Friday, 7 November 2014

HERO 2015: Video of the two HERO race routes with Leo Paez and Sally Bigham

Next year the title of World Marathon Champion will be decided in the Dolomites on a truly stunning, but very challenging race track. Have a look at this course preview and sign up to race, there are categories for everyone including children! Hope to see you there :)

Friday, 31 October 2014

Not quite the end of season holiday we're used to: Surgery for iliac endofibrosis

A little over 3 weeks ago I had surgery to treat a condition called iliac endofibrosis. It's a condition that affects amateur as well as professional cyclists. In simple terms and as I understand it, repetitive hip flexion combined with high pressure blood flow causes the lining of the arterial wall to thicken, this in turn limits blood flow to the leg(s). In my case only the left iliac artery (located in the lower abdomen) was affected, but some people have the condition in both the left and the right arteries.

My symptoms started 3 years ago when I noticed that my left leg simply fatigued more quickly than my right, specifically I noticed the muscles in the left thigh (particularly the vastus medialis) felt empty with a 'lactic type acid' sensation. December last year the symptoms had become difficult to ignore; the whole of my thigh became heavy and painful during/after intervals and if I continued then the leg would lose all power and collapse underneath me. Dave had heard about the condition and he was pretty sure that's what I had. Throughout the year the condition deteriorated. It was highly disruptive from a training perspective - I often had to quit interval sessions - and during racing I would often have to back off several minutes after the start or if I rode near or above threshold. It was incredibly frustrating to be riding at an intensity lower than I wanted and mentally it was very difficult not to be able to complete training sessions.

We decided to wait until the end of the 2014 race season before we got it investigated because, although the problem was getting noticeably worse, I was still able to race and win. On September 21st I won the La Forestiere UCI Marathon. Three days later Mr Robert Hinchliffe at St George's Vascular Institute diagnosed iliac endofibrosis using blood pressure testing in my ankle before and after cycling. I cycled for 6 minutes in total, with only 2 minutes above threshold. There was a 50% drop in the blood pressure index at my left ankle compared to a small increase in that of my right ankle. Duplex ultrasound scanning showed thickening and angulation of the iliac artery. This was pretty conclusive so an angiogram was performed to look closely at my arteries.

Last race in 2014: first place at La Forestiere UCI Marathon
With a positive diagnosis it was time for us to think very carefully about my options. We reasoned that I had three options: do nothing and carry on cycling; stop cycling; have surgery. The first option wasn't dealing with the issue and we were aware that the condition can deteriorate, ultimately causing the artery to become completely blocked leading to emergency surgery to save life and limb. This left me with two choices: stop cycling or have surgery. Neither was particularly appealing but stopping cycling simply wasn't something I was prepared to do. Riding with - and almost being dropped by - my 65 year old father after the diagnosis made me certain that I had to have the operation; after pro-cycling I want to enjoy my bike for many years to come.

Waiting to go to theatre was the worse part of the whole experience!
The thought of surgery quite frankly terrified me and the days before my operation on October 6th were  spent anxiously preparing. It's so hard to find night dresses these days, well at least ones that didn't make me look like Little Red Riding Hood's Grandma! Mr Hinchliffe explained the procedure to me: I would have a 4-5inch incision in my abdomen to access and repair the artery. During the operation it was discovered that the area of damage was greater than first expected and another incision was made in my groin to extend the repair to the femoral artery. The damaged area was removed and the artery was patched. The porters wheeled me to theatre at 1pm and returned me to the ward at almost 9pm. The operation I believe took around 4 hours with the rest of the time spent in recovery. I remember very little until the next morning.

Post-op recovery: if only I could stay awake to watch The Great British Bake Off!
Room with a view, just a shame I couldn't see the Helipad

There was no pain; I had a morphine drip with a push button control. The nurses got me out of bed and in a chair the next day, which I spent dozing. The drain in my leg and the catheter were removed. Progress became about 'first's': first time I could go to the toilet, first time I could have a shower, first time I walked and tried a few stairs (30 hours after surgery), first time I went to the hospital's M&S cafe ;)

As a coffee lover it was great when my appetite for it returned after 4 days! 

