Last weekend saw the annual Irish National cross country championship race take place in Djouce Wood, Co Wicklow, an event which always aims to be the toughest and most “savage” race of the year and boy they weren’t wrong this time around.  The race was organised and run by local club Epic MTB, notorious for setting out challenging and technically demanding race courses.  Myself and Conor had headed down the weekend before to scope out the course - primarily because my technical skills have been lacking recently with all the long distance riding I’ve been doing and because our work schedule for the next week looked very busy.  We were greeted with a race course that had almost every type of terrain, sweeping twisty singletrack, short steep climbs, super technical rooty climbs, fast fireroad and steep rooty and rocky technical descents, the kind of stuff that makes your head hurt just figuring out how to ride it never mind the legs!

After a hectic week race day arrived way too quickly and we rocked up at the venue to be greeted with a super well organised event with loads of parking and a race “village” which included food stalls, retail stalls, TV display from around the course, music, a massive start/finish arena and even a massage table!   Well done Epic MTB!
  The sign up for the Elite women’s event was a bit disappointing, just the four of us including one junior riding on the day.  Cait Elliott was there to defend her national title and the only other woman was Shona D’Arcy who was just coming back from illness.  We were set off with the Junior men just after the Elite men and it was a mad dash through the tight corners set out across the start/finish area.  In true form I was off like a shot across the field and headed towards the first section of singletrack in first place, that is until Cait came nudging by hitting the singletrack first.  I was kind of happy enough to let Cait set her pace as we got caught up a little with some of the slower junior men riders who weren’t riding the technical climbs too well.   Unfortunately I got stuck behind one of these guys a little too long and ended up with too much distance between myself and Cait before the first steep kicker climb, and it was on that climb that I discovered that my legs were simply not playing ball – mega crampy dead legs, OUCH!  I was able to keep Cait in view for the next half of the lap almost keeping pace but at the same distance and everytime I tried to go harder – cramp OUCH.   I came round towards the start/finish field only to see Cait leaving the arena again on her second lap which spurred me on a little but still the legs weren’t behaving!  So that kind of set the scene for the next hour, push – cramp – ouch, that and coupled with increasing greasy trail conditions and the lack of grip from my front tyre and several over the handlebar episodes, I was one happy bunny to get finished in second place overall.  

I really enjoyed the course, I especially love those technical climbs where its all about riding smoothly and not necessarily having to be super powerful, and while my technical descending skills are a bit on the slow side, I can still say I enjoyed them on the day, my favorite section being Gran Canaria, a rocky chute of a descent with a big drop into a gorge on the outer side of the trail.  I was a bit disappointed by the lack of leg form, especially considering I was feeling great on the course the weekend before but I suppose that’s the way it goes sometime – oops peaked too early ;-).

So cross country racing mostly done and dusted now to knuckle down to the final preparations for Breck – back to the long rides and the hard climbs, lets just hope this Irish
“summer” weather plays ball over the next few weeks!

Day 4 of our trip was earmarked for rest and recuperation in advance of the final day's effort, a summit to Valeta Mountain on the north side of the range from the outskirts of Granada city.     While conventional wisdom suggests that a rest day should not be fully restful, i.e. a small bike spin should be in order, my brain decided that sleep was more appealing.  We ended up heading for a day trip up to Trevelez further east along the mountains for lunch and a wonder around the village and a bit of sight seeing.  Trevelez proved to be a nice little village set in three terraced sections on the side of a mountain gorge, with pretty little white washed houses and narrow streets - oh yes and lovely locally made chocolate.

Day 5 (52km, 2503m ascent): This was going to be a hard day, Granada sits nestled on a large mountain plain at 720m above sea level, while the summit of La Valeta is over 3000m, so thats an ascent of about 2660m over 45km.  I'm not too sure what that makes the average gradient but there isnt much in the may of descending to break it up ,so although it might not be that steep it would be pretty long, mostly on the road, on a bouncy mountain bike. 

We parked just outside Granada above the suburb of Canes de la Vega and I got myself together to begin the climb.  Conor would drive to pre-agreed sections along the route to help me with water and bottles and when I got near to the base of La Valeta would join me on his bike for the final ascent.    So off I went, Conor shouting across the walkie talkies "ALLEZ ALLEZ" as he drove past!  The first section of the climb proved to be pure torture, while my legs felt fine walking around, they did not want to bike it at all. This was coupled with what felt like a serious rise in air temperature perhaps near 30 degrees at 11am in the morning, my heart rate climbing up into the 170's within a few minutes of starting the climb.....

