Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Whinlatter Challenge. Whinlatter Forest 29th March

The first race of the year is always a funny thing. You think you are well prepared but deep down you know that nothing you have done during the winter is going to set your body up for the shock. This is an accentuated experience for an endurance racer doing an XC race...

Well, I say XC; this was funny one. 36 miles of big hills over two laps. A long XC race but too short to really be an endurance event. As it panned out, this is exactly how my body reacted.

Over 400 had registered for the event. Despite the start being on a wide fireroad, with that number of people, (and the associated 5million megatrons of nervous energy) enclosed by high walls of fir trees it all felt pretty claustrophobic... I was under no illusion this was going to be easy as many of the Lakes best riders had turned up for what was essentially the first race of the summer.

A blast of the horn and we were off! It was fast and it was up... and up. And then up some more. In fact it generally went up for about oh; ten vertical miles at least. (Glad I had some gears to go through, eh Paul?). I wasn’t just breathing hard; I was tearing the lining out of my throat! It felt a bit like swallowing razor blades as the air was clear, crisp and cold. Getting clear of the mass was the aim and the hard effort paid off; whilst a leading group slowly pulled away, I had good clear track and a number of us lined out. This was a merciless and clinical way of sorting the field out!

I haven’t mentioned the weather yet have I? It was quite literally out of this world! Not a breath of wind. Not a cloud to be seen. Not a particle of dust in the sky; it was beyond crystal clear. One of the guys from Wheelbase hit the nail on the head when he stated, ‘If you don’t enjoy this then sell your bike’. Never a truer a word spoken. As we crested the first climb the panorama of Skiddaw opened out to our right; a light dusting of snow capped the peak making it look like a clichéd child’s picture of a perfect mountain. Far below Bassenthwaite Lake sparkled bluer than any photo-shopped holiday brochure. It was literally breathtaking and that is coming from somebody who rides in the Lakes a lot. In fact the views made it quite hard to focus on the track!

Start line nerves disappeared and I tried to settle into a pace. Except that didn’t quite happen... The course had a kind of general pattern to it; up steep long climbs, across technical man made sections and down either more of the same or super fast fireroad. Then the climbing would start again... Bottom to top! Now I’m not a fan of fireroad but strangely the sections in this course were interesting due to their largeness if nothing else! The long drag out from the back and West of Whinaltter is a beast; (coincidentally, this is where I first learnt the meaning of ‘oxygen debt’ as a teenager on a mountain bike!) and following this crest we went straight into one of the more challenging man made sections. The course was unrelenting and my heart rate was rocketing! Through the first check point I heard that I was about 12th. Ok, still time yet. The second lap was going to feel mighty long for a lot of people and I hoped my endurance ability would kick in... But my legs were screaming and that sickly feeling had grasped my stomach by two hands! Nevertheless, I had pulled a couple of places back. I knew I needed to go if I was going to claw further through the field but it was that, ‘Will I cramp if I push one watt harder feeling?’ so I kept it steady (well, ‘ish’).

Two big climbs to go... and then ‘Ping!’. It was like a switch had been flicked! My heart rate dropped, (and not in bad way) my breathing calmed down, and my legs whirred beneath me like the proverbial hamster in a wheel. That’s better! I span easily past a rider who was wrestling his bars just to keep moving forward... but it was too late. I’d ran out of track. Doh! One more section of man made across the tops (eye now well and truly ‘In’) and then a fire road plummet down to the finish. I finished 9th and rued not ‘going earlier’. It’s all about experience and I’d gained a bit more so I was happy.

It was a great day of hard fought racing, but most memorably, it was a fantastic ride with good company and in stunning surroundings. The season has started!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Right under my nose...

The focus has very much been on cardiovascular fitness recently. It's taken a good deal of effort and focus to do the 'proper' training thing and the skills have taken a bit of a back seat. Well, the last couple of weeks have been a concerted effort to redress the balance. With the trails drying up, I have the option of a great 20 mile singletrack route to work. It's flattish but has some great technical sections and is a welcome change form the road route. I've being doing some of my interval sessions off road too.

