I was still staring down at the ground when the start whistle went off. I could see my pedal and my foot heading towards it as the ingrained reactionary lurch forward took over. CLUCK-CLICK. "Jesus" I thought "I've actually clipped straight in for once!"
I rolled my eyes up in my still dropped head and saw that I was cruising along with the top few. No haemorrhaging places as I faffed about trying to get the shoe/pedal interface sorted, just wafting along at a canter, holding my own. It was a fairly long, slightly uphill, into a headwind start loop so should hav ebeen horrible but it just felt...easy.
I contemplated riding round the outside of everyone in front of me, but decided to stick to my plan - the first off road section included an off camber left hand bend, with a deep rut cut into it quite high up and I reckoned it would pay off more to hold the place I had on the left and get into that rut than move up on the right and get 'stranded' on the more open bit of the slope.
The plan worked and some almost hilarious carnage as bikes and riders shot off, crashing and slipping out in every conceivable direction, was dodged with little fuss.
A few more corners done and it was quite clear that the level of grip had changed drastically since any of us had done a practice lap...and not for the better. The speed you could hold through the bends was, for now at least, just guesswork. Dice were being rolled by everyone as the limited traction was risked over and over. I watched plenty of very skilled riders wipe out almost randomly around me, all the time wondering how long it would be before my turn at binning it in the dirt would come. I'd climbed up a few places through the sheer 'chance' nature of the first lap but knew my go at slithering back down was on it's way...
Thankfully, the ground was nice and soft to land on, as my tyres (left too hard to really contort to the ground as I was paranoid about puncturing a tub with just a few days to go before the National Champs) lost grip and dumped me on my arse. What wasn't quite so nice was having someone's front wheel roll over my leg as I was sprawling across the track - absolutely not on purpose, in any way, I should add - there's no way anyone behind me could have avoided my flailing limbs, but bloody hell it smarted!
I picked myself up, jumped back on the bike to discover the saddle was now pointing quite acutely off to the left and minced round the rest of the lap, searching out any post crash tenderness. There wasn't much, which was lucky I suppose, as a good few more random crashes gave me plenty of opportunity to add to any. I was not getting to grips with the mud (pun intended...)
On the bike I'm not having much luck. I make up a few places but I'm not riding my way back like I 'usually' do. Off the bike, though, I'm quite enjoying it. The big flight of photogenic steps is danced up and, as I realise I'm not going to be troubling the top end of the race, I start dismounting and running more sections than is really required, just to keep the legs and lungs used to it.
Another cruising lap done and I've settled into a routine of trying to cleanly ride the ruts where they appear and get some 'decent leg speed' running done on the technical stuff. I promise myself a tray of fresh doughnuts (the glorious smell of which was wafting around the race 'village' earlier) if I keep my spirits up despite being further down in the race than I'd have liked and just keep practicing riding the ruts smoothly.
The doughnuts were delicious.
I guess I should have been a bit disappointed with how the last round of the National Trophy had gone, but to be honest I've just really enjoyed the experience as a whole. Six very different races (six very different results too...), each one with it's own unique character but all offering brilliant - fast - racing. The only sadness came from knowing that's it for another season! If you've enjoyed 'cross at a local/regional level and not raced them before I can heartily recommend it; the courses are a step up every time but stay on the 'enjoyable' side of testing and yes, the speed is amazingly fast at the front but there's always a race to be had. Win or lose, it's still ace being in the game...
(Just don't forget to book the restaurant if you're staying overnight at the further away races, or you'll end up queueing for ages ;-) )
National champs next week. Just up the road so I can kip in my own bed beforehand, which is always nicer than playing the travelodge lottery! Hopefully I'll have a chance to put my fitness to good use and get stuck in to a properly good race. Might watch my pedal at the start again, as that seemed to work quite well :)
Big thanks to everyone who has organised any of the Trophies this season - they've all been ace. I'm sure they take a lot (a LOT!) of hard work - but seriously, it really is worth it!
Big big thanks too, to Lee at Adance Cycle Coaching, who has kept me super confident of my fitness once again all season - another hard worker who keeps getting it right :)