Saturday, 31 December 2016

Happy New Year!

Here is a look back at some of my favourite photos from 2016. See you all next year!

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Vittoria Peyote Tyre Review

Lets be honest. Until a few weeks ago I'd never heard of the Penyote. Vittoria as a MTB tyre brand wasn't on my radar. However, in the cellar at City Cycles I found of box of this 29 x 2.25 tyre. The tread looked promising and at under 600g it passed the weight weenie test.

Vittoria market the Peyote as their "Go to XC tyre", with positive remarks from sponsored rider Pauline Ferrand-Prevot the 2015 World XC Champion. This means a low profile and fast rolling tyre are guaranteed, but what is the grip like? The sipped knobs and stepped side lugs are a positive start. The sidewalls aren't wafer thin either, like some lightweight XC treads; which should help the durability.

I mounted the Peyote on the front wheel tubeless, without any problems. Visually the width was a little disappointing for a 2.25 tyre. For comparison the tyre is just a smidge plumper than a Specialized Fast Trak 2.0 and definitely narrower than the Rocket Ron 2.25 that it replaced.

I tested the tyre on the North Downs at Peaslake on a cold day with very mixed trail conditions. Fast frozen hard packed man made trails, slithery greasy roots, slippery mud on top of hardpack and deep claggy glop! This ride had it all!

I was asked frequently during the ride how I was getting on with the Penyote. My response was slightly non-committal because what could I say? It had handled everything that had been thrown at it. The tyre is nicely predictable and I had just forgotten about it and concentrated on riding!

It is a cross country tyre, but I found you could lean on it pretty hard and still find grip. On firm trails like "Barry Knows Best" it held a tight line on the berms, handling quick direction changes nicely. In softer, loamy conditions the knobs dug in well. This type of tyre is never going to be brilliant in the proper sticky stuff, but it was controlled and manageable. I was also pleased to find it handled wet roots without any scary moments. At the end of the day I was pretty impressed. This tyre definitely gives the Schwalbe Rocket Ron a run for its money, in fact I'd be tempted to say I preferred it trail manners. (I've been running a Ron upfront on the race bike for several years now.)

As a punt in the dark I've been impressed with this Vittoria tyre and will definitely be leaving it on the bike to form a longer term opinion. The Rocket Rons I've had have just gone on and on forever, so I'll post again in a few months when I have a better idea of the durability of the Penyote.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

2016 Year End Summary

Club and Sponsorship:
For the first time since 2010 I didn’t join the South Downs Bikes club this year. Although I definitely missed the camaraderie at races, team sponsorship was unlikely as I couldn’t commit to a definite schedule of events at the beginning of the year due to the birth of my daughter in February. Instead I obtained sponsorship to cover my entry to the Grand Raid marathon race in Switzerland. As part of the package McMurdo also supplied the distinctive orange Fast Find Ranger PLB branded jersey. I was also appointed a brand ambassador for Absolute Black, riding their oval chainrings throughout the year. Both of these agreements meant I continued to blog and also introduced the Ben Races Bikes Facebook fan page.

I continued to ride the S-Works Stumpjumper. The major upgrades this year were new wheels from Strada and the DT Swiss fork which is a revelation compared to the SID I had previously.

For the 2nd year running I purchased a British Cycling racing license. This enabled me to enter the National Marathon Championships and obtain a better grid position at the Grand Raid.

Training in 2016 started slowly following the birth of my daughter in February. However, the focus of the year was August where I would race 3 marathon events in 3 weeks.

Racing started in May with the Gorrick 100 where I rode well but failed to make the top 20.

There was then a brief foray with the Olympic distance at the Southern Championship, where I missed the Open podium by 1.2 seconds!

By the time we reached August my training had gone well, but I was still concerned about my stamina beyond 4 hours after a few issues on longer rides where I completely hit the wall with a racing heartbeat. The Brighton Big Dog allayed the concerns as I came home 10th on a challenging course against a high class field, which included the National Champ. The next weekend was the Grand Raid. The target was simply to finish the 125km Alpine course, which I did in 10hrs 30min. Despite the brutal course I completed the ride ‘relatively’ comfortably apart from the loathsome ‘hike-a-bike’ section. The third race of the month was the National Marathon Champs in Wales, which actually proved to be the toughest of the three. In terrible conditions I battled the elements and inner demons to be the 20th senior rider home.

With the pressure now off it was time to enjoy myself! I entered the Open category at both rounds of the Gorrick Autumn Challenge, where after 13 years of trying I won my first Gorrick race! I was third in the second round, finishing the year on a high.

In the build up to the Grand Raid I had a number of great social rides. Long days in the saddle with friends, including Winchester and back along the South Downs Way with Ian and Julian.

