SCX #3: Dunfermline, inflated tyres are overrated

It was a rather odd two weeks between rounds two and three. After the Irvine race, I literally could not walk for days and it was only through a lot of careful stretching and gentle exercise that I got back to a place where doing round 3 wasn’t insane. Happily, all went well in that regard and I managed the race at Dunfermline without any injury worries.

Dunfermline last year was a mudbath. This year, despite the sunny start to the day and short-sleeves weather, conditions underfoot were true to tradition meaning plenty of running, sideways drifting and horrible grindy noises from the chain.

I’ve switched to tubeless this year, which went well in the mud at round 1. For round 2, I switched back to faster tube’d tyres and when it came time to remount my tubeless mud tyres it was a really hassle getting them to seal. I didn’t understand it at the time, but subsequently I found that the rim tape was coming away near one of the offset spoke holes – ie. nothing to do with the bead at all. This was to play a part in my race day sadly!

Despite being at the course early, I elected to skip any sighting laps to keep my drivetrain clear of mud. This also meant I got to the grid nice and early and was something like 35th our of the 132 starters heading into the first few corners. The chaos corner was a 180 degree muddy offcamber. From watching the women’s race earlier, it was clear that the fastest way round was to dismount, flip the bike 180 degree, run the initial mud and then remount to ride the offcamber. Then you spilled out onto a short concrete section which was a nasty trap for the unwary – slick with mud and with a metal manhole cover just offline. The following field had a few tweaks since last year; instead of immediately going over barriers, the course followed some hardpack before switching back for the barrier – this has a good flow to it. Then off up to tree corner before grinding up the gradient back onto tarmac. Midsection through trees was a mixed bag – it felt like it ought to flow, but the grip was just a bit too sketchy. I lost my frontwheel on a tarmac transition midrace, managing to hop off before it hit the deck. The third quarter of the lap is zigzags through muddy fields which thankfully had Just Enough grip left to avoid the momentum sapping from last year. But the last part of the lap back to the start line was unrideable mud. Even the seniors were running it. Fortunately, despite never practising running, my long legs help me out and generally I recover ground whenever it turns into a running race.

The race was pretty steady, with me gradually losing a few places each lap. This is a good sign – it means I started at about the right place on the grid! I was in 38th/40th/41st over the line on laps 2-4, looking good for another top-third point finish. But just after that start of lap 5, with 2 to go, my rear wheel punctured. On any other course, this would’ve been a disaster. However, Dunfermline is so obligingly muddy and soft that I really wasn’t too much slower on the muddy sections. Thankfully the tyre stayed mostly attached to the wheel, so whilst I didn’t have any suspension I still had grip. I wasn’t relishing the idea of doing 2 laps in that state though. Thankfully the leaders were my salvation as they caught me just at the tail end of the lap. I lost four places during the lap, then another four in a group right at the end, to end up in 49th position. Miraculously still in the points!

It was a fun day, and I stuck around afterwards to watch the seniors with plenty of action and spills! Pretty happy with the race too, given the state I was in just a week prior. To finish in the points again despite 20% of my race being on a flat tyre was nice.

After a lot of futzing, I’ve found that the initial wrap of Stan’s rim tape wasn’t sticking down properly. My rims have offset spoke holes which make things fiddly. Need to try again with two layers and do a lot of brutal test rides before Round 4 at Lochore Meadows.

SCX #2: Irvine Beach (a mare of a race)

Another race weekend! This time, a big drive through to Irvine for a warm sea-side race.

Unfortunately for me, this turned into a nightmare race. As is traditional, I did ‘just one more warmup lap’ and found that the previously empty start line had filled up with a hundred eager racers. Ah well, been here before. Plenty of chances to power-surge on lap one and make up position.

The starting whistle goes, and we funnel round the first few turns before I get a chance to accelerate hard down the side of the straight and sweep past the crowds. Swinging into the hill climb, I followed someone up the right side of the track, but they have a ‘moment’ and stop and I had to unclip. Still, around the high parts of the course I continue my progress and by the time we’re up to the runup I’m feeling pretty good about my progress.

Remounting after the runup, someone shouts that I’ve got course tape wrapped around my rear wheel. I stop immediately – it can only get worse – and step to the side to clear the racing line. My initial tugs removed some of the tape, but the rest was trapped under the chain so, as all the pack whizzed by, I had to flip up some gears before I could get the rest out and rejoin towards the tail of the field.

