Voted the best World Cup for the last two years, I agree, it's pretty good. From my seat of the pants impression, the race organizers definitely got the 20,000 spectators they were hoping for this year at the season's final World Cup. This is a pretty amazing feat, considering the relative remoteness of the race, way up in the north of Scotland outside the tourist town of Fort William. It's a beautiful area, the most mountainous region of the UK, and happens to be right on the coast to boot. Once you get over driving and riding on the very wrong side of very archaic narrow twisty roads, there's quite a bit of scenery to be appreciated. Nice sunsets from our hotel on the water too, it's proximity to the shore gave me an interesting place to go for a walk when we arrived on Thursday night without my bikes…
This "no bikes" situation persisted long enough for me to have the opportunity to try and figure out how people (Europeans mostly) ride small bikes with long stems, flat handlebars, and, gasp!, barends… One of the Giant Racing Team riders, Stefan Sahm, was kind enough to loan me his hardtail for a lap on the course. Even a strangely setup bike couldn't dampen my enthusiasm for the "Witches Trail", a 9k loop through the Scottish Forest that is a damn good time to ride and even more fun to race. The forestry commission has done an amazing job building a solid track on very untrustworthy soil. Through the use of rock Pave, intricate wooden "shore" bridges and luscious bermed trail beds they've created a winner. Even the climbs go together well, from steep singletrack to "man I'm tough" low angle fireroads, it just works out. Unfortunately, I was a bit terrified with the cockpit on my loaner bike and elected to get lost on some pretty cool Singletrack (one lane) roads winding through the Glens (valleys) for a couple hours instead of more laps.
I got my bikes late Friday night, just in time for the chilly morning spin and to head over to the race site on Saturday. I even got to catch some of the women's race and see Mary Mcconnelaug secure a fifth place overall in the series. Pretty solid. I decided to ride a bit of the course on my properly setup Hardtail just to make sure it was the call for the race, it was, and the track was in perfect shape.
Things started off in a fairly reasonable fashion from my vantage point on the front row, we strung it out and rode into the only major climb in the race at a workable pace (maybe I'm just getting more comfy at World Cups…). At the top the inevitable surge happened and I elected (couldn't really) participate and went into the woods in the early teens. Gaps opened quickly and I set about closing them quickly. At the end of the first lap I was in around 6th or 7th working well with Ralf Naef to reel in the lead group of five or so riders twenty seconds up the road. We kept this up and were about to make contact towards the end of the second lap when I rode past the wrong rock at the wrong angle and slashed a sidewall (another one I didn't see coming, I hate surprises). Not a big deal, I rode it about 1k to the tech zone as about ten guys passed me, then switched the wheel as about five more guys rolled by… I was kind of amused to be playing catchup on a good day but figured I'd make the best of it and work on the mental aspect of chasing guys down. I'd like to take this opportunity to say that even though it sucks when you have to come from behind for whatever reason, it's really good for morale and just general good fun to constantly have a target in your sights, these days my targets are guys I've grown up knowing about due to their quickness on the bike. I pretty much spent the rest of the day like this, feeling strong, catching guys, hearing the lead moto at the same points on the course, signaling I was riding the same pace as the leaders, or at least pretty close. I had just moved into seventh on the last lap when I saw Bart Brentjens putting the finishing touches on a wheel change under the watchful eye of Frank. He peeled out of the tech zone and dangled up the road. I eventually caught and overtook him for sixth and figured I could hold it on the sinuous approach to the finish line if I took some chances with basic cornering physics. Somehow he stuck on my wheel and just barely came around in the sprint, giving him sixth back. We finished 2:35 off the first time winner, Ralph Naef. (looks like I should have stayed with him) Guess I could learn from 38 year olds when it comes to the finish.
So ends my "casual" World Cup season. Somehow racing a bunch and having a good time put me 7th overall, the UCI says the check's in the mail… I'm pretty stoked with that cap to a pretty consistent season and a solid step forward in the progression of my abilities. Next year I'm hoping to take another small step towards being a major player in the World Cup. Seems like a good idea and the chips are falling in to place quite nicely, as they always do if you just let them fall.
I really want to say thanks to all the people and sponsors who have supported my vision this year to race the full World Cup, without you it wouldn't be possible for me to take this step. Thanks and see you next year.
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