Thursday, 31 December 2015

My cycling year in numbers

End of year stats! Mission acomplished, my target of 8000 miles was achieved with the last ride of 2015 on New Years Eve.

  • 8004.2 miles
  • 548.9 hours 
  • 100,374 metres climbed

  • 22 miles per day
  • 1.5 hours cycling per day
S-Works Stumpjumper Race Bike - 1557.2 miles
S-Works Stumpjumper Commuter - 2599.6 miles
Trek Madone Road Bike - 3620.8 miles

Jan 653.8
Feb 609.6
Mar 622.5
Apr 518.6
May 778.6
Jun 718.5
Jul 606.9
Aug 748.7
Sept 655.2
Oct 616
Nov 727.6
Dec 748.2


Monday, 28 December 2015

Christmas Holiday

Merry Christmas!

After a couple of days of almost constant eating and drinking it was time to get out on the bike and make the most of the holiday and a rare appearance from the warm firey thing in the sky.

Alex from the South Downs Bikes store in Goring organised a trip to the North Downs. The Surrey Hills trails are prolific and far more technical than those nearer to home on the South Downs. Many are famous in UK mountain biking folk lore, such as 'Barry Knows Best' and 'Yoghurt Pots'.

It was a big social group so progress was slow, but it was great to be back out on the MTB. I've been on the road bike almost exclusively since October and had almost forgotten how much fun nailing a trail with a group of buddies can be! A Christmas treat to myself!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Final challenge of 2015

Freelance bike mechanic Bruce Berkeley is currently in Australia preparing to take on one of cycling’s oldest records. Over the 12 months of 1939 Tommy Godwin cycled an astonishing 75,065 miles. That is a mind boggling 205 miles a day – EVERY day!

In comparison my own annual goal of 8,000 miles seems fairly modest. However, if I want to spend time with my family AND hold down a 9 - 5 job, then averaging an hour and a half in the saddle each day is actually pretty challenging.

A 2 hour plus commute has formed the back bone of my annual mileage. Weekend off-road rides and races during the summer can sometimes be quite short, but training rides around the lanes in the winter ramp up the average.

Over the next year Bruce will be desperate to stay healthy and injury free. If he falls ill or has an accident it’ll be extremely hard to make up the deficit of a few days off the bike. Avoiding the accidents and hospital visits of previous years has helped me consistency rack up the miles in 2015. Only once during the year have I failed to chalk up at least 100miles from Monday to Sunday and even then, during my week away on holiday, I nipped out on a hire bike for a couple of early morning outings before the family woke up.

It was towards the end of September that I realised 8000 miles was a realistic goal. My previous best, last years 7178, was going to be easily eclipsed and I wanted a fresh target to aim for. Reaching my new objective was not going to be easy, 2100miles in 13 weeks was going to be tough. Especially with the introduction of the school run Monday to Wednesday reducing my commuting opportunities. I planned a schedule of 4 rides a week, which is the most I could reasonably hope to fit in. A 20 mile evening ride on Tuesday, two 38 mile commutes, Thursday and Friday, and a 50+ mile weekend ride.

I have stuck to this plan religiously, but heading out regardless of the gales and torrential rain, no matter how I’m feeling has been really tough. With limited opportunities to claw back any missed rides I've done well to limit my losses to around 60 miles. With exactly 2 weeks to go I am currently 402 miles short of the magic number. 

Its a personal goal and just a number, with little meaning in the grand scheme of things. My body is desperately screaming to take a week off and have some rest, but it has got to a point where I've got tunnel vision! I also feel it is now or never. My second child is on the way in February, I can’t see myself getting close to 8000 miles again for some time, possibly ever!

It is going to be a tall order, but while there is still a chance I’ll keep on cycling!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Nostalgic look back at 2015

Its December and time to settle back in front of a warm cosy fire and review the year that’s been and look forward to what 2016 will bring.
New bike in February
Back in February the year got off to an exciting start with a trip to Spain to pick up my new S-Works Stumpjumper. After my struggles trying to adjust to the Yeti ARC geometry last year, I immediately felt right at home on the Stumpy! I think I described it at the time as like pulling on your favourite slippers – it just felt instantly right!

There can be no doubt that the highlight and primary focus of the past 12 months was the National XC Championships. The technical challenge of the Hadleigh Olympic course added to the anticipation (and trepidation!) ahead of my first National Championship event. I really relished conquering my fears during two test days at the venue. Yes, I could have raced better on the day, but I didn’t take any risks and focused instead on making sure I finished. Having targeted the top 20, I was personally delighted to come away from Essex with 14th.
Deans Drop - Hadleigh
2015 was also the year I completed a life-long ambition to cycle the 100 miles of the South Downs Way. It was a great day, with good friends, that will live long in the memory. Plus, it’s a tick on the bucket list!

South Downs Way
Back on the race track there were top 10 finishes overall at the Brass Monkeys Winter series, 6th at the Summer Monkey in June and 10th at Brighton Big Dog. These marathon events suit my riding, and desire for a challenge.

It is always nice to stand on the podium, as it is something I don’t get to do very often. 3rd place at round 5 of the Southern XC Series is a sunny day I look back on extremely fondly. The fact I was racing Darren the entire race and stood on the 3rd step with friends and team mates around me, made it more special.
On the podium at the Southern XC
2015 will go down as my most enjoyable year as a cyclist. Yes, there were the races and personal challenges, but what I have really enjoyed is just getting out there and riding my bike. The dry weather allowed me to regularly commute home off-road  around Stansted House and over Kingley Vale. To demonstrate how often I did this, the road bike didn’t come out of the shed at all from April right through to September. Is there a better way to relax after a stressful day in the office than ripping deserted, dusty trails?

