Several weeks ago I had to say goodbye to an old friend. My trusty On-One Pompetamine finally failed. Yes, the headset needed replacing, the wheel bearings were grumbling like a 3 year old at bedtime, and the steel frame was rusting in several places after a brutal winter of commuting in all weather (mostly wet to be honest), but the final straw was the bottom bracket giving up the ghost. Try as we might, but neither myself nor my local bike shop could get the old one to shift. I tried a hacksaw, I tried a dremel, even a hammer and chisel, but still couldn’t separate it from the frame. As I didn’t fancy trashing my carbon bike by commuting on it day in day out, there was only one thing for it – a new bike.
Now, believe it or not, but I’d starting getting a bit bored of cycling the same roads day in day out on my way to/from work so I thought I might try something different (yes, I know I could go a different route, but I don’t work like that). The only stipulation was that it had to have disc brakes, as experience has shown that they are so much better in crappy weather than standard rim brakes. Having had a trawl through various websites, and some cycling ones as well, I thought it would be fun to get myself a proper cyclocross bike. Like a standard road bike, they come with drop bars, but they have chunkier frames and space for wider tyres to allow them to be ridden off road. Having narrowed my search down to one or two bikes, I plumped for a Raleigh RX Comp as it was the only one that had exactly the same disc brakes that my Pompetamine also had, so I had plenty of spare parts if need be.
First impressions were that it was a lot heavier than I expected, and the extra rolling resistance from the fat knobbly tyres meant it felt very slow on the road. But get it off road, and it literally takes off. It loves bombing around the cinder coast paths, unmetalled roads and bridleways. Never having ridden off road before, I had more than a couple of hairy moments as I bounced over large stones and the front wheel dug into gravel, sand and muddy puddles – not something that normally happens on a lovely smooth piece of tarmac. Chatting to one of my roadie mates however, he said his off roading experience had certainly helped his road bike handling, especially when things got a little bit sideways, so I thought it couldn’t be a bad thing to get a little experience of it. With that in mind I ventured over to the dark side and rocked up at one of the Velo Club’s summer mountain bike crits to try out my new found skills (or lack thereof).
For those that have never seen cyclocross, I think it’s fair to call it a cult sport within a cult sport – borne out by the fact that I was the only entrant in the cyclocross class. Warming up on the grassy section of the course through the trees at a local park, I was lulled into a false sense of security before I reached the technical section of narrow bumpy singletrack that the mountain bikers, with their lovely full suspension, flew through. The sharp twisty corners were a far cry from anything I’d ever ridden before and I suffered several unscheduled dismounts just trying to learn the course. In the end the race went a bit better than the warm up with only a couple of offs, the most spectacular on the last lap when I found myself upside down in a ditch with my bike on top of me (thankfully one of the juniors took pity on me and stopped to help me out).
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I definitely feel like I’ve got a better handle(bar) on things. I’ve sussed out how to ‘ride light’ over sand and gravel, release my death grip on the bars when going over bumps, and am getting used to the occasional sideways movement. I did my second race this week (only crosser there again – woohoo, still undefeated!), and I managed to stay upright all the way round this time. Despite the large bruise on my shoulder from carrying the bike up a steep bank each lap, the dust in my mouth grinding away my teeth and a pinch flat (I’m still getting used to riding at 30psi instead of 110), I thoroughly enjoyed it. There’s something slightly bonkers about it that makes a pleasant change to the formulaic world of road cycling.
It’s certainly made my training more fun, and also (perversly) makes me enjoy my road bike more when I go out on it at weekends – the lack of back pain after an hour of being bounced off my saddle, the lack of mud/dust, and the oh so joyous lack of rolling resistance from 23mm slicks probably helps. If it also helps my bike handling enough to stop me having to be pulled out of a ditch in the Highlands of Scotland come September then that’s even more of a Brucie bonus!