Saturday, September 27, 2008

There is a plan

My meandering, instinctive approach to training post-worlds is about to draw to a close. I have met with my coach John Lee to go over a plan for the next year. The time is right seeing as I have now recovered from 24 hours of grinding up and down the Canadian Rockies.

So what does this plan entail? Lots of riding is a given. But there are also some rest periods (shock, horror). Again the major focus is on the world 24 hour solo championships in who knows where. The other major event is not so much of a race against other riders but a race against the clock and vastly different to my usual style of racing.

I have been thinking about trying for the length of New Zealand record for a while, and now there is a window in my training program for it. Basically I will be hopping on my road bike instead of my mountain bike and riding on roads from the northern tip to the southern tip.

The record currently stands at four days 16 hours and 40 minutes. So all going well I will pull into Bluff well ahead of that time. I don’t want to take away from the current record holder so much as to improve the record. I would hesitate to put a figure out there of how much I would like to knock off the record time.

Also this summer should see me compete in my first XC races in ages. For sure it’s going to be very different to what I am used to. The point is to help with my speed and keep myself entertained. No doubt I have not a chance of putting the leader in danger, but I’ll have fun.

Presently I have taken off to my home town of New Plymouth. And I feel at home with the rain pouring down. Already I have hit some of my old favourite tracks and caught up with friends and family who I have not seen for a while, and some I have not see since I returned from Canada. I will be back in Rotorua to take on the Whaka 100.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Today marked the first day back in the gym. My last season was over two months ago before I left for Canada. And my body let me be well aware of this.

Despite being in an effective off season, I have not been keeping the bikes locked away in a dark room. I have for a long time ceased trying to pretend that I am anything apart from a complete mountain bike addict and endurance junky to boot. So my ‘off season’ involves more riding than many people on season. But I only ride if I feel like it, which is nearly every day.

For example the day after stepping off the plane from Canada a mere four days after I finished what was by far the hardest and most intense race of my life, I went for a ride. Although I was riding an Ellsworth Rouge with eight inches of silky sponginess.

One of the areas that helped me to my under 25 world 24 hour solo title was my descending. The downhills in Canmore were nothing amazingly hard compared with what I have ridden here in NZ. But they sure got a whole lot more interesting when the rain streamed down them. In the early part of the race when the track was dusty I was not making huge time on the descents, but certainly not holding anyone up. But when 100mm of mud was layered on top there was no one who I could not lose down the rooty sections. So the years of playing in the mud and coming home and having my Mum threaten to hose me off outside paid off.

I have wanted for a while to have a dabble in freeriding. But for over a year I have been training or racing. This meant that I could not risk doing dangerous new stuff at the risk of injury and loss of training time. Therefore upon my return to New Zealand, post the biggest race of my life, was the perfect time to get some airtime.

So I borrowed a six inch travel trail/light freeride bike and headed out with my mate to do some sweet jumps. We started with some not so small jumps and worked towards linking an entire track together. It involved several sections of jumps as well as drops and structures. The first time I did anything, naturally, was terrifying. Even though I have spent a large chunk of my life on bikes I don’t often depart the earth on them for more than micro seconds. But the rush of more hang time was awesome.

More recently I have been enjoying the improving weather and hitting the trails. Both my Ellsworth and Niner have been regularly out cruising the Redwoods. Not far away is the Whaka 100km single loop race that I am really looking forward to, having missed it last year. I was busy getting ready to attend my first international race at the Scott 24 in Canberra.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

24 hours of Adrenaline Worlds Solo Championships 2008 Part Two

So when I heard thunder claps echo down the vast valleys, I sighed with relief. The temperature dropped and I immediately felt better as the light rain added an extra edge to the course. Coming from a New Zealand winter where it had snowed on my last training weekend, I was not intimidated by a little mud and slippery roots. I maintained my fast-is-best policy on the single track downhills that were riddled with roots. The first shower to hit did not stick around to saturate the soil. It really dampened the dust and the roots dried after a short while. Even so my support crew spotted the difference as I came through the pits. I was more comfortable even if I was a bit damp myself. My laps only suffered a small amount and were very consistent. The gap to Joel was also staying steady at around six minutes.

This however, was just the entree. A huge thunder storm loomed over the mountains and served the main course with vigour. There were near thunder strikes, and enormous rain drops saturated me quickly. I was glad for the first shower because of the temperature loss and the course changing a little to suit my tires and style. But now my tires were struggling to cope with the deluge. The dirt parts of the course soon were minced into quagmires. This was turning into an epic race. Lap times were now suffering in a big way, sub-hour and forty-minute times now were blistering fast. I quickly noticed that most riders in the race were not totally at home on the slippery roots and deep mud. I thought back to the thousands of hours I spent playing in the mud at Mangamhoe Forest, time no longer wasted.

