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Strength and vulnerability

I have spoken a fair bit about attitude and race psychology (without any official letters behind my name in this regard; I don’t claim to be a sports psychologist just a coach with a keen interest in humans so take everything I write with a grain or two of salt), about how toughness and resilience is a key factor in race success.

Speaking to a few friends and associates who are familiar with my writing (both on this blog and freelance work for print and online media), a common comment about it is that it’s brave and honest. It’s funny but I really hadn’t considered it to be either. Sure, at times I feel completely at the mercy of the gods when I send an editor a piece that is more narrative; even something that isn’t particularly personal can have me feeling quite naked and uncomfortable. After all they’re judging my work, my inner workings; they’re judging what has spilled from my head into a word document and that may subsequently be in a national publication. It would be terrible to not be ‘good enough’, wouldn’t it?

But writing for the blog? Not so much. Writing about stuff that could potentially help others through my own learning as a coach and athlete doesn’t—to me—feel particularly vulnerable. Coaching and bikes are all very safe topics of conversation for me, even if it involves what’s in your head.

In fact, the older I get, the more life experience I have, the more comfortable I am being honest with others.

It’s true; the truth will set you free. Whether it be about cycling, work, relationships, your past or even the pitfalls of your own character. I have a policy called the truthful answer policy, which is as it sounds; if someone honestly wants to ask me something regardless of how hard the question is, I will answer it truthfully.

Individual results/responses (on the immediate level) are varied, but in the long term I think people appreciate honesty even if they don’t always get the desired answer.

A TED talk popped up on my news feed, The Power of Vulnerability which can be found here and it couldn’t articulate the soupy quagmire of thoughts circling around in my brain about this better.

Feeling worthy enough to be open about your vulnerbility allows a greater capacity for human connection. It’s certainly a consistency I have found in my life. Furthermore, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and being okay with it allows you to accept yourself and situations much better.

I guess a real-life physical example is putting a DEXA scan, skittled with jiggly yellow bits (meaning fat) up on social media. It’s not a flattering picture. When you lie down on the flat, hard bench to get DEXA’d, your butt wants to lie down too. Invariably people tend to look blobby and weird. But what did I have to lose? I am not ‘fat’ in real life, au contraire at the time of the scan I was fit and healthy, relatively lean at 18% body fat, but still I looked a bit like a blob on the scan. That’s real life. Embracing the metaphorical DEXA scans of our life is pretty freeing; whether it be a skill on the bike you’re bit ashamed about not knowing or a prickly history. The first step to improvement is acknowledgement.

I suppose after my post on challenging yourself I had some misgivings. I was worried it may send the message that for peak performance, hardness and toughness is required at all costs, despite the other parts of our psychology having an input into performance. I worried that it would send the message to people that I had never struggled with anything I wrote in the post and that athletes should ‘just get on with it’.

Instead what I think I needed to emphasise is that having some of the reactions and thoughts (even if the athlete is not aware why they’re acting in a certain way as the triggers to behaviours my be found behind ancient cobwebs, buried away deep in the Id) is actually perfectly normal, and growth from this can happen….if you allow yourself to be vulnerable about it. I think that toughness is developed from self-compassion, which is a bit of a thing to get the head around. Especially for blokes. Socially it’s all a bit taboo to be anything but ‘she’ll be right’.

If you have worth and can assess that you’re ‘okay’ then you can accept whatever comes. Acknowledging how you’re feeling, and what has triggered it can be hugely beneficial and can allow you to figure out how to change it, or at least think about things in a more constructive manner.

AB

Spend your clams wisely

Banging on about moderation is something I tend to do, but if I am brutally honest about it I am not particularly good at it. Life is a million miles an hour, even though I am working less at my main job, all the other stuff that goes along means that every inch of my life is full, and this is never more apparent when I talk to other people about life, especially when we are trying to arrange a catch up. It becomes pretty apparent quite quickly that I am the problem child with a race or event scheduled every weekend, because that’s the way I spend my clams in order to keep my own equilibrium (it teeters on the edge on occasion).

I am beginning to understand the appeal of the old ‘less is more’ adage, however I have always been this way and I don’t know how I would do life if I was not cramming events, work and training into every corner or crevice of time I have.

