Mike Down previews the Men's chances at the National 12 Stage Road Relays - good luck to everyone racing this weekend!
Since the club was rebranded as Bristol and West nearly 20 years ago now, we have established an impressive record in the National 12-stage road relay championship, only once having failed to make the top ten in what is universally regarded as the blue riband event of the English road racing season, and even then, in 2007 we were only one place off it.
But it is only more recently that we have reached the medal podium, taking the bronze medals in 2016, followed by the silvers in both 2017, when we were crowned English champions as Welsh club Swansea were the first team to finish, and the last time the event was held in 2019.
It is some record to defend, particularly having had to play second fiddle to old rivals Notts AC in the recent Midland championship event, the standard of which appears on paper to have been some way short of the corresponding Northern and Southern qualifying races.
The current holders of the title Leeds will probably start as hot favourites, while there is going to be a strong and concerted challenge coming from several leading Southern clubs, headed by Tonbridge, who won the Southern race, Highgate, Bedford, Cambridge and Coleridge, Aldershot, and the newly crowned English Cross Country Champions Southampton. Our arch Midland rivals Birchfield too could make their presence felt if they have their two Ethiopian stars in action.
The three-year gap since the race was last held in 2019 due to the pandemic makes any prediction of the outcome even more contentious as there will be many new faces competing, including quite a number who have since moved up from the junior ranks.
Nevertheless, with the record we have set in recent years, a place in the top six of the eighty or so club teams who have qualified for the race must be our minimum target, as well as avenging our Midland championship defeat.
We are certainly starting with a stronger line-up than we had at the Midlands. We have our top six runners on current form available for the long stages. Team captain Kurt Taylor and cross-country international Jack Millar step up from the short legs they did in the Midlands, while Ben Robinson returns to the fold after missing the Midlands to successfully defend his National Dog racing title in Northumberland where he managed two 2-mile efforts at under 4-minute mile pace! What price for Ben’s dog on one of our long stages!
Kurt, Jack, and Ben are joined on the long stages by Felix McGrath, who clocked our fastest long stage time in the Midlands, Dan Studley, who will be continuing his promising comeback, and finally Jack Bancroft, who only became available after having to miss last weekend’s Manchester marathon due to COVID.
COVID unfortunately has ruled out track star Mike Wilsmore from running the anchor leg short stage, and that role will now fall to Will Parkin, who broke the 15-minute barrier for the first-time last weekend when he clocked 14:49 at the Podium 5K at Burnley.
The five other short legs will be taken by ex-international stalwarts Owain Jones and Johnny Thewlis, Josh Moody, Ben Westhenry and Henry Cochrane, who like Dan is on the comeback trail and reportedly much fitter than he has been for years.
Joe Connors is unlucky to miss out on selection, but apart from providing back-up if needed, he will head the strongest B team that Chris Elson has been able to assemble for a long time – a team that will surely be strong contenders to finish among the top three second teams.
Teams (In provisional running order: alternate long and short stages):
A: Felix McGrath, Josh Moody, Jack Millar, Owain Jones, Dan Studley, Henry Cochrane, Kurt Taylor, Ben Westhenry, Ben Robinson, Johnny Thewlis, Jack Bancroft, Will Parkin.
B: Andy Salmon, Billy Cochrane, Pete Bains, Andy Watt, Lee Gawler, Harry Allen, Dan Shepherd, Adam Wilson, Graham Breen, Graham Donald, Joe Connors, Tom Foxon.