What’s going on?

It’s now been a few months since my last blog entry, a few rather tough, crazy months in fact. I’ll try to give you a bit of an idea as to what happened!

I left you with the secret story behind the preparation for the ride at the national Time Trial championships and this was by a long way the highlight of the season. I found a discipline in which I find a huge amount of satisfaction from the efforts involved, and I turned out to be decent at it too, which is always a bonus!

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If we ignore the national road race, which I had to pull out of with some pretty horrible stomach issues (despite being in some of the best form of my life), I went on to enjoy a couple of relaxed weeks in the French Alps to reset the head. This was something that always turns out to be incredibly valuable at this time of the season. To me, the ability to race your bike is 50% mental, especially in Northern Europe with its crosswinds and cobbles etc. You could be the strongest rider in the race but if you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, your race is over. So having a fresh head for racing is essential.

Anyway, the months following can best be described as “rather unfortunate”. To make a long story short, I re-found my form on the bike pretty fast after my mini-holiday in July and could feel the body was quite a bit stronger for racing than any other point in my racing career. All these top level races have an effect on the body! However, my good shape came soon after what turned out to be my final UCI 1.2 race of the season, meaning that the only races I had remaining in the season were either pro races against the best, or regional races that can’t put me on the map so well. Essentially I could give everything I had in these high level races but I never made an impact, due to my lack of experience in the peloton and simply less power in the legs than some of these guys. So the season kind of fizzled out for me from a race-perspective.

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Off the bike, the final months of the racing season were also rather challenging. With the combination of a terrible year for the market of professional riders in world cycling, a year somewhat under the radar for me, (I suspect) new requests from sponsors and an understanding between myself and the management at Leopard that racing another year with the calendar we had wouldn’t give me opportunity to show myself and to take the next step, I had to find a new team. This naturally creates a huge amount of stress. Knowing that at the end of the year I could be out of a job really put the pressure on in those final races in September and actually just made it that bit harder to perform when it mattered as my mind was often elsewhere. It was not a nice time, let’s put it this way… I was certainly ready for the end of the season when it came.

It’s amazing how much you can be affected by stress off the bike! But anyway, as I said, the season kind of fizzled out, despite the fact that I had actually started to get my positioning in the peloton sorted, which had held me back a lot throughout the year. I had some really good races in those final weeks in September but it felt to me that the performances were going unrecognised in these top races and it had started to become apparent that a change was actually necessary.

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So! On to 2019. I feel already that I have put this past season behind me, taken lots of lessons, and I am ready to get going again and fight to move up in the cycling world. I’ve transferred to a team I know very well indeed; the Zappi Race team. I rode with them as a junior when I had some of my best results to date. Although it is officially a step down for me, the team has big plans for this coming season however, with a much bigger calendar, more riders, and more support. With under 23 races in Italy and Belgium combined with French and British racing, plus others, it really feels like a good place for me to be given where I am with cycling now. I can’t wait to get going! Just one more month of training in British weather to go too, before months of Spain then Italy, of course, helps the motivation.

Let’s see what we can do.

Months in the making…

As some of you will have heard, I recently took the biggest result of my cycling life to date with 2nd place at the British national time trial championship somewhere in the North of England.. But this wasn’t what people expected. It was even a bit of a shock to me! On the British Cycling official report they called me a “surprise package” and this is mostly due to the fact that I believe I have actually only done 6 or 7 TTs in my life! But now that things are starting to sink in a bit for me, I see the progression and sense in what has happened, so I thought I’d give you a bit of an insight!

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The idea of targeting this race came about last year when I was sitting around for months recovering from a smashed-up collarbone. My attributes on the bike suit this sort of event and with the right preparation, my coach, Magnus Backstedt, and I believed I could make an impact. But this was only a vague idea at this point. The real journey started in March when I was out near Luxembourg and started to train on the TT bike. Simply getting hours in the position and getting used to putting out the power like that seem to be key.

I must stress at this point how my knowledge of time trialling physiology and technique is rather limited. I am relatively inexperienced in this field at the minute but always learning of course!

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Test number 1: Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux, a UCI 2.2u race in Belgium with a hilly 10km TT on the morning of the third day of racing. After a pretty disastrous start to the season with injury and illness I was suffering through this race but still very motivated for this trial run! I had been on the TT bike a few times in the weeks running up to the race, but as always with solo training, I had no idea how it was really going… I went out with heavy legs and not knowing the course or corners (as I was so far down on GC, I started too early in the morning to see the roads), and put in a satisfactory performance. Around 50th place but knowing that taking the corners faster and a more controlled effort would have moved me up a lot of places! Anyway, this of course went under the radar.

