I came to Ruta Paterna to win my first UCI World Marathon Series round but this is mountain biking, anything can happen. Within the first 15km I suffered 2 mechanical issues, I could have given up and not finished the race or left Spain disappointed. Instead I leave Spain satisfied and motivated having recovered to still finish 10th, not an easy achievement in a race of this level.
This race would be my first in the British Champions colours, thanks to Kalas Sportswear for the stripes. After my result at World Champs and some good training at home since then I was excited to see what was possible here in southern Spain.
Ruta Paterna was a new event for me, I race a lot of events but a certain uncertainty and unease exists when you are travelling somewhere unfamiliar. From Heathrow London I flew to Faro Portugal and drove over the border to Paterna del Campo in Spain. It would have been easier to travel to Seville Spain which is closer to the race and avoided the car hire border crossing fees but there were no flights from Seville to Nice France on Monday which is where we're off too next! Such a jet set lifestyle! Saturday we had time to practise some of the race track, the total route covered 82km and 1600m's climbing. We rode about 35km of the route on Saturday, riding the start and final kilometres gave us a good feel for the track and knowledge of when to push the pace to use up the final bit of energy in the push for the finish line. The course included a lot of gravel tracks and a few rocky bits of trails, nothing super technical. It would be a fast and tactical race. The finishing positions would be decided on the final climb into town with an average gradient of over 15%, a punishing final effort.
Conditions were super dusty, there had been some huge fires in the forests we would be racing through and the temperatures were expected to be over 30 centigrade on race day. My plan was to race with a hydration pack, I’ve not used one for years but without any support and in these temperatures it was critical to get nutrition and hydration right.
At 9am Sunday morning this sleepy hill top town had a carnival type atmosphere, streets were lined with crowds as over a thousand participants lined up waiting for the start gun. Entrants were mostly Spanish, with a few Portuguese, plus 2 Brits! It was great lining up on the start line front row in the new British Champs jersey, a feeling I'd missed the last couple of years. I had number board 2 but rider 1 was not starting as he was ill. The opportunity was there to win and that was the goal.
Ribbon cut, dignitaries photographed, tension rising, lead motorbikes engines revving.... bang goes the start gun... the race flies into action. We safely weave through town along the cobbles avoiding stray dogs and head out of town on a 5km tarmac descent before turning offroad. The pace is high, everyone keen to stay close to the front as groups develop. Dust is everywhere, even in the top 10 you can barely see the rider in front of you through the dust clouds. I feel comfortable and can easily move around in the front group safely.
Dam, puncture! Without clear sight I hit a big rock only 10kms in. A hissing sound from my front wheel, the spray of sealant, a swear word or 2. I slow to a crawl hoping the sealant would do its job and fill the hole. Goodbye leaders. Groups are tearing past me. The tyre seals but I have probably 10 psi left, I see the tech zone ahead and nurse the bike towards the neutral support track pump.
Back up to speed... maybe I can catch up. I make quick progress on these 200 to 300m climbs passing groups with ease. I catch one big group just as a load of deer run out in front of us, riders skid and swerve, 1 hits the floor taking out another, I take a diversion but stay up right. I'm ok but the bike’s not, the front hub is now making an awful noise and feels like there’s a lot of resistance. I'm pretty sure a bearing must have collapsed. I stop and check the wheel, there's no side to side play but it sounds awful. I ride on nervously hoping it won’t buckle on a descent.
Regaining confidence, I power up these climbs sparing no time to follow groups, instead I speed right passed in my pursuit of the front of the race. Nearing 50km in I try to ask what position I'm in, it takes a few attempts but I'm told 8th place!! 2 riders are just ahead and 1 more just ahead of them, that would be 5th place! I'm flying! I catch the 2 ahead, it takes a bit more effort to drop them now the climbs are shortening. I am beginning to labour a little now, it’s harder to make progress.
The guy ahead is strong, it takes me until 10km to go to catch him. Once caught we work together over the final flat run towards town, I'm keen to make up even more places. We start catching the people racing the shorter distance so it's more difficult to see who we are chasing ahead. We reach the base of the final 15% slope, a sea of spectators line the route, some more relaxed participants stop at the beer stand at the base of the climb. My legs are pretty spent now, the climb just shouts death after 80km. I fight the pain for a while but cannot stay with this other racer, my legs crack. The crowds cheer which gives the motivation needed to keep pushing the pedals round to reach the top. Over the flat and onto the cobbles into the final line. The carnival atmosphere is consuming, it's one big party, time to find a recovery drink and join the fun.
The UCI official says I'm 10th! A translation error earlier must have given me a different number. I'd spent the day riding a solo time trial, not ideal here as its group racing from start to finish. No win, no podium but complete satisfaction with the recovery and race result after the early issues which could have quite easily been racing ending when travelling with no support.
My buddy Carl rocked up not long after, his first international MTB race finished 54th after starting with race board 740! A great start to the first of 3 races in 8 days. Thanks Ruta Paterna for a great weekend, next year I hope to be back to fight for the win.