Friday, May 31, 2013

Welsh XC Series Round 4: Almost perfect

Star date: 19 May 2013
Location: Margam Park, Port Talbot
Event: Welsh XC Series Round 4
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with suspension forks and fixed seat post
Greatest achievement: Pretty pleased with everything really
Greatest weakness: Ditto; could usefully have gone a bit faster I suppose
Result: 7th in race / 4th in Welsh champs / 4th in Welsh series / 1st and only singlespeed 

 ******** NEW FEATURE ********
 Executive summary for those with the attention span of my children: 
Weather sunny and hot, trails dry and dusty, descents scary as ****.
Best XC course ever. I love Margam!

OK, so you look cooler than me...

But who got up the hill?
All photos with ROYBEVISPHOTO on them courtesy of Mickey Mouse, d'uh.

So basically it was good. Very good. But things weren't looking too good beforehand...

Wot no wheels
After the Dyfi Disaster I went surfing for a new rear wheel and found a nice set of tubeless-specific rims on good hubs set up tubeless with nearly-new tyres going second-hand for much less than a half-decent rear wheel new. Perfect. Except: "Parcelforce say the label came off..." And then: "Parcelforce can't find your address on their system..." Cue frantic tearing out of what little hair I have left. They eventually turned up the day before the race. Too late for a test-drive or tyre change, but at least I was tubeless. I hate inner tubes. They are without doubt the work of the devil.

Wot no dropper
After fitting the new wheels and offering a long prayer that the rear wheel would stay on properly (long, boring saga to do with chain tugs), I was giving the bike a quick pre-race wash (like you do, it's a bit like adding go-faster stripes to your car) and it struck me that the reason why my number board is always wonky during races was because the cable to the dropper post was routed wrongly. So I unscrewed the handlebar switch, moved the cable, screwed the switch back on - and snapped the clamp. Oops. No way of activating dropper post. No time to get a spare clamp. No dropper post at Margam. Yes, that Margam, the one with the crazy steep descents where a high saddle is liable to rip your bollocks off at any time.

Wot no happy ending
This was not what I needed when I'd already spent most of the week with ice in my pants. Honestly, you've got an achy back, you find a nice young lady in the phone book and slip her £30 for a handjob, you really don't expect to come out of it with a seriously sore groin. Bloody osteopaths.

Almost a perfect day.

In light of all this, I decided to get to Margam early and do a gentle practice lap to test my equipment. I wouldn't normally bother (I'd rather stay in bed) and I'd done most of the course nine times before, but I wanted to try going round with the saddle jammed up my arse without the pressure of other riders around me. And I'm very glad I did.

Wot no balls
Ambling up the big climb, enjoying the sunshine and taking pictures of the view on my phone, I tried to snap some riders coming down a little extra section added at the top. Looked a bit steep, but nothing to worry about.

Only then I got to the top myself and looked down... Plenty to worry about. No way was I going down that. The start didn't help, with a tight left turn round an awkwardly positioned mound and then what looked like a sheer drop for about 20 feet before easing out slightly and then swinging sharp right at the bottom. The path, for want of a better word, was less than a foot wide, far from even and littered with random loose rocks along its length, lying in wait ready to grab your front wheel and catapult you over the bars to your doom.

Problem was, there was no chicken line and it was too steep to run down. It had to be ridden. I traipsed back along the trail to get a decent run-up, got to the edge and... stopped. I was petrified. It looked impossibly steep. Certain death. Partly, I suppose, because the hill carries on down well beyond this actual section, and it seemed like you could end up somersaulting all the way down to the sea. I honestly don't think I'd ever have done it - except a girl then arrived at the top of the hill to recce the drop. There was no way I could not do it now. Sad, I know. But I can't help it.

I said it didn't look much from underneath.

So over the edge I went. I completely missed the line and went down about six feet off to the right through grass and bracken, desperately trying to avoid big chunks of rock lurking in their midst. Total panic time. I shifted my weight as far back as I possibly could. Too far back. Now the saddle wasn't under me but in front of me, somewhere around my navel. Double panic. Drop any further back and the rear wheel would chainsaw off my wedding tackle, while any sudden movement forward would leave my nads dangling off the back of my saddle. Two children are more than enough, but even so...