Speaking of under the radar, this whole story was a bit of a secret plan. Knowing what a psychological game this Time Trialing business is, I thought it’d be better to keep my thoughts private and only apply the right kinds of pressure on myself. The more people that are involved, the less control you have with this and given that I had no real history in time trialing, I thought things would be better this way.

 

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The bulk of the preparation was of course the work I put in behind the scenes. The countless intervals against myself going up and down a flat road along the river Saar, the core work, the research into time trialing efficiency and the long-term mental preparation for this 40minute ride. It was an interesting time as I knew the time and effort I was putting into this discipline, but apart from the data on the power meter I was collecting, I had no real reference point, so I sometimes wondered if it was a bit of a waste of time, all these times with a bad neck from the position or the knackered legs from a new style. But work behind the scenes is not always the most exciting part to read about, so I’ll skip forward..

 

The final run-in… Continuing with the style of my preparation for this high-profile race I made my unannounced return journey to home and planned an unofficial 10mile TT with my friend (and coached rider) Rory Finch, so on a local course we parked up and knocked out a ride on the open road. Placing him, the rabbit to chase, 4’30” up the road from me at the start, I knocked out a 18’40” ride averaging 52km/h, taking the course record and unfortunately finishing 30m behind Rory (most importantly).. With just a few days before the big goal, this was a nice dress rehearsal and a day where I got the feeling of pushing my effort almost to the limit but seeing there was more to go before I collapsed in a heap, and I think this was an important part of my ride on the day.

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Thursday 28th June. Up in the North of England somewhere… I had the day planned out minute-by-minute to ensure I’m at the start-line in the best possible state. I even had the time to ride from the car to the start ramp incorporated into the plan. It went perfectly. I rolled off full of adrenaline and my inexperience showed. In the first 10km, despite having a fairly detailed pacing strategy, I went a good amount above the planned power. The heart rate was consequently very high as my body tried desperately to rid itself of the painful toxins in the muscles whilst still squeezing all possible effort out through the bike. Basically, I suffered for the whole ride. Fortunately my head was in a good place and with the warm-up playlist still going through my head, I managed to ignore a lot of the pain I was going through and despite seeing a drop in power across the ride, I got everything I had out on course and finished with a good sprint to the line.

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It turns out I was in the leading position for a long time, but unable to handle the pressure after many previous times when I’ve seen my name tumble down the live result sheet, I sat in the changing room playing games on my phone…

But in the end I took second behind a flying Charlie Tanfield. With all things considered and points that I would later identify as ones to improve upon, I was seriously delighted with this result, this day, and this whole process! And so, I think I might do a bit more of this Time Trialling thing in the future! Why not?

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Development: how it all stands

Development; a word that, in my situation, I hear all the time. Always analysing your fitness through computer programmes and comparisons on race day. Always having the post-race flash-backs where you replay important tactical moments, whether that’s taking a good position in the peloton or whether to follow an attack, or anything.. There are always a lot of short-term memories to wade through! This isn’t even it for the D-word.. Everyone has advisors, coaches and managers who are always keeping a close eye on the long-term, and making sure everything is on track. Cycling is a sport in which one is likely to reach their peak performances in the late twenties, and considering that most professional cyclists will have started racing from a very young age, you are always looking to the future.

 

I received a nice message through the blog a few weeks ago in which I was asked what type of rider I am, or will be, and it got me thinking much more about the path that every rider must go down with always testing the water and seeing what races fit best for the head and the physiological capabilities. Okay, just to answer the question now, I don’t know exactly what I’ll specialise in. It all points in the direction of the classics and increasingly towards the races where it is a very long and tough day in the saddle with lots of hard intervals in there, so some sort of Belgian style for sure. There is still the difference between the pan-flat races, the cobbled-climbs of Flanders, or the longer hills of the Ardennes, but I’m only 19, I’ll find out soon. I now really appreciate my team’s role in this period of finding myself as we have a seriously strong calendar of races at Leopard Pro Cycling, including a bit of everything, and some very experienced guys around to help us through the process, and this is invaluable…