Dave was amazing. Each morning I looked forward to him arriving at 8am, he stayed with me and helped the nurses until 8pm. The nurses and staff were so nice and made my time there more pleasant. After 5 days in hospital I was discharged.

Recovery and rehabilitation blog to follow…now it's time for my daily walk :)  

First long walk (5 miles) around Virgina Waters with a borrowed dog  (15 days post-op)

Two factors have been incredibly helpful throughout this whole process: being able to talk to other cyclists who've already had the operation - thank you for replying to my never ending barrage of questions! - and the availability, time and input from my surgeon and consultant Mr Hinchliffe, thank you a million times over.  

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Euro road trip

Leaving Colorado is always a bit sad, we have such a good time there but with a long road trip in Europe to look forward to it was a little easier. With a stop-over of only a couple of days our transition in England was always going to be a bit hectic, add a broken bike frame (damaged by the airline) to the mix and things were crazy busy - well for Dave at least!

First stop was Freiburg, a place familiar to many cyclists because of its sunny, warm weather - the best in Germany apparently. Two weeks gave us time to explore road and off road riding as well as the best places for coffee and cake, our favourite was the Biosk - a hub for cyclists. It's a great place to train and there's always someone to ride with. Thanks to Betty Uhlig, Tom Janas and all the other people who went out of their way to make sure we had a great time.

Great times in Freiburg 
On the road again we drove to Italy for the Val di Sole marathon, a new race but with great potential to become a key one. It makes the most of the many forest trails, including lots of varied singletrack from steep and technical (up and down!) to flowing singletrails traversing the mountain. Packing in 2500m of climbing over 65km gives an indication how steep it is. Male is quaint town with nice restaurants and cafes, a particular favourite was Caminetto La Piccolo Cucina where we ate everyday!

First place at Val di Sole marathon
A few hours drive north east and we arrived back in Selva val Gardena in South Tirol, one of our favourite places and home of the Sellaronda Hero. The mountains there really are special, troubles and worries fade away, leaving body and mind energised :)

Relax. Very important! 

The UCI World Series race Val di Fassa was in the neighbouring valley last weekend. The first climb is certainly one to remember: 900m of climbing (max gradient 34%) over 6km was a rude wake up call, and the rest of the race didn't get any easier! Together with teammate Kristian Hyneck we had a double victory for Topeak Ergon Racing team! We really recommend Hotel Patrizia not least because of the nice location, rooms and spa but also because the food is superb - and they prepared home made gluten free stuff for me including gnocchi, spaghetti and bread!  

After a couple of days back in Selva we're now packing and driving to France for La Forestiere, another UCI World Series race.

Wherever your riding takes you, enjoy it!
Sal  :)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Off the radar

Well, the National Marathon Champs in May was my last blog and then all went quiet from me. It was at that time I got ill with a viral infection which took a long time to recover from. At first we had no idea what the problem was but the symptoms kept me off the bike: gastrointestinal pains, whole body aches, nausea and terrible lethargy. After a couple of weeks I had some blood tests and later an ECG because my heart beat became abnormal too. As any athlete knows it's hard not to train and compete, and with one of my big season goals looming, I decided to race the European Marathon Championships in Ireland as a test in early June. This was, in hindsight, a mistake and I should've thought more carefully about the decision. During the race I really suffered and some of my symptoms returned. I managed to coerce myself to the finish line and got within 10 seconds of the eventual race winner Theresa Huricova during the last km's. A Silver medal at the Euros isn't a bad result but it's no secret that I wanted to win, not least because I already have 3 Silver medals from 2011, 2012 and 2013! Now I have 4 consecutive Silver medals….will I ever break that cycle for the better!?

Ballyhoura Mountains, Ireland. The year I wanted to end my run of Silver European medals!

After the Euros we were due to fly directly to South Africa for the World Marathon Champs. Following much discussion we decided that I shouldn't go. This was very difficult and I spent many weeks thinking 'what if' but in my heart I knew it was the right thing to do. I spent my time in the Peak District, UK recovering and slowly building up my training, meanwhile Dave was with the other guys from the team in South Africa.

