Monday, 27 October 2014

The Worlds Come Crashing Down

I hadn’t had anything like the preparation that I’d have chosen for a 24 hour race, let alone the World Champs.  Forget training, in between family illness and writing a PhD, there had been weeks on end this year that I had not been near a bike at all.   

Home - picture Olly Townsend

But I’m not going to get many chances to ride in a World Championship race in the UK.  Plus some great riding in Canada this year and training out in the French Pyrenees with AQR reminded me that I loved riding my bike and I was fitter than I feared I was.  A month out, I decided there was nothing to lose, so entered and vowed to do the best I could whilst enjoying the experience. 

But in amongst the concern about my physical form and post-PhD rush to sort the race logistics I’d completely neglected any mental preparation and failed to develop the self-belief I would need to get myself through – I’d stuck it in the ‘too hard’ pile and busied myself with other things. 

The calm before the storm - picture Olly Townsend

By the time I was on the start line I’d exhausted myself with pre-race nerves.  Riding the course the day before had drained my fragile confidence.  I’m not a climber and lap seemed to be solely steep hills; how on earth was I going to sit and spin on this?  The fact I was able to negotiate the descents smoothly and safely didn’t register with me.  How was I going to manage 24 hours?

The race started and people seemed to just ride away from me.  I tried to remain relaxed – there was 24 hours still to go – but I just couldn’t settle.  A slipping seat post added to my woes, my tense body and mind were ganging together to make everything hurt and drain away my remaining stoicism.  I came into the pits after just one lap with tear streaks down my face. 

But I didn’t want to give up this easily.  With immense effort from both me and my pit crew, I got back out for lap two. 

And then things started to get a bit better.  Once I forgot to worry about the course I realised the climbs weren’t actually as awful as I had originally thought.  Plus, I was having great fun on the descents – each lap I worked to improve my line, hone my technique or time my jumps a little bit better.  From the first few laps I knew the two girls in front of me were riding hard on the climbs and I had the measure of them on the descents, I just needed to keep tapping it out.  And then I was lapped. I have never been lapped so early in a race.  My regained confidence started to seep away.  I tried to remind myself that this was about me – riding my bike – and kept pushing on. 

Going to plan - picture Olly Townsend

My next lap started well and my pace was up on previous laps.  And then there was a sudden grinding and crunching noise.  My wheel was completely jammed by a deformed rear mech, it was so twisted it seemed to take ages to get it free.  I jogged, trotted, pushed and free-wheeled the second half of the lap.  I thought it would cause me to fall apart but the encouragement from other riders keeping me positive.  In the pits I grabbed my spare bike, lights and some food and got back out. 

As night fell it got cooler and the next time at the pits I grabbed a gilet and headed back out.  But as I passed through the rest of the pits I started to shake uncontrollably from the cold.  I pulled back in at the rear of the pits for a warmer jacket at which point my pit crew pulled me from the course – I have pretty rubbish temperature control at the best of times and no-one was going to risk me going back out on the exposed hills and long descents.  It took me a long time and a lot of food and clothes to get warm again. 

I was gutted.  Not by my physical failure in the cold, but that I had never believed I could do it.  QED.  Physically ability and form is irrelevant when you neglect to prepare yourself mentally. 

I’ll know for next time. 

Big thanks for the support from those below.  Sorry I couldn’t keep to my end of the deal.  
  • My pit crew, their jackets, woolly hats and cups of tea
  • Kate and Ian at A Quick Release coaching
  • The staff of Leisure Lakes Nottingham 
  •  No Fuss Events for a fun and brutal course and an amazing event
  • The other racers and crews in particular Tom and Garage Bikes, and Rickie and Sarah at 559 Bikes

Monday, 10 February 2014


Whilst my current student status provides me with the luxury of lounging in bed until lunchtime, drinking until 3am with no regard to tomorrow's hangover, permission to slouch around in jeans and a beany all day and not comb my hair as well as to have an unadulterated love of value baked beans, it does have its financial downside. As I start to approach the end of my studentship my bike-fund coffers have well and truly run dry.

