Portugal, Spain, Andorra and Scotland, June 26, 2008
Mary and I had the challenging yet awesome opportunity to spend three weeks in the RV mobile and without the stress of World Cup obligations in southern Europe. After the prior three weeks spent contesting the opening rounds of the World Cup races, with professional trucker type mileage in between, we were tempted to head to some remote beach to relax, maybe catch a few waves and just take it easy... . Instead we pointed the RV in the direction of the highest point we could find to begin some elevation training in order to arrive at our best form for the next World Cup in Andorra.
Although 6,000 feet is really not that high, we knew that racing in the Alpine conditions and elements was going to be an extra challenge, and we were ready to pull all the stops to prepare since this was an important race for which to be on form. We decided to leave Spain and make our first-ever trip to Portugal, eventually spending the better part of a week in the Serra da Estrela mountain range training on some radically small and unpopulated roads and driving up to the still snow-covered peak at night. We burned quite a bit of propane and some extra adrenaline with our late evening drives as the wet spring weather had us dealing with more snow and hail storms than star gazing at the top of these exposed gnarly peaks. There were some moments that made us question our tactics but were rewarded with some incredible mornings at the top of several mountains as well as what we felt was at least some benefit in the form of extra red blood cells thanks to our thin air sleeping efforts.
We can't say whether it is all together legal, frowned upon or what, but we managed to just " pull over" for the night at the highest places we could find without any more problem than just driving up some dark twisty road in a hail storm in a big boxy RV. We definitely don't recommend trying to elevation train in your vehicle as it initially made us pretty grumpy and cost us a lot of sleep. But we got pretty into it and eventually slept our way from central Portugal back across Spain while competing in two national level races along the way, and we didn't spend a night below 1600 meters. We would come down during the day to charge our computer, service the RV, stock up on supplies or find a place to pirate a wireless internet signal, and often return to our night-time roost. We'd also get in our training on the bike during the day.
The next weeks were dedication to high elevation sleeping, some arctic level leg soaks, parking lot yoga routines and living on the road as best as we could in an effort to arrive at what we hoped would be our best form on the bikes. We made our way back across Spain sticking to the high mountains and radical training opportunities north of Madrid, focusing on bigger road miles and trying to ignore the sweet dirt off chutes in an effort to better focus on pushing the pedals. We still managed to do a bit of fun mountain biking and sample some local wine and a few select wheels of exotic cheeses without straying too far off our dedicated race program.
The week before the world cup in Andorra we attended a race in the small Catalonian town of Sant Lorenc de Morunys an outpost of civilization in the middle of the Vall di Lord, (quite possibly the most beautiful region of Spain we have yet to encounter)! Unfortunately race day turned out to be an absolute washout rain had stalked us for our entire trip offering us more than our share of wet rides and drives but the weather here on race day was bordering on biblical. It was the type of race where you ride your hardest, but keep on getting colder and eventually loose contact with your senses as you go. Ouch!
I battled it out for two or so hours on the constantly deteriorating course with its thick mud streams oozing from the tops of the climbs and piling up in the ruts that we carved deeper lap after lap. It was actually pretty fun since the course was quite epic real mountain biking on lots of singletrack, and there would have been plenty of technical challenges even in the dry. Changing a few bearings, shifter cables, chain, chainrings and cassette was really a small price to pay for so much fun on the bike.
I pretty much begged Mary not to ride this one since a race like this just six days out from the World Cup seemed like a sure way to avoid optimum form when it was going to really count . It was the toughest thing to ask of her since I know she was looking forward to tasting the mud and have the experience that she was so prepared for. The realization and dedication to what was in store the next week allowed her to make the professional decision to put her energy towards being better prepared for the next week.
On our drive to Andorra we passed over some incredible singletrack roads through Pyrenees mountain passes that remain way better suited for a bike than the RV (we actually found our way following bike route signs). It was slow going but worth the extra time as this area penned the Catalonian region of Spain into our list of must return to in the future spots.
Andorra itself also turned out to be a great place to ride the bike though with its immense mountains separated only by brief claustrophobic river valleys, it is clearly much better suited as a destination for a downhill bike and a lift ticket. Upscale outdoor tourism is a seemingly driving force behind Andorra's robust economy. A good percentage of this tiny country is composed of lift accessed mountains catering to mountain biking in the summer and of course skiing in the winter. We found some serious bargains while shopping for provisions but something about how the shopping centers, boutiques and super stores towered above us all around the country gave us the impression that this place even better known as a destination spot to do some sort of tax-exempt shopping. It would probably be worth the drive as well since fuel was being sold at two-third the typical European price.
