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

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!

Portobello -> Edinburgh

Warm day, so unicycled from Portobello to Leith docks, then up the Water of Leith to Inverleith – route on endomondo. It’s been a while since my last ride, but that often helps my technique a bit. Plenty of kerb hopping, rolling mounts, dodgy surfaces (the cobbled car park behind Brittania Spice is good fun).

One wheel, one pedal

Did another 4 mile-r this weekend – along the waterfront at Silverknowes and back. It was pretty windy, which isn’t a big problem even on a uni, but does mean that you can’t “switch off” as much as usual. However, I did try unicycling with my eyes closed for 10 seconds, and managed that fine. I spend a fair while on some soft grassy land starting to practise one-footed pedalling, but it never really came together. On a more positive note, I can do rolling mounts, jump mounts and 90 degree jump mounts without really thinking nowadays.


At the last moment, I decided to ride out to Balerno along the Water of Leith on the muni. I’d ridden out to Roseburn (and back) before, but this was substantially futher. It was lots of fun (except a few wrong turns) and, because I had a bit of time pressure (I was getting a lift back from Balerno) I realised that I could actually go substantially faster than normal without too much difficulty.

Endomondo says 17km in 2h, which means about 5.3mph. Allowing for the wrong turns at miles 9 and 11, and a few pauses, I probably ride at about 6mph. That sounds about right – I’ve previously thought that it was about twice walking speed, or something around jogging pace. I’ve overtaken a handful of joggers, and followed a few others for a while.