the suffering that a person has in the best parts of hell."
I’m always getting myself into sticky situations. You know what I mean? “Yes, of course I’ll take the greyhound training while you compete in the annual yodelling contest" or “Rapha cyclo–cross race? I’ll do it, sounds like great fun"! At least that’s what I thought...
Dirt editor Mike Rose’s original plan (which didn’t include myself or Rod Fountain) was to enter a crack team of Dirt elite, super fit mountain bike riders that were going to take the event by storm, show these blokes in skinsuits, that ride bikes with ridiculous drop handlebars, brakes that don’t work, and skinny wheels, how it’s done. Due to one thing or another, Mike’s equivalent to the S.A.S (but on bikes) all rang in sick. One stubbed his toe getting out the bath, the other had a magician’s training class on the same day so couldn’t make it, and the third potential candidate suffers with ‘I say one thing, but do another’ syndrome.
So, it turns out that poor old Mike had to resort to what he could get. In the end the Dirt crack team of two cyclo–cross racers consisted of a slightly overweight ginger butcher with a bad temper (me), and a school teacher (who’s nerves are so shot he can’t even use clip–less pedals) and was going to ride and race on flats (at the London round) stupid, but oh so true. We needed divine intervention, for God’s sake, someone say a quick prayer...
DAY 1, SATURDAY, MISTERSTON HALL, LUTTERWORTH, LEICESTERSHIRE
LET US PRAY
According to Luke, Gospel 210, chapter 41000, verse 10020056, a quick prayer each day will deliver us from evil, keep us from the gates of hell and all that. But as I finished my second practice lap of the Misterston Hall course and approached the start line for my first ever Rapha cyclo–cross race, I noticed two things. ‘Thing’ one being that the devil inside me (the little bastard) had made me late and I would have to start at the back of the pack. ‘Thing’ two being, that even though on my sighting lap I had said ‘a quick prayer’ I knew (as did most of the people around me) that the ‘Gates of Hell’ were about to be opened and it was too late to stop them.
Whilst sat there waiting for the gun to fire or the horn to sound (I still can’t remember which it was) I said to myself, ‘think happy thoughts’. Think like ‘I am a gazelle sweeping majestically across the fields or a cheetah on anabolic steroids, blessed with warp speed acceleration and stamina to boot’. I tried, but my thought process had been sabotaged. All that kept popping up (in my thought bubble) was a large plate of chicken tikka masala followed by a family sized cheesecake. As I frantically looked left and right the people surrounding me started to resemble skinny demon–like creatures, whose clothes were so tight fitting that they looked like ‘extras’ from the movie Avatar. They had never eaten anything with more than two calories in it and my impure thoughts (of things that make you fat) had started to turn them into slim savages. They were going to eat me alive and I had, at this point, already recited the one and only prayer I know. My next thought was, ‘will someone please bring me a prayer book and bring it fast (with just a slither of cheesecake, but with extra thick chocolate goo and a crisp base)’. Ave Maria.>>
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WHERE’S THE FOOKIN FIRE?
I’ve ridden national 4X and BMX in the past, but nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the explosiveness and pace of a cyclo–cross race on the first lap. It’s like a battlefield. It seems there’re grenades exploding, mine fields (in the form of upright boards, that some over imaginative carpenter has nailed to the floor) and sharp shooters, picking random riders off (there were lots of crashes) because they don’t like the colour of the kit they are wearing. Everyone rides as though they are in the middle of a forest fire (that has been caused by the explosiveness of the race) and at the end of my disastrous first lap (I threw a chain whilst trying to hop a mine) even though I couldn’t see any flames my heart and legs were burning. Any sign of that Holy Water? Welcome to hell.
SOMEBODY STOP ME
After the initial shock of the first lap I suddenly realised that the ‘skinny demons’ in front of me were a bit rusty in the ‘off–road’ bike–handling skills department. Fit yes, but drifting around turns and railing ruts were not their forte. A lot were Scalextric riders never straying from the main line. The super fit demons were starting to resemble sheep that had strayed from a farmyard. Suddenly I felt like the big bad wolf, who’d had a massive fall out with the local Slimmer’s World group and I started to eat the skinny sheep one by one. All of a sudden I felt UN–STOPPABLE. Awooooooo.
SOMEBODY STOP ME PART TWO (so they did)
I got stopped. After an entire lap of slicing and dicing the skinny sheep, they started to resemble demons again. I’d left a few carcasses behind but these here demons were demonic for a reason. Most were seasoned visitors to hell and were used to living amongst flames and fire, their flameproof suits were not scorched in any way, however I started to resemble (and feel like) an over–cooked Sunday roast. Apparently hell is full of ‘lost souls’ and over–cooked Sunday dinners. I was beginning to feel like one or maybe both of the above.
‘DON’T GIVE UP ON US BABY"
David Soul sang it…I felt it. I dug in, listened to my pit–man and mate David Mole (not Soul) and didn’t. Pedal like your life depends on it (even if you do feel like crying like a baby). I quickly changed my thoughts from holy water to breast milk. This thought lifted me no end (breasts not milk)...waaaahhhhh!
