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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From sea to pizza – a fat bikepacking adventure

Bzzzzz.

Bzzzzz.

Bzz….

It’s still dark outside as I groggily roll over to turn off the alarm. 4am in fact. In an hour the sky will begin to redden over Hvalebykampen, but for now the stars still shine brightly.

On any other morning, I would hit snooze. But not on this one. Out in the shed sits a heavily laden Cannondale FatCAAD, and I’m excited at the prospect of adventure before us.

Out of bed I go through the motions I carry out daily: Sugoi bike kit on, breakfast eaten, door locked. Wheeling my FatCAAD out of the shed, the clck clck clck of the freehub cutting through the thin morning air, I wonder if a test ride would have been a good idea. The bike feels really heavy, and I wonder if all the bags, tent, sleeping bags and food will make the bike handle differently.

5am. Leaving home.

5am. Leaving home.

Riding to the train station and the sky is brightening. Over the ridge, the first rays of sun appear, and by the time we make it to Jaren we are bathed in the warmth of the morning sun.

*Buss for tog* There’s an electricity problem on the Gjøvikbanen line, so the trains are cancelled. We need to wait for the bus, but when it turns up our hearts sink a little. Barely a minibus (at the early hour on a Saturday it’s no surprise) we hope we can squeeze our bikes on. 2x fatbikes. Fully laden. It’s a push, but they fit. Barely.

Waiting for the train that never came. One moment it was dark. The next, full daylight.

Waiting for the train that never came. One moment it was dark. The next, full daylight.

After catching up on the missed hours of sleep, the bus pulls into Oslo sentralstasjon just shy of 7am. The city is drowsy. People wait at tram stops bleary eyed. Even the pigeons in the square seem half asleep. We receive a few double glances at our bikes. 4.8inch tyres on the paving stones of the square. Regardless, I feel cool in my Sugoi Cannondale Girl kit. Maybe it’s the pop art design attracting the glances?

The first 10km of our route takes us up to Maridalsvannet: the reservoir that provides drinking water for most of Oslo. Riding uphill, mostly on asphalt or hard pack gravel, it was a tough intro to bike packing as the gradient ramped up. Our bikes were cumbersome especially when the speed was low, such as on the climbs. Not for the first time we found ourselves wondering if we had overpacked.

Rooty, wet, slippery, narrow. One look at the first singletrack section told us all we needed to know about the future of this trip. We had a choice to make. Did we want to head onto the singletracks, make slow process with the bikes, fatigue quickly and maybe not even make it the 60km to Hakadal in 4 days? Or did we want to enjoy ourselves, make progress on our northward trip and ride as far as we could?

As if punishing us for choosing enjoyment over singletrack (when a bike weighs over 30kg, singletrack is not so enjoyable!), the puncture gods struck us down as we ate second breakfast in the sun adjacent to a field. Pssssssssssst.

It was immediately clear it was HJ’s rear tyre that had spontaneously punctured. Quick tube change. No probs. Only it wasn’t a quick change. A 0.5cm split in the tube on Tuesday, was fixed by HJ with a tube patch. But tube patches seldom seem to hold for long on a fatbike. No sooner was it fixed and pumped up when ‘psssssssst’ happened again. Out came the spare tubes. Pump pump pump. Hj’s getting a sore arm by now – tiny hand pump plus massive tyres makes for a lot of pumping.

HJ reckons pumping his tube up 13 times is worth two squares of chocolate. I think it's worth a whole bar personally!

HJ reckons pumping his tube up 13 times is worth two squares of chocolate. I think it’s worth a whole bar personally!

‘Whoa whoa whoa. Stop pumping!’ I exclaim. I’ve spotted the tyre has slipped off the rim near the valve. Checking it, we see the tube has inflated massively near the valve, but practically no where else. We are using a 26’er tube in a fatbike tyre so …

Changing tube again, the same problem occurs. We try stretching it first to even out the bulge. By now, HJ’s arm is so full of lactic acid he can hardly pump anymore. Admittedly we are on our 5th inner tube pumping of the morning, and it’s not even 9am.

Eventually, we decide to use the fatbike tube, and try harder to get the patch to seal. We’re in luck. At last we can get pedalling again. Our direction? North.

