Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Cape Epic 2016

After racing 800km and climbing 15,000 metres on beautiful trails in the Western Cape, South Africa, Adelheid Morath (GER/BH Suntour KMC) and I crossed the finish line at the stunning Meerendal Wine Estate on Sunday. The Cape Epic - regarded as the worlds toughest MTB stage race - set a precedent this year with the introduction of separate starts for the Elite Women. Consequently, it was the most closely fought, exciting race amongst the pro women in it's 13 year history and a landmark event in professional women's MTB stage racing. 


Lining up for the Prologue I was excited to be side-by-side with Adel - my winning team mate from last years Swiss Epic - but I was all too aware that over the following 8 days there would be many unexpected challenges to overcome. While I'd already started 6 Cape Epics I'd failed to complete 2 when my partners were struck down by illness and heat exhaustion respectively. In my mind I wanted to make sure that this race contributed to my 'completed' tally rather than my list of 'DNFs' - but more than that I wanted to win!


The Prologue was fast and furious with us finishing less than one second off the Podium and just 1 minute behind the stage winners (Ascendis Health's Jennie Stenerhag and Robin de Groot). We were happy and excited to begin the next 7 long, hard days in the saddle. 


In addition to the separate starts the new race rules stipulate that drafting amongst the different categories (i.e. women and men) is prohibited thereby making the race a fair fight amongst the women - a rule that I wholeheartedly welcome and one that continues to raise the level of professionalism.


Stage 1 (108km) saw us lose 5 minutes to the race leaders - though we did move up to 3rd in the General Classification (GC) - so on Stage 2 (93km) we were  determined to claw back some time with a strong performance. In the final 10kms we saw our stage win disintegrate when we were caught and passed by Spur Specialised (Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad). During our chase along the fast district roads the backdraft of a low flying helicopter blew Adel off her bike. At the time we were frustrated by the seconds lost but it would later become apparent that this crash caused more damage than we initially thought. We finished the stage in 2nd position just 45 seconds off the stage win (3rd overall in the GC). 


Stage 3 (104km) was a long transition stage which saw the 4 top women's teams stay together until the final 15kms. It was thrilling from start to finish and the final 7kms were caught live on TV. Adel and I were able to make a break on the final climb and finally a stage win was in sight for us but during the last few flat kms the intense heat and sheer exhaustion meant Adel was running on empty and Spur Specialised beat us to the line by 30 seconds. Sadly Team Ascends Health were forced to withdraw from the race due to health issues, as a result we moved up to 2nd in the GC. 


Stage 4 (75km) took us on a tour of the finest singletracks of Welvernpass with kms and kms of switchbacks, twists, turns, rocks and drops. It was now however that the earlier helicopter incident really impacted on our race. Adel's knee injury was becoming increasingly painful and every pedal stroke was starting to hurt. We lost a further 5 minutes on the race leaders Spur Specialised putting us 12 minutes behind overall and 2nd in the GC with a 7 minute lead over 3rd position.   


Stage 5 (93km) was a transition stage from Wellington to Boschendal and once again saw the top three women's teams race closely together until the final 10kms. Exiting the final technical descent together it was full speed along flat district roads and farm land to the finish line. Adel's knee pain was especially troublesome and she battled to keep contact. After giving it everything we finished in 3rd position while retaining 2nd position in the GC. Team Sport for Good (Sabine Spitz and Yana Belomoina) won their fist stage with Spur Specialised 50 seconds ahead. 


Stage 6 (69km) was, in my opinion, the best stage I've ever raced in the Cape Epic. The route covered kms and kms of world class singletrack twisting and turning through forests and traversing mountainsides. The steep climbs exacerbated Adel's knee pain which ultimately caused us to drop down in to 3rd position in the GC when Sport for Good stormed to another stage victory. 





Stage 7 (86km) was the final stage taking us from Boschedal and back to Meerendal. Once again the top 3 teams remained together until the final few kms. Nursing her knee, Adel gave 100% which saw us finish 3rd in the stage and 3rd overall. 


