Tuesday, 15 April 2014

My first win!

Twenty weeks of training.  Over 4,000km on the road bike, mountain bike or turbo trainer.  Over 200 hours in the saddle.  Rain, wind and cold.  Weight training.  Pilates.  Injuries.  Pain!

Was it all worth it?  It most definitely was for this:

I just had my first win in a mountain bike race!  In my first season competing in proper XC racing in the Scottish XC Series.  At my home race on the Cathkin Braes Commonwealth Games track in Glasgow.  Round 2 of the SXC Series on Sunday 13th April (in the Masters category).

I still can't quite believe it and I don't know how to express how happy I am in words . . . but I'll give it a try!

For the past couple of years I've been doing some endurance mountain bike events and getting a few good results in them, but this was the year I decided to step it up a level, and also try the shorter/faster XC format, competing in the British and Scottish national XC series. This was quite a step up and a format I wasn't sure I'd do well in given my grounding in the long distance endurance format of mountain bike marathons or 12 and 24 hour solo racing.  To come 4th in my first SXC race at Forfar a few weeks ago was one thing, but to win one was just something that wasn't really in my sights when I started training for this season all those weeks ago in late November / early December 2013.

After the 4th place at Forfar though, I thought I could be in with a chance of a podium.  My confidence took a fair hit at the first round of the BCXC series at Codham Park, Essex, a couple of weeks ago but I realised I made a lot of race prep mistakes and I have absolutely learned from them.  I also knew I'd have the "home advantage" at Cathkin as I live near Glasgow and ride at Cathkin every couple of weeks.  I know the track well as it's my closest trail centre and I use it for a lot of my XC training.

If I could just learn from those mistakes at Codham Park, stay focused on my strengths for this race and use my knowledge of the track, maybe . . . just maybe . . . I could step up onto the podium.  But winning?  That never really entered my mind until the race got underway yesterday.

As soon as I started planning for this season I marked Cathkin as my first A priority race.  Typically, you will only choose 3 or 4 races in a season as A priority: the ones you will peak for in your training plan to ensure your fitness and form are finely tuned just in time for the race.  B priority races are almost as important but you won't peak for them.  They'll fit into your normal training periods.  C priority races are for trying out new things and you may not even do them (such as when I pulled out of the Strathpuffer 24 earlier this season).

So, it was all working out well.  I followed my training plan exactly and had peaked perfectly.  My legs were feeling great on the morning of the race.  I learned from my mistakes at Codham Park:  I didn't overdo it the day before or during the warm-up; I got a better night's sleep; I ate the right amount the day before and the morning of the race.  Plus, you could also factor in the 20 minute drive being a lot less stressful than a 7 hour car journey to Essex!

I knew the weather forecast did not look great, and those forecasters got it spot-on.  Strong winds (gusting up to 40mph!) and heavy rain starting just in time for our race at 2pm.  Lovely!  But, hey, it's mountain biking in Scotland!  I'm more impressed by my supporters, the organisers and all the marshals, standing around in that weather for hours - it's warmer racing!

My warm-up went really well and I was feeling good on the start line.  A big difference from the first round in Forfar (and the BCXC in Essex) was that I would be gridded 4th due to my placing from that first round.  I lined up alongside Scott Logan, who had finished 3rd at Forfar (a good 1 min 25 secs in front of me).  I also knew to keep an eye out for Sean Clark, who unfortunately punctured from 2nd place at Forfar and didn't finish.

The Sport category (those young things of 20 - 29 years old) were set off 2 minutes in front of us.  We got the 15 second warning.  Bang!  (the commissaire had acquired a gun for this one rather than the whistle he had at the first race!).

I got an okay start but not great.  I didn't get clipped in on the first pedal stroke but soon got going and stayed in the top half of the 20 riders in our Masters category heading towards the first corner as the track narrowed from about 6 riders wide to just enough room for two.

I'm not sure who it was, and I hope he's okay, but a rider just in front of me was forced to the right side of the track as we entered the first corner downhill over some rocks and got caught on a poor line.  He ended up going over the bars and crashed just beside me but thankfully I squeezed by just in time or I could have been caught up in it.  Phew!

Over Propeller Point we went and down through the tunnel and into the woods.  I think I was around 5th place at this point and I knew there was no point pushing it on the singletrack section to squeeze by . . . after the dual slalom fun of Double Dare I knew what was coming: Clyde Climb.  The longest climb on the course and one of my key strengths at Cathkin.  My pre-race strategy was to use Clyde Climb to my advantage and I soon got up into 3rd place, tucking in behind Sean Clark, with Scott Logan in the lead.

We gradually broke away from the rest of the group and this is when I had the realisation that I was in the lead group.  Me?  In the lead group?  Wow!  "Keep this up and you'll be on the podium" I thought to myself!  But that podium would be another four and a half laps away!

I realised that I could hold the pace with Sean and Scott and that's when I started to think that the podium, and not necessarily the bottom step of it, could be feasible.  The three of us stayed in that order for the first lap.

On lap 2, I felt I could go a bit faster up Clyde Climb again so decided to have a go at getting past.  Sean did the same thing at the same time and so we ended up with Sean in the lead, me in 2nd and Scott in 3rd.  Sean and I started to pull away a bit from Scott during lap 2 but I knew not to get complacent at this point as I'd seen his times at Forfar and knew how fast he was.

By lap 3, I couldn't see Scott behind anymore and I started to think about the possibilities . . . Stick with Sean until the end then sprint it out?  But I had no idea what his sprinting was like.  Bide my time until the last lap then go for it?  Or pick my moment and go for it now?  Could I hold on that long?  Well, let's try . . . 

I decided it was better to have a go in front and see what it would be like setting the pace.  It's sometimes the only way to find out if you have it in you to pull away.  I managed to get by Sean on one of the climbs on lap 3 but he stayed right on my tail for most of the rest of that lap.

He nipped by me again just after Brig o' Doom towards the end of the lap and then we swapped places again just a few moments later as I passed him on Boulder Dash.  I thought the final 2 laps may keep going this way but on the 4th lap I started to open up more of a gap.

It eventually got to the point, I think about half way or thereabouts round my 4th lap that I couldn't see Sean over my shoulder anymore.  As I passed through the feed zone, my wife (bottle swapper / support crew / amazing person who puts up with all this training and racing!) told me she couldn't see him back down the hill and I thought "could I actually win this?".

As I settled into my 5th and final lap I just told myself to be smooth, consistent and in control on the downhill sections, rocks and corners.  It was pouring down and miserable, my glasses were keeping the muck out of my eyes but were covered in rain, the track was slippy in places, and there was no point going to the ragged edge just to make a mistake.  If I could stay smooth and in control, that would be faster, then I could push it on the climbs just to ensure I kept the gap up.  I did not want to get complacent and take it easy though as Sean and Scott are both really fast and there was always the possibility of being caught.

On through the rain and wind . . .

I found out after the race that Scott had overtaken Sean again on the 4th or 5th lap but I didn't know at the time so I continued to look over my shoulder and kept on pushing.  Last time up this climb.  Last time over these rocks.  Last time through the burn splash and up to Boulder Dash.  I was on the final climb back to the start finish area.  I could see my wife and the expression on her face in the feed zone and it hit me: I was about to take my first ever win in a mountain bike race!  In the Scottish XC Series.  In a racing format I've only tried for the first time this year.  At my home race in front of my friends and family.

I crossed the line.  I couldn't believe it.  My brother was there and I had to check "did I just win?".  "Yes you just won!"  It didn't quite sink in.  Scott finished 30 seconds behind me and Sean about a minute back.  

So, to my earlier question . . . was it all worth it?  Absolutely!  I still can't quite believe I did it.  This means so much to me, and I'll maybe explain why some other time, as this has been quite a journey this mountain biking has taken me on.  

I have to thank all my friends and family who turned up to watch me race in that miserable weather.  It must have been freezing!  But it made such a difference hearing you all shout every time I passed (even if I was concentrating and not looking up at you, sorry!).  I also have to thank the SXC organisers and marshals for putting on another great event and for braving the elements too!  And finally thanks to my sponsors, the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow, for their support and assistance this season which has helped me get to this point.  My Trek Superfly was running perfectly, thanks to its recent servicing by Andrew at Alpine Bikes St.Georges Cross store.

After my not so good result at Codham, I listed the lessons I learned that day and I definitely used every one of those lessons at Cathkin on Sunday.  But you also have to learn from the positive lessons too . . . there were several factors that helped me today, and while I can't utilise all of them at future races, there are many I can use as lessons for the next race in a few weeks time:

  • Home advantage: but this just means practice makes perfect!  I know Cathkin really well because I'm there lots, so need to focus on practicing lines and learning a new track
  • Support from friends and family: it really does push you on in a race!
  • I got my pre race and race nutrition perfect so I've taken a note of it all
  • My warm-up was perfect too
  • I had peaked for this race so repeat my peaking process for the next A priority race
  • I was well rested.  Shorter travel distance, yes, but I also got a good night's sleep, stayed calm and focused, didn't overdo it in race practice the day before or the week leading up to the race
  • Anaerobic endurance: I've been focusing on this in my training recently and it's really paying off as I did not slow that much as the race went on.  I got a new PB round Cathkin and a 5-lap PB too.  That's what racing does to you I guess!  You can find the full results here on MyLaps (and if you sign up for a free login you can view individual lap times by clicking on a rider's name)
So, I finished off Sunday night with a couple of celebratory beers (that I've been saving for some time while off the booze for training!).  After peaking it's also important to have a "transition" week, where you don't follow a structured plan and just ride when you feel like it.  I'll keep cycling to work and with it being a holiday weekend at the end of this week, I can go do some fun trail centre riding with my wife instead of blasting around on the race bike doing intervals!

Then it's all back to where it started twenty weeks ago . . . well, not quite, but my next peak is in July so I'm going to go back to a couple of weeks of base endurance training then onto another two build periods.  My next race is the British National XC Series at Redruth in Cornwall on Sunday 4th May but that's the first of four races in a Row:  BCXC Round 2, British National Marathon Championships at Selkirk, SXC Round 3 (Abriachan, Loch Ness) and then the Glentress Seven.

So, I've got a busy May ahead and plan to enjoy this week off formal training!

If you're interested, you can check out some video footage of the race by my friend Alex here.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Every day's a school day . . .

. . . and the first round of the British National XC Series at Codham Park (near Braintree, Essex) on Sunday 30th March was most definitely a school day for me!  But in my first year racing at this level I didn't expect anything else and it's all part of the learning curve.

After a 7 hour drive we arrived at Codham Park in beautiful sunshine and much warmer temperatures than we left behind in Glasgow:

Despite the long journey, this lifted my spirits and I could already sense the higher level of competition I knew to expect at the British Series.  While the first round of the Scottish XC Series the previous week was anything but easy, I knew this was going to be even tougher and despite my 4th place the previous week, I set my expectations a lot lower for this one.  I had a lot to learn and I most definitely did.

With almost 50 entrants online, and with me being gridded 36th due to it being my first year competing in the Masters category of the BCXC, I had set my sights on a top 30.  I would be happy with that, and if I managed to get in the top 20 I would be over the moon.

The first thing that knocked my confidence a bit was the course.  Not because it was difficult though . . . It wasn't really technical at all and was essentially flat.  Under 100m of climbing in each 5.7km lap according to my GPS app on my phone.  It was also very grassy.  I hate grass.  It is really draggy, even when dry.  My only other experience of an English race was very similar (Sleepless in the Saddle): grass, mud and nothing too technical.  I'm told the next round in Cornwall is quite different though so I'm looking forward to that.

The course just didn't suit me.  I like a few longer climbs and a few technical sections.  I'm used to our rugged rocky Scottish trails with real mountains in them!  But, hey, this was Essex and they don't have many mountains! 

I got some practice laps in on the Saturday afternoon, including one bit of the course that would have suited 20 inch rather than 29 inch wheels: the BMX pump track!

I felt good after 3 practice laps and we headed back to our hotel.  I have to mention the Premier Inn here.  There were several other competitors staying there, including some of the big names of British Elite XC mountain bikers, two Scots: Kenta Gallagher and Grant Ferguson.  The hotel staff were great and let all of us mountain bikers bring our pride and joy into our room.  I've never encountered a hotel willing to do that so I really do want to thank them as it puts your mind at rest to know your trusty steed is tucked up beside you!

This is unfortunately the point when my mistakes began and I most definitely need to learn from them.  As we'd arrived mid-afternoon, I missed the 12:00 - 14:30 practice slot and had to use the 16:30 - 18:00 slot instead.  It's great that both slots are provided but by the time I cleaned the bike, got back to the hotel and got a table at a local Italian restaurant, it was really late.  I ate too late and I ate too much.  I've been experimenting a bit with pre-race food and I got this wrong.  I didn't realise at the time though but I'm sure it was a factor in the next day's race performance.

On race morning, I realised I probably hadn't had enough sleep either.  I then continued my mistakes by eating too much at breakfast and then too much at "second breakfast".  This is where my experimenting didn't work out compared to the previous week at the SXC in Forfar.  Most of the races I've done until now are in the morning and I simply have my usual porridge for breakfast, don't eat again for 3 hours before the race then have a gel or an energy bar just before the race (depending on its length).  But with these XC races I'm now doing being in the afternoon, I need a second breakfast or lunch to ensure I've got enough fuel.

I know what type of food to have but I simply had too much yet again.  So that was 3 meals in a row where I'd eaten too much.  When I got to the start line, despite a good warm-up, I felt bloated.  I also made a mistake with my warm-up.  At first I thought it had been too intensive, but I've since realised it just finished too early.  I had cooled down too much by the time the commissaires had gridded the Elite, Junior, Expert and then my Masters category.  This is bound to take time with so many competitors but I could have warmed up a bit later.

I didn't feel as fired up as I usually do on the start line and with a course like this, I needed the initial speed to sprint from the start and get ahead from my 36th place on the grid.  We were lined up, given the usual countdowns and then the gun fired . . . 

My legs felt like dead lumps of wood.  I managed to make up some places and I had no problem powering up the short snappy climbs out of the saddle but I felt ready to quit within the first 500m.  I just had nothing in my legs.  They felt heavy.  No energy.  What was going on?  This was a 5 lap race and I couldn't imagine another 4.5 laps of feeling like this! 

My legs eventually got going again but by this time there was no way I could catch anyone nearer the front, or even the middle.  I managed to power by a few riders on the short climbs again, and felt glad that I'd been working on power hill sprints recently.  But then I hit my next problem - I just couldn't carry my speed through the tight twisty section in the trees.

I've been working on my cornering and technical skills recently but for some reason I just couldn't get going through this section.  It wasn't downhill cornering and it wasn't technical.  It was flat or slightly uphill and tight, twisting through the trees.  I just couldn't seem to get it right and I really need to think about what was going on here and work on those kind of tight corners.  Riders I had sailed past on the climbs were catching me.  

I stayed around 34th or 35th according to the updates from my wife (aka manager / aka support crew!) as I passed through the feed zone but I knew I could do better.  On looking back at my lap times, the first two are okay but my 3rd and 4th were terrible.  I had a silly low speed slip into a tree in the aforementioned twisty bit on one of those laps and that really slowed me down.

On my last lap, I decided I had to give it my all.  Finishing in the same or lower place as my grid position was just not going to happen!

So, I chucked a few jelly babies in my mouth, gulped down some of my water and a gel, then got going!  

And this is where one of my fundamental strengths as a mountain biker came through . . . Until this season I've been an endurance rider, competing in MTB marathons and 7, 10, 12 and 24 hour events.  My endurance really kicked in here and helped me pass several riders on my final lap, and I almost caught one more, finishing just 10 seconds behind the rider in 30th place.  I almost got into the top 30 as I had hoped for.  My last lap was almost as fast as my second!

So, 31st place of the 43 riders who started the race.  Not exactly a great result and nowhere near as good as my 4th place (of 15) the previous week.  But I finished 5 places ahead of my grid position and if I can continue to do that I can only hope to keep moving up.

And as every day is indeed a school day, I learned so much:

  • Be careful with pre-race nutrition
  • Don't finish my warm-up too early
  • Work on fast starts as the speed at the start of these BCXC races is very high
  • Arrive earlier for the BCXC races and use the earlier practice session on the Saturday
  • Get to bed earlier the night before and maybe break up the journey more for these ones in the south of England
  • Flatter non-technical courses don't suit me - so work on this!
  • Work on my cornering speed through tight twisty flat sections between trees

I knew it was going to be much tougher and while I'm disappointed with the result, I'm not gutted.  I have learned loads and need to keep reminding myself that this is my first season competing in the shorter, faster XC format and my first season competing at this level.

So, it's now just over a week to the SXC Series Round 2 at Cathkin Braes on Sunday 13th April and I will learn from these lessons.  I'm focussed on my training for the next week and really looking forward to it.  It's my local race, so it would be great if you can pop along to watch us all racing on the Commonwealth Games mountain bike track.  You'll find details nearer the time on the SXC website and us Masters set off at 2pm (just behind the Elites).  There's also more information and directions here on the British Cycling website.