Adventures of the Cotic - A Quick Release holidays mountain bike race team

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

End of season.

Emma reports from the last few races of the 2013 XC season.

Brighton Big Dog

Earlier in the year I’d agreed to do Brighton Big Dog with AQR teamate James Dymond. As it turned out this ended up being the week after I got back from the Pyrenees and my very lovely holiday. I would either be flying or dying, I had no idea which. Practice didn’t go to well with five of us getting lost and missing out a good chunk of the course!

Lap 1 felt horrendous; had I not been in a pair I may well have thrown my teddies out the cot and got off after that one lap. But no, we were in it together and the race would go on. Lap 2 and my interest in the race went up a bit as James came in really close to another of the mixed pair contenders. I soon caught the rider (Claire I learned later) up and passed her on the really steep initial chalky climb. I’d also reigned in how I was riding and paced climbs as opposed to trying to get up them super quick. During lap 3 I started to get real bad pain in my glutes, however I pushed through it as it would surely make me stronger in the long run right? After the lap I also found out we were in 3rd with 4th (Claire and her partner) just behind us. Part way around lap 4 Claire suddenly went by me on a fireroad and my competitive side kicked in. I dug deep and stayed on her wheel for some of the fireroad, then when the gradient changed and I was into ‘my zone’ I kicked and went. I’m not sure how much time I put into Claire but I had a feeling I was stronger on the singletrack and absolutely nailed it as best I find out right at the end of the lap I’d ridden it mostly with my forks locked out!! I handed over to James happy in the knowledge that I only had to dig deep for one final lap and I was actually looking forward to it in a strange way as I knew it would be a battle to the end, or so I thought. Whilst waiting in the changeover area I was a little despondent to see Claire’s partner come in ahead of James but not to worry I had a Torq Forest Fruits caffeine gel ready to go for some extra zing; and then the bombshell was dropped. James had suffered a mechanical. I don’t need to say anymore on that topic though as he sums it up quite nicely in his own words

I’d never been to BBD before and the atmosphere and weather were great, as was the company of my teams mates (Rach and Martin riding solo, with Ant pitting). I wasn’t ‘feeling’ the course though but thanks to Claire and her partner riding for Cotswold Veldrijden and making it a close race down to the wire.

Olympic Dreams at Hadleigh - BC XC Series Rnd 5

I was so happy to hear that I would be challenging myself on the full Olympic course when I arrived for practice on the Saturday (they hadn’t dumbed it down as feared). At the same time I was a little unsure as I really want to ride all technical sections on a race course and I had no idea how I would perform here. Out on practice I decided to start by riding the B/C lines of sections first to ‘get my eye in’ and then do the A lines. Triple trouble was up first (although only with A or C lines), and I did the C line and really didn’t like it; it was a little too slippy (dryness!) for my liking. I’d already had a look at the A line and knew the theory but riding these things is always different. I rode to the lip first, second time and I was over. It was quite a strange feeling the landing as the bike seemed to land twice; could be the springy Ti. On the way to Deane’s Drop there was a blind entry rock feature to negotiate, again with a couple of line choices. I watched another rider really commit and clear the left hand line, had a look myself and opted for that. Whilst the rocks behind were off camber, I’d recently ridden something similar whilst out in Luchon on holiday. Again, I rode the initial approach and second time I was over.

The approach into Deane's Drop
Now for Deane’s Drop and the infamous ‘this is where Liam broke his ankle’. I rode the B line and hated it; far too loose. The A line was a different matter, a rock based channel that snaked a little and ended with a small drop/chute onto the lower, looser part of the section. Annoyingly I kept stalling and was struggling with the turns in the channel as I kept hitting the sides. I didn’t stop and for once I managed to keep all my toys in my cot, finally clearing the section after about five/six attempts. I got to the ‘shore’ gap jump section but suddenly had a bit of a ‘feeling’ or more ‘wasn’t feeling it’ for this and immediately decided to take the b line as it would lose me little if any time (there’s always next time). From here it was pretty straightforward with  Oak Tree Drop then the Leap of Faith sections easily conquered. At the Rock Garden there were numerous people scoping it out and attempting to ride it. I spent a little time just watching people on the various lines and decided on one that appeared to work for a number of people. Amazingly I cleaned it on the first attempt and was super happy. After a long grassy slog it was into Burry’s Berms; a high speed twisty ride down the hill with some fun jumps in. Back through the feed, up again and then a chute into the arena and round to the finish.

Photo - Andy Whitehouse
Race day dawned and I was feeling a bit weird, no idea why but I wasn’t quite feeling hyped for racing. The start was awful. Because of the multiple categories starting, the loop used for the Olympics couldn’t be used as we’d clash with other categories, so instead we were made to ride up a dreadful, rutted grass area. I didn’t make a great start with my legs feeling a bit weird, and with Triple Trouble avoided on lap 1 the first obstacle we hit was the blind entry rock section. There were riders blocking the lines and I can’t believe I was so polite as to wait for them to clear it, resulting in another rider overtaking me! I got to Deane’s Drop to see someone had crashed on the A line and caused a blockage. Looking to use the B line another rider crashed there causing more of a delay; this is where I need to develop my speed and strength as it’ll get me in front of more riders who struggle with the technical aspects. The field spread out pretty quickly after Deane’s Drop and I was riding around the rear of the category, but I was really struggling with the hills. Something just wasn’t clicking, especially the climb to the top of Burry’s Berms. Lap 2 was better as I had a free run at all the obstacles and was really happy with how I was riding my lines and this continued for another few laps. I was lapped by the leader so knew I would be finishing one lap down and as I went out on the last lap I wanted to ride my best lap. It wasn’t to be though as at the bottom of Oak Tree Drop my front wheel washed out, I hit the deck and skidded along on my forearm. After a brief pause to get over the shock, I checked I could move everything and looked to carry on; I had half a lap to the finish. With my arm covered in blood, bars a little twisted and brake levers uneven I made it round and over the finish line. Next up was a more painful trip to the medics who cleaned out the wound and steri-stripped the gash. I was really happy with most of the technical aspects of my ride, but there is certainly room for improvement. Speed and strength will need to be developed.

