After the horrendous conditions of Thetford winter series round 1 last Sunday, it was nice to wake up to an rather nice but chilly morning, it may have been only 6.30, but I could tell it was going to be a good day, a real adventure and memorable day, as it turned out it would be but not for the reasons I thought.
The previous weekend had taught me a lot, not just about my skills on the bike but also what I can put my frail body through; I had a small bowl of muesli a large glass of beetroot juice and my usual 2 large strong coffees. I jumped into the van at 7.30 and made my way around the sunny M25 heading off for Bracknell. Arriving at the parking area in Crowthorne woods I was less than impressed car and vans littered the verges of the wet sand fire roads, now my first time here I don’t know where to park so I drive as close to the arena as possible, which to be fair I got fairly close, I found a small section that hadn’t been occupied and backed the van into the undergrowth; sorted I’m here.
Wandering down to the sign on caravan to collect my new race number (don’t know why we can’t keep a number for the series) I get to see the start gate, uphill hard packed stone and gravel with a liberal covering of sand/mud/slime. Back to the van to collect the bike and a quick change of clothes and I’m ready for a practise lap, riding back to the start gate I get there just at the wrong time; a race is just about to start, so I have to sit and wait for around 5 minutes as they start each group. When the last group had left I ride over the start line and off I set, now I don’t rush the sighting lap, but I was passing the tail enders of the field. The start of the lap was long fire roads, down hill then a steep climb before turning left and run downhill again into the first single track. I didn’t gel with this first section; rooty, bumpy and soft loose dry mulch in equal measures made for a hard first section. Then into a more flowing single track section with a small bomb hole section before hitting a fast hard surface section and a small climb back into single track, the first of the really technical sections. A steep rise into the section over the top of the crest and straight into a drop with a 90 degree turn and a second drop before another crest and another drop now a steep rise over more roots and loose material so an area where loads of pedal power is needed to crest the rise. More single track before popping out onto another hard surface fire road, long down hill, tricky gravel turn before a small climb which during the race would be start of my troubled last lap. A small single track section before a very short fire road which you needed that power spurt again as you drop into the ditch and then a steep 20 foot slope with the usual shiny roots at it’s crest before continuing along the track and into the tightest section I’ve ever ridden . A burnt area of forest with the pine trees so close together that my wide barred 29er would just scrape the bar ends through; but added to this the soft mulch of ash, soil and water combination. 120 to 180 degree turns whilst looking at the front wheel over the top of the bars, whilst sitting back over the seat so as not to weight the front wheel too much was very tricky and the slowest part of the track. I was still able to ride this section quicker than 26 inch wheeled bikes so was happy that what I had learnt at the Olympic course the week earlier had really upped my riding. This then led into the first gravel descent, loose surface in places where idiots lock the rear wheel and drag the surface with them, why do people do this? Just don’t brake the bike will take care of anything that happens, but as more and more stones collect it gets harder to ride at pace. Back out onto fire road and a boggy grass section before a really steep horrible little climb, just like the one out of shipwrights. A lot of power needed here and many places gained in the race, so all that practise on my training rides is worth it. Following this a lovely flowing ditch section with switchbacks up the ditch sides with roots, rocks and drops (not large but very steep) all over the place; again the confidence of riding Hadleigh Farm made this section flow so easy and again made lots of time up here, but no passing places.
