Monday, 18 August 2014

The Rocky Cannock Show

Now that's what I call a rock garden . . . 

And I absolutely loved it!  Who says XC courses are not technical?  Okay, two of the British XC courses this year have been flat, boring and not very technical (Essex and Sherwood), but Cannock Chase more than made up for it for the last round of the Series on Sunday 17th August.  They saved the best for last . . . and I also saved my best British National Series result for last too!  

The course at Cannock was great.  Not only did it have this really challenging rock garden (which attracted the crowds, and believe me, the picture does not do it justice!), but it also was a lovely flowing course with a bit of everything.  Not too many hills, but just enough (127m climbing per 6km lap), a couple of drops and rollers, some nice descending, a few tight twisty rooty sections, some nice descents along the side of hills through the trees and some enjoyable switchback climbs where they took us in reverse up some of what would normally be the bermed trail centre descent.

We arrived on Saturday afternoon after what would be the final trip down the M6 this year.  I've really enjoyed my first year racing in the British National XC Series.  It's had its ups and downs and I've learned so much, but I was glad to be making a long journey south for the last time.  I really do hope British Cycling put a Scottish round in next year . . . it is supposed to be a "British" series after all.  We've had 4 in England and one in Wales this year!

After signing on around noon on Saturday, I got my number board on and got out on the course for 3 practice laps.  I immediately fell in love with the course and stopped to session the rock garden a few times.  It took me a couple of attempts to find the right line but I got the hang of it and did it a few more times to be sure.  My Trek Superfly was perfect for this kind of trail feature, with its full suspension and 29er wheels.  I also felt great myself after nailing it, and even in practice there were crowds there watching.  Both in practice and the race, us riders got a cheer or even a round of applause when we made it down this section!  

So, skipping forward to Sunday, I was feeling good.  In fact, I'd say this was the most relaxed I've felt about a race all year.  I'm not sure if this was because I put more pressure on myself for my home races in Scotland, or just because it was the last in the British Series and I had nothing to prove, but I did still want to do well.  I set out with a target of top 50% and I achieved it!

After a good warm-up, using my new warm-up routine for the second time at a race, I got to the start line for gridding.   I'm really happy with my new routine and will be continuing to use it from now on.

I was gridded 19th in the starters list and my focus was to not lose too many places off the start as I often do in these British races.  Well, that didn't quite go according to plan . . . you can see me just next to the start flag in this picture:

I actually got clipped in immediately and felt like I got "out of the blocks" quickly, but ended up losing over 10 places in the short start loop!  But I know why . . . It wasn't speed.  It wasn't a silly mistake like at Hopton.  It was simply because I'm not aggressive enough!

I need to get my elbows out and barge my way through!  That's what everyone else did to me and it's something I just really need to focus on next year.  With so many riders all fighting for space, you need to just squeeze your way through and get those elbows out to block others.  I can't afford to lose this many places off the start line next year if I want to do better at these British races so that's something I need to work on next season.

So, on entering the first section of singletrack, I had lost over 10 places and was maybe even sitting below 30th.  The first climb allowed me to claw a couple of places back but I had to give it my all if I wanted to achieve my goal of finishing in the top 50%.  43 riders had signed up but with the usual pull-outs, I think there were about 36 to 40 riders on the grid.  The results only show 32 riders but that's because if you pull out on the first lap, you don't get a time at all and don't even show on the DNF list.

Anyway, I had my work cut out to get back up to that top 50% target!

Those who have been reading my blog most of this season will know I've been beating myself up for my technical skills.  I've been losing time on tricky technical sections and really trying to improve that area of my riding.  Well, what a confidence boost this race gave me!

On entering the woods approaching the rock garden on my first lap, I saw 5 or more riders in front of me all choose the "B line".  For those who don't know, these races often have A anb B lines, where the A line would be something difficult like this rock garden and the B line lets you avoid it if you're not confident doing the A line.  The penalty is that the B line is often much slower.

Well, as I confidently rode down the rock garden, picking a perfect line down it, these 5 or more riders all lost about 15 seconds (or more!) to me as they chose to take the easier, but longer option.  And on I went to stay in front of them for the rest of the race!  This gave me such a boost!  If that happened every lap I'd take well over a minute out of those riders in the whole race, assuming we were even on the rest of the course.  I've never taken a B line this year and that's why it's worth practicing the A lines the day before the race as it really can cost you time to choose the easy option.  Plus, it's a mountain bike race and I'm there to have fun too and challenge myself on these difficult sections!

Even in the twisty rooty sections through the trees later in the course, I was flowing so well.  I'm much stronger on rocks than roots, so the rock garden advantage didn't surprise me, but I received another psychological boost to find myself catching people on the kind of section I usually struggle on: tight and twisty through the trees.

I tussled with a couple of other riders for the first two laps as we swapped places a few times but I eventually settled into around 19th or 20th place come lap 3.

Things were going well and other than one wee mistake in the rock garden on my 2nd lap (not a crash thankfully, just had to unclip as I missed my best line), I didn't have any incidents other than the usual bumping into the odd tree on the tight twisty sections due to my wide handlebars!

