Friday, April 24, 2009

World Cup Offenburg Preview and living like a pro....

OK, so after the Bundesliga race in Muensingen I stayed on until Thursday in the holiday flat (so that I could make use of the 7-day offer there). The weather was beautiful everyday, lots of sunshine, and the area is probably one of my most favourite areas in Germany, the “Schwäbische Alb”. It is so beautiful and romantic, with rivers snaking through valleys and rock formations – even caves, the geological history of this valley is superinteresting (it used to be a sea!), castles and ruins every few miles on either side of the valley, and those beautiful “Fachwerkhäuser” (typical house structures here: with dark wood criss crossing the white washed walls – beautiful!). And on top of all this, it was a cyclist’s paradise. If you want to go steady and flat you go along the many walking/cycling paths along the river (and stop for a huge ice cream bowl at a river side beer garden). Or, if you want to have a bit of a hilly workout, you can just go straight into the woods and follow any of the hundreds of small walking paths (read: first-class singletrack). You didn’t even need a map, the trails basically started from your doorstep. I looooove the “Schwäbische Alb”!

Anyway, on Thursday I made my way to Offenburg. I went straight to the course to pre-ride it, because my next hotel was about an hour the opposite direction from where I came. However, I noticed I had no water with me, so I drove to the next village, but it didn’t have a shop. I went on to the village after that, this one was slightly bigger and voila, there was a shop. BUT, the shop was closed! Flippin shop is closed from 12pm to 2:30pm! It was 1:30pm…. When I turned my car I saw Burry Stander and another few riders standing before the closed door scratching their heads… So I had to drive all the way back to Offenburg, and the first shop I found was a health food shop. Ah well, better healthy water than no water.

At least the weather was absolutely fantastic, blue skies and sunshine. I went back to the course. I had seen online that the course and in fact the whole race is hailed as one of the best to go to, so I had great expectations. Also, it’s supposed to be one of the most technical trails in a World Cup (in contrast to South Africa, which I didn’t find very technical at all, just steep). You can have a look at to see the description of the race course (click on “Strecke” on left hand menu, there are some spectacular pics of the drops). Well, I did a lap round and I can say that all my expectations have been fulfilled. It’s such an amazing course, I think it may actually become my new favourite course! There are no super steep climbs (wohoo!), but there is still a good bit of climbing in the course. Most of it is very flowy, twisty singletrack through the trees. The flow is one of the best I’ve ever experienced in a course. But then of course, there are the 5 highlights of the course (the REALLY technical bits):

The Dual Speed (a choice of two separate singletrack lines with several drops in a row)
The Northshore (an amazingly flowy bermed singletrack descent + drop, suuuper fun!)
The Worldclass drop (3m straight down drop from a corner into a corner)
The Wolfsdrop (a rooty trail towards an even rootier 3m drop – the hardest in the race)
The Snake Pit (a labyrinth of roots with deep holes inbetween followed by a drop)

My first thought at any of these drops was “OH MY GOD!!!”. Apart from the Dual Speed and the Snake Pit I didn’t ride any of the drops. At each section I waited for some riders to go by to watch them go down, but I was too scared to go down. So I finished my first lap and then chatted to Githa Michiels (Belgium national champ) who had just finished her pre-ride, to see how she is able to go down those drops. After a bit of confidence talk from her, I decided that in my next lap I’ll do ALL of the drops. I came to the doubletrack and managed that allright. Then I went off and I was so surprised by the drop after the bermed singletrack (I forgot that there was one) that I had no chance to stop and had to ride it down. Well, that wasn’t too bad! Then on to the Worldclass drop. I stopped to see how other people rode it. This was the only drop that had a chicken run, but the chicken run was so longwinded and tricky enough as well, so that you would loose about 10secs if you didn’t do the drop. So I waited and waited and watched and considered and looked and waited and gathered all my confidence and went up to it and (this feels like jumping off a 10m board or out of an airplane)…. – I made it down!!! Ryan, you can be so proud of your girlfriend! Wow, the adrenaline hit was amazing. I actually can’t believe I made myself ride it down. I am really scared of steep descents and this one was way longer than the one in Cyprus that I didn’t dare to go down. Anyway, I went on to the next one, the Wolfsdrop and again stopped to watch which line people took and how they went down it. And again I gathered all my confidence (it didn’t take me that long this time round) and made it down safely. And because it was so much fun I did it again! The rest of the course I rode without problem. Now, to see if it wasn’t just a freak moment, I rode the course another two times, this time without stopping at any of the drops. Wohoo! I was so happy that I could do all the drops!

