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.

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.

Old England takes on New England

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The Boston ProXCT: a new race on the calendar and the perfect opportunity to make my first trip to New England. The race, held just south of the big city in Walpole was a great chance for me to utilise the UCI points I’d gained in Colorado Springs and race a bit closer to the front of the pack. Lining up on the second row was a novel treat, and the race started with me holding position near the front. A great start, and a world away from battling through 50 people at the Springs. The course flowed through a few rocky sections of trail before breaking out onto dirt roads, and the pace was ferocious. The field was comprised mainly of New Englanders who race each other regularly, and the pack chopped around as people desperately tried to move up before the rock gardens started in earnest. I got into a great group with Cole Oberman, Tom Sampson, Billy Malone, Ryan Woodall and Cameron Dodge. All of them regular names on the Cyclocross and MTB scene on the East Coast, and really strong technical riders.

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I was lucky enough to follow Billy through the rough sections of course on the first few laps, and his lines were immaculate. Slowly the feeling of riding on roots came back to me and I gained some confidence towards the middle of the race. The dreaded humidity was not as bad as I expected, and the thick soupy sea level air was a revelation for my lungs. I felt good. Without much on the course to separate the pack, I was starting to wonder how the race would play out. Four thought-inducing rock gardens were spread out through the course, with the rest of the riding on punchy singletrack littered with unrelenting roots. I was really glad of the full suspension on the Scott, and I left my suspension fully unlocked for almost the entire race. I’d been having some trouble with my brakes after getting my bike out the box, but the Shimano neutral service at the race did a great job of getting me squared away, and I felt really comfortable on the technical stuff all weekend.

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Todd Wells had hit the race hard from the gun, and being far back in the group, I missed Dan Timmerman flying off the front as well. The group I was in began to slow by lap three as tiredness set in, and with 3rd to 8th all together, I knew I needed to get away. Tom Sampson came to the front at the beginning of lap four and turned up the pace. I saw the chance, and goaded him into hammering. We got a little gap, and I repaid him by keeping the pace high for a while. We succeeded in dropping everyone else, and I felt really strong going into the final lap.

 

We took a couple more turns on the front each, but with half a lap to go, the temporary allegiance was over and it was business time. Tom, as I would expect, was flawless in the ‘snake pit’ rooty sections towards the end of the lap, and gave me no opportunities to move past him. To my dread I realised I’d be contesting another sprint finish. Ugh. I’m not good at those. A lack of confidence stopped me from taking the front on the run in to the finish, my terminal mistake, and we rounded the final turns neck and neck. Tom got the smoothest lines through the last corner, and I failed to gain the third place. Fourth for me. The disappointment of another failed sprint subsided, and I was absolutely elated to finish in fourth place. A world away from my previous best place finish of 17th in the Missoula ProXCT. Combined with the four UCI points I earned in Colorado Springs, I gained 12 points this weekend to give me a total of 16 points: way closer than I thought I’d get to my goal of 20 in order to race a World Cup.

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Next up for me on the racing front for me is the Wisconsin round of the ProXCT: the final round for 2015. This race is a classic, and I’ve heard many good things, but once again it will be a new venue for me, and I’m excited to see another chunk of this huge country.

 

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I’d decided to race in Boston with the knowledge that the field would be a little lighter than the earlier season races. That was the deciding factor for me to book a ticket, alongside a generous offer from Bryan Horsley and his family to host me on Cape Cod (a hour or so south of Boston) for the weekend. Without much choice on flights, I booked a super late flight into Boston Logan on Thursday night and forced Bryan to drive through the night to pick me up. We drove through torrential rain to get back to “the cape”. I awoke in Bryan and Meredith’s beautiful little house in Cotuit, a small village on the southern end of the cape. Coffee made and breakfast ready, I realised quickly that I was going to get properly looked after this weekend. They gave me a quick driving tour of the surrounding area, benefitting from the local knowledge to get good food another the way. We drove out to Chatham Lighthouse and looked over the beach, and I marvelled at its similarity to South Devon. Identical.

