Saturday, 31 December 2011

A season to look forward to

It's new year's eve. The tradition on new years is to take stock of the year, decide what has gone well and where you need to improve, and carry that enthusiasm for change into the coming year. But the truth is, i'm too excited about the year ahead to spend long looking back on the past 12 months. As a cursory nod to this most incontravertible tradition, however, i can give a month-by-month review of the year.

January - snow, move, cold, tired, no riding.
February - work, learn, learn more, still cold, ride a bit. Race - mud.
March - sudden warm, ride more, Race- mud, mechanical, Race2 - dry, fast, flat, boring. April - ride with new friends, race with old friends, discover Kemback
May - birthday, more riding, great weather, tanlines
June - Transgermany, crap weather, more riding, great views
July - Rain rain go away, more mechanicals
August - Lost for what to do
September - December: 3 Peaks, blurrrrrr...

Next Year poses something of a change for me, and for the XC community as a whole. The regionalisation of the NPS is a fantastic opportunity for the improvement of racing in the UK, but i suspect its implementation will be less than perfect, and realistically it could represent an initial step backwards for XC. This conveniently coincides with a shift of focus for Team AW as a whole, and also a certain level of, not boredom exactly, but lack of enthusiasm for XC for me. The coming season then will be built around other things. In the main they are: Gorrick Spring Series (these races i'm hoping will form the cornerstone of my early-season speed development - the quality of the Elite/Expert fields almost automatically designates me as an also-ran!), Crystal Palace Crit Series (they're amazingly close to home, and i've always wanted to be able to race crits for training and a bit of bunch-racing practice), CRC Marathon series (well the middle three that don't clash with other grander aims), and then selected other races.

These come mostly from my wishlist of races i have wanted to do for a long time, and in no particular order are:
Roc Lassagais - Part of the UCI Marathon Series in the Cevennes National Park
Stategg Marathon - Another UCI race, but based in Switzerland
Grand Raid Cristalp - depending on how work commitments work out, i really want to give this one a go next year
Kielder 100 - Has to be done again, it really bothered me missing it last year.

But it all kicks off tomorrow, the first race of 2012 is also on the first day - and probably the closest of the whole year too, as Rachel and I head over to Herne Hill to race the new year's day madison. From there, it's a slow, gradual build to April where my rather modest aim is to not be last....

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Reviews for 2011

TRP CX9 Brakes
Having first noticed the world-cup mtber and technology early-adopter Adam Craig racing 'cross with these brakes a couple of years ago, i have to admit i was intrigued. The old-fashioned logic for 'cross brakes is that the mud clearance afforded by cantis is so much better than even though a v-brake offers more braking power, this is outweighed by their tendency to clog. However, the british cross season is getting earlier each year, and with four races done in a lot of the local leagues by the end of september, there are an increasing number of "dirt crit" races on the calendar, where powerful, confidence-inspiring brakes are really important. For me, the kick i needed to invest in something a bit stronger than my classic froglegs was having my entry to the three peaks accepted. The race in Yorks really doesn't tend to get that muddy (although there were one or two choice exceptions in this year's course after a week of rain), but you definitely want brakes that can scrub off some speed quickly when decending 700m peaks.

First test rides on the Lomond Hills confirmed that they gave better, more stable braking than the froglegs, and even on the wettest, muddiest days, the closer approach of the pad to the rim didn't cause problems. You go faster when you know you can go slower...

Descente Winter Gloves
These were bought for me by my colleagues at TT Electronics before i left, well, they got me the wiggle vouchers i bought them with! They were an absolute godsend up in Scotland, and have made riding even on the coldest days comfortable in the hand department. I don't have the best circulation, and have always found that tight-fitting gloves, whilst excellent for control in the first 10 minutes of a ride, are utterly useless for control when your hands are freezing and feel like a bag of useless sausages anyway! It was with previous experiences of gloves like this in mind that i opted for the waterproof, windproof and rather well fleece-lined, but perhaps rather large and less digit-hugging descente winter gloves. They have performed admirably through two tough winters, and left me with nairy a chilly fingertip over that time - thank goodness it's time to put them away again now though!

High5 Iso Gels
Having been given several boxes of these by AWcycles to get us through our respective summers of racing, Rachel and I amazed ourselves by getting through more or less all of them (apart from a few caffeine-supplemented offerings) by October. The big idea behind the ISO gel is that they're designed to be used with minimal requirement for extra water - most gels recommend that you take on extra fluid with them, in some cases up to 250ml per gel! They're pretty easy to take as they are a lot more fluid than most gels (particularly good for cold days and cross races), although they're not ones to carry with you and not take, as the packaging is a bit fragile, and if you manage to puncture it and leave it in a warm place it tastes pretty rank! Easy on the stomach, i reckon they're a good bet as long as you're not out for a loooong time, as they're pretty heavy per calorie!

Sportful Base Layers
I have become a bit of a fan of sportful kit, they make nice, understated but stylishly Italian kit that doesn't cost the earth. Their undervests are particularly good, wicking sweat away from your skin fast to stop you from getting irritated skin, and runners/cyclists nipple. They're cut nicely so they don't bunch during long rides, and possibly the ultimate compliment i can give is that you just put them on and go. They'll be coming with me to Europe in the coming summer, that's for sure!

Friday, 9 December 2011

The New New Life

So here i am in London. I freely admit that i'm not much of a soothsayer, but i never saw that coming! It seems simultaneously a very long time since i interviewed for a job in St Andrews, and also about five minutes ago. In the last year, i have gone from having a sensible, stable and perhaps most importantly a permanent job with a tech firm in the Cambridge area, to living "proper" village life in rural Fife on a 3-year postdoc contract, to living in suburban London and working on the UCL campus. It's been a whirlwind, i can tell you. Would i change anything. Honestly, probably no.

It's been five weeks since Rachel and I moved south, although she spent a month down here ahead of me "sofa-surfing" with friends, and trying to find us somewhere to live. Five weeks has passed so fast it's not even funny. I have made new friends where i work, caught up with old ones i haven't seen in years, and discovered that it is possible to exercise in London without getting run over, stabbed, or one and then the other. The hills of Kent will likely be my new playground, and although they lack some of the grandeur i have become accustomed to in Scotland, they can provide a stern test of less-than-race fit legs.

My last races up north were the wondefully named "Hairy Coo" xc race at Comrie Croft, run by the equally-wonderfully-named Drovers Tryst, which was run off on a tough little purpose-built course in very Scottish (muddy and with horizontal rain) conditions, followed by a longer looped ride around Glen Tarkie on the sunday. The latter managed to wash the mud out of my eyes from the former, but unfortunately i got a stomach bug from all the grit that had me laid up for a couple of days. I finished 10th in the Hairy Coo, which was won by north-of-the-border stalwart Gareth Montgomerie, and was in 3rd place in the Sunday marathon when i was mis-directed, and ended up doing an extra lap of Glen Tarkie. Ooops.

To blow away the moving cobwebs, Rachel and I decided to sign up for the first round of the Brass Monkeys enduro. It was a total change of scene compared to my previous experiences, there were hundreds of people on the start line, the course was dry, fast and twisty as opposed to being up hill and down dale, and it was nigh impossible to go the wrong way! The general standard of riding was noticeably different too, with southerners clearly favouring fitness over skill in their training, as bottle necks at every tricky section on the first lap proved! Perhaps it was the sheer number of people out on course, and the extra speed that you could get out of your bike on the less epic terrain, but people seemed less friendly and less inclined to let faster riders through too, apparently one guy even challenged someone to a fight for daring to pass! None of these things have ever bothered me much in the past about racing in England, so i must just be oversensitive having had an entirely different experience in Scotland! I tootled around not-really-racing with my lack of fitness on display for all the world to see, and came in a lap down on former teamie Tim Dunford who took a commanding lead in his new Cannondale colours. Rachel got to stand on the box in her race, coming in 3rd and obviously showing less ill effects from moving than me (i like to think....)!

