Won a race once. AND DON'T YOU EVER FORGET IT

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  • 10:55:35 am on November 26, 2019 | 0 | # |

    Nope. Not in the mud. Somehow, despite the torrential rain that turned the awning on our campervan into an upstairs swimming pool, there was pretty much no mud. The puddles were deep (and utterly bloody freezing off the start line sprint in the middle of the pack!), but fast rolling tyres were still the choice to make. The sliding around was not coming from my wheels. This time, to my shock and disgust (at myself for not identifying the issues before the race, mostly), the rubber hoods that cover the STI brake/shift levers had lost all purchase and were just spinning round freely.

    Doesn’t sound like much, I know. But it made the bike almost unhandleable on the tricky sections of the race course. Full speed dismounts (of which there were several each lap) were awkward with no real purchase on the bars, but the rutted descents, not yet smoothed by numerous race forced wheels (one of the joys of being the 2nd race of the whole weekend, with little pre race course practice to assist), were nigh on uncontrollable.
    Unsurprisingly, I found myself much further down the pecking order than I know I should have been. More than enough power to get past people, but no handling to keep ahead on the fun parts (and, to be clear, they were fun – the course was just fantastic) saw me drop back over and over.
    I ran my luck for as long as it would hold (and there are a good few people who will testify to just how utterly out of control I was), but on lap 3 the inevitable happened and catching the front wheel on a lump of grass (which should have been almost unnoticeable and utterly irrelevant, had I had some purchase on the front end of the bike) saw the grips spin wildly round, pitching me forward over the bars at full pelt. Smacking my head into one of the big, solid, wooden stakes at the side of the course and flinging me over the top of the barriers and into a crumpled heap further down the steep slope.

    I clambered back to the race course with a ringing head, sore ear (and hand, no idea what that came into contact with…) and minced my way back to the pits. I swapped to the 2nd bike, which was infinitely less terrifying to control, if a bit slower, and set about trying to cheer myself up a bit. The top of the 3rd run up (which turned into a elongated run round the off camber tree as the race progressed) seemed to be “Little Northern England”, with more loud cheering for us NW riders than the Welsh contingent who’s back yard it was, and that helped a lot – nice work guys!

    Pembrey National Trophy cx
    Running up the slope towards “Little Northern England”. Pic by Richard Howes – he’s #RichardHowesPhotography on Facebook

    Plenty of fitness saw me chase down and retake a few places until, quite simply, I ran out of laps.

    15th in the end. A disheartening result, given how good I felt and how much the course suited me (there’s a rumour that the same venue might be bidding to host the National champs next season…now THERE’S a thought 🙂 ), but to try and take some positives from it, I’m still in one piece, the repairs to the bike are fairly cheap and easy, I’m obviously in decent shape (and we’re only just about to begin to build for the end of the season / this year’s National champs…) and I did get to hang around after the race, at the beach, drinking beer while watching the youth races. Marvellous stuff. 🙂

     
  • 11:35:21 am on November 18, 2019 | 2 | # |

    We’re heading into the ‘steamy races’ part of the season now. By which, of course, I mean that the campervan windows all steam up when I’m sat in there having a bite to eat/getting changed before the race and after getting sodden wet through checking the race course out. It’s no bad thing as it gives me a bit of privacy while getting into race kit without having to shut all the curtains (or just flashing my arse to the world out of the rear window without a care…), but the toasty warm, dry races (whatever those are…) are definitely over.

    OK Ulverston wasn’t particularly cold, but for the first time since it was relaunched as a venue the rain turned up to add even more interest to a redesigned and fun to ride course. The usual fast grass sections took on a far greasier, more leg sapping persona as the heavy drizzle set about creating something more ‘character building’!
    Now, usually, this would just signal one thing – dropped tyre pressures to aid grip, but not on this occasion. Buried within the spoil heaps that made up a big chunk of the corse were numberous rocks and pointy bits of gravel. Low tyre pressures would offer grip in the corners, but at the rick of punctures and knackered rims if you ‘bottomed out’ too heavily. Tyre pressure is always a big discussion point at these things, this time more than ever!

