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The Missoula ProXCT – Solitary suffering on the slopes of Marshall Mountain

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There’s a six foot drop approaching, and my fork is locked out. Not by choice of course. The cable is just a little sticky. Probably something to do with the gel I just spilled across my bars. What would you do? Forcefully unlock it and suffer another 4000 feet of climbing with a bouncy fork, or ride the six foot drop and the rest of the descent five more times with no suspension?

Luckily the decision was made for me. A final bounce on the front end and the fork released, giving me some sweet, buttery suspension to cushion the drop. I squirted my bottle at the lockout and had no more problems for the rest of the race.

A unique thing happened on June 17th 2016: the first time in the history of US mountain biking, two important races were scheduled on the same day. Unlike in Europe where it’s common to have a handful of UCI races on the same day, North America is renowned for having few events, and rarely any overlaps. This means that generally the fields are always strong and UCI points are as rare as hen’s teeth. With the Carson City Offroad and the Missoula ProXCT falling on the same date, there was a choice for pro riders to make. Go to Carson City and benefit from the big payouts, friendly vibes and fun trails that Epic Rides events are known for, or head to Missoula for the awesome course (complete with famed A-line drop), rowdy solstice celebrations and the ability to spend the weekend in one of the coolest mountain towns in the west.

It was interesting to see who chose what race. The Olympic hopefuls were in Missoula as expected. Howard Grotts and Raphael Gagne are proving this year that they can compete on a world stage. Along with Stephen Ettinger and Keegan Swenson, they made sure the front of the field in Missoula was stronger than the front of the field in Carson City. But after that handful, there were some notable exceptions that went to Nevada instead: Russell Finsterwald and Ben Sonntag are normally stalwarts on the XC scene, but chose the Epic Rides events instead. Ben Sonntag was chasing the series overall payout, while I think Russell was relishing a different scene after an early season of World Cupping. Kabush, Wells, and Spencer Paxson all went to the big blue lake too.

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In Missoula, I was among a number of “second rate” riders that had lined up for the opportunity to nudge their way higher in the rankings and get to experience being a little closer to the front than is normal for these events. With just over 20 UCI points, I’ve been enjoying a second or third row call up this season, but with the absentees, that ranking got me onto the front row in Montana. We’re so used to battling in 100+ people fields, that the tactics were going to play a big part in the racing. As Howard Grotts said after the race, there’s no place to hide on that course. Rather than being a group riding event, it always comes down to one’s ability to ride six consistent climbs followed by six mistake free descents.

I made the tough decision to take it steady off the start line. I knew that my fitness was good, but I also knew I’d have a better chance of surviving six laps if I was cautious at the beginning. It was hard to willfully fall back through the pack on the opening climb, but I did it nonetheless. A minute into the race I was back in the late teens watching the front group assemble and then pull away from the chasers. I found my rhythm and passed people slowly throughout the race instead. I made a little move at the top of the climb on lap one to get ahead of a bunch of riders, and that paid off by riding the descent cleanly and getting a gap on everyone behind me.

The A-line drop gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, but it’s not a make-or-break feature. The anticipation of hitting the drop builds from the top of the descent, and then it’s over in a second as you sail across it and down into the big catcher berm at the bottom. After that, the real challenge on the descent is a series of sharp corners with drops at the apex. These take some commitment to get your weight forward and your finger off the front brake. Any hesitation here can waste way more time than you’d lose on the big drop.

The middle of the race in Missoula was a little boring, to be honest. I did a lot of hard pedalling. A lot of concentrating on keeping my cadence up and not being stupid about pushing a big gear through the sharp uphill corners. I’d need those matches for the last lap. I was in about 12th place at the end of lap one, and then slowly worked my way through the field. Never following other people’s pace, always just keeping the sensations where I wanted them. I had power and heart rate numbers in front of me for this race, and I did quite a lot of looking down, which is not normal for me. It’s hard to say whether I actually used the data to pace though: the numbers move around so much that I found it a lot easier to “feel” that tension in your legs that you know is sustainable.

With one lap to go I’d moved into 8th place. A relative unknown rider Jamey Yanik was just ahead in 7th, and Alex Wild in 6th. I’d raced Jamey at Sea Otter and only just bested him. Little did I know that he was about to have a fireworks display, and slip back to 12th. After I went past him I was pretty sure that was the last place I would be gaining. Alex Wild is also pretty new to the pro scene, and has had a fantastic opening to the year. He was more of a known quantity and a bigger hurdle to overcome. Approaching the top of the last climb I clocked the gap to Alex as about 35 seconds. Pretty significant. I kept working at it though and came into the descent seeing flashes of red in the trees ahead. Last year I crashed really hard chasing Jamey Driscoll on the last lap, so I was cautious to ride smooth on the way down. I still closed the gap to Alex, though, and we came out of the trees together. Just one 30 second climb to go.