After 33hours and 30minutes Spur Specialised won, closely followed by Sport for Good (+15minutes) and Adel and me (+20minutes). 


Although my dream of once again winning the Cape Epic wasn't realised, I was thrilled to be part of the most closely fought women's race in the history of the Cape Epic - and in my opinion the best ever route. Big congratulations to Spur Specialised on taking their 3rd Cape Epic win and Sport for Good for 2nd in their inaugural Cape Epic. Next year I will return fully motivated to once again fight for the overall victory - a victory which would add to my previous 2 wins (2011, 2012).

In the Cape Epic I always say 'expect the unexpected' and this sadly rang true for teammate Kristian when he lost time with a broken shoe and was later injured in a crash that forced him to withdraw from the race. Alban once again continued as an outcast rider but he later became ill and was unable to make the finish line at Meerendal. Jeremiah and Erik - our support team for Alban and Kristian - continued alone and finished a respectable 10th overall in the GC. 

If you missed it then have a look at our team story where you'll find great images and videos:


We were supported by a great group of people including our team manager, mechanics, physiotherapists and chefs who kept our bodies moving and wheels turning. Thanks Topeak Ergon Racing Team!!! 

Thanks for following, 
Sal :)

Follow my Athlete Page here: www.facebook.com/bighamsally

Monday, 29 February 2016

Andalucia Bike Race

After missing the last two editions of the Andalucia Bike Race I was excited to return to the event this year. Having won there in 2011, 2012 and 2013 it was no secret that I wanted to win a fourth time! With my Cape Epic partner racing at Cyprus I searched for another partner and was fortunate to be able to pair up with Swiss rider Katrin Leumann. 

Kicking off with a 50km TT in the mountains around Jaen we were quickly introduced to the steep climbs which would feature throughout the 6 days - off with the 32T front chainring and on with the 30T! As the favourites we started last and had the advantage of chasing down the other teams - much better to chase rather than be chased in my opinion! We didn't hold back and set a fast pace comfortably putting us in the green leader jerseys. 


The second stage was just 76km but packed in 2600m of steep climbing. Katrin - a XC specialist - is new to stage racing and doesn't train for long distances or multi-day events so throughout the race my role was to help her conserve energy whenever possible. As an excellent technical rider her role was to lead in the downhills picking the best lines for me to follow. This strategy worked really well and we took our second stage win. 



The third stage (72km, 1800m) took us to a different venue, Andujar, which allowed us to race on some stunning trails including one long descent down an old Roman road with twists, turns, rocks and drops. The final 3 stages (all varying between 70 and 90km) all started and finished in the historical city Cordoba where a myriad of trails - both flowing and technical - can be found in the nearby mountains. 



With no immediate pressure from the other teams were we able to ride without risk but on the 4th stage we could have seen the end to the race when on the last technical descent to the finish a rock flicked up into my front wheel breaking two spokes and puncturing the rim tape. The tyre immediately deflated. Working together we quickly removed the broken spokes, put in a tube and rolled to the finish taking another stage win. 


On the final day we timed our race to perfection when we crossed the finish line just as the first rain drops started to fall! Winning my fourth ABR was pretty cool. We didn't have pressure from other teams which is a big shame because it would be much more fun to have tighter, more exciting racing. I'd love to see more elite women's teams lining up and making an interesting battle. Riding comfortably in the lead does however have it's advantages for me at this point - now I'm not totally exhausted and I can continue with my preparation for my first big goal of the season: the Cape Epic starting on Sunday 13th March. Stay tuned! 





Lanzarote 4 stage MTB race

Last month we went to Lanzarote for the Club La Santa 4 stage MTB race. The first race of the season is always a good test of winter training and preparation and it's also good to regain the feeling of racing at speed off-road and sharpen up technical skills. Although I went unchallenged by the other women I was able to race against the men, which I always find pushes me hard - it's pretty good fun too! After winning all 4 stages and testing my speed and endurance I'm really happy with my current form and I'm well on the way to being in top shape for my first main goal of the season: the Cape Epic. Here is a great link to a trailer for the women's race which is sure to be an exciting and competitive 8 days! I'll be racing together with German rider Adel Morath with whom I have a proven partnership after winning the Swiss Epic last September. 




