Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4: Too much too soon

Star date: 24 Feb 2013
Location: Coed Trallwm
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4
Weapon of choice: Rigid carbon singlespeed with dropper post
Greatest achievement: Climbing like a demon for three laps
Greatest weakness: Running out of steam on laps 4 and 5
Result: 10th overall / 1st (and only) singlespeed

I say, Ratty, I think Mole needs to watch where he's going! Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

So it was back to Coed Trallwm for a third time this winter, but familiarity hasn't bred contempt. Again there was the all-important warm cafe, and the course, while much the same as round 2, offered a really good balance of challenge and fun - a 5km loop comprising monster fire-road climb, long wild descent and fun easy undulating section. What more could you want?

Highlight of the day for me was the first part of the big descent, freshly cut through the forest for round 2 by organiser Neil Delafield, who clearly confused his XC with his DH and came up with a twisty, turny beast of a section, all stumps and roots and steps down onto a deeply corrugated traverse which was rather like riding on oval wheels, and two bottle-testing drops down steep banks onto fire-road crossings. In round 2 it was all very wet and muddy and slippery, and frankly much of it was beyond me. This time the mud had frozen solid so you could roll the lot, but it had also frozen into ruts that became increasingly difficult to ride in or across as the race went on, polished ever smoother by a thousand slithering tyres. This section was a real test of balance and balls and I'm delighted to report that, unlike many, I didn't fall off once and even cleared it without dabbing a couple of times. Wouldn't fancy tackling it without the dropper post, mind.

I hope this descent is part of the "highlights" course planned for round 5, as I think I might now have the confidence and technique to ride it in the wet. This opportunity to practise and improve is why I much prefer multi-lap races to single loops.

Hanging with the big boys at the start of the first climb. Eventual winner Jonny Pugh on the far left has a lot to answer for. Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis. 

So what about my race? Well, the bad news is that I made three big mistakes:

1. I went out too fast. I surprised myself by hitting the top of the big climb right on the wheel of the Cycle Tec riders in fifth place and with a big lead over the rest. Even so, by the end of the first descent I was down to seventh. The second lap was much the same: too fast up, too slow down. By laps 3 and 4 my descending was beginning to come together, but my legs were starting to hurt.

2. I miscalculated the number of laps. I thought I'd finished after four laps, only to find there were always going to be five. And then, because winner Jonny Pugh rather cruelly finished his fifth lap within 90 minutes and just failed to lap me, technically I should have done a sixth!

3. I was on a singlespeed. This race was a salutary lesson in why most people have gears! I think there comes a point in any race when your legs just need a break. Although I did manage to lap one rider while walking up the last hill, Shanks' pony is only competitive on muddy/technical ascents and just didn't cut it against a full set of gears on a fire-road climb.

The good news is that I had my first proper ding-dong battle in a race, regularly swapping places with two other riders for four laps, which was really motivating and good fun. It's a shame that having battled so hard for sixth place I ended up tenth!

That's more like it, Mole. Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

The finale of the Red Kite Winter XC Series is on 17 March and I wholeheartedly recommend taking part. It's more informal and welcoming than the Welsh Cycling series, witness the large number of weekend warriors taking part, but has attracted some top racers too. It boasts a proper cafe rather than just a man in a van in a field, and the courses are a bit more all-weather and rideable for mere mortals. Apparently there was a podium presentation after this round for the first time, but I completely missed it. That's how low-key the whole thing is.

Next stop for me, though, is Welsh XC Series Round 4 at Coed y Brenin on 3 March where I have some scores to settle after last year's gold medal that wasn't.

A pre-ride of bits of the course by Tom Stickland of the very active MB Swindon. Trust me, it wasn't as easy as it looks. The really tricky bit isn't included because his camera fell off - that's how hardcore it was! ;-)

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Dyfi Winter Warm Up: The Dyfi Winter Soak Down

Star date: 27 Jan 2013
Location: Deepest darkest Wales
Event: Dyfi Winter Warm Up
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with dropper post, suspension forks and big tyres
Greatest achievement: Keeping the big boys in sight on the first climb
Greatest weakness: Getting carried away on the first climb
Result: 11th overall / 2nd singlespeed / 1st veteran

That sinking feeling when your waterproof socks fill with water you know won't find its way out again. Photo by CameraGav.

