Last Sunday was round 4 of the Scottish Cyclocross series, a new course at Dunfermline. The forecast was looking okay, with rain forecast to move in after all the races had finished. Unfortunately, the forecast wasn’t very accurate and the rain arrived before my race started.
Cyclocross is become incredibly popular in Scotland. For the first time, entry to the vet40 race was closed early as they’d reached a maximum 160 riders. I’d been intending to leave it to the last minute in case I got a cold – normally a sane plan given that races cost about £16 to enter. But this time, it meant I lost out. Fortunately, the ‘senior’ race, which I’d been doing last year, turns out also to be the ‘open’ race. I think you have to be 18-39 to compete for points, but the race itself is open to anyone. And, with ‘only’ 100 entrants, I managed to secure a race place.
I’d set up my bike with mud tyres which was a sound plan, as even the short roll to the sign-on desk was a mud bath. I registered, and came outside to find my bike had a front flat. Pretty confusing, since there was nothing flat-inducing on the ride in. Back to the car for a quick repair, and I found a pin hole in the middle of the inner tube. I think I must’ve picked up a thorn on my test ride the night before, which then fell out in the mud. Regardless, always better to puncture prior to the race then during it.
I’m super-cautious about tyre pressure, since I hate DNF’ing due to punctures. At 74kg, and with clinchers, I usually ride between 35 and 40psi. This course had one steep ramp which hammered the bike, and a few kerbs, and so I went for 38psi. In hindsight, I should’ve tried lower on my sighting lap, but having already punctured, I was a bit rushed.
The start was wet + cold, with a lot of riders being gridded before everyone else shuffled in and waited for the race to kick off. The course was a mudbath by this stage, reminiscent of my first two cyclocross races at Plean/Mugdock in 2011.
I’d looked at my lap times in the vet40’s this year, and projected them onto the laptimes in the senior races, so I knew which riders were likely to be going at a similar pace to me. After the initial start chaos, I dropped in behind Mr Two Wheel Army, easy to spot with his green race gear. He gained about 10 places at the chicane by running round the gridlock, and then I got a large branch wedged in my front spokes after the barriers which dropped me back. I gradually caught up with his group over the next two laps, gaining on the technical stuff and losing out by trying to ride the deep mud on the start straight whilst he was running it.
After following for a lap or two, I got past somehow (I think maybe another riding/running split decision) and pulled a bit of a gap. After that, I was fairly heads down passing a few more people, but mostly preoccupied with line choice and figuring out where others were riding.
I never figured out how the fast guys were riding the start straight. I’d run the first part, then ride the hairpin and most of the return leg before running the off camber. I’d like to believe that they were achieving this due to fancy gear (low tyre pressure, or tubular tyres) or perhaps physics (maybe if you keep above some critical speed, you glide over the mud rather than being sucked down into it). But I rather suspect that the answer is just raw power/torque.
I got lapped by the lead rider at 30 minutes, followed by a bunch including Rab Wardell, who lead the Dirt School class I did earlier this year. Rab apologised for something as he went by – not sure if he nearly slid into me or what – but it never fails to impress me that the fast guys are always super polite to the less quick racers they’re lapping.
The mud was causing chaos all around. One guy with an orange helmet mis-stepped after the run up, tripped over his bike and did a full-body slide into the mud – he came up smiling though. I also passed a marshall who was helping a racer extricate his foot from the spokes of his rear wheel.
I finished in 56th place (58th percentile) which is a bit better than the 65th percentile I’d predicted pre-race. I was pretty pleased with my racing. Doing Zwift races has improved my race endurance a lot, and I can do a full hour at race pace without flagging towards the end. I’d love to know how to ride the deep mud like the fast guys, and with Lochore Meadows coming up in early December, I’ll probably have another chance to try. My bike handling, which was under par at Strathclyde was good, and I actively enjoyed the course with all it’s challenges.
Afterwards, I compared my gps trail on Strava with some of the leaders. My best lap was 8m48s, where the winner managed a 6m40s lap. I lost an entire minute on the start straight, and the other minute on the muddy switchback field. The rest of the lap – through the second field, the trees and the bottom field was at basically the same pace. So there’s a lot of time to be gained in the mud. But then, maybe that’s just where the raw power of the leaders shows up.