Whiskey Offroad: So that’s what it feels like to ride smoothly for three hours.

I’ve been nervous about my form this year. It’s not something that normally bothers me – I’ll line up, race and finish where I finish. But there’s been a resurgence in US mountain biking recently. People are getting fast. The combination of the first generation of High School MTB racers aging into the Elite ranks, plus the rest of the mtb community turning its focus onto the races I’ve traditionally done well at, has had me scared that I’m going to be out of my depth in the fields I’ve normally excelled in. After a disappointing DNF at the Sea Otter last weekend, I didn’t get that “first race” out my system, and instead came into the Whiskey with some apprehension.

The Whiskey 50 has grown a lot since I first did it in 2012, but I ended the weekend in the same place: 13th in the pro race. Between that 13th place and this year’s 13th place, the Whiskey has changed dramatically. From being a regionally recognised race, it’s grown to being without argument the strongest marathon field in the country, and probably the strongest marathon race in the world away from the big championship races. For me, it seems like I’ve kept pace with it’s growth, and I set my sights for the weekend the same as I did back in 2012: I would have been happy with a top 20. But really, there was a more important but boring goal: I just wanted to finish smoothly. A clean, no mistakes race. I kept that front and centre all weekend, through the criterium and the main event, and the constant reminder to be patient and careful really paid off.

The Crit: Friday’s spectator spectacular went off in usual fashion. I managed to accidentally get a front row line up, and followed Levi Kurlander through the first corner, then got to the top of the famed Union Street climb first on the opening lap. No other reason than, why not? It was entertaining to be at the front, but I quickly backed off and found a more sensible group to race around in. I upped my cadence a lot and relaxed, enjoying watching the crowds get drunker and drunker on each lap past the hill. I finished at the back of a chase group, happy to have survived without major incident.

Bike set up: Epic Rides states you have to run the same bike for Friday’s crit as the main event on Sunday (great rule!). So I rode the Spark 900 RC SL. I didn’t bother putting slick tyres on the bike, as I wasn’t that invested in the result. I ran my normal IKON 2.2 tyres pumped to 35 psi (the most I’d risk putting in a modern tubeless MTB tyre).

The main event: I did an abbreviated warm up, still feeling fatigue from Friday’s crit and Saturday’s pre-ride. I got to the line early and found a warm sunny spot to watch as the field filled in around me. The course had changed since the last time I did the race, giving the pack much more room to spread out before the singletrack. I liked the new start, and liked that the immediate up hill limited the amount of time I spent being freezing cold before the racing got underway. I surfed the back of the field as everyone jostled for position around me, and then picked the right time to move up before we got to the dirt road section. I played the beginning of the race well, and found myself in around 30th place. Here was the hard part: once you’d found that position, the first section of singletrack locked you into a conga line of riders. No point wasting energy or stress on trying risky passes. Although I was being held up by a couple of people, I had to just calm down and be patient. It worked out quite well, and by the first open climb (about 5 miles into the race) I had space around me to get on with the racing. I found myself alone after about 45 minutes of racing, with a small group ahead of me (Todd Wells, Finsterwald, Ettinger) and a big group behind me (Payson McElveen, Christoph Sauser (!!!), Taylor Lideen and plenty more).

I wasn’t feeling good enough to attempt a bridge up to the next group, so instead settled into a rhythm, knowing that the bigger group behind me would swallow me up on the way down to Skull Valley. That’s exactly what happened. I got to the bottom of the long climb with sensations starting to come around. I’d had unusual stomach issues at the beginning of the race: a bit of cramping and nausea that I’ve experienced perhaps only twice before. I switched to drinking just water quite early in the day, and I think that helped clear my stomach. Skull Valley is a long climb. 12 miles and 2700 feet of climbing (that’s 19km and 820m). Payson and Christoph Sauser were doing a lot of work on the front, and I really wasn’t ready to commit my matches to pulling everyone around just yet. I stoically ignored Payson’s requests for me to pull through, and I didn’t realise he was taking those signal to mean I was cracking. But either way, it worked, and I happily sat in the group for a while as we started the climb. I came to the front of the group about half way up, and knew I needed to inject some pace if I was going to separate myself. Through the feed zone I put in a little pace and got a gap, only pulling Payson with me. We caught Finsterwald towards the top of the climb, and at that point I thought we’d ride together until the finish. I was feeling good though, so went to the front again and got some separation. Knowing how good both of those guys are on the way down, I wanted to stay ahead into the singletrack and hope to hold them up a little. That didn’t happen, and instead I gained a bit more time, and eventually caught Spencer Paxson on the last descent. We crossed the last (and famous) creek crossing together and revelled in the huge crowds dotted through the forest. I was pretty spent at that point, and the thought of a sprint finish filled me with dread. Paxson willingly did most of the work into town, and hammered up the final climb. I was prepared to duke it out, but he seemed unwilling to sprint, so I went to the line solo for 13th place.

