A downhill start is unique in my experience. As well as the unusual incline, rather than the traditional start loop we were faced with an arrow straight 200m drag from the start into a sharp and narrow 90 degree corner. At a real pinch the opening into the trees was just wide enough for two riders side by side. With 40 riders sprinting downhill fighting to lead into that bend, the first few seconds of the race were going to be quite exciting!
The first two rows on the grid were already filled with the leading 12 riders in the series. The initial challenge was to force my way to the front when the rest of the riders were cleared to move forward behind them. I did well! Mission accomplished I sat smugly on the 3rd row, still with the dozen guys in front, 5 alongside and 23 breathing down my neck! A good start was crucial, anyone not in the top 10 around the first bend would quickly lose significant chunks of time as the field strung out single file through the woods.
The sun blazed down from the clear blue sky as we sat and waited. It was stiflingly hot as the commisaire read through the standard rules of engagement. I tuned him out, focusing on the start, my glasses beginning to steam up and sweat beading on my forehead. The 10 second warning was issued. I tuned back in, “The race could start any time in the next 10 seconds!”. You could hear a pin drop. The silence was broken by the piercing whistle and then the cacophony of clattering pedals, the crunching of tyres on gravel and the grinding of gears.
I dodged straight through the 2nd row and was on the pedals sprinting flat out on the straightest line for the corner. I jinked left and right amongst the dust and flying stones, trying to find gaps ahead. A chink of daylight appeared and I surged through. Immediately I was on the brakes, rear wheel locked up and sliding towards the corner. One rider cut in infront of me, I had to give way to a second to prevent a collision which let a third draw up on the inside. As I mentioned there was just about space for two and we squeezed through, handlebars interlocked. I was on the outside, but had the slightly better line and powered into third.
The adrenalin was really flowing and I was buzzing to have made it into contention at the sharp end of the race. We swung left and right, I was faster than the rider ahead and he was holding me back. The leader started pulling away and I was frustratingly bottled up. I tried a couple of times to squeeze past, but there wasn’t enough space. I felt like screaming “Come On, he’s getting away!” I could hear the riders right up behind me, undoubtably equally frustrated. I had to take a tight defensive line into the slower corners to stop them from sneaking up the inside.
Between the trees I could see the leader charging the other way down a wider gravel path in the sunshine, while we were still threading our way through the wood. Desperate to give chase I was already alongside 2nd place as we burst into the daylight. I shot past and down the open track and up a loose stoney slope before sweeping down into the woods again. The gap ahead was closing, I used the short climbs to kick hard and inched my way towards the head of the race. Chasers were hot on my tail and despite defending the racing line, through a series of tight bends I was passed by two of those behind.
I definitely wasn’t going to be nudged just off the podium for the second time this season. I’d already experienced the emotion of a 4th placed finish at the same venue in May racing Cyclocross. So I stuck to the two ahead as we continued to close in on the race leader. The other two slithered past on consecutive corners, and desperate not to be left behind I grabbed my chance as the course briefly widened. Passing on the right I was back in a podium position.
Just before the end of the lap the course emerged from the wood and fired us up the hill for a few loops through a copse of trees. Bumping over the roots my momentum swung me around the outside of the rider ahead before sprinting down the start finish straight. Only 6 laps to go!
My first warm-up lap on arrival at Matterley had been a huge disappointment. The route had been freshly cut into the woodland, with hardly any of the 1.8 mile circuit using existing trails. I’d bumped slowly around on the loose stones and bracken stems trying to remember a worse course. (I couldn't!) The short lap meant there was time for a second warm-up circuit which I rode faster, the extra speed helping the lap flow much better, although it was still very rough and basic. As the race laps ticked by, hundreds of riders quickly produced a racing line amongst the flints and rocks. However, the surface was still extremely uneven, perfectly suited to a full suspension bike. On my hardtail, I probably only sat down for about a third of the lap!
On the gravel road half way around the second lap, I could hear a rider in my slipstream. It was the guy who had held me up at the start, who now seemed to have got his eye in and warmed up. He came through and I followed, but he was definitely no longer holding me up. The racing was increadibly close, the leader was still easily insight and in range. When I looked two or three riders were always on my tail. I had pushed really hard on that first lap, but there was no chance for recovery. The next 4 laps were all consistently within 15 seconds of the first. On lap 6 I made a concerted effort to close the small gap to the rider ahead, while there was still time. I nailed every corner, taking risks on the rooty descents, brushing the nettles on the bends, ignoring the stings. I sprinted up the first two inclines and got right up to the wheel of 2nd place. My heart was about to leap from my chest and stitch started to creep in.
I have suffered quite badly from stitch recently during interval training. It has been totally debilitating, leaving me unable to even turn the pedals. It's been so unbearable I did some research and learnt that nobody actually knows the cause, and therefore there is also no known cure. I had no choice, even with 4th place only 15 seconds behind, I had to ease off slightly and try and recover whenever the course dipped downhill. Luckily after a minute or two the pain receded, but I was back where I had been, 10 seconds behind 2nd place.
It was a really close battle. We all attacked during the final lap, putting in faster times compared to the lap before. But in the end we cancelled each other out! I finished 3rd 43 seconds off the lead and 11.2 behind second place and 12.9 ahead of 4th. It had been unrelenting for the full 90 minutes. I hadn’t even planned to race at Mattersley, but after missing the previous round I decided a bit of race practice would be perfect preparation for the Nationals next weekend. The bike worked flawlessly and the legs proved themselves strong! This result was a brilliant confidence boost ahead of the big one next Sunday