With so little time to stop and feel what life is like in San Francisco, I’m forced to rush through my single free day here. Skimming across the surface of this place with the hordes of other tourists. It’s not that I think my touristing is inherently different from those around me. It’s that I wish it were.
I want for that perspective you only feel after a long time on the road. After well-earned and hard planned adventure, and gems/hidden treasures/beautiful places that were stumbled upon by accident. The kind of accidents that happen because you planned hard enough to make good accidents happen.
As it is, I’m constrained to the best-rated places on Google maps. It’s not all bad. The coffee is good. The views are stereotypical and I’ve seen the glorious art deco attraction of the place. I’ve wandered through china town, raced the cable car up California Street, and seen the sun rise across the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not all bad.
But there’s more to see here. And I won’t see it. My luck of having travelled widely just leaves me with an accumulating list of places that I’ve visited but not really seen. The singularity of traveling in order to race bikes has left me despairingly short of seeing some of these places from the saddle of a bike. Goal: travel on bike more, travel for bikes less.
For the last three years, racing a World Cup has been my goal. An obsessive goal that I had to fulfill. I’m here in England, and I will be lining up for my first World Cup in Germany next weekend.
It started as a frustration: I was sat on the trainer doing intervals, and I was watching a repeat of the Val Di Sole World Cup. It suddenly clicked that everyone in that race – even the really slow people at the back – were faster than me. It didn’t seem right. If I was going to spend most of my disposable income and all of my spare time riding bikes, I at least needed to race the best people in the world.
So I worked hard and got 20 UCI points, bought a plane ticket to London, registered for two rounds of the World Cup and one British series race. And I’m really excited!
This goal wasn’t exactly straight forward. 2014 was the first year I really chased the UCI sanctioned races. I raced that 2014 season with the goal of getting the 20 UCI points I needed to start a World Cup. How many points did I finish the season with? Zero. None. Not even one. It was hard to come away from the first season of racing the national events without anything to show for it. It stung. So I trained a little bit harder. I raced a lot of cyclocross. I worked on my weaknesses. Unlike previous years, I did my core exercises. I got help with my bike fit. I set up my suspension properly. This year has been a roller coaster – I went to Greece early in the year to gain some racing experience and get some more points. I came away with both, but also a bad injury from my heaviest ever crash. It’s at this point that I really valued the sponsors that look after me during the season. Boulder Cycle Sport took in my broken bike and popped a shiny new Scott Spark out the other end. YogaGlo was invaluable in keeping my body supple when I couldn’t push on the pedals, and I drank so much Carborocket Recovery drink that I thought I might start smelling like chocolate and coconut.
The plan for the next three weeks: I’m currently staying at my Brother’s house in Loughborough before racing the British Series Round in Dalby this Sunday. Then we’re driving across to Germany to race the Albstadt World Cup. Then on to stay with relatives in Geneva for a few days, before heading to the Vosges mountains for the La Bresse World Cup in France.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back before I was an XC racer; back when Enduro wasn’t called that yet, I was a trail rider first and foremost. I guided mountain biking in the Alps for a summer, wore baggy clothes, and arrived in Colorado with the notion that one’s seat should be dropped to go downhill. It was Boulder’s incessant race scene that changed me. It’s been almost five years since I last owned a trail bike, but the itch couldn’t wait any longer, and I put down an order for a Scott Genius. While I’d hoped it would arrive in time for the trip to Moab, it didn’t quite make it, and instead I borrowed the shop demo from Boulder Cycle Sport to give me a tantalising taste of what I have in store when I pick mine up.
We broke up the drive to the desert with an overnight in Edwards at Christa’s parents house, then made our way to the Slickrock campground above Moab on Friday morning. I love the drive along the Colorado river. There’s a point just after you cross the river that the La Sal Mountains are visible in the same frame as the huge spires of Castle Valley. It’s magnificent. The La Sals have benefited from the El Niño weather patterns this year, and they were solidly coated in snow, down to about 8000 feet (Moab itself is at 3500 feet). The extra snow made the normally breathtaking views even better.
