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!

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