Monday, 24 May 2010

A two-race, one-finish weekend.

Having had a less than perfect start to my BMBS campaign for this year at Wasing Park, where I ended up upside down in the barriers after a hundred yards, and then limped around five laps of what would otherwise have been a really fun course, I decided the weekend before Margam should see me stepping things up a bit. First up was the second round of the Friday Night Summer Series (FNSS) at Bulwick Park in Leicestershire. For those of you who don’t know about this gem of a series, be ashamed! It’s the longest continually-running XC series in the UK, and in its 18th year in 2010, with a total of 13 rounds. An hour-long blast around a short, fun course with a great party atmosphere and cash prizes means that pretty much everyone is catered for; it’s an excellent way to kick-off the weekend.

In fact, so deep runs my enthusiasm for the series that I chose to race on my birthday, although I’ve been around rather longer than the FNSS. Friday evening saw a huge (150+) field line up in the warm evening sun on a small airfield runway near Rutland water ready for the whistle to go. Adi Scott got the holeshot and led for the first blast along the runway before Dave Collins hit the front, a position he wouldn’t relinquish for the whole race. I had an uncustomarily good start, and found myself coming through the start finish with Adi for company in around 6th place. As we went zooming down a dry, grassy bank, and over a series of small kickers, I decided I would get ready to make a move up the hill on the other side, and see if I could get clear to chase the guys ahead. As I hit the hill, disaster struck as my chain snapped at the quick link – d’oh. Adi offered his condolences before disappearing up the hill as I contemplated a long walk back from the furthest point of the course to the start-finish. Lesson learned – there’s now a spare link taped to the air canister on my seat post!

After what seemed like an age walking back along the course, I got back to where we had parked, helped poor Hollie Bettles back towards her dad’s van (she had crashed on the grassy descent, and discovered the following day she’d broken her shoulder – get well soon!). My good deed for the day done, I grabbed the camera and made the most of the light to take some photos of the other racers. A perfect evening in some ways, but a less than perfect one in others!

Next up was the 2nd round of the Southern XC series at Pippingford Estate near Uckfield. Steve and the rest of the southern gang had got rave reviews for this course, so much so that it will be the venue for the 2010 nationals, so I had high hopes. After sitting in traffic for a few minutes on the A22, and starting to get nervous that (a) I wasn’t going to get there before the start and (b) I wasn’t going to get there before my bladder burst, it was time to put the satnav into stealth mode and get there any which way we could. It was a glorious day, in fact almost too nice to “waste” racing, and the thought did occur to me to just sack off the race and go for a long ride around East Sussex instead. Hot weather plus hills seemed like perfect prep for Margam though, and turning into the venue for the race I knew I’d made the right decision!
From the top of the parking/camping field, you look straight down the hill to the start finish, and on down to the bottom of the final climb, one that you can love and hate in equal measure (love because it’s almost over, hate because it’s not as near to being over as you think at the bottom!). There wasn’t really enough time to check out the whole course before the gun went, so I just went over the opening ten minutes, which had been described as the “most tricky” to me. After the first couple of hundred yards which went uphill to the opening section of singletrack, the course seemed to go inexorably down, through a series of fast, twisty sections with a couple of drops and some steep chutes to keep the mind focussed. Just when you’d got used to the idea of descending forever on some MC Escher trails (oh, what a joy that would have been!), there was a left turn to take you back up the fire roads towards the arena. Emerging from the shade of the trees briefly to loop round a tree and give the commentator a tantalising glimpse of how the race was unfolding, the course then looped back into the forests for a further does of descending, where finding a smooth line and carrying momentum was key. The rest of the course is something of a blur, blending together some fantastically constructed berms with more steep descents, some beautiful sections through the fading bluebells, and a bit through a concrete gulley that always made me feel like a total novice! Factor in a bit of mud for that “I’m an mtber, get me out of here” look, and you were back at the bottom of that killer climb ready to do it all over again!
My race started just after the elites had zipped away, shortly after 2pm in the heat of the day. At the whistle, I clipped in next to Euan Adams who was promptly away, and not to be seen by any of the rest of us until the finish. I had my more common less than stellar start, and ended up dead last heading into the first section of singletrack. I picked up a couple of places on the first climbing section of fireroad, and found myself in the company of Mark Field of MSC bikes. We pootled round as a twosome for a while, as the faster masters harried us for position, including an altogether too-polite Mr Ernest, who was unlucky to suffer from a puncture and then heart palpitations, but still amazingly finished 5th! I consciously took the first lap pretty steady, aware that the heat was going to be a factor and also that I might not yet have the depth to my form to hammer it for four laps around such a “climby” course. At some point I lost Mark, and continued into lap number 2 alone.

