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!!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Hadleigh Farm MTB Course- Building confidence and having fun!

As a fathers day treat Ian and myself met up with Beyond / Pro Twins team riders Matt and Rob at Hadleigh Farm MTB course in Essex. This was my second visit in two months, and another chance to build confidence on the course ahead of this years National Championships.

It is a two hour drive from Chichester, but we left early and arrived at a deserted car park by 9am. (By the way don’t follow the post code on the website as you’ll end up at the actual farm and not the MTB course! ) We were quickly on our bikes and after a few laps of the skills course we hit the track proper. Racers are used to choosing between ‘A’ and ‘B’ lines at events. ‘A’ lines will offer the fastest route, but will be more technically challenging. Haleigh has number of key technical zones linked by buff all weather paths.  The technical sections features ‘A’, ‘B’ and sometimes ‘C’ lines which are graded Black, Red and Blue respectively. The purpose of our visit was to try and nail more of the ‘A’ lines and build confidence through the technical sections.

After the initial switchback climb the first rocky obstacle is “Triple Trouble”. As the name suggests there are three route options around this rocky outcrop. A high drop onto a  stone ramp, a rocky off camber chute, or a fast gravel slope that skips the main obstacle completely. The gravel slope is the fastest, but we all suspect that this will be closed off or modified on race day to stop people taking advantage and missing the rocks. The middle route looks very tricky and the drop needs huge levels of confidence and commitment.

A few hundred yards after this is the turn into “Dean’s Drop”, one of the toughest obstacles on the course. I suspect visitors to Hadleigh spend more time here, loitering at the top summoning up inner courage, than anywhere else on course. There is always a gaggle of apprehensive riders or spectators  huddled in deep discussion. The rocks are intimidating, if it was an open trail it would be much easier, but the narrow boulder lined gulley requires accuracy and any error is going to be painful. However, if it can be mastered there is a lot to be gained. The ‘B’ line is a fun series of switchbacks but adds over 10 seconds to your lap, which during a 5 lap race would mean the best part of a minute lost to your competitors. Matt sailed down first time and after multiple trial runs both Ian and Rob cleaned this section too, leaving me to play catch-up every time we rode through this section.

Dean's Drop

After “Dean’s Drop” is a quick climb and then a fast sweeping decent (with a gap jump if you think the 1 second gain is worth the risk!) into a fun parallel singletrack section where you can race side by side. A switchback climb then takes you back to the top of the next crest with great views across the estuary and towards London. From here “Oak Tree Drop”, my rib breaking nemesis from 2 years ago, funnels you back down again. The ‘B’ line around the drop is actually faster so again we expect some modification on race day.
After a shorter climb I think the next rocky rooty drop is called “The Leap of Faith”. This is another I haven’t yet mastered but is on my hit list – the rooty stepped drop on rock looks ride-able (well the others all rode it!), but the B-line costs very little time and I think sets you up better for the next climb to the top of the rock garden.
When I raced here 2 years ago I spent 30 minutes watching Matt and many others try and clean the rock garden section. It is just a slope littered with boulders and rocks, all poking out of the ground, through which you have to pick your own way. The most direct route has some of the biggest boulders and largest steps so speed through here all depends on your confidence. It has been modified and the addition of more rocks has actually made it easier. This time Matt just rode straight down and was quickly back at the top looking for a faster line. Cleaning this section was my main achievement of the day, and although it wasn’t fast I successfully picked my way through 4 or 5 times before we moved on.
The biggest climb comes next, it used to be a grassy horror straight to the top called the “Breath Taker”, but is now a sinewy surfaced path that winds its way up to where the course loops back underneath itself through a tunnel before charging down a fast flowing, stone stepped decent.
The tricky climb up from the Olympic pit area requires riders to negotiate roots around the rabbit hole under the trees and then has two man made boulder steps to lift the front wheel over just as your energies are flagging. From the top you can see the finish, but not before a long stone surfaced drop back down into the valley. I didn’t have the confidence back in April during our last visit to plunge down here and I had developed a complete mental block! This was the section I had worried about laying in bed the night before! Every time I rode towards the lip I turned away. Eventually Ian and Rob shot straight down, but Matt waited with me and said he wasn’t going to go until I had ridden it! After one more aborted start, a great deal of inner soul searching and even some shouting at myself I rolled towards the edge again. This time the front wheel reached the point of no return. There isn’t really any skill involved  it is just a case of pointing the bike downwards and hanging on!

Final Drop

Back at the start and with each section now reviewed we rode round once again to confirm our line choices, before completing two brisk laps closer to race pace and a final warm down circuit to end the day. The Hadleigh course is one that really challenges you, both physically and mentally. Getting round is so rewarding and the sections flow nicely into one another meaning it is also great fun to ride at speed. After a couple of hours we sat in the cafĂ© to review our days achievements. Each smug in the knowledge that we’d conquered sections we hadn’t ridden previously, but at the same time knowing there were still areas for improvement, or faster lines to be explored. That to me is what riding at Haleigh is all about – exploring your limits. The reward is a huge sense of achievement having pushed yourself beyond your normal comfort zone. I also know that in July that the confidence gained during my last two visits will definitely result in faster lap times.
A well earned coffee!

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Merida Summer Monkey

After racing for 6 hours 41 minutes, completing 10 circuits of Frith Hill, I could probably ride the lap blindfold. Not that I could even consider contorting my aching limbs back onto a bike for at least a day or two! 

The course was an absolute belter, 6 miles of constantly twisting and turning woodland trails. There was no restbite and it was extremely challenging to find anywhere to take on a drink or a gel. 

