Friday, 22 July 2011

National Champs

So, already around to the national champs weekend. Traditionally (in the last couple of years at least), this has marked the beginning of the end of the season - generally four of the five rounds of the BMBS have already been raced, the podium spots are all worked out, and everyone's pretty much ready for a rest. It has also traditionally marked the switch from XC races to more endurance-based events for me, landing just before the August/September flood of Bontrager 24/12, Torq in your sleep, Kielder and the 3 Peaks CX. Pleasingly, things up north are a little different (a change is as good as a rest), and the Scottish XC races continue through July with the Scottish Champs in early september. Anyway, these are all things to come, instead let's talk about what has already happened!

So, the championships themselves. The venue had been set for some months at the Aske Estate near the pretty North Yorkshire town of Richmond, which had already hosted a round of the Nutcracker series last year. From what i had heard, last year's course was a little lacking in interest, and the organisers had been put under pressure to do something with the venue after their regional round in May was met with similar disapproval by seasoned XC racers (the Scottish contingent were particularly scathing, incidentally, perhaps because we're so spoiled with tricky, technical courses up here!). So, with the understanding that we were probably not going to be treated to a tech-fest, Rachel and I started our leisurely trip down to Richmond on Saturday morning, in what can only be described as biblical rain in Fife.

As we headed south down the A1, the rain briefly abated, and then returned with renewed vigour as we got into my old childhood stomping grounds on the north east coast of Northumbria. We stopped for lunch at a pub in Bamburgh, and went for an extremely soggy walk on the beach in the imposing shadow of Bamburgh castle, where i instantly regressed 20 years and started running up and down the dunes. Rachel wisely pointed out that all this activity and dampness wasn't great preparation for an XC race, so we headed back to the car and put the heaters on full for the rest of the trip to Richmond. We arrived to find our prayers had been answered, it had been raining heavily at the estate, which would make for a more interesting race, but it was dry enough to put the tent up without too much trouble!

Portable home put up across the thoroughfare from the Salsa/Hope enclave, it was time to go and have a look at the course. A possible slightly optimistic choice of a ron/ralph tyre combo made for a rather sketchy pair of laps around the course, punctuated by standing in long queues to look at the "technical sections" early in the lap, which consisted of a steepish mud-over-rock descent through some trees, and then an open, muddy drop through some bracken that required a combination of nerve and relaxation to negotiate in one piece. The remainder of the lap was reasonably flat, with interest provided by an up-and-down-and-up-again traverse along a ridge through the trees, which reminded me a lot of the loamy southern courses like Crow Hill, and had held up amazingly well in spite of the deluge. Throughout the second half of the lap, the key would be to stay smooth rather than trying to ride fast, the latter tactic inevitably seemed to end with a squeak of brakes, a giggle and a loamy landing! Suitably prepared for what lay ahead, and happy to sacrifice a bit of grip to the Gods of rolling resistance, we gave our bikes a quick wash and settled down for our first night in a tent in rather a long time.

The dawn chorus that i usually rely on to wake me when camping never happened. It seems that birds don't like to sing when it's pouring with rain, perhaps they're worried that if they open their beaks, they'll drown when there's as much water coming from the sky as there was on Sunday morning. Rachel and I had a leisurely breakfast of bread, jam and crunchy nut cornflakes, truely the diet of champions. We were in a bit of a pickle as to who would bottle for us - we're usually quite a good little self-sufficient unit, but both racing at the same time had put paid to this. Thankfully, Joanna (Steve's wife) very kindly stepped into the breach and between her and Mel we were sorted! A bit of last-minute tyre swapping to fill the time, and we were ready to race. Well, almost. Thankfully, Mel and Si came to our rescue with lunch, as we'd forgotten to pack any. Start time rolled around surprisingly slowly, giving the weather plenty of time to threaten us, only to improve and ultimately dry the course quite a bit.

Being a lowly expert, with no UCI points to my name, and little chance of earning any this year with the change in UCI regs, i was gridded on the 6th row, so got a somewhat back-seat view of the runners and riders hitting the start of the first climb. My aim, much as last year, was to try to get around the course and not get lapped by Liam to finish the race, so i was keen to set a brisk, but not unsustainable pace - fast starts seem to hurt me a lot more than everyone else! I settled into a group with two guys from the RAF, being ably soigneured by Lou Robbins, Andy Howett and Christian Aucote. Not bad company, i though, perhaps i was having that rarest of things, a good day. The first half of the course consisted of two short, but brutally steep climbs, and two slippy descents that required a certain amount of committment to ride well, before leading across a section of open moorland and into a twisty section not dissimilar in style to Crow Hill. Definitely a course of two halves. I had Andy for company for the first half of the lap, but managed to escape him after he had a painful-looking altercation with a tree. Unlike many, he was good enough to cede the line whilst still upside down so i could keep riding and not join him in the undergrowth! I picked up Christian into the second lap, he was struggling more (if that is possible!) than me on the climbs, but was taking back time on the descents so that we stayed pretty well together. We worked well together for most of the race, and were annoyingly caught by Liam at the beginning of the fourth lap, with Annie on his wheel adding further insult! Unlike last year, when the commissaires allowed lapped riders to continue, Christian obviously believed that we would be pulled, and attacked into the last section of singletrack. Simultaneously, to add a bit of natural gravitas to our battle for the minor minor minor placings, the heavens opened. He got stuck behind a backmarker, and then nearly flattened all of us by trying to go on the other side, keeping a small margin all the way to the finish.

At the end of the race, i stood in the actually rather refreshing rain chatting to friends, and waiting for the AW boys to come in. First to cross the line was Steve James, who managed an amazing 11th place, shortly followed by Tim and Si in 14th and 15th - what a day! A few minutes later, and Rachel came in just behing Natasha Barry to claim 10th place, shortly followed by Ruth Owen-Evans; all to play for mid-field in the women's race!

So, still yet to finish a national champs without being lapped - it still has to be an aim for next year. I was 7th expert, but unlike last year when i got expert ranking points, i seem to have made a rather paltry haul from my trip to Richmond - oh well! Thanks to the Nutcracker guys for putting on a great event, with disappointingly little support from British Cycling, and as always to AW cycles for supporting me and providing my wonderful Giant Anthem.

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