A contingent of ten Orwell Wheelers competed in the third round of the Fixx Cyclocross Series on Sunday. Valdis Andersons talks us through his second cyclocross race since getting the bug, and Mike Hanley returns with his regular CX feature!

Valdis Andersons

It was an unusually warm mid-November morning in Dublin and the rain clouds that had made the grass and soil soggy overnight had started to clear giving way to some spectacular rainbows. As my (almost) four year old son put it that morning: "WOW!"

I and the family arrived early to sign on to let our son to participate in the U6 race. Fair play to the organisers for doing that! It makes the whole CX scene very family friendly.

On our way back from the kids track we greeted some of the Orwell women who were well into their warmup and discussing team tactics. While I was getting my bike out of the car the ladies race had started and I missed the frenzy for the first left hander. The B race men started to gather in the general area of the start/finish and also our only representative in the A race Eric Downey joined in for some pre-race chit-chat while we were closely watching the action in the ladies race.

Breda Horan had made great inroads towards the top ten racers already on lap one and was closing down her rivals in a very calm and composed manner. Her greatest rival of the day for 8th place was Sharon Moore (unattached). Both kept using their strengths to great advantage ensuring an exciting duel for the spectators. In the last lap Horan used her powerful engine to speed past Moore to claim 8th place putting almost 14 seconds into her rival at the line. Naoise Sheridan was having a great race herself while battling fiercely for the last top ten slot. She looked very determined and focused throughout the race. Aishling O'Connor had a very good start and was looking good for a battle with the top ten riders until she had an unfortunate fall in one of the off-camber corners. As she commented after the race it took a while for her to regather her composure and cornering confidence. Siobhain Duggan was racing in stealth mode (no club kit on her this time) and at first I didn't even spot her until Michael Hanley pointed her out to me. She was having an excellent race and was not far off Naoise and the top 10 riders. Our collective commiserations go to Brianne Mulvihill for whom a rapid unscheduled disassembly of her bikes' seat post forced her out of the race after just one lap.

The men's B race had a hefty field size of roughly 100 riders with a healthy representation from Orwell. Luke Potter, John Blennerhassett, Richard Cattle, Barry Mooney, Michael Hanley and myself were all bunched up together at the start line. The flag dropped and the dash for the first corner was on its way. It was hairy at the best of times. There were shouts and bumps, the odd elbow with a shoulder check, well, anything one could get away with to get into the first left hand corner in a good position. No crashes so all good. The first part of the circuit wasn't particularly technical so there was still a massive bunch ahead of me heading into the first grass/mud ramps. I gained a lot of ground on the uphill sections and kept passing people on the flat bits as well. The spiral of confusion proved to be my weakest point as I kept loosing positions there on every lap bar the last one where I finally had enough confidence in the tyres going through muddy grass.

Valdis tackles the steep uphill after the mud pool (photograph thanks to Sean Rowe).

The infamous drop turned into quite a bottleneck on lap one as a lot of riders were climbing off their bikes and tiptoeing down the short but very steep ramp. Here I was able to gain a lot of ground on my rivals as by using the drops and sliding the back wheel into the corner saved a lot of energy and momentum for the mud steps that came immediately after. After a short and smooth descent it was on to the muddy half-pipe in the trees.

This section turned out to be another one where I was able to gain places. By lap three the field was well strung out and it was easy to just sit on a wheel in the faster sections and go round people in the more technical ones or going uphill. Unshipped the chain in the half pipe, with some cursing and faffing around I was good to go again. I found that even on the steep ramps where the back wheel is spinning out the odd time it's much faster to just pedal up than dismount-run-remount. The dismounting and remounting also caused the pedals and cleats to get all clogged up and it made clipping back in a nightmare.

On lap four I was mostly on my own passing the odd rider with a mechanical or someone who had just went too hard too early. At the start of the fifth lap I began seeing a small group of riders in front of me that I made my goal to catch up with. It was also around the same time a rather unpleasant rhythmic hissing noise from my back wheel announced itself. Was hoping that it would be just some leaves or a stubborn peace of mud but the going started to get very heavy and it became clear that it was a puncture. It turned out be a slow enough leak and I was able to finish while still riding the bike (instead of shouldering it like last week). Came over the line in 16th position.

