Roly Lambert reminisces about his less-than-illustrious downhill racing career.
Racing. The current understanding is that you load your car up with bikes, mates and plenty of food and head off to where the course marking tape runs deeply into the trees. Roll up, pitch tents, fire up the barbecue and have a jolly time. Maybe one or two of you will not finish the race due to hilarious mechanicals or spectator-dispersing crashes. That’s how I imagine your racing fun is anyway.
When I was young/younger I decided that I was going to try downhill racing. Not that I was any good at it, even from my own perspective, but the idea of riding down a track closed to all other users did appeal. Sadly my biking mates were either not interested in going, worked weekends or had girlfriends. I had the bike, no car and absolutely no enjoyment of going fast. A perfect combination for podium domination?
Living in the lovely, leafy Surrey I played it safe and entered the whole SAMS* series. I posted a cheque off for all six or so races, it’s not as if I had any other hobbies to be diverted from at the weekends.
(*Southern Area Mountainbike Series)
Once a month over the summer I popped to the library and borrowed a hardback Ordnance Survey map of the rough area where the month’s race was going to be held. Then I had to take a Friday off work, due to having to catch the multiple trains all over the south of England. Packed my hiking rucksack with the following vital items: Dianese full turtle suit. Goggles. Gloves. Tent. Sleeping bag. Thermarest. Spare underpants. Packet of Garibaldi biscuits (‘cos they’re flat) small bottle of water. Video camera. I wheeled the bike out of the garage and wobbled off to the station.
Fast forward a few hours and I’d have got a numb bottom sitting on the floor of the guard’s van, as there was no way I was leaving my bike unattended and there wasn’t possibly room in my bag for a lock. I then disembarked at some rural station, unfurled the map, selected my main road and headed off. As Iron Maiden say, stranger in a (not very) strange town. Did I mention I had a bright yellow, full-face helmet too? I wasn’t cool enough to hang it on my bars and those country roads could have gnarly corners. Or was it that my dad would tell me off if I got hurt while going to a race without a lid on?
Eventually I’d start to see yellow plastic signs stuck to lampposts, ‘SAMS’ and and arrow pointing somewhere. A very welcome sight. If I was riding later in the day the odd car might pass me with a bike or two on the back. This would reassure me I was on the right road. Signs sighted, eventually I would turn into a grassy field. In a corner would be the signing on marquee and the organisers’ caravan.
And we’re here!
I’d carefully choose my pitch, not too near the organisers or any rowdy looking cars. Usually near some sheep droppings. Put the tent up nice and quickly, throw the Dianese in and unroll sleeping bag and my preparations were complete. Now to pre-ride the course. Out came the video camera. The rough plan was to tape me walking down the course and study it in my tent that evening. Not having a lock, I was loathe to leave my bike. Despite there being a good £50,000 worth of bikes leant against cars overnight, they would target me and I’d have an extra long walk to the station. So bike came too. Each venue was different, sometimes the camping field was at the end of the course, sometimes at the beginning. I followed the white signs to a gap in the trees and the leaning pole which marked the start proper. Start recording, walk a few sections, go back and fetch bike, repeat to the bottom – while politely getting out of the way of people who were actually riding the thing. Look at them with their boundless energy and friends. Course taped, it was time for a celebratory sheet of Garibaldi, a swig of water and bed. Normally it was about 7pm and still light.
I wasn’t a total hermit, there were a few chaps that I used to talk to. It’s just that as I had no food to share, chair to sit on or tales to tell it was better to slip away while I could still see my tent. Once zipped into my bag I didn’t watch the day’s tape as I didn’t want to run the battery out and not have my own ‘race’ run captured. The padded case did make a small and accurate pillow though. I would sometimes get woken by latecomers setting up camp, chatting and having fun but I was able to go back to sleep easy enough.
Unleash the beast.
0600 is a perfectly acceptable time for a Saturday alarm. Slip into the armour suit, the spine protector making lying on my back a rocking experience, try to quietly operate the many zips and Velcro entrances to both my clothes and my tent and slip out ready for a spot of actual course riding. I’m very kind, I carried my back wheel off the ground as I went through the other campers, I felt the sound of a Hope hub was a bit antisocial at that hour. Find the leaning start post, helmet and goggles (vital at the speeds I go at…) snugged up and away I roll. My plan was always to roll down the first time, then push back up and try to get about three runs in before everyone else woke up. I usually managed this. But each run didn’t generally bring an increase in speed as familiarity built. The courses tended not to have the obligatory step-downs and gaps of today, but were a good mix of roots and corners and flat bits. Sometimes a built-up jump too. Woo.
It was now breakfast time so having ‘learnt’ the course and where, if at all, I was going to pedal, it was food time. Roll across the campsite, the burger van wasn’t open yet, but it’s fine, I’ll wait. Time passes. I watch. More people get up and out onto the course, I’m back in energy-saving mode as I’ve got a race to race and then a ride to the station. That’s my excuse. Ah, bacon roll and weak coffee time. Yes, I am normally first in the queue at these races aren’t I?
If this sounds like a rubbish, dragging and slightly lonely way to spend the weekend, you may well be right.
Sign-on tent’s flaps are up, so head over to get my number and second human conversation of the day. The sign on-sheet had the first run times too so I knew just how many nervous wee wees I could have until it’s time to line up.
Let’s jump forward a few hours and it’s time to race! The Senior men went off just before the Elites so I picked a log and watched, made small talk normally with parents and non-racers, and filmed other people because one of them might crash and earn me £250 from You’ve Been Framed. The Women, Juniors and Youths go flying and clattering past, and then, with a feeling of dread, it was My Time.
As I’d entered the whole series I got to know by sight the chaps either side of me, so a nod from them and me gabbling “I’ll be sure to pull over to let you past, don’t worry.” Funny now, no doubt pathetic at the time.
The red gilleted timing official had an accent so it proved mildly amusing to hear him call out names until “Roly Limbert nixt plarse.” Hey, hey let’s go. My time, a clear course, I’ve got the bike for it: 3, 2, 1, a last sigh and I must let go of the leaning post.
Wind in the air vents, breathing like Darth Vader, pedalling and braking at the same time, corner, corner, loose bit, head down and pedal, ease off for the steep bit and slight dip, stop and lift front wheel back into the course, untangle marking tape from neck, all the while dutiful marshals were blowing their whistles, not to alert others to my impressive speed but because they had to. Ever heard a man in a tabard sigh in disappointment as you wobble past? I have. Finish run off with another five yard sprint to the line, rip off helmet, look sweaty and begin push back to the campsite.
You got two runs, so time to squeeze another few trips to the toilet in, polish off the garibaldi biscuits and line up to do it all over again. Fun, in a way.
I mentioned the video camera earlier. I’d ask a random spectator to film me as I went past. People are nice, they did film me and gave me the camera back after each run. My lunchtime treat was to watch it in my tent. Rewinding a little bit to see others flying down and me squeaking by. Ho hum.
The second run was much like the first, corners came up quite fast, tricky bits were tricky and Hope brakes were well used. Over the timing beam, back to tent. Pack up tent, refill rucksack and repeat journey home.
The venue hosted the cross country on the Sunday. I’m better up hill, it would require less stuff and pushing and would last longer. But as I had the bike…
A week or so later the results would be posted out. The envelope came, coloured paper results sheet unfolded. Look at that, 10th from last! There must have been a lot of crashes that day.
Best. Result. Ever.