Bike notes: Scott Spark full suspension. 55 psi front, 130 psi rear. Tires: Maxxis IKON 2.2 with 20.5 psi front, 21 psi rear.

Nutrition notes: 2 bottles of Kiwi lime carborocket drink mix, 4 bottles of water, 6 honey stinger fruit gels, 1 packet of honey stinger chews.

Clothing notes: This is the first year I have a thin “summer weight” jersey. In previous years I’ve raced in a thick, black jersey, and the difference is huge! I felt so much more comfortable today than any other time I’ve been out in the heat like that.

Mission accomplished. I raced smooth and patiently. I was conservative on the downhills, and lost a few places there, but got them all back by the end. I proved I’m in the shape I need to do for both more Epic Rides events (Grand Junction in May and Carson City in June), and some World Cups (details TBD, but hopefully Andorra and Lenzerheide). More importantly, I got to see that the Mountain Bike community is alive and well, and filled with very fast young racers that will be beating me handedly in the near future! That’s what it’s all about!

 

 

A View From the Back of the Albstadt World Cup

 

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The announcer stops calling out the numbers at 130, and instead turns his attention to the front of the race. I roll up towards the back of the pack as Julien’s palmarés are read out to the baying crowd. We have three minutes until race time. The music builds. I look up and around. The spectators are three deep at the start line, but I know there’s even more waiting for us up on the hill. Above the immediate noise we can hear the MC up in the valley hyping the thousands-strong crowds. The beer started flowing when the women were out on course, and it’s only got louder since then.

With 30 seconds to go the music is cut, and replaced by a thunderous heartbeat being played over the loudspeakers. Talk about tension. Complete silence. Normally I’d be in the zone, but this was too good to miss – I keep my head up as the gun goes and watch as the sprint ripples back through the pack. It takes a while to get to us, and after a couple of soft pedal strokes the pace quickens. The first crash happens in an instant. Muffled yells and the sounds of bikes hitting the ground. I get around it smoothly and hammer down the opening straight. Keeping my head up and gaining places at the same time. I pass a rider with a flat tire. Another with a broken chain. We get to the first corner and I see dust rising from the inside and more riders hit the ground. Any gaps that had been opening up come closing down again, and I squeeze around the outside just as the mass of riders realise their lines have been shut down. I escape the first corner and we hit the grass.

 

15 seconds into my first World Cup and it feels like an hour.

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The carnage continues. Two Germans tangle bars and hit the deck. Rolling into the path of oncoming riders. I stretch the course tape to its limit as I swerve, and find an empty path around the next couple of corners. Then the climb happens like a car accelerating into a brick wall. The pace comes crashing down. Derailleurs are tested to their very limit. Riders get off their bikes and hold them aloft. Elbows are at their sharpest. I dismount and start jogging into every open gap. Steadily gaining places one by one. The first climb is a mix of running and furiously mashing my pedals up the opening 29% grade climb. I’m not going to try describing how steep it is. I’ve watched plenty of re-runs of the Albstadt course, and I had no idea until I got the chance to ride up it myself. The bottom of the link trail in Boulder? That’s a walk in the park.

The first descent is a blast. Wheel to wheel from the outset, two people pass me on either sides and proceed to crash into each other. I swerve uphill and continue unharmed as they pick themselves up. We do some more running on the final drop, followed by the second climb of the course – a climb that would be the main feature anywhere else.

From here the clock is ticking. One lap in, and I’m 2 minutes 45 seconds down on the leader. By my pre-race estimations, I’ll get pulled from the course as soon as I’m eight minutes down. That gives me another 5 minutes to play with in the pursuit of more places. I race each lap as if it’s my last: a tactic easier said than done. Each accumulated effort burns a little deeper until I feel like I may actually fall off my bike.

Descending well becomes a secondary priority. Recovery is first. Simply breathing is first. The descents are so steep that brakes stay on the entire time. The lactic coursing through my legs numbs them from responding to the normally natural movements of riding downhill. The traffic builds again as I approach the “Merida Devil’s Corner”, the famed left hand corner at the very top of the course. As we file towards it I pause for a second and have a chance to look down across the valley. 10,000 people look back.

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Lap three comes around and I know my “guns blazing” approach is coming back to get me. I drop back through the field as if I’d pulled a parachute cord. The effort is no easier but the pace is exponentially lower. I manage to squeeze a gel half into my mouth and half over my left cheek just before hitting another 30 mph downhill. It’s enough to keep me going, and I pick it up a little again.

Suddenly from behind I hear a buzz from the lead moto. It’s not far back. I clock the gap at 6:30 as I pass through the start, and know this is my last lap. Everything now must be put into going faster. I pass some of the people that went by my on the last lap. I ride the descent smooth for the first time and find some flow on the lower sections of the course. I feel like I’m finding my stride just a little. The final climb is an all out sprint. Everyone knows this is it – the end is coming. The pace goes mental once more: as fast as the first lap. I sprint (crawl) to the top. Going past just a couple more people in the process. The last downhill is a procession. I’m too tired to look good or make moves. I hold on. I’m so happy my bike is capable and my seat is down. The last few grassy turns are another battle. I have no idea what we’re battling for, but I cross the line in ecstatic agony.

