Winter is a glourious time to embrace the elements, the ever changing conditions day-on-day not only add to the diversity of each ride but can also frequent the everyday cyclist with the ultimate kit bag conundrum. What the hell to wear. I can count on one hand alone the number of rides since October that have required an onslaught of Windstopper fabric to fend off the evils that lay awake beyond the front doorstep. Not that I’m complaining of course, oh no, it’s just that I’ve invested heavily over the seasons in technology that’s as useful to the skinny cyclist as a well cultivated coat of blubber is to the Minky whale after an ‘all you can eat’ swim in the sea-life centre.
Repent, the blue skies of yesterday are no more, replaced by an icy, bone chilling, wind and clouds that look set to burst at any moment. A welcome change to the broadly dry conditions that have proceeded the first eight rounds of the Wessex League so far, and certainly bringing a dynamic to the new circuit in Didcot that would test a rider’s skill even more so than plain old brute force and ignorance. The polar opposite of last week’s flat and fast course, it seems that the organisers took pride in making up for the lack of elevation by sticking round nine on a claggy, flint infested, 45 degree bank, continually climbing and descending with a multitude of off-cambers and hairpin bends. Nice.
Despite finding it hard to stop shivering before the start (a welcome sign that means you have to work doubly hard just to get some warmth back into the limbs) the bikes were carefully primed with the dilemma of the day being to A) run the tubs soft and risk a puncture on the sharp, shark-tooth like, stone or B) go for higher pressures and subsequently less traction. As the rain started to fall, minutes before the start, I opted for the former. Only time would tell if I’d made the right choice. With a number of regular riders missing from the start sheet, opting to take on the battlefield that was always going to be known as Peel Park in Bradford, nonetheless danger men Dan Lewis (RAF CC) and Chris Minter (Pedal On) can never be taken lightly and seldom go down without a fight.
The long, open, headwind start soon established the pecking order, initially led out by Jamie Norfolk (Pedal On) before Dan pushes through to lead as we head into the forest. Instinct takes over on exit and I pass Dan on the inside just before the first slick, tight, right-hander. I’m focused on trying to pick the best line, behind me all I can hear is the distinct tone of bikes and bodies sliding on concrete as the early carnage ensues. Being at the front is the safest place to be. I carefully negotiate the first series of cambers before muscling my way up the main ascent on the course, which was made up of an initial steep pitch followed by a sweeping off-camber and final switchback section to its crest. In terms of cyclocross climbs this is the biggest I’ve seen.
Having the bike squirm around beneath you on the free-fall back down, as if it has a mind of it’s own, is always a smile inducing feeling, albeit one that can come to a painful end after the slightest lapse of concentration. I cross the finish line to complete lap one with a 10 second gap back to Dan. There’s no time to relax, I ponder shifting up into the big chainring but know that on a course that felt not too dissimilar to wading through quicksand the intention would be futile.
Gaining a few seconds on each lap means that it’s possible to keep a consistent pace for the full hour, without the need to raise the tempo to hold a wheel in front, or find more strength to distance those behind. The rain subsides but the wind remains, assisting for a fraction of the time that it was there in hindrance. I try and ride as smoothly as possible to avoid a puncture, knowing that disaster could deflate my chances in a split second. It’s seems to be my lucky day, with no crashes or mechanical problems to contend with. I honestly don’t know what all the fuss is about, government bailouts, financial crisis, the credit crunch. I look up for one last time as the chequered flag comes into view. From what I can see UK banks are rock solid and in great shape.