Strains of 'On Ilkley Moor Bar t'hat' from the resident brass quartet floated across the start finish area has I heaved up the final climb into the clearing containing the lap scorers. By the next lap this had been replaced by 'Pinball Wizard' on the P.A system with a previous playing of'Chariots of Fire' to entertain and inspire whilst grinding out another tough lap.
This then was the diverse musical soundtrack to Hit the North 1.5 - Winter Sprinter, interspersed with gruff Northern shouts of encouragement on the long and varied course. Arriving in temperatures of -1.5 degrees, the scene had been set for a fast and furious race or ride, depending on your point of view and intention. Billed as mountainbikes vs crossers, the cultural differences between the 2 camps became clear fairly early on - me and Mark (and most of the other 6 crossers) went for warm up laps to scope lines whilst the mountainbikers mostly stood around chatting and relaxing. A total freehub failure (frozen up I think!) on my chosen bike whilst warming up had me diving back to the car for my second bike and worrying that deep dish carbons were perhaps not the most suitable for the frozen and rutted course. I need not have worried because the environmental impacts of 100 riders lap after lap on the frozen course had their own global warming effect, turning it into a real tough mud slog in places. The need to change bikes also meant I missed riding the second half of the lap which made for an interesting opening lap at racing speed!
It is fair to say I felt distinctly out of place on the start line in skinsuit and bare (though embrocated) legs - almost everyone else had full winter jackets, some camouflaged to protect against who knows what horrors that were out on the course, other full body cover and some hefty looking rucksacks too to boot. They were a well prepared lot for sure and it made me a bit nervous. Only Ady Lawrence and Dean Smith were similarly sparsely dressed, equiped like me and the tiny band of cross brothers and sisters with puny looking cross bikes against this armada of suspended and beefed up metalwork......
Starting hard in about 3rd or 4th place.....No matter, with a blast from the resident brass band we were off and straight into a chaotic first lap with 2 hours of racing left to go. I got away fast expecting carnage into the first section of single track, latching onto Dean and Ady's wheel at first. It may have been carnage behind but luckily I was relatively clear and intent on creating my own version of chaos. Not known (ever) for my technical prowess, riding some technical sections blind made for some near misses with faster, and I may say, very polite mountain bikers. We got through unscathed, though apologies to the guy who I wacked in the head with my bike as I shouldered it at the precise moment he chose to ride past on a sketchy descent.
Carefully reading the course signs for a very steep drop off I found myself wondering why the rest of the race was not following me as I rode round some pretty ornamental and tarmacced gardens, with a distinct lack of drop off. Retracing my steps, I found the rest of the race in full flight in front of me, they having been somewhat more observant of the sharp right sign also placed there.
Getting into a rhythm, I settled into learning the course and best lines whilst trying to keep momentum going without overdoing it. This was a cross race (despite anything any of the mountain bikers say!) but it was double the normal length, making for some challenging pacing considerations. The course began melting fairly quickly in most places and new lines emerged along with new challenges as it mushed up into some fairly heavy mud in a lot of places.
It was a great course, part mud slog, part fast blast, and part single track technical fest. Loads to occupy the mind and the legs and I have to say totally absorbing. The steps were brutal though and I was glad of a light and mud free bike to shoulder. A slight lack of lap board led to a bit of internal confusion about how hard to go in the last 1/2 hour but a clear directive of 1 lap to go (20min+ laps for most of us) gave a target to aim for in the closing stages. Unfortunately my quads were not in the mood for obeying and twinges of cramp began setting in. They came to a head on the final climb up to the finish when in spectacular dying swan fashion I cramped solid in both legs simultaneously, fell of the bike in a shouting, cursing heap and writhed on the floor for a good 30 seconds before managing to bend them enough to enable an undignified hobble up the course. Running the last bit I risked a do or die mount onto the bike to roll over the finish line some 2 hrs and 18 mins after starting out. Thanks you to the lady riding past who showed genuine concern for my grovelling, writhing form. I was fine, honestly, thank you!
Mark on one of the less technical sections!
Definitely the hardest cross, I mean mountainbike race I have done, though I got 1st Vet (again) and 8th overall out of the 90 odd finishers. Out of the cross riders, my mate Mark impressed photographers, marshalls and mountainbikers alike with his kamikaze descending on his new Planet X cross bike (faster than the MTBs!), Ady Lawrence won easily and Joe Allen also impressed in 3rd. A special mention too for Amy Baron-Hall, Horwich CC's new signing, who cleaned up the first Female prize on a nice new Focus cross bike. It was a great event, with a great course, friendly laid back atmosphere, good food and good music.
Amy second wheel...
And most importantly, Honour was upheld, I believe by the crossers................