Post by - Paul Coulson
I was up at a very startling 6.45 am, on this bright crisp and utterly freezing Sunday morning, why? Oh yeah race day had come, so after a huge bowl of muesli and 2 super strong coffees, the van was loaded and off I trundled around the M25 heading for Guildford. Watching the temperature slowly climb from 2 degrees in Leigh by the time I’d hit Hampshire it was a balmy 6 degrees. After driving down some very small country lanes I found the signs for the cycle event.
Driving into the arena I did think ‘is this it’, a few cars dotted around until I found the fire road leading to the main arena, I managed to park within 100 meters of the village, excellent. So a quick walk to sign on and get my race number and all set for a practice lap. They have been organizing races now for 20 years so know what they are doing, but this is 1st time I have not had to sign a disclaimer, just picked my number from a holder in front the caravan and that’s it ready to roll.
Out of the back of van came the trusty Trek superfly elite 29er, all shiny and clean, I’d drove there in my lycra so no changing on such a cold morning in the back of the van. Gorrick again do things a little different; you can practice at any time; during any race just as long as you don’t hinder the racers. This can be a little hard especially when you are in the middle of a tight twisty single track section, but with one ear and one eye open behind me off I set. An easy lap I thought, don’t want to waste energy, so immediately into a climb; great. My first time in this neck of the woods, but I had heard from my fellow racers that it was pretty much like Thetford i.e. trees, sandy soil that drains well, ups and downs. The next section was a small technical mound nothing too serious until I hit the 2nd mound; huge tree roots on the crest of the 1st up followed by a rooty drop whilst turning right into a hollow then up, down and out, across a small grass section before plunging into a water bath. Already cold this didn’t help or make me smile; so bombing down the next tree lined section looking ahead 2 riders had stopped checking out a small obstacle (I thought), when on top of it and no way of stopping I ploughed through a square cut hole in the ground , rear wheel lofting into the air as the front wheel disappeared under me and jolting me to the core on landing when the front wheel popped back out the other side, so now I’m cold, wet and have a sore back; great start.
A rather steep shale climb was next up which opened out on a plain, with such a great view I wanted to stop and look out over the countryside until I saw the down hill descent; woo hoo speed time. A superfast section on loose gravel, sand and eventually dust along a stretch of single track until another climb starting on the dusty trail before heading into the trees and a steep root strewn climb. From here it led into what I’ll call the ditch section, I’m sure it has a name but it was like a half pipe. 180 degree switch backs up both sides with small drop offs over roots, until I caught another rider stuck on a rather difficult section nearly vertical 8 ft rise again huge shiny roots glaring at me, but as I’d lost most of my speed braking I tried to power over the crest but ended up spinning and a foot had to be liberated from the spd before bike and rider ended up horizontally. The next section was back into the trees, this time very tight, very twisty and very steep. Added to that the damp soft soil and the roots made this section very hard on the wide barred big wheeler, I’m just glad that training on castle hill came in good; the amount of power needed to turn 180 degrees whilst at around 70 degrees from horizontal dodging the worst of the roots and low branches, brought my riding skills to well over the level I’m at but I did it, now could I still do it on lap three in the race, time will tell.
A quick drop out of the trees over a fire road on a sharp left turn only to see the track disappear from view to be left with a vertical 20 foot drop off into a cutting, fortunately I saw another rider ahead and could see the track he was on snaked it’s way down the edge of the cutting and not over the edge that would have plunged me to my instant death (one would presume). So full steam ahead down the track and through the deep sand pit before a sharp turn right back into the trees, this section I did like very much, I would say it’s the closest thing to a real alpine track that I’ve ever ridden, switch back trail through pine trees whilst dropping down hill all the time before leading out on to a long fire road climb, then back into a tight twisty single track tree climb with drop offs over roots and very rooty uphill corners as it snaked its way through the countryside. Back out onto a fire road and another long gradual climb this time leading into a grassy section with a mud bog hole before a 30 foot steep incline linking it onto a very small fire road section and onto the last section of the lap. More used to this kind of trail open grassy section, very damp under the tyres with just enough undulation to keep things interesting ; now one final drop about 10 feet off camber loose soil sideways down the slop and fire road once more through a water splash and that’s the lap complete. Checked time 45 minutes to complete but as I said took it easy and let the racers have their line whilst keeping out of the competitor’s way.
Final check of the bike and fuel needed for the race. 2 HIGH 5 gel sachets and a mint flavoured club bar with a banana and finished my HIGH 5 4:1 fructose drink which I’d started on the drive there and a bottle of water (slightly ribena flavoured and a pinch of sea salt) in the holder. All set for the race; when I was shouted at by a passing rider “Hello Grays” looking round a face appeared from the corner of the van. Tony Champness from Essex Mongrels was there with his Brother Paul, Tony unfortunately only completed one lap but Paul came 6thin the Vets class. So off to the start line and the usual chatting and banter was to be had, and I ended up talking to a couple of blokes who race with Gorrick regular, a first corner pile up was usual for here so with that in mind I got ready for the mad charge up hill and onto the first single track. I have never seen so many 29er’s together, it seems that for the over 40’s class it’s the weapon of choice, most people I chat to say it’s easier to ride, which is why us oldies ride them. Another thing I had noticed earlier on my warm up lap was the lack of marshals at this event, photographers everywhere but no marshals; strange but never did find out why that was.
