It seems like there's no off-season in Irish cycling, only the 'cross season! New club kit rep Michael Hanley takes us through his DCCX Punchestown experience below!


DCCX Punchestown

Michael Hanley

The following account is not a true reflection of what it is like to race cyclocross. Unless, of course, you consider racing to be making up the anonymous “packfill” that never gets near the busy end of things.

I had bought a cyclocross bike last year on the bike to work scheme with the intention of shaking up a dull winter routine with some weekend races and rides through parkland. After one race in Tymon park, I had second thoughts. The bike was quickly relegated to a commuter. Avoiding fraudulent use of the bike to work scheme was the only silver lining.

(On a side note: cyclocross bikes make great all weather commuters. The wider clearances mean that you can fit nice and big grippy tyres, while disc brakes provide reliable braking in all conditions. You just need to be able to deflect comments about how much you actually ride it off road. Anyone who has owned a Land Rover Defender in the city will sympathize)

This year would be different. If I had a motto, this would probably be it. Every year I tell myself I'll put in a good winter and every year I opt for Super Sunday on Sky Sports or that 10 extra minutes in bed instead. But this year, this year would be different…

So, fast forward to DCCX round 1, held in the grounds of Punchestown racecourse. It might not be the only day of the year where you can see donkeys race against thoroughbreds at this famous venue, but probably the only day you'll see them do it on bicycles. I had toyed with the idea of cycling out to the start, 40 odd km on a cyclocross bike before an hour of suffering probably wouldn't be the smartest idea, so I managed to get a lift out from town with Breda Horan.

Having done only two cyclocross races prior to this one, I'm not really in a position to give much advice beyond the absolute basics, one of which is that a recon of the course beforehand is crucial. If you plan to race, turn up at least an hour before the start in order to sign-on and ride a few laps to warm up and study the course.

The Orwell contingent was out in force on a brisk morning: John Blennerhassett, Richard Cattle, Naoise Sheridan, Orla Hendron, Aishling O'Connor and Mary Brady were out in the car park getting bikes ready, while Barry Mooney and Luke Potter were down chatting at sign-on. I hadn't been out as much as I had hoped and worried that even the basic skills of mounting and dismounting the bike had deserted me. Barry and Luke reinforced this fear with a report on the course: lumpy and unforgiving.

The course was run over training grounds used by horse riders. It made the parkland of Rathfarnham look like the pitch at the Camp Nou. Long grass hid a course that was deeply rutted and felt like riding over the cobbles in Belgium (or Temple Bar, if that's as far as you've got!). After one practice lap, my hands and neck were already aching. Still, it wasn't the most technical course. A short run-up snaked downwards into a muddy chicane that spat the riders back out onto a grassy descent. A large muddy hump, too steep to ride up and too short to allow any clumsy remounting followed. The only other obstacle of note was a steep climb that had to be taken on foot, bike slung over the shoulder. Getting the dismount right was crucial: too early and you would be running with the bike for too long (get the lightest bike you can afford, trust me) and too late would result in all momentum being lost as you came to a complete stop at the base of the hill.

Mary Brady battles up the climb (photo thanks to Sean Rowe)

The race itself was incredible. The Orwell started out the back, content to race amongst ourselves rather than hoping to contest any placings. That's one of the advantages of cyclocross: no matter where you are on the grid you will find people racing at your level. Getting dropped just doesn't really happen and the “race within a race” makes it more exciting than rolling around in a pack for 2 hours to contest a sprint.

I found myself out in front for most of the race. An early surge by Richard on the first lap set the pace, but he soon slipped back. After losing Rathfarnham by seconds to John, I was determined not to let him get the better of me here. He suffered an unfortunate early fall that left him a lot of work to do, but every lap I could see him gaining on me. As the course turned back on itself, John would be there gritting his teeth and giving me the “it's only a matter of time” stare as he pounded the pedals with his Pyrenean pins.

The course began to take its toll on riders as the pace dropped in the middle and gaps opened up. The leaders were too strong and the dreaded lapping began. Being passed by the guys fighting for the podium is probably as close to “competing” as most of us will get in a race, but it's important not to take it too seriously! That's what the A race is for, with the likes of Eric Downey challenging for the big prizes. I spent half a lap talking with a guy from Revolution cycles about the All Blacks vs France game. I'm not the most knowledgeable rugby person, much to the chagrin of my brothers, but talking about the previous day's game was a great distraction from the growing pain in my lower back, which the uneven ground was playing havoc with.

Cyclocross rules dictate that you finish on the same lap as the leader, so after 50 minutes of racing at 3 beats over my threshold heart rate (or “ouch!”), I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. Done and dusted. Shoulders sore, neck stiff and back in knots, my left hand was also badly blistered from trying to grip the levers over the rougher sections. My final cyclocross tip: get a decent pair of gloves!

Mike Hanley on the course (photo thanks to Sean Rowe)

P.S. If anyone is interested in the fantastic winter skinsuits that we were wearing, please feel free to contact me. They are roubaix lined and perfect for the winter cyclocross races.