Monday, 23 December 2013

2013 Summary

Its that time to reflect on the last 12 months and look ahead to 2014.

The intended highlight of the year was the opportunity to race at the London 2012 Olympic venue. I was already excited this time last year, and the race wasn't until August! Unfortunately things didn't go to plan on the day. It was an extremely technical course and I fell badly during practice on Saturday, breaking some ribs. After an uncomfortable night I gave the race a go on Sunday but had to pull out on my second lap due to the pain. It was a massive disappointment, but at least it is a tale to tell the Grandchildren!

I did manage to get the bike home at Hopton Wood, the third round of the national series. Although it wasn't my best day's racing it'll prove invaluable experience for the national championships which are to be held there next summer.

National Series - Hopton Wood - June
There is no doubt that at the end of the summer I was riding stronger and faster than I probably ever have. Unfortunately a string of race cancellations and mechanical issues with the bike meant I failed to translate any of this performance into decent results. The only occasion this year where I troubled the front of the race was my 4th place finish at the Are You Tough Enough, Army enduro. That is five 4th placed finishes since I last stood on a podium, so I'm desperate to go at least one place better next year.

Away from the race scene I've enjoyed some brilliant rides. Gloriously scenic, epic alpine riding in Switzerland during August. I even took advantage of some quiet French roads while travelling on business. Socially weekend rides now revolve around the obligatory coffee stop. I think Compton Village Stores wins hands down due the quality and quantity of cakes provided!

I would like to take the opportunity to thank South Downs Bikes. Providing not just kit but also assistance with transportation to race events. This has meant I was able to take in more of the national scene than I have in previous years.

Also I am pleased to have continued promoting the Fast Find Ranger personal locator beacon around the country this year. For those that need reminding, click the link on the left of the page. This small GPS distress beacon could save your life if something unexpected should happen to you while out on the trails.

2013 stats:
  • 205 rides
  • 6700 miles
  • 456 hours in the saddle
  • Best Result: 4th

Looking ahead to 2014: January should see the arrival of a new bike so stay posted for that! Race wise I intend to focus on my strengths this year. Looking more towards the longer enduro format of racing.

All that remains is to say, Merry Christmas and thank you for reading my blog. The Ben Races Bikes blogsite has clocked up 19,000 hits over the past twelve months, so I hope you have found it interesting as there will be more of the same in the new year!


Monday, 16 December 2013

Brass Monkeys - Round 2

As a cyclist you’ll have days when you can ride like a train all day, and times when your legs seem to have turned to lead overnight. The strange thing is you know which it is going to be from the first turn of the pedals.

Three weeks ago at round 1 I could just ride and ride! I pushed from the start, attacked the hills and had energy for every overtake before surging to the line. Sunday was the exact opposite; I was struggling from beginning to end!
I didn’t repeat the mistake of the first race. Making a much better start, I slotted in around 20th and avoided the inevitable congestion further back. Over-heating was my initial problem. I was one of a minority of riders who’d opted for overshoes and arm warmers. Chasing around the dry trails in relatively mild temperatures, this looked to be a big mistake.

As expected at Caesars Camp, the course had several taxing climbs. The main hill was seemingly endless, repeatedly kicking up again and again. However, it will be the loose, rocky vertical incline later in the lap that will be forever etched in the memories of the riders.

Over the first lap I gained some places but struggled physically and mentally as other riders zoomed past. Then the wind picked up and it started to rain. The trails became increasingly treacherous and slippery. Finally my overshoes were invaluable as I plunged on through the seven mile mudfest.
Lap three, half way and I was dead on my feet. The thought of even one more trip up those climbs was enough to send me crawling back to the comfort of the car. Hauling myself across the line, the commentator said I was in 16th. Wow! This was the motivation I needed, so I gulped a gel, ate an energy bar and pushed on.

To give an idea of how bad conditions became, my first lap was 37minutes, but by the end I was sliding around in 48 minutes. I’d still made up a position, finishing 15th. Surprisingly three places better than round 1.

It only goes to show that even if you feel terrible it’s worth persevering.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Compton Cakes

After three hours Ian and I arrived at Compton village stores for a Cappuccino and cake. Last time we had ventured this far we hadn't dared to even enter the shop as we were so plastered in mud and detritus. However after several weeks of dry winter weather we reclined in the the chairs outside relatively spotless.

To get here we had ridden up from Oaks on the A27 near Fontwell. Rear lights flashing in the morning gloom, we'd enjoyed the dry singletrack around Whiteways, before winding our way up to Bignor. The climb had warmed us up but it was still too misty to enjoy the view. So we followed the hill past Benges along to the Trundle above Goodwood.

Diving down to West Dean there was still a real chilly nip in the air. However, with the undulating Downland ahead we knew we'd soon be sweating into our gillets! First up was the horrible steep climb after the school, to what I call 'Puncture Alley'. Safely navigated without any deflating tyres it was on to the long climb past the charcoal burners to the South Downs Way.

For a change we thought we'd stay on the national trail through to Harting. As we heaved ourselves over the grassy, eroded Pen Hill we remembered why we often skirt around this section of trail! At least the sun  was now out and we could enjoy the reward of stunning views north to Midhurst, and south to the coast and the Isle of Wight. After Pen there are a couple more testing climbs before Harting Down itself, where we struggled for traction on the greasy chalk.

From Harting it is downhill to our refreshment stop at Compton. We were just shy of 1000m of climbing as we sat and watched the shop owner sweep the remaining leaves from the square outside the shop. 400m of vertical ascent still lay ahead, as we had to navigate Kingley Vale before finally dropping down to Chichester and the flat roads home. For now however, we enjoyed the cake and relished a great December day's cycling.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Brass Monkeys - Round 1

Congratulations to the Army Cycling Union! They created a cracking 7 mile course at Minley Manor, with miles of fast singletrack flowing smoothly through the woods of the estate. 

