Sunday, March 24, 2013

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 5: This is the end, my friend

Star date: 17 Mar 2013
Location: Coed Trallwm
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 5
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with dropper post and suspension forks
Greatest achievement: Finishing?
Greatest weakness: Where do I start?
Result: 11th overall / 2nd singlespeed

I've tried very hard to take some positives out of this one - and failed. So I didn't hurt myself or break the bike or come last. But the balance of the course wasn't quite right and nor was I.

This rather sums up my race: running a section that was perfectly rideable while grinning inanely. Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

The course was much the same as Round 4, which I enjoyed hugely, but with a few significant tweaks. We were warned at the start that parts "wouldn't be out of place in a downhill race" - and unfortunately that was no exaggeration. I've previously been a fan of Neil Delafield's little cheeky techy trails cut specially through the forest for each round of the series, but this time he went too far.

Downhill racers are raving lunatics with balls the size (and possibly texture) of coconuts and no trace of a hint of a sense of fear - and they still wear full-face helmets and body armour and ride bikes built like two-wheeled monster trucks.

I, on the other hand, am a middle-aged XC wuss with mild vertigo issues, a bike made of fairy dust and a keen instinct for self-preservation. The descent this time was beyond me.

Maybe I would've made it down if I'd been in better physical and mental shape and the ground had been bone-dry (er, hello, this is mid-Wales), but rain during the week left us sliding on a greasy layer of gluey wet stuff over a loose layer of sticky drier stuff (given that the Eskimos have 50 different words for snow, you'd have thought the Welsh would have at least that many for mud) with the exact consistency required to turn knobbly tyres into slicks and make clipping back into SPD pedals a case of square pegs and round holes for the duration of the descent.

This reminds me, obliquely, of my one and only visit to a homoeopath, whose first question was: "How would you describe your stools?" Of course I should've said: "Three-legged." But even after I got over the shock I remained at a loss for words - and I make my living as a linguist. OK, this was partly because I don't really take much of an interest in my, er, waste (despite the German surname, we don't have a loo with a viewing shelf), but there are some things the English language just isn't equipped to describe.

Winner Jonny Pugh striking a pose on the bit I ran above. Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

I digress. Yeah, this hill, right, it was bloody steep. And to add insult to injury, the guy at the bottom clearly hadn't been to Marshal School. Four times I passed him on bike or on foot, and not a single cheery, encouraging comment was forthcoming. Perhaps he was mute, I hear you say. But each time he also looked at me in a way that said, unequivocally, "I hate you, you big XC ponce, and I want to eat you."

Now I'm not averse to a bit of mud and a bit of running in an XC race, indeed it favours me. I'm also under no illusions about the limitations of my technical riding, but I got the impression that the descent was beyond most of the other riders too, and that even those who could ride it didn't. To be honest, even if it had been rideable, it would still have been a shame to lose so much height so quickly. The previous rounds' formula of a fast, flowing descent with short tricky bits was much more rewarding.

The smooth, surfaced trail down by the river. Undemanding but fun. Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

However... I must stress that I am very grateful to Neil and his crew of helpers and to Coed Trallwm for staging this series. I hope it becomes an annual event and I will be back every time just as long as they don't lose sight of who is riding these races - and it ain't downhillers - and remember that we want to be challenged rather than beaten by the course.

Of course this race was supposed to be the Big Decider for me in terms of singlespeeding or adding gears, but I didn't feel right at any point so it's hard to draw any conclusions. I still had sore ribs from Coed y Brenin and lacked energy and balance throughout. I lost all the people I considered my peers within a lap and a half, and I was walking bits of the climb on the second lap FFS. I coulda/shoulda/woulda stopped after three laps but decided to trudge up the hill for one last shot at some of the technical bits, only to find I was now too tired to go down (insert smutty comment of choice) as well as up.

Not sure whether I'm run down from overworking or overdoing it on the bike, or maybe it's this nagging piriformis injury (a right pain in the arse, boom, boom). Either way, I'm going to tone it down a bit for a while and just go out for fun. Might even turn off the Strava (gasp!).

