Rather sadistically, the weather Gods appear to grant the hottest days of the year at British mountainbiking's hilliest events! Following on from another hot Hopton, Margam Park in South Wales once again saw a combination of suntan lotion, significant amounts of sweat and some severe suffering. In addition to the difficulty of the heat, the riders were greeted by a number of loose, rocky chutes and steep descents that dropped them down altogether more quickly from the dizzy heights they had struggled up to. Two riders for whom neither the technicality of the course nor the heat caused much problem were the Elite winners: Trek Factory Racing's Rebecca Henderson and Daniel McConnell. For these World Cup winners, both of whom are Australian, the perils of Margam Park were emphatically overcome.
Race one was delayed by some 45 minutes as the course claimed its first victim of the day and the ambulance was called into action. Having warmed up and psyched up for the start, the competitors now sought shade, more hydration and the motivation to keep focussed.
With the ambulance back in place the gridding began, and soonafter the racing was underway with a fantastic start from Mel Alexander who lead out the Elite Women's field. As National Champion Nikki Harris moved forward after finding herdelf a little swamped at the start, a dropped chain from Alexander saw her time at the front cruelly curtailed. As the race descended down to the finish of lap one, Harris had an impressive lead over her nearest rival, the international U23 star, Bec Henderson. However, by the end of the second lap Henderson had closed the thirteen second gap and hereafter began to really stamp her authority on the race. At one point the Australian, who thrives in the hills, had a lead of around seven minutes over the rest of the field, but by the finish this had been reduced to four and a half minutes, still a very commanding victory. With the win all but sealed, the battle for second spot took a dramatic turn.
Harris had fallen foul of the course, and fallen hard at that. She withdrew from the race after four laps leaving Lee Craigie in second and Alexander up to third spot. This result looked set until the penultimate lap when Craigie, the defending series champion, lost around a minute and was caught by the early leader. The last lap was thus an exciting tussle between two of the top domestic Brits. Craigie stood up best to the challenge with a storming last lap to claim second, whilst Alexander took third. Behind them Maddie Horton took a page out of Marco Fontana's book and proved baggie shorts are worthy of a podium, and Beth Crumpton rounded out the top five. Special mentions to Kerri Macphee for hitting the deck with some serious speed and then getting back up and on her bike even quicker, and to Morven Brown for her unwavering enthusiasm and much-appreciated encouragement to other riders on course.
There's no prizes for guessing who won the Elite Men's race, and it's not just because I told you in the opening paragraph! A World Cup winner on a UCI Pro Team, Dan McConnell was the man to beat, or at least to follow. And there really was no shame in following, especially given that the Australian built a lead of only 56 seconds by the end of the race. The biggest dent in the British field was made on the opening lap when McConnell came through the start/finish in a blisteringly fast 12 minutes 31 seconds, causing many a raised eyebrow in the pits, and Andrew Riley hasterly putting down his cheese-based snack and exclaiming, "bloody hell Dan, I'm only on my first cracker!".
Following the Aussie were two duos, firstly Gareth Montgomerie and Paul Oldham, and then Rab Wardell and David Fletcher, the latter making a welcome return to the BCXCS after a broken wrist early in the season. Behind the early top five were big names such as Oli Beckingsale, Dan Fleeman, Adrian Lansley, Welsh talent Lee Williams and international cyclocrosser Ian Field. At the front of affairs McConnell was looking smooth and measured whilst behind him the positions were changing as the race evolved. Beckingsale began picking off the riders in front of him until he joined Oldham to form the chase behind McConnell. Fleeman was also moving up, as was Nick Craig. It wasn't Steve James' day and he slid down the ranks, and Fletcher wasn't having luck either with two punctures stifling his podium ambitions. Beckingsale was able to pull clear of Oldham to secure second place, and Gareth Montgomerie turned on the gas to rocket himself into fourth position with the fastest of everyone's final lap. Fleeman took the fifth and final podium position. Alex Welbourne had a strong ride to finish fourteenth and first U23, a nice confidence boost going into the National Championships in two weeks time. Beckingsale must also be feeling good, in fact he says he's "getting the big race feeling". The special mention in the men's race has to go to George Budd for grinning like an eejit and thanking everyone ever so politely for their trackside support.
In the Junior Women's race Isla Short again showed that her climbing abilities can challenge the UK's leading rider, Alice Barnes. Barnes admitted she "got a little excited" and went off too fast, a mistake she paid for in the second and third laps when Short was able to to close the gap and subsequently take the lead of the race. It was not enough to beat the series leader though. Having composed herself, Barnes was able to attack on the final lap and build up a twenty-five second buffer by the end of the race. Behind this battle for the win, Imogen Buick was having a battle of her own, fighting dizziness and sickness. She backed-off and rolled in for third place.