The best commute!
So, time to look ahead to 2016. At the moment I need glance no further than the 15th February, the date my wife is expecting our second child. I can’t wait! I’m no spring chicken and if I am honest 2015 has worn me out! I’m looking forward to taking time off with my family and not worrying about weekly mileage targets, specific events or training rides. 

2015 Stats as of 1st December
Races:          8
Top Ten:       6
Podium:        1
Wins:            0
Mileage:        7,256
Hours:           502

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Tyre Levers!

Ok it may not seem like the most exciting topic for a blog! However, tyre levers are an essential peice of kit and when you need them you are usually frustrated and in a hurry. I've spent a long time trying to find a decent set of levers and I think I've finally found my lever nirvana! 

Tubeless tyres are by necessity tight blighters to fit, but I have had some lenghty wrestling matches. My wife dreads me setting off to the shed with a new tyre in hand. 30 minutes later and after much swearing I'll return grumpy and sweaty. Some lubrication to the tyre bead usually helps, but when a puncture hits out in the wilds, only brute force will win out. I've got through dozens of levers in the past few years as a result of broken heads and bent handles, plastic projectiles frequently whistling past my ears.

I tried long levers, wide levers and every shape inbetween. In the end I shelled out £15 on some steel cored levers from Raleigh; which turned out to be extremely strong but totally rubbish at removing tyres! Caught short of leverage I picked up a copy of Cycling Plus during a supermarket trip, purely on the basis that it came with some lime green levers free on the cover.

To my amazement these freebies have proved to be the answer to all my lever woes. Strong enough to be able to apply a decent leverage and nicely shaped making them a pleasure to use. Utterly brilliant these snot coloured plastic sticks have taken some of the stress out of swapping tyres and puncture repairs.

Great you're thinking, but I can't buy last months copy of Cycling Plus. True but I happened to notice the other day an advert for Pedro's tyre levers. Visually they seem absoutely identical, so pick up a pair for £4 and take a little bit of hassle out of a cycling chore.

Monday, 16 November 2015

What! No Brass Monkeys Race Report?

For the first time since 2009 I have skipped a round of the Brass Monkeys winter series. After such a long association with an event and a reasonable level of success, it wasn't an easy decision. Here are the reasons.

1. During the previous Sunday's ride I completely hit the wall in a way I never have before on a normal Sunday social. Heart racing and dizzy I even resorted to walking up one of the climbs, much to the bewilderment and concern of my friends. I'm not sure of the reasons why, but I think I was just completely knackered. So an endurance event the next weekend didn't seem sensible.

2. The weather on Saturday was horrific with torrential rain and strong winds. The idea of sliding around in the mud for over four hours didn't seem appealing.

3. The real nail in the coffin was the change of venue to Checkendon. After the recent Southern XC race I vowed never to return. It is not a course that suits me or that I enjoy. A flat, tedious and trecherous rooty maze is how I would describe it (I know others love the old school mtb venue). Also Checkendon is a nasty 2 hour dive to the other side or Reading, the original venue in Bordon is less than an hour.

So I felt bad, but I've avoided the race reports and looking at the results (so far). In a few days I'll decide if I'm going to attend either of the remaining rounds, but for now I am quite content with social base training rides at the weekend.

No  gulping down energy gels this week! Just a quiet coffee and milkshake with friends.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Altura Vapour Jacket Review

Let me start with an apology for the recent hiatus in blogging. I've been on holiday! I had hoped to have this jacket review lined up for while I was away, but despite owning the Vapour for 5-6 weeks there had been a surprising lack of rain to test its water resistant properties. Anyway I've been greeted by more traditional British weather upon my return, so here we go!

No that isn't a pond behind me - it's the road!

The dry weather in September did however give me the chance to test some of the other properties of this jacket. Several times having watched the weather forecast I set out on my hour commute wrapped up in the Vapor, prepared for the worst. As is frequently the case the weatherman was wrong and it remained dry all the way to work. What really impressed me about the Vapour was that when I arrived at the office the inside of the jacket was as dry as the outside. The breathablity of the material is excellent, I would normally have expected to slowly steam cook in a waterproof on a mild dry day. Not so with the Vapour. The strangely rubbery material doesn't feel clammy either, even with short sleeves underneath. 

On the ride home I folded the jacket up and stuffed it comfortably into my jersey pocket.

On another dry, but cold evening I picked up the jacket and it did a superb of job of blocking out the chilly breeze. 

Other details:
  • The jacket has a useful zipped pocket on the back. It might not be as large as some, but I used it for transporting my phone, wallet and keys. A mini pump and spare tube also fit comfortably.
  • I have the black version which features some nice reflective trim.
  • The clue is in the name, the first thing everyone says when they pick up the jacket is "Wow, isn't this light!"

After a month I was loving this jacket, but still hadn't tested its most fundamental credential - its waterproofness! Well this week has seen to that! Today I splashed home for 90 minutes in torrential rain, along flooded roads. Dripping on the doorstep I took off the jacket and checked for signs of leaks. My base layer was totally dry, not even any sweaty marks despite the mild 15 degree temperature.

