This weekend the 2019 HSBC UK | National Cross-Country Series moves to Cannock Chase for round 3, the mid-point in the season-long competition.
In what could be a decisive round in terms of overall series victory, riders have once again entered in droves to compete on the popular and rider-friendly slopes of the picturesque Staffordshire venue.
National champion and series leader, Grant Ferguson (Hope Factory Racing) is back from racing in Spain to defend his lead in the elite competition, and will be hoping that the form that saw him take podiums abroad will continue at Cannock, where he has the chance of moving up to the top step after two second places so far in the series.
The winner at round 1, Cameron Orr of Team Inspired, will be looking to return to winning ways after missing the last round but is by no means the only challenger as Tom Bell, who saw his hopes of a race win at round 2 dashed on the rocks of Hadleigh, returns to the fray.
Erno McCrae will be looking to improve on his two fifth places so far to keep himself in contention in the overall standings. Currently second in the series standings - twenty points down on Ferguson - the Belgian is nine points clear of the next nearest challenger competing this weekend, but Chris Rothwell and Ben Wadey are both in the hunt, sitting in sixth and seventh places respectively overall.
The junior men’s race looks like being Charlie Aldridge’s for the taking if his dominance of rounds 1 and 2 continues. After riding away from the field at both Sherwood and Hadleigh, the Stirling rider should find this course to his liking as it sits between the two in character. Harry Birchill and Jamie Johnston, who took second at rounds 1 and 2 respectively, will both be looking to stop Aldridge’s run at the top and, with all of the top fourteen riders in the series down to start, they should have plenty of company in that mission.
The experts’ series is shaping up to be one of the hardest-fought of the season with leader Jonathan Brain moving one spot up from his second at round 1 to take victory last time out. Round 1 victor Jacob Scott - fresh or perhaps not so fresh from taking a combativity jersey on road at The Tour of Yorkshire - will be wanting to take back top spot after a fourth at Hadleigh, but he will also have an on-form Keiran Brown - who took victory at the first round of the Midlands XC Series ahead of all the elite riders - to contend with.
The elite race promises to be a real indicator of form for the rest of the season, and for the HSBC UK | National Cross-country Championships, which is at the same venue in July. The riders who took gold and silver at last year’s Commonwealth Games are back racing against each other: Annie Last (KMC- EKOI-Orbea) will be looking to repeat her winning ways from the Gold Coast and Sherwood and stay in front of Evie Richards (Trek Factory Racing) who returns to racing after surgery on a knee injury. Fresh from a double dose of racing in Norway, round 2 winner Kerry MacPhee is one of the few riders expected to stay with the pace of the duo out front, but with series leader Amy-Jo Hansford and Elish Gilbert will both also be looking to cause an upset.
The junior series leader, Anna McGorum (Peebles CC), is in line to continue her run at the top of the standings, with her win and second place so far likely to be added to by another big points score at Cannock. Round 2 winner Hattie Harnden (T-MO Racing) looked unstoppable at Hadleigh and is hot favourite for the race win but will still need to finish highly at the remaining rounds to take the series away from McGorum. Amy Perryman (Hargroves-Montezumas) comes back from racing on road between rounds to defend her third place and challenge Josie Nelson for second in the series, but Nelson, who rides for the local RST/Cycle Division Team is going to have home advantage.
Alanda Scott (Army Cycling Union) took the win and the series lead in the expert category at Hadleigh, where her last lap move pushed Mel Baker (Empella) down to second in both the race and the standings. The category is far from a two-rider race though, with a resurgent Nicky Hughes moving up to third in the series after finishing third at round 2. Behind Hughes it should be an interesting scrap between regulars Steph Weaver, Rachel Connery and returning riders Di Lee, Kerry Jago and Alex Farquhar.
U14 Juvenile & U16 Youths:
The youth and juvenile race categories are always hotly contested right through the race field, with different courses suiting different riders and skill sets.
In the U16s categories, Corran Carrick-Anderson should extend his lead at the top of the boys’ standings, but of the top 23 riders all but Ben Bright - currently second in the series - are due to race, so nothing can be taken for granted. In the girls’ competition, Elena McGorum has a ten-point lead from Ella Maclean-Howell after her win at round 2, however Millie Couzins - the winner of round 1 – returns, and all the riders know that after her on and off-road performances to date this year, Zoe Backstedt is probably the rider they all have to beat.
