Monday, 30 November 2009

a rant

I'm told by those around me that I am a pretty tolerant sort of fellow, and certainly in my line of work, running projects for homeless teenagers, there is a need for a relaxed attitude. However, I'm getting sick and tired of hearing wingeing and moaning about there being too much thick mud and the need for running during a cross race.

What is it with these people?!

Let me point out some facts:

I live and therefore mostly race cross in a region of England that has the highest rainfall of any in the country.

Cross is a winter sport. It is held as an alternative to road racing and time trialling, and now mountainbiking.

Cross has always been about natural obstacles - solid or otherwise.

Cross is held in parkland, woodland and on other soil (or sand) based mediums.

Saturday's NW League race, the Wheelbase Cross in Haslingden was unsurprising really. With a late November date after a month of torrential rain, including severe flooding events just to the north in Cumbria, in a Victorian municipal park comprising 75% grass and 25% woodland, it doesn't take a degree in hydrology, ecology, bio-diversity or any other science, to work out there is going to be a fair amount of mud generated by 140 or so riders round the course.

At this point I need to declare a certain interest in the proceedings, as on the day I was helping out friend and Peaks devotee, Dave Haygarth who was organising the race with the Wheelbase shop and team. I have seen just how much work and effort goes into organising these races. The one thing an organiser cannot do is organise the weather! Dave was pre-riding the course for weeks beforehand with me and several others, and made some last minute changes in an attempt to minimise problems when the course became completely waterlogged the Wednesday before. There was no way on earth that it was ever going to be anything but super muddy, unless people fancied a slippy crit race around the park using the tarmac paths only.

Pic: Jo Hanglebads

I would also like to offer some contructive criticism to those complaining about the level of mud clogging their bikes - pick them up! Seriously, the number of people I saw riding through really thick patches, pushing through really thick patches and generally doing their best to make the problem worse was amazing. Look after your bike during the race and it will look after you. Or do, as some of my team mates did and take a tool/scraper to unclog your cassette and frame as you go round. I enjoyed the conditions and made the best of them to finish 4th Vet (amongst National standard opposition) and 12th overall in a field that started with 120 riders. Things are coming together nicely for a foray into National Trophy racing at Bradford.

Anyway, I am getting away from my rant - whilst European racing tends to be faster and more flowing, they are not immune from weather induced bogfests as the following illustrate (thanks to Dave Haygarth for the 1st clip):

Either way, cross is and should remain a sport of varying challenges - terrain and weather induced. Running is part of cross - embrace it. You don't have to go out and run marathons on the road, just include some short, sharp runs in your training to help out for when there is no other option but to take to your feet. Your summer cycling will thank you too, due to the cross-training effect running brings. If you don't like running at any point, then stick to summer cross and the early season races. Or take up time trialling.... Just quit moaning please.

Rant over. Till the next muddy cross.

Monday, 23 November 2009

where are things up to in the heartland?

WARNING: Contains race spoilers for those that haven't caught up on the DVD action yet!

Post wise, things have been pretty quiet on the Euro cross front. However, my race watching has continued apace with the downloads from Newsbin coming thick and fast.

In terms of English riders in the women's field, things are looking good over in that little house in Tielt-Winge, Belgium, residence to the Wyman's (as well as Gabby Day and Ian Field). They all seem to be pushing each other hard in training and Helen has come up with some cracking results in the really tough races like Koppenberg (2nd) and Namur (3rd). Only a matter of time now before a really big win in a WC or SP race, Helen...........there have been some wins already in other races including this weekend in Germany following a training break in Portugal. Chapeau!

In the Elite men field, the early season left me somewhat deflated as it seemed that Prince Albert was holding court and no-one dared challenge his title. However King Nys has returned to battle for the crown and there is a new pretender to the throne (enough Royal metaphors there I think!).

Certainly it looked like Niels Albert was going to run away with the season after back to back wins, emphatic in their nature. With Bart Wellens going man down with illness as well, the list of possible riders who could challenge Albert seemed thin on the ground - Nys was out of form, Stybar not quite there and Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels going well, but not well enough.

Albert's trademark tactic of a blistering attack very early on and a subsequent solo ride to victory has been countered by the others, and he has had some problems too at the start in other races. Either way, he looks more vulnerable now and especially on the technical courses requiring either descending or ascending skills or both. He was simply outclassed at Jaarmarkt and Gavere by Nys who remains the best of the peloton at retaining forward motion when the ground gets tricky. Though Albert did win Gavere, Nys looked much the better rider before his puncture.

