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Breck Epic Equipment Check

Eight days of racing in Colorado is hard on equipment. Once upon a time, I had a reputation for destroying bikes and equipment faster than I could earn money to buy it. Luckily those days are over, but I do occasionally relapse into smasher mode. Having a supportive shop and mechanic makes it a lot easier though, and I’ve found (duh!) that the better looked-after my bike is before a weekend, the better it comes out the other side. I’ve been diligent about taking my bike to Wes at Boulder Cycle Sport before every event, and happy to know he’s run through everything and I don’t have to ask any questions.

Spares for the week. The tire was the only thing I needed to use.

During Breck I used the neutral service to get some minor gear adjustments done, and was sorely disappointed. I understand that neutral service is a hard place to work, but the mechanic managed to make my shifting vastly worse than it was before, getting both cable tension and limit screws wrong. It reinforced what a luxury it is to have a reliable mechanic that makes things work 100% of the time, without failure.

Bike: Scott Spark 900 RC SL. For the final days of Breck, we started in groups of 10. Lining up with the nine fastest guys in the race was eye-opening in realising how much Scott is dominating XC racing at the moment. Of the top 10, Geoff Kabush, Todd Wells, Kyle Trudeau, Fernando Riveros, Henry Nadall, and I were all on the new Spark. That’s 7/10 riders on the same bike.

Suspension: 160 psi rear shock, 85 psi front suspension. These numbers have crept up over the season. I’ve found the bike is more responsive with a more pressure, and I was running too little pressure at the beginning of the year. Because the twinlock system is easy to use, I think I rely on it too much. The bike rides better by leaving it in the middle “traction” mode most of the time, and only adjusting for road climbs or big descents. Live and learn.

Drivetrain: SRAM Eagle. Reliable and (mostly) flawless. 34 tooth chainring. I’ve run a 36t most of the season, but the racing in Colorado doesn’t contain anything that would allow you to spin out. I kept a 32t ring with me all week in Breckenridge, and could have used it for a few stages, but the hassle of swapping it out always seemed too much! The rear shifting on the Eagle is sensitive to sticky cables, and I’ve had to replace them regularly to keep it smooth.

Tires: Maxxis IKON EXO 2.2. Solid choice all season. I run EXO casing, which adds roughly 120g per tire over the lighter version. BUT, as mentioned above, I’m not always a smooth rider, and I don’t think I’d get far on a lighter tire. The majority of the field is on the thicker casing tires in races like this anyway. Pressure: 24psi front and rear. It’s a middle ground between traction and protection. While the steep climbs would have been nicer at 21 psi, I didn’t want to risk pinch flatting on rougher descents. I had one flat during the week: a slice through the centre of the tread, likely from a nail or sharp rock. Nothing I could have done to avoid that. I used a Genuine Innovations tire plug to fix the hole, and then aired it up again. The tire had lost a lot of pressure during the fix, but the Stan’s sealed around the plug and I reinflated it with CO2. It held all day after that. I replaced the tire at the end of the day, but the fix is good enough that I’ll use that same tire for training through the winter.

Dropper post: I put a dropper post on my bike for the World Cups this year, and decided to keep it on afterwards. I didn’t see a reason to take it off now, and I’ll be running dropper posts full-time from now on. After racing these 8 days, I’ve come to see how they work for XC racing. You don’t use them very much, and most of the time it’s faster to descend without putting the seat down. I think this is why there is still hesitation from the racer crowd. I used it briefly at the Stinger, through the Little Moab rock garden. At Breck, I used it every day on the longer descents, and it gave me a chance to recover during the downhills. There were a couple of descents that I was so happy to have the dropper – Miner’s Creek and Georgia Pass in particular – because they’re iconic trails that must experienced at their best.

Powermeter: The Stages has been reliable for three seasons now. No rebuilds and no breakages. I’ve swapped it regularly between two bikes all season, and it calibrates and reads well each time. It’s actually the oldest component on my bike, and I expect it to last a good while longer yet.

Food: I ate only Honey Stinger products through the week. Eating gels for eight-days in a row is a terrible, terrible thing to do to your body. The thought of squeezing the first one down every morning was agony. If I was going to eat processed sugar, I wanted to make sure it was as minimally processed as possible. The honey in Honey Stinger stuff agrees with me better than the corn syrup in other products, and I don’t get the burning gut sensation either. I ate roughly two gels (100cal) , a packet of chews (160cal), and one waffle (150cal) a day for eight days in a row! Yuk! That makes 500 calories of food each day, on stages where I was burning 700-800 calories (2000-3000 kjs per day).

Drink: There’s no way to avoid that water is the best hydration. Particularly during stage races, your digestive system is hugely taxed, and you need a lot of water to keep it burning through the calories. Eating an early breakfast at 5:30am every day means you end up going through a bottle of water in the first hour simply to keep your stomach happy. Most days I transitioned from water at the beginning of the stage to a bottle of Carborocket or two towards the end. The instant delivery of liquid calories tended to help after a few hours of racing. Each bottle of Carborocket had one scoop, roughly 100 calories.

Gear: I’m not very good at the neat “gear pile” photos that people put up on social. Above is my best attempt. I packed almost everything I own for this racing block, but I didn’t use most of it. I was glad to have the Topeak booster pump, because it took the stress away from changing tires. It’s so easy to seat a tubeless tire with this thing. I used my hydration pack on one day, and it helped to have a handsfree water supply for some of the extended singletrack.

Clothing: the Aid Bag system that Breck Epic uses is unparallelled in mountain biking. So flawless and professionally executed. I kept a GORE Shakedry jacket in each one. It’s a sub 100 gram fully GORE-TEX jacket that actually SHAKES DRY! It’s amazing. I was actually hoping for some rain so I could use it, but alas it stayed dry all week, and my carefully packed aid bags weren’t used. Next year!