Of course, I made it down intact. I bumped into race organiser Scott Bugden and octogenarian MTB legend John Lloyd a little later. Scott said: "Take the inside line at the top and you'll be laughing." John said: "It's really not very steep, it doesn't warrant a dropper post, just man up." Only more politely.

I went on to ride that section six times during the race and didn't fall off or sever my testicles once, which was nice. As usual during a race, they did their best to hide, which helped, and I must confess I also dropped my saddle an inch below normal height before the start just in case. I never managed to take Scott's line, which was even steeper than the more obvious one. But John was right, it wasn't that steep in the end. I did just need to man up. On the final lap I even managed to relax - a bit - and feel a degree of control. Quite a few people did come off there during the day though and will forever bear the scars to prove it.

The fast bit in the woods. Photo: Blood, Sweat and Gears.

Next up on my practice lap was the rooty section that defeated me in the wet in February. Easy. Plenty of grip from the tyres, just needed enough oomph to get over the last big fat root at the top. And then the steep loose rocky chute. As usual, hang on and pray. Again I struggled to relax into it but made it down in one piece every time. Ditto the bobsleigh run down through the rhododendrons, careering from side to side and willing the bike to go in the right direction, which it more or less did. Last time I had rigid forks, whereas this time I had suspension; I have to say the descents felt no less rough, but Strava tells me I was a bit quicker.

With the ground being so dry, the impossible climb from February was also now possible, though I only bothered riding it on the last lap, just for the hell of it. Another new section took us down a hill on woodchip, which was novel and soft and slidey and fun, and then it was back through the not-so-muddy woods to the start.

All in all, a dry, fast, grippy, scary monster of a roller-coaster ride. I couldn't wait.

Another place gained on foot...

But clipping back in can be painful!

This time I'm going to do it...

... even if it kills me

And the race itself? Not much more to say really. Same course, faster, lots of times. Sunny, hot, sweaty stuff, lots of fluids needed. I had vague plans to really go for it up the first hill and then see if I could stay on the tail of eventual winner Mark Spratt, but the pace off the start line was fearsome and I had no chance of keeping up on the flat without gears - indeed I probably would have struggled with gears. By the time we hit the singletrack climb I was maybe 50 yards adrift of the first dozen riders. With a bit of grunt, I managed to close this gap before getting to the top, which also meant I pulled away from the riders behind me, allowing me to tackle the Descent of Doom in my own time and space. I duly survived but then lost ground again on the leaders due to first-lap schoolboy errors on the roots and never saw them again. To be honest, looking at their times, I never stood a chance.

Starting in pole position didn't help much on the singlespeed.

It was very hot out there, and by the end I was beginning to cramp and feeling pretty tired. As usual, I walked the steepest climbs to conserve energy, but I gained quite a few places riding the other climbs, so if I could only build enough strength to get up the steeper climbs comfortably... Or get some gears... Hmm...

No place on the glory trailer for me. (Maybe my fashion sense just didn't cut it. Miaow.) Winner Mark Spratt is the one standing in the wrong place doing a Robbie Fowler.

I ended up 7th in the race and 4th in the Welsh Championships, so no medal this year... It's ironic that after two years taking bronze despite having terrible races and getting lapped, this year I finally have a problem-free race, I'm stronger and fitter and faster and less technically inept than ever, and I don't make the podium. But fourth is still pretty damn good and I enjoyed the race more than I can possibly say.

Best XC course ever. I love Margam!

So, what next? Apart from the odd dabble in the Red Kite summer midweek XC series it's time to have a rest until the autumn, when I hope to have another go at last year's two highlights, the Brecon Beast and, of course, Margam Madness. But after today, it'd be hard not to do the third round of the British National Series also at Margam on 7 July... And the stupidly long Red Kite Elan Valley Challenge on 23 June is also whispering sweet nothings in my ear... Spoilt for choice this year... Need to exercise some self-restraint... Yeah, right...


