Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Trek to the rescue!

The evening of Friday 27th March marked our first road trip of the year as we headed off to Sherwood Pines for the first round of this year's British Cycling National XC Mountain Bike Series.  Sometimes people ask me if all these miles throughout the season are worth it but we've actually missed it . . . we think of these weekends like a mini holiday and get to see parts of the UK we may not have otherwise visited.

One thing that makes things much easier for these road trips is when we borrow my in-laws' motorhome.  We ticked off quite a few Premier Inns last year and they're fine most of the time, but it's great having things just the way you want them having the motorhome on-site.  Not having to leave the race venue is a big plus point, but things like being able to make my own porridge my own way and relaxing with a nice cuppa before practice makes all the difference!

Anyway, onto the mountain biking . . . !  Sherwood Pines was my least favourite course last year and my only DNF.  I'll not bore you with the reasons for the DNF here, but my reasons for not liking the course were that it just didn't feel like proper mountain biking.  It was flat and non-technical.  I really enjoy some good long climbs and I love rocky, technical descents.  I would go as far as to say I hated last year's course there.  This, coupled with the move up to the Expert Category, with 94 riders signed up, may have you thinking I wasn't looking forward to the weekend's race.

However, given my recent focus on process goals, I clearly knew what I had to focus on for this race and wasn't going to let the much tougher competition in the British series Expert category put me off, or the course I just didn't enjoy last year.

Now, you may have been wondering why I chose the title of this blog "Trek to the rescue" . . . My Trek Superfly FS was in at my sponsors (Alpine Bikes) last week to fit a couple of new parts and have its usual check over before this weekend's race.  I was due to collect it on Thursday but received a call on Wednesday afternoon saying that they'd found an issue with the frame and it would need to go back to Trek under warranty to be resolved.  I wasn't angry or upset, as nobody can predict something like that and sometimes things go wrong with these high end race machines, but you can imagine my disappointment at realising I would not be able to race my first round of the BCXC this year.  Despite not enjoying Sherwood last year, I still wanted to race.  I had a good grid position thanks to my Masters National Ranking from last year and I did not want to end up at the back for the next race in Plymouth.  I also just wanted to race!  It's what I do.

Well, Trek most definitely did come to the rescue.  Within 24 hours of contacting the amazingly helpful Andy Dodds of Trek Bikes UK, a Trek Superfly Hardtail had arrived at the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow for me to collect and race on!  I simply don't have the words to express how grateful I am to Andy and Trek for sorting me out with a loan bike.  The only other mountain bike I have is just not appropriate at all for XC racing and I would simply not have been able to race if it wasn't for Andy's help.  So, my race steed for Sherwood would be this Trek Superfly 9.8 SL hardtail:

It was fantastic!  I'll do a more detailed review soon, but it actually suited the Sherwood course even better than my full suspension version and I really liked having a 1x11 set-up for the first time.

So, thanks to Alpine Bikes, Trek and Andy, I was set-up and ready for practice on Saturday afternoon.

As I headed out onto the course for practice, I joined it in the direction we raced last year, just to be turned around by one of the commissaires and told I was going in the wrong direction!  And what a difference that made!  Despite what I thought last year, I actually really liked the course!  It just seemed to flow better in the other direction and it had a few other changes in it.  It was still a bit flat for my liking and didn't suit my strengths, but I've been working on flatter, twistier courses like this during the winter and it seemed to have paid off a bit too.  I really enjoyed the practice session.

Here's how the course looked on Saturday during practice when it had been dry most of the day.

Well, what a difference a day makes . . . plus, several hours of rain and several hundred racers on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning!

By Sunday morning I'd already decided to switch my tyres from Bontrager XR1s to XR2s.  Seeing the womens' race go off at 10.45am cemented this in my head - even the grassy start/finish area had turned into a scene reminiscent of a wet year at Glastonbury Festival, as some of the racers slid round the first few corners with their feet out, and some even ended up on the ground, perhaps cursing their tyre choice.  The XR2s were such a good choice and they provided unbelievable grip despite the conditions - remember they're not even a proper mud tyre; they're nothing like an XR3 or XR4 and yet they found grip in that mud for me!  It's a fantastic tyre.

Thankfully the sun came out just as we lined up for the Expert race shortly after 1pm, but the rain had done its damage by then.  I was gridded 17th due to the way they'd combined us former Masters from last year into the Expert category based on our national rankings from last season, so I was on the second row.

But I knew that with the calibre of riders around me I was likely to lose a good few places at the start.  However, I knew I had to get the elbows out and just make sure I didn't lose the bike on those slippy muddy first few corners!