After the pre-ride I got my squeaky brake fixed by SRAM (thanks so much guys, your service is amazing – the help at the World Cups in general is amazing, people fixing your bikes for free!) and they noticed that my bearings at my front wheel were mostly gone (which also lead to the front brake dragging). Unfortunately Specialized didn’t have any spare bearings, so I drove to the next bike shop, but they couldn’t help me either. I tried to get to another bike shop, but landed straight in rush hour traffic, so I had to forget about that too.

After the pre-ride I drove the 40km along the only road to my place, with 80kmh or even 50kmh speed restrictions the WHOLE WAY! On top there was the rush hour traffic and it took me over an hour to arrive at the country hotel I am staying. When I booked the place I was just happy to have found a place because I had looked for a place near Muensingen for 3 hours before that and everything around Offenburg seemed booked out as well (or was super expensive). I was told you need to book in November the year beforehand to get something near the world cup!

Anyway, what I had forgotten was that I booked myself into a room, not the holiday flat, so I don’t even have a possibility to cook myself some food, I don’t even have a kettle! The hotel is in the middle of nowhere, the room is pretty spartanic and dark and the Internet is slower than over IP over Avian Carriers (I wonder if they send messengers on horses) – that’s why there won’t be any photos until I’m back home and connected. And the ONLY vegan food is the ice cream sorbet with fresh fruit, hmm, not sure if I can survive on that ☹.

Ah well, I’m trying to see things positively: at least I’ll have lots of time and no distractions to work on my PhD…. :-s

Monday, April 20, 2009

Race Report Bundeslinga Round 1 - Muensingen, Germany

Last Sunday I took part in my first Bundesliga race in Muensingen, Germany. First of all though, on Saturday, there was a sprint cup on an obviously very short course (the fastest time around was about 1min 15secs). This a new format and works as follows: Everybody does an individual timed run, then you are being put into heats of 6 people each, based on the timed runs. The first 2 of each heat move on into the next round and so on. The sprints were so much fun, with the efforts so short that it's over before you really feel the pain. I qualified 5th in the timed run out of 14 but had a bit of a slide in a wet corner in my heat, so lost out on the finals. Nonetheless, it's a great idea to get your few high intensity pre-race efforts in.

After the sprints I did another lap of the race course to see the condition of the course. The weather hadn't been great, with rain the last few days and rain this morning too. Only in the evening the clouds gave way to some sunshine. So the pre-ride was still a pure mud fest, with trenches and slippery ground. I only had one mud tire with me that I would have to put on if the trails didn't dry out till the next day. However, the weather forecast said sunshine and I was assured that the trails dry out very quickly, so I was hoping for the best.

On race day, the course was mostly dry again, so no tire change was needed :). The quality of both the men's and women's Elite field were the highest ever witnessed on a Bundesliga opener. With the nearby World Cup in Offenburg happening a week later, many international racers took the opportunity to get a race in beforehand, using it as a barometer of their form. The Swedish national team was there, the world champ Irina Kalentieva, the olympic champ Sabine Spitz, the winner of last weeks first World cup in Pietermaritzburg, SA, Elisabeth Osl, the British national team and many more. 43 Elite women lined up (including 18 U23s) and we started straight up the steep hill for the first of the 6 fast laps.

