Friday 11 August 2023

World Short-Track Mountain bike championships in Glasgow (well Glentress actually)

It had been part of David Lappartient's manifesto when he took over as president of the Union Cycliste Internationale, in 2018. He really relished the idea of holding a sort of "cycling Olympics" in which a major event would take place bringing together all the various cycling disciplines, including paracycling - road racing, time trial, velodrome cycling, mountain biking (downhill and cross-country), BMX (racing and trials), indoor cycling (artistic cycling and cycle ball) - in one location. 

So when it came to fruition, with events being held in Glasgow and other selected venues in Scotland, there must have been a real sense of accomplishment for the directors and the operational teams at the UCI, British Cycling, Cycling Scotland, and various officials who had worked to get the show on the road, literally.

With such a major event taking place, and with continuous media coverage on TV, and regular bulletins about who was winning what, at the different races, that it was hard to not feel the buzz of the event, and be part of it.

Normally, I would have gone to the event in my capacity as a journalist and covered one of the events. But I hadn't felt that I could commit to doing that as I was working on other projects related to my other pie in medical copywriting.

As it happened, I did have a bit of time, and so I was happy to go up as an ordinary punter and combine it with a trip to visit Scotland as well as to see a couple of races.

So I booked to see the World Short-Track Cross Country Mountain bike championships, and also the indoor cycling, as I was keen to check out this new sport.

These cycling championships were advertised as taking place in Glasgow, as it contained the finishing loops of the road races, the Chris Hoy velodrome, the Emirates arena for the indoor cycling, the BMX stadium, and Glasgow Green for trials and other BMX competitions. 

As well as Glasgow, events took place in other venues around Scotland. The men's road race started from Edinburgh, the women's road race started from Balloch at Loch Lomond, there were time trials in Stirling, and paracycling events at Dumfries. The cross-country mountain biking took place in the Borders area, at Glentress, near Peebles - some 60 miles away. So it wasn't entirely focused on Glasgow.

Cycling along the Tweed

So I drove across the mid-Scotland countryside to see the cycle racing at Glentress forest. Tom Pidcock and was on the start list, as well as one of my favourite riders, Evie Richards, who would be in a very hotly contested women's race. So I was quite excited about going to watch the event.

After leaving my car at the Park and Ride in a park at Peebles, I took out my cyclocross bike from the boot and cycled along the River Tweed to reach the venue. My route went along the river and through the pretty village of Peebles, with its stone-faced houses and quaint cafes, pubs and guesthouses, then into woodland. This is a pleasant area to be with or without an international cycle event taking place. There were lots of people out and about taking walks with their family, and seemed quite content at the sight of so many visitors to their town. Who wouldn't to visit here! 

I asked directions to a local on how to reach the forest (I had failed to see one of the UCI arrows indicating the way to the centre). The woman had her children with her, who were on balance bikes and she was coaxing them along. While giving directions she also said hello to another local person passing by. "Hi John, how are things....Yes, go diagonally across the park and then you will see the cycle path takes you into Glentress. You can't miss it. It's a nice ride." she said with a mild Scottish accent. This lady seemed very proud to be a Peebles resident.

Just outside the village of Peebles I caught sight of the mountain bike centre up above, with all the hoardings, billboards, advertisements and to make the ambiance, the pumping music, loud commentary and riders - the juniors - competing in the previous race. I felt rude not riding up to watch their race, but it would have felt even more rude if I hadn't ridden further along the scenic Tweed Valley cycle path towards Innerleithen, another mountain bike trail centre. 

Time wasn't really on my side, in terms of getting in a significant bike ride. That was always going to be the case when coming up to Scotland for the cycling. Earlier in the day I had been up to Loch Lomond for a swim and that combined with breakfast and the drive over had eaten into valuable riding time. So many activities so little time as they say. Riding along the Tweed Valley Path was very pleasant. Pan flat sections intersperse undulating trails through the woodland of these Borderland forests. I encountered numerous cyclists along the way as they were using path to reach Glentress, having parked their cars in Innerleithen. Most of them were in a rush. This was also the stretch for elite athletes to do any final warm-ups before the race. I bumped into the German Team, plus some riders from Israel and Spain. The route was largely flat, but there were a fair few undulations as the path went through a multi-terrain mixture of gravel, tarmac and wooded surfaces of different bridges.

Chase group in the men's short-course race 

I managed to get back to the Glentress mountain bike centre just as the start klaxon sounded for the start of the men's race. The only thing was I was still a 100m below them at the entrance to the site! After squeezing in my bike at the expansive but packed out bike park, and going through security I did a mini fell run past the various promotional trade stands to reach the lower section of the race course, just in time to see the lead hurtling round containing eventual winner Sam Gaze (New Zealand), and Tom Pidcock leading a second group. The crowd roared and cheered as any of the British riders, including Cameron Orr came past, regardless of whether they were in the lead group or among the stragglers. 

