The BUCS Downhill race is one of the pinnacles of mountain biking competition in the university and college calendar, and the University of Stirling Cycling Club made sure they put their stamp on the annual event.
The race was held at the world famous ‘7 Stanes’ downhill tracks in Innerleithen in the Scottish borders, after being held in Wales the previous year.
Filled with adrenaline, crowds comparable to world cup audiences and riders from across the UK, BUCS DH sees some of the best riding talent in the country go head to head for the gold medal.
This year, USCC had four riders entered in a race which also featured former downhill world champion Manon Carpenter, representing Cardiff University. She would be riding in the women’s category against USCC’s own Elena Melton.
Also in the roster for USCC were James Duncan, riding in his first race, Donald Rodgers and Chris Hartley, who was racing BUCS DH for his fifth time.
“It’s just the pinnacle of university sport for me”, said Chris, a PhD student at Stirling.
“The whole academic year is spent building up to it. It’s typically during the week everyone’s handed in their final assignments, and you won’t get a crowd as big and wild as this unless you’re a professional cyclist!
“There’s also just such an awesome range of people taking part: from recreational punters having a go at downhill for the first time to world-cup level racers destroying course records”.
Almost 230 riders took part in this year’s BUCS DH, with some travelling from as far as Plymouth to represent their university at this spectacle of sport.
Practice was held on the Saturday and Sunday morning, with most riders noting the trail to not be extremely technically challenging, but after a week without rain it meant the track was loose, dusty and very, very quick.
Unfortunately, a crash during morning practice on Sunday saw qualifying pushed back 30 minutes, but was underway again with USCC’s riders posting some impressive times.
Donald “Don” Rodgers posted a phenomenally quick time, just 36 seconds slower than the lead rider, putting him in 33rd going into the race. Chris Hartley qualified in 51st.
Meanwhile, Elena Melton was chasing the rainbow-trimmed jersey of Manon Carpenter from start to finish, posting what she described as “probably one of the best downhill runs I’ve ever ridden, with a time that would have put me 35th out of 212 riders in the male field”.
She added: “I just got into the ‘zone’; a mind-set that blocks out all thoughts and is focused solely on the track ahead. I rode smooth and precise to all my intended lines”.
Her efforts showed, with her qualifying just six seconds behind Carpenter for second place.
However, the race threw a spanner in the works.
She said: “I started the race run with intent, pedalling as hard as I could and hitting the first corner faster than I have ever done before. The first half of the track was going well, with the times showing that after 1 minute 50 seconds of riding I was just 0.3 seconds back on Manon – but I was riding right on the edge of my capabilities.
“The rest of the race run was a complete blur: one second I was on my bike, the next my body was hitting the ground with a lot of force. I didn’t have time to give a single thought as to what had just happened. I grabbed my bike out of the tangled tape and carried on going fast.
“However, my focus was lost; I was shaken up, and inevitably I crashed again. This time I got back on and realised I needed to just calm down and ride smoothly to the bottom. Coming around the last corner, I could see the finish line at the end of the straight ahead of me; I put my head down and gave it everything I had left”.
Although saying she was “pretty gutted” at coming 2nd to Manon, Elena admitted she was relieved her crashes had not cost her more.
— Ross Brannigan (@rossbrannigan95) April 10, 2017
After a four-hour trip to A&E to check there was no internal bleeding, Elena went away with a set of “lovely bruises” and a silver medal to boot – the first BUCS medal for the club.
Meanwhile, in the men’s race, Don was ripping up the trail, and carrying a lot of air out of the infamous “Bomb Hole” jump in the latter part of the race.
After a “pretty solid” qualifying run, Don admitted he was a “bit too keen and rode like a spanner” in his race run.
Nevertheless, despite riding hard into the corners and hitting the brakes more than he would have liked, he still shaved two seconds off his qualifying run, ending him in 43rd place.
Chris Hartley also had a difficult race run. Taking a couple of falls on the loose ground, he gave himself a bash to the shoulder and finished in 87th.
For the South African, though, “all I wanted was to qualify and have the buzz of racing in front of a 200-plus crowd of wild students!”
He added: “It’s exactly the sort of weekend that makes your university years so special.
“For myself, BUCS Downhill seems to get sweeter and more nostalgic every time I do it. The good race result is just a cherry on top of the good weather, camping outdoors, banter and new friendships that were made”.
For James Duncan, who was competing in his first race, his qualifying time was just not quite quick enough to put him in the top 100 cut-off for the race run.
He said: “’I’ve been wanting to race for a while and the ease of signing up and affordability compared to Scottish Downhill Association races appealed to me.
“Also, Innerleithen was one of my top places to race. It was a great feeling, and I am looking forward to the next one”.
Coming away from the event, Elena said she was pleased to see so many girls riding impressively at the event, and hoped for more next year.
Don added: “To try rally up more folks to join the USCC and come join the good times, because it was such a tremendous weekend for riding bikes or just watching the carnage. I would also quite like to try aim for a top 30 result”.
USCC walk away with its first BUCS medal, and hopes are high for an even better set of results next year.