Welsh Champs - 4th 
No medal this year but well beaten by the first two. Next year, Mr Porter... 

1 Mark Spratt, Cardiff JIF
2 Vincent Thomas, Forza Cycles Racing Team 
3 Ross Porter, Cwmcarn Paragon Cycle Club
4 Chris Schroder, Sarn Helen
Welsh XC Series 2013 - 4th
Again well behind the first two. Next year, Mr Butler...

          Rd1    Rd2   Rd3   Rd4    Total

Position Time Position Time Position Time Position Time Points Time
Mark Spratt Cardiff Jif 1 01:33:36 5 01:13:09 3 01:23:48 1 01:31:00 5 04:07:57
Lee Hayward Southfork Racing 4 01:39:06 1 01:09:22 2 01:22:56 4 01:33:56 7 04:06:14
Nick Butler Southfork Racing 5 01:40:42 4 01:12:42 5 01:26:35 6 01:43:49 14 04:19:59
Chris Schroder Sarn Helen 6 01:43:16 10 01:25:36 8 01:33:49 7 01:45:59 21 04:42:41

On the day - 7th
Way off Mark Spratt's blistering pace but check out the consistency of my lap times... I clearly wasn't trying hard enough!

1 01:31:00 Mark Spratt, Cardiff JIF 00:14:55 00:14:53 00:14:57 00:15:05 00:15:28 00:15:42
2 01:33:24 Brendan Murphy, Mondraker UK 00:15:05 00:15:12 00:15:39 00:15:41 00:15:56 00:15:51
3 01:33:29 Vincent Thomas, Forza Cycles Racing Team 00:15:54 00:15:54 00:15:54 00:15:35 00:15:24 00:14:48
4 01:33:56 Lee Hayward, Southfork 00:15:45 00:15:40 00:15:45 00:15:28 00:15:44 00:15:34
5 01:38:48 Ross Porter, Cwmcarn Paragon Cycle Club 00:16:08 00:16:10 00:16:08 00:16:39 00:16:46 00:16:57
6 01:43:49 Nick Butler, Southfork 00:16:46 00:16:42 00:16:46 00:17:02 00:18:39 00:17:54
7 01:45:59 Chris Schroder, Sarn Helen 00:17:43 00:17:40 00:17:45 00:17:34 00:17:47 00:17:30
8 01:47:44 Christopher Bates, Sosban Riders 00:17:30 00:17:31 00:18:08 00:18:18 00:17:43 00:18:34
9 01:58:01 Chris Ames, MachenMigglyMods 00:18:55 00:18:50 00:18:57 00:19:53 00:20:32 00:20:54
10 01:39:15 Alan Gardner, Brecon Wheelers bi-ped cycles 00:20:10 00:20:11 00:19:52 00:19:45 00:19:17
11 01:40:04 Steven Higgins-Worrall, Abergavenny Road Club 00:21:03 00:19:03 00:19:50 00:20:10 00:19:58
12 01:40:07 Brian Preece 00:19:30 00:19:30 00:19:18 00:20:42 00:21:07
13 01:40:55 David Davies, TRCC (Towy Riders Cycling Club) 00:20:16 00:19:16 00:20:25 00:21:07 00:19:51
14 01:41:30 Nick Welsh 00:20:28 00:21:28 00:20:00 00:20:18 00:19:16
15 01:49:49 Sion Clarke, Onit Sports 00:20:17 00:20:18 00:21:59 00:23:12 00:24:03
16 01:52:45 Jonathan Howes, Cycle Training Wales 00:21:27 00:21:28 00:22:30 00:23:35 00:23:45
17 01:02:27 Mark James, Team Jewson/Thule/Kinesis/CNP/MI Racing-Ride 00:15:28 00:15:40 00:15:30 00:15:49

18 01:35:30 David Jones, TRCC (Towy Racing Cycle Club) 00:22:53 00:22:54 00:24:11 00:25:32

19 01:42:40 Gerwyn Evans, West Wales Cycle Racing Team 00:24:38 00:24:39 00:25:56 00:27:27

