Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Coed y Brenin Enduro: My highlight of the year

Star date: 6 October 2013
Location: Coed y Brenin, North Wales
Event: Howies Coed y Brenin Enduro
Weapon of choice: Carbon 29er hardtail with 30 gears
Greatest achievement: Grabbing 3rd place at the death
Greatest weakness: Balls not big enough
Result: 3rd overall, 2nd vet

I'm kind of falling out of love with blogging. It's turning into a chore and I'm getting way behind, I don't really know who I'm writing for or why, and I don't feel like I have anything more to say. Regular readers will already have learned that:

1. Mountain bike races are equal parts tiring, scary and fun
2. Racing on a singlespeed is a viable proposition: reliable, light, fast but hard work
3. I love mountain biking
4. Wales is very muddy
5. I'm just not one of those people who look cool on a bike

What else is there?

So the plan is to keep this one fairly short - even though this was Event of the Year for me in terms of both the fun factor and my performance. Which seems a little unfair on both the organisers and my ego, but, hey, something's gotta give. The official event photographer, bless him, has also done his bit, contriving to miss the leading riders at all three points on the course where he managed to snap everyone else in soft-focus hardcore action, so there are precious few pictures to accompany these words.

Having loved the Dyfi Enduro back in May but made such a hash of it (see here), I was looking forward to its northern cousin and had a point to prove. The rain had put a slight damper (geddit?) on what was supposed to be the highlight of the season a fortnight earlier at Margam (see here), but the return of dryish conditions meant that I now had another chance to see just what the new steed and I were capable of.

Posh video of the weekend by Will Sanders which makes it all look so much easier than it really was. If you're really, really patient (the video host won't let me link straight to it), check out the start of the race around 2m30s in: Gareth Payne flying off the blocks like Usain Bolt; me having a natter, folding my arms, oblivious to the bearded gunman (bet he rides a singlespeed), and then "Shit, we're starting!"

The start was marked with a gunshot, and appropriately enough clubmate/friend/inspiration Gareth Payne went off like a bullet, full-on sprinting up the first part of an interminable fireroad climb which gradually grew steeper and rougher until the forest gave way to open moorland three miles later and 600 feet higher. I decided to take it steady but was soon clear in second place and very gradually reeling Gareth in. Come the first whiff of a descent, though, he was out of sight and out of mind - I knew any chance I had of keeping up with him was now gone.

Enjoying second place coming off the moor onto the road. Photos by Clic Clic

By the time we dropped off the moor I was a long way ahead in second, but this was not to last. The first descent was wet and rutted and fast, never my favourite combination early in a race. It also led onto Abel, one of the best but scariest downhill sections on the man-made trails at Coed y Brenin. Whatever you do, don't look down...

If you've never done any mountain biking and wonder what it's like, do watch this video. It's the best I've seen at conveying how it feels to hurtle down a good descent. I've even managed to get it to start automatically at the interesting bit. Includes a coolly executed tactical dismount by rider/cameraman Ryan Jones.

It starts OK but then gets rockier and steeper with big steps/jumps and a nasty drop to one side, so the penalty for failure can be quite severe. I thought I was doing OK until I heard two riders behind gaining on me fast. I eased off the brakes and managed to reach the bottom without quite being caught and having to move aside, but I was gutted to have all that hard work on the way up wiped out on the way down. This would be an all-too-familiar pattern over the course of the race as I jockeyed for position with Matt Mountford and Jon Roberts, the three of us battling it out for second place. While their superior descending was disheartening at first, it soon became a source of inspiration: if they could ride those descents that fast on a cross-country hardtail, then so could I. In theory.

The course went on to take in most, if not all, of the singletrack sections on the classic MBR and Dragon's Back trails. The man-made stuff at Coed y Brenin is fantastic - sometimes fast and flowing, sometimes slow and tricky, but unrelentingly technical with plenty of rocks and roots to keep you on your toes:

Mixed into this were some interesting "natural" trails - read unsurfaced and unpredictable. My winter training on local bridleways really came into its own here, as I hunted down grip and traction through the inevitable muddy and boggy bits. I completely missed the turning onto one climb - a big thanks to a sporting Matt Mountford for calling down to me from up the hill. It was the last I saw of him, though. Another section was marked with a full three downward arrows, MTB-speak for "make sure you're not behind on your life insurance". It started off very, very steep but smooth, which was OK, but then it got even steeper and a whole lot rougher as it plummeted down to a rocky stream crossing, which was not OK. It was actually a job getting down there on foot without cartwheeling to my doom. No way was I going to attempt riding that without an extensive survey, a lengthy pep talk and a few false starts, and I had no time for any of that nonsense with Jon Roberts hot on my heels.

