Thursday, 31 December 2015

It's all part of the plan . . .

I had every intention of writing a report about a wild mountain bike route I'd been planning to do last weekend, with photos, advice and a GPS file of the route so that you could try it for yourself.  It didn't happen . . . the best laid plans are often scuppered by the weather in sunny Scotland!  Oh, and that annoying thing called a social life that often gets in the way at this time of year!

Instead, on the nicer of the two days last weekend, I got out for a great road ride.  Over the Campsies to the north of Glasgow in the glorious sunshine.  A great way to burn off the festive calories, get some good Zone 3 tempo work in and over 4 hours of "base" training in the legs.

Beautiful day to be out on the bike!

As a mountain biker, with mostly short XC races on my calendar, you may wonder why I decided to spend over 4 hours on my road bike on a glorious sunny day.  Well, I had hoped to mountain bike on Saturday and that didn't happen due to the horrible weather.  Then, on Sunday, I didn't have time to drive to the place I wanted to go mountain biking and get back in time for the aforementioned social life!  That's the great convenience of road riding - you can get going straight from your front door.  I'll be doing more blogs in future about how to use road riding to build your speed, strength and fitness for mountain biking.

But the other reason is . . . it's all part of the plan!  My training plan, that is.

Back in November, I covered goal-setting to help you get started with your bike training.  If you're putting together a plan for the first time, whether it's to target some races, do better at an event, or just get faster or fitter on the bike, I hope that blog was helpful.

I've put my own advice into practice and set my goals for 2016, so I thought I'd share them here, along with a bit of advice to go along with them.  For the past two seasons, I've focused on shorter XC mountain bike races and although I've done well in some of them, my heart still lies in the type of races that got me into competitive mountain biking in the first place:  Endurance.

Whether it's a 75km off road mountain bike marathon, or a 10 hour multi-lap event, or the grueling mental challenge of a 24 hour solo race, I've always enjoyed these races more and done quite well in some of them too.

I'm still going to do the British and Scottish XC Series in 2016 but they'll be "B" or "C" priority races in my schedule.  You should choose no more than 3 or 4 "A" priority races for your season - the ones you aim to peak for.  Your entire training plan is focused on coming into "form" for those races, where you hope all your process goals come together to achieve whatever outcome goal you've set yourself; be that a podium, a top 20, or just to finish the race.

B priority races are still important but you typically don't peak for them.  C priority races are the least important - you may miss them if you're not feeling up to it, or you may use them to experiment with your strategy, nutrition, or warm-up routine.

So, what does my 2016 race season look like?  Here's the plan, with the A priority races highlighted in bold:

27/03 - SXC Round 1, Laggan
03/04 - BCXC Round 1, Pembrey (Wales)
24/04 - BCXC Round 2, Newnham (Plymouth)
01/05 - SXC Round 2, Dunoon
15/05 - BCXC Round 3, Dalby
22/05 - SXC Round 3, Cathkin
28/05 - Glentress Seven, Peebles
12/06 - BCXC Round 4, Fforest Fields (Wales)
19/06 - Crit Under the Castle, Stirling (Road Criterium)
25/06 - Ten Under the Ben, Fort William
03/07 - SXC Round 4, Dalbeattie
17/07 - British XC Championships, Cathkin
31/07 - Manx 100, Isle of Man
07/08 - BCXC Round 5, Cannock Chase
21/08 - SXC Round 5, Fife
18/09 - SXC Round 6, Forfar
24/09 - Tour de Ben Nevis, Fort William
29/10 - 24 Hour UK Championships (Relentless 24), Fort William

If you happen to be in any of these areas on those dates, please do come along to watch!  Mountain bike racing is a great spectator sport!  I'll probably throw in a few more road races too - they're not my priority but they are a great way of training and pushing your speed on the mountain bike.  Especially Criteriums, like Crit Under the Castle in June.

So, what does all this mean for my training plan?  Well, given I'm still doing XC races I still have to work on speed and power.  They are still important elements of an endurance race, but in a slightly different way.  Being able to repeat a steep hill 10, 11, or 12 times during a multi-lap endurance race like the Glentress Seven or Ten Under the Ben not only requires being able to put the power down, but also requires the endurance to go along with it and do it several times over.

On my way to 3rd place with 11 laps at Ten Under the Ben in 2014

In the winter, this all starts with "base" miles.  While I absolutely love a long day out on the mountain bike, there's no better way to build a steady endurance base in your fitness than a solid few hours on the road bike.  You get the chance to rest too often on the mountain bike with the varied terrain.  But even on the downhills on a road bike, you can still be pushing the pedals and working on that base endurance.

I've now moved on from true base endurance, where I spent hours in my heart rate Zone 2, and have now started to introduce "tempo" intervals, where you spend anything from 20 to 60 minutes in Zone 3.  That's exactly what I did on Sunday on the road bike and I'll be building up to even more hours over the coming weeks.  

Just because I have a 10 hour race in June doesn't mean I need to do a 10 hour training ride, but you do need to know your body can cope with the time.  If you can comfortably do a training ride of 70 to 80% of the race duration, your mental strength should get you through the rest.  It's also a good chance in the training rides to try different nutrition strategies and make sure your bike set-up is not causing any niggles in your back or your knees.  I'd also recommend not just doing long wild mountain bike rides, but multiple laps of the same course to get used to the repetitive nature of these events - that can be the most challenging aspect mentally.

I therefore do still do long mountain bike rides for that purpose, and it's vital to keep working on your skills.  You should aim to spend at least one training session each week on your mountain bike, practicing basic skills and/or pushing yourself on more technical terrain.  That's where my wild mountain bike rides come in, and while I didn't get the chance to go on such a ride last weekend, I'm sure I'll get the chance in the coming weeks - so check back soon for a report on that ride when it comes.

