Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Pioneer - Wrap Up: 5 things you need to know about stage racing

So there it is, my very first stage race completed with one of the most accomplished stage racers in Australia, Garry James, and what a ride it was.  No doubt if you are a mountain biker then you have already seen some of the photos and reactions to the race.  At some point I got the label of being Garry's child prodigy, a label I gratefully accepted and there were those that rated our chances of a good result quite high.  Landing in the what turned out to be the most competitive category in the race (40+ Masters Men) meant a top 10 finish was our first goal, but as the race progressed we began to think a GC podium was a real chance.  In the end we held onto 3rd after coming through some fairly tough days.  I thought as the child prodigy, it might be worth jotting down a few of the things I learnt along the way so here are my top 5 take aways.

1.) Prepare well, both your body and your bike
When this race first appeared on the radar, many riders queried the huge tally of climbing.  15,000m in 7 days is a big ask in anyone's language, and these weren't pristine hot mix climbs with steady gradients.  No, many of these climbs were pushing very steep gradients on rocky loose surfaces.  It was certainly a challenging ride and not one you can just turn up to and ride into form.  The key for this one was to lose weight and train hard.  I lost the weight early on in my training and then set about training with strong riders on any and all of the climbs I could find in Sydney.  Most of my training was on the road, but crucially Garry and I spent a weekend away mountain biking together and training hard.  This was to gauge our progress and make sure there weren’t any huge gaps in our compatibility as a team.  I also recommend reading up on the race before you go and think about what you might need.  A course profile on my top tube was invaluable in terms of gauging progress on each stage.  Your bike is obviously a critical piece of the jig saw and I was fortunate to be riding a brand new Specialized Epic Expert WC.  The 30t chain ring it came with out of the box seemed a little “soft” but after the first stage I knew it was the right choice.  Whatever your situation, make sure you get your bike absolutely dialled before you go by a bike mechanic you trust.  Don’t leave anything to chance.  Tyres, chain, cables, brake pads etc need to be near new and shocks need to be in “just serviced” condition. We opted to carry our gear and nutrition in a combination of saddle bags and pockets.  The addition of the SWAT compartment meant we both had access to tubes and CO2 canisters and having two bottle cages on our dual suspension made all this possible.  There was a lot of gear to carry and many riders (even Elite) opted for backpacks.

2.) Pace yourself and have a plan for each stage.  
Once you get into the race, you will start to pick what stages will suit you and your partner, when to go for it and when to sit back.  Yes working together with other teams is very important for conserving energy, but sometimes you just have to sit back and ride your own race. You can have a quick strategy session each morning at breaky with your partner to confirm the days plan, and who you need to be watching.  A good result will rely on daily consistent results.  You can even podium in the GC without a single stage podium.  Consistency is the key.  One bad day can nearly end your race and create a gap to the next team up the ladder that could be impossible to close and this proved to be the case for us.  A seemingly harmless gash in Garry’s knee from a tiny fall almost ended our race due to the subsequent antibiotics he was given and the impact this had on his gut.  

3.) Health during the race
Your health during the race is obviously going to be a key factor in how you finish, assuming you finish at all.  In a new race looking to attract an international field, you can bet it is going to be tough and that some teams will not finish every stage.  Food, recovery, massage, hygiene, hydration and any medications you might use all need to be dialled to make sure you are in tip top condition to take on the next day’s stage.
My breakfast is usually pretty light, cereal and juice, but by the last few days I was smashing down the eggs, bacon and beans.  I'd wake up pretty ravenous and the heavier food worked well for me in keeping me fuelled with carbs and protein.  
Sleep was also a huge challenge whether it be due to the usual noise generated around the camp site or it might be that you are so wired, you find it hard to switch off when it comes to sleep time. Make sure you have a really comfortable mattress.  I took my ultralight Thermarest and by the end of the week my ribs hurt from lying on my front.  Make sure you have a good substitute for a pillow and a silk sleeping bag liner is also a good idea.  As a last resort you might like to consult your doctor about the various meds available to assist sleep.  There are lots of options, but the best one I found was a non-prescription antihistamine that seemed to help settle the mind.  Massage packages sell out quick, so if you an afford it buy it as soon as it is released.  I wouldn’t say it is critical, but for me, the remedial massage at the end of each stage was something I looked forward to and I could focus on a different area each day (eg. hamstrings, quads, calves, gluten, lower back).  Laundry is also well worth the cost