Medicinal Mountains: Selva Val Gardena

Once Dave returned from South Africa we headed straight off to the mountains, our first time this year and it was well overdue! We raced Dolomiti Superbike - a nostalgic race because it was my first ever international race in 2008 - and although I really suffered after the illness and lack of training I managed to take another victory making it a hat trick :)

Stunning Dolomites :)

Next stop was the 7 day Transalp and unlike previous years when I've raced the women's category, this year we decided I would race the mixed category with Ben Thomas (GBR). There are a couple of interviews (here and here) on so I won't go in to any detail now other than it was a great decision, Ben and I worked well together and it was brilliant training and preparation for my next goal: Leadville 100, USA.

Winning the Transalp in the mixed category (self-powered) has been one of my aims, achieving it was cool :)

Along with the Euros and the Worlds, Leadville was a pretty big season goal for me. Before the illness my aim was not only to win but also to knock some time off the current course record I set last year (7:17). Pleased with my form in the Transalp, I went to Colorado feeling that a new course record was possible.

A free upgrade to business meant things were really starting well! Now I always want champagne and bed when I fly ;)

We arrived in Breckenridge later than last year due to the timing of the Transalp, which was one week later. This was less than ideal preparation because it takes a long time to try to acclimatise to the altitude (3000+metres) where it's not only difficult to train but sleeping and even just breathing is laboured. After a few days riding awesome trails, eating great food and relaxing in one of the best coffee and cake cultures, we moved to Leadville to start our final preparations. We have such a great team of riders and staff, and I genuinely feel honoured to be part of it. We're all very professional in what we do but we have a lot of fun together and that's important. Spending time with guys is cool, I love it!

Mechanic Pete fooling around and playing the air guitar outside our Leadville house :)

Leadville 100 is a tough race for so many reasons but especially because of the altitude and length of the race, pacing is critical as is correct nutrition. If you get these two wrong then you will pay dearly in the latter half of the race. The 6:30am start is also something I find pretty challenging! At that time in the morning it's really cold, just a few degrees celsius. The start is fast and downhill and with the windchill really cold, so it's important to try to maintain muscle warmth because after the descent the first climb begins.

On the first climb it was important for me to stay at the pace I'd decided not to exceed so I let Alison Powers (National US road, crit and time trial champion) take a small lead. She had to stop to receive mechanical assistance from one of her team supporters at the bottom of Powerline - one of the fast, washed out descents. All was going well for me, I was eating and drinking according to my race plan and at the splits I was on schedule for a good time. It also seemed that teammate Kristian Hyneck was on for a new course record as he whooped passed me on his descent down columbine -  he was much further down than Alban was last year - and he had a good lead so I was really excited for him. That's one of the nice things about Leadville 100, you get to see the other riders descending and climbing Columbine and it's great to be able to shout and receive encouragement.

At the top of the longest and highest climb - Columbine is just below 4000m - I had between 2 and 3 minutes lead over Alison. I was feeling really good, and a million times better that at the same point last year. Descending Columbine is a test of nerve and skill - and it's also a little crazy! - because it's at this point that you are meeting oncoming traffic, all of whom are riding the best line up the mountain. Consequently the riders coming down have to take the less favourable lines on loose, off camber and at times rocky, steep tracks. This was where, unbeknown to me, Alison crashed and retired from the race, which was a great pity.

At 60 miles I was on for a good time and it was looking like I could shave some time off my course record, but on the inbound journey the wind picked up and I spent a long time riding in the wind alone. This put an end to my quest for a new record, as it did for the men too. The winning times were considerably slower in the men's (6:16) and the women's (7:23) race this year. So now it looks like I'll have to return again next year ;) Unfortunately Kristian ran out of gas and had to settle for 3rd place. Alban punctured early in the race and finished in 4th. Not so much good luck for our boys, so they too have to make the journey state side again in 2015!

Our team of supporters are as much a part of our success as we are and I'm truly grateful for all that they do for us: Leadville success goes also to Pete Felber, Dave Padfield, Dave Weins and Jeff Kerkove. Thanks a million guys! Angel King took all of the awesome Leadville photos, thanks Angel :) 

Big thanks also to our team sponsors: Ergon, Topeak, Canyon, SRM, Sram, Magura, DT Swiss, Rockshox, Continental, Northwave, Limar, Ritchey carbon and Look pedals. 

