Thursday 19 August 2010

Victory by a whisker

Redhill Cycling Club hosts a Time Trail season where the 9 mile races on the Horne circuit are opened up to mountain bikers. This usually attracts a handful of mountain bikers where the competition is very intense.

A mountain bike with knobbly tyres is the necessary criteria, so I fit the smoothest knobblies I have with the highest pressures they will take. The suspension is locked out to provide a fast running rig for the tarmac. The road cyclists with their skinny tyres, aero bars and pointy helmets ridicule us on our hefty machines. The smile is sometimes wiped of their faces when we match or beat a few of their times.

Alex Bottomely, Gareth Ashton and I line up for the staggered start. We are probably the fastest mountain bikers in the club and the gloves were off for the coveted trophy. Alex sets off at a blistering pace 30 seconds before me, where Gareth starts a minute behind us. On the long straights I can just see Alex’s rear light in the distance, he was certainly applying the pressure while I was doing my utmost not to lose sight of him.

Completing the first 3 mile lap in 8:32 minutes, I calculate that I’m 8 seconds ahead of my 26 minute target time. Riding into the headwind, I tuck my arms in adopting an aerodynamic position as possible. My heart rate is pounding at around 165bpm which is just over 90% of my maximum. I need to sustain this intensity for nearly 2 more laps.

Passing the Start/Finish point, I completed lap 2 in 8:35, giving me 13 seconds in the bag for a 26 minute time. It was then the pain set in. The intense pressure was taking its toll as my body ached and I watched the digits on the speedo descend. Pushing hard and focusing on my posture and technique, I battled on through the pain barrier. Catching glimpses of Alex in the distance, I knew I wasn’t doing too badly. Applying the power on the penultimate straight I reel in some of the distance between us.

Rounding the last corner I tuck my head down and give it all I’ve got. There is a long gradual incline to the finish where the headwind was prolific as ever. My heart rate nearly touches its maximum as I cross the line at 26:08 minutes.

I had missed my 26 minute target, but more importantly how had I fared against Alex and Gareth? In the previous week Gareth had achieved 26:11 so I waited with bated breath for him to finish.

The results are calculated where Gareth made it in 26:12, Alex finished in 26:10 while I claimed the 1st MTB place with my 26:08. With just 4 seconds separating the 3 of us, it couldn’t have been much closer.

Monday 16 August 2010

Big Dog meets Mud Dog

One of the pinnacles of my MTB calendar is the Big Dog race in Brighton. The atmosphere last year was so friendly where the whole event is organised on a not for profit basis. Driving down with Jon & John from Redhill Cycling Club, we erected the gazebo in a prime location and donned our new club jerseys. Gareth, Keith, Alex Matt & Monica joined us to fly the flag for Redhill.

My personal planning for these events is a detailed affair, where everything is calculated and organised. The anticipated lap times were prepared with suitable hydration and nutrition requiring two very short stops during the six hours of the race. With the ominous weather forecast and the slippery experience at Set2Rise due the wrong tyres, I opted for full traction with my winter Trailraker muddy tyres.

A 200 mass start is always difficult until we get suitably spread out where the jostling soon dies down. Where possible I try to spot the race numbers of other riders to see if they are a direct competitor. At registration I noticed all the 20 solo vet (over 40) riders were numbered from 60 to 79. Glancing round I note a few riders to watch out for.
The course was virtually all in the trees of Stamner Park. Although the woods only measure 1½ miles by ¼ mile, the organisers had cleverly squeezed in a 7 mile loop with nearly 1000 feet of climbing. Most of the course involves weaving between trees, watching for low branches and negotiating the millions of roots. There were a few sections that were smoother and wider where it was possible to grab a gel and overtake other riders.

Towards the end of lap 1 the heavens opened and the anticipated rain descended in abundance. The trees provided some shelter but it wasn’t long before I was soaked through.

