I have never travelled to a National Trophy cyclocross race before without the purpose being to race. This time I had packed my camera, not my bikes.
(This will go some way to explain why – https://annabuick.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/cyprus-sun-cycling-and-stumps-part-1/).
Without the ubiquity of pre-race nerves, Mum and I were so full of cheerful chat on the journey that we may, or may not, have ventured onto the M4 rather than the M3… And without having to think about what to eat and when, I gleefully spotted the fig rolls and made a good indent in the packet pre 9am. Pure gluttony, I know. And without having to be vaguely serious about anything, I could fully appreciate how crap Hampshire’s place names are. I mean, Chineham, come on!
Following a catalogue of faintly ridiculous incidents, we eventually parked up. The rain clouds cleared and the welcome warmth of the winter sun shone down on Southampton for round two of the British National Trophy Series. The quiet carpark belied the increasing activity down at the course. Following heavy rain, the track was potentially a different beast from the previous day, and many riders were keen to get a grasp of the grip before they raced into the first corners.
Time was short though and soon the whistle was heard, signalling the call to gridding for the male veteran racers. As ever, the fields were big and the racing intense. As is his style, Darren Atkins was fastest from the gun, sweeping through the opening bends with his competitors vying for position behind him. Atkins established a not-insignificant lead, but it was, by no means, race over. Crispin Doyle was never so far behind that a mistake or mechanical from Atkins could not be capitalised upon. Indeed, by mid-race point the lead had changed hands, with Doyle pushing the pace at the front and Atkins made to chase. And chase he did. The charge of guard was brief, and, with the bell resonating around the park, Atkins went about sewing up his victory. Ian Taylor, in the yellow of the series leader, was unable to ever move up from third, but neither did he drop down the field. Around the cricket pitch for the final time and, at the close of play, Atkins took the win, and the series lead with it, while Doyle held on to second, and Taylor third.
Steve Davies is a slight man but he has a big engine! He has become a familiar figure at the sharp end of the Grand Veterans category in recent years, and Southampton was no exception. Despite being in the pack after a less-than-perfect start, Davies was not hard to spot in his green leader’s jersey and red and yellow Hargroves shorts as he moved to the front of the race. With Davies’ increasing lead, the excitement came in the form of the battle for second and third. Phil Roach and Mick Davies were almost inseparable for the duration, but Davies had the power to keep his rival at bay as they sprinted up the tarmac finish straight.
Without so much as a sit-down, it was time for the Junior men and the Women to be called to the line. Neither categories have the depth in numbers of the male veteran or senior races, but the talent and racing can be nonetheless impressive.
Of course, having only the soggyness of my sandwich to worry about was a novel treat (if indeed wet bread could ever be classified a treat. heave.), but I did miss the thought of thrashing about in a muddy field for forty minutes. The grass is always greener…
The Junior men took their positions on the start line, professional as ever in their final de-robing and discussion. It was the smallest rider, Tomas Franklin, who got the holeshot, and the tallest, Matthew Worton, that made the first convincing attack. The field quickly strung out as the race threaded its way into the woods. Over the hurdles for the first time, the front runners – Franklin, Worton, Danny Fox and Sean Dunlea – were beginning to distance their chasers, though the gaps were still small. Over the next couple laps, the four-man train at the head of the race pulled clear and seemed to be testing one and other; a dig here, a chase there. If it wasn’t for the fact that Jake Poole (dangling off the back) was unable to bridge, spectators would be forgiven for thinking they were already playing tactics for the sprint. Franklin slipped off the front for a few corners, but didn’t look to have the power to make it stick. Next to try his luck and his legs was Worton, who pulled away from his rivals and turned on the big burners. Behind him, Sean Dunlea, who had thus far kept his cards close to his chest, decided the threat was too much to let go, and went about chasing the lone leader. The gap was closed with relative ease for Dunlea. Having sat second wheel for a short time, Dunlea again decided that the situation was dangerous – this time the pace was potentially not quick enough to prevent the others bridging – so the rangy, orange-clad figure upped the pace and found himself eking out a healthy lead. At the bell, Dunlea began to allow himself to dream. Holding back the emotion and concentrating on keeping everything pointing in the right direction, by the time he turned onto the tarmac everything came bursting out! His first ever National Trophy win, and in emphatic style. It was a pleasure to watch Sean take this win, after years of dedication and near misses. Worton was rewarded for his bold move with second place, twenty-five seconds back. Having not kept the early pace, Poole fought on, the yellow leader’s jersey on his back a reminder of what was at stake and claimed fourth place behind Fox.
