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!