I bided my time a little, let Alex sprint into the base of the finish climb, then stood up and gave it everything to the finish. It was a dramatic little battle, but no one was paying much attention. Instead, the organisers were doing what every promoter should do: have the podium immediately. Once the haze of lactic had cleared I got to see Howard hold aloft a majestic rack of antlers for his win. The crowds were deep and the beer flowing.

My 6th place was exactly what I’d hoped for out the event: consistent riding, clean descending and no mistakes. A big thanks to Heather Earl, who I found at the start line and managed to persuade me to hold bottles in my general direction. Much appreciated! Also a huge thank you to Ken Griffiths, who opened his home to me for the weekend. Ken really made me feel comfortable in Missoula, and it was great to have someone to chat Montana life with before the race. Meeting new people and seeing different ways of life is a big part of what makes traveling so compelling to me. Thank you Heather and Ken!

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La Bresse World Cup: The Nun with a chainsaw.

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There’s a chainsaw being revved mere inches from my ear. The Nun wielding the chainsaw is laughing maniacally and paying little attention to the proximity of his blade to my head. Yes, the Nun is a man. Welcome to World Cup Mountain Biking in France.

I’d seen said chainsaw wielding Nun earlier as I was warming up, and thought it would add greatly to the atmosphere on the course as I came sailing by. Nino may have gone sailing by, but I was stuck here, next to the chainsaw, as I watched the scrummage of riders ahead of me battle for one very narrow and slippery strand of dirt. A woman shouted ALLEZ at our assembled group of riders. Little did she realise that we were trying our best to Allez, but the traffic ahead seeming to be preventing all Allezing.

Soon it was my turn to file slowly up the hill. The armed Nun wasn’t the only novelty course-side. There was also a Gallic kilt wearing man thrusting his hips, and the attached cowbell, with vigour. The crowds in La Bresse were a different beast than Albstadt a week earlier. Although similar in numbers (roughly 15,000 people paid 16 euros each weekend to watch the races in person) the Germans took the opportunity to drink a beer, stand back and watch the racing in an orderly fashion. The French on the other got involved. It was the personal responsibility of each Frenchman lining the course to tell you that Julien Absalon was much, much faster than you. They did this in an entirely unintelligible mix of cowbell ringing, beer swilling, and general frenching.

My race didn’t go quite as well to plan as Albstadt, although I finished better in 95th place. And only two laps down this time, as opposed to three last week. The first (literal) roadblock happened on the start straight, as bikes went sideways and riders came to a standstill. I was too far back to be involved in the carnage, but it slowed me nonetheless. From there, half the field or more was up the road, and the energy I normally put into gaining places on the start was instead used to hold my position in the stringy remnants of the pack. The chainsaw incident happened soon after. The climb on lap one ended up being a mix of track-standing and all out sprinting.

The fans hadn’t actually lined up to watch us stand around on the climb. They, like the riders, had come for the descent. La Bresse is a small town in the Vosges Mountains of France. It’s reported the wettest area in the country. This has lead to an amazingly lush forest under which sits heavy dirt, moss covered rocks, and sinuous roots. From the town square you can see almost the entire descent, switch-backing steeply through the trees. It starts with some man made bermed corners. No problem there. Then some 3-4 foot drops to flat. OK, not much to worry about. Then a 180 turn, a sprint up a root covered climb straight into a huge rock slab with little room for error. Rinse and repeat. Unlike Albstadt where the descents were little more than a sideshow, the downhill here took the same time as the climb. By the time we got towards the bottom, hub deep ruts had been cut through berms revealing shiny roots underneath. Commit to the rut. But downhill.

I survived the first descent with nothing to write home about. It was the slowest I’d ridden it all weekend; held up by riders who were held up by riders. We careened back into the town square after lap one and saw that Julien was leading. That made the French happy. Happy French people are louder than sad French people. I was over four minutes down already, and could do nothing but pedal my hardest.

I couldn’t work out why I was riding so slowly. I was pedalling as hard as I could but gaining no ground. It wasn’t until I looked down and saw that my hardest actually was over 500 watts on the punchy ups, and everyone else was simply riding faster. The climb topped out at a big statue of Jesus that overlooked the town. It was here you prayed for more air, uncrossed your eyes and dived into the trail with abandon. It took me a few corners to remember how to ride a bike, but I was happy that I passed riders each time down the hill. A couple at a time made a difference, and by lap three I had a clean run down. The clock ticked to nine minutes behind as I crossed the line to begin lap 4 and I knew it would be my last lap.

