“If you want to get faster, you have to race [and train] with faster riders.” My friends words had echoed in my head through the mass start cyclo x races in the winter, so when it came time to sign up for Enduro 6, I took a deep breath and ticked the box that said Elite*. It seemed a good idea at the time!…
Friday was a lovely day for a wedding, but it was an even better day to go bike racing so I packed up the van and headed north just past Birmingham to the sunny Catton Park in Southern Derbyshire. May Day weekend and “Enduro 6” is the traditional start to the endurance racing season, where racers will battle in a Le Mans style for a set period of time – basically after that set time the rider with the most laps on the board is the winner. There are plenty of 24 and 12 hour races over the summer, but we get things under way with a quick six hour sprint.
Catton Park also hosts the Wiggle 10k XC Run on the Saturday morning and some people race both; however I left my running shoes on the shelf because running hurts and settled for encouraging my new campsite neighbours. Once the runners were done the course opened up for practice, apparently. In reality I ended up riding three confusingly dissimilar laps whilst the course was being prepared. By the end of the afternoon though I figured that I’d ridden each section of the course three times, even if it wasn’t quite in the right order!
Another perk of racing in the Elite category is that instead of the usual race number (two-hundred-and-whatever!) you get the chance to wear something a little cooler. It’s funny – lots more people seemed to want to take my picture now that I had a nice shiny number 4 on my bars!
The Saturday night hosted a one lap night Time Trial. Run on the same trails as the endurance race the TT would be the first chance we had to gauge lap times in a race scenario and give us something to aim for on Sunday. Riders started at 30 second intervals with the Elites at the end, who would have to battle not just the other riders but also the darkest conditions, although with most racers using very high power lamps like my Hope Super LED’s or something similar, it wasn’t too stressful.
I had figured that 6:30 would be the time to wake up on Sunday, so when my alarm failed and I woke up anyway at 6:33 and felt like death, I decided to re-evaluate that decision. When I finally arose from my slumber an hour later it was time to take all my race kit to “Parc Ferme”, which is a fancy French term for Closed Pits. As the name suggests Parc Ferme is sealed, as is the race track, for the duration of the race so if you don’t have everything that you need with you, you will be forced to retire. You must have your bikes, all your food, water, spares, tools and anything else that you’ll need in the pits before the start. So once that was taken care of I focused on the important task of eating breakfast.
At ten sharp the race started with a Le Mans style run to the bikes. This was slightly delayed by the announcer, rather confusingly, beginning a ten second countdown at precisely 10am, which the crowd seemed to enjoy quite a bit more than the eager front line pros and Kelvin, the BC Commissaire! But anyway, soon enough we were all running along in our carbon soled race shoes like a massive bunch of baby giraffes. The run left all of the good runners at the front and happy – most of the good riders were behind them and not so happy, or patient. This always makes the first lap interesting because I’m half good at running so I’m right in the middle of everything!
A couple of really fast boys came past me on the wide track sections, but on the whole I was smoking most of the guys in front including one fellow who decided to step off when we got to one of the descents, bending my front break lever with his wayward foot and almost taking me down. This he was not thanked for – I believe he got the message.
The course at Catton Park is a really old school XC track – Very fast, not technical at all, but very rough. It was really important to keep a cool head on your shoulders, especially in the first few laps, because if you didn’t find the best lines Catton Park would eat you up and spit you out.
After a couple of laps the pace calms down and passing is easier due to everybody being spread out. I kept my head down and raced hard for four laps, before my back started to hurt. I’d tried slowing the pace a bit and stretching on the flat bits, but that wasn’t working for long, so on the next lap I headed into the pits to swap to my spare bike and get a proper stretch as well as fresh gels and electrolytes. The change from hardtail to full suspension chassis seemed to do the trick and for the next few laps I felt much better. I hadn’t allowed myself to look at placings until four and a half hours in – it’s easy to give up if you’re not doing well, or push too hard if you think you may be able to make up a few places, if you worry about results too early on.
By the time I came back in for my last gels I was in a pretty tight group of five, fighting for seventh position, but to be honest if you’d asked me before the race, I’d have been happy with a top 20. As we raced toward the last hour my back was getting worse and I had to stretch it at every opportunity which must have looked pretty silly, but I couldn’t let a top ten slip away. Then with time left for one more lap, the five of us went out as hard as we could. I forgot all about my back (maybe pain is all in the mind?), and just got on with it. I raised the pace for a bit and we dropped one fella from the group, before we got to the road where two guys just stormed off away from us having obviously saved something for the last lap. They eventually got 30 seconds on us and had timed there attack well, leaving me to fight it out with the one guy that was left.
I led into the penultimate wooded section and I could feel him just inches away from my rear tyre for minutes. I figured that I could match him for pace and didn’t want the extra pressure of leading so I let him through into the last wooded section and applied some pressure of my own. At the speed we were hitting we both did well to navigate through the tight twisty singletrack and then it just came down to legs. We had three long straights to go before the timing tent and we spent the first two watching each other to see who would go first. I held my nerve and as we barrelled into the final corner I managed to go round the outside and blindside him. For the next 20 seconds I sprinted as hard as I ever have done and made my lunge toward the line just pipping him.
With both of us grinning all that was left was a quick hand shake before I looked down at his number to realise that I’d been sprinting against one of the pair’s teams all along. Still, it did cement my ninth place overall and having gone into the race wondering if I’d made the right decision to race Elite, I was obviously pleased with a top ten. It’s taken lots of perseverance to get back up to this level of racing and I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped, now let’s go hunt some podiums!
*Off-road bike races in the UK are run using several categories – Riders who are just riding for fun enter “Fun”, whilst those who have a British Cycling Licence can enter “Sport”, “Expert”, “Vet”, “Under 23” or “Master” depending upon their age and skill level. Finally the “Elite” category is reserved for the pure bred world level racer – the best of the best.