Monday, 27 April 2015

Reminding myself why I do this

For anyone who knows me well, or even just reads my blogs, you can probably tell that even though this mountain bike racing is just a hobby, I do take it seriously.  I spend a lot of time thinking about it, worrying about it, planning, training, fussing, beating myself up when things go wrong, focusing hard on my race warm-up like at Dalbeattie on Sunday 26th April:

Is that look of concentration my focus on the race ahead, geared up from the pumping tunes in my headphones, or just the look of "don't fall off the rollers when everyone is watching"?!

But we have to remind ourselves why we do these things we love, and this past weekend definitely did!  I love racing, and that's why I do put a lot of time and effort into it, but sometimes you need that little reminder of just how much fun it is to ride a mountain bike.  Whether it's a ride with friends, training or a full-on race, it should absolutely be enjoyable.  Otherwise, why would we do it?

Saturday practice for the SXC Round 2 at Dalbeattie wasn't going too well for me on my 2nd loop round the course . . . I absolutely loved the course.  Really nice natural descents, the same tricky technical climb from last year, and a great new section which was tight and twisty.  Plus, the SXC listened to our feedback from last year and shortened the course a bit.

Despite my love of the course, I made a really stupid mistake and what most of us would class as a comedy fall.  Not an actual crash - just a stall on the way over an uphill feature.  But when I landed, despite it not being high speed, my saddle caught on a tree root and snapped clean off it's supporting rails at the front.  It was completely my own fault, but this, coupled with a few other things that got to me on Saturday, left me thinking I should just go home.  I really wasn't in the mood, not enjoying myself and wondering what's the point in being here if it's not fun anymore?

Thankfully, I had my wife there with me to snap me out of it and after tweaking a few things on the bike (the Trek Fuel EX9 that Alpine Bikes have been kind enough to loan me while my Superfly gets a replacement frame under warranty), taping up the front of my saddle so that I could still use it, and having a damn good word with myself, I got out for 2 more practice laps.  And this time, it felt good.  I cleanly rode every section of the track and it put a smile on my face again!

I really was pretty close to just going home at one point, not just because of the saddle of course, but a few things that had led to me simply being a grumpy git!  I'm so glad I didn't . . . 

Race day arrived and for once I was happy that the weather forecasters got it wrong!  Rather than the forecast rain, we were greeted with sunshine at the busy sign-on:

 Good turnout for morning sign-on for the SXC races and a great atmosphere in the event area at Dalbeattie 7Stanes

One other thing that added to my enjoyment of the whole weekend was seeing my wife have a go at this SXC racing game!  Heather actually got me into mountain biking in the first place . . . I just became a bit obsessive about it whereas she continued to do it for fun!  She entered the taster category and I was so proud to see her race - especially as she overtook a couple of the men in the taster category too!

I had to make sure she was also flying the flag for the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow - team colours!
 Towards the end of lap 1 . . . having a great time!
And across the line after 2 taster laps!

I think Heather actually surprised herself with how much she enjoyed it, and having done the Taster category, she's going to give Senior Female a try another time.  If you're not sure about giving racing a try, please do check out the Taster category at the SXC races.  There's more information on their website, but basically it gives you the chance to do 2 laps under race conditions and at the same time as the Elite/Expert Females and a few other categories, so it's exciting to be out there at the same time.

And remember it's not all about lycra and 29er wheels!  Heather was riding her Orange Five with flat pedals, 5-10 shoes, baggy shorts and a backpack with her water in it.  She really enjoyed it and even if you try it and it doesn't lead to more serious racing, I'm sure you'll enjoy it too!

Now, that's what this blog is supposed to be emphasising . . . no matter how seriously you take racing, it's got to be enjoyable.  Even if you sometimes take it a bit too seriously like me and get grumpy when things go wrong like on practice day on Saturday!

