Wednesday, October 24, 2012

UK CX trip - Rapha SuperCross & Huddersfield

I had a bit of time off work, and was eager to get some extra cross racing in as we head into the meaty bit of the Irish season, thus began hatching a plan to do a double weekend of racing in the UK. Looking at the calendar, first round of the Rapha SuperCross, taking place in Skipton, North Yorkshire, was the obvious choice - conveniently there was also a round of the Yorkshire points the next day in nearby Huddersfield. Emails sent, ferries sorted, hotels booked at the last moment and myself and Dave O'Neill loaded (and I mean really loaded!) the hearse and headed for Halifax. We were amazed to find our Travelodge located in the old Dean Clough Mills site and were both in awe of how well all of Halifax looked. Every building in it's place, a consistent style and finish no matter if the building was 200 years or 200 days old; it looked like a proper town should. And it had a Sainsburys and 24 hour Tesco to cater for hungry cyclists' needs.

Saturday saw us in Broughton Hall, a farm/business park in the countryside where the Rapha race was taking place. Already sold out (110 Vets & Women, 90 Seniors) we were sure it was going to be a big day, and of the two days, this was the race I wanted a performance in. A practice lap revealed that the course held nothing to fear - set on a gentle grassy hillside, whilst it made the most of the terrain available, it was completely non-technical and was very much a power course. I estimate being on full throttle for about 98% of the lap. Nevertheless, a good start would be important with such numbers racing, and I definitely got one - the long grassy uphill playing to my strengths and with a little bit of luck with doors opening in front of me, I entered the first sweeping left hander in 4th wheel - the only hiccup being a deft evasive manoeuvre when 2nd and 3rd decided to scrap for the same 6 inches of ground, despite the course being about 50m wide at that point. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief as they nearly brought each other (and me) down. A leading duo quickly pulled away from the field, which left me and one other chasing - unfortunately he then pulled away on lap 2 which left me in 4th place, in no man's land between the podium and another pair chasing hard behind.

What followed was 6 laps of hard, full gas racing, but on lap 4 I really paid for my earlier efforts and was caught by the pair behind. I stuck with them for half a lap before they pulled away, leaving me in 6th. Ordinarily, I'd have been delighted with that result, but I came away just a little disappointed that I'd thrown out an anchor and slipped from 4th to 6th with 2 to go. Dave came home a short time later in 8th, having jumped a couple of guys in the last stretch. 2 out of 2 in the top 10 made for happy faces on the drive home.

The atmosphere at the race was amazing - big big crowd, tented village of coffee stands and venison burgers and everyone out to have a good time - it was easy to see that cycling is definitely more mainstream in the UK. It was also nice to catch up with a few people I kinda know, such as Crossjunkie and Dave Haygarth - everyone there was thoroughly welcoming and friendly. At one stage, Agata, who was running around the course as fast as I could ride it, unknowingly found herself standing next to Alan (crossjunkie) As I passed by, they both shouted at me, then turned to each other in a "Who are you?" "No, who are YOU?" moment, which apparently was quite funny.

Sunday saw us head to Huddersfield College, again in glorious sunshine, with high spirits but heavy legs. The Huddersfield course was the better of the two - fast straights, a million corners, embankments, two runs per lap and altogether, just a more fun, technical course. Unfortunately, it was a course which would reward those with snappy legs - neither myself or Dave were in possession of a pair of those. Again, the start was wide and fast, but I had a bit of a shocker for the first few laps and found myself well down the field. I was riding ok on the flats, but didn't have the kick to accelerate out of the corners - there was probably 30 such accelerations required per lap and I was losing time to the top guys on each one. I had a great battle with a PedalSport guy, we were never more than 10 seconds apart for the whole race and kept each other on our toes, but ultimately I was frustrated to be fighting for 16th position - especially considering the guys who beat me to 4th and 5th on Saturday, also took 4th and 5th on Sunday. I was well off the pace I expected myself to be at, but as the main focus of the weekend was a good hard training block, I can certainly say that we at least got that out of it. I know my 2nd day recovering isn't good, and this was only my 4th CX race of the season, and I probably need to alter my warmup on the 2nd day, but the weekend brought lots of positives and plenty of things to work on in the next few weeks.

After the race, myself and Dave rode back to the hotel, via a minor 6km detour into the Yorkshire countryside over some really lovely roads. It's definitely a place I'd love to visit again, perhaps for a longer stay. Although Yorkshire miles seem to go by ferociously slowly....

