Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Tour de Ben Nevis

A couple of weeks ago, I read this great article about goal-setting in marathon mountain bike races by Imogen Smith.  It contains some great advice, which led to me setting myself the following goals for my 3rd No Fuss Events Tour de Ben Nevis on Saturday 20th September 2014:

Outcome goal: Top 10 in my category
Performance goal: Sub 4 hours for the overall route
Process goals: Smooth and fast on the technical sections, beat my times on them from last year and faster up the hike-a-bike section

Well, I'm pleased to say I achieved every one of these goals!  I finished 9th in the Senior Male category (of 114 riders) and was the 8th fastest rider to complete the whole course, out of roughly 300 who took part.  I finished in 3 hours 49 minutes and improved my time on every one of the special stages.  Hence the happy face afterwards, despite how hard I'd worked:

The Tour de Ben Nevis is a marathon mountain bike race with a difference.  Not only is it an epic adventure into some very remote areas of the Scottish Highlands, with minimal course marking and minimal support, it also contains 4 special stages for which you receive points based on your time.  A bit of a mix between MTB marathon and Enduro.  These stages are combined with your points for the overall race and so the winner is not necessarily the first rider to return (and usually isn't).

Weather plays a big factor in a race like this, so I was pleased to arrive to a lovely view like this on the Friday night, as we set up the campervan and headed along to sign-on:

The forecast for Saturday was dry with sunny spells so this added to my excitement the night before.  All No Fuss Events are fantastic, but this one in particular is so popular due to the epic adventure, with everyone from serious racers, to those just out to have fun, taking part.  As well as the overall route, the special stages are:

Stage 1: The technical, rocky descent down the West Highland Way into Kinlochleven
Stage 2: A 3km climb from the old Mamore lodge hotel to Loch Eilde Mor
Stage 3: A climb that is mainly a "hike-a-bike" due to its unrideable nature, up from the river crossing and down to a bothy on the other side, where those who are in it for the fun and experience are welcomed by a burger from the BBQ at the Bothy (yes, you're right, I skipped the burger in the interest of my race result!)
Stage 4: The Blue Crane technical descent at Nevis Range and on down to the top of "Nessie", one of the technical features in the Nevis Range trails

I did get some strange looks when I hopped onto the rollers in the West End carpark in Fort William at ten past nine on the Saturday morning to get warmed-up: 

This may have seemed strange to some people, as it's something you expect to see at an XC race rather than this type of event, but this race starts up a steep tarmac climb and I immediately felt the benefit of a good warm-up.  As my perceived exertion on the bike had already been raised in my warm-up, the climb didn't feel as hard as it would have otherwise, and it helped me stick with the top 10 lead group going up that first climb.

The race start is quite unique for the TDBN: we are lined up on Fort William High Street and marched along by a pipe band!

I ensured I got a place on the front line, as we start up that first tarmac climb on a public road and you can end up being forced onto the wrong side of the road if you have to overtake people on the climb.  

This, along with my warm-up, worked out really well for me and I stuck with the lead group most of the way up that climb.

As the climb hit the West Highland Way, and the true off-road epic began, I was clearly hurting a bit from the climbing but really happy I was in the top 10 as we entered the "wilderness":

As we worked our way towards Kinlochleven for the first special stage, I managed to overtake a couple of riders on the rough old military road that forms that section of the West Highland Way.  This is where you really do see the benefit of 29er wheels (and full suspension) come into play on a race like this: the track is so rough but they just swallow it up, enabling you to pedal more smoothly and make better progress.

The scenery in this part of Scotland is absolutely stunning and I'm glad I've done this route before at a more leisurely pace as I didn't have time to appreciate it this time round.

You definitely don't get the chance to enjoy the scenery if you're trying to do a good time on the Kinlochleven descent.  It commands full concentration.  This is one of the smoother easier sections of it but it contains some challenging rocky sections and some loose steep sections:

There's no rest at the bottom of this descent as you essentially have to climb back up to the same level before then heading out into the most remote section of the whole course from Kinlochleven towards Spean Bridge.  This is where they have one of only two feed stations on the course.  It's too remote to have anymore.  I quickly filled up my bottle with High5 4:1 and got going.  I'm glad High5 are involved in this event as it means I can just carry one 750ml bottle and fill it at the two stations as they supply the exact product I use!  