20 01:41:34 Steeve Cooper 00:25:54 00:25:55 00:27:49 00:21:56

21 00:21:26 Paul Gibbons, Climb on Bikes RT 00:00:28 00:00:29 00:20:29

22 01:20:12 Leyton Shilibeer, Rhiwcieliog Riders 00:25:35 00:25:36 00:29:01

23 00:40:20 Darren Caines, Yeovil CC 00:20:10 00:20:10

24 00:55:49 Ian Newton, Sosban Riders 00:27:54 00:27:55

25 01:37:05 Simon Owens, Sosban Riders 00:48:32 00:48:33

26 00:19:28 Steven Horne 00:19:28

27 00:22:53 Rhys Gravell, sosban riders 00:22:53

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dyfi Enduro: The kindness of strangers

Star date: 5 May 2013
Location: Deepest daftest Wales
Event: Dyfi Enduro
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with dropper post and suspension forks
Greatest achievement: An awful lot of overtaking
Greatest weakness: Dealing with flats
Result: 433rd!

Having hugely enjoyed the Dyfi Enduro's little brother back in January, I was really fired up for my first taste of the event proper, complete with drummers, aliens and other random mid-Wales nuttiness. While the first and last parts of the route were the same, conditions couldn't have been more different, the course being almost bone dry. Perfect for racing, then.

Of course, only boring people actually race the Dyfi. It's supposed to be all about the laid-back vibe, the banter, the drinking too much beer the night before. Boring sod that I am, though, I did race it - for all of about 20 minutes.

Words cannot do this justice. Photo: MBNW.

My race lasted the first two climbs and about 20 feet of the first rocky descent. I didn't get off to the best of starts, being too polite to shove all the way through to the front on the start line and then being unable to work my way forward through the motorcade up to Corris (on the singlespeed it was a job just to keep up). Once we were let off the leash on the first big fireroad climb, though, I proceeded to shoot past pretty much all those I consider my peers. I know I always go off too fast up the first hill, but I really wasn't pushing very hard. I felt strong, really strong. I was absolutely on fire. By the time we hit the top of the world after the second climb, I must have worked my way into the top 20.

Then, just 17km from the start, disaster struck as half the air escaped from my rear tyre. Not much of a disaster as disasters go, but it was enough to put me out of contention. A broken axle on my normal rear wheel during the week had forced me to run a more freeride-type wheel as an emergency solution. This proved an absolute bugger to set up tubeless, as the tyre kept popping off the rim, and I think the rim was to blame here on the mountain. The loss of air in itself wasn't that big a deal, though; it was the cack-handed way I dealt with it that was the real problem.

In a perfect world, I would simply have pumped in some air and ridden off, losing no more than three minutes. In reality, I managed to make a mountain out of a molehill and turn this minor setback into five, yes, count 'em, five flats, with maybe 90 minutes lost on repairs and begging for help.

Error #1. Use of pump with known dodgy connector, thus releasing more air and causing tyre to come right off rim, forcing me to remove wheel and insert inner tube.
Error #2. Failure to check carefully enough for thorns before inserting inner tube.
Error #3. Failure to dry tube and tyre carefully enough before patching tube (twice!).
Error #4. Failure to maintain pump, which went on to seize up completely, forcing me to borrow one (three times!).

So, five flats, all self-inflicted. I will learn from my mistakes.

I did enjoy it, honest. Check out the swanky new Team Sarn Helen top, though. Photo: Jon Brooke.
But there were upsides to all this.

First, I was seriously impressed by the number of people offering help as I stood beside the trail, ranting and raving at my upturned steed à la John Cleese. They were genuine offers, too. And I accepted them three times. Twice from the same chap, in fact. A true gentleman. And not forgetting the rider who wanted to give me a tube and really didn't want to take no for an answer! Soppy as it may sound, it was this generosity of spirit that kept me going through some of my darker moments. Thank you!

