Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Reviews of the Year

So Good

KCNC Roller Bearing BB – A great bit of sensible engineering. The trouble with ball bearings is that when they wear, they then rattle around in the shell, and there’s nothing you can do to tighten things up again. The clever people at kcnc have realised that this is a huge disadvantage with conventional HTII bottom brackets, which is where their roller-bearing BB fills a fantastic niche. When the roller bearings wear, you can use the HTII bolt to tighten up the BB spindle slightly, and take up the slack in the bearings. Et voila! A much longer-lived BB. Sadly, it doesn’t get the KCNC treatment in terms of weight, coming in at a pretty 130g, but i’d imagine that it’s only a matter of time before a ceramic version appears. Available here:

Simple Strap – Another neat little solution to a simple problem, the simple strap is brainchild of ByeKyle, and consists of a Velcro strap with a stitched-on grip pad to keep hold of your stuff. The strap itself can be fitted to your seatpost (although annoyingly the Velcro will clip your shorts and quickly wear through them – embarrassing!), or better still under your saddle, and is big enough to comfortably hold a spare lightweight tube, tyre lever and gas canister. The strap is lightweight, easily removed quickly with gloved hands, and offers a more secure grip of your things that the conventional black insulating tape approach. Particularly good for lumpy races, or long marathons where spares are essential. Available here:

Ergon GR2-SL Grips – Another godsend of engineering, this time hinging on smart biomechanics. I went through a phase a couple of years ago of always racing with lightweight foam grips (the 20g ritchey ones are a particularly weight-weenie choice), and wondered why i often felt like my arms were tense and pumped after long rides and races. In anticipation of my first 12hr solo at 24-12 last year, i bought a lightweight set of ergons, and they haven’t come off my bike since! No hanging on for dear life on rough descents, once you get used to them you can just rest your hands on the bars, and the bar ends are great for steep climbs or giving your hands a change of scene.

Sportful Base Layer – A neat bit of clothing, perfect for keeping you cool and dry even on the hottest of days. Designed with a bit of Italian flair, and i know it shouldn’t make a difference, but the neat little logo on the collar makes it look so smart. Some wicking layers can cause, ahem, issues around the nipple area, but these fit just tightly enough to not move, but loosely enough that you don’t feel constricted. Sportful kit can be a bit hit and miss, i’m no so impressed with their “No-rain” knee warmers, but these are just excellent, and less than half the price of the equivalent offerings from the likes of Castelli.

No Good

Shimano XT Chainrings – they seem to be made of cheese! Work well for dry racing, but rack up the miles in dusty environments (i’m thinking Gran Canaria here) or spend the summer racing in the UK (e.g. Margam this year) and they will soon wear to the point where chainsuck becomes an annoying and unavoidable fact of life. Middleburn do a great alternative in the slickshift hardcoat rings at a similar price point, which will outlast and outclass the shimano rings.

Schwalbe Furious Fred Tyres – There’s a reason they’re known as “balloons”. Okay, so i should admit that perhaps putting them in the “no good” category is unfair. Like everything, these tyres have their place – on dry, smooth, preened courses where there is no danger of the rider in front blowing their nose and dampening the course, they’re worth quite a few watts of resistance. Try, foolishly, to use them outside of this environment, even tubeless and filled to the brim with latex, and await the inevitable...

Michelin Latex Tubes – I have to admit i was a little disappointed with the durability of latex tubes – whilst they feel fantastic when they’re in the tyre from the off (giving that “tub like” floating feeling that we all aspire to), they seem to be all too fragile when carried around as spares. The final kick in the groin of Kielder was discovering that the tube that had been stuck to my seatpost for 8hrs had somehow picked up a puncture when empty of air. Cue a lot of cursing, a long walk down the hill and a dislike of green latexy things...

Superstar Bottom Brackets – Just terrible, they last two or three wet rides before they give up the ghost and start rattling horribly. A cursory inspection of the inside of the BB shell reveals that the bearings are not sealed from the outside dirt and grit at all, as there is a big open lip on the inside, meaning that if anything gets in through the drainage holes more frames have at the BB, it will seize in double-quick time. Customer service is not a phrase that the people who run this company are particularly au fait with – if you’re foolish enough to complain, you will be sent an email telling you that it’s all your fault and even a monkey could fit their products better than you. Avoid.

