Bristol Bikefest Image by © Neil AKA FireMonkey (www.iseepeople.co.uk) AKA digphotoneil (flickr)
I’ve been on the periphery of groups of people doing endurance mountain bike racing for a few years now, always on the outside looking in. But I finally got the chance to pop my endurance cherry at the Bristol Bikefest in June as part of a 4 man team going for 12 hour glory. Quite apart from being the event that meant I HAD to buy a new MTB, it was an unbelievable weekend in many ways. Some of them have no words in English adequate to describe them.
Straight off the bat, things were not looking good. Stuck in work at Banbury until six on the Friday evening, Luke, Jon and Steve had long been on site before I could even set off, they had first hand experience of the shocking weather conditions that I didn’t want to know about. Rocking up at eight after McDonalds (race fuel is important, right?) and a long drive, Ashton Court was blustery and wet. The rain had largely stopped, but the ground was wet enough that the toilets had had to be left in a separate field and duck planks laid down to give vehicles a chance to make it into the camping field. I wouldn’t say morale was rock-bottom, but neither was it at it’s adrenaline-filled peak, either. What with hydration being as important as race fuel, I’d optimistically brought a rake load of Kronenbourg, but no-one was in the mood for much more than an early night and good sleep.
The early night bit went off as planned, but the sleeping bit wasn’t great, with gales giving the tents some gyp. With the race kicking off at nine, we were all up and about by half seven, popping to the Luff Bus for bacon rolls and a hot drink – as preparation goes, it wasn’t ideal, but the others had at least had a wander down the day before and seen a few lengths of trail. Preparation, after all, is about more than just hydration and fuel.
After scientifically formulating our riding order (by going “who wants to go first? Who wants to go second?” etc) , Luke was the man to step forward for the important first stint. Following the rider’s briefing, a horde of riders meandered over the horizon to await the nine o’clock start time out of our sight, and when the clock finally struck nine, an endless stream of two-wheeled lunatics came pouring past us after the Le Mans-esque run to the bikes and mad sprint up the hill that starts the event. For the most part, the riders that flooded past were composed and happy-looking – some of them, however, looked pretty gassed straight off the bat. Hard not to get carried away at the start of a race like this, I guess, but the last thing you need is to be knackered 30 seconds after the flag drops on a 12 hour race.
It was, I found, easy to be a smart-arse before I actually took to the track. Scientifically placed at random in the number three slot, I started my stint in glory by not being in the transition area when speedy Steve turned up for the changeover. That hiccup overcome, I rolled out onto the track for the first time, down the hill through the pits, then dived into the woods for some blisteringly fast, flowing single track. And guess what – about 30 seconds in, I was gassed.
It was incredible. I’ve not been to a modern mountain bike facility on a modern mountain bike since, ooo, forever, so finding myself on pristine manmade single track under race conditions was astonishing, a really liberating experience. I flung myself (in relative terms) down the track as fast as I dared, carving arcs through a beautiful green cathedral of trees for a minute or two before a nagging doubt began to creep into the back of my mind – had I missed a turn somewhere? There was nowhere that I’d had any moments of doubt about which way to go, but even looking on the brightest of bright sides, it was unlikely that I was on the pace of the fast folk, nor was it likely that said pace was the same as the folk at the back of the field. Nevertheless, I swear I must have battled through the woods for fully ten minutes in solitude, doubt growing with every turn of the wheel, but the path was so cool, I was loathed to turn back. As I made my way downhill however, eventually I heard the sound of freewheels and chain slap slowly growing behind me. If I was lost, at least it wasn’t just me – cool.
Of course, I wasn’t lost, I must have just popped out into an unusually large gap, because most of the rest of my day aboard the bike was spent looking for places to get out of the way of faster traffic. Almost without exception, from the first to the last, they were all achingly polite, asking if they could come by and thanking me when I found enough trail to move to one side, which not only blew a personal pre-race misconception out of the water but cemented the point by proving what nice folk mountain bikers are. If ever you’ve wanted to do a race but have been put off by the fear of being out off your depth, fear no more – based on my Bristol experience, as long as you make an effort not to hold people up, they’ll all be nice to you on the way by.
