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July 2016

Worlds and where to now?

It’s a race report. Sorry.

Worlds. I awoke that morning and didn’t feel nervous. I don’t know why, there was a vague sense of foreboding which I suppose was my own way of making nerves, but no butterflies, dry mouth or any of the usual distinguishable pre-race anxieties.

We arrive at Laissac, parking next to the NZ representative and sheila from across the ditch, Jeanette. We are on the early side but soon all the Euro’s turn up, someone even has their own van with their name emblazoned across it. I don’t know who anyone is in their country kit, it’s a bit different from watching World Cup XCO on Redbull, though if I followed it closely enough many of the faces would be familiar.

Warm up is pretty unsuccessful, legs feel dead. It’s not cold but I am feeling pretty un-warmed and uninspired. Trying to get the mojo up (I realise that my lack of mojo is probably a bit of fatigue mixed in with a weird type of pre-race jitters) I find a spot in the sun and get out my iPod. Immediately Paul Kelly comes on. He’s not quite The Prodigy in the psych-up stakes, but manages to channel a little bit of Australian nostalgia and pride into me and together with that ray of sunlight and some conservative dancing (after all I was in the cattle grid…and I did’t know how my dancing would be received in serious euroland) I felt that whatever transpired on the race course, it would be a good day. I would make it so.

Lining up next to a couple of Swiss birds, including Jolanda Neff, was super surreal, but super cool. The heart rate did it’s thing and increased with the 15-second call, and we were off. I didn’t feel right jostling for front position so held a good mid-field position up the first climb. The legs weren’t on, I noticed that immediately. It was ok, I made peace with riding into it.

Imogen was out for blood, I had her in contact until near the first feed and could tell she was a woman on a mission. I rode with Jenni King for a while, after she passed me hubbarding up a technical climb. It took a few of these (maybe, like 40km in…) to realise that my struggling to balance and maintain momentum up some of the technical stuff probably had a lot to do with my gearing and less to do with my skill and strength, but at the time I was like “what the fuck are you doing ya fucking drongo, when did you learn to ride your bike, in the last shower?”. Running a 32T up front is a ballsy move in a European marathon, I realised in retrospect.

The first and second feedzone, the Aussies were all mid-20’s to mid-30’s in position, I passed Jenni again, we rode around the same place for a good portion of the race. I managed to find good people to ride with, however once again in retrospect following someone else pace for half an hour—in this case a British rider—was a great move in self-preservation but maybe not the best as I ended up losing some time but riding a bit too much within myself.

I managed at different times to be stuck behind some terrible descenders in singletrack, aggressive passing in Euro single track is not my forte so it was difficult for me to get past. I feel like riding badly is contagious, as the first third to half of the race I was struggling to get the groove on. One time, when I had found some mojo again, I managed to pass two women on the technical single track that had awesome little jumps and whoops, and I managed to drop them and close the gap to next group in front of me.

There were the Spanish climbers; what they say about them is true, like rockets up the hill but all akimbo coming down. They rode up to me on the fireroad climb and I forced a gap on a fire-road descent.

I can’t even describe the climbs. The profile looked like there were four main climbs, three in the first half and one at 50km but there was so much more ascent than that. The reality of the course was that if you weren’t going up you were going down. Bar for the last 2km, the whole course was at least + or -‘ve 6 degrees. It was like a wall of stem choices, but without the 0-degree option.

We hit a tough climb reminiscent of “Camp Mountain Long” at about 35km which was decisive in me riding away from the British rider, and then at 45km another, to the 5th feedzone. As I had managed to grapple together some mojo a couple of hours in, here was where I managed to move up from about 35th, where I was sitting. I had left the Spanish, French and British rider and rode up to a Brazilian girl near the feedzone.