Endless trips to Germany – Guaranteed to screw up your plans, your form and your sleep patterns. Strangely, my co-workers seem somewhat unsympathetic to the impact on my much more important training day, one day!

Well, all that remains is to dust off the cross bike, check that the tyres are properly glued on at that the brakes still don’t work, and get ready to get muddy. Now where did i put that vanish...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

National Marathon Champs 2010

So, my final big race of the season. In some ways it came around far too soon, and in others i was glad that my last target was soon after Kielder, where i’d been feeling pretty good, only to be stymied by seemingly endless punctures! The marathon was on the Sunday after the southern XC champs on the Saturday at what has become an extremely well-known venue this year, the Pippingford estate. When i was down there at the national XC champs, i got a brief run-down of the planned marathon course from team mate Steve Jones, and it sounded pretty incredible. Challenging climbing and technical descending sounded like they would make for a hard, but rewarding race.

Fast forward two and a half months to the weekend after the Kielder 100, where i had a less than perfect race (see my report). I had an axe to grind. I’d had a very very gentle week in between the two, remembering from last year just how hard it can be to recover from 100 miles offroad, and by the Sunday felt pretty good and ready for another marathon effort. The race started at 10am, requiring a pretty early start from Cambridge, but even the early start didn’t faze me and after a short warmup around the xc loop, i was ready for the race. We started down a grass slope towards a guy in a high-vis jacket (poor dude was pretty much a target for the field sprint!), and i found myself following Dave Clarke’s wheel. I had just enough time to think “hey, i’m following a premier calendar winner’s wheel” before he hit a patch of sheep poo which hit me square in the face. Cheers Dave!

The first section of the course was similar to the XC course, it was pretty tough and undulating, and rewarded those who could remember the good lines after 25km (i don’t think anyone had the time to preride). Unfortunately, my simple strap carrying my spare tube, tyre lever and gas canister came unshipped here, and then once i’d got going again i then landed on the back of my saddle leaving it pointing skywards (ala Wasing!). In spite of my mechanical misadventures, there were some great sections of singletrack that had the “oh, up there” factor going on. The open moorland sections added a definite wilderness feel, and the skyline was spectacular in places, given how close we were to the big smoke. The sad thing about these sectors was the lumpy, quishy heather that had obviously been a deer run, but never had a pair of wheels roll over it before, which made it a real slog. I’m all in favour of tough climbing, but there’s something so upsetting about being slowed to a crawl by soft surface on a slight incline – it makes you feel so lame.

The climbing led to some sensational singletrack alongside a stream, and up back towards the arena. It was here that the vets winner, Alex Glasgow, caught and passed me like a rocket, and also here where i lost sight of the jerseys ahead of me. I knew what was coming from here on in, we would head up across the lumpy grass field and into the fantastic twisty descent that started the national champs xc course. I loved this part of the course, and even after the heavy rain had made it sticky and slippery, it was great fun to ride and a great motivator to slog up the hills earlier in the lap. Back through the start finish, and some of the guys who’d set off fast ahead of me were already on the side of the track – this was definitely going to turn into a serious battle of attrition over 100km, my favourite sort of race.

Into the second lap, i pushed on – i was feeling good and felt like i could keep the same pace on the climbs without going into the red (not a good idea over such a long race). I was a little shocked that my first lap time suggested that this race could be around the 6hr mark for me (Oli Beck took over 4.5hrs – a long time for an 85km race!), and concentrated on trying to keep the calories and fluids coming in. Familiarity with the descents meant that i could pick up time here and save a bit of energy. The second lap was lonelier, and i allowed my mind to wander a little more than i had in the first lap – constructive distraction can so often be a help in these races – if you concentrate too hard, you realise how uncomfortable you are, whereas if your thoughts drift you can pedal just to give your legs something to do whilst you enjoy the view and the sunshine! Through the transition and i couldn’t see the leaders, which was something of a relief - i was seriously worried that i’d get lapped! Again, the second half of the course was great, although a slight hint of cramp through the quarry section intimated that maybe i should be a little bit careful...