In the meantime, get yourself out there on those beautiful winter days and build up those base miles.  Your body will thank you for it in the summer!

Monday, 21 December 2015

New sponsor for 2016 - Origins Fitness

I hinted on Friday that I had an announcement to make today and I’m delighted to announce my new sponsor for the 2016 race season:  Origins Fitness.  If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll probably have noticed my tweets about the gym over the past year.  It’s where I do my strength training throughout the season and I’m over the moon to now be working in partnership with the team at Origins Fitness for 2016.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Simpson Photography

I’m pictured here alongside Graham and Pamela, both qualified and experienced Personal Trainers who run the gym.  Not only is the gym a fantastic facility, but they’ve both given me some great personalised advice for my training and nutrition over the past year.  Whether you’re looking for personal training, nutritional advice, sports specific exercises, gym classes, or just a relaxed environment to workout in with really high quality equipment, pop in to see Pamela or Graham for some advice and check out their website and Facebook page.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Simpson Photography

I’m going to be really proud to be wearing my Origins Fitness kit next season, not just because it looks cool though!  But also because I’m really proud to be flying the flag for this great gym and local business, located not far from where I grew up. 

The gym is based in Hillington, just outside Glasgow and not far from Braehead shopping centre.  It’s really easy to get to from Glasgow, Paisley, Renfrew or any of the surrounding areas.  It’s got the best equipment I’ve ever come across in a gym and the advice I’ve had from Pamela just in the past month has totally changed the way I’m working out to improve my bike-specific strength.

Check back on my blog over the coming weeks and months for some tips on bike specific exercises you can try in the gym to help improve your strength, balance and control on the bike.
Speaking of blogs, that’s not going to change . . . I’ll still be doing my race reports and training tips on this site, plus a whole lot more, and you can continue to follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.  Given my new sponsor, I’ll include even more training tips about off-the-bike strength and core training, plus nutritional advice.  I’m also going to be doing some events for the gym members such as guided road and mountain bike rides.  If you’re a keen cyclist who uses the gym and you see me in there for my usual Monday or Thursday night sessions, just give me a shout if you’d like to talk bikes or bike training.  Just don’t try to take your bike on the treadmill like I did . . . !

Photo courtesy of Jamie Simpson Photography

So, us cyclists are always obsessed with how we look on the bike . . . The big question therefore is, what does the new kit look like now I’m riding for Origins Fitness?  Well, it’s currently being produced and should be with me by the end of January, but here’s a sneak peek at the design.  I can’t wait to wear this awesome looking kit and fly the flag for Origins Fitness in my racing all over the UK in 2016!

I don’t think I’ve ever been so motivated for an upcoming race season and this new sponsorship is a massive part of that.  My training is going really well and I’ve already planned out my main events for 2016.  Check back soon for my next blog about my change in strategy for 2016, as well as loads of new content coming soon on the site.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Exciting times ahead . . .

Watch this space on Monday 21st December for some exciting news about my 2016 race season!  All will be revealed in Monday's announcement . . . 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

My Trek Superfly 9.8 SL Race Bike

I’m lucky enough to have two fantastic race bikes for my cross-country (XC) and endurance mountain bike racing. They’re both Trek Superfly models – one a hardtail (that’s suspension just at the front) and the other a full-suspension, with a front fork and rear shock. For you fellow bike geeks out there, here are the details of my Trek Superfly 9.8 SL hardtail.

Here she is (yes, obviously she’s a “she”, but no she doesn’t have a name . . . well not that I’m admitting). This is taken up at Cathkin Braes but the remaining photos were taken indoors. She obviously does not live in the garage, but inside the house where it’s warm, dry and cosy!

This is a pretty standard build (as opposed to my custom “Project One” full suspension Superfly). Although there are a few changes I’ve made from the stock bike... It’s a 2015 model and Trek have now announced their new 2016 range. The Superfly is still in the range, but you’d probably need to go for a Procaliber to find the equivalent spec for a race bike.

So, what makes this an XC race bike? Well, first of all, it’s lightweight. The “SL” stands for “Super Light” – it’s a carbon frame along with carbon handlebars and a carbon seatpost. Then there’s the geometry. I’ll not get into all the details of the geometry here, but typically, an XC race bike has a steeper head angle (69.3 degrees for this bike). The steeper the head angle, the more aggressive the bike is for accelerating and the better it will climb. The downside of a steep head angle is that it can be trickier to handle on steep descents, but I find Trek’s clever G2 geometry and 29 inch wheels more than make up for that. There’s always a compromise and this is a thoroughbred race bike so you do want a more aggressive geometry.

Another thing that defines an XC bike is less suspension travel. Although XC courses are getting more and more technical every year, we’d generally rather sacrifice extra suspension travel for weight. Long gone are flat, easy, non-technical XC courses. If anyone reading this thinks we don’t ride steep technical descents just because of our steep head angles and 100mm of suspension travel, come try some of the Scottish XC courses from last year like Badaguish! In my case, the suspension is a Fox Factory Series 32 fork with CTD (Climb/Trail/Descend) and 100mm of travel:

The CTD function lets me lockout the suspension for powerful start sprints and smoother climbs, and in XC racing this is really helped by having a remote for this:

Here you’ll also see the ESI Foam Chunky grips I use. They’re incredibly lightweight but comfortable and shock-absorbing. Also in the handlebar department, it’s worth pointing out their width. In the old days of XC racing, flat, narrow handlebars were all the rage, but you’ll hear enduro and downhill riders running incredibly wide bars these days (along with short stems). This aids handling in corners. I like to go somewhere in between. I’m running 690mm wide bars with 5 degrees rise, and a 90mm stem. This gives me a good compromise of an aggressive position for climbing, but enough width to aid handling in corners while still being able to squeeze through the tight trees on some courses!

