There is one event that I have entered every year since I started Mountain Biking, for me it excites me year on year and this year was no different.
I’ve entered in fun teams, semi-competitive teams and solo in the past but this year Josh Ibbett asked if I wanted to join a competitive team with an eye on a podium. It seemed like a great idea, so we joined up with Richard Rothwell and Rickie Cotter, all of us sponsored by USE/Exposure lights including myself and entered the only pro level category, Expert Mixed. We are all soloists so it would be a little strange only doing a lap at a time but we hoped that our endurance and experience at these would help us along in the latter part of the race.
We all arrived on site during Friday and it was clear that it would be a muddy weekend, I’d never seen Eastnor Castle so wet and with more rain forecast we knew what it would be like through the race! The course was almost identical to last year, except last year it was dry so I decided not to do a practice lap and instead save a set of kit! The competition in Expert Mixed was looking very tough with reigning champions Hope back all be it with a slightly changed team. Scott UK were back again with a strong line up and also a very fast team Hargroves Cycles with a mix of MTB riders and Cyclocross professionals.
I had only brought one bike, my Felt Nine 29er hardtail but I did bring a number of spares including a spare set of wheels with cyclocross tyres fitted. The only real downside for 29ers is the lack of a good narrow mud tyre (something akin to a Dirty Dan or Black Shark Mud), but given the rim size is exactly the same as road/cyclocross the tyres fit.
Saturday arrived and I had drawn the short straw of doing the run. Reminder to myself, never admit to to doing ANY running or you will be clobbered!! Last year the run was very long, so this year I decided to start in my Salomon Speed Cross 2 shoes hoping to avoid any soreness in my legs as running in carbon soled race shoes is not comfortable!
|Pic: Andrew Joseph|
The race got underway at midday and my run was reasonable but by no means lightning quick and the other Expert Mixed teams were well away by the time I changed into my Shimano cycling shoes. I pushed hard, slowly gaining places throughout the lap. The course was holding up fairly well, lots of watery mud but it was almost completely rideable, just one short uphill had me running. By the end of the lap I handed over to Rich, just over 3 minutes back from the lead trio in the category. Rich put in a strong lap, but it was clear that all the riders on the course had made it more difficult and it was also getting sticky as it dried out. While I waited to go back out again I decided to fit the wheels with Schwalbe Rocket Ron cyclocross tyres. Mud clearance was top priority, so the cross tyres would be better than a fatter tyre. Josh went after Rich and put into another strong lap, our times were all within a minute of each other, which was great to see. We were pretty settled in 4th place, no real chance of being caught and the top 3 were swapping about amongst themselves and seemed too far away to catch.
It wasn’t just the 4 of us in the team, we had a fantastic support crew at the event. My wife Nia had come along and mostly assumed the job of bike washer, cleaning everyones bikes after every lap. She also kept us fed and the hot drinks flowing. Ben my mechanic from Wiggle was also at the event and he kept all the bikes running perfectly, swapping tyres and anything else that might need changing or looking at. We also had Anne Dickins as our team physio, she kept us going by providing massages, stretches and general physio work throughout the weekend. There was also the Wiggle shop staff who chipped in as and when they could.
We did another set of laps between the 3 of us, the weather was mostly dry which was bad news as the mud started to dry out and become claggy and hard to pedal through and there was a definite split in the course, with the first half being sticky and slow and the second staying wetter, slippery and lots more fun! The cross tyres were working well, stopping mud from clogging up in the frame. After Josh’s second lap we unleashed Rickie and she was certainly eager to get going! She put a flying lap in before handing back over to me around dusk. My 3rd lap was a little slower than the previous two, mostly due to the first half being harder to pedal through. Feeling pretty tired I was pretty glad to hand over to Rich for the first full night lap of the event while I tried to get a little rest. The conditions seemed to get even worse as night came in and lap times slowed. My 4th lap was my slowest and felt like the hardest, as soon as I set off it felt as if my saddle was too high and my shoes felt odd. It didn’t take me long to realise I’d forgotten to put my insoles back in! Very stupid mistake, but I had to get on with it, all be it rather uncomfortably. It really affected my power and I had to try and climb out of the saddle whenever possible, but that wasn’t easy when grip was almost non existent on the muddy climbs. I was very glad to finish the lap, which was my slowest of the weekend and hand over to Rich again and got a bit of sleep while the others rode their laps.
|Pic: Anne Dickins|
When I awoke for my 5th lap, around 7am I was amazed to find that we had moved up to 3rd! For some reason Hargroves had stopped for a few hours during the night and we moved in front. The thought of stopping hadn’t even crossed my mind, no matter how tough the conditions we all just kept going. No moaning, no second thoughts. Just ride as fast as possible! Perhaps being soloists helped in that regard. During my 4th lap the rain had made the mud much easier to ride though, so I had asked Ben to swap back to 2.25″ Rocket Ron 29er tyres. Pretty soon after I started my 5th lap I regretted my decision as the mud was back to being sticky, slow and hard work. The first half was a nightmare, having to stop and push lots of times and having the tyres clog up so badly at times that the wheels wouldn’t move around! Thankfully the second half was better and I managed to make up some lost time and had an absolute blast on the slippery, slidey descents. Handing over to Rich I realised that was my final lap, we only had time for another 2 laps at the most. It was a nervous final few laps, especially the final lap when Josh was out as we realised that Hargroves had re-started and picked up the pace and had a chance of catching us.
We were all massively relieved to see Josh round the final corner, trudge his way through the sticky mud along the start/finish straight to give us a podium finish at Mountain Mayhem! We all had a brilliant time, regardless of where we finished but to get a podium was the icing on the cake. To have a team made of 4 soloist come together and ride so well as a team was great and made a nice change. Who knows, maybe we will do it again?
|Pic: Rob Crayton|
Massive thanks to the support team: Nia, Ben & Anne. My wicked team mates: Rickie, Josh & Rich and to Wiggle and USE/Exposure lights.