Last weekend myself and Conor made the trip down to Killarney for the 2014 National MTB Cross Country Championships. Despite riding and racing mountain bikes on and off for years (probably too many years to admit!) it wasn’t until last year that I was able to consolidate all that riding and training by winning the 2013 National MTB XC championships, proof that perseverance does eventually pay off. The early season run up didn’t quite go to plan, flu floored me for all of February and then just as I was getting back into shape I went and broke my hand in a stupid mtb crash at the beginning of April, the day my new bike arrived, which meant a full 4 weeks of turbo torture while the rest of the cycling population were enjoying some lovely spring weather.
Eventually I had the all clear to start racing again at the end of May on a wet muddy Lady Dixon park which I was too nervous about crashing on my hand to do any serious racing. However after a week of riding in the sunny Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain my race mojo was back on and the first week of June the 2014 season started in earnest, consisting of 6 weekends of racing right up to the Nationals: the European MTB Marathon Championships in Co Limerick and followed by the Ulster Hill Climb Championship, a MTB Enduro, two National MTB Cross Country Series races, and finally a MTB Gravity Enduro back in Limerick the weekend before the National Champs. I rode in the women’s elite race at the European marathon champs, managing to keep in the top 10 for the first quarter of the race but was then let down by my new bike not being setup quite right and really bad back pain the rest of the race, but I’d held my own up to that point so the fitness seemed to be there alright and I eventually finished in 13th. After a bit of bike fettling the next real test was the XC mtb national series race in Garvagh the next weekend. Commonwealth rider Claire Oakley was the one to watch for the series races but recovery after the marathon champs was good and sure enough both body and bike performed well and I took my first home win of the year – woo hoo! This was followed up with a win at the first Enduro race at Davagh Forest and another win at the next national series race. The MTB Gravity Enduro over the 12th July weekend didn’t quite go to plan, my downhill skills and bike not quite up to scratch but my technical riding was pushed to the limits which should surely make a better rider, right?
Winning the nationals in 2013 gave me the opportunity to race the 2014 season in the national jersey which was great but also meant the added burden of having to defend the title a year on. Travelling down to Killarney late Friday evening the burden was starting to tell. Recovery from travelling and racing in Limerick the weekend before didn’t really happen, my only two training sessions of the week had left my legs tired and my back had decided to “act up” again so I was beginning to curse jumping back into the race season with such enthusiasm and so many weekends away, the niggling doubts were starting to creep in... We got down for practice on Saturday afternoon to find a fantastically twisty, technical race course consisting largely of narrow singletrack and only a couple of short sharp climbs, mostly dry with a few greasy sections to catch you out in the corners. During our 2nd “fast lap” the rain started to come on and by the end of the last practice session the course had totally changed, mud starting to take over and all those twisty corners and off camber sections sliddery slidey madness. Now an added conundrum, will the course dry out or will the mud tyres have to go on??? Something to worry about in the morning, better rest up, eat up and try and get some sleep.
Race morning arrived after not a great night’s sleep – I now think I have the most comfortable bed in Ireland back home – but I shook off the cobwebs, breakfasted up and headed down to race HQ with Conor to find that the course had dried out overnight and we were back to fast twisty single-track. We were starting at 12 along with some of the younger rider’s races run at the same time, a somewhat different format than usual as we are usually in the middle of the various men’s races but I guess it meant that we had the race track pretty much to ourselves. Again Claire was a rider to reckon for on the day, but so too was previous MTB champion and current national road race champion Mel Spath, a super strong rider, was she looking to re-take the title again for 2014? Dammit why did my legs have to feel so “off” after a great few weeks of racing previously! We lined up with three other female mountain bike racers, everyone ready to give their all for the day for a 4 lap race. I pushed any doubts about feeling off or tired or achy to the back of my head, I hadn’t the 100% mental or physical strength for a chasing battle and I was glad there was no open or long drags/hills, however given that I seemed to have had such great “form” over the past few weeks I figured there must still be something left. So the plan then was to try and get through the horrible draggy grassy field section and into the singletrack in first place and just gun it from there. At 12 sharp the whistle went off and so did everyone else with a bang while I missed my pedal, damn it! The chase was on through the twisting course across the field. Claire got the holeshot and I chased hard, then Mel came by me but took a wide line through the one of the grassy corners and I came in under her, eventually I passed Claire on another open corner only to be passed again by Mel on the last short straight section before heading into the forest. One more corner to go, a tricky corner which tightened up as you went round it and fortunately enough for me Mel over cooked it and ended up in the bushes leaving me and Claire to pass. Into the forest and Claire chased me hard, Mel eventually catching up. The next section of the race consisted of a series of bend, after bend with little log jumps in between. The key here was to keep your speed up through the corners and back out which meant not going in too hot, getting some lean on and pedalling around them where possible. I could hear Mel and Claire freewheeling loads behind me while I tried to keep pedalling, leaning, pedalling, leaning…was I holding them up?? Nope they just weren’t keeping the momentum up and sure enough the elastic broke and I started to ride away. I pushed as hard as I was physically capable on that first lap in order to keep a good lead knowing that Mel and Claire would be hungry for the chase. I came through the start finish area into the 2nd lap and saw Mel entering just as I made my way back into the forest, I knew I couldn’t ease up just yet. Again I tried my hardest to ride smoothly and rode as hard as possible on the little kicker climbs, legs screaming.
Photos courtesy of Sean Rowe and Cieran Maunsell
I am so pleased to have been able to defend the title for another year against other strong female riders, well done to Mel and Claire on their race, they certainly kept the pressure on throughout J Well done also to all the other female and male riders and to Killarney CC for putting together a deceivingly tough course which required not just physical strength but total concentration and bike handling skills. The trophies which were presented were also fantastic! Thanks also has to go to Max Staroniewicz at the Off Road Commission who was running around all weekend making sure everything was running like clockwork and to Martin Grimley compare extraordinaire!
Special thanks of course has to go to Conor who looked after my bike, did my bottles, kept me going throughout the race and of course had to put up with my pre-race “moments” :-p