Thus, while family and bike time is primary, I have figured out how my time is best spent in order to maximise the training time I have.

Have a plan. Having a plan allows athletes to go out and achieve something purposeful every time they ride. Training goals can be as simple as completing a session, yet can do myriads for performance. Having a well-crafted plan reduces the likelihood of going out and doing rides that aren’t going to benefit your fitness and skills. Merely having the structure of a program with consistent measured periods of overreaching and recovery will result in fitness increases. Riding for fitness doesn’t have to be difficult if you apply the key principles of coaching, and doesn’t require $10000 bikes and fancy new $500 shoes (but hey, if you can afford them and that’s your thing go bananas!).

A plan for me, who crafts voodoo-like macro and microcycles for my athletes yet doesn’t have time to pore through my own stats with needle-like finesse, can be as simple as ‘the last two days were heavy training days I will feel like shit, probs should do some strength that doesn’t require too much top end, maybe slightly more than last week, the recover tomorrow’. Wa la. Voodoo.

Evaluate the optional extras. I understand the varied benefits of optional extras. Strength work on the bike can be complemented with gym sessions. A bit of stretching and yoga never went astray. Power metres and heart rate monitors can be invaluable tools when used correctly. Shedding excess fat mass will result in climbing up hills better. But what’s the best way to spend your clams? If you are an athlete, like many I coach and know, who max’s out at 10hrs/week on the bike, I would argue replacing bike sessions with gym time may not be the best way to spend those clams. If you are a shredded whippet then investing time in reducing minimal fat mass becomes a game of diminishing returns, when you could be looking at boosting watts instead. It comes back to specificity; what are you trying to achieve and how are you going to get there? How is your time best spent in a manner that is congruent with getting to the final goal?

Keep it in perspective. Yes many of us have bikes and racing pulsing through our veins, along with coffee. It becomes a part of our identities.

Yet…it’s just a bike race. Winning a bike race doesn’t make you a better person, or contribute to society. I love bikes, riding, and racing, but at the same time being able to see it for what it is; essentially a hedonistic fickle hobby (harsh but true) in which we attempt to improve ourselves as a personal challenge, can allow athletes to reduce the innate pressure on themselves to perform and help develop a bit of resilience. No one is solving world hunger with a bike race, it’s just a thing we do because we love it, and that’s ok. But sometimes the moderation can go out the window when we’re chasing the good feels.

That’s not to say I don’t care, I do (otherwise I wouldn’t be hauling my arse out of bed before 0500 in the mornings, and tasting vomit and blood during efforts), just that in the grand scheme of life your kids probably aren’t going to remember the time you came second in the C-grade criterium.

Spending clams wisely may mean doing a 2hr30 ride on the weekend instead of 3hrs, so you can go to the pool with the kids or catch up with friends. We only have a finite amount of clams and the way in which we spend them is pretty important. Use the clams wisely.

 

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If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you

I hate Fitspo memes. Like I REALLY hate them. An unrealistic body of a fitness model glistening in sweat, with a clearly defined six pack; the ‘ideal’ athletic aesthetic, is not really indicative of what ‘healthy’ is. Sometimes I look at Fitspo memes as a way to pick apart what ‘fitness’ culture is (in the case of ‘Fitness’ and ‘Bikini’ competitions it’s wholly aesthetic; there’s not a lot that is functional about those beach muscles!), but there is one meme that I enjoy.

If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. 

fitspo
LOL at beach handstands.

If you keep doing the same thing day after day, year after year you’re not going to see change in your life. This can be applied to all aspects of life; your work, relationships, nutrition, and of course, athletic life. I don’t need the picture of the ‘ideal’ female body as a backdrop to this ‘Inspo’, I think the words can speak for themselves.

I recently raced a marathon (it’s becoming a habit, unfortunately; never mind XC IS COMING!) and realised that this year I have raced more marathons than I have collectively over the cumulative years of my cycling life. It’s been a steep learning curve, but coming from XC, it has been one I have been glad to get the gist of a little quicker. It’s been challenging; and i’ve been changed. Every single race has its challenges and it’s in the perseverance and overcoming these challenges that sees the most growth.

Obviously being challenged physically (followed by rest!) is what leads to adaptation and fitness growth, but it also applies to race psychology.

