The X Files (Lessons learned in my first season of racing cyclo-cross)

posted in: Cycling | 2

This is a chronicle of my journey through the London X League races in Q3 2016 and transformation from cyclo-cross newbie to proto-cross rider, along with the lessons I learned along the way.

Race 1: Sumners Pond

It was exciting to be trying something new and I drove to the event not sure what to expect. My first surprise was how many people there were. In my 40-50 year old Vets race there were over 80 riders. With there being some large children’s races beforehand there was a good crowd and a nice family atmosphere.

The ground was dry and after a warm up lap it seemed like the trickiest bit was not sliding on the grass on a series of off-camber bends as the course wound its way up and down a sloping field. Once the race got going it took about a lap for riders to spread out. I then started to slowly over take the people in front (I had started near the back). Ahead of me was a fellow Dynamo, John, who I rode with most of the way. He got about 10 seconds ahead of me in the end and we finished 32nd and 33rd.


  • Don’t pump your tyres too hard. I had assumed that as my mountain bike tyres were wider than CX ones I should run them at higher pressure. Consequently I had them at 40psi. I suffered from poor grip on the grassy bends and later found out that the fatter the tyres the lower the pressure. So they should have been at about 25psi.
  • The last lap bell does not always ring for you. I was lapped by the winner about 500 metres from the end. This actually meant that when he finished the race ended and because he lapped me only on my final lap I didn’t get a bell. The race length was the number of laps to give the finisher about 45 minutes of riding time.
  • Bunny-hopping has its perils. There were two obstacles that I, and the other riders at my level, dismounted to pass. We watched the Seniors practice bunny hopping on their warm-up but on their first lap the leader become unclipped after the first bunny hop and came down hard after the obstacles. He did go on to win which was very impressive. The lesson for me – don’t attempt to bunny-hop!

Race 2: Happy Valley

This was another dry but windy day on a course in Brighton. I arrived late and my faffing was made worse when I could not find my cycling top. I had left it at home and ended up donning an oil streaked T-shirt from the boot of my car.

I started near the back again, but seemed to be riding well, moving up through the field. I think the lower tyre pressures helped. I made it to the end without being lapped and in a respectable 28th place.


  • If you want people to take photos of you don’t look like a chump. All the photographers seemed to completely ignore me. That was a pity as I had planned this to be the last race that I would do on my ‘retro’ mountain bike (a Kinesis with V-brakes and those forward grips on the handlebars that mountain-bikes used to have 20 years ago).
  • There is nothing better to break the spirit of your opponents than overtaking them on a mountain-bike wearing a baggy T-shirt.
  • You can still get a parking ticket even if you are parked off the road on the verge if there is a double yellow line. The local traffic warden had a field day with me and many others.

Race 3: Happy Valley

Three weeks later I was back in Happy Valley but what a difference. This time I had a CX bike, a Canyon Inflite that I had received a week previously. It was still not muddy and without much technical riding I found myself much nearer the front of the race, finishing 11th. I also got some great photos thanks to Huw Williams.


  • A cross bike is much faster than a mountain-bike!

James approaching the more technical bit of the course in the Seniors race

Race 4: Bethlem Hospital

I’d been having a lot of fun on the cross bike and as well as joining some other CX riders for evening blasts around the local common in the dark (great fun and good for skills). I also took the bike down to the mountain-bike trails that I normally ride on in the Surrey Hills. There I learnt all about the importance of tyre pressures and the risk of bottoming out out when riding over rocks and tree roots. Things were going well until I got a pinch flat on the Yoghurt Pots; as I only had one spare tube I then rode very cautiously until I got home. I found I could ride the trails okay but that the bumps were very tiring and the drop handlebars hard to grip compared to mountain-bike handlebars. I guess there is a reason why mountain-bikes were invented.

I also visited Swinley Forest (near Bracknell) for the first time. The red trail there was excellent and being 10 miles long was a great workout. It was rainy and sandy and after that ride my rear brake started making a nasty scraping noise. Close inspection showed that one of the pads had completely worn away. I bought some new pads but in the course of trying to install them I let some brake fluid out of the rear brake (and some air in). As a consequence for my next CX race, which was the day after I screwed up the brake, I was back on my old mountain bike.

The Bethlem Hospital course was fun with technical sections through some woods. I don’t think the mountain-bike held me back on those but I suffered on the flat grassy sections, finishing 37th overall.


  • Downhill mountain-biking is more fun on a mountain-bike.
  • One should buy sintered brake pads (i.e. ones containing metal) for off-road riding as they last much longer than resin ones (which were the ones I had).
  • Don’t squeeze hydraulic brakes when the pads are out because if the pistons come out you are in trouble (that’s how I got air into the system).
  • Finally a cross bike is definitely faster than a mountain-bike.

