Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Friday Night is Race Night

As you might have gathered from my earlier post, i'm pretty enthusiastic about the idea of racing flat out for an hour on an offroad circuit of a friday evening. As most of the rest of the UK pushes off early from work to put on their glad rags and hit the town, i escape my computer to head for the Friday Night Summer Series which leaves you in a similar state, albeit by a different means. The de rigeur clothing is a bit different too, with shapes that cling to the figure and colours in the "loud" range.

There is certainly something satisfying about hitting the trails at speed, jockeying with 200 other people for position in the first bit of singletrack, and taking every climb at flat out pace, especially if all you have done all day is sit in a chair. There's something rather special about events where you see elite riders racing at the same time as absolute beginners - i don't just mean people who're new to racing, but people who've never ridden an mtb offroad before. It's all over in an hour, usually as the sun is starting to dip below the horizon, and the courses are short enough that you will cover somewhere between four and eight laps in that time. It's a great way to build a bit of racing form, but it's also fantastic just as a social experience; once the racing's done and your heart rate has fallen to a number that could be confused for a room temperature rather than an oven one, you can sit down and chill out with the guys who you've been chasing and the ones who were chasing you before you head for home.

With this in mind, i was keen to improve upon my previous "DNF" on my birthday at Bulwick Park. The course there was amazingly open, and reminded me of rides in the Yorkshire Dales, with one big descent and climb over a bumpy grass field. Unfortunately, just as i had been moving clear into 5th place, my chain snapped and i was faced with a long walk back. This time around, the course at Delapre Abbey was entirely different. Based in a country park near the centre of Northampton, it was tight and enclosed - we would only see the full sunlight for a few hundred yards each lap, the rest of the race was spent under the canopy of a beautiful deciduous woodland. The start, with a record 280 people was predictably frenetic with everyone keen to get into the early section of singletrack in front. I was warmed up from pre-riding the course, and lined up alongside frequent FNSSers Ryan Henry and Adi Scott, keen to try and keep with them and their customary blinding start. Unfortunately, it was not to be - i missed my pedal at the first stroke, and as everyone else surged forward i stood still. I managed to get back on terms, riding with 24hr racer extraordinaire Ant White through the first section of singletrack. That guy is incredible, he'd come second in the inaugural 24hr champs the weekend before, and was still blitzing me around a 1hr race; i guess my lazy week post Margam was beginning to show.

Through the next section of the course, i worked hard to keep Ant in sight, whilst still taking time to get as much air as my skills allowed off the jumps in the course. There was one enormous double that is obviously a product of much TLC from the local kids that i refused to go for, it later transpired that only one rider of the 280 of us had even attempted it, which made me feel a little better! As the lap carried on, i gradually lost contact with Ant, who would finish about a minute up on me, and acquired Lloyd Bettles for company. He then rode past me through a singletrack climb at the beginning of the second lap, and went on to catch Ant for 9th spot. And that was the way it remained for the rest of the race; i briefly sat with Paul Ashby as he came through from his two minute deficit (he started with the vets) but he too proved too strong for me (maybe i need to ride more on "rest" weeks!). I crossed the line in glorious late evening sunshine, 11th place. Not my strongest finish in the FNSS in the last two years, but at least i set the bar nice and low to start with, and i DID finish! Unfortunately, my usual close competition in the form of James Hampshire had managed to handicap himself by going for a pee second before the seniors race started, and he spent the rest of the hour in chase mode.

Next race up was two weeks later at Kilworth Springs golf course. I headed to this one on the way to a mate's stag weekend in Wales - it was a bit of a mad evening all in all - i finished work at half-five, grabbed my stuff and Rachel, who i was transporting most of the way to Mountain Mayhem, and then headed up the A14 to Kilworth. The idea of an MTB race on a golf course had struck me as a bit weird when i'd last raced here at the final round of the 2009 series, and although the course as a whole is pretty untechnical, it had provided some interesting racing (overtaking the tandems allowed in the series final had been particularly entertaining!). After our continuing dry summer, the course was dry and hard which made sections of the course like a bumpy road race. What made life worse was the fact that i'd taken my trusty rigid kinesis as i hadn't fancied leaving my lovely giant team bike in the bunkhouse in Wales that was going to be filled with my drunk friends for the weekend. Without my lovely plush foxes, every stone felt like a boulder. I didn't manage to find time to warm up or see the course, but headed straight down to the bottom of the golf course, where we were met by the organiser in a golf buggy! A brief chat about not riding on the greens, and the horn sounded - we were off. The start loop saw me gradually pick my way up into the top ten, riding with James H and a few other guys who seemed keen to keep the pace high. James and I had our usual banter riding through, with me complaining about the fact that my gear cables needed to be replaced (i haven't used the kinesis since February!) and my brakes didn't work. At some point fairly early on, James obviously got bored of my whining and decided to strike out alone, leaving me with a group of our pretty strong looking riders for company.

My little group obviously decided that i had a target on my back (might have been the AW kit) and so took it in turns to attack me at the front of the group. One after the other, they'd manage to pull out a 30 yard lead on me quickly, only to be apparently quite frustrated by the fact that i would gradually ride back to them without attacking quite so violently. I did feel pretty rough having not warmed up, though, and each effort made my lungs feel like they were burning. For my sins, i was rather miffed that they all seemed to be intent on trying to drop me, rather than helping me work to bring back James, who was gaining ground with all this nonesense. After a couple of laps of being ceaselessly under fire, i decided to open up a bit up a climb through the greens at the back of the course, and was bewildered and surprised when i turned around to see noone behind me! Apparently my companions had overdone it, either that or they were now busy attacking each other for ninth place instead of eighth.