After the race we returned to Gran Canaria for a couple more weeks before we heading over to mainland Spain for the Andalucia Bike Race where I teamed up with a new partner, Swiss rider Katrin Leumann. While Andalucia was not a big goal, it was the last fine tuning ahead of the Cape Epic.

Throughout the winter in Gran Canaria we spent some time exploring the enduro tracks: summit to sea with 2000m elevation loss :D 








Tuesday, 29 September 2015

That'll explain the pain then!

After visiting an excellent clinic in Monte Carlo (IM2S) I can now explain why I was in so much pain during the Swiss Epic: I sustained a 45mm fracture of the great trochanter (top of femur) the day before the race started. 

While riding through Verbier on my way back to our hotel I caught my handlebar on a metal railing. Strange how things can happen like this; after riding the technical trails of the Prologue course unscathed I launch myself onto the tarmac cruising through the streets! Initially concerned about the impact to my head but later realising something was wrong with my hip - I felt 'twisted' and 'out-of-line' and unable to bear weight on my left leg - I went for treatment with our team physiotherapist. Afterwards I felt in a little less pain but uncertain whether I'd be racing in the morning - the biggest problem with this would be letting down my race partner, Adel. 

Warming up the next day wasn't so bad, oddly walking was more painful than riding! The pain was tolerable until the penultimate stage when there was a long hike-a-bike-section up a steep forest trail. Hiking exacerbated the problem and the pain from then onwards became borderline bearable and throughout the whole of the final stage to Zermatt the mountains were alive with the sound of my screaming! Honestly, putting power through the pedal was truly agonising. Fortunately, a dropper seat post meant I was at least still able to get on and off the bike! 

After a few days resting in the South of France the pain didn't ease, in fact I had constant pain just sitting. Time to seek expert advice. We went to IM2S in Monaco and within several hours I'd seen an excellent Doctor and had ultra sound, X-Ray and MRI scans. Now that's efficient service! The Doctor advised me to off-load the leg using crutches and to "remember that the best parameter to judge about fracture healing is pain, whereas I realise your perception of pain is not really within the normal range! So in the meantime, relax and enjoy life, family and friends. You deserve a rest!

Sadly this all means ending my season early and missing the last two UCI World Series marathon races: Azores MTB Marathon and Roc D'Azur. You will however still find me at both races where I'll be following the Doctor’s advice and enjoying the local wine and food whilst hobbling around with my Ferrari-red crutches! 

See you!
Sal :)

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Swiss Epic

After 400km and 15000m of climbing over 6 days on demanding and technically challenging trails, me and my partner Adel Morath (GER) won the prestigious Swiss Epic at the base of the spectacular Matterhorn in Zermatt! Riding in the Swiss mountains was incredible and despite full throttle racing we were able to draw extra energy and motivation from the truly breath-taking vistas! The stage towns (Verbier, Leukerbad, Grachen, Zermatt) and especially the last two, traffic free towns, provided idyllic places for rest and recovery in top class hotels with quality food!   




This was the first time that Adel and me raced together so we were uncertain how the relationship would work especially competing against the well established duo of Annika Langvad and Ariane Kleinhans (Specialised RECM) who were the defending champions and race favourites. After a hard crash the day before the race started in Verbier I was uncertain whether I could compete but our team physiotherapist, Torsten Walter, was able to work his magic daily on my injured hip enabling me to make it to the finish in Zermatt - albeit in a lot of pain! 




Losing over 3 minutes to Annika and Ariane in the Prologue wasn't the start we wanted but with the long stages to come we were optimistic. The long climbs suited Adel and me and during Stage 1 we were able to catch and pass Annika and Ariane but with 1 km to go we lost the lead and finished 50 seconds back in 2nd position. On Stage 2 it was clear that the fast pace of Annika and Ariane had started to take its toll and we were able to take our first stage win and with it the coveted yellow leader jerseys!     


