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!

The Wall @ Strathclyde Country Park

Today’s race was just off the M74 at Strathclyde Country Park. A few days of dryish weather left me hoping for a fast dry course … but no such luck. It was another mudbath, this time with long runs of wet sticky glue-like mud. During the race I heard several crunches as people’s derailleurs sucked up and broke.

The course was probably the easiest so far. The lap started with ups and downs, including one bombhole which was so bad (12″ deep mud) that the organizers basically said “don’t try to ride it” during the race briefing. A hardpack trail lead up a loong gradient, before dropping back on grass – gradually at first, then faster, eventually culminating in a mad loose gravel trail with enough curve and camber to make my front wheel slip and slide around in a mind-focusing way. Second half was all meadows (quagmire). Long, long muddy meadows. Muddy, muddy, muddy meadows.

I started out comfortably, keeping my heartrate in the 160’s. I tried using a higher gear in the mud – something I’d seen other riders doing. It worked well – the power delivery is smoother and the wheel less likely to break traction. I got into a mini-battle with another rider – I’d pass him on one part of the lap, then we’d get onto a different section and he’d repass me. I was about to make a jokey comment to him along the lines of “with this mud, we’d be better off singlespeeding”, when I noticed he *was* on a singlespeed. Given that you run the slow stuff, and the fast stuff isn’t fast, a singlespeed does make some kind sense .. especially given the state that derailleurs end up in.

All was going well for the first 40 minutes or so. Then something happened. I ran out of energy. I bonked. I hit the wall. I didn’t so much hit as run headlong into it. It wasn’t a gradual onset of tiredness. It was a binary switch – “feeling fine” to “can barely push the pedals round” in the space of a few seconds. I was halfway around the lap at the time, and a bit of mental maths told me that I’d have to finish that lap *and* do another one to complete the race. If it had been only a half lap left, I’d have finished the race completely knackered. But a whole extra lap?! I wouldn’t even be running on fumes by that stage.

I kept going. The good bit about the last lap is that you know it’s the final time you’ll do each turn, climb and mudbath. But I was down into my granny ring on the climbs, walking slowly through most of the mud, and had to stop twice because there was just no energy left. My legs didn’t feel like they were still attached to me, and I started getting cold – partly from lack of fuel, but also because the sun was going down. I struggled up the hill, being passed by load of people – including one of the leaders who’d got a puncture and was jogging and carrying his bike. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get to the top of the hill because the remainder of the lap was mostly downhill. And, quite frankly, stopping wouldn’t do me much good because i was halfway round the course and far from food, drink and warm clothing.

I made it to the end, more exhausted than i think I’ve ever been before. I downed energy drinks, sweets and muslei bars. Then suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch, I felt like a human again. A cold and tired human, but at least one with a functioning brain. About an hour later, I started feeling warm again.

I hate to think how slow that last lap was. Probably twice as slow as my first lap!

So, what happened? A classic case of hitting the wall, ie. glucose depletion. Your body stores energy as glycogen and you use it up during a race. You can’t replenish your stores mid-race either – the pace is so high that your stomach doesn’t process the food and you feel sick. Once it’s gone it’s gone. You need to ensure that your glycogen stores are topped up beforehand. For previous races, I’ve carefully carb-loaded with pasta for a day or two beforehand. This time I didn’t really do anything special – and suffered for it!

I’ve only hit the wall badly once before. When I was a teenager, I used to do a 20 mile loop on a road bike. Once, halfway round, I hit the metaphorical wall. I had to stop, get off the bike and sit down on the grass. It was impossible to imagine doing anything else – walking or even standing. Fortunately, I had a carton of juice with me. I drunk it and, a few minutes later, it was as if someone had flipped a switch. Suddenly, I felt fine again. I got back on my bike and cycled the rest of the route without any trouble.

Ah well, it could’ve been better today. But, taking the positives, the first part of the race went well. I like the mountain-bike-y bits and make up places on them. I’m still learning how to do mud. My overall fitness is way up.

But next time, I’ll eat more pasta.

UPDATE: I finished 29th out of 55 starters. My lap times retell the hitting-the-wall story; 10m, 11m, 12m, 15m, 20m. Still, my ‘fast’ laps compare much more favourably to the leaders (like, only 40% slower) than in my first few races. And even if my lap times had slowed linearly (to 13m and 14m) I’d have only gained two places. Less realistically, doing 10m laps throughout would’ve placed me up around 19th.

Cyclocross race #2: Mugdock Country Park

Another Sunday, another cyclocross race!

This weekend’s race was at Mugdock Coutry Park, north of Glasgow. The course was similar to last time – switchback ascents, muddy chutes, forest floor mudbaths and open meadows. Mud was every bit as bad as last time, although a slightly different character. Check out my mud connoisseur status.

