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

Friday, 31 May 2013

It's been a busy few weeks!

To be honest, the last week has been quite surreal.  A week before my first ever World Cup race I was racing at one of my favourite courses - Margam Park in the glorious sunshine at the Welsh Mountain Bike Championships.  I was hoping for a podium as I am one of the small number of female riders eligible to challenge for the Welsh Championship title. 
I left my warm up until the last minute (probably cutting it a little too fine) and rolled onto the start line raring to go.  After a good start I was in 2nd place behind Mel Alexander, who unfortunately for her, had a mechanical problem about half way round the first lap and had to retire.  This then left me in the lead with 2nd place hot on my heels.  After some tooing and froing at the end of the first lap and beginning of the second, I drew out a gap on 2nd place and managed to stay away for the rest of the race.  I struggled quite badly with cramp from about lap 3 onwards so I had to back the pace off, but still managed to do just enough to maintain my lead.  Due to a mix up with lap numbers I ended up doing an extra lap, 6 in total, and came through the finish happy to take the Welsh title with an extra lap in the bag.
The day after the Welsh Champs and during the working week leading up to our flight out to the Czech Republic I was buzzing and proud to have a national title under my belt.  This gave me an extra boost during my preparations for my next and biggest ever challenge prior to my first World Cup.
We flew out to Prague late on Thursday night, prior to the Sunday morning World Cup race.  Thinking we’d have enough time, we stayed in the airport hotel and picked up our hire car on Friday morning.  This was our first error as the car hire place didn’t open until 8am and I’d hoped to get to the race site for 9.30am ready for sign-on and practice.  This was evidently not going to happen as it was a 2hr drive.  In the end we didn’t get there until 10.45am, leaving me 15 minutes to frantically run around and find sign-on before it closed at 11am.  I then had to build my bike in the event car park and proudly attach my World Cup number board to my handlebars.  I could now relax and use the next hour and a half to have my first practice session on the World Cup course.  I thought this would be enough time to get a feel for the course, but I was very wrong.  I could have done with much longer than this as there were a few sections that I had to session before I was happy with them and I ended up not being quite finished with my practice by the time the session was over.  I knew I had another opportunity to practice on Saturday morning so didn’t let this worry me and we drove to our hotel, a 7 mile drive away from Nove Mesto Na Morave in Zdar Nad Sazavou (don’t ask me how to pronounce it!!).
The hotel was perfectly situated in a small square in the centre of town, with plenty of convenient parking right outside and our room was huge – probably the same size as our whole ground floor in our house!
The rest of Friday was spent chilling and exploring the local area and random supermarkets.  We found a nice pizzeria for dinner (although we had to use trusty Google translate to help us decipher the menu!) and got everything ready for practice on Saturday morning.
After a good night’s sleep we trundled down for breakfast (where thankfully there was an English menu available) and had our fill of cornflakes and weird herby bread.
I then rode the 7 miles to the race site as a gentle warm up before practice and Mat followed in the car and walked out onto the course to shout at me on the techy bits I was struggling with.  I had 2hours to clean the two sections I was mentally struggling with – the ‘Rock and Roll’ rock garden section and the three log drops just after the start/finish area.  Thankfully, after the XC Eliminator event last night the log drops had been given an addition of some advertising boards just underneath each log which meant they were now roll-able rather than full on jumps, so this made me very happy and I moved onto the rest of the course.
I rode the whole course, using the lines I wanted during the race and felt happy with them and as I rode them faster the whole course started to gel and feel much better and flowy than in yesterday’s practice.  The course felt very similar to our local trails at the Forest of Dean, but to put it in Mat’s words the Czech course was ‘The Forest of Dean, but on steroids!’ as everything was slightly more gnarly than at home – the roots were more numerous, more slippy and the hills were definitely more challenging.
At the end of the lap I had one hour left to session the ‘Rock and Roll’ section as I really didn’t want to have to run this section because I’d definitely lose time.  I spent a while watching the lines other riders took and chose the one I wanted, but after a number of attempts I was just struggling with a mental block.  I was getting through the rock garden, but struggled to get through a small gully of rocks and onto the north shore bridge.  There were a couple of marshals watching me and came over and suggested I needed more speed and less tyre pressure.  I was becoming more and more determined, but also frustrated so I knew I needed to change my approach.  I let some air out of my tyres and asked Mat to stand further away from the main obstacle so I could look at him and passed the obstacle rather than focussing on it and not looking where I’m going.
I gave it another shot, got a bit further and realised that this was going to be doable.  With a bit more speed and determination and I was there. Once I’d cleaned it, I did it a few more times to prove it wasn’t a fluke – the marshals even congratulated me I think because they’d seen how long I’d been there trying!
