Mud, Sweat and Tires

Cyclocross racing in wintertime is relentless, but on the sloppy track, the crashes are turn out to be mostly comedy

On The Town | Christian Cummins | February 2011

It’s far too early on Sunday morning – the morning of my first cyclocross race – the RC Schnecke Wintercup Finale in Vienna. The rain, blown by a howling wind, is rattling against the bedroom windows as I wake up. I look out the window; it’s dark and gloomy and clumps of hardened snow are still lying on the pavement.

I go back to bed and call Stefan, the friend who’s talked me into this folly, to ask whether the race won’t perhaps be cancelled? "Cancelled?" He laughs, "No! Cyclocross is never cancelled! Not even if the mud is knee high." He adds cheerfully "It’s a winter sport. That’s just the way it is!" 

Cyclocross, a quasi-religion in the Benelux countries with a hundred years of tradition under its belt, is still a niche sport in Austria. But it’s a niche sport undergoing some sort of boom. It’s an off-road race consisting of many laps around a course of varying terrain on bikes that look like road-race bikes, being skinny and with drop tires, but with slightly different frame angles and slightly thicker, knobbled tires to cope with the mud (and today, snow and ice!)

The race lasts an hour plus one lap and the idea is to complete as many laps of possible. There are obstacles on the course such as wooden hurdles and flights of steps so you have to hop on and off your bike at speed and run with it over your shoulder. That’s no simple task and I had meant to learn the proper technique during the previous week with one of Austria’s top riders Patrick Hackl, but the training session was all but snowed off and Patrick and I ate lasagne together instead. So, now, in race conditions and with dozens of other riders there to potentially run me over, this morning is going to be an extreme case of learning by doing.

We arrive an hour before the race begins at the grandly named Cyclodrom. The temperature gage in the car reads 1.5 degrees. Some snow is fluttering amid the rain. It's like the opening scene of Gladiator, but I’m no Maximus. "What I am doing here?" I ask aloud as I put on my cleat shoes and help assemble the bike that Stefan has lent me for the day.

We roll over a bridge over the Neue Donau to find a twisting track that has been staked out with red and white tape. It’s around two kilometres long incorporating tightly twisting, muddy turns through some water-logged woods, some steep banks to climb, a few cross-camber passages, some steps to climb and, of course, those infamous low wooden hurdles that make me wish I’d packed my football shin-pads.

I go on a very tentative test lap trying to get used to my borrowed bike. It feels very alien at first – the gearing seems quite high for an off-roader and the cantilever brakes don’t bite like the trusty disks on my mountain-bike. In fact, on the short downhill sections it’s a matter of pointing the front wheel and hoping.

Yet there is a pleasant surprise: Although the tires are thin they grip surprisingly well even when I get to the wet mud. They make a satisfying crunch as I cut through the snow-patches and I even stay upright in an icy traverse. The course is constantly winding and the hairpins are so tight that I rarely have any chance to put the hammer down, but the light and skinny bike is delightfully nimble on the corners and when finally the straight comes the acceleration seems positively explosive compared to what I am used to on my heavier mountain bike. As I take a tight corner at a skid, I’m beginning to think that this is going to be fun.

And so it turns out.

I roll up to the start line where around 150 riders have gathered. Some of the guys at the front are sporting bare legs, the madmen, but at the back, reassuringly, there are some athletes whose well-filled lycra hints at indulgence in the finer things in life. You don’t have to be a Tour de France veteran here; you just register, pay a €12 starting fee and off you pedal, and plenty of riders simply turned up with mountain bikes. The start gun goes and the leaders are off like jackrabbits disappearing around the first hairpin corner not to be seen again until they lap me. Trailing behind, my breath is taken away by the first foot-sprint with a shouldered bike up the slippery mud of a steep bank. I won’t get it properly back for an hour.

The demands of cyclocross are relentless. I hadn’t thought of an hour as a particularly long time for a race – I’ve sat eight hours in the racing saddle before – but after 20 minutes I’m exhausted. It takes all my concentration just to stay upright on the mud. Over the course of the race I see a dozen riders slip over into a heap. Yet none of the crashes look remotely dangerous – more comedy than kamikaze. The hurdles aren’t high (only around 30 centimeters) but I still have to choose my take-off point carefully and lap by lap, it gets harder to lift my legs even that high with the bike on my shoulder.

Because of the short laps I’m constantly racing, always planning maneuvers to overtake slower riders or making sure I give way to the faster riders lapping me with shouts of "Achtung! On your right!" But although it is some of the most demanding racing I’ve ever done, always having a fellow rider in sight is extremely motivating. Even when I’ve watched the same bare-legged leaders lap me for third time, you still feel very much part of the race. After three quarters of an hour, with my legs getting ever heavier and my gulps of freezing air getting ever more labored, I remain absurdly determined to overtake the man in front.

After an hour, a bell rings and (thank heavens!) it’s the final lap. I’m steaming like a racehorse as I drag myself over the line. I don’t hang around at the end to find out how I placed; the officials tent is being hurriedly packed away and the whole damp mud-splattered peloton of riders is scurrying away in search of warm dry clothes and hot showers. I see some of them dipping their bikes into the Danube to rinse off the worst of the mud.

Soon the field by the river is deserted – the only reminder that something epic has happened here were the churned up stretches of single-track and the last bits of red and white tape still fluttering in the wind. Reluctantly I hand my bike back to Stefan and call my girlfriend… "Hi…umm…yeah, no, I’m fine... Erm,... what would you think if.... if I bought a new bike..?"

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