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 CafĂ© 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