Over the following stages we were able to gradually build our lead and focus on riding smooth and consistent. With the relentless climbing and technical descents there's no time for recovery increasing the risk of mistakes. Adel and me rode really well together; throughout the race we had no crashes or mechanical issues - testimony to the great partnership we formed, and of course our excellent mechanic Peter Felber!




Stage races are brutal but the Swiss Epic is especially so and nothing is ever certain until the finish. This is clearly highlighted in the men's race where the leaders, Centurion Vaude, lost their lead on the final stage and BiXS-Stockli rode into Yellow for the first time. Despite our gradually increasing lead Adel and me were fully aware that the race wasn't won until crossing the line in Zermatt! Congrats to our men’s Topeak Ergon duo, Alban and Kristian, for winning the first 2 stages and finishing 3rd overall despite mechanical issues. 



Now I'm taking some days off and resting my hip in the Cote D'Azur before heading to the Azores for a UCI World Series Marathon race. It's nice not to wake up at 5.20am for breakfast ;)



Big thanks to Topeak Ergon for the amazing team support!

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

3Epic

At 5am last Saturday we woke to the sound of rain, the Tre Cime (the iconic 3 peaks of the Dolomites) hidden within thick cloud. It was time to get ready for the inaugural  3Epic! Suppressing the thought of crawling back into bed and hiding, I went for breakfast: strong Italian expresso and oats with banana, honey and nut butter. Within minutes of the 8am start I was drenched as we descended the road to Lozzo Di Cadore before beginning the first 1100hm climb - waterproof shorts and a shower cap at least kept my chamois and head dry but my feet were swimming!  After an hour of winding up switchbacks to the summit, the rain started to ease but the temperature remained in single figures. At the top of the mountain I was glad to have my waterproof jacket and shorts, rubber gloves, shower cap and buff, leg warmers - even though they did keep falling down - and arm warmers, though I did regret forgetting my overshoes! 



At the bottom of the next climb the waterproof shorts had to come off, so I stuffed them down my jersey for safekeeping in preparation for the last descent. I also had to shed the rubber gloves because now my hands were swimming in cold water - but until this point they did a great job of keeping my hands warm! The climb snaked up to the picturesque lake at Misurina before taking us even higher on the old road to Monte Piana. A quick descent and then the infamous road climb up to Rifugio Auronzo where the technical hiking trail from Tre Cime di Lavaredo took us quickly back down 1100hm to the valley where we started. With fully pumped arms it was time to negotiate a few slippery forest trails undulating along the valley before the never-ending final 10km down the valley to the finish - sounds easy but I'm sure it caused much suffering and cursing!


Marathon races are tough, but in bad weather they are made even tougher! Simply finishing is a mighty challenge - but with great rewards - and it always amazes me to see so many people battling to the finish after enduring several hours; more than double the time of the winning men and women. 



A double win for Topeak Ergon Racing Team and fifth for Alban saw us win two big cockerels (wooden not real), 30kgs of prosciutto, 7 litres of bubbly and 3kg of cheese. Quite a scoop :)    

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Chasing my tail!


Ok so now it's time for a little catch up! 


At the end of June it was the World Champs in Stunning Val Gardena, Dolomites. With 3400m of vertical ascent over 60km it was a race that suited me and I was fully focused. The first climb took us straight up 800m over 5km - it was steep and a critical climb that would determine the fight for the medals. Despite good preparation and altitude acclimatisation (the race started at 1600m with the highest points at 2300m) my body did not perform as I expected it to. After 20mins with the lead group I was no longer able to keep the pace and I slipped backwards. That's sport I guess; sometimes the body doesn't respond the way we want it to. Reaching the finish line in 5th position, 2 minutes off Bronze was not the result I wanted, but at the same time and on reflection 5th at the Worlds, on a bad day, is not so bad! Now I'm looking forward to the next races, first Dolomiti Superbike and then the Transalp. 




Dolomiti never happened for me because I got flu and a chest infection! 