 

The hardtail stayed in the garage all week. I almost pulled it out for the last stage of Breck, and King of the Rockies, but I was tired and sore by that point. Even though the terrain was perfect for a hardtail, my core strength was not!

 

Some musings on novelty

“All we really know about the future is that it will be different. And all we fear is that it will be the same.”

It’s the search for different that drives me, and when I realise I’m chasing something I’ve already achieved, it’s very difficult for me to stay motivated. That makes being an athlete really hard. Success in sport is defined by repetition of the right things, until they’re honed and perfect. So it’s up to me to work hard to inject novelty into my life as a cyclist, because my desire for success is balanced by the search for fresh experiences.
My novelty has come in a few ways this year. A new coach was a start. The same training goals were written in a new language that took some learning. That novelty created enough stimulation that I came into this season feeling very happy with my training. The amount of work that everyone I compete against puts in over the winter is so huge that it’s daunting, but finding a way to achieve that has been satisfying. When it came to race season, I found novelty in the way I normally do: finding new races, or skipping stale ones in order to keep my head where it needs to be. Not racing in California in April was novelty by omission, and I loved it. Racing the Carson City Offroad was new too, but the main novelty this year was two new World Cups: Vallnord in Andorra, and Lenzerheide in Switzerland.


I had my Mum for company in Andorra, and greatly enjoyed her perspective on a place neither of us had been. We’ve both been to plenty of mountain towns in plenty of mountain ranges, but never the Pyrenees, and never speaking Catalan. It was new and fresh, and gave the weekend a purpose beyond the race. I dove into the race head first, and came out floundering. I found that the novelty of being at the back of a world cup had thoroughly worn off after last year. I needed more than that. Having felt excellent form this year – in May in Utah and Grand Junction offroad – I knew I could race very well. So although Andorra was fascinating and rewarding, it wasn’t the race I needed. That would be Lenzerheide.

But again, I found that I couldn’t put together what I wanted to do on the racecourse, and instead left feeling frustrated with myself for not figuring it out. It seemed like I was missing so many pieces of the puzzle compared to last year, that I was almost numb to being able to analyse the race and say what was absent. My overarching feeling going into the race was trepidation, and the feeling I had on the other side was of missed opportunity. Not sure what to make of that?

When the puzzle is laid out in front of you and you can’t make out which pieces go where, I’ve found it’s best to start again. So that’s how I’m approaching the next half of my mountain bike season. Over is the “international” season, and now begins the Colorado season. I have some excellent races coming up that will perfectly blend the familiarity and friendly atmosphere of my Colorado community with the novelty and fresh perspective I need to stay happy with how I spend my days. First up are a few weeks of hard training, where I’d love to prioritise some adventure and long miles, over structure and monotony. I think this will help me remove myself from the small details I seem to be getting sucked into, and instead see the big picture of just getting fitter, and enjoying doing so.

Then we have the late summer races in Colorado. Starting on August 12th, I’ll be racing the Steamboat Stinger, and then go straight into the six-day Breck Epic on August 13th. I’ll frame this with a great local race, the King of the Rockies in Winter Park on August 19th. I’ve never raced eight days in a row before, and thus the three races I’ve done become something new, and a chance to take something bigger from each event.

I’ve never been good at sticking to something when I’m not enjoying it, even if there’s a worthy goal at the end. So seeking a new way of doing something, or even a new perspective on the same problem, has kept me going through plenty of challenges in the past. This one will be no different.

Andorra World Cup: Descending with your dropper post up

There’s always that brief thought that flashes across your mind when you’re in over your head.

It goes something like this, “This is really stupid. This is going to hurt really badly. It’s too late to do anything about it.”

While that thought has been a great learning tool for every teenage boy ever, preventing them doing stupid things twice, I seem to have made it to the start line of a world cup again. Despite getting my head kicked in last year. Actually, that’s pretty much the reason I’m back again this year. To line up against the best and give myself an actual measurable comparison to the best in the world. Why would I want something like that? Personal validation mainly, with a bit of masochism thrown in for good measure.

Racing around at the back of the Andorra World Cup was for the most part a complete blur, but there were a some flashes of clarity during the race, and here they are:

  • There was a minute long climb after about 2 minutes of racing. As I sat at the top of the descent waiting to funnel into the trail, I watched as the leaders punched it up that climb. That means that after 2 minutes of racing, I was about 90 seconds behind the leaders already.
  • As I jogged down the descent in a pile of traffic on lap 1, I looked up to see Howard Grotts (US National Champ, 60th on the grid… think about that for a second…) only a couple of places ahead of me. He’d had an atrocious start, but finished 13th. That absolutely blows my mind. Good riding, Howard.
  • I seemed to be incapable of dropping my dropper post until the end of the descent, or locking out my suspension until the top of the climb. Descending with your dropper post up and climbing with your suspension open is not the way to race a world cup. There’s no excuse for losing concentration like that. Nothing but a waste of energy.
  • Getting passed by a guy on a steel hardtail with a lauf fork and 1.8 inch mud tires absolutely hammering up the climb. I did justify my existence by beating him in the end though!
  • The Spanish didn’t need vuvuzelas or chainsaws to cheer you on. They have their voices. They’re loud.
  • As I was riding around, I took note of the multicultural cheering happening, and interpreted them as follows:
    • VENGA (Spanish) – “You’re riding fast and looking good”
    • Vamos (Spanish) – “I feel sorry for you, you look like you’re in a lot of pain”
    • FORZA (Italian) – “I am one of the few Italians here, and I will let you know it”
    • AUF GEHTS (German) – “World Cup qualification should be based on thigh circumference alone. I do not think you qualify”
    • MES RAPID (Catalan) – “I came here to watch Nino. You seem to be in the way”
    • C’MON LAD (British/Ant White limited edition) – “Woah there’s a brit on the course that’s not Grant Ferguson”
  • On the first lap, the pit zone is chaos, with all the mechanics leaning out onto the course to look for their riders. There’s a point towards the middle where the trade team mechanics end up facing the other way from you, because their riders are half a lap ahead. Then there’s the ominous point when you realise they’re looking the same way as you’re riding again. That’s when you know it’s nearly over, and you need to start sprinting like hell to avoid getting passed by the lead moto.
  • I lost 3 minutes on the opening lap. 90 seconds of that was standing still or barely moving. The rest is because Nino Schurter is really fast. He put 25 seconds into EVERYONE on the first lap. That means I only lost a minute to the rest of the leaders.
  • I lost roughly 90 seconds per lap to Nino for every lap thereafter. Not much of that is to do with traffic or conditions. It’s because he’s really fast. The question is: how to find the balance between all out sprinting to avoid traffic on the first lap, and not completely cooking yourself for when the trail does finally open up? Not sure I have the answer to that yet. Suggestions welcome…

