Friday 11 August 2023

World Short-Track Mountain bike championships in Glasgow (well Glentress actually)

It had been part of David Lappartient's manifesto when he took over as president of the Union Cycliste Internationale, in 2018. He really relished the idea of holding a sort of "cycling Olympics" in which a major event would take place bringing together all the various cycling disciplines, including paracycling - road racing, time trial, velodrome cycling, mountain biking (downhill and cross-country), BMX (racing and trials), indoor cycling (artistic cycling and cycle ball) - in one location. 

So when it came to fruition, with events being held in Glasgow and other selected venues in Scotland, there must have been a real sense of accomplishment for the directors and the operational teams at the UCI, British Cycling, Cycling Scotland, and various officials who had worked to get the show on the road, literally.

With such a major event taking place, and with continuous media coverage on TV, and regular bulletins about who was winning what, at the different races, that it was hard to not feel the buzz of the event, and be part of it.

Normally, I would have gone to the event in my capacity as a journalist and covered one of the events. But I hadn't felt that I could commit to doing that as I was working on other projects related to my other pie in medical copywriting.

As it happened, I did have a bit of time, and so I was happy to go up as an ordinary punter and combine it with a trip to visit Scotland as well as to see a couple of races.

So I booked to see the World Short-Track Cross Country Mountain bike championships, and also the indoor cycling, as I was keen to check out this new sport.

These cycling championships were advertised as taking place in Glasgow, as it contained the finishing loops of the road races, the Chris Hoy velodrome, the Emirates arena for the indoor cycling, the BMX stadium, and Glasgow Green for trials and other BMX competitions. 

As well as Glasgow, events took place in other venues around Scotland. The men's road race started from Edinburgh, the women's road race started from Balloch at Loch Lomond, there were time trials in Stirling, and paracycling events at Dumfries. The cross-country mountain biking took place in the Borders area, at Glentress, near Peebles - some 60 miles away. So it wasn't entirely focused on Glasgow.

Cycling along the Tweed

So I drove across the mid-Scotland countryside to see the cycle racing at Glentress forest. Tom Pidcock and was on the start list, as well as one of my favourite riders, Evie Richards, who would be in a very hotly contested women's race. So I was quite excited about going to watch the event.

After leaving my car at the Park and Ride in a park at Peebles, I took out my cyclocross bike from the boot and cycled along the River Tweed to reach the venue. My route went along the river and through the pretty village of Peebles, with its stone-faced houses and quaint cafes, pubs and guesthouses, then into woodland. This is a pleasant area to be with or without an international cycle event taking place. There were lots of people out and about taking walks with their family, and seemed quite content at the sight of so many visitors to their town. Who wouldn't to visit here! 

I asked directions to a local on how to reach the forest (I had failed to see one of the UCI arrows indicating the way to the centre). The woman had her children with her, who were on balance bikes and she was coaxing them along. While giving directions she also said hello to another local person passing by. "Hi John, how are things....Yes, go diagonally across the park and then you will see the cycle path takes you into Glentress. You can't miss it. It's a nice ride." she said with a mild Scottish accent. This lady seemed very proud to be a Peebles resident.

Just outside the village of Peebles I caught sight of the mountain bike centre up above, with all the hoardings, billboards, advertisements and to make the ambiance, the pumping music, loud commentary and riders - the juniors - competing in the previous race. I felt rude not riding up to watch their race, but it would have felt even more rude if I hadn't ridden further along the scenic Tweed Valley cycle path towards Innerleithen, another mountain bike trail centre. 

Time wasn't really on my side, in terms of getting in a significant bike ride. That was always going to be the case when coming up to Scotland for the cycling. Earlier in the day I had been up to Loch Lomond for a swim and that combined with breakfast and the drive over had eaten into valuable riding time. So many activities so little time as they say. Riding along the Tweed Valley Path was very pleasant. Pan flat sections intersperse undulating trails through the woodland of these Borderland forests. I encountered numerous cyclists along the way as they were using path to reach Glentress, having parked their cars in Innerleithen. Most of them were in a rush. This was also the stretch for elite athletes to do any final warm-ups before the race. I bumped into the German Team, plus some riders from Israel and Spain. The route was largely flat, but there were a fair few undulations as the path went through a multi-terrain mixture of gravel, tarmac and wooded surfaces of different bridges.

