The road race at the beginning of April really whetted my appetite for starting racing proper.  As it was the mtb race calender was looking a little thin with the cancellation of the first round of the Irish XC National Series and for road racing up north you have to be super organised these days as they are all pre-entry given that numbers are limited to 60 per race.  A good scan of the island wide race calender and a quick plan was formed, race my little ass off right up to the weekend of the Bedford 3 day, four weekends -  two stage races and two cross country races, nothing like a little bit of work to get yourself into the swing of things ;-)

Race 1 Ulster XC Race Series No 1 Ballykelly

photo Mike Armstrong
The weekend of the cancelled NPS race and the Ulster XC league managed to squeeze in a local race at Ballykelly Forest near Derry, a venue which I remember last racing over 10 years ago - talk about making yourself feel old!
It was a bit of a toss up between doing another road race or this xc race, mtb won of course, no point in being a mtb rider if you don't turn up to the races!  Weather looked good, course promised to be as great as I remembered it to be so off I set, Conor opting to do a day family stuff.  Practice lap confirmed a great course, a good mix of hard short steep fire road climbs linking loads of fantastic technical singletrack.  Claire Oakley was the main and unfortunately only competition on the day, herself just getting back into form after being plagued with poor health until recently, otherwise it was pick a couple of the S2 men to race and see how it goes.  At 1.30 we lined up with the S2 men and were set off at blistering pace up a horrible short sharp hill.  Ouch that hurt!  Not only did my body not remember how awfully painfully fast the start of an XC race is, my legs were none too happy after a hard week of training - burn burn burn within 5 secs.  The first 50m up that hill were mental torture, I had to let off the gas a little and even contemplated packing it in as I watched Claire eek a gap.  But NO damn it, I drove over an hour, paid my entry fee I was gonna do this race even if it killed me!   I caught up with Claire again in the singletrack only to stupidly follow her line and got tangled up in an old fallen tree hidden within the longer grass, chase it was again then so - grrr.   Again I caught up with Claire and followed her out onto the next fire road kicker of a climb, only to hear her crunch her way through her gears as I passed.  I wasn't aware that she was having shifting problems and would eventually pull out, but I continued on eager to catch up with the next person ahead of me and keep those behind away.  Over the next 3 laps I slowly made up a few of places on the men's race, having a good yo yo with Eamon McConvey and eventually passing a couple of other riders.  The pure pain on the climbs was difficult and I could feel the laps getting a tad slower but the singletrack was phenomenal, total concentration to keep smooth and fast, so much fun!  The best courses are the ones where the enjoyment of riding the trail way outweighs the pain of racing and this one hit the mark! 
So first XC race done, just as well too cause if I had left that to the first NPS god knows what kind of shock to the system that would have been!   Well done to Lifford-Strabane CC and Clive Caldwell for a brilliant race.

Race 2:  Lough Derg Challenge a 2 Day MTB Stage Race

Ideally the weekend of 22nd/23rd April was to be a trip back to the British XC Series at our favorite Dalby venue, however work commitments meant no time for the extra day off required for the long trip over so I mustered a few fellow mtb endurance mates together and we all signed up for the 2 Day Lough Derg Challenge race held around the scenic Lough Derg lake at Killaloe/Ballina Co Clare.  This was the second year it was run and having had good reports from the previous year sounded like a good weekend away mixing some cool racing and a bit of craic.
So somewhat later than planned on Friday evening we set off for the 3 - 4 hour drive down the road to meet up with Darragh & Mel at our rented house for the weekend arriving late.

Saturday saw us up and early to sign on and get our race numbers, timing chips and goodie bag.  The format of the weekend would be two stages a day consisting of two shortish Saturday stages, a longer sunday morning stage and a time trial stage to finish off on Sunday afternoon.  Kind of a strange set up I thought, being more used to the longer one stage a day kind of race format, not too sure how the motivation to get back out there after lunch was going to work....

