It’s not often you get a chance to take part in something genuinely historic but that’s what happened when I made my racing début at the Morvelo City Cross event at Piece Hall in Halifax on Saturday. I’d been along to watch the first event of this kind which was in a slightly less salubrious venue – an old rubbish dump. Somehow however, Morvelo and Emma Osenton had managed to stage a coup in getting permission for the second event to be staged in the Grade 1 Listed Georgian architectural wonder, Piece Hall which is shortly due to be closed for renovation work thus allowing a window for it to be overrun for one day only by a load of cyclists. The 18th century building surrounds a huge sloping cobbled and grassed courtyard, the slope meaning that the building is two storeys at the top end but three storeys at the bottom. The slope, cobbles and grass meant that those with a warped / clever mind could turn this space into an urban cyclocross event aka City Cross. which as I approached it on Saturday in the rain I realised with a growing feeling of terror I was about to race; my first ever race on a bike of any kind. I did enter – and complete – the Cliff Cross event earlier in the year but this was more of an event than a race and it was a very different beast to what awaited me at Piece Hall.
As I wheeled my borrowed bike (thanks Hannah) into the venue to register there was a real assault on the senses, a veritable blizzard of tape marking out the course; cowbells and cheering; riders whizzing, grimacing and sliding around; the smell of beer, great street food and wet mud all to the accompaniment of an indie rock soundtrack that filled the courtyard being spun by resident DJ and bike designer Brant Richards. It was some scene.
Quite how I’d manage to find myself getting a race number pinned onto by back I wasn’t really sure. For those who’ve visited this blog before I’ve been on a bit of journey this year, my project snail journey, where I’ve been trying to tackle/face my lack of confidence and skills through some training with Ed Oxley, riding with different people and seeing what happens. I’d got it in my mind that maybe having a go at a race would be an interesting and challenging experience and this City Cross event seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. I wasn’t thinking that though as I watched the skilled riders in the event before me compete, I was very very apprehensive. I was glad that I knew a few other people riding and there were plenty of the GarageBikes crew in attendance. Shop owner and all round good guy Al Shaw who was racing with me provided wise words of encouragement along the lines of “you’re just riding round in circles with a number on your back, go at your own pace and enjoy yourself”. One question going round in my head looking at the course was how the heck do you know where you are supposed to go, I’d not had a chance to ride round it or really look at it in any detail so I knew in a few minutes I’d just have to hit it and hope. I was reassured by those who know that you just follow the tape ! So I wheeled my bike onto the start line which was down a cobbled side street outside of the venue.
As I glanced around me the word novice (I was racing in the second novice heat) did not spring to mind as I knew a few of the riders and novice is not what they are, they may not do much cyclocross but there were some kick ass MTBers alongside me. My kids had kindly stencilled The Snail From Wales on my back which had seemed like a good idea the night before but I now realised I was identifiable and opening myself up to public ridicule and humiliation. My mind was a whir of questions, am I in the right gear, am I going to crash straight away and if not how many times, would I be able to get round the course, will I be able to calm down, how am I going to ride over wet, muddy off camber cobbles, how much beer should I drink while riding etc etc. Beep the whistle blew and we were off……
I got away cleanly, clipped in pedalled and surged (well moved vaguely steadily forward) up the slope, cameras flashing before sweeping right through the gates and into the arena which felt like going into the lions den. I hadn’t really considered people watching before but there I was riding into an area with spectators watching, I could here cheering and cowbells clanking and music blaring as we turned left and headed uphill on cobbles before hitting the sandpit, which proved much harder to ride through than I’d have thought. Once through it was onto the vortex, a large spiral that you made your way into the middle of through ever decreasing circles before a tight turn and then working your way back out. Each circle you were traversing the slope up and down, primarily off camber. I didn’t actually mind the uphill bits but the downhill bits put the fear of god into me I just thought there is no way I’m going to get off these cobbles without crashing but somehow I got out of the vortex. Uphill again briefly before a sharp right hand turn, downhill under a scaffolding bridge then onto the mud, a couple of 180 degree turns and I’m still upright and then I’m faced with 6 or 7 steps. I unclip, grab bike and haul myself up to find myself on the stage behind the DJ with a smoke machine billowing in my face. I was totally unclear about what to do so I pushed the bike across the stage then saw the way off, a steep ramp (made a note in my head that next lap get back on the bike as soon as I get on the stage to make riding down the ramp easier) which I looked at and gulped. I have a fear of pointing downhill steepily but I thought I’ve just got to go for it, stay of the brakes and see what happens. Down the slope, still on the bike and a sharp muddy turn, off a kerb onto the cobbles again for a short sharp sprint toward the bridge which I was determined to get over up up up and over gasping for breath now down the other side, no mishaps phew and back onto the cobbles, turn right downhill to be assaulted by a crafty marksman with a water pistol, overshooting a bit turn right again and then BEER. The novice race has a beer stop where, should you wish to accept, the lovely people of Dark Star Brewery Company hand you a cheeky beverage. Feeling cocky at this stage I grab one and try to drink it while riding, decided after spilling a bit that that approach was a waste of good beer and that I would stop next lap (which I then did each lap generally shouting beer please as I came round the corner to which the reply was “Your wish is our command”). Back onto the mud for a few more tight turns before off onto the cobbles for a short sharp climb up toward the sandpit. One lap completed! 4 and half minutes of mind bending pain and exhilaration.
I knew I was well at the back by this point but really didn’t care, I had started to relax as much as I could and I just gave it my best shot. What was great was the encouragement from the crowd, where I had been fearing ridicule all I got was support. People who knew me shouted my name at different points of the course, others who didn’t shouted out “go on Snail”, “keep riding fella”, “good effort” “keep going” etc and I was genuinely touched by this so a huge thank you to all who watched and supported, this, the music and the beer fuelled me round. I had no idea how long or how many laps or to be honest what on earth was going on I just kept pedalling, tried to stay upright and finish. Eventually a marshal waved his hands as I crossed the line indicating the race was over, I simply slumped onto the bars feeling quite emotional, buried my head and gulped and gulped oxygen into my lungs. I’d been a long long way out of my comfort zone but felt hugely proud of what I’d done and once I’d come down to earth realised I had hugely enjoyed myself. After shovelling food from No Fishy Business down my neck I went to check the results and to my utter astonishment found I’d not finished last but came 17th out of 20.
I was then informed that as I’d not qualified for the final I could race again in an hours time with all the other people who’d not made it in a last ditch knockout. In for a penny in for a pound. This race was a bit different as those of us from the novices who decided to have a go found ourselves in with those from the seniors and vets who had not made it. Lining up on that start line as darkness fell and the rain poured and looking round I just though blimey not sure I belong here. Credit though to all the riders, they all seemed great people. Off we went again for another dose of pain and beer. This time I did crash but picked myself up, kept going, finished and I did pick up the lantern rouge.
I felt hugely privileged to have taken part in this event. Slow I may be but I was bloody proud of myself and I don’t often say that.
Most of the photos of me are taken on my phone by @oldstuntmonkey as I shoved my phone into his hand before the off saying see if you can get some shots. Others have kindly been donated by Chris Crabtree (@meadowedge), Craig Walmsley (@P9ADV), Tim Royle (@whitenosugartv), Eleanor Clark (@eleanorsioux), Jon Moore (@_Jon_Moore_), Survey Partners (@surveypartners), Morvelo (@Morvelo) and of course Emma Osenton (waterrat77) without who none of this madness would have happened.