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?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Update part 6 - Lotto Tour in Belgium

After Sweden we had a long transfer to the Lotto Decca Tour in Belgium, with a stopover in Denmark. Since we were going to pass through Northern Germany and to get a break from the intense atmosphere, I thought to take the train up to visit my dad and his wife for a few relaxed days of training. It was a welcome change and I enjoyed a few very nice and chilled days with good food, quality training and great company. My dad and I even got to share a swim in the beautifully relaxing sea. Oh how I miss the sea swims! Also, for the first time in a long time I found that I could actually push myself again in training, able to push out some high intensity.

Team presentation at the Lotto Tour in Belgium

After this break I made the two day trip by train to the camping site in France, where the team was staying for the duration of the Lotto Decca Tour. The tour started with another TTT and though some good signs were coming from my legs, one week of relaxation and good training did not magically make my form reappear to what it should be. So again I was nervous and the course was quite technical too. In short, I got dropped again at about the 5km mark. The rest of the tour was 3 road stages. I started the next stage and was doing OK until there was a big crash at a bridge just before the major climb of the course that I got caught behind. A settled into one of the chase groups and we nearly got back on, but my legs were not going as hard as I wanted them too and I got dropped on the climb, forming another little chase group with 2 girls. But then I hit one of the cobbled sections at high speed into a corner and washed out, getting dropped from those girls too. I was swallowed up by the largest dropped group on the road and came home with them. We were pulled one lap to go, but got a placing. Obviously I was not impressed with my performance, and I was very frustrated. My form wasn't there and I shouldn't be racing.
Caught behind a crash at the bottom of the climb

Stage 3 was a flat stage and I was instructed to attack to try and get away. I tried a few fruitless attempts and nearly made it over to one of the girls that successfully stayed away for most of the race, but I didn't have the power to make it across before the chasing bunch swallowed me again. Then I was caught again behind a crash and I think my mind just broke then and there. I wasn't even able to pull together the power to chase back on after all my breakaway attempts. I never made it back on and was pulled with a lap to go, DNF. This meant I wasn't going to start the last stage that went up the famous Koppenberg, but to be honest, I don't think I would have made it up it. I felt I had let myself and my team down and all I wanted to do was go home and curl myself up under my duvet cover and cry. I discussed things with my team director and thought it was best to go home early and skip the next few races I was down to do so that I don't drag the team down with my frustration. I wished my team luck and left the next day to spend the day in Brussels where I spent the night before my flight home the next day. In Brussels I made the best of my situation and played indulging tourist, I think I had Belgian chocolate, Belgian icecream AND Belgian waffles all in one day. And I loved it. Walking around Brussels also did wonders for my head and everything already looked a little less bleak by the time I went back home to Ireland.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Update part 5 - Sweden World Cup

Anyhow, the reason why I was so hesitant to give myself a proper break now was the fact that I was down to do the World Cup in Vargarda, Sweden and then the Lotto Decca Tour in Belgium with my regular racing team TIBCO. I thought it was too close now to take a break and just forced myself to go on training. To be honest, I wasn't sure if it was just all in my head or not, because I did have good days too, like in the Ballinrobe, but just somehow everything I did felt so much harder than it should have.

Training with my team in Sweden

However, I managed to put in some half decent training and hoped it would all somehow come back together for the racing with my team. I travelled to Sweden to be reunited with my team and we cracked on with our first TTT training together. It didn't go too bad for a first time, but I felt the speed and pain in my legs and was the first to get dropped in training. This did not bode well for my confidence, normally I would be the strong one that can keep up the power and drop people. For the TTT race so I was very nervous. On top of that I had a bad start and had to chase onto the rest of the girls, then, just when I was trying to recover, I had to avoid one of the girls nearly binning herself in a right hand corner. For the second time within a couple of minutes I had to chase on hard to the fast disappearing TTT train. I was racing in dark-red before I even put in a pull myself. This was not going well. Finally, about 10min and only 5km into the TTT, I couldn't suffer any more and had to let go. Frustrated and disappointed at my embarressing performance I rode shamefully to the finish. Yes, we hadn't ridden together well at the start, but nothing hide the fact that my form had not returned.

After a day recovery spent on an easy ride, the Word Cup Road Race was on the plan. All the big teams were here and the course was hard with some tough climbs and strong winds on the day. I tried my best to stay protected wherever I could, but was struggling from the start. My legs didn't allow me to get to the front to attack, as I had been instructed to do. I was feeling shit and was eventually dropped, riding around with another few girls until I was pulled. What a crap experience. My director was obviously not happy either, feeding my feeling of misery and the atmosphere was not great.