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 cafĂ© 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.