Irish mountain-bikers are an enterprising bunch. In a nation with a rich cycling history on the road, for mountain-bikers necessity is definitely the mother of invention. And there is perhaps none more enterprising than Ryan Sherlock. Three times national marathon champion, Sherlock’s dedication to his sport has seen him rise steadily up the ranks both at home and overseas.
Active across the gamut of the Irish mountain-bike, road and cyclo-cross scenes, Sherlock still holds down a full-time job as a software consultant. Somehow, he has managed to find the time to train up to the condition that has seen him hold the Irish marathon title since 2008, claim the 2010 Irish hill climb championships on the road and lock-down second place in the country’s 2010 ‘cross title race.
“The driver for me is simply competition. I just like competing, whether it’s on a road bike or a mountain-bike,” Sherlock tells MarathonMTB.com from his home in Dublin. “Up until the middle of this year mountain-biking was my core focus. I’d been starting to do more road and last year started cyclo-cross but all of that had largely been for training.”
Sherlock achieved his highest UCI marathon ranking in 2009, 17th, but that impressive standing belies the fact that his entry into the sport had only occurred four years earlier, after he followed a colleague’s lead and bought his first “serious” bike. His first taste of competition followed in 2006, when he claimed fourth place in the intermediate category of California’s Sea Otter cycling festival.
“I was in California for work. My brother was doing the road race at Sea Otter and I said ‘oh well, I may as well do the mountain-bike race’. Thank kind of got me into proper racing,” he explains. “I rode at the expert level for a year and decided ‘hey, I really like this’, so I went and talked to Robin Seymour, who’s been the Irish cross-country God for the past 15-20 years. He’s won 15 national XC titles, something 18 national cyclo-cross titles and been to the Olympics three times. He agreed to coach me and I moved into the elite ranks.”
From there, Sherlock’s results sheet reads something like the positive half of a binary code string. Consistent victories led to him being voted the Irish male cyclist of the year in 2009. Since then necessity has seen Sherlock show an increasing amount of time racing on the road, with a 17th place overall finish at the UCI 2.2-ranked FBD Insurance RAS this year.
“If you look at the racing I do, for me in Ireland, almost all the racing I do has to be abroad. At a race here there’d really only be myself, Robin and one or two other guys competing at an elite level so if I want deeper competition I have to fly. Ireland has a long tradition of having great road races and the level is much higher so it’s very easy for me to get to a hard two-three hour road race on the weekend,” he says.
“If I want to do the same thing on a mountain-bike I’d have to take Friday off work, fly out, spend 500 euro. There’s really only so many times you can do that in a year.”
Despite Ireland’s lack of depth and events to push its elite marathon racers, Sherlock’s heart remains closest to the off-road side of the sport. He feels the unique challenge presented by marathon events remains most suited to his strengths.
“People ask me which I prefer and I tell them I prefer training on the road, but racing on my mountain-bike. Off-road there’s just so many variables, everything’s constantly changing and there’s never a dull moment. Whereas a four hour road race can be three hours of monotony and then excitement at the end, if you’re in the right move or whatever.
“I’ve had a bit of a revelation of the last little while,” the 28-year-old continues. “I think cross-country racing is just a little too short for me. I’m not exactly a very explosive rider and what really appeals to me is marathon racing where there’s nice long climbs or road stage racing where it’s sort of similar; it’s much more of an endurance event. Really the events that you might describe as being ‘epic’ – long, hard stuff in not always great conditions.”
With that in mind, one of Sherlock’s major goals will be next year’s world marathon championships, where he will be targeting yet another high finish. This year he finished a somewhat disappointing 83rd, but feels he has the measure of the 2011 world championship course in Montebelluna, Italy.
“I have to get the start of races right. I sucked at the marathon world championships because of that. Next year my goal will be top-30. I rode the [2011 world championship course] this year at the European championships and I was kinda sick for the first few hours but I came round towards the end. I like the course, it’s not as technical as I would have liked but I plan to spend more time on the road bike next year so I know that’s a course that even without a lot of mountain-biking I should be able to ride pretty well.”
Getting the balance right
Due to his work schedule Sherlock spends much of his time training alone in the countryside around Dublin. It’s a regime that, although effective, would otherwise wear away at the passion some riders might hold. But in spite of his dedication towards reaching his full potential as an athlete, Sherlock has – quite literally – not lost sight of the wonder cycling and in particular mountain-biking holds.
“Because of my work almost all my training is by myself. I use a power meter an awful lot. It’s at this time of year that I enjoy going out and riding with big groups of other riders and taking my time on the road – not trying to pull 300 watts for whatever. It’s just getting back to the enjoyment, getting other people to take you on routes you haven’t seen before.
“I remember in Graz [Austria] at the world championships in 2009 there was that long climb up to the ski station. I was going along pretty well at that point and there were groups of riders that were blowing up. There were three or four of us together and I remember looking to my right and the view was absolutely stunning,” he recalls. “I looked round and saw that the other riders were chewing the handlebars because we were three or four k’s from the top and everyone was sore, but I said to them ‘seriously, take a look around, it’s absolutely beautiful’.”
He did enjoy several weeks off the bike after claiming his third national marathon title at the end of September. It was a short off-season, but by his own admission, ‘short’ is a very subjective term.
“My last race was the national marathon titles where I was able to defend my title. A few days after that wife and I went to Peru on our honeymoon. We were off the bike for almost three weeks and that’s by far the longest time I’ve spent off the bike since I started cycling. Even when I broke my collarbone I was only off the bike for three days. But I think we really had to go that far away for us not to just end up riding.”
Clearly Sherlock isn’t the only one in the household who requires a hemisphere to lever him off the bike. His wife, Germany’s Melanie Späth, began her own march up the women’s UCI rankings in recent years. Their mutual cycling goals has also seen them become teammates on the bike, with both sharing the support of sponsors, including Specialized.
“One of the great things about mountain-biking is that men and women are on the same pedestal,” says Sherlock. “We ride the same course on the same day so we get to share a lot of that. On the results sheet she’s been kicking my ass for quite a while now. She was 31st at the world championships last year and had her highest ranking in cross-country was this year, so she can ride a bike very, very well. This year she’ll stay focused on the mountain-biking while I move closer to the road.
“We were able to gain sponsorship with Specialized through the Irish distributor and a shop here called Cycleways. So those guys and KCNC, ZipFit and Schwalbe have been really big for Mel and I over the last year or two,” he says, clearly grateful of the support. “We’ve been really fortunate to have all our equipment and nutrition for races sponsored because in terms of getting to races we still foot the bill.
“I wonder why I don’t save any money but when you look at the calendar of races we do at the end of the year you quickly figure it out,” he adds with a laugh.