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!