Monday, 11 April 2011

Builth Wells - A Double Marathon Welsh Weekend

It had been a tough winter on the bike, and illness, work travel  and work in general, and it had me behind where I wanted to be by March. No excuse though, I knew what I had to do and where I wanted to be, so with a few solid, good quality weeks under my belt and building nicely for the Uk24hr solo champs in a month’s time, I decided it was time to go racing. I headed to Builth Wells to race the short and sharp (and, importantly, very enjoyable) Exposure Lights Big Night Out. An event well outside my comfort zone of longer races and then, the next morning would ride with Grace around her first competitive mountain bike event, the Builth Wells 1000km Mountain Marathon. What a great weekend it turned out to be, perfect weather, some great countryside & big outdoors-ness and lots of familiar faces from around the UK that I’d not seen over the winter. The bottom line: It just felt good to be racing again after to long.

There was no getting away from the fact that this was going to be hard as most of the other guys had several races under their belts by now. I chose an old favourite, the first Mountain Marathon series race combined with the Exposure Lights big night out to start my season but I knew from previous years this would be a tough double race combination anyway. Due to the timing of the event, the fact it was set in stunning scenery with a great route and the good weather the field was stacked too. Ant White, Ian Leitch, Matt Page and Mike Hall, to name a few, had turned up from my end of the spectrum of endurance racing, but marathon specialists and cross country specialists filled out the field due to the different lengths of the events. I couldn’t wait.

I knew I would lack the raw speed to go with any break due to my lack of racing so, for me, this would be a race of time gaps rather than position, I had to keep the pressure on from start to finish.

We pitched up and, unsurprisingly there was no sign of either Ant or Ian, who we were  supposedly spending the weekend with loosely. Not unusual, both have a habit of being a little bit chaotic. Sometimes I think they thrive off the pressure and the chaos, compared to my more measured engineer’s approach. Ant arrived in time to get a tent up and fettle his new Callondale Scalpel, and very nice it was too, with a pretty white lefty up front. Ian, true to form, was slightly more precise in his arrival, turning up with enough time (but not a second more) to  puts some wheels in his frame, sign on, decide to change tyres from the ridiculous ones he had fitted and realise that his intended tyres would not inflate with either the crummy pump we had with us or a good one borrowed from our neighbours. This is why Ian camped with me then! I got my CO2 out and uo went his tyres straight away.

And then it was time to race. I lined up for the start of the Exposure Lights Big Night Out. “011 started here. I’d love to write about how I flew through the night, and danced up the hills. But I didn’t. It was hard. It was my first race and it showed. Up the unpleasantly steep and unfathomably long  first climb my legs and lungs burned as I watched the lead group ride away. Ouch. I could do nothing but push on and riders, gently, rode past me. As the gradient levelled out I started to ride back though the field, remembering why I don’t do XC racing! The course was great and the fun of the trail and the sight of riders stretched out in front of (specially at the top of the first long climb!) and behind me made for a glorious sight.
Plenty of climbing in the night marathon, as my legs confirmed
After what seemed like an eternity, my legs slowly returned to me and I settled into a “comfy”, this being a relative term, rhythm that I would sustain for the rest if the ride. I set my targets on the lights in front and the next hour and a half became a non-stop game of cat and mouse as I set my targets on the lights in front of me, one rider at a time. I began to relax and enjoy the night more, even taking time to absorb more of the hillsides around me.

And then, as we neared town, it all got a bit serious and exciting for a few minutes! On what I thought would be the last road section (lesson learnt:  always study the route card) as we picked up the road out of town we’d started on not so long ago the rider in front refused to let me catch him and no matter how hard I pushed, the gap would not close. By my reckoning we had significantly less than a mile remaining so I pushed hard. And then I sailed past a right had turn sign and saw he’s turned right too.

Oh dear. The leg-emptying, short road finish suddenly turned into a needs-fresh-legs quarry road climb. I was in danger of bonking big time and was forced to sit up, have a long hard look at how hard I was working and throw a gel and the remains of my drinks bottle inside me before it was too late as I watched my quarry start to stretch the gap I’d just worked so hard to narrow. It wasn’t all bad though, as I watched him disappear, the quarry road gave way to some lovely wooded singletrack at least. My legs started to feel better and the route kicked me out on a road. I could see lights and assumed that this must be the campsite and was glad of the interesting finish rather than a road slog, a cute little finish. Then I realised I should have, again, heeded my advice and looked at the route card. Rather than going up and down the side of the valley, we were now one valley away from the finish, imagine my disappointment and surprise when I was herded left and headed back up the side of a climb once more.

