Tuesday, June 17, 2014

European XC Marathon Championships 2014

I know it's been quiet on my blog for a while, I've got excuses (mainly work eating into my free time and I prefer writing about positive things), but last weekend's European XC Marathon Championships in Ballyhoura deserves a blog post.


Some may remember that when I started out cycling in 2006 ish, it was on Ryan's old mountain bike, mainly to get myself through adventure races, but then switching to mountain biking completely. In 2008, Ryan and I raced cross country in Ireland and the UK and at the time the UK MTB series carried out the XC race on Saturdays and the XC Marathon race on the same weekend on Sundays, using laps of a lengthened version of the XC course. So every race weekend in the UK we would trash ourselves in the XC race on Saturday and then top it off with a 100km marathon race on Sunday. Thinking back I remember that I always felt like I had been run over by a truck come Monday morning when I went back to work. But the training effect was massive: I gained a huge amount of fitness doing that. So I am no stranger when it comes to long hard off road endurance racing.

Over the years however I moved more and more into road biking, learning and enjoying the extra dimension it offers on tactics - the "chess-on-wheels" element - and the team perspective that XC racing is missing. So my racing has changed, but I still love taking out my mountain bike and ripping up and down the trails in the local forests.

When I started mountain biking, the Irish mtb community was small and close-knit. Often, I would have been the only soul out and about on the mountain, and if I met another mountainbiker on 3Rock, I usually would have known who it was. There were also a couple of walkers and horse riders, but in general you would have had the mountain to yourself. Trailcentres were still a new idea here in Ireland, with the Ballyhoura trails only being built back then. How things have changed since then.

So when I heard that the European XC Marathon Championships were going to be carried out on home soil in Ballyhoura, I had to enter it of course. In fact, I was one of the first people to ride on the new Ballyhoura trails when they were being built, before they officially opened to the public: during my time as an adventure racer I did the now famous "Beast of Ballyhoura" inaugural adventure race in 2007, a race I thoroughly enjoyed in great company. Part of their marketing was that we were to ride the new Ballyhoura trails during our night mtb leg. Even then they were already lots of fun, at night time, with ghosts jumping out in front of you :)

However, the last time I'd done a mtb marathon was the national mtb marathon champs in 2012 and my mtb was gathering dust. Ah well, I decided to take out the mtb bike a bit more often to shake off the cobwebs and remembered how much fun it is to rip through the forests, pushing the bike to the limits on the technical trails and enjoying being so close to nature. The recent good weather and grippy trails helped :)

While the Euro champs were not going to be my main focus - my main focus was always going to be the national road champs, I still thought I'd be able to ride a good race, especially since I should be getting into good form for the national road champs in 2 weeks after, or so I thought when I started out planning my season for the year. But things don't always go your way. Since the end of last year I have been struggling with loss of power especially in my left leg. When I first noticed it I was training for the road world champs 2013, and I put it down to some muscle imbalance due to the really hard training I was doing and hoped the time off the bike in the off season would see to it and sort it out.

But when I started proper hard training again in Gran Canaria in January, the problem reappeared worse than ever. I struggled through, having to change my training around the problem, hoping that maybe it was just the shock of doing intervals again after long steady sessions all winter that was the problem. But when I started racing this season in Belgium the problem persisted, although I managed to get through the races OK.

I had planned to be seen by a specialist in Belgium during one of my racing stints over there, but again, things didn't go to plan and I wasn't going to be back in Belgium any time soon after I had left my previous team. And then I joined the UK-based Wyndymilla team in May, whose main goal was the British Tour Series - a series of 5 mid-week crits over 5 weeks in May/June. Anyone who knows me knows my hate-love with crits - probably my worst on-bike discipline, but also so exciting, and I was hoping my strength would get me through. But when I started, I soon noticed the familiar symptoms: shortly into the efforts of the race my left leg would be screaming with pain, my toes would feel like they're going numb and I'd start wriggling them to help the circulation. Then, a couple of minutes more and a few more sprints out of corners later, my left leg would pack in and I would nurse myself through the race for as long as possible. I managed the first crit OK, but was dropped early in the 2nd one and had to pull out of the 3rd one altogether. Not good. There was no point in doing any more crits with my legs giving up on me like that and I needed clarity if it was all just in my head (maybe my legs just weren't used to the high efforts of crit racing) or if there was something else wrong with me.