So we're settled. Home is where your bikes rest. Life in London seems simultaneously alien and very familiar; there are unwritten codes to everything from sitting on the bus to cycle commuting that i am only beginning to learn. I keep making the mistake of smiling at people in the street, a hangover from a past life in Arncroach, only to have them avert their eyes from the obvious lunatic. In time, i'll get to grips with it. As Baz Luhrmann says "Live in London once, but leave before it makes you hard" -{Deleted take}.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Playing Catch-up

The title of my post summarises how life has felt since i last wrote here nearly two months ago! Since then, i have done the Scottish champs off the back of my first conference as a condensed matter theorist, followed by eight days in the Hebrides, and then my most & least favourite race of the year, the 3 Peaks Cyclocross. Since then, it's been all-go, i've been trying to fix all the bikes i have incapacitated over the course of the season, glue tubs on cyclocross wheelsets, and clean, tidy and pack the house in anticipation of my second move in a year at the end of the month. Just the thought of all this is leaving me a little tired, and perhaps no wonder! So, let's begin at the beginning.

Up first, the Scottish Champs. I spent the week before the race in my old home town of Cambridge at a conference which involved days spent in seminar rooms, and several lates nights discussing physics (and maybe a few beers). I had initially hoped that i might be able to do the Kielder 100 for the third year on the trot, but the logistics just didn't work out - there was physically no way i could get to the event in time for the start! So my consolation prize was to be the scottish xc champs the day after at Drumlanrig Castle. And what a consolation - i love the venue at Drumlanrig, it's a beautiful setting for a race, and the trails are absolutely superb (even if the last time Rachel and I came here, we had some car-related issues!). The course was pretty familiar from the NPS there in 2008, with many of the same sections (the best bits) laced together in a different order. My only slight complaint would be that the chicken line for one of the tech sections was actually faster than the drop - surely the wrong way around!

Having watched as Rachel raced to a bronze medal in the elite women's race, being beaten by two Commonwealth Games athletes (albeit roadies, pah pah), i started my race with pretty low expectations. The lap was a long one, so it was just my hope to just finish the full race distance before a flying GT rider lapped me (although i didn't know which one...). I felt pitifully slow on the climbs, but was enjoying letting go with the anthem on the rough stuff, and aside from a particularly rude masters rider who spent a while shouting abuse behind me before shoulder-barging me into a tree, my race passed without much company and without much incident. The faster sport riders came storming past, politely i hasten to add, and i just avoided Dave H catching me for a lap to complete the full race distance, albeit in a maratho 2.5hrs! On the plus side, i did break my duck at a scottish race, i finished without mechanical incident, and without getting lapped. A result of sorts!

A fantastic holiday of walking, cycling and generally enjoying the great outdoors in the Outer Hebrides was next on the menu, and is probably the reason i'm not totally insane now. We were unfortunately spared the beautiful views from the top of the only Corbett in the Hebrides by the diabolical weather, but climbing An Clisham sounded like a good plan to prepare for the 3 peaks. Some fantastic sunny days followed, including one spent cycling around the isle of Harris (and buying Harris Tweed...), and getting caught up in a sheep-based traffic jam ensued, and whilst it might not have been perfect preparation, i felt like i was at least able to stomp uphills a little better for what waited next.

The 3 Peaks has been my traditional season-closer - by august, i'm usually sick of XC racing and yearn for something a bit different, which makes it relatively easy to choose between a long trip to Newnham (as great as the course is) and a shorter one to do what is almost certainly the most wacky bike race in the UK! This year was no exception, and as soon as the last round of the scottish xc series was out of the way in July, i told myself that i would concentrate on preparing solely for this race. Rachel and I had a go at hiking up hills with bikes on our shoulders in the Lomonds, and perhaps more importantly tried out our new mini-v brakes coming back down the steep sheep tracks, and through August things seemed to be going pretty well. I intended to start running again, but never really found the time with trying to get some serious work done in my research life, and Rachel's job with Fife council it never really came together. Somewhere in the midst of this i also discovered i was going to move again, this time to London. I'm not sure quite where my enthusiasm for riding my bike went, but certainly the fun in intervals and training hard seemed to have more or less totally evaporated by the beginning of September, and maybe i should have left it there!

Instead, i decided that i had taken an entry for the race, the least i could do (since the organisers returned 150 entries this year!) was to race as best i could so i didn't take the spot of someone more deserving! After a night spent in the field next to the Helwith Bridge pub, race morning dawned grey and overcast. I wasn't worried, both the 3 peaks races i have done previously have been grey and overcast mornings, and have turned into beautiful days out on dry, fast ground. A bit of rain saw us away from the start, and made the sketchy 6 miles on the road a little more nervy with a pack of 600 riders. In spite of much tinkering with my cross bike, i'd had to make a last minute switch of wheels to a spare set with less than appropriate 32mm challenge tubs on (my rear tufo t34 having inexplicably sprung a leak when i was cleaning the bike on saturday morning!). On top of that, the longer chain i had fitted to cope with the 50T front ring, and a 32T rear sprocket decided that the wet was reason enough to fall off. Repeatedly. Before the off road had even begun. Cue a few maternally disapproving comments from Isla Rowntree about the quality of my bike maintenance.

Once we hit the first offroad section at Gill Garth, it was clear that this year was not going to be like the previous times i had done the race. The ground was sodden, and the going very tough. It set the tone for the whole race really, and as fun as it was riding a hugely inappropriate bike through the tough terrain of the yorkshire dales, i just didn't have the drive i had two years ago. My lack of running fitness really hit home as i came across fellow twitterer Dave Haygarth on the descent off Pen-y-Gent; the final one of the three peaks and more of a "riders" climb. He had had an off on the slippery top section, and broken his collarbone, and in spite of spending a lot of time grimacing by the side of the track (you would hope, or he just wouldn't be human!) and then making his way gingerly down the rest of the offroad, he still came in at the same time as me - 4h10m.

Nick Craig made the most of the absence of Rob Jebb to take a runaway victory from Neal Crampton who bettered his previous best with second place. Within a couple of days, the soreness had subsided, and i found myself thinking ahead to next year, when i'll be a bit more settled, and it'll mark the beginning of my first ever "proper" cross season (as opposed to the odd race here and there...).

So time is ticking by, it's less than a month until i move south to start all over again, and it seems like there's an awful lot to do. Better get packing...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Highs and Lows

Mountain bike racing, it is often said, usually pun-intended, is a sport of highs and lows. It makes the high all the sweeter that the lows can be gutting. Racing is always hard, but it so much harder when you feel like you are fighting the course, other riders or even just your own body. From the last few years of racing the BMBS, I know how all of these things feel, but in the last 12 months i've learned a lot more about the humble mechanical than i ever wanted to know. Mechanicals are perhaps the most upsetting experience, if you're less fit or technically able than other riders, and suffer as a result, then at least you can go away, regroup and improve. With equipment failure, it doesn't matter how well prepared you are and how good you feel, it can be snatched away, and there is little you can do beyond careful, regular maintenance to ameliorate things. Shit happens.

My first experience of the Scottish XC series at Kirroughtree told me that i would have an exciting year to look forward to, the course was ace, the competition was pretty fierce with Expert and Elite riders mixed together, and the atmosphere was so friendly. Unfortunately, my race ended after two and a half laps when i picked up a second puncture on a rocky section of trail - my own fault entirely for running too little pressure to try to find some traction in the mud. Fast forward to the end of July, and the last round at Perth and i was feeling pretty confident. Four months more riding and racing in my legs, some record power numbers in the weeks running up to the race, and the fact that the course was not dissimilar to one of my favourite Fife riding venues, Pitmedden, made me think i was on for a good result here.

In the morning, i did my duty and fed Rachel as she cruised to another podium spot (2nd) behind Ciara McManus and in the process won the series. A national series elite win, not bad eh? For my race start, it became clear that there wasn't going to be a great strength in depth; there were three of us on the start line. I have to admit to feeling a bit conflicted about this, on the one hand, i would be guaranteed a podium finish, on the down side it felt like abit of an empty achievement. The predicament was probably even worse for friend Doug Shearer, who has been racing the scottish series the last 7years, and had never yet been on the Elite podium!

Rachel on her way to the series title. Note the warning about "Dangerous Cliffs" behind - this was a seriously picturesque course!

