Tuesday, 24 April 2012

British National Cross Country Series Round 2

Over the last few years I’ve always been a little bit nervous heading up to Dalby Forest to race the World Cup circuit. However this year none of that nervousness existed; this has its positives and negatives. The positives were that I wasn’t scared of the circuit, its technical features were no longer an issue and Saturday practise went smoothly without any problems. In practise I was feeling strong and confident ahead of the race. The negatives of having no nervousness is that perhaps I was a little too relaxed about what lay ahead, even the heavy rain and wet slippery conditions couldn’t phase me. A little nervousness is also sometimes good for getting the adrenaline going.

Wet skies greeted us on the morning of the race but the team were well prepared with shelter for race preparation and warm up already in place by the time I arrived at the arena. Race warm up went well with the heart rate achieving good levels and the legs feeling light on the pedals.

The worst of the course was around the arena field which had turned into a proper mud fest. The large elite field sprinted into the first corner but the scene was more like a car drifting scene with everyone going sideways as any grip from our back wheels disappeared. I lost some positions during the start loop being boxed in around the first corner on the field. A quick start is crucial at Dalby with the tight singletrack making it very difficult to overtake, queuing through the first few trails was frustrating and not where I wanted to be.

During the early laps conditions around the rest of the course weren’t too bad apart from the isolated spot. On the early climb I was riding well making up time overtaking riders. On the descents the 29er wheels were making easy work of the rocky terrain; however it was impossible to overtake and make any real progress. The time I was making up on the early short ‘sprint’ climbs wasn’t enough to counter the time lost on two longer climbs at the back of the circuit. On the longest climb I really suffered, some seated high intensity climbing work needs to be done before the next hilly race!

It was great having support out on the track, Mountain Trax rider and Dalby local Calum Chamberlain was out in the forest with friends shouting much needed encouragement. Also team director John Newport did an excellent job in the feed zone providing me with nutrition throughout the 2 hour race. Over the 5 laps the course conditions deteriorated but the fine setup skills of the Mountain Trax mechanics meant my Santa Cruz bike was in the best possible condition to tackle these difficult conditions. Unfortunately my legs weren’t as well prepared for the day’s racing; positions and much time were lost on the 2 long climbs.

27th in a stacked international field full of full time athletes chasing the UCI points from the category 1 race was the best I could achieve on the day. Combining training for both cross country and marathon style racing is difficult, however I’d still hoped for a better result. 27th was not where I’d imagined finishing, and not where I want to be again this year. Lessons learnt, training plans set according, look for progress at an XC race near you in the coming months! Until then we have a marathon race or two, my preferred race distance. Next up is the Gorrick 100 in two weeks time where I return to defend my win from last year.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cape Epic 2012

The Cape Epic South African bubble has burst and less than 24 hours after crossing the final finish line in South Africa I was back home in the UK. It’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in the whirlwind tour of a stage race such as this. The Cape Epic itself for many is just about surviving and this year was no exception with 2011 being dubbed as the hardest ever edition due to a combination of the longest stage lengths and unusual weather conditions.

Arriving in Cape Town a few days before the race began gave us the opportunity to acclimatise to the heat, explore some of the Western Cape coastline including Table Mountain, and prepare for the 8 days of racing that lay ahead. The superior organisation of the race was immediately obvious even before registration day with the race taking over the Cape Town Waterfront area. I made a little video about registration day.

The Cape Epic is a pair’s event, I would be racing with my Andalucia Bike Race partner Josh Ibbett. On Sunday morning we travelled from our pre race apartment to Meerendal Wine Estate where the 27km prologue would begin. Opting not to be registered as a UCI team meant we were eligible for an earlier start therefore avoiding the scorching midday heat which reached 40 degrees on the first couple of days. The prologue went well for us, the traffic in the singletrack cost us some time but we still managed a pleasing 28th place result on a day which didn’t really suit our strengths as a pair.

The real race began the following day from the first race village in Robertson where we spent the first 3 nights of the race. Stage 1 was a real kick in the teeth introduction with some huge mountain climbs, the high heat also added to the difficulty of the race. On stage 1 and 2 we took a little time to adapt to racing as a pair but eventually we began to work well together moving us into 29th in the general classification after 3 days. On stage 2 I’d picked up the stage racing tummy bug, everything that went in quickly came out the other end! I raced this day on an empty stomach and was glad of Josh’s work sitting on the front protecting me from the wind. I did some work when I could and we tried to save as much energy as possible by sitting in groups letting others do some work. On stage 1 we experienced our only mechanical of the event where my front mech twisted, swift action meant no damage occurred and we could continue without issue.

