Week at Battle Mountain #5 Race day Monday: PM

Monday evening begins with a snack. I’ve had a nice rest in the A/C cooled room which is well needed. I can feel the first few days are taking their toll already and the relentless heat isn’t helping, at least not the change from a Scottish summers that are so much cooler. Already I’m getting into a routine; balanced snack at least two hours before the race so that I’m nourished and not wasting energy digesting food during the race. I then get suited up, racing bib, extra cool team jersey, neoprene boots for protection and warmth believe it or not; I can never have too much heat on my messed up leg.

I then have a wee rest with the door cracked open to let the team know I’m awake. Lying on the hotel bed I close my eyes and visualise the race. I’ve now got the first race done and I know what the process is. I know what the course looks like. I know what the run sounds like, smells like, feels like… and I recreate that in my mind. The silence after the shell lid is in place, the only voice I hear is Leandre asking if I’m ready. Then the push and the run…accelerating hitting the power profile, all the numbers are exact, faster and faster the desert scrub passes until I see the timing flags, then all my energy is focused… before repeating that over and over and over…

A gentle knock comes at my door.

“Ken, are you awake? We’re leaving in 45 minutes”

I manoeuvre to the door opening it, “Aye, all set, just prepping and visualising a world record.”

We head out to the course. The drive already feels second nature to me. As we roll down the course I glance over at the speedo on the pimp-mobile to see what 70mph should feel like, this is what my ride should feel like, give or take five mph. Chatting to my driver, I can’t remember if it was Derek or Glen as both helped with that and were brilliant chauffeurs, I ask about the critical points in the course and the key markers; given that I got lost on the morning run and that was a critical failure. I see that not only did I power up too early, but I kept the power on well after the timing gates, so now I know where to back off and recover. I’m also told that the officials swapped the timing gate flags around to make the start of the timing zone more visible, good call.

Having driven the course in reverse I’m trying to map it in my mind and trying to remember the warmup profile that coach Davie has given me. We get to the new start line. This is a bit different. Earlier I ran the short course as I call it; 2.5 miles for the qualifying run. This evening I’ll be on the 5-mile course. That was another stroke of good fortune, as part of the qualifying run was qualifying with sufficient speed to be permitted to do the 5-mile course.

Ation4 being prepared in the dusty carpark
Arion4 getting prepared in the dusty carpark and hot desert sun. Photo: Michael Head

Pulling into the dusty car park / mining lorry turn-around / cattle watering hole we set up. I see Karen situated across the way, on her rollers, headphones on, clearly focused on her own warm-up plan. The van is next to me as we pull in and there is a hustle and bustle all over the place as all the teams, once again, going through their prep. Engineers are tweaking and checking bikes, riders are on trainers warming up. There’s excitement and enthusiasm in the air. Getting out of the truck I see and hear Mike turn on the radio, 60’s/ 70’s rock starts to permeate the air around us. I get his attention and, reluctantly, ask him to turn it off or suggest that if he can play some Trap. “That’d be helpful,” I say, feeling like I’ve just killed his inspiration . Often I did my training with music and found that nearly every genre resulted in poor performance except Trap. It’s relaxing, but it also allows me to focus. That’s what I needed, relaxation and focus.

Helping me set up, Derek comes round, putting my rollers on the bunny ears (an amusing story I might come back to later) and positioning my bike to try to minimise my chances of getting blasted by dust that’s getting kicked up in the wind. Now here’s a key element of the warm-up. I seem to recall Derek saying he didn’t feel like he was doing much, at least not much that was truly critical, while we were in Battle Mountain. As one of the Liverpool engineering staff, he wasn’t directly involved in overseeing the bike but what he did do, though it might have seemed like nothing, was invaluable. He and I talked.

Ken warming up on his handcycle in the desert car park
Me, warming up in the hot sun and dust. Photo: Michael Head

After getting set up on my bike and rollers, I began my warm-up. At around 6 pm, even in the shade of our trucks, the heat was still borderline unbearable. I felt that the chances of exhausting myself were high so I took many liberties with Coach Davies warm-up plan. It’s a fine balance, heat exhaustion and warming up the muscles while reserving needed power. Amongst us, teams were moving to and fro, calls to get to the launch area kept coming, and I was so focused on relaxing and warming up that I, ultimately, had little idea of what was going on around me, and I was getting tense worrying about it and asking what was happening. This is where Derek came in.

Sitting in my chair behind me, bracing my bike, seemingly just kicking back, Derek and I talked while I loosened up. He told me what launch sequence was happening, he kept track of the time, but mostly, we just talked about all sorts of stuff that had nothing to do with the impending race. Each race we did this, Derek, whether he knew it or not provided valuable distractions so that I didn’t over focus and get caught up worrying about the pressures of the race. Sometimes the best warm-up is just relaxing.

The call comes to get to launch zone. I hop into the truck and as I’m driven onto the road I get word that Karen has had a good run and that the bike is in good shape. This is promising. With two riders, there’s always the fear that there’s been a crash or mechanical that might not get fixed in time for the next persons launch. Not only are Karen and I trying to push to break the records but we’re trying to do it without breaking the bike so the other gets all the opportunities they can have.

Again, another pattern is repeated; I’m carried to Arion4 as the boot lid is still mysteriously stuck for some reason. I’m lowered in then strapped in, and secured with helmet and radio. Taking a last sip of water, I turn and spit it out; unfortunately finding that Stephen is right there and I’ve just spit all over his legs and feet. Such is the price of success! And it won’t be the last time.

I confirmed with Stephen the obvious:

“I just need to follow he power plan we worked out, right”

“Yes”

I describe some points on the plan, confirming the targets and he must be thinking I’m and idiot, it’s so obvious what I need to do. Deep down I’m hoping he knows I’m just trying to reinforce it in my own mind so I don’t forget.

Ken in Arion4 talking to Stephen about following the power plan
Confirming with Stephen what the power plan is. Photo: Michael Head

The lid is lowered down and the rasping of tape securing the lid is like he screaming of a dying animal. I try to relax and stay focused. The faster I ride, the faster I can get out. I watch the last couple of bikes launch, suddenly I’m dreaming of passing one of them, “Good sign.”

