All of a sudden I'm 15 years old again. Grinding laboriously slowlly up the gentle incline of a grassy field somewhere in Wavertree, with a face like thunder and a mood like a winter storm. "Just put it in an easier gear lad. Push the gear lever away from you" Came the feel-sorry-for-you advice from the side of the course as I rolled past some embarassed spectators, almost stalling.
"It IS in the easiest gear!" I growled back, feeling patronised, piteous and thoroughly fed up in equal measure. Not an auspicious start to a racing career, but that was mine. Close to throwing the bike in a hedge and stomping off in a huff, wanting to blame the bike, but knowing deep down that the best riders would manage just fine if we'd swapped, so carrying on in the hope of fortune choosing to smile on me.
"Well done lad. Crack on again, you can get back onto them" came the feel-sorry-for-you advice from the side of the course. I pulled the bike out of a (painful!) patch of thorn encrusted bushes and dragged it and myself back over to the race course I'd just exited with a fully crossed up front wheel, eventually coming to a stop at the bottom of the mound of earth used to create the closest thing the World's race track had to offer to a technical section.
That was the second time I'd properly binned it in front of everyone watching on the uppy-downy (and muddy) section. The first time required a bit of unravelling of course-side netting from all around the saddle and bars after I'd hooked the brake lever on a wooden stake slithering across a tight corner and flung myself knees first on the ground, like a small child sliding across the dancefloor, as they always seem to do at weddings, but there had been several not-quite-crashes too; Feet not clipping into pedals and slipping off, leaving me doing that 'shambles of a duck waddle' over the top tube to try and get going again after stalling. Tripping on the steps and having to clamber up using my hands with the bike sprawled across my back, you name the way to mess up riding/running a slightly tricky section, I'd done it.
about to crash. Probably.
The thing is, as soon as the sympathetic spectator had finished telling me I could catch back up to the group of riders I had briefly got ahead of, before throwing myself and the gap I'd opened down into a ditch, I already knew I could.
Each time I'd messed up (and thrown away my chances of a great result) I'd picked myself back up, put some power down and rectified the mistake as best I could. Each time it seemed to work. Through the swooping singletrack in the woods I'd reduce any deficit I'd given to whoever had got past me, the as soon as the course opened up again I'd just up the pace and ride away. It was both a brilliant and infuriating feeling, being able to ride myself back up from about 20th, through the teens and back into the top 10 but knowing that I had the form to be fighting for a much higher place, i just hadn't kept myself upright enough.
I'd had a decent enough start - lucky enough to get a 2nd row spot on the grid I'd pretty much held my own down the first half of the (long!) start straight and then, as everyone around me seemed to run out of start-sprint puff, cruised up past quite a few riders to get round the first few corners ahead of any mid pack argy bargy and staring at the wheels of the first and second placed riders.
A few places were lost over the hurdles and round a few tighter corners as it became apparent that leaving my tyres pumped up to a pretty high pressure had been a mistake, but I wasn't too worried - I hoped the reduced rolling resistance on the drier sections and tarmac would make up for it. Then we hit the muddiest section for the first time and, to be honest, that was that. I went backwards and looked completely amateur as I failed to get round what wasn't really all that difficult a series of corners/swoopy bits. I knew instantly that if I'd just dropped the pressure I'd have had enough grip to keep some semblance of control, but as it was, I felt pretty much just like a passenger, watching from wherever the bike took me as the front end of the race drifted away.
Getting a bit sideways, but not in the fun way
With the head of the race now a memory, I set about trying to salvage what I could. The cheering from every part of the course was as loud as ever - to the point where I felt a bit guilty about how far down the pack I was! Each time I heard my name I surged on as best I could...which turned most of the lap into one huge surge! Every piece of encouragement was turned into another place regained, another gap closed to a rider in front, another gap opened as I pushed on.
I ballsed up in the mud, repeatedly, and had to redo a lot of the hard work I'd put in over and over again. I had briefly been tempted to throw the bike in a hedge and stomp off in a huff like all those years ago, but back on I got, back through the groups of riders ahead I pulled myself, hoping to manage to keep it rubber side down on the next lap and, each time I did, looked up for the next places to catch and overtake.
The closest I got to a "clean" lap was the final one. In 9th halfway down the start straight as I rode past the bell I could see 7th and 8th side by side going round the first corner in the distance (seriously, it was a looong start straight!), but I was still shifting round every part of the course that wasn't "that" section with such pace that I was up to them just a couple of corners later. In front and in 7th by the time I'd remounted over the hurdles I set about getting enough of a gap to make a mistake or two through my nemesis section but delighted myself (and a few onlookers!) by getting round it in almost-control. I took the opportunity staying upight gave me to enjoy the singletrack in the woods, swooping and skipping over the roots before a final stomp past the pits to get deafened by one last shower of cheering and onto the finish straight to cross the line feeling both gutted at messing up a great chance to get a really good result and happy that I'd kept going and pulled a respectable finish out of the mess i'd put myself in.
Lots of people came over to congratulate me as I wandered back to the pits, which was ace (there's no way I would have guessed I was 250 miles from home, so great was the level of support!) and even though I couldn't agree that it was a good result, it had been a great race. The cheers I got from seemingly every corner kept me (and my head...) on the bike and the power I could put down thanks to Lee's hard work meant whenever I was upight I was beating everyone. I was already looking forward to the next race before I'd packed the van for the long drive home!
So. Thank you everyone, maybe next time i'll be as good as the fitness and support deserve :)