25.01.09 - Finally - A Pode at Nats
Having not raced a XC since Japan in October, race fitness was always going to be an issue. But 'freshness' would hopefully counter that. I was looking forward to the Nationals for many reasons. I was fresh, I like the course, the weather was perfect, and I'd just done some hard training after new years to get the legs going. So I was feeling good.
Race day, as usual, came suddenly. And nerves hit hard. It was double nerves actually. This was my first race of the season. And first race nerves are always big for me - not knowing how I'm really going, not knowing how everyone else is going relatively, and not remembering how to hurt. Secondly, Nationals nerves were there. Being the biggest race of the year, I always feel the pressure of Nationals. Normally too much. But this year the nerves seem to be positive energy. A good start...
Having not raced any Aussie races yet, I had zero points. So I got to start on the second last row. Luckily there was plenty of road to move up from the start. I just had to focus on not being caught in a pile-up, which minimising energy expenditure.
That's actually how it went, so my race started well. I made plenty of dodgy moves to get up to the first half of the field, getting into the top 10 by the first single track. I got held up a bit, but only had to pull up a bit. When we got to the first feed zone and it opened up, did my best to move up and finally get a clear run in the single track. This allowed me to get into a rhythm and I was happy. I felt good, so dropped the group of five guys behind me and chased Chris, who I wasn't suprised was leading.
Come through after the first lap it was Chris off the front, me a minute and a half behind, then the main chase group. Like last year's Nationals, I was alone with a group chasing. But this time I felt good and knew I could hold them off solo. So I kept it going. On lap 2 I was still feeling good, but had a moment of too much thinking and not focussing on riding and slipped up in some sand. It wasn't too bad, but I banged up my knee and elbow and (later realised), stuffed up my bike. This crash also allowed my mate Ben Henderson to catch up. He's just dropped the chase group and jumped across. It was a bit of a blessing though, because I knew we'd work together well. And we did.
For most of the race, Ben and I took turns on the front. It was a good place to be with a good rider, so I kept positive and didn't worry about the result till the last lap. I just wanted to make as much time as possible. I was enjoying the track and the race generally. Racing and having fun can go hand in hand!
Before I knew it the end was approaching. By this time I had to figure out how I'd flick Ben, who was amped, going strong, and technically good. I decided to just step up the pace slightly to test his legs. That got me a bit of a gap on him with 2 laps to go. At worst, this would pick up both our pace and gain us time, rather than attack each other like roadies.
On the main (very) steep pinch on the second-last lap, I went into my top cog for the first time. I then found out the damage my little crash had done - my rear mech was bent in, enough to put it in the spokes and get the chain jammed between the spokes and cassette (all the way around!). It was majorly logged in there, so I had to stop and spend about a minute getting it out. That allowed Ben to catch and pass me, with Dan McConnell approaching below. I finally got it out, ran the rest of the climb, started cramping, then tried to spin the rest of the techo climb into the infamous Hammerhead section. I was lucky my rear mech didn't rip right off, so I was appreciating just being able to finish it off. But I had to get Hendo back and hold Maca off.
I still had plenty of fuel in the tank, but the cramps were kicking in. Being my first XC race in months, my muscles weren't quite conditioned. It's hard to simulate a full XC race in training. So I just spun as much as I could and avoided cramping. Last year I had to stop on the last climb due to cramps, which cost me 4 places. All I wanted to do was avoid that, especially with Maca just behind. But I still tried to make time where I could and catch Hendo. Without being able to open it up on the climbs, I tried to nail all the techo sections, which seemed to be working. By the finish straight I was 5 seconds behind Hendo. So it wasn't quite enough time to get him back. But in the end I was very happy with a podium, my best Nationals result since Juniors. This is a race that's always eluded me, so it was a good day.