Off the start I tried to go with the front group, but became detached when the rider ahead of me went over the bars, blocking the path! Leading the chasing pack I took a wrong turn at the end of a fast decent, costing myself (and those silly enough to follow) 20-30 seconds. I crossed the line after 38 minutes in 8th place. Only 6 hours to go! 

Apart from passing the backmarkers from the 2 hour race I spent much of the race riding alone. I crept up and slipped past 7th place at the end of lap 4 and moved into 6th on lap 7. The 4 hour leaders caught me later in the day, but despite my lap times dropping to 40minutes I started repassing them as the sun came out towards the finish.

I pushed hard to complete my 9th lap before the 6 hour cut-off, and then cruised round the final circuit knowing there was nobody chasing from behind, in the hope that I might gain a position.

It was nice to be racing again after a month off, and catch up with all the regulars. 60 miles of fun off-road riding and a top 10 result is always nice too!

Friday, 5 June 2015

Specialized Epic Elite Carbon World Cup Review

It is over 4 years since I last rode a full susser, back in the days when 29in wheels were the sole reserve of the roadie crowd. So I leapt at the chance to try a modern 29er full suspension bike. Specialized brought along some demo bikes to this months South Downs Bikes shop ride and although the focus of the event was the new 2016 Stumpjumper FSR, I unhooked an Epic Elite Carbon World Cup from the rack. The Epic World Cup is actually a far more appropriate bike for the style of riding I do, aimed squarely at the XC and marathon racer.   

It was a bit of a rushed set-up with 65 waiting riders itching to hit the trails, so there was no time to tune the shock or fork pressures. As it turned out they were pretty much in the sweet spot! Heading up Chantry Lane to the top of the Downs no amount of out of the saddle, exaggerated pedal input produced any bob from the rear end. However, as soon as we crested the ridge and rolled onto the chalky bridleways the shock immediately opened up. The Specialized ‘Brain’ threshold  lock out was super smooth with no noticeable notch in the movement at all as it disengaged, allowing the rear wheel suspension to open up. There was only one big hit during the entire ride where I actually felt the brain disengage, the rest of the time it was like a magic carpet smoothing out the trail when needed, but locked out when it wasn’t. I was extremely impressed with the efficiency of the suspension system. There was one rocky section where I especially noticed the benefit of the plush ride and extra traction. The single track was almost cobbled with round fist sized flints, sitting proud of the trail. It would have been an absolute bone rattling ride on the hard tail, requiring the rider to get up out of the saddle and freewheel. The Epic not only allowed me to remain seated but also stay on the gas too, the rear wheel sticking to the trail instead of bouncing over the rocks.

Like my own bike, the Epic’s Rock Shox SID fork was also fitted with a Brain. The evening really opened my eyes to the correct set-up of this fork. I run mine quite firm, but the Epic’s fork was buttery smooth, eating every tiny ripple and bump. Yet somehow it remained rock solid on tarmac sprints, which is a glorious combination I’ll admit I’ve never achieved with my own bike.

The rest of the bike worked flawlessly, the Magura MTS brakes further highlighting my continued struggles with my XTR M9000’s, by demonstrating great modulation and good power when needed. The 1x10 SRAM drivechain worked without a glitch all night, even though I personally don’t’ like the location of the ‘push’ only downshift of the SRAM trigger shifter. It is amazing how quickly I have got used to the 42t bailout gear of my 11 speed XX1 cassette, initially I felt short changed with only 36t out back,  but as I have done for the previous 2 years I coped fine despite our ride tackling some seriously steep ascents.

In recent years I have been spoilt by sub 19lbs hard tail race bikes making life easier when scooting up an incline. The extra mass of the Epic was definitely noticeable. This is something that could certainly be helped with some carbon wheels and selective component upgrades. The Elite also had an aluminium swing arm out back, which adds mass compared to the carbon seat and chain stays of the bikes higher up the Epic range.

Handling wise, just under 2 hours is long enough to make a good comparison. I was still adjusting to the wide bars on the Epic, but the angles and position seemed natural and similar to the Stumpy hard tail. It wasn’t obviously ponderous, although perhaps it felt a bit more stable due to the longer wheelbase.

So at the end of the ride when I hung the Epic up in the Specialized tent and picked up my hard tail, was I sold on the benefits of suspension? Yes, but no I won’t be trading in my hard tail anytime soon! Without a doubt the Epic was more comfortable and still rapid if pushed, and during a long marathon event or multi hour trail ride I can see that being a significant advantage. The efficiency is retained because of the Brain threshold lockout and the suspension provides extra traction, making this bike faster through technical or rough sections of trail. For me it didn’t beat the undiluted raw transfer of power of a hard tail, especially when ascending or when your route is more flowing than gnarly. Lugging the extra weight of those pivots and shock around takes it toll and slightly blunts performance.

The Epic is marketed as a race bike and under Javoslav Kulharvy has won the Olympic title, but on the basis of Wednesday evenings ride it didn’t feel as racey to me as my Stumpjumper. The Stumpjumper is almost nervous and feels like it just wants to go fast. The Epic Elite was more steady, a bike that will keep you moving on in any terrain but the ultimate top end just isn’t there. Perhaps a top of the range S-Works Epic would feel more purposeful.  If I could afford another bike, just for technical rides and longer social riding the Epic would be top of my list, but at the moment I’ll stick to the hard tail. The other thought that comes to mind when I remember my full susser days is the maintenance and fettling needed to keep everything moving freely and the suspension feeling shop fresh. The simplicity of the hard tail is definitely appealing for the home mechanic.