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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The California Trip

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hellas Salmina UCI racing – the S1

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The wild west of the Midwest: The Wisconsin ProXCT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Junction Offroad

The last big race of Mountain Bike season! The Epic Rides team did a great job of attracting talent to the race; there were ‘only’ thirty guys signed up. But it was thirty guys who thought they could win. It meant that a compact group of riders rolled out of downtown Grand Junction on Sunday morning, each one with an idea of getting into the lead group and challenging for some cash on the line.

Continue reading The Grand Junction Offroad

The Steamboat Stinger – round 4

I raced the Steamboat Stinger in 2011, 2012, 2013, and now here in its fourth edition I’m lining up for the fourth time. I’m proud to say I’ve been here since the beginning; this race and my cycling career started at a pretty similar time. In 2011, I was lucky enough to be handed a green and grey jersey of the Epic Endurance team, and from there on I proceeded to race everything put in front of me. The Stinger fell towards the end of that season. It was about the time I started thinking of myself as a Mountain Biker.

Continue reading The Steamboat Stinger – round 4

The Exmoor Explorer

The Exmoor Explorer is a ‘non-race’ around the amazing trails of Exmoor, starting from Minehead.

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What is a non-race, I hear you ask? Archaic English land laws prevent competitions on public rights of way. This means races are restricted to private properties, and anything using the extensive and fantastic network of trails we have has to be called an ‘event’, rather than a ‘race’. It’s a quirky system, but it has some advantages. The first, exemplified by the Explorer, is that friendly events attract a huge range of people, from first timers to seasoned experts. The second is that because events on public paths are rare, they get a great turn out, are well organised, and are supported by the local community.

The logistics of organising a ‘non-race’ are pretty funny. It’s like a race in most respects. There’s a start line. There’s 500 riders with numbers attached to their bikes, and there’s a start, like any other. The organiser annouced before the race event that it was ‘non competitive’ to a few chuckles from the racers participants. There’s also a finish line, and results. So it’s a little bit like a race, really.

We started through town of Minehead behind the neutral car. For once the pace actually was neutral, and we rode steadily to the base of North Hill, a 15 minute climb onto the coastal hills above the town. I didn’t know what to expect from the start, but got a surprise when everyone decided that 700 watts was the appropriate effort for the start of a ‘non-race’. It soon settled down, and I was left with a young and enthusiastic rider who was rallying the descents to suggest he’d ridden them before, and a self confessed ‘veteran’ who was being cheered on by all the marshals, so he was definitely local.

We rode into the first check point (it’s timed, but it’s not a race) to the surprise of the marshals, who quickly worked out how to scan our tags and sent us out onto loop number two. This one was longer, taking in forest roads and some tight single-track through a plantation. I got a gap on a couple of the shorter climbs and just kept riding. The non-competitive part of the event made me hesitate for a second or two. Through the first check point I’d waited up for everyone to get scanned, and we left smiling and chatting. The first couple of gates we went through were opened and closed together. So it seemed almost rude to go ahead and ride off. But then I realised I was being slightly too British, and I should ride at my own pace. I did so, enjoying myself a lot more when I realised that the trails on Exmoor are best ridden at full speed and nothing slower!

The three loops came back to the same feed zone each time. It seemed like some people had a different order of priorities than I did!
The three loops came back to the same feed zone each time. It seemed like some people had a different order of priorities than I did!

I came through the check point at the end of the second loop to see a huge mass of people heading out to start it. The directions given for the third loop were “Follow the road until you see the Fish and Chip shop, then take a left and the course markings start”. This was accurate, but the friendly marshal didn’t tell me that the left turn would lead me to a 15 minute climb that gradually got steeper and steeper, with no corners whatsoever, and a slick moss covered surface that had been lovingly churned by the lead moto.

From here on I could enjoy myself. The trails on the last loop were sublime; hidden wet roots underneath pine needles, and tree stumps on the apexes of off camber corners. I enjoyed it. The course did some gratuitous climbing to make up the miles, zigzagging back and forth through a small section of forest. Each up was followed by an awesome down, though. It would have been better with someone to ride it with, as the trails sapped all speed and energy out of your legs, leaving you floundering without momentum on heavy, damp soil.

