Somehow it is mid-August already and the British Cycling XC Series is a wrap.
How did that happen?
It seemed that most of the riders were in fine spirits and fighting form, though. The course at Cannock Chase inspired enthusiasm and bred a really positive and warm atmosphere, even as the first chills of autumn crept in.
However, the latter part of the season brought with it a fair amount of fatigue for a number of the Elite riders I spoke with. Some were on a Commonwealth come-down, others were juggling jet lag and the early stages of minor mental meltdown! That said, there was a lot still to play for. The overall series standings were to be decided, and the final World Cup and the World Championships are just around the corner for some. So, as ever, it was all systems go when the gun went.
National Champion, Annie Last, led the Women's race off the line and through the short starting loop round the arena. Glued to her back wheel was National U23 Champion, Beth Crumpton, with Alice Barnes, Nicky Healy and Claire Oakley all up in the mix too. Last has been slowly building back the incredible form she had two seasons ago before she was dealt a harsh hand of luck by way of a fractured vertebrae. Following very strong World Cup performances in North America, Last was very much the one to beat at Cannock, but Lady Luck was not on her side here, either. A broken rear mech abruptly curtailed her race, and left the doors open for Crumpton to take up the head of the race. This she did in no uncertain terms. Relaxed - even sharing a joke in the feed zone with her soigneur - and clearly with great legs, Crumpton established and maintained a commanding lead. Barnes was her closest rival, but she wasn't firing on all cylinders, eventually losing two minutes and forty seconds to her GB Academy team mate up front. Healy continued her ascendency with another fine performance to finish third. The punchy, powerful rider was in her element on the Cannock course. Jessie Roberts had not seen much of her bike at all since competing in the Commonwealth Games, so Sunday's race was, she admits, a bit of a shock to the system. However, the form she worked towards for the Games carried her to fourth, whilst Mel Alexander bagged yet another podium place, though truthfully she had hoped for better than fifth.
Kerry MacPhee and Lee Craigie were non-starters which meant Crumpton took the series title following her second win of the series.
The Elite Men's race provided a more thrilling spectacle, with the three pre-race favourites not able to unhinge each other until the final kilometre of the final lap. Grant Ferguson took to the start with the number one plate, the British National Champion coming to the race tired but in great shape after his podium at the World Cup in Windham, USA. Alongside him was Martin Gujan. It was the first 'home' race for the Swiss rider on Britain's Orange Monkey Pro Team. Liam Killeen, now on the front row of the grid having racked up some impressive results since his comeback, was the third of the 'ones to watch'. These three were joined in the first two laps by Jason Boutell, a rider who has risen through the ranks in the last season to become an Elite podium contender, and Under 23 riders Michael Thompson, Iain Paton and National Champion, Steve James. Boutell was, however, one of many victims of the rock garden, and the young guns couldn't quite hold the pace of the big guns so the front group of three were soon well away. The race settled for a while, with the leading trio finding their rhythm (and scouting out their opponent's weaknesses), and Thompson and Paton working together to overhaul Boutell.
With the race riding full gas towards its conclusion, Gujan made some testing moves to try and break away from Ferguson and Killeen. Drilling it up the climbs, it looked like Ferguson was cracking under Swiss pressure. But no, the Brit gritted his teeth and told himself, if I can just hang on here, I can maybe do something. Ferguson was, by his own admittance, not at all sure what this 'something' might be but was giving it everything to make it possible. Indeed, on the final kick up into the arena he was able to find some reserve of energy and attack the group. Not wanting it to come down to a sprint, he put his climbing legs to perfect use and was able to create a gap which he could hold until the finish. A great win after a great race. Killeen took second place, just five seconds back. Gujan's efforts had taken their toll, he claimed third. "Not bad", he said, though his views on the course at Cannock and his time in England were all together more positive.
Thompson and Paton pulled off their plan to claim fourth and fifth, both absolutely exhausted but happy after what they described as a double length cyclocross race effort. Boutell took sixth, content despite finishing just shy of the podium, while James took seventh and Paul Oldham "just rode around" to eighth, evidently with little in the tank but still enough to claim the series title.