In my bleary state I read that I was 102nd going through the start finish for the last time. That was motivation enough, as I could see two riders ahead of me. The elastic stretched as I pedalled up the climb, seemingly making no progress but also not losing ground. Toward the top of the climb the first rider cracked, almost crawling up the hill as if he’d lost his lungs and was trying to find them. The second rider was in sight, and then disappointingly crashed on the descent, robbing me from a valiant overtaking manoeuvre. I sprinted out the bottom of the descent and through town, and gained another place into the 80% zone. I found out later that I finished 95th, so I had read the sign wrong a lap earlier, but it motivated me, and made me work harder than I could have otherwise.

The spectacle and atmosphere aside, I didn’t race very well at La Bresse. I was too enthusiastic the days before the race, and ended up tired by the start line. An amateur mistake. Another amateur mistake would be to assume that better legs or better preparation would have vaulted me up the field. The gap in my fitness compared to those 50 places higher isn’t massive, but it’s more than I could make up on a good day. My skills to ride the course definitely weren’t lacking, but my experience racing terrain like that was. I have no idea how to thread together a blistering fast descent on the back of an all out climb. The best thing about coming over here and racing way above my pay grade has been the revelation of how much better I can be. I came away feeling fat, unfit and unable to ride downhill. I’m looking forward to being back in Colorado for the rest of the summer to do some fun events locally, get faster, and maybe even win something!

 

 

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British Series at Dalby Forest: sunshine and singletrack in Yorkshire

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I’d heard about the racecourse at Dalby after the World Cup in 2010. First of the “new school” courses, the lap was shorter and more technical than anything before. Since then, other courses have caught up, but it was still the best course I’ve raced on.
All this was reason enough to put the British Series race at Dalby on the calendar. After I’d qualified for the World Cups, it made sense to head over to Europe a week early and get the traveling and jetlag out of my system. The British series race was perfect for that. I flew into London on Thursday morning and met up with Tom Sampson who’d decided to piggyback on my trip. We drove up to Loughborough and stayed with my Brother for a couple of days before the race. DSC06805

We drove to Dalby on race day and arrived early to get a lap on the course before the start. I loved what we found, and I lined up knowing I could put together a good race. The temperature was also perfect; 10 Celsius (50F is ideal for me. The Dalby course is a little different than most, because the start/finish line is at the top of the hill, and the start throws you straight into a downhill. I was gridded 17th, on the second row. The start “straight” was a sharp left-hand bend straight into the downhill, and with an outside position I was confident of getting off the line well and gaining some places into the singletrack. That didn’t happen. Instead, Jason Boutell who was in front of me snapped his chain on the second pedal stroke and crashed in a pile. I slammed on my brakes, avoided going straight into him, and then played catch up with the people that got a clean start.

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Nerdy Bike stuff:

I was riding my 2016 Spark RC. After the pre-ride I upped the fork pressure from 62 psi to 80 psi (I weigh 165 ish pounds at the moment). It’s perverse, but on the smooth US courses softer suspension is better. Dalby had enough drops that I needed a firm surface to push against. I slowed the rebound on my rear shock from middle of the range a couple of clicks. The drops were bigger and not very frequent, meaning a slower rebound was better for this course.

Tire pressure: I normally race at about 22 psi front and rear, but I went up to about 26 rear / 25 front. Low pressure is great when the course is loose and sandy, or really wet, but at Dalby the surface was hard and fast with good traction. This meant a firmer tire held up better through the fast rough sections. I was running 2.2 inch Maxxis Ikon with EXO sidewalls on the SRAM Rise 60 carbon rims. After the race I found that I’d sliced my rear tire at the bead, but it had held pressure and didn’t cause a problem. I’m glad I upped the pressure before the race, as I didn’t notice hitting the rim at any point and still must have flexed the tire enough to slice it.

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The first lap went well, and I didn’t get held up much, despite being further back than I would have liked. I started picking people off and had some luck following other riders who were gaining ground. There comes a point in every XC race where the gaps get big enough that you have to start doing the work yourself. By lap three I’d made up the easy passes that I should have gained off the start line, and then had the more difficult job of riding up to people in the top 10.
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My bike didn’t feel quite right: mainly the seat height felt odd. I’d just put a dropper post on my bike for the trip to the World Cups, so I assumed the dropper was making me feel weird. I figured out after the race that my seatpost was slipping, and I lost about 2cm of height during the race!

With just over a lap remaining (about 25 minutes) I caught sight of a group ahead. I got a position check coming through the start finish on the last lap, just as I caught the back of that group. I was in 12th. Higher than I had thought. UCI points finished at 10th, and looking ahead, I realised that two of us in the group would be going home without points. I wasn’t going to be left out. I made a distinct effort to get in front on the downhill out of the start, and got a gap immediately. Paul Oldham, a long time pro in the UK, caught me again on the next climb, and it was down to he and I. I felt sure the other two riders wouldn’t come back, but I put in a few short sharp efforts nonetheless. Paul came around me on the final long climb, and I clung to his wheel with the realisation that my seat was indeed now really low. The only thing to do was get out of the saddle. I got ahead of Paul just before the final technical section, and pulled out enough of a gap that I could be confident holding it to the line. I gave it one final sprint to the finish. 9th place, and two UCI points to go with it!