It's worth mentioning that most people do use a backpack with spares/clothes/bladder for fluid/etc in a race like this, due to its nature.  However, I've found that you can get away with a bottle and things in your pockets if you plan it well and use the feed stations for fluid.  For those who are interested, I carried:

  • One 750ml bottle on the bike
  • One spare tube, tyre levers, 2 CO2 cannisters, tyre boot and patches (strapped under my saddle)
  • 6 energy gels, 3 flapjacks and a bag of jelly babies in my back pockets (and I didn't actually consume all of this)
  • A small waterproof/windproof jacket, mobile phone, lightweight multi-tool and CO2 connector
I've found that I can get all of this on the bike or in my pockets and the only reason I took the jacket was in case I had a mechanical and would be stopped for a while up a hill with a cool breeze.  If I was going to be out for longer, I'd consider a backpack and more gear, but I really do think it slows you down with all the extra weight so I go for the minimal approach and take the risk with this to help me go faster.

Anyway, back to the race . . . 

The next timed stage is a 3km off-road climb, and while I improved my time on this from last year, I didn't feel as fast as I'd hoped to be.  I did get a good result (9th fastest on this stage) but I know I could have been faster.

Then comes the river crossing!  But what a difference this year!  I've crossed this river when it's been over my knees but it was barely over my socks this year thanks to the long period of dry weather that led up to the race day.  Some people may stop to take their shoes and socks off, and I've done that when doing this route for fun, but when you're going for a good overall time, you just walk through and hope your feet will dry out on the next section . . . the "hike-a-bike"!

I was determined to vastly improve my time on the hike-a-bike this year.  While some sections of this 3km climb are rideable, most of it involves you pushing or carrying your bike.  I hear you wonder "why the hell would you want to do that in a mountain bike race?" but it's all part of the challenge!  This year, I had a caffiene energy gel at the bottom of it for a boost of energy and then set off, determined to jog as much of it as possible.  It worked!  It was really tough going as usual and it feels like it's never going to end but I improved my overall time for the hike-a-bike and the descent down to the bothy on the other side by 10 minutes.

Splashing through the second river crossing as I approached the bothy:

After another quick refill of the water bottle and a quick hello to crazy dancing lady, I got on my way for the fast landrover track descent towards Spean Bridge.  Unfortunately there were no tunes on at the bothy so there was no dancing from crazy dancing lady.  She was still in good spirits and cheered me on though!

As I headed back into Leanachan Forest and towards Nevis Range for the final stage, I knew this was where I had to really push to achieve my goal of a sub-4 hour time.  It hurt, it really did, but I was so determined to achieve that goal and everything had gone so well so far.  Another gel, a piece of flapjack, a couple of jelly babies and sheer determination got me to the top of the Blue Crane descent in a time that looked very likely to be under 4 hours for the whole course.

This is a section at the top of Blue Crane:

The picture doesn't really do it justice - it's pretty steep and technical.  However, I just seemed to "click" on it this year and improved my time by over a minute for this special stage.  It almost felt easy!  I'm not saying it is easy, but after a season of beating myself up for my technical skills, everything just fell into place on this descent.  I was flowing; my bike felt amazing; my tyres felt amazing; it all just worked!

I have to mention my tyre choice at this point . . . I deliberated for days leading up to this event about whether to run Bontrager XR2s or the tougher, chunkier XR3 tyres I used at this event last year.  Given the risk of punctures on a rough, rocky course like this, I had been swaying towards the XR3s.  However, Bontrager yet again proved just how good their tyres are!  I went for the XR2s in the end, which saved weight and rolling resistance.  This helped me a lot on the climbs and I just ran slightly higher pressures than normal to reduce the risk of punctures.  This would normally sacrifice some grip, but since the course was so dry, I still had great grip on even the technical descents like Blue Crane.  And not a single puncture (or mechanical for that matter).  The tyres and my Trek Superfly, were perfect!  Thanks yet again to Andrew at the Alpine Bikes St.George's Cross Store, and my sponsors the Alpine Bikes Trek Store, for keeping the bike running perfectly!