All week, of course, the worry had been snow. Would the event go ahead, and would I be able to get there if it did, but on the day almost all the snow had melted, leaving a very different problem. I knew it was going to be a wet one when I hit a 10-mile diversion to avoid flooding on the way up to Corris. What I didn’t know was that I was about to get my first taste of white-water rafting.

The snow had been a lot of fun, if hard work. It was my first proper experience of riding in the white stuff, and I was disturbed to find that in anything more than about three inches you have to pedal twice as hard to go half as fast - and that's just downhill.

Now, though, the combination of the Great Thaw and the preceding Year of Nonstop Rain had created a rush of water down the hillsides, alternately half-inching the trails we were about to ride and carving its own lines straight through them.

Reminds me of that old joke: What do you do if an elephant comes through your window? Swim for your life!

Now officially the Dyfi Winter Warm Up is not a race, and last year I did actually do it just for fun. This year, though, I wanted to go for it – my first chance to tackle some proper hills, wild descents and a decent distance on the singlespeed in anger. And I was not alone. Besides 200-odd sane riders clad in appropriately heavy-duty wet-weather gear and safety padding, some of Wales' fastest riders lined up in wafer-thin lycra, including eventual first three Johnny Pugh, Ryan Bevis and Matt Page. Arriving at the start a little on the late side, I somewhat reluctantly weave a path through the throng towards the front behind fellow Lampeter-based racer Gareth Payne. "Won't people object?" I ask. "Nah, you'll be fine," comes the reply, "as long as no-one hits you."

The non-competitive nature of the event meant no times, no prizes, not even a finishing line, and the informality extended to a refreshingly short briefing at the start: "Right, better get on with it, then." And off we went.

I love this picture. It sums up perfectly what the event was all about - if not what mountain biking in Wales is all about. Hills, speed, concentration, trepidation - and mud. Photo courtesy of Mark Wood.

The first section took us about a mile downhill along the main road behind a pace car (well, a bloke in a Land Rover). Last year I politely started near the back, which always makes the start an anticlimax. The whistle or klaxon or whatever goes off and - nothing happens. It feels like an eternity before everyone in front gets moving, and then the congestion means you're stuck behind hundreds of equally frustrated riders going not quite as fast as you or they would want to. Last year this was compounded by having the few, ahem, larger gentlemen behind me temporarily capitalising on the law of gravity and gaily freewheeling past me as I pedalled along - and then, thanks again to the laws of gravity, holding me up on the first climb. This year, though, having started near the front (unlike Gareth, I didn't have the nerve to go all the way, so to speak), I was just about able to keep up with the leaders by raising my cadence to a mere 6,000 rpm - think Benny Hill on a bike.

Leaving the main road, we were let off the leash and embarked on the first climb, a long fire-road drag to the highest point of the course. And I mean long - more than two miles of steady climbing with a vertical gain of over 250 metres. A group of riders shot off the front and I let them go, settling straight into my steady singlespeed rhythm. Singlespeed does, of course, refer to having only one gear, but on long out-of-the-saddle climbs I find there is literally only one speed you can comfortably go. Pedal any faster and you run out of puff in no time; pedal any slower and it puts too much strain on the body. Like a car stuck in third, there's a certain speed you have to go or you'll stall. Now this turned out to be about the same speed as the leading pack once they settled, so I tracked them up at a discreet distance, eventually passing a couple of riders dropping off the back and reaching the top only about 100 yards off the pace in seventh place. So far, so very good.

But then I compounded my usual poor start on the singletrack by forgetting to drop my saddle and turn my suspension on. D'uh. Stopping to sort this out promptly cost me the two places I'd gained on the second half of the climb, but at least enabled me to make it down the first descent unscathed. It was rough, loose, rocky, rooty, muddy and fun - and fortunately nowhere near as steep as the first descent last year when I completely lost control and went arse over tit in the middle of the trail with, oh, only about 6,000 riders immediately behind me.

Next up was the main circuit, a 9km loop with two main climbs and two main descents, which we had the option of completing once, twice or, er, thrice. Last year I only just made the cut-off time for the third lap, thanks to an early pinch puncture due to inept riding. Slashing the sidewalls open on the Dyfi's slatey trails is also a very real danger, so I opted for some serious rubber for this event in the form of Bontrager XR4s. Weighing in at about 2lbs each, they are twice as heavy as my normal race tyres, but did a great job.