I have Shimano XT hydraulic disc brakes and have recently changed the drivetrain to Shimano XTR 1 x 11. I’m currently running a 34 tooth chainring but would change this up or down in size depending on how hilly (or not) the course is.

XTR Race pedals and XTR M9000 Race crankset, rear derailleur and shifter makes this lightweight and gives super smooth shifting. The shadow-plus clutch system on the rear derailleur coupled with the tooth pattern on the chainring provides excellent chain retention even on the bumpy stuff!

The wheels are Bontrager RXL 29 inch and I generally use Bontrager XR1 tyres for most races, unless it’s a bit muddy – I then switch to XR2 tyres as you’ll see here. I vary between a 2.2 inch wide tyre and a 2.0 inch, depending again on the course. Sometimes a 2.2 up front and a 2.0 at the rear. Tyre pressures are a very personal thing but I run tubeless, using Bontrager’s fantastic and easy to set up TLR system, which allows you to go lower for extra grip. I might go as low as 20 PSI at the front if it’s really wet and slippy. I find the Bontrager tyres incredible – I’ve done a really rough 75km mountain bike marathon on XR1s – a tyre most people would never consider in a long, wild endurance race for fear of slashing it on the rough rocks of wild Scottish hills. But it survived all that rough treatment despite being really lightweight.

So, would I change anything on this bike? Well, as racers, we’re always looking for the latest upgrade to make our bikes lighter or faster. The bike currently weighs about 9.5kg, including pedals, when running XR1 tyres. A lot of people quote bike weights without pedals – I have no idea why, since you can’t ride a bike without pedals! 9.5kg is pretty good and it climbs extremely quickly given the light weight, but I’m sure I could get it under 9kg and that’s where I’d maybe make some upgrades in future...

I’d change the Shimano XT brakes to XTR, matching the drivetrain. I’d upgrade the Bontrager RXL wheels to their XXX wheels – rotating mass is the best place to save weight. There are a couple of components that are not carbon as it comes from the factory – the saddle and the stem. There’s not a lot to be saved in those departments so they are probably the last upgrades I would make.

Despite dreaming of future upgrades, I absolutely love this bike. My full suspension is still my choice for rough, technical, and in particular rocky courses. However, for anything that involves a lot of climbing and isn’t too rough on the descents, I’ll always go with the hardtail. It climbs so well and is actually loads of fun on the way back down too! 

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

A ride on the wild side

In the first of my series on wild mountain bike riding, here's a brief introduction to what it is, along with some tips for those who want to give it a go for the first time.

Wild mountain bike riding? Is that when we go a bit crazy and do things we shouldn’t? Well, maybe, but that’s probably all mountain bike riding! What’s a “wild” mountain bike ride and how does it differ from riding at a man-made trail centre? Here’s my definition:

  • You’re not riding at a purpose-built trail centre (like one of the 7Stanes). Your ride might start and finish at one, or go through one, but most of it is in the “wild”
  • It’s not just “off-piste”. There are some very technically challenging off-piste trails to be found between the man-made routes at trail centres but I don’t consider them “wild” rides. If you’re still within the boundaries of a trail centre with a cafĂ©, showers and toilets, then it’s not “wild”
  • You will generally be on old walking paths, old military roads (good old General Wade!), farmers tracks, up the side of mountains, and in some places there may be no path at all
  • It may not be technically challenging in places, but in other places it could be very challenging, both up and down, as the tracks are not designed for bikes
  • You may have to carry your bike up some of the hills as they are not rideable – this is known as “hike-a-bike”. It’s character-building, honest!
  • You may have to wade through rivers. See aforementioned character-building!
  • The trail may not be way-marked and in most cases will require a map or GPS, and a good understanding of that map to find your way (although trails like the West Highland Way are way-marked, I’d still consider it a wild ride since it’s remote in places and not originally intended for bikes)
  • If you get lost or injured you could be very far from civilisation or a mobile phone signal
  • You’ll probably be out on your bike all day, not just for an hour or so
  • You’ll find the very nature of a wild ride means you’ll get to see some of the most stunning scenery our beautiful country has to offer, like this view of Loch Tulla from the top of Mam Carraigh just last Thursday when I rode from Crianlarich to Glencoe

There are lots of great sources of wild mountain bike routes online, such as TrailScotland and I’d also highly recommend both volumes of Scotland Mountain Biking: The Wild Trails. Also, keep checking back here for my blogs on the wild trails I’m doing each month.

You’ll find plenty of advice online and in these books, but here are my tips if you’re quite new to mountain biking and want to give your first wild trail a go:
  • Research the route in advance, make sure you have a map with you (even if you have a GPS device – batteries can run out!) and know how to read it
  • Give yourself extra time in case you puncture or it takes longer than you think
  • Go with a friend and make sure someone knows where you are and what time you expect to be back. You can use live tracking on a Garmin device or an app like Runkeeper but they both rely on a mobile data signal which you may not have
  • Be prepared – pump, multi-tool, chain breaker, quick-links, 2 spare tubes, tyre levers, tyre boot, cable ties, first aid kit, lights (in case you are delayed and it starts to get dark), waterproof jacket, spare gloves, spare base layer, warm hat, buff, more food than you need, plenty of water, emergency foil blanket, whistle, suncream (maybe not needed at the moment though!), bite/sting spray, midge repellent, midge net (in case you have to stop to repair a puncture and the little pests descend upon you!)
  • Give walkers respect and always give them the right of way. A friendly “hello” as you approach them, at low speed, will keep us all happily sharing these amazing trails together. You’ll find most of them very friendly and they generally think we’re a bit crazy!
In a future blog, I’ll give you a full run down of what’s in my bag when I’m doing a really remote ride.

