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.