“Ready Ken?” Comes Leandre’s voice

“Rider ready.” Seriously? This again? Why so formal? Focus, man, focus.

I see the countdown on the launch official’s fingers, and then feel the push. Quickly the launch comes and I sync my pedalling with it just as the last thrust sends me lurching forward. I glance at the monitor… power, cadence, distance; that’s all, and I focus. The plan is on display and I follow it, accelerating.

The desert passes by me, faster and faster, just as expected. I pick my lane position, just to the right of the centreline. I don’t want the camber to pull the bike to the edge of the road, but I don’t want to cross the centreline and risk disqualification. There’s a lot of jarring. It’s windy, very windy. Arion4 hits a gust and veers right; I hard steer to the left to get it back on track. The gust dies and Arion4 veers left. HARD RIGHT, HARD RIGHT and I keep it in the lane. In the back of my head, I know Mike Sova, race official, is watching and I’m not taking any chances being in the wrong lane. The wind is wreaking havoc on control. I feel like I’m slaloming down the course and every turn is impeding on my power input.

In the calm sections I double check the power, cadence, and distance figures, making sure I’m still on target. I can only hope that all the steering adjustments haven’t bled off too much speed. With everything on target I keep making power and steering adjustments but the wind has calmed and Arion4 is feeling more stable. Then, just as I make one of the big power steps… BANG… HISS… suddenly the steering feels less smooth and the ride has gotten very jarring. In an instant I swear, loudly and reluctantly drift over to the emergency lane easing the bike to a stop. Flat number two (at over 40 mph we later find again), and I didn’t even get to the timing gates this time.

I hear the tape being peeled off and the lid is lifted free. Panic is on the faces of the two engineers as our chase car clears the road leaving us all behind, as required. The engineers are worried that something catastrophic has happened but they seem slightly relieved that it’s only a flat. I’m frustrated. I saw a small divot in the road and thought that must’ve been the issue, and I’m already trying to remember where it was so I can avoid it. But the other culprit could be the many thorns in the area or just some dodgy rock.

Stephen stands next to Arion4 during sunset
Leaving Stephen and Mike in a ditch with Arion4 after getting a flat tyre. Photo: Michael Head

As the bike is carried off the road by the engineers, I hop in the sweep car as it clears the road so traffic can flow once again until the afternoon sessions start up. I’ve managed to pick what is reportedly the best slot to race due to the generally favourable conditions that exist on the last runs of the night and I can’t help but feel it’s been wasted. The team at catch is surprised and seemingly disappointed that I’ve arrived without Arion4. This can only mean one thing for them, much work while I get to go have dinner.

Heading back we go right to the post-ride meeting for the results. I know the engineers have already cast an eagle eye on the Arion4 and already they know what the issue is and have a plan to fix it after the meeting. In some ways it’s nice that it wasn’t a fluke as it means the team have control over the situation, and it’s reported that all my full lock steering into the crosswinds has caused some excessive rubbing on the front tyre against the shell. Luckily, clearance for that is easily made. Speeds are called for all the teams with a number disqualified for excessive winds and we wrap up by picking out launch slots for Tuesday morning and head off, me for food and rest, the engineers for tweaks and adjustments to Arion4, and as we’re leaving I say to Stephen, with some disappointment,

“Well, it’s been a good week, exhausting, but a good week. Shame we didn’t break any records but well done to you and the team, I guess it’s home now then.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, we did a good job we tried, but I guess it wasn’t to be”

“It’s only Monday night, mate. We still have six days to go”

“Seriously????”

Yeah, that first day was so busy and exhaust that I thought a week had passed. But luckily then I was given good news: I get to sleep in tomorrow!

Week at Battle Mountain #4 Race day Monday: AM

4 am is early. Even if you’re not fully used to your new time zone and you think it should still feel like noon. It doesn’t. It’s early, too early.

At the pre-race briefing on Sunday night we received our launch times. Karen managed to pick a time somewhere in one of the early groups that start launching at 7 am, and I picked a time that was closer to the last launches around 9 am. So, it was all hands on deck to get out for Karen’s launch.

First step was food, and luckily I had family that had brought me food as breakfast at 4 am was not about to be found anywhere in town. I wanted to make sure that I was well nourished with plenty of time to have it all digested so I could get as much energy as possible and not risk any ill effects. But, eating at 4 am is a struggle, especially as a normal bedtime for me is around 3 am. Yes, dealing with time was going to be a challenge. Every day, a new challenge.

Life seems to be much slower at 4 am. Unsettled. And I can’t stress enough how hot it was in Battle Mountain; so much so that I had to sleep with the air conditioning on. But, at 4 am this remote town was cool and refreshing and I could enjoy some quiet cool air with the door open, the A/C off as sat in my hotel doorway munching away on hard boiled eggs and gluten free cinnamon bread watching the stars thinking how amazing it was that all this had come together and that I was here.

In that calm state, it slowly dawned on me that not only did that early morning feel slow, it was, or rather, I was. Sitting there, time had flown by and no doubt I probably nodded off a bit. So, I scrambled to get my riding gear on. Taking no chances on delays down the line, I’m race ready in my room. I’m calm, quiet, cool, and ready to ride with no bike in sight. Glancing at the clock, I see I have time before my designated pickup time. So I lay down on the bed and rest, trying to feel centred, relaxing my arms and shoulders, and visualising State Route 305 rushing by in a blaze of glory.

Knock, knock, knock came the gentle tap at my half open door. My driver had arrived. How posh it is that I had a driver!

“Are you awake, it’s time to race?”

“Aye, just resting and visualising setting a world record”

True be told, I wasn’t awake. Not really. I was in was a bit of a daze heading out to the course as the sun rose, seeing the desert pass by, trying to spot the critical zones that I’d been shown over the weekend when we’d recced the course.

