Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Cult Racing MegaCross

Only my second cross race of the year, and one where it would be all to easy to make a James Naughtie mistake with the title sponsors. Rachel's thoughts on the experience can be found on here new blog here. My report from the men's race later in the afternoon is below:

Having cheered Rachel along, and even found time to take some fairly terrible pictures whilst wolfing down some Shotbloks (my, what a nutritious lunch i hear you say!), it was all too soon my turn to take to the freezing start line. A small, but “elite” (in BC report parlance) group of ‘crossers assembled on the front row, clearly the appeal of driving to Bradford for a kicking hadn’t been sufficient to keep them from the real competition. After last year’s competitive lay-off between September and March, i’ve been keen not to stop the racing juices completely over the winter months this year, and so took to the line with a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction. I had a hard act to follow, however, with Rachel almost doing a “Spud” and winning her first race for the team!

The commissaire kindly pointed out where we would be going on the first lap, making a particular point to talk loudly and slowly to the non-locals (that was most of us!), and then gave us five minutes warning. Five minutes. Crap – white knees exposed to the winter breeze, the skinsuit was doing nothing for my core temperature when standing next to a frozen lake. I tried to distract myself with memories of Gran Canaria until the whistle went, and i was off for my “lull them into a false sense of security” start (patent pending). Sure enough, i got ritually elbowed out of the way, and ended up some way back of the leading group, engaged in a good battle for the higher single-figure placings. I had ridden around the course and knew that i would be less strong on the “field of tea cups” section at the back of the course – luckily with elbows out and shouts of “it’s just my riding style” i managed to hold position until a cheeky passing manoeuvre from a Cambridge Uni rider woke me up. Not being ready to cede a position to an upstart from my alma mater, i gave what i like to think was a spirited chase. Thankfully for me, he blew before i did, and i picked him off on one of the increasingly greasy and unrideable bank sections.

Coming into the final lap, it was a case of trying to stem the rot, and i quickly became aware of a rider closing fast. In a panic caused mainly by lack of racing, i tried in vain to ride him off my wheel (bad plan) rather than sitting up and forcing him to take up the pace to the line (better plan). He passed me on the draggy grass in the final straight, and i didn’t have the heart to spoil his day (cough cough cough). 9th place was actually a lot better than i was expecting, but i was disappointed to be beaten by a man sporting a fantastically unfetching blue cat-suit. Justifiably perhaps, i received further friendly “abuse” for this on finishing, unable to return fire through the chilling air in my lungs.

Once again i seem to have blinked and missed the 'cross season almost entirely; i had originally had planned to blow the winter cobwebs off with a blast around the Rutland National Trophy, but given that the Belgies tend to turn up to this one i figured i wouldn't get value for money racing around for two laps before being pulled. So i'll be relegated to pit crew and tub-gluer for Rachel for that one, and put what little racing form i have into the last round of the Eastern League at Ipswich on January 2nd.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I am 28 years old. Since the age of five, barring the last eighteen months, i have been in education; a dedicated task you might think, but i would disagree. At the age of sixteen, it was clear to me that i would be an historian, or possibly a journalist as a career. By seventeen, i had decided that i could change the world for the better by devoting my life to chemistry. On to university, and the endless memorising of rules, coupled with a complete inability to do practical science without spilling things made for a hasty exit, stage left, from the world of chemistry. Through the next archway i stepped, into the cosy world of mathematics, where the only hazard was over-sharp pencils. Unable to even contemplate the impossible infinity of careers that lay ahead of me, i kept going, doing a masters in applied maths, and then a PhD in string theory, each step in a different direction, leading nowhere but taken for the journey, not the destination.

At some point during my early time at university, having been the fat wheezy kid with a note from his mum at school, i decided i would make life more challenging by trying sport. I started with that most Cambridge of beginnings, rowing. And i sucked. Big time. It almost came as a relief when a crash with another boat left me unable to row, and once again i could exorcise the serial malcontent within by trying something else new. I blew what remained of my student loan on a shiny new road bike sitting in the window of the local bike shop, the neat, slick tyres, the tidy sweep of the handlebars appealed to the perfectionist in me. With no idea where i was going, my first few rides turned into grim marches through the windswept fens to the north of Cambridge, where the best reward for an hour’s slog into the wind was ten minutes with it at your back. I loved the purity of the effort, and the freedom it gave, but something was still missing.

And so it was that one afternoon, a few weeks into my fledgling attempts at cyclesport, my next door neighbour pointed out my error. “Looks like a nice bike, buddy, but the wheels are too big, and the tyres are too slick. Take it back, and see if you can get a proper bike”. And so it was that i bought my first mountain bike. The two of us rode out to the local woods, Ash the knowledgeable and competent dirt jumper, and me feeling very much like a fish out of water. In that first session, i managed to crash twice, bending my brake lever and causing my front wheel to resemble a pringle. I spent the rest of the week walking to lectures with a rather uncool swagger from the haematoma spreading over my left leg. But i was hooked – i had become that oddest of beasts, the Fenland mountain biker.

Over the last decade that i have lived here, as you might have gathered from my introduction, things have come and gone in my life, and yet bikes have remained remarkably constant. I have dabbled in cyclocross, cross country racing, road racing, crits, and even tried unicycling, and again perhaps my reluctance to make a firm decision shows through. And yet, never have i considered abandoning two wheels for anything else. Perhaps the pattern of life is reflected in the outlook of the cyclist; in daily life we can be too preoccupied with the destination to enjoy the journey. But really, the journey is everything that we have.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Reviews of the Year

So Good

KCNC Roller Bearing BB – A great bit of sensible engineering. The trouble with ball bearings is that when they wear, they then rattle around in the shell, and there’s nothing you can do to tighten things up again. The clever people at kcnc have realised that this is a huge disadvantage with conventional HTII bottom brackets, which is where their roller-bearing BB fills a fantastic niche. When the roller bearings wear, you can use the HTII bolt to tighten up the BB spindle slightly, and take up the slack in the bearings. Et voila! A much longer-lived BB. Sadly, it doesn’t get the KCNC treatment in terms of weight, coming in at a pretty 130g, but i’d imagine that it’s only a matter of time before a ceramic version appears. Available here:

Simple Strap – Another neat little solution to a simple problem, the simple strap is brainchild of ByeKyle, and consists of a Velcro strap with a stitched-on grip pad to keep hold of your stuff. The strap itself can be fitted to your seatpost (although annoyingly the Velcro will clip your shorts and quickly wear through them – embarrassing!), or better still under your saddle, and is big enough to comfortably hold a spare lightweight tube, tyre lever and gas canister. The strap is lightweight, easily removed quickly with gloved hands, and offers a more secure grip of your things that the conventional black insulating tape approach. Particularly good for lumpy races, or long marathons where spares are essential. Available here:

Ergon GR2-SL Grips – Another godsend of engineering, this time hinging on smart biomechanics. I went through a phase a couple of years ago of always racing with lightweight foam grips (the 20g ritchey ones are a particularly weight-weenie choice), and wondered why i often felt like my arms were tense and pumped after long rides and races. In anticipation of my first 12hr solo at 24-12 last year, i bought a lightweight set of ergons, and they haven’t come off my bike since! No hanging on for dear life on rough descents, once you get used to them you can just rest your hands on the bars, and the bar ends are great for steep climbs or giving your hands a change of scene.

Sportful Base Layer – A neat bit of clothing, perfect for keeping you cool and dry even on the hottest of days. Designed with a bit of Italian flair, and i know it shouldn’t make a difference, but the neat little logo on the collar makes it look so smart. Some wicking layers can cause, ahem, issues around the nipple area, but these fit just tightly enough to not move, but loosely enough that you don’t feel constricted. Sportful kit can be a bit hit and miss, i’m no so impressed with their “No-rain” knee warmers, but these are just excellent, and less than half the price of the equivalent offerings from the likes of Castelli.

No Good

Shimano XT Chainrings – they seem to be made of cheese! Work well for dry racing, but rack up the miles in dusty environments (i’m thinking Gran Canaria here) or spend the summer racing in the UK (e.g. Margam this year) and they will soon wear to the point where chainsuck becomes an annoying and unavoidable fact of life. Middleburn do a great alternative in the slickshift hardcoat rings at a similar price point, which will outlast and outclass the shimano rings.

Schwalbe Furious Fred Tyres – There’s a reason they’re known as “balloons”. Okay, so i should admit that perhaps putting them in the “no good” category is unfair. Like everything, these tyres have their place – on dry, smooth, preened courses where there is no danger of the rider in front blowing their nose and dampening the course, they’re worth quite a few watts of resistance. Try, foolishly, to use them outside of this environment, even tubeless and filled to the brim with latex, and await the inevitable...