Evie Richards was finally able to step onto the top step of the podium in the Junior Women's race after a season of seconds. With the absence of Junior Champion, Isla Short, Richards took control of the race from the gun, clearly signalling that this was her race to lose. With three sub-twenty-one minute laps (which saw her carve through much of the Elite field), Richards stormed to victory. Sarah Lomas didn't have a great start, but she soon made up for lost time, establishing herself in second position after the first lap. Lucy Allen threatened to close the gap to Lomas in the mid section of the race but it wasn't to be. Lomas was second and Allen third, all three girls wearing broad smiles on the podium.
Jack Ravenscroft took his second win of the season in the Junior Men's race, again stepping up to assume control of the race in the absence of those called up for GB for the Junior World Series. Ravenscroft was the favourite, but he didn't have it all his own way. David Creber led through the opening lap, and was only a couple of seconds behind after two laps. Paddy Atkinson was also a threat, trailing Creber by just ten seconds at the half way point. Lap three was the decider, with both Creber and Atkinson losing time (partly due to that pesky rock garden!). Whilst the final lap saw the top three all ride within a second of each other, the damage had already been done and Ravenscroft took the win. Creber and Atkinson were second and third respectively.
Sophie Wright had made a habit of podium appearances in the Youth Girls' race at the National Series this year, but didn't have a win to her name. Yet. Riding with National Champion, Emily Wadsworth, Wright looked comfortable and confident on the first lap, whilst Ella Connelly, another podium regular, had Irish visitor, Leagh Maunsell for company. On the second lap Wright was able to keep the pressure on and pulled out an impressive one minute advantage over Wadsworth which was enough to see her onto the top step of the podium. Wadsworth, despite pulling some time back on the final lap, had to settle for second. Connelly was able to pull away from Maunsell to claim third position. It was a Wadsworth, Wright, Connelly podium again, just this time in a slightly different order.
The Youth Boys' podium was patronised by regulars as well, although the manner in which they got there was not so straight forward. It was no great surprise to see Chris Rothwell at the front of the race, but it was unusual to see Matthew Fratesi more than a minute back after one lap. In a reverse of normal racing patterns, the gaps between the riders got smaller as the race progressed. Fratesi hadn't given up hope and lapped almost forty seconds faster than Rothwell on lap two; the early leader had a challenge on his hands. Indeed, on the third and final lap Fratesi went faster again and it was with a great sense of excitement and expectation that we awaited the riders into the arena for the final time. Rothwell knew what he had to do and managed to up his pace just enough to hold onto the win. Fratesi took second and Miles Worner held off the likes of Tom Holland and Owyn Wallace to claim third.
There was little to tell between the Juvenile Girls' leaders, Megan James and Kim Baptista, with Harriet Harndon also in the mix for the lead, particularly in the first lap. With only two laps to decide the race, there was no time for mistakes or settling in. James, in her new National Champion's stripes, managed to break away from Baptista on lap two to take the win. Baptista was nineteen seconds back and Hardon was a further nineteen seconds back in third.
The Juvenile Boys' National Champion, Harry Birchill, also did his jersey proud at Cannock. Having spent plenty of time perfecting his line through the rock garden he could race confidently and competently on the challenging track, able to let his focus stray to tactics, and how he would get the better of Ben Healy and Sam Culverwell. The three boys were locked wheel to wheel, and as they approached the finish for the final time it was clear a three way sprint was on the cards. Birchill, happy to have let it come down to the final few metres, took it from Healy and then Culverwell, just two seconds between them.
The Master Men put on a good show at the head of the day's final race. Phil Morris and Paul Lloyd were pushing each other to the limit until Lloyd lost time on lap three, letting Morris establish a lead just big enough to see him around the final lap and onto the win. Thomas Fowler had been just off the pace but was able to catch up to Lloyd which brought the race for second and third down to a sprint. Lloyd could do just enough to claim second, only ten seconds adrift of Morris who rolled into the finish exhausted but delighted to take the win.