When I met Conor at the first feed stop after 10km I was ready for jumping into the car and heading off for the swimming pool, but a quick comfort break and a change of bottle to water and I set on up the road.  The next feed stop was going to be at the tourist office at the half way point, and remembering the area from last year ,I knew there was a short 1 - 2km section where the road dipped a bit for some much needed leg spinning. So with that to aim for I continued onwards and upwards.  By the time I got to Conor at the half way point the temperature had started to drop and I was starting to get into some sort of rythym.  I opted to take the old or "traditional" route up to Sierra Nevada resort which looked more appealing -  a quieter, smaller road with more twists and turns suggesting flatter sections punctuated with tighter climbing in the corners but  perhaps less gruelling.   Sure enough after a bottle change and as the temperature dropped to mid-20 (celcius), I started to really get into the climb and actually began enjoying myself and even managed to give a bit more.  With one more bottle change Conor headed up to the car park at the bottom of the Valeta and I continued on my way.  Perhaps I was paying for my over enthusiasm or perhaps at 2200m the altitude was finally affecting me, but the last 2km to the car park were tough!

I picked Conor up at the car park located just above the ski resort, added my camelback with extra water and warm clothes and began our ascent of the mountain proper.  Only after 10 minutes in and I realised that I hadnt eaten enough and was absolutely STARVING, not good.  Conor came up trumps with a peanut energy bar which staved off the hunger for a wee while more.  Compare to last year there was alot more snow on the mountain and part of the road passed through what felt like snow tunnels as the road cut through the snow.   This final 600m of climbing was probably the hardest, my legs were feeling the effort big time, my heart rate was way low but my breathing heavy, in these cases all you can do is plug on at a nice steady pace and keep the summit in sight.  Nearing the top with only 3km to go someone had painted marker points on the road, 3km to go, 2km to go, 1km to go, round a bend, then another, then "oh no!" the patchy gravel road turned into a snow path, with only about 500m to go and another 150m climbing our route was blocked by 30cm deep un-ridable and very cold snow - bummer!!  Well what an anti-climax to my summit attempt.  We took a moment near the top to take in the spectacular views across the world - well southern Spain. 

After wrapping up warm we began the started the 25 minute descent of a mountain that took 1 hour 40 to climb! With a few nice off road trail sections linking the road corners we got a bit of mountain bike fun on very loose rocky trails on the way back down back to the car.  Onc packed up and changed we stopped for a while longer for a very much deserved bocadillo and cafe con leche at one of the small eateries scattered around the car park to soak in the mountain sun and watch the stream of tourists from all over europe and to check out the camoflaged proto-type cars which seem to use the mountain roads for testing.  

I learnt a bit more today about having to deal with long distance, climbing at altitude - firstly I still need to eat more on the bike, secondly I need to learn to pace myself better, and thirdly while the altitude is tough its do-able - i think....


Day 3:  (47km; 1412m ascent):  Day 3 was probably my favorite day out on the bikes over the whole week.  We decided that it was time for a trip into the high mountains in the interior of the National Park.  Given that we were going to be at altitude and we had already done two days of fairly hard riding, we decided the best option was to park up in Capiliera and make our ascent from there on in.

We put together our fully loaded camelback packs and set off up through the village towards the trail head and the forest barrier which marked the end of the road for traffic and the beginning of the mountain adventure for the day.  The ride up to the barrier was a continuous gradual climb which wound its way up the mountain for 15km along a wide graded trail and with each increase in height we were awarded with amazing views over the mountain valleys below.

Once through the barrier the road became more of a gravel fireroad which continued its upward ascent for a further 12km, and as we climbed higher we were able to see the southern Spanish coastline below and snippets of North Africa through the haze.  We also had to make a few off road detours around several sections of the road which were still covered with snowfall.  After 27km of climbing we topped out at 2709m at a fork in the road; continue north along the path and we would be heading deep into the mountains and to the base of Mulhacen the highest mountain in Spain, take the left hand fork in the the road and it would be a fun packed descent back towards the barrier and down the mountain.   Tired legs, the likelihood of more impassable snow and a large cloudy weather front made the decision for us, and although I desperately wanted to continue onwards - our map suggesting we were merely 15km from La Valeta mountain on the other side of the mountains - we opted to make our descent and loop around the Pena Partida mountain top. 

The descent back down to the barrier was amazing, we followed along one of the many mountain walking routes, an old double cart track which was largely overgrown and covered with large weather thrown stones and boulders, much to the delight of many of the hikers en route upwards who gave us friendly smiles and waves.  Towards the barrier we entered a section of high mountain forest which turned into amazing sweeping singletrack descent before ending back onto the open dirt road.  As we descended the road back towards Capiliera, we kept an eye out for those sections of singletrack descent which we noted on our first day, and sure enough we stumbled across three short twisty boulder strewn sections which dropped sharply between bends in the road, which were so dry and flowy making them equally fun to ride.  We were eventually spat out on the tarmac road above the village, and with big smiles on both our faces we headed down for a late lunch and to rave about our days adventure.   What a great day out, the clear mountain air gave us fantastic views, and whether it was because my legs were just too tired to push myself too hard or otherwise, the climb to the height we were at didn't seem to bother my head or my lungs too much, yes we were breathing hard but climbing mountains is hard isn't it???

