Wednesday, 27 August 2014

World Cup singletrack - Meribel, France

The most interesting parts of the courses are rarely accessed by photographers or the camera men so we thought we'd take a few shots of dirt "to remember it by" ;)

As always, the camera flattens the course disappointingly, steep drops look tiny, sketchy rock gardens look flat and the roots grippy, so please use your imagination and add a few percent of gradient to what you see here ;)

Sean as Lion King.

Drop down, fast into a rooty corner, over a rock and down again...
Pick a line. Hint: the course urns left behind a tree. I's also slightly uphill.

That was steep :-/ Believe me.

Fast, loose-sand parts of the singletrack, with plenty of roots and tree-dodging. Take the corner or end up in the river ;)

Weeeeeee! Down into the singletrack!

Up up up

More slippy roots and loose sand and some rocks thrown in for fun. Loads of fun :)

The river running along the singletrack - a pretty view most
likely overlooked by everybody during the race.
Down and through rocks.

These were some seriously sketchy roots.
Sean has made it up, hats off.

More loose sand.

Down the drop, straight into gravelly corner, right over roots, left over rocks and into another drop...

Straight down and hope for the best. One of those "commit yourself before you see anything" kinds of drops.

Off-camber rocky part, the "line" goes to the left .

Small streams running down the slopes were adding some slippery-ness and mud

Possibly the hardest part of the course (technically). The line here goes roughly through the middle of the photograph. It was a bit consoling to see e best riders in the world tripping here, slipping, hitting their derailleurs and performing most entertaining acrobatics.

Rooty rocky off-camber and down a drop!
Blind over-the-rock: fun :)
More steep slippery off-camber. In the background you can see the end of fast boardwalk section.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

My first World Cup: Meribel, France

Oh my God, I rode a World Cup.
I can't believe it really happened.

And probably it wasn't that far from not happening after our Saturday's practice lap, when I misjudged the jump and landed head first, making my face the most looked at object of the weekend and badly bruising my ribcage, or cracking it, or whatever, long story short I spent 20 min not able to breathe fully or even get of the ground and eventually dragged myself to the medical tent where I got checked as well as the guys could without much of an equipment. So, 24 hrs before the biggest race of my life, I was not able to move my upper body or even lift a water bottle because it was causing screaming pain in my ribs. Not to mention, to grab the grips of my handlebars. Great. I stuffed myself with painkillers and went out again to finish the prematurely stopped practice lap.

Landing on your face=Halloween costume sorted
On Sunday, the day of the race, nothing much has changed. I had slept like a log, forced in some breakfast and went out to warm up on the nearby climb with Sean. I wasn't stressed or overly excited, which I had expected to be, but I was probably too drugged up to feel anything.

1pm approaching, I lined up with the rest of the elite women, unfortunately in the last row due to my not too high UCI points, and off we go! I started well, staying in the main group, until 15 seconds later a crash in front of me forced me to slow down, I was delighted I didn't get caught in it though. I still managed to stay inside the group but soon realised that it wasn't going to last long. The drugs sedated the pain but they also turned my muscles into jelly, I was dizzy and nauscious so I decided to take it safe on the technical sections and slow on the climbs. And when my chain dropped and got stuck, I knew it wasn't going to get much better. I wasn't disappointed, after all it perfectly fitted in my rotten 2014 season ;) At times I wondered whether to throw up or faint but it was too difficult a decision to make so I just ploughed ahead. And really, the only thing that mattered was that I was riding a world cup (and at that time I wasn't even the last!)

The climbs were tough but the descents were worth the effort. Two drops, one of them quite sketchy, with narrow lines between sharp rocks, and sharp, tight corners still on the nearly vertical part. Then the lovely singletrack along the river, with one tricky feature after another, lines the width of the tyre, sharp rocks, slippery roots, blind corners, I loved it! That was a really beautiful course, technical and demanding but what else would you expect from the world cup? I'm so so happy I got to race it.