ABworlds
Smiling(ish) through the feedzone

I wasn’t even sure if the climb to the feed zone was part of the final, horrible climb of which I had the profile etched into my brain, but hadn’t yet ridden (spoiler alert: it wasn’t). After a descent from the feed zone I questioned the Brazilian girl, “Is this the long final climb” to which she replied “yes I think this is the beginning of it. It’s Singletrack, it’s hard and is going to hurt a lot”. To which I replied “Yes, well, it’s supposed to”. She didn’t lie, it was an exceptionally steep start to the climb, it was the anaerobic XC in me that got me on my 32T up that goat-track and forced a gap on the Brazilian girl. 

And then there was one. 15km to go, there was no one behind me, there was no one in front of me. The climb lasted what seemed like hours. It was probably almost an hour. It came up an unmown, dead, slow, exposed grassy hill that would have been only 20% gradient, but it was 100% soul-destroying. It was all I could do to keep the legs turning to maintain the bike’s forward motion with the 32T, my brain just kept on thinking “just like lightline, no giving up” and I made it up. Then it turned, and you kept climbing. And climbing. And climbing.

Then there was ED! Best ever! Jenni’s partner and feedzone expert Ed was ahead, which meant I had hit the last feed and the “final descent” back to Laissac. I use quotation marks because there was a buttload of climbing in the last descent. A few 100m+ elevation pinches when you’re already totally trashed to kick you in the guts. A few bits of high-speed singletrack that spit you out on a fireroad with an almost 180-degree turn that were muffed due to a distinct lack of having ridden that part of the course. Off and shuffling, doing shoulder checks. How much longer? This is almost it? A bit of mud slip and slide, and I see a familiar sign (I think). We are on a farm road and JUST MAYBE NEAR THE END?

The final few km’s were through the back streets of Laissac, on grass, gravel and bitumen. A finish was so near but felt so far as I switched into TT mode (let’s face it, not my forte) draped my tired body over my bars and just pummelled myself to the line. Coming into the finish straight, the elite men having finished a few minutes prior, felt amazing. My legs cramped in the finish straight (power of the mind I reckon, they knew it was over then!) and I was pretty joyous to have finished. Starting without expectation on myself, I saw an excited Mike in the finish, “Do you reckon I went top 40?” I asked him, honestly no knowing how I had gone “40?” he said”I reckon you were 25th!”.

Imogen had come in several minutes earlier in 20th, so I was stoked. Jenni rolled in 34th and Briony in 41st. Great Australian results all around. Official results had me at 28th, which was something I probably wouldn’t thought was possible considering the level of competition and field there and my own view of myself as a random Aussie who got a little bit fit for a bike race in France.

So now i’m back at work, back at home, parenting, doing 10000 loads of washing and living real life. Bit of a bummer really. Australian bread really sucks, and wine here is expensive; good thing the coffee and beer is much, much better. I haven’t even wanted to contemplate riding my bike—quite unprecedented for me—but such is the nature of such a build up to an event like this. Some time off 0400 starts is nice (also, it’s fucking cold), and guilt free wine and food has been excellent, but soon it will be time to knuckle down again as I get concerned about not being able to pedal up hills and being a bit, “out of condition”…i’ll start when I get some good feels and motivation about turning a pedal.

ABworlds2
Probs my best angle, cos you can’t see my smile/grimace
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On doubt

A more race report style blog to come, I initially penned this after my worlds ‘campaign’ in France late last month. It helped me rationalise some things I was thinking prior to the race and get them straightened out so I could go on to race hard and, in the end, have a great result personally and for Team Australie!

The thing with writing about bike races is that the narrative is almost always the same. Sure the bits in the middle change a bit in terms of specifics, but it is pretty much “the race started, I rode really hard and then I got to the end”. There are usually some embellishments of suffering or similar, the glorification of the hurt, surpassing mountains of adversity: what there usually isn’t is room for doubt, frailty, or other more common human emotions. We hear only about the negative parts of our experience in that they are to be overcome for glory.