Dame Edna lives! The glasses had to come off as soon as we got into the forest as I couldn't see a thing. Photo courtesy of Mark Wood.

The first descent on the loop proper is known as the Builth and starts off all fast and flowy curves before turning right over some tricky, slippery, polished bedrock steps onto a long all-out blast down a loose-cobbled gully which eventually spits you out onto a fireroad complete with waiting ambulance. And today half the meltwater in Snowdonia seems to have been channelled in this direction and was running down and across the trail. I'd have been better off bringing a canoe than a mountain bike. Hell, I could have piloted a gondola down there.

Keeping your feet dry was not an option - waterproof socks or not - so the big decision was whether to blithely follow the route taken by the stream of water or try to ride alongside it where possible. Now in theory water will find the shortest, fastest and easiest path down the hill, which is exactly what you're after as a rider. The danger, though, is that you never know what lurks beneath - holes, rocks, Nessie, whatever. I decided to take the plunge and plough through the water for the most part, and it worked a treat. Plenty of riders had problems with one of the stream crossings, though, by being overly cautious, as can be seen from the rather amusing video below from event organiser Peter Jones. As Si at my local bike hire emporium always tells me, speed is your friend... (Apart from when it puts you in hospital, of course).

Besides heavy-duty tyres, I put suspension forks on the bike for this event, and boy was I glad of them on the second half of this descent (especially on the third lap when my body was no longer responding to instructions from my brain). Human suspension is all very well, but when it's that relentlessly rough, even with suspension forks it's like riding a road drill.

The second big descent, after another steady fire-road climb, is known as the 3-in-1 (I assume not due to sponsorship – this is Machynlleth FFS – but because it's split into three parts by two fire-road crossings). This one wasn't rocky but was rather muddy and a whole lot of fun, barring the fake puddle at the beginning of the second section which caught me out on the second lap. Now either the Viet Cong established a hitherto undiscovered line of defence in mid-Wales or it was a relic from World War II. “Hey, Fritz, ze Tommies vill never guess ve spearhead ze invasion of Britain through ze Dyfi Forest on our MTBs – aaaaaahhh, a booby trap! I appear to have been katapulted over ze bars into a kunningly koncealed gunge tank! Gott im Himmel, isn’t zat Noel Edmonds?”.

Still, no damage done, and the reward at the bottom was the feed station, one of the highlights of 2012 – and I'm delighted to report that the flapjacks were just as good as I remembered them.

Next up was the climb back to the top of the first descent. On the first section the water had carved a winding channel down through the fire road a metre across and almost as deep, as though it were built of sand, not rock. Someone had clearly been on a health and safety course, as we were ordered to get off and push for about a hundred yards rather than being trusted to make our own risk assessment. To be fair, though, I can see the insurance implications of having half a dozen mountain bikers washed out to sea, desperately trying to inflate their spare tubes as impromptu life rafts. More sobering, though, were the odd remnants of police tape on the next part of the climb left from the hunt for April Jones. Everyone seemed a bit subdued on that section.

You'd have thought laps 2 and 3 would be more of the same, and indeed they were, but they were also very different. I was on my own for most of the first lap, but now I was regularly lapping slower riders (think me last year) and swapping places with fellow singlespeeder Sion Parry. We ended up riding quite a long way together, but from halfway round the second lap I was struggling - I still haven’t learnt to pace myself properly on (or off) the singlespeed. Sion very sportingly slowed a few times to give me a chance to keep up, but halfway round the third lap I had to insist he went on ahead – I was now properly shattered. The last big climb I was riding 50 yards, walking 50 yards, riding 50 yards, walking 50 yards.

Still, I had enough energy to enjoy the final descent and free flapjacks one last time, and then it was back to the very welcome warmth of Corris Craft Centre (albeit with a bit of a detour as we weren't sure whether we were supposed to get back there using the main road or a back road).

A year ago I would've panicked on muddy steep ruts like this and fallen off. Photo again courtesy of Mark Wood, who took hundreds of photos of the event and gave them all away for nothing.

All in all, a really enjoyable ride. Got very wet and very muddy but never got cold, as the weather was surprisingly clement bar a couple of light hail showers, and a hot drink in a proper cafe at the end was the icing on the cake. All proceeds went to charity, too, so a full-on "we're not worthy" to the organisers. I look forward to doing it all again next year - not to mention riding these descents again in the dry at the Dyfi Enduro proper in May (how's that for tempting fate?).