Don’t let all this put you off though – yes, you need to be prepared and be careful but with a bit of planning and common sense, there’s nothing holding you back. Perhaps start on a wild trail that’s not too far from civilisation, like some sections of the West Highland Way. I’ll never forget my first adventure into the wild several years ago, along the Glen Kinglass route. It absolutely took my breath away to see scenery like this when I’d only previously ridden at trail centres . . .

Friday, 6 November 2015

Training for the trails: Getting started

In the first of my series on mountain bike training, here are some tips to get you started... whether it's to get fitter or to target a big race.

It’s bad enough we count down the weeks to Christmas, but I’m already counting down the weeks to my first race of 2016! Why? Well, without a structured plan and a clear set of goals, you won’t achieve the most from your training. As I start on my training for next season, I’ll keep you updated with how it’s going, and aim to give you a few hints and tips you can apply to your own mountain biking along the way. To get going, let’s begin with goal setting 
and some basics that people often forget when planning their training.

Goal setting

Not everyone reading this will be competing in mountain bike races. You might have decided you want to do your first fun event, perhaps at the Tweedlove Festival in May. Or perhaps you’re just fed up struggling up the climbs and would like to get a little bit faster... or just want it to hurt a little less!

To get started, regardless of where you want to end up, you need to be clear on your goals. These can be broken down into three types of goal:

  1. Outcome goals – the main 2 or 3 things you want to achieve . . . Complete your first mountain bike race; finish in the top 20 at an XC race; or just to beat all your friends around your favourite trail!
  2. Break your outcome goals into performance goals – things you can actually measure. For example, you can measure progress with heart rate or power but you don’t even have to be that scientific. You can measure yourself using Strava, Runkeeper, or a similar app on your phone and monitor your improvements on your favourite trail. Just make sure you have a baseline at the start of the season and check your progress monthly
  3. Finally, you need to break it all out into the small steps you will take in your training to improve your weaknesses: process goals. This could be as simple as saying you will practice skills once per week or that you’ll aim to improve technical climbs. Think of it as something you can spend a training session working on in isolation


It’s a well known human trait to practice what you’re already good at. But it won’t help your mountain bike riding progress!

When setting your goals and building your plan, focus on your weaknesses. If you’ve raced this year, what let you down? Climbing? Technical descending? Did you always start too fast then fade towards the end of a ride or race? Whatever it is, include it in your process goals, along with some performance goals to measure it, and practice it every single week.

If this is your first year and you’re only just getting started, the main thing to do is just increase your time on the bike. Just try to ride more frequently and for gradually longer durations.

Rest and recovery

Something a lot of people get wrong with training is that they do too much! Make sure you build adequate rest and recovery days into your training plan. I monitor this daily using the graph below. The troughs you see in the pink (fatigue) line are my rest days each week and you’ll see larger drops every four weeks.

You don’t have to be as geeky as I am though! Just listen to your body and follow these bits of advice:

  • Ensure you have one full day off the bike every week
  • Alternate easy days and hard days – easy doesn’t have to be a day off; it can simply be a really easy ride, spinning your legs gently, after a day that had lots of hard climbing
  • Every four weeks, build in an easier week where you reduce the volume and intensity of your training – this is when you actually get fitter; not when you’re on the bike!

Have fun!

It might be called training but it definitely should not become a chore! Make sure it’s still fun, no matter what you do. My best tip for this is to combine a steady endurance ride with some skills practice by just doing a ride with your friends. They won’t even realise you’re training when in fact you’re keeping an eye on your heart rate and practicing your cornering skills on every descent. I had loads of fun in the spooky Halloween mist at Glentress last weekend, practicing my descending skills!

You'll maybe notice I've got flat pedals and a dropper seatpost on the bike . . . Things I would never have on the bike in an XC race.  Even if you ride all year clipped into SPD pedals and with your saddle right up as us XC racers do, it's really good to get back to basics on flat pedals for a month or two in the winter.  I'm doing this throughout November and December - it reminds you to drop your heels and not to use the fact that you're clipped in to stay attached to the contact points on the bike.  

The dropper seat post also helps when challenging yourself on steeper, more technical terrain; especially in the winter when it's very slippy and muddy.  Then, as Spring approaches, you can put your normal seatpost on again and get used to doing these trails with the saddle up.

So, that’s just a few snippets of advice to get you started. I’ll be providing a few updates on my own training over the coming months and will include more specific advice as I go along, so check back soon!

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Keep on riding

If you didn't make it along to the recent "Keep on Riding" event at the Alpine Bikes Trek Store, you can find my hints and tips below for winter commuting, all built up over several years of commuting by bike and making many mistakes in the process!

Why keep riding through winter?

It's not always like this . . . 

The day before I did this talk at Alpine Bikes, this was the weather for my cycle home:

But even when the weather is poor, here's why I think you should keep riding:

  • All the same reasons apply to commuting by bike in summer and winter: it saves you money, it's good for the environment, good for your health and you'll arrive at work feeling refreshed and full of energy
  • It'll keep you away from crowded buses and trains full of all the sneezing, sniffing and coughing!
  • It'll help you keep the festive excesses off your waistline!
  • If, like me, you want to keep training on your bike over the winter, you're far more likely to do it if you're already on the bike when you leave work. 