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Throughout my time growing up in the cycling world so far I’ve tasted a number of different pressures, coming from just pure competitiveness against friends when I was starting out, to requiring results at junior in order to find a strong team as an under 23, but then it gets a bit more complicated. We all get thrown into this very big world at 18 years of age in which we compete against men who were racing bikes at a high level when we were at primary school.. I think the majority of people put pressure on themselves to take very big steps in development very quickly but it needs to be much more natural than that, okay you don’t have years and years but it also does not need to happen in the first few months, not all of us are that fortunate! I’m not saying that we all just sit back and wait for something to suddenly click, instead it can be a long time just plugging away at it until things start to go your way, but it is important to keep your head and not to panic.. Most of the time…

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Being a rider at a team like Leopard Pro Cycling there is obviously pressure to perform just to be in there collecting results and experiences like the teammates, but there is a lot of care for the riders to look after everyone and help us all perform at our best and, most importantly, develop. Our Directeur Sportifs really care about much more than the number next to your name at the end of the race. It’s a tough sport and they have lots of experience in it, so they really know how to keep the riders in the right place. The soigneurs play a similar role in keeping all of us in the right place mentally. Sometimes these guys are really good friends for us and also always seem to know what we want or need to hear.. Finally on the professional side of things I have my coach Magnus Backstedt always keeping a close eye on things and directing me but of course my parents, friends, and my girlfriend Lydia play a big role for me. The reality is that it’s a tough sport and a tough stage to pass through, and keeping your head is an essential part of the development.

As you may have noticed if you follow my social media channels, it has been a tough couple of months for me with illness and crashes. After having a really strong winter and building up high hopes for the start of the season this was tough to deal with, but sorting these problems out and coming back stronger as I am now is proving to be a valuable experience for me, one of many I’m picking up at this stage. And so, development is not only the body adapting to the big strains that it is put under, it is about becoming a true, solid bike racer in the head.. You just have to make sure every setback you get is used to leave you in a better place than before.

 

 

Cyclist living abroad: the real story

When I was starting out in the cycling world, learning everything through the Zappi’s cycling club in Oxford, there was a vague connection to the proper racing world but most of what I heard would sound rather mysterious and complex. When I asked someone about living out in Europe racing as an under 23 rider trying to become professional there was always a mix of stories flying around. Some stories were of great success leading to recognition and long careers, but the majority were about people not quite being there physically or cracking mentally, and this turned out to often be in part due to the difficulty of moving out to Belgium or France or wherever. The people that make it to a position to get interviewed are the ones that succeed with making life work out here for them, so as far as I know, starting a life up out here is a bit of an untold story… Until now!

I am now in my second year as an under 23 rider with Leopard Pro Cycling and I am living out here in Germany, just over the border from Luxembourg. The manager of the team found a great place for me with one rider and next-door to another and the physio, so I am nicely settled and loving life, especially with the bigger races coming in my direction and the good legs turning up at the right time… But it is really interesting looking back at the experiences I have had so far and comparing to others I have spoken to.

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The story that is now told, which is much more visible with everyone’s much larger social media presence, is one of a very glamorous lifestyle full of cafés, fancy kit, sponsorships and coffee, and all of this in the sun and high temperatures. Although this is a part of the life, it is not exactly true… Unless I have been misled..

It is the first time moving away from home for everyone, and always straight into an unusual environment. This is often seen as the first serious move towards professional cycling and so the assumption is that success and happiness comes immediately, so the pressure is there to show this, but there is no denying that it is hard. All of a sudden it can very easily seem that your training or racing is all that matters in the day, along with eating and sleeping to prepare for the next day.. So it is very easy to be sucked into this completely, and so your mental state depends on how this goes. The good times are very good, you can feel like a celebrity in your own bubble, but the harder times, when the results or performances aren’t going your way, can feel even tougher to get through. It is all one big, spiralling, complicated mental-battle.

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I’ve been asked what the day-to-day life is like in this lifestyle and thinking about this answer is a strange one! The time disappears with certain small jobs.. Of course training takes up a lot of the day. It’s important to have a routine with it so I normally leave at 10:30 so I have time to eat, digest and plan in the morning. Then shopping, cooking, eating, and stretching take up a lot of the day once I have returned from the ride. When you’re not in a rush to do these things, they can spread over the day, but I feel guilty if I’m not using the day for something else on top of this. I sometimes make the trip to a café with one of the riders or the physio, who live with or next to me. I have also completed a TEFL course (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), along with other online courses that interest me, as it doesn’t require too much effort and puts no stress on me as there are no time restrictions. In my opinion, it’s really important to keep the mind active with things other than analysing every ride’s data or watching up the entirety of Netflix (which I also find time for, of course). But yes, it’s a pretty focussed lifestyle, I see that…

 

