Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Going from worst to best . . .

. . . in the space of two races!  My worst and best results this season that is!

I usually do a report on each race individually but I'm going to squeeze two into one here.  Those who read my blogs regularly know that I'm not exactly short and sweet when it comes to blogging but I'll try my best to not make this too lengthy since I'm writing about two races in one report!  I can't promise anything though!

Sunday 17th May took us to Fforest Fields in Wales for the 3rd round of the British XC Series.  Following my coaching consultation session with Rab Wardell of Dirt School just a few days earlier, I was raring to go.  Plus, to get me even more excited to race, I had a new steed!  I've now got the choice between a hard tail or full suspension Trek Superfly and after borrowing the hard tail Superfly 9.8 SL earlier in the season I now own one and absolutely love it!

I managed to squeeze in a set-up ride at my local Cathkin Braes track
the Thursday before the race - this thing climbs like a mountain goat!

Now having the choice between a HT and a FS means I can take both to race practice and decide which best suits the course.  I didn't yet have my FS back for Wales though (it's been away getting a new frame under warranty) but not having the choice didn't matter - I would definitely have chosen the HT for Fforest Fields!  Here's the view from the top of the climb to explain why:

With such a tough long climb, the HT made so much sense.  The rest of the course had a great descent, not technical in the way Plymouth was with the rock features but what I'd call "fast technical" - twisting off-camber muddy rooty descents through the trees.  It was pretty dry so it wasn't actually muddy but it could have been very slippy in the wet!

I felt the course suited me with the initial big climb and the fun fast descents, but it just wasn't to be . . . issues at the start yet again!  Not with my own start though - I got clipped in straight away and felt I was sticking with the guys in front but then, on entering the first bend in the start/finish area, I was knocked off my bike by a rider next to me.  I was holding my line, not barging anyone out of the way and simply had someone cut right into me.  That's just racing and these things happen, but I was definitely cut up!

I ended up completely unclipped as the entire field passed me - reminiscent of the British Championships at Hopton last year!  I was last to leave the start area and enter the first big climb.  I turned myself inside out to get back up to the group and overtook about 10 people on that first climb . . . but in a field of about 70 people I had no hope of catching back onto the middle of the pack.  A lot of the race was therefore spent on my own, but I can take away a positive about overtaking 10 people from the back on that first climb.

I was absolutely gutted to be lapped just towards the end of my 4th lap and so didn't get the chance to finish the whole race.  This was something I was determined not to let happen this season with the tough move up to the Expert category so I'm gutted.  I finished 56th and as a percentage, my worst result yet this year since I've moved up.

I really enjoyed the course, the bike was great and I felt I tried my hardest.  I guess I can blame a fair bit of this on being knocked off my bike at the start but it's not all due to that, so I've got some real hard thinking to do about what aspects of my training didn't get me ready for that race.  I've still to re-plan my training following that Dirt School consultation so I'll build my analysis of this race into it too.

I had a great weekend in Wales, and think it was the best venue and my favourite course of the British Series so far this year, but I'd like to just put the race behind me now!

With two race weekends in a row, I would normally keep training, being in the middle of a Build period at the moment in my training plan.  However, I started a new job last week and had a lot to focus on with that, so missed a few days of training.  I think it did me good - other than one intensive interval session on the turbo trainer on Thursday, I didn't train at all between Wales and heading up to Laggan last weekend for Round 3 of the Scottish XC Series.

Well, I may have liked the course in Wales, but I absolutely loved the course at Laggan!  Good big climb then a long, technical, rocky descent with big rock gardens and some fast flowing sections through the trees.  My kind of course!  I love the big rock sections!  I also just got my full suspension Trek Superfly back and just in time!  It just soaked up the rocks!  Definitely the right choice of bike for that course!

The view from the top of Laggan was a bit different from Fforest Fields but impressive in a more rugged Scottish way!