Into the third lap, i decided i would try to pick it up on the climbs, aided by being chased up the first climb of the lap by team mate Steve Jones (to be fair, he was in a white van rather than on the stock xtc!). It was getting hot by this point, and i was being careful to drink plenty – Rachel was handing me up bottles of water mid way through the lap to keep me from turning into a prune. Some deer on the moorland made for some impressive wildlife, and kept me entertained trying to work out where they were going to go next. I managed to shovel down a caffeinated gel, which did the trick, and although i was starting to feel a little tired, i knew i’d be good to finish – after all 85km is a lot less than 100miles!

Through the transition i grabbed another bottle of water, and then headed off down the awesome descent, possibly a little fast as i really did nearly miss the corner at the bottom this time (getting cocky perhaps!). Through the first sections of the xc course, i started feeling a bit detatched and weird – it felt like someone else was riding the bike and i wasn’t properly in control. This had its perks, but when it came to climb up from the bottom of the course the 100miles of Kielder hit me like a bear on my back (i got this phrase from a mate of mine who’s a decathlete – he always used to tell me how when running the 400m, at 300m in the bear jumps on your back and you stagger the rest of the way to the line...). I got to the start finish in time to carry on and finish in 11th place, which would have seen me get UCI marathon points, but i was pallid and feeling very sick by this point. I sat in the feed trying to summon the energy to even contemplate finishing, but i was too worried that the organisers would end up sending an ambulance out for me if i tried, my descending having degenerated from “controlled chaos” to “reckless lunacy”. I packed in after 3 laps, possibly the worst time in a race to call it a day – you have already done the damage, you’ll be sore for days and you’re almost at the finish, but you still have those three dreaded letters “DNF” next to your name.
So, a season pretty much over, sadly neither of my big aims for the year came off, but i’ve learned a great deal and there’s always next year. Thanks as ever to sponsors AW cycles for being awesome support. Ride it like you stole it....

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Kielder 100 2010

The tag line for this event has been “One Lap, One Rider, One Adventure, One hundred miles”, to which we decided should probably be added “100 million midges”. This was a big aim for me and Si for the year, after we first met up at the event in 2009. I was hoping (possibly against hope) that my big training block through August would put enough speed into me that i could play the role of domestique for Si, and take the pressure off for the opening stint of the race, before crawling around to finish myself. The shape of last year’s race suggested that road racing tactics would be the order of the day, with an elite group forming early on and working together towards the finish, where it would be a case of every man for himself. 100miles is a long way to ride alone!
Really, my story should start the weekend before the actual race, when both Si and I independently did our own “dry run” rides – carrying all the mandatory kit we would have to carry over the border, and checking out that our bikes and bodies worked for such a long event. The two of us learned a few things needed to be fixed, i discovered that my middle ring didn’t work with a new chain (ahem – spot which gears i always use!) and that my cables were shot after a season’s use, and Si had similar issues with chains, cassette and new chainset. We both sorted things out and made sure that everything was good for race day though.
Sometime in the middle of the week, it became clear that the weather forecast was going to be a diametric opposite of last year’s biblical weather (if i’d lived in Kielder last year, i would have been building an ark), and that dry, fast riding was going to be the order of the day. For reasons that, looking back are not quite clear to me now, i decided that this meant i should go for the fastest tyres i had – a pair of furious freds that have been sitting in the shed waiting for the call up to duty for about 18 months. They’d be perfect for the job, right? Everything else was set, and a quick pootle around the local trails on Thursday confirmed that my bike worked flawlessly. I had a few days hard-earned rest after a block of 25hrs of riding in 10 days, and was as ready as i could be.
Rachel and I arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday, ready to get an early night in order for me to still be compos mentis at 5am the following morning. Simon turned up a little later, having survived, but only just, the endless traffic on the drive up, and we had a catch up before i hit the trails to try and ride the journey out of my legs. I went up the start loop, and then slipped off onto a middling part of the course, which involved climbing through a load of rushes. I couldn’t believe i had gone the right way, but a regular stream of orange arrows on the ground convinced me otherwise. I pedalled back along the route, still unable to find a line in amongst the bushes, and now with little red pin pricks on my arms from an altercation with a gorse bush.
Time for a quick dinner or two, and then it was time to set the alarm for the most antisocial time i’ve seen aside from my endless work trips to Germany. Before i knew it, it was time to shovel down the cereal, put on my lovely banana-yellow kit and head up to the start. Si and I headed up in tandem, and did our best to be dignified whilst trying to hurdle the barriers, bike in hand. All too soon, the pace van was gently rolling out from the start, with Joolze in the back of the Swinnerton’s van taking photos from the reclining pose of a Roman emperor. We did our best to feature in the photos, staying near the front ready for the turn onto the gravel road that signalled the end of the neutralised section. As soon as the van rolled away, Steve James (Moda) took up the pace, making it decidedly uncomfortable for everyone. I was determined to last in the front group this year, and not do my instant disappearing act of 2009, but i was a little concerned seeing heart rates that could be confused for a good roasting temperature so early on in such a long race.