The compulsory time for lights was 7:30 pm even though sunset was more like 9:30 to 10 o’clock. So everyone had to lug their systems around for a good two hours before really needing them. Luckily my Ay Up system barely weighed anything so I never noticed any difference, except when darkness did come and I turned on the powerful beams to see me through the summer night of mud. It was at this stage that I started to notice a disadvantage I was at with my set up. All the people I was competing against were using at least two bikes. My poor Ellsworth was taking the full force of the course, conditions and my relentless riding. I started losing gears on the rear sprocket to a frustrating bunch of neutrals. Only the bigger cogs were functioning regularly. This is common in muddy races but I still had 14 plus hours to go.

The main thing I try to maintain through these events is constant lap times. With the dark hours setting in and the track not in prime condition my times were certainly getting a lot slower than my first few laps in the dry. But everyone had eased off and I was deep in my rhythm and singing to myself. As midnight was drawing near, my constancy was paying some dividends. I got news that the gap to first in the Under 25 Category was closing rapidly. This buoyed my spirits and I put a little more effort out to reel him in. And around the midway point of the race I came up on Joel. His lights had failed and he didn’t look great. I am not proud of how I passed him. I went wide on the ski trail and snuck past to avoid him noticing me.

As I pulled into my pit, Marcello and Heidie were ready to do a big midnight pit stop. Heidie helped me get into some warmer iRule gear, and wool socks while giving me food and pain killers. Marcello did his best to get my bike going more like it did after being tuned by Bike Vegas and Bikesmith and changed my Ay Up batteries. All this while a camera man videoed our every move, not that any of us cared, too focused. I pulled out of the pits in seconds again, but with my biggest pit stop done and dusted. I caught Joel again on the first climb. This time I pulled alongside to say "Hi", and asked him if it was muddy enough for him. I knew that he too had come from winter riding and would not be adverse to the conditions. We both knew what was going on position-wise, and I pulled away. Again he was racing his race and going as fast as he could go, and so was I.

Thorughout the race I was thinking back to New Zealand where I knew people were watching the live web cast. I thought of how I was communicating with them by my actions. I’m sure they would be cheering me on if they were here. I found out later that my Dad was broadcasting race updates via text message most of the night. So my extended family knew I had taken the lead shortly after it happened across the other side of the world.

At around 1 am on the solo-only loop, something happened for the first time in a number of hours. I had until then been passing everyone in sight including the team riders. Really charging though the adverse conditions. But now I had someone coming up the hill behind me, catching fast. Soon he was alongside; it was Tinker Juarez. I was about to go a lap down on the elite’s and overall race leader. I felt a little in awe but I managed to have a chat about the race and conditions. He seemed more equal seeing as we were both in the same or similar circumstances. He slowly pulled away. 

Being in the lead of a race gives you a sense of control. I had Heidie and Marcello keeping a watchful eye out for the gap to second. This grew quickly in half a lap to eight minutes. After this the gap became over 20 minutes and they could not stick around to find out for sure as they had to make their way back to the other feed zone. However, at no point did I feel comfortable with my position. Always pushing to extend or maintain the margin - I was not sure which. My support crew and everyone else seemed to think that it was fast becoming an unattainable distance. In past races I have chased down near half an hour deficits in the later stages of 24 hour solos. So I knew others could do the same to me. Joel seemed to be a strong rider and entirely capable of making a late charge. Hence my urgency to keep pouring on the acid and pull away further.

Marcello and Heidie began to feed me my overall standing instead of category ones. I had mentioned that I would like to be in the top twenty, and top ten would be excellent. And in the early hours I crept into the top ten. Sitting in 8th place I could hardly believe it, although my fa├žade of pain and focus kept most of my elation under wraps. Also there was a very long way to go before any of this was for sure.

24 hours of Adrenaline Worlds Solo Championships 2008 Part One

As I lay sprawled on my hostel bed after the hardest ride of my life I was wondering if there is any part of me that did not hurt. The 24 Hours of Adrenalin was always going to be a real test. First I had to travel half way around the world to a country I had never been. Then get used to the time zone, altitude and riding with bears. Also had escaped a harsh mid north island winter for a balmy Canadian summer. All of these factors knocked me for six upon my arrival in Calgary two weeks out from race start. Fortunately my Ellsworth turned up in the oversized luggage area in near perfect condition and was ready to tear up the local tracks before I was.

After a couple of days of sleep and general laziness Megan turned up and we made for the mountains. Megan is the other person making the trip from NZ to take on the world. Unfortunately she was not so lucky with her bike and bag initially not making it past Sydney. However we drove to Banff and had a first look at the venue in Canmore on the way. The setting for the race and the general area was spectacular, beyond superlative.

The event was based at the Canmore Nordic centre, which serves as a cross country ski facility in the long Canadian winter. But in the summer, like other ski resorts in Canada, it turns its focus more towards mountain biking. In 1999 it played host to the first 24 Hours of Adrenaline World Solo Champs. So it was a historical return to where it all began on the side of one of the many enormous mountains that make up the Rocky Mountain range.