Michelin Latex Tubes – I have to admit i was a little disappointed with the durability of latex tubes – whilst they feel fantastic when they’re in the tyre from the off (giving that “tub like” floating feeling that we all aspire to), they seem to be all too fragile when carried around as spares. The final kick in the groin of Kielder was discovering that the tube that had been stuck to my seatpost for 8hrs had somehow picked up a puncture when empty of air. Cue a lot of cursing, a long walk down the hill and a dislike of green latexy things...

Superstar Bottom Brackets – Just terrible, they last two or three wet rides before they give up the ghost and start rattling horribly. A cursory inspection of the inside of the BB shell reveals that the bearings are not sealed from the outside dirt and grit at all, as there is a big open lip on the inside, meaning that if anything gets in through the drainage holes more frames have at the BB, it will seize in double-quick time. Customer service is not a phrase that the people who run this company are particularly au fait with – if you’re foolish enough to complain, you will be sent an email telling you that it’s all your fault and even a monkey could fit their products better than you. Avoid.

Endless trips to Germany – Guaranteed to screw up your plans, your form and your sleep patterns. Strangely, my co-workers seem somewhat unsympathetic to the impact on my much more important training day, one day!

Well, all that remains is to dust off the cross bike, check that the tyres are properly glued on at that the brakes still don’t work, and get ready to get muddy. Now where did i put that vanish...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

National Marathon Champs 2010

So, my final big race of the season. In some ways it came around far too soon, and in others i was glad that my last target was soon after Kielder, where i’d been feeling pretty good, only to be stymied by seemingly endless punctures! The marathon was on the Sunday after the southern XC champs on the Saturday at what has become an extremely well-known venue this year, the Pippingford estate. When i was down there at the national XC champs, i got a brief run-down of the planned marathon course from team mate Steve Jones, and it sounded pretty incredible. Challenging climbing and technical descending sounded like they would make for a hard, but rewarding race.

Fast forward two and a half months to the weekend after the Kielder 100, where i had a less than perfect race (see my report). I had an axe to grind. I’d had a very very gentle week in between the two, remembering from last year just how hard it can be to recover from 100 miles offroad, and by the Sunday felt pretty good and ready for another marathon effort. The race started at 10am, requiring a pretty early start from Cambridge, but even the early start didn’t faze me and after a short warmup around the xc loop, i was ready for the race. We started down a grass slope towards a guy in a high-vis jacket (poor dude was pretty much a target for the field sprint!), and i found myself following Dave Clarke’s wheel. I had just enough time to think “hey, i’m following a premier calendar winner’s wheel” before he hit a patch of sheep poo which hit me square in the face. Cheers Dave!

The first section of the course was similar to the XC course, it was pretty tough and undulating, and rewarded those who could remember the good lines after 25km (i don’t think anyone had the time to preride). Unfortunately, my simple strap carrying my spare tube, tyre lever and gas canister came unshipped here, and then once i’d got going again i then landed on the back of my saddle leaving it pointing skywards (ala Wasing!). In spite of my mechanical misadventures, there were some great sections of singletrack that had the “oh, up there” factor going on. The open moorland sections added a definite wilderness feel, and the skyline was spectacular in places, given how close we were to the big smoke. The sad thing about these sectors was the lumpy, quishy heather that had obviously been a deer run, but never had a pair of wheels roll over it before, which made it a real slog. I’m all in favour of tough climbing, but there’s something so upsetting about being slowed to a crawl by soft surface on a slight incline – it makes you feel so lame.

The climbing led to some sensational singletrack alongside a stream, and up back towards the arena. It was here that the vets winner, Alex Glasgow, caught and passed me like a rocket, and also here where i lost sight of the jerseys ahead of me. I knew what was coming from here on in, we would head up across the lumpy grass field and into the fantastic twisty descent that started the national champs xc course. I loved this part of the course, and even after the heavy rain had made it sticky and slippery, it was great fun to ride and a great motivator to slog up the hills earlier in the lap. Back through the start finish, and some of the guys who’d set off fast ahead of me were already on the side of the track – this was definitely going to turn into a serious battle of attrition over 100km, my favourite sort of race.

Into the second lap, i pushed on – i was feeling good and felt like i could keep the same pace on the climbs without going into the red (not a good idea over such a long race). I was a little shocked that my first lap time suggested that this race could be around the 6hr mark for me (Oli Beck took over 4.5hrs – a long time for an 85km race!), and concentrated on trying to keep the calories and fluids coming in. Familiarity with the descents meant that i could pick up time here and save a bit of energy. The second lap was lonelier, and i allowed my mind to wander a little more than i had in the first lap – constructive distraction can so often be a help in these races – if you concentrate too hard, you realise how uncomfortable you are, whereas if your thoughts drift you can pedal just to give your legs something to do whilst you enjoy the view and the sunshine! Through the transition and i couldn’t see the leaders, which was something of a relief - i was seriously worried that i’d get lapped! Again, the second half of the course was great, although a slight hint of cramp through the quarry section intimated that maybe i should be a little bit careful...

Into the third lap, i decided i would try to pick it up on the climbs, aided by being chased up the first climb of the lap by team mate Steve Jones (to be fair, he was in a white van rather than on the stock xtc!). It was getting hot by this point, and i was being careful to drink plenty – Rachel was handing me up bottles of water mid way through the lap to keep me from turning into a prune. Some deer on the moorland made for some impressive wildlife, and kept me entertained trying to work out where they were going to go next. I managed to shovel down a caffeinated gel, which did the trick, and although i was starting to feel a little tired, i knew i’d be good to finish – after all 85km is a lot less than 100miles!

Through the transition i grabbed another bottle of water, and then headed off down the awesome descent, possibly a little fast as i really did nearly miss the corner at the bottom this time (getting cocky perhaps!). Through the first sections of the xc course, i started feeling a bit detatched and weird – it felt like someone else was riding the bike and i wasn’t properly in control. This had its perks, but when it came to climb up from the bottom of the course the 100miles of Kielder hit me like a bear on my back (i got this phrase from a mate of mine who’s a decathlete – he always used to tell me how when running the 400m, at 300m in the bear jumps on your back and you stagger the rest of the way to the line...). I got to the start finish in time to carry on and finish in 11th place, which would have seen me get UCI marathon points, but i was pallid and feeling very sick by this point. I sat in the feed trying to summon the energy to even contemplate finishing, but i was too worried that the organisers would end up sending an ambulance out for me if i tried, my descending having degenerated from “controlled chaos” to “reckless lunacy”. I packed in after 3 laps, possibly the worst time in a race to call it a day – you have already done the damage, you’ll be sore for days and you’re almost at the finish, but you still have those three dreaded letters “DNF” next to your name.
So, a season pretty much over, sadly neither of my big aims for the year came off, but i’ve learned a great deal and there’s always next year. Thanks as ever to sponsors AW cycles for being awesome support. Ride it like you stole it....

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Kielder 100 2010

The tag line for this event has been “One Lap, One Rider, One Adventure, One hundred miles”, to which we decided should probably be added “100 million midges”. This was a big aim for me and Si for the year, after we first met up at the event in 2009. I was hoping (possibly against hope) that my big training block through August would put enough speed into me that i could play the role of domestique for Si, and take the pressure off for the opening stint of the race, before crawling around to finish myself. The shape of last year’s race suggested that road racing tactics would be the order of the day, with an elite group forming early on and working together towards the finish, where it would be a case of every man for himself. 100miles is a long way to ride alone!
Really, my story should start the weekend before the actual race, when both Si and I independently did our own “dry run” rides – carrying all the mandatory kit we would have to carry over the border, and checking out that our bikes and bodies worked for such a long event. The two of us learned a few things needed to be fixed, i discovered that my middle ring didn’t work with a new chain (ahem – spot which gears i always use!) and that my cables were shot after a season’s use, and Si had similar issues with chains, cassette and new chainset. We both sorted things out and made sure that everything was good for race day though.
Sometime in the middle of the week, it became clear that the weather forecast was going to be a diametric opposite of last year’s biblical weather (if i’d lived in Kielder last year, i would have been building an ark), and that dry, fast riding was going to be the order of the day. For reasons that, looking back are not quite clear to me now, i decided that this meant i should go for the fastest tyres i had – a pair of furious freds that have been sitting in the shed waiting for the call up to duty for about 18 months. They’d be perfect for the job, right? Everything else was set, and a quick pootle around the local trails on Thursday confirmed that my bike worked flawlessly. I had a few days hard-earned rest after a block of 25hrs of riding in 10 days, and was as ready as i could be.
Rachel and I arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday, ready to get an early night in order for me to still be compos mentis at 5am the following morning. Simon turned up a little later, having survived, but only just, the endless traffic on the drive up, and we had a catch up before i hit the trails to try and ride the journey out of my legs. I went up the start loop, and then slipped off onto a middling part of the course, which involved climbing through a load of rushes. I couldn’t believe i had gone the right way, but a regular stream of orange arrows on the ground convinced me otherwise. I pedalled back along the route, still unable to find a line in amongst the bushes, and now with little red pin pricks on my arms from an altercation with a gorse bush.
Time for a quick dinner or two, and then it was time to set the alarm for the most antisocial time i’ve seen aside from my endless work trips to Germany. Before i knew it, it was time to shovel down the cereal, put on my lovely banana-yellow kit and head up to the start. Si and I headed up in tandem, and did our best to be dignified whilst trying to hurdle the barriers, bike in hand. All too soon, the pace van was gently rolling out from the start, with Joolze in the back of the Swinnerton’s van taking photos from the reclining pose of a Roman emperor. We did our best to feature in the photos, staying near the front ready for the turn onto the gravel road that signalled the end of the neutralised section. As soon as the van rolled away, Steve James (Moda) took up the pace, making it decidedly uncomfortable for everyone. I was determined to last in the front group this year, and not do my instant disappearing act of 2009, but i was a little concerned seeing heart rates that could be confused for a good roasting temperature so early on in such a long race.