The race crossed the Knowle Plantation above Minehead a number of times, taking in all the good trails and some hard climbs between. This is the view due north, looking across the Bristol channel with Wales just clear in the distance
The race crossed the Knowle Plantation above Minehead a number of times, taking in all the good trails and some hard climbs between. This is the view due north, looking across the Bristol channel with Wales just clear in the distance

I knew the final climb was over when I crested it to see the Bristol channel staring back at me. The Sea! From here it was all downhill back into Minehead, where I was greeted by endless cake, and tea from my favourite tea company, Miles.

Endless Miles tea in the feed zones. This event is great
Endless Miles tea in the feed zones. This event is great

The Exmoor Explorer is a fantastic event run for all the right reasons. Although I feel it would be enhanced by becoming an official race, there are lots of people who disagree. Its current format allows a wider range of abilities to take part, which is certainly the aim at the end of the day. I had great pleasure in propping my Turner up in the finish area and watching successive groups of riders come over to stare at it – it garnered a lot of attention in a short space of time!

The Czar garners an audience pretty much everywhere it goes
The Czar garners an audience pretty much everywhere it goes

British XC National Champs

British National Championships XC - Photo by Frank Baddick
British National Championships XC – Photo by Frank Baddick

My first attempt at racing British Nationals. I feel like I’m a pretty experienced bike racer at this point – It’s been four years since I started pinning on numbers in earnest, and I’ve raced a huge number of events across the world. With all of that, though, I’ve very rarely raced in the UK. My racing started in Colorado, and has continued there ever since. I’ve not had the chance to come back to England and race, and I realise now that I haven’t had the fitness or experience to do so either. This race marked the last UCI race for 2014. This season took my count of national races from 2 to 9. In the process I’ve learnt exactly what I’ve got missing, and where I can get faster next year. I was really happy to have my Dad as support crew number 1 this weekend. We went through the learning process at Sherwood last weekend and we had everything dialled in for nationals. My Brother Frank, and sis-in-law-to-be Vicky also came along to shout at me in the woods.

Hopton Woods in Shropshire. Closer to Wales than anywhere in England, but a great venue for a bike race

I had a stupid warm up for the race – after a gentle spin on the lovely country lanes around Shropshire, I tried to get a last-minute lap of the course in. I hadn’t had time to pre-ride before hand, and the thought of starting nationals without knowing the loop was a bit scary. I managed to ride up the opening climb before a marshal decided I shouldn’t be on course. They told me I couldn’t ride any further, but had no idea how I should get back to the start without going on the course. Cue a last-minute scramble through the woods five minutes before race time! I found an old DH track that went straight downhill to the venue, but obviously wasn’t in the mental state to be riding it. I crashed pretty hard, opening a gash in my knee, and pulling my ring finger far enough back that I thought it would come off. (Yes, the race hasn’t even started yet and I’m already covered in mud and bleeding!) Once I finally made it to the start line, I slotted into 52/55 position on the grid. The course had a big wide open climb to start, and I was very confident of moving up. The gun went and that’s exactly what happened. Avoiding the obligatory start line crash, I moved up the outside of the course, and my brother counted me at 25th going into the singletrack. Now the ‘luck’ part of the racing was done I felt like I could relax a little. The climb (about 700 feet per lap) worked its way up on a mix of singletrack and dirt road, with plenty of passing places.

British National Championships XC - Photo by Frank Baddick
British National Championships XC – Photo by Frank Baddick

From the top, the descent dropped steeply through an old quarry back to the forest road below. First time down was very scary! I followed Lee Gratton, who I’d raced with last weekend, and I was confident he knew the lines. The surface was a mix of roots, slick rocks and hero dirt, and I had no idea what sections of the course I could trust. After feeling like Bambi on ice for the first lap, I got into the groove and was regularly dropping people on the descent. That felt good. Towards the middle of the race my forward progress halted and I found a couple of guys to ride with. I was faster down, they were faster up, but it gave me something to keep pedalling for.