With two children at home and a school run to complete my total mileage for the 2016 was lower than the past few years. However, I enjoyed another cracking summer of off-road commuting. Regularly passing Stanstead house and looping over Kingley Vale in the morning or on a warm summer's evening. There can be nothing better for relieving the stress!

Riding across the Swiss Alps!

In summary:
Enjoyable, experience laden year!

Looking ahead:
2017 is the dawn of a new career in the cycle trade! The effect this will have on my free time and cycling opportunities is unknown. Therefore my focus will be just continuing to ride, maintaining my fitness and entering events when I can. Watch this space!

Monday, 12 December 2016

City Cycles Shop Opening

Opening the shop has meant my life has become entirely cycling focused. However, actually riding my bike has had to take a back seat. Long days in the shop and late evenings ordering stock haven't left much free time.

After a career spent sitting behind a desk, standing at the counter 8 hours a day has also taken its toll. Each morning I've struggled to lurch from my bed with stiff joints and weary limbs. So when I did finally clamber aboard the road bike for a quick afternoon ride on Sunday, you could almost hear my body creaking as I tried to contort it into motion. The first 30 minutes were torture while the muscle memory was restored. 4 hours racing at the Merida Brass Monkeys next weekend could be fun!

As for the shop we've had a very successful first week. We've sold a bike every day and the workshop has seen a steady stream of customers. We held an opening event on Saturday that was extremely well supported and demonstrated the loyal customer base the previous owners Martin and Jackie had built up.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Brass Monkeys Postponed

Last weekends Merida Brass Monkeys was postponed due to MOD restrictions in the area where the race was to be held. I was disappointed not to be racing, especially since the weather was kind. However I took the opportunity to get out locally on the South Downs and stretch my legs.

Monday, 21 November 2016

City Cycles Chichester

6 months ago if you'd said I would be running my own Cycle shop by the end of the year I'd have told you, you were mad! This is the story of how I quit my job as a successful R&D Manager and turned my passion for cycling into a job! (By the way I may still be mad!)

I've been a customer of City Cycles in Chichester for over 10 years, valuing Martin and Jacky's honest and friendly service. Frequently I've burst in looking for some rare or unusual part for an important race the next day. To my amazement Martin would usually reach into a cardboard box or disappear into the cellar and emerge with just what I needed! It is that kind of emporium of everything cycling related. Having often dragged my wife in on a busy Saturday, we'd frequently joked, tongue in cheek, that we'd have to buy the shop when Martin and Jacky called it a day!

Fast forward to this summer and on a casual visit for inner tubes I questioned Jacky about a gap on the normally crowded shelves. She told me that they were retiring at the end of the year after 22 and a half years in Chichester.  My first thought was where was I going to come for those 'special' last minute purchases now? When I got home I mentioned the news to my wife and we joked about our often stated dream of buying the shop. Anyway after a night to sleep on it, I went to talk to Martin the next day, to ask if he would sell the business as a going concern. At that point I had no retail experience and knew nothing about the cycle trade or how to run a shop!

One thing led to another and here we are 3 months later. I'm excited to announce that from early December I'm starting out on a new venture as the fresh face behind City Cycles Chichester.  The new team and I will continue the honest, knowledgeable service for which the shop is so well known.

The last few months have been quite an adventure, holding down the 9 to 5 job while dealing with solicitors, accountants, distributors, surveyors and landlords. It has been a steep learning curve with highs and lows along the journey, but the overriding sense is one of excitement.

As we count down to the opening, we've been lucky to find an excellent experienced mechanic and get some great brands on board. We've been offered a lot of support and invaluable advice along the way, not least from Martin and Jacky, who have done all they can to help smooth the transfer of ownership.

So why you may ask do I want to run a bike shop? Even before my parents arranged birthday bike rides for me along the South Downs Way from the age of 11, I already had a love for bikes; riding them, looking at them and talking about them. I have raced XC regionally, nationally and abroad. My background is on the mountain bike, but I was thinking the other day that the only genre of cycling I haven't actually tried is Cyclocross! As well as my MTB racing, I've ridden the boards of the velodrome, competed in local TT's and evening road races after work. I've always built up and maintained my own bikes, spending hours in my man cave tinkering. If I'm not in the shed, my evenings are spent trawling the internet planning my next purchase or adventure. So there is a lot of experience and knowledge locked away ready to be offered as advice and guidance, some of which I have shared through this blog. As well as this, after 20 years sat at a desk, I am looking forward to the human interaction!

I look forward to seeing you in the shop!

City Cycles Chichester
44 Bognor Road
PO19 7TG

Friday, 18 November 2016

End of an era

Today was probably my last 6.30am Portsmouth cycle commute. I said goodbye to the morning regulars. 10 years of history riding together, through the sun, rain, ice and snow. I don’t know their names and all we’ve shared is a split second every morning, a nod of the head and a call of “Mornin’!”