I didn’t go into the race with a particular goal, so it’s hard to say whether I’m objectively happy with the result. Either way, when you come out of something with definite improvements that you can make, it’s easy to focus the mind on what has to happen going forward. So for me, Lenzerheide will be about putting in an all-out effort off the start line, and then about concentrating really hard on racing smoothly afterwards. Looking forward to it.

Angel Fire ProXCT – successfully suffering in the thin air

Wes from Boulder Cycle Sport has gone above and beyond for the last few days keeping my bikes up to speed. He’s worked at least a couple days off just to service my bikes.

It was a shock to the system to head up to Angel Fire for the ProXCT. It’s been awhile since I’ve raced at proper high altitude, and it doesn’t get much higher than the 2800-metre high point here. I’ve raced well here in the past though, and know I can normally push on through well at higher elevations, and having that for reassurance was useful going into the race.

I went for a quick spin on Thursday evening before driving down on Friday, and managed to wash out on a gravely turn. No damage done to me, but I managed to pull my brake lever out of place, leaving me no choice but to enlist the help of Wes very early on Friday morning to get me running again. He showed up to work 2 hours early and gave my bike a much needed once over before sending me on my way. Seriously don’t know what I’d do without him!

Returning to the USA Cycling organised ProXCT series after a few Epic Rides events was a reminder that UCI racing is suffering a bit at the moment. I’m not normally a hater of USAC, or UCI racing in general, but it was hard to feel anything but sad for the national series after having such a good time in Carson City last weekend. While the Epic Rides events had huge crowds, a party atmosphere and a huge event expo, Angel Fire was all about the racing and not much else. The only people in attendance were there to compete, and there wasn’t even a SRAM or Shimano neutral service truck to pretend like there was anything else going on. Turnout in the Pro Men was strong though, and the trend towards the new generation dominating the racing continues. While there’s no “buzz” around the events, the level of competition in these races is getting a huge boost from the first generation of high school racers to step up to the pro level. At 29, I was one of the oldest in the field, with only Brian Matter and TJ Woodruff holding it down for the “old-school” riders.


The course in Angel Fire has been used for a several years, and it’s one of the best XC laps around. You quickly funnel into a winding and very steep singletrack climb that takes roughly 10 minutes at race pace. There are a couple short flat spots on the way up, but for the most part it’s a granny-gear (does that term still exist?) grunt to the top. From there on, it’s a fast and flowy descent on a steep man-made trail back to the base area. The descent was perfectly manicured the first time I raced here, but in the following years, it’s got chunkier and more rutted. While there still isn’t any real technical challenge, it’s at least interesting and fun enough to make the climbing worthwhile.

Bike choice: I went for the Scale Hardtail this time round. The weight saving was really important for the climb, as well as the ability to forget about locking out the fork and just pedalling hard instead. The descent wasn’t too rough, and there weren’t any sections that required pedalling and descending, which meant the Scale did just fine. I got Wes to pop a couple of tokens into my fork (RS SID, 85 psi) to increase bottom out resistance. Tires: the normal IKON’s in 2.2 EXO flavour, running a little higher pressure in the rear to avoid pinching (21 psi front, 23 psi rear).

I started front row, with just enough UCI points hanging on from last year to have me ranked in 7th going into the race. Based on the form from the last few weeks, I’d set 7th as the threshold over which I’d be happy with the race, and knowing there were plenty of people in the race a lot lighter than I am, I knew it would be tough to stick with the pure climbers on the way up. We completed a short start loop, and I managed to get out in front and out of trouble.

I lead into the singletrack climb, very happy to spend my energy up front rather than track standing waiting to funnel into the trail behind. I set a comfortable pace on the first climb and started to realise I could be in for a good race. I brought three other people with me: Keegan Swenson, Cyprus Gorey, and Payson McElveen. They all sprinted around me at the top of the first climb, so I went into the descent in fourth. The top two pulled away on the way down and Payson and I started the second climb together. Nic Beechan bridged up to us here, and I followed the pace, feeling like I was on the edge a bit, but not hurting too badly.

Lap three was a repeat of before, but for some reason I didn’t follow the pace when Nic accelerated just slightly. I don’t really know why.  Looking back, I think I was trying to settle in and get comfortable on the climb, while that was never going to happen: a short race at altitude doesn’t involve any “getting comfortable”, and my lack of concentration here was probably the weakest part of my race. I got gapped from Nic and Payson, and quickly got caught by Kyle Trudeau and Alex Wild from behind. I realised as soon as I was in their group how much my pace had dropped, and I was a little disappointed with knowing I probably should have been further up the hill battling for third place. I stuck with this group on lap 5, regrouped, and dug deep for the last time up the climb. I moved ahead of Kyle halfway up the climb and put some time into him, coming over the top about 30 seconds up. I set my fastest time up the climb on that lap, suggesting I probably should have dug deep earlier, and my hesitation to get uncomfortable and really hurt myself was probably the reason I fell back.

