Thursday, 26 April 2012

Commuter Racing

Okay, so maybe i'm missing some fundamental point in life here, and if you feel i am, please comment on my blog and let me know, but i often find myself on the outside looking in when it comes to life in London. Maybe it's the contrast with village life in rural Scotland, maybe it's simply that i haven't had enough time to become a "naturalised" Londoner, i don't know, but there are many things about this city that i just find odd. They're not bad, they're not good, they're just remarkably strange.
The classic example, one that i face most days in fact (except when the weather's bad, or my legs are sore, or i wonder why i have an oyster card at all - i.e. when i get the bus!) is commuter racing. There's something peculiar about the bicycle as a mode of transport that makes people very very competitive. I remember this when i first started cycling to lectures in Cambridge many moons ago; i used to see how late i could leave my college and still get to lectures on time, bonus points for passing lots of slower people on the way! And you still see it now, grown men on bromptons pedalling furiously to overtake other grown men in suits on Boris bikes. Personally, i'm something of a plodder when i'm on the way to work - i'm in no rush to get there, and cycling in (at least when not avoiding the ever-present danger posed by Addison-Lee cabs) gives me time to mull my day's tasks more abstractly. This seems to make me something of a bunch-engine for the races that rage around me through the mean streets of Elephant and Castle, as personal scores are settled between people who've never actually spoken to one another.

I'm honestly not sure where i stand on this. On the one hand, i have a naive hope that some of these people may understand the errors of their ways, and one day enter a proper race, where the competition is more tangible, more fierce, but so much more rewarding. On the other, i worry that it gives a thread of competition to that most mundane of tasks, getting to work - and that once this attitude has settled, it may not lift when the same person gets in a car.

Perhaps there is the rub. It's largely okay if people become competitive on bicycles, it might seem a little petty, and occasionally people go too far in trying to cut ahead, or think that it's okay to go beyond the lights for a head start, when really all it does is force faster people behind into the main flow of the traffic, but by and large it's safe enough, and noone gets hurt. The people who really scare me on my commute are the competitive car and truck drivers, the ones who have to be ahead "just because". At the end of the day, it's probably worth remembering that in the commuter race, if you win, you lose - you're the one at your desk first!

Southern XC Rd2

Pippingford. A course I just love. It has been the best of times and the worst of times. I had a great time at a southern round here in 2010, picking up two places on the climb to the finish line, i had a tough race at the nationals later in the year, but ultimately got my highest national champs finish to date (26th) and i made the huge mistake of trying to race the marathon champs there at the end of the year the weekend after Kielder. At the last of the three, I was going okay, but felt pretty terrible after 75km of the race, and pulled in for a breather. Kelvin Hoy told me all i had to do was crawl around the lap on my hands and knees to get some marathon UCI points, and i was so so tempted, but in the end, common sense got the better of me, and i packed. I hate packing.

Fast forward to the weekend after my fantastic riding- and eating-based holiday in the south of France with Rachel and Tim Dunford. I had no idea how the legs were working, i'd done a quick ride into work and that was about it! I had absolutely no idea how i was going to fare, but i didn't really worry all that much about it, i knew i loved the course and that i couldn't ride there any other time, so it was a no-brainer to enter. We arrived nice and early, with Pippingford now being a little over an hour's drive away through the suburban metropolis of Croydon ("the Cronx") ready for the women's race (please organisers, i understand why you put the women all together in the morning, but it would be so much easier for us racing couples to get everything over and done with in less than 7hrs!). Rachel slipped a pedal at the start, taking me back to two years ago where she seemed to start at the back of every elite race and go slower from there. Thankfully it wasn't to be, and she came through the arena a minute clear of second place after the first lap, building to lead by 8mins from Natasha Barry (WXC World Racing) by the finish, even managing to lift one arm (but not both) from the bars through the "field of tea cups" that surrounded the finish arch. No pressure for me then....

