With the Ras over and done with two weeks earlier the last race of the season, the Marathon MTB Championship race, was held last weekend at Ballyhoura in Co Limerick.  A venue that we knew well as it has become the preferred location for the Nationals for the past few years and the location where I won the Marathon in 2011.   2013 was going to be a special race though as our friends at Biking.ie were running the event and had secured the venue for the 2014 European Marathon Championships.   The course format was also going to be slightly different, comprising of 3 individual loops passing through the Start/Finish area twice rather than one big "out and back" loop, with a mix of trail centre singletrack and open mountain riding.

Last year I was unable to defend the title to Mel Spath and this year competition looked REALLY tough with professional Topeak Ergon rider Sally Bingham coming over the reccie the course in anticipation for the 2014 main event and Irish born Australian based Jenny Fay who had won the Australian Marathon Champs earlier in the year but who would by looking for the Irish title as an Irish rider.  Jenny had also raced in the Ras this year and with a top 10  placing looked to be in good form.

Preparation for the race perhaps didn't go quite to plan as during the intervening two weeks between the Ras and the marathon champs I had managed to pick up yet another horrible sinus infection the week after the Ras which still left me wiped out up to the Wednesday before the race but thankfully towards the end of the week things started to feel almost back to normal and I managed a couple of bike spins before we packed up the van on Friday and made the 4 hour drive down to Mitchelstown where we would be staying.    We had a relaxing chilled morning on Saturday thanks our bike friendly hosts at Ballinwillin House B&B bumping into Jenny at breakfast where we chatted about the upcoming race - Jenny had arrived a day earlier and had already pre-ridden some of the course which I was informed included some technical sections.   Later myself and Conor drove down to Ballyhoura for a little pre-race warm up spin on the first 6km loop and then part of the 40km loop up the first big climb of the day just to see how things are likely to ride in the first 10km or so.  The first loop climbed up a 1km gravel road before turning into the mtb trails and the tight twisty descent back into the finish - really fast, flowy and so much fun - woo hoo!   Going into the next 40km loop there was a good bit of climbing including a long steep drag up Seefin  Mountain which summited in a cruel kick before a welcome descent back into the forest which had few rock outcrops and some tricky loose stoney gullies to navigate, all good fun to ride unless I followed one of the well worn enduro racing lines which often ended up launching off a "jump" at speed which I'm not too practiced at and likely to bail....mental note "don't follow those lines"  ;-)  

We opted not to head on out to the next climb which we were informed included a 200m hike-a-bike section into a really rocky technical descent as I didn't want to burn all my matches pre-race day after being laid up for a week, in any case talking to race organiser Niall Davis there wasn't anything in the course that I couldn't ride so I was well assured it would be all good on the day.   After catching up for a little with Niall and Tarja we headed off for an early dinner and I relaxed for the rest of the evening while Conor kindly did the race mechanic thing and cleaned/checked the bike over one last time.

Race day arrived bright and early - well maybe not so bright but definitely early as Conor had offered to help at the sign on rather than racing the shorter 35km route.  With plenty of racers about and lots of people eager to race there was a great atmosphere as everyone signed on and caught up with other riders they hadn't seen in a while.  Warming up the long fireroad start my legs felt ok, head a little fuzzy but I was sure the start would certainly blow the cobwebs away.  Soon enough we were being gridded and after a quick introduction from Niall we were set off.  

The elite men and women set off together up the fireroad drag, the pace not quite as fast as XC start but still a good pace. Soon enough Sally was leading the men up and I tried to settle into some sort of rhythm keeping close to Jenny, but I kept getting blocked from passing by one of the men in front of me as he weaved about the road.   As with in the Ras the draggy nature of the hill rather than pure climb made me come "undone"  and I had to back off losing contact with the other two women.  I also didn't seem to be warming up, legs heavy, breathing heavier. After not too long we turned into the singletrack where I was hoping to make up some time on the flowy descent, however as soon as I tried brushing off speed for the first turn I discovered my rear brake wasn't working, I pulled the lever to the bars but nothing happened!  "Feck sake" I thought "not the right time to be getting one of those SRAM brake randomly not working moments".  I kept pumping the lever in the hope that it would resolve things but nothing was working.  Sure I could still ride but not as fast I needed to and eventually I had to pull in a couple of seconds to let the faster masters and vet men pass.   On the way through the start/finish I stopped in the tech zone only to discover the brake lever had come undone and there was break fluid leaking out of the reservoir.  Conor gave me a hand screwing it back in and I though "What to do now??!!"  A fleeting thought of abandoning the race went through my mind, there was no way I was going to be in any way competitive today with anyone let along the other two women with only one functioning brake.  But then I thought, no just change my priorities for the day, if I pull out now I will never know what I could have been capable of, broken brakes or not, I came all the way down here all I have to do is finish the race and finish it safely. 

I headed off onto the second 40km route, at least knowing what to expect in the first section.  Sure enough as I climbed on up towards the summit of Seefin I made up quite a few places passing eventual 5th placed Elite Willie Bennett  (who could be really fast if he managed to get himself a nice light cross country bike!).  As I summited the climb I turned into the descent with a little trepidation and sure enough within 50m while trying to brush off some speed with the front brake the front wheel washed out under the loose gravel and I flipped.  So this was how the bike was going to ride then!  After that it was a painfully slow nervous descent back into the forest with what felt like the entire field passing me before entering into a small section of MTB trails and then on out into the open mountain.  The next 25km or so are a little bit of a blur and not much fun, I was stuck in no-mans land out on my own.  I kind of lost my mojo a little, there were too many open fireroad sections to keep me interested and my mind off the pain of racing.  I had nearly caught up with a small group of riders as we summited the hike-a-bike section but then totally lost them again on the descent, which sure enough was a tricky outcrop of bedrock and boulders but with no rear brake to control things the descent was again a painfully slow affair, just hanging off the back of the bike and hoping I had enough momentum to roll over the rocks.  While the descents on the gravel fireroads were safe enough to gain speed on, it was the more natural cart tracks which were often rutted and contained loose gravel or sands where front wheel braking was a big no-no so all i could manage was a slow nervy ride picking my line down them always worried about faster riders descending behind me.  Eventually we turned back onto a section of road, another long draggy section with seemed to go on forever, at this stage I had had enough of road racing for one year!!!  Finally I made it round through the Start/Finish one last time to be greeted by Conor and another bottle of water, I wasn't feeling great but I had come so far.......  

Onto the last 30km which was probably the most fun part of the race.  Practically 80% of this last section was on tight twisty singletrack Ballyhoura MTB trails, always great fun on a fully functioning bike but actually even MORE fun on this not so well functioning bike!  With no rear brake I had to ride really intelligently, always thinking ahead, always picking a line, never over cooking the corners, pumping the bike over little rises and around corners.  The first quarter of this section was really pedally and eventually I caught and passed 3 or 4 riders.   I actually managed to keep them off my back on the singletrack descents and in the middle section caught and passed another two riders.  I started to get a feel for the bike's limits on one brake and was really pushing my technical abilities and speed on the singletrack descents but it was so engaging and in fear of sounding like a broken record - fun!  The last 15km were a bit torturous on the fireroad climbs as I started to really tire, there had been a really long rough section previously which felt like a continuous rock garden which totally battered me and the bike.  The last 10kms of singletrack were a bit sketchy, the trail was really greasy and I nearly got caught out a couple of times as I braked and felt the front wheel surfing across the rocks, however I managed to pass another rider and eventually got on to the final 5km home run relieved to be nearly finished.  I cross the line in 4hrs21mins, a little quicker than last year, but hard to compare since the route had a little more climbing but lot less singletrack riding this year.  Third spot on the day and 2nd in the championship category.  I was WAY behind both Jenny and Sally but I'm not really going to dwell on that given that there are too many what if's and maybe's due to the mechanical.