We got off to a gentle start, with Rab Wardell leading our intrepid trio through the downhill fireroad section at the beginning of the course, and then turning on the turbos when we hit the first climb. Showing my characteristic diesel nature, i didn't have the change of pace to follow, and tried not to get in Dougal's way as i grunted my way upwards. From the top of the first climb, it was pretty clear that Rab wasn't going to suffer too much from high grass track highland games exploits the day before, and he rode away to take a fine win. Things were a little closer between Douglas and I, in no small part because of his knee issues that have hampered his training over the last weeks. For a lap and a half, he sat ~15s ahead, the gap closing and opening a little as we reached sections of course that suited on or other of us. As the gap was closing again, disaster. Riding along a flat section of i heard a ping, and looked down to see my chain in my spokes - d'oh. I managed to coax the chain back out, and was about to pedal away when i noticed that the chain had escaped the mech. Unfortunately, the carbon cage plate had snapped - game over.

Feeling utterly dejected i had one last go at getting the whole drivetrain to work for me, in the hope that i could just ride around and finish to claim my spot on the podium having foregone any hopes of catching Douglas for second. It lasted 300 yards of gentle pedalling before falling apart again, and i gave up and ran to the start finish, with thoughts of whether or not it was feasible to run the whole course another 3 times going through my brain.

Rachel reiterated what the sensible side of my brain was saying, that running around with a bike there was no chance of staying on the lap, and that i might as well accept my poor luck and cheer my friends who were still riding. She was right, and it was good to see the front runners and riders in the masters and vets races blasting through for their final laps. A nice chat with friends, and we headed home for me to take my frustration out on the turbo trainer, where another PB 20m power suggested that my form is there - and i broke the "Magic 300" that Steve James and i have spoken about at previous races!

Looking dangerously as though i know what i'm doing. Normal service will no doubt be resumed soon...

In a way the whole experience epitomises what i love and hate about mountain bike racing. It's a different sport to time trialling, or even some road races, where you could measure people's physiological condition before the race and have a good idea of who will win. With MTB racing and 'cross, there is an element of equipment selection and maintaining it on and off the course, and of course the small matter of riding technically well and efficiently that pose less of a problem to our skinny-tyred bretheren. But with more variables come more ingenious and annoying ways for the bike Gods to end your race, and therein lies the rub. It is precisely this capriciousness in mtb racing that caused Cadel Evans to switch to the road. He's weak! I intend to continue with not knowing what the next 2hrs will hold when i start a race...

Friday, 22 July 2011

National Champs

So, already around to the national champs weekend. Traditionally (in the last couple of years at least), this has marked the beginning of the end of the season - generally four of the five rounds of the BMBS have already been raced, the podium spots are all worked out, and everyone's pretty much ready for a rest. It has also traditionally marked the switch from XC races to more endurance-based events for me, landing just before the August/September flood of Bontrager 24/12, Torq in your sleep, Kielder and the 3 Peaks CX. Pleasingly, things up north are a little different (a change is as good as a rest), and the Scottish XC races continue through July with the Scottish Champs in early september. Anyway, these are all things to come, instead let's talk about what has already happened!

So, the championships themselves. The venue had been set for some months at the Aske Estate near the pretty North Yorkshire town of Richmond, which had already hosted a round of the Nutcracker series last year. From what i had heard, last year's course was a little lacking in interest, and the organisers had been put under pressure to do something with the venue after their regional round in May was met with similar disapproval by seasoned XC racers (the Scottish contingent were particularly scathing, incidentally, perhaps because we're so spoiled with tricky, technical courses up here!). So, with the understanding that we were probably not going to be treated to a tech-fest, Rachel and I started our leisurely trip down to Richmond on Saturday morning, in what can only be described as biblical rain in Fife.

As we headed south down the A1, the rain briefly abated, and then returned with renewed vigour as we got into my old childhood stomping grounds on the north east coast of Northumbria. We stopped for lunch at a pub in Bamburgh, and went for an extremely soggy walk on the beach in the imposing shadow of Bamburgh castle, where i instantly regressed 20 years and started running up and down the dunes. Rachel wisely pointed out that all this activity and dampness wasn't great preparation for an XC race, so we headed back to the car and put the heaters on full for the rest of the trip to Richmond. We arrived to find our prayers had been answered, it had been raining heavily at the estate, which would make for a more interesting race, but it was dry enough to put the tent up without too much trouble!

Portable home put up across the thoroughfare from the Salsa/Hope enclave, it was time to go and have a look at the course. A possible slightly optimistic choice of a ron/ralph tyre combo made for a rather sketchy pair of laps around the course, punctuated by standing in long queues to look at the "technical sections" early in the lap, which consisted of a steepish mud-over-rock descent through some trees, and then an open, muddy drop through some bracken that required a combination of nerve and relaxation to negotiate in one piece. The remainder of the lap was reasonably flat, with interest provided by an up-and-down-and-up-again traverse along a ridge through the trees, which reminded me a lot of the loamy southern courses like Crow Hill, and had held up amazingly well in spite of the deluge. Throughout the second half of the lap, the key would be to stay smooth rather than trying to ride fast, the latter tactic inevitably seemed to end with a squeak of brakes, a giggle and a loamy landing! Suitably prepared for what lay ahead, and happy to sacrifice a bit of grip to the Gods of rolling resistance, we gave our bikes a quick wash and settled down for our first night in a tent in rather a long time.

The dawn chorus that i usually rely on to wake me when camping never happened. It seems that birds don't like to sing when it's pouring with rain, perhaps they're worried that if they open their beaks, they'll drown when there's as much water coming from the sky as there was on Sunday morning. Rachel and I had a leisurely breakfast of bread, jam and crunchy nut cornflakes, truely the diet of champions. We were in a bit of a pickle as to who would bottle for us - we're usually quite a good little self-sufficient unit, but both racing at the same time had put paid to this. Thankfully, Joanna (Steve's wife) very kindly stepped into the breach and between her and Mel we were sorted! A bit of last-minute tyre swapping to fill the time, and we were ready to race. Well, almost. Thankfully, Mel and Si came to our rescue with lunch, as we'd forgotten to pack any. Start time rolled around surprisingly slowly, giving the weather plenty of time to threaten us, only to improve and ultimately dry the course quite a bit.

Being a lowly expert, with no UCI points to my name, and little chance of earning any this year with the change in UCI regs, i was gridded on the 6th row, so got a somewhat back-seat view of the runners and riders hitting the start of the first climb. My aim, much as last year, was to try to get around the course and not get lapped by Liam to finish the race, so i was keen to set a brisk, but not unsustainable pace - fast starts seem to hurt me a lot more than everyone else! I settled into a group with two guys from the RAF, being ably soigneured by Lou Robbins, Andy Howett and Christian Aucote. Not bad company, i though, perhaps i was having that rarest of things, a good day. The first half of the course consisted of two short, but brutally steep climbs, and two slippy descents that required a certain amount of committment to ride well, before leading across a section of open moorland and into a twisty section not dissimilar in style to Crow Hill. Definitely a course of two halves. I had Andy for company for the first half of the lap, but managed to escape him after he had a painful-looking altercation with a tree. Unlike many, he was good enough to cede the line whilst still upside down so i could keep riding and not join him in the undergrowth! I picked up Christian into the second lap, he was struggling more (if that is possible!) than me on the climbs, but was taking back time on the descents so that we stayed pretty well together. We worked well together for most of the race, and were annoyingly caught by Liam at the beginning of the fourth lap, with Annie on his wheel adding further insult! Unlike last year, when the commissaires allowed lapped riders to continue, Christian obviously believed that we would be pulled, and attacked into the last section of singletrack. Simultaneously, to add a bit of natural gravitas to our battle for the minor minor minor placings, the heavens opened. He got stuck behind a backmarker, and then nearly flattened all of us by trying to go on the other side, keeping a small margin all the way to the finish.

At the end of the race, i stood in the actually rather refreshing rain chatting to friends, and waiting for the AW boys to come in. First to cross the line was Steve James, who managed an amazing 11th place, shortly followed by Tim and Si in 14th and 15th - what a day! A few minutes later, and Rachel came in just behing Natasha Barry to claim 10th place, shortly followed by Ruth Owen-Evans; all to play for mid-field in the women's race!