The course was a mix of gravelly fireroad and rooty singletrack, even a bit of tarmac, a steep grassy climb in the beginning and a fast grassy descent towards the end, finishing with a lap through the purpose built mountain bike skills park (tight twisty corners with rock obstacles, bridges and kicker climbs), my favourite part of the course. The course was in total just over 5km long and included 140m of climb, most of it on long draggy fire road sections. This type of course usually suits me better than too much climb or too steep climbs.

I didn't have the greatest start, but was slowed down even more by a girl getting off in front of me to run up the steep bit. I had to get off too and run up. I got back onto the bike when the section flattened out, but for some reason another girl decided to run the flat bit in front of me too, and I couldn't get by her either. When I finally hit the slightly uphill tarmac section I was in almost last position. I made up a good few places on most of the climb, but then, on one of the descents my gears acted up (they haven't been the same since I caught my rear derailleur in that tree stump in last week's world cup and I haven't had a chance yet to replace the hanger that might have been slightly bent) and my chain dropped and got caught. I had to stop to put it back on, loosing my hard earned places again. I got back on and tried again to make up places. I got stuck a few times behind some girls on the singletrack climbs but from the 3rd lap onwards the group was spread out enough. So I was on for a chase to make up places. However, even though the course should have suited me, I didn't have great legs today. It is still a bit of trial and error for me to see what works best with regards to pre-race tapering and preparation and I was hoping the sprints the day before would do the trick, but my legs were just dead and lactic from the word go. But then again, looking at my heart rate profile I was going hard, so maybe I'm supposed to feel that way. Well, I'm trying a proper taper method for the Offenburg World Cup and hope it works better.

I made up a few more places in the next few laps, but unfortunately wasn't able to catch up that group of about 9 riders that were just ahead of me (if I had been 2min faster, I would have been 9 places up), Eventually I finished in 20th position (14th of you take out the U23s). I wasn't particularly happy with my performance, but at least I was happy enough with how I rode the few technical rooty bits. I still feel I haven't yet reached that level of fitness and strength that the girls around me have. My lap times were very consistent, only differing by max 15 seconds (apart from the first lap), so that is a plus at least. Percentage wise I was a lot closer to the winner (Irina Kalentieva) than in the World Cup (comparing to the same people), showing how much more this course suits me and how much better my form was in the Bundesliga race. But still not there yet. Well, I have been told it takes years to develop your muscles and blood vessels, so I just need to keep chipping away at my training and be patient.

The thing that was great though in this race was the support of the spectators. It is so nice to hear your name shouted in encouragement when you are fighting with your last little bit of energy to get up a steep hill, so a huge thanks to the boys that followed me around the course - it was great to have your support! I'll take you with me to Offenburg! In German: Danke an die Jungs die um den Kurs herum gelaufen sind und mich angefeuert haben, es ist echt super so eine Unterstuetzung zu haben! Euch wuerde ich gerne zum Welt Cup nach Offenburg mitnehmen! Danke auch an den Rothaus Cube Mechaniker, der sich meine Gaenge noch einmal angeschaut hat. And thanks of course to Lasse from Sweden for helping out with my bottles. That's what I love about mountain biking, so many people from so many corners of the world and everybody gets on really well and is super nice and supportive. Merci beaucoup aussi au pere de Julie Krasniak pour laver mon bicycle!

Now it's another taper week (I feel all I do is racing and tapering these last few weeks!) before my next race, the World Cup in Offenburg!

Info about the race can be found here and results can be found on DATASPORT.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Race Report World Cup Round 1 – Pietermaritzburg, SA

Well, I’m glad I got that out of the way, my first ever World Cup, in the beautiful lush green, hot, sunny and humid surroundings of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. When Ryan, Kate Potter (AQR Holidays) and I arrived on Wednesday after a very long trip from the UK, we were hit by the heat. We checked out the course on Wednesday evening, just when the air started to cool down.