So with the 2014 European Marathon MTB Champs being held on this course next year it was great to be able to ride the course which turned out to be a challenging mixture of open mountain riding and close narrow singletrack and also great to be able to see the level of international riding displayed by Sally and Jenny a taste of what is to come in 2014.  Biking.ie did a fantastic job designing the course (Irish mtb courses are not to be under-estimated) and of course the smooth and flawless running of the event.  While racing with only one functioning brake is not something I would not like to have to do again I am actually glad I continued with the race as it is an experience I can hopefully use to improve my riding abilities/technical skills, it certainly added another dimension to the race!   I think this is why I like marathon/endurance mtb racing so much over shorter XC racing, in an XC race a non-functioning brake on a super technical course would mean the end of the race.  In a race where the distances are so much longer and so many things can go wrong or conditions change you kind of learn to re-assess your race, deal with the change in circumstances and move on.  Sometimes a mtb marathon race isn't just about the race and the people around you, sometimes that's the easiest part, it can also be the mental battle of that long hard climb/30min rock garden descent even after 3.5hrs of racing, or the broken brake/punctures/other mechanicals, getting over that battle and finishing with a smile.  

Well done to all the men and women who completed the marathon and a big thanks again to biking.ie for an excellent race.  My arms were in bits for an entire 2 days after the race, legs not far off so its time for a little break and some R&R before looking forward to 2014 :-)

PictureUlster Road Race Champs (c.Marian Lamb)
With no plans for a "big" mtb event (read Breck Epic or the like) this year, I jumped at the chance to ride the Ras na mBann - one of the few women's road race stage races in the UK - for our regional Cycling Ulster team.  I had competed in this event for the first time in 2010 when it was a 3-Day event but since then it has developed into a 5-day race with a total of 21 teams entered from UK, Ireland, Europe and America for 2013.  Competition looked hot this year with Irish National Champ (and ex mtb champ) Mel Spath, USA based Olivia Dillon I(ex road race champ and 2 time previous Ras winner), Australian based Jenny Fay (TT champ and Aus MTB marathon champ) and several other top class riders entered and with the race moving from the mountains of Co. Kerry to the coastal hills of Co Clare, we would all be entering unknown terrain. 
Cycling Ulster had put a team of 5 good riders together including myself, Tonya, Janine, Claire and Hayley.  We all met up the previous weekend of the race at the Ulster Road Race champs to get a chance to ride together and get acquainted.  Unfortunately Hayley came down sick a few days beforehand and had to pull out, but with four strong riders we were still hopeful for a good race.  The race headquarters were in Ennis, Co Clare, not somewhere I had been longer than to stop for a coffee while passing through, despite living less than 30km in Limerick for an entire year!  Myself and Conor, who was Team Manager for the week and back into his usual role of mechanic/food/encouragement/general help and support mode, drove down a day early in order to reccie some of the longer stages, namely the Stage 2 "Beast of Burren" and the penultimate "Cliffs of Moher" stage.  We soon discovered tight twisty roads, somewhat lumpy in nature with only a couple of short "classic climbs", not too bad I thought.

Stage 1:  Stage 1 was a 56km evening race starting and finishing in Ennis.  The team met up in the afternoon to discuss plans and calm nerves and by 5pm we were all suited and booted ready to get this thing on!  The first stage went well, my legs felt good, I held it well on a kick up through a hilly town not unlike Rathfriland back home, and Tonya and I were in the main bunch until the main "climb" (more like a long drag but the pace never abated) at 18km when Tonya got dropped.  I got sidelined for a moment on the start of the following descent after riders crashed beside me and my chain jammed in the frame. I then got in with a group of 7 other riders and chased hard back onto the bunch.  As the race wound its way back into Ennis, around roundabouts and through street furniture the bunch was strung out in a long line.  I finished with the bunch a bit back but good to get first stage over.

Tonya arrived in a few minutes later followed by Janine and later Claire, both of whom found the first stage a bit of a shell shock having never raced an event like this before but learnt a lot in just the first stage.  Conor and Chris supplied team car backup and helped the two novice riders with advice and encouragement as they rode on with their respective groups.  

Stage 2 was named "Beast of Burren" which should have been the warning clue of what was a really tough stage.  The day was wet and windy and with three QOH between 14-24km making some fast surges in pace, the tempo was kept sharp.

After a squeeze up some narrow roads resulting in more crashes the race split up. I got dropped from the lead group after one of these crashes and just as I was getting back on I had to slow to a stop to avoid another crash at the rear of the bunch on one of the faster descents which meant all I could do was watch the bunch of 30 or so riders wind their way down the road like in a scene in a Roadrunner cartoon.  After that it was a matter of trying to get into a group which would work together, made difficult in the wet and very windy conditions and even more so when I realised my road brakes were ineffective in the wet!.  With another tight QOH climb aptly named Corkscrew Hill at 37km which was very like a mini alpine climb and which I was glad to get my teeth into, things broke apart, I passed a few more riders but in the strong headwind ended up waiting again for a new group to form for the descent along the Burren coastline.

The group I ended up in didnt really get into chasing form so I towed them along the coast road for about 15km until we turned back inland towards the finish and the final 5.5km climb.  Conor and I had pre-driven today’s and Saturday’s stage on Tuesday and while the climbs didn't look too bad then, today after 90km of racing it was WAY harder, the draggy dead road surface sucking whatever life was left in the legs but the sting in the tail was the steep kick up over the last 200m to the finish.  Perhaps my tow along the coast took more out of me than I realised or I simply hadn't kept a close enough eye on eating/drinking but when we hit the last climb, which to be honest wasn't all that steep, I found myself going backwards.  Our group split up, I tried my hardest to stay in contact with the 5 - 6 riders who were motoring on up the hill but my legs had just stopped working.  As I drew close to the 200m to go mark, a small group of 4 riders had nearly caught up with me and with 100m to go I got out of the saddle and kicked as hard as possible to at least keep my place over the line.  For only the second time in my life (including last year's Stage 5 Breck Epic when I thought I had broked my wrist again) I almost fell off my bike after crossing the line, totally wasted!  Luckily Conor was just behind in the car and we had left the van up at the finish (which was on top of a cold, wet, windy miserable hill) and came quickly running up to get me into the van and warmed up.  

Janine was well placed and held her own over the first few QOH sections but was distanced after about 25km, however she worked hard the rest of the day to make up places and time on Stage 1.  Claire also had a stronger ride aiming to work better on placing when in the bunch and worked hard with the girls in her group again making time on Stage 1.  Unfortunately Tonya who had been struggling with illness on the build up to the Ras had to abandon the stage and ultimately the race.

Stages 3 & 4 were split up over 1 day.  In the morning we had a 14km Team Time Trial (TTT) and then in the evening a Crit race (short circuit racing) over a tight 10km course.  I woke up the morning of Stage 3 feeling the effects of yesterday's ride, I had been sufferering from poor sleep since we got down, whether down to nerves or just an unusual bed I'm not sure but recovering between races wasn't really happening.  I wasn't looking forward to the morning TT, however we were second off so at least we didn't have to hang around too long and in any case it was likely to be over in about 20mins.  With only 3 riders left we would be at a greater disadvantage, more turns at the front left less recovery times, and we were obliged to all finish together, whereas the other teams of 4 and 5 riders would be able to share the work load and have the option to drop one or two riders and surge to the finish.  We warmed up along the course together and tried to get into a rhythm.  Unfortunately Claire was feeling the pressure of the whole event - wrongly feeling that she would let us down - and a lapse of concentration resulted in her taking a tumble during practice.  Not great for before a race but funnily enough it really focused her and brought her back to race mode, such a tough woman!!  So off we went just after 10am and within 100m or so it was clear that both myself and Janine were the stronger riders, "not a bother" I thought "we'll share the workload, lets get Claire around as fast as possible".  After letting Janine know the plan we worked really well taking turns up front.  Every so often Claire would chip in when she felt strong enough and while my legs were feckin screaming by the 200m to go mark Janine kept us on our toes.  We came in at 21mins40 by the car clock although the official timekeeper was longer, however given that he couldn't decide when we were setting off in the first place, I'm going with the 21:40!

We pre-rode the Crit course on the way back into Ennis, it was going to be a tight course with only 1 section on the main road and two really tight sharp left hand bends into narrow roads the rest of the way round.  It was then back to base for lunch and for me a much needed snooze, which thankfully refreshed the legs a little.