Get your bike winter-ready

First and foremost, get your bike serviced.  Keeping your bike serviced well means it's far less likely for something to go wrong - do you want to be standing at the side of the road in freezing winter weather trying to repair something?
  • Keep it clean.  A quick 15 minute wash each week will keep your servicing and parts costs down.  I also recommend GT85 for dispersing water from the pivot points of your derailleurs.  Keeping your chain clean will also save you a fortune rather than wearing out your cassette and chainrings
  • Get chunkier tyres - not just for more grip, but they'll be more robust to avoid punctures from the debris you get on the roads in winter.
  • Fit mudguards!  A soggy rear end is not comfortable!  You don't need mudguard mounts - there are plenty of models out there that just attach to the frame with small rubber straps

If you can afford it, a separate winter bike is a great idea.  Remember, "n+1" is the perfect number of bikes, where n is your current number of bikes!  It's The Rules!  Consider a singlespeed to keep moving parts to a minimum (less to go wrong) or a cyclocross bike which you can use on and off road.

Be safe; be seen!

  • Front and rear lights are obvious but consider two at each end.  A helmet light at the front means you can look straight at drivers emerging from junctions to catch their attention.  Flashing mode saves battery life and attracts the eye more
  • Consider wheel lights to make you more visible from the side

  • Some lights charge via USB and some use batteries.  If you sit at a computer in work then USB is a great option as you can recharge them during the day.
  • Remember to use your lights when it's dull or foggy too
  • Consider your road position - avoiding the ruts near the kerb helps to prevent punctures but it'll also help you be seen rather than hiding between the parked cars
  • Clothing doesn't all have to be yellow but at least make sure you're not head-to-toe in black!  Bright colours and reflective strips on your clothing will really help.  I can't wait to try the recently announced Volvo Life Paint!

Keeping warm and dry

  • As in all outdoor pursuits, layers are vital!  Having different layers gives you the flexibility in changing weather.  I highly recommend Merino wool as it keeps you warm even when wet and doesn't smell when you get sweaty!
  • I find bib tights the warmest options.  You don't have to go full-on lycra though . . . just wear them under your baggies!
  • Arm and leg warmers provide good flexibility at the beginning and end of winter
  • Invest in a good quality jacket.  Visible, as mentioned above, but also ensure it's waterproof, breathable and windproof.  You don't want to boil in the bag!  Also make sure it's cycling specific or it won't cover your backside when you reach over to the handlebars
  • Consider having two pairs of gloves and keeping a spare set in work in case they get really wet on the way in.  Waterproof gloves are great but also consider lighter windproof ones for when it's not quite as cold and wet
  • If you can afford fully waterproof shoes they're a great idea but water can get in the top of them so consider wearing waterproof trousers over the top to prevent that happening
  • If you can't afford the shoes, go for waterproof shoe covers to keep your feet dry and your nice disco slippers shiny for the summer!
  • Sealskinz do waterproof socks too and again consider merino wool for your socks
  • Try to find somewhere in work to dry stuff when you do get wet . . . I used to hang stuff under my desk but my colleagues were not too keen on the smell!  Campaign for cupboards or storage space in work - just don't go getting into trouble with the Health & Safety department by drying your socks on the electric heaters!  I've never done that . . . honestly!

So, with a few changes to your bike and your clothes, there's no reason why you can't keep commuting to work by bike over the winter.  There will always be the odd day with crazy winds or snow and ice where it's more sensible to avoid the roads.  But the rest of the time, there's no excuse not to keep doing it and you'll arrive in Springtime feeling so much better for it!

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

My 2015 season review: bring on 2016!

Last year, I finished my XC season on such a high.  It was my first year racing XC in the Scottish and British National Series (in the Masters category).  In my very first race, I was over the moon to come 4th.  Six months later, I finished 3rd in my last race of 2014, 3rd in the Scottish Championships and 2nd overall in the SXC Series Masters category.  The season ended in the same way it began . . . on a high and so happy with my race performance.

My 2015 season has also ended in a similar way to how it began, but in a completely different way from 2014.  I started 2015 ill and unable to train for about a month.  This set me back significantly and I didn't start the season with the form I'd hoped to have.  With the move up to the Expert category for my XC races, I knew I'd have to work hard and push my training to another level to have any chance of doing well, but starting the year ill didn't set me up for success.

I never really recovered from that setback.  I struggled at my first couple of British XC races and never really worked my way up the field as I'd hoped to.  I did get a good result, 5th, in the Elite/Expert category at the 3rd round of the Scottish XC Series at Laggan and was over the moon with that.  My form was starting to improve and I also did well at the British MTB Marathon Championships in Selkirk, improving well on my time and result from last year.

However, not long after this, my health got in the way again.  I missed the 4th round of the British XC series at my home venue of Cathkin Braes in Glasgow.  I was fine on the Saturday for the practice but felt unwell on the Sunday and couldn't race.  Then, at the next round of the SXC Series at Lochore Meadows, my hayfever got unbelievably out of control and I just couldn't race.  I've suffered from hayfever for years and always managed to keep it from affecting my riding but this year seemed so much worse than ever before.  I couldn't breathe properly, couldn't see, and hadn't really slept all week because of it.

I missed training due to this, which really didn't help, given my training had been behind plan from the start of the season.  This set me back further and I went into the British Championships at Hadleigh on the Olympic MTB track not at my best at all.  However, I still wanted to race and loved the track.  Having never had a single mechanical in all of my time racing, you can imagine how I felt when an issue with my rear derailleur resulted in the chain dropping and getting jammed between the spokes, and in turn almost pulling the derailleur off the bike.  My race was over on the 4th lap.

To add further insult to this, at the next round of the SXC Series at Badaguish near Aviemore, on a course that was without a doubt my favourite of the whole season (proper technical rooty off piste), I punctured on the first lap and had to withdraw.  Another DNF.

Finally, to finish the season off in the same way it started . . . illness!  I came back from our holiday in early September with an ear infection.  I went to the doctor and neither of us thought much of it, until the next day when I had to go home from work with uncontrollable shaking and fever.  My face and neck became really swollen and I was in so much pain I couldn't sleep or eat.  The infection had spread to my lymph glands and I was wiped out for a week.