The Women Elite Start

The course was a 5.4km affair, with about 225m of vertical climb per lap. Most of that climb was done on super steep, 30% climbs, with 45% gradient in the switchbacks – some of the Olympians said they were comparable to those in Beijing. The course was basically an eight that looped back to the start arena. The first loop of the eight was shorter, with more draggy climbs and less ascent than the second part. The second part was a very long steep switchbacky climb, a bit of a flat section through some cooling forest and a long fast and flowy descent. The climbs were just killer, it was a real climber’s course. The descents were just as steep as the ascents, but quite smooth. Apart from the steepness, the course wasn’t what I would call technical, just a few little drops and a few logs to get over. The ground was all dry red clay, the type that would make the course a slippery slide in the wet.

Elisabeth Osl already in the lead, followed by Mary McConneloug

On Thursday we had planned a hard training session on the course, but the heat and humidity were so bad, buckets of sweat running down your skin and I had absolutely no power in my legs. So we cut our training short - as did a lot of the others too, everybody seemed to suffer. By now I was getting very concerned about how I was going to complete 5 laps of this course if the weather stayed like this!

2007 World Champ Irina Kalentieva took 2nd place

Then, on Friday, the weather had cooled down and it was nice and overcast, thank god! Our final pre-ride of the course went well and I was praying for the weather to stay like this. However, when we woke up the next (race) day, it was back to blazing sunshine and humidity. At least my race started at 10:30 in the morning, so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too hot by that stage.
About 50 Elite women lined up at the start, including almost all of the big names. I was so nervous, my heartrate was up at 112 while standing still (usually it would be around 65), and we seemed to have to wait forever for the start.

Willow Koerber chasing Mary McConneloug

Finally we were let off and the suffering began. I was holding back at the start, to avoid being caught up in any early race crashes (as a lot of people predicted), but thankfully everything went smoothly. I tried to make up a few places on the draggy climbs and was able to catch a few girls. It was hot and humid and my heart rate was sky high. There was a lot of running on the steep bits, just a queue of girls trying to get up and I was stuck behind some slower girls on the descents, which let a gap open up to the group ahead of us.

Concentrated on a descent

Finally, mostly through the climb on the 2nd part of the course, I was able to catch up to Kate Potter and hung onto her wheel. On the draggy climbs, I was still on Kate’s wheel, but I thought I was able to go faster, so I overtook her and took the lead of our group. Everything went fine until I went down the steep descents and I took the chicken run on the drop. What a mistake! I washed out and crashed (and I actually was able to ride the proper line no problem!). I thought I had damaged the closing mechanism on my shoe, but thankfully it was all fine. However, until I got going again, the group had caught up with me and the riders had streamed by. This debacle cost me about 5 places and I was stuck again behind slower people. I caught a few girls on the following ascents and was working my way up again, but then my second debacle happened. When jumping over a log, I rode too tight around a tree stump and my rear derailleur got caught which messed up all my gears. I was weighing up stopping and trying to fix it, but I was afraid I would loose too much time, since I might not be able to fix it (maybe I bent my hanger), so I just tried to find some gears that didn’t skip and tried to keep changing gears to a minimum. Of course this wasn’t ideal on this type of course that required the whole range of gears.

Chasing and being chased

On top of all this, I was really starting to suffer from the heat and humidity. I had no power on the climbs and had to use my lowest gear or even walk some of the steep bits, every pedal stroke was a struggle. On lap 4 I was so exhausted that I was hoping to get lapped, I had no idea how I was going to finish my race. Every time I arrived on top of the climb, I was starting to feel cold and getting the shivers, a telltale sign that I was pushing myself to the max. I didn’t get lapped then afterall, so I had to do my 5th lap. I had to take it very steady on the climbs and felt like I was going backwards. Being overtaken by another rider on the last 3km didn’t help my confidence. I finally crossed the finish line in 1:59:36, in 35th positing, 18min46sec behind the winner, Elisabeth Osl.