Iain Paton took the victory in the Junior Men's race, nineteen seconds ahead of National Champion Sam Stean. Paton was in charge from the off, establishing an early lead which, thankfully for the Scot, was enough to hold off Stean who was working on a 'get faster' lap strategy as everyone else faded. Mike Thompson held the pace of Paton for the opening lap but ended up third after five laps of racing. These top three were some three minutes ahead of the rest of the field.
Nicky Healy veritably destroyed the rest of the Expert Women's field, as she raced to victory with five sub-twenty minute laps and twenty-four minutes ahead of her nearest rival. Julie Elder was that nearest rival, and Helen Clayton was third. In the Men's Expert category the usual suspects dominated the top spots. Isaac Pucci came out on top again, twenty-five seconds to the good of Lee Gratton with Dexter Hurlock comfortably in third position.
The Sport categories were won by Jennifer Thompson and Tom Hooper. Thompson was over a minute clear second placed Fiona Innes who made the final descent count to ride clear of strong climber Mel Paddington who came in third. Hooper was obviously loving the course so much he decided to do an additional lap, only just making it back in time to climb onto the top step of the podium alongside Mark Byrne and Michael Moore who were second and third respectively.
The Youth Women's race looked to be a tight tussle between Amira Mellor and Ffion James, as it has been so many times before. The two came through to complete lap one of three with just a second between them, but then Mellor managed to open a gap on her rival on lap two. However, a loss of two minutes on her final lap meant that the Welsh rider was able to catch and pass her to take a home win. Mellor's last lap losses almost cost her second place as well. The consistant Molly Williams pushed Mellor right to the line, not even a second between them at the finish, but Mellor was deemed to have got her wheel over the line first to hang on for second place.
Thomas Craig rode a very impressive race to take victory in the Youth Male category, never troubled from start to finish, and looking fast yet controlled. Mark Macguire took second position and William Gasgoyne rounded out the podium. Frazer Clacherty and Paddy Atkinson battled it out for fourth with a drawn out sprint starting as they exited the woods and appeared within sight of the arena and their respective supporters who cheered from all over the hillside! Clacherty was able to keep Atkinson behind him until the line and thus took fouth place.
In the Juvenile Women's race Emily Wadsworth did her National stripes proud with another comfortable win. Behind her were Patsy Caines and Rhiana Stoves, the former able to distant Stoves on the second, and final, lap.
Tomos Nesham dipposed regular winner Dan Tulett from his top step with a fine win of over three minutes. Tulett led the opening lap but lost time on the second and then lost the race with an issue - perhaps the fact he had raced, and won, the national circuit race championships the previous day - on the final lap. Harry Shepherd took third.
The third and final group of races of the day kicked off with the Master categories. Donna Morris (xcracer.com) was once again the only entrant in the female category but still recorded four consistant and fast laps and, of course, took victory. In the Male race Jonathon Pugh was able to take a more commanding victory than in previous rounds from his ever-present rival Phil Morris (xcracer.com). Chris Lever picked up the third spot.
Next off were the Veterans. Caroline Goward took a predictable, but still impressive, win in the Women's race. Six minutes adrift of Goward was Sarah Barnwell and then National Champion Helen MacGregor rolled in third looking rather battered and soon-to-be bruised. Marc Chamberlain rode a steady race to secure the win in the Men's category ahead of Crispin Doyle and Steve Calland. Simon Willats outsprinted Mark Spratt after losing around ten seconds a lap to his rival before a fying final circuit of the course.
Last of Sunday's races to line up to take starter's orders was the Grand Veterans and Super Veterans. Kim Long was the early leader in the women's race, but Elizabeth Clayton was hot on her heals and managed to turn an eighteen second deficit into a win of just over a minute. Alison Linnell was third. Despite a couple of slower last laps, Grant Johnson had built enough of a lead in the Grand Veteran Male contest to hold off the strong charge from Peter Harris. Mark Ferguson was third, well clear of fourth place. Finally the Super Vets, and an unusual absence of Vic Barnett from the top step of the podium. It seems that a second lap mishap cost Barnett a possible win. However, mishaps are part of racing and Dennis Smith's win was a solid one, with Colin Murely taking second and Barnett picking up third.
With four of five rounds now completed some of the categories already have series winners, and others will be decided at the final round, on the Olympic course at Hadleigh Castle in Essex. Before then are the National Championships in Scotland in two weeks time. With this weekend's racing having been the last chance for many competitors to pit themselves against each other before they line up to challange for the red, white and blue bands, some carry confidence and others are hoping it's a very long two weeks which can accommodate some serious training...
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