Welsh Cyclocross 2018 – Round 8 Pembrey Poppy Cross
With only a few rounds left, it feels as though the Cyclocross season is hotting up and coming to an end at the same time. A couple of cancellations mean that this weekend’s race was the 7th scoring race out of 9 races with your best 6 results to count towards the series.
This weekend we were back to Pembrey Country Park for the Pembrey Poppy Cross. It was Remembrance Sunday so not only was there a minutes silence, but cakes were decorated with poppies and there was even a part of the course that was designed in the shape of a poppy.
As we rode around it our GPS data would trace out a poppy. This was added to on the day with yet more twists and turns to write the number ‘100’ next to it as well as this was the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1.
It almost worked, and provided some tricky, tight twisty turns for us to ride as well.
It was absolutely hammering down with rain here as I loaded the van up in the dark. I did wonder ‘why I was doing it’ as I got soaked, but thought to myself that maybe the weather would put some people off so that points would be easier to come by. A silly thought for a number of reasons:
- Cyclocross racers are a hardy bunch. A little bit (or even a lot) of rain is unlikely to put any of them off. Quite the opposite in fact
- It probably wasn’t raining in South Wales.
- The points aren’t exactly that important. A few extra here and there is unlikely to make any significant difference to my middle of the pack position.
It rained most of the way on my drive to Pembrey, but did brighten up the further south I went. By the time I arrived the sun was shining. I was quite early but was able to sign on straight away, had some time to chill in the van and then got changed and headed out on my cyclocross bike for a few easy laps of the far end of the course.
Despite the fact that we have raced at Pembrey a few times, this was a completely different part of the Country Park, a completely new course and one with a completely different feel. The kids races were taking place on the grassy section near to race HQ. This section consisted of a long straight on the first lap. Slightly uphill to start with and then a fast bumpy downhill straight.
On subsequent laps the course started with the tight bends of the ‘poppy’ and the ‘100’. These weren’t difficult but they were tight, required concentration and were difficult to pass people on. The straight led to a grassy hairpin bend.
It was then a short sprint before we headed up onto a grassy, bumpy bank. Another grassy sprint and a couple of 180º bends before we headed off into the woods. I was able to ride most of the wooded section while the kids races were taking place. It was of course sandy under foot as is to be expected from Pembrey but the course was designed to be very different. It was almost all singletrack for a start. There were some fast straight sections but they were broken up with tricky little bends that forced you to slow down to negotiate them. Some had hidden roots or rocks just to keep you on your toes. Each of these was followed by a sprint along the singletrack to get back up to speed. A couple of the bends had loose sand on them. There was also a large tree trunk lying across the course that forced a dismount to jump over it.
There was a sandy climb up onto the top of a tunnel at one point. I was able to ride this the first time around but once a few people had ridden it the sand became much softer so my rear wheel spun out forcing a dismount. This led to a turn around some trees and then a loose, sandy downhill bend that looped us underneath the course through the tunnel. A few more twists and turns through the trees and then we emerged onto a short sprint over tarmac and grass to round a tree and then head back into the woods. More tight turns and then a short bank to climb with a couple of roots at the top of it. Again, I rode this once on my cyclocross bike but on subsequent attempts decided that a dismount was the safer option. Down through another tunnel which had some loose sand in it and then a few more turns before we headed back towards the start- finish line.
After a few laps on my cyclocross bike I wasn’t sure which bike would be best. I decided, based mainly on my performance last week, to go with the mountain bike. I’d probably decided that before leaving the house really as I seem to do better on it. I’ve never been the best when it comes to bike handling skills, so, to a certain extent the mountain bike helps to negate this failing on my part. In the hands of a more skilled rider then a cyclocross bike would no doubt be faster option. For me, the additional confidence afforded by a mountain bike seems to be the best bet. This is helped by the fact that my mountain bike is lighter, faster and better than my cyclocross bike. So, mountain bike it was once again as we got ready to race.
Will, Rhys and I had a little ride around the Country Park – barely a warm up but it prevented us from getting cold in the chill wind. We did a practise lap once the youth race was finished. This was my first ride around the course on the mountain bike. We then chatted to others as we congregated for the race
We were seeded as usual based on our average scores from races we had completed so far this season. Stafford was called up just before me and took up his place in the last spot on the second row. I therefore started immediately behind him in the third row. Will, who is fairly well placed in the overall standings was in the second row on the other side of the course. Ant was a few places along from me in the third row and there were plenty of other familiar faces around. Just as we were almost ready to go, the officials realised that they had forgotten to call out someone’s name so slotted him into the 2nd row beside Stafford. This meant that it was a bit of a squeeze here and that I had no gaps in front of me. I’d have to be lucky or fairly aggressive to get past Stafford off the start.
