Over the past 2 years it’s been a privilege to have worn the National Champion’s stripes at the front of some of the biggest marathon races in the world. I remember the first international race I went to in the jersey, I was parked up at the hotel pulling the bike out of the Vauxhall Vivaro and a road cyclist rides past and shouts “hey champion” in an Italian accent.
After some issues earlier this year I had some doubts in my head about this weekend’s Champs but more recently I’ve had some of the best training weeks I’ve ever done so the confidence was now there. The start list showed the strongest competition ever and I knew which people I’d have to keep an eye on. The National Championship race was finally taking place on a proper marathon course, 3000m ascent over 100kms of tracks up and down the famous Isle of Man mountain. The Manx 100 is typically a 100 mile race but they introduced a second distance, the 100km so they could host the Champs.
I’d previously visited the famous island off the west coach of England several times for the End 2 End MTB race, winning it the last 2 years, so I knew the area and what kind of trails to expect. I took both my Simplon Razorblade hardtail and Cirex full suspension bikes but I already knew 99% I’d be on the fully. As soon as I started to pre ride it was obviously a fully course, rocks after rocks after rocks.
In the weeks leading up to the event I felt ready to fight to retain the jersey but was really nervous about the long 30 minute climbs and if I could match the lightweight hill climbers who were normally quicker than me on this terrain. The nerves got to me in the days before and made myself a bit ill, luckily my support crew helped me keep the focus.
The race started from the famous TT motorbike grandstand, was led out by police escort and then hit the first climb. I felt comfortable, my previous worries quickly evaporated, I knew I could win this race. Let’s do this! Off the first mountain and I was suddenly out front alone, no one could keep up with me on the descents, this was so much fun, I didn’t want to be alone when there was another 5 hours to go so soft pedalled on the next section until a few riders caught back up. Up the next climb, down the next descent, similar scenario with me putting time into my rivals. There was one problem, gates! Gates after gates after gates after…. It was ridiculous. Sometimes gates every kilometre. The gates were neutralised the race, whenever I opened a gap chasers would catch when I’d be fumbling to open a gate.
Next climb and the first real acceleration of the race, it was early but it dropped several people from the group. After feed 3 there was a leading trio of myself, Tom Bell and Paul Oldham who’d been my main rival at last year’s Champs. The race was getting to the business end but I’d been sitting comfortably at the front without an issue. I started to pull little gaps now on the climbs as well as the descents but then there’d be a gate, 30 seconds spent opening the gate would be just enough time for my rivals to close the gap. A few swear words were muttered at the fashion this race was developing. The End 2 End race supports a charity who provides marshals to keep the many gates open, stop cattle escaping and keep racers safe at road junctions.
Final climb and Tom puts in his race winning move but I’m all over it, you’re not shaking me from your wheel. Paul gets dropped. I never expected to be able to match the skinny lightweight riders on these climbs, I have considerable more muscle mass and my longest hill at home is 4 minutes, not 30 minutes like here. We reach the climb I knew from End 2 End, I make a move but couldn’t open much of a gap, Tom and I were evenly matched at this point. Anyway there’s more gates coming up so why expend energy. Final descent, Gates Gates Gates! Race neutralised by gates. Still together going into finish area, line in sight, sprint! Winner decided by whose rear gears coped with the long grass which had been cut but not cleared the day before the event. My gears clog and stop turning, I end up walking over the line 2nd. How can a National Title be decided by gates and a field which hasn’t been cleared of grass? A fair race is a necessity in any event, especially one for a National Title.
I feel sorry for my amazing girlfriend, my amazing support team, my sponsors and all my supporters who left messages on social media. Sad not to be taking the stripes back to Europe in 2 weeks’ time. Despite my disappointment I know Tom Bell rode a great race, he’s in the form of his life, congrats to him. Get out there and represent the jersey buddy. Paul Oldham came in a short time later to secure third place and also win the Vets title. Well done Paul!
Congratulations to Ben Thomas Coaching client Julian Paphitis who took a fantastic 2nd place in the Manx 100 mile race, the bigger brother to the 100km National Champs. Finishing 9th overall after 11 hours 45 and just a few minutes off the win in his age category.
The Manx 100 course is quite different to the End 2 End race, less man made trails in plantations, more rough rocky open tracks up and down the big mountain, both great fun to ride. We always love visiting the Isle of Man even if it is a complete pain to get to. I have the choice to fly from London Gatwick but have always opted for the ferry from Liverpool so I can travel with my support crew and so we can take the Vivaro van with spare bikes and equipment. The ferry takes about 3 hours and costs about £300 so it’s in an expensive trip. If you’re looking for a fun event the Manx 100 and Manx End 2 End should definitely be considered. Also the island is worth a visit as a tourist, it’s such an amazing place to visit with beautiful sandy beaches, fantastic mountain top views, friendly locals, and a big sporting history. We spent Sunday afternoon on the beach celebrating my mate Adams birthday and then Monday doing the tourist thing exploring the seaside towns and enjoying some R&R.
After speaking with other competitors, the event organiser and commissaires it sounds like some alterations can be made to turn the Manx 100 into a truly great event. Without the issues this could be as good as the best races on the UCI World Marathon Series. I hope the Champs race returns next year with some slight tweaks. Right now I feel a bit emotionally drained but realise I did a great job over the past 2 years and came so close to retaining the jersey once again. Next year I’ll be there at the TT Grandstand even more motivated to win back my stripy jersey.