Stybar took his time to get up to the speed of Albert and at times, Nys too, but after several recent 3 man showdowns in the final stages of the race, it was only a matter of time before he found the line first and this weekend he did so in emphatic style wining the double header of GVA and Superprestige races. Albert was once again found wanting in technical sections over the weekend, and a certain desparation has come into his riding - he is no longer able to break away at will and ride away. It would seem that he is running out of tools in his toolkit at the moment?

Stybar has developed a much more mature style - hanging back much of the time, sometimes giving the impression he is struggling and at times letting Albert (and others) burn too many matches with attacks that are brought back. He is less impetuous, less emotional and at the moment looking the better rider for me. I think he has been observing Nys, who although strong on blistering attacks is no one trick pony, and Stybar I feel has been learning from the old pro. I was pleased, nay excited, to see his wins this weekend as they signal a confirmation for me that this could be turning into the most exciting season for years - Albert, Nys and Stybar are confirmed winners but Bart returns very soon and Kevin Pauwels I feel, could be due for a win when conditions turn rough and the going super technical. Pauwels is super quiet and reserved but super dogged in a racing situation. He picked up a big win last season, and I look forward to more from him.

We are heading into the 'classic race' period with Koksijde, Overijse and Essen and the Christmas race fest to come including the trilogy of Diegem, Loenhout and Baal. Missing in action though to my great disappointment is the monster sand and mud fest that is Hofstade, scene of some epic racing and epic weather. We could be in for a treat if all three raise their game for this campaign and set us up for a superb Worlds in the fozen wastes of Tabor.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

gettin' cross

I love this image from Duncan Here Come the Belgians- it's been inspiring me over the past month to do exactly that. To get out and cross, sometimes alone but mostly in company. And it has paid off. Pushing myself in the company of better riders (thanks Dave H), running through technique with others - it's all helped hone those cross skills still further.

I had the good fortune to be coached many years ago by Ian Small, a legend on the NW cross scene. Ian has been involved with cross for longer than he probably cares to remember, and still competes every weekend in the Veteran Over 70 catagory. When I got into cross, Ian was in the minute (ie 4 members) club I joined, Zodiac. He was also coaching the National Cyclocross Development Squad and kindly ran evening cross sessions in Manchester. Those group sessions were hard - warm up, stretching, runs, technique and mini races. All floodlit and often in the worst of weathers. Those sessions provided the bedrock for good technique - technique which still is hard wired today. I am not the strongest in the mud, not the best downhill, not the canniest racer, but I am as quick as most riders out there at getting on and off, and over barriers or obstacles - those basic cross skills.

One of my recent group sessions included a welcome visit to my neck of the woods by Otley Rich. Though he lives in Yorkshire we can forgive him this indiscretion. Rich is a classy rider - light, very strong and with a smooth style and extensive experience to match. He has a distinct sartorial style too. On every occasion that I can remember last year on the road when we have ridden together, he has rode away from me on the hills, pedalling serenely in a bigger gear. It gets frustrating sometimes but is nonetheless great to watch.

This season in cross races, the roles have been reversed - Rich has been close on my heels but not quite there at the finish to beat me as would be expected on previous form. Training together round my local cross circuit it became apparent to me where I was countering his greater strength and fitness - off the bike, over or around an obstacle, and then back on the bike again. With Belgian Mark, we worked together on barrier technique and on mounting, especially on uphill sections. Like many riders, Rich had a tendency to jump too high, landing slightly heavy on the saddle and losing momentum in the process. Barriers were approached a little too slow and the foot section started a little too early, rather than taking a single stride before and then over the barrier. I enjoyed thinking too about those skills - they were passed onto me and I have taken them for granted over the years. Explaining the little details and the subtle tips to others confirms my own familiarity with the technique. Doing stuff at race pace on a simulated lap or course is also essential. It is one thing to string together a beautiful coast into the barriers, set up for a single stride and mount in a flowing motion when fresh, but when your heart is up in the red zone, your vision blurred and your arms exhausted from previous laps, that smoothness becomes a real struggle. The engrams or patterns of movement that you have hard wired previously become all the more important.

I urge you then, to find a local group, get a few friends together and do some skills work. Design your own course in a local park or wood. You dont need a lot of space, just some imagination and a mindset where you aren't bothered being observed jogging alongside a bike, randomly hopping onto it and picking it up for imaginary barriers that only you can see........