Having already exhausted the "I'll be earning soon so will be able to afford x" justification - that covered the three holidays / foreign bike races booked already for this year - I have had to resort to other measures to fund my new steed.  OK, I confess, it's actually going to be two, but the principle is still the same and the need more pressing. 

And so the n+1 rule of bike ownership is gone.  

This has been, and in fact still is, one of the singly most faffy and torturous things I have done.  And that includes trying to write up my PhD.  Here's for-why;

1. Any volunteers please raise your hand
First issue was to work out what stayed and what went.  Two frames were on loan from Cotic and AQR so they were first up.  I also accepted that I am unlikely to ever ride again what was formally my best bike but never felt the same once it had been nicked, showcased on eBay and generally bastardised before we were reunited.  And finally, I decided get rid of my former ride-all-the-time training bike in favour of sticking some less fancy stuff on my lightweight version of the same for marmalising in the winter crud.  This would leave me with two bikes for the time being and eventually a four-out, two-in scenario with me feeling amazingly virtuous at levels of bike-quantity restraint.

2. Pick and choose
Knowing what was going and (almost) what was to come led me to several hours of switching and swapping bits on bikes to keep and sell.  Future compatibility was key as was the opportunity to get rid of hard-to-sell (crap) components on a bike build in the hope potential buyers wouldn't notice.  This wasn't the most efficient process - I spent a few hours re-building the aforementioned training bike just to dismantle it again a few days later when I agreed a sale on the frame as no-one appeared interested in the bike.

3. Make hay
I took this as an opportunity to gently suggest that the other-half should clear out some of his hoardings.  He says retro, I say old and knackered.  If anyone knows why you should need five not-quite-working front mechs please let me know. 

4. Girls on film
Clean part, photograph part, re-photograph part as light rubbish, upload photos onto Flickr, re-upload photos onto Flickr as it's playing silly-beggars, look up description of part, attempt to look up value of part, prepare bike forum 'for sale' post, post said post, notice errors in post, re-post.
And wait.
And repeat.
Answer queries.
Don't get annoyed with people who you agree a sale with then never bother to come back to say they've changed their mind.
Resign yourself to eBay.

5. EBay
This is painstaking. And laborious. And tedious. And they charge you for the pleasure. 
However, it never ceases to amaze me what stuff people will pay good money for and sadly, what good stuff people wont pay money for.

Progress so far
Over half the funds needed for the new bike, three bikes that neatly hung on the wall in the garage gone, several boxes of bike components from three bikes on garage floor still to sell, one more bike to rebuild and sell, absence of bike riding and daylight due to spending last two weekends stuck in garage, the OH's mid-90s Hope brakes selling for nearly double what was paid for them (the price tag was still on the box), £80 and counting to the Post Office and couriers, constant amazement at how many 'one day' spares the OH owns and testing of CRC and Wiggles' 365 day return policy (with 6 days to spare).  Oh, and in the meantime the new bike has been funded courtesy of an interest-free credit card.  Thank you Mr Santander. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Falling out of love

It seems really obvious now.  

And looking back I can see it’s been coming over the last few months. But it’s taken me a long time to recognise it –  I just didn’t see it coming.  Despite what I thought I felt, I realise now that this summer I fell out of love with my bike.  

Things had started so well.  

We were virtually inseparable over the winter months. We spent hour upon hour together, just the two of us.  And as spring breathed new life into the world outside, we spent our time planning and preparing for the summer ahead.  

We became stronger together.  We learned to work perfectly in partnership; we made the most of each other’s strengths and compensated for each others' weaknesses.  

We did things together that we’d never done before.  We visited foreign shores and tackled hours of riding and racing together.  Sometimes we’d invite others along but for the most time, we just enjoyed being with one another.  Together, alone.

We showered each other in gifts; jewellery, clothes and such like.  We were happy.  We were in love. 
But then things started to change. 

Our Alpine adventure had been intense – we hardly left each others' sides.  And when we returned home we suddenly didn’t seem so interested in seeing one another.  Days slipped by with little time spent together and somehow we didn’t miss each other as much as we should have done.  

We planned a couple more trips away in an attempt to reignite things. 

