Photo: JWDT Photography
Swampageddon and bog snorkeling at the 2019 National Downhill Championships
As National Champs approached I was feeling increasingly nervous. There were a lot of people wishing me luck and hoping I retained my title which was lovely but also led to a feeling of pressure I was not used to. I roughly knew who had entered and knew that the chances of retaining the title were very slim! Now don’t get me wrong I always go to a race wanting to win but I also set my goals realistically. So if there are 4 people there who are normally faster than me I might set a goal to beat one of them, improve my time from last year by 10% or hit a particular line/feature that I’ve previously not done. Heading in to national champs I wanted to win but my goal was to place 4th or higher. That would mean beating at least 1 person who is normally faster than me so a pretty tall order but a good goal.
The forecast for the weekend was terrible and at the 2 week mark looked like rain for the 4 days beforehand and all day Saturday and Sunday. By the time Thursday came around the forecast had changed; there had been some rain in the week with heavy rain predicted for Friday but Saturday changed to showers and Sunday to dry with sunny spells… in my experience it’s always wet in the Nog! Many others tell me that the tracks can be dry but I’ve yet to see it myself!!
Driving there on Friday I was pleasantly surprised at how dry the weather was until I was about 10 miles away and the rain started. When I got to 3 miles away the road turned into a river and the rain was so hard I couldn’t see out of my windscreen. Pulling over in a layby until I could see again I was worried about getting my car stuck in the camping field and how wet I was going to get as I put up my tent and walked the track. Oh well I had my waterproofs with me and it looked like I was going to get some use out of them.
The rain magically stopped and I put my tent up in the dry, I caught up with friends and then went to sign on. There were 6 girls racing in the category which was double the number of previous years, awesome!!! As I started up the track I was not surprised to see a large number of people coming down covered in mud where they had done sections of the track on the floor! It looked like Revs was running true to form and I expected a sloppy track walk. I wasn’t disappointed and the track was covered in slop or slippery slate but I made a huge effort to stay off the floor and keep myself clean so that I could at least start the weekend without a coating of mud haha!
There were a few sections of track that I was pretty sure I couldn’t ride. I had only ridden the track once before on a last minute visit a few weeks ago and it had been wet but not this wet. That one run saw me hit a tree and fall off twice and I was fairly certain that in the current conditions it was going to be much worse than that! Team mate Emily arrived and was also feeling a bit wary of the track but after doing her track walk Saturday morning she assured me the track wasn’t as bad as she expected and it looked pretty good. We figured the rain all night had washed some of the mud away…
We had agreed on a late start to let the track dry off a little and let other riders wear some of the mud away so we set off at about 10.45 feeling like we were running a little too late. As we got to the bottom of the track I started to realise we were perhaps a little too early still! Riders were looking very brown and we bumped into one of our friends who exclaimed she couldn’t stay on the bike or even upright off it and was done for the day! I had already accepted that I’d fall off but sitting in the uplift my sense of trepidation increased as more riders discussed how awful the track was. People were changing tyres for mud spikes but although I could see the advantage for the muddy sections the rocky sections would be a nightmare on spikes so I figured my Magic Marys were staying on.
We pulled on to the track for run number 1 expecting carnage. I got to the end of the first section of Ffar side and dreaded dropping into Ginger Bobcat where the mud started. A red flag meant we had to wait and then just as the first 2 riders set off the track got red flagged again leaving me on my own. I finally dropped in and it was every bit as slippery as I expected! I was almost immediately out of control, unable to brake or steer just holding on hoping for the best. I’d sneak the brakes on to slow down and fish tail out of control before letting them off hoping I’d slowed down just enough to make the next corner. One silly off line followed by attempting to brake saw me go down for my first coating of mud.
I came into the section I was most worried about, a very wet, very steep chute made of clay with a drop at the top (on a 90 degree bend) and a sharp right hander at the bottom that my previous experience had taught me fired you off another drop and up into a tree shortly afterwards. Emily was stopped at the top watching but I knew I wouldn’t ride it if I looked so I donned my brave/stupid pants and just went for it. I rolled the drop at zero speed hoping for a slow entry to keep the speed down for the corner at the bottom and hurtled off towards the trees. I made the corner, landed the next drop, fishtailed into the tree and somehow rolled out still upright. Messy but effective!
A few corners later a marshal waved his red flag on a slop filled section that I was sliding through and a look of terror crossed my face accompanied by me shaking my head saying no no no no no… he made it clear I needed to stop so I dutifully applied my brakes and hit the deck. Braking was just not an option in those conditions but at least I avoided the pile up round the corner and the landing was soft.
