Wardell on ‘portage’

Rab Wardell opined on the technique of ‘portage’ – or carrying your bike, to the non-cyclocross aficionado – for the Dig In at the Dock 2014 race programme. With summer cross races now underway and thoughts moving towards the approaching season, I thought I’d revisit this with a new angle.

Portage – it is what separates cyclocross from all other disciplines of cycling. Lesser disciplines of cycling, one might argue. I’ve seldom heard a more eloquently phrased explanation of how this can inspire a lifelong love of ‘cross. I overheard one of our humble race organisers recalling a childhood memory to the Simon Burney. ‘Ah mind wotchin’ some ‘cross race on Grandstand, aboot 30 years ago! Ah wis just a lad and ah mind seein’ these guy fae Belgium an tha’ jumpin’ oer bits ae wid an’ tha’. The next day ah wis runnin’ roond the wids wi’ a road bike an’ ae’most got hypothermia. Quality likes! Thats the real deal…’

‘Yeah…’ Simon agreed.

I don’t think that anything in Scottish Cycling can compare to that moment you cross the burn at the ‘Tosh after 55 minutes, ready to shoulder your trusty steed and face that b*tch of a run-up one final time. Whether fighting for the victory, surviving the race, finishing for your first time or getting the better of your mate, one thing remains the same. As you try to slot your feet into the ankle deep, cold, muddy footholds. Digging your toe studs (if you’re lucky enough to have them) in the soil and push off, propelling your protesting, wheezing body and mud clogged, heavier-than-ever bike closer to the summit. It is incredibly painful. Horrific even.

The Tosh run-up 2013 image Anth Robson

The Tosh run-up 2013 image Anth Robson

This section of the Auchentoshan course seemed to be considered the best, most authentic and most challenging run-up on the Scottish cross circuit. It’s last-minute omission last year at the behest of the comms was lamented by riders and seemed a sore point for the organisers. On paper might have been a correct decision, though according to the rules. 

As you reach the crest and push hard over the top you dislodge your flapping bicycle and it falls without control to the ground. Your pedal digs into your hip then your thigh, then your calf, on its way. As rubber hits dirt the sound of chain slap tells you that your chain is no longer sitting pleasantly on the teeth of your chainring. Cold fingers fumble at the chain in a panic, then one hand turns the pedals to remount it. All is not lost. As you lift your gaze, focus on moving forward and building momentum, just in time for that infrequently practiced double-hop, skip and jump to the saddle. It feels awkward, just as it did last week. You remember that you must practice your remounts one day. Some day soon.

It can feel a million miles from the graceful and effortless demonstrations we are fortunate enough to witness on Sporza. As Neils, Sven, Marianne, Katie or J-Pows slip their leg over the rear of the bicycle, touching down at speed but without a stumble. A slight flick of the wrist and the bike is tightly perched upon their shoulder. They move in an example of rhythmic, purposeful, portage perfection. The bicycle glides from shoulder back to the surface in the blink of an eye, touching down, as light as a feather. A swift and seamless remount and you would be forgiven for questioning if there was a dismount at all. Efficient, beautiful and most of all FAST!

The art of portage is not something which one is simply gifted with at birth. Portage has developed over the decades by the legends of ‘cross in the heartland of cycling. Bicycle design has been influenced to aid portage, signifying the importance of it’s efficient execution. Only after hundreds of hours of practice can you expect to be able to gracefully carry out near perfect portage in ‘cross. Having studied the technique, applied thought and put that into practice.

The Tosh run-up is out, and so is the entire race it seems, with construction work apparently rendering the venue unusable, hopefully only temporarily. The does leave a gap in the market for ‘best Scottish run-up’, so I asked Rab what he thought the next contender was.

Rab Wardell at Irvine 2013 image Martin Young

Rab carrying up the bank at Irvine beach in 2013 image c Martin Young

I’d say the good run ups are probably the steep banking at Irvine and the Belgian bomb hole at Dig In. The best run up I’ve ever done is probably the steps in Baal at the top of the climb at the end of the first half lap of the GP Sven Nys. It’s at the top of an eyeballs out climb then through the pits where it’s muddy as all hell. Then each step feeling about 3 feet high. It’s brutal.

Thanks to Rab for this piece. Follow him on twitter, instagram

What are your favourite run-ups? 
Are we lacking carrying sections on Scottish courses?
Do we need more?
Comments below!

image c Han Devos

The steps at GP Sven Nys, Baal image courtesy Jo Groenevinger

  • Glenorchil

    Certainly the double run up at the ‘new’ Chatelherault is challenging, doubling the pain from the first edition. I would like to see some more stair sections somewhere too.

  • Thanks for the comment Alan. I agree and I think there’s widespread sentiment that more run-ups and stairs would be a good challenge. When the comms ruled the burn at Strathclyde Park unsuitable, I remember many people lamenting the loss of the run-up, probably the toughest in Scotland. Rouken Glen being a new course is another welcome addition.

  • Euan Lindsay

    It was Auchentoshan with the burn but what did it was the redevelopment of the school that scuppered it. Even with the removal of the drop into the burn the run up would have remained.

    Regardless Scottish CX’s problem isn’t a lack of run ups, its a lack of significant obstacles getting people off their bikes.

  • Darn it – the Tosh – that’s what I meant to say. When you think about it, there are quite a lot of sections where you may need to dismount, although better riders can manage several of these:

    – Cally Park ‘badgery bit’
    – Knockburn – the sand bit
    – Irvine has the big hill
    -Strathclyde – bit by the bridge
    – Doonbank – the long hedgy bit
    – RGCX – the beer token climb
    – Dig In belgian bombhole

    …to name a few… and lots have the barriers – maybe we’re not so badly off after all?