2017 Mountain Bike Season – It’s a Wrap!

And just like that, Spring has turned into late Autumn, and my mountain bike season is over for another year. I raced 34 days in 2017, my most ever. The season didn’t go to plan in every aspect, but the process of looking back has been really helpful. I improved on the competitive side, and saw some amazing sights while traveling, too!

My biggest accomplishment was getting on the podium twice in the National ProXCT series. I’ve been working towards short-course UCI style races for a couple of years, so to see that success pay off was fantastic. The validation of a national level podium cannot be underestimated

The low points

My biggest disappointment was not capitalising on that early season form in July, when I travelled over to race the World Cups. The form dipped, and the beating I got during those races was hard to recover from. I came back from Europe with a terrible cold that hung around for the rest of the year. It wasn’t until after Breck Epic in August that I finally went to the doctor and got diagnosed with a sinus infection!

Marathon Racing

My “long form” racing came on quite well. I finished 13th at the Whiskey Offroad and 8th in Grand Junction. These were the strongest domestic fields I raced in all year. These events are the target for next year, and I have a good idea of what I need to do in 2018 to be even stronger. I love the 3-4 hour length races, and I can be a better all-round rider with this focus in 2018.

The Local Stuff

Racing in Colorado is hard to beat. I love where I’ve chosen to live. I relished the late season events in Colorado. Without doubt, the highlight of the season was my 8-day block of racing in August: The Steamboat Stinger, into the Breck Epic, into the King of the Rockies (aka #KingoftheHoneyEpic, thanks Evelyn). That block started well with a win in Steamboat. I struggled through the Breck Epic, but came out the other side having a new appreciation for multi-day racing. As day 8, I went over to Winter Park for the King of the Rockies, and had a great battle with Taylor Shelden, coming in 2nd. That was the start of the best season in Colorado: the late season races. I got on the podium at the last of the MTB races, coming 2nd at the Fall Classic and 5th at the Outlier.

The Support Network

Christa has been there for everything. She dealt with my incessant hunger during the Spring when I did nothing but long hours on the bike. She traveled to Europe to watch me at the World Cups, and she’s there now when all I want to do is sit on the sofa!

I have an amazing support network. I’ve stayed with family and friends across the US and further afield; people going out of their way to help me pursue my single minded drive to succeed. It’s humbling to see. There are two companies in particular that have stuck by my side. Boulder Cycle Sport lives and dies by its local community. Their support this year is the biggest component of my success; Wes Webber has rebuilt my bikes more times than he or I can count, and Justin Hoese has fielded my emails and questions at all times of the day.

At Scott Bicycles, I’ve had the pleasure of working with really good people, too; Wade Gasperson and Zack Vestal – thanks for your help. Your bikes are undoubtedly the best on the market, but your culture and willingness to help are even better!

Jasen Thorpe – you’re a bigger part of the last couple years than I’d ever tell you in person.

What’s up in 2018?

I’m changing up the schedule next year: no World Cups, and very few short course XC races. I’ll be starting my season later, giving time for a proper break through the winter. I’ll focus on a couple big stage races, in addition to the Epic Rides series, and also some bigger races in Colorado.

No guarantees just yet, but it’s going to go something like this:
Moab Rocks, Moab Utah
Whiskey 50, Prescott Arizona
Grand Junction Offroad, Grand Junction Colorado
Trans-Sylvania Epic, Pennsylvania
GoPro Games, Vail Colorado
Carson City Offroad, Carson City Nevada
Crested Butte Fat Tire 40, Crested Butte Colorado
Firecracker 50, Breckenridge Colorado
Singletrack6, British Columbia, Canada
Steamboat Stinger, Steamboat Springs Colorado
Breck Epic, Breckenridge Colorado
King of the Rockies, Winter Park Colorado
Fall Classic, Breckenridge Colorado
Chequamegon 40, Cable Wisconsin
Outlier XC, Vail Colorado
OZ Trails Offroad, Bentonville Arkansas
Iceman Cometh, Traverse City Michegan

2017 Steamboat Stinger – On the hunt for a second Stetson

Standing on the top step of the podium at the 2016 Steamboat Stinger was a great achievement for me. I’d been in pursuit of the illusive first-place cowboy hat for a few years, and I’d watched as Russell Finsterwald and Alex Grant took the prize instead. After winning last year, I felt like I’d validated myself a little bit, and the pressure was off my shoulders this year. Nevertheless, I wanted to win again to defend my title, and I also wanted to get Christa a cowboy hat to match mine. She’s much more of a cowgirl than I am a cowboy anyway, so it seemed appropriate.

The view south from Emerald mountain towards the Flat Tops. You don’t actually see any of this when you’re racing!

