Sunday, 27 October 2013

Falling out of love

It seems really obvious now.  

And looking back I can see it’s been coming over the last few months. But it’s taken me a long time to recognise it –  I just didn’t see it coming.  Despite what I thought I felt, I realise now that this summer I fell out of love with my bike.  

Things had started so well.  

We were virtually inseparable over the winter months. We spent hour upon hour together, just the two of us.  And as spring breathed new life into the world outside, we spent our time planning and preparing for the summer ahead.  

We became stronger together.  We learned to work perfectly in partnership; we made the most of each other’s strengths and compensated for each others' weaknesses.  

We did things together that we’d never done before.  We visited foreign shores and tackled hours of riding and racing together.  Sometimes we’d invite others along but for the most time, we just enjoyed being with one another.  Together, alone.

We showered each other in gifts; jewellery, clothes and such like.  We were happy.  We were in love. 
But then things started to change. 

Our Alpine adventure had been intense – we hardly left each others' sides.  And when we returned home we suddenly didn’t seem so interested in seeing one another.  Days slipped by with little time spent together and somehow we didn’t miss each other as much as we should have done.  

We planned a couple more trips away in an attempt to reignite things. 

We took an August outing to the seaside to race at Brighton Big Dog.  We were having a great time until I did – or maybe I said – something wrong.  And we fell out.  He refused to carry on and I wasn’t able to do anything to redeem the situation.  We went home early, miserable, aware that we’d lost something that we couldn’t quite put our finger on.  

After our seaside disagreement we thought we should try again.  We wanted to spend hours where it was just the two of us.  We wanted to sort things out.  So we planned a bank holiday trip away to the Torq 12 hour solo where we’d had such fun a couple of years before.  

I was nervous as to how things would go – we hadn’t spent any time together since our falling out a fortnight before, but we were going to have to tackle this head on if we wanted things to change. 

Sadly, despite all our best intentions, we just didn’t click.  There were brief moments when things were great, but these just served as a reminder of what we had lost.  Reluctantly I admitted that my heart and legs weren’t in it.  Forcing the issue wasn’t going to resolve things.  The love-affair was over.  

I’m told that from the outside we looked like a good couple that day but as I climbed onto the podium I knew that we hadn’t been what we should have been.  We were awarded first place in the 2013 Endurance Series too but this just highlighted the strength we had once had had been lost.  As much as we didn’t want to admit it, despite all our efforts to rekindle the spark, we realised we’d fallen out of love.  

We decided after that we were going to stop forcing the issue and we should have some time apart instead.  See other people; do other things.  And to be grateful and happy for the good times we had together this year.  Because they’ve been great.  We just need a break. 

They say what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and so I’m looking forward to be stronger together next year. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Transalp 2013 - great expectations

From the endorphin-thick haze that surrounded me on my return from my first stage race experience  came the notion that it would be a good idea to do more.  My debut had gone pretty smoothly so I lept to the conclusion that it would always be like this; not so much a race but a cycling holiday with days packed full of new trails, new people and new experiences.

What's more there was a yawning gap in my racing and holiday calendar this summer.  And I had found willing partner.  And there were still places available in the biggest and most famous stage race of them all.  Consequently there was only one course ahead, Transalp it would be.

With my scantly-evidenced expectations firmly in place, I headed out with my team mate Ant Jordan and 1000 others to cross the biggest mountain range of the Alps. Unsurprisingly not all of it panned out the way I thought it might:

You hope that being nice to the lady on the check-in desk at the airport means that she doesn't weigh your bike bag and charge you for your extra weight she should.
True.  Practise after me "Weight? Of this? Oh, just about under the limit"

Your relative success in your only previous stage race experience will mean that you're physically capable of taking all this in your (wheel) stride
False.  It will be harder than you ever imagined possible and you'll wonder whether you actually ever undertook any cycle-based training in your life.

You know that climbing isn't quite your thing and you might find some of this a bit tough.
True. But then there's 'tough' and 'tough'.

Take lots of spares as 'being prepared' will offer natural protection against anything going wrong with your bike
False. Lots of things will break whether you're prepared or not.  Although having the spares will mean that you'll be able to cobble together some kind of fix in your hotel room at 11 o'clock at night when all the bike shops are closed and you'll also just manage to complete the race when your partner's bike explodes on the last stage.

