Britain’s biggest successes in international cyclo-cross have historically been at junior level. In February 1986 I was twelve years old, and a cyclo-cross veteran.
I had some wins on my palmares, but I was about to take a step up, from the safe environment of the Under-12s to the rather more formidable Under-16s category.
I was obsessed by all things cycling, and one of the high-points of my week was Thursday morning, when Cycling Weekly was published. Cycling Weekly, or the Comic as it was called by those inside the sport, was essential reading. It was devoted to racing, because back then you either raced or you toured.
To the racing community, the latter activity was for eccentric old chaps with mudguards, panniers and soggy bikes. There was, of course, no internet and no social media, so the only way to find out who had won a major race was to wait until Thursday to find its results in Cycling Weekly.
Like all responsible boys, I had a paper-round. The newsagent, knowing me to be a keen cyclist, had given me the most physically challenging of his routes. No quick jaunt around a flat housing estate for me. My route took me up a long climb into a nice middle-class suburb where everyone read broadsheet newspapers, so the orange plastic bag I had to carry was so heavy that when I set out I could barely lift the strap over my head.
Still, it was character-building, probably. Cruelly, an hour after my paper-round, I then had to climb the hill again to get to school. By my first lesson I was already exhausted.
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But on Thursdays I got my reward. I returned my orange bag and the newsagent produced Cycling Weekly, which I had on special order. Sometimes I would stand outside, skimming every article and devouring the adverts for replica trade team clothing. Other times I curled my precious cargo up and belted home, to read it as I ate toast and jam before school.
On the first Thursday in February, 1986, I was stunned to discover that a British rider had just won the Junior World Cyclo-cross Championship. Stuart Marshall, from Lincoln, plugged his way through the glutinous mud of Lembeek, Belgium to take the title by 17 seconds from a Swiss rider, Beat Brectbrechl.
Marshall was only the tenth British rider to win the rainbow jersey, and the first in cyclo-cross. His win was founded on his strong running ability – he’d been a schoolboy cross-country running champion.
In practice the course had been heavy but rideable, but heavy rain on the eve of race-day turned it into such a quagmire that arguably it contravened the UCI rule which states a race must involve more riding than running. Lembeek wasn’t the most muddy World Championships however, that honour goes to Saccolongo in Italy in 1979. The Italian Vito Di Tano was favourite for the amateur race, and preferred a heavy course, so the local fire brigade was pressed into surreptitiously watering the course a few days before the event. It then rained heavily, turning a heavy course into a completely unrideable course. Only the tarmac section could be ridden.
Marshall didn’t mind the Belgian mud. Recovering from a relatively poor start, he picked his way to the front of the race then with two laps to go, having just carried his bike across a shoe-sucking field, he found he had a gap, and in his own words, just kept going. That final lap was nerve-twisting for the British team manager, George Shaw, and the coach Chris Wreghitt.
But in the pits there was stress on another level altogether. Halfway through the race Marshall had thrown his bike at the mechanics and shouted at them that something was wrong with it. On inspection the British team’s head mechanic Sandy Gilchrist found that Marshall’s crank was loose. He tightened it, and Marshall took the bike back next time round. But when he came round again the crank had worked itself loose again. Gilchrist realised that the crank was in such a poor condition that the conventional method of tightening wasn’t working.
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With a degree of lateral thinking that astounded his colleagues in the pit, Gilchrist jumped into the crowd, saw a spectator drinking a can of Coke, took the can from them, poured the drink out into the mud and began snipping it into a collar for the crank, to give it something to tighten onto. He was still tightening as Marshall approached the pits on his last lap, alone in the lead but without a gap big enough to give any sense of comfort. Simon Burney, in the pits with Gilchrist, shouted to him that Marshall was approaching. Fifty yards, forty yards, Gilchrist was still tightening, thirty yards, twenty yards, one last turn of the wrench and the bike was flung onto the course ready for Marshall to collect.
At the finish line there was no big screen to watch his progress and crowd control was much more lackadaisical back then, so the scenes were chaotic. The British team managers and journalists strained to see down the long uphill finishing straight. Marshall appeared at the bottom of the hill, alone and furiously pumping at his pedals, elbows thrust outwards.
With barely the strength to raise an arm in victory, he crossed the line, the Belgian announcer duly calling out in French the words which make every cycling fan’s nerves jangle ‘Le nouveau champion du monde cyclo-cross juniors!’ Marshall collapsed into the arms of Shaw then draped himself over his handlebars, trying to regain his breath. A few minutes later, cleaned up, fully recovered yet in a state of total shock, he was standing on the top step of the podium.
I read about all of this in Dennis Donovan’s evocative race report in Cycling Weekly. I devoured the black and white photos of Marshall and others tackling this epic course. And though my own first experience of cyclo-cross, aged 11 in a farmyard in Oxfordshire left an indelible mark, it was probably this victory of Marshall’s that made me fall in love with the sport. Then, as now, any British success was considered ‘against the odds’. The language was of raids across the channel. We were plucky underdogs, and in this scenario the mud of Flanders, though it was never mentioned, had other connotations.
Extracted from Rainbows in the Mud: Inside the Intoxicating World of Cyclocross by Paul Maunder, published by Bloomsbury Sport, £14.99.