GoPro Games – forget the marginal gains

 

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We’re standing on the top of the car park looking at the course tape flapping in the morning breeze. The Aspen trees are bright green, the Gore Range behind us is silver with melting snow, and the pollen is flowing off the pines trees in huge waves. The pine pollen forms a bright yellow fog wafting up and down the valley. You can feel it on the back of your throat. Combined with the altitude in Vail, it’s making the process of getting lycra’d up a little taxing. Welcome to the GoPro Mountain Games.

You would be mistaken for thinking this was the front of the race, but Howard and Fernando were already up the road somewhere.
You would be mistaken for thinking this was the front of the race, but Howard and Fernando were already up the road somewhere.

Fast forward an hour or so and I’m chuckling as I see Howard Grotts pulling away from the rest of the field. He’s got a sizeable gap, and it looks like he’s got the win locked down. We’re all of 30 seconds into the race. My lungs complain, but the legs get on with the job in hand, and I find myself in a group of four people as we approach the top of the first climb. I feel terrible, but I seem to be doing OK. Perhaps everyone else feels worse? I bank on that and move to the front of the group, managing to follow Russell Finsterwald’s wheel on the rollercoaster back to the bottom.

The GoPro Games is a stereotypical ski resort race: the climb from the village to the snow line (800 feet up) takes about 20 minutes, then you hit a flowy descent back to the bottom. Three short little punchy climbs as you traverse the bottom of the ski area knock the wind out of you, and then you do it again.

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By the second time up the climb, the group I’m riding in had reshuffled. Troy Wells puts in an attack. I duck my head and fail to follow. Ben Sonntag stalks me from behind, not yet making the move I know he’s capable of. Russell Finsterwald is a switchback behind. It’s like a slow game of poker. Who’s holding what cards? Who is bluffing and who is about to lay down a strong hand? Ben motors past me at the top of the climb – to be expected. I  fall back a little, but catch both Ben and Troy on the next descent. It’s down to round three. Ben makes a move and calls my bluff. I give it everything I can to stay with him, but look up to see him crest the climb. He shifts down a couple gears, gets out of the saddle and gives it a couple hard pedal strokes. I think about standing up and my left calf tells me that it will cramp like hell if I do. I sit and spin instead. I grind it out to the top, and take an unnecessary look behind me. Empty space. I descend like it’s my first time. Coordination is as low as my blood sugar. I barely managed to navigate the silly slalom gates on the finish straight, and collapse neatly into a cold can of coke handed to me by Des from the BCS Team.

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Super happy to take fifth in a strong field. It was a race where I never felt great, but I don’t think anyone did. The support and friendly faces out there were amazing. I think I saw literally a hundred people I knew before the start, and way more afterwards. Everyone was so happy to be up in the hills, and I didn’t hear a negative comment all day. That in itself is pretty fantastic. I had great support from the Boulder Cycle Sport team, who had a tent at the start line with much needed shade and a chair. The same shade and chair were supplemented with a coke after the race! Des Simon is a superstar supporter who is completely community minded, and is also a fantastic bottle hander upper. It was awesome to have that certainty of knowing where my bottle was coming from while I was suffering!

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Some thoughts on Marginal Gains: I spent much of 2013 and 2014 wondering what little tricks the fast guys were using to get that extra speed that I didn’t have. Was it tyre pressure? It definitely had to be something to do with suspension set up, right? What about Beetroot juice? Should I stop drinking beer altogether? What’s the optimal warm up before a race? There must be some simple trick that these guys are doing in their warm up that’s giving them that extra couple of percent on the climbs.

NOPE.

Marginal gains are an absolute waste of time until you’ve conquered on those big gains that are out there. Like working harder. Racing smarter. Being consistent. Not flatting. Doing the interval session when you don’t want to. How many of those gains you’re willing to work for? In the end, training harder (which is very different than training more) will get you wherever you need to go. Hard work really does pay off.

The GoPro Games 2015

Photo by Linda Guerrette
Photo by Linda Guerrette

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

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

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

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

 


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

The GoPro Mountain Games

Vail in the evening light of June

The GoPro games is Vail’s way of filling the town with 50,000 people during a time of year that most ski resorts still idle and empty. The protective white coating on the hillsides has barely revealed the fresh sprouts of summer grass, and the Aspens have their young yellowish-green leaves in contrast to the dark evergreens. The GoPro games is unlike most other races, as it combines a whole bunch of different sports into one festival. Alongside the XC mountain bike race, climbing, kayaking, running, ‘slacklining’ and road bike time trials vie for spectator’s attention. It’s a great opportunity to perform in front of a bigger crowd, and a crowd of people who probably wouldn’t choose to attend a bike race under any other circumstances. The event puts up a sizable chunk of money to attract the names. $6000. Because of the money on the line, I’d set a goal of top 10; it wouldn’t get me in the money, but I just wanted to prove that I can compete against the guys I’ll be racing against in the next ProXCT in Montana in a couple of weeks.

