I did three of the four Hope XC Series rounds at Lee Quarry last year. I have no idea why I enjoy these events so much, it really doesn’t make sense. I’m not fast at all. At best I place mid-table in the ‘Weekend Warrior’ sports class, and the real racers go past me like I’m standing still, both up and down the hills. This in spite of the fact that I have a really quite fancy bicycle and silly skin-tight shorts and everything.
I suspect that much of my enjoyment comes from riding around the excellent trails of Lee Quarry with a bunch of similarly-minded lunatics, all trying to go as fast as possible. I definitely give it more beans when I’ve got a number safety-pinned to my back, and when things come together properly after a few laps of trying my damnedest to keep up with some proper riders I can almost start to imagine that I might finally be approaching a basic level of competence on the bicycle. The illusion is shattered when a fast lad blasts through, making me look like an uncoordinated donkey on a trike, but even this part of it is fun; it is always worth watching good riders ride, and it’s usually worth trying to follow them too. Most of the time (discounting the sensations that my respiratory tract is full of particularly pissed-off fire-ants and that my legs are being smashed to bits by hammers) I feel really good riding these races.
So I came back for another go this year. I’m signed up for all four rounds this time, and the first one was last Sunday. It was sunny and dry and warm; pre-riding the course revealed a dusty and fast quarry. The route was the usual selection of some of the best bits of the marked trails with a couple of regular Brownbacks off-piste sections, including that nadgery little mud-chute that always catches people out when it’s wet.
At 10.30 we lined up for the start. From a few rows back we watched the proper BC point-scoring racers blast off into the distance, and a few minutes later it was our turn. The race always sets off up the access track into the quarry, a wide, steep, and loose ramp, and typically I ended up scrabbling about on rubble, losing places and trying to find a space on some more solid ground. Damn those guys are fast, I remember thinking, I must be twenty-odd places behind already. I pulled a few back further up the hill before the first section of singletrack, but it was clear already that I hadn’t somehow magically got 20% faster over last winter. As soon as I’d cleared the first few technical sections I got my breathing back in order, and my breakfast stopped threatening to kill me from the inside out. The possibility of enjoying myself became a plausible concept again.
Half-way round the course there was a flattish section up a track, a nice wide space perfect for overtaking people, if you have anything in your legs. To my amazement in the first lap I found that I did, and overtook three riders before the next wiggly, bermy bit of trail. Even more amazingly, I was able to keep that lead on the downhill and build on it. I started to feel good. A couple of near misses on the steppy bits coming back down put paid to that, and by lap two the fast veterans were passing me. I shouted encouragement to stop myself from swearing at them instead. I twanged the front tyre off a pointy rock with a bang loud enough to make me think I’d punctured, but fortunately the air stayed where it should be and I pressed on. I pulled back another couple of places on the same flat bit, and coming back down began to feel a bit less like I was simply holding on to the bike, and more like I was riding the thing in the direction I wanted it to go.
Halfway round lap three and the front wheel went Boom! off the very same pointy rock. I’ve definitely popped a tyre this time, I thought, but there was a short, bubbly hiss as the sealant did its thing. Hooray! A few bumps further along though and it came unstuck again. I found myself riding along to a soundtrack of intermittent hisses, sprayed occasionally by tiny droplets of Stan’s finest as the hole sealed and unsealed over and over. I stopped to look for the damage, and whilst hunched over the bike one, no, two racers in my category passed me. I couldn’t see anything to fix, and the tyre seemed to have started holding air again, so I carried on, aiming to regain my lost place if at all possible.
Laps four and five were positively fun, I had people to chase now, and I even managed to catch them before too long. I started popping the bike off lips and kickers, enjoying the little drops on the way down from the top. A guy on a Specialized full suss passed me on the horrible loose climb where I always end up pushing. I chased him too, even though I was pretty sure he wasn’t in my category. I was able to haul myself up to him over the course of the next lap, but when we got to the loose climb again he was away and I was off the bike once more. I tried my best to chase him down again, but he kept the gap all the way to the finish. After crossing the line I tracked him down to shake his hand; he was one of the racers, and I’d almost been able to hold my own with him. That was definitely among the best races I’ve ever done, I thought to myself, brilliant fun.
I couldn’t hang around for the ceremony at the end because of family commitments, so I didn’t find out how I did for a couple of days until the results were published. I came 11th, which is annoying because I wanted to get in the top ten, but any disappointment is tempered by the fact that had I raced with the big boys in the proper fast category I would have been 10th with my time – clearly there are some riders in with the Weekend Warriors who really should stop sandbagging. Lessons learned this time include: don’t stop for punctures unless your tyre is actually flat; learn to ride up loose, scrabbly, rocky climbs; learn cyclocross remounts for when you do have to get off; don’t go to a barbecue the day before a race.