It's been a funny couple of weeks since World Marathon Champs. A top 50 performance there might have been really pleasing several years ago but after finishing 27th in 2019 and 7th in 2020, and also knowing what great shape I was in I felt a bit flat emotionally after this year’s race. I was sure that on a better suited course I could have done really well. It also felt frustrating that I didn’t have any more mountain bike races left this season to use the fitness built from all that hard training. National Gravel Champs gave me an opportunity to finish the season on a high.
Nationals would take place at Kings Gravel Cup in the flatlands of Suffolk. I assumed the flat fast gravel racing of world’s a few weeks ago would have been good prep, but on arriving at the venue and on pre riding I was pleasantly surprised to see a really interesting course. A 15-kilometre lap with constant rolling hills and a mixture of wide gravel tracks, narrow double tracks and tight twisty singletrack. With conditions so dry after this summer’s heatwave the tracks were loose and dusty, this meant plenty of two-wheel drifting fun. Already by the time I arrived at 9am the arena was buzzing with people watching the ladies race. There were loads of trade stands full of bike bling to dribble over, the smell of yummy food wafting through the air and an eager commentator keeping everyone updated with all the racing action.
The start line was a pretty crazy view, it was maybe 50 people wide! Everyone grasping their dropped handlebars ready to charge for a much narrower gap through the metal railings several hundred metres in front where we’d filter through the arena and then basically straight into the first section of singletrack. Make a good start and you are laughing, but also gasping for air after a maximal one-minute effort! Make a bad start and you’ll be going elbow to elbow into the trails or maybe just stopped in a queue of congestion!
The gun blasts and everyone charges, I don’t make the best start but slot into the top 10 as we shoot through the arena and then head towards the trail. I manage to put in a few extra pedal strokes to jump up a few more places. We twist through the trail before taking a sharp left-hand corner back onto the gravel and it’s a full gas acceleration back up to speed. 1000 watts stretches the chain, please don’t break!
The pace is high but actually I’m able to recover as a lead group forms during the opening sectors of gravel. This is good news. I’m here, feeling good and having fun. One rider makes an attack off the front, no one bothers to follow, we let him go without chasing. I’m unaware but he’s a danger for the win. From here on the four mountain bikers who’ve made the lead group spend a lot of time setting the pace on the front of the group. The plan is to keep the lone leader in sight but let him burn his matches and then bring him back later in the race. We call for support from the rest of the group but very few are happy to contribute, either unable to assist or happy to risk the race win and save their matches for a possible sprint.
Lap five of seven and the race finally comes back together. There is now around 15 in the lead group as we charge round the kilometres. About the same time, we come across a horse and rider crossing the race track, about five of the race group make it through but then the horse rears up on its back legs and turns onto the race track. The rest of the group skid and take evasive action. A split happens, this is the one point where I really have to work hard to make it back to the leaders.
The mountain bikers have the power to rip the race apart and take on the pro road cyclists in the group. We can beat them if we work as a team. I attempt to get all four of us working together to break the lead group apart but this never comes to anything. The course is hard enough to put riders under pressure but not decisive enough to allow one or even two people to break away on their own. On a hillier course it would have been a different race.
Towards the end of the lap there’s two small climbs which are linked and followed by some more technical sections, on a few laps I put the hurt on everyone through here just to see what would happen. Elsewhere on the lap I’m also punching extra hard out of the corners to make everyone work. I’m still feeling good and having fun.
There were a few more attacks but nothing really stuck and coming onto the last lap everyone remaining in the group knew this was going to be a sprint finish. The pace was pretty relaxed and I wondered if someone would take the risk of launching one last move off the front but quickly the arena approached. Going into the right-hand corner before the final piece of singletrack into the area I’m leading but several riders cut tight across the moorland to move in front. I’m fourth wheel as we fly through the trails and then out into the bright open grass arena. We turn right, be careful not to overcook the speed so you stay clear of the fencepost, then the track widens as we enter the metal railings through the arena. A long-left turn sweeps us around to face the finish arch, it’s not a straight sprint and there are limited metres from the corner to the line.
We open up the sprint, lay down the watts, fly towards the line. First place is taken by Jacob Vaughan of Saint Piran, he has a big kick from his track racing. Second place James Phillips narrowly stays ahead of me in third, I have good momentum heading to the line but run out metres to move into the silver position.
What a fantastic couple of hours racing, one of my favourite races from the year. The organisation, course and atmosphere were all brilliant. Third place at Gravel National Championships. What a way to finish the season.
It would have been fun to have followed this with Gravel World Championships in Italy, pulling on the GB colours once again to race the inaugural Gravel Worlds would have been special. The high travel costs which have limited my race season all year still exist as a major obstacle. Instead, I’m excited to spend some extra time with the family and make the most of these final good days of weather before winter arrives to do some monster rides I’ve been putting off all season. See you on the trails!