I knew a rider who had a similar problem with power loss and had gone to Scott McDonald for a leg blood pressure measurement. So I went to him one morning to get the same measurement done, pedalling on a stationary bike until I felt the symptoms coming on, then lying down immediately to get my blood pressure in my arms and legs measured. And the result confirmed what I had felt all along, there is something restricting my blood flow to my legs at effort. What I was initially surprised at was that both legs were affected - yes, that's right, my blood pressure actually dropped significantly on BOTH legs, albeit more so on my left leg. So it's not just in my head, phew! But depending on the cause it can mean anything between an easy fix and a big operation with lengthly recovery period. Only a scan can bring clarity and I'm now waiting to get scheduled for an arteriogram to see what the issue is and how it can be fixed (although I've been told that it can take half a year with public health insurance.....).

So that was why I couldn't really expect to have a good result at the European Marathon Champs, where you want to go as close to your limit for as long as possible, with very little recovery time and no "sitting in". I still decided to enter, go my pace and try to have some fun. How often do you have the chance to ride against some of the worlds best mountain bikers on home soil in beautiful Ballyhoura?

On the day of the race we were greeting with the same fine weather that we had all week leading up to it - it's rare in Ireland to have such a consistent stint of warmth and sunshine (although I've been telling all the Euros that it's always like that in Ireland in the summer ;)). The race start/finish area was buzzing with activity and looked fantastic. I first saw off Ryan who started 40min ahead of me in the star-packed men's Elite race before getting ready to start myself. A relatively small field of only 20 women had lined up in the Elite women's race.

And this is how the race went for me: the pace at the start wasn't super fast, but hard enough for my leg(s) to start suffering again. The really steep climbs up Seefin and the next mountain gave it the rest and I had to let the front group go and go my own speed. I kept on going, keeping my niggle at bay and tried to enjoy the fantastic trails and the superb view and the amazing weather. Unfortunately, about half way through, my chain and rear derailleur started acting up, with my chain jumping off the front or the rear during bumpy descents. Eventually I found the problem: the chain had been caught between the jockey wheel and the rear derailleur and worn through the rear derailleur cage, so that it had lost its rigidity and become floppy, resulting in the chain jumping around and hopping off whenever I went over technical terrain. So much for enjoying the fun descents having to nurse the bike home and riding as smooth as possible and keeping having to stop to put the chain back on, sooo frustrating! According to my moving time vs. stopping time I lost between 6-7 min for having to stop and fixing my chain - that time alone would have bumped me up a couple of places in the results. So all in all it was a bit of a disaster for me race wise and I finished in 11th place, 24 minutes down from a deserving win for Tereza Hurikova, who raced her heart out for the win.

But putting my own bad personal race experience aside, the event itself and everything around it was absolutely amazing. It was so nice to see so many familiar faces and big mtb names in my adopted home country - people I knew from years back from mtbing and training in the UK and Cyprus and Gran Canaria and other parts of the world, such a nice community of people sharing the same passion coming together to race in Ballyhoura. It was also great seeing Sally Bigham, who is recovering from some health issues to come 2nd for her umptieth time in a row. I used to race Sally in my first year mtb racing in the UK in 2008, and she would beat me in every Sunday marathon race, although she didn't have the heavy legs to deal with from the Saturday XC race. Back then in 2008 when we were both relatively new to it, I believe I would have been fairly well matched to her on the Sunday marathon if I hadn't done the XC race on Saturday, but since then Sally has become a world class mtb marathon racer and I don't think I'll ever have the chance to come close to beating her again.

