Friday, 16 March 2018

The death of XC racing!

When I was a young impressionable teenager, mountain biking was all about Cross country “XC” racing. MBUK featured coverage of the races and I put up posters of world cup riders like GT’s Rishi Grewal and Raleigh’s David Baker on my bedroom wall. In the 1990’s XC mountain biking was uber cool!

XC team photo used to sell a bike. Very 1990's!

Skinny lycra clad racers don’t make much of an appearance in magazines or in brand marketing anymore. The big names in the sport are EWS riders like Richie Rude and Jared Graves. Selling bikes in recent years is all about dramatic shots of burly Enduro bikes, with riders in baggy shorts throwing themselves off a precipitous mountain ledge in a shower of stones.

Roll into a trail center wearing lycra, on a bike with 100mm of travel and wait for the stunned silence and awkward glances from the padded and full face helmet crowd resting in the back of their VW Transporters. At XC races there is an obvious lack of youngsters coming into the sport. It’s the same old faces every season and none of us are getting any younger! The guys winning the local races now are the same as 10 years ago. Where are the young guns coming in to knock them off their perch? My gut tells me they are either indoors on the X-box, or styling it up with their mates at the local downhill trail. A XC race is no longer a ‘cool’ place to be.

At my local events, race entries have dwindled. To take a benchmark, the Gorrick Open category is where many aspiring young riders, including myself, cut their racing teeth. The races used to regularly attract fields of over 100. I spent my formative years desperately battling for a top 10 position. Last February there were only 11 competing in Open at one of the rounds. The knock on effect is that organisers are planning less races. When the 2018 Southern Series was announced, there were only 4 dates. Worse there are just 2 Gorrick Spring Series events this year. We’ve got used to both series being fought out over 5 or 6 rounds.

Part of this (especially in Gorricks case) I feel might be down to the lack of available venues, but no doubt fewer competitors means organisers have had to tighten their belts when negotiating with landowners.

Another challenge is strength in other areas of the sport. Gorrick have followed the trend, replacing one of their XC events with a gravity Enduro race. There are also many cyclocross races and the popularity of road riding in the UK on the back of our professional athletes successes, has also shifted the spotlight away from mountain biking. There is a local road sportive somewhere almost every weekend throughout the year and weekly races all through the summer.

There is however the sense that things may be changing. A number of the major brands have recently announced new XC focused race bikes and smaller brands seem to be following suit. Advances in technology mean that a XC bike is now a far more capable machine. This means that courses are getting more gnarly and technical. Races are no longer fought out on forest fireroads. The twisty, rocky singletrack is now scattered with dramatic drops and gap jumps. This provides striking, photogenic images for marketing, and a more appealing perception of fun and excitement rather just the threat of burning legs and lungs!

Nino Schurter at the World Cup in South Africa February 2018

Sections of the latest World Cup courses look more like Downhills tracks. This has added to the drama of the sport and we all have a new hero in Nino Shurter to idolize. I watched the first round of the World Cup in South Africa last week, transfixed to Redbull TV for the whole 2 hours. (Another one of challenges of XC racing in a world of quick fixes, is races lasting over 90 minutes, compared to a downhill run of 3.)  I was in awe of the skill on show, shoulder to shoulder racing the whole way ending in a sprint finish! As an advert for the sport you couldn’t do better.

Click here for highlights of the...

So I am hopeful for the future of XC racing. After all the discipline is the closest to the type of off-road cycling that most of us actually take part in on Sunday morning. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

Merida Brass Monkeys - Frith Hill

Throbbing, aching legs, stiff joints and every movement an effort. That’s just sitting at my desk today!

The reason for my discomfort? Yesterday I raced the Merida Brass Monkeys 4 hour endurance race at Frith Hill near Deepcut in Surrey. It was minus 3 degrees when I left home and although the temperatures had risen slightly as the start time approached, the puddles on the opening loop were still frozen solid. I thought I’d have the normal 15 minute “warm-up” before the off. Not much warming-up took place, the result was numb fingers and shivering as I rolled towards the start.

I haven’t raced much this year, so my pre-race prep was slightly rusty. I’d got distracted chatting to a few familiar faces during my warm-up which meant I joined the grid near the back, with only a handful of riders behind me. When the race got underway I was immediately held up as the pack ahead funnelled into the trees. Once into the wood there was plenty of beautiful singletrack, but this meant there was no chance of overtaking so I cruised around picking off riders here and there when I could. We also quickly caught the slower guys at the back of the 2 hour race, adding further to the congestion.

