The week preceding the National Championships was one of weather watching. Some relished the thought of thunder, and others prayed that the storms would steer clear.
By the time the course opened for practice, Hopton Woods had certainly seen some rain. Bikes were returning muddy, and many riders were sporting a brown side and bloodied and bruised knees and elbows. That said, most were highly complimentary of the track; the tough opening climb balanced with the technical descent to the finish.
Sunday was indeed a sun day. The course was quickly drying and the biggest domestic race of the year was upon us.
The Under 23 Women's race was short in numbers but not in talent. Beth Crumpton and Alice Barnes, both British Cycling Academy riders and Commonwealth Games competitors, were set for a tough battle. Last weekend in Sherwood, Barnes just got the better of Crumpton, but Hopton was a different day and a very different course. Quickly working their way up through the Elite field, the duo were racing hard, locked wheel to wheel. It wasn't until lap three that a decisive move was made, when Crumpton began to apply the pressure and test Barnes. Concious that she'd opened a small gap through the technical section, Crumpton attacked to try and establish a lead that she could carry to the finish. It worked. Barnes was not feeling fresh enough to close the gap, afterwards explaining that she hoped it was a case of still recovering from pre-Games training. Crumpton was absolutely flying though. With two and a half minutes advantage to Barnes by the end of five laps, she raised a smile to her cheering family who watched as she swept into the arena for the final time and proudly retained her National Champion's jersey. Barnes was a bit disappointed with second, but knew that it was still a strong performance (3rd in the Elite race). Becky Preece completed the podium, happy to be back racing after an enforced rest.
The Under 23 Men's race was full of drama. Defending Champion, Steve James, was, until the Saturday morning, not even going to make the start line. A sickness bug had him on the sofa all week, and it was a last minute decision to turn up because he "might as well!". What a good decision that turned out to be. After a slow start, James seemed to ride the sickness out of his legs and found a good rhythm. Alongside great legs was a bit of luck as his competition for the title was diminished with the withdrawal of a pre-race favourite and early contender, Kenta Gallagher, on lap four, and then by the misfortune of the leader, Iain Paton, who lost around four minutes in the pits with a mechanical problem at the end of the third lap. James, who had already worked his way up to podium positions, was (with admitted surprise) now leading the race. James tightened his grip on the race with a flying fifth lap and by the end of six laps had a winning margin of a minute and five seconds over second placed Mike Thompson, who was the only consistent rider in the race. Isaac Pucci chased back from a crash to secure the bronze medal.
The Junior Women's race was true to the season's form book. It would have seemed unfair if Isla Short hadn't won, given her dominance in the National Series and superb international results this year. However, this is bike racing, and one small mistake or mechanical can soon eliminate the favourite. A slipped pedal at the start was thankfully the only trouble for Short, and she quickly found her way to the front of the race. Pleased that the course had dried out overnight and not minding the heat, the strong climber was in her element. There was little time to relax though as Evie Richards kept the pressure on in second place. Behind Richards was a duel for the final podium position. Ffion James and Amira Mellor were closely matched over the four laps, with Mellor pushing the pace on the climbs but unable to distance James enough to drop her. In the last lap James found just enough power to come round Mellor and, on the final run down to the arena, make a small gap and carry it round the final bends and onto third place. Richards rode a strong and controlled race to take a well-deserved silver. Short was almost two minutes ahead when she crossed the line for her first National Champion's jersey.
The Junior Men's race was, as we have become accustomed to, a close, tactical and exciting race. Dylan Kerfoot-Robson led the field after one lap, but he had the usual suspects - Thomas Craig, Mark Mcguire, Frazer Clacherty and Jack Ravenscroft - hot on his heals. Ravenscroft couldn't quite hold the pace so a leading group of four was established at the head of the race, each of the boys working hard but looking comfortable in the group. Four became three when a problem for Mcguire saw him drop nearly two minutes on the penultimate lap and, with that, his chance of the title, and even a podium, were gone. Onto the final lap and nerves were rising in the pits. It was Clacherty who appeared into the arena first, his polka dot socks a nod to his climbing strength as well as his renowned descending skills. By posting his second fastest lap time, Clacherty pulled out a twenty-five second advantage to take the win, a face a pure delight as he crossed the line! Craig managed to distance Kerfoot-Robson to pick up silver, while Kerfoot-Robson could hold off Ravenscroft despite cracking on the final lap.
The Youth Races also followed the pattern of the season, with Emily Wadsworth and Dan Tulett taking the honours.
For Wadsworth, pulling on the stripes wasn't going to be an easy task. Ella Connolly and Sophie Wright have been eating into her early season dominance and presented a real challenge at Hopton. Indeed, at the top of the first climb, Wadsworth's early attack had been neutralised and she was concerned she had gone out too hard and would subsequently pay the price. After two of three laps, Wadsworth only had four seconds advantage over Connolly, both riders with their eyes on the prize. Would it come down to a sprint finish? Nothing of the sort, actually. Wadsworth turned on the burners and flew round the final lap twenty seconds quicker than the previous lap, which in conjunction with Connolly slowing down, meant she took the win by a very comfortable one minute and twenty-seven seconds. Connolly was safe in second and Wright continued her run of third places.
Tulett was simply in a class of his own. He led off the start and was never troubled by the course nor his competitors. William Gascoyne had more of a fight on his hands to secure the silver medal, with Chris Rothwell chasing hard. After an incredibly quick opening lap, Tulett already had a fifty second lead, whilst Gascoyne had just ten seconds over Rothwell. Tulett's pace dropped by a minute on lap two but was very consistent thereafter. After four laps he took the National title with a three minute and eighteen second lead, and Gascoyne pulled out forty seconds to claim silver ahead of Rothwell in the bronze medal position.
Megan James didn't have the luxury of such a big winning margin in the Juvenile Girl's race but she still claimed the National title in great style, using her impressive technical skills to distance Poppy Wildman on the second half of the lap. Wildman was fifteen seconds back in second and Kim Baptista claimed the bronze medal, a further minute behind.
Ben Healy set the early pace in the Juvenile Boy's category, followed closely by Harry Birchill and Tim Shoreman. After two laps Healy was still leading, but only carried a seven second lead over second placed Birchill going into the final lap, with Shoreman in close pursuit as well. Healy and Shoreman were showing signs of fatigue on the final lap whereas Birchill was digging deep and finding some seriously strong reserves. Knocking forty-five seconds off his previous lap time, Birchill descended into the arena - accompanied by fantastic support from his fans in the the crowd - to take the Championship. Healy and Shoreman took silver and bronze respectively.
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