Monday, 16 July 2018

Southern XC - Matterley

A downhill start is unique in my experience. As well as the unusual incline, rather than the traditional start loop we were faced with an arrow straight 200m drag from the start into a sharp and narrow 90 degree corner. At a real pinch the opening into the trees was just wide enough for two riders side by side. With 40 riders sprinting downhill fighting to lead into that bend, the first few seconds of the race were going to be quite exciting!

The first two rows on the grid were already filled with the leading 12 riders in the series. The initial challenge was to force my way to the front when the rest of the riders were cleared to move forward behind them. I did well! Mission accomplished I sat smugly on the 3rd row, still with the dozen guys in front, 5 alongside and 23 breathing down my neck! A good start was crucial, anyone not in the top 10 around the first bend would quickly lose significant chunks of time as the field strung out single file through the woods.

The sun blazed down from the clear blue sky as we sat and waited. It was stiflingly hot as the commisaire read through the standard rules of engagement. I tuned him out, focusing on the start, my glasses beginning to steam up and sweat beading on my forehead. The 10 second warning was issued. I tuned back in, “The race could start any time in the next 10 seconds!”. You could hear a pin drop. The silence was broken by the piercing whistle and then the cacophony of clattering pedals, the crunching of tyres on gravel and the grinding of gears.

I dodged straight through the 2nd row and was on the pedals sprinting flat out on the straightest line for the corner. I jinked left and right amongst the dust and flying stones, trying to find gaps ahead. A chink of daylight appeared and I surged through. Immediately I was on the brakes, rear wheel locked up and sliding towards the corner. One rider cut in infront of me, I had to give way to a second to prevent a collision which let a third draw up on the inside. As I mentioned there was just about space for two and we squeezed through, handlebars interlocked. I was on the outside, but had the slightly better line and powered into third.

The adrenalin was really flowing and I was buzzing to have made it into contention at the sharp end of the race. We swung left and right, I was faster than the rider ahead and he was holding me back. The leader started pulling away and I was frustratingly bottled up. I tried a couple of times to squeeze past, but there wasn’t enough space. I felt like screaming “Come On, he’s getting away!” I could hear the riders right up behind me, undoubtably equally frustrated. I had to take a tight defensive line into the slower corners to stop them from sneaking up the inside.

Between the trees I could see the leader charging the other way down a wider gravel path in the sunshine, while we were still threading our way through the wood. Desperate to give chase I was already alongside 2nd place as we burst into the daylight. I shot past and down the open track and up a loose stoney slope before sweeping down into the woods again. The gap ahead was closing, I used the short climbs to kick hard and inched my way towards the head of the race. Chasers were hot on my tail and despite defending the racing line, through a series of tight bends I was passed by two of those behind.

I definitely wasn’t going to be nudged just off the podium for the second time this season. I’d already experienced the emotion of a 4th placed finish at the same venue in May racing Cyclocross. So I stuck to the two ahead as we continued to close in on the race leader. The other two slithered past on consecutive corners, and desperate not to be left behind I grabbed my chance as the course briefly widened. Passing on the right I was back in a podium position.

Just before the end of the lap the course emerged from the wood and fired us up the hill for a few loops through a copse of trees. Bumping over the roots my momentum swung me around the outside of the rider ahead before sprinting down the start finish straight. Only 6 laps to go!

My first warm-up lap on arrival at Matterley had been a huge disappointment. The route had been freshly cut into the woodland, with hardly any of the 1.8 mile circuit using existing trails. I’d bumped slowly around on the loose stones and bracken stems trying to remember a worse course. (I couldn't!) The short lap meant there was time for a second warm-up circuit which I rode faster, the extra speed helping the lap flow much better, although it was still very rough and basic. As the race laps ticked by, hundreds of riders quickly produced a racing line amongst the flints and rocks. However, the surface was still extremely uneven, perfectly suited to a full suspension bike. On my hardtail, I probably only sat down for about a third of the lap!