This was the end of the practice session and we had to get off the course ready for the U23 and Junior Women’s races.  I was feeling very happy to have cleaned the two sections I really needed to conquer and felt happy with how I was going to approach the course on the morning of the race.
We stayed and watched the women’s races, noting any issues they had at the start and around technical sections.  Unfortunately our talented British competitor Bethany Crumpton was involved in a crash at the start where the course narrowed to go over a bridge, but she rode on to fight back into a top 20 position, which was a great ride.  I noted this down as I certainly didn’t want to get into a similar situation when my race started.
We spent the rest of the day chilling and making the bike race ready and trying to rest my legs as much as possible.
Race Day – Gulp!
Although I try to ignore it, I do get nervous before races, which in some ways I think is a good thing because it helps with the adrenaline, but it does make eating breakfast quite a challenge and the day of my first World Cup race was no exception.  I ate as much muesli as I could stomach and then packed up my things and went for and easy spin over to the race arena.  Mat followed in the car with spares etc.
Before I knew it I’d finished my warm up and was being called to get into the holding area and then line up.  I made a bad decision straight away with my spot on the start line as I ended up in the middle of the pack at the back, whereas I’d have been happier at the side.  I was taken aback when they took the tape down and everyone filtered forwards – this is not allowed in British racing so I wasn’t forceful enough with getting a good spot in the group – lesson learned for next time.
The countdown started and the gun went and immediately there was a delay as the top girls shot off and we were left waiting for the pack to get started – it takes a while to get 60 riders started.  Once we’d all set off the pace was ferocious.   I just about hung onto the back of the field down the tarmac start straight and onto the fire road.  There was some panic breaking as a few people had to filter in due to the course narrowing and I was nowhere near aggressive or pushy enough.  I ended up staying at the back of the pack and fighting to stay in touch, whereas I should have pushed forwards when people slowed up and got myself an advantage – another lesson learned.
From then on I was riding as hard as I could, but try as I might the pack got away – the course going uphill right from the start of the fire road didn’t help as I just didn’t have the legs for it and I could only keep one rider in my sights.  I caught her up and rode with her for about half of the start loop and then dropped her, but there was no way I was going to make the gap back to the main field.  So I just rode as hard as I could to get some good lap times in and keep away from being lapped.  Annoyingly I messed up the ‘Rock and Roll’ section that I had worked so hard to clean the day before and had to run with my bike.  I made the same mistake on my first lap after the start loop and gave myself a serious telling off. 
The spectators were amazing.  They shouted encouragement at me when I was climbing as I was obviously struggling with the harsh climbs and this really helped me to keep going and not get off and run.
By the latter half of my second lap (not including the start loop) I could hear the motorbike in front of the leaders catching me up and I knew it was only a matter of time.  I raced hard and started to ride much better than before with things starting to flow a bit better.  At the top of ‘ACDC’ (the fun switch back section before the final technical section of the course – ‘Rock and Roll’) I was lapped by the leading group so I knew that this was my last chance to nail the ‘Rock and Roll’ section.  The spectators were so loud, it was amazing.  I cleaned the section and rode through to the end of the lap where I was pulled as the leaders had already gone through.  This meant that I’d done the start loop and two laps out of five – which may sound pathetic, but I’m quite pleased with this as my first attempt because I only needed to be about a minute quicker overall and I may not have been lapped on that lap, so the margins were quite close – especially as I know of a number of places where I could have made up time.
Overall I’m pleased with my first effort at a World Cup event.  It was a massive learning curve, from things like knowing when/how/where to sign on and register, to finding out what time to arrive before the race and how many laps we were meant to do – which is hard to find out when you’re not allowed to attend the official team manager’s meeting.  During the race itself I also learned many things from my experiences as a racer and also from watching others.  These are all things I will take on board and put into practice at all of my future races both at home and abroad. 
The course was also a technical achievement for me as I’d expected to practice the course and struggle with lots of sections, but by the time I’d finished practice on Saturday I could ride the whole course, which is a huge achievement in my book.
I loved the whole experience, the atmosphere and encouragement and I’m also chuffed to see the amount of people who got behind me and encouraged me via Facebook/Twitter etc. which is great for me and also really positive promotion for the AQR Team, Coaching and our sponsors so thank you to everyone who encouraged me and I look forward to improving on my 56th place at my next World Cup adventure!
My next challenge this Sunday is the third round of the British Series at Hopton in Shropshire, this race will round off three big races in as many weeks – phew!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

