Fool­ing about on the cy­clo-cross bike this win­ter will give you new skills for the road in 2019.

Rob, I think it would be most sen­si­ble for you to put these on.” I’ve just re­turned from the chang­ing room in my Cy­cling­Plus Ly­cra when Mike Kluge presents me with a set of moun­tain-bik­ing arm and knee pads. Pho­tog­ra­pher Steve Behr is smil­ing con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. I’m con­fused.

The three of us are at Red­bridge Cy­cling Cen­tre – or Hog Hill as it’s also known – on the north-east edge of London for, what I at least thought was go­ing to be, a rea­son­ably chilled-out, low-risk, Sun­day morn­ing of cy­clo-cross tu­ition. Mike, the founder of Fo­cus bikes and a for­mer CX world cham­pion, seems to have other ideas. And, judg­ing by the look on his face, Steve is com­plicit. Re­luc­tantly I pull on the knee and el­bow pads and we wheel our Fo­cus Mares bikes out onto the cir­cuit.

Need­less pad­ding?

This is the first time Mike and I have met, so I don’t think he’s mak­ing me dress up like an off-duty Iron Man be­cause he’s heard that my one and only foray into cy­clo-cross was, well, dis­ap­point­ing. It came in au­tumn 2017 and I fin­ished sec­ond to last and the only thing that got hurt was my pride. So, why am I padded up? “It’s like a sec­ond brake sys­tem, so that you don’t stop with your knees and el­bows,” laughs Mike. “Se­ri­ously, though, wear­ing pads helps you find the lim­its of your bike and tyres.”

Ba­si­cally, Mike’s say­ing that if you’re ex­per­i­ment­ing, wear pro­tec­tion. Go past the lim­its of bike, tyres and, let’s face it, tal­ent and you hit the ground. Com­ple­ment­ing your hel­met with knee and el­bow pads means that you’re more likely to be able, and will­ing, to get back on your bike and go again. “Also, it means that you won’t be stuck to your sheets when you get up for the toi­let in the night…”

Mike even sug­gests that rid­ers new to road rid­ing should think about in­vest­ing in pads. “For sure, peo­ple might smile at you,” he says, “but it can boost your con­fi­dence and, if you do fall, you won’t have to spend time away from your new hobby.”

Fight club

It doesn’t take long for me to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tra pad­ding. As we spin along Red­bridge’s as­phalt track for what I as­sume will be a gen­tle warm-up, Mike calls me over to

if you’re ex­per­i­ment­ing, wear pro­tec­tion. go past the lim­its of bike, tyres and, let’s face it, tal­ent and you hit the ground

ride by his side. The wis­dom he’s look­ing to im­part is, sur­pris­ingly, ag­gres­sively de­liv­ered. “Get closer. No closer. No, even closer. Right, now lean against me and try to push me over…”

Okaaay… Next thing Mike and I are barg­ing shoul­ders, clash­ing el­bows and lean­ing our bikes in like Cavendish and Sa­gan at the end of a sprint. Need­less to say, Mike’s an ex­pert and has lit­tle trou­ble send­ing me veer­ing off my line. It’s fun but I’m not 100 per cent sure what it’s achiev­ing. “In a race there can be lot of con­tact,” he ex­plains, “so learn­ing how to stay on your bike, hold your po­si­tion and not crash is vi­tal. Also, this is a good way of re­as­sur­ing your­self that bikes, tyres and rid­ers can cope with a lot of rough treat­ment.”