Over the top of the first climb, someone let the wheel go in front, and there was no way i was up for closing the gap – Matt Page came past, and pulled us back together, and that was me out the back. Once you are on your own in such a race, you know it won’t be long before company is at hand again; one group caught me, but the pace was no more gentle than up front, and so it wasn’t until Ant White caught me on his own that i had some decent tempo company. We rode more or less together, until i took a turn onto a fire road to see Si standing by the trail fighting with a foam canister. I was the good team mate, and helped him get his tyre up, and then cleaned up the general mess that the two of us had made in trying to get his wheel to take some air. I carried on in chase mode, and soon had Tony Morris (Evans) for company. The two of us passed the time, weighing up the puddles that were still in the route, and deciding that discretion was the better part of valour (if they were still there, they **had** to be deep we thought). I stopped at the tech zone to get some air, as my rear tyre had slowly been running out of air, and luckily went completely flat right as i reached the road crossing. Up the rough climb to the bloody bush road, i found myself alone again, and wishing for company to share the pain of the rattles before the nice, smooth boardwalk started.
Over the border, i once again realised that i’d forgotten to put any change into my pockets to drop into the wee man’s sporren, and worried that i might be getting myself a reputation for being tight. Ho hum. Then it was time for the super-fast descent to Newcastleton, where i punctured the rear again (stupid freds) and gave my poor riding companion a face full of latex sealant. What a way to make friends and influence people. By the time i got to the feed, i was running seriously low on energy – i’d decided to do the race “alpine style” and not have any feed bags with the intention of grabbing gels at the feed stations instead to save on faff. Unfortunately, the poor people i harassed at the first two feeds didn’t have any gels to give me, only crisps, jaffa cakes and haribo – not really pocketable foodstuffs. So it wasn’t until feed 3 when i piled in the millionaire shortbreads and filled my bottle with cans of coke. Paul Davis (SIP events and race organiser) let me know that my friend Andrew Cockburn (Cambridge CC) was leading the race from the front, and that Si hadn’t been through. I had two sips of my tea, and then hit the trails again, with a tube in the rear tyre courtesy of swinnertons.
The remaining course is something of a blur, more hypoglycaemic than speed, i remember really enjoying my coke water bottle, wanting to find a nice comfy bush to sleep in shortly after seeing the 90 mile marker, and even finding the energy to chuckle when i worked out where Sara had hidden the extra miles in her course (hint, the course markings went from 90 miles gone, to 5 miles to go – there were more than 5 miles between these signs!). I was convinced i had blown my doors, but seemed to be doing my old trick of gaining on people towards the finish, and was surprised and pleased to see i’d caught Adi Scott (Corley Cycles) who really had blown. I did my best to put distance between him and me, and in so doing also caught the second singlespeeder, also leaving him behind. I felt good, and was looking forward to the final rough descent down to the finishing line, when disaster struck in the form of another puncture. I was down to my final tube, which i duly put in and gassed up, only to have it go straight down again thanks to a small hole near the valve stem. Bummer.
I walked down the final hill, being passed by all the people i had caught and some more, and feeling a bit dejected to not be riding what was some of the best descending on the whole course. As i crossed the line, bike on shoulder to the confusion of the assembled throng, i mumbled something about trying a new means of transport as cycling wasn’t really working for me anymore, and then headed slowly up the hill to get my post-race beer, which i felt i’d more than earned. A bit disappointed, but then i know i could have done much better had i made a sensible tyre choice, and i felt like i would have beaten myself of last year, but more than anything i want to do this event again, the sooner the better. Next year...there’s always next year!
1. Andrew Cockburn (Cambridge CC)
2. Steven James (Moda UK)
3. Neal Crampton (Crosstrax)
27. Chris Pedder (AW Cycles)

Friday, 20 August 2010

Les Championnats de L'Est

What with all this talk of foreign races from the AW Team, i feel like i should “continentalise” the Eastern MTB Champs. So here we are.
The first incarnation of the Eastern Champs in several years was run at Codham Park, and amazing little venue that has been so supportive of BMX and trials for years, encouraged by the super-enthusiastic family who live there. The whole place is basically like a giant play park designed around bikes, and i spotted at least two generations riding around on various forms of motorised transport over the course of the day. The course was a step up for the Easterns, but perhaps not yet worthy of a “championship” event; it still had some changes of elevation, and some trickier sections that required concentration, including a great motocross circuit. The strong wind and a couple of draggy little climbs did make some parts extremely heavy going however.

The Eastern races have been a case of many laps of a short course, but the champs had a lap of 20mins in length. Unfortunately, the commissaire decided that the race for the Elite/Expert cat should stay at 7laps, just as the sun came out to dry the remaining wet sections of the course. Since Rachel and I were racing at the same time, i was without a bottler, so had to make do with two 750ml bottle for the whole race, which lasted a full 2hrs30m for me.
On the start line we were called up after the leaders of the “racer” category had been gridded, which meant that most of the contenders for the elite win were stuck on the third row, a slightly strange approach, but it obviously didn’t impede Andrew Cockburn who went on to take a fine win nearly ten minutes ahead of his nearest competition. I got embroiled in an early battle with perennial competition James Hampshire and a couple of locals i didn’t recognise. Having been buzzed repeatedly by one chap, James and i hit the front, but as has become a regular fixture, he pulled away from me mid-race, leaving me to plough a lonely furrow. In the final lap, i lost my remaining company, and rode along to finish 4th of the Eastern riders.
Results: Eastern Champs
1st Andrew Cockburn (Cambridge CC)
2nd Trevor Allen (Ergon-24)
3rd Paul Beales (Orange Monkey)
4th Chris Pedder (AW Cycles)

Monday, 2 August 2010

Bontrager 24-12

Si's bit (shamelessly stolen from our AW report!)

The Bontrager 24/12 event has been a favourite of mine for a few years, mainly because it gives race heads an opportunity to have some fun and let our hair down. After the disappointment of the National Championships this was just what I needed. The AW Cycles Team was made of the usual misfits and vagrants: Simon Ernest (Thundercat), Chris Pedder (Penfold), Jon Pybus (Maverick) and ‘ringer’ Toby Rose (Tits McGee) – nicknames are required for this event.

Friday was travel day. I rocked up at Pybus Farm and discussed tactics and Maverick’s history of trampolining with his parents, Tits was next to show up and joined in. Man of the moment showed up brandishing cookies. The AW van was loaded up and the road trip began, early trepidation regarding travelling to the South West on the day schools broke up was not required, the drive was trouble free and we made Plymouth in good time…which meant we put up tents in darkness.

We awoke on race day to find a posh motor home next to the van indicating Penfold had arrived. Penfold’s partner (Dr Rachel Fenton) collected empty coffee cups and a short while later we were sipping americanos and discussing tactics under the easy-up. Race order was first agenda item: Thundercat, Maverick, Tits then Penfold. Inevitably tyres crept in as well, however all voted for laziness: ride what tyres were on the wheels. Next up was who would lend Maverick a) a towel, b) a toothbrush and c) socks. No one volunteered so we pre rode the course. The team seemed happy with the course, tyres and bikes and so it was down to relaxing before the start.

With twenty minutes to spare I lined up on the front row of the grid (perfect), over the following 15 minutes more riders squeezed onto the front row until the organiser decided enough was enough and banished all others to the back of the grid. The privileged (or special) few were pulled forward from the front row to give them a head start (me included), the countdown started, the gun fired and I leapt into the lead. Well second position. Myself and Ben Thomas (Torq) nailed the opening laps and then tagged in our partners. And so it went on….

