Mud, Sweets & Beards – Rapha Supercross 2014

I’ve talked before about things often come along in three’s and that was the case again last weekend when a triple bill of ‘Red Hot Cycling Action’ hit the capital. Round One of the 2014-15 Revolution Series was spread across Friday & Saturday at the Olympic Velodrome; Supercross – Rapha’s annual mud-fest up at Alexandra Palace was scheduled for Saturday; and then there was the small matter of The London Sports Writing Festivals cycling extravaganza in the refined locale of Lord’s cricket ground on Sunday. Seriously, what is a blogger to do when faced with such time-consuming (and partially overlapping) choices? Spending the better part of 72 hours doing nothing but ‘cycling stuff’ was, of course, an attractive option on the surface but not really a viable option. – especially as Mrs TJP was out on Friday night and I was home looking after the kids. The fact that I may have also been using this time to prepare my ‘cross bike is, also of course, irrelevant..

Supercross has become a bit of an annual family pilgrimage for The Jersey Pocket clan so that was always on the cards. This was the fourth they’ve attended (I’ve only been to three: they went without me last year when I was called away to San Francisco for work at short-notice). Revolution will come around again (pun absolutely intended) to London in February 2015 for the series final so I felt OK about giving it a miss this time. I dropped out of my usual Sunday morning ride to do a little bit extra for the home/cycle balance before LSWF. The four day festival (covering tennis, football, rugby, running, cricket and cycling) didn’t quite get onto my radar early enough last year but having read the reports from the twitter-lines I didn’t want to miss out again. I’ll be doing a separate article about the festival soon.

running 1

Having spent much of Friday evening cursing my continued inability to readily set-up and keep a smoothly functioning set of indexed gears on any bike that comes into my possession I felt that I was suitably psyched up for a bit of cyclocross. A bit of explosive riding around a small circuit of mud, climbs and other obstacles would have been a perfect outlet for my frustration. The trouble was that my race wasn’t until the very late afternoon so as we made our way across London the rest of the family got the majority of my ire. I’m not that competitive really so I ride the ‘Novice/Fun’ race at Supercross. It’s the one where fancy dress is encouraged and you ride through foam and/or take a shot of tequila to go down a short-cut. The crowd really gets behind everyone – especially those drinking tequila – and, as the name suggests, it’s a ton of fun.

For the first time our two young sons were in separate age categories so we were able to support them individually as they traversed the shortened version of the track that Juniors, Youth, Seniors, Vets and Elite rider’s would use across the day. They both completed their age group races – a first for the youngest – and got around without requiring hospital attention, which would have put a dampener on the day seeing as it wasn’t yet lunchtime. The elder one did take a heavy fall on a tight corner out of the exposed hillside descent and my first reaction was that he had broken his collarbone but – to his credit and to my surprise – he had a little cry (he’s only 8) before looking me squarely in the eye and firmly uttering the immortal words “Put me back on my bike.” It was then my turn to choke back the tears as I pushed him off to complete a further two laps and roll in last.

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With their races done by 11.30am and mine not due to start until 4.15, we cast around for something to while away the hours. crepes were consumed, frites were finished, coffee was chugged and shared bacon-burgers were consigned to a number of rumbly tummies. That took us up till about 12 o’clock. The non-racing side of the Supercross was somewhat smaller this year and the lack of the Look Mum No Hands stall – usually located in the middle of the course – meant that you were either watching the racing or eating & drinking in the ‘paddock’ area to the side. It was pretty hard to do both at the same time and I thought this was a bit of a shame.

