Monday, June 27, 2011

British Mountain Bike Series Round 4, Margam Park, UK

The female Irish Elite (Irish National Champ Cait Elliott and I (yes, I'm Irish now!)) contingent arrived on a Friday night in Wales to cold and wet conditions (i.e. summer in Wales... it's like summer in Ireland).

The pre-ride on Saturday wasn't any better. Bathed in clouds and mist, with a constant drizzle, Cait and I pre-rode the challenging Margam Park course.

It became pretty clear that this was going to be a tough course: There was lots of tough climbing in it, about 250m per lap, and the wet conditions paired with the riders transformed the course into a muddy, slippery affair. The climbs were unrelenting and the descents were slippery, cut up and rutty chutes, and the lap finished with a drag through a boggy grass field. But we were promised sunshine and 24 degrees on Sunday that might dry the course out a little bit, although it was hard to hang onto that belief with the 13 degrees and miserable weather on Saturday and no signs of improvement.

Sunday, 6:50am and we got up for breakfast. One look outside the window and it was the same grey wet day weather as the day before. Subdued we ate our breakfast, feeling disappointed to have had that hope for good weather, then packed our stuff and then - you wouldn't believe it, the sky suddenly turned blue and the sun came out of nowhere and shone onto us in full force, bringing a big smile onto our faces :)

14 Elite women lined up at the start, again with a guest appearance of CX pro Nikki Harris. I knew from the start that I was going to have a good race. My heart rate in my warm up went up easily and it was high standing at the start line (this happens when I'm nervous and I'm usually nervous when I know I have a chance to do well). The gun was shot and I had a good start, racing up the first fireroad climb in 2nd or 3rd position. While Nikki opened up a gap from the start, Lee was 2nd into the singletrack climb and I was third, being closely followed by Cait. Nikki steadily pulled away from us chasers and I stayed on Lee's wheel until Lee slipped on the muddy ground. I took my chances and overtook her to get into 2nd place and didn't look back. I could still catch glimpses of Nikki ahead of me, and kept the pace up. I could still see her going up the first singletrack climb in the 2nd lap, but that was the last I saw of her. I knew I had to be careful on the climbs on this hot day not to blow, so I settled into my pace, taking it steady on the climbs and staying focused on the super slippery descents.

Actually, the descents were so much fun, it was like mud-surfing down on two wheels, always on the edge of control and always arriving with such a big "I can't believe I made it down upright"-grin at the bottom. At least the fun of these descent took some of the pain out of the climbs, especially the last long soul-breaker of a climb to the top of the hill with the sun burning down at 30 degrees only to think you've made it to the top arriving to a false flat and into a head wind (at least it was a little respite from the heat - yes, heat, heat! in Wales!).

I was super enjoying myself, thinking I only have to keep up this speed and I'll have 2nd place safe, when the mud had clogged up my gears so much that all my low gears started skipping in the 2nd last lap. It got so bad in the last lap that I had to walk some of the climbs because none of my lower gears were working any more and I got a fright when I looked down and saw Lee Craigie appearing on the bottom of one of the climbs. I ran as fast as I could and descended like a mad-woman and the next climb I looked back I could still see her at about the same distance. I knew if I was just able to get to the top of the last climb ahead of her, then I will be fine. But try that after 1h and 45min of racing, with no low gears! It took me every mental capacity to make myself believe that I can make it to the top without getting off the bike and running (and thus loosing time). I was imagining a big bungee was pulling me up at the top while I ground my lowest working gear. Exhausted I arrived at the top and glanced back - no one in sight. I knew I had 2nd place bagged then. Now it was just about not making any stupid mistake on the last long and fun singletrack descent all the way down back to the finish.

This was one of the best races I have had in the UK Series this year. I felt good, felt like my training was catching again and I was getting back into form. The course was great, a real mountain bike racing course that required fitness and skill to succeed. And the weather was so good that you could barely believe we were in Wales.

This 2nd place means that I'm still leading the British Series with a comfortable enough lead over 2nd place :)

Cait also had a fantastic race, coming in third just a couple of minutes behind me. Robin also secured a respectable 2nd place in the men's Elite event, only loosing out to Oli Beckinsale, so it was a very successful weekend for the Irish contingent!

