Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4: Getting there

Star date: 12 January 2014
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 4
Weapon of choice: Carbon hardtail 29er
Greatest strength: Determination
Greatest weakness: Route planning
Result: 2nd overall, 1st vet

Scrabbling to find the traction and momentum needed to get up the hill, carefully picking the line with the most grip to get safely back down again, all the while looking for banks and ruts and depressions to help you round the corners when braking is no longer an option... The moment when challenging turns into frightening, when your brain fills with the consequences of going over the edge and says no way, but you can't stop... The sheer terror when you realise that you're no longer in control but relying entirely on luck... The elation when you make it, followed by that sinking feeling as another hill appears before you and the whole cycle starts over again... And your mind starts to play those familiar games: why am I here, why am I doing this, why didn't I stay in bed?

Well, that was just the drive over.

It must've been much colder overnight in the hills, and the shortcut across 12 miles of remote mountain road was not, in hindsight, the best choice. Water running off the saturated high ground had solidified into dual channels of ice down the straights and whole sheets of the stuff across the corners. By the time I clocked that this was only going to get worse, it was too late to turn around, as I'd never have made it back up the bits I'd just crept down. Well, I won't be making that mistake again - it was the scariest drive of my life.

After all that, the race was a doddle. Still high on adrenaline, I felt strong on the ups and comfortable on the downs. I knew I had a real battle on my hands, with elite rider James Nixon and endurance racer Jon Roberts in attendance, but I was in a "bring it on" kind of mood. I therefore decided to shadow James Nixon up the all-too-familiar first climb - only to watch an unknown rider breeze past us half-way up. We went with him, of course, and probably both paid for it later.

Unfortunately my chain popped off again on the first descent, which cost me a little time. Dismayed to spot the trademark green helmet of increasingly strong young enduro rider Peter Lloyd plummeting down the hill towards me, I let fly down the rest of the descent and along the flat section after the café, so I caught up with the leaders as they emerged from the second ford.

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 12.1.2014 &emdash;
Event photos courtesy of Carol Corbett at CAC Photography

Instead of looping back round to the start as in earlier rounds, we crossed to the other side of the valley to do a variation on Coed Trallwm's red trail. This started, inevitably, with a big climb. The first super-slippery 50 yards (rideable in theory but easier to walk) and a couple of surfaced but steep banks (testing both thigh strength and traction skills) were followed by a long, rough, muddy fire-road drag to the top. Winding up a clear-felled hillside, this was much more enjoyable than the first climb, as both the views and the eroded surface gave you something to think about other than hurty legs. Stray off the established line and you even got a free musical accompaniment, part crunch, part tinkling, the shale having been lifted an inch off the ground by a billion sparkling ice needles.

I passed James Nixon near the top and launched myself down the recently resurfaced descent, which was smooth, straight and very, very fast. That is, apart from the Stealth Step™™ and the Dastardly Dogleg™™ round a tree stump, both of which come right out of the blue (at least with my eyesight), and two tight 180-degree turns, one bermed, one flat, more obvious but very loose, making it hard not to lose the back end of the bike. On subsequent laps I knew they were coming and went a bit slower; on the first lap I didn't, and I have no idea how I made it down in one piece. Several people punctured on the loose shale here, but today the force was with me. I suddenly found myself back on the tail of the Unknown Rider, but then made such a hash of the next section along a flattish, unsurfaced section through the woods back to the ford that I lost him again, forever. It wasn't hard, that bit, just a bit fiddly, but all I could see was mud and ruts and roots, so I was expecting to slip and slide around - and I did. The next two laps I made an active effort to look further ahead, keep pedalling and believe, and barring a wee wobble at the very end I made it through cleanly both times. It's amazing what you can ride when you think you can.

James Nixon caught me at the start of the second lap as I fumbled with an energy gel (that ol' two-pairs-of-gloves issue). Again I followed him up the first climb, and again I was able to pass and pull away towards the top. The chain stayed on this time, and I managed to hold my lead back down into the valley. I knew that if I could now push up the second climb I'd gain the psychological advantage of being out of sight, and then second place would almost certainly be mine if I could just keep going for the rest of the race. Well, I did, and it was. Really pleased with that. Once again the 90-minutes-plus-a-lap race format caught me out, and I held back a little on lap 3 to leave something in the tank for a non-existent lap 4, but I'd done enough.