It was a brilliant weekend, superbly organized by Niall Davis and his crew, down to the feed-zone distance stickers and the organized bottle handouts at the feedzones. And even the weather played ball! The atmosphere was fantastic, great crowds of mtb enthusiasts, such a warm welcome and so many encouraging "good lucks" and cheers from everyone we knew, such a relaxed and fun environment. Really really worth it and hoping for it to return some day. If Carlsberg put on mtb marathons, they would ask Niall Davis to organize it, or was it Erdinger...? ;)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I'm going Pink!

I always wanted a pink bike and pink jersey, so I was so happy when I found a new and happy home at the UK-based WyndyMilla Reynolds Cycle Racing Team. But then I found out I wasn't going to ride on the team's pink bike - no I was going to get my own custom built and custom-pained version of the WyndyMilla "Massive Attack" frame, and also my kit in Irish Champions colours! Uh, ok, I take that!!! (Although it's not ready yet, so I AM riding in pink right now :))

The team is focusing on the British Tour Series - a race series comprised of 5 city centre crits. Crits are not really where my strengths are (I only get warmed up by the time the race is over!), but nonetheless they are so much fun with all the close cornering and fast pace - never a dull moment.

So yesterday was my first experiment: Fly over to the UK in the morning, drive to race HQ, meet team, get new bike and kit, race crit, fly back home. And it all worked out well, considering how all was put together in such a short amount of time (if I told you how quickly WyndyMilla were able to custom manufacture (in Italy!), paint (in the UK!) and build up my "Massive Attack" race bike, my manager would kill me, because he'd get customers wanting it that quickly too).

My new custom made and painted Massive Attack bike!
It's also a sign of top quality equipment that I felt comfortable riding my new bike for the first time half an hour before racing it in a crit, probably the most technical of all bike races. And I can only say that the bike rides like a dream, and it's not even set up perfectly to my spec yet! I also love the Reynolds wheels and Schwalbe tires, both of which I've used before, so I knew how much I could push my bike through those corners.

The only mistake we really made last night as a team was that we went to the start line wayyy too late, starting at the very back, and the course was too narrow at times and quite technical with many corners, so it was bound to line out quickly and make moving up difficult. The first round of the Tour Series started off with a bang, typical crit style, high speed, sprinting out of corners, with the first lap lining out the bunch and forcing the splits that we ended up in. I think I finished in the 2nd group on the road, after being lapped by an absolutely on fire Katie Archibald (who nearly lapped the complete field I think!). So it can only get better and I'm already looking forward to jetting in for the next round next Tuesday in Peterborough!

My new team :)
My Irish Champs kit will be available on WyndyMilla for pre-orders soon - it looks absolutely amazing, so if you want one, check out the WyndyMilla facebook page for info.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

New job, new team, new year

Soo, it's been quiet on my blog, but not for the lack of action, quite the opposite, I've just been too busy! Unfortunately Dublin rent is quite expensive and cycling too, so I had no option but to get a job. Luckily though my job is very flexible and can be carried out remotely. And it allows me to keep cycling. But it also requires a lot of mental energy - working concentrated on the computer for 20 hours a week is not always easy when you're tired from training. Anyhow, while my recovery may have suffered, it will pay for all the racing I will do this year (yes, I do have to pay for all of that myself). And I will get to do some really cool races in Europe this year with my new team. But first things first.

My own CX bike bought with my own money!
In October last year I was without a job, without money and without a plan. So in my off-season break Ryan and I started looking for a job that would allow us to keep training. While there were no leads for a while and I was getting fidgety, it all happened very quick in the end. Our company got a consulting stint in California with view to extension, so we flew over a week later and started setting things up. This was my 4th winter trip to California, but the first time to set up the consulting gig! We were still able to make use of the much better weather in California and get in our base miles like every year. We just had to be a lot more organized and had no time to do anything outside of work and training.

