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!!

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