Considering that I was one of the last spectators to arrive at the scene, I still managed to get a good view. There were crowds but it wasn't overcrowded. As the race was in progress it wasn't possible for me to go to "track centre" which would have allowed me to see other parts of the course, so I stayed put where I was. Seeing lots of press photographers also standing near me indicated that this must be a good place to be anyway. We were at the top of a mini uphill ramp around 100m from the start-finish line, so we could see the lead riders accelerating up this ramp to drop their rivals, as well as the back-markers who were straining and struggling as fatigue took it's toll on them. We were also near enough to see the finish line, which was a dead heat between Gaze and the Frenchman Victor Koretzky. Tom Pidcock took bronze in controversial circumstances in which he apparently barged Germany's Luca Schwarzbauer when trying to get in a gap on the last lap, causing the potential bronze-placed rider to crash.  

Tom Pidcock warming down at the finish line

We were also well-placed to see the riders keel over panting, trying to get their breath back after their efforts. The riders were in different states of exhaustion, and different sentiments ranging from elation, disappointment, despair or frustration. Some also needed medical attention as they'd raced around carrying a bleeding wound after crashing along a point in the course.

Tom Pidcock seemed to regain his recovery efficiently and was talking to some of his competitors. Speaking to one guy I heard him say something about "leaving the door open" when commenting on how the race went.

A few minutes later the marshals opened the barriers in order to let us move into track centre, and from there I was able to pick my spot for the women's race, which featured defending Short-Track Champion Evie Richards, multiple World Champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, and Dutch favourite Puck Pieterse.

After the build-up introducing the different racers, and the characteristic sound of the human heartbeat in the countdown, the klaxon rang out, and the women were off down the straight and up the hill. This time I stood on the opposite side from where I had been during the men's race. Although I got a good view, my photos weren't as clear because took more of a side-on view and the riders were so fast, the photos were blurred. I will rephrase that. Evie Richards was so fast, my photos of her were blurred! She really made a strong campaign by signalling her intentions from the get-go and riding off the front, much to the excitement of the home crowd. The best photos I got of her were racing were on the giant screen, on which the camera operators gave her a lot of time.

Women's lead group

Also the new position I was in was the shorter line of the hill, which curved to the right, meaning that spectators were very close to the riders, and a stray hand or even a small child could easily be hit if they were marginally over the barrier. I therefore did not want to take any risks even with my phone camera, so made sure to stand back.

Being in track centre meant that I could then move on to the twisty gravelly berms as the riders negotiated this downhill part of the ride. At this point the crowds were at their thickest and the loudest, with bell-ringing and whoop whooping going on too, for all riders, regardless of the nation they were representing. Combined with the dynamic commentary and ambient music, it was more like being at an outdoor music festival on this sunny early evening in August.

Sadly for Evie Richards, she didn't win, as the ever powerful Frenchwoman, Ferrand-Prevot opened the burners on the penultimate lap, and Evie was also dropped by Pieterse. Another Briton, Isla Short, finished in 13th place. At the finish line, the ever-popular Evie still looked joyful despite losing her crown, and gave lots of hugs to her fellow competitors, folks in the crowd that she knew, and took the time to sign her autograph for little girls who were clearly very inspired by her.

Tricky, downhill berms where a few riders crashed

It was a good afternoon out. I didn't stay for the presentation as I didn't want to be too late getting back to Glasgow. I must say I was glad to have done the park and ride and used my bicycle rather than a shuttlebus to get the venue. It's always a logistical headache ferrying thousands of people back to their cars, so it was a relief to not have to deal with that.   

The drive back to Glasgow was technical along all the winding roads through the rolling hills, but it was beautiful and the roads were practically empty. I can see why folks enjoy coming to Scotland.

Back in central Glasgow I got home in time to have a hearty dinner in preparation for the following day, which would involve another trip to Loch Lomond, and watching some indoor cycling.                                     

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Sunday 6 August 2023

Another weekend another triathlon - Eton Dorney

I can't believe I signed myself up for another triathlon. It's like buses. I don't do one for 10 years and then I do two in 10 weeks. I seem to have gotten a bug.

It's not that I have become a triathlete again; it's just part of my overall plan to stay fit in my 6th decade of life.