 

104th place. Three laps down on the winners. Personal victory accomplished.

 

The California Trip

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After a three-week trip to California, it was about time to catch up here and talk about the racing. With a couple of weeks off after crashing in Greece, I had only managed two weeks of solid training before getting on the plane for Fontana. I wasn’t too worried: I knew I hadn’t lost any fitness, and thought I could probably suffer enough to pull out some good results. The rehab from my thigh injury mainly involved a lot of due diligence: three physio appointments every week, icing day in, day out for a couple of weeks, and morning yoga sessions on YogaGlo to keep the scar tissue from tightening up. It worked pretty well, and the sessions I did manage to do before California were really productive.

Three weeks in California is a long time. I’m not the biggest fan of the Los Angeles area, but most of the money and enthusiasm for XC racing comes from this part of the world, so it makes sense that the races are here too. I had three races on the cards: the Fontana City National, the Bonelli US Cup, and the Sea Otter Classic to round things off. Each race was completely different from the next, and my results varied a lot too.

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Fontana was a smaller race than the others. I was ranked 14th on the start sheet, and felt like a top 10 was realistic. The temperature didn’t agree though, and it was all I could do to stay on the bike when the mercury climbed to 35ºc on the opening laps. I race three strong laps before succumbing the heat and losing 5 or so places to finish 16th. There were positive takeaways though: I’m riding well technically this year. I pre-rode the course with Nolan Brady, a youngster from Washington State. He had some refreshing lines on the descents and it really helped me in the race to be confident hitting them at speed. Another good point from Fontana was the lack of back pain and cramping, which I would normally expect on a hot day. I certainly have room to improve on the starting lap though, and that will be my focus for the next chunk of training.


 

With a few days to spare, Christa and I headed north to San Luis Obispo. About three hours from LA, it couldn’t be much different in geography or attitude. Lush green hills, sandy beaches, and relaxed happy people were all to be found. I was so relieved to be out of the city. We stayed with Christa’s team manager Kelli and her boyfriend Blake. They looked after us in proper fashion, by guiding us on the best roads, cooking tasty food and generally being happy. Positive mental attitudes are easily overlooked, but they make everything better.

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We drove back south for the next week of racing in San Dimas. Unlike Fontana, the surroundings are more pleasant in this part of LA. From Bonelli park, you have a great view of the mountains, and there are plenty of trees to hide underneath. I was expecting to use the trees for their shade, but the weather turned in my favour and the rain poured relentlessly all weekend. I was so happy!

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The Bonelli field was probably the strongest I’ve raced in. 102 starters toed the line, and I lined up 33rd. Now that I have some UCI points under my belt, my start position more accurately describes my ability. My goal was to crack the top 25, as that’s where the UCI ranking points ended. The conditions suited me much better than the previous weekend, and a few days at sea level seemed to help the sensations too. I struggle a lot with holding my position on the opening lap, and that was my weakness here once again. I moved backwards instead of forwards, and had to then work hard to pass people for the rest of the race. Rain poured for the first three laps, turning smooth singletrack into a series of slick descents and very challenging climbs.

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I rode well enough to gain some places, and then found Alex Grant and Troy Wells to work with. Alex is normally far ahead of me, but had suffered a bad start here. I stuck to his wheel, and benefitted hugely from his good line choices and power on the climbs. I eventually got booted off his wheel when he cleaned a section that I didn’t. From there I was left alone to work on my own. The rain relented for our last few laps, which in turn made the mud get thicker and heavier. The slick surface turned into Velcro-like dirt that sucked energy from your tyres straight into the ground. Ouch. A couple of sections became unrideable, and had the entire field off and running. I used some diesel power to work through the field, and was in 25th with just a minute or so of racing to go. Then Payson McCelveen charged by me and took that final UCI point. I was disappointed. I had raced to the best of my ability and 26th wasn’t what I had in mind. More fuel on the fire.

 

Christa made that entire week possible. From her company during the week, to encouragement on the weekend, life was much better with her around. Oh yeah, and she spent her entire 26th birthday standing in the freezing rain to hand me water bottles. I’m glad Christa also races, because I don’t know how I’d ever pay her back if I couldn’t do the same for her in the future.

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A brief interlude in my California trip had me back in Boulder for a couple of days dealing with green-card paperwork, before then flying to San Jose and driving down the coast to Monterey. The Sea Otter Classic would be a different kind of event for me. I have a day job that I don’t talk about much, working for Thorpe Marketing. With clients to keep happy and other important people to meet, my time was weighted much more heavily towards that than the racing. I had a reasonably full list of appointments on Thursday and Friday, and less time to focus on the introverted world of racing like normal. It ended up working out really well, and I don’t think either activity affected the other. Monterey is a beautiful touristy little town that reminds me a lot of the North Devon coast. It’s obviously not the richest town, but there are nice restaurants and an amazing path that runs around the coast giving huge views of Monterey Bay and the lazy Sea Lions bathing in the sunshine.