So in summary this is a fantastic jacket and I can highly recommend it to those looking for a lightweight, breathable waterproof. I bought mine with a considerable discount which perhaps suggests a new iteration is on the way,  but Altura got the recipe spot on with this jacket.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Race cancelled

On race day you want to roll to the start line with fresh legs and a stash of firewood ready to burn. Tapering your training during the week leading up to the event prevents fatigue kicking in before the charge to the finishing line. With the Gorrick Autumn Classic scheduled for Sunday, I skipped my usual Tuesday evening ride. I also only commuted twice, choosing routes with minimal hills, sticking to tempo spinning where possible.

When Friday night came I was feeling relaxed and rested. Out in the shed prepping the Stumpjumper, my phone buzzed. The text simply said "Gorrick cancelled". Surprised and puzzled I checked the internet for details. Due to military maneouvers the land near Deepcut, which is owned by the UK MOD, was not going to be available. In all my years of racing Gorrick events I can never remember one being cancelled and it is rare for any event to be called off at such short notice. The guys and girls at Gorrick must have already put a lot of time into preparing the course.

I went back to the house and ate something sweet and sugary followed by a bowl of cereal. It was a bit of a blowout after eating carefully all week in an attempt to minimise the weight gain since the serious races and training of July and August.

So an unexpected social Sunday ride began with a leg busting, lung burning blast up to Whiteways. Almost straight away I was relieved the race had been cancelled. As a cyclist, the moment you swing your leg over the crossbar you know if it is going to be a good or a bad day. This Sunday it just wasn't happening.

Despite conventional wisdom I have often felt I am stronger at the weekend after a tough ride on Friday. You have good or bad days on the bike and it is hard to explain why, but this week further backs up my theory that I should push it a few days before racing.
Unexpected Sunday social!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

After the summer....

There are 3 months of 2015 left and the nights are definitely drawing in. The spring and summer races are just distant memories, so what challenges remain before we sit down for Turkey and pud?

Gorrick return next week for the first of the Autumn Classic cross country races at Frith Hill. These two events are the last change for some elbows out, maximum heart rate racing. Last year I enjoyed a trip to the podium in the Open category.

When you think winter mountain biking in the southern UK, the Merida Brass Monkey series will be at the forefront of your mind. The 4 hour enduro format, raced in British winter conditions is a challenge for rider and machine. With the final round shortly after Christmas it provides the incentive to stay healthy and maintain fitness right through the dark winter months. I've prioritised the Brass Monkeys the past few years to the extent where they have almost become my specialist subject! Consistency has resulted in 5th and 7th positions overall. The reason for this end of year focus has been injuries earlier in the year which have cut short my summer racing. I am definitely feeling more fatigued this year and with results already in the bag, is the ambition to grind out one more lap quite as strong? We'll find out!

Racing in the cold, the wet and the mud! Thats something to look forward too.

There is also a personal challenge to try and complete over the next 3 months. Staying injury free has meant I am on target for my highest annual mileage. Can I stretch that out to 8000 miles for the year? It'll take 700 miles a month, which should provide the motivation to get out in the dark and the rain!

Monday, 28 September 2015

Mixing it up

Our regular Sunday social ride is a rapid thrash around the singletrack at Whiteways.  The wooded hillside north of Arundel is the local MTB mecca with its warren of criss-crossing trails. There is a carpark complete with café if you drive, but we usually ride up from home. The South Downs Way borders the upper northern edge of the wood and provides off road cycle links east and west. I love the challenge of fast flowing singletrack as much as most mountain bikers and I have spent many happy adrenalin fuelled hours sweeping around the trails with my mates. Sometimes though it is good to do something different. 

After last weeks incidents and resulting injuries it was felt we needed to tone things down and take it a little easier. The clear skies heralded a late return of Summer as five of us met at the top of the Trundle, a hill a few miles west of Whiteways with views down to the coast around Chichester. The plan was an evenly paced ‘gravel ride’ around the local area, with a stop for coffee and cake. All very civilised and grown up! 

Gravel riding is a relatively new phenomenon that has grown up in the states, where they have long open miles of dirt roads and forestry tracks to explore. It has even spawned a whole new genre of bike, with drop bars and road bike geometry, but fat tyres and disc brakes for control. Gravel riding doesn’t transfer quite so well to our densely populated little island, where roads are generally tarmac covered and countryside paths are frequently of the rooty, stoney and muddy variety. A better name in the UK would be bridleway bashing, and to me this represents a return to my mountain biking’s roots. Back in the 90’s the bridleways were all the off road cycling community had available. 

Probably worth mentioning that none of us own a gravel bike, but four mtb hardtails were joined by the young man Will on his cross bike. 

After the rutted climb up Chalkpit Lane to the top of the Trundle we headed down into the valley between Singleton and Charlton. Maintaining the northwards heading we climbed up the gravel forestry roads that were built to access to the oil well towards the top of the hill. Without a cloud in the sky the scenery opened up, and with not a building or road in sight you could for a moment have imagined we were riding through the wilderness of Wales.

Plunging down to the A286 we crossed the road and were soon climbing again, meandering through East Dean woods. This eventually brought us back up to the South Downs Way, which we followed briefly before the drop to Hooksway. The decent is fast and the morning dew had left the chalky surface slick. Navigating the gulleys cut into the chalk by the rain runoff was difficult enough on the mountain bike, but Will seemed to enjoy the challenge on the CX bike. From the pub we were climbing up, initially through the avenue of oaks and out onto the open downland to Harting. Wet grass is like riding through treacle so we were relieved to reach the summit and start the decent down to our coffee stop in Compton. 