We took an August outing to the seaside to race at Brighton Big Dog.  We were having a great time until I did – or maybe I said – something wrong.  And we fell out.  He refused to carry on and I wasn’t able to do anything to redeem the situation.  We went home early, miserable, aware that we’d lost something that we couldn’t quite put our finger on.  

After our seaside disagreement we thought we should try again.  We wanted to spend hours where it was just the two of us.  We wanted to sort things out.  So we planned a bank holiday trip away to the Torq 12 hour solo where we’d had such fun a couple of years before.  

I was nervous as to how things would go – we hadn’t spent any time together since our falling out a fortnight before, but we were going to have to tackle this head on if we wanted things to change. 

Sadly, despite all our best intentions, we just didn’t click.  There were brief moments when things were great, but these just served as a reminder of what we had lost.  Reluctantly I admitted that my heart and legs weren’t in it.  Forcing the issue wasn’t going to resolve things.  The love-affair was over.  

I’m told that from the outside we looked like a good couple that day but as I climbed onto the podium I knew that we hadn’t been what we should have been.  We were awarded first place in the 2013 Endurance Series too but this just highlighted the strength we had once had had been lost.  As much as we didn’t want to admit it, despite all our efforts to rekindle the spark, we realised we’d fallen out of love.  

We decided after that we were going to stop forcing the issue and we should have some time apart instead.  See other people; do other things.  And to be grateful and happy for the good times we had together this year.  Because they’ve been great.  We just need a break. 

They say what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and so I’m looking forward to be stronger together next year. 

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Transalp 2013 - great expectations

From the endorphin-thick haze that surrounded me on my return from my first stage race experience  came the notion that it would be a good idea to do more.  My debut had gone pretty smoothly so I lept to the conclusion that it would always be like this; not so much a race but a cycling holiday with days packed full of new trails, new people and new experiences.

What's more there was a yawning gap in my racing and holiday calendar this summer.  And I had found willing partner.  And there were still places available in the biggest and most famous stage race of them all.  Consequently there was only one course ahead, Transalp it would be.

With my scantly-evidenced expectations firmly in place, I headed out with my team mate Ant Jordan and 1000 others to cross the biggest mountain range of the Alps. Unsurprisingly not all of it panned out the way I thought it might:

You hope that being nice to the lady on the check-in desk at the airport means that she doesn't weigh your bike bag and charge you for your extra weight she should.
True.  Practise after me "Weight? Of this? Oh, just about under the limit"

Your relative success in your only previous stage race experience will mean that you're physically capable of taking all this in your (wheel) stride
False.  It will be harder than you ever imagined possible and you'll wonder whether you actually ever undertook any cycle-based training in your life.

You know that climbing isn't quite your thing and you might find some of this a bit tough.
True. But then there's 'tough' and 'tough'.

Take lots of spares as 'being prepared' will offer natural protection against anything going wrong with your bike
False. Lots of things will break whether you're prepared or not.  Although having the spares will mean that you'll be able to cobble together some kind of fix in your hotel room at 11 o'clock at night when all the bike shops are closed and you'll also just manage to complete the race when your partner's bike explodes on the last stage.

You'll be grateful of having taken the time and expense of booking hotel rooms for a decent night's kip after every stage.
True.  Although you'll wish that you didn't have to trek to the next town to get to it.

You'll be pleased that you and your racing partner are closely matched in ability.
True.  But you'll become incredibly envious of the female riders in other mixed pairs who regularly got a shove up the climbs.

You'll think it's great being able to justify eating anything and everything you fancy in an attempt to balance the calories burned.
False. I never believed that eating breakfast would become such a chore.  I still can't look an oat in the eye without blinking first.

The fact that you can complete 24hr races and happily ride at 3am when other people are faced with numerous demons means that the mental challenge of stage racing won't even register.
False.  You'll have the hardest day you've ever had on the bike and then, on subsequent days, you discover there are places even lower than that.

You think it's a bit hillier in the Alps than where you live.
True.  But you don't understand what it means until you ride up a 10% climb for 2hrs.

Campari spritz and Italian ice-cream taste even better after 700km and 20,000m of climbing
True.  Although it's important to keep testing to be sure.

