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

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!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Giro Bravo Glove - Quick Review

It as been some years since I wore fingerless gloves. I have preferred the added protection full fingers offer even in warmer weather. However, we're selling the Bravo gloves at City Cycles and in the interests of customer feedback thought I'd give them a try.

First up they fit me perfectly - by which I mean snug. The result is no uncomfortable creasing of the palm when holding the bars. I've got fairly average hands and the medium size was spot on.

Personally I choose gloves with little to no padding on the palm. There are padded areas on the palms of the Bravo but it is done subtly, providing a svelte thin profile. Across the centre of the hand there is only the synthetic leather resulting in a thin natural grip. There is a gel pad over the thumb and padding over the inner knuckles.

Overall I found the Bravo's offer a nicely shaped and supported grip on the bars. The cushioning doesn't feel over the top but does protect the key areas.

The other side of the glove is a thin mesh so not much protection from straggling undergrowth or a cold breeze. A nice simple Velcro fastener makes it easy to get the Bravo's on and off.

I really liked these gloves and they'll be a definite favourite through the summer. They are not for those who like lots of padding and protection, but do provide grip and comfort with minimal thickness.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Maintaining fitness

In December I became a bike shop owner. Making my passion for cycling a career. I now eat, sleep and breath bikes, but this does mean I've got far less time to ride them.

I made a New Year's resolution to ride 100 miles a week. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I kept that promise! Compared to recent years I am barely spending half the time on the bike that I used to. I just don't have the free time.

I went into the new enterprise expecting long days and for it to be all consuming, so this change hasn't been a surprise. What has actually surprised me is how long I have been able to maintain a representative level of fitness.

Time in the saddle has been greatly reduced for more than 6 months. Yet looking at the lap times from last week's races my comparative performance is still very similar to last year. I don't seem to have lost speed over 60 to 90 minutes.

Of course I used to focus on other longer distance events and I expect this is where I might struggle. I've on!y completed a handful of rides over 3 hours since completing 10 hours in the Alps at the Grand Raid last summer.

My riding has changed. I now have to grab a quick hour or even 30 minutes when I can. Surprisingly this has kept me in reasonably good shape. Perhaps there are less nonsense miles, when I do get out, making the effort is more focused?

What has been great is the dry weather this Spring. The local trails on the South Downs are running fast and they haven't yet got too overgrown. So no nettle and bramble rash keeping me up at night!

I will continue to ride when I can. There is no specific event focus this year, so we'll see how it goes. To be honest I've already visited the podium twice this year so it's been a good start.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Round 4 - Gorrick Spring Series

Consistency meant that I went into the final round of the Gorrick Spring Series at the top of the points table. After two 4th placed finishes and a 2nd, a podium in the last race would guarantee me the overall  Masters title. So no pressure!

My strength is the climbs and I need a good hill in a course to maximise my potential. Unfortunately the new Gorrick venue at Bordon is as flat as the preverbal pancake. The dry weather meant the sandy conditions were loose and dusty. We set off down the opening tracks scrabbling for grip on the bends, legs out speedway style! I got a good start and was second into the first singletrack section. I dropped to 3rd as we exited onto the next wider path and the lead two then began to pull away. 3rd was what I needed so I kept my head down and pushed hard.

Being new the course had a very ‘natural’ feel. It was less cultivated than many of the venues which have been manicured, tuned and refined over the years. I liked that and felt it flowed well, with a good combination of twisty tracks with swoops and drops, coupled with wider sections to enable passing.

Towards the end of the lap I began to pay for my efforts. I couldn’t maintain the pace and I slipped to 5th as two riders came past. I did everything I could to keep that podium spot in sight. A flat course tends to mean fast and close racing with it difficult to gap those behind.

Through the second lap the gap ahead of me opened, but weaving between the trees I could still see those ahead, as well as those chasing me. It could have gone either way and as with any race I went through positive moments when I closed on those ahead, and periods of self doubt when I misjudged a corner and threw away valuable seconds, or my lungs just hurt too much!

I was determined to give everything on the final lap and was out of the saddle, powering  on the pedals at every opportunity. I felt strong but I needed a hill to really get everything out.

I crossed the line 5th. Now it was down to others results. The result was pinned up on the board, those behind me in the series had finished just ahead in 2nd and 3rd. I didn’t know how the maths was going to work out. Even as the announcer began to call the podium results, I still didn’t know where I had come. They called up third place and there was a pause. Over the tannoy they said first and second were tied on points.

This meant I was 2nd overall based on the race result at the final round. Of course having come that close I was disappointed. However, if you had said to me in February I'd be second in the series I'd have been amazed and delighted. Having won two rounds I also feel the prize went to the stronger rider. After 10 years this was my last Masters race, Veterans next year!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Lucky Man

It is almost 6 weeks since I was struck from behind by a car while riding through Chichester. I have been to the doctor this week and largely given the all clear. Without a doubt I was incredibly lucky. Over the past few weeks I have shared my story with many who have similar experiences. What has struck me is how most had endured far worse, frequently life changing, injuries despite the accidents themselves often actually being far less dramatic.

The windscreen of the car which hit me was smashed as it punted me into the air and threw me down the road. The fact that I was totally unaware of the impending impact and therefore didn't have time to tense my muscles might explain my miraculous escape. 

It has however left me feeling vulnerable and exposed to the fragility of life. I have two memories of the accident, one the crescendo of crunching carbon fibre. The other is flying through the air not knowing where I was going to land. Were these going to be my final moments before a car ran me down as I was thrown into its path? 

I was straight back on the bike, even racing a few days later, but I am extremely aware of vehicles approaching and more cautious where I would have previously been confident and maintained road position. Also on fast off-road descents, I can sense the pain and impact of my previous accident. I know from experience of previous accidents that my confidence will grow and with time the memories will fade, but perhaps with age there comes a realisation of my own frailties.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Gorrick Spring Series Round 3

After two 4th placed finishes at the previous rounds I was sitting in second place in the Gorrick Spring series. I already knew that the series leader would be missing the third round so I was keen to finally make that step onto the podium and also collect as many points as possible in his absence.

We were back at Area 51 near Frimley, the site of February's first round. This time however there was no ice that had made the previous race so treacherous. Instead the conditions were dry and the course was running extremely fast. The guys at Gorrick had also been busy cutting in some new trails and linking everything up in reverse to provide a different race track from our previous visit. The end result was very similar though, 100% twisting, undulating singletrack with very little opportunity to relax. Even quickly taking a gel required two attempts!

Third away from the line I followed the leading two into the first climb. The leader was already stretching his legs and opening a gap. I was through into 2nd on the next incline when I was asked if I wanted to pass by the rider ahead. This was an unexpected courtesy! I thought he might perhaps have a mechanical problem, but he re-joined and continued behind me. The leader was soon out sight and despite the presence of the rider behind I steadily stretched out my advantage.

It grew to 20 seconds at the end of the first lap, 40 seconds by lap 2 and nearly a minute into lap 3. By now I was feeling comfortable, but behind me I spotted my friend Jon. He was riding Grand Vets so we weren't directly racing, but there was honour at stake! I pushed a little harder to try and stay ahead until the finish. First I misjudged an awkward root and had to dab a foot to regain balance. Then I brushed a tree while cutting the line a little too tight. It was time for a reality check, I was fatigued and making mistakes. There was no reason to take the risk so I accepted defeat in the friendly rivalry stakes and eased the pace back slightly, finishing in a comfortable 2nd.

So persistence and consistency means I will head into the final round leading the series. I'll need another podium finish to guarantee I stay there.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Going tubeless

I was an early convert and switched to tubeless tyres on my mountain bike many years ago. There is no way I would go back! Occasionally I ride a bike with tubes and the lack of control, feel and grip will be one of the first things I notice.

Replacing the tube with sealant allows you to run lower tyre pressures. At the Gorrick race on Sunday I ran 18psi front and 21psi rear which is the softest I've tried. However, on the fast rooty course it worked perfectly, taking the sting out of the multiple impacts. On the damp soil it also increased the tyre surface area in contact with the ground providing extra grip for cornering up front and increased traction on greasy climbs on the back wheel.You are able to risk running those much lower pressure because there is no chance of pinch flatting a tube against the rim.

So you might think that rolling resistance would go up at such low pressures, but because the tyre is more supple and absorbs small undulations in the trail you actually roll along faster and in much more comfort too.

The big sales pitch behind tubeless tyres is of course their puncture resistance. On YouTube you can watch video's of people stabbing hundreds of nails into tyres or riding over beds of spikes. I have taken off tubeless tyres which when I've checked have had 4 or 5 thorns in them that would have deflated a tube in seconds. So it undoubtedly works! Living on the South Downs one of the main causes for punctures is cuts from flints. This is an area where tubeless sealant isn't always quite so successful. Cuts tend to open and close under stress as the tyre rotates. This means that the hole can continue to weep slowly, sometimes covering rider and bike in a splatter of latex sealant. There is also no doubt that when something does go wrong out on the trail, putting in a replacement tube can be a very messy business!

The same can be said when it comes to fitting tubeless tyres. With a pump it can sometimes be frustrating (and tiring) trying to get in enough air to get the bead to seal allowing the tyre to inflate. However there are some great high volume pumps on the market now which overcome this problem by dumping a volume of air instantaneously. For example the Top Peak Joe Blow Booster.

The final advantage of tubeless tyres is the weight saving. It is relatively small but that weight is in a critical area - rotational mass. So you'll be able to accelerate faster.

I've tried various brands of tubeless sealant but have always come back to the original - Stans No Tubes. They have recently released a Race Sealant which claims to have larger particles floating around in the liquid that seal the hole quicker. This is a claim that is hard to verify as no two punctures are the same, but the peace of mind probably justifies the higher cost.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Gorrick Spring Series - Round 2

The Crowthorne course is a true classic. However, the guys and girls at Gorrick do a fantastic job of mixing up the trails and introducing new sections to keep the experience fresh every time we visit. This time the course was the usual challenging twisty, rooty singletrack, linked with some open fireroad to test the legs and lungs. Storm Doris had left the course super grippy so it was fast and furious with no let up.

Charging away down the long open start we jostled for position as the path undulated up and down. One second I was in 3rd then some riders powered by in the slipstream, then they faded and others came through. It was frantic! On the final rise that lead into the first section of singletrack I surged into 2nd and dived between the trees.

Lungs burning I whipped the bike left and right, the leader pulling away slightly in front. Briefly I was on my own, but soon another rider was breathing down my neck and he eventually bundled through on the inside of a sweeping bend. Head down I chased hard, he was the same rider who had finished just ahead of me at the previous round, depriving me of a podium spot.

We hit the next open section, and I tucked into an aero position and fought back to his wheel, but I had dragged two companions with me in my wake. They both slithered past as we rode briefly in a group of 4 before the elastic began to stretch and the gaps started to grow. I was at the back, keeping the rider ahead honest and was only 10 seconds back when we completed the first lap.

I was still carrying the scars from my road traffic accident on Tuesday. Dosed up with Ibuprofen my shoulder, which had been my main concern, wasn't really causing me any grief but deep breathing was uncomfortable with sore ribs.

Into lap 2 and initially the gap ahead probably grew slightly but then I became aware that he was slowly but surely coming back to me. I drew myself closer and closer until I grabbed the opportunity to duck past as he stumbled on the roots, running wide while letting through the leading rider who had caught us both from the race behind.  

I gave it all I had, using the faster rider to pace myself and eek out a bit of a gap. However, I couldn't completely shake off my pursuer. Every time I checked over my shoulder he would be there and he wasn't giving up! Even when I couldn't see him the rattle of his bike over the roots was a constant reminder to keep pushing. On the final straight I glanced back and he was charging out of the saddle in flat out hot pursuit!

I had built up a large enough gap and finished 4th for the second event running. Maybe I'll get on the podium next time!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Choose your route carefully

Tuesday night is the City Cycles shop ride. After 3 months and purely for a sense of variety I decided it was time to take a different route out of town. Oh how I regret that decision now!

The first mile of the route would take us through a couple of mini roundabouts. I lead 12 riders safely across the first and at the second we were turning right. A car was approaching from the right but I had time to comfortably enter the roundabout before it arrived. I was aware that there was also a car approaching from my left, but I had priority, turned and exited the roundabout the car now behind me.

The first I was aware of trouble was the crunch of breaking carbon fibre. I can't remember hitting the windscreen of the car, but I do have a distinct memory of flying through the air with time to think "this is going to hurt!" I had no idea where I was headed and my airborne adventure could very well have ended under the wheels of an oncoming car. As it happened I crashed to ground some way up the road in shock and completely winded.

As I lay on the cold tarmac I could see the car which had hit me with its windscreen completely caved in and smashed. Two of my riding partners reached me first, but with the air knocked out of my lungs I was initially unable to speak. The driver of the car got out and I heard him ask "Is he alive?"

I was alive and although my right hand side hurt pretty bad, I wiggled my toes and fingers, completed a personal assessment and started to realise I had been extremely lucky. Of course once you are laying in the middle of the road after being launched into orbit by a car you are on a one way ticket to A&E. However after a very brief ambulance ride, and a miraculously short wait for a full examination I was home in time for an extremely uncomfortable night in my own bed.

Everyone of the riders behind me who I have spoken too about what they witnessed have all mentioned the noise. The loud 'bang' as I was fired into the air!

Unfortunately the bike didn't escape so fortunately as myself. On only its second outing and with only 60 miles under its belt the Merida Scultura met its end. The crunch of carbon I remembered  had been the rear wheel disintegrating. The handlebars are completely mangled after presumably being trapped under the car and dragged along the road.

As my wife frequently reminds me, she has now had a fair few calls from the A&E departments of various different hospitals. The roads are dangerous places for cyclists, especially at night. Even festooned with lights you are vulnerable. The best thing you can do is stay away from busy or dangerous sections of road, so from now on I'll be sticking to the usual route out of town each week.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Merida Scultura 2017 Review

The Merida Scultura is ridden by the Bahrain Merida pro tour team and will be used as their lightweight climbing bike at the 2017 Grand Tours. The bike I rode was the Scultura 5000 disc, the geometry is slightly more relaxed compared to the team bike and uses Merida CF2 carbon which gives away around 150g compared to its CF4 professional cousin. The 5000 comes with a predominantly Shimano Ultegra groupset but with a RS500 crankset and 105 cassette. The wheels are Merida own branded and although not total heavyweights they aren’t going to flatter the bikes lightweight frame. For an extra £350 the Merida 6000 provides a full Ultegra drive chain with Fulcrum Racing Expert wheels.

For me the 5000 made more sense because I was swapping out the chainset anyway for a Dura-Ace 9000 fitted with my preferred oval Rotor chainrings. I also already had some lighter carbon wheels which saved 300g and when matched to the frame really made this bike shine.

First impressions are that this is a very attractive bike. The stealth matt black is balanced nicely with the subtle neon yellow details. The frame makes use of a super wide press fit 86 bottom bracket to maintain the stiffness and help transfer all your power into forward motion. Full internal cable routing is neat and the along with the shaped downtube helps with the aero performance.

This bike eats hills for breakfast, it literally raced up the familiar climbs around Goodwood like a mountain goat on steroids! I would just be settling into my rhythm and look up to find myself already at the top! The handling is sharp and the compact rear end provides a very direct transfer of power. The whole feel of the bike is of a coiled spring ready to pounce! This does mean however that you need to stay awake as the quick handling and light weight combine to make the bike ‘lively’ on bumpy roads or fast descents.

After 5 years being cosseted on a Trek Madone stepping onto the Scultura was like igniting the afterburners! Out of the front door the bike was eager to get going and with fresh legs we galloped away and chomped up the first few climbs of the day! 4 hours later when I stepped off the bike however I was slightly sore and battered. That boundless enthusiasm starts to takes its toll. The skinny bar tape on the Scultura didn’t help, but my arms were tired from constantly having to reign the bike in. My legs and backside were also sore in a way I haven’t encountered for a long time. Leaping onto a new bike for a 4 hour ride isn’t ideal, so we’ll see if my body adapts to the pounding my bones took. To be fair the Madone is a different animal to the Scultura. It is aimed as a comfortable all day bike, with stable predictable handling. This is the same reason it is never going to set your pulse racing like the Scultura!

The 5000 is a fantastically glorious machine, it made me feel like I was Vincenzo Nibali dancing up the Stelvio Pass. Unfortunately it also highlighted that I’m not actually Nibali and three weeks around Italy or France on this bike would probably turn my joints to dust!

My final comments must be regarding the disc brakes. This is the first time I have ridden disc brakes on a road bike and I can’t see what all the fuss is about. Disc brakes are just so obviously better. I don’t mean just a little bit better either I mean, night and day, I would never even think of using rim brakes again, better! My ride started on wet roads in misty drizzle and ended in glorious sunshine. The braking remained constant throughout. Consistent one finger braking in all conditions every time you squeeze the lever. There was great feel, modulation and subtlety when needed or just bundles of power if required. Added to this I wasn’t wearing out my wheels every time I squeezed the lever.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Indoor trainer

Over the past few weeks I've been trying to squeeze in riding time in whatever varied form it takes. Last Monday I was out in the pouring rain test riding the Merida Ninety Six full susser. Under the hazy sunshine 7 days later it was the time to break out the rigid hardtail and head over to the man made trails at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. In between I've done a bit of everything, dashing around town before heading to the shop, I've even been back on the turbo trainer for the first time in 5 years!

Its been a case of a bit here and a bit there, the assorted outings without any real structure largely as a result of the winter weather. First we had the ice. I woke up early a couple of times, wrapped myself in base layers, Roubaix thermals, windproofs, buffs, overshoes and tiptoed around the lanes in the dark. Trouble was I had to concentrate so hard on staying upright it wasn't really much of a workout.

Then we had the rain! I'm no fair weather cyclist, I've no problem with getting wet, but it does hit the motivation slightly when you can hear it beating down on the roof so hard I contemplated building an Ark.

With the great outdoors not looking too appealing I organised a Tacx Vortex indoor trainer for the shop. It's been 5 years since I last used the Turbo trainer at home. I've always found it such a boring activity that I packed it away. I once managed an hour of indoor spinning staring at a heart rate monitor but usually 30 minutes was about all I could handle. However, it does undoubtedly provide the chance for a very focused session, without the variables encountered out in the real world. I used to stick to a 10 min warm-up a batch of 1 minute intervals and then a cool down. As it happens things have moved on in the world of indoor trainers to help get the most out of the time spent with sweat pouring off the end of your nose.

I downloaded the Tacx app to my phone and in about 30 seconds I could see my speed, power, cadence, time and distance. From the phone I adjusted the gradient (resistance) and could select the flavour of my torture from a range of specific training programs. There is also access to the world of online riding with (or against) other individuals around the world, who like you are trapped in their shed wearing nothing but a pair of bib-shorts.

I've found it very beneficial in terms of my technique. I started mashing away but a little investigation found that if I changed up a gear, upped the cadence and focused hard on a circular pedalling motion the speed and power increased for the same or even a perceivable drop in effort. I was able to quickly transfer this improvement to the outside world on my next ride.

So this week looks cold again. Will it freeze the mud to enable some off-road excursions, or will I be teetering around on the ice, or forced to stick it out on the Tacx? As long as it involves a riding a bike I'll be happy!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Skating around the issue

The ground was definitely frozen. I could feel it through my jersey as I lay spread eagled in the frosty dirt. The front wheel had shot out from underneath me throwing me onto the ground. I tried to get up but my foot slipped and I fell back to the ground. I scrambled up like Bambi on an ice rink, sliding around desperately trying to get to the top of the slope. Luckily it was only my warm-up lap!

I've never experienced a frozen race course before. The frost was like snow in places and the soil was frigid. In some areas the ice made conditions sketchy at best. In between the corners the firm ground meant high speeds, but after a few wobbles and with my confidence dented, I decided on a tentative approach for the rest of the lap.

Warmed up and leaping away from the start, I followed the leading riders through the first few bends. As we hit a wide sweeping curve all grip disappeared and we all skated through the corner desperately searching for grip. Suddenly my bike stepped out from under me, I caught it before hitting the deck, but this allowed the three in front to pull away. I resolved to use my strength on the next climb to close back up and as we hit the base of the incline I applied a surge of power. The rear wheel spun out on the frozen ground and I stalled. Forced to dismount I ran up the slope and ended up losing more time.

The gap ahead remained steady for the remainder of the lap, until we reached the scene of my warm-up incident. Two back markers from another category had dismounted and were struggling to make their way up the slope on foot. So I was again forced to scramble up the icy incline. I finished the lap with 3rd still firmly in my sights trailing by around 16 seconds.

Driving into the new lap and attempting to close the gap ahead I dived into an icy switchback too fast. First thing I knew I was on the deck. Scrambling back onto the bike I was now even more tentative and tense, when I needed to be supple and reactive to the conditions. After a couple more big scares I backed right off. It isn't often I can say I don't enjoy riding a bike, but right then the option of stepping off and getting back in the car was so strong I stopped.

I turned back towards the car, but then saw two friends who were still racing. Perhaps it was the thought of trying to explain myself to them after the race that provided the motivation to get back onboard and complete the final lap. I was very relieved to see the organisers had closed the treacherous incline by the time of my third lap.

I crossed still in forth, slightly disappointed in myself, but at the same time pleased that I had persevered.  

Thursday, 19 January 2017

New team kit

The new City Cycles team kit has arrived just in time for the first XC race of the season this Sunday. Thanks to our shirt sponsors McMurdo and Strada wheels the blue shirts will be hitting the course at the first round of the Gorrick Spring Series.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Base miles

Winter is time for putting in the hard graft. If you want to reap the rewards come the summer, then you should be piling on the mileage now. Over the past 3 or 4 years I have been used to annual averages of over 150 miles a week, regularly topping 200 miles by the end of the Sunday ride. In two years I only rode less than 100 miles in a week 3 times  - each time while on holiday. (Even then I'd always managed some miles while away!)

However, taking on a new business has meant a steep learning curve and lots of extra hours planning and dealing with the inevitable paperwork. So in fact owning a bikeshop has lead to much less time on the bike. A commute of 10 minutes each way, instead of an hour hasn't helped either!
Sunrise on the South Downs before work

As a result I have only topped 100 miles over seven days, 6 times since mid August when the whole purchase process kicked off. My goal for the new year was to try and structure my week to hit the 100 mile goal for the first time in 6 weeks. I started well with a 3 hour MTB ride on Monday, my day off. I grabbed what I could during the week, before waking up early and splashing around for 90 minutes before work on Saturday. I totted up the totals - 99.8! Oh, well! I could roll up the lane Sunday morning and notch up the last few yards.

Then came the opportunity to join the boys for a longer Sunday morning social. At 8.30 I rolled down the lane into the drizzle. My legs immediately felt heavy, having ridden the previous day. It was a sobering thought that only a few months ago I used to think nothing of a daily 35 mile commute. I joined the others and toiled away at the back of the group, destroying myself by taking the occasional turn on the front of the group.  

It is obvious my fitness has suffered in the past 4 months as time in the saddle has reduced. In the short term I am not going to have the same opportunities to ride that I had in the past, but this week has proven it is possible for me to maintain a sensible level of training, enjoy time on the bike and hopefully not embarrass myself come race day!
Sunday social!