We re-grouped that evening at the crit start and jumped on the turbos to warm up.  Crits are notorious for being fast paced with an added sprint competition to be settled on alternate laps.  I wasn't looking forward to this, I had been having problems all week with hard anaerobic efforts which were just leaving my legs burnt up and screaming, either fatigue or the mtb training not preparing me for those persistent short sharp big gear attacks.  There was to be a neutralised first lap but the lead car must have thought he was racing and it was straight into hard work with everyone vying for positions up front, the smell of burning brake pads at each tight turn.  Funnily enough lap 2 was more relaxed but with primes at laps 3, 5, 7 the surges would come closer together and last longer.  Claire got caught out by the fast start and couldn't place herself well enough to not get spat out the back with other riders.  Janine and I were able to place better in the bunch but there was a huge amount of jostling when squeezing the large bunch around tight bends, slowing to an almost stop and into the narrow roads at the back end of the course and eventually I was too far back to deal with the surges on prime lap 7 and my legs went pop! Janine looked to be dealing well with this style of racing but punctured and also lost the bunch.  Backing off into time trial pace I wasn’t slow enough to be pulled by the commisaire so just had to keep trucking and finished the last two laps alone. 

Stage 5 started in lisdoonvarna and was to be a figure of 8 course passing through the village twice including a climb up past the Cliffs of Moher before looping back around the last half of Thursdays route along the coastline this time in the opposite direction for a total of 89km
We woke up to a lovely sunny day a welcome change to Thursdays soaking.  Everyone was in high spirits at the startline and my legs didnt feel too bad considering they were burnt last night and we rolled off to cheers from locals and somewhat confused tourists.
The pace was sharp from the start but not too uncomfortable as we made a short rise to the first QOH before the long descent into the coastal town of Lahinch.  While a group of three riders broke away early on,  the first big attack of the day came at 26km with the Cat 1 Cliffs of Moher climb which tore apart the bunch.  Both myself and Janine lost contact at that stage both with the front of the bunch and with each other.  Fellow Glengormley based rider Amy Brice came up the hill behind me and I tagged on to her wheel to get up over the first kick of the climb, passing a few riders on the way, however I wasn't really up to her pace and had to back off.  While I lost the wheel of Amy and other fast riders, I was slowly picking off those riders who had started up the climb too hot and were going backwards, however by the summit I was off the main bunch and while I tried to work with a small group on the following descent but was undergeared (my big ring simply wasn't road race big!) and missed getting back on left out in no mans land for a few minutes until the next group caught up.  We worked well together and tagged back onto the front bunch as we went through. Lisdoonvarna again.  It didn't last too long though as the climb back out of the village was another QOH and we were spat out the back again in another surge.   After an amazing twisty descent down corkscrew hill another chase group formed and we worked well together for the next 30km with the main bunch always tantalising close as we rode up the meandering coast road back to Lisdoonvarna.   At the last QOH I broke away from my group as many struggled with the climb, a solitary USA rider from the Ritte team joining me.  We tried hard to keep the other 15 or so riders off our backs on the descent back into town but again I was undergeared and we just about managed to keep the chase off over the stinging kick up over the finish line to hold our places.   While I still couldn't manage sustained anaerobic efforts, Stage 5 was way more bearable, probably due to the lovely sunshine and warmer weather and I actually finished in good form.

Janine also had a really good strong ride on Stage 5, after getting distanced on the Cat 1 climb she got into a group of 20 riders who worked together but weren't as pushed as they should have been resulting in Janine taking long pulls at the front.  Out of frustration she pushed on out of the coast road and up the final QOH climb to a massive solo effort put at least 800m on the group which included riders from the Danish Rytger team and Team Luxembourg.  Claire started the race feeling the cumulative days of racing and was distanced with a group of 7 riders from early on. To add to this one of the Irish team cars decided to split the group and motor pace his rider up the road only to take a wrong turn and not just take his rider off route but the other 6 girls.  Thankfully everyone got back on course and Claire finished on good form. 

PictureMyself and Janine, Cycling Ulster's last (wo)men standing
Final day Stage 6: 87km of racing with a cruel 5km Cat 1 climb up over Gallows Hill beside Cratloe Foreat, an area better known for its forest mountain biking than road racing.  After Saturday’s race in glorious autumn sunshine we woke up to a wet stormy day with gale force winds forecast, this was going to be a tough last day in the saddle and staying with the main bunch was going to be important.

The team all met up in the two cars at the Dromoland Inn some 13km south of Ennis where the race was to start.  Unfortunately Claire felt unable to start the day, the small spill while warming up on Friday had left a niggling groin injury which wasn’t going to be able to take another day in the saddle.  There was no real option for warming up as we were so exposed to the elements in the hotel car park and surrounding roads, and we opted not to get too soaked beforehand as we were often left hanging around waiting to start.

So it was myself and Janine nervously waiting on the start line wondering whether we would be saved a fast race start, but with less than 500m of neutral start this wasn’t going to be the case and with a small attack from the start the pace rocketed and we were off with a bang.  Janine said she was feeling good today and it was evident from the start, myself not so good, I had brain fog and the cold weather and lack of warm up was telling as I lingered somewhere mid pack constantly trying to get my legs to work with every surge in pace up over rises and out of corners.  Mid pack was never a good place to be this week with the constant crashes (Stage 5 was the only day I didn’t have to crash dodge) and sure enough at about 13km in I heard the inevitable cries and the rider in front of me swerved and started to come down.  Luckily I was close to the road edge and decided to bail towards the hedgerow, avoided coming down altogether just collecting half the hedge in my brake levers in the process.  A quick re-grouping mentally and physically it was the mad chase back on to whatever group was going to form and back into the race.

Janine had been on the other side of the group at the time of the crash and managed to avoid any mishap and I eventually caught up with her again just before the Cat 1 climb.   I tried to pace her up the hill which was working well for the first km or so but eventually she dropped off.  I’d been trying to make some time up since the TT & crit on Friday over first placed vet Monica Marconi who I knew I could outclimb on these steeper hills so I went on ahead distancing Marconi.  The descent however was steep and gravelly and I probably took is a little easy given the close call earlier (I REALLY wished I have disc brakes at this stage!), the road soon opened up straight into a strong blocking wind and I couldn’t get enough speed up to catch the small group of 5 riders up ahead, back into no-mans land again and eventually I ended back up in the chasing group with Marconi.  Our group didn’t re-group well and messed about, no-one willing to work against the head wind which we were going to have to battle for the next  55km or so and eventually the small group Janine was in caught up and Cycling Ulster were riding together again.   The remainder of the race was painful, both physically but also mentally as there was a lot of messing about.  Janine and I were in a group consisting of a mix of 1. very tired riders, 2. riders not willing to do ANY work and then 3. a few of us who were but who never really gelled.  To add to this the three Leinster riders started playing games, Roisin Kennedy would go for an attack then Fran and Fiona blocked at the front until someone would go after Roisin which would then cause a chain reaction chase for us all to re-group, this was repeated several times with the intervening re-group consisting of a Sunday run pace.  I eventually got fed up and dragged us along until the 10km to go, discussing with Janine the possibility of us attacking at 5km to go.  Unfortunately there was another attack just before and with me upfront I wasn’t prepared for it.  Luckily Janine was and shot off with the two other riders!  So my turn to try to slow things down and we meandered our way back into Ennis for a final minor places sprint to meet Janine who managed to take second in her own sprint for the line coming in behind Melissa van Neck (who was VERY comfortable when taking turns up front) but ahead of Fiona Guihen (Cycling Leinster) and in 37th place on the day, her best result all week.

In final GC I placed 41st just ahead of last year’s winner Kamilla Vallin (Team Rytger) with Janine placing 63rd, although judging by her performance on the last two days she was starting to get into the swing of things and given another few days of racing would likely have improved even further.  Definitely a rider to watch for the future!  It was great to see Cycling Ulster able to return to the Ras after last year’s absence and to put together such a team of enthusiastic and driven riders, willing to work together and ride to the best of their abilities and it was merely unfortunate that illness and injury meant we lost riders along the way.   Team support for the week was faultless, Conor and Chris looked after our bikes, logistics, transport (of which there was a lot over the week) mental support and encouragement without all of which we would have been dead in the water.