Dropping down to a lake to cross the river at the dam, we take a moment to refill our bottles. HJ eats some blueberries. I read the map and plan the next few hours of pedalling. I’m riding with a mapboard, so map reading on the move is easy. I decide to stick to the gravel roads that litter the Nordmarka forest rather than head to the singletracks. I’m disappointed as we pedal past them; our route smooth and simple, the singletracks techy and physical. I make a mental note to come back here. We both know we’ve made the best choice, and it’s actually fun riding fatbikes on these gravel roads. If not a bit overkill! We’re both enjoying the nature, the wilderness and the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, when in reality Oslo is only 20km behind us. A few more people are starting to appear, many on bikes, speeding down the hill we are trudging up. Slowly. Breathless.

Water refill. Blueberries are eaten.

Water refill. Blueberries are eaten. FatCAAD admired.

Pssssst.

It’s happened again. The split in the tube, when pumped up, is only marginally smaller than the patch we’re fixing it with. As it warms in the sun, the glue is slipping.

We give up once we reach 13 attempts at pumping the tube up. We decide to walk for a few km’s (I give up at walking quickly and hop on my bike to scout ahead for a lake). Our plan is now to stop at a nice lake, unload the bikes. HJ will then ride my bike down to Nittedal to the nearest bike shop, buy a fatbike tube or two and come back up the hill. Meanwhile I find a fab camping spot, pitch the tent, and eat some food. We intend to stay here for a few nights, since our original plan is kaput, and sample the singletrack joys Nordmarka has to offer on unladen fatbikes.

At the highest point of our trip!

At the highest point of our trip!

It’s warm in the sun. My small hilltop with the tent is sheltered from the light breeze, but there are no mosquitos. Belly sated from lunch, I pull out my air mattress and lie down. The odd puff of wind brushes over my face,the forest smell carried upon it. Warm, dry pine needles. The scent of mushrooms, and the crispness in the air the lake provides. There’s even a hint of damp soil which triggers memories of wet, slippery rides and splashing through puddles.

Before I know it, HJ returns. He can’t find my camping spot, so he whistles for me – our version of Marco Polo. I whistle back, realising as I do so I’ve got dribble on the side of my face. That was a gooood nap! While dozing I’ve been thinking. I want to carry on with our trip, even if it means gravel roads for most of the way. I wanted an adventure. HJ agrees, and after eating the pasta, we pack up and head on.

By now it’s 4pm, and we’ve only ridden 30km! Setting our sights on Råbjornsjøen we get pedalling. First it’s a long downhill (with a small up in the middle) past Ørfiske to Hakadal. From there we ride up. It’s steep, tough, and the bikes only want to go back down! Out of breath and sweating, we take a moment on the climb to chow down an energy bar, before carrying on up.

The forest is changing. From tall pine trees, with patches of blueberry, to the forest typically found over 500m. It’s less dense. More sunlight makes it to the ground, which is covered in red, yellow, green and purple leaves and a pale turquoise of moss. Patches of marsh with long grass whisper in the wind as we pedal past. In the marshes, cloudberries lurk. Bright orange gems of heaven.

Only Cloudberries are worth abandoning a bike for! I'm in the marsh picking some 'Highland Gold'.

Only Cloudberries are worth abandoning a bike for! I’m in the marsh picking some ‘Highland Gold’.

Our bikes and gravity are fascinating. We marvel at how, HJ’s bike being heavier than mine, goes down hill slower. Heavy. Greater friction. Slower. I zip away on the descents, continuously gaining speed until my eyes water. Maybe it’s the Jumbo Jim tyres I’m sporting? Perfect grip yet fast rolling. Or maybe Gravity is now HJ’s enemy?

Rolling down to the lake, we pass a strange, eerie but beautiful building. It looks like something out of the movies where army units hid during the war, or how I imagine Hannibal Lecter’s childhood home to appear. It looks like a stable complex, a square surrounded on 3 sides by a single storey building, painted in deep brown with red window panes. Centrally sits the front door, above it a beautiful veranda set out from the building. The walls are decorated with the skulls of moose, their impressive antlers ominous in the golden glow of the sunset illuminating the overgrown courtyard. The track runs along the 4th side of the courtyard, but a few metres lower. The holding wall is made from local granite, pulled from the hills and carved into rough blocks. Adjacent to the track, facing the courtyard on the fourth side is another building. Black windows. Peeling paint. Another moose skull watches us forlornly.