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Sea Otter is one of the biggest cycling festivals in the world. It takes place at the Laguna Seca raceway, a car racing circuit. Thus, the mountain biking options are a limited. The race is all about the competition, not the course. The very short 2.6-mile only just accommodated the 130+ riders who took the line. It was never going to be easy. Once again I failed to hold my place on the opening lap, and got thrown back into the mid 40’s by the time wheels hit dirt. Not what I want to be feeling like at this point in the year. From there on, it was all about finding the right groups to work with, avoiding doing too much work on the windy and open tarmac sections, and being sensible with eating and drinking. I checked off all those things and found enough spare energy to finish 30th.

In addition to the racing, I got a chance to catch up with a lot of people and meet some new people, too. Elliot Reinecke is someone I’ve raced with a lot, but not had a chance to talk to before. He was pouring fantastic coffee at the Focus booth, so it was nice to stop and chat for a bit.

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After crashing in Greece, I felt like I’d got back to training quickly, but it became clear over the last three weeks that I’m a long way short of where I wanted to be. There’s no way to miss three week’s training and beat people who didn’t take that same amount of down time. I’m not strong enough on the opening lap to get into position, and from there it’s all a game of catch up. I’ve done a great job of staying focussed and working my way through the field, but that’s never going to get me to the action at the front. I now have three weeks of training before the next block of racing, and I have the motivation, focus and support I need to improve.

Hellas Salmina UCI racing – the S1

The beach front in Kanakia. The time trial started up the road you can see directly in the middle of the picture.
The beach front in Kanakia. The time trial started up the road you can see directly in the middle of the picture.

After our eventful trip to Salamina Island, we settled enough to find the race course and attempt to go ride it. We set off in the direction of Kanakia to find the time trial course. Forget the picture-postcard Greek island that you’re imaging though; Salamina is a little more down to earth. Belying the poor economic conditions here, there’s lots of run down houses and broken roads, and the occasional pack of feral dogs on the street. From our town of Selinia, we drove up a steep climb and dropped in to the centre of the island and through the town of Eantio (the start of day three’s racing), and then over a very steep and winding singletrack road to the village of Kanakia, that would host the first two day’s events. The road to Kanakia is beautiful. Lined on both sides by low pine trees, and with expansive views across the Aegean Sea. It was by far the nicest road on the island, and Christa ended up riding it many times on her road bike. She only crashed once.

 

The village of Kanakia, viewed from half way up the time trial course. The south and west sides of the island were completed forested, with only this small town in the middle of the hills.
The village of Kanakia, viewed from half way up the time trial course. The south and west sides of the island were completed forested, with only this small town in the middle of the hills.

The village of Kanakia is tiny. As we drove over to the village, we could see singletrack snaking off into the trees, and suddenly I understood why we came here. Kanakia is just a couple of streets wide, with one beautiful beachfront café that serves as race HQ. Only one 10×10 tent marked this place as being host to an MTB race. With the aqua blue Mediterranean lapping at the shore, it seemed an unlikely place for some of Europe’s fastest to be gathering. Despite the lack of evidence, The Island was hosting a four-week block of racing, and plenty of European national teams had come along for a training- and racing camp. The Greek team, as expected were represented well, but Denmark, Slovakia, Ukraine, Norway, Portugal, and Kazakhstan were also heavily represented.

Looking back at the beach in Kanakia from the TT course
Looking back at the beach in Kanakia from the TT course

Without my kit bag, but with my bike, I borrowed Christa’s chamois to pre-ride the course. Cotton t-shirt and short short shorts – I’m sure I looked great. From the beach, the 9-km time trial course climbed steeply on an old jeep trail around the coast, gaining the ridge and continuing towards the radio towers at the top. Crossing the single lane road, it then hit mind bendingly steep grades to the top of the hill, before dropping into the finish on a short sharp descent. Roughly 30 minutes long and containing very little technical interest, it was simply a drag race to the finish. My bag arrived that evening, thankfully, so I was back in Boulder Cycle Sport kit for the race itself.

Nearing the top of the TT course. Deep in the pain cave
Nearing the top of the TT course. Deep in the pain cave

Having just got to Greece, it being my first euro stage race, and being a time trial, stage one proved to be difficult: I raced blind. I pushed as hard as I could possibly imagine. Coming from altitude in Colorado, my power numbers in the thick oxygenated sea-level air seemed crazy high, and coming across the line I was happy with my ride. Perhaps I could have gone harder – but I doubt it. Time trials are weird like that. I didn’t see results until a little later that evening, but I’d moved from 46th on the rankings to 32nd on the results. That made me happy, as there’s always a niggling doubt of being completely blown out the water. The results also revealed the true strength of the field here. A little bit of comparing the results with Google showed the experience here; 12 of the starters raced at the London Olympics, and Howard Grotts (The US’s top ranked rider) would have been 10th on paper here. Starting just in front of me, young Dane Simon Andreessen had the ride of the day, starting unranked and finishing in the top 5. The Bianchi Countervail team from Italy also had a good showing, placing their new signing Stephane Tempier near the front. I was a minute or so back on Ben Sonntag, who I’ve pegged as someone I can ride with on my very best days, so I wasn’t entirely satisfied. I knew I could do better.