So, nightmare start, doubleplus nightmare to lose all the places gained with tape-gate, but my bike was still intact and plenty of time to make amends. Next couple of laps flew by as I retook places. I was strong up the climbs and runups, and carried confidence on the off-cambers to pass people high and low.

But, on the day before, I’d pulled a muscle in my hip picking up cheribum #2 and although it wasn’t affecting my pedalling too much, it was taking a hammering every time I jump on or off the bike or ran the last part of the sand. On the lap 4, it went from ‘sore’ to ‘excruciating agony’ and after struggling through the end-of-lap sand I was close to giving up and DNFing. But, since I could still (mostly) ride I figured I’d push on, see what I could make up on the momentum sections and see if I could minimize losses on the bits that required working anatomy. But the lap times tell the story – lap 2 was a decent 6m59s which crashed to 9m24. It was agony physically on the runup and sand, and although I was still passing people on the other bits of the lap all the good work was undone when I needed to get on/off the bike.

Towards the end of the race, someone passed me with course tape wrapped around their rear wheel, so I returned the earlier karma by shouting to tell them. They glanced at it, but kept going across the offcamber. As they dropped down off the hill there was a horrible crunch as, I assume, the tape wedged their rear mech and did nasty things to their bike. At least I wasn’t alone in having a nightmare race, and I was glad I’d taken the time to calmly clear the tape from my own bike.

Final result was 86th out of 123 starters, 70th percentile. I was expecting much worse given the calamity! The highest position I had at the end of a lap was 67th (54th percentile). I lost 40 seconds dealing with the tape, and maybe 3 minutes following injury as I struggled up the hills and kept off line the rest of the lap to not impede others. In the ‘fantasy league’ where I get to magically deduct those mishaps, I’d have finished in 50th place (40th percentile) which would’ve been spot on my expectation, given that Irvine is more of a power race than last time out at Cally Par. But, back in the real world, a bit of a painful day – I even had to ask a kindly fellow racer to help me lift my bike onto the car!

Thankfully, two weeks of rest before SCX #3 at Dunfermline.

SCX R1: Callendar Park (*does a little dance*)

Cross is here! Today was the first round of the Scottish Cyclocross Series at Callendar Park in Falkirk. Historically, Cally Park has been a dry fast start of the season, full of swoopy hills and long flat fast sections. But at the calendar turned to October, someone flipped the switch and we got the forecasted heavy rain and 40mph gusts. Mud tyres for round 1!

Training: My prep this year was slightly improved. A decent set of longer rides, regular 16 mile Cramond commutes, a blast up Glentress and some steep hill technique backed with a good few Trainer Road sessions on the turbo. The turbo sessions are great for learning to ride at your threshold. Additionally, they’ve taught me the importance of breathing effectively when at my limit, something I never thought about before. I’m really glad I got the turbo – I wasn’t sure how much I’d use it, but it’s turned out to be really practical. Last year, training was interrupted with work travel and then a post-flight virus – thankfully no such troubles this year.

Tech/Hubs: After several years of hard service, the bearing races in my rear wheel were getting damaged and were still sad even after cleaning and new bearings. I don’t understand why Shimano persist with cup+cone wheel bearings. If the bearing race gets damaged, you have to replace the hub, which means a wheel rebuild – assuming, that is, that Shimano still sell a suitable hub (which they don’t, 28h CL). Every other rotating mechanism in the known universe uses cartridge bearing which are cheaap and easily replaceable. Unfortunately, relatively few hubs on the market use cartridge bearings, and so I ended up wheels built around the Hope RS4 hub.

Tech/Wheels: Cyclocross is often grip-limited, and lower pressure tyres give you more grip. But low-pressure tyres can pinch-flat inner tubes. So it’s a precarious balance between awesome grip and game-over puncture. Pro racers use glued-on tubulars, but that’s too pricey for me. Sitting in the middle is tubeless, so I made sure the new wheels had tubeless ready rims. When they arrived, I ran them with inner tube for a week, intending to stick on my tubless mud tyres after SCX round 1 and 2 which I expected to be dry. But once I saw the biblical forecase for this weekend, I leap into action with my track pump and sealant and got the mud tubeless tyres on (Clement BOS). A bit of solid trail hammering at the end of the week convinced me that they were robust enough to risk racing on them. And so today was my first outing with a tubeless setup. I ran 30psi today, lower than the 32psi I’ve risked with tubes last year. Grip was awesome, loved them, very pleased.