The winning kids had their own mini podium presentation halfway through the day, with the top 3 places being gifted Rapha bidons filled with sweets. The Under 8’s and Under 10’s could hardly believe their luck – Haribo?! Brilliant! As the presentations continued – and you have to feel sorry for the poor soul who was handed the sheet to read out that was immediately challenged by the parents of the child who had been wrongly marked down a place – you could see the shift in preference for the bottle over the sweets unfold before your eyes. It just started to reveal itself in the Under 12 category, who were pretty chuffed with both carrier and contents, whilst the Under 14’s probably felt that just an empty bidon would have been more fitting. As the older kids clambered down from the stage the remaining Haribo was offered as a free-for-all to the other competitors, who fell upon it like a plague of locusts ensuring that everyone came away happy.

remounting

The course was quite different from previous ones that I have seen before. After the usual starting straight blast and the plunge down a quickly rutted grassy curve it stayed much longer down the hill with a long wooded trail section at the bottom end which – though fast and fun – took riders out of sight for what felt like an age. After a couple of wind-exposed switchbacks on the viewable area the route ramped up steeply on a brutally boggy hill that led to a tough sweeping section closer (but further away than usual) to the ridge-top Palace with it’s bristling TV antennae.  A technical run then took the riders back down through the woods towards the start-finish line. I headed out onto the course during the break between one of the Youth and Junior races to get the feel of it and was glad to see that the sharp turn onto the loosely gravelled start/finish road had been omitted. Instead the route went straight over and then arced back up to the road at a more forgiving angle. As I sailed past I was intrigued by an enormously large,tripod-supported black tube that was, for now, pointing skywards like a vast artillery piece. Surely this couldn’t be the promised Foam Cannon? It would have looked more at home in the hands of a galactic fleet laying siege to an off-world colony of rebels.

There are always more than a few familiar faces at Supercross but it was definitely unexpected to see @DanFromNam, Dan Craven, the bearded Europcar pro road rider, hanging around the elite teams vans. Even more unexpected to see him in cycling kit toting a Colnago cross bike. It turns out that he has always wanted to ride at Supercross and he was Rapha’s guest for the day. “How many cross races have you done before?” I inquired. “None” he replied with a anxious rub-down of the famous beard, “This will be my first. I’ve always wanted to do it but I thought I was doing the tequila and foam one. I’ve never ridden cross before and they told me yesterday that I’m riding with the Elites. I’m going to come last..”. My pint-sized eight year old piped up in response, keen to get one over the pro he had watched in the recent Vuelta, “”I’ve done three.” he said proudly. “And so has he” he continued, pointing at his half-pint brother. Dan smiled politely but stopped short of asking them for race advice. Just as well really, they hadn’t given me even the slightest hint about the best lines, suitable tyre pressure or the state of the parcours. Honestly, anyone would think they were just here for the fun of it. He did generously give them a quick geography lesson about Namibia before going back to his preparation.

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Before Dan got to race with the Elites the long, gruelling Senior races had to be held. We’d missed most of the Under 12’s and Youth races eating and chatting but the Women’s race was in full flight as we returned to watching. I managed to glean some info about approach trajectories and speeds but knew it be another baptism of fire once I got onto the course. The Women’s race was immediately followed by the Men’s race, which at just under 50 minutes was the longest of the day. The Men’s senior winner had an average lap time of  5’44” – midway between the Women’s senior average of 6’30” and the Elites of just under 5 minutes. It’s always good to see the top competitors on the course before you get to ride as you can see what lines they are taking and which parts they are avoiding. Dan acquitted himself admirably but – just like me and my boys – was never going to be troubling the podium. Jody Crawford of Hargroves took his third Supercross win in two weeks for a clean sweep of the 2014 top spots, whilst Round 2 winner Annie Simpson of Hope held off Round 1 winner Amira Mellor of Team Yorkshire in the women’s Elite. Between them they had locked out the top two positions across the three rounds.

