After the twinkling lights of London dimmed and morning broke, the bright lights of British cross country mountainbiking came out to shine.
Belgian Cycling also showcased some of their stars, including multiple Female National Champion, Githa Michiels. Hadleigh Farm also attracted the Dutch (and the former Dutch) National Champions, two Norwegians and a spattering of eager to learn, enthused and impressed local visitors.
On the course that crowned Julie Bresset and Jaraslav Kulhavy Olympic Champions just over a year ago, riders pitted themselves not only against each other, but in comparison with the World's best riders. And a humbling comparison it was. If television cameras and Nino Schurter's skills dumbed down the course, seeing it and riding it certainly hammered home just how challenging the Hadleigh Farm track is. Man made. Man up. Makes a man. Or indeed a woman, as many of the girls demonstrated.
Githa Michiels was probably not a name known by many as she rolled up to the start line, but whilst she doesn't have fame she does have the title of Belgian Champion and top-twenty World Cup finishes to her name, and this does not happen without a certain class. It was with this class that she rode to victory in the Elite Women's race, leading from the gun she established her dominance early on, building a gap of nearly two and a half minutes over second place by the finish. For the opening three laps the Series Leader and National Champion, Lee Craigie, was trailing by between eight and twenty one seconds a lap, but in the latter half of the race Michiels was able to continue her consistent lap times, whilst Craigie's times dropped off. It was a sensible and consolidatory ride by Craigie, knowing that securing the series title would not happen by taking an inadvertent lie down on some rocks. As the race progressed, the riders soon settled into their rhythm and positions. Throughout the field the time gaps between riders were significant. Mel Alexander cemented her place as a top domestic rider with a fine third position which also saw her finish third in the overall standings. Hannah Barnes was strong on the climbs,as we would expect, but also adept on the descents and with that rode to fourth place ahead of the very technically talented Max Filby, whose recent Enduro expoits and skills training have evidently worked wonders. The Torq duo of Jessie Roberts and Joanne Clay came in sixth and seventh, Roberts pulling her team mate back after a slow start. Rachel Fenton had been riding in sixth position until she was spotted jumping up and down on her wheel in an attempt to make it fit through her frame again! She lost time but fought back to take tenth place in only her second cross country race of the season, and with that dispelled theories that marathon racers are all tortoise and no hare. Verity Appleyard and Kerry MacPhee were the other riders to grace the top ten, all other competitors being lapped by the Belgian bullet.
Lee Craigie achieved one of her season's goals and retained her National Series crown, Beth Crumpton chose to miss Round Five in order to recover from illness and prepare for the World Championships but had already done enough to secure second place overall, and Mel Alexander took third spot.
It looked like it could be a Belgian winner in the Elite Men's race too, with Kevin Van Hoovels and Jeff Luyten both showing fantastic form in the Vallnord World Cup last month and now finding themselves in the early lead group at Hadleigh. Grant Ferguson joined the duo, as did Norwegian visitor Truls Engen Kors�th, and not far off the pace were Ferguson's Superior Brentjens team mates, Kenta Gallagher and Hans Becking, with Michiel van der Heijden chasing just behind. The Dutch Champion, van der Heijden, very nearly didn't make the start at all. Having broken his 650b forks in practice, taken them to pieces, rebuilt them and finally, categorically labelled them "kapot", van der Heijden's bike was completely useless. Luckily he is not the tallest of men and his girlfriend also rides for Giant, so after a brake and crank swap - between the women's race and his - to satisfy sponsors and gear ratios he sprinted down to the start line, followed a minute later by his aforementioned girlfriend who was brandishing his number board, some cable ties and a pair of scissors! The preparation was, therefore, far from ideal and the Dutchman, after a pitstop for technical problems, never found his legs, eventually slipping back to tenth spot. At the front of the race Van Hoovels was pushing the pace, but it was Ferguson who made the first move. The newly crowned National Champion had planned to "start well, put myself towards the front and then see what happened". What happened was a move that no one could match. Ferguson was worried that he had gone too early, but he had no reason to be. Behind him it took another lap for Van Hoovels to break clear of Gallagher and for Becking to pull away from Luyten, the U23 rider fading in the final two laps. So after an hour and a half of racing (compared to the women's winner who raced for one hour forty!) Ferguson triumphed, forty four seconds ahead of Van Hoovels, and his team mate and partner in crime, Gallagher, came in third - a superb result for the XCE specialist who has struggled to find his form in XCO this season. Hans Becking took fourth and Jeff Luyten fifth, making it a two team podium of Superior Brentjens Mountainbike Racing Team and Versluys PRO Mountainbike Team. Dan Fleeman was somewhat under the radar but rode a consistent and impressive race to finish just off the podium. Beckingsale said he rode hard, though he chose to take a number of 'B' lines, and finished the final mountain bike race of his illustrious career to applause from a respectful crowd. Behind him Steve James had a fantastic ride, the British U23 Champion finishing in eighth, whilst fellow U23 Didier Bats took ninth.