Photo - Darren Ciolli-Leach

Belgium MTB Cup - Beringen

Just a week after Hadleigh I was heading to Belgium to race in Beringen. A little background research told me I was to be racing on a slag heap behind the town’s mining museum. My arm had stopped hurting from my crash at Hadleigh, however I still had it bandaged up so was aware I had to be a bit careful also.

My jaw dropped on arriving at the venue; the pictures I had seen had not done it justice as it was super steep with switchbacks snaking up and down the slag heap. One of the younger Belgium riders said it was known as ‘mini Houffalize.’ As I went to go out on my practice lap a marshal warned me to be careful as a rider had been taking to hospital with a  suspected broken neck....not the best thing to hear at a strange, foreign venue. I struggled at the first descent on some very tight and steep switchbacks and trying to get the knack of riding them. After that was the first choice of lines; a jump to a steep landing and fast left hander at the bottom or the ‘B’ line which was a steep chute with two turns in. Had I had more time at the course and not being a little worried about my arm I would like to have spent time on the jump as I’m sure it would have been fine, but I wasn’t quite feeling it so opted for the B line. I had my first taste of the steep switchback climbs which required you to be sat on the very nose to keep the front end down; glad I was riding 26in wheels though as turning a 29er through the turns looked interesting. Most of the course was in sight of the arena, but it went into some woods on the blind side of the heap. This looked a load of fun but I was really quite nervous for some reason and rode dreadfully. Back on the arena side I opted to also avoid the step section as again I was concerned about my control with my arm and instead worked on getting the lines sorted around the steep switchback descents. I have to say that for the descents I was really glad I’d recently ridden at AQR Holidays HQ in Luchon as it is  steep out there and I’d learnt how to control the bike on terrain like this for extended periods of time.

Steeper than it looks!
I was unsure how the race would unfold as it was all quite different to normal. At the gun I managed to stick with the pack and hold onto one of the girl’s wheels for part of the initial climb. Lap 1 avoided the first switchback/jump section and instead went straight up the hill. Unfortunately I couldn’t hold onto a wheel and soon slipped off the back with one other girl behind me. As soon as I got onto the singletrack on the back side of the heap I found I was actually riding much better and started catching up again. This didn’t last as we got back to climbing again however. It stayed this way for the entire race in the end, with me getting lapped by 1st and 2nd only. I was really happy with how I rode technically in terms of handling the steep climbs and tight, steep descents. I was cautious in some areas but with the damage I’d done to my arm only a week before that was to be expected. Racing in Belgium was a really amazing experience and one I hope to repeat in the future.

I’ve got nowhere near my potential this year, but training has been hampered by on-going bio-mechanical issues and a major interruption to my pre and early-season training. Nevertheless, I have seen improvements in my performance even if the results do not initially tell that story. My technical riding has also improved further.

I have to give a massive thank you to Kate and Ian Potter of AQR Coaching for all their guidance, support and advice, and for letting me fly the flag for AQR over the 2013 season. Also to physio Richard Bricknell of Bristol Physiotherapy Clinic who has been straightening me out and dealing with the myriad of ‘issues’ he keeps uncovering. Finally, to Cotic for making amazing bikes that fit me so well and keep me grinning.

Hopefully I can make 2014 an even better year!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Biking... AND running!

Kirsty reports from The Clumber Park Off-Road Duathlon

October.  The leaves are starting to change colour, the nights are drawing in.  My team mates are either enjoying a well-earned break after the cross-country season, or starting to think about base training for the year ahead.  Some are even drawn to the pain locker of cyclo-cross.   I, however, am dusting off my running shoes ready for the offroad duathlon season.

Clumber Park was the first race in the inaugural Midlands Offroad Series, with two more races to follow at Sherwood Pines and Holme Pierrepoint.  It’s great to see more offroad duathlons springing up all over the place, and there was a healthy turnout with some strong competition.
Coming off the back of a 4-week break with virtually no running and riding, I was interested to see how I would go.  Would I have retained my fitness from the Haute Route?  Or had I eaten too many post-race ice creams?!

I had an entertaining evening pre-race.  All my Nottingham-based team mates had deserted me and scattered to various corners of the British Isles, so I stayed at the local Youth Hostel.  It had been taken over for the weekend by the “Rough Stuff Fellowship” – average age appeared to be approximately 60, with enough tales of adventure and misadventure to last a lifetime.

Anyway, back to the race.  For me, duathlon is like a game of cat and mouse.  Running is not my strong point, so the first run is all about limiting the deficit and trying to hold something in reserve for the rest of the race.  Then comes the fun bit… how many people can I chase down on the bike.  In theory, if I can catch them by the halfway point I stand a good chance of staying ahead.  At Clumber, there were 3 girls ahead of me after run 1, so I had 3 main targets to chase (and countless blokes as intermediate targets).  My first catch came early on the bike, the second was close to halfway, and the third was past halfway.  The game then is to put as much time into them as possible before second transition.  It seemed that my week in the Pyrenees was still providing some fitness benefits, and I was enjoying finding my flow on the singletrack sections, so fingers crossed it would be enough.

