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.

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