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One of my better races – I’m putting it down to a combination of temperature, smaller field size (only 50 racers – although the front of the field was World Cup standard, the field died down a little after the top 20), and also a course that suited me well – no long climbs and a lot of technical sections that I was confident on.

We left Loughborough on Tuesday and drove to Belgium. We spent the night in Namur, and had enough time to ride through the 10th century Citadel that hosts World Cup Cyclocross races. We then walked into the old town centre and ate a good meal accompanied by a proper Belgian Beer. Today (Wednesday) we arrive in Albstadt and start figuring out how to race a World Cup. I’m ranked 145th out of 157 starters – back row!!

 

 

 

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Crashing and learning on Salamina. This is all about not racing my bike

What do you do when you fly 16 hours for a bike race and then crash out before the start? That’s not a question I was hoping to answer, but it’s actually less depressing than it first sounds.

I came to Greece to race two three-day stage races. After a successful first race, I headed out to pre-ride the courses for the second weekend of racing. Feeling good physically, but poor technically, I was focussing on smoothing out the descents and getting some confidence at the same time. The opposite happened. The XC course featured two steep descents. At the bottom of the first descent, the course opened into an orchard, with trees dotted on either side of the course. A sharp right hand corner marked the end of the downhill, and to set up for the corner meant moving to the left around a slight bend. I moved left, but as I did so my tires skitted out from under me, sending me sideways towards a tree at maximum speed. Being such a straight and easy section of trail, I was carrying plenty of speed without even trying. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but my error was not concentrating: I was about to be done riding and was already thinking of lunch.

I hit the tree side on, my non-drive side crank hit the tree first, and then my left thigh broadsided it. I heard the crack, and hoped my bike was OK as I was flying through the air, landing on my back. The impact of hitting the crank passed through my frame and cracked the chain stay almost cleanly in two, just holding itself together with an Amy D Foundation sticker. What I didn’t notice was my rear wheel. Held together by the tire pressure and spoke tension, it was only later when I tried to go for a quick spin that I realised I had four equidistant cracks in the rim. It failed as soon as I tried to pedal out of the saddle.

 

For such a mindless crash, I did some pretty good damage to myself. The impact of hitting the tree with my thigh caused an instant “dead leg” that has lasted almost three days, stopping me from being able to activate my quadriceps at all on that side. After lots of rest and icing, I’m reasonably sure there isn’t any permanent damage, but in the mean time I have a great comedy limp. I also managed to slice open my elbow, but that has been much less pain than the leg. With no bike and an injured body, I pulled the plug on racing. It was a huge disappointment. I could have chased finding a rental bike and perhaps got to the start line, but in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve been really sore for the last few days. I was looking forward to the extra fitness I would get from racing, and also learning a bit more about how I do racing when tired, but that will have to wait. For now it’s back to Colorado for a good chunk of training, and then I’ll be in California in April for the US Cup races.

 

Not racing the second race in Greece gave Christa and I a little more time to look around and do some touristing. For her, being conscripted into flying to Greece and not just sitting around on a sunny island, I think it was actually a relief to have an extra spare day or two. For the first week, we’d struggled to find any good food on the island. We knew it was there, but it just wasn’t apparent to us. Combined with wanting to eat safe food before racing, it meant we’d had a quite boring diet. I travel for the food more than anything else, so it was great to find two really good seafood restaurants in the town of Salamina itself.

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We drove around the island to the town of Maroudi on the south coast, and then scampered along the rocks until there was deep blue sea on either side. It’s here that we jumped in, happy for it to feel much warmer than the same sea in Hydra. We celebrated the swim with a café at a small tavern on the beach, and then went to watch the racing action. I was hesitant. I wanted nothing to do with the racing, but Christa persuaded me that watching it would be a good idea. She’s awesome like that.

We perched up on the hill with a view of the start and the first corner, and watched the drag race unfold below. When you’re in the race, everything seems to close and tight, but watching from a distance made me realise that I have more space to ride than I think I do. We situated ourselves on the first descent, the one I was really struggling with, and watched the best riders in the world struggle in exactly the same places. Gerhard Kerschbaumer from Italy (well, Südtirol if that counts…) took the holeshot, and drifted out on the trickiest corner on the DH, getting unclipped just like I had done pre-riding. On the steep and fast section before I crashed, only a handful of riders went down confidently, with everyone else on their brakes as much as me. It made me feel much better to know that I may not have been riding well, but I wasn’t riding any worse than anyone else either.

