A course of two halves at the Welsh XC Series Round 1

The sun sneaks through the gap in the curtains and wakes me. Normally I’d curse myself for not drawing them properly the night before but I check myself. It’s 6.30am, its light and the sun is shining for the first time in what seems like six months. It’s time to get up, start the day and start the MTB racing season.

I’ve decided to mix things up this year. With my main target, the WEMBO World 24 Hour Solo Champs not until October there is plenty of time to improve fitness, sharpen those skills and have some fun. Along the way I’ve flagged some other goals, to ride more with friends, check out some new race venues and enjoy some great race weekends away, hopefully in the sun.

First up is round one of the Welsh XC series over at Caephilly near Cardiff. I’d heard good reports about the Welsh courses and hoped this would deliver a good hard race and technical circuit to act as a vinegar, a natural revitaliser to those skills made rusty by a wet winter of mainly road training. Things looked promising as I dropped off the M4 and climbed Caephilly Mountain to the Mountain Ranch Activity Centre. At the top of the hill I was greeted by far reaching views under a cloudless sky. Good start.

What's that yellow ball in the sky ? Shadows, really ?

What’s that yellow ball in the sky ? Blue sky… Shadows… really ?

Now we’ve endured not inches, not feet, it must be miles of rain this winter so I expected the course to be wet but the early part of the lap which traversed the open hillside was remarkably dry. Even the sketchy looking muddy adverse cambered sections could be hit at full speed without fear of wipe-out but this was definitely a course of two halves. A sweeping right hander led into a steep, wet and loose descent with a fair selection of slippery rocks to intimidate the nervous. At the bottom our surprisingly amenable course took on a new character, an altogether more frustrating one as the track ran alongside a stream through ever deepening mud with countless wet embedded rocks to interrupt the flow. In reality, with the 3 ingredients crucial to success for any mountain bike racer; skill, power and luck, most of this section was rideable. Although factor in race effort, traffic and the importance of forward motion I prepared myself for plenty of running come race time. Eventually the course climbed out of the gully and left the mud behind on a well surfaced switchback climb to the finish line.

Plenty of space on the startline, still got swamped.

Plenty of space on the startline, still got swamped.

At 11am we all lined up in waves. With the Elite, Expert, Junior and Youth categories starting first, then others following at short intervals. I’ve never had so much space on the start line, with only about ten Experts in the field and choosing to start on the far left away from all the others I could have ran the widest handlebars in the world without problem. The space didn’t do me much good though as my ageing diesel engine stalled on take-off and nearly the entire field swamped me. I didn’t look behind for fear of seeing that I really was in last place and focused on moving up. The open sections allowed plenty of overtaking but I really made progress in the muddy gulley, while many were determined to show their riding skills, twinkle-toes me danced passed them and up to 2nd Expert by the end of the first lap.

 

Emerging from the muddy valley of doom.

Emerging from the muddy valley of doom.

A sizable crowd gathered at the top of the final climb near the finish line and I’m sure like me they were surprised to hear I had already lost one and a half minutes to the leading Expert, young Manxman Nick Corlett. But that’s the great thing about having and engine like mine, it may take a while to get going but once it does, it keeps going. I settled into a small group of quick youngsters and enjoyed the cut and thrust of racing for gaps and trying to drop each other, while simultaneously pulling away from the other Experts. With just two laps remaining I was on my own, feeling strong and was starting to claw back the leader. As traffic cleared, more of the course could be ridden but I simply ran out of time and had to be satisfied with second place on a challenging day for body and bike ! Well done to Nick on a top ride after he led all the Elites for a few laps. One to watch this year I think.

All in all,a great day. I gave the engine a run out. The sun shone. Arms and legs were uncovered. Summer felt like it was on the way. Hat duly doffed to the Welsh XC organisers. Some moaned about the course but I think they did a remarkable job considering the weather this winter.

 

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