Sporting my new team kit in the CX Champs - photo credit: Toby Watson
Then another last minute offer came through - I had been hoping to get onto a team that would race mainly in Europe and give me opportunities for the next level of racing. I had already started on plan B, looking to join a local Belgian club team and race with them, when the offer from the Danish Team Rytger came through. Team Rytger is a first year UCI team full of young and promising riders and would race mainly in Europe, perfect for me! As a first year, the team are running on a shoe-string budget, but with two national road race champs (Denmark and Ireland), we already got lots of invites to races, including some of the biggest classics, like the Tour of Vlaanderen! I am really looking forward to be racing with them.

Start of last race in Bremen Six Days

Ryan and I returned from California just in time for Christmas. I spent most of my training on the turbo trainer, and a day or two in bed with a cold too. Christmas was really relaxing with family and friends, giving me a lot of mental energy. I also did a little bit of cyclo cross racing. I had picked up a second hand CX bike in the US from my first salary. Last year I raced the CX Champs on a borrowed bike and Ryan's too large bike, finishing 2nd (in what was my 2nd ever CX race). This year at least I would go into the champs a little more prepared: I had done 3 CX races on my own bike before going into the champs race and was in better form than same time last year. My biggest competitor was going to be Fran Meehan, who had beaten me into 2nd place last year. I knew Fran was in great form and had chance to improve her mud surfing skills by racing CX on the continent. I knew I was missing the high intensity training and my skills would be lacking, but I was happy to challenge her. I thought I might have a chance to win if the course wasn't too wet and it would be power over skills. Unfortunately for me the course was slippery as frig and I had trouble riding (or should I say sliding?) in a straight line. It helped a little that I got a bit of a head start when Fran got caught up in a crash at the start, but the Fran was catching up steadily every lap and I struggled more and more on the slippery ground. Eventually the inevitable happened and she passed me and kept increasing her lead. I finished behind her in 2nd, AGAIN! Ah well, there's always next year.

On top of the world in GC
After the CX Champs I took a 3 day holiday in Germany to visit a friend of mine in Bremen. Just at the same time the Bremen 6-days were on: A track cycling event with lots of entertainment, or rather lots of entertainment with some track racing. And oh the Germans know how to throw a good party, although we were there on the last and quietest day, where the people there were actually interested in watching the racing. A famous Bremen saying roughly translates as follows: "The Bremen 6-days are great craic, only the races are getting into the way!"

Our one and only beach trip in GC
Straight after returning from Bremen Ryan and I made off to our yearly warm weather winter training camp in Gran Canaria. We've come to the same place for 6 years now. People think we're going on a holiday, but in reality we just live a very simple life working and training hard like in Ireland, just with good weather and less distractions. Train, work, eat, sleep, repeat sums it up mostly. Our stay is usually punctuated by friends or family visiting when we are there, but for most of it it's a quiet life. Perfect for working and training and getting some Vitamin D in the winter :)

Time there has flown by as every year and while I'm writing this we're on our insanely early flight back to bad weather in Ireland. Thank goodness it's an easy week this week! And after this little breather in Ireland, I'm off to my first racing stint in Belgium and the Netherlands, then a training camp in Italy and then some more racing in Belgium. Have a look at www.team-rytger.com and follow us on Facebook to see what's in store for me!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Update part 10 - Off season and start into the new training season

After the hill climb champs my season was well and truly over and I took great advantage of that. With racing as far off as March I stuffed my face with all the comfort food that I had given up during the season, just to make sure I put on those lost kg again... In fact, the 6 weeks before the Worlds, when I was loosing weight, I passed by this bakery with the most delicious looking cakes on my way to my grocery shop and all that I could do to not break off my diet was to dream that I would try every cake on display in the month of off-season. I didn't get through them all, but I got close ;)

