Report: European XC Championships - Seniors

Report: European XC Championships - Seniors

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Day four at Zoetermeer was a day of cowbells, mud and lots of rain, rendering the previously fast course into a battle zone of attrition for riders looking for gold in both the Senior women's and men's races. Due to conditions the women saw their race cut down to six laps. In amongst the 45 starters were three British women ready to face the mud.

Fiona Macdermid - left - rides, while Sharon Laws - right - runs

Sue Clarke, fresh from recent victory in complete opposite conditions out in Turkey was tucked in on row three, while Fiona MacDermid was another ten spots behind. Finally, Sharon Laws recently returning from an injured shoulder literally brought up the rear.

Sue Clarke took the race in her stride, her years of experience aiding her as she got to grips with the muddy conditions. On days like this tyre choice is crucial and can make or break a riders race. Thanks to advice from team coach Phil Dixon, Sue chose right and her mind was set on battling her way through the carnage ahead. Despite steady progress, she narrowly missed out on a top 20 finish, coming home in 22nd and happy to note that it's all going the right way.

Sue Clarke rode into 22nd - the top placed British woman in her Championship comeback

"It was pretty tough out there, conditions have been changing all week, I've ridden the course in the dry and the wet and to be honest I was quite prepaid to ride it whatever it threw at me. I made a good call, thanks to Phil's advice on tyres, I went for skinnier mud option which worked really well. I'd not ridden on those tyres before so they took a while to get used to, but they were the right decision. I had a bit of a nightmare on the first lap, there was quite a bit of traffic and I was finding I was being held up on quite a few of the descents. Then on the third lap I got into my rhythm, but obviously the race had split wide apart by then. Towards the end of the race I started to pull riders back, and fought my way up into the top 20. I just missed out on 21st as with all the grime on my bike I couldn't get into the big ring and I was sprinting like an idiot towards the line!

I did enjoy it though, especially the second part of the race, it was pretty tough. I'd have liked a top 20, but I'll get there. I'm making progress all the time to get back to where I want to be. It was brilliant though, very noisy, you had to focus all the time to see where you were going, the course was constantly changing, you just had to grit your teeth and dig in and I'm pretty good at that. Sometimes it gets to a lot of riders in these type of conditions, but you have to remember we are all facing the same, so you just have to get stuck in and do it. Previously I might have said that the course resembled a cyclo-cross course but to be honest the weather has turned in more into a mountain bike race as it became more of a slog."

Clarke slogs through the track, cunningly disguised here as a river

Starting at the back of the grid is never an easy place to begin your race and despite hating virtually every inch of mud Sharon Laws fought valiantly through to move up into 30th.

"That wasn't very much fun out there to be honest, I think I might have to think about doing some cyclo-cross to get used to conditions like this! It was just so muddy, just really difficult to get my power out because there was no traction. I couldn't get the little ring either so some of the bigger hills I could ride in the dry I couldn't do in these conditions as I kept getting chain suck. It was very frustrating.

The best bit for me was the round of applause that I got from the crowd by riding the last drop off. To be honest though having two months off without being able to ride the mountain bike due to injury, it's not helpful when this course has become so technical because of the weather. I'm not a great fan of the rain; I've been quite badly injured before in the rain so I'm always a bit wary. I did okay but nowhere near where I want to be, but I have to be realistic and remind myself that I'm only just back at it, I now need to go away spend more time on the bike and then push forward."

Laws climbing to 30th position

Fiona MacDermid had the worst day of all, when early in the race she lost all her front brakes, making her race a real lottery. She pushed on as best she could, but was eventually pulled after four laps down in.

The race for gold involved a train of women, involving the big names of the sport such as Sabine Spitz and Irina Kalentieva. As the race progressed, this train whittled down until just a few remained in sight of the gold. Polish rider Maja Wloszczowska was looking strong with Spitz and Kalentieva close at hand. With attack after attack the elastic finally broke and it was Wloszczowska that had the power to cross the line comfortably ahead of Kalentieva.

News on the street was that the weather would improve, but it didn't. In fact it got steadily worse and as the start of the men's race edged forward, they saw their laps cut first from ten to eight. Representing GB were Liam Killeen, bolstered by recent form and hovering close to the front row, next up was Oli Beckingsale another one of our regular World Cup riders who has been targeting the second half of the year and is in great shape, hoping to step up. Ian Bibby was also in the mix, starting his first international championship as a Senior he found himself towards the back of the massive field, while finally Jody Crawforth completed the line up.

The weather hadn't deterred the spectators and the whole site was awash with the usual spectacle of hordes of Belgians, Swiss and Dutch all in their respective matching supporters club outfits, all waving flags; the sound of cow bells could be heard the other side of the North Sea!

It was to be a day of trouble and strife as riders battled not only each other, clawing for every place, but also with their equipment as the heavy sticky mud quickly began to take its toll, both physically and mentally. Switzerland's Ralph Naf looked as if he was made from Teflon as he glided over the mud and by lap two was soon out in front where he would stay for the rest of the race hotly pursued but never caught. Jose Hermida played the role of domestique for trade team-mate Naf and patrolled the duo of cyclo cross specialist Sven Nys & Martin Gujan before making off to take second.

