Sunday, 23 October 2011

Rapha Super-Cross

Today saw the last round of the Rapha Super-Cross at Alexandra Palace in London. Another unseasonally sunny day provided far reaching views across the city from the stunning setting of the 'Ally Pally' gardens. Odd that I've never been here really as it carries the accolade of 'The Birth Place of Television' - my two worlds finally collide.

Unable to take part due to the niggle I picked up racing last night I decided to take advantage of what might be the last sunny day of 2011 and enjoy the atmosphere, racing, beer tent and the unexpected presence of a number of friends. Most of the morning was spent catching up with people and wandering around the course. (And as per usual the obligatory "this place has a lot of potential for an event ya know" conversation took place as the gentle stroll turned into a venue recce mission.)

The main event started around 2pm - a number of high profile, elite riders had been invited to this most prestigious of British Cyclo-Cross events to compete for a very fat prize purse. I took up a prime photo position at the top of the steps for the first lap to see who would make it to the top step first and pick up the bonus. Much cow bell ringing ensued but after a few laps my interest was waning as the effect of the real ale kicked in and my latest bottle emptied. Time to hit the beer tent again, at the bottom of the hill, and if we timed it just right we could probably get there, drink a bottle whilst watching the last couple of laps next to the hurdles and then restock in time for the prize giving. This was the cunning plan anyway but as more friends joined the group the prize giving took a poor second place to ever more beer.

Apparently Paul Oldham, reigning Cyclo-Cross National Champion, won with his Hope Technology team picking up the team honour too. All in all a pretty good day - good weather, good friends, good beer (pies were so-so, frites were cold, uncooked and overpriced but I guess that's my fault for being a greedy-guts) and all finished off with an impromptu pub dinner with a select little group to continue the day's feel good factor. Alexandra Palace hasn't hosted a cyclo-cross race for over 20 years, but judging by this year's event, I don' think we'll have to wait that long again!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Night of the Knobbly Tread - 3rd!?

Very little cycling happened this week for one reason or another, everything was going to be packed into the weekend: a pub lunch/meeting with a title sponsor today followed by an interview with a journalist and the evening would be capped off with my first mountain bike race in a good few years.

Going for something a bit different again I chose a race just down the road at Black Park, the Night of the Knobbly Tread - a low-key, night cross-country race organised by a local club.

For me, there's only one choice of bike for an event and venue like this... the Surly 1x1. Not that I knew much about the venue, but I figured it would be fairly flat and I wasn't wrong.

I arrived at the event in good time and it was a dry, mild night. That's about where my good fortune ran out and the evening turned into a comedy of errors:

Lap 1 - 19m38s: Lining up at the back of the start group I mentioned to friend and event sponsor John Cookson from Exposure Lights that I wasn't sure my MaxxD would last the race as it hadn't had much time to charge. With one minute to go to the start Cookie whipped it off the handlebars and ran off to his van, promising a swish, fully charged Six Pack in exchange. The race started and I rolled up to the line to await his return. Sure enough as the last rider disappeared around the bend at the end of the start straight he returned with said light, snapped it into the handlebar mount and cranked it up to full beam. Hell it was bright!
Now it was time to give chase to the back of the pack and set off spinning like a mad woman on my 32:16 gearing down the fire road, catching the first half dozen stragglers. Into the first section of singletrack and blam! I'm blind! A screeching of breaks! Crack! Straight into a tree! All 2000 lumens were now pointing directly at me and I couldn't see a thing, thankfully the tree had brought me to a relatively safe stop in the darkness. In our haste to get the light onto the bracket we must have nudged it along the bars slightly and the clamp was no longer tight, leaving the heavy light free to swing around the bars. Multi-tool out I tried to tighten it again but couldn't get the position on the bars thanks to the numberboard. The rest of the lap was spent with one hand on the light trying to hold it in a useful position with a number of 'blinding-light/tree interludes' thrown in when the bars required both hands.