Chase group in the men's short-course race 

I managed to get back to the Glentress mountain bike centre just as the start klaxon sounded for the start of the men's race. The only thing was I was still a 100m below them at the entrance to the site! After squeezing in my bike at the expansive but packed out bike park, and going through security I did a mini fell run past the various promotional trade stands to reach the lower section of the race course, just in time to see the lead hurtling round containing eventual winner Sam Gaze (New Zealand), and Tom Pidcock leading a second group. The crowd roared and cheered as any of the British riders, including Cameron Orr came past, regardless of whether they were in the lead group or among the stragglers. 

Considering that I was one of the last spectators to arrive at the scene, I still managed to get a good view. There were crowds but it wasn't overcrowded. As the race was in progress it wasn't possible for me to go to "track centre" which would have allowed me to see other parts of the course, so I stayed put where I was. Seeing lots of press photographers also standing near me indicated that this must be a good place to be anyway. We were at the top of a mini uphill ramp around 100m from the start-finish line, so we could see the lead riders accelerating up this ramp to drop their rivals, as well as the back-markers who were straining and struggling as fatigue took it's toll on them. We were also near enough to see the finish line, which was a dead heat between Gaze and the Frenchman Victor Koretzky. Tom Pidcock took bronze in controversial circumstances in which he apparently barged Germany's Luca Schwarzbauer when trying to get in a gap on the last lap, causing the potential bronze-placed rider to crash.  

Tom Pidcock warming down at the finish line

We were also well-placed to see the riders keel over panting, trying to get their breath back after their efforts. The riders were in different states of exhaustion, and different sentiments ranging from elation, disappointment, despair or frustration. Some also needed medical attention as they'd raced around carrying a bleeding wound after crashing along a point in the course.

Tom Pidcock seemed to regain his recovery efficiently and was talking to some of his competitors. Speaking to one guy I heard him say something about "leaving the door open" when commenting on how the race went.

A few minutes later the marshals opened the barriers in order to let us move into track centre, and from there I was able to pick my spot for the women's race, which featured defending Short-Track Champion Evie Richards, multiple World Champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, and Dutch favourite Puck Pieterse.

After the build-up introducing the different racers, and the characteristic sound of the human heartbeat in the countdown, the klaxon rang out, and the women were off down the straight and up the hill. This time I stood on the opposite side from where I had been during the men's race. Although I got a good view, my photos weren't as clear because took more of a side-on view and the riders were so fast, the photos were blurred. I will rephrase that. Evie Richards was so fast, my photos of her were blurred! She really made a strong campaign by signalling her intentions from the get-go and riding off the front, much to the excitement of the home crowd. The best photos I got of her were racing were on the giant screen, on which the camera operators gave her a lot of time.

Women's lead group

Also the new position I was in was the shorter line of the hill, which curved to the right, meaning that spectators were very close to the riders, and a stray hand or even a small child could easily be hit if they were marginally over the barrier. I therefore did not want to take any risks even with my phone camera, so made sure to stand back.

Being in track centre meant that I could then move on to the twisty gravelly berms as the riders negotiated this downhill part of the ride. At this point the crowds were at their thickest and the loudest, with bell-ringing and whoop whooping going on too, for all riders, regardless of the nation they were representing. Combined with the dynamic commentary and ambient music, it was more like being at an outdoor music festival on this sunny early evening in August.

Sadly for Evie Richards, she didn't win, as the ever powerful Frenchwoman, Ferrand-Prevot opened the burners on the penultimate lap, and Evie was also dropped by Pieterse. Another Briton, Isla Short, finished in 13th place. At the finish line, the ever-popular Evie still looked joyful despite losing her crown, and gave lots of hugs to her fellow competitors, folks in the crowd that she knew, and took the time to sign her autograph for little girls who were clearly very inspired by her.

Tricky, downhill berms where a few riders crashed

It was a good afternoon out. I didn't stay for the presentation as I didn't want to be too late getting back to Glasgow. I must say I was glad to have done the park and ride and used my bicycle rather than a shuttlebus to get the venue. It's always a logistical headache ferrying thousands of people back to their cars, so it was a relief to not have to deal with that.   

The drive back to Glasgow was technical along all the winding roads through the rolling hills, but it was beautiful and the roads were practically empty. I can see why folks enjoy coming to Scotland.

Back in central Glasgow I got home in time to have a hearty dinner in preparation for the following day, which would involve another trip to Loch Lomond, and watching some indoor cycling.                                     

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