As Mountain Trax rider Ben Thomas explained to MarathonMTB.com last week, marathon events will form a bigger part of his race program in 2012. In the second part of our interview with the 2011 Kielder 100 Champion, Thomas tells us where his season will take him, how he intends to get there and the records he’s hoping to break along the way.
Thomas’s shift towards long-form mountain bike racing has been a gradual one. While he will continue to include cross country racing in his calendar, his obvious talent for marathon racing is something of a bonus for an affection borne of the social aspect of the longer mountain bike disciplines.
“In the UK cross country racing doesn’t have the popular following like it does in mainland Europe. XC races are normally well attended in terms of participants but sadly there aren’t many spectators. You don’t get the same atmosphere found at enduro and marathon events because there are fewer spectators.
“The popularity of 12 and 24 hour events like Twentyfour12, Mountain Mayhem, and TORQ In Your Sleep is growing year on year. The chance to ride a few laps of a fun course, try out some night riding, spend time with your mates, and camp out in the forest with family creates a fantastic weekend atmosphere. I’ve got loads of fond memories at events of this type,” he said.
Those memories also include success, with Thomas proving his marathon pedigree with a commanding victory in atrocious conditions at the 2011 Kielder 100. Although, as he explains, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
“At one of my very first races where I was asked to race with Mountain Trax at a 24 hour event my good mate Dean Morgan and I were riding the first 3 hour night shift whilst the other members of the team got some sleep. As Dean went out for another lap I sat in the arena under a blanket with a bag of Jelly Babies, Dean told me to eat a few of these before my next lap. Much to the amusement of Dean when he returned I’d eaten the whole packet and suffered from huge stomach ache for the next hour or so! This little story still gets a laugh whenever it’s mentioned. Racing Elite XC can be pretty high pressure and it’s less likely to be a place where little fun stories like this are formed.”
Going sub-7 on the Scottish border
Although Thomas’s performance at the Kielder 100 turned heads as he rode clear of a strong field in foul conditions, for the victor the decision to place more focus on marathon racing had already been made. He’ll return to defend his title, but with no opportunity to improve on his podium position from last year, he’ll head to Northumberland with the course record in his sights.
“The Kielder 100 win was definitely the highlight of my year but I think by that point I’d already decided marathon racing would form a larger part of my future schedule. The dire conditions weren’t particularly pleasant but I think I coped well and it helped me ride clear to victory. That day certainly taught me a lot. The race is part of my 2012 schedule, if I can repeat the victory it’ll be a great way of paying back my sponsor Montane for all their help. My biggest draw for returning back to the race though is not just to win but to break the 7 hour target which the organizer have set. A lot depends on the weather conditions but its there to be broken and I’m going for sub 7 hours.”
Early indications signal Thomas as a potential future force for British marathon racing. With the fledgling discipline gradually being given more and more attention by the UCI, Thomas’s move towards long-form racing couldn’t have been better. For now, however, his goals on the world stage remain tempered by his own relative infancy in marathon racing.
“[The UCI XCM World Championships are] a big goal this year, hopefully I can get there but I’m unsure about the number of participants each nation can send. I’ve heard that Oli Beckinsale is keen to go, as a former multiple national champ he’ll get the thumbs up from British Cycling, I’ve also heard that someone else has secured a position thanks to a top-20 World Series finish.
“All there is to do is train as hard as possible and then race even harder in pursuit of either good results the selection board will notice or even achieve a top 20 World Series result for automatic qualification. The other opportunity to impress is at the Marathon National Champs, I’m hugely motivated for this event and my early season is now solely focused on getting on that podium.”
Set for the season
With a mixture of XC and marathon racing in the pipeline this season, Thomas’s preparations for the season have been aimed at striking the balance between speed and endurance. Despite the balancing act, he’s confident his new approach can pay dividends as the season progresses.
“I’ve finished my base training phase and have completed my first few weeks of speed work, which are going surprisingly well. The legs and mind are feeling strong, hopefully this positivity will continue through the next 3 hard weeks of training.
“My training intensity has increased and I’ll be doing double days several times a week with lots of intervals, gym sessions, and tempo threshold work. The number of long rides reduces but the plan is to do at least one 6 hour ride a week to maintain the endurance level I’ve built over the winter.”
Thomas has also been using the weeks leading up to the season to get used to the equipment provided by his sponsors.
“Equipment is pretty much dialed in already, the sponsors have been great in getting bike parts to me so quickly and the mechanics at Mountain Trax have put together two fantastic bikes for me to race and train on. I’ll be racing on the Santa Cruz Highball which is built around big 29er Hope hoops, USE and Crank Brothers finishing kit, Fox forks, and Kenda tires. I’ve been really impressed with the bikes so far and can’t wait to race the bikes in all different parts of the world. Hopefully I can pick up a trophy or two along the way.”