Tech/Bottom Bracket: In the week before the race, my bike developed a noticable creaking. I hate going into a race with any kind of unresolved mechanical issue, so soon I was removing/cleaning/greasing anything which might cause creaking – pedal pivots, pedal bolts, skewers, seat post, cranks and bottom bracket. Except I couldn’t do the bottom bracket because I’d lost the plastic adaptor which came with the Hollowtech BB. I went to Evans Cycles to see if they had a tool which fitted directly, and the lovely people in the workshop supplied me with the adaptor I’d lost – great customer service! Soon the bottom bracket was off, meticulously cleaned, reassembled with copaslip, and torqued up. Thankfully, the creak was gone!

Race day: I got to the start grid nice and early, claimed my place nearish the front. But the commissaires wanted everyone to shuffle back to make space for gridding. So back we shuffled, but I shuffled too far and ended up closer to the back of the field, arg! After a wet and windy wait (glad I brought my rain jacket, even though I had to just chuck it in the trees) the whistle went and we were racing. I made a bit of progress down the straight, not taking any risks but surging through any gaps I saw. Then suddenly people ahead were shouting warnings, and everything slowed down as we passed a crashed rider. I just saw a bike on the road, presumably rider had a hard hit on the tarmac. The packed picked up speed again, and I continued picking up places keeping a high cadence and carrying momentum where I could. The corner hill has been bypassed this year, replaced with some woodland zigzags which were a lap 1 choke point. As we accelerated out of the wood, someone crashed (or had a mechanical) a bit ahead of me. The rider dragged to the side, picked up their bike and threw it with digust ONTO THE RACING LINE. Arg!! What were they thinking?! The rider ahead of me crashed into the thrown bike, I had to do a full body swerve and only just made it round them without being collected. A rider to my left slid out and hit the deck. All of this on a flat, straight bit of the course – totally ridiculous behavior.

Thankfully that was the end of the mayhem. After starting near the back, I knew I’d be spending the race passing people so I got down to work. I do steep climbs well, particularly today with masses of mud and my grippy tyres. And for the first time ever, I didn’t treat the flat sections as mini-rests – thanks to Trainer Road I’m used to doing over/under intervals and pushing into the red knowing I can recover on the following section. After the race, one of the riders I was battling with complimented me on my speed on the flats – the first time that’s ever happened! The Cally Park course is well designed, and the new zigzag section actually helped a lot by giving you a rest between the flat sections and the first hills.

Course highlights for me were the offcambers. The first one, steep and tight, was rideable during warmup if you straightlined it but during the race I only rode parts of it as the course got chopped up. The swoopy downhill off camber was exciting every lap – foot out, right on the limit, and I had to avoid riders who slipped out on front of me at least four times. I loved the steep climb before the zigzags. I remember reading a post by David Lines who had said the whole point of the zigzags was to let you recover (people had been running them the first year). So every lap I’d max it up the steep hill, knowing that I’d recover on the zigzags. Enjoying a steep hill is a great way to out-psyche your opponents too!

I spent the whole race catching and passing people, knowing that every rider was a target. If you start near the front, you can hang onto other people’s wheels. But starting near the back, you have to assume that everyone on front of your is slower and to settle into their cadence basically spells the end of your progress. Catch, pass, repeat. Ride your own pace, except when you choose to push it to get past a rider before you get blocked on a technical section.

Last couple of laps were an awesome struggle. There was a red/blue rider following me for a while and a queue at the narrow offcamber brought him right behind me. Just after remounting, I tried to power away too quickly and my rear wheel stepped out, losing momentum and he got past me. Arg! Fortunately for me, as often happens when follower become leader, he carried too much speed into the downhill offcamber and slipped out. After a bit of a skpping, I managed to avoid him and retake the place. I absolutely caned it up the following steep climb to consolidate, took the zigzags at 80% avoiding more crashing riders, and caned it along the muddy flats toward the finish. As I came round the hairpin before the finish line I could see there was no way to catch the next rider, and a solid gap behind me, consequently no need to sprint. So I enjoyed a leisurely roll down the last straight to take the flag.