I sometimes see people avoiding races with a large competitive fields. After all, if you don’t go so well in the race maybe the image you want to present to the world of you as high-achieving bike racer won’t be presented on that day? A bigger field means there are more people who have potential to be having a good day…perhaps less potential for you to get the coveted W.

Firstly, getting nervous about a race is normal, having doubts about yourself is normal. There are tips and techniques you can use to get through this, but acknowledging you’re feeling that way is the first step. We race bike races to be the best we can be and to push our limits so a good field surely is a better option than racing in a field of three!

For athletes that turn to water in these times reassurance is really important, and focussing on process goals and moving away from the incessant need to win is key. We can look at LOVING thy opponent (regardless of how you feel about them on a personal level) rather than fearing their strength. We can use stronger opponents as tools for growth. And we can see ourselves as changeable beings and fitness as a sliding scale; rather than our ability being a fixed quality. Who gives a fuck if you have an average day? Maybe your mum, if you’re lucky (she probably doesn’t care TBH).

We can work on seeing ourselves as people outside of athletic achievement and have bike racing as one part of, not the sole key of our being.

What’s the worst that can happen? That you don’t go top three in your pet event and you’re worried how that will make you look? Please, i’ve learnt more from my failures than successes. People who endlessly make excuses after races get a reputation, which leads me to…

…Acceptance. Go your hardest. If that’s a win that’s great. If that’s 18th that’s great. Either way it’s great if you did your best. Sounds trite but it’s true. Year after year at XCO worlds I see posts from athletes being disappointed with their results ‘only came 50th not what I expected’… What did you expect? You started in the grid at 67th, you gave it your all, that’s as good as it gets. IT’S WORLD CHAMPS. If you’ve emptied the tank and you’ve learnt something then that’s a win in itself. Onwards and upwards have a beer and celebrate.

It’s just bike racing.

Nothing is a given, you could be the raddest descender ever and be having a bad day and get overtaken by someone usually less skilled than you. You can have the highest FTP in the field and get overtaken on a 20min climb by someone who wants it more. We can’t control those around us, only ourselves!

It ain’t over ’till it’s over. I see this with some athletes; got a flat? Not finishing. Especially convenient when you were going really well then a bunch of risers passed you, you flatted than, bah, all too hard.

Mountain biking—more than any other cycling discipline—is a race that ain’t over ’till it’s over. Climbing, descending, technical sections, crashes, the elements, mechanicals…we saw all of the above come into play in the women’s race of 2016 Marathon Nationals. It’s easy to ride strong when shit’s going to plan, when shit goes bad it sorts out wheat from chaff.

Thinking about your thinking (metacognition) and developing some self-awareness about how you race is an invaluable tactic. Embrace the challenge and your opponents; after all without them you’re just doing a training ride with some bunting.

Happy trails.

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The Dingo Enduro was a hard race for me physically and mentally. Having cranked out 110km with a million sprints the day prior and at the end of a 16hr week I was physically cooked. The whole day I had a migrane and was kicking myself for small technical errors. All in all I FELT LIKE SHIT. By my final runs I had focussed in on my riding and blocked out all the other ‘noise’ going on distracting me from riding well. People probably thought I had it easy during this race, but far from it! The battle within rages endlessly, it’s what how you react to it that counts.

 

 

Epic

I don’t know what to write about the 2016 Flight Centre Active Travel Cycle Epic. It was a race that wasn’t even going to happen for me until three days prior to the event. The constant peer pressure of friends asking me in person and social media “have you entered the Epic yet? I think it’s your year” had me responding with “no way I have no form, I don’t think I am emotionally ready to put myself in the box yet”.

A few gentle (and not so gentle) words of encouragement had me soul searching as to why I really didn’t want to race. Something to do with not wanting to creep around if I didn’t have the form, but then I thought fuck it, I can use a good hard training ride and so what if I don’t have a great result? It’s an XCM National Series race, it’s supposed to be tough, just go and hurt and have some fun, maybe some form will grow from it?

The lead up to the event was in one word: wet. The weeks prior were amazing, spring had definitely come to Queensland, but on the Friday multiple small deluges had everyone a bit on edge. When they didn’t cease on Saturday it evoked memories of the Epic two years ago (which thankfully I wasn’t in attendance at) where it poured the day prior and finishing times were blown way out of the water with riders manually evacuating mud from their bikes in order to keep moving.

