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...