On the gravel road half way around the second lap, I could hear a rider in my slipstream. It was the guy who had held me up at the start, who now seemed to have got his eye in and warmed up. He came through and I followed, but he was definitely no longer holding me up. The racing was increadibly close, the leader was still easily insight and in range. When I looked two or three riders were always on my tail. I had pushed really hard on that first lap, but there was no chance for recovery. The next 4 laps were all consistently within 15 seconds of the first.  On lap 6 I made a concerted effort to close the small gap to the rider ahead, while there was still time. I nailed every corner, taking risks on the rooty descents, brushing the nettles on the bends, ignoring the stings. I sprinted up the first two inclines and got right up to the wheel of 2nd place. My heart was about to leap from my chest and stitch started to creep in.

I have suffered quite badly from stitch recently during interval training. It has been totally debilitating, leaving me unable to even turn the pedals. It's been so unbearable I did some research and learnt that nobody actually knows the cause, and therefore there is also no known cure. I had no choice, even with 4th place only 15 seconds behind, I had to ease off slightly and try and recover whenever the course dipped downhill. Luckily after a minute or two the pain receded, but I was back where I had been, 10 seconds behind 2nd place.

It was a really close battle. We all attacked during the final lap, putting in faster times compared to the lap before. But in the end we cancelled each other out! I finished 3rd  43 seconds off the lead and 11.2 behind second place and 12.9 ahead of 4th. It had been unrelenting for the full 90 minutes. I hadn’t even planned to race at Mattersley, but after missing the previous round I decided a bit of race practice would be perfect preparation for the Nationals next weekend. The bike worked flawlessly and the legs proved themselves strong! This result was a brilliant confidence boost ahead of the big one next Sunday

Saturday, 14 July 2018

XC Racing – Do I need a dropper post?

Spot the difference in the photo above?

I have bought a Trans-X dropper for £100 from Bike-Discount. This is the first major addition to my race bike for almost 2 seasons. As a gram counting weight weenie the idea of adding half a kilo of seatpost to my race bike makes me want to weep!  
One more messy remote cable up front. 

So what convinced me? The technical challenge of the National Championships at Hadleigh later this month is currently at the forefront of my mind. 3 years ago when I last raced at Hadleigh I wimped out on a couple of the steep rocky A-lines. Opting for a safety first strategy having crashed and burned during my first visit to the 2012 Olympic venue a couple of years earlier. At the time I was happy with my choice, crossing the line 14th in the Masters age category was a better reward than the previous DNF. Taking the B-lines probably only cost me around 10 seconds a lap, which doesn’t sound much, but in a 6 lap race I was giving away over a minute. It definitely cost me a position on the day and it may have been a couple more. This year I will be racing in the more competitive Vet category and feel the need for every bit of advantage I can get. My hope is that a lower seatpost will give me the confidence to take on those tougher sections. The small amount of extra effort required to haul that 500g around the course will be more than made up for by recovering a bit of lap time.  

Watch out for my race report at the end of the month.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Cycling with Asthma

I haven’t had much to report over the past month. I missed a round of the Southern XC series in June due to a snotty cold, which has been playing havoc with my Asthma ever since. We’ve heard plenty about Asthma in the cycling press recently. My personal opinion being that if I needed 16 squirts of Salbutamol to ride my bike I’d be sat at home and not winning the Vuelta a Espania!

Despite the glorious summer weather I’ve been prevented from riding as much as I would of liked. Even as I’ve recovered I was still only able to manage lower effort rides without getting out of breath. The good news is that the end appears to be in sight. Tackling a couple of hills after work on Tuesday didn’t result in a coughing fit or puffing on my inhaler like Chris Froome. The recent low mileage, low intensity rides may not have been ideal preparation, but my recovery comes just in time for the National Championships on the 22nd. 

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Southern Regional Championship 2018 - Crow Hill

Bike racing can be cruel. No matter how much you prepare yourself and the bike there are certain things that are outside of your control.

The regional champs are the second most prestigious race I'll race this year. In my first year as a Veteran I was keen to get a good result and ranking points ahead of the Nationals. Unfortunately the opportunity of a competitive result disappeared half way around the second lap of 5.

First the rear tyre started going soft. As I put the hammer down along the fireroad section I could feel the bike bobbing up and down. The pit area with my pump was several minutes ahead, so I doggedly carried on. Despite the flat tyre I was still catching and passing riders after a poor first lap in the tricky conditions.