I later found out I was a minute faster down Blue Crane than the previous year, despite not having ridden it since then, so I was over the moon with that.

After Blue Crane, it was down Nessie and then a bit of fireroad before finishing on the cycle path that heads back towards Fort William.  I couldn't believe it!  I'd done it in under 4 hours and knew I was in the top 10 riders back.  I didn't realise at the time I was actually 8th fastest overall.  

To put in perspective how happy I am with my improvements on the previous year, here are my stage times and positions from this year and last year for comparison.  I was 9th in my category this year compared to 30th last year.  The positions listed here are overall out of all 300 riders, not just in my category:

Overall journey: 03:49:39, 8th (Last year: 04:26:20, 36th)
Stage 1 (KLL Descent): 00:04:33, 61st (Last year: 00:05:21, 139th)
Stage 2 (Climb to Loch Eilde Mor): 00:14:48, 9th (Last year: 00:15:04, 20th)
Stage 3 (Hike-a-bike and descent to bothy): 00:42:20, 15th (Last year: 00:52:45, 92nd)
Stage 4 (Blue Crane descent): 00:05:03, 23rd (Last year: 00:06:10, 76th)

This is a great indicator of what a hard structured training plan can do in a year.  I don't need fitness tests to measure this improvement - it's so clear in these times.  The thing I'm probably most happy about is that my technical descending has improved in a year when I didn't think it had.  I've still got more to do, but it's a great improvement.

Tired, but happy, after almost 70km in some of the most stunning scenery in Scotland:

So, there's just one race left this season.  I really can't believe it's almost over.  I started training back in late November 2013 with my first race back in March.  It has all passed so quickly but it's been amazing.  It culminates in just under 3 weeks from now with WEMBO: The World 24 hour Solo MTB Championships (also incorporating the UK championships).  This is also being run by No Fuss Events here in the UK so I know it's going to be a great course, with competitors coming from all over the world.

I've been focussing on XC racing this year so I'm not sure how I'll do at WEMBO.  I clearly still have my strong base endurance, going by my results last weekend and earlier in the season at the 10 hour "Ten Under the Ben" with a podium at that.  So, while I've not trained specifically for WEMBO, it's the kind of event I used to do more of before switching to XC and I'm still hopeful of a good result.

I'm having a week off training this week and just riding when I feel like it, before a couple of "peaking" weeks to get myself tuned up and ready for the challenge of 24 hours of riding.  No matter how many of them I've done, they are still so tough, but I'm really looking forward to it (along with a long break from training and a holiday afterwards!).

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ending the XC season on a high

Back in March, the title of my race report from the first round of the SXC Series at Forfar, my first ever XC mountain bike race, was "A good start to the season" . . . with a 4th place in that first race.  Well, what a season it has been, with a rather good end too!

On Sunday 14th September, I finished 3rd in the Scottish XC Championships and took 2nd overall for the whole year in the SXC Series (Masters).  Needless to say, I'm just a wee bit happy with that for my first year racing cross country after just a couple of years competing in a few MTB marathons and endurance events!

Sunday was the fifth and final round of this year's Scottish XC Series, at Dalbeattie in Dumfries and Galloway.  It also doubled as the Scottish Championships: rather than host a separate one-day race, they used the final race of the series as the one-off championship event for those with a British Cycling race license.  So, there were 3 podiums up for grabs: the day's race, the overall series podium for the year and the Scottish Championships . . . and I walked away with a place on all 3.  I've got my 3rd place SXC mug to complete the 1,2,3 set, my medal for 2nd place overall in the whole series for the year (based on your best 4 of 5 races) and 3rd place bronze medal in the Scottish Championships (all Masters category).  I just can't believe it!

I could launch off into a post about the whole season, but I'll save that for another time.  I'm sure this single race report will be long enough as it is, and even though that's the XC season over for this year, I have two races left of the marathon/endurance format I started out in before this year.