Anyway, a later race start and reducing the course to 77km was announced Saturday and actually had me thinking for the first time “hey this could be fucking really hard, I reckon I could do well if it’s really fucking arduous. Like BRING THE BOG ON”.

On the start line noone really knew what to expect. Would it be 5hr30 mud fest? The whistle went for Elite Women, the first fire-road was boggy AF. The strong group of elite women enjoyed (well I did…) a rather recreational start to the race. Without bolting the gun it was easy to slip into a good tempo rhythm with Samara Sheppard and Em Viotto mainly setting the tempo for the first 45min. We also had Holly Harris, Peta Mullens and XCO Masters world champion Sharon Heap with us at that stage.

I was riding along thinking “well, this really isn’t very hard right now” managing to stay at or just under threshold even with the technical climbs. The start of the race was recreational AF. It was amazing. Having my turn on the front, I made an error when someone was standing at a big technical rollover (really the only technical feature) and as I hadn’t ridden it I clipped out and then couldn’t clip back in resulting in a bum-slide and much apologising from me to those behind me. The technical trail continued, and as I came out onto the fireroad I realised that I had a small gap, along with Sheppard with Harris not too far back.

Samara tested the waters putting the jandal down a little and we increased our lead from Harris.

There was a lot of boggyness at this stage feat. soul-destrying mud fields, and some of the faster age groupers came around us, most of whom Sheppard and myself rode past again up a long stretch of farmland hill, never to be seen again.

Eventually, at about 27km, we headed to the “Epic trail”, which was the first of the ‘old’ rocky trails to be used in the race. I made a conscious effort to pedal less and go faster to test the waters and how Sheppard would go, but by the time I reached the stockyards I had daylight behind me. By the time I headed back onto farmland I still couldn’t spot anyone behind me. This was when I realised I was either very brave or very stupid (historically it’s the latter), having realised if I was to maintain my position out the front I had 50km of solo singletrack riding in front of me.

Out of sight and out of mind though, as I rolled through the feedzone and start/finish at 40km with almost three minutes for a sneaky bottle change. 37km to go.

I spotted one of the local masters riders just ahead. Aha! A carrot! He was even orange; perfect. I managed to get pretty close to him when I started to feel some unwelcome tingles in my adductors. My lack of both electrolytes and long seated MTB miles, meant that this was probably going to happen at some point, but unfortunately it was with 30km to go.

With my super lazy ‘pedal less but ride faster’ mantra, I managed to spin away up the hills and just shred the descents. Every corner I was pushing the limits, knowing I could get a second here and there, off the brakes, using my body more than my legs to pump and get free speed.

At ‘Almost There’ the cramps had set in and I had to change tactics, I engaged in the sit/stand technique but they were going off like a lie detector at a cop shop. Down ‘Ripple Effect’ I was very sore, but also almost overjoyed to have 8mins of very little pedalling #bestever.

Up the final climb the cramps were so bad I employed a knees out pedalling style to take the weight of the adductors, which was moderately successful. Mullens’ parter Jarrod Moroni rode up to me with my awkward pedalling style and said “you have a huge gap”, but we still had 7km to go so I wasn’t sure to believe him or not.

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Somewhere deep in the head-tilting box.

The final descent down aeroplane was more of the same, riding smooth and off the brakes. For some reason pedalling on the D in the singletrack didn’t elicit cramps so I rode gravity style and then popped out onto the fireroad. With less than a km to go I ran into the tail end of the 40km race finishers, shredding around them onto the grass of the finish.

And that was it. I had crossed the line ahead of everyone else in my race; that’s the goal of racing right? I had been so focussed on riding smooth and smart that I hadn’t been able to fully comprehend the win. Like nobody came around me at all. Not one. For 50km. This is not usually what happens. Maybe they all crashed out? Surely I couldn’t have been the fastest? Madness!

I checked; they didn’t crash out. I had a tidy 6min gap on Sheppard in second with worlds teamie Briony Mattocks surging in the closing stages of the race for third. A tidy result in a very tidy field.