Emily Carrick-Anderson has made it two wins from two so far in the U14s girls’ competition and should be a clear favourite this weekend, but Libby Bell knows Cannock well and will be looking to improve on her two second places so far in the series. Harry Ellison will be looking to add a win to his series lead in the U14s boys’ race, but round 2 winner Ioan Oldfield is only five points behind in the series and will be looking to steal the jersey. Also in contention will be national champion and round 1 winner, Max Greensill.
Veterans (40-49), (Grand Vet 50-59), Super Vet (60+):
With a win and a second place apiece so far in the series, the mid-season race at Cannock will be critical for Verity Appleyard and Julia Hamlyn in the vet women’s competition. Meanwhile, Dani Humphrey and Alison Rushton will be among the favourites from the rest of the field to take the third podium place. In the men’s competition, the series top three - Marc Chamberlain, Sam Humphrey and Adrian Lansley - along with all the top six in the series will be looking to keep round 1 winner Paul Oldham in check, however the Cannock course should suit Oldham’s, meaning the race should be an enthralling one to watch.
With two commanding wins from two, Maddi Smith has a clear lead over the chasers in the grand vet women’s competition, leaving Lucy Rogers and Virginia Roberts fighting for second and third in both preceding rounds and the series. Two second places so far mean that Tim Davies has a slim lead over Hadleigh grand vet men’s winner Tim Gould, and both – along Jimmy Piper and Dean Morgan, who are currently third and fourth in the series - will be trying to distance round 1 winner Nic Craig, who is currently tenth in the series after missing round 2.
Carolyn Spiers, the super vet women’s series leader and winner from both Sherwood and Hadleigh, should relish the technical features at Cannock, with the rock garden no doubt reminding her of her Kendal roots. Super vet men’s leader Bruce Rollason has continued his winning ways, following his victories at Sherwood and Hadleigh with a win at Parkwood Springs in the Midlands XC Series. Donald MacGregor is clear in second after a podium at Hadleigh, but also returning for round 3 are previous podium riders Chris Wreghitt and John Galway.
Commentator Matt Payne’s ones to watch this weekend:
“Round 3 is a key point in the season for anyone who wants to take away the best position they can in the overall standings. This is compounded by the nature of the course and terrain at Cannock Chase, which has a bit of everything, meaning that it will be a real all-round rider that can take victory.
The courses longer climbs will suit a climber, but that is contrasted by features such as the rock garden which rewards the riders who take this key feature rather than the B line around it, thus favouring a technically proficient rider who is confident down steep rocky drops.
Key features on course include the twisting single track sections where it’s imperative to get in first, resulting in sprints all through the race just to be able to keep control of the pace on these tight one line areas.
Tyre choice and pressure will be critical as the rain in the preceding week is due to stop prior to competition, leaving riders trying to choose between the best tyre for the resultant muddy sections, the grippy slabs of the rock features and the highly polished pebbles of the trails. Riders need to have a good feel for the grip levels.”
Entries will be taken on the day for Saturday’s fun race, where anyone can see how they compare to the best in the country.
Saturday’s racing kicks off with the ever-popular U12s, U10s and U8s, who will be showing off the skills learned during the two-hour open coaching session beforehand on part of the main course. Who knows which of these youngsters may be a future Annie Last or Grant Ferguson, but whatever the level of riding the youngest competitors of the weekend always get the loudest encouragement and applause!
The rest of the competitors from U14 to 60+, fun to elite, all take on what is now a fairly familiar course at Cannock Chase, but riders should still expect the unexpected, as organiser Matt Williams of Run and Ride said:
“We’ve been very busy in the run up to the race making sure the course challenges all abilities and can be enjoyed by all the riders. Just last weekend we cut a new section back to the old bomb hole drop off that is now more tricky but more fun all at the same time.”
Saturday 11 May
11:30 – 13:30: Official course practice
12:00: Under-12s skills sessions
13:30 – 14:00: U12’s race
14:30: Race 1: Sport Male and Fun categories
16:00 – 18:00: Official course practice
Sunday 12 May
07:45 – 08:45: Official course practice
09:00: Race 1: Youth and Juvenile Categories
10:05 – 10:35: Official course practice
10:45: Race 2: Vet, Grand Vet and Super Vet Men’s Races
13:00: Race 3: Elite Women, Junior Women, Sport/Expert, Vet, Grand Vet and Super Vet Women’s Races
15:15: Race 4: Elite Men, Junior Men, Expert Men’s Races