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)

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.

10UTB 2015

10UTB last weekend, very pleased with finishing 6th (out of 29) in male trios category with Tich + Jacob. My training had largely consisted of laps around Arthurs Seat, as usual, with two or three longer rides thrown in. But the 10UTB course certainly feels more “uphill” than “downhill” it served me well.

I did the opening lap, which involves a mass rolling start then a dash as the track narrows. From prior races, I knew it was important to start near the front to avoid the inevitable holdups as a quart of mountain bikers tries to squeeze into a pint-size singletrack. I was in the front 10% as we rolled down the road behind the motorbikes and didn’t suffer any real delays as the real racing started. This year I didn’t have time for a practise lap, so enountered everything for the first time at race pace – including the gorse bushes lining the side of the track, ouch! The 10UTB course is less technical than most – a good thing, given that it’s a 10h race – but there’s still plenty of roots, rocks, river and mudchutes to contend with.

Doing the first lap also meant I did the final (my fourth) lap of the day. Between laps, I relied on my favoured PBJ bagels + bananas for energy, washed down with Lucozade Sport. Between laps 3 and 4, I cooked a decent meal of pasta+pesto to refuel properly before the final effort. It wasn’t a hot day, but each lap I drunk about 0.7l of water. In my camelback, I also had multitool, chain tool, tyre levers, pump and spare tube. It’d be heartbreaking to get a mechanical out on course – not to mention the length of time it’d take to walk back.

As it happens, I was reoiling my chain prior to lap 4 and luckily happened to notice that my chainring was loose. Like, all bolts loose and all rings wobbly. I hadn’t loctite’d them when I installed them, thinking that doing them up to the right torque would be enough. But the 10UTB gives the bike a right hammering as you come downhill and they must’ve vibrated loose. So glad I caught that before heading out!

It’s a tough race. Jacob came back from his third lap looking white as a sheet. On my third lap, I tried sprinting the last bit of fireroad, and my quads cramped up – something I’ve never had happen before. The climbing seems to go on forever. In particular, you reach a point where you can see people starting to go back downhill, and you think the climb must be over. However, the trail actually goes up for another half mile or so above that before turning downhill. So it’s a psychological blow if you’re not expecting it. I was pretty pleased with my technical riding. I rode all the tricksy downhill bits, and only had one inelegant slide on the 90 degree right at the Auction Mart gravel road with no ill effects.

Camping was an “experience”. The usual midge-ridden grass field was out of operation after being trashed by World Cup Downhill car parking. So instead the camping was moved to the overflow carpark. This carpark was made of compacted gravel, impossible to get tent pegs into even with a hammer. Not ideal at all. I ended up weighting my tent down with rocks. And the midgies! Oh, the midgies! I’m not that bothered by midgies – the bites don’t get itchy – but they were just everywhere. Falling into my cup of tea, biting any exposed skin. A lot of people had midge hoods on, might have to get one.

We were lucky that Carolyn had brought a gazebo with her which was a great addition to the day (once anchored to the ground with rocks). It gave us a shelter from the wind and occasional drizzle and generally made the day much more pleasant.

Laggan SXC

After (somewhat embarrasingly) tasting success in the 2 lap “taster” SXC race in round 1, I felt duty bound to step up and actually enter the full 4 lap race at the next available event, which was this weekend at Laggan Wolftrax close to Dalwhinnie. Haven’t managed much in the way of full-on training recently, but I’ve been doing laps around Arthurs Seat whenever I have the chance.

I managed one sighting lap before the race, which revealed that the course consisted of a relentless sustained climb up, followed by a descent back down over a lot of rocks, a little bit of woodland and some fun fast swoopy jumps’n’berms hardpack. It was substantially more brutal than the Cathkin Braes course, and for the first time I felt my hardtail bike wasn’t up to the task. The best thing on rock is to carry momentum so you mostly skip over the tops. The moment you lose momentum, you start hitting each individual bump and it’s energy-sapping. I would’ve gladly swapped out for a full-suss bike!

Onto the race itself. Usually in a cyclocross race I participate in the initial bunch sprint, perhaps 2/3rds of the way down but certainly staying with the pack. At Laggan, the gun went off, I started sprinting with everyone else … and then suddenly the pack was off into the distance at a speed I couldn’t imagine sustaining. I looked behind, and there were two stragglers behind me but everyone else was flying up the ascent at about double what I could realistically do! Ah well, so much for racing. So I settled down at a pace which I thought I could sustain for the planned four laps and went for an afternoon ride. In the end, I was lapped and so only did three laps (about 1h20m riding).

So that was sobering. Out of 22 people in the ‘sport’ category, I finished last out of the 20 finishers (and two DNFs were faster riders than me too). Best laps for other rides ranged from 17 to 23 minutes, whereas I was out at 26 minutes.

So what happened? I think the ‘60% down the field’ results I got in cyclocross are flattered somewhat by the large mix of abilities in cyclocross races. My lap times are typically 50% slower than the winner’s pace, but there are plenty of people slower than me. In this weekend’s MTB race, my lap times were the same – 50% slower than the leaders – but there’s wasn’t a crowd of other computer programmers to keep me company. Everyone else who’d made the 2.5 hour drive to Laggan for the Sport category race was actually really rather awesomely good!

The other new thing for me was the longer duration. Cross races are about an hour so there’s no need to eat or drink. But beyond the hour mark, I need to eat + drink. I realised this just as I was falling asleep the night before the race – one bottle wasn’t going to be enough. So, lacking any helpers, I left took a second bottle and left it on the ground in the feedzone. At the start of lap three, I did a quick exchange-of-bottles and got underway again. That bit worked out fine!

Still, I’m glad I did the race. In some ways, I got more out of finishing last in the sports category than I did from winning the taster category. If it wasn’t for the SXC race, I wouldn’t have thought to visit Laggan, and it’s substantially different from any other MTB place I’ve been to. The vibe at the races is great with noisy spectators and without exception the fast guys who lapped me were friendly and encouraging. I also continue to be amazed the levels of fitness + skills on show at these races. My main reason for doing the SXC races is to keep my fitness vaguely up for Ten Under The Ben, which is now less than a month away. So perhaps it’s now time to do a bit more Serious Training!!