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Welsh XC Series Round 1: The joy of mud-wrestling

Star date: 10 Feb 2013
Location: Margam Park, South Wales
Event: Welsh XC Series Round 1
Weapon of choice: Rigid carbon singlespeed with dropper post
Greatest achievement: Surviving the second descent every time
Greatest weakness: Remounting and clipping back in quickly
Result: 6th veteran / 1st (and only) singlespeed

"I think I want to go home now..." Photo courtesy of Craig Fawkes. Visit his blog for a couple of cracking shots of riders flying face-first into the gloop.

My closest rival in the race reckoned afterwards that this was "what mountain biking is all about". I was tempted to argue that actually, dude, tearing down dusty trails in the balmy California sunshine en route to an afternoon's surfing is what mountain biking is all about.

But he has a point. Could this be what cross-country mountain bike racing in Wales is all about? Partly unrideable trails, constant drizzle, suicidal descents, mud in every orifice of bike and rider, the day's big luxury a tarmac carpark half a mile from the start. Ticks every box really.

The last time I raced at Margam was the unseasonably dry and sunny Margam Madness 3/6-hour endurance event last September, one of my highlights of 2012. Sunday, then, was payback time. It wasn't biblically wet like the Dyfi Winter Warm Up a fortnight ago, but was probably the closest I will ever get to skiing down a mountain of slurry. Five times.

The course was short at 3.5km but packed in pretty much everything you'd expect from a Welsh XC course: challenging climbs, scary descents, slidey bits, fiddly bits, lots and lots of mud. Tough, muddy and fun.

I started well, pedalling like a demented hamster along a short flat section to keep up with the gearboys, led by eventual winner Mark Spratt and his teammate in what looked like matching kermit suits, and then gained a few places and overtook most of the women on a longish gravel track climb with a nice singlespeed-friendly gradient.

All off-camber sheeptrack and rooty climbing, the first singletrack section was very slippy and a tad vertiginous, and I'd have done better not to even bother trying to ride it. I was on and off the bike, clipping in and out, never getting any balance or rhythm, and quickly losing all the places gained on the climb. Bugger. On subsequent laps I ran or walked most of this section, which turned out to be at least as quick as riding and a lot less hard work.

And then there was the first descent down a straight rocky chute. I knew from last year it would be steep and loose and fast. Only this year it was steep and loose and fast and muddy. Not much to do but sit on the rear wheel and pray, and it wasn't too bad really as long as you started the descent balanced and in control. And that was the problem. Twice I messed up the sharp left turn over a bank into the chute, lost control, couldn't get clipped back in and ended up running down; once I lost control but carried on, careering from bank to bank like I was stuck in a pinball machine; and twice I made it down cleanly. Not a bad average.

Needless to say, one of the times I messed it up was on the first lap. I've come to expect that, though. It always takes me a while to get settled on the singletrack, especially with the pressure of people breathing down my neck. Is it age or inexperience?

Must admit I walked the second climb every lap. Smart move. Not only did it save me energy but it allowed me to enjoy the stunning view of Port Talbot's industrial sprawl, which I've always loved. Like something out of science fiction.

The second descent is hard to describe. The first part is fine, but then you turn left down a steep bank and all hell breaks loose. The combination of mud and gradient mean there's nothing much you can do to slow down. With stopping not an option, all you can do is get your weight back and your heels down, point the front wheel where you want to go, try to look ahead and basically cling on for dear life. Oh, and stay relaxed. Yeah, right. Suspension forks would've made it more comfortable, but I'm proud to say I still made it down unscathed five times, and faster each time until a rather tired final lap. It was absolutely terrifying, and I loved it.

Me auditioning for "Nemo - The MTB Years" on the second descent at Margam Madness in somewhat better conditions last year. Photo: Kevin Morgan-Williams.

The course now meandered back to the start with a couple of short climbs and a really gloopy, rooty, boggy, stumpy, twisty, ditchy new woodland section down to the "arena" (masquerading as a field with two tents and a caravan in it) complete with a cyclocross-style twisty taped section on what was once grass but was now the cycling equivalent of an endless swimming pool.