After a couple of mediocre races, I was really happy with 5th. It also scored me another 20 UCI points, which I hope will boost my start position for nationals in a couple of weeks. The day ended a little disappointingly. Convention in the US is that the podium is recognised to 5th place. It’s how it’s alway been in Mountain Biking, and although it’s a little strange, it’s what everyone expects. The UCI official was having none of that though, and made a bit of a fool of himself trying to argue his point. It was a shame to end the day like that, and just highlights one reason why it’s so easy to get negative on USAC/UCI so quickly. I was mainly disappointed because I knew there weren’t any photogs out on course, so the podium shot was going to be the best way for me to represent Boulder Cycle Sport. It sounds cheesey, but they put a lot of faith in me representing their brand through racing, and the inability to do that makes it harder for our relationship to succeed.

Main takeaways from the race: fitness is good, but I’ll have to suffer a lot more at the World Cups if I’m going to make any progress. Racing the hardtail is fun. It’s direct and I really didn’t descend any slower than I would have on the full suspension.

A mid-descent bottom out resulted in a stuck down fork. Not ideal, but not race changing.

Carson City Offroad – some takeaways from a deflating day in Nevada

This was my first trip to the Carson City Offroad; the final stop in the three-race Epic Rides series. These epic rides events always find quirky towns to host the races, and Carson City is no exception. It’s got a very similar feel to Prescott (home of the Whiskey 50). It’s an “Old West” town, with lots of optimistic architecture, but a decidedly tired feel. I hope the race can go some way to changing that, as the potential for mountain biking here is huge, and the town seemed really receptive to hosting the event and building a reputation for good riding.

Carson City is the state capital of Nevada, meaning it’s got some really impressive courthouses, and lots of early 1900s architecture

I started the race in 4th on the overall standings. Much was made of the battle between Kyle Trudeau and I for the third place overall, but looking at the time differences, I would have had to put over 5 minutes into him to knock him out the way. I was more concerned with Payson McElveen just a minute or so back from me. Either way, I didn’t really start the race with the overall standings in mind, but more my normal goal of “no mistakes”.

The race started on King’s Canyon Road. The pace was fiery for what would be a long day on the bike. I got dropped from the main bunch, and instead of competing for the holeshot into the trail, I ended up losing two minutes to the leaders by the top of the first climb. The legs didn’t want to push any harder, and I don’t know why. I was descending well, though, and over the course of the race, was happy to see that I was consistently 10-15 seconds faster than the leaders down the singletrack descent. When you’re losing minutes on the climb, gaining seconds on the way back down isn’t going to help. It was fun descending with Taylor Lideen on the first lap though, even if he later found out he’d already snapped his frame.

The course used trails above Carson City, that had a very similar feel to Betasso in Boulder. Slightly off camber, but mainly flowing and wide.

The descending did help get me back in the race a little, and after the first lap (of three), I’d moved up well and felt like I could get back into it. By the second time up the climb, I’d caught a lot of people, and was riding in about 14th. I thought I could salvage something from the event, and maybe get into the prize money to cover my costs. Again, the second lap descent went well in terms of speed, but I’ve struggled with my hands and arms going numb when going downhill. Not sure what the problem is, as my bike fit is really good, and I worked a lot on upper back strength at RevoPT this winter. I’m going to get on a pair of the Ergon GA2 grips and see whether that helps. I haven’t used Ergon grips for a few years, so excited to see if that makes things better.

Lap three: I moved into the chase group for 10th, and quickly reeled in Spencer Paxson in 9th on the bottom of the climb. I finally felt like I expected to going into the race, and even if I’d lost the chance of a podium with a terrible opening lap, I knew I could get a top 10.

Then I flatted. On the climb.

I think a combination of lost concentration and over enthusiasm to pull back Spencer had me not paying attention to the small rocky sections on the climb. I pinched the bead of my tire, and had to put a tube in. It took me 10 minutes to fix the flat, which is more than twice as long as a smooth fix should take. My first CO2 cartridge failed, and the second one got me to “just about OK” pressure. It meant I had to baby the tire around the last lap, an extra kick in the teeth after the time wasted fixing the flat. I gained a few of the places I lost, but by that point in the race the time gaps were so large that I was never going to claw my way to where I wanted to be.

I finished in 16th place, and failed to really muster much emotion about it. I’d lost my placing in the overall, dropping out of the top 5, and left the event without any prize money.

Coming into the season I told my coach that I was fed up with being consistently “good”, and instead wanted to push myself to get some “excellent” results. The trade-off there was going to be the risk of performing mediocrely sometimes in order to build some more fitness and get to a higher level. I think that’s the path I’m on at the moment. GoPro games last weekend was a poor race, this weekend was better, as the sensations did come around in the end. It’s now two weeks away from my first World Cup this year in Andorra, and I’m really confidently that I can put it all together in time to get a good result. The overall goal for the season (british national championships), is another month away, and I’m feeling like I’ll be flying by then. Looking forward to making the final tweaks to get things straight, and see what happens when I do.

The best part of the weekend was staying with Christa’s aunt and uncle, and a quick trip up to Tahoe to jump in the lake.

 

GoPro Games – A quick recap from a Colorado Classic.