He’s right. Maybe it was the crash pads, but at no point dur­ing the ar­gy­bargy ses­sion did I think the bike was go­ing to slide from un­der me. It’s not some­thing to try with an un­sus­pect­ing rid­ing buddy or some­one you’re pass­ing on your com­mute, though…

Endo the world as I know it…

Straight af­ter the rough and tum­ble I dis­cover why Mike and Steve had been snig­ger­ing ear­lier. As Steve lines up a shot, Mike grabs the back of my sad­dle. “Okay, I’ve got you so clip both feet in and grab your front brake hard.” I do as I’m told and all of sud­den Mike hoists up the back of the bike. I find my­self nose down and scream­ing just a lit­tle bit. “Now, let go of the brake.” I do, Mike lets go of the sad­dle and the rear of the Mares clunks back to earth. Once I stop cry­ing Mike ex­plains, “If you lock your front wheel and the bike tips for­wards, you have more time than you think to pre­vent a crash.”

The point Mike’s mak­ing is that if you find your­self head­ing over the bars be­cause you’ve locked up, the best thing you can do to avoid ar­riv­ing at the scene of the ac­ci­dent is, ac­tu­ally, to re­lax and re­lease the front brake. If you haven’t flipped too far for­ward and you’ve still got weight over the rear, the bike and grav­ity can still save you. “Don’t panic, re­lease your brakes and you might save your arse,” says Mike. I’ll try and re­mem­ber this nugget of ad­vice the next time I’m head­ing for a bro­ken col­lar­bone…

Brake the habit

Of course, not send­ing your­self ar­seover-tit in the first place is prob­a­bly the best form of in­jury pre­ven­tion so brush­ing up on your brak­ing tech­nique is a great idea. “The best way to stop

if you find your­self head­ing over the bars, just re­lax and re­lease the front brake

quickly is to keep in con­tact with the sad­dle,” says Mike. “Place as much of your body­weight as pos­si­ble on the last quar­ter of your sad­dle and stretch your arms so that you’re sit­ting as far back as pos­si­ble.” This is so that both wheels stay in con­tact with the ground for as long as pos­si­ble to help you con­trol your emer­gency stop.

My main learn­ing from stop­ping prac­tice is the im­por­tance of the front brake. As you slow quickly, your weight nat­u­rally moves for­ward no mat­ter how hard you try and keep your butt clamped to the sad­dle – to the point that it can quickly end up do­ing 100% of the re­tar­da­tion – so get­ting used to trust­ing my front brake has made a big dif­fer­ence to my stop­ping con­fi­dence. And, of course, I now know, the­o­ret­i­cally at least, what to do if the front brake works too well…

Ever-de­creas­ing cir­cles

Once I’ve got bet­ter at stop­ping, Mike de­cides it’s time to im­prove my cor­ner­ing. In a typ­i­cal cy­clo-cross race, says Mike, you need to nail the tight turns without sac­ri­fic­ing speed. We head onto the grass and Mike starts whizzing around in tighter and tighter cir­cles, at ex­treme lean an­gles and with his inside pedal vir­tu­ally clip­ping the ground. I try to fol­low but strug­gle to match Mike’s com­pact ro­ta­tions. “Push your weight onto the han­dle­bar, choose a big­ger gear and lis­ten to the grass!”

By load­ing up the bar, you’re do­ing the op­po­site of the brak­ing drill – the rear wheel light­ens and can, in the­ory, slide grace­fully, speed­way-style as you turn. Se­lect­ing a big­ger gear lets you hold speed through the cor­ner and ac­cel­er­ate out of it.

And the lis­ten­ing? “If you hear that the tyres are start­ing to tear out the grass, then you need to be­come a lit­tle more sen­si­tive as you’re at the limit of grip.” It’s a dizzy­ing, and sur­pris­ingly tir­ing, exercise but if you can find a flat ex­panse of grass it’s a lot of fun. Oh, and make sure that you don’t just go in one di­rec­tion. As Mike says we all have a “Schoko­laden­seite”… a cho­co­late, or favourite, side where we’ll find it that bit eas­ier.