4.) Getting organised.
I found it helpful to take lots of little kit bags (musettes) and groups things together.  This makes the daily chore of packing/unpacking and getting organised for the next day so much easier.  Our routine after finishing the stage was to get some recovery food in and then get the bike cleaned and ready for the next day.  After that a shower and change was on the schedule and setting up your tent. There was always a bit of time before dinner to chill and share the days stories, but for me getting organised and having a bit of quiet time before dinner was very beneficial.  Also make sure you make an effort to meet and speak to new friends at dinner, don’t just sit with your usual riding buddies.  I went pretty hard on the social media to keep friends and family updated and in return we got lot’s of great messages from supporters back home.  But it does take time and mental energy so if you can avoid having to complete this do so, or at least keep it as brief as possible.  I did buy a few fall back snacks to take with me but found I had enough food provided by the organisers and we looked forward to buying our lunch at the end of each stage.  I also needed a brake bleed and a new tyre one day so when budgeting count on $150 for bike maintenance and $15/day for lunch.

5.) Pick a suitable partner
Finally this is the big one, your choice of partner for a pairs stage race is one of those critical decisions that can make your life heaven or hell.  Not only do you need to be of similar riding abilities, but you need to understand each others abilities and be very clear on what your goal for the race is.  Even things like tastes in food, nutrition strategies, hotel preferences can be things that weigh heavily on the health of the relationship. And it’s not so much how you ride together when you are both fit, it’s more about what happens when one of you falls back or is off the pace.  Will you ride ahead and wait, will you ride slowly next to them, will you push them, will they allow you to push them?  It’s during these high pressure situations that it helps to know what your partner needs so be sure to talk about these things before the race and if it doesn’t go to plan, try to debrief at dinner and agree what to do next time the wheels fall off.
Finally travelling with a bike bag and all your gear can be a challenge with airline luggage limits.  We managed without excess baggage, but only by the skin our our teeth and by pushing the limits of carry on luggage.  Next time I would take less clothes and nutrition.  Nutrition is heavy and a hassle, so just take a small clear plastic bag of gels in your carry on.  Everything else you can usually get at the race.  I ended up just using electrolytes in my water and took on more food at the aid stations, near the end of teach stage I’d be looking forward to an Em’s power cookie.  I took 6 bidons to be safe, but I could have done with 3 max, two on the bike and one spare.  We didn’t drop a single bottle all race, but that comes down to being super careful when handling bottles whilst riding.  Other disposables like pillows, towels, sunscreen can all be gotten locally and then chucked at the end before you come home.  Your checked in luggage needs to be right on the money and Qantas give you 30kg, (7kg more than others) so think about who you fly with and check luggage allowances before you book flights.  Also bike bags can be heavy.  A box although a little more awkward without wheels is a lot lighter so might work better in some circumstances.

It was an incredible experience, organised by a professional outfit looking to build a world renowned event for the future.  Will I return?  There is a lot of talk about how many events there are on the calendar and how there isn’t really time to do a repeat, but I’d love to go back. It’s relatively close to home, very well organised and the riding is truly EPIC so time will tell if I can manage another leave pass.  Will you join me?

Keep Riding


Day 7 - Lending a wheel to some new riding mates.  This stage was crazy.  Coming off an elevation of 1500m to finish in Queenstown we still racked up 1800m of climbing, how does that happen?

Mind blowing scenery ala Lord of the Rings, the Orcs are coming!

Chooko and Ptree rode a smart race and finished strong

Gazza driving the pace on the Alps2Ocean trail on Day 4, we got rolled on the finish line for a stage place, but did enough to preserve our overall position

At the finish of the Queen Stage Day 5

My magical Specialized Epic Expert WC (aka Esmeralda II).  The perfect choice for this classic cross country adventure