GoPro Games. Finding a traditional ski resort XC race in the world of modern mountain biking is actually quite rare. XC Trends have moved on to shorter climbs and more technical descents, while Marathon races have also got more technical, too. The three lap format of the race reminds me of the Mountain States Cups that were held in Colorado when I first arrived. Strong but small (30 people in the pro race) fields. Long but very smooth climbs on the service roads through the ski area, with only a small amount of climbing on actual trail. The descents were mainly man-made on fun and flowy ski area style trails. Too wide to be called singletrack. Too predictably built to be scary or dangerous, even when speeds get high.

Through the rosy lens of nostalgia, the race actually starts to sound quite fun, but racing it is a completely different reality. It’s a sufferfest with absolutely nowhere to hide. Howard Grotts has made it his life’s goal to win every edition of the race from now until ever, and predictably it was him alone out front after just 5 minutes of racing. While I felt lethargic at the start, I was certain I could race myself into some good legs, and so worked hard on the first lap. We found a group of three people – Teammate Grant Ellwood, Rotem Ishay and I, and began reeling in Josiah Middaugh, who had escaped at the start. Half way up the climb I got stung by a wasp on my upper thigh. It left its stinger poking through my lycra, and after about 5 minutes of agony I realised I should probably pull it out.

Between lap 1 and lap 2 I realised the “good legs” weren’t going to show up, and instead I needed to dig deep and suffer my way through the race instead. On a normal day, I can make myself hurt without calling on my inner reserves of willpower to do so, and that Good Hurt also normally yields some fine form too. Today wasn’t like that. The hurt was bad. It was a hollow feeling. The hurt went through my back, through my neck and arms, and numbed my hands as I suffered towards the top of the second climb. Grant Ellwood had put in a great move ahead of me, and I could see him slowly catching Middaugh. The open climb affords a view of everything happening around you. I could see Todd Wells (three minutes ahead), Middaugh and the chasing Ellwood (1 minute ahead), and then Rotem, Alex Grant, Levi Kurlander all spread out on the switchbacks below. It doesn’t make for much suspense, but it gives you a great sense of perspective about where you are on the course.


Lap three was survival. I got hold of a bottle of water, instead of drink mix and that did wonders. By the mid-point of the third climb I actually felt like I was coming around a little, but I think my pace had just dropped low enough to be working the slow and steady aerobic system instead. That system wasn’t the problem today – it was that little extra that you normally call on in a race that you know can pull you up a notch. I cruised the last descent, sitting down between corners to try to unseize my back, and was happy I wasn’t being chased closely. I came across the line in 5th. Same as last year, and actually a decent result, as well as a reasonable payday ($500).

As soon as I finished the pain from the sting really caught up with me, and I spent about 10 minutes at the finish wondering whether I was going to pass out or throw up. It’s been awhile since I felt that rough at the finish of a race. It was probably about time I reminded myself of what suffering feels like. After I’d stopped feeling sorry for myself, I had two big takeaways from the race: Grant’s performance was sublime. Without regard to the fitness he’s got now, it was well measured and smooth. He’s a talent for sure, and it’s great to have him in these pro races. I’ve never had a BCS teammate on the MTB side, and although there’s no tactics that can play out on a course like this, it’s great to know you have an ally. Second takeaway: I raced really well despite feeling like shit. I did my biggest block of training all year in the 10 days leading up to the race, and I think that’s enough to account for how I felt. Nothing a good chunk of rest cannot solve.

Bike choice today: Spark 900 RC SL. (Nearly went for the hardtail. It would have been a good choice considering how smooth the descent was this year). Ikon 2.2 EXO tires with 21 front and 22 psi rear.

Onwards now to the Carson City Off-road this weekend. Looking forward to having a longer race on the cards, and visiting some of Christa’s family in the process.

GJ Offroad: finding my limits at the front of a big field. 8th place

 

The Grand Junction Offroad is the second installment of the three-race Epic Rides offroad series. I’ve had some good success at the race in previous years (before it really heated up in terms of competition) with a 4th in 2014 and a 3rd in 2015. I skipped last year to race the May rounds of the world cups. This year I was back to face up against a much stronger field. I was happy with my race at Whiskey though, which had left me in 7th place out of the riders contesting the series overall. The goal was a top 10 finish.

To hit the goal of a top 10 I had to do two things: not puncture, and not get stuck in traffic which would prevent me latching onto the lead group. My worry about flats actually ended up being my downfall for the entire race. Although I’ve run 21-22 psi all season, I made the stupid pre-race decision to pump my tires up to 25 psi. I thought this would help avoid the risk of pinch flatting. It was a silly thing to do, and it made the technical riding a challenge all day.

I had a great start and lead the race into the singletrack at the lunch loops trailhead. It was a wise choice, because I avoided all the bunching, bumping and barging that happens in the first sections of trail. It also put me into a great position to latch onto the lead group. I made the opening selection out the top of the lunch loops, and choked down as much food as I could on little park road before dropping into the trails. Here I made another mistake: I sprinted Rob Squire for the singletrack into Twist and Shout. I ended up putting out a 10 second effort of 950 watts. Really silly. I knew Squire wasn’t good on the technical stuff, but it wasn’t worth that effort. Sonntag, who didn’t do that sprint, quickly got around Squire when he made a mistake anyway. Lesson learned.

It was here the race really went downhill for me. I felt like my suspension was stuck in locked out mode, but it wasn’t. I couldn’t get around the corners to save my life, and after feeling very smooth on the bike for all of the early season, I was disappointed to be the guy holding people up on the trail. I was the cause of the split in the field, with Kabush, Riveros and Finsterwald just easily cruising away from me. Everyone behind me must have been really annoyed. By the time we found our way to the Gunnison River at the end of the Butterknife trail, the leaders were about a minute up, and we had a group of four: Kyle Trudeau, Ben Sonntag, Alex Grant, and I. We launched onto the long (7 miles, 3000 feet of climbing) windmill road climb, and I was quickly distanced from the group. It’s here that I really suffered a lot, with the other three riders taking turns up ahead. I couldn’t quite bridge and as soon as we hit the first pitch on the climb, I was gone.

