It was a foggy and cold morning… That’s how these things always start isn’t it? It was a foggy, cold and still morning and I was loading my mountain bike and kit into the car. I am the sort of person that relies a little heavily on technology so I hadn’t bothered with a map, just a postcode and my trusty sat nav. I entered the postcode, and set of in the general direction the “the countryside”; this supposed green area outside of London where the foxes are slightly less scabby and people ride on horseback.
I had decided to enter a Cross Country mountain bike race a few months back, after enjoying the downhill delights offered in the Surrey Hills. Riding with fellow “hairy men” around Holmbury, Pitch and Leith hills for the last few years, and relishing the legacy trails such as “Barry Knows Best”, “T5”, “Yoghurt Pots”, “Telegraph Road” and other silly named (and lesser known) ones, I have built up a bit of a taste for the “dark side” of cycling. Why a mountain bike race? I can race a road race, I can ride a mountain bike, therefore I can ride a mountain bike race, simple!
It was about 10 minutes into my journey that I noticed I had no GPS signal, the cold foggy morning was working against my normally infallible technology. I had no map, no idea where this “Tunnel Hill” was. All I knew it was somewhere out west on the M3. Panic was setting in, I have no paper map. Lucky for me, as I hit sunny Sunbury, the sky cleared and those lovely satellites woke up. I was heading the right way.
Finding the place was a little more difficult, the sat nav dumped me on a long country lane before announcing “You have reached your destination!”. I have? Where? I assume this is what it’s like in the countryside, it’s all big and open and people just point in roughly the right direction and say “It’s over there someplace” whilst vaguely nodding to agree with themselves. I drove around for a while and eventually saw a sign, the size of a postage stamp, that said “Mountain bike event”. I’d made it.
It was a long dusty lane with an ambulance parked at the top, either a good or bad sign depending on how you look at it. The carpark was sprawling with what seemed like thousands of cars . I was directed to the start area and headed for the signing on hut. The start was a small area with literally hundreds of people milling around. The smell was a mix between festival ‘Portaloos’ and fried onions, the latter provided by a greasy looking burger van, literally parked ON the start line. Signing on was relatively painless, grab a form, grab a pen, fill the form in, pay at the van and walk away with a laminated number (I was No. 433). Instead of safety pins I was given three sandwich bag ties. For my pack-lunch maybe? After looking at everyone else I soon realised the number is attached to the front of the bars, at the top of the number, and then tied to the cables at the bottom.
I had read somewhere that it’s always a good idea to try the course out before racing it. I checked with some of the official looking people walking about and they confirmed that it was fine to do this. You just get the hell out of the way when other riders come past. I rode over the start line and onto the main bridleway.
What followed was half an hour of pleasure and pain. The Tunnel Hill course is fantastic, with miles of tight singletrack in beautiful forests. It’s fairly technical in places with a superb steep section into a gully that had me gripping on for dear life, other places were more open and fast. So that’s the ‘pleasure’ part out of the way. Tunnel Hill, as you would guess from the name is quite hilly. The hills are by no means mountain passes, but most of the climbs are same types of singletrack I love bombing down so much. Riding up them isn’t anywhere near as much fun. There are around ten “technical climbs“, where even a slight shift on the bike or a poor line choice will have you off in an instant. Even with very nobbly tyres the grip on these climbs was barely non-existent. The best of these takes you to a tree covered narrow pass at the very top of Tunnel Hill, that has sheer drops either side. Focusing ahead is essential, but I couldn’t help having a good look around when I got up there. It was stunning. Miles of singletrack later (around 5 miles in total) I arrived back at the start point where a big sign pointed me off the circuit to make sure I didn’t pass the timing van.
The main problem with the practice lap was the speed in which I rode it. The idea is to get to know the course and plan the best lines and work out where the overtaking points are. Rather than doing any of this, I simply enjoyed it far too much and rode it far too quickly. I got back to the start line with a big grin and knackered legs. The race would have me ride this three more times.
The foggy and cold morning had turned into a beautiful sunny day, so I went back to the car to remove some layers. At this point the ‘team support’ arrived. Richard Jerome had agreed to come and watch, and more importantly, to help me swap bottles on my second lap. Jodie (Richard’s wife) had tagged along as well, making me feel even more guilty. I can’t imagine a less interesting sport to watch – maybe the bottle switching would make it a more interactive, and besides, it’s got to be more exciting than Hillingdon Scalextric track.
Less than an hour later I was beside the burger van queued up on the starting grid with 98 other riders. I’d chosen to start near the front, in about 20th, as this is essential if you want to finish near the front. Something I was no longer that sure would happen. There was a lot of variation in terms of riders and kit. Most riders opting for ultra-light carbon hardtails and most of them looking like they ride these events a lot.
The commissarre announced cryptically that “sometime in the next 10 seconds the race will start” before counting to about three and then sounding his horn. I didn’t really have time to think about this as no sooner has the horn sounded, 99 riders shot forward down the bridleway, with me somewhere in the middle desperately trying to clip into my pedals. It was a three lap race and for me a race of three parts. The first lap there was a lot of congestion and overtaking and the occasional minor crash, but it was fast. By the time we hit the hilly part of the course it was clear that there were some very good riders in the group. My heart-rate was sitting on about 95% of maximum and I was gasping for air. More and more people were falling by the wayside and what seemed like a very big race turned into a very small one. By the end of the first lap I’d fallen off the first couple of fast groups and was somewhere about a 3rd back with a collection of other “average” riders.
Lap two was ridden with a bunch of about 10 other riders. Unfortunately not all of them were particularly skilled on the more technical aspects of riding trails, namely “cornering”, “breaking” and most annoyingly “climbing”. Everytime we would hit a climb someone would fall off in front. This meant getting off the bike and running up the hill, something I started to get very frustrated with after the third or fourth time. Heading back to the top of the carpark hill I spotted Richard and Jodie Jerome, ready and waiting with my bottle. The switch went surprisingly well, considering I fumbled the bottle with by left hand, within seconds it was shoved into the bottle cage and stowed and ready.
By the end of the second lap I was completely blown. I seemed to be carrying two leg-shaped bags of lead under me. All of the riders I had sped past earlier were now catching and passing me. So many so that by half way through, at the hilly section, I was convinced I was last. After being so very annoyed with the falling lemmings on the climbs I had become one of these lemmings, keeling over on at least three of them. One guy went past shouting obscenities (as I had fallen off in front of him) so I decided I would beat him for the finish line, it’s good to have a goal. My pace picked up and I held his wheel to the line, but couldn’t get past.
Final result: 63 out of 99
Lap 1: 00:27:43
Lap 2: 00:29:27
Lap 3: 00:31:02
Not quite the top ten I was hoping for, but a lot better than the last place I thought I was in by lap three. I have now entered the second of these events running in November. Plenty of time for me to get fitter, faster and practice “my running up a hill with the bike on my back” technique. Also plenty of time for me to work out how to find the place!