It was the type of course that rewarded you for your efforts without ever being intimidating! Never too technical, the trail wove through the trees, swinging left and right, allowing you to carry your momentum into every turn. There were a few climbs, most notably, one short, steep ramp near the beginning of the lap, but nothing to fill the heart with dread as you came round for your final lap.

The increasing popularity of this form of racing was emphasised by the packed car park. Maxed out at its 500 entry limit, this has become an extremely popular series. Given the high level of entries I wasn't sure how I was going to go. With this in mind I didn't elbow my way right to the front at the start, instead slotting in a few rows back in the pack. This did prevent me getting carried away on the first lap, but that was because I was held up by the shenanigans that always occur when the mass start converges on the first section of singletrack! Before one section I held back slightly to let a fallen rider move aside, only for somebody to rudely cut ahead. They then promptly fell off as well and completely blocked my path. I'll admit to offering them some polite, constructive criticism!

Doing my best to avoid the mayhem I worked my way forward, sometimes jumping 3 or 4 riders when the path opened and I had the opportunity. I finished the first lap 24th and was riding with the leading female riders. Despite the huge field I spent the next lap almost entirely on my own. Having pulled away from the ladies, and still feeling fresh I was able to fully enjoy the course. However, I was still only 23rd; I told myself that a top 20 finish would sound a lot better at the end of the day.

By now I had already started lapping the tail enders. It is always frustrating and with stunning regularity you seem to catch them at the worst moment. This will be either just entering a long section of singletrack, or a narrow climb where you can't get through. Traditionally a friendly shout of "Rider left" encourages them to politely move aside at the next available opportunity. For some reason yesterday I seemed to encounter several who adamantly refused to move off the racing line. It was during this period that I collected a small group of followers. At various points over the next few laps two or three riders followed my wheel, but they never came through to help!

I'm pleased to say I eventually left them behind and as the field spread the course became busier. It was hard to tell who you were racing amongst all the riders, spread out on different laps. So after 7 laps and 4hours 30 minutes, I'll admit to being very pleased to cross the line in 18th. 

My legs are stiff and sore today, but I know that I managed to get my full potential out, having left nothing on the course. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

Winter Enduro Racing - Tools

Contents of my jersey pocket!

  • Inner tube
  • Tyre levers
  • Inflator
  • CO2 cartridge
  • Multi tool inc. chain tool
  • I always keep a spare chain link taped to the chain tool for quicker repairs.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Winter Enduro Racing - Nutrition

My personal favourites:

  • SIS Go Hydro Electrolyte Tablets - Lemon  
  • SIS Mini Go Bars - Chocolate fudge or Banana fudge
  • Assortment of energy gels for variety
  • SIS Caffine gel for that final lap boost!
  • Jacobs fig rolls - supermarket own brands don't come close!
  • Banana

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Winter Enduro Racing - Clothing

Neoprene overshoes - probably the best product I have ever bought for a bike! Not the sexiest items you'll find in a bike shop but they do a stella job of keeping your feet warm and puddles out! Yes if it is raining the water will eventually run down your legs into your shoes but your feet will at least still be nice and toastie even on the coldest days. My personal favourites are from Endura. The fit is snug, so doesn't bulge and rub on your cranks, although they can be a tough to pull on and off, especially with cold fingers. 

My favourite piece of clothing has to be my DHB Roubaix tights. They are just so comfortable and warm, fitting better than any other short or tights I've tried. The knees are articulated to allow good movement and the brushed liner is luxurious! The Goldilocks pad is not to fat, not too thin, so perfect for long hours in the saddle. 

Monday, 18 November 2013

Winter Enduro Racing - Bike

Enduro racing is tough on bikes and kit. It is not a time to try something new; choose the simple, tried, tested and above all, reliable!

I'm running a 1x10 drivechain this year which should eliminate the chain suck I struggled so badly with last year. With less components and moving parts the single front chainring means there is less to go wrong! A single speed would be the ultimate extreme, but it won't be the fastest way around a race course.

Mud tyres like the Maxxis Beaver are great if the conditions are really boggy and grim. However, they will be slower on open fireroads. Taking the gamble on lightweight race tyres might seem tempting, but the time gained will be nothing compared to what you lose when a puncture strikes. So I compromise with a middle ground solution. At the moment I'll be going with a Rocket Ron on the front and a Fast Trak Control on the rear - but I'm watching the weather forecast....

Make sure your grips are fitted firmly, if it rains and they start to slip you'll struggle for control especially in muddy conditions.

If possible fit new brake pads! I wore a set down to the pistons in one enduro and I've frequently burnt through pads before the end of a race. Once you've lost your brakes you'll lose all confidence in technical sections and haemorrhage time. Sintered brake pads don't offer the same bite as organic but are more durable so will last longer in tough conditions. 

Finally a GPS or computer is useful for keeping an eye on your progress and that critical cut off time for the final lap.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Winter Enduro Racing - Mud and ice!

Last week I gave in! I finally broke out the full length tights and neoprene overshoes. No more pretending - Winter is on the way!

This means that the Brass Monkeys’s enduro series can only be just around the corner! As usual the series starts with the ‘Winter Warmer’ next weekend at Minely Manor in Hampshire.  The second round is just before Christmas and then there is the added bonus this year of two races in January! Traditionally the 500 entries are a sell out, but this year there seems to be even more interest in these events. At the recent South Downs Bikes shop ride, at least half a dozen riders expressed their intention to race.

