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!

Cross 2014 Part 2

Two more days until the (probably) final cyclocross race of the season – Dig In At The Dock. I haven’t done this race before, but there’s a video on youtube of the course and it’s completely flat apart from a few steps to run up. Forecast is for fog and cold (2C) and not much wind. That’ll make a grand total of 8 ‘cross races I’ve done this season.

I’ve done more training for this race than any other this year – ie. I’ve done some. Over the last fortnight, I’ve managed two trips to Glentress to whiz around the red route, 30 miles to South Queenferry to muck about on the pump track, an hour ride out to Cramond in foul weather, and an hour in the gym doing intervals on bike and cross trainer.

The previous four races of the seasons were a mixed bag. At Auchentoshan, I got my first ever points in a race for finishing 43rd (out of 65 starters). The 8 points I gained there meant that I finished the season in exactly 100th place (out of 150 or so people).

The course at Auchentoshan had a respectable number of ups and downs – the kind of course that rewards a bit more technique and speed bursts than I can muster. Hallocross in Dalkeith Country Park a few days beforehand was a lot of fun – a fast and straightforward course, made much more exciting by being a night race. My lighting rig (a couple of torches jubilee-clamped to the bike) wasn’t quite up to the job, so I did a fair bit of riding using the force … turning the bike into the darkness and crossing my finger that there was indeed a corner there.

Lochore Meadows was a writeoff. I completed one mudbath lap before my rear mech snapped in two, bending the hanger, twisting the chain 90 degrees and generally destroying the bike. The bike shop didn’t have replacement hangers in stock, so I had to bend it roughly back into line to be ready for the next race at Foxlake.

At Foxlake, things came together pretty well. It was a big field with a wide ability range. It was also a bit more technical than the average scx course with a longish steep climb, and fast descents. I finished 56th our of 125 starters. My gears were sketchy because I couldn’t get the hanger properly straight, but I compensated by using the front mech more and changing carefully in advance of need – something that I should probably be doing anyway!

Lessons learned from this season overall? It’s still all about fitness really. Technical skills, line choice, tyre pressure etc all help a little bit .. but at the end of the day, the people ahead of me are just able to push the pedals harder for longer than I can. I’m pretty happy with my finishes this year (somewhere around 60% down the field). But I’m eager to find out how much better I could do next season if I actually rocked up with a higher level of fitness, rather than treating the races as workout sessions. I’m signed up for 10 Under the Ben in June, and will probably do some SXC MTB races in March/April/May leading up to it. So there’s a good path for keeping a high level of base fitness through the year, and then ramping up for another round of ‘cross.

A few more lessons to braindump so I remember them in 2015:
1. Eat a jam sandwich 2.5-3h before the start time, then drink juice steadily after that. Eating any later causes gastic regret during the race.
2. If you’re going to finish 60% down the field, you should start 60% down the field not at the back! On my first season, I started at the back, because I didn’t have a clue and everyone else looked like they did. But now that I know where I’m likely to finish, I can avoid passing a train of people by starting a bit further up.
3. Tyre pressure might be important, but a puncture wastes your day so there’s no point going crazy. I bought a digital tyre pressure gauge this year which makes reproducible measurements easier. With the clincher tyres I have and weighing 74kg, 35psi was safe (puncture free) at Foxlake.

CX 2014

2014 == cyclocross!

So far, I’ve managed three races in three weekends – Callander Park, Strathclyde Country Park, and the Doonbank Trofee. They’ve each been very different.

As is usual, I didn’t manage terribly much in the way of pre-season training – a couple of longer 40 mile rides, but mostly just Arthurs Seat loops. Doing CX races is the best practise for CX races anyhow.

Callander Park was a fast and dry race – a lovely course. I seemed to gain on more technical secions and lose out on plain old ‘pedalling hard’ which was fine since its easier to gain fitness than skillz. My slowest lap was 25% longer than my best, so I didn’t manage the consistency that I’m aiming for, but at least I didn’t “blow up” like some previous races – mostly thanks to careful eating beforehand. Final result was 64th of 85 starters, 75th percentile.

Strathclyde Country Park was a damp squib. Punctured on lap two, having done 2 sighting laps and 1 race lap. I think I got a pinch flat on one the sleeping policeman. Regardless, DNF’ing for the first time was sobering and a let down. It made me realise that the upside of low tyre pressure (sligtly more grip) is not worth the cost (increased risk of puncturing) if puncturing spoils my whole day.

Yesterday was Doonbank Trofee race at Ayr. A grass, muddy course which reminded me of Strathclyde Country Park in 2011 – ie. a mudbath. I wasn’t feeling 100% so didn’t push too hard but still managed 20th out of 28 starters, 71st percentile. The course included some slippy downhill switchbacks which were challenging, and plenty of run ups. It was a good course, but unfortunately a bit too muddy for me to keep up any flow. I had to stop at one point to remove massive clumps of grass from the rear wheel – I wish I’d done that earlier because it

Haughcross 2013

Today was Haughcross, a summer cyclocross race as part of the Aberdour Festival. For me, it was a chance to try racing again after a gap of nearly two years. For training, I mixed up regular laps of Arthurs Seat with longer fast-paced rides out to Cramond and finished with a little bit of sprint intervals. Having spectacularly hit the wall in my last race, I paid attention to what I was eating – lots of food + liquid in the last few days, plenty of carbs, finishing with a PBJ sandwich 3h before the race and some lucozade energy drink up until 1h to go.

The course was fast and flowing, laid out with tape on the large meadow next to the Silver Sands beach. Two sets of barriers, lots of hairpin turns, and a nice mix of faster turns (where you could go wide) and faster turns (where going wide was a bad idea) and one burn which you had to dismount and leap over.

As I’ve now learned several times, there’s a big difference between being “pretty fit” and being “race fit”. Straight from the start, it was clear I was going to be competing for perhaps the last 4 places. I was wary of starting out too fast, but got past a few riders on the first two laps. However, my heartrate was 167+ and I knew I had to dial things back to have a chance of completing an hour of racing. So I slowed a bit. My pace dropped off a lot towards the end of the race, but at least I avoided hitting the wall. Later in the race, I’d keep well out of the way of the leaders as they lapped me, but actually each of these micro-rests helped me last too.

I fared better in the muddier races I did in 2011. Today’s race was fast and flowing. I noticed that I made up time primarily going over the obstacles, and running uphill, but lost time everywhere else. I wonder if the 2011 races had more of the technical stuff that perhaps I’m better at. Today’s race seemed to be more about speed, acceleration and carrying momentum round corners.

I’m astonished by how fast the rest of the field is. In some ways, I don’t particularly mind dicing for 3rd last pace because I know that merely finishing the race pushes me harder than almost anything else I’ve tried before. I guess it’d be nice to have a crystal ball which told me how much of performance is about training, and how much is genetics. In other words, if I quit my job, trained every day, would I be winning these races? Or finishing half way down the field? Unfortunately, I know that Bradley Wiggins is about the same weight and height as I am, so that’s one excuse ruled out!