    I decided to play it safe and keep the tubs pumped up pretty hard. Certainly more so than most of the people I chatted to before the race. I knew I’d be wheel spinning a bit more and would have to ease off in the corners, but I came to the conclusion it would be better than risking a puncture (or worse, a damaged wheel) just a few days before the next National Trophy. As long as I kept focus,and didn’t get carried away trying to match people with higher levels of grip I’d be fine.

    As I predicted, off the startline I wheelspan more than anyone else and after about 30 seconds of racing I was back in about 10th. No worries, concentrate on just working your way through and don’t start taking risks, I told myself, for about 10 seconds before getting carried away and trying to race everyone has hard as I could. 🙂

    As I got to the front, Rob Jebb had ridden through the field and came past me riding (and running…) very smoothly. I started to get wound up that, for every one corner he took, I had to hacksaw my way roundabout 50 lurching, slipping turns as the wheels fought for traction. Maybe 30psi was a bit much, maybe I should have risked running them lower so I wasn’t having to flail about so much. Lots of maybes were rushing through my head as I battled (and it really did feel like a battle to get round at a similar speed to him) round, but what to do; shout out to the Horwich heroes in the pits ot drop the tyre pressures on the 2nd bike and try to put a chase on? Continue to throw caution to the wind and just keep trying to stay on terms with no grip?

    I noticed we’d got a bit of a gap back to the battle for 3rd (which, apparently, was a great, close race right through). Well, I say “we”, Rob was a good 20 seconds further round the course by this point, but it gave me the reassurance I needed to think about practicing my riding technique, rather than putting on a desperate chase to see if I could get back in contention. I left the tyres pumped up and embraced the extra slither. Really focused on finding smooth lines rather than thrashing around the course in search of speed. Concentrated on making dismount/remount decisions quickly and based on what was happening at any point, rather than what I’d done (or what others were doing) on previous laps.
    I knew the gap up to 1st would go out, but the chance to target good riding while actually racing doesn’t come around too often, so itseemed the right thing to do.

    Barrow Central Wheelers cx
    Pic by Dave Haygarth

    It turned out to be surprisingly good fun. Smooth lines based on the way the course had cut up through each turn, allowing the bike a bit of freedom to move around without fighting it or panicking (as I had done earlier, which would result on heading off in almost random directions to get round the bends!). I held my position on the race, crossing the finish line 2nd, with the only issue being a chain that half jammed itself between the jockey wheel and mech cage on the last lap (soft pedalling required to not muller anything!). Brilliant fun.

    So brilliant, on fact, I rode straight back tot eh start to ‘double up’ and race the senior event too. My aim this time being to get round without blowing up as I had at Heaton Park. I rode fairly conservatively and stuck with the “ride smooth” philosophy, making up places as the race went on and riders naturally slowed.
    The rain had stopped by this point and within a lap or two the levels of grip started to come back, which meant less of a disadvantage for me, but before I could really start to get into it the bell rang for the last lap. Ace, lasp lap without imploding physically or crashing stupidly (Ok, only crashing stupidly once, but we’ll gloss over that as it was just a dasft uphill toppled to one side!), lets get to the finish with everything in one piece, I thought to myself.
    I didn’t know where I’d finished, placing wise (12th, in the end), but I was happy to have got the extra riding (and running…) in. Practice makes perfect, and all that. Back to a steamed up campervan to get changed from 2-race-muddy kit (the rear window wasn’t as steamed up as I expected, so apologies to anyone I mooned!) and to start plotting how to keep the smooth riding thing going next week at Pembrey. 🙂

    Barrow Central Wheelers cx
    You can’t see the roots under the greasy mud in this pic, by they are there – that’s why I’m mouthing “smooth” to myself! Thanks to Dave Haygarth for the pic.

