Done for 2011

My calendar is telling me that today’s cyclocross race is the last one for me in 2011. A diary clash takes out my ‘local’ race at Meadowmill, the championship race at Auchentoshan requires a full race license (£36) which is too pricey, and the final race is on Mull in December – not an attractive proposition, given the weather last December.

I’ve had a good time in my first season of cyclocross. I completed all four races I entered – 3 rounds of SCX plus the Hallocross race. I’ve learned lots about racing – momentum, pacing, fuelling. I got plenty of practise stripping down my bike and rebuilding it in between races. I built my wheels from scratch and raced on them. And last, but not least, no injuries!

The limiting factor was always race fitness. Sure, technique and bike make some difference. But ultimately I struggled to maintain pace across the whole hour. I’d set out trying to conserve energy and be sensible, but would always fade in the last quarter of the race.

It’s mindblowing to see how fast the top guys are. They’re fast everywhere. And they’re as fast on the final lap as they are on the first. Given the not-insignificant amount of training I did this year between Alpe d’Huez and SCX, it’s sobering to see people delivering racing laps 50% faster than I can do.

Still, I definitely did a lot of fun cycling in 2011. Alpe d’Huez: done. Cyclocross: done.

The Wall @ Strathclyde Country Park

Today’s race was just off the M74 at Strathclyde Country Park. A few days of dryish weather left me hoping for a fast dry course … but no such luck. It was another mudbath, this time with long runs of wet sticky glue-like mud. During the race I heard several crunches as people’s derailleurs sucked up and broke.

The course was probably the easiest so far. The lap started with ups and downs, including one bombhole which was so bad (12″ deep mud) that the organizers basically said “don’t try to ride it” during the race briefing. A hardpack trail lead up a loong gradient, before dropping back on grass – gradually at first, then faster, eventually culminating in a mad loose gravel trail with enough curve and camber to make my front wheel slip and slide around in a mind-focusing way. Second half was all meadows (quagmire). Long, long muddy meadows. Muddy, muddy, muddy meadows.

I started out comfortably, keeping my heartrate in the 160’s. I tried using a higher gear in the mud – something I’d seen other riders doing. It worked well – the power delivery is smoother and the wheel less likely to break traction. I got into a mini-battle with another rider – I’d pass him on one part of the lap, then we’d get onto a different section and he’d repass me. I was about to make a jokey comment to him along the lines of “with this mud, we’d be better off singlespeeding”, when I noticed he *was* on a singlespeed. Given that you run the slow stuff, and the fast stuff isn’t fast, a singlespeed does make some kind sense .. especially given the state that derailleurs end up in.

All was going well for the first 40 minutes or so. Then something happened. I ran out of energy. I bonked. I hit the wall. I didn’t so much hit as run headlong into it. It wasn’t a gradual onset of tiredness. It was a binary switch – “feeling fine” to “can barely push the pedals round” in the space of a few seconds. I was halfway around the lap at the time, and a bit of mental maths told me that I’d have to finish that lap *and* do another one to complete the race. If it had been only a half lap left, I’d have finished the race completely knackered. But a whole extra lap?! I wouldn’t even be running on fumes by that stage.

I kept going. The good bit about the last lap is that you know it’s the final time you’ll do each turn, climb and mudbath. But I was down into my granny ring on the climbs, walking slowly through most of the mud, and had to stop twice because there was just no energy left. My legs didn’t feel like they were still attached to me, and I started getting cold – partly from lack of fuel, but also because the sun was going down. I struggled up the hill, being passed by load of people – including one of the leaders who’d got a puncture and was jogging and carrying his bike. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get to the top of the hill because the remainder of the lap was mostly downhill. And, quite frankly, stopping wouldn’t do me much good because i was halfway round the course and far from food, drink and warm clothing.

I made it to the end, more exhausted than i think I’ve ever been before. I downed energy drinks, sweets and muslei bars. Then suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch, I felt like a human again. A cold and tired human, but at least one with a functioning brain. About an hour later, I started feeling warm again.

I hate to think how slow that last lap was. Probably twice as slow as my first lap!

So, what happened? A classic case of hitting the wall, ie. glucose depletion. Your body stores energy as glycogen and you use it up during a race. You can’t replenish your stores mid-race either – the pace is so high that your stomach doesn’t process the food and you feel sick. Once it’s gone it’s gone. You need to ensure that your glycogen stores are topped up beforehand. For previous races, I’ve carefully carb-loaded with pasta for a day or two beforehand. This time I didn’t really do anything special – and suffered for it!

I’ve only hit the wall badly once before. When I was a teenager, I used to do a 20 mile loop on a road bike. Once, halfway round, I hit the metaphorical wall. I had to stop, get off the bike and sit down on the grass. It was impossible to imagine doing anything else – walking or even standing. Fortunately, I had a carton of juice with me. I drunk it and, a few minutes later, it was as if someone had flipped a switch. Suddenly, I felt fine again. I got back on my bike and cycled the rest of the route without any trouble.

Ah well, it could’ve been better today. But, taking the positives, the first part of the race went well. I like the mountain-bike-y bits and make up places on them. I’m still learning how to do mud. My overall fitness is way up.

But next time, I’ll eat more pasta.

UPDATE: I finished 29th out of 55 starters. My lap times retell the hitting-the-wall story; 10m, 11m, 12m, 15m, 20m. Still, my ‘fast’ laps compare much more favourably to the leaders (like, only 40% slower) than in my first few races. And even if my lap times had slowed linearly (to 13m and 14m) I’d have only gained two places. Less realistically, doing 10m laps throughout would’ve placed me up around 19th.