Throughout the whole race, I focussed more on descending smoothly than pushing super-hard, and it seemed to pay off as suddenly some of the guys who’d slipped away at the start swam into view...were they a mirage or were they real?! I had crept up to 8th place by the bottom of the final climb, and just managed to summon the energy to pass Dan Eastment for 7th on the line. Not a fantastic result in itself, but an extra 30s a lap would have netted me 4th; giving me some good energy for Margam! Roll on the Welsh round where it’s always sunny!
The AW team had a good day all told, with Jon Pybus claiming fifth in the Elite field, Mark Hutt doing his now commonplace disappearing act to take the Vet win, ahead of Mark Cracknell in 10th and organiser extraordinaire Steve in 19th. Not bad for a bunch of guys riding hardtails on what everyone else seemed to think was a “full suss course” (apart from Jon the softie!). Thanks as always to AW for the great bikes, the shady love-bus and the mellow yellow kit that made life so much easier for my adopted bottler Keith of the WXC team (thanks for accepting me as one of the girls!). Until the next instalment, dusty trails.

There's a great video of the last southern race to be held on the pippingford course courtesy of Paul Robinson here:

Thanks to Rachel, and a kind chap on the XCracer forum for photos.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

“It’s mtb racing, not dirty Swedish porn”

And so began a weekend of riding around Catton Park in ever-decreasing circles. Actually, that’s not quite true, it all started 24hrs earlier when the thought of a nice sauna (more on that later!) was just a distant dream. Friday evening arrived, and it being almost summer at least in season if not in weather, that meant time to pack the car. Destination – Si & Mel’s house in Reading, ready for the AW cycles team launch on Saturday morning. They’d very kindly offered to put us up to save us from a 5am start (on a weekend too, how uncivilised!), instead we got up at the relatively pleasant time of 7am, had a nice breakfast of porridge, and then Si & I headed over to the shop. A little late. Ahem.

On arrival, James gave me a big bag of new kit in very distinctive banana yellow and dark blue, and directions to the loo in the shop to change as quickly as possible. After a few photos in front of the shop, we then rode en masse, and what a mass, to a park in the centre of town for more group photos. We got some whistles of encouragement from the locals (chicks love guys in lycra, apparently a fact in Reading – either that or James bribed them!); it was definitely impressive seeing pretty much the whole AW team all together, although definitely harder work for us mtbers on our knobbly tyres. After standing in the shadow of an “anatomically incorrect” lion for a few minutes, we made our final trip to Palmer Park to ride around the track. It felt pretty weird riding on the track for the first time on my hardtail, but it didn’t stop fellow new boy Jon and I playing silly buggers!

The day of publicity concluded with Si and James doing a radio interview on Radio Berkshire with a surprisingly clued-up DJ, whilst Rachel, Mel and I listened at home. Then it was time to fling stuff in the AW cycles tardis-van and head up to Derby to check into our rather amazing apartment. In fact, to say it was amazing is something of an understatement – it was real luxury, two double bedrooms, a kitchen and a hidden Sauna that looked just like a wardrobe, bliss. After a nice, healthy dinner Si and I hit the sauna; having never been in one before i had no idea what to expect, but 85 degree heat can be really quite relaxing. The conversation afterwards did also contain the quote of the weekend “it’s mtb racing, not dirty Swedish porn” – i’ll leave you to work it out!

Morning arrived, and with it strong winds, but clear skies – the course was going to be pretty dry after all the apprehension about rain and tyres. We arrived at Catton at about 8:30, plonked our stuff in the pits, got kitted up and put our bikes together with just enough time for me to have a customary three trips to the loo before the race started (race nerves do terrible things to me!). Si had volunteered to do the run, and did us proud striding back into the arena to grab his bike in about 5th place. By the time he handed over to me after 2 laps we were up to 2nd, maybe a minute back of Dave Collins & Keith Murray; i had my work cut out for me. Mid way through my first lap of two, Ryan Henry passed me, and later on Lee Williams – i didn’t really fancy my chances of hanging onto either of their wheels, but that didn’t stop me trying! Through the second lap, i was beginning to learn the lines a bit better and felt like i was making up time only to lose it again through being too polite in passing people (that didn’t stop one guy having a go at me for daring to ask to pass at all, though!). When i handed back over to Si, we were down to 6th – bugger. This set the pattern for the rest of the race really, Si would make us up some places, and then we’d drop back down when i went out; it was really a testament to just how good the competition was that the Hope guys ended up 4th only a few minutes ahead of where we finished in 7th. It was definitely tight at the top!