We started the weekend with a late afternoon ride on the Amasa back trail system. I’ve ridden here almost every time I’ve been to Moab. I love the trails, including the jeep road with its rock ledges and step ups. This was the first time I’d ridden up the Hymasa trail. It’s a singletrack route that follows the road, but it doesn’t have the same rocky features, which makes it a bit easier. We got to the top after seeing only a couple of other people of the trails. A stark contrast to the chaos I was expecting. Moab in the Spring can be really busy, as the snowstorms in Colorado push so many people into the desert. On top of that, it was “Jeep Week”, the annual gathering of rock crawlers that also call Moab their playground.
We had perfect afternoon light by the time we got to the overlook at the top of the Hymasa trail. After a flat fix (one of those mysterious punctures that happen as the bike is lying idle on the ground) we hit the trail again. Christa had ridden Ahab once before, but it was the first time for Erika (Christa’s sister). She coped really well, and got down all but a couple sections. Definitely promising for the weekend of riding. I got to the bottom of the trail and flatted, as did James Sullivan, so our short afternoon ride ended up being longer than we wanted. We drove back to the campsite and set about consuming beer and doing campsite kind of things. Like eating burgers.
Choosing between shuttling to the top of Porcupine Rim, or shuttling the Magnificent 7 trail system, we chose the latter. I thought Porcupine would be busier, plus Mag 7 gave us more options for extending or shortening the day as we felt we needed. We drove up highway 313 on the way to Canyonlands. The views get bigger the further west you drive in Utah. The Henry Mountains, that snowy enigma on the skyline shoot upwards, almost beckoning you to explore the state further; stopping you from settling on what’s right in front. The highway turns south and follows a high ridge to the turn off on Gemini Bridges road. That’s where we started the day. It was chilly up this high. A bitter northerly wind was mixing with the warmer air, making for a cold start. I borrowed James’ rain jacket, and then we hit Getaway trail as the first of the seven trails. The first few trails blend into each other seamlessly. High desert riding across a mix of sandy washes, sandstone slabs, and occasional rooty sections from the hardy pinion pines. We got to Gemini Bridge within 30 minutes, stopped to look at the arch for a quick minute, then kept the flow going. We were a five-person group. Pretty big for desert riding. I was worried that we’d suffer from the same problem as yesterday; small mechanicals holding up the group, but we didn’t. We flowed down the trail. Christa and Erika exhibited text-book sibling rivalry to keep up with Bryan and I. Every time I looked back, they would have exchanged places behind me. It was fun to see, as they were both pushing the pace.
The trails head slowly downhill until you reach the bottom of the wash, where there’s a choice to exit to Gemini Bridges road, or keep climbing towards the top of Gold Bar Rim. No-one was quite done riding yet, so we all enjoyed the awesome slick rock climb to the overlook into little canyon. We had some food then split off, with Bryan and I heading to the top of Gold Bar Rim, and Christa, Erika and James going back from whence we’d come, staying on singletrack as long as possible before dropping onto jeep road back to the car.
Bryan knew what was about to happen as soon as everyone else turned off, and true to form I rode as hard as I could to the top of the climb. I felt pretty stupid doing it, but by the top my lungs were nicely singed and I felt satisfied for putting in a bit of an effort. From then on I could relax. Well, relax as much as the Gold Bar trail allows.
Gold Bar is my favourite trail in Moab. It doesn’t gain or lose much altitude, which makes it all the harder. From the ridge, the expansive views across the town of Moab to the La Sals fill you with the sense of being way out there. The melding of red rock into snow covered alpine forest seems close enough to touch, even though it’s tens of miles across the canyons. The whole trail gives you this false comfort – the highway into Moab is just a couple hundred feet to the east, but 1000 feet down, and would take hours to get there by bike. We were taking the most direct route, and trying our best to cover it at more than 5 mph. The trail takes in every rocky knoll on the ridge. Successive 15 second climbs, followed immediately by 4-5 foot drops onto the hard sandstone. Bryan generously gave me 3 free ‘dabs’ for being first wheel. I would probably have only given him one if he was leading. We ended the ride with me on 2 (actual) dabs and Bryan cleaning the whole thing. We’ll call it a draw this time.
