Thursday, 4 August 2011

Highs and Lows

Mountain bike racing, it is often said, usually pun-intended, is a sport of highs and lows. It makes the high all the sweeter that the lows can be gutting. Racing is always hard, but it so much harder when you feel like you are fighting the course, other riders or even just your own body. From the last few years of racing the BMBS, I know how all of these things feel, but in the last 12 months i've learned a lot more about the humble mechanical than i ever wanted to know. Mechanicals are perhaps the most upsetting experience, if you're less fit or technically able than other riders, and suffer as a result, then at least you can go away, regroup and improve. With equipment failure, it doesn't matter how well prepared you are and how good you feel, it can be snatched away, and there is little you can do beyond careful, regular maintenance to ameliorate things. Shit happens.

My first experience of the Scottish XC series at Kirroughtree told me that i would have an exciting year to look forward to, the course was ace, the competition was pretty fierce with Expert and Elite riders mixed together, and the atmosphere was so friendly. Unfortunately, my race ended after two and a half laps when i picked up a second puncture on a rocky section of trail - my own fault entirely for running too little pressure to try to find some traction in the mud. Fast forward to the end of July, and the last round at Perth and i was feeling pretty confident. Four months more riding and racing in my legs, some record power numbers in the weeks running up to the race, and the fact that the course was not dissimilar to one of my favourite Fife riding venues, Pitmedden, made me think i was on for a good result here.

In the morning, i did my duty and fed Rachel as she cruised to another podium spot (2nd) behind Ciara McManus and in the process won the series. A national series elite win, not bad eh? For my race start, it became clear that there wasn't going to be a great strength in depth; there were three of us on the start line. I have to admit to feeling a bit conflicted about this, on the one hand, i would be guaranteed a podium finish, on the down side it felt like abit of an empty achievement. The predicament was probably even worse for friend Doug Shearer, who has been racing the scottish series the last 7years, and had never yet been on the Elite podium!

Rachel on her way to the series title. Note the warning about "Dangerous Cliffs" behind - this was a seriously picturesque course!

We got off to a gentle start, with Rab Wardell leading our intrepid trio through the downhill fireroad section at the beginning of the course, and then turning on the turbos when we hit the first climb. Showing my characteristic diesel nature, i didn't have the change of pace to follow, and tried not to get in Dougal's way as i grunted my way upwards. From the top of the first climb, it was pretty clear that Rab wasn't going to suffer too much from high grass track highland games exploits the day before, and he rode away to take a fine win. Things were a little closer between Douglas and I, in no small part because of his knee issues that have hampered his training over the last weeks. For a lap and a half, he sat ~15s ahead, the gap closing and opening a little as we reached sections of course that suited on or other of us. As the gap was closing again, disaster. Riding along a flat section of i heard a ping, and looked down to see my chain in my spokes - d'oh. I managed to coax the chain back out, and was about to pedal away when i noticed that the chain had escaped the mech. Unfortunately, the carbon cage plate had snapped - game over.

Feeling utterly dejected i had one last go at getting the whole drivetrain to work for me, in the hope that i could just ride around and finish to claim my spot on the podium having foregone any hopes of catching Douglas for second. It lasted 300 yards of gentle pedalling before falling apart again, and i gave up and ran to the start finish, with thoughts of whether or not it was feasible to run the whole course another 3 times going through my brain.

Rachel reiterated what the sensible side of my brain was saying, that running around with a bike there was no chance of staying on the lap, and that i might as well accept my poor luck and cheer my friends who were still riding. She was right, and it was good to see the front runners and riders in the masters and vets races blasting through for their final laps. A nice chat with friends, and we headed home for me to take my frustration out on the turbo trainer, where another PB 20m power suggested that my form is there - and i broke the "Magic 300" that Steve James and i have spoken about at previous races!

Looking dangerously as though i know what i'm doing. Normal service will no doubt be resumed soon...

In a way the whole experience epitomises what i love and hate about mountain bike racing. It's a different sport to time trialling, or even some road races, where you could measure people's physiological condition before the race and have a good idea of who will win. With MTB racing and 'cross, there is an element of equipment selection and maintaining it on and off the course, and of course the small matter of riding technically well and efficiently that pose less of a problem to our skinny-tyred bretheren. But with more variables come more ingenious and annoying ways for the bike Gods to end your race, and therein lies the rub. It is precisely this capriciousness in mtb racing that caused Cadel Evans to switch to the road. He's weak! I intend to continue with not knowing what the next 2hrs will hold when i start a race...