     
  • 11:53:20 am on November 4, 2019 | 1 | # |

    I’d genuinely begun to wonder how much I’d spent on diesel, dragging two big tubs of water to and from every cyclocross race this year. Each week I’d lug them into the van, drive them to the race, ignore them as the bikes didn’t need washing, lug them back to the van and drive them home again. I wondered if the cost had reached a point where I’d spent a coffee’s worth, chauffeuring them around, as I strolled past the catering van perched on the outskirts of Stadt Moers park.

    Thankfully, this time, it was totally worth the effort. I’m really enjoying racing cx whatever the conditions at the moment and, although the lack of cleaning post dry race is lovely, I wanted a proper mudbath to do some sliding around in. Irvine’s National trophy had been “grip for miles” and “lean the bike over in the turns” fun, now I wanted some “control the slither” and “find the grip in the slop” fun and that’s what I got 🙂
    The Pit Crew Extraordinaire got to do something other than just spectate this time (which is nice – it’s good to keep them busy 😉 ) as the bikes needed a wash just about every lap and I got to race in some proper slop. I even got a minute or so per lap run, through the trees, to test my Bambi like running skills on. Ace.

    The start went OK, I lost a couple of places in the first couple of seconds off the line, but got back up onto Andy Brindle’s wheel before we hit the really tricky stuff, which I was happy about. Andy’s really smooth at the technical on-off-run-on-slither-off-run-back- on style riding, with his speed remaining super constant throughout and with no energy wasted in overly flamboyant flailing around during the dismounts/remounts, so I made a mental note to watch and learn as we naturally opened a small gap on everyone else. I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on my techy skills as part of this year’s more focussed training and it definitely helped me keep on par with him (though I’ve still got some way to go before being as smooth).

    DSC_1581.jpg
    Pic by Ellen

    On lap 2 I opened a small gap as I found some grippy lines through the singletrack (which somehow remained swoopy and fun, despite the mud!) which kept me on the bike a bit more and popped out of the “faster to run it” treelined section, next to the pits with a few seconds space behind me.
    There’s very little that can send a shiver down your spine quite as well as having your pit crew tell you, as you swap bikes, “you’ve got a couple of seconds on Rob Hope”, with several running sections around the lap. Each time the mud forced me to dismount I expected him to skip merrily past, so each time he didn’t I did all I could on the rideable sections to keep the gap, while maintaining as much sped on foot as I could muster.

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    Looking for the grip by basically riding the very edge of the course (ie crashing through the bushes!). Pic by Ellen

    One bike change per lap saw me use up 90% of the water I’d dragged to the race and meant I was never putting too much strain on the components (sadly a few people had to do the “walk of misery” with knackered rear mechs due to the clogging mud).

    I kept pushing and tried to not start looking behind me until the second half of the last lap. When I did I found more clear space behind than I was expecting and took a few deep breaths and relaxed a bit, crossing the line with a mud plastered grin. A win. On a course that tested pretty much all of the skills and fitness cyclocross demands. Can’t be anything but utterly chuffed with that…even if I did manage to miss the podium presentation (again…)!

    One week off from racing now, then up to Ulverston, which has been a great race for the last couple of years. Here’s hoping it is again 🙂

     
  • 05:08:19 pm on October 28, 2019 | 1 | # |

    Leg speed! Leg speed! Leg speed! I chanted to myself as I scrabbled my way through the first of two sand pits on Irvine’s National Trophy ‘cross course. I’d dismounted and begun to run through the fake beach (real beach located just over a set of sand dunes to the right, providing a scenic backdrop tot he race for photographers willing to brave the chill wind up at the top of the banking) because, well, the rider in front had done. I’d learned on the last lap that, if the person in front dismounts, you have to. Despite the course being regulation width between the tape, once off the one racing line in the sand you weren’t overtaking anything. Off, sprint, remount and ignore the spike in heart rate the run had brought on as you dish out as much power as possible. Like a hamster getting on and off it’s wheel.