Some words of thanks:
Agata, for indulging me in these trips, making the trip up from London and offering endless support and encouragement.
Dave, for making the trip possible & being an excellent travelling companion
Greg, for the loan of some really excellent kit, which has me scouring ebay for my own tubulars.
Alan, Dave & Tim for their advice, friendship & course-side encouragement.

Next up is Round 3 of the Fixx Supercross Cup, in my local Tymon Park. I took 10th in the first round but followed than up with a DNF (mechanical) in Swords, so there's lots of work to be done.

Photos are from Agata's Picasa - here and here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bontrager Twentyfour12

(This might be a bit long...)

Anyone hear the breaking news that 1000 cyclists were treated for trenchfoot in Plymouth over the weekend??? Well, not really, but unfortunately not far from the truth.

This was the second year that Agata and I made the trip to Plymouth for the Bontrager Twentyfour12 endurance race, to compete in the 12hr mixed pairs category. Last year, beyond our expectations we took 2nd place in that category so we return this year in the hope of going one better.
The weather warnings were ominous, so we packed every last stitch of cycle clothing we had on Wednesday and prepared ourselves for the worst...which was more or less what we got. Driving down the M5 on Friday, some of the showers were so bad that I had to slow to a crawl as I couldn't see out the windscreen, thankfully they eased off a touch as we arrived in Newnham Park where Aine, Conor and Paddy already had the tents set out trackside in preparation for the rest of the Irish contingent's arrival over the course of the evening.
We took in a quick practice lap, found a little but not too much mud (more slidderiness than mud) and decided that the course was not as good as last year - other than the Cottage Return descent, which closed out the lap last year but this year was encountered after 15-20 mins - there seemed to be little return for all the effort involved in just getting around the loop. Normally, I love a bit of climbing, but this just seemed to climb and descend endlessly without any real notable features or mental markers which one could look forward to or work towards. I think that "uninspiring" is probably the word that sums it up in my mind, compared to last year when we couldn't wait to get out for another lap. We hoped that, given that the course had obviously been tweaked with an eye on the impending weather, it would at least remain mostly rideable for the duration of the race.
After a dinner cooked on the bbq, we retired to the tent for a night of non-sleep as the thunderstorms rolled in, rain battered on the canvas and the water levels rose. and rose, and rose. Thankfully Phil had gotten up at 3am for a pee and spotted that everyone's belongings were getting soaked as the water level in the field popped above the ground and lifted what he could onto tables, chairs etc, so at least some people had dry gear to start the rain in. First task of the day was to assess the damage and move the gazebos to firmer ground. Word quickly spread around the campsite that the go-ahead for the race would only be given at 11am, due to the rising level of the river running along the length of the campsite and the risk it posed to the many bridges crossing it - indeed it seemed that we were lucky not to have to evacuate the campsite in the middle of the night. At this stage, I was in no mood for starting what I knew was going to be become a 12 hour slog - I hadn't slept a wink and my appetite had seemingly been washed away in the storm - not a good starting point really. Agata tried her best to coax me round, but it was with a sense of duty rather than excitement I pulled on my lycra and headed for the start line, for the usual standing around for 20 minutes in order to get a position near the front.
The countdown happens and there's the usual pushing and jostling for space as hundreds of cyclists dive for the fast line through the first corner and onto the start loop. Returning into the arena 6 minutes later, I'm counted through in about 20th position, so my start obviously wasn't too bad but there's still room for improvement as I make it up to ~15th overall by the end of the first full lap and hand over to Agata. At this point it's probably worth noting that the first lap was by far the most enjoyable - in a fast group, track not yet properly muddy (98% rideable) and hammering, feeling good - this is the abiding highlight of the race.
The rest of the laps passed by in a muddy fashion - ride, try not get the derailleurs too clogged up, run, ride, run run run, finish, clean bike, eat, repeat. Agata was putting in a strong performance and we were having a good dice with another couple for the top spot, although she was getting weaker and not feeling great. Around 7pm, I decided that I'd do a double lap, partly to give Agata a chance to get a proper meal, rest and fresh set of clothes in the hope that it'd raise her spirits a bit, and partly to make the most of the dwindling daylight and get in two solid laps before nightfall - I gambled that seeing as the other team's female was a good bit slower than Agata, her first night lap would be slower still and I could put 15-20 minutes into them over the two laps.
At 21:45 I handed over to Agata again, who buoyed by dry clothes, hot food and caffeine gels, bounded off down the course, her enthusiasm having spiked and she was feeling great again. In the break, I had to get the bike unclogged and a new derailleur fitted, having damaged my rear one 10 minutes into my double lap - thanks to the Cycle Surgery mechanics for sorting me out. An hour later, she returned and at transition, we had a brief 5 second chat about who would do the last lap - she was feeling great and put herself forward - I was willing to do a double stint now to the finish if we needed it, but only having the last time check to go by, we assumed we didn't.
I came around at 23:50, perfect timing and still in the lead and handed over to Agata for the last time. She had no idea what the gap was, as the timing screen had been down since the end of her last lap and there was no one around to check with. The gap at the last time check was about 12 mins, and we assumed that their female rider would have to do at least one of the last 3 laps, which would maintain the gap - their male rider was faster than me, but not by that much!
Unfortunately this was an assumption too far on our part....we didn't realise that he was out there on a 3 lap stint, starting the last lap 5 minutes behind Agata!
I was a lonely, nervous figure as I waited in the arena, hoping that Agata could pull it out of the bag, hoping that maybe 3 laps was too much for him and he'd relent a little in the poor conditions, but at 12:54am he crossed the line with arms in the air and my heart sank. Agata followed 2 minutes later, almost inconsolable - this was the one event she really really wanted this year and we had come so close to taking it. 2 minutes and 44 seconds over 13 hours of racing in atrocious conditions. It couldn't really have been any closer.
As we sat down to a hot meal and beer after a long shower, a bad case of the "what-ifs" set in - what if I hadn't had mechanical trouble on my double lap, or crazy chain suck for my last 4 laps...what if Agata hadn't needed to get sick after a few hours - we just needed to be 15 seconds a lap faster. What if the timing screen worked, and we knew we only had 6 minutes to spare with 2 laps to go - I could have doubled up for the last lap, taken it reasonably handy and still won. As time goes by, these questions become increasingly both infuriating and irrelevant - we rode at the speed we rode, made the decisions we made, and we have to live with that. We'll be back again, fitter, smarter and having learned from the experience.

