The first round of the National Trophy was at Derby and the drive up there was in driving rain and it looked like typical cyclo cross weather. The conditions though on the course when we arrived there were surprisingly good and fast. There were several ramps and many twists and turns on cambers, so it was quite a technical course but generally I liked what I saw.
There was only one race before ours, so I did not expect any big changes, but by the time our race started, the corners and cambers had become quite treacherous. I had a good start and was with Pete Harris and Kirby Bennett on lap one, but then had a series of spills on the corners and lost contact, even getting caught by other riders, with again spills making me lose some confidence on the twist and turns. I ended up only 5th and left rather deflated.
On reflection I realised that courses have changed quite a lot since the old days, instead of wide open spaces and courses offered more power riding and running, courses are now more technical with twists and turns and cambers and generally very little running. This is something which I will need to take back to my coach to start practising in training.
On 14th October came the West Mids league race at Baggeridge, in awful wet and cold conditions. The conditions on the course were surprisingly fast, despite the rain and again after a fast start I lost contact with the 2 leaders and then ended in a tussle with Glenn Coltman, who unfortunately managed to get away from me when we both tangled with a lapped rider. I ended up 4th and won my over 60s category and beat Pete Harris, so a useful scalp.
Liam Killeen has been really putting me through my paces in training and it has been super motivational that he has been able to come out and train with me several times a week. The training has been a combination of road sessions over the Malvern's, with major efforts of 4- 5 minutes on the climbs, with sustained power efforts over 350 watts and heart rate in the anaerobic zone and then fast and technical cyclo cross sessions, interspersed with intense interval sessions to simulate races. I have also started joining Liam's Thursday late afternoon technical training sessions which he organises for the local youngsters and this has really helped my technical riding.
On 21st October, with no West Mids league race I headed down to Stroud for a Western League event . The conditions were warm and dry compared to the week before and I rode strongly finishing 3rd in the over 50s in almost the same time as the winner and comfortably winning my category. I really felt as if the form was coming.
The next week was the next round of the National Trophy in Irvine Scotland. Mick Shakespeare and I went up the night before the race, in what turned into a nightmare journey, taking over 8 hours with terrible traffic. Mick threw me out to ride the last 10 miles or so in the dark, to loosen up the legs. It certainly helped the legs, but it proved to be quite a scary ride on dark lanes with too many close calls with passing cars!
The next day was cold but beautiful sunshine and the course was super fast close to the beach in Irvine. I felt good despite the long drive and was determined to show my best. As in all National Trophy races the over 60s started a minute behind the over 50s and after a great start, I already had built a good lead over the rest of the field. Threading my way through the tail enders of the over 50s though was a challenge as no one really liked giving way and most were unaware anyway that we were in a different race! I came across a group of 5 and getting passed them proved really difficult, as no one wanted to give way and as a result Robin Delve caught me. As soon as he caught me my rear tubular tyre rolled over on one of the cambers and by the time I had put it back on and gone through the pits for a change I had fallen back to 3rd which is where I finished. I was very disappointed in the result but heartened that the form felt good. I was also rather disappointed that the tyre, that was only fitted 2 weeks previously by a local well known bike shop, had rolled off !
The good thing was though that my form felt good, so when I headed off to Holland on the following Wednesday for the European Championships, my hopes were high. Little did I know at that time, what disaster was to follow, not on the bike but off it!
I was delighted that Mick Shakespeare was again with me to share the driving and to give me his valued support and advice. After the drive to Scotland, the drive to Holland was relatively uneventful, apart from arriving in Folkestone to find that I had some how managed to book the Eurotunnel for the right time, but for the week before! After shelling out a few more pounds we were on our way!
The course in Herzogenbosch was fast and technical, with many twists and turns and several sand runs and steep banks. I liked what I saw, the only thing which prayed on my mind was how the gridding would be done. There were only 25 riders in our race, but with starts so important, I didn't want to be handicapped by a back row gridding. As it happened I never made the start!
On the following morning, after a good meal out the night before and a good night's sleep, I felt excited at the prospects of riding in my first major championship in 34 years. We had been staying at a nice B&B in the town, which had some very steep and narrow stairs up to the kitchen and bedrooms. The night before we had commented that they were not stairs to want to climb after a few beers! That morning though, while I discussed breakfast with our hosts, Mick went to the car to take down some bags. He disappeared from view down the stairs, then suddenly I heard a terrible crash and then silence. I rushed down the stairs to find Mick lying almost upside down, his head in a pool of blood. I immediately knew it was serious and an ambulance was called, which was there in minutes. Mick was conscious but clearly stressed and disorientated. He was saying I had to go and ride the race, but I realised this wasn't the priority. By this time the police had arrived too and a second ambulance and we headed off to the local hospital. After reaching the edge of the town, we pulled over as they had called out an air ambulance with a neuro surgeon on board to assess Mick's requirements. It was serious enough for us then to be diverted to the specialist neuro hospital in Tilburg 30 minutes away.
The last thing on my mind by now was the race, this was serious and my priority was to be close at hand to support Mick and liaise with his family. The Dutch medical care was superb and he was immediately put into intensive care, so they could monitor him, as he had a small brain bleed. As it happens by son Sam is a registrar in neuro surgery, working in Melbourne and he was able to speak to the specialists and help interpret what was being done and why. By the time all the appraisal had been done and his family briefed my race had been and gone. The good thing was Mick was in the best possible hands and his wife and daughters were flying out immediately to be with him.
Once I was sure there was nothing more I could do, I decided to start the long drive home. I was feeling emotionally drained, but decided to make the most of the trip to drop into Mol in Belgium on the way back to do some laps of the world championship course. This proved invaluable as it included some long running stretches in soft sand, so it gave me some pointers for training over the next few weeks.
Mick remained in intensive care for 2 days to make sure the brain bleed did not cause problems but was then released into a normal ward for several days before being allowed home. He is on the road to recovery but it will take several months of convalescence to be fully right again. Thankfully though he had had great care but it meant I had lost my friend and helper at the races for the foreseeable future.
Having not had a race on the Friday , I decided to race at Blackwell in Bromsgrove the day after I got back. I must have been riding on adrenaline, because I rode quite strongly finishing third and beating Kirby. The next week though I suddenly felt very tired and when it came to riding at the next round of the National Trophy in Crawley the following week, I was spent and exhausted. I was with the leaders early on, but felt I had no power and came in 4th. I think the stress over what had happened in Holland had caught up with me.
The following week at Stourport I felt refreshed again and road very strongly. Although I lost touch with the 2 leaders in the over 50s, I road strongly to ride away from 2 other riders on the last lap to finish 3rd and win my category, only though to be told I had been disqualified for allegedly riding through the pits and not changing my bike. Even though I told the commissaire my bike was not ready so couldn't change it he refused to change his mind. Less said the better at this stage, as I am still appealing and questioning the rules, but needless to say it marred what until now had been an enjoyable comeback!
It is now only a week to the big race, my main training is done and all it needs is for me to start getting my mind focused on the matter in hand. I have the next round of the National Trophy in York on Saturday and then I head out to Belgium next week. I will be without Mick but I will be riding for him. I do have a band of about 20 friends and family coming with me, so I will not be alone! I will keep you informed of my progress!