I think sometimes that I have to spend so much time imparting confidence and poise into my athletes and truly believing in their abilities, that sometimes it gets a little lost on me. So with not the greatest prep, post the great throat-herpes saga of 2016, at a hefty weight of 60kg, I managed my first National XCM race win. I am still a little amazed!

Huge ups to Hayden and Fleur for arranging the rain for perhaps the most int trails of the Epic ever, Rocky Mountain Bicycles Australia, Cyclinic, and Aido and Elva my always support crew.

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On being real

Social media is all pervasive. We plan social events through it, talk to work colleagues, even announce huge life events. Never before have we had the ability to curate ourselves so intensely as now. Don’t like that picture? Post a different one. Looking to portray an image as a particular type of person? perhaps post some motivational quotes and be on your way.

While I probably shouldn’t question anything that allows me to filter a little bit (as I am not generally known for mine), I do question the value in people only ever seeing the best version of others.

But where does reality sit in all of this? It’s easy for someone to come and click on my link or page and think “wow, rides bikes a lot; iron woman!”. That’s a pretty unifocal view. In reality some days all I want to do is curl up on the couch with a glass of wine. Curation vs reality.

We are all products of our parenting, education and life experiences and we all have amazingly interesting, individual stories to tell.

I myself feel as though I have lived seven lifetimes even though I am only thirty (far too much to detail here, wait for the book to come out…but maybe when i’m in my next career). But the value to being thirty is the ability to fully own your past and look towards the future.

Getting comfortable with discomfort

The other day I rode to Noosa. It was a pretty recreational ride, just long, about 190km but that included a beer and burger stop at 135km, a coke at 165km, and a couple of other refresh/bush wee type pauses. It was one of those days where I could have ridden hard all day, feeling relatively ‘no chain’.

Bike races are funny things, in the road it’s not necessarily the strongest that wins due to these things they like to call ‘tactics’ (which I am not all over), but inarguably you have to get to the finish and that requires suffering. On the mountain bike it’s about who can be the suffering-est for the longest.

Plan as you may, it’s a rare thing that a ‘no chain’ day lines up with your race. Training and peaking correctly puts you in a good position for having a great race, but it’s often difficult to get all the planets aligning at exactly the right time. I would have loved to save my ‘no chain’ Noosa ride up for an upcoming race, but it just doesn’t work that way.

So what to do? Well training for racing is not just about coaxing the most out of you physiologically, but also about getting comfortable with the deep discomfort that comes along with bike racing.

Just as having time off the bike results in a bit of physical detraining, it also means you lose touch with the sensation of the burn of racing. It’s often said that the first race back after time off is the hardest, but when you’re going full gas no race is really harder than any other. When you’re fitter you just go faster for the effort, and after a few races are better acquainted with the pain.

Given that as humans we are hardwired to avoid pain and unpleasant experiences, it really is true that committing to training and racing bikes is actually a bit mental. The feeling of having a ‘no chain’ ride is amazing, but if all rides were like that we would fail to develop the right skills to deal with the discomfort of maximal effort come race day; and as such we often learn the most about ourselves and have the best mental training when fatigued and sore.

Comfort with discomfort
Post race pain.

There is a caveat; multiple sessions of feeling fatigued and sore can lead to overtraining and illness so planning out sessions with adequate recovery time is a must.

There are hundreds of different ways to suffer and train the pain station in cycling. Some examples of sessions used in different phases of training programs to have both physical and mental ‘pain training’ elements include (but of course are not limited to):

Strength Endurance

VO2 Max

Anaerobic Capacity efforts.

Being able to tolerate discomfort is a huge skill. By getting through discomfort on training days better equips you for racing ‘in the box’. Enjoy the ‘no chain’ days but remember that out of the comfort zone is where the magic happens.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

When in France…

I guess I have been thinking about writing a post during my trip since I arrived in France, it just hasn’t been the right time for it. We are always about to do something, have groceries to buy, washing to do, food to cook. Places to go, things to see. You know…the life stuff that comes with travelling abroad, bike racing and being self-supported.

After an epic 35-hours flying time, including getting to the gate 5mins after boarding time in Toulouse (thanks goodness it was delayed) then almost being denied entry due to unpaid baggage (which I had just paid!) Briony and I, who met up at Charles De Gaulle, arrived in Toulouse. The next bit of the clusterfuck was playing the ‘where is my bike’ game. I was emotionally prepared for this, being a bit of a pessimist at the best of times, and having played this game before.

