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18th March 2012 - World Cup #1 Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

tent shot

During the 8 weeks leading up to the first World Cup of the season in South Africa I'd decided to put my Optometry degree on the back burner so I could do the training to prepare myself properly for the event. I'd never raced at Pietermaritzburg before but I'd heard lots of stories and been informed of the long flat section half way down. It's hard to judge a venue purely from what other people tell you, so I kept a fairly open mind and thought that with lots of training leading up to the event, I wouldn't struggle too much with the pedaling.

I travelled to South Africa with Dad as usual, but also Will Jones who was making the trip as part of the British Cycling team to try his hand at his first World Cup, and his Dad also. We flew from London late on Tuesday night and after a solid 24 hours of traveling we finally arrived at the venue. We were greeted by very friendly locals and fine weather. South Africa, despite all the stories I'd heard, really did brush up well.

South Africa - Cloud 9Upon walking the track it became evident that the main aspects were big jumps, high speeds and pedaling. There really were very few technical sections to separate riders by bike handling ability. It did however look very fun to ride so I was looking forward to practice getting underway. I wasn't convinced by the size of the big table tops before the pedal began, which were about 70 feet long, but I hoped they'd been tested and rode well...

Thursday was a gorgeous day with sun all morning, but a head wind picking up throughout the afternoon making the long pedal even more annoying than it already was. I was lucky enough to be loaned an adjustable seat post by a kind fella from Hereford, Jase Mills, which did make this section much easier on the legs, so big thanks to you matey. I really hadn't predicted the flat section would go on for that long, it was going to be hell to race. Me and Will had a blast in practice, gradually picking up the speed as the day went on. There were about two line choices to be decided on, so it was really just about getting up to speed, which in places was close to 40mph when the wind dropped. My Schwalbe Wicked Will's were rolling super fast on the dry hard packed surface, and still give me awesome grip in the corners and along the off-camber section thanks to their innovative design. I didn't 'man up' and hit the big table tops on Thursday, mainly because of the big head wind, and decided to leave them for qualifying day. My new Ellsworth was feeling much more stable at the high speeds than its predecessor would have, and I was really enjoying riding.

Drinking at end of PracticeThis year I am looking at qualifying as much more of a formality than something to get worked up about. I feel I'm now at a level where I can ride comfortably to a top 80 position, and then focus more on a good overall position in the finals on race day. I qualified 62nd with a reasonably steady run, feeling like I was leaving time in the tank for the race. I also decided to take the adjustable seat post off because it was making me lazy. All the sprint training I'd been doing to prepare for this race had been while standing up aggressively pedaling out of the saddle, so why now should I decide to sit down and sprint through it all. Didn't make any sense to me, and I hadn't felt powerful all weekend, so it was coming off.

In practice on Saturday morning I had a play around with the big table tops and couldn't quite get them dialed in. If you made the slightest mistake above them, or got the pop a little wrong you weren't making it, and I don't know about you but a 70 foot table isn't something I want to come up short on! I also sprinted the flat section completely out of the saddle and it was so much fastest, and hurt my body and lungs much more – the fancy seat post was staying off! We only had practice in the morning, so the afternoon was spent watching the XC races and then getting hit by a storm which dropped torrential rain on us for about 2 hours. This would really spice things up for race day!I spent part of Saturday evening putting Schwalbe's wet tyre, the Dirty Dan, on the bike in preparation for a very slippery track in the morning. I planned to go up first thing in the morning to check out the track at its wettest, just in case it rained again between practice and race run, so I would know what to expect. A part of me hoped it would rain for race day. I felt like it would bring more of a technical aspect to racing, and reduce the influence of fitness on the results.

Jack standing by the vanRace day started cloudy and we wondered if the track would dry out. However when we arrived at the venue the sun was starting to break through, temperatures were rising and the track looked like it was already drying out in the open sections. I decided to stick with the plan and go up first thing, but changed tyres to Schwalbe's Muddy Mary, a great intermediate tyre which would hopefully give me good grip in the trees where it would still be greasy, and also out in the open where it was drying out.

I had a good slide about on that first run. The trees were a death trap, with the hard ground covered in a layer of grease that I don't think any tyre would grip very well to. I just cruised down to the bottom accepting that I needed to wait until the track had dried out a bit before going and attacking it. Everyone else had the same idea. I don't think local Greg Minnaar had even got out of bed when I returned from that slippery first run. An hour later the track was returning to normal and I had grip again. I did a couple of runs to get things up to speed then prepared for the race. I was feeling confident and hoping that I could pedal my Ellsworth into a top 40 position.

Jump into the finishMy race run started well and I felt like I had a faster top section than in qualifying. I didn't do the big table tops which definitely cost me time, and has made me realise that I need to do some real work on my jumping skills this summer when I've finished my degree. I could have gone for them and risked it, but as I hadn't got over them all weekend, and coming up short would have been far worse than squashing them and boosting down the landings. I went for the latter. Unfortunately this meant I wasn't carrying as much speed into the flat pedaling section, and as a result it really did hurt, especially without that adjustable seat post on to have a rest and keep the legs ticking. On reflection having it on and using it less than in qualifying would have been the best option. Live and learn.

I had a good bottom section through the fast slightly technical bits, but again really felt like my legs had died on the sprints. I came through with the same time as I'd got in qualifying which was initially disappointing, then finished in an equally as disappointing 69th. I think traveling such a long way one day before the riding started, not having the mechanic to have the bike set perfectly, lack of time to train all the time in the build up and the resultant reduced fitness compared with the rest of the field really took its toll on my result. I felt awesome in the technical sections, but just couldn't match the fitness levels required to get the result I wanted.

last hip jumpHowever on reflection things could have been a lot worse. The main reason for coming to this world cup was to qualify and save as many points as I could before going into the more technical rounds in Europe which will favour me and the new Ellsworth much much more. It became evident to me that the South African World Cup is centered around rider fitness, and the bits that aren't are about how well you can jump. Until I have the time to dedicate my life to racing, which will happen very soon, I simply can't expect to have the fitness to compete with anyone who rides their bike full time, which is most of the field at a world cup.

I'm coming away from this race feeling confident for the rest of the season, knowing that most, if not all of the remaining 6 events, will be much more suited to my own natural riding style and preference. Round 2 is Val Di Sole, a track which I absolutely love and can't wait to race again. For the next 10 weeks I have to switch focus back to my masters Optometry degree and make up the work I've missed out on over the last 8 weeks, but I'll also make sure to keep the fitness up at this level so that I'm in good shape for a race every weekend in June! A big thanks to everyone for the on-going support.

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