Bristol Bikefest Image by © Neil AKA FireMonkey (www.iseepeople.co.uk) AKA digphotoneil (flickr)
So I cracked on, and I took it steady, knowing there was a long way to go – not taking it easy, running at about 90% instead of flat out, The track had moments of awesomeness, many great lengths of swoopy sweepy singletrack, most of it wide enough to allow faster traffic through, although there was the odd painful climb – a particular standout was the fast downhill hairpin section, very Alpine, that led into a quick righthander before climbing up… And up and up, through a horrible rising righthand hairpin, all wet roots, then a long rocky stretch, nice and damp, horrible and bobbley so you could never relax. It was nasty, and it wasn’t the only bit of track that hurt, but beyond any shadow of a doubt, the bits that stung were nothing compared to the good bits. This track rocks.
I completed lap one with a smidge in reserve, but decided lap two was party time. I went out and gave it everything, from the first turn of the pedal all the way through to the desperate, breathless crossing of the line. Depressingly, it made almost no difference whatsoever, the scant seconds I saved as likely to be down to knowing the course as to the extra effort expended, but it meant that, by the end of the lap, I was almost done. Stint three was an exercise in survival, treading the line between cracking on as fast as I could and keeping a little something in reserve for a final lap four, but by then an eerie spectre had arisen, that we might just – JUST – be able to sneak an extra lap in for one of us. It was a most curious feeling – if Natalie Imbruglia thinks she knows something about being torn, I can tell her she can think again. The extra lap might make a difference in our overall position, but we were all as close to having given our all as to make the prospect of an extra lap, even on this brilliant track, a truly scary prospect.
I put myself forward for the fifth lap then hit the track, running stint four as quick as I could muster, knowing I had Jonno to follow and, if the clock smiled on us, that meant about 35 minute’s rest and the dread lap would be on me. Making the changeover to Jon as swiftly as possible, I trembled out of the changeover area on wobbly legs to check the clock – Luke and Steve were on the job, and the news was… We were JUST out of time to do another lap. Gutted. Relieved, but at the same time, gutted.
The level of competition was an eye-opener (NTG MTB finished 88th out of 95, beaten even by the appropriately-monikered Team Inappropriate Bike, who really were on some shocking equipment), but the atmosphere was cracking, the event well run and everyone was just so friendly. But it was the track that was the star for me – first time out on my first mountain bike in 16 years, I had an absolute blast, even if the hurt lasted a long time. Roll on Oktoberest and the 8 hour endurance event at the same place – see you there…
For more information on both the summer Bikefest and forthcoming Oktoberfest, visit www.bike-fest.com
This is my first blog for a while and I think it comes at an appropriate time of my season. My last blog took us up to the end of our second team training camp. This point marked the end of my winter training and the beginning of my 2012 racing season. I had already spent 3-4 weeks away with my new team mates and as the start of the season drew closer, the exciting talks of racing were growing evermore common. Personally I couldn’t wait to take off the legwarmers and get stuck in.
My season started relatively quietly with a local 25 mile TT. A very cold Sunday morning in Sussex marked my first race, where I was entitled to proudly pull on my Rapha Condor Sharp skinsuit for the first time. Although the TT itself was hugely uncomfortable and not particularly quick, it felt good to lay down a definitive marker and I can now monitor my improvement as the year progresses. More importantly it meant the season had now officially started.
My first big race for the team was the UCI 2.1 classified Tour de Taiwan. But before I jetted off to the other side of the globe, I was looking to fit in a few more races to help ease the always painful transition from training to racing. I was lucky enough to be given the offer to stay up North with my team mate Rich Handley – I got to know Rich quite well after sharing a room with for the duration of our first training camp in Lanzarote. It appears I didn’t annoy him too much first time round, so he was willing to accommodate me at his home for a weekend of training and racing. Along with a few of our other team mates, we raced in the Eddie Soens Memorial and CDNW Pimbo circuit races. I was pleasantly surprised with how I felt in the season openers and picked up 6th on the Saturday and 9th on the Sunday.
