Monday, 28 May 2012

Erlestoke 6 Enduro

I had only heard positive things from those who entered last years Erlestoke Enduro. I have raced at the venue before – but only through the mud, snow and ice of January's Salisbury Plain Challenge. With the weather forecast predicting the week long heat wave to continue into the weekend I was keen to see the venue in a different light! At 8.30am the temperature was already rising nicely as we struggled to wrestle three 29ers into Ian's car. I would be riding the 6 hour solo while Ian and Fay were entering the Mixed Pairs.

It was great to see a large turnout of South Downs Bikes riders to greet us in the car park, all sporting new 29ers!! There was just time for an early lunch of ham and jam sandwiches before joining the huge starting grid that formed for the Noon start. Numbers were undoubtedly swelled by the glorious weather – with 80 riders in the Solo male category alone!

There was a short starting loop to spread the field and then it was out onto the course proper. After a flowing descent into the wood the course emerged onto an undulating, strength-sapping grassy traverse across the fields to the foot of the hill. The climb started as wooded singletrack but then opened onto a steep gravel road. Having reached the top there wasn’t time for a rest as the route headed out across the open hill top into a strong headwind. The field was well spread by now but I was still riding close to the front and slipstreamed a group of riders onto Ian’s wheel and then followed him down the descent back to the arena.

As we rode past the campsite Ian took his eyes off the trail for a moment to check his watch and missed a little depression in the path. From my viewpoint it looked like somebody had tossed a doll into the air! When I reached the scene Ian was a bloody mess with road rash on arms and legs. He slowly made it back to his feet while I retrieved his bike and then uncomfortably remounted telling me to continue. He handed over to Fay and was patched up by the medics and rode another 4 laps. But I bet he was sore this morning!

The descent from the top of the hill was a belter. It was fast and flowing, twisting and turning between the trees on the chalky soil I am familiar with at home on the South Downs. Even after 6 hours I was still really enjoying myself, throwing the bike down the switchbacks! 

I managed to keep the laps ticking over just under the magic 40 minute mark, completing my 9th lap with a couple of minutes to spare. My favourite race of the year  - a combination of sunshine and great trails! 

4th place on the day was my best result of 2012 and one of my strongest race rides ever. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Formula R1 Brake Review

I previously owned a set of Formula Oro Puros. They were superb brakes – never an issue,  great performance, nice ‘feel’ and lightweight. When Formula brought out the R1 I couldn’t resist. The main selling point of the R1 at the time was its feather weight – 180g without rotors. To achieve this you had to sacrifice the Oro’s bite point adjustment and the gorgeous carbon levers but on the plus side black and red suits most colour schemes better than gold!

 Initially I had a pile of problems with my R1’s.
  • My brakes leaked from behind the lever pistons – apparently a batch fault now rectified, but it did ruin a nice pair of carbon bars.
  • After a few months one of the rear calliper pistons jammed. The tools to service this are expensive and were going to take weeks to source, so in the end I purchased an entirely new calliper.
  • The tiny red aluminium torx bolts that hold everything together are VERY easy to round off. Unfortunately when this happens it can take weeks to track down replacements. Sourcing  parts has become easier now Chainreaction stock Formula spares but there can still be long waits between restocking. I have stockpiled my own little stash of spares for emergencies.
  • The levers became sticky so they didn’t spring back out. The only solution I could find to this was to remove the two lower pivot bolts! The levers are now a little more floppy but I can cope with this. The levers themselves might look thin and spindly but they are comfortable and have stood up to several years of abuse.
  • The final problem is the most fundamental and annoying. There is VERY little clearance between the disc and the pads, so set-up is ultra critical if you don’t want annoying brake rub. Even a slight kink in your rotor leads to an annoying ‘pft,pft,pft’ as you ride along. Also if like me you regularly need to remove your wheels, it is usually necessary to reset the brakes. I have probably now spent hours of my life tuning and tweaking the brake rub. The actual effect of the brake rub is minimal but it is extremely annoying!
  • Finally the bleed kits and spares can be scarily expensive when you do track them down.
So after that tale of woe you are wondering why I still have the R1’s on the bike? The performance and feel that these brakes offer is superb. You can stop on a sixpence or lightly feather the brake into a corner, all with a single finger. The power is better than my old Oros but Formula have managed to maintain the superb modulation and control of the R1’s forebear. Once you have shelled out for the kit, bleeding the brakes is a piece of cake.
Finally there is of course that weight. Often after spending another evening tuning out the brake rub I have considered alternatives – but I can’t bring myself to add a chunk of weight to my bike!
In summary the set-up is fiddly and they need constant care and attention to keep them running smoothly, but the performance is  powerful and wonderfully refined.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Southern Championship

My wife is 8 months pregnant so Sundays race was the culmination of a truncated season of racing. With the national events this year either in Scotland or falling around the due date, the Southern Championships is the most prestigious event in my 2012 race calendar. Last year at the same venue I was very disappointed to finish 23rd and fully intended to make amends in 2012.

The first sunny weekend for months had left the course damp and grippy. There was only one climb of note, the rest of the course weaved amongst the bluebells in the dappled shade of the undulating woodland. I had rested since last weeks enduro, so when I was gridded 3rd with the warm spring sunshine on my back, everything was looking positive for a good race.