Fast forward 12 hours and Tits McGee roared down the last hill, through the flying mud and mist, with useless lights on his bike to bring the team home in 3rd 12 hour team. Only 30 minutes separated us from 1st place. As expected a superb event had been delivered, weather on the whole was good, and Team AW Cycles came home with a podium result…a perfect weekend.

The Pedder Perspective

After Si’s initial flyer, which i have to admit made me rather nervous (the usual worries of “oh no, team handbrake again!”), aided no doubt by our shouting “encouragement” at the top of our lungs from the bottom of the final hill, it was time for our other national medallist to take over. Still sporting the unwashed, furry-toothed look, but without the arm supports that he has made his own, Maverick (“you’re dangerous maverick!”) took to the trails. It became clear that Jon’s early season was all about getting a season’s worth of crashing out of the way in two months, as he ripped around in a similar time to Si, leaving us very much in touch with the Torq guys; it was already shaping up to be an interesting race.

Tits McGee and I were very much aware that the pressure was on us now, we both had the modest aim of trying not to lose too much time to the Torq guys, and trying not to let the Moda composite who were behind us catch us up. Unfortunately, we failed and were back to 3rd place when it was time to hand over to Simon again. The weather was proving perfect though, the grey skies meant that it was the perfect temperature to ride a mountain bike race, and the dreaded Devon microclimate that had inundated the course during the week was keeping its moist fingers off the trails. The course, although a little damp in places was riding really fast, and was a great mixture of the best bits that Newnham had to offer – it was only later that we came to really appreciate just what a good course it was.

Si & Jon put out a couple of double laps that put us back up to second place, but alas not enough that Tits and I couldn’t work our magic – as the sun started to set we were still battling tooth and nail for second place. And then the rain started to come down. Actually, it started like being in a cloud, it wasn’t so much rain as thick mist, thick enough that a mouth full of it made you want to chew. For me, it brought back memories of the small hours of the morning the previous year, when only fatboy slim had got me through, but somehow it was mentally so much easier being in a team of four and approaching the end already. So much easier that I decided I would go out and do a double lap, partly to relive past glories, and partly so I wouldn’t have to put on minging wet kit and do a single lap again.

With the rain set in, and parts of the course cutting up badly, I made the foolish decision to go for just the weight-weenie helmet light, and nothing else. For the first lap, it seemed like a great decision; what I couldn’t see off the racing line didn’t bother me on it, and I felt like I was actually riding the technical stuff faster. By the time the gathering dark began to swamp my 240 lumens under the shade of the trees on my second lap, it was too late to do anything about it! Thankfully, the mud was becoming thicker and fuller in consistency, which meant i couldn’t really get up enough speed to do any damage anyway!

I slip-slid my way down the final hillside to further shouts of “Penfold”, and before i knew it i was in transition handing back over to Si for his last lap. The gap to second had grown rather, and i think we all realised at this point that, barring disaster, we’d be third; now we could just cruise around and take in the atmosphere. I got back to the camp to find Maverick and Tits taping lights to various appendages, ready for their final outings, and we had just enough time to switch stuff over to Jon’s bike from mine before it was time for him to take on one final shift in the night. I had a quick wash under a tap, anticipating our post-race wander down to the arena to take listen to the live band and meet up with friends old and new.

Once Mr McGee had come in, his white and purple kit somewhat stained and unrecognisable, we celebrated our third place with a trip to the burger bar, although i had a strange fancy for a rather more continental crepe! We had a wander, a surreal conversation about radio4 and several beers before the tiredness hit us, and one by one we hit the hay.

More eating, slouching and borrowing of towels come the morning, and before we knew it we were up on the podium collecting our rather nice bonty bottle cages, provided by the man himself. The first trip to the podium of the year for me. Next time, i want to play more of an integral part in us being there!

1st Team Torq
2nd Team Swinnerton Cycles/Moda/Hope aggregate team
3rd Team AW Cycles

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

National XC Championships 2010

My first senior XC championships! Last year, the race was based at Innerleithen in the south of Scotland, a place where I had had my first taste of racing at the BUSAs in 2005. I was monumentally ill-equipped technically for the challenges ahead of me, and managed to crash heavily the day before the race and give myself a dead leg and a tasty bruise. I was towed to a team bronze medal by my two Cambridge team mates, and vowed that one day I would return, better able to ride the tricky descents that the Scots love so much.

Fast forward four and a bit years to July 2009, and I was having a bit of a torrid time. My XC racing hadn’t been going particularly well at the NPS races, and I felt like I didn’t have the legs to even contemplate the national champs, especially when they were in such an unforgivingly hilly venue that was so far away. Instead, I opted to get trounced at an Eastern series race by none other than Alex Dowsett!
Keen not to repeat my softness, and also even more keen to race again at Pippingford after the southern XC race there in May, I decided to make my daring debut in the senior ranks this year. Although it was another hilly course in store, I felt happier about my XC form on the whole than 12 months before, and in any case I reassured myself that the XC champs can be a strange race, and an aim of top-25, and with it a UCI point, was probably realisable.

I made a slightly schoolboy error of assuming that my race was going to be on the Saturday, when in fact it wasn’t until 2:30pm on Sunday, giving me a whole extra day to kill. I went to visit a friend who was visiting down in London on Friday morning, and then headed from there to Uckfield station to be collected by Rachel who had driven down. Unfortunately for me, the trains transpired to be rather more efficient than the roads, and I arrived a good hour and a half before she did. Thankfully, there was a delightful cafe near to the station in which to pass the time drinking cappuccino, and reading about Mark Cavendish’s exploits in the Tour.

Having set up camp, I also set about changing over my BB – the shimano one I started the season with had finally given up the ghost, and I decided to spend an extra few quid on buying a KCNC roller-bearing one; I’ll let you know how it goes with that in a separate post once it’s got a few more miles on the clock! Then it was time for dinner back in Uckfield before returning to the site early enough to get a good night’s sleep. I even went for the customary Valpolicella with dinner to complete a quality Ernest taper.

Saturday felt like a nice chilled out day – the event had a very relaxed atmosphere, much more so than an equivalent NPS race, and it was really rather pleasant to have the time and the means to catch up with some friends. I did a couple of laps of the course at a fairly leisurely pace (no point killing yourself the day before the nationals, you can guarantee just the race will do that for you), and even saw some of GB’s better endurance racers, Ian Leitch & Sally Bigham checking out the course too. XC is getting mainstream!

Sunday dawned, and in spite of my plan to spend until 11am in bed, once I heard other people getting up I struggled to doze any further. A quick breakfast and some strong coffee, and it was time to watch the Juniors racing. They blitzed off the line into the bumpy field of doom at what seemed like warp speed, and before long, Steve James and Grant Ferguson appeared back in the arena at the head of affairs, being chased by a just-out-of-touch Kenta Gallagher. The situation remained much the same for the rest of the race, with Steve taking a narrow win ahead of Grant. Then it was Simon Ernest’s turn in masters, along with Mark Hutt and course designer and organiser Steve Jones in the vets. Si got a decent start, and looked to be working himself into the race well, not using too much energy early on, and leaving the leaders to dangle just within range. Unfortunately, none of us had counted on the appearance of Carl Sturgeon at the head of affairs – having hung a senior nationals medal around his neck in the past, he knew what it took. Racing on a bike that looked like it was from the late ‘90s, including v-brakes, he managed to get out of reach on the third lap, leaving Si to overhaul early leaders Steve James the elder and Neal Crampton for second place. An awesome ride. Mark and Steve showed the AW colours well in the vets, with Mark finishing in the top-10, and Steve overheard shouting to spectators “who designed this bloody course?”.

Finally, half-two arrived and it was time for me and Jon Pybus to hit the trails. I have to admit, looking forward three rows and seeing Liam and Oli ahead of me did fill me with nerves, the first i’d had all weekend, but before i’d had time for it to sink in, the gun had gone. Ian & I both got the atrocious starts you’d expect of people more used to the relaxed world of endurance racing, but where he managed to jump towards the head of the field, i ended up languishing near the back. In spite of my warm up, my legs just weren’t ready for the sheer pace (a common problem if you’re a regular reader of my blog!), and i tried to focus more on riding the course smoothly and not wasting energy than going flat out. Within half a lap, the front Espoirs had caught me, and i soon had Jon for company, albeit briefly, before being left on my own again by mid way through lap two. I was originally hoping to make it through my five laps without being caught by the leader, but as soon as they upped the numbers to six for the men, i knew it was only a matter of time before one of Liam and Oli got me.

