SXC 1: Kirroughtree

Yay, I just did my first proper competitive mountain bike race! \o/

It was substantially tougher than I expected! I thought I was a) pretty fit, and b) reasonably fast. Ooh, it turns our that there’s lots of people who are much fitter and much faster than me. Final results aren’t out yet, but I’m pretty sure I finished 19th out of a field of 43 in my class. (Update: provisional results have me 25th out of 52; dunno why they’re different from what was on the screen at the finish line).

The weekend started nicely with a 3h drive down to Kirroughtree on Saturday afternoon, through some very fun “driving roads” – south of the Leadhills, accidentally onto a tiny B road for a while, then on through Galloway forest. Having promised rain all week, the weather forecast changed its mind at the last moment and so with “sunny intervals” on the cards I had decided to camp.

I also decided that switching to my new “fast but not very grippy” tyres was a good plan.

Neither of these turned out to be good ideas.

After finishing my tyre change, I got chatting another friendly mtb’er at the campsite (Alex), with me explaining that it was my first race etc. Turns out, he was entering the elite (ie. scary fast) group the next day. He’d done lots of races, so I got a few handy tips although his description of the course (“much more technical that the 10 Under The Ben course”) left me wondering what I’d signed up for.

As the sun set and the rabbits hopped away, I had a great view of the stars. Then it occurred to me that “no cloud cover” plus “March in Scotland” means VERY COLD. Indeed, my 3 season sleeping bag wasn’t a match for the ice which formed on the outside of my tent (I kid thee not) and it was rather chilly all night long.

Onto race day: fuelled by porridge and tea I headed along to Kirroughtree. A big slow queue for race registration before I could head out to reccy the course. At first it seemed pretty tame – fireroad and a steady singletrack climb up through the woods. But when I hit the first steep climb, my rear tyre spun out immediately on the soft muddy forest floor and I had to push up the hill. I quickly realised my ‘fast’ tyres were entirely the wrong ones for the day and so another tyre-change would have to be on the cards.

As I made my way round the course, it became clear this was no 10UTB-style “fireroad plus bits of singletrack” course. It was mainly “natural” trails, snaking their way through trees – which meant loads of super slippy tree roots. This was the theme of the day – roots, roots and more roots and lots of soft forest mud. I haven’t really done much roots before, so I did a lot of sliding out and this made it tough course. Vertically, it felt like most of the lap was climbing, and the only sustained descent was right at the end of the lap – swoopy trail-center hardpack. There were two incredibly steep climbs on soft ground – which I’ve no idea how anyone could cycle up (I ran them). Not many steep descents – the two big ones were still pretty straightforward. Mid-course, there were a few wee rocky bits, but it was easy to carry enough momentum to cross them.

I’d set out on my reccy lap about 1.5h before my race started. However, I didn’t take a map so the only way I could be sure to get back to the right place was to do the entire course. A bit non-optimal, doing 3 laps rather than 2, but at least I got to see the whole course ahead of time. I got back to the carpark with 30 minutes to spare, but with sweat pouring off my brow and a tyre change still to perform.

Fortunately, I’ve been practising doing speedy puncture repairs recently – primarily to see if it was feasible to fix a puncture without losing too much race time (not really; takes me ~4mins). But nonetheless, I was pretty glad of the practise because I managed to switch tyres and get the bike back in one piece just in time for the start. I wasn’t sure what to wear either. I did the reccy lap with leggings on (cold morning) and a cycling jacket over a base layer. But I was overheating by the end of that lap. In the end, I just went for shorts and a long sleeve top, figuring that I was unlikely to suffer from cold during the race (v true!).

Whistle blows, race starts. I had lined up maybe 3/4 of the way down my group because I had no idea how I’d fare, especially having seen the course. But I spent the first half lap either passing people, or trundling along singlefile in a queue until others either fell off or the road got wide enough to get past.

I recognised the approach to the first steep hill, where I’d spun out on my reccy lap. I was following another rider, and as he tried to power up the hill, his wheel spun out. But, with my grippier tyres on, I was able to keep pedalling – yay!

The rest of lap 1 was pretty processional, with clusters of five of so riders bunching up behind slower riders. I managed to pass quite a few folk on the wider uphill sections, but also lost several places on a dumb fall going downhill. Unsighted by the rider on front of me, I didn’t see that “left” and “right” were two fine options, but “straight on” lead to a big immovable object … boing!

There were lots of minors spills throughout the field, as people encountered the many slippy tree roots. I went into cyclocross mode several times – if people ahead were getting stuck, I just got off the bike and ran with it. I made up a useful number of places that way. Turns out, having a steep staircase to climb/run up on the commute to work was useful training after all!

At the end of lap one, I was thinking I’d pushed too hard. But by lap two, everyone was much more spread out and it was easier to stick to a steady pace. I passed quite a few people, but a lot of the different categories set off at basically the same time, so it was never clear how I was doing. Halfway through lap 2, I got passed by 2 or 3 of the fastest younger riders on their 3rd lap – man, they are super fast uphill .. scarily so! I was pushing hard enough that my stomach started feeling dodgy for a while so I had to back off a bit. On the last half lap, I had quite a lot of (tired) fun. The swoopy bit back towards the line felt fun (it was downhill) and there was a couple of guys in sight which gave me something to chase (although to no avail).

Over the finish line, and … nothing. Just a bunch of cyclists hanging around chatting. I had to ask someone where the timing screen was, and figured out that I’d came in 19th out of 43 riders. Ah well, not too bad. The course was substantially harder than I expected. If it wasn’t so root-sy it would’ve been easy, but then …

So, what I have learned?

  • Open category is definitely the place to start. I’ve heard the same story before – “I thought I was pretty fit, until I entered my first race”. I can add my voice to that now!
  • My fast commuting pace is, well, more akin to warmup pace rather than race pace. I get plenty warm cycling normally, but during the race sweat was dripping from my head like never before. I’m totally reassessing what I consider a “training” ride now.
  • Need to figure out how to ride over roots. Abstractly, I know hitting them straight on is good .. but you don’t always have the choice. Unweighting is good, which works fine for single roots but they often come in groups. Carrying speed might be a good plan, but I need some faster legs first.
  • Need to practise intervals, and improve anaerobic fitness. Distance cycling is almost all aerobic; racing is often anaerobic.
  • Need to improve core muscle strength – my lower back was killing me after the downhill at the end of lap one. I get the same thing towards the end of Spooky Woods at Glentress. Need to figure out what I need to change.

Good stuff from today:

  • Yay, I did a race! *ticks box*
  • Judged my pace fairly well. Only overcooked it a little on lap one, backed off a little on lap two (to avoid breakfast revisital) and ended lap two with only a wee bit of energy to spare.
  • Switching tyres pre-race.
  • Remembered to keep looking ahead and planning ahead. I got annoyed at 10UTB by the number of times I hit the start of a steep climb in the wrong gear … managed a lot better today.
  • Running up the steepest hills rather than pedalling at a snails pace.

Next round is up at Contin, near Inverness, in a month’s time. Rar! 🙂

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