Friday 31 October 2008

Euro pros - men for all seasons?

I have been subscribing to a newsgroup for a few years now and courtesy of a nice Dutchman called Ed, have built up a fairly comprehensive collection of Euro races from the last few seasons. One of the things I have noticed is the diversity of conditions that cross presents to the rider over the course of a season. Whilst no-one is necessarily at home on all surfaces and in all conditions, to perform at the highest level requires skill accross the board, from the fast criterium conditions of early season races to the mudbaths of December and January requiring finesse on foot too. Something worth bearing in mind as you go about your season preparations in the summer as well as during the season itself as conditions change? The trouble is, this year December arrived in September at the NW League first race in Scorton, perhaps catching a few people out who hadn't spent much time on their feet over the summer. Climate change is definitely making cross more interesting.......................

Neerpelt is the big season opener in Belgium (in early October) and is fast, technical and sandy. The speed of the opening lap in this clip is pretty impressive (though not as fast as the Kalmthout World Cup later in the month) and it doesn't let up for the rest of the race.

Compare that with this from Hamme Zogge (Belgian National Champs) in 2007......


Sunday 26 October 2008

nw league 7 - team spirit

It was blowing a hooly on the 'sea front' at Otterspool on Saturday for Round 7 of the League - the wind whipping off the Mersey felt like the prelude to Hurricane Getrude (or whatever tropical storm takes your fancy). It was the usual Otterspool course - that is, varied, twisty, slippy and full of hidden surprises. Bit like Turkish Delight or a bar of Rocky Road or some other dodgy concoction.....

There were slightly surreal dramas from the outset - mrs crossjunkie nearly had full blown ding dong with a foul mouthed and unhelpful local lady when searching for a loo nearby, and Dave B had mechanicals every few minutes before he even got to the start line involving softening tubs, a broken rear mech and a frantic 5 mins to go bike borrow from Eric T. That was before the scary large Staff type terrier dog had broken free from its owner and chased Adam Palmer into the single track wooded section before being expertly coralled by Mr and Mrs Green (as in Stuart). I expected nothing less of Otterspool and it delivered. The old fishermen from years gone by (see post below), off their boxes on industrial strength snuff would have approved of the spectacle I am sure.

The start was gridded - a sensible approach given some of the recent chaotic starts although Otterspool is actually one of the safest starts around. Unfortunately for me and one or two others, it was gridded according to League points, which are in short supply for me having done only half the races so far this season. This had the effect of sending me back to the mid pack straight away when I was hoping to be challenging for a top 20 place. And so it remained for most of the race - chasing hard and keeping lap times with those in the low 20s but remaining resolutely stuck in the late 20s. I enjoyed Otterspool this time - the bends were more manageable for me and the course fun to ride with plenty of variety and challenges to keep the concentration and interest levels up. I even stayed upright for a change. British Cycling Academy rider Johnny McEvoy came past with ease to lap me on his way to the win and looking very comfortable too. Less comfortable was his bike change in front of me which made my 3 year olds efforts in her school sports day egg and spoon relay race look professional! I unlapped myself and wasted no opportunity in taking the piss as he came by yet again.

Dave B was having the day from hell. Breaking his own bike before the start he borrowed a spare bike off Eric with a couple of minutes to go. This had Vittoria XGs on which I have to say aren't the grippiest tires around (