One of the pinnacles of my MTB calendar is the Big Dog race in Brighton. The atmosphere last year was so friendly where the whole event is organised on a not for profit basis. Driving down with Jon & John from Redhill Cycling Club, we erected the gazebo in a prime location and donned our new club jerseys. Gareth, Keith, Alex Matt & Monica joined us to fly the flag for Redhill.
My personal planning for these events is a detailed affair, where everything is calculated and organised. The anticipated lap times were prepared with suitable hydration and nutrition requiring two very short stops during the six hours of the race. With the ominous weather forecast and the slippery experience at Set2Rise due the wrong tyres, I opted for full traction with my winter Trailraker muddy tyres.
A 200 mass start is always difficult until we get suitably spread out where the jostling soon dies down. Where possible I try to spot the race numbers of other riders to see if they are a direct competitor. At registration I noticed all the 20 solo vet (over 40) riders were numbered from 60 to 79. Glancing round I note a few riders to watch out for.
The course was virtually all in the trees of Stamner Park. Although the woods only measure 1½ miles by ¼ mile, the organisers had cleverly squeezed in a 7 mile loop with nearly 1000 feet of climbing. Most of the course involves weaving between trees, watching for low branches and negotiating the millions of roots. There were a few sections that were smoother and wider where it was possible to grab a gel and overtake other riders.
Towards the end of lap 1 the heavens opened and the anticipated rain descended in abundance. The trees provided some shelter but it wasn’t long before I was soaked through.
Completing the first lap in 52 minutes, I was just 2 minutes behind my schedule. The congestion at the start had lost me some time, so I was quite happy with my progress as I entered the woods again for lap 2. The trails were now really slippery and treacherous. In places there was just no grip in the tyres to get up the hills or to stay on the track with an adverse camber. Pushing on, I got covered in mud from the spray flying up all over the place. On the descents, the wet disc brakes were singing in harmony from the different bikes. We were all in it together gritting our teeth hoping the rain would subside.
Grabbing a gel on one of the wider sections I tried to keep to my plan of 1 gel and 2 shot bloks per lap. With several sections of the woods looking very similar, I found it difficult to remember where to take them in anticipation of the hills.
Sliding in to the Start/Finish area at the end of lap 2 after 53 minutes, I accepted that the weather conditions were slowing me down a bit. A cheer from Anne Dickins on the side lines was a boost. I wasn’t expecting her to be at the race and at this stage I needed all the encouragement I could get. We were 2 hours in with the slippery conditions zapping our energy, yet there were 4 hours left until the finish.
Pushing on into lap 3, I was over taken by Ian Leitch on his 4th lap who ran with his bike up one of the steepest and slipperiest sections. He either had mega traction in his shoes or there’s some local knowledge he kept to himself!
The rain eased off slightly and I managed to complete lap 3 in exactly 1 hour. Swapping over my CamelBak for more hydration, I grab a banana and set off again. This 30 second stop turned out to be my only stop for the whole race.
At this point the sun tried to poke between the clouds. The mud became less slushy and more like a congealable gloop. It now stuck to everything and the bike doubled its weight. Several times the wheels stopped turning due to the volume of sticky mud. Frequent pauses were needed with a stick or fingers to remove great handfuls of the stuff. The mud got everywhere, my drink tasted of mud and my gels were decidedly crunchy. A 6th lap was looking less likely.
Completing lap 4 in 1:13 hours, 4 hours into the race there was only enough time for 1 more muddy lap in the 2 hours remaining. The first half of Lap 5 was even stickier, then it appears to dry out and harden slightly. With the loose mud on the descents, I had about as much traction as someone running down a bob sleigh track in flip flops. Frequently the front wheel was in opposite lock with the rear wheel sliding sideways.
The constant dodging between the trees was draining my concentration and I started to make a few mistakes. Loosing the front wheel in the mud, I took a close look at a bush. My shins were burning from the fall and a quick glance saw that there was more mud than blood. As I composed myself rider 66 passed me, who I later discovered to be Keith Whitten. Clocking him earlier we had overtaken each other several times during the race. He was very good on the single track, but relaxed on the climbs. I was not going to let him beat me.
Jumping back on the bike I complete the section of single track to find Keith on the climb. Determined to pass him I power up the short hill and dive into the final single track section. Using all my concentration to stay upright, I hold the lead into the final straight. A quick glance back informed me that it was rider 66 just behind me where I then stood on the pedals to sprint to the Finish.
Passing the Finish line just a few feet in front of Keith, I claim 6th place after 5:18 hours.
Despite the mud and heavy rain, it was a good day out where I was pleased with my position. Cleaning the bike took at least 2 hours as the mud was stuck to everything.