In previous years, I’ve mostly thought in terms of percentiles – progressing from 80th to 70th to 60th to 50th percentile over the several years I’ve been racing CX. But since I was starting to get closer to the points-paying positions (points down to 50th place) I decided my goal for this year was to aim for points finishes. Therefore, I was very pleased to find out that (despite my rearward starting position) I had made it up to 42nd place by the end. It’s also the first SCX race where I finished on the lead lap, another milestone. My lap times were rock solid – steady within a few seconds of each other. And after I’d rolled over the finish, I wasn’t completely toast was stuck around to watch the Senior race with Richard (+ a welcome coffee!). It was mental, with the course getting muddier and muddier, and a full on elbows-out battle between some of the top rider.

Next weekend is Irvine Beach, perhaps with gale force winds?

2016/7 season stats

This year, I had decided to get a bit more serious about training for the cx season. So, it’s the first year that I’ve done any kind of structured training – using a turbo trainer and doing power based intervals. I didn’t do anything fancy in terms of base buildup and peaking for races, but having the turbo trainer allowed me to fit in training time where otherwise it would’ve been impossible to get out on the bike. Did it make a difference? Let’s see ..

I had hoped to do six rounds of SCX, and four rounds of SQ. In the end, I had to miss Knockburn Loch through illness, and Lochore through family illness and I didn’t succeed in the Bo’ness lottery. But I still managed 4 SCX rounds and 3 SQ rounds. This year I moved into the vet40 category in SCX so it’s hard to compare my results with last year, except at Dunfermline where I entered the senior race when the vet40 filled up quickly.

Results:

  • Round 1: Cally park: 63th/146 = 43%
  • Round 2: Strathclyde: 59th/146 = 47%
  • Round 3: Knockburn: DNS
  • Round 4: Dunfermline: 56th (58%) (senior race)
  • Round 5: Irvine: 58th/108 (54%)
  • Round 6: Lochore Meadows: DNS
  • SQ1: Rouken Glen, B race, 9th/104 (9%)
  • SQ2: Doonbank, A race: 52th/81 (64%)
  • SQ3: Foxlake, B race: 12th/114 (10%)

Back in 2014 I was finishing about 70% down the field in the seniors, and in 2015 it averaged out to mid 60’s. This year it has been around 50%. So looks like some progress was made.

The turbo training has helped with stamina to last the full race. It’s also taught me that I can go over the limit, and recover again without slowing down too much. It’s much easier to practise that when you have detailed feedback on power, so you know you’re hitting the same level of exertion.

I think for next year, I’ll aim to get a solid base with longer summer rides before using the turbo to really target the cx-style intervals. I also need to focus on technique all round. I gain a lot on technical downhills (from MTB’ing I guess) but if I could make similar gains on muddy corners, off-cambers or other course features it’d be all gain for no pain (ie. no more watts required!).

But for now, it’s time to chill out for a bit and think about all this free time I have now that I don’t need to wash mud off everything every weekend!

SQ#3: Foxlake

Foxlake, aka Thistly Cross CX, was my final cx race of the season. Having raced there a few years ago, I was looking forward to the technical nature of the course, and I wasn’t disappointed. It has steep ups, fast downhills, sketchy turns and plenty of twisty off-cambers. All in all, a great technical challenge and a standout course.

This time, I was in the B race and so hoping to match my 9th place in the B race at Rouken Glen. I got to the start line good and early. Everyone was being well behaved, waiting in a group back from the grid lines. But as new people wheeled their bikes in at the front, people started edging forward nervously before we all finally legged it for the grid. I started a couple of rows back, next to two riders who know are a tiny shade faster than me and hence are good people to try to stay with in the race. Plenty of start line banter about the world cx championships and green tyres, then suddenly we were off.

Normally, I try to avoid overcooking the first lap but on this course I knew there’d be several choke points after the initial fast flat section (at the muddy twists, then on the first downhill). So my game plan was to burn some matches off the start line to get clear of the masses and avoid holdups. This worked well, getting myself into 8th position by the time the course narrowed. I managed to stay in 8th for the first few laps too, despite a few holdups with people crashing on front of me.

