Merida Brass Monkeys MTB XC race

I won’t lie. The primary reason behind my visit to England was to start XC racing. There were several reasons behind the decision, but really I just wanted to see how good I could be, and whether there was potential for more improvement.

I quickly learnt that XC racing is a whole other ball game to MTBO. More technical trails, and lots of twists and turns resulting in arm pump and dead legs. The constant acceleration and deceleration is tiring. Luckily, MTBO has taught me and my mind to stay focussed, a crucial skill on the slippery corners and off camber roots. One slip of the mind equals one painful slip of the bike!

The first race was unsuccessful. The second race resulted in a win, three consistent lap times, and learning a little about overtaking on singletracks. The third took place yesterday. Spoiler alert: I won my first proper XC race against some stiff competition! I even earned a little trophy that now has pride of place on my windowsill 🙂

Yesterday’s race was the first round of the Merida Brass Monkeys winter enduro series. I could choose between the 4hr race or the 2hr race. Given that I’m only just starting out in this racing lark, I felt the 2hr would be most appropriate for me. I could ride hard for two hours, but four hours is perhaps a little beyond my XC experience. The race was held at Minley Manor, the same location as my epic failure two weeks ago.

At the start, Image from Merida Brass Monkeys on Facebook

At the start, Image from Merida Brass Monkeys on Facebook

I was a little late for the start so didn’t manage to get the front line. To be fair, I wouldn’t have wanted to line up at the front with 200+ speedy men and 20-odd women behind. Talk about pressure! I started in the top 1/3 of the field, but struggled to gain places in the initial 300m dash to the start banner. There was perhaps only 300m of course before the singletrack started and naturally there was a traffic jam. Looking up I saw the trail divided a little and so jumped over into the adjacent rut that was cyclist free and gained about 20 places without detouring off the track. We then encountered some switchback-slightly-off-camber corners. A rider in front made a mistake on a root and I was forced to abort my line and dive into the trees taking a long line and losing a few places. One rider took it upon himself to shortcut the two corners and encountered the furious shouts of those waiting patiently to get around the corner.

Racing last weekend. Image from Off-Camber on Facebook

Racing last weekend. Image from Off-Camber on Facebook

After this the line evened out a little but it was still wheel-to-wheel riding. A steep sharp climb sorted this and I used the chance to gain places and pedal hard into the flat. Another traffic jam a few minutes later at a steep rooty climb out of a gully. Running up was better with so many riders – but I actually rode it on the fourth lap when I was alone.

Steep out-of-gully climb (difficult to see in the shadow) Image from Merida Brass Monkeys on Facebook

Steep out-of-gully climb (difficult to see in the shadow) Image from Merida Brass Monkeys on Facebook

The course twisted and turned before a fun descent and a long (for the area) grassy climb, before an off-camber section back down. I gained more places here through being ready to ride slightly off-trail when riders ahead made mistakes. This section later enjoyed grabbing my tyres resulting in front and rear wheels washing out individually on each lap. But it did start to berm-up nicely by the end!

We weaved around some more before enjoying some fireroad climbs where I could really overtake a number of riders easily. Some bomb-hole sections and nice rooty sections before another fireroad climb. At last I caught sight of the teenage girl who started on the front line – a brave position! But it still took me until the end of the lap to overtake enough riders to catch her. About half way round the first lap, everyone settled down and the pack became spread out enough for the riding to be more relaxed. I never saw any of the other women riders.

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Bomb hole gully sections like this were extremely fun! Image from Merida Brass Monkeys on Facebook

Once I caught the teenager, she caught onto my back wheel and remained there for the race. I’m not yet strong enough tactically to overtake on the narrow singletrack, so I preferred to bide my time, save some energy and go for it on a fireroad or where the trail opened up a bit. Everytime I overtook, Emily Wadsworth made the move too, but she never made a move to overtake me. By the third lap we ended up having a natter on the climbs! Checking my watch I realised our lap times had been mostly under the 40 minute mark, and that we could afford to slow the pace a little and still we would get back with a few minutes to spare before courses closed and thus could get in an extra lap. Wadsworth had been riding behind for so long, I started to get a little nervous that she would just overtake at the finish line, but my fears never came to fruition. She slowed at the end so as to avoid a fourth lap, whereas I sped up to try to the finish first.

Podium. Image from Rachel Gurney's Twitter feed

Podium. Image from Rachel Gurney’s Twitter feed

Once I finished I waited for a few seconds to see if any other women were behind, who might take a fourth lap and thus finish ahead of me. While waiting, I was badgered by some spectators to do a final lap, and since I’d enjoyed the course so much, I felt I had to! I set out for a lonely final lap, but still with enough strength to overtake people. I knew I wouldn’t have any other women behind so I slowed the pace a little which is when the pain set in! Back pain especially. I was grateful to stand and stretch at the end, but even the last lap was wicked fun.

I loved every minute of the race, and was really pleased to see that I won the 2hr women’s race, and even more pleased later to find my lap times weren’t too far behind the elite riders on the 4 hour race. Naturally the first lap for me is slower, at 40.22 with all the traffic jams early on, the second was a good lap time (37.55), but I was still riding cleverly and waiting behind slower riders for a few minutes to recover before the next energy burst. The third lap was a little slower as I realised I could slow the pace a bit as I knew I was the leading women by this point (39.22). The fourth lap was slow, 44 minutes plus, but here I knew I could take it much easier and just enjoy it without the pressure of trying to constantly overtake others.

Results can be found here.

A final word of thanks must go to the Gorrick team who organised this great event, and to all the marshals who stood out in the chilly autumn air for 4+ hours.

I wish I could make the next events, but I don’t think I will be back in England until March to dose up on 4 weeks worth of XC racing. Of course, I do have a fat bike race in Norway in January … that should keep me going until then!

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