You'll be grateful of having taken the time and expense of booking hotel rooms for a decent night's kip after every stage.
True.  Although you'll wish that you didn't have to trek to the next town to get to it.

You'll be pleased that you and your racing partner are closely matched in ability.
True.  But you'll become incredibly envious of the female riders in other mixed pairs who regularly got a shove up the climbs.

You'll think it's great being able to justify eating anything and everything you fancy in an attempt to balance the calories burned.
False. I never believed that eating breakfast would become such a chore.  I still can't look an oat in the eye without blinking first.

The fact that you can complete 24hr races and happily ride at 3am when other people are faced with numerous demons means that the mental challenge of stage racing won't even register.
False.  You'll have the hardest day you've ever had on the bike and then, on subsequent days, you discover there are places even lower than that.

You think it's a bit hillier in the Alps than where you live.
True.  But you don't understand what it means until you ride up a 10% climb for 2hrs.

Campari spritz and Italian ice-cream taste even better after 700km and 20,000m of climbing
True.  Although it's important to keep testing to be sure.

At least the next time I jump head-first into a stage race I'll have two experiences to base my expectations.  Although that's going to make it harder to justify my rookie mistakes...

For our stage-by-stage race report, head over to the Cotic-AQR team blog

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Miserable Mayhem

It was probably never going to be a good idea.

On the surface of it I felt great after racing 24hrs at Exposure.  Last year it took me months to get back on the bike, this time I was having to hold myself back after a couple of days.  I had one or two niggles but wasn't that to be expected?

I was good, I rested and didn't ride much at all. 

I didn't get carried away with my idea, I canvased opinion on whether two 24hr solos in a month was do-able.  Half said I was mad, but they say that about one 24hr event.  Others said go for it if I felt ok.

So I did.

But I don't think I was ever convinced.  I didn't get stressed in the week before the event.  Not, as I tried to tell myself, that I was relaxed as it didn't matter, it was an extra race, I was training; but because I was pretending it wasn't happening as I knew my body wasn't up to it.

I realised afterwards that I'd been hoping that someone that I would trust would tell me not to do it.  I couldn't make that call myself as that would be giving up.  24hr racing is mind over matter, giving up is not conducive to 24hr racing.

Right from the start I knew my body wouldn't be able.  My legs wouldn't go and my back was in spasm.  The muddy, grindy climbs and lack of free flowing trails didn't help.  I changed bikes for my second lap for a different position and started again.  Just relax go with the flow.  But there was no flow to go with.  This wasn't a head thing, my body just wasn't close to being ready.

In hindsight perhaps I should have been less 'good' in the time between the two races.  If I'd done any kind of half decent ride I'd have realised that I was far from being ready.  It's easy to feel good when you're doing nothing.

People asked before whether my head would be in it to do two so close together.  I'm not sure, I didn't get to put it to the test.  If this had all happened at 3am then maybe it would have been an issue, as it was pulling out was the easiest decision I made about the whole race.  Physically I just wasn't able.

And what have I learnt from this? I still believe 24hr racing is mind over matter but knowing when something is too much is a skill I don't have.  Next time I should listen to myself before going through the rigmarole of preparing for an event. 

Luckily my team mate Ant had a better time with a stonking performance in the male solo race, here's his report.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

24hrs of Exposure Solo MTB Championships

I had decided I wanted to ride this year's Exposure 24hr solo championships 'stronger' and 'harder' than last.  This would be dead easy of course, all I needed to do was improve on my fitness, skill and some of the more shabby areas of my performance from last year and I'd be able to go faster than before.  So easy in fact, even a two year old could tell you...

Number one - training
I've trained harder this winter than I did last year.  Given that last year's training competed with a long commute, full-time work alongside a PhD, moving house and other various life events it wasn't actually that difficult to improve things.  Plus I had Kate Potter of AQR guiding me through my training, after all if you want to do well in a 24hr race you should chose an expert 24hr-racer-turned-coach to guide you.  Training goal completed (well, there's nothing wrong starting with a nice and easy goal to make yourself feel good).

