DOACC: The joy of cross
A few years ago now I did my first cross race. I rocked up at a village hall somewhere in Norfolk, signed on and within half an hour was getting slightly chilly waiting on the startline. The race used one of the roads through the village so we couldn’t start until the bus had made its daily pass through and the bus was running a few minutes late. It was delightfully shambolic compared to today’s standards. It had a real family atmosphere. After the race, everyone gathered in the village hall to warm up, drink cups of tea and eat home-made cake.
In my mind cross is the epitome of grass roots racing. For a local race you don’t need a special bike, any mountain bike, road bike with cross tyres, or at a push hybrid bike will do. I have even seen a guy racing on road tyres but I’m not sure I would advise that. It also doesn’t matter how good or bad you are there is always something to challenge you, be it the riders around you, the course or yourself. There are races for everyone. The whole family can race and still be home by mid afternoon.
With the growing popularity of the sport have come the calls to make these races more professional. Some advances, like online entry and chip timing are somewhat inevitable given the technological world we now live in, but I worry that we are losing some of the spontaneity. I am not sure now how easy it would be on a Saturday morning visiting friends to decide to rock up at a local cross race with no prior planning. I have certainly done it in the past and I’d love to think it is still possible.
One of the biggest challenges to race organisers is the sheer number of people wanting to race, especially veteran men. No one seems to really know why guys who hit 40 suddenly want to get themselves muddy on a Sunday morning. Maybe it is a midlife crisis thing, maybe its because 40 minutes in the mud is more achievable on a working training load than a long road race. This poses several challenges to organisers, including having to squeeze another race start into what are already very short winter days.
Back at that first race I did there were only two races; one for the children and one for the adults. But now there are enough vets racing, they usually get their own start with the women and juniors. The new challenge is how to make sure that women and juniors don’t get turned away. Or that the guy who watches his kids racing and decides he wants to have a go himself has to opportunity to do just that. Races fill up so fast you have to turn up early just to make sure you get a ride.
So my plea to organisers, is not to try and make regional races something they are not. You don’t need to use every obstacle you can construct at a venue, you don’t need showers, or a double pit, or pressure washers (a bucket and sponge is seriously effective). But what you do need to do is come up with a way to make sure that cross is still beginner friendly and welcoming. It really is the perfect way to have a go at racing a bike.
I want to celebrate the local league race, where you spend an hour at prize giving because everyone gets a prize, and the guy that turns up on his mate’s mountain bike (which clogs up within the first five minutes) is still grinning at the finish and promising to come back again with a more suitable machine. I love cross for this and I just want others to be able to have a go at racing feeling welcomed with open arms, like I was back in the day.