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Day two: a little more time in the morning, some better breakfast, and a chance to spin before the race had me feeling fresh and ready. A proper Olympic style XC course (5-km long, two feed zones) had been laid out on the outside of the village, using the old goat tracks to great effect. The setting was almost surreal: the sea lapped up against a white sand beach, the hills looked pristine, and here in the middle of it all was a mountain bike race. The start raced across the beachfront and then climbed on a mix of loose gravel road and singletrack to the top of the climb. The downhill plummeted on fun, swoopy tree lined trail back to the beach. The descent was a revelation, having raced plenty of XC courses that take the fire-road option back down. In fact, many people were surprised to see such fun trail in a European race.

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The racing was hard and fast from the gun. Unlike in the US, everyone was sure of themselves on the start line, and gaining places proved difficult. I erred by taking the inside line into the first corner, and got hung up in some traffic going into the singletrack. I had assumed that I would begin catching people as the race moved up, but I really didn’t make any progress. The race got more and more spread out, but luckily Jason Boutell, the other English guy in the race, provided the motivation to keep plugging to the end. I got more and more confident on the way down each lap, finally feeling like I was getting used to the idea of Mountain Biking again after a snowy winter in Colorado. I didn’t feel great on my bike for the whole trip, not being sure of my tire pressure and not trusting the gauge I’d brought with me. I came really close to catching Jason’s wheel, but in the end he finished just ahead of me. I came in a demoralising 37th place on the XC. Not too far back in terms of time, but a long way back on Rotem Ishay (Israel, riding for Jamis bikes) and Benjamin Sonntag (Germany, riding for Clifbar) on the second climb. We represent three nationalities, but have the common connection of all living, and racing together regularly, in Colorado. The mentality of stage racing made me race hard to the very end, and I realise that I probably have more left in me at the end of XC races than I use. Goal for the year: ride like Jamey Driscoll and battle to the very end.
Big picture from the XC race was that I finished within 12 minutes of the leaders. The leaders here are the same people finishing in the top 10 at World Cups, so that’s a really reassuring feeling.

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I came into the final stage of the race confident that I could do better and gain some time. The 37-km course had three significant climbs and a couple smaller ones too, and generally I felt like it suited me better than the XC. Starting from the town of Eantio, we climbed up a cart track from the town, and then zigzagged up the hillside, gaining close to 300 metres in the first 15 minutes. I started much better than the day before, relishing the slightly longer climbs compared to the XC course. I suffered hard to stay in the group with Ben, and made it to the top of the second climb in a really good position. I also got a smooth feed from Christa who had been rallying around the island in a caravan of support vehicles to get to the aid stations. It’s here I made an error though, as I dropped back through our group at the top of the climb. I’ve done it before in Colorado, and it’s a bad habit. I need to race over the top of the climb and get into the descent first. Instead, I got road blocked by some really poor descenders, and lot contact with the people I needed to ride with. It was entirely my fault, and something that I will be working hard to fix going forward.

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The descent itself was great fun, taking in some really narrow and fast singletrack through the hills. A few technical sections broke up the mainly swoopy trail, and then we found ourselves at the beachfront again before climbing up the same road as used in the time trial. I fell apart a little here, only being rescued by a feed of coke from Christa. The heat started to get to me and I didn’t choose lines very well. I managed to stick with a little group of riders, and we worked together over the top of the climb to the final chunk of trail. There must be an underground Mountain Bike culture on the island, as the trails are well built and looked after, and give you just the right amount of reward to alleviate the suffering from the previous climb. Rocky and loose in the right places, and fast in others, I descended back into Eantio with Guy Niv, a teammate of Rotem’s from Israel. I finished 31st on the stage, but more importantly gained enough time to move up to 32nd on the General Classification. That was exactly what I’d come for: some more UCI points, and an experience of racing a truly international strength field.

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Although I didn’t see much of the front of the field, it was still an awesome opportunity to line up with the best and test myself this year. After speaking to other racers who have been on the European circuit for a few years, the competition this year is an obvious step up, and it will be a great year to watch leading up to Rio.