Run 2 was fairly similar but slightly more tacky in places and run 3 was almost unrecognisable! People were exclaiming how dry the track was but a close up encounter showed me that really the volume of riders had just dragged the slop off the top leaving behind more solid mud. They were right though it was less slippery and the pace on track increased. As the pace increased the crashes decreased but were harder when they did come. Sniper roots crept up out of nowhere and the mud wore away to reveal slate with a nice top coating of clay which was especially terrifying when it appeared the length of that steep tricky chute! Grip came and went, huge holes appeared as did new lines and the track became a whole lot more fun as I got those lines dialled in. I was still out of control for big chunks of the track but there were now more sections where I at least knew the lines well enough to know that I would slide into them most of the time!
As the day drew to a close I had a nice collection of bruises and was feeling a bit battered but overall I had had a great day. The track was tough but I could ride it as long as I didn’t mind the odd crash. I hadn’t managed a single clean run and oddly my best runs were earlier in the day when conditions were the worst but I was feeling happy going into day 2. After a quick track walk we headed for the quarry for the 50:01 jump jam with a bar, food stalls and showing of the new Vision movie. It was packed and the atmosphere was great.
Sunday dawned damp and overcast but we got on track early so we could get 2 practise runs in before racing started. I had a great morning with 1 clean run and 1 less clean run where I misjudged my speed at the bottom and shot off through the tape scattering spectators for the second weekend in a row! Overall I was feeling good going into qualifying. The dreaded beeps signalled the start of qualifying and I set off. I was feeling fast, I cleared the jumps at the start and came flying into a rocky corner out of the woods then bang! Out of nowhere I flew over the bars, commando rolled and bounced before rattling face first down the rocks, owwww. I picked myself up, ran back up for my bike then pedalled round the corner whilst trying to put my googles back in place and pull my sleeve down from where it was currently tucked under my armpit! The crowd all gasped as they realised I had already been on the floor a mere 200m out of the start gate!
I sucked it up and entered ginger bobcat wondering if I’d stay on. I had a wild run but despite a few out of control slides I had a really clean run down the rest of the track. I couldn’t believe how many spectators there were lining the entire track, it was really amazing! I crossed the line shaking my head, sporting beautiful two tone kit where I had remodelled one side with mud. I looked at the screen and was surprised to find I had qualified in 4th and was only 10 seconds off 3rd which I could easily recover if I could stay on my bike! The same was true for lots of other riders and it was going to be a game of risk; push it hard and risk a crash for a fast time or slow it down and potentially go faster without a crash, hmmmmm.
The nerves really kicked in for my race run. I had taped my wrist up after my crash but could feel it and had no idea if I could hold on for my race run. The top 2 riders were well clear of the pack and the battle was on for the other places. I set off into my race run feeling confident about the track but scared of the corner I crashed in. I didn’t know what I had done wrong so other than taking it more slowly I didn’t have a game plan for avoiding the floor. I braked hard into the corner and made it round in one piece. The spectators had largely vanished and the woods were eerily quiet as I made my way down. I reigned in the wildness from qualifying for a smoother and more controlled ride. I had no idea if I had done enough but I had done all I could.
The times flashed up and despite some people moving around I had managed to finish in 4th. I was sad to lose the stripes but really chuffed for Amy who put in an incredible run to take the championship. 4th in the country didn’t sound as good as first but actually it was another really good top 5 result and it’s difficult to not be pleased with it. I had hoped to finish in 4th or higher and managed to do so. I handled the pressure of going into a race as reigning champ knowing I was unlikely to win, I hit all my lines and rode confidently despite the tricky conditions. There were a lot of positives to take from the weekend and sitting nursing my battered body I am really happy with how the weekend went and my result. I’m closing the gap on some of the others and after another rough off season I’m chuffed to be back on pace again.
Women’s racing is going from strength to strength. My times over the last few years have come down at almost every venue and when I look at the field as a whole the pace is so much faster now than it was 4 years ago. The times from half way down the current field would have been winning times a few years ago and the hard work people are putting in is really starting to show. The sport is becoming more professional with almost every rider training, working hard in the gym and working hard to improve. It is still friendly and hasn’t lost the supportive vibe that I’ve always loved, everyone wants to win but everyone is always chuffed for those that do take the win when they don’t manage it themselves. As the competition increases more women are joining in, I can’t wait to see what the field looks like over the next few years!Rebecca Smith, Flow MTB rider