Sure enough, in the middle of my fourth lap, Killer caught and passed me riding his usual super-smooth style, and i assumed my race was over.
I cruised around to the finish line, slightly perplexed that Oli and the rest of the elite field hadn’t caught up with me, and asked the commissaire if my race was over. “No, you can carry on if you want” he replied, the last three words all but obliging me to do another lap. It was hot, and i hadn’t drunk anything for nearly a whole lap assuming i would be pulled, but i grabbed another bottle from Mel (thanks Mel!) and went out one last time. Sure enough, Oli, and then later Paul Oldham caught me up, but i made it round and with the high rate of attrition even managed 26th place. Damn, one place away from the points. Fellow flat-lander Andrew Cockburn managed an incredible 9th place on the line; his first top-10 in any elite level national race.

Now i have to wait a couple of months for my favoured event to land at Pippingford – the Marathon Champs on the 13th of September. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be a deserving man who stands on the top step there. Thanks as ever to my sponsors AW Cycles, to Mel Ernest for kindly bottling for me, and to the organisers for a great event.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Dalby Forest BMBS

Early July, and already time for the fourth round of the BMBS – it’s amazing how time flies. The Dalby course has been a topic of near-constant conversation amongst mountain bikers since the new world cup-standard trail debuted in last year’s series. Equipped with some extremely impressive technical sections, with suitably awe-inspiring names (such as the apt “Worry Gill”), the course had utterly fazed me a year ago. It had taken me an hour of standing knock-kneed at the top and bottom of this 2.5m drop before i had dared to go for it, and not before i’d had several false-starts. Even after i’d finally made it down the drop proper, with eyes closed and convinced that i was going to fall into oblivion, there was still a slippery, rocky gully to contend with at the bottom – nightmare. Sadly, things got even worse at Medusa’s drop, another steep tricky section with a series of thick roots snaking across it, and some step-downs to catch the unwary. I made it most of the way down before heading off-line completely, and coming to a nervous stop, but Rachel wasn’t so lucky and fell, breaking her finger and bruising her chest and ribs badly. I didn’t even make it to the start line of my race, as we spent most of the evening in Scarborough A&E, and i decided it was probably best for us to just head home.
So, you can imagine my trepidation as my weekend began with the long-haul north on the A1. A short stop for dinner at an M&S service station (this is not just food for fuel, this is M&S jus-drizzled food for fuel...) and we bumped into Lloyd and Hollie Bettles, and James Hyde also making the trip north from the east. We got to Pickering a little after 8pm, and headed straight for the only empty spot we could see, in between the caravans, oops! Tent pitched, we decided to postpone any thoughts of riding until early the next morning, and hit the hay.

As always, too early, the alarm went at 7am, and up we got to pre-ride the course, knowing we had to be back in time for Rachel’s race to start at 10am. A quick breakfast of muesli and strong coffee, and away we went to have a look around; the time pressure being rather a benefit to me; it meant i couldn’t faff about; i either had to ride it, or jump off and run. My only little wobble came on the “bus-stop” section – a steep little uphill between two trees with an even steeper run-out that required you to make a 90 degree turn in not much space. I got to the top, stopped, almost fell off the top (knowing that this is how Mel Alexander broke her hip at the world cup did nothing for my nerves!), took a few steps back and tried again. The second time up, and self-preservation took over my motor-skills, somehow my brain knew how to get me out of the mess, and i even managed to hop the back wheel around at the top of the slope for a better run-off. Awesome!

I carried on around the course, a little concerned about what was waiting for me after the steep, nasty climb to the top of the medusa descent. I knew from Rachel working at the world cup in April that the lines had been remodelled to give a tougher A-line and a longer, easier B-line; determined not to lose face, i headed around the sharp left-turn and onto the B-line. It required a fair bit of concentration to stay on the path, but the toughest bit was the right turn at the bottom – it was really tempting to square it off, but that would take you over an almost-invisible drop. Bad. However, it definitely seemed a lot less intimidating than the year before, and i felt buoyed by the pre-ride. With nothing terribly tricky standing between the bottom of Medusa and the finish line apart from the big climb to Jingleby summit, i felt ready to race.

12:30 came around pretty quickly, leaving me just enough time to fill my bottles, head down the hill and then climb back up for a warm up, and get to the start line in time to ride around in circles with 200 other riders. It always amazes me to watch this strange ritual – there’s no way you could possibly make it happen except spontaneously, and i can’t help but think it looks rather like an ancient burial rite (maybe that’s what living with an archaeologist does to you!). The elites were off, looking a little sketchy into the first jump, and then it was our turn to be similarly dodgy in our riding. As soon as we hit the first section of the course, the pace went right down, and the jostling began. I’m never very good at being defensive off my position in the group – i struggle being small; even when i stick my elbows out people can still get past! I was feeling good, and holding my cool in the technical sections, only to be amazed how many of my fellow competitors were prepared to lose places and time by not riding the worry gill drop. Maybe it was their first year there!

As i dropped down the medusa a-line, i must have pressed the lever for my front brake a little too hard, causing my front tyre to come unseated, and all the air (and quite a lot of latex) to spray out of the side. After a dodgy-stopping moment, i walked the rest of the descent and cheered the other riders, whilst resigning myself to the fact that my race was over. I then realised that i had all i needed to fix my puncture, and whipped tube and air canister off my bike, before getting latex all over my legs in the process of fitting the new tube. Unfortunately, my inflator failed, and only succeeded in freezing my fingers and not filling my tyre, and i was forced to pinch a track pump from the tech zone nearby. I explained my dilemma to the commissaire, and asked him to take my number but allow me to continue riding as i wanted to get a bit more practice on the course. I rode around for another two laps, but it was difficult to push on knowing i’d already lost more than 10 minutes because of my puncture. Jon Pybus had an excellent race finishing 26th, and without so much as a scratch on him (which is more than could be said for his mate Toby who looked like he’d found a less than friendly bear in the woods!). Depleted by illness and more illness, Mark C was the only other representative of AW in the afternoon races, finishing an impressive 7th in the super-competitive vets category.

The following day was the “non-competitive” Yorkshire Enduro, which i’d entered in an effort to get a bit of form before the national champs. Unfortunately, living a semi-vegetarian life, my largely meat diet on Saturday evening played havoc with my internals, and i was glad when friends Trevor & Andrew suggested that we ride around together as a trio at a more gentle, truly non-competitive pace. It was a great course that had been put together for us by the organisers, if a little short of the 20km the forestry had promised them, and it felt nice to be out and about on a bike on such a nice day. We injected a bit of life into our ride by playing “Tour Series hot laps” every time we came through the start finish, much to organiser Martyn’s amusement, but my stomach wasn’t really letting me play (at least that’s my excuse for being last every time!). All three of us were a long way down on winner (can you have a winner for a non-comp?) Lee Williams, but we had a great day out making for quite a colourful lot with me in blue and yellow, Trevor in ergon green and Andrew in his pseudo-national champion’s jersey! So from the annoyance of having a mechanical the day before, my weekend definitely finished on a high.

Thanks as ever to sponsors AW Cycles and Giant Bikes, both have seen me perfectly through the season so far.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Friday Night is Race Night

As you might have gathered from my earlier post, i'm pretty enthusiastic about the idea of racing flat out for an hour on an offroad circuit of a friday evening. As most of the rest of the UK pushes off early from work to put on their glad rags and hit the town, i escape my computer to head for the Friday Night Summer Series which leaves you in a similar state, albeit by a different means. The de rigeur clothing is a bit different too, with shapes that cling to the figure and colours in the "loud" range.

There is certainly something satisfying about hitting the trails at speed, jockeying with 200 other people for position in the first bit of singletrack, and taking every climb at flat out pace, especially if all you have done all day is sit in a chair. There's something rather special about events where you see elite riders racing at the same time as absolute beginners - i don't just mean people who're new to racing, but people who've never ridden an mtb offroad before. It's all over in an hour, usually as the sun is starting to dip below the horizon, and the courses are short enough that you will cover somewhere between four and eight laps in that time. It's a great way to build a bit of racing form, but it's also fantastic just as a social experience; once the racing's done and your heart rate has fallen to a number that could be confused for a room temperature rather than an oven one, you can sit down and chill out with the guys who you've been chasing and the ones who were chasing you before you head for home.