 

Bryan’s Mother joined us at the race on Saturday, and took the role of support crew for both of us. I was a little nervous for her to take on the mosh pit that is a feed zone at a ProXCT, but she was solid throughout the entire race, not wavering once for the race. I was very grateful that she’d spent her Saturday looking after me. We had interesting conversation both ways to the race, and got back to the Cape late on Saturday night, in time for a couple of beers and a good night’s sleep.

 

We woke early on Sunday so Bryan could treat me to a proper Cape Cod experience: A sail around the bays of Cotuit. Sailing to a deadline is never recommended, and there are few deadlines as immovable as a plane to catch, but we headed out anyway. Bryan and his Dad take beautiful care of a 28 foot, twin mast sailing boat that’s moored in the bay, and we rowed out with the sunrise, and succeeded in being the first sails on the water. From Cotuit we sailed out through the Popponessit river into Nantucket sound, the stretch of water that lies south of Cape Cod. Benefitting from an ever-increasing breeze, we got heeled over and up to a good knot of speed. Looking in on the Cape reinforced how much New England looks like Old England, and I can see why the first settlers to Massachusetts didn’t travel far to make their homes. We got ashore in time for a sandwich, and got to the bus just in time to sling my bike and I aboard.

Bryan and his family really made my weekend. Alongside the hospitable and welcoming New England race scene, I feel like I got a true taste of the state. I’m really glad I made the trip, and I would highly recommend the weekend to anyway who wants a true Mountain Bike race on fun trails.

Colorado Springs US Cup

The Colorado Springs US Cup was the last round of the four race series. After the preceding three races being held in March (still winter in Colorado), I was worried the series may have lost some of the momentum it had gained earlier in the year. As it turned out, this was the best race of the series by far. There was some negatively circling around the race; rumours of a terrible gravel track course, and plenty of the usual USA Cycling hate from people not very well informed.

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It was with this attitude that I headed to Colorado Springs with Bryan on Saturday morning. We’d decided to save some time and money and just drive down on the day of the race. We arrived to the small little tent city and a great vibe. The women’s race was being broadcast live across the internet, and the production value seemed to be much higher than the previous races. I think this sport is learning how to do things! Bryan and I got a lap on the course after the women had finished. The rumours circulating about a terrible course were entirely unfounded. The opening straight gave way to sandy two-track road, and then silly steep and loose climbing, before another 10 minutes of constant up and down on singletrack and sandy trails. It was tough. Someone who knew about racing had done a great job of intertwining passing places and technical sections.

Only complaint of the day: After spending my hard earned to travel down to Texas and California, with the aim of gaining points and moving up the rankings, I was dumbfounded to find I was listed on the starting grid in the mid 50’s. It looked like they’d just pulled names out of the hat again for the starting order. On a course that was all about the first section of the first lap, it pretty much killed my chances of getting into the top 15.

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The start went as expected: I moved up to about 35th before the bottleneck into the singletrack. I watched the leaders up ahead ride through the rocks as we waited. Yes, waited on the trail. After the first three minutes or so the race got moving and I could move up well. I latched onto Jamie Driscoll, a cyclocross rider who also had a back row start and was moving through the field. He pulled me past 10 riders before I finally made a mistake on the steep loose climb and lost him. With two laps to go the heat was starting to make itself felt.

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Christa had thought ahead: she filled stockings with ice for us to shove down our jerseys, which made for a great temperature regulator. Christa and her Mum did a superlative job as support crew for Bryan and I. The heat was wreaking havoc on my stomach, and it was great to know I had a bottle of ice cold water waiting for me each time I came through.

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As the gaps got bigger towards the end, my strong finish didn’t end up gaining me too many more places. I passed a couple of people on the last lap, and came across the line 20th. That marks my best result at a national race, and it came on a day where all I did was pedal sensibly around the course. I missed out (again) on the 15th place I would have needed to get a UCI point, but at this point in the season I’m done chasing. I’ll be heading back to England with no expectations about how I’m going to race. Coming from a back row starting position means I just have to work hard and see what happens.

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