A ludicrously large portion of cake and cappuccino were ravenously dispatched as we lazed in the warm sunshine outside the Village Store. Our visit was perfectly timed, for while we were sitting outside cyclist after cyclist rolled in until the old well outside the pub was hidden behind an eclectic selection of two wheeled steeds. Our mountain bikes were joined by aerodynamic, electronic  carbon exotica and steel tourers with panniers and mudguards. The riders all looking for a slice of cake and a chance to rest weary limbs. 

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and looped out on the bridleways towards Stansted house. This meant we avoided the worst of the hills without resorting to tarmac. The paths eventually led us to Adsdean and the foot of the climb up to Kingley Vale. I ride this route regularly after work, but the long steady gradient is quite a drag with 40 miles in the legs. The path also has lots of roots which don’t allow you to settle into a rhythm and are tough on tired bodies. Zooming down towards West Stoke we could see the green Trundle Hill where we had started out, silhouetted against the deep blue sky. But to suggest we were nearly done would be misguided. Binderton Lane that links Kingley Vale to the Trundle is a horrible little kicker. Not a proper hill but too long to attack flat out and too steep to cruise up comfortably. After finally arriving at the foot of the Trundle we approached the western edge, which is a vertical grassy field full of sheep and their doings. The group splintered immediately, Will charging ahead on the Cross bike, the rest of us spread out behind him each in our own private worlds of pain. 

We said our goodbyes in the carpark at the top and headed home. Nearly 50 miles and 4 hours of deserted bridleways and beautiful views etched into our memories and legs. No doubt next weekend we’ll return to singletrack flat out attack mode, but mixing it up keeps things fresh and interesting.   

Monday, 21 September 2015

Reflecting (but not for long) on the dangers of cycling

Falling off your bike is a part of cycling, right from that first grazed knee when learning to ride a bike as a child. I think cyclists blank this fact out of their minds, because otherwise we’d all have given up years ago! In just the last two years I have had two bad accidents which have resulted in a trip to A&E. I’d had quite a good run before that, but there was still that incident when I head butted a tree and the day I rode into the back of a parked car. So law of averages say that I’m going end up back in hospital again at some point in the future. Somehow these thoughts don’t cross your mind as you hurl yourself, pedal to the metal, down a steep singletrack decent. You are living in that adrenalin fuelled moment, focused on the enjoyment and competitive instinct of keeping up with those around you.
Luckily the majority of accidents don’t result in a trip to the hospital. In actual fact I fall off pretty regularly if I stop to think about it. Last week I came a cropper on a log crossing, bruising my leg. This Sunday a group of us swept into a wooded decent and I caught a handlebar on a tree. The bike stopped instantly, the bar rotating and swinging me up into the air and over the front of the bike. We were going pretty fast at the time, but luckily I landed in the middle of the path unscathed. A few miles later a tree leapt out and struck Dave on his shoulder and we all (Dave included) thought he had busted his collar bone - but he hasn't. Both incidents could easily have been much more serious. It is all down to chance, I know somebody who had a life changing fall just spinning round in the car park before a ride waiting for his mates to get ready.
Roadies tend to tangle with each other, as demonstrated by my 30mph face plant last year. Mountain bikers usually run out of talent and end up in the scenery. Whatever the result you can guarantee the first priority of any rider once they have brushed themselves down and the wounds have healed is; “When can I get back on the bike”. It must be addictive!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Top 5 - Good and the Bad

In no particular order I thought I would just highlight some of the best things about cycling in 2015 along with the not so positive. Feel free to disagree or nod sagely in agreement!

1. Oval Chainrings - improved traction, smoother pedaling, faster.
2. Gillets - Block out the early morning chill, but once you're up to temperature can be quickly stuffed in a jersey pocket.
3. Summer 2015 - Ok so August was a bit disapointing, but on the whole the local trails have been drier this year than I can remember. Since April the road bike has been put out to pasture while I commuted on dusty bridleways.
4. 1x Drivechain - Reduced weight and no chain suck. Yes, there are a few less gears but you quickly learn to cope. 1x11 is the ultimate but 1x10 works so well I've even converted my road bike.
5. Coffee - The first consideration when planning the Sunday social is always the coffee stop. If cake is envolved then it has to be Compton.

1. Strava - If it isn't on Strava it didn't happen. As soon as I step through the door why do I feel the urge to fire up the laptop, plug in the Garmin and tell the world all about my most recent ride - even if it is just a trip to the shop. Does anybody out there care how many KOM's I have apart from me?
2. Punctures - Not sure what to blame but I seem to be averaging a flat almost every ride. Is it the Fastrak tyres (5 binned this summer) or have they changed the blend of Stans latex?
3. Money - Just as I think I've got everything sorted something else goes 'plink' or 'clonk'. Cycling can be a money pit, just ask my wife.
4. Disc Brakes - As much as I loved the performance, my old Formula brakes drove me to distraction with constant disc rub. Upgrading to XTR was meant to be an end to my woes. 7 months later and I have just about got the set-up tuned, but I still seem to be fiddling with disc allignment every ride.
5. Bees - Two days off work with a face like a prize boxer. Enough said.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Phenom S-Works Saddle 2015

