Am I actually a good rider? Racing Mira
As the months went by and I adjusted the blog to my daily life, 2019 not only was a marking year there but also that I decided to come back to the bike and having a lot of fun in it. In question and as a motivating factor was this race, the Raid BTT Mira, a MTB cross-country race in the Litoral Center region in Portugal, a pan-flat MTB race that I had one of my first racing experiences and where I've stored some of my absolute favourite racing memories and do make a bid to travel to every year. 2020 marked the race's 12th edition, and I wanted to make it special, I wanted to make it my stage for an actual competitive mindset and successfully hunt an almost impossible goal that would push me to the absolute limit, every regular cyclist's dream right?
My goal was to finish in the Top50 in the half-marathon, a 35 Km race that I've done every year I've raced there. The Marathon was some 55 Kms but as a preference and competitive reasons I never thought twice about it.
I am 20 years old, I'm around 1,80 meter tall and a bit over 60Kg, so a climber's physique and that is indeed where I see myself but more importantly, and perhaps contradicting knowing of my mostly-MTB past, I actually am quite more fond of constant efforts hence why I like this race so much, I get to race in my environment.
Now, something important to note is I'm currently in college. I don't have a job and I don't drive, so that means I'm not the one making the top decisions and I rely on transportation for the races of course. When it comes to nutrition it also makes some difference as I have to adapt to what I'm lucky to be given.
So what is my past? I started riding bikes when I was 12, raced for the first time when I was 14 in a local MTB race in my local hill/trailset and training site to this day, at 15 I learnt I actually had some talent after another local race where with no competitive resources at all I finished in the first third of a brutal race. Some months later I made my move and I joined the junior ranks in 2016 of what is now Portuguese Continental team Vito-Feirense-Pnb, I raced in a peloton with the likes of Deceuninck's João Almeida and Kometa's Daniel Viegas who were overall dominating most races easily, but whilst they were building their future promising cycling career I was, well, surviving. Not kidding, I never got to finish a single race which is quite demotivating as you can imagine (be it do to distance from the front or being lapped in circuits), I can take pride that I wasn't the only one but it was quite a blow everytime, I could blame my sub-par bike or my lack of time to properly train but in the end it was all in the head and it was never an environment I was confortable with and it wasn't meant to be.
I had lost my passion for riding bikes, completely, soon enough my bike was no longer mine as I had no desire to ride it, months after I got what is my current bike, a Trek Elite 8.5 which is an hardtail, not a top-end bike at all but it does the job quite well. To this day I ride it and in that period I got back to MTB racing, in a much more relaxed mood, but sometimes the racing spark tingles.
Lastly, I need to note that I had no intention for this challenge of going through any life-changing decisions. I've been smarter, from pre and post-ride nutrition to some recovering techniques, to more balanced and consistent training where long-term was the goal, I've done what I had never in the past with such focus. In contrast, I have never ridden with a power meter and in this period I have never rode with a hearth rate monitor (although had Garmin occasionally), so it was a very simplistic way of riding and fun was definetely there alongside motivation which is what's most important.
What motivated me for this goal was my result last year where in a "peloton"of 474 riders (I'll admit, some weren't in a competitive mindset) I finished 100th exactly, I went in for the race purely competitive despite a very modest form and it was the year where I felt like I absolutely nailed my race strategy and finished as best as I could, that is if I hadn't had a puncture in the final kilometer which by miracle I managed to ride until the finish but certainly cost me at least a minute and quite some places.
In this race I finished 25:40 behind the winner and 9:31 from the Top50, so this summer I thought, where can I get those 9:31 minutes? What could I change? What could I do to possibly do a smarter, more efficient, faster race?
It was June, I had 7 months to actually have time to gain some serious form after a couple years with little riding, this was obviously the main factor, just train hard! But training is, well, hard, and it's also painful and sometimes stressful so I needed more motivation, what could I do to get those extra gains that racked up could make or break my goal? I brainstormed them all, a really thorough bike wash two days before the race, take an aerodynamical mindset (it's cross country!) which means taking my old track skinsuit and be ready to spend a lot of solo time in an aero position which is something I've always been fond of, I like going faster for free! An efficient bike and some aero gains will give me some free time so what next?
That's right, the tactics! But, I'll get to that later on. The start position is the next factor of course, now since the first three boxes are designated for those who rode a prologue the day before my options were taken down slightly, but it was important to be in the best of the rest, in a race with almost 800 people at the start you can easily loose minutes by purely getting late.
From June to August, I did what was maybe the biggest achievement which was to get out of the house in terrible form and ride, day after day, week after week until I got some solid fitness, those first few weeks are the hardest because you can barely get up a hill without being out of breath and well when training for MTB, you just HAVE to be used to constantly go deep, but a lot of hike-a-bike and patience, and above all motivation and I got through that rough period. And at the time I was barely even riding the road, it was just a means to get to the trails where I'd spend some hours a week and developed my technique another notch and then without any short-range goal in mind at all I just rode to keep form and enjoy that I was able to go deep.