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Seeing the gaps form, hold, and then lengthen throughout the race justified the weight I place on the start of the race. The order in the first 3 minutes was mostly the order that would hold to the finish. But I also realised that getting a bad start shouldn’t exclude me from a good race; I just have to get fast enough to close those gaps. Sometimes in chasing some margins here and there, it’s easy to forget that training harder and for longer is the simplest way to get faster. So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 6 weeks – more training, more hours, and more intensity. Hopefully I can fit in a trip to somewhere warm to make it happen.

The view of Hydra coming into the harbour. One town on the whole island

reHYDRAting in the mediterranean

The view of Hydra coming into the harbour. One town on the whole island
The view of Hydra coming into the harbour. One town on the whole island

Hydra. Pronounced EEEEE-druh. Christa made the wise choice to get off our small Mediterranean island and find a prettier one. After a weekend of racing, I was perfectly willing to go explore. A short hop on the ferry to the mainland, and then a longer trip south to the island took a couple of hours, and we came ashore as the sun was setting over the ancient city-state. Hydra is a car free town, and the only town on the island of the same name. We were here in the off-season, and a cool breeze blew over the harbour as we walked through the town. We’d booked into the Phaedra Hotel, and we found that we were the only people there. The lady at reception showed us our room, and then told us how to lock up, and that she’d be back to check us out the next day. Despite Christa’s best planning, most of the restaurants were closed, so we settled into a touristy spot on the harbour front for dinner and some wine. We woke early and packed our bags, having exactly six hours until our return ferry left. Being the only connection each day, we really didn’t want to miss it!

We walked along the harbour and marvelled at the immaculate houses, and then climbing around the coast on the narrow cobbled road, past more well looked after houses, and then climbed in-land, setting our sights on a small mill on the hillside. We didn’t have a map, and in the end didn’t need one, taking whichever turn looked the most uphill until we broke free of the houses and found the countryside. We didn’t stop at the mill though, and ended up climbing all the way to the very top of the island, to the Greek Orthodox Monastery that sits secluded and quiet looking over the sea. We were hesitant to look around, having seen no touristy signs what so ever, but we carefully walked around the modest building, marvelling at their view, before making haste back to the coast. We then found a nice quiet beach for a swim, just around the corner from the main harbour. It really was a quick swim though – just enough time in the water to wonder whether the med is supposed to be this cold, and then we went back to Hydra for lunch.

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Contrasting Salamina with Hydra shows a world of differences. They hardly even seem like the same country. While the hills of Salamina are untouched and pretty, with forests going down to the beach, the towns are extremely run down. Hydra is the opposite; every house in the town was freshly painted. The roads were newly laid stone, the trees carefully pruned. It was immaculate. Although the town seemed asleep for the winter, I much preferred walking the streets alone, without the throngs of tourists that summer would bring.

The beautiful harbour was quiet in the off season
Sooner than we wanted, we were back on the ferry to Athens, and then again to Salamina. You can clearly see that tourism is the only driver of the Greek economy at the moment, and its effects are very local. Salamina mainly caters to the weekend crowd from Athens, rather than rich foreign tourists. But in its run down state, it has a friendliness and warmth. Everyone we met was so delighted to talk to us, even if their English was as good as our Greek. When Christa and I tried to splutter out “Efcharisto” (Thank you), we could see how happy people were that we were there. It was really interesting to be somewhere with such little English around. I liked it.

A sunrise over the Aegean woke us up on the first morning in Greece

Getting to Greece, the long way

 

It’s 8pm and we’re in Athens. Not Georgia. I’m dizzy with fatigue, and I’m hungry for a meal I can’t place. It’s probably breakfast. When in doubt, eat breakfast. Our bags are somewhere that isn’t Athens, and the very helpful lady at the desk is telling us that we should now leave. Leaving an airport without your bags is one of the hardest things to do as a bike racer. Any protestations of “but my bike?!” are met with more friendly smiles and distinctly Mediterranean shrugs that suggest our efforts will be wasted.
Salamina. A little island only a short ferry’s hop from Greece’s capital Athens. It’s not at the top of the list when people choose Greek Islands for their holidays, but it was our destination for the sole reason of Mountain Biking. The Hellas Salamina spring series provide an early opportunity for racers to hone their fitness in the lead up to the Rio Olympic games. I did not travel with the hope of going to the Olympics, but simply to gain some more UCI racing experience, and hopefully top up my pile of points to help me out later in the year. The Olympics is a big deal, though, and it really boosted the field that had also travelled to Greece.
The journey wasn’t as smooth as I was hoping it would be. As a transatlantic transplant, I’m pretty used to the long distance travel. It fazes me very little. So I wasn’t worried about the travel to Greece. Still firmly in Europe, the original schedule had us to Athens in 15 hours with stops in Philadelphia and London. Easy. I’d even factored in enough time to eat a Full English at 6am in Heathrow before taking off again. But that wasn’t how it played out.

