How I won the Masters Mountain Bike World Championships
"Failure is the best teacher"
"Fuck you, fuck you!" she screamed repeatedly as she picked herself up and continued on her way. Her grasp of English profanities was impressive given what had just happened. Moments earlier I was calling, "passing on your right, on your right, right!". Instead of keeping a straight line, she veered to the right and, "BAM!", both of us bit the dust.
I was tangled in the netting of the feed zone barriers which had I hit hard. The Boa ties on my right shoe torn off such that my shoe was threatening to fall off my foot and the front brake lever and gear levers were bent down and almost inoperable. I extricated myself and tried in vain to bend the levers back into position:"Oh dear", my race might be over!" I thought. But it wasn't.
I can not describe the thrill and the honour of standing on the Victory Dias while the New Zealand flag is raised and our National Anthem is played.
What I am also finding difficult is describing the effort that went into winning this contest for the second time in a row. I'll give it a go, starting with my summary of how the race panned out on the day.
I barely slept a wink the night before. Most of the night was spent doing my best to relax, otherwise my heart was pounding in excess of 100 beats per minute. I did not worry about this because it is normal to be excited to the point of anxiety in the hours leading up to these events. To not be lying in bed trying to calm my nerves would have been more of a worry!
I reassured myself by repeating a famous, amusing and very helpful quote from my four-time Olympian and bronze medallist sister, Lorraine:
"nobody ever fell asleep during a race!"
The race was at 1 pm, so I had plenty of time to eat, nap, check my equipment, go to the loo many times and to warm up, so tossing and turning all night was not a problem.
Having won last year by a healthy margin of two and a half minutes, I knew I was a marked man. Everyone in the race was after my scalp and they would pounce if I gave them the slightest of chances. My plan was to give them no chance at all.
Olympic-Style Masters Mountain Bike Racing
These races are "Olympic-Style". The courses are designed to a strict format of steep and technical climbs and descents, rock gardens and off-camber corners to test the very limits of a cyclist's strength, stamina, power and skills - and equipment. To win, none of these qualities can be weak. To win requires a cool head, lightning reactions and nerves of steel. The courses are designed to be multiple short laps taking 15-20 minutes per lap, with plenty of vantage points to thrill the spectators. The race is done and dusted by about one hour and twenty minutes at the most.
One of the biggest challenges with these Masters competitions is there are multiple waves in a race made up of various age groups, including male and female. Being in the older category (65-69), we are placed at the rear of the 60-64 and, starting three minutes in front of the field are all of the women from 30 through to 44 years! What this amounts to for a fast 66 year old like me is a continuous train of congestion for the duration of the race. With this congestion comes the risk of crashing while trying to pass slower and often less skilled riders on this technical and challenging course.
My plan was to pass as many riders as I could on the "Start Loop" which is an addition to the first lap. This consists of an 800 meter climb up a steep gravel road followed by a broad, sweeping, grassy descent that leads to a rocky jump then into the narrow single track of the course proper. The start loop is intended to spread and sort out the large field before entering the narrow and gnarly sections of the course where passing is tricky.
The general rule of thumb is you must be in the first 4-5 riders to enter the narrows if you are to have any chance of winning. So, these races always start with a desperate sprint to the death!
So, we finally got the call to line up (the worst thing about these races is all of the waiting around before the gun fires!). My heart is already pounding at 125 beats per minute in eager anticipation of what is about to come (refer to the heart rate on the chart below).
During the last minute the sound system broadcasts a very loud pulse that reverberates through you entire body. It is quite a thrilling sensation. Then there is total silence for the last 15 seconds, the gun fires and all hell breaks loose!
The gun fired and I immediately achieved my first goal which was to quickly and seamlessly clip my shoes into the pedals. I had deliberately placed myself near the outer right of the field so that I could avoid any squeeze and possible crashes as the field was to turn a sharp left about 200 meters into the race, then left again at the top of the climb. It worked, I managed to sling-shot around most of the field to be in about 10th place in the entire field by the top of the climb. As far as I could tell, there were no 65 year-olds in front of me, so it was now time to calm down and settle into the race. I would have preferred to be in the first five but that was dreaming when starting from the rear of the field.