Monday, 7 November 2016

Final XC race of the year

I hadn’t intended to race this weekend, but after victory at the previous event I headed to Crowthorne on a crisp cold November morning for the final XC race of the year. Part of the reason I hadn’t planned on attending was that I was on holiday the week leading up to the race. So I arrived having not ridden the bike for a week. This meant I was fresh, but also feeling slightly lethargic after the gluttony of meals out, sweet treats and generally lounging around.

To compound the lack of preparation I arrived later than intended, so had to cut short my normal warm-up routine. This meant I didn’t complete a full reconnaissance lap. Typically our start was then delayed to allow other races to complete, so we all stood shivering in the cold waiting to be called to the line. There were some unfamiliar faces in the crowd who I hadn’t seen at the previous race. While we waited we got chatting and the two most likely looking competitors shared stories of recent 24 hour events they had competed in. So no concerns about their stamina!!

My kick off the line wasn’t as good as normal and I was engulfed by the pack. After a brief uphill the wide trail sloped downhill into a 90 degree left and a nasty subtle drag up a loose gravel path. I had fought back to third by the bend and my momentum carried me up the slope and into the lead. Out of the saddle I pushed on over the next few undulations to maximise my advantage before we turned into the wooded singletrack. The first few sections amongst the trees were fantastic fun! The dew had left the roots a little slippery, but the damp loamy soil provided great grip as we swung through the fast sweeping corners.

One problem with not having completed a practice lap was that I didn’t know where I was going! This meant I had to hedge my bets slightly as I leant into the blind bends, my elbows in the branches. The navigation problem was resolved when the rider behind came through and I was able to cling to his rear wheel as we continued to loop through the woodland.

The leader nipped past a back marker from another category just as we went into another narrow section of trail. This allowed him to break away by a few metres before I could squeeze past. I chased to get back, but the gap just yo-yo'd. I'd close on the inclines only for him to pull away again on the flat. I was pleased though to be holding my own through the technical sections where the grip on offer continued to inspire confidence.

As the lap went on the gap ahead of me grew and the rider behind came through to take up the chase. Perhaps it was the holiday and lack of riding, perhaps it was just one of those days, but there was no ‘fire’ in my legs. The ambition was there but the lethargy took over, preventing me pushing into the red that extra little bit and I quickly lost the second riders wheel as well. With their 24hour racing pedigree it was unlikely they were going to slow in a race of 75minutes! With once again nobody to follow I lost my way slightly, riding blind and making bad line choices which meant having to snatch the brakes mid corner and lose speed.

I finished the first lap 3rd with nobody insight ahead to chase and no pressure from behind. I could feel the urgency go from my riding. I had to keep telling myself to push, but the legs didn’t respond to the call. About half way round the second circuit I got the hurry up I deserved when I heard a rider behind, it was Ian who had finished 3rd at the previous race, so I knew he was a serious challenge. I picked up the pace and that was the last I heard from behind. I later learnt that Ian had dropped his chain and lost time fiddling to put it back on.

Into the third and final lap my body finally seemed to warm up, and now I knew the course slightly better I actually set my fastest lap of the race. It was too little too late and although I closed on 2nd place my surge to the line wasn’t enough to catch those ahead. Finishing about a minute back, I was beaten on the day by two better riders. Even on a good day the winner was out of sight, but I feel slightly disappointed not to have stuck with second place, at least for longer and made more of a race of it.

However, no need to be glum! It is another trophy for the mantelpiece and it felt good to finish the years XC racing on the podium. I drove home a happy lad after a fun days riding! Next up are the winter Brass Monkey marathon races.  

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Man Flu!

OK so it wasn’t really man flu, but a cold brought on a chest infection, a bad case of Asthma and the need for antibiotics. Either way it kept me off the bike for 9 days, which is the longest I’ve been out of the saddle since July 2011!!

Normally this sort of hiatus would have brought on a case of the shakes, but firstly I knew I was too ill to ride and in all honesty it provided a nice break at the end of the season. It was perhaps telling that I didn’t actually miss the bike as much as I normally would.

The worst was the throbbing pain in my legs that started after about 3 or 4 days. It was almost as if I could feel the muscle tone draining away. This slow torment however was nothing compared to when I actually got back in the saddle! In hindsight perhaps setting out on a 50 mile MTB ride with 1500m of climbing was slightly optimistic. I was completely dead on my feet by the time I staggered in through the front door, but it had been a glorious autumn day. I had headed out with a friend to tackle the man made trails over at Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Petersfield.

The QE of old used to be a nightmare of slippery off-camber chalk and roots. But the new blue trail, although not especially technical has a cambered all weather surface where the swoops and bends still provide a thrilling challenge if tackled at speed.

The next test is getting back to fitness in time for the Merida Brass Monkeys series which starts in little over a months time. 