This Sunday I went up to Thrunton Woods in Northumberland. If you haven't ever ridden there then I would put it on your list of Places I must Ride Before I Die. No really! I've been riding there for years, and it's not a huge area, but I still find new trails and new areas of wood each time I go. The trails have been kind of built and reinforced in places but they ride more like 'really well worn in' than constructed. And it's got that unpredicatable natural edge that you would never find at a trail centre. The choice of trails is huge too... you could spend all day here easily. And that's what I did. There are plenty of steep fireroads to give yourself a beasting on and then you can dive off down some of the slippery peaty chutes, which seem to descend for far longer than they should, twisting through tree lined tunnels. Perfect for intervals with a twist. Whipped myself into a right frenzy in fact.... charging up the climbs, sketching it down moss covered rocks and pinballing through root mazes. Four hours later terminal velocity was reached, the computer said no, and over the bars I went, missing a particularly immoveable looking tree by inches. A bit like the child who has been told, 'Stop it now before somebody gets hurt' I decided it really was time to call it a day. Well, all afternoon hairing round in circles was probably enough anyway... My arms felt like they'd done ten rounds and my legs felt like they'd done ten laps. A Very Good Training Session. And the funny thing is, I had found just the right location for one the most challenging days riding in a while just up the road from my house... Nice.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

How hard can it be?

First off: what a fantastic weekend! Best in a long time for a host of reasons. To start with it was impromptu. Life has got back to some degree of normality recently, enabling us on Friday to say, ‘Let’s sling the bikes in the car and head to Keswick’. So we did.

Up at the crack of ten o’clock, the plan was for Char and I to plug in a small gap in the Lakes section of the Coast to Coast that I’d missed on previous reccies. It would be an out and back, over to Sadgill, left along the valley, up Gatesgarth and onto the saddle above Mosedale Cottages. On the map it read as about 10/12 miles all in. Saturday was planned in as a rest day but at a gentle pace with Char I figured it would work as ‘recovery’ after a high effort week. 10 miles. How hard can it be?

‘Very’ is the answer… (Well, you know relatively speaking). The wind was absolutely howling. It was on our back to blow us over towards Sadgill. The decent down into the valley is rocky, loose and fast. The middle section is also pretty steep with a tricky entry and hairpins interspersed with eroded water breaks. Already, Char was loving the romantic weekend she had been promised…. (‘We could go for a nice walk or a gentle bike ride dear’).

As we dropped into the valley and turned left, the full force of the wind hit us. Even though the trail was only climbing slightly, the valley acted as a huge funnel, which sucked the consistent gale force wind though like a vacuum and made progress very draining.

Then it went up. In my naïve optimism, I’d looked at the OS map and not really clocked that this was a serious climb… The trail winds up to the right as the valley head closes in and it gets increasingly steep…. The surface changes from small round, loose and slippery rocks to the eroded and ancient paved bridleway which makes these Lakes passes so distinctive. And then… it got steeper again. Like a wall in fact.

This is the thing with the Coast to Coast; because the ‘headline’ Lakes climbs spring to mind, (Black Sail, Walna Scar Road, Garburn Pass) it’s easy to forget the ‘smaller’ climbs. I’m thinking of places like Carter Fell, Jenkins Crag, the road up to Loughrigg Terrace, and this monster… It will be so interesting to experience the physical impact of these huge successive hits… How will this effect proceedings further down the road? What is best pacing strategy? How will I feel ten hours later?

Desperately trying to keep my heart rate down, I got off my bike and the pair of us walked. This was a serious slog and the higher we got, the more we were hit by the full force of wind. And then, unusually for such a huge climb, we popped out at the top. Almost like stepping over an erm… step and onto a plateau. I did a quick spin up to the right to confirm Mosedale Cottages were where I thought; the ground changed from solid rock to boggy and soaked. Yuk. Rock I can deal with, no matter how steep, but wheel sucking and soft is my most hated surface. There were the cottages. Job done. I turned back to rejoin Char who was sitting behind a dry stone wall with some water and a banana. (Well, I had promised her a picnic with stunning views…)

We headed back down the incredibly steep rock cobbles. I like steep stuff but how it looked from through Char’s eyes I can only imagine… It’s a good job she doesn’t suffer from vertigo. To her credit, she rode most of it… We had to resist the wind constantly trying to push us too fast, and then as we approached the valley floor, we could finally let rip and surf through the loose pebbly stuff. Great fun!