With this in mind, i was keen to improve upon my previous "DNF" on my birthday at Bulwick Park. The course there was amazingly open, and reminded me of rides in the Yorkshire Dales, with one big descent and climb over a bumpy grass field. Unfortunately, just as i had been moving clear into 5th place, my chain snapped and i was faced with a long walk back. This time around, the course at Delapre Abbey was entirely different. Based in a country park near the centre of Northampton, it was tight and enclosed - we would only see the full sunlight for a few hundred yards each lap, the rest of the race was spent under the canopy of a beautiful deciduous woodland. The start, with a record 280 people was predictably frenetic with everyone keen to get into the early section of singletrack in front. I was warmed up from pre-riding the course, and lined up alongside frequent FNSSers Ryan Henry and Adi Scott, keen to try and keep with them and their customary blinding start. Unfortunately, it was not to be - i missed my pedal at the first stroke, and as everyone else surged forward i stood still. I managed to get back on terms, riding with 24hr racer extraordinaire Ant White through the first section of singletrack. That guy is incredible, he'd come second in the inaugural 24hr champs the weekend before, and was still blitzing me around a 1hr race; i guess my lazy week post Margam was beginning to show.

Through the next section of the course, i worked hard to keep Ant in sight, whilst still taking time to get as much air as my skills allowed off the jumps in the course. There was one enormous double that is obviously a product of much TLC from the local kids that i refused to go for, it later transpired that only one rider of the 280 of us had even attempted it, which made me feel a little better! As the lap carried on, i gradually lost contact with Ant, who would finish about a minute up on me, and acquired Lloyd Bettles for company. He then rode past me through a singletrack climb at the beginning of the second lap, and went on to catch Ant for 9th spot. And that was the way it remained for the rest of the race; i briefly sat with Paul Ashby as he came through from his two minute deficit (he started with the vets) but he too proved too strong for me (maybe i need to ride more on "rest" weeks!). I crossed the line in glorious late evening sunshine, 11th place. Not my strongest finish in the FNSS in the last two years, but at least i set the bar nice and low to start with, and i DID finish! Unfortunately, my usual close competition in the form of James Hampshire had managed to handicap himself by going for a pee second before the seniors race started, and he spent the rest of the hour in chase mode.

Next race up was two weeks later at Kilworth Springs golf course. I headed to this one on the way to a mate's stag weekend in Wales - it was a bit of a mad evening all in all - i finished work at half-five, grabbed my stuff and Rachel, who i was transporting most of the way to Mountain Mayhem, and then headed up the A14 to Kilworth. The idea of an MTB race on a golf course had struck me as a bit weird when i'd last raced here at the final round of the 2009 series, and although the course as a whole is pretty untechnical, it had provided some interesting racing (overtaking the tandems allowed in the series final had been particularly entertaining!). After our continuing dry summer, the course was dry and hard which made sections of the course like a bumpy road race. What made life worse was the fact that i'd taken my trusty rigid kinesis as i hadn't fancied leaving my lovely giant team bike in the bunkhouse in Wales that was going to be filled with my drunk friends for the weekend. Without my lovely plush foxes, every stone felt like a boulder. I didn't manage to find time to warm up or see the course, but headed straight down to the bottom of the golf course, where we were met by the organiser in a golf buggy! A brief chat about not riding on the greens, and the horn sounded - we were off. The start loop saw me gradually pick my way up into the top ten, riding with James H and a few other guys who seemed keen to keep the pace high. James and I had our usual banter riding through, with me complaining about the fact that my gear cables needed to be replaced (i haven't used the kinesis since February!) and my brakes didn't work. At some point fairly early on, James obviously got bored of my whining and decided to strike out alone, leaving me with a group of our pretty strong looking riders for company.

My little group obviously decided that i had a target on my back (might have been the AW kit) and so took it in turns to attack me at the front of the group. One after the other, they'd manage to pull out a 30 yard lead on me quickly, only to be apparently quite frustrated by the fact that i would gradually ride back to them without attacking quite so violently. I did feel pretty rough having not warmed up, though, and each effort made my lungs feel like they were burning. For my sins, i was rather miffed that they all seemed to be intent on trying to drop me, rather than helping me work to bring back James, who was gaining ground with all this nonesense. After a couple of laps of being ceaselessly under fire, i decided to open up a bit up a climb through the greens at the back of the course, and was bewildered and surprised when i turned around to see noone behind me! Apparently my companions had overdone it, either that or they were now busy attacking each other for ninth place instead of eighth.

I kept the pace up the rest of the race, crossing the line 5 minutes adrift of winner Ryan Henry in 6th place. So nearly in the money! Alas, i'll be missing the next two round of the FNSS, the team relay is probably a bit far from Reading to try to persuade the rest of the AW crew to come to, and the following weekend is the Friday before Dalby, where i'll be shamelessly saving my legs. But with 38th place in the rankings to defend (from two rounds), i'll be back at some point soon...

Thanks as ever to sponsors AW Cycles and Giant Bikes, Chris.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Muddy Margam

NPS 3: Margam Park
Well, what a race that was. I managed to get the mud out of my nice yellow kit, which is finally recognisable after some serious handwashing and industrial amounts of vanish stain remover, and i’m certain the Welsh Tourist Board are after me to reclaim several kilos of mud. It all seems a fairly distant memory until i try to stand up or climb the stairs, when my glutes remind me what this weekend was all about – climbing!

My trip to Margam started on Thursday evening – after a long day in the office, i was quite looking forward to throwing a few things in the back of the car and heading over to stay with Rachel’s parents in Worcester. The plan was then to ste... i mean borrow their campervan for the weekend to make our time at Margam a little more pleasant – the two of us are getting worryingly out of the habit of camping these days. Friday morning dawned beautiful and clear, with blue skies, light winds and temperatures nearing the 20s; i took this as a sign that i’d been right, it was going to be lovely. After all, it never rains at Margam, right?
We got to the venue at around 4pm after a morning spent updating my wardrobe for the first time in two years – i now have some shirts that don’t have holes under the arms! We headed straight out to see what the course was like; shorts and t-shirts the order of the day, with a little cloud blowing in it was still warm, and the course bone dry and rock hard. Some sections were very lumpy and had me wishing for a full-sus, but the serious amount of climbing per lap meant that weight was at a premium. A new deer-track traverse started the climbing off in earnest after the usual blast along the road from the arena, and took us through a small coniferous copse on the hillside, which deceived you into thinking the climb was more gentle than it was. A couple of rooty step-ups, and you were spat back out blinking into the sunshine to lose a significant chunk of your altitude descending a rough loamy chute. Whilst a little sketchy, this was eminently rideable, and served to get the heart going for the next climb, which then dropped you down through the rhododendrons into the famous (or infamous) Margam stream crossings. From here, it was up up up to the top of the monument climb, and then back through the usual final 2km descent to the start-finish. The final descent, whilst extremely fun, was a lot more rough than i remember, and is perhaps starting to suffer from having been used every year since 2006, and also frequently by the locals.
No matter, practice lap completed (with a few jeers from a certain organiser who will remain nameless, who was insistent i’d missed the “race of my life” the previous weekend), and it was time to dust (yes, dust!) down the bike ready for the following day. Being convinced that it was going to be fine the following day, i’d only brought one set of tyres, my trusty Larsen TTs that have seen me through the whole season so far. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday morning came around pretty quickly, and i came to to the sound of something drumming on the campervan. Surely there couldn’t have been that many birds all landing at once? No, rain. Heavy heavy rain. Well, it was only 7am, there was time for it to clear up and the course to dry out before the women set off at 10, right? Wrong!
Rachel’s race started in poor visibility and slightly lighter rain, and shamefully i have to admit i only stayed about to watch the first lap – a woman wearing a simple blue top came whizzing through the start finish with an already insurmountable lead, it was only later that i realised that under the mud was Rosara Joseph! The elite women trickled through one by one, almost universally coated in mud but smiling – in spite of the horrendous weather the course was apparently very entertaining. It bode well for my race, with a later start time at least the weather had lifted a bit by the time we headed off behind the elite men at 12:30. For the first time since i was promoted to Expert, i felt as though i didn’t totally embarrass myself at the start, and actually ended up in the top ten as we started the ascent of the deer track. It wasn’t to last, and i lost a couple of places on the descent, in no small part due to the sketchiness of my “high summer” tyres in the sticky yet slippery mud. I settled down into a comfortable rhythm for the next climb, and gradually as the lap went on got more confident at handling my bike in the conditions. Top tip, if you make a stupid tyre choice, 20psi helps you stick!
As the laps ticked by, i found myself in the “second group” of people fighting for position; Serge Hunt surged (see what i did there!) past me on one of the climbs after we’d had an equally ridiculous time descending through the rhododendrons, but i kept getting glimpses of people ahead on the climbs. Mostly, they were the Junior riders who had zoomed past earlier on, only to succumb to the toughness of the course and the mud, but occasional blown experts came back to me too. On the penultimate lap, Oli Beckingsale passed me on the final steep descent, i’d like to think it was because he’d made a more appropriate choice of rubber, but i think it had more to do with just sheer skill. Climbing the deer track, i had Liam K for company, and his mum cheering him and me on too! As i started the big climb for the last time, i caught sight of Niall Frost, and pushed on hard to try to catch him before the descent would negate my advantage. Alas, i didn’t quite get him, with 9 second separating us at the finish, and i became the filling in an XCracer sandwich between Niall and James Hampshire. I was 14th, very muddy, and pretty happy with how things had gone.
Other team mates had variable days; Jon Pybus had a rough time in Elite, with a puncture putting an end to his race, but vets Mark & Mark seemed to revel in the conditions finishing 3rd (Mark H) and 9th (Mark C) respectively. And they were almost recognisable too. Thanks to Rachel for bottling for me, Chris Reeves for the photo that captures the atmosphere so perfectly, and to AW for the support. Roll on Dalby...

