Riding the Selkirk MTB Marathon

Last Saturday was my first ever Selkirk Mountain Bike Marathon, on top of that it was our first
mass start bike race in about 5 years. I had forgotten how much fun they are, OK it helped that I got the quickest time of the riders who did the 75km in the ‘Sportive’ as well!

The Selkirk race takes in some of the best scenery and beautiful fell top riding of any event I know. It is seen as the best of its kind in the UK and in 2015 hosts the UK championship too. However Selkirk had become something of a personal nemesis for me after failing to even reach the start line since my first entry in 2010, therefore being illness and injury free and in the country was certainly a huge bonus for 2015!

I set myself a target of covering the 75km in sub 5 hours, which was based on quick local rider’s times from last year. Without a Garmin or any other device it was hard to pace myself or know how far I had ridden, but I felt in good shape on the day so I just went flat out until I couldn’t! Over the last 10 months I have certainly cycled the most miles in my life – about 17,000km (cycling to China helped), As winter training these miles have been a good base to build on. I am slowly pushing harder during my rides to build up my leg strength for the short sprinting demands of mountain biking, but I have a bit more to go.

This event was also the first ride on mine and Marion’s new Chinese 29er (big wheeled) mountain bike carbon frames, bought from a company called I-Can. I spent a month pondering geometry, sizing and specc’d the bikes from the spoke nipples right up to the rear derailleur. We were using Rockshox Reba 120mm forks and a 1:10 set up with 11-36 on back and a 36 up front, ambitious gearing that made me slightly anxious, Marion had a sensible 32 tooth easier cog up front. I will write a full review at some point because the bikes have turned out perfectly (so far) and cost a lot less than any comparable offerings.

At the start-line the elite racers for the British Championship were called out like a school register and lined up ahead of us ‘Sportive’ riders without racing licenses. At just past 10am we set off under a great atmosphere in Selkirk high street, all of us 400+ sportive riders were kept behind a pace car that crawled along ensuring a safe distance was maintained between us and the slowest male and female elite riders for the first 4km, all the time allowing the field to comfortably stretch out and a big gap to build to the top riders.

Finally the pace car pulled off and the race for us started. Quite a few other sportive riders sprinted up the first climb alongside me, all of us knowing this was the time to get ahead. I kept in this lead group as we overtook about 45 elite riders. It was leg burning work and even on the first descent I pushed hard to overtake a few more wobbling their way down a rough double track. It was this descent where I also managed to drop the other sportive riders behind, I think the dropper post helped a lot as I rode on the edge of control. I needed to consolidate and recover some strength, but I could still see the champs race leader’s way ahead on this second climb, I think the delayed start of the sportive cost at least 10 minutes which against top riders was too much for me.

The first big singletrack descent was off the Three Brethren down a good section of moorish heather then forest trail, it’s fast, straight but rough and rooty, but cut out before the last gnarly Enduro section. I was in a fairly ruthless mood and I was having fun and shouted my way past riders, “on your left, on your right etc” without slowing down much. The true XC whippets with sky high saddles were going so slowly down this section fearing punctures or just struggling with the terrain.

The next road section I wasn’t able to work with anyone against the headwind which was tough on the legs.

The most brutal climb, well probably the second most brutal climb was up next, it follows a series of zig zags up through Yair forest. I knew it went on and on and put my head down and spun up at a slow steady pace. I overtook one chap having a breather but saw no one else. The next descent was again more technical and it was a great chance to catch more riders. I overtook about three or four only to be re-overtaken on the next climb, this pattern happened for the rest of the race. I gained enough on the downs to keep pace on the ups.

The Caddon Bank descent at Innerleithen was fun on the new 29er bike, the slack angles, big wheels and supple forks ate the rougher stuff and I made up a good chunk of time. I knew the huge climb up to Minch Moor was coming so I needed it! The red ascent was ridden in full. The short quarry section downhill was the only respite, where taking the steep line I gained more seconds off the elite guys who all took the snaking chicken line.

At the top the wind was howling so the going was slow, until we cut into a boggy section and rode a newly cut wet trail out of the forest. Only a handful of tyre tracks were on the new dirt here so I knew I was doing OK. Although unfortunately I didn’t have any idea where the course went or how far we had left, which I will improve on for next year!.

Next was the long undulating series of climbs back to the Three Brethren, here my motivation dropped a bit. I hadn’t seen another sportive rider since the first descent and bar a crash or puncture I would be first back. I was also worried there was another climb after the Three Brethren that my legs might not like, so tired out I took it easier. I lost 5 or so minutes on the friendly guys I had been racing for most of the loop. This was just too long a gap to make back up on the nontechnical, fast descent into Selkirk.

I came in 23rd including the elite despite the much delayed start and was 10 minutes ahead of the next 75km sportive rider. Technically I had won I guess, but like an Enduro race there’s no prizes for coming back first, not too bad for my first marathon race. At 4.22 I was almost 40 minutes ahead of my target which was a pleasant surprise too.

I waited at the finish for Marion to arrive and she did a great job getting around in 6.30hrs. Meaning she finished in the top half against mostly male competitors. I think she was 7th female back too which was good going in her first race in years. She too loved the new bike although the sore back from riding a hardtail again was not so welcome!

Overall it was a well run event that’s not a “race” but still great fun to ride interesting trails as fast as you can and compare your times! I didn’t bother with the timed enduro style sections as on the new XC bike it would only depress me, but they are a fun addition too. It really is one of the best events on the entire MTB calendar and a dead cert for riding again next year, but maybe I’ll get a racing license!

Some images from the BBC:BBC Report

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