I led into second transition, only to discover that I had racked my bike in the wrong place (this was the first duathlon I had competed in where there was a ‘right’ place, all the others you simply racked your bike wherever you chose to in the transition area).  I was slightly bemused when the race director asked “Are they your trainers?”!!!!

And so the hunter becomes the hunted.  Have I put enough time into my competitors on the bike to stay away on the run?  At Clumber, the second run was an ‘out and back’.  I managed to hold my lead to the far point of the course, and counted the steps on the way back until I passed my closest rival (who high-fived me… nice bit of camaraderie J).  I reckon I had just over a minute.  Dig in, she’s a good runner but you’ve only got 1.5k to go…  Focus on your own race, don’t look back…
Phew!  That was close.  1st place :-)

Great race in some good company.  Looking forward to the rest of the series.

PS Turns out I narrowly avoided disqualification for racking my bike in the wrong place.  Thankfully no-one complained to the race director so I escaped with a ticking off.  Lesson learned!!!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Elbow & Shoulder Dominoes

Katie is getting back to strength after some unplanned time off the bike.. she explains why...

I've never been injured like this before.  Usually the adrenaline gets me back on the bike, after a quick check nothing's broken.  But this time, I just couldn't get up.  I gave it a few minutes more, and then 10, and still couldn't get up.  Okay, I thought, so this fall might be a little different... And so it was.  Almost 11 weeks later and I'm just beginning to turn the pedals again.  Just from a few sore muscles, no broken bones!

I was practising at Round 4 of the British National Series at Margam Park.  Less than a few minutes in, and the course headed down a very steep section - very loose, very rocky, very ouchy.  While others were standing at the top figuring out how (or whether) to ride it, I thought hesitation would only make me whimp out completely.  So after one look, off I went over the edge.  Clearly, some hesitation would have been good on this occasion ;)

Too much speed, not enough traction, no control... somersaults, THUD.  Shoulder injury, neck injury, whiplash.  I was lucky it wasn't worse (gulp).

So much of what happens in life is a result of a crazy myriad of factors.  Some within our control, some not (in this case, mostly within my control)!  Sunday morning, before caffeine.  Brain not warmed up.  Legs not warmed up.  And the first time off-road after many weeks road riding in Italy.  Not a good combo.

I've had to live life in the slow lane since July, much needed after hauling too much luggage around Europe while volunteering for months.  So what have I learnt from my couch while nursing my sore muscles?

1.  After weeks of road riding, get your dirt mojo back first before trying loose, steep drops.  Margam Park is not Italy, or Scotland!
2. Don't let your brain try the 'less is more' braking mantra, unless you have said dirt mojo back.
3. Do wonder why everyone else is standing around the top looking down the drop.
4. No point braking once you're in the air.
5. The smallest, cheapest rental car with no suspension is not good when you've just sustained whiplash.  Especially when the drive home is 10 hours.
6. Handbag on good shoulder makes a convenient & classy sling (rest forearm on top of bag in between the handles).  Camouflage rehab.
7. If last week feels like a blur and you feel strangely indecisive, you probably have mild concussion even though no-one's mentioned it.  If so, walk to the doctor rather than drive!
8. Stay in the same place so you can get regular osteopath/physio treatment.  Missing sessions will mean your shoulder tightens up like a plank of wood, and the words “deep tissue massage” take on a whole new painful meaning.
9. Don't carry your bike bag or luggage, even though your sore shoulder is “getting better”.  You may get your bike bag and luggage all the way to NZ, but your shoulder will tighten up even harder than a plank of wood, and the words “deep tissue massage” will have you running (hobbling) for the hills.
10. Keep cranking up the heat in the sauna/hotpool, and you have an excellent stationary form of exercise endorphins and muscle rehabilitation.  Feel refreshed without moving a muscle! 

Injury can indeed be a blessing.  Crucially, my shoulder injury helped identify the cause of my long-standing problem with tennis elbow.  The effect of the crash on my upper body helped my osteopath identify existing neck & shoulder weaknesses and their underlying role in my tennis elbow.  What had initially seemed like too much mouse-clicking was actually a case of various muscle weaknesses and subsequent over-compensation - a complete domino effect within my upper body.  It may well have taken much longer to identify the cause of my tennis elbow if it hadn't been for the shoulder injury. 

And best of all, when you finally get back on the bike again, every pedal stroke is so liberating.  Sofa treatment really is great for enhancing one's gratitude.

Happy pedalling, Katie :) 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Holiday Time... singletrack heaven in Luchon!

Emma updates us on her recent trip to Luchon...

Long hours at work, racing, sorting houses out all result in various levels of stress. A few weeks prior to the National Champs I’d been under intense pressure resulting in an abysmal Margam performance. However, the work stress was dropping off, I’d been to Glasgow, raced and felt much better, but most excitingly it was ‘proper’ holiday time. Where better to go than AQR Holiday and Coaching HQ, Bagneres-de-Luchon in the French Pyrenees.

