Thursday 27 October 2011

From Crystal Palace to Alexandra Palace

So I took out the new steed I'm testing, the Boardman CX Team cyclo cross bike. It was a shame to have to put the tyres out on the road, and even more so on the muddy grass and gravel in my neighbourhood, but it had to be done.
First of all, I resolved to nail the cyclo cross mount. How many years have I been riding cyclo cross and I still haven't learned to mount and dismount the bike confidently and in that lovely fluid motion that you see the Belgians do! Ok, so I'll never be at that level. I'd even settle for a stuttering mount and dismount any day!

Sometimes I wish I could have been a bit of a "youf" where my parents could have left me out all day doing tricks on BMX bikes in some dodgy car park or skateboarding on the ramps under an urban tower block, instead of reading books all the time - then at least today I would be a lot happier to fling myself and my bike around a cyclo cross course!

So two weekends ago I decided to learn the mount and dismount in the playing fields by South Norwood Lake. The dismounting was not actually a problem. It was more about mounting the bike and putting the two elements together.

Initially the beginner stuff was to be done on my own Planet X bike since I felt more comfortable about falling over with that than with the brand new Boardman!

Feeling motivated I set out to the playing field with my bike in the morning. After about half an hour of looking at the bike, wondering where to put my legs and what the sequence of movements was meant to be I made a few half hearted attempts where I committed myself to a run and then suddenly uncommitted myself on the jump mid-flight, thus tumbling down. Then I stood looking at the bike again for another 10 minutes willing myself into thinking I'd be ok. By lunchtime I'd spent 10 minutes looking at the bike, 20 minutes psyching myself up to mounting the bike, 20 minutes running with the bike, 30 seconds jumping and 2 minutes falling to the ground and picking myself up - not very productive, in fact quite demoralising. It must have been quite amusing for the dog walkers and joggers wondering curiously what this cyclist was doing in the park wandering with a bike and then falling over with it!

Then suddenly something slotted into place - I'm not sure how, or what. For some reason unknown to myself, I did a cartwheel. I hadn't done one of those for about 30 years! Something about the act of throwing my body in the air into an unnatural position translated exactly into the same movement process as doing the cyclo cross mount. I had nailed it. It was a nice feeling to suddenly be able to do it. It wasn't pretty, but at least I knew what to do.

Being able to do the cyclo cross mount and dismount was something that made me feel like a wholesome cyclo crosser, and not a phoney! After five years, I had passed my cyclo crossing initiation and could now join the big wide cyclo crossing world!

Once I had made this significant milestone I went to the nearby Crystal Palace Park where I could practice on a whole range of surfaces - grass, tarmac, gravel, wood chip - on the flat, going slightly uphill, going slightly downhill. My new found skill meant I was now worthy of getting out the Boardman and practising all of this on the new bike. The handlebars were slightly wider than on my own bike, and I was using different pedals but that was not an issue. It was actually easier to do the mount and dismount - not just because the new bike didn't have a rack on the back but also because the higher grade aluminium frame was lighter and therefore the bike could move along that bit quicker on the rough terrain. This lightness was particularly useful for me when running up the steps at Crystal Palace five times over.

With my new found confidence, and only slightly more fitness my prepping at Crystal Palace was done. It was time to face the Rapha Supercross race at Alexandra Palace the following week.

Ally Pally, which is about as far North of London as Crystal Palace is South, has a very similar feel to my neck of the woods. It's at the top of a steep hill, where there's a television transmitter and a grand Victorian Grade II listed structure. Set in pleasant parkland this area commands impressive views over London. In fact from Ally Pally you can see the two Crystal Palace transmitters.

One key difference between Ally Palace and Crystal Palace is that there is an actual Alexandra Palace building, whereas it's Southern counterpart was sadly burnt down in 1936. The other big difference is that last Sunday we had to ride all the way up the Ally Pally Hill between eight and ten times and carry our bikes up a series of steps every time, in front of lots of people while feeling sick and sometimes seeing stars! I've never done that at Crystal Palace!
Yes, despite a warm-up of riding around Crystal Palace and a cyclo cross race at Herne Hill, nothing could prepare me for the gruelling race at Alexandra Palace. It wasn't just the fact that the long steep hill had to be scaled so many times, but also the fact that once at the top of the hill I had to do dismount from my bike, while my legs felt like jelly, run up the steps and then remount the bike - all in front of the cheers, jeers, ringing cowbells and flying marshmallows from spectators and photographers. This was a real test. At one point I felt so tired, that I fell over as I remounted my bike. I just didn't have the energy to lift my legs high enough! Falling over was actually a relief as it gave me a brief respite as I lay on the grass!
Just when I was wondering how many more laps I could take the "one lap to go" bell was rung, which was a Godsend. Strangely enough I got a second wind and gave it all I'd got on what would be my last lap for quite some time at this formidable but very scenic venue. I crossed the finish line happy to have survived the race.
My Boardman CX Team bike performed very well - certainly better than I did, and I think the bike was a help to me in quite a few ways. It's wide range of gears meant I could ride 34 x 32 gearing on the steep hill, and the SRAM Apex double tap system meant that I could click between gears quite smoothly. Furthermore, the disc brakes meant that on the twisty descents I could slow down without worrying about sliding around and I could take the corners with confidence. Most importantly, the bike was nice and light when carrying it umpteen times up THOSE steps!
From my lows atop Crystal Palace I had grappled to reach the heights at Alexandra Palace. It wasn't a walk in the park, I wasn't pretty, but I just managed it - and with a smile on my face.

Most photos by Higg

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