What are the hardest things about life out here? I’ve spoken to a few of my fellow cyclists about this one and, apologies for the vague answer, the answer is probably having to sort things out yourself. Managers and other team staff do all they can but there always seems to be a list of things to do when you’re back from training and only thinking of falling asleep on the sofa for the afternoon (although there is always time for that too). Keeping on top of things mentally is another big one. There isn’t always someone there to sit with and watch some crap on tv to relax… The required focus on diet, lifestyle and training can sometimes seem relentless. Finally, my favourite response to the question is from my good friend and old teammate Pat Christopher, who’s now living and racing in Belgium. He is correct in pointing out the struggle to control yourself when you are at the supermarket and there isn’t someone looking over your shoulder when you’re walking past the sweets aisles…

 

 

Do you have any questions about how it all work for me with training or racing? Go to the “contact me” page and ask away!

Photos by: unknown and Lizzie Haumesser

Ready to race?

In an endurance sport as tough as cycling, where you are always fighting to be stronger, leaner, and ultimately faster, you are always surfing the line between being as fit as possible and being ill. Unfortunately, even as a full-time athlete, it is nearly impossible to avoid sickness all the time, especially in the hardest periods of training or racing. It doesn’t seem to matter how much you focus on avoiding any human contact…

As I mentioned in the last blog, a couple of weeks ago I had a crash in a “warm-up” race at the end of the Leopard team training camp in Mallorca and ended up going to hospital to get everything checked over. All was fine with the x-rays but it seems that on this trip to the A&E, I picked up a chest infection that hit me a couple of days later, and in combination with the serious pain in the muscles in my back, I really was stuck in my bed for a while.. This led onto a classic cyclist’s period of illness with the usual questions. When can I get back on the bike? Am I just imagining that it’s now better? Is there anything at all I can do to make this waiting time any shorter? The list goes on.. But it seems I got the answers wrong as I have so many times with this sort of thing..

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Okay, let’s get the story straight… The training camp had gone really well and I was so relieved and excited to be in a strong position in the team after a difficult winter for me. On Sunday the 11th February, the team and I travelled to a local amateur race in Mallorca to get the legs and the mind into gear with the season approaching. Unfortunately, in this, the first race back after my big crash last August that put me off the bike for 3 months, some riders crashed in front of me on a descent and I went flying over the top before landing on my back and ribs. I couldn’t get back on the bike, so after the race was over, my manager and I proceeded to spend a good four hours waiting in hospital to find that luckily nothing was broken. I could walk away with some painkillers to cope with the mess that my muscles were in, and as it turns out, also with a chest infection that I had picked up. Based on my relative fitness at the time, and the fact that my muscles would take only a few days to be able to support me on the bike, I was told that I could go to the Tour of Antalya, a four-day stage race in Turkey, as an opportunity for early results and to get some “race kilometres” in the legs. Starting on the 22nd, travelling out there on the 20th, I could only be excited about this despite the state of my body at that time. So it was 11 days between the crash and the start of the race. No problem!

The illness hit me on the 13th in the form of a chest infection. 9 days to the start of the race. I did everything I could to get this gone as soon as possible, steam-inhalation, baths, expectorant, etc.. This seemed to have an effect and so, by the 17th I had convinced myself that I was ready to get back on the bike, 5 days before the start. The classic mistake of a cyclist. The opportunity was there in front of me and it seems that led me to panic a little bit I think. It’s so important to relax about these things. Another day or two off the bike doesn’t really make a difference, and that’s all it can take to get a bug completely out of the system.

The decision backfired. I made three days of training on the bike before a big travel day, flying to Frankfurt before waiting several hours with my teammates and then flying on down to the Southern coast of Turkey. I lost my voice on the flight, and this was the start of the second attack of the illness. 

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The race started fine with me but it wasn’t until the second day when I was hit properly by the symptoms. I can tell you that breathing issues on a tough mountains day is not ideal! I was involved in the early attacks, as planned, trying to get into the day’s breakaway, but as soon as we hit the climb of the day, a mountain of 1200m on rough roads, I was shot out the back. The situation got worse for me with dropping energy levels combined with the legs just not turning well. I rolled down the long descent and eventually crawled across the line. I ended up missing the time cut on this day by 2 minutes and since then have taken 6 days off the bike. I think I’ve learned my lesson! Relax! I’ll be back soon…

 

Putting the sad story aside, the performance of the team in this first race of the season was very promising.. On stage 1, I was fortunate enough to play a role in a full-on lead out for our newly-signed sprinter Konrad Geßner, taking control from around 10km out and dropping him off in a top position to take 3rd. Along with this, the guys worked together well in several instances, better than I saw it in all of last year. With the good atmosphere in camp we ended up taking a top 10 in GC along with other stage and GC results to be proud of.. Good signs indeed! I couldn’t be more excited to be back on the bike and racing with the fellas!

