With the entire XC season packed into March-July, i have to admit that i'm sort of relieved to have made it to mid-March before hitting the trails in anger. When i first saw the racing calendar in December, i had apocalyptic visions of racing every weekend from the beginning of February through wind, hail and snow, only to see the best months of the year pass with barely a race to do! A slight shift of focus towards more marathon racing, and particularly some more European stuff involving proper mountains means that this isn't going to be the case, and i can look forward to the best (and worst) that July and August have to throw at me see through the tunnel of racing vision.
For now, I seem to have done my usual trick of tuning up the "diesel" side to my racing engine, whilst having done nothing to improve on anything beyond my TT threshold. I have only myself to blame, my weekday base training has been sitting on the turbo trainer mashing out 20m threshold pieces, whilst weekends have been spent exploring the Kent hills on-road, and the North Downs off-road. It's not a bad way to do thing, but i always find myself caught like a rabbit in the headlights come mid-February, not wanting to make the switch to shorter, harder intervals-based sessions because i'm happy in my little twenty-minute bubble. It generally takes the first XC race of the year, usual the NPS at Sherwood to make me realise that i must try harder, and that XC racing is about going over and under your threshold, and not just sitting steadily at it!
This time, i had a busy weekend of seeing friends, collecting a bike, and racing at the fantastic old-school venue of Checkendon to break me out of my early-season funk. It was great to see Sarah and Trev, and stay in their new little house, and fantastic to pick up my new Trek 9.9ssl (a hardtail and a 26er - what a luddite i am!) from AWCycles, who have once again excelled themselves in their support of me. Armed with some measurements taken off my poor, cracked Kinesis, setting the Trek up was pretty easy, and to my surprise, i found myself really rather liking the riser bars that came as stock on it. Maybe i'm starting to get this new-school XC malarkey!
Poor kinesis frame - cracked along the top of the chainstay. Here's my original blog about receiving it almost 3 years before it broke... http://overthehillracing.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/good-things-come-in-boxes.html
Rachel and Sarah got to the venue earlier than us, a necessary evil given that Rachel's race started at 10am, by the time me, Trev and Nick arrived, she was already finished, and had come away with 2nd place behind Mel Alexander (Cardiff Jif/JRA) in the elite race. I went for a pedal around the course with team mate Simon Ernest (you can read his excellent article here: http://simonernest.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/its-not-about-bike.html), it was good to catch up with him and see what was in store for us during the race. Steve James' description of "like riding through nutella" is pretty apt, slippery, muddy, rooty, fun, a bit scottish was what i thought. I had no idea how my race would go, but i knew whatever, i'd leave smiling.
We were gridded up pretty quickly, a good thing given the chilly wind that was nipping at all of us as we stood waiting for the start, and off with a minute's gap to the elite riders. For the first time since i started racing expert, i managed to stay somewhere in the pack at the start, and even found myself moving forwards a couple of places once we got through the first few turns - perhaps all those competitive commuters at the traffic lights in London have done me some good after all! It was not to be however, and after some short battler with Tom Ward (Giant Radlett) , Ed Rose (Progression Fitness) and Richard Lewis (CC Basingstoke) i started to feel the lactate building up, and slipped backwards. With this inexorable slide came a shift of focus from riding for places to trying to ride smoothly and treating the experience as a valuable training ride, that was until i saw Richard suffering up ahead (sorry!).
I dragged my tired body across the line 16th, nearly 12m down on Jason Bouttell who tore the legs off the Sport category last year, and is showing no intention of slowing down this year either. Not a great result, but a few national ranking points and a good 1.5hrs of hard riding on my new bike to get me used to it, and most importantly i set the bar low; i can move forward from here!!
It was great to return to a course that was the scene of my first outing in sport way back in the heady days of 2006, and where i first got the bug for racing rather than riding. I wonder how i would compare to myself six years ago as a racer...