Of course, I would have liked to ride it not being numbed by pain killers and limited by the pain the drugs haven't killed. Of course, I would have preferred to suffer from lactic acid in my legs rather than from nauziness. Of course, I would have preferred to do one more lap. But you know what? I really don't care about it all. I got to ride a World Cup, despite all the odds!

I got to experience the unbelievable atmosphere, with astonishing crowds screaming their throats out, shouting more at the last riders than they did at the first ones, with their screams pulling us up the hills. For the whole time, I couldn't stop grinning. Surprisingly enough, this race added to my confidence. When I was caught by the leading riders in the single track, I managed to stay close to them losing hardly any time. One rider entered the single track soon behind me and caught me only at the end of it. I was capable of riding all the technical features, I know I could even do that jump if I wasn't dizzy, I hope to get back to it before we leave Meribel. The only bits I slipped on, required lifting the front wheel which was too painful but otherwise perfectly within my ability. I had been afraid that the technical sections would be too difficult or scary for me but they proved otherwise so I'm over the moon with it. And it proved what I already knew: if you want to race at a world level, forget about racing in the UK, it's a waste of time (well, you can of course do it if it gives you any pleasure but don't have a shade of a hope that it'll add any value to your technical skills, any bike handling skill I ever had, I brought from Ireland).

And it was such a steep learning curve. The speed of the top riders, the technical smoothness, the easiness of their riding - it's something pleasant to watch and worth aspiring to.

The course was class, pure pleasure to ride, a high-level entertainment.

The buzz in the whole town, bikes, crowds, cyclists, spectators, beautifully friendly marshals and officials, people on various bike forums saying "wish I was there" and hey, we are "there", we are a part of that!
Watching downhill highest levels guys live, ripping the hills like if it was a ride in a park. All that buzz!

Really, I rode a World Cup. Whatever happens, nobody will ever take that away from me. The dream come true. The most unlikely, ridiculous dream come true. It's done, my highest goal achieved, it's over. I did a World Cup :)

(And what a better way to celebrate the first wedding anniversary! Thank you, my husband, for being the best crew and fan club ever :D )

The organisers expected 40,000 spectators over the weekend, I didn't count but they certainly sounded like that.

A part of the race village, it was far too big to get captured by a photo camera.
Waiting to be gridded.
Off we go! The tv screen shot courtesy of Anna, thanks :)
It looked harder from above the bars...
Me and my world-cup-number-plated bike after the race, happy happy.
A post-race photo with Maja Wloszczowska, a World Champion, as you do ;)

A view from high above, maybe we should stay over here...

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The racing season is coming to an end, sentimental time...

What a year it's been! I experienced XC Elite racing, did my first MTB stage race, first Streetvelodrome race, first Gravity Enduro and first silly-long road ride, spontaneously doubling my max road distance up to 300km. Continued XC racing and did a XC relay race wit my husband. It's been a crazy, tough, sad'n'happy year. Definitely an intense one. Hats off to Sean for being there when it felt too much and when it felt like not enough ;) Memories made. Fitness lost. Goals achieved. Ticked off. Satisfied. I think the weather makes me sentimental today...

It's been a hard season for me because my dreams were so big and my fitness was so small. The body was struggling and with a great season last year, it was very frustrating not to be able to ride at a siilar level again. No support was too much for me. And it was even harder because I knew it was most likely my once-in-a-lifetime shot at the biggest of my biking dreams.
But doing sprint repeats in pouring rain, I looked back at where I was just a few years ago. At the girl who knew that road bikes had skinny tyres and the mountain bikes had thick ones and that was all. Who used a bike three times a year and put it in the basement for half a year when the weather got got cold. Who had one bike for the whole family - bikes have sizes??!! (not that we used it for more than 50km a year anyway). Who only 6 years ago bought her first mountain bike for €500 and felt like she owned the world (and like she got completely crazy spending such money on a bicycle!). But then, after a few rides, she didn't ride it until the next summer because "you don't ride bikes in the winter".

