Monday, 18 December 2017

Merida Brass Monkeys - Frith Hill

Throbbing, aching legs, stiff joints and every movement an effort. That’s just sitting at my desk today!

The reason for my discomfort? Yesterday I raced the Merida Brass Monkeys 4 hour endurance race at Frith Hill near Deepcut in Surrey. It was minus 3 degrees when I left home and although the temperatures had risen slightly as the start time approached, the puddles on the opening loop were still frozen solid. I thought I’d have the normal 15 minute “warm-up” before the off. Not much warming-up took place, the result was numb fingers and shivering as I rolled towards the start.

I haven’t raced much this year, so my pre-race prep was slightly rusty. I’d got distracted chatting to a few familiar faces during my warm-up which meant I joined the grid near the back, with only a handful of riders behind me. When the race got underway I was immediately held up as the pack ahead funnelled into the trees. Once into the wood there was plenty of beautiful singletrack, but this meant there was no chance of overtaking so I cruised around picking off riders here and there when I could. We also quickly caught the slower guys at the back of the 2 hour race, adding further to the congestion.

My favourite phrase when instructing new riders is, “Speed is your friend”. Riding obstacles slowly can frequently be harder than attacking them with more momentum. Your inertia carries you over the roots and rocks in the path, which can quickly catch you off balance when tackled more cautiously. For example… Following a back marker about ¾ of the way around the first lap we had to clear a fallen tree. I lifted the front wheel which cleared the trunk fine, but misjudged our slow pace and the rear tyre bounced off the top, rebounding sideways. My saddle was pushed into me with such force it rotated to a 45degree angle. I rode the rest of the lap standing on the pedals, which is surprisingly tiring!

I stopped in the pits, grabbed an allen key and corrected the saddle. It may only have taken a minute, but so early in the race the field hadn’t strung out and dozens of riders I had just battled past came streaming through. Taking the opportunity for a swig of water and bite of banana I was underway again and once more picking my way forward through the pack. Suddenly a rider ahead fell, I dodged round the prone figure as he writhed in the mud, but my front wheel washed out and I also went down with a thump! More time lost and 3 positions handed back to those behind. I was aware my knee hurt afterwards, but it was kind of lost in the general body aches of racing. It was only the next day as I was limping around the office I realized I must have given it quite a whack!

Laps 3 and 4 were stunningly fun. Now with some free space around me I could enjoy all that glorious singletrack! Braking late and diving into the corners, accelerating away towards the next bend. There were also a couple of really sharp climbs which perfectly suited me. I powered up, weaving between people pushing their bikes or leaning against them grabbing a breather! 

At this point, despite my problems, I’d been averaging 40 minutes a lap, so I was still aiming to squeeze 6 laps into the 4 hour race time. The weather however, had other plans! It started to rain towards the end of lap 4 and the course quickly became very slippery indeed. I had to abandon hope of that 6th lap as I slithered around the twisty corners battling for grip. Water flowed down some sections of the course like a stream. Riding to the left or right of the marked route was frequently faster than the gloop created where hundreds of tyres had churned the trail. Of course, where there were trees or bushes this wasn’t always possible and I even had to resort to foot on a couple of short inclines near the end of the lap such was the poor state of the course.

Having started so far back I was genuinely surprised and pleased to find I had finished 8th! My trials and tribulations had definitely cost me several minutes, although this probably didn’t affect my race position dramatically. I know next time to make sure I arrive in time to grab a decent starting position to prevent getting caught up in the traffic. 

Friday, 15 December 2017

Welcome to Watopia!

It had been raining all day and now the temperature outside was well below zero. I was not looking forward to a freezing bike ride on the treacherously icy roads. As it turned out my ride was so warm, all I wore was a pair of shorts!

It wasn’t my usual evening route either. Setting out from a picturesque seaside port I cycled up through the foothills of snowcapped mountains, all along traffic free roads. The only other people passed were other cyclists of every conceivable nationality. There was no need for an airfare to experience the foreign land of Watopia.  I hadn’t even left the house, I was plugged into the virtual world of Zwift.

Indoor turbo sessions are traditionally amongst the most tedious ways to spend an evening. I used to regularly schedule indoor interval sessions into my training, but even with headphones blaring out my favourite tunes, or watching TV, 30 minutes of sweaty monotony was about as much as I could stand.

In contrast my first visit to Watopia was fully absorbing. My online avatar only pulled to the side of the road well after an hour had passed because it was 10.30pm, I had to be at work the following day and was now in desperate need of a shower!

I don’t know if it will continue to hold my attention in the same way, but there is a whole world out there to explore! The resistance to the rear wheel varies dependent on the terrain and gradient, simulating a real world ride. You find yourself jumping out the saddle to crest a short ramp, or settling in for longer ascents. It creates a much more stimulating interactive experience.

All the time there are other cyclists all around you. Some zooming past at improbable speeds, others you catch and some you end up riding with. (Yes, slip-streaming works!) If you want you can even chat with them, wave, or ring your bell! Naturally you can adjust the appearance of your avatar right down to a slide bar to control the length of your socks!

I only scratched the surface with my first visit, but I’m looking forward to discovering more. The downside is that although there are no travel cost you still have to pay to access Watopia. When my 10 day free trial ends I need to decide if it is worth the £12.99 monthly subscription. You’ll also need a Smart trainer like my Tacx Vortex, which at the best part of £400 is one of the cheaper units on the market.

Of course I’d much rather be out in the real world, which is the main reason I enjoy cycling. However, when the weather outside is really miserable there is something to be said for the comfort of staying indoors. Added to which your bike doesn’t get dirty. 

Today I cycled around an empty central London!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Brass Monkeys Racing

Exhausted, fingers too numb with cold to push the gear shift, the icey rain dripping down my neck and sloshing into my shoes around frozen toes. Fighting to make progress with my rear wheel fishtailing due to lack of grip in the muddy slime.

The winter Brass Monkeys series has been a favourite of mine since 2010! The Marathon race format in winter conditions proves a challenge for both rider and machine. Over the years we’ve experienced everything from boggy mud baths to rock hard frozen ground, ice and snow.

Of course sometimes it’s a glorious days racing, sweeping around the technical woodland course in winter sunshine. However, you have to be realistic about the UK weather if entering outdoor events in December and January.

It is a format that suits me and I’ve raced consistently in the top 10, ending the 2014/15 series 5th overall. A good series position is all about consistency and getting the bike across the line at all the rounds over a winter of 16+ hours racing. Mechanicals and illness have scuppered my hopes more than once!
I missed last years races due to other commitments, but I’ll be back on the starting line for ‘The Christmas Cracker’ on Sunday. I’ve learnt my lesson and won’t be wearing a Santa outfit this year!

The format has changed since I last raced. Previously you had to start your last lap before the 4 hour curfew. I’ve forgotten how many times I raced against the clock to squeeze in another lap and having killed myself to make it across the line with seconds to spare, then had to set off on another 7 mile loop! Since last year the events have effectively been shortened, as riders now have to complete their final lap within 4 hours. So race times will be around an hour less. 3 ½ to 4 hours might be a benefit to me as I’ve fewer training miles in my legs.

Getting your clothing right is a big challenge for winter racing. Standing on a frosty start line in the morning all those thermal layers might make sense, but as the sun comes up and temperatures rise it’s easy to overheat. After 4 hours riding in heavy rain you’ll be soaked no matter what you’re wearing, so you have to decide if it’s worth putting on a sweaty waterproof and trapping a gallon of water in neoprene overshoes? It’s best to keep some spare layers in the pit just in case conditions change either way.

It’s also important that your bike is running flawlessly at the start, because any mechanical weakness will be found out. At muddy events brake pads quickly wear and racing on a slippery course without brakes can end in disaster. Badly prepped gears and drivechain will only get worse as they clog, costing time with every sticky shift. I’ve stopped fitting proper winter tyres in all but the very worst conditions, sticking with the confidence that comes from familiarity. Despite its low profile tread the Specialized Fastrak copes admirably in winter conditions and rolls well on frozen or more solid ground. A Schwalbe Rocket Ron digs in nicely up front and the open lugs don’t easily clog. I’ll switch the Fastrak to a Snakeskin Ron on the rear if it looks like it’s going to be muddy.

This kind of event is all about keeping the legs turning. You’re the engine, so eat and drink well the day before, and stock your pit area with food and fluids that you can take on every 15 minutes right up to that final caffeine gel to power you round the final lap!

There are 3 events in this years series.

·         The Christmas Cracker  - December 17th
·         The New year Hangover  - January 7th

·         The Winter Warmer - January 28th

Friday, 8 December 2017

Moon Meteor Storm Pro Light Review

If you are going to be doing a lot of riding after dark it makes sense to get yourself a quality light to be seen and to see where you are going. Front head lights can be a serious investment of several hundred pounds. For the past 10 years or more I’ve been a dedicated fan of Exposure lights, liking their wireless handlebar set-up and high output. However, the cost is starting to become prohibitive so when my latest light needed replacement I looked around for some alternatives.

I settled on the Moon Meteor Storm Pro RRP £125. (Available for less!)

The maximum output of 1700 lumens compares favourably to the more expensive Exposure units, with a run time of 2 hours in this setting.

That’s the figures but what is the light like in the real world? On the road I run in on the 3rd brightness setting of the 5 available (850 lumens). This is more than adequate 90% of the time for normal riding, even on fast descents. It also isn’t so bright that it dazzles oncoming drivers and runs for the best part of 4.5 hours in this mode. I’ve only once felt the need to increase the output, on a narrow leaf covered lane in the pouring rain.

Off-road I have used the higher settings much more. The maximum output provides excellent trail visibility when tackling technical terrain or moving at speed. Again I drop it back to conserve battery life when climbing or riding wider fire roads.

A “boost” mode is available, kicking out 2000 lumens for a brief 10 seconds with a double press of the button. To be honest I don’t find this useful at all, it’s just not long enough. When things are about to get sketchy you don’t want to be fumbling for buttons, so you naturally boost early and then quickly loose the benefit when you actually need it.

The button is nicely accessible on the top of the case, but reasonably hard to activate, especially with gloved hands. There is remote switch supplied in the box which really helps on the mountain bike as you don’t have to take your hands off the bars. I’ve yet to find a convenient spot on the road bike that is any better than just using the switch on the light.

The LED display lets you monitor the battery level (Fully charged/High/Half depleted/Low) When you press the button it also displays the current output setting for a few seconds.

One gripe about the switch is that you can only cycle through the brightness settings in one direction. So when you reach a tricky area and need to increase output, you have to cycle through all the dimmer settings first. This can take a few seconds with the firm button feel. In reality what you want to do is toggle backwards and forwards between high and low.

The handlebar mount with my light is very stiff. It’s a difficult balance to stop it being loose and rattily I guess, but it can be a real struggle removing the light at the end of a ride. I also must have inadvertently failed to lock the light securely to the bracket on one ride. My expensive Meteror skittling across the road shortly after I had set-off! The plastic mount uses a finger tightened clamp. Mine hasn’t slipped, but it is a little bulkier and unsightly compared to the neat Exposure bracket which I used to leave on my bike all winter. My light was also supplied with a machined ‘out-front mount’ that allows you to fit a Garmin on top and the light underneath. I’m pleased I didn’t pay £50 for this bracket as it places the light upside down, making it impossible to read the display. The switch is now also inaccessible so you’ll rely on the remote or, like I do, just leave it alone. More fundamentally the design of the light means that there is an unacceptable amount of upwards light bleed shining into your face when used in this configeration.

So the Moon definitely has some niggly issues. Fundamentally however the light itself is an impressive bit of kit. It provides hours of very usable light that will cover the longest winter commutes or multi hour evening MTB rides. It also seems a very robust, sturdy 215g unit. As mentioned it survived bouncing down the road totally unscathed! It’s also working fine after some pretty damp and muddy outings. The light is USB rechargeable so you can top it up at work for the ride home. Charging times vary up to 6hrs depending on method, with an indication of when its fully charged.

Summary: Recommended based on performance, but Moon could improve some of the human factors of the design. Avoid the ‘out-front’ bar mount. 

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Magic Number!

What is the ideal number of bikes? General wisdom is of course that it is one more than you currently own!

I was checking my stats on Strava the other day. It was the end of November and I had just cleared 5000 miles for the year so far. What caught my attention however, was that I had divided this mileage perfectly equally (to within 50miles) between my 4 steads.

It’s a bit of a lucky fluke, but it suggests that maybe I’ve got my riding stable pretty sorted for the cycling that I do.

I’m lucky enough to have two mountain and two road bikes. A pair of Sunday best, race day bikes, plus two commuting and training work horses. My “go to” bike is the fully rigid Stumpjumper, as it can go anywhere keeping my options open. It’s really my version of the now very on trend Gravel Bike.

This stat also highlights the change in my circumstances this year. Normally, despite calling myself a mountain biker, the core of my annual mileage was on the road. This year it’s interesting to see when I have had chance to get out I’ve ridden as many off-road miles. The average speed will be slower off-road so I’ll actually have spent more time on the mountain bikes.

So does this mean there is no need for a new bike? Of course not! There is always the lure of something newer and shinier! An Epic Hardtail please Santa! 

Monday, 27 November 2017

What to do in 2018?

Several people have asked me if I plan to race again next year.

Truth is I haven’t had a reply for them. Until now I've not had the head space to consider it. Now things are a bit more settled I've finally started thinking about my cycling goals for 2018.

Although the closure of City Cycles might mean more opportunity to race, fitting in training with a young family will still be challenging. My fitness isn’t what it was and I can’t see I’ll get close to the 10 hours a week in the saddle I regularly clocked up a couple of years ago. A month into the new job and 7 hours is proving a challenge. So I'll need to make more efficient use of the time I do have.

What I need is a goal and focus but what should my target be?

I turn 40 in February making 2018 my first year as a Vet. The Vets are fast! It is frequently a faster and more competitive category than Masters or Open where I have spent the past 10 years. Looking at the lap times from last years Gorrick Spring series I’d estimate I would have been on the outskirts of the top 10 in Vets. So not chasing the podiums like this year!

The national XC championship is back at Hadleigh this year which is a challenge I really enjoyed in 2015. Unlikely I will better the 14th place achieved 2 years ago however.

At my preferred marathon format events like the Brighton Big Dog where I finished 14th overall this summer, I’d have been 12th in the Vets class. So again little new to ride for.

However, with time to sit and contemplate, even if I don’t know where, I'm excited to say, “Yes, I will be racing next year.” I look forward to returning to the Brass Monkeys next month after a year off. I'll follow up these three events with the Gorrick Spring XC races next year.

However, I think the truth is I’m struggling for to find real motivation from the events I would normally have entered in the past. It’s a case of been there and done that. I’ve achieved everything I think I can while maintaining a work/life/cycling balance. So over the next few months I'll see if I can find something new to focus my attention on.

I won't be racing in the blue of City Cycles next year.

Friday, 17 November 2017

British Cycling allow disc brakes in road races for 2018!

Just as I was mulling over what events to enter next year, British Cycling announce that they are going to allow disc brakes in road races.
Tip toeing around Goodwood in the bunch
I entered a closed circuit race at Goodwood last summer, but I had to break my old Trek out of retirement, as it was the only bike I had that was eligible. I wasn’t feeling particularly confident about the experience of bunch racing anyway, given the hospital visit that followed my previous road race! So not being on my usual bike didn’t help. Also the Merida Scultura is undoubtedly a much better weapon for racing. I know “it’s not about the bike” but it would certainly help psychologically at least.
Race legal this year!
So I am delighted that BC have seen the light. I know others will not be, siting the discrepancy in braking ability within the bunch as dangerous – not an argument I understand. The aim of the announcement was to make the sport more inclusive and accessible. For me at least it has worked. I wasn’t planning on adding any road events to my calendar for 2018, but now I’ll definitely give it some consideration. (Just don't tell Mrs C!)

Well done British Cycling!

Thursday, 9 November 2017

If it ain't raining, it ain't training!

As mentioned in my previous post, it has been a busy few weeks. We’ve closed the shop, which was the most manically, busiest time I've ever experienced. I then immediately started my new job the very next day. The new commute ride is under 3 miles if I go direct, so it will need some extending if the journey is to provide any kind of serious training.

With no more workshop I've also had to migrate my cycling kit back home. Evenings are once again spent beavering away in the shed! Talking of the evenings, now the clocks have changed it is dark early. So it can take extra motivation to get the bike out at the end of a busy day.

As an example, the weather forecast was terrible for Tuesday, with heavy rain moving in around 6pm. I dropped everything at 5pm and was out the office door in my cycle kit by 5.15. A light drizzle was already falling and immediately fogged up my glasses as I cruised out of the car park. If I rode straight home I’d beat the worst of the weather and be home and dry in around 15 minutes.

However, my extra motivation to stay out came in the form of the weekly club ride which was due to meet outside the old shop at 6.30. I was out and kitted up - what was a bit of rain! So with over an hour to kill I cruised through town and out into the lanes north of Chichester. The rain became heavier and heavier and I got slowly damper, but the effort kept me warm. With over 20 miles in the bank I rolled up to the shop just as the heavens really let rip. 

The rain pounded the road, drumming on my cycle helmet as I waited. I was aware it was madness, but I felt compelled to hang around to see if anyone was as bonkers as me. Amazingly Scott rolled round the corner and joined me in the torrential downpour.

The two of us had just decided that nobody need know if we slipped home instead of committing to the route published on the Whatapp group, when Colin drove up in a sea of spray. For some reason it felt wrong to pack it in now there was three of us. Damn Colin!

So off we set on roads that were more like rivers. The spray from Scotts rear wheel filling my shoes and the wind chilling my hands inside sodden gloves. It was horrific and to any sane human being we were utterly mad. But that sense of camaraderie meant we slogged our way through the darkness to the top of Selhurst. I lost all sense of feeling in my hands on the descent, so we did indeed cut things short, but we’d been out. Together we'd ridden our bikes which I'm sure we'd never have contemplated left to our own devices. We were committed cyclists and proudly posted a photo on social media to prove our dedication to those who had (sensibly) stayed at home. They'd missed out! 

Wet & frozen but we were out riding our bikes!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

2017 Summary

You'll have noticed my weekly blogs have slowed somewhat lately. Such are the pressures for time on a business owner! The big announcement is that City Cycles will be closing this month. Initially this is likely to mean extra pressure on my time, but we'll see how we get on once things settle down.

Away from business autumn is traditionally when the cycling season ends, riders reflect on the achievements of the year and look ahead and start planning their training for the next seasons goals. Here is my look back at 2017 from a cycling point of view.

Club and Sponsorship:
Owner and rider for City Cycles, we were sponsored by McMurdo and Strada wheels.

I continued to race the S-Works Stumpjumper with no upgrades from last year.
I didn’t apply for a British Cycling racing license this year as I had no race goals.

Riding and training time was limited at the end of 2016 and into 2017. So I tried to hang on best I could to a residual level of fitness. I set a basic goal of 100 miles a week, which I have achieved more often than not. The truth is though that 2017 will be my lowest annual total of time in the saddle since 2010.

Finishing 4th in the first Gorrick Masters in January lead to me focusing on the series. Another 4th at round two and then stepping on the podium in 2nd at the third round meant I was leading on points going into the final race. Unfortunately I only managed 6th which meant I tied on points with the winner, losing out on count back to finish second in the series. Disappointed and pleased at the same time!
2nd in the Gorrick Masters Spring Series

I rode against Darren in the Open category at the Southern Champs, having a strong race to finish 6th.

In an attempt to motivate others from the Tuesday shop ride I entered a road race at Goodwood motor circuit in July. It was my first return to bunch road racing since an accident a few years ago at Dunsfold. I was nervous, with very little confidence and didn't enjoy the experience. I did enough to ensure I finished with the bunch and didn't bother contesting for a position.

In August I learnt just how much my fitness has suffered compared to previous years. At the Brighton Big Dog I had to really reign myself in just to ensure I finished. In the end 14th wasn’t a bad result - but I felt terrible!
Relief as I crossed the line at Brighton Big Dig with a beer

Weekly Tuesday shop rides have been a success and became my cycling social outing! The pace could be slow, but it got me out every week regardless of the weather and we have created a great group that will hopefully continue to cycle together in the future.

I wasn’t often free to meet up with the usual Sunday group, but it was great to catch up on the rare occasion we did all make it out together.

Isle of Wight ride. The weather was utterly glorious, the roads quite and smooth - 100 miles with great company.

In summary:
Fitness might be fading and there was much less opportunity for cycling, but I was still out their enjoying racing and riding my bike!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Merida Launch Event 2018

Last week I made the 3 hour drive to Nottingham and attended the Merida 2018 launch event. As the quote goes, "Merida are the biggest bike company you've never heard of". They are in fact the 2nd largest bicycle manufacturer in the world and have been producing bikes for better known names for decades. These include Specialized of whom they hold a 49% stake and the Merida bikes roll off the produciton line next to those from the big 'S'.

Obviously at such an event it is the new bikes that attract the attention. Without doubt the most attention grabbing of these is the redesigned Reacto. The Merida design office in Germany has been busy, improving the aerodynamic efficiency by 5% while at the same time decreasing the weight to around 1kg. This makes the aero focused bike a consideration as an everyday bike, even if you live in the hills. 

Merida also claim the new Reacto is more comfortable. A large part of this is the S-Flex seatpost, which now has a bigger flexible 'zone', but also the seatstays have been re-profiled to increase vertical compliance.

The other fresh faced bike from the Taiwnese / German giants is the all new Silex. This is Merida's first foray into the, on trend, gravel bike market. I'll admit that from the initial photos I didn't think the Silex wasn much of a looker. However, the Silex was the star of the show for me! That long head tube which initially grated is growing on me. It has a purpose to. It raises the front of the bike to put the rider in a more stable, upright position increasing comfort and improving confidence in loose conditions. It also makes the front of the bike stiffer and improves steering compared to the stack of headset spacers that riders often use to raise the handlebar of their bike.

Swinging a leg over the bike I just wanted to ride it away. As a mountain biker it felt totally natural, this was a road bike made for me. Long top tube, low bottom bracket and short stem. It is a bike intended for unpaved roads and can take tyres up to 42mm or 2.25in 650B's. I can't wait to ride one!

On the mountain bike side of things there is a new One-Forty, which follows on the coat tails of the critically acclaimed One-Sixty. It looks agressive standing still, sitting on its 2.6in tyres. Given how I enjoyed riding the shorter travel One-Twenty last year I can only begin to imagine how fun this bike would be to ride.

As a XC racer there wasn't anything new for me. The carbon Big Nine remains unchanged as does the Ninety-Six full sus race bike. The aluminium Big Nine and Big Seven frame has been redesigned and looks hot with it's new shaped alloy tubing.

Friday, 25 August 2017


Emptying my pockets after the Big Dog race.

1 oat bar, 4 energy bars, 1 gel, 1 caffeine gel, 12 energy blocks, 2 bananas, 5.5 litres of electrolyte water and 1 litre of water.

The list above was all digested by me during 6 hours of racing at Brighton Big Dog. Written down it seems like a lot, but during the race I was craving my next hit and would definitely have eaten even more if I could have crammed it into my jersey pockets.

If you want to avoid hitting the dreaded wall, and ward off cramp during a longer event it is essential that you refuel as you ride. I started a habit a long time ago of making myself eat every 30 minutes during a race, regardless of the situation. It pays off in the long run even if you have to surrender a position while munching through a banana.

Energy gels and bars are pretty sickly affairs and can start to get unpalatable when you've already eaten half a dozen that morning. So I have always mixed in bananas, fig rolls and oat bars to keep things appetizing. Actually the Big Dog was the first race for a long time where I haven't taken fig rolls. I'm a recent convert to Clif Bloks energy chews. There are 6 of the little bite sized cubes in the tube which you can squeeze out one at a time. I started with strawberry flavour, dabbled with the caffeine Black Current chews, but my personal favourite is the salty Margarita with added sodium.

Clif bars are great, and more oat bar than energy bar - so less sickly. Peanut Butter is my current fave, but I could be tempted by any. Otherwise I mix and match an assortment of the SIS bars and gels to keep it fresh and interesting.

Despite all the millions invested in the development of these energy foods I still find that the good old banana gives me the best mid race boost. The potassium also wards off cramps, the only negative being that they are slightly difficult to transport. (In the end you get used to eating mushy banana. It's easier to chew anyway!)

I always add SIS electrolyte tablets to my bottles. Again it gives you more energy than standard water, although I'll often keep a plain water bottle in the pit area at hotter events, which can be gulped or poured over
the head when stopping to pick up supplies.

Different riders will swear by all sorts of mid race snacks. The important thing is to find what works for you and what will seem appetizing and digestible 5 hours into an event. Practice eating on social rides before your big event so your body is used to digesting food on the go.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Ben's Bike for Brighton Big Dog

Brighton Big Dog is all about the climbs. Sure this means there is an equal amount fo sweet descents, but these are more flowing and aren't particularly techincal. A lightweight hardtail is the weapon of choice on such a climbers course. Sure you could argue that over six hours a full suspension bike will reduce fatigue as you hammer over a gazillion roots. However, if you want pure speed I think a weight weenie race bike will get you round the 6 mile course faster every time.

For 2017 I'm still riding my S-Works Stumpjumper, the medium frame weighing just over 1kg. Up front are the 100mm travel DT Swiss OMP O.L.D Race forks, which are buttery smooth, weigh less than two full water bottles and can be locked out via the neat bar remote when stonking on the pedals up a climb.

Such are the severity of a couple of the climbs that this is one of those rare occasions where I use the lowest gear. Since Switzerland last summer I have been running a 30t Absolute Black oval chainring paired with a 10-42 cassette at the rear.

Tyres are another area to save weight and reduce rolling resistance. I have reviewed the Vittoria Peyote on my blog previously and love the confidence and predictability it provides up front. I'm a recent convert to the rediculously skinny and low profile Specialized Renegade, but I have been impressed. Early in the race when it was still a bit greasey under the trees I had to observe a little caution on the descents, but it rolled fast everywhere else. Be warned I opted for the Control casing, the lighter S-Works is a little fragile and prone to punctures.

XTR brakes, shifters and rear mech peformed faultlessly as usual. I pinch a few grams back by using Hope floating disc rotors, there are even lighter options out there, but I haven't found one that offers the stopping power and control of the Hopes.

I've got a 17 degree negative rise Ritchey WCS stem to slam the 680mm Pro handlebar as low as it can go. Lightweight carbon rims on Stans hubs, built up by Darren at Strada wheels keep the weight to a minimum, but are reliable and easy to maintain.

Hanging under the Phenom saddle is a saddle bag. Largely due to laziness, unusually I carried two inner tubes where I'd normally have saved a few grams and left the second in the pit area. Packed in with the tubes were two tyre levers, a Topeak chain tool and SRAM chain link. I carried a Lezyne pump in my jersey pocket and left the CO2 cannister at home this time to make room for the second tube. 

She's a lightweight beauty and she didn't skip a beat the entire race.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Brighton Big Dog 2017

What a difference a year makes! 12 months ago Big Dog was the first weekend of a triple header that included the Swiss Grand Raid and the National Marathon Champs. I arrived prepared, fit and ready for 6 hours and the best part of 3000m of climbing. As a result I finished 10th in a high class field which included the National Champion. This year I had no competitive marathon events under my belt before Brighton and only a fraction of the mileage in my legs. I was going to have to rely on experience and determination.

My first mistake was pretty fundamental. My daughter woke me at 6.30am so we got up and had breakfast. I started the race at 12pm having eaten nothing since my morning bowl of cereal, apart from a banana. The 12 o-clock start is tricky, but an early lunch would have set me up far better for 6 hours of grueling racing. 

The second mistake was hoping that I'd somehow rediscover the form of 12 months ago. The competitive instinct meant I set off at a similar pace to last year. The reality check came 4 laps in, when after only 2hrs and 30 minutes I had my first twang of cramp in my thighs. There was still a very long way to go, so I ate everything I had in my jersey pockets, downed my bottle of water and backed right off. Laps 5 and 6 were slow as I spun my way up the climbs, but luckily I started to recover and felt strong enough to push a little harder again on the final couple of laps. 

Brighton Big Dog is undoubtably the best event I attend in terms of atmosphere, organisation and the fantastic course. The route is really one for the climbers, with several long agonising fireroad ascents and a couple of sharp, technical, rooty climbs thrown in for good measure. The reward for all that climbing is some absolutely awesome singletrack decents. It's very enjoyable and rewarding. Luckily the rain over night hadn't made much impact under the trees of Stanmer park and the trails were running fast in the sunshine.

Considering the mess I was in at the half way point I am really proud to hold it all together and make it to the finish at all. 14th out of 72 in an age range of 18 to 39 ain't bad either for an old timer 6 months from his 40th birthday.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Schwalbe Pro One Tyre Review- Road Tubeless

There has been lots of road cycling topics on my blog recently, you'd be forgiven for forgetting I am an mountain biker! This is a review for tubeless road bike tyres, a mountain biking staple for many years that is now finally coming across to the road.

I purchased the Schwalbe Pro One's as a pair in a conversion pack supplied with latex and tyre lubricant. I chose 25mm tyres which I fitted to a pair of Roval CLX 32 rims. 

Mounting tubeless tyres is something I've done a thousand times on the mountain bike. The process was the same and there were no unexpected surprises with the Pro One's. They snapped onto the rim easily and I added the sealant through the valve, removing the core with the tool supplied with the tyre kit. Both tyres inflated with minimal fuss using a track pump. Where it was slightly more unnerving was pumping them up to 90 psi instead of 20, and it certainly made me jump as the bead popped into place with a loud 'crack!'

First impressions are muted by the squeaky noise the fresh rubber makes as it squirms along the asphalt. The best way to describe it is like wearing new trainers at the squash court. Whether this is mould release agent from manufacture I don't know, but it does fade quite quickly. Grip is also worryingly low during those early first few miles. I'd say it was about 60-80 miles before my confidence grew and I was able to lean on the tyres during high speed corners. I haven't experienced this with new tyres before and don't know why tubeless tyres should be any different.

One of the definite advantages of the tubeless set-up was the ability to run the tyres at 80 to 85psi. There is a significant improvement in comfort with no trade off in rolling resistance compared to the 95 to 100psi I'd normally run on a tubed set-up.

I really don't rate the Schwalbe Doc Blue latex supplied with the kit. Overnight between every ride for the first week the tyres went flat. They stayed up during the rides, but you seem to need to keep the latex active inside the tyre because as soon as I stopped the pressures would drop. Swapping to Stans No Tubes immediately cured the problem.

The first wet ride was a big disappointment. The Pro Ones are sketchy, providing very little confidence in corners and desperately low grip compared to something like the similarly priced Continental 4000s2. On steep climbs the rear wheel was spinning out, while those around me encountered no such difficulties finding traction. Bear in mind that the lower pressures of tubeless tyres should, in theory, offer more grip due to the larger contact area with the ground. The rain had also washed out flints and grit which lead to a small cut in the center of the tyre which refused to seal.

Nowadays when I ride a mountain bike with inner tubes it feels totally wooden. The same was true when I swapped back to tubes after riding the Pro Ones. So I've learnt that tubeless has definite advantages in terms of the ride quality, but after a month and several hundred miles the Schwalbe Pro Ones are unfortunately coming off the bike.  

Even after the unusual bedding in period the Schwalbe Pro Ones do not offer the performance of a high quality tubed tyre and I'd definitely avoid the Schwalbe latex. Time for me to explore some other tubeless options.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Road Racing - I probably won't be trying it again.

This blog is about me (Ben) racing bikes. Nothing says what type of bikes!

Mountain Biking is of course my first love, it's in my DNA. Its everything I love about cycling. I've been racing off-road for 20 years, seen it all and know the scene inside out. My limited experience of road racing is two closed circuit races at a 4th cat level. The second race was yesterday and having finished there was no rush of excitement and verbal diarrhea that comes after an off-road event. Sitting here now I am not motivated in any way to try it again. Why?

First the positive. It certainly makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck the first time you ride at high speed in a large peleton. It's like nothing else in cycling, just the noise of 50 bikes is something else.

After a few minutes you get used to riding elbow to elbow, sucked along by those in front. The excitement level drops. You then spend the next 8 laps desperately trying to hold your line and not to collide with those around you. You want to stay tucked into the group although you seem magnetically drawn to the back.

Of course at some point you decide to break the boredom by visiting the front of the pack. You grab a wheel and work your way forward. Its great, you're going nearly 30mph and feeling strong - maybe you could make a break? Then the rider ahead pulls over and the wind hits you like you've ridden into a brick wall. You are at the head to a huge arrow of riders and your legs are burning with the effort. After what seems like eternity, somebody comes through and you begin to freefall like a stone back through the pack. The effort has pushed you to your physical limit and now your legs are churning, lungs heaving as the last rider slips past. You have to get out of the saddle and sprint to try and hang onto the same group which a moment ago you were leading.

After a couple more laps you recover and settle back into the group. The pace dips and then picks up again, the peloton concertinas and then stretches out. All you and majority of the others want to do is stay safely in the pack. A few at the front try fruitlessly to escape, the best getting maybe 20 meters down the road before they too fade and drop back.

90% of the race is about survival and staying upright. Final lap - the bell rings signalling the start of the real race. The pace increases dramatically as everyone jostles for a position near the front. People take risks as they try to move forward and things get a little scary. Sweeping into the last corner those who have managed to get into the lead fight out the sprint, the rest coast across the line, finishing position now totally irrelevant. You could have spent the entire race rolling along merrily in the middle of the group without putting in any effort at all.

In a mountain bike race you have to push hard for the entire distance. You might be 50th, but you'll fight tooth and nail with the rider ahead for 49th. There is always somebody to race, and the course itself to challenge yourself against. Road racing isn't like that. You wait the entire race, and if you choose the wrong wheel to follow at the critical moment you've boxed out and have to wait for next week.

Perhaps that is what motivates people - the thought that perhaps it'll work out next time and they will be in the right place at the right time. It requires fitness undoubtedly, skill to position and gauge your effort but definitely luck. Personally I think I'll stick to the knobbly tyres.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Beware of the dark side!

Today is race day! But instead of packing the shock pump and driving into a muddy wood I'm heading for the glamour of Goodwood motor circuit. This is because I am racing a closed circuit road race.

This will be only my second competitive outing on the black top. Unfortunately my first ended in a London A&E department, having my ear sewn back on. This wasn't my fault. Unlike mountain biking accidents which are a result of your own lack of talent and the trees don't tend to leap out at you. In a road race you are very dependent on the other riders. My previous race came to a dramatic end when the rider ahead of me unclipped and went down as he opened up the final sprint. At 30 mph there wasn't any time to take avoiding action.

Due to the UCI's aversion to disc brakes I'll be taking the same old bike to Goodwood. This has a tiny 46t chainring so there will not be much chance of me taking part in the sprint today - which is probably a good thing! This evenings race is more about the atmosphere and the experience.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Lights, camera, action!

A short video we made this week at Stoughton near Kingley Vale.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Merida One-Twenty 7 XT Review

This is a very different bike to the usual XC race machines I normally ride. It is the type of bike that encourages you to have fun and push boundaries.

120mm may not sound like a lot of travel and by modern standards it isn't, but I ended up throwing it downhill like a hooligan. Lets not pretend here, I normally like both wheels attached to the ground and speed to be a result of my own input rather than gravity assisted. However the Merida encouraged me to get the pads out of the shed for the first time in years and try a style of riding that is slightly different.

The frame is technically a single pivot design with surprise, surprise 120mm of travel courtesy of a Fox EVOL shock. The shock leverage is controlled by a linkage and is mounted to the lover swingarm at the other end. This works a treat, you feel well supported when pedalling with the rear end beautifully controlled over moderately rough stuff  the suspension doing a great job of keeping the rear wheel on the ground. Taking it a step further even I was able to easily use the maximum amount of travel on offer.

The XT edition I was riding came with a 130mm travel Rock Shox Sektor fork. This is the let down of the bike. The action of the fork is nowhere near as smooth and reactive as the rear suspension, which leaves the bike feeling a bit mismatched. I tried running the fork at quite a low pressure to encourage a more supple feel, but it still felt wooden. The bike I had was the 2016 version and I notice Merida have specced a Fox fork this year, perhaps this will have resolved the problem.

The full XT drivechain works beautifully as I have come to expect of Shimano. Even the slightly tired groupset on my demo bike never skipped a beat, even as I stumbled over jumps and drops.

It isn't the lightest bike in the world, but the aluminium frame is pretty easy on the scales compared to the competition. Coupled with the fork and shock lock outs you can propel yourself uphill efficiently, but the fun begins when you've got to the top of the hill. It sure brings a smile to your face on the way back down. You'll get the most out of this bike when you ride it aggressively, and chuck it around a bit. The handling is on the money and the rear suspension is impressive. The Merida One Twenty is a bit of a blast!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Southern XC Championship

As we negotiated the nonchalant New Forest ponies I was reminded of the frustration of last years Southern Area Championships. I missed out on the podium by half a second. Once again the champs were being held at Crow Hill, but 12 months later given my limited training I wasn't expecting to be anywhere near the podium this time round.

The largest number of riders I have seen at a race for some time gathered in the sunshine. Having missed the previous rounds I wasn't gridded, but was lucky to still find myself on the second row for the start. We sprinted away around the wide sweeping opening curves before we descended down to the wood. I made a good get away escaping the melee behind. No chance to look back but there was plenty of shouting and the unmistakable sound of bikes tangling as elbows and handlebars became intertwined.

I surrendered a couple of places before we turned into the first series of tricky left and right bends. Under the trees the path was still damp and along with wet roots it meant we had to tip toe around until the course opened up and the speed increased again.

There was a long double track path which gradually lead into the first climb. Amazingly in a race of 60 riders I found myself isolated, too far back to get a slip stream from the group ahead, but a few seconds clear of those frantically chasing behind.

The wooded sections were littered with roots. As I clattered through, bouncing over the serpentine network of woody limbs I wished for the extra climbing traction and confidence on descents of a full suspension bike.

I passed one or two stragglers that fell back from the group ahead of me, finishing the first lap somewhere outside the top 10. I continued to race on my own, the group dangling like a carrot a few seconds ahead. I was caught by one rider who passed me during the second lap, but I quickly got back in front towing him along behind me for a while. At least this kept me focused as it can be hard to maintain a race pace on your own.

Into the third lap I eventually closed on the remains of the group I had been chasing all race. I tucked in amongst the wheels waiting for the long fireroad at the beginning of the final lap to make my attack. In preparation I moved up to second in the group as we worked through the last section of singletrack before the course opened up. There was one particularly large root which I had jumped on the previous 3 laps. For some reason as I chased closely behind the rider ahead I decided to swing around the root this time. At high speed my front wheel caught the edge of the root and washed out bringing me crashing to the ground in a cloud of gravel and dust.

Leaping quickly back on I discovered my brake and gear lever had been twisted round the handlebar, so I had to try and beat them back into position while negotiating the rest of the roots and trees. I hurtled along the fireroad roaring straight past the group I had been with, even catching a couple of others by the top of the climb.

Fuelled by adrenalin I chased every wheel. I was catching back markers now so I was passing riders left, right and center. On the final climb where last year I had so narrowly missed out on a podium, there was one final rider up ahead. I closed in and dodged past dashing for the line

It seems it wasn't just back markers I had been passing. Checking the results I ended the final lap in 6th place only a minute off the podium. So perhaps my fitness hasn't evaporated as much as I feared. In the end I am immensely pleased with how the race went and proud of the result.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Beginners Guide XC Racing - UK

You have been riding for a while and getting competitive with your riding buddies trying to be the first to the top of that killer climb during the Sunday social ride. Now you have decided to take the plunge and want to try your first XC (cross country) mountain bike race. So which category do you enter and what can you expect on the day?

At first glance the categories can seem confusing but if you are just starting out here are the options:

Ability based categories:

The easy, stress free first step. Often involves just a single 30 minute lap of the course. You'll get a huge range of abilities and equipment in a Fun race. Apart from a few ringers at the front you'll not need to worry about things getting overly competitive. It's a chance to find you feet and enjoy riding the course.

Exactly what it says - open to everyone. Expect an hour to 90 minutes of racing. Laps times at the front will be comparative with the leading times, so it'll provide you with a good bench mark of your level over a representative race distance.

These levels are recognised nationally (and internationally) by British Cycling and the UCI. If you have a race licence you begin your route up the tiered ranking in the Sport category. Based on your results you earn points and at the end of the season the top Sport riders in the country get upgraded to Expert and from Expert to Elite. These categories are for those aged 18-30. The race will probably be a lap longer than the Open race and obviously very competitive. This is where the serious club and sponsored riders fight it out.

Age based categories:

Masters / Veterans / Grand Vets / Super Vets
Over 30? Never fear you can race against people of similar vintage to yourself! Masters is 30-39, Veterans 40-49, Grand Vets 50-59 and Super Vets 60+. Don't think you're in for a easy time however, this is where the ex-pros end up in the twilight of their careers!

Start lines can be busy places get their early!

Race Day - What to expect
Make sure your bike is clean and well prepared the night before. A race is a tough environment for man and machinery, even very minor mechanical issues will cost you time and may end your race completely. Make sure you have tested your bike in its race spec. Race day is not the time to try something new, you want to be familiar with your bike if you are going to get the most out of it.

Arrive at the venue nice and early. Allow a minimum of an hour before your race. You will need to register and collect your number, and pre-ride the course. At some national events there are designated practice times, local events don't tend to have limits provided you stay out of the way of racers  while you're out on the course. Familiarising yourself with the route is very important. Going the wrong would be very costly and you'll also need to know if there are any technical sections where you may elect to ride the slower but easier 'B-line'. Charging around the corner into an unexpected gap jump is not something you want to do in a race. Also it gives you a feel for the lap and where to focus your efforts and where the passing opportunities are. 

Get to the start line at least 10 minutes before the race is due to begin. It is usual for different categories to start one after the other, so to avoid having to push your way through a throng of anxious hyped up racers make sure you know where you are meant to be and when. Some races are gridded based on performance at previous events so either wait for your name to be called or slot in at the back. Once on the grid stay where the commisaire instructs and wait for the starters horn/whistle/gun. You usually get 1 minute, 30 second and 10 second warnings.
The start is always a sprint! Hold your own but do so fairly.
The start will be fast as everyone jostles for position. Once underway fight for space and hold your ground but do it fairly. Making yourself as wide as you can is expected, but bumping and pushing is not going to go down well and may get you disqualified. When catching a slower rider an early shout of "Rider!" will make them aware of your approach. If you can help further and say "On your left/right" it will minimise time lost when passing. Obviously you don't have to let riders from your race through. However, you may be caught by faster riders from other categories racing at the same time as you. Imagine the shoe was on the other foot and allow them through as soon as possible. Nothing is more frustrating during a race than seeing a hard earned 10 second lead evapourate following somebody from a different race. So stay aware of your surroundings.

After you flop over the line in exhaustion enjoy a friendly chat with the guy who you spent the whole race chasing but just pipped you. At the end of the day racing is a very social activity, and you are likely to learn a lot from listening to how other riders handled the course, set-up their bike or their preparation. Tips that will be very useful next time! Stay to applaud the podium or collect your trophy and then head home with the warm post race buzz!