As befitting the name the Brass Monkeys are usually cold, mucky affairs that test man and machine in equal measure. The aim is to complete as many laps as you can within the time limit. 4 hours is the deadline after which you cannot start another 7/8 mile lap. From experience I know that if you cross the line with 3hrs 59 minutes on the clock you could get to enjoy another 45minutes of racing. So there is potential for a long day in the saddle.

There is much more to these races than the obvious physical challenge of powering a mountain bike around undulating woodland for over 4 hours. Windy and wet UK winters tend to create soggy, slippery trails. Shifting gear can become a game of roulette as leaves, twigs and other detritus reap havoc with chains and cassettes. The seals of your wheel and bottom bracket bearings will be tested by deep standing water and I’ve frequently worn a set of brake pads down to the metal within a few laps! The ideal situation is to wake up to a nice clear frosty morning, then if you are lucky the mud will be frozen solid and you can skate over the top of the puddles!

If the bike survives this grim onslaught there is the challenge of maintaining your own energy levels in often freezing conditions. The trick is to constantly cram food and drink into your mud encrusted chops! Not always easy when you are busy dodging trees and oily roots. Rucksack style hydration systems are brilliant and allow you to carry lots of fluids and take a refreshing slurp whenever you like. However, dragging 2/3 litres of water around on your back is heavy and tiring. So instead most opt for bottles, which require a pit stop every lap or two for fresh supplies. Energy bars and gels will also help give you that extra oomph when fatigue sets in. Personally I include bananas and fig rolls for variety, as gulping energy gels all day can get a bit sickly.

There is also the question of tools. At many XC races I don’t bother, if I have a problem the race is effectively over anyway in terms of a result. At an enduro there is time to recover from a puncture and at the very least make your way back to the car, which could be 4 miles away! This year I have opted to carry a spare tube and CO2 canister in-case of flats. I run my tyres tubeless with liquid latex, but this won’t seal every puncture. Once a tyre is leaking I find putting in a tube saves faffing with fiddly patches or repeated stops while the latex attempts and then usually fails to seal the hole. The CO2 obviously saves time in comparison to a tradionnal pump, and the small canisters are more convenient to carry in a jersey pocket. In addition to this I will take a multitool, with a selection of allen keys and a chain tool. This should be enough to fix most trail side disasters.

Second guessing the UK weather is never easy but it is important you pick the right clothes on race day. It might be tempting as you shiver in the carpark to slip on an extra layer. However, once the race progresses overheating might lead to dehydration and cramps. Equally decide to skimp on overshoes or gloves and you’ll soon be struggling for control as your feet or hands become numb and useless.

That only leaves the challenge of staying healthy! It isn’t easy at this time of year. Colds and bugs sweep through the office and you can guarantee that it’ll reach your department just before race day! I’ll suddenly become paranoid about every sneeze and sniff, convinced I’m going down with something.

Over the next week I am going to summarise my preparation and share my personal kit selection as race day looms!

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Something new! Rotor QX1 Chainring

When looking for a product endorsement you can’t do better than the World Champion! Christophe Sauser won his third world endurance championship earlier this year. He did so using a prototype chainring from Spanish manufacturer Rotor. Sauser has been using Rotor elliptical Q-Rings since 2008. He is well known for being quite picky about his equipment and his technical attention to detail. So if he has chosen to use a piece of kit, it won’t be because of a lucrative sponsorship deal, but because he feels it offers a genuine competitive advantage.
Christophe Sauser - World Champ!
Sausers prototype QX1 chainring
Some of you may remember that I tried a Q-Ring myself around 12 months ago, with positive results (here). The elliptical shape is meant to help minimise the dead spot in the pedal stroke, by reducing the effective gearing when your legs are at the weakest point of rotation. I wasn’t able to substantiate the claims of increased power and reduced fatigue but I did feel that my pedal stroke was smoother, providing less wheel spin and better traction in slippery, muddy conditions. It also seemed that I could stay ‘on top’ of the gears for longer before changing down.

Earlier this year I switched to a 1x10 gearing set-up. Rotor didn’t offer a suitable single chainring so I swapped to SRAM’s brilliant XX1. The huge advantage of XX1 is the alternating thick/thin teeth, which retain the chain without the need of a chain guide. It works brilliantly and I haven’t had a dropped chain yet, plus I have all the advantages of the light weight and simple 1x10 set-up. I have been monitoring the Rotor website since then and just last week I finally saw that they had released their own specific MTB single ring called the QX1.

So I now have an oval ring back on the bike, and I am looking forward to trying it out this evening at the monthly South Downs Bikes shop ride.

My QX1 fitted last night!

Sunday, 27 October 2013

South Downs 100 Sportive

Attracting thousands of riders the South Downs 100 Sportive twists and climbs around the lanes and hills of the national park. Four of us set out on a none too special day weather wise. The news had just come in of a tornado near by at Hayling Island and intermittent showers meant the roads were greasy. The wind has also brought down a lot of debris, the lanes were littered with twigs and leaves. Add acorns and conkers to the mix and it could be quite dicey on the fast descents and sharp bends. Even at road events I get muddy!

We set off from Chichester up the first climb to Goodwood. Here we soon picked up a nice group of riders and by Petworth our numbers had swelled to around 20. The wind on our backs and fresh legs meaning people were keen to take a turn at the front we raced north at over 20mph. 

The roads around Kirdford seem to be constantly undulating so it was with much relief we piled into the first feed station to pick up fig rolls, bananas and gels. After the stop the group was disbanded and we had to make our own way across to Midhurst.

