It's been a long winter of training. Twenty three weeks to be precise. I've really enjoyed it. I've tried new things. I've pushed myself in ways I've never before. I've managed to stay healthy and have rested when I've seen any sign of fatigue appear. I've worked hard. I've taken it easy when my body has told me too. I've got the great support of a new sponsor, Origins Fitness, including some expert Personal Training advice from Pamela in the gym there. I've also had some fantastic advice from Tom Bell that has really improved my training results (check out his website and YouTube channel for great mountain bike training advice).
But would all this turn into race results? That's the main question for a racer as you approach that first race of the season, which for me was Round 1 of the Scottish XC Series at Laggan Wolftrax in the highlands.
I loved the course at Laggan last year. On arriving this year, the course had been changed slightly - it was basically one big fire road climb and one nice long descent with a mixture of technical rock gardens, a short muddy slippy section and some fun berms and jumps using the orange "freeride" area to finish. Roughly equal time climbing and descending and it suited me pretty well. I thought it was a great course again so thanks to the SXC guys and local organisers!
I did 3 practice laps on Saturday, 2 easy and one a little faster - it's important to experience some of the downhill sections at near race pace the day before rather than for the first time in the race itself, but try not to push yourself and tire out too much. It was also great fun doing practice with my wife Heather. As a brief aside, she did a few races in the Senior Female category last year, including a win at Forfar and 2nd overall in the series so she is now also competing in the Expert category and came 7th in her race! So so proud of her! Amazing for her first race with the Expert/Elite ladies!
The weather on Saturday had been pretty wet, gale force winds overnight (which required quick dismantling of the gazebo!) and pretty cold. It was therefore nice to see it brighten up a bit on Sunday and the weather to be drier than forecast. The track was still muddy and wet in places and while some of the rocks were slippery, most of it was actually pretty grippy and I was happy with my tyre choice of Bontrager XR1s.
All my prep went well but we had a 45 minute delay to our race so that the ambulance could deal with two casualties from the previous races. Thankfully nothing too serious I think and I hope they are both recovering well. Totally understandable delay and you have to be flexible to deal with these things. I stopped and restarted my warm-up when I heard, but maybe spent a bit too long warming up - something I need to experiment with this season I think.
I arrived on the start line feeling focused but calm. I had been a bit nervous beforehand, wondering how all the winter training would pay off, but I had to remind myself of two key things:
- I need to race my own race - I can't control other people and the result doesn't matter in the long run. My own performance is what matters
- I hadn't peaked for this race. That doesn't come until the end of May and it's only the first race of the season!
I reminded myself of these facts and lined up calm and ready on the front row of the grid thanks to my placing from last year's overall series.
1 minute . . . 30 seconds . . . 15 seconds . . . Bang!
I didn't get clipped in straight away but was in reasonably quickly and happy enough with my start. I stuck well with the group and we didn't really spread out initially - there was a head wind up the first climb so people were trying to tuck in behind each other.
I was pleasantly surprised that I was staying with the "big names" up that first climb. It was a small but pretty strong, tough field. Some guys I know from last year who get great podium results in Elite/Expert and some people I didn't know but had heard were really good.
I stuck with the group for the first 3 minutes or so of the climb. I wasn't max'd out and while it wasn't easy I knew I could maintain it for the 8 or 9 minutes of that fire road climb. However, someone then put the hammer down and the pace just changed once we turned a corner away from the head wind. It turns out it was Callum MacGowan and he went onto lead and win the race. Callum has only just moved up from Juniors to Expert - I've chatted to him over the past two years at races and I'm so happy to see him win. Especially against such a strong field and by a decent margin in his first Elite/Expert race. Well done young man! He's definitely one to watch for the future and I'll be keeping a close eye on his results in the British Series too (where he's clearly going to beat me too as we're now in the same category!).
I just couldn't stick with that pace. I kept the group in sight most of the climb and had a few guys behind me, but wasn't sure how many. The juniors go at the same time as us so some of the people in front and behind would be those young but fast guys! I didn't want to burn all my matches on the first lap so I just stuck at a pace that was hard but not too hard and hoped I could maybe catch up as the race progressed.
