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?