The race has an agonising start. Climbing up past the ski jump on Howelsen Hill is a shock to the system, but it gets you up and away from the town quickly, and from then on its just you and the trail. The race strung out quite quickly, and I took the lead into the new singletrack through the meadow, closely followed by Andy Clemence. Andy is new to the MTB scene, and I knew he would have some strong roadie power on the climbs. It was good to have him with me to gauge my effort on the first climb, and I kept everything in check, cresting the top of emerald mountain just a handful of seconds in front of fast locals Brad Bingham and Peter Kalmes. Brad quickly caught me as we descended the ridge trail. I thought I’d ridden this trail fast before, but Brad was absolutely pinned from top to bottom, and ended up going over 30 seconds faster than I’ve ever ridden it before.

By the time we started climbing Beall trail the first time, I ended up out front and quickly moved ahead of Brad. With just me and the overgrown trail, I finally felt comfortable and could get into a rhythm. That ended as soon as a huge bull elk jumped across the trail about 10 feet in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and shouted “Holy SHIT” really loudly. Then looked around and was half disappointed and half relieved to see that no one shared my experience. I got back into the groove a bit, then came across a herd of cows on the trail. The first couple responded to a slap and a “YA” by moving out the way, but I got stuck behind a steer that was running along the trail. He wouldn’t get out the way, and I ended up chasing it for about a mile. Poor thing. It eventually dove off the end of a switchback into the trees, and I was alone again. The rest of the lap was decidedly less exciting, but it meant I could settle into my own pace. Knowing I had 7 days of racing after this, I thought the most detrimental thing would be having to follow any attacks or accelerations, so I kept my pace high and just chugged along.

I came through the lap after 26 miles in just over 2 hours. I realised at that point that I was actually going really fast. Finsty’s course record is 4:04, so a two-hour lap put me right on target. With a 2-minute cushion over second place already, I was conflicted – do I try to push the pace for the record, or stay steady and think about Breck Epic coming right up? I chose the latter, and found my groove instead.

The second lap always drags on, and by the time you get to the final climb it feels like you’ve been out there for days. With such limited visibility, I had little idea of where other races were on course, and knowing I was being chased by locals, I felt like they could catch me on any descent. I rode the final downhill through the quarry really scared, trying to be smooth and forget about the win. It’s at this point in the race that I began to lap riders still completing their first lap. The people I’m lapping can be split into two groups quite cleanly – there are the super prepared riders who know they’re in for an 8 plus hour day, and are slowly and happily chugging along the trail. These are the best. They’re normally expecting you and are enjoying the experience. The second group is made of those who had no idea how hard this race was going to be. With other 50 milers comprising a good deal of road and dirt road, it’s sometimes a shock to people when they realise Steamboat is all singletrack. And all windy, tight singletrack at that.

A note on the organisation at this race: It’s sublime. Some races are well organised enough that you are satisfied. Some are efficient. Very few races are so well organised that it’s actually pleasurable. This one is. I don’t know who the volunteers are that stand out on course all day handing me bottles, but I’d love to meet them and say thank you. The one person I do know who makes the day happen is Nate Bird. He’s the force behind the event, and it’s amazing to see the amount of work he puts into the day. Knowing that he’s been up in the middle of the night marking the course makes you relish the experience even more.

By the final short climb, I was in cruise mode, trying to save my legs for Breck Epic. This is the first time I haven’t cramped during the Stinger, and it made the last 5 miles vastly more enjoyable! The finish runs you along next to the rodeo ground, and gives you a good half mile of sporadic cheers from spectators. It’s a feel good finish to the race for sure!

I ended up with a comfortable buffer of five minutes over second place, and was entertained to see Alex Pond and Peter Kalmes drag racing into the finish for a sprint. That’s a tough way to finish a 50 miler! As always, the day was capped off with beer and a BBQ at the base of Howelsen Hill. The atmosphere is so friendly and positive, and Larry Grossman continues to impress with his knowledge of so many racer’s names. He can recognise and cheer the vast majority of the field on site. It’s impressive!

All things going well, I’ll be back again next year. I haven’t missed a Stinger since they began, and I don’t intend to stop any time soon!

 

 

 

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!

 

 

Moab Rocks: coming right up

Lots of trail time in Lyons this spring
Lots of trail time in Lyons this spring

And just like that, it’s race season. I’m preparing to head to Moab for a long weekend of racing and riding bikes, and I cannot wait! Moab Rocks has been going on for a few years, but this is the first time it’s moved to the spring, instead of autumn. That’s made it much more appealing, and I think the field will be a lot stronger as a result. I’ve been seeing lots of the Durango riders making regular trips to Moab in order to pre-ride the stages, which has me a little scared. I’ve firmly put this race in the “enjoy myself and get fitter” column on the race schedule, but I know that you can’t turn up to any pro level race in this part of the world without encountering serious riders with their game faces on.


