All Access

Hey folks. As per usual let me take the time to apologise for how long it’s been since the last post. It turns out the final year of a University degree is actually very difficult in more ways than one. It’s taken a full two weeks to get round to properly composing this post after the original idea came into my head. Anyway, lets get to it.

Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram a few days ago (@jl1297 on the very slight off-chance that anyone is interested). I decided to take the gravel bike on a mini-adventure. No time limits, no training plan and no Garmin to look at. It was one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve had in a while, despite a few very dicey bridleways. Being of my generation I of course felt obliged to put it out on social media. My news feed on various platforms is full of photos of a similar ilk. People riding in exotic places, showing off new bikes, winning races, shredding trails, etc etc.

That gravel ride was in actual fact the sole high point of the week for me. What went on during the rest of it? I had a horrendous head cold for the first few days which made it next to impossible to get any Uni work done. The remainder of the week was therefore spent madly trying to catch up on everything I’d missed, not forgetting the three important deadlines approaching. That, coupled with some slightly tricky personal circumstances which I won’t go into on here made for a fairly torrid week.

At the moment the real picture stands in stark contrast to that glossy photo. You know what – it’s been bloody hard. Difficult to try and fit in any training at all around the pile of work I have building up. Tough being single when most of my friends are in happy relationships. Next to impossible to get enough sleep and eat healthily if I also want to have a social life. To be 100% honest with you all, I’ve just about had enough of this term.

My goal of qualifying for next year’s National 10 is starting to look less and less realistic. Finding the time and motivation to ride is becoming increasingly difficult. There’s no point whatsoever in trying to come up with a structured training program at the moment, the best I can do is fit in whatever I can on the rare days when it’s decent weather and I can afford to give myself a break from studying. At a stretch I’m doing just about enough to maintain my fitness; two or three rides a week plus a couple of gym sessions and the odd run. Not bad in the grand scheme of things but nowhere near what it would take to start the process of taking my performance to the next level.

In short it’s not exactly been enjoyable recently. I’ve spoken on here before about some of the past struggles I’ve had with Mental Health. Depression is one of those conditions that can creep up on you and sometimes make it very difficult to get on with the life you’re trying to live. Truth be told it’s well and truly started to rear it’s ugly head over the last couple of weeks. If it wasn’t for the medication I’m taking it would be hard enough to get out of bed in the morning let alone train or study. When this semester ends in three weeks I’m going to have to take some time to focus on my wellbeing in order to get back on track again.

So there we have it folks. Probably not the most cheerful thing you’ll read today. Nonetheless I hope that it helps to drive a point home. It’s incredibly easy to paint a rose-tinted picture and pretend to the outside world that everything is fine when in actual fact it can be a very different story behind the scenes. Mistakes, failures and setbacks are an inevitability in Sport and in any other aspect of life. If times are tough take heart from the fact that there’s no way you’re the only one. Oh, and it’s also completely okay to talk about it.

Thanks for reading.

Gravel bikes – What’s the point?

Hi folks. Firstly, let me apologise for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. I blame a combination of high workload (yeah, turns out the final year of a degree is very hard) and procrastination. There’s not much to write about regarding training at the moment, entirely due to that fact that I haven’t really done any. Three weeks into the off-season and I’m getting the hang of it; eating what I want, only doing short rides when I feel like it and having some truly spectacular lie-ins. For that reason I’m going to go with an opinion post. As always feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Gravel bikes are very much in fashion at the moment, for anyone who doesn’t know these essentially bridge the gap between road and mountain bikes. To give an example, here’s mine. For more on this bike read this post. It’s got drop handlebars, disc brakes, a 1x drivetrain and 650b wheels coupled with 33c gravel tyres. I’ve seen a lot of machines that fall under the gravel term – everything from an aerodynamic pinarello  to a full suspension offering.   Mine probably sits roughly in the middle of the spectrum.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room – doesn’t this sound very similar to a Cyclocross bike? Well, yes. But there are a few subtle differences. CX Bikes are designed for racing, they tend to have aggressive geometry and ordinarily won’t come with mounts for racks or mudguards. Gravel bikes on the other hand are normally made with longer days in the saddle in mind. My answer to the question of whether or not it’s just a fancy marketing term used by the bike industry is therefore a firm no.

These bikes have come out of the US where I’m told (correct me if I’m wrong) they have a lot of unpaved roads, not suitable for Road Bikes but not quite MTB territory either. That’s not the case in the UK but speaking from extensive personal experience I can say that a lot of roads over here aren’t kept in good condition. Years of experience have conditioned me to dread the Winter which consists of riding muddy lanes covered in debris from farm vehicles, very often they haven’t been resurfaced in years and sport potholes that can easily ruin a good wheel.

Why not just use a Mountain Bike in the winter then? Anyone who rides both road and MTB should know the answer to this question – it’s boring. If you’re lucky enough to have a trail centre within easy reach then it’s probably a viable option but that’s not the case for most of us. On the road my 13kg MTB is extremely cumbersome, even the worst road conditions I’ve faced don’t demand suspension and a dropper seat post. I do accept however that this might be different with a higher end carbon XC hardtail.

I hope that you can now see why a gravel bike could come in very useful. These machines are light enough to handle decently on the road but have a bit of additional capability that means they can handle the rough stuff if required. So, what’s it been like to ride one for the past couple of weeks?