Whilst Dunlea soloed to his first National Trophy win, Annie Simpson was putting on an equally convincing display of strength on her way to her first Senior National Trophy win. Simpson was never far from the front, and when others felt their strength sapped by the drying mud, Simpson was able to make the difference. Delia Beddis and Hannah Payton were the early challenge to Simpson, setting a fast pace at the front which saw the field quickly string out. A rider who revels in the technicality of more treacherous terrain, Payton had much preferred the slippery mud of the early morning. That said, she was not giving up the fight and never allowed Simpson to relax. Beddis, still transitioning from Three-Peaks winning form to conventional ‘cross racing, drifted back to the chasers and the fight for third. A new face to British ‘cross, Merce Pujado, was moving clear of Tamina Oliver and Jessica Wilkinson, looking comfortable and tidy on the bike as she established herself behind Simpson and Payton, with Beddis now behind her. Simpson crossed the line seventeen seconds to the good of Payton – who it shouldn’t be forgotten is only 19! – with Pujos coming in for third. Oliver secured fourth, Beddis fifth, and Wilkinson was first Junior in seventh.
Annie was happy to take the win, especially as it gave her the overall series lead, but she would have liked to prove herself against a bigger field including the likes of Isla Rowntree and Adela Carter who are currently both injured. Hopefully as the season progresses the women’s field can recover its numbers and showcase the very best it has to offer.
Where the numbers are most exciting is in the Youth categories. The swathes of tiny people on bikes is a testament to the growth of cycling in the UK, and the fantastic support of riders’ families.
I couldn’t finish my soggy sandwich. It was, quite frankly, revolting. I had another fig roll instead and wandered over to the steep bank where a big-by-British-standards crowd was gathering.
“In a moment you will see Daniel Tulett appear”, said the knowing voice of a spectator, “he really is very good and he normally wins these things”. Quite so. Tulett was the solo victor in the U16 boys race, pulling clear of his rivals on the opening lap and increasing his lead thereafter. Josh Waters, Will Gascoyne and David Barnes formed a chasing group, initially able to hold the wheel of Tulett, but soon it became a battle for second and third. That said, at the chequered flag, a very strong ride for Waters saw him only twenty two seconds down on the victor, while David Barnes was another 27 seconds back in third spot. Having such a dominant rider in a category can quash the competition and dull the racing, but this does not seem the case for the Youth boys; they respect Dan’s talent, but that doesn’t stop them chasing him, or fighting their own battles all the way down the field.
The U16 girls race was also won by a prolific winner. Charlotte Broughton took her second win of the series in dominant fashion, pulling out a twenty-nine second lead over the cross-country MTB expert, Emily Wadsworth. Broughton has a seemingly nonchalant style on the ‘cross bike and I can never tell whether she’s really pushing or on the point of giving up! However, after a year slightly off-the-boil, nonchalant or not, she is well and truly back to winning ways. Behind Wadsworth, there was little to tell between Isabelle Boon and Jessica Roberts. There was only one place left on the podium though, and, try as she might, Roberts didn’t have it in her to hold onto Boon in the final lap.
Craig Rogers and Euan Cameron fought a close battle in the U14 boys race, looking controlled – if not calm – as they battled it out, as hard as anyone, for the win. Rogers eventually took the victory over Cameron, with Ben Tulett not far off the pace in third.
