Neil Shirley's Final Thoughts on Unbound Gravel

As we’re all slowly crawling out of our post- Unbound Gravel hangover, I wanted to do one last blog post with some final thoughts about the work that Neil and I did together.  From the feedback Neil gave me during our debrief, here’s a quick summary of my notes:

  1. Neil didn’t think that he needed to make any big changes to his training in 2019.  While this is a definite positive, it is in no way because things went according to plan.  Neil is on Tier 3 service and as such we have a coach initiated consult every week.  I can say that most weeks we made small changes to the schedule. Those small course corrections make a big difference when summated.
  2. Neil was 100% prepared physically and mentally.  He’s an experienced rider and that makes some aspects easier to coach than with others.  But the end result was a fully prepared athlete and he showed it.
  3. Neil did race conservatively and he consistently made tactical decisions with respect to that strategy.  While that may have cost him a few places, it’s hard to objectively reach that conclusion and even more difficult to argue with the results.  Neil was in a group racing for 9th place at the end of 206 miles of gravel.  He was SO CLOSE to that top 10. Also, take a look at the results and you’ll see he’s among some definite superstars.

Finally, I wanted to thank Neil for all his hard work and for trusting the process.  Look for us to continue working together on a number of projects in the future!

Here’s Neil’s final thoughts:

Seven months has passed since Adam Mills of Source Endurance wrote my first weeks training plan for Unbound Gravel. I don’t quite recall in exact detail what the week consisted of in terms of workouts, but what I do remember is thinking, “oh boy, here we go”. June 2nd, the day of Unbound Gravel seemed so far off at the moment it was still hard to wrap my head around focused training for the next seven months. I used to do that when I raced professionally, but that was a lot of years ago and the number of times I’ve used a power meter (or at least one with batteries in it) since then could be counted on one hand. Adam described our coach/athlete relationship as me taking a leap of faith in working with him, while in fact I see it as the opposite. The potential for me to let him down as a coach was so much greater in my opinion.
Now, that’s all old news. Hopefully you’ve followed along with each journal post as we got closer to the big goal. The early season build up through Rock Cobbler, then looking ahead to the Belgian Waffle Ride, plus a few key pieces I would need to be mindful of out at Unbound Gravel, and finally the pre-race check in that did indeed show Adam had worked his magic. Little did Adam realize but he had already allowed me to accomplish my goal in working together. As any good coach would, he was looking all the way down the road and helping lay out a race strategy, but really, in the beginning I only asked him to have me riding at the highest level I possibly could be (considering training time constraints, of course) going into Unbound Gravel. He definitely did that. How I saw it, the race itself was just gravy since it’s the process that’s some of the most fun.
I don’t want to make it seem that I didn’t have any performance goals for the race itself, because that’s just not true. What I mean is that I hadn’t been confident in my fitness for the past few years now, so going to the start line without wondering at what point am I going to fall apart was especially comforting compared to what I’m accustomed to out there. More often than not, that’s included me being a mess by the time I reached the midpoint checkpoint, then had another 100 odd miles or so to drag my pride through the flint rock, mud, and whatever else I came across on course. I guess that’s a big part of why I continue subjecting myself to this year after year, hoping that once, just once, I can still maintain some semblance of dignity all the way to the finish.
When I set out from the start this year, surrounded by an all-star field that included riders like Sven Nys, Jens Voigt, Ted King, and Geoff Kabush, I did have a few goals in mind. The main one was to ride up to my ability level and whatever place that put me at then so be it. If I did that I would be happy. My secondary goal was to break 12 hours, something I had never done before. And finally, my dream goal was to finish inside the top-10 overall. That’s a tall ask considering the depth of the field just continues to improve every year and many of those riders in that front group ride bikes for a living. I’m proud to say I accomplished the first two goals, and nearly succeeded in meeting my dream goal as well. From beginning to end I made good decisions that allowed me to stay in the mix toward the front, while minimizing using matches that would come back to haunt me later on. A group of five of us fought it out coming into the final mile for the last two spots in the top-10. They proved faster than me, but I came across the line with a level of personal satisfaction that I hadn’t felt in quite some time.
It’s pretty amazing what a different experience it is riding the second half of Unbound Gravel while still having some race left in the body rather than barely being able to hold my head up for the final seven-hour slog to the finish. A little focused training can make all the difference in not only going faster, but even more important for me, actually truly being able to enjoy the experience. Now that I know it’s possible for me to have a good ride out there, I’m already thinking about a top-10 next year.

1 Comment

  1. Robert Ellis on July 4, 2018 at 12:50 pm

    Great article!