Wednesday, 17 April 2013

2012 with hindsight

2012 was a pretty spectacular year for cyclesport in the UK. We've seen the first British Tour winner (don't mention that he was born in Ghent, or that his dad was Australian - that's not the Brit way; see e.g. "British-born astronaut Michael Faule"...), we've seen a fantastic Olympics on home soil, for me culminating in the Hadleigh Farm mountain bike race, and we continue to see ever more people taking to their bikes for health and transportation.

Closer to home, 2012 was also a pretty memorable year in the Pedder-Fenton household. In the last 12 months, we've done more international racing in Europe than ever before, and both feel like we've taken a step forward in our racing since the season started way back in March. The first race of the year was the first round of the Southern XC series in Checkendon, on a day that reminded everyone present that March doesn't necessarily mean that spring has arrived. My first XC race of the year proved a shock to the system, and i was slightly disappointed to end up so far back, but it was great to finally get hold of my new Trek 9.9ssl that i would be racing for the season.

Obligatory March photo of new bike...
April brought our first road trip of the year with ex-AW teamie Tim Dunford. We were off to the Roc Laissagais, my first single-day Euro Marathon since Rachel and I first gave one a go, the Canary Bike Marathon in Gran Canaria in 2010. Spring still hadn't arrived in southern France, but Tim, Rachel and I made the most of the terrain, if not the weather, to do some fantastic pedalling around the Gorges du Tarn. The race itself was muddy, cold, but brightened a lot for me by getting a thumbs-up for carrying on from Christophe Bassons as he withdrew! Fearful of missing my lift back to the fromagerie where we were staying (Tim desperately wanted to get back to see the end of Paris-Roubaix, and had told me in no uncertain terms that if i didn't make it round in time, i was riding the 30km home), i found extra motivation to make it back in 57th place, depressingly over an hour behind the winner. Fellow fromagieres Will Hayter, Mike Blewitt and Collyn Ahart ( had to dash off post-race, but not before plying us with excellent stew and easter eggs. And to cap it all, Rachel managed to meet the qualification criteria for the UCI Marathon World Champs by finishing 11th. We had wine and cheese with the owners of the gite to celebrate...

The Roc Laissagais, apparently a year makes you forget, so we've already done it again since this photo was taken!
May brought the Marathon Nationals up in Selkirk on the first single-lap course ever used for this event. There was much grumbling about the course post race, but i for one thought it was excellent, and showed that things are moving in the right direction in the UK with regard to our antiquated laws on rights of way. We stayed in Innerleithen, a town which apparently comes alive on a friday night (and not in a good way), and i found myself drifting off to shouts of "leave him Jimmy, he's not worth it, he's just a ****ing ****", perhaps not ideal race prep. I got a bit carried away at the start, riding up to Andy Cockburn, before blowing spectacularly in the unexpected heat and sunshine, to finish somewhere in the late teens (results still aren't published...). Rachel decided to show off coming 2nd behind Jane Nuessli, and just ahead of a fast-finishing Verity Appleyard. Andrew and I made her wear her medal to dinner, much to the bemusement of other participants, who were heard to ask each other if they should have got one too...

Podium fondle from Jane Nuessli.

June was spent discovering how much more i could hurt myself outdoors, spending the lighter evenings doing my training sessions around the dizzying inner circle in Regents Park, and catching up with old friends and making new ones (a memorable weekend in Shropshire involved riding with old friend Hamish, and Isla Rowntree and Louise Robinson who Rachel had invited via twitter!). We also nearly drowned at a round of the Southwest XC series at the Forest of Dean, but that's another story!

Just yuck.

The last round of the Southern XC series saw me get my best ever finish in an Expert race in 5th place, and Rachel win the Elite series overall. The rain apparently fell lightly on the course, just to ensure that no XC race in the UK was totally dry for us.

July was all about the Transalp for me and partner Nick Herlihy. We headed off to Oberammergau via Munich to start the race, and were met with three straight days of rain and cold, including a climb over 2800m as light snow fell. And yet somehow, the sun coming out and the route getting harder still didn't put us off, although i have to admit things did look a little grim when Nick ended up in the medical tent at the end of stage 6. Only a bog trot through a muggy swamp, a night in a car park and a thunderstorm at 2000m lay between us and the finish at Riva del Garda, where we celebrated our survival with ice cream and new (and not so new) friends before heading back to the real world. Poor Nick started his new job as a physio unable to work due to severe pain in his hip from a crash, and i went back to climbing the five flights of stairs in my building looking even more like an octogenarian.

Proper mountains. Unfamiliar territory...
August came, Rachel and I managed to reclaim the title of Big Dog Mixed Pairs champions, although i felt rather bad for the pairs in 2nd and 3rd (and for my own legs) after i ended up doing 6 laps to Rachel's 2. We made more new friends in the form of Crispin Doyle & Anna Cipullo, and watched with pride as our fellow AW racers Simon Ernest & Steve James stood on the top step of the men's pairs after a tense battle for supremacy. And we got to meet little Jenson.