A slight delay for the start, but soon we heard the familiar calls of “within the next 10 seconds I’ll sound the hooter and the race will start”. Blaaaaahhhhhhhhh the sound of pedals being clipped in and the shouts from the crowd are almost deafening at the start as the gravel beneath the tyres gets spat out the back of the bike. Off we go at a very fast pace up through the gears and onto the climb lots of elbows and wheel rubbing going on, I’m not keen on the starts but I’ll now give as good as I get and as soon as we hit the first bend I’m out wide riding past the riders slowed at the apex, about 8 places gained when with out any warning I ride straight into the rear cassette of the rider in front. The first corner pile up didn’t happen, it was to take place on the narrower grass section after the corner, a couple of riders down; nothing serious and the rider behind me hit my rear wheel. A quick dab of the foot and off we go again, now spread out we set about getting into a good rhythm.
I’m mid pack so happy with that start and I can see the next 20 or so riders in front stretching out down the track and I’ve got about 8 behind me, I always try and keep with the main pack for the first lap and all went well until we hit the half pipe bit and the roots on the crest of the rise, foiled again to clear this section and now lost the riders wheel in front, but also I lost my chasing rider, so I settle into my race pace and slowly pick fast starting but no stamina riders off one by one. Over cooked the drop down hill next to the cutting and slew the bike sideways to shed the speed until all back under control. On the uphill tree section I completely lost both tyres rounding a tight turn and got my foot caught in a low hanging branch which would not let go, fortunately the riders behind now could not re-pass as I was blocking the whole trail so with a hard thrash of the leg I was loose and back into the pedals. By the end of lap one a decent pace was being set and 4 or 5 of us were in close contact each passing the others on their preferred sections, I would power past them on the fire road climbs only to loose out on the singe track sections (much work needed on that skill). So through the start finish arena and lap 2 started. On one of the faster single track down hill rooty bits the rear end spun out which with a swift movement of the body to correct the centre of gravity and a big dab of the foot I was momentarily off the track, when I heard the voice that has snuck up behind me, “how did you save that, you were off that thing” , “luck I think” was my reply (perhaps my basic skills are better than I thought or was it years of racing motorcycles that give you a quick reflex to get the thing back under control without the pain of crashing). Adrian it turned out to be from Berks on Bikes club, was then glued to my back wheel as I upped my pace chasing down the rider in front of me from the Charlottesville team. For the next lap and a half the gaps between us increased and decreases as we flew through the different sections, but never more than 5 seconds apart at any time. By now I was taking bigger risks and threw everything I had into the 3rd and final lap, we passed rider after rider chasing each other down, everything just flowed right, drop offs were no longer very big, the rooty section that had thwarted me on my warm up and 1st lap was a piece of cake at speed, every obstacle with a little more speed was easier to get through or over, an important lesson learnt keep of the brakes and let the bike do what it’s made to do, it’s better at it than me.
So into the final open section, I pushed soo hard up the final fire road, my thighs were burning, but as the words of G (BC commissionaire & MSG fame) echoed around my head “that’s not pain but weakness leaving the body”; knowing that I had to pull a big enough gap from the rider behind and I caught the rider in front going into the single track, but he pulled clear again and before too long I could hear the heavy breathing of Adrian behind, I’m not losing this place no way, so with bloody determination I launched myself off the loose off camber final drop and hit the big ring, now standing the pedals and crashing down the cassette doing well over 30 mph I lofted the front wheel over the last water splash to the enjoyment of the young spectators standing there and hard onto the brakes for the tight last corner and that’s it finished. A huge congratulation from Adrian for the power that I could produce on the fire roads, but it was me who was most grateful to him, for pushing me for nearly 2 laps which on my own I would have fell into a safe easy pace, but he kept me going and what a great race we had.
So race over, cool down done, back to the van and a quick number board change onto the Marin and off I set for another lap to evaluate the Rubena tyres that Grays Motorcycle Centre Ltd had supplied to the club for the first product test on the website. It’s amazing that on my first practise lap in the morning the course looked quite daunting but on my fifth lap of the day it held no fear and powering through the pedals and hard barking where that was needed and just letting the bike roll with what ever was coming next; that was the lap I enjoyed the most, very slow again , letting the racing riders have right of way, but good fun, it didn’t matter if I rode the fire roads slowly the fun was the single track and with the new Rubena tyres fitted it was magical.
So race one of the two race series done with, a check of the results before I left the forest and a very happy man I was too, 26th place in the vets out of 59 finishers, top 50% of the field I can live with that. Round 2, 11th November at Crowethorn woods, Hampshire, I’ll be wearing my poppy with pride remembering my Great Grandfather (although I never met him, I have however visited his grave in northern France) so that race will be for him.
Results and standings from the events can be seen here.