“I’ve just been looking through the entry list… I see Damien Jones is in. There’s a dark horse; he’s been going pretty well, racing hard in his prep for the Cape Epic.” said Pete during a ‘phone call with me a few days before the National Champs in Bright. This was after plenty of in-store chats at Topgear getting my Stumpjumper ready for the event. The bike was in perfect condition and I was ready to race the trails.
Crossing the line to begin the last lap it was broadcast that Damien Jones (Hampton Cycles) and myself had moved up through the field and were now in a wheel-to-wheel battle for 2nd place. We were 40 minutes in, at the lowest part of the course, facing the series of climbs that picked their way up the first 3 to 4 km of the 6km loop.
I had caught Damien at the highest point of the course on the previous lap and he had let me pass at the top of the fast descent, so I thought my best chance to gain any advantage was to push some of the sections of climbing. The underlying flaw with this thinking was that Damien was right there when it was announced that we were both vying for 2nd and had become a permanent fixture on my back wheel. This became more and more clear as we climbed, dropped and climbed again on the undulating trails toward the race summit. Any effort I was putting in was being matched. With a clear image of the track in my mind I calculated the sections that would be my greatest advantage and the sections which I would be under the most threat. I backed off the intensity through the last couple of climbs with no sign of a move from behind, confirming I had better keep some energy available for those ensuing sections of threat.
Cresting the last of the climbing it was time to put some faith into the trails, my setup and my ability to take on the fast, winding descent back to the finish line. Tipping down the hill, crossing roots, weaving between trees and dropping into dusty corners the pace was on. At the midpoint of the descent the course popped out onto a slightly rising, dirt road, using about 150 metres of this before veering off onto the next single track. This was one of the open areas I would need to feed in some power. Holding position and driving hard up the road made for a rapid entry into the single track, resuming the descent with some long, fast approaches to tight switchbacks. At the first switchback I got a chance to notice that, at best, I had a lead of five bike lengths. Continuing from corner to corner we launched across another road crossing before becoming close to over-cooking the entry into the last section of the narrow stuff. Passing under the bridge I hooked left and began my charge up the open grass verge, it was clear to me that this was where the attack would come so I opened the throttle. I passed the feed and tech zones and lined up the final 180 degree bend to the finish line. Damien drew level with me around the bend as we booted it for the last 25 metres. 5 metres, and out of the corner of my eye I could see his front wheel alongside mine but with more acceleration than I could develop. He got me… by a wheel, at the finish line. Congratulations to Russell Collett on taking the win.
Third place in Masters category at the National Championships! The vibe was indescribable, I was grinning from the excitement of the sprint finish for 2nd, charged with adrenalin and emotion as I congratulated Damien on the result. From the call-up to the start line all that was left to do was put the training into action. My full focus was on the race tactics formulated from a combination of my own race plan, confidence in the foundations and open advice from Jen and her excellent Pedallab programs, and also of Ed’s invaluable wealth of knowledge on so many MTB and race specifics tuned to my strengths and weaknesses.
On course Nick Morgan and Tillie played the perfect feed zone support roles, keeping the bottles coming as I’d pass through. A big cheers to them, not only for the on-track support but also for the great company whilst we shared accommodation for the weekend, Nick and I had discussed all aspects of the course as well as our own outlooks for our individual races whilst Tillie patiently wondered when the bike talk might take a rest…