Alison Holmes was, as we have become accustomed to, a clear winner in the Veteran Women's race. Team mates Caroline Goward and Nicky Hughs rode together on the opening lap before Hughs began to pull away. However, what looked to be technical troubles caused Hughs to drop around seven minutes on the final lap which saw her out of the podium positions. Goward took over in second place and Sarah Barnwell claimed third.
The Veteran Men's race saw a close battle between Paul Hopkins, Sam Humphreys and Marc Chamberlain, the trio only ever a second or two apart in the first two laps of the race. Chamberlain looked to be the first to crack, dropping off the pace on lap three, but no sooner had Humphreys and Hopkins pulled clear, Chamberlain upped the pace and was back in contention. Whilst the others flagged, Chamberlain sustained his speed and eventually took the win (with a clench of the fists) fifteen seconds clear of Humphreys in second (who celebrated with a wheelie). Hopkins lost considerable time on the final two laps but he was safely in third place (escorted home by his team mate Kim Little who was fourth in the Masters' category). Tough racing, but evidently enjoyable too!
Elizabeth Clayton has been unstoppable in the Grand Veteran Women's races this season, and Cannock Chase was no exception. Kim Long and Alison Linnell kept the gap to the leader less than it has been at earlier rounds but Clayton was still the clear winner. Long was second, challenged all the way by Linnell.
Mark Chadbourne made an early bid for victory in the Grand Veteran Men's race and managed to make it stick. Grant Johnson led the early chase before Ian Wright passed him and went about trying to catch the leader. Chadbourne was, however, too strong to be caught, his consistency carrying him to the win. Wright was second and Johnson hung onto third.
The Super Veteran's race was once again won by Ian Petherbridge. Petherbridge led from early on to gain over two minutes to second placed Victor Barnett over three laps of racing. Tony Wilkins held the pace of Barnett on the opening lap but subsequently dropped back to take third.
Overall series winner for the Expert Women, Holly Bettles, lined up with the Elites for the final round leaving the door open for a new victor. Mel Paddington and Vanessa Holmes were quick to take up the invitation for a win, having raced closely all year and made numerous trips to the podium, but never the top step. Holmes led out the race and had managed to gap her biggest rival on the first lap, but Paddington was able to bridge across and by lap two she had taken the lead. Once ahead there was no looking back for Paddington and she took the win by over a minute. Flo Dannah was third.
Phillip Pearce topped off a stellar season with another win in the Expert Male category. James Hyde was the man to stay closest to Pearce, but his attention was likely more behind him as Nicholas Corlett challenged his second place, especially in the final two laps where Hyde looked to tire. Pearce, new to cross-country racing but with evident bike handling skills, won by two minutes and seventeen seconds from Hyde, with Corlett third.
Ryan Perry and James Spilsbury were not quite as inseparable as they have been previously this season in the Sport race, a whole twenty-nine seconds between them at the finish! Still, it was another win and second place for them, with Max Suttie rounding out the podium in third.
Angela Pike was the sole Sport Female rider. You have to be in it to win it!
Lucy Chilvers took the honours in the Open Women's race and Lewis King swapped his usual Sunday race for a successful Saturday spin, taking an easy win in the Open Men. Una May and Gareth Richardson were winners in the Fun Races.
Last, but of course by no means least, the children's races. The Under 12 category was won by the younger siblings of some very talented Youth and Juvenile riders, Fredy Birchill and Madie Wadsworth. Ben Askey and Caoimhe May were winners in the Under 10 race and the Under 8 races saw Bryn Lawrence and Phoebe Strain take victory.
So that's the 2014 British Cycling XC Series finished for another year. We have seen an impressive step-up in form from the Elite fields thanks to a home Commonwealth Games; we have witnessed many dominating performances as well as some very close racing; there have been new venues, old favourites, new faces and old-timers, hills, spills and thrills a plenty!
Same again next year...
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