My focus for a third National title was there each and every day since losing my stripey jersey a year ago. Wearing that jersey meant so much to me and I was absolutely devastated to lose it. The last few weeks I'd complete my workouts while imagining my rivals trying to attack away from me in the race, it gave me an extra few watts to record a PB or energy to complete an extra interval or 2. Training had gone better than I could have hoped, the legs felt strong and did everything I asked. I was ready but then just under 2 weeks before the event a big crash resulted in a sprained and swollen knee. After numerous doctor and physio trips plus a week off the bike the swelling had gone down enough to regain some flexibility in my knee. Once back on the bike the knee felt completely unstable and would buckle under power before beginning to swell up again. It was a tough situation, I'd trained super hard but was now watching my fitness disappearing quickly and knew there was a high possibility I'd not be able to race.
We were making the trip over to the Isle of Man where the champs would take place for a second time with 2 coaching clients and another friend who the Ben Thomas Coaching Club would be supporting during the race. It was a full van with 6 of us and all our equipment. After enduring the super slow ferry we arrived mid afternoon Friday and headed out on course for the only sunny ride of the weekend, summer was about to take a sabbatical! Saturday we had biblical rain and gale force winds hit the island, flights and ferries were cancelled until the evening which left some competitors with a very late journey. Some people even ended up on the Sunday morning 2am ferry that docked at 5am, the race started at 6.30!!
With some good rides Friday and Saturday I'd gained confidence my knee would hold but mentally I was pretty broken. I'd pretty much accepted in the week before I wouldn't be racing but now I needed to turn that focus back on. I was so incredibly motivated to win another year in the champion's jersey but I was super nervous about hurting my knee again. Race day started early, I slept terribly due to nerves, was up for breakfast at 3.30 and on the bike at 5.45 to warm up for the 6.30 start! Warming up on the rollers the rain was torrential, what would it be like up the top of the mountain!!?
Legs felt great early on and I opted to set the pace so I could pick my line through the rocky uphills and downhills and avoid the spray from anyone's rear wheels. This course is incredibly tough, it's proper raw mountain biking with no groomed smooth trails. Bang!! My carbon rear wheel smashes into a huge rock and all the air quickly spurts out of the punctured tyre, a few swear words are muttered. Please don't let a mechanical ruin my race after everything that's aready happened! OK the tech zone is at the bottom of this descent, I'll get a wheel there. Bump bump bump, carbon rim bounces down the rest of the trail with no air in the tyre. Rear wheel quickly changed by Adam and I start the first of many chases. I catch up with the group and settle back in feeling comfortable, there are 4 of us including last year's winner Tom Bell plus Paul Oldham and Nick Corlett.
My nerves about my knee are pretty bad on the descents, it's not hurting until I take a tumble straight down on my left side and onto the knee, yelp, now it hurts! I chase back again but am starting to feel on the backfoot, always chasing. I look down at the champs stripes on my shorts for motivation. Back with the group but I'm burning race winning energy each time I have to catch back up. Another descent and I'm off the bike with 2 more crashes, I'm just not my normal self on the descents as I worry about the knee and the trails are super slick from the persistent heavy rain.
As I begin another chase back to the group I can see the group roughly 30 seconds ahead on the hill above, Nick Corlett takes off his rain jacket, chucks it on the floor and with what looks like a pre planned attack he stamps on the pedals. Tom Bell the only one who can hold his wheel. It was annoying not being there to follow the move, I was already on my limit having been chasing back. I overtook Tom who'd gone over his limit going with Nick and then caught Paul, Nick was out of sight quickly making time on us. It was a brave and courageous move to go so early with a third of the distance remaining but Nick knew what he was doing, being a local he'd ridden this route so many times in training he knew every inch of the course.
Top of the mountain the conditions were horrendous, I'd wrapped up well but was starting to feel the cold. The fast descent off the top from feed zone 3 was chilly but dropped us below the clouds again and out of the wind. I'd opened a small gap on Paul but the elastic wouldn't snap. Back on familiar trails I pushed on thinking maybe I could still catch Nick but by the final feed zone he had several minutes.
My front brake wasn't working any longer presumably having worn completely through the brake pads, as if my nervous descending needed anything else to slow me down! Last downhill, a bigger gap to Paul behind but still not comfortable, no sign of Nick. The last kilometres were pretty scary with one brake especially as the long trail off the mountain had just turned into a raging river!
Even healthy I'm not sure I could have kept up with the flying Manx man Nick Corlett, a brave couragous ride by him to take the title. Silver medal for me, happy with that with all the drama before and during the event, sometimes luck just isn't on your side. Knee swollen and taped but still determined. We did our best. Last year I felt like I lost gold, this year I felt like I won silver.Next year is another opportunity to win back those stripes.
The coaching clients are flying but the conditions are tough, one is forced to pull out of the race with a mechanical, but the other 2 who are doing the longer 100 mile race aren't far off the podium at the 60 mile mark. It was great to support them all today so they could perform at their full potential. After 12 hours both finished on the podium, great work! Fish and chips all round!
A huge thanks to my support team and sponsors. My fiancee Pippa kept me focused the last 2 weeks after injuring my knee. Thanks to her, Adam and Claire for doing the feed zones support for me and the coaching clients in horrendous weather. Without the hard work of these 3 a medal wouldn't have been possible, thank you!