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?

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.

2016/7

It’s that time of year again, cross is coming.

For me, it’s the usual conflict between structured organised training vs chaos of winter/autumn bugs and work travel. I managed to plan ahead this year, and did all required work travel by early September with the plan of having two clear weeks to train to peak. Unfortunately, I got off the plane and immediately caught a bug which mean zero training for over a week, sad times.

Before all that kicked off, in mid-summer I had decided to stop procrastinating and actually buy a turbo trainer. I’ve been considering getting one for years, and having had it for two months now I’m very happy with it. I’d expected that the main benefit was avoiding bad weather and darkness, but actually the quantified nature of indoor training has been very helpful for me too. My main weakness in cyclocross has always been in the road-y ability to deliver high watts for a long time, and so I’ve never done well at flat courses like Dig In. On the turbo trainer, it’s easy to do time-trial simulations, or over/under intervals, or stop-start sprints. All of which hopefully will pay dividends once the race season starts.

But, given that I’m still suffering somewhat from my autumn bug, I’m not sure if I’m going to make race #1 at Callendar Park right now. I cycled to work this morning for the first time in a while, and had to bail onto a shorter route. All this non-cycling has given me time to strip down, clean and rebuild my bike so it’s working better than new. But it would be very sad if I ended up with a shiny bike but lacking the health to race it. Lots of fruit, sleep and fingers crossed that the rest of the week goes better …

Training, numerically

After a slightly ‘meh’ ending to this year’s cyclocross, I thought a bit about how I train for races. The high level answer is “haphazardly”. Like everyone else, cyclocross is just one of many things I do and so I fit training rides in and around the rest of my life. That mostly means using commutes to work and the odd longer weekend ride as my base. I generally try to ride as hard as I can, but that’s pretty variable in practise given Scottish weather conditions, traffic lights etc.

My biggest training success this year was on the Arthur’s Seat hill climb. I started the year doing the climb in about 4m40, and with focused training lopped 45 seconds off that. The hill climb has the advantage of being repeatable and quantifiable, and the only downside is that the wind direction has a large impact.

But while a 4 minute burst of full-on ascending speed is handy (eg. Glentress or 10UTB) it doesn’t help much at races like Dig In At The Dock which is flat as a pancake and an hour long.

To quantify progress, it’s handy to keep as many variable fixed as possible. I don’t have a turbo trainer, so instead I’ve picked two wide, traffic free and usefully long stretches nearby. Rather than trying to “ride fast”, which usually means “ride fast initially and then tire” I’ve decided to do each stretch at a fixed speed. If I complete the distance at (say) 18mph, then next time I ride it at a fixed 19mph and keep stepping it up until I hit the threshold. So far, my threshold for the shorter 1k stretch appears to be around 22mph, and I’m still stepping up through 19mph on the longer two mile stretch.

This isn’t intended as training, per se. The world says that intervals are the most effective way of getting faster. But this approach gives me a fairly constant reference point to see if the other training is having an effect.

So that’s the plan for the sustained-fast on the flat. However, I’m also signed up for the Glentress 7’s this year, so there’s a big need for the ups and downs too. Hence, I’ll be alternating the flat days with more Arthurs Seat loops (or just hill reps) since that’s served me perfectly well for xc in the past. Eleven weeks until Glentress 7’s, so no rest for the wicked.

Digging In

A rather muted end to my cyclocross season this time. I was signed up for Plean but missed it due to illness. I was signed up for BPGP#2 but missed it due to jetlag and illness. I did make it along to DIATD albeit without terribly much training (a handful of 16 mile commutes, one trip to Glentress). My warmup lap was fine, and the course was as straightforward as normal, and just as windy as last year. But on lap 1 of the race I knew I wasn’t having a good day. I ploughed on, clearly destined for finishing in the last few before a front puncture cemented my fate as DFL. And got a sore throat a few days later for good measure.

In previous years, a mediocre day would still have put me maybe 70% down the field. But with the new A/B race format, a slow Andrew in a fast field was only ever going to end one way.

