It’s 3am on race day and we could quite easily be in a war zone. The Andorrans are celebrating the summer solstice by letting off fireworks right outside our bedroom window and they’ve been at it for over 6 hours now. They don’t sound like traditional fireworks, it’s a sound more akin to gunfire, something Royal Navy and Royal Marines team rider Uncle Albert confirms the next day. Revolution Bike Park Racing team mate Binnsy has somehow managed to get to sleep and is now exacting 3 years’ worth of revenge on me by snoring and every car that passes over the raised manhole circa 12 feet from my pillow is like a bullet through the brain. They say it’s good to scare yourself every so often and I’m bricking it. Really bricking it. I’ve not felt like this since last year’s Masters Worlds in Val Di Sole. It’s been a torrid few days, but before we get into that, I’d better explain a bit about Masters Worlds…
Each year the UCI organise a World Championships for each cycling discipline from road through to track to BMX to trials to XC and of course DH (or DHI as they like to refer to it. The I stands for International I believe) and they have a Male and Female World Champion in every 5-year age bracket 30-34 etc. They can’t get all the categories done in one weekend though as there’d just be too many riders on the hill so they split it into 2 events. Later this year the Elites and Juniors will race out in Cairns, but either Cairns didn’t bid for this event or someone decided it might be a bit far to travel, so we’re in Andorra the week before the World Cup.
After a 2:30am alarm call we arrive into Vallnord on Wednesday lunchtime. Truth be told I don’t really know if I’m coming or going. I’m here off the back of a stag weekend in Barcelona and then I’ve been back to the UK for a few hours to do some baby related stuff (MrsMakingUpTheNumbers starts her maternity leave on Thursday and true to form, I won’t be there for yet another major life event) before flying back to Barcelona again. It’s left me feeling like crap and although I’m pretty convinced it’s just a mild case of disco flu, a quick google of my symptoms brings up sinus infection so I march into a pharmacy and hand the lady my phone. She disappears into the back, returning with some pills. “For you?” she says. “Yes, sorry, oui, pardon, si” I respond (even now I’m unsure if the local language is French, Spanish or Catalan but they seem to understand everything.) “OK” she says, somewhat reassured by my size. Pointing to the evening pills “this one, no drive”. The other ones must be fine to drive/ride on though so that’s OK.
There are 40 odd Brits entered in total and a big group of us track walk in the rain on Wednesday afternoon. There’s a lot to take in. It’s one of the longest tracks on the World Cup circuit and a tremendous storm on Tuesday has washed away the steep bottom section so they’re routing us around that; which is a shame as this detour adds another 20-25 seconds on to the track which is all I need really.
Binnsy raced Masters Worlds here a couple of years ago and he’s keen to get a good result so we’re on it as soon as the track opens on Thursday morning. By the end of our second run he’s hit all the jumps whilst I’m still trying to work out when I can have another one of my donkey pills. The attrition rate is huge and by lunch time we’re already 3 men down. Jason Holland’s broken his collarbone; Steve Felstead’s done his ribs; Steve Cousins’ has done his shoulder and to add insult to injury something has bitten his hand and he’s hospitalised when red lines start appearing up his arm. Uncle Albert doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself much. He’s hit a tree so hard he’s snapped his neck brace. “They’re talking seconds, I’m talking survival” he says. Mark Weightman, generally acknowledged as the “Hardest Man in Downhill” has crashed on the first jump. Mark talks about crashing in the same way that the Irish referred to terrorism as “troubles” in the 80’s. “People say they’ve had a crash when they’ve just had a bit of a lie down” he says, “that was a proper crash though”, which means that most people probably wouldn’t be riding again this week. Mark seems more annoyed that he’s damaged the peak on his helmet and he can’t fix it because his hand is still shaking.
I manage 5 runs on Thursday and discover that if you ride the track in 3 or 4 time trial sections it’s absolutely mega; Russ Harland agrees. The challenge is putting them all together and holding on for 6+ minutes. “It doesn’t matter how good you are if you can’t hold on” I hear Jethro Whitfield say to someone. On top of that there’s also the heat. It’s so hot that at one point it starts raining and we can feel it on our faces but it’s dry by the time it hits the ground. By the end of the day I’ve consumed over 8 litres of water and managed just 2 trickles of honey coloured pee.
The bottom section of the track is the toughest part so you need to save something in the tank for that but I’ve no idea how much fuel I’ve actually got. Not that much, I suspect as the training I put in over the winter tapered off in February when work went up a few notches.
I only really get nervous when I don’t have confidence in what I’m doing and by the time we get to seeding on Friday afternoon I’m probably the most nervous I’ve ever been. So nervous in fact that I try to pedal out of the start gate, clip a pedal and nearly go off the side of the 20ft high start ramp. Not the best start but a sudden rush of adrenaline wipes those nerves away in an instant.
I take the rest of the run pretty easily. No pedalling on the top section, sitting down on the flat bits that link parts of the track together. Uncle Albert does the same and I bring it home in 7:38, him 7:54. Even without going for it I’m a passenger by the end though. The heat, dust and exhaustion all combine and by half way down the general consensus is that it feels like you’re choking on cotton wool. We’re both near the bottom of our category. “How’d you do?” Pete Little asks “7:38” I respond “Big crash?” “No mate, no crash”. Jason Holland gives me a look that says “He’ll never understand”.