British Cycling National Cross Country Series - Round #2 Wheal Maid, Cornwall

Having finally found some time to start catching up I thought I best start with the last round of the National MTB Series (before the next one is upon me).

Just about two weeks before this race I was at the physio and the decision was to try out some wedges that fit between my cleats and my shoes; the wedges are tapered and so would angle my shoe slightly so that it mimicked the angle my feet naturally hang at, whilst still allowing the shoe to clip into the pedals whilst fully horizontal. By doing this it was hoped that it would reduce foot rotation inside my shoe. This has been thought to be one of two issues (the second being an asymmetric pelvis) that has resulted in me getting knee pain, since my knee has effectively been piggy in the middle of two unnatural rotations and has meant I’ve had to back off the training. Initial results seemed promising and after a week of low volume and intensity work I went out for my longest pain free ride since before Christmas. It was now starting to look as though AQR Coaching’s Kate Potter could start building me back up. However, I have a long way to go as I’ve had to go back to Base, day 1 (therefore for me it’s like being in October again).

So, I’d had a ride the week before at Cwmcarn and had got my rocky eye back in and boy am I glad I did. I arrived Friday evening to a blowing gale in the arena field with the course dropping below the arena level into the disused Copper mines area.  This being a ‘Horton’ course I knew it would be technical and I’d seen some pictures and video footage that showed some of the course. I opted to do a course walk on the Friday evening, something I have never done before but am glad I did.

The ‘Ridge Run’ was a really long section of gravity assisted singletrack straight out the arena, but the consequence was that there really was nowhere to overtake for a good number of minutes until you got to the first climb. A loose climb, split in two, followed into more singletrack and then the first A/B line split. Some mini rock gardens presented themselves and then this led to ‘The Leveller’. Basically, the right line was an off camber, with a root across it, line and the left line was pretty much a small sheer drop (well it looked that way).  After some fluttering of the heart I then analysed it a bit more thinking less about what it looked like and more about what a bike wheel would be doing; based on that I was taking the drop and did so throughout practice and the race.  This then led to ‘Down to Brown’ (dodgy name, but the water at the bottom, in ‘Toxic Pond’ was brown!). A/B line choices here where B lost you quite a bit of time. The A line was a slightly tricky entry  to a steep, loose left hand turn which then put you into a steep right hand turn with a small drop off at the bottom and a left turn out (unless you wanted to end up in ‘Toxic Pond’).  The technical rider in me wanted to nail this, and in practice the next day it took a few attempts and words with myself about where I was looking but I cleared it. Some more loose climbing followed to what looked like the surface of Mars and then onto more singletrack to the last A/B line section ‘The Wall Ride’. This was a bus stop type feature and required a certain technique and power to clean, which even in practice I couldn’t manage so I made the decision to take the B here. More climbing, a loose descent, more climbing still, singletrack, small woodland section and then into the arena. A really lovely course with some good technical challenges.  My Cotic Soda was loving the course also, with my Magura Durins soaking up the drops,  and the Magura Marta Brakes allowing me to really feather my speed for obstacle entry I was properly set.


