Salisbury Plain Challenge

I had heard about the Salisbury Plain Challenge or SPAM Challenge for many years. Firstly, my father used to do the race (he reports he once took 5th place), and then while at University, a fellow MTB’er on my course was racing. I probably should have taken part in 2007 when the race actually made it to my year plan, but I wasn’t struck by the idea of MTB racing. Looking back, I think the idea of racing 50km in the middle of winter around the Salisbury Plain probably both terrified and daunted me.

After a few weeks of winter in Norway, I found myself craving riding a 26″ wheel again, and finally after 4 months of recovery, base training, and endurance training, I felt ready mentally to push my limits physically. A race like this is mainly mental. Big climbs, long road sections and 50km of pretty much flat out racing.

I chose to use the event as a warmup for the Merida Brass Monkey race next weekend. I’m racing the 2hr category, so this event was to be a good test of my winter fitness and see where I need to improve before the summer. I studied Strava and found the race profile from 2013. I knew there would be 5 large climbs between 50m and 100m in the first 12km, followed by a long undulating section before three more large steep climbs near the end.

My plan was simple. Go hard at the start to get into a good group for the fireroad section (20km long) and use them to keep the pace, before pushing hard on the final climbs and descents. I had also checked out the 2013 results and seen the leading lady had a time of 2hrs 20, with 2nd (a strong MTB’er who would normally be 2mins quicker on a XCO race per lap than me) in 2hrs 27. My target time was 2hrs 15 to 2hrs 20. Working with that would require an average speed of around 22kmph, a goal that I felt was highly realistic and represented my current fitness. Sure, it was also ambitious. I was aiming to beat a time from 365 days before of a women I had never beaten or even come close to.

Another climb. The weather was stunning. hovering around 0°C and sunny. Photo from mbkphotos.co.uk

Another climb. The weather was stunning. hovering around 0°C and sunny. Photo from mbkphotos.co.uk

The first part of the race went well. I settled into a good rhythm, powering up the hills and descending too quickly to see! I found myself with a small group of men, and a short lived game of cat-and-mouse ensued. The final hill in the early part was a steep monster. Starting with a gradual climb, it ramped upwards quickly (although on the chalk downland it wasn’t without warning! I could see it for 10 mins). My position of around 30th place here meant a lot of guys were walking up. My gearing was a 32t single chainring with 36-11 cassette. I was proud to ride it, and even overtake several guys who stayed on their bikes. With my gear ratio I had to two options: ride it, or walk it. There was no easy spin option!

The top marked the start of 25km of fast asphalt road, with long steady climbs and descents. The faster guys disappeared. I was left alone. About half way along this section I was tiring and losing pace, but with no-one in sight ahead I was trying to keep the speed. Then a group of Banjo Cycles men passed me, and I was able to pick up a wheel and hang on. Not only was my gearing a small disadvantage on the steepest climbs, but also on the long steady descents. Against their 29″ wheels and 2×10 systems, I was pedalling away like mad and slip streaming just to stay with them.

A fun descent. Fatbiking has given me a lot more confidence in these hard, maybe icy conditions. Photo from mbkphotos.co.uk

A fun descent. Fatbiking has given me a lot more confidence in these hard, maybe icy conditions. Photo from mbkphotos.co.uk

Eventually I got a gap to the main group, although a couple of them came with me and we rode together for some more km’s before they broke ahead of me. With my gearing, the race ended up being excellent cadence training: slow cadence up the steep hills, then fast on the descents.

I finished in 2hrs 17 mins with a massive smile on my face. The race hurt. My lungs hurt. My legs were tired. But I did it. My first attempt at a race that resembles XCM and I met my target time. 2.15 was possible, had I not tired and lost speed in the middle section before I was caught. I learnt a lot about my shape right now, and my strengths/weaknesses. I felt strong the whole way and never tired to the point of fatigue. Currently the results are not published, but I look forward to seeing them, as I have no idea if I was first female, but am curious to see the placing with the men too. The winning male last year took just under 2hrs for 50km and 800m climb.

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