Thursday, February 27, 2014

Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 6: Unstoppable

Star date: 24 February 2014
Location: Coed Trallwm, Mid Wales
Event: Red Kite Winter XC Series Round 6
Weapon of choice: Carbon hardtail 29er
Greatest strength: Sheer bloodymindedness
Greatest weakness: Legs
Result: 1st in four-hour race (5th in two-hour race)

Having had to miss round 5, when the new dual format of two-hour and four-hour races premièred, I wasn't going to be put off by something as trivial as a forecast of non-stop rain and 50 mph winds. Buoyed by a sense of adventure, I decided to have another crack at driving over on the mountain road. Which was fine on the way out when the three "Irish bridges" at the foot of the Devil's Staircase looked like this:

But less so on the way back. Now I kinda knew it'd been raining, having spent the last four hours riding round in circles in it, but I wasn't expecting to find a raging torrent flowing over the bridges rather than under them. On the plus side, I now knew how they got their name. But I also had visions of my Mondeo turning into an Amphicar:

Or even Roger Moore's Lotus:

I probably should have turned around. But ultimately a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, so I revved the engine, ploughed straight in and made it across without mishap (beyond the temporary loss of power steering, but hey, I get that whenever I drive through a big puddle). And that was also pretty much the story of my race.

The course was a bit like those bridges - it got wetter and wetter and sketchier and sketchier, only in a fun rather than frightening way. Similar to round 4, it was a 9 km loop taking in both sides of the valley, with two big (140 metre) climbs, two long fast descents, and various other bits, some of them rather muddy, thrown in along the way. These included a brand-new section of bog at the top and an old favourite careering down through the woods. Plenty to think about and enjoy on the descents, but nothing too scary apart from one super-slippery drop with a tricky entry that wanted to throw you down sideways - oh, and the ever-present threat of the wind blowing you over the edge or squishing you with a tree.

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 23.2.2014 &emdash;
Unzipping cos I felt hot. Yes, hot.
Photo: The intrepid Carol Corbett of CAC Photography.

Having decided to race for four hours rather than the usual two, some kind of pacing strategy was clearly required. This does not come naturally to me. It hurt, it really bloody hurt, to pootle off the start line and watch my peers shooting off ahead. So much so that after a while I just had to speed up out of pride. The four fastest riders were long gone by then, but I hit the top of the climb with a second wave that included Stuart Skidmore and Gareth Hayes. I decided now to race them over the two hours and then, well, somehow keep going for another two. I had a good battle with Stuart, trading places regularly, but Gareth really should have stayed tucked up in bed with a Lemsip as he spent the best part of 90 minutes trailing 100 yards behind us hacking away and never quite managing to catch up, the poor lamb.

On the third lap I dropped my chain three times in quick succession and started getting some chain suck - something must have jammed in the chain rings. It cleared after that, but this let Stuart get away and he finished the two-hour race a minute ahead.

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 23.2.2014 &emdash;
Chasing Stuart Skidmore into the trees. Again.
Photo: Carol Corbett, CAC Photography.

At which point the organiser decided to call off the four-hour race! The marshals were cold, the wind was worsening, the ford was getting quite dodgy, a 50 foot tree had come down across one of the descents, and only two of us on the four hours were still going. I was really disappointed as I'd held quite a bit back, and eventually, in a fit of oh-so-uncharacteristic stubbornness, I decided to press on regardless. But now it was training, not racing, so I could happily stop for a change into dry clothing, a wee (on the bog!), some food, a fag, a spot of shopping - all reflected in my rapidly increasing lap times. This meant I missed the presentation and après-ride banter, but I was just in time for last orders on the soup. Leek and potato this time, lovely.

What with the wind, the rain, the mud and the hills, it was really tough going out there. But somehow more of a challenge than an ordeal. Credit to Neil at Red Kite and his merry band of marshals for holding the event at all in those conditions, but I have to say that another time it might be better to cancel - that tree really was very big.

The final round of the Red Kite winter series has been brought forward to this Sunday 2 March to avoid a clash, and apparently it's going to be dry. I'm not sure yet whether I can make it, but I hope to, and, dear reader, I know you want to too.

CAC Photography: Red Kite Events - XC Winter Series - 23.2.2014 &emdash;
See, I wasn't the only one who enjoyed it! 
Photo: Carol Corbett, CAC Photography.