Monday, 24 May 2010

A two-race, one-finish weekend.

Having had a less than perfect start to my BMBS campaign for this year at Wasing Park, where I ended up upside down in the barriers after a hundred yards, and then limped around five laps of what would otherwise have been a really fun course, I decided the weekend before Margam should see me stepping things up a bit. First up was the second round of the Friday Night Summer Series (FNSS) at Bulwick Park in Leicestershire. For those of you who don’t know about this gem of a series, be ashamed! It’s the longest continually-running XC series in the UK, and in its 18th year in 2010, with a total of 13 rounds. An hour-long blast around a short, fun course with a great party atmosphere and cash prizes means that pretty much everyone is catered for; it’s an excellent way to kick-off the weekend.

In fact, so deep runs my enthusiasm for the series that I chose to race on my birthday, although I’ve been around rather longer than the FNSS. Friday evening saw a huge (150+) field line up in the warm evening sun on a small airfield runway near Rutland water ready for the whistle to go. Adi Scott got the holeshot and led for the first blast along the runway before Dave Collins hit the front, a position he wouldn’t relinquish for the whole race. I had an uncustomarily good start, and found myself coming through the start finish with Adi for company in around 6th place. As we went zooming down a dry, grassy bank, and over a series of small kickers, I decided I would get ready to make a move up the hill on the other side, and see if I could get clear to chase the guys ahead. As I hit the hill, disaster struck as my chain snapped at the quick link – d’oh. Adi offered his condolences before disappearing up the hill as I contemplated a long walk back from the furthest point of the course to the start-finish. Lesson learned – there’s now a spare link taped to the air canister on my seat post!

After what seemed like an age walking back along the course, I got back to where we had parked, helped poor Hollie Bettles back towards her dad’s van (she had crashed on the grassy descent, and discovered the following day she’d broken her shoulder – get well soon!). My good deed for the day done, I grabbed the camera and made the most of the light to take some photos of the other racers. A perfect evening in some ways, but a less than perfect one in others!

Next up was the 2nd round of the Southern XC series at Pippingford Estate near Uckfield. Steve and the rest of the southern gang had got rave reviews for this course, so much so that it will be the venue for the 2010 nationals, so I had high hopes. After sitting in traffic for a few minutes on the A22, and starting to get nervous that (a) I wasn’t going to get there before the start and (b) I wasn’t going to get there before my bladder burst, it was time to put the satnav into stealth mode and get there any which way we could. It was a glorious day, in fact almost too nice to “waste” racing, and the thought did occur to me to just sack off the race and go for a long ride around East Sussex instead. Hot weather plus hills seemed like perfect prep for Margam though, and turning into the venue for the race I knew I’d made the right decision!
From the top of the parking/camping field, you look straight down the hill to the start finish, and on down to the bottom of the final climb, one that you can love and hate in equal measure (love because it’s almost over, hate because it’s not as near to being over as you think at the bottom!). There wasn’t really enough time to check out the whole course before the gun went, so I just went over the opening ten minutes, which had been described as the “most tricky” to me. After the first couple of hundred yards which went uphill to the opening section of singletrack, the course seemed to go inexorably down, through a series of fast, twisty sections with a couple of drops and some steep chutes to keep the mind focussed. Just when you’d got used to the idea of descending forever on some MC Escher trails (oh, what a joy that would have been!), there was a left turn to take you back up the fire roads towards the arena. Emerging from the shade of the trees briefly to loop round a tree and give the commentator a tantalising glimpse of how the race was unfolding, the course then looped back into the forests for a further does of descending, where finding a smooth line and carrying momentum was key. The rest of the course is something of a blur, blending together some fantastically constructed berms with more steep descents, some beautiful sections through the fading bluebells, and a bit through a concrete gulley that always made me feel like a total novice! Factor in a bit of mud for that “I’m an mtber, get me out of here” look, and you were back at the bottom of that killer climb ready to do it all over again!
My race started just after the elites had zipped away, shortly after 2pm in the heat of the day. At the whistle, I clipped in next to Euan Adams who was promptly away, and not to be seen by any of the rest of us until the finish. I had my more common less than stellar start, and ended up dead last heading into the first section of singletrack. I picked up a couple of places on the first climbing section of fireroad, and found myself in the company of Mark Field of MSC bikes. We pootled round as a twosome for a while, as the faster masters harried us for position, including an altogether too-polite Mr Ernest, who was unlucky to suffer from a puncture and then heart palpitations, but still amazingly finished 5th! I consciously took the first lap pretty steady, aware that the heat was going to be a factor and also that I might not yet have the depth to my form to hammer it for four laps around such a “climby” course. At some point I lost Mark, and continued into lap number 2 alone.

Throughout the whole race, I focussed more on descending smoothly than pushing super-hard, and it seemed to pay off as suddenly some of the guys who’d slipped away at the start swam into view...were they a mirage or were they real?! I had crept up to 8th place by the bottom of the final climb, and just managed to summon the energy to pass Dan Eastment for 7th on the line. Not a fantastic result in itself, but an extra 30s a lap would have netted me 4th; giving me some good energy for Margam! Roll on the Welsh round where it’s always sunny!
The AW team had a good day all told, with Jon Pybus claiming fifth in the Elite field, Mark Hutt doing his now commonplace disappearing act to take the Vet win, ahead of Mark Cracknell in 10th and organiser extraordinaire Steve in 19th. Not bad for a bunch of guys riding hardtails on what everyone else seemed to think was a “full suss course” (apart from Jon the softie!). Thanks as always to AW for the great bikes, the shady love-bus and the mellow yellow kit that made life so much easier for my adopted bottler Keith of the WXC team (thanks for accepting me as one of the girls!). Until the next instalment, dusty trails.

There's a great video of the last southern race to be held on the pippingford course courtesy of Paul Robinson here:

Thanks to Rachel, and a kind chap on the XCracer forum for photos.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

“It’s mtb racing, not dirty Swedish porn”

And so began a weekend of riding around Catton Park in ever-decreasing circles. Actually, that’s not quite true, it all started 24hrs earlier when the thought of a nice sauna (more on that later!) was just a distant dream. Friday evening arrived, and it being almost summer at least in season if not in weather, that meant time to pack the car. Destination – Si & Mel’s house in Reading, ready for the AW cycles team launch on Saturday morning. They’d very kindly offered to put us up to save us from a 5am start (on a weekend too, how uncivilised!), instead we got up at the relatively pleasant time of 7am, had a nice breakfast of porridge, and then Si & I headed over to the shop. A little late. Ahem.

On arrival, James gave me a big bag of new kit in very distinctive banana yellow and dark blue, and directions to the loo in the shop to change as quickly as possible. After a few photos in front of the shop, we then rode en masse, and what a mass, to a park in the centre of town for more group photos. We got some whistles of encouragement from the locals (chicks love guys in lycra, apparently a fact in Reading – either that or James bribed them!); it was definitely impressive seeing pretty much the whole AW team all together, although definitely harder work for us mtbers on our knobbly tyres. After standing in the shadow of an “anatomically incorrect” lion for a few minutes, we made our final trip to Palmer Park to ride around the track. It felt pretty weird riding on the track for the first time on my hardtail, but it didn’t stop fellow new boy Jon and I playing silly buggers!

The day of publicity concluded with Si and James doing a radio interview on Radio Berkshire with a surprisingly clued-up DJ, whilst Rachel, Mel and I listened at home. Then it was time to fling stuff in the AW cycles tardis-van and head up to Derby to check into our rather amazing apartment. In fact, to say it was amazing is something of an understatement – it was real luxury, two double bedrooms, a kitchen and a hidden Sauna that looked just like a wardrobe, bliss. After a nice, healthy dinner Si and I hit the sauna; having never been in one before i had no idea what to expect, but 85 degree heat can be really quite relaxing. The conversation afterwards did also contain the quote of the weekend “it’s mtb racing, not dirty Swedish porn” – i’ll leave you to work it out!