Photo by Frank Baddick
British National Championships XC – Photo by Frank Baddick

At this point, the ability to suffer was waning, and my concentration on the downs was also failing. Towards the end of lap 6 on the successive drops back to the start/finish, I came in way too fast. With no way to slow down, I took to the undergrowth, and somehow managed to ride out a nose wheelie to avoid going down. That stymied my chance of catching the guys in front, so the last lap was an exercise in getting around. I probably lost 45 seconds in the last lap, but really had no ounce of drive to go any faster.

I crossed the line 16th. That’s a gain of 36 places off the start line, and a pretty good benchmark for what I can achieve in the future. The event (Organised by Pearce Cycles) was the smoothest and best run XC race I’ve been to. I have a lot of thoughts and comments about the difference between XC racing in the UK and the US that I’ll be writing down soon, but the gist of it is that the UK scene is a fantastic and friendly place to race bikes. I feel like I already have the fire I need to come back stronger next year.

British National Championships XC - Photo by Frank Baddick
British National Championships XC – Photo by Frank Baddick

The rest of this mountain bike season comprises of fun races in Colorado. I have the Steamboat Stinger coming up in August, which is my favourite race anywhere, and then some local Winter Park races, too. Suddenly thoughts turn to cross season (news on that front to come!), which is just around the corner!

A few days in Edwards

Looking across the Gore Range from Meadow Mountain above Minturn

Christa and I had a mini “work from home” holiday last week. As Christa’s dad was getting a new spine put in, and therefore was forbidden from doing pretty much everything, we stayed up in Edwards to be house servants for a week. Among the standard cooking, a little bit of cleaning, and plenty of researching the paper I’m about to starting writing (“How to regulate new drugs for the treatment of depression”), I managed to squeeze in a lot of bike riding.

Our week was one too early – the Elk Rut, the annual calving for the herds that live in the White River national forest about the Eagle Valley, meant that most of the trails up into the hills were closed until the 15th of June. After one oblivious ride up Meadow Mountain, to be greeted with a sign at the top stating we couldn’t go any further, I then had to search carefully to find some more singletrack to ride.

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Berry Creek is situated on the north side of the valley, on the other side of the highway from Edwards. From the road, the first roll of hills gives the impression of a dry, sagebrush covered mountain. Riding up the dirt road next to the creek reveals some big old Cottonwoods, and then a couple of switchbacks on the undulating sandy road brings you eye level with the Aspen Groves that extend in the finger like valleys to the top of Red and White Mountain another 1000 feet above.

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Whoever built the dirt roads heading towards the top of the hill, didn’t do so with mountain bikes in mind. The impatient straight lines of dirt cutting tangentally to the contour lines suggest that these roads were built when mules did the heavy lifting. Now, they strain at the muscles of the Mountain Biker, in an unrelenting couple of miles straight up. The toil is worth it, though. As you put your lungs back in their slots, the view south opens up in front of you. Now, Arrowhead ski area can be seen carved out of the trees. The wide runs turning green as mud season ends and the wild flowers begin. The distance is framed by the New York Mountains, a short chain in the Holy Cross Wilderness that forms a barrier to the Eagle Valley from the South.

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And finally, after the work, and the view, comes the reward. Slotted neatly between the uniform trunks of symmetrical Aspen trees, a trail dives down into the valley. The leaf litter forming the bed of the trail belies the seasons; few people have taken this path since the snow disappeared just a month ago. The ride is prolonged by imagination alone. Loosing vertical feet so many times faster than they were gained means your brain strives to find each detail in the trees and the tall grass rubbing against your tyres.

It’s over really quickly. Back into the sagebrush hills that will take you back to the valley below. The proximity of amazing trails is, I think, pretty unknown. I don’t know whether the Edwards locals will be very happy that I’m shouting about their trails. Everyone likes their local secrets. But Edwards has some great short rides that complement the excellent trails further down the valley in Eagle, and the high country that will open up at the snow melt allows it to do so.

Thank you, Elk, for keeping the high country to yourself and making me search a little harder the gems on my (temporary) doorstep.