To be honest, I entered The Gralloch without reeeaaallly realising what it was. I wanted an excuse for a few days up in Scotland in the campervan and a laid back race on the Saturday afternoon - not too long to take up the whole day and evening like the Reiver and doable from the campsite I'd chosen without any more planning required - seemed like just the reason I was searching for. Only as more an more people started saying they'd entered, as more and more publicity about the "UKs first international level gravel race" began to float about on the internet, did I realise that, well, it wasn't one to bimble round while targetting food at feedstations. It was taking itself very seriously. Thankfully Lee was obviously more on the ball than me and in the weeks running up to it I found myself training perfectly to be on good form for it. I still had the mini holiday at the seaside, but the Saturday afternoon entertainment was to me a bit more 'organised' than first expected.
It was a lovely mash up on the Saturday morning, bumping into so many people I know from bike racing, in one of the nice little towns I usually see when far away from all that sort of thing. What is normally a quiet little place was transformed, heaving, buzzing, with cheering locals hanging out of upstairs windows for a better view as the world descended on it. The sun was even shining and the local artisan pizza establishment was able to book me in for post race carbs, brilliant!
I may have come to terms with it being a proper race, but I'd not quite got round to worrying about it, so queueing up in the start 'pens' was just a nice place to be. I had no concerns about how I was going to race, I felt...good and just sort of knew I'd be fine to blast round. I nearly jumped the gun when a "30 seconds to go" whistle went off (seriously, who has one of those?!), but got away cleanly and was happily in the top few riders as we left town and hit the dirt.
The course started climbing almost immediately and I after realising I was struggling to seee the ground for all the dust being kicked up, came to the conclusion that I didn't want to be in a group of 'unknowns' on the first few descents so rode off a bit ahead for a few miles while it all settled down. No big effort, just wafted off the front and cruised along there for a few miles until it calmed down a bit.
10 or so minutes later a quickly moving, smaller group came past so I tagged onto it and that was pretty much that for the first half of the race. There were quite obivously some powerful legs in that group as every now and again one of them (two of them, the owners of the legs, you know what I mean...) would go to the front, issue forth some watts and essentially shrink the group by spitting a rider or two out the back. I mostly just sat in and watched, feeling...fine. OK it was obviously fast, our average speed as we went past the first feedstation was over 20mph, but it certainly wasn't unsustainably silly.
Our group continued to shrink and after a while I realised I shouldn't just be sat in, a bit of contribution would only be polite, so on a smoother, mmore TTesque section I plonked myself on the front and just tapped along at a nice pace that everyone seemed to be happy with. We reeled in a couple of riders who'd gone off ahead earlier, who joined us and, at the halfway point I was of the opinion that this was the front end of 'my' age group. Hard to tell, with other age groups going off at earlier times than us, but essentially we were leading and, every time we hit a climb, I just seemed to glide where everyone around me was obviously putting in lots of effort.
We hit the short section of tarmac at Clatteringshaws that, in my half arsed planning, I'd deemed to be the turning point to home and I realised I was feeling just dandy. No fatigue after the previous two or so hours, plenty of energy left in my jersey pockets and a full bottle still left to get through.
Ah yes. The bottle. the empty on was in the downtube mounted cage, which was more secure. The full one had a 'handystrap' wrapped round it, in the seatube cage to keep it safe. I decided I'd swap them over. Wouldn't take a moment. I do it all the time without even thinking. I glanced up fro about 3rd wheel back and paused a few times to wait for a flat, straight section.
Hand on empty bottle, pop it in mouth, hand on full bottle, remove from cage, move towards 'good' bottleca...SHIT. Pothole! Two riders in front of me hop it no issue. I'm crouched down with one hand hanging loose, frantically trying to drop the bottle and reach back to the bar before...
Front wheel hits it and I'm spat off at full pelt. Smashing in to the dirt and sliding to a halt fro the middle of the group.
A few seconds of groaning, dusting myself down and I know the 'race' is over. Pro cyclists say they 'just know' when something's broken, straight away and my left arm is firing all the signals they mean at me, as I clamber back to my feet and contemplate leaping back on the bike.
I woudn't have managed it, even if it had been 'ready to go' but the force of the impact has spun the bars round in the stem to the point where the brake hoods are where you'd expect the brake lever blades to be - the levers themselves now pointing directly backwards - so I spend a few painful minutes at the side of the course watching the riders who'd fallen back from 'our' group hurtle past. A whoosh, a cloud of dust and they're gone. Over and over again.
Some of them recognise me and shout out concerns/checks on my status. I have no idea what that status is, and they're all travelling way too fast to communicate with anyway, so I faff about with my allen keys to get the front end of the bike looking a bit more normal.
Another rider, who's destroye his tyre and is making his way back along the course mentions a short cut back to the road which can be used to drop out of the event, which sounds like the closest thing to a plan I've got.
(Dangly arm pic by Jase, who I ignored. Apologies!)
I hobble aboard and make a wobby, on handed start back along the trail. The plan is: see how I do to this shortcut, then either take it and roll back along the road, or, if I'm feeling OK, carry on to the 3rd feedstop and reassess from there.
I'm concentrating so much on the sensations oming from my left arm that I don't even notice the shortcut and sometime later I roll up to the feedstation, where a friendly helper pats me on the (gravel rashed to raw flesh) shoulder, causing me to yelp, then apologises by tapping me on the (already swollen and incorrectly shaped) elbow. I don't linger.
Without really planning it, I end up knowing I was going to ride to the finish. A good result long gone, I'm just in it to finish it. Mostly one handed, which makes the descents bloody horrible, but still moving. I shirnk back into my own head and try to ignore the discomfort for the final 20 or so miles and, in the process, completely ignore several people I know who cheer me on/check how I am. Apologies. Apologies also to the rider I rode down the final tarmac section with as well, who kindly asked if my arm was ok as I dangled it off the bar to let the pain subside for a while and to whom I may have sworn.
Line crossed, I get the lumpy arm checked over and cleaned up while listening to thousands of or race stories unfold around me. It's painful to think about 'what could have been', certainly more painful than my arm appears when not holding on over gravel tracks (or maybe that's just the beers). Painful enough for me to want to do it all again, as soon as possible anyway!
For reference, I finished 30th in my category, which isn't bad with one arm behind my back (sort of)
Shout out here to the organisers for making a great event in an awesome location, to everyone who I spoke to and raced with and doubly so to Lee who sneakily got me fit enough to play out with the big boys - again! One day I'll get a result that befits all the hard work!
Next up...surgery. On what turns out to be a very broken elbow. Bugger. Good job it's not CX season yet!