Another natural descent that sticks in the mind was a straightish and smoothish but narrow and off-camber traverse of a very steep wooded hillside, further enlivened by an über-slippery damp-larch-needles-and-roots combo. My memory might be playing tricks on me, but I remember it being something like this:

The feed station at 40km was where I finally lost Jon and gave up on a top three finish. The place was teeming with just-for-fun riders on the short course packing in the flapjacks, which made getting to the water possibly the hardest part of the whole race. The ensuing climb was a mind-numbing, soul-destroying slog on tired legs, but gave way to an exhilarating descent back down to the visitor centre, which just went on and on and on before turning into the world's worst crazy paving for a rocky, steppy, scary finale. Absolutely brilliant.

They thought it was all over, but it wasn't - there was still another 10km to go on the other side of the A470 on bits of the Tarw and Red Bull trails. I was well and truly knackered by now and just hanging on.

No smiles for the camera now. Winding my way through the 30km riders with 10 km to go.

I know this side of the forest well from a few XC races and the much-missed Mawddach Goldrush event, which has now morphed into a running race. Madness. Strangely - and luckily - the big fireroad climb up to the top was way shorter and flatter than I remembered it. I must be fitter than a year ago! And half-way up I spotted a familiar figure weaving his way past the slower riders - Jon Roberts. To claim I got a second wind would be an exaggeration. I just kept grinding up the hill at what felt like a snail's pace, and eventually caught and passed him.

So far, so good. But I had a good idea of what was coming next - basically making our way back down the hill - and Jon descends much faster than me. So I absolutely hammered through the next bit of flattish singletrack, held up only slightly by some very well-behaved back markers who kindly stopped to let me past unbidden, one of them taking a tumble in the process.

I was riding like a man possessed. A long flattish chunk of fireroad (thank goodness I had gears for once) led onto a section called Rocky Horror, which isn't actually very rocky, more a super-fast windy ribbon of singletrack, but I had history here. At the Mawddach Goldrush 18 months earlier I pinch-punctured front and rear tyres together half-way down this section - on both of the laps I completed before finally giving up. (I also picked up three punctures elsewhere, making a total of 11 holes to repair that day, fact fans). Somehow putting this out of my mind, I flew down there as fast as I dared. Well actually a bit faster than that. Surely Jon couldn't go any quicker than that. Or could he?

Next up was Pins and Needles - more dodgy crazy paving, but familiar crazy paving. I must've done this section and then the old Red Bull pump track down to the finish by the old visitor centre a dozen times in XC races. I was beginning to feel confident now. Past the point where I smashed my brakes earlier this year; past the place where I lost my saddle last year. But boy was I tired now.

Near the end, very near the end, the trail turns up a slight climb. Maybe 50 yards long. Nightmare. I thought I was going to collapse. But I willed myself on and somehow managed to keep going. Then it was downhill again, the final section along the river. Nearly lost it on a rooty corner, got a round of applause from slower riders for staying aboard. Kept on going, hit the finish line, done it - third! Yay!!! Jon too must have been knackered, as I finished a good minute clear of him in the end. I was also only a couple of minutes behind Matt Mountford, but I really couldn't have given any more.

This was my best result ever. The trails were brilliant. The bike was brilliant (I wouldn't have made third on the singlespeed). And I was pretty darn good too, even if I say so myself. I will definitely do this one again. It isn't as "out there" as the Dyfi in terms of nuttiness or remoteness, but it's a cracking mix of everything. But boy was it tough.

Completely failed to keep this one short, didn't I?