It literally took minutes to gun through the valley. That put us back at the start of the climb from Sadgill. I knew this would be hard work. I was getting tired (we hadn’t eaten anywhere near enough) and fatigue finally got the better of Char. The push through the rocky sections was tough but by the time we got back to the car the hard bits had began to fade into memory and the spectacular valley views remained.

Despite her concerns that she was slowing me up, Char was seriously impressive on what was a very physical ride. The fact that she never spat the dummy lead me to a couple of conclusions:

(1) Char really should race endurance as she has the ability to put one foot in front of the other… just to get through the present moment (a core endurance skill).
(2) Regardless of our level of fitness, we can all do more than we realise. It was interesting to be alongside someone pushed to their current limit… and then doing a bit more.

Sunday was my planned training ride...

I got out around nine-ish and rode out into probably the warmest day of the year so far. Bootiful. I’m not really one for trail centres (especially when in the Lakes!) but intrigue got the better of me so I headed up to do the new South Loop at Whinlatter. And I had some intervals to do and figured they could be integrated into a trail centre better than a loop of Skiddaw (for example). I got stuck right into the road climb out of Braithwaite.

I was struck by how many cars I saw going up there with bikes on the back.... Come on people! I’m sure most were just coming from Keswick... Anyway, I really like this climb; steep turn at the bottom; nice steady gradient for a while and then it ramps up again through a few turns, and then provides great views across Bassenthwaite Lake to Skiddaw. Great warm up. After a chat with the guys in Cycle Wise I climbed up to the start of the descent. Fun I suppose but give me sketchy ‘is there a line.....?’ Lakes descent anytime over a downhill BMX track! Once in the hill valley I found a long climb that ramped up slowly. Perfect for my intervals. Six times up and down that a full steam and I was well and truly warmed up! Another quick couple of laps of the climb / BMXy descent and I was a happy man. It was more fun with fully pumped legs!

Back to base for a huge dose of mushrooms, scrambled eggs, toast and tea. Marvellous. We then sat with credit card in trembling hand to finally commit to the Worlds.... Went on the advice of Mike Cotty and booked a couple of weeks in the Quality Hotel Chateau Canmore. It looks spot on; an apartment (as opposed to a room; my dad is coming too) and a short ride from the race HQ. A quick search of some Google images for Canmore sealed the deal... British Airways also got the Barclays treatment. Tis done.

However, before we left to drive back to sunny Northumberland, we made a pact to never discuss the price again.... unlike a great weekend, some things are best forgotten....

Monday, 9 March 2009

You really couldn't have made this up....

Now I don’t like driving at the best of times. I particularly don’t like driving any distance for a one day ride. It makes me nervous. What happens if… My shock blows? I forget one shoe? A freehub seizes? Well, to mitigate against these ride wrecking possibilities on day trips I load up the Volvo of Eternal Storage with every conceivable spare part, tool, and item of clothing I could possibly need. This Sunday was no exception and, fully loaded, I headed down to the Dales to do some Coast to Coast reccy to the east of Grinton.

But do you ever have that nagging feeling that, no matter how well you have planned, something is going to go happen…?

I pulled up in Reeth town square. It was Baltic. As I was getting changed the sky turned that steely bluey grey that shouts INCOMING SNOW. (In fact the first flakes coincided with me taking my top off to don my lovely new Skins). I leaned my perfectly prepped bike up against a small monument thingy. Hurriedly, I layered up… shorts? Check! Overshoes? Check! Two pairs of gloves? Check! Today’s 3 OS maps, covered in highlighter? Check! I congratulated myself with my exceptional organisation.

Out of the corner of my eye and to my left, I registered movement. It was a car. IT WAS A CAR!!! ‘Nooooo’ I screamed! The car kept moving. I leapt forward to grab my bike. Too late. The car rolled into the front of my bike. It jammed the handlebars against the little monument thingy, pushed my machine over to 45 degrees, rolled up onto the front wheel and jammed the bike between the ground and the monument thingy. It rendered my lovely IH immovable. !!!!!!!!
In a panic, I tried to pull the bike out. No way. It had the full weight of the car on it and, (despite my Herculean 56kg frame) there was no way I could push the car back (it had the gravity of the slight slope behind it). In a cold sweat, I looked around the deserted car park. There was nobody in sight with an age below 100. What on earth was I going to do???? What a ridiculous situation! I wrestled with the bike, got the quick release open and yarked the frame free. The wheel whacked flat against the ground. If I did get it out, it was surely wrecked! Kneeling down I thrashed around trying to release the wheel. And then I realised that if I had managed to release it, (a) I would be run over and crushed (b) the offending car would have rolled into the lovely shiny BMW it was aimed at. B*llocks. So there I was. Unable to do anything; immobilised by some tw*t that forgot to pull the hand brake. I was there for about half an hour before someone below OAP bus pass age walked past. Lucky for him! His help was instantly enlisted (I didn’t give him an option). I ran off and found some bricks. We pushed the car back, released the wheel and chocked the car back. Phew!

