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 Iron Horse Classic

The memorial day weekend pilgrimage to Durango has become part of my summer. A reason to get to Durango is always needed; the town is just too far from everything else to make the trip on a whim. Coming to race mountain bikes provides the perfect excuses to travel this far, and having a friendly family to stay at makes in all the better – Katie O’Blocks parent’s put us up once again, making it way nicer than staying in a motel.

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Not the Firebird

The Firebird 40 was scheduled to happen on Sunday, but typical early season Colorado weather moved in over the weekend and made the course unrideable. British people regularly chuckle at American MTB races getting cancelled due to rain, but the weather and trail systems work a little different over here. A lot of the trails are actually on public property, so the idea of riding them in less than ideal conditions is not actually possible. Secondly, the mud over here is often very clay like – making it impossible to make progress due to your bike getting clogged up. Hence – no race in Eagle on Sunday. I was a little disappointed, as the pre-rides had shown the course was fantastic, and with 8000 feet of climbing, it would have been a challenge.

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The Whiskey Off road – 2015 edition.

 

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Another year in the high desert of central Arizona to really kick-start the mountain bike season. I’ve told everyone in the last few weeks that it’s a nice time of year to come down to the desert – that starting the season among the cacti is a good introduction to the new year. But the truth is that the high desert surrounding Prescott is anything but forgiving. The arid hills get little moisture, except in the spring. Last year we dealt with unlikely snow, but this year the weather wasn’t that far from normal for the region; on and off thunderstorms for three days straight. The crushed granite hills take the moisture well, though, and we rode some amazing under threatening skies.

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Thaw Massacre Inter Mountain Cup. Moab, Utah

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First race of the 2015 season, and first Mountain Bike race for me in Boulder Cycle Sport colours. I feel like I’ve been part of the BCS family for a little while now, even though it’s taken me a while to do an MTB race for them. They looked after me throughout cross season, and I got used to seeing a lot of teammates around at the races on the Front Range. So it was a little strange to be in Utah for the first race of the season, surrounded by unfamiliar kits, and definitely no-one else in BCS black and orange.

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An escape to Utah

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Christa and I have a plan to be fully mobile humans. As much as we love our little home in Boulder, it’s nice when we can escape for a bit and see the wild beauty all around us. Living in the west of the US, we have a huge expanse of countryside to explore. Too much for one lifetime. We did a trial run of mobile-living this week in Moab. With WiFi and coffee, Moab was chosen so we could actually be productive, while spending the 6 hours a day we didn’t have to work doing something other than sitting on the sofa. We joined the hoardes of adventurers that fill up this desolate landscape in the spring.

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An escape to the desert

Colorado: the Rocky Mountains slice the state in half. The east is a never ending expanse of grassland rolling for hundreds of miles towards Kansas: an unknown land not explored by most who live on the Front Range. To the west of the Rockies, the high desert sprawls in sharp red sandstone mesas towards Utah. The Colorado river cuts a clean line through the arid countryside and forms a playground in the sand. That was our destination. We were in Edwards for the week – in the middle of the mountains. It cut the drive to Fruita in half. It would have been rude to not take advantage of a quick trip to the trails. Two hours from dumping snow at Vail to ripping dry trails in the desert.

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The Last Ride

The weather in Colorado is anything but ambiguous. More so than most places 40 degrees from the equator, Colorado swings wildly from summer to autumn to winter, marked by huge weather ‘events’ (as the Americans like to call storms). Summer ended a long time ago – the weather bringing about the Golden transformation of the hills that I wrtie about so often. Then we entered November – a normally cold, dry month in Boulder. But the temperature didn’t dip. The weather held. We held our breaths. Riding trails that are normally buried under the white stuff already. Finally word came that the storms were building. The internet buzzed with record breaking temperature changes. We braced for the end of the mountain bike season. After racing on Saturday, we headed into the hills one last time. The unambiguous forecast for the next day told us snow was coming; the cold was coming. This would be it. No exceptions.
DSC02493We were in short sleeves from the get go. The wind was still, the sun exercising it’s legs for the last time.

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The top is always a subjective place: you can go as high as you like in Colorado. Today’s ‘top’ was just over 9000 feet (about 2700 metres). From it’s sandstone ledge, we could look southeast towards the great expanse of Denver and it’s sinuous suburbs. Boulder (perhaps itself a suburb) was just hidden in the lee of the foothills. We could see the prescribed burn happening at Heil ranch; the foresters making the most of the impending cold to burn off some old growth with a safety net of weather to enclose the flames.
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What rides down must find it’s way up. Not all the trails on the front range are amazing. Often, the well built and flowing trails are interspersed with flood damaged scree slopes. the fragile top soil scoured off to leave just a scree slope of rocks to climb up. Making a good loop involves finding the most fun way down, and sometimes that means taking the direct route to the top. It’s always worth it.

 

 

 

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!