Fortunately I recovered in time for the Transalp - 7 stages across the Alps - starting in Ruhpolding, Germany and finishing in Riva del Garda, Italy. After more than 600km and 20,000m of climbing my team partner, Christina Kollmann (AUT), and I reached the finish in Italy in the Pink leader jerseys after 32 hours in the saddle. We took the lead after the first stage and held on to it until the finish. The race took us over many spectacular mountain passes including the Felbertauern Pass which actually saw us switch from our biking shoes to running shoes (a first for me!) to tackle the 5km hike-a-bike! This was a smart idea and saved our legs as well as a lot of time and discomfort! The weather throughout the race was unbelievable: 30+ degrees and very humid; swimming in the lakes and rivers after the stages became a regular part of our cool down regime! This was my 4th Transalp and my 4th win, that's pretty special :) After celebrating with pizza, fine Italian red wine and gelato we had to begin stage 8: driving from Riva to the north of England. That was the hardest part of the race - more than 20 hours in the van! A few days later we head to USA for the Breck Epic and Leadville 100. 





Over 3 days we raced the Breck Epic where the air is thin - too thin to walk the stairs let alone race a bike - but the amazing trails make it possible to forget about burning lungs. Temporarily! Here in Breckenridge, Colorado, the trails are world class and the mountains spectacular. Starting at 3000m each day and climbing up to the continental divide at 3800m is pretty amazing! 


The trails are demanding and take no prisoners! A broken wheel on Stage 1 meant that I lost 20minutes, but the next two stages went more smoothly, even if the trails were anything but smooth! Seeing a moose and her calf made my day on Stage 2 and riding the Colorado Trail down from Guyot Mountain was the highlight of Stage 3. After 3 days and winning the overall it's now time to rest up and prepare for Leadville 100 on Saturday. There's also a 6 day race but 6 days at the Breck Epic finishing with the Leadville 100 is a challenge for another year ;)


 At 6.30am on Saturday I started my 4th Leadville 100 - a race which starts at 3000m and takes riders up to almost 4000m at the highest point - the infamous Columbine. The sheer distance, extreme altitude, fluctuating temperatures (sometimes below zero degrees at the start and reaching high 20s mid-race) and speed make it a uniquely challenging race. With perfect conditions (little wind, no rain and a dry fast course) the aim of my teammate Alban Lakata was to break 6 hours and if the men were to go this fast then it'd mean the women's race would be fast too. There was a strong field of women coming from a range of back grounds including Danish 3-time world MTB marathon champion Annika Langvad, Katerina Nash World Cup XC winner, and multiple Ironman and Xterra World Champion Julie Dibens. 


Racing at high altitude is a balancing act between going as fast as possible for the duration of the race, but not so fast that you dip too far into the red zone and pay dearly later in the race. It's a game of good pacing and knowing how your limits are affected by the thin air. At the top of the first climb I was 30 seconds ahead of my course record, but Annika was ahead of me. This was a critical point really because from here onwards its important to be in a group. For the women, this race is all about being in a group of fast men because drafting is key. Descending on the road alone I knew that I was losing time and weighing only 50kg I don't roll quite as fast as those heavier than me! Throughout the race I remained in second position, maintaining the pace that I'd planned to stick to. There are a number of long open sections and I was fortunate to not spend too much time alone. At all of the check points I was ahead of schedule but Annika was flying and I knew that unless she had over-paced her race there would be no catching her.


Arriving at the red carpet in 7 hours 7 mins and almost 10minutes faster than my course record is something I'm proud of. Annika was unbelievable, going just below 7 hours! Katerina Nash rounded the podium off in third position. So now I know it's possible for the women to break 7 hours. This is a new goal for me and one factor will definitely help: going in to this race I underestimated the benefit of aerodynamics, but at an average speed of 23-24km per hour it plays an important role. Annika optimised aerodynamics and this undoubtedly helped her break 7 hours, but no doubt her powerful engine helped to some extent too ;)



On Sunday night we went out for dinner and choosing chicken on my pizza was in hindsight a bad idea: I got really bad food poisoning and we missed our flight back to the UK. We're still in Leadville! Hope to make it home soon!




Oh and here is a funny video! Think I'll use Trigger in next years Leadville 100. What do you think? Sub 6 hours for me him and me?

https://vimeo.com/136253675