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}.