Wednesday, 25 July 2012

SA Champs training camp at Mankele

With the National XCO champs coming up in Mankele, Paul Cordes, Yolande Speedy and the guys from Epic Sports decided to hold a weekend training camp to prepare us for the event. I am so glad I went, the course is PROPER, doing the race without practice, would be detrimental!  Here is a run-down of how I experienced it:

Day 1 (Friday)
I was packed and ready with my trusty racing machine, the super light and fast Ghost Team edition XX bike, my Singletrack Fuel and Bryton Rider 40; prepared and anxious for what Mankele had to throw at us.
Angie and I travelled together which was, well, an adventure... We earned ourselves a collection of “Darwin awards”, from travelling in completely the wrong direction at first, having to do a U-turn through two toll roads, forgetting the flysheet to the tent and (amongst other things) only packing half a gazebo. Lucky Paul and Yolande, Petru and Francios and Wardie and El-Marie were staying in a cute wooden cabin which we all piled into during the day for breakfast lunch and dinner!

We arrived at Mankele just after lunch time. Once we had pitched the tents and settled in, it was time to test out the XCO National course...
The course: The lap begins with a flat dirt road of about 600m which would be a flat-out sprint into some single track, and out onto a short but seriously steep climb. I like the way it starts as it gives the field time to spread out before going into the proper single track that makes up the body of the technical 6km course. Most of the course is undulating but flat, twisty and at times very rocky!
I was enjoying it until we ended up at what seemed like an impossible bridge/drop-off. It was quite terrifying and I had never seen anything like it. I watched the guys doing it numerous times from all different angles, most making it look annoyingly easy, some nearly falling from lack of speed and Rex Benson falling OTB Chin first, earning him 5 stitches and a ripped shirt.
After much consideration I resolved to “sleep on it” and try again the next day.  More single track brought us to a bull run/chicken run split. There were crowds of people, so I tottled down to see what all the fuss was about, only to find that this “drop-off” was more of a fly-off. Once again most guys made it look like a piece of cake, Joel Hieber likened it to riding off a pavement, the only difference being, that it was about a metre high, you needed to come at it at break-neck speed and brake as soon as you landed, else you’d go flying over the corner at the bottom. I was at two minds, I knew that I could do it in theory, it’s all mind over matter. There was a fair amount of broken bicycles, wheels, bones and scary falls that happened as a result of this fly-off. I was disappointed with myself for chickening out, but without the confidence, and, considering my reputation of breaking things, I figured it was the wise decision…
The rest of the course was a lot of fun with bridges, more rocky, undulating single track next to the river. There are quite a lot of roots and sticking out branches which resulted in lots of tree hugging and line re-considering. Angie, Paul and I all ripped holes in our left sleeves from bashing into the same branch which was quite amusing! The single track comes out into the BMX track, and the beginning of the next lap.
We ended the day with a yummy braai at the cabin, some wine and chatting about the course. I slept well that night but my dreams were riddled with riding off the drop offs.
Day 2 (Saturday)
The morning was freezing and I began my day with a 15 minute roller session. This was my first time on rollers and it was really weird and unstable at first, I even came off once, which, of course, was caught on video camera. I got the hang of it pretty quickly… Concentration and speed is the key!
Today was proper. Straight after breakfast, we practiced the start; 6 sprints from the start to the single track. I pushed myself so hard to try and keep up with Yolande that I thought I might see my breakfast again! After a few minutes rest we did 6 hill attacks up the first climb which was also very painful but great training and I was feeling good!
I was most nervous about having to face the drop offs. After analysing that first drop-off for what seemed like hours, Yolande, Francois and I finally plucked up the courage. It was now or never! Francois and Yolande went first, doing it a lot smoother than me, I must have gone a bit slowly, I made it down but then fell quite hard at the bottom. I luckily fell into a bush and had a relatively soft landing escaping with a few scratches. I shaking from nerves and adrenaline but I knew I had to “get back on the horse” and do it again. I made it down the second time I felt elated, that was scary but so much fun! High fives all around, we did it! I was starting to feel more confident, it was really helpful and challenging chasing such an experienced, willing to teach, seasoned racer, Yolande, around the course!