Pushing it up the fire road climb
In the end, I stayed in the same place for the remainder of the race and rode on my own, other than lapping some people in other categories and being caught by the leading 2 or 3 from the Sport and Vets category behind (they get set off 1 minute and 2 minutes behind us respectively so their leaders do tend to catch a few of us in Elite/Expert by our later laps, although we are doing one more lap than Sport and Vets).
So, head down and ride your own race! In some ways this is a good thing and I enjoy just getting my head down, keeping an eye on my lap times and trying to work on my consistency, but it's also nice to have someone to race against. A big positive is that I put more time into the guys behind as each lap went on so I had a good margin, but I just couldn't catch the group in front.
Image courtesy of Stevie Todd
On lap 2, the skies opened and the wind came howling along as I descended . . . and brought with it hailstones! I'm so glad I had my Oakley glasses on to protect my eyes but bare legs and lycra ain't much defence against hailstones! Ouch!
Hailstones and head winds ain't much fun to race in!
Then it was sunshine again for the rest of the race!
As usual, I dropped a bit of time from the high pace first lap but was happy that my climbs stayed pretty consistent with not too much variance for the full fire road climb:
08:24, 08:55, 09:29, 09:16, 09:51
As you'll know if you read my blogs last year, I've been trying to work on my lap time consistency. The ideal situation is a fast first lap, consistent times middle of the race, then speed up towards the end. As well as the climbs above, my full lap times were:
19:24, 20:13, 20:38, 20:35, 21:15
So, while I clearly slowed down towards the end (and I'm still analysing why), I'm happy with laps 2, 3 and 4. Any variance under 30 seconds is good and especially looking at laps 3 and 4.
In fact, in lap 4, I dropped my chain on one of the rock gardens so that took 5 or 10 seconds to get back on. I stayed calm and didn't panic, but it shows lap 4 was probably even faster. Thanks so much to the other riders who I overtook from other categories on laps 3, 4 and 5 - amazingly kind and great etiquette to allow us to pass.
Image courtesy of Stevie Todd
As for the dropped chain - I fitted a new chain recently and maybe need to take a link or two out. I now run Shimano XTR 1 x 11 on both bikes but no chainguide. I've found the Shimano chainring tooth pattern and XTR clutch mech flawless all winter. I've done some pretty rough stuff and never dropped a chain. I thought I made this chain the same length but maybe not. I'm going to check it, probably shorten it and if I drop it once more I will invest in a small lightweight chainguide to prevent this happening again in a race. It thankfully wasn't a crucial moment and didn't cost me much time.
I'm happy with my descending too although feel there were some sections I could have gone a bit faster - it's a fine balance of speed vs. risk in a race!
On the 5th and final lap, I settled in nicely to the climb and had actually forgotten how much it was hurting! I enjoyed the final time down the fun descent and even smiled before crossing the line!
So, where did I finish? . . . 10th
In my first race of last season I was 9th out of a field of roughly the same size in my first Expert/Elite race. So, how does this compare? Should I be upset with that result? Well, I'm definitely happy but with some mixed feelings:
- I'd say the field was very tough and strong, perhaps tougher than the first race of last season
- I'm happy with many of my own process goals and on comparison to last year, many of my sections are faster, both up and down
- I was only a few minutes behind James Fraser Moodie in 9th place, and he got on the podium last year a few times
- I had a good gap to the next rider behind me
- I shouldn't compare myself to others but I do - on comparing to a few people in my own or other categories that I know I'm roughly on a par with, I'm happy that I'm either doing roughly the same lap times or slightly faster
So, why the mixed feelings? Well, on analysing my data afterwards, I feel I could have actually pushed myself more, both on the climbs and descents. I also do wonder if I could have stuck more with that surge in the first lap. I'm also not sure how my warm-up affected me - it was a bit start/stop because of the race start delay but everyone was impacted by that so it's not an excuse. I think I need to experiment with a shorter slightly less intensive warm-up though so will report back on how that goes.
Overall, I'm happy with that as a start to the season and as I've said above, it's the first race of many and there's a long way to go before I peak in my training plan. It's the first round of the British XC Series next week at Pembrey in Wales. If I'm perfectly honest, the course footage I've seen looks not very inspiring at all but I'll try to reserve full judgement until I ride it - it just looks flat and not very technical. I do hope the videos and photos just don't do it justice as it's a round of our national series after all so should be up to the same standards as the great SXC courses like we had at Laggan.
It's so good to be racing again!