Have you ever finished a cyclo-cross race and thought “oo, I could do with another hour of that!”. No? Thought not, but there are people who think that it would be a good thing. People like Martin and Philip from the Cycle Events Organisation. These fine gentlemen also organise the CX Sportive events that I have reported on previously. After watching the growth of extra curricular ‘cross events and the rise of the Gravel bike, they realised that what we were missing over here was a race event. There are plenty of long distance ‘cross/Gravel events and winter ‘cross racing has been around for longer than any other knobbly racing, but it’s summer, the ground is dry(ish) and we’ve got all this summer fitness to make use of!
Pulling up into the Matterley Bowl near Winchester, where the Battle in the Bowl will be taking place and you can see the course spread out before you. It looks perfect from a spectators point of view, apart from a brief downhill section through some woods, you can see the riders all round the course. As a rider it looks good, plenty of long, wide gravel tracks so no problems with overtaking. The centre of the bowl is covered in long grass, which is taped off and again is wide enough for passing.
Unpacking the car and there’s a definite old boy’s reunion feel to the day. Chatting to riders from the local winter ‘cross league inevitably leads to talk about tyres and pressure! What is it about cyclo-cross riders and our obsession with rubber? With the chalk downlands being free draining, there’s no mud in sight and lightweight file tread tyres are much in evidence; let’s hope the rain stays away.
There’s an open race coming to an end as we warm up, or stand around chatting. This is a shorter race, open to all types of bike and there’s a good mix of Mtb and ‘cross bikes flying around. As the finishers start to roll in we all descend on them, trying to find out what the course is like. It’s pronounced very rideable, with only a couple of sketchy loose corners on the downhill. Which is confirmed on a quick warm-up lap.
From the start gate you’re straight onto a wide lower gravel track, this has a short downhill into a swooping left hander, before the first grass section. This taped section takes you up and down the slope, before heading off into some sharp twisting corners, that bring you onto the main climb; 4% and 1.4km long according to Strava. The climb is again on gravel, with plenty of room for passing, or being passed!
The climb brings you out onto the top of the bowl and a dirt/grass track that leads into the descent. This downhill section is completely covered by trees, which gives it a tunnel like feel. A tunnel floored with loose gravel, that becomes increasingly rutted as you get faster and closer to the exit! The ruts continue as you exit the wooded tunnel and do their best to un-ship your or your chain, a sharp left hander brings you into another taped, grassy section and over the finish.
So that’s the course, how did my race go? Well, as my teachers used to say “could have done better”! Convinced that todays field wouldn’t be too big, I decided to warm up by my car and wander over to the start ten minutes before the off; big mistake! The Super CX race attracted over one hundred riders and by the time I got my self over to the start I was way back in the bunch. Oh well.
After a brief chat from the organisers, something about “there’s plenty of room to overtake, so no need to panic, keep it calm”, does he not understand the dynamics of a ‘cross race, even one twice as long as usual? Cyclo-cross races start with a mad sprint to get the best position for the first corner or pinch point on the course and then get harder! And so it was today. As the front moved off, us laggards at the back stood for ten to fifteen seconds before we got going. By the time I had enough clear space to risk a look off to the right, the front-runners were probably five hundred metres away.
Charging around the first lap, with my heart rate into the red, I reached for a drink, only for my grasping hand to meet thin air; my bottle had been ejected at some point. Handily I had stuffed enough High5 energy gels into my rear pocket to last the day. These are very watery and not too sweet, so having one a lap wasn’t too awful.
The race now settled into a nice rhythm, for me anyway. At the start of each lap on the lower gravel track, grab a gel. Push on to the slight downhill and sprint around the uphill left hander, great fun that. Then onto the first grass section which spits you onto the start of the climb. At this point I can only apologise for my terrible performance on any of the downhill sections. I’m still getting used to some new TRP CX8.4 brakes, which have huge amounts of stopping power compared to my standard cantilevers and I was all over the place; not to mention the squealing. Why is it you can set your bikes perfectly at home, but put them in a car and drive two hours away and they start squealing! What’s that all about?
The climb is a great place to make up what I had lost on the downhills and halfway up a couple of Army Cadets – who are marshalling today – cheer and clap us on every lap. They must have been knackered by the end. Another bunch also shepherded a small herd of young cows that were determined to start grazing on part of the top track. Well done lads, much appreciated. The top track became quite tough after the first hour, with the ruts running across the track seeming to get harder every time and doing their best to slow me down.
Once off the top grass track, you entered the tunnel of doom! Well that’s what it felt like to me. With my advancing years my descending gets worse, as I imagine all kinds of disasters when faced with off road descents. It was actually a fairly straightforward descent, gravel made it a bit sketchy and the bottom section got very rutted just as it steepened and spat you out onto the clear. Still, I managed to keep upright and actually got a bit faster at the end. Mainly to keep the guy behind from passing me. Well he made a point of saying he couldn’t keep up with me on the climb, but was catching me on the downhill, I had to do something to save my pride.
So after two hours of racing, being “encouraged” by the organisers every time I went over the line, the end was in sight. A final sprint around the last grass section kept my back marker from passing me and I finished, hoorah! A brief look around the finish confirmed what I felt. That was tough, but bloody good fun. A good rolling course, not too hard or overly technical, jumping over hurdles for two hours would have been a pain. On the gravel sections you could really get your speed up and there was plenty of room to overtake. The taped sections were great for swooping through and I really enjoyed the climb, it was long enough to gain an advantage, but not so hard that you couldn’t ride it after ninety minutes. I won’t say I enjoyed the downhill, but I managed not to fall off, so that was a positive.
Speaking to the organisers, next year’s event will probably be held a little earlier, some time in May. This will mean the grass will be shorter and will allow them to use more of the bottom of the bowl. They got a lot of positive feedback and are looking to make it a weekend event. This will allow for more racing, possibly a night event and maybe qualifying laps for the Super CX on the Saturday have been mentioned. The idea being that you can opt to post a lap time, which is then used to grid riders on the Sunday, a bit like an F1 race, but without all the noise.
I can see this kind of racing becoming a bit of a ‘thing’, there was a bit of an 80s Mtb scene feel about the day, competitive but fun! Summer ‘cross racing is an excellent way to practice your skills – especially descending – and with a venue like the Matterley being so spectator friendly, you could bring the family down, set up the barbie and enjoy the summer!
All photos are courtesy of Dave Hayward, head over to his website to see if he caught you on the day.
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