There was a pretty decent field for both the elite and expert fields, the experts in particular swelled by a contingent from Guernsey, over for the Easter jaunt on the mainland. Tim was racing the elite race, mainly he admits to hold onto his license, as this year is similarly all about the marathons for him too. The gun went, i got my usual poor start, but then unusually found myself moving forward as the laps progressed. The usual Pippingford sections of quarry and the fast, bermy descent were in, albeit in a different and confusing order, but it was rendered a totally different, and actually rather fun experience by the fact that traction was less than assured! The only part of the course i could happily have left out was the "fast return to the finish" which was anything but, the track wide and gloopy by the time we were racing. I felt okay as the race wore on, i was a aware that i still hadn't fully recovered from my 24hr week, but it didn't seem to be affecting me too badly. By the penultimate lap, i had worked my way up to, and past, one of the Guernsey riders when he made a mistake on a piece of muddy rutted doubletrack. He put in an effort to get back to me, and then stuck to my wheel like glue, more than once even buzzing my back tyre. I rode my own pace, trying to ignore the irritation of having someone 2mm off my rear end, and with the intention of upping the pace through the final section into the arena. Sadly, my plan went awry when shifting down to pick up speed on the climb, i got chainsuck, at which point my roadie friend nipped ahead and gave me a masterclass in how not to ride the final sections of singletrack! It was just like chaingate i tell you! I rolled across the line muddied and tired in 10th place, i think my best placing in a southern xc expert race. Once again, Jason Boutell showed a (muddy) pair of heels to the rest of the race, putting nearly 8mins into second place, and finishing up in 4th place in the elite field - he's fast!

I now find myself in 6th place in the league, with the next round my least favourite at Wasing. Can i face racing there again, dear readers? Only time will tell...

Monday, 23 April 2012

Roc Laissagais

When the UCI announced the death of the world marathon series back in 2008, it left a lot of the world’s best long-distance racers apparently bereft of a series to target with their respective seasons. The end result was that marathon racing again became a more provincial concern, with some racers choosing to concentrate their efforts on races in their “back yard”, and a renewed focus for many on mtb stage racing. For three seasons, the world has been without a marathon series, so many racers, both professional and amateur eyed the new “UCI World Marathon Series” announced late last year, and the associated world marathon champs qualification criteria with intrigue. The criteria make it less the subjective choice of your particular governing body, and more a question of simply being good enough.

Rachel and I intended to head to the Cevennes for the second round of the new series, held in Thomas Dietsch’s particular back yard, and started making plans with former team mate and friend Tim Dunford (Cannondale) late last year to abandon our respective families for the Easter break. Before we knew it, April was upon us, and it was time to head for the Tunnel and then south through the heart of France to the sleepy town of Severac-le-Chateau. A couple of good days weather and riding around the town left us all feeling positive about the location and the race; Rachel and Tim were both hoping to get their top-20 placing, and to punch part of their ticket to the worlds, I had the more modest aim of rolling around to finish before dark!

We were sharing our gite with four more competitors, three of whom (Mike Blewitt, Will Hayter & Collyn Ahart – were fresh from the Cape Epic, having picked up Stu Spies in London. Unfortunately with the other half of our party arrived the rain, which settled ominously over the region the day before the race. Much talk was of what to wear and how to stay warm in 4 degrees and drizzle, but in the end race day dawned cold but dry.

A quick check of the grid-plan revealed that I was on the 6th row (better try not to get in anyone’s way!), and after a brief warm up to make sure my legs were awake, we were off! The course revealed itself to be some of my favourite sorts of riding, a pleasant mixture of the Surrey Hills in winter and the Peak District in summer, with some short but brutal climbs. As the day wore on, I learned many useful things:
·      Whilst a capable summer tyre for dry, dusty trails, a Maxxis Aspen is not a great mud tyre.
·      On the day of Paris-Roubaix, French race organisers are likely to include an homage to the Queen of the Classics – better attach my spare tube more securely next time.
·      A totally dry XTR chain makes a very unpleasant, very expensive-sounding noise.
·      Closing a flip-top gel sachet on your lip really hurts!
(Rachel adds:
·      Losing your second bottle in the first 10km is not very clever.
·      The pro riders probably avoid the inside of the corner for a reason so you should not be surprised when your ‘clever line’ ends in a big wheel swallowing rut.)

I finally rolled across the line a little over an hour after the winner, Periklis Ilias, in 57th place, Rachel managed 11th in the women’s race, and Tim worked his way up to 12th in our race before blowing up and having to use only his granny ring to finish 40th. This race is not for the faint-hearted, it packs in 2,800m of climbing into a saw-tooth profile over 85km (65km for the ladies), and has the potential to eat bikes and riders alike on a wet day. Staying with a group of seasoned marathon racers who have competed all over the world our post race discussions brought out where this race differs from many others and what made it so tough. There are lots of little climbs (one every 5km-ish of race) rather than large extended ones, making it tough for a group to stay together and share the work. In addition, it was run off over a real mix of trail types which made for an interesting course, but also required a lot of concentration. Finally, add in some of the best marathon racers in the world, including a smattering of national champions, and it’s not surprising you get a pretty spicy race. As the race wore on, it was nigh on impossible to measure your effort well, and almost everyone in our group described having ‘blown’ at some point. However, the challenge is why we all do this and this makes the Roc Lassagais an even more alluring challenge to me.  Marathon series or not, I want to come back again next year to race in Thomas Dietsch’s ‘hood!