We didn’t pause much at the top of the rim. Instead we rode straight onto the Portal Trail. Of all Moab trails, this one has the worse reputation. People have died riding it. A lot of people simply avoid it for the fact that it’s hard to get to, and there’s plenty of other trails to stay occupied with. But it’s the most magnificent of the Mag 7 trail network, and the best way back to the river. The scary section of trail that gets all the attention is actually really short – a couple hundred feet where there really is nothing off the edge of the trail but 1000 feet of empty space and then a tarmac road at the bottom. It would be wishful thinking that you’d miss the road and hit the river instead. Bryan and I got off and walked the scary stuff. There’s no single part of me that would want to attempt that rocky section of trail. No bravado or ego that would make me take that risk. For the most part, mountain biking exposes you to broken bones and shredded skin. That’s enough risk for me.
Once past the exposure, there’s a huge view across the valley, and then a short and steep trail back to the canyon below. It’s fast and rocky. Ceaseless drops and corners keep it interesting, all the while your hands are screaming and you can begin to smell your brakes. It’s over before you realise, and you join the people at the river’s edge, who had spent their day in a less calorie-intensive manner.
We cruised back along the road, then south into town on the bike path. We’d narrowly beaten James, Christa and Erika, so we settled into a sunny spot at Eddie McStiff’s, a vaguely Mexican restaurant in town. We were then joined by everyone else, were we proceeded to drink a couple pitchers of beer in short shrift, before heading back up the hill to the slickrock, the stars, and the expansive western views which capture my imagination every time the sun sets behind them for another night.
With just a morning left to play in the desert, we went north to Klondike Bluffs. Right up against Arches National Park, the trails loop through low windswept bluffs, not gaining or losing much in the way of elevation.
The result is that you do a lot of climbing and what feels like not much descending. It’s perfect XC terrain, taking concentration and power to navigate the continuously changing terrain. This trail network in particular is really popular with beginner riders, and it’s awesome to see so many families out riding their bikes and having a good time on the trails. We did plenty of stopping at intersections and chatting to friendly people, and I was really happy to get back to the car after seeing so many smiles.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Flatter than Crackalands Farm, still tough to ride up
Looking out over the rolling farmland from Cascade Mountain
The skills section was actually really fun
Swoopy turns in the skills turn
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Winter Park this week, in order to show Jason Sumner around “MTB Capital USA” (aka the larger Winter Park area). I’ve spent a lot of time up in Grand County before, although not much recently. It was great to have a solid base to explore from, and pre-arranged locals to give me some guiding.
The rail line runs straight through the valley on its way between Denver and Grand Junction
There’s trails like this littering the hills. It’s really simple to thread a good ride together.
It’s been even longer since I’d headed to Granby Ranch. The bike park used to be called Sol Vista, and when I first arrived in Colorado in 2010, it was the hot place. Everyone was always heading up there to ride, and their trail development was a good few years ahead of anywhere else. Some changes at the ski area cut off their momentum though, and they’re now back and rebranded as Bike Granby Ranch. We looked around the XC trails for a while before hitting the lifts, and I was happy that the memories of good trails didn’t disappoint. The riding was great!
Morning after the Thaw Massacre. It was a tough race. I wake up achy. But the trail is in need of being ridden. I want to get back to Boulder as soon as I can, but to make the weekend worthwhile, another ride has to be squeezed in. 5:45 AM. Choking down oatmeal. Dark outside, the breakfast room of the hotel is empty. The lady behind the counter sorts her wares in preparation for the rush of hungry mountain bikers yet to descend on the mounting stack of sausages. We’ll be gone by then. On the trail.
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.