At least the next time I jump head-first into a stage race I'll have two experiences to base my expectations.  Although that's going to make it harder to justify my rookie mistakes...

For our stage-by-stage race report, head over to the Cotic-AQR team blog

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Miserable Mayhem

It was probably never going to be a good idea.

On the surface of it I felt great after racing 24hrs at Exposure.  Last year it took me months to get back on the bike, this time I was having to hold myself back after a couple of days.  I had one or two niggles but wasn't that to be expected?

I was good, I rested and didn't ride much at all. 

I didn't get carried away with my idea, I canvased opinion on whether two 24hr solos in a month was do-able.  Half said I was mad, but they say that about one 24hr event.  Others said go for it if I felt ok.

So I did.

But I don't think I was ever convinced.  I didn't get stressed in the week before the event.  Not, as I tried to tell myself, that I was relaxed as it didn't matter, it was an extra race, I was training; but because I was pretending it wasn't happening as I knew my body wasn't up to it.

I realised afterwards that I'd been hoping that someone that I would trust would tell me not to do it.  I couldn't make that call myself as that would be giving up.  24hr racing is mind over matter, giving up is not conducive to 24hr racing.

Right from the start I knew my body wouldn't be able.  My legs wouldn't go and my back was in spasm.  The muddy, grindy climbs and lack of free flowing trails didn't help.  I changed bikes for my second lap for a different position and started again.  Just relax go with the flow.  But there was no flow to go with.  This wasn't a head thing, my body just wasn't close to being ready.

In hindsight perhaps I should have been less 'good' in the time between the two races.  If I'd done any kind of half decent ride I'd have realised that I was far from being ready.  It's easy to feel good when you're doing nothing.

People asked before whether my head would be in it to do two so close together.  I'm not sure, I didn't get to put it to the test.  If this had all happened at 3am then maybe it would have been an issue, as it was pulling out was the easiest decision I made about the whole race.  Physically I just wasn't able.

And what have I learnt from this? I still believe 24hr racing is mind over matter but knowing when something is too much is a skill I don't have.  Next time I should listen to myself before going through the rigmarole of preparing for an event. 

Luckily my team mate Ant had a better time with a stonking performance in the male solo race, here's his report.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

24hrs of Exposure Solo MTB Championships

I had decided I wanted to ride this year's Exposure 24hr solo championships 'stronger' and 'harder' than last.  This would be dead easy of course, all I needed to do was improve on my fitness, skill and some of the more shabby areas of my performance from last year and I'd be able to go faster than before.  So easy in fact, even a two year old could tell you...

Number one - training
I've trained harder this winter than I did last year.  Given that last year's training competed with a long commute, full-time work alongside a PhD, moving house and other various life events it wasn't actually that difficult to improve things.  Plus I had Kate Potter of AQR guiding me through my training, after all if you want to do well in a 24hr race you should chose an expert 24hr-racer-turned-coach to guide you.  Training goal completed (well, there's nothing wrong starting with a nice and easy goal to make yourself feel good).

So onto the race itself:

Number two - the start
Whereas last year I pootled start to finish, this year I wanted to see if I could get off to a stronger start.  I did reasonably well with this and a couple of practice laps proved useful in hitting the right lines from the off.  It didn't quite all go to plan though and on my first lap I nearly got taken out by two deer running across the trail and burped a front tyre which was accompanied with a small tumble over the bars.  In my defense I felt I needed to leave myself something to improve on in the next 23+ hours.

Three - consistent laps
I had worked out by what percentage my lap times had increased through the race last year and was aiming to keep this down.  The huge deluge around 8pm put pay to that as the course turned into thick mud but having seen that I did laps 3-8 in exactly the same time and haven't yet seen my lap times for the rest of the race I've decided to give myself this one anyway.