OK, WHICH IDIOT LAID VELCRO ON THE GROUND?
After a successful lap four (must have been something to do with the breast milk), a third of a lap around on lap 5, and all of a sudden it felt like some idiot had re–surfaced the course with Velcro. It was slow and hard going. When I finally dismounted my bike to run through the minefield (which was actually only three 1 foot high barriers) it felt like some of my demonic competitors had applied a tube of superglue to each of my disco slippers. I couldn’t lift my feet an inch off the ground, let alone dance through a field full of explosives, and the spectators that had gathered around the minefield, that were usually shouting what sounded like words of encouragement, suddenly changed and sounded as if they were screaming and wailing (like the cries of hell). I glanced across at them and they had all turned to worms, waiting to feast on my slightly plump flesh for all eternity. My (unshaven and out of place) legs couldn’t move, my ears were bleeding (from the wailing) and I felt like I was trapped in a corner. You get the picture. Just think ‘Christmas day at the worm–in–laws!
LAP 6…MAYBE 7 OR 8
I WASN’T REALLY SURE WHAT WAS GOING ON
There was definitely a lap six but at this point nobody (not even the skinny demons) cared. There may have been a lap 7 and 8 lap but I really couldn’t tell you if I completed them or not. I hated everyone at this point and even felt like spitting (with forked tongue) at my pit–man (who’d encouraged me every pedal stroke of the way) when I went past.
I was. Finished that is. The gates of hell slowly started to close shut and the skinny demons around me started to resemble a human form again. There were the usual post–race conversations on why they hadn’t finished in the top ten, or how they’d crashed and burned on lap 3, or ‘my form (whatever that means) is poor at the moment’. However for once (just ask anyone who knows me), I was completely lost for words. Exhausted, liberated (must of been the lycra), and even though I was nearly sick at the end of my warm–down, strangely, I was already thinking about my next visit ‘TO HELL’ and back (which is apparently in Sedgley next to a football pitch).>>
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DAY 2, SUNDAY, ALEXANDRA PALACE, LONDON
THE DROP–BAR VIRGIN
Our man ‘Rodders’ (Rod Fountain) is a pig. When I say pig I mean it in the sense of him being a ‘guinea pig’. Rod ‘The Fountain’ of knowledge is a teacher so he knows a lot of shit, though it’s mainly about History. It’s clear he knows nothing about cyclo–cross because this magazine got him to agree to spending what’s widely thought of as the most difficult hour you can do on a bike by simply promising him a custom ‘Dirt’ race top. I felt a bit sorry for him because he was entered for one of the biggest races of the season (not that he knew), round 3 of the Rapha Super–Cross series at London’s Ally Pally. After a day of ‘training’ on the wet grass, descents and stairs of South London’s Crystal Palace Park and then racing he’s now three stones lighter, has hair like his finger’s been in an electric socket and is contemplating whether he should shave or wax. All hail king Rodders, the drop bar virgin naively sporting his piss–pot and goggles, knee pads and baggies. Oh, and flat pedals. Flats!
Butch: Do you remember that show ‘In at the Deep End’?
Rod: I don’t, but I think I know where you’re going with this.
What did you think when I kept winding you up about how hard cyclo–cross racing is and that you were literally ‘in it’…the ‘deep end’ that is?
You mean how you water–boarded me for a week with over 50 cheery text messages like, ‘What, you’ve never ridden a cross–bike? Go and get yourself a gun because you’re f–ked’. Or, ‘Enjoy it Rodders (you’re f–ked on flats, by the way.)’ It wasn’t just you. Frame builder Jon Chickens chimed in with, ‘Ouch, just reading the ‘C word’ hurts my legs. You’ll need to learn to love your bike again after an hour of betrayal and hatred towards you on its part’.
You told me two days before the event you’d never ridden a drop bar bike in your life, you were joking of course?
Almost. My one and only ‘droppie’ is still in my mum and dad’s shed. It hasn’t been ridden since I got my first BMX in summer 1982 when I was 11. I literally haven’t ridden anything with drop bars in 31 years. After five minutes on them I saw why: who thought of them?
So what bike did you race on the day?
A 2013 Kona Jake, 53cm. I pulled it out of the box convinced that the guys from Kona had got their wires crossed and sent me the wrong bike. It looked like it shouldn’t go anywhere near dirt and the first spin/crash in Peckham Rye Park in the wet confirmed it. All that changed when a pair of Challenge Fango tyres unlocked the bike’s dirt loving geometry and spec. Instantly the Jake became devastatingly effective on ‘dirt’ (bumps, wet grass and mud). The skinny rubber cut little berms into the wet grass with every flick of the now not so stupid drop bars that pitch the rider over the front in a complete reversal of how you’d rail on a mountain bike. If you’ve got the balls, you could get your knee down on one of these and it’d handle it and because it’s so much fun to ride you’ll want to practice as often as you can.
Will you be asking Kona if you can keep the bike on a long term basis?