Bloody brilliant. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most fun I’ve had on any bike in a good long while. Familiar road routes have taken on a whole new appeal simply because riding them is now a lot easier. Disc brakes are far superior to the rim variety especially in the wet and the larger tyres do a brilliant job of smoothing out the ride when the surface turns rough. Better still I can mix and match, breaking up a road ride with a couple of off-road sections. Fire roads and bridleways that are easy on an MTB become more technically challenging and therefore interesting to tackle on the gravel machine. Another thing, it’s very nice to be-able to switch off and get away from the traffic from time to time.

Now, with that said there are a few drawbacks. This bike is considerably heavier than the carbon road bikes I’m used to and can be very hard work on the climbs, though from a training point of view that’s no bad thing. The smaller wheels accelerate very well but aren’t quite as fast rolling, I certainly couldn’t keep up on a fast group ride on this bike. As for the gearing the 1x drivetrain (38t up front paired with an 11-42 cassette) is perfect off-road but a bit lacking on road descents or even flat sections with a tailwind. I will point out that all of these are issues with my particular bike, it’s perfectly possible to get lighter models with 700c wheels and 2x drivetrains that will be more suited to the road.

To summarise, if you ask me then gravel bikes are definitely worth considering. If you want one bike that can do it all then look no further, with such a wide range to choose from I’d go as far as to say that theres one out there to suit just about everyone. Above all else, they have a serious amount of fun factor. Haven’t you always wondered where that track that you’ve ridden past hundreds of times on your way home actually goes?

Thanks for reading.

In with the new

It’s over. After a hectic few months of training and racing encompassing all the usual highs, lows and laughs the 2018 season has come to an end. By my own admission the very last event of the year was something of a disappointment. Body and mind had both had enough, all I could think about on the startline of that Hill Climb was the tantalising prospect of going home, climbing off the bike and putting my feet up. My rather embarrassing finishing time reflected this attitude.

Fortunately, earlier that week I had received some encouraging news. After hitting a rather worrying 74kg in April I decided that something had to be done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend a calorie controlled diet for everyone but by this stage I know I have a tendency to overeat and that the best solution is keeping a very close eye on my intake to ensure that doesn’t happen, too often anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to step on the scales and see a much more hill friendly 68kg. Next up came a VOMax test, the kind of thing you’re lucky enough to get for free if you’re doing a Sports Science degree. Once again the results were promising, 64 ml.min-1.kg-1, marking a 10% improvement over the last nine months. No doubt there is still work to be done but it’s reassuring to see quantifiable proof that my training has worked.

All of this has got me thinking about the prospect of next season. My main goal is a bit of an ambitious one but I’m hoping it’s going to do the trick with regards to keeping up my motivation over the winter once training starts again. Before this year attempting to qualify for a National Championship would have been laughable. However, achieving some good results in TT’s on what I have to admit was often a less than ideal training regime and whilst being significantly above my race weight has given me some hope that with some hard work it might just be possible. I’ve decided to dedicate myself to setting a time good enough to get a starting slot in next years National 10 (that’s national 10 mile TT champs for those not familiar with the UK scene).

This is going to mean taking everything up a level. More hours on the bike, structured training sessions, regular testing and being disciplined with my diet amongst other things. On the plus side it’s given me a fantastic excuse to bring out the inner bike tech nerd and look into getting some new equipment that ought to gain me a few precious seconds – looking cool obviously being a mere secondary concern… honest.

A lack of riding last winter meant that endurance was by far my biggest weakness. Blowing up prematurely ended my hopes in two road races and my performance in shorter TT’s was much better in comparison to longer ones. Unfortunately there’s no substitute for miles in the saddle. In order to motivate / scare me into getting up early for those long rides over the winter I’m considering taking on a challenge in the Spring before the TT season really begins in earnest. Typically it’s something really brutal that’s attracted my attention. When you see a survival blanket and emergency whistle on the compulsory kit list for an event it’s hard not to take notice. As it stands an attempt at the Dirty Reiver is in the works. It doesn’t get much tougher than a 200km off-road ride in a remote forest, my homemade gravel bike should be up to the task but I can’t yet vouch for the bloke riding it.

My immediate future is not going to consist of hard training. It’s time to rest my legs for a month and focus on other things – namely making sure I don’t fail my degree. Much as I love Cycling, a break from the mental and logistical strain of training and racing is very much needed at the moment. I’ll still ride but only if and when I want to, no hill reps in the rain for a good long while. On that I’ll sign out – time for some cake.

Thanks for reading.

 

Gravel Time

It’s ready. After five months encompassing frustration, much swearing, a great deal of time desperately searching for instructional videos on the internet and last but not least procrastination my second summer project bike is complete. In a post that I suspect will only be enjoyed by the cycling geeks, here’s the story.

Here is the starting point. A 1997 Merlin Mountain Bike frame bought on Ebay for the sum £55. On paper this might seem like a strange starting point but let me explain. Modern gravel bikes are in practice very similar to the MTB’s of old in terms of off-road capability, why not therefore use that as a base rather than spending at least 10x more on a dedicated gravel frame? Actually, to counteract that sweeping statement there are a few reasons against which I’ll go into later.

 

There were a few things I needed to make sure of in terms of compatibility regards the frame. This one ticked all the boxes, the hub spacing was 135 not the older 130mm standard, it would take an A headset rather than an old fashioned threaded one and importantly it was compatible with a Shimano hollowtech II bottom bracket. Another positive was that it was being sold by a bike shop not a private individual, usually a safer purchase.