I kept the pace up the rest of the race, crossing the line 5 minutes adrift of winner Ryan Henry in 6th place. So nearly in the money! Alas, i'll be missing the next two round of the FNSS, the team relay is probably a bit far from Reading to try to persuade the rest of the AW crew to come to, and the following weekend is the Friday before Dalby, where i'll be shamelessly saving my legs. But with 38th place in the rankings to defend (from two rounds), i'll be back at some point soon...

Thanks as ever to sponsors AW Cycles and Giant Bikes, Chris.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Muddy Margam

NPS 3: Margam Park
Well, what a race that was. I managed to get the mud out of my nice yellow kit, which is finally recognisable after some serious handwashing and industrial amounts of vanish stain remover, and i’m certain the Welsh Tourist Board are after me to reclaim several kilos of mud. It all seems a fairly distant memory until i try to stand up or climb the stairs, when my glutes remind me what this weekend was all about – climbing!

My trip to Margam started on Thursday evening – after a long day in the office, i was quite looking forward to throwing a few things in the back of the car and heading over to stay with Rachel’s parents in Worcester. The plan was then to ste... i mean borrow their campervan for the weekend to make our time at Margam a little more pleasant – the two of us are getting worryingly out of the habit of camping these days. Friday morning dawned beautiful and clear, with blue skies, light winds and temperatures nearing the 20s; i took this as a sign that i’d been right, it was going to be lovely. After all, it never rains at Margam, right?
We got to the venue at around 4pm after a morning spent updating my wardrobe for the first time in two years – i now have some shirts that don’t have holes under the arms! We headed straight out to see what the course was like; shorts and t-shirts the order of the day, with a little cloud blowing in it was still warm, and the course bone dry and rock hard. Some sections were very lumpy and had me wishing for a full-sus, but the serious amount of climbing per lap meant that weight was at a premium. A new deer-track traverse started the climbing off in earnest after the usual blast along the road from the arena, and took us through a small coniferous copse on the hillside, which deceived you into thinking the climb was more gentle than it was. A couple of rooty step-ups, and you were spat back out blinking into the sunshine to lose a significant chunk of your altitude descending a rough loamy chute. Whilst a little sketchy, this was eminently rideable, and served to get the heart going for the next climb, which then dropped you down through the rhododendrons into the famous (or infamous) Margam stream crossings. From here, it was up up up to the top of the monument climb, and then back through the usual final 2km descent to the start-finish. The final descent, whilst extremely fun, was a lot more rough than i remember, and is perhaps starting to suffer from having been used every year since 2006, and also frequently by the locals.
No matter, practice lap completed (with a few jeers from a certain organiser who will remain nameless, who was insistent i’d missed the “race of my life” the previous weekend), and it was time to dust (yes, dust!) down the bike ready for the following day. Being convinced that it was going to be fine the following day, i’d only brought one set of tyres, my trusty Larsen TTs that have seen me through the whole season so far. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday morning came around pretty quickly, and i came to to the sound of something drumming on the campervan. Surely there couldn’t have been that many birds all landing at once? No, rain. Heavy heavy rain. Well, it was only 7am, there was time for it to clear up and the course to dry out before the women set off at 10, right? Wrong!
Rachel’s race started in poor visibility and slightly lighter rain, and shamefully i have to admit i only stayed about to watch the first lap – a woman wearing a simple blue top came whizzing through the start finish with an already insurmountable lead, it was only later that i realised that under the mud was Rosara Joseph! The elite women trickled through one by one, almost universally coated in mud but smiling – in spite of the horrendous weather the course was apparently very entertaining. It bode well for my race, with a later start time at least the weather had lifted a bit by the time we headed off behind the elite men at 12:30. For the first time since i was promoted to Expert, i felt as though i didn’t totally embarrass myself at the start, and actually ended up in the top ten as we started the ascent of the deer track. It wasn’t to last, and i lost a couple of places on the descent, in no small part due to the sketchiness of my “high summer” tyres in the sticky yet slippery mud. I settled down into a comfortable rhythm for the next climb, and gradually as the lap went on got more confident at handling my bike in the conditions. Top tip, if you make a stupid tyre choice, 20psi helps you stick!
As the laps ticked by, i found myself in the “second group” of people fighting for position; Serge Hunt surged (see what i did there!) past me on one of the climbs after we’d had an equally ridiculous time descending through the rhododendrons, but i kept getting glimpses of people ahead on the climbs. Mostly, they were the Junior riders who had zoomed past earlier on, only to succumb to the toughness of the course and the mud, but occasional blown experts came back to me too. On the penultimate lap, Oli Beckingsale passed me on the final steep descent, i’d like to think it was because he’d made a more appropriate choice of rubber, but i think it had more to do with just sheer skill. Climbing the deer track, i had Liam K for company, and his mum cheering him and me on too! As i started the big climb for the last time, i caught sight of Niall Frost, and pushed on hard to try to catch him before the descent would negate my advantage. Alas, i didn’t quite get him, with 9 second separating us at the finish, and i became the filling in an XCracer sandwich between Niall and James Hampshire. I was 14th, very muddy, and pretty happy with how things had gone.
Other team mates had variable days; Jon Pybus had a rough time in Elite, with a puncture putting an end to his race, but vets Mark & Mark seemed to revel in the conditions finishing 3rd (Mark H) and 9th (Mark C) respectively. And they were almost recognisable too. Thanks to Rachel for bottling for me, Chris Reeves for the photo that captures the atmosphere so perfectly, and to AW for the support. Roll on Dalby...