I should have been travelling with AQR team mate Katie Collins, but due to her still recovering from her shoulder injury sustained at Margam, I was going solo. After a long drive I arrived in Luchon on the Friday to try and give myself a day to recover and relax before the proper guiding started. Saturday morning I opted for a quick spin up the Col D’Peyresourde, on the MTB of course. I decided to head up early and was very glad as whilst descending I noted that the temperature had increased significantly. That was also to be the theme for the rest of the week; blue sky, sunshine and very hot! I have to say, some of the French roadies where really jovial which made a change. Saturday also saw the arrival of the remainder of the guests for the week. First up were Sarah and Alan who had already spent almost a month riding in various places, including checking out Vallnord in Andorra before the MTB World Cup rolled into town. Finally Jane, Bruce and their kids rocked up and I was shocked to be recognised thanks to a Bristol Bikefest podium; Jane and Bruce would be tag teaming for the week with one on kids duty whilst the other rode. AQR’s Ian Potter popped round for dinner as well as a welcome chat and to talk through how everything would work and what to expect for the week.

First off-road day on the bike out in Luchon is always a bit of a shock. It may only be ~635m altitude to start with but you can still feel it when climbing. I was feeling quite perky though and really enjoying pacing the longer climbs. I’d also forgotten exactly how steep it is out there, which come the end of day one was to be my downfall. It seems my hands have gotten quite weak and so with the extended time on the brakes during the descents my hands were getting super tired. At the bottom of the final descent of the day I grabbed a little too much front brake to bring the bike to a halt and catapulted myself over the bars! Fortunately, I only winded myself mildly and took a very small hit to my hip. The big saviour however was the armour I was wearing as I’d gone along the ground on my forearms; it would have been two very badly damaged forearms had I not been wearing it. I am glad to say that that was one of only two crashes all week thankfully, with the second being on the penultimate day and a very slow, softer landing version followed by fits of giggles.

Most of the week comprised of XC riding and various sinuous slithers of Pyrenean singletrack along with some stonking climbs to boot. Luchon is also well supplied with switchbacks and boy did we ride a lot of those. We did a day’s uplift where full face helmets and armour where order of the day and I got my first ride on a very special Cotic Rocket; I was also very lucky to ride it for the rest of the week following a bit of a brake catastrophe on my Soul.

Come the end of the week I was really sad to have to pack up and drive home as I felt I was only just getting into the swing of things. Even though this was a holiday, I was also still in training and I had the Potters assessing me at various times (including those early morning dog walks/runs...not generally found on a ‘normal’ AQR holiday). I was very pleased to hear that I was looking stronger in terms of stability on the bike; since it’s a constant adaptation for me I can’t really ‘see’ these things. But to have people who haven’t seen me for ~6 months say that I take as a real positive and something to build upon. On the flip side the holiday also identified my hand weakness so I can now do something to address this. Having been out in the mountains though I know I now need to be riding steeper, more technical terrain too to push me more as well. This trip was fantastic, and also it means now that my AQR Coaches Kate and Ian Potter can prioritise my training for this winter to address the weak points as well as build on my developing strengths.

As a final reminder of the good times had by all, Alan and Sarah made a short video of the holiday. If I’m riding as well as them when I retire I’ll be an extremely happy lady!

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Summer racing - Emma looks back

Bristol Bikefest
Straight off the back of the Hopton Woods national round, I teamed up with AQR team mate Matt Prior and entered the 6 hour Mixed Pairs Sunday race at Bristol Bikefest. No rest for the wicked though, AQR Coach Kate Potter had both Matt and I training hard the day before and going into the race with tired legs; it was after all just another training session!

Thankfully it was a lovely dry, sunny day but with a bit of a breeze and reports were that the course was dusty; perfect. We managed to solve the pre-start mechanical of the day easily thanks to Matt having brought a spare set of wheels;  he’d managed to shear his valve off his wheel! I was hoping that was the first and last mechanical we had to deal with.

In true team spirit I told Matt he was up first as that was the tradition in mixed pairs. I also didn’t fancy the run. Matt looked to be going well as he made it up the fireroad climb and after he took his bike that was it, just had to wait around and keep the blood flowing in the legs. Soon the first riders were back in the arena and I thought I should perhaps go and lurk but wasn’t sure how long Matt would be; but suddenly he was there and in first place. I ran out transition and hopped on the bike and was immediately into such a dark patch of trees I could barely see the trail. For the rest of the lap it was the normal Ashton Court course however I felt like I was riding like a complete novice with the bike kicking me all the time.  I was caught and overtaken by Hannah Densley, at first finding it difficult to pull back to her. However, I eventually discovered that I was riding the climbing singletrack better. Hannah crashed or had a mechanical at one point and I went back in the lead.

When Matt came back from his next lap we were just in second place again and the chase was on. This time I managed to catch and then overtake Hannah and make it stick. As the day went on Hannah and her partner remained close to us, but soon enough we started to eek out a lead going from 30secs to 1min 30secs and a little more.  I had also pulled myself together and had the bike under control. Fortunately the pre-start mechanical was the only bike issue we had all race, the only other issue for me was my legs willing me to stop as they were so worn out, however I never let up and just dug deeper. In the end we finished 1st, with a 5min 43sec buffer. It was a really great day and with some close competition too that made both Matt and I keep pushing right until the finish line.

British Cycling National Cross Country Series - Round #4 Margam Park

The next national race day came around and I was feeling better than expected, but first of all we had to contend with a 30min delay to our race start due to an ambulance on the course (which turned out to be for my AQR team mate Katie Collins). I got quite a good start and got myself into a good position on the wheel of WXC racer Carla Haines. I thought if I could hold this position for a while I would be doing extremely well. Unfortunately soon after  my legs threw a wobbly and I was back to struggling on any sort of gradient. It remained this way for the rest of my race until I was passed by Trek Factory Racing rider Rebecca Henderson and had to finish. This race was possibly the worst of the year for me, however I have put it behind me and moved on. There will always be blips in the season and this was just one of those.