Then by mid-race a familiar pattern set in. Paul-in-blue (as I think of him) caught up with me, and we switched places a few times. Brian McCutcheon also moved smoothly by me, as he often does mid race – I think he paces himself better during races than I do, and by the time he’s caught me there’s no way I can lift my pace to stay with him. I also was passed by a pair of superfast riders hammering through the field together – I guess they must’ve started further down the field because they passed me midrace but at a thundering pace!

As usual, I gained on people on the technical sections – banzai’ing downhills and swooping through the twisty woodland. I was out-tactic’d on the steep climbs though – I took them at 90% to avoid going into the red, but others would redline it past me on the climb then recover on the next descent or flat section where it was hard for me to repass. Lesson learned!

I was glad for having decent mud tyres. It wasn’t an excessively muddy day, but the end-of-lap zigzags got chewed up quickly and the tyres gave me confidence to throw the bike into the fast downhill turns. After running 32psi in previous rounds (limus clinchers), I went up to 34psi as a bit of insurance against the many stones and roots. There was plenty of punctures and mech failures around, so certainly not a day to be risking anything.

Towards the end of the race, I was making time back on Paul-in-blue on front of me – catching him through the last woodland section, then losing a bit of time behind a backmarker at the bombhole, then recatching on the road to the final ‘stadium section’. I was right behind him after the offcamber runup, but opted to try and ride the hairpin hill (which I’d managed the previous lap) whereas he ran it. So I was a little bit back as we did the final switchbacks, and although I tried to seek out a creative grippy line for a sprint it was all to no avail and so I rolled in to take 12th place. And then collapsed!

All in all, a great day of racing – close competition, a quality course with so many interesting bits, and decent weather too. I couldn’t ask for more for my final race of the season! Kudos to the organisers, marshalls, and all the racers and spectators!

SQ#2: Doonbank Troffee

Last weekend was round 2 of the Superquaich series, this time at Rozelle Park in Ayr. This time, I was placed in the A race with the fastest folks. With my last A race (DIATD previous year) ending in a puncture and last place, anything half decent was going to feel like progress. The course was soft but flowing during preride, but after watching and filming parts of the B race it was clear it was going to be a lot more chopped up for the A racers. I shuffled into the grid about 2/3rd down and held my place in the pack through the first fast corners and into the mud. The soft ground was hard work, rewarding leg-out confidence on the offcambers but punishing anyone who asked too much from the grip. There was a lots of running – parts of the uphills were rideable with careful line choice but the bike would get caked with mud and then pick up the shredded bark which had been laid down at the top of the hill turning the bike into grinding machine. I had managed to ride the stairs twice on my sighting lap, but chicken out during the race once the approach got churned up. I greatly enjoyed the short gravel downhill midlap which lead into a lovely left-hand sweep into trees which could be taken flat-out, mtb-stylee, which was one of the main areas I gained time on those around me.

I was astonished at the speed with which the leaders (Gary MacDonald and Davie Lines) caught and lapped (then re-lapped) the rest of the field. In the end, only five people finished on the lead lap. Towards the end of the hour, I was pretty sure that Gary was going to catch me again but it wasn’t to be and I was one of the ‘lucky’ folks who got to go around again. The last lap turned out to be more exciting too, with falls and mechanicals all round then a 4-man bunch sprint to the line.

The later laps were much tougher as my bike got gunged up with mud. Looking at it afterwards, I’ve no idea how it still functioned. My chain came off on the second last lap, losing me a bunch of time. Every lap I’d hear the mud grinding on the wheel and frame and the rear wheel was not freely spinning. Whilst I’m certainly not “pro” enough to have a spare bike in the pits, on races like this I’d love to have the option of a clean bike mid-race!

But it turns out, I was lucky to even finish. Both tyres went flat a few days after race and I found that both had got thorns stuck in them (3 in the front, 1 in the back).

In the end, 52nd out of 81 starter, 64th percentile. Which, given the field consisted of the combined fastest senior/vet/junior male and females, is a solid enough result for me!