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Anyway, I need to find my voice now. I’m sure I left it around here somewhere…

Team camp in Mallorca: The real start to 2018

As I said in the last blog post, the winter is a time of uncertainty for me about my form. I don’t train with other riders that often as I enjoy being out on my own and pushing to my own rhythm. Consequently I can get a long way without knowing how good my form is and whether I am ready or not to start racing. Yes, I have a power meter on the bike and can do lots of analysis but this is not everything.

On the 3rd day of the month we started this 10-day team training camp in Mallorca with the aim of gauging where the fitness of all the riders stands, as well as preparing the legs for the first races of the year with some high intensity work mixed in with some other race-specific training. There is a type of fitness that you get from riding as part of a group that is more suitable for racing, it’s a slightly different pedal stroke, a much less constant effort, and a mental focus for staying centimetres from the wheel in front as well as sweeping through the corners at a greater speed.  This is primarily why we’re here!

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In the first week of the camp we clocked up about 850km of riding in the form of two 3-day “blocks” of riding. The main challenge has actually been keeping a lid on things! As everyone would find in this situation, being amongst a set of strong teammates with a really positive atmosphere, it would be very easy to push too hard with the adrenaline and the motivation to show your legs but we have enough time here and it is more important to get a good standard of work across the whole stay. Luckily we have the older guys in the team with more experience and the support staff keeping a very close eye on things, even down to the daily weigh-in and checking of the resting heart rate..

Our training has consisted of lots of hours on the bike including sprint work, strength session (riding with a low cadence at a higher power), mini races against each other, breakaway-style efforts, and then a local race to get the legs moving properly. I have found that the hard work and long hours on the bike has really helped the team to gel together, something very important that is sometimes overlooked. The fact that we have all been sharing rooms in the hotel and always eating and spending time in each other’s company is also an essential contributor to the good team chemistry that we have built up.

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Now, how do the legs compare with the others and do I feel ready to take on the start of the season?

Unfortunately in the amateur race we did on one of the final days I had a fast crash with some other riders and messed up the muscles around the ribs and lower back, keeping me off the bike for some days but ignoring that, I actually could not be happier with how I’m feeling with the form! I have taken some big steps on from last year in quite a few ways. The signs that we can take from the little tests and exercises we have all done together have all been very positive for me. It’s been a tough few months of winter training but I now feel like a considerably bigger part of the team and I am now really hopeful that I can take some strong results early on in the season, but we shall see! I think with just some more intensive training sessions from here I can come into my first few races in a good shape.

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Presuming the recovery from the injury I got in the practice-race crash goes as expected, my real race-season will be starting on the 22nd February with the Tour of Antalya, a 4-day stage race in Southern Turkey before heading to France for some more classic-style races in the bad weather! I can’t wait!

 

Many thanks to Elisa Haumesser for the photos

Winter training: it’s an ugly time

Training through the off-season, preparing for the races ahead is a tough time for all riders, no matter where you are. There are many many hours on the bike riding along at at a tempo on your own, lots of uncertainties about where you are with the fitness, and you will get numb hands and feet out on a ride at some point, it’s only a matter of time.

This has been the first winter away for me. Having only finished at school in June last year, it’s the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to get away and use the more reliable weather conditions in Spain, Girona more specifically.

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The big glamour of being in Spain amongst lots of WorldTour, Pro Continental, and Continental riders is something that wore off fairly quickly for me. However, that wasn’t the reason for being down here, it was for the smooth and safe roads, for the mountains, the consistent weather, and to be in a beautiful and social city. So training conditions have been pretty ideal and I have been able to learn a lot from other people around the place whilst looking after myself, always preparing for the next day of training. I have also found that just being away from home has led me to be much more focussed on what I am doing, and that makes a big difference. Even being back home for a four days at Christmas led me to feel like I’d dropped the ball a bit.

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Now, however perfect I feel the set-up I have had down in Girona for the winter is, it doesn’t take away from the hard work and suffering that is required on the bike. It doesn’t matter how good the tan-lines are, if you’re doing this stuff right, there will be times when you finish an interval unable to move your legs any longer. The thing about this work in the winter is that there are no real tests against other people, no race-summary videos, no fancy photos of you doing the final sprint etc… It’s an ugly time.