I finished a couple of minutes up on James Nixon and five minutes behind the winner, who told me afterwards this was his first XC race (!) and he normally does "a bit of downhill, a bit of enduro". Slight understatement there - it turns out he was none other than World Cup downhiller Robert Williams! Well, that's one in the eye for prejudices about downhillers and climbing - he was up those hills like a mountain goat. OK, so he's half my age and a couple of stones lighter, but even so, R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

And talking of youth and respect, Huw Higgins-Worrall deserves a special mention for finishing eighth in the race at the age of just 12 - there's one to watch!

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 12.1.2014 &emdash;

The weather hasn't been overly kind to the Red Kite series this year, and coming up with different but rideable courses each time has been a challenge. This one was the best of the series so far: it was good to get back into the woods onto some properly muddy stuff, I loved having a slightly more technical climb, and the views from the far side of the valley were stunning (fortunately not literally).

The next round on 2 February sees a change to a longer format: a choice between two and four hours racing on a variation on this same longer (9km) loop. This was decided very democratically with a show of hands at the start of the race; I do wonder how the vote would've gone at the end... Anyway, this spells a lot of bang for your bucks, which is especially good news for those travelling a long way (or a stupid way). Unless we suddenly have some unseasonably dry weather, I reckon four hours on this course will be more than enough for anyone. I wonder if I should take the singlespeed...

Oh, and for the record: Although I'm a certified lentilist, I much preferred the pumpkin soup at previous rounds.

Official times
(I did come second, honest; there's something wrong with James Nixon's second lap time because I was some way ahead of him by then and finished about two minutes ahead; Jon Roberts punctured)

Robert Williams 1:41:14 32:38 33:51 34:44
Chris Schroder 1:46:17 33:18 35:52 37:06
James Nixon 1:43:58 33:26 32:59 37:31
Peter Lloyd 1:53:31 34:21 38:41 40:28
??? 1:54:50 35:47 38:11 40:51
Lewis Hawthorne 1:55:29 35:50 39:17 40:22
Jon Roberts 2:02:47 34:05 51:11 37:31
Huw Higgins Worrall 2:13:17 41:07 43:57 48:13
Jon Heissig 2:13:42 43:14 44:30 45:57
Steve HigginsWorrall 2:16:48 41:10 46:15 49:22

In case the Strava embed code isn't working again: Manual link

Monday, January 13, 2014

Red Kite Events Frozen Devil 50km challenge: Tasty

Star date: 5 January 2014
Location: Crychan Forest, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Events Frozen Devil 50km challenge
Weapon of choice: Unavailable
Weapon of necessity: Fully rigid 26" singlespeed
Greatest strength: Perseverance
Greatest weakness: Legs
Result: 5th overall, 1st vet, 1st singlespeed

I suppose the Frozen Devil was supposed to be something like this:

But lately the weather has been more like this:

And the forecast was for this:

So only about half those who entered actually turned up. Shame, because the weather held up much better than expected, even allowing this baby to make a slightly surreal appearance at event HQ:

CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash;

That said, the weather wasn't exactly balmy - cold and damp with odd patches of drizzle, and the ground was absolutely saturated, making the ups sticky, the downs sketchy and the flats a sprayfest. Despite being shortened from 55km to 50km to avoid ice and fallen trees, the course felt like 80km.

After paying dearly for a lack of preparation last time out, I was ready for the worst:
  • 1 waterproof jacket 
  • 2 pairs of gloves
  • 1 pair long waterproof shorts
  • 1 pair leg warmers
  • 2 pairs of socks (one waterproof)
  • 1 pair of shoes waterproofed with duct tape
And I have to say I never got cold, although I did get very wet feet: the duct tape disappeared in minutes and, as usual, the Sealskinz socks were better at keeping water in than out. But it was the leggings that were the biggest issue. A brief audition for the Ministry of Silly Walks before I left proved that, as previously suspected, my winter tights were too tight over the knees and so slowing me down:

A quick rummage in the kit box threw up a pair of never-before-used leg warmers. And to be fair they were lovely and soft and flexy and warm. However, I wish they'd come with a garter belt. I must have stopped a dozen times around the course to hitch them up. I know my legs are skinny, but even so. Any suggestions from female readers (or male for that matter) for how to get hold-ups to hold up would be very welcome!