I'm postponing any decision about gears as well. I have no races until 21 April anyway. Next event I have planned is another Delafield production - a long, slow Devil's Challenge in Llanwrtyd Wells on 7 April.

Totally uncontrived shot of the start. I hope we line up again for another series next year. Photo courtesy of Roy Bevis.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Welsh XC Series Round 2: One gear, one brake, one bell-end

Star date: 3 Mar 2013
Location: Coed y Brenin, North Wales
Event: Welsh XC Series Round 2
Weapon of choice: Rigid carbon singlespeed with dropper post
Greatest achievement: Riding all technical descents cleanly at least once
Greatest weakness: Too much dabbing and dismounting
Result: 10th veteran / 2nd singlespeed

Had a bit of a stinker on this one. Struggled with a technical course and topped things off with the rather misguided decision to throw caution to the wind on the final lap in the pursuit of glory (well, eighth place), which resulted almost instantly in a comedy off leaving me with full-body bruising, cracked Garmin, one usable brake and a snapped bell, no, bar end. Luckily my trusty £9 Lidl lid kept me alive to tell the tale...

Man v rock. Rock won. Damn.

Well, Scott Bugden at Welsh Cycling clearly has a sense of humour, coming up with a course in Snowdonia with so little climbing - not much more than 100 metres per lap. On the other hand, much of the course was ├╝ber-technical - not scarily so, just relentlessly tricky - which made it the most challenging and fun XC course I've tackled. OK, it was the same course as at the Welsh Championships last year, but this time it was dry and so almost all of it was rideable even for a klutz like me.

The first lap was really difficult. Trying to pick your way up rooty, rocky climbs and down rooty, rocky descents is hard enough without the frustration as riders in front of you constantly mess up and interrupt your flow - and then the embarrassment as you do exactly the same to those behind you.

This was particularly acute on a singlespeed, where momentum is all the more important on technical sections. It wasn't until the second or third lap when the riders were more spaced out (now there's an idea, riding in kaftans might level the playing field somewhat!) that I could properly see what was ahead and stand a realistic chance of making a decent fist of it.

Having been called up to the front row of the grid after my result in round 1 (which I have to admit still makes me feel ten feet tall), I suppose I could've sprinted off faster at the start and avoided the traffic, but then I would've had to cope with the pressure of much more able riders breathing down my neck and trying to muscle through as I pussyfooted my way round.

The 3.5km course consisted of two very different loops off the start/finish area. Loop 1 started with a short climb leading to a twisty, rooty, fiddly, low-speed descent. This had a couple of officially difficult triple-arrow drops down steep banks which I managed no problem with the seat dropped down - no B-lines for me, thank you very much! What I did find difficult, though, were a couple of  places in the midst of the rocky rootiness where you had to turn sharp right round a tree and then briefly head uphill again. This required a combination of balance and strength that was not always available to me, especially when leading with my weaker left foot.

Loop 2 started with a decent climb on loose gravel which allowed me to power past plenty of granny-ringers, and finished with a fun fast swoopy bermy pumpy descent with a couple of jumps that even had me airborne. Sandwiched in-between was a real challenge - half of the Pins and Needles section of the Tarw trail backwards.

Pins and Needles is a long section of uneven smooth rocky slabs, normally ridden downhill. I've also ridden shorter versions at Cannock on the FTD trail and at Brechfa on the Raven, and I just don't get the point. Sure, it requires a bit of concentration, especially in the wet, but it's just relentlessly jarring and unpleasant. Bump-bump, bump-bump, bump-bump. Like you're Winnie the Pooh being dragged down the stairs by Christopher Robin.

In reverse, though, it turns into a tricky technical ascent and is a rewarding challenge, hauling yourself up step by step, lifting the front and then unweighting the back of the bike. Last year it was slippery too, but after this year's Freaky February it was bone dry and I was able to ride most of it with increasing confidence. That said, some bugger's made a Strava segment of this section, and I'm ranked pretty much last...