I don’t mean to say my World Champs experience was in any way negative. Indeed I had a great time, a smooth race and a surprising result. Despite all this, however, I did grapple with some struggles prior to the race that I think are probably very normal and real for any domestic racer (as I like to call myself, an “Aussie hack”) that suddenly finds themselves wedged between the red knicks of Spain and Jolanda Neff on the start line of a world championships race for the first time.

I went into XCM National Champs in Derby this year with a bit of an idea that I wanted to qualify for Worlds. After all, a World Championship is the pinnacle of an events racing that exists, ever! Who wouldn’t take up an opportunity to do that? There’s no “Intergalactic Mountain Bike Championships”.

My race was OK but not amazing at Nationals, I had a back injury leading into it but raced well all things considered. I didn’t qualify off the time differential from my position up to Peta’s stomping win, so after I hauled my sorry arse back home and felt like “well I gave it a crack, wasn’t to be, maybe i’ll try again next time” I picked myself up, washed myself off and headed to Bendigo for another qualification race in the National Marathon series the next week.

At the end of the race (which was a tight battle between 3rd and 4th, I ended up 4th by only a few seconds) I was too afraid to look at the results. For hours. I guessed I hadn’t qualified when National Champ Peta suddenly decided to race and smoked the field again. I was told by a friends’ husband I wasn’t far down, and when I could face checking the results I found I was well inside the XCM Worlds cutoff percentage. I had worked hard to get myself in reasonable shape for these races, but what would happen if I actually qualified for Worlds? The possibility had seemed so outrageous just six months prior I was a bit taken aback to even hit my goal. But I did, I scraped some funds together and booked my flights, managed to remain healthy and put in some good quality (rather than quantity) miles on the bike in between everything else going on.

In the weeks leading up to Worlds, I knew I had some form and had overcome my injury attained prior to Nationals (in fact with the physio and rehab I was recruiting all sorts of muscles I don’t reckon I had ever used before, my quads and glutes looked and acted differently, but I wasn’t complaining), but the question was how much form was enough? After what we will call a ‘tactical deficit’ on the road at Battle on the Border—a National Road Series race—I didn’t even manage to finish in the front bunch. I know there was a reason for this (namely my poor judgement), but at the time it felt like “well my legs won’t even get me to the finish at the front end of a domestic road race so why the hell and I going overseas?”. At one stage I did realise that no amount of form would ever be enough for me to be satisfied with my preparation. It was a sobering feeling but one that let me sit with the discomfort of the unknown a little easier.

Challenging doubts: I am quite new to nuances of team-based road racing. I took a punt in this race at a bad time due to my inexperience and my own special little bit of crazy and it would have been amazing if it worked but it cost me the front group position. I did have form to go up the road on a climb, and I’m not training for a road event anyway. I needed to think logically about this and be a bit kinder to myself. I had failed to reflect on all the other successful races I had recently had, from club criteriums, to state road and national mountain bike races, and decided to focus on the one result I felt was an underperformance. It was a good example of tunnel vision; it’s a lot easier and rational when you take the binoculars away and assess your whole performance.

After the remaining stages of Battle had been cancelled, it soon became Battle on the Bottle which was a great pressure release valve for everything that was going on in life—not just the training but the working and the family-ing (probably not enough of this was going on, all things considered. Cycling is a selfish sport, anyone who denies that is either single or rides recreationally). Without delving into too much detail the drinking was immense and the hangover was even worse.

Challenging doubts: The regret and feelings of guilt for not training like a pro athlete were strong, but I kept reminding myself I race best when relaxed and happy and not taking everything too seriously, so maybe this was just a well-timed party in the midst of it all? Besides, I am not a pro athlete, I am Anna and there are so many other facets of AB which make me a fun and interesting person. If you start to conflate your sense of self solely with bike racing you’re going to have a bad time.

Prior to my worlds selection I had worked on reducing my skinfolds…and then winter happened. I was feeling a little on the heavy side and guilty about it in the way that only an overseas trip for a major race can. I am very good at talking about how I am going to reduce/not reduce my skin folds but when it comes down to changing things in winter? Damn near impossible. I know what to do but am miserable enough in the cold weather when eating all the food I want, let alone when trying to create a calorie deficit.

