Thursday, 24 May 2012

A Fortnight of Championships Pt I

So, it's been all about the racing the last couple of weekends. Firstly the Southern XC Champs at Wasing, and then one of my bigger targets for the year, the National XCM Champs held on my favourite British marathon course around the town of Selkirk in the Scottish Borders.

First things first, though, and Wasing for the third round of the Southern XC series, doubling as the Southern Champs. Wasing is also going to be the venue for the National XC champs in July, but unfortunately i will be indisposed for this race, as i'll be putting my bike back together in a gym hall in southern Germany ready for the start of the Transalp. One helping of Wasing, given my previous experiences here (being stuffed into the barriers by a fellow expert rider at the NPS in 2010 during the first 100m) should be quite enough for the year.

Sarah and Trev were nice enough to put us up, and put up with us on the Saturday evening, during which i discovered (thanks to Trev's amazing cd collection) the inimitable septegenarian that is DJ Derek. If you haven't heard of him, check him out, it's not often you'll hear such perfect Jamaican patois from a man wearing a blazer! Rachel and I were even treated to the new inflatable mattress, which proved more comfortable than our bed at home with its pointy, twangy springs.

The previous two rounds of the southern series were dry but v. cold followed by dry but with sodden trails. This time, the weather and the fast-drying course chosen by the organisers made for the perfect combination of warm weather and pretty dry trails. Perfect. Less perfect was the fact that since the beginning of May i have been suffering terribly with pollen allergies - i thought you were supposed to grow out of hayfever, not into it. The warm day didn't make this any better, but Sarah's suggestion of beconase seems to have made life much easier on my airways.

So, the race. Rachel set off early in the morning (we're getting better at dealing with that!) in an elite women's field that also included Sally Bigham who does the occasional XC race to keep her speed up and her eye in. Predictable, Sally rode away from the field to win by an emphatic margin over second-placed Jo Munden, with Rachel in 3rd. I had a nice chat with Sally's other half, Dave, in the feed zone, and then pottered about getting ready for my race. 2pm came around pretty quickly, and before i knew it we were being gridded up. On account of being in 6th in the series points, i got a front row slot, very aware that i didn't want to get in anyone's way! The gun went, and with this and my traffic light practice from my commute, i actually got away reasonably competently, sitting just inside the top-10. I was amazed how much better i felt riding the loamy singletrack than two years earlier, and in spite of an optimistic tyre choice (very very worn aspen on the back, very very worn rendez on the front) i wasn't doing too badly at staying upright either. That said, Mark Davies (Cycle Coaching Wales), with his Welsh riding background came past me on the final descent towards the finish, after i graciously moved aside for him (it's always nice to be polite!).

At the end of the first lap through the feed i caught sight of Trev, he had come down with a fever in the night, and in spite of all our advice to the contrary was determined to race anyway. He clearly wasn't well, but gave me some great encouragement as we rode on together, and i re-passed Mark on the fire road climb. I kept pushing on, aware that other like Tom Ward (Giant Radlett) were still visible behind through the sections where the course doubled back (like an excellent connected bomb-hole section i remembered from the NPS).  At some point during the 3rd lap, Simon Ernest caught me, riding with another Master's rider for 3rd place, and i tried to latch onto the wheel. It didn't last, but gave me a bit more energy to push on, and i could no longer see anyone behind. Towards the end of the lap, i caught sight of Ed Rose (Progression Fitness) but couldn't close the gap, in spite of my best efforts. And that's where i finished, 8th place, my highest placing in a southern (i think) since i started racing expert, and a great race where i actually felt competitive. Race time was a little short, but i doubt i'd have been able to capitalise with an extra lap, and in any case that seems to be the way the sport is going.

I know it sounds very old-fashioned, but i'm inclined to think that the Trek 26" hardtail was still the perfect tool for the job, it's so light you can chuck it about really easily, even with little stick-arms like mine. Get the tyre and shock pressures right and it handles beautifully and grips the trail just as well as my Giant Anthem did last year. I am still yet to try a 9er, but i intend to steal Simon's superfly at the first available opportunity, just in case i am missing something!

