For the last three years, racing a World Cup has been my goal. An obsessive goal that I had to fulfill. I’m here in England, and I will be lining up for my first World Cup in Germany next weekend.
It started as a frustration: I was sat on the trainer doing intervals, and I was watching a repeat of the Val Di Sole World Cup. It suddenly clicked that everyone in that race – even the really slow people at the back – were faster than me. It didn’t seem right. If I was going to spend most of my disposable income and all of my spare time riding bikes, I at least needed to race the best people in the world.
So I worked hard and got 20 UCI points, bought a plane ticket to London, registered for two rounds of the World Cup and one British series race. And I’m really excited!
This goal wasn’t exactly straight forward. 2014 was the first year I really chased the UCI sanctioned races. I raced that 2014 season with the goal of getting the 20 UCI points I needed to start a World Cup. How many points did I finish the season with? Zero. None. Not even one. It was hard to come away from the first season of racing the national events without anything to show for it. It stung. So I trained a little bit harder. I raced a lot of cyclocross. I worked on my weaknesses. Unlike previous years, I did my core exercises. I got help with my bike fit. I set up my suspension properly. This year has been a roller coaster – I went to Greece early in the year to gain some racing experience and get some more points. I came away with both, but also a bad injury from my heaviest ever crash. It’s at this point that I really valued the sponsors that look after me during the season. Boulder Cycle Sport took in my broken bike and popped a shiny new Scott Spark out the other end. YogaGlo was invaluable in keeping my body supple when I couldn’t push on the pedals, and I drank so much Carborocket Recovery drink that I thought I might start smelling like chocolate and coconut.
The plan for the next three weeks: I’m currently staying at my Brother’s house in Loughborough before racing the British Series Round in Dalby this Sunday. Then we’re driving across to Germany to race the Albstadt World Cup. Then on to stay with relatives in Geneva for a few days, before heading to the Vosges mountains for the La Bresse World Cup in France.
A whirlwind trip to England started with a fantastic stag do (that’s a Bachelor Party, Americans) organised by Frank’s good friends Richard and Keiran. I’d been feeling like I was failing in my best man duties when they started organising the festivities, but I soon realised that they were the right people to do it, and they did Frank really proud. We found ourselves in rural Herefordshire late on a Friday night, after just landing in Heathrow. The weekend was mainly outside, situated at a fantastic campsite in rolling hills. That’s about all that was suitable for this blog. I can say that by the time we left on Sunday, I had absolutely no idea what time zone I was in!
The Exmoor Explorer is a ‘non-race’ around the amazing trails of Exmoor, starting from Minehead.
What is a non-race, I hear you ask? Archaic English land laws prevent competitions on public rights of way. This means races are restricted to private properties, and anything using the extensive and fantastic network of trails we have has to be called an ‘event’, rather than a ‘race’. It’s a quirky system, but it has some advantages. The first, exemplified by the Explorer, is that friendly events attract a huge range of people, from first timers to seasoned experts. The second is that because events on public paths are rare, they get a great turn out, are well organised, and are supported by the local community.
The logistics of organising a ‘non-race’ are pretty funny. It’s like a race in most respects. There’s a start line. There’s 500 riders with numbers attached to their bikes, and there’s a start, like any other. The organiser annouced before the race event that it was ‘non competitive’ to a few chuckles from the racers participants. There’s also a finish line, and results. So it’s a little bit like a race, really.
We started through town of Minehead behind the neutral car. For once the pace actually was neutral, and we rode steadily to the base of North Hill, a 15 minute climb onto the coastal hills above the town. I didn’t know what to expect from the start, but got a surprise when everyone decided that 700 watts was the appropriate effort for the start of a ‘non-race’. It soon settled down, and I was left with a young and enthusiastic rider who was rallying the descents to suggest he’d ridden them before, and a self confessed ‘veteran’ who was being cheered on by all the marshals, so he was definitely local.
We rode into the first check point (it’s timed, but it’s not a race) to the surprise of the marshals, who quickly worked out how to scan our tags and sent us out onto loop number two. This one was longer, taking in forest roads and some tight single-track through a plantation. I got a gap on a couple of the shorter climbs and just kept riding. The non-competitive part of the event made me hesitate for a second or two. Through the first check point I’d waited up for everyone to get scanned, and we left smiling and chatting. The first couple of gates we went through were opened and closed together. So it seemed almost rude to go ahead and ride off. But then I realised I was being slightly too British, and I should ride at my own pace. I did so, enjoying myself a lot more when I realised that the trails on Exmoor are best ridden at full speed and nothing slower!
I came through the check point at the end of the second loop to see a huge mass of people heading out to start it. The directions given for the third loop were “Follow the road until you see the Fish and Chip shop, then take a left and the course markings start”. This was accurate, but the friendly marshal didn’t tell me that the left turn would lead me to a 15 minute climb that gradually got steeper and steeper, with no corners whatsoever, and a slick moss covered surface that had been lovingly churned by the lead moto.
