Report by Tom Simpson . . .
The 2016 Varsity mountain bike XC was held on a chilly Sunday in February at Crowthorne Woods in Berkshire. The team, which left Cambridge at 6:00am (already demonstrating their greater commitment over Oxford by waking up an hour earlier), consisted of captain Matt Rodgers, myself, old hand Fin Allen, ‘retired’ 24-hour racer Andrew Clark and fresher Danny Taylor. Reaching Crowthorne two hours later we threw in a practice lap of the course, Danny making good use of his kneepads after snagging a tree; between us, our 780mm bars made us more rad but also more bloody-fingered on the twisty woodland course. We had time for a brief introduction with the team from The Other Place [Oxford] and found that our universities’ engineering prowess had resulted in not one but two home-built bikes being raced.
The nine of us lined up on the start line together after giving the category with which we shared the race a five minute head start. Oxford’s female rider, Tamara Davenne, competed separately in the women’s race, topping the podium. Meanwhile in the men’s Varsity, split seconds after the starting horn, a loud crunching and cursing indicated a bad start for Oxford’s Tom Everitt with a broken chain. The start was fast, but I held second followed by two more Oxfords and the Cambridge team into the first single track section. Unfortunately they soon edged past, but I held the third’s wheel with Matt in close pursuit behind, managing to pull him back and take a chunk of time through the second and third laps. The winding course gave regular sightings of Andy and Fin working their way through the men’s field with which they had made contact soon after the start.
The end of the third lap saw my musical ear-worm change from the already dreadful ‘Happy’ to the even worse ‘How much for that doggy in the window’. Combined with a churning stomach, this took a heavy toll on my average speed and Oxford’s Tim Bevan, who I had naively thought was safely behind, slipped past. At the same time Oxford’s competition for first was proving interesting as lead rider Isaac’s saddle came loose, meaning he was forced to ride large sections of the later laps without sitting down. A surprise slide from Tim bought me a surprise second chance, but by now the red haze was descending.
My fourth and last lap was really unpleasant. Thanks probably to steadily deteriorating bike handling, I was now feeling distinctly unwell, and it was only the sight of Matt racing past on the other side of the tape that motivated me to keep the pedals turning; the other members of the team measured their efforts much more carefully and continued to pull back time right up to the end. I eventually rolled through the finish nine and a half minutes down on Will Wheeler, nearly four minutes slower than my previous lap and followed by Matt in close pursuit. Then came Andy, Fin, Oxford’s Tom – who had managed to run back to the start tent for a quick chain repair – and Danny, who held onto his true mountain biking values by riding the entire race in pads, flat shoes and a rucksack, and who enjoyed his first XC race enough to not even mention never doing one again on the finish line, a result in itself.
Unfortunately, this year Oxford were too strong. In fact, they were so self-confident that they didn’t even bother to bring the trophy with them – a mistake they will regret making next year when we return with a honed XC machine to bring it back.
Photo credit: Andy Rodgers