Cycling: Mud, sweat and tears - my first season as an elite national rider

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Heulwen Gilbert will be writing for Yahoo Sport this season
Heulwen Gilbert will be writing for Yahoo Sport this season

Hello, my name is Heulwen Gilbert. I’m an Elite Cross-Country Mountain Biker riding for TORQ performance. This year my main focuses are the Midlands and National XC series as well as the National Championships. During the next four months that make up the race season, I’ll give you unlimited access to my crazy life as a dedicated cyclist and a full-time masters student. Follow me as I juggle my relentless training and competition schedules with the continual pressure of study and a part-time job. Experience every blood, sweat and tear with me as I push myself to the limit on some of the most gruelling courses the UK has to offer.

What a place to start a race season – a cold rainy afternoon in Stoke.

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Talk about throwing me in at the deep end! Upon arrival I knew it was going to be a tough day in the office. Most of the four-mile course had become a mud bath. Good for a face mask maybe, but not the best conditions to be riding in.

As a consequence, I opted against pre-riding the course in favour of more time warming up in drier, cleaner conditions! I was feeling quite nervous, as it was my first Cross Country in an elite field and I wasn’t sure what to expect!

When the time came for the riders amass at the start, I stuck out like an exceptionally clean thumb, this changed within minutes of the whistle being blown.

As soon as we hit the first single-track it became apparent that it was going to be a battle of who could stay upright! I had a strong start – managing to stay just behind my teammate in second but lost her when I took the wrong line on a muddy climb!

On my way to 2nd
On my way to 2nd

I soon found myself in no man’s land – with no apparent competition in front or behind (apart from a few strays from the men set off before us!).

There were some sharp steep climbs which I found to my surprise I enjoyed, probably because they weren’t too muddy, I like to believe I ‘flew’ up these!

The worst part of the course by far was a section of single track which resembled a buffalo’s watering hole, I could barely stay upright, but this did make it all the more fun!

My favourite part of the course was the long drag up to the finish, where I could finally settle into a rhythm and gain some time.

Miraculously for someone as clumsy and technically inept as me, I survived the first lap without a spill. Unfortunately, the second and third laps weren’t quite so uneventful, it began to rain – I wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for my boyfriend standing there with my polka-dot umbrella!

On a particular sketchy section of track, I thought I’d try and take out a tree, not something I’d recommend trying at home! Luckily both my bike and I remained intact and I was able to get back on to finish second behind fellow TORQ performance rider Joanne Clay.

All in all, a good first race to set me up nicely for the rest of the season. Feeling pleased with my fitness levels, but my technical skills leave a lot to be desired.

Happy with a second place finish in my first elite race
Happy with a second place finish in my first elite race

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