 

De-icing is the bane of any traveller. We got stuck in Philly for a mere 30 minutes, and the butterfly effect went into full force. 30 minutes late in Philly was merely 30 minutes late to London. But at Heathrow that means your landing window has gone. So we circled for 30 minutes. And that meant our gate was gone. So we sat on the tarmac. Itchingly close to the plane that was now boarding to take us to Athens. We ran in vain through the airport, to be told that we’d missed the plane. Bummer. We had even more time for the Full English.

 

With the option of waiting 12 hours for the next flight to Athens, or taking a detour to Rome, we did the latter. Two hours later we were airborne and going to Italy. We didn’t know at that point that our bikes had failed to change their itinerary so easily. They stayed in London. We landed in Rome to find the airport being rebuilt. We walked for what seemed like miles to the next terminal to get to our plane for Athens, relieved to finally be going to Greece. We got to the gate, prepared to board, only for the gate agent to tell us that we weren’t booked on the flight. The computer said no. What? Frantic Italian things then happened for a little bit. We stood meekly by the gate as other people got their flashy little green light telling them they could fly to Greece. We stood there some more. The gate agent did more Italian things. She occasionally paid us furtive glances. Eventually she asked for our passports, and we were granted clemency from our anguish. We found our way to the bus that then took us to the plane on the tarmac, and boarded the plane. Christa’s seat was taken by a friendly Asian man whose boarding pass had the same seat number as Christa’s. Wow. The plane filled to almost capacity, but luckily for us there was a spare seat, and just before take off Christa got to sit down, too. Phew. Athens bound. Except for my bag. That decided to stay in Rome for a bit longer.

 

We landed in Athens with the inkling that our bags hadn’t made the plane-hopping connections, so after a short wait at the baggage carousel, we made our way to the claims desk. Disconcertingly, the woman had no idea where my bag was, but reassured us the bikes were on their way from London and would greet us in the morning. Next stop: rental car. We got the keys quickly, but soon realised our assigned car wouldn’t fit the bikes in it, so we traded it out for a slightly smaller but much better proportioned Citroen C4. I paid extra for in-car Wi-Fi, which had seemed like an extravagance, but it proved to be a lifesaver. The Pocket Internet, as we came to call it, guided us out of the airport and onto the highway, where we found a line of tractors blocking the roads. The farmers were striking. Without Internet, I’m not sure what we would have done here, but we were guided seamlessly on some small dirt roads, past farms and houses, and eventually towards Athens and the coast.

 

Driving in Greece is not like driving in England. Or the US. Or even Italy for that matter. Speed limits are roundly ignored, lane changes happen spontaneously, and cars stopped in the middle of the road are totally common. I couldn’t figure out any pattern to the traffic chaos, but with Christa flinging directions at me, we found our way to the ferry port. After the preceding chaos, I think both of us were expecting to find a rowing boat and a hand drawn treasure map. What we actually found was a modern car ferry that cost 7 euros and took 15 minutes. Finally we could relax a little. I was already letting the stress of the travel get to me, but luckily Christa could see the bigger picture and did a great job of calming me down.
The 15-minute drive from the ferry port to the town of Sélinia was painless, and our host Antony at the Airbnb house greeted us as soon as we pulled up. Antony then took us out for an introductory round of Souvlaki (grilled pork) before we headed back and went to bed.

 

Our bikes, as scheduled, showed up the next morning. This made me relax hugely. Rather than deliver them to our door, though, the courier simply dragged our bike bags onto the ferry and left them there, telling us which boat to greet at the other end to pick them up. A little scary to see $15,000 of bikes sitting unaccompanied on the ferry, but we had them in our hands and they arrived unscathed.

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A short trip to the Ben Eiseman Hut

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Winter isn’t all about trainer time. I got the opportunity to join a bigger group on a hut trip this weekend to the Ben Eiseman Hut. It’s a 10th Mountain Division hut, which means it was carefully looked after, amazingly well situated, and outfitted with everything needed for a low maintenance and last minute trip into the mountains. The hut sits at roughly 11,300 feet on a ridge in the shadow of the Gore Range, making it the highest hut in the Colorado network. The Gore run north to south, and the hut is on the snowier western edge, just seven miles from Vail. The skin to the hut had been touted as especially difficult, as it crossed multiple creek drainages, rather than being a straight uphill slog. We set off early, wanting to set our own pace rather than stick with a bigger group.