SQ#1: Rouken Glen

Last Sunday kicked off the four race Superquaich cyclocross series, with the opening round at Rouken Glen. I’ve never managed to race there before, always clashing with something or other. The photos from previous years showed a snow covered glen with rolling hillside, and for a while it looked like history would repeat itself with more of the white stuff falling in the days leading up to the race. But it wasn’t to be, and temperatures on race day got up to a heady 10C, leaving a moderately muddy day’s racing.

The SQ series splits into a very fast A race, and a slightly less fast B race. Given that I’m midfield in the SCX round, I end up either end up near the front of the B race or the back of the A race. At Rouken Glen, the Quaich Masters had decided I’d be a “B”.

There was to be no gridding, just some advice to ‘hussle, hussle’ so I planned to get to the start area early-ish to avoid the first lap chaos. After my first sighting lap, I wasn’t sure where the start area was. In fact, I was entirely confused by the course layout since it didn’t seem to correspond to my reading of the course map earlier. Later, I found out that due to the twists and turns of the Rouken Glen park, my bearings were out by 180 degrees – somehow I thought north was south. This didn’t help my efforts to find the start line, and I ended up setting out on a second sighting lap and then quizzing about five different riders before I found my way to the start.

Start line was a bit chaotic and narrow, with a “prisoners dilemma” causing everyone to bunch at the start grid rather than the muster area. But everyone got away cleanly, up the start hill, and slip sliding through the first woodland section. By the time we reached the big dipper, I was about seventh and felt pretty comfortable with the pace. A fall just before the start line lost me a place or two – it was subtly offcamber which I hadn’t quite realised, but actually the early fall clued me into the available grip levels which became handy later in the race. I got up quickly, checked the chain, and got going again.

I stuck with a group of four riders for a while, before gradually getting dropped but then somehow a lap later I was close up behind them again. I’ve often found that I’m faster than my peers on downhill technical stuff and steep uphills, but I lose out on sheer pedalling-on-the-flat situations. At Rouken Glen, there was plenty of downhill technical stuff, tripod’ing my way down the fast curves at the start of the lap and the later zigzags was always fun, and the steep runups suit me fine too.

I really think I was right on the limit fitness-wise, slightly dodgy stomach midrace which passed, and always pushing on the ups and recovering a bit on the downs. I spent most of the second half race in a great back-and-forth with a blue rider (I can just about name colours whilst racing, but not much more!). He’d pass me on flatter sections, and I’d repass him on technical sections. I thought I’d passed decisively through the woods on the 2nd last lap, by sticking to the edge of the course where there was more grip. But he came back fast on the flatter end part of the lap, passing me as we started the bell lap. As luck would have it, he slid out on the fast downhill curves which gave me a comfortable gap on the rest of the last lap and a ninth place finish. Great racing, lots to concentrate on.

I was also able to stick around to watch the A race. Rouken Glen is great for spectating – a pile of rocks gives a great vantage point to see a large part of the race course. The commentator was also spotting the race from there, which meant I could see everything he was talking about. The quality of racing was high, with Gary MacDonald and Cameron Mason battling out in the front, David Duggan solid in third, then a bit of a gap to Struan Pryde and the crowd-pleasing antics of Craig Hardie and a flying John MacKenzie. They’re all blisteringly fast, especially considering that us “B” racers had mashed up the course for them. To put it into perspective, my fastest lap was 11m02s (first lap on clean course, by the end I was doing 12m30s) whereas Gary MacDonald averaged about 9m30s. It was interesting watching technique – GM tripod’ing around all the fast corners and looking a lot better than anyone else on the downhills, and all the fast guys hugging the edge of the course at the end of the lap to seek out grip. The course was getting brutal by this stage, with fifteen DNFs in the end – I saw tubs being rolled, mechs snapping and someone with front brake jammed on.

Lessons from the day? Starting near the front meant I was racing near the front for the first time. The course rewarded confidence on the faster sections – “hands off the brakes and look into the distance” stuff. I felt that my turbo-training and over/under intervals has taught me a lot about riding at threshold. But I’ve still not nailed the “raw power” sections, which have always been my weakest point. On that note, I wasn’t lucky enough to get an entry to the Bo’ness race this year. It’s a shame to miss the season ender, but if I had to choose a SQ round to miss then it’d be that one purely because it’s so flat and power-heavy and I suffer greatly on it! Maybe I can become a roadie over the summer and finally sort out this “racing on the flat” thing.

