I love hills, me. Love a good long, steep incline. Love riding up them at full tilt, with any notion of ‘pacing’ myself being thrown out of the window as I begin to burn up a fireball of ascending glory (well, kind of…), tyres scrabbling for grip as I wrestle on the bars to fight against a front wheel that wants to loop out under the immense power and steepness (well, kind of…again), the sound of crumpling metal echoing behind me as other riders and their bikes implode under the strain of trying to keep up (well, kind of…).
When I head to a race, my mind is filled with hope of towering peaks seemingly lassoed with course tape, promising hours of upwards pointed battles at the very edge of what my legs and lugs can cope with, safe in the knowledge that, once up there, the course will have to point back down again, hopefully via a stream of tricky-enough-to-catch-you-out, swoopy, grin inducing singletrack and rewards-the-last-of-the-late-brakers point and shoot fast stuff.

It’s not that I don’t like flatland riding, the ‘explosion out of every tight corner’ and ‘preservation of momentum above all’ smooth-riding fest that it is, it’s just that I’d like it to appear shortly after the aforementioned monster climb and just before the also-just-mentioned superb descent. With maybe a bit more of it at the bottom too. It’s not my strong point. I can set a half decent time up a hill and, although not endowed with any spectacular talent, can hold my own back down the hills too (in a XC setting, I’d be up the proverbial creek without a paddle if I found myself in the timing hut of a DH race). Stick me on the flat with a race number on, though, and I’ll do a good impression of someone going backwards for you.
With this in mind, you can probably see how the words, uttered by me on the finish line on the UK & European 12hr championships last year, appeared to come back and haunt me. A full on, furniture flying around the room style, poltergeist of a haunting.

“Yeah I’ll defend the title next year.” I said, possibly buoyed by the liberal application of post-race- beer.

“Definitely.”

I’d just won. On a course in the Scottish borders with some cracking climbs. Climbs big enough to spot a competitor ahead of you in the distance and batter the gradient into submission until you’d caught them up, then take a few chances on the following swoopy descent to get away and begin the hunt for the next rider. Wafting a half empty beer bottle round like a sword while clutching the 1st place trophy like some sort of shield I made bold promises about how I’d do all I could to slay the opposition, with no real thought about what that might entail.
And why not, you might ask, if you’ve just won the title, you might as well indulge in a bit of bravado, it’s your right, really. It’s only fitting. So I did. In my mind the same weekend in May the next year was booked up with some sort of glorious title defense.

Mid way through the year rumours began to fly about a change of venue for this year’s race, causing a twinge of sadness as I’d always liked travelling up to Newcastleton. I’d liked how the whole village seemed to be involved in the race and, most of all, I’d liked the mixture of quality built, weatherproof 7 Stanes trail and cheeky woodland singletrack that made up the course. It suited me, with several climbs and corresponding descents breaking up the 45minute lap into a series of uphill attacks and downhill rewards. It rode well when you were on your own and it worked really well as a race course, offering glimpses of competitors ahead (or behind…) you elsewhere on the course as you worked your way round, helping you gauge you efforts and work out how you were doing on any one section. I’d miss it, but the idea of a new venue somewhere certainly didn’t fill me with dread, just anticipation.

When the new venue, Wasing Park was announced, I excitedly began rummaging around the internet for some information on what it would be like. A few videos from XC races held there started a sinking feeling, an ironic sinking feeling really, as at no point did anyone appear to be riding up anything…or down anything either. As my consternation grew, so did the discussion on various forums, “It’s as flat as a pancake”, “it’s just a field with some woods”, “it won’t be able to cope with the rain”, this last one felt like a sucker punch. After 2012’s races often being ruined by courses that simply couldn’t hold together under the Great British Weather, the move from hardpacked, weatherproof trailcentre to a possible boggy field changed my outlook on the whole race. I was still, without doubt, riding it, but in the space of a week or two I’d gone from almost giddy with excitement at the opportunity to feeling rather stoic.

I’d also hit a bit of a quandary.

My training (the word ‘training’ here being used in the loosest sense of the word, it’s more a disparate collection of stupidly long rides done because I enjoy them, that have the added bonus of getting me fit for long races) was based on getting good at riding up hills. Many of the events I had planned and had entered for the rest of the year were likely to feature many hills and, up until the new venue was announced, I’d assumed this race would too. By the time I’d pored over OS maps of the Wasing estate, searching fruitlessly for a contour line or two to cheer me up, I was well on my way to being a half decent climber at the expense of having any power on the flat. A Few panicked 6hr rides along the flatter roads out towards the coast revealed that I could still motor along reasonably well, but it was unlikely I’d be setting the world alight churning out massive power. I knew that if I knuckled down I could build up a bit more strength, but that it would come at the expense of the ability to take on repeated climbs. Did I want to try to specialise for this one race – a risky strategy at best, given the short amount of time left?

