I was so happy to do a local XC race for once - no bike packing and Ryanair flight! While I'm already in full swing in racing season (I've done 5 XC and 3 road races this year so far, reports of road races will be put up soon), the Leinster League MTB Race 1 in Bunclody, Wexford was for many of the Irish MTB community the first test of their legs. For me the race was going to be a first test this year against Cait Elliott, my biggest competition here in Ireland. Last year I was able to fend her off in all races, but she's come uncomfortably close in some of them and believe me, I really pushed hard in those! Every year it's a question if she's been able to make up the small gap that separates us over the winter or not.
This year I was also a little bit more nervous, because after finishing her studies last year, she's practically turned full-time and similar to me has already had great racing in her legs from completely dominating and winning the first edition of the Andalucia Bike Race in Spain in the mixed pair category with Josh Ibbett. Not only that, but they also fared really well in comparison to the leaders in the women's pair category (Sally Bigham & Kristine Norgaard), and I have a good indication of what form both of them are in at the moment (I've seen Sally many times when out training in GC this winter and she was flying then and Kristine Norgaard showed us all what great form she is in by placing 3rd in the first Cyprus Sunshine Cup Race just before the stage race). So these were the kind of thoughts that were playing on my mind while I ventured to do a pre-lap of the course.
The course was basically a mixture of draggy shallow fire-road climbs (my favourite, something I'm good at) and slippery, muddy and rooty singletrack descents (my least favourite and something that Cait is very good at). So overall our advantages should be evened out and the course probably suited Cait as much as me, just in different sections.
A video of the sliddery descents
Since we were starting off on the fireroad climb my tactic was to go full-gas on the first (and subsequent) climb(s) and get into the slippery singletrack ahead of Cait and try and place as many other riders as possible between her and me (we were starting off with new Senior 2 Men's Category).
I knew I had enough racing in my legs to pull off a fast start and was hoping for Cait to go overboard by trying to stick onto my wheel on the climb (which I assumed was going to be her tactic, followed by and nipping into the singletrack ahead of me). So we went off and I did put in a big effort on the climb up and my plan seemed to work. Of course on the first lap on a tight muddy singletrack there's always going to be a bit of a hold-up and after dropping the chain and a few mistakes on my part Cait had caught up with me, so it was focus, focus, focus to stay ahead of her and blast up that 2nd fireroad climb. I lost (what seemed like) an awful amount of time still on the smeary singletrack descents, making a good few of mistakes (I should have changed to a Nobby Nic on the rear) but got out ahead of Cait and made up lots of places again before hitting the next singletrack descent. For the whole first lap I could see Cait still behind me whenever the singletrack double-backed on itself and I knew I had to keep the pressure on.
I was very happy with my climbing and took it a little bit easier on the 2nd time up so as not to be so much in the red zone on entering the single track. And for the rest of the race the play was repeated - I overtook a few people on each of the climbs and lost the places again on each of the descents (each time dropping a little bit further down on the overall Senior 2 Men's ranking). I was quite disappointed with my bike handling on the singletrack, I wasn't doing my amazing and supersmooth S-Works Epic any justice today, and thought I was too timid and rode too rigidly, deciding to run a lot of the sections instead of riding them, but on the upside I was very happy with my speed up on the climbs and my general fitness. After the fast first lap I was able to get into a good rhythm each time on the climbs and felt I could have gone even harder if required and because I was riding the climbs more controlled I was less tired going into the singletracks and rode them better each time round.
In the end I finished about 2 minutes ahead of Cait - she definitely has gotten faster, so hopefully that means we've both improved over last year. So while both of us had the podium guaranteed (there were only 2 of us in the Senior Women's 1 category, sad, I know), I still had a really good and hard race, and yes, I am quite happy and relieved that I was able to hold Cait off for another race (but it's getting harder each time!) ;)
Thanks Oisin Fitz and Aine from MAD who did a great job of doing my bottles this race. And thanks to the encouragement shouted along the way! Thanks also to Racing795 for putting on a very well-run race on a nice but challenging course.
Results are up here, I would have placed 9th in Senior 2 Men's - not bad considering the shamble I made out of the singletrack descents!
The next race against Cait (why am I getting so much fun out of this?) is going to be in Sherwood Forest, UK, for the first UK NPS this weekend. The course is fairly flat and generally suits me well, so I'm looking forward to it!