As for Katie, fortunately it was ‘only’ a shoulder injury however having travelled all the way down from Scotland it wasn’t a great way to end the weekend and she had to contend with a very uncomfortable journey home. Speedy recovery wishes to Katie.

British National Championships - Cathkin Braes
A trip north of the Scottish Border to Glasgow was the score for this year’s National Championships and testing out the Commonwealth Games Cathkin Braes course. Ever since I heard this I was really excited as I know Scottish courses normally have very technical elements to them. Watching footage on youtube also showed the course looked to be fun to ride.

Splitting the trip up meant I arrived at a reasonable time on Friday and was able to walk the course. There were one or two steep sections where line choices were debatable but nothing too bad. One obvious line choice was at a three line section where the A line was quite obviously harder but at the same time slower so that was ruled out instantaneously, with the B being a much better and quicker option. Saturday practice would provide the definitive lines however so I headed back to the luxury of a Premier Inn for change.

Practice went ok with only one revision to my lines from Friday. I hadn’t walked the start loop, but riding it I almost ended up on the floor where in one corner it was almost sand like; I made a mental note to ensure I was better positioned in the race. The one thing I did come to think was that this was definitely going to be a tough race as there was no let up, barely any decent places to drink and the course was very narrow for the majority of its length making passing a problem. I was also disappointed that the course didn’t really deliver in terms of technical challenges and that the surface was for the main part  very loose, to an extent that traction on a lot of fast bends was dubious.

As this was the Championship race it was a Senior field, meaning there were also Expert and Sport riders on top of Elite, so there was a different mix to the start line than normal. I mis-clipped at the start but was soon back on it and sprinted to stay with the group. There was some shuffling within the group as we went through the start loop and when a rider went off onto the grass in front of me I dug in and worked to stay on the next rider’s wheel. As I finished the start loop I had no idea where I was overall but I was in with a group of about four girls and knew I had to keep on the wheel. For about half a lap I stuck with Verity Appleyard who was in front, but following her I took a B line at one section (thinking she knew something I didn’t) and we were passed by Morven Brown (I found out after Verity hadn’t realised the A line was there until that point.....note to self, always stick to your lines!).  After the dual descender there was quite a long climbing singletrack section and Verity started to pull away at this point. I was then passed a while later by Anna Cipullo, who had run off at the start loop, and who seemed to be floating over the flat but rocky singletrack. I was overtaken by two other girls and unable to respond and stick with them over the next lap and a quarter, but on the plus side it meant that I had been higher up the field initially which is a really good sign for me. Towards the end of lap two I was overtaken again, but it soon became clear that this time I was able to respond. Over the next two laps myself and this rider yo-yo’d with me catching her, then her pulling away again. This went on until during lap four and on the climbing singletrack after the dual descender I found I had to back off so as not to ride into the back wheel of her. I had to wait until one of the few wider uphill corners to overtake and after that point I was able to gap the rider and make it stick. I went on to complete another lap before finishing one lap down in 16th after getting lapped.

Whilst I didn’t enjoy the course, I had a really good but hard ride and I felt the signs were all still positive that I am slowly getting stronger thanks to the training and skills that I am being given by AQR Coaching’s Kate and Ian Potter.

Thanks to ever suffering other half Rob Rowe for doing all the driving and lugging a coolbox full of ice to the pits to keep my Torq cold, plus Mark Spratt for handing up cold water bottles for dousing myself with. Finally, thanks to recovering AQR team mate Katie Collins for making the journey to Glasgow and cheering me on whilst still in lots of pain from her shoulder injury. Next to where else but AQR HQ in Luchon.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The race of the large hound & escaping inner tubes!

I'd heard of the Brighton Big Dog race before but mainly because it sells out every year and I'd never been.  So an early entry into the pairs category this year saw Emma and I entered in the mixed pairs whilst AQR team-mates Rachel and Martin were both on solo duties - good last minute training for Torq12 two weeks afterwards.

Turning up that morning, the event arena looked nicely compact and like a friendly local enduro event, albeit one that people travel to from all over the UK!  I left the course practice to my team mates whilst Ant (chief pit bitch) and I got on with pit set-up / putting my feet up!

The midday start came around all too quickly and before I knew it, the race was on.  Or perhaps I should  say, should have been on.  Lap 1 was a real shock to the / system!  Giving it some beans on the grassy "intro" lap meant I got ahead of the queues into the singletrack and the same went for the punishing steep climb up the chalky fire-road which was just rideable on my 1x9 setup... but boy did I suffer after that!  Note to self: much better warm-up needed next time!

From lap 2 onwards though, the race progressed nicely with us all loving the course - especially once the rather brutal first third was done and the lovely dry snaking singletrack, complete with off-camber roots, log hops and small jumps was laid out before us.

All was going well for our mixed pair, sitting in 3rd with 1 lap to go each and the 4th place pair breathing down our necks. As I headed off for my final lap, sharing a knowing smile with the 4th place male rider, I was ready to suffer big-time on this final 5 miles, knowing that he would be doing all he could to catch me.  Unfortunately, it wasn't to be...

As I flew down the long straight singletrack after the 2nd motorway bridge, there was a horrible crunching sound and I was brought to a very abrupt halt!  Looking down, I found an inner tube wrapped around my wheel, cassette and rear mech - or the carbon fibre splinters that remained of it anyway!  After a rather loud rant about people who leave their discarded tubes on the trail and a hasty attempt to remove the tightly stretched tube and singlespeed the bike, I was very embarrassed to find it was my own spare which had come loose from being taped to my seatpost... D'OH!  Unfortunately though, the singlespeed bodge was only semi-succesful and I ended up running most of the singletrack, riding the downhill sections only and getting a push/tow on one fire road from 2 fellow Cotic riders.... a huge thanks to them!

