Three Lessons Learned from my first mountain bike stage race…
Last weekend I competed in the inaugural Hellfire Cup, a four day, multi-stage mountain bike race held in Southern Tasmania. I am fairly new to the racing scene, with only one 6-hour (pairs) as my previous experience. Hellfire was also a pairs race, and we did quite well coming in at 27th overall out of 123 teams. However, along the way I made some mistakes which cost us crucial minutes. This post is a reminder to myself about the lessons I learned from Hellfire to ensure that I don’t make the same mistakes again in future races. Others may find this useful as well.
Lesson One – Rest Properly
I spent a lot of time training in the lead up to the event. I got up early to ride in crap weather, entered Strava challenges to keep me focused, clocked up a heap of ks and essentially spent as much time on the bike as I could. Despite all that, a lingering question of “Am I ready?” remained in my head.
To answer that question I decided to give myself a test. I wanted to prove to myself, mentally, that I was in the right shape to be as competitive as I could be. Most cyclists have certain rides or climbs that they use as their benchmark. I’ve read about Pros who test themselves on certain Cols in Europe prior to a big race to see if they’re ready. I decided to do the same by having a solid crack at the full 10k climb of the North-South track, a popular mountain bike track on the side of Mt Wellington in Hobart. The total ascent is 539m, resulting in an average grade of 5.3%. Click here to see the Strava segment.
This is a climb that I’ve done many times before, but mostly with other people which means frequent pauses for a variety of reasons. I had only ridden the full thing at effort once before, and had set a good time of 50:35. The good news is that I put in a solid effort and beat my record by setting a time of 49:20 for the entire climb.
The bad news is that I overexerted myself too closely to the race. One of the things that I have noticed about regular training is that, after a while, you don’t necessarily see massive improvements in speed but your ability to recover between days improves significantly. I thought this would be enough to pull me through and be ready to go for the race, four days later.
As it turns out, I am pretty sure I was wrong. I worked really hard for that PB and I could feel that effort in my legs during the race. I was still reasonably fast overall but it was hard. Harder than it should have been. In the climbs my legs didn’t feel snappy at all and I was straining hard to maintain a speed I was happy with. Given it was a pairs race I could judge myself off my partner and I was certainly having a harder time keeping up with him than usual. I realise racing is supposed to be hard, but I also know myself well enough to recognise when I am struggling.
Overall my legs weren’t ready for the race. In order to try and appease my mental doubts I had gone too hard with insufficient time left to recover.
Lesson Two – Fix all mechanical issues, even trivial ones, prior to racing
My bike runs a 2X10 drivetrain. I spend 90% of my time on the small chain ring and only really use the big chain ring for riding on the road or long fire-road descents. Occasionally I use it on rougher terrain or downhill single-track to ensure I keep enough tension in the chain to stop it bouncing around.
For a long time now my front derailleur has been out of line. The limiter is set too high and most of the time when I change from the small chainring to the large one the chain drops off the outside and over the cranks. When this occurs it is easy enough to flip back to the small chainring and pedal half a stroke and the chain will pop back on. I can then attempt the shift to the large chainring again with a bit more care and attention.
The above scenario is fine for all the riding I normally do. It causes me to have to pause, look down and think for a bit but on most training rides that isn’t an issue. All of these things definitely are an issue when you’re racing.
On the second day of the race we were climbing firetrails straight off the start line. It was a relay stage and there were some riders in my sights up the road. I ground my way up the climb getting closer, and overtaking a couple of riders at the crest. As I started to descend the other side I had opponents right behind me and a real incentive to make the most of the descent at speed. I changed up to my big chainring and pedalled hard. The chain popped off the outside and immediately got messed up in my cranks, stuck.
I had to pull over to sort it out. The guys I had passed went by with a friendly “You alright mate?”, closely followed by a couple more racers! I quickly shoved the chain back onto the chain ring and kept going, working overly hard to get back up to speed and fuming at the places I had lost.
I started making ground and then we hit another climb. I changed back to my small chainring and tried to change up my cassette as the climb ramped up, only to find that my rear derailleur wouldn’t move despite the chain being engaged at about the middle of the cassette! In my rush to put the chain back on I had somehow put the chain in the middle of the cassette even though the derailleur was in a position that should have had it near the top. I had to stop again, more people passed me, and I once again burnt a whole lot of energy getting back up to speed.
I think I eventually ended up catching most of the people who overtook me but the damage was done. Instead of passing them all early on and forging ahead onto more adventures I spent the first half of the stage playing catchup and setting a disappointing lap time overall.
Furthermore I found out today that the original chain wrenching and replacement actually resulted in my chain being twisted for the following 2 days of the event! I knew there was something going wrong with my drivetrain but put it down to the ridiculously muddy conditions wreaking havoc with everything.
So, my laziness in getting a known problem fixed caused me to lose significant time on one stage of the race, whilst also causing problems on subsequent stages.
Lesson 3 – Don’t stuff around
This lesson is a bit harder to define, but is related to Lesson 2 in the realisation that having to stop during a race is actually really detrimental. In Lesson 2 it was a mechanical issue, in Lesson 3 it was a stupid mistake I made by dropping my glasses.
To explain, the entire event was ridiculously muddy and wet. The conditions were atrocious, causing some stages to be cancelled and others to be rerouted. The rides that we did complete were absolute mudfests which often felt like we were riding in rivers and streams rather than down trails. Here’s a pic of my bike post stage 2:
As a result, gear choice was tough, particularly glasses. If you wore your glasses they’d be great until the first descent, at which point they’d end up covered in mud and severely decreased visibility. A quick clean with your gloves was sufficient for 2 or 3 times, until your gloves became so wet and muddy that it was useless.
The alternative was to not bother wearing glasses which resulted in each descent being a stinging painful compromise of trying to shut your eyes to keep the mud out whilst also trying to see where you’re going at 50km/h. At times I felt safer with one hand on the bars, using my other one to shield my eyes whilst peering through my fingers.
Generally my approach was to start with my glasses on and remove them after they ceased to be useful. On the third stage of the race, riding with my partner, this point happened to be after we passed a group of about 6 other riders. I took my glasses off whilst slogging up a hill and tried to get them into my rear jersey pocket. I fumbled and dropped them. I had to stop, walk back a couple of metres, get off my bike completely and reach down to pick them up. By this point my partner was off in the distance (despite slowing down for me) and we’d been overtaken by quite a few teams. I’m fairly sure we didn’t catch everyone who passed us that day.
I’m still not entirely sure what I could have done better, aside from recognising that we cannot afford to stop. I should have identified earlier that the mud was being an issue and tried to alleviate somehow. Many people fashioned mini mudguards from inner tubs attached to their forks, but I didn’t do this until after day 3. I think this would have helped a lot if I had done it earlier. I also need to identify a safe easy way to stow my glasses. For some reason they don’t sit in my helmet without sliding out, even when shoved in upside down.
So there’s my three lessons-learned. I’ve got another stage-race coming up in January so I will come back to this post then. Leave a note in the comments if you have any of your own lessons :)