Jody Crawford and New Zealander Rosara Joseph triumphed at the first round of Britain’s new national cross-country series.
Held over a 7km course of tight, dusty singletrack at Sherwood Pines, round one of the British Mountain Bike Series attracted over 600 riders, including several from overseas.
The trail was awash with fast flowing trails and dry loamy berms, but with no real hills to talk of it certainly wasn’t a climber’s course. Instead it favoured stronger riders with a killer sprint.
As the day unfolded, it was soon apparent that many of the races would be fought right down to the wire, providing a day of thrilling action for the spectators crowded into the arena.
Forty-six riders were up for the challenge, including Olympian Oli Beckingsale, local prodigy Dave Fletcher, Jody Crawforth, 2008 series winner Gareth Montgomerie and Ireland’s Robin Seymour.
As the whistle blew, the riders, led by Seymour, hurtled down the opening straight, clouds of dust billowing out behind as they disappeared on the first of a hard-and-fast seven-lap contest.
A tangle of handlebars at the very beginning nearly ended the race for some riders. It left one crumpled on the floor and others looking for new wheels.
At the front, a huge group of 20 riders swooped in formation through the tightly packed trees as the relentless pace pulsated on. Lap after lap, the lead was constantly changing, with rider after rider trying hard to make or break the group.
Beckingsale dug in a few times in the closing laps and the huge group was whittled down to five riders. Despite his efforts he still couldn’t shake Crawforth, Paul Oldham, Adrian Lansley and Fletcher.
He told us later that he knew a win would be nigh on impossible, saying: “I put in a few digs to try to whittle the group down, but realised you can’t get away on a course like this and was wasting my time, so decided to save it for the end.
“I gave it half a lap and split the group, by which time everyone was swinging, but Jody and Fletcher were still on my wheel and both jumped me at the finish.”
Fletcher was playing the waiting game, using his head as well as his legs to try to give him that all important advantage. However, as the closing stages of the race unfolded it was Crawforth who appeared first in the arena and, with a handful of seconds and a furious group sprint behind, cruised to the line for the first win of the season.
Fletcher took second narrowly ahead of Beckingsale and Oldham, while an exhausted Lansley came in seconds later to take fifth.
Crawforth said: “That was a tough race, with so many of us in contention. After the first lap there were about 20 of us battling it out. I felt comfortable out there but went to the front a few times just to keep the pace high.
“It was hard to get away. It was pretty windy out there, so I just sat there. Towards the end I started getting cramp but fortunately it went away and on the last two laps I settled down and felt great.
“It was difficult to keep tabs on how many laps you’d done, but it was a good course, good race and of course I’m happy to win. I’m pleased with my form. I haven’t done any top end training yet so I’m surprised to win, but I’m happy to take it home.”
The elite women’s race had a true international flavour, with New Zealander Rosara Joseph mixing it up with Australian Kate Potter and German Mel Spath alongside homegrown talent including national cross-country champion Jenny Copnall and first year elites Annie Last and Lilly Matthews.
A slight tussle on the second row saw a few riders left behind as the fast train to victory left abruptly without them, headed by World Cup regular Joseph.
While Joseph remained unchallenged, the race behind was a turmoil of chopping and changing as the women fought their way through the course and the backmarkers, hunting for the sweet spot on Joseph’s wheel.
Spath had an off at the feed station, going over the bars as she reached for a bottle. Despite it leaving her angry and well off the pace, she quickly got back to the group, only to find herself taking a wrong turn, followed by Copnall.
Meanwhile, Joseph was narrowing for the finish line with fellow Kiwi Jen O’Connor stuck to her wheel. Joseph smoothly accelerated to take the win, leaving no room for O’Connor to respond.
Seconds later and three riders burst into the arena, each eager to pick up the remaining podium spot. After a quick burst of speed over the remaining 50m it was Mel Spath who outsprinted Potter and Copnall for that honour.
Despite finishing fifth, Copnall was delighted to be the best finishing Brit in a highly competitive field. Annie Last rode a strong race, stepping up from junior ranks to elite racing to take a fine sixth, while team-mates Lilly Matthews and Sharon Laws picked up seventh and eighth respectively.
Rosara said: “That was really exciting. I was really impressed with the quality of the field. On this sort of course and with the quality riders I was up against, the race is so fast and although I tried over the first couple of laps to get away, I couldn’t shake them off my tail.
“I wanted to make this a really good workout. I haven’t done a lot of racing so far this year but I’m looking to do the World Cups, which kick off in a few weeks. I could have just sat in the group but I prefer to work hard.”
Round two heads for a new venue, one that is currently looking for World Cup status, so expect Dalby Forest to provide a real humdinger of a race.
If you want to take part, get your entry in early, as signs are that this series is gonna be a hot ticket of action. Spectators are welcome. For more information, visit www.britishxc.co.uk.