Lap 2 - 18m40s: Crossing the line to start my second lap I took a detour to the Exposure stand to once more seek Cookie's assistance to fix the loose bracket problem. The addition of a small section of rubber under the bracket seemed to do the job but also resulted in the end of my glove finger being clamped tightly to the bar! Untighten clamp, release glove, retighten clamp and off I went once again, chasing down the riders I spent the entire first lap passing and re-passing.

Lap 3 - 16m20s: A dream lap. Fast, fun, flowing, singlespeed perfection! With all this light, my renewed zeal for bike racing and the twisting hard-packed singletrack I was glad I'd chosen the 5 lap race as opposed to the 3 laps, this was one grin inducing mountain bike course and I was making up places. Laps four and five, here I come!

Lap 4 - 17m05s: Started as fast as lap 3, bring it on! Unfortunately the evening was getting slightly damp and ground conditions were changing. The lead riders were now starting to lap me and the sound of a couple of quick riders catching me through a tight singletrack section and the shout of a familiar voice to come through was enough to make me move just far enough off the racing line to catch a now slippery off-camber root and lose the back wheel, hitting the ground with a thud. Both riders managed to avoid me as I lay in the middle of the track trying to unclip. It was perhaps this twisting action that aggravated an old knee injury that I used to get when racing singlespeeds regularly a few years back. I should probably have given up after this lap.

Lap 5 - 18m59s: Not wanting to quit such a short race and figuring things couldn't get much worse I carried on to finish the final lap. My knee pain intensified quite quickly on this lap and soon I couldn't put any pressure on it at all, pedalling gently on the easy going sections and using my right leg to pedal through the tougher sections. I limped around the rest of the lap, frustrated that I was unable to enjoy it.

To my surprise I crossed the finish line to be told I was needed on the podium for 3rd place and incredibly was only around 6 minutes behind 2nd. My eventful race was then relayed to an array of friends over a couple of pints in the local pub. Despite everything, it was a very entertaining evening.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

'Cross Race Number Two - 3rd!!

With a round of the Central Cyclo-Cross League in my home town of Hemel Hempstead on a bright, sunny October afternoon I was struggling for excuses not to do this race. The 1 o'clock start meant I could take a leisurely ride there and still have plenty of time for a practice lap, even after a lazy Sunday morning.

The course was very different to the one at Basildon (most notably missing the huge hill in the middle) and wound up and down some small grass banks, through some sweet, tight and twisty singletrack and included some extremely off-camber sections that would have been very interesting in the wet. Fortunately the grass could only be classified as 'slightly damp in places' today and the coating of dust on my frame increased lap by lap.

Today's race was also 20 minutes longer, being lumped in with senior men this time. I was feeling quite good, despite the hours of exercise clocked up this week and now having some idea of how hard I can go in these events decided to push myself until I finished or blew up.

Unlike last week though I wasn't really chasing anyone and couldn't see anyone chasing me and ended up playing cat and mouse with a couple of guys for the first 5 laps - they would get a good lead on me around the fields and then I'd be right on their wheel through the singletrack. I'm astounded at how many of the riders couldn't ride even the most basic singletrack quickly!

Exactly one hour later the race finished with a sprint for the line between me and 1st place (alright, she'd lapped me, but a sprint finish is always fun) and I completed the 8 laps to finish a surprising 3rd. (Results position 68.) Looking at the lap times I was pretty consistent too, with a variation of just 10 seconds between all the laps (not including the start loop on the first lap.)

I treated myself to a post-race slice of cake and a cup of tea and then gently rode the 4 miles home in the sunshine. All in all a pretty good Sunday afternoon, I could get used to this...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A Cracking October

The weather so far has been amazing this month and has provided that extra bit of motivation to get out and ride. So much so that I've actually managed to ride 10 out of the last 12 days, and today I went for a 3 mile run whilst I was at work. My only day off was Sunday after the cyclo-cross race - I thought I deserved a break. I think in professional circles they call it a 'Rest Day' or something.