That afternoon we did two more laps, I was still a bit rough around the edges but felt I was getting smoother and more confident as I practiced.
We finished in time to watch the last few km of the Tour de France.
All the riders looked rather zombie-like and some more worse for wear than others, Joel sadly broke his thumb and tore ligaments in his shoulder; Werner broke a wheel and hurt his arm coming down the fly-off, me, just full of scratches and bruises.
An awesome, scary, painful and fun day was a good day in the office indeed, a delicious braai with great company made all the effort worthwhile!

Day 3 (Sunday)
The third and final day was a longer ride. To mix it up, we did some of the Avalanche route which is technical, rocky and steep. Besides falling a few times it was a lot of fun.
We then did a final two laps of the XC course.

I’m really stoked to have done the training camp, aside from an amazing experience, I feel strong. The hard, quality training from Paul is paying off, my Ghost feels fast and nippy and I am happy with the course. I now feel far more confident about the race!
Much thanks to Epic Sports and everyone involved for an awesome weekend!! 

SA Champs, Mankele

The weekend of SA Champs had finally arrived! The last few months of my life have been centred on this one race, the South African Cross Country National Champs. I felt ready; Coach Paul Cordes had prepared me with a specific training program that I had followed pedantically and the training camp at Mankele two weeks earlier with Epic Sports was invaluable! My Ghost bike was serviced to perfection and I was feeling fast and ready to rock!
The Elite, U23, Junior and sub junior girls all started at 9:15. It was probably the biggest group of ladies I have seen lined up at a XCO event, which is fantastic, but got the nerves going too.
Lined up in the second line of ladies in the start chute meant I would have to push hard from the gun to get into a good position before the single track! I was nervous but concentrated on keeping calm and focused, playing over in my head the route that I had prepared for and now knew so well.
When the gun went, we all sprinted furiously for the single-track. I saw Yolande Speedy get in first, then Samantha Sanders, Candice Neethling, Mariska Strauss and me in 5th place. Up the climb the order stayed the same, but I managed to get past Mariska and push up to fourth overall in the second section of single track.
I quickly gained a gap on the girls behind me, but the top 3 were out of sight. I chased hard but kept within myself, not underestimating this hectic course in Mankele! The trails were awesome, challenging, technical and fun, and had claimed many victims in the past few weeks, including me, with many falls and close calls while practicing!

Up in front in the ladies it was an exciting, close battle between Candice Neething, our Olympiad; Local rider, Samantha Sanders and Yolande Speedy, no introduction needed there! Yolande and Samantha were neck and neck, battling it out, chasing Candice. Yolande finally managed to catch Candice in the last lap (her fastest lap) and get a gap on Samantha. Despite a long road to recovery from a broken wrist Yolande beat Candice in a sprint finish to claim her 6th SA Champ title! Nail biting stuff!
I finished fourth overall, and third Elite lady. It is a great achievement, considering the size and calibre of the field I was racing in.
I am thoroughly enjoying racing my Ghost  XX Team edition bike, fitted with Ritchey, Crank Bros pedals and XX Sram. It is super-fast, responsive and light: built for racing. We are making a good team! In my bottles I used Singletrack Fuel XC, specifically designed with more carbs and less protein than the Marathon Fuel. Just right for the punch you need.
The more I race XCO, the more I realise what a complex discipline it is; fitness is only a portion of what it takes to be the best. You have to be exceptionally skilled technically, and consistent, with a huge amount of mental strength and the fight and ability to push through the pain. It is all about balance, the balance between taking too many risks or doing “stupid” things, and playing it too safe, between pushing yourself beyond your limit to stay with your competition and racing your own race. Being over- confident could make you complacent, and not being confident enough means self-doubt, a recipe for failure. Neither being a stressed bundle of nerves nor being nonchalant is helpful.

Anyway, my point is that XCO is fun, exciting, painful, challenging, fast and unpredictable. I am looking forward to racing the series next year, working on building my strengths, turning my weaknesses into strengths and getting the balance right. Until then, I am excited for more marathon racing and hopefully some stage racing, another ballgame altogether!