In the off-season, Ryan and I spent our first real non-biking, non-working and non-PhDing holiday in Berlin for 6 days, exploring the city and enjoying the culinary scene (that includes kebabs). It was just what we both needed.
Enjoying the last of the good weather with friends
But after Berlin I became a little lost and restless. I had no training to do, no job to work, no PhD to study, nowhere to go and nothing to do. Yes, of course there was always something to do, like cleaning the house and tidying the bikeroom and all those things that are on the long-finger list, but eventually I ran out of any of the more obvious and pertinent tasks. I wasn't happy. I've realized I'm not good with nothing to do. In fact, when I have nothing to do I get nothing done. I also had no idea of what my options would be for next year team-wise, and I still don't know now. Ideally I would like to race lots in European big-bunch-small-roads races, to learn the craft of effortlessly surfing the peloton. So I thought that if I don't get to race with a team, or if I get to race with a small club team, then I'll have to fund myself, and rent also doesn't pay itself anyway, so I had to get a job and earn some money. A little perk up was the CI Awards Ceremoney, where Ryan and I received our National Champs medals.

Receiving my medals at the CI Awards night from Stephen Roche (photo: Black Umbrella)
After some time a suitable option that allows me to keep training finally came through, so that I will work part-time this winter to earn money for me to travel next year for races. This year has been such a massive learning curve, and taking the option with TIBCO was like jumping into the deep end with sharks. Maybe with TIBCO I was biting more than I could chew, but the experience I gained can only help me next year. Stay tuned for my plans for next year!


Friday, November 22, 2013

Update part 9 - Irish Hill Climb Champs

After the World Champs my off-season more or less started. I still had one race, the Irish National Hill Climb Champs in Tralee, but it wasn't actually an official championship for women, so competition would be expected to be few for me - I was mainly going along to support Ryan who was hoping to defend his title. So all I had to do was try and not over indulge in all the nice foods that I had abstained from in order to loose weight and keep my legs moving. As predicted, there were very few women at the hill climb champs (3) and I decided to use my power tap in the race (I don't usually because of the weight penalty, and because it's on a wheel built for sturdyness and not aerodynamics) to get some measurements. I won the women's race with a time of 14min 18sec and an average power of 343W. The courses 3.9km long and climbed 295m with an average gradient of 8%, levelling off in the middle for a bit, but then ramping up with about 1km to go. In contrast to the sunshine and beautiful views when we recce'd the course the day before we now had misty fog and a massive headwind to battle. It was interesting to see the power - I included the file below, again I went out too hard at the start, dropping power towards the end. Ryan came 2nd with only 0.7 of a second behind the winner, Mark Dowling, who had beaten him already 2 years ago (Ryan blames me for having taken him a bag of delicious Cantucci home from Florence - ooops!).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Update part 8 - Road World Championships

After a couple of days (mental) recovery I resumed straight back into my training for the Road Worlds. I felt surprisingly good after the Ras and not as tired as I had expected to, so I was happy about that. To keep my race skills sharp I took part in the Leinster Road Race Champs on a great little course in Dunlavin. Unfortunately the ladies bunch were not interested in a hard race but rather were happy to potter along at a speed that was in active recovery range. There were a couple of futile attacks until Orla Hendron managed to get away. I had planned to get away on the hills on the 3rd side of the triangular course and bided my time until then. But come the hills, I was off the front like a rocket. I felt great and rode hard until I had chased down Orla. I took Orla with me until we hit the hill at the start-finish line and I dropped her, riding the last two laps of the 72km course by myself. I hadn't planned on doing a 50km TT effort, but I need to get my training in! In the end I finished over three minutes ahead of the women. Oh yes, form was coming along very nicely indeed.

