The Elite categories were dominated by international riders, but the impending Commonwealth Games added real fuel to the fire, with hopefuls stepping up their game and producing impressive results and exciting racing.
The Elite Women's race comprised twenty six riders, two National Champions and a tense mixture of excitement, nerves and anticipation. After a commanding victory at the final round of last year's series, Githa Michiels, in the colours of the Belgian National Champion, was the favourite to win. However, a missed pedal at the start and a highly competitive field left her with some work to do in the opening lap. Beth Crumpton was the one to take the race on, making Michiels chase, until they came through the start/finish for the first time together. Thereafter, as she settled into her rhythm, Michiels' class began to really show and she pulled clear of the domestic riders and was soon out of sight. Behind, the Scots were massing. Jessie Roberts, Lee Craigie and Kerry MacPhee - all back on British turf following various training camps in Spain - were all in, and flat out. Tracy Moseley was also up in the mix - looking especially speedy through the BMX track - and a little behind her was Maxine Filby, Maddie Horton and Mel Alexander. The stage was set. Crumpton's fast start took its toll a little as the race unfolded and it was MacPhee who took over the second spot with Craigie and Roberts wheel to wheel in third and fourth at the half way point. As a consistent Craigie, who says she's not yet really feeling the benefits of her time in Spain (just wait until she does!) and a slower starting Alexander gradually progressed through the field, untimely punctures for MacPhee and Crumpton dropped them backwards. The fight for a podium place was race-long and hard-fought. After five laps Michiels was the convincing winner, Craigie second, Roberts third and MacPhee fourth, the latter three desperately battling the clock to try and finish within 110% of the winner's time and gain Commonwealth qualification criteria for Scotland. The effort etched on their faces was both painful and inspirational to watch! Alexander took fifth place and the final step on the podium. It was a highly impressive race and bodes well for the season ahead, as the quality, as well as the numbers, of women's racing reaches new highs.
Onto the Elite Men's race and one of the best fields the domestic cross-country scene has witnessed. On the front row of the grid alone there were four nationalities, three National Champions and two Under 23s, but there would be only one winner! The start was super fast, and the pace never really slowed. Jonas De Backer and Michiel van der Heijden flanked the front row and, with their wheels just inching ahead, led around the left turn and up the first climb. However, some magical manoeuvring saw Gareth Montgomerie move up from the third row to lead the field around the grassy embankment above the arena and down towards the woods. As the race exited the woods and wound up towards the feed zone, Paul Oldham was at the head of affairs. Speaking to Oldham on Saturday, he said that he had significantly changed the way he trained over the winter, and that he was unsure of how well things would have worked. Evidently very well, as it was turning out! On Oldham's wheel were two Belgians - Robby De Bock and De Backer - plus van der Heijden, Matthias Wengelin, the Swedish National Champion, and Kenta Gallagher. Grant Ferguson suffered a crash and puncture on the opening lap and was unfortunately out of the race before it really got going. However, it did look to be shaping up into an exciting race. Onto the second lap and as the group climbed out of the first section of woodland and onto the open section of the course De Backer deliberately pushed the pace at the front and splinters began to appear. The Dutch Champion, van der Heijden, was the only one who could go with the Belgian, and the two committed to the attack and pulled away. Behind them Oldham and De Bock formed the chase. These top four didn't change, riding both together and against each other as the raced over the seven laps. Behind them the top ten gradually settled, if such a thing can be said of a flat-out race! Wengelin had a slow second lap which dropped him down the ranks, whilst Ruben Scheire and Steve James moved up. Onto the final two laps and van der Heijden and De Backer were knocking seven bells out of each other! Having looked equally matched for most of the race, the cracks now began to show. van der Heijden was quicker through the woods but De Backer closed the gap on the climb to the feed zone; onto the last lap and again van der Heijden attacks over the top of the first hill but De Backer could close the gap once more; up to the feed zone for the final time and this time the elastic had snapped - the Dutchman had pulled out nearly twenty seconds heading into the final half lap. It was enough to take a well-deserved and proud victory. De Backer had to settle for second. The Belgian said, "No I'm not happy, I lost", but it was with a wry smile, knowing that conceding victory to van der Heijden is no great shame. In the battle for third, it came down to gears. A shift down the block for De Bock whilst Oldham shifted up created a small gap which De Bock ceased. In 'now or never' style, the Belgian rode full gas to the finish and to third spot. Oldham took fourth, a very impressive display of form amongst international competition, and Wengelin rounded out the podium in fifth, his back just about still in one piece despite riding a full suspension bike! It was a real treat to watch such high octane racing on British soil, and with captivated crowds and inspired young riders looking on in awe, hopefully we can see more of the same as the year goes on.
The Junior Men's race was equally as exciting, and the Junior Women
's race no less impressive.
Fresh from her fifth place at the BMC Racing Cup in Switzerland, Isla Short rode an outstanding race to take the win over four minutes clear of her nearest rival. In doing so, she clocked a quicker opening lap than any of the Elite ladies, and was sitting in fourth position in the Elite field when she finished her three laps. Amira Mellor led a whole host of talented first year Juniors, finishing in second position, and Evie Richards wasn't far behind in third. The Junior Women's field swelled to fourteen riders for round one and looks set to provide some interesting battles this season.
