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Expert Blog: When it all goes wrong

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Article posted: 24/09/2013

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Nik Cook’s final blog about his attempt to retain his age-group title at the World Long Course Duathlon Championships at Powerman Zofingen in Switzerland. The race didn’t quite go according to plan and Nik looks at how to deal with your year’s main goal event going wrong, what can be done to prevent getting a DNF or disappointing result and moving on post-event.

Building on from my second place at the HellRider off-road duathlon in June, my training through the summer towards defending my age-group title at the World Long Course Duathlon Championships at Powerman Zofingen in Switzerland had gone brilliantly.

Despite the final race not going quite as I planned, 2013 has been a great year. I’ve discovered a great training tool in a power meter and this has definitely helped me to keep making progress as a rider.

Using a power meter had revolutionized my cycling and I found I was able to ride faster, more consistently and crucially, for an event with a hilly 30 km run off the bike, with less fatigue developing in my legs. As well as sticking to an overall pacing strategy, the power meter flattened out those surges and spikes that I have always been prone to putting in on long rides. From July I started putting in more work on the TT bike, including my long weekend rides, to get used to holding the position and to make sure I was 100% confident with the fueling and hydration systems I’d use on that bike. With the 150 km Zofingen bike course including 1800 m of climbing, I made sure I didn’t skimp on the hills, even with some of the Peak District descents being a little hair-raising on a lo-pro.

My running was solid too and again, with the Zofingen hills in mind, I made sure I was putting plenty of climbing and descending in my legs. Through August I put it all together with several race pace bike to run “brick sessions” and a solid performance coming 6th at the Powerman UK duathlon, taking it steady on the two 10 km runs and putting in a strong 60 km bike. It was after a 90 km ride and 20 km run workout, that it dawned on me that I was going better than the previous year. Crucially I was injury free and, as I tapered down with two weeks to go, the scales were showing I was lighter than last year too.

With such a great build up, I genuinely believed I was in with a strong chance of defending my title, what I didn’t expect was to end up in a Swiss hospital.

Rain and cool temperatures on race morning suited me fine and, on the first 10 km run, I felt comfortable and took a minute off my previous year’s split. With a headwind on the second half of the 50 km bike loop, conditions on the bike were slower but, sticking religiously to my power pacing strategy, I was riding faster and, by the end of the second lap, was looking on for a 5-7 minute gain on the bike. Crucially, there was only one racer in my age-group down the road and I know I had a significantly faster second run than him. Then, on a 55 kph section of road, a cat ran out in front of me. I remember seeing the cat and I remember being shaken awake by the first person to find me on the road but the rest is a bit of a blank. Looking at my remarkably undamaged bike afterwards, the front tub was completely flat with a nasty gash in the sidewall. I reckon I must have drifted to avoid the cat, being unable to brake hard on the wet road, hit some gravel on the road verge and bang!

When the ambulance arrived, it was all a bit hazy from the drugs the paramedics gave me but, once in hospital, having been X-rayed, scanned and prodded, miraculously I’d got away with nothing more than some fairly impressive skin loss all down the left hand side of my body. There was no sign of head impact on my helmet and the doctors concluded my memory loss was down to my body shutting down due to the shock of the crash. Cleaning and dressing my road rash was done in a very efficient and painful Swiss manner, they did compliment and thank me for having shaved legs though, and, having had my race suit shredded by a combination of the tarmac and the paramedics’ scissors, I was signed out and given a lift back to the race HQ in a backless hospital gown. From gold medal hero to extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest in one year.

My overwhelming emotions were disappointment and frustration but, once I’d been reunited with my wife, a massive dose of relief kicked it. Considering the speed of the crash I’d actually been very lucky and, although we always hope that the worse doesn’t happen and that you successfully compete every event you enter, you should always be prepared for when you don’t.

Was I prepared for it going wrong?