I missed my favourite race of the entire year, No Fuss Events Tour de Ben Nevis.  Gutted!  I hoped to be well again for the final XC race of the season, SXC Round 6 in Forfar, but my immune system clearly hadn't recovered fully from the infection and the antibiotics I had . . . I picked up a heavy cold during a trip abroad with work (planes are just such a wonderful place to pick up a cold!).  I was struggling to breathe walking up the hill to the start/finish area at Forfar, never mind getting on a bike to race!  At least my wife, Heather, made up for this by taking her first ever win!  She won the Senior category race at Forfar and finished 2nd overall in the series having only done 4 races!  I'm so proud of her and she's all set to race even more next season on the new Project One Trek Fuel EX9 she's ordered!
Heather crossing the line in 1st place at Forfar, about 6 mins ahead of the next racer in her category.  This more than made up for me not racing!

So, how do I sum up this season?  What has happened to my immune system?  Have I just not looked after myself this year and that's why I've got ill?  Or is it just bad luck?  I have no idea and I'm not going to dwell on it!
What I do know is that 2015 most definitely did not go to plan.  I missed so much training that I was never going to do as well as I'd hoped in the Expert category.  Missing races doesn't help with peaking or maintaining form either.
I just want to put the 2015 race season behind me!

But before I do, it's important to learn.  No matter whether your races or your entire season goes well or not so well, it's important to learn from it for next year.  It's not all negative and I do have some positives I can take into next season, such as a great improvement in my technical descending - I don't view this as a limiter anymore for my XC racing.  I've also realised my strength still lies in marathon and endurance events so that's what I'm going to focus on for next year.
I've also been so grateful again this year for the fantastic support from Alpine Bikes as my sponsor.  They've helped me out so much in many ways and I need to thank all the guys in their Trek and St. Georges Cross stores for the continued support, plus the marketing, online social media and head office staff who have helped me out.  Couldn't do it without you all!

As a quick aside, I'm talking at the Keep on Riding event at the Alpine Bikes Trek Store in Glasgow on Wednesday 7th October, giving some advice on winter commuting by bike.  There's loads of other winter training and riding advice from other speakers too and the event is free, so check out the details here and drop the team an email to sign-up for it.

So, what's next for me? . . .

Well, I've done the analysis and I know what lessons I can take away from 2015.  I'm already building my training plan for 2016 and that's something I really enjoy.  Spreadsheets!  (yes, I'm a geek!)  
I've got some big plans for how I'm going to take my training to the next level over the winter and I'll share some training advice through a blog series on this site, so check back over the coming months for that.

The dates are starting to come out for the 2016 races and while XC will still be a big part of my season, I'm going to re-focus my training peaks for endurance and marathon events.  I'm not missing my favourite endurance events like the Glentress Seven or Ten Under the Ben for XC races next year!  I'll also be doing a few more road races next year and perhaps an Enduro or two.

I'm having a few weeks off training following the end of the season but I'm raring to go again after a good rest!  The post-season break is often when a lot of riders have a bit of a blow-out, but for me it's the opposite.  It's the time to rest up, get lots of sleep, eat really well, get my body back to its full fighting fitness and its normal strong immune system, ready for a winter of hard training!  There's a strange part of me that loves the cold, dark, snowy, muddy winter training!  It's good to suffer . . . and it's also loads of fun in the snow!

I've also had a few ideas for new content on this site, so watch this space!

I can't guarantee I'll never be ill for a race again.  I can't guarantee I'll never have a mechanical again.  But I've learned a lot from this season that I can build on for next year and I'm going to do everything in my power to minimise the risk of those kind of things affecting my racing!

The training plan is coming together and I think I'm more focused than I've ever been at this time of year.  I'm setting my sights high for 2016 and I know I can achieve my goals . . . 
. . . so bring it on!

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

On yer bike!

It's Cycle to Work Day on Thursday 3rd September. I'm afraid I won't be cycling to work. I'm on holiday so it would be quite a long cycle and as much as my boss might be delighted to have me back a few days early, it just ain't happening! 

So, why am I blogging when I'm on holiday?

Well, cycling to work is something I'm quite passionate about. I've had my ups and downs over the (almost) 3 years I've now been commuting by bike... I've had some close calls with car and bus drivers who simply seem unaware of other road users. I've had pedestrians walk right out in front of me. And my heart sinks every morning when I see the same cyclist go through every single red light on Pollokshaws Road in Glasgow (yes, you know who you are and I still beat you into the city centre  without having to break the law). I've crashed on ice, been soaked to the skin and been unable to feel my fingers. 

But, you know what's coming... 

I will continue to cycle to work for as long as I'm physically able to! 

Those moments above are few and far between and completely outweighed by the positives... 

... The money I've saved. 
... The exercise and health benefits. 
... Arriving at work feeling refreshed, mentally switched on and way more awake than if I'd been sitting on a train or in the car. 
... Being able to use my commute for training so I get more time with my family and friends. 
... The fact that I can cycle to work quicker than driving in the car or getting the train. 
... The benefits to the environment. 
... The fun I have racing random other cyclists or my wife when we cycle together! (she also commutes by bike) 
... The reminders I get of how kind and considerate (some) people are when drivers treat me with the respect I deserve and give me space. 

And that brings me to my final point and why I felt I had to blog while on holiday. During this holiday I've cycled in Berlin and in Tuscany (the latter both in a city and also up in the hills). We get so obsessed with cycling infrastructure in the UK... Or our lack of it. We think infrastructure is the answer to all our cycling problems, including some of those I've experienced myself as mentioned above. 

Well, cycling here in two other European countries has made me realise that infrastructure is not the answer. Yes, it will help, but the main reason I've felt so much safer in these other two countries is respect, education and understanding. 