Many congratulations to Alex Nichol and Jason Smith from Team CCN, worthy winners and sporting opponents - we look forward to a return battle in the future.
Interestingly, our times this year would have placed us 4th in the male pairs category, or ~7th in the teams category, and we were 2 laps ahead of the 3rd place couple, so objectively speaking, we were about where we needed to be.

The contrast between this year and last is striking, for me. Last year, we went with no expectations, absolutely loved every second of the course and the race and finished 2nd, 25 mins down on 1st place, and absolutely delighted with ourselves. This year, we went there wanting the victory, hated the course, finished second by 3 minutes and came away disappointed with ourselves. Like night and day...or sunshine and crazy rain storms!
Maybe we'd be happier if it didn't take 2 hours to powerhose some of the mud off our kit, and that's before we tackled the laundry!

On a concluding note, I have to thank team manager and soigneur extraordinaire, Aine, for all the help she have over the weekend, she is the one thing that held the whole camp together when people, bikes and tents were falling apart. As always it was a pleasure to travel with the MAD riders, each of them had their own battle over the weekend but offered fun and laughs throughout, even when, at times, some of us were in serious danger of a sense of humour failure.
Thanks also to Martyn Salt and his event crew for keeping the whole show on the road over the weekend in extremely adverse conditions - I'm sure there were plenty of nervous and stressful moments but the event passed mostly successfully, a credit to their hard work and dedication to the sport.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

CX Nationals - a race too far

This one has stewing in the editor for a while, much like the experience stews in my head.
The final (and finale!) of the CX season is the National Champs in St Anne's Park, taking place a month after the last race in Ireland.
It's a chance to see who trained hard over Christmas and who over-indulged on the turkey and Roses. It's also a chance to see who has remained healthy over the cold, wet period, and that was where I fell down.
I arrived back from the UK trip the Monday previous with a dripping nose and woke on Tuesday feeling a bit peaky. Not properly sick, not sick enough to warrant a day in bed, but enough to go into full recovery mode - early nights, garlic, vitamin C and Lemsips and enough to stay off the bike, indoors and warm.
And so the week continued, energy levels were low, and with it, morale - as much as I had spent the previous month looking forward to nationals, I knew a decent performance at St Annes was looking increasingly unlikely.
The race itself wasn't anything to write home about, I did my usual routine of an adequate start, despite the blistering pace set by Robin & co up the front, but felt like I was pedalling squares for the rest of the hour and finished up in 13th - way below my expectations I had for myself and those UCI points elude me for another year. After the race, it was straight home to bed with a junk dinner and a nice beer (and more Lemsips)
The experience was ultimately very disappointing for me, I had put in a decent month of training and watching myself over Christmas, coupled with some CX racing in the UK to get the legs firing again should have put me in the running for a decent performance, but ultimately I spent the day just trying to make it through the race - I wasn't the only one.