I woke up in a much better mood on the Sunday morning, and both the weather and seeing Heather have loads of fun racing for the first time, lifted my spirits even more.  My parents and in-laws were also there to cheer me on, so I couldn't let them down just because I had a few mechanical issues, or just because I wasn't on my usual bike and therefore not climbing quite as well.
I lined up in 4th place on the start line feeling calm and relaxed, but focused on the race.
 My front row 4th place on the grid was mainly due to a few "big names" missing from the usual line-up but I couldn't complain!

I realised that 4th place probably wouldn't last long as I had people like Dirt School's Rab Wardell and Andy Barlow chasing us all down from the back of the grid!  I was pleased to hold onto that 4th place round the first corner but the likes of Andy and Rab soon squeezed through with their impressive speed.

A bit of carnage ensued as we entered the first singletrack section of boardwalk with a tight left hand turn onto it.  There had been a bit of wheel bumping on the way to it, but several of us had to grind to a halt with a near pile-up on the entrance to the boardwalk.  I managed to hold a trackstand while I waited for the guys in front to get going but I thought it was pretty cheeky of some riders to try to squeeze past us onto the boardwalk when there clearly wasn't enough space!  Come on guys, it might be a race, but then there's just common sense and good etiquette!

I didn't let this bother me as we soon had a nice open fire road to climb up, along with the first off-piste natural section, a short slight uphill.  I was happy to be holding pace and keeping the likes of Scott Logan (last year's Masters series winner) and Wayne Barr (who pipped me in a sprint finish at Cathkin) in my sights.  In fact, I kept them within my sights for the whole first lap but then just couldn't maintain the same pace as them.

I switched places a couple of times with some other riders, but what I soon realised is that I was just having so much fun!  The off-piste sections were great.  I loved the technical climb and the descent that followed afterwards (which I believe locals call "Blueberry Hill") was great.  

I enjoyed picking my way through the new section thereafter, twisty, tight, my handlebars catching the odd tree here and there, making it all the more challenging, but just adding to the fun.  There were plenty of spectators around too, cheering us on, and the usual encouragement from the great SXC marshals who we couldn't race without.

I mentioned before that I've been really trying to work on my lap time consistency and pacing this season.  I used to tail off by about a minute each lap in the last 2 or 3 laps and I'm really pleased with how much it improved at the Plymouth BCXC race last week.  One other thing that has helped this week is that I'm now the owner of a Garmin Edge and this GPS device is great for helping with your pacing.

It's important to be able to pace based on feel, and that's what worked last week, but this time I was basing it on hard data.  Using the auto lap function on the Garmin and having a quick glance at the time and average speed from my last lap compared to the current lap, I could tell if I was pushing hard enough or not.  You obviously can't let it distract you but I really do think this Garmin is one of the best things I've bought to help my training or racing.  Way better than simply buying better brakes or lighter wheels or whatever!

Thanks to the Garmin, and my recent training and own perception of pace, I managed to keep laps 3 to 5 all within 22 seconds of each other, only slowing by about 10 seconds between each.  Lap 1 was fastest as always and even my slowing between laps 2 and 3 was only 30 seconds.  I can still improve, but it's getting so much better.  I now need to work on being really consistent and then faster in the last 2 laps.

While I lost time to the 3 riders in front of me, I managed to build a gap behind me and was really happy with my riding.  I only made one mistake during the race, on the new twisty section where I got caught out by a feature I cleared on every other lap, but missed it the one time there was a photographer there! Doh!

I really was just enjoying myself so much and almost didn't care about the result.  I achieved most of my process goals and I felt good.  I crossed the line in 9th place (the same as my Cathkin position but in a smaller field) and was happy to not be as far behind some of the other riders as I may have been in the past.  

A smile when crossing the line - that's what it's all about!

