Hills and Trenches

My personal cyclocross debut is stored in the memory banks on a short list of awful experiences on a bicycle. Held on sodden, claggy, clay-rich farmland in Wiltshire, the parcours of tractor tyre ruts, cow hoof imprints and watered-down slurry, interspersed with sections of barely rideable straw stubble fields, would have been challenging enough for a properly equipped grown man.

For a 13-year-old scrawny kid riding his one-and-only road machine, it was purgatory. The inevitable end came halfway through the race in a ditch that had earlier contained a depth of water just about reaching my knobbly knees, but had grown progressively deeper and stickier every lap. Having shouldered the now ridiculously heavy bike in the appropriate fashion, I waded in and emerged in seemingly reasonable order, the woollen shorts sucking up more ditch water than the best kitchen towel.

It took a few more strides before the realisation hit my frozen brain that I was now running without a left shoe. Attempting to retrieve it involved submerging in filthy, icy water, my neck craning to avoid drowning while hands aimlessly groped in the gloop. The prospect of Wiltshire County’s coronor having to hold an inquest into some damn fool kid dying because he so badly wanted a dog-eared leather shoe back was a distinct possibility at this point. I retired from cyclo-cross racing there and then.

Eugène Christophe was, as we know, made of sterner stuff. Fixing his own forks in a forge on the Tourmalet in 1913 – and receiving a time penalty for his troubles – may be the most commonly raised mention of the Parisian, but besides being a great Tour rider, he was one of the pioneers of ‘cross and seven-time French champion.

The fact that Christophe enlisted for a cycling battalion in World War One should come as no surprise when you see the photos accompanying his advice published in Le Miroir Des Sports in 1921. The trenches of Ypres were a minor obstacle compared to the ditch the Frenchman is depicted emerging from, bike held aloft. (Fixed wheel and mudguards, incredibly.) Rarely is he pictured actually riding the bike, but the thick woodland and steep embankments prohibit any thoughts of mounting the thing: the cycle is mostly a burden and Christophe is the mule.

Scans courtesy of www.blackbirdsf.org

Having returned to the discipline after a 20-year lay-off to find cyclocross the best fun to be had on a bike, and modern courses eminently rideable with the right equipment and a little knowhow, I find myself repeatedly drawn to the most ridiculous, painstakingly gruelling ‘cross race in the world, otherwise known as The Three Peaks. Which, considering my aversion to all things involving physical discomfort over lengthy periods, is quite bizarre.

Christophe would have loved this race. I shall try to keep the great man’s words in my head on the final descent of Pen-Y-Ghent, a stupidly fast rock-strewn track and an absolute blast:

Be careful, but also decisive.

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