With fresh legs I decided this must be the last climb and set about reeling in the now disappeared lights. It wasn’t long before they appeared. The trail got narrower and more wooded and, unless I was mistaken I was now catching the distant rider at a good pace. As the trail got steeper he came towards me faster and faster and, just before the top when the trail darted into what turned into some fantastic twisting singletrack, I ducked under him. I’d done it! It’s amazing what these little victories can do, and I felt my legs switch up a gear as a threaded through the trees.
Enjoying the final descent
 With my second wind  I really began to enjoy the end of the course. I could see a small group of riders ahead and I threw caution to the wind and went after them, it couldn’t be long now. I caught the group quickly, but yet again, one rider refused to be passed. I sprinted hard and pulled alongside him, the rest of the group were long gone and we could both see there was a hard right turn a steep singletrack looking descent, the rider that got there first would have a big advantage on the run in to the finish, and we both really  wanted that rider to be us! I got half a wheel ahead and, in a last of the late brakers daredevil moment darted ahead and down the trail, trusting the General Lee, absolutely, to keep me upright as I hurled the bike into the darkness. I needn’t have worried. The descent was short and twisty, but steep and I emerged onto the final sprint, campsite and finish line in sight, with a respectable gap behind me. Still pumping with adrenaline I put my head down, determined not to look back again, and headed for the line.

I was greeted by the cheery sight of Matt Carr, always someone who will cheer up your day and was then thrust in front of the microphone by the race organisers, I’d come in a not too shabby (considering the field) 11th, on paper nothing to shout about but the gap to the front wasn’t too bad so I was reasonably happy with my ride. I’d also had a great night out.

After finishing I headed to the empty barn acting as race HQ for the weekend and the night got better when I saw the amount of free tea and cake on offer. The race, and the horror of the first climb was then dissected with Ian Leitch, Ant White and Matt Page (who had finished ahead of me and were responsible for most of the gap!). The consensus was a good night’s riding. A short interview for the Vito Sport guys who were supporting the event and, full of cake it was time to go to bed. There was more riding to be done tomorrow morning and, if it was anything like that, I couldn’t wait.

Morning came and the weather was looking like it was going to be scorchio! Kit thoroughly checked and bikes fettled Grace and I finished as much breakfast as we could get inside of us and headed for the start. The normally competitive Grace opting for a spot near the back of the field for us, as it was her first competitive mountain bike (or in fact bike) event. This wouldn’t last long! After the normal pre race start line barging we were pretty close to being plumb last by the time we crossed the line, after what felt like minutes after the starting gun went off. The lead riders behind the lead out car were, unlike last night, long gone and out of sight by the time we hit the main road. Then Grace spotted another woman ahead of her and her competitive nature kicked in.

This would repeat itself for the first few miles of road as we headed to the hills. By the time we hit the hills we were in the middle of a large group of riders. It had been a while since I’d been in the middle of such a large group and I’d forgotten how little courtesy and common sense is exercised sometimes. As soon as the trail turned up, riders accelerated up, barging past Grace and I causing us to stall and veer to the side, or just plumb stopping in front of us after their patently unsustainable accelerations fizzled out as did their legs. I pushed on, trying to contain my frustration as I tried to call us through, made harder by Grace’s progress being halted several times and she was forced to give up and walk. We regrouped at the top of the climb and set about making up the lost time.

And then we hit the queue for the singletrack. It wasn’t moving and then it became clear why, the guy at the front was actually waiting for all the riders in front of him to disappear so he got a clear run. What a jerk! Riders were arriving in big bunches every few seconds and he was backing everybody up so he could get a clear run!  This was something I’d never seen before, I asked him to move and he refused as he “wanted a clear run” I, pretty directly, suggested he might not want to be so selfish and that, in a race, he might expect there to be riders in front. He didn’t move, claiming that if everybody “just” waited 30 seconds we could all have a clean run, in the mean time another 50riders backed up behind us. His argument seemed compelling to a few other people around us until my inner engineer kicked in and pointed out that, if all 900 riders took 30 seconds for a clean run to “go faster” then it would take four and a half hours for the last rider to enter the singletrack! Frustrated I suggested, again, he should just move out of the way (he was blocking the trail to stop anyone passing and ruining “his” clear trail and moved to step ahead of him and ride, while he tried to block the way. This was behaviour I’d never seen before EVER! The weight of opinion finaly swayed as people realised they would be here all day because of this one idiot, and he was forced to set off. Thank goodness.

For the next half hour we made slow, but steady, progress. The course was great but this was surely too narrow and long a section of singletrack so soon into the event, as the weight of other riders made the going steady, at best.