Over the top of the first climb, someone let the wheel go in front, and there was no way i was up for closing the gap – Matt Page came past, and pulled us back together, and that was me out the back. Once you are on your own in such a race, you know it won’t be long before company is at hand again; one group caught me, but the pace was no more gentle than up front, and so it wasn’t until Ant White caught me on his own that i had some decent tempo company. We rode more or less together, until i took a turn onto a fire road to see Si standing by the trail fighting with a foam canister. I was the good team mate, and helped him get his tyre up, and then cleaned up the general mess that the two of us had made in trying to get his wheel to take some air. I carried on in chase mode, and soon had Tony Morris (Evans) for company. The two of us passed the time, weighing up the puddles that were still in the route, and deciding that discretion was the better part of valour (if they were still there, they **had** to be deep we thought). I stopped at the tech zone to get some air, as my rear tyre had slowly been running out of air, and luckily went completely flat right as i reached the road crossing. Up the rough climb to the bloody bush road, i found myself alone again, and wishing for company to share the pain of the rattles before the nice, smooth boardwalk started.
Over the border, i once again realised that i’d forgotten to put any change into my pockets to drop into the wee man’s sporren, and worried that i might be getting myself a reputation for being tight. Ho hum. Then it was time for the super-fast descent to Newcastleton, where i punctured the rear again (stupid freds) and gave my poor riding companion a face full of latex sealant. What a way to make friends and influence people. By the time i got to the feed, i was running seriously low on energy – i’d decided to do the race “alpine style” and not have any feed bags with the intention of grabbing gels at the feed stations instead to save on faff. Unfortunately, the poor people i harassed at the first two feeds didn’t have any gels to give me, only crisps, jaffa cakes and haribo – not really pocketable foodstuffs. So it wasn’t until feed 3 when i piled in the millionaire shortbreads and filled my bottle with cans of coke. Paul Davis (SIP events and race organiser) let me know that my friend Andrew Cockburn (Cambridge CC) was leading the race from the front, and that Si hadn’t been through. I had two sips of my tea, and then hit the trails again, with a tube in the rear tyre courtesy of swinnertons.
The remaining course is something of a blur, more hypoglycaemic than speed, i remember really enjoying my coke water bottle, wanting to find a nice comfy bush to sleep in shortly after seeing the 90 mile marker, and even finding the energy to chuckle when i worked out where Sara had hidden the extra miles in her course (hint, the course markings went from 90 miles gone, to 5 miles to go – there were more than 5 miles between these signs!). I was convinced i had blown my doors, but seemed to be doing my old trick of gaining on people towards the finish, and was surprised and pleased to see i’d caught Adi Scott (Corley Cycles) who really had blown. I did my best to put distance between him and me, and in so doing also caught the second singlespeeder, also leaving him behind. I felt good, and was looking forward to the final rough descent down to the finishing line, when disaster struck in the form of another puncture. I was down to my final tube, which i duly put in and gassed up, only to have it go straight down again thanks to a small hole near the valve stem. Bummer.
I walked down the final hill, being passed by all the people i had caught and some more, and feeling a bit dejected to not be riding what was some of the best descending on the whole course. As i crossed the line, bike on shoulder to the confusion of the assembled throng, i mumbled something about trying a new means of transport as cycling wasn’t really working for me anymore, and then headed slowly up the hill to get my post-race beer, which i felt i’d more than earned. A bit disappointed, but then i know i could have done much better had i made a sensible tyre choice, and i felt like i would have beaten myself of last year, but more than anything i want to do this event again, the sooner the better. Next year...there’s always next year!
1. Andrew Cockburn (Cambridge CC)
2. Steven James (Moda UK)
3. Neal Crampton (Crosstrax)
27. Chris Pedder (AW Cycles)