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New year challenge: Getting a first taste of cyclocross and gravel riding

Myles Warwood
16 Jan 2020

One way to inject a bit of enthusiasm back into your riding is to try something new, in this case cyclocross and gravel adventure riding

Throughout the year, I’m aiming to tackle a several different disciplines in the world of cycling. I’ll be doing the bulk of this on the same bike, the Boardman ADV 8.9, which looks to be the most versatile bike in the Boardman range.

It costs £1,000 so sits in the Cycle to Work Scheme bracket and should be good for almost everything you throw at it. It rides well, handles well and with a Shimano Tiagra groupset a welcome upgrade from the ADV 8.8 it shifts well too. The flared handlebars are there to give you a bit more control over rough terrain and there are mounts for mudguards and rear rack mounts, too.

In the month of January, I decided to tackle some muddy cyclocross. There were three things I learned about 'cross riding on a 32km loop around the trails of Harrogate, Yorkshire. Definitely wear SPDs, get a set of knobbly tyres on, and you will fall off. It’s going to happen, at some point, regardless of how good your bike handling is, you will come off.

It might not be the first ride or the second, but you will come a cropper and that is OK.

Thanks to Graham at Cappuccino Cycling Club, who organised the ride out, I was treated to a much more scenic route than what I’m used to on my rides. Much more akin to tarmac and country lanes, I found myself fascinated by the bike handling skills of my three riding companions from Cappuccino CC – Graham, Roland and Dave – who had, incidentally, been riding off-road since the 80s. They made me look very much amateur.

When riding off-road, you just have to relax totally, let the bike work for you, minimal inputs can be better – pick your line, be confident in it and constantly keep looking for where there might be hard ground. Grass and rocks are your friend, mud will only slow you down.

When you’re on the road and it’s flowing and you’re riding hard, you don’t think about the bike, you have full confidence that you’ll go in the direction you want to go and all you have to focus on is your pedal stroke. When riding off-road, you’ve still got to relax, trust the bike and your handling of it and just ride. If you think too much, you’ll stiffen up and likely end in the mud.

I enjoyed immensely when it all came together, when you went up a hill picking the right line and bouncing over the rocks and skimming over the mud – it gave me a much bigger sense of accomplishment than hitting the top of a road climb. It was also far more draining due to slipping tyres and not being able to get into the rhythm of the climbs, which are generally shorter but tougher.

The short slippy climbs are what I found the most taxing on my legs, I tensed up when the bike started to get away from me or the back end stepped out, I then had to pedal harder to get out of a situation so power through the pedal stroke needed to be smooth but instant.

Too much too quick your rear will spin up and you’ll need to get back on top of the gear again. Any drop in speed and you have to work the gear, again draining your legs.

I probed the guys on how they coped with this and it was a case of just knowing when to pedal, sometimes it’s better to just let the bike roll through something then work your way out of it and sometimes hitting a rock is better than trying to go around it. Cyclocross and gravel riding, it seems, are not just something you turn up and ride.

It’s easy now to see why the likes of Mathieu van der Poel is such an exciting star for the future, forging his legs of steel in the mud of cyclocross riding and with bike handling skills second to none. Van der Poel will no doubt be a force in the 2020 Spring Classics.

Van der Poel isn’t the only WorldTour rider to take on the mud this winter, though, Romain Bardet, Michał Kwiatkowski, Wout van Aert and Annemiek van Vleuten have all been at it to varying success.

Graham told me he started riding cyclocross and mountain biking because he was getting frustrated with the number of cars on the road and the number of impatient and dangerous drivers. When we started crossing farmers’ fields with sheep looking at us as if we’d gone mad (I did think we had and started to wonder if this route was 100% necessary) I did wonder how these guys found these routes to start with.

We didn’t see another cyclist out on these trails, so how did they know them so well or even know that they were there?

If you’re to give off-road riding a go after reading this, then I do recommend you contact your local club, ask them if they have any cyclocross riders and go for a ride with experienced club members who know the area. Graham’s local knowledge was invaluable, he knew before we got there which climbs and paths would work and which were the better ones to take with the conditions considered.

Make sure you have some decent kit, not only will it get muddy and well used but if you fall down and get wet, you'll need to get warm. Gloves will help endlessly - my fingers would have fallen off if it weren’t for my LeCol Neoprene Winter Gloves.

Every bike rider should give it a go, though. Just to have that feeling of why the heck am I on essentially a road bike in the middle of a field?! It’s refreshing.

Oh, the final thing I learnt: have a decent washing machine.