So onto the race itself:

Number two - the start
Whereas last year I pootled start to finish, this year I wanted to see if I could get off to a stronger start.  I did reasonably well with this and a couple of practice laps proved useful in hitting the right lines from the off.  It didn't quite all go to plan though and on my first lap I nearly got taken out by two deer running across the trail and burped a front tyre which was accompanied with a small tumble over the bars.  In my defense I felt I needed to leave myself something to improve on in the next 23+ hours.

Three - consistent laps
I had worked out by what percentage my lap times had increased through the race last year and was aiming to keep this down.  The huge deluge around 8pm put pay to that as the course turned into thick mud but having seen that I did laps 3-8 in exactly the same time and haven't yet seen my lap times for the rest of the race I've decided to give myself this one anyway.

Four - pits
I wanted to make sure my pit stops were as efficient as possible: rolling changes for bottles and gels as much as I could and take longer if needed but no languishing.  With the pit crew that was there to support me and fellow Cotic-AQR team mate Martin, it was hard not to get this one right. So good were the crew that they were only slightly flummoxed when the gazebo tried to take off in the wind and rain amid a soggy kit change.  Not bad you lot, not bad at all...
Cotic - AQR HQ
And five - food and drink
With shorter laps and a wandering mind I was finding it hard to remember whether I'd had my requisite gels and bars on some of the laps.  Energy levels were ok so if I did I can't have missed too many.  Once it started to rain and I donned the thicker waterproof gloves and rain jacket remembering became the least of my problems as I couldn't really get into my pocket for my gels.  Luckily whilst ferreting around I did find a Lipsil so I was able to ensure my lips didn't get chapped mid-lap.  Handy.  Given the lap wasn't that long I could get away with eating just once a lap and my pit crew took to squirting a gel into my mouth and sending me out chewing a bar each time I went through.  I just made sure my lips were kept well conditioned.

Finally, number six - ride efficiently
This course was not my friend - it had none of the bits I'm any good on and lots of bits I'm rather shady at.  Long, mind-bending slogs and techy descents I'm your girl; rooty, muddy, twisty, uppy-downy trails - no ta. Although bizarrely I enjoyed it, well, most of it most of the time.  The fact that the course played to all my weaknesses made it harder but more important for me to ride  efficiently.  I think I did pretty well until the rain and mud came.  Then for 12 hours I didn't make a single lap without at least one unplanned dismount.  My personal favourites were the backward somersault with clean double-footed landing and when I managed to take out pit-mate Rob mid fall.  That'll teach him to ride alongside me. 

Last lap glory

And that was it.  Despite a few hiccups I think things went rather well.  I can definitely say that I did what I set out to do and rode harder, stronger and 'faster-faster' than I did last year.  Throughout the race I held onto second place with first never far out of sight.  I've retained my national 24hr champion jersey which is a nice way to celebrate me achieving what I set out to.

It should go without saying the massive thanks I owe my pit crew for their support before, during and after the race.  It might be solo racing, but I couldn't have done it without them all.  Also thanks to SIP for another great event, it's a shame it doesn't attract the number of entries it deserves.  

Podium antics

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Second helpings

The thing about going back for seconds is they're never quite as good as the first serving.  The first time round has a reason; the need for a bit more isn't really defined.  Seconds never hit the spot in the way the first portion did.  And there's the risk that it's cold and congealed, stale and old.  At best you're underwhelmed, at worse you feel a sick and wish you hadn't bothered.
I've told you, you'll wish you hadn't
My first helping of 24hr solo racing was the 2012 Exposure National 24hr MTB Championship.  I had a couple of aims.  Firstly, could I do the training I needed to do get to the start line and to give myself a realistic chance of being able to complete a 24hr race? Number two, could I actually 'complete' a 24hr race without having to walk entire laps or have several hours kip mid-way through?  

And I did them both.  My first helping of a 24hr solo race achived everything I wanted to achieve.  What's more I won the race.  It was tasty, I was full and it had even had sprinkles on the top.  So, despite my tendancy to reach for the serving spoon for a bit more, this time I was done. 

