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On Saturday, 23 May 2021, I raced battle in the bowl, an offroad gravel race in Matterley bowl just outside Winchester.
Battle in the bowl is a gravel/cyclocross race involving twisty technical skill sections, steep gravel climbs and super fast and sketchy descents. How to set up your mountain bike for cross country races.
On the day, there are multiple events, including a junior race, an open race and an elite race. This year I decided to take part in the open race using a mountain bike.
Checking the course
On Saturday, I headed over to the course to check out the difficult parts of the circuit and to do my standard pre-race ride.
The weather was warm and dry, and the course was running fast. The Matterley bowl venue is a farm for most of the year, and so in most sections, the grass was really long and rutted. The technical sections are made up of tape, which has created tight twisty hairpin corners that cyclists have to weave around.
This may look quite easy but is in fact very difficult to ride even just me, let alone when you are in a big group of people. I soon learned that the first of the two gravel climbs is fast and is almost one long sprint.
However, the second gravel climb starts right after the most challenging technical section and is relentless in gradient. It takes riders, on average, between 5-10 minutes to reach the top of the bowl, where they are greeted with a spectacular view across the race circuit. A super-fast descent follows the second climb leading back to the first technical section. how to ride a technical on a mountain bike.
Having previously had very little experience in off-road riding, I knew that my biggest weakness was going to be the technical sections but that I would hopefully be able to make time back up on the two climbs and the Forrest descent.
I left the Saturday practice session very confident that I could be in contention for a good result and that I was fully comfortable on the course.
Fast forward one day, and a huge downpour of rain overnight had completely changed the course. What was a fast following course the day before had now become muddy and wet with very little grip and grass left on the sections which mattered the most.
I was sitting on the start line about 3rd or 4th row from the front, ready to go nervous but happy to be back on the start line of a mass start race.
The flag dropped, and the first couple of minutes were absolute carnage. I got clipped in quickly and got up to speed for the first hairpin section but got pushed on the racing line and had to take the wider slower line.
I then made a mistake going into the next technical section and had to unclip, forcing me to stop and, unfortunately, allowing about 30 riders to get past me.
Got out of the first technical section with one of the mid-pack groups and knew that I was going to have to push really hard on the gravel climb to catch back up to the front of the race.
I made up quite a few places on this first climb but soon started drifting backwards on the technical sections before having to chase to get back to the front of the race on the second long gravel climb. Downhill mountain biking tips.
East to panic
It would have been very easy to panic at this stage in the race that I couldn’t keep up on all of the important sections, but I knew that my endurance and my fitness on the two climbs would keep me in contention for a good result towards the end of the race.
All I could do was try to limit the time I was losing on the technical sections and attack even harder on the climbs and the Forrest descent.
About halfway through the second 4-mile lap, the heavens opened again, and a sudden downpour started.
Because of the rain, the grass quickly turned to mud, and the racing line on all of the tight twisty corners soon disappeared.
This made it even harder for me to keep up with the faster riders as I was now sliding all over the corners and lost a lot of the confidence that I had built up on the previous laps.
As the rain started to get even heavier, I struggled to the point where it would have been really easy to give up. But I kept telling myself that if I stayed with the leading group, I could ride up the climbs faster than them and somehow get a good result.
With two laps remaining, I got dropped again on the most demanding technical section. I was really struggling at this point in the race, and As much as I tried, I just couldn’t catch the group upon the climbs. I rode the final lap on my own, trying to not lose too much time. How to cornor on a mountain bike.
Reflecting on this race, I now know that having really good road cycling fitness and endurance is no match for the supreme technical skill of MTB XC riders.
If you are a road cyclist or a mountain biker living near Winchester, I recommend that you do this race next year.
I would, however, advise you to practice your cornering skills in wet and muddy conditions and make sure that your climbing endurance is the best that you can make it. If you are super competitive, then the elite race is perfect for you, but if you just want to experience the course and have fun, then the open race is probably the best option. Best mountain bike trail in Wales.
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