Arriving at the start point, the team began to set up for Karen’s launch. Most of the teams are there as well, from the large teams like Delft down to the smaller teams made up of a single rider and family supporting. Race officials are out and about keeping everyone in check and making sure that all the launches will abide by the very strict time schedule. The makeshift car park is quite the hub of excitement and energy. Sitting in the car with my eyeshade on, slipped up to my forehead, I see Karen across the way warming up on her bike and rollers. Many other riders are doing the same; some like Karen on boards protecting them from dust while others are in the back of freight trucks and vans. A plethora of amazing bikes are being tinkered with and finessed by engineers left and right… the excitement is intense. And I’m going back to sleep.

View from inside car out to group of people standing in the dessert
Watching the morning events before sleeping in the truck – Photo: Ken Talbot

With well over an hour before I need to even start getting ready I crawl into the back of our truck, thankful that it’s the size of the Titanic, and try to get some sleep, muttering to one of the team, “Tell Karen I said good luck.” It was a fitful rest. I don’t know if it was the excitement, feeling like I was missing out on the start, feeling the pressure of everyone’s and my own expectations, or the seatbelt poking me in the back, but I didn’t get much more sleep. But what I did get was much appreciated.

Finally, I decided it was time to get up. I managed to see Karen just as she was getting situated in Arion4, ready for launch. Suddenly, I’m feeling this is getting real. The first couple of bikes launch and I know I need to get prepped. Our team is divided; some are at the finish to help with catch and to bring Arion4 back for me. Some are helping at launch and prepped to be in the chase car. A couple are here with me. I’m feeling out of place without a bike I can warm up on but luckily Anwar, one of our visual systems engineers comes by to help me with my resistance band warm up.

I don’t want to do too much, just loosen the muscles. Given that sleep was short, tension is high; it’s all about finding the right balance, with no reference at all, as to how much I’m going to have to warm up without starting to deplete my energy stores too early. And by warm up, I mean warm up. Contrary to most of what I’ve experienced of Battle Mountain so far, it’s quite cold out. I ask Anwar about the launch and Arion4. He’s calm and cool; almost shrugging it off like it’s no big deal. That helps. Sometimes you need to stop thinking about what’s happening.

Meanwhile, Karen has raced and Arion4 has been brought back to the start. I ask how it went and it sounds good, but no one knows any results yet. I’ve now got a driver and we have a plan for the start which was used for Karen since neither of us can push ourselves across the dirt lot, up the wee dirt ramp, and over the asphalt lip of the road to get to the start… well maybe we can actually, but someone came up with a much better plan. The call comes from the start official for all the teams in our launch group to get onto the road. I’m driven a short distance to up to Arion4 which is already being prepped.

Harry standing at the cattle grid staring at the start line
Turns out it’s the cattle grid you can’t take a wheelchair across to get to the start line! Photo: Michael Head

“Amusingly”, the plan is to get my chair out of the back of the truck so I can get myself to Arion4 but for some reason the boot lid won’t open. Not to be defeated by technology, two of the team members come over and I sling an arm over each of their shoulders and get carried the few feet to the bike. This proves so much more effective than trying to sort out a remote control from GMC and its obsessive safety lockouts that it becomes a regular thing. All hail manual control!

I’m lowered into Arion4 and there is so much activity that I start to forget about the pressures. I don’t even see the first bikes launching. The team is working like a well-oiled machine already. I’ve got people strapping my legs in place on either side, someone connecting the racing harness, another situating my helmet and radio and doing radio checks. I check in with my liaison, Stephen, to verify the plan for putting down power and I check what the lane positioning rules are so I don’t disqualify myself. Suddenly, the top of the shell appears. I take off my riding sleeves, and wait to be sealed in.

Hands reach in and take over locking the top of the shell down leaving me to tighten the securing straps. Other hands push my knees and feet in so they don’t get crushed and suddenly it’s dark, only a slight glow comes from the monitor in front of me and all the sounds of the world are muffled. Despite all the activity around me and the knocking on the shell to get my attention, everything had gone a little calm… but only for the briefest of moments.

There’s a tap on the shell and someone tells me to put the brake on so the engineers can finesse the position of the lid. It’s this moment that I suddenly realise how dehydrated I feel, despite taking sips of water and spitting them out while getting situated in the bike. My mouth is as dry as the landscape around me. I suddenly remember that everyone is watching me. And then I hear the unmistakable rasp of tape being unfurled and feel Arion4 jostled as the tale sealing the top and bottom halves of the shell is put on. I know now that there’s no escape even if something goes wrong.

Focusing, I channel all my energy on the pre-race visualisations I’ve been doing for well over six months, watching myself accelerate faster, and faster, and faster until the speed trap flag pass by in a blur. I grip the pedals and make sure I can feel where the derailleur controls are. I take a deep breath and try to relax as I watch the last of the riders before me set off knowing I’ve now got less than two minutes to go time.

A knock on the shell comes, and I hear Leandre call my name,

“Ken, you ready? “

“Rider ready!” I call back immediately thinking, “Why am I being so formal, like there’s a massive command hierarchy in place here?” Then, immediately wondering why I’m worrying about such an insignificant detail when there are more important things at stake. I see ahead of me the start official, counting down with his fingers.

“Ooo, so official, like the Tour de France time trials”

“Focus, man. Focus”

Go time and I feel Arion4 lunge smoothly forward. It’s a fast kick and I’m impressed that not only was Leandre apparently the fastest sprinter, but he seems to have taken into account quality service in making it feel that he’s just gently easing me and Arion4 forward.

Leandre pushing Arion4
Leandre starting the launch. Photo: Michael Head

“Focus, man. Focus”

I begin pedalling and match Leandre‘s speed, knowing I’ve only got a couple meters to get coordinated. The drivetrain is smooth, gears are working. Knuckles are only just brushing the shell, “Watch your grip.”

“Feck, what’s punching me in the gut? Is something broken? Nope, cranks. Why?”

“Long cranks! That’s it! Leverage is good, but longer also means lower. Smashing my abdomen. Hurts. Breathe… time your breathing, inhale every time the cranks come down. What’s my cadence? How many times per minute will I have to inhale? Can I keep it up without suffocating when there’s only so much air in here? Wait, everything works; works well; stop doing the math. Foot hurts like mad too but, so be it. Sacrifices have to be made. Chill, chill. Enjoy the ride.”