I’ll be riding my trail bike for this race, a Scott Genius. Not sure if it’s the ideal choice, but it’s the only one I’ve got for now so I’ll deal with it. I’ve put on the standard Maxxis Ikon 2.2 tires, and the bike weighs in pretty light at around 24.5 lbs, so I don’t think I’ll be too disadvantaged. The first stage climbs to the top of Porcupine Rim on a service road, and this will be the main part of the race where I might lose some time. The bike has the awesome Twinloc suspension lockouts, so I’m sure I’ll be just fine. I’ve got a new Scott Spark on the way for the rest of the season, and although I was hoping it would make it in time for this weekend, it might well be a blessing in disguise.

Fitness feels good. I’ve trained more than in previous years, including more time with some fast group rides on the road. I’ve also been riding the trail bike a lot on our new back door trails around Lyons. I’m hoping the combination of both road and trail time will set me in good stead, and even though I haven’t ridden the Porcupine Rim trail for a while, I think I can remember it well enough to get by. After Moab Rocks I’ve got another few weeks of training before jetting off to the Sea Otter Classic in California, and then the first goal of the season at the Whiskey 50 at the end of April. I’ve really enjoyed starting the race season a little later this year, and I hope it will pay off later in the season with some more base fitness to call upon, and some motivation to keep racing until the very end of the summer. As always in Colorado, our best mountain bike races don’t get going until August.

A super early spring in Boulder has me worried for the fire season. Im hoping we get some spring storms coming through soon!

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.

 

Why Am I in Europe This Time?

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For the last three years, racing a World Cup has been my goal. An obsessive goal that I had to fulfill. I’m here in England, and I will be lining up for my first World Cup in Germany next weekend.

It started as a frustration: I was sat on the trainer doing intervals, and I was watching a repeat of the Val Di Sole World Cup. It suddenly clicked that everyone in that race – even the really slow people at the back – were faster than me. It didn’t seem right. If I was going to spend most of my disposable income and all of my spare time riding bikes, I at least needed to race the best people in the world.

So I worked hard and got 20 UCI points, bought a plane ticket to London, registered for two rounds of the World Cup and one British series race. And I’m really excited!

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This goal wasn’t exactly straight forward. 2014 was the first year I really chased the UCI sanctioned races. I raced that 2014 season with the goal of getting the 20 UCI points I needed to start a World Cup. How many points did I finish the season with? Zero. None. Not even one. It was hard to come away from the first season of racing the national events without anything to show for it. It stung. So I trained a little bit harder. I raced a lot of cyclocross. I worked on my weaknesses. Unlike previous years, I did my core exercises. I got help with my bike fit. I set up my suspension properly.
This year has been a roller coaster – I went to Greece early in the year to gain some racing experience and get some more points. I came away with both, but also a bad injury from my heaviest ever crash. It’s at this point that I really valued the sponsors that look after me during the season. Boulder Cycle Sport took in my broken bike and popped a shiny new Scott Spark out the other end. YogaGlo was invaluable in keeping my body supple when I couldn’t push on the pedals, and I drank so much Carborocket Recovery drink that I thought I might start smelling like chocolate and coconut.

The plan for the next three weeks: I’m currently staying at my Brother’s house in Loughborough before racing the British Series Round in Dalby this Sunday. Then we’re driving across to Germany to race the Albstadt World Cup. Then on to stay with relatives in Geneva for a few days, before heading to the Vosges mountains for the La Bresse World Cup in France.

Stay tuned here for all the updates!

My biggest supporter - always there for me, no matter how far apart we are!
My biggest supporter – always there for me, no matter how far apart we are!

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.

 

What no cross racing?

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Enough people have asked why I’m not racing cross to actually write a blog post (yeah, people still do that). Rather than racing cyclocross, I’ve been galavanting through the hills on some amazing mountain bike rides, and also supporting Christa as she’s dived head-on into cross fever, and taking a break from racing. My racing hiatus isn’t permanent – I’m going all in for Mountain Bike season next year, so I thought I should put my feet up for a month or two instead of draining the battery even further. No matter how many small breaks you take throughout the season, it’s good to stop completely for a bit and rest. I get to the end of every season still motivated and enthusiastic about riding bikes, but that continuous drive to race needs to be tempered by what’s good physiologically too. So I’m not in for cross season. But I’ll be in the pits drinking beer instead. It’s actually really hard not to race, but I know it will pay off next year for MTB season.