 

The wild west of the Midwest: The Wisconsin ProXCT

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After a really successful trip to Boston, I made up my mind to fly out to Wisconsin for the last round of the US national series. I’d never been to the Midwest before, and heard from so many people that the WORS (Wisconsin offroad series) races are great. I was sold, flying into Chicago on Thursday, then heading north to Wisconsin for the weekend. I’d been suffering with a cold in the run up to the race, but by the time it really hit me I already had flights and rental car booked. I knew it would be a bit of a struggle to be on top form, but I didn’t have too much choice but to suck it up and get on with racing. I got really lucky when Brad Keyes responded to a message about finding someone to feed me during the race; not only did he sling bottles in my direction, but he put me up in his house in Chicago on Thursday night, drove up to the races with me, and generally made the weekend much more than it would have been had I done it all solo. Brad is the man behind Carborocket, a company I’ve been supported by for a long time, and I use their products religiously in racing and training.

Friday morning we made the drive to Portage. Getting out of Chicago took a while, but then it was plain sailing north through rolling cornfields and small towns. You can guess where Wisconsin starts by the increasing frequency of cheese shops. By the time we rolled up to the venue, there seemed to be cheese selling establishments at every turn of the road.

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The venue for the race was Cascade Mountain. A tiny, baby ski area, smaller and less steep than the farm fields I grew up on, but with chair lifts and runs cut into the hillside. The view from the top out over farmland was surreal, and it made me wonder what it would be like to ski on such a tiny hill. The course was a punchy affair, utilising the elevation well with climbs on grass, and descents on entertaining trails with lots of switchbacks. It suited me, and with some wide-open passing sections I was happy with what I was facing.

Lining up second row was a pleasure, and even under the beating humid heat (90 degrees F, 90% humidity), I was feeling pretty confident. The race started and I immediately got slowed by a crash, dropping me back into the middle of the pack. Despite this, I was certain the long grassy climbs would give me time to move up. But I didn’t. After the first lap, I was in about 20th, and really struggling to hold the pace. I didn’t have anything more to give on the climbs, and instead focussed on riding smoothly on the way down. It paid off a little, even if it meant not chasing a couple of people. By lap 5 I’d moved into 16th, and one last little effort got me 15th by the finish. Not the result I was hoping for, or know I can pull out, but I left the race with one more UCI point in the bank, which is better than nothing. This leaves me with 17 UCI points for the season. A little short of the 20 I needed to get to a World Cup. It’s disheartening now to see US riders lining up at the World Cups, as they can petition USA Cycling for a discretionary start spot. British Cycling doesn’t allow that, so I’m stuck watching the racing from the side-lines. 17 points is a pretty good haul in three races though, and it’s given me the confidence I need to move up further next year.

Brad raced early in the morning, and then hung around all afternoon in the sunshine to hand me bottles. I’m really thankful that he did, because I’d have been stuck without him. The standard trick of stockings filled with ice definitely helped me too, and I think I’m getting better at racing in the heat.

Even with the mediocre performance in the race, the weekend was great. As soon as I arrived at Brad’s house on Thursday, I knew I would be looked after. We quickly headed out for a mountain bike tour of the city, heading east towards the shore of Lake Michigan, and then along the lakefront path. What a view: the city butts right up against the water, with huge buildings towering over the small strip of man-made sand.

On a sunny summer’s day, the beach was packed with people enjoying themselves. We rode south along the path, dodging all kinds of people, before flipping it at the aquarium and riding through Grants Park, and onto the quieter gravel. Brad showed me his secret little chunks of trail hidden among all the people, too. We finished it off with a beer on the deck behind his house, then homemade Taco’s. Brad’s wife Tasha is in the midst of a PhD, and it was interesting to talk to her about the travails of life in academia. All in all, it was a lovely introduction to the city.

After the race on Saturday, I was feeling pretty under the weather. Waking up on Sunday was even worse, and if I’d had the choice, I would have probably stayed in bed all day. I thought about racing the short track, but instead of waiting around all day for a 30-minute race, Brad convinced me that a ride on trails would be more fun instead. We headed to Kettle Moraine State forest, half way between the race and Chicago. The park is a densely packed maze of ridges and valleys, all of it covered in thick heavy forest. The trails were tight and twisting, with almost no elevation gain at all.

It was great riding, especially not feeling 100%, as the lack of climbing meant that I could cruise along and enjoy the turns without feeling terrible. We rode almost 30 miles of trails in total. Brad had also sold me on a smoked trout sandwich after the ride, and I was a little wary that he had potentially oversold it; talking more about the sandwich than the trails on the way to the park. It was good , and after the ride, I wasn’t sure if the trails or the food won out either. After the drive back to the city, we headed out for sushi with Tasha. Great food, some beers, and the constant noise of cars, trains and taxi’s whizzing by gave me an idea of what it must be like to live in such a huge place.

Overall, a great introduction to the Midwest, and a bit of a contrast to the hate the area gets in Colorado. Yes, I can see that it might not be the mountains, but being surrounded by positive people willing to go adventure made it fantastic for a weekend.