Still not confident the 29er was quite right, and not really wanting to get it dirty anyway, I also took a bike with absolutely none of these things to go wrong:
  • Gears
  • Rear suspension
  • Front suspension
  • Inner tubes
  • Dropper post
Rigid singlespeed leads the way out of Llanwrtyd. How manly was I?
Event photos by Carol Corbett

I set off at a sedate pace along the opening road section, surprised to find no smooth-chested gear boys taking off ahead, but just as I was beginning to think that maybe nobody fast had turned up, a voice said hello and professional endurance racer Matt Page drew alongside. Bugger. What I did next probably wasn't the brightest of ideas. Yes, I bested Matt Page up the first climb. It wasn't deliberate (well, maybe just a bit). It was just a fun climb (Oxymorons R Us) up a rough track with a heady mixture of bedrock and ruts and mud and puddles and streaming water and sheep poo and thorns and steep bits, and I had to maintain a certain pace on the singlespeed just to keep going. Somehow I was also getting better traction despite still being on semi-slick summer tyres, and I got carried away.

Anyway, it proved a Pyrrhic victory (private education not entirely wasted) because it led onto a road descent where he and James Green, the eventual one-two, flew past. I caught them soon after as we headed up the big climb to the forest, but it got very steep at one point and I decided to hop off the bike and push a short section to conserve energy. I wish now that I'd thrown caution to the wind, because they then had 50 yards on me by the time we hit the trees and I never saw them again. I went on to struggle with every single climb after that anyway, and it would've been fun to at least try to shadow Matt down the first descent, which was a muddy, rooty, slippery, rutted cracker.

I fell off near the bottom anyway, when my rear wheel decided to overtake the front wheel, allowing two more riders to catch me. We traded places for a while through some more muddy, rooty, slippery, rutted stuff until we hit the big - make that BIG - climb up what is normally an exhilarating three-part descent. They rode most of it and I walked all of it; my legs had gone.

CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash; CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash;
I suspect this was the moment I spotted the feed station.

The Crychan Forest is in many ways the best place in Wales to ride a mountain bike, because it is absolutely riddled with trails: disused fireroads, cheeky MTB singletrack, rocky MX enduro runs, enticing quarries, lumpy bridleways, even a Roman road with a free bath and mudpack every 50 yards - something around every corner and down every hill. Like the Dyfi Forest, only more compact. The sheer density of downhills that make you want to punch the air (though obviously you don't because then you'd crash and die) never ceases to amaze.

And if there's one thing Red Kite do well, it's putting together a loop that leaves you knackered but smiling. I've ridden extensively in the Crychan (have I mentioned before that I am a fully MBLA-qualified and very reasonably priced MTB guide?) but the course still took in a fair few sections that were new to me. One area I haven't previously explored is the eastern fringe of the forest, where the trails skirt the edge of the Eppynt military ranges, complete with warning signs about live ammunition. I didn't notice any of those fake Balkan villages reputed to nestle somewhere in the valley below, but there were plenty of oddly named farms around: No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, etc. Makes you wonder just what they might be raising there. A crack team of WMD-detecting sniffer sheep, perhaps, those that fail to make the grade left dotted around the hillsides for target practice. I was a little disappointed not to see any soldiers running around with twigs on their heads; clearly their camouflage worked. But I know they were out there, I could hear the gunfire later as they picked off stragglers (think Southern Comfort in reverse), which would account for why there were so few finishers.

CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash; CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash; CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash;
Descending into Hades

The highlight of the day for me was the final descent, culminating in a super-steep windy run down through the trees over mud and roots. Last time I tried it I was pleased to make it halfway down in one piece. Although the über-nasty rooty drop in the middle had been cordoned off, it was still the epitome of gnarly. You just have to keep going and pray. But first the comedy sketch. My dropper post has been suffering from erectile dysfunction recently, and I wasn't keen to follow suit, so I stopped to lower my saddle for this one. Which meant getting an Allen key out of my pocket. Sounds easy, but try doing that in a hurry with two pairs of wet gloves on (mid-race brain fog preventing you from clocking the obvious solution of taking said gloves off). And then I had to get the Allen key back into the pocket, which has a magnetic closure that just wouldn't let go of the damned thing... All to be repeated, at length, once I got to the bottom and put the saddle back up. As for the descent itself, well, I went straight down first time, no drama, no dabbing, World Cup DH here I come!

