Meting up with friends on a Sunday night often means that sooner or later I’m asked how I’d faired in the race I’ve done earlier that day. I do my best to explain what racing in the scorching heat for an hour at full pace with no water feels like, but I always find it difficult to tell the story to my non-racing friends. There are always subtle intricacies that are impossible to explain. This week they looked at me trying to take it all in, before one asked, “Do you ever wake up and just not want to go racing?”…
A typical preparation for a cross race wouldn’t include an xc ride, followed by work, Sussex beer, Chinese food, red wine, more work, Thai food, a gig, a late night and a drive through central London, but hey, I’m not that typical anyway! Today you could add a temperature of nearly 30 degrees and Herne Hills difficult track into the mix. To my surprise I was called up to the third row of the grid and with 140 riders starting that would be crucial on the narrow out field sections. Having said that their still seemed to be an awful lot of bumping and barging as we headed straight into the first corner.
Racing always feels right once you’re underway. I had worried about the set up of the bike after some rather excitable marshals had cut everybody’s inspection time down, but the changes I’d made seemed to be right. Herne Hill is split between some fairly technical rocky singletrack which I love and some long grassy in field drags which I hate. Quickly it became all about picking off riders one by one in the singletrack (easier said than done) and simply surviving the tough in field.
Kilometres race by and the lap counter slowly drops and I began passing riders who had raced past at the beginning which was pleasing. I had my eye on one rider in particular. People often ask me why I race when I could just ride my bike for free. For me it’s the purity of racing that I love – knowing that when others have pushed themselves I can go that little bit faster or further. Likewise I’m in awe of those who have trained their bodies to a point which I haven’t yet risen to. Basically I love to ride my bike better than other riders.
Sprinting up the steep hill halfway through the singletrack section I could see my prey stumble. Within seconds I was right on his heels as we leaped back onto our machines. He desperately fought to engage his pedal as we flicked right and I pinned my front wheel into the edge of the trail. It dug in well and I knew my target was going to go wide, so I set up squarely for the roller. As we sliced over the hip I found the grip I was hoping for and as I powered through the sandy run off I looked deeply into the dark eyes of the rider I had bested. I’d been on the receiving end of that look a week ago and I’d worked hard in my weeks training, to be able to return it. I’m sure it’s not the end of that battle, but for this week I’d nailed the coffin shut.
My race wasn’t by any means over and done with though now. As well as many other riders to race, I was also competing against the extreme heat. Cross is usually run in colder, wetter, if not freezing wet conditions. It’s not unusual to be racing in snow later on in the season, so the balmy 30 degrees heat which was magnified in the stadium section was hard to handle, especially with a bike that has no provision for water – In fact the governing body doesn’t officially allow water to be handed up! Although we had been allowed to flaunt this rule, I had no one to hand me bottles anyway so I had nothing but a mouth that felt like sand and feathers to keep me company!
In the last two laps I’d worked hard to stay with a rider who was much stronger than me on the grass and I had to constantly attack on the singletrack to stay in contention. Unfortunately every time I created a gap between us I caught a backmarker and had to wait to get past – I just couldn’t get the space I needed. Even with that we reached the final set of hurdles together which felt great, but I knew I had nothing left. I had fought and beaten so many riders and as I tried to sprint to the line I had nothing left. I finished 18th out of 140, just a few seconds away from a much stronger rider and although I haven’t lost a sprint since I can remember I was very happy with my best result so far in cross. I also finished on the same lap as the winner which I think is the first time I’ve managed that and is a clear improvement over last week’s result so all’s well that ends well!
To answer her question? Truly no. Sometimes I don’t feel 100% and sometimes I feel some nerves before the gun goes, but I can’t ever remember not wanting to ride my bicycle! In an over complicated and fashion obsessed world it’s an oasis of simplistic mechanical perfection that I can grasp in its entirety and get lost in. It’s my escape. The same goes for racing – once the gun goes, it doesn’t matter what bike you have or how shiny your glasses are, it’s all about who can shred the trail the best.
Herne Hill had provided an excellent back drop for a great race and a private victory whilst concreting the confidence I have in myself and my bike. Roll on next Sunday.
THE.ÆIGHT.BICYCLE.CØMPANY proudly use Kona™ Framesets, Fox™ Suspension, Rohloff™ Transmissions, Shimano™ and Ritchey™ Components, Schwalbe Tyres, Exposure lights™, adidas™ Eyewear, Clothing and torq™ Performance Nutrition. We also buy additional gear from Cotswold Outdoor to support our riders at races. We’re not sponsored by any of these brands, but we wouldn’t use any other equipment.
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