Concentrating a bit too much on the champagne pop...
Later in the month, more euro galavanting, this time to the outrageously expensive ski resort of Verbier for the start of the Grand Raid Cristalp. In a premonition of the early 2013 food scandal, we discovered that buying steak in the local supermarket with which to celebrate finishing the Grand Raid was ludicrously expensive. Rachel ran over to me full of excitement having found a cheaper cut of meat in another part of the chiller in the Coop, only to notice that the picture on the corner definitely wasn't of a cow... We were travelling with Timmy D again, driving down from Southampton to Verbier being a serious mission, and one which Tim took on with aplomb and enthusiasm, arriving two days after we set off in a beautiful apartment overshadowed by the Mont Blanc Massif. A couple of days of pedalling up to the top lifts, and it was race day. Watching Thomas Dietsch pedalling the big dog up the hill in the centre of Verbier, looking for all the world like he was going for a sunday ride was a little deflating to both me and Tim, and we both resigned ourselves to the reality of starting in the wee fella. Lame. 8.5hrs later, we were both done and waiting for Rachel who was fertilising the alpine meadows having had a heat-induced dicky tummy, but reassuringly the Dunford-Pedder 50 minutes was still very much in action.

I even had time to think "this is amazing" during the race...
The year finished with the Kielder 100, a good season closer, always a fab event, and this year a week later than previously to try to reduce the blood loss of competitors to the swarming clouds of biting insects. Poor Tim must have been getting quite sick of us by this point, but thankfully had Ben Thomas and Andy Cockburn to dilute Team Penton to manageable levels. The September chill reminded us all that it's grim up north and that winter would soon be with us. Race day was pleasant, to the relief of everyone who raced in 2012, it was Tim's turn to show off, winning the sturdy block of oak for his trouble, and then Rachel decided to make me feel like a total failure by winning the 50mile event outright, beating all the guys too. I was 13th, and you guessed it, 45m down on Tim...

So that was it. A year of racing. Too much money spent. Too little training done. Many many wonderful memories of beautiful places with good folk. Funny that we should be doing it all again in 2013...

Marathon Racing in the UK - a history.

Marathon Racing in the UK

The UK has something of a chequered history when it comes to the racing of pedal cycles. In fact, that's a pretty unfair description, for every black square on the chequer board, there's a more upbeat, optimistic white one, whereas I'm afraid to say that in this small island state, we are pretty backward in our attitudes and always have been.

History of racing in general

When the continental bike racing scene was approaching the first of its high water marks in the 1940s and 1950s, a bitter war was being fought out between the police & legal system, and two equally dogmatic, equally confused governing bodies for cycling within the UK. The National Cycling Union were against the idea of mass-start racing on the roads, on the grounds that it would disrupt traffic and give cyclists a bad name, resulting in a ban on cycling in general. As a result they organised early morning, solo competitions against the watch in which cyclists attempted to be as inconspicuous as possible, which is where the modern British obsession with time trialling may have come from (although inconspicuousness is obviously not high on the agenda these days, day-glow skinsuits a-go go!). Their nemesis was the British League of Racing Cyclists, a group more dedicated to the debonair, continental approach to racing with mass starts, and supporting crowds. The BLRC were cast much more as the dandies of the sport, although this may be unfair, what is certainly true is that they had a more "relaxed" attitude to the legality of their racing.

History of racing off road
Racing offroad also has a curious past in the UK. The earliest race that took place predominantly offroad that i am aware of (and this may be more my ignorance of history) was the Three Peaks Cyclocross, now in its 50th year. In 1985, the pre-existing competition "Man vs Horse"was expanded to include mountain bikers, and four year's later one of the prodigal sons of British MTB racing, Tim Gould, took the first win for two wheels over a hilly 22mile course. Mountain bike racing more generally came to the fore in the late-1980s and early 90s, with courses only being constrained by landowner's permissions.

Tim Gould - first winner of Man v Bike v Horse

In the late 1990s, it was discovered that in fact, the legal framework around public rights of way, particularly bridleways, was problematic for bikes. Since 1968, cyclists have had the right to use bridleways alongside pedestrians and horse riders, but despite it being possible to run a horse race or a running race on a bridleway, or indeed a running race on a footpath, racing of bikes is explicitly banned under the rights of access laws. The country is criss-crossed by bridleways, and since they cannot be closed or reclassified, it is therefore not possible to set a course for a race in the UK that crosses a bridleway (unless the trick of using a "non-competitive zone" within the race is used - declaring a section of the race course as neutralised). This is no great problem for XCO races which are run on courses that are 4-12km in length, and likewise it's also possible to hold lapped "enduro"style races on similar courses with no legal problems.

Problems DO arise however for longer-distance point-to-point or single-loop XCM races, of the sort that are ubiquitous in Europe and the US. These require an enormous amount of care to set up within the confines of the law in the UK, and a great deal more time and effort than most race organisers have to lavish on them - consequently they have all but died out. The only notable exceptions which survive are the Kielder 100 and the Selkirk MTB Marathon, the former because of the care of the organisers, and the latter because of the introduction of right to roam in Scotland, and the resultant abolition of bridleways altogether north of the border. For many years, British Cycling have had to apply to the UCI for special dispensation to have a national marathon championships that consisted of between 4 and 8 laps of an XC-style course, such has been the lack of enthusiasm for trying to grow something bigger.

K100 Race Start 2012 - can you spot me?

With the growth of interest in marathon racing in the UK and in Europe, it is clear that there must be a change of heart in government to rectify the rather peculiar and egregious situation in which we find ourselves as XCM racers in the UK. Personally, i'm a great believer in treating people like adults. From cycle-commuting in London, to riding my bike in remote forests in Scotland, i have always found that a division of trail users leads to a sense of entitlement amongst some that can be truly divisive. If instead we give people responsibility and ask them to behave sensibly, the vast majority will,and those who do not will not be sensible anyway. So to me, the obvious way forward would be to remove the seemingly arbitrary restrictions on where we can walk and ride, and bring right to roam south of the border too. Maybe this will lead to a dystopian and conflict-riddled future, but somehow i doubt it!