Then as I dropped down a steep rooty section the front tyre deflated instantly. The tyre bead popped completely off the rim. I still had to negotiate two usually very fast sections of open trail before the loose gravelly climb up to the pits. The front tyre was flapping around on the rim and the rear wheel was banging on the ground as the tyre wobbled from side to side. It wasn't quick and negotiating the corners was almost impossible. Riders came through before I reached the mechanical zone. More passed as I used the track pump to reinflate the tyres. I had lost around 3 minutes.

Now, to be honest I didn't seriously expect both tyres to stay up. Mentally I was already thinking about a depressing hour drive home after only 30 minutes of racing. I certainly didn't believe the front would stay up, since it now couldn't possibly still contain any sealant. As I expected I could hear air leaking from the front as I rejoined the course. I had over inflated hoping it would seal before the pressure dropped too far. At this point I really thought it was just a matter of time.

However, the hissing slowed. I had to get used to a very squirmy front end as the pressure in the front tyre was very low but it was staying up!  As I started the 3rd lap I began to realise I might actually finish the race! Mentally I had to re-engage. I got used to the handling and as the course continued to dry I even set a competitive lap time, recovering a couple of those places I had lost.

I rolled home just inside the top twenty in 19th place - not the result I had hoped for. I'll hope for better luck at the National Champs.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Battle in the Bowl 2018

Sunday morning I went through the very familiar routine of packing bike and gear into the car. Unusually though I had absolutely no idea what to expect at the other end of the journey. I was heading to Matterley Bowl near Winchester; a familiar venue I know for hosting Southern Series XC races in the past. The event format this time however was going to be very different. I was going Cyclocross racing!

Yes, it is off-road and yes I was riding my mountain bike, but the course was distinctly different from what you’d find at a mountain bike race. There was nothing remotely technical in sight. No narrow singletrack swooping through the trees and rocks. Just 3 miles of wide gravel paths and lots of open grassy turns. As a venue the natural amphitheatre of Matterley bowl is spectacular. The trade stands with their colourful banners and flags nestled against a back drop of steep green slopes. The hillside covered in zig zags of course tape fluttering in the breeze. Almost the entire 3 mile course could be viewed standing in the arena area.

Dusty opening gravel loop
The sun was beating down on the opening dusty gravel road around the bottom of the bowl. Climbing slightly before the course turned left and cascaded across the green Downland grass. Dozens of twists and turns marked out by the dazzling white course tape. After a dizzying number of switchbacks riders were eventually funneled back onto gravel at the base of the climb. A proper lung buster the wide white chalky scar was longer than most hills you’ll find at local XC courses with an unrelenting gradient. Once up to the ridge a grassy double track path took you around the top of the bowl in the opposite direction to the start loop, before a loose and sketchy, high speed decent dropped you back to the start.

Backwards and forwards between the tape!
Not owning a Cyclocross bike I’d be racing my MTB in the “Open Warfare” category. The number of race recruits swelled to 65 by the glorious sunshine. 6 laps awaited.

Keen not to make the mistake of my last two races where I’ve been too cautious, I pushed my way to the front row of the grid, looking to avoid the melee behind. It proved an excellent decision! As we sprinted away, charging down the gravel track, I latched onto a rear wheel seeking a tow into the headwind. Amongst proper Cyclocross bikes my gearing was pretty marginal for such high speed racing, my 30t chainring spinning like a windmill in a hurricane. Amid the dust and stones a couple of the riders ahead of me dropped off the pace and I had to dig deep to bridge the gaps and stay in the slipstream of the group. We swept onto the grass. The looping switch back nature of the turns meant I could check behind and see I was part of a lead group which had distanced the chasing pack by 5 or 6 seconds.
We swung through the curves between the tape, the grass thankfully flattened on the racing line by the earlier junior and youth races. This did mean however that it was hard to go off-line and pass. I managed to dip inside one rider, but was then rudely chopped by another as he came through.

We powered into the bottom of the climb - my time to shine! I steadily slipped past riders as we hauled ourselves up the hill. The incline steepened nastily just at the summit and I snuck into 5th behind the leading quartet. We traversed our way around the top edge of the bowl, still climbing gently. The gaps between us opened, except behind me! I was passed just as we turned into the decent. Stones were sent scattering into the trees as we both battled for grip. It was a totally flat out decent, with a chicane half way down placed in an effort to reduce the speed. Then heavy braking back onto the grass at the bottom for a tight hairpin left. There stood a marshall waving his arms with another desperately repairing the tape as two of the leaders returned to the course after overshooting the turn!

