Winter’s over now, it’s official. It’s the first day of spring, which means if you haven’t put in the work through the dark months, it’s too late to do anything about it now. No amount of electrolyte gels, magic high-5 powder or pre-race adrenaline hits are going to save my ass, it’s time for racing.
Midlands XC always run a fantastic series starting in early spring, and mirroring many year’s prior, Sherwood Pines holds the honor of clearing out the cobwebs through it’s winding singletrack and deceivingly punishing fire roads. This year certainly assumed the mantle and put on a fantastic 4.2 mile (or almost 6.8km for those of a European persuasion..) course cutting through the dense woods and remarkably managing to find some elevation where it once seemed flat.
Today I was racing against two; last year’s pretty poor-to-middling result, and fellow racer / Euro extraordinaire / singlespeeder-sadist, Nathan.
Although there was some effigy of confidence to beat the former, the latter was going to be a whole other challenge. Oh I’d put in the miles over winter, but he’s a bit of a whippet, and a bit of a mountain goat up the climbs, but we still begin on the same start line like everyone else.
After the initial melee on the start whistle, of which I always lose out about a third of the pack, (mental note… use more elbows!) the pack thinned out to single file after the first flat out corners around the pit lane, with the occasional rider taking a more, shall we say, creative line through the scrub, acquiring decorative foliage in the process. Although a disappointing start, I could see the telltale red, white and blue Ritchey in the near pack, and so with a couple of my own creative line choices over drainage and brush, I was sat on the wheel of my main rival, and the race was on.
The first 3 laps twisted and turned around Sherwood’s finest freshly cut singletrack, with the two of us tussling for the advantage, with me trying to gain position for the descents, knowing I could gain a couple of seconds on the tighter trails pointing downward, with Nathan ensuring that all fire roads and climbs resulting in lung and leg-searing efforts, a feat further aided by headwinds across the back straights.
With both of us shoulder checking the other, the final lap drew in, with all other racers now spread enough to be of no concern (aside from the occasional bonked rider, head down and shoulders forward turning their legs towards to finish line). The race was always going to be close, somewhat unexpectedly so, with fewer opportunities to gain ground; after a bit of a post-race debrief, we’re in agreement that it probably boiled down to a single wide corner, and only half a wheel-length into the tight tree’s. After that it was a matter of gaining some ground on the more technical runs, resulting in a 5th overall on one particularly winding segment.
With the race drawing to a close, body battered and aching, it was just a matter of keeping the legs pushing rather than turning, with the Niner’s “Pedal Damnit” mantra serving as a sobering reminder every time my head dropped. With the 1km marker quickly approaching, a quick shoulder check to make sure my wheel was clear, and a couple of 2-wheeled drifts through the flatter corners and the chequered flag dropped on the first race of the season.
41/60, running 2/3 down the pack, similar to last year, although on paper a slight improvement, a quick check on the strava data show a significant improvement both in pace and HR, and some important lessons learned for the coming season. Work to be done, time to be gained. I think I may even treat myself to using proper forks over the rigids; although Sherwood lends itself to a stiffer rigid front-end, other courses are not quite as forgiving!
Thanks to Midlands XC and Sherwood Pines Cycles for organising a brilliant race, Niner Bikes for making the Air 9 feel like cheating, and thank you to all competitors who really make it an event to remember. Here’s to the next round!
Sidenote: Although seemingly a good idea… don’t drink a 9.5% Tripel post-race in a hot bath with mega-dehydration… or do, what am I? Your mother?