I do, I can see where I’m going and everything is mechanically sound. I’m feeling fit and fresh, no longer dehydrated. I look at the data feed on the screen. Power is good, I’m at the “warm up” phase. Cadence is good too, ideal speed for optimum power. I’m feeling loose and suddenly I realise the sound, that unmistakeable rumble of carbon fibre. I’ve always loved the sound of carbon discs on a bike, but now, I’m in it, surrounded by it. It’s loud, very loud, but so soothing. Back to the data feed. Power, check. Cadence, check. Distance, close enough, I’ve spotted the roadside boards that have, conveniently, been made big enough that people only focusing power and cadence can still see them on a tiny monitor. What’s left… speed, that’s right, that what we’re here for.

“Jeez! That’s awfully fast! Oh, this baby want to race!”

“No, this one is about control, a stable finish to qualify”

I’m well down the course when I realise I’m already in the high 30’s and not even really into the bigger power jumps.

“Oh yeah, we’re gonna have some good speeds here”

“No, this one is STILL about control, a stable finish to qualify”

I do one of the mid-ride power increases and see the speed hit 42 mph already and I’m not even at the end of the course or the power sequence. What I don’t realise though is two very important things: 1) I’m actually lost…yes, in a straight line I’ve gotten lost and I realise that distance here is just as critical as any series of turns, chicanes, or hills in any other race. 2) Most importantly… just how deadly knowing what my speed is, and how weak willed my mind is at this point.

“40 MPH!!! THE RECORD IS ONLY 47-ISH!!! 7 MPH IS NOTHING!!! SMASH IT, RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE, DAY 1!!! SPRIIIIIIINNNNNT!!!”

And I do… not realising at that moment that I’m only around halfway down the course and haven’t completed the full power profile we’d established. A full, max-effort sprint ensues and I can’t tell where the speed trap is. I hold it as long as I can, hoping I’ve well overshot.

“Holding it, holding it… can’t, that’s it… oh…look… here comes the speed trap…”

“OK, keep the power on, don’t let the team see you’ve blown it when they look at the data.”

But it’s done, I’ve blown out. No wonder we have this power profile to follow. Stupid mad sprinting doesn’t work. It turns out there’s so much more strategy to riding Battle Mountain than you’d think. But I keep pushing it hard still, there’s no way I’m going to coast through the timing gates.

Now, this is where things get a bit hazy (this first of many hazy moments). I believe this may have been the point where I got the first flat tyre, the first of four, I believe. I’ve check with my team liaison and apparently it’s a blur for everyone we just remember a lot of flats. But, there was one flat where I was told that the people overseeing the timing system could hear as I went through the gates. That became a bit of a theme for me… flat tyres at over 40 mph!

But, we had a successful run (as did Karen) which was confirmed at the post-race meeting. Standard procedure after each round of morning and evening racing is to announce the bike speeds and wind speeds to see whose runs were wind legal and if anyone broke a world record or a personal target. Having successfully qualified with a speed of 42.37 I was then allowed to pick a launch time for the evening set of runs. It was at this meeting that I swear I could see a cheeky smile from Mike Sova that seemed to say,

“Not this time, not ever.”

I glanced back to say, “Well, if that’s not a challenge, I don’t know what is. Just watch that record fall.”

After the Monday morning meeting the team went back to the hotel and while some of the engineers were giving the bike a check-over and fine tuning some adjustments I sat down with Stephen and Leandre to look at the power profile and ride data… and explain to them how I completely disregarded it. We did though; see that my peak speed was higher that what was recorded in the timing gates, so we knew that faster speeds were possible, if I rode responsibly. Additionally, we factored in the matter that I hadn’t been on my bike for over five days and hadn’t had a proper warm-up, so I was essentially going incomplete cold.

Ken and Leandre examine the ride data
Looking over the post ride data. Photo: Michael Head

The other factor I realised was the power of persuasion and the weakness of the mind; my mind. This wasn’t new and I’d been working on the psychological aspects of racing and training as much as the physical training. I was trying to find my weak spots, looking for the moments in training where I lapsed, failed, questioned, and I’d step back and analyse why I performed as I did. Equally, I looked at the good, successful sessions and tried to work out what about them made those sessions so good.

The two key points that really stuck for me were the sessions where people were watching: The simulated race with Paul and JP, the simulated runs with my riding coach… none of them were as good as I wanted to me to be. In fact, I’d rack them up as failures. It was clear from most, if not all of them that a record was not in the cards. But why? It was clear that I was quite susceptible to external views and influences, and those would cause me to get distracted, to act in a way that was different to when I was focused. So what was it about this Monday race that influenced me to lose my focus, to deviate, to fail…? Speed, ironically.

Deep down, I knew it as soon as it happened: it was knowing my speed that caused me to deviate. Once I saw that 40 Mph on the display I knew I was so close to the record that there was no way I could not beat it. But there was and I did it; going to max power too fast, and too soon. It was as if Paul, JP, and Davie were yelling and cheering on the test runs. The solution was obvious then. Get rid of the speed.

And so I asked the visual and data systems engineers if they could reconfigure my display to remove the speed. I realised all I needed to see was power and cadence, and distance as a backup. Not only did this make it easier to read the data in the screen, especially the most critical information, but it then eliminated any superfluous information that would distract me from the plan.

You might ask why I didn’t care about speed when that was my ultimate goal (apart from apparently being a weak-willed and easily tainted by the nefarious calls of that demon: speed). On a simple level, you could say that it’s like the Pythagorean Theorem, A sq + B sq = C sq; all other things being equal and constant (or as close as possible in a hot windy desert) put in values for A and B and you can only have one result for C. So, for any given cadence and power, the speed is inevitable. If I know what A and B are, I don’t have to get distracted by doing the math to solve for C.

Monday evening would be the test of my theory.

But first, Monday afternoon…

By now it’s mid-day and hotter than an oven burning a Sunday roast. I took some time to refuel a bit, not wanting to overdo it. I knew I’d need the energy but food and heat can be a catastrophe.