A rider passed me as I took avoiding action and I followed him closely across the line to complete the first lap. This was actually quite lucky as I was now able to grab a lovely tow around the gravel loop of the bowl, saving my energy for the climb where I re-passed him. I stretched the gap behind slightly and chased the rider 50 meters ahead around the top of the lap, before plunging down again.

Back on the gravel, this time I was the carrot and the rider behind latched onto my rear wheel before passing and pulling a slight lead into the maze of grassy turns. I caught and repassed him on the climb and worked hard to stretch out a small gap for the second time.
The hill!
Despite my efforts I was reeled in by the same rider on the blast around the bowl. Disappointingly he shook me off his rear wheel while passing back markers and I was left chasing to close a gap that this time slowly grew. I got close on the climb, closing right up to his rear wheel, but this time I was chasing in the dust rather than stretching a lead.

Lap 5 was an exact repeat. I got within a couple of bike lengths on the climb, but lost ground gradually over the rest of the lap. In the taped section we swung backwards and forwards past each other. I could also keep an eye on those a few seconds behind as the bell sounded and we charged into the final lap.

I threw everything into the climb and closed to 10 meters. In a do or die move I sprinted out of the saddle. I closed and closed, until there was just a back marker between us. My legs were screaming, my heart was pounding, I had nothing else left to give. This was as close as I got. As I turned into the final descent I knew there were no more passing opportunities and sat up, cruising across the line 7th overall.

I was 4th veteran (over 40) home. A fantastic result, but 4th is always tinged with slight disappointment. As the commentator had kindly reminded me during the race, “Come on Ben, there are no prizes for 4th!”

Challenging yourself and trying something new by stepping out of your comfort zone, even slightly, can be very rewarding. I really enjoyed trying something different and it gave me an excellent workout ahead of next weeks Southern XC Championships.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Gauging my G100 performance

I was wondering how to evaluate my 24th placed finish at last weeks Gorrick 100? I felt pleased with my performance, despite the crippling cramp. Did it provide any indication of how I’m riding and my fitness compared to previous years?

Two years ago I raced the last Gorrick 100 in the build up to the Swiss Grand Raid and British Marathon Championships. It was a big year for me and looking back, in terms of endurance riding I’d have considered myself about as fit as I ever have been.

My finishing time on Sunday of 5hrs 43 minutes was 29 minutes faster than 2016. However, race times themselves are obviously irrelevant as the course and conditions are totally different.

At the previous two editions I finished 24th out of a field of 57 in 2015 and 22nd from 48 in 2016. So last weeks 24th out of 60 entrants, would suggest an equivalent, or maybe even slightly better performance compared to previous years. Of course it does depend entirely on who else showed up.

I then tried to compare myself to other individual riders. Amazingly only five of those who raced on Sunday also competed 2 years ago. The closest of them, a chap called Chris Clayton, beat me by 6 minutes in 2016. Scarily within a handful of seconds I was exactly the same distance behind two years later!

The gaps to the other riders were also comparable to within a few minutes. Obviously, this doesn’t account for their performance, or changes in fitness over the intervening 24 months, but the general picture is clear.

So what do I take away from this?

My current perception that I’m not as fit today as I was in the past, is largely based on the fact that I’m spending less time on the bike, rather than any factual evidence. In 2015 and 2016 I was averaging over 150 miles and cycling 10 hours a week. Since the beginning of this year I’ve averaged 8 hours and just under 120 miles a week.

Sundays result suggests that slightly less training might not have actually affected my overall performance at all. It might support my belief that in the past I was doing a lot of “nonsense” commuting miles. Perhaps my more limited training now is slightly more focused and beneficial.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Kawasaki G100 2018

When you pull into the carpark and the first face you see is multiple national champion Ben Thomas, already on his warm-up rollers, you know you’re racing with the big boys!

This was my 8th Gorrick 100. The challenge of this event is one I have loved since I first raced it way back in 2007 at the original Swinley venue. For me it is as much a personal challenge as a race. There are no age categories to hide in, it is just you against 60 riders, the course and the clock.

After a year off and the move to Minley Manor the format has remained the same. 7 laps of an 8 to 9 mile circuit, with twists, turns, hills and drops aplenty. 11 years ago I toiled for nearly 8 hours in the saddle, at the time comfortably my longest ever ride. I would be hoping for a much faster time this year, but I knew the mental and physical battles to reach the finish line would be just the same.