I was only about a minute behind Richard Knowles in front of me and while Scott was 4 minutes ahead, there are a lot of factors I can take into account there and I'd say our difference is on a par with last year when he was beating me by similar gaps in the Masters category.  With my own bike back (which is 2.5kg lighter than the one I'm on), I'll be quicker up the climbs and I've still got a long way to go in my training this season, so I'm only going to improve.

So, I'm taking a lot of positives from that race and I'm continuing to learn with each race having moved up to the Elite/Expert category this season.  The main thing I took from this is just how much I enjoyed it.  So, from now on, when things get to me, whether they be mechanical or otherwise, I'm not going to let them stop me from enjoying myself!  Whether it's racing or just a fun weekend ride with Heather or friends, I absolutely love riding my bike and it's one of the best feelings in the world!

If you also race and you find yourself taking it a bit too seriously sometimes, just remind yourself how much you're enjoying it as you crest a difficult climb or zoom down a fast technical descent!  It has really helped me remind myself why I do this!

Thanks as always to my wife Heather for her great support, moral encouragement, and feed zone assistance - but in particular well done to her for her first go at racing XC!  Thanks to my dad for the photos and to all the parents/in-laws for coming to watch and cheer me on.

Thanks finally again to Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow for their amazing support keeping me racing with a loan bike while I'm waiting for mine to have its frame replaced.  The Fuel EX9 just soaked up the descents on the Dalbeattie course!

This coming weekend, Saturday 2nd May will see me join the 75km route of the Selkirk MTB Marathon to compete in the British MTB Marathon Championships.  This is my 3rd year doing this event, and 2nd in the British Champs at it.  I love the course and it's always a great day out.  It's not a priority event for me but I'll have fun and aim to improve on last year's time and placing.  If you're bored on Saturday and fancy the odd glance at where I am on the course, I'll post a link to my Garmin Live Track on Twitter, so keep an eye on it around 10am when the race starts and you can then view it for the next few hours as we tackle the tough climbs and fun-filled descents of the area from Selkirk to Innerleithen and back (mobile data signal dependent of course!).

I'm enjoying a "transition" week in my training plan before Selkirk, riding for fun when I feel like it, rather than when my training plan tells me to!  After Selkirk, it'll be back onto full on build training, with more XC races coming up later in May.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Now that's a proper mountain bike course!

And it caught me out on lap 2!  But more on that later!

Last weekend took me on my longest road trip of the racing season down to Newnham Park near Plymouth for Round 2 of the British XC Series, and my 2nd race in the British Expert category.  As you'll know if you read my last race report, the course at Sherwood (being flat and not very technical) didn't suit me and I wasn't very happy with my result, so when I heard all the good things about this course, it more than made up for the 8 hour drive to Plymouth from Glasgow!

On arrival at the race venue for practice on Saturday, the journey was made even more worthwhile with the weather!  My wife was spared her usual support crew duties for once and I was joined by my dad.  My dad supported me at the WEMBO World Championships last year, but rather than staying up all night in the freezing cold Scottish weather in October, he was enjoying the sunshine for this race!


Huge thanks go to my dad for coming all the way to Plymouth with me for this and not just doing my bottle hand-ups in the feed zone, but for helping me throughout the entire weekend!

I was all set and ready to go see what this course had to offer in the 12 - 2pm practice session on Saturday:


Well, the course certainly did not disappoint!  A couple of really tough granny ring climbs; tricky technical rocky descents; a few jumps and drops; and some great sections for spectators to watch!  There was a great atmosphere during the race with lots of people shouting, cheering and blowing air horns at us as we picked our way over difficult rocky descents and between huge boulders that almost took your ankles off as you squeezed through them!

This was a proper mountain bike course!

Anyone who thinks XC mountain biking isn't technical should come and try this course!  And then try it on a bike with XC geometry and your saddle right up!

Speaking of bikes, my Superfly is still away with Trek building a new frame for me due to a warranty issue with the existing frame.  Again, I was rescued and able to race by the amazing support of my sponsors.  Alpine Bikes got me a loan of a Trek Fuel EX9 for this race.  



