Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Going backwards to move forward

Last year, I really enjoyed the course at Cannock Chase for the final round of the British XC Series.  So I was delighted to see it on the calendar again this year, and again as the fifth and final round.  The course had been changed a bit this year, and while a bit on the lengthy side for a modern XC course at 7.4km per lap, it didn't disappoint.

It's not the most technical overall, or the most hilly, the most rocky or most rooty.  It just has a bit of everything and flows really well.  It featured the infamous rock garden (which I think everyone gets far too worked up about - it's really not that hard!), some lovely flowing singletrack and some new natural sections which I really enjoyed.  I'd go as far as to say it's my favourite BCXC course of the year.

Rocking the rock garden.  Even on my hard tail, it's not that difficult - you just have to pick your line.  This was during practice on Saturday but it drew quite a crowd on Sunday - cameras at the ready to capture the crashes! 

It's a damn good thing I enjoyed the course though.  Because I definitely didn't enjoy my race outcome.  My worst result.  Ever.  At least I wasn't last, but not far off!

I feel like I've been going backwards recently in all kinds of ways.  Not just at the start of this race, when, yet again, I messed up my start and couldn't get clipped in and ended up last out of the start area for the 3rd time this year!  My no.1 focus for the winter has got to be sorting out my starts!  I feel I need to explain something though as this features quite frequently in my blogs . . . 

I have a shim between the cleat on my left shoe and the sole of the shoe, to deal with a biomechanical imbalance in leg length (which most of us have).  This is to help prevent an old injury re-occuring and balances me out on the bike when pedalling.  However, the shim makes it a bit trickier to get clipped in to the pedal.  So, you may ask, why don't I just start with my left food already clipped in and then my right will go in more easily as it doesn't have a shim?  Well, I'm right handed and right footed and have always just naturally pushed off with my right foot clipped in already.  I've tried the other way round and it just doesn't feel natural.

However, it's time to change this!  For the entire winter, I'm promising it to myself and I'm saying it publicly on here:  I'm going to practice clipping in the other way round at least once a week in a "standing starts" session until it feels natural.  On my commute to work, I will unclip at every set of lights with my right foot so that I have to get used to pushing off with my left foot already in.  Until it feels natural.  I'm going to sort this once and for all!

So, back to going backwards . . .  I went backwards at the start but I soon made up a few places during the first lap.  We were held up with the usual carnage at the back of the field on entering the first section of singletrack but I managed to hold a track stand while those who crashed got back on their bikes and that helped me get going again and grab a couple of places.

But it's not just in the race I felt like I was going backwards.  As I mentioned in my last blog, life has had its ups and downs over the past few months and, in summary, this season has just not gone to plan.  While I'm really happy with my technical skills and some other aspects of my training, I feel like other areas have been going backwards.  I've not been as dedicated to my training plan as I'd like to be, but life sometimes has to get in the way of training for good reason.  Not training then leads to putting a bit of weight on and that's another area where I feel like I've been going backwards and that in turn leads to feeling like I'm going backwards up the hills on my bike.  Hills are an area I've always been quite strong at but not when there's a bit of extra weight to carry up them!

All this culminated in me feeling like the entire race was spent going backwards.  But, in fact, I actually moved quite far forward during this race.

Not in my race result; but in many other aspects.  My lap times were the most consistent they have been all season and that's an area I've been trying really hard to work on.  I didn't make a single technical mistake in the entire race.  I cleared the rock garden every lap and carried good speed through the other singletrack sections.  In fact, when comparing the sections that featured in the race both last year and this year, I was faster in almost all of them.  Even my times on the uphill sections are about the same.  So, taking away the extra weight I've been carrying imagine how fast I'd be up them if I wasn't carrying it!

So, in a lot of ways, this means my training has moved forward, even if not evident in the race result.  I need to keep reminding myself I've moved up a category this year, and while I had hoped to be getting better results by the end of the season, it's not just about results.  Given I've been struggling to fit training around life this season, to be getting consistent lap times and doing better on technical sections than last year is a great step forwards.  And even on the hills, to be just as fast up them when carrying some extra weight is a sign that my power is actually even better.

And this has all moved me forward not just physically but in my head.  We're all too quick to beat ourselves up when we don't do as well as we'd hoped.  But this is why process goals are so important.  Forget the result and focus on what you can control.  After a bit of a lull in motivation recently due to the lack of training time, this has really pushed me on again.  With a bit of hard work, that extra weight will soon be gone again.  With more time and focus, I am back and dedicated to my training plan again.  And while I know I'm not going to get the results I'd like in any of my remaining 3 races this season, I know the reasons why and I know I have improved in specific areas (even if the results don't show it).

So, yes, Cannock was my worst result ever as a percentage of the field.  But it has helped me realise there's more to racing than results.  As I reminded myself earlier this season, I'm doing this because I enjoy riding my bike, not just for race results!

I'm not completely writing-off this season but I'm already starting to focus on next year.  I've got some big ideas for what I want to do next year and I'm genuinely looking forward to my winter training starting again.  It's an opportunity to reflect on what I've learned this year and focus on my weaknesses.  But I also want to focus on my strengths next year . . . I'll not give it all away just now but let's just say there may be more of a focus on endurance in 2016!

