My first National Trophy and my first wooden spoon (which I’m classing as a win!)

I’ve been doing cyclocross now for around 5 years, with a year’s break during the forgettable 2020. What started out as a medium for winter fitness training, very much as a powerful triathlete with zero bike handling skills, has over the years slowly become a more competitive affair. With all the guff life has thrown at me in the last 18 months, my power has actually gone down significantly. But having been out more with the Velobants crew on gravel rides (which may or may not involve large quantities of beer), I have rather surprisingly found that my handling skills have improved immeasurably.

Having left Central League in 2020 and been too late in the 2021 season to join Northwest League, I have amused myself by picking and choosing whichever races I fancy at whichever leagues I want. I’ve done a West Midlands one (did well, not much banter), several Northwest ones (did well, a bit more banter and some prizes), and now I can say I’ve done my first National Trophy event at Houghton-le-Spring! Something the hyperanxious old me would never have dared to do, for fear of being last and making a tit out of myself.

So how was it? Well, first off I was definitely NOT in it to win it. For a start, the majority of the senior field were U23, meaning around 15 years younger than me. Gawd that makes me feel old! And lots of team names I’d heard of, which is always a daunting prospect. Although I had joined Macc Wheelers by then, I was still racing under Velobants, and so I had to do the most “professional” job I could with “Beer, Bike, Bants” written on my back 😀

Like any true triathlete, I did a Parkrun sandwich the morning before, running from my aunt’s house to Durham Parkrun and back – around 10 miles. But at least I countered that with a long walk back to Durham and a big Greek late lunch with my cousin Gabi.

Having stayed at my friend Hayley’s the night before, we went into Newcastle for brunch on the morning, where I had a big black coffee and a bowl of loaded porridge. Still trying to like peanut butter… nope. After saying our goodbyes, I drove a whole 15 minutes to the venue and befriended the registration team, who offered to take my jacket off me on the start line. Bloody love northerners! Managed a one lap recce – intentionally no more, as I had no pit bike or crew, so whatever mud was picked up was staying put. There was a LOT of off-camber, a steep drop and a couple of climbs, a set of (in my opinion) impossibly enormous hurdles, and a fair amount of zapping flat grass. But the biggest obstacles were an off-camber muddy hairpin descent, and a short sharp bridge with about one bike length at the top. The marshalls at the off-camber hairpin were wonderful, sensing my nerves and lack of skills, and talking me through what they had witnessed working/ending in disaster. I think I may have given them an empty promise of a beer afterwards 🙂 The bridge? Well, I did not make it up hahaha.

So onto the start line, and with the 80% rule in place (where riders are pulled before they are lapped) I was not expecting to last more than a couple of laps at best. Maybe 20 minutes into the 40 minute race? Anyway, I was gridded I think second-to-last rider. The commisaire could clearly tell I was a noob and likely to be pulled, so we had some banter going and he exclaimed that I had “the dirtiest bike of the entire weekend” – well, at least I won something?!

Richard Howes Photography

I reckon I managed to stay with (at the back counts as with…) the pack until the first major corner, and then (obviously) my legs fell off. Cue settling into a more appropriate pace, and I had a couple of stragglers with me. One girl got a mechanical, so rapidly went backwards, but then rejoined and caught me a lap or 2 in. I reckon although I was last by that point, I managed to hold her within 50-100m for most of the rest of the race, falling off only on the last of my laps. When I eventually did get pulled, it was not as predicted – I looked at my watch and I’d made it to 37 minutes! So I wheeled George II around to the start/finish and watched some of the speedier lasses go through. Very inspirational. Unfortunately I couldn’t hang around for the finish and podium as I had a one-year-old’s birthday to get to, but I went back to Durham a last placed but very happy woman.

Positives:

  • Entered a race I previously would never have dared to.
  • Bossed the off-camber hairpin descent every damn time. May have been slower than others, but who cares?
  • After bailing on the bridge for the first 3 laps, I nailed it on the last 2. Chuffed to pieces! Proof that I DO have the power to get up, it’s just the confidence (and perhaps some skill) that needs work.
  • Despite coming last, I gained some points for showing up. National points. Boom!

Opportunities:

  • Enter more National level CX events! What is stopping me?! Only myself.
  • Work on confidence in my own power. It IS there.
  • Get a pit bike.
  • Rope someone into pit crew duties! 😀
  • One season of solid training should massively help to marry the new handling skills and help me to achieve more.

Until next year!

WinNats21 – Type 2 fun at its best :D

After last year’s relative success at Nationals on the notoriously nauseating Streatley Hill Climb (36th female), I didn’t give entering the 2021 competition a second thought. Take my money!

