The Peter Estin Hut – an opportunistic trip

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In a fit of passing motivation, I checked the 10th mountain division site just before Christmas to see what availability was left over the holiday period. The huts normally sell out early in the Autumn, and finding a space involves either knowing someone who booked early, or squeezing a short trip during the middle of the week. I was surprised then to find a completely empty hut just after Christmas.

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The Peter Estin Hut sits on the flank of the Holy Cross Wilderness. South of Eagle, North of Aspen, this is an overlooked chunk of the state that is overshadowed by the bigger mountains around it. We drove through Eagle on Brush Creek road early on Boxing Day, then would our way to Yeoman Park. This area was extensively mined and still bares the scars of infrastructure from that time. We left Bryan’s car next to some impressively buried vehicles, then started skinning up Fulford road. Fulford in a small ghost town set far away from civilization, with tumbled down cabins and the occasional lived-in structure. We turned off the road, passed some cabins in the woods and went past some hot springs. From here the trail kicked up steeply. The ironbridge is a gem of a mountain bike trail in the summer, and in the winter forms a well trodden track that gains altitude quickly on the way to the ridge above.

After a couple hours of skinning, we crested the ridge. The temperature dropped immediately as we left the shelter of the valley and were faced with the gusty wind blowing in from the south. The ridge itself had seen a big dump of snow three days before, and our appetite for skiing was whetted by some symmetrical turns cut into the face above us.

While the guide book suggested the 4.5 mile skin would take close to 6 hours, we got to the hut in about three. The situation of these huts is always mind blowing. We lit a fire, made a cup of hot chocolate and warmed ourselves for half an hour, and then headed back out to explore the area.

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A quick skin above the hut has us on the top of Prospect Peak. A small pimple on a longer ridge towards the high mountains. Below us was a open face. Perfect for 10 turns of glorious shin deep snow. The light started its transition from cold wintry blue into golden evening as we took off our skins and fastened the boots. 10 minutes later we were at the hut with grins on our faces and anticipation of what tomorrow would hold.

Everything about a 10th mountain division hut is warm: the smell of wood smoke mixing with the musty cushions; the hearty cooking and drying ski clothes. We played a few rounds of cards, drank some whiskey (the efficient traveler’s choice of alcohol: maximum kick for minimum weight), and were in bed by 8:30.

It’s never difficult to leave that warmth of the hut in the morning. Even somewhere as remote as the Estin hut, it seemed like the powder wouldn’t wait around. We were skinning by 9am, taking a similar route to the day before, but with the goal of Charles Peak this time around. Charles is a barely 12,000 foot mountain with gentle south facing slopes that fill in with wind blown snow. In purely skiing terms it was a very mellow goal, but the view was unbeatable. The Western Slope filled unbroken sweep of 180 degrees. From the Flattops near Steamboat Springs, to the Grand Mesa above Grand Junction. Moving south, the real high peaks rose up: Mount Sopris above Carbondale formed the centrepiece of the Ragged Mountains, which blended seamlessly into the West Elk Mountains. The Maroon Bells marked the direction of Aspen, and the small strips of piste on the resort could be seen. Moving southeast, the Sawatch Range grew bigger the closer it got to us. We searched to pick out Mount Elbert; the highest in the state, before our attention was drawn to the very tip of Mount of the Holy Cross, just peaking itself above the closest mountains. In the direct vicinity was New York Mountain: a collection of ridges that I’ve only ever seen from the Ghent household in Edwards. It was great to see the other perspective.

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The ski back down started on bulletproof above treeline crusty snow. As we threaded into the thicker trees, pockets of untouched snow exploded as we cut through it. Small natural clearings provided the perfect bowls to let rip, and within 30 minutes we were at the bottom, looking up at the hut, and planning our skin out.

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The Ironbridge trail, that narrow twisting and winding path we’d followed in made for a very difficult ski out. On tired legs and with full packs, the 3000 foot singletrack descent was a true challenge for me, and made planning every turn a critical decision. The last mile down Fulford road was a relief, and I pitied anyone who made a journey to those huts on snowshoes – walking up would be bad enough, let alone walking back down!

