Inflated entry fees, prizes from the bargain bin, crowds and habitual nihilism. Just a few of the reasons why I don't enter many races. That's not to say that I don't like a challenge though, which is why the Racing Collective's web site caught my eye one dark winter evening. Their events looked like a real challenge whilst remaining low key. It seemed obvious, set a route, let Strava handle the timing and tracking, publicise through a Strava club and enjoy. No sponsors, no permissions and no paperwork. This is proper amateur racing; push on and enjoy but accept that none of us are getting called up by Team GB any time soon. Post race craic over a beer or two and ride home.
I had pencilled in the Racing Collective's Trans Wales event in the spring but as the weekend approached I couldn't sort out logistics or justify another weekend away on the bike. A couple of months later in June XDO17 (Crossduro Oxford) looked feasible if I rode there and at least some of the way back. This was why I found myself in my garage staring at a pile of kit more suited to a polar expedition than a summer weekend in England. I pared it down to the point where everything including a change of clothes for eating out fitted in a couple of Apidura bags. I wasn't very keen on carting it all round the event but decided that a dose of #bemoremike* was probably required.
Friday dawned sunny and my route south through the Peak District was hilly but rewarding. Riding the Strines I chased the scent of sausages cooked by workmen on a roadside barbecue. At Tideswell bunting was out for the traditional well dressings and between bright limestone walls at Miller's Dale I picked up signs for that most traditional of cycle events; L'Eroica. Up the hill I found the Tissington Trail and began a thirteen mile descent into Ashbourne on smooth dazzling white limestone gravel. It was easy to imagine trains steaming down here as I cruised under narrow stone bridges between deep cuttings. I rolled along high embankments enjoying the panoramic views of the White Peak's steep sided dales and vales.
On the floor and confused, I lie there for a few seconds trying to work out what just happened, I push myself up using the arm that doesn't hurt and check the bike. Both wheels are ok and the freehub is turning which confuses me because I was stopped dead by something.
Later in the day I decide I must have struck a pedal on a small curb in the shade under the trees. I'm bleeding so I stop in Ashbourne and get cleaned up in the Leisure Centre.
From Ashbourne leafy meandering lanes make their way south towards my destination. The roads are quiet save for brief excursions onto the A50 and A5 and my old friend the Fosse Way is soon found. Eventually I reach Banbury and the final twenty or so mile in to Oxford. Reminding myself to conserve effort for the next day I roll into Oxford in plenty of time to find a good Italian meal and take a wander round Oxford's sights.
After an interrupted night's sleep at the YHA (I have to put in earplugs at 2AM to block out my snoring bunkmate), I enjoy breakfast with a bunch of French school teachers. Slipping through Oxford's finest architecture on my bike just before 8am is magical, there's very little traffic and the morning light is bouncing off windows to illuminate ornate stonework. Our meeting point and start is the most ornate of buildings, the Radcliffe Camera. It's a relief to see other riders already there and introductions and photos soon follow.
The Crossduro format is more social than many races in that only five short sections are timed, the rest of the ride can be more social. Our group of ten or so ride out together along the riverside greenways to the first segment. And... GO! Well that's not quite what happened. I set off up the first hill at a reserved pace, I'm running Strava on my phone to follow the route and as this is a starred segment it changes from route finding mode to "red mist" mode telling me how far off the fastest rider I am. This is great except the map has disappeared and there's a fork in the trail. I take the wrong fork and everyone behind follows. Not a great start, or a very clever way to make new friends.
Back on course we regroup at the top of the climb and ride on at social pace, leafy hedgerows and ripe fields of maize line the quiet lanes we ride between quaint villages. Idyllic road riding and plenty of time to get to know my fellow racers. Soon we reach the next segment, up from the flat chalk plains on to the Ridgeway where we enjoy commanding panoramic views of Didcot and Oxford. Very different to the Pennine terrain I know at home, its rewarding to know that I've pedalled all the way here.
There are five segments in total and I blow two of them by taking wrong turns and puncturing on the sharp flint of the Ridgeway. I take a hard tumble on a third by over estimating the frictional quotient of dry chalk and getting very cross rutted. Blood looks good on chalk and my injuries are fortunately superficial. The sun reaches its zenith and everyone is running low on water, a stop in the pretty Thameside town of Goring allows everyone a chance to rehydrate and enjoy cake. A love of cake and bikes definitely unites all of us today. The social pace between segments lets my thoughts wander to reflect on how fortunate we are to be here today. Many of us were strangers at 8am this morning and yet a common love of the freedom of bicycles and the outdoors are enough to bring us together in shared enjoyment of this experience.
After our our cafe stop comes the #bemoremike* segment, a mile long corridor of mech clogging grass overhung my brambles and choked by nettles that grab arms and clothing as we pass. I emerge bleeding from both elbows with legs tingling from the nettle stings. A souvenir of today's adventure. We finish together at the Isis public house down on the river Thames, friendly bar staff offer to take photos and then it's time for me to leave if I'm to make it to Rugeley tonight. Hunched forward on TT bars for the next few hours there is plenty of time to mourn the cold pint I turned down at the Isis.
*#bemoremike - a reference to toughing it out in the spirit of adventure racer Mike Hall who was sadly killed whilst racing earlier this year