Many thanks to Cycling Ulster for supporting the team and Conor Graham & Chris McElhinney for race support for the week.

Our week away was part of the run up to the National Championships two weeks later, a chance to chill and get some long days on the bikes and relaxation without having to squeeze in work.
Since we got back the weather at home turned into a summer scorcher which was absolutely brilliant to see meaning some great weekend riding in the Mournes both for ourselves and guiding, culminating in a BIG week of riding the week before the Nationals.

The national course was up north this year in Garvagh Forest, a venue for an  Ulster league round the year before but which I was always away for so didn't know what to expect.  I had heard that it was a great course, technical, lots of singletrack, good "old skool" riding, lots to keep you on your toes and your thinking head on as line choice was crucial.  As the weather continued to stay warm, dry and sunny we headed up for a practice mid week with Darragh and got a guided ride round the course from Willie Mulligan who was up practicing too.  The guide around was much appreciated as the forest is full of little trails tailing off in all directions.  We discovered a great course, all very dry with a combination of long draggy fire road which linked up fast, swoopy, rooty technical singletrack sections both uphill, downhill and along a river.  This was going to be a fast, fast course.  The dry and rooty nature of the course however was tricky on the hardtail so we went up for another practice session the day before the race and I tested out both hardtail and full suspension bikes.  The full suss was way more fun, especially on the descents but the hardtail was a good bit lighter so quicker on the fire roads and in / out of corners so this was going to be the weapon of choice for the big day.

Race day arrived and unfortunately our usually quiet family man of a neighbour decided to have a student style birthday party out the back of his house the night before so with little more than a few hours sleep we headed up to Garvagh, I even tried a snoozed in the back of the van in an attempt to get some more rest.   After signing on and getting my chip there wasn't really much need for a practice lap as ground conditions hadn't changed over night so I spun a little on the turbo to try and get the legs moving, although the lack of sleep had left them feeling a little heavy and dead (I also think 3 practice laps and a very late lunch the day before probably wasn't a great idea in hindsight!).  We lined up a the start and eventually after about 10 minutes of organisation of all the men's categories it was our time to head to the front.  There were six of us, Claire Oakley, Gill Smith, Julie Rea, Kathryn Bell and Kate Rudd.  I knew all the girls except Kate who apparently is doing all the national champs races for all bike disciplines this year, what a challenge, I'm not sure I could deal with the downhill races!    With last year's champ Mel racing the road this year and previous year's winner Cait in Switzerland, Claire Oakley was one of the main contenders on the day, although Gill and Julie had also shown some good form earlier in the year at Lady Dixon park.  Not long after we were lined up the gun went off  - BOOM!  I decided given that I had no idea what form Claire was in and also cause I was dozy as feck and a little zonked that the best thing to do was go like the clappers for the first fire road section and see how Claire was responding. On the fireroad I pushed on knowing that the little singletrack section just after it would give me a little bit of recovery if I needed to kick again.  Glancing under my shoulder I could see Claire's wheel a couple of metres behind me but at the same time not getting any closer.  I mucked up my gears on the kick up to the "Bungalow" and had to run up, letting Claire catch up.  After a short descent and across a fire road it was back into a cleared stand of trees for a draggy off road climb with a little kicker at the top.  I picked up the pace again on the drag and kicked harder over the kicker, I think the bungee cord between myself and Claire snapped at this stage and I headed off into the next section of twisting singletrack and on through the course.  For the rest of the lap I made sure I worked hard, mid way through I could see Claire on a section which looped back on ourselves so knew there was always the need to keep pushing.   Lack of sleep was evident going into the second lap and I was starting to feel a bit sick from the effort, a glance back down the fireroad climb confirmed that I was probably well out in front so I opted for a steadier pace, still working hard on the short kickers and climbs but making more of an effort to be smoother and consistent in the singletrack sections.  The bomb hole descent through the firebreak was so much fun each lap!  The top masters riders eventually started to come through and I made an effort to keep up with these guys too, then the top vets blasted past on the fireroad on my third lap - too fast for me boys!  I was riding out on my own quite a bit so had to start talking to myself to keep the pace going, the aim now to just try and post a good race time over my usual male competitors.  

After four laps and 1hr35 of hard racing I crossed the line in 1st spot 2013 National XC Champion - woo hoo!!  So glad to be finished and so glad not to have to do another lap after so little sleep!!!   Funnily enough when I won the Marathon XC champs in 2011 I also had a really bad night's sleep the night before, not something I would recommend and not something I hope to repeat!

A great result on a fantastic course, I really thought that it wouldn't suit me, no long climbs to get my teeth into, too many punchy steep kickers that require a lot of strength, it was REALLY tough, I don't think my arms have had to do so much work in such a long time!  Carn Wheelers definitely put a great challenging course together and organised a perfect nationals race so thanks a lot.  Conor was also brilliant support as per usual, he cleaned and serviced my bike, lent me his super fast Mavic SLR wheels, and did the usual feed zone duties.    Congrats to all the riders on the day, as I said it was a super tough course, especially all the women who came, I hope they all enjoyed the course too because after all the pain of racing the sense of achiev worth it!

PictureWhere's Whalley?! Conor on Los Parapetos WWII trenches
The day after the National Road Race Champs it was a 4am start for our flight to Granada and on to the village of Guejar Sierra for a week of sunshine, high mountain bike riding, tapas and the odd beer.  

I had suffered from an awful headache during the road race which turned out to be the start of a sinus infection so the first couple of days were spent spinning around the roads and up over the mountain behind Guejar to visit the WWII trenches  - just like Riva!  

Mid week we made the epic ride up to Refugio del Pena Partida which after 2 hours of climbing includes some spectacular 20 - 30mins descents, particularly the last 40 switchback singletrack madness through a bone dry pine forest not too dissimilar to Colorado, lots of wide smiley faces that day!

We had a day off the bikes after the "big day" and visited some cave dwellings outside Granada then next day we opted for a ride on the other side of the mountain range, starting in Cappiliera and heading up to the Refugio Poquiera, we even spotted a sticker on the signpost from the Aspen Brewing Company!  The trail back down included a fast rock strewn trail followed by a twisty descent through the forest and onto some hairy downhill sections before running back into town.  

On our last day Conor was feeling a bit biked out so I rode from the apartment up to the car park at the bottom of La Valeta.  We did our usual ascent of the Valeta to see how far up the snow line was and only made it to the 3000m mark.  Later we decided to check out the ski resort and get some dinner and discovered that there was a local downhill race running that weekend.  We watched some of the practice which looked like it was taking part on an epic course, ski lifts up to the top and a huge run down than included some flat sections, more enduro-like than downhill we thought!

The Sierra Nevada mountains are just fantastic, there are loads of mtb guiding companies around the area these days and it was good to see some summer MTB action taking place in the resort.  However if you are just into taking the map out and looking for some mtb discovery adventure this is still the place to go.  The snow hampered any of our plans to do any epic rides this time around, but there is a plan in the hatching that might include nothing more than bikes, spare clothes, sleeping bags, refuges and high mountain camping...... stay tuned!