My favourite phrase when instructing new riders is, “Speed is your friend”. Riding obstacles slowly can frequently be harder than attacking them with more momentum. Your inertia carries you over the roots and rocks in the path, which can quickly catch you off balance when tackled more cautiously. For example… Following a back marker about ¾ of the way around the first lap we had to clear a fallen tree. I lifted the front wheel which cleared the trunk fine, but misjudged our slow pace and the rear tyre bounced off the top, rebounding sideways. My saddle was pushed into me with such force it rotated to a 45degree angle. I rode the rest of the lap standing on the pedals, which is surprisingly tiring!

I stopped in the pits, grabbed an allen key and corrected the saddle. It may only have taken a minute, but so early in the race the field hadn’t strung out and dozens of riders I had just battled past came streaming through. Taking the opportunity for a swig of water and bite of banana I was underway again and once more picking my way forward through the pack. Suddenly a rider ahead fell, I dodged round the prone figure as he writhed in the mud, but my front wheel washed out and I also went down with a thump! More time lost and 3 positions handed back to those behind. I was aware my knee hurt afterwards, but it was kind of lost in the general body aches of racing. It was only the next day as I was limping around the office I realized I must have given it quite a whack!

Laps 3 and 4 were stunningly fun. Now with some free space around me I could enjoy all that glorious singletrack! Braking late and diving into the corners, accelerating away towards the next bend. There were also a couple of really sharp climbs which perfectly suited me. I powered up, weaving between people pushing their bikes or leaning against them grabbing a breather! 

At this point, despite my problems, I’d been averaging 40 minutes a lap, so I was still aiming to squeeze 6 laps into the 4 hour race time. The weather however, had other plans! It started to rain towards the end of lap 4 and the course quickly became very slippery indeed. I had to abandon hope of that 6th lap as I slithered around the twisty corners battling for grip. Water flowed down some sections of the course like a stream. Riding to the left or right of the marked route was frequently faster than the gloop created where hundreds of tyres had churned the trail. Of course, where there were trees or bushes this wasn’t always possible and I even had to resort to foot on a couple of short inclines near the end of the lap such was the poor state of the course.

Having started so far back I was genuinely surprised and pleased to find I had finished 8th! My trials and tribulations had definitely cost me several minutes, although this probably didn’t affect my race position dramatically. I know next time to make sure I arrive in time to grab a decent starting position to prevent getting caught up in the traffic. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Welcome to Watopia!

It had been raining all day and now the temperature outside was well below zero. I was not looking forward to a freezing bike ride on the treacherously icy roads. As it turned out my ride was so warm, all I wore was a pair of shorts!

It wasn’t my usual evening route either. Setting out from a picturesque seaside port I cycled up through the foothills of snowcapped mountains, all along traffic free roads. The only other people passed were other cyclists of every conceivable nationality. There was no need for an airfare to experience the foreign land of Watopia.  I hadn’t even left the house, I was plugged into the virtual world of Zwift.

Indoor turbo sessions are traditionally amongst the most tedious ways to spend an evening. I used to regularly schedule indoor interval sessions into my training, but even with headphones blaring out my favourite tunes, or watching TV, 30 minutes of sweaty monotony was about as much as I could stand.

In contrast my first visit to Watopia was fully absorbing. My online avatar only pulled to the side of the road well after an hour had passed because it was 10.30pm, I had to be at work the following day and was now in desperate need of a shower!

I don’t know if it will continue to hold my attention in the same way, but there is a whole world out there to explore! The resistance to the rear wheel varies dependent on the terrain and gradient, simulating a real world ride. You find yourself jumping out the saddle to crest a short ramp, or settling in for longer ascents. It creates a much more stimulating interactive experience.

All the time there are other cyclists all around you. Some zooming past at improbable speeds, others you catch and some you end up riding with. (Yes, slip-streaming works!) If you want you can even chat with them, wave, or ring your bell! Naturally you can adjust the appearance of your avatar right down to a slide bar to control the length of your socks!

I only scratched the surface with my first visit, but I’m looking forward to discovering more. The downside is that although there are no travel cost you still have to pay to access Watopia. When my 10 day free trial ends I need to decide if it is worth the £12.99 monthly subscription. You’ll also need a Smart trainer like my Tacx Vortex, which at the best part of £400 is one of the cheaper units on the market.

Of course I’d much rather be out in the real world, which is the main reason I enjoy cycling. However, when the weather outside is really miserable there is something to be said for the comfort of staying indoors. Added to which your bike doesn’t get dirty. 

Today I cycled around an empty central London!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Brass Monkeys Racing

Exhausted, fingers too numb with cold to push the gear shift, the icey rain dripping down my neck and sloshing into my shoes around frozen toes. Fighting to make progress with my rear wheel fishtailing due to lack of grip in the muddy slime.

