Lining up at round 3 of the Rapha Supercross event at London’s Ally Pally I searched for a reference point to make it somehow familiar and vaguely interesting. In terms of scale it was like a World Cup with an estimated 6000 people turning up to watch God knows what but that’s as far as I got with comparisons to MTB.
There were no other flats, no other piss-pot / goggles combo and definitely no other knee pads which I found odd because I’d spent most of the previous day failing to keep the bike upright on the grass slopes of South London parks and making mine look pretty second hand. Looking around, I was the one who turned up to a dinner party in fancy dress but I wasn’t trying to make a statement; I just didn’t own any ‘cross’ gear or knew if any existed.
I was also at the back of a grid of over 100 riders with no solitary start hut in which to collect my thoughts and no attention focussing beeps. It all started seemingly without warning and I was swept along at the arse end of a rolling triangle that funnelled straight into a climb. This was unfamiliar but not as unfamiliar as the fact I was enjoying being surrounded on the steep, greasy climb and wondering if I could get between the bloke in front and the taped post before the hairpin marking the start of the first descent. I couldn’t but within seconds it dawned on me that I was racing; not against a clock, an iPhone app’ or a mate but against over 100 others in more suitable clothing, proper pedals and way more experience.
By the end of the first descent I’d made up all the places I’d lost on the climb and was steeled with a determination to hold off as many crossers as possible over the flats and climbs ahead until the next glorious singletrack(ish), place gaining descent through a wood. And so over 7 transformative laps I became completely absorbed in this insanely skilful game of attack and defend and clawed back places to bag 29th out of 75 in my category.
I’d ‘got it’ and also worked out cyclocross races are won by people who can do two things really well: pedal for an hour at the edge of puking and wring the neck of a rigid bike on skinny tyres down fast, greasy, often off-camber descents. Just being good at one of these things had given me a result I was happy with and so what happened next would be pivotal: would I box up the Jake and send it back to Ben at Kona as intended or get fitter and race again in league events which I’d just found out happen all over the country every single weekend in winter? Walking through the pits I saw Angus Muir (angusmuir.com), the snapper covering the London round for Dirt Magazine, who’d been reviewing his shots. ‘I thought you said this was going to be shit’ he said ‘So what’s with the village idiot grin you’ve got in all my shots’?
48 hours earlier a box with ‘Kona’ stamped on the side had arrived at my house as I ate breakfast. Shovelling in eggs I stared at the box for a bit before half heartedly hacking at it with my buttery table knife because I knew what was in it. From a pretty low starting point my enthusiasm took a nose dive when I pulled out the Kona Jake, a road bike to my mountain bike’s eyes. But that was Friday, and here I was now ‘on any Sunday’ and that bike is never going back in that box.
Photographer: Angus Muir.