Wallowing in the middle of cross season

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The beginning of November is a tough time for a cross racer. It’s never-ending purgatory; the season stretches out in both directions. I managed to stave off the midseason staleness with some good results.  For the past two weekends the fields have been relatively light. Many of the faster riders away racing on the east coast, making it slightly easier to get on the podium. Steve Stefko and I have had a couple good battles in the past weekends, and I’m happy to say I’ve come away triumphant both times.
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Blue Sky CX in Longmont was on a new course in the middle of Longmont’s urban sprawl. The course would have been more inspiring had the wind not blown so hard. But the elements are alway a part of cross racing, and it meant that my fast start came to nothing as Stefko reeled me in. We played cat and mouse a couple of times as he tested me at the end of the race, and I bobbled plenty. He couldn’t escape however, and it was left down to a sprint. My worst nightmare. I lead through the final corners and into the finish straight, where I hit it hard enough to open a gap, and cross the line ahead. For my first win of the season, it was great to have it be a proper battle.

The next day was one of my favourite races of the year, Interlocken. Right next to the highway on the way into Boulder, the course hides some fun features between the high-rise office blocks. The field was a little stronger than Saturday, but no Stefko to do battle with. I started well and narrowly avoided a big crash that took down some good riders. After a lap or so I came to the front and managed to pull out a small gap on the chasers. The gap didn’t grow as much as I would have liked though, and I ended up spending most of the race dangling 10-15 seconds ahead of the chase group. It was only in the last few laps that I managed to really string things out and hold on for the second win of the weekend.

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I skipped the Feedback Cup this year in favour of a Mountain Bike ride. Although the course in Golden has its positives, I’ve raced it enough that I felt a day in the hills would be better for my mental health. Christa and I had a great ride watching a storm swirl on the high peaks above us.

We then both raced the Lucky Pie Grand Prix in Thornton the next day. On a disused Golf Course, the course was original and fun. I lined up next to Stefko as usual, and it was quickly clear that it would be a battle between just the two of us. I wasn’t feeling good on the big sandy sections of the course, so I felt it would be a good idea to avoid leaving the race to a sprint. When there’s a chance you’re going to make a mistake, it’s better to have a cushion to fall back on than ending up having to close a gap. I kept the pace higher than normal and succeeded a few times in putting Steve onto the ropes, but he kept coming back. We entered the last few turns together once more, and that’s when I did make my mistake. He came around me and accelerated hard, but I had it covered. Not knowing how it would play out, I sucked his wheel. A final sweeping corner decided the race. Steve came in hotter than normal and instantly washed out. I went around him and kept the power down to the end. Another win, but a little disappointment that our hour of tactics didn’t have a clean resolution.

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I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to race him this year!

How coaching other people made me faster

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I’ve been coached for a long time. It’s made me a much more committed athlete, but beginning to coach other people was a big turning point in getting the most out of my training. When you’re following a plan, the gains materialise slowly. The fitness creeps up, along with a creeping doubt that the plan is working. Or that a different plan might be better. Or that skipping one session won’t hurt your race performance in three months from now.

When I started coaching three years ago, all that changed. I saw every side of the equation. I saw the committed athlete that had done their workout before I’d even got up. Crushed every interval, done their cool down, uploaded their file and got to work before I’d even made a cup of tea. Sobering.

I saw the opposite. I saw one skipped workout turn into extra fatigue when a workout did happen. And the extra recovery needed to get over the sessions that did happen. I saw the slow accumulation of small indisciplines accumulate into missed goals. Poor results and low motivation often followed.

Training is a lonely endeavour. There are february mornings where the crucifying decision between jumping on the trainer and bundling up to ride outside is too much to take. First world problems you say? Try holding that perspective when it’s you that’s getting on the trainer. Seeing your athletes get out and do it gives you no excuse when it’s your turn.

When you’re a coach yourself, you see what work people are willing to do, and the individual variety that skews that dreamy periodisation into what we actually end up doing. The bursts of drive that turn to weeks of staleness. I see now how a couple missed sessions one week could turn into too much riding the next. I see now how those unplanned big weeks of riding turned into a head cold the next week.

This year I coached some amazing people. A rider stretched themselves and their motivation to the limit to achieve a huge dream of top 10 at Collegiate National Championships. An experienced Master’s racer threw all he knew out the window to follow my intensity driven plan – and succeeded in winning the Rocky Mountain Endurance Series. I had a brand new rider aim for a 10 hour Leadville finish, and blow us both away with a time close to 8 hours instead.