Monday, 17 October 2016

Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie 27.5"

You can't avoid the current avalanche of publicity surrounding E-bikes. All the major brands are clambering onboard and releasing their own battery powered machines. These aren't just racked and mud guarded commuter rides either. Specialized for example recently introduced their off-road E-bikes - the Levo range.

Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie

I popped my E-bike cherry a few weeks ago when I attended the Cycle Show. Much to my own surprise I had a great time railing around the short indoor track at the NEC, but it was a novelty and not really representative of the real world.

My chance to actually experience E-biking out on local trails came when I heard that Specialized were running a Levo demo day just 15 minutes up the road at QE Country Park in Hampshire. I was first in the queue on a sunny Autumn day and was quickly astride a Turbo Levo FSR with 3in tyres and 135mm of full squish from the rear shock. The fit was all dialled in using the clever autosag feature, the power was turned on and I was off!

I cruised along the first section of slightly uphill bridleway. The motor providing some nice gentle assistance, but it wasn't until we hit the first switch back of the climb proper that I noticed the punch provided by the battery. The more torque you yourself apply to the pedals the more power the battery provides. I literally surged up the hill! On the downhills despite the unfamiliar bike the Ground Control and Purgatory tyres provided all the confidence you could need on the all weather surface.

After a couple of laps of the blue route with some of the red trail thrown in I swapped back to my own hard tail bike for a comparison.

On the gravel fireroad there was no obvious difference and interestingly looking at Strava the times for the steep switchback climb were also fairly equivalent. Although I suspect I was putting in more effort to maintain the same rate of progress the ultimate pace was limited by the terrain and the corners. The REALLY standout difference was the decents. The Levo decended like a stone in comparison to my more familiar Stumpjumper HT.

Riders line up at QE Country Park for the Specialized demo day.

So what do I take from my morning with the Levo?

  • Firstly the E-bike enables you to maintain a higher pace for less effort. Making it suitable for older / injured or less fit riders wanting to enjoy a morning on the trails with their younger/fitter buddies.

  • Secondly the battery power enables you to ride a 'bigger' more 'technical' bike up the climbs. This means you can enjoy the benefits of the longer suspension and the extra grip of fatter tyres on the descents.

  • The big negative is obviously the weight. I didn't have the strength to even pop the front wheel over roots. I'd imagine lifting the beast into a car or onto a cycle rack would be quite a challenge.

I'd like to ride more E-bikes for a proper comparison. The E-bikes from Cube and Haibike I rode at the NEC Cycle Show seemed more 'eager' than the Levo, which felt slightly sedate when the power came on. Perhaps the Levo is more 'natural', but does this take away some of the fun?

One thing I will say about the Levo is how well integrated the design is. It doesn't look like a normal bike with a battery bolted onto the downtube as many I have seen do. Except for the green power light you might not even notice it was an E-bike as it flashes past on the trail.

For me the battery assist is a gimmick I don't need at the moment, but I can see others might benefit from. The total revelation for me was the 3in tyres! Switching back to my bike I realised how I had been completely ignoring the roots riding the Levo. My Rocket Ron 2.25 suddenly felt skinny and utterly inadequate. I was noticeably slower on my own bike as I had to pick a line around obstacles, the tyres scrabbling for grip as I leant the bike into the bends. So perhaps what I need a Fattie bike?


Monday, 10 October 2016

Top step of the podium!

The first ever MTB race I attended was organised by Gorrick. With them I cut my teeth as a XC racer at numerous venues across Surrey. The Spring and Autumn series were my staple diet for weekend racing. My recent focus has been on longer multi hour marathon events, but with the years major goals behind me, it was time to return to my roots and the adrenalin fuelled, leg burning blast that is short course cross country.

The riders began to gather around the start banner nervously chatting. I’d already been there for 15 minutes with memories of the days when Open races regularly featured fields of over 100 riders and you needed to arrive early if you wanted a competitive starting position. There was no such problem today as we rolled up to the line barely four rows deep. Despite the lower turnout I’d already clocked some familiar faces likely to be challenging for the win. These included two riders local to my neck of the woods on the South Downs. As ever in an Open category race there were also some unfamiliar faces, the ringers, their lean physiques and tricked out rides marking them out as possible front runners.

From the starters signal we plummeted down to the first corner. I’d already seen an ambulance in attendance after an earlier start line pile up, but we all clattered over the roots safely and around the bend at the bottom. It was a beautiful Autumn day and the course was running fast after a week of dry weather. If it had been wet the roots would have been a completely different challenge.

I was 3rd wheel chasing the two riders ahead, with the pack hot on my heels. At the base of the first climb the leader stumbled slightly on the roots and I was through into second following one of the unfamiliar faces I’d seen at the start. An unknown quantity! Would he now ride away?