This is actually a downhill section of the bike park area at Laggan
but we climbed up half of it then descended the other half at the end of the lap

While I did a few practice laps on the Saturday afternoon, my wife Heather took part in the first SXC Womens MTB coaching session, with Diane Clayton.  This is a great initiative launched by the SXC and Scottish Cycling and only costs £5 for 3 hours of quality coaching on the race course to prepare you for the race the next day.  Having tried the taster category at Dalbeattie, Heather was all set for the Senior category following this coaching and really enjoyed her race the next day.  She even had a sprint finish with Diane, her coach, and almost caught her on the finish line!

Heather in action on race day

As I lined up at 2pm on Sunday afternoon, with a position on the front row of the grid, I was really psyched and itching to race on this fantastic course.  But, yet again, . . . yes . . . you guessed it . . . an issue at the start!

Completely not my fault though this time!  

British Cycling mountain bike regulations clearly state that countdown intervals must be stated by the commissaire at the start of the race, down to a final announcement of "anytime in the next 15 seconds", following a 30 second and 1 minute warning.  This happens at every BCXC and SXC race.  And it's the rules.

So, when the commissaire said "anytime in the next minute", this totally took me by surprise as I was still getting set up on the start line, zipping up my jersey and starting my Garmin.  I didn't register the "anytime in the next" part of what he said as that's simply not what happens.  We get a 1 minute warning, then 30 seconds then "anytime in the next 15 seconds".  I politely raised this with the commissaires after the race and they agreed there should have been the standard 30 and 15 second warnings.  I wasn't using it as an excuse for my race result, and I'm not blaming the commissaire, but what it did lead to was me missing the gun and ending up last out of the start/finish area yet again!

I don't think I've ever worked so hard on a bike in my life to catch back up again.  I actually got up to 4th place on the first climb but ended up sitting at or near my maximum heart rate for well over 5 minutes and that is simply not good for you.  At the top of that climb (about 9 minutes in), it was clear I had pushed it too much.  I was still struggling to breathe even on the downhills and was losing concentration.  I felt like my lungs were on fire and that I might be sick.  Not good.

On passing through the feed zone at the start of lap 2, I seriously considered stopping.  I had been overtaken on the descent on lap 1 and then got caught on the climb on lap 2.  I was hurting so much and really did not feel well.  I had simply pushed beyond my "red line".

I decided to push on but just keep an eye on my heart rate.  It eventually settled back down and I got my breath back in time for the descent on lap 2.  I actually felt human again and that I could ride my bike.  Other than one silly mistake where I caught my pedal on a tree stump, I was riding well.  I settled in and pushed on, taking back 5th place, which I went onto retain for the rest of the race.

I was really happy that my 2nd and 3rd laps were almost identical in time.  Was I finally getting the consistency I'd hoped for?  Could I push for negative splits in the last two laps?

Unfortunately not!  The effort of that first climb took its toll and I slowed by 30 seconds in each of those laps.  Thankfully I still managed to hold on for 5th place, and in keeping with my recent reminder of why I do this, I was really enjoying myself and absolutely loving the course.  I don't have any photos of the big rock gardens but I'll update the blog if any appear online as they are so much fun!  I'm tempted to get back up to Laggan again soon just to ride the red and black trails - if you've never been, get up there!  It's got great facilities (toilets/showers) and a nice cafe with good food.  I hadn't been for a couple of years and I need to go more.  The trails are so good!

As I crossed the line and finished in 5th place, I was so happy I kept going.  It just shows you what the human body is capable of - I really did think I was going to keel over during that first lap!  

I didn't feel great on the way home, but some good rest, sleep and recovery food has sorted me out and I was absolutely fine the next day.  In fact, despite there being no science behind it, the recovery ride I chose to do on the road the next day made me feel even better . . . and not just because of this lovely weather and scenery down the west coast of Ayrshire:

I realise there were a few "big names" missing from the start line in Laggan, but I'm not letting that take away from what was my best placing this year in the SXC Elite/Expert category, but my best result this year as a percentage (that's the best measure rather than just the placing!).  After what happened in Wales, it's lifted my spirits again and got me really focused for the next round of the British XC Series, which is at my home venue of Cathkin Braes!

I need to take my recent learnings from these two races, alongwith everything from that Dirt School course I did, and re-jig my training plan over the next 3 weeks as I build towards that race and eventually peaking for the British Championships at the Olympic venue of Hadleigh (can't wait for that one!).