The season has absolutely whizzed by this year and although that's the end of the British XC Series for 2015, there are still two rounds of the Scottish XC Series left as well as an event I love: the Tour de Ben Nevis.  One of those SXC rounds is this coming Sunday and it doubles as the Scottish Championships.  With a strong field in my Elite/Expert category, I'm not expecting a podium result like last year in the Masters Championships, but I'm really looking forward to riding at Badaguish for the first time on what I'm told is a fun, natural old-school technical course!  And no matter what the result, I'll definitely be moving forwards!

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Life is like . . .

 . . . no, not a box of chocolates! . . . A mountain bike race!

It's quite a few weeks since my last blog and rather than launch straight into a race report from my most recent race at the British XC Championships, it's worth explaining the peaks and troughs I've been going through for the past couple of months . . .

I may be lucky enough to be a sponsored rider, and although I'm racing in the British and Scottish National XC series, I'm definitely still an amateur and this is just my hobby.  It's a hobby I'm very passionate about but when it is just a hobby, life can often get in the way of that passion; and it has recently.

Life has a lot of similarities to mountain bike racing.  Sometimes, it's amazing.  Everything goes your way.  All your preparation pays off and it all works out.  It has its peaks and troughs, its ups and downs; some hills are harder to climb than others, and sometimes you have to carefully negotiate your way over life's roots, rocks and corners, just to repeat it all over again on your next "lap" as you feel like you're going round in circles!

Life has definitely been like that for me recently.  It's had lots of positives . . . I started a new job, I had a great holiday, I've had lots of fun.  But when you've got work, family, friends and a life to get on with alongside a passion that requires a lot of time and dedication, sometimes life takes over and that passion has to suffer.

It has also featured a few of those tricky technical bumps to get over recently, just like on the bike . . . I've missed two races due to illness.  Not a lot I can do about that, but where I didn't help myself is that they were both around the same time as many of the other things that were going on in my life.  I just didn't have the time, or the dedication, to fit all my training in around that.  I'm probably beating myself up a bit too much for it, but my training really suffered and I felt like I was going round in circles, just like in a race, but never quite getting to the finish line.

This resulted in me missing those two races, one of which was a British XC Series race on my home track at Cathkin.  I was absolutely gutted about that one.

Then, when finally back on the bike for the British XC Championships on the Olympic mountain bike track at Hadleigh, I just wasn't on form at all.  

I loved the rocky, technical Olympic course, and I gave it my best attempt, but on my 4th lap I suffered the first mechanical I've ever had in a race.  I've never even had a puncture in a race before.  Yet, there I was, standing at the side of the track, frantically trying to get my chain back on, having to re-tighten my rear derailleur and struggling to get my gears working again.  I pulled out at the end of the 4th lap.  Maybe I could have continued, but my gears were all over the place and I risked damaging the bike more seriously.  And maybe I'd just resigned to the fact that I wasn't on form and wasn't doing well enough.

In the meantime, during those peaks and troughs of life, illness, and training, I've taken part in my first two road races.  This is something Rab Wardell and I discussed in my Dirt School coaching consultation with him a couple of months ago.  I find myself fading towards the end of races and not quite having the top end speed of the best racers now that I'm up in the Expert category.

I've only been mountain biking for a few years and have not had those many years spent racing on the road like some of the top guys in my category.  So, Rab suggested I start training and racing a bit more on the road.

I took part in Crit Under the Castle, a fantastic road criterium in Stirling, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really happy with my result for my first road race and the multi-lap format of a Crit was perfect training for XC racing on the mountain bike.  It was really exciting racing on closed roads in Stirling city centre and the crowds were fantastic, especially cheering us up the steep cobbled hill near the end of each lap!  My new Trek Emonda SL6 was also amazing!  What a bike!  Stiff, lightweight and so responsive.

I also took part in a more traditional 50 mile road race, and while it was a good training session, I was dropped by the main group not long into the race.  As mentioned above, I've not been on top form, so it will be partly down to that, but I completed the race (unlike several racers who pulled out simply because they'd been dropped by the bunch!) and got a damn good training session from it.  I learned loads - including the fact that rules don't seem to apply in road racing!  Despite being told strictly not to cross the white line (it was not closed roads), loads of riders did so and forced others like me to the back.  I'm not saying that's the sole reason I got dropped, but it didn't help.  I don't see the point in having rules if they're not enforced.

So, it's been a tough old time of late.  I've learned loads from the road racing and I really do think it'll help my XC mountain bike racing.  I've also learned that sometimes you just have to put your passion on the back burner when other important things in life have to take priority.

You may be wondering why I've decided to share all of this, when usually I'm writing about my racing experiences and giving some hints and tips for training.  Well, I just want to show that we all have these peaks and troughs, whether that's on or off the bike.  We don't all have an infinite amount of time available for training, but we do what we can and you can too.  If you've ever wanted to try mountain bike racing and just thought you don't have the time, there's always a way.  We can't all do as much as we'd like to, and you might even have to miss some races too, just like I did.  We'd all love to give up the day job and the chores of life that get in the way of the fun stuff, but sometimes you have to navigate your way around those features, and sometimes you can just jump right over them, just like the roots and rocks you'll find on the trails!

After the struggles of the past couple of months, I'm back training again and focusing on my next two races.  I'm still not on form, and I'm unlikely to be back to peak fitness again before the end of this season, but I'll focus on the main reason I do this - because I enjoy it!  I'm really looking forward to racing at Cannock Chase again in a couple of weeks' time for the final round of the BCXC Series and then it's off to a venue I've never ridden before, Badaguish near Aviemore, for the Scottish XC Championships on 23rd August.