The latest bit of bling for my XC race bike is this red Specialized Phenom saddle.
Two things strike you as soon as you remove it from the packaging. First is the shiny slippery feel, and second the very short length. Both of these features are intended to help the rider move their body weight around to control the bike over technical terrain.
Once fitted the most obvious feature compared to the Romin saddle I have been using on all my bikes for the past 3 years is the noticeable flat profile. The Romin kicks up significantly at the rear, a shape which I have liked as it provides support when putting down the power. The one issue I have found is how the ski jump rear edge catches on shorts when you try a shift your weight backwards behind the saddle.
I fitted the Phenom before the final round of the Southern XC at Checkendon. This is the flattest of courses so there was no chance to test the advantages of this saddle in challenging circumstances. However, the fact that the saddle didn't once cross my mind indicates that like the Romin before it, the shape is perfectly suited to me. 
Padding is negligible, the carbon body and rails providing a very firm support. Perfect for transferring power to the pedals, and the feathery weight means it takes even less effort to get up to speed and over the next hill.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

x1 Drivechains – Death of the front mech

Single chainrings are pretty much becoming the accepted norm on mountain bikes. In fact when I see a double or triple crankset on a bike it looks a bit weird. Just as 26inch wheels now look about as old fashioned as a penny farthing.
10x1 set-up on my road bike!
However, swapping the road bike over to a x1 drivechain is still a bit of a departure from the norm. The advantages are still the same; lower weight and less things to go wrong, which is especially relevant on a winter commuting bike. My journey to work is essentially flat, limiting the impact of the reduced gear range, although hilly Sunday group rides might prove more of a challenge. Loss of gear range was the same worry when I moved to a 1x10 drivechain on the mountain bike, but I quickly adapted and have never yet resorted to walking! Of course on the road there is also the added risk that having struggled over the climb, that you might spin out while chasing your friends back down the other side! Luckily I don't live in the alps, the longest climbs and descents on the South Downs are just a handful of minutes.

Rotor QX1 42t ring
All three of my bikes now use oval rings, as I am totally sold on the advantages of the smooth spinning style it creates. So I have fitted a 42 tooth Rotor oval chainring, which is designed for cyclocross, and fits a standard compact 110BCD crank. The chainring uses Rotors alternating fat / thin tooth design to retain the chain without need for a chainguide. I’ve been running a single ring with no chain retention device on my MTB for several years without a single dropped chain. Even without a clutch rear mech and with a very worn chain I haven’t had problems on the second bike either, so I’m confident that supposedly smooth tarmac won’t present any issues.

XT 11-32 10 speed cassette
The rear cassette is a 10 speed Shimano XT 11-32. This gives a broad range of gears while only just creeping outside of the quoted 30 tooth maximum specification of my 105 rear mech. Feedback on internet forums suggested it would be ok and it shifted fine across the range on my first commute. The steps between gears are more noticeable on the road, so it will be interesting to see how the wide range cassette rides when pushing hard. An even broader range of gears could be achieved in the future with a new mech and 11-34 or 11-36 cassette, if I find the need for more gears going uphill.

The first few rides have gone well. I've purposely sought out some of the toughest climbs in the area to check out the bottom gear. It's going to make a few climbs harder but I’ll report back in a few months and let you know how the experiment works out.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Southern XC - Checkendon

Inspired by my podium finish at the previous round I jostled my way onto the front row at the final race of the Southern series. The only worry to taint my optimism was the risk of burnout after the 170 miles and 10 hours I'd ridden during the week, including long rides Thursday and Friday. Nevertheless there was still plenty of fire in the legs at the starters whistle and I got away at the front of the pack, leading around the grassy start loop. 

One rider pushed inside as I turned into the woods. Under the trees a voyage of discovery awaited. The course had still been dry during my reconnaissance lap, we now had to explore the limited levels of grip at every corner and over every glossy root as the rain poured down. A maze of tape zig zagged back and forth, endless 90 degree corners and hairpins. My technical skills in the tricky conditions were found wanting and two more riders slithered past. The second slipped off his bike forcing me to dismount and allowing a chasing group to catch us while the leaders made their escape. 

I was disappointed and frustrated, confidence low I fell into the group for the remainder of the lap crossing the line in 8th. Back in the open I sprinted around the grassy field section, taking back a place and pulling a respectable gap on those behind. Back in the woodland one rider slowly clawed his way back to my wheel. Slipping side to side and applying power whenever I could I kept him behind me.

What I really needed was a hill to make my strength count, but the Checkendon course is as flat as the perverbial pancake. The sections of boggy grass were my only opportunities to get the hammer down. I could see three riders ahead and tried desperately to close the gap, my confidence in the corners slowly building. 

Last lap; I built a few seconds lead on the rider behind and closed on the nearest man ahead. As we hit the final stretch of grass he was 50 yards ahead. I closed and closed, but the next turn into the singletrack was now just ahead. This was my last chance and I dived up the inside, forcing him wide. He stuck tightly to me for the remaining half a mile until we reached the finishing straight where I had enough left to keep him behind in the sprint for the line.

I was disappointed with 6th, after my high hopes at the start. However, the timesheets show I was only 16 seconds off 4th and 2 minutes behind the winner. With better weather conditions to mask my technical inadequacies and even a small amount of challenging altitude gain I have no doubt I'd have been able to stay at the sharp end.

Anyway this is the final race of the summer. Time at last to relax and return to enjoyable social riding at the weekend.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Brighton Big Dog

I have seldom felt so under prepared for a race.

The Brighton Big Dog is a massive event, with trade stands, DJ's and an impressive entry list. The aim is to complete as many laps of the 5.5 mile course as you can in 6 hours. The race started at noon on Saturday which is one of the reasons for my lack of preparation.

