My first senior XC championships! Last year, the race was based at Innerleithen in the south of Scotland, a place where I had had my first taste of racing at the BUSAs in 2005. I was monumentally ill-equipped technically for the challenges ahead of me, and managed to crash heavily the day before the race and give myself a dead leg and a tasty bruise. I was towed to a team bronze medal by my two Cambridge team mates, and vowed that one day I would return, better able to ride the tricky descents that the Scots love so much.
Fast forward four and a bit years to July 2009, and I was having a bit of a torrid time. My XC racing hadn’t been going particularly well at the NPS races, and I felt like I didn’t have the legs to even contemplate the national champs, especially when they were in such an unforgivingly hilly venue that was so far away. Instead, I opted to get trounced at an Eastern series race by none other than Alex Dowsett!
Keen not to repeat my softness, and also even more keen to race again at Pippingford after the southern XC race there in May, I decided to make my daring debut in the senior ranks this year. Although it was another hilly course in store, I felt happier about my XC form on the whole than 12 months before, and in any case I reassured myself that the XC champs can be a strange race, and an aim of top-25, and with it a UCI point, was probably realisable.
I made a slightly schoolboy error of assuming that my race was going to be on the Saturday, when in fact it wasn’t until 2:30pm on Sunday, giving me a whole extra day to kill. I went to visit a friend who was visiting down in London on Friday morning, and then headed from there to Uckfield station to be collected by Rachel who had driven down. Unfortunately for me, the trains transpired to be rather more efficient than the roads, and I arrived a good hour and a half before she did. Thankfully, there was a delightful cafe near to the station in which to pass the time drinking cappuccino, and reading about Mark Cavendish’s exploits in the Tour.
Having set up camp, I also set about changing over my BB – the shimano one I started the season with had finally given up the ghost, and I decided to spend an extra few quid on buying a KCNC roller-bearing one; I’ll let you know how it goes with that in a separate post once it’s got a few more miles on the clock! Then it was time for dinner back in Uckfield before returning to the site early enough to get a good night’s sleep. I even went for the customary Valpolicella with dinner to complete a quality Ernest taper.
Saturday felt like a nice chilled out day – the event had a very relaxed atmosphere, much more so than an equivalent NPS race, and it was really rather pleasant to have the time and the means to catch up with some friends. I did a couple of laps of the course at a fairly leisurely pace (no point killing yourself the day before the nationals, you can guarantee just the race will do that for you), and even saw some of GB’s better endurance racers, Ian Leitch & Sally Bigham checking out the course too. XC is getting mainstream!
Sunday dawned, and in spite of my plan to spend until 11am in bed, once I heard other people getting up I struggled to doze any further. A quick breakfast and some strong coffee, and it was time to watch the Juniors racing. They blitzed off the line into the bumpy field of doom at what seemed like warp speed, and before long, Steve James and Grant Ferguson appeared back in the arena at the head of affairs, being chased by a just-out-of-touch Kenta Gallagher. The situation remained much the same for the rest of the race, with Steve taking a narrow win ahead of Grant. Then it was Simon Ernest’s turn in masters, along with Mark Hutt and course designer and organiser Steve Jones in the vets. Si got a decent start, and looked to be working himself into the race well, not using too much energy early on, and leaving the leaders to dangle just within range. Unfortunately, none of us had counted on the appearance of Carl Sturgeon at the head of affairs – having hung a senior nationals medal around his neck in the past, he knew what it took. Racing on a bike that looked like it was from the late ‘90s, including v-brakes, he managed to get out of reach on the third lap, leaving Si to overhaul early leaders Steve James the elder and Neal Crampton for second place. An awesome ride. Mark and Steve showed the AW colours well in the vets, with Mark finishing in the top-10, and Steve overheard shouting to spectators “who designed this bloody course?”.
Finally, half-two arrived and it was time for me and Jon Pybus to hit the trails. I have to admit, looking forward three rows and seeing Liam and Oli ahead of me did fill me with nerves, the first i’d had all weekend, but before i’d had time for it to sink in, the gun had gone. Ian & I both got the atrocious starts you’d expect of people more used to the relaxed world of endurance racing, but where he managed to jump towards the head of the field, i ended up languishing near the back. In spite of my warm up, my legs just weren’t ready for the sheer pace (a common problem if you’re a regular reader of my blog!), and i tried to focus more on riding the course smoothly and not wasting energy than going flat out. Within half a lap, the front Espoirs had caught me, and i soon had Jon for company, albeit briefly, before being left on my own again by mid way through lap two. I was originally hoping to make it through my five laps without being caught by the leader, but as soon as they upped the numbers to six for the men, i knew it was only a matter of time before one of Liam and Oli got me.
Sure enough, in the middle of my fourth lap, Killer caught and passed me riding his usual super-smooth style, and i assumed my race was over.
I cruised around to the finish line, slightly perplexed that Oli and the rest of the elite field hadn’t caught up with me, and asked the commissaire if my race was over. “No, you can carry on if you want” he replied, the last three words all but obliging me to do another lap. It was hot, and i hadn’t drunk anything for nearly a whole lap assuming i would be pulled, but i grabbed another bottle from Mel (thanks Mel!) and went out one last time. Sure enough, Oli, and then later Paul Oldham caught me up, but i made it round and with the high rate of attrition even managed 26th place. Damn, one place away from the points. Fellow flat-lander Andrew Cockburn managed an incredible 9th place on the line; his first top-10 in any elite level national race.
Now i have to wait a couple of months for my favoured event to land at Pippingford – the Marathon Champs on the 13th of September. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be a deserving man who stands on the top step there. Thanks as ever to my sponsors AW Cycles, to Mel Ernest for kindly bottling for me, and to the organisers for a great event.