Friday, 15 May 2015

The most worthwhile day I've ever spent on a mountain bike

That's a bold statement.  But it's exactly how I'd describe the full day private consultation session I've just had with Rab Wardell of Dirt School.  

I've raved about Dirt School before and I'll be doing it again!  I've had a private half day coaching session from Andy Barlow, where we worked on my fundamental skills to help general riding; another private day with Rab where we looked at XC specific skills and some of my weaknesses; and I also attended Rab's XC racecraft group session at Cathkin Braes Commonwealth Games course just before my season kicked off there in March.  Rab is running another one of those sessions on Friday 19th June for anyone that is racing the British XC round there that weekend - just get in touch with Dirt School if you're interested.

Every one of those sessions have been really useful and I've come away with new knowledge and skills from each.  This time, however, it wasn't just a general coaching session.  It was a consultation aimed not just at improving my on-the-bike skills, but also aimed at planning the rest of my season ahead, getting some expert advice from Rab, who has raced at World Cup and Commonwealth Games level all over the world.  With my move up to the Expert category this year and the real step change needed in my training to compete at that level, this session was ideal.

I'd highly recommend it for anyone regardless of your discipline as Dirt School can tailor it to XC, Enduro, Downhill or even if you're just entering a few fun races and want a more structured training plan.

The day was split in two.  Rab had sent me a course summary beforehand so I knew what to expect but we met at Glentress and had a more detailed chat about what I wanted to get out of the day and how it would be structured:  morning on the bike and afternoon in the classroom.  Rab would be using a similar structure to what he uses when he coaches for the UCI, so you know you're getting a proven, world-class method to help your skills and planning.

The morning

We headed out onto the trails of Glentress, Rab armed with a Go Pro to capture footage that we could analyse later and that would also form part of my Dirt School digital profile, which he explained I'd later be able to access online.  This would build up a bank of digital information and analysis that we could refer back to as a baseline and update as I do more courses and, hopefully, improve!

Even on the warm-up climb up to the Buzzard's Nest carpark, Rab made me do all the log skinnies and rock step-ups.  I can do all the step-ups no problem but sometimes chicken out of the skinnier and higher logs.  You're probably wondering why an XC racer needs to be able to do log skinnies but balance is a fundamental part of all mountain biking and Rab gave me some great tips to help my balance in general and improve my ability to do the logs.

We also stopped off at one of the rock step-up sections I know well, but where Rab showed me a different line.  This new line wasn't just specific to this trail - he was showing me things to think about that would save energy or make me faster in races.

We then headed over to the skills areas where Rab took footage of me doing some of the fundamental technical skills like track stands, wheelies, manuals, rear wheel lifts, bunny hops and endos (the latter being something I'd never really tried before and enjoyed giving it a go!).  It may sound like we always visit these skills at any course I've ever done but they are so fundamental.  They might not win you an XC race but they'll give you a competitive advantage on many technical sections (up or down) if your skills are better than your peers.  As I've only been mountain biking for a few years, these are something I really need to work at but I'm getting there.   Rab took video footage of each one to store as a baseline and took lots of notes, which he'd later use to write up a detailed report of the day for me.

Even getting tips for something I thought I was already good at - a track stand - was so valuable

We then spent some time on "Berm Baby Berm" (does what it says on the tin!) on the Blue route at Glentress and into the free ride park where we looked at jumps and drops.  Again, fundamental skills that may not seem so important in XC but really can give you an advantage.  

To finish off the morning, we headed off-piste onto some really nice sections of trail that head back down towards Peebles away from the man-made 7Stanes trails at Glentress.  Not only did this give me a few more off-piste trails to add to my list for a fun day out on the bike, but Rab again filmed me going down these so that we could analyse body position and movement later on.

I was pleased to hear Rab say that my technical descending and body position was good, although I can obviously always keep improving.  I'll go back to these trails again, nail them at low speed, then gradually build the speed, working on my braking points and pushing myself out of my comfort zone a bit on the loamy, rooty off-piste trails.

Then it was back to Glentress, a quick change and some lunch and into the great facility that is the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland, which sits on the hill just above the Peel Centre.

