WORDS: Kati Jagger | PHOTOS: Andy Waterman
In the early morning light, the trees are frozen and silent. Wrapped in layers of wool and Lycra, winter hat pulled down over your ears, you swing slowly on to the road. Flexing fingers and toes as the chain hums and pedals turn, you exhale hot vapour as your muscles awaken. A thin sheet of frost covers the way ahead of you.
Winter riding consists of equal parts elegance and dirt. The landscape during this solstice-time is as compelling as it is forbidding but in the deep reaches of the forest, a change from the pavement awaits. Cyclocross, road riding’s untamed mudslinging cousin, offers a solution to the danger of cars, ice and potential unwelcome meeting of softshell with hard asphalt.
The shift to dirt track and muddy byways heals the bit of your roadie psyche which has been ground away during months of hard regular-season training, especially when paved roads prove too dangerous. Cross provides the perfect excuse to turn off your regular B-road route and into the wild. Gather a few of your friends to have the adventure with you and ditch the map (well, tuck it into your back pocket and promise yourself that you’ll only take it out if you get really lost). Camaraderie, that group spirit that pulls you, in your pain, up cols and across a scorching landscape in the summer, now serves as a pleasant bonus rather than a necessary distraction.
In some ways, rejecting the misery of winter by embracing the cold with a bike ride (and ample insulation) is what cyclocross is all about. Without traffic or road signs, you are free to roam in a pack; bookended with morning coffee and cake in a tiny village and afternoon dinner in a country pub, the day takes on a leisurely pace. Exploring, the forgotten aim of many cycling adventures, becomes the central focus.
Leaving the white lines and heading instead for the leaves, you begin to notice a shift in the way you ride. You are afforded the opportunity to slow down, enjoy the scenery, and pick your way through natural obstacles. The wind is not as biting at this pace and you’re alternately sheltered by the trees and met with open countryside. Ascending and descending through mud grooves and puddles, negotiating the roots and trees that encroach on pathways, and occasionally taking a spill onto soft ground does wonders for your handling skills. Eventually returning to the pavement on your way home after off-roading on skinny tires, your wheels hum. You are more connected than before – to your friends, your bike and the road.