Getting back to the pits at 5.35 meant that Em was saved from final lap duties but our hopes for 3rd place were well and truly lost.  We feared a pretty terrible result having lost 2 laps at the end but ended up 7th in our category so by no means disastrous.  

Despite that, a great race - fab atmosphere, lovely course and we'll definitely be back for a re-match.

Congrats also to Martin who took 9th in a very competitive men's field and Rachel who put in a great 4hr stint before deciding to rest up ready for Torq12.

James, 19th Aug 2013.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Transalp 2013 - part due

Part two - stages 5 to 8 - the Italian bit

Four stages down, four to go...
(linky if you missed part one, or Rachel's review of her expectations)

Stage 5: Alleghe to San Martino di Castrozza
73km, 3150m climbing
In all honesty we hadn't really looked into the profile of the latter stages of the race before we'd headed out so it wasn't until they were upon us that it dawned on us quite how big these days were to be.  The day started pretty well with an undulating profile rather than one or two big climbs until the final mammoth climb which passed through an incredibly picturesque valley.  To our surprise we were also making time up on the teams in front of us in the overall ranking as well as putting time into those behind, maybe everyone else was feeling even more tired than us.

Going up...
Stage 6: San Martino di Castrozza to Crespano del Grappa
104km, 2800m climbing
On paper this stage didn't look too bad, there was considerably more downhill than up and a long road section in the middle to eat up the kms.  Or so we thought.
We reached the bottom of the main climb of the day at 3hrs in with temperatures in the mid 30s.  We then preceded to climb a 10% average gravel trail for 10km before another 10km of more undulating trails in which we gained another 400m elevation.  I'd run out of drink about half-way up the climb, although Ant had manage to conserve a few mouth-fulls for nearer the top.  The lack of fluid alone was a killer but it also impacted on how much we were able to eat.  Over two hours later we finally reached the feed station. We were absolutely exhausted struggling from the heat and lack of fluid and food and limped slowly back on a gravel descent which included over 100 switch backs.  Amazingly we finished within a few seconds of our closest rivals, we weren't the only ones who'd had a hard day.  A delayed transfer to our hotel and lost driver just about finished us off, the toughest day by far. 

Stage 7: Crespano del Grappa to Roverto
120km, 3000m
I was still suffering from the heat and dehydration of the day before when we were on the start line of stage 7.  The fact that it was over 30 degrees and not even 8am wasn't helping and the 3000m in 120km ahead was seeming insurmountable.  I had to have a very big chat with myself that morning.  Luckily for me Ant is nothing if he isn't a team player and after we got started decided to make me feel better by having an even worse day on the bike than me.  We were very glad to see the end of the stage.  With just one short stage to go we were pretty much there.


Stage 8: Roverto to Riva del Garda
39km, 1300m climbing
Today was more about the finish than the stage itself with less than 40km of riding to do, just one up and then one down.  If you'd made it this far - and over 25% of starters hadn't - then you were as good as done.  The route headed out through town for a few km until it kicked up the road for the climb, a natural point for a quick change down through the gears.  Or, if you prefer, to snap your rear mech, break a spoke and puncture.  We couldn't believe it, we'd made it this far and with just over 20 miles to go we were risking not making it.  We set about bodging a fix the best we could whilst the rest of the field rode on by.  Then the marshals collecting in the direction signs rode on by.  And then, after stopping for a bit of a chat, the sweeper bus went on by.  The final insult.  Eventually we got rolling again, or, in Ant's case, wobbling on a very wonky rear wheel on a newly built singlespeed.  The sweeper bus team, who had stopped ahead to point us in the right direction given the removal of the direction signs, applauded as we went by.  We gradually began to pick off the back markers and eventually made it up to somewhere reasonably respectable in the field.
Singlespeed pain
Singlespeed-pain face
By better luck than judgement the fix held on the rough descent which meant we could at least enjoy the way down.  Ant's singlespeeding had gained him the respect of several riders and he was rewarded by a tow through the olive groves on the final 8km stretch to the finish by an Italian with thighs the size of the Dolomites themselves.

Dolomitey Thighs
Italian saviour
We finished well down in the pecking order and lost a couple of places in the overall standings but quite frankly at this point we didn't care as despite our best efforts to sabotage our whole race on the last day, we'd made it to the finish.

After 680km and over 20,000m of climbing we finished 29th out of an original 58 in the mixed pairs.  Not bad but lots and lots of room for improvement, if only we had some hills to train on....

It was a pairs race but we're indebted to the help of many for getting us there and helping us through:
A Quick Release coaching - we can only dream about emulating Kate Potter's win
Cotic - if only our legs were as strong as the bikes
Torq - our bags were a lot lighter on the way home after we consumed all those gels, bars and drink to keep us going
And a special thanks to Sally and Dave at Topeak-Ergon who looked after our recovery drinks each day so we could grab at the finish - it's things like this that make all the difference.


Transalp 2013 - part eins

Part 1 - stages 1 to 4 
(part 2 is here or here for Rachel's review of her expectations)

After Ant took on last year's Trans Pyrennes and Ruth and I raced the Andalucia Bike Race earlier this year we both fancied trying our hand at a bit more stage racing so decided to team up for this year's Transalp.


