Sunday, 18 August 2013

Olympic Legacy - Part 2

The discussion in the hotel room over breakfast was if we were heading to the race course or A&E. I had suffered an uncomfortable night propped up on one side, largely unable to move. A trial run in the car park proved I could at least get onto the bike - so Hadleigh Farm it was!

The weather was kind and the sun shone as those riders that has survived the practice sessions were corralled into their categories for the start. Riders nervously discussed different possible lines through the technical sections as we were moved to the grid. A deep breath and we were off!

The start climbed directly to the top of the hill and I found myself near the front as we hit the first rock garden. I turned into the less technical 'B' run as the rider in front plunged directly across the rocks. With a crash he was down, the 'A' route was blocked but I rode safely on. At the next steep decent a rider was already lying contorted on the rocks below, so again I followed the riders ahead down the 'Chicken Run'! 

To my surprise everyone was taking the safe option. Where I had expected to lose time, I found the majority of riders taking the slower but safer routes around the obstacles. Despite this there were many fallers. As we entered the switchback climb I looked back down the hill and there was nobody insight behind. An accident had clearly held up the rest of the field.

Climbing was extremely uncomfortable; deep breaths putting pressure on my bruised and battered ribs. Every breath caused a sharp jolt of pain. Once over the worst climb there was a long flowing decent with a couple of foot high rock steps taken at full speed. Hitting these caused me to wince and almost lose control of the bike. 

I crossed the line to complete the first lap; checking the clock we'd been racing 20 minutes. I rode up the next climb, chest heaving and then struggled again to control the bike down the other side. I began to realise I had been running on adrenaline, the pain killers were wearing off and I wasn't going to be able to keep this up for 2 hours. At the next marshall point I pulled to the side of the course and stopped.

It was a tough decision. I had been training for this event for 8 months. It had been my primary target when I had planned my race schedule long ago on a dark winters night. It was difficult to accept it was over.

Now back home I am still disappointed. My training had gone well and I had been riding strongly in the weeks leading up to the race. However, I can now consider myself lucky. 13 riders didn't even complete the first lap of my race. Some of those will have found themselves in an ambulance on the way to Basildon General. Unbelievably riding just one lap of six was enough to earn me 29th in a National XC race.

What have I learnt:
1/ The Olympic athletes of 2012  should really be admired for making such a tough course look almost tame. Although speaking to one of the organisers he did point out that many of the countries spent the entire week prior to the race training and practising. I have no doubt that with training I could ride all the sections, although admittedly probably slower!
2/ Secondly the course was too hard for a national event. When less than half the field complete the race you know something isn't right.
3/ Thirdly, I expect I've cracked a rib or two.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Olympic Legacy - Part 1

Like thousands of others my application for tickets to see the 2012 London Olympic mountain bike race was unsuccessful. However, when the venues were announced for this years British National Cross Country Series, the Olympic venue at Hadleigh Farm is Essex was the location for the final round. My entry booked way back in February; I have been eagerly looking forward to this weekend all year.

As August approached I rewatched recordings of the Olympic race. This was a chance to compare myself with the very best in the world. After the course was unveiled at the pre-olympic test event, it rapidly built a reputation for its extremely challenging technical sections and lung busting climbs. Lapping in under 15 minutes, the pros on the tele made it look easy! I couldn't wait to find out for myself. 

My family joined me for the journey up to Essex, probably keen to see what I had excitedly been bleating on about for 6 months. It is actually only the second time my wife has ever come to watch me compete, and I was very appreciative of the support. As if to emphasise the world wide appeal of this race, we shared the glamorous surroundings of the Basildon Premier Inn hotel car park with the Belgium cycling squad. Their mechanic beavering away late into the night, while the riders munched their dinner in the Beefeater restaurant!

Arriving at the course it was just as it had been on the TV. The serpentine man made slate paths chiselled into the green Essex farm land. Within a few hundred yards I learnt the fearsome reputation was also justified. The television coverage just didn't do the course justice. The first boulder strewn section had me off the bike checking for a safe line, and the second had me off the bike altogether! Riding with many familiar faces, together we stopped, assessed and then tumbled! We witnessed a broken collar bone, arm and finger on the short 4 mile lap. I tried the fastest (toughest) 'A' route at each section and although I could probably ride them, the sharp unfriendly looking rocks either side play havoc with the mind as you approach a 2 foot step.

Having practised each section several times and chosen my preferred routes through the boulders I set off for a second lap. I immediately came off leaving some expensive carbon fibre on the Essex hillside. Passing safely, if slowly, through the next section I approached, 'Oak Tree Drop'. A steep rocky drop of 10 metres. I'd cleared it the first time round and confidently launched off the top. Gaining speed on he way down I swept across the final rock. Whether it was bad luck or misjudgment, the impact split the front tyre burping out all the air. I crashed heavily to the ground.

Once some marshalls had swept me off the course I limped back to the arena where a worried Mrs Connor folded my bloodied remains into the car and back to the Premier Inn. I am now propped up in bed, in great discomfort worrying if anything is broken. Will I be able to ride tomorrow? Is this the premature end of my Olympic legacy adventure?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

High altitude training

Clebes is a small Swiss hamlet high in the Alps above the Rhone valley near the village of Veysonnaz. My wife, 1 year old son and I stayed at the gorgeous Chalet Aramis, which offered stunning views west across to Nendaz and the mountains behind Verbier. The chalet itself sits at over 1300m and there were several roads and paths that lead straight into the mountains behind.

The Grand Raid is a famous multi day MTB stage race across Switzerland, which takes place every year. The route passed a few meters behind the house so I was able to get an impression of how tough this race would be. The climbs were long and tough, it took me around an hour to reach the top of the ski lift at Thyon. The paths were a mixture of fire roads and forest tracks which wound backwards and forwards amongst the pine trees. At the top the epic panorama stretches in all directions. It is then possible to ride along the ridge to Combire the high point of my ride at nearly 2200m.

There are several marked descents, but I followed my nose (or more precisely the local tyre tracks ) finding some stunning woodland singletrack. Back down in the valley, at the ski centre in Siviez, it is possible to return to Veysonnaz or swap to the western slopes traversing along to Nendaz. The fondue at Le Grenier is certainly worth the effort!