The athletes who attended World Cup round four in Andorra were greeted by a classic black mud, alpine-style, mountain top course. There were many technical aspects including slabs of rock and slippery roots that were in a constant state of change due to the hundreds of wheels cutting into the soft natural soil that made up the majority of the course. Speed was really kept in check by the boggy terrain as well as some steep climbing and the 6,000 foot elevation.
It rained heavily the night before the race and right up until the hour before the women lined up. We knew it would be slick and muddy out there but it turned out to exceed our expectations.
Andorra World Cup (by Mary)
I wasn't worried or bothered by the weather...especially loving my trainer warm-up nestled under the tarpaulin of the RV as the rain poured. Bundled on the line, I was calm and ready to race. I got a good start, was riding inside the top 10, feeling good and moving forwardtop five just in front of me. Racing in elevation is different - you can't really push it that hard but must maintain a steady output and keep it spinning.
The chaos of the first lap was pretty typical as women charged super hard to get up front with many blowing up just before the crest of the first hill. The descent was incredibly slick and caught some riders off guard. I watched riders go down in front of me, some crashing hard on the wooden bridge others too anaerobic to effectively ride the tricky rocks and roots. I continued steadily on the climbs played it safe on the downhills since the conditions were so sketchy. After two laps of five total in the thick, muddy conditions my bike was so clogged with mud I was unable to get into my granny ring. I took some time in the tech pit to try to clean it but after a few more kilometers the front derailleur just filled up with the thick mud.
Three laps without my granny gear probably cost me some extra energy and a few spots since I was having to push a larger than ideal gear, Still I was thankful that everything else was holding together. I managed to maintain my position sometimes having to get off and run the steep sections though it was so steep that it might not have been the worst tactic anyway. At the end of the two hour race, I crossed the line a covered in mud in 14th. I was happy for another successful day of racing (no crashes) and proud to be the top American finisher.
Lucky for us, Jason First, a Crank Brothers (crankbrothers.com) employee and mountain bike racer himself had made the trip over from California, added his awesome feed/tech zone assistance to take the heat off Mike and me for the day, So I was able to recover a bit and scrape the mud off myself in the tiny RV shower before heading out to the feed zone to assist for the men's race. Thank you Jason!
The track seemed to dry out quite a bit by the time the men started. Regardless Mike was up against the usual heavy World Cup competition. He got a solid start, and rode strong as the day progressed. moving forward, steady and meticulous Mike turned it up on the last two laps passing a bunch of guys eventually and finishing 58th for his best World Cup result this year. Mike's bike was only speckled in mud after the race and a good thing because he was going to have his hands full cleaning up the mess that I made of mine.
Going to Scotland (by Mike)
Over the next four days, we committed to a 1,300km drive through central France, western Belgium and into the Netherlands that brought us to Amsterdam where we boarded an overnight ferry to Newcastle England. Once in Great Britain we tackled another 500km on some exceedingly scenic and skinny roads to our destination of Fort William, Scotland. Ordinarily we would have enjoyed this stunning though extended drive a lot more than we did this time. We were forced to pass up some well loved and well known awesome riding areas, friends' houses and general places of interest that make our life on the road as a mountain bikers so much more fun. Instead we made due pulling into small towns or quiet rest areas to spin our stiff legs the on the trainer and pull off some semblance of what you might call yoga to straighten out our car strained bodies. Strange but familiar how a hard week of driving, really just sitting in one place hour after hour seemed to work us more than even the toughest week of riding.
Mary and I arrived in Fort William on Wednesday night and took advantage of the sun staying out 'til 11:00 pm to get in a few laps on the already familiar course. We were happy to arrive with a few days to recover the legs and get back onto the bikes although it was hard not to feel as if we had done ourselves a bit of a dis-service with this tiresome drive. Luckily we were able to take advantage of being familiar with Fort William and fall back on accommodations that we had utilized in the past and even to commandeer the services of a trusted professional mechanic Reg Stuart (stuartcycles.co.uk), whom we had met at world championships last year. Reg would stand in as our tech and feed assistant for race day. This, along with the pleasant surprise of perfect Scottish weather, had us up to speed and ready to go by Saturday's race.
