Photo: Chris Keller-Jackson/Shred
56,000 people witnessed the biggest international field of cross-country mountain bikers to descend upon England since the last time Plymouth held a world cup. Never has UK mountain biking had such a big nationally and internationally televised event. This is the first time mountain biking has been a core sport in the Commonwealth Games, and though perceived as a fringe event (certainly by the BBC and the main press), its popularity can only be enhanced by such coverage.
Whatever the reason for going to the event (yes, it was free), if it prompts one young rider to enter the sport, or to pick up a bike, then it has all been worth it. It is the grassroots where national champions come from. That was Bronze medallist Liam Killeen’s route to fame, and though most of the crowd had never heard of him – or Roland Green, or Chrissy Redden for that matter – they cheered them all on to victory, whether public or personal.
The course itself was a mixture of undulating forest trails, open moorland, switchback singletrack, off camber mud, and the now infamous ‘Snakebite Alley’; a rocky, cobbley twin-track road with sharp, jarring stones compacted into the mild downhill slope. These last two areas claimed many scalps, with a big fall, several key punctures, most notably the Women’s favourite – Caroline Alexander – who flatted her tubeless rear tyre and limped through the woods sobbing bitterly. When I saw her at the base of ‘Snakebite’ in the off-camber mud section she was over a minute up on Redden (having already suffered the flat), and given better luck, would have extended her lead and romped home with ease. With such foreknowledge of the course, bigger rubber would have been a sensible precaution. That was Liam’s game plan, and it worked for him.
None of the English women faired well under the conditions, let down by punctures for the leading English pair of Sue Thomas and Victoria Wilkinson. Luck seemed to be firmly with the dominant forces as Canada took the Gold medal. The very loud crowd of onlookers cheered them all home.
Photo: Chris Keller-Jackson/Shred
The men’s race looked set to be dominated by Roland Green, and he did not disappoint. Jamie Norfolk held the early lead, but by the end of the first lap, barring a fall or a mechanical, the medals were secured.
Green admitted he took it ‘easy’ to allow Seamus McGrath to keep up with him, and they worked together to maintain the lead and eke out an advantage over third placed Killeen. In the mid-section, Green had some doubts as to how good he felt, and McGrath took over as pace maker and probably sacrificed first place as a result. As they crossed the finish to start the last lap, Green set about demolishing his teammate, tightening his shoe straps going over the line. He eventually won by 46 seconds from McGrath. Both looked pleased with their positions, with McGrath picking up a Canadian flag and applauding the crowd as he crossed the line.
Liam Killeen was two-minutes behind McGrath and came home to the biggest cheer of the day whilst flying the flag of St. George. With only two seasons as a professional rider under his belt, (Gary Fisher / Subaru team) this 20 year-old is our best hope for Gold in the European Championships and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Barrie Clarke was a strong sixth, in a very strong international field. Processional it may have been, but it was certainly great fun to watch.
Could Rivington ever hold a round of the World Cup? I asked Roland Green on your behalf and he was up for the idea. He’d like to see the World Cup back in England, and thought the course to be not too difficult on the climbs but quite punishing on the descents. He maintained that it was a hardtail course, although he only brought a hardtail with him, so perhaps he would!
Caroline Alexander still has an opportunity to exorcise her demons on Saturday, when she is due to take on the Commonwealth Games Road Race.