I was climbing well, descending quickly and smoothly, and keeping the riders behind me from catching up.

On passing through the feed zone to start my 5th and final lap, my wife told me I was in 18th and that I had to go catch the guy in red and white in front!  And that's exactly what I did!  After the race, checking my lap times, I was really happy with how consistent they were, but I was even happier to see my last lap was faster than my 3rd and 4th.  I had fuelled well and my endurance was coming through to help me catch that guy in front.

He also took the A line at the rock garden so I didn't have that opportunity to catch him there.  I kept him in my sights on the descents that followed, and kept things smooth and controlled as a heavy shower had made what had been a dry dusty track just a wee bit slippy for the last couple of laps.

As we climbed the switchbacks through the trees I was starting to catch him and gave it a massive push up the final fire road climb to get onto his wheel.  I got past him just as we entered the next descent and kept on pushing right to the end so as not to lose my place.  

On approaching the finish area I caught up with another rider but realised I was unlapping myself with a vet rider who had previously lapped me so there was no need for a sprint finish!

I crossed the line a very happy man!  17th may not seem that great a position to be happy about when I've had 3 podiums this year in other races and I'm currently sitting 2nd overall in the Scottish XC Series . . . 

However, I set out into the unknown in XC racing this year, and in particular really did not know what standard to expect at the British National Series races.  The Scottish races are hard, but the British ones are on a whole other level and I was even just happy with a top 30 at the first few.  When I then broke into the top 20 at Margam, that remained my goal for the rest of the season.  I do plan to move up those places next year now that I've witnessed the exceptionally high standard of racing and know what I need to work on, but I'm over the moon with this 17th position in the final race.

I loved the course, I rode well, and I couldn't have tried any harder on the day.  I know what I need to work on over the winter so that I can work my way further up next year and at least I won't be going into the unknown.

We've done a lot of miles this year getting to these races, but I've really enjoyed them, even the ones with my low points!  They are all learning experiences.  I have finished 18th overall in the final British National XC MTB Series standings out of 64 riders who took part in one or more races throughout the season.  In my first year moving to XC racing I've got to be happy with that.  And I most definitely am!

I've now got a 4 week break until my next race and it's hard to belive there are only 3 races left this season.  It feels like only yesterday that I was itching to get racing back in March!  That next race is the final one in the Scottish XC Series and also doubles as the Scottish Championships, so it's an important one!

I'm on a rest and recovery week now, meaning it's reduced volume and reduced intensity before a 3 week peak in my training to tune up for those Scottish Champs at Dalbeattie on Sunday 14th September.  That four week gap will be good and will let me have a good break from racing before the champs, as well as a really focussed period of training to get myself ready!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

I knew I should have swapped that rear tyre!

Picture this . . . After messing up your start at the last race, you get off to a fantastic start.  Clipped in straight away and a great sprint off the line.  You take the lead into the first section of singletrack and try to set the pace from the off and lead the race out.  Then, just as you turn uphill round a right hand bend onto an off-camber muddy section, your rear tyre slips completely from under you and you end up on your side, unable to do anything about the 5 or so riders passing you as you pick yourself up and get back on the bike.

Yep, that's exactly what happened to me on Sunday at Round 4 of the Scottish XC Series at Lochore Meadows in Fife!  But I still finished in 2nd place, taking my 3rd podium of the year (2nd of that series) and leaving me in 2nd place in the overall series going into the last race.

Novantae: SXC Rd.5 (Lochore Meadows) &emdash;

I'm really happy with that result and loved the race, but why oh why did I not change that rear tyre when I knew the course would be much slippier given the heavy rain?!  Doh!  Lesson learned!

After a break of three months for the SXC Series, it was great to be back racing on "home soil" again.  I feel like I've had so many trips down south and while I've enjoyed it, I'm looking forward to completing the final trip south of the border next weekend for the fifth and final round of the British Series at Cannock Chase.

The SXC events are always really well organised and have a great vibe, and Lochore Meadows in Fife was no different.  The event village had a great atmosphere with various tents around the start/finish and the country park location made it a great day out for supporters and family too.  Just a shame the weather was miserable!  Big thanks to my wife for the usual feed zone support and my friends who came along to cheer me on too!  Especially in that weather!

I did some practice laps on the course on the Saturday and was pleasantly surprised by it.  A few people had told me it might not be that much fun or technical but they were so wrong!  There were some nice twisty sections through the trees, not too much climbing, a couple of technical rocky sections to climb over and a lovely technical rooty and rocky descent towards the end of the lap.  It had a bit of everything and it became even more fun on the Sunday in the rain!  I was surprised how long the descent at the end was given there was only 110m of climbing per lap - a fair bit less than my last race at the British Champs at Hopton and yet you seemed to get a lot of descent in return for not much climbing.  Bonus!

Given the weather, I'd decided to run a chunkier tyre up front for more grip in the corners: a Bontrager XR2 (29 x 2.20).  I stuck with my usual race tyre on the rear though: a Bontrager XR1 (29 x 2.00).  I should have realised how much the course would change with the rain and within 2 minutes of starting my first lap I realised the mistake I'd made.  But it's all a learning experience and I just had to deal with it!