Most importantly considering I was racing abroad, my hospital bills were covered by my European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). A EHIC lets you get state healthcare at a reduced cost or sometimes for free. It will cover you for treatment that is needed to allow you to continue your stay until your planned return. The EHIC is valid in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries, including Switzerland and is free to apply for. I also had full travel insurance. This is important if you’re riding in the mountainous areas that many European sportives favour as a helicopter evacuation won’t be covered by your EHIC. However, many insurers insist you hold an EHIC and many will waive the excess is you have one. Double check that your travel insurance policy does cover competitive cycling if you’re racing. Race Gold membership of British Cycling also gives you personal accident insurance that covers overseas events. Should you be the cause of an accident, third party liability insurance is available for Race Gold, Race Silver and Ride Members. For more details of the legal and insurance benefits of British Cycling membership go here.

Every time I head out for a training ride, I always wear a dog-tag with my name, blood group, allergy information and ICE (in case of emergency) contact numbers on. I’ll also have these ICE numbers stored in my mobile phone and the key-guard off. At a race or sportive, you’ll normally have to write all of this information and ICE contact numbers on the back of you race number. If racing abroad, make sure you write the ICE numbers down with the correct country codes. I’m ashamed to admit, distracted by race pre-race nerves and focus, that I neglected to fill in my details on my number. This led to a significant delay in my wife being contacted and unnecessary stress and worry for her.

Learning from what went wrong

This was one of those freak accidents that there was probably nothing I could do about. However, if you do take a tumble off your bike, it’s always worth trying to identify why you went down and if there’s anything you could do to prevent a similar accident in the future.

Bike setup

Pre and post ride bike checks should be as much of your ride routine as putting on and taking off your helmet. Common faults that can cause crashes include. Incorrectly setup brakes or worn pads, worn or incorrectly inflated tyres, loose headset, incorrectly tightened quick release skewers and incorrectly adjusted pedal release tension.

Cornering, braking and descending technique

Always try to brake in a straight line using front and rear brakes. As you go round the corner, push down through the outside pedal and, if you do need to scrub more speed, feather your rear brake. Never use your front brake when going round a corner. Stay relaxed when descending, go down on your drops and don’t overreact or tense up if the bike moves underneath you. For technique pointers on descending and cornering go here. Spending some time riding off-road is an excellent way to develop bike handling skills and becoming confident at braking and cornering on slippery trails will directly transfer to improved riding on the road.

Group Riding Skills

Touching wheels or nervousness riding in a group can easily cause you and potentially other riders to go down. Before your event make sure you spend some time riding in a group of other riders to get used to the sensation, techniques and etiquette. Joining a club and taking part in some club runs is an excellent way to develop the confidence and skills and you can also polish up your knowledge here.

Dealing with hazardous road surfaces

Drain covers, ice, gravel and, in my case, cats are all hazards that you can cause you problems when riding. The ideal is to look ahead and avoid them but, if this is impossible, with good technique, most can be safely ridden. Look here for how to deal with hazardous surfaces and again, some time spent riding off-road, will improve your ability to cope with poor road surfaces.

Along with falling off or having a crash, there are a number of other problems that can cause you to end your big race or sportive with a DNF after your name.

Mechanical Failures

Probably the most frustrating ways to not finish your target event is a terminal mechanical failure. Safeguard yourself from this happening by either booking your bike in for a complete overhaul a couple of weeks before your big event or, if you’re mechanically sound, do it yourself. Allow at least two weeks as, if there are any problems or parts that need replacing, it’ll give you or the shop time to order them. You’ll then also have time for new parts to bed in and to make any final tweaks and adjustments after your final taper rides. Don’t skimp on spares and tools in an attempt to shave grams on the big day. You won’t be able to cover every eventuality but two spare tubes, a pump/CO2, tyre levers, multi-tool with chain tool and a Missing/Power link is the minimum you should have.

