Alongside me, Phil gently guides the outer edge of his tyres against the natural berm formed by the side of the well worn rut, flowing smoothly around the slowly tightening turn. I flail ineffectually at the constantly thrashing bars as I try to surf griplessly across the unused-for-a-reason outer line to his left, keeping alongside him through the liberal application of power. Cranking hard, fully crossed up while heading in a straight line with a mixture of give-it-all-you’ve-got grimace and gleeful hysteria plastered across my face.
I’m not overly bothered if I stay upright or go flying off into the trees, I’m racing, making passing opportunities where they shouldn’t exist, living life on the edge just a little bit.
Somehow I stay wheels down and exit the singletrack section with the slightest of leads. This, I decide, should be celebrated with some more power. More stomping on the pedals. Get the tyres to fight for grip even when sat down. The gap grows again. There’s a few seconds between us now.
Then Hit the North throws it’s party piece into the mix. A near vertical wall of root infested mud. Dismounting as fast as I can I attempt to keep my momentum going and take 3 huge leaps upwards.
Then I grind to a halt.
Then I begin to slide gently backwards. Still facing up the hill. Frozen rigid in confusion at the direction I appear to be mmoving in. Still with eyes locked on the plateau at the top where I’d remount as it begins to shrink.
I’m still slowly drifting backwards, like a wheezing avalanche, as Phil reaches the bottom of the unrideable climb and bounds upwards, shooting me a rather confused look as he skips past.
I lumber my way up to the top for a second time. I’ll have to chase him down and do it all over again now.
This is what Hit the North does so well. Close racing, with enough variety in the course to give everyone, on any sort of bike, an advantage at some point. If the person gets a gap in front of you at one point, it won’t be long before you find a trail feature or section that gives you a chance to close the gap again. Brilliant. Unless you’re the one in front and dropping the person behind is twice as difficult as you’d hope.
You’re going to have to work for every place you take and then fight just as hard to keep it.
Lucky then that you’ll be doing it with a massive grin – internally at least – as you fly round purpose
built trails, sneaky off piste singletrack, up grovelling climbs and through throngs of constantly cheering spectators.
As the race progresses I work my way through the field, every rider in front of me becoming the focus of my entire world for a while as I settle into a rhythm of flat out XC race suffering combined with liberal doses of playing-out-on-bike-in-the-spring-sunshine happiness. Many, many mistakes are made, in fact I’m finding it hard to believe that I’ve not buried myself in a hedge somewhere off to the side of the course on a few occasions, but I remain the right way up long enough to get past Ant White for a short while before randomly unclipping my right foot while hauling up a climb, grinding to a halt and watching what feels like the whole world get back past me.
Bugger it. I’ll have to chase him down and do it all over again now.
He’s almost metronomic in his riding style, you could set your watch by him. If your watch was bloody fast. But that’s fine, I’m happy to get a bit of lung-burning going on up the climbs to close the gap and I don’t see any point in changing the “let’s just be a bit silly round the corners and see what comes of it” mentality on the slippery singletrack.
We cross the start/finish line to begin the last lap just a couple of seconds apart and have a bit of an epic battle while crossing the “Field of Despair. Both off the bikes and trudging through the ankle deep, boggy, tussocky grass, taking completely different lines, several feet apart and racing flat out. At 3.1mph. It’s almost funny. It would be, if it wasn’t so damn uncomfortable.
Again the course offers each of us opportunities to open slight gaps on each other as we fight our way round it, before favour swings towards the other rider, bringing them back into the fray.
Nearly 2 hours of racing in the mud has left my bike at the point where I can’t use anything but the big chainring without getting awful chainsuck, but rather than see this as a problem I use it as a mindset as we reach the bottom of a small but quite steep little climb. Big ring hammer! Hulk smash! Charge! One last time!
To my delight it seems to work and, unlike earlier while racing Phil, I leg it up the final unrideable climb and sprint across the finish line in front.
I have, unsurprisingly after racing for two hours around a 4 mile course with 290 other people, no idea how I’ve done.
It doesn’t matter, really. Everyone gets to race the person in front of them and, on this occasion I ended up as the one in front. It may well have been for 133rd place or something (it wasn’t, BTW, it was for 4th), officially, but it’s for the glory. That’s what matters.
Well, that and the fact that it’s immense fun.