Last weekend fell host to the biggest event in the domestic calendar, the UK National Cross-Country Championships. A one-off event to crown the UK National XC Champion for the following year. Such is the prestige of the crown, it's a UCI categorized event, tempting entries from the world's best mountain bikers. The venue for this event would be Newham Park in Plymouth, so another journey down south was on the cards.
My plan was to head down on Saturday and walk the course, but unfortunately, I got delayed in holiday traffic on the way down which meant I wasn’t able to get to the venue. Course inspection would now have to be during course practice on Sunday.
On Sunday, it was business as usual, and I arrived around 10am to setup the pits and get signed on ahead of practice at 11am. The forecast was constantly changing in the run-up to the event, switching from thunderstorms to sun, but luckily the latter was on hand to provide some very hot and humid conditions.
Kitted up and ready to go, I headed out on course to see what was in store. The course in general was pretty tame made up of flat single track, sharp climbs, and fast descents, linked together with fire road sections and wide-open fields weaving through the arena. There was only one technical section, featuring a rock garden followed by a long off-camber straight littered with rocks and roots. This is where riders spent most of their time, sectioning and scoping lines, which meant that getting a clean run was tricky.
The schedule was pretty similar to a normal national, so there were a few hours to go until race time and it was time to recover, refuel and watch the female races. As mentioned, conditions were very hot and humid so I stayed under the cover of the awning. With 20 minutes to go until gridding, I jumped on the rollers to warm up, then headed over to start.
I was ranked number 15 for this event so would have a second-row start - not a bad place to be given the length of the start straight. I felt in the zone but we were held for quite a long time on the grid and I could feel the nervous energy rising, then I heard “any time in the next 30 seconds” and it was game time.
Off the start, I reacted well but missed my pedal, a familiar situation and one I’d practiced, so I knew how to correct this pretty quickly and only lost a few meters, which I was able to close down swiftly. As we hit the first short climb the pace ramped up; I felt comfortable and was able to stick with the front group as the pack split and we headed into the wooded singletrack. The pace remained steady, I continued to push and made up more positions, sitting 7th/8th as we broke out into the arena for the first time. I felt great and was confident.
Unfortunately, this was short-lived, as on the next single track the rider a few seconds ahead crashed, and I was unable to get past whilst they recovered and lost a handful of time. I tried not to let this get to me though, I put in a big dig to get back on and I managed to reconnect with a group as we headed onto lap 2 of 6, sitting around 10th.
The group rode well and we managed to collect a couple more riders over the first half of the lap, but then disaster struck. A stick flicked up from the ground and wrapped itself within in my rear derailleur and drive train. It was completely jammed and at risk of snapping the rear derailleur. I quickly stopped to remove it but this cost me quite a lot of time and pretty much ended my top ten hopes. The group I was with was long gone, meaning I had to continue alone. The course layout meant it was much quicker to be in a group and I just didn’t have the pace on my own to close the gap. Riding solo used a lot of energy and I soon started to fade, paying the price for my efforts in the opening laps. Despite my best efforts, I lost a few more places, eventually crossing the line in 17th position, cramping and disappointed.
I lay on the floor for a few minutes, pouring water over my head to cool myself down, before jumping on the rollers to flush out the lactate.
Having cooled down, it was time to pack up and head back to the hotel to recover before the 4.5-hour journey home on Monday morning. I woke up on Monday morning in a more positive mindset and the drive home gave me even more time to reflect on the weekend’s performance. The result alone was disappointing and that won’t change, but I was actually happy with my performance. The outcome was not through the fault of my own - that’s just racing. I was up in the top ten and comfortable, and had it not been for a bit of bad luck I am very confident I could have achieved the result I wanted. This gives me a lot of confidence and motivation for the remainder of the season.
I shall carry this confidence into a period of rest, and then re-build into round 3 of the National Series on the 14th-15th August.
It’s not who wants it the quickest, it’s who wants it the longest and my time will come.