The toughest race I have ever done; that is my initial summary of the 2019 HSBC UK National Cross-Country Championships. The race took place at my local hunting ground, Cannock Chase, but don’t go thinking this gave me an advantage because I would be racing in Elite. This would be my first Elite race at National Championships level so let’s see how it went!
Although I ride at Cannock pretty much every week and have raced there many times I still headed there on Saturday for practice. The race courses at Cannock are made up by connecting a vast range of off piste trails together so the course is very rarely the same. Though this course was very similar to the one used for the National round there, there were a few surprise and fresh sections. I also DNF’d at the National so I had some things to iron out.
The weather on Saturday was wet; heavy rain spells fell during practice, making the course very slippy and tricky to ride. The course layout was a good one, including a well thought out mixture of short climbs, long drags and technical features so there was something for everyone. The key features of the course had to the be the Watt Bomb and the Rock Garden. The Watt Bomb was a 2m power climb right near the start finish which was sure to go off on lap one and a key passing place, and the Rock Garden is just what is says on the tin, a 15m long rock garden that often puts fear into riders' minds - you have to ride it with confidence, if you tighten up on the bike it’s much worse! In addition to these two features there was still plenty to keep you on your toes - roots, stumps and holes littered the course meaning you couldn’t switch off at any point.
I utilised the whole practice session to get 3 steady laps in, partly to learn the course and partly to keep the body firing. I knew the course conditions were going to change overnight and into Sunday as the weather turned from rain to sunny intervals but getting knowledge and layout dialled was key.
Being at Cannock, I was only short journey away from home so that’s where I headed post practice. As I’ve mentioned before I find it a real advantage to have home comforts ,so I always take the opportunity where possible.
Sunday rolled round and as predicted the sun was out. I headed to the venue for the early morning practice as I was keen to get a lap in and see how the course conditions had changed. It had dried out as expected, most notably the rock garden was no longer covered in a thin layer of what felt like Fairly liquid. One quick lap later and it was time relax.
Over the course of the break prior to racing, a few of my friends and club mates from Dynamic Rides CC (Dynamicrides.co.uk) arrived to check out the action and support me which was great! I had a little catch up with them and then it was time to warm and get ready to suffer.
I was gridded about mid pack as it was my first Elite race, however my position wasn’t that important this time though as this was purely a learning experience: go out there, give it all I can and see how we compare to the UK’s best.
From the whistle, I missed my initial engagement with the pedal, so went back a few spots. Once clipped in I managed to ride good lines, get the power to the ground and sit within the top 15 as we entered the first single track wood. I managed to maintain this position through the first half of the lap, but my level of fitness compared to the Elites got exposed across the second half of the lap. I had gone deep to open the lap and couldn’t keep that pace up so had to back it off, this lost me 4-5 places so as I finished lap one I was in about 21st position but there was still a long way to go. Over the next 4 laps, I settled into a rhythm and pace I felt I could hold until the end. As I started lap 5 at around the 1hr 10 mark, things were really starting the get tough - at this duration I am usually on the last lap, emptying the tank to the finish but in the Elite class there were still 2 laps to go. I had paced more effectively than some though and started to claw back a few positions finishing lap 5 in 18th position. The last lap was next level. Venturing into territory I’m not used to at around the 1hr 40+ mark I was low on energy and my legs were sapped of power. To add to the pain, I was riding alone without another rider in sight and course was clear of spectators as they had gathered in the arena to watch the race finish. This was a real test of mental strength. I dug deep and pushed onto the line with another consistent lap time maintaining my position.
So there we have it, 18th place in my first Elite race/National Championships. As I said earlier, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did have a top 20 finish in mind
as being a success so I am happy with my performance. It was certainly a bit of an eye opener and a big learning experience, witnessing just how quick the best in the UK are. Overall, I am pleased with how I rode, dealing with all the technical features on the course comfortably and pushing myself to the physical limit. There are certainly things to work on but I just need a few more years training/experience, I will keep pushing and we will be up there.
That will have to wait for now though as I am going on holiday to Sardinia for a week, no bikes, just time to relax and recuperate! Although that’s tougher for me than it sounds, as I’m not really one for relaxing or lounging around so I will be very eager to get back on the bike as soon as I am back in the UK!
To close, again I would like to say a big thank you to all of the Dynamic Rides CC members and friends who made the journey up to Cannock to support me. It was a big boost hearing you all cheering me on!