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Drifting at National Gravel Champs

A national title, a chance to wear the stripey jersey for a year, the accolade that that year you are the best in the country, this is what was at stake today at National Gravel Champs. The event hosted by Kings Cup Gravel for the third year in a row returns to Suffolk, an area packed with fantastic gravel riding. The event and sport seems to be growing at a pace almost as rapid as the speed on course. It's great to see the huge turnout of participants and an expo area packed full of brands including my wheel sponsor Strada.

Gradually I'm regaining my fitness and power after being ill with flu and then covid in July, separate illnesses which took me off the bike for 2.5 weeks. More recently I've had some really big weeks of training, hugely motivated by this final trio of events, Nationals, Euros and Worlds. The flat course and very short duration of around 2 hours wasn't best suited to my strengths but I'd give it my all and have fun doing so.

After watching the women’s race finish in a big bunch sprint and a photo finish for the win between Danni Shrosbree and Xan Crees it was time to get ready. This year was the most competitive turnout to date with many pro cyclists joining the best amateur cyclists around to race for the title. The wide open start line meant nearly all the starters were lined up in one big row. About the only exception was Connor Swift (Ineos Grenadiers) who casually lined up alone on the second row, calm and confident of his abilities to pick his way through the hundreds of riders in front.

Bang goes the start gun and we fly towards the arena narrowing into a funnel just 5 wide, bars pump, elbows rub. I almost get taken down and have a big lean on the rider next to me to keep the bike upright. My chain is jumping a little so I'm having to be careful through the bumpy terrain. We speed into the first trail and the race spreads out, I'm further back than I'd like to be and have to make a big effort to move forwards as we head out onto the wider gravel tracks. I'm in the big lead group of maybe 30 riders, I’m able to move forwards by drifting the bike round the outside of the group on the corners. Using my mountain bike skills and the amazing confidence the Lauf Grit fork gives over the rough loose gravel I can make time up and save energy compared to my competitors who gingerly edge through the corners and rough parts of the track.

First Sam Culverwell, then Joe Griffiths, then myself launch off the front of the race to create a leading trio. Sometimes you have to roll the dice, this race was going to end up in a sprint finish so why not try to shake things up a little. We open a twenty second lead by the end of the first lap but then Connor Swift begins his chase dragging the rest of the second group with him. The race is split into pieces. Eventually we are caught by five to make a lead group of eight with Mason, Blackmore, Couzens, Marx, Swift, Griffiths, Culverwell and myself. The gap opens to the next group behind, seconds become minutes, it obvious the winner is coming from this lead group.

The race might only be a couple of hours which is pretty unusual for a gravel event but the route round Kings Forest is incredibly good fun. I was switching between grimacing at the pace and grinning from ear to ear whilst rallying around the loose corners, sections of deep sand, and rough singletracks. I was on the deeper option of gravel wheels I have available, the Strada Gravel Ultra’s, with Schwalbe G One RS tyres in 40c, it wasn’t the optimal setup for the rougher sections but was ideal for the high speeds of this race.

Everyone in the lead group is working well together, taking their turn on the front to keep a fast pace. After an hour my normalized power is over 350 watts and our average speed is 23 miles per hour. Heading onto the fourth of five laps my chain jumps off the chainring, I waste no time dismounting, putting the chain back on and then jumping back on the bike cyclocross style. When you are at a standstill and the group is moving so fast the gap opens fast, I very quickly lose a minute, it’s game over, I don’t see the front of the race again. I cruise around for what seems like an age until the next group catches me.

About a third of the way through the fourth lap four Mason, Culverwell, Swift and Blackwell are leading with 40 seconds on the chasers. Swift leads across the line to begin the fifth lap with Blackmore on his wheel looking relaxed. Mason and Culverwell are 32 seconds back. At the finish line Blackmore produces an unstoppable sprint to take the win ahead of Swift, Culverwell finishes third.

The pace was so high it would have been incredibly difficult to have stayed in contention for the win or a podium, but it's disappointing not to have had the opportunity to see what was possible. I roll home in eighth which is still a really strong result with the high level of competition. Next year we try for the stripey jersey once again. I’m happy to be feeling strong on the bike again after being so ill a couple of months ago and look forward now till Euros and Worlds in a few weeks time.

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