Completing the first lap in 52 minutes, I was just 2 minutes behind my schedule. The congestion at the start had lost me some time, so I was quite happy with my progress as I entered the woods again for lap 2. The trails were now really slippery and treacherous. In places there was just no grip in the tyres to get up the hills or to stay on the track with an adverse camber. Pushing on, I got covered in mud from the spray flying up all over the place. On the descents, the wet disc brakes were singing in harmony from the different bikes. We were all in it together gritting our teeth hoping the rain would subside.

Grabbing a gel on one of the wider sections I tried to keep to my plan of 1 gel and 2 shot bloks per lap. With several sections of the woods looking very similar, I found it difficult to remember where to take them in anticipation of the hills.

Sliding in to the Start/Finish area at the end of lap 2 after 53 minutes, I accepted that the weather conditions were slowing me down a bit. A cheer from Anne Dickins on the side lines was a boost. I wasn’t expecting her to be at the race and at this stage I needed all the encouragement I could get. We were 2 hours in with the slippery conditions zapping our energy, yet there were 4 hours left until the finish.

Pushing on into lap 3, I was over taken by Ian Leitch on his 4th lap who ran with his bike up one of the steepest and slipperiest sections. He either had mega traction in his shoes or there’s some local knowledge he kept to himself!

The rain eased off slightly and I managed to complete lap 3 in exactly 1 hour. Swapping over my CamelBak for more hydration, I grab a banana and set off again. This 30 second stop turned out to be my only stop for the whole race.

At this point the sun tried to poke between the clouds. The mud became less slushy and more like a congealable gloop. It now stuck to everything and the bike doubled its weight. Several times the wheels stopped turning due to the volume of sticky mud. Frequent pauses were needed with a stick or fingers to remove great handfuls of the stuff. The mud got everywhere, my drink tasted of mud and my gels were decidedly crunchy. A 6th lap was looking less likely.

Completing lap 4 in 1:13 hours, 4 hours into the race there was only enough time for 1 more muddy lap in the 2 hours remaining. The first half of Lap 5 was even stickier, then it appears to dry out and harden slightly. With the loose mud on the descents, I had about as much traction as someone running down a bob sleigh track in flip flops. Frequently the front wheel was in opposite lock with the rear wheel sliding sideways.

The constant dodging between the trees was draining my concentration and I started to make a few mistakes. Loosing the front wheel in the mud, I took a close look at a bush. My shins were burning from the fall and a quick glance saw that there was more mud than blood. As I composed myself rider 66 passed me, who I later discovered to be Keith Whitten. Clocking him earlier we had overtaken each other several times during the race. He was very good on the single track, but relaxed on the climbs. I was not going to let him beat me.

Jumping back on the bike I complete the section of single track to find Keith on the climb. Determined to pass him I power up the short hill and dive into the final single track section. Using all my concentration to stay upright, I hold the lead into the final straight. A quick glance back informed me that it was rider 66 just behind me where I then stood on the pedals to sprint to the Finish.

Passing the Finish line just a few feet in front of Keith, I claim 6th place after 5:18 hours.
Despite the mud and heavy rain, it was a good day out where I was pleased with my position. Cleaning the bike took at least 2 hours as the mud was stuck to everything.

Sunday 1 August 2010

South Downs Way – Again!

The lure of the South Downs Way beckoned again as the BHF hosted another of their well organised events. My specific challenge was to beat my personal best time of 11:17 hours for the 100 miles.

Arriving at Winchester, we saw a large group of about 50 riders set off at 5:30am. Not wanting to get caught up with the masses, we held back for a few minutes. I was riding with Julian, Mark and Chris from Redhill Cycling Club, who kindly said that I didn’t need to wait for them if I wanted to go a bit faster. During the next few minutes several other riders set off so we picked our moment and hit the trail at 6:10am.

The weather was overcast and drizzled for the first 2 hours. Some areas became slippery where fortunately the ground was generally firm. Riding with the others for the first few minutes gave me a controlled warm up, yet we still overtook loads of other cyclists. The South Downs Way route is now very familiar to me, except for the change last year via Exton (10 miles). I don’t like this alteration as it has an awkward climb with steps on Winchester Hill, taking about 10 minutes longer. It was somewhere around here that I lost touch with other Redhill guys as I continued to overtake small groups of riders.