I remember climbing the Kilmashogue for the first time, probably for an hour, and stopping every 10 minutes, making a wild dream of riding it without a stop one day. Soon I was racing up it, trying to get down to the magic target of 20 minutes.
I'm looking back at my first rides up 3Rock in Dublin Mountains. At riding the Rock'n'Roll section over and over again with Arek, learning one corner after another, until I eventually could ride it without dabbing. I still remember how sweet that satisfaction tasted. I remember my first drops, which I had been approaching for months before I could finally ride it. The first rooty descents, first jumps, first hill repeats.
I look back at my fist races in Ireland, heart pounding, adrenaline rushing, big grins on everybody's faces. The friendly, family-like, atmosphere at those races. The satisfaction at tackling the technical courses, regardless of the places taken at the finish line.

One day somebody asked about my goals in biking and I replied that I'd like to ride a World Cup, and laughed. Riding a World Cup, going to space, saving tigers in Asia and having a tea with Einstein - dreams are good, aren't they, life would be greyer without them.

Just an ordinary girl...No sport background, no athletic family members or friends, average fitness, underactive thyroid wreaking havoc when it felt like doing so, never particularly good at or interested in sports before discovering Irish mountain biking, big love for mud, rocks and roots and for humbling views from the tops of mountains. And unreasonably big dreams. Because, why not?

And here I am, 5 years after starting to mountainbike, 4 years after starting to race. Packing my suitcase because tomorrow I'm flying to France. To race in a World Cup.

Dream big.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Our French adventure: 300km in under 24hr and why would you ride your bike at 4am

Inspired by Sophie Radcliffe's "London to Paris in under 24hr" ride, we've decided to go on our own adventure. Initially we intended to go London to Paris as well but due to a high price of Eurostar tickets the final destination has been changed to Calais, with the total distance the same. Also, living in London we starve for views during our bike rides - mountains, sea, fields... anything but houses and cars - and the idea of riding along the French coast seemed very appealing.

Similarly appealing, if a bit scary, was the distance. When I mention to Sean two weeks ago that I'd like to do a 300km ride, he said "Yeah, sure. But why?" :) I'd never done anything even close to that, one 140km being my previous max, and 300km seemed a bit extreme. But I never doubted we'd do it - what other choice would we have? :) We've booked the ferries, downloaded gps data and at 5:15pm on Friday we got on our bikes and set off towards Newhaven to catch the 11pm ferry to Dieppe.

Our route: London-Newhaven-Dieppe-Calais-Dover-London

We had to be in the port before 10pm so it seemed like we had a lot of time to cover 100km however with a few de-tours and navigating our way around bridle ways and fields, we had to push harder on the pedals for the last hour to make it in time. Torrential rain spiced up the first part of our adventure, within a few minutes we became completely soaked, with rain hitting our faces like thousands tiny needles, the roads turned into running rivers and we could hardly see in front of us. The water was steaming up from the hot tarmac, creating a weird, warm fog covering everything around and making the night world look magical and a bit spooky.

We got to the ferry with 5 minutes to spare, got on board and regretted for a moment that we'd decided to travel light which meant we were going to sit in the soaked clothes for the next 4 hours until we hit the roads again. We had a hot dinner that doubled as a post-ride and pre-ride meal. The dinner and hot whiskey warmed up our bodies and our spirits and we managed to get 2 hours sleep before we hit the French coast. A slow disembarking, a quick sandwich and a coffee and at 4am (5am French time) we were cycling on empty roads through small villages immersed in deep sleep.
With the sun getting up, we started to realise what a beautiful world was around us. Green fields were steaming up in the morning light, confused cows started to wake up, corn fields were buzzing quietly in the gentle wind and on the horizon to our left we could see the sea, towards which we were cycling.

