Full waterproofs were required to get from house to car on Friday morning, as we departed Buckinghamshire amid a raging torrent to head to Plymouth for the British National Championships.
With a car full of wellies, mud tyres and GoreTex suits, we had a pleasant surprise when we were greeted with dry roads as we approached Devon. Organiser Martyn Salt had clearly done a mega deal with the rain gods and, as the rain still buckets down here as I write, I wonder whether his powers of negotiation might stretch as far as the home counties. I have few complaints however, as I returned here with exactly the result that I had worked for, a successful defence of my British Cross Country title, taking the tally to four and also a wonderful three consecutive victories.
Martyn not only arranged the weather for us, he also provided us with a very fair race course on which to contest our Championships. Fair in the sense that it did not favour specialists of any single type (which may have been said of the 2006 event and, given conditions, the 2005 race). Instead it mixed a reasonable variety of climbs and drags with some long and varied descents. While the climbs were not of the field breaking type of 2006, they were enough to allow attacks and splits to occur, which could then be consolidated on the descents.
Having not felt much in the way of form this season so far, I had taken the past six weeks since the Champerry World Cup to prepare and focus fully on defending my most coveted crown. Despite the frustration and added nerves that having a less dominant lead into Nationals creates, I must admit that I am at my most driven and hungry when in this state. I certainly needed all the energy and drive I could muster since this period has involved more long hours in pouring rain than I care to remember. I knew that the training load would either bury me or eventually spark a shift in form and, after about the four-week mark, I began to realise that all the pain and suffering was beginning to have a result.
The women's field at Newnham contained all of my anticipated rivals. Amy Hunt is undoubtedly my greatest current British rival. Amy had beaten me with an impressive ride at the National Series event at Margam, and was leading the series. She also displays all the grit and determination that a top rider needs and will therefore always be a difficult one to race against. The other main contender for a top spot was Elizabeth Scalia. Based in Sicilly, Liz is a specialist climber and very strong. After a good ride at Margam, and having also been a past medallist in 2004, she is always a contender. Apart from these two we had Jenn O'Connor along to race the NPS part of this race, but not the Championship (Jenn is from NZ).
The race set off around a start loop before joining the main course. Amy was first off the line but mid way up the start loop climb Liz decided to take over and I made a quick swap from marking Amy to marking Liz. As we went through the arena and out onto the lap I held Liz's wheel and on the next drag of a climb I put in a test attack to see who would come with me. The attack gained a twenty yard gap and this meant that I could go into the fast descent on full gas knowing that those behind me could not simply follow my wheel but would have to ride it as quickly on their own. By the next climb the gap had grown and slowly but surely I was able to stretch it out. With good legs and some hard descending I had established a lead of a minute by the end of the lap. This was exactly what I wanted and from there on I was able to ride my own race. Things continued to go unbelievably smoothly and I enjoyed the whole race with not one mistake or problem. By the final lap I was able to savour the descents, which were so much fun that I could not help but push my limits a little on them.
Eventually it was Jenn that came through in second place in the race and Ruth McGavigan who retained her silver from 2006. Maddie Horton took a surprise bronze with an excellent ride. Liz managed to rip her mech off during my first attack, ending her race and hopes. Meanwhile Amy simply didn't seem to have good form on the day but will, I am sure, be back to challenge me again and again.
Now I hope that I am chosen to represent Great Britain at the World Championship at Fort William. That will be my next big aim. My win this weekend has also put me back into the number one spot in the National Series meaning that the final round in September will be crucial. But before that I am off to contest my first ever World Marathon Championship in Belgium three weeks from now. I am looking forward to it but expect to experience a pretty steep learning curve as I am very much a marathon novice. It'll be interesting!