I then begin my hunt… Bikeo, bikeo, where for art thou, Bikeo? I pop into the hotel reception to see if any enormous parcels have been left for me. I’m hoping to not be disappointed as I was on Saturday. On Saturday there had been a delivery slip and some of the team rushed out to collect the parcel. After much confusion about the size of the parcel the postie was looking for, they were presented with a tiny box that ended up being spare parts for the bike. And here a bit of chaos ensues… rumour has it another delivery slip has arrived. As I await confirmation I’m hit in the back of the head… family! Turns out two more family members have arrived from California to watch the action with, I think, quite a typical greeting! Having to reluctantly put them off for now and encouraging them to get settled in and enjoy the myriad of sights the town has I get handed a parcel delivery slip.

I can’t remember if I took this with great caution and suspicion after Saturdays events, or if I was ecstatic about the possibility but I’m sure I sprinted across the car park (possibly breaking a speed record) shouting for everyone on the team so we could see if it was my bike. Brilliant team that they are, a few of them gathered up and headed out and returned shortly (Battle Mountain is quite a small town, you know) with, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, my bike! And not only did they collect it, but being talented engineers, they offered to build if for me so I could get some pre-race rest. If I haven’t said it before, the team support was brilliant!

So, I’m chilling out in my room with the A/C on. Heat exhaustion is a clear risk, and that will become very evident in a couple days. I’m half dozing, half visualising the race course, intermittently using my elastic bands to loosen my muscles when a gentle knock comes at my door. I can’t believe it’s race time already, I don’t feel like I’ve rested at all. Oye, this is turning into a brutal week already! Luckily, it’s just Kieran stopping by to mention that they can’t figure out how the bike needs to be reassembled. Fair do’s, he’s never done it before and even I barely remember, plus, it’s mostly just a jumble of random parts in a bag.

I pop out in the shade of some nearby potted plants and Kieran and I work on the reassembly. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “don’t waste your energy doing this” but thankful that I’ll finally be able to get a proper warm-up in (that’s how critical energy conservation is sitting on my mind). Vastly thankful that I’ve had Kieran to help me rebuild my bike I can finally break out the SportCrafters rollers that have been sitting, lonely, in my room and I get them secured and ready for warm-ups. But first, more rest.

Edinburgh Festival of Cycling – Coming Soon

For those of you in the Edinburgh area or those who like to travel for fun events, the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling is coming soon!

Extra exciting this year is an evening of handcycling on 08 June!

I will be talking about the becoming the world’s fastest handcyclist and if you’ve seen one of my talks before, I’m going to try to make this one a bit different.

Not only that the University of Liverpool will be doing a talk on developing world record setting bikes! They’ll be bringing up Arion4, the four-time world record setting handcycle, and talking about their upcoming efforts with Arion5.

But wait, there’s more! Karen Darke will also be talking about her #quest79 adventures!

And how great is the festival of cycling? If you do the double bill of Me and Karen, you get a bargain price and entry into the University of Liverpool’s Arion Project presentation for free!

Looking forward to it, myself!

Click below for more details and tickets:

The World’s Fastest Handcyclists

https://www.facebook.com/ed.foc.5

Week at Battle Mountain #3

With the adventure of the travels out of the way, we finally get onto a bit of riding action.

 

Saturday. It’s hot, darn hot. I’ve been off the bike for three days which, at this point feels like ages, and I’m getting twitchy. I meet up with Karen and she has the generous suggestion of letting me use her bike to do my training sessions until mine arrives. I head over to Karen’s hotel and amongst a friendly chat, I set about adjusting Karen’s bike to fit me. Having adjusted the forks to raise the cranks I hop on the bike and I’m excited to finally be able to get riding again… apart from one issue… the cranks won’t clear my abs!

 

I knew I’d carried a bit of extra weight over as every time I tried to cut back on my diet during training I lost a lot of power and strength, so it was a bit of a trade-off. But come on, I was essentially too fat to fit on a bike! Sadly, it doesn’t take that much extra girth to create a tight fit on a handbike. Plus, the battery in my abdomen is located right where the cranks pass and there was no getting around the cranks slamming into a big block of titanium on every revolution. But this wasn’t the only time it would be an issue.

 

Alas, this meant that riding was still out and the best I could do for prep was using elastic bands for some resistance work. That’d just have to do. Luckily, there was a local coffee shop that had iced blended protein mochas that I could sooth my soul with. It was hot, I’m an athlete, so iced protein would be ideal, right?

 

The rest of the day was really just about getting used to the heat and the altitude. Not only was it hot, but it’s much higher in altitude than I was used to, 4,511 ft (1,375 m). I’d worked out in advance that this meant there was about a 12% reduction in oxygen levels which would certainly have an impact on my performance. Two days to get used to it though; that should be enough, maybe.

 

The weekend was also a nice treat as my father and his wife had arrived, having driven all the way from Washington just to watch the races. Happily, they brought a big stockpile of food for me. This was particularly handy as I have so many food allergies that I did wonder how I was going to fuel myself in a town of 3500 people with one small grocery store that I guessed (correctly) wouldn’t have much in the way of “specialist” food.

 

Now, Sunday rolls round and here’s where the action starts to pick up. After a leisurely breakfast the team got together with a plan for the day. Early on, the engineers had already been fiddling with the bike, making sure it made the journey in-tact (another teams bike did not), and getting it prepped. Today is testing day.

Two handcyclists sitting next to handcycle
Road Testing setup – Photo courtesy of C. Kostelec & R. Talbot

Having had a leisurely morning and knowing that we had a pre-race briefing in the evening, unfortunately the only time to do the road testing is near the middle of the day. This was going to be my first test of how hot it was actually got in to be in the bike. But more importantly, we were testing two new features added to the bike: long cranks and new shell braces.

 

Throughout the testing phases back the UK, we’d discovered an aspect of the bike that that I wanted to the engineers to finesse; this was the cranks. If you know anything about the bikes that race at Battle Mountain it’s that the bikes are cramped and the riders are packed in like sardines. Arion4 though, had other issues to contend with. Unfortunately the part of a handcycle that needs the most clearance, the cranks, is not only the part that moves the most (for pedalling and steering) but it’s also the part that will result in the rider shredding their hands  when they scrape the inside of the shell. So, we needed room, but with an expensive and elaborately designed carbon fibre shell already in place there was only so much that could be done.

