Many, many moons ago. Long before the idea of “training” came into any sort of bike riding equation, a few of us used to race at a little, local race series organised by Leisure Lakes, near Southport.
Not having cars at the time, we’d ride the 10 or so miles down there whatever the weather (I remember riding there one wintery Sunday, fighting through snowdrifts covering the deserted roads, battling against icey winds only to find that the race had been cancelled – that was somewhat unpleasant…), race out hearts out for an hour or so then ride back again.
I had my first taste of success in the fun/novice category, winning the series title with some decent and consistant results. I think I only won two of the races outright, the rest of the 6 race series I managed to finish high enough to amass the points needed for the ‘overall’ and to this day that is still one of the best series of races I’ve ever been a part of.
It was always close, flying through the trees at what felt like warp speed (until the top category guys came roaring through), lungs hanging out and legs burning until the finish line. There were no ‘tactics’ to speak of, no fast lap – steady period – fast finish or anything like that, just ‘go’. No planning for what you hoped to do later in the race in the way you would during 24hr races, you got your head down at the start and tried not to look up until someone told you it was over.
If I could only keep one race ‘trophy’ it’d be that one. Not the Mountain Mayhem metal thing, or any of the Strathpuffer mugs, just that plate for winning the fun/novice series back in 2002.
Sunday, against all odds, felt like a return to that heady time. The ride over to the race might have been more than twice as far and the course, rather than being a few laps of some woods behind a shop on a caravan site, was a tough mixture of purpose built, swooping singletrack, steep climbs and rocky descents but the basic principle ended up the same.
As soon as the race started any tactics went out of the window; a slipped pedal meant that, for a second, I felt like I was going backwards and had to chase my way back up through the pack. Shortly after which my saddlebag ejected itself from the seatpost and bounced cheerily across the race course. normally I’d leave it, get on with racing and hunt for it once the event had finished, but I needed it for the (long) ride home. I couldn’t risk loosing it so had to stop mid-first-sprinting-lap, wait for the entire field to ride over it – both the category I was in and the ones ‘below’ it – grab it, wipe it off, refit it to the bike and get back on.
Obviously, in a 1.5hr race, faffing about at the side of the course like that for a few minutes meant I was someway off the back of the field and had little chance of getting back up to the leaders, but it also made the plan for the rest of the race very easy: catch the person in front, overtake them then drop them. Repeat. Go flat out until someone tells you it’s over.
So that’s what I did.
I chased everyone in front of me and worked my way back up through the field, getting cheered on by loads of enthusiastic marshals, until, just over an hour into the race people started tellling me that I was back up to 4th in my category and was closing in on 3rd.
I knew a fair few people had dropped out with punctures and other course related mechanicals, but that was surprising news. Spurred on with how well I was doing I kept on trying to eject my lungs and set fire to my legs until I caught the guy in 3rd and set about trying to open a gap.
Sadly, in a ‘daft moment’ while lapping one of the slower racers I rode straight into a Big Pointy Rock and punctured. The tyre took a while to deflate, so I rode as far as I could and, thinking I was on my last lap, jumped off and started running (which wasn’t easy over the rocks, in carbon soled shoes). 4th place re-passed, offering his condolences (which was nice of him) and I’m pretty sure 5th went past too before I reached the start/finish line, only to discover that I had another lap left to do.
I think my exact words were “bugger that for a laugh” when told I could either drop out just be classed as finishing a lap down, or carry on and run an entire lap. The puncture meant I couldn’t get a near-fairytale ending to the race, but I’d loved every minute of what I’d been able to ride and finishing on the same number of laps as the winner didn’t seem to matter, so I plonked myself down at the side of the course, chatted to a few other people who’s race had finished prematurely and set about the laborious task of changing the tube (thankful that’d I’d picked the seatpack up earlier, as it had all my tools in it).
Tyre sorted, I hung around for the presentations, was given a shoe bag as an award for running a lap to try and finish (not entirely sure that this wasn’t a bit of a piss take at my lame running, but still happy someone noticed I didn’t just have a tantrum at the side of the course!) and then rode home, buzzing after a great bit of racing, just like I used to.