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 #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!

SCX #1: Callendar Park

A beautiful sunny day to start the 2016/7 Scottish Cyclocross Season. The start line was in full sun, so the usual “trying to stay warm” problem was replaced temporarily with a “trying not to overheat” problem.

The Callendar Park course is fast and swoopy, with no long/steep climbs and very little in the way of severe “technical” stuff – so sustained power is the order of the day, not my strongest point. But with 2016 being the first year I’ve had a turbo trainer, I was hoping to see some improvement in power. I think I got that – my lap times were the most consistent I’ve every managed throughout a race. Overall, I wasn’t that much faster than last year but I gauged my effort better rather than going out too fast and blowing up later.

I got to the grid a bit late, after foolishly trying to squeezing in one extra practise lap whilst everyone else sensibly headed straight for the grid, thereby leaving me in maybe 110th place out of 140 starters. I spent the first two laps passing people (16 on first lap, 9 on second) and avoiding the midfield crashes and tangles. Then it was a case of head down, chase down the next rider, rinse and repeat. I tried to get some rest by drafting people on the straights, squinting to avoid the gravel spray from their wheels. No crashes, only a bit of elbow-to-elbow clashes on the steep climbs as people tried to make progress.

I started the last lap drafting another rider in green, with noone close behind us. I had enough in reserve to decide on my Cunning Plan to take the place. I pounced on the steep muddy climb and made the pass, but went a bit wide at the hairpin and lost it again. More drafting to save energy, and onto plan B which was to attack at the steep hill before the zigzags. I was alongside at the top of the hill, but on the outside line for the next corner and so had to drop back. Plan C was to draft him the rest of the lap and outsprint him. I accelerated past on the second last straight so I was in pole position going round the final hairpin. But as we started to sprint, I went to change into my big ring and .. disaster .. it wouldn’t go. I carried on up the gears in the small ring until I was spinning like a hamster wheel and tried again to change but by this time I’d lost a few metres and it was all over. A fun end to the race, and with hindsight I think I got out-race-crafted in the end.

This was the first race where I felt my effort was constant lap-to-lap. I had a little dip in energy midway through the second last lap, but by that point the end was in sight. I think I have the turbo trainer to thank for that. Since I don’t usually ride with others apart from at races, it’s not easy to gauge or maintain hard training efforts out on the road, so I’m finding the turbo trainer is good for race-simulation efforts – even virtual racing on Zwift (tried it once so far).

Final position was 63rd out of 146 starters, so 43rd percentile. I think that’s my best finish yet, relatively speaking. With the turbo trainer, I feel I’m in a better position to work regularly on improving power, which has always been my weak point (lacking a roadie background) and so high hopes for the rest of the season.

Tweaks

One week left before DIATD, and having missed two race (Plean + BPGP) due to illness I’m looking forward to this final cx race of the year.

Checking over the bike today, I found that the rear derailleur is once again not shifting cleanly. It exhibits the tell-tale sign of bad cables – when you click to change down a gear, the derailleur cage doesn’t move.

On my cx bike, this is almost always due to corrosion in the final loop of the gear outer. The gear cable runs bare down the frame, then shielded by outers for the final loop into the derailleur. The top end of that outer cable run is fairly exposed to the outside world, and it seems that water and gunk gets into it easily. Once that happens, no amount of adjusting the gears gets you back to that “new bike” feel.

So, I decided to fix the problem once and for all by rejecting the setup which the bike came with and instead going for a continuous run of gear outer all the way from the derailleur to the top tube. That way, there’s almost no way for water to get inside and cause havoc. Unfortunately, the cable mountings aren’t removable so I had to cable-tie the outers to the frame. The only theoretical downside is increased drag from the extra outers. But in practise this doesn’t seem to be a problem and the gears are shifting perfectly.

So that’s the gears back to 100%. Now I need to work on my pedalling legs …

SCX Lochore Meadows 2015

Main achievement of today’s race – my bike is intact! This is an improvement on last year.

Unlike Strathclyde Country Park, where there is one muddy field, at Lochore Meadows the majority of the lap consists of muddy fields. To be honest, given the recent weather, I was expecting conditions to be much worse than they turned out to be. Yeah, it was muddy – and a very sticky mud at that – but everyone was riding rather than running which is always a good sign. After last year’s terminal mech-crunching I decided to basically pick one gear and stay in it the whole race. Towards the end, as my legs were tiring, I verrry carefully changed down one gear to give my legs a rest. But that was it. My ten speed bike may as well have been a singlespeed. Lochore meadows is flat as a pancake which, given most of my training is cycling up hills, is never going to be great for me. In the end, I finished 41st out of 56 starters (73rd percentile).

It’s not going to go down as my favourite race ever. It was more like an hour-long resistance training session. I like hills, both climbing up and swooping down. I know there’s some skills on display at Lochore Meadows – line choice, cornering, carrying momentum – but the day was dominated by pushing at the pedals to get through the mud. And brute leg strength isn’t really my strongest area.

It was good to chat to a few of the riders beforehand. I’m starting to recognise which of the riders are at my level, and who I need to be chasing after if I want to finish higher up. And it’s great to hear the encouragement which the marshalls, spectators and even the leaders (as they lap you) give throughout the race!

Anyhow, bike is intact and now stripped down and cleaned. Next race is Plean in 7 days time!

Cross Entropy

One thing I’ve learned from a few years of racing cyclocross is that cyclocross eats bikes.

Of course it does. What lightweight machine could possibly survive unscathed through fields of mud, gravely puddles of unknown depth, through rootsy woodland and occasionally being dropped at high speed onto the unforgiving ground?

Good job that I enjoy doing bike maintenance. My chains have speedlinks so I can remove them easily, and deep-clean them in solvent. I like the platonic ideal of perfectly spherical ball bearings gliding across hardened steel races. I love the crisp mechanical efficiency of a clean and perfectly adjusted rear derailleur. C’est brutal, mais ca marche.

But I’m King Canute trying to hold back the entropy of ‘cross. Each race, the damage mounts. Before the mudfest at Strathclyde Country Park, my bike was pristine. Afterwards, the rear wheel bearings were a bit grumbly. They’ve been stripped down, cleaned and rebuilt. The rear gears weren’t changing crisply. I found the rear hanger was slightly bent (from my end-of-lap crash on concrete) and the outer casing slightly gritty. A new straight hanger and everything is happy again (though I need to build a hanger straightening tool). The bottom bracket, new at the end of last season, has a slight drag which puts it top of the “things to inspect after next race” list.

In my first few races, I was surprised at the number of mechanical DNFs. Now I think if you’re starting the race with a slightly dodgy mechanics, you’re just stacking the odds against you. Races are tough enough even on a pristine bike, but they’re no place for bikes with any hint of a mechanical issue.

I can see why local bike shops are so involved in cyclocross. I’m lucky to have the space/time/inclination to do all the work myself. But otherwise, I’d have the bike in a shop every second race to fix all these issues.

Next race on Nov 22nd is at Lochore Meadows. Last year, it was a mudbath. I was on lap two when I felt a thunk. I stopped pedalling straight away and looked down. My rear derailleur was bashing against my front derailleur, and my chain was twisted round by 90 degrees. Race over. Hopefully the same won’t happen this year. Cross my fingers.