Once I got the frame home it was very clear that it was in need of a respray. I did debate this because I was a big fan of the original decals and colour scheme, sadly they were too far gone. After a large amount of deliberation I decided to go with a turquoise blue. This went very well with the black fork I’d decided on, a few of you might turn your noses up at going with a steel one but the classic looks and durability of the material were enough to persuade me.

Alongside the fork I fitted the headset and bottom bracket, both relatively straightforward tasks once I’d sent the fork to the bike shop to get the crown race fitted having not yet added a headset press to my toolkit. This threw up an unexpected problem, I had an ultegra 6800 crank going spare and decided to fit that to the frame to check the compatibility. Not for the first time the clearance on the frame proved to be an issue, with a 52/36 combination the outer chainring was rubbing the chain-stay. Luckily my plan had always been to fit a 1x drivetrain, nonetheless it did serve as a sign that the project might not be smooth sailing the whole way.

Next up it was time to decide on a pair of wheels. The frame would have been built to take 26′ models, which for anyone who doesn’t know have very much fallen out of fashion in recent years. I took a bit of a risk going with 650b instead. This won’t have done wonders for the handling of the bike but on the plus side it did allow me to go for a set with a SRAM XD freehub. That in turn meant I could run a cassette with a 10 tooth smallest sprocket, partially compensating for the limited clearance up-front. In the end I went with a 10-42 and a 38t narrow-wide chainring.

Unfortunately a rather large bill for the bike shop put an end to the project for another month or so. The soul upshot of this was that I had the time to carefully research the options I had in terms of the other components. I’d heard good things about SRAM Rival 1 components so opted for a rear-mech from that line. In an ideal world I’d have just bought that groupset in full. Annoyingly you can only get one with hydraulic disc compatible shifters and I planned on running mechanical ones. Necessitating the left shifter and right brake lever needing to be purchased individually.

Getting the cables in place took the best part of a day, having never cut outers before I had to go back to secondary school Design-Technology lessons to remind myself of the correct technique for using a hacksaw. A few of my early attempts weren’t exactly the neatest – let’s just say it was lucky I had two cable kits. With the addition of some bar tape it was finally looking like a bike. The following day setting up the shifting and front brake was refreshingly straightforward. As ever there was a small hitch, the 175mm Ultegra crank was very slightly too long and once again was rubbing the frame. I could have gotten around this by fitting a few extra BB spacers but that in turn would have meant over tightening the crank bolts to ensure they stayed in place with a reduced amount of axle to fit them to. I relented and ordered a new 165mm 105 crank which luckily solved the problem.

The last hurdle was sorting out the rear brake. A disc conversion at the front had been very easy, just a matter of buying the right fork. At the rear it proved much less straightforward. The first adapter I bought simply couldn’t be made to fit the frame and the second was so flimsy that it probably wouldn’t have been safe to use. For a good few days I trawled the internet in search of a cost effective option. Thankfully I found one, the only drawback being the humungous postage cost of getting the part shipped from the USA.

I’m sure one question you’re probably asking yourselves is how much all this has cost. Unfortunately my original budget of £1100 was blown spectacularly, the full build has come to £1380. I admit that it would have been possible to get a very decent brand new gravel bike for that money. However this project wasn’t entirely about keeping costs down. Along the way I’ve learned a huge amount about how bikes work encompassing many mechanical skills that will serve me well in the future. Another upshot is ending up with a totally unique machine, one that I know inside and out – hopefully this bike won’t ever need to go to the shop to be fixed.

If all goes to plan this build will make winter training a lot easier. It’s purposely designed for the muddy lanes of Devon with the wide tyres, disc brakes and mudguards making riding on them seem like a far less unpleasant prospect. Now to get off the sofa, turn the computer off and take it out for a spin.

Thanks for reading.

Bike SOS

Hi folks. This time round I’m going to take a break from the racing updates and ramble on about something that should be an equally effective sleep aid for any non-Cyclists reading this. In a bid to improve my mechanical skills and save some money on bike shop repair bills I took on two project bikes this summer – three months later one of them is actually finished, honestly.

Here was the starting point, please excuse the terrible photo quality. A 2016 Boardman Road Sport that had been left outside for a year gathering rust. My aim was simple, restore it back to good working order.

I realised the extent of the task that lay ahead of me when I tried to take the wheels off in order to get the bike in my car. The quick release skewers were so seized that I had to use a pair of pliers to undo them. Upon turning the frame upside down to do this half the river nile came out of the chain stays. I soon realised that the chain was beyond saving – the thing was so rusted that it refused to turn.

It was clear that the bike needed a full strip-down and rebuild if it was ever going to get out on the road again. A long evening was spent taking the machine apart, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy this was – until I realised that at some point I was going to have to put the thing back together again.

The first stage consisted of working out what could be saved and what needed replacing. The bar tape, chain and cables were well beyond redemption. I initially hoped the bottom bracket could be re-used once I’d managed to liberate it using an improvised tool. I then turned my attention to the bolts. Surprisingly all but a few of them were in decent condition barring some surface rust. I turned to an old-school technique and soaked them all in vinegar overnight alongside the chainrings, cassette, headset bearings and any washers I’d managed to salvage.