Next up, Doonbank at Ayr, where the SQ number crunchers have decreed that I am “A race” material, so it’ll back to reality and battling it out with the great & the good for the higher numbered places.

SCX #5: Irvine Beach

Last weekend was my first time racing at Irvine Beach. I’ve been fascinated by it for a while with it’s sandy sea-side location, but schedules and illness have conspired to keep me away until now. The course did not disappoint – a climb leading into a lovely swoopy bowl section, then some zigzags before the main event: the big dipper. This is like riding a half-pipe .. a really big half pipe. You literally cannot see the bottom as you commit to your line, and the first time I went over it on my warmup lap was a life affirming moment! Still, the only thing that makes sense on stuff like that is to point in a straight line, look into the distance, stay away from the brakes and trust that all will be well (+ that noone else brakes!). From there, there was a couple of off cambers before a fast downhill to the main run-up. This was where I made up most ground – people would coast the last part before the runup, whereas I’d stay on the gas and then be able to run up the hill faster (long legs!). Final part of the course was on sand which, to be honest, was not a big deal because a compacted line quickly emerged on the left side which left only one section towards the end requiring a bit more technique. Finally, there was a bit of flat grassland. As ever, I made the mistake of thinking ‘phew, a bit of a rest’ on the flat and losing time then having to regain position on the uphills and more technical stuff later. Plenty of grip all around, so was on the Conti Cyclo-X King tyres at 35psi.

The race start was chaotic. I made sure I was at the start early, but in the post-gridding shuffle up I ended near the back and was 81st going over the line. Gary McRae, one of the top riders, had a mechanical immediately after the start, and there were several topple-over accidents in the first few corners. Fortunately, as we got to the climb there was a nice free lane up against the right tape for me to power past the crowd and I gained over 20 places on lap one. By the third lap, I got passed by (I think) Peter Ferrier and hung onto his wheel for most of the rest of the race. I’d lose out on the flat/power sections, and gain on the hills so it netted out equal. On the last lap, Martin Steele caught us up. We came out of the final sand section all together, but Peter and Martin powered away and pulled a gap so I sat up and watched them duke it out over the line. I finished 58th out of 108 (54%) which I’m pretty happy with, given that it was a fast/power course.

I checked on Strava to see where I lose most time versus the top guys. The basic answer is, of course, “everywhere”. But the biggest deficit is on the flat grassland (16mph vs 13mph). Climbs, twisty bits and even off-cambers are okay.

Next race is at Lochore Meadows – completely flat and traditionally a hanger-snapping mudbath. So, plan is to have a couple of days rest (at least until I have time to de-sand my bike) and then do more Trainer Road to work on sustained power.

SCX #4: Dunfermline

Last Sunday was round 4 of the Scottish Cyclocross series, a new course at Dunfermline. The forecast was looking okay, with rain forecast to move in after all the races had finished. Unfortunately, the forecast wasn’t very accurate and the rain arrived before my race started.

Cyclocross is become incredibly popular in Scotland. For the first time, entry to the vet40 race was closed early as they’d reached a maximum 160 riders. I’d been intending to leave it to the last minute in case I got a cold – normally a sane plan given that races cost about £16 to enter. But this time, it meant I lost out. Fortunately, the ‘senior’ race, which I’d been doing last year, turns out also to be the ‘open’ race. I think you have to be 18-39 to compete for points, but the race itself is open to anyone. And, with ‘only’ 100 entrants, I managed to secure a race place.

I’d set up my bike with mud tyres which was a sound plan, as even the short roll to the sign-on desk was a mud bath. I registered, and came outside to find my bike had a front flat. Pretty confusing, since there was nothing flat-inducing on the ride in. Back to the car for a quick repair, and I found a pin hole in the middle of the inner tube. I think I must’ve picked up a thorn on my test ride the night before, which then fell out in the mud. Regardless, always better to puncture prior to the race then during it.

I’m super-cautious about tyre pressure, since I hate DNF’ing due to punctures. At 74kg, and with clinchers, I usually ride between 35 and 40psi. This course had one steep ramp which hammered the bike, and a few kerbs, and so I went for 38psi. In hindsight, I should’ve tried lower on my sighting lap, but having already punctured, I was a bit rushed.