After accepting that it wasn’t coming, we filed the missing baggage form and collected our Peugeot ‘Teepee’, but not before getting fleeced for an extra GPS which came standard in the car. This was phase one of ‘I wish I could speak French’.

Navigating out of the carpark was a blast, as we very rapidly realised we were to drive on the right side of the road. Add this to sitting on the left when driving, and having a right-sided gearstick, and you could tell we were having an awesome time freaking out, then laughing about it.

We found our accommodation in Tournefeuille, a loft room in a little southern-french style Mediterranean villa with amazing pool. The hosts were great, there was a cherry tree and we were far enough from a major centre that getting around wasn’t too stressful.

The next day we headed out for a ride, Briony on her race weapon, me in my Purple glitter Converses, Cyclinic kit and Aussie gilet sans helmet on one of the hosts large Trek 4500 alloy MTB, fitted with racks, bags, fenders and semi slicks. A race weapon if there ever was one.

windmill
Stylish AF.

Thankfully the real race weapon turned up that night, it was very exciting.

The next day we daytripped to a little town called Castres, in the Tarn region, to go for a ride. Bri had a fancy GPS that uploaded a map of a ride we were doing, and after getting lost and detouring through the ghetto (legit a bit scary) we headed out into the hills for 50km of sun, a few efforts and some detouring for pictured. I wished that I had a camera in my eyes because I didn’t want to forget how amazing and beautiful the scenery was, alas I will have to rely on a few dodgy iPhone photos instead. We travelled through mediaeval Burlats, climbed up Lacrouzette to the top at Roquecorbe. It’s hard to describe what it was like without reverting to generic terms like ‘next level’ and ‘epic’, but that’s kind of what it was.

castres
Castres.

The next day was travel day to Rodez. Getting a little handier at the driving business, that decreased on my list of things that were a bit stressful, while trying to converse about our accommodation rose to the top. We got there and there was a problem so we had to stay in a very tiny hotel for one night before moving to our apartment accomodation. Bri had been feeling a bit under the weather the day prior, and it was my turn to feel fucking awful. We called it a recce day but still traipsed around Rodez.

rodezcatheder
Rodez Cathederal, we are staying right near here. Think it’s reached Peak Gargoyle.

Rodez kind of reminds me of Toowoomba, if it was established in the 12th century. Rodez is actually older than that, but I believe that’s when they started having a decent crack at building the huge Notre-Dame Cathederal-Rodez which is front and centre of the city. Rodez is located atop a hill, and is the city of flowers, hence the Tbar references. It’s a long bow to draw, but i’m doing it. We are staying right in the centre, we can see the Cathederal from the accomodation and more importantly, our favourite boulangerie is RIGHT ACROSS THE ROAD #baguettelyf.

 

lepub
Where else would you get your coffee?

Yesterday we headed on course. The disadvantage of staying in the hotel was we couldn’t cook or do washing and hence we had to wait until the rest of France wakes up (ie: not very fucking early) to get some food in so that we could ride. As a result, we got to Laissac about 1000. On bikes at 1030, and not back until 1330. It was over 30degrees (oui oui, magnifique!) and we had very limited water (non! tres mauvais!).

!) so perhaps took the fatal mistake of cooking ourselves. Coke, quiche and ice blocks against a wall helped momentarily.

WC1
On course.

We rode about 1/3 of the course and as we were both under the weather it was a pretty glacial pace. It had everything! Boggy euro mud, south-of-france loose rocky fun descents though pine forest, craggy rocky climbs, mud chutes like Offenburg. The fun is in the surprise ‘holy shit I am careering down this muddy chute, should probably avoid the orange trees’, and the race will hold some more surprises as I am taking today off with my sore throat and ears in order to get myself right for the race.

It’s not so bad, the descents I ride were wicked fun, not too crazy technical if you are in the mindset to just hit it and worry about it later. While I am hoping/praying that my health comes good for the race, it’s World Champs; it doesn’t matter where I come as long as I ride as hard and fast as I can and enjoy the pain in the process!

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