I got the last lap, and so had the honour of coming through the finishing arch to shake Pat’s hand; he’s always such a jolly character, and it’s good to see his events attracting such a quality field. The men’s pairs was won by the Wiggle duo of Lee Williams and Ben Simmons who were cranking around like nobody’s business, with Geoff Beetham & Ryan Henry in 2nd, and George Budd & Phil Lenney taking 3rd spot with a late charge.

Thanks as ever to sponsor AW cycles for the Giant bikes, kit and support that they give us, and to our long suffering partners Mel and Rachel for being a great support crew on a rather chilly day.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Fast times at Dortmund High...

It's already been a while since i wrote a post, and i swore this time around i'd be better, but to be totally honest it feels like i've been living at breakneck speed the last three weeks. After the spring marathon, i had hoped to have another good week's training ready for the Midlands XC race on my favourite course of last year at Hanchurch near Stoke. It's a great place to ride a bike, and the BETD/Goldtec guys helped by a certain Mr. Brookes always put on an excellent testing course, with proper climbs to test your legs, and tricky twisty descents to make sure you've been riding your mtb in the off season. Last year i had a less than perfect race when a catalog of errors led to me spending the night sleeping in the car (even at my height, a fiesta is not a comfy bed) and then having only milk to drink to stay hydrated in the hours leading up to the race. Feeling rather better this year, and with a slightly more cohesive plan in mind, i fancied my chances of improving my finish position.

Tuesday morning, and things were looking good - i did a turbo session in the morning before heading out the door to work, knowing that in the evening i'd be boarding a plane to Germany. I'd got it all planned out, i'd take my running shoes and do an hour's run around Werne on Wednesday, and fly back Thursday which would give me time to rest and recover. I saw the sights of Werne at 7am, the joys of a 1hr time difference being enough to get me up and out early before breakfast, and went jogging along the river on a pleasant spring morning. Thursday was the day to return and prepare. A friendly little country called Iceland had other ideas however. As the day wore on, it became more and more clear that i wouldn't be heading home after all - my colleague and I made plans to stay in Dusseldorf over night in order to get a flight early Friday morning. Finding somewhere to stay on Thursday evening proved more of a struggle however, as a "wire expo" (i seriously can't imagine who would go to this, or why!) had been on in the city, and thousands of other Brits were also stranded unable to fly home. We finally got into a slightly grubby hotel that was only a few years away from charging by the hour, and went to sleep.

Friday dawned to silence from the airport, the ash cloud has spread and now the German airports were closing too. We decided to cut our losses and head for Brussels - then we had the option of the Eurostar, a ferry from Oostend or a flight if the airports reopened. And it was a much better place to be stuck than Dusseldorf to boot. We checked into a rather plush hotel in the centre for what would be the first of three nights, and i got my first acquaintance with the running machine in the gym. On the train journey, we passed through several extremely picturesque villages and towns in the Belgian Ardennes that i'm very keen to go back and visit, in particular Verviers which was the location chosen for the 2007 world mtb marathon championships. Let's face it, a country obsessed with chocolate and cycling has to be my spiritual home! Once we got to Brussels, following the alternative train route suggested to us by a friendly Belgian man at Dusseldorf, and checked in, i have to admit a wave of relief passed over me. Annie, our star organiser had arranged some Eurostar tickets for monday morning, we had somewhere to stay, and things were looking up. It was only later that it occurred to me that getting back on Monday meant i would miss the Midlands race, and also not see Rachel for nearly two weeks as she headed up to the Dalby World Cup on Sunday.

The days in Brussels passed in a haze of foraging for somewhere to eat, trying to find out what was going on transport-wise and even a little sightseeing. It was pretty cool to go the atomium ( a giant exhibit for the 1958 world's fair in the shape of a body centred cubic crystal structure unit (oh my, i still remember some materials science!), and filled with exhibits from the 1950s and '60s. As i implied earlier, i spent a lot of quality time with the running machine in the evenings to make up for my lack of bike training, and also because it made the amazing Belgian stews taste even nicer when i was hungry from a bit of excercise. Finally, monday morning arrived, and after a nervous wait to collect our tickets (apparently etickets don't count!). After a mad dash to the platform, the actual trip back home was a bit of a blur. I got back to find i'd left my lights on in my car six days earlier, and needed a new battery, and then once i finally got home discovered my cat had been duffed up by the local bully and needed a trip to the vets. What a life.

Things have settled down a bit now, Rachel's back from working at Dalby, and training is back in the swing - in fact it even felt like i hadn't lost much through 6 days with no bike. I guess time will tell...