I’ve been off the bike and mostly off work with flu for a month now. I thought I would find it therapeutic to write a brief review of my ‘cross season. Upon starting to write, it has quickly degenerated into an outpouring of my Three Peaks Cyclocross experience. Part II will be a more balanced affair!
Last season ended pretty well for me results-wise, with a couple of wins and 18th in the National Championships in Bradford, despite a chain jam and running a large section of the course with a broken rear-mech. However, with a bit of illness over Christmas and after the nationals, I was pretty much on my knees by the season’s weekend finale at Leuven and Oostmalle.
With the natural decline in fitness over the racing season, compounded by having two weeks off in January and February with illness, I was keen to get my fitness back-up. So, following just a week off on a family holiday, I started training in March. The plan was to go full-on for The Three Peaks, not worrying about results in any other races until then.
This strategy meant that I built my fitness up steadily for about four months, working on a range of 3, 8, 20, 60, and 90-minute intervals at carefully selected power schedules. Even though I was ‘training through’ races, I still managed to win a Trail-X off-road duathlon and the Newbury Summer CX series. It was rather frustrating not feeling like I was really performing to my full potential but I kept my eye on the prize, so to speak.
I rode a couple of Southern XC events but, with one fatbike and one cross-country bike between me and Jen, it made more sense for me to ride/run Trail-X on the Saturday and her to ride XC on the Sunday.
Fitness and fatigue
Come July I really started to feel strong. Indeed, maybe my best performances of the summer were on a work trip to Norfolk, including a 150-mile epic. It was perhaps too-much-too-soon though – I’d reached a point where I couldn’t really pile on any more training load, and holding my fitness at this high level for two full months before the ‘cross season was probably a bad idea.
Fixated on power and fitness, I’d been neglecting the steep hill reps required for performing at The Three Peaks. The plan was to turn this all around at a holiday/training camp in the Auvergne. Unfortunately, my cyclocross bikes didn’t come back from the hydro-graphics place in time so I had to resort to running with a road bike. The area we stayed near Aurillac at the end of August is a cycling nirvana. It is a maze of quiet roads where you can take your pick of gently rolling terrain, steep hills, gradual 30-minute climbs, etc. My best training session out there was a copy of a Sven Nys set: 20 seconds hard, 40 seconds very hard, repeated 20 times up a gradual climb. Not only did I hit the powers, I got a KOM and was carrying eggs and crepes in my pockets ready for a nice meal with the family at the end of the ride. The highlights of the training camp though have to be our meal at Serge Vieira’s restaurant and riding the Col de Pas du Peyrol with Douglas and Charlie (featured on the Limoge – Le Lioran stage of the 2016 Tour de France).
A beautiful RealTree camouflage frame arrived at my parents place in the Loire Valley just in time to take some photos for The Cyclocross Bible and finally get in some ‘cross training. Back home in Hampshire my favourite ‘hill’ for Three Peaks training is St Catherines Hill in Winchester. Although woefully small compared to the Yorkshire Dales, and nowhere near the gradient of Simon Fell, run up it enough times and you feel tired enough. Training on the road now moved more towards 1-minute high-intensity reps, and the sensations were good.
The plan was to ride the first round of the Wessex Cyclocross League as preparation for the Three Peaks and then a mix of National Trophies, international races and mostly Wessex League events thereafter.
Many a slip twixt cup and lip
Jen had been training hard for the ‘cross season too. She was absolutely flying and ready to hit the season at full-speed. Around 10pm the night before the first race she cut herself really badly on a dog food can lid. We were all up for half the night at the hospital where they patched her up a bit while she waited for surgery later in the week. It turned out she’d severed a tendon in her index finger and couldn’t race for six weeks. This meant she wouldn’t be able to ride sufficient counting events for the Wessex League and we decided not to ride the National Trophies, as it’s a long way to go for her just to watch me while wishing she could be racing.
The lack of sleep that night didn’t seem to affect me. I won the race! I don’t win many races but that was three Wessex League rounds in a row (adding to the end of last season).
I had a problem with my chain getting sucked up between the chainrings and the chainstay. I ordered two new 34T rings for the Three Peaks, but I would continue to be plagued by this issue. Although my gears weren’t going great, the FMB Slalom tubulars I had on were absolutely perfect for the dry, grassy conditions, with just a few greasy sections in the shady areas of the course.
The Three Peaks
This is always the highlight of my cycling year (there’s a whole post on the race and a section in The Cyclocross Bible as one of the “Five races to enter before you die”). Even the year when I cracked a rib, ripped off a rear mech and Jen had a car crash with a motorcycle (writing off our friends car), it was still a great day.