Handcyclist sits next to handcycle
Road Testing setup – Photo courtesy of C. Kostelec & R. Talbot

Probably much to the annoyance of the engineers, when they asked me during testing how the bike was I pointed out that it was generally great but it needed longer cranks. Each time we talked about changes, longer cranks was the one thing I asked for as I knew that we’d need them to be longer to get the needed power. I’ll be the engineers thought I was just nagging.  But, given that there was a massive shell in the way that was designed to be as small as possible; this was going to be a challenge.

 

Here’s that amazing dedication of the Liverpool Engineers; not only did they just create longer cranks, but they created adjustable cranks that were narrower so that we could take advantage of the limited space inside the shell, and they did this during the last week before heading out. They also managed to put in some reinforcing struts to enhance the rigidity of the shell in order to optimise the application of power.

 

So, Sunday was the day we got to test the bike in final race mode: reinforced rigid frame and longer cranks. We set off for a nearby back road to try out these new features alongside the French team who were testing their own bike.

Handcyclists sits in the shade of a van
Huddling in the shade – Photo courtesy of C. Kostelec & R. Talbot

It must have been about two or three in the afternoon when we got out to the test road and good grief was it hot. While I was huddled in the shade behind our van draped in an ice pack that someone on the team had secured, Karen got prepped in the bike to take the first run. Having made it out and back with no problems it was my turn. Immediately, I could tell that the new improvements were going to be hugely helpful. The bike was much more rigid and as the shell top was lowered down I got a feel for the pedal and crank position and it was fantastic. They were definitely long enough to get some good power and the width gave me a generous one, maybe even two mm’s of clearance from my knuckle to the shell. As long as I didn’t have a death grip in the pedals, it was going to be great.

 

The test ride went very well, the bike was smooth and easy to control. The visual systems were clear and the adjustments to the data feeds (custom and independent for Karen and I) had been adjusted so I had a good balance of data and forward vision. Plus the new cranks were really superb for generating power. The only problem with the test ride, it seems, was a conversation I heard had occurred between two nameless people that went something like this:

 

“He certainly doesn’t do things in half measures, does he?”

 

“He never has.”

Handcycle riding on road towards catch team
Road Test – Photo courtesy of C. Kostelec & R. Talbot

Apparently the team and I had a different interpretation of what “test ride” meant. They thought it meant “make sure that everything is functioning, the fit is good, and find any last minute adjustments that need to be made”. I thought it meant: See how fast you can get it to go in the half mile you have and if you break anything, the team still has 12 hours to fix it. Honestly though, the bike just wanted to run!

 

With two successful tests, the bike was ready for racing and we all knew it was going to be fast, but how fast? With the bike packed up we headed back to the hotel to cool off and get ready for the pre-race briefing and dinner.

 

The pre-race briefing…

 

He we get an introduction to all the people who have volunteered and given up time to make sure these races happen. From the organisers, to those monitoring the timing equipment, those monitoring wind speeds, people directing traffic, chase cars and observers, paramedics… there were A LOT of very generous locals and visitors that made this all come together.

Start time display board at Battle Mountain 2018
Start Board – Photo courtesy of C. Kostelec & R. Talbot

After a review of all the race procedures and policies, we picked our start times for Monday morning’s qualifying race. Though this race is on the short course of 2.5 miles, it’s critical as, not only are some of us actually going to try to break records if we can, but more importantly it’s a test of the bikes stability and the rider’s control of it. If you don’t finish this race with solid control of your bike, you may not be racing during the week. Ride fast, but more importantly, ride controlled. I believe that’s what the team told me.

 

The official start of the racing is only 12 hours away and the reality and pressure of it is finally kicking in, but so too is the excitement. This is where I realised that two very key psychological components were about to kick in. In a much earlier post I believe I mentioned that when I went to do some simulated race testing at Cardiff Metropolitan University with Paul Smith and JP Nevin of Help for Heroes. On this day, in the second of two tests I completely bombed as, once I got to the point I had to put in my max effort the pressure of people watching and encouraging me became a distraction. I think it might have made Paul and JP wonder if I was up to the task (as it did me) but I’m glad it happened for two reasons…

 

At the briefing, I was told that there were a few races that people were really watching as they though records were going to be broken. These were the women’s, the youth, and in particular… the handcycles. So, it wasn’t just the Liverpool team (including a vastly skilled Paralympic handcyclist), family, and me watching and expecting that I would do well, it was everyone: including teams for all over the world. No pressure then, right?

 

The icing on the cake came next. After each rider is launched, they are followed by a chase car in case there’s a crash or other emergency, and to carry a race observer to ensure that all the race rules are being followed and they are sticklers with these rules. Now, the gentleman that was my chase official… I heard he had specifically asked to observe me. This seemed slightly unusual to me until I found out that it was Mike Sova, the designer of, at the time, the current record holding handcycle. So, the man partially responsible for the current record that’s on the line is watching everything we do, with no doubt, a detailed eye. Rest assured that all our i’s were dotted, and our t’s crossed in the most immaculate way. The designer of the current record holding bike possibly holding my fate in his hands, following and watching every move I make on the race course… no, no pressure at all.

 

And with those light thoughts in the back of my mind it was off for a late dinner then bed to get ready for a 4 am start! Good thing I’m used to sleep deprivation. Monday was going to come fast, and I was going to have to be ready to race, and race hard.

 

 

Week at Battle Mountain #2

Having arrived in San Francisco, and sorted my bags I was now massively delayed and didn’t know if my meet-up with the team and the connections were going to happen. But, after all the travel chaos and issues with my baggage I just wanted to get to my hotel and let the stress go so I can focus on the racing ahead.