I know that Michael Hanley crashed a few times and struggled with the technical parts of the course as a result of that. The other lads appeared to be enjoying their race and all finished in good spirits.

Eric battling through (photograph thanks to Adrian McLeavey - Irish Cycle Sport)

In the A race we had only Eric Downey to cheer on and he made for a good show. After a very brave battle for the first corner he was well in contention by the vertical boards. From the two laps that I saw of the A race it looked like Eric was doing really well finishing his race in 10th place.


Michael Hanley

On Saturday night I put the finishing touches on the bike. Everything was working again. But it had been a couple of weeks since knobbly tyre had tasted muddy ground, so my expectations were low. The Orwell league was wide open now that Valdis had joined in, although I don't think he will be long slumming it in the Bs. No doubt Eric and Phillipe will be happy to have some company in the A race.

John Blennerhassett (going on the record as saying that no, he is not related to Tom) and myself battled out along the N81, overcoming buffeting winds and tired legs to make it to Tymon park in time for the start of the women's race. Siobhain, Brianne, Breda, Aishling and Naoise were lined up on the grid for Orwell. Myself and a few others headed to the wooded section to watch the riders tackle the fearsome drop. I say fearsome, but it's really not that bad when you look at it, however I had been unable to ride it in my one and only race last year. I knew a mental block was forming.

Memories of birthday parties in the fun factory flooded back to me and I was transported to the lip of the big slide. Anyone remember the fun factory? It was a parental dream for birthdays, a "drop-em-off and forget" solution for the madness of organising fun for 20+ screaming children. And it stank of socks. Out of all the ball pits, tube slides and cargo nets that filled the space, the one that I could never conquer was the big slide.

I would make the journey up to the edge like a scene from "the Green mile", while everyone else around me were readying for their third, fourth and fifth goes on it. I'd sit down and ask the attendant a barrage of questions: "Yeah, but has anyone ever died on it?", "What if I bang my head on the edge?"...clearly my parents didn't spot my early aptitude for risk assessment and point me into a lucrative career as an actuary.

Michael Hanley and Richard Cattle at the start (photograph thanks to Sean Rowe).

The line would grow, the attendant would grow weary and eventually I would buckle and turn around, crawling back from the edge. This was my childhood, and apparently now, my adulthood.

Watching the Siobhain and Breda tackle the drop with ease strengthened my resolve. This was my year. There was no attendant to question and I made my mind up that I was going to do it. Yes, over 20 years later I was finally going to realise my childhood dream of dropping from an insignificant height that could only result in minor injury if I messed it up. If only younger Me could see me now.

The warm up lap was a bit congested, so I decided not to ride the drop. Next time, I'll do it next time.

The race started off fast, faster than any of the previous races...or maybe I was just losing more fitness. The latter is more likely. I immediately found that the soggy ground wasn't giving much grip, the bike was difficult to control through the bends. I managed to get around fine until the drop...lining up behind the other riders I bailed and decided to run the section. It wasn't as slow as I thought, because of a series of steps at the other end that meant riders had to dismount anyway. The wooded section that followed was a nightmare though. Slick mud was being carved up into deep channels, so the bike quickly switched from getting stuck and stopping dead to sliding about along the same section of the course. It was difficult to adjust to and really you need to spend some time getting a feeling for how the bike behaves in such terrain.

I made the mistake of wearing new shoes and had to run through a deep muddy pool. Cyclocross is not for the fashion conscious, it's a hard man's game, the kind of men who would laugh in the face of danger...or the fun factory. I was finding my soft squishy limits: dry races, fine. Wet and muddy, take me home and put on Strictly. I did take some abuse from the crowd, but as Eric said it was "well deserved". Part of what makes the sport great is that the crowd will cheer and heckle riders in equal measure, although come to think of it, I don't recall too much cheering...

I came off several times during the race, several times into bushes, brambles and even nettles. I didn't realise how sore my hands were until we finished and the adrenaline wore off. Even today, as I sit here typing this, my hands are burning and itching because I forgot to put on a pair of mitts!

Was it fun? Yes, absolutely. Should I have been more prepared? Yes, absolutely. Will I be back next year to finally tackle the drop? We'll see...