Looking like a proper professional, only smaller, Lucy Horrocks soloed to victory in the U14 girls race, emulating her team mate, Annie Simpson. Behind Horrocks, Poppy Wildman established herself in second position and Ellie Russell – whose teeny frame somehow managed to transport her bike over the hurdles – came in for third.
With four categories racing at once, it can be hard to follow the Youth races. The faster riders in the U16 race soon catch the back of the U14 race, and the fastest U14s get mixed up with the U16s. And then it’s all over rather too quickly! However, it is very much well worth watching. It’s like a scaled down version of the senior races – the youths often race in groups – sometimes tactically, they tackle the same course, they have style (sometimes heartwarmingly comical), and, above all, they race really flipping hard! The future of cyclocross looks small but mighty.
Talking of washing detergent, thank you laundry fairies; top job!
With the serious racing over, there was a short break in proceedings which handed itself nicely to a timely cuppa and a non-soggy sandwich. And a fig roll or two. It was also time to don my rather fetching waterproof trousers and zip up against the chill of the encroaching dusk.
The senior race sped away from the start with its usual frenetic pace; the age-old aim of being first into the first corner. The first corner was more of a slight bend, so the carnage was momentarily delayed. Up into the woods, over the hurdles and across the road, it was the yellow skinsuit of series leader, Paul Oldham, and the green of U23 leader, Adam Martin, who cut the air. Ben Sumner was with them, and then the duo of Steve James and Jody Crawforth. As the field swept round the cricket pitch it became apparent how many good riders were present, and how interesting it would be to see who did what.
Soon it became evident that Oldham was the man with the form. He eased away from his rivals without ever looking like he was really trying to. Sumner was in charge of the chase, with the other top contenders to-ing and fro-ing behind him. Skip half an hour and the same thing could be said (Oldham out front, Sumner alone in second), except fast-forwarding would mean missing the most significant incident of the race. With the gap quickly opening over his chasers, Oldham’s chain got jammed as he ascended the steep bank.
Having lost about forty seconds, Oldham was forced to take his spare bike and re-evaluate his race – “This isn’t the 1st time I’ve had problems and it won’t be the last, the main thing is to not panic and set about rectifying the problem. I was fairly confident I could get back to fight for the podium, but I thought the chances of the win were slim”. The chances of winning indeed looked slim, but a slim chance is a still a chance, and when you have the legs and skill of Paul Oldham such chances are all the more likely. In the ride of the day, Oldham hopped from group to group up to, and past, Sumner and onto the win. It was overwhelmingly dominant.
For Sumner there were disruptions to the plan as well, though his were largely due to how the race formed around him. Having found himself with only Martin and Oldham for company in the lead group, and then a potential sacrificial lamb out front after Oldham’s mechanical, Sumner was “unsure whether to press on or slow up for the chasing group, I decided to seize the rare opportunity of being at the head of a National trophy and push on, but told myself to keep it steady and not get carried away. To be honest I expected to get caught quite quickly.” In only his third year of cyclocross and, by his own admission, with a lot still to learn, Sumner sensibly rode within himself, not trying to hang on to Oldham’s wheel, but instead concentrating on holding of the chasers.
The chasing group was a real threat, with Crawforth, Oli Beckinsale, Steve James, Adam Martin and cyclocross homelander Tom van den Bosch all looking to claim a spot on the podium.
With the race nearing its conclusion, Martin managed to regain his early strength and ride clear to claim third, whilst van den Bosch sprinted clear of Beckingsale and, further back, James was able to pull out a few seconds over Crawforth.
Oldham had amassed a forty-one second lead by the time he crossed the line. Sumner stated his intent, and his talent, with a fine second whilst Martin was third.
With the light fading, no blood left in my trigger finger and the fig roll rations running dangerously low, it was time to head home. It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces and watch some really exciting racing. I still managed to get muddy by lying down on the ground a fair amount, and my result came in the form of some nice photographs and this report. Happy days.
More photographs from Southampton here –
Over and out.