Also especially important are my personal sponsors: TORQ nutrition, Elete Electrolytes, Maloja, Compressport and Solestar

Friday, 16 May 2014

The day before the National Marathon Champs

Follow this link to read a little bit about what I do the day before a race….

Monday, 12 May 2014

Fifth National Marathon Championship Win

Last year the National Marathon Championships were on dry, dusty trails in hot, sunny Selkirk, Scotland. This year it was the same place, but different conditions! In some ways that was nice because it made it a new experience and more technically challenging. The trails were pretty slick and slippery and the Continental Race Kings were certainly pushed to - and at times beyond - their limit ;) On reflection perhaps the X King would have been a wiser choice! 

Thanks to zupix for the photos

Neutralised start through Selkirk High Street

Do not be deceived! This was the beginning of the race and before the mud!!

Steep, slippery singletrack descents, natural trails, man-made berms, rocks and roots, open moorland - the single loop 75km course has pretty much everything and challenges a range of skills making it a worthy course for the best of the British to battle it out for the National Title.

There are a few races rolled in to one, so while the elite race for the titles others can compete on the same course or on a shorter course (25km or 50km). We stayed in a lovely eco house - the Green House -in a village outside of Selkirk. A couple of friends and my nephew raced the 25km course, while Dave and my parents provided feed zone and technical support. My father pulled the short straw and had to cycle to the feed zone at the top of the last climb in the rain, but fortunately he could enjoy the final descent after I'd passed through! It was really nice for us to spend time with our friends and family at a race :) 

The National Championships is an important race, the National stripes identify riders as the best from their nation so I'm really happy to be wearing the jersey once again this year. Winning my fifth title is also pretty cool :) 

Yesterday we left Selkirk and headed north to the Cairngorms. Endless forests, mountains, rivers, lochs and quiet roads - I'm excited to explore this beautiful place over the next few days :) 

Pretty cool place to relax :) 

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Riva del Garda

Last Saturday began with a 5am breakfast ahead of a 7.30am race start: oats soaked in apple juice mixed with raisins, linseeds, chopped apple, banana and walnuts, and of course a strong coffee! In fact, breakfast always starts with strong coffee, which seems to be the first thing I think about when the alarm goes off!

Peace and quiet and stunning views :)

This was to be my first time racing on the new track at Riva so I spent some time riding the course - in the rain - during the week. It's tough and more challenging than the old course. The climbs are long and  often ramp up very steeply before the summit - just to make your legs scream a bit louder! - and some of the descents are rooty, rocky and slippery, especially when wet and muddy - and very wet and very muddy it was! The last descent on the Extrema course (the longest of the 4 courses to choose from) is the most technical with a muddy, slippery, steep switchback section followed by a long, gnarly old cart track which is even more tricky after 4-5 hours of racing! Fast and very fun on a long travel bike; slightly painful on an XC race bike  - my arms still ache now ;)

Team Mechanic Peter Felber working hard with the bikes!

Despite the technical trails I choose my Canyon Grand Canyon CF SLX - with 3800 metres of vertical ascent over 94km I wanted to use my light weight climbing machine! - using Continental Race King 2.2 Race Sport tyres, which give excellent grip on roots and rocks. Bearing in mind the steep ramps, I opted for a 30t front chain ring with Sram XX1 to help me keep a high cadence and try to save my legs!

The majority of the race went well, at the half way point - the highest point on the course - I was riding in a good position amongst the men. But I had a couple of problems from here onwards and some stops at the last 2 tech zones along with a puncture - at the very bottom of the old gnarly cart track - cost me more than 10 minutes. Naturally I was frustrated to lose time against the men I was racing, but fortunately I maintained my lead in the women's race :)

If you want a challenge that includes tough climbs and some technical trails then Riva is definitely worth entering. The ice cream and coffee are great, the scenery is stunning, and the biking atmosphere is awesome - it's crazy how many people and bikes descend on the area. Really, it's hard to believe until you see it. If you love bikes - riding as well as wandering around the expo looking at and talking about bikes - then you'll love the Riva Bike festival.

On Monday we had a day video shooting with Limar Helmets and on Tuesday I had a really nice training ride in Riva before flying back to London. Yesterday we drove from London to Scotland where we're now preparing for the National Marathon Championships on Saturday. It's wet here and I'm almost certain that it's going to be a tough, cold, muddy race! Very different from last year's dry dusty trails and 23 degrees centigrade!  