The winter Brass Monkeys series has been a favourite of mine since 2010! The Marathon race format in winter conditions proves a challenge for both rider and machine. Over the years we’ve experienced everything from boggy mud baths to rock hard frozen ground, ice and snow.

Of course sometimes it’s a glorious days racing, sweeping around the technical woodland course in winter sunshine. However, you have to be realistic about the UK weather if entering outdoor events in December and January.

It is a format that suits me and I’ve raced consistently in the top 10, ending the 2014/15 series 5th overall. A good series position is all about consistency and getting the bike across the line at all the rounds over a winter of 16+ hours racing. Mechanicals and illness have scuppered my hopes more than once!
I missed last years races due to other commitments, but I’ll be back on the starting line for ‘The Christmas Cracker’ on Sunday. I’ve learnt my lesson and won’t be wearing a Santa outfit this year!

The format has changed since I last raced. Previously you had to start your last lap before the 4 hour curfew. I’ve forgotten how many times I raced against the clock to squeeze in another lap and having killed myself to make it across the line with seconds to spare, then had to set off on another 7 mile loop! Since last year the events have effectively been shortened, as riders now have to complete their final lap within 4 hours. So race times will be around an hour less. 3 ½ to 4 hours might be a benefit to me as I’ve fewer training miles in my legs.

Getting your clothing right is a big challenge for winter racing. Standing on a frosty start line in the morning all those thermal layers might make sense, but as the sun comes up and temperatures rise it’s easy to overheat. After 4 hours riding in heavy rain you’ll be soaked no matter what you’re wearing, so you have to decide if it’s worth putting on a sweaty waterproof and trapping a gallon of water in neoprene overshoes? It’s best to keep some spare layers in the pit just in case conditions change either way.

It’s also important that your bike is running flawlessly at the start, because any mechanical weakness will be found out. At muddy events brake pads quickly wear and racing on a slippery course without brakes can end in disaster. Badly prepped gears and drivechain will only get worse as they clog, costing time with every sticky shift. I’ve stopped fitting proper winter tyres in all but the very worst conditions, sticking with the confidence that comes from familiarity. Despite its low profile tread the Specialized Fastrak copes admirably in winter conditions and rolls well on frozen or more solid ground. A Schwalbe Rocket Ron digs in nicely up front and the open lugs don’t easily clog. I’ll switch the Fastrak to a Snakeskin Ron on the rear if it looks like it’s going to be muddy.

This kind of event is all about keeping the legs turning. You’re the engine, so eat and drink well the day before, and stock your pit area with food and fluids that you can take on every 15 minutes right up to that final caffeine gel to power you round the final lap!

There are 3 events in this years series.

·         The Christmas Cracker  - December 17th
·         The New year Hangover  - January 7th

·         The Winter Warmer - January 28th

Friday, 8 December 2017

Moon Meteor Storm Pro Light Review

If you are going to be doing a lot of riding after dark it makes sense to get yourself a quality light to be seen and to see where you are going. Front head lights can be a serious investment of several hundred pounds. For the past 10 years or more I’ve been a dedicated fan of Exposure lights, liking their wireless handlebar set-up and high output. However, the cost is starting to become prohibitive so when my latest light needed replacement I looked around for some alternatives.

I settled on the Moon Meteor Storm Pro RRP £125. (Available for less!)

The maximum output of 1700 lumens compares favourably to the more expensive Exposure units, with a run time of 2 hours in this setting.

That’s the figures but what is the light like in the real world? On the road I run in on the 3rd brightness setting of the 5 available (850 lumens). This is more than adequate 90% of the time for normal riding, even on fast descents. It also isn’t so bright that it dazzles oncoming drivers and runs for the best part of 4.5 hours in this mode. I’ve only once felt the need to increase the output, on a narrow leaf covered lane in the pouring rain.

Off-road I have used the higher settings much more. The maximum output provides excellent trail visibility when tackling technical terrain or moving at speed. Again I drop it back to conserve battery life when climbing or riding wider fire roads.

A “boost” mode is available, kicking out 2000 lumens for a brief 10 seconds with a double press of the button. To be honest I don’t find this useful at all, it’s just not long enough. When things are about to get sketchy you don’t want to be fumbling for buttons, so you naturally boost early and then quickly loose the benefit when you actually need it.

The button is nicely accessible on the top of the case, but reasonably hard to activate, especially with gloved hands. There is remote switch supplied in the box which really helps on the mountain bike as you don’t have to take your hands off the bars. I’ve yet to find a convenient spot on the road bike that is any better than just using the switch on the light.

The LED display lets you monitor the battery level (Fully charged/High/Half depleted/Low) When you press the button it also displays the current output setting for a few seconds.