We cycled through many pretty towns but Le Treport deserves a special mention because of it's fairytale-like crazy-colourful houses, with wooden, carved balconies, decorative roofs and ornamented brickwork, flower pots and narrow streets, a place you were going through with eyes wide open a big grin on your face.

The roads were beautifully smooth and pot-hole-less, majority of the drivers were overtaking us safely leaving loads of space (actually going onto the other lane) - a nice change from the everyday British routine. The breakfast on the side of a lake, at 8am after 4 hours ride, tasted like never before. Although we were riding faster than planned and had a lot of time ahead so were really enjoying the surrounding, even though we had to improvise in some places when the route was going into roads unsuitable for road bikes,we suddenly lost a lot of time when trying to find some food around lunchtime and realised that we had to really speed up. The legs lived up to the expectations and worked well in the rolling hills and a crosswind - a 40km time trial after a 260km ride feels surprisingly good. And the views again! Hard ups, fast downs, green grass around, white beaches and cliffs below, colourful kites and charming wooden summer houses - "here and now" and nothing else exists.

When we climbed the last hill and could see Calais down below, some 15km away, we also noticed the MyFerryLink ferry going towards the port. We were flying down the twisty roads at 60 km/h, seeing the ferry with the corner of our eyes, wondering who'll get there first - it felt like a race from some twisted episode of the Top Gear. We knew we had more then enough time but if felt great to race like that anyway :)

At 4pm French time we were in the port of Calais, having done 307km, 22 hours after starting from London. At 10pm we were back on the sofa at home, showered, fed and getting ready for a well-deserved rest. A 12.5-hour weekend training done and we still had the whole Sunday ahead of us! Seeing that we were capable of doing that, we're already planning another adventure.

Friday 5pm: Leave London
Friday 10pm: Arrive in Newhaven, ferry leaves 11pm
Saturday 4am (French time): Arrive in Dieppe
Saturday 5am-4pm (French time): cycle Dieppe to Calais
Saturday 5pm (French time): Ferry to Dover, then train to London

When planning the timetable, allow for:
- It takes ages to leave London, for first 50min riding, we were stopped for 20min.
- Approx. 45min for disembarking from the ferry
- Delay of the ferry

- A fact that it's not warm on the ferry (i.e. the air-conditioning is working well)

- GPS route sending you through dirt roads or private roads which you'll need to navigate around. Usually it is quite intuitive and if you keep going in the general correct direction, you'll be fine. If that makes you uncomfortable, have a map or roaming on your phone.

- Obviously, allow for mechanicals and traffic jams - they can reduce your average speed very quickly.
- And allow time for stopping and staring in awe at the world around :)

A question:
Having to avoid gluten, we always find it very hard to find nutritious food during our travels abroad. With restaurants opening up late, the only readily available food are croissants and sandwiches which we have to steer clear of or chocolate bars, and there are only that many Snickers bars you can eat. It seems that we always have to take most of the food with us, which becomes and issue when you're going on a 10hr ride and you'll need some 5000kcal - that's 25 energy bars and you won't fit that in your back pocket. In result, we always waste a lot of time trying to find food. Do you have any experience / advice in that matter? Any recipes for low-volume, high-calorie snacks?

Leaving London on Friday evening, still dry.
Friday midnight, already on the ferry, with the rain still pouring down. 

Hot midnight whiskey for soaked cyclists, an inspired idea.

Sean getting a bit of sleep on the way to Dieppe.

A quick bagel and coffee at 4am...
... and we're back on the road (not easy to take a night shot while riding ;) )
Empy, empty roads.
French 6am, the sun's going up.

We may have been the first people on the street in that town today.

Fantastic houses in Le Treport.
It wasn't just one street, the whole town looked like this!

We could see the sea for most of the 200km of the French part of the ride
French 9am, 85km done, time for breakfast.
It was hillier than I expected.
Idyllic views.
Yeah, we did it! 300km done, now ferry home!
The tastiest dinner ever? Sean waiting impatiently for me to take the photo.
Waiting for the train home. Adventure finished.