As its the last CX-related post for a while, it's probably a good time to thank some people for their contributions to my season:
-Agata, for her support and cheerleading in many cold, windy parks over the months, and for putting up with my inane chatter about tyre pressure, cornering and whatever else
-Greg, for his guidance, scientific input, loan of a pit bike and many other things over the course of a season. It's a pity he never got into top form, as I think we'd have enjoyed racing each other.
-Arek, for keeping me honest and getting me out into the park at 6:30am
-Robin, Evan, Stuart and the rest of the Tuesday night crew for the hours of skills coaching, intervals and generally flogging ourselves silly.

As my first CX season for few years, I'm more than happy with how it worked out - sure there were a few low points, but that only makes the good days even sweeter. If you had offered me some of the results I got before the season started, I've have taken your hand off, and yet, I know I am capable of more. I know what I need to work on in the future, every year I gain a little more experience about what works best for me and how to apply myself, and small successes make me hungrier to push on to better things.

Next up: MissionGetAPhD

Thursday, January 05, 2012

New Year CX trip

As Nationals is on the horizon and the last race in Ireland almost a month previous, I had planned to make a trip over to the UK to regain some race sharpness. I settled on racing in Bakewell, Derbyshire and in Todmorden, north of Manchester with a stop in Nottingham for New Year with friends.
Bakewell was a completely unknown quantity, set in a beautiful location at a country house/outdoor centre in the Peak District. After building up the bike, I headed off on a practice lap and wasn't exactly inspired by what I found...3 muddy fields, which you went up and down twice each. After the kiddie races left the top field like a swamp, the junior race left the whole course as one big, claggy, sticky, grassy mess. I suspected that getting the bike to the finishline would be harder than the physical exertion of racing, and I was right.
I started well down the field, but was pleasantly surprised with my condition and set about overtaking the masses as the bike got more and more clogged up. I managed 4 of 9 laps before that awful crunching sound of rech mech exploding rang out - bummer, race over. That wasn't what I wanted after making the journey over, but on the bright side, it meant saving myself for Todmorden on long as I could find a bike shop open, with a Shimano rear mech, late on Saturday evening, on New Years Eve....Thanks to the lads at Zepnat for sorting me out.

Of the two planned races, Todmorden was the one I was most looking forward to..I had heard a lot about it from Greg and watched some footage of previous editions on Youtube. The iconic feature of this gritty, Northern race is a steep cobbled climb at the top of the course, which is a grunt for some and a walk for others. I was hoping to be in the grunt category. The rest of the course was a bit fast, a bit slippery and a bit boggy - the bottom section was really really boggy and meant a long run for the last third of every lap.
The start loop was wide and open, so gridding wasn't a problem, what was a problem was picking the correct piece of ground in the swampy field - I had a great start only to almost stall after 200m when the line I chose led directly into an invisible wet hole. Ah well, you pay your money and take your chance.
Coming onto the course proper, I was a wheel behind Greg as we hit a sliddery off-camber section which required undertaking some portage - Greg took off like a rocket and must have gained 5 places while I progressed at a more steady pace. As expected, the cobbles were a bit of a walk on the first lap due to traffic, but on each subsequent lap I rode up without trouble, to much acclaim and applause from the gathered spectators, which was nice - for the whole race they seemed to cheer equally for the front runners, the stragglers and the "I'm going to die-ers." The other notable feature of the course was a long, sweeping, severely off-cambre, rutted descent, which was a bit of a hit-and-hope on each lap. I hit the ground twice on this corner, once a small slide, but the other time a full on, face in the mud, swamp-monster experience. Which earned me lots of cheers from assembled spectators as I finished the course with half of Todmorden Park on me and proved to be something of an attraction for photographer Joolze Diamond
All told, I finished 24th, not bad but not great. A better start and a clear run at the cobbles on lap 1 would have gone a long was to securing a top 20, as would better running legs. The aim was to improve my condition for Nationals next weekend, and the trip I think achieved that..if only I can get rid of this bloody cold!
A massive thanks must go to my wonderful girlfriend Agata, for all her help on this trip - packer, mechanic, soigneur, coach, photographer, psychologist, girlfriend and #1 fanclub all in one.