Results can be downloaded from

Thanks to Mike for organisatory help and for feed-zone support. Thanks to Mark and Charlotte for coming to support the race. Thanks also to the guy who helped me untangle my chain before the start of the race!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

British Mountain Bike Series Round 3, Wasing Park, UK

(l-r): Mel Alexander, Maddie Horton, Nikki Harris, Mel Spath, Cait Elliott
(photo credit: Cait Elliott)

I wasn't so sure how this race would go, still trying to make up for lost form due to inconsistent training because of sickness and my shoulder injury. I had ventured out for the first time on the mountain bike on the Tuesday the week before since the injury but it was a big mistake and I only hurt my shoulder again, starting back at square one with healing. Sticking to the road bike for the rest of the week I was getting quite concerned with how little it had improved by then, but painkillers and a lot of Arnica cream showed a huge improvement a few days later. I still had to be super careful of sudden movements with my arm, but at least it was getting better.

I knew from last year that the course in Wasing would be fairly safe, no big rocky descents or too rooty sections and should be a walk in the park in the dry. My pre-ride on Saturday on a beautiful sunny day went very well. The course was even a little easier than last year and consisted mostly of a mix of nice flowy forested singletrack with interspersed bits of fireroad. It was fairly flat, and so there would be very little time to recover once the race went underway....

I was so hoping for the beautiful weather to hold up for the race on Sunday, but unfortunately it was drizzling when we got up and raining properly by the time our race was started. 13 women braved the conditions in the Elite women's category, including CX ace Nikki Harris. The race was started, but I felt as if my legs were made out of concrete. The long hours of back to base building endurance riding the week before were taking their toll.... Anyhow, I knew I wouldn't have the punch, so I didn't panic and just rode along steadily. Apart from Nikki Harris pulling away from the start, the race stayed together closely for the first lap and I came through the feedzone in 5th position, but there was only 20 seconds difference between 2nd and 7th place, so all was still possible.

There was still 5 laps to go, but the rain was slowly starting to give the course a slippery cover and I had to stay super focused to avoid any slips or crashes to not risk hurting my shoulder again. With Nikki Harris out in front, Maddie, Cait and Gabby were still in sight and Mel Alexander was not far off behind me either. Slowly I worked my way up into 4th place behind Cait, while Maddie managed to pull away from our little chase group. Then Mel Alexander attacked and overtook both me and Cait. I knew she was in good form, so I couldn't let her go and started to chase her. I stayed on her wheel for a while, and finally managed to overtake her into 3rd place in the penultimate lap. I stayed focused and increased my gap over Mel, hoping to be able to catch up to Maddie too, but the gap to Maddie was too big, so I rode a conservative last lap to finish in 3rd.

Despite the horrible wet day I had a good race, and I was happy with the result, considering the lack of current form. Good start into my come-back!

Thanks to Mike for tech-support and to Rob for feed-zone support.

Full results on Timelaps here.

Report on IrishCycling here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Rás Dhun na nGall

After sickness and injury I thought: what better training than some hard racing? This weekend the German National Cross Country Championships were on, but my shoulder wasn't healing as fast as I had hoped and I knew that I wouldn't be able to be competitive offroad. So I found a great alternative: a hilly road stage race in Donegal, the Rás Dhun na nGall, put on my the Four Masters Cycling Club. I actually think Ryan talked me into it (it's a nice hilly race!) and Cait got convinced too and so Cait and I both ventured up to Donegal for a weekend of stage racing. My shoulder was still bad and I have only been able to go out on the road bike in the week before (thanks Stew for a really windy spin over the Sally Gap!), so at least in road racing I'll get in the intensity I need now.

The Donegal Race is a 3-day stage race with 4 stages, one of them a short TT. All the stages were basically loops around race central Ardara (apart from the TT), making logistics very easy.

Stage 1: (Friday, 3rd June at 7:30pm) - 52km.

Finishing with the bunch in stage 1 (photo by Marian Lamb)

There were 9 women signed up and we got a 5min head start over the bunch of about 130men. We were riding easy until the men caught us at about 45min into the stage and then it was just a matter of trying to stick with the men's bunch and try to not get shelled when they sped up to react to attackes. Only Heather Wilson (Irish Road Champ 2009) and I managed to stick with them until the finish. My shoulder held up well. So far so good :)

Time: 1h 24min, Norm Power: 256 Watts, TSS: 100.3, IF: 0.852

Heather and I after stage 1 - both of us finished with the bunch (photo by Marian Lamb)

Cycling Ulster report, pictures and full results of stage 1 can be found here.