Official times:

Phil Morris 2:26:51 33:27 35:03 37:43 40:37
Carwyn Davies 2:32:53 34:41 38:39 39:59 39:33
Gareth Payne 2:35:15 33:57 37:26 39:49 44:02
Stuart Skidmore 2:02:29 38:16 41:11 43:01

Chris Schroder (4hr: 1st) 3:38:30* 38:05 41:10 44:13 46:00* 49:00*
Gareth Hayes 2:05:00*

Nick Reese 2:07:12 39:21 42:50 45:00

David Jarron 2:10:53 40:27 44:28 45:58

I Best 2:25:46 42:14 48:38 54:52

Simon James 2:25:48 42:18 50:56 52:34

Peter Carter 2:25:59 44:46 49:06 52:06

Brian Preece (4hr: 2nd) 2:55:05 43:28 50:18 52:51 (28:26)
Wayne Davies 2:28:12 45:28 50:51 51:52

Steve Higgins-Worrall 2:30:09 46:33 51:12 52:23

Jon Heissig 2:36:52 47:41 56:33 52:37

Louis Preece 2:39:15 47:58 55:09 56:06

Huw Higgins-Worrall 2:42:03 46:17 50:56 1:04:49

Teifon Best 2:47:46 48:27 58:05 1:01:14

Thomas Jones 2:57:54 50:50 58:49 1:08:14

Strava link

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dyfi Winter Warm Up: Got me all wet

Star date: 26 Jan 2014
Location: Deepest darkest Wales
Event: Dyfi Winter Warm Up
Weapon of choice: Carbon hardtail 29er with gears
Greatest achievement: 5 minutes shy of first
Greatest weakness: 5 minutes shy of first
Result: 4th overall / 2nd vet

I spent Christmas umming and erring about whether to grab a Ryanair bargain and have a crack at the Lanzarote four-day stage race at the end of January with its promise of challenging climbs, rough-and-ready descents, stunning views, good company and awesome weather:

And then I remembered last year's Dyfi Winter Warm Up and realised that I could have all that and more without having to renew my passport, find a way of cramming 29" wheels into my hand baggage and trawl the Internet for suitably garish gender-bending Lycra. No contest really.

That said, if I'd known just how bloody wet I was going to get, again, I might have had a change of heart. We certainly know how to do weather in Wales, don't we? While at least the trails didn't literally flow this year, it poured it down the whole way up to Corris in the car, it chucked it down the whole way through fettling time, and it pissed it down the whole way out to the forest. At which point, as Sod's Law dictates, the rain stopped, just like that. But by then it was too late.

Despite my best efforts at waterproofing myself, what started as a vague dampness sitting in the car became a steady trickle down my neck on the start line (what would I have given for a sou'wester?) and turned into full-on immersion as we aquaplaned down the main road behind the pace car, dodging confused salmon, the spray flushing away contact lenses, mascara and any last vestige of dryness and warmth and giving one and all instant wet nappy syndrome. It was something like riding a log flume while being hosed down by the fire brigade, at the south pole. By the time we reached the forest I was soaked to the bone, if not beyond, shivering uncontrollably, speaking in tongues and feeling utterly miserable. Next year I take a wetsuit.

Rain pretty much stopped play in terms of pre-ride faffing. The naked man had stopped running around by the time I took this.

Luckily the course starts with a 250 metre climb. That's not a sentence you'll hear very often. And for the record, that's 250 metres of altitude gain (which is quite a lot). It's a steady climb, though, spread over about 2½ miles, and there was a tailwind, and it was just the ticket to warm you up, like a nice cup of cocoa and fluffy novelty slippers fresh off the radiator. Kind of. Anyway, I didn't feel cold again until the finish line, when I reached for a flapjack and it was like somebody flicked a switch, and I was a-shiverin' and a-quiverin' all the way back up the road to base camp and for some time afterwards.

The course was a variation on those of previous years, a little longer than last time but still somewhat shorter than advertised. Caff-to-caff it was 42 km, but ignore the gentle lead-out and the pootle back and the actual course for those doing the full distance was only about 33 km, taking the fastest riders just over two hours. This makes the event more XC than endurance, so you can just go hell for leather and not have to worry much about pacing and nutrition, which is a Good Thing. Also, unlike the Dyfi Enduro proper in May, which is one big loop, the Warm Up is three laps of a shorter loop. (Strictly speaking it's more like a lollipop with two sticks where you go up one stick and then round the sucky bit almost three times before heading down the other stick, only the start is a little way up the first stick, the finish is just before you get to the second stick, and on a map the course looks more like a toddler's random scribbling than a two-sticked lollipop. Got it?) This format gives you the chance to get to know the descents and lap people, making you feel like a full-blown riding god by the end, albeit with growing tiredness presenting a very real risk of the Welsh slate then puncturing your overinflated ego.

Cracking shot from Dan Wyre on a really murky day. Mud levels and confident look suggest final lap - riding god territory!

Despite it having rained for forty days and forty nights, the course was in remarkablly good shape. Yes there were plenty of puddles, and yes there were numerous official and unofficial stream crossings, and yes there was a fair bit of mud about (much of it attached to me by the finish), but the trails in the Dyfi Forest are generally a pretty free-draining bunch and held up well. Everything was rideable, both uphill and downhill, bar a short, sharp bedrock climb that has always beaten me in the dry anyway.