Typical view in the early miles
A popular event and rightly so
Finally we hit open track before coming out onto a broken road. We wolfed some food and gels down, realising we’d not eaten for too long, distracted by the volume of other riders. I was briefly frustrated at myself, a foolish error and one I hoped that didn't come back to haunt us. The track continued, open and with plenty of width in sections and we passed a steady trickle of other riders and occasionally were passed in return as the field slowly sorted itself out. And then we hit the second climb of the day, and this one really meant it.

The trail turned up and continued out of sight, around corner after corner. The sun was starting to beat down and riders were beginning to suffer all around us . the general consensus was that this hill seemingly went on forever. Eventually the top appeared and we wished it hadn’t, a steep final climb was immediately apparent in the distance. When we finally got there it didn’t disappoint! By the time we hot the foot of it, the hill had gone on for so long that almost everyone infront of us had given up the fight with the increased gradient and was pushing. Grace wasn’t having any of it and she hunkered down. We we rode it with whoops of encouragement from our fellow riders.



We pushed on and soon got to the first check point, at the top of yet another brutal climb and were delighted to see it being manned by Carl Hutchings of Squirt Lube who was, in a moment of true inspiration and soul lifting genius, giving out handfuls of Jelly Babies. The sun was now out in full force and the day was just getting better and better. Bottles refilled and we were on our way.

A clean run through to the second checkpoint and the turn off for the shorter loops and, once we’d set off, the tails were much emptier with the remaining riders on the full marathon now well spread out. The peace and quiet, and the size and expanse of the surrounding hills were stunning, the disappearance of surrounding riders affording us the time to look around a little more.

By the time the final feed station arrived it had been a long day in the saddle. The feed station reflected it. No longer was it recognisable as a race feed station and a hub of activity and fast refuelling riders fleeting through. People were sitting, hiding, in the shade wherever they could find a spot for a little respite, a look past the station to the long hill which stretched out ahead of the riders made it quite clear why everybody was taking more than enough time to compose themselves and fill their legs with the bananas, energy bars and drinks that were being handed out.

We didn’t stop, grabbed some water and pushed on. This was an error. Coupled with a lack of taking on food early, by half way up the climb we had to stop to eat. Grace was so tired she literally fell off her bike in a stumble as her leg bucked under her. This was a mistake we’ll not make again in a hurry.

Two minutes later and we were ready to go again. Spinning gently up the remaining gradient, another woman passed us, tucked into a group of 4 guys towing her along. Race on! We both slammed another gel into ourselves and, before they got too far away, Grace tucked in behind me and we set about catching their little train. They spotted us straight away and pulses raced once more. It was no contest; we caught them within a mile or so. But we couldn’t shake them off, it was all we could do to stop them latching onto our back wheels.

We rolled along the top of a beautiful and dramatic ridge before a bone shaking, descent took us back down to the final road. A daredevil descent and we’d lost them, good team work, two vs. 5 and we’d won. We hunkered down again to make sure our hard work wasn’t wasted. And then I remembered the finish from last night. Damn, we still had to go up and over two more hills, with the finish and the camp site no more than a mile away.

Final descent, just as fun second time around
Heading up the first quarry climb it was apparent that legs thought that they’d had quite a hard day already. It was a Jens Voigt moment: “shut up legs!” and we pushed on. We could see the pack and the sole woman behind us still We would learn later that she was called, quite inappropriately, Joy Bringer; she was making us work pretty hard when it seemed time to roll into the finish.

Road crossed, final climb. It was too much, we should have eaten (again), another gel in and Joy Bringer came through, we jumped on her back wheel. It was a repeat of last night’s effort with a sprint for the final singletrack up the last climb, a desperate threading through the trees and a daredevil last descent. It didn’t work twice, we couldn’t close the gap a second time, but we did pick off a couple of lone riders, eaten up and spat out by our two little packs.


Two happy riders finally
crossing the finish line
We crossed the finish line, grins as wide as our faces after the excitement and drama of the final hour. We’d both had a great day out, legs were empty, cycle kit tan lines starting to be defined as a badge of honour for our day’s efforts. Joy Bringer’s group had beaten us in the final sprint, but we’d done all we could and that was what mattered, that’s what makes me line up, to see what I can do and today, not a lot more could have been extracted.

We caught up with the other riders for the next couple of hours as litres of fluid and hundreds of much needed calories were consumed before we could face packing up and the drive home. It had been a great day out in the sunshine and some (lots!) of hills surrounding us on all sides and two very happy riders made their way back to Brighton at the end of a great weekend. If the rest of 2011 is anything like this it’s going to be a great year. J


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