Exposure 2013 - done and done
But that seemed a shame.  Surely it couldn't have been that good, surely I wanted a bit more, surely having seconds could achieve something that the firsts did not?  But no.  I'd done that before and going back had never been as good.  I remained satisfied with what I'd done as I embarked on this winter's base training to achieve some yet un-defined goal.  But the question of what I was hungry for remained unanswered.  And despite my reticence to any further 24hr racing, the thought wouldn't quite go away.

Then I saw it all a bit differently.  This wasn't about having seconds, this was a whole new dinner.  I didn't want to go back for more because I couldn't achieve my first 24hr race again.  I needed new goals, not a new event.  Working out what my goals has proved much harder than before.  It's obvious to say that I want to be stronger and improve on how I did last year but working out how I can measure this has been tricky.   Comparing numbers of laps and distance to last year doesn't work as it's a new course and different conditions. Other obvious things like retaining my title, getting on the podium or achieving a certain percentage of the male winner's laps are all relative; they have more to do with other people's performance than my own.  This is about what I can achieve, not how well I do compared to others.  

With less than a week to go to this year's Exposure I've finally worked out what my goals are - I have my new recipe.  I may not achieve them, my dinner might taste awful, but at least I've resisted that second helping. 


Friday, 3 May 2013

The Cotic Solaris and the Bike Building Baptism

A couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to acquire what was at the time one of the only two available small Cotic Solari(i) 29er frames and this weekend saw me build it up in my first ever start-to-finish bike build.  (The small Solaris is now in production and available from Cotic).

SolarisThe Solaris has had some great reviews from trail riders but would it work for a relative shorty on the race course?  Big rolling wheels have a great theoretical advantage for endurance racing but I'm unconvinced that at 5'6" I have the height to make the bike work.  Feedback from my coach Kate Potter who is the same height as me and who had been test riding the other small Solaris, had been really positive about its relative advantages.  However, I remained unconvinced that the benefits of smoothing the lumps and bumps would outweigh disadvantage of the lack of maneuverability and difficulty getting weight over the front end; a major negative for smaller riders and particularly for someone who possesses as much bike handling skill as Boris Johnson.  Conversely you could argue that as I can't move a bike anyway it would make little difference to my riding.

SolarisAfter a few test rides of the bike in a fairly burly build, I found a stem and seat post combination that seemed to make the bike work fairly well - changing to an inverted 25 degree stem made all the difference to the grip I was getting on the front end.  Yep, it was harder to move around than littler wheels but I was flowing much quicker particularly on loose and rocky trails where the stability was really noticeable. Given the relative success of my demo-ing I decided to go ahead and purchase my own components to build up a bike suitable to endurance racing and my non-aggressive riding style.

Perhaps it may have been more sensible to ask an experienced mechanic to put the bike together for me but it seemed that there was no better time to give this bike building lark a whirl and so went ahead unsupervised.  I'm happy to report that there were no major issues despite me almost cabling up my gears the wrong way round but it did take me hours. And hours.  Thanks to Cotic, Clee Cycles, Race Mechanic & Eurobike, Paligap, USE and Cycle Sport North for the components and to my butler for the supplies of tea and biscuits. 

Its maiden voyage went pretty well (I'm pretending the two face-plants had nothing to do with my new bike) and my seconded run out with adjusted position was much better.  Keeping the front end down on sharper climbs is perfectly do-able although I have found that I have to preempt weight and positional changes much more than on my Soda.  I don't see this as a bad thing, one of my big weaknesses is adjusting my body position to move and balance the bike, but it is going to take some getting used to.

As to what degree I'll move across to the bigger wheels on the race course at this stage I'm unsure except the to say the obvious, it will be course dependent - weighing the advantages of the flow against the decrease in handling.  I'll be taking both my 26" Soda and Solaris with me to 24hrs Exposure next week just to hedge my bets.  As for more relaxed trail riding, I can't wait to get it out into the Peaks and give it a blast!

