Watch out, US racers. The UK crowd is getting a head start on barrier practice. © Clare Crabtree
People in the US tend to complain that ’cross racing in March-August is just wrong. It’s the offseason, why do we need ’cross during the summer? However, despite the grumblings, ’cross in the offseason is growing—just look at the crowds at Raleigh’s ’cross races that liven up Sea Otter in April and Dealer Camp in July. And over in the UK, they’re putting Americans to shame with their summer-long series’ that bring in hundreds of riders in a less competitive, more casual environment before the season really kicks off..
Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall (that’s Autumn to us Brits)… We love the first one because that’s when we get to race in our favorite sport of cyclocross. But what about those other three, the seasonal poor relations—what about them?
Well, in recent years here in Yorkshire, in the north of England, we’ve had a thriving mid-week, evening Summer Cyclo-Cross league to keep us entertained and razor sharp for the Winter season, courtesy of our regional body, the Yorkshire Cyclo-Cross Association (YCCA).
So, why are we racing summer ’cross when most cyclists are traditionally off racing in other disciplines? Fred Rothwell of the YCCA explains: “About 10 years ago, I thought that there was obvious gap in the racing calendar, especially for those who can’t, won’t or don’t want to road race. I also wanted something that was affordable, fun and relatively easy to organize.”
Things started well for Fred and the YCCA team with up to 60 riders regularly taking to the start line almost from day one and numbers have grown every year since. The summer league has benefited from being in a hotbed of the winter brand of the sport and also from the support of two local cycle stores that specialize in ’cross: Paul Milnes Cycles of Bradford and the Halifax-based Pedalsport. Both shops have spin-off clubs who also spread the cyclocross gospel and the large urban and suburban areas of Yorkshire are dotted with high schools and public parks, all perfect venues.
That good start led to steady year-on-year growth in participant numbers, which then accelerated towards the end of the last decade, reflecting a wider growth in cycling in Great Britain following the success of the GB Cycling Team at recent Olympics and the high-profile achievements of road stars, such as Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Now, with the Tour de France set to visit Yorkshire this summer, the YCCA has the exciting ‘challenge’ of handling fields of over 160 in the adults’ race and 100 plus in the kids’ race, with the sign-on and two races all crammed into two hectic hours.
Yorkshire’s secret is now out and elsewhere in the country, organizers like Craig Denning from Dream Cycles Western Summer Cyclo-Cross in the SW of England and Andy Smith of the neighboring Cotswold Veldrijden’s Summer Cyclo-Cross have followed similar paths, despite initial skepticism. And, just like in Yorkshire, their Summer ‘Cross racing events are proving ever more popular year after year.
When asked to identify the reason behind Summer ’cross’s success, both Craig and Andy make the same point, identifying that it’s a great starting point for people getting into full-on Winter ’cross. Summer ’cross is cheaper—thanks to the event fee structure of the national governing body, British Cycling. It’s also easier and possibly less traumatic to learn the ropes on balmy Summer evenings than in the highly competitive, freezing cold, mud-drenched winter races. There’s also less pressure with no National ranking points at stake, just pride. Plus, with time at a premium, evening racing sees categories all racing together, making for a great informal atmosphere.
More summer race action can also be found elsewhere in the country, including to the West of London in the Newbury Summer CX, in the far South-West in Devon courtesy of 3Sixty Performance Summer CX, in the mountainous North-West of the Lake District at Whitehaven and Ulverston in the Cumbria Summer Cross and in the Midlands at Telford for the Queen Victoria Cyclo-Cross.
Another new kid on the ’cross block in Britain is Urban Cyclo-Cross. There are events this year as part of the Eastbourne Cycling Festival and the Morvelo City Cross in Leeds and our close neighbors up the North East of the country get their traditional pre-season workout at the Muddy Brown’s events in August.
So it seems the summer is no longer a time to train, race on the road or any of those old school options. Instead, ’cross fans are taking only a short break in the spring, in an otherwise year-round calendar. They’re even finding themselves thinking more strategically about planning their family summer vacations, with league positions to be defended. Happily, with races every other week, it’s just possible to nip away for a week’s break… Just so long as the bike comes too: Wouldn’t want to lose fitness mid-season, would we?
Bringing ’cross into the offseason in the UK. © Clare Crabtree
Returning to this season in Yorkshire, a couple of weeks ago, I rocked up to Newsome High School on the edge of the town of Huddersfield for this year’s Summer Series Round 1. With me were Uni students Peter and Jo, eager to try out their new-found ’cross skills in a semi-serious race situation. Our coach Chris Young (a former national champion) was on the side-lines to keep an eye on these two, who have been attending his excellent skills and drills sessions in the lead up to the series.
The evening summer series is generally a bit more relaxed—no formal pits or bike changes, for example—but there were a few skinsuits in evidence, showing that some of the big field of 160 odd riders were taking this very seriously. I lined up behind veteran legend Ian Taylor and used all of my explosive 50 yard start to hang onto his wheel for almost half that distance!
As I’ve mentioned, one real feature of the series is the way that all the categories are thrown into one race together, which means you get to race against folks you would normally be watching. I found myself racing leading one of the country’s leading female under-16 riders, Sophie Thackery, and as she’s obviously in a different category, we were happy to combine forces to shake off as many other guys as possible.
We worked well together until she dumped me out in a tricky tech section featuring some mega off-cambers. I managed to get back in contact and then, ironically, it was Sophie’s own team-mate lapping us, who gave me the opportunity to grab a wheel and gain an advantage of my own. Sophie was unable to take advantage of this free ride to the line, meaning that I just managed to sneak over the line ahead of her. Nonetheless, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more from her in the future.
A post-race debrief with Jo and Peter found them both giving the experience a massive thumbs up, despite Peter suffering a heavy fall on a 180-degree corner. Both were super keen to follow up their experiences and ride at the next round, demonstrating perfectly how this is a seriously addictive sport and a great entry point into the wider world of cycle racing.
Stay tuned for more cyclocross action from the UK!
Ted Sarmiento has raced CX as a veteran (master) for the last seven years in Yorkshire and the North East of England. He is also a regular at the UK National Trophy series and the British National Championships. As well as coaching University students in Leeds in the ways of CX he recently teamed up with Steve Smales to launch the CXM Racing Team developing talented U23 riders such as Sarah Murray and Edwyn Oliver-Evans.
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