Arriving at Birmingham airport ready for my first trip of the year felt a bit weird. I was excited to get away from the UK winter, but the first trip of the year is always hard, making sure you have remembered all that you need and I was apprehensive going to a race having only been back riding my bike off-road for two weeks – and it wasn’t a downhill race!
Cyprus was my destination to take part in the Sunshine Cup mountain bike races. These pre-season cross-country races have been going for many years and attract a good quality field of xc racers all keen to get some good earl- season training in and to also get some UCI points on the board.
In order for me to be able to enter the UCI World Cup XC and Pro Sprint races later in the year I must have 20 UCI points. Last year at Dalby I scored 19 so was still in need of one point before the first race in Houffalize in April. The three-day stage race in Cyprus was the best ranking event on the calendar at this point in the year and a top 40 finish overall would get me that all important one point!
British Cycling were present with Liam Killeen and mechanic Nick already out in Cyprus for the first race of the series and I would join them for the second. I remember Nick from the Raleigh team back around 1999 so we had a great week reminiscing on the good old times of mountain biking, even watching old YouTube videos of the Aviemore World Cup from 1992!
Liam had a great start to the season with a third in the first race out here, showing the form he is capable of going into this Olympic year. Liam is not only our number one xc racer but also quite the chef… I was treated to an entire week of ‘Liam cuisine’ – the most tasty and healthy week I have ever had!
I was also trying to live the xc life with my riding and did a couple of big rides during the week, really trying to maximise the time on my bike before the weekend. However, I think the short amount of time back on my bike started to take its toll even before the racing began as the legs were feeling the miles and the real riding had not even got underway!
The first event of the race was a one lap time trial. My only experience of this was from the team relay at the worlds last year and I made the mistake of going out so hard at the start that I never got chance to get my breathing under control and felt like I spent the entire 20 minutes hyperventilating ! This time I set off a little more controlled and tried to maintain my effort. I started to see my minute rider about half way around the lap but it took me all the way until the finish line to finally get past and I managed to notch up a 33rd place finish – but I knew I still had two days to go and the legs were already screaming!
Day two was a 40km point-to-point marathon style race, mostly fireroad with one 6km singletrack climb and descent. I knew this was going to be a hard day but I didn’t expect to get dropped off the group before the leadout car had even left the front of the race! I just had nothing in my legs and as the group accelerated up the first Tarmac climb out of the village I could not respond and just settled into the fact that I was going to have a long and lonely day in the saddle. I just had nothing in my legs, I just kept plodding along and did eventually pass a few people.
The main highlight of the day for me was getting passed by the lead men just before the long singletrack descent, as I ended up mixed in with the top 30 men, descending like a lunatic behind my old Trek team mate Lukas Fluckiger! It was awesome just to see how well these guys can ride a bike, especially having just raced like animals uphill for the last 30km. I did, however, also see a few guys not so great at descending and saw three of the most entertaining and painful looking xc crashes along the way. It was a pretty tough descent and super rocky, so there was not only bodies disappearing off into the bushes but I have also never seen as many abandoned tyres and Stans sealant strewn across a track… it was like a battlefield!
After the fun of the descent we still had about 6km of uphill fireroad to get to the finish. I finally dragged myself across the finish in around 2hrs 20mins into 41st place. That night I felt so fatigued I was considering not racing the final day as my body was just not recovering and I really had undertaken too much too soon and I didn’t think I would be able to score the point I came for. However ,just before bed the results were posted and after stage two I was in 40th place overall and the virtual owner of that one UCI point. That was it, I had to get up there on Sunday and drag myself around the XC course, all I needed to do was finish inside the top 40!
I knew that I could not afford to get dropped at the start again so I decided to pre-ride the start loop to get a good warm up and also check out the loop. The start finally came and I had Phil Dixon, GB’s mountain bike team manager, on hand to count me each lap to let me know where I was to make sure I got inside the top 40. The start loop was indeed painful, but I just buried myself to try and stay in touch with the back of the main group so I at least had some people to race. I got up to around 30th after the end of lap one and managed to maintain my position, burying myself on the climbs and recovering on the descents. It was really fun lap, with some good technical descents so once I had some space I could gain some time on the descents and then just try and hang on until the next technical section. I still had nothing in the legs but just pushed on, with the only thing driving me was that damn UCI point!
I managed to keep my position and finished in 30th spot which pushed me up to 34th overall after the three stages – so not only one but seven UCI points collected! It really did feel like I had just won a big race, as that was one of the toughest weekends I have had on my bike. Having achieved what I came out to do I decided to cut the trip short, and not race the final race of the series and instead head home to get some rest and get back into rehab for my shoulder before the season really kicks off.
A massive thank you to the GB lot; Liam, Nick and Phil for all their help and support and to the Welsh crew too. It was great teamwork getting all the feeds and tech zones covered. It was also great to see Oli Beckinsale back in action in his first race after breaking his leg last summer; a great achievement after a winter of learning to walk again…