“What’s the new bike like?” “How much training have you done?” “What races are you doing this summer?” These are the bike racing world’s versions of, “how’s the weather where you are?”- Fairly inane filler, before doing the thing that you actually came to do. The only difference is that these questions will usually be uttered as you’re attaching number plates or swapping out a tyre, rather than while waiting for the kettle to boil on a Monday morning.
Only at this point in the season do any of our questions actually have a spark of worth, for it is still really the pre-season – and probably the most important few weeks of training at any point in the year. The 1st round of the “Rampage” series is run by the Southern XC team, who together with Pedalon.co.uk run the popular summer Southern XC series. That means that lots of riders who want to race well in the summer will use races like this one as spring training. It’s easy to see how effective you’re winter training has been and get a sneak peek at some of the summer courses and competition. For example a longer version of this course will be used for the first round of the Southern XC series and has previously been used for National races.
This was the reason that I was awake at seven on Sunday morning!
You can plan an early night as much as you like the day before a race, but somehow that never really happens unless you’re truly selfish, like you have to be before bigger races in the summer. So as I said my farewells to everyone who’d turned out to celebrate my friend’s band releasing their first album on Saturday night, I glanced down at my watch, which was very definitely the wrong side of midnight. It would not be the only time that I’d notice that the album’s title track proved a relevant or accurate description of my own weekend!
But that was yesterday (well technically today but…), and my head had to get with the program so before you cold mutter “triple espresso please”, I was drinking what could only loosely be described as that, whilst I scanned my roadmap at a blustery Clacket Lane Services. An hour later and I found myself at a much more picturesque farm on the outskirts of Checkendon, near Reading. I’d only ever raced here in the heat of the summer and was used to dry dusty flowing singletrack. Evidently the only bit of that description that existed in the spring was the singletrack bit! My warm up lap concluded that I probably had the wrong bike, the wrong tyre and the wrong season, but enough of the excuses – I guess it was the same for everybody.
All of that, and some first race nerves for some, meant that there was quite a buzz around the start corral when we assembled for the gun. Everyone was busy sussing out what new bike/tyre/clothing/groupset everyone else had, and was probably gleaning more excuses from that than any useful information, but hey, that’s what we were all doing anyway! A few attempts were made at jokes as we lined up, but to be honest the only amusing thing in my mind, was the fact that not even the start marshal seemed completely sure where anyone was supposed to be and in what order.
This made the first 90 degree corner, through the farm gate interesting. It was probably also why there is a small shred of Adidas glove and a fairly large chunk of my ring finger left on the gatepost, which I didn’t collect upon leaving! That really did suck I thought, but after a little bit of swearing, which always seems to be a great pain killer, I was putting it to one side as I fought through the riders, who’d taken advantage of my collision with that rather uncomfortable rusty piece of $%£*!. The roost was the worst thing and my glasses quickly became about as useful as a blindfold so they got stashed in my back pocket as the race settled into some kind of order.
After my poor start I spent a couple of laps fighting some of the more excitable open category riders, which proved to work in my favour. Being pushed onto unusual lines, I was teaching myself where to find grip and reminding myself of how to weight up the front end to really take advantage of the low grip, but slightly banked corners of Checkendon. Basically I was trading my win today for a little bit of experience that should pay off in the summer. It was also building some much needed confidence in my all new Fox suspension, a new compound of Schwalbe rubber, the new geometry of my Kona enduro frame, my recently serviced Rohloff Speedhub, and most importantly in my own mk.1 legs!
My mk.2 shoulder was also feeling much better than last year!
And that was the story of the race for me. I started awkwardly and didn’t really know how hard to push – I was probably going a bit Too Slow, but as last night’s song rang in my head, “slow things are picking up”, and they really are “well on their way”! The last couple of laps were an absolute blast and I was storming back through riders that hadn’t paced themselves well enough. I felt fit and was finding levels of grip that didn’t seem to exist earlier on in the day and as the rain came down I was glad to be running the slightly softer spiked mud tyre that Schwalbe have had such great success with over the past two winters.
A fourth place overall summed up what I already knew – The bike and tyre had come good, my fitness was great, but I’m still lacking the raw power that’s needed to fight for the podium and so a slight adjustment in my final preseason training is needed to get me ready for XC 1. All in all XC Zero had gone very well – some useful early national points and some clear direction in what’s needed and that’s everything you could hope for. To be honest a win would probably just make me complacent!
(Footnote 1; Talking of winning, I’d like to say massive congratulations to my mate, Mike Chaplin, who I met years ago whilst we were both working for a bike shop, and who dealt with a crash on the first lap and some good attacks by some strong riders to take a really well deserved win. Mike will hopefully be partnering me later on in the year in an enduro or two and if all goes well we should both be looking forward to a cracking season ahead. Well done buddy, can’t wait for the summer!)
(Footnote 2; Tom Williams and the Boat’s debut album, Too Slow, is available at tomwilliamsandtheboat.co.uk, via Unlabel/Wire Boat Recordings with official artwork by Glen Whittington. Check them out now!)