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After crossing from Spraddle Creek to Middle Creek, it was uphill all the way, and we got to the hut in a little under three hours. Plenty of time to head out for some skiing in the afternoon. The hut is known for having some of the best ski terrain in Colorado. The ridgeline than runs above the hut opens up some gladed north west facing aspects that are much more stable than the Front Range terrain I normally ski on. As such, it was a great feeling to be able to ski steeper terrain than I ever have in the backcountry.

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With a full day to play on skis, we didn’t hang around, and ended up with a good six hours of skiing. A part of me was playing the anxious bike-racer, and worrying that I wasn’t doing enough exercise, but after coming back to the hut completely exhausted, I allayed my fears and relaxed in tired satisfaction.

 

 

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Mountain Bike Specific training: Part 3 – More data to validate Chronic Intensity Load.

So Jason Hilimire discovered my little blog on CIL and shared it with a good handful of coaches that liked what they saw. I’m really glad of that. My coach Dave Schell and I are really trying hard to make smart training easier, and it’s good that there are other people that have a need for that.

I plugged in some more data into WKO4 to see whether CIL was an accurate measure of Chronic Intensity for other athletes. These screen caps below are from Bryan Alders’ data, shared with his permission (Bryan is also coached by Dave Schell).

2013:

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Bryan broke his collarbone in late March 2013. You can see this as both CTL and CIL plummet, nullifying all the base miles he worked hard for early season. Starting in May, he started riding and racing again. He had great race results and a perceived high level of fitness, even though his CTL never bounced back. His CIL though reflected that intense fitness that he’d gained through intervals workouts, short track races, and intense (<2hr) MTB races.

Bryan’s 2013 cyclocross season was also awesome, culminating in 12th place at US Nationals. His CTL remained completely flat – if he tried to use that as a metric of training progress, he would be demoralised and discouraged. CIL on the other hand reflects the accumulation of intensity throughout the cross season, and explains his results very nicely. If you look at his peak 1 minute powers (orange dots), they also correlate with CIL.

2014:

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Bryan raced mainly 50 mile MTB races and 2 hour XC races in 2014. His CTL and CIL agree with each other for most of the season, with CIL increasing more quickly as soon as he started racing midweek short tracks in Boulder (late May). Bryan raced a moderate cross season, with little training in between, and that’s shown by a maintenance of CIL and a flat CTL. It’s likely that longer (>2.5 hour) MTB races are the point at which CTL and CIL overlap – they both do a good job of mapping fitness.

2015:

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Staying on the theme of narrating Bryan’s life through data, 2015 represents what happens when you get married – Bryan trained hard in the spring, gaining CTL and CIL equally. During the summer, he stopped training as hard as preparations for his wedding ramped up. But he still raced well – he won some 2 hour XC races in July/August, at the point where is CTL is already dropping. Looking at CIL, his Intensity Load is again more apparent. Bryan is now in the midst of a successful cross season. The CIL line has ramped up quickly from mid week interval workouts and weekend racing. CTL would not reflect this – Bryan’s riding time each week is around ~7 hours, which is not enough for CTL to credit him the work he is doing.

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Mountain Bike Specific Training: Part 2 – Measuring bumpiness

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Mountain Biking is really bumpy. And most riders think the bumpier the gets, the better. I agree. I like my races technical. This creates a problem for those that train with power. Putting down power over bumpy terrain is a different beast than doing so on a smooth road or trainer. Rather than just needing well tuned prime movers to get the power down, you need accessory muscle activation to stabilise yourself.

Measuring this instability, and then recreating it in training has thus far been impossible. Most mountain bikers ride off-road as much as possible, but when that’s not an option, we have to resort to road riding. If we could correct power data to account for the terrain over which it was produced, we’d have a much better idea of how hard a race or training effort was.

Dave Schell and I have begun trying to measure this instability. We’re currently using the Wahoo TickrX, a heart rate monitor that also measures trunk angle and upper body movement using accelerometers. It’s designed for runners, but we’re trying to hack it to be useful for mountain biking.

Here’s the theory: when riding along a smooth road, your upper body is almost completely still. The bumpier it gets, the more your upper body will move. Using this, we begin to estimate the bumpiness of a ride, and use that number to correct power data accordingly.

ΔTrunk Angle

IF [(trunk angle) at t(n)] ≠ [(trunk angle) at t(n+1)] THEN count = 1)/total time in seconds

This gives us a number between 0 and 1 that we can use to score the “roughness” of the ride. For example, a score of 0.6 could be translated to a ride that was 60% rough and 40% smooth.