The next step was reconditioning the components I was planning to re-use. The brakes had certainly seen better days, fortunately all that was required to bring them back into service was some elbow grease. I fully disassembled both callipers, cleaned and greased everything individually and then put them back together. I’ll admit to being very pleased at how nicely they turned out in the end.

Likewise the shifters looked very tired, both hoods were perished and needed replacing. This threw up an unexpected problem, no matter how hard I looked it was impossible to find like for like replacements. The closest I could get was a pair of ultra 6600 covers which unfortunately needed to be cut down to size.

Finally it was the turn of the wheels, surprisingly the freehub was in good condition and didn’t need anything besides a good clean. The bearings on the front didn’t sound quite as healthy but fortunately didn’t turn out to be worn – removing, cleaning and re-greasing them solved the issue.

Now came the bit I’d been afraid of. Sorting out the frame – initially I’d hoped it would only need cleaning and polishing but the condition of the paint work suggested otherwise. I have to admit that painting the frame myself was beyond my skill level, fortunately my Father is rather good with a spray can so that bit was left to him. The process was a simple but time consuming one; sand down the frame, apply primer, colour and finally lacquer.

It was then time to re-assemble the bike. I started off with the easiest sections, installing the reconditioned headset, fork and handlebars before putting the wheels back on so as to make the bike easier to work on. Next came the brakes and rear mech. The bottom bracket itself was perfectly serviceable but when I tried to re-install it I found that the threads on the frame had been damaged. Fortunately I managed to find a threadless model that fitted perfectly and spun far more smoothly than the original.

From then on the process proved relatively straightforward. Refitting the chainset, shifters, chain and front mech was surprisingly painless. I decided to fit the bike with a straight stem I had going spare rather than the positive original – by my own admission this was purely for cosmetic reasons. Next came the job of linking everything together, most of the original cable outers were in good condition though some had to be replaced. Luckily I had a few left over from project bike number two. I will admit there were a few minor teething problems when it came to fitting the cables, having never worked on that type of shifter before – the language on that afternoon soon went from PG to 18+.

The final step was to set-up the gears and brakes. Having done this a few times and made just about every mistake it’s possible to make at some point I felt fairly well versed. Once everything worked with the bike on a stand I took it out on the road, knowing that a few final tweaks would probably have to be made. I wasn’t surprised to find the chain regularly coming off on the front and slightly noisy shifting at the rear. Putting it right was simply a matter of adjusting cable tension and checking the limit screws on both mechs.

So, here’s the finished product. I’d like to think it’s an improvement on the original, though admittedly that wouldn’t be hard. Hopefully this bike will soon be back out on the road where it belongs.

Thanks for reading.

Second hand bikes – Bargain or Money pit?

Hi folks, it’s time for another one of those opinion posts. Before you ask, no I’m not going to weigh in on the disc brake debate for fear of World War Three breaking out in the comments section. It’s a common, and for in my opinion for the most part sound piece of advice that if you’re looking to get a good bike on a budget the best bet is always to go second hand. I’m hoping this post is going to illustrate why I think that might not always be the case.

I bought my first Mountain Bike six months ago for what appeared to be a bargain price of £375. It’s nothing special, just a bog standard aluminium hardtail. Nonetheless to get that spec on a new bike would have cost me at least £900. For that reason I when I saw one for sale for less than half that I snapped it up very eagerly. For the most part I think it’s been a good purchase, off-road riding is something I’d recommend to everyone for reasons outlined in a previous post. However, it’s not been without it’s problems.

From day one the bike had a big problem with the chain dropping, this is a pretty common issue when it comes to 1x drivetrains. My mechanical knowledge was very much lacking when it came to finding a solution to this. Eventually I discovered that the problem was mainly due to the previous owner fitting the wrong type of chain ring. Having now fitted a narrow-wide chain ring with a chain guard added just for good measure the issue is very much solved.

A month after buying the bike I had the slightly scary experience of nothing happening when I went for the front brake whilst riding a particularly technical trail. A google search told me that the brakes probably needed bleeding and a glance at the state of the pads was all I needed to see that they needed replacing immediately. I’ve since had to splash out on a new rear calliper after a piston failed on the old one.

Along the way it’s also needed a new bottom bracket, headset, chain and cassette. Twice I’ve had to admit defeat and leave the machine to the bike shop to sort out, the problems in question being a spongy suspension fork and a snapped spoke on the front wheel. The rear tyre recently developed a rather spectacular split, meaning that too has had to be replaced – by the looks of it the front one won’t last much longer either.

The cost of this maintenance has been pretty significant at roughly £320 and that’s not counting any of the tools I’ve had to buy to do those various jobs. Adding those in I’d estimate the bike has cost me around £750 in total. All of a sudden that’s not looking like quite such a substantial saving anymore. Just to be clear I’m not having a dig at the seller here, as advertised the bike was in full working order when I bought it. Unfortunately everyday wear and tear is likely to be a much bigger problem on a second hand machine.

However, on the flip-side I’ve been able to spread out the cost of putting it right over the last few months rather than having to pay it up-front. In addition I’ve been able to select any new components myself, meaning I haven’t wasted any money on stock ones that I’d have wanted to swap out immediately – something that’s pretty much inevitable with a brand new machine.

Over the years I’ve seen a few other things that have made me cautious when it comes to these purchases. The scariest being a wheel that looked to be in brilliant condition at first glance, when I lifted the rim tape I discovered that the carbon fairing had completely separated from the alloy rim. In other words that wheel was a potential deathtrap.

