"This is how the startline should be." said the commisaire stood in front of us on the start line at the Broughton Hall National Trophy, "nice and relaxed". His strong antipodean accent that has, at one time or another (or many) reprimanded pretty much everyone involved in these races, sounding almost soothing.
He was right, it was relaxed, for a round of the National series. A bit of friendly banter across the front row, a bit of sunlight across our backs and me spotting my usual number-pinning-on-disaster in plenty of time to ask Tony Fawcett to fix it for me (thanks by the way!) made for a nice place to be. We had a bike race on a challenging, but thankfully more rideable than the Horwich race held at the same venue a few weeks back, course to look forward to and I was already feeling like a winner as I had utterly nailed my shoe - sock combo. I mean really nailed it. It was seamlessly co-ordinated colour wise, with the perfect length of sock, the perfect set of studs (and heel tread) and flex for the running sections and just about enough stiffness for me to not feel like I was pedalling round in slippers.
"Take care of the details", I thought to myself, treating myself to a final glance at the footwear win as the jarring "30 SECONDS!" was southern hemispherically belted out at us," and everything else will sort itself out."
"Oh and make sure you finish." I added mentally, remembering that I needed to get a result here to get an overall place in the league (your best 5 results out of the 6 race series count and I'd skipped one race to avoid the journey all the way to Kent - this was to be my 5th race).
I was 99% sure that my earlier season results had bagged me enough points to get 7th overall (amusingly, over the course of the season I'd switched from being delighted with being in the top 10 to feeling like I'd missed out on being higher up. Whether that's me being driven and constantly evolving my sense of self belief or just being a miserable git I leave up to you...), so if I had a target for today - other than enjoy it, of course - it was to 'just-get-round'.
The whistle blew. We sprinted (well, I did what resembles a sprint anyway, dropping a few places as per usual). Overly soft tyres flexed and squirmed across the short tarmac straight and almost instantly it got fantastically tough.
Pic thanks to VeloUK
The few pre race practice laps I'd done turned out to be fairly useless as large sections that had been rideable were now runs (brilliantly, the first was at the top of a long, lung scorching climb that made everyone's run look rather feeble) and the lines I'd found round the off camber corners were, for the most part, suddenly the bits you needed to avoid as they had become the traction free, slick strips of race course, seemingly waiting to fling your front wheel out from underneath you.
By the time the race settled down a bit and I'd regained a few of the places I'd given up at the start, my cornering had left me some way behind the fast lads, again. Not in a terrible position - I think it was still in the top 10, with a few of us together and trading places - but away from where I'd hoped I'd be.
I settled down as best I could and tried to stay upright on the twisty turny bits (of which there were many...) and push on, on the more power based sections (of which, weirdly, there seemed to be few...and somehow even those seemed to be going round a corner at the same time!). My skills are often found wanting, but I want the skills so the race started to turn into a bit of practice for future events, at the same time as being a bonafide, top level race in itself.
The mid race learning wasn't confined to testing the levels of grip offered by the different tyres I had on the two bikes (and for reference, the Limus' had more 'mechanical' grip on the off cambers while the Supermuds more supple carcass meant that if they 'let go' you were more likely to catch some traction again... I preferred the 'safety' of the Limus' bite and somehow found time in between a few bends to promise myself an evening internet search for some of the ones with the higher TPI, to see if they could add suppleness to their grip - which I shall be doing immediately after writing this).
By the mid race point, I found myself trading places with David Lines. In the corners he had an advantage (to save some pride here I'll remind you that I was still very much of a mind to make sure I got to the finish so wasn't taking huge risks, ahem), on the running bits we seemed to be about the same and wherever I could get the power down I seemed to be able to get rid of any deficit that had appeared (and to save some of his pride here he did point out that his shoes were loose after the race, ahem). The course alongside the pit lane had, during my practice laps, had a nice, firm section that allowed you to keep riding but as I decided to stay on the bike I had and watched him overtake and gap me by taking to the pits and changing bikes while I wheelspan around on the course, a bike change very lap became the norm. Keep learning.
The ding-dong battle came to an end with a lap to go firstly when I first tripped up on the (giant!) steps, only costing me a second or two but it still reminded me to concentrate a bit more on getting to the finish - I'd worked out that I was in 8th place with a decent gap over those behind and that seemed like a decent enough position to be in - and secondly half a lap later when I tried to flick the front end of the bike round a corner ever so slightly too early and hooked the bars round one of the course marker stakes, dumping me on the ground. Compounding my mistake I tried to leap up and 'Belgian flick' the bike round me to get going again, only to hook the saddle round the same course post, trapping it in the netting in a confusing and time consuming knot that, for some reason, reminded me of the sort of mess you find Christmas tree lights in every year - no matter how neatly they're packed away each January. "Oh well" I sighed, knowing that I'd still have enough of a time gap back to 9th to see me OK to the finish line as long as I stopped mucking up, "stop pushing you luck and get over the line".
And that was that. 8th on the day (further away from the pointy end that I'd like yadda yadda yadda) and, unless I've somehow got it completely wrong, 7th overall. Consistency across the season that's delighted me and has left me pondering what I can achieve next time round with more some hard work and practice. Two races of the season left - a "just for fun" race next week and the final round of the NW league that may well end up feeling like the last day of school as much as it does a race. No matter what happens from here on in it's been ace getting to travel to venues all over the country for "normal" races again and ace racing everyone again. Next season's going to be ace too I reckon...
As always, MASSIVE thanks to everyone involved in setting up the race - that event was pretty much unrivalled in terms of set up, I can't imagine how much hard work must have gone into it (it was totally worth it, BTW) - thanks to seemingly half of HCC for pitting for me, changes every lap put a lot of pressure on those willing to do it and the hard work definitely contributed to me finishing in the top ten again and heartfelt thanks to Lee at Transition Endurance Coaching for giving me my best season ever (and already plotting how it can be furthered next time!). Feeling pretty lucky to have all this to be happy with!
OH and before I forget, congratulations to Chris Thomas for not dying of gangrene. (Saying that, I've not seen any posts from him on Facebook today, so it's possible he did, if so, at least he died doing what he loved - getting covered in mud while sweating and gasping for air, dragging a massively expensive bicycle round a ploughed up field for fun...)