The rain had also brought a lot of grit out onto the road. As we moved past slower riders we constantly had to swap the side of the road and risk the flints and stones between the car tyre tracks. We'd already seen dozens of people at the side of the road, pump in hand, fixing flats. So with eight tyres between us we knew that by the law of averages we'd eventually have to stop to repair a puncture. As we hit the bottom of the climb at Woolbeding it happened - to my relief it was Dave! He fought with several pumps until we finally got rolling, only for it to go flat again almost immediately. All those riders we had passed earlier in the day were streaming past until with the help of Jon's CO2 and my spare tube we eventually got back underway. 

We weren't too bothered by times so stopped shortly afterwards for a coffee and cake at our new favourite haunt at Milland. By now it was after lunch and I needed to get home, so at the top of Harting Hill I made a beeline back to Chichester. The others continued east to East Meon and the climb back over Butser Hill. By then I was at home with my feet up, which was lucky because this was when the hail storm struck!

My shortened route came in at 82 miles, the three boys did the full 100 plus some bonus miles by the time they got home. Despite the weather it was brilliant to share our local roads with so many other cyclists who had travelled from across the country.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Autumn Classic

If I didn’t have bad luck I’d have no luck at all!
I hadn’t intended to ride the Autumn Classic, but since my two previous races had been beset by problems I thought I’d try and get a result on the board. Ignoring the thick blanket of drizzle covering the whole of Southern England I made the hour drive to Frith Hill near Deepcut. I’ve mentioned this course in my blog before, it’s been very much a case of famine or feast for me!
Despite the rain the course was still dry and fast flowing for my practise lap. I was really enjoying the rapid singletrack and short steep climbs. I was feeling good and the bike was running well. I’d fitted a new Rocket Ron front tyre the day before, following a recent run of punctures. So it was especially frustrating to find the tyre going flat about 3.5 miles into the 4.5 mile lap. I limped back to the car just as the monsoon really set it! In torrential rain, water ran down the back of my neck and slowly filled my shoes as I wrestled to fit a new inner tube. Repaired just in time, I rolled sodden to the line for the start.

 By this time the decision had been made to shorten the course due to the inclement weather. There was already some deep standing water on the wide gravel road leading away from the start. As we raced away riders swung left and right hunting for the driest line between the puddles. Attempting to stay out of trouble I was riding along the outside edge of the path when I was elbowed wide into the undergrowth as a rider swept across in front of me! Crawling back onto course I was now at the back of the pack and pushing to get back on terms. I rounded the corner at the base of the first climb, hoping to power past a couple of riders ahead. Instead there was a very load snap, a crunch and I came to an abrupt stop.
I looked down to find my rear mech hanging from the chain. The mech hanger had broken, the cable had snapped the entire mech had travelled neatly all the way around the chainring before jamming into the frame. It was a tangled broken mass of metal, my race was over. The long trudge back to the car in the pouring rain provided plenty of time for me to consider my run of misfortune. Coupled with the 3 summer race cancellations I haven’t actually made it to the finish line without a technical problem since 7th July! (By coincidence my 4th place at Frith Hill!)

Monday, 7 October 2013

Light Bicycles - Carbon 29er Rim Review

In August I received some carbon 29er rims from Light Bicycles. Light Bicycles are based in China and provide a range of carbon rims and other cycle related products. By ordering direct from China there are significant cost savings to be had.  Light Bikes delivered a well packaged pair of rims to my door for less than £275. Including online traceable shipment and the UK import duty.


Undoubtedly there is an element of doubt when ordering direct from a faceless corporation on the other side of the world. There is not the same confidence in the product that you have when buying from a major brand.  Of course quality shouldn’t be a problem, the majority of well known global brands are manufactured in China, maybe even at the same factory! The difference is probably just a sticker on the outside and some swish packaging. There is still the issue of what to do if something does go wrong, and you have to accept that there isn’t the benefit of simple local support. So do your homework and make sure you know what you are buying. Light Bicycles have been providing wheels rims for several years; there is now a wealth of overwhelmingly positive feedback available online. In addition the company themselves make a special effort on their website to promote their customers positive experiences, with comments and photos from all over the world. Most have an individual response from Nancy, who is the consumer face of the business.
The service offered is almost bespoke, I emailed the company with my initial request and asked if they could provide off-set spoke drilling. I received a reply from Nancy next day, with details, prices and lots of options. In the end I chose the standard 32 spoke hole rims with a matt UD finish. On recommendation from my wheel builder (thanks Daz!) I had the rims built up using CX-ray spokes onto Stans 3.31 Hubs. Stans hubs offer an excellent combination of value for money, low weight and reliable performance. There is also the option to convert them to any of the current hub standards should I change frame or forks in the future. All in the wheels weighed just over 1500g, taped and valved. Good start!
It was a baptism of fire for my new hoops, at a rocky Hadley Farm national XC. I had a major accident after only 5 miles, leaving two chips in the front rim and the spokes scratched. Depressingly the wheels were already in worse condition than my previous set! I emailed Nancy and although the damage was purely my fault they offered a discount on a replacement rim. Great service! A friend suggested that I use Araldite epoxy resin to repair the damage, which was only to the tyre hook and not structural. The finished job was so good I can now hardly tell where the damage was, so I have decided not to return the rim. The positive I could draw from this bad start was that the wheel still ran perfectly straight and true despite the heavy impact.
In the past month I have now completed another race and enough miles around my local trails to form an initial impression of the wheels. These are my first carbon rims, my assessment is based on a comparison to my previous Stans Crest wheels using the same Stans hubs. Racing I’ll admit I didn’t really notice a radical difference, but this is probably because I am focused more on my own performance than worrying about the bike! Back home on familiar trails the differences became more noticeable. Tracking across dried ruts was one of the areas where the extra stiffness stood out. An aluminium wheel might get trapped in the wrong rut and then jump out. The carbon wheel just went where I pointed it, transferring smoothly across the trail. Heading down a familiar piece of Singletrack at Whiteways, I was aware that I was holding the line better through the tree roots than I could have previously.  

