“Why do you build me up, Buttercup baby?
Just to let me down, and mess me around?
And then worst of all, you never call baby
When you say you will, but I love you still.
I need you more than anyone, darlin’
You know that I have from the start.
So build me up, Buttercup, don’t break my heart.”
I can’t get this shitty song out of my head. The writer in me wants to compare Buttercup to my race season so far; up and down with aggressive swings in luck, but still something I live for no matter how much I pretend I don’t. In reality I have a song invading my head and it’s been there for 14 hours. Get out and get your own room and leave me to suffer.
It seemed like a good idea at the time back in May trying to race the WEMBO worlds as best I could. At this stage I wasn’t too sure. Everything hurt. My arms, my legs, my face, my hair. I’d never ridden a course this hard and it was breaking me one minute at a time.
I’d given up on training 3 weeks before the WEMBO race. I was tired. The mental equivalent of cold soup. My body was as wasted as it was in the height of my racing career and it was starting to fight back. Then the excuse came along. A big crash out training one night. Knee too sore to pedal for a week, shoulder too bruised to ride a MTB at all. Part of me worried that I’d wasted all this time and couldn’t race. Part of me was happy that I could walk away with an excuse. Then I thought of Phil with his broken collar bone – I needed to man up. I just wasn’t certain I could face another abject failure after Bonty 24/12 this summer.
The time off my bike did give me a chance to get everything else in order for once. My bikes were stripped and rebuilt by Paul the head mechanic where I used to work in Edinburgh Bikes Manchester – who nicely lent me a gazebo and Paul for the race itself. It sounded like a good idea. What’s not to like – Fort William, some beers, bikes and tools. A perfect day out. I may have neglected to mention that it was in October, and would probably be cold. Scratch that, it would be cold. Although on race day there was little mechanic-ing to be done as the bikes ran smooth – having a dedicated mechanic and somewhere for him to hurl abuse from was helpful.
The pits were split with another two riders to make things easier; my team-mate Mark Goldie racing single speed, and Rich Rothwell racing elites. Huge thanks must go to Sean our team-mate and mechanic, and Pauline who will have to put up with being married to me in two weeks. Along with Paul these two spent the day dressed head to toe in ski clothes and helping me do what I needed to do. People giving up their time is something that people forget about us “solo” riders – it’s never just us that suffers.
A quick recon of the course on the Friday showed a 13.4km lap with 450m of climbing and technical descents that suited me. This was not going to be a cake walk, but I felt like I could be competitive on the course. With a target of 20 laps I was aiming to climb higher than Everest from sea-level and a bit. Also, at that back of my head was a notion that I could trouble the podium.
Saturday morning saw the bikes get a final prep and wash all ready for the start. At 12 noon we all lined up and the race got underway with a fast paced climb up to the top of the World Cup XC trail before plummeting down into the woods below. A flat section along the river was the only respite before we climbed back up a, normally, red descent to the top of the Witches trail before dropping down into the pit area for the first lap.
And so it continued for 23hours and 15mins. Climb, descend, climb, descend. The racers priority was simple – ride bike and insert fuel. Try not to crash. The pit crew had a much different duty – fetching food and drinks, checking bikes and brakes every lap, checking lap times and rider positions, charging and replacing lights. Pit changes were there only interaction with me and they needed to be right each time.
With 13 hours of darkness the pit crew got little to no sleep, catching 20min cat naps when they could. Every time I came in they were there feeding me, then pushing me right back out again. Bar one bike swap to check everything was working I stayed on my race bike. Nothing went wrong and used only one set of brakepads somehow – Paul was at this stage accusing me of not braking at all.
As morning arrived, I’d ridden myself into a solid third place. Unless I blew up I was guaranteed a medal, but it would take the same to get a silver. The next 7 hours were weird. I lost the will to race. I just focused on riding my bike. Only if an orange jersey came past was I to do anything. It slowly dawned on me that I was already at my limit. If Tom could switch on, I was done.
Realising what was happening the crew were even more cautious with me and my bike – cleaning the drivetrain each lap and checking brake wear. Finally, 19 laps later, I crossed the line for the last time hearing I had an hour gap on Tom in 4th place and couldn’t be caught. I didn’t feel happy about this. I’d worked hard to try and get away from Tom but for some reason felt like I’d cheated. I know he’s faster than me on the downs and most of the ups – the first 6 hours showed this . But here I was, ahead of him and thinking of stopping. Broken, tired, and stinking I sat down in the red glow of the EBC tent and was handed a beer. This was the reason I’d made that gap – pit crew, not me. It felt odd.
Done. 3rd place in the 30-34 age group. Some more beer. The pits get packed around me and I mumble encouragements on how to do things. I wander over to Tom after he finishes and find him sat in a chair like a zombie, he’s wasted. I mildly wonder how I look. Jenn tells me I stink. She gets a hug for that. A shower and few hours sleep in the Travellodge before I destroy a curry and several beers. We stand in the hotel before I get called up onto the podium – it feels wrong, I’ve not done this in a long time. The medal feels solid around my neck. I sit down and sip a beer debating Weaverville in 2015. Why not?
I’ve a few thanks to give out:
Shona and Rich at Keep Pedalling Manchester without whom it would not have been possible to afford race food, kit and bike. Having a local bike shop that supports racers a the thing that keeps privateer cycle racing going – not on-line shops.
Ged and Alex at the Edinburgh Bike Co-Op for the loan of a gazebo for the day- my old employer, and friend/manager.
Sean at Berti Mafoons Bicycle Company for once again being the perfect pit manager/worrier/friend. Enjoy the bottle of whisky.
Jenn, Steve Makin, Dave Serious, Andy, Phil, Jase and all the JMC crew, and anyone who put up with me hurting them while we “went for a ride” yes I was training. No I’m not stopping.
And finally Pauline – why you enjoy pitting for these things I’ll never know – I’m just happy you do cause we’ll be doing them for a while more yet.