When I found out it was going to be Winnats Pass, my first thought was “I’ve heard of that”. What *should* have been my second thought was “why have I heard of that?”… but instead my brain went with “that’s less than half an hour from my new house, great!”. **Insert your cruel (but 100% valid) smirking here** 😀

2020/2021: Absolutely shite, would not recommend.

As many of you know from my social media posts over the last year, things have been far from ideal in terms of training and prep. A cheating ex-boyfriend/coach, a spiral into severe depression and anxiety, a relapse into anorexia (followed by a relapse into bulimia) and a subsequent move 130 miles north to get away from my old life, wipe the slate clean and start again meant precisely zero targeted training. My new coach at https://catenarycoaching.com/, Tim, has been extrememly supportive (and let me get away with far too much laxity – less of that in 2022 please, boss!). But I’m sleeping the best I have in years, I’ve weaned right down on my antidepressants and for the most part I’m eating regular, healthy meals. I’ve no idea what my weight or FTP are – and for the moment, I’m happy with that.

The recce(s).

Anyway, back to the 2021 Nationals! Having never ridden in the Peaks before, let alone tried out Winnats, I took myself off to attempt a recce from Goyt Valley 8 days before race day. I got within sniffing distance of Winnats, but unfortunately the cold got the better of me, and I had to head back to the car. It wasn’t all a waste of time though – I did what I now know to be #37 in the 100 Greatest Climbs during my ride – Peaslows (1.6km at 10% average) – and completed it without drama. So off I popped again T-48 hours. The rain held off and it was a stunner of a day, although the wind had picked up. I bettered my Peaslows time by precisely 30 seconds to get a top 20 on the Strava leaderboard…good start. Then I got to Winnats…

Mentally I had been expecting to hit the bottom and ready myself before a recce, but my skills in being directionally challenged surpassed themselves and I found myself at the top, looking down. It was soooo beautiful I pulled over, took a picture, and caught flies for a good 5 minutes! The descent, which had been talked about on Facebook forums, was actually not that bad in the dry. A few minutes to ready myself at the bottom, and the ascent was a whole different kettle of fish!!! The road is steep from the off, and barely wide enough for 2 small cars. Good tarmac, yes, but pools of oil in places, and people weren’t joking when they said that the gorge has it’s own microclimate! A massive headwind with gusts that took me into the paths of ascending cars, and I had to call it quits 2/3 of the way up. Disappointing, but at least I got an idea of the pass. Unclipping and crossing the road to descend once again was comedy gold – as soon as I lifted my bike, the whole thing flung itself as if to take off into orbit. Jeez!!!

View from the top of Winnats

In true triathlete style, I elected to run my first cross country race with my new run club, the day before race day. “I’ll pace it” I promised myself and my clubmates. Hahahahaha. If I ever say that again, please slap some sense into me!

XC “tapering”..!

Race day!

Race day arrived; I left reasonably on time, but then got scuppered by the road closure so arrived with less “faff” time than anticipated. I’ll be honest, it was 50:50 whether I was going to bother leaving the house when I saw the weather – if I hadn’t made it up in the recce, what was to say I would make it up on race day?? Once at HQ, I met the lady going off immediately after me who was doing her first nationals, whose husband kindly took a bag of dry kit to the top for me. What a legend. The weather was abysmal, but thankfully less wind than during my recce, and live timings suggested that the juniors and blokes were all making it up, so I felt a bit more positive. The ride over was less “warm up” and more “try not to freeze to death” following an unwelcome downpour of hail. Rude. Bumped into the lovely Laura Owler as we got to the start area, a fellow medic who I know from social, who also struggles with her mental health. She’s a total legend who gets stuck in no matter what, and always with the biggest smile 😀 I waved her off and then found my friend David who had come to spectate and hold my jacket, and at 10:12 I pulled my sodden leg warmers off and made my way to the holding pen. Ordinarily I’d have removed my helmet and gloves, but I was absolutley frozen and genuinely quite worried about the possibility of falling off due to wheelspin, so I forfeighted the extra weight.

Having never done a major hill climb pre-COVID, I don’t know how the starts “normally” are. But this year it was very much a case of roll up, roll straight through to the holder, 1 minute countdown and “Go!”. Very little time to take many deep breaths and take a moment, but also very little opportunity to tense up and over-think it. The bottom of the hill was fine – I tend not to look at my numbers but I did see a 410watts at one point – definitely too high, but less so than at the bottom of Streatley (high 500s!). The lower 1/2 was gruelling but doable, and I stood for the most part.