After a week off the bike trying to recover from the mega marathon in Italy - what was I thinking! - things were going well on the racing front.  I managed a win at both NPS races at Lady Dixon and Slade Valley, both fantastic courses and great weather.   However they were probably the only few days of good weather we had in three months, after a particularly bad couple of weeks constantly coming in from training soaked to the skin we decided enough is enough and booked a week in our favorite "guaranteed to be dry" Sierra Nevada holiday :-)

As I was going to miss the last NPS race being in Spain I decided to sign up for the women's national road race champs just to get a bit of racing done.  Not having really ridden hard for more than the 1hr30 cross country mark for ages I wasn't too sure how this was going to pan out.  The race would be based in Carlingford, 90ish km (probably about 2hr45 race time)  but and here's the big BUT, it wasn't heading into the mountains preferring to roll around the back roads and relatively flat coastal road.  There were about 40 women signed up including defending champ Mel Spath and american based Olivia Dillon as well as a number of really strong national riders.  Race day arrived and as usual the weather was awful, windy, wet and did I mention windy?  We rolled off the line at the start and the pace quickened on the back run out of Carlingford village and then promptly slowed on the undulating kickers before a sprint to the first big junction onto the coast road, sprint out of the junction then slow, then sprint into and out of the next junction, then slow, then upped pace back into Carlingford, then sprint out of Carlingford, then slow, then sprint, then slow, then spr..... well you get the picture.   There were a couple of breaks off the front but nothing stayed away as the wind was straight ahead and they only consisted of 2 - 3 riders so eventually got caught up.  There was a tiny upping of the pace mid race which stung the legs, with the pace slowing numerous times in the wet, cold weather my legs would sieze up quickly and only just start to get into a rhythm before the pace slowed again.  
Bored I had tried a little turn on the front but with no-one else willing to come through to work I decided feck it, I'm not burning my matches for the sake of someone else.   Finally the last lap arrived and the group slowed down to demonstration pace on the last couple of kms into the start finish.  With about 500m to go Mel Spath kicked and it was a manic sprint to the finish.  I was badly positioned and with cold legs didn't give it more than a little dig coming in somewhere in the top 20.  Not a great result but then not a particularly exciting race.  Women's road racing in this country is terribly negative and I don't know whether it was because there were a lot of women in the event who were intimidated by the caliber of the top riders but not one person was willing to work on the front, loads of sand bagging in the bunch, had the race been on a harder course (read hillier) I think the results would have been a lot different!

As usual its been a while since there's been any blogging but I decided to put this one together as this was my first big marathon race both so here goes....    

Since the last race of the year last September things have been busy, lots going on in norn iron at the moment with several  new MTB trail centres opening up so its looking great for mountain biking here, should be a good summer of biking fun!

While we've travelled to the Breck Epic twice now, I've never actually done a large marathon event so when Tarja and Niall at Biking.ie mentioned they were heading out to Italy for the Garda Bike festival it seemed like a good idea to join them for a bit of craic and biking in the sunshine and relative warmth of northern Italy.  The weekend long festival would include an Enduro race on the Saturday and the Marathon on the Sunday.  The rest of the guys had signed up for the enduro and I opted for the marathon as going downhill on steep rocky descents isnt really my strength..... at the moment anyway but I can always hope!  

The run up to the race consisted of a couple of days of riding the old familiar trails around Ronzo di Chiens where we were staying and taking a look at the Enduro stages.  I tried all but two of them on my Scott Spark thinking I would have plenty enough travel but ohhh nnnooo not even close, these were steep, rocky, technical, loose, sketchy descents not to be tried by the faint hearted.  Conor even rode two stages which involved climbing down the side of the mountain beside a via ferrata cable.  To top it all off there was a tonne of climbing to do between the stages, including a 800m climb up to stage 1 to start with!

Enduro race day myself and Conor cheered at the road side and offered a little support for the riders, then it was off into Riva del Garda to get my rear hub serviced by DT Swiss at the Bike Show (nicely done for a bottle of beer :-)) and to start eating for the race tomorrow.  Later that evening we heard all about the enduro race, the Irish contingent did well with Greg and Niall placing 13th and 31st respectively in the men's category and Conor Campbell and Rudolph placing 14th and 34th in the Masters category and Tarja 20th in the womens race.

So marathon race day arrived with a VERY early start, the race was timed to start at 7.30.  We quickly necked a cappuccino and croissant down topped up with a cereal bar and scooted down the twisty road Schumacher style into Riva.  Even just after 7am the starting block was FULL and I had the squeeze in behind the barrier to get a place, I couldnt get over the number of people up and ready at this time in the morning!  We hung around until 7:45 when BANG race was off up through Riva towards the hills at Cross Country speed, a BIG shock to the system, no roll out here!  Within 4km we hit the olive grove covered hills and the paced dropped significantly settling into the 30min climb and getting into a rhythm of climb, climb, climb, climb punctuated with short descents, sometimes through singletrack forest, but mostly along fireroad and tarmac linking sections.

At the 45km mark there was a big sign for the turn off for the Extrema 95km route, hmmmm I felt fine, and was half way through in less than 2hrs into the medium route so what the heck Extrema it is then!  The turn off quickly turned us down a fast twisty tarmac descent for quite a while, then it was a bit of a flattish route before starting to head up again, initially through an open road then gradually back into forest before more climb, climb, climb, climb, climb, climb.  I had glanced at the route card a few times the day before, and did attend the pre-race briefing which was in German but hadn't clocked that there was 35km between the next two feed stations.  Suffice to say with only a 750ml & 500ml bottle to my name things started to go downhill quickly when the climb kicked up the ubiquitous concrete surfaces that get put down on only the steepest sections of fire road - BOOM!  Finally made it to the top to follow a fast sweepy descent back through forest to meet the guys doing the middle and easier marathon routes.  About an hour after I needed the feed station it finally arrived in view and this time instead of grabbing some water and  hammering on I took about 10mins to water up and get an emergency energy bar down before cracking on with the ride. 

The next section of the route was through some really nice forest sections with flowy wide open trails and a few hairy rocky descents not too dissimilar to the enduro course, with loads of  leaves camouflaging the rocks underneath, more of a surfing lesson than a controlled descent!  For once I was getting stuck behind slower riders on the descents!  I was feeling the effects of bonking earlier on all the little kickers that punctuated the descents and at the last feed station at the 75km mark was glad to see most of the course complete.   This last feed station was at the bottom of the last climb, only about 600m of climbing but the afternoon heat started to set in and I struggled BIG time up this one, having to stop every so often to pour water over my helmet.  Unfortunately at the summit I had to stop to put my gloves back on and ended up letting a couple of riders past, bad idea as yet again I got stuck behind a rider who just couldn't deal with the technical descent and just as I was picking my line down a rocky drop he decided to jump off his bike and walk leaving me with no option but hit the brakes resulting in a slo-mo endo straight onto the pointy rock below - FECK SAKE!   Dusted myself off and back on towards the finish.  After another few sections of open trail we hit the last technical descent consisting of an old cobbled cart track which more resembled a washed out wadi with big baby head stones, ruts, and crazy steep sections.  The Scott handled this section perfectly and it was so much fun picking the best line down, I even stopped for a few seconds to make sure one of the other riders was OK as he somehow managed to end up shooting off the track into the bushes below!   After about 15mins of crazy mental descending we hit the open concrete roads through the vineyards again before the final last little road slog back to Riva against a torturous head wind.

Finally after 6.42 hours of riding I was back at the Start / Finish 92km later and 4000m of climbing, the most climbing I have ever done in one day!  Suffice to say I was starving for about two day after and havent managed to get back on my bike yest this week.  The Riva Bike Marathon was certainly an experience and probably a great day's "training" but there was WAY too much road riding, not enough singletrack and absolutely NO craic from any of  my fellow competitors on the day, so I think I'll be looking elsewhere for my endurance mtb kicks, back to the drawing board and google it is!

Tis been a while since the last post looking forward to the Breck Epic.  The week before we went somewhat "back country" camping above Steamboat Springs with very limited phone and internet access but some great trail riding (thats another post!) and with the race week being so hectic and being flung back into the maelstrom that is work as soon as we got back there has been very little time for blogs or updates of any kind!

First off the Epicness of Breck-edness.  What can I say..... a week of torturous uphill climbing, long crazy descents and feeling that the race organiser should be put up against a firing squad for the horrible steep final 16km of nearly every single stage!!  To be honest the preparation this year wasn't great for the race, no alititude training in Sierra Nevada this year and I was so worn out from work that the week before got me too much into holiday mode.  I also think my plan to slowly acclimatise by coming out 10 days beforehand backfired a little and that we probably should have headed up to the 2999m resort a week earlier as from Stage 1 onwards I lacked the oomph of previous year's racing.   With seven other women in the Open/Pro category, none of whom I had heard of before - sorry girls I clearly don't keep up with my race results - I wasn't sure how this year would pan out and thought it best that armed with my new Scott Spark 10 to just try and better my stage times from 2010.