I'm proud to say that I led the race from the off. Unfortunately, this lead was rather short-lived, as I was passed after only 50 yards by eventual one-two Phil Morris and Matt Page. I'd hoped to stick with Matt on the climb after the Frozen Devil earlier in the month (what with now having 30 times more gears), but Phil is a top XC racer and set off at a fearsome pace. Matt went with him, but I decided to hold back (the Warm Up may be only 20 miles but it's a tough 20 miles) with a couple of other riders. The long drag up to the top (the 250 metre one) takes around 15 minutes in the dry, a couple more in the wet. The front two gained maybe a minute by the top and I never saw them again. I in turn had a small lead on a guy in blue and a biggish gap on a couple of others.

At least we didn't have to worry about dehydration.
Photo by Mark Wood.

I was expecting now to drop back down onto the main loop of the lollipop on one of two descents used in previous years, but there was a twist this year as we immediately headed even further up on a section of undulating singletrack from the Climachx MTB trail, ridden backwards. Well, not literally backwards, you know what I mean (but there's an idea if I ever do get round to organising an event). It didn't go much higher really, but it was hard work on legs already burning from the fireroad climb. Thankfully it led onto a never-ending descent. Yay! The top part was new to me, fast, rough, typical Dyfi. The middle section was familiar enough for me to know there was a big hole worth avoiding; I still contrived to pile straight into it, but managed to cling on. Note to self: Learn to bunnyhop! The last part was the famous Builth descent - fast swoopy curves, stream crossing, slickrock corner, loose rocky dash to the bottom. Fabulous, darling. Despite my best efforts, the rider in blue caught me right at the end, so I pushed hard up the next climb - and never saw him again. Result!

I don't remember it being as wet as it looks in this nice headcam footage of the two big descents by Ian Edwards but I suppose it must have been.

Soon after that, though, I rashly decided to challenge the routing of the trail by bulldozing my own line off to one side. With my head. A tree stump had other thoughts. Ever wondered what actually happens when unstoppable force meets immovable object? Well, you see stars, lose an inch in height and have headaches all week, but you don't bloody well stop when you're racing. You get straight back in the saddle and press on!

Sadly this bravery/stupidity was not enough: at the bottom of the next big descent (Dicko's 3-in-1) I was caught by another rider, Sean Grosvenor. Cue something of an epic battle for third place for the rest of the race. We were well-matched: I had half a minute on him on the climbs; he had half a minute on me on the descents. And we made a good team parting the Red Sea of back-markers on the last lap, Sean calling "Riders!" and "On your left/right!" and ploughing straight through, me calling "Thank you!" as I followed in his wake. I have to say I felt much more comfortable in the Good Cop role, as I wouldn't normally have the nerve to barge through like that. I do apologise if we upset anyone!

Two things made the difference between us in the end. First, I had a minor mechanical problem when my front derailleur stopped responding due to a freak cable failure. Stopping to investigate this and manually set the bike up in the middle ring lost me all the ground I'd gained on the preceding climb.
I believe the technical term for this is "buggered".

Second, I made the mistake of doing a gentlemanly thing when we approached a descent more or less together and I let Sean go first. I could, perhaps should, have stayed in front and held him up down the narrow descent before pulling away up the next hill. But that kind of Schumacher tactic doesn't come naturally to me so instead I tried to follow him down the descent, which went pretty well - until I fell off. That basically gave him a 100 metre lead starting the final hill, and I just didn't have the strength to close that kind of gap before the final descent, so fourth place it was.

What with this not officially being a race, there are no official times, but I've managed to cobble together the following results based on Strava and hearsay:

1. Phil Morris
2. Matt Page +2 minutes
3. Sean Grosvenor +3.5 minutes
4. Chris Schroder +4.5 minutes
5. Huw Thomas +9 minutes

Assuming I haven't miscalculated, then wow - I'm really beginning to mix it with the big boys. Last year I finished 11th; two years ago Matt Page lapped me. Strava tells me that I was 1-2 minutes quicker than last year on every climb and, more amazingly, 1-2 minutes quicker on every descent. While I have to give the bike some credit, I think it has more to do with bigger balls than bigger wheels. Which can only be a good thing.
Being chased down by Sean Grosvenor - again.
Photo by Dan Wyre.

Despite the initial soaking, my third Winter Warm Up was as much fun as ever. Top trails, a friendly, laid-back vibe, plenty of man-against-the-elements camaraderie, a good result, a proper carpark and a nice warm café - they just needed to unblock the drain in the gents as we might as well have pissed straight on the floor. Good job I'm not as German as my surname - it was not the place for socks and sandals...

Fingers crossed I'll be back for the Dyfi Enduro proper in May. All 800 places normally sell out in about 20 minutes and entries open in less than two hours - time for me to stop rambling and go set a couple of alarm clocks!