Second, it is so long since I did a ride just for fun. No Strava, no racing, just a ride. I'd forgotten just how good it can be. (Though obviously I'll still never do it again by choice!) Descending at a sensible pace was strangely rewarding - it doesn't have to be frightening. Only the World Cup descent scared me, partly because it's hellishly steep and rocky and exposed, but mainly because the previously sound guy in front of me started doing some very strange sideways things half-way down...

Third, I got to see how the other half live - the fun-lovin' riders there for the laid-back vibe, the banter, the drinking too much beer the night before. I have to say, though, I didn't actually see that much fun going on other than at the finish. What I mainly saw were people walking or pedalling very, very slowly up hills in a great deal of pain (or was it just trapped wind?) and moaning about congestion, mincers and dangerous overtaking...

With so many lengthy periods of enforced recovery during the ride, I was flying the whole time that I was moving, and the climbs came unbelievably easily. Between my third flat and the feed station, a distance of just 12km, I overtook no fewer than 277 riders! That was a real ego-booster, even though I know they weren't in any great hurry. And of course I then flatted again, twice, so they all went back past.

Rare shot of me using the saddle on the singlespeed. Photo: Acejoy

A high-quality video of the event by Will Sanders

I eventually finished in 4 hours and 19 minutes back in 433rd place. The last time I did 60km and 2000m of climbing (the equivalent of climbing Snowdon twice, from sea level) I was left a broken man, but this time I got back feeling just mildly tired and, despite the day's travails, very upbeat. It was a great ride - wild and exhilarating descents linked by endless but uncannily singlespeed-friendly fire-road climbs - with some great people. I will be back!

The top ten finishers, including Sarn Helen's Gareth Payne in an impressive seventh place.

No Strava today - my Garmin packed up again on the start line...

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Welsh XC Series Round 3: Flat course leaves me cold

Star date: 21 Apr 2013
Location: Fforest Fields, Builth Wells
Event: Welsh XC Series Round 3
Weapon of choice: Carbon singlespeed with suspension forks and dropper post
Greatest achievement: Staying strong
Greatest weakness: Falling off
Result: 8th veteran / 1st singlespeed

Struggling to find much to say, for once, so I'm going to keep this one short and sweet, unlike the race (ho, ho). Not that there was that much wrong with the course, the organisation, the bike, the weather or my performance. It was just nothing special. I rode up and down some hills as fast as I could, fell off a few times, got a bit muddy, all the usual stuff, end of story.

In fact, it's tempting to limit this to a photo feature, courtesy of the wonderful and nigh-on omnipresent Mr Bevis, a man with an peculiar fetish for spending whole days lying around in muddy places:

"OMG, if I get stuck in this mud I'll end up in the stream!"
(It was muddier than it looks)

"OMG, if I don't change direction fast I'll end up in the stream!"
(It was tighter than it looks)

"OMG, if I don't make it up the bank I'll end up in the stream!"
(It was steeper than it looks)

Cheeky rear view of the same section

However, there are just a couple of things I need to get off my chest:

1. Cold start

For once I warmed up properly. I arrived at the start exactly one minute before the allotted kick-off time, stripped down to an admittedly optimistic short-sleeved top and shorts after spotting a ray of sunshine - and proceeded to spend more than 15 minutes being shunted back and forth like Thomas the Tank Engine's grumpy coal trucks as the commissaires organised and reorganised and gridded and regridded all the different categories. By the time us wrinklies started, my heart rate had pretty much flatlined and I was shivering like a jelly on a wobble board. Not good.

And what exactly was the idea behind gridding us five across on a track only wide enough for three abreast? Given that we then headed straight into an open field, we might as well have lined up there 50 riders across. What difference can a five-second head start possibly make over a 90-minute race?

All the difference, it would seem. As soon as we got off the track, nearly the entire field went sprinting past me in a desperate lemming-like urge to get a good start. Only when we then turned onto the inevitable fireroad climb, the ol' singlespeed rhythm kicked in and I promptly sailed back past most of them without any increase in my effort. Why sprint all-out for 400 yards and then drop into granny ring as soon as you hit the hill? Madness. But then who am I to lecture anyone on pacing? 