In summary, I decided to get new wheels because the hubs where beginning to get rough and tired on my old set. I didn’t have the budget for top of the line wheels like the Specialized Rovals. The Light Bikes rims provided a cheap entry into the world of carbon rims. The weights are on a par with aluminium so there isn’t a radical performance benefit to be had in terms of pure straight line speed. However, the carbon rims do track better through the corners and across obstacles, inspiring greater confidence as you tackle rough terrain. I can vouch for the quality of the Light Bicycles products and the customer service in my experience has been excellent.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Tour of Britain

On Saturday I spent a fun and memorable day at the Tour of Britain. Wiggins, resplendent in his gold jersey, was so close he practically ran over my toes!

Following the pleasant 1 hour ride from Petworth, we watched the race tackle the category 1 Barhatch Lane climb, north of Cranleigh. It may not compete with the Cols of the Tour de France, but it is certainly a tough test of legs and lungs. To reach our intended vantage point we had to first tackle the climb ourselves. Between the high sided banks and over hanging trees  it is quite dark and gloomy. There is no run in, the gradient just gradually increases as you drop down through the gears. Close to the top there is a false flat before the road ramps up evilly before the summit. The pro’s were over the top in around 7 minutes, I undoubtedly took a lot longer! 

We’d met at the same point 12 months previously and the crowds were certainly larger this year. It was particularly good to see so many youngsters waving their flags, hopeful for freebies thrown from the team vehicles. The first riders to receive the wild encouragement of the massing ranks were the late arrivals! Churning away, they had no excuse for not making it to the top of the climb with 100’s of people roaring them on! 

After thirty police motorbike out-riders had whizzed past (why do they need so many?), came a four man breakaway group. They passed unscathed through the throng, as people cheered and banged those deafening inflatable clappers. The noise levels reached a crescendo a few minutes later when the peleton rolled into sight. The big names like Wiggins seem unfazed, but some of the riders certainly looked startled by the size of the crowd. It's quite an experience from the roadside, so I have no idea how it must feel to actually be at the eye of the storm. As the bunch funnelled through the crowd it almost came to a halt, this gave the opportunity for one rider to impress the supporters with a wheelie! Right at the back was  Nairo Quintana, 2nd at this years Tour de France. He actually wheel spun as he powered away. I’d been struggling to even turn the pedals at the same point on the climb! 

Following the race came the convoy of team cars, with row upon row of priceless carbon superbikes adorning the roof racks. Then finally it was done and for a second the road was quiet. Slowly a 1000 amateur cyclists got back on their bikes and set off for Guildford, hoping for time to have coffee and cake before the Tour riders reappeared for the finish up the cobbled high street!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Coffee at Milland

We used to choose the destination of our Sunday ride using geographical landmarks, such as a particularly nasty hill somebody wanted to try. Maybe we’re getting older, but now the route is always based on coffee, and if I’m lucky cake! 

Milland Stores & Cafe
We also used to discuss tomorrows ride on the phone the night before, but now plans can be hatched during the week via email. During last week’s correspondence, Ian happened to mention Milland. Last winter, on a particularly unpleasant and soaking wet day, we stumbled upon the recently opened Milland village store. To our delight it was equipped with a coffee machine and cake counter! We happily spent the better part of an hour talking about a multitude of cycling related topics, while the puddles expanded under the chairs from our soggy leggings.

So for no particular reason we decided to structure this Sunday’s ride around a return visit. Milland is a small village a few miles north of the South Downs east of Petersfield. Not an obvious choice of destination for a group of thirsty cyclists setting out from Bognor. To add to the challenge the ‘Revival’ classic car event was taking place at Goodwood, so the main roads were going to be jammed with queues of frustrated petrol heads.  

With no definite route in mind we set off from our meeting spot by the Oaks pub on the A27 close to Fontwell. From here we climbed via Madehurst to Whiteways at the top of Bury Hill. Conscious of the long ride ahead we deviated from our normal descent into Amberley, instead streaming over the hill along the A29. Diving quickly left at the bottom towards Bignor we wound along the steep banked lanes past stunning country residences, through to Sutton. Here we headed north again, through to Byworth and the market town of Petworth.  

Dodging the traffic we skirted along the park walls for a mile or two towards Midhurst, before following the perimeter of the deer park north at Tillington. This road seems to climb and climb. After each ascent there is a brief chance for recovery before the road rears up again and again. Passing the beautiful pub overlooking the cricket pitch at Lurgashall we continued on to Lodsworth and finally through to Fernhurst. 

With caffeine cravings driving us on into a stiffening head wind, we quickly covered the 3 miles to Milland. Much to our collective relief the shop was open and the cafe aspect of the establishment had obviously flourished over the summer, with more seating now available both outside and in. There wasn’t a cake on the counter so instead I washed down the fig rolls and banana in my back pocket with a frothy Cappuccino. Dave was particularly happy because they even knew how to make a Macchiato! 

We sat on the decking outside and watched the dark storm clouds gathering in the west. Eventually the fear of a dousing before we got home prized us up out of the chairs and back onto the road. The horrid little climb at Redhill Copse by the MTB track was slightly unpleasant on cold legs but we were certainly warm by the top! 

