WE ARE BACK! Last weekend saw the return of regional XC racing here in the UK, with Round One of the Southern XC Series (SXC) taking place in the village of Checkendon, South Oxfordshire.
It’s crazy to think this was my first XC event in over a year since lockdown began in March 2020. This created some mixed emotions for this event; I was super stoked to be going racing again, with new goals and new sponsors, but I was also pretty apprehensive.
Not only was I out of rhythm with the preparation and process of going racing, I was also stepping up into the Elite category which brought a lot of unknowns: the competition, pacing strategies, tactics, and so on. In reality, this event was one for learning the ropes of top-level racing. I felt like I’d physically prepared as best as possible heading into the event so it was just a case of giving it my all.
I arrived at the venue late Sunday morning and the weather was spot on - a beautiful clear sky and sun. A brisk chill and some dew on the ground would soon disappear as the sun rose to surprisingly bring some t-shirt weather. And then it snowed…. jokes, but it is the UK!
After signing on and checking over the new race whip, the INTENSE Sniper FRO, I got changed and headed out on course for some practice laps. This venue was new to me and one I’ve never raced at before so there was more to learn than usual. The course profile was pan flat, but split into four main sections: two wood sections and two field sections. The wooded sections were very tight and twisty, adding a different dimension of technicality, and they also had a base of what I think was limestone which was very very slippery and meant you were often right on the edge of grip. The field sections were wide open and flat out, with long straights and areas for some overtaking or just putting down the power. I completed more practice laps than I would usually, just to make sure I learned the new course and had the bike dialed in for racing. Following completion of practice, the usual waiting game began with 2.5 hours until race time. Luckily the sun was out so it was time for some relaxing and re-fuelling for the racing ahead.
With 30 minutes to go until race start, I got changed and got onto the rollers to warm up, and then with 15 to go I headed to the race start for gridding. The grid was massive, and in line with COVID regulations we had to wear masks. As this was my first race I was gridded on the second row behind all the big hitters. Gridding took a little while so we were hanging around on the start line for a long time which meant the warm up was wearing off and the nerves were settling in.
Eventually, we were told, “any time in the next 30 seconds” and we were off. I had a good jump and settled in near the front of the pack behind the wheels to save some energy. Unfortunately, as we approached the wooded areas, the paced kicked in and I was caught in the middle having been a little too apprehensive - the first thing learned! This had me just outside the top ten, and although I was sticking with the group, I could see the gaps opening in the groups ahead. It wasn’t long into the opening lap though when we received a red flag. The race had been stopped due to a number of incidents in the other categories. The race would be restarted and thankfully everyone who was injured was ok.
This wasn’t ideal, however it was the same for everyone, and it did give me an opportunity to apply what I had learned at the first start. 1.5 hours later and we were ready!
Again I got a good jump and sat at the head of the pack, then I hit something on the course which caused my chain to come out of sync which my jockey wheels. I was conscious this would lead to mechanical failure if I put the power down so had to back off click down some gears and re-sync it. This meant I was again just outside of the top ten as we hit the woods. The opening lap was really intense, very different to lower category racing, and a bit of shock to the system - the second thing learned! I managed to stick with the pack and was sat in group 3 in 11th place as we hit lap two.
Over the course of the next three laps, the four of us in group 3 would work together, taking turns and racing around. I did my turn on lap 4 and dropped to the back of the group for some rest on lap 5 of 6, by this point we were well into lapper territory catching the back of other races, and being the last man was putting me in danger. After a couple of close calls, it eventually happened; the others got through and I couldn’t get past and this allowed a gap to open up. I pushed really hard to get back on but the other riders could see the effort this had cost me and as soon as I got back on, a couple kicked on. I was hoping the other would follow but he never did and I missed the opportunity - gutted.
I could tell the remaining racer was tiring out so, in an effort to gain positions, I hit the front and pushed the pace for the final lap. This pace was enough to drop him but not enough to catch anyone else so I crossed the line in 9th.
Even though I didn’t really have any expectations for this event, I was initially disappointed with this result, as I often am unless I win. This time it was mainly because it wasn’t my best performance. I knew I made some mistakes and this frustrated me.
Having had some time to reflect though, it's not a bad place to start. A top ten finish in a very competitive field stacked with top ten national level competition confirmed I am ready for this next step in my racing journey and we’ve made real progress over the past year.
I think the apprehension of my first Elite race and the first race in some time stinted my performance, both physically and mentally, but this is something that will be easily resolved for the next race now I know I belong. Regardless, it was great to be back racing, to see the regular faces and put all of my new equipment through its paces. The new bike was spot on! A massive thanks to all my sponsors for hooking me up with such an awesome machine and for sticking by me over the past year.
Thanks also to the team at SXC for stepping up and organising such a great event to get us kicked off early in 2021. The course, venue and atmosphere were spot on. I was stoked to get the first race in the bag and come away healthy. Lots of things learned, a lot of confidence gained, and back into the swing of racing.
Bigger things to come, bring on the next one!