Ralf Naf - your new European XC Champion

Meanwhile, Liam Killeen worked his way steadily through the race, moving through the ranks from the top 20 to finally notch up a tenth place finish. After the race Killeen was philosophical about his performance.

Liam Killeen descends toward a top ten position

"That was a tough on today; you can't really train for something like this you just have to go with what's there. There was quite a lot of running today which is never a favourite of mine, plus the weather couldn't make up it's mind, it was wet then it started to dry then it rained heavily, that just made it even trickier. It was hard to make decisions about suitable tyres, as that can make or break some races. In the end it was a good race and quite a good result. I was pretty sure I was in the top 20's for most of the race. It was a long one, eight laps was definitely enough. It's all going the right way, this wasn't a big goal of mine, I've got a run of races coming up, two world cups at the end of the month, those are more of a focus for me, then I'll have a break and start building up to the World Championships, where I hope to be hitting some even better form."

Close behind was Beckingsale finishing in 14th, which he fought hard to achieve after a start from hell, where he missed his pedal and plummeted down into to 40's. Keeping his head he just got on with the job in hand a superb measure for the amount of experience Beckingsale brings to the table.

"That was alright I guess, I got a bad start which shoved me down in the 40's which is a bit of a pain really as it meant I had to squander a bit more energy early on and lost a lot of time over those first two laps and then finally got into a good rhythm which is all you can do when conditions are like this. You're always going to get problems with your bike, you're always going to have an off, I had a big one out there, but you're all in the same boat.

I started closing in on the top ten and then had that crash and stalled a bit to end up in 14th; well it's not great but it's okay. I definitely think I'm riding a lot better than I was at the beginning of the year, especially these last couple of months. I feel I had good legs today, it was solid. Conditions out there sucked, there wasn't a lot you could do really, you just have to crack on, if you get grumpy because of the conditions then you might as well give up, game over.

A muddy Oli Beckingsale post-race

Now in the next three weeks maybe I'll get a bit of luck, I've the Nationals next week followed by two World Cups in Canada, so I'm hoping I can come away with something.

I've planned this year to be better towards the tail end, I had a tough year last year and had a bit of a break over the winter so now I'm slowly getting back up to speed, it's hard trying to be on it all year. I want to try and keep it going for at least another four years, but you can't maintain that concentration for those four years - I need a little distraction! This last month or so I put my head down and worked hard, looked after my diet and I can see I'm going in the right direction. So all in all it's a good start to the second part of the season."

Jody Crawforth really was on a hiding to nothing starting so far back on the grid, but he came out all guns blazing to come home in a creditable 53rd spot. Ian Bibby just couldn't get into the race and was pulled early finishing in 74th. He wasn't the only rider to not enjoy the race with current reigning World Champion Christoph Sauser struggling to get any higher than the top 30.

Crawforth gave me his viewpoint of his race:
"That was pretty horrible, it was really thick mud, really clayey, difficult to ride. I didn't have the best of starts being right at the back but I kept my head and moved forward but it was so hard going. I didn't actually get into the race until after the first couple of laps and the bike was picking up so much mud and the gears were jumping all over the place, I was trying to take a bottle whenever I could and drop it all over my gears to try and clear them. I didn't feel that great today either so that didn't help, so all in all not a very good day, all I could do was just keep plugging away."

Catching up with team coach Phil Dixon after the days events, he was in jubilant mood, explaining that over the Championships GB has seen it's best outing in quite a few years, a sure sign that the mountain bike garden is looking a heck of a lot rosier than most people give it credit for and bodes well for future outings.

"It was a mud fest for both senior races today. Sue finished up in 22nd, which was a good bike ride, Sharon got 30th, I know she would have given 100% out there and is a fair result considering she's been out of action for quite a few weeks. It was apparent that the girl's skills made a big difference in conditions like this and is something our Elite girls should build on. It is the best result we've had for quite a few years from the women and again it shows that our women are determined enough to be chipping away at the block. Overall I'm pleased with their performance, Fiona had a bad day not helped by having no front brakes from early on in the race and she ended up being pulled quite early, but with regards to Sharon and Sue, yeah, both good bike rides.

The guys were relatively pleased in their race. Liam had a good start and moved forward into tenth spot, he was in ninth at one point with a short time gap to sixth but he couldn't get his foot in his pedal after one running section and the French boy jumped past him. I think in the end it was a good solid performance for him; from speaking to him he wasn't absolutely flat-out, there was too much running in it for him, it was more of a cross race, which is probably why Sven Nys was on the podium. It's not helping our guys with all that running.

Oli missed his pedal on the start line and found himself back down in the 40's it took him a while but he fought his way back into the teens and I guess he'll be annoyed he missed his pedal at the start but he should be pleased with such a solid bike ride out there. Those two boys have raised their game again now and are aiming for results at the back end of the season. They have different targets and I think we'll see them knock it up a few more levels yet and I know they'll be right in the mix.

Jody was giving it his best considering the conditions, he was 92nd in the grid which is always going to be hard, but he got stuck in there and moved forward as best he could, I'm sure he got into the top 50's.

Overall though I think team GB is moving in the right direction, we had that standout result from Annie with a whole host of real solid results from the other riders. We might see some riders disappointed with their rides but this is a big step up from this time last year and that's the sort of progression we want to see. We know from experience that results won't happen over night and are happy to know that we are edging ever closer to being a nation that will be contending for medals in the very near future."