Looking very tired....

After the race, I was so dead tired, dizzy and dehydrated, I had to lay down in the shadow for a while before I was able to move again. I was supposed to take pictures of Ryan’s race, which was on straight after mine, but I was barely able to stand up, so my radius of pictures is only around the feedzones and the start/finish area. Thank god Alan was over to support us in the feedzones – a huge thanks is due here to Alan for his amazing support – there aren’t many friends that sponteneously fly over to SA to help out doing bottles!

Jose Hermida (winner) coming down a singletrack

I really suffered in the race, it’s not nice to start a race with the feeling of dead legs. I felt a little better on my recovery ride the day after though. At least I could see some of the countryside then. After the ride, Ryan, Alan and I went to watch the Downhill final. We got an uplift to the top and worked our way down as the riders whizzed by. The atmosphere was amazing when the last few riders came blasting down. Steve Peat, who had qualified in 4th place beat Sam Hill’s time by 0.93 seconds and made it into the hot seat. Then Chris Kovarik came down, but he couldn’t push Steve out of the hot seat. Then, when the South African downhiller Greg Minnaar came down, the cheering reached its peak, the noise was unbelievable when the commentator announced a split time that beat Steve’s and when he came into the finish beating Peaty’s time by almost 6 seconds. He was the clear winner of the race on his home ground, a fairytale win. It was so nice to have time to just enjoy the buzz of the Worldcup without having to stress about racing any more. Then the last man down, Mick Hannah, was also able to push Peaty into 3rd position.

Ryan and Mel elated after the race :)

We decided to do a hard training session on the course on Monday morning, because our flight home was only late on Monday evening. And funny enough, all of my 4 laps in my training session were faster than any of my laps in the race! For example, the longest climb took me about 10min20sec in the race with an average HR of 176, but in training I did it in 9min30, with a HR of 167, what the heck?? Even my descents were faster in training. It was the first time since arriving in SA, that I actually felt strong and powerful on the climbs and very comfortable on the descents. I don’t know if it was the acclimatization, the slightly cooler temperatures or the hard race effort on Sunday, but I wish I had had the form that I had in this training session in the race.

A guy getting some air over a table top jump

The World Cup was a fantastic experience for both Ryan and me. Even though I didn’t have a great race, I’ve achieved all the goals I’ve set out for myself (I’ll set higher goals next time): I finished the race, I didn’t come last, I didn’t get lapped and I finished in the top 40 (so I will have a great grid position in the next World Cup race in 2 weeks in Offenburg).
It was great to watch the downhill

Finally I would like to thank Kate Potter for arranging our accommodation and flights, Alan for coming over and being our general handyman, feedzone support and photographer and of course our sponsors Cycleways/Specialized/KCNC and Torq for giving us the best equipment to carry out our sport.

Crowds lining the final downhill section

We are planning to be back next year, this time hopefully a little earlier, so that we can acclimatize properly and explore the area little more.

Full report, results and pictures can be found on Cyclingnews.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Race Report British NPS Round 1 - Sherwood Pines - a bottle affair

What a race! This was my first race of my second season in the UK, so a race against old friends. I was looking forward to it, and thought it would be a great opportunity to see how I had improved since last year. It was great to arrive to the race and see all the familiar faces from last year. The weather was nice, just at the cusp of becoming spring, but still with a strong, cold blustery wind blowing.

Chilling out at the line-up

Ryan and I pre-rode the dusty-dry course on Saturday, which wound around the trees and trails of Sherwood Pines, the famous forests of Robin Hood. It was just over 7km long and consisted of miles and miles of tight and twisty single track weaving through dense trees linked through bits of dusty fire road. The course was pretty flat, and there were only really two small climbs: a draggy 1km fireroad linker and another short but steep fireroad kicker climb. It would be difficult to find a place to eat and drink on this course, because those fireroad sections would be the ones where people would go hard to try and get into the next bit of singletrack. It would be hard to overtake people on the twisty forest sections. The only other technical bits were two side-wise logs. So all in all it looked like it was going to be a very fast race where staying in a group would be an advantage, especially to draft on the fireroad sections with that wind blowing against you.