Leinster Road Champs Podium
 Now to the professional highlight of my season, the Road World Championships in Florence. I already published my first attempt at doing a video diary on the lead up to the women's race in previous posts, but I'll provide a summary here and also a report about the race itself. So, just to recap, I flew to Florence with some of the juniors on the Tuesday before the race. We all stayed in this fantastic Italian apartment set up with our own private courtyard. We had several fully furnished apartments inclusive of little kitchenettes and I was to room with Olivia and Sam Bennett and Matt Brammeier were to occupy the other bedroom. The mechanic's apartment became the workshop and bike room, our soigneurs (Stacey (AnPost) and Alyssa (Garmin)) apartment became the massage parlour and the kitchen in our chef's apartment became our dining room. Oh yes, we had our own chef, Sean Fowler from Garmin, and he was so worth it. He was so good that we were all disappointed when we were told that we are going to GO OUT for dinner on the last night to celebrate. The managers and logistics officers apartments became HQ and organizations office, respectively. We were also situated right in the centre of Florence, making it easy for us to get to the circuit part of the course. On Wednesday I rode around the circuit with the juniors and then watched the men's TT with our own Nicolas Roche placing a very respectible 13th place, reflecting his bigger focus on TT this year. On Thursday Olivia arrived and we went on an easy recovery ride around the circuit. Friday was my openers day, and I did my intervals on the long climb on the circuit. My session was hard and long, the hardest and longest I would have done ever before a race (over 140 TSS points!), but with the length of our race of 140km I felt I needed a good bit of pressure in my legs. I was in such amazing form, probably the best form of my life, the training felt easy.
Team Ireland!

Road World Championship Race day: The weather stayed as nice for our race as it had been in the days leading up to it. Sunny and warm with just a little breeze. Olivia and I were driven out to Montecatini, where the race was to start and where the Irish tent was set up. After a good warm-up, some last minute feeding and a last second toilet trip we were lined up with helicopters buzzing above. After a short while waiting for the time to count down we were off on the about 60km to Florence. Olivia and I didn't actually get to see the full course, but the first 60km were pretty straightforward on big open and mostly straight roads. There was only one short sharp climb about 6km into the race, but too short to let anything get away. I started off a the back and after seeing Claudia, my Team TIBCO teammate riding for the German national team also riding at the back I thought it would be a safe enough place to be. Because I knew that Claudia would know exactly when it is important to go to the front. Our advice had been to preserve as much power as possible and hide in the bunch, so that suited me well. Because I was nervous, very nervous. What if I crash and take someone out and it's going to be shown live on TV? So I decided I'll just stay on Claudia's wheel and move up when she does. It also increasingly looked like that nobody was going to get away on the long stretch to Florence, although there were plenty of attempts.

Up and up and up the long climb to Fiesole

However, when we came closer to Florence the pace became more frantic and I lost her out of my eye. Unfortunately neither Olivia nor I had recc'ed the part of the course that went through the historical part of Florence before we hit the circuit. We had largely been of the understanding that there was nothing technical on the course until we hit the circuit in Florence, and so had only looked at the cuicuit, because it made no sense to drive to Montecatini and sit in the car for 3hours the day before the race to see mostly non-technical roads. What got lost in communication was that before we hit the circuit, we would hit a very technical section through the historical quarters of Florence, with tiny narrow roads covered in hundreds of years old flag stones. It would have been hard to recce this part anyway as that part of town is overrun by tourists or the course was closed for racing. But we had neither anticipated this part of the course to be so technical nor that the Americans and the Russians would use this to their advantage. As soon as came close to the historic part the Americans and Russians pushed up the pace, lining out the complete bunch and lead the line crit style through the Piazza della Repubblica, the Piazza del Duomo and by other historic sites. In hindsight it was so obvious - these girls would know every corner of the course by heart, having practiced and raced the TTT and ITT, which covered the same stretch on it. Well, long story short, I was nearly at the very back of the 144 rider strong peloton and there was no way to move up once the bunch was strung out at full gas speed around those corners. I did all I could do then, which was to stay on the next persons wheel ahead of me, but of course splits appeared in the bunch. Once we hit the climb I did my very best to climb up as many positions as possible and arrived at the top of the hill with the front of what then became the 3rd group on the road. I was hoping my group would try and chase, but we were too far down and nobody was interested in working, since most riders would have teammates up front. Unfortunately Olivia, who had been much better positioned when the speed went up had been pinched in corners at critical points and we both ended up in the same group. When I saw that nobody was interested in chasing I knew our race was over. Not without frustration I surrendered to the fact and rode around the circuit with my group until we were pulled with one lap to go. Olivia and I waited at the finish to see the amazing Marianne Vos do what she does best, win a bike race!

