This weekend saw the 2017 XTerra Switzerland cross-triathlon take place in Vallee des Joux, near Lausanne. I had hoped to have another stab at cross triathlon this year after recovering from RED-S / HA, but unfortunately UK races are few and far between. There are virtually none in the South of England except a few very short, low-key races; the flagship XTerra UK race this year was cancelled; Human Race have cancelled their series of off-road winter duathlons. One of the few UK races that looks promising is the Aviemore Triathlon on 6th August, but I’m not sure I want the pressure of training for another one of these right now, and the stress, time and expense of a whole day’s travelling each way.
I don’t know if or when the last time that British Triathlon designated an official Cross Triathlon championships, but it looks clear that they will also not be holding a Cross Duathlon championships next year either, due to low participation. Having spoken to a few people in the sport, there were a few different reasons for the cancellation of the last two scheduled XTerra UK races (planned to be held at UWC Atlantic College in South Wales in 2017 and at Vachery Estate in Surrey in 2016), the level of participation seems to be a major issue across the board for these events.
Since I first heard about the Xterra races and found out about the cross-triathlon niche, I’ve wondered why it struggles with numbers so much here in the UK. The format seems to be burgeoning with participation in other parts of the world, particularly North America and Europe and there are races all over South-East Asia too. There has been some enthusiastic coverage of the sport in 220Triathlon, the most widely-read triathlon magazine in the UK. Everyone knows the UK is a bit of a powerhouse on international triathlon scene – the Brownlee brothers are beloved by all regular BBC viewers, Chrissie Wellington is not infrequently referred to as one of the greatest female athletes of all time, not to mention the Olympians, World Champions and top-ranked UK athletes in the sport. In addition to this, triathlon participation is growing rapidly at the grass-roots level. But the UK also prides itself on it standard of mountain-bike riding, largely on account of its provision of some great trail centres (2500km of trails are maintained by the Forestry Commission alone, excluding fire-road paths) and reliably wet weather which combine to make tough-all-weather riding accessible via well-maintained, signposted graded trails. Statistics for people disappearing into the forests on two-wheels is understandably hard to come by, but it’s estimated that around 5.5 million people in the UK ride off-road at least once per year. You’d think there would be a good amount of crossover between the two.
Speaking from personal experience, very few club-level triathletes have ever heard of cross-triathlon and when they hear the name ‘Xterra’, they think of swim-run events like SwimRun Norway. They often have some mountain bike experience, but understandably (especially in densely populated places like London) don’t usually have a mountain bike alongside the bike(s) they use for triathlon. The mountain-bikers, on the other hand, sometimes dabble in running or swimming, but rarely both, and not many seem to have an interest in combining the three. So logistics are a big factor – I’ve made sacrifices in my domestic life to own a road and mountain bike (hello, scuffed walls!), but I think there’s also a difference in mindset.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks, after writing my last blog post about my reasons for trying to change my attitude towards training and then Facebook’s uninvited reminders of what I was doing over these last few days in 2016 of my trip to Switzerland a year ago for the 2016 ETU Cross Triathlon European Championships (also detailed at length in a past blog post). People say mountain bikers are super laid-back, fun-loving people. I’ve watched people in their peak condition at races and I can tell you that some of them take it as seriously as any roadie, but their results depend a lot more on chance and skill than a road cyclist and skills are at once harder to quantify and also less reversible than the fitness measures that are a major factor in road cycling performance (I use the term ‘road cycling’ loosely as I appreciate that crit and road races involve a lot of skill, tactics and luck, but for time-trialling, it’s certainly true that results are dependent mostly on fitness and this is the case for most non-professional triathlons).
I think the mountain-bike rider’s mindset and motivations for riding are very different from that of a road-cyclist, in part because of how important a role bike-handling skills are alongside fitness, but also because of the fear-factor of throwing yourself down a technical descent (or up a steep ascent for that matter!). You need a certain level of calm and confidence to deal cope with the flood of adrenaline that happens when you’re riding technical terrain. Based on my sample of one, I propose a theory that the constant physiological stress, combined with the mental performance anxiety that are common in triathletes, can make mountain biking in the middle of a triathlon too much to bear. There’s a lot of chance and a lot more risk. A few of my triathlon friends have also had a go at Xterra but haven’t been converted. Cross-triathlon folk say it’s a more laid-back and friendly vibe than conventional triathlon racing (I think normal tris are pretty friendly though!) and I liked the idea of a more low-key affair. However, when it came down to my own races, I didn’t feel especially laid back as I brought my control-freak mindset from road triathlon with me. I put myself under a huge amount of pressure to do well and my body was making-do with too little energy and a seriously out-of-balance endocrine system. When I finished the bike leg of Xterra Switzerland last year, I felt like my lack of mental strength was my undoing. I was in the peak fitness of my life and I knew I could handle a bike in a lot of mud, but in spite of this my confidence was as fragile as a pair of glass cranks.
I feel like I still have unfinished business with off-road triathlon. I’ve still never finished one so that’s an understatement really! But thinking about the last year, I wonder if maybe this will be the niche for me if and when I make a proper multi-sport comeback. I’ve only been mountain-biking a handful of times in the last year, but each time I finish grinning from ear-to-ear and my speed seems to have hardly blunted since last year when I was going off-road every week or so because it’s largely skill-dependent – how many other endurance sports can you say that about? It’s also easier to be mindful and present when you’re immersed in the forest or wilderness (or a manicured trail centre!) so the focus is less on yourself and more about the experience and surroundings. This isn’t to say that cross-triathletes and mountain-bikers are all speeding about in a state of zen like Buddha on two wheels, but if I can recover my mindset to the point of being able to deal with the thrill of unexpected rocky descents or sticky yet slippery quagmires without a mental breakdown, I’ll consider that a win. I just hope there are more opportunities to do off-road racing in the coming years without having to board a plane.
Update 29/06/17: I realised it doesn’t make sense to bemoan the lack of cross-triathlon events and frequent race cancellations without doing my bit to promote the events that are happening. Below are some races that I was thinking of as potential options for 2017 – the less exciting ones are near-ish to London then the ones further away look potentially worth a weekend trip. I’ve search high and low to find these and a number of events on my list at the start of the year have since been cancelled, so I’ve taken these off. There’s not many remaining so please comment below if there are any I’ve yet to discover and I’ll add them on. Give one of these a go to keep the sport going in the UK!