So, still yet to finish a national champs without being lapped - it still has to be an aim for next year. I was 7th expert, but unlike last year when i got expert ranking points, i seem to have made a rather paltry haul from my trip to Richmond - oh well! Thanks to the Nutcracker guys for putting on a great event, with disappointingly little support from British Cycling, and as always to AW cycles for supporting me and providing my wonderful Giant Anthem.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The list

Rachel has pointed out that i frequently refer to races and events as "that's going on the list", when in reality there is no list, just my half-remembered attempt at keeping a mental record of what i want to do "one day". So, here is the list, with a rough attempt at prioritisation (given by the fact that i'm more likely to remember the ones i really want to do first!):

TransAlp Challenge (done it once, but it felt like a waymarked holiday, would love to do it again and feel like i actually did a race)

BC Bike Race - it's on at the moment, it looks like amazing singletrack riding of the sort that is so often lacking from big marathon events and stage races, and it's in BC!

Grand Raid Cristalp - just an amazing, classic race. Don't understand why there's a nasty hike-a-bike right at the end, apart from because the organisers are sadists, but apparently the final downhill makes up for it.

Gunn Rita Marathon, Montello - any excuse to go to Italy, purely for the food. Course sounds a bit different from the usual big-ups, big downs...

Scuol Swiss National Park Marathon - falls the week before the Cristalp, and goes through some of my favourite bits of transalp territory from years gone by. Starts in a town that even loan out their nuclear shelter to house sweaty grimy participants...

Alpentour trophy - purely because i enjoyed reading Mike Blewitt and Ben Thomas' reports, and seeing headcam from Josh Ibbett that shows i'm not the only brit that gets euro singletrack rage!

I'm sure there are more, but this seems like enough to bankrupt me for at least the next five years. So next time i say "it's on the list", at least i'll have somewhere to put it!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

TransGermany Day 4 - the home straight (and flat!).

Having bitched relentlessly to Hamish about the profile and surface for this stage (flat, and a lot of tarmac), I find myself in the embarrassing situation of having to admit I rather enjoyed it! The initial section of tarmac that took us out of Garmisch was, as is always the case in these events, nothing short of terrifying – it never ceases to amaze me the carnage that braking waves in such a large group can cause, and I had an unfortunately front-row seat for no less than four separate crashes! More amusingly, we were told by the organisers that the start of the stage would be delayed due to a train crossing being closed, only to find the crossing closing as we got there! The train must have decided to wait for us as well!!

Once we hit the first section of gravel road (schotterstrasse auf Deutsch), things calmed down a little, and I managed to work my way forward slightly, only to find a massive bottleneck waiting for me at a gated bridge further down the course. I was left queuing in a long line of elbowy people, and kicking myself for not wading through the knee-deep stream when I had the chance. This impromptu pause was doubly vexing because of the nature of the stage – it was split into two timed sections divided by an untimed “transition” ride of around 35km. My plan had been to treat to the two timed sections like time trials, and to chill out, refuel and catch up with Hamish on the neutralised transfer in between.

After the timing point I grabbed a banana and some watermelon (both staple foods at the feed stations on these events), and sat down in the sunshine to wait for Hamish. Just as I was settling down, he arrived, and we grabbed a bit more food to sustain us over the flat 35km to the next clock start point. We rolled along the valley road in a group with some wonderfully exuberant Italians, and A German dude who was so into the music on his iPod he couldn’t hold a line, and kept trying to run me and Hamish off the road (either that, or it was something we said!!).

Once we got to the second feed, and the clock restarted, I took a gel and got going on the big climb of the stage (things had to be re-routed last minute, and thankfully included a 600m climb for me, unlike the route profile above). I decided to use all my remaining energy on the ascent – it’s day four and it’s not like I need to do much tomorrow apart from get home, in an attempt to make up for time lost earlier in the stage. I crested the top after 45m, with the ego-boosting experience of passing all the riders around me on the way up, all that was left between me and a weissbier was a final schotter descent, and then a flat drag on the tarmac bike path around the Achensee. The descent was littered with fallen riders, including one guy who was hauling himself out of the river at the side of the path (it was hot, but not THAT hot), but by the time we got to the tarmac, I found myself in a good working group. The sign on the edge of the village told us we were going 34kph, not bad I thought, and we worked well for the last few km, dragging weary bodies to the finish line in Maurach. United by our mutual working experience, we all shook hands, then had an awkward moment where we realised we couldn’t really communicate further! I grabbed a finisher’s jersey, and was given my finisher’s medal (which only just fitted over the peak on my lazer helmet!) – job done! I finished 163rd on GC, 3h13m behind Christoph Sauser who took his second victory in the event, in spite of Alban Lakata throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) at him over the 4 days.

To me, there is a nice symmetry about coming back to stage racing. The transalp in 2006, where I raced with Hamish for the first time was what got me hooked on racing for multiple days through fantastic scenery, and ultimately caused me to give XC a go. To say that first race was anything much more than a waymarked holiday would be a fib, whereas the TransGermany felt more like a genuine race to me. I’m now plotting my return next year, but I can’t decide which one to go for. Only 6 months to decide before entries open for 2012!!

Thanks as ever to for supporting me, building me a front wheel at short notice and for the fantastic Giant bike that got many admiring glances. Thanks to Plan B racing - the organisers – for organising a fantastic, safe and enjoyable race once again and to for the excellent photos.

TransGermany Day 3 - the migrating knee pain

The day with the best weather to date also coincided with the hardest route profile for me. Most people look at the stages and fear the days that look like a woodsman’s saw, by contrast I find that I flat-line on the flat lines. Needless to say, I seem to have totally failed to acquire any of the characteristics of the flatland time-triallists in whose lands I spent my formative cycling years.

A similar-distance route to yesterday, today was equipped with around 500m less climbing, and with almost all the uphill confined to the first half of the stage. These two 500m ascents saw me feeling strong, although I was suffering a bit with knee pains that didn’t quite know which knee to settle in. Initially it was the right, then on the second ascent, it abated only to come back on the other side, and by the top of the climb I saw suffering with both knees. It didn’t bother me unduly however, a chap at the top of the second ascent counted me through in ~200th place overall, which by my reckoning would have put me in about 130th in the senior men. All I had to do was hang on down the other side, ready for a 250m climb to the finish.

On the following 35km of gentle downhill, I found myself being passed by groups of 20-25 riders which I simply couldn’t hold onto. Ordinarily it wouldn’t have bothered me, as I would have been able to make the places back on the next ascent, but with only a short climb to the finish, they were gone for good. 183rd on the stage, both knees are killing me, my right ankle has got it in for me, and i’ve had the black eyed peas’ “I gotta feeling” rattling around in my head all day. It’s enough to make a chap quite, quite vexed! I’m now dreading tomorrow, which is longer and even flatter...

Post-stage finish, there was a nice little descent on open roads (and therefore untimed) to get to the main finish area in town, where the rather poorly-explained Scott sprint was happening; apparently you could win scott goodies, but it was far from clear how. Hamish, ever the serious one of our stage-race duo suggested that it might be judged on the “erotic content” of our sprint in an X-factor style. We struggled conceptually with how best to use this information to win bike bling, and decided (wisely I feel) that whatever it took, we probably didn’t have! We were determined not to get sucked into wasting energy, but with crowds of several hundred people cheering, we ended up drag racing one another down the main street – oops!

It took us a little while to find our hotel in Garmisch, but it was worth the hunting around; it looked like a good choice, and the fact that quite a lot of the organisation (including the legendary Uli) were staying there too only sweetened the deal. When we went to check in, however, we were told that there was no room at the inn – we would have to transfer to the 4.5* sister hotel across town; what a hardship. We got an interesting insight into how the other half live when we arrived at the Grand Hotel Atlas, seeing the Multivan-Merida mechanics prepping bikes in the courtyard definitely gave us a pause for “what if...?”.

Last stage tomorrow – Rachel’s sage advice by text message is to smash it. After all, how long can 100km take? Let’s see what, if anything, I have left...

TransGermany Day 2 - what goes up...

So, in spite of the apparent respite offered by the more gentle route profile as compared with yesterday’s “Queen” stage, today was definitely tougher! I slept okay, but the town bells in Pfronten woke me at 3am, and the organisers very kindly organised for them to be tolled continuously at 6am, just in case we’d forgotten we had a race to ride! The day broke very much in the spirit of the previous one, damp and overcast. I said goodbye to almost all of my luggage at 7am (apart from a well-travelled pot of chammy cream that hitched a ride in my back pocket for the duration of the stage), having elected to ride with arm and knee-warmers again, and stumbled down to breakfast. My stomach was (is!) a bit iffy, so I didn’t manage to force down quite as much heavy rye bread as Hamish, but it was actually quite nice to start the stage not feeling too full of stodge.

