The goal: A top 20 finish at the British National XC Championships. It sounded good but I hadn’t told a soul; only whispering it to myself as I lay in bed at night picturing the Hadleigh course in my mind. To be honest I had spent many restless hours during the months leading up to the race, in the dark after the lights had gone out, riding the course over and over in my head. The 2012 Olympic venue is an intimidating course. The technical sections really push the boundaries of my abilities on a bike. What played on my mind was the risk of failure should any section go wrong. The rocks don’t leave a margin for error and any mistake is going to prove costly and painful. The last time I raced at Hadleigh in 2013, I only completed one lap after breaking two ribs during practice on the Saturday.
Twice since April I have driven up to Essex to practice and ride the course. This had repaired some of the mental wounds and built confidence that I could get round the lap vaguely competitively using a mixture of the tough A-lines through the obstacles and easier, but critically much slower, B-lines. What kept me awake at night was the challenge of which A-lines to take on. Where was the time gain worth the risk?
Saturday the 18th July I set off with the family on the 2 hour drive to Hadleigh near Basildon. On arrival it wasn’t quite the warzone of walking wounded that it had been two years ago; many of the sections have been simplified as part of the Olympic legacy renovation. However just to get the nerves jangling, there were still plenty of bandages and blood on display during the short ride from the car park. The dry weather had left the trails loose and sketchy even between the technical obstacles. Amongst the rocks themselves a fine layer of dust on the stony surfaces reduced grip and increased the anxiety levels! I rode two laps, the first just a sighter to rebuild the confidence to tackle the lines from my previous visits. On the second I swallowed hard and tackled every A-line, repeating each until I had conquered it three times. More than once I rolled up to the start of a section and bottled it! After a long inner conversation with myself I finally rolled forward again, pushing the front wheel over the lip and beyond that point of no return. It wasn’t quite the exciting adrenalin buzz it had been during the earlier reconnaisance visits, this time I knew any crash or injury would effect my performance on race day.
That night in my Premier Inn room, as my family slept, I replayed the lines over and over in my head. Adding to my worry was the weather forecast. Rain was predicted for the hours before the race, and the idea of slippery wet rocks was the stuff of nightmares. A flurry of nervous texts and emails from fellow racers didn’t help me nod off any quicker! I woke to the sound of rain. In some ways a wet race was ok, I could just commit to the B-lines, but the forecast for drying conditions would mean a horrible situation with unpredicatable levels of grip. Luckily on this occasion Mother Nature helped out, the warm summer sun was shining brightly by the time I left the hotel and when we arrived the course was bone dry.
By this point I was a bag of nerves, a combination of worry about the challenging course and apprehension ahead my first National Champs. I hadn't been this nervous since my GCSE German oral test! As I joined the riders circling, waiting to be called to the grid I had to repeatedly tell myself to enjoy the day and take in the experience. I was gridded last of the 29 riders, Chris Dobson a non-starter after requiring stitches to a knee wound sustained during practice the day before.
The whistle went, this was it, months of practice and training, sleepless nights and evenings of bike tinkering were about to put to the test. My wife was waiting at the top of the first climb of the opening loop and vanity meant my first goal was to not be last when we swept past. What happened after that, out of sight didn’t matter! Around the outside of the first bend I got past 2 or 3 riders, but was blocked in and sank back as the course curved up and left, the others taking advantage of the tighter line. There was a touch of wheels ahead and a rider went down in the middle of the pack, we swarmed round the sprawling figure and onward up the hill. I switched sides into the next steeper section and passed one, two, three riders. I then slipped inside several more on the bend at the top before entering the barriers holding back the crowd on the finishing straight. I heard my wife cheer my name as we swept over the crest and out onto the lap proper. I was buzzing, this was going well!
Then I forgot how to ride! I was so preoccupied with getting through the difficult sections upright that I forgot how to ride the rest of the course inbetween! I think a potent combination of excitement, adrenalin and nerves wreaked havoc with my head and the legs just went into auto pilot for the first 2 laps! I had no idea what position I was in or who was around me. Eventually I focused, realising I was behind a rider who I should be able to beat. I remembered to accelerate out of the corners, to try and pinch the tightest line whenever possible, all the things that normally happen subconsciously when racing.
I started moving forward and lap times improved. I dropped a rider who had been following me from the start and passed the rider ahead and then caught another. I began to enjoy myself, I heard my wife and son cheer me on as I passed through the pit area and felt inspired to push on. The next 3 laps flew by, I didn’t feel tired I just rode as hard as I could and before I knew it I was on the last lap. Looking behind there was nobody insight and initially nobody ahead either, but then on the switchbacks I just caught a glimpse of a rider at the top of the hill. I pushed hard on the next two climbs, but admit that I took it slightly easy on the decents, for as much as I wanted to catch the guy ahead I really wanted to finish.
On the last climb I put in an effort and caught the man ahead at the turn to the finishing line. In hindsight I probably showed my wheel too early. Alerted to my presence he sprinted for the line and after the effort of bridging the gap I was toast!
Crossing the line I still didn't know where I had finished. I guessed mid to low 20's. I scrolled down the result sheet in the registration tent and found my name. I giddily called to my wife, "I was 17th!" My secret goal had been achieved - 17th overall in the Masters category and 14th in my age group 35-39.