Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Merida Launch Event 2018

Last week I made the 3 hour drive to Nottingham and attended the Merida 2018 launch event. As the quote goes, "Merida are the biggest bike company you've never heard of". They are in fact the 2nd largest bicycle manufacturer in the world and have been producing bikes for better known names for decades. These include Specialized of whom they hold a 49% stake and the Merida bikes roll off the produciton line next to those from the big 'S'.

Obviously at such an event it is the new bikes that attract the attention. Without doubt the most attention grabbing of these is the redesigned Reacto. The Merida design office in Germany has been busy, improving the aerodynamic efficiency by 5% while at the same time decreasing the weight to around 1kg. This makes the aero focused bike a consideration as an everyday bike, even if you live in the hills. 


Merida also claim the new Reacto is more comfortable. A large part of this is the S-Flex seatpost, which now has a bigger flexible 'zone', but also the seatstays have been re-profiled to increase vertical compliance.

The other fresh faced bike from the Taiwnese / German giants is the all new Silex. This is Merida's first foray into the, on trend, gravel bike market. I'll admit that from the initial photos I didn't think the Silex wasn much of a looker. However, the Silex was the star of the show for me! That long head tube which initially grated is growing on me. It has a purpose to. It raises the front of the bike to put the rider in a more stable, upright position increasing comfort and improving confidence in loose conditions. It also makes the front of the bike stiffer and improves steering compared to the stack of headset spacers that riders often use to raise the handlebar of their bike.

Swinging a leg over the bike I just wanted to ride it away. As a mountain biker it felt totally natural, this was a road bike made for me. Long top tube, low bottom bracket and short stem. It is a bike intended for unpaved roads and can take tyres up to 42mm or 2.25in 650B's. I can't wait to ride one!

On the mountain bike side of things there is a new One-Forty, which follows on the coat tails of the critically acclaimed One-Sixty. It looks agressive standing still, sitting on its 2.6in tyres. Given how I enjoyed riding the shorter travel One-Twenty last year I can only begin to imagine how fun this bike would be to ride.


As a XC racer there wasn't anything new for me. The carbon Big Nine remains unchanged as does the Ninety-Six full sus race bike. The aluminium Big Nine and Big Seven frame has been redesigned and looks hot with it's new shaped alloy tubing.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Nutrition

Emptying my pockets after the Big Dog race.

1 oat bar, 4 energy bars, 1 gel, 1 caffeine gel, 12 energy blocks, 2 bananas, 5.5 litres of electrolyte water and 1 litre of water.

The list above was all digested by me during 6 hours of racing at Brighton Big Dog. Written down it seems like a lot, but during the race I was craving my next hit and would definitely have eaten even more if I could have crammed it into my jersey pockets.

If you want to avoid hitting the dreaded wall, and ward off cramp during a longer event it is essential that you refuel as you ride. I started a habit a long time ago of making myself eat every 30 minutes during a race, regardless of the situation. It pays off in the long run even if you have to surrender a position while munching through a banana.

Energy gels and bars are pretty sickly affairs and can start to get unpalatable when you've already eaten half a dozen that morning. So I have always mixed in bananas, fig rolls and oat bars to keep things appetizing. Actually the Big Dog was the first race for a long time where I haven't taken fig rolls. I'm a recent convert to Clif Bloks energy chews. There are 6 of the little bite sized cubes in the tube which you can squeeze out one at a time. I started with strawberry flavour, dabbled with the caffeine Black Current chews, but my personal favourite is the salty Margarita with added sodium.

Clif bars are great, and more oat bar than energy bar - so less sickly. Peanut Butter is my current fave, but I could be tempted by any. Otherwise I mix and match an assortment of the SIS bars and gels to keep it fresh and interesting.

Despite all the millions invested in the development of these energy foods I still find that the good old banana gives me the best mid race boost. The potassium also wards off cramps, the only negative being that they are slightly difficult to transport. (In the end you get used to eating mushy banana. It's easier to chew anyway!)

I always add SIS electrolyte tablets to my bottles. Again it gives you more energy than standard water, although I'll often keep a plain water bottle in the pit area at hotter events, which can be gulped or poured over
the head when stopping to pick up supplies.

Different riders will swear by all sorts of mid race snacks. The important thing is to find what works for you and what will seem appetizing and digestible 5 hours into an event. Practice eating on social rides before your big event so your body is used to digesting food on the go.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Ben's Bike for Brighton Big Dog

Brighton Big Dog is all about the climbs. Sure this means there is an equal amount fo sweet descents, but these are more flowing and aren't particularly techincal. A lightweight hardtail is the weapon of choice on such a climbers course. Sure you could argue that over six hours a full suspension bike will reduce fatigue as you hammer over a gazillion roots. However, if you want pure speed I think a weight weenie race bike will get you round the 6 mile course faster every time.

For 2017 I'm still riding my S-Works Stumpjumper, the medium frame weighing just over 1kg. Up front are the 100mm travel DT Swiss OMP O.L.D Race forks, which are buttery smooth, weigh less than two full water bottles and can be locked out via the neat bar remote when stonking on the pedals up a climb.