It’s here that stupid mistakes creep in. In my delirium, I tried for about 3 minutes to eat a gel. Just holding it against the bars as I rode through a couple of rock gardens. There was no reason I couldn’t wait for a smooth section of road to do the eating, but my hypoglycaemic haste prevented rational thought.

The last half of the race for me was all about survival – no mistakes allowed. Eat as much as I can. Take the time to grab a neutral bottle as well as my pre-planned feed (Thanks Tim Gerchar for the excellent support). Although I could see Alex Grant (also shrapnel from the leaders) about 20 seconds ahead of me and a group of three riders behind (who would turn out to be Payson McElveen, Jeremiah Bishop and Nic Beechan), I couldn’t do anything but just ride solo to the finish. That’s what I did.

Compared to the first half of the race (Too much enthusiasm, too much tire pressure), the second half was much better (stayed focused, rode smooth, no cramping). I pulled off an 8th place finish. Why is it that sometimes you can achieve your goal, but still be unhappy? That’s how I felt after the race. I knew I’d sabotaged myself with too high tire pressure, and perhaps the race would have played out a little bit differently. But in the end, I think the legs I had at the start were the biggest determining factor in my results. I’m looking forward to Carson City for a new venue, and another chance to test my marathon racing against the best in the country.

 

8 things I learned from a DNF at the Sea Otter Classic

A season opening DNF wasn’t exactly what I was looking for from my trip to Monterey, but there are as many things (if not more things) to learn from a failed race as a successful one. An early race bump threw my shifting out of whack, and another 45 minutes of hard racing on a bent derailleur was enough to stop me in my tracks. A cracked derailleur cage meant my chain was jamming between the pulley and the cage. I was solving the problem with some creative back pedalling, but that ended up twisting my chain around my bottom bracket, and required taking the crank off to fix the problem. So here’s my lessons from the DNF. Maybe this is applicable to others, too:

  1. Slow down and check your bike after a crash/collision. I could see my derailleur pointing out at a funny angle after a really small tangle on the first lap. If I’d stopped and spent 15 seconds straightening it, I would have finished the race. Impatience is hard to overcome in the heat of the moment. I’ll probably make the same mistake next time, too, but you never know: I might come to my senses one day!
  2. Watch the finish. I was in the race, and then very quickly standing on the sidelines. While you’re in the race, you have a myopic view of what’s going on, but when you suddenly step outside, there’s a lot of learning to do. I could see some amazing lines people were taking that I hadn’t seen. I saw people trying to attack in silly places, only to realise I had been doing the same thing a lap earlier. Most importantly, I watched the group I was in until the end of the race. It was a large 10-person group, and no one managed to escape from it until the last lap. Russell Finsterwald put in a good move to hold off the rest of the group, and it was interesting to see how the drag race played out for everyone else.
  3. Cool down like you finished the race. I got off my bike with my heart rate doing 185 bpm, didn’t manage to fix my bike, and then walked to the SRAM truck. Bad idea. My legs were crushed the next day. A spin probably would have felt good, too, and let me dissipate the annoyance of the DNF.
  4. Don’t waste negative energy dwelling on what could have been. It wasn’t your day. Learn your lessons and move on. There are lots of races in a season, and one DNF does not make you a failure. It makes you one race smarter.
  5. Don’t blame anyone but yourself. It’s never the tyre’s fault if you flat. It wasn’t the derailleur’s fault that it broke. While dwelling on the negatives is a bad thing, blaming external factors for a bad race is never a good idea either. Own your mistakes, but don’t let them get to you.
  6. Check anti-doping even if you don’t finish! You can get called for doping control even if you’re registered and don’t start the race. I forgot to check at Sea Otter, and have spent the last week wondering if my name was on the list…. hope not!
  7. Check everything else on your bike that didn’t break. For mechanical failures, there’s probably more than one thing that went wrong, even if only one part actually failed. Spend a bit of time going over your bike to make sure everything else is in good shape before you line up for the next race.
  8. Be a nice human after the race. No one cares that you DNF’d, so walking around all grumpy and glum won’t make you any friends. Drink a beer and be happy instead.

Mountain Biking needs more three-day stage races (Moab Rocks recap)

 

Photo by Kenny Wehn (Stan’s Notubes)

Tired of driving across the country for a two-hour race? Me too. Three-day stage races are the answer. With most one day races – even the short ones – costing close to $100, the price of a well run stage race is seeming much more affordable. While the big marquee events like Breck Epic take a lot of organising and time off of work (which is definitely worth it, by the way), a three-day race is easier to organise. And let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about those “stage races” that are actually a 20 minute short track, an XC race, and a 12 minute “Super D”. I’m talking about three legitimate and challenging races on real trails, in a beautiful place, and the ensuing deep and satisfying hunger that comes after racing your bike for three days in a row.

Moab Rocks ticks all the boxes above. It covers some of the best terrain on the planet. The race started on a Saturday, so I took Friday off work to drive down to Moab and settle in. Starting the weekend on the climb to Porcupine Rim gave the field a huge view of the La Sal Mountains with a fresh blanket of spring snow on them. The recent storm had cleared the air, resulting in fantastic light bouncing off the red rock canyons around us.  We then turned on to trail and descended through Ponderosa Pine forests on the edge the rim for 45 minutes to the finish. I went into the singletrack in the lead group, but an unfortunate flat dropped me off the pace before the finish. I was disappointed to make some time on the climb (and the beginning of the DH) and then have that washed away. It put me in 8th on the first stage, about 6 minutes back on the lead, and pretty much washed away my General Classification hopes for the weekend. No matter, it was a great ride, and I rode the untimed section of the descent down to the Colorado river with Rotem Ishay. He’s so smooth on his bike that it was a pleasure to follow him, and watch him session a couple of lines too.