    The course was covered in these little learning opportunities, despite it’s apparent simplicity. In fact, maybe BECAUSE of it’s seeming simplicity. Sometimes making race courses so continually technical removes an element of strategy for people racing them, you’re not really racing those around you, you’re just focused on getting through/over/round the obstacles. I’m not saying take all the fun out of courses (or, worse, turn them into something resembling a zwift race…or hamster wheel contest) but get a course just right and riders will find ways to use the trickier bits to their advantage. They’ll learn as the race progresses and the course conditions change and they’ll love it. I was.

    75362337_2655149947841629_6889730328559091712_o
    Pic courtesy of Richard Howes Photography – @askRHPhotos

    I got a decent (for me) start. From the 2nd row I’d pretty much held my own along the start straight gallop and avoided any 1st lap bottlenecks. The start in ‘cross is massively important and I’d been learning to get on top of it. Keep the legs turning after a decent warm up for as long as possible, keep the blood going and the heart rate elevated a bit to reduce the shock of those first few frantic moments.
    From watching the race sprint off at round 1, stuck at the back waiting for people to get on with it, to getting caught up in the human knot in the middle of the field at Round 2 and having to work round the inevitable traffic jam to holding my own at the business end at round 3. That learning curve is steep, but climbable.

    Just like that hamster happily scampering away on it’s wheel, I’d kept my pace up as close to the start sprint as possible and had managed to work my way up in to the top ten. With the endless enthusiasm “Hammy” (for that is what we will call our hamster on it’s wheel) has, I kept my chin up as the laps flew by, thoroughly enjoying being able to rail the bike round corner after corner, chasing riders in front and dropping anyone behind. It’s kind of funny, when you take a step back from it all, to think about how much fun you can have going round and round in circles in a park on a weekend morning with your bike. In the grand scheme of things you’re not really getting anywhere but at the same time you’re learning more and more. Getting better, faster and just generally loving the feeling of racing.

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    Railing corners, yay! Pic by Iona Simcock

    Going in to the last two laps myself, number 13 for this race and number 12 were trading places every few corners. This seemed to please the commentator, who delightedly announced that ‘our’ race was going according to the gridding we’d had. Dismounting mid way through the second sand trap and keeping that leg speed up, despite any fatigue I may have been feeling, we arrived at firmer ground side by side. The unmistakable sound of race shoe slipping across pedal without clipping in from number 12 echoed almost deafeningly in my head.
    I was clipped in and able to put down a burst to get in front and open enough of a gap to stop him hanging on to my wheel.

    73446209_2655148711175086_7712066001369563136_o
    Pic courtesy of Richard Howes Photography – @askRHPhotos

    You learn, very quickly, that in the Trophys you can’t make any mistakes or you’re punished for them instantly. I kept that in mind and, rather than just frantically try to sprint away, I concentrated on really nailing my lines. I’ll never be the greatest bike handler in the world (or in the room, if there’s anyone else in said room…) but I made the most of every single piece on information I’d taken in during the race. Where each little patch of sand was, which corners to take slowly to give a faster line through the next section, how early I could start pedaling on the exit of each bend without slipping. Clever, rather than clattering about crazily.
    It seemed to work and the gap opened over the final lap. In fact it worked so well I made up a huge amount of time on the riders on front of me, crossing the finish line 7th, just 20 seconds back on 5th place…hmm, a new lesson to learn there. The learning curve continues upwards!

     
  • 04:48:40 pm on October 21, 2019 | 2 | # |

    One of the best parts of Cx racing (Ok, it’s not limited to just cyclocross, or indeed the sport of cycling alone) is that few moments after crossing the finish line, gathering in the wheezing cacophony of sweat and rising steam in the chilled air as heart rate slowly begin to drop, snot is wiped from faces and heartfelt handshakes/high fives/fistbumps/manhugs are flung around with endorphin fuelled enthusiasm.
    The person who, just a few moments earlier, was your wholehearted enemy who must be caught and passed/dropped instantaneously becomes you best mate for a while as you trade stories, congratulate brilliant saves, apologise for mid race mistakes and generally all agree that a jolly good time was had by all.
    I love those minutes, the flip change from agressive racing to agreeable giggling, the mutual respect and admiration, no matter where you’ve finished, they’re brilliant.