I had a phase around 20 years ago when I raced triathlons and duathlons regularly and was even part of different clubs. That feels like a different life. I trained regularly and intensely, planning my daily schedule around it, and even planning life around "the season". Everyone I socialised with was a triathlete and conversations, whether it was during training sessions, racing, or at the pub were "what races are you doing? Are you doing the Nationals? How was your bike splt? How long were you in transition? Did you use a Polar heart rate monitor or another one?"

There was so much triathlon talk, and without realising it I began to lose interest in it as I wasn't enjoying that feeling of being trapped in a triathlon bubble. Sure, I was probably a lot fitter than I am now, but life felt one-dimensional, and even when racing I dreaded it so much because I began to worry about not performing to my potential, what others would think if I was slower than expected, or if so and so beat me! I had to make sure I wasn't the slowest in the club. Many times I was though, and then I would feel a little bit embarrassed because I took 35 minutes to swim 1500m, or because I did 30 minutes for my 5km run. 

Then I got into cycle racing, which seemed to have more "balanced" people who largely had a healthy relationship with their sport. It has to be said that back then triathlon was a bit of a niche sport, with only hardy obsessives doing it. 

I gradually phased myself out of triathlon and didn't actually miss doing it. I had done it and got lots of T-shirts, literally! So it was time to move on.

Finishing the swim at Eton 
Photo: Maggie Easton
In recent times I have started doing a multi-sport discipline called SwimRun. It involves, you've guessed it, swimming and running. Unlike say, an aquathlon, SwimRun, which originated in Sweden, is about repeatedly swimming, then running, then swimming, then running, usually across a large lake with islands or promontories, or even crossing different bodies of water, rather like an archipelago around Stockholm. You do the whole thing wearing the same gear, so you end up running in your wetsuit and swimming with your running shoes on. 

I have done a few of these events and enjoyed them, especially the laid back atmosphere. I think the fact that there's no proper federation or national championships etc may be a reason why a lot 9f competitors aren't hard core. 

When training for this in my local area I get funny looks from people as they see me running around Brockwell Park in South London, with my wetsuit, swimming hat and goggles on my head. London is generally an "anything goes" kind of place. But even here, there are limits between stylish and ridiculous! But I just smile and enjoy myself.

So nowadays a triathlon takes a very back seat, and on those occasional forays into swim/bike/run it is pretty much for fun, with only one objective, to get to the finish line still smiling.

It is with this frame of mind that I entered the Eton Dorney Sprint triathlon - less than a week before the event, and after I'd seen that the weather forecast that day would be fair. 

On my arrival at the venue the scene for the 2012 Olympics rowing competitions, 30 minutes beforey start time, lots of athletes were already in transition or doing warm-up strides ready for the 7.45am whistle. I calmly cycled across the field to the registration desk, already in my wetsuit and then roughly arranged my gear in transition. 

Eton Dorney bike leg
Photo: Mark Easton

Within minutes I had attended a lakeside race briefing and was swimming along with around 100 other athletes in my wave. The water was a pleasant temperature - around 19°C, and was very clear. Sighting was not an issue, as I could just follow people's legs in the water. For me, it was just about staying relaxed in the water and saving energy for the bike and the run.

It seems I was a bit too relaxed as my 750m swim took almost 25 minutes, and I was one of the last out of the water. I was then the last out of transition, as I took my time towelling myself down, putting on my shorts and cycling top, and making sure everything on the bike was wear I wanted it. I was in no rush!

My bike leg was a matter of pacing myself on the flat 4-lap course. The outward bike ride was straight into a headwind, while the return was a wind-assisted blast back towards the crowds. I past various riders at this point, including others on road bikes. Some of them were a lap ahead of me though, so unless they were weak runners they'd finish ahead of me.

So the 5km run leg, like that of the Paris triathlon, was an out and back along a dead straight, flat path beside a body of water. Where previously I was going along the Ourcq Canal, this time it was Dorney Lake. Similarly, it was all about focusing and not feeling demoralised or demotivated. One woman I passed had not been able to avoid those feelings. "Are you okay?" I asked, as I passed her. "I'm fine," she replied. "I'm just bored and don't want to run anymore!" Trying to motivate her, I said, "Keep it steady, you've nearly finished." I don't know if that was much help.

I overtook a few people along the way, which helped with my motivation. On the return, I picked up my pace a little, and managed to cross the line still smiling, even as a young girl shot past me in the last 50 metres. 

It had been a fun event in the early Sunday morning sunshine, and I savoured my medal. I must say, at my age you always celebrate finishing a race without feeling any pain or injury! So it was a bonus to see that I had done 27 minutes for my run - quicker than my Park Run times, which don't involve swimming and cycling beforehand.

I don't know when next I will do a triathlon, but if I don't do another one this year, I can say that I have had a good season.

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How I got on in the Paris Triathlon