Old England takes on New England

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The Boston ProXCT: a new race on the calendar and the perfect opportunity to make my first trip to New England. The race, held just south of the big city in Walpole was a great chance for me to utilise the UCI points I’d gained in Colorado Springs and race a bit closer to the front of the pack. Lining up on the second row was a novel treat, and the race started with me holding position near the front. A great start, and a world away from battling through 50 people at the Springs. The course flowed through a few rocky sections of trail before breaking out onto dirt roads, and the pace was ferocious. The field was comprised mainly of New Englanders who race each other regularly, and the pack chopped around as people desperately tried to move up before the rock gardens started in earnest. I got into a great group with Cole Oberman, Tom Sampson, Billy Malone, Ryan Woodall and Cameron Dodge. All of them regular names on the Cyclocross and MTB scene on the East Coast, and really strong technical riders.

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I was lucky enough to follow Billy through the rough sections of course on the first few laps, and his lines were immaculate. Slowly the feeling of riding on roots came back to me and I gained some confidence towards the middle of the race. The dreaded humidity was not as bad as I expected, and the thick soupy sea level air was a revelation for my lungs. I felt good. Without much on the course to separate the pack, I was starting to wonder how the race would play out. Four thought-inducing rock gardens were spread out through the course, with the rest of the riding on punchy singletrack littered with unrelenting roots. I was really glad of the full suspension on the Scott, and I left my suspension fully unlocked for almost the entire race. I’d been having some trouble with my brakes after getting my bike out the box, but the Shimano neutral service at the race did a great job of getting me squared away, and I felt really comfortable on the technical stuff all weekend.

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Todd Wells had hit the race hard from the gun, and being far back in the group, I missed Dan Timmerman flying off the front as well. The group I was in began to slow by lap three as tiredness set in, and with 3rd to 8th all together, I knew I needed to get away. Tom Sampson came to the front at the beginning of lap four and turned up the pace. I saw the chance, and goaded him into hammering. We got a little gap, and I repaid him by keeping the pace high for a while. We succeeded in dropping everyone else, and I felt really strong going into the final lap.

 

We took a couple more turns on the front each, but with half a lap to go, the temporary allegiance was over and it was business time. Tom, as I would expect, was flawless in the ‘snake pit’ rooty sections towards the end of the lap, and gave me no opportunities to move past him. To my dread I realised I’d be contesting another sprint finish. Ugh. I’m not good at those. A lack of confidence stopped me from taking the front on the run in to the finish, my terminal mistake, and we rounded the final turns neck and neck. Tom got the smoothest lines through the last corner, and I failed to gain the third place. Fourth for me. The disappointment of another failed sprint subsided, and I was absolutely elated to finish in fourth place. A world away from my previous best place finish of 17th in the Missoula ProXCT. Combined with the four UCI points I earned in Colorado Springs, I gained 12 points this weekend to give me a total of 16 points: way closer than I thought I’d get to my goal of 20 in order to race a World Cup.

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Next up for me on the racing front for me is the Wisconsin round of the ProXCT: the final round for 2015. This race is a classic, and I’ve heard many good things, but once again it will be a new venue for me, and I’m excited to see another chunk of this huge country.

 

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I’d decided to race in Boston with the knowledge that the field would be a little lighter than the earlier season races. That was the deciding factor for me to book a ticket, alongside a generous offer from Bryan Horsley and his family to host me on Cape Cod (a hour or so south of Boston) for the weekend. Without much choice on flights, I booked a super late flight into Boston Logan on Thursday night and forced Bryan to drive through the night to pick me up. We drove through torrential rain to get back to “the cape”. I awoke in Bryan and Meredith’s beautiful little house in Cotuit, a small village on the southern end of the cape. Coffee made and breakfast ready, I realised quickly that I was going to get properly looked after this weekend. They gave me a quick driving tour of the surrounding area, benefitting from the local knowledge to get good food another the way. We drove out to Chatham Lighthouse and looked over the beach, and I marvelled at its similarity to South Devon. Identical.

 

Bryan’s Mother joined us at the race on Saturday, and took the role of support crew for both of us. I was a little nervous for her to take on the mosh pit that is a feed zone at a ProXCT, but she was solid throughout the entire race, not wavering once for the race. I was very grateful that she’d spent her Saturday looking after me. We had interesting conversation both ways to the race, and got back to the Cape late on Saturday night, in time for a couple of beers and a good night’s sleep.

 

We woke early on Sunday so Bryan could treat me to a proper Cape Cod experience: A sail around the bays of Cotuit. Sailing to a deadline is never recommended, and there are few deadlines as immovable as a plane to catch, but we headed out anyway. Bryan and his Dad take beautiful care of a 28 foot, twin mast sailing boat that’s moored in the bay, and we rowed out with the sunrise, and succeeded in being the first sails on the water. From Cotuit we sailed out through the Popponessit river into Nantucket sound, the stretch of water that lies south of Cape Cod. Benefitting from an ever-increasing breeze, we got heeled over and up to a good knot of speed. Looking in on the Cape reinforced how much New England looks like Old England, and I can see why the first settlers to Massachusetts didn’t travel far to make their homes. We got ashore in time for a sandwich, and got to the bus just in time to sling my bike and I aboard.