As we are both endurance racers so hoped we would work well together and approach it with a similar attitude which would help us in motivating each other.  It would however leave us with the same weaknesses, most likely in terms of speed, aggression and power.  Having both raced in a same-sex pair in our only previous experiences we were both a little apprehensive how we'd get on with the potential for a big gulf in strength and fitness within our pair.  There was going to be plenty of time and distance to see how things would pan out.

Stage 1: Mittenwald to Mayrhofen 
111km, 2100m climbing
As expected stage one kicked off at a ferocious pace on predominately tarmac and double-gravel track climbs.  By the time we'd reached the top of the first big climb at 30km things had settled down a little although the descent was rather sketchy; it wasn't so much the loose, rocky trail littered with switchbacks but the inability of the majority of riders to hold a line, be aware of others around them, listen to or make calls or generally ride safely - this was going to become a common theme throughout the week and added a certain level of excitement for us throughout.
We were able to make better headway on the second descent and formed part of a strong group for the 40km race on the flat tarmac to the finish.  And that's when things started to go wrong.  My freehub locked up and it took us a while to get going again in which time we'd been passed by many a racer.  We worked hard to get back into a reasonable group but were riding a good 5km/hr slower than before and the effort to work our way back into the pack began to tell and we struggled for the final few km.

Stage 2:Mayrhofen to Brixen 
100km, 2500m climbing
We were pretty frustrated with our performance on stage one and as we kicked off the day with 25km and 1200m on tarmac and gravel and things felt much the same.  Then the trail changed to a rocky, technical singletrack through a glacial valley and we started to make our way through the field of riders ahead who were struggling on the more technical trail. Feeling somewhat happier than we started the day, I pootled along at the top waiting for Ant to catch up when I rode over a fist-sized rock at walking speed.  Despite the innocuous nature of the incident I managed to put a 2 inch rip in the sidewall of my rear tyre which we set about fixing feeling massively demoralised as all the riders we had past on the climb rode on past.  The size of the hole and nature of the trails left us anxious as to whether the fix would hold for the remaining 70km and so I had to really reign my speed in on the descents.  It took a couple of further fixes later in the stage for the tyre to finally hold.  More mechanicals, more time lost, more frustration.


Stage 3: Brixen to St Vigil
57km, 2800m climbing
From the day we entered we knew this stage was going to be a beast - short it might be but with 1800m climb in 18km it was going to be brutal and it hurt every bit as much as we thought it would.  We were also both starting to struggle with colds at this point, a lesson in looking after yourself during stage racing. Despite our concerns before the race of being mismatched in terms of strength and fitness this hadn't been the case over the first few days, something that probably had a large amount to do with the fact that Ant was just a few weeks post a 24hr solo at Mayhem.  Until now I'd seen this as a positive thing, we were a well-matched team and I wouldn't have been happy about being helped up these hills.  But the sight of the majority of other female riders in mixed pairs getting a tow off her male counterpart was starting to look pretty attractive.  More objectively, it meant that my climbing weakness was losing us time against the other mixed pairs around us.  A short-sharp climb near the end of the stage with temperatures in the high 30s just about finished us both off, I take full responsibility for the pain it caused by uttering the fateful words "It doesn't look that bad".  It was a brilliant technical descent though so I forgave myself for my pain miscalculation.  

Stage 4: St Vigil to Alleghe
74km, 2600m
Despite being nearly written off by the previous day's riding this was our best and most enjoyable day in the saddle.  Of course we had yet more long, grinding climbs and a hike-a-bike section in the blazing sun but this time were rewarded with more technical and fun descents where we were able to ride past big numbers and put time into our closest competitors - there's nothing like the pain of lung-busting climbs to put the bit between your teeth to make up the rewards on the downs.  The steel frames of our Cotic Solarii which were getting plenty of comments both on and off the trail, were doing a brilliant job at smoothing the ride on the way down and we reached the day's finish line exhausted but happy with our day's work, the first time we'd both felt we'd given the stage the performance we could.

Transalp 2013
We were half-way through, sitting 30th out of an original 58 mixed pairs so were pretty close to our 'top-half' target.  We'd had more downs than ups but had managed a couple of days without any mechanicals so perhaps things were looking up.  Bring on part two....

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

An >X< in Italy & the Stelvio

Katie C reports from her last few weeks out of the UK...

Embarking on some volunteer work in Italy for 5 weeks was the initial idea - to learn new skills, gain insights into a different culture, and get some guaranteed sun.*  Obviously a bike had to come too.  Working for four Italian hosts in central/northern Italy & lots of road riding was the plan. Travelling with a bike box and 5 weeks luggage on public transport was a challenge in itself (not sure why many Italians thought it was a bed)?  And when said luggage weighs almost as much as you...  But the challenge was certainly worth it with some glorious road riding (on which I thoroughly enjoyed even the most intense training drills from AQR coach Kate - amazing what some green trees can do)!  And the pinnacle of it all, the Stelvio pass near Bormio in the Dolomites.

One of our hosts in a far-flung village on the Adriatic coast mentioned the Stelvio over dinner one night (6-cheese pizza and gorgonzola-flavoured gelato).  Having only ever done road climbs in the French Pyrenees/Alps, I'd never heard of the Stelvio.  But the look on my host's face as to it's sheer challenge was enough for me to know that I wanted to ride it.  

So once work was over, I hauled my increasingly heavy bike box (now with dirty gardening clothes in) to the Dolomites.  When I ran out of gears just getting to the hotel, I began to wonder if I was a bit out of my depth in this roadie heaven on my cross bike and muddy spd shoes.  After all, the last alpine climb I did was 7 years ago.  Being a small build, I rely on a high cadence rather than purely high power.  My double ring was mostly okay for the undulating hills and ridge riding I'd been doing in Italy while following Kate's programme.  However, on a mountain pass with an average gradient of over 7% for 24 km, my double ring did not seem to be so okay.  The warm-up rides I did the next few days did nothing to calm my mind, with lungs heaving and legs hurting under such hard gears.  And I had to admit to myself that I may not get to the top on this bike.  Oh well, I'd just have to come back!  