Solitude in Scotland :)

There'll be live tracking on Saturday, so follow me here starting at 10am (11am CET).

Friday, 2 May 2014

Training and racing in England :)

Over the last 3 weeks I've been training in the Peak District which is where my family - and cat - live. There are some some great road rides in the English countryside and the MTB is pretty good too, especially some of the trail centres including Cannock Chase and Coed Llandegla. The road riding is peaceful: quiet country lanes, tough climbs and quaint hamlets and villages especially around Goyt Valley. I really like it :)

Peace and quiet in the Peak District :)

Post ride re-fuel after fast laps at Llandegla 
Last weekend I raced a muddy course at the Midlands XCO and drove directly to Gatwick afterwards. Now we're in Italy at Bike Festival Riva del Garda. Tomorrow is the marathon (94km/3800m of climbing), it's going to be tough in the mud after all of the rain we've had this week, but the post race ice cream will taste great :) We're staying at a really cool bike hotel in Torbole and the restaurant has gluten free pasta cooked al dente - very unusual to find somewhere that doesn't over cook GF pasta!    

Muddy Midlands XC 
Beautiful Riva :)
On Tuesday we will leave Italy and travel to Scotland where I'll race the National Marathon Championships at Selkirk next weekend. Fingers crossed for sunshine and dry trails up there ;) 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Cape Epic 2014

Two weeks ago Esther and I arrived at the finish line of the Cape Epic in Lourensford - a great relief for any rider after battling body and mind for 8 days across challenging terrain in the Western Cape! Simply reaching the finish was a significant improvement on last year's Cape Epic when we both, on separate teams, were unable to finish the race, but it's no secret that we both really wanted to win this year.

The rules of the Cape Epic stipulate that the riders in each team must wear identical clothing, this can cause problems for riders of professional teams. Esther and I both wanted to race together but because of contractual obligations to our individual sponsors it wasn't possible to race for our respective teams. Consequently we needed to ride as guests on another, neutral, team. We were fortunate to be able to ride as part of Team Meerendal who, in their debut year, provided fantastic logistical support starting the minute we arrived at the Meerendal Wine Estate which also just so happened to be the venue for the Prologue. In fact, the Prologue actually sent riders straight through the Meerendal hotel! 

Dave and I arrived in Cape Town two weeks before the start of the Cape Epic and together with Topeak Ergon Riders Kristian and Robert as well as team mechanic Peter Felber we stayed at the The Ridein in Stellenbosch - quite simply a hidden gem nestled between the fun trails at Jonkershoek and the town of Stellenbosch, but the big attraction with the Ridein is the coffee shop serving great food and the best coffee :) It was cool to spend time with the guys chilling, training and fine tuning our bikes - we all decided to ride our Canyon Lux 29ers with Conti 2.2 protection Race King tyres and Sram XX1 with SRM power meter. I've never ridden a 29er full suspension at the Epic before so I was curious to see how different it would be over the 8 days compared to the 26 hard tail that I rode in 2011 and 2012.

Although the race is hard, the interviews, press conferences and meetings during the days leading up to the race are also pretty tiring - in fact it's almost like the race starts days before we actually pedal off the Prologue ramp! We had to spend lots of time travelling between Stellenbosch and Cape Town and a lot of time walking around. On days like those I always wear leg compression to prevent my legs from becoming heavy and swollen, in fact you'll be hard pushed to find me not wearing Compressport stuff when I'm off the bike.  

Esther and I spent three nights together in a luxurious suite at the Meerendal Boutique Hotel before the Prologue so we had time to ride together on the fun way-marked trails in the grounds of the wine estate, as well as time to try all of the food on the menu in the restaurant - which did a great job of sourcing and making gluten free food for me ;)

For the first three nights of the race we were able to stay at a very nice hotel in Roberston situated 15 minutes drive from the race village. I say 'stay' but we actually had very little time there and no time to test the pool our veranda opened directly on to! The Epic passes in a bit of a blur because the days, starting at 4:45am are literally non-stop until bedtime which is always later than desired! A good routine is key: breakfast (oats, chopped apple and banana, strawberries, blueberries, nuts, seeds and raisins), pack start/finish bag (inclement weather made this a bit tricky so everyday we'd procrastinated over what to wear!), drive to the start, warm up, race for hours, clean up and change for flower ceremony, go to interviews, go to anti-doping (which can take at least an hour), shower, eat, get massage, drive to the hotel, prepare things for next day (bottles, clothes etc.), drive to the race village, eat, go to the evening podium, drive back to the hotel, and then finally sleep BUT only if you don't have to go back to anti-doping for more tests!