CAC Photography: "Frozen Devil" - Red Kite Events - 5.01.2014 &emdash;
Action photo of the bike at the second feed station while I stuffed my face with cake.

Red Kite Events boldly claim to offer probably the best feed stations in Britain. Well, if Carlsberg did feed stations, I imagine I'd be able to refill my water bottle faster than drip by drip (and with lager). But the food was good, very good. The cupcakes even had arty decorations on them. Free energy gels, energy drink, fruit, various cakes, flapjacks, quiche, 20 different kinds of falafel. OK, one of those isn't true. I passed on the food on the way out when I was still racing (in fifth place, third and fourth in sight), but stopped for a cake or two on the return leg when I'd given up racing (still in fifth place, third and fourth still in sight - is there a message in there somewhere?). I should also add that there was free tea, coffee and toast (albeit white bread - er, hello!) in the school before the race, and a free bowl of pasta from the owner of the Drover's Rest inn after the race. All in all, we were exceedingly well catered for (I would say "pampered" but that prompts flashbacks to the full-nappy feel of my padded shorts for 90% of this event).

Although the myriad descents were the best bit, duh, perhaps the cleverest part of the course design was the run-in from the second feed station at 37km - mainly steady, flattish fire road, bridleway and then tarmac gradually winding back down to Llanwrtyd with no nasty surprises for tired legs. The only change I might have made would be to have the initial loop in reverse at the very end, giving one less nasty climb up front for prats on singlespeeds and one final breathtaking plummet down the hill to the finish.

All told, tough but not horrendous conditions, great trails, good food and organisation, and a genuine challenge - the last rider back took over six hours to get round. Another great day out in the woods for racers and weekend warriors alike.

Pos Last Name First Name Time Gap Lap 1
1 PAGE Matt 3:01:24
2 GREEN James 3:04:25 3'01" 3:04:25
3 BESKEEN David 3:15:23 13'59" 3:15:23
4 ASTLEY Martin 3:15:26 14'02" 3:15:26
5 SCHRODER Chris 3:19:38 18'14" 3:19:38
6 HARCOURT Justin 3:39:40 38'16" 3:39:40
7 NAYLOR Allen 3:39:43 38'19" 3:39:43
8 SMART Andrew 3:44:37 43'13" 3:44:37
9 CALLOW Andrew 3:44:42 43'18" 3:44:42
10 THOMAS Huw 3:44:59 43'35" 3:44:59

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 3: Fail to prepare...

Star date: 22 December 2013
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 3
Weapon of choice: Carbon hardtail 29er
Greatest strength: Perseverance
Greatest weakness: Preparation
Result: 7th overall, 3rd vet

Festive tinsel on bars to show I'm not taking this race seriously? Check.
Bike model name massively overstating my ability? Check.
Shockingly skeletal upper body despite recent weight gain? Check.
I'm-lovin'-it smile and wave for the camera? Something to work on...

You know when people say things like "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail" and you just think "Oh, **** off"?
Well, it was almost Christmas, the last event of the year, not a red letter one, not one I was taking too seriously, and I wasn't in the mood for an evening of bike maintenance, which is up there with shopping and going to the dentist in my book. So I decided that the temporary repair of the hole in my rear tyre with sealant gunk alone would just have to do, and poured another glass of wine.

You know where this is going. Come the top of the first climb, the bike's feeling odd - best ignore it. Come the first hint of a turn, it's feeling squidgey - best start praying. Come the first little jump, it's just plain flat - best start walking...

Which was a shame, because it was shaping up to be a really good race - a four-way fight between eventual top three Carwyn Davies, Scott Cornish and Gareth Jones and little old me, all of us fairly evenly matched. But it wasn't to be.

As I discovered at the Dyfi Enduro in May, mechanical issues are bloody annoying for the first ten minutes of kicking yourself (sometimes literally) and swearing (often very creatively), but sooner or later you have to move on and make the most of things. The race is over, the pressure's off and you can continue at a sensible pace without blowing a gasket, enjoy the scenery and just have fun. Which does rather beg the question, why push yourself so hard in the first place? I mean, what's more important: winning or having fun? Well, winning, duh! Put it down to the mid-life crisis...

