Crash course in MTBO!

Sunday 28th May Without warning I found myself 6 days away from the first round of the MTBO World Cup. The first part of the season had been a combination of average, sickness, and beyond expectation – far from a smooth ride! I had some really strong performances in mid April to mid May and I was able to enjoy suffering, embrace it and push harder. Suddenly, 3 weeks ago, my form vanished, and I was left with no spark, no explosivity and an inability to push my heart rate into Zone 5 as easily as I’m accustomed to. I struggled through a marathon, then quit a race the following weekend. With that to deal with, I forgot about the impending World Cup and thus, with 6 days to go and no map training in 8 months, I had to come up with a plan that would put me back on the map.

First map training on fun trails!

The first training was pretty smooth, only at a light intensity, but it was enough to ensure I still understood how to read a map and to actually remember to read it! Oh, and the terrain was really fun to ride in!

Tuesday 30th May It’s raining. It’s pouring. 

This session was deliberately aimed at replicating some of the challenges in Austria and in hindsight we hit the trifecta – intensive uphill, downhill with high speed and urban. We rode a 5 min hill climb as hard as we could, before an immediate map turn at the top and zooming off down the hill through the suburbs of Gjøvik. Although the intensity downhill was moderate, the speed was really high, and trying to see the map through the torrential rain and spray was a huge challenge. My legs were struggling on the climb, I could sit and pedal at my threshold Z4/Z5 but pushing above that was really hard because my legs just weren’t able to do it.

At 10pm we left in the ‘housecar’ for Austria. With a 9am boat to catch from Malmø we only had time for 3 hours sleep overnight. On the other side, we would still have to push hard for Austria. Not an easy trip by any stretch of the imagination.

Thursday 1st June After travelling all day we finally sped into Zwettl just after 4pm and with an hour to spare before the training event organisers left. Another set of MTBO intervals, head-to-head with HJ, but in terrain which was very soft under tyre and apart from the main tracks, had a very indistinct track network. Often I didn’t know whether I wa on a track or not, but we were assured the race day terrain would be more visible and distinct. The goal was simply to find the map reading flow, something which I achieved and beat HJ on all four intervals in the process (due to his less than adequate orienteering!!).

Photo from Rainer Burmann

Friday 2nd June Model event. Some more flow finding and terrain/map exploration. In the past I would have felt this kind of terrain with big hills and long descents would not be for me, but with my body in an average physical shape, I could only focus on just getting around the courses as cleanly as I could. I was feeling pretty anxious for the following day. My first race of the season, and 5th map training. I had no idea what to expect. Who was in good shape? Who had been winning races? Could I maintain my run of top 2 results? Would I be able to hold it together? Would my legs find some spark to let me push hard?

Saturday 3rd June Race day. It’s warm and sunny. I’m nervous but not unreasonably so. Just working towards my plan and tactics. Start steady. Find the flow. Find the junctions. Find the controls. Simple really. 

Yes, I had a steady start, and didn’t always take the best routes, but I did take the ones I intended. Technically I was riding really well, flying down some fast descents, but physically on the climbs I just couldn’t find *it*. Sitting down and chugging up the climbs with my diesel engine was the only choice. My race went well for a long time, and it was only that I was distracted by catching another competitor that saw me lose time through several mistakes. I didn’t have my MTBO head fully screwed on, and HAD to be first to a junction. Which I was. But I went the wrong way thereafter. Only a few seconds lost, but the effect started to snowball. Next it was 40 seconds, and then another 10. I had to settle for 2nd, but I was actually pleased. I didn’t lose it completely. I did by-and-large have a pretty good orienteering performance. And it was enough for the podium. It’s hard to be grumpy when I actually achieved my goals for the day!

GPS Middle distance

Satisfied! Photo: Keith Dawson

Sunday 4th June This sprint race called for a really strong tactical plan. As per Saturday, my main aim was just to race cleanly and find all the junctions. Apart from control two where I completely missed the junction and then had no idea where I was, the race was really good. After the mistake I found the passion to fight for every second and really attacked the course. It was just enough for the win which was a really nice surprise.

GPS Sprint distance

Monday 5th June So. I had proven to myself that I could win a sprint race. Now it was the long distance. I was getting into my own head and psyching out because of the *long* aspect. I had suffered through the middle and wasn’t looking forward to 100 mins of ‘why won’t you work legs?’. I reminded myself I’ve completed some longer races in XCO this year and that I knew what drink and nutrition strategy worked for me. 95 mins in Austria is nothing compared to 5 laps of Langsettløkka. At least that’s what I told myself!!

Found the time to enjoy some fun trails! Photo: Rainer Burmann

Today my focus was only on route choice. I forgot about racing, about speed, and made sure I made calculated route choice decisions. As such, I only touched my Z5 heart rate for less than a quarter of the course, spending most of the race in Z3 and Z4. But, my route choices were strong. I stopped when I needed to. I made a route choice mistake to 5 costing me a minute because I didn’t see an interconnecting path on the map. To the 6th I spent a lot of time examining the 7th control. I knew I was missing something, but I just couldn’t find the solution. Not wanting to retrace my steps out of the control I carried on on the western route – losing two minutes in the process. At the finish I could see I hadn’t spotted another interconnecting path.

Other than that I had a really strong race and didn’t miss a single junction. Only those two unseen interconnecting paths. It was one of those races where I knew I was on a winning ride. In terms of my orienteering, it came together much better in this race. I was steadily pulling away from the two competitors who started a 3 and 6 minutes ahead of me, but it happened naturally through speed differences and route choices. Unlike in the middle, I didn’t force it. I even saw my 9 and 12 minute women half way round, but with different routes we never actually came together on the course.

GPS Long distance

Summary My results this weekend were entirely unexpected. I knew I had the physical shape I did, and could only make the most of it, adapting race plans to work with it, rather than against it. It’s really nice to win a couple more World Cup races, but now my mini foray into MTBO is over for another 6 weeks. It’s back to XCO racing. For the European and World Champs, I’ll make sure I’m in the best physical shape I can be – and I’ll certainly do a bit more map training!!!

First win of the season Photo: Rainer Burmann

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