People tend to pick what you’re good at on the bike from what you look like and I felt like a downhill time-trial specialist, not someone off to compete against the strongest riders in the world over a 70km course with 2500m vertical. Actually if downhill time-trialling were a thing I would be all over it like a fat kid on a doughnut, but I digress. If there’s one saving grace it’s my age of experience and knowing at what size I race well at and not getting too tied up in the pursuit of leanness at the expense of the rest of my life.

Challenging doubts: Comparison is the thief of joy. In order to look at how my form was going I looked to other data rather than my weight, which did in fact reveal that form was on the way up. I looked back at strong races I had, one of the more recent ones I had at a National series XC I was even heavier than leading into worlds, and rode well, so I needed to take the objective step back and look at where I was. The power:weight curve for me tends to drop off quite rapidly below 57kg so somewhere between 58-59kg is often a good compromise where I feel strong but can still climb.

So things were going ok. I had some form. I think. I wasn’t lean but I wasn’t too heavy.

I managed to get to France…and my bike didn’t turn up (which I talk about here) but it does eventually and we have a great ride followed by a bit of a wet-fish to the face: I come down with a cold. You can’t do too much about this when on long haul international flights but to say I was a bit bummed was an understatement. While I didn’t have to take a day off for the cold it definitely rained on my parade in terms of course recon, getting the efforts in, and taking it out of my legs on race day.

The day prior to the race, I had managed to shake all but the last remnants of the virus. We hooked around the first third of the course and while the pre-race efforts weren’t pretty, I managed. Fanging down some sweet single track we shot out onto a firewood with another entrance to single track across it…which was bunted. Hurtling through the bunting at about 30km/hr, I managed to unclip my right foot and use it as a brake. I stopped, eventually, through the bunting but there was an unmistakable unpleasant sensation in my right ankle, which was rapidly getting puffy. As I like to say sometimes, “I don’t always roll a joint, but when I do it’s my ankle”. The good thing was that despite difficulty walking on it, riding was ok. Voltaren and nurofen were effective; I had come this far and was ready for Worlds.

Challenging doubts: These were some of the hardest to overcome. You think you’ll go to worlds, the training will be all done, you’ll be in the form of your life and you’ll ride your bike like a woman possessed without a chain. Unfortunately only a handful of riders will be riding ‘no chain’ and I think international travel decreases the likelihood of that being you! There was a big part of me that was thinking, when I was a couple of days out in the throes of feeling hot and snotty “well this is my campaign over” but equally I had to be positive enough to take a step back and recover and hope to come good. As for the ankle, well, being the day before and having been through all the rest it wasn’t really a concern. A bit of RICE and anti-inflammatories, I knew a sore ankle would be the least of my pain during the race.

Why am I writing all of this? It seems like a really long page of excuses, but these are not excuses and I have nothing to be excused for. I am sure that all of the women I competed against had some tales of woe in the lead up to the event, it’s just that we only ever hear about the plain-sailing stuff. If I had chosen to be beholden to the doubts which lingered above me due to these events leading up to the race, the outcome could have been quite different. The beauty is in deciding to put yourself out there, get in the zone and put aside all of this despite what concerns you may have in order to race hard.

The way in which we approach training and racing can make-or break us. It’s hard to be ‘on’ all the time, and our human nature means that we are supposed to feel doubt, fear, uncertainty. It’s just not a narrative we tend to associate with high-performance in sports or broader life. I hope that by writing about my own experience of doubt, I may be able to assist some athletes in their development path, by allowing them to recognise and rationalise their own doubts to increase their chances of good performance in sport and life. The problem is not in having these thoughts and feelings, its what we do with them and how we choose to react that will affect our performance.

Some people are naturally resilient in the face of adversity and doubt, others need a little more time and experience to develop those traits, wherever you are in your sporting path to success, a little kindness and objectivity never goes astray.

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