Riding: Scott Genius trail bike with dropper post and 140mm suspension. Maxxis IKON EXO 2.2 tires running 21 psi front and rear (a little too low for the rocks of Moab, it turns out). The trail bike was a good choice on the descent, although having XC tires on a trail bike is a little precarious: I was definitely pushing the bike too hard through the rock gardens, because on an XC bike I would have made some more careful decisions on the way down. Either way: the equipment is never the problem, it always comes down to the rider!

Eating: I ate 4 Honey Stinger gels and 1 packet of chomps during the stage

Drinking: Carborocket drink mix as always. One tall and one short bottle of Kiwi/Lime mix made with a single scoop in each bottle. It goes without saying that I’ll be drinking Carborocket during a race; it’s got me through so many years of racing now, I’ve lost count.

The second day I woke up feeling better than expected. Although a hard effort, the sustained climb on day 1 resulted in not that much fatigue. With good sensations, and some time to claw back on the overall results, I decided to set the pace for the second stage. We drove out to Klondike Bluffs and warmed up on the dirt roads while watching the sun rise over the La Sals. A band of clouds hung half way up their flanks, and shimmered silver in the morning light. A layer of clouds came over pretty early in the day, leaving the temperature at a fantastic 16 celsius for the day. The race started on a flat dirt road. With 300 people racing, it was jittery to get started, but I came to the front as early as possible to get in a good position. I lead into the singletrack and hoped that I actually did have as much in my legs as I thought I did. Sitting 8th in GC, I knew I had to cause some attrition if I was going to make appreciable gains. I kept the hammer down for a while before I dared to look back, but I was pleased to see that even 15 minutes in I had made some separation. The main players were still attached though, and not looking too phased by the pace: Geoff Kabush, Ben Sonntag, Justin Lindine and Taylor Lideen were still with me, so I had no choice but to keep pedalling.

After the first big descent, I made a small navigation error and let go of the lead. Kabush went on his merry way, leaving the race for second to Justin, Ben and I. I was tired by this point. The pace setting definitely took its toll, and my technical riding began to suffer. After a late attack by Justin, it’s all I could do to hold Ben’s wheel as we drag-raced to the finish. 4th on the stage for me, but more importantly I moved from 8th to 5th on the overall. Still a long way from the win, but happier with my position nonetheless.

Riding: Same bike, same tyres but I went up on the tire pressure today. 25 psi front and rear. This was an overcompensation, and I would have been fine with the lower pressures of the first day. Live and learn! The TwinLoc suspension system was absolutely magic today. So easy to toggle between settings on the constantly undulating terrain.

Drinking: Just one bottle of Carborocket today. It was hard to find time to drink on the stage, and the lower temperature meant I didn’t need too much anyway.

Eating: 6 gels! That’s a lot of sugar in a two-hour race.

Taylor Lideen and I had our game faces on from the start of stage three

The last day of the race fell on a Monday morning. There aren’t many better feelings than racing bikes on a Monday! The weather was really mixed, with a big storm blowing across the mountains. The clouds had kept the night-time temperature up, but without the sun breaking through, it stayed around 12 Celsius all day. I decided to not bring another layer with me, which was risky but in the end turned out to be OK. We started the race on the steep climb up Gemini Bridges road. The pace was pretty strenuous as people jockeyed for position, but once again I thought it best to spend my energy upfront, rather than getting jostled around and burning matches overtaking on the singletrack. I briefly saw the lead, but very quickly Justin Lindine laid down his agenda with a fierce pace on the climb. I should have been sensible and metered my effort a little, as I knew the tank was low, but I didn’t do that. I followed Justin for a while, and actually started to feel comfortable. This didn’t last very long and I ended up dropping the pace, getting passed by Kabush, and then riding the climb with Sonntag who had been much more sensible. I wasn’t feeling great, but thought I could hold it together on the way down. I was wrong. I dropped Ben’s wheel really early on the descent for no good reason, and then struggled to ride what was in front of me for the rest of the day. This section of trail is called Bull Run, and I’ve ridden it a few times. It’s not that challenging, but definitely rough, and my complete lack of punch really began to show. By the time I exited out of the bottom and found the sandy wash to come home I was seeing stars. I put my head down, picked up the pace a little and pushed hard for home. I had hoped to gain the 3.5 minutes I needed to move ahead of Taylor Lideen on the GC. He started the day with a most likely broken thumb, and was in the pain cave from the start. He held on though, and finished just 2 minutes back on me to hold his position. True guts right there.

Riding: this was the first day that the trail bike felt like a real burden. The punchy climb had a huge number of accelerations in it, and I just couldn’t get the bike up to speed. The undulating descent didn’t really test the bike either, so although it might have been a bit more comfortable, I don’t think I got proper use out of it. Knowing how capable the Spark is (the little brother to the Genius), I think I would have been very happy with an XC bike all weekend.

Drinking: Low temperatures helped today, but I still got through two tall bottles of Carborocket. The fuel tank was close to empty all day, and reaching for a drink at every opportunity was all I could do to keep going.

Eating: Not enough! Justin’s attack on the climb threw me off a little, and I spent time chasing him instead of focusing on my own race. I got down 4 gels during the race; barely enough to get to the finish.