The “doable” bit! – Photo by Bob Askwith

Just as I reached the point where I’d had to bail on my recce, my legs were burning and things were becoming hazy, and my body kept asking me to sit down. I listened for a bit, but my cadence was slowing badly and the noise from the crowds was deafening – just what I needed to literally pick me back up again! I remember seeing an oversized kebab on a stick (was I now hallucinating?!) and a gradient sign which read “100%” – eurgh!!

Richard “Kebab Man” Stoodley – Photo by Sport Pictures Cymru
The crowds – photo by Jelignite Photography
That soul-destroying sign! Photo by Trax Media

I was digging so deep around that last bend, my vision had closed in, everything was tingling, and it felt like I was starting to have an out-of-body experience. I fought with every fibre of my being not to unclip and put a foot down, and the next thing I knew, I was over the finish line. Oh. My. Word.

Nearing the summit – Photo by VeloUK

There were 2 catchers at the top, and boy was I glad of that! I couldn’t unclip, I had nothing left. I was trying to speak and tell them this, but I’m pretty sure I was just making noise. They unclipped both my feet, lifted me off my bike, and when I started to collapse onto the ground due to Bambi legs, they picked me up and carried me over to the grass verge and laid me down to recover. My breathing took soooo long to calm, and every time I tried to move my legs to sit up, both quads started to cramp. I must’ve been down there for 5-10 minutes!

Of course, I had to stay and watch the leading ladies come in – they are truely inspirational. Bithja Jones took the win, with Mary Wilkinson a nailbitingly close 2nd. My pre-race predictions were not realised, and I think the cold/wet got the better of quite a few folk in the top 20. A very slow limp down back down the hill and a chat with one of my new clubmates (and rather good cyclist) Monica Greenwood (15th on the day), and I was ready for a quick swoon over Ollie Bridgewood off of GCN back at HQ, and some well-deserved pub grub at The Peak.

Oh, and I came 43rd by the way!

Pumpkin soup for Halloween.

So, what have I leart from Hill Climb Nationals 2021?

  1. Even when life has thrown a lorry full of lemons at me, I am still a half-decent cylist.
  2. Hill climbing is cool.
  3. The crowds make it what it is – thank you for showing up (especially in the pissing rain!!).
  4. I have a renewed drive to do better at cycling (road, cross, time-trialling) and hill climbing – roll on 2022.
  5. I need to do some V02 max training! Or even training… 🙂
  6. Tunnel vision and numbness are what happens when you are really digging deep.
  7. Hill climbing is cool.
  8. N+1 is probably required if I want to be in the top 1/3. Project 6kg beckons…
  9. Eating helps.
  10. Did I mention hill climbing is cool?!

Race Report: National British Road Race Masters

I don’t know what on earth possessed me to enter the National British Road Race Masters as my first road race… must’ve had a bang to the head! Still, 2021 for me, like a lot of people, has been about mixing it up and trying something new. So why the hell not?? In the 24h before, I had some really useful chats with an old sports acrobatics (and former elite road racer) friend from uni, who gave me some really sound advice.

I travelled up on the Friday night and stayed with my parents in West Lancashire, before travelling up to North Lancashire on the Sunday morning for the race. I knew of at least one person racing, my virtual Socks4Watts teammate and very talented Saint Piran rider Gemma Sargent. After a flying visit to my cousin in his new pad in Lancaster, I made my way to race HQ feeling relatively calm. The nerves began creeping in once I had registered and started getting my bike ready, though I managed to focus enough to get my numbers pinned on, a 20 minute warm-up in and 3 billion nervous wees done. I met another virtual teammate (Clare from KISS) and had a quick chat. My parents turned up just before the start to watch and wished me “good luck”, in return for the very important instruction from me not to drive the course (a DQ in my first race would be quite embarrassing!).

We set off on the neutralised start at a reasonable pace. This was very different to the manic balls-out starts I’ve experienced with cyclocross and Zwift racing! Once we hit the start/finish, the pace slowly and steadily ramped up, and there were a few spiky efforts required on the climbs. I’m not a bad climber, and I thought I’d eaten plenty the night before, but I struggled with breakfast on race day and therefore the hard efforts really took it out of me. The race was 7x10km laps and around an open-road loop which I didn’t think sounded too horrendous, but my HR was averaging near max effort, and this clearly wasn’t sustainable.

Near the start of lap 2 there was a massive pile-up on a short climb into a left turn at a T-junction. I somehow managed to dodge the bullet by riding around the mass of bikes and bodies on the floor – phew! I stayed with the main peloton for the first lap and a half, and then on the 2nd long descent the girl in front of me got gapped and unfortunately I never quite managed to close up again. Many solo miles ensued, and I felt more worn out and disheartened with each lap. 2 riders from Blaydon who had succumbed to the first crash caught me and we tried to work as a 3-up, but unfortunately I just didn’t have enough in the tank and they continued on.