I had arrived early, but with the race start delayed I passed the time in my car reading a kindle book on my phone. But by the time I got back to the start line there wasn’t enough time to reccy the course. In fact, there was barely enough time to locate where the start line was.

The starting gun went off, which got everyone’s attention, I made good progress up the hill and had a good number of riders behind me before we shuffled through the singletrack. There were three or four riders who suffered mechanicals off the line – I’m confused by that .. we were riding on a straight path?!

Last weekend, I learned that momentum is king in the mud. And so today I carried as much speed as possible into muddy sections – confident that I could handle the slips and slides. It worked great; I passed a few people that way.

Early on, I was following a group of riders but by the end of the first lap, I dropped off the back to ride my own race. I tried to cycle as much as possible – managing the steep chute on all but the last lap, and after a few attempts I figured out how to do the climb after the bridge (again, by carrying maximum momentum off the bridge to clear the initial deep mud). But there was plenty of running and pushing through the worst of the mud.

Towards the end of the race, I could see that I would be passed by the leaders on their bell lap. This suited me just fine! Last week, I’d cleared the line just before the leader and so had to do another lap. This weekend I cycled for 1h2m, compared with 1h15m last weekend.

This also meant that I came into the ‘arena’ following the top three (albeit lapped) and so arrived to roars and cheers and air horns. Woo! That gave me a bit of extra encouragement to push a bit harder on the last few bends. 🙂

I got absolutely caked in mud. I’ve figured why cross racers wear long leggings. It’s not to keep their legs warms. It’s so that they can peel the layers of mud off after the race is finished. My right shoe got a crack in it, and was chock full of mud by the end.

But the mud washes off, and now it’s over I’m pretty pleased with race #2. I learned a bunch of stuff in race #1 and played things better this time out. I’ve no idea where I finished though! Time to compulsively hit reload on the cyclocross website until the results appear.

Starting at Cyclocross

Sunday’s race was my first cyclocross race. Here’s some thoughts and notes in case others are tempted to try it out.

I don’t own a ‘real’ cyclocross bike. Instead, I used my hardtail mountain bike, put on a set of narrow tyres and stripped off all bottle cages, lights etc. The rules for the Scottish Cyclocross series say that you can basically ride anything you like. The majority of people at the race were on cyclocross bikes, but there were quite a few other MTBs around. The race was a mudbath and lots of people suffered mechanicals when the mud/grass mix wrapped around their calliper brakes. My disc brakes didn’t have such problems! But my rear derailleur was a mess of vegetation by the end of the race.

The race venue itself was super busy, with cars overflowing into the country lane outside. I asked someone where the race registration was, paid my £12 race fee plus £3 for a day race license and in return got a number to safety-pin to my top and a timing chip to stick to my helmet. Before getting my bike out, I watched the start of the woman&vets race, figuring out what clothing to wear and how plastered by mud they were getting.

Back at the car, I got my bike together, drank a half bottle of juice and some raisins then headed to the course. After the previous race ended, the track was open for practise. I followed a bunch of riders round the first part of the course, but then my HRM told me I was waay overcooking it and so I backed off. It was useful having a sighting lap, but the course was pretty straightforward to ride (although hard to ride well) .. there’s no big surprise rock gardens unlike in mountainbike race courses.

I set up near the back of the starting grid and blasted up the hill with everyone else. Actually, I took it relatively easy on the first climb since I knew there’d be a logjam at the first singletrack and I had no places to lose. The logjam materialised, and the whole first section of singletrack was a processsion of pushing and sliding. Fortunately, the track opened out into fireroad which split up the field and it was freeflowing after that.

I got settled down, trying hard not to burn out too early. But it’s hard to get settled when the terrain changes so much. From the finish line, the first part of the lap was a steep ridable climb up to a mudbath on the hill, followed by a long run of hardpack. The middle part was narrow muddy singletrack through the woods, linked by a short fireroad to more woodland – wider but muddier and sloping. The final part of the lap started with a carry-yer-bike slippery steep hill, then a long drag up through a muddy meadow .. a mix of slurried pedalling and pushing when you ran short of momentum.

I quickly lost track of how many laps I’d done – probably 4 or 5 in total? I ran short of fuel in the second half of the race and slowed down a lot to make the end. Classic tale of overcooking it early on …

There was a great fun vibe around the track, with marshalls and spectators cheering. I had a couple of ‘battles’ with other riders, mostly because I managed to make some progress in the mud. However, I was too toasted to do the faster sections at speed so I’d lose all of my illgotten gains quickly! The other riders were really friendly, and I found quite a few who were similarly doing their first cyclocross race.

Tips and advice?

  • Treat your first race as an eye-opening hard training ride; anything else is a bonus
  • Momentum is king in the mud
  • On muddy downhills, keeping pedalling hard seems to help stability. Don’t understand why, but it worked.
  • Don’t overcook during the first few laps. (haha, like that’s ever going to happen).
  • Keep smiling and enjoying it!