I want to explore and run away from this place simultaneously. As we ride over the creepy yet elegant stone bridge, a final chill runs down my spine. I’m glad to be pedalling away from here, but I endeavour to find out more about it when I get home.

The lake is remote, but it appears to have several picnic spots close to the lake. Although the shore is steep and rocky, we’re optimistic to find a camping spot. I spot a peninsula on the map that looks promising. As we arrive we see it’s perfectly placed to gather the last of the setting sun’s rays. Only it’s taken. We move on.

Our spot is perfect. I pitch the tent amongst the blueberry bushes in the saddle between two small hill tops. It’s just the right size for the tent, and after shifting some rocks, wonderfully soft. HJ cooks tonight’s chosen food: asparagus soup and reindeer stew. It’s delicious. Finishing up with some hot chocolate, we head to bed as the last light of day is swallowed by the night.

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We’re not awake early, and by the time we’ve eaten breakfast (porridge with fresh blueberries) and packed, it’s gone ten. We cross the road to Gardermoen at Brovoll, and join the Jotunheimstien for a few km’s. These kilometres remind us why we opted for gravel roads over singletrack. It’s tough going, the weight of the bikes unbalancing us in the rocky, marshy terrain. Surprisingly we ride a lot. As the trail heads downhill, our grins widen. Our brakes scream under the strain, but our whoops and hollers just about cover the noise.

Rounding a corner and we’re face to face with a hiker. He looks at my FatCAAD. Then my kit. Finally asking ‘Are you Emily Benham? The World Champion?’. I guess he recognises the pop art style CG kit I’m wearing. He’s read about me in the newspaper and is a fan, but seemingly is entirely unsurprised to find us riding on this remote trail! It’s a cool moment.

Soon enough we’re faced with a hill. It’s a bitch. It’s only a 30m climb, but I’m hauling my bike up. Out of breath, sweating, with exhausted arms, we make it to the top and admire the view while we recover.

Singletracks - tougher than we expected with heavy bikes

Singletracks – tougher than we expected with heavy bikes

It’s good fun riding this singletrack although we barely cover 4km in an hour. Soon enough we’re back on the gravel roads, this time aiming for Sagvollen. We know there’s a picnic spot there for lunch. As we pedal we decide we’ve overpacked. At Sagvollen we unpack everything, and only repack what we need. Half of our food is ditched, along with many clothes. Home is only 25 mins drive from here, so we tuck our stuff in the woods and ride on with lighter loads. I’m feeling refreshed after my nap in the sun, listening to the water lapping the rocks at the edge of the lake. It was peaceful. Soothing.

We pedal on. The map is somewhat obselete here as we know this area well. We’re riding where we ski in the winter, but it’s unrecognisable. There’s more colour. More smell. I prefer it. As we pedal up the road towards Lygna, I look down the drop to my right. Tall dark pine trees grip the precarious slope. Amongst them, an old rusty car rests, it’s bonnet smashed to pieces. Out of the windows, small trees grow. It’s clear it’s been there for decades. I briefly hope the accident was known about, as I wonder why Norwegians would decide to leave the car there.

Emily Benham

Stopping at Lygna we sit in the sun and eat some big ice creams. It’s only been a couple of hours since lunch, but the ice cream is refreshing. We consider where to camp for the night. Where to aim for. We settle on Gulsjøen, another 20 or so kilometres away.

For a few kilometres we pedal on the road we live on, only 500m vertical metres up from home, on top of the hill. There’s history here. This is the road the Vikings pulled their ships over, as they travel from Randsfjorden to Mjøsa. During the war, the Nazi’s marched over Høgkorsplassen on their way north. It’s a strange feeling to turn off the track and carry on northwards. Our bed beckons, but another night of camping is more enticing. We’ve ridden faster than we expected, so we reevaluate and decide to carry on, aiming for Trevatn instead.