The view back down to the Peel Centre from the Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland, a great facility for education and promotion of the sport

The afternoon

Fueled with caffiene, we were ready to start working through the structured afternoon consultation session that Rab had planned in advance, and to analyse the video footage taken earlier in the day.

Yes, Rab was intending to drink all that coffee himself!

We worked through the specifications of the sport, my strengths and weaknesses, how I compare to my peers and ultimately what my goals are.  This then formed process goals that were factored into my training plan.  Rab can then use this to build a training plan from scratch for you for your entire season.

As I already have a well structured training plan (organisation was one my strengths Rab pointed out!) we didn't start a new one.  Instead, we incorporated some new goals and new training sessions into my existing plan.  I've got a few new workouts to try and I also need to change the structure of my weeks to incorporate a bit more rest.  I'm also going to be trying something completely new later in the season so watch this space . . . !

We then spent the last hour of the day going through video footage Rab had taken on the trails and his detailed notes.  We analysed my body position and my fundamental skills.  It is so valuable to be able to watch yourself back and also have the advice of an experienced coach while doing so.  I got some great tips from Rab on how to improve my fundamental skills and, while I already try to incorporate skills practice into my training plan, I'm absolutely committing to at least 1 - 2 hours every week now when I just "play" on my bike and work on all these fundamental skills.  Rab has also since sent my my full report from the day (less than 24 hours after we parted company!) with lots of analysis and advice.

We got through so much and it was honestly the most worthwhile day I've ever spent on the bike, or talking about my training.  Rab has a wealth of knowledge and the structure of the day really helped too.  I've come away with some on-the-bike areas I need to work on, a really clear view of my goals, and some new training sessions that will really help improve my weaknesses.  

I don't think I've ever been so motivated!

Check out Dirt School's website for this and all the other courses and training plan services they offer. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

British MTB Marathon Championships, Selkirk

On Saturday 2nd May, several hundred mountain bikers were lined up on the high street of Selkirk for this year's Selkirk Mountain Bike Marathon.  This is the 3rd time I've done this event, and the second year in a row that I've entered the British MTB Marathon Championships.  As well as the 75km national championships course there are 75km, 50km and 25km options for anyone who just wants to ride it for fun.  The organisers, Durty Events, always provide a fantastic course and this year didn't disappoint.  If you're looking for a fun day out on your bike in some of the best natural and man-made trails in Scotland, then get yourself signed up next year!

It's not every day us mountain bikers get to take over a high street!

Doing the British Championships option at this event is a good way of seeing how you fit in against many of the top mountain bikers in the country.  There are no separate categories like at the XC events I do (other than a Senior / Veteran split) so you are in there along with some of the country's top Elite riders.

I didn't specifically train for it this year.  Although I used to focus on these longer endurance events, I've been focusing all of my training on shorter XC races this year.  I've done a few longer riders, but I was coming into this after peaking for last week's SXC race at Dalbeattie and had just had a nice easy transition week of not training very much.

My goals were simply to beat my time from last year and maybe, just maybe, get into the top 50% of the men's British Championships results.  Well, both goals achieved!

Last year I took 5 hours 3 mins and this year my official time was 4 hours 37 mins (although my Garmin says 4 hours 31 and that's including, not excluding, stops).  So, that's about 30 mins (10%) knocked off my previous best time and I finished 33rd of 74 men (within the top 45%).  As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm really happy with that!

I'm still riding on the Trek Fuel EX9 that Alpine Bikes have kindly loaned me while my Superfly is being fixed, and I really need to stop using the heavier bike as an excuse!  If there was ever a race where a heavier bike would affect you, it would be this one, with over 2500m of climbing, and a fair bit of that towards the end.  But I can't really use the weight of the bike as an excuse given I've improved so much on last year's time and without specifically training for it!  The Fuel EX9 was a great bike for this course - it climbed well and just sailed down the descents, a mixture of fast rocky landrover tracks, rooty off-piste trails, man-made trail centre descents at Innerleithen and one bit that was like surfing your way down a rooty trough of thick mud!  That was tricky but fun in its own special way!  I've said it already and I'll say it again, if you're looking for a "do anything" bike, you really can't go wrong with the Trek Fuel EX range!