On Saturday, as I headed out to start my practice laps on the Dalbeattie course, I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  I know the red trail at Dalbeattie 7 Stanes really well but wasn't sure how much of it they would use.  What I found was an absolutely fantastic course, but one that was only perhaps one third made up of trail centre singletrack.  There were a few long fire road sections but also some absolutely wonderful off-piste sections, both ups and downs, to really challenge us all.  It was an old-school "proper" mountain bike course.

While I would have had a great advantage if it had more of the man-made 7 Stanes trail in it, I couldn't be disappointed.  The off piste sections were fantastic.  I'm just glad it was dry though!  They would have been even more challenging in the wet!  It was nice to have a dry SXC race for once - the first since Forfar - so I think we deserved the weather!

Not only were there some lovely flowing, rooty, steep downhill sections through the trees, there were some really tough steep off-piste climbs too.  I loved them!  That's one thing the SXC courses have had this year: a good amount of technical climbing as well as the descents.  Overall, I'd say the SXC have out-done British Cycling this year as the Scottish courses have all been fantastic, while there have been two really poor courses in the British series.

I got 3 practice laps in on Saturday and was feeling good about the course.  It was long, at 8km; over 2km longer than the usual format of modern XC courses, so it was going to be tough and energy-sapping.

I got a good rest on Saturday night, the usual dose of pasta, some stretching, a bit of time on the foam roller to ease out the legs, and an early night in the campervan, all set for the next day . . . 

We rose to another dry day, a bit cooler than Saturday (not a bad thing when racing!), but it made me so happy to know it was going to be a dry dusty course!  One thing I got an insight into at this race, given we had spent the night in the campervan in the Dalbeattie carpark, was just how early the SXC committee get to work!  These guys and girls do this voluntarily and we could not race without them.  They were up at first light, setting up gazebos and generators and so on.  And they don't get to go home until we're all gone!  Hard work and I can't thank them enough for this!

After the usual morning dose of EPO (Extra Porridge Oats!) I had a really nice relaxing time before my race at 2pm.  This was one of the best things about already being on-site and not having to travel.  It really lets you relax and focus on the race ahead.  Some family and friends joined us later on, which was nice as it kept me relaxed and stopped any nerves kicking in!  After watching a bit of the morning races it was just after 1pm and time to get warmed-up.

At 2pm, we were gridded on the start line, with Scott Logan, myself, Craig Webster and David Glover lined up on the front row as current series positions 1 to 4, respectively.  To be honest, I hardly remember the start gun going off.  I seem to have got my balance of focus and calmness just right when we got the 15 second warning and just reacted instinctively to the bang!  I got a good start, with only Scott slightly ahead of me as usual.

As we turned the first corner, I put my pre-planned race strategy into force: lead out the first lap.  I tried this at the last round of the SXC but a poor rear tyre choice led to me losing places at that one before fighting back into 2nd place there.  This time, I was determined to enter the first section of singletrack, which was raised boardwalk, as the leader of the group.

I got by Scott before this section and soon realised that it was me, Scott and Martin Graham settling into a lead group of 3 as we gradually dropped the other riders.  I'm not sure how far back the other riders were or when we opened up a big gap, but I knew Scott and Martin were on my wheel.  Martin hasn't raced in the series this year, but having checked out the results last year, I knew he was a really strong contender, along with Scott, to take the win and become Scottish Champion.

I kept the pace as high as I could that whole first lap, but kept it smooth and controlled so as not to make any mistakes.  I got down all the technical sections and cleared the steep technical climb successfully.  As we completed lap 1, I crossed the line in 1st place, with Scott and then Martin right behind.  

As we then passed through the feed zone, I was going so fast that I just knocked the bottle out of my wife's hand and couldn't get a hold of it.  I didn't let this affect me, as although it was a warm day, this has happened before and I was well hydrated before the race.  Think of the positives I said to myself: less weight to carry up the climbs!

Martin made a sprint past me and Scott just after the feed zone.  I wasn't sure if he was just having a bit of fun or if he thought we should take turns in front but again, I just wanted to keep the lead where possible in the singletrack sections.  So, I sprinted on past him again and entered the first boardwalk section in the lead again.

