Last Saturday, before it got sunny, was the first ever Stilettos on Wheels women only mtb race, up in Birchall, Derbyshire. A crowd of girls and their bikes met nervously in the car park of Birchall Golf and Leisure Club, for many (including my race partner Karen) this was their first mtb race ever.
The organisers had done a great job – big smiles greeted us on arrival, pink water bottles were doled out, local mechanics were on hand to check over bikes pre-race, there was tea and cake, what could be more welcoming?
While the all-female event meant a less testosterone fuelled affair, the 12-hours of rain preceding the race was the greater cause for concern. Slippy slidey riding is my least favourite so mud and wet grass didn‘t bode well. I had brought my new bike to the race for its first competitive outing, a Santa Cruz Superlight 29er. The bike, beautiful in black and green (ride pimped by Rob Dean), is so fast I almost feel it has a life of its own when I’m riding it, a bit like an unruly colt. Except, instead of me trying to tame the colt and slow it down, I’m trying to pluck up my own courage to keep up with its speed! Anyway, the bike is light, fast and awesome to ride. Love it.
Rob changed my tyres to mud specific ones when we arrived at the venue – it was the first time I had ridden them and I was pleasantly surprised what a difference it made. Karen and I were competing in the 4-hour pairs category and, with plenty of time before the start we decided to head out on a practice lap to see what the course had in store for us.
Mud, glorious mud. We squelched our way up the big grassy climb at the start of the course, and then squelched through a massive puddle of mud on the way into the singletrack, and then…ok, then it got better. Rooty singletrack through the woods, up and over some logs, a beautiful carpet of bluebells in the next woodland section, easier and harder signs (easier every time, shame on me for not trying harder…next time, I promise), some fun descents (rode two, ran two, I am chicken), and then a nice easy track straight to the finish line.
It was a great course and I was impressed and inspired by the way I saw other girls ride bits I was too nervous to attempt – need to keep that in mind the next time I am at the top of something scary (in my defense, I was more nervous than usual on the descents having gone ass over handlebars down Jacob’s Ladder just two days before).
So, back to the race. It turned out that with so many friendly faces to chat to on the way to our pre-ride and so much mud to squelch through, Karen and I didn’t really have that long for our practice lap. We whirled back to the car park just as the organisers were calling riders to the start line! One quick wee, a mad dash to the car to get my race timing chip and I was lined up, ready to go. And as the clock turned 12:00, the race was on (well, there is a reason he calls me competitive Grace).
The start was a bit of a scramble as we all tried to get out of the pack and away up the first climb, but the hill soon spread riders out and there was plenty of room for all to go at their own pace. I’m a good climber so was happy to be passing people up the hill, but the slippy roots of the singletrack soon slowed me down and my friend Emma, who I raced with at last year’s Mountain Mayhem 24-hour race, caught me up.
We rode along chatting for a bit and then she pushed on while I chickened out of the first descent of the lap… ah well; biking in these muddy conditions requires too much concentration from me for chatting anyway. More singletrack, through the lovely bluebell wood, and then two descents linked together… I considered it but the crowd of supporters all waiting with cameras at the ready felt like too much pressure so I hopped off and ran down to a flatter section.
Fortunately for my teammate, I am a fast runner, and, having done a triathlon last year, not bad at jumping between biking and running and running and biking. Unfortunately for me, I bruised my ribs falling off my bike earlier in the week and the biking and running was proving pretty painful. Through the trees, out and back in again, and then finally heading for the finish line. And painkillers. Ibuprofen you are my NBFF. First lap done in 26 minutes and it was Karen’s turn to race, go team awesome go.
The lovely race timing people were publishing the times live online so all eyes were on the smart phones in between laps, we were in third position, cue great excitement from pit bitches Rob and Paul. Less than half an hour in to a four hour race is too early for popping the champagne corks though, anything could happen.
Without mud tyres Karen found the course a bit of a slog but fortunately she’s super fit and super determined so, despite falling off and landing in a patch of nettles, she was soon back in the transition area, in need of a well-deserved rest. My second lap was faster, round in 24 minutes – I’m sure my competitive spirit pushing me to overtake a couple of girls ahead of me was the reason for the faster time. I knew competition was a good thing.
Karen was off on her second lap, and the boys were back on their smart phones. We were up to second place now, we’re definitely (maybe) going to podium woohoo! Karen was the absolute best teammate, although this was her first mtb race and she reports that she fell off on every single lap, including the pit stop into the nettles, she really gave it everything and put out an amazing performance. Good job competitive Karen!
Another lap each and it was down to the final hour of the race. Karen and I had both been consistent with our lap times throughout the race so I knew I had to get back before 15:20 to allow Karen time for another lap but as I panted back to the finish line, the clocked ticked past 15:26…The third place girls did not have time for another lap so our second place was confirmed, but there were still 34 minutes until the end of the race. A handful of dolly mixture and a swig of energy drink and off for one last lap to give us a total of eight laps in four hours, does it have to end so soon?
After a quick change we all gathered back in the arena to await the prize-giving, all finishers got a beautiful bespoke sprocket medal, designed by metal and leatherworker (and mtb rider). Kate Bebbington, and there were plenty of spot prizes too so no-one left empty-handed. Karen and I could barely contain our excitement as we stepped up to the makeshift podium to claim our fantastic leather second place medals and goody bags, stuffed with great prizes from sponsors Ana Nichoola, Torq and Mt Zoom. Well done to Teresa and Sheila who scooped first prize with a very impressive 10 laps and to Georgie and Natalie who completed seven laps to come third.
Thank you very much to Irene, Emma and the rest of the Stilettos on Wheels team for putting on a brilliant event, it was well organised, super friendly, and lots and lots of fun. Looking forward to the Brighton round already.