The British mountain bike cross country series has its third new name in as many years this year – still commonly referred to as the NPS (National Points Series) or the BMBS (British Mountain Bike Series) – it is in fact now the snappily titled British XC Series. Apart from the name, the big difference this year is that the races are being organised by individual promoters who are crafting courses in their own back yard and introducing some new venues into the national series.
However, the location for the first round on 24th March, Sherwood Pines has hosted the opening round for the last 3 or 4 years and although not universally liked by the racing fraternity – particularly the gritty Northerners who favour proper hills and hard rocks – it always attracts big fields and some close racing.
After officially retiring from racing last year or possibly even the year before, at some point around Christmas I thought I might give it a go again in 2012, proving categorically that it is a woman’s perogative to change her mind (as many times as she wants!). After much soul searching, wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth (still all my own) I eventually bought my race licence and entered BXCS round 1 on the day that entries closed.
All that remained was to taper my training – which is a bit of a long standing joke because in order to taper one has first to train. But this Winter, my riding has been more structured and thoughtful than in any of the previous 30 years and has included lots of base miles and more recently some speed and hill sessions. So, taper I did.
Saturday afternoon saw me re-acquainting myself with my bike and I set out for a gentle practice / sighting lap of the course. Actually, to say ‘my bike’ is wholly inaccurate – I don’t own a hard tail race bike so I ask nicely if I can borrow one from daughter #1 or daughter #2 – on this occasion daughter #2’s bike obliged, mainly because it had the right tyres on!
The lap was classic Sherwood Pines – much like Thetford Forest but with a little more in the way of climbs. The course designers took the course to some of the more technical areas of the forest but in reality there’s nothing much to test your nerves. That said, I did have to run up the two steepest banks and chose to dismount over the biggest of the fallen trees. One lap was enough to tell me all I needed to know so I returned to the arena area to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening. A couple of carb loading small beers helped me nod off to sleep … despite concerns over whether the phones would self adjust to the clocks changing and the prospect of losing an hours sleep.
Unsurprisingly, I woke without the need for an alarm and spent some time laying in bed reminding myself why I had decided to stop racing a year or two ago and trying to remember why I had decided to start again. It was a one sided mental argument – and I wasn’t winning! The reality is that I race because I really enjoy it, but on race mornings that enjoyment is buried so deep that I truly wonder why I ever pin on a race number.
Pre – race preparation was all pretty straight forward – breakfast, mix bottles, phaff a bit, be really interested in what everyone else is doing to pass the time, put on cycling kit, go for a warm up, mill about waiting to be gridded.
The gridding process at National events is well organised and there’s no need to stress about fighting for grid position – especially when there’s only 5 in your category – you just wait patiently until you are called to the grid. What does change from year to year and sometimes from race to race, is the order the categories are set off. There’s no easy way to get this right because of the mix of ability in some categories and this race the Grand Veteran Women were at the very back of the grid. I wasn’t particularly concerned about this as I had no great aspirations for the race so I rolled up to the start, took of my jacket and arm warmers and leant over the barriers to get a good luck hug from daughter #2 – it was at this point that the exceptionally loud starting pistol went and everyone apart from me started racing!
Not the most auspicious of starts but it did guarantee the Iceni Velo club jersey maximum exposure as I was properly on my own and off the back as the race left the arena area!
Never one to be backward in moving forward, I made up a few places by shooting through the rough as the course hit the first left hand bend and then, on the first section of fire road I got past a few of the younger and less experienced youth riders. By the time I got to the first proper section of single track there wasn’t much I could do about passing riders so it was a case of sit tight and try and recover a bit before the next opportunity to overtake.
By this stage I was pretty sure that I was in front of three other women in my category but thought that one may be ahead of me. I managed to sneak past a couple more youth and sport riders in the singletrack and this was enough to start building a buffer of time over the women behind me.
Luck was on my side on a couple of the more technical bits – although other riders were off and walking I managed to find the space and line to ride all the descents and trickier sections and this kept me moving past people. The more riders between me and the other riders in my category the better – and not only that, overtaking riders is good for morale!
On the way back to the arena there was a large log that I had no intention of riding, but I knew there would be spectators there, so in the morning I’d been practising my cyclo cross dismounts so I could look uber cool as I smoothly clipped out and hopped over the log. Ha ha, silly me! My ability to even contemplate a CX dismount had vanished completely by the time I reached the log and the best I could manage was a very ordinary clip out and climb off – on the plus side it did give me time to smile at the marshals and hear my friends cheering me on!
Lap one completed – one more to go. Still working on the basis that there was a rider ahead of me I tried to keep the pressure on all through the second lap. I rode the lap pretty much alone which may explain why my lap time was slower – with hindsight I could and should have pushed on a bit harder. Into the arena to finish, a quick look over my shoulder to make sure no one was sneaking up on me and then the fantastic feeling of hearing the commentator announce me as the winner of my category. I momentarily contemplated a two arm victory salute but instead opted for the less flamboyant but infinitely safer, one armed version!
To say I was chuffed would be an understatement and it goes down as one of my top three racing moments of all time …
The next round is at Dalby Forest in Yorkshire – am I going to race there? Well, yes, despite all my anxieties I am, because riding at Sherwood reminded me just what a buzz racing is. If I can minimise some of the self doubt and anxiety and maximise the enjoyment then it may be a year or two before I retire again!