Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4
Weapon of choice: Carbon hardtail 29er
Greatest strength: Determination
Greatest weakness: Route planning
Result: 2nd overall, 1st vet
Scrabbling to find the traction and momentum needed to get up the hill, carefully picking the line with the most grip to get safely back down again, all the while looking for banks and ruts and depressions to help you round the corners when braking is no longer an option... The moment when challenging turns into frightening, when your brain fills with the consequences of going over the edge and says no way, but you can't stop... The sheer terror when you realise that you're no longer in control but relying entirely on luck... The elation when you make it, followed by that sinking feeling as another hill appears before you and the whole cycle starts over again... And your mind starts to play those familiar games: why am I here, why am I doing this, why didn't I stay in bed?
Well, that was just the drive over.
It must've been much colder overnight in the hills, and the shortcut across 12 miles of remote mountain road was not, in hindsight, the best choice. Water running off the saturated high ground had solidified into dual channels of ice down the straights and whole sheets of the stuff across the corners. By the time I clocked that this was only going to get worse, it was too late to turn around, as I'd never have made it back up the bits I'd just crept down. Well, I won't be making that mistake again - it was the scariest drive of my life.
After all that, the race was a doddle. Still high on adrenaline, I felt strong on the ups and comfortable on the downs. I knew I had a real battle on my hands, with elite rider James Nixon and endurance racer Jon Roberts in attendance, but I was in a "bring it on" kind of mood. I therefore decided to shadow James Nixon up the all-too-familiar first climb - only to watch an unknown rider breeze past us half-way up. We went with him, of course, and probably both paid for it later.
Unfortunately my chain popped off again on the first descent, which cost me a little time. Dismayed to spot the trademark green helmet of increasingly strong young enduro rider Peter Lloyd plummeting down the hill towards me, I let fly down the rest of the descent and along the flat section after the café, so I caught up with the leaders as they emerged from the second ford.
Event photos courtesy of Carol Corbett at CAC Photography
I passed James Nixon near the top and launched myself down the recently resurfaced descent, which was smooth, straight and very, very fast. That is, apart from the Stealth Step™ and the Dastardly Dogleg™ round a tree stump, both of which come right out of the blue (at least with my eyesight), and two tight 180-degree turns, one bermed, one flat, more obvious but very loose, making it hard not to lose the back end of the bike. On subsequent laps I knew they were coming and went a bit slower; on the first lap I didn't, and I have no idea how I made it down in one piece. Several people punctured on the loose shale here, but today the force was with me. I suddenly found myself back on the tail of the Unknown Rider, but then made such a hash of the next section along a flattish, unsurfaced section through the woods back to the ford that I lost him again, forever. It wasn't hard, that bit, just a bit fiddly, but all I could see was mud and ruts and roots, so I was expecting to slip and slide around - and I did. The next two laps I made an active effort to look further ahead, keep pedalling and believe, and barring a wee wobble at the very end I made it through cleanly both times. It's amazing what you can ride when you think you can.
James Nixon caught me at the start of the second lap as I fumbled with an energy gel (that ol' two-pairs-of-gloves issue). Again I followed him up the first climb, and again I was able to pass and pull away towards the top. The chain stayed on this time, and I managed to hold my lead back down into the valley. I knew that if I could now push up the second climb I'd gain the psychological advantage of being out of sight, and then second place would almost certainly be mine if I could just keep going for the rest of the race. Well, I did, and it was. Really pleased with that. Once again the 90-minutes-plus-a-lap race format caught me out, and I held back a little on lap 3 to leave something in the tank for a non-existent lap 4, but I'd done enough.
I finished a couple of minutes up on James Nixon and five minutes behind the winner, who told me afterwards this was his first XC race (!) and he normally does "a bit of downhill, a bit of enduro". Slight understatement there - it turns out he was none other than World Cup downhiller Robert Williams! Well, that's one in the eye for prejudices about downhillers and climbing - he was up those hills like a mountain goat. OK, so he's half my age and a couple of stones lighter, but even so, R-E-S-P-E-C-T!
And talking of youth and respect, Huw Higgins-Worrall deserves a special mention for finishing eighth in the race at the age of just 12 - there's one to watch!
The weather hasn't been overly kind to the Red Kite series this year, and coming up with different but rideable courses each time has been a challenge. This one was the best of the series so far: it was good to get back into the woods onto some properly muddy stuff, I loved having a slightly more technical climb, and the views from the far side of the valley were stunning (fortunately not literally).
The next round on 2 February sees a change to a longer format: a choice between two and four hours racing on a variation on this same longer (9km) loop. This was decided very democratically with a show of hands at the start of the race; I do wonder how the vote would've gone at the end... Anyway, this spells a lot of bang for your bucks, which is especially good news for those travelling a long way (or a stupid way). Unless we suddenly have some unseasonably dry weather, I reckon four hours on this course will be more than enough for anyone. I wonder if I should take the singlespeed...
Oh, and for the record: Although I'm a certified lentilist, I much preferred the pumpkin soup at previous rounds.
(I did come second, honest; there's something wrong with James Nixon's second lap time because I was some way ahead of him by then and finished about two minutes ahead; Jon Roberts punctured)
|Huw Higgins Worrall||2:13:17||41:07||43:57||48:13|
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