Things have been pretty flat out over the last few weeks and I’ve been getting my head down with some solid training, racing and other bike riding activities. In my last update I was about to race the British Cross Country Series race at Dalby Forest. Dalby is an awesome race venue, with a fantastic course built specifically for the UCI World Cup. Rob 4real Friel, Allan Clarke and I made the trip to Yorkshire the day before the race to train on the course before racing. We arrived early afternoon to hear tales of hail storm and heavy rain during morning practice. The course was muddy and flooding in sections too.
We kicked off practice and soon enough arrived at the first TTF (technical trail feature – bike lingo…) Worry Gil: a short steep drop off a vertical ledge and into a smooth transition. This feature isn’t all that bad, but there is always a crowd of riders and spectators around, and crashes a-plenty. The three off us popped of the ledge, making the turn at the bottom before walking back up to look at a diagonal line. This looked like a good option, so Rob and I rode it, but it was a little sketchy dropping into the soft mud on the exit: if weight wasn’t distributed evenly a crash was almost certain. Unfortunately for Allan, a freak accident occurred and on compression in the rut his leading foot unclipped and his weight pitched forward. He landed heavily on the rocks in the compression and Rob and I knew that all wasn’t well. Once up and about it was pretty clear that Al had broken a bone in his hand. We managed to pedal back up towards the finish area together and left Allan with first aid while we had to carry on with the rest of practice. I wasn’t a nice feeling leaving a mate after a crash but we had to check the course out for the race the next day. Business as usual….
The rest of the course was muddy and difficult: a succession of short steep climbs and trail centre style downhills. The lap was long by modern standards at around 20+ minutes at race pace and we were to complete a start loop and 5 laps. One comical incident was when I rode the Medusa’s Drop my high saddle ripped through my waterproof trousers and I became attached to my bike! I stopped to try and unravel myself with the bike to some heckling from Scott UK rider Nick Craig who was practicing with his son Thomas. In the end I had to just lose the trousers. Altogether a little embarrassing.
Later that night we picked Allan up from Scarborough hospital with a plaster cast on his arm for a broken thumb. Not good. There’s nothing you can say to reassure a rider when faced with a long lay off the bike. Rob and I could relate to that with long stints in plaster in the last 12 months. The least we could do was take him for a burger chips.
Sunday arrived and it was race time. The course was still wet and sunshine and (heavy) showers were order of the day. I got stuck into the usual pre race routine: kitted up for an hour before start, start warming up about 45 minutes before and build intensity from nothing to near race pace over about 30 mins before making my way to the start, smash a Clif double espresso gel, get a fresh bottle and strip down to my skin suit (long sleeved on a cold day like today).
I was once again gridded a little further back than I’d have liked on the 4th row in a field of around 80 riders. The start involved skating around on top of a muddy field in a manor akin to hover crafts: no way of stopping or steering really. I came out of the field and into the first singletrack in the 20′s before moving up a little on the start loop and settled into a race effort. Due to the conditions my drivetrain wasn’t working perfectly and I was jammed in the 39 chainring for the first lap, this was a bit of a grind on the long climb after Madusa’s drop. I managed to get back into the little chainring on lap two and made the choice to stay there for the rest of the race and work the 10 speed block. Not ideal, but better to keep forward movement that have to climb off on a n uphill or stall on a short, steep ride.
There are plenty of places to pass at Dalby with some climbs and double track sections, and I managed to pick riders off lap by lap, including the Norwegian champion which was nice. Despite the passing opportunities there are a few long sections of singletrack which you can be held up on, or worse still, stopped by riders crashing in front. This happened a few times but fortunately I managed to stay on my bike. I moved forwards into the top 15 and by the end of the race I was in 12th place and only 6 seconds from Robbie De Brock from Belgium in 11th. UCI points in the bag and another solid ride, I was pleased.
The next cross country race for me was the Bike Days Cup in Solothurn, Switzerland. I flew out last Friday with Scottish Cycling Mountain Bike coach Paul Newnham. The race was a UCI Class 2, so carrying points to 10th place, but point scoring wasn’t the aim of this trip. The depth of competition in Switzerland is very good, easily the strongest national series in the world and the public go crazy for it. 15,000 paying spectators for a race in the town centre. It’s like Fort William World Cup and they have 6 or 7 a year as a national series. In a field of around 90 starters there numerous former XC world champions and medalists, including Jose Hermida (Merida Multivan) Nino Schurter (Scott Swisspower) Christoph Sauser (Specialized) as well as Luk Fluckiger (Trek World Racing) among others. From the UK we had Oli Beckingsale (Endura MTB) and Dave Henderson (GT Racing) and yours truly.
The course was pretty nuts, starting in what used to be a moat surrounding the walled city. This got a little damp after the overnight storms as you can imagine. Out of moat was a 25% wooden incline wide enough for two riders and this cam after about 200 metres from the start. The next section was pretty urban going through an underpass and via the streets of the town to a small woodland loop on a steep hillside and returning via the streets again and dropping steeply into the moat again!
I was once again hindered by my world ranking and started 10th from last. The start was frustrating and the riders from about 30th to last had to walk up the wooden ramp before remounting and finding your place in the line of riders. I think in the first 3 minutes I lost around 45 seconds to a minute as the race spread out. It wasn’t wise to try and pass too many riders either as it was such an effort to move into the wind and pass I was sure I’d pay for that effort later in the race. It was just a case of picking off riders as and when they made mistakes. By lap 3 I’d moved from a grid of 79th and into around 60th. Lap 4 and I was passing riders and feeling like I was making progress on the climbs. On the descent I suffered an immediate rear tire puncture and had to stop to try and re-inflate. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and the c02 came straight out of the tire as the latex failed to seal the hole. I walked and ran back to the technical zone mid way down the descent, losing around 6 or 7 minutes over a 15 minute lap. It was game over. To say I was disappointed is pretty obvious but I tried not to dwell on the negatives. The puncture didn’t come from a mistake and I was one of many riders who flatted that day. Another positive for me was that I had made progress in the race and I believe I was on for a top 50 finish or higher: doesn’t sound all that impressive but from a grid of 79 it’s not too shabby. That evening I had dinner with Paul, Dave and Bex before taking a stroll through Solothurn and grabbing a swift beer. It was a beautiful place with a lot going on down by the riverside. I hope to spend a bit more time in europe for racing in the next few years.