This next section was my downfall on the final lap; a fast downhill fire road into a softish muddy twin track with bumps before a long drag uphill into the final technical section. A real strength sapper this one but again with my training I was quick here. The final section was tricky, the second of the gravel descends this one had a groove down the middle with ridges and roots and a nasty little turn half way down; with a 180 degree turn at the bottom and the same climb out as coming down, now with thighs burning more small drop offs and roots before the track disappeared sharp left over a loose off camber turn and into a tight wooded section of turns, small climbs and descends before heading straight for the side of the timing caravan and a small slide here would have left a nice Paul shaped dent in the caravan, but clear it I did; but only just. That was the lap, excellent it was; loads of interesting natural features to keep you focussed on your riding, if anyone fancy’s giving it a go I’ll be doing the Autumn series again next year. So back to the van to prepare for the race; dropped the tyre pressures slightly and a couple of gels, a banana and a bottle of my high 5 fluid for the race. I got chatting to the guy in the van next to me, a guy from Luton who rides chick sands all the time, but also races in the MSG series, so will catch up with him later next year. I rode the sighting lap with a jacket on, so slipped that off then realised just how chilly it still was only 4 degrees. After getting soaking wet and cold at Thetford I purchased a proper wicking base layer (Leicester tigers rugby away kit colours, everyone should be wearing tiger stripes this year it’s so cool). With bright sunshine I rode back to the start arena and found a nice sunny spot to stand like a meercat and warm up whilst observing the two minute silence for Armistice Day. Then the call came for the start so slipped into the pack on the second row and clipped into my pedal with my right foot and prepared to push off with my left foot on the ground.
Had I not been on the racing line side of the start line all would have been well, but as I was the surface of this uphill stony area was covered in sand and mud from the track, so that when the hooter sounded I pushed off on the ground and pushed all my power down on the right hand pedal, only for it to spin the rear wheel and loose my balance. With my left foot back on the ground I was hit from behind with caught me off balance again and by time I’d recovered my footing I was just about last off the line. Not the great start I was looking for and loads of work to be done; I flew around the course picking places off all the time; a slight twinge in my right calf after the first lap didn’t get any worse so for 2 and a half laps it was great and I was probably around 20th starting the last lap. Because it’s forestry land the tracks and paths are still open but one would think that walkers would pay a little more attention but no; an idiot with his dog on an extended lead wandering down the middle of the first fire road the dog running around both sides of the track. A quick shout to get his attention and an extended leg to move his dog and off onto the last lap I set, passing very slow lapped riders on the climbs and forcing my way past on the single track with a quick left or right shout did the trick. Half way through the lap my problem started, flying down a fire road I took a quick drink and failed to replace the bottle into the holder, so down the track it went. I had a split second decision to make stop; or collect it after the race by doing another lap. I slammed the brakes on and with an enormous stoppie I came to halt and ran back down the track to collect it only to be passed by 2 riders. Now I was mad so back on the bike chase was given; the first was easy to catch on the next climb and I made sure he knew I was faster by standing up and powering past him as he wobbled up the hill, it took slightly longer to catch the second one but by time we hit the downhill section before the long draggy climb I was nearly on his back wheel. So with an extra push as we hit the bumps in the softer mud section without any warning my back wheel leapt left then right then the unmistakable feeling of wet ground and knocked the wind from my lungs as I landed hard onto the track and watching the bike cartwheel further ahead. With the reconnaissance motorbike closely following me he stopped to see if I was okay, which I was just about, I went to jump back on the bike but was stopped as my back wheel had jumped out of it mounts and was jammed solidly against the rear arms. It took an age to release the skewer and pull the whole wheel out of the frame and refit it correctly, I don’t know how many places I had lost but it was a fair few, so I had to give chase yet again. With only a little of the lap left I managed to catch up with the back of a few riders but now my calf was aching & my left hand side bruised and a head ache from the crash slowed my pace a little. I managed to pass lapped riders and even passed the course motorbike on an uphill gravel track but could not make any places back even though I had caught two riders battling with each other, had the finish of the lap been more open; places would have been gained but not in this tight finish section. Over the line I crossed in 29th place out of 59 still put me in the top half so was happy at the end of the day. As this was my first technical problem since I started racing just over a year ago I’d say its okay, but was the wheel the cause of the crash of as a result of it? I know the cone comes loose after a while of riding but seemed okay when I checked the following day, so will have to see what happens on future rides. The big wheeled Trek won’t be raced until the MSG series next year so plenty of time to figured that question out over the winter training period.
Next race Thetford Winter Series December 2nd, catch you later my fellow mud monkeys.