LXL Round 4 – Handsling Racing Report

Despite a terrible summer with extensive bilateral pneumonia and engaging a coach to get me back to fitness for next year, I decided to jump back into cyclo-cross; first stop, LXL Round 4!

You know how it is, you’ve had a lovely stay in hospital, connected to oxygen, antibiotics and liquids, the first thing you want to do is get riding again. So I thought I’d be sensible and engage the services of CycleCoach’s Ric Stern. Ric is a coaching genius, he’s coached world champions, he’ll get me fit for next year. He has provided me with a carefully thought out, graduated plan; so I thought I’d ignore it and go race! Here’s my report from LXL Round 4.

Yes, it's 2023 and I'm using cantilevers at LXL Round 4!
Yes, it’s 2023 and I’m using cantilevers at LXL Round 4!

LXL, or as it’s officially known, Challenge Tires London and South East Cyclo-Cross League, is one of many leagues in the UK. It has been my main focus for winter racing, but I’ve missed a few seasons recently. So with a one of my children showing a vague interest in racing, I figured it was time for a father-son race trip. He would be racing in the under 12s and I would be racing in the over 50s; a bit of an age spread there!

Bike maintenance!

The week before was spent getting my bikes ready. Bikes that had been hanging, un-used in my garage for at least two seasons. There were flat tyres, dried up sealant, chains that had lost all flexibility and brake-pads that were minimalist to say the best. Time for some late night maintenance. I managed to sort everything, everything apart from the bottom bearings in one of the headsets. When I pulled the forks out to check them, I was greeted by a crusty brown thing. What had once been a smooth set of bearings, was now a crunchy horror. However with only one day to go, there was no time to get a new set. Instead I cleaned it all out, re-greased it and put it back; fingers crossed!

With the bikes sorted and car loaded, we were off! The youngsters have the their races at the beginning of the day, while I would race at the other end. This meant I got to ride two siting laps before my race. Siting laps in off-road events are a must. They give you a chance to get a feel for the course, is it fast or slow and technical? You can also see what tyres and pressures will you need.

Siting laps

Today’s course was on a slight hill – although later that would feel like Alpe d’Huez – with a firm sandy surface. There were a couple of slightly damp sections, which my son swore was mud. The course had a couple of small off-cambers and some nice twisty sections through the trees. Overall a nice intro back to cyclo-cross. If today had been a late-season mud-fest, I probably would have stayed in bed. However, thanks to a rapidly warming climate, there’s been little rain and the going is firm.

Unfortunately LXL Round 4 was slightly blurred!
Unfortunately LXL Round 4 was slightly blurred!

Tyre choice suggested something minimalist, however the bike I chose to ride was sporting a fine set of Schwalbe’s X-One Bites. Possibly a little overkill for the minimal amount of mud on the course, but we’re only here for fun.

As I hadn’t raced for some time, I was gridded dead last, which was fine. I wasn’t expecting to figure in the results, starting from the back would give me a chance to re-acquaint myself. Standing at the back gave me plenty of time to indulge in some banter. The usual lies were told about how little training everyone had been doing, how ill they were, or what bits of the body wasn’t working. Although in the vets category, most of these claims have more authenticity than the younger categories!

Final whistle

With the one-minute warning called, it was time to focus. I knew that the most important part of any ‘cross race is the start. Getting as far forward in the race before the first pinch-point is vital. As the front of the race hits this point, it will slightly slow down. This slowing down then ‘accelerates’ as the bunch runs into the obstacle. Also, because it’s the first lap, everyone’s fresh and eager, so it becomes a mass of bodies all trying to squeeze through.

However I surprised myself. Despite my absence, my elbows were as sharp as ever and I managed to force my way through. I went from 64th on the grid to 31st on the first lap, a fine result. If the race had finished there I would have been happy. However, League rules state that I would have to survive for at least another forty minutes.

I was happy to see that I was riding with my peers from previous years; I was doing ok! The off-camber sections were tackled with ease and I was even passing riders on the uphill. Maybe pneumonia had given me super-powers? As the laps ticked by, I began to realise that perhaps my new-found powers were, limited. Hitting the final laps, those riders I had passed earlier began to sail past me.

Into the red

Despite my efforts, I just couldn’t pull them back and that ‘slight uphill’ I mentioned earlier, was becoming more of a challenge. Was it possible that this part of Sussex was slowly suffering from some kind of tectonic tilt? It seemed the only logical answer and it wasn’t only me that seemed to be experiencing this geographical anomaly. Riders were progressing up the slope as if they were encased in syrup.

Finally the bell began to ring for the last lap. Unfortunately I was slightly befuddled and couldn’t work out if the bell was ringing for me, or not. Should I put in a last-lap burst to catch the rider in front, or was there another lap to ride? By the time I had worked out what was happening, it was too late; bugger.

So first race back and I managed to hold on to 35th place. Despite my last minute maintenance issues, everything worked; sort of. The shifting was a little hit and miss and that last minute pressure drop on the start line made for some ‘interesting’ high speed turns! Although perfect for the off-camber sections, the bottom turn was 180 degrees after a long, fast grass section. Hitting the bottom at full speed and leaning into the bend, I could feel the tyres flexing. Happily they didn’t roll or burp and I made the corner, with only a little wobble.

This will be my CX Century ride, the Handsling CEXevo
My CEXevo was still in gravel mode

When’s the next one?

I’ll be back again, once I’ve apologised to Coach Ric, either this week or next. Today’s race was ridden on my old Handsling CXC rather than the new CEXevo; why? Well the CEXevo is set up for riding the Sussex gravel and to be honest and I didn’t want to change tyres! I’ll swap them for the next one, honest! You can read how another Handsling Racing’s rider is faring in Scott’s reports from the Central and Wessex leagues.

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