I love racing in the rain. I've had some of my best results when it's cold, wet, and muddy.
One of the races I'm most proud of is the 2013 World Cup in Albstadt, Germany. It was my first opportunity with Trek Factory Racing and I wanted to make a good impression. The course was slick with mud and I raced from a last row start, and a gridding of 125th, to finish 64th in the Elite Men's race. It's nothing compared to Tom Pidcock's performance at the same venue this year, but to me, that was a really big performance.
8 years later and I'm on my way to Monmouth to race in the HSBC National Cross Country Series. I said to Katie before I left that I hoped it would rain to make the course more challenging.
How wrong I was.
It's no secret that organising sporting events has been really challenging during the pandemic. I believe that British Cycling deserves a great deal of credit for ensuring that the national series goes ahead safely in 2021. Securing venues and organisers is challenging at the best of times, yet the first round of the year was a great success at Woodys Bike Park in Cornwall, and the new venue in Monmouth sounded brilliant.
The competition schedule included practice from 11 to 12:30 on race day, with the Elite men's race to start at 15:15. I rode 2 practice laps and my first impressions of the course were good, with one main climb followed by a long descending traverse, consisting of natural singletrack and off-camber grass. The bottom singletrack was really fun, although it was already getting muddy.
By 15:15 the forecast rain had arrived. Our race distance was 9 laps of the course, which I felt would be a long race even with good conditions. When the race began I had a clean start and moved up to 5th place by the top of the main climb. The downhill was already wet and slick with clay-like mud. I played to my strengths, staying upright, and finished the first descent and first lap in first place with Ben Wadey on my wheel.
Ben and I remained together until the 4th lap. While riding the main climb we spoke and questioned if they were really going to make us complete 9 laps of the course. We'd finished 3 laps in 45 minutes and the course conditions were deteriorating rapidly. This would suggest the best-case scenario was a race lasting around 2 hours 15 minutes, significantly longer than expected.
UCI World Cup race durations are set as 1 hour 20 minutes - 1 hour 40 minutes. Lower ranked UCI Class 2 races are set as 1 hour 30 minutes - 2 hours. Why this is, I'm not entirely sure.
By this point, the main descent had deteriorated so much that it was almost entirely impossible to ride. There were moments where I was holding my bike by the stem with one hand, clinging to a tree with the other, unable to move as my feet slipped slowly down the muddy hillside. I spent more time on my back than I did on my bike, and all of the riders around me were the same. I lost time and was passed by Grant Ferguson and dropped to third position.
This went on for one more lap. As I crossed the finish line for the 5th time I stopped and asked the officials what the plan was. They said that they couldn't shorten the race once it had started, and I decided to abandon and DNF. I was still in 4th position yet my lap times had slowed from 14:02 to 23:35. I think that completing the original race distance would have taken me over 3 hours in what I had hoped to be a 90-minute race. People say 'never give up'. In my mind, this was a great time to give up, and I don't regret it.
In the end, the race was shortened to 7 laps. Ben Wadey won with a time of 2:03:08 exactly 3 minutes ahead of Grant Ferguson. That's a solid effort!
On reflection, it was a real shame that the race turned out this way, given all of the time and effort from so many volunteers, as well as the staff at British Cycling. For this, I want to say thanks to everyone who worked so hard to ensure the race went ahead. In the previous races, the course was looking great and provided a real challenge for the riders. It's just a shame that the rain arrived and spoiled our fun. I hope it wasn't my fault... As the saying goes, 'be careful what you wish for'.
As always, you can check out my ride on Strava.
Photographs from Roots and Rain by Richard Howes Photography, Sam Nancarrow, and Man Down Media.
'til next time,
Over and out,