So, what’s the verdict? For what it’s worth I’d advise anyone to be cautious when buying a second hand bike, expect to have to shell out for some maintenance sooner rather than later. I would certainly recommend going to see the machine before parting with the cash. Check the wear on the chain – if that needs replacing there’s a good chance the cassette is also worn and the chain ring might not be far behind. If you can, I’d suggest taking the bike for a test ride – if there any suspicious noises, particularly from the hubs, headset or bottom bracket I’d steer clear. Sluggish and/or noisy shifting probably means the cables need replacing.

Thanks for reading.

Why everyone should ride a Mountain Bike

I’m going to start by saying that this is very much an opinion post, feel free to disagree and we can have a (hopefully civilised) debate in the comments which I can use as an excuse not to go and wash my bike. During the course of a very long and boring car journey home from my favourite trail centre today I had a few thoughts about the benefits of Mountain Biking – being a stereotypical millennial my first thought was to share them on the internet.

Firstly, it’s really good fun. I must admit that long road rides on my own can sometimes be very tedious, on a Mountain Bike getting bored is next to impossible. In fact most of the time you really can’t afford to switch off for fear of falling afoul of a rock, tree stump, root or whatever else the trail might have to throw at you. Today it was a rather bemused looking cow blocking my path that bought this point home. When I’m not feeling particularly motivated to train an MTB ride is always my first port of call, the time passes very quickly.

 

There’s a real sense of adventure that comes along with exploring off-road. GPS can’t always be relied upon and, in the UK at least, bridleways tend to be poorly signposted. The advantage of this is that getting a bit (okay sometimes very) lost is a brilliant way of discovering new places. Yesterday for example I found myself riding alongside a dried up riverbed which I couldn’t help but go down and walk along. It’s strangely satisfying to know where all those obscure tracks that you’ve ridden past lead to.

 

For me another bonus comes with the sense of tranquility that comes along when you’re in the middle of nowhere. After a long day at work there’s nothing quite like riding to my favourite spot, sitting down and switching off for a minute or two. No phone signal, no cars to worry about and no Strava segments to chase, it’s the perfect antidote to a bad race or any other setback be it cycling related or otherwise.

 

 

My second argument for embracing the knobbly tyres is that it’s brilliant training. Off-road riding is the perfect way to get in an interval session for people who don’t like intervals. Generally speaking you’re either coasting or riding very hard, it’s not uncommon to encounter climbs so steep that you can’t make it all the way up them. You’ll make mincemeat of most road climbs once you’ve negotiated a few 25% gradients on a 15kg mountain bike.

Many of the skills Mountain Biking requires also come in very useful for the road. Here’s an example. When it comes to cornering you’ll often be told to look for the exit of the turn and use that to pick your line and judge the speed, always braking before the corner and letting go once you enter it. In practice that’s not always possible, very often you can’t see the exit of the corner which makes judging the correct entrance speed very difficult – in other words unless it’s a familiar bend you have to brake whilst going round it. That braking will force you to take the corner more slowly than you’d otherwise be-able to for fear of the wheels locking up. In the context of a race that means you’ll often end up having to sprint after the corner to catch up with the riders in front. To some people this is probably intuitive but for me it certainly wasn’t until I started riding trails – if you brake before the corner and then release only the front brake you can safely carry more speed whilst maintaining control should it be needed. That piece of wisdom has made me a much, much better descender on the road – to the point where I was actually able to make up some places on the downhill sections in my last road race. Looking back I’d go as far as to say that I wish I’d ridden MTB from day one.

This next point might not be so relevant for riders who are lucky enough to live in places where the weather is good all year round. Riding on UK roads in winter is often a character building experience, you’ll have to deal with mud, debris, well concealed potholes and from time to time black ice. On a rim braked road bike it’s bloody miserable. My Mountain Bike however tackles that terrain with ease, hell I’ve ridden it in deep snow and managed to stay upright – that humble hardtail succeeded where many cars failed spectacularly. I don’t feel guilty about getting that bike dirty and scratched – it’s what the it’s designed for. Put simply that machine makes winter riding safer and more enjoyable.

Another thing I think we roadies could learn a great deal from is the willingness of the mountain bike world to adopt new technologies. Equipment that has only for the most part only recently become relatively commonplace on road bikes all originated in Mountain Biking; 1x drivetrains, disc brakes and thru-axles are the ones that come to mind. Again, this is purely opinion but in a few years time I bet we’ll see road going machines specced with suspension and dropper seat posts.

For what it’s worth here are my two cents. If you’ve never dabbled in Mountain Biking before I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. In my case it’s revolutionised my winter training and lead to a lot of summer fun. I’ve learned useful skills and discovered some amazing places.  Finally it can be done relatively cheaply – my £375 second hand hardtail certainly hasn’t held me back – at least nowhere near as much as my poor off-roading skills.

Thanks for reading.

Close but no nineteen

[Insert sentence here making an excuse for not posting for so long when it’s actually due to pure procrastination]. Welcome back folks. As per usual it’s fair to say these last couple of weeks have involved a few ups and downs.

One realisation that this time has certainly yielded is that I am not designed for closed circuit racing, courtesy of a couple of events that proved to be a waste of time. It’s disheartening to be dropped not because my fitness is poor but instead due to sub-par bike handling skills. Unfortunately I’ve had one severe injury too many and realistically I’m never going to excel in races that often depend upon your ability to go round tight corners at high speed in very close proximity to others. From now on I’ll only be doing Road Races.