Straight across the A272 at Rogate we continued south to Harting and the big climb of the day. Luckily Harting Hill has been resurfaced, so although the gradient of the road is relentless as it weaves left and right, at least all the effort you put in is rewarded by smooth forward motion. Having dropped down the opposite side we turned right to avoid the main road drag home. Instead taking the picturesque lane through East Marden and on to Stoughton, with the wooded Kingley Vale nature reserve on our left. As we passed the village pubs we started to talk about food, a sure sign that we needed to be getting home for lunch! 

Crossing Common Road we took the secluded route east from Woodmancote through West Ashling into Chichester. Twisting through the back streets of the City and finally out the other side towards Bognor via the Oving Road. 

Four hours, and 69 miles of cycling just for a coffee! It had however been a stunning ride, as well as excellent stamina training. Coffee Shop route planning would appear to be as good a method as any, with the obvious benefits of nourishment and a chance to warm up / dry off should the weather be unkind. Judging by the precarious tangles of expensive carbon fibre leaning up outside the rapidly growing number of village cafes and coffee shops, we aren’t the only ones operating this method! 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Video - XC Racing at Hadley Farm

A great video from the guys at team GT / Muc-Off. Sums up my experience at Hadley Farm last month and provides an insight into the world of XC racing.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Season Finale - Southern XC Series

Wipers on maximum speed, I peered through the windscreen into the torrential rain. Lycra clad forms huddled for shelter under car boots, the burnt brown grass the only remaining memory of the recent Indian summer. Glancing at the temperature gauge it read just 11 degrees! Three races had been cancelled during July and August and I am was still carrying the scars from the National XC at Hadley! So after months of warm and dry weather, but no racing, it was back to slippery roots and muddy faces. To be fair the sun did come out between the showers and the trails remained pretty dry under the trees despite the deluge.

I had arrived at the brand new Avon Tyrrell venue in the New Forrest. Just down the road from Crow Hill (a Southern XC regular), the course was based upon the permanent activity centre trails around the perimeter of the 65 acre estate. The maintained paths featured bridged boardwalks to avoid boggy areas. These were linked together with loamy singletrack, tightly squeezed beneath the trees. The course was fast with several short inclines towards the end of the lap.
As it was the final round, series positions were at stake. After a slow start to the season I couldn’t match last year,  but I knew who my main targets were. If I could put a rider between them and myself by the finish I was still looking at a top 15 place in the overall standings. Ignoring the usual frenetic start I kept my marked men in sight as we swept into the gloomy wood. Working my way past a few riders and up to the wheel of my main competitor I was pushing on, but feeling comfortable. Faster trails do tend to suit me better than slower twisty tracks. We then reached a fork in the trail, where the race route dived down onto a section of boardwalk, but instead of turning into the slope I mistakenly followed the rider ahead onto the ‘B’ line. Still cursing my stupidity we emerged back onto the main path and I found we had actually gained two places! Now in 10th place I passed my lucky guide and was hauling in the two riders ahead.
Towards the end of the lap the course joined a BMX tack. I wasn’t going to be clearing the 'table top' jumps or landing a 'double', instead opting for the leg and arm pumping ‘up and over’ technique. Much to the general amusement and derision of the local youth who were in attendance down the side of the track. As I turned into the final berm the steering felt odd and I began to sense I might be losing front tyre pressure. Up the next climb it was hard to tell but as we clattered over the roots down the other side the tyre was definitely squidgy and then I heard the dreaded ‘psst, psst ,psst’ as the remaining air drained away.
My frustration was surprisingly short lived. With so little racing I was determined to finish, so started the jog back to the start arena. With a little assistance from a few friends a new tube was fitted and I was back underway. Over 10 minutes behind the race, I was now dead last, but you never know what is going to happen! To my amazement I soon spied my main rival in the series up ahead. He too must have had a problem and we were reunited 10 minutes behind the field! Our race within a race ended a lap later when his fault (it looked like a drivechain issue) reoccurred and he pulled to the side of the course. I now knew that I just had to finish. Which I did! Pulling myself back up to 15th on the day and 15th overall in the Southern Series.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Olympic Legacy - Part 2

The discussion in the hotel room over breakfast was if we were heading to the race course or A&E. I had suffered an uncomfortable night propped up on one side, largely unable to move. A trial run in the car park proved I could at least get onto the bike - so Hadleigh Farm it was!

The weather was kind and the sun shone as those riders that has survived the practice sessions were corralled into their categories for the start. Riders nervously discussed different possible lines through the technical sections as we were moved to the grid. A deep breath and we were off!

The start climbed directly to the top of the hill and I found myself near the front as we hit the first rock garden. I turned into the less technical 'B' run as the rider in front plunged directly across the rocks. With a crash he was down, the 'A' route was blocked but I rode safely on. At the next steep decent a rider was already lying contorted on the rocks below, so again I followed the riders ahead down the 'Chicken Run'! 

To my surprise everyone was taking the safe option. Where I had expected to lose time, I found the majority of riders taking the slower but safer routes around the obstacles. Despite this there were many fallers. As we entered the switchback climb I looked back down the hill and there was nobody insight behind. An accident had clearly held up the rest of the field.

Climbing was extremely uncomfortable; deep breaths putting pressure on my bruised and battered ribs. Every breath caused a sharp jolt of pain. Once over the worst climb there was a long flowing decent with a couple of foot high rock steps taken at full speed. Hitting these caused me to wince and almost lose control of the bike. 