Stage 2: (Saturday, 4th June from 9am) - 5km TT

The spectacular scenery of the TT course did not make the suffering less! (photo by Marian Lamb)

We were started off in order of race number. My number was 8, so I was off 8 minutes past nine. Anybody who knows me knows that I am not into early morning sports if I can avoid it. Especially not after a late race the night before. Cait (number 9) and I stayed in bed as long as we could and rode over to the course. I didn't have enough time for a recce and it was pretty cold at the start. Heather was my minute girl and I could see her ahead of me up the climb. At one stage I thought I was getting closer to her, but then the course steepened up (around 15% at times!) and I think it was just imagination. I finished with 8min 13 secs, 13 secs slower than Heather and 7 secs faster than Cait (3rd place). Not bad for an early morning uphill TT with too high gears, but also a reminder that I am not in peak form at the moment.

I stole Ryan's skin suit for the TT.... (photo by Marian Lamb)

Time: 8min 13sec, Norm Power: 318 Watts, TSS: 15, IF: 1.061

Cycling Ulster report, pictures and full results of stage 2 can be found here

Stage 3: (Saturday, 4th June at 2:30pm) - 82km

This time round we got a 10min head start ahead of the guys. We rode well together until the men's bunch caught us. I managed to stay with the guys in front of the bunch for a short while but dropped back on some of those scary 70kph fast descents. A few times I was able to make it back up into the safety of the bunch, but then, on the descent between two consecutive hills the elastic snapped and I did not have the power to make it back on. I really suffered and tried to hang on to Cait, who was riding very strong and who was hanging on to the wheel in front, but who also had to let go eventually; only Heather was able to hang on until the end. I did see a group forming from another few dropped riders in front and a handful of single riders in between, so I used the singletons as steps in a ladder to get to that chase group. It was hard chasing, but eventually I made it and was able to stay with them until the finish line in Ardara. I lost over 6min to Heather, but finished ahead of Cait in 2nd place again.

Happy riding in the women's race (photo by Marian Lamb)

Time: 2hour 31min, Norm Power: 237 Watts, TSS: 157, IF: 0.789

Cycling Ulster report, pictures and full results of stage 3 can be found here.

Stage 4: (Sunday, 5th June at 12pm) - 98km

In the morning we were greeted with lashing rain. Non-stop rain. No indication of any clearing up. I put on arm-warmers, knee warmers, shoe covers, a base layer, two jerseys and a rain jacket for the race - that's Donegal summer for you..... It was freezing again at the start. We got about 15min head start and Cait and I drove the pace at the start, reducing the women's bunch to 5 women. The 5 of us worked together well, keeping a good pace. At some stage I got so cold that I had to stop and let the women go to put on my rain jacket that I had so confidently taken off after the start- I couldn't do it on the bike, as I had frozen rigid and lost all feeling of my fingers.

Still riding on (photo by Marian Lamb)

We held off the men till about 60km into the race. The men's bunch had been split into lots of little groups by that stage and when the lead break passed we chased hard to catch on. Again Heather was the only one who was able to stick with the lead group. Both Cait and I had no matches left for their pace. More and more groups passed, but most were too fast when they passed. Eventually a group passed whose pace was more to my liking and I caught on and from then on it was easy riding to the start of the last tough climb. As every other stage, I finished 2nd behind Heather, 8min down on this stage and 15min min down on overall GC. Thanks, Darragh, for the lift back down!

Suffering through atrocious weather conditions and tough roads (photo by Marian Lamb)

Time: 3hour 17min, Norm Power: 226 Watts, TSS: 185, IF: 0.752

Cycling Ulster report, pictures and full results of stage 4 can be found here.

Although the weather was atrocious on Sunday and driving back was a bit like swimming through a monsoon I really enjoyed the race. I really did notice the recent lack of consistent training due to illness and injury, but hope that this is the start of some good consistent training for the 2nd half of the season, aiming for a good result in the two European World Cups in August.

Proud as punch for 2nd place (photo by Marian Lamb)

Have a look at Cait's account of the race for comparison :)