The weather is always going to be a critical factor when racing 100km off-road. On Sunday Britain was in the middle of a bank holiday heat wave, so hydration was going to be key. I dropped off 9 bottles at the feed zone, one for each lap plus a couple of spares.

As we got underway in the dappled shade I was aware I’d probably started slightly too far back in the pack. At least this gave me the chance to warm-up slowly as we cruised through the opening sections of dusty forest trails. I gradually gained more positions than I lost over the opening 2 laps until I found myself in a fast moving group of 4. We were really hammering the trails in maximum attack mode. I knew it was a pace I couldn’t hope to maintain, but it was such a buzz I took my turns on the front and chased the others through the trees. It encapsulated everything I love about racing. It was awesome fun!

It came to an end mid-way around lap 4. I dropped my bottle while taking a much needed drink. On a warm day I couldn’t afford to leave the bottle behind so I quickly spun round, retrieved the bottle and chased after the group. I caught them quickly, but paid for my efforts and they soon rode away from me.

I was alone and it was payback time for that earlier fun. In any endurance event, you’ll have dark moments and it was now that I really struggled. It was as much a mental battle, knowing there were still hours of racing ahead as my body wilted. Lap 5 was tough and my paced slowed. It is not often I am left wishing for a full suspension bike, but the fatigue from the constant chatter of roots took its toll. My arms were screaming with lactic, making control of the bike as challenging as powering it along.

However, as is often the case I recovered and with renewed dynamism began to push the pace again. Into lap 6 I was feeling strong and reeling in back markers left, right and center. Then without warning cramp hit like a gunshot in my right leg. I briefly tried to ride through it, but even the subtle gradient I found myself on was too much. I stopped and stretched, the back markers repassing me no doubt inwardly smiling smugly to themselves! It looked pathetic, but in the end I had no choice but to push the bike to the top of the slope and freewheel down the other side. I had to seriously consider the very real likelihood that this would be my first Gorrick 100 DNF (Did Not Finish).

I devoured every bit of food I had on me and downed my drinks bottle in an effort to boost fuel and fluid reserves. I was now at least able sit on the bike and turn my legs over, but if I tried to put even a moderate amount of effort through the pedals the muscles would immediately spasm and lock rigid. Thankful for no more hills I crawled back to the feed zone where I took on board all my remaining water and food. The car was parked just behind me, but I never even looked at it. One lap to go.

A rider from Pivot Boompods pitted just as I limped away. Damn! I knew he would surely pass me before the end of the lap - if I even made it that far.

I was walking wounded, nursing myself along, staying off the brakes as much as I could trying to maintain momentum. I was spinning an easy gear doing my best to not appear weak and offer too much encouragement to the rider behind, who was inevitably closing me down.

With the cramp now troubling both legs I approached a section of track which dropped down into a gully with a steep rooted bank up the other side. At speed on the previous 6 laps I had just swept up and out, but I knew now if I needed to pedal out of the top of the incline the cramp would hit and that would be curtains. So instead, I the took the long way around. The Boompods rider stared at me in surprised disbelief as he swept through and past! The trouble is I am too competitive to just to let him go.

I was beginning to feel very strange on the bike. Light headed and dizzy I clipped a couple of trees as I tried to keep him in sight. On a fireroad descent I got close enough to grab his slipstream. I even had just enough momentum to dip in front of him as we entered the next section of singletrack. There was only 1.8 miles to go, but I was out for the count.

Riding in a slightly out of body experience I realized that I was catching someone ahead. Could anyone really be slower than me? I passed him too, the whole time thinking that if either of the riders behind had any kind of sprint finish left in them I was toast. The truth is they were probably struggling as much as me and I didn’t see them again. I crossed the line 24th out of 60 in 5hrs 45min.

Exposed to the full heat of the sunshine in the car park the cramp hit me hard. I lay on the grass for some time before I could even contemplate trying to fold myself into the car for the drive home.

The Gorrick 100 is an event that dishes out equal levels of pleasure and pain! A day riding the bike in the sunshine, along glorious singletrack trails. The agony of fighting body and mind through cramp and exhaustion. The massive sense of achievement at the finish. I love it!