Wake at 5.30am, in the car by 6.30am, drive for two and a half hours, race for 4+ hours, drive home for two and a half hours with possibly a nap in a service-station car-park, dump filthy bike and race kit in the house and hobble up the road for a restorative curry and beers. Such is my Sunday timetable for the Whyte Winter Series hosted by Thetford MTB Racing, a quartet of mountainbike races from November through to January based in the flat lands of Norfolk, chose from a two hour sprint or a four hour slog. To keep the driving/riding ratio almost sane I have to do the 4hr enduro.
These races have become a bit of a tradition over the years, an incentive to keep fitness up through the cold and dark months and a reason to get out the house on a rainy Sunday when common-sense would keep you indoors. There was a time when a few of us from these parts would shoe-horn into a car and make the journey together; not letting friends down, racing in the cold and mud, the convivial atmosphere of the events and poking each other with sticks to stay awake on the homeward journey all part of the shared experience. But things and people move on and this year it’s just me on my lonesome but for the Unit 2-9 singlespeed in the back of the car, I have unfinished business with this series of races, and it’s deeply personal, the voices make me do it.
Despite being in the flattest part of the country Thetford is a great place to race, thick with forest and webbed with singletrack any lack of elevation is more than made up for by a satisfying amount of the tight and twisty stuff, with a few bombholes put in for fun. And being mostly level the races tend to be unrelentingly fast, with few excuses for shifting out of the big-ring. This can be bad news for a singlespeed. But plenty of racing experience there has nurtured sneaky tactics; unashamedly draft geared riders on the fireroads and then gently romp away from them on the one-gear friendly singletrack. Hopefully.
Race number one sees me getting cramped changed into lycra in the car trying to hide from cold dark November rain clattering on the roof, nervous to bits as this is the first proper race I’ve done for almost a year and to reluctantly emerge to huddle already cold and wet on the start line. Well it is a Winter Series. With legs and lungs very much out of race practise I resort to a fast plod around the course so I’m genuinely surprised to discover that I’ve come third in my class. Hmmm, best put some effort in for next time to make that stick, over the 4-race series a rider’s best three placings are counted towards an overall standing so both consistency and commitment are rewarded. Long drive home thinking of the training that’s needed ahead, hour-long nap in a car-park halfway, and then curry.
Race 2 and the heavy rain that has been shadowing me all the way there mercifully stops as soon as we line up at the start where I’m called forward to the tape thanks to my last race result, blimey. I’ve never been gridded before and damn does it make a difference, with only a few fast people to flow through the first singletrack with rather than a herd of ponderous riders to get stuck in. Today I appear to have a proper race on my hands battling with a rider, this doesn’t happen much in enduro races and I’m not used to having to use both my brain and legs, I try all the singlespeed tactics I know to shake him off and he’s not budging, only after a full two hours can I pull away and claim a rather exuberant second place. The curry house is so happy with my efforts they give me two free beers as reward. I could get used to this.
Race 3 and the good news is it’s not raining, the bad news is I have a cold. I manage to stay with the leaders for precisely 100 yards before my body implodes and I begin the long slow crawl round. I’m all ready to pack it in after two hours and sack a race for the first time ever in 25 years of racing when a kindly Kona/Torq rider draws alongside and starts chatting. With his tow I suffer round to finish a forgettable 8th and with no ceremony and even less joy I load the car up and shuffle home. I don’t go to the curry house, I don’t deserve it.
People are still inquisitive about 29ers, at the start and finish of every race someone will come up to me and have a chat about the Unit 2-9er, I explain the plusses and minuses although getting good results on a such a clown-wheeled bike that perceived wisdom has ponderous and baggy seems to carry a huge amount of weight. At the start of the third round a man comes up to me on his new Kona 29er after he’d asked me about them at the end of the previous race. He’s smiling, a lot. My work here is done.
There are severe weather warnings for February’s final race as an angry lump of cloud slides across the country, there’s even the possibility of the race being cancelled because of the high winds and heavy rain. Joy. On the start line in the sideways sleet, which for some reason is severely lacking in the usual rider numbers, the organisers announce they’re cutting the 4 hr race to just 2 1/2 as conditions are so bad. My self-doubt, pressure and nerves are high, I have to get a good result today, I convince myself that the weather and slop are playing into a singlespeeder’s hands.
With rim-deep mud and hub-deep puddles it’s a slow depressing grind, for a pan-flat course it’s unbelievably hard work, and with each lap being successively less populated with mountainbikers there’s only the sound of every single moving part of my bike grinding itself to an expensive destruction to keep me company. Even the shortened race is too long and I slop across the finish line only slightly less broken than the bike and sneak a look at the results screen. 2nd, it seems just turning up and belligerently carrying on has it’s benefits. There is more of a whimper and gritty smile than a cheer inside. Quick sums in my head mean I’ve come second overall in my class, my best ever result in this kind of race and more importantly a significant personal victory.
Quiet emotional tired satisfaction. It has all been worth it.
Now where’s my curry, I think I’ve earnt it. No, I know I have.