Final scores on the doors
My sub 22lb Solaris- not bad for a steel frame with full complement of gears
Frame - Cotic Solaris small - thanks Cy and Paul at Cotic

Forks - Reba RL 100mm

American Classic Race wheels
from  Eurobike and Race Mechanic

AC hubs & KCNC rotors from Clee Cycles

XTR shifters, mechs and brakes with KCNC 
chain and cassette from Clee Cycles

Carbon bars from USE
Ritchey Pro stem from Paligap

KCNC post and clamp from Clee Cycles 
Sella Italia saddle from Cycle Sport North

Monday, 15 April 2013

My first XC race - a story board

1. Pre-race prep
a. Registration 
All signed in for the Masters category.  Just 3 laps.  Whole race is probably going to be shorter than one lap of endurance race.

b. Course recce
Long slog up a boggy fairway into a massive headwind to start off.  Can just about see the top.

c. Warm-up
It normally takes me a good hour or two to get going. Getting a bit worried now.

2.  Go Go Go
a.  Lap one
Interesting start. Reasonable position, conflict between trying to get ahead of people and hiding in the group out the wind.  Got tied up in course tape blowing across and somehow pedal became disconnected from bike (!) meaning that places gained in big overtaking push were lost.
b. Lap two
Moved up a few places, starting to find a rhythm.  Pedal staying on bike.
c. Lap three
Apparently I can do aggression.  Overtaken a few more racers.  Had good duel for position but skipped wheel at top of up-and-over meant I lost what I gained.
3. Aftermath
a. Lactate
Must. Keep. Moving.
b. Podium
Second place.  Chuffed with that.  26 secs behind first, annoyed that I missed out but lap times showed improvement as race went on.
c. Trophy
Maybe it wasn't that bad after all. 

Thursday, 21 March 2013

My roller debut

I was fairly certain that this pedaling on rollers thing wouldn't be so hard. Surely the popular press would have it wrong in the same way that a turbo session isn't the most tedious thing known to man.  In fact I was so sure that I decided to add a few extra ingredients to spice things up a bit.

Firstly I wouldn't use a modern set of rollers with smooth bearings and parabolic drums.  I'd used a set that at best guess were 25 years old and had sat rusting in the back of a garage for at least 22 of these 25 years until their recent discovery.  They would have bearings that sounded like a load of tin cans sat on top of a demented washing machine.  Secondly I'd use my newly acquired road bike which I hadn't yet managed to set up into a state that was either comfortable or well balanced and on which I needed to shift myself all over the saddle in an attempt to get vaguely stable whilst I tried to pedal.  And finally I'd choose a two hour interval session in which to try all this out.

Rollers and torture rack at the Tower of London - Spot the difference

After a couple of practice sessions and only once ending up on the floor, I decided that I was ready to embark on the main event.  Not wanting to be too cocky about this I carefully placed the rollers in the door frame so I had something sturdy on both sides of me.  And so off I went.  After a rather sketchy start I got my eye in, picked up momentum and things got a little easier.

After 20 minutes I decided I was going to have to try and have a drink.  I was so pleased with myself for managing to get my bottle out the cage that I stopped concentrating for a moment and nearly plummeted off.  With order restored I managed a couple of sips and attempted to return my bottle to its home. In theory this procedure was only a little more challenging than removing it.  After some sharp side to side swerves and the accompanying ricocheting in the door frame I confessed I was rather relieved when I dropped my bottle.  At least if it wasn't within reach I had an excuse not to try and drink again and therefore save myself from a certain crash.  

From then on things went ok.  I managed to change gear.  I managed to hit the heart rates I was supposed to.  I even managed my second lot of sprints with a little more control than the first.  The post session recovery was a rude awakening as the massive drop off in gyroscopic force as I clunked down the gears left me scooting side to side for a full 10 minutes.

But I did it. I managed a full 2 hours and despite some incredibly close shaves, I didn't fall off.  But just in case it was a complete fluke, the next session will probably be on the turbo.  

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

It's started

As I'd just finished sorting my blog and was preparing for my first post I saw a tweet that summed up the situation I'm finding myself in and this blog aims to chart.  I've sat on a start line on less than 10 occasions and suddenly I'm named by SIP events as part of a strong field for this weekend's Whinlatter Challenge - alongside Josh Ibbot and Huw Thomas.  Illustrious company. 

I prefer the anonymity of last year and feel rather odd.  I'm only doing these things to achieve something for myself, not race other people.  Yes I'm competitive, but with myself.  There's so much to work on - fitness, skill, mentality - it seems backwards to me to worry about others before I've improved on some of these things myself.  Does this mean that others are out to beat me?  Or does no-one except me care?