I crossed the line to complete the first lap; checking the clock we'd been racing 20 minutes. I rode up the next climb, chest heaving and then struggled again to control the bike down the other side. I began to realise I had been running on adrenaline, the pain killers were wearing off and I wasn't going to be able to keep this up for 2 hours. At the next marshall point I pulled to the side of the course and stopped.

It was a tough decision. I had been training for this event for 8 months. It had been my primary target when I had planned my race schedule long ago on a dark winters night. It was difficult to accept it was over.

Now back home I am still disappointed. My training had gone well and I had been riding strongly in the weeks leading up to the race. However, I can now consider myself lucky. 13 riders didn't even complete the first lap of my race. Some of those will have found themselves in an ambulance on the way to Basildon General. Unbelievably riding just one lap of six was enough to earn me 29th in a National XC race.

What have I learnt:
1/ The Olympic athletes of 2012  should really be admired for making such a tough course look almost tame. Although speaking to one of the organisers he did point out that many of the countries spent the entire week prior to the race training and practising. I have no doubt that with training I could ride all the sections, although admittedly probably slower!
2/ Secondly the course was too hard for a national event. When less than half the field complete the race you know something isn't right.
3/ Thirdly, I expect I've cracked a rib or two.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Olympic Legacy - Part 1

Like thousands of others my application for tickets to see the 2012 London Olympic mountain bike race was unsuccessful. However, when the venues were announced for this years British National Cross Country Series, the Olympic venue at Hadleigh Farm is Essex was the location for the final round. My entry booked way back in February; I have been eagerly looking forward to this weekend all year.

As August approached I rewatched recordings of the Olympic race. This was a chance to compare myself with the very best in the world. After the course was unveiled at the pre-olympic test event, it rapidly built a reputation for its extremely challenging technical sections and lung busting climbs. Lapping in under 15 minutes, the pros on the tele made it look easy! I couldn't wait to find out for myself. 

My family joined me for the journey up to Essex, probably keen to see what I had excitedly been bleating on about for 6 months. It is actually only the second time my wife has ever come to watch me compete, and I was very appreciative of the support. As if to emphasise the world wide appeal of this race, we shared the glamorous surroundings of the Basildon Premier Inn hotel car park with the Belgium cycling squad. Their mechanic beavering away late into the night, while the riders munched their dinner in the Beefeater restaurant!

Arriving at the course it was just as it had been on the TV. The serpentine man made slate paths chiselled into the green Essex farm land. Within a few hundred yards I learnt the fearsome reputation was also justified. The television coverage just didn't do the course justice. The first boulder strewn section had me off the bike checking for a safe line, and the second had me off the bike altogether! Riding with many familiar faces, together we stopped, assessed and then tumbled! We witnessed a broken collar bone, arm and finger on the short 4 mile lap. I tried the fastest (toughest) 'A' route at each section and although I could probably ride them, the sharp unfriendly looking rocks either side play havoc with the mind as you approach a 2 foot step.

Having practised each section several times and chosen my preferred routes through the boulders I set off for a second lap. I immediately came off leaving some expensive carbon fibre on the Essex hillside. Passing safely, if slowly, through the next section I approached, 'Oak Tree Drop'. A steep rocky drop of 10 metres. I'd cleared it the first time round and confidently launched off the top. Gaining speed on he way down I swept across the final rock. Whether it was bad luck or misjudgment, the impact split the front tyre burping out all the air. I crashed heavily to the ground.

Once some marshalls had swept me off the course I limped back to the arena where a worried Mrs Connor folded my bloodied remains into the car and back to the Premier Inn. I am now propped up in bed, in great discomfort worrying if anything is broken. Will I be able to ride tomorrow? Is this the premature end of my Olympic legacy adventure?

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

High altitude training

Clebes is a small Swiss hamlet high in the Alps above the Rhone valley near the village of Veysonnaz. My wife, 1 year old son and I stayed at the gorgeous Chalet Aramis, which offered stunning views west across to Nendaz and the mountains behind Verbier. The chalet itself sits at over 1300m and there were several roads and paths that lead straight into the mountains behind.

The Grand Raid is a famous multi day MTB stage race across Switzerland, which takes place every year. The route passed a few meters behind the house so I was able to get an impression of how tough this race would be. The climbs were long and tough, it took me around an hour to reach the top of the ski lift at Thyon. The paths were a mixture of fire roads and forest tracks which wound backwards and forwards amongst the pine trees. At the top the epic panorama stretches in all directions. It is then possible to ride along the ridge to Combire the high point of my ride at nearly 2200m.

There are several marked descents, but I followed my nose (or more precisely the local tyre tracks ) finding some stunning woodland singletrack. Back down in the valley, at the ski centre in Siviez, it is possible to return to Veysonnaz or swap to the western slopes traversing along to Nendaz. The fondue at Le Grenier is certainly worth the effort!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Carbon Revolution