Cycling here is not just a sport. It's just another way to travel. Everyone does it. I've seen people from kids to 80+ on bikes. So when they get in a car they know what it's like to be on a bike. So they give you room and time when you're on a bike. They have patience and understanding. They know you're just getting from A to B just like they are in their car, only using a different method of transport. 

So, bringing this back to cycling to work... If more people do it then we'll have more people who understand what it's like to be the most vulnerable road user. And when they get back in their car they'll appreciate just how much room a cyclist needs. We'll have fewer accidents, fewer arguments and things will just work. 

So, please get on your bike and cycle to work! It's not just good for you; it's good for all of us! 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Going backwards to move forward

Last year, I really enjoyed the course at Cannock Chase for the final round of the British XC Series.  So I was delighted to see it on the calendar again this year, and again as the fifth and final round.  The course had been changed a bit this year, and while a bit on the lengthy side for a modern XC course at 7.4km per lap, it didn't disappoint.

It's not the most technical overall, or the most hilly, the most rocky or most rooty.  It just has a bit of everything and flows really well.  It featured the infamous rock garden (which I think everyone gets far too worked up about - it's really not that hard!), some lovely flowing singletrack and some new natural sections which I really enjoyed.  I'd go as far as to say it's my favourite BCXC course of the year.

Rocking the rock garden.  Even on my hard tail, it's not that difficult - you just have to pick your line.  This was during practice on Saturday but it drew quite a crowd on Sunday - cameras at the ready to capture the crashes! 

It's a damn good thing I enjoyed the course though.  Because I definitely didn't enjoy my race outcome.  My worst result.  Ever.  At least I wasn't last, but not far off!

I feel like I've been going backwards recently in all kinds of ways.  Not just at the start of this race, when, yet again, I messed up my start and couldn't get clipped in and ended up last out of the start area for the 3rd time this year!  My no.1 focus for the winter has got to be sorting out my starts!  I feel I need to explain something though as this features quite frequently in my blogs . . . 

I have a shim between the cleat on my left shoe and the sole of the shoe, to deal with a biomechanical imbalance in leg length (which most of us have).  This is to help prevent an old injury re-occuring and balances me out on the bike when pedalling.  However, the shim makes it a bit trickier to get clipped in to the pedal.  So, you may ask, why don't I just start with my left food already clipped in and then my right will go in more easily as it doesn't have a shim?  Well, I'm right handed and right footed and have always just naturally pushed off with my right foot clipped in already.  I've tried the other way round and it just doesn't feel natural.

However, it's time to change this!  For the entire winter, I'm promising it to myself and I'm saying it publicly on here:  I'm going to practice clipping in the other way round at least once a week in a "standing starts" session until it feels natural.  On my commute to work, I will unclip at every set of lights with my right foot so that I have to get used to pushing off with my left foot already in.  Until it feels natural.  I'm going to sort this once and for all!

So, back to going backwards . . .  I went backwards at the start but I soon made up a few places during the first lap.  We were held up with the usual carnage at the back of the field on entering the first section of singletrack but I managed to hold a track stand while those who crashed got back on their bikes and that helped me get going again and grab a couple of places.

But it's not just in the race I felt like I was going backwards.  As I mentioned in my last blog, life has had its ups and downs over the past few months and, in summary, this season has just not gone to plan.  While I'm really happy with my technical skills and some other aspects of my training, I feel like other areas have been going backwards.  I've not been as dedicated to my training plan as I'd like to be, but life sometimes has to get in the way of training for good reason.  Not training then leads to putting a bit of weight on and that's another area where I feel like I've been going backwards and that in turn leads to feeling like I'm going backwards up the hills on my bike.  Hills are an area I've always been quite strong at but not when there's a bit of extra weight to carry up them!

All this culminated in me feeling like the entire race was spent going backwards.  But, in fact, I actually moved quite far forward during this race.

Not in my race result; but in many other aspects.  My lap times were the most consistent they have been all season and that's an area I've been trying really hard to work on.  I didn't make a single technical mistake in the entire race.  I cleared the rock garden every lap and carried good speed through the other singletrack sections.  In fact, when comparing the sections that featured in the race both last year and this year, I was faster in almost all of them.  Even my times on the uphill sections are about the same.  So, taking away the extra weight I've been carrying imagine how fast I'd be up them if I wasn't carrying it!

So, in a lot of ways, this means my training has moved forward, even if not evident in the race result.  I need to keep reminding myself I've moved up a category this year, and while I had hoped to be getting better results by the end of the season, it's not just about results.  Given I've been struggling to fit training around life this season, to be getting consistent lap times and doing better on technical sections than last year is a great step forwards.  And even on the hills, to be just as fast up them when carrying some extra weight is a sign that my power is actually even better.

And this has all moved me forward not just physically but in my head.  We're all too quick to beat ourselves up when we don't do as well as we'd hoped.  But this is why process goals are so important.  Forget the result and focus on what you can control.  After a bit of a lull in motivation recently due to the lack of training time, this has really pushed me on again.  With a bit of hard work, that extra weight will soon be gone again.  With more time and focus, I am back and dedicated to my training plan again.  And while I know I'm not going to get the results I'd like in any of my remaining 3 races this season, I know the reasons why and I know I have improved in specific areas (even if the results don't show it).

So, yes, Cannock was my worst result ever as a percentage of the field.  But it has helped me realise there's more to racing than results.  As I reminded myself earlier this season, I'm doing this because I enjoy riding my bike, not just for race results!

I'm not completely writing-off this season but I'm already starting to focus on next year.  I've got some big ideas for what I want to do next year and I'm genuinely looking forward to my winter training starting again.  It's an opportunity to reflect on what I've learned this year and focus on my weaknesses.  But I also want to focus on my strengths next year . . . I'll not give it all away just now but let's just say there may be more of a focus on endurance in 2016!

