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