We got to the start line in the centre of Pfronten at 8am, and joined the assembled riders near the front of the B-pen, where our respective finishes of 150th and 180th had us gridded. After much standing around in more German spray, we were given a briefing on the stage ahead, which included a tantalising warning about the tricky and technical nature of the first descent, and before we knew it we were off the line to the dulcet tones of AC-DC’s “Highway to Hell”. The timing of the organisers was almost impeccable, as the clock ticked over to 9am, the first repeat of the chorus started! The fastest amateurs and pros in the A-group got a nice head start, whilst we sat at the start watching them go, ready to chase after them when our turn came. I made sure I got a decent kick off the line in anticipation of the first descent, and was rewarded with a manageably small number of technically inept riders! The descent itself was rather reminiscent of the Peak District on a wet day, complete with a muddy, rooty section that provided a momentary resting-place for four stricken riders!

The remainder of the stage is something of a blur – I remember that the mist lifted and the sun came out, and that I never really got into my stride – i’m pretty sure I lost some time on my early running , but it was more than made up for by the “freeride” descent in Lermoos. I managed to stay with a working group early on which saved me from losing too much time, but everyone is racing hard around me, even for 200th place, making every little loss of legs or enthusiasm costly!

Hamish came in around half an hour behind today, after going off-course and then having to call the emergency recovery crew to a woman who had crashed and landed on her head. At the time, he hadn’t a clue where he was, but thankfully the alpine walkers were better prepared with maps! I think I would have placed 12th or 13th in the women’s field, which i’m pleased with given how awful I felt for most of the day. My knees are feeling it, however; in the past two days they have done more riding than they would normally see in a week, so they are entitled to complain a little. As an example of how much the weather improved, I am now a little sunburned, and sporting two-tone arms which go white – pink – brown; I am an accidental Neapolitan! Aside from that, I don’t feel too bad, and have just reminded myself that there’s a gelateria on the main street...

TransGermany Day 1 - a room with a view

So, first stage already done and dusted. I can hardly believe that I am here already, let alone that we’re already one stage into the race. I am currently sitting in a nice room on the 4th floor of a ski-hotel in the mountain town of Pfronten, and the view from the window of the surrounding mountains is nothing short of sensational.

The route for the first stage of the race was, as predicted, very wet, and very hilly (as you can see from the profile above), both of which I suspect may suit me quite well. The climbs today came in four main chunks, each dose between 400m & 700m of total ascent, on a mixture of tarmac and gravel road. At this point, I should explain that the gravel roads in the alps and tyrol are unlike anything you will come across in the UK – like most European mountain roads, they are nicely graded at somewhere between 6-10%, and are covered in a layer of fine, dusty gravel, not unlike kitty litter. Once you have found (or re-found) your confidence descending on these trails, they provide ample grip and control, but the initial sensation of tyres sliding towards unprotected edges can be nothing short of terrifying. It is with these words that I justify my fairly awful descending today!

It is possible that I went off a little hard this morning in an effort to avoid the bottlenecks I remember so fondly from the TransAlp; seeing XC-race heart rates for the first half an hour out of town seems like a much less sensible plan with hindsight! The first climb, the biggest of the whole race, passed amazingly quickly, and it wasn’t long before I reached the Fizik king of the mountains hoarding, the branding no doubt a source of great pride and amusement to my friend and travelling partner, Hamish, who has just started working for Fizik! The descent was a little sketchy; it’s been five years since I last smelled hot hydraulid fluid, and slid through switchbacks covered in ball-bearing gravel, I was definitely losing height accordingly gingerly. Others were more reckless, and there appeared to be many punctures and crashes on the first rocky section – not a great way to start the event!

The stage as a whole panned out much as I would have expected; I was out-pacing most of the people around me on the climbs to be re-caught on the descents and what little flat ground there was on todays stage by bigger, more powerful riders. This was doubly annoying as the approach to the finish was ~8km on flat tracks where I must have lost a good 15 places to the roadie groups that formed. I rolled in in 3h47m for 150th place on the stage, my average HR of 163bpm testament to my efforts on the climbs. Hamish appeared from the gloom and mist (“German spray” as we dubbed it, in homage to Scotch mist) around 20m later, and we caught up with our American friend again too.

The hotel is splendid and very comfy, but it’s now 9pm and i’m flagging. The bag drop system by which our luggage is transported from place to place is going to require a 6:30 start tomorrow, so that we have time to assess what clothes we need for the coming stage, and i’ll need my beauty sleep if i’m to lose less than 58m to the flying Swiss Sauser tomorrow...

TransGermany Day 0 - the storm before the calm

Today it rained. And it rained. And then it rained some more. In fact, if it keeps the cloudburst of the moment going until morning, the organisers would be wise to issue us with waterwings for our safety (and possibly comfort).
Today started well enough, sunny fenland morning in Little Eversden hinted that maybe, just maybe, the gloomy weather reports were wrong. Hamish and I had been obsessively checking the long range forecast for Munich in the preceding week, and it had done nothing for our spirits. The impression that we had been overly negative was confirmed when we landed at Munich airport to 22oC, sunny skies and light winds. This is what continental racing is all about!

Our train ride to Sonthofen, the start town for the race was punctuated only by a rather bizarre Jekyll & Hyde experience with Bavarian ticket inspectors, one of whom could hardly stand to talk to me, and the other of whom was nice enough to carry our bike bags down the train for us when we got on at the wrong door! As for competitors, we have met an American woman from Utah who now lives in Hamburg, and a rather serious German dude (it later transpired he wasn’t even racing, but supporting his sister!).
Registration was, as ever, a little chaotic. It was held in the space beneath an ice rink, and contrary to expectations was oppressively hot, and was only topped in oddness by the first night’s pasta party, which was held around the edge of a swimming pool. Unable to contain our excitement at Uli Stanciu pouring forth his pearls of wisdom about the following day’s course, Hamish and I headed outside to eat and keep an eye on our bikes; it’s not unknown for them to go missing the night before these events start. The man in charge of the Parc Ferme provided for the storage of bikes seemed delighted to see us, and we soon discovered why! We were obliged to leave our beloved cycles outside in the pouring rain overnight, so far only eight out of 1100 people have decided this is a sacrifice worth making. My lovely anthem is currently sitting (illicity) next to me in the hotel room as I write this.

Tomorrow should give us a relaxed start to ease ourselves into the race – kick-off is at 10am. I have to do my best not to get swamped in the flat first few km; hopefully the rain will dampen some European spirits! So far, the event is missing the characters and the sunshine that the TransAlp had, but it’s a long long way to Achensee...

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

A Day in Photos.

Inspired by team mate Simon's recent blog about photos (see here ), here's a photo "diary" of me exploring the Ochil Hills on the day of Paris Roubaix.

The Ochils, where i got genuinely confused as to which side of the road i should be on thanks to a combination of Alpine scenery, warm weather and no traffic. In fact, the only vehicle i saw on this whole stretch of road was a horse!

A view out over the Firth of Tay. Beautiful.

Twas a fair old climb up to the car park at Pitmedden forest, somewhere i've been meaning to try out on the MTB for a while. Someone leaned out of the back of a land rover to take my photo as i struggled up the hill too, which i thought was only adding insult to injury...

On the day of Paris-Roubaix, it just seemed right to hit the pave (or maybe grave, in fact), although cobbles were lacking (perhaps not a bad thing!). Even with road maintenance like this, I love Scotland.

The rather imposing silhouette of Falkland hill, where there's much more scary mtbing to be had - not sure i'm tough enough for it though.

Nearly home - heading for Ceres with the first buds of spring just starting to burst on the trees. Ah, bliss.

Friday, 8 April 2011

BMBS 1 & The Goatee of Filth

I’m already failing on my New Year’s resolution to keep my blog up to date – the last few weeks have been mostly spent running to stand still however. So, here’s my update from the last two weekends, just before the next one starts. Firstly, BMBS 1 at Sherwood Pines.

BMBS Round 1
Clipstone, it transpires, is really quite a bit further from home than it was last year. However, it would also be fair to say that last year, it would have taken a less feasible, and much less desirable journey to get to the first round, as Rachel and I were sunning ourselves, and trying to fix her ankle in Gran Canaria. What a difference a year makes!