Bit sad about puncturing. I had 45/45psi in my clinchers which, at 74kg, is at the high end. But after puncturing on the cobbles during warmup last year at 35psi, I went safe in last year’s race at 45/50psi. However, on the early laps I stuck to the middle of the cobbles and unweighted on the worst bumps. On the last lap, I remember being at the right side and being too knackered to unweight. I think that’s where the front tyre went. It was the tiniest hole on one side, no thorns or anything, so must’ve been a close thing.

So, lessons learned: actual training required. Usual crop of winter bugs, work travel, family life and evening courses doesn’t leave much time for training. Perhaps I should get a turbo trainer. I certainly came close to buying one this year.

But it was still a fun day, with great support. I’ll try for less winter bugs and less work travel and a little more race prep next year.

SCX Callendar Park 2015

Today was the first round of the 2015 SCX cyclocross series, on the fast rolling course at Callendar Park in Falkirk. The course was the same as last year, with the addition of a series of downhill switchbacks. The weather stayed dry pretty much all day, despite the dark clouds looming on the horizon as the day rolled on.

I had a mostly uneventful race with no spills or falls. Since the course was so similar to last year, I was quite pleased to be only lapped once by the winner (vs. twice last year) so objectively I thought I’d done a lot better.

Actually, looking at the race results I only did a little better – 71% down the field (52nd out of 73 starters) vs 75% last year. However, my average lap time was a whopping 1 minute faster (6m54s vs 7m54s last year). And my average lap was only 1.2x that of the winner’s, vs 1.3x last year.

Another reference point is tracking the people I was racing last year. Last year, the two guys who finished ahead of me were 62nd/63rd – and this year they were 63rd/64th but I was ten places ahead.

So I’m telling myself that my training did actually make a difference – even if, in percentile terms it looks like a small difference!

Marginal gains! Or something like that …

SCMA Arthurs Seat Hill Climb

This Sunday saw the very welcome return of the SCMA Arthurs Seat hill climb on a glorious sunny day. As ever, my preparation was dismal – doing a 56 mile loop to Peebles the day before plus a wedding/ceilidh at night. But I’ve been ‘practising’ lots during the year and had high hopes of bettering the 4m37s I managed last year.

To cut a short story short, my one-and-only run this year was 4m6s, a whole 31 seconds faster than last year – which put me in 10th place out of about 40-something “men on road(ish) bikes”.

That’s a little bit shy of my best ever strava time of 3m53s. However that strava time was a) a flying 20+mph start, vs standing start yesterday, b) done with a helpful easterly breeze, and c) a slightly shorter distance (the strava segment ends at the corner, vs halfway along the lay-by for the SCMA event). So, in reality, I think my run was pretty much at the limit.

It’s a great event. Everyone is friendly + chatty and there’s the full range from omg quick riders to people doing runs with panniers+bikelocks attached. And three unicyclists! I’ll have to do a run on my unicycle next year. And a wheeled skier, who was stunningly fast. I started my run thirty seconds after he set off, so I passed him on the way up and saw him at the finish line. He was flying up the hill at an incredible pace (faster than several people on bicycles I think).

My legs are still recovering, but I’m very happy to have done my second SCMA hill climb (and got a tshirt this time)! Roll on next year! (Not convinced I can knock another 31 seconds off my time though)

2015 Beveridge Park cyclocross

A hot, sunny cyclocross race? Surely not. But that’s what we got today at the inaugural Beveridge Park Grand Prix of Cyclocross in Kirkcaldy today. And a top half finish (57th out of 117 starters), which is my target for this year.

It was a fast, swoopy dry course (a bit like Callander Park 2014) with only a few spots to ‘watch out’ for. The turn off the tarmac clib onto the grass was fiddly – I saw someone come a cropper there early on, and it was a tight line around the trees each time. The barrier-after-a-downhill-turn was hard – I never quite nailed that, but did often pass people on the remount.