The start was wet + cold, with a lot of riders being gridded before everyone else shuffled in and waited for the race to kick off. The course was a mudbath by this stage, reminiscent of my first two cyclocross races at Plean/Mugdock in 2011.

I’d looked at my lap times in the vet40’s this year, and projected them onto the laptimes in the senior races, so I knew which riders were likely to be going at a similar pace to me. After the initial start chaos, I dropped in behind Mr Two Wheel Army, easy to spot with his green race gear. He gained about 10 places at the chicane by running round the gridlock, and then I got a large branch wedged in my front spokes after the barriers which dropped me back. I gradually caught up with his group over the next two laps, gaining on the technical stuff and losing out by trying to ride the deep mud on the start straight whilst he was running it.

After following for a lap or two, I got past somehow (I think maybe another riding/running split decision) and pulled a bit of a gap. After that, I was fairly heads down passing a few more people, but mostly preoccupied with line choice and figuring out where others were riding.

I never figured out how the fast guys were riding the start straight. I’d run the first part, then ride the hairpin and most of the return leg before running the off camber. I’d like to believe that they were achieving this due to fancy gear (low tyre pressure, or tubular tyres) or perhaps physics (maybe if you keep above some critical speed, you glide over the mud rather than being sucked down into it). But I rather suspect that the answer is just raw power/torque.

I got lapped by the lead rider at 30 minutes, followed by a bunch including Rab Wardell, who lead the Dirt School class I did earlier this year. Rab apologised for something as he went by – not sure if he nearly slid into me or what – but it never fails to impress me that the fast guys are always super polite to the less quick racers they’re lapping.

The mud was causing chaos all around. One guy with an orange helmet mis-stepped after the run up, tripped over his bike and did a full-body slide into the mud – he came up smiling though. I also passed a marshall who was helping a racer extricate his foot from the spokes of his rear wheel.

I finished in 56th place (58th percentile) which is a bit better than the 65th percentile I’d predicted pre-race. I was pretty pleased with my racing. Doing Zwift races has improved my race endurance a lot, and I can do a full hour at race pace without flagging towards the end. I’d love to know how to ride the deep mud like the fast guys, and with Lochore Meadows coming up in early December, I’ll probably have another chance to try. My bike handling, which was under par at Strathclyde was good, and I actively enjoyed the course with all it’s challenges.

Afterwards, I compared my gps trail on Strava with some of the leaders. My best lap was 8m48s, where the winner managed a 6m40s lap. I lost an entire minute on the start straight, and the other minute on the muddy switchback field. The rest of the lap – through the second field, the trees and the bottom field was at basically the same pace. So there’s a lot of time to be gained in the mud. But then, maybe that’s just where the raw power of the leaders shows up.

SCX #3: Strathclyde Country Park

Strathclyde Country Park today and, after last year’s torrential downpour the dry sunny weather today was very welcome. I missed round 2 at Knockburn Loch as well as the best part of two weeks of training time to winter bugs, and with the way things worked out I spent more time on the turbo trainer than on the road and very little time on mud.

All of this neatly presages my performance in the race today. The upsides: my fitness felt pretty good, my lap times still looking consistent, and I’m better able to recover from efforts without needing to back right off. For once, I started ahead of my final ranking, gradually drifting down the field rather than spending the race passing people. I stuck with a group for a while, losing time on pedalling sections but gaining on technical stuff. The downsides: have spent a lot of time on the turbo, I’ve forgotten how to go round corners. I failed to nail any of the higher speed turns, going offline and losing precious momentum and places time and time again. And then on lap 3, my front wheel slid out on the offcamber and I banged my knee then, after a brief bit of running I remounted to find my chain was off, Wout-stylee. It was easily fixed, but with all the action and my banged-up knee I lost 40 seconds on that lap.

Overall, 69th out of 146th starters (47%) so another top half finish. The 40s lost on my crash lap were important, since 40s faster would’ve put me ten places higher. That’s kinda positive – my cornering today was shocking but it’s normally much better.

Next weekend is the Dunfermline round, no idea what the course is like. Plan is to steer clear of winter bugs, do a bit of turbo and a bit of technique. Medium-temr, it’d be nice to finish top 50 – which, today, happens to coincide with the first non-lapped rider, another decent goal. But that requires being about 5% faster, which is easier said than done!