In the week running up to Sherwood, the weather switched from cold, windy and rainy to warmer, windy and slightly less rainy. Spring was coming to the East Neuk, which meant it had probably arrived down south; the Sherwood effect of warm sunshine, dry fast trails, and dust-choked racing looked like a realistic prospect yet again. Yet again, i found myself hoping for some rain to slow the racing down, i don’t know what it is about skimming trees at 30kmph through the singletrack, but i’m just not good at it, especially early in the season when i always struggle for speed (actually, being rather a diesel, i struggle for speed all the time!). Anyhow, my prayers went unanswered (next year maybe i’ll sacrifice a furious fred or two to make it clear i’m serious), and as we headed over the Forth Road Bridge it was dry, warm and sunny.

Waking up the following morning after a night spent at my parents, it seemed like maybe the weather gods had been listening after all, as it was overcast and noticeably colder than the day before. I was feeling hopeful, maybe Sherwood wouldn’t be a dirt crit after all. The remainder of the AW team were driving up from Reading, minus “Turbo” Tim Dunford, who had had rather a rough week and was too under the weather to race (given how tough Tim can be, you know it’s bad when he says it’s bad!). We all met up for a couple of laps of the course, which showed significant improvement over my last experience of a Sherwood BMBS with some trickier lumpy sections through the trees to keep you on your toes at race pace. Suitably prepared, we then had some photos taken by the inimitable Jake James, photographer to the stars (well, an excellent cycling photographer anyway!), including at least one of me gurning as i feared for my life on the wall ride on the skills loop – oops.

A relaxing evening spent at a luxury apartment near Derby, and an excellent Jamie Oliver pasta-based dinner provided by Dr. Ernest, and it was then time to go to bed. Rachel and I were first up, just in time to get her to the Elite women’s start at the unsociable time of 9:30am, especially given the loss of an hour’s sleep (it always feels like more, i reckon she started at half-six at the latest!). I had a nice chat with Maxine’s mum in the feed zone, and we compared notes on what it’s like to live with these elite women in some depth, whilst simultaneously trying to keep track of who was where. It’s a tough life being a feeder!

After Rachel finished, i had a few minutes to kit up, warm up and head over for gridding. From the second row of the grid, i had a good view when the Elite riders demonstrated how not to duke it out in a start, as half the field came to a stop after a crash on the very first (and very slight) corner of the race. Thankfully, this year, we got away with relatively little incident, and with less cruel “roadie traps” than the log on the 2009 course that claimed two collarbones, and showed up my total ineptitude at bunny hops (see video below) that was probably just as well. I had an ok race, not spectacular, but not terrible. I felt like i rode hard, and i was chuffed that only the front 5 elite riders caught me on my last lap, but i wasn’t exactly challenging for the podium. Early on, Nick Evans and i rode together, but as we turned onto a fire road mid-race, Nick turned up the pace and i was soon on my own. On the last lap, i came across Doug Shearer on his fancy new Rocky Mountain, evidently not having such a good ride as a year ago, but then the season is long! I rolled across the line a few second adrift of Doug in 28th, with my usual post-Sherwood regrets of feeling able to carry on at the same pace.

I did find one photo of my trying to give it the beans courtesy of Arthur Green. I’m looking forward to Dalby more now though, i’m liking my climbing more and more.

Goatee of Filth 2011
The following weekend, it was time for the much vaunted “Goatee of Filth” an homage to Shaun Kelly, and the fantastic early-season classic de Ronde van Vlaanderen. Put another way, it’s an excuse for the VC Moulin guys to get together, go for a nice ride in the hills in Fife, try their best to find as many cobbles, and then eat cake at the house of Martin and Susan. Having never been to Burntisland before, we were a bit concerned that we may do our usual trick of setting off in plenty of time and still being late. Our over-planning backfired spectacularly and we were the first ones there just after 9am – oops.

We set off up the “warm up” climb just after 10am – and what a warm up! A SRAM fail later, followed by a short stoppage at Ian’s house to pick up a spare bike (good old cyclists eh – how many motorists do you know who have a “spare car” lying about?!) for Marty Savalas, and we were off again. The last 20 miles of the ride were spent trying to play roadrunner to the big black clouds on the horizon, similar to those that had made the last year’s epic all the more, well, epic. Amazingly, we survived, and returned just in time to see Nuyens win the RVV in an amazing sprint against Chavanel and Spartacus. Oh, and have a chortle at Simon’s last climb cramp that ended with him making a spectacular leap into a ditch, resulting in a chicken and egg confusion about which came first. Amazing food was laid on by our gracious hosts, and all too soon it was time to head home tired but happy.

Goatee of Filth from martin steele on Vimeo.

Until today i wasn’t sure how this weekend could possibly try and match the last two, but now it’s clear as Scottish tap water – this weekend will definitely be the one where i get my first sunburn of 2011! Bring on the wrinkly knees....

Thursday, 24 March 2011

SXC Round 1 - Kirroughtree

The last race of the 2010 XC season saw us compete in the Eastern Championships, on a fast, flat, sun-baked, erm...”Eastern” course. So when the 2011 Dales Cycles Scottish XC Series got underway last weekend at Kirroughtree in the Galloway Forest Park, things couldn’t have been more different! Let’s set the scene. Saturday evening and what seems like half of the Scottish mountain biking world are tweeting about the fast, dry conditions . Sunrise over the forth road bridge seemed to confirm their predictions and left both of us wondering whether our early morning packing frenzy should have included some semi-slicks. An hour later, with scotch mist hanging in the trees and very damp looking sheep by the roadside we had our faith restored in Metcheck!

For those of you that don’t know Kirroughtree is a gem of a trail centre. One of the 7 Stanes it is particularly well known for “McMoab” (southern Scotland’s damper but greener answer to Utah slickrock). Thankfully for Rachel, who finds the idea of a big slab of rock, let alone the cheesegrater granite found around Newton Stewart, quite quite terrifying, it didn’t feature in the SXC course. Damned lazy first-aiders! What the course lacked in white granite-covered whales, however, it more than made up for in a classic SXC mixture of big climbs and fun, sketchy descents. The overnight rains had not been kind to the early “natural” section of technical climb, however, which had gone from dry, to spongy to mud-spraying, wheel spinning give up and run territory. It did make for plenty of chirpy conversations, though, nobody prepared to admit that they didn’t have the breath left for a chat after hauling a mud-plastered bike up the hill! By far the defining section of the course was a slick, mossy, over the edge of control descent where i was expecting (based largely on total racist bias that all Scots are born knowing how to descend effortlessly on two wheels) to be taught many valuable lessons, all with style and panache. Suitably adrenaline-filled, you were then spat out onto a fire road through the arena to start the whole process again.

After second breakfast, and a fully waterproofed reccie (both perhaps signs of a seasoned competitor? – i like to think so!), it was time for Rachel to line up with the rest of the women’s racers. The elites, doing 4 laps of the course, were shown the way by Torq rider Lee Craigie, who led into the first corner and never looked back, with last year’s series winner Elke Schmidt comfortable in 2nd, and Leslie Ingram in 3rd. Rachel made up a place on the last lap, after marooning me in the feed zone with only the wildlife for company during her final lap, to come in 4th, and she assures me much more importantly “not last”! Having spent the last month searching out new places to ride, and watched Rachel ride with common sense and temerity, it was good to see her back to her old descending ways and with a smile on her face!

Free from feeding duties, i had just enough time to scoop the worst of the mud out of my bike’s stays, and oil the chain before it was time to head out and warm up. A quick blast up the hill left me suitably out of breath, clammy, and wondering why on earth i was pinning on a number and not going for a nice ride with slower people. The elites were called forward. Not feeling very “elite” i didn’t respond straight away, but when i did, the commissaire did nothing for my confidence by asking me “are you sure you’re supposed to be here?”. I mumbled something about being an expert rider, and promised i would try not to get in anyone’s way, and he seemed happy enough with that. We were reminded by the start marshall that we would be doing five, not four, but five, count them, five laps. Oh well, i am supposed to be an “endurance racer” i thought!

SXC MTB Kirroughtree 2011 from Rachel Fenton on Vimeo.