The course couldn’t have been better designed for me. Repeated short inclines linked by fast singletrack. I was comfortable following down the descents and at this stage riding slightly within myself on the climbs. Looping backwards and forwards, it was easy to track those behind and as the lap progressed. Three of us had formed a lead group that slowly gapped the rest of the field. Sensing the pace slowing I did something I had never done at a Gorrick in 13 years, I took the lead! It didn’t last for long as I was quickly chased down by the other rider in the group, the local legend I still know by his Strava alter ego of Spider Pig.

Taking the lead had pushed me slightly into the red and the gap opened ahead of me. I completed the first lap 9 seconds back, but with a healthy lead on the chasers behind.  I used the climbs to get back on terms, the gap yo-yoing slightly until I found myself back in front again. I pushed on and my lead steady widened to around 30 seconds.

42 races over 13 years is how long I had been trying to win a Gorrick. For long periods over those years the goal of winning one of these races had consumed my thoughts and been my overriding aim. Following my first race where I came 49th my results had improved to consistent top 10 runner, and then the podium. Two 3rd places remained my previous best. Now I found myself in the lead.

I was pumped and feeling good, the gap still seemed to be going out as I powered into the final lap. The twisty course meant I had regular sight of Jason behind, which only heightened my concerns of getting caught. I also began to worry about the bike – surely a mechanical issue wouldn’t deprive me of victory? Would it? I’d been up late the night before rebuilding the rear hub and bleeding the brakes. I was cautious under power and with gear changes. My racing line between the trees started to get a little conservative and I winced every time I saw glass glistening in the trail.

It wasn’t until the final fast sweeping section that I began to realise this was actually going to happen! I crossed the line victorious thumping the handlebars with excitement. I don’t win very often and it meant a lot to finally achieve something I have strived for so many years to achieve. I drove home singing loudly along to the radio with a huge grin on my face.  

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Plans for Autumn / Winter

September has been very hectic and stressful, but I hope I can report some exciting news soon!

I haven’t had much chance to focus on training, but have still been commuting to work and riding with the guys at the weekend. Hopefully the residue of Summer fitness is still lurking in my legs and can be lured out for a last hurrah come race day. Gorrick's are always a fun blast whatever the result.

Following that the Brass Monkey winter enduro series it not far away now. I sat out the races last year to look after a heavily pregnant wife, but hope to be back fighting for a top ten position this year.

Winter is coming!

Monday, 19 September 2016

Just for the fun of it!

I am motivated by challenging myself with epic rides and races that test my fitness and ability. At a basic level though I just love riding a bicycle. This is why I have enjoyed the past couple of weeks so much. With the hectic schedule of summer races and the main goals for the year now behind me, I have been able to get out on the bike without a thought to training or specific preparation. I’ve ridden for fun, choosing my route based on the view or the enjoyable singletrack at the end, rather than the duration, mileage and altitude gain.

The strength in my legs remains and the Indian summer has added to the enjoyment. The pressure has even been taken off the commute to work. I have explored alternative routes, cruised along in the sunshine and just dashed straight home because it was raining.

Eventually I am going to need another target to inspire me to refocus my efforts. Especially with the colder ,shorter days of winter looming. But for now it is time to just ride for the fun of it!

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

British National Marathon Championships 2016

2009 was the last time Wales hosted the National Marathon Championships. On that day, as I rolled across the line to be greeted by my wife I told her, “Never, ever let me do that again”. She forgot! Seven years later and back in Wales, another epic day of suffering awaited. Amazingly the day would prove to be a considerably tougher challenge than the 10hrs of the alpine Grand Raid the week before.

I had returned from Switzerland to stories of a heatwave and drought effecting the UK. In fact it wasn’t until the shape of the Severn crossing loomed on the horizon that grey clouds closed in, and as I drove into the Brecon mountains the rain began to fall.