Once we left Robertson Esther and I moved in to a Meerendal trailer in the race village at Greyton. Not travelling to a hotel meant that we gained an extra hour or so each day which was bliss. It also meant that we were much closer to Maureen Muller - chef extraordinaire - who was cooking for Topeak Ergon. I could now have two lunches as well as second servings ;) One of the important things during a stage race is eating (it's always important to me but it's even more important when racing intensively over consecutive days) and as the days go on it can become more and more difficult to find palatable foods, however with Maureen around this was never a problem! From grilled Osterich fillets which were sublime to sweet potato salads to gluten free raspberry and chocolate pancakes, I was quite literally in culinary bliss each and every day!

Team Meerendal Camp. Photos from Martin Bissig. 
The trailer was really comfortable and I slept well, in fact as my routine and organisation got better I was able to get to sleep at 8:30pm. The only thing I don't like is fumbling around in the dark and wandering to the loos - something I seem to do a few times per night!

Nutrition on the bike is just as important as it is off the bike. I always use the same nutritional products - experimenting with new things especially during a stage race is not a good idea! - and the same nutritional plan (at least 1g of carbohydrates from energy drink, gels and bars per kg of body weight per hour). TORQ products work well for me and to be honest I wouldn't use anything else, they don't contain artificial sweeteners or preservatives and they're flavoured naturally. One more thing that I'm a big advocate of are Elete electrolytes, even in milder conditions I add Elete to the water I drink throughout the day especially in the morning and again after racing - replacing electrolytes lost while sleeping and racing ensures optimal performance and recovery.      

Esther and I were both looked after by Aletta Coertze who was amazing, despite never having been a team manager before. She had to hit the ground running and learn on the go but she did such a great job and her attention to detail and enthusiasm made things for Esther and me much, much easier. Amazingly, Aletta's husband was also racing for Team Meerendal. Aletta and Herman, owners of Meerendal Wine Estate, both became interested in mountain biking after watching the 2012 Prologue on their estate. Now Herman has completed two Cape Epics! A big achievement for anyone but an amazing achievement for someone who only started mountain biking less than 2 years ago!

With rain and mud on Stage 2 came our first problem: Esther got so much mud in her eyes that she couldn't see properly and we lost a lot of time towards the end of the stage. Later that day she had to go to hospital to treat a cornea abrasion. For a short while I was worried that we were out of the race but fortunately the treatment worked and we could continue. After a good day on Stage 3 we still had the leader jerseys and we were feeling positive about the stages to come, but some more bad luck struck early on Stage 4 when Esther's shock lost all the air making her sitting position similar to that of a recumbent bicycle. We lost a lot of time and our lead.

As the stages went on I was amazed at how different my body felt compared to previous Cape Epics: I was far less physically fatigued and I can only put it down to the comfort of a full suspension 29er. With far fewer aches and pains I was feeling fresher and stronger, and I was able to enjoy the trails in the latter half of the race just as much as those at the beginning. As the race went on I relaxed more and more too, I felt really strong and this meant that I could support Esther as much as possible. For the following stages we remained in 2nd position and after more than 35 hours of racing we crossed the finish in Lourensford taking 2nd in the Sasol Women's category and the 29th team overall. Ariane and Annika were super strong and were deserving winners. Big congrats to Topeak Ergon teammates Kristian and Robert on winning the men's race, I'm so proud of them!

Photos from Martin Bissig
After the Cape Epic we had just three days in England before heading to Germany for our annual Topeak Ergon team photo-shoot. All the travelling and fatigue took its toll and I got a flu type virus, which I have only just recovered from. Now we're back in England for a couple of weeks and it's so nice to finally unpack for more than a few days!  Hoorah!