World Marathon Series Houffalize, Roc d’Ardenne

Following the Taça de Portugal in Valongo, Seb and Hamish trucked out to Belgium for the World Marathon Series in Houffalize. Known collectively as the Roc d’Ardenne, they were bidding to qualify to represent Great Britain at the World Marathon Championships later in the year. A top 20 result is what was needed to automatically make the qualification.

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Houffalize is a well known MTB XCO race venue, having held many World Cups over the years. Seb had one of his best results there as a U23 in 2012. Further more the route of the famous road Classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege goes straight through the centre and up the steep climb that formed the start of the Marathon (and the XCO World Cups of past).

Marathon racing is a different beast to XCO, the team’s normal and familiar discipline. Held over one big 82.5km loop and containing over 2000m of ascent, the Roc d’Ardenne required a different approach and tactics to XCO. Plus it is not possible to pre-ride much of the course, which means you have to learn and adapt to what comes at you during the race.

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The start is clearly a lot less decisive than in XCO, and the long steep start climb offered good opportunity to move forwards, although Hamish and Seb were still gridded near the front from the XCO World Rank.

Seb – “From the gun I moved up towards the front on the road climb as I wanted to be positioned well early on to avoid trouble. It worked well, and I felt really strong on the climbs in the first half of the race. The speed and intensity of marathons is a lot lower than XCO, it is obviously the distance that nails you, but the way I was riding meant I felt good for a top result.”

Hamish – “I got held up a little further back than Seb but was still sat comfortably in the lead group. Frustratingly one of the other riders braked erratically ahead of me and I crashed out behind pretty early on. While I was chasing back on I managed to take a wrong turn and had to backtrack to find the course again. I was feeling good though, and knew there was still plenty of racing to go.”

At the front Seb was riding well in the lead group, but the distance started to take it’s toll and he had to slow his pace around the 2.5-hour mark.

Seb – “The fatigue came on really quickly and I knew I had to slow down if was to hold on to the finish. I would have to let the win go, but the goal was a top 20 and I was well inside the top 10 so knew if I rode sensibly I’d still finish well.”

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Meanwhile Hamish was making his way forwards with Belgium cyclocross (MTB, road) legend Sven Nys.

Hamish – “I was riding well with Sven. I was strong on the uphill and he was tanking it on the flat. Unfortunately at around 35km I rear wheel flatted – a rock totally destroyed the side-wall of my tyre. The wet conditions meant I had opted for the Conti X-King RS for better grip, and it was the right call, but it was more risky for punctures and I paid the price. I put in a tube, rode the 10km to the next feed zone and swapped the wheel, but by then I was out chasing on my own.”

Making headway on his own, Hamish was to pick up a few places to finish a frustrated 24th. “It was annoying to flat, but that is racing sometimes. I rode really consistently throughout the whole 82.5km and am starting to find my form again. It’s looking good to keep building towards later in the season.”

Seb was still going well but started to crack fast in the last 2km. He lost 3 places pretty much on the line but finished a fantastic 12th place, well within the qualifying target, and a superb result at the World Series. “In the end the distance got me, and the much flatter second half of the course didn’t do me any favours. I am pleased with the result though – this is our first marathon race, and it was a real unknown so to have a good ride gives me a lot of confidence.”