It has 120mm travel rather than the 100mm I'm used to, so it actually suited this course really well and probably gave me more comfort on some of those descents than my Superfly!  If you're looking for a bike that can do anything, I'd highly recommend this.  It handles really well and climbs surprisingly well too.  It comes with a dropper seatpost (which I removed for my race) which would also help it in more "all mountain" situations, and yet it dealt with an XC race too.  Definitely a great all round bike!

Again, I simply can't express my thanks enough to Alpine Bikes.  You sometimes get companies having "proud sponsor" moments . . . well, this is a "proud rider" moment as I feel so privileged to be supported by such an amazing, helpful sponsor!  Thanks especially to Jon Boyde at the Alpine Bikes Trek Store Glasgow.  I don't know where I'd be without him.  Not racing, probably!

As usual, photos don't do the technical features justice, but here's one to give you an idea.  Here's Kerry MacPhee (who came 5th in the Elite Women's race - well done Kerry!) tackling the "A line" on "Picnic Rocks":


If you check out the report on the British Cycling website, there are plenty more showing the other features.  

I was really happy with my practice session.  I got used to the new bike and I was clearing every single A line.  Although, I learned a lesson about that the next day . . . During the race, we were diverted down a B line on one lap as someone had crashed on an A line and was being helped by the marshals.  I need to remember to also practice the B lines, even if I'm comfortable on the A lines, as my first time down that particular B line was during the race and I messed it up.  Even though it was easier than the A line, it was still tricky.  I didn't fall - just had to unclip - but I'm going to remember that for future races!

So, I was on a high given the course suited me well: tough climbs and technical rocky descents.  I absolutely loved it and big thanks go to the organisers, Fully Sussed, for putting on such a good course!

Sunday was even warmer, with the wind having died down overnight.  We lined up on the start for 1pm and although I felt I got away well, I just failed to keep the pace up and was passed, yet again, by quite a few riders.  I was on the 5th or 6th row, so I was never going to get up to the front, but that was one process goal I definitely couldn't tick off after the race.  

I still hoped I would do better than Sherwood, given the course suited me better, and I thought I was, as I took all the A lines, buying me a few places here and there as the race progressed.


However, in lap 2, I made a stupid mistake on one of the tricky A lines.  There was a steep drop of a few feet off of a sketchy loose descent onto a fire road with a really sharp right turn.  The drop was rollable as it wasn't totally vertical but you had to get over the front of the bike again quickly to get the grip to make the turn on the loose gravel of the fire road.  On lap 2, I lost the front end and came down hard on my right hand side.

At moments like this, you sometimes think about pulling out.  I had cut my leg, arm and shoulder and really hurt my hip.  Blood was pouring down my arm.  But I could still ride my bike!  So, I dusted myself off and pushed on.  Adrenalin always masks the pain anyway!

As the race progressed, the Elites started to lap us as usual - I was amazed at the speed of Grant Ferguson (fellow Scot and currenty British XC Champion 2 years running).  He was way ahead of the other Elites and went onto win.

I managed to pass another couple of Expert riders on my 4th lap and as I approached the finish line at the end of lap 4 of 5 I could hear the commentator (Matt Payne) saying that the Expert winner was about to come through.  One of my goals this year is not to be lapped in my own category.  This guy must have been just behind me and I was about to be lapped!

I could ease up and just accept it . . . or I could push hard to get across the line before him, allowing me to complete my 5th and final lap and achieve one of my goals.  I took the latter option and I'm glad I did as I passed another Expert rider on my last lap!