Luckily the airline baggage rep was kind enough to help me out to the hotel shuttle busses, but of course I knew there was a good chance that the busses wouldn’t be wheelchair friendly but I figured things couldn’t get too much worse and I could always roll to my hotel as a warm-up. Luckily just at that moment Kieran from Liverpool comes rushing in the door looking a little worse for wear, just how I was feeling.

He’d been just as concerned about missing me as I was significantly late getting out of the airport, but thank goodness his timing was impeccable. Clearly panic and stress are the theme for the day. But I just tried to calm things down,

“Don’t worry Kieran, I was just chilling here with my kind airline assistant/ Sherpa. I’m in no hurry and was just about to call you and see if you were free for a casual drive.”

Though, I might have actually said something to the effect of,

“Jeez, what a @#£&* fiasco, luggage broken and bike stuck in London so I won’t be able to do my prep training and couldn’t figure out how to get to the hotel.”

I’m sure I thought one and said the other. But at least I’d able to get settled into my hotel and have a rest before the all-day drive to Battle Mountain. After settling in I went for a wander and I’m amazed at how spacious America is. It’s been a while since I’ve been back there but I’d forgotten just how big and open things are, and how smooth the pavements and sidewalks are. It was so refreshing just to be able to zoom around and not worry about crashing on some dislodged slate paver. But, there are drawbacks to the vast openness of America, I popped out for a milkshake and fries (a rare treat amongst all my proper training nutrition) and I swear it took me three weeks to cross the street. Mind, I was also tempted just to do big loops in the road since there was so much room! But, rest was needed for the long drive.

Friday morning came and I had a chance to meet up with fellow racer Karen, and her coach, John over breakfast. I think we’re all just ready to get out to Battle Mountain and get on with the racing. After a short meet-up with the team we divide up into groups and hit the road and it’s an odd little convoy… a moving van , two gigantic pimp-mobile SUV’s and a soccer mom van. I can’t complain, the image might not be great but the soccer-mom van was incredibly spacious. John, thankfully, did all the driving which was incredibly kind of him to cover all of about eight to 10 hours himself. So many times I wanted to offer to take over for a bit before I realised I couldn’t. Plus, he shuttled two wheel chairs around every time we stopped, so an extra thanks to John for all his work.

John helping with wheelchairs outside of Denny's restaurant
John helping and a classic American dining experience

What a great drive it was though from San Francisco to Battle Mountain. We travelled from the edge of the Pacific Ocean though lush evergreen forests, past vast swathes of farmland, up through high barren passes onward into the vast desert that would become our home and racetrack for the week. Just as the size and openness had amazed me in San Francisco, so too was I reminded about all the amazing scenery and the all the variations in sights and surroundings that America has to offer.

View from car through the mountains
Mountains on the way to Battle Mountain

I’d also forgotten how hot it gets in California and Nevada. I’m not that great in hot weather and having been in Scotland for so long, I had become accustomed to a “hot” day being about 25 deg C / 77 F , if you’re lucky, and that only lasting for a day. But California was far, far hotter. In the end, I learned that Battle Mountain was over 40 deg C / 104 F while we were there. Thank goodness it was dry and that I didn’t know that in advance. But, if you’re now thinking, “That’s hot and you were sealed in a carbon fibre shell with no airflow and you were expected to pedal harder than you ever have before?!” Yes, yes indeed!
View of mountains in the distance on a freeway
More mountains on the way to Battle Mountain

Along the way I got to know Karen and John a bit which was a treat, after all, Karen is a Paralympian and that’s some high performance riding talent and coaching right there. Turns out they’re both downright just nice people and great company. Along the way we had a bit of fun trying to figure out we’re we were since there was little phone reception in and the highlight was when we got excited about being at the Bonneville salt flats before it clicked that we were the wrong state! It sure looked like the real thing; vast, empty, white ground ready for taking the van out for a speed challenge of its own. Then there were the voiceovers for Karen’s blog, such fun.

View of some barren land from a roadway
Not quite Bonneville Salt Flats

Just after the sun set we pulled into Battle Mountain and I think we were all ready for a rest and to stop moving. We made our way to the hotel that I and the engineers were staying at and caught up with them. Friday’s journey by road sure beat Thursdays journey by air by a long shot but the highlight for me was finding a package waiting for me!

View of roadsign to Battle Mountain from a passing car
Close enough to Battle Mountain to see the road signs

If you remember one of my earlier posts you’ll recall that Pete from SportCrafters had been one of the people, early in my planning, who had been critical in helping me work out some of the factors regarding handcycle power and resistance. With his help, I was able to do some of the calculations that led me to work out what my power targets would be and whether breaking the record was possible. But Pete didn’t stop there, to help Karen and I with our travels and the vast amount of stuff we were carrying, Pete sent to Battle Mountain a couple sets of handcycling rollers for us to borrow so that Karen and I could do our prep riding and warmups. This proved to be unbelievably helpful to us both as we were able to train in air conditioned rooms and warmup in the shaded area in the dusty car park that was our staging area at the race start.

Thankful that I could do my riding prep once my bike arrived, fingers crossed that it would, and knowing that I didn’t have to travel for a while, I got some rest and to get ready for a day of acclimatising on Saturday and pre-race testing on Sunday.

Next, we finally get into some of the riding action…

Week at Battle Mountain #1

Momentum, it’s a powerful thing. It’s particularly critical on a handbike as you approach a climb. If you haven’t carried enough speed you can get bogged down resulting in needing to work through a slow, torturous grind to keep the climb going. But that’s OK; you can often still find the power within yourself to do that. But, have you ever had those days when you didn’t carry your momentum, and you forgot to change to a lower gear, and on that climb you came to a screeching halt? That, on a handbike is a drag as you likely cannot just get out and walk you’ve got.

 

Life is a lot like riding a bike, if you don’t carry the momentum and something stops you from changing gears it’s easy to come to a complete stop. How then, do you get going again?

 

Life happened to me recently. After claiming I was going to follow up with the events of Battle Mountain I got locked out of my Facebook account for a few weeks got caught up in a few other cycling developments, and lost my momentum. But, that’s been resolved now and I need to finish up the story of that amazing week of racing.