But the highlight of the course every lap was the fast wide 180 degree downhill-to-uphill corner halfway around – which I hereby name “Curva Parabolica”. Most people treated it as a corner followed by a climb. But I found I could take the ‘karting line’ right around the outside without braking at all. Once you’re hooked up on that line, you’re committed. It’s like a high-speed rollercoaster ride. But noone else was taking that line, so I always had a clear un-blocked run and it meant I shot out of the corner with grande vitesse and carried the momentum up the hill, passing people every lap. I looked forward to it every lap!

Following tradition, my pre-race training was a disaster. Two weeks on holiday without a ride, followed by two weeks with a cold-like bug. I managed one long ride up to Redstone Rigg two weeks ago, and a handful of laps around Arthurs Seat. But my race pacing was fine – went fast on the first couple of laps then settled down. My lap times were unusually consistent.

That is, except for one lap. I had just passed a barrier but just as I started my remount, my front wheel got crossed up and I tumbled to the ground in a terrible bike/rider tangle. Somehow the chainring impaled my upper thigh, a rather improbable injury. When I got up, the chain was wedged in the front ring, and took a while to unpick. The handlebars and front wheel weren’t pointing the same way, so I had to force them back in alignment. And my brake levers were bent around, but still working. After checking that the wheels and brakes were working, I got on with my race. Having experienced what it feels like to DNF last year, it was going to take more than that to stop me. Looking at the lap chart, I lost a minute here – perhaps three places.

It was a good “racing” race for me too. There was three other riders who I kept seeing again and again. Sometimes I was faster, sometimes they were faster. But it all seemed to average out across the lap, and so we kept passing and repassing for most of the race

So, hopefully onwards and upwards with a month until the first round of the series at Callander Park.

SXC success

After deciding to do the “taster” two lap race at Cathkin Braes SCX opener, I did the race today and won the category by 3 seconds! A minor achievement, given that it’s a small category (9 racers) for people new to MTB racing. But nonetheless, I’m pleased to have raced well. And now I know my laptimes, I can figure out where I might fare in the ‘sport’ category if I do another SXC round this year. The course was familiar from last weekend, except it took us over the black rock dropoff by the wind turbine, rather than red version I’d favoured.

I did a few practise starts, and knew that I could straightline over the first rock section at speed. From the gun, I pegged it hard up the wide start run, over the rocks, and knew I was ahead of all the other riders in the “taster” group (and several vets) by the time it got narrow and processional. I rode all the “A” lines (the shorter but harder option) and my downhill riding was okay but not great – didn’t really get flow, and got offline on Double Dare too many times. I did much better on the uphills. I ride up Arthurs Seat lots, and I know I can push hard uphill and recover fairly quickly, so I was able to overtake a few riders that way. I was impossible to tell who was in my category, because there’s lots of categories all racing at the same time. So I didn’t realise I’d won until about an hour after I finished.

So, a successful (re)introduction to MTB racing.

SXC Cathkin Braes

This weekend is the opening round of the SXC series at Cathkin Braes in Glasgow. I’ve signed up, mostly as a way of keeping up my fitness for 10 Under The Ben in June. I haven’t done an XC MTB race since Kirroughtree in 2010 so I’ve entered into the shorter 2 lap “taster” race rather than the 5 lap “sport” category.

Last weekend, I checked out the course for a few hours. I really like it. It’s a long figure-of-8, much less “up then down” than Glentress. There’s a couple of big rock drop offs, a crazy 4X section, one brutal climb and plenty of flowing stuff, albeit lumpier underfoot than at Glentress. I did four laps, sessioning some of the trickier bits, and had a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to time a “hot lap” to see where I might fare in a race. Extrapolating wildly, I can compare my Kirroughtree 2010 laptime to the 2010 Elite winner’s laptime (I was +57% slower!), and apply that to last years Cathkin Brae’s Elite winners laptime – this suggests I might do a 23 minute lap at Cathkin Braes. Over the two laps, that’d be 46 minutes which would’ve placed me in 5th out of ten riders in last years Taster race. The same pace, over 4 laps, would’ve got me 12th place out of 23 starts in the sport race (+lapped once).

All this hypothetical racing is tiring. The real pedalling variety is more fun!