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!).

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