I had ridden more than I should during the week leading up to the event so my legs weren't fresh. Friday evening after work I really hadn't felt like prepping the bike so it had all come down to a bit of a race morning panic, getting everything together and packing the car. Brighton had been in the news on Thursday due to torrential rain and floods. This was followed by more rain on Friday, so semi slick tyres wouldn't have been my first choice, but there wasn't time now to switch.

Luckily summer returned for race day and the sun shone as the huge field of riders gathered for the start in Stanmer Park. From the gun we were straight into a long sapping climb up into the woods. Here the damp trails and trecherous slick roots made life challenging as we wove our way around the lap. The hills just kept coming, the last was a particular grind coming just a mile from the end when you didn't think anymore climbing possible!

I tried hard to not to push myself into the red early on, but still keep pace with those around me. In such a huge field or riders it was impossible to know what position I was in. Quite amazingly I stayed within sight of Paul Floodgate for the entire race. He had a slight edge on the climbs, but I was able to pull back the time lost on the descents, which were drying by lap 2 and grip levels were increasing steadily all day.  

The toughest moment of the day, came as I was riding out of the arena and the comentator annouced the 3 hour half way mark. I'd just completed my 5th lap and the realisaiton that there were at least 4 more to go was tough mentally to deal with. The idea of stepping off the bike and putting an end to the suffering kept flooding into my mind. My legs began to feel like somebody elses and I had to keep eating banana's and gulping water to ward off the first warning signs of cramp. Fatigue also lead to a couple of silly errors and a clunk on the head from a low branch was the final wake-up call that forced me to concentrate and refocus.

Getting to the end of that 6th lap really helped, the end seemed in sight and I could now count down the hills remaining. Paul had snuck ahead of me and although I pulled him back on the final lap he pipped me to the line by 30 seconds. The rider behind was only a minute back, amazingly close after 50 miles of arduous racing.  

I had been riding for 5 hours 40 minutes, with 2500m of vertical ascent! This was without doubt one of my toughest days in the saddle. I was totally stoked to finish 10th in such a strong field of riders, on a challenging course. The Stumpjumper worked flawlessly all day, which on the back of the South Downs Way is 150 miles and 15 hours of trouble free cycling with zero maintainance.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Summer break

After the stress of the national champs and the challenge of the South Downs Way it has been quite a busy few weeks. Next Saturday I will be travelling east along the coast to the  Brighton Big Dog, so this weekend was a rare chance to relax, enjoy the summer sunshine and do my own thing.

A simple 25 mile route over the Trundle at Goodwood and then west to the tumuli at Kingley Vale. Less than a quarter of the previous weekends distance, taken at a leasurely pace on the rigid forked Stumpy. A back to basics ride, an opportunity to enjoy the best of the South Downs early in the morning before the world was fully awake and the mist still hung to the hillsides.

Monday, 3 August 2015

The South Downs Way in a day

On Saturday I set out to complete a cycling ambition. To ride the South Downs Way. As a teenager living in Midhurst I spent my formative cycling years on expeditions heading out east and west along the national trail. At some time or another I'd ridden everything east of QE Park. This however was my first attempt to complete the whole nine yards. Well 100 miles to be precise. 

Three of us caught the first train to Winchester,  which after the usual public transport delays got us in at around 9 o'clock. After a brief tour of town we found the King Alfred statue and then the trail head itself. 

The first 25 miles to QE park were new ground, and not as boring or as flat as I had been led to believe. We rode these first few hours at an easy steady pace, a strategy which paid dividends later. The first proper tests of Winchester and Butser Hill came just before we rolled into QE Park and headed to the Café for elevenses. 

After the break we were into familiar territory. Hills I have ridden for over 20 years. Dave unfortunately had to leave us at Bignor where we stopped for a brief packed lunch.

The weather was absolutely perfect. Clear blue skies,  stunning views of the coast to the south and visibility all the way to the North Downs on our left. A slight but appreciated westerly wind supplying a subtle helping hand. 

After Bignor Ian and I rode on together, taking it in turns to open the increasing number of gates. In fact if I had to summarise my overriding memories of the second half of ride it would be "Gates and cow pats"

The miles seem to drag by now,  but at least we were counting down. I kept glancing at the Garmin, it seemed to take an age to get from 60 to 70 miles but we finally crawled up to the pub at Devils Dyke. 3 hours of riding still lay ahead so we decided to stop for an early dinner before the final push.

The burger and chips was quickly demolished, but wreaked havoc upon my body. Back on the bike instead of re-energised my heart was racing and I really struggled. In hindsight the hearty food was a bad idea as my stomach churned uncomfortably. The next 2 hours were a real struggle.  I did what I could to maintain pace with Ian and just keep rolling forward.  Our average speed slowly dropping  below 11mph.

In the heat I'd been keeping well hydrated and fed earlier in the day, but anything destined for my stomach now caused cramps. So two sips of water was all I had the rest of the way to Eastbourne.

An uncomfortable comfort break at a YHA hostel solved some of my issues and with what little strength was left in my legs renewed we reached Alfriston. I must have ridden it before and erased the hill from my memory banks because the climb out of the village was like Chinese water torture. It was as if it would never end  and with 90 miles in the legs it was nothing short of serious challenge. So close to the end there didn't seem enough miles remaining for another climb but following the drop down to Jevington  that is exactly what faced us. This close to home I risked a gel and burnt what feeble bridges remained. 