Friday, 4 May 2012

CRC Marathon, Builth Wells, 10th April 2010

CRC Spring Marathon Builth Wells
Having experienced the blissful spring sunshine of Gran Canaria already, Rachel and I were a little more pessimistic about our chances of a rain-free weekend in Wales in April. The weather had other ideas though, and the weather was nothing short of beautiful, so beautiful in fact that Rachel managed to get sunburn.
We arrived in Builth on Saturday evening, just in time for the Big Night Out night marathon. The couple of hour’s drive from Rachel’s parent’s house in their new campervan that we were borrowing for the weekend on windy roads was a little scary for me, but i eventually got used to something rather bigger than a Ford Fiesta! The camper was an absolute luxury, with onboard heating that came in surprisingly useful – although daytime temperatures were very pleasant, clear skies at night meant it was rather cold when the sun went down. Having signed on and made some dinner, we wandered over to see the leaders finishing the night marathon, led home by Jonny Pugh, with Nick Craig hot on his heels. Friend and fellow endurance racer Trevor Allen finished a creditable fifth.
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, a little mist on the hills the only sign that night time temperature had been low, and a quick wander made it clear that it was going to be a shorts and jersey day by the time the race set off at 10:30. A quick breakfast, and a quick chat with the guys on the USE/Exposure stand, and it was time to line up for the 75km “challenge”. We all rolled out together behind a pace van for the first 7km of the ride, and i soon found my way forwards to the group containing most of the favourites. The pace felt hard but not ridiculous, although it was easy to tell that Nick wasn’t working quite as hard as me by just how chatty he was!
I kept the leaders in sight for the first half an hour, but the pace was too hot and i was definitely on the train to bonksville if i tried to keep going like that for 3+hrs. I sat up and let my heartrate drop into a slightly more sensible endurance zone as we started the second climb. I was feeling pretty good at this point, and seemed to have packed my climbing legs as i kept closing gaps on the uphill sections. It wasn’t long before i was up with East Anglian mtb legend Paul Ashby and his son who we’re riding together. Paul’s always been extremely fast on the flat, but this year he seems to be climbing pretty well too – watch out fellow vets! Chuffed that things seemed to be going well for me, i did my classic trick of forgetting to drink on the rolling course that seemed to head either up or down most of the time.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, i started to feel the first twinges of cramp in my left leg on one of the steeper pitches of climbing; uh oh. I guzzled the remaining fluid in my bottles in the hope of stopping the full-on leg-locking experience, and the dehydration gods must have been smiling on me because it worked! However, it obviously affected my brain because i managed to sail straight past one of the yellow course markers, and inadvertently cut a short section of the course. I made up for it on the final descent though by sailing straight past another marker and going straight into an unrideable field – oops! I crossed the line in (i think) 10th place, 20minutes behind a certain Mr. Craig.
Post-race we had a nice little tea party in the camper with friends and team mates (in Rachel’s case) and then headed back to drop off our home for the previous night, before coming back to the flatlands of East Anglia. The guys who live in Wales probably don’t realise just how lucky they are to have such amazing terrain on their doorsteps – oh to be able to climb for more than two minutes! All in all, a great event and amazing weather – what more could you want?

National Marathon Champs 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late night bike fixing

It's one of those things about being a cyclist. Like always having awful tan lines come September (actually i think mine are now permanent), finding occasional oily chainring marks on your legs, and having strong opinions about the state of Britain's road surfaces. Late night bike fixing, often on a friday evening, is a feature of life. It can be a blessing, sometimes, when you've had a crap day where nothing seems to have gone right, there can be something terribly satisfying about doing a simple task that takes your bike from clunky wreck to showroom performance. Recabling is a personal favourite of mine, it's one of those things that's sufficiently mindless you can just tune out and do it. Wheel-truing in front of an old episode of "Spaced" is another, a nice repetitive task that can help you unwind from a busy week.

At the diametric end of the scale to me, who likes to do bike maintenance to unwind, we find my other half, partner in most things two wheeled, Rachel. Whereas i like to fix things before they are broken, as much for something to do as anything else, given the option Rachel will always ride her bike as opposed to looking after it. This has made for a rather, ahem, uneven division of labour between the two of us over the years, and though that might sound like a complaint, it's really not as i quite enjoy tinkering. It does mean however that when she has to do things herself, it's even more stressful than it might otherwise be, and far from being the relaxing task i find it. So here i am, sitting in our living room, with Rachel removing an exploded tektro cross-top lever from her bike and fitting a new brake cable, with mutterings of "measure twice, cut once, measure twice..." as a background muse.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the experience to me is watching her do things slightly differently to me, like the different ways we have of tying our shoelaces (i'm reliably informed by everyone i know that i do it a weird way, but it works for me). They're not better, they're just a little alien, and i have to quash the little voice in the back of my head that says "stop her, she's doing it wrongly". If you never watch someone else, you will never understand the true variety of human beings, give a person a bicycle to maintain and see them lay bare their mechanical soul...