With me not having any real power in my legs I knew I wouldn’t be competitive here however my aim for this race was to finish and to ride technically well. After all, this was a new course and I would come away with more lesson learnt no matter what the outcome. As suspected I was engulfed at the start and also a little too polite so went into the singletrack last, whereby I was held up as I could descend faster than those in front of me. That advantage was soon wiped out when they were able to climb away from me. The group of girls immediately in front steadily pulled away as I couldn’t answer their climbing pace, however as I popped out of the A line at ‘Down to Brown’ I was suddenly around some of them again and had gained enormously. Unfortunately, as the race went on I just couldn’t keep that advantage and with the amount of climbing soon lost touch. I then concentrated on riding well. I did crash on lap 2 at ‘Down to Brown’ and lost some time there, but again knew what I’d done wrong (not looking properly where I was going) and rectified this on lap 3. We had World class representation in the form of Topeak Ergon’s Sally Bigham and she lapped me towards the end of lap 3 which meant I was pulled from the race by the Commissaries. Even though the race was shorter than I’d hoped for me, I’d been really grovelling up the climbs and therefore it was probably for the best in the end as I was struggling due to my lack of form. I then hit the turbo for another 15mins to get the legs spun out.

Whilst not a result that I am proud of, I am really proud of how I dealt with the course from the Friday night course walk, to the pre-race day and race day riding. I would have been fooling myself to expect a really good result when I haven’t been doing that sort of training, however it is a really good basis on which I can now start to build. Over the coming months I’ll be looking for progress indicators to help keep me on track as whilst the wedges have helped me, they haven’t cured the underlying problem.

Thanks to Darren Ciolli-Leach for the photos

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Summer Sun and Singletrack Fun!

Kirsty reports from a dry & dusty Enduro 6...
With our 2 slightly crazy teammates, Martin and Rach, in the final throes of preparation for 24 hours of Exposure, the ‘Special Six’ (OK, maybe some of you are too young to remember Enid Blyton’s intrepid adventurers) decided to have some fun in the sun at Singletrack Enduro 6.

The sun shone, and Catton Park did not disappoint.  The 10k course twisted and turned its way through bluebell woods, with some needing to watch out for their bars!!  A grassy climb or two, a swoopy bomb-hole section, natural jumps and a super-fast grassy descent back into the arena.  Dry and dusty throughout, this was Catton Park at its best.

The team line up was:
James and Kate – mixed pairs
Ian and Matt – male pairs
Kate and Kirsty – female pairs

The racing was fast and furious throughout, no doubt helped by a little internal AQR rivalry – who could get the fastest lap? *

After the ‘Le Mans’ start (I guess it was inevitable I would have to do the run, given my recent foray into duathlons), Katie and I settled into our rhythm.  We had some close competition with the Mule Bar Girls, but we had the lead and were inching our way to a decent gap.  Then the inevitable happened.  Psssssstttt… the sound of air leaving tyre…  OK, stay relaxed, we train for this kind of stuff don’t we?!  After trying but failing to inflate my back tyre with both cannisters, I decided to run the rest of the lap.  I reckon I ran 3 or 4k in SPDs… NOT FUN!!!  Another attempt, with a borrowed pump, gave brief respite, but this was short-lived and in total I lost around 10 minutes.  And the lead!!

After running with the bike, I was spent – so respect to Katie for stepping up and putting in a double lap while I regained my mojo.

The chase was on…  I put around 3 minutes into the opposition on my penultimate lap… it was all to play for.  Another solid lap from Katie, and I headed out for our 10th and final lap with about 4 minutes still to find.  I pulled out all the stops, but it wasn’t to be.  Congrats to the Mule Bar Girls on a well-deserved win… you earned it!  Katie and I took second, just two and a half minutes adrift, and a good 25 minutes clear of 3rd place.

There was great racing across all categories.  The lead in the mixed pairs was changing hands virtually every lap – at times there were only a few seconds in it.  Eventually James and Kate had to settle for a hard-fought second place.  The boys were also in the mix, finishing 12th in a highly competitive category… and more importantly, winning the ‘fastest AQR team’ award for their efforts.