Four - pits
I wanted to make sure my pit stops were as efficient as possible: rolling changes for bottles and gels as much as I could and take longer if needed but no languishing.  With the pit crew that was there to support me and fellow Cotic-AQR team mate Martin, it was hard not to get this one right. So good were the crew that they were only slightly flummoxed when the gazebo tried to take off in the wind and rain amid a soggy kit change.  Not bad you lot, not bad at all...
Cotic - AQR HQ
And five - food and drink
With shorter laps and a wandering mind I was finding it hard to remember whether I'd had my requisite gels and bars on some of the laps.  Energy levels were ok so if I did I can't have missed too many.  Once it started to rain and I donned the thicker waterproof gloves and rain jacket remembering became the least of my problems as I couldn't really get into my pocket for my gels.  Luckily whilst ferreting around I did find a Lipsil so I was able to ensure my lips didn't get chapped mid-lap.  Handy.  Given the lap wasn't that long I could get away with eating just once a lap and my pit crew took to squirting a gel into my mouth and sending me out chewing a bar each time I went through.  I just made sure my lips were kept well conditioned.

Finally, number six - ride efficiently
This course was not my friend - it had none of the bits I'm any good on and lots of bits I'm rather shady at.  Long, mind-bending slogs and techy descents I'm your girl; rooty, muddy, twisty, uppy-downy trails - no ta. Although bizarrely I enjoyed it, well, most of it most of the time.  The fact that the course played to all my weaknesses made it harder but more important for me to ride  efficiently.  I think I did pretty well until the rain and mud came.  Then for 12 hours I didn't make a single lap without at least one unplanned dismount.  My personal favourites were the backward somersault with clean double-footed landing and when I managed to take out pit-mate Rob mid fall.  That'll teach him to ride alongside me. 

Last lap glory

And that was it.  Despite a few hiccups I think things went rather well.  I can definitely say that I did what I set out to do and rode harder, stronger and 'faster-faster' than I did last year.  Throughout the race I held onto second place with first never far out of sight.  I've retained my national 24hr champion jersey which is a nice way to celebrate me achieving what I set out to.

It should go without saying the massive thanks I owe my pit crew for their support before, during and after the race.  It might be solo racing, but I couldn't have done it without them all.  Also thanks to SIP for another great event, it's a shame it doesn't attract the number of entries it deserves.  

Podium antics

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Second helpings

The thing about going back for seconds is they're never quite as good as the first serving.  The first time round has a reason; the need for a bit more isn't really defined.  Seconds never hit the spot in the way the first portion did.  And there's the risk that it's cold and congealed, stale and old.  At best you're underwhelmed, at worse you feel a sick and wish you hadn't bothered.
I've told you, you'll wish you hadn't
My first helping of 24hr solo racing was the 2012 Exposure National 24hr MTB Championship.  I had a couple of aims.  Firstly, could I do the training I needed to do get to the start line and to give myself a realistic chance of being able to complete a 24hr race? Number two, could I actually 'complete' a 24hr race without having to walk entire laps or have several hours kip mid-way through?  

And I did them both.  My first helping of a 24hr solo race achived everything I wanted to achieve.  What's more I won the race.  It was tasty, I was full and it had even had sprinkles on the top.  So, despite my tendancy to reach for the serving spoon for a bit more, this time I was done. 

Exposure 2013 - done and done
But that seemed a shame.  Surely it couldn't have been that good, surely I wanted a bit more, surely having seconds could achieve something that the firsts did not?  But no.  I'd done that before and going back had never been as good.  I remained satisfied with what I'd done as I embarked on this winter's base training to achieve some yet un-defined goal.  But the question of what I was hungry for remained unanswered.  And despite my reticence to any further 24hr racing, the thought wouldn't quite go away.

Then I saw it all a bit differently.  This wasn't about having seconds, this was a whole new dinner.  I didn't want to go back for more because I couldn't achieve my first 24hr race again.  I needed new goals, not a new event.  Working out what my goals has proved much harder than before.  It's obvious to say that I want to be stronger and improve on how I did last year but working out how I can measure this has been tricky.   Comparing numbers of laps and distance to last year doesn't work as it's a new course and different conditions. Other obvious things like retaining my title, getting on the podium or achieving a certain percentage of the male winner's laps are all relative; they have more to do with other people's performance than my own.  This is about what I can achieve, not how well I do compared to others.  

With less than a week to go to this year's Exposure I've finally worked out what my goals are - I have my new recipe.  I may not achieve them, my dinner might taste awful, but at least I've resisted that second helping.