As I was sitting in 2nd place overall in the series going into this race, I was gridded on the front row alongside Scott Logan (series leader) and Craig Webster.  I got a great start and was really happy not to repeat my mistake from Hopton!

Novantae: SXC Rd.5 (Lochore Meadows) &emdash;

As we approached the first section of singletrack I felt I could actually push on a bit more, so although Scott was just in front of me, I decided to sprint past him and lead into that first section.  It's not something I've done in a race before (i.e. lead from the start), so I thought I'd see how it would go . . . 

Then, as I started to slip and slide due to my mistake of rear tyre choice, I knew I'd have my work cut out!  When the bike slipped away from under me, I had no time to beat myself up for the mistake!  As about 5 riders got past me, I knew I just had to get back on and get on with it!

By this time, Scott and Craig had got a decent gap of maybe 30 seconds or so.  I managed to overtake the other riders in between and settled into 3rd place on the first real climb of the course.  I still had them both in my sights so felt confident I was still in with a chance.

Novantae: SXC Rd.5 (Lochore Meadows) &emdash;  

On our first time down the long descent at the end of the lap, Craig had a mechanical and I managed to get by him.  Scott, however, was gone, and I later found out that he took about a minute out of me each lap.  I said this to Scott after the race: I really do think he was in a different class again.  I  just couldn't close that gap.  But I'm left wondering . . . If I hadn't slipped on the first lap, would we have stuck together?  Or is he a much better climber or descender than me and would have dropped me anyway?  I just don't know.  Perhaps if I'd stuck with him it would have pushed me to try harder and maybe, just maybe, I could have stayed with him.  I guess I'll find out when we next race together!

On the second lap, I managed to stay ahead of Craig for most of it until we hit that long descent again.  This is where Craig showed he was a far better descender and got by me.  I wasn't descending as well as I should have at this point - I think I was still worried about that rear tyre and didn't want to crash.  But I was probably being too cautious!

I spent the whole 3rd lap trying to catch Craig on the climbs.  On the main climb on that 3rd lap, Craig unfortunately had another mechanical.  I felt bad that this was why I got by him and even asked if he needed tools or anything as I passed.  But he soon got on the way again and started to chase me once more.

At this point I gave it my all to build up a bigger gap before the long technical descent, knowing that he'd probably be faster down it than me.  However, he didn't quite catch me this time.  I think I finally got my confidence on the descent, focusing on the lines, being smooth and carrying speed where I could, and using the grip points between the roots and rocks for braking.  I felt like myself again descending much smoother and faster!  One thing that definitely helped here was tyre pressure . . . After listening to Dougie Shearer's advice recently, I've been running much lower pressures.  Given the conditions for this race, I ran 23psi rear and 21psi front.  It really did help with the grip on these sections!

I got down that descent with Craig still behind me, but closing in.  As I crossed the start/finish line to commence my 4th and final lap, I grabbed my bottle from my wife in the feed zone and told myself I had to give it everything to build the gap from Craig.  I knew he had a damn good chance of catching me and I did not want to risk what happened back in Abriachan where I lost a place near the end of the last lap.  Although, at least this time it was 2nd vs. 3rd rather than missing the podium like at Abriachan!

Novantae: SXC Rd.5 (Lochore Meadows) &emdash;

Craig kept the pressure on me, as I continued to look over my shoulder, but I built up a good enough gap to keep ahead for that final descent and pushed as hard as I could all the way to the finish to take 2nd place about a minute ahead of him.  Scott finished first, about 4 minutes ahead of me, and I clearly had no chance of catching him after that first lap.

I have no idea what I'm doing with my face here, maybe my mouth was full of mud! But I was rather happy to cross the line in 2nd place: 

Novantae: SXC Rd.5 (Lochore Meadows) &emdash;

I sometimes wonder why I put myself through the pressure of racing, and don't just go back to riding my mountain bike for fun, but this race really reminded me why I do it.  I absolutely loved that battled with Craig for 2nd and 3rd place.  It was great fun, whether I was in front or behind.  It's all really friendly and we all congratulated each other afterwards, but it's so exciting trying to chase someone down, or looking over your shoulder in the hope that they're not catching you.

I have to thank all the racers for a great race, and well done to Scott on the win and Craig on 3rd!  The marshals were great, the course was great and, as always, the organisation of the SXC committee was perfect!  

I'm really happy with how the race went, despite my daft rear tyre choice!  I tried out a new warm-up routine and a new nutrition plan and they both worked out perfectly.  I felt that my descending was much better on the 3rd and 4th lap once I got over my fear of the rear tyre slipping and I don't think I could have pushed much harder, so overall a great result for me personally.

There's just one race left in the SXC Series this year, at Dalbeattie, and it also doubles as the Scottish Championships.  I'm really looking forward to it. It'll be a great one to watch and given it's the Championships too, there will be final series positions and championship positions to be announced that day.  So come along to watch some exciting racing if you can!  Sunday 14th September and there will no doubt be more details on the SXC website nearer the time.