Llandovery was the base for the Marathon Champs this year. The race starting with a 7km neutralised road section out to the course proper. The 60 or so riders were gridded and then followed the commissaire cars out of town. As soon as we hit the trails it was slippery and muddy. The kind of slick surface over solid rock foundations that provides zero grip. What only a few days previously had undoubtedly been fast flowing dry dusty singletrack, was now a sodden sticky mess. Through the gloop jutted the Welsh rock, ready to throw the bike off line into an unrecoverable slide.
Within a couple of miles riders and bikes were totally coated in mud, all apart from our shoes that is, which had been cleaned by the stream crossing, the water level swollen by the rain. Our shoes were soon needed as the course turned upwards and we were all scrabbling for grip. No hope of riding the incline in these conditions.
In fact there was a reasonable amount of walking to be done. Not only were some of the climbs steep and traction limited, but also the descents were dangerously slippery. Having passed buckled wheels and bloodied bodies, I decided discretion was often the better part of valour!
It very soon became apparent to me that the day wasn’t going to be about racing, but pure survival. Sections of the course seemed to run along streams, the surface of the path hidden under flowing water. There was also the unrelenting change in gradient, the course constantly climbing up and back down again. The miles seemed to tick away painfully slowly.
The course consisted of two 40km loops of 1500m climbing. From 20km onwards I really began to doubt I would even start the second lap. Conditions were appalling, and the repetitive sapping climbs really meant there was no respite. The final grassy climb of the lap was especially challenging. I had been riding for 3hrs and the thought of making myself do it all again was a really tough ask. I still hadn’t decided if I was going to pack it in or continue as I approached the arch marking the end of the lap. More importantly it marked the opportunity to take the road back into town and end the suffering. If the sun hadn’t come out I probably would have called it a day.
I didn’t and continued on at a slow plod. Conditions improved slightly in the sunshine and at least I was able to commit to some of the descents I had walked previously. Many of the climbs had been churned by dozens of wheels so were just as impassable. On the second lap I didn’t see another rider for almost an hour at one point. When I did we met each other like old friends, congratulating each other on our stupidity and sharing tales of woe. Both of us were suffering visibility problems due to the mud in our eyes (glasses were pointless as they became coated in moments.)
After 6 hours and 30 minutes of riding we had a little tussle up the final climb, my one bit of racing for the day! I crossed the line 20th, but just reaching the line was reward enough on a day like this.
For the second time in 3 weeks I finished behind the winner Ben Thomas, who reclaimed his National title for 2016. This time my wife wasn’t there, but it will definitely be NEVER AGAIN!  

Monday, 22 August 2016

Grand Raid 2016

The Grand Raid is a mountain bike endurance race in the classic mould. Big mountains and epic scenery. 2016 was the 27th edition of this 125km event which runs across the Swiss alps from Verbier to Grimentz.

Scruntineering sticker means your good to go!
The Raid has been on my radar for several years and I decided early in the year to make the event my main focus for 2016. Training had gone well,  primarily based on weekend 4 to 5 hour rides. My confidence over longer periods of time was slightly plagued with doubt, given some nutrition related stomach and fatigue issues. As we drove from the airport at Geneva into the alps I was also reminded of the massive scale of the mountains, that no amount of training in the UK can prepare you for.

That 27 years of experience shows, as the Grand Raid is very slickly organised. I rolled down into Verbier from our rental chalet at 11am on Friday the day before the race. The main street was already closed and the postal building had been converted for registration and bike scrutineering. I collected my number board and then watched nervously as two mechanics ran through their checks on my bike, before fitting the sticker that confirmed I was ready to race!

Saturday started early with a 5.15 alarm call. The street lights were still on, the sun well below the mountains, as I rolled down to the start. If you are gridded, as I was, you can literally roll up a minute before the start and climb into the 'elites' pen at the head of the 600 strong field. If not you'll have to fight for your place among the masses. Unless you are genuinely racing, starting at the front does however have its disadvantages. Firstly there is the temptation to race off with the leaders, and when you have successfully resisted that urge, there is the knock in confidence you get as, what feels like every mountain biker in Switzerland, floods past you on the first climb.

Talking of the first climb, there is no warm up. It is straight up the high street through Verbier and onto the wide gravel road that leads to the cable car station at the top of the mountain. I rode most of the climb with my friend Ian, nervously chatting and pacing each other for the long day ahead. At the top there is a rare section of level gradient. I grabbed a wheel and took a tow as a chain of riders snaked across the mountain side before the first descent.

Again mainly on wide gravel roads we wove our way down at break neck speed. This early in the race you needed eyes in the back of your head to avoid those nutters coming through from behind, while passing the more tentative riders ahead.

What follows are mere undulations compared with what was to come, but as the route winds around Nendaz and through to Veysonnaz there is plenty of climbing and fun fast descents. The vast majority of this on wide maintained paths and tracks. As you race through various villages each junction is taped, every road closed, or the riders are given priority. Locals line the route, tables and chairs set out as they make a day of it. The next proper drag is up to 2000m at Les Collons, this climb uses slightly less major forest tracks and finishes with about a mile of really sweet wooded singletrack. I also enjoyed the descent down from here, whooping with excitement! It is still terrifyingly fast, but with much more varied terrain and some slightly more technical sections to mix it up.

At this point on the route map there are only two climbs remaining, but you are still barely half distance. I had been racing for 4 hours 30 minutes with still 6 hours ahead of me! Much of the pre-race conversation had been about the forecast of heavy rain, which even provoked the race organisers to confirm the event would go ahead via Facebook and email. We'd been lucky so far but a heavy shower hit as I left the feed station at Heremence, so I pulled on my rain jacket. Many around me didn't and as we began the long tarmac ascent the rain eased and despite persistent drizzle I had to stop again to remove the jacket to ensure I didn't overheat.
I briefly donned my rain jacket.