The women Elite field focusing right before the start

It was an early start on race day, and it was freezing cold. However, just before my race call up, the sun had warmed up the air and I was able to take off my leg and armwarmers. There were 17 girls in the Ladies Elite category, with the favourite of the race being New Zealander Rosara Joseph, an Olympian (9th in Beijing) and Oceania Champ (although I didn't know that at the time). Due to my points gathering in Cyprus, I had a great grid position, being gridded 3rd after Rosara Joseph and Sue Clarke. I knew most of the riders in the race, but I was wondering who this Rosara girl was....

And off we go!

The gun went off and the manic of my 5-lap affair started. Although I had a great position at the line, I was surprised by the surge and found myself being squashed between riders, almost getting tangled up with UK-based New Zealander Jenn O'Connor. I let myself fall back to avoid a crash and made up all my lost positions on the first long fireroad drag. I got into the singletrack first, with Rosara straight behind me and the other racers close by. Rosara and I had a bit of jostling for positions (I had no idea who I was taking on there) and it was Rosara and I leading on the group through the first lap. However, then the first problem happened: I missed my bottle from Ryan at the feedzone (we got to practice that, Ryan). I almost missed the lead group, now consisting of Rosara Joseph, Australian Kate Potter, UK national champ Jenny Copnall, and 2 or 3 Team Halford riders. Luckily, I caught up with them again and on we went. Since the course looped back to the start arena at about 3km, I was able to get my bottle from Ryan at the 2nd feedzone. However, when I was trying to drink at the next best fireroad, I lost my bottle. Hmm, not good, I gotta get that next bottle.

Chasing Rosara...

Since this race was so flat and fast it was really important to stay with the group and I made sure to close any gaps I let open quickly. Rosara Joseph and Kate Potter were now mostly leading the group through the race and I was hanging on. Bottle hand up went fine the 2nd time round and we raced on. Just before the end of the 3rd lap Jenn O'Connor had managed to catch up to the lead group, having chased us since our messy start.

At the start of the 4th lap, when I came to bottle hand up I was going really slow to make sure I got that bottle again (I don't think Ryan has gotten the knack of it yet). One second I was trying to grab my bottle and the next second I found myself on the ground with a bleeding elbow. What the hell did just happen?? The ground on the feedzone was a little rocky, and I must have hit a rock or root or something. Startled and desoriented I got back onto my bike. But the group had gone. Damn! Needless to say I was a little (if not a lot) pissed off, but my anger just motivated me to work hard to catch back onto the group.

Riding singletrack

I could still see glimpses of the lead group and chased hard to catch them again. I still had not caught up to them on my last time through the feed zone. But I wasn't going to give up. Eventually, a few km from the finish, I caught up with the Kate Potter and Jenny Copnall, now in 3rd and 4th position, and who had become separated from the 2 leaders Rosara Joseph and Jenn O'Connor. About a km from the finish I overtook Jenny Copnall and another few hundred meters from the finish I was able to overtake Kate Potter. I was just praying that I could hold the position until the finish line and gave it all. I sprinted as hard as I could and crossed the line just ahead of Kate Potter and Jenny Copnall and 45 seconds down on the winner Rosara Joseph. In second place, in another very close sprint finish was Jenn O'Connor who had shown a very strong performace throughout the race.

Pushing hard

Apart from all my bottle issues, I'd had a very good race and really enjoyed it. The atmosphere was fantastic, the weather was great and the racing was very exciting. It gave me great confidence for my next race coming up, my first ever World Cup this weekend in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

Report, results and pictures can be found on and cyclingnews.