Look at the sudden increase in pulse to being well over 160 beats per minute which exceeds my predicted maximum of about 150 beats (my peak was 168 during the race). It might be worth taking a few minutes later to read this article about sudden cardiac death in older athletes.
I quickly settled into the race but realised that I had a problem: the riders in front were too slow on the descents, but they kept surging every time I tried to pass on the flat and uphill sections. I worried that some of the chasing 65 year olds might catch me and the leading 60 year olds were having a clean run and getting away. So, the race settled into a pattern of recovery on the downhills then furious bursts whenever the opportunity came to pass. You can see that pattern in the chart above.
In these races, how fast you go is entirely determined by the rider in front of you.
By the second of four laps we had caught the slower women and it was a constant exercise of not just trying to pass the men but also one woman after another. It was a cautious but desperate exercise of safely and courteously passing these slower female riders while not ruining their race. As I entered the third lap passing was becoming more of a challenge due to the higher speed of the leading women and they were not so amenable to letting us past.
As I entered the 4th and final lap I got caught behind who I think was the 2nd or 3rd placed woman. Although she was fast and surged each time I tried to pass, she was tiring, whereas I was feeling good and really wanting to ramp the pace up. I wanted to put on the after-burners but couldn't.
As we entered the feed zone - yes! - she slowed and moved to the left to get a drink, I accelerated, calling that I was passing to her right, instead, she veered to the right and we both crashed!
It took me quite a while to get out of the netting that I was tangled in. I jumped on my bike only to realise that my front brake and gear levers were almost inoperable and my right shoe was hanging loose on my foot. I stopped at the top of the next hill and tried in vain to adjust the levers. My shoe was beyond repair. I had the most difficult sections to come and needed those gears and brakes to be working. Losing the best part of a minute in total, I decided to continue on and hope that my lead was sufficient to keep allow me to limp to the finish.
That I did, finishing with more than two minutes to spare. It was a good win for sure! I was thrilled and more than relived that I made it across the line!
Here's some video below of the start for other races and one of the more difficult sections of the race that even many of the "pros" had trouble with. I managed to conquer this rocky and steep climb three times out or four without having to put a foot down. I was pretty chuffed about that. It is so exciting to be in these races!
If you want to win a world championship, expect to fail several times first
My preparation for the 2019 World Championships began in 2013, a year before I turned 60. I was feeling great and rapidly moving up through the age group ranks in my now chosen sport of mountain biking. I had never won anything of note in my very long sporting life. I had been well and truly overshadowed by an echelon of the most amazing athletes that dominated athletics during the 70's and 80's - names like Dixon, Walker, Quax and many more come to mind. I was always many levels below these awesome athletes. In recent years, the glimmer of an idea that I might just be good enough to win a Masters World Championships began to occupy my dreams.
I began to share this with others. While the response was generally positive, most responses came with a subtle hint of "dream on mate!"
"It is good to have ambitious goals, Gary"
I decided, on my 60th birthday in 2013 to go with my ambitions and began preparations for the 2014 UCI Masters MTB World Championships to be held in Norway. You can read a couple of my reports here. I was pretty fit but not well prepared on several fronts and ended up with a DNF (Did Not Finish). It was a little humiliating but I learned many lessons.
Two years went by and I worked on my weaknesses then I went to the 2017 World Champs in Andorra. I thought I had everything in place but one mistake had me at the rear of the field and not seeded to be at the front! That cost me the race, although I came 2nd. Here is my report on that race.
I returned to New Zealand knowing that I had what it took to win and the next year I was moving into the 65-70 age group, so a win was definitely on the cards. The end result is I won by a comfortable 2.5 minutes which is a very long way on a bicycle. Here is my report about how I prepared for that race.
I'm now going to work on an article outlining how I trained for this latest event, including nutrition and disease management. It'll be posted in the next week or so, so look out for it.
PS: You are welcome to come up with your own captions for the image above. Post them in the "comments" section below.