As the Elite racer’s finished their race I was doing a little half-hearted warming up in the carpark/paddock. Mrs TJP had taken the boys home by now so I was relying on a few LFGSS friends and some neighbours for vocal support. The promise of sleepovers and Minecraft were just about good enough substitutes for the kids to offset the possibility of seeing Dad be killed by – cue extra loud voiceover by Supercross announcer Matt Payne – “Europe’s. Largest. Foam. Cannon.” but for the second time in a week I found myself being asked to bequeath my bikes to someone (the eight year-old this time) if I didn’t make it through the next few hours alive. (The other time is finely nuanced story involves me, Oleg Tinkoff, the UCI having fit and proper persons test for team-owners and pictures of tits. Follow my Twitter feed if you feel the need to know the full story..

blurry tequila

By now the Tequila Shortcut had been opened and it was becoming clear that it offered a frankly massive advantage. Apparently there were complaints  that the ‘shortcut’ wasn’t significant enough last year. No such accusation could be levelled this year. For the shortened Fun Race route, which omitted the sweeping top section after the boggy hill climb, opting for Tequila Shortcut knocked two and half minutes off a five minute lap.. With a 30 minute race scheduled I mentally calculated that at being 12 shots of tequila to have a chance of winning. As I said, I’m not that competitive. Nor am I that resilient to hard liquor. I decided on a one-off, one on strategy , hoping to enjoy the whole course a few times and to get the cheers in Tequila Alley a few times as well. I was a bit miffed then when the race was halted after twenty minutes.. That would have only been eight shots of tequila.. Nah, I still couldn’t have kept that down. As it was I managed five laps – 3 long and two tequila’s before the premature end.

I did survive the foam cannon – to the very slight and wholly temporary irritation of  the eight-year old. It was suitably impressive with one person who saw a posted photograph of the scene asking where they had brought all the snow in from. Yep, it was a veritable glacier of foam and I am glad to report that (this time) I stayed upright through it. They switched it off after three laps as to was threatening to drown the riders. I won’t deny that there was a fall, courtesy of a tricky tree root down in the far corner of the circuit but as no-one saw it, it probably doesn’t count., And best of all, like my sons, I also had a moment of one-upmanship on the Grand Tour-riding road pro when I overtook Dan Craven running up the Boggy Hill. Even if we ignore the (very minor) fact that he had lined up for the Fun race straight after doing a 40 minute Elite race in a discipline he had never tried before, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve bested a pro-cyclist on a climb. Just to make sure the moment was marked I may also have mentioned that I reckoned he had ‘overdone his warm-up’ as I squelched past..

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I caught up with Dan again after the race. Of course he had gone ‘Full Tequila’; throwing down “six or seven.?” he guessed, much to the repeated delight of the crowd.  He shared that he had really enjoyed the day, despite the Elite race anxiety, and I reckon that is the whole point. My eldest one almost broke his collarbone and loved it. I hopelessly missed out on my stated goal of a top ten finish and loved it. Elsewhere people were puking tequila and loving it. Dan hadn’t come last in the Elite race and was certainly loving that – he was still sitting on his top tube in the carpark/paddock talking to all and sundry as we left after the presentations. Top man.

foam dan

Rapha has a tendency to polarise people, with many coming down on the side of “it’s expensive & posh & elitist”. Of all the marketing things that they do I feel that Supercross is one of the most accessible and most engagable. For a start it’s free to attend and it is rapidly becoming a global concern, with similar events in Australia, Germany, Japan and the US this year. The freely distributed cowbells, which have become a signature of the event, are another sign that this really is more about the racing than brand-building. For my money – and I did stump up the princely sum of £15 to enter myself and the boys – the rudimentariness of some aspects of the day – the farting PA, the timing chip discrepancies, and the “We’ve sold out of chips but you can have three Tunnocks for a quid.. oh and about three free bananas as well..” from the food stall is just what I want from a cycle race. Sure, it might convince some to go and buy something from Rapha’s (very nice) cyclocross range but, in my experience, it’s much more likely to convince them to have a go at Supercross itself next year.

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A friend rode the the Seniors Race with a GoPro and posted this final lap video to Youtube:

B&W Photography courtesy of Amey Gokarn | Video courtesy of Howard Stredwick

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