Gareth Payne 60km Male 40+

3hr 22min 17sec
Matt Mountford 60km Male 18-40

3hr 28min 43sec
Chris Schroder 60km Male 40+

3hr 31min 3sec
Jon Roberts 60km Male 40+

3hr 32min 37sec
james joyce 60km Male 18-40

3hr 40min 35sec
Matthew Bennett 60km Male 18-40

3hr 41min 33sec
Tony Carter 60km Male 40+

3hr 43min 52sec
James Holmes 60km Male 18-40

3hr 43min 55sec
toby vye 60km Male 18-40

3hr 49min 51sec
andrew bone 60km Male 40+

3hr 50min 27sec
Ifan Richards 60km Male 18-40

3hr 53min 7sec
Darren Moore 60km Male 40+

3hr 54min 8sec
Mark Norry 60km Male 18-40

3hr 54min 37sec
Stephen  Aucock 60km Male 18-40

3hr 58min 31sec
Dylan Stephens 60km Male 40+

3hr 59min 10sec
Adam Haynes 60km Male 40+

4hr 1min 48sec
Alvin Jones 60km Male 40+

4hr 2min 27sec
Steve Rogers 60km Male 40+

4hr 2min 33sec
Gareth Sanger 60km Male 18-40

4hr 4min 31sec
Andy  Roberts 60km Male 40+

4hr 6min 10sec
gareth jones 60km Male 18-40

4hr 6min 21sec
Chris  Atkin 60km Male 18-40

4hr 6min 46sec
Jim Tipp 60km Luddite (Singlespeed)

4hr 9min 10sec
Peter Lloyd 60km Male 16-17

4hr 10min 42sec
Mark  Price 60km Male 40+

4hr 10min 57sec
Jason Lightwood 60km Male 40+

4hr 10min 58sec
Tim Beardmore 60km Male 40+

4hr 11min 5sec
Barry Evans 60km Male 40+

4hr 11min 7sec
Ian Wilmshurst 60km Male 18-40

4hr 11min 32sec
Barry Goodyear  60km Male 40+

4hr 12min 20sec

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 2: Sheryl Crow has a point

Star date: 24 November 2013
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 2
Weapon of choice: Rigid carbon singlespeed
Greatest weakness: Choice of weapon
Result: 3rd

If it makes you happy
It can't be that bad
If it makes you happy
Then why the hell are you so sad

I really didn't enjoy this one.

It wasn't the trails, which were the usual rough diamonds. It wasn't the weather, which was cold but dry, or the organisation, which was slick. And it wasn't the après-ride company or the welcoming bosom of the log-cabin café with its £2-a-pop pumpkin soup and rustic bread. It was all me.

The course was the same as last time with the addition of a flatter, faster loop familiar from previous races here and the strategic application of a few barrowloads of gravel to make the muddiest rootiest techiest section more rideable for the less gifted and able. But this time I didn't enjoy the climbs one bit; I didn't enjoy scaring myself silly on the descents nearly as much as usual; I didn't even enjoy splashing through the ford. What a misery.
CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 24.11.2013 &emdash;
First lap. Still clean and trying the go-slowly trick to keep feet dry. Didn't work. 
Photos: Carol Corbett

Obviously I shot myself in the foot by choosing a singularly inappropriate tool for the job, the mountain biking equivalent of a penny farthing. No gears was fine (until it wasn't). No suspension was a surmountable challenge (I'd sent my suspension forks to the doctor, who sent them back saying I should've sent them to the undertaker). No front brake after half a descent (due to a fluid leak) was another matter. Add in almost no front wheel on the second lap after it made a sudden bid for freedom, and distinctly limited vision at times due to persistent mud-in-eye issues, and I was pretty much out of control on the descents. Beware the one-eyed trail snake!

Of greater concern, though, was my sluggishness on the climbs. My legs felt heavy from the off, and I struggled on both the big climb and the little climb on every lap. In the car on the way home, I came up with a number of reasons why this might have been. The best by far was that maybe my thermal tights were too tight, robbing me of power on every pedal stroke as they only reluctantly stretched over each knee...