The whistle went, and for the first time in my life, when not at traffic lights, i found my pedal first time. No excuse in hand not to, i sprinted to stick to the wheels of the proper elites in front. It lasted until the first corner, where the climbing proper began, and my legs decided to remind my brain that i should have been further back. Ahead, i could see all my fellow riders slipping away into the distance, bugger. But something amazing happened, the guys immediately in front started getting closer again, and the ones further away didn’t seem to be getting any smaller. I chuckled at the memory of “the ones in here are small, but the ones out there are far away...”. Coming through the end of the first lap, i could still see Rob Friel and James FM ahead through the feed zone, and did my utmost to chase. It was not to be however, the anthem having the unfortunate side effect of inspiring confidence that this rider’s skills do not match. Going off one of the rocky drops, i landed a little heavy, and heard the snake in the tyre hiss. D’oh.Puncture fixed and back going, i came through the feed zone sufficiently soon that Rachel thought my meltdown was merely physiological rather than mechanical, and my thoughts went back to catching up lost time. I patted myself on the back for riding more tentatively over the drop that had got me last time, and then promptly pinched not 200yds further on. Game over.

Well, not quite. There were still 4kms to cover, on foot, with a broken bike. Being a good citizen, i did a spot of litter-picking on the way, and by the time i got back to the start finish had pockets full of gels packets, several postie rubber bands, and a chain! How do you lose a chain?! I also had a front-row seat for the final-lap battle between GT team mates Dave Henderson and Gareth Montgomerie who had been locked together since minute one, and were only separated by a final sprint for the line, Gareth just pipping Dave. An evergreen (i only ever see that word applied to Nick Craig; surely a compliment then) James Fraser-Moodie picked up the final podium spot passing Rob Friel on the last lap. First expert was fellow Fife-dweller Doug Shearer in fifth.

Thanks as ever to sponsors AW Cycles, to the Scottish XC Series for putting on a chilled, fun and well-organised race, and to Rachel for being a bottle hander & cheerer without compare. Full results can be found at , and photos will be up on (it’s not all horses!). The next round is a bit closer to home for us at Aberfoyle on April 24th.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Northern Exposure – a mountain TT in mountains (well, big hills)

So, my first race of the year has been and gone! It does seem like ages since i last ineptly pinned a number to myself, and it’s always good to get the first race nerves out of the way before the BMBS creep into the picture (as they do every year – it’s always a shock!). I had originally intended to get a good training race in by doing the first round of the Sup6r Six road race series (basically the Scottish equivalent of the Premier Calendar, but with lowly races for mere mortals like me too), but alas it seems road racing is alive and well up here, and i didn’t get a ride in the 80-strong 4JWV field. Rachel did get a place, so we decided to divide and conquer – she’d do the RR on the Saturday, i’d do a local mountain TT at Knockhill on the Sunday. I’m just going to repeat my last sentence, because i love saying it so much – there was a mountain time trial held not far from where i live. Ah good, getting rid of the east-anglian chip on shoulder!

So, the first weekend of March rolled around surprisingly quickly, and before we knew it, it was time for Rachel to face her first ever road race at Gifford (just south of Edinburgh). The god of small things in cars had other ideas though, and after having got up at 6:30am to make the race start with plenty of time, we found our dreams of getting across the Forth bridge evaporating in the car park of a bowling green near Windygates as we waited for the nice man from the RAC to arrive. By the time our new ignition coil was fitted, our second of the week i hasten to add, we were already going to be far too late to Gifford to make the race, so a bit disheartened by the failure of our four-wheeled transport, we headed home to have a nice day cleaning and fixing bikes.

Blur is model's own!

Things were a bit more civilised on Sunday – my start time of 1332 made a lie in not only feasible, but in my view an absolute preparation necessity. There were quite a few names i recognised entered in the race, quite a few of whom had double-headed; doing the sup6r the day before for good measure, including Dave Henderson who i’ve had the pleasure of standing on the same podium as was back at the nationals in 2008. A “misunderstanding” between Rachel and myself about how far away the event HQ was (we thought, on the basis of a lie we had repeatedly repeated to each other that it was half an hour, it was actually an hour!) made for a sharp exit when we realised we had some distance to cover. Pasta in plastic tub in the car formed the basis of my less than gourmet lunch, and as soon as we arrived i dashed over, signed on (minus license – oops!), and jumped on the turbo to warm up.

A quick dash down the hill, and i was ready to start, with a hungry like the wolf looking Paul Newnham only a couple of minutes behind. D’oh! I got going, straight into the first big climb of the race that took us all the way up to the knockhill car racing circuit, before dropping us back down to the valley floor on a fantastic serpentine descent. I was too chicken to use my tribars much on the descent, having used them for a sum total of 30 minutes in the past two years, i figured that was asking for trouble, but gradually as the race went on my confidence grew. A little too late, sadly, as a flying Paul N came storming past me on the descent, riding amazingly fast, obviously due to not having the dilemma of whether or not to use tribars to worry about! Either that i was distracted from my usual lightning descending by the amazing views, and the pictures of various scantily-clad ladies strewn across the road at one point – you decide!

Grimace is model's own
The mid-section of the course definitely suited a strong time triallist rather than a climber, and left me wondering who this course does suit. I’m not really sure; i can think of plenty of time triallists i know who would have absolutely hated the fact that the whole race required constant changes of pace, but equally someone light enough to climb really fast would have struggled with the faster sections – i guess it just suited hard men. As i got into the second half, people started appearing in front of me – juniors were racing as pairs, and some were starting to struggle on the tough climbs. Equally, people started passing me. Next to come through was a certain Mr Henderson, catching me for four minutes. As the minutes ticked by, i started to wonder whether i might be able to beat Rachel’s best 25 time of 1:04:4?. At the final turn at Comrie, my watch read 1:03. I thought maybe, just maybe, but then i was met by a wall of lumpy tarmac; back down the gears i went for one final grovel to the top. To add insult to injury, the guy who set of a massive 8 minutes before passed me on the final climb to the line, he was absolutely flying. I didn’t even come close to Rachel’s time, in the end, finishing in 1h11m i think. Results to follow, but at the risk of sounding trite, that wasn’t really the point of today!

It would be easy to be upset about this, but losing 5 minutes to Hendo actually makes me pretty happy; it says that although i’ve basically only been back in training for a month after the madness of the move, i’m not totally out of shape. I’ve got three weeks to try to pull something together for Sherwood, and i’m pretty excited to give it a go. I’m now sitting here on the sofa with very sore legs, especially after going out for a spin with Rachel this afternoon that turned into an intervals session. But i’m happy, and i don’t have the race nerves as badly as before this morning. Let’s see what the next six months hold!

Monday, 28 February 2011

The New Life

I'm settling nicely into life up here in the "Kingdom"; i love my new job, and i honestly struggle to remember the last time i felt this excited by both going to work and riding my bike. It's been a while! Rachel and I have made it a weekend hobby to explore the local riding spots - they're rather more plentiful than they were back in East Anglia - within an hour's drive of our house, there are in excess of 20 places to ride an mtb, leaving us spoilt for choice. So far, my favourite has to be Blebo Craigs/Kemback Woods - a compact gem of a place - a mixture of dark forboding conifers and light, open beech and oak trees, tucked away just a few miles from St Andrews. Even better, it's within easy striking distance of a quick ride from work come the summer time - perfect training to get me ready for the Scottish XC Series.

And what perfect training it is, perched on a steep hillside hidden away in the rolling terrain of Fife, with some extremely steep downhill trails peppered with drops and jumps, followed by a nose on the stem climb back to the top of the woods. There's no respite, but if you feel ready for a challenge it's a great place to test your limits (and occasionally exceed them).

Last weekend was a busy one - Rachel and I headed over to Blairadam forest (another cool riding spot, albeit a bit further away) for the Scottish Universities Student's mtb champs - we were both racing in the old gits races, just as an early test of form. The weather had not been kind to the course, the sections that had been a bit muddy the week before were under three inches of thick, sticky, slippery scottish clay having been comprehensively chewed up by the sport race earlier in the day. The race was a shock to my underprepared, over-strained body, and i soon found myself totally unable to follow the pace of the front riders. I settled into trying to ride the course well rather than fast, making the most of the anthem to get through the trickier lumpy sections that had many other riders off and running, but bizarrely i found some of the riders who'd gone off harder ahead of me either swimming into view, or standing at the side of the course looking unhappy. Certainly, some of the roadies who turned up got rather more than they bargained for. The last few laps were a mixture of great amusement and great annoyance - there's nothing more frustrating than picking up some much mud and leaf matter that your wheels cannot turn. I eventually finished third of the alumni, and a lap down on the champs winner who must have been one very speedy runner!