Tuesday afternoon I was dropped off at Manchester Airport to meet the members of the team I was travelling to Asia with; Luke (Mellor), Andy (Tennant) and Pete (Taylor). You can always sense the disappointment of the person behind the check-in desk at the airport who has to deal with us and this time was no exception as we had quite a large entourage of baggage to stow away on the plane; 7 bike bags, 8 suitcases and 1 very lanky rider. Our flight plan would add a few more pins into the chart on my wall with the journey taking us from Manchester to Amsterdam to Bangkok and finally to Taipei.
With no apparent signs of jet lag on arrival, the few days we had before the start of the race flew by. A few short rides, lots of Starbucks coffee, birthday cake purchasing, press conferences and probably too much twitter were what filled my time. After receiving our race programme it quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to be waking up any later than 6am at any point during the race. I generally don’t have a problem with early starts and here was no different but I did find myself struggling to stay awake past 9:30 most evenings.
Stage 1 was a short, very wet 55km crit around the centre of Taipei city. The short distance, bad weather and tight corners suited my style of riding quite a lot. I was pretty nervous before the start – as John picked up on when I couldn’t stop fidgeting – as I didn’t really have any idea how I was going to compare to the highest ranked field I’d ever raced against. I was fortunate enough to be given a nice initiation into this level of racing with a fast but comfortable first stage where I picked up 4th in the bunch sprint, which was good enough for 10th on the stage. However, the following few stages weren’t as kind.
The next 3 days involved me suffering, wheel sucking and trying my best not to get dropped from the main group too early. Even after a nice first stage, in my head I knew I was going to take a bit of a kicking. Last year whilst stage racing, although I experienced some good stages I also experienced a lot of bad days where I was struggling from the start to the very end of the stage. Naturally, taking a step up from the racing I did last year I expected it to be harder, so I think not underestimating how hard it was going to be was what helped me get through those first few days. I wasn’t panicking about my performances at night and wasn’t dreading getting up for the race in the morning – quite the contrary as although I wasn’t performing as well as the rest of the team, I was still loving the racing.
After a tough 5 days and my personal goal of reaching the finish of the race nearly complete, I was given the opportunity of trying to get in the days break away. Stage 6 was my best chance, when the break was let go within the first couple of km’s. This marked for me, personally my worst day of the tour. Sitting in the bunch steadily riding along knowing I could’ve been in the break wasn’t a nice feeling and to top off a very long drawn out day, I got burnt to a crisp by the sudden heat wave shortly after the start – 35 degree sun and pale Irish skin without any suncream is a terrible combination. After the disappointment of not capitalizing on my role of getting in the early break-away on stage 6, I was determined to rectify that on stage 7 and must’ve followed over 10 attacks within the first hour but to no avail. The not too shabby average speed of 49 km/h probably had something to do with that. The end of the race was tarred with an unfortunate event. A fast technical finish looked to be the perfect end to our tour, with Deano [Dean Downing] and Ben (Grenda) both up well within the top 10 with 500m to go but some bad dangerous riding from another rider saw Ben being taken down and bouncing down the tarmac on his ass. Not a nice end to Ben’s tour, especially after his solid performances taking a 5th and a 6th.
Looking back now I am pretty satisfied that I got through the race. I loved the experience and it felt great to finally get involved in some racing after months of excitedly anticipating lining up with my new team mates. International stage racing has definitely become one of my most favourite aspects of the sport in the last few years. I relish the way the team comes together throughout the race to help each other achieve the best results possible and to get each other through the lows as well as the highs is something that I haven’t yet experienced anywhere else. Although in the Tour de Taiwan I was at times disappointed that I wasn’t able to help my team mates more, I think the experience gained there will stand be in good stead for the rest of the season.
From this moment I have quite a busy 4 weeks ahead of me. This Saturday (24th March) I’m racing for the first time since Taiwan in a short hilly circuit race in East London. I then move to my next race with the team the following Sunday – the Dengie Marsh classic premier calendar. After that I fly to Belfast for the 4 day stage race: the Tour of the North. Finally, I fly out to Holland to compete in the ZLM U23 Nations Cup event, where I will be riding my first race of 2012 for the Irish National team. A busy, but very exciting few weeks ahead and I can’t wait to get racing again.