The view over Eastbourne has never been so appreciated. The lights were just coming on,  shining in the dusk as the glowing red sun set behind us.

100 miles,  3500 metres vertical ascent and 9 hours 45 minutes in the saddle. An awesome days riding,  a tick on the bucket list and the relief of knowing I don't have to do it again!

Ian and myself having lunch at Bignor

Monday, 20 July 2015

2015 British National XC Championship - Hadleigh

The goal: A top 20 finish at the British National XC Championships. It sounded good but I hadn’t told a soul; only whispering it to myself as I lay in bed at night picturing the Hadleigh course in my mind. To be honest I had spent many restless hours during the months leading up to the race, in the dark after the lights had gone out, riding the course over and over in my head. The 2012 Olympic venue is an intimidating course. The technical sections really push the boundaries of my abilities on a bike. What played on my mind was the risk of failure should any section go wrong. The rocks don’t leave a margin for error and any mistake is going to prove costly and painful. The last time I raced at Hadleigh in 2013, I only completed one lap after breaking two ribs during practice on the Saturday.

Twice since April I have driven up to Essex to practice and ride the course. This had repaired some of the mental wounds and built confidence that I could get round the lap vaguely competitively using a mixture of the tough A-lines through the obstacles and easier, but critically much slower, B-lines. What kept me awake at night was the challenge of which A-lines to take on. Where was the time gain worth the risk?

Saturday the 18th July I set off with the family on the 2 hour drive to Hadleigh near Basildon. On arrival it wasn’t quite the warzone of walking wounded that it had been two years ago; many of the sections have been simplified as part of the Olympic legacy renovation. However just to get the nerves jangling, there were still plenty of bandages and blood on display during the short ride from the car park. The dry weather had left the trails loose and sketchy even between the technical obstacles. Amongst the rocks themselves a fine layer of dust on the stony surfaces reduced grip and increased the anxiety levels! I rode two laps, the first just a sighter to rebuild the confidence to tackle the lines from my previous visits.  On the second I swallowed hard and tackled every A-line, repeating each until I had conquered it three times. More than once I rolled up to the start of a section and bottled it! After a long inner conversation with myself I finally rolled forward again, pushing the front wheel over the lip and beyond that point of no return. It wasn’t quite the exciting adrenalin buzz it had been during the earlier reconnaisance visits, this time I knew any crash or injury would effect my performance on race day.

That night in my Premier Inn room, as my family slept, I replayed the lines over and over in my head. Adding to my worry was the weather forecast. Rain was predicted for the hours before the race, and the idea of slippery wet rocks was the stuff of nightmares. A flurry of nervous texts and emails from fellow racers didn’t help me nod off any quicker! I woke to the sound of rain. In some ways a wet race was ok, I could just commit to the B-lines, but the forecast for drying conditions would mean a horrible situation with unpredicatable levels of grip. Luckily on this occasion Mother Nature helped out, the warm summer sun was shining brightly by the time I left the hotel and when we arrived the course was bone dry.

By this point I was a bag of nerves, a combination of worry about the challenging course and apprehension ahead my first National Champs. I hadn't been this nervous since my GCSE German oral test! As I joined the riders circling, waiting to be called to the grid I had to repeatedly tell myself to enjoy the day and take in the experience. I was gridded last of the 29 riders, Chris Dobson a non-starter after requiring stitches to a knee wound sustained during practice the day before.

The whistle went, this was it, months of practice and training, sleepless nights and evenings of bike tinkering were about to put to the test. My wife was waiting at the top of the first climb of the opening loop and vanity meant my first goal was to not be last when we swept past. What happened after that, out of sight didn’t matter! Around the outside of the first bend I got past 2 or 3 riders, but was blocked in and sank back as the course curved up and left, the others taking advantage of the tighter line. There was a touch of wheels ahead and a rider went down in the middle of the pack, we swarmed round the sprawling figure and onward up the hill. I switched sides into the next steeper section and passed one, two, three riders. I then slipped inside several more on the bend at the top before entering the barriers holding back the crowd on the finishing straight. I heard my wife cheer my name as we swept over the crest and out onto the lap proper. I was buzzing, this was going well!

Then I forgot how to ride! I was so preoccupied with getting through the difficult sections upright that I forgot how to ride the rest of the course inbetween! I think a potent combination of excitement, adrenalin and nerves wreaked havoc with my head and the legs just went into auto pilot for the first 2 laps! I had no idea what position I was in or who was around me. Eventually I focused, realising I was behind a rider who I should be able to beat. I remembered to accelerate out of the corners, to try and pinch the tightest line whenever possible, all the things that normally happen subconsciously when racing.

I started moving forward and lap times improved. I dropped a rider who had been following me from the start and passed the rider ahead and then caught another. I began to enjoy myself, I heard my wife and son cheer me on as I passed through the pit area and felt inspired to push on. The next 3 laps flew by, I didn’t feel tired I just rode as hard as I could and before I knew it I was on the last lap. Looking behind there was nobody insight and initially nobody ahead either, but then on the switchbacks I just caught a glimpse of a rider at the top of the hill. I pushed hard on the next two climbs, but admit that I took it slightly easy on the decents, for as much as I wanted to catch the guy ahead I really wanted to finish.

On the last climb I put in an effort and caught the man ahead at the turn to the finishing line. In hindsight I probably showed my wheel too early. Alerted to my presence he sprinted for the line and after the effort of bridging the gap I was toast!