Race 5: Ardingly Showground

Heavy rain on Saturday night meant it was definitely going to be muddy. Although it wasn’t raining a cold wind gave the event a proper winter cyclo-cross feel. This was the first true initiation of my new cross bike and my second race on it.

The course had more obstacles than previously with a 40 degree mud bank to clamber up (I did it the first time with my bike on my shoulder but then I found I was quicker pushing my bike), some steps and the regular hurdles. With all those transitions and the mud, by about half way through the race I think everyone was having problems clipping into their pedals.

The mud and technical nature of some bits of the course meant it was less of a pure fitness test than, for example, Happy Valley which probably suited me as I was recovering from a cold and not on top form.

Towards the end of the race the gaps started to widen and I finished a good 10 seconds ahead of the person behind me. I came 27th though this was not confirmed for a few weeks (see below).


  • Make sure your number is visible. I stupidly kept my gilet on which I thought would not matter as we ride with timing chips on our helmets. Unfortunately my chip did not work and I was left without a finish position. Luckily Strava came to the rescue in enabling me to establish my time gap from other riders.
  • A mobile bike washer is well worth it. I had bought a Mobi V-15 portable washer which was great for getting rid of the worst of the mud and grass. It managed to do my bike and most of John’s. The washer just plugged into the cigarette lighter of my car.

Alex in the Seniors race

Mud and grass… not easy to clean off

Race 6 – Leeds Castle

The course was billed to contain some unique features such as ‘crossing the moat’ and ‘riding the joust’. The former was a quagmire between two hurdles and the latter was a section that turned back on itself after a 180 degree turn; good for keeping track of who was behind you.

The best feature was probably the climb out of a bumpy and muddy valley that the course dropped into. I can’t remember the castle-themed name but ‘scaling the wall’ would have been apt. There was an interesting choice on every lap as to whether to climb directly up, bike on shoulder, or ride further and then push the long way round. Both seemed to take me about the same time.

The other memorable thing was the bumps. These were caused by crossing lumps of tussock grass that made the course physically very tiring. I noticed that my lap times started to slow about half way through the 43 minute race. Sadly I lost track of the two people who I had been chasing down eventually finishing 16th.

It was a good race though with a nice view of Leeds Castle and decent weather. No rain.


  • Never make assumptions about where the event is. I rocked up 40 mins before the start at Leeds Castle car park only to find no sign of any CX race or cross bikes. Luckily as I left and rejoined the main road I spotted a small blue arrow leading to the race car park.
  • Perhaps the starting grid position is not as important as I had previously thought. Whilst I felt disappointed with my grid position – I started in the 6th row (i.e. 30-36th) based on my league position – looking at the lap times nearly all the people who finished ahead of me were doing faster laps. So I don’t think it made that much difference to my overall position.

Claire scaling the wall in the Womens race

Race 7 – Frylands Forest

This was the last race before Christmas. Rusty, a fellow Dynamo, who likes the mud was rubbing his hands together with glee as we got ready on a fine day after a night of rain. The course was either rocky (2 out of the 4 Dynamos punctured) or slippery mud. The only saving grace for me was that it had a long climb which enabled me to get ahead of people would then overtake me on the descents. However, towards the end of the race fitness started to tell and I think I finished ahead of most of the more skillful but less fit (or light) riders coming 21st out of 74.


  • I saw a couple of riders crash and curse that it was the second time that it had happened to them on that bend, which did make me wonder why they hadn’t changed their approach. If you go round a bend and lose your front wheel it probably means you are going too fast. Best not to repeat it.

One of the bends where the marshal kept warning us to slow down, and a good place to watch the Seniors race

The fast downhill leading to the above-mentioned bend

There is always more to learn…

  • I installed tubeless tyres on my bike over Christmas and used them in the Yule Cross race. They seemed to work well. In theory it should be possible to run them at lower pressures than clinchers as one can’t get pinch flats.
  • Sadly I there is only one more London X League race that I can make it to this winter… if I learn anything useful I’ll add a postscript to this blog.


My last race, at Betteshanger Park, went well. It was raining and we all got plastered with black/grey mud; the park is located on the site of the last operating coalfield in Kent which closed in 1989. I came 14th.

My final league position was 19th in the V40+ category. The position was based on the best 8 results of the 13 league events. I only did 8 of them so hopefully I can improve by a few places next year by just turning up to more races. But I’ll try and get faster too! Bring it on.

2 Responses

  1. John

    That brings the whole season back to life. I think Sumners Pond was my favourite course. It’s been great fun learning the ropes and racing together (until you got you CX bike at least). Same again next year I hope 😉

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