That brings us to set of the killer excuses I’ve prepared for the discussion of my rather embarrassing performance last weekend. In hindsight entering a road race in Devon was a questionable decision, having trained mostly for Time Trials and still being at least 3kg above race weight it was always going to be a tough one. A further mistake was made in the form of a long training ride in the heat three days before the race. On paper sixty miles at a medium pace doesn’t sound too tough but add in temperatures in excess of thirty degrees celsius, running out of water ten miles from the end and having time trialled the day before and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

The disaster in question came in the form of what I suspect was mild heatstroke, what should have been a short and easy ride the following day turned into a struggle to get home. I can’t remember a time when I’ve felt that bad on a bike. By raceday my legs certainly felt better but by no means fully recovered, nonetheless I’d paid good money to compete and I was never going to pull out.

Remarkably it started off very well, unusually I’d managed to start in the perfect position, about twelfth wheel if I remember correctly. A few miles later I found myself doing a turn on the front and at that point the first warning sign emerged, already my right leg felt tight and sore which it really shouldn’t have done given that I was taking it as easily as I could get away with. On the first long climb I slipped down about twenty places despite my best efforts.

I managed to hang on for the remainder of the first lap without incident, not counting the chief commissaire stopping the race to tell a few riders off for crossing white lines. For the most part the first part of lap two was more sedate, I managed to get myself back up to the very front of the race and with ten miles to go I dared myself to think it might go better than expected. By this point the bunch had almost entirely disintegrated, I was third wheel in the leading group of around ten – all I had to do was hang on.

That was when a particularly tough climb came up, at the halfway stage my legs gave up the ghost. It’s hard to describe for anyone who hasn’t had the experience, the weird thing is that it doesn’t hurt – there’s not enough gas left in the tank for you to push yourself that hard. Within seconds it was as if I was riding backwards. At the top of the climb the second group on the road caught me, I tried to hang onto the last wheel but to very little avail. Soon I was simply trying to nurse myself across the finish line, let’s just say I didn’t cross it with my head held high.

There wasn’t much time to reflect on that disappointing performance. In two days time I had another event, a ten mile time trial on a course known for yielding personal bests. A couple of weeks back I managed a respectable 20:09, four seconds short of the club record and tantalisingly close to the magic sub-20. Due to the hilly nature of the local terrain there aren’t any quick courses within easy reach, meaning a two hour drive was on the cards.

It’s fair to say that the journey down proved to be rather eventful. You would think setting off over three hours before my start time would have been ample, sadly I underestimated just how bad the traffic was going to be on a weekday. I had to resort to phoning the organiser and asking him not to give my place away, there was no hope of making it before registration closed. In the end we arrived fifteen minutes before I was due to set off. That was just about enough time to collect my number, change into my skinsuit, drive to the start and get the bike ready. I made it with seconds to spare, 25 to be exact. With no warm up whatsoever this TT was really going to hurt.

First impressions were surprisingly good, I’d made a change to the bike position the week before – adjusting the angle of the extensions to make it easier to get into the aero tuck. If I do say so myself it worked a treat, not needing to focus on keeping my head low made it easier to concentrate on the actual effort. I’m not sure if knowing what was to come made it better or worse, at those speeds everything is exaggerated – a small hill that you might barely notice on a training ride will practically become a mountain.

At the halfway point my average speed was a surprisingly healthy 31.4, I knew however that nothing was set in stone. The outward leg of the course was certainly easier than the return and it was going to be a battle to keep that average from dropping too much before I finally made it to the finish line. Overtaking four other riders in the next two miles provided an invaluable morale boost. With a kilometre to go I was right on the rivet, I know an effort is truly maximal when I start feeling sick and my vision starts to blur and on this occasion both of those lovely sensations manifested themselves.

I crossed the line in the very annoying time of 20:01, two seconds short of my ultimate goal. By no means was I disappointed however, taking another club record and finishing 14th out of 88 was better than I could have expected with the less than ideal run up to the event. After the disaster of Sunday I really needed a good ride and this one did the job perfectly.

Finally I think I’ve found my niche, it’s only taken six years of Cycling to realise that I’m a natural Time Triallist. With a few more events lined up before the season comes to an end I’m hoping I’ll manage to get that pesky 19. For now however I’m focusing on a 25 ten days from now, with another mammoth journey coming up it’s not one to take lightly. As for the long term the ultimate goal is the qualify for the national 10 within the next couple of seasons. Wish me luck for I shall definitely be in need of it.

Thanks for reading.

Round two

I’m back. Apologies for the recent lack of posts, it’s fair to say the last ten days or so have been a bit of a whirlwind and this is the first spare minute I’ve really had during that time. What’s happened (for the 1-2 people who might actually be interested)? Truth be told I’m not quite sure where to start.

Following the triumph of taking the club record for a five mile TT I was on a real high. Six months ago I’d have laughed if you’d told me I’d even be racing, let alone posting PB’s. The confidence boost that ride gave me lead to a slightly (okay, very) impulsive decision. I’ve been thinking about giving Road Racing another go for a while now, surprisingly having missed it. Don’t get me wrong, Time Trialling is definitely my favourite discipline and the one I now plan on prioritising for the rest of the season but there’s a certain thrill that only mass-start events can facilitate.