As for Rich, I suspect he will be beating me soon armed with his new toolkit of techniques. But only if he blags his way nearer the front row of the starting grid like I do to ensure a quick get away...........

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Team Here Come the Belgians infomercial......

Shameless plug for the Belgians here - I couldn't resist getting busy on xtranormal, a make your own movie site which conveniently has a range of accents to choose from for your characters.

Enjoy. If you can understand those Flemish accents..........

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


Now the dust, or rather mud, has settled on last weekend's NW League race at Brockholes, it feels timely to visit some of the issues raised by this soon to be legendary mudbath.

Photos from the event have given some insight into the problems encountered with a very tough, saturated grass based course, overhung and surounded by trees:

Pic Dave Haygarth

However, with the express intention of starting a bit of a debate, I want to take issue with some of the comments overheard at the event, most of which can be summarised in terms of a moan about the conditions, the amount of running or getting off the bike and a general dissatisfaction about a perceived lack of riding throughout the length of the course.

I should preface this slightly and say that for my 4 year old, the complete bog near the finish was clearly too much and she exited the U12 race somewhat tearfully. Also, that the number of broken rear mechs in the Senior race was well into double figures and Stuart Reid claimed first prize in that category with not one but two Dura Ace rear mechs that met their demise. Some riders were reduced to regularly stopping and clearing out their clogged bottom brackets, brakes and forks. Clearly conditions were on the tough, nay destructive side.

This though is the point - of cross. The necessary skillset of a cross rider is in fact an incredibly varied thing. Cross is not riding fast at all times, without getting off and without encountering natural obstacles. It is not about the steady pacing strategy of a time trial, the smooth fast flow of a bunch in a road race. It is about finding an easier line, a quicker technique on or off the bike, about agility, about grinding it out sometimes.

Cross is also a winter sport. Deliberately. Whilst modern summer crosses can be great fun and useful to keep the body's memory of high intensity, cross's roots can be traced way back to the turn of the century, a time when the Tour de France was more about survival and cross was invented and practiced expressly for 'the physical education of the cyclist'. A fab article by Eugene Christophe from 1921 clearly illustrates this paradigm. Check it out for the photos by way of demonstration.

I dont want to take the discussion down some macho dead end alley, but cross is and should always be challenging. It should throw different challenges at you according to the course, it's condition and the natural or not so natural obstacles along it's duration.

Going back to Brockholes (and I will be, unlike some apparently) the course was heavy. Biblically so in places. It required a minimum of 2 runs. It clogged bikes up and those with either 2 bikes, or God forbid a crew with a jet wash, were at an advantage. But amongst all this, this particular achtervolger rode in the big ring around the entire course for the length of the race. Hardly a bottom gear grind. I did however get off and run quite a number of sections that were (just) rideable. Why? Because it was quicker, and cross is about being quicker than the riders around you. My hours of drills on and off the bike, over obstacles and during off road intervals paid off and I was able to employ the skillset I had developed over time, to it's maximum.

I like most other riders have my preference for certain types of course. I make no bones about saying this was one of them, but equally do not shy away from fast, crit style courses with the kind of tight turns and confined tracks that my 6' 5" frame copes less well with. It's still cross, and I have to be able to cope with whatever comes along. Where I struggle, I work on that weakness and as a result this year my cornering technique has been a lot better, whilst my running and speed off and then on to the bike remains a strength.

Let me know your thoughts - for me it was simply a cross race that required a strategy like any other race, and that strategy required getting off the bike several times a lap. That adaptation to conditions is why, for me, cross is so engrossing. The cleaning up afterwards though was a different matter!

On a purely observational note, I noticed a large number of 'modern' style cross bikes, quite high end models, that were simply unable to cope with the amount of mud and leaves. My trusty, rather old skool Planet X Oom Johan(s) have great clearance, slack angles even and this showed in the fact that they kept going without missing a beat. The clearances on more exotic frames have got tighter, reflecting the trend of the day and what the Euro pros are riding. This however falls a little flat without the pit crew a Euro Pro has and the access to a jet wash every lap or so. Food for thought......

Oh, and Green Michelin Muds on tub carcasses are better than Rhinos in a straight shoot out. Better cornering and less prone to clog (interestingly) when things are super sticky. The positions might be reversed in really sloppy thin mud though. Maybe.