My first competitive cycling event…… And it wasn’t on road!

Cycling events and races have been in short supply this year due to the Covid outbreak, but things are slowly getting back to normal. This mixed with furlough has created a gaggle of either overtrained or undertrained cyclists dying to get back to or get into competitive sport.

For me I’m fitter than I ever have been. Looking after the kids for 5 months really helped with my fitness. I took them out on a lot of runs in the double buggy, had time to cycle, and walked a load! Not driving all around the south coast for a living has really helped me to manage my diet as well, I’m no longer regularly raiding the Golden Arches. I’ve dropped 3kg and I feel great, I’ve been setting PRs regularly and even snatched a few local KOMs.

I was dying to try out my new fitness in an event to see how I measured up, and to see if I enjoyed competing. The hunt was on to find one.

Whilst I love my road cycling unfortunately road racing is still off the cards due to COVID. Also I don’t think I’d quite be at the level of bashing elbows, breakaways, and riding in a pack. I’d need to spend some time practicing first. There were a few TTs about and they fitted the bill nicely, although with most held on a week night they clashed with my now return to work and childcare. Having previously entered a couple of duathlons I started by looking for them, this is how I stumbled upon the eventrex website.

It was here I found the Southern XC new forest mtb race. The mtb sections of the duathlons went ok so my thought process was “how hard could this be?”…..What’s the worst that could happen I said to myself? And took the plunge!

The event took place nice and local to me at Bagnum in the New forest. It’s a course the organisers have used before, although going by the southern xc Instagram it needed a lot of clearing to get it back to race readiness. Bracken grows fast! With the track prepped and ready, that just left the riders. Pre race all entrants were sent detailed information on Covid controls, race format, and outline of session schedule.

The racing was set up over a weekend with limited group sizes in alternating sessions. Each group parking in different car parks (to minimise contact) and having an hour session to get in as many laps as possible. Lap times were circa 13 mins long so fast entrants would get 5 laps in, all others would be cut off at 4 if they miss the hour limit. Each entrant would line up in a start gate and be set off at 30 second intervals.

Race day came around quickly with nerves and excitement in equal doses. Arriving to my specified car park I got chatting to some of the other entrants, pulling on their experience and making sure I had all the basics covered just for getting though the event. Everyone was super friendly and enjoyed seeing new people come join in, as without new blood events like this peter out. The advice was good and I had all the basics covered.

Rolling up to sign in, which was a lot like a normal event sign in just a little more contactless and socially distant, I could see the layout for the start. We had a single file queue to a three up start gate where each rider was set off individually. Riders were released with a time gap to keep us from amassing on the course, yes passing was inevitable but the chances of contact was drastically reduced.

Number on and ready to race!

Before the main event all riders were welcomed to get in a practice lap, excited and pumped full of adrenaline I got stuck in. I had to get a handle on what it was like to ride an xc course and fast! I went hard, probably too hard, and popped in a 13 minute lap and loved ever second of it.

Pre practice lap…. little did I know what was coming!

With practice complete it was time to line up. The organisers asked us to sort ourselves into a kind of expected performance/finish time so based on my practice lap (feeling confident) I put myself in about third of the way down the field. The first riders were off and my excitement started to build, it was my turn to file into the gate. The two riders next to me were set off, I was counted down, I was racing.

Lining up at the start gate.

Out of the gate and my first issue, bloody SPDs! I couldn’t get clipped. A couple of tries and I was in the pedals and going some, fuelled by those nerves and excitement. My first lap was good, I railed a lot of the corners, banged over the roots, and charged the climbs. It was tough though and rolling into my second lap I started to feel it a bit. Realising I had a potential 4 more laps to go I backed off a bit, there was no way I would make it at that pace. This is when I started to get passed. On lap two I think I had two guys pass me, yes it was disappointing for it to be happening so soon but I kept reminding myself “it’s your first event Jon!”. Lap three is where things took a turn for the worse….. the course had 20 riders on it and the ground was starting to get a little cut up. The tyres were starting to clog and slide, my confidence started to slip and my energy levels were dropping. Then came the stack. After a fast and flat gravel fire road the course dived to the left through a ditch and off up the side of a hill. I turned in left, misjudged the ditch, slid across the mud and got thrown out the other side. I landed with a thud on my left leg. Previous experience tells me that if you stop with an injury you will struggle to get going again (level of injury depending!), I checked my leg and found a few grazes but nothing serious. Saddled up and carried on, I didn’t want to seize up, I was thankful for the soft pine forest floor. Into lap four it was a damage limitation exercise, I was tired and I was struggling with the state of the course. Going as hard as I could without having to stop I made it round to the end of the lap and looked for the countdown timer. The clock said 58 minutes and I had just made the cut off, a double edged sword. I was bolstered by the fact I’d be in the five lap group but the reality of another lap being on the cards made me chuckle and cringe in equal amounts. I was just hanging on. The last lap became a bit of a parade lap, I pushed where I felt safe and had the energy but pottered the rest. Trying to save some face I powered up the final climb. Finish line crossed. I was glad that complete annihilation of my quads was over, but what a grin I had on my face.

Descending with confidence …….
Looking like I know what I’m doing….

Post race and breath caught I had a brief socially distanced chat to some of the other entrants (due to COVID, instructions were to leave the event ASAP and avoid contact) to get a view on the race. As it goes the course is actually a pretty difficult venue, and probably not the best introduction. This made me feel a lot better about dragging my arse round into the five lap group, on a less than ideal setup.

Well done bike, you did well!

I learned a lot of lessons. The top XC riders are fit, and I mean really fit. To have ability to be that consistent for an hour is incredible, my legs were screaming after lap three. I’m glad I wasn’t wearing my heart rate monitor or I’m sure my garmin would have exploded! You also really need to find your pace and stick to it (this is actually where heart rate data would have been really useful!) to save yourself from early self destruction. This is a familiarity and training thing though, if I had actually been training for a mtb race I’d have a lot better understanding of what my pace and heart rate would be under this kind of load.

Bike setup can also help a lot, but it won’t stop you from entering. Tyres are a super key part of XC racing, and the one area that I didn’t get right on the day. Firstly the tyres I had weren’t ideal for the situation, they were too low a profile with not enough cornering ability. Yes they were fast rolling, a more hard pack style almost like a gravel tyre with a close packed tread design, but packed quickly and broke grip easily when leaning on them. And then there’s the tyre pressures, I got this big time wrong. I’m 74kg and it’s off-road, I should have been running the lowest tyre pressure I could get away with without pulling the tyre from the rim or pinch flatting. Probably circa 25 psi. I think I had near 40psi. This made cornering skittish, roots really slippery, and definitely added to my crash!

The result of my little off!

Despite all the little slips and points of learning I had a great time, and definitely have the bug to go again. Although I’ve got some things to work on and change for next time:

1. Train for hard hour sessions! Technical climbing and find what I can sustain. Oh and wear my heart rate monitor.

2. Tyre setup. Get some tyres that fit the bill. That means decent side knobbles for cornering purposes. Play with my tyre pressures to find out what I can get away with, and that give best grip.

I have to give a big thumbs up to the guys from eventrex for getting this event going under current restrictions. Also to get the event to run so smoothly and be so enjoyable despite changes to format. I really enjoyed the tt style sprint to the finish, the push for the laps within a time frame, and the challenge of riding an off road course. I now just need to divide my time up and decide exactly what event I’ll enter and when! Running, mtb, duathlon, tt….. so many events so little fitness ha ha!

Thanks Eventrex for a great event, I’m looking forward to the next. And if you want to take part check out their site HERE.



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