Such are the severity of a couple of the climbs that this is one of those rare occasions where I use the lowest gear. Since Switzerland last summer I have been running a 30t Absolute Black oval chainring paired with a 10-42 cassette at the rear.

Tyres are another area to save weight and reduce rolling resistance. I have reviewed the Vittoria Peyote on my blog previously and love the confidence and predictability it provides up front. I'm a recent convert to the rediculously skinny and low profile Specialized Renegade, but I have been impressed. Early in the race when it was still a bit greasey under the trees I had to observe a little caution on the descents, but it rolled fast everywhere else. Be warned I opted for the Control casing, the lighter S-Works is a little fragile and prone to punctures.

XTR brakes, shifters and rear mech peformed faultlessly as usual. I pinch a few grams back by using Hope floating disc rotors, there are even lighter options out there, but I haven't found one that offers the stopping power and control of the Hopes.

I've got a 17 degree negative rise Ritchey WCS stem to slam the 680mm Pro handlebar as low as it can go. Lightweight carbon rims on Stans hubs, built up by Darren at Strada wheels keep the weight to a minimum, but are reliable and easy to maintain.

Hanging under the Phenom saddle is a saddle bag. Largely due to laziness, unusually I carried two inner tubes where I'd normally have saved a few grams and left the second in the pit area. Packed in with the tubes were two tyre levers, a Topeak chain tool and SRAM chain link. I carried a Lezyne pump in my jersey pocket and left the CO2 cannister at home this time to make room for the second tube. 


She's a lightweight beauty and she didn't skip a beat the entire race.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Brighton Big Dog 2017

What a difference a year makes! 12 months ago Big Dog was the first weekend of a triple header that included the Swiss Grand Raid and the National Marathon Champs. I arrived prepared, fit and ready for 6 hours and the best part of 3000m of climbing. As a result I finished 10th in a high class field which included the National Champion. This year I had no competitive marathon events under my belt before Brighton and only a fraction of the mileage in my legs. I was going to have to rely on experience and determination.

My first mistake was pretty fundamental. My daughter woke me at 6.30am so we got up and had breakfast. I started the race at 12pm having eaten nothing since my morning bowl of cereal, apart from a banana. The 12 o-clock start is tricky, but an early lunch would have set me up far better for 6 hours of grueling racing. 

The second mistake was hoping that I'd somehow rediscover the form of 12 months ago. The competitive instinct meant I set off at a similar pace to last year. The reality check came 4 laps in, when after only 2hrs and 30 minutes I had my first twang of cramp in my thighs. There was still a very long way to go, so I ate everything I had in my jersey pockets, downed my bottle of water and backed right off. Laps 5 and 6 were slow as I spun my way up the climbs, but luckily I started to recover and felt strong enough to push a little harder again on the final couple of laps. 

Brighton Big Dog is undoubtably the best event I attend in terms of atmosphere, organisation and the fantastic course. The route is really one for the climbers, with several long agonising fireroad ascents and a couple of sharp, technical, rooty climbs thrown in for good measure. The reward for all that climbing is some absolutely awesome singletrack decents. It's very enjoyable and rewarding. Luckily the rain over night hadn't made much impact under the trees of Stanmer park and the trails were running fast in the sunshine.

Considering the mess I was in at the half way point I am really proud to hold it all together and make it to the finish at all. 14th out of 72 in an age range of 18 to 39 ain't bad either for an old timer 6 months from his 40th birthday.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Schwalbe Pro One Tyre Review- Road Tubeless

There has been lots of road cycling topics on my blog recently, you'd be forgiven for forgetting I am an mountain biker! This is a review for tubeless road bike tyres, a mountain biking staple for many years that is now finally coming across to the road.


I purchased the Schwalbe Pro One's as a pair in a conversion pack supplied with latex and tyre lubricant. I chose 25mm tyres which I fitted to a pair of Roval CLX 32 rims. 

Mounting tubeless tyres is something I've done a thousand times on the mountain bike. The process was the same and there were no unexpected surprises with the Pro One's. They snapped onto the rim easily and I added the sealant through the valve, removing the core with the tool supplied with the tyre kit. Both tyres inflated with minimal fuss using a track pump. Where it was slightly more unnerving was pumping them up to 90 psi instead of 20, and it certainly made me jump as the bead popped into place with a loud 'crack!'

First impressions are muted by the squeaky noise the fresh rubber makes as it squirms along the asphalt. The best way to describe it is like wearing new trainers at the squash court. Whether this is mould release agent from manufacture I don't know, but it does fade quite quickly. Grip is also worryingly low during those early first few miles. I'd say it was about 60-80 miles before my confidence grew and I was able to lean on the tyres during high speed corners. I haven't experienced this with new tyres before and don't know why tubeless tyres should be any different.

