I’m no stranger to mud. Years of Foot-Orienteering at major events with muddy, wet, sodden fields for the final sprint. But I’m used to mud just on my lower legs. Not in my hair, ears and miraculously in my sports bra! For today’s Southern XC race, a snorkel would have been useful. Or a canoe. In hindsight, my fatbike with 4inch tyres would actually have been a reasonable choice …
I am familiar with the name ‘Crow Hill’, todays event location. Near Ringwood in Hampshire, it’s just a short 30 min drive from home. But being on private land, I have never been there. Numerous XC events have been held in the past, so it’s a well used venue.
Hans Jørgen and I made the trip from Norway to visit my family and to take in this race. His first XC race for 9 years. I said he had to race elite. Expert would mean him taking the same number of laps as me, which was not an option. He makes me go ski-orienteering. I made him do elite. Revenge is sweet!
The last days have been typical April weather. Sunshine and rain showers. A picture from the organisers on Saturday showed mildly muddy legs and shoes, and Rocket Ron tyres. With rain forecast, I was undecided to use my only Nobby Nic on the front or rear wheel. I went with the front as it’s a set up I’ve used before, but was left with a ‘Ron’ on the back. Given the news update from the organisers I figured this was no problem.
Our warm up lap, made me think a double ‘Nic’ would be better. After four laps I was thinking a canoe was best. Or a fatbike.
The first 1/3 of the course was mostly deep, wet mud. Not the nice grippy kind that slowly pushes to the sides and dries the more people that ride it. No. This was the wet, sloppy, mudpie kind of mud, infused with many deep puddles and an underlying layer of roots. In places the puddles were axel deep and the mud only marginally shallower. It was barely possible to ride, and as the laps went on the ‘rideable’ area became less and less, as the harder ground and vegetation joined the mudpie. Most of the numerous streams and ditches had bridges. But those that didn’t soon became front-wheel-eating nightmares, that required skill to negotiate, and balance to stay upright in the slip-fest.
The second 1/3 was better. Some sections were impossible to bike even in the warm up. These sections were later avoided for the coming races, but the course couldn’t be changed mid-race, so us women had to battle it. In the worst section it was just to get off and run along the rooty, clay earthwall, and then up the hill for a little way. But on the whole this middle part of the course was almost dry in comparison to the rest!
The final 1/3 was bad. With masses of standing water in the lowest section, it was several minutes of grovelling through deep puddles in what quickly became a marsh. The latter section was a thin layer of greasy mud with hard earth underneath and many twisting corners. Thus, acceleration and cornering here were almost impossible. The slightest extra pressure to the pedal resulted in wheel spin, and attempting to pedal on corners resulted in whichever-wheel-that-had-less-grip washing out. Finally there was a climb up to the finish before starting the adventure again. With each lap, the course became slower and muddier.
I was really up for this race, despite my lack of confidence in mud such as this. It was the same for everyone, and being in the elite class meant I should be able to handle it better than most. It was just to knuckle down, and grin and bear it. I had a good start (finally), and held second into the first singletrack (training success). The eventual and well deserved winner was first here. Another girl (junior women) slotted in behind us for the first 1/2 of the course. The lead here changed a few times, as the rider in front always made mistakes. But after 20 mins I took the lead and got a small gap. I held it well, but on the second lap, the gap was closed once I got to the mud section. I think I had the lead for the second lap, but the other women were always on my tail. Learning my lesson from last time, I responded to their attempts to overtake and held the lead. 1/2 way on the 3rd lap, while we were running up the hill (unrideable for the women on all laps), I realised my back wheel had come loose. I stopped to tighten the Quick Release but lost about 15 secs as I checked that was the only problem. Once they had a small gap, I couldn’t get back to them as it was this lap that the course really deteriorated.
By the end of the 3rd lap I was 30 seconds behind (the junior women had 3 laps, so Ffion James finished then). The fourth lap was then a solitary pain-fest. I kept pushing to bridge the gap, but the bog snorkelling conditions meant every acceleration resulted in wheel spin.
After 2 hours and 17 minutes of racing, I was just 1 min behind the leader, Catriona Ross. Given the epic-ness of the conditions, this is a small time gap!! There was a 9 minute gap from me to 3rd.
Catriona Ross: 30.52, 32.30, 34.52, 38.07 – 2.16.22
Emily Benham: 30.38, 32.43, 35.35, 38.28 – 2.17.25
I really enjoyed the race. My parents and HJ were out cheering a multiple points of the course, which was certainly a boost near the end. Despite starting with a lack of confidence in mud, I now feel I can handle the bike better in such extreme conditions. I smiled all the way (inside) and now the pain is a distant memory, can laugh at the extreme mud! Admittedly it has taken two showers to get the mud off.
It was then a wait of some hours for HJ to start. After the BC Commissionaire’s saw the slow laptimes, they shortened the rest of the races by one lap. Thus the elite men had a 4 lap race, same as the elite women.
It was great fun watching Hans Jørgen race. He started well, and realised he was going too fast, and then slowed down to a sustainable pace. His laps were the opposite to mine, starting with absolute mud mayhem, with the course drying to conditions similar to our first two laps as the sun came out. Yes, he had sun. I had rain. But at least I got to stand around in the sun … major positive! With 13 elite men starting, HJ hovered around 9-11th place for 3 laps, before finally taking 10th – in a time only 6 minutes faster than me.
This was one of my hardest race ever. I felt I had found a nice flow from the start and managed to stay in the leading group. After the first hill I realised the speed was a bit too fast for me, so I decided to slow down a little and take my own speed through the mud, which should also make it easier to find a good route through it without getting stopped by others crashing. But this was already too late. My legs were like lead and I was hardly able to get up the coming hills. So from there it was just to try to enjoy the race as much as possible and beat Emily! said HJ after he got out of his mud makeup.
Hans Jørgen lap times: 29.43, 32.38, 34.13, 35.00 – 2.11.36
Of course, the men did have worse conditions than the women, but the course seemed to reach a constant state of muddiness. On the drive out, I was looking at the first part of the course, and it didn’t seem much muddier than when we were out. I think the women are just tougher …
A MASSIVE thank you to all the marshals and organising team today. Standing around in all that rain and mud must be hard work. And thank you for your cheering during the course. We needed it!