Bryan and his family really made my weekend. Alongside the hospitable and welcoming New England race scene, I feel like I got a true taste of the state. I’m really glad I made the trip, and I would highly recommend the weekend to anyway who wants a true Mountain Bike race on fun trails.

The GoPro Games 2015

Photo by Linda Guerrette
Photo by Linda Guerrette

The rain washed quickly up the valley. From the east, clouds lowered until the Gore Range was no longer visible above Vail. The Aspens lining the course began to shake as the rain fell, and everyone retreated to the safety of the lodge. The GoPro games wasn’t looking promising. The rain had come in about half an hour before the start of our race. Sad faces abounded. The pine clad mountain dirt would soak in the moisture well though, leaving the perfect course for the race

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To my disappointment, the rain eased.  I wanted a mud race. Racers emerged onto the start line. Crowds appeared too. The GoPro games attracts 50,000 people to Vail over the weekend, with many people watching a bike race for the first time. Perhaps it was a good thing the rain let up. I lined up second row. I tried to squeeze onto the front row, but got shut down by Steve Tilford – a ex-pro who REALLY wanted to stand next to Todd Wells. With such a steep sustained climb on each lap, I wasn’t too worried, and when he missed his pedal on the start line I managed to get around him and start racing. The lap was seven miles long; a very steep dirt road climb from the base area gained us just over 1000 feet, followed by a sustained swoopy descent in the Aspens with lots of man-made turns and jumps, and then a series of four smaller climbs – each gaining about 100 feet in elevation to finish you off entirely. Three laps.

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I started cautiously. Knowing the pace would be set by Howard Grotts – all 120 pounds of him – I didn’t think it sensible to follow. I settled into about 16-18th place, trying to settle to nerves from riding far back. It paid off though, and I quickly started passing people without getting out of the saddle. Legs were burning, and I started to regret running the 36t chainring… a couple of extra gears would have been really nice on the opening climb. By the top of the first climb I’d settled into a group with Ben Sonntag and Mitch Hoke. We cruised into the descent to find muddy roots and slick turns. I was in heaven. Everything was unpredictable. I had my foot out in most of the berms, remembering what it’s like when neither of your tyres are doing what you tell them too.

Unfortunately by lap two the sun had come out enough that the mud was gone, but in its place was tacky dirt. Ripping fast mistake-proof dirt. With no more advantage to be gained going down, the race returned to its pure climbing focus. By lap three I was hurting, but with no one around I rode on at my own pace, trying to make myself hurt with the vain hope that someone might make a mistake up ahead. I didn’t gain on anyone, but I didn’t crack either. I finished in 7th place. two places better than last year in a similar field.
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It’s been a while since I’ve started and finished a race without hope of winning. It sounds a little defeatist, but as I step up a little in competition I’m going to have to play races smarter, rather than just suffering from the gun. Howard Grotts and Keagan Swenson are both true World class talents, and they also have the hard-earned benefit of being full time. With only Alex Grant in front of me having a job (he’s got a baby too – I really have no excuses), I have to work a little bit harder to get the results I’m looking for. As I approach Missoula, I know I’m climbing well, descending well and have my head in a good place. Lining up at the back of the field (Yay UCI points) is going to be a big mental battle for me, but I think I have the strength to move up well and not let it get the better of me.

 


Planning is now turning to the later season races. July 4th in Breckenridge for the Firecracker 50, July 11th in Boston for the Boston Rebellion ProXCT, and then July 25th in Wisconsin for the WORS cup ProXCT. Excited to travel to some new places!

GJ Offroad – Trails are the great leveler

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The Grand Junction Offroad is perhaps the most technically demanding race in the US. Relentless desert riding under a beating sun slowly wears you down. If the rocks don’t get you, the sun will. The climbs are steep and rough, the descents grin-inducingly fun. The trails are the leveler in this race. Once the support crews have melted away and the photographers are jettisoned at the trailhead, it’s all down to the rider.

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The Iron Horse Classic

The memorial day weekend pilgrimage to Durango has become part of my summer. A reason to get to Durango is always needed; the town is just too far from everything else to make the trip on a whim. Coming to race mountain bikes provides the perfect excuses to travel this far, and having a friendly family to stay at makes in all the better – Katie O’Blocks parent’s put us up once again, making it way nicer than staying in a motel.

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The Whiskey Off road – 2015 edition.

 

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Another year in the high desert of central Arizona to really kick-start the mountain bike season. I’ve told everyone in the last few weeks that it’s a nice time of year to come down to the desert – that starting the season among the cacti is a good introduction to the new year. But the truth is that the high desert surrounding Prescott is anything but forgiving. The arid hills get little moisture, except in the spring. Last year we dealt with unlikely snow, but this year the weather wasn’t that far from normal for the region; on and off thunderstorms for three days straight. The crushed granite hills take the moisture well, though, and we rode some amazing under threatening skies.

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