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;
Game over, let the fun begin.
All photos by Carol Corbett

One of the many great things about racing XC at Coed Trallwm is that you're never more than half a mile from the café and your car, and so never more than half a mile from tools/parts/extra clothing/water/a cup of tea/a slice of cake/what have you. So you can afford to travel light, which is a good thing given the terrain. Some riders, though, and generally the ones who would benefit most from a little less extra weight to hoist up that there hill, choose to take a mahoosive pack anyway. What on Earth do they stash in there? How long are they expecting to be marooned for? I mean, there's preparing for every eventuality but it's like they've stocked up for a nuclear winter. There's only so much in the way of food, drink, clothing, tools and spares you could possibly need over the course of two hours (unless, of course, you're doing your MBLA Trail Cycle Leader assessment (did I mention I passed?) but that's another story). And most of these riders are already carrying a spare tyre around their middle (boom, boom). The mind boggles.

I, at the other extreme (which, to be honest, is where I feel most at home), was travelling light. Very light, as in not even a tube (if you exclude me). Gareth Jones did kindly bung me his spare tube, but I spent an age getting it up (oo-er) and within 200 yards the bugger was flat again. So I had to run all the way back down the hill anyway for a quick dash into the pits Formula 1-style while my crew got me back on the road. Oh, OK, so I grabbed a floor-pump and stuff from the back of the car. And off I went again, a good ten minutes lost.

Luckily my next mechanical was almost but not quite literally within spitting distance of my car. At the end of the second lap, the chain popped off on a drop and got well and truly jammed against the frame, grinding off tear-inducing amounts of paint and carbon. Another ten minutes was then lost to remove a crank and free said chain (thanks Neil), and then I really was just riding for pride, out for a jolly in the woods. But, you know, I wasn't the only one:

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;
Time for a caption competition. Answers on a postcard...

Another slightly bizarre moment in the race was all my doing. At one point I caught up with fellow blogger Tom Stickland who I've never met face-to-face so I thought I'd say hello and instinctively stuck out a hand. Shaking hands mid-way through an XC race is pretty random in itself; thing is, it's clear from Tom's blog here that the poor man didn't have a clue who I was...

Anyway, race organiser Neil Delafield made a good call on the course given the recent spate of wet 'n' windy weather, cutting out the muddy bits from last time and sticking to the surfaced trails, taking us round the whole of the Coed Trallwm black route (previously ridden here) and most of the blue route. The trails were surprisingly well-drained in the circumstances, making for fun, fast descents. The café was warm and welcoming as usual, and Carol Corbett did a cracking job of taking pictures (she took absolutely loads), although she evidently buggered off home when the hail started on the final lap, which isn't really cricket.

What's more, my perseverance despite the aforementioned mechanical issues paid off in spades as I eventually finished third in class and bagged this stunning prize:

So, despite many trials and tribulations, this was half-full:

And this dude was back:

Can't wait for January, with two top events coming up: the Frozen Devil on the 5th and the Dyfi Winter Warm Up on the 26th, both over 40-50 km and featuring wild enduro descents and a whole lot of climbing - the perfect recipe. And, of course, the XC series itself returns on the 12th with a new longer-lap format, which sounds fun.

Happy New Year!

Pos Name Time Lap 1 Lap 2 Lap 3 Lap 4
Carwyn Davies 1:39:03
22:48 24:58 25:17 25:58
Scott Cornish 1:42:14
24:07 25:37 25:57 26:32
Gareth Jones 1:45:30
24:52 26:28 27:04 27:05
Andrew Evans 1:50:27
25:16 26:55 28:45 29:30
Peter Cartner 2:00:23
27:17 30:39 30:33 31:52
Paul Roberts 2:00:28
28:32 30:35 30:16 31:04
Chris Schroder 2:03:32
35:34 34:18 25:58 27:40
Wayne Davies 2:04:18
27:45 30:35 33:49 32:07
Alan Fardner 2:09:06
28:25 33:29 32:53 34:18
Tom Stickland 2:11:17
29:50 32:46 33:37 35:03

And finally a load more pictures nobody will want to see:

Lap 2: Gurning down the top descent

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

Lap 3: Turning the QE2 (or 29er as they're also known)

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 22.12.2013 &emdash;