It's crystal-clear from Strava, though, that the reason I felt so bad is simply that I was going so damned fast. My climbing times were among my best ever at Coed Trallwm despite the energy-sapping tackiness of the fireroads, and so were my descending times in spite (or maybe because) of the absence of brakes and suspension. Runaway winner Gareth Payne set a ferocious pace from the start, and after losing him at the top of the first hill I went on to spend the remainder of the race having a right old ding-dong for second place with Abergavenny rider Tim Rose. Every climb I'd pull clear, and every descent he'd use his downhill racing experience to catch up again.

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 24.11.2013 &emdash;
That's how you do it.

Only after a last-gasp effort to drop him on lap 4 did I finally manage to make it out of the ford without hearing the dreaded splash as he piled into the water behind me. Finally I'd done it, I'd broken him, he'd given up on second place, and I went on to cross the finishing line well ahead - only to hear the bell for the final lap. Oops. This almost-90-minutes-plus-a-lap-for-the-leader format does my head in - I always seem to get it wrong.

Not only did I think I was finished - I really was finished. I could only half-ride and half-walk the final climb, watching Tim disappear into the distance. And then, to add insult to injury, well actually injury to insult, or more precisely bruised hip to bruised ego, the front end washed out suddenly on a tight right-hander on the extra loop and dumped me unceremoniously on the deck. Ouch.

It's definitely half-empty

I was really disappointed to come third. I know, I know, most people would be more than pleased with that. Such as everyone who finished behind me. Ordinarily so would I, but to lose second like that after two hours of hard slog was galling. Of course, it wouldn't have happened on a proper bike.

With luck, though, my glass will be brimming over with festive spirit at round 3 on 22 December and Mr Happy will be back. Even I can't take a race too seriously that close to Christmas. In fact I'm looking forward to it already.

Read another take on the race from Tom Stickland here

Gareth Payne 01:46:26 19:36 21:15 21:28 21:47 22:18
Tim Rose 01:53:52 20:33 22:31 23:00 23:45 24:01
Chris Schroder 01:56:50 20:30 22:31 22:37 23:23 27:46
James Pritchard 02:04:10 22:15 24:19 24:43 26:01 26:50
Jim Tipp 02:06:03 25:50 25:21 25:26 24:20 25:32
Peter Lloyd 02:06:14 22:38 24:46 25:06 27:04 26:39
Daniel Philips 02:07:51 23:02 25:00 26:03 26:36 27:07
Stephen Aucock 02:13:27 22:54 25:12 26:42 27:43 30:55
Peter Carter 02:17:23 24:17 26:27 27:21 28:15 31:01

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Margam Madness: Margam Mudness!

Star date: 21 September 2013
Location: Margam Park, South Wales
Event: Margam Madness 4hr
Weapon of choice: Carbon 29er hardtail with 30 gears
Greatest achievement: Surviving the descents
Greatest weakness: Seated climbing
Result: 4th veteran / 6th overall

If I had to sum up the day in one photo:

 My reaction to dismounting unexpectedly on boggy ground seconds before (see below). Note deployment of waterproof jacket in a race (yikes!) albeit only for the first lap until I warmed up.
All photos: The intrepid and clearly web-footed Christopher Bentley

As I may possibly have mentioned before, I love Margam. And the Madness was my favourite race of last year - a testing course on a rare sunny day. This time, though, the weather gods weren't playing ball, and the whole day was spent stuck in a big wet bastard cloud. Up top, visibility was best measured in inches, and everywhere it was damp and drizzly, turning parts of the course into a squishy quagmire. Despite the adverse conditions, it was far from a miserable ordeal, thanks to a well-designed course with challenging climbs and wild descents, and a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere - from the friendly sign-on to the world's most encouraging marshal at the course's spaghetti junction to the handshake from the organiser as you cross the finishing line.


The eagle-eyed may have spotted a mention of 30 gears above. Yes, I caved. Relentless peer pressure and bitter disappointment at the Brecon Beast left me weak and vulnerable, and the right bike came on the market at just the wrong/right time. Fear not, oh bearded ones, I have not entirely lost the faith, as I have since raced on the singlespeed again (see my last blog - I'm getting out of sync) and plan to do so again.

One of the two big advantages of racing a singlespeed is its low weight - you don't have all those chain rings/sprockets/shifters/derailleurs/cables weighing you down on climbs. However, the ex-team triple-ring 29er of which I am now the proud and penniless second owner may have big wheels and lots of gears, but is clearly made of tissue paper as it's exactly the same weight.