And it was flushed with overconfidence from pretty much nailing this section (or so I thought) on the last lap that I caught sight of the eighth and ninth placed riders not too far in front of me and stupidly, very stupidly, decided to go for it, only to topple over and land rather badly on some rocks just as I turned off Pins and Needles. Although it felt like I lay there beetle-like under my bike for an age, Strava tells me I was moving again within a minute. However, the crash took out my front brake lever, forcing me to limp round to the finish very cautiously (albeit - the Strava never lies - no more slowly than before).

I hung around after the end for the presentations in case they cocked up the results again, and indeed they did, but sadly not in my favour so I wasn't mistakenly awarded a gold medal as happened last September.

Both brake lever and bar end were to finish the race with brewer's droop.

The singlespeed definitely made the tricky bits trickier on this occasion, and the flat course really didn't exploit its climbing credentials. Add in three hours in the car there and back having my ear bent about the benefits of 1x9 gearing by the third-placed rider, I'm beginning to think that singlespeeding really is madness and I should go back to gears. I'm not singlespeeding because I'm a purist or hard-nut or because I have a beard and drink real ale and only ride "natural trails". The frame I wanted just happened to come set up as a rigid singlespeed, and it seemed wrong not to give it a go... And I loved it... And I still do... But if I could find/afford a cheap geared bike of similar feather-like weight, well of course it would be better. Except in mud, obviously. Which rules out most races round this way. But in dry conditions like this when derailleurs actually work, it would be perfect. Except I'd have snapped the derailleur off when I went over. So gears really are useless after all... Only they're not...

Next stop, bruised ribs allowing, is the final round of the Red Kite XC series at Coed Trallwm on 17 March. Could this be the last hurrah for me racing a singlespeed, or will I MTFU and persevere? Oh, the suspense.

101:09:22Lee Hayward, Southfork
2 01:10:09 Roy Davies, Team Elite 00:07:36 00:15:13 00:15:26 00:15:45 00:16:09
3 01:12:05 Gareth Payne missed 00:22:52 00:16:07 00:16:40 00:16:26
4 01:12:42 Nick Butler, Southfork 00:06:40 00:16:10 00:16:42 00:16:36 00:16:34
5 01:13:09 Mark Spratt, Cardiff JIF 00:07:25 00:16:10 00:16:24 00:16:46 00:16:24
6 01:13:25 Joe Haywood, Summit Cycles 00:06:59 00:16:25 00:16:38 00:16:50 00:16:33
7 01:18:41 david Watt, VC Melyd 00:08:21 00:16:44 00:17:28 00:18:06 00:18:02
8 01:22:34 Paul Gibbons, Climb on Bikes CC 00:08:11 00:18:31 00:18:30 00:18:49 00:18:33
9 01:24:09 Matthew Worralio, 00:08:14 00:18:41 00:18:50 00:18:57 00:19:27
10 01:25:36 Chris Schroder, Sarn Helen 00:08:29 00:18:39 00:18:39 00:19:38 00:20:11
11 01:25:54 Steven Higgins-Worrall, Abergavenny Road Club 00:08:45 00:19:02 00:19:11 00:19:06 00:19:50
12 01:29:01 Wayne Davies, TRCC (Towy Riders Cycling Club) 00:08:37 00:19:52 00:20:48 00:21:13 00:18:31
13 01:09:51 Richard Walker 00:08:22 00:19:47 00:20:42 00:21:00
14 01:11:35 Brian Preele 00:09:32 00:20:50 00:20:29 00:20:44
15 01:13:34 Robert All, mat look cc 00:08:27 00:20:29 00:22:01 00:22:37
16 01:17:03 David Jones, TRCC (Towy Riders Cycling Club) 00:09:44 00:21:46 00:22:40 00:22:53
17 01:17:29 Dylan hughess, ww crt 00:09:18 00:22:58 00:22:35 00:22:38
18 01:20:16 Simon Cockroft, Climb on Bikes 00:09:52 00:21:48 00:23:43 00:24:53
19 01:22:57 Gerwyn Evans, West Wales Cycle Racing Team 00:09:54 00:23:21 00:24:53 00:24:49
20 01:32:34 LEYTON SHILLIBIER 00:11:11 00:25:51 00:28:16 00:27:16
21 00:22:46 Brendan Murphy, Mondraker UK 00:07:41 00:15:05