Following our stay in Robertson we had the 147km transfer stage to our next race village in Caledon. The stats for the day scared most, it was not only the longest ever stage in Cape Epic history but the stage also had 2900 metres of climbing. Fortunately that day my legs felt amazing and I was able to put in plenty of work on the 6.5 hour stage helping us move up the standings by a couple of places. The first days around Robertson have huge inch long thorns littering the trails, I must have pulled maybe 15 thorns out of my Kenda tyres at the end of each day but the Slant Six’s sealed immediately with sealant and we didn’t suffer any punctures.

Stage 4 the wind picked up and huge winds turned the last 30km’s from a fast finish into the arena into a slog battling against a headwind or crosswind. Echelons formed across the gravel roads spitting out riders who left too much of gap to the rider ahead. It was a tough day and blew the race apart. The weather conditions may have been tough but Josh and me achieved our best performance so far finishing 23rd.

Following stage 4 the winds receded but worse weather quickly followed. Caledon was drenched with huge downpours which turned stage 5 into a proper day of survival, Kielder 100 2011 style! Bikes took a battering from the sandy conditions right from the beginning, after 119kms and 2350 metres of climbing you can guess how bad they got, brake pads were in popular demand at the finish line. Whilst the bikes were abused so were the riders, many getting hyperthermia. We used our skills and mindsets built from years of muddy wet horrible British winters to pull us through the day. There were a few little comedy moments including reaching the first muddy bit of singletrack with summer slick tyres and steamed up sunglasses. Following this though we rode well to 18th place on the stage! The day’s result was a good consolation for the carnage which we’d survived and still had to negotiate - as life in a flooded camp site living in a tent can only provide.

The morning of day 7 began with the usual 5am Scottish bagpipes wake up call. To the relief of everyone the sun rose into clear skies as the stage began at 7am revealing the magical mountainous scenery that Oak Valley Wine Estate is surrounded by. The final 2 days were shorter. Day 7 was a tough one though with 2200 metres of climbing crammed into 85kms. Out climbing Josh on the steeper climbs did have its benefits, I could admire the beauty of the area with the few spare moments I had at the top of each climb. There were some pretty special views that day out over the coast. The crazy climbs at the Cape Epic were often followed by steep rocky boulder field descents which didn’t provide any rest, however my Fox Terralogic forks and 29er Hope wheels helped me put time into many other riders on these sections. The views and also the trails around Oak Valley are what all previous participants of the Cape Epic talk about, the singletrack was fantastic and left riders with huge smiles at the end of the stage. We were 23rd on stage 6/ day 7.

The final day of the Epic was suddenly upon us, it was weird to think that the routine would soon come to an end. First though we had a 65km blast from Oak Valley to the final finish line at Lourensford Wine Estate. Although the stats suggested an easy day participants were reminded at the briefing the night before that there is no easy day at the Cape Epic! The pace from the start was much faster than previous days with riders keen to still grab a few extra positions on the general classification. The terrain was rolling with a couple of ‘small’ 200 metre climbs to sprint up, followed by a 300+ metre climb, and then a downhill hike a bike followed by a few more undulating hills along the Lourensford singletrack trails. We motored along through the stage to the huge grand finale celebrations; we retained our 21st position on the overall results, and successfully finished our first Cape Epic, hopefully the first of many!

Whilst the pro’s spent many tough hours in the saddle it was incredible to see the ‘weekend warriors’ who rode in just under (and some unfortunately just over the stage time limits) which on many stages was as much as 11 hours! The race organisation was fantastic throughout thanks to an impressive army of employees it has on hand for the race. I would suggest that every mountain bike racer should do this event at some point, it is the biggest and best offroad event in the world, the Tour de France of mountain biking.

Our Santa Cruz Bikes UK team was one of the youngest pairings at the event, however our result was a huge success and one we can be proud off. With neither of us peaking our training for this event like many do I wonder how well we could do with a little better preparation, the experience of one Cape Epic already under our belt, and a mechanic/ supporter and campervan to live in - top 15? top 10? I hope to return in a couple of years to find out.