All it took was plain old boring consistency. Knowing that consistency is all it takes is a great feeling going into the winter when time abounds, but motivation can wane. Stick with it and it will pay off.

Thinking about the consequences of a dry autumn

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Autumn has been very dry here in Colorado. Traditionally it’s the time of year where the weather most closely matches the cool and drizzly days of home. But this year the temperature has hardly budged below 20 celsius.

While it’s nice to have access to the high country mountain bike trails that are normally buried by now, it’s a shame to see them getting more and more tired with the passing of extra tires. There comes a point where I’d sacrifice the extra rides in favour of a protective blanket to rejuvenate the forest and deliver them back to us in good shape come April. Wildfire is always front and centre in my mind when I see such dry weather. Will this batch of warmth mean more danger next year?

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It has also been a tough year to race cyclocross. Although there’s a lazy ease in packing no spare clothes for a race, I’d rather it be cold and damp for our race days. I’ve been racing with a water bottle on my bike all year so far, and it doesn’t seem like that will change any time soon. We’re far past due a introductory storm to get the winter rolling.

A positive on the snow front is that this warmth will likely lead to a bit of a safer snow pack. Rather than an early season storm sitting on the slopes and baking in the sun, I’m hoping that when the weather finally turns, the temperature will stay low and the snowpack will be a nice consistent depth of small layers. It would make the skiing much safer, that’s for sure. 20161030085337

 

 

Colorado is past Peak Cyclocross, and why it doesn’t matter

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It’s official: we’re past peak cyclocross in Colorado. The hype has faded. The crowds have diminished. But it doesn’t matter one little bit.

As I drove into Valmont Bike Park on Sunday for the US Open of Cyclocross, I was prepared for the normal scrum. Cars parked everywhere, the parking attendant’s voice drowned under the sounds of cow bells from the 5280 stairs. But that didn’t happen. I cruised into the car park and stopped in one of a dozen empty spots. The crowds were thin, the course tape fluttering in the wind without even a hardened supporter to hold it back. What happened? The truth is that Colorado is over the hyperbole that accompanied the arrival of the National Championships in January 2014. The amatuer and elite fields have diminished in size. Even the junior fields have suffered.

Last week, the best race promoter in the state hung up his hat. Tim Lynch had run the Cross of the North for six years, bringing together challenging (and novel) courses, prize payouts, DJ’s, and a prime middle-of-the-season date. But even this wasn’t enough to stave off the inevitable. Racer numbers declined from 1250 to 1000 this year. That might not seem like a huge change, but in a business where margins are slim and prize purses have to be declared ahead of time to get the pro’s to turn out, it makes a big difference.

Why is this trend happening? I’ll list a few reasons that should piss off most people in some regard or another.

  1. High School MTB racing: It’s taking off. Over a 1000 racers on a regular basis. These young racers don’t drive to events by themselves, though; they have willing parents in tow for the weekend. This is alongside coaches and vendors who are all tapping into the huge success of the format. In a state where volunteer power and sponsoring companies are finite, it’s obvious that these events will be pulling people from master’s fields, juniors fields, and the expo arena. This is no bad thing. I’m a huge advocate of high school racing. If it’s bringing kids from outside of the sport into racing, it will be a benefit for everyone. Unlike traditional club racing, where even juniors have to know someone who’s into cycling if they’re going to start competing, High School racing has the ability to spread into a wider population of teens. This can only be a great thing.
  2. Reliance on a finite number of racers. There’s a vocal group of people that blame Boulder for races failing. The argument is this: “Boulder won’t drive more than 15 minutes to race. It’s their fault that races fail”. I’d like to reverse this argument and suggest that relying on people driving to a race when there is a local alternative is not a sound business model. Bike races are a little bit like coffee shops: if there’s one closer and the coffee is halfway decent, you’re not going to drive past it. There are great examples of races doing really well outside of the bubble. Take a look at what raceco.org are doing with the summer Race the MAC series in Castle Rock. Big turnout, friendly vibes, and few Boulderites to ruin the party. What about the Back to Basics series in Golden? Sustainable and friendly, and a business model that doesn’t rely on Boulder to fuel the fun. Perhaps a small start and a focus on attracting more cyclists from their home community will lead to a great event. Then people from Boulder might pay attention in years to come…
  3. Staleness of the courses. I’m not talking venues here, but the courses themselves. After a few years of racing, is it too much to ask that the promoter head back out and dream up another way to string the course tape? We have some great parks on the front range, but a little imagination would go a long way. Once a venue like Interlocken or Flatirons is established as a great place to race bikes, a fresh course can only be a good thing. If for no other reason than marketing: if “BRAND NEW COURSE” isn’t a way to attract racers, I don’t know what is. side note: CX of the north has had a new course multiple times, and it’s still seeing dwindling numbers, hence why this point only got to number three on the list.
  4. Specialization. People are pretty serious about cross these days. It’s no longer about beer swilling and staying fit for the “real” race season in the summer. Rather than racing twice in a weekend for two months straight, people are focusing on peaking and doing well at select events. This drives down participation. This may also be the reason why the strength of fields hasn’t fallen even as the field size has: it’s harder than ever to get in the top 10 of any category, even if it’s easier than ever to make 20th.