I found the feed stations well stocked, with a variety of fruit, energy bars, and drinks on offer. I stuck to bananas and water to which I added my own SIS tablets. Many rode with just a single bottle and although I probably could have coped I ensured I filled up both my large and standard bidon at each stop. I also carried a top tube bag containing 6 SIS Go bars and 2 gels. On an event like this, in order to prevent problems, I preferred to use something I knew my body was familiar with.

The climb went on for what felt like forever! It was all on tarmac up to the next feed stop, before it set off across the top of the mountain. This section was tough. Damp rutted and rocky, I had to shoulder the bike several times and although it was actually going downhill much of the time, I made slow progress. To add to the physiological battle, the inflatable arch at Pas de Lona was visible on the horizon. Not only was it clearly much higher than my current location, it was also the other side of a very, very deep valley.

All that hard fought altitude had to be surrendered, and by now the descent was hard work for a weary body and mind. At least in the valley it was noticeably warmer and had stopped raining. There was quite a crowd down here and another feed station to boost the moral before it was back to the climbing. Up and up, we rode in silence. We'd slowly pass one another staring blankly at the track ahead, each rider in their own world of suffering and pain. I knew there was a 'hike a bike' section up to the pass and I began to long for it to arrive just for some variety - how wrong I was. Eventually after over an hour, I cleared the tree line and the summit came into view. My god it looked a long way off! I could make out riders like ants creeping up to the inflatable arch we had seen earlier.
The epic scenery of the Grand Raid
The walking started much earlier than I had expected and I was almost immediately wishing I could get back on the bike. Pedalling a constant rhythm was what I had trained for, carrying a bike over a mountain in carbon soled race shoes was pure agony. The gradient became so steep that several times I struggled to maintain my balance and stop myself falling back down the scree slope. I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that it was the only way to end the suffering, there was no alternative now. I stopped looking up as that was far too depressing and concentrated on tiny steps. Although well above 2500m the sweat literally poured off my nose and chin. People had gathered up here to support the riders. They waved flags, rang cow bells and shouted, "Bravo Ben," but I didn't and couldn't look up to acknowledge them.

The summit of the Pas de Lona after 2hrs climbing
The track was loose and it was hard to get a good purchase. Then I felt the gradient lessen. I raised my head in time for a photographer to take my picture. I had reached the arch. The relief was immeasurable! Stiff limbed I climbed back aboard the bike and charged off down the other side. It was rough and challenging so even this didn't come as a relief. I'd studied the profile and knew there was another kick up before the final descent, but it had looked like an insignificant lump sitting at home on the sofa. Nothing is insignificant at 2800m and rounding the corner to see the snow lined hairpin path high above, with riders scattered along it, was a bitter pill to swallow. At least it was better than walking!
Happy to cross the line in Grimentz!

At last I crested the final climb, but the bottom of the valley wasn't even visible. What lay ahead was 40 minutes of punishing descending, on challenging rocky and loose terrain with steep gradients. I splashed through one of the stream crossings and looking up I could eventually see Grimentz below. That really lifted the spirits as I tore down the mountain side scattering rocks and dust in my wake. I crossed the line in 10hrs and 32 minutes.

The views and the scenery had been amazing. This race takes you to places you'd never normally visit as a tourist. Farming hamlets high on the mountain, that looked unchanged for hundreds of years. The simple breathtaking scale of the Alps hits you when you find yourself in such remote locations. It was without doubt the best day I have ever spent on a bike. Incredibly challenging physically but beautifully brutal!
Family congratulations!

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Brighton Big Dog 2016

The Brighton Big Dog is an event with its own unique 'cool' vibe. Stanmer park provides the ampitheatre, in which the DJ blasts tunes to the assembled masses, as they swarm around the trade tents. The sunshine attracted a large crowd this year to cheer on the riders. These included some big names in the world of British mountain biking, inlcuding Ben Thomas the UK National Champ.

With only 7 days until the Grand Raid I wanted to use the Big Dog as my final tuning ride before packing the bike for the flight to Switzerland. This made the day a slightly weird experience. Instead of jostling to the front of the huge field of starters I intentionally went to the back. This meant my first lap was paced by those around me without the temptation to chase the leaders. 

The brutal course was designed by Ian Leitch a multiple Big Dog winner. Rather than the repetitive up / down nature of recent years, there were long leg burning climbs which rewarded in terms of some gloriously sweet singletrack decents. Two climbs in particular challenged the power in your legs. To demonstrate the effort riders were putting in, on one lap I passed 3 riders repairing chains on the same steep section of chalk.

