Steep! Thank the gods that the new hill was only a short one because after a couple of hundred riders had scrubbed the top layer off the climb, it had become not just steep, but slick too! It was actually divided into two sections by a tricky little downhill which again had only got slicker as the day wore on. It was however a lovely and well thought out, addition to a classic course and I think most riders approved.
Checkendon is always a really traditional type of XC race and has played a part in many Southern XC and National Series over the years. I’ve had some of my best results and spent some great days testing bikes on some great flowing singletrack and field edges in this area over the years and met many good friends and sponsors here, so I always try to pencil the venue into my diary at least once in the season. This year we were lucky enough to spend some time here and race the first round of the Rampage Series just over a month ago.*
As I headed over to the sign on tent I looked up at the Red Kite flying silently overhead, but I wouldn’t be seeing the “flame rouge” for quite a while yet. It was early on the morning of Mother’s day and having already dropped in on my parents and then driven the two hour trek to Checkendon, my legs were happy to be stretched out again. I’d turned up early to catch the Open race and ride a practice lap with them as it’s always a good judge of the pace needed for my Sport race, later on in the day.
The pearl white snowdrops of the last days of winter had been replaced by the swathes of yellow daffodils that beckon summer, but the Sun still hung low in the cold grey sky, breaking shyly through the morning mist. Arm warmers, gillet, buff and leg warmers made riding a bike seem slightly more plausible to my brain. However, as with most things, my heart had already taken over and like an excited puppy had got the bike out of the van in expectation of fun. So by the time my brain had realised what was going on I was already coasting into the first wooded section.
The track quickly became tight, but flowing and was a real joy to ride – you had to push the front hard to grip, but not too hard as to make it slide and learning the grip in each corner was time well spent. We followed the course from last time down into the next wooded section and then peeled off into the new flowing downhill. The raked berms haven’t had a chance to bed in yet and you really had to avoid allowing them to bite, because they were swallowing whole bikes! After the two steep sections we climbed up to the gate which took a chunk out of me last time and then blasted across the field edges for a few kilometres. The final wooded section into the arena was an absolute blast and would make a great place for a sprint finish if I needed one. Sighting lap sorted and feeling good!
With a couple of laps in the bank, I headed back to the truck for a change of clothes and some food. I caught the podium for the Open race which my buddy won and then got ready for my race. I was gridded on the front row and got a pretty good start. I was fighting with the leaders into the first section. One of the RAF boys was properly leaning on me for about ten corners and we fought it out all the way down into the second wooded section. That’s when I heard the one sound no racer ever wants to hear – an ever increasing hiss, hiss, hiss, hiss, hiss,…
Puncture fixed and with a stack of riders in front I set about getting back through the bunch. I wasn’t riding at my best in the technical bits, but on the open sections I was flying. The slippery hill had become tacky and I was able to ride it each time and my bike was shifting and braking like a dream. The second lap was easily my best and I was making up time in the sun. Even the gas in the rear tyre had worked! I was working my way back up well and felt really strong.
The last lap was a blast and with 2km to go I knew I’d raced well. I kept thinking about what that puncture may have cost me until – hiss, hiss, hiss, hiss, “arrrrrrrrhhhhh, you’ve got to be joking!” (Or words to that effect!) I rode it home on the rim to finish 14th and ten minutes down! I wasn’t a massively happy bunny, but as I wearily looked over at the Timelaps crew I couldn’t help but see the funny side – I guess some days, it just isn’t your day!
Strong Wheels had been in my head (as a pose to Too Slow last time out at Checkendon), and my “strong legs” seemed up to the task, now can anyone recommend me a strong, new rear tyre?
*see 11.4 – Too Slow at XC Zero for more information on my first visit to Checkendon this year.
(Footnote 1; Tom Williams and the Boat’s debut album, Too Slow, which includes the track Strong Wheels is available at tomwilliamsandtheboat.co.uk, via Unlabel/Wire Boat Recordings with official artwork by Glen Whittington.)