Bonking

Running out of energy can happen to the very best, as demonstrated by Chris Froome on Alpe D’Huez during his triumphant 2013 Tour de France. However your fueling strategy is something you should have rehearsed numerous times in training and, once you’ve got it nailed, should never to strayed from. Look here for advice from Nigel Mitchell, British Cycling and Team Sky Nutritionist. Make sure you’ve checked out what nutritional products are on offer at feeding stations and, if you haven’t been able to test them in training, use your own. Personally I’ll always try to be self-reliant on a sportive and, apart from refilling my bottles, not rely on feed stations. Although this means taking a bit of a weight hit on carrying bars and gels, it means I’m 100% confident I’ve got what I need and what works for me for the entire ride. Even if you follow exactly the same fuelling strategy as you have in training, it’s still possible to suffer from a bonk or gastric distress. This will probably be because you’ve been caught up in the atmosphere of the big day and ridden too hard. This will have placed a greater energy demand on your body and additionally, when working harder than your normal long day pace, your body won’t be able to process and absorb the food you are giving it effectively.

Cramping

Cramp can easily bring you to a sudden and frustrating halt. You can usually manage to limp home but, if you get a bad bout, it’ll definitely put a big dent in your finishing time. Poor hydration and not maintaining electrolyte balance until fairly recently was thought to be the biggest contributing factor to cramping and, although making sure you do drink enough of the right drink is important to cycling success, recent research seems to suggest that physical conditioning and pacing are more significant. Simply put, if you ride too hard for too long, you’ll cramp. Ride to the same intensity that have practiced in training and don’t be tempted to push harder, especially early on in the ride.

Hypothermia and Hyperthermia

Allowing yourself to get too cold or too hot will increase the stress on your already hard working body. This can lead to an increased calorie or fluid demand that your unable to meet or an inability to maintain your normal riding pace. In cold or wet conditions, dress appropriately and pay particular attention to wearing a quality wicking base layer and a wind/waterproof shell layer. Don’t neglect to drink in the cold and you might find that you need to up the amount of food you consume. On sportives that take in high mountain passes, it’s perfectly possible to have 30C temperatures in the valleys but be riding through freezing fog and snow drifts at the summits. In these conditions, it’s easy to get dangerously cold, especially on the long descents. Carry a lightweight windproof jacket or gilet and even consider arm warmers, long fingered gloves and a skullcap. If conditions are far hotter than you’re used to, you’ll need to increase fluid consumption, ensuring you maintain electrolyte levels. You also may need to ride at a slightly more conservative pace than you normally would. If you know that your target event is going to take place in conditions that you’re not used to, consider flying out a week early to allow yourself to become acclimatized.

Getting back in the saddle

It’s always a massive disappointment when you’ve trained hard, for a focussed nine months in my case for Zofingen, and things don’t go according to plan. In the case of a crash, you’ll always feel shook up but, if your injuries allow, it’s vital to get back on your bike quickly. My wife got me out of the door on the Tuesday following the race on the Sunday and, although I felt a bit nervy early on, it was definitely the right thing to do. I then rode the track on the Wednesday and, by the end of that session, all anxiety had gone.

Don’t fall off the wagon, stop riding and start eating and drinking badly. You’ve worked far too hard to let it all slip. Look for another event in the next couple of weeks that you could channel your fitness and frustration into. It might not be as illustrious or have the same kudos as your main event but it’ll definitely give you some consolation. Less than a week on from Zofingen, I was on the start line of the Grindleford Goat sportive. I had a great day riding the 110 km/2000m route in the wonderful Peak District with an old friend and it definitely banished some of my Zofingen demons and reaffirm my love for cycling. For a competitive soul like me, it helped that we crossed the line in the fastest time and, although not a World title, put a smile back on my face. Saying that, a suicidal sheep did do its best to scupper this ride too!

Moving on

Despite the final race not going quite as I planned, 2013 has been a great year. I’ve discovered a great training tool in a power meter and this has definitely helped me to keep making progress as a rider.

I’m 40 at the beginning of 2014 and have a new project already planned. It’s a fairly significant change in direction but you’ll have to wait for my next blog for details. Lets just say I’ll be hanging up my running shoes and riding round in circles a lot.

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