As we negotiated the nonchalant New Forest ponies I was reminded of the frustration of last years Southern Area Championships. I missed out on the podium by half a second. Once again the champs were being held at Crow Hill, but 12 months later given my limited training I wasn't expecting to be anywhere near the podium this time round.
The largest number of riders I have seen at a race for some time gathered in the sunshine. Having missed the previous rounds I wasn't gridded, but was lucky to still find myself on the second row for the start. We sprinted away around the wide sweeping opening curves before we descended down to the wood. I made a good get away escaping the melee behind. No chance to look back but there was plenty of shouting and the unmistakable sound of bikes tangling as elbows and handlebars became intertwined.
I surrendered a couple of places before we turned into the first series of tricky left and right bends. Under the trees the path was still damp and along with wet roots it meant we had to tip toe around until the course opened up and the speed increased again.
There was a long double track path which gradually lead into the first climb. Amazingly in a race of 60 riders I found myself isolated, too far back to get a slip stream from the group ahead, but a few seconds clear of those frantically chasing behind.
The wooded sections were littered with roots. As I clattered through, bouncing over the serpentine network of woody limbs I wished for the extra climbing traction and confidence on descents of a full suspension bike.
I passed one or two stragglers that fell back from the group ahead of me, finishing the first lap somewhere outside the top 10. I continued to race on my own, the group dangling like a carrot a few seconds ahead. I was caught by one rider who passed me during the second lap, but I quickly got back in front towing him along behind me for a while. At least this kept me focused as it can be hard to maintain a race pace on your own.
Into the third lap I eventually closed on the remains of the group I had been chasing all race. I tucked in amongst the wheels waiting for the long fireroad at the beginning of the final lap to make my attack. In preparation I moved up to second in the group as we worked through the last section of singletrack before the course opened up. There was one particularly large root which I had jumped on the previous 3 laps. For some reason as I chased closely behind the rider ahead I decided to swing around the root this time. At high speed my front wheel caught the edge of the root and washed out bringing me crashing to the ground in a cloud of gravel and dust.
Leaping quickly back on I discovered my brake and gear lever had been twisted round the handlebar, so I had to try and beat them back into position while negotiating the rest of the roots and trees. I hurtled along the fireroad roaring straight past the group I had been with, even catching a couple of others by the top of the climb.
Fuelled by adrenalin I chased every wheel. I was catching back markers now so I was passing riders left, right and center. On the final climb where last year I had so narrowly missed out on a podium, there was one final rider up ahead. I closed in and dodged past dashing for the line
It seems it wasn't just back markers I had been passing. Checking the results I ended the final lap in 6th place only a minute off the podium. So perhaps my fitness hasn't evaporated as much as I feared. In the end I am immensely pleased with how the race went and proud of the result.