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.

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.

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.

SCX Strathclyde Park 2015

The rain radar this morning had a large clump of red storm clouds traveling perfectly to end up over Strathclyde Country Park at 13:30, just in time for the start of my cyclocross race. It was always going to be a mudfest!

Cyclocross is a crazy sport sometimes, but that’s what I like about it. The course today was a mix of everything – steep gravel climb, swoopy woodland singletrack, loose muddy downhill chute, and several fields of thick gloopy mud. And rain – sometimes heavy rain!

I watched the race prior to mine, and saw a lot of people suffering punctures. Now, I’ve got history in this area. Last year at Strathclyde Park, I drank too much cx “low tyre pressure” coolaid and punctured on lap two, either on a kerb or a rock. I went home and bought a digital tyre gauge so I could introduce some repeatability into my tyre pressures. With all the mud this year, cx wisdom says low tyre pressures are crucial. But, for me, finishing the race is more crucial! So I went towards the safe end of what I’ve tried before – and thankfully finished the whole race this year.

I’d also got a set of proper mud tyres, and I was really impressed by the difference they made. I was able to rail around muddy corners which others were braking for, which was great for both catching up and conserving energy. Unfortunately, the final corner of the lap was hard pack and slidy and I lost the front end there one lap and went for a roll.

Continuing with the experiments, I tried eating (drinking?) an energy gel midrace. I didn’t feel much difference, but the lap timings show that I got faster on the last two laps (where I usually get much slower). So maybe that’s worth continuing with.

In the race, there was a nasty looking crash right at the start. A rider fell at the left, and a few folk tipped over him. It all happened a few riders ahead of me, but that’s the first time I’ve been near to a fast crash. Everything happens very quickly.

Once everything had settled down, I ended up racing rider 380. He was going faster on the straight bits and a bit faster uphill, but with my new tyres railing the muddy corners I made it all back on the downhills. But at the end of lap 3 I fell on the slidy corner which meant I had to catch up all over again. Coming into the last lap, I went for it in the muddy field (tyres giving confidence again) and got a clear gap ahead of the climb. It was good racing – I like when there’s a lot of back-and-forth and you can pick up tips by seeing where the other rider is faster than you.

So, a good day at the office! I finished in 36th place (56th percentile). This gives some actual points in the series. Woo!

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)