“key is get­ting on and off the bike while los­ing as lit­tle speed as pos­si­ble,” shouts mike

Here’s hop­ping

To nav­i­gate small ob­sta­cles on a CX course, or out on the road, the bunny hop is an es­sen­tial skill. I have to ad­mit at be­ing the mas­ter of the lazy bunny hop – ba­si­cally pulling the bike into the air us­ing my clipped-in feet. This isn’t how you’re sup­posed to do it and the oc­ca­sions where one, or both, of my cleats have un­clipped show why.

“It’s quite sim­ple to learn if you start slowly,” says Mike. Drill one sees us rid­ing along and re­peat­edly pop­ping small wheel­ies; drill two stand­ing up and shift­ing our weight for­ward to lift the back wheel; and drill three com­bin­ing the ac­tions as we clear a log placed on the road. Jeop­ardy in­creases slightly with the ad­di­tion of small cones un­der the log and an in­crease in pace. I fault a cou­ple of times but come away hap­pier with my hop­ping skills.

On and off switch…

“The key is get­ting on and off the bike while los­ing as lit­tle speed as pos­si­ble,” shouts Mike as he man­ages to dis­mount and ‘re­sad­dle’ his mov­ing Mares in what seems to be a blink of an eye. In a cy­clo-cross race – or upon ar­rival at the sta­tion – be­ing able to grace­fully and quickly leap from your mov­ing bike is a key skill. And it’s one

that I feel the pads could come in use­ful for when I try it.

As Mike ex­plains the dis­mount tech­nique I’m cer­tain I’ll end up on the ground, twisted among the spokes. “At the last mo­ment, as you ap­proach an ob­sta­cle swing one leg be­hind the sad­dle,” he says. “You keep the foot you usu­ally un­clip first on the pedal and swing the other leg be­tween the frame and that leg. Then put your foot down close to the front wheel, take your other foot out of the pedal and run!” Easy, right? Ac­tu­ally, it’s not as hard as it sounds, es­pe­cially if you do it in slow mo­tion at first and cheat a lit­tle by un­clip­ping your ‘ped­alling’ foot be­fore start­ing the dis­mount.

Get­ting back on is an art as well. “Get it wrong and it can be painful,” laughs Mike. “You don’t want to land on what in Ger­man we call the sack­nut!” Quite. So, he says, the se­cret is to run, jump and rather than land, erm, plumb in the cen­tre of the sad­dle, aim to con­tact the sad­dle thigh first. And use the swing of the leg to get you back on the bike without hop­ping along on your trail­ing leg. The knee and el­bow pads are no use and I wish I’d worn a cricket box as it takes sev­eral at­tempts be­fore find­ing suc­cess. Af­ter a few at­tempts, though, I was man­ag­ing to, if not seam­lessly, at least grace­lessly get off and on in one move­ment.

Shoul­der­ing the bur­den

The last move Mike wanted to show me was shoul­der­ing the bike. In the­ory, this is the eas­i­est skill – just pick it up and put in on your shoul­der, surely? It turns out that there’s more than one way to pick up and run with a Mares… The sim­plest method is to grab the bike by the top tube, hoist it onto your shoul­der, wrap your arm around the head tube and grip the bar close to your chest. Mike, though, prefers to lift the bike by the down­tube and onto his shoul­der in one move. He then places his arm un­der the down­tube and reaches around to grab the bar. Fi­nally, he ex­plains that you can sim­ply slam on the front brake so that the bike flips for­wards and you slide your shoul­der through the frame. Ap­par­ently this is use­ful when you’re tired…

it turns out that there’s more than one way to pick up and run with a fo­cus mares ’cross bike

Above A bit of argy bargy’s good prac­tice for the rough and tum­ble of rac­ing

Left At a theatre near you, the Rod Hull and Emu of cy­cling

Be­low right Bunny hop­ping’s a key CX skill

Right Edi­tor Rob, un­der Mike’s guid­ance, hones his cor­ner­ing skills

Left Mount­ing at speed’s needed in the pacechang­ing world of CX

Above What­ever your abil­ity, CX is sim­ply great fun

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