Last weekend took me on my longest road trip of the racing season down to Newnham Park near Plymouth for Round 2 of the British XC Series, and my 2nd race in the British Expert category. As you'll know if you read my last race report, the course at Sherwood (being flat and not very technical) didn't suit me and I wasn't very happy with my result, so when I heard all the good things about this course, it more than made up for the 8 hour drive to Plymouth from Glasgow!
On arrival at the race venue for practice on Saturday, the journey was made even more worthwhile with the weather! My wife was spared her usual support crew duties for once and I was joined by my dad. My dad supported me at the WEMBO World Championships last year, but rather than staying up all night in the freezing cold Scottish weather in October, he was enjoying the sunshine for this race!
Huge thanks go to my dad for coming all the way to Plymouth with me for this and not just doing my bottle hand-ups in the feed zone, but for helping me throughout the entire weekend!
I was all set and ready to go see what this course had to offer in the 12 - 2pm practice session on Saturday:
Well, the course certainly did not disappoint! A couple of really tough granny ring climbs; tricky technical rocky descents; a few jumps and drops; and some great sections for spectators to watch! There was a great atmosphere during the race with lots of people shouting, cheering and blowing air horns at us as we picked our way over difficult rocky descents and between huge boulders that almost took your ankles off as you squeezed through them!
This was a proper mountain bike course!
Anyone who thinks XC mountain biking isn't technical should come and try this course! And then try it on a bike with XC geometry and your saddle right up!
Speaking of bikes, my Superfly is still away with Trek building a new frame for me due to a warranty issue with the existing frame. Again, I was rescued and able to race by the amazing support of my sponsors. Alpine Bikes got me a loan of a Trek Fuel EX9 for this race.
It has 120mm travel rather than the 100mm I'm used to, so it actually suited this course really well and probably gave me more comfort on some of those descents than my Superfly! If you're looking for a bike that can do anything, I'd highly recommend this. It handles really well and climbs surprisingly well too. It comes with a dropper seatpost (which I removed for my race) which would also help it in more "all mountain" situations, and yet it dealt with an XC race too. Definitely a great all round bike!
Again, I simply can't express my thanks enough to Alpine Bikes. You sometimes get companies having "proud sponsor" moments . . . well, this is a "proud rider" moment as I feel so privileged to be supported by such an amazing, helpful sponsor! Thanks especially to Jon Boyde at the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow. I don't know where I'd be without him. Not racing, probably!
As usual, photos don't do the technical features justice, but here's one to give you an idea. Here's Kerry MacPhee (who came 5th in the Elite Women's race - well done Kerry!) tackling the "A line" on "Picnic Rocks":
If you check out the report on the British Cycling website, there are plenty more showing the other features.
I was really happy with my practice session. I got used to the new bike and I was clearing every single A line. Although, I learned a lesson about that the next day . . . During the race, we were diverted down a B line on one lap as someone had crashed on an A line and was being helped by the marshals. I need to remember to also practice the B lines, even if I'm comfortable on the A lines, as my first time down that particular B line was during the race and I messed it up. Even though it was easier than the A line, it was still tricky. I didn't fall - just had to unclip - but I'm going to remember that for future races!
So, I was on a high given the course suited me well: tough climbs and technical rocky descents. I absolutely loved it and big thanks go to the organisers, Fully Sussed, for putting on such a good course!
Sunday was even warmer, with the wind having died down overnight. We lined up on the start for 1pm and although I felt I got away well, I just failed to keep the pace up and was passed, yet again, by quite a few riders. I was on the 5th or 6th row, so I was never going to get up to the front, but that was one process goal I definitely couldn't tick off after the race.
I still hoped I would do better than Sherwood, given the course suited me better, and I thought I was, as I took all the A lines, buying me a few places here and there as the race progressed.
However, in lap 2, I made a stupid mistake on one of the tricky A lines. There was a steep drop of a few feet off of a sketchy loose descent onto a fire road with a really sharp right turn. The drop was rollable as it wasn't totally vertical but you had to get over the front of the bike again quickly to get the grip to make the turn on the loose gravel of the fire road. On lap 2, I lost the front end and came down hard on my right hand side.
At moments like this, you sometimes think about pulling out. I had cut my leg, arm and shoulder and really hurt my hip. Blood was pouring down my arm. But I could still ride my bike! So, I dusted myself off and pushed on. Adrenalin always masks the pain anyway!
As the race progressed, the Elites started to lap us as usual - I was amazed at the speed of Grant Ferguson (fellow Scot and currenty British XC Champion 2 years running). He was way ahead of the other Elites and went onto win.
I managed to pass another couple of Expert riders on my 4th lap and as I approached the finish line at the end of lap 4 of 5 I could hear the commentator (Matt Payne) saying that the Expert winner was about to come through. One of my goals this year is not to be lapped in my own category. This guy must have been just behind me and I was about to be lapped!
I could ease up and just accept it . . . or I could push hard to get across the line before him, allowing me to complete my 5th and final lap and achieve one of my goals. I took the latter option and I'm glad I did as I passed another Expert rider on my last lap!
Now, I've not even mentioned my result yet, so I guess I better . . . I was 55th out of 75. As a percentage that's about the same as my result at Sherwood, so I was obviously really disappointed. But I have to take a few things into account, such as a heavier bike, a crash on lap 2, the fact that I need to improve my starts, getting caught up in what can only be described as a traffic jam in the first lap as we entered the singletrack, and a few other factors. So, I know what I need to work on and I'm not going to beat myself up too much. I'm still aiming to get in the top 50% of the British Expert field this year and I know I can do it! It's been a massive jump going from Masters to Expert and this is even more obvious in the British Series. But I still don't regret going up to Expert rather than down to Sport.
One thing I can absolutely take away as a massive positive though is achieving something I've been trying to work hard at this year: consistent lap times. My pacing has paid off. The first lap was shorter and therefore faster, but all my other laps are pretty close in time and so my pacing was spot-on! This excludes my crash of course, which cost me about 30 to 45 seconds, and if you also exclude a small mistake on my final lap, my laps are all within 15 seconds or so of each other. I'm over the moon with that as I usually slow by a minute or more in the later laps.
So, there's still more to do (when is there not?!) and I really enjoyed myself. Despite the crash (which was totally my own fault and a silly mistake) I loved the course and had a great time, and that's what it's all about after all. I improved an important part of my racing (lap pacing) and also experimented with a slight change in my nutrition plan which worked well for me. I've captured the negatives that I can improve on but I'm absolutely focusing on the positives about me and my own racing, rather than getting too bothered about the result itself.
It's Round 2 of the SXC Series at Dalbeattie this weekend and I'm really looking forward to that. It was a fantastic course last year (if a little bit long!) and I'm sure they'll put on a great race for us yet again. The course could be pretty similar to Plymouth so it's been a great one to do a week before. Thankfully, the gouge in my arm didn't need stitches and is healing up well, so I may still have some cuts and bruises to show, but no excuses to miss this race! Bring it on!