First lap done, time to do it all again. And again and again and again. Four more chances to improve on the bits I messed up first time around - and find new places to mess up. As usual, the remaining laps were quieter as the field spread out, giving me time and space to deal better with the technical challenges. I seemed to pass people regularly, especially on the first climb, but mainly lapping people in the other categories, as I only passed one other veteran. I finished sixth, which was a great result, especially as the guys in seventh and eighth beat me comprehensively last year. My lap times were pleasingly consistent - all five in 20-21 minutes. I'm now 10% off the pace rather than 20%, so all this training seems to be paying off. I reckon I'm still losing most time on the technical bits, especially on the first lap, so if I could just settle more quickly on the singletrack (or just give up and run earlier), I might just manage to keep up with the big boys next time. I wonder if caged SPDs would help?

Leaving the gears and suspension at home (and the tools, tubes and nutrition at the start) was a gamble that paid off. The 7lb weight saving certainly helped on the push and carry bits, not to mention the climbs, and all the bits I struggled on I would've struggled on with gears (which would doubtless have jammed in the mud anyway). Psychologically there was also that whole underdog thing, which helped me relax more. With descents like that, the dropper post was definitely a good idea, and the Rocket Rons seemed to cling on as well as knobblier rubber on their first outing, besides being Malteser-light.

Event organisers Scott Bugden and Fully Sussed got everything right. We even got lap times the same night. I'm now really looking forward to see what I can do at round 2 at Coed y Brenin on 3 March. Next up, though, is round 4 of the Red Kite XC series at Coed Trallwm. Bring it on!

1 01:33:36 Mark Spratt, Cardiff JIF 00:17:26 00:18:08 00:18:37 00:19:01 00:20:24
2 01:37:35 Gary Andrews, Certini 00:18:43 00:19:55 00:19:19 00:19:44 00:19:55
3 01:38:40 Matthew Craner, Royal Navy & Royal Marines CA 00:18:22 00:19:38 00:20:14 00:20:15 00:20:12
4 01:39:06 Lee Hayward, Southfork 00:17:13 00:17:58 00:24:53 00:19:14 00:19:48
5 01:40:42 Nick Butler, Southfork 00:17:51 00:19:58 00:20:47 00:21:04 00:21:02
6 01:43:16 Chris Schroder, Sarn Helen 00:20:15 00:19:42 00:20:32 00:21:13 00:21:35
7 01:45:13 Alan Colville 00:19:05 00:20:35 00:21:09 00:21:50 00:22:35
8 01:49:46 Robert Orr, Matlock CC 00:19:45 00:21:53 00:22:00 00:22:36 00:23:32
9 01:51:58 Andrew Smart, Biped Cycles 00:21:53 00:22:14 00:22:48 00:22:03 00:23:00
10 01:52:00 Paul Gibbons, Climb on Bikes

11 01:52:22 Darren Caines 00:22:29 00:22:05 00:22:19 00:22:18 00:23:11
12 01:34:47 Steven Higgins-Worrall, Abergavenny Road Club 00:22:24 00:24:12 00:23:57 00:24:14
13 01:35:19 Pip Sowden, Clayton Cars - Bad ass bikes 00:22:56 00:23:50 00:25:12 00:23:22
14 01:35:51 Alan Gardner, Brecon Wheelers 00:22:38 00:23:52 00:24:20 00:25:02
15 01:37:33 Wayne Davies, TRCC (Towy Riders Cycling Club) 00:23:58 00:24:03 00:25:16 00:24:17
16 01:42:30 Brian Breeze 00:24:43 00:26:10 00:26:01 00:25:37
17 01:46:01 David Jones, TRCC (Towy Riders Cycling Club) 00:25:26 00:26:01 00:27:11 00:27:23
18 01:47:16 Sion Clarke 00:25:32 00:26:41 00:27:07 00:27:56
19 01:50:39 steve jones, abergavenny r c 00:25:55 00:26:35 00:28:03 00:30:06
20 02:01:32 Ricky Macgough 00:27:27 00:31:42 00:31:24 00:31:00
21 00:52:26 Ian Jeremiah, Cardiff Jif Cyclopaedia 00:16:59 00:17:37 00:17:50

22 01:22:41 Kevin Gale 00:26:24 00:28:53 00:27:24

23 01:35:28 Crad Lowe, Brecon Wheelers 00:27:51 00:31:16 00:36:22

24 01:38:25 LEYTON SHILLIBIER 00:29:05 00:34:06 00:35:15

25 00:52:52 Jonathan Howes, Cycle Training Wales 00:25:24 00:27:28