Straight after the race, we drove on to Rock UK - the location for the 24hrs of Exposure later in the year, where the WXC Team were having their team bonding weekend, and Sara and Paul were busy putting the finishing touches to their ideal course for the 24 champs. We were greeted with good food, and good company, and were looking forward to some good riding on the Sunday. The weather had other ideas, and having stolen toast, jam and special k (what kind of a cyclist has special k for breakfast?!). After food, it was time to brave the torrential rain outside, fully waterproofed and ready to go out onto the 24hr course. Sara gave us the guided tour, including showing us a beautiful bit of natural engineering that she had been indulging in during the week, and then left us to our own devices in the rain at Newcastleton (wisely as it turned out). Rachel and I tootled around for a lap of the red route ourselves, and then were greeted by Paul, Trevor and Keith, all looking very cold and damp at the trailhead. We were enlisted to hit the route for a second time to “sweep” for lost riders – i think Paul was glad there were people even dafter than him there. Of course, after 3hrs of heavy rain whilst we were riding, as soon as we stopped so too did the rain. A not-so-quick lunch in “town” and then it was time for the team building activities, which were spectacular fun, especially with Trevor in charge of affairs!

In my newfound enthusiasm for riding and racing, i have “accidentally” entered a road TT, largely because it had the word “mountain” in the title. It’s the Knockhill MTT this coming weekend, and as the organiser told me two years ago that the event was run with 3” of snow on the ground, i’m expecting a tough one. The move has still left me a little sluggish, so i’m not expecting to be chasing a fast time, but it’ll do me good in the run up to Sherwood. With the season moving earlier and earlier, it looks like i’m going to have to resort to early season races more and more as times go by. Anyway, so long for now, ride it like you stole it,

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Mr Angry.

I'm settling nicely into life up here in the "Kingdom"; i love my new job, and i honestly struggle to remember the last time i felt this excited by both going to work and riding my bike. It's been a while! Rachel and I have made it a weekend hobby to explore the local riding spots - they're rather more plentiful than they were back in East Anglia - within an hour's drive of our house, there are in excess of 20 places to ride an mtb, leaving us spoilt for choice. So far, my favourite has to be Blebo Craigs/Kemback Woods - a compact gem of a place - a mixture of dark forboding conifers and light, open beech and oak trees, tucked away just a few miles from St Andrews. Even better, it's within easy striking distance of a quick ride from work come the summer time - perfect training to get me ready for the Scottish XC Series.

And what perfect training it is, perched on a steep hillside hidden away in the rolling terrain of Fife, with some extremely steep downhill trails peppered with drops and jumps, followed by a nose on the stem climb back to the top of the woods. There's no respite, but if you feel ready for a challenge it's a great place to test your limits (and occasionally exceed them). As soon as it rains, the loamy soil becomes slippery, and the trails do cut up and become seriously muddy in places, especially when the snow's still falling on the Cairngorms. The last time i went there, there was even a guy giving up his Sunday afternoon (clearly riding time!) to rake the leaves and twigs off the trails - bliss.

The added advantage of being based north of the border is that right to roam applies to everyone - any navigable path by any non-motorised means of transport is fair game, as long as you behave sensibly. Of course, this is excellent for everyone - ramblers can walk where they like, mountain bikers can ride their bikes wherever it is sensible to do so, even horse riders can add in their two pennith. And the price we pay for this enormous privilege? It's really a very small price, we merely need to behave sensibly and responsibly. This means the application of common sense by all these groups - obviously it would be daft to ride a horse up a downhill mountain bike trail, or ride an mtb fast down a narrow, much-used footpath, so simples - don't do it!

Maybe we could all learn a lot from this little chap!

You can imagine my disappointment then when last ride at Blebo, i was met by a man walking his dog up what must have been an impossibly unpleasant trail to walk - it was part of one of the steep chutes i mentioned above. He was invisible from the top of the trail, and when we did see him, we did our very best to control our speed and be courteous, only to be met with a tirade of abuse about the mess mtbers were making of the forest. Granted, the weather and riders had not been kind to this section, but really it would have been far more sensible to set off with the intention of riding down it than walking up it, regardless of the condition of the topsoil. And therein lies the rub. When we are all equal in the eyes of the law, and common sense is to be applied by all, then the one barrier we have to overcome as mountain bikers is the perception of "how it was". Sure, it used to be the case that he would have been well within his rights to shout and scream at us for riding on footpaths or private land, but no longer. All access groups stand together in the eyes of the new laws, and we have to make it work together, or really we all stand to lose a great privilege and opportunity to squabbling and infighting. Ultimately, that outcome benefits noone apart from the landowners that the access charter was set up to protect us all from. So next time you come across a walker on the trail in Scotland, be polite, be courteous, and if they cut up nasty - remind them that now we're all in this together.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Guest Blog: MTFU Training – Life through the eyes of a ‘50s tester – Installment 1.

Hello loyal readers – i’m assuming that there’ll be more than one of you, or i might be sued for that remark under the trades descriptions act or the like, but never bother. Let’s try that again, shall we. Good day. And welcome once again to my online diuretic of my thoughts and adventures hosted here on the world wide fund for spiders...web. Although this is the first one i suppose, so i might get sued for that and all.

For those that don’t know me, i’ll introduce meself. Often imitated, but never innovated, i have been compared to a young Arthur “the Engine” Smith (winner of the Wetherby BAR on 4 non-consecutive occasions, and Yorkshire’s premier Fred Astaire impersonator), and also now i’m not so young, to an older Arthur Smith. Mind, i did make the comparison meself, after which things got a bit ugly, and Arthur stopped talking to me. Having spent my long and varied career in alpacka jackets of many colours (but mostly black), i feel i have much to teach the “younger generation”; vet riders have no stiff upper lip these days. Why only the other day i was out in the rain with my group (“the lad’s” as i like to call them), and as i passed the turn to head back out for another fifty, i could see out of the corner of my eye the tears of joy rolling down their faces. Albert was the worst; having had a couple of months off for his hip replacement, you could hear him yelping with delight all the way home. We’d have got our ears boxed for such a display when i were a lad. I remember a cold Christmas in 1946 when me da gave us nowt but individually wrapped coals...but ah’ve digressested again. You good people (person) haven’t come here to read the ramblings of an old fool. So i’ll get straight to the point.

This morning, on the way back from the butcher’s where i’d bought my daily pound of offal (it’s a right treat with a boiled cabbage, and good for your humours too – you kids might want to write that down; that’s a golden tip is that) i got waylaid into the local newsagents. How you ask? Well, i’ll tell you (and you should know better than to question your elders). On’t magazine rack in the window, plain for all the world to see, was a copy of the so-called “Pro Cycling”, it’s cover adorned with the a image of a sun-bronzed Adonis climbing through the sun-drenched hills of some distant Mediterranean landscape. “Blood and sands” i thought, rudely awakened from daydreaming about what the Mail might claim caused cancer today, “what kind of an image is that to project to the youth of today?”. And I was right, What kind of an image is it indeed? Where’s the true motivation in a picture like that? There’s not a juggernaut around to take a tow off, and you’re hardly going to break the comp record if there’s a bloody great alp in your way.

And it gets worse. Oh aye. INSIDE this alleged publication, they have adverts for shorts. But not the woollen ones that we all know and love, no, these are made of a new, space age material called “lycra”. Now tell me this, if you don’t have the classic woollen keks on, how d’you know when to go home on a rainy ride, because these lycra jobs won’t have you spending a night in the cells for indecent exposure, that’s for sure! And Chamois Cream? There’s no way you’d catch me putting cream down there, it’d spoil the taste of the prime cuts of beef it is my pleasure to use for padding. No bloody way, i don’t care if it’s got a nice minty tingle or not!
So, in surmise, it’s no surprise to me that these young bucks who ride the Gyros d’Italy and the like dope, they’ve had it so easy they don’t know what hard work is. A few 100milers would have them straight, i happen, maybe this Contador lad’d be alright if he beefed up a bit.
What? Why are you walking away? Was it something i said?!

Stay tuned for instalment two when i’m once again feeling like a grumpy old man.