Stage 1:  The opener stage I remembered so well from two years ago and yes again it was a shock to the system from the start with a quick reminder that we would be heading into steep climbs from the off.  This year however it wasn't just my lungs which seemed to be having problems every time I tried to put out effort through the Scott my legs would immediately go into burn mode and nausea would ensue - hmmm altitude perhaps??  I spent that day in what felt like a slow sloggy struggle, despite the fact that I was actually passing people the constant feeling of crapiness made me thing I was somewhere in the back of the bunch.  Three quarters through the stage however I caught and passed local rider Karen Jarchow (Yeti Beti) and began the descent back into town.  With just 3km to go I heard a big pssst, looked down to see a large hole appear in the front tire which wasnt going to be sealed with goo.  Quickly moving off trail I started the obligatory tube insertion only to discover that as soon as i let the air out of the tubless tire the goo inside immediately started to stick the tire together like paper mache - shit I hadnt seen that before.  I took the next 13 minutes and the help of another rider to prise the damn thing off the rim, detangle it and finally get a tube in, several minutes after Karen passed me again - damn it!  Eventually I arrived back home some 10mins quicker than 2010 but in 4th place just missing the podium, double damn it!!
Stage 2:  The weather forecast for the afternoon of Stage 2 wasn't great and we were greeted with grey skies as we lined up at the start line, myself and Karen going over the previous day's events.  Off we went into the dull mizzly rain being assured by Mike McCormack the race organiser that it would "blow over".  Hoping he was right as I had left my rain gear for the last feed station, we started on the first steep climb of the day and yet again my body started burning and nausea set in, my legs feeling like they had been lifting weights the day before.   I slowly watched Karen disappear on up the hill while I struggled.  As we climbed and climbed the weather got worse and before long we were into Irish summer territory and before even longer bordering Irish winter with temperatures starting to dip towards 5 degrees celcius.   The rest of the day was a bit of a blur as the cold started to set in.  I remember some really hard climbs from the previous year but which did little to warm the legs, and the section of Colorado trail which in previous racing was a welcome bit of singletrack fun became a battle with hypothermia, hands and fingers so numb that gear shifting had to be done with your thumb pad on the palm.  Suddenly people around me were turning blue and purple, my forks got so cold I think they seized for a while and the terrain took on a whole different feeling of remoteness and wilderness, reminding us that yes we were in the middle of no-where and yes the Rockies ARE massive.   To top it off the last aid station was 10km further than advertised.  Thankfully however Conor had made it out to the Aid station and in true race support fashion of the greatest order was standing waiting with dry leggings, jersey, gloves and rain jacket.  Two aid volunteers held me up while I shivered uncontrollably and Conor dressed and fed me and pointed me in the right direction for the last 16km home which included the obligatory climb out of the aid station before descending back into Breckenridge.  Having eaten little all day between nausea and the cold those last few km were painful, legs no longer warm enough or fed enough to function.  Suffice to say I lost ALOT of time on Stage 2 coming10 minutes slower than in 2010.
Stage 3:  The day after the day before...... there were a few people who didnt start Stage 3 after yesterday's mega weather challenge.  Stage 3 the first of the "big" altitude stages.  I didn't feel too bad today considering, yes my legs still burned and yes I still felt achey and sick on efforts BUT I was riding well, a bit slow to start with but steadily making up places - passing Karen who informed me it was her turn to feel sick - over the first 2 hours up around Mount Guyot  AND the sun was out - yippee!!  Even the hike-a-bike section towards the summit didnt hurt as bad as 2010 and as we summited we were greeted with a couple of enthusiastic spectators with a bag of skittles as a reward.  The descent towards the second feed station started as sweeping singletrack and turned into crazy, rocky madness and as I picked up my gels and bottles for the final draggy climb up Georgia I was informed that the top two women were merely 10mins ahead - cool!  unfortunately as I left the feed station I noticed the back end of my bike squirming and the front forks felt rather soft.  Looking down I saw the two new tires I bought after the first day's puncture were both too soft.  Taking out the air canister I went to put some air into the rear and BANG the rubber seal in the canister head blew - damn!!  So back down to the feed station it was.  As I borrowed a track pump it soon became clear that these tires - contrary to what the shop assistant told me about them being tubeless ready and puncture resistant - were refusing to seat properly on the rims, sooo back on with the tubes again in BOTH wheels.  Another 10 - 15 minute stop and I jumped back on the bike for the next 40minute climb, which by the way hurt LOADS as I had cooled right down again.  After summiting Georgia Pass we headed into a 30 - 40 minute descent which consisted of technical exposed roots and a MASSIVE rock garden which went on forever - this is where the Scott held its own, floating over everything with control and exposure leaving me to actually pass a few of the girls who had caught me as I "fixed" the two flats.  Conor was again at the last feed station, informing me that i was in 3rd spot but that another female rider I came into the station with was 4th.  So a quick bottle change and more gels collected I sprinted (ish) off up the torture ascent that is French Gulch.  I never found out who that other rider was but she was pacing me up the hot steep climb for a while before I got some distance and finally after 4 and a half hours I arrived back - 5mins FASTER than 2010 but delayed by punctures - damn!
Stage 4:  In 2010 I started Stage 4 all guns blazing and in great form only to underestimate the distance and amount of climbing, underfeed and TOTALLY bonk coming in at the 5 hour mark.  When I woke up with a cold and feeling like shite I was worried..... and rightly so at 73km and over 2000m of climbing this was a BIG stage.  We rolled out of Breckenridge and from then on in it was a battle between me and the stage.  No legs, no lungs, felt sick ALL day.  I rode with a few guys on the way towards the first feed station at Keystone and was grateful to be with a nice bunch of riders for the 50minute climb back out of Keystone where I had a male duo team pace me up the hill.  After that it was a bit of banter with a couple of single speed riders who eventually dropped me as my legs got more and more tired.  The final feed station was along a big wide open dirt track and with only 2 x 10 gears I couldnt get enough speed up along it, I also must have looked slow as a certain singlespeed demon flew past asking me if everything was ok!  Again another torture wall of a climb out of the aid station, Conor riding behind me as I grind or is it ground my way up at something like 40rpm, no way was I getting off and pushing!  I blasted down the rocky technical descents and wound through the singletrack towards the finish line hearing the commentator on the loud speaker in the distance only to be cruelly directed AWAY for a final 5km "finish loop".  I was dead, busted struggled with every little kicker in terrain and finally on a horrible section of rock garden and with over inflated tires I twisted my way through trees until the front wheel went from under me and down I went onto a rock garden like a sack of potatoes and straight onto the wrist I broke the year before - ouch!!!  I lay there for a moment, too tired to get up and with my wrist in agony.  Getting up I jumped on the bike to discovered I couldnt hold onto the handlebars, my palm and wrist aching like mad - oh dear this felt worse than the break.  Finally made it through the finish line just over the 5hr mark, same time as 2010, needing a little first aid for the potentially broken wrist and total exhaustion.  A trip down to the local medical centre and an x-ray confirmed it wasnt broken so after dinner and a power nap I decided to see how I felt the next day.
Stage 5:   Wheeler Pass stage, a shortish stage this time but with a 30min hike-a-bike up to 3800m.  My wrist had settled over night and I was left with a massive bruise and needing a bit of support to hold onto the bike, but as I lined up at the start line i was just glad to be able to finish the race.  All the women were sent off together at the BACK of the field - not a great advert for women's racing boys!  I got the hole shot into the singletrack pacing 1st and 2nd place for a while as they didnt seem to be too fast starters - something I actually noticed on stage 3 as I paced them up the first climb of the day - BUT what let me down was the consistent pace and the constant changing UP gear when the terrain levelled out where I used it to recover, sooo this is how to win a race then!  The climb up to the top of Wheeler was as difficult as in 2010 only this time I brought a small canister of oxygen for myself so that when the inevitable grinding to a slow halt and nearly keeling over happened I was able to top up on O2 and keep marching, some would say cheating, I however think it safer to get up than keel over at 3600m on a piece of singletrack that more resembled the Cooley mountain's Skull Alley than Colorado!  The singletrack at the top was reminiscent of any mountain top in Ireland, boggy, heather but with the most MASSIVE views.  The heady descent back down was a bone shaker, trying not to notice the 2000m drop down the mountain on my left hand side while trying to control the bike with a painful wrist.   Getting onto the rec path to descend into Frisco I once again regretted my choice of 2 x 10 running out of gears pretty quickly.  Yet again as I tried to bomb down the path, the rear end of the bike started fishtailing and I looked down to yet ANOTHER puncture.  Exasperated I changed another puncture, got passed by loads of people and started on down to the aid station.  After stocking up on a few gels and water there was the obligatory climb back up to Breckenridge, not a bad climb at all though, with a few sections of welcome swoopy undulating singletrack I managed to re-take some places, arriving back home after 3hrs30 an entire hour - yes 60minutes! - up on 2010.
Stage 6:  I woke up to the final Gold Dust trail stage feeling like I had been run over by a bus, "enough" I thought to myself but also "the last day woo hoo".  While in 2010 I started stage 6 well, feeling like I was climbing like a goat AND passing everyone into 3rd place before my only puncture of 2010, for 2012 the tiredness, achiness and nausea was overwhelming and every little anaerobic climbing effort produced horrible pain.  Suffice to say I went backward on the climb up Bakers Tank trail towards Boreas Pass, that is UNTIL Boreas Pass, where by some miracle I started making places up and pacing OTHER riders up the pass.  The descent into the "Flume" was tempered by what felt like my front forks seizing, making the otherwise fun twisty singletrack ride a little sketchy to say the least.  On the second ascent up Boreas Pass I managed to gather a little train of riders as myself and singlespeed soloist Dean Cahow worked together to mop people up.  Unfortunately the more mopping we did and more sandbagging others did I blew again and had to let the guys go on to the summit.  The descent back into Breckenridge was welcome although taking us through some new fresh trails which needed bedded in and after 2hrs 50, some 10mins quicker than in 2010 I arrived home to the finish, all done and dusted.  After approximately 26 hours of racing at altitude and feeling like shite all week, constantly dealing with punctures, I was on the podium, woo hoo!!