Morning arrived, and with it strong winds, but clear skies – the course was going to be pretty dry after all the apprehension about rain and tyres. We arrived at Catton at about 8:30, plonked our stuff in the pits, got kitted up and put our bikes together with just enough time for me to have a customary three trips to the loo before the race started (race nerves do terrible things to me!). Si had volunteered to do the run, and did us proud striding back into the arena to grab his bike in about 5th place. By the time he handed over to me after 2 laps we were up to 2nd, maybe a minute back of Dave Collins & Keith Murray; i had my work cut out for me. Mid way through my first lap of two, Ryan Henry passed me, and later on Lee Williams – i didn’t really fancy my chances of hanging onto either of their wheels, but that didn’t stop me trying! Through the second lap, i was beginning to learn the lines a bit better and felt like i was making up time only to lose it again through being too polite in passing people (that didn’t stop one guy having a go at me for daring to ask to pass at all, though!). When i handed back over to Si, we were down to 6th – bugger. This set the pattern for the rest of the race really, Si would make us up some places, and then we’d drop back down when i went out; it was really a testament to just how good the competition was that the Hope guys ended up 4th only a few minutes ahead of where we finished in 7th. It was definitely tight at the top!

I got the last lap, and so had the honour of coming through the finishing arch to shake Pat’s hand; he’s always such a jolly character, and it’s good to see his events attracting such a quality field. The men’s pairs was won by the Wiggle duo of Lee Williams and Ben Simmons who were cranking around like nobody’s business, with Geoff Beetham & Ryan Henry in 2nd, and George Budd & Phil Lenney taking 3rd spot with a late charge.

Thanks as ever to sponsor AW cycles for the Giant bikes, kit and support that they give us, and to our long suffering partners Mel and Rachel for being a great support crew on a rather chilly day.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Fast times at Dortmund High...

It's already been a while since i wrote a post, and i swore this time around i'd be better, but to be totally honest it feels like i've been living at breakneck speed the last three weeks. After the spring marathon, i had hoped to have another good week's training ready for the Midlands XC race on my favourite course of last year at Hanchurch near Stoke. It's a great place to ride a bike, and the BETD/Goldtec guys helped by a certain Mr. Brookes always put on an excellent testing course, with proper climbs to test your legs, and tricky twisty descents to make sure you've been riding your mtb in the off season. Last year i had a less than perfect race when a catalog of errors led to me spending the night sleeping in the car (even at my height, a fiesta is not a comfy bed) and then having only milk to drink to stay hydrated in the hours leading up to the race. Feeling rather better this year, and with a slightly more cohesive plan in mind, i fancied my chances of improving my finish position.

Tuesday morning, and things were looking good - i did a turbo session in the morning before heading out the door to work, knowing that in the evening i'd be boarding a plane to Germany. I'd got it all planned out, i'd take my running shoes and do an hour's run around Werne on Wednesday, and fly back Thursday which would give me time to rest and recover. I saw the sights of Werne at 7am, the joys of a 1hr time difference being enough to get me up and out early before breakfast, and went jogging along the river on a pleasant spring morning. Thursday was the day to return and prepare. A friendly little country called Iceland had other ideas however. As the day wore on, it became more and more clear that i wouldn't be heading home after all - my colleague and I made plans to stay in Dusseldorf over night in order to get a flight early Friday morning. Finding somewhere to stay on Thursday evening proved more of a struggle however, as a "wire expo" (i seriously can't imagine who would go to this, or why!) had been on in the city, and thousands of other Brits were also stranded unable to fly home. We finally got into a slightly grubby hotel that was only a few years away from charging by the hour, and went to sleep.

Friday dawned to silence from the airport, the ash cloud has spread and now the German airports were closing too. We decided to cut our losses and head for Brussels - then we had the option of the Eurostar, a ferry from Oostend or a flight if the airports reopened. And it was a much better place to be stuck than Dusseldorf to boot. We checked into a rather plush hotel in the centre for what would be the first of three nights, and i got my first acquaintance with the running machine in the gym. On the train journey, we passed through several extremely picturesque villages and towns in the Belgian Ardennes that i'm very keen to go back and visit, in particular Verviers which was the location chosen for the 2007 world mtb marathon championships. Let's face it, a country obsessed with chocolate and cycling has to be my spiritual home! Once we got to Brussels, following the alternative train route suggested to us by a friendly Belgian man at Dusseldorf, and checked in, i have to admit a wave of relief passed over me. Annie, our star organiser had arranged some Eurostar tickets for monday morning, we had somewhere to stay, and things were looking up. It was only later that it occurred to me that getting back on Monday meant i would miss the Midlands race, and also not see Rachel for nearly two weeks as she headed up to the Dalby World Cup on Sunday.

The days in Brussels passed in a haze of foraging for somewhere to eat, trying to find out what was going on transport-wise and even a little sightseeing. It was pretty cool to go the atomium ( a giant exhibit for the 1958 world's fair in the shape of a body centred cubic crystal structure unit (oh my, i still remember some materials science!), and filled with exhibits from the 1950s and '60s. As i implied earlier, i spent a lot of quality time with the running machine in the evenings to make up for my lack of bike training, and also because it made the amazing Belgian stews taste even nicer when i was hungry from a bit of excercise. Finally, monday morning arrived, and after a nervous wait to collect our tickets (apparently etickets don't count!). After a mad dash to the platform, the actual trip back home was a bit of a blur. I got back to find i'd left my lights on in my car six days earlier, and needed a new battery, and then once i finally got home discovered my cat had been duffed up by the local bully and needed a trip to the vets. What a life.

Things have settled down a bit now, Rachel's back from working at Dalby, and training is back in the swing - in fact it even felt like i hadn't lost much through 6 days with no bike. I guess time will tell...

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

CRC Marathon, Builth Wells, 10th April

CRC Spring Marathon Builth Wells

Having experienced the blissful spring sunshine of Gran Canaria already, Rachel and I were a little more pessimistic about our chances of a rain-free weekend in Wales in April. The weather had other ideas though, and the weather was nothing short of beautiful, so beautiful in fact that Rachel managed to get sunburn.

We arrived in Builth on Saturday evening, just in time for the Big Night Out night marathon. The couple of hour’s drive from Rachel’s parent’s house in their new campervan that we were borrowing for the weekend on windy roads was a little scary for me, but i eventually got used to something rather bigger than a Ford Fiesta! The camper was an absolute luxury, with onboard heating that came in surprisingly useful – although daytime temperatures were very pleasant, clear skies at night meant it was rather cold when the sun went down. Having signed on and made some dinner, we wandered over to see the leaders finishing the night marathon, led home by Jonny Pugh, with Nick Craig hot on his heels. Friend and fellow endurance racer Trevor Allen finished a creditable fifth.

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, a little mist on the hills the only sign that night time temperature had been low, and a quick wander made it clear that it was going to be a shorts and jersey day by the time the race set off at 10:30. A quick breakfast, and a quick chat with the guys on the USE/Exposure stand, and it was time to line up for the 75km “challenge”. We all rolled out together behind a pace van for the first 7km of the ride, and i soon found my way forwards to the group containing most of the favourites. The pace felt hard but not ridiculous, although it was easy to tell that Nick wasn’t working quite as hard as me by just how chatty he was!

I kept the leaders in sight for the first half an hour, but the pace was too hot and i was definitely on the train to bonksville if i tried to keep going like that for 3+hrs. I sat up and let my heartrate drop into a slightly more sensible endurance zone as we started the second climb. I was feeling pretty good at this point, and seemed to have packed my climbing legs as i kept closing gaps on the uphill sections. It wasn’t long before i was up with East Anglian mtb legend Paul Ashby and his son who we’re riding together. Paul’s always been extremely fast on the flat, but this year he seems to be climbing pretty well too – watch out fellow vets! Chuffed that things seemed to be going well for me, i did my classic trick of forgetting to drink on the rolling course that seemed to head either up or down most of the time.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, i started to feel the first twinges of cramp in my left leg on one of the steeper pitches of climbing; uh oh. I guzzled the remaining fluid in my bottles in the hope of stopping the full-on leg-locking experience, and the dehydration gods must have been smiling on me because it worked! However, it obviously affected my brain because i managed to sail straight past one of the yellow course markers, and inadvertently cut a short section of the course. I made up for it on the final descent though by sailing straight past another marker and going straight into an unrideable field – oops! I crossed the line in (i think) 10th place, 20minutes behind a certain Mr. Craig.

Post-race we had a nice little tea party in the camper with friends and team mates (in Rachel’s case) and then headed back to drop off our home for the previous night, before coming back to the flatlands of East Anglia. The guys who live in Wales probably don’t realise just how lucky they are to have such amazing terrain on their doorsteps – oh to be able to climb for more than two minutes! All in all, a great event and amazing weather – what more could you want?