The first race of the year is always a funny thing. You think you are well prepared but deep down you know that nothing you have done during the winter is going to set your body up for the shock. This is an accentuated experience for an endurance racer doing an XC race...
Well, I say XC; this was funny one. 36 miles of big hills over two laps. A long XC race but too short to really be an endurance event. As it panned out, this is exactly how my body reacted.
Over 400 had registered for the event. Despite the start being on a wide fireroad, with that number of people, (and the associated 5million megatrons of nervous energy) enclosed by high walls of fir trees it all felt pretty claustrophobic... I was under no illusion this was going to be easy as many of the Lakes best riders had turned up for what was essentially the first race of the summer.
A blast of the horn and we were off! It was fast and it was up... and up. And then up some more. In fact it generally went up for about oh; ten vertical miles at least. (Glad I had some gears to go through, eh Paul?). I wasn’t just breathing hard; I was tearing the lining out of my throat! It felt a bit like swallowing razor blades as the air was clear, crisp and cold. Getting clear of the mass was the aim and the hard effort paid off; whilst a leading group slowly pulled away, I had good clear track and a number of us lined out. This was a merciless and clinical way of sorting the field out!
I haven’t mentioned the weather yet have I? It was quite literally out of this world! Not a breath of wind. Not a cloud to be seen. Not a particle of dust in the sky; it was beyond crystal clear. One of the guys from Wheelbase hit the nail on the head when he stated, ‘If you don’t enjoy this then sell your bike’. Never a truer a word spoken. As we crested the first climb the panorama of Skiddaw opened out to our right; a light dusting of snow capped the peak making it look like a clichéd child’s picture of a perfect mountain. Far below Bassenthwaite Lake sparkled bluer than any photo-shopped holiday brochure. It was literally breathtaking and that is coming from somebody who rides in the Lakes a lot. In fact the views made it quite hard to focus on the track!
Start line nerves disappeared and I tried to settle into a pace. Except that didn’t quite happen... The course had a kind of general pattern to it; up steep long climbs, across technical man made sections and down either more of the same or super fast fireroad. Then the climbing would start again... Bottom to top! Now I’m not a fan of fireroad but strangely the sections in this course were interesting due to their largeness if nothing else! The long drag out from the back and West of Whinaltter is a beast; (coincidentally, this is where I first learnt the meaning of ‘oxygen debt’ as a teenager on a mountain bike!) and following this crest we went straight into one of the more challenging man made sections. The course was unrelenting and my heart rate was rocketing! Through the first check point I heard that I was about 12th. Ok, still time yet. The second lap was going to feel mighty long for a lot of people and I hoped my endurance ability would kick in... But my legs were screaming and that sickly feeling had grasped my stomach by two hands! Nevertheless, I had pulled a couple of places back. I knew I needed to go if I was going to claw further through the field but it was that, ‘Will I cramp if I push one watt harder feeling?’ so I kept it steady (well, ‘ish’).
Two big climbs to go... and then ‘Ping!’. It was like a switch had been flicked! My heart rate dropped, (and not in bad way) my breathing calmed down, and my legs whirred beneath me like the proverbial hamster in a wheel. That’s better! I span easily past a rider who was wrestling his bars just to keep moving forward... but it was too late. I’d ran out of track. Doh! One more section of man made across the tops (eye now well and truly ‘In’) and then a fire road plummet down to the finish. I finished 9th and rued not ‘going earlier’. It’s all about experience and I’d gained a bit more so I was happy.
It was a great day of hard fought racing, but most memorably, it was a fantastic ride with good company and in stunning surroundings. The season has started!