It’s said that ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all’, which is fair enough when it comes to lasses, but if I didn’t have a CX bike now I’d be genuinely upset. We went through hell on race day and formed a bond. I’m now looking for any excuse to nip out to the shop on the other side of the park on it for stuff I don’t need.
Did you really race on flat pedals?
Yup. I’ve never, ever clipped in and wasn’t about to start for the race. I didn’t realise how verboten this was until I went to ask about tyre pressure, bar position and ‘shouldering’ technique from Glen at BC Bikes and Ronan at Cadence. It was like I’d walked in with my old chap out: they were aghast and passed on their condolences for the death of reason. It worked out fine on the day though because what I lost by ‘2 stroking’ I made up for in getting back on the pedals quicker after shouldering and being able get all ‘Sideburn’ flat–track in the turns.
Would you clip in next time?
Nope, partly for the same reason I usually race DH on my hardtail: you’ve got an excuse for doing badly, but if you do OK you’re a hero.
The race you entered was in London. What’s your take on inner–city bike racing? Should there be more?
Way more. There’s no real chance for riders like us to get a consistent, dirt–under–tyres race fix in London. The S.E. Raggers put on a DH race in ‘The Bumming Woods’ a few years ago, and Scottish Pete did the same at Shooters Hill in the summer, but both could’ve been won on a hardtail with park tyres (actually Matt Harrington did just that on a 24" DMR with one brake at ‘round 1’). With the Jake at Ally Pally I got big mountain fear and a killer race buzz on ground that I wouldn’t even bother with on my Zesty.>>
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Tell us a bit about your race (and how many times you felt like throwing up, how many fights you nearly had, how many girls came past you, etc.).
I did alright, I think…29th out of 75. It was every bit as brutal as you and Jon Chickens said it would be and I think that hell would be an eternal cyclo–cross race. ‘Relentless’ is a fine adjective but it’s relentless in so many different ways: physically because you’re hovering around or exceeding your natural skill and endurance limit for an hour, mentally because you despise everyone who passes you on an ascent and shock yourself at your depths of schadenfreude as you make it back on the descents, and finally redemption when it’s over and you’re all one big happy family. You are somehow a brother/sisterhood because you’ve just done this ridiculous thing together. I’ve decided I prefer racing other people rather than a clock. To answer the other part of your question, I’m pretty sure she was a pro.
There are lots of really good cyclo–cross race leagues from tip to toe of the U.K. Would you consider entering another?
I already have! Turns out there’s a massive London League and the next race is near my In–laws. I’ve roped in a fair few of the S.E. Raggers too who are now busy converting their commuter bikes and searching for Fangos. Knowing about these leagues, these freaky bikes and these hardcore scenesters reminds me of when Nick Hamilton (of ThisIsSheffield fame) introduced a load of us to Cycle Speedway. It’s humbling too because both have got more history and structure than our new–kid–on–the–block side of riding has.
Right, we’re in the local bike shop and there’s a bunch of mountainbike riders taking the piss out of your newly shaven (or waxed) legs, drop bars and skinny tyres. What you going to say to them?
Like SPDs, it’s never gonna happen, Butch. If they persist though I’ll do one of two things: either put the sport in a context they understand or challenge them to a race across London and any number of it’s parks because there’s nothing in this city that the Jake can’t handle, and that includes going both ways on stairs.
THANK YOU’S (from the Butcher)
Big thanks to my pit–man, big Dave Mole, for encouraging me every lap...even though I kept spitting at him. My mom, her dog, my wife and kids (for telling me each lap how good I was doing even though I knew it wasn’t true). Thanks to Laura at Rapha for putting such a ‘cool’ event on. There was Belgian beer, waffle stands, bike stands and a mobile cafe. Then lovely Laura even had the vision for a foam machine and tequila short cut for the fun race. Thanks to the spectators for never getting sick of ringing their cow bells for every rider, whether fast or slow, lap after lap. Thanks to the waffle man for putting extra sugar and lemon on my post race pancake. Thanks to Andy at 2PURE for telling me what an idiot I was for doing it. Thanks to Stu King from Madison for coming to watch (not to encourage me, but to laugh at my lycra). Thanks to Duncan Philpott (photographer) for not getting the ‘all important’ portrait shot of me looking exhausted (and I truly was) when I crossed the finishing line…you’re fired. Our lord, Jesus Christ, for delivering me from evil, supplying women with breast milk and not holy water (but blessing me with a pre–race stinking cold). Finally, to Mike Rose, editor, for suggesting I do it. I’m watching your every move Rosie and just when you are least expecting it (think horse’s head in bed)...
Dirt would like to thank the crew at Rapha, and give huge thanks to Brian and his team at The Cycle Jersey (www.thecyclejersey.com). They will make you any type of jersey you like…lycra, baggy MX…whatever you want. Massive thanks to Ben and the guys at Kona for the lend of the bike, and to Paligap for the tyres. Cheers to you all. Oh and of course thanks to Rod and Butch for taking on the challenge!