I did lose quite a few places, but it's something I'm still working on so I'm not beating myself up for it.  I managed to keep myself upright, despite other riders banging into me and someone that almost completely took me out (he apologised, so no hard feelings).  I got those elbows out and managed to hold my line as we gradually thinned out into the singletrack.  It was at this point I was so grateful for my tyre choice as I'm sure I've got those XR2s to thank for keeping me upright on this and several occasions throughout the race!

At about the halfway point in the race, I could see that there were other former Masters just in front or just behind me, so I knew I was on a par with last year.  My aim for this season with the move up to Expert is to try to do better, like for like, compared to last year.  So, although I'm trying to focus on my own goals rather than other people, comparing to these other former Masters would help me figure out where I was sitting against the guys who had already been racing Expert last year.

If anything, I was enjoying the course even more in the thick, gloopy, slidey mud!  It reminded me of mountain biking in winter in Scotland and it was loads of fun.  It actually made the course a bit more technical and I was pleased that I was either keeping up or even pulling away from people on the more twisty sections where I struggled a bit last year.

Last week, I was really happy with my slightly improved pacing (although there's much more work to be done) and I'd hoped to keep working on my lap time consistency this week.  Unfortunately that wasn't to be.  I'm sure there were a few factors at play, like the fact that we had to get off and run/walk some sections later on; they got so churned up even the Elite guys couldn't ride them.  The wind picked up more which slowed us down on some sections.  And I was tiring.  This is the thing I really need to work on and I was disappointed to lose a few places in my last 2 laps.  I absolutely need to focus my training on that for the rest of the season.

They also changed the course a bit from lap 3 onwards (although this obviously affected everyone in the same way) and I found out why when they slowed me down in my 4th or 5th lap to let an ambulance out of one of the sections of the track.  An air ambulance arrived on scene to take someone to hospital.  I've since heard it wasn't a crash but was a young rider in the junior category, Tom Reid, who suffered a heart attack during the race.  I don't know Tom, and I don't know anything about what caused his heart attack, but I'm delighted to have heard today (through UKXC News) that he has pulled through and survived what must have been a horrible experience.  I wish him all the best for his recovery.

On those later laps, the course was starting to feel really draggy in places and the bike was getting heavier by the minute collecting mud!  This is how it ended up looking after the race!  Don't worry, I cleaned it before returning it to Trek yesterday! 

I lost some time letting the Elite guys past in my last couple of laps, but that's just something you have to accept racing at the same time as these guys.  It's a privilege to see them race and you need to accept that they'll catch you and lap you at some point, so you just have to let them past. 

I then got caught by another couple of Expert riders, and I'm sure I recognised them as former Masters from last year.  I'm disappointed to have lost a few places in the last 2 laps, so I just need to keep working on that as I've already said.  I knew I had a bit of a gap behind me going into my final lap so I pushed on to retain that and make sure no more Experts caught up with me.

That jersey used to be white!

Thank goodness for Vanish!  

I also got a new pair of amazingly shiny disco slippers earlier last week . . . here's a wee before/after of them!  

I'm sure you get the idea by now . . . it was a tad muddy!

(A review of these Bontrager XXX MTB Shoes will also follow . . . they are so stiff and light you feel like your foot is just part of the pedal!)

I crossed the line not knowing where I'd come but having enjoyed the conditions.  I feel my winter training in the muddy slippy natural trails near home has helped out and even though the course still doesn't suit me I enjoyed it much more than last year.

I'm under that mud somewhere!

Later that night when the results were uploaded and we were on our way home, I found out I'd come 64th (out of 94).  While I'm a bit disappointed with that, there's a few things I need to put it in context with:

  • That's in the top 70% and is comparable to my first results as a percentage in the Masters category at British level last year
  • My aim is to get into the top 50%, which is where I ended up in my later British races last season in the Masters category and I still think that's achievable
  • It's my first race of the BCXC series this year and I'm not yet at peak fitness
  • That will probably be my worst result of the season as it's a course that doesn't suit me and I don't think really demonstrates full mountain biking ability due to being so flat
It's annoying to miss out on national ranking points due to that position and I feel I could have done a bit better, but I'm not beating myself up too much.  To reflect on my process goals, something I harped on about in my last blog, I met some but not all of them.  So I just need to analyse the areas I've got to work on and move on from it.

I'm really looking forward to my next race in 3 weeks time in Plymouth for round 2 of the BCXC Series.  I've never raced there before so I have no idea what to expect but it's another road trip and I can't wait to get racing again . . . let's hope there's a bit less mud!

Monday, 23 March 2015

It's all about the process . . .

