Not for the faint hearted………
Nov 2017 World Championships Poland and the muddiest race I had ever been to, so bad that by the end of play on the last day the relay was cancelled due to trail safety concerns. I was terrified and as the bike slithered around I froze and could hardly turn the pedals. I ploughed on and fell trying an overtake. Sprawled in the mud, on my hands and knees I remember seeing someone sail past me, slicing through the mud, like skis carving up fresh snow. Right there as I watched them with envious eyes I vowed never to be in this situation again……I would learn how to become a better, faster and fitter rider.
Forward 2 years and the European Champs in Belgium Oct 19/20th. This race has officially taken over the title of ‘muddiest race ever’ as well as the most technical and demanding trail to date. And that’s not just me saying this, even the sports greats were posting about mud, ridiculously steep climbs and hoping to stay safe. This time however I stood at the start line nervous, but believing I could do it. I was a better athlete, stronger, faster and with skill and confidence to match.
The first thing I did after Poland was research mud tyres, it’s common to run tyres for speed when racing bikejoring, but increasingly courses are becoming more demanding and in horrendous conditions, so I now always take my mud tyres to change to if conditions deteriorate. There’s a lot of choice for mud tyres and I still wanted something with a fairly decent rolling resistance, so after much reading, asking for advice and conducting my own trials I opted for Maxxis Shortys. I lovingly call them my ‘tractor tyres’, but they stick to the trail and have never let me down. This is a massive factor in riding mud fast, having the right equipment and confidence. I also invested in body armour cos if I was gonna learn to ride mud, the only sure fire way was to go out and ride it and that meant I was gonna fall.
And fall I did, anyone who follows my facebook will see I have a pretty good collection of Bikejor bruises, but gradually those falls turned into near misses to the point where I believe I can stay on. The next skill I mastered was skidding the rear end of the bike. A hard pulling dog, drags you out of the turn and sometimes that means skidding the backend to get round. I did this by complete accident one day, but now regularly pull on the back brake mid turn to skid the rear tyre round.
So sliding bike and not being paralysed by the mere sight of mud mastered. That wasn’t all this track had to offer though, there were hills. Climbs are not my strong point, so I rode as many hills as I could dogless and then in August after scouting the steepest climbs I could find I hooked up Marshall. This didn’t go quite to plan, as soon as it got really steep to the point where we were hardly moving, Marshall would stop. He was all about speed and didn’t understand he just needed to plod and keep pulling, he would stand and look at me questioning why we weren’t going fast, when he was clearly trying his best. It wasn’t until September when he first realised moving slowly was an option.
I also found a really rooty trail and I mean seriously that bumpy it was teeth chattering, which we bounced over. I made a jump over a tree trunk, which we cleared and by now Marshall’s turns were pretty much dialled in. I felt confident I’d covered most of what a trail could throw up. At Belgium we did a course recce dogless and all had to get off and walk the two hills, there was no way we were getting up there, they were too steep. In fact out of the whole bikejor entry only one person made it up both hills and that was of course Igor Tracz. The rest of us mere mortals were gonna have to dismount and run. Darn it I hadn’t trained for running with the bike and a dog!
Marshal and I had a practise run before the race and getting off the bike confused him, he gave me his ‘wth” look and we were back to him stopping on climbs. I knew this was gonna be the toughest race of my life.
Race day 1 dawned and the trail was muddy, but it wasn’t raining. For once I wasn’t too worried about the mud, but my nemesis would be that hill and would Marshall stop? Pushing those thoughts away, I powered out of the start and loved the first half of the trail. It was slippy, but such a buzz. My fingers hovered over the brakes, but I resisted using them and it felt great, we even passed 2 people. Then we got to the climb, this was the clincher. I got off and tried to run, but no grip, the bike needed lifting over roots and we were at snail pace. I got passed, saw her ahead clambering onto her bike, so sooner than I had anticipated I did the same in an attempt to catch her. Marshall pulled and we were moving and getting closer, then half way up the hill that is rideable, I ground to a halt. I was sucking in air, my legs were like lead and my mind had quit. I got back off the back and walked. The person ahead turned the corner and disappeared, I wouldn’t see her again. I was gutted, it had all gone so wrong and we were losing precious time whilst I tried to recover. Eventually nearly at the top I got back going again. Marshall unperplexed just got straight back to business and we crossed the line in 4th place, but only 6 seconds from 3rd.
I knew what had gone wrong, but didn’t know if I could do any better, it’s not like I could do much to improve my fitness overnight. I’m a tactician and analyse stuff, so needing a plan I reasoned that I’d got on too soon and that’s why my body quit. So if I walked up the steepest section further it would enable me to complete the easier part of the climb….. as plans go it wasn’t exactly a game changer, but I needed to try something different.
Day 2 and torrential rain all night meant the trail was just a mudfest, Glastonbury’s got nothing on this. It was still lashing it down come race time, but it was now or never. The mud was worse, the climb would be worse. Yesterday had been the hardest race of my life, but today was gonna strip that title away with ease. Once again the first half was great, seeing was hard, there were sliding rear end turns and twice I’ve no idea how I stayed on. Soon enough though the climb loomed and this time I had to fight the pain if I wanted to be on the podium.
I didn’t attempt to run just paced myself and the boy kept the line tight and pulled. I got on where I decided and we damn well pushed up that hill. We were so much better than the day before and I knew the game was on. The next real problem from here to the finish was seeing, wiping glasses just smeared mud across the lenses and it was impossible to see. I nudged my glasses down my nose and peered over the top of them like some old fashioned school teacher, squinting through flying mud and dirt. Looking back I think I could have pushed myself more in these final stages, but there wasn’t much left in the tank.
We rounded the final bend and I gritted my teeth and was out of the saddle pedalling hard, we had a slide near the finish which even managed an ‘ooh’ from the crowd, but crossed the line and with the second fastest time of my age group. This was enough to secure the Bronze medal, but I was one hundredth of a second away from silver. That’s the blink of an eye or one extra pedal, that’s how close and fierce this racing is. Marshall looked great and happy with himself, job well done I’d say. In those conditions when most had gone slower, we had gone over 30 seconds quicker and I put it all down to THAT hill.
I’ve learnt a lot from preparing for this race and have trained some pretty tough stuff. I’ve fallen, cried on the trail and pushed myself to work harder than at any other time in my life. This race was a test, 15 people at least had gone to hospital and others withdrew. I feel so chuffed we did it and really does show that anyone can do it with hard work and determination.
The organisers did an amazing job pulling off this race in such demanding conditions and we now plan and build for the Worlds next year. Massive congrats to the whole of Team GB, 10 medals is a pretty decent haul. Well done to everyone.
None of this happens without help and support. It makes it even more special that my family join me and get involved in this crazy sport, Brods and Tay are the best travelling buddies (sorry G man) and we’ve recently teamed up with Trophy Pet Foods, who are fuelling the team. I can be the best rider in the world, but if my dogs aren’t firing on all cylinders, then game over. I feed Surf n Turf from the working dog food range and looking at last weekend and how well Marshall performed the proof is in the pudding (or dog food). Packed with ingredients it’s a quality food. More info about Trophys’ products can be found here:-