The start was a flat out sprint into the base of the climb. I lost some ground but still turned into the wood at the top in 9th place. Then it seems I forgot how to ride! In the twists and turns riders came past me left and right as I struggled for any kind of rhythm. As the lap continued things didn’t improve and I completed the first lap absolutely plumb last! From the front to the back in 20 minutes! I don’t know if it was fatigue from the Gorrick 100 and a hectic week at work, or the prospect of impending fatherhood playing on my mind, but I had absolutely no pace.

With my motivation in tatters I did at least force myself to keep riding, as there were still series points up for grabs. To compound my good mood I misjudged a turn and burped a large amount of air out on my rear tyre by hitting a root. Despite riding the entire last lap with a flat tyre it was still almost my fastest!  I also caught and passed a few riders, finishing the day 24th one place worse than the year before.

It was a very disappointing day in what is becoming a frustrating year. Maybe it was just a bad day, or perhaps the thought of becoming a father means different priorities?  Either way Sunday is in the past.  I’ll now take a break from racing for a couple of weeks and look forward to the next round of the series. This will be my final race before the birth and I’ll be targeting enough points to ensure a top 10 position in the Southern XC Series.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Gorrick 100 Enduro

Swinley forrest was chilly and damp as 90 nervous cyclists gathered for the start of the Gorrick 100. Ahead of them 7 gruelling 10 mile laps of twisting woodland singletrack, open forest paths and of course the infamous sandy Surrey Hill climb. As if to emphasise the enormity of the task ahead the race briefing included the information that all riders must be finished by 6.30pm.

For me the Gorrick 100 is THE event that goes straight into the diary every year. I have had good results here, but the challenge is still a very personal one of forcing my body to complete a feat of physical endurance. This was the 7th time I had stood on the start line and I had made it to the finish on each of the previous 6 occasions, (my times varying from just inside the time limit of 10 hours to last years 6 hours 20 minutes.)

It was obvious that this year wasn’t going to be the fastest event. Weeks of rain had left some of the trails soft and claggy. Luckily it wasn’t the mud bath of previous years, helped in part by the excellent all-weather trails that form part of the developing Surrey Hills MTB area. 

Experience is a wonderful thing! At the start I watched excited, adrenalin fuelled riders streak away as I took it easy for the first lap. Sure enough a lap or two later I saw many of the early eager beavers again, this time their faces pale, eyes set in a blank stare as energy reserves hit empty.

The second and most critical bit of knowledge I have picked up is to eat, eat and keep eating! You simply can’t get enough energy on board. From the start I was munching fig rolls, energy bars and bananas every 15 minutes. Probably as important is keeping topped up with fluids. I’ve tried various methods of refuelling but this year I opted for a pit stop every lap to pick up a fresh bottle and more grub. People with partners who have extraordinarily high tolerance to boredom get their food and bottles passed to them. Personally I haven’t found a way to persuade my wife to sit in a cold, soggy wood for an entire day, but those lucky few have a definite advantage.

The hilly sections of the course were loaded at the beginning of the lap so once over the traditional sandy cliff face you were able to enjoy the singletrack. In fact this year my arms were struggling before my legs as I wrestled the bike through the serpentine, switchbacks.

I quickly fell into a loose group with 2 riders. I say ‘loose’ because over this distance everyone rides at their own pace and has moments when they are feeling good, and bad times when they start to suffer. We constantly swapped position. I often gained on the climbs, then struggled to hold onto a wheel on the flat.

As the day progresses riders entering the shorter distances join the course. Obviously these are not real men (and women), but I’m sure they have a wonderful time smirking at the anguished faces of the 7 lappers! Anyway on lap four I was caught by Matt Knight from SDB who was riding the 40 mile challenge. After a quick chat we rode together and he kindly offered me a nice slip stream. This pulled me ahead of the others in my ‘group’ and I found myself alone.

Completing an endurance event can be as much about the mind as the body. With the legs screaming for a rest, convincing them and yourself that another 30 miles is a sensible idea can be tough. Your mind starts to suggest it might be easier to sit at the side of the trail for a while, or even better head back to the burger van in the car park. Lap 5 was the toughest for me as those evil voices whispered in my ear. I probably pushed too hard while riding with Matt. However, a brief comfort stop and an opportunity to top up some lost air in my rear tyre and I was back up and running. I was passed by one of the guys I had been riding with – which could have been a bad moment. But actually I felt ok and I felt stronger again as the final lap closed in.

I had been in the saddle for over 6 hours as I approached the climb for the 7th and final time. Never before have I cleared the climb on every lap of a Gorrick 100. But this year surrounded by people walking, who were riding far fewer laps than myself I cleared the top. I knew then that I was going to finish and for the first time I started thinking about my position in the race. I knew I was unlikely to catch the guy ahead as he had continued to slowly pull away into the distance since passing me. I checked over my shoulder and my heart sunk at the depressing sight of a 7 lap number board a 100 meters behind. Damn! I pushed as hard as I could, strength in my arms and legs failing, co-ordination wandering as I negotiated the descents and corners towards the line.

Finally I could hear the commentary and smell the burgers! I had hung on and rolled across the line in 18th. As a testament to how tough this event is, only 47 of the 90 starters completed the full distance. I had so little left that on the way home I had to stop for a nap. Luckily it was a bank holiday so opportunity for a lie in the next day!

On board video taken by the winner Ben Thomas