While we werent quite welcomed home with the cool box of beer of 2010, the bacon sandwiches were a welcome treat and the after race party and prize giving a great evening out, especially watching the arm wrestling competition!  While overall it seemed that I was riding a little faster this year, the constant muscle ache and nausea was annoying to say the least and the numerous punctures were frustrating as I felt I wasnt really competitive all week.  The punctures I suppose were just down to lack of preperation and poor tire choice, the racing ralphs that came with the bike being too thin for the terrain and the replacement being just plain useless.  The sickness.... I'm not sure what that was all about, altitude maybe?  I did wonder whether the choice to go 2 x 10 was a little off the mark, certainly it felt like I was overgeared alot of the time and my legs felt like I had been lifting weights from the start of the week onwards, perhaps I'm just an old fashioned 3 x 9 person.

The next day we went for a nice leisurely ride with my brother Chris and his girlfriend Megan, giving them a tour of the local singletrack trails, after which we headed back to Fort Collins for a bit of R&R riding before the epic journey home.

Four days after we got back we headed down to Ballyhoura for the National MTB Marathon Champs, still a little worse for wear but more than capable for the 75km race.  I quickly discovered that I didnt have much leg speed watching Mel Spath dissappear up ahead of me in the first 5km and yet AGAIN ended up with ANOTHER puncture.  I settled into a steady but hard enough pace for the remainder of the race making up all the places I lost while fixing the puncture to come in 2nd spot.  While background tiredness ruled the day riding 75km at relative sea level was a lot less stressful on the legs and stomach than at 3000m and I was left a little deflated and somewhat "unchallenged" by the whole experience - Oh dear what have I got myself into and how on earth do I top Breck in 2013!!

The past few weeks have been spent concentrating on work, travelling all week, working evenings, while weekends have been spent riding Cavehill and the Mournes but still with a little bit of "ennuie" from lack of Epic-ness.  That is until finally last weekend and an "epic" trip into the Cooleys where our faith in Irish mountain adventures were restored!

Just a quick thanks to everyone involved in Team Summit's race support this year Derek and High Five for the nutrition support and Dan Fleeman at The Cycleshack for arranging a great bike and especially Conor the best mechanic, goffer, soigneur (relatively), motivator, feed/aid station angel ever

So here we are currently sitting relaxing in my brother's condo in Fort Collins prepping for the next big event, Breck Epic 2012.  We arrived late last Wednesday after yet another mental week of work, little sleep and an epic 20 hour journey where we went back in time!
We've done a little exploring around the foothills of the front range taking in Lory State Park and Horsetooth Mountain Park, getting over a little jet lag and acclimitising to living at 1500m above sea level and riding in a little less air.  The weather has been fab over the past few days, Fort Collins is a great cycling town, bikes everywhere, cycle lanes and Fat Tire beer ;-).    After a few days of R&R and trying to wind down after work stresses etc, the plan now is to head a little higher and check out Steamboat Springs another well known bike town to the west in the mountains proper and get a little more elevation and ride some more Colorado trails before hitting Breckenridge at the end of the week.  Butterflies are starting to rumble in the tummy, and I'm trying to remember how on earth I managed a whole 6 days of racing back to back only two years ago.   Five days and counting keep posted on things as we continue on our Rockies adventure!

After the Bedford 3 Day there was more of an emphasis on MTB racing and training.  Unfortunately not long after Bedford I was hit with a bad sinus infection which knocked me out for about two weeks in total, having said that the only MTB races I missed were the two rounds of the National Series both in Cork & Limerick, so not too bad I suppose.  Otherwise training was going well, racing too - winning the 3rd round of the National Series at Lady Dixon Park in Belfast in quite unseasonally hot and sunny summer weather and the 4th Round at a very different wet and muddy Davagh course near Cookstown.  Lap times have been fairly good against the men, although the lack of top end competition this year with Mel concentrating on the road and Cait having moved the Switzerland means its really hard to guage how well things are going, all well I hope! 

The run up to the Nationals saw us take a long weekend away to Wicklow the weekend before to re-familiarise ourselves with the trails in the area which included a Day 1 epic trip from Bray meeting the Wicklow Way at Glencullen and over the back of Powerscourt and into Djouce and a very wet Day 2 spin around the previous years' nationals course.  The following week's run up to the big day however was perhaps not as great as would be expected, running a business means that sometimes work takes over your life and stress levels hit the roof and as it happened from the middle of the week prior to the race.

Saturday morning arrived way too soon and we hit the road heading to wicklow as early as possible in order to get a pre-race day ride around the course.  Pre-riding the course it was clear that there had been alot of work done by organising club WORC and Robin Seymour to put together what had the potential to be a really tough race, lots of freshly cut off camber singletrack and VERY little fireroad or long climbs.  This was a true cross country course, tyre choice would be key and with my strength lying primarily in longer distance and more mountainous terrain it was going to be a very hard hour and a half of racing.

Race day arrived bright and breezey and thankfully the forecast gave for a nice sunny day.  Another practice lap before we started only confirmed that this was going to be a real tough race.  Mel had signed on after completing and winning the National road race championships only a few weeks earlier, Claire Oakley, Orla McClean and Agata Tamulewicz heading up the rest of the field who have been racing consistently all year.   We were started at the back of the field, the theory being that some of the less experienced women riders potentially clashing with the fast men if we were to start further up the categories.  The gun went off and it was a mad dash through the horrible draggy grass field before entering the first section of singletrack.  From the off it was clear I wasnt in great form on the day, if not physically defenitely mentally, there was no "oomph" or "zip".  Both Mel and Claire pulled away on the first section of really rooty singletrack, their full suspension rigs digging in where I was spinning out.  I passed Claire on the first steep kicker of a climb and watched as Mel pulled away along the fireroad to disappear into the singletrack below - Damn it I had expected to at least stay in contact longer than that!!!   During that first half a lap where the real technical or messy singletrack dominated I struggled to keep Claire off my tail, the bike was bouncing all over the place in the real rooty sections and a couple of stumbles and off's didnt help.  Thankfully when things got a little less messy on the trail I eventually pulled away, although at one stage Orla was heard behind me too.  And so the race continued in that fashion, not a glimpse of Mel, getting stuck behind the slower Masters and Vets in various sections (although no complaints there each kindly giving way when the opportunity arose) and then trying my damned-ist to put some effort into the short sections of open track.

