...cyclocross that is, for those people that revel in trying to ride off-road on a drop bar bike in somewhat grim conditions as the "off season" progresses. Off road course, throw in a few obstacles such as hurdles or steps (sometimes both), off camber sections and if you're lucky a coffee or burger wagon and you have British regional level cyclocross. Sorry, no regular beer and frites here unlike the continent!

The first weekend of the Eastern Cyclocross League dawned a couple of weeks ago with a double header at Redbridge Cycling Centre (some of you may know it as Hog Hill or the Hoggenberg) followed by a round near Chelmsford.

I was joined at Redbridge on the Saturday by Simon Richardson (no stranger to Eastern CX) and David Lindsay with his resurrected Cube CX bike (while waiting his new bike to be finished). Simon was racing in V40 which is usually heavily subscribed though this time it was V50+ that was stacked out while David and I were in the "open" or Senior/Junior Men's race. Unlike the youth categories we were started at the bottom of the main hill on the circuit and had to come up it towards the finish line, we then veered off the circuit and stayed off of tarmac for most of the rest of the lap taking in single track and a fair amount of the mountain bike XC course. As is usually the case the V40 race did some form of ploughing competiton for the benefit of us Seniors and the rain arrived just in time to make it even more fun for us. This is steady theme in both Eastern and Central CX I find, dry clean race for most people, demolished surface and damp conditions for the Senior race!

Simon put in a good race for the first of the season coming in 33rd "sandwiched" between some St Ives and Basildon riders (though his closest rival finished 7 seconds off him the gaps between riders can tend to be a lot bigger in CX). As I had raced Eastern League before I was gridded ahead of David but he made good use of his brute strength up the Hoggenberg gaining ground on a number of riders, a bottle neck caught me out and I lost a number of places that I would start to make up over the course of the race but ended up with a slow speed drop of the bike on an off camber section. David came in 25th with me a place behind and about a minute down.

ECX SpringfieldSpringfield Cross in Chelmsford was a completely different matter. Considered a course for riders that favour my usual "brute force and ignorance" approach to technical skills but possibly in concession to previous seasons' comments there were two sets of hurdles and three sets of steps to negotiate. Also it was the beginning of the week's mini heatwave; hot, dry and dusty. Commissaires made the judgement call to allow drinks in the pits (or carried from the start) due to the heat, at least for the Seniors.

This course was one that would favour Simon though I think the temperature (or his 80mm section CX tubs) may have got to him a little, again a strong performance saw him place 42nd out of over 60 starters. David couldn't make Sunday so I was left contesting Seniors on my own (nothing new to me) and was slightly thrown that they did the start differently from the actual course; a drag race right over to the back of the course did not suit me at all! Fortunately I had a friend in the pits with a bottle so I could dive in for a drink as the race got hotter and the pace quicker, again not something we're used to in CX! A couple of unforced errors but two strong last laps saw me finish 44th out of roughly 60 starts.

Sunday just gone we were over to Colchester for Hilly Fields Supacross (sic), which turned out to be something that should be referred to the Advertising Standards Agency. Okay it had one tough climb but I wouldn't have classed it as hilly, and it was in a field (well nature reserve/park). Arguably this looked to be the most fun course so far this season (as I didn't race here last season), unfortunately things didn't work out so well on the day for either Simon or me. That said in the mix with the sharp climb we had single track, mountain bike style sections through trees/scrubland and some very long (mowed) straights with a combination of sweeping and sharp corners. The start was a shorter drag race than last Sunday which led into a pinch point and a slight climb.

Hilly Fields remountSimon's race was almost immediately stalled by a crash on the rise following the start with the more canny riders having watched the V50+ race where a few chaps in that dismounted before the climb JUST as it started to bottleneck and ran round the edge of the general melee. As I was warming up I only got to see him in the more open areas but by all accounts Simon seemed to have picked up an affinity for trees at this race, I'm not sure there's one out there he didn't try to hug! This includes apparently getting a sharp right spectacularly wrong, going through the tape marking the course backwards and fetching up in a tree; at least he was pointed the right way! I can't comment though, I went straight on at a sweeping right during my sighting lap much to the amusement of a few Juniors I know. Simon came in 67th in a full V40 race that had over 70 starts. His points so far this season mean he is sitting 30th in the league standings with the best 10 finishes counting.

My race I got off to a hugely better start than the previous week even gaining some places on the people gridded in front of me. With a minimum of technical (aka dismounting) sections needed I was happy that with that good a start I could hold my own and might even get through without being lapped. Much to my frustration though my chain dropped twice (something the SRAM CX1 system is meant to prevent), the first time I got it back on for what looked like a club ride coming past, on single track, so I lost a lot of places. From the first lap onwards in terms of riding this became my best race of the season pushing the limits every lap (something Simon warned me not to do so he didn't have to haul me out of the nearest hedge) and working my way back through those that had passed me. It wasn't enough though, I only gained back about half the places I had lost and came in 49th from over 70 starts (a lot of the Vets and one woman who didn't get entry on the day into their race entered Seniors, hence being known as "open"). Currently this puts me at 7th in the league standings though I expect this to correct itself over time. I finished up 13th in the league last season so breaking into (or rather remaining in) the top 10 would be good.

So first three races of CX down and the next event is in Basildon on Sunday 25th. Fancy giving it a go? There's a team competition where the best three riders (across all races) score points for their club; the down side is that you need to have a minimum of three to count! Also the "home" (i.e. closest) races have been put up on the forums with the BC links. League entry for the season is £15 and per race is £11 normally, obviously plus BC's £1 admin fee per entry. Eastern CX use a very good electronic system (not chip timing based) and usually have the results up for all races (including Seniors) on their website before I've finished packing away. You can do these initially on a mountain bike as well at regional level races so you can try it that way then decide if you want a full drop bar bike at a later date (or next season).

Simon will be doing a fair amount of the Eastern League races as will I, David has got his new bike up and running and will be doing races as he can. Me being a glutton for punishment will be doing the National Trophy rounds at Abergavenny (October) and Ipswich (November) and potentially the regional championships (in Kent) as well.

Gareth Smith