Not content with the official race, the Potters indulged in a little healthy ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ competition – accolades finally going to Mr. Potter, although this one also went right to the wire.

A few personal highlights from the weekend:
 - Pre-race spag bol courtesy of the Dymonds (thanks James & Jo!)
 -  Meeting a 12-week old husky pup
 -  Being waited on hand and foot in the pits (thank you Martin and Rach!!)
 -  Team practice lap
 -  Chasing down the Mule Bar girls in our last few laps.  We didn’t quite make it, but it was great to have such a close race!
 - Having such an awesome teammate… thank you Katie, it is a pleasure to race with you!

*P.S. And the winner was…  James in 29:44 – with Ian (30:02) and Matt (30:17) hot on his wheels!!!

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Sherwood, Redruth and eeek, the Czech World Cup?!

Ruth gives us her view from the Elite category...

So, firstly an apology for my lack of updates on the AQR Blog site.  During my first race of 2013 I was lucky enough to be paired up with fellow AQR Team member Rachel Sokal, who brought her laptop with her to our race in Andalucía, Spain and did a great job of keeping our progress up to date each day.

As Rachel flew home from Spain after our tiring, but exciting week in Andalucía, rather than doing the same, I decided I hadn’t had enough hours in the saddle so I picked up a hire car and drove to Portugal for some ‘heels down’ skills training and guiding from Kate and Ian at their annual base each March in Alte, Portugal.  Unfortunately the weather was less than favourable, but I still spent a great week gaining lots of advice and guidance off Kate and Ian and I was pleased when I could still manage many of the hill climbing challenges even on tired legs!

After flying back to the UK it was time for some well needed recovery and preparation prior to the first round of the British Series two weeks later.  Unfortunately the tiredness got the better of me and I went into the Sherwood Pines National feeling on less than top form, but still ready to give it my best shot, especially as our result in Andalucía had enabled me to claim a front row gridding spot – no pressure!

The conditions were, to put it bluntly – horrible!  Most other sporting events that were scheduled to take place that weekend were postponed due to the forecasted heavy snow.  But as hardy mountain bikers our race went ahead as planned, which led to an interesting drive through the fresh snow from Casa de James D to Sherwood Pines – an adventure before the race had begun!

I was determined to christen my new AQR skinsuit, so in order to do so without freezing to the bone I wore a base layer underneath – not the best look in the world, and I was pretty cold on the start line, but when we got going I was just right.

I know I have a fairly strong sprint in my legs so I wanted to make sure I got a good start and make use of the front row grid opportunity.  However after we were warned on the start line of the first corner being very icy I was a little apprehensive.  The gun went and we all shot off the line – I looked to my left and saw that I’d started really well, much better than I expected….and then I saw the ice, backed off and promptly went backwards.  Frustratingly this meant I lost the lead group which I’d promised myself I’d try and stay with for as long as I could, so I got caught in queues of riders in the single track and just couldn’t get back into the mix.  I found myself in a small group with a couple of other riders and we spent the next three laps to-ing and fro-ing, and then one of them got cramp and fell off right in front of me.  After trying not to ride straight over her and checking she was ok as I went passed I made sure I kept with the rider in front as she rode on.  Coming into the arena for the last sloggy time I gave it all I had and caught up with 19th place and we ended up doing a sprint to the line in the slush/mud, but I couldn’t quite beat her, so I finished 20th place out of 28 starters.  However, even though I am not overwhelmed by my result, I was happy with the way I rode.  Plus knowing that I wasn’t far behind others means that when I am feeling on top form I will hopefully leave them behind.  It is important to remember that the first race of the year is always highly competitive with riders wanting to show how good their winter has been and 28 starters was the biggest elite women’s field I’ve seen so far at a UK race.

April has been a ‘steady’ month for me, trying to get of the remaining fatigue from Spain/Portugal whilst also getting a few high intensity sessions in to keep my speed up, I’ve certainly had to rely on the expert guidance from our AQR coaching guru Kate as it is so easy to do too much and never really let your body recover.