The season has absolutely whizzed by this year and although that's the end of the British XC Series for 2015, there are still two rounds of the Scottish XC Series left as well as an event I love: the Tour de Ben Nevis.  One of those SXC rounds is this coming Sunday and it doubles as the Scottish Championships.  With a strong field in my Elite/Expert category, I'm not expecting a podium result like last year in the Masters Championships, but I'm really looking forward to riding at Badaguish for the first time on what I'm told is a fun, natural old-school technical course!  And no matter what the result, I'll definitely be moving forwards!

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Life is like . . .

 . . . no, not a box of chocolates! . . . A mountain bike race!

It's quite a few weeks since my last blog and rather than launch straight into a race report from my most recent race at the British XC Championships, it's worth explaining the peaks and troughs I've been going through for the past couple of months . . .

I may be lucky enough to be a sponsored rider, and although I'm racing in the British and Scottish National XC series, I'm definitely still an amateur and this is just my hobby.  It's a hobby I'm very passionate about but when it is just a hobby, life can often get in the way of that passion; and it has recently.

Life has a lot of similarities to mountain bike racing.  Sometimes, it's amazing.  Everything goes your way.  All your preparation pays off and it all works out.  It has its peaks and troughs, its ups and downs; some hills are harder to climb than others, and sometimes you have to carefully negotiate your way over life's roots, rocks and corners, just to repeat it all over again on your next "lap" as you feel like you're going round in circles!

Life has definitely been like that for me recently.  It's had lots of positives . . . I started a new job, I had a great holiday, I've had lots of fun.  But when you've got work, family, friends and a life to get on with alongside a passion that requires a lot of time and dedication, sometimes life takes over and that passion has to suffer.

It has also featured a few of those tricky technical bumps to get over recently, just like on the bike . . . I've missed two races due to illness.  Not a lot I can do about that, but where I didn't help myself is that they were both around the same time as many of the other things that were going on in my life.  I just didn't have the time, or the dedication, to fit all my training in around that.  I'm probably beating myself up a bit too much for it, but my training really suffered and I felt like I was going round in circles, just like in a race, but never quite getting to the finish line.

This resulted in me missing those two races, one of which was a British XC Series race on my home track at Cathkin.  I was absolutely gutted about that one.

Then, when finally back on the bike for the British XC Championships on the Olympic mountain bike track at Hadleigh, I just wasn't on form at all.  

I loved the rocky, technical Olympic course, and I gave it my best attempt, but on my 4th lap I suffered the first mechanical I've ever had in a race.  I've never even had a puncture in a race before.  Yet, there I was, standing at the side of the track, frantically trying to get my chain back on, having to re-tighten my rear derailleur and struggling to get my gears working again.  I pulled out at the end of the 4th lap.  Maybe I could have continued, but my gears were all over the place and I risked damaging the bike more seriously.  And maybe I'd just resigned to the fact that I wasn't on form and wasn't doing well enough.

In the meantime, during those peaks and troughs of life, illness, and training, I've taken part in my first two road races.  This is something Rab Wardell and I discussed in my Dirt School coaching consultation with him a couple of months ago.  I find myself fading towards the end of races and not quite having the top end speed of the best racers now that I'm up in the Expert category.

I've only been mountain biking for a few years and have not had those many years spent racing on the road like some of the top guys in my category.  So, Rab suggested I start training and racing a bit more on the road.

I took part in Crit Under the Castle, a fantastic road criterium in Stirling, which I very much enjoyed.  I was really happy with my result for my first road race and the multi-lap format of a Crit was perfect training for XC racing on the mountain bike.  It was really exciting racing on closed roads in Stirling city centre and the crowds were fantastic, especially cheering us up the steep cobbled hill near the end of each lap!  My new Trek Emonda SL6 was also amazing!  What a bike!  Stiff, lightweight and so responsive.

I also took part in a more traditional 50 mile road race, and while it was a good training session, I was dropped by the main group not long into the race.  As mentioned above, I've not been on top form, so it will be partly down to that, but I completed the race (unlike several racers who pulled out simply because they'd been dropped by the bunch!) and got a damn good training session from it.  I learned loads - including the fact that rules don't seem to apply in road racing!  Despite being told strictly not to cross the white line (it was not closed roads), loads of riders did so and forced others like me to the back.  I'm not saying that's the sole reason I got dropped, but it didn't help.  I don't see the point in having rules if they're not enforced.

So, it's been a tough old time of late.  I've learned loads from the road racing and I really do think it'll help my XC mountain bike racing.  I've also learned that sometimes you just have to put your passion on the back burner when other important things in life have to take priority.

You may be wondering why I've decided to share all of this, when usually I'm writing about my racing experiences and giving some hints and tips for training.  Well, I just want to show that we all have these peaks and troughs, whether that's on or off the bike.  We don't all have an infinite amount of time available for training, but we do what we can and you can too.  If you've ever wanted to try mountain bike racing and just thought you don't have the time, there's always a way.  We can't all do as much as we'd like to, and you might even have to miss some races too, just like I did.  We'd all love to give up the day job and the chores of life that get in the way of the fun stuff, but sometimes you have to navigate your way around those features, and sometimes you can just jump right over them, just like the roots and rocks you'll find on the trails!

After the struggles of the past couple of months, I'm back training again and focusing on my next two races.  I'm still not on form, and I'm unlikely to be back to peak fitness again before the end of this season, but I'll focus on the main reason I do this - because I enjoy it!  I'm really looking forward to racing at Cannock Chase again in a couple of weeks' time for the final round of the BCXC Series and then it's off to a venue I've never ridden before, Badaguish near Aviemore, for the Scottish XC Championships on 23rd August.