Even though the event was over a week away the course was loosely marked so riders could get a feel for what they were getting themselves in for. And we were in for a very hard time indeed. Sustained steep climbs dominated the mountainside course. There were a few sections of technical roots and rock garden that required some concentration and a fair bit of speed. But overall the lap was not technically challenging and would favour riders that were powerful climbers.

Somehow I managed to keep my nerves in check until the day before the race when I was flooded with a wave of anxiety. I knew that I could ride my bike for 24 hours and if things went well I could be in contention in my age group. I had hopes of giving the top 20 or even 10 a nudge. With 200 soloists this looked to be a tall order. The elite field was rumoured to be one of the best ever assembled. I was hesitant to say for sure how I would do. A few things were certain, it was going to be hard; I would be competing against riders with more experience, support, bikes and crew. And there was going to be a lot of pain happening.

On the afternoon before the race my support crew turned up. Marcello and Heidie had driven more than 20 hours from Oregon USA where they were on holiday, just to be there to support me. Like me, they too live in Rotorua near the internationally famous mountain biking Whakawerawera forest. Having people who knew me and what I’m like in these races at this the biggest race of my life was huge asset. Marcello was quick to take to my bike and set about race tuning it.

Finally after more than two years of build-up I was on the start line of the World 24 Hour Solo Championships. I was surrounded by famous names and the hot Canadian summer air. Like most 24 hour races we had an annoying run to our bikes. This one was a good 600 meters before starting the prologue lap down through and then back up from the town of Canmore. After much anticipation a simple count down from five set this massive event underway. Both Megan and I had low numbers and so were near the front of the bunch for the start, and were instantly swamped by the pack. I tried to stay clear to be in a good position for the opening prologue lap. At the same time I was holding back a little not to drive my heart rate too high too soon, there was a long time to go.

I entered the pits in a top twenty position and picked up my bike from Marcello and Heidie and headed off out of the pits for the first of many times. I was not too keen on the idea of a prologue lap as it was sure to be significant descent and climb, the Nordic centre stands well above the host town of Canmore. It turned out to be quite open and I did my best to draft behind the lead bunch that were setting a hot pace. We honed through the west side of the town giving the locals a spectacle before starting the ascent back up to the Nordic centre. I maintained my top 20ish position into the first real lap. But I was behind Andy Fellows in his outrageous helmet and bright Ay Up shirt. I had competed with Andy at the 24 hours of N-Duro earlier this year.

I knew as we headed out on official lap one that I was clearly ahead of the rest of the Under 25 field. Not wanting to go out too hard, I toned down my hill climbing and made for a steady pace. At this stage the track was dry as, and there was traction aplenty. So the route descents and rock gardens were a breeze. My Ellsworth seemed to have infinite speed in the rough sections and when I had room I was pedalling where others were dragging their brakes.

After a small battle for overall positions I came through the second feed zone and got a new bottle from Heidie and had a few words with Marcello and confirmed I was in the lead of the Under 25’s. But with less than an hour on the clock this meant nothing. I left the feed zone and entered the fastest section of the course. A flat out gravel track over bumps that served as jumps then a bridge followed by some fast dippers. As the race went on I enjoyed this section more and more and gained chunks of time.

This second loop after the secondary feed zone consisted mainly of undulating 4wd tracks. There was a lot of time to be made here if you could keep your momentum up and my big wheels made this easier. After this there was a nasty technical single track climb that later became purely a bike push session. Soon after this the course split and the solo riders went off on a 5km section whereas the team riders headed straight for the pit zone. This gave us solo riders a chance to get some peace and find a rhythm. However, this was one of the toughest sections of the lap; it was dominated by a demoralising climb that gradually became steeper towards the summit. And of course it also became steeper as the hours crept by. This was followed by a very fast 4wd decent interrupted by a techy rocky section.

I came through the first official lap still in the lead of Under 25’s. But soon after this, Joel Donney from Canberra was right up with me with his team mate Troy. We rode within the vicinity of each other for quite some time. However, I eventually settled into my own pace and he rode away. I knew my support crew would keep an eye on any lead he incurred. Passing for major position in 24 hour races is different from your average XC event. They are all about your limits and your race. Most of the time it is best to ignore what your competitors are up to and focus on how you feel and your pace. So I was happy to politely chat to Joel and his team mate about the track and weather. He made a comment, ‘Is it hilly enough for you?’ Clearly no one was going to have an easy time with 640 metres of vertical gain in a lap.

It was still a hot Canadian afternoon and I was struggling to get the fluids down. Thanks to Heidie and her magic potion I was able to stave off cramp. I was definitely not in my element in the heat of the Canadian summer sun as it slowly cooked me on every exposed section and climb. I had seen a forecast that suggested some precipitation in the afternoon or evening. Boy was I hanging out in hope for it to pour down.