Now, I've not even mentioned my result yet, so I guess I better . . . I was 55th out of 75.  As a percentage that's about the same as my result at Sherwood, so I was obviously really disappointed.  But I have to take a few things into account, such as a heavier bike, a crash on lap 2, the fact that I need to improve my starts, getting caught up in what can only be described as a traffic jam in the first lap as we entered the singletrack, and a few other factors.  So, I know what I need to work on and I'm not going to beat myself up too much.  I'm still aiming to get in the top 50% of the British Expert field this year and I know I can do it!  It's been a massive jump going from Masters to Expert and this is even more obvious in the British Series.  But I still don't regret going up to Expert rather than down to Sport.


One thing I can absolutely take away as a massive positive though is achieving something I've been trying to work hard at this year: consistent lap times.  My pacing has paid off.  The first lap was shorter and therefore faster, but all my other laps are pretty close in time and so my pacing was spot-on!  This excludes my crash of course, which cost me about 30 to 45 seconds, and if you also exclude a small mistake on my final lap, my laps are all within 15 seconds or so of each other.  I'm over the moon with that as I usually slow by a minute or more in the later laps.  

So, there's still more to do (when is there not?!) and I really enjoyed myself.  Despite the crash (which was totally my own fault and a silly mistake) I loved the course and had a great time, and that's what it's all about after all.  I improved an important part of my racing (lap pacing) and also experimented with a slight change in my nutrition plan which worked well for me.  I've captured the negatives that I can improve on but I'm absolutely focusing on the positives about me and my own racing, rather than getting too bothered about the result itself.

It's Round 2 of the SXC Series at Dalbeattie this weekend and I'm really looking forward to that.  It was a fantastic course last year (if a little bit long!) and I'm sure they'll put on a great race for us yet again.  The course could be pretty similar to Plymouth so it's been a great one to do a week before.  Thankfully, the gouge in my arm didn't need stitches and is healing up well, so I may still have some cuts and bruises to show, but no excuses to miss this race!  Bring it on!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Product Review: Bontrager XXX MTB Shoes

Although the main focus of my blogging is to provide race reports from a racer's view, along with some training tips, I was keen to add another area to the blog this year: product reviews.  I've been using some of the same nutrition, clothing and equipment for years, and also get the chance to try new stuff every now and again.  I therefore thought it might be useful if I provide my honest views on some of these products, whether that's first impressions or to explain why I always go back to the same products.  Whether it's for their performance in races or their durability in the many hours of training I do, I hope this is of some use to other mountain bike riders out there, whether or not you race.  If there are any products I use that you'd particularly like to hear about, just let me know.

One thing I want to make clear though is that these reviews are absolutely not biased just because I ride for a Trek Bicycle Store.  I obviously use a lot of Trek and Bontrager products because of that, but it won't just be Trek/Bontrager products I review.  Where it is, like this first review, I can guarantee it will be my honest unbiased views and they won't just receive 10/10 because they have the word Trek or Bontrager printed on them!

So, onto this first review of . . . 

Bontrager XXX MTB Shoes

Never have I seen a pair of cycling shoes more befitting of the term "disco slippers"!


The Bontrager XXX MTB Shoes sit at the top of the Bontrager range.  They describe them as their "fastest, most advanced mountain shoe ever".  Well, I can't guarantee they made me faster, but they definitely look fast!

Styling

Let's get the superficial bit out of the way first!  I'm not exactly shy of the fact I like to make sure I'm coordinated on the bike.  Whether it's my red and white helmet matching my red/black/white kit or the red/white of my Oakley sunglasses frame, I'm not going to deny I couldn't resist the bright red!  

I think they look fantastic, but the shiny bright red may not be everyone's cup of tea, so they are also available in black or white.  You may not think white is the best choice of MTB shoe colour, but if they clean up as well as my red ones do, then you've nothing to worry about.

This is how they looked after my first race in them at the BCXC Series Round 1 at Sherwood Pines, and they cleaned up looking brand new afterwards with a bit of soapy water and a good spray with the hose.  It's also worth pointing out that they dried very quickly too, as there's not much material in them to get soaked through with the water, whether during riding or cleaning.