Crossing the line I still didn't know where I had finished. I guessed mid to low 20's. I scrolled down the result sheet in the registration tent and found my name. I giddily called to my wife, "I was 17th!" My secret goal had been achieved - 17th overall in the Masters category and 14th in my age group 35-39.

Friday, 17 July 2015

My S-works Stumpjumper HT 2015

All prepped and ready for the National Champs on Sunday.

XTR 11sp mech with 10-42t XX1 cassette

Race Face Next SL crank with Absolute Black 32t oval chainring and Eggbeater 3 pedals.

I-Spec XTR shifters keep the cockpit tidy 
Carbon-Ti axle. 90mm SID brain fork. Light Bicycles wheels.

Faithful Romin Saddle

Slammed 90mm Ritchey stem.

Monday, 13 July 2015

National Champs Start List

So the start list for the nationals was published today. I'm gridded last of the 29 starters, which isn't surprising since I haven't entered any British Cycling affiliated races this year to earn ranking points.

I'm racing in a field of 23 Expert riders and 5 Sport riders. Despite a few familiar names, I have no recent race experiences to gauge how I compare against the opposition. We'll find out on Sunday!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Prepping for Nationals

The British National Champs are next Sunday so this weekend was all about prepping the bike and making sure I'm all set for the journey to Essex. 

I stripped and cleaned the bike in the sunshine on Saturday and set off for a systems check on Sunday morning. Unfortunately persistent drizzle set in an hour from home, so a lot of the previous days good work was undone!

The ride was also distrupted by a cut tyre. That meant six flats in five rides this week, a pretty scary statistic with the most important race of the year looming. Hopefully that is all the bad luck out of the way. Talking of tyres the only remaining change for next week is to swap out the Fastrak Control and Rocket Ron for lighter and faster rolling S-Works Fastrak and Maxxis Ikon.

A quick clean, change of tyres and she'll be all set for next week.

Training has been going well in over the past few months. I have focused on endurance this year rather than the speed needed for XC racing, but 3rd in my final race boosted confidence and I feel I am in great form. I put this down to the dry weather which has helped me squeeze in off-road commutes several times a week, which are easier to fit in around family commitments. However, the last couple of weekend rides have been a bit shortened by a poorly child at home, which has also meant sleepless nights. Tiredness really dents my ability to recover and as this week went on I just got slower and slower. All I can do now is take it easy for the next few days and keep my powder dry for next Sunday!

Won't be long before he is leaving the old man behind.
Once he was recovered my son did provide one of the most rewarding days as a Dad. Watching my 3 year old hitting the trails and paths up at Goodwood on his balance bike! 

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Podium at Porridgepot!

Since I hadn't ridden an Olympic distance short course XC race since October, I decided it would be sensible to test my race legs before the National Championships in 4 weeks time. My focus this year has been on the longer marathon format of mountain biking. Unfortunately the lack of racing meant I wasn't gridded and started the Southern XC race at Porridgepot from the fourth row, in the middle of a strong field of 50 riders. 

Peering over the sea of heads infront it was clear I'd need to make headway quickly off the start to make sure I didn't get baulked down in the mid field while the front of the race sped away. So a mad sprint was required to the first corner. I got slightly boxed in but made progress, and cutting inside a few riders at the next couple of bends probably got me close to the top 10. 

At the base of the first climb I looked up, the leaders were already at the top! I dug deep and sprinted with everything I had, weaving left and right, lungs gulping in burning air and legs bursting to exploding point! Hanging onto the wheel infront and trying to recover, we flowed down through the long twisting decent to the base of the next climb where I did the same again. Digging deep, rear trye kicking up stones as it scrabbled for traction. However, my efforts had been rewarded and I was now 5th. 

The course was fast and flowing, with challenging stoney decents and rooty sections to catch you off guard. I dodged into 4th before the end of the lap and entered the arena tight on the wheel of the 3rd placed rider. He made my life easy, his front wheel washing out on the first corner of the second lap allowing me to squeeze round the outside. 
The start! Darren just behind - luckily it stayed that way!

As I pushed on trying to consolidate a bit after my first lap efforts, the squeel or brakes and crunching of gears told me several riders were still in close pursuit. Coiming back into the arena a second time the announcer said "Ben Connor 3rd Open male" and with hardly a pause for breath " Darren Rawlings is in 4th".

I cursed, my grasp on 3rd was only a slender one and my nearest competitor was my mate Darren! Not only was a podium finish at stake, but also bragging rights at next Sundays coffee stop!

Knowing Darren, I was aware he would be murdering me through the technical sections, so I had to make the most of the climbs early in the lap. As I had at the start I charged with everything I had up the first two slopes and about half way round the lap I did my one and only over the shoulder check. Darren wasn't in sight, I had a 20 second gap at least. 

Perhaps I relaxed, or Darren pushed on, but before I knew it there was a rider right back on my rear wheel and it had to be Darren! I pushed again stretching the elastic, opening the smallest of margins before the last significant climb. Up ahead I could see a slower rider. Trouble was it was a narrow path with no room for two abreast. I had no choice but to ride up to him and just sit patiently behind, swearing repeatedly under my breath! Before the top I risked the bracken, jinking off the path to get past at the soonest opportunity. This gave me the briefest of breaks before Darren could squeeze past. It was enough to see me home.

I had genuinely forgotten how tough XC racing is. It is full on from the gun to the line! Over an hour on the absolute limit, both technically and physically. But Wow! What a buzz!!