Leading into late April and preparations for the second British Mountain Bike Series round at Redruth (no jokes please!) in Cornwall I’ve been feeling much better, although not 100%, but worlds better than a month ago.  I was also pleased to see that the forecast was looking mostly dry so I was looking forward to a snow free race!

After spending Friday flying to and from Glasgow (literally with about 4hrs there before coming back again) for a Commonwealth Games Volunteering interview I then had to pack the car ready for a 3.5hr drive to the opposite end of the UK.  Early reports from fellow elite xc racer Emma Bradley confirmed that the weekend’s course was dry, dusty, rocky and fun – just what I needed to hear!

I arrived in time for two practice laps late on Saturday afternoon and felt happy with my choice of lines and the bike set up – the course was much better suited to my strengths than Sherwood Pines as I love rocky trails, I just could have done with slightly longer hills to help me get away from competitors, but we can’t have everything!

Pleased to have another front row gridding I knew I needed to make the most of it this time and not let half the field sail past me as back off due to ice (no chance of that thankfully!).  The start was a bit of a squeeze, with me taking the last spot on the front row right next to the barrier – less than ideal but I decided to make the most of the situation.

As the gun went initially I made great progress, but then had issues clipping my foot in quickly.  Undeterred, when I finally had both feet securely in place I fought back into the pack and stayed in the mix around the arena and into the first rocky single-track.  This is where I need to learn to rider quicker – which may sound simple, but everyone has their own ‘limit’ at which they are comfortable on technical sections, and mine simply wasn’t fast enough on this occasion.  As I got to the bottom of the first descent I’d dropped back a little and had let a gap appear.  I fought my hardest to keep up, and felt for the majority of the first lap that whilst not in the top group I was still with a good number of riders and I felt happy that this was going to be a good race.  

Going into lap two I got half way down the first descent and by now the various women’s categories and youth male racers were all getting mixed up there were quite a lot of riders around so it was a challenge to get around slower riders and move out of the way of quicker ones.  I came round a corner and was faced with a female rider who was evidently struggling with the descent and I couldn’t get past and felt I had a lot of catching up to do.  To make things more frustrating, the same thing happened, on the same descent (with a different rider) on the 3rd lap!

Thankfully I’d managed to stay with a couple of riders after all of the chaos and battled on to keep them in sight.  By the end of lap three I was in 18th place, with 16th and 17th in sight.  During lap four 16th got away slightly and then with about 1km to go I turned around to see Sally Bigham coming up behind me – this was a surprise as I had not expected to get lapped.  I then made the decision that as this meant I was now on my final lap, rather than penultimate, I had to do everything I could to catch 17th place. I quickly had my final lap caffeine gel and went for it.  I had hoped I’d have the element of surprise after Sally had passed me but not caught 17th place yet as she would still be thinking that there was one more lap to go.  Sadly even though I did my very best and I know I must have made time up on her, I couldn’t catch her and finished in 18th place, 30 seconds off 16th.

I learned a lot from this race.  Firstly, I need to keep practicing my race starts – I did this a lot last year, but haven’t so much recently and I can’t be messing up my clipping in like that again.  I also need to ride faster – let myself go a bit more, because it’s not that I can’t ride things, I just need to ride them faster (simply really!)  I was pleased to see from the results that my lap times were close to the next four riders and just 30 seconds off each lap could have got me a much more respectable 15th place finish.  However, three riders didn’t finish so things could have gone worse and had I been able to complete my final lap who knows what might have happened!

All this is good practice for my next adventures – next up is the Welsh Mountain Bike Championships, 19th May at Margam Park, followed a week later by the Czech Republic World Cup!  Not only did Andalucía give me a front row gridding at British races, it has also enabled me to qualify for a World Cup.  Whilst I need to be realistic that I am likely to get lapped – I will be able to compete with the best of the best and learn such a lot from them and how they race.  I have chosen the Czech World Cup, which is round two of the series and falls nicely on a Bank Holiday weekend.  In order to improve as a racer I need to push myself and I would kick myself if I didn’t take up the opportunity to race at a World Cup, so here goes!