From here on I could enjoy myself. The trails on the last loop were sublime; hidden wet roots underneath pine needles, and tree stumps on the apexes of off camber corners. I enjoyed it. The course did some gratuitous climbing to make up the miles, zigzagging back and forth through a small section of forest. Each up was followed by an awesome down, though. It would have been better with someone to ride it with, as the trails sapped all speed and energy out of your legs, leaving you floundering without momentum on heavy, damp soil.
I knew the final climb was over when I crested it to see the Bristol channel staring back at me. The Sea! From here it was all downhill back into Minehead, where I was greeted by endless cake, and tea from my favourite tea company, Miles.
The Exmoor Explorer is a fantastic event run for all the right reasons. Although I feel it would be enhanced by becoming an official race, there are lots of people who disagree. Its current format allows a wider range of abilities to take part, which is certainly the aim at the end of the day. I had great pleasure in propping my Turner up in the finish area and watching successive groups of riders come over to stare at it – it garnered a lot of attention in a short space of time!
Trevor and Sarah have been my friends for the last five years. At least. Their friendship predates the scribblings of this blog, but if I think hard enough, I can still remember things that happened prior to the internet. When I was at the University of Bath, they were the first people who experienced the ‘not a runner’ Chris, and witnessed as I became enslaved to my bicycle.
At some point in 2008, I decided that I wanted to ride my Mountain Bike more than student life allowed, and I signed up for the Mountain Bike club trip to Cwn Carn in South Wales. I rode around with the group for a lap, and then tagged along for a fast lap with the guys who looked like they knew what they were doing. This was the first time I got to have a proper stare at Trevor’s arse, as we rode full throttle around the 10 mile loop. Trevor then asked whether I would race the British Uni championships being held at Cwn Carn a couple of weeks later, which I did. I think I owe him a lot for how things turned out.
Sarah studied biology with me at Bath. We were companions in nervously approaching the noticeboard in the 4 south building to see what our final grades would be after four years of study, and whether our destiny really did lie in science. That moment of stress was then followed up by a month of riding bikes in the British sunshine around Bath, without any other care in the world. I remember driving back to Devon with Levi in Sarah’s little car, the surfboard wedged so tightly that Levi couldn’t sit up straight in the passenger seat.
Since I departed for the US, my time with Trevor and Sarah has extended to a couple hours on either side of my time at Heathrow airport. Their hospitality has given me a comfortable place to crash after a transatlantic flight. Last Christmas was the first time I actually got to do more than have a cup of tea with them, as they showed Christa and I around the pleasant lanes of Hampshire by bicycle. I was pleased, then, that Trevor told me he was making their situation permanent and having a party to celebrate doing so. I was even happier when I realised that I could come back to join the festivities.
Odiham is an enigma to me. Devon born and bred, it was firmly beaten into me that nice countryside doesn’t exist that close to London. My many journeys up the M3 on the way to Heathrow reinforced this notion too. So when I pulled off the M3 at Christmas, and rode with Trevor and Sarah through pretty villages, I was a little surprised with what I found. It meant I was a lot more excited to come back for the wedding, too. The wedding day was hot. So hot that I waited until the last possible minute to put on my glad rags.
The Church filled quickly as it approached 2pm, and I recognised more people than I expected. An eclectic mix of cyclists who either preceded or followed my tenure at Bath Uni Cycling Club. The families divided into each side of the church, and the friends filled in behind. Bike riders stewed in their formal attire – some concerned that they may perspire enough to disappear inside their suits never to be seen again. The ceremony was short and sweet. Literally. Before long the confetti drifted through the stiff summer air and Mr and Mrs Allen were off through the countryside aboard Luke’s 1920’s Bentley.
We drove in convoy to Sarah and Trevor’s house on the outskirts of Odiham. They had extended their garden into the farmers field next door and erected a huge marquee. Suddenly the wedding made sense to me. Trevor had said they were having a ‘tent in the garden’ for the reception, underselling the event in typical engineer fashion. The atmosphere and vibe of a garden party was exactly right for the party. People didn’t need direction to settle into drinking some champagne, socialising and generally basking in the high afternoon sun.
The sun finally relented in the late evening in time for the lights to dim and the music to turn on. The excellent family speeches shed new light of both Trevor and Sarah for me, and cemented something I’ve known since I first saw them together – their ease of companionship is everything I ever want from life. It’s truly heartwarming.
The evening turned to night, which turned to the slow departure of weary guests. I realised, towards the end of the night that there’s a small window in life where weddings are enjoyable. I don’t know when it happened, but I’m going to embrace it while it lasts!