The climb has a gentle gradient, but the descent is epic. It’s little more than a traktorvei, but the corners and stunning nature of the forest here bring a smile to my face. The pale turquoise moss covers the small knolls here. Between them, narrow marshes. The occasional dark lake with a classic yellow long grass border.

A brief photo pause. I turned my phone off for the trip duration, but HJ captured the tour.

A brief photo pause. I turned my phone off for the trip duration, but HJ captured the tour.

Down on the road, and I’m shocked. I expected this place to be quiet, peaceful. Instead a sizeable, newly asphalted road weaves into the evening before us. Fairly heavily trafficked for a road up in the hills – I remind myself it is the main road between Raufoss and Hov. The area here is full of small cabins, but it’s still more populated than I envisaged from the map.

We struggle to find a camp spot, and time is not on our side. Doubling back, we ride on the other side of the lake. There’s an old train station here, right on the edge of lake. It’s disused but still a private property. We can’t camp within 150m of it. Our chosen spot is a top a small hill, between the railway and the lake. A few metres away a small pontoon juts out from the shore. While I’m pitching the tent, HJ is cooking dinner. Tonight: broccoli soup followed by Chicken Tikka Masala and hot chocolate. It’s delicious, but we’re driven in after sunset by the hungry mosquitos.

Trevatn sunset during dinner.

Trevatn sunset during dinner.

The following day we decide to end our trip. We plan to ride north for 3 hours, and then turn east towards Gjøvik. After this point our route would follow more singletrack as it heads into the mountains. It’ll be more remote, and we’ve now only got food for another day. Carrying on also means it’s harder for us to get home. We discuss pizza. That settles it. Head for Gjøvik and for Peppes Pizza. No one can resist Peppes Pizza!

Leaving Trevatn, we ride uphill. It’s less climb and less steep than some of the hills we’ve tackled in recent days. Less out of breath, we manage to chat about utter nonsense. It’s fun. A joy to be out here, relaxing, laughing, no pressure.

The final part of the route looks like gravel road on the map. It begins as a marshy ski track. Our bikes are swallowed almost whole! Soon enough the ‘track’ deteriorates further, leaving us with little more than a sheep path. It’s grassy, overgrown, muddy and really tough going. I start to feel my body bonking. Munching down another energy bar, I recover within minutes and can pedal again.

It’s a long road to Gjøvik. Climbing to begin with, then a long descent that increases it’s gradient as we near the city. We’re dropping around 500m metres, but the gentle gradient and headwind means we’re working hard on the road. I tell HJ that he’d better find the Pizza place first time. It’s part way down the hill in the town, and I point out that once I’m down the hill, I’m not going back up. Even for pizza!

He performs well, finding Peppes straight away. Either his nose for pizza is excellent, or he’s been here before! We make the all-you-can-eat buffet before the cut off, and succeed in demolishing two and half pizzas between us. We’re warm, dry, relaxing on the Ikea outdoor sofas on the tiered veranda. Stomachs full of pizza we hop on our bikes for one last pedal to the train station, where the train will take us almost to home.

Happy sunset

Happy sunset

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Fatbike Packing – Oslo to Gjøvik – first steps!

I was asked in an interview a few years ago if I’d ever try bike packing, or long distance races. Up until that moment, I hadn’t really considered it. Bike packing was just something that existed, but hadn’t really made it to my attention. Suddenly, I was seeing bike packing adventures everywhere. From Scotland to New Zealand. From around the world trips to Lands End John O’Groats.

The seeds were planted.

Last summer I decided that I wanted to try to ride Jotunheimstien; a singletrack created by hikers from Oslo to Gjendesheim in the Jotumheimen mountains. It’s a 322.4km trek, passing few civilisations on the way. It would be an entirely self supported trip. And one not attempted by bike before (as it would turn out, there’s a good reason for that!).

August 2016 was decided upon to be the month to try it. A few weeks before we settled on a date to start, and we were limited in that we had to be back at home by Tuesday evening. 4 days. That’s all. Do some quick math and it’s roughly 80km per day. On singletrack. Rocky, rooty, technical, physical singletrack.