Eventually after 1hr30 or so I crossed the finish line, absolutely busted and in second place with Claire arriving in for third spot a few minutes later.  Whether it was the heat on one of our very few days of summer, the lack of real power punching training during preperation for the longer Breck Epic or the previous week's work stress I have no idea but I could safely say that while being on the course I suffered more than I have in a long time - funnily enough I felt totally grand again about an hour after the race and even the following days.  So there it was a silver in the National Champs for the fourth year running, not quite able to get gold but still keeping the youngsters at bay for another year ;-)

Next up Breck Epic 2012, Breckenridge Colorado, can't wait!

When Mandy Collie contacted me way back at the beginning of the year to invite me to ride at the International Women's Bedford 2 Day road race in England I thought what the hey, why not, I've done a few MTB races in England before but never a road race.  I'd enjoyed the Ras na mBan in Kerry with all the women a few years ago so it should be just as much fun!

There would be four of us - myself, Mandy, Amy Brice and Laura Banfield -  heading over under the auspices of Forme/Cyclshack with another guest rider - Iona Sewell - from England making up the 5 (wo)man team.  Between work and the last few weekends of MTB racing I  had very little time to think about the race and did little in the way of finding out about the course with the sole exception of reading the bumf the race organiser emailed us, so it was a quick call to Mandy two days before to check out everything was all good to go and hope for the best.  I suppose the biggest thing I was worried about was the lack of road racing so far this year, none infact if you discount my DNF at Balbriggan at the end of March!

Saturday morning saw me squeeze in a short ride to get dialled into the road bike again before handing it over to Conor who kindly packed it in the bike bag while I got all my gear packed for the lunchtime flight over to Luton.  A quick phonecall to Amy to find out if she wanted a lift in Conor's new "Bike Wagon" and we headed off to the airport.  A fairly relaxed flight over - barring Amy's small issue of being overweight having decided to use a coffin sized hard cased bike box - and we arrived in Luton to be met by Laura, pick  up the car and off to the hotel.   That evening the girls were all nervous about their first road race "abroad" and there was plenty of talk over dinner about tactics and what if's and maybe's, all the while Amy managed to eat the table clean!

Day 1:  Morning TT and Afternoon Road Race.  The first day started with a short team time trial, a bit daunting since we hadn't actually ridden together as a unit before - ever!  Mandy's chat with ex pro Dan Fleeman the night before set us up with a rough plan and after the countdown we tried to keep as steady and clean a pace as possible.  The course was largely flat with a slight "hillock" in the middle which split the team a little but a final hard effort to the finish saw us finish in 12th spot.

The second race of the day started at 1.00pm after a quick trip back to the hotel for some hot drinks and food, unfortunately I seemed to have misjudged my eating and found myself getting hungry on the start line!  Anyway we rolled off from the start "village" for 5 laps of an undulating course which included a couple of short kicker climbs but nothing too challenging.  From the start it was clear my lack of experience of large group riding was going to prove problematic, constantly feeling "squeezed" of personal space and constantly being squeezed in a pincer movement from both sides towards the back of the group.  The only way to counteract this was to try and move up the outside of the group towards the front in rotating basis, something which was proving hard given that we were riding on open roads and the entire bunch seemed to want to be a the front, the amount of times on the first lap we came round a corner to be faced with an oncoming car was scary to say the least!  The bunch was also incredibly nervey, braking constantly at every little slow-down or corner and sure enough just into the second lap there was a large crash just off the right side of my front wheel - i think someone hit a cat eye on the road a bit wonky and lost control.  Luckily I managed not to get caught up just missing a fallen bike infront of me, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew some of our riders had been caught up and I just hoped they would be OK.  Sure enough I later found out both Mandy and Amy had come down, Amy needing to go to hospital to get her elbow checked out.  That left myself, Laura and Iona to finish with the main group, which after losing about half the rest of the field settled into a more relaxed - or should I say less nervey - state of racing, the main teams pulling hard on the front and surging out of the corners.  All very comfortable I settled into the race keeping within the top 20 or so and started to enjoy things until half way round Lap 3 "rumble rumble rumble" puncture AGAIN!  Got a new wheel from the service car and tried my hardest to get back on making my way up through the support vehicles.  Unfortunately I rode way too hard & too quick and with only a few metres to go to get back on we reached the only "hill" of the day on the last lap of the hill sprint and just as the riders picked up the pace and kicked up, I blew!  Game over!  Only thing left to do was limit the time loss and TT round another lap or until another group came up, which they did with half a lap to go.  Iona and Laura finished really well just 18secs off the winner on the day - Well done!  I finished a disappointing 7mins down kicking myself for not checking my tyres before leaving home.  Not only that but I had ridden myself empty trying to chase around the course and it took a bottle of recovery drink, a massive sandwich and a bacon bap before my stomach stopped hurting!

Day 2:  Morning TT and Afternoon Road Race.   After what can only be described as the biggest dinner ever - eye and bellies girls! - and not much sleep Day 2 came round way too quickly.  I was kind of subdued after yesterday's disaster of a day and not looking forward to racing round a car testing track in the wet and windy weather which was promised.  Riding myself empty also meant my legs weren't in great shape, something which always plays in the back of your head going into a race.  
Breakfast over and we headed out to the race track to be met with high winds and threatening skies.  The morning TT was nice and short, only 3km.  Mandy and Amy set out first - Amy smarting after her crash the day before but grinning and bearing all the way round - after which myself and Laura set out 10minutes apart.  First half of the course was wind assisted so REALLY fast until we turned around the bowl into a leg burning brick wall of a headwind for about 1km.  The final km was a full-on wind assisted blast back to the finish line - 5mins04 secs, 41 secs off the winner.  I stuck around for Laura's lap eager to give her that little bit of encouragement which is always welcome to anyone riding hard - great riding with a top 20 placing for Laura!  

After a quick race back to the hotel to collect our bags we lined up in the wet and windy weather for the second race of the day (this time I managed not to let the hunger take over) to be told that the race would be shortened by a lap due to the weather conditions, I dont think anyone was going to complain about that.  So 8 laps of the Millbrook Vehicle testing track including the 3km oval and out around the surrounding ancillary roads including a couple of quick tight wee hills - yeah!!  First lap round the bowl was quick enough, people getting their legs going and positioning sorted, again finding myself being sucked backwards through the bunch I decided out the side and up front best option, easier today was we were on a closed circuit.  Leaving the bowl we had a couple of roundabouts to negotiate before descending towards a tight 1km climb followed by a steep descent into a right had corner and a short steep kicker leading to a super fast sweeping descent - fun but scary in the wet, some of the girls were soo fast! - more roundabouts and back into the bowl where the pace promptly dropped to not quite walking pace.  And so that set the scene for the day, tempo round the bowl, work hard on the climb, bomb the descents and repeat.  The pace in the bowl section was a bit frustrating but the headwind was too much to deal with on your own so can't really complain.  Everytime we hit the back section of the course with the hills and descents we would drop riders along the way, only for them to catch up in the bowl again - whats that all about?!!  I contemplated trying to break off the front on the hill but my legs weren't playing ball.  Last lap saw the rain come back in and between wet gear and the wind, the legs were starting to seize up making the climbing difficult and brain freeze was also setting in, however I managed to keep within the top 20 enjoying the little energy I had left for the sprint at the end of the race.  Fair play to Elinor Barker and overall winner Ciara Horne for staying away from the bunch in that wind!   The other girls made a strong showing coming in 9mins later, Laura plagued with mechanical problems and Amy hurting from the crash the day before.  

The team did well for what was for all the others their first race in the UK, despite crashes, punctures and mechanicals.  A big thanks to Steve?? who kindly offered his neutral service services for the weekend and for Mandy for organising the whole trip.  I think the biggest thing to come out of it was to show the Irish riders that the level in competition between UK and Ireland isn't that big a gap.   For myself I'm still not sure if I "get" the whole road racing thing, certainly don't seem to need to work as hard as in a MTB race and it takes an interesting course - read one with hills, corners, descents etc - in order to actually enjoy the event.   Back to MTB racing for the near future I think and looking forward to the 2012 Breck Epic