Sherwood Pines greeted us with warm weather this year, but initial analysis of the course was almost as cold as last year's snow.
The 5km track twisted tightly through the trees with little undulation or technicality. Many of the top elite racers spent Saturday evening trying in vain to determine what would split the race and where they might be able to put the power down and attack. Of course, there is always speculation and it is often the case that a course races better than it rides. Indeed, many of the Sport, Open and Fun competitors wore broad grins and chatted happily about the track as they relaxed in the sunshine, post-race.
As Saturday's racing drew to a close the atmosphere relaxed and the smell of BBQ smoke drifted across the campsite. Any lingering embers were comprehensively doused by a night heavy with rain, so that by morning the air was fresh even if those riders staying in tents were less so...
Githa Michiels returned to the UK with a string of impressive results to her name already this season (including 5th at the European Championships), and having won at the British National Series twice before she was a big favourite to take another victory. Potentially the biggest threat to the Belgian Champion was a rider whose form we knew very little of. Annie Last has been the leading light in British Elite women's racing over the past years, but a fractured vertebrae early last year has seen her out of competition and flying under the radar. What we did know was that Annie has a place at the Commonwealth Games and must therefore be returning to fitness.
As the gun went, a fast and fiercely fought race sped onto the start loop and into the forest. It wasn't a perfect start from Michiels, who slipped a pedal, but as the field hit the singletrack she was in third position and knew where she could make the move to get her to the front of the race, where she planned to be. Last, with a year away from racing, was gridded according to her surname, but as the race filed back into the arena for the first time, she had joined Michiels, Beth Crumpton - who led off the start - and Alice Barnes at the sharp end of the race. Michiels knew that if she could enter the north shore section first, the others would have to stall slightly behind her, and then she could create a small gap and try to use her power around the open grass arena to begin to build a lead. Crumpton was not about to let the wheel go, though. As they came flying through the start/finish, Michiels had only a one second advantage over Crumpton, and behind them Barnes and Last were in hot pursuit. Lee Craigie, Jessie Roberts, Mel Alexander, Maddie Horton and Nicky Healy were all through less than a minute after. The race looked to have hit full gas already, but there was still a long way to go.
Michiels was where she wanted to be and could now ride her own tempo. Despite not being a fan of this type of course, the Belgian showed her class and began pulling away from the 'Team England' trio. Last, Crumpton and Barnes were locked together, neither one looking to have the measure of her Commonwealth team mates until lap four when Last clipped off the front of the group and went on a solo mission to chase down the leader. It was a valiant attempt, with the gap to Michiels dropping significantly on the fifth lap. Whilst Last was in full flow, Michiels admits that she had 'fallen asleep' a little as she made her way through the back markers. With Last in sight she soon woke up to the danger and pressed on once again to take a fifty four second victory at the end of 6 laps. Last was very happy to be back racing, especially with such success, and took great courage from a 'happy' back. Crumpton and Barnes - both living, training and racing together on the GB academy - looked to have a sprint on their hands, but Barned was just able to out accelerate Crumpton through the final bends and safely tie up third position. Crumpton was pleased to take fourth after a string of crashes and misfortune saw her form take a tumble over the last month. Fifth place went to Nicki Healy who surprised us with a very strong performance in her first year as an elite rider, having moved up from the Expert category. She looked absolutely delighted as she crossed the line!
Onto the Elite Men's race and the fast, flat and largely singletrack course dictated the nature of the racing, producing a highly tactical and closely grouped race. Jason Boutell led the opening two laps, the top thirty or so riders wheel to wheel behind him and revealing no clue as to what would happen next. Belgian riders Jonas De Backer and Robby De Bock were keeping a close eye on the front of the race, and having finished second and third at Round One in Braintree, the rest of the field were keeping close tabs on them too. Grant Ferguson was another rider never far from the front. Along with Steve James and Kenta Gallagher, they looked to be likely candidates to take the race on. Of course, you can never discount Liam Killeen to come strong in the latter half of a race, even if no one was at all sure what kind of form he had after a long time away from racing following his ankle injury at the London Olympic Games. Like Annie Last, we knew so much, yet so little, about him.
As the pace began to split the field, it was De Backer, Ferguson and De Bock always on the right side of any emerging gaps. Didier Bats was caught out a couple of times but was strong enough to pace himself back onto the right wheels, while Isaac Pucci was trying to push the pace when the others started looking to each other to work at the front. There was a lot of looking over shoulders, soft pedalling and then little digs. No one was really showing their cards, but at two laps to go, it was Ferguson and De Backer who looked least tested and tired.
Alas, with a lap and a half to go, Ferguson hit the front as the leading group entered a section of particularly tight singletrack and managed to create himself a small advantage. With De Backer caught in fifth position, taking a moment to rest and compose before the final lap, Ferguson knew this was the time to fully commit. It was the race-winning move. Once clear of the tight corners De Backer could launch his chase, but it wasn't to be fruitful. Ferguson was lucky with back markers, but he was also in fine form, eventually taking the win by forty seconds. De Backer led home the young Belgian contingent in second place, followed by U23 Didier Bats who just got the better of De Bock. After a slow start, struggling to hold the pace and not finding his rhythm, Ian Field began making progress in the closing laps, and with the second fastest last lap, overcame Pucci to take the final step on the podium.
With various pre-Commonwealth Games training camps and mid-season training blocks coming to an end with the race at Sherwood there were some heavy legs and tired heads. However, that didn't dull the racing. The twists and turns of Sherwood made the story of the Elite races interesting and unpredictable, and it certainly kept the tech zone staff on their toes...
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