Learning curves take one of two shapes. Sometimes a gentle sine wave, lifting you quietly up and away from your present state and onwards via a steady and almost unnoticeable natural progression over months and sometimes years.
Or they're just a vert ramp heading straight into nothing. No handrail, no parachute. Freefall.
This year is going to be the latter. I've thrown myself into the weekend-on/weekend-off maelstrom of driving, riding and eating that is cross-country racing just to see if I can, really. After a (mostly) gentle easing-in at the Gorrick spring races we went to Thetford this weekend for the opening round of the NPS series. It has a long and high-falutin' name now but I shall stick to NPS because column inches are sparse and anyway, when I hear the word 'optic' I think of vodka, not XC racing...
An early start sees three bikes, a lot of cake, a brace of camping equipment and two tired bodies heading up the M23 through the dawn fog. As ever it just feels right to be driving to a race and watching the sun come up; it feels like, well, racing. Seeing familiar faces after what's been a short winter also feels like home. Back with the family again. Things have changed in my life and in those of others and there is news and gossip to share. Shiny bikes to prod and new race kit to admire. The sun's out and it's summer come early, under the pines where the last year ended, and again it just feels right; a balance of nerves and comfort, eager to go, ready to stay.
So, then, the learning. Notes to self:
Start is, if not everything, a fair percentage of it. Sprint til your eyes bleed, make yourself big, grow pointy elbows but get into the singletrack first if it's what you're good at. Know who is in your race. Do not confuse juniors for experts - they go damn fast but only for two laps, whereupon you will have to complete a third having ragged yourself silly trying to keep up with them. Smiles and grimaces look very similar to an onlooker when deeply sweat encrusted - at least try to make a funny joke to drive home the point that you are having fun, honest, even if it doesn't look like it from there. Singlespeeds don't do anything for the ability to push the big ring down a Thetford fireroad, ride the road bike more, and harder. Don't neck a litre of fluid thirty minutes before a 100km race having somehow lost the slot for breakfast in the pre-race time concertina and then expect to be able to hold off the need for a pee stop until the end. And yes, a mid-race pee is the longest one in the world as you perch in the bracken watching rider after rider catch and pass you and how the hell did all that water fit in there anyway? Always leave enough time to check your bike over for gremlins. Riding 100km with the front brake jammed on and a hastily-switched-the-night-before tyre buzzsawing its way through the chainstay on every left-hand corner will undoubtedly make you very, very cross, no matter how many times you tell yourself it was good resistance training.
And finally - it's a toss up between pancakes, tea and crying as to which gives most relief to which part of a battered racer's body and/or soul when everything is covered in dust and the sun is going down on a very long weekend.