Most people seem pretty happy with their qualifying runs but Pete Walton is one of the few who isn’t too chuffed; he got a front flat but still passed someone on the bottom section. Animal.
“It’s pointless me sitting here at home worrying about you if you’re not even going to go for it” MrsMakingUpTheNumbers is being frank. I don’t think she’s ever told me to “go for it” before, but despite being over 8 months pregnant she doesn’t like to feel as though her time is being wasted. So, “go for it” I will.
It’s Saturday morning and the fireworks have ended. I think I amassed some 3 hours sleep in total and I’m using a safety pin to pop blisters under the callouses on my hands, but surprisingly I’m starting to feel better and I’m starting to remember what to do on the bike. All the little things you forget when you’re concentrating on where you’re going – be aggressive, put the bike where you want it to go, look further ahead. I get a couple of runs in with Binnsy and we put a blinding bottom section together in our last practice run so things are looking up.
Despite his broken collarbone Jason decides to hang round until race day. He says his goodbyes but an hour or so later he’s still there as the exhaust seems to be pumping fumes directly into his van. Some kind souls fix it for him. We’re not sure how long it will hold but eventually he’s on his way. “Imagine breaking down on the way home with a broken collarbone, that’s the last thing you need” Binnsy mutters.
With the fastest of the fast trying to go sub 5 minutes my aim is to bring it home in under 7, which in my eyes would be respectable. I give it absolutely everything; pedalling everywhere and at the split it’s on. All I need to do is ride the bottom section how Binnsy and I had done in the morning. With one small mistake though I drop the bike, bending the back brake lever under the bar. I whack it a couple of times with the palm of my hand but it won’t move so I push on, into the really steep section with my hand reaching round the bars like a claw. It was OK until I had to get off the back of the bike, brake and turn sharp right all at the same time. I think I fell off a ledge and the bike came with me, ending up some 8 feet below the track. It appears that I landed on my knee and/or my head and I still have no memory of the other vets finishing their runs. I do remember crossing the line and seeing Uncle Albert sat in the hot seat though. He’s knocked nearly 45 seconds off his seeding run and he’s buzzing. On the bright side, I’ve since discovered the pills I’ve been taking are packed full of ephedrine so it’s a relief that I was nowhere near the podium as the last thing I need is a failed piss test.
My disappointment is tempered slightly by a picture Jason has sent. 2 hours into his drive home the ball joint snapped on his van and the wheel has caved in. There’s engine oil all over the road and he only has breakdown cover that will get him to the nearest garage. Parts for a 20-year-old T4 aren’t commonplace in the Pamiers and he’s stuck there for another week. This must be a contender for the most expensive run and a half in DH history. As I write this now, some 5 days later he’s still in France, still waiting for it to be fixed. His collarbone is still broken but healing, possibly incorrectly and might need plating. I’d pay good money to be a fly on the wall when he finally makes it home and his other half says “good weekend love?”
By the end of the day we have 3 World Champions. Shona McKinnon (Women 50-54), Fiona Beattie (Women 35-39), John Walker (Men 60-64); and 4 podiums Sue Mahony (2nd Women 30-35), Alastair Maclennan (2nd Men 50-54), Pete Little (3rd Men 50-54), Brett Wheeler (2nd Men 30-34).
So, what does it take to be a World Champion? Well, John Walker’s been chasing this prize for 20 years and he’s dedicated his life to it this year. He’s already covered over 2,000 miles on the road and has been in his garage gym most nights. A quick check on Strava reveals I’ve covered 76.7 miles on the road this year. I’d love to be in a position where I could give it my all for a couple of years but I’m just not. I know people will suggest “you need to make time” but I’ve tried the whole training at 6am thing and I ended up falling asleep in meetings by mid-afternoon, so it’s just a no go for me.
I ended up 35th and last of those who finished but I’m OK with it. I could’ve taken a bit off and rolled in 32nd or something but it’s more important to me that I gave it 100% and tried to go under 7. I rolled the dice twice last year, in the MegAvalanche Qualifier and Masters Worlds. Both came off and I made the pro race in the former and took 15 seconds off my seeding time in the latter. This time it wasn’t to be.
Binnsy ends up 7th, just 2.5 seconds off 5th. He’s chuffed but not ecstatic. There’s a few disappointed faces but none more so than Bike Park Wales’ Leon Rosser. Over a second up at the split on the eventual winner in the Men 35-39 category, he crashed on an innocuous part of the track in sight of the finish line. Gutted is an understatement.
Whether you’re celebrating or commiserating the party is on at a bar in the centre of town and I vaguely remember Orange Sue Me’s Simon Cheung hoisting John Walker on to his shoulders before it all went a bit blurry.
Masters Worlds are back in Andorra again next year and I’m desperate to give it another go now I’ve ridden the track. I’ve already started testing the waters with MrsMakingUpTheNumbers but any mention of “next year” is currently greeted with an Exorcist style head spin. With a baby due in just over a fortnight, now probably isn’t the best time but the seed’s been sown. In the meantime, after racing 3 times in the last 5 weeks I’m really looking forward to hitting some fun laps at Revolution. See you all at National Champs in July…
Full results http://www.vallnordworldcup.com/en/results-masters/