The first few hours passed relatively uneventfully. I gradually caught and passed solo riders, while the pairs and team riders kept surging by. I was trying to take it easy, enjoy the ride and not pay much attention to my position. This became especially hard on the 7th lap when two riders I knew were in my category came past as I spun up a climb. It was hard but I resisted the overwelming urge to stick to their rear wheel and carried on at my own pace. 

I finished my 8th lap with 44minutes of the 6 hours remaining. Just about time for one more lap, I was feeling fine so decided to let myself off the leash! My final lap was my fastest! 

I finished 10th, exactly as I did last year. This has given me a lot of optimism as I rode well within myself whereas last year I truly gave it my all. I've also woken up today not feeling too sore, and completed a gentle recovery ride so I am optimistic that I haven't taken too much out of myself ahead of next week.

Race Stats:
  • Position : 10th
  • Race Time : 5hrs 54min
  • Distance : 60 miles
  • Winner : The other Ben! National Champion - Ben Thomas

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

New kit from Owayo!

Came home to find an exciting parcel from clothing firm Owayo. My new kit has arrived just in time for a summer of racing. Thanks to my sponsors McMurdo Group and Ranger PLB. Look for the M!

I can't recommend the service from Owayo enough. This is the second time I've used the company and both times with excellent results. The website allows you to design your own jersey by applying logos, images and text to a range of standard templates. They answered all my emails promptly and provided really clear and concise approval images. Despite only ordering a single jersey I still felt my custom was fully valued by Owayo. The jersey quality itself is very good and my previous shirt has shown good durability, still looking fresh after more than 4 years of heavy use.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Grand Raid race numbers have been assigned!

With just over a week and a half to go race numbers have been allocated for the Grand Raid! I want to hear them all cheering “Come on number 85!!”

Over 600 riders will be on the line in Verbier with more than a 1000 more joining us at the alternative start points along the route.

Good to see 25 riders from Britain, including some familiar names!

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Last training ride

Today was my last weekend training ride before 3 busy weeks of back to back races.

13th August - Brighton Big Dog
20th August - Grand Raid: Verbier Switzerland
28th August - British National Marathon Championships: Llandovery Wales

It was an early and slightly eerie 7am start in the drizzle and mist. After two more punctures in the opening miles I continue to worry about my tyre choice for the upcoming races, especially the rear tyre. More concerning, I hit the wall following our coffee stop 4 hours in. Key lesson learnt - don't eat a large slice of cake and a banana in the middle of a ride!

Ride stats:
  • 5 hours 20 minutes
  • 58.5 miles
  • 1400m vertical ascent

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Fast Find Ranger PLB

I’ve been given a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) by McMurdo for my trip to the Alps in a few weeks. Here is the low down on this pocket sized life saver.

The beacon provides access to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite constellation which has been attributed to saving over 37,000 lives since its inception in 1982. When activated the PLB obtains its global position using GPS. It then transmits the co-ordinates via the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites to mission control, who inform the local search and rescue co-ordination centre. All within a couple of minutes. Follow this link to read of some of the many rescues.

The real benefit of this service is when you are out in the wilds or off shore, far from mobile phone signal. A PLB will work ANYWHERE in the world and if you have the misfortune to need it, the service is free of charge once you have bought the beacon. The Ranger PLB retails for around £175 to £200.
The handheld beacon itself is a stocky, rugged little fella. Weighing about 160g and measuring 36x50x112mm. It is an easy to locate bright orange with a tough rubberised case to protect against the expected bangs and knocks it might receive in a backpack or pocket.
Once activated it’ll operate for 24hours, although you could extend this by periodically turning the beacon on and off. The battery is not user changeable so you will need to contact a service centre for a replacement approximately every 6 years.

To operate the beacon:

Caution! This is a single operation device and intended only for use when your life is in critical danger. False activations are extremely expensive as every activation must be taken seriously. You might be held accountable for this cost, and you could be taking resource away from a real emergency.
  1. Flip up the red handle at the top of the PLB.
  2. Pull sharply on the handle to remove the cover. This will break the fixing point so the cover cannot be replaced. (A single spare cover is provided in the box just in case you get curious.)
  3. In my experience the metal blade antenna will probably deploy when the cover is removed. If not ensure it is unwrapped from the beacon and extended to its full height.
  4. Press the 'ON' button.
  5. Ensure that the beacon has a clear view of the sky. It needs to be able to see the satellites orbiting overhead to obtain its position and transmit a distress message. If possible avoid wooded areas, cliffs and deep valleys or ravines. If you are injured and cannot relocate do not worry; the beacon is likely still to work, but it might just take longer to obtain and transmit information.
  6. Initially the strobe will flash rapidly on the top of the beacon to indicate that it is on and searching for a GPS location. When the strobe speed slows this means that it has obtained a position fix, and a long flash followed by three short flashes means an emergency message has been transmitted and help is on the way.