Sunday 20th July 2014. 10.45am. The sun is beating down on Hopton Woods in Shropshire, the venue for this year's British National XC Mountain Bike Championships. We are called up in order to the start line. I'm gridded 16th of about 35 riders and take my place on the 3rd row of the grid.
It's not a series. It's a one-off chance to do the best you possibly can. It's one of 4 peaks I've built into my training plan for the season and I'm as prepared as I can be. I've slept well and feel rested. I've eaten properly. I've warmed up well. Training has gone to plan for the past few weeks.
2 minute warning. Focus!
30 second warning. Right foot clipped in, left foot on the ground. You've got to get a good start and just go for it up that first steep climb.
"The race will start anytime in the next 15 seconds"
Breathe . . . Bang! The gun goes off . . .
. . . and I end up standing stationary on the start line as every other rider flies past me along the start/finish straight!
I've missed my left pedal. And as I make my second revolution of the cranks, desperately trying to get clipped in and not lose too much time from my mistake, my right foot slips out and I'm left with both feet on the ground and at a stand still.
All that preparation. All that training. All that focus and determination to try to get my best result of the season at British national level. And all hope was gone in a split second due to a simple mistake!
I'll not repeat the language that left my mouth at that moment. The rage that came pouring out . . . But I had to get going and try to salvage something. I have no idea why I missed the left pedal or why on earth my right foot slipped out too. Maybe my cleats are worn. Maybe I was too busy thinking about the rest of the race. Maybe I've not practiced my starts enough. Or maybe it was just a simple mistake and I can't go back and change it!
Adopting the latter attitude, I got myself going again but by this time was about 100m behind the last rider in the last group as they all turned the corner from the start/finish straight, up the steep forest road climb that started the lap at Hopton Woods.
Rewind about 24 hours and I was out on the course practicing. I'd been told that Hopton had a hell of a climb at the start of the lap and it didn't disappoint! After the previous week's BCXC Series Round 4 at Sherwood, where I left questioning whether or not I'd entered a mountain bike race, I was over the moon with the course at Hopton. Sherwood was without a doubt the poorest MTB race course I've ever ridden. No climbing worth mentioning, nothing technical. Just a flat twisty course through the trees. It didn't suit me at all and the race did not go well, with me pulling out after 3 laps due to a variety of reasons, some physical and some psychological!
Hopton was such a contrast. I did 3 practice laps in the rain on the Saturday and would have done more if I wasn't racing the next day. I loved it! Some proper climbs (about 270m per 5km lap!) and some fantastic technical descents. My kind of course! A proper MTB course! And it was rather muddy for practice on the Saturday:
I felt good for the race. I could use the climbs to my advantage and then just keep it smooth and controlled on the technical descents. I went into the race with a target of top 20 out of the 38 riders who had signed up (although I think there were about 35 on the day - the results show 30 finishers but they don't include the few DNF riders who pulled out on their first lap as they've not crossed the line).
The course was obviously a bit muddy from all the rain and thunderstorms on the Saturday, but didn't have too many slippy bits left by the Sunday morning when we started. The sun was blazing down and it was going to be hot, but I knew if I focussed on my strengths, and given my grid place of 16th, I could achieve my goal.
So, when I made the most stupid of mistakes on the start line, to see the entire field sail past me with a massive gap as they disappeared round the first corner and up the hill, I had a split second to get myself together and do all I could to salvage some pride!
Anyone who races XC will know that if you're not in the top half of riders going into the first singletrack section, it's very unlikely you'll ever get into that top half later in the race (well, for us mere mortals!). So, as I finally got going I thought if I could just make up a few places maybe I could get in the top 25 and not be too far off my goal.
I got the power down on the first climb and managed to get past about 5 or more riders on the first forest road section. As we entered the singletrack, I managed to pass another couple of riders on some slightly wider parts . . . Keep this going . . . . push as hard as you can . . . don't make any more mistakes!
I had another couple of riders in my sight at the end of the first lap but spent the next 3 laps just not quite being able to catch the guy in front. But it was good to have someone to chase.
At the end of lap 2 I made another stupid mistake. I grabbed my bottle from my wife at the feed station just to drop it immediately! Again, this would normally have set me off on a downward spiral but I focussed on the positives: my bike would be lighter without a bottle and I had plenty of fluid before the race, so while the temperature was high, this shouldn't affect me too much in an 18 to 19 minute lap.
Those climbs were tough, don't get me wrong, but I felt good. I wasn't making any silly mistakes on the technical descents and I was really enjoying the course. But I just couldn't catch the guy in front. I figured a few people might have pulled out due to crashes, punctures or mechanicals so maybe I had made up a few more places. These things are as much a part of racing as my own mistake at the start, so while I'd never wish them upon any other racer, you have to take advantage of the places that provides for you to move on up.
We were doing 6 laps of the course and on my 5th lap I was pushing as hard as I could when some more of the faster Vets (who are set off 2 minutes behind us Masters) caught up with me around the highest point on the course. I then realised I was also letting the two leaders in my own category by, lapping me. I just had to focus on finishing this 5th lap as fast as I could.
One of the guys barged his way past me on a narrow climb near the top just to slip his rear wheel and stall, causing me and a few other riders behind to have to unclip and run up this climb. I made it up that climb every single lap before that one and it's frustrating to have someone think they can climb better than you just for them to squeeze by and then make a mistake in front, causing you to have to stop! But, yet again, that's all part of racing.
What I didn't realise is that one of the Masters riders was also in that group and managed to squeeze by me too, with him finishing 4 seconds in front of me at the end of our 5th lap when we had to end our race because the leader had lapped us to complete his 6th and final lap!
I finished 21st, once place off my target of a top 20, only 4 seconds behind the guy in 20th.
Normally, I'd be gutted by this and beating myself up for days afterwards . . . But I'm not! I'm actually really, really happy! Despite my silly mistake on the start line, I made up lots of places overtaking on my first lap, rode my own race well, didn't crash or make any mistakes on the technical descents, and really enjoyed the course. I have to take the positives away from the race and feel great about the places I made up from being at the very back, 100m behind the group, off the start line.
While I can dream about where I might have finished if I hadn't made that mistake, there's no point. I can't go back now and change it.
I'll practice my starts. I'll even replace my cleats just in case they were worn and had anything to do with my right foot slipping out. But I'll mostly take away the positives on my climbing and overtaking on that first lap and focus on how I can use that to my advantage in my next few races.
I'm having a week off now, where I'm going to just ride for fun when I feel like it and have a bit of a break from formal training. Then it'll be back onto some really hard training over the next two months as I compete in the last round of the British Series and the last two rounds of the Scottish Series, where the final round at Dalbeattie doubles as the Scottish Championships. I'm also really looking forward to the Tour de Ben Nevis in September - my 3rd time doing this rather unique event, involving 70km of wild mountain biking in remote parts of northern Scotland with various timed stages.
Thanks again to my sponsors, the Alpine Bikes Trek Store, for all their support and for helping get my Trek Superfly perfectly set up for the race last weekend.