The Junior Men's race was won in completely different fashion, with Dylan Kerfoot-Robson taking the victory by a mere second from Mark McGuire. In third place was Thomas Craig. These three riders had been locked together for three out of their four laps, each riding on the rivet and trying to ascertain how on earth they could break each other, and when. Kerfoot-Robson was the aggressor, testing the legs of the others and finally snapping Craig who very humbly admitted that his mechanical was in addition to, rather than the sole cause of, his time loss on the last lap. McGuire was able to close the gaps - although he says he couldn't do much more - and so it came down to a sprint between four exhausted legs! Kerfoot-Robson led it out and eked out a small advantage, but he had to kick again to stop McGuire coming round him. Thank you to the boys and their coach, Simon Watts, for the insight into the race; their legs did the talking during the race but it was also great to hear them speak so professionally afterwards.
Emily Wadsworth moved up from the Juvenile category and straight back to winning ways in the Youth Girls competition. Wadsworth led through the start/finish after one lap but she had Hannah English for company and they only had a slender two second advantage over third placed Ella Connelly who in turn had Sophie Thackray four seconds behind her. The second and final lap was where the difference was made: Wadsworth riding away from her rivals to win by twenty nine seconds over Connelly, with English just managing to hold off Thrackray for third.
Daniel Tulett was once again dominant in the Youth Boys race, riding off the front from lap one and establishing an insurmountable lead. William Gasgogne rode a fast final lap but the damage was already done. He was safe in second spot, meanwhile the race for third, and a spot on the podium, was battled all the way to the line. Chris Rothwell and Matthew Fratesi were just a second apart after one lap but after lap two the gap had increased to eleven seconds and Fratesi now had a small lead over fourth placed Rothwell. However, the two riders swapped lap times on the final lap which meant that there was again just one second in it at the finish, Rothwell fighting back to take third.
Both the Juvenile victors won in commanding fashion. Megan James and Harry Birchill were both well over a minute clear of second place, posting lap times that would have challenged riders several years older than them. Kim Baptista and Lucy Horrocks rounded out the podium for the girls, and Sam Culverwell pulled clear of Craig Rogers in the boys' race to finish second and third respectively.
In the Expert Women's category (with Masters now included), it was a three-way battle at the head of the race, with Hollie Bettles, Vanessa Holmes and Mel Paddington pushing each other all the way. Bettles established an early lead but after a fast first lap, her lap times began to drop and she had to dig desperately deep to hold off Holmes at the finish. After four laps Bettles won by three seconds from Holmes, with Paddington a further six seconds back. I think that was the longest and most painful finish straight those girls have ever raced!
There was a changing of the guard in the Expert Men's race as a number of last year's top competitors moved up into the Elite ranks. The race was led from lap one by Phillip Pearce. He took the win by over a minute from Joe Griffiths who go the better of his fairly evenly matched competitor, Nicholas Corlett.
The Sport race - held on Saturday - was dominated by the Army, though thankfully not through any kind of force other than their legs. Ryan Perry took the win from his team mate James Spilsbury. Max Suttie was the fan's favourite, coming up the finish straight to enthusiastic applause on his way to third. Barry McGuire and Haley Burden were winners in the Open race, and Chris Parker won the Fun race.
The Master Men treated us to another sprint finish, with Robert Purcell and Matt Barrett unable to shake each other's company before the finish. Barrett had the early advantage with a storming first lap, but his lead was steadily chipped away at by Purcell who had just a tiny bit more left in the tank at the end, and took the victory. Paul Lloyd took third place, thirty seconds adrift.
Despite years of experience, our Veteran racers couldn't escape a sprint finish either; both the Women's and Men's Veteran races, and the Grand Veteran Male race, were won by less than a bike's length.
A speedy second lap saw Clare Leaver back in contention for the win, having closed the gap to Alison Holmes and, in doing so, pulled clear of Helen Macgregor. Leaver was able to inch ahead in the closing metres to take the win. Holmes took second and Macgregor third, a further minute back.
For the Veteran Men the leaders were together for the duration; just a second or two here and there to separate them all race. After five laps it was Marc Chamberlain who was pipped to the post by Ian Taylor. Crispin Doyle was able to shake off the shadow of Paul Hopkins to finish third.
Having all set off from gun together, the Grand Veteran Women all mixed it up with the Veteran Women. Elizabeth Clayton was the run away winner, looking very strong throughout and getting a few begrudgingly impressed looks from the Expert Women she passed! In second place was Penny Allan and in third Sara Flatt.
The Grand Veteran Men's race followed the format set so many times before them and was won by a single second, with third place over a minute back. Mark Chadbourne was the victor on this occasion, out-sprinting Peter Turnball. Nigel Brown was third.
No sprint finish for the Super Veterans. It was instead a convincing win for Ian Petherbridge who amassed a three minute and twenty four second lead over Lynn Lines. Victor Barnett took the final spot on the podium.
What a start to the season! Codham made a fantastic début, providing furiously fast racing and some of the most exciting competition to grace the Series for some time. Onwards and westwards to Cornwall for Round Two...