One gripe about the switch is that you can only cycle through the brightness settings in one direction. So when you reach a tricky area and need to increase output, you have to cycle through all the dimmer settings first. This can take a few seconds with the firm button feel. In reality what you want to do is toggle backwards and forwards between high and low.

The handlebar mount with my light is very stiff. It’s a difficult balance to stop it being loose and rattily I guess, but it can be a real struggle removing the light at the end of a ride. I also must have inadvertently failed to lock the light securely to the bracket on one ride. My expensive Meteror skittling across the road shortly after I had set-off! The plastic mount uses a finger tightened clamp. Mine hasn’t slipped, but it is a little bulkier and unsightly compared to the neat Exposure bracket which I used to leave on my bike all winter. My light was also supplied with a machined ‘out-front mount’ that allows you to fit a Garmin on top and the light underneath. I’m pleased I didn’t pay £50 for this bracket as it places the light upside down, making it impossible to read the display. The switch is now also inaccessible so you’ll rely on the remote or, like I do, just leave it alone. More fundamentally the design of the light means that there is an unacceptable amount of upwards light bleed shining into your face when used in this configeration.

So the Moon definitely has some niggly issues. Fundamentally however the light itself is an impressive bit of kit. It provides hours of very usable light that will cover the longest winter commutes or multi hour evening MTB rides. It also seems a very robust, sturdy 215g unit. As mentioned it survived bouncing down the road totally unscathed! It’s also working fine after some pretty damp and muddy outings. The light is USB rechargeable so you can top it up at work for the ride home. Charging times vary up to 6hrs depending on method, with an indication of when its fully charged.

Summary: Recommended based on performance, but Moon could improve some of the human factors of the design. Avoid the ‘out-front’ bar mount. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Magic Number!

What is the ideal number of bikes? General wisdom is of course that it is one more than you currently own!

I was checking my stats on Strava the other day. It was the end of November and I had just cleared 5000 miles for the year so far. What caught my attention however, was that I had divided this mileage perfectly equally (to within 50miles) between my 4 steads.

It’s a bit of a lucky fluke, but it suggests that maybe I’ve got my riding stable pretty sorted for the cycling that I do.

I’m lucky enough to have two mountain and two road bikes. A pair of Sunday best, race day bikes, plus two commuting and training work horses. My “go to” bike is the fully rigid Stumpjumper, as it can go anywhere keeping my options open. It’s really my version of the now very on trend Gravel Bike.

This stat also highlights the change in my circumstances this year. Normally, despite calling myself a mountain biker, the core of my annual mileage was on the road. This year it’s interesting to see when I have had chance to get out I’ve ridden as many off-road miles. The average speed will be slower off-road so I’ll actually have spent more time on the mountain bikes.

So does this mean there is no need for a new bike? Of course not! There is always the lure of something newer and shinier! An Epic Hardtail please Santa! 

Monday, 27 November 2017

What to do in 2018?

Several people have asked me if I plan to race again next year.

Truth is I haven’t had a reply for them. Until now I've not had the head space to consider it. Now things are a bit more settled I've finally started thinking about my cycling goals for 2018.

Although the closure of City Cycles might mean more opportunity to race, fitting in training with a young family will still be challenging. My fitness isn’t what it was and I can’t see I’ll get close to the 10 hours a week in the saddle I regularly clocked up a couple of years ago. A month into the new job and 7 hours is proving a challenge. So I'll need to make more efficient use of the time I do have.

What I need is a goal and focus but what should my target be?

I turn 40 in February making 2018 my first year as a Vet. The Vets are fast! It is frequently a faster and more competitive category than Masters or Open where I have spent the past 10 years. Looking at the lap times from last years Gorrick Spring series I’d estimate I would have been on the outskirts of the top 10 in Vets. So not chasing the podiums like this year!

The national XC championship is back at Hadleigh this year which is a challenge I really enjoyed in 2015. Unlikely I will better the 14th place achieved 2 years ago however.

At my preferred marathon format events like the Brighton Big Dog where I finished 14th overall this summer, I’d have been 12th in the Vets class. So again little new to ride for.

However, with time to sit and contemplate, even if I don’t know where, I'm excited to say, “Yes, I will be racing next year.” I look forward to returning to the Brass Monkeys next month after a year off. I'll follow up these three events with the Gorrick Spring XC races next year.

However, I think the truth is I’m struggling for to find real motivation from the events I would normally have entered in the past. It’s a case of been there and done that. I’ve achieved everything I think I can while maintaining a work/life/cycling balance. So over the next few months I'll see if I can find something new to focus my attention on.

I won't be racing in the blue of City Cycles next year.