It’s reasonably crude, but it works for creating a ride ranking that can easily compare rides. The things it’s missing: it does not factor in magnitude of change in torso angle. Bigger bumps, drops and step ups should be weighted more heavily. It doesn’t factor in stopped time, when torso angle will likely be 90 degrees to the ground and thus be a big change from riding position. Or reaching for water bottles and shoes adjustments etc. I’m thinking that these actions will be few enough over the course of a typical ride that they should muddy the data too much.

To account for magnitude of change, I subtracted one time point from the next to give an actual degree of change. This was the second attempt:

When Wtn ≠ 0, ΔTA/time = [(trunk angle)tn-1 – (trunk angle)tn]^2) / (total time in seconds)

ΔTA: Change in trunk Angle

Wt: power in watts at time t

This then gives us an average degree of change of trunk angle. This metric is unbounded, unlike the number above, so it’s a little harder to use, but still gives a good comparision. It has to be squared to account for the negative changes in torso angle. In theory, matching the torso angle data to power meter data should allow us to use only data points where power is not zero. Then we could see the changes in torso angle while pedaling, which is what we’re really getting at: how interrupted was your power output?

Correcting the raw power numbers would be pretty simple. If we assume that a road ride would end up giving a Bump Factor of 0, power could be multiplied by ((BF/100)+1) to give terrain normalised power (TNP)

TNP = Power * (BF/100+1)

for example:

300 watts on a smooth flat road, where the bump factor = 0

TNP = 300 * ((0/100) + 1)
TNP = 300 w

300 watts on a mountain bike trail where bump factor = 4

TNP = 300 * ((4/100)+1)
TNP = 312 w

Thus, the terrain could be said to cost an extra 12 watts. A first trial run of riding Heil Ranch outside of Boulder gave a BF of 4, so that’s a good figure to start with This is likely an underestimate. Once the final metric has been calculated, we can begin working out what the actual correction needs to be.
This is a work in progress… there’s a lot more data that the TickrX can capture, and we’re hoping that some of the metrics it’s already recording could be hacked into a riding version. My coach Dave Schell is working with the people at Wahoo (who make the TickrX) to figure out how we can get raw data from their accelerometers to determine what movements are actually made during MTBing, and which ones are important. Like I said, this is a VERY EARLY work in progress….

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Mountain Bike Specific Training: Part 1 – Chronic Intensity Load

I’ve been using this off season to think about training smarter. With my coach Dave Schell, I’ve been working on optimising the tools we’re using to measure my training. Most of the online tools we’re currently using have been developed with road cyclists and triathletes in mind. The problem is this: the tools are skewed by using aerobic and continuous exercises as their datasets. Mountain Biking is a discontinuous mix of anaerobic effort and recovery. The models have been developed around making training optimal for events like a 40 km time trial on the road. This doesn’t work for mountain biking.

Mountain Biking (and cyclocross, and crit racing for that matter…) is different. Duration is not the key to success. The appropriate volume of the correct intensity is the key to success.
But TrainingPeaks (and by proxy most coaches) use a metric called the Chronic Training Load to measure how much training an athlete has done, and how fit they have become as a result. Chronic Training Load is basically a weighted 42 day average of your training. It’s problem is that it weights the duration of exercise very heavily when figuring out how hard a ride is. That’s not appropriate for Mountain Bikers. Instead of using the Training Stress Score to build a model of Chronic Load, we are using the Intensity Factor that is built into TrainingPeaks.

Standard Chronic Training Load:

CTL= [Todays TSS * (1-e^(-1/42)] + [Yesterdays CTL * (e^(-1/42)]

We replaced the TSS score (the main weight of duration) with Intensity Factor:

Chronic Intensity Factor: 
CIL = [(100 * Todays IF) * (1-e^(-1/42)] + [Yesterdays CIL * (e^(-1/42)]

Where:

TSS = [(s x NP x IF) / (FTP x 3,600)] x 100

s = Time in seconds

NP = Normalized Power

FTP = Functional Threshold Power

IF = NP/FTP

 

This is a quick screen capture from the performance management chart in WKO4. The traditional CTL measure is displayed with light blue bars. As is normal, CTL builds from the beginning of the year as your accumulated training load builds through the base miles.
CIL is described by the dark blue line. It also builds through the early season as intense training accumulates.
What is really noticeable is when CTL and CIL deviate. Starting in late May (my peak race season), CTL suggests that my training load is decreasing as my duration decreases in response to more racing. CIL continues to increase and remains high through July, which more accurately reflects the intensity of the training and racing.
For the MTB racer and potentially crit rider, using CIL in conjunction with CTL would be very valuable. In the early season, it is very useful to ensure that the base miles a rider is completing contains enough quality – if CTL increases much faster than CIL that might be a problem. During race season, the steady decline of CTL can be a worry for coach and athlete – is fitness really decreasing? Using CIL here would show that the quality is either remaining or increasing even as CTL decreases.