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.

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