With victory in the final round Ferguson took the series title. Beckingsale was second - conceding the crown to "a better guy" - and Paul Oldham, who was eleventh on the day, secured third place, making it the year of the 'stickmen', as they refer to themselves!
Ferguson and Gallagher both look on fine form for the forthcoming World Championships in South Africa. Ferguson commented that the rocky terrain of Hadleigh was great preparation for the Pietermaritzburg course, and he can surely take confidence from the commanding way in which he rode this weekend. Good luck!
In the Junior Women's category it was Isla Short who sped off the line with her usual aggressive start, but Alice Barnes came to the front of the race as the riders headed off the start loop and onto the course proper. Barnes looked set to make it five wins from five as she established a small lead on the chasers. However, a puncture put paid to that, and the young talent had to test her running skills as she headed round the course to the pits. This left Short at the head of affairs and from here she pulled out a comfortable lead on second placed Imogen Buick, whose whoops of joy could be heard from the rock gardens and gap jump! Barnes fought hard to chase back, but was unable to catch third place which went to Lucy Allan. Short was disappointed not to battle with Barnes in this final round, but I am sure their talent and combativity will shine next year as they move up to U23 ranks.
In the Junior Men's race it was National Champion, Michael Thompson, who took the honours, though it was by no means a forgone conclusion. Iain Paton did not let the victory slip away lightly and the two looked well-matched, much as they have done all season, over four of the five laps. The last lap was therefore the decider, with Thompson able to open a thirty second gap on his rival and friend. Behind these two the time gap jumped to well over four minutes before Dylan Kerfoot-Robson came in for third place.
The Youth races played out in very different ways; the boys a one-man show of dominance and the girls an unpredictable affair with leaders and leading margins coming and going throughout. The girls' race was attacked early on by Hannah English who looked very strong out front, building a lead of thirty seconds after lap one. In a field with such depth of closely-matched talent it is a brave sole who places bets so early though. Sarah Lomas lost nearly a minute to English on lap one, but found her legs on lap two to slice three seconds off English's storming opener and then continue the pace on the third and final lap. Lomas took the victory by fifty four seconds from Ffion James in second, whilst Martha Gill was another minute back in third.
Thomas Craig looked comfortable out in front of the Youth Men's race, though the speed at which he was riding was anything other than casual. With a similar style to his father, and beginning to emulate his success as well, Craig pulled out a lead of forty four seconds by the finish on his closest rival, Frazer Clacherty. Along with Clacherty, Mark Maguire formed the chase in the opening laps but had to let second place slip away. Arthur Green was amongst the riders battling it out for points and showed a maturity that many of his elders failed to demonstrate when mechanical issues brought him to a standstill on more than one occasion. He eventually finished seventh. Maguire was able to finish comfortably in third place, whilst behind him Paddy Atkinson cemented his place at the top end of Youth racing with a career best fourth spot on a course where he said the openness allowed him to keep tabs on the riders around him and help gauge his efforts.