The other advantage of racing without gears is that you don't have the option of taking it easy and changing down into an easier gear, so you have to go full pelt the whole time. Until you get tired, of course, when this turns into its biggest disadvantage, as I've found in my three XC races at Margam on the singlespeed this year and even on the 8-speed at the Madness last year, when I had to walk a fair few climbs.

No doubt about it, Margam Madness is a tough event. The climbing isn't massive in terms of metres, but it's pretty steep and pretty intense, with the whole race done close to XC speed. In other words, you go the same pace as for a two-hour race, only for four hours, which obviously makes the second half of the race pretty bloody tough. If you won't take my word for it, read here what European 24-hour champion Huw Thomas made of it last year - and that was without having the energy-sapping properties of wet grass and mud to contend with.

Anyway, enough of the excuses, I hear you cry, worrabout the race?

A fast flat start to the race saw me take advantage of my newfangled technology and actually keep up with the pack, but this led into the wooded section of the XC loop in reverse - read slippy tricky singletrack that had people stalling and hopping off all over the place and spread the field massively. It was frustrating to be stuck behind people cocking up the roots and steps, but I didn't fare any better myself, on the first lap at least. Fortunately I had a bit of space for the first hairy feature of the day, a short descent through some rhododendrons that required you to duck below a low branch, slide through a sea of porridge round a big bermed corner and then commit to skiing down a chocolate fountain onto a fireroad where you had to turn on a penny to avoid getting overly close and personal with a tree. You gotta love it.

Not so keen on what happened next, though. Some helpful child or dog walker had removed a sign after the leaders had gone through, sending the bulk of the field the wrong way. We soon realised this, regrouped and headed back to where we thought we should have gone - which was also wrong but did eventually get us back on track. I don't think it made any difference to the final placings, as the leaders were faster throughout, but it certainly skewed the times for the first lap by 3-4 minutes (see below).

The rest of the lap was similar to last year's event with a couple of added bits. The main climb from the XC races that I could only manage for a few laps on the singlespeed? No problem with gears. The rooty bits through the woods at the top? No problem with gears. The big climb from the ford out the back of the park? Still an absolute pig, but at least I could alternate between seated and standing. The long drag up to the trig point? Way harder than on the singlespeed - I missed my bar ends.


And the descents? Well, the rocky chute inevitably became a muddy chute, but I'm getting quite used to it now, to be honest, and the main hazard was other riders walking down. Rhododendron Riot still leaves you deliciously out of control towards the end. The two steep, narrow and increasingly gloopy singletrack descents at the back of the park saw me make the odd detour into the bracken, and I came within a hair's breadth of going over the bars in front of the cameras on the roots on the last lap, but ultimately I managed to stay on the bike throughout and get in plenty of practice on the old ski turns.

I did fall off once, but not on a descent. End of the first lap, innocuous flat section through the grass, got caught in a hidden rut and went over right in front of a photographer - oops!

I almost went off again on the last lap on the vertiginous Kidney Shaker descent down to the finish. I slid sideways, stuck out a leg to steady myself and was paralysed by the most crippling cramp in my right calf. I ended up having to drop onto all fours right across the trail, one shoe still attached to the bike, and just wait there for what seemed an eternity until it eased. I'd been fighting off cramp for well over an hour by then; the damp conditions and fatigue doubtless played a role, but I reckon it was mainly down to the gears using my leg muscles in new ways.

After the first lap, the field spread out and I was surprised to find myself snapping at the heels of last year's winner Huw Thomas for a lap, but he eventually pulled clear and the second half of the race was quite a lonely affair, lapping the odd rider but generally having no idea who was in front or behind or by how much, as visibility was so poor on the open sections. I was a tad disappointed to finish 4th in category after making the podium last year, but pleased with 6th overall, and I was only 80 seconds behind Richard Samuel, who was first vet last year. It's hard to draw any conclusions about the performance of either rider or steed in such testing conditions, but the Cube definitely enabled me to stay on the bike more than usual - both uphill, thanks to the gears, and downhill, thanks to the 29" wheels with their extra grip and smoother ride. I might have been faster on the singlespeed - but only until I had to start walking...

All in all, a tough but exhilarating course in tough but exhilarating conditions - loved it!

Over 40s:
1 03:56:02 Mark Spratt, Cardiff Jif 00:40:57 00:48:52 00:47:04 00:49:41 00:49:28
2 03:09:25 Andy Jones, Clee Cycles KCNC Torus 00:40:53 00:47:29 00:48:23 00:52:40
3 03:17:12 Richard Samuel, Clee Cycles/KCNC 00:44:14 00:46:58 00:51:06 00:54:54
4 03:18:33 Chris Schroder, Sarn Helen 00:45:12 00:48:32 00:51:03 00:53:46
Under 40s:

1 03:35:54 Tim Dunford, Mountain Trax Vauxhall Motors 00:40:21 00:41:36 00:43:41 00:44:33 00:45:43
2 03:15:39 Huw Thomas, Niner / Loco tuning 00:44:27 00:49:07 00:49:30 00:52:35
3 03:32:50 Justin Harcourt, RT 00:47:10 00:52:41 00:55:05 00:57:54

Monday, November 4, 2013

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 1: Simple pleasures

Star date: 20 October 2013
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 1
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with suspension forks and dropper post
Greatest achievement: Riding the big climb seven times and just about keeping up on the descents
Greatest weakness: Coping with muddy off-camber roots
Result: 2nd

I very nearly passed on this one. I awoke, feeling dog-tired as I had all week, to some seriously wet 'n' windy weather back home in Ceredigion; that afternoon I was committed to a friend's birthday bash consisting of two hours of clambering over and through 101 uses of old tractor tyres, slithering commando-style along a labyrinth of muddy ditches, dodging leeches and generally trying not to die of exposure, on a faux army assault course in Pembrokeshire; that evening I would spend three hours driving through torrential rain to my MBLA Trail Cycle Leader assessment the next day in Conwy (which I somehow managed to pass despite my brain still being numb). What swung the decision in favour of adding Powys to this impromptu Grand Tour of Wales was my wife telling me that I'd be mad to do it. Red rag to a bull or what?

The weather clearly did put off a fair few riders, though, which was a shame as this is hardly a fair-weather sport. But it was still a respectable turnout, with a pretty comprehensive range of abilities, bikes, disciplines, ages and genders along for the ride.

I think the grand old Duke of York might have had a hand in designing the course. Yep, we rode straight to the top of the hill and then straight back down again. Seven times, over a period of 90 minutes. Rather like a downhill uplift day only without the uplift. Hence this Tobleronesque elevation chart:

With no flat bits to catch your breath and refuel, it was really hard work. The usual big fireroad climb led straight into a fast and furious descent which offered precious little respite, and then it was back up the hill again. A full-on, all-out 90-minute sprint. On the one hand, lots of short laps like this means there are always riders around you to spur you on, rather like in cyclocross, and gives you plenty of chances to perfect your skills (or not) on the bits you get wrong. On the other, it meant that we spent more than two-thirds of the race climbing, and up a featureless fireroad to boot, which is always an acquired taste. Although this imbalance probably favoured me now that I'm fit as ****, it was a bit tough on the weekend warriors out there. Bring back the flat bits, Neil!

The first part of the descent initially appeared in rounds 2 and 4 of the last winter XC series at Coed Trallwm earlier this year, as documented here. I reported then that I thought that next time I'd have "the confidence and technique to ride it in the wet". The reality, sadly, was that apart from the first lap I was once again like Bambi on ice on those off-camber roots. I only came off the once, but had to make extensive use of a supporting foot or two, trimaran-style.

Next came a revamped version of the main descent on the centre's black trail (the trails here are open to the public all year). Whereas previously you hurtled faster than you really wanted to straight down a rough and ready logging track, you now have to contend with added dips, jumps and, er, bus stops. I too wondered what these might be, but the name actually makes a lot of sense. Essentially you are briefly channelled off onto a bank or into a hollow on one side of the main track and then back again, thus slowing you down, introducing a need to steer rather than just cling on for dear life, and giving you further opportunities to indulge your inner child. A welcome addition. More bus stops please, Neil!

Video of the course by Tom Stickland whose own report on the race is here. The tricky part of the descent isn't included so I can only assume he didn't manage to ride it cleanly either!

Race-wise, friend/nemesis Gareth Payne turned up, so another win wasn't on the cards. He and young Carmarthen rider Carwyn Davies shot off ahead at the start, so I just set about rollin' along in that ol' singlespeed rhythm, and was surprised to find that I soon passed Carwyn and reined in Gareth, pushing him to the top of the climb. I then kept up with him all the way back down, which was a welcome novelty. Meanwhile Carwyn somehow managed to catch and pass us both halfway down - respect! The man clearly knows no fear. And then, before we knew it, we were onto the second lap and back on the climb. Again I quickly overtook Carwyn and was neck-and-neck with Gareth right to the top, but this time Carwyn didn't catch us on the descent.

On the third lap, Gareth started and finished the climb with a small gap that I couldn't close, and I managed to fall off on the descent, nothing serious but enough for me to lose touch with him. By the time I hit the climb for the fourth time, Gareth was way off in the distance, and from then on it was a case of trying to hang on for second place, never knowing how far Carwyn and the others were behind me.

With such short laps, we were looking at seven reps of the big climb, and I have to admit that worried me, as I've tended to struggle here on the singlespeed after a few laps, forcing me to jump off and walk. Not this time! Maybe it was the reward for all those long summer rides. Or maybe it was all down to picking off stragglers from the third lap onwards. I might have felt like my legs were about to drop off, but I was still going a lot faster than them, so things couldn't really be that bad. And, of course, when you lap someone, you're duty bound to say something encouraging/witty (or at least respond to their "Give us a tow, mate!") without looking and sounding like you're having a coronary. Having to make great chunks of the climb appear totally effortless like this certainly saw me through some hard times on laps 4 and 5. Oddly, though, the hill didn't bother me at all on the last two laps - I had a good rhythm going and concentrated mainly on descending better (Strava tells me I didn't).

I eventually came in a couple of minutes clear of Carwyn Davies and Ross Farley, who have both beaten me this year, so I was very pleased with that. Carwyn (and maybe Ross) had done a cyclocross race in Carmarthen the evening before, which might explain why I had the edge on the climbs, so I might have more of a fight on my hands next time. The best thing, though, was pretty much keeping up with Gareth and Carwyn on some of the descents. I'm getting there...

Queuing for the bike wash. Failed attempt to capture the hugely enjoyable muddiness of it all.

One of the (few) advantages of being permanently behind on my blogging is getting to see what other people have to say about an event first - and a chance to comment on it. For example, here's Tom Stickland on the three riders who lapped him in this race: "Fast xc racers aren’t normal people so I wasn't too bothered." And: "The first 2 in my category were bonkers quick." Never before have I been so proud to be considered a freak!

I still have plenty to work on, but I'm delighted with the progress I've made over my three years on a mountain bike, especially this year following that mad decision to buy and race a singlespeed. How much better I can get, I just don't know. Age is not on my side, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to train properly, but I'm loving every minute of the riding I do manage to fit in.

And now it's time for a confession... As I say, I'm getting a bit behind on the old blogging, but readers with a crystal ball will already know that in future blogs I will admit to having gone over to the dark side and competed in two events prior to this one on a bike with 29" wheels and 30 gears. Boo, hiss! I took the singlespeed to Coed Trallwm partly for comparison, partly because I knew there wouldn't be much in the way of flat bits (but little did I know there would be none!) and partly because I needed a clean bike the next day for my MBLA Trail Cycle Leader assessment (which I passed, did I mention that? Anyone want guiding around the hidden gems of mid-Wales? A bit of coaching for beginners? Bookings now being taken for school parties, birthdays, stag nights, weddings...).

So, did I miss the gears? No. Did I miss the big wheels? No. So was my new triple-ring ten-speed 29er a waste of money? Find out next blog :-)

The second round of the Red Kite winter series is on Sunday 24 November. Be there or be square. There is something for everyone - racers, normal people, kids. It's all about life's less complicated pleasures - a big hill, a whole lot of mud and a nice log fire at the end. What more could you want?