But this doesn’t matter. Although the number of racers has diminished, it’s still huge. Bigger than 5 years ago. The hardcore will keep racing, events will adapt to cater for that number of people, and the huge number of people who have tried cyclocross in the last couple years are unlikely to disappear totally. They’ve been immersed in the culture, and whether it’s an MTB race or just a bikepacking trip they try next, they’re still on bikes. Or simply ensure their children will race high school events and stay in the community. And that’s a good thing.

So go race your bike. Give it your all. Throw in a mountain bike ride on the occasional Sunday, and worry not about the health of the sport. It will be just fine.

 

 

The Missoula ProXCT – Solitary suffering on the slopes of Marshall Mountain

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There’s a six foot drop approaching, and my fork is locked out. Not by choice of course. The cable is just a little sticky. Probably something to do with the gel I just spilled across my bars. What would you do? Forcefully unlock it and suffer another 4000 feet of climbing with a bouncy fork, or ride the six foot drop and the rest of the descent five more times with no suspension?

Luckily the decision was made for me. A final bounce on the front end and the fork released, giving me some sweet, buttery suspension to cushion the drop. I squirted my bottle at the lockout and had no more problems for the rest of the race.

A unique thing happened on June 17th 2016: the first time in the history of US mountain biking, two important races were scheduled on the same day. Unlike in Europe where it’s common to have a handful of UCI races on the same day, North America is renowned for having few events, and rarely any overlaps. This means that generally the fields are always strong and UCI points are as rare as hen’s teeth. With the Carson City Offroad and the Missoula ProXCT falling on the same date, there was a choice for pro riders to make. Go to Carson City and benefit from the big payouts, friendly vibes and fun trails that Epic Rides events are known for, or head to Missoula for the awesome course (complete with famed A-line drop), rowdy solstice celebrations and the ability to spend the weekend in one of the coolest mountain towns in the west.

It was interesting to see who chose what race. The Olympic hopefuls were in Missoula as expected. Howard Grotts and Raphael Gagne are proving this year that they can compete on a world stage. Along with Stephen Ettinger and Keegan Swenson, they made sure the front of the field in Missoula was stronger than the front of the field in Carson City. But after that handful, there were some notable exceptions that went to Nevada instead: Russell Finsterwald and Ben Sonntag are normally stalwarts on the XC scene, but chose the Epic Rides events instead. Ben Sonntag was chasing the series overall payout, while I think Russell was relishing a different scene after an early season of World Cupping. Kabush, Wells, and Spencer Paxson all went to the big blue lake too.

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In Missoula, I was among a number of “second rate” riders that had lined up for the opportunity to nudge their way higher in the rankings and get to experience being a little closer to the front than is normal for these events. With just over 20 UCI points, I’ve been enjoying a second or third row call up this season, but with the absentees, that ranking got me onto the front row in Montana. We’re so used to battling in 100+ people fields, that the tactics were going to play a big part in the racing. As Howard Grotts said after the race, there’s no place to hide on that course. Rather than being a group riding event, it always comes down to one’s ability to ride six consistent climbs followed by six mistake free descents.