 

Now, you may be asking yourself why it’s taken me so long… well, after I get back from Battle Mountain I ended up with a rotator cuff injury, likely the result of the sudden change from the intense training to the two weeks I took of recovery. Right at the end of those two weeks of recovery my shoulder just decided it wasn’t going to work properly. Not only could I not ride my bike but I could barely get around in my chair and that sort of pain on top of CRPS pain is a lot to take. But then just as I was starting to recover from that I got a bad bout of the flu which knocked me out for three weeks…. ahh life.

 

Here goes…

 

You cannot start and adventure without a bit of adventure, can you? Departing my home town proved to be a relatively painless experience. A good friend of mine stopped by in the early hours and helped me get by bike, wheels, and two bags down to the street where I met my taxi. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this was the start of the most terrifying part of the journey… I’m not a taxi person and I’ve never felt that my life hasn’t been on the line in one. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, I’m sure not all taxi rides are terrifying. Luckily, I made it to the airport and the taxi driver proved to be friendly and helpful once we got to the airport to help me connect with the services for people in wheelchairs.

 

How convenient it was to be able to get out of the taxi and right there was a phone to get the assistance I needed. But alas, after calling and advising the services where I was and that I’d booked their assistance, I still had to wait in a parking garage for half an hour before calling again. A further 15 minutes later someone did arrive only to exclaim something to the effect of, “oh, those are big bags, I can’t possibly carry them.” This, despite me having advised them In advance that I had a seven foot long bag with a wheelchair in it, a large wheel case, and two other bags. Lesson learned: Take fewer bags and show up extra early for a flight… days if you can.

 

Eventually, with a second helper we did get into the airport and set up at the check in desk. All went well for the most part until came the great conversation with the airline duty manager:

 

Airline: You have too many bags; we’ll have to charge you for them.

 

Me: It’s a wheelchair, it’s exempt. I checked weeks ago after the tickets were booked.

 

Airline: You have too many bags; we’ll have to charge you for them.

 

Me: It’s a wheelchair, it’s exempt. I checked weeks ago after the tickets were booked.

 

Airline: You have too many bags; we’ll have to charge you for them.

 

Me: It’s a wheelchair, it’s exempt. I checked weeks ago after the tickets were booked.

 

The real conversation went on for longer but I think you can detect the theme. Now, I’ve seen some of these airline shows on telly where people throw tantrums because their flight is late, or they didn’t bring ID and, having worked for an airline before, I know what it’s like to be on that side. So, I wasn’t about to throw a tantrum but I was going to hold my ground on the facts of what the airline had told me… that a wheelchair is exempt from excess baggage fees. Eventually reason was seen, thank goodness.

British Airways plane at terminal gate
British Airways Flight

But, checked in, I get out to the gate feeling good. There was a lot of pressure to make sure I had just what I needed once I got to the states as I had a structured plan for how to prepare for the racing and make up for a few days off the bike and all the effects of the air travel. At least I knew I was set and all I needed to do was make my connection in London and meet up with the team in San Francisco. No problem, we were leaving time and there was plenty of time to connect at Heathrow. Or was there?

 

Arriving at Heathrow all the passengers leave the plane and the flight attendants are about to head off past me when they realise I’m still waiting for an aisle chair to get off the plane. A couple of quick calls and I’m out of the plane being rushed to my connection. I make it to the plane mid-boarding but confident that with all the time that’s passed, everything is fine with my luggage and life is in order, and then settle in for a long flight.

 

And here’s the reminder that sometimes when you think life is in order, it just cracks you upside the head and reminds you where you stand…

 

After an uneventful flight I get out of the plane and onto the jetway where I’m greeted by name.

 

“What a friendly city, San Francisco is,” I’m thinking when the airline agent asks, “You checked two oversized bags, right?”

 

I’m awash with sudden hope that they’re confirming that the bags have arrived, yet also with dread that something bad has happened.

 

“Yes, I did.”

 

“Sorry, but they didn’t make the connection at Heathrow.”

 

BAM, cracked upside the head. So, the equipment I need to do my pre-race training over the weekend and pre-run warmups is halfway around the world and I need to leave for Battle Mountain tomorrow. OK, that fine, I know how airlines work, surely it’ll arrive on a plane later today and they’ll get it to my hotel ready for tomorrow’s drive.

 

I’m directed to the baggage department to collect the one checked bag that did make the connection and get the situation sorted (and at least I was smart enough to pack my riding gear and helmet in my carry-on (the only bag that made it unscathed) so that, worst case scenario, I could still race)). But first, I discover, upon collecting my bag that the airline has broken a bracket on it that attaches it to my wheelchair so I can’t carry it. Well, 1 out of 4 that’s… good?

 

I will say that the agent at the baggage assistance counter was incredibly helpful. Not just this day, but the next day as well when she called on her way to the FedEx office. Why did she have to do that, you ask?

 

Well, it turns out that my two oversize bags weren’t going to arrive until the same time the next day, when I was going to be halfway to Battle Mountain in a car. I was advised though that, surprisingly, the airline was going to courier my bags out to Battle Mountain the next day though. Yea! It’s going to be OK.

 

But wait, how does FedEx come into play? Enroute to Battle Mountain I get a call to let me know that the airline’s courier wasn’t able to drive as far as Battle Mountain as he’d had a recent medical limitation placed on his driving so the airline decided to FedEx my bags out for delivery on Saturday “OK, there’s still hope,” I’m thinking on this Friday drive from San Francisco to Battle Mountain.

 

Now as you might have noticed by now I tend to ramble and be long-winded at times so I’m going to sum this up with…

 

Either FedEx didn’t mention this or the airline didn’t understand or ask but… FedEx doesn’t deliver to Battle Mountain on Saturday. They’ll deliver to Reno or Salt Lake City, but they don’t stop in between. So, for Saturday, Sunday and at least part of Monday my bike ended up sitting in a shipping depot in Reno.

 

Racing starts bright and early on Monday morning, 7 am, so there goes all my pre-race prep after all. Nothing like taking your shot at a world record after travelling halfway around the world then taking five days off training and not getting to warm up…

 

Life, it’s a hoot sometimes!