I finished the week in 5th overall, 10 minutes back on Geoff Kabush who took the win. I made a big mistake by being so impatient on the first day, and flatting as a result. Lesson learned. The longer the race progressed, the sillier it seemed to have been taking so many risks early on. I think that’s something I need to remember in every race this season. Generally I’m really happy with the way I raced though. The pace I set on stage 2 shows that I have some top end fitness that I wasn’t sure was there, and although I faded a bit, I still think my endurance is better than where it was last year. The best thing is that I still have a month or so before the next big goal of the year at the Whiskey 50.

I’ll be back again to Moab Rocks – I can’t imagine a better way to open the season, and the friendly vibe just makes it more appealing. It’s definitely a race worth traveling to!

 

Old Man Winter V.3: taking some good things from an otherwise frustrating day.

I flatted out of the Old Man Winter Rally yesterday. It was probably the most expected outcome from my decision to ride a road bike on a course that was a lot more suited to something with off-road capabilities. But it was the risk I took, and I’m still not too disappointed with the result.

The race rally started about 45 seconds ride from our new house, making the morning a relaxed affair. I rolled out in the middle of the pack, and finally got the itch to actually race the thing as soon as the pack started rolling. The motivation for racing has been low recently, mainly because training has gone so well. With almost six weeks of really consistent training under my belt, I’m looking forward to the season ahead. But I also came into the race tired, and knowing it would be a tough day on the bike. The sunny weather and completely calm conditions helped alot, and by the time we turned onto the first dirt road, I was revelling in the race.

The route had changed slightly compared to previous years, to take in a little extra dirt earlier in the race. This proved decisive. We turned into the Oskar Blues Farm about 30 minutes in, and the large front group got completely shattered. While in previous years the race hadn’t split up until Lefthand Canyon, this extra off-road section broke the race into a front group of 12, with everyone else chasing behind. The pace then picked up to establish our gap. Everyone I expected to feature at the finish was already in the group, so the chances of anyone bridging were pretty small. Alex Howes, Michael Burleigh, Jakub Valigura and Ryan Petry were the people I’d picked out at the beginning to pay attention to, and it was those guys setting the pace.

Fast forward another 45 minutes and the pace was getting feisty on the approach to Rowena trail. I’d pleased myself by being the arsehole who sits at the back of the pack and refuses to pull through, and because of that, I felt completely fresh by the time we got to the bottom of the trail. In previous years I’ve ended up spending quite a few matches to get to the front of the pack on this section. I got into the trail in about 5th wheel. Burleigh made a smart move to get out front alone, and it was my goal to get back on his wheel. I was still really pleased with my decision to ride the road bike, as I was riding as much as Burleigh was on his CX bike ahead. I finally got into second place on the trail and had my sights on Burleigh ahead. I took a little bit of a breather and was again feeling comfortable.

We rode into a pretty rocky section and I saw Burleigh dismount. I cruised in and unclipped to and ran through the rocks. I thought I heard my rear wheel spinning, but it wasn’t. It was the air escaping rapidly from my tire. Game over. No more chasing. I fixed the flat pretty quickly, but ended up getting only about 25 psi in the tire. I rode cautiously up the rest of the trail, but I was now about 5 minutes back on the action. Still feeling good though, I pushed on through. I found the Boulder Cycle Sport van at the top of the trail and filled up the tire to 65 psi, and then cruised down Sunshine into Boulder. Knowing how close Spruce confections was, I was sorely tempted to turn right instead of left and call it a day right then and there. If we still lived in Boulder that would have been the only outcome, but with home and the finish being in Lyons, it made more sense to keep riding anyway. I had to get there eventually. Linden was a pleasant surprise, and a frustration. Pleasant because I felt absolutely great and set a personal best time on the climb. Frustrating for exactly the same reasons: the old “what could have been” thoughts that are hard to banish.

I caught a few people on the climb and cruised down the dirt road section on Bow Mountain pretty gently. If I was at the front of the race, this is a place I would have taken some risks to gain time. As it was, there was nothing to gain from going fast. Even still, this is where puncture number two happened. It’s funny how often flats happen when you’re Just Riding Along (translation: not paying enough attention), compared to when you’re racing (and completely focused).

I’d planned to have Christa hand me some bottles on the last climb of the day up Old Stage. I was thinking she would be close to the bottom. Being only a couple of minutes away, I decided to roll along on the flat tire. I didn’t have anything to fix it with anyway. I started the climb up Old Stage expecting to see her and the car around the corner at any minute. No signs. I kept climbing. Rear tire squelching angrily along behind me. No one caught me. I saw a few people behind, but they weren’t getting any closer. Even with a flat, the only person that went by me on the climb was Erin Huck. And she was absolutely flying when she did go by. Christa was waiting at the top of the climb. 15 minutes of climbing on a flat tire wasn’t ideal, but it was a workout at least!

Moral of the story: there are lots of mountain bike races where “PROTECT YOUR TIRES” is rule number one. Rather than focusing on going fast at every opportunity, being cautious and considered with line choices is the best course of action to get to the line safely. The first main descent in the Whiskey 50 is a prime example of when caution should definitely not be thrown to the wind. I should have taken that mindset into the Old Man Winter. My road bike choice was just fine for the race, but it was my decision to chase down Burleigh on Rowena that cost me the race. I had an advantage for the later half of the race, and if I had exited the trail within 15-20 seconds of him, I still think I could have pulled it back in the end. But I got excited! These things happen. I raced enough of the day to test my fitness and realise I’m in a good place for the season ahead, and I’m really looking forward to the races where I’m actually on a Mountain Bike not a road bike!
Michael Burleigh held off the chasing field to take the win comfortably again (same as last year). I’m not sure what happen to the rest of the field, but the top 6 finishers were all from our early lead group. I’ll take that as a positive too!