Should be a walk in the park for you. That’s the words and thoughts of others who I discuss the Vittoria MTB Marathon with. You’d think so but nothing is so simple. In my last race, World Championships, I finished seventh, and I’m the National Marathon champion, surely it’s possible to cruise to victory at a race here in the UK… This is the pressure I feel. Past results and great shape built from months of hard training brings a lot of motivation and confidence but the expectation to win can be crippling. These expectations are external and internal. The drive not to lose is what motivated me each day in the build up to this race and continues as we now build to National Champs in August.

Saturday night, hours before the race I’m still awake at midnight and then again from 4.30 am, our baby boy has the norovirus which has been passed onto my now ill wife and grandparents. There’s vomit everywhere! This has been going on since Tuesday, I’ve not had a good night sleep since then. Somehow though I’ve managed to avoid falling ill and have still been feeling strong on the bike. I’ve kept training hard all week, only planning one easy day the day before the race.

So, I should win, but there’s lots of unknowns having not raced properly for 9 months. There’s also a bike race to complete and anything can happen.

Having been up since 4.30 am there’s plenty of time for an early breakfast, lots of coffee and to load the final bits into the car for the couple of hours drive down to Pippingford. I have good memories from racing here, 10 years ago I won my first national championship medal, a silver, second place in the under 23 espoir category at XC champs. This medal was really what started the ball rolling and it’s not stopped since. All these years later and now I’m coaching riders who are heading to national championships over the next weeks and months. I’d love to see them score medals, they deserve it after all their hard work.

It’s the first and last race on my updated full suspension race bike, tricked out with new 2021 bike parts including Fun Biking wheels, Mount Zoom controls, SR Suntour suspension, Rotor power meter and gears, Schwalbe tyres, Bike Ribbon grips and Magura brakes.

There’s strong competition on the start line but I’m there, relaxed and ready to do battle. I line up, give any coaching clients I can see the thumbs up and last words of good luck. Then it’s time to focus. I know the pressure is on me and I’m going to smash this race to bits to prove all the training and sacrifice has been worthwhile. Bang! We are underway. I lead out of the arena up the first ramp setting a fast pace. We turn right along a flat gravel road. Gaps have already opened. Then we turn left and hit a nasty grass climb where I follow another GB team member from the 2019 World Marathon Championships. I stay on his wheel into the first descent. Next climb and it’s time to break this race apart!! I’m used to the pace being high at the start of the international races so I’m keep the pressure on here. At the first race I did last year, O Tour MTB Marathon I rode a 20 minute power of 413 watts up the first climb.

It’s been raining, summer’s been pretty iffy so far, the trails are muddy and tricky to ride at speed but it’s all rideable. By the end of the race the bike is absolutely coated in thick mud, I’m sure there can’t be much mud left out on the Pippingford race track. Thanks to Squirt Cycling Products for the goods to get the bike shining again.

By the end of the first half a lap it’s just me and one other rider. He’s someone who’s won rounds of this year National XC Series so this isn’t going to be an easy task. I keep the pressure on and soon I start to see gaps opening and can hear my opponent breathing hard trying to stop the elastic from snapping. To my surprise I’m making time on the slippery descents as well as on the climbs. I’m racing hard but loving absolutely every minute, the fun race track and atmosphere from other riders and the marshals has me beaming from ear to ear. Having not raced in the UK much for the past few years it felt really good to see so many smiley faces and clients doing so well out on course.

By the end of the first lap I have a one minute 30 lead, then half way round the second lap that’s risen to 2 and a half minutes. Climb climb climb, this rocket is flying! The race bike felt rapid this weekend.

The course is getting more cut up, a lot of people are walking sections but kindly move out of the way so I can maintain momentum. Onto one of the better-known descents at Pippingford, I’m having so much fun but suddenly I get the sinking feeling as air escapes my rear tyre. The Schwalbe Racing Ray and Racing Ralph combination has been bomb-proof for the past 9 months of training. I set to work fitting a tubeless insert but it’s no good, the hole is too big. Normally I carry a pump and tyre level so I can fit a Tubolito tube if the tubeless repair insert doesn’t work but today on this multi lap race I didn’t bother. It didn’t occur to me at the time but perhaps I should have tried fitting a second tubeless repair insert, not something I’ve done before but maybe it could have done the job. A mechanical has ended playtime in the mud.

I walk down to the next marshal and enquire if I can exit the course there, ride up the gravel road to the arena, change the wheel, then ride back to this point on course, re-join and continue. The answer was no, the rules don’t allow for this. It’s too far to ride along the course to the tech zone, I would have destroyed my new carbon wheels and its miles too far to walk.

Game over. DNF. I didn’t win, there was a race to complete. I’m buzzing though, I came here and set a pace no one else could follow, I confirmed to myself that my shape it good. I’m excited for the next races and very happy to hear that this race will be back for at least another 3 years. The marathon mtb scene in the UK is finally looking healthy again with the Vittoria mtb marathon, the Cymru mtb classic stage race and rumour of a marathon series in 2022.

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