I made the tough decision to take it steady off the start line. I knew that my fitness was good, but I also knew I’d have a better chance of surviving six laps if I was cautious at the beginning. It was hard to willfully fall back through the pack on the opening climb, but I did it nonetheless. A minute into the race I was back in the late teens watching the front group assemble and then pull away from the chasers. I found my rhythm and passed people slowly throughout the race instead. I made a little move at the top of the climb on lap one to get ahead of a bunch of riders, and that paid off by riding the descent cleanly and getting a gap on everyone behind me.

The A-line drop gets a lot of attention, and for good reason, but it’s not a make-or-break feature. The anticipation of hitting the drop builds from the top of the descent, and then it’s over in a second as you sail across it and down into the big catcher berm at the bottom. After that, the real challenge on the descent is a series of sharp corners with drops at the apex. These take some commitment to get your weight forward and your finger off the front brake. Any hesitation here can waste way more time than you’d lose on the big drop.

The middle of the race in Missoula was a little boring, to be honest. I did a lot of hard pedalling. A lot of concentrating on keeping my cadence up and not being stupid about pushing a big gear through the sharp uphill corners. I’d need those matches for the last lap. I was in about 12th place at the end of lap one, and then slowly worked my way through the field. Never following other people’s pace, always just keeping the sensations where I wanted them. I had power and heart rate numbers in front of me for this race, and I did quite a lot of looking down, which is not normal for me. It’s hard to say whether I actually used the data to pace though: the numbers move around so much that I found it a lot easier to “feel” that tension in your legs that you know is sustainable.

With one lap to go I’d moved into 8th place. A relative unknown rider Jamey Yanik was just ahead in 7th, and Alex Wild in 6th. I’d raced Jamey at Sea Otter and only just bested him. Little did I know that he was about to have a fireworks display, and slip back to 12th. After I went past him I was pretty sure that was the last place I would be gaining. Alex Wild is also pretty new to the pro scene, and has had a fantastic opening to the year. He was more of a known quantity and a bigger hurdle to overcome. Approaching the top of the last climb I clocked the gap to Alex as about 35 seconds. Pretty significant. I kept working at it though and came into the descent seeing flashes of red in the trees ahead. Last year I crashed really hard chasing Jamey Driscoll on the last lap, so I was cautious to ride smooth on the way down. I still closed the gap to Alex, though, and we came out of the trees together. Just one 30 second climb to go.

I bided my time a little, let Alex sprint into the base of the finish climb, then stood up and gave it everything to the finish. It was a dramatic little battle, but no one was paying much attention. Instead, the organisers were doing what every promoter should do: have the podium immediately. Once the haze of lactic had cleared I got to see Howard hold aloft a majestic rack of antlers for his win. The crowds were deep and the beer flowing.

My 6th place was exactly what I’d hoped for out the event: consistent riding, clean descending and no mistakes. A big thanks to Heather Earl, who I found at the start line and managed to persuade me to hold bottles in my general direction. Much appreciated! Also a huge thank you to Ken Griffiths, who opened his home to me for the weekend. Ken really made me feel comfortable in Missoula, and it was great to have someone to chat Montana life with before the race. Meeting new people and seeing different ways of life is a big part of what makes traveling so compelling to me. Thank you Heather and Ken!

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GoPro Games – forget the marginal gains

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOPE.

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

La Bresse World Cup: The Nun with a chainsaw.

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There’s a chainsaw being revved mere inches from my ear. The Nun wielding the chainsaw is laughing maniacally and paying little attention to the proximity of his blade to my head. Yes, the Nun is a man. Welcome to World Cup Mountain Biking in France.

I’d seen said chainsaw wielding Nun earlier as I was warming up, and thought it would add greatly to the atmosphere on the course as I came sailing by. Nino may have gone sailing by, but I was stuck here, next to the chainsaw, as I watched the scrummage of riders ahead of me battle for one very narrow and slippery strand of dirt. A woman shouted ALLEZ at our assembled group of riders. Little did she realise that we were trying our best to Allez, but the traffic ahead seeming to be preventing all Allezing.