Descending again after the long climb

I was a little disappointed that we didn't get placed, only 46 riders out of 144 starters finished the race and quite frustrated at having been so nervous and stayed so far back. I am still not quite comfortable racing at close quarters in the big bunches and it shows when I'm super nervous. I know physically I was in the best place I could have been in, but I just need to work more on my bunch skills, something that does not yet come natural to me, but requires a lot of effort. I do hope to be able to address this shortfall next year though, but more about that later.

What I do want to say though about the World Champs was how well we were taken care off by Cycling Ireland and how much support we received from the Irish fan contingent in Florence. It was easily the least stressful week from a professional cyclist's perspective, since everything was taken care off from taking care of the bike, our body, our food, our clothes and our aministrative stuff. All we needed to do was keep the legs ticking over until the race, be there for our massage, enjoy amazing food and get lots of rest. Bliss!

Olivia and I keeping the pace up

And with the weather holding up nicely for our race the Irish were out in force all along the course, it was amazing to see all the Irish flags and yes, I could hear yas!

My flight back from Florence was only on Monday evening, so I could enjoy watching our men race, who were much more unfortunate with atrocious weather, making the amazingly smooth roads as slippery as an icerink after torrential rain, destroying the hopes of an Irish medal when one after the other our men were wiped out in the many many crashes. Luckily they all stayed unharmed and we enjoyed a nice dinner together on the last night.

Monday morning I spent eating my way through Florence (oh, the Cantucci!) before returning home on an almost completely Irish-fan filled flight.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Update part 7 - Ras na mBan

Back in Ireland I soon found out that I would also get the chance to represent Ireland in Road World Championships for the first time in my life. Wow, what an honour! Those news and the fact that I had been selected for the Irish National Team to race in the Ras na mBan gave me just the right amount of motivation and reason to refocus. And focussed I was! For once I had good bodily feelings - I could finally push myself again in training and wasn't intimidated by 3hour intensive sessions. My training was going better and better, my power numbers were creeping up and stayed consistently high, I felt great and I was super disciplined with my training and focussed a lot on my eating to try and get as lean as healthily possible for the Road World Champs, which would feature about 1600m of climb. During this about 6 week preparation period Ryan was out of the country for racing himself in Belgium and when he came back the day before I left for the Worlds even he couldn't believe how lean I had become. The Worlds were such a big thing for me, I did everything to keep my training going well, to drop weight and to stay healthy, including avoiding birthday parties and other gatherings of people to avoid catching a cold.
Ras na mBan Team

Already for the Ras na mBan I was in amazing form. This year the RnB took place in Clare for a change. I was sad to see the Ras leave Kerry, because I loved the set up and the stages, but I needn't have worried, because Clare proved to be just as epic a scenery with just as tough roads. The RnB this year had 6 stages with the new addition of a TTT stage (no ITT), for which our team was specifically chosen, and a circuit type stage on the same day. Stage 1 went well enough, although it was apparent that there was a huge difference in ability in the peloton. I was off the front in the end, but messed up by getting confused at which way we had to turn for the finish and hesitated, only to be caught up by the bunch again. It was too late to get going again and I just finished with the bunch.

