A carefree comment at Bontrager 24/12, an email on the following Monday and suddenly I found myself with an invitation to the prestigious Olympic MTB Trial Event at the infamous Hadleigh Farm Course.
After 17 races in 22 weeks I had been very much looking forward to a few weeks off from racing, mentally and physically I was shattered. Coupled with that is the very imminent arrival of my first child (5 days to go) I was nervous of telling the wife “just one more race…” when I did she was perhaps even more enthusiastic than I was.
But this was a truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to race the Hadleigh Farm course, coupled with the predicted 5000
Friday before the Hadleigh Farm Mountain Bike International
I have never competed in anything above a National mountain bike race and after looking through the race manual this was going to be a very different experience. The day began with signing on/accreditation at a Holiday Inn in Basildon.
This was a multi-stage process beginning first with kit approval: trade team kit was not permitted and only National kit was permitted, next was race license check, followed by release of practice lap number board and athlete passes.
Being an official trial event for the Olympics, security was tight. I eventually found my way through to the athlete’s village and met with the rest of the GB invitees.
Having seen the many press releases of the course I had reservations, to be honest I am not a fan of trail centre courses, preferring the feel of mud under the tyres rather than gravel. My first practice lap lasted 90 second as I punctured on the first technical rock drop.
A quick wheel change and I completed a course recce and then started a harder lap. The course was relentless: you’re either climbing or attacking one of the many technical features with few opportunities to rest or grab a drink. The climbs were often interrupted with rocky steps designed to disrupt your rhythm or rob you of momentum. The descents, although not technically difficult were steep and intimidating – this is of course based on a dry lap, in the wet it would be terrifying!
Sunday and it’s race day
Finally all the practice was over and race day was upon me.
The wife and I headed over to the venue early to watch the women’s race and ensure I was settled and had plenty of time for a decent warm up. I suffer from heart palpitations which means a good warm up is essential to get my body acclimatised to the intensity of a race. With one hour before race start I started my warm up with 10min easy on the turbo followed by some stretching, then back on the bike for some higher intensity efforts to really get the blood flowing.
With 30 minutes to go the UCI commissaries called the riders for release from the athlete’s village. One by one the GB team were released from the athlete’s village to the cheers of the 5000 strong crowd, I can only imagine what the Olympic event will be like with the full 20000 capacity. Before I knew it the parading was over and we were lined up on the grid. Being a late entry I was gridded 49th, the only man on row 7 of the grid.
With 30 seconds to go there was silence, the music was silenced, the crowd collectively held their breath, the riders muscles tensed and then bang! The gun fired and the stampede began.
The dust being kicked up was choking as the pack sprinted for the first single track section. Initially I made good progress, passing several riders on the wider start loop before disaster struck as a crash forced me off the track. Back to square one.
The first singletrack section coming so soon after the start formed a natural bottle neck, as I was already pretty much last position this did not bother me too much but gave opportunity to put the elbows out and make use of being a bigger rider.
At the first rock drop I went for the hard line and passed two riders who went for the boy’s line (two easy places). From there on it was simple case of suffering in the pain bag for as long as possible, all the while trying to ensure I avoided the dreaded 80% rule (where the leaders are too close to lapping you and you’re pulled). Not easy when laps are taking a little over 12 minutes. By the end of lap 4 my time was up, the last rider I passed was a Chinese international which put me in 37th. My primary goal for the race was to avoid being last and just enjoy myself, I scored on both counts.
Having now ridden the course I can happily report back that the man (and woman) who wins on the day of the Olympic race will be the best. The course holds no punches and punishes you severely for any mistake, there will be no tactics, just strong riding.
As a race course it is challenging to ride, as a race course it rocks! For the spectators it is probably the best venue in the country. The majority of the course sits in a natural amphitheatre, allowing spectators superb views of the majority of the course, ensuring they have a fantastic day and media coverage is maximised. I really do think more courses like this can only help bring spectators and potentially sponsors to the sport.