The sensible thing to have done would have been to enter a local circuit race, something I could use to dip my toe in and gauge my fitness and skill level. That’s exactly what I did, unfortunately I then saw that there happened to be a Road Race taking place two days beforehand. Ever the highly disorganised student I got my entry in about two minutes before the deadline, getting it accepted was something of a miracle. So it was that I soon found myself on the startline again. For the first time ever I was genuinely looking forward to it, I couldn’t tell you exactly what’s fallen into place mentally over these past few weeks but the difference it’s made is unbelievable. I wasn’t afraid of losing, I really wanted to win the thing.

The first three laps were a bit of a learning curve, it’s been a long time since I’ve ridden in a large bunch and my skills were understandably rusty. Nonetheless I managed to stay with the pack, one old gremlin that I was glad to put to rest was that of descending. All the time I’d spent on a Mountain Bike really paid dividends, whilst still being far from the best descender in the bunch I didn’t struggle to keep up. Another thing that struck me was how much easier it was to keep up the pace when compared with a couple of years ago. I  might not be quite as fast on the climbs but riding all of those TT’s has given me a much more powerful engine.

It wasn’t until the fourth lap that things began to get interesting. A steep climb did an excellent job of thinning out the bunch and I saw an opportunity, waiting until the gradient lessened to put in a big effort. I soon found myself right at the business end of the race. Looking back I suspect it was overexcitement that caused me to make a tactical error at that point. I could just about see a breakaway group up ahead and took it upon myself to chase them down.

I was in full on TT mode, focusing exclusively on catching the rider in front and doing my best to ignore what the effort was doing to my legs. There’s always a voice in your head telling you to give up at times like that, the chase can be very demoralising especially if the gap is coming down slowly. A quick glance over my shoulder revealed that only a few fellow riders had stayed with me, if this proved to be a winning break and I could get myself in it there was a real chance.

The mistake I’d made was not making the others pull through and share the work, it wasn’t till we’d very nearly joined onto the back of the group that I got some help with making the catch. I was almost spent, with no power data from the race it’s impossible to be sure but I’d estimate it to have been the best part of 400 watts for a good four to five minutes. Still, there were reasons to be cheerful. For the first time ever I was in a breakaway in a Road Race, gone were the days of hiding away at the back all day.

Annoyingly the break in question soon proved to be an ineffective one, had I not done all the chasing earlier on I’d have gone to the front and tried to drive the pace up but as it was I had to rely on others to do it, nobody was inclined to. It wasn’t long before the bunch caught up. Technically speaking I was still in a good position but I knew the race would likely be won or lost on the final climb and that I’d struggle to go with any uphill attacks. Bummer.

It finished exactly as I’d predicted, a rider behind me initiated a move on the steepest section of the climb and I didn’t quite have the legs to follow it. I won’t deny it was agonising to see a group break free at that point, my chances of a high placing vanishing along with them. I managed to stick with the bunch and finished in a respectable 31st place out of 80. In hindsight it was still better than I could have reasonably hoped for but nonetheless there’s a big element of disappointment, I had the legs to properly contest that race but I’d let adrenaline get the better of me and used them up too early.

I came away from the race hungry to give it another go and hopefully put the lessons that day taught me to good use. Sadly it wasn’t to be in the circuit race a couple of days later, this time it was a mistake I really shouldn’t have made – starting off at the very back of a 50 strong bunch on an narrow track wasn’t ever going to to well. Cornering has always been a weak spot of mine and it made it next to impossible to gain any places. If I’m honest it was pretty dull, essentially riding round in circles waiting for bell to sound and signify the start of the last lap. Hopefully the next time will yield a better result.

That brings us neatly to last Saturday. A couple of weeks previously I’d entered a ten mile TT on what was known to be a quick course – oddly enough I’d never actually attempted the distance before. I can remember reading a blog post from another Cyclist a couple of years back, marvelling at him being quick enough to ride a ten in under twenty minutes. In order to do so you have to maintain an average of over 30 mph, no mean feat even when riding an aerodynamic TT bike. I set my sights a bit lower, hoping for something close to 21 minutes. My legs felt very flat after the two hour drive it took to get there. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a struggle to get up a small rise on the way to the start line. This wasn’t going to be fun.

I was pleasantly surprised to glance down at my average speed after the first mile and see it reading 29.5, the course was living up to it’s reputation. The morale boost that gave me was a big factor in what happened next, giving me the mental drive to push my tired legs and set a half-decent time after all. I can honestly say it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, the effect of every tiny hill or gust of headwind was deeply felt.  At the half way point things were looking very hopeful, an average of 30.5. I dared to dream – somehow despite everything that had taken place since the end of last season my fitness had progressed to the point where a sub 20 was a serious possibility. I pushed as hard as I could all the way to the finish line. A surefire sign that I was really giving it my all manifested itself in that dreaded feeling of nausea (I live in fear of throwing up at the finish line one day). My final time was 20:09, agonisingly close.

In short it’s been good. Yes it’s annoying to have had two near misses but it’s important not to lose perspective. I’m faster than I’ve ever been before and hopefully with a bit of luck and some hard training I’ll be-able to go the distance later on in the season. Fingers crossed anyway.

Thanks for reading.

Record

Five, four, three, two, one… GO. I’ve heard those words over and over again during these last few years. They almost always signify that the pain and suffering that inevitably comes with any competitive event is just about to begin. In previous seasons I’ve been scared to hear them, my motivation coming primarily from fear of doing badly as a pose to wanting to do well. Finally I think I’ve managed to turn that mentality around, recently racing has become something I really look forward to.