Soon it was my turn to file slowly up the hill. The armed Nun wasn’t the only novelty course-side. There was also a Gallic kilt wearing man thrusting his hips, and the attached cowbell, with vigour. The crowds in La Bresse were a different beast than Albstadt a week earlier. Although similar in numbers (roughly 15,000 people paid 16 euros each weekend to watch the races in person) the Germans took the opportunity to drink a beer, stand back and watch the racing in an orderly fashion. The French on the other got involved. It was the personal responsibility of each Frenchman lining the course to tell you that Julien Absalon was much, much faster than you. They did this in an entirely unintelligible mix of cowbell ringing, beer swilling, and general frenching.

My race didn’t go quite as well to plan as Albstadt, although I finished better in 95th place. And only two laps down this time, as opposed to three last week. The first (literal) roadblock happened on the start straight, as bikes went sideways and riders came to a standstill. I was too far back to be involved in the carnage, but it slowed me nonetheless. From there, half the field or more was up the road, and the energy I normally put into gaining places on the start was instead used to hold my position in the stringy remnants of the pack. The chainsaw incident happened soon after. The climb on lap one ended up being a mix of track-standing and all out sprinting.

The fans hadn’t actually lined up to watch us stand around on the climb. They, like the riders, had come for the descent. La Bresse is a small town in the Vosges Mountains of France. It’s reported the wettest area in the country. This has lead to an amazingly lush forest under which sits heavy dirt, moss covered rocks, and sinuous roots. From the town square you can see almost the entire descent, switch-backing steeply through the trees. It starts with some man made bermed corners. No problem there. Then some 3-4 foot drops to flat. OK, not much to worry about. Then a 180 turn, a sprint up a root covered climb straight into a huge rock slab with little room for error. Rinse and repeat. Unlike Albstadt where the descents were little more than a sideshow, the downhill here took the same time as the climb. By the time we got towards the bottom, hub deep ruts had been cut through berms revealing shiny roots underneath. Commit to the rut. But downhill.

I survived the first descent with nothing to write home about. It was the slowest I’d ridden it all weekend; held up by riders who were held up by riders. We careened back into the town square after lap one and saw that Julien was leading. That made the French happy. Happy French people are louder than sad French people. I was over four minutes down already, and could do nothing but pedal my hardest.

I couldn’t work out why I was riding so slowly. I was pedalling as hard as I could but gaining no ground. It wasn’t until I looked down and saw that my hardest actually was over 500 watts on the punchy ups, and everyone else was simply riding faster. The climb topped out at a big statue of Jesus that overlooked the town. It was here you prayed for more air, uncrossed your eyes and dived into the trail with abandon. It took me a few corners to remember how to ride a bike, but I was happy that I passed riders each time down the hill. A couple at a time made a difference, and by lap three I had a clean run down. The clock ticked to nine minutes behind as I crossed the line to begin lap 4 and I knew it would be my last lap.

In my bleary state I read that I was 102nd going through the start finish for the last time. That was motivation enough, as I could see two riders ahead of me. The elastic stretched as I pedalled up the climb, seemingly making no progress but also not losing ground. Toward the top of the climb the first rider cracked, almost crawling up the hill as if he’d lost his lungs and was trying to find them. The second rider was in sight, and then disappointingly crashed on the descent, robbing me from a valiant overtaking manoeuvre. I sprinted out the bottom of the descent and through town, and gained another place into the 80% zone. I found out later that I finished 95th, so I had read the sign wrong a lap earlier, but it motivated me, and made me work harder than I could have otherwise.

The spectacle and atmosphere aside, I didn’t race very well at La Bresse. I was too enthusiastic the days before the race, and ended up tired by the start line. An amateur mistake. Another amateur mistake would be to assume that better legs or better preparation would have vaulted me up the field. The gap in my fitness compared to those 50 places higher isn’t massive, but it’s more than I could make up on a good day. My skills to ride the course definitely weren’t lacking, but my experience racing terrain like that was. I have no idea how to thread together a blistering fast descent on the back of an all out climb. The best thing about coming over here and racing way above my pay grade has been the revelation of how much better I can be. I came away feeling fat, unfit and unable to ride downhill. I’m looking forward to being back in Colorado for the rest of the summer to do some fun events locally, get faster, and maybe even win something!

 

 

A View From the Back of the Albstadt World Cup

 

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The announcer stops calling out the numbers at 130, and instead turns his attention to the front of the race. I roll up towards the back of the pack as Julien’s palmarés are read out to the baying crowd. We have three minutes until race time. The music builds. I look up and around. The spectators are three deep at the start line, but I know there’s even more waiting for us up on the hill. Above the immediate noise we can hear the MC up in the valley hyping the thousands-strong crowds. The beer started flowing when the women were out on course, and it’s only got louder since then.

