Last Sunday I had the privilege of wearing the Ireland colours to compete in a test race for the Olympic mountain biking on the 2012 Olympic course in Essex.
An amazing opportunity to line up with such a small number of competitors at the invitation only race, the majority of whom will be racing in the real event next summer. Mel Spath and I travelled over from Ireland on Friday and spent two days getting to know the course.
Initially we weren’t impressed. The course ticked all the boxes with technical climbs, rock gardens, jumps, switchbacks, and steep drops, but it all felt too manmade and clinical, and to me seemed to suck the soul out of mountain biking.
I can’t compare it to anything I’ve ever ridden before. When you’re not riding a carefully constructed technical rock section, you’re on incredibly wide but very loose hardpacked tracks that are like riding on marbles at times, but there is no natural singletrack, woodland or roots that would be characteristic of the area.
Some of the technical sections were good fun though and took a look of concentration to get down cleanly, pre-race claims that you could ride it on a cyclocross bike are certainly not true. I concluded that it was best to reserve full judgement until after the race since that can often change things. I was right.
Race day and things started to get nerve racking. Protocol was followed to the letter and it was a real taste of what riders will experience next summer. 15 minutes before the start we were called out of the high security private riders area (protected by Ghurkhas!) to ride round and round the start loop with 5000 spectators lining the hill above and commentators introducing each rider.
Called to the start line, counting down the seconds it was just me and 33 of the top riders in the world, very high calibre but at least fewer people to try and pass than in a World Cup. Bang, we charged off sprinting around the start loop at a blistering pace.
The first part of the lap was chaos, getting stuck behind people dabbing, stopping or running every time we hit a technical section so a combination of sharpened elbows and careful timing was needed to avoid losing time. Eventually things strung out a bit and I could get into a rhythm.
The scorching sun and 30°C temperatures (yes in England), combined with the relentless nature of the course made for some really tough racing. A lot of the climbs included carefully placed rocks to make you attack out of the saddle or loose switchbacks that require some strength, and at the top with lungs burning and legs full of lactic it was hard to stay composed as we went straight into physical rocky descents.
UK races are normally not the best for atmosphere but the crowds were amazing, the Ireland kit was useful and it was great motivation to have loads of people shouting my name or ‘go on Ireland’.
The course is very well designed for spectators with plenty of chances to get close to the technical spots and an amphitheatre area gives views across the course so you can follow the race as it progresses.
The laps were very short with the winners completing one in around 15 minutes so I was battling to stay in the race as long as possible. I was pushing on the limits for a lot of the race and by lap 3 the effort started to take its toll with a Dutch girl I had been chasing starting to get a gap.
Frustratingly I suspect a calf injury that has plagued my season is not resolved enough to survive top pace for the full length of a race yet, since slowing down and feeling them tighten up seems to correspond and has been a problem a few times recently.
At the end of my 4th lap I was pulled due to the 80% rule, finishing 25th and quickly ushered over to the press to give interviews and sign some autographs – how pro. An annoying end but the experience was amazing and I want more of it!
Too late for Ireland to qualify for 2012 but I now know exactly how fast I have to be in 5 years time. Watch this space.