Next year: I’m three UCI points away from racing a World Cup. So that’s what I’m aiming for. Having a break earlier in the year means I can get in some quality rest, followed by a lot of strength training, and still be ahead when it comes to base miles in the spring. Unlike last year, I’m starting racing a little earlier to see whether I can get some points in time for the June World Cups. The goal will be all the short lap XC races that attract so much internet hate, but are so fun and intense to race. I’m not sure on the exact schedule yet, but I’m thinking I’ll be heading over to Europe at least once during the season. Christa and I are getting married at the end of July, so that seems like a good time to take a break. Then? Not sure yet, but I have a feeling that Cyclocross season 2016 will be really appealing.

On the team front: I’m sticking with Boulder Cycle Sport and YogaGlo for 2016. I didn’t even consider looking for other teams. With assurances that the team will be even better supported than last year, I’m very happy to be staying in the same kit. I’ve done a lot of skills coaching for BCS this year, and in the process have met a huge bunch of people in Boulder that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. That’s pretty awesome. Their community philosophy is worth supporting, and they make me feel valued as an athlete. It doesn’t really get much better than that.

 

 

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.

Getting to the point in Colorado Springs

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For those that have followed my racing for a bit, you’ll know that I’ve been in search of the elusive UCI point for over a year. The UCI point is the secret to MTB success on a national (or larger) level. How do you get one? Well, the easiest way is to already have some. Points determine start positions, and without a start position it’s harder to get a point. This weekend in Colorado Springs I got 4 UCI points for finishing 22nd. After the heartbreak of finishing 17th in Missoula last weekend (a lower class race, where points went to 15th), I’m so very happy to finally begin climbing the ladder towards racing a World Cup.

Missoula last weekend was a tough race, mentally and physically. I’ve not done any points chasing this year (not a single USAC race until this one) so I was fully aware I’d be lining up at the back. But it’s still humbling when 50 names get shouted out, and the shouting stops before you get called. I rolled up after the name shouting was done, and had an atrocious start that involved more braking than sprinting, and a little bit of cyclocross dismounting to get around people that weren’t excelling at Mountain Bikes at that point. From there on, the race got better, and I ended up gaining a huge number of places to finish 17th. Two places and a world of misery away from the 15th I needed to gain my first UCI point. I raced smart and sensible, climbed really well, stayed focused, and it wasn’t enough. In chasing down a rider on the last lap, I rolled in the dirt for a bit, hitting the netting hard and removing some skin from my right side. In a way, the wounds were good for me to focus on, because I couldn’t do anything about the result. I poured everything into the race, and spent a good 15 minutes in tears of frustration afterwards. It was difficult. More than it should have been.

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I stewed on that result a lot in the last week, wondering whether the Escher like staircase of points would ever be broken. I lined up in Colorado Springs with a few demons floating around, but a huge amount of burning determination too. The Colorado Springs race had a great start loop to move up on, and a course with punchy short climbs that suited me a little better than Missoula.

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I had amazing support from two of Boulder Cycle Sport‘s best people: Des and Matt Ogle drove from Boulder to the Springs in order to watch the racing, and volunteered themselves to serve as pit crew. I couldn’t have achieved the result without them. They were fantastic. Matt stood next to me on the start line with an umbrella, shading me, and then they both proceeded to hand me water bottles and ice throughout the race. I would not have survived without them there. I don’t even know how to thank them! Stepping onto the Boulder Cycle Sport team this year has been so good for being surrounded by community and friendship that asks nothing in return.

After the start loop, I’d managed to gain a good chunk of the places I needed to get into the top 25. I felt strong and confident, and had no doubt at that point that I’d achieve what I set out to do. With another hour and a half of racing though, I began to suffer, and quickly went from aggressive passing to survival, and eventually damage limitation. A spectator shouted “24” at me, and that was enough drive to dig deep in the final couple of laps to hit the line in 22nd. I was elated. Over the moon happy. Des handed me a fresh jersey soaked in ice water after the race, and I sat there and basked in the satisfaction. Deep, hard earned and entirely intrinsic satisfaction.

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The elusive UCI points are finally mine! What it means in terms of racing is that I now get the privilege of taking my points to any sanctioned race in the country (or even back to the UK) and starting mid pack. Not a huge jump, but after a year of back row starts and random (actually: picking numbers out of a hat) call ups, I’m very excited.

I’ll be traveling to Boston (Walpole actually – I’ve been informed by a Mass local that they’re very different) in two weeks, and I aim to get into the top 10 and get some more points under my belt. The ultimate goal of all this is to accumulate 20 UCI points in the next 12 months, which would allow me to start a World Cup.

Dream big: I care a lot about racing mountain bikes, enough that people probably ridicule me for it. It’s kind of cool to be able to set a goal, work for it and achieve it, even when few other people can see the value in it.