The start arena at Vail Mountain for the GoPro Games

Mountain Biking is pretty selfish. It’s an individual pursuit than requires entire self-absorption. At the same time, it can’t be done without a huge network of people supporting and helping out. With the race being in Vail, I had the Ghent household out in strength to support me. It made a big difference. Christa is a seasoned expert in dealing with me before races.

We lined up on a downhill corner on loose gravel. Switching the opening loop to run in reverse would have been simple, creating a nice fast climb right from the gun. Instead we ended up with a chaotic stampede into a treacherous corner. I lined up on the second row (yay for not needing UCI points to get a good start!), and managed to get smoothly through the first corner in about 6th place. I have to admit to a novice-error on the first steep climb though; as Todd Wells pulled up alongside me, I briefly decided that I wasn’t worthy of rubbing shoulders with Olympians and let him slip effortlessly in front of me. Although I was never going to challenge him at the end, I still feel like I should have held my own a little more at the start.

GoPro Mountain Games. Photo by Linda Guerrette

Howard Grotts, made mainly of thin air and pure glucose, lead the pace up the first climb. I was on my limit, and thanks to my good start I was able to find a small group to work with just behind the leaders. The Vail course is all about climbing – right from the gun it’s all about digging deep into your muscles. These kinds of climbs don’t allow rhythm – they require constant tension in your muscles, constant force to keep the pedals going forward or else you’ll be going backwards before you know it. I didn’t dare look back for the first 10 minutes of racing. As we neared the top of the climb, I was expecting to see a procession of riders behind me, but momentary relief flooded me as I saw open trail behind. I’d managed to get some separation, and was in about 10th place. I found Russell Finsterwald and Mitch Hoke to ride with over the top of the descent. It was a mixed blessing on the downhill however. I benefitted from not having to think too much on the way down, but Russell’s constantly drifting rear tyre filled my face with dirt. I would be coughing dust for the next couple days!

GoPro Mountain Games. Photo by Linda Guerrette
Lap two. The dread of starting all over again and doing what I’d just done for the second out of three times. This time I metered my efforts just slightly. The now comforting presence of pain in my legs told me I was going plenty hard enough. Heart rate and power mean nothing at this point in a race – the altitude and crumbling dirt under your tyres are the limiters on performance. Russell had dropped Mitch and I, and we hit the base of the climb together. Through the winding Aspens on the least steep section of course, I upped the pace slightly, trying to keep some momentum over the wet roots. Mitch dropped back a bit, and from there on I was alone. A quick sneak over my shoulder saw me entering the descent with no one around, and although I thought I’d be caught before the bottom, I came out the other end alone too. At this point, the shape in my rear view mirror was Ben Sonntag, the German now living in Durango. He caught up to me at the base of the climb, and I attached myself to his wheel. As I would expect him to have had a better start, I assumed he’d be giving it everything up the climb, and it was safe to hold on for dear life. That’s what I did. It came to the top, and his little acceleration seemed to push me backwards as fast as he went forwards. He now had 15 seconds on me. 15 seconds that would hold to the end. Me chasing, and him holding me off meant that we caught another rider just before the finish. Try as I might, the sickening feeling of hydrogen ions blocking up muscle fibres stopped me going any faster. Getting out of the saddle was an exercise in going though the motions. I couldn’t catch Ben, or Troy Wells, and I rolled across the line in 9th place, just six seconds behind 7th place.

results from the 2014 GoPro Mountain Games Pro XC
I’d come into the race with a goal of top ten. As I perused the start list, I had no idea whether it was realistic. I’m happy that I pulled it off, and very happy that I was a solid three minutes ahead of the rider behind me. I’m getting more confident about going out as hard as I possibly can, and then holding on for dear life. It seems that’s the way these races are run. It’s all in the start, and holding on to the finish has nothing to do with endurance. It’s all about suffering, tactics and pure will. It’s a good result going into the Missoula race in two weeks time. Although I won’t have the luxury of choosing my own start position there, I’m confident that I can make up some places on the steep climbs and hold on to the finish.