. . . process goals, that is!  This is going to be a race report with a slightly different slant: a slant on goal setting and how it has totally changed the way I think!

The 2015 XC race season has just kicked off for me with yesterday's SXC Series Round 1 at Cathkin Braes on the 2014 Commonwealth Games course.  This is my local trail, so I know it well, and I won the Masters category there last year.  But this race was set to be a whole new challenge for three reasons:

  1. I missed a month of training in January and so I'm 4 weeks behind in my training (plus another 4 weeks behind where I was for that race last year as Cathkin was in April last year)
  2. I'm still a bit overweight from being off the bike and the usual winter "warmer" coat us cyclists put on so my climbing has not been as fast recently
  3. I've moved up to the Expert/Elite category for the SXC this year, so would be racing against the really fast guys!
So, as the gun fired for the start of the 2015 season yesterday, you would expect I might not have been in the best frame of mind . . . 

But I don't think I've ever been so focused . . . not on a potential result, not on the outcome, not on everyone else around me, but on the small process goals I'd set myself for this race.

Wind back a few days and I was down at Henley Business School attending a one day seminar on "Mastering World Class Performance" by Charlie Unwin.  Charlie was Lizzie Yarnold's sports psychologist when she won her Gold medal in the Sochi Winter Olympics.  As you can guess by the location and the title, this was a seminar aimed at the corporate world of business in which I spend my 9 to 5 Monday to Friday life, but given Charlie's background and many sporting analogies throughout the day, I took so much from it for my mountain bike racing.

Sparing you the corporate stuff that I'm sure you're definitely not interested in, let me explain how I've applied his advice to my racing, and perhaps it'll help you too.  I took many things away from that seminar that I can apply to my racing but the two key things were: focusing on what I can control (rather than all the external factors) and setting process goals (not outcome goals).

The first may sound obvious, but it's amazing how much time us racers spend thinking about everyone else around us, or the weather, or the line someone else takes, or the many other things we can't control.  

The second, on goal setting, has enabled me to re-plan my goals for the entire season and that goes for each race too.  I've always tried to break down my outcome goals (e.g. "get on the podium") into training objectives and smaller steps but this has really helped me focus on this more, by using 3 steps (whether for the season or an individual race):
  1. What is the outcome I hope to achieve (e.g. overall ranking, race position, etc)?  While this may be in the back of my mind it's not what I should focus on in day to day training or racing
  2. Break this outcome into the performance goals that I can actually measure, enabling me to achieve the outcome.  These have to be measurable.  For example, lactate threshold heart rate, personal best time round a course I know well, power, weight, strength, and many more.  You can even break this into "descend X section of your local trail in Y mins".
  3. Finally, the most important step: process goals.  These are the small steps you take in your training and racing to ultimately improve the things you are measuring in the performance goals.  This could be as simple as a training process goal of practice starts once every week.
So, enough of all this theory and planning . . . what on earth did all this mean for my first race of the season on Sunday?  

Well, first and foremost, I arrived at that seminar on Tuesday not feeling too motivated about the first race due to those initial points above, but I left it feeling more focused and motivated than I ever have in my short mountain bike racing career.

Secondly, and more importantly, it helped me block out all the factors out with my control, quite frankly not give a thought to where I finished in the results, and focus only and completely on the process goals I set myself for Sunday's race.  These were:

  1. Pacing - more consistent lap times than usual (I have a tendency to tail off towards the end of races, sometimes by over a minute in a lap)
  2. Recover at speed on the transitions between climbs/descents (something Rab Wardell from Dirt School helped me with at the XC Race Craft session I attended the previous week)
  3. Remain smooth and controlled on technical sections (which I could measure afterwards using a tool like Strava)
What did this mean in the race?  Well, I don't think I've ever been so relaxed and focused on a start line.  I didn't get clipped in straight away but I did not let it put me off.  I didn't get caught up in what evereyone else was doing and just raced my own race, pacing myself as best as I could to make sure I didn't burn out, especially as I'm now having to do an extra lap in the Elite/Expert category of the SXC races.

Here I am recovering at speed in the start/finish straight transition, instead of taking it easy along there as is the temptation following the final climb in the lap up to this section:

And here I am in one of the rock gardens, ensuring I stayed smooth and controlled rather than frantically trying to catch other riders, which in turn actually leads to faster times even though it may not feel as fast:

Afterwards, when analysing my GPS data, I got several PBs on some of the more technical sections and was really consistent on those sections.  I lost a bit of time on some of the climbs as the laps progressed, but was way more consistent than last year, even with my last lap being faster than my penultimate lap (and after 6 laps!).