A few days before our planned departure, we filled the spare room with kit and tools. Raiding the local sports shop, we topped up the room with compact sleeping bags, air mattresses, food, and waterproof kit.

The set up on my FatCAAD.

The set up on my FatCAAD.

The first task was setting aside the ‘essentials’, the ‘maybe’ and the ‘unnecessary pieces of kit. I detest being cold, so naturally 4 wool thermals made it to my essential pile. One change of bike kit, spare socks (times 4), undies, warm clothes, waterproofs for riding, and waterproofs for not riding, thermals to sleep in and a down jacket were also added.

Our sleeping bags were compact; mine filled with down and comfortable down to 0c. The air mattresses were very small when folded down, but immensely comfy when blown up. Most of all, I looked forward to eating the dehydrated food: reindeer stew, chicken tikka masala, pasta bolgnese.

We put the heaviest items into the frame bag. Our clothes went into the large saddle bag. My bike then held the tent and sleeping bags on the front, while HJ used a handlebar bag filled with food.

And we had alot of food! 2x warm meals per day, porridge, dried fruit, cake, chocolate, bread, cheese, ham, jam, nutella. The list was endless. But then again, HJ eats a lot. Neither of us wanted to get hangry and snappy. We wanted to enjoy the trip and take pleasure in the forests we pedalled through, rather than deal with rumbling stomachs and low blood sugar. On the downside, it did make the bikes rather heavy.

With bikes packed, the weather forecast still looking mighty fine and alarms set for 4am, we were ready and excited for our trip to begin…

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Route to Gold

My route to winning the World Champs was far from smooth. Along the way, I took wrong turns, made mistakes and lost concentration. The overall experience has made the taste of gold so much sweeter, but it’s a journey I never thought would take so long. That’s not to say I thought winning gold would be easy, moreover once I won my first Worlds medal in 2012 I had numerous opportunities to take the gold, but failed to step up on the days to do so. There are only so many World Cup victories one can take before the World Champs question changes from “when will I win gold” to “will I win gold?”

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French World Cup choices.

I’m not going to write much about my performances in France for the first round of the IOF World Cup. Although satisfied with the results (double gold) my performances were nothing special – but that seems to be becoming my norm!

I had some challenging decisions to make for the races with regards to my bike. I’m incredibly lucky to be riding for the semi pro UK team; Cannondale Girls. In short, it means I get to have great fun, expand my horizons outside of orienteering and ride some awesome bits of kit. The downside it that I have complex choices to make, even before I can stand on the start line (but I’m certainly not complaining)!

I left for Switzerland 2.5 weeks ahead of the World Cup. This meant the races fell outside of the 10day long term weather forecast on Yr.no. Checking Wikipedia, I saw the average weather for May was 50% rain. So I assumed there would be rain on race day and in the days preceeding the races. With the mud of the 2015 World Cup in Hungary still fresh in my mind, I wanted to be sure I had the right tools for the job – I was also assuming the soil would be similar to Hungary and become very slippery and claggy when wet.

That was a muddy one!

That was a muddy one!

My first task was to choose my tyres. Sponsored by Schwalbe, the team have a great choice of tyres: Burt’s, Ralph’s, Ron’s and Nic’s. I set about limiting myself to 2 tyres, something for the wet and something for the dry, but also ones that would cover the ‘slightly damp’ in between. I settled on Rocket Ron’s as my primary tyre, they’re great in the mud, only marginally less grippy that Nobby Nic’s, but they have much better rolling resistance and weight less. They’re also great for shedding mud, which is perfect for a muddy race as the tyre is mud free between the nobs for each rotation. I opted for Burt’s as my backup, due to their light weight carcass and superb speed in dry conditions. For anything other than a heatwave, I planned to use the Ron’s.

I only have one MTB – my Cannondale FSi – so the choice there was a simple one. I ride the medium frame so as to get the 29’er wheels. Although the difference between a 27′ and a 29′ is small, I much prefer the 29’er for its rolling ability in bumpy ground.

