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First race back since falling off a lot at Ipswich today. OK that was only two weeks ago in reality, but it felt like aaaaaages since I'd rolled over to a start grid on growling tyres. In the interim I'd sort of let myself go a bit, not a full on end-of-season blow out, but I'd happily strayed from eating healthy (and accurately based on what exercise I was doing...) with no regrets. I was fine with it, something like a treat period before Christmas so I could focus back on eating "well" for the last few big races of the season and avoid the stodge that the festive period usually entails, but I could tell it had slightly blunted how fresh (dare I say healthy) I felt even before the start whistle made any noise. Not that I was portly or anything, the skinsuit still zipped up OK, even with a winter base layer underneath, but replacing veg with steak bakes does have an effect.

Making up for any real increase in girth, todays' race venue was as big and as stately as you can get. History, grandure, all that sort of thing wrapped up in a sprawling various-periods-of-architecture school grounds that had everyone whispering "Hogwarts" at each other under their breath. I found that to be a bit of a sad thing to do, to be honest, the Quiddich pitches were pretty lame, all ten of them.

Pic by Ellen

Pre race course exploration revealed a great mixture of put-some-power-down sections comfortably split up by some clever use of grassland features around the multitude of sports pitches and a fantastically tricky section (helpfully located not too far from the pits, in case you mashed your bike up) that somehow seemed to be downhill and off camber all the way, despite having three short climbs in it, that lead to a horrible climb back through the pits and to some broken tarmac. The broken tarmac being blissfully smooth compared to the "cobbles" that preceeded it - Angela and I had been discussing the sign at the entrance to the school that proudly announced "founded in 1592*" earlier in the day, wondering which part of the wide ranging built estate had been around since that time. I'm now pretty sure it was just that "cobbled climb" and I'm also pretty sure it had been given no maintenance since that date. I rode it OK on pumped-right-up tyres in practice but feared for my wheels on it if I dropped the pressure to get grip anywhere else for the race.

The race kicked off safely enough, with everyone's knobbly tyres holding on to the mud covered tarmac OK and I hit the first, fast, muddy grass corner learning just as fast that I'd not quite gained enough weight to push the tyres into the ground any better to find grip. I was slippy. Very. Wheel to wheel with other racers it was also brilliant fun.

Unlike most of the races this year, this course rewarded those who can transition between riding, running and back to riding again quickly and smoothly - several of the technical sections were just faster off the bike, a few needed to be run and occasionally you'd lose grip without being able to regain it at an almost random place (a random place usually located on that tricky off camber part I mentioned just before...) and have to continue on foot.

I've never really classed myself as being one of those people, but I held my own well enough. After a couple of laps Ian Taylor had already smoothed himself a nice gap between myself and James Thompson and James' remounts seemed to gift him a second or two each time, but I wasn't awful and seemed to have enough power to get rid of any gaps that appeared.

Pic by Ellen

It was only after three laps that I realised I was 'enjoying' it too much. Decent riding, but at too stately a pace. I needed to string those half decent sections together but put more effort in, in between. Lap 3 (and the first bike change) had been hampered by skipping gears, so a swap back to the first bike (nicely prepped to go back out by Angela, taa!) and a spot of determination to 'push on' a bit more was undertaken.

Lap 4 was better. The techy bits were done as well as I could get them (and without getting caught up in trying to ride where I felt it was riskier to do so). I still ran up the mud to the side of the horrible "cobbled" climb, which may have been slower but stopped me wincing each time the rim (would have) smashed onto the pointy rock surface and crossed the line to hear the last lap bell ringing with no idea of how far behind Ian / far ahead of James I was.

Lap 5 and I was settling in quite nicely. Maybe I should do the seniors races and make the most of my endurance... Anyway. Final time round the course and I'd kept myself right-way-up right round to "that" section. First drop/climb survived. Second bit....nope. What looked like the start of a rut in prevous laps had vanished and so did the front wheel grip as I tried to traverse the camber. Onto my arse right at the bottom of a little rise so a painfully slow 'collect bike, run up, remount' convinced me James would be right alongside.

I didn't look round, just kept focussed on keeping moving, knowing that if I saw him in my periphery I could throw in a full on attack but if not I should get back to staying 'to plan' and ride/run smoothly.

A final run up to the side of the cobbles (definitely slower than riding them, but never mind) that seemed harder than ever - and was then proved to be so when I noticed that my rear wheel was jammed solid with mud and leaves. The pits weren't far so I carried on dragging it along, wondering how much time, if any, I had to play with (and if a spare bike was available at all...).

Just as I got to the pit entrance the block of debris (possibly one of the historic cobbles...) helpfully flopped out, freeing the wheel up, so I decided to carry on without changing - the bike I had with me had grippier tyres so the final few bends were dispatched with relative ease (enough ease to see Ian cross the finish line sat up and cruising at a stately pace).

2nd place. With some proper winter 'cross action in my legs. Ace fun. Here's hoping for lots more of that.

Massive thanks to all the organisers, fellow racers, landowners (except whoever was supposed to maintain that cobbled bit...) and to Lee at Transition, because being able to think " hmm, I should speed up" halfway through a hard race and having the fitness to do it takes a LOT of hard work to figure out.


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