With 30 seconds to go the music is cut, and replaced by a thunderous heartbeat being played over the loudspeakers. Talk about tension. Complete silence. Normally I’d be in the zone, but this was too good to miss – I keep my head up as the gun goes and watch as the sprint ripples back through the pack. It takes a while to get to us, and after a couple of soft pedal strokes the pace quickens. The first crash happens in an instant. Muffled yells and the sounds of bikes hitting the ground. I get around it smoothly and hammer down the opening straight. Keeping my head up and gaining places at the same time. I pass a rider with a flat tire. Another with a broken chain. We get to the first corner and I see dust rising from the inside and more riders hit the ground. Any gaps that had been opening up come closing down again, and I squeeze around the outside just as the mass of riders realise their lines have been shut down. I escape the first corner and we hit the grass.

 

15 seconds into my first World Cup and it feels like an hour.

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The carnage continues. Two Germans tangle bars and hit the deck. Rolling into the path of oncoming riders. I stretch the course tape to its limit as I swerve, and find an empty path around the next couple of corners. Then the climb happens like a car accelerating into a brick wall. The pace comes crashing down. Derailleurs are tested to their very limit. Riders get off their bikes and hold them aloft. Elbows are at their sharpest. I dismount and start jogging into every open gap. Steadily gaining places one by one. The first climb is a mix of running and furiously mashing my pedals up the opening 29% grade climb. I’m not going to try describing how steep it is. I’ve watched plenty of re-runs of the Albstadt course, and I had no idea until I got the chance to ride up it myself. The bottom of the link trail in Boulder? That’s a walk in the park.

The first descent is a blast. Wheel to wheel from the outset, two people pass me on either sides and proceed to crash into each other. I swerve uphill and continue unharmed as they pick themselves up. We do some more running on the final drop, followed by the second climb of the course – a climb that would be the main feature anywhere else.

From here the clock is ticking. One lap in, and I’m 2 minutes 45 seconds down on the leader. By my pre-race estimations, I’ll get pulled from the course as soon as I’m eight minutes down. That gives me another 5 minutes to play with in the pursuit of more places. I race each lap as if it’s my last: a tactic easier said than done. Each accumulated effort burns a little deeper until I feel like I may actually fall off my bike.

Descending well becomes a secondary priority. Recovery is first. Simply breathing is first. The descents are so steep that brakes stay on the entire time. The lactic coursing through my legs numbs them from responding to the normally natural movements of riding downhill. The traffic builds again as I approach the “Merida Devil’s Corner”, the famed left hand corner at the very top of the course. As we file towards it I pause for a second and have a chance to look down across the valley. 10,000 people look back.

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Lap three comes around and I know my “guns blazing” approach is coming back to get me. I drop back through the field as if I’d pulled a parachute cord. The effort is no easier but the pace is exponentially lower. I manage to squeeze a gel half into my mouth and half over my left cheek just before hitting another 30 mph downhill. It’s enough to keep me going, and I pick it up a little again.

Suddenly from behind I hear a buzz from the lead moto. It’s not far back. I clock the gap at 6:30 as I pass through the start, and know this is my last lap. Everything now must be put into going faster. I pass some of the people that went by my on the last lap. I ride the descent smooth for the first time and find some flow on the lower sections of the course. I feel like I’m finding my stride just a little. The final climb is an all out sprint. Everyone knows this is it – the end is coming. The pace goes mental once more: as fast as the first lap. I sprint (crawl) to the top. Going past just a couple more people in the process. The last downhill is a procession. I’m too tired to look good or make moves. I hold on. I’m so happy my bike is capable and my seat is down. The last few grassy turns are another battle. I have no idea what we’re battling for, but I cross the line in ecstatic agony.

 

104th place. Three laps down on the winners. Personal victory accomplished.