Last week we made what is quickly becoming our annual pilgrimage to the Sierra Nevada region of southern Spain.  Once I had decided that I wanted to do the Breck Epic last year we made a reccie trip to this region to see how I might cope with cycling at altitude, which turned out not too bad in the end.  It is one of the few regions in Europe where you can go to experience some high mountains and also be almost guaranteed good weather, plus access into the mountains is phenomenal - if there is a will and a way the Spanish will build some form of road up there no matter how high!  A point in case being the road which winds itself up the La Valeta Mtn from Sierra Nevada ski resort to 3392m at the summit.
Last year we stayed in a pretty village on the northern slopes of the mountain range but this year we decided to give the southern slopes a go and stayed close to the hippy central village of Orgiva.  The plan was to do some long climbs and rides eventually making our way up to increasing altitude with the final challenge being for me to ride from the outskirts of Granada right up to the top of La Valeta in one go.  The intention was to update the blog as we went along so that it didnt end up as one long report, but a lack of easy access wi-fi/internet put paid to that.

Day 1 (64km; 1400m ascent):  The first day was really a good reccie day, mostly on the road with a good old honk with some TT intervals thrown in for good measure up the mountains from Orgiva (450m) to Capilliera to the north (at 1400m) and to stop for some lunch before having a roam around the fireroads and paths into the National Park higher up.  Most of our previous riding last year in the region was based upon walking trails marked on the local 1:40,000 maps and which oftern worked out well, so we gave one of these a try out as it looped back into the back of the village and as it also gave us a chance get accustomed to reading the map.    The trail started off well as we climbed into the forest along rough dirt tracks, passing sneak previews of enticing singletrack descents showing evidence of mtb tyre marks, and down to a local hydro electric station at the mouth of the gorge.  We then found ourselves on the walking trail proper which was narrow singletrack punctuated by rocky sections and steps.  Unfortunately the bad weather over the winter and the lack of use meant that the trail ended up overgrown and in bad conditions in places so our ride turned into more of a hike-a-bike session - better get used to that since there will be plenty in Breckenridge!

Day 2: (56km; 1800m ascent):  Given that it looked as though the trails on this side of the mountains were going to be a bit more rugged than the north side we opted to give one of the cycle routes marked on the map a go for the second day of riding.  Again this route headed up the road towards Capiliera but half way up it turned off to the west to circumnavigate one of the many massive gorges in the area before making a fast and steep descent and spitting us out into the pretty village of Canar.  The best part of the day was flying back down the road into Orgiva and straight to the Heladeria for a well deserved ice-cream and a cafe con leche - yum!

A well deserved ice cream and coke for Conor
Again its been a while since the last post, seems like time is really flying these days between working and training - not enough hours in the day!  The weekend after our fantastic time in Limerick we found ourselves in that direction again this time for the fifth round of the Irish XC national series held in Killaloe, Co Clare.  We travelled back down to limerick the evening before the race and woke up to fantastic weather on race day.  The course was located on a hill adjacent to the shores of Lough Derg and would entail riding several laps of a course which included a tough slog uphill, a super technical singletrack forest trail and a nice fast narrow shute which descended back to the start/finish area. 

Four of us female mtber's lined up at the start for the 4 lap race, myself, super fast Mel Spath and Cait Elliott and new recruit to the elite ranks, Shona D'Arcy.  After an impromptu shout of "GO!" from the race commissaire we set off behind the elite men at breakneck speed, keeping pace with them on the first portion of the climb.   All the way up the sloggy climb I was able to keep Cait in my sights only to lose her on the technical singletrack which I was riding like a girl on this particular occasion - probably because the weather has been so good recently and I havent actually had to ride slippery slidy roots in such a long time!   Anyways once I got back onto the final descent to the start finish I could always just gun down the lovely piece of steep twisty gully which lead up to the start/finish area, well that was the plan until i hit a large pointy rock on the double track and bang - two punctures!  So it was a case of run with the bike and hope Conor could do his mechanic's magic and change the spare wheels over in super quick time, which of course he did and sent me off on my way for the last three laps.
I lost a good bit of time between running and changing wheels which I never really managed to make up, I did manage to pass Shona again once I set off and had a good 2nd & 3rd lap and although I was well rested from the week the lack of any sleep the night before due to a badly located hotel room must have taken a toll as I found the last lap the hardest, my concentration going for a couple of seconds at on a ridge section near the top of the climb when I glanced left to find myself overlooking the lake and nearly stopped to take in the stunning views, I had to remind myself "its a race Ciara no stopping for photos!"
So anyway third place it was then, but the weather and the race banter was great, as were the sandwiches and refreshments afterwards, and to top it all off we were each presented with a top three prize, which in my case consisted of a bronze coloured chainring mounted on a wooden stand - how appropriate!