I can remember the first time a rode a bike with carbon wheel rims. I had the opportunity to try Kate Potters world cup race bike, while we were on holiday in the Pyrenees with the Potters holiday company AQR. Even during the short sprint up the street it was obvious to me that compared to my bike at the time, it was like stepping from a Ford into a Ferrari. The acceleration was instant and the handling more responsive, everything about the bike was yelling that it wanted to go fast!
This experience was over 4 years ago. Since then I have switched to a Carbon S-Works frame and upgraded components to a point where I am not far off the level of Kate’s bike I rode in Luchon. The only item missing up to now has been the carbon wheels. Carbon rims were a rare sight (on a mountain bike at least) until recently. Over the past couple of years technology has advanced and prices of carbon products has dropped from stratospheric to affordably expensive! In terms of mountain bike wheels, I see the Specialized Roval SL’s as the benchmark here. A pair of Rovals as raced by Spesh’s pro riders will set you back £1200 with a weight of around 1400g. Speaking of weight, carbon wheels don’t offer a weight advantage over a quality set of aluminium race wheels. In fact they are often heavier, but the advantage of carbons lateral rigidity is a reduction in flex across the wheel. In theory this should allow the rider to pick their line more accurately, when turning in and carving through a corner. That’s the marketing hype anyway, and I have read endless reviews supporting this view!
At the weekend I received a parcel from China in the post. Inside were two matt black carbon rims from Light-Bicycles. The profile of the rims is identical to the 2013 Roval SL’s and the weight 370g. My current aluminium Crest rims hit the scales at 380g so there is a marginal gain. With my budget around half the cost of the Rovals, the rims are being built up on some Stans 3.30 hubs using CX Ray spokes. Am I going to notice the difference? Will I be riding a Ferrari next weekend? Expect a ride report soon!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Cancelled, Postponed & Frustrated

I haven’t seen a puddle let alone mud on the trails for months. The post ride bike clean requires only a duster. The weather has been perfect for cycling. Warm morning commutes along the seafront and balmy evening thrashes across Kingley Vale have become almost daily routine. As a consequence I’ve been piling on the miles and I’m definitely going well at the moment. After 4th place at Deepcut a fortnight ago I was eagerly anticipating  a sunny, summer of racing.
Then came the news that the 4th round of the Southern XC series had been cancelled after an issue with the land owners. Not to worry the following Sunday was my local race in Chichester. A chance of a podium or even an elusive win perhaps?
With a couple of friends I pre-rode the route a few days before and purchased a new Renegade semi slick tyre for a boost of speed on the baked chalk paths.
With final preparations underway I checked the event website to confirm the start time. To my huge disappointment and frustration it read; “Event Postponed.”
My next race is now a month away. The best summer in a decade is slipping by with no opportunity for me to prove that the recent training has added more than just a tan to my legs. What a waste of great weather and good form. For a few days, with no goal to train for my motivation waned. Already news of next year's bikes and components is flooding the web; it felt like the 2013 season was already over.
Of course it isn’t. There is still the small matter of the National XC at the Olympic venue in Essex. However, after that it is the autumn races before the winter enduros. It just seems ironic and such a shame that during weeks of unprecedented summer sunshine I am already planning my winter race schedule.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Fast Find Ranger PLB

Mountain biking is all about exploration, adventure and adrenalin fuelled excitement. Two wheels let you rapidly travel further than you often can on foot and experience more of the great outdoors. Rapidly developing bike technology allows riders to tackle more technical and challenging terrain, at ever increasing speeds. Unfortunately this means that when something goes wrong it is likely to hurt and you can find yourself far from home and assistance. Cyclists are used to carrying spares and tools for trailside repairs. The most important item in your pack could be the one that saves your life. Carrying a Fast Find Ranger PLB means that wherever you are in the world, you have immediate access to the global search and rescue services.

To learn more about this rugged Personal Locator Beacon follow the link.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Are You Tough Enough?

Wow, what a scorcher! The predicted heatwave struck and it even managed to coincide with the weekend. Perfect weather for a leisurely bike ride down to the coast and an ice cream on the front. Not for me! Instead I faced the ordeal of 4 hours in sweaty, dusty lycra charging flat out around a wood in Surrey, with a Sunday lunch of energy gels and Go bars!  
For the last six years the Army, with a little help from the experts at Gorrick, have organised the 'Are You Tough Enough?', MTB endurance race near the Deepcut Barracks in Surrey. For variety this year they moved the venue across the road to Frith Hill, creating a new 7 mile course with many of the traditional Gorrick twists and turns mixed up with some faster open trails.
Tropical temperatures meant that it really was a case of hydrate or die. I’d been drinking extra water for a couple of days beforehand to ensure I started in the best possible shape. I took along 8 large bottles of water to pick up each lap, along with gels to keep the fluid level high.
There was some short lived relief from the heat as we dashed away from the simmering concrete of the start arena into the dappled shade of the forest. After the wild melee of the start, there was a fast rooty descent that strung the riders out into single file. I was about 10th in line, keen not to get caught up behind slower riders but at the same time conserving energy for the long afternoon ahead.  

Dusty helmet stripes!
The Saharan trail conditions threw up clouds of dust as the pack swept around the course. When the sweat inevitably began to pour the dirt clung to riders faces and legs until we looked like a cast of Mary Poppins chimney sweeps. The sandy conditions meant bikes drifted through the corners although the tyres buzzed along nicely on the rock hard open paths.

For the first half of the race I clung on desperately trying to keep my friend Ian in sight. I closed on the climbs and then he would pull away again on the technical sections. When I finally caught him I literally crawled past unable to say a word, in my own little world of pain. The first 2 hours were all about racing, the second two were about survival. Every part of my body started to cramp, including my feet and hands. I drunk as much as I could, taking on water at the pit stops and downing bottles of water and munching bananas.
As I closed back on the arena for the 6th time, I could hear the commentator counting down the time left. Wringing a little bit extra out of the knotted muscles in my legs I crossed the line with less than a minute to spare. My reward; an extra lap and another 45 minutes of racing! Unfortunately a racer from Dyson Cycles who I had been riding with for over 3 hours came through just behind me to keep me honest! So with no chance to sit up, I fought the ever increasing cramp in my legs to slowly stretch my safety margin until I was able to relax slightly and roll to the line.
I was delighted to come home in fourth place. My best result of the year so far and a sure sign that I am better suited to the longer endurance format of racing. Next time the podium!