    Sunday just gone I didn’t get a chance for any of it though. Deciding to “double up” and race in the Senior/Junior category immediately after the V40s was a GREAT idea at midday, with the sun shining and nothing but a few sighting laps in my legs. Reality though…

    The V 40 race started typically…by which I mean from being ranked #1 and having the pick of the spots on the front row I managed to end up back in about 10th place by the first corner, my backwards sprint in full effect. So i had some work to do. I watched Tom Pidcock race the day before, working his way back from about 10th up onto the podium in a Superprestige race and decided I’d have a go at doing that. No panicked sprinting and crashin, just ride up through the field as calmly as I could (“calm” at way above threshold, obviously!).

    DSC_9298.jpg
    Pic by Ellen

    What I got, not for the first time this season, was 40 minutes of truly brilliant racing. I kept my cool on the corners and exercised caution over bravado and unleashed as much power as I could in between and, well, managed to get to the front and get clear. Purposefully forgetting that I needed to save some energy, just giving it the beans whenever possible while ensuring I stayed upright. Happy days and a bit of a ‘punch the air in delight’ as I crossed the finish line as the winner. Lovely stuff. 🙂

    DSC_9733.jpg
    Pic by Ellen

    The only downer on the win was having to immediately bugger off from the finish line. No revelry, no heart handshakes or chances to catch those mid-race stories as everyone crossed the line, just a rush back to the pits to swap race numbers, get a clean bike and get back to the start line.

    I poured a can of cola down my neck and stuffed a gel up the leg of my shorts to guzzle mid race, expecting the last 40 odd minutes of full on effort to hit me at some point during the next 50 minutes of effort and lined up once again.
    2nd start seemed to go better than the first – maybe I was better warmed up (well, the muscles definitely had enough blood going through them by that point in the day!) – I;d not placed myself too far foward but maade up quite a few places in the first series of corners. I felt fine so, ignoring the discussion I’d had with Dave Haygarth about pacing strategies, I pushed on as hard as I could and kept fighting for every place.

    By about 4 laps in I’d got myself up to the top ten, just passing Paul Upton as I passed the pits and joked to Angela and Cam who were pitting for me about it starting to get tough. Those words almost instantly became prophetic as, within half a lap, the ‘pop’ my legs had out of each corner faded. Paul retook his place and I started to lose the strength to hold his wheel. Another half a lap and I was dropping gears at most parts of the course as my body finished off the sugar from the can of cola. suddenly I was really fighting to make it up the slopes and even hold concentration on the tricky sections.

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    Pic by Ellen

    I remembered the gel stuffed up my shorts leg and tried to get it into my mough on a fast, straight section at the back of the course, but by that point my hands were actually shivering with the lack of energy and all I succeeded in doing was burst the wrapped and squeeze it across my chin! I muttered a few swear words and hunkered down for the last two laps as best I could. To everyone behind me I was a sitting duck. Unable to offer any resistance as riders I sprinted away from earlier on caught and dropped me, my pace falling away almost hilariously.
    I’d just crossed the line for the last lap as Giles took the win, so I had the small consolation of knowing I’d not lose any more places, but by that point the metaphorical wheels were well and truly off my wagon.
    Someone I was lapping (really sorry, I wasn’t paying attention by this point so forget who it was – but thankyou!) took pity on me as I imploded right alongside them, allowing me to shelter on their wheel until we got to the finish line, where I promptly missed the whole handshake/chatting moment for a second time to go and find something to eat/drink before I fell over!

    Here’s hoping for the ‘supercompensation’ by my legs in time for next week’s National Trophy up at Irvine Beach Park. Last year it was utterly brilliant and I’ve all my fingers and toes crossed for another sunny, dry, fast, swoopy race with stunning views. 🙂

     
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