Without the dominant Emily Wadsworth taking the start, the Juvenile girls race was won by the slight figure of Patsy Caines who found her form on the Olympic course and stormed to victory by over a minute from Rhianna Stoves. Megan James took third well ahead of the rest of the field.
In the Juvenile Men's race Tomos Nesham continued his run of form with a win at the final round. Again the time gaps were around a minute between the riders, with Harry Yates and Tom Rogers making the podium.
In the Expert category the season-long podium presence of Nicky Healy, Julie Elder and Helen Clayton continued. Healy certainly showcased her class with a huge thirteen minute winning margin and lap times that would have placed her easily within the top ten of the Elite race. Elder took second spot and the final step on the podium went to Helen Clayton - a nice pre birthday present!
The Expert Men's category finished the season in familiar fashion with Isaac Pucci taking the honours by another more-than-slightly significant gap. Seven minutes was his lead over second place Joe Norledge whilst Dexter Hurlock took third.
Vanessa Holmes took victory in the Sport Women's race, riding clear of her rivals from lap one and never looking troubled. Fiona Innes was second and Jennifer Thomson third. The Men's race was won by Tom Hooper whose fast opening two laps did enough to secure his win when second place Daniel Drake decreased the gap on the closing laps. Behind them Ashley Evans came home to take third spot.
Onto the Masters' races and a win in the Female race for Gillian Pratt who was easily able to ride clear of her only rival, Clare Leaver, who had, from the look of her kit, had more than one close encounter with the Essex dirt!
In the Men's race there was a change at the top as season-long category leader Jon Pugh had to settle for second behind Scottish Cycling Coach Paul Newnham. Who said 'those who can't, teach'? Pugh took the early lead but Newnham chased back and overtook Pugh to take victory, meanwhile Sam Humphrey yo-yoed with Grant Leavy and eventually came out on top to take third spot.
Catriona Ross took full advantage of the lack of top Female Veterans to storm to an emphatic victory, accruing an eleven minute advantage over second placed Alison Holmes and third placed Anita Buxton.
In the Men's race it was Ian Taylor who took early control of the race and eked out an advantage, lap by lap, to win by two minutes. Marc Chamberlain and Paul Hopkins came second and third respectively.
Six Grand Veteran Females took to the start of the Olympic course, and kudos where it is due, they were not all taking the 'B' lines. Kim Long was the strongest on laps one and two, both technically and physically, but a last lap surge from Elizabeth Clayton saw her overcome the National Champion and take the victory. Alison Linnell took third. After the race Long said "yes it was tough, but it should be, it is a national". Quite so!
The Grand Veteran Men's race had the most thrilling finish of any of the categories, with the early leader, Peter Turnball, being chased down in the closing laps by Peter Harris and Kevin Holloway, the latter having lost a lot of time on lap one and subsequently chased back with the fastest lap times of the race. It was enough to catch Harris, but not to outsprint him. The duo both finishing on the same time, but the second spot being given to Harris. Turnball held on to his lead by twenty three seconds to take the win.
Finally, as ever, the Super Veteran Men. It was not the usual spread of faces that prepared themselves to face the tough track, but still it was a well deserved win for Denis Smith who pulled out a healthy lead after the first lap. Philip Jones was his closest rival in second, five minutes back, and Chris Hearn was third, only those podium finishers completing all three laps.
With big time gaps in many of the categories and positions settling in the early stages of the races, there may not seem to have been much excitement, tension and interest to the Hadleigh Farm event. However, the spectacle of watching riders tackle one of the toughest courses in the World, with a backdrop over the Thames Estuary more than made up for the lack of close racing. This race had a special feeling. Just to walk on the course, the see the features up close and to be in the pits carried an excitement that buoyed the whole weekend. The riders were overwhelmingly respectful of the course and equally delighted to have the opportunity to ride it. It was a fine way to end the series and a popular and proud place from which to progress cross country mountain bike racing in the UK.
More on the BC National Cross Country MTB Series 2013 Round 5: