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)
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.