The key has been variety, as is often the case in life: a BMX session, a couple of sessions on the rollers when time was short, a 2 hour exploratory trip playing around on the bridleways of Ashridge Estate and a night ride at Cannock Chase by kind invitation from Matt at CycleShack in Cannock. It's been quite a while since I rode with a group, especially as this was designated the 'Fast Group' so having my legs ripped off for two hours in the dark was quite a shock to my tiring legs. Riding in the dark isn't something I'm used to either, it's probably at least 3 years since my last proper night ride!

Despite my legs feeling like jelly on Friday morning I still managed to cram in 20 minutes on the rollers before work but opted for a lie in this morning and swapped my spds for running shoes. It still hurt, but at least I had an extra 45 minutes in bed.

Six continuous days of quality exercise is a record for me this year with a good five and a half hours of cycle training under my belt this week. And only two glasses of red wine consumed, I could almost start classing myself as 'healthy' at this rate.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Doing BMX ...

I've had a mountain bike since the early nineties and before that I had the compulsory '80's BMX (and a worn out VHS of BMX Bandits). My skill level never progressed above skidding the length of the drive and briefly lifting the front wheel off the floor and I certainly never went near a BMX track. But that was all to change today!

Redditch has a new BMX track and for the price of a couple of pints you can hire a bike and a helmet. Spurred on by an evening of YouTube videos I was as excited as the Christmas Day when I was lead out into the backyard to discover my very first BMX leaning against the wall - pristine and with a complete set of silver pads and a large number board with a tiger emblem on.

Funnily enough BMXing is not quite how I remember it. As kids we would ride for miles on our BMXes on hot Summer days, up and down dale, across the fields, through the lanes and think nothing of getting up and doing it all again the next day throughout the entire summer holidays. Two decades and rather more pints later, things are slightly more difficult, with the first challenge being riding up to the start ramp. With some huffing and puffing I made it and sat on the start gate staring at the huge mounds of dirt in front of me.

In the videos these jumps didn't look that big. And at the start all the riders would sprint down the ramp pedalling for all they were worth, launching high into the air and gracefully clearing the whole thing. My approach was slightly more reserved. The first ramp was a bit of a kicker so I employed the one U-brake to take some of the speed off down the start ramp and rolled up to the top, pedalling across the table top and down the other side. It wasn't stylish, pretty or graceful and I'm certainly not going to be challenging for a London 2012 spot, but what do you expect from a female thirty something!

This steady approach continued around the rest of the track to get a feel for the tiny heavy bike, flat pedals, jumps, doubles, step-ups, berms and final rhythm section. Two minutes later, thighs burning and wheezing through the full face helmet, I'd completed a circuit of the miniscule track. For the next 10 minutes I sat hunched over the handlebars at the top of the start ramp until my body recovered from the exertion and then I headed off once more...

Half an hour later I'd completed 3 laps and was getting braver. My front wheel was lifting over the jump at the end of the start straight and I was completely leaving the ground at the top of the step up - though not actually clearing it. This resulted in some uncomfortable and twitchy landings, at one point finding myself completely detached from the bike, bar the handlebars, whilst it was on the ground and I was in mid-air; not my most graceful bike handling moment.

All of this continued for 45 minutes until I could ride no more - my legs were like jelly and my lungs couldn't take in enough oxygen during my fits of hysterical laughter to break down the enormous lactic acid build up. Time to hang up my helmet and head home, content in the fact that I'd spent a very enjoyable sunny afternoon trying something else new, rather than having a couple of pints down the pub. Can't wait for my next visit!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

My First Cyclo-Cross Race

Today was the day. The day I did my first ever cyclo-cross race. I've been talking about it for a few years now but today I put my money where my mouth is and did a round of the Eastern Cyclo-Cross League at Basildon.

As always my preparation was hardly ideal; very little fitness, no speed and I haven't raced for a few years. But what did I have to lose? Nothing. I've been enjoying riding bikes lately so now seemed the perfect time to try something new, with no pressure, and just enjoy the experience.

Racing can sometimes seem a bit daunting when you haven't done it for a while, especially in a new discipline. I wondered if I was going to look out of place with all the skinny, quick, experienced riders and I was more than prepared to come last. Part of the reason why I'd picked this event was down to it's structure: the women were due to go off in the morning with the Veterans, rather than the silly quick senior men. I felt better about this, if nothing else there might be some old fuddy-duddy behind me at the end of the first lap. I was also unsure about the format of the race, I hadn't seen how long we were racing for, or how many laps we had to do, how would I know when to stop?!

Needless to say the reality wasn't as bad as I'd imagined it. Although most of the cyclo-cross set are club affiliated and therefore in lycra club kit, there was a healthy smattering of mountain bikes around and a few people that had eaten too many pies. And one quick conversation with a couple of the very friendly ladies at the back of the group as the riders were being lined up and the rules became perfectly clear too. I was going to enjoy this after all.

The start was a steady affair (another bonus of going off with the Veterans) and up the first hill I was actually making my way through the pack! Unusually for 'cross racing (so I'm told) was the presence of a very steep hill in the course that we went up twice. The first lap was the only time I rode it, I wasn't the only one either. My Surly Cross-Check has always been set up for road riding with a fairly sporty block on the back and my legs were suffering from this.

After lap 2 it became clear how many laps I had left and realising I could probably go a bit quicker if I wanted to, I started to put some effort in. I'd been cruising on the flat twisty stuff up until now but on lap 3 I decided to actually use the big ring and push the gears. It's amazing how many places you can make up by riding a bit faster, jeez I wished I'd tried that earlier.

On the last lap I caught up to two ladies at the bottom of the steep hill but one rode it and the other ran it whilst I, well, 'ambled' is probably the best word to use. I lost some time but on the long flat run in to the finish there was still room to chase. It was a good tussle, I even passed one of them at one point but was overtaken again in the final 200 yards.

After 40 minutes of racing and 4 laps I was 12th out of 15 with 9th place just 13 seconds ahead in a four woman, last lap battle for the line. My last lap was also 30 seconds quicker than laps 2 and 3, so I probably could have gone a bit quicker and maybe even been as high as 8th. Hindsight is a wonderful thing though and I'll know for next time. Yes, there is going to be a next time!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Windy or What

Tried desperately to talk myself out of going for a ride today but the only excuse I could find was that it was windier than yesterday. Other than that it was dry and fairly sunny and with winter approaching it's best to make the most of the days where you can still go out and ride in shorts and a short-sleeved top with today's addition of a windproof gillet.

I stuck to the usual road route today and fought a strong headwind for most of it. Legs were feeling pretty good but having not ridden for quite a while my backside was suffering a little. It took a good 5 minutes before I could sit down properly and found the sweet spot on my saddle.

I was pretty happy with how I was riding until some guy in a bright yellow jacket on a touring bike with panniers and mudguards just rode away from me up Ivinghoe Beacon. There's a long way to go before I call myself 'fit' again. Still, 25 miles and 1h45 minutes closer.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

'Cross Bikes Are Ace

Popped out for a local ride today, first time in quite a while. I had big plans to do a 45 mile road ride but thanks to the weather and the unbelievably strong headwind my plans changed part way into it. Cue the versatility of a Surly Cross-Check.

So as the weather was good and the ground was bone dry I went exploring on the Ashridge Estate and the Chiltern Cycleway to help progress a little project I'm working on.

And this is why I love 'cross bike so much - a dozen or so miles zipping along the tarmac, detoured off down a gravel track, back onto the road, playtime on some hard-packed rooty bridleways, short cut across the common, down the road to the canal, along the towpath and then tucked in time-trialling the final stretch home at 22+mph.

What other bike can give you so much fun in so many ways on so many different types of terrain? It's rides like this that encourage me to ride more - 2h30m, 27 miles. Can't wait for tomorrow!