After the success of the previous camp, I had high expectations for our second camp of the year and it didn’t disappoint. It was my first time meeting the 3 new international additions to the team for 2012; Ben Grenda, Rich Lang and Chris Jennings. The 3 guys fitted into the team immediately – probably helped by the ‘Twitter banter’ which started before we’d even met the guys and has kept everyone entertained both at home and whilst together on camp. Our stay in Benidorm was scheduled by the boss to get us race fit, just before we kick start our racing season. The harder efforts were a bit of a shock to the system, in contrary to the laid back steady riding I had become accustomed to over the winter and whilst out in Lanzarote. This time around I wasn’t nervous about the camp, but I had a small amount of doubt at the back of my mind about how I was going to perform after training was interrupted when the UK skies decided to snow. I’m writing this now about 10,000 feet up in the air, wedged into my Ryanair seat (thankfully I’m on the shorter side so I have some leg room, unlike a few of my longer team mates), flying towards London Stansted (or knowing Ryanair, somewhere within a 50 mile radius) in preparation for our team launch at Sharp HQ. Our mechanics and soigneurs are currently driving north through Spain heading towards the French border. With our bikes being driven back home, it means each of us only has to worry about getting our suitcases and a pair of sore and heavy legs back home to the UK, sometimes easier said than done.
With a total of 9 training days, the camp was split up into two four day blocks with one rest day. This alone was going to make the camp harder, and with the added bonus of specific TT, hill and leadout efforts it was destined to produce; aching legs, stiff backs and tired bodies. Along with the different style of training, we had our team nutritionist Mayur over for a few days, examining our meals and checking our skinfolds – which always brings competitiveness from everybody. We’ve decided that Luke has to be removed from the competition as he puts us all to shame! The presence of an all you can eat buffet meant that Mayur was definitely necessary to keep us in shape and to make sure we were getting the most of what we were putting into our bodies. The combination of Mayur’s advice at the dinner table and the support from Science In Sport, every rider has got through the tough camp without picking up any illnesses and we’ve all seen the ever welcome improvements in our skin folds.
The setup in Benidorm was different to the self-catering apartments we had out in Lanzarote. We had smaller rooms with 2-3 people in each, which I think suited this type of camp a lot better. There was also the huge bonus of having free wifi in every room. Having access to wifi always make for a more relaxing stay – the ability to lie in bed, flicking about the interweb after a hard days riding is priceless. This time around I was rooming with Mr Deano Downing. I learnt a lot throughout the week just from chatting to Dean about the upcoming season, and the expectations this team has. All of the talk of racing throughout the week, has every rider on the team chomping at the bit and super excited about pinning our first set of race numbers on the back of our Rapha Condor Sharp jerseys.
Along with the other stuff going on, we had the Rapha film competition winner Andrew with us for the duration of the camp. He’s producing a short film of the team, which will show the ins and outs of a Rapha Condor Sharp training camp. After seeing some of the shots he’s picked up over the week, I can’t wait to the see the finished product. A few of the days involved Andrew filming out the back of the Skoda team car with the boot open, whilst we chased him down one of the particularly fast and windy descents. All good fun!
Training throughout the week was kept simple and we made sure we got some essential race prep work done. I won’t bore you with the specifics but as I said earlier we worked on a 4 days on, 1 day off schedule. The first 3 days were each between 90-100km, with the first day working on TT efforts, the second day working on threshold hill efforts, the third day – my favourite of the block – was leadout/sprint day and finally we ended with a steady endurance day. We each worked on our efforts individually as it was clear from the beginning of the camp that we are all different in our abilities in certain areas – as expected with our age gaps and variety of different types of riders. The steady (sometimes not so steady for me when the Aussies got to the front) endurance day took us on a nice loop around the surrounding mountains, allowing us to clock up 160km in 5:30 hours with 3000m of climbing. Each ride was always a good laugh and with a few coveted ‘Strava segment sprints’ being contested there was always a good flow of conversation between everyone – saying that I was communicating considerably less on some of the climbs… not out of choice.
All in all, another highly successful camp. All of us are buzzing for the start of the 2012 racing season and judging by the way a lot of the guys were riding it won’t be long until we have a few wins under our belts either.