The practice of building mountain bike parks is really flourishing in Scotland and the results are many new and up and coming mountain bike centers that boast miles and miles of outstanding, easily accessible legal trails catering to all levels of off road biking enthusiasts . The Witches Trail carved into the flank of Britain's highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is one of the best known of these riding centers and is a great place to ride.
The trails are mostly constructed of hard-packed bluestone, painstakingly and laid out over many years, raising some fast, bumpy, but flowing trails up from the boggy peat forest. The World Cup race course samples a bit of everything that Ben Nevis has to offer, though over the years has become less and less technical and this year's World Cup was without many of the bone jarring technical bits or scary no brake drop ins that give advantage to the technically capable mountain bikers, The course was still mountain bike suitable, fun and demanding as any World Cup but clearly catered to fitness rather than skill and actually felt a little like a race on a glorified bike path.
The women's field competed at 11:00 am and set a blistering pace up the surprisingly dusty and long start climb, Mary came around on the first lap riding strong somewhere around 10th place. I got to see her on several parts of the course as I was riding along with the press photographers in an effort to set up our tech zone in the remote second tech pit at the mid-point of the race. I just made it to the tech pit as she ripped by digging deep - a determined though peaceful look on her face made me fumble uselessly for our camera and attempt another blurry one, cut off at the wrong place, as I focused more on her form, her race, and to come up with the right words of wisdom and encouragement to spur her on in the brief seconds of her passing.
All the while thoughts of my own race had me wanting to just get back to the RV for a little time off my feet. I was able to rely on Reg to handle the feeds in tech zone one and retire to the RV where I could thankfully make out the race announcer's calls counting off the laps and riders positions. The women's race ended up being hotly contested with many of the women within seconds of the next place. This is a testament to the more road-style course as well as the level of competition in the field which is certainly at an all time high.
I watched Mary make a final attack to advance her position in the woods just before entering the final short climb, bumpy descent and finally the high speed finish stretch. She was almost able to gain another position with an incredible final sprint that had the crowds on their feet and happy they had adopted her for the day (After all McConneloug certainly sounds Scottish enough!) though it made us both wonder if she had played it a bit conservative throughout the race. A solid 17th place on the day and a beautiful afternoon to watch the men's race while soaking her legs in a nearby stream were her rewards.
I felt great on race day and took advantage of my solid form when I could. I climbed well in the pack and was able to rest in the descents though wishing there were more places to pass and make time. Unfortunately, I was a bit hard on my bike and managed to break (by way of impact) both my front and rear derailleurs rendering the rear one practically useless throughout the course of the ride and the front only good for "emergencies". I was able to keep riding well when the terrain suited my gearing but overall it made for a pretty tough day. I was able to ride away from the guys that I battle it out with most typically on the first few laps so I knew things were going well, but over the course of my race the problems mounted and I fell back bit by bit. It was a bit frustrating, but that's how cross country racing goes. Conserving the bike is an important element, and even with the tech pit available, it is not always possible or in your best interest to pop in for a repair. I have seen bigger and better rides go sour so I was not completely disappointed to finish up 60th place. I might have been the last guy to get some World Cup points but it is better than being 61st and not getting any!
Mary and I are through the first five rounds of World Cup racing and happy to report things are going really well on all fronts, especially with regards to the progress of the US Olympic team selection chase for Mary. She has clearly and consistently proven over the past months to be one of the two best candidates for the two available positions. We are currently heading down to Val di Sole, Italy to contest the World Championships in which we will both be taking part. We are very excited to both be a part of the worlds team, but it is a bit of a mixed emotion going into this one since we are anxiously awaiting the official word on the Olympic selection that can only come after this final qualifying event. Of course we are still honored and excited to be taking part in this race as it remains a season highlight just to be a part of the team and to represent the USA at this great event.
It has proven to be a pretty tough go in Europe this year. The upcoming Olympics, paired with most countries utilizing the World Cups in their selection process, have been making the already stressed out cross country crowd even a bit more ornery and hard-headed. On the positive side, it has driven us to fight really hard and be at our best as well. It has been a blessing for Mary and me to continue on with our two-person approach as it has allowed us to keep things in our own hands. We feel that this has allowed us to do the right thing at the right time, avoiding a lot of the negative energy that we have been seeing from many of the other international team programs.
Thank you for your taking the time to keep up on our travels and racing and for your support and interest in our racing efforts!
All the best,
Michael Broderick and Mary McConneloug
Team Kenda/Seven Cycles