Saturday, January 19, 2013

Chancing it at the CX Champs

I had just signed up to the CX Champs. I have no real CX experience or racing fitness, let alone a CX bike. But I thought I'd chance it anyway.

Step 1: Get CX bike.

Ryan has a CX bike. Not exactly the right fit (XL!), the cranks and bottom bracket need changing, the stem needs changing, wheels need to be set up with suitable cassette and CX tires. Ryan's in Gran Canaria. Mel has no idea of bottom brackets or cranks, or crank removal tools. 3hours of YouTube, manuals, rummaging in the bike room for the right tools and a few skype calls for remote mechanical advice from Ryan and I had a bike. Still a bit big (I can barely stand flat on the ground when standing over the top tube), but I got a working CX bike (and a proud Mel for having learned how to change cranks and BBs!). Done!

(I had also send out a tweet and some very kind people offered me their bikes (thanks guys!) on short notice, so I even had a 2nd bike, the correct size, which I picked up the night before the champs from Liam).

Step 2: Lean CX skills.

I took out Ryan's bike into Marley Park for an hour the day before the race and practiced hopping on and off and carrying the bike. Done!

Step 3: Race

It was a typical miserable Irish winter's day. Grey and wet and cold.

I just about managed to get in a practice lap before the course was closed. I had not arranged for a helper (until the night before I thought I would only have one bike) and the bike wash was busy, so I couldn't clean the bike before the race. My plan was to leave Ryan's bike in the tech zone and ride Liam's bike first. A good few women lined up and we were set off with the Vets and the juniors. My biggest competition was Fran Meehan, who was well prepared and well supported and had raced the CX league this winter. Our race was 5 laps. My mtb skills helped a lot on the technical corners and I was going hard, so I was leading for the first half of the race, but Fran was never far behind me. Then my bike got so clogged up I needed a bike change. Fran had just overtaken me before the tech zone and gotten a swift bike change herself from her helper. I went into the tech zone, but they had reorgnized the bikes and I couldn't see Ryan's bike at first. I lost time locating Ryan's bike, putting Liam's bike out of harms way and retrieving Ryan's bike from behind other bikes and changing over my Garmin. By the time I got going again, Fran had disappeared. I tried to make up the time, but it was tough going on the deteriorating ground. The racing effort also slowly took its toll on me and I was getting tired. Ryan's bike clogged up in no time on the grassy muddy ground and I had to stop a few times just freeing the crank and wheels of grass and mud. I felt I was fighting against the bike as much as against the ground, while Fran was increasing her gap. I knew in the last lap that I wouldn't be able to catch her again and saw no woman behind me, so I took it a bit easier on the last lap, rolling in for a good 2nd place.

Having a support person in the tech zone is a must. I wish I could have had another bike change for the last lap. Fran rode a good race. I had no idea what to expect, but I'm happy with the result considering the minimal preparation and my current form. And it's a good sign for the increasing level of competition in women's racing that I can't just turn up to a race like this and win.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

OLH 17:45

OLH - only riders in Northern California commonly know the meaning of those three letters. OLH stands for Old La Honda, the most popular climb on Strava. Nearly 5000 Strava members have ridden this segment over 33,000 times, and over 500 of them are female. It's pretty cool then that both my husband and I are currently holding the male and female Strava records on this climb.
Climbing Tunitas

Here are some of its statistics:

Distance: 4.9km
Avg Grade: 8.1%
Elevation difference: 395m
Climb Category: 2

The first time I went up this climb was in 2010, when I visited California for the first time to get in a good block of winter training. Ryan convinced me to go for the QOM on OLH and on one of my last days over there I went for it. All I can remember was that it was very painful. My time was 19:24, I beat the record.

Then, last year, a Swedish ultra-cyclist (Catherina Berge) took the crown from me, improving the QOM by a full 20 seconds to 19:04. I was over in California again in 2011, but couldn't get myself into the right frame of mind to try to regain the crown (it hurts, you know!).

Now a tradition, I came over to the US again in November 2012. I had just submitted my PhD thesis two weeks before travelling. I had been three months off the bike to get the thesis finished before my submission deadline. I had become fat and unfit. And sick. I had been on a whirlwind trip involving four flights, a wedding in London, a gala dinner back in Dublin before taking an early morning flight back to London for a connecting long-haul to SFO, very little sleep and a bad cold before collapsing on a bed after arriving in California. I was determined to get my training in and suffered through it. I wasn't lucky with tropical storms making training very wet outside when I was just back in health and a 24hour stomach bug flooring me yet again. Finally, in the last week of my 3 week stay good health and good weather coincided and I could enjoy a super week of riding.

Still fat and only a little fitter, trying to regain my OLH crown this year was not really on my radar. I was also riding quite a lot in the last 2 days before we were due to fly back home (about 9 hours), so I just thought "another time". Instead I thought I might try to break the HWY 9 record - a rather long and shallow drag with the help of Ryan's draft. But then Ryan just said the night before we were due to fly: "Mel, you're not doing HWY9 tomorrow, you're doing Old la honda." And as soon as he had put that little voice in my head that I may actually be able to break the record, my mind was set. I had a good nights sleep and thought about OLH, visualizing the pain I'd have to endure to get up it. I have learned a lot the last few weeks about pain and suffering, not in an injury sense, but in a training sense (more on that in a future blog post), and was ready to take the suffering a record attempt would surely bring.

Tired, but happy
As soon as I opened my eyes the next morning I was focussed and in the zone. I had breakfast, got ready and rode to the base of OLH, doing my usual pre-race warm-up. The weather was beautiful and warm and the wind conditions favourable. I met Ryan at the bottom of the hill and purged my pockets and my bike of all unnecessary weight, leaving my bottles, saddle bag and extra clothing at the bottom of the hill. Ryan was going to be my pacer. Before we went off, he asked me if I wanted him to go conservatively or for a good time - I said as long as I see an 18 something, even 18:59, I'd be happy. And so we went off. Went off very, very easy. That easy that I was getting a bit worried after a couple of minutes: "Ryan, are you OK?" I asked, because I didn't think we were going fast enough to break the record, I didn't feel any pain! He just told me to trust him. And so we went on, slowly. I had prepared myself for all this sufferage, but none of it had manifested so far. About 9min and halfway into the climb, Ryan started to speed up. Finally a bit of pain! Now I was getting a bit more confident that I might be able to make it. But I didn't want to be distracted and only concentrated on Ryan's rear wheel. Slowly the pain was seeping into my body, but it was still very manageable. Slowly Ryan upped his pace, more and more the closer we came to the top. I was finally in a state of acceptable suffering and concentrated on being able to bear it. The meters went by and the speed kept going up and up and up. And before long we entered the last couple hundred meters and I flew past the mailboxes, just able to remember to stop my Garmin. 17:45! No way!
Got the Fred Tattoo to prove it!
I looked at my HR profile after and could see I went really high. I could not believe that I was able to go so hard and that I only needed to suffer really for the second half of the climb. Ryan later said he paced me on a really negative split, which seemed to work really well. I love being in the zone!

I was very happy with that time, especially considering my condition and recent time off the bike. Statistical estimates suggest that drafting counts for roughly 10-15 seconds. But what I think was the real advantage to having Ryan there was his pacing. It takes a lot of confidence and constraint to go into a record attempt with such a negatively paced split.

I just noticed that there's a new 2nd place on this segment - nice to see more riders testing themselves on this climb (and I'm glad Ryan paced me for a faster time than an 18:59)!