I’ve long had my eye on one particular feat. Four years ago when I first joined a Cycling Club I can remember looking on the website and chancing across a section devoted to Time Trial distance records. Bearing in mind that in those days a 16 mph average seemed like an unattainable goal I was in awe of some of the times on display. The one that really caught my eye was that of the five mile TT record, a time of 11:01 (that’s an average of approximately 27 mph). Of course over the ensuing years I’ve gotten faster by enlarge, with the exception of a couple of tricky winters that have caused some setbacks. Those records have seemed less and less impossible to break, however before this season there was still no serious chance of me being able to take any of them.

The season before last I attempted a five mile TT for the first time. It’s actually a very rare distance, to my knowledge our local 5 course is the only one within a reasonable range. My time of 12:15 was pretty respectable considering I was riding a road bike and wearing a normal jersey and shorts. I came back a week later and managed to knock seven seconds off due to better pacing and fresher legs. Last year with the benefit of a TT bike, skinsuit and aero helmet I managed to get a bit closer with a season PB of 11:15.

I can remember being absolutely spent following that particular effort, I’d given everything, to the point where I genuinely thought I was going to throw up upon stopping. Whilst it was a big PB I must admit it was disheartening to still be a long way off the prize despite being in good form and having invested a lot of time, energy and money in the attempt. Soon afterwards I began my Triathlon phase, losing a fair bit of Cycling fitness in the process – once again the record was well out of reach.

Recently the form has come back, rather miraculously after a challenging winter and spring which culminated in failing to get round a Marathon . Last Sunday I achieved one of my long term goals, going under the hour for a 25 mile TT – ending a three week block of hard training with a PB of 56:07. Following a rest week it was time to attempt the 5 once again yesterday evening.

My legs often feel sluggish for the first couple of days after a week of recovery for reasons I haven’t yet been able to work out. Yesterday was no exception, my fifteen minute morning commute felt like an effort which did not bode well for the upcoming challenge. Fortunately on the return leg they felt better, a few short sprints did a good job of loosening the muscles up as did an agonising session on the foam roller upon arriving home.

For once I managed to follow my nutrition plan to the letter. Porridge for breakfast followed by pasta for lunch, rounded off with eggs on toast two hours before my estimated start time. A double espresso just before I left took provided caffeine boost and finally a gel immediately before starting to warm up took care of ensuring I was as well fuelled as possible. Of course, this being me it didn’t all go to plan. We’re in the middle of a rare heatwave and the resulting sweat made it very tricky to get my skinsuit on. I also realised I had nowhere to put my car key, eventually resorting to taping it to the stem and hoping it didn’t fall off whilst I was riding – a bodge if ever there was one. All of that left me with little time to warm up, the early signs were good but I know from experience that you never really know how the legs are until the real effort begins.

In my opinion mental preparation is of great importance when it comes to time trialling. It’s not like you can sit in the bunch for two hours and take the sprint at the very end. You’ve got to really, really want it and push yourself hard the whole way in order to get the best possible time. Five miles is a surprisingly tough distance to pace, as a mate of mine pointed out yesterday it doesn’t resemble anything you’d do in training. With no power meter fitted to my TT bike I tend to go mostly on perceived exertion with half an eye on heart rate to try and prevent over or underpacing to as greater extent as possible.

Following the usual nervous countdown it was time to go. Within about two hundred meters of starting I felt the burn in my legs, over that distance experience has taught me not to be concerned about that. Pain is always an inevitability, there’s no point living in fear of it – if anything I’ve found it’s best to try and think of it as a positive, a sign that you’re doing it properly. It’s a matter of keeping it to a certain level so as not to blow up too early. That outward leg was relatively easy courtesy of a tailwind, whilst I was deliberately not monitoring my speed it certainly felt quick. Passing a couple of others fairly soon after the start provided a handy morale boost. Mercifully there was no traffic to wait for at the turning point and I took the roundabout at as faster pace as I dared.

As for the return stage it was a different matter. A small rise coupled with a newly found headwind made the first half mile very hard going to the point where my heart rate got within 4 bpm of it’s maximum. In a longer TT the following descent would have been a chance to rein it back and recover but over such a short distance there was no such luxury. Thereafter I rode on feel alone, trying my best to block out everything bar the effort itself. You really have to channel all of your mental energy into keeping your legs going when fatigue sets in at that level. The sight of my minute man was a very welcome one, I knew he was a fast rider so when I overtook just before the finish line I was hopeful of a good time.

I took satisfaction in that the pacing couldn’t have been better. I had enough to keep going right up until the finish but quite genuinely couldn’t have carried on pedalling for any longer. According to my Garmin I’d managed a 10:59, two seconds quicker than the club record. I know that GPS can sometimes be a few seconds out and therefore tried my best not to get too excited before the final results were up. This time round it was in my favour, I’d done a 10:57.

Yes, it was only good enough for 3rd overall and the winner was a fair way ahead but nonetheless it felt pretty incredible. How long it will stand for is anyones guess but for now one of those club records will have my name next to it. It’s rides like that which make all the training worth it; the annoyance that comes with muscle soreness, early starts, late finishes and financial costs of maintaining the bikes pales in comparison to the satisfaction of seeing it all come to fruition.

Thanks for reading