The whistle was blown and we were off. I got straight into my pedal and was ready to go. Stafford in front of me missed his though and slipped off. I had nowhere to go. People had closed in on my left and the extra person in front of me meant there was nowhere to go to the right. I had no choice but to stop as Stafford sorted himself or else I would have ridden straight into him. I had to unclip and then reclip in to get going as people streamed past. I got going quicker than Stafford the second time as well and found a way past him. I had now lost lots of places though and had to try to gain some back.
I made up a few on the long straight as I sprinted along it weaving my way in and out of the chaos of riders. I was now on the far right side of the course and regained a couple more places under braking. People then bunched up on the inside as I took the longer line around the outside of the hairpin and regained another pace or two.
I swapped sides to overtake someone else as we sprinted towards the first bumpy grassy bank. Here everyone slowed a little to form up into single file. I thought better of that and rather than slow and follow them into the obvious track through the grass decided to make the most of my mountain bike and ride the inside of the corner over the long, unridden grass. I wasn’t sure how rideable it was but hit it at speed overtaking a few slowing riders to my right as I did. One of these was Ant who jokingly shouted ‘ Mountain Bike Hooligan’ as I overtook him. The alternative line paid off. The wider tyres and better control of my mountain bike coped perfectly with the lumps and bumps and I regained a few more places. I was now getting back up towards the place where I had started.
We now entered the singletrack of the woodlands for the majority of the lap though. I was chomping at the bit to make up more places but those in front of me were obviously racing me so weren’t going to give them up easily and on the singletrack there was just nowhere to pass. We were forced to follow each other in a slightly frustrating manner for the rest of the course as those further up the field were riding away from us. Ant was right behind me for the whole of this lap, and probably the second lap too. I could hear his children shouting ‘Go Dad’ or ‘Go Ant’ as he passed. I’m not sure how many children he has but they seemed to be everywhere. I think that maybe they just knew the course quite well and were moving from section to section to cheer him on. If not then he must have at least 10 children ‘Go Ant’ indeed!
There were a couple of sections to gain a few places on the course so I made up one or two places per lap but much of it was still a fairly frustrating procession through the woods. People seemed really slow through the dismount areas as well but even here there wasn’t enough room to get past. I did pick off one or two here or there and then had Will in my sights ahead of me. We were now catching back markers though. Each time I started to catch him I’d get held up for a while behind a slower rider and he would open out the gap. He’d then get held up himself and I’d close up once again. Eventually I was right on his wheel and had to follow him through much of a lap as there was nowhere to overtake.
I sprinted past him on the short tarmac section at the far end of the course and then got held up once again behind back-markers. Will and I both cleared them together as we finished off the lap. He was still right on my wheel as we entered the poppy. And I mean right on my wheel as we brushed wheels a couple of times. He shouted to say he wasn’t doing it on purpose as he didn’t have the skills to do so, but I’m not sure I believe him! I managed to open out a little bit of a gap on the straight and then gradually pulled away from him over the final couple of laps. There were still plenty of back-markers to contend with but by now they knew they were being lapped and were a little more compliant so it was at least possible to overtake them along the singletrack straights.
The final lap was upon us. I had a little bit of clear space too. Will was now several seconds behind me and not a direct threat and there was no one to chase down in front so I was able to ease up just a little to cross the finish line after yet another fast a frantic race.
There was the usual chat to people afterwards to see how the race went. This takes longer each week as I get to know more people. Stafford came up to apologise for holding me up off the start. I wasn’t expecting an apology as he obviously hadn’t planned to do it, but I’m sure I would have apologised the same if it had been me. It wasn’t a problem anyway as I managed to get past him off the start and as far as the overall standings go then he is probably the person I’m chasing.
Everyone had a story to tell and the lack of overtaking opportunities was a hot topic too. Everyone seemed to enjoy it though and difficult overtaking is just a part of the fun. If all the races were on wide, easy courses then it wouldn’t be such a challenge. It’s the same for everyone as well, so although the leaders might have had a clearer run it’s usually a pretty similar scenario between yourself and your closest rivals.
As usual the organisation was top notch, the course was suitably challenging, the racing was exciting and the rain held off too. What more could we want? How about timely publishing of the results and a top 10 placing for me? OK, consider it done! The results were published online later that evening and for the second week in a row I had a top 10 finish. Only just as I was 10th but I’m pleased with that, especially when I consider the poor start that I had.
There are only 2 scoring races left, so only a couple of opportunities to gain some final points in the series. I’m not sure if I can make the last race yet so there aren’t many chances left for me.
There’s still a lot to play for though and positions in the standings will continue to change as people complete the last few races. Having completed all 7 of the races so far my overall score is somewhat inflated in comparison to those that have done fewer races, so my position will only drop as they complete their full complement of 6 races. I’ve been improving throughout the season though so hope to gain a few more points if I can compete in the final 2 races.