 

British Series at Dalby Forest: sunshine and singletrack in Yorkshire

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I’d heard about the racecourse at Dalby after the World Cup in 2010. First of the “new school” courses, the lap was shorter and more technical than anything before. Since then, other courses have caught up, but it was still the best course I’ve raced on.
All this was reason enough to put the British Series race at Dalby on the calendar. After I’d qualified for the World Cups, it made sense to head over to Europe a week early and get the traveling and jetlag out of my system. The British series race was perfect for that. I flew into London on Thursday morning and met up with Tom Sampson who’d decided to piggyback on my trip. We drove up to Loughborough and stayed with my Brother for a couple of days before the race. DSC06805

We drove to Dalby on race day and arrived early to get a lap on the course before the start. I loved what we found, and I lined up knowing I could put together a good race. The temperature was also perfect; 10 Celsius (50F is ideal for me. The Dalby course is a little different than most, because the start/finish line is at the top of the hill, and the start throws you straight into a downhill. I was gridded 17th, on the second row. The start “straight” was a sharp left-hand bend straight into the downhill, and with an outside position I was confident of getting off the line well and gaining some places into the singletrack. That didn’t happen. Instead, Jason Boutell who was in front of me snapped his chain on the second pedal stroke and crashed in a pile. I slammed on my brakes, avoided going straight into him, and then played catch up with the people that got a clean start.

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Nerdy Bike stuff:

I was riding my 2016 Spark RC. After the pre-ride I upped the fork pressure from 62 psi to 80 psi (I weigh 165 ish pounds at the moment). It’s perverse, but on the smooth US courses softer suspension is better. Dalby had enough drops that I needed a firm surface to push against. I slowed the rebound on my rear shock from middle of the range a couple of clicks. The drops were bigger and not very frequent, meaning a slower rebound was better for this course.

Tire pressure: I normally race at about 22 psi front and rear, but I went up to about 26 rear / 25 front. Low pressure is great when the course is loose and sandy, or really wet, but at Dalby the surface was hard and fast with good traction. This meant a firmer tire held up better through the fast rough sections. I was running 2.2 inch Maxxis Ikon with EXO sidewalls on the SRAM Rise 60 carbon rims. After the race I found that I’d sliced my rear tire at the bead, but it had held pressure and didn’t cause a problem. I’m glad I upped the pressure before the race, as I didn’t notice hitting the rim at any point and still must have flexed the tire enough to slice it.

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The first lap went well, and I didn’t get held up much, despite being further back than I would have liked. I started picking people off and had some luck following other riders who were gaining ground. There comes a point in every XC race where the gaps get big enough that you have to start doing the work yourself. By lap three I’d made up the easy passes that I should have gained off the start line, and then had the more difficult job of riding up to people in the top 10.
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My bike didn’t feel quite right: mainly the seat height felt odd. I’d just put a dropper post on my bike for the trip to the World Cups, so I assumed the dropper was making me feel weird. I figured out after the race that my seatpost was slipping, and I lost about 2cm of height during the race!

With just over a lap remaining (about 25 minutes) I caught sight of a group ahead. I got a position check coming through the start finish on the last lap, just as I caught the back of that group. I was in 12th. Higher than I had thought. UCI points finished at 10th, and looking ahead, I realised that two of us in the group would be going home without points. I wasn’t going to be left out. I made a distinct effort to get in front on the downhill out of the start, and got a gap immediately. Paul Oldham, a long time pro in the UK, caught me again on the next climb, and it was down to he and I. I felt sure the other two riders wouldn’t come back, but I put in a few short sharp efforts nonetheless. Paul came around me on the final long climb, and I clung to his wheel with the realisation that my seat was indeed now really low. The only thing to do was get out of the saddle. I got ahead of Paul just before the final technical section, and pulled out enough of a gap that I could be confident holding it to the line. I gave it one final sprint to the finish. 9th place, and two UCI points to go with it!

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One of my better races – I’m putting it down to a combination of temperature, smaller field size (only 50 racers – although the front of the field was World Cup standard, the field died down a little after the top 20), and also a course that suited me well – no long climbs and a lot of technical sections that I was confident on.

We left Loughborough on Tuesday and drove to Belgium. We spent the night in Namur, and had enough time to ride through the 10th century Citadel that hosts World Cup Cyclocross races. We then walked into the old town centre and ate a good meal accompanied by a proper Belgian Beer. Today (Wednesday) we arrive in Albstadt and start figuring out how to race a World Cup. I’m ranked 145th out of 157 starters – back row!!