Reaching the QE2 Country Park (22 miles) in 1:50 hours there were loads of riders taking a break. My strategy was to ride at least 50 miles before I stop. Carrying 4 litres of liquid with gels and Shot Bloks accessible in my back pocket, there was no reason to stop the wheels from turning. The number of riders had seriously thinned out by this stage so I switched on the iPod and settled down to what would turn out to be a solo ride for the next 75 miles.

The miles whizzed by as the hills came and went. At Bury (42 miles) it had taken me just 3:25 hours with an impressive average speed of 11.9mph. A 10 hour ride time was looking possible. I focused on powering up the hills and relaxing on the descents. From recent experience, this strategy can make a big difference to the overall riding speed.

Coming across another rider at Gatting Beacon (39 miles) who appeared quite fast, I stormed up the next hill leaving him standing. At Amberley Mount he tore past me where I couldn’t keep up with him on the hill at Washington. Seeing him again at Steyning Bowl, I upped the ante, and eventually caught him at the bridge near Steyning.

By this stage my CamelBak bladder had run dry so I planned to stop at Steyning for a refill. Unfortunately the tap was broken, so I continued on to the Youth Hostel at Truleigh Hill (60 miles). Passing the BHF officials, I was encouraged to hear that only 5 other riders had reached Steyning. This inspired me to keep up the pressure.

Reaching the Youth Hostel I took a well deserved break for about 10 minutes. Rehydrating the CamelBak and grabbing a banana, I also cleaned the mud that had collected on the gears. The sun was trying to poke through the clouds so a quick spray of sun protection was a worthwhile precaution, despite my legs being covered in mud.

Pushing on to the check point at Devil’s Dyke, I said a quick hello to the BHF volunteers who had just set off the 35 mile riders. Rapidly overtaking the small groups, I head up to Ditchling where I enjoy the long gradual descent to the A27. Seeing a couple of muddy riders, I discover they are also on the 100 mile route and pass them quickly.

Grabbing a banana to relieve the cramp, I set out on the long slog up the (400 foot) climb beyond the A27 (77 miles). Mentally it’s a tough climb as you can see the top from the bottom. 10 minutes later I rounded the first crest and tackled the gradual climb along the top of the ridge, which took me into the clouds. Visibility was less than 100 metres and it was difficult to stay on the right course. Coming across a gate I didn’t recognise, I retraced my tracks and flicked on the GPS to guide me back to the main route.

Powering along the gradual descent, I passed several walkers in full wet weather gear. Wearing just a thin top and shorts, I felt fine as long as I kept riding. Passing 2 more 100 mile riders I realised there couldn’t be many others in front of me. This felt good.

Catching a thorn at Bothops, I heard the rear tyre hiss until the slime plugged the hole. After a quick squirt from the gas inflator, I was back on the trail feeling pleased to overcome the puncture in just a few seconds. Climbing the hill after Itford Farm (84 miles) the tyre hissed again, this time due to a flint. The slime went everywhere and there was a small nick in the tyre. Changing the tube and using a small piece of plastic to patch the tyre, I was soon back in the saddle gaining altitude.

Passing Firle Beacon (88 miles), which was my last stop when I rode the South Downs Double, I knew I was nearly there. I also knew that I had two massive hills to conquer. The clock was on my side and a sub 10 hour time looked possible. Feeling a bit greedy I wanted to beat 9:50 hours. Pushing hard against the strong headwind, I rounded the top of the last hill. Changing into the big ring and standing on the pedals, I power across the golf course and down into Eastbourne.

Arriving at the finish I enter the sports centre after 9:48 hours. This is an hour and a half off my personal best time, which felt amazing. The centre was pretty empty and I heard that only one other rider beat my time, out of about 100 participants. If only they had a podium!

Enjoying the benefit of a sports massage I relax and reminisce over the day’s events. All my training and preparations paid off to achieve a fantastic ride.