With more and more people choosing a cyclo-cross bike just to keep up the road mileage over winter, Sean McFarlane urges us to go off-road and discover what they’re made for…
As winter really bites, our weekend rides involve more and more pre-ride preparation. We seem to don every last bit of clothing we have. Fluorescent as usual is the prevailing colour of jacket choice and why not? Visibility in the dreary winter light is essential and for now fashion takes a back seat, although I think it always has for me. The summer’s carbon steed has long since gone to gather dust at the back of the garage and the weird and wonderful world of winter bikes is fully on display. More and more these days, many of us are choosing cyclo-cross bikes, often with road tyres on them and some heavy-duty mudguards.
For a few weeks now we’ve been chatting over our mid-ride lattes about how we really should put these machines through some more off-road terrain. After all, that is really what they’re made for. In peak summer we may occasionally venture farther afield but come winter we’re very keen to seek comfort in knowing we’re never too far from our warm and comfortable homes. That’s all good and logical but it does mean we spend a lot of time during this season doing the same 40 mile or so loops. The only choice to be made is clockwise or anti? It can become, like the weather, all a bit dull. As we whizz along the damp tarmac, year on year we pass the same farm tracks and may wonder where they lead.
Well, with a cyclo-cross bike it’s time to mix things up and explore what’s on our doorstep.
As is so often the case these days, my ride partners seem very keen for me to be the guinea pig. As they head off for their usual ride, only Al is keen to join me for my new adventure. Ah well, their loss. We meet at Al’s garage, and we take more time than usual to look at our bikes.
We also arm ourselves with a decent mapping computer. This is no doubt going to be muddy off-road stuff so my phone is left at home. My computer looks like it would survive being run over by a tank, so I’m happy. More than ever, we really don’t want to get lost. We then dig out the tyres that came with the bike but, surprise-surprise, we’ve never used! Time to change that. Al’s garage has an impressive amount of kit, and the closer that kit is to the front door represents how much it’s been used. The cyclo-cross tyres are right at the back, next to the Pilates ball and yoga mat. Oddly enough, I suspect we’ll need some core strength and more than usual today.
Most cyclo-cross bikes come with 32mm tyres as standard and there’s usually a decent tread on them. We pop ours on. We also quickly chat about pedal choice and after a serious challenge from flats, we both opt for SPDs. We then take a quick test spin round the block, adding some grass and kerbs. Immediately the bike feels different. We smirk in anticipation – this is going to be fun.
We’ve decided to do our usual route which criss-crosses our local hills and we’re confident, having first studied the maps, we can link up several parts of it with some off-road options. We’ve biked this route for over 15 years but today we’ll be riding many new parts. Like a couple of kids approaching a toy shop with decent spending power, we’re very excited!
On-road to off-road
We start our ride with a very familiar 8-mile road section. We both comment how surprised and pleased we are that we cover the ground almost as quickly as we do with our road tyres on. I try to start a conversation about rolling resistance and speed but Al quickly realises I know very little about what I’m trying to talk about. His signature upping of the pace, just slightly, tells me he’s bored so I stick to more familiar ground and chat about rugby.
We then approach a narrow opening and green path sign. I’ve long wondered where it goes and today, 15 years after first wondering, I’m going to find out. (Well, to be honest I already know having studied the map.) New local terrain is something I’d always thought was somewhat of a rarity for me but perhaps not. The mud splatters up with a good dose of leaves as we head down this virgin track. As we do so, I can see familiar hills and valleys all around but seeing them from this new angle is strange. But it’s a most welcome strangeness.
The track starts gently but then surprisingly quickly the ground loosens with large stones and we know our biking skills will be tested. Whilst Al and I don’t cope well with our fingers particularly hurting, the bikes are in their element. Certainly no skidding or sliding as I would expect. I’m all too aware that I don’t want to get overly confident – I’m struggling to see any soft landing areas – but I certainly feel I could push this more and the bike would cope fine. We both have a strange sense of unease that we’re perhaps damaging our bikes. The road bike shape to them makes us automatically think this is somehow something we shouldn’t be doing. Al reassuringly reminds me that although, perhaps we are not, these bikes are built for this.
We re-join tarmac and it’s most welcome; we squeeze and open our hands to give our fingers some relief, and roll our shoulders and neck. In hindsight we should have done this before we started to warm-up. We’re experienced road bikers who have done plenty of mountain biking but this is undoubtedly a very new two-wheeled movement for us. We’re loving it!
Having taken an off-road short cut to our usual loop, we’re now not far from a regular coffee haunt. I’m keen for a caffeine break but Al quickly says “look at the state of us” and he’s right – more mud than lycra – so we push on. Our next off-road track actually extends our usual road biking loop but that’s fine – today is not exclusively about short cuts.
Well, not quite. As we excitedly accelerate off the road on to the grassy track, the gradient quickly steepens and my gears and legs are tested. The bike again is on the money with a surprising lack of wheel-spinning up the muddy track. The cattle have been here recently and our herd of two copes well.
Eventually we get spat out onto the wet tarmac and both quickly say in unison “Ah we’re here” as our bearings suddenly lock in and we realise exactly where we are. We’ve only covered just over 20 miles but the legs feel more tired than that distance usually dictates. Plus we’ve both eaten almost all our nutrition.
Getting a feel for it
Right, we need to head home, following as closely as possible those ever so straight flying crows, so on the road again we discuss how we could do so. We stop to look at my map and whilst it’s clear there’s a far more direct line home, we both know there’s an element of entering into the unknown here. Al combines a harder than usual exhalation with a head shake, his doubt is both clear and justified; it’s certainly not a wide double track all the way. It’s less than 3kms so we can carry the bikes if need be, although I can’t help wondering how my bike shoes might cope with cow pats. The suggested route would certainly be a great finish to our ride today and would perfectly complete our novel mixed terrain circuit. Plus there’s never been any doubt – we’re not taking the usual route home!
The start of the track bears all the hallmarks of a track that peters out – long grass and no footprints, either from man or beast. Hmm. We bash on. It’s cycle-able but it’s certainly the most challenging terrain of the day. Whilst it’s flat (ish), the ground is very uneven and we need to concentrate.
What cyclo-cross is all about
You can tell by the complete lack of chat now that we’ve both entered that all too familiar off-road biker’s competition of trying not to put a foot down. It’s tough but so far so good. Even during the course of this ride, both of us have clearly improved our riding abilities on these bikes. If this section had been early on in our ride today I’d have slung the bike over my shoulder very early on. Eventually we reach a well cut field and can see the track continuing. It’s now little more than a faint quad track formed by a farmer’s annual run on it but our bikes will manage this with ease. We pick up the speed, whizz through some farm buildings and then we’re out on the road once more. “Awesome” Al shouts. I think about pushing it to catch him up but as the mud flies off his wheels I delay that.
We’re now less than 2 miles from home. We’re covered in mud but the bikes are still moving well. As we pass the usual groups of weekend cyclists they stare longer than usual at us. “Where they hell have they been?” I hear one shout. Tonight’s Strava upload will no doubt lead to much head scratching. As we arrive back at Al’s garage, our grins are the only pink colour in the otherwise dark brown that covers us from head to toe. Some interesting fumes too, mainly agricultural.
We’re genuinely thrilled at our new means of adventure. Immediately we both chat about other potential routes. “I’ve always fancied checking that out” is said more than once. And now we can. We can’t wait. I ask Al how easy it would be for him to take a sickie tomorrow….