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Stage 2 greeted us with forebording grey skies and the rain set in soon. The course was technical from the start, passing through the dramatic landscape of the Burren with its rough exposed slate stone. We were also down a team member due to injury, so we had our work cut out. My teammate Caroline got into a break with another rider and we let them get a gap. With a few QOM points shortly following each other there were a lot of attacks. On one of the last ones an attack went again, and Olivia, Jenny Fay, a Danish girl and I followed, with the peloton close on our heels. The Danish girl unfortunately washed out on a tight left hand downhill corner on the very slippery road. I narrowly managed to avoid the girl because she out of my trajectory path. Olivia, Jenny and I kept riding hard trying to make it across to Caroline and her breakaway companion. After a hard chase we finally caught them and worked together hard over the Burren hills. We dropped the other rider and finally Caroline before the Corkscrew climb, leaving Olivia, Jenny and me in the breakaway group. We still had about 60km to go and kept working hard. Our hard work paid off with the time difference to the peloton creeping up an up as the kilometers went by. The day was rainy and the scenery amazing going by the sea and riding in our little group was actually much more relaxing and straightforward than having to battle for position in the bunch and being in danger of being brought down by people crashing around you. The finish for today was uphill and at the start of the hill Olivia attacked and went off the front. Jenny didn't try to follow, so I also attacked and rode across to Olivia. Olivia and I worked together until about 200m to go, where she openened up the uphill sprint. After short deliberation I decided to sprint myself and overtook her just before the line. I had won the stage and Olivia was in pink due to countback from stage 1 - happy days! In addition, Jenny Fay managed to stay ahead of the bunch, so we had an all Irish podium for that day.

Smooth TTT - photo by  Black Umbrella Productions

Stage 3 was the TTT, which the Irish team won in a breeze. For our first time riding as a group we were doing really well and I felt very comfortable during the stage. Stage 4 in the afternoon was the circuit race, which was hard if you don't keep doing crits regularly, the sprinting out of the corners and chasing after the many attacks for my teammate Olivia was tiring me out and I finished with the bunch.

Stage 4 started in Lisdoornvarna and took in some amazing scenery on a smashingly beautiful and summery warm day next to the cliffs of Moher. The sun shone and the wind blew and we raced up and down the green and barren countryside around the town of the matchmaker. Our team did our very best to control the race in front, following every dangerous attack, which was taking its toll on my legs, but luckily Olivia managed to follow them when the groups splintered on the last few climbs on the last approach into Lisdoornvarna. I used as many wheels I could find to get back up to the front group and rolled in just a wheel behind Olivia, since I had to protect her lead and make sure she stayed in pink.

Leading the peloton through the techy parts of town (photo: Black Umbrella)

The last stage was another horribly wet day with gusty strong winds. The course led us up some tough climbs where the peloton started to splinter - stage race fatigue seemed to be setting in. I managed to crest the top with the front group as sole representative of my team and started on the technical downhill descent with the front few people. Then there was a crash on a tight right hand corner with a waterfilled pothole and the group split even more. I hung onto the front group who were going easy, waiting for some of their riders to catch back on. Finally, I could see Olivia and Jenny Fay working together and dropped back shortly to help them catch on. After getting some of the time splits our group decided to work hard because of they could improve their respective GC positions and Olivia and I just hung on. Unfortunately we had a massive headwind all the way back to Ennis and progress was painfully slow and boring. There were a few late attacks, but I stayed with Olivia and rolled in a wheel behind her, finishing in 2nd place overall, on the same time as my teammate Olivia.

For me the Ras na mBan this year was quite an emotional experience. I was proud and honoured to have had the opportunity to represent my adopted home country so well, with an Irish 1-2 in GC. And I was similarly proud of the success of the DID Ladies Team, who won 3 of the 6 stages. On a personal level the tactics that were directed did not align with my personal aims - this is the 2nd time that I'm coming 2nd behind Olivia in this race - but this time I was on the same team as Olivia and road cycling it is after all a team sport. I did my job and I am very happy that the Irish National Team put in such a good performance in the face of toughest and highest level competition in years. And there is always next year, right?