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.

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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