Stage 1 23km 500m climbing.   Stage 1 set off in the small village of Killaloe with a "neutralised" start, unfortunately it was far form neutralised as the cop car didnt seem to understand how fast - or slow in my case - bikes go!  So after getting stuck at the rear end of the pack intending on moving up as we "rolled out" I saw the lead guys disappear into the distance and the chasing started almost immediately, didnt even get time to see where Conor was!   The first 5km was a horrible climb up through small local roads until we reached some forest dirt track, as with last weekend my legs and hips seemed to be feeling some really bad fatigue when pushed hard coupled with the most awful stomach cramps - too many rides up Cavehill in the recent good weather perhaps - whatever the issue this wasn't good and I struggled up the road section with Darragh egging me on with a "ha ha I'm gonna make you work hard for this".  When we hit the first dirt track, a real rocky section of technical climbing I forgot about all the pain - you see good trails do keep your mind off things ;-) - and started picking my way through riders again, that is until we hit the open fire road again and back to hurting - booo!  With not much more technical riding I relied on fellow racer Cormac Power to help me keep my mind off things - thanks Cormac, and we rode together for a few more kms until a section of flat fireroad where I just couldnt get my legs to work at all against the now quite stong headwind, so off went Cormac and after a few mins Darragh came flying past WTF!!    The last few kms to the finish were a case of damage limitation and hoping that I wasnt in such bad shape that I would have to work too hard in the afternoon.  And so it finished 1hr13, 31st position overall and only a few seconds ahead of second place female rider Emma Walsh.   Gotta figure out what on earth was going on with my legs over lunch, and see if putting a new bike seat on had anything to do with it.....  Conor came in about 10mins later not too happy after starting off really well only to punture on one of the descents loosing a load of time.  Better luck next time for Team Summit eh?!

Stage 2 16km 490m climbing. After lunch all the racers gathered again at the start of Stage 2 in the centre of Killaloe.  Funnily enough after the effort of the morning I was starting to feel a little better and my legs felt somewhat "flushd out" so I was looking forward to the afternoon stage with a little intrepidation as I looked like a killer climb up a steep mountain track to the TV/Radio masts one of the highest vantage points in the local landscape.   Conor was looking forward to try and make up some lost time after his puncture in the morning's stage so as we lined up at the start it was all about the afternoon's session and going for all we had.  As we rolled off the start line, the pace up the local roads this time wasn't as full on as the morning, leaving a little more time to warm into the climb.  This time I placed myself at the front with the leading men and again Cormac rode with me for a good while up the initial road climb, and although my legs and hips were still prone to cramping as we climbed towards the off road tracks things were feeling a little better than the morning's stage.  The climb up to the mast was epic, first off a 5km drag up a 6% climb just twiddling away as hard as possible, trying to keep the stomach cramps at bay and stay in contact with other riders. Eventually I caught up with Cormac again and a few of the other male riders who I know from XC racing - and I could still see super vet rider Aidan McDonald up ahead on the climb which was cool - and we yo yo'd positions as we reached the first "summit" before a short 1km blast downhill and the final kick up to the summit proper.  That final kick up was not entirely expected and had some REALLY steep sections which needed massive efforts to get over, not easy after 30mins of constant climbing before hand.  After the summit we hit a 3km descent which effectively shot us vertically back down the mountain along the Clare Way.  I sheepishly rode these sections as my brakes had been acting up after getting a "service" from a certain large bike chain store the week previously, meaning yet again I lost a few of the hard earned places I got on the climb.  The last few km's I was out on my own and flat, not much fun against the wind again but I managed to make up some time compared to the morning's session coming in 21st overall and 2mins ahead of second placed female Meave O Grady.  Conor rocked up 10minutes later in the middle of a torrential April shower, head shaking and frustrated after getting yet ANOTHER puncture. 
Leaving Conor, Darragh and Cormac to ride the last 10km road section back to Killaloe I took a spin back with fellow racer Ritchie Felle who was second on the men's category and who would be sharing the house with us that evening - gassing along at a great old pace chatting about racing and battle field archaeology of all things!!!