2. Flat course

It was billed as a course for climbers and there was indeed one very big hill (which was as quick to walk as to ride), but somehow it still seemed rather flat. The climbs were a bit dull and, aside from the first muddy slide back down through the woods, the payoff was limited. The level section at the bottom seemed to go on forever, and the endless roots at the far end of the course got on my nerves after a while.

The bloggers and forumites of (the only place to go for XC and endurance racing news, results, reviews, debate, spares and so much more) seem to have loved the course, however. It was proper old skool, apparently. Meaning what - dull? If this was old skool, give me nu XC any day.

Originally the course was supposed to have even more climbing but the descent was deemed too slippery on the day. An interesting decision which kind of says it all for me. The course definitely felt bowdlerised.

Of course, it might have been a very different story in the wet.

The technical challenges were limited to the likes of this monstrous three foot drop.
As for my performance, I didn't run out of energy, I only hurt myself once and I went pretty much as fast as I could the whole way round, which was faster than most but not as fast as some. Given that the guy I was battling with until I fell off was waaaaay out of my league two years ago, and the guy who finished two places behind me lapped me in Crickhowell last year, I suppose I did quite well. It just didn't feel like it.
Next up, my two big target races for the season: the Dyfi Enduro on 5 May and the Welsh XC Champs on the new World Cup course at Margam Park on 19 May. Can't imagine either of them being flat!

1 01:22:44 Brendan Murphy, Mondraker UK 00:19:18 00:20:20 00:21:04 00:22:02
2 01:22:56 Lee  Hayward, Southfork 00:19:45 00:20:51 00:21:20 00:21:01
3 01:23:48 Mark Spratt, Cardiff JIF 00:19:42 00:20:44 00:21:23 00:21:59
4 01:24:06 David Watt, VC Melyd 00:19:58 00:20:56 00:21:33 00:21:39
5 01:26:35 Nick Butler, Southfork 00:19:56 00:22:19 00:22:22 00:21:58
6 01:29:05 Christopher Taylor, Wolverhampton Whls 00:20:01 00:21:36 00:22:58 00:24:30
7 01:31:43 Ross  Porter, Cwmcarn Paragon 00:21:47 00:22:48 00:23:14 00:23:55
8 01:33:49 Chris Schroder, Sarn Helen 00:21:44 00:22:55 00:24:35 00:24:36
9 01:34:19 Robert Orr, Matlock CC 00:22:05 00:23:11 00:24:29 00:24:35
10 01:34:48 Terry Breen-Smith, 00:22:04 00:23:43 00:24:45 00:24:17
11 01:37:09 Philip Bromwich, Evesham & District Whls CC 00:23:03 00:24:09 00:24:42 00:25:16
12 01:37:21 Paul Gibbons, Climb On Bikes CC 00:22:32 00:24:46 00:25:16 00:24:47
13 01:38:04 Jason Tompkins, Cycle Coaching Wales/Lodge Cycles 00:23:14 00:24:22 00:25:17 00:25:11
14 01:48:39 David Davies, TRCC (Towy Riders Cycling Club) 00:24:23 00:27:36 00:28:11 00:28:30
15 01:51:14 Steven Higgins-Worrall, Abergavenny Road Club 00:25:26 00:28:03 00:28:53 00:28:52
16 01:53:10 Alan Gardner, Bi-ped cycles 00:26:28 00:28:14 00:28:27 00:30:01
17 01:29:17 Sion Clarke, Onit Sports 00:27:34 00:30:06 00:31:37
18 01:36:10 Arwel Ace 00:29:27 00:33:27 00:33:17
19 01:43:24 LEYTON SHILLIBIER, RHIWRCIELIOG RIDERS 00:31:36 00:34:41 00:37:07
20 01:43:27 Ricky Macgough, 00:31:34 00:35:02 00:36:52
2101:47:47Gerwyn Evans, West Wales Cycle Racing Team00:30:5300:38:1700:38:38

Series standings:

1 Lee HaywardSouthfork
2 Mark SprattCardiff Jif
3 Nick ButlerSouthfork
4 Chris SchröderSarn Helen

Strava and out.