Given the size of the hill we would be racing on for the long distance and the steepness in the vineyards, I figured there was a remote chance of needing to push up some super steep sections. I packed my studs for the Mavic shoes just in case. Two days before the races, when the rain forecast was a guarantee, I put them onto my shoes. Although I only 1 minute of bike carrying up a near vertical climb, it was worth having the studs in as the quagmire on the slope was treacherous, but the studs didn’t slip an inch.

World Cup long distance – Les Carrieres

Finally, on the long distance race day I had to choose what kit to use. I hate being cold. Absolutely detest it. It has to be sunny and warmer than 15c for me to ditch the arm and leg warmers. If it’s overcast or raining, I won’t even lose my thermal until it’s over 20c. I used to think I was being tough to just ride in a short sleeve jersey when it was less than 15c but I’ve learnt that if I’m warm, I’ll be concentrating better and less likely to tense up because I’m cold. As the rain started to fall before my warm up, I chose my long sleeve Sugoi skinsuit with a short sleeve thermal underneath. During the race shortly after my start the heavy rain came down for 30 mins, as I was glad I had made the right choices. I didn’t even get cold on the long descent down the hill, which meant I wasn’t shivering at the bottom.

Mud, glorious mud!

Mud, glorious mud!

Having only starting my orienteering 2 weeks before, I made an epic 5 minute mistake early in the course, but somehow I managed to fight on and secure a healthy victory. I had full confidence my tyres and the mud didn’t bother me in the slightest. I wrote somewhere last year after Hungary ‘I will go away, work on my mud riding, and I can guarantee this time next year it will be a strength of mine‘. As seldom as we have mud races in MTBO, I spent all winter actively finding muddy races so I could start to build some confidence. I’m in no doubt this has worked as the prospect of mud in a race no longer phases me. There’s still work to do, but it’s no longer a big weakness.

World Cup middle distance

The following day was sunny, but after all the rain in the days before, I kept with my kit choices. I only changed to using the World Cup leaders jersey, but for sure, the thermal was still there underneath!

Unfortunately there were some issues with fairness in the race, with no clear solution just yet. By the time most athletes found out they had unintentionally taken an obvious unmapped passage (more obvious that the narrow gap that was mapped) between the vines it was after the results were final, so no one could DSQ themselves via complaints. In my case, I had no idea of what I had done until 7pm when someone told me, and suddenly my mistake made sense. Ironically, had I stopped to check my map, rather than blindly following the motorway, I could have saved myself a 40 second detour. It’s a shame this race has been marred by unfairness, but it’s not solely the athletes who are to blame in this particular instance. We certainly need to find solutions for the future.

Prior to these races I had no idea of my physical shape. I knew it wasn’t bad, but I also knew it wasn’t the shape of my life. I’m using 2016 to really focus on non orienteering aspects of my cycling, hence why my orienteering season started just 2 weeks before the World Cup. It’s been a refreshing and motivating change, and training has been a lot more exciting over the past months. I don’t know what will happen in the coming months, and the World Championships in Portugal aren’t even on my mind yet – but I will be there!

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Life, changes, and new challenges

My life is very much in a different place to where it was 1 year ago. HJ and I are engaged, but not living together (while he’s studying abroad). HJ retired, and I’m now riding for Cannondale Girls. I was riding for Nakamura, but now I have a shed full of gorgeous green bikes from Cannondale. I’m considering a sofa in the shed so as to better admire these beauties. Even my training has taken a new and, for me, uncomfortable approach. I’m certainly happier and more motivated for my training, so I’m hardly complaining! Not to mention the perma-grin I have from fatbiking daily!!!!

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Riding in dizzying circles and endless corners!

Round three of the Merida Brass Monkeys was originally due to be held the first Sunday after New Year. Due to several huge deluges of rain, pretty much all of the UK was flooded, and those areas that weren’t flooded were waterlogged. Rather than cancel the event, the organisers postponed the event by two weeks; fortunately it still fell within my two week visit home.

For ages I had ‘umm’ed and ah’ed’ over whether to do the two hour category, or, challenge myself and go for the four hour race. The basic principle of the events is: ride laps of a set course until the 2 or 4 hours are up, and then complete the lap you’re on.

