Last weekend myself and hundreds of the UK’s best racers descended upon Hadleigh Farm Park for the second round of the HSBC UK National Cross Country Series, the UK’s premier XC series. The Hadleigh Park venue is well known within the cycling community as it played host to the London 2012 Olympic Mountain Bike Race. The venue is totally man made, constructed specifically for the Olympics and as such is of the highest level, demanding the best physical and technical assets.
I arrived at the venue early Saturday morning for practice. The weather conditions weren’t great with dark clouds in the sky presenting the threat of heavy rain, combined with high winds coming off the River Thames. Regardless of this, with only a short 1.5 hour time slot for practice between the supporting events I headed out on course and braved the weather.
The course followed the 2012 Olympic route as closely as possible, featuring nearly all of the same layouts. This included numerous technical descents including Triple Trouble and Leap of Faith; alongside a varied range of climbs from short steep ascents to uphill rock gardens.
I had ridden at this venue the previous year when it hosted the National Championships, however, I was in the Sport category and therefore wasn’t allowed to ride most of the technical elements meaning there were a few things to learn and get dialled for Sunday.
Despite a few downpours early morning the course was still very dry and loose, this combined with the high risk of punctures due to the course technicality made tyre choice and pressure selection difficult. I decided to start using the Schwalbe Racing Ralph front/rear at the upper end of my pressure preference to reduce the likelihood of punctures.
As I worked my way around the course on my first lap, I sectioned the technical features and got my lines dialled which I was happy with. There was however one feature on the course which I was struggling with, the uphill rock garden. I sectioned this numerous times, having a 50/50 success rate. I wasn’t particularly happy with this as I like to have everything 100% figured out, but I could see other riders were also struggling and I needed to move onto the other areas. I’d decided on my line and approach so was going to stick with that. After 3 laps of practice I was pretty happy with my lines and having made adjustments to suspension, tyre pressures and my bike setup, I decided to call it a day.
It was another early start on Sunday morning with the usual short practice session prior to the days racing. The weather wasn’t any better, the threat of rain continued to loom with strong winds which made it very cold if you were just standing around. During my one practice lap I managed to hit all of the technical sections clean, even the up-hill rock garden I was struggling with the day before, so I was confident ahead of the race.
With practice done, the waiting game began with 4 hours to race time. I am still new to this type of schedule and It’s still something I need to get used to and dial in. Keeping myself entertained and focused for that period of time is hard as there tends to be a lot of sitting around, particularly this time as it was too windy and cold to watch the warm up races.
Race time soon came around though and after a quick warm up it was time for gridding. I was gridded much higher up this time around as it was based on series points and I was hoping a second-row spot would make a world of difference. Unfortunately, my race start wasn’t the best, I struggled to clip in and lost a few places but pushed hard to make them back, ending up around 10th come the end of the start loop. The start of the lap was pretty “follow the leader” with not much passing going on so I was sticking with the bunch nicely, then disaster, my chain dropped on the easiest of rock drops!! I had to coast for a few metres and find a sensible place to stop and sort it out. It felt like it took a lifetime to put the chain back on as the bunched-up pack flew past, I was losing places by the second. I managed to get the chain back on and back into race just inside of the top 20 so the hunt was on.
Over the next lap I made up a number of places, digging deep on the steep climbs. My progress was often impeded being caught up behind riders and crashes on the technical sections causing me to have to get off and walk numerous times. This disrupted the flow but I tried not to let if affect my mind and continued to ride my own race. Over the next 3 laps I managed to catch the back of the top 10 but was starting to lose my explosive power and pace to make up many more places. I continued to push on at a pace I knew I could maintain for the final 2 laps making to catch up another couple of riders who had faded, crossing the line in 9th place.
This wasn’t the result I was aiming for heading into the weekend, but these things happen, it’s called racing. If I can place in the top 10 on an off/trouble filled weekend then I’ll take that. Looking at the positives though, I rode well technically, creating gaps on the technical rock gardens and my racing form is looking good for the rest of the season.
With the above in mind it’s a few weeks until the third round of the series at Cannock Chase, my local training ground, which I am really looking forward too. Between now and then the training continues with a couple of things I need to focus on and improve before I line up again.
A big thank you goes to my family, friends and sponsors for all of their support over the weekend and the season so far!
The next event in the diary is the first round of the Midlands XC Series. A great series with some awesome venues so I am looking forward to that!
Until then, keep riding!