That evening Conor tried a little bike tinkering in an attempt to put a stop to his constant front wheel puncturing and also try and get my back brake to relax off the disc as the calipers seemed to be constantly rubbing before we headed into town for some much needed pub grub.

Stage 3 27.5km 490m climbing.  Sunday morning woke to a bright sunny day and legs which were a little tired.  We all gathered ourselves together for the short spin up to the start of Stage 3 a few km to the north of Killaloe within Ballycuggarran Forest.  Everyone was in great form as we lined up at the start, looking forward to a second day of hard fast racing.  At 10am we were set off up a sharp fire road climb and to my surprise was able to stay with the top 10 men for the first km or so.  Eventually however the legs started to feel yesterday's efforts and again I lost my mojo on the flat sections against the head wind - hmm must work on that flat bike riding for future reference....  and I lost contact with the faster men.  I found myself riding alone for a good part of the race until we hit this almighty boggy section, shin deep in mud where I slowed to almost walking pace not able to get a clean line along it, and yet AGAIN lost places to the more ballsy men.  The second half of the race was a bit of a drag and between the weather closing in, the cold and tired legs became a bit of a slog.  I would always make up plenty of time and places on any of the climbs but riding solo for the last half hour or so was a bit demoralising,  Eventually we hit the forest again and it was a great descent back to the finish, again coming in 21st overall and 4mins ahead of second placed female rider Meave.  Conor had a much better race this time, puncture free and finishing only 8mins later, making up a load of places in GC.  Darragh was also nipping at my heels and it would be a challenge to keep him at bay on the afternoon's time trial as it was a local favorite of his and required alot of technical skills to ride fast.

Stage 4 5km 165m climbing.  So the final stage had arrived, a 5km time trial around a lap of the old XC NPS course.  I had ridden this twice before and knew it would be a hard session with a steep climb to start and some tricky technical riding in the forest, especially since the recent April showers were going to make the roots deadly slippy.  We were set off in pairs at 30sec intervals and I was off on about 10th wave.  As I lined up my TT partner took one look and said "oh no not you, I have no chance on that climb!" - thanks! was that a compliment or not!!  At the 10 sec count down we put our best race heads on and BANG off up the hill.  I remember this first part from a couple of years ago, a horrible, steep 1.3km climb with an average gradient of 10% - ouch!  Despite screaming legs - SHUT UP LEGS! - I managed to make up the 30secs on the riders infront and caught up with Eamon McConvey who had set off 1min ahead.  We hit the singletrack together and thinking he would be a better technical rider didnt push through to the front - slight mistake there, sorry Eamon, but I was acutally caught up behind him a little as he struggled with the wet rooty sections.  He eventually let me pass and I bombed down a lovely section of dry technical singletrack before entering out onto open fire road.  The last section of the course contained some tricky gully descents and in a moment of nervousness after not pre-riding the course, I hit a rock and BURP front tire lost air, I tried riding on it again but yet again BURP - more air lost.  With no canister I ended up running the last 300m which felt like 3km, gosh its hard to run on dead legs!  I made it back in 17th place despite losing a load of time, Darragh just pipping me to 16th by 20secs.  Conor didnt have a brilliant ride, crashing on a technical section but still made it back in one piece.

So overall I managed to keep the women's overall lead and Conor kept his position mid pack despite two punctures and a rotten crash, his third stage proving that once mechanical and accident free he was able to hold his own on the day.  PLUS he won the raffle for the single speed hipster bike.  We had an absolutely fantastic weekend of racing, and while the courses might be described as more "off road road racing" than MTB'ing in the true sense, the atmosphere was friendly, relaxed and so with much craic, one of the best races I've been to in a while.  That evening Darragh took us to a fantastic little cafe/restaurant in town which served  lovely homemade food from local producers and had the most amazing cake and bun selection - those Tiffins are deadly! 



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