And then in early october the weather changed abruptly, with it also quickly came the winter time taking another hour of daylight. Soon enough I caught myself sick and the last 3 weeks of October had very little riding, after I thought I had recovered from the first bout of sickness I had two rides and found myself in fragile health again so I decided to take another week easily. So essentially I came back to the bike at the start of November, had a solid period of reajusting to the effort, got some longer rides alongside what became a new hobby in taking the GoPro with me and doing some filming.
Cyclocross and the Final Training Block
In the 24th November I took part in a Cyclocross Open, it was my first ever experience in the discipline actually but I've been a fan for years and I also had the technique necessary for some vital sections like the mount/dismount and the running with the bike. For this I didn't think my form was great at the time, I focused a couple of rides on it and in the day of the event I felt super, was a 40-minute race (for the fastest of course) in the mud and I felt like I did a perfect race, had a good start position, held my own on the descents, nailed the climbs, and in the final lap I had a thrilling battle with a guy who in the end (although I wasn't aware of it at the time) I ended up beating in a sprint the rider that was fighting to win my category, so it took me to try Cyclocross to finally get to a podium and ended up winning it, first non-federate in the race.
Sickness took over again in the coming days though keeping me not only off the bike but off a proper nutrition.
But in the last 3 weeks prior to the race I managed to get it together, fitness was there although not sharp, and I put in some long hard rides to gain as much as possible and my recovery in back-to-back days was highly motivating, in the final weekend to the race I tested the water of what was a somewhat important step which is to break the anaerobic limit several times and be able to sustain that power over and over again. If I couldn't, it would mean my form would be no better than last year, but to my satisfaction I felt quite good doing these. With a week to rest up I did the deed and set up the bike as I felt would be better for the race.
It's race day!
Getting up at 5:50 is never easy but these days don't come often, the preparation and excitement in the eve of the race is one that is almost incomparable.
With the temperatures going as low as 0ºC by the sea it was quite an hectic start to the day in the cycling-infected town. Although I managed to get a front place in my box it didn't mean that much as everyone who rode the prologue in the previous day was still ahead.
That would mean that at the start I was already 35 seconds behind the leading riders.
That would mean little in the end though, it makes differences where it gets narrow, in the first kilometer there was more braking then pedalling and had to wait in a particular section about a minute to be able to get going again.
That being said, last year I managed to go in the back of large groups for the first 30/40 minutes which is highly beneficial in such a fast race, but this year, maybe due to positioning or just lack of legs I saw myself riding in the wind very early on, and that was the script for most of the race where I didn't ever manage to latch in big groups. Since the start I didn't feel like I was in a big day, despite having dealt well with the cold in the past the bike was feeling sluggish in the first trails, it was all in my head in the end but I can't tell how many times I looked at my tyres to make sure there was no puncture. I tried to manage as much as possible with some riders passing by but in all honesty, I didn't have the legs I expected.
At the start I didn't feel confortable going to the anaerobic line, and I had a big lower back pain hitting me throughout the whole race. This can all be taken as excuses I came up as I suffered through but the truth is I thought I would be able to go deeper. Soon in the race I realized I wasn't capable of following riders surging through, and although I was going decently good I believed what mattered was to keep the pace high the whole way and ignore all other riders pretty much. Had a stop for around a minute in a pinch point, used it to remove my gloves and head cover as the cold was starting to dissipate, had a gel as I got going and seized that little moment to compose myself. After I got going again I was more at ease, managing to keep a high pace in the rolling farm tracks, in the midst passing through a Motocross track with several bridges and features, the estates the race went through and the Mira lake that signaled the final kilometers.
In there I pushed hard believing I was inside the final 5Km, I was indeed, gained back some positions and as the course separation led the group I was with to diverge ways from me I found myself alone again and soon enough was surprised to find the 1Km to go sign, it was a final push as I got around another rider and got to the finish with a smile. It hurt, but was done, looking at the time I had realized the race was very fast but I could assume nothing from that, the overall comments are that it was an even faster course than usual with a lot of roads and few singletrack.
So you must be wandering, I had a goal. I wanted to finish this race in the Top50 and how did I do?
This! 45th! Insane was my first thought upon this. The whole race I had in mind I was not going to reach it at all, had similar physical feelings as last year and should finish somewhere inbetween 70th-90th but I was wrong. Many ride the 55Km but there were 337 people in this course, and to have seen such a great position, such a great reduction in time regarding the winner, I was truly astonished, maybe it was indeed ALL in the head.
Whilst the winning time last year was 1:20:11, this year was 1:12:08 (8:03 minutes), whilst my time came down from 1:45:51 to 1:26:14 (a whole 19:37 minutes), so there was indeed a massive progression in my time despite not having felt it. There were 474 racing last year whilst only 337 this year, but that doesn't take anything from my improvement, so with view to my next goal in the end of February I'm set to have a bit of core training to improve my back strenght, and put on some longer and climb-filled rides as I'll be soon facing different terrain ;)
Video (Whole race): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_qMqbJgZHM&feature=youtu.be
Video (Highlights): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBpecUIIWUU&feature=youtu.be