The general rule is that if you are lapped or more than 10 minutes behind the leader, you are pulled from the race. I had it in my head after 4 or 5 laps that I would be done, as I knew I was >10 mins behind. Imagine my dismay when the race leader shouted to me that if I finished the next lap I would be placed – I was NOT mentally prepared for that! However, it seemed foolish not to continue, so continue I did. I had company from one of the Blaydon girls for the last lap and we did put a bit of effort in, but also managed to have a bit of a chat. Once past the line again, we waited for the riders to come through the finish. A solo breakaway had occurred, and she crossed the line jubilantly. We waited and waited for the rest of the riders, and continued waiting… finally it was confirmed on the radio that there had been lots of crashes and an ambulance was tending to Clare – eek! Eventually they started coming through, with Gemma in 4th. Bravo!

As I was about to leave and collected my car key from HQ, one of the organisers advised me to stick around for the podium ceremony… I’d gotten the bronze F35-39. Sweet! The pain and solo miles were worth it, just about 😉

In summary, a great little course with lots of undulation and a few technical descents. More food required (ED demons are a bitch). And possibly different gearing. Has it put me off road racing? My upcoming calendar says no!

Race Report: British Standard Champs at Leeds Triathlon

Like probably half of the field, I originally entered Leeds Standard Triathlon back in 2019 for the 2020 iteration of the race. It was billed as a qualifier for Worlds 2021, and I didn’t fancy any of the other races on offer.

Fast-forward 18 months and a pandemic, and imagine my shock when I got an email containing my start wave! I had assumed (it turns out wrongly) that as COVID was still knocking around and we weren’t fully unlocked, it would be delayed another year. Or at least another few months. So there was me, merrily ignoring all of the emails with “Leeds” in the title. But nope – I had just 2 weeks to prepare!!

Like most of the UK, I had very limited swim training in the bag due to pool closures. I had at least managed to continue swimming during lockdown #1 with a DIY swim tank in the garden and access to the local lake. I had continued running throughout, and taken part in a LOT of high intensity Zwift racing with KISS race team and Socks4Watts. But, I had also suffered a major bout of depression and lost around a stone in weight over winter, something which I’m still recovering from.

Nevertheless, I agreed with my friend Chris to get to the start line and “have a go”. Sadly, we realised the night before when we were in the pub (like true athletes) that we’d both forgotten to register our interest to qualify, having assumed that we’d done it when we originally entered in 2019. Oops. A quick email to the managers to see if there was any COVID leniency, but alas not. C’est la vie.

The trip itself was a mixture of stress and hilarity, with a weenie bit of an accommodation issue and massive delays on race morning due to some interesting car park marshalling. Chris unfortunately missed his start, as did many others, but as it was a rolling swim entry it didn’t really matter. I made my way down to the pontoon, braiding my hair as I walked, boshed a gel back and then I was off! I quite enjoyed the swim without its usual washing machine start. I settled into a nice pace early on and managed to find several pairs of feet and hips along the way. Interestingly, I exited the water in the best OWS pace I’ve done in 2 years… lockdown swim technique training had paid off 🙂 After a looong jog to transition, and a mildly comedic attempt at a running mount (sorry pedicure!), I made my way around the 36km bike course. My Garmin never found my power meter, so the whole thing was done on feel. I didn’t get the best speed, but it was a reasonably technical course with lots of dead turns and undulations, so coming away with 3rd fastest female 35-39 on the bike wasn’t too bad. By the time we got onto the run, it was muggy and I really wasn’t sure how it would pan out. Again, it was a very undulating route with some thigh-burning hills. However, I managed to mostly overtake rather than be overtaken, and didn’t start to fade until part-way through the final lap.

I found Chris who had also had a reasonable race, and we retrieved our stuff from transition, before someone text me to say congratulations on my bronze at the British Champs – say whaaaat?! Amazing! That more than made up for lack of a qualification spot in my eyes 😀

Would I do Leeds again? Probably. The undulating nature suited my strengths, and the run was mixed terrain and quite enjoyable. Parking was a nightmare on race morning, and this will be fed back to the organisers. However, there were lots of positive moves towards making the event more environmentally friendly and sustainable (wooden medal, biodegradable packaging on race merch), the atmosphere was great with spectators allowed, and we got to top it all off with inspiring performances from the paras and elites.

World Triathlon buddies reunited 🙂