Fast forward a couple of weeks and there I was, wrestling with a tent next to the race track, in the middle of a flat field, with some woods off behind me. No hills in sight and other riders passing on their practice laps talking of a 30 minute course made up of a tight and twisty route with no climbs, no descents and no place to rest or recover. Just a constant barrage of explosions out of corners on a track so new no lines had bedded between the tape. There I was, wrestling a tent, comfortable in the knowledge that I’d done nothing to improve my ‘racing on the flat’ ability, but also comfortable with the knowledge that I would be going as fast as I could. Defending the title was happening, irrespective of ‘comfort zones’ ‘course suitability’ or anything like that. I had the sneaking suspicion it could be a fairly futile endeavour, but it was still happening and with it the pre-race bravado, faux-confidence smiles and relaxed appearing discussions came flowing back.

“Whatever happens, happens.” “ I’ll go fast and see where that gets me.”

The night before the race became several hours of listening to rain battering the tent, each droplet seemingly shouting “You’re running semi-slick tyres on the back of both bikes? Oohh, that’s a bit risky isn’t it? Ooohh, don’t know about that…” as it belted against the fabric, urged on by the accompanying strong wind. A mocking cacophony that didn’t abate until the next morning, when I nervously poked my head out of the tent, expecting to see ankle deep slop stretching across the horizon. To my near delight, the ground had held up quite well. Although now damp, most of the rain had been absorbed and the surface had remained nicely hard packed. I held high hopes for how the more sheltered parts of the course in the woods would still be riding. Perhaps my tyre choice would pay off with the right mix of fast rolling and low pressure to swallow the constant lurching kicked up by the ubiquitous tree roots on the firm surface. A spot of sunshine as the morning’s pre-race rituals were observed seemed to lift my mood even further. I was excited to be there, looking forward to racing and hoping to do well. My pre-race lap of the course had been fun, although there was nothing particularly technical to contend with the route looked like it could make a great venue to race. The sharp turns, lurking roots and mixture of long straights interspersed with super twisty sections to try and escape/catch anyone around you promised a tough event for anyone. I signed on, took my place up at the front of the starting grid with the rest of the JMC guys and found myself feeling pretty relaxed.

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That feeling lasted for about 3 seconds of the race.

The ‘neutralised’ start, as is often the case, worked in neutralising the first half a mile or so by being so fast no-one could do any sort of overtaking. Hundreds of riders all gasped along behind the lead rider at a frenetic pace until he pulled over to the side and shouted “Go!”, at which point the average speed immediately plummeted! I stayed up at the front, planning on keeping an eye on the ‘fast lads’ who tend to start these races at warp speed, seemingly trying to win the even in the first couple of hours, and got the shock of my life when I realised that within half a lap, 3 of us had opened up a noticeable gap to the rest of the field. I’d not planned on being one of those ‘fast lads’, I didn’t think I’d have the ability, but it felt good so for the first few laps myself, James Braid and Tim Dunford, sped on.

After gapping Tim for a couple of laps, he came back up to us and, in some of the twistier sections, started to gain an advantage, seemingly pushing himself very hard. Only 3 or so hours into the race, I decided to not fight to stay on his wheel. James had the same idea and we remained together for a few more laps as Time eked out a few minutes advantage each time round the course.
I’d felt good so far, the lack of climbs was noticeable – I felt like I had a secret weapon (arrogant as that sounds!) I couldn’t use – but with a liberal application of ignoring any protests from my legs, I kept my lap times fairly consistent. Such short laps changed my eating and drinking strategy; never carrying any more than half a bottle of drink with me and not bothering carrying any gels – just grabbing one every couple of laps, each time I did a ‘flying bottle change’ from Angela in the pits -was working well. Well…sort of, admittedly the first couple of fly-by bottle changes basically resulted in me ‘right hooking’ the bottle out of Angela’s hand into the stratosphere hard enough to make Mike Tyson wince, but we got it dialled quickly enough and kept the stopping down to a bare minimum.

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A few showers rolled over during the afternoon, causing the course to get a bit slippery, but despite the semi slick tyres I remained mostly upright and pointing in the right direction, swopping bikes for a clean and re-lube just the once. Tim’s lead continued to open further and, as we hit the halfway point I began to feel that this could well be the way the race would end. I’d opened a slight gap on James, but none of us were more than 10 minutes or so apart, even as evening set in and I began to think about getting the lights on the bikes.

I started a lap at around 7.30pm (that’s 7.5hrs into the race, which started at midday, in case you were wondering), shouting into the pits to get my 2nd bike set up with an Exposure Six Pack and a bit more air in the tyres. Amazingly, Angela and Rachael were way ahead of me, the bike sat waiting patiently, clean, relubed, ready to go a lap in advance despite the two of them having to contend with all 4 JMC riders – who were all smashing it at the front end of the race – swarming at them every couple of minutes as the short lap times created a constant barrage of demands.
Darkness descended (the only thing that did, given the flat nature of the course!) around me, but not in front of me as I revelled in the billion lumens on offer from the lights. With only 4 hours of the race held in darkness and enough lights to run on both bikes, I could easily afford to keep them on full power for the whole night section, which was massively liberating. Combined with the Joystick on my helmet I didn’t have to slow at all, even for the most techy-nadgery corners. I still felt strong and allowed myself to think about finishing in 2nd. That would be nice. Not fairytale nice, but something to be proud of.

Almost as soon as I did, the heavens opened. Not just rain, but a full on, torrential deluge. The course began to deteriorate, fast. Within a lap I found myself fighting hard to keep the rear end of the bike pointing in the right direction and, when I’d succeed in doing so, found myself wheelspinning madly in a fresh layer of gripless mud. A line that had developed round most of the course was now out-of-bounds to me as I struggled to find grip away from the tyre tracks of everyone else. Still I fought on, not knowing if James had been able to get his bike set up for the conditions better than I had, not knowing if Tim would be having any problems ahead of me, not even having much of a chance to think about it as the now super-slick tree roots took delight in occasionally firing me off into the course-side undergrowth.

Hoping it was just a passing shower, I forwent any warmer clothes as I rode through the pits, just grabbing a lightweight gilet and hoping the feeling would come back into my freshly numb hands as the temperature dropped, quickly and sharply to just a few degrees above freezing. If the rain stopped, I thought, some grip would come back into the course and I’d generate enough warmth by speeding back up (and crashing less…). I didn’t want to throw away the few minutes lead I’d gained on James, needlessly getting changed. It was a risk, but in the few seconds I had to consider it while passing the tent, I chose to take it.

Half a lap later I was in all sorts of trouble. The rain had continued, I had become reduced to pushing the bike through some sections as the rear tyre offered me nothing, my overall speed reduced to the point where I wasn’t pushing out any body heat and, in just shorts, a summer weight jersey and the thin gilet I really began to suffer. I grovelled round the lap, expecting to see lights coming up from behind me as James passed, but got back to the pits still in 2nd, shivering uncontrollably.

I couldn’t remember ever having been that cold while racing, ever, even during the Strathpuffer. I could barely hold a mug in my hand without throwing the contents all over myself as I spasmed and twitched. I wasn’t interested in racing any more. Having to push the bike through the mud like I had at races last summer was utterly miserable, having to listen for the sound of the brake pads hitting the rotors to know if I was pulling the levers because my hands were so numb was almost scary and the idea that I could do myself some real damage had firmly wedged itself in my head. I wanted out. Angela rummaged around in the tent for dry race kit for me to change into, trying to keep me positive as I hunched over in the entrance, knees knocking together in a way I didn’t think existed outside of cartoons of skeletons locked out of the house overnight. Teeth chattering so much I could barely speak as she kept looking for a solution that would keep me in the race.
By chance, as she pawed through kit bags, Angela pulled out and tossed to one side a pair of thermal ¾ length tights, that I’d worn while riding a practice laps the day before and stuffed in a ‘dirty clothes’ bag to be washed when I got home. In my now semi delirious state, they seemed to glow, lighting up the dark tent, with a chorus of angels heralding their appearance. Warmth! Dry warmth! I stopped wailing about how miserable and cold I was and set about the laborious task of peeling off wet racing kit from still lurching arms and legs and fighting my way in to the fuzzy warmth the old tights offered.

Knowing that I would now have dropped to 3rd, but informed that the three of us in the lad had opened up such a gap on the rest of the race that my long pit stop hadn’t lost me a podium place I clambered back on the bike and headed off for another crash-fest of a lap.

It turned out to be my last lap as I missed the cut off to do another by 5 minutes. It didn’t have any effect on my finishing position so, as I crossed the line and chatted to the organisers, I didn’t care one bit. At all. 3rd place felt like I’d done all I could to defend the title, like I’d treated it with enough respect and put some real effort into it. Like I deserved to stand around wafting a half empty beer bottle round again, full of bravado. So I did.

Congratulations to Tim on storming away to take the win convincingly and also to James for taking 2nd in what felt like a suitably epic battle. It was great fun racing and has set the bar for the rest of the year nice and high!

I have to say thanks, in a big way, to loads of people who helped me out in having kit to race on; the guys at 2Pure lent me some pimpy Rolf wheels and all the Clif energy products I could possibly need – all of which worked flawlessly and kept me competitive, in the pits Angela and Rachael showed the patient of saints to not punch me while I was being demanding, while enduring the onslaught of looking after 4 riders, the organisers made what looked like it wold be a boring wiggle around some woods into a great race course (no hills though) and a great event…I could go on for a long time mentioning people who’ve helped me, which I probably will very soon separately, but for now lets just say that it was really, really good fun.

I should also mention that it was another massively successful outing for the JMC boys too. Podiums all over the place (12hr European Fatbike Champion anyone?!), we don’t seem to ‘do’ finishing out of the top ten, do we? :-)