Amazingly, when I inspected the wheel, it was perfectly true! My DT XC1800s have taken some thrashing in the rocks of the Lakes and come up rosey. I’ve really been impressed with these hoops. But it’s some testament to their strength that the wheel was not totalled after this abuse!

So off I set. I didn’t expect this to be a desperately exciting section and I was right! Minor roads and tracks… the off road was not desperately technical but was sodden and muddy. Most of it was the archetypal ‘muddy field’ riding, the conditions were atrocious and navigation was tricky (why are field networks so hard to navigate???). Sleet, snow, mud, maps and howling gales don’t mix…. I rode out past the A1, did a bit of road and turned back.

Anyway, it’s confirmed a few of the things that I already had began to suspect about the Coast to Coast:

- The rocky Lakes passes are fairly constant variables relatively unaffected by conditions. I can deal with that.
- If it is wet, even flattish sections like my Grinton ride are going to be energy sapping and time swallowing (they are more intimidating than the big passes in this sense)
- Prising open rusty gates / climbing over walls (aka Westgarth area) are very strenuous elements that need to be considered in energy expenditure

The ride was also valuable for another reason. I haven’t ridden for more than 3.5 hours for quite a long time now (on advice from Will my coach). Maybe like others who have changed their training strategy from high mileage to intense quality, I’ve been unsure how a longer ride would feel…. Well, I boshed out 6 hours at a good pace in rough conditions and was full of strength on the final climbs of the day. It’s coming together…

I dropped in to the Fremington based Dales Bike Centre on the way back to Reeth (www.dalesmountainbiking.co.uk). I’ve wanted to have a nose here since I heard about it. I just caught Stuart the owner before he left for the day and we had a good chat. We talked about the Coast to Coast and I got the feeling he was slightly intrigued by my one hit attempt…. He offered me use of the bike wash and taps as a pit stop. Just what I’ll need as I plan to be in the Dales during the night. All this knowledge helps. I think the Bike Centre is a great project and really hope it does well. Who knows, if I hadn’t got that wheel out from under that car, they may have been able to save the day…

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

I'm back!

Yes folks, I’m still here! Had a crazy month or so, hence the silence. Some of you may know that we were flooded out of our home last year… we (naively) chose to project manage the whole reconstruction / reinstating process ourselves. It’s been like a second job… but we’ve got back in. (Despite the carry on, it was probably worth doing it ourselves as many of our neighbours are still not back in – pros and cons!). So normal service is resumed…

There has also been a ‘third job’ going on all the while…. Yep, training. And training hard. I’m completely focused on my May Coast to Coast attempt and of course The Worlds is shaping up to be the race of my life. Many aspects of home life have been compromised due to our house situation, but my training has not (I missed one session over the move week…). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Charlotte’s support is incredible. (Soloists aint really solo).

The intense effort training sessions have been REALLY hard. I’ve not trained like this before and I won’t lie; it hurts like hell! But the initial shock is subsiding. At first I cowered before a session; now I can’t wait for the big efforts as I can feel myself getting stronger all the time. You can get used to anything…

So much good coaching advice tells us to cut out the dross hours and maximise the quality. My coach Will Newton is certainly applying this principle. Beside the physical benefits, it’s also worked really well with the chaos of the last few months. I remember discussing riding hours with Rob last year and we talked about ‘freeing up’ time for other aspects of life, rather than spending hour after hour on the bike. Recent events were not what I had planned freeing up time for back then…. but I’m sure glad I adopted this training strategy because I simply could not have done the regular 6, 7, 8 hr rides I was doing last year given the circumstances….. and I’m fully on it for my main challenges (as opposed to being de-motivated by ‘not having enough time’). Funny how things pan out!