Back in 2010 I rode the 4 hour race, with Ingrid Stengard. I went out too hard, blew up, suffered, and then stopped after 2hr 30mins. Ingrid, with her wealth of experience in long distance races, paced it well and came 5th. I was adamant I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I did some slightly more specific training, and formed a plan for the race that not only involved nutrition and drink, but pacing too.

I had my eye on the very experienced four hour racer, Jo Munden. Jo has won virtually every MBM 4 hr race since it’s inception, so I knew I would have my work cut out, but also be able to use her to help pace my race. We raced together in a team for the Torq 12:12 in September, so I knew our lap times should be fairly similar.

Riding one of the many corners on the course, sometime around the halfway mark. Photo: Nigel Benham

Riding one of the many corners on the course, sometime around the halfway mark. Photo: Nigel Benham

From the start, I settled in just behind her. The four hour category isn’t as frantic at the beginning as the two hour, so the pace felt ‘leisurely and sustainable’. Of course, it wasn’t. I tried my hardest to not get stressed by other riders slowing down ahead, or get too competitive when they overtook. With the start less than 10 minutes after the two hour races, we caught up slower riders quickly. The first lap was a relentless, sprint, sustain, slow down, sprint to overtake lap. I know it’s hard for slower riders to be overtaken constantly, I’ve been there. I always try to be kind, and tell the rider that when they are ready, I will overtake. I know from my experience in XC skiing and SkiO that it’s all too easy for people to push past, without consideration for someone else’s level of experience or confidence. I hate to think that for something as simple as a please and thank you, that riders could be being put off of cycling. Much better to get along, and everyone has fun. Anyway …

This was the kind of course that lent itself to suffering. By and large the course was just damp, only a few sections were muddy, and even fewer were ‘scary mud’. The kind where body and bike and mud have different ideas! The thing that caught me out, were the sheer number of corners. There were hardly any straight sections, and perhaps only 90 seconds of fire road throughout the whole 6km lap. It was really unrelenting: short sharp climbs and descents with no chance to cruise and recover, corners, and mud.

Half way around lap 1, there was a sneaky line choice; Jo and I went different ways (I didn’t pre-ride the course) and just snuck ahead when they re-joined. By the end of the lap, Jo had slipped back by around 30 seconds, and that was the last I saw of her. She said later it was a bad day of the office; no power. A feeling every cyclist knows at some point.

Cheeky ditch feature, with a drop that became steeper and more abrupt as the race went on. Photo from Peter Simmonds.

Cheeky ditch feature, with a drop that became steeper and more abrupt as the race went on. Photo from Peter Simmonds.

At the end of lap two, I had a nice surprise to see Heidi Gould and Harriet Dodd slightly further ahead on the lap, at a point the course doubled back on itself. They started roughly 7 minutes ahead, so I hadn’t expected to see them. I maintained my rhythm and sure enough during lap three I was able to catch and overtake. The two of them came through the finish just a few minutes before the 2hr cut off, so both did a fourth gruelling lap. Heidi came 2nd in her category and Harriet won the juniors.

By lap four, the field of competitors had significantly thinned. Now it was only the fatbikers and 4 hr riders left, oh and the vet riders in the 3 hour race! My back was also cramping, so I had to stop in the feed zone for several minutes at the start of laps 4, 5, and 6. By lap 6, it felt like I was there for an eternity; stuffing my face with food and drink! Although my back hurt, I was chuffed that my shoulder was holding up and showed no sign of fatiguing into spasms and cramps. I was incredibly grateful my Dad had braved the ‘snowy’ conditions to come up and help me: food, drink, gels, and time gaps, as well as being chief cheerleader!! GB ‘gimmer’, Peter Simmonds was part of the organising crew, but gave me a hearty cheer each time he saw me.

I finished in just over 4hrs, both happy to have done it, but in discomfort with my lower back. Trying to walk upright back to the car was fairly comical. I was really pleased to win the race, it wasn’t something I was aiming for, nor expected, so it was certainly an added bonus. Congrats to everyone who rode, and thanks to the Gorrick and Army Cycling Union for hosting the event in a cracking area.

Finish! One handed celebration only! Photo from Nigel Benham

Finish! One handed celebration only! Photo from Nigel Benham

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