“If you want excitement, this is probably a bad way to get it” I find myself thinking, as I desperately try to stop the front end of the bike swerving away from under me across the compact sand. The wheel, coated in a rapidly deflating tyre, twitches and bucks as I try to slide backwards on the saddle while maintaining the 25mph the 20 strong group immediately behind me is thundering along at. Perched on the front of the pack I start to try and edge my way out to the side of the group to not cause a huge high speed pile up.
“Don’t dig in. Please don’t dig in” I scream out inside my head, as I start to feel the rim grounding out on the sand. I’m not quite out of the back of the select group that has broken away from the front of the race as we start to turn and head towards the forest and steering, which is pretty interesting on the sand at the best of times is downright confusing at this point.
Somehow I stay upright. Somehow I make it out of the back of the group without wiping out or taking half the field with me and roll, heart racing, to the side of the course.
From here on in my race was pretty much over. Plan A was thrashing it’s way round the course and off into the distance as I glance up while frantically rummaging round in my jersey pocket for my pump and spare tube. I had no idea what Plan B was. I’d not set off with one. I’d decided that, despite the appearance of a lot of Very Fast People, I was going to get in the top 10 again and that seemed like enough to be getting on with. I’d have to make one up as – after what seemed like a weirdly long time – the 2nd group off the beach flew past. Hours spent unwillingly practicing in the dark while out riding at night come good as I stuff a new tube into the tyre and get it inflated enough to get going again in barely an eternity. I’ve only lost a few minutes, but in that time pretty much the whole field has raced past. Plan B will have to involve starting at the back with an overly soft tyre.
I leap back on and sprint along the fireroad towards the first section of singletrack like a man possessed, surprising myself with just how much effort I seem to be putting in. Plan B forms itself as I catch the first of the backmarkers on beginning of the narrow trails that make up much of the “not beach” sections of the course: Let’s pretend I’ve just given everyone a head start. Let’s see how far back up the results I can get from Stone Dead Last in the 2.5 laps that remain.
Let’s fucking have it.
Queues have formed as people mess up through the sweeping trails. I do all I can to limit my losses, seeking out any chance to sneak through the lines of waiting riders and, whenever riding becomes possible again, floor it round as many riders as I can.
Part of the first lap is spent learning how the softer-than-I’d-like front tyre handles. It squirms about a bit under me, but the bike seems pretty much as it did when the race started: faster than I could ever really need. Every stomp on the pedals launches me past rider after rider. Every twitch on the bars fires me in whichever direction I need to go so quickly I can barely keep up. It’s brilliant. Racing it is brilliant. No-one is even bothering to try and keep up, they just watch as I hurtle off up the course in a completely different race to theirs. I am re-enthused by each overtake. Plan B is awesome. Hey you, in front, BOOM, see you later. Repeat.
I’ve worked my way up to and through a group of about seven riders as we hit the beach for the second time. Memories of last year, working together with other riders pop into my head, through and off to keep the pace high. Not this year. Sorry guys, I’ve business further up the race. I hunker down on the drops, drop the chain a couple of gears, pick a bike shaped dot way off in the distance and utterly fucking hammer it towards it. No holding back for the next lap, just get the heart rate up into the 190s and hold it there. Each time the bike shaped dot it reached, pick another and chase it down.
I wish the beach would never end. I could do this all day. Then I get back into the singletrack, the flowing, rolling, superb singletrack. I wish it would never end. I’m barely touching the ground. Skimming across whatever surface the course happens to be at any point with an almost zen like control.
As I continue to climb back up though the race I get to watch everyone’s battles from a strangely remote position. Riders hound each other through the twisting, treelined track. I see it as I catch them, announce my passing and occasionally get a final glance at it as it disappears behind me. I don’t know if they’re executing their Plan A, or doing all they can to fight out a Plan B like me, but it makes for great viewing. Microcosms briefly captured before I move on.
I hit the beach for the final time with one aim. I’m further up the field now. Shaven legs (on the blokes, ahem) are becoming more prevalent. The personal battles between the riders I’m catching and passing are getting more serious. A few are glancing at me and taking me on as I sweep round them. Not giving in as easily. And, I’ll be honest, I’m starting to feel the last hour of flat out riding. I want to try my legs out one last time against a group.
Brilliant pic from Mark Whale’s Flickr account
Down onto the drops again, fight over the loose sand and onto the faster hardpacked stuff out by the tideline, I spy 5 riders a few hundred feet in front, riding closely together. Head down. I Fight my way up to them. It takes another eternity to get up to the back of them. They’re working well together. Through and off and suddenly aware of my arrival. I drop another gear, pull out to the side of the group and throw down as much power as I can muster to accelerate round them and off in front. I hear the clicks of chains hurriedly skipping over rear cassettes as they respond. Deep breath. Not that I wasn’t silently screaming with every inhalation already, but this will require all I can do. I pick up my leg speed as much as I can. And hold it there. Until even my face is sore from grimacing.
A glance under my arm shows a widening gap. Job done.
I pick up more places through the forest and cross the finish line several hundred places higher than I was after the “head start”. Plan A is dead, Plan B got me to the finish. Long live Plan B.
Thanks to modern technology, you can now live the joy of getting a puncture in the middle of a fast moving group with me here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yGTVUAI5s4&feature=youtu.be (it’s about 9min 20secs in)
Here’s the Strava thingy-ma-jig for all you lovers of analysis
And the Strava playback of the race (best viewed while listening to the ‘chase’ music from Benny Hill)
And, of course, here’s the results
Thanks to everyone involved in making the race happen. It’s a brilliant event. Utterly. Keep doing it.