The Clarino microfibre upper probably helped with this quick drying as well as the light weight and hopefully will prevent them being too smelly after a good bit of use on my feet!

Fit and Sizing

I've lost toe nails from wearing tight cycling shoes in 24 hour races, and I don't feel I have the widest feet or toes.  When I'm measured up for ski boots I'm usually a medium width.  These shoes have loads of room in the toe box, which admittedly some people with narrower feet may not like, but it suits me perfectly.  If you've ever had that horrible crushing feeling in your toes from wearing cycling shoes for too long, then I don't think you'll ever experience that with these.  I've moved from Northwave shoes to these and I find the toe area far more comfortable.  As with most MTB shoes, there's a strap for the toe section, but you don't need it too tight thanks to the dials on the uppers.

Although there's plenty of room in the toe box, this does not sacrifice the fit elsewhere in the shoe.  The two Boa IP1 dials on each shoe help you get the perfect fit over the top of the foot and the adjustment is easy on the fly if you feel you need to adjust them either way while pedalling - they click in and out like the dials you find on the back of most helmets these days.  


I find them a snug, high performance fit but without being uncomfortable.  I didn't feel any seams digging in anywhere.  The heel is gripped incredibly well, to the point that I genuinely can't move my heel out of the shoe no matter how hard I try (when it's fully fastened up with the dials).

The InForm in-sole also provides a surprising amount of support considering it's not too thick.  I tend to pronate in both running and cycling shoes and need a good bit of support to prevent a recurring calf injury from years ago coming back.  At first I didn't think these shoes had enough support for me but after a few rides it's clear that they do.  I will report back once I've done some longer (4 hours plus) rides on them, but so far so good.

In terms of sizing, I'm usually a UK size 8 in most shoes and this equates perfectly in the EU 42 size from Bontrager.  I wouldn't recommend going up or down a size as is often the case with some cycling shoes to get the right fit.

Performance

This is absolutely where these shoes excel.  Assuming you're happy with the fit and the looks, I just can't fault the performance.  They come with the stiffest carbon sole available from Bontrager (stiffness index 14).  I can't bend the sole at all (and no, it's not because I'm just a weakling! :-)

I thought my previous shoes were stiff, but I feel as if my leg and foot are actually just part of the pedal and crank with these on.  You can feel the power transfer so smoothly from your leg, through your foot and onto the pedal.  I've tested these in MTB training, MTB racing and on my turbo trainer so far, and in all circumstances, they just feel so secure, stiff and powerful.

I'm not going to claim that they make me faster, but when it comes to power transfer on a steep climb, I'm absolutely certain they do make a difference - especially if you're into your marginal gains!

They're also extremely light (317g per shoe with a size 42) so you hardly feel like you're wearing them.  Despite the lack of material to lead to this low weight, they are still comfortable, and as mentioned above this helps them dry out quickly too.  They have good venting at the toes but I've yet to use them in very hot weather so can't comment on how hot my feet might get in them.

I had to run through a lot of gloopy mud in some of the unrideable sections at Sherwood a couple of weeks ago and the soles gripped well, despite the lack of toe spikes provided in the box.  They take a set of spikes but for some reason Bontrager no longer provide them with their shoes.  At the price (RRP £259.99) I'd expect a small thing like this to be provided.

The only other area I would fault is I'm not sure how durable the rubber sole will be.  In the Tour de Ben Nevis later this year, there's a section where I need to "hike a bike" over rocks for about 30 to 40 mins and it's making me consider whether or not I'll wear them for this race.  I'm not sure the rubber sole will take that kind of abuse.  But I guess it's a compromise between performance/lightweight and durability.


So, to summarise, they are the stiffest, best performing mountain bike shoe I've ever worn and I would highly recommend them for any XC racer.  The only things preventing me from giving them full marks is skimping on the toe spikes and the question I have over the durability of the rubber sole.

Overall rating: 9/10