That's a fair old bit of climbing!  But the descents more than made up for it!

Doing so well in this has made me wonder if I should go back to focusing on Endurance events instead of XC and I think that's what I'll do next season.  Not just because they're what I'm best at, but doing a race like this reminds me why I mountain bike . . . the stunning scenery, big natural routes in the real mountains, feeling like you're covering lots of ground, and just a great day out on your bike.  I do enjoy the XC racing and I'll keep trying to improve at it, but I think I'll go back to focusing on endurance events next year.  I just wish there were more events like the Selkirk MTB Marathon!  

The race kicked off on Selkirk high street and stays on tarmac for the first few kilometres before we start racing properly as we head up off road into the Bowhill Estate.  The first climb is tough but I used it to my advantage to get past a few people and settle well into a group of 3 or 4 of us who were within a minute of each other for most of the first half of the race.

Still quite bunched together for the first singletrack descent

On the second climb, Kerry MacPhee caught and overtook me and she went onto win the female British Championships!  Well done Kerry!  Fantastic ride and must feel amazing to be wearing the British Champs stripes for the rest of the season!  

Kerry pre-rode the course earlier in the week and her great advice helped me decide to go with Bontrager XR1 tyres (as did she).  I would usually use the XR2 (or even XR3) for a route like that, but the XR1 was amazing.  For what is a lightweight XC tyre, it withstood the rough rocky terrain no problem at all - no punctures and it even gripped well on some of the muddier bits.

Things spread out a bit after a while and it was nice to have a few moments to myself.  It's great riding in a group but I also enjoy having the trails to myself, focusing on nothing but me, my bike and the trail under my tyres.  I was just having so much fun!

I might not be smiling, but I promise I'm having so much fun!

I was really happy with my pacing too - something I'm working on for XC races but that I'm pretty good at on endurance events.  It was helped even more by using my Garmin Edge 810.  I knew what average speed I'd have to maintain to beat last year's time so it helped me know when I could push it or when I could ease off slightly and recover.

My fueling strategy worked really well too . . . High5 4:1 carb drink, with a bottle at each of the feed stations using the great bottle drop service put on by Durty Events.  I need to thank my mother-in-law as she very kindly dropped my bottles for me early on the Saturday morning which got me an extra hour in bed!  I made sure I fueled every 15 mins, whether that was just a quick sugar boost with a jelly baby, plus one gel per hour and half an energy bar per hour.

I really pushed it up the final big climb of the day ... After 50km you need to ride up the whole Innerleithen trail centre red route climb.  This is the great thing about having ridden the course before - you can prepare yourself for this not just physically but mentally.  I was pleased to overtake a couple of riders on this climb and then another rider on the final climb up to the three Brethren, showing again that my pacing had worked really well.  The 10km leading back up to the three Brethren was tough, as it was getting colder and was all into a head wind.  But the weather was much better than originally forecast - it stayed dry for the entire day and the trails were only muddy in a couple of places.  

Nearing the top of the very last climb of the day

Then it was just the fast final 5km descent down to the finish line, where I was greeted by my wife and yet more really friendly helpers from Durty Events, without whom we couldn't do this event.  The marshals and feed station helpers were all really helpful and I wish I could thank them all individually!

This has got me really looking forward to the Tour de Ben Nevis later this year, the only other endurance event I've managed to fit around my XC race schedule this season.  I can't wait!  And I've got a lot of thinking to do about next year and where my priorities lie . . . this really has got me thinking about what kind of race I enjoy the most as I just had such a good day out on my bike!

Thumbs up, signalling the end of a great day on the bike!

It's now a couple of weeks until my next XC race, Round 3 of the British Series in Wales on 16th/17th May, followed by Round 3 of the Scottish Series the following weekend in Laggan.  I've got a week off work next week and I'm going to use some of my time off for a day or two of big natural mountain bike rides just like Selkirk - just not racing this time!  I've also got a training consultation planned with Rab Wardell of Dirt School, so check back here later next week for a write-up on the training consultation services provided by Dirt School, as Rab helps me plan out my goals and training for the remainder of the season.