One of the definite advantages of the tubeless set-up was the ability to run the tyres at 80 to 85psi. There is a significant improvement in comfort with no trade off in rolling resistance compared to the 95 to 100psi I'd normally run on a tubed set-up.

I really don't rate the Schwalbe Doc Blue latex supplied with the kit. Overnight between every ride for the first week the tyres went flat. They stayed up during the rides, but you seem to need to keep the latex active inside the tyre because as soon as I stopped the pressures would drop. Swapping to Stans No Tubes immediately cured the problem.

The first wet ride was a big disappointment. The Pro Ones are sketchy, providing very little confidence in corners and desperately low grip compared to something like the similarly priced Continental 4000s2. On steep climbs the rear wheel was spinning out, while those around me encountered no such difficulties finding traction. Bear in mind that the lower pressures of tubeless tyres should, in theory, offer more grip due to the larger contact area with the ground. The rain had also washed out flints and grit which lead to a small cut in the center of the tyre which refused to seal.

Nowadays when I ride a mountain bike with inner tubes it feels totally wooden. The same was true when I swapped back to tubes after riding the Pro Ones. So I've learnt that tubeless has definite advantages in terms of the ride quality, but after a month and several hundred miles the Schwalbe Pro Ones are unfortunately coming off the bike.  

Even after the unusual bedding in period the Schwalbe Pro Ones do not offer the performance of a high quality tubed tyre and I'd definitely avoid the Schwalbe latex. Time for me to explore some other tubeless options.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Road Racing - I probably won't be trying it again.

This blog is about me (Ben) racing bikes. Nothing says what type of bikes!

Mountain Biking is of course my first love, it's in my DNA. Its everything I love about cycling. I've been racing off-road for 20 years, seen it all and know the scene inside out. My limited experience of road racing is two closed circuit races at a 4th cat level. The second race was yesterday and having finished there was no rush of excitement and verbal diarrhea that comes after an off-road event. Sitting here now I am not motivated in any way to try it again. Why?


First the positive. It certainly makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck the first time you ride at high speed in a large peleton. It's like nothing else in cycling, just the noise of 50 bikes is something else.

After a few minutes you get used to riding elbow to elbow, sucked along by those in front. The excitement level drops. You then spend the next 8 laps desperately trying to hold your line and not to collide with those around you. You want to stay tucked into the group although you seem magnetically drawn to the back.

Of course at some point you decide to break the boredom by visiting the front of the pack. You grab a wheel and work your way forward. Its great, you're going nearly 30mph and feeling strong - maybe you could make a break? Then the rider ahead pulls over and the wind hits you like you've ridden into a brick wall. You are at the head to a huge arrow of riders and your legs are burning with the effort. After what seems like eternity, somebody comes through and you begin to freefall like a stone back through the pack. The effort has pushed you to your physical limit and now your legs are churning, lungs heaving as the last rider slips past. You have to get out of the saddle and sprint to try and hang onto the same group which a moment ago you were leading.

After a couple more laps you recover and settle back into the group. The pace dips and then picks up again, the peloton concertinas and then stretches out. All you and majority of the others want to do is stay safely in the pack. A few at the front try fruitlessly to escape, the best getting maybe 20 meters down the road before they too fade and drop back.

90% of the race is about survival and staying upright. Final lap - the bell rings signalling the start of the real race. The pace increases dramatically as everyone jostles for a position near the front. People take risks as they try to move forward and things get a little scary. Sweeping into the last corner those who have managed to get into the lead fight out the sprint, the rest coast across the line, finishing position now totally irrelevant. You could have spent the entire race rolling along merrily in the middle of the group without putting in any effort at all.

In a mountain bike race you have to push hard for the entire distance. You might be 50th, but you'll fight tooth and nail with the rider ahead for 49th. There is always somebody to race, and the course itself to challenge yourself against. Road racing isn't like that. You wait the entire race, and if you choose the wrong wheel to follow at the critical moment you've boxed out and have to wait for next week.

Perhaps that is what motivates people - the thought that perhaps it'll work out next time and they will be in the right place at the right time. It requires fitness undoubtedly, skill to position and gauge your effort but definitely luck. Personally I think I'll stick to the knobbly tyres.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Beware of the dark side!

Today is race day! But instead of packing the shock pump and driving into a muddy wood I'm heading for the glamour of Goodwood motor circuit. This is because I am racing a closed circuit road race.

This will be only my second competitive outing on the black top. Unfortunately my first ended in a London A&E department, having my ear sewn back on. This wasn't my fault. Unlike mountain biking accidents which are a result of your own lack of talent and the trees don't tend to leap out at you. In a road race you are very dependent on the other riders. My previous race came to a dramatic end when the rider ahead of me unclipped and went down as he opened up the final sprint. At 30 mph there wasn't any time to take avoiding action.

Due to the UCI's aversion to disc brakes I'll be taking the same old bike to Goodwood. This has a tiny 46t chainring so there will not be much chance of me taking part in the sprint today - which is probably a good thing! This evenings race is more about the atmosphere and the experience.