Pos Name Time Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4 Lap 5 Lap 6 Lap 7
1 Gareth Payne 1:28:14 9:21 12:32 12:42 13:00 13:11 13:28 14:00
2 Chris Schroder 1:30:40 9:25 12:39 13:18 13:38 13:36 14:09 13:53
3 Carwyn Davies 1:32:41 9:14 13:02 13:29 14:03 13:49 14:09 14:52
4 Ross Farley 1:35:06 9:48 13:38 13:48 14:32 14:05 14:24 14:48
5 Stephen Aucock 1:40:22 10:04 14:15 14:20 15:03 15:39 15:35 15:23
6 Peter Lloyd 1:41:04 10:09 14:14 15:11 15:51 15:21 14:52 15:23
7 Joe Bolton 1:43:59 10:29 15:02 15:41 15:37 16:00 15:19 15:49
8 Andrew Smart 1:45:40 11:41 15:05 15:26 15:54 15:59 13:31 18:01
9 Brian Preece 1:31:34 11:38 15:20 15:26 16:09 16:15 16:44
10 Jon Moyle 1:36:20 11:03 15:56 17:18 17:24 17:52 16:44

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Brecon Beast 67k: Should've taken gears. Better still, a road bike.

Star date: 8 September 2013
Location: Brecon Beacons
Event: Brecon Beast
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with suspension forks and dropper post
Greatest achievement: Not quite losing the will to live
Greatest weakness: Bike prep, again
Result: 4th overall, 1st vet, 1st singlespeed

What a shit course. More, my adoring fans, when (if) I calm down.

*** Update, 14 October 2013 ***

OK, so it was (well) organised entirely by volunteers and entirely for charity, but that is no excuse for a mountain biking event to be just 40% offroad.

I hate riding on roads. They’re useful for getting from A to B fast, especially in a car, but where is the challenge, where are the thrills? Where are the rocks and the gravel and the mud and the roots and the streams and the brambles and the year-round puddles? Where are the ruts, the steps, the berms, the drops?

The endless miles of asphalt at the beginning, middle and end of this year’s route were particularly frustrating on the singlespeed, as I could only watch my geared peers flying effortlessly into the distance while I span out helplessly, losing so much of the ground gained on the climbs.

Gaining ground on the first climb and still able to smile. Photo: Brecon Beast

I also spent much of the race nursing an increasingly soft front tyre around the course, for reasons that were entirely self-inflicted: tubeless sealant drying up, dodgy pump giving up the ghost, fear of riding rocks on tubes. This took much of the fun out of the fun stuff. In fact the final plummet back into Brecon became an exercise in fun avoidance as I kept the speed right down to protect the rim and stop the tyre from parting ways with the bike. Shame it was only at the bottom of this descent that I discovered the CO2 canister I'd forgotten I’d packed…

Still standing. Photo: Roy Bevis

There were also a couple of very entertaining rocky downhill sections out in the wilds, but otherwise it was a rather featureless slog dominated by tarmac and fireroad. Last year’s course was great, so I really don’t understand how the organisers could get it so wrong this time. Fingers crossed they get it right again next year, as there is some fantastic riding in the area.

A lot more of this kind of thing would've been good. Photo: Brecon Beast
At least the rain held off, and fourth was a pretty good result, all things considered.

Result Times for all Short Course Riders - (369)

Rider No First Name Surname Sex Route Time
664 Ross Farley Male Short 2.55
596 Richard Samuel Male Short 3.05
650 Gareth Jones Male Short 3.05
185 Chris Schroder Male Short 3.11
217 Peter Taylor Male Short 3.12
395 Dylan Stephens Male Short 3.14
580 Alex Willis Male Short 3.14
443 Jon Moyle Male Short 3.15
239 Allistair Shannon Male Short 3.17
652 Cefin Evans Male Short 3.18
642 Stuart Smith Male Short 3.20
607 Simon Hodges Male Short 3.20
601 Phil Davies Male Short 3.23
706 Andrew Salmons Male Short 3.23
521 Tony Stephens Male Short 3.24
68 Jonathan Morgan Male Short 3.25
594 Argo Bowsher Male Short 3.26