The opening round of the 2018 Ulster Cross-country Mountain Bike series took place on Sunday 15 April at Craigavon Lakes and was hosted by Apollo CT. This year the location of the circuit had to be moved, from the traditional home near the Watersports Centre, due to the works starting on the new leisure centre. The race headquarters was based at Tannaghmore Gardens which had car parking, toilets and a community hall where the sign on took place. The racing took place around 500 metres away from the hall along the shore of the lake. The lake view would have been very pleasant on a nice day however there was a strong cold wind coming off the lake which made the race feel more wintery than the calendar date would expect.

Racing started as always with the Under 6s ‘fun’ race. The young riders, some with pedal bikes and some with strollers, lined up on the tarmac before heading towards the cycle loop among the trees. At the finish line was a packet of sweets for all racers.

The Under 8s started in the same location but had to complete 3 laps. With no gridding for this round there was a clamber to get to the front of the bunch. The boys started on the first whistle, the girls on the second. Brodie Hull (Trail Demons CC) took the win in the boys’ race as he finished ahead of Darragh Murphy (Rostrevor Mountain Bike Club) with Ryan McKeown (Trail Demons CC) third. In the girls’ race Aoife Craig (VC Glendale) had another impressive win finishing well ahead of Anna Morris (Inishowen Wheelers) with Aoife Kellett (Dromara Cycling Club) third.

The start line for the remainder of the day was on a wide stretch of grass about 60 metres beyond the timing tent. The grass was draggy in this section but it was slightly downhill to make it easier for the riders to get a good start.

The Under 10s had their own course and had to complete 2 laps. Curtis McKee (Maryland Wheelers) notched up another win as he finished clear of Elliot Maitland (Killinchy Cycling Club) with James Armstrong (Dromara Cycling Club) third. Cara Suckling (Maryland Wheelers) won the girls’ race with a close finish behind Cara for second place with Aisling Smyth (Apollo Cycling Team) getting silver and Elisa Sunderland (Apollo Cycling Team) bronze.

The Under 12s had their own course which they had to do 2 laps of. True to form it was Aine Doherty (VC Glendale) who managed to pass all the boys to lead the race overall. Reuben Maitland (Killinchy Cycling Club) worked hard to keep ahead of his nearest rivals to take the flag as first boy. It was a close finish between Conor Murphy (Rostrevor Mountain Bike Club) and Callum Morris (Inishowen Wheelers) with Conor crossing the line just ahead of Callum. Eimer Skelly (Carn Wheelers) was the second girl to finish to claim silver with Lucy Brown (Phoenix CC) third.

There was a break in racing to allow for the podium presentations and for the full course to be open for practise. At noon there were 7 categories lined up. Under 16 boys, Under 16 girls, Under 14 boys, Under 14 girls, Senior 4 men and both Senior 2 women and Senior 3 women. The Senior 3 women’s category had just been returned this year and focused more on the beginners. The Senior 2 women’s race would normally run at 2 pm but due to an administration error it was held at nooon. This earlier slot seems to have been well received by the 7 Senior 2 women.

With the Under 16 boys starting first it was no surprise that it was Dean Harvey (Kinning Cycles) who appeared first back at the timing tent after lap 1 and he would continue to dominate this category finishing well clear of his nearest rival Ben Wilson (Dromara Cycling Club) woh in turn finished well clear of his nearest rival Ryan Skelly (Carn Wheelers). Darcey Harkness (Carn Wheelers) was the only Under 16 girl in the race and started instead with the Senior 2 women. The Under 14 boys’ race was won by Travis Harkness (Carn Wheelers) with Shane Scullion (Island Wheelers) second and Matthew McKelvey (XMTB) third. In the Under 14 girls’ race Erin Creighton (XMTB) was just ahead of Hannah Mullin (Trail Demons CC) at the end of lap 1 but Hannah managed to pull away on lap 2 to take the win leaving Erin with second. Keela Smyth (Apollo Cycling Team) finished third in this race.

Trudy Brown (VC Glendale) was charging around the 4 lap Senior 2 women’s race to finish over 4½ minutes ahead of Angie Smyth (Apollo Cycling Team) with Janice Hepburn (Island Wheelers) third. In the Senior 3 woemen’s race Leah McCarthy (Team Giant Dublin), normally seen at the enduro events, took the win ahead of Louise Friel (XMTB) and Norma Rea (XMTB). The Senior 4 men’s race was won by Michael Nelson (Apollo Cycling Team) with Matthew Leathem (Trail Demons CC) second and Gareth Osborne (Phoenix CC) third.

After another break for podiums and course practice the final races of the day took place at 2 pm. Lined up were the Senior 1 men, Junior men and Senior 1 women, Senior 2 men and Senior 3 men.

Current national champion Gareth McKee (Banbridge CC) was living up to expectation by flying around the course leading from start to finish over the 7 laps. His nearest rival at the end of lap 1 was the current national junior champion Thomas Creighton (McConvey Cycles) but he went on to have mechanical problems and had to retire after 3 laps. It was Niall Davis ( who ensured that Gareth did not get to relax in the race as he gave chase to claim second place. Take a look at the consistent lap times of Gareth and Niall! Tomasz Michalski (McConvey Cycles) took third with Paul McCarter (Donegal Bay Cycling Club) fourth, Conor Campbell (Newry Wheelers CC) fifth and Clive Caldwell sixth. There were two names of riders normally seen in this top 6 – Graham Boyd (McConvey Cycles) who retired after 2 laps and Barry Kellett (Dromara Cycling Club) who had a spectular crash within sight of the finish line at the end of lap 1. Thankfully Barry was able to get up from the crash.

In the Junior men’s race, with Thomas’ retirement, Lee Harvey (Kinning Cycles) pushed on to take the win with Andrew Gordon (Ballymoney CC) second. Tarja Owens ( won the Senior 1 women’s race with junior rider Niamh McKiverigan (Powerhouse Sport) finishing second.
David Broome (Dromara Cycling Club) had an impressive win in the Senior 2 men’s race with Gary Sheils (Newry Wheelers CC) getting onto the podium in second place and Sean Scullion (Island Wheelers) taking third. Everything came together for William Boyd (XMTB) who was delighted with his win in the Senior 3 men’s race. Edward Shannon (Velo Club Mourne) finished second with Dean Burnside (Island Wheelers) third.

Many thanks to all the hardworking team from Apollo CT for hosting the race especially given the challenge of a new venue. Well done to course designer Robbie Smyth who also managed to compete in the Senior 2 men’s race.

The next cross-country race will be on 29 April 2018 at Tollymore Forest Park. This race will also double up as the first round of the National Point Series. See details here.

Results here