I raced alongside Wayne Barr for some of the race and we swapped places once or twice.  He sat on my wheel for the last lap and took me on the final sprint finish.  Although this cost me a place, I gave it my all and again didn't let this phase me.  I can't do any better than my best so why beat myself up just because he got past me in the last 50m?

When I crossed the line to be met by my wife, parents and friends, I couldn't have been happier when I saw my lap times that my wife had been recording in the feed zone (alongside doing my bottle hand-ups while getting cold!  Thanks!).  My lap times were all faster than last year . . . despite the extra lap, month of training, month behind last year's peak for Cathkin and bit of extra weight I'm currently carrying!  Plus, to refer to one of my process goals, they were far more consistent, only tailing off slightly.  Another thing I changed is that I no longer ask my wife to tell me my position when I pass through the feed zone; instead she now tells me how much I'm up or down on my previous lap to help me with my pacing and consistency.

I didn't even care where I'd finished.  I had achieved every single goal I set myself and I focused on my own race.

We had a bit of wind behind us on a couple of sections, plus there was a slight change to the course that made it a few seconds faster, but I don't think this accounted for the improved lap times in their entirety - maybe just a minor factor.  So, given where I am in the season, things will only continue to improve.  I don't think I've ever felt so positive after a race, even after my win or podiums in some races last year.  That sounds crazy, but it's the truth!

Later on that evening, when the SXC posted the race results (in record time as always, don't know how they do it!), I discovered that I came 9th out of the 16 Elite/Expert racers who started.  While there were 2 DNFs, that's just part of racing, and so it's still 9th out of 16.  While the outcome was not my focus, this obviously added to my happiness and I'm over the moon to not only have achieved my process goals, but to have done better than I expected in this higher category and when I'm not in peak condition.  You can't ask for much more than that!

I had a long hard think about going "down" to the Sport category this year when they scrapped Masters, but I'm so glad I didn't.  I've taken on the challenge, and I know it's going to be even tougher next week in my first Expert race in the British XC Series, but I'm learning so much and thinking about things in a completely different light thanks to the insight and advice from Charlie Unwin.  Thanks Charlie!

Thanks as usual to my wife for her great support before and during the race, for my family and friends for coming along to cheer me on, to my dad and Kat Simpson for the photos above, and last but not least, to Richard at Alpine Bikes St.George's Cross store in Glasgow, for getting my bike race ready for the season!

Monday, 16 March 2015

There's always more to learn

After my first year of racing XC in the Scottish and British Series, I've learned so much. But there's always more to learn, no matter what level you're at. And even on your local trails that you think you know so well.

With this in mind, I joined some other racers for an XC race craft coaching day with Dirt School's Rab Wardell at Cathkin Braes on Sunday 15th March. With a week to go until my first race of the season, at that same venue, it was perfect timing.

Rab's experience speaks for itself, both from a coaching point of view with Scottish Cycling and the UCI, and from a racing point of view having raced XC, XCM and CX all over the world at the top levels.

Being my local trail, I thought I knew Cathkin, and yet I learned so much more about line choice, how to use transition areas between sections and how to use certain parts of the course to my advantage. We also worked on some basic rider position and fundamentals. No matter how many courses I do it's always good to go back to basics and work on body position and cornering. Rab shows how it's done as we looked on:

The course also covered warm ups, starts, pacing, strategy, nutrition and many aspects of XC racing that I thought I'd perfected last year... But I think I learned more from a few hours with Rab than in my whole season last year! And it wasn't just the on-bike stuff. Just chatting to Rab and being able to ask him questions was so valuable.

As I said last year when I did another Dirt School course, we all spend so much time and money fussing over our bikes and kit... But that money would be so much better spent on a course like this. It doesn't matter if you've never raced before, have one season under you like I do or if you've been racing for years, there's always more to learn!

It's really made me think about my race at Cathkin this coming weekend. I won my category there last year but Masters is no more and I'll be racing in the Expert/Elite category for the SXC now.  A much bigger challenge but I'm motivated and up for it!

I missed a month of training in January due to illness and while my fitness seems to be back, it's still early days and my first race in a harder category. I therefore need to just race my own race and focus on my own process goals: the things I can control. This Dirt School coaching session with Rab has really helped me think about that and I've set myself some personal goals I can focus on, regardless of the other racers and regardless of where I finish. It's given me lots to think about for the year ahead and new tips and techniques I can use at any race. Rab also gave us a few handouts away to reinforce what we learned on the course and to refer to throughout the season.

Dirt School have more race craft courses coming up so check out their website for details and just think next time you go to spend some money on making your bike lighter or faster...maybe that money would be better spent on making you faster!