Then, for some unknown reason, I lost my concentration on what is a really easy and wide piece of boardwalk and my front tyre slipped off it.  By the time I got going again, I'd lost about 15 seconds to Scott and Martin, now in front.

I spent the whole 2nd lap trying to catch them but soon realised that I'd actually gone too far into my "red zone" on that first lap.  I wanted to find out if I could hold pace with these guys and the simple answer was "no"!  While I'm really happy with the first lap pace, and I've been doing really good consistent lap times in recent races, this race involved me just slowing and slowing as each of the 4 laps went on.

This wasn't just because of my daft mistake on the boardwalk.  I just couldn't catch them again and had lost a good couple of minutes by the end of that lap.

Thankfully, I maintained the couple of minutes gap I had to David and Craig behind me in 4th and 5th, and this lasted for the rest of the race.  At some point in the 3rd lap, Martin got away from Scott and went on to take the win, becoming Scottish XC Masters Champion.

While I didn't realise how much I was slowing in laps 3 and 4, I could definitely feel the pain of pushing it too much on that first lap.  My legs were absolutely screaming going up that steep technical off-piste climb for the last time.  But I got up it.  And I also kept my focus on the downhill sections and was really happy with my speed and flow on them.  Hearing my parents, in-laws, brother, friends and wife all cheer me on each lap really kept me going and kept me pushing.  I knew I had a bit of a gap to the others behind me but I couldn't be complacent and if you've read my blogs from earlier this season you'll know I have a bit of paranoia about losing podium places on the last lap!

As I came to the end of that last lap I knew I just couldn't have matched Martin or Scott's pace for the whole race.  Was I kidding myself on that I even had a chance of the win?  Well, given this was my last race of my first season racing XC, I had a lot to look back on and be very very happy about.  Yes, I couldn't quite maintain that first lap pace to match Scott and Martin, but look what I'd achieved . . . 

I was crossing the line in 3rd place in the Scottish Championships, taking my 3rd series podium (including a win), and taking 2nd place overall in the Masters category in my first season racing XC, after only a couple of years competing in a few marathon and endurance MTB events.  I couldn't be happier!

I got the chance to climb up onto the podium twice on Sunday, once for my 3rd place in the race, receiving my Scottish Championships bronze medal and my 3rd place SXC mug (to complete a set of 1st/2nd/3rd!) and then a second time to collect my overall SXC Series 2nd place medal for the whole season.  Who wouldn't be happy with this for their first year racing XC:

(the bronze championships medal is off being engraved so I'll take another picture when I receive it back!)

I can't thank my friends and family enough for coming to support me.  It really does make such a difference to hear them cheering me on.  Yet again, massive thanks to my amazing wife for all the morale support, encouragement, feedzone bottle hand-ups, putting up with all the hours training, and all the moaning when I'm tired and hungry from training!  I just could not have done this without her!

Although I've got a couple of races left this season, of the endurance and marathon variety, that's my first XC season over and it has been simply brilliant!  I've loved every minute of the racing, even when it's tough.  I've learned so much and I've met some great people.  The SXC organisers have been fantastic and we've had some awesome courses.

Finally, I need to thank my sponsors: the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow.  I couldn't have done this without all the support, kit and servicing.  I particularly want to thank Jon in the Trek Store and Andrew, the manager of the workshop at the St.Georges Cross Alpine Bikes store.  Andrew serviced my Trek Superfly before every race and had it running absolutely perfectly.  It has been flawless.  Not a single mechanical all year thanks to his great work!  The support from both stores has been very much appreciated.  Thanks guys!

So, that was yet another one of my lengthy race reports but I hope you enjoyed reading it.  I'll probably do a review looking back over the whole season at some point, but it's not over yet.  I'm really excited about this Saturday's No Fuss Events Tour de Ben Nevis - one of my favourite events on the calendar each year.  A 72km remote mountain bike marathon with special timed stages.

Then it's time to focus on WEMBO: the World 24 Hour Solo MTB Championships on 11th/12th October (also organised by No Fuss Events as it's in the UK this year).  And after that, it'll be a very well-deserved rest I think! :-)