Cambridge were victorious in the Mountain Biking Varsity Match at Hadleigh Park, EssexPatrick Blythe

Despite the freezing temperatures and blustery winds, the Cambridge male and female Mountain Biking Varsity teams arrived in good spirits at the ex-Olympic venue of Hadleigh Park in Essex. These spirits were no doubt aided by the news that Oxford had a very depleted team. There would be twenty-one Light Blue jerseys tackling the track, but Oxford could only muster five entries (including only 1 woman), making a Cambridge victory a likely prospect.

The racing began, after both teams had a practice lap to assess the conditions. The men’s race involved 6 laps of the track in a race lasting approximately 1.5 hours, whereas the women were to complete 4 circuits. As soon as the whistle blew, Cambridge’s trio of Tom Simpson, Rob Walker and Will Weatherill, accompanied by Oxford’s Oliver Bent, immediately established themselves as the main contenders at the front of the pack, with Ffion James (Cambridge) leading the women’s race and giving chase to the top men.

Meanwhile in the chaos of the mass start, Oxford’s Hugo Underhill ventured slightly off the racing line and unluckily hit a sharp flint which sliced his front wheel open. His tyre instantly deflated and the subsequent half-hour repair was a misfortune that Oxford could ill afford. As the Varsity Winner would be determined by the aggregate of each team’s fastest three times, this crash severely hampered Oxford’s challenge.

If Oxford had any hope left, it was dashed when 5th-placed Bryn Davies dropped out of the race on the second lap with a terminal mechanical issue. During the Olympics in 2012, the professionals had made this course look easy, but this was not the case for the Varsity riders as those who remained were tasked with tackling the steep uphills and switchback descents, constantly impeded by the high winds. Despite the hard work and high heart rates, many of the Varsity riders were struggling with freezing cold hands as they began to catch and overtake the slower veteran and sport racers.

When the riders passed the halfway point, the Cambridge supporters were in full voice, not only cheering on the Light Blues from trackside, but also whilst competing themselves. By this stage, Toby Cowell and Elliot Scott of Cambridge had both been forced to retire, but at the head of the field Walker’s relentlessly fast laps had earned him a healthy 90-second buffer. Further back, Weatherill and Simpson were still battling over second place.

In the women’s race, it was no surprise that National Champion Ffion James was putting in a sterling performance at the head of the field, leading the women’s race from the off. It wasn’t over until the flag was out though – in such an unpredictable sport a mechanical issue or small mistake on one of the difficult rocky sections from James could have handed the race to Oxford. James kept her concentration, taking the chequered flag and finishing in what would have been 5th place, if she had been competing in the men’s race.

Oxford’s Tamara Davenne kept her Light Blue adversary honest the whole way and finished, to her credit, only 12 minutes adrift in second place with the Light Blues’ Jess Atkinson taking the final podium spot with a great effort, working hard throughout the race on adapting her fast road-based style into the more twisty and technical world of mountain biking.

Cambridge secured a 1-2 finish, and overall team victory Patrick Blythe

With the women’s competition decided purely on the fastest time, James’s unassailable pace had clinched victory for the women’s light blues, and as she refuelled and rehydrated somewhere warm and out of the crisp wind, the men were still fighting it out on track.

In the end, Walker was the runaway winner, opening up a 4-minute gap to Weatherill in second. Unfortunately Simpson tired and Oxford’s Bent dug deep to make a last-lap pass and take the bronze medal position, beating Simpson by less than 30 seconds. Cambridge filled out the next 5 positions with Felix Barker, Finn Allen, Robert Clucas, Max Vesty and Ieuan Best respectively, and Oxford’s Angus completed the top 10.

After a poor showing, Oxford are likely to find a closer venue and more competitors for next year’s encounter, but for the moment it is Cambridge who are the Mountain Biking Varsity Champions

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