Off I set on a sunny Bormio morning.  It was amazing how many riders (and motorbikes) were testing themselves on this breath-takingly beautiful mountain.  There were sky-high waterfalls tumbling down to our left, and the magnificant hairpins rising up to our right.  I got into a steady rhythm and focused on not blowing the gasket too early. I'd heard the first bit is the easy gradient.  But with the rpm sitting at 60-70 (for the easy bit!), it wasn't ideal for these spinning legs.  Well, I thought, I'm just going to see how long these little legs last!  But once I hit the tunnels and had one-third of the 1600m altitude gain behind me, I felt better (I think my legs take a good hour to warm up these days).  And I just kept going.  Breathing was *quite* deep at times.  But the tight hairpins were great markers, not only for the views (simply stunning) but because they were the only flat bit on the 24km route, so you got a few easy spins before the next kick upwards.  

And boy did the last few kilometres really kick upwards.  Cadence was slow-i-n-g  d-o-w-n.  Started to see stars at one point, so I had a Torq gel, shook my legs, practised breathing into my diaphragm (rather than my chest) to get more air in (thanks coach Kate), and off I went.  Just keep turning the pedals, I told myself.  And then there I was.  I had made it :)

Somehow, me and my grindingly slow cadence held a strange bond for just over 2 hours to climb almost a mile into the sky.    Exhilarated.  I can't explain how I did it, as I'll never forget how my legs felt on the warm-up days.  But sometimes your body will co-operate in the strangest of ways.  It is the mind we have to learn to quieten down!  All good training, and I'm looking forward to racing the National Champs and SXC back in the UK.  And Luchon in the Pyrenees with AQR in late July.  I love summer!

*  4 weeks of rain.  Will never moan about UK weather again :)

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Wiggle Mountain Mayhem 2013: the same but different

Ant reports from the changed Mountain Mayhem:

Out on your own - photo credits Augustus Farmer
Like many riders Mountain Mayhem was my introduction to the world of 24 hour racing. My first Mayhem in 2006 got me hooked, and I had duly made the annual mid summer pilgrimage to Eastnor to ride as part of a fun team. But this year it was going to be very different indeed: a new venue, a new course, even a different weekend of the year and most differently, this time I would be riding Mayhem solo.
After riding five previous 24 hour solo races I have found that as a mere mortal I cannot race more than one or two in a season, so the build up to one of the few big goals of the season seems even more intense, as there isn’t the opportunity to do another one for a long while until you are fully recovered again.  So in the preceding weeks I became drawn in by the snippets of information realised by Pat & his team, by rumour and tattle on the forums and then in the last week by the BBC weather site. The main question was how would it compare with Eastnor and would we get a dry one?

The Gatcombe park campsite was smaller but had the same atmosphere about it. The trade area, similar – smaller, but with the same feel as last year. Our AQR pit was the same organised and efficient haven as usual, but this time crewed differently by fellow AQR team mates Matt and Kirsty.

AQR pits
It was the same elbows out mad cavalry charge run at the start and charge into the first Kenda Koffin descent.  I quickly settled into my pace trying to find a flow on the downhills and singletrack and follow wheels along the double track. It was all going to plan. Then, after two hours the rain came. As most of the course was under the tree canopy it didn’t seem too heavy, but it changed everything. The just ridable climbs became pushes and the descents real testers of cornering skill. As the course started to dry some of the sections of liquid mud became super tacky  - like the famed plasticine woods of Eastnor. But on the whole the course held up reasonably well and I concentrated preserving momentum and eeking out as much speed as possible. But it was tough. 
Kenda Koffin descent - photo credit Singletrack
Seven hours in I had the usual “why am I doing this” thought, but after an on-course pep talk from fellow rider Rory Hitchens I perked up and ploughed on through the night. Chatting to other riders kept the spirits up whilst plodding up the climbs, whilst all the time picking off other solo riders and gradually climbing up the leader board. 

Dawn came and as the course continued to dry the trusty mud tyres were swapped for faster rolling Ikons and from 20 hours in I was in a battle for a top five placing. My pit crew were getting increasingly excited and I did what I could to pull the gap to 4th place back to just 4 minutes.

It's all a blur
As I came through the lurking zone after 23hrs 50mins I realised only had a very slim chance of catching 4th place, so decide rather than beast myself with one final effort, that 22 laps was enough, and rolled across the line with the fellow lurkers after the 24 hours were up. 24 hours of riding may sound like a long time to ride, but it really was over in a blur. 

My aim was a top five placing, so 5th after approximately 165 miles and 7000m of climbing was something I was delighted to have achieved.
And relax...And sort out helmet hair

It was the same fantastic pit support from AQR teammates I have received in the past but this time from Matt and Kirsty aided by Rach, Ruth & Mat. I really can’t thank them enough as they tirelessly worked through the entire race.  Unfortunately Rach had a rather different race experience, here's her report.

So all in all Mayhem 2013 was different in many ways but the same in others. It was a brave move to use a fresh venue, but the Gatcombe estate really suits the event, and Pat and his team put on yet another outstanding event. It still had the same unique feel and camaraderie as previous Mayhems and I think it can only get better as it settles into its new venue and eventually gets the dry weather it deserves.