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UCI cat 2 Ponte De Lima 9 March & UCI cat 1 Pampilhosa Portuguese National Cup 16 March

After a long and hard off season I flew out to Portugal at the start of March to get my racing season underway. I was also meeting up with my new and first ever team for the 2014 season, SC Intense. To say I was excited was an understatement! I was traveling light as the team race van was bringing all of my new gear down from Switzerland including my Intense M9, which I was very excited to see and start riding!
We had a two week racing and training trip planned for Portugal. First off was a UCI category 2 event at the Ponte De Lima bike park. Practice started the day after we arrived so there was no hanging around! That morning we drove up to the event and got everything organised. My bike was more or less fully built. I just had a few little personal things to do to it, such as cut the handlebars. It looked absolutely awesome. A black Intense M9 frame with yellow and black Reverse components. Bike porn at it’s best!
Practice on that first day was great. The track was very long. I did a cruising timed run in the afternoon using my watch and it was 4 minutes 30 seconds to the finish! Certainly a good test of my fitness after all the winter training. The track started off with a fun jump section, before moving into a really fast grassy/rocky open section down to the first fire road crossing. From here we moved into the trees and it twisted and turned the whole way to the bottom. It was awesome to ride!
Saturday was much the same. The track was awesome, the weather was sunny and being part of the team was exactly how I’d hoped it would be. Good banter in the pits, good people to ride with and help each other and my bike was always well looked after. I could already feel this is exactly what my racing has been missing and it is going to be a good season!
After two more practice runs on Sunday morning I finally felt I had the long physical track memorised and that I was riding it how I wanted to. In seeding I had a good run with only one small mistake right at the bottom. I went a little bit too hot into a flat left hand turn and the rear end stepped out. I managed to save it by throwing a foot and didn’t lose more than a second. I did a 4.19 which was good enough to seed me in 5th place behind Pardal with a 4.17, Dale 4.15 Simmonds 4.11 and Bryceland 4.10. I knew I didn’t have 8 seconds in the tank going into racing, but I felt like if I pushed as hard as possible I had a good few seconds there and 4th and even 3rd was achievable.
One thing I’m determined to do this year is not leave anything on the hill when it comes to race runs. 100%, do or die, give it everything. So that’s what I did here. I went out of the gate putting as much pressure through the cranks as I could and continued to hit everything as hard as I could the whole way down to the finish. I almost had a big crash half way down, when my right foot ejected from the pedal off a rock drop at full speed, but somehow I managed to land with one leg flying out behind me, keep control and get the foot back in the pedal before the next turn without losing too much if any time. All that strength training paying off!
I knew I’d gone faster, but with no live timing at the bottom all we knew for sure was that Simmonds won with a 4.07, Bryceland was 2nd with a 4.08 and Dale was 3rd with a 4.10. There was talk that I was 4th, but we didn’t know for sure. On the way back to the top I was hoping I’d done a 4.15. This would be 4 seconds faster than my seeding time, and 8 seconds behind Simmo at the start of the season on my new bike and such a long track is not bad going. We got to the top and sure enough I was 4th with a time of 4.15. So a great start to the season, happy days! Unfortunately my teammate Joe Connell had crashed hard in his run and was forced to roll down steady after hurting his knee.

Next up was a three day training camp in the bike park before we headed off to the next race. This was a great opportunity to relax with the team and have some fun, as well as get the new bike tuned and dialed in for the next race! I did loads of riding, as well as some video and photo work with our media dude Benny Klose to get a load of stuff for the SC Intense website. On Thursday we headed off for Pampilhosa and round one of the Portuguese National Series, but not before a good ol’ Go Karting session which was unreal!

We arrived in Pampilhosa and the track was completely visible from our hotel room. It was mostly on open hillside and looked like it took a very direct line down to the finish. If the hill had been steeper it would have been the Portuguese version of Llangollen! It was ideal being so close to the pits as it meant I could get as much sleep as possible before getting up to go ride!
Friday morning started with a course walk as practice wasn’t starting until 2pm. The track seemed pretty straight-forward and there weren’t many line choices. There were some tight rutted switchbacks at the top before things got much faster and straighter. Then there was a short wooded section at the bottom before a fast finish into the arena. After my first practice run I wasn’t convinced with the track. It felt a bit awkward and I wasn’t sure if it was going to flow particularly well. However one run later my mind had been changed! As soon as you were up to speed the track was great fun. The corners at the top felt awesome when you got your entry and exit points right and fast bits were great when you figured out the correct braking points.
I was lucky enough to spend Friday afternoon and Saturday morning working on suspension set up with experienced Fox suspension technician and owner of Suspension Centre in Switzerland, Gery Peyer. He really is a Guru when it comes to suspension and I got to experience it first hand. We tried a number of different settings and shock tunes before I was perfectly happy with how the bike felt. At the start of the weekend the bike had felt a bit skittish on the fast rough sections, but with Gery’s tune my Intense M9 was as smooth as butter heading into race day!
I went into seeding feeling confident. I had all my lines feeling great and I was excited to put some runs together and get a great result! My seeding run was smooth and fast and crossed the line with a time of 2.46.3 and went into 1st place by 4 seconds with only 4 riders left on the hill. My time held out and I qualified in 1st place for racing with Matt Simmonds in 2nd place only 0.8 of a second behind. I was excited to get racing underway and try to replicate what I’d managed to do in seeding.
Being a part of the SC Intense team is proving to be amazing. I’m loving every aspect of it and race day is when I really appreciate the opportunity I have this year on this team. The support I get from our mechanics Gery and Gavin is next level. They got my M9 absolutely primed going into racing including fresh rims built onto wheels so they would be running as fast as possible. Now it was just for me to do my bit and I couldn’t wait to get in that start gate!

Warming up at the top I was so pumped up to race. I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited to get on with it. I gave it absolutely everything I had from the second I left the start all the way down to the finish line. I had a great run. I had a few sketchy loose moments but that’s to be expected when you’re giving it literally everything you’ve got! When I crossed the line I heard a groan from the crowd and I knew straight away I hadn’t done it. However I felt like I’d had a better run than in seeding so I quickly span my head round to see the scoreboard. I was in 2nd place with a time of 2.46.06 and only 0.18 of second behind Matt Simmonds who took the win. I think the team thought I’d be disappointed judging by their reaction when me and Dad got back to the pits, however I was the exact opposite. I’d held myself together to beat some great competition and was so close to beating a rider who is ranked 10th in the world at the moment and was 5th at the world championships at the end of last year!
So what a start to 2014! Two great race results, I love my new bike, the team is awesome and being part of it is doing great things for my confidence and therefore my riding and racing. Back home now and back to training! I really can’t wait to see what this season will bring!

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