We usually stay in a self-catering cottage somewhere close to the start of the race, avoiding the long drive up but still being able to get a good home-cooked meal. This year the support team in residence were Mum and Dad, Charlie (Douglas was on Cub camp), Jen (albeit on reduced duties due to her severed tendon which was operated on the day we drove up to Yorkshire), brother-coach Doug, his wife Vidya, and baby Maya. Zepnat team mates Fraser Malloch and Andy Boyd were also staying. Andy had only just purchased his cyclocross bike and, despite needing instruction on how to carry it the evening before, finished 30th.
After the usual nervous section of road, complete with maniacs trying to overtake on the bridges through Horton, the race hits the track at Gill Garth fast. I always struggle a bit with the sudden acceleration here and tend to lose a bit of ground. This year was no different but, after passing a cheering Mum holding spares, I climbed Ingleborough well and was in 5th at the summit, closing down the gap to form a 3rd/4th/5th group after only a couple of hundred metres of descent. My front tubular then punctured. This is an extremely rare event for Tufo tubeless tubulars at 55psi and it’s hard to think of a worse place for it to have happened. I lost a good minute trying to fix it with a CO2/sealant canister but in the end had to just ride the whole descent on the flat. Looking back at the results, surprisingly, given the intensely sketchy nature of descending at speed with a front wheel puncture, I didn’t lose any more time on the leaders on the descent, leaving me wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t stopped to try and fix it. If I hadn’t punctured at all I feel I would likely have been with the leaders at the bottom of the descent. However, many riders had a good dose of bad luck that day so best not to dwell on it. At least I made it down the descent (JRA wheels – unbreakable?!)
As it was, I emerged on to the road (following a bike change from Dad) in 10th – not far behind David Mirfield who, after chasing him down on the road out of Ingleton, would now become my race-long companion. I was feeling pretty despondent but the race would turn out ok for me and Dave. After passing Doug (who was riding a spare bike to the harder to reach parts of the course) at the turn-off on to the track to Whernside, I soon started to catch riders ahead of me.
Whernside is a favourite of mine! I actually managed to run the steps this year! Unfortunately, Paul Oldham ran them rather faster, taking a further 2 minutes out of me. I closed on everyone else though, gapping David Mirfield by a minute and going over the summit in 5th, not far behind Giles Drake in 4th and Nick Craig in 3rd. Everything changed quite suddenly then, with Nick puncturing and Rob Jebb crashing out of the race (having collided with a spectator). Giles then slowed dramatically, which I believe was a puncture too, and I found myself in 2nd.
This wasn’t a position I wanted to throw away with a crash (I had cracked ribs down Whernside two years previously), so I descended with a bit of caution. With such a lead, Paul Oldham could be even more cautious – losing 30 seconds to me on the descent. Dave Mirfield was rampant on the downhills that day, taking 45 seconds out of me. I’m used to being competitive on the descents so was annoyed to lose ground here. Looking at Strava, he had the fastest times that day and I had the second fastest, so perhaps that’s not too bad. Doug was there again on the descent with a spare bike if needed and Dad handed me up a bottle and gel just before I hit the next road section. I made Dave chase hard along this. It’s difficult to press-on with Pen-Y-Ghent looming large in front of you. Usually I like to recover a bit along the road but having Mum with spare bike cheering helped me on my way. With a mile or so to go to the foot of the last mountain, we were back together.
I drove the pace quite hard from the very bottom of Horton Scar Lane, hoping to build a lead gradually the whole way up. It seemed to be working. Jen and Charlie and Vidya (not sure about Maya) were cheering like mad and communicating with my sister who was following the live results feed from home. This year there was a change to the course at the top of Pen-Y-Ghent: there is a new flight of soul-destroying stairs to the summit. I went very, very deep to get up these as fast as I could.
After all this effort, I started the descent far too slowly. it is amazing how quickly a seemingly good gap can be wiped out on these descents. Dave was on to me and pulled out a small gap before we were halfway down. That really kicked me into action. The nerves went and it was back to a good old totally insane descent of Horton Scar Lane. I closed to his back wheel and we absolutely flew down the mountain. My rear tyre then went bang. This was a tyre not a tubular, and it’s a very rocky descent, making the situation even more sketchy than Ingleborough. There was one particularly terrifying moment drifting around a corner towards a rider coming the other way.
Mum and Dad were ready, as planned, 50 metres onto the road section towards the finish. A quick bike change left me with an agonisingly small, yet impossible to close gap to Dave.
So, after all that I came in 3rd – my best result yet (in 17 appearances). With Tim Gould and Dan Alexander, Zepnat also got first team!
Part II coming soon…