“I’d forgotten that they actually do that, at these ‘proper’ races” I thought to myself as, one by one, the commissaires measured the width of each competitor’s tyre, to ensure no-one was over the 33c allowed. A moment of panic came over me as I wondered if I’d forgotten about any other rules, that would see me ejected from the National Championships before it even started.
“God, I hope there’s nothing about quality of paintwork on the frame in that rulebook” I muttered to myself, glancing down at the Ragley’s shoddy ‘mostly chipped off, partially faded and utterly embarrassing’ finish. There didn’t seem to be and the grey jackets swiftly moved on to the person next to me, briefly enveloping him in a cloud of interest before standing back and announcing, quite loudly, “you’ve got a bar end plug missing. Get one now or you’re not starting.”. I didn’t know who the guy was – quite possibly a local hotshoe in his home league, but here no-one is above anyone else (aside from getting ranked further forward on the start line, of course!). Everyone gets equally studied. No-one gets ‘let off’ – which is fair enough in the case of missing bar end plugs, as the open end of a handlebar becomes an effective cookie cutter in the event of a pile up and no-one wants a big chunk of flesh removed!
Suffice to say the National cyclocross champs was having a hell of an effect on me. I’d gone from wide-eyed wonder as Angela and I wandered around the utterly pro looking car park, through a small village of Winnebagos, grandiose EZ ups and private team tents full of spare bikes and masseurs (our campervan, with my two shoddy bikes and a packet of ibuprofen inside looking rather insignificant in the corner…). Then to sheer terror as i saw how cut up the course had become, going from an off camber but rideable track when the organisers built it, to a soul destroying death-march run by the time I arrived. Eventally settling on giggling lunacy as I saw what had become of the pit area, half an acre of ankle deep (and sinking) slop, barely visible through the thick mist being caused by innumerable petrol powered jetwashes running constantly. Our ‘team bucket and scrubbing brush’ suddenly seeming rather low rent in comparison.
This was not the North West league in much the same way that Dorothy and Toto didn’t find themselves in Kansas.
Despite all of this, once the race actually kicked off, we’d met Craig, Chris and Stef (the latter two offering their help and ‘as good as anyone elses’ jetwash in the pits), everything seemed totally normal. I had no idea where I was going as I’d not pre ridden the course, I got my usual rubbish start – I wasn’t ranked last so had a few people behind me as the whistle went, but by the end of the first running section I’d somehow managed to go backwards enough to hold DFL place. Normality ensued.
Unfazed by being off the back of the rapidly splitting pack, I set about chasing anyone in front of me down. The speed of the race was definitely a notch or two up on anything I’ve been a part of in the NW races, unsurprisingly, but I managed to pick off a few riders each lap. Making ground up quite quickly on the rideable sections and doing all I could, in my ‘completely untrained’ state on the running bits to keep ahead of anyone I’d passed.
After a couple of laps I’d settled into the chase-catch-drop rhythm enough to start wondering how long it would be before I was caught by the leaders. Had the race been a ‘mostly rideable with a few dismount sections’ I might have set my sights a bit higher, aimed to be within a certain amount of time of the top guys or something, but given just how much of the race was a rather feeble looking trot for me, I knew I was just delaying the inevitable for as long as possible. I formed a goal of finishing the race without being pulled off the course. I needed to not get lapped until whoever was in the lead was on their final lap. They could catch me 2ft after it, but that would be enough for me to cross the line, rather than just having my race ended at a marshal point somewhere on the course. Angela, Chris and Stef were hard at work in the pits, doing all they could to keep me going, all I had to do was keep limiting my loses on the running bits and fight as much as I could when riding.
As small a goal as it was, in the grand scheme of things, I was delighted that it worked. Liam Kileen didn’t catch me until his final lap (and, if I’m being honest, didn’t look as silky smooth with his pit crew as I did, when we both entered the pits together. We looked every bit the professional outfit as my muddy bike was snatched from my hands and a clean one mounted effortlessly on my shoulder as I barely broke stride down the pit lane).
Over that final half a lap he did the ‘effortlessly slightly faster than you’ thing round every corner and over every root until he was a speck in the distance. The 2nd and 3rd placed riders did pretty much the same with the final rider to lap me being a somehow-cheerful-sounding-even-mid-race Nick Craig, who simply skipped past me on the final bit of running while I tramped, stumbled and generally slogged my way through the mud.
Rolling over the line in 36th place I felt like I’d learned a hell of a lot. Lesson over. This isn’t the finale, let’s take all this new information to the last NW league round of the season at Beacon Country Park.
The -excellent- course at Beacon had several sections that, a pre-ride of the course showed me (see, learning!), were faster off the bike than on, even if they were strictly rideable. My new found love of running (ahem) could be put to the test!
Pic by Ellen Isherwood
A season of decent enough results mean I was on the front row at the start for the first time this year and, for once, I made the most of it. OK the uphill drag in thick mud slowed everyone down a bit, but I still pushed myself to hang on to the top few riders and benefited from the relatively clear lines in front of me as, behind, the inevitable bottlenecks took their toll.
Within a lap, myself and Jack Humphries had opened a small gap at the head of the race. For a couple of laps we rode together before a few little mistakes on my part meant he’d got a few corners lead on me, at which point I settled into a ‘keep 2nd place’ safe riding style. I ran, keeping as much speed up on the on-foot sections as possible (it’s not exactly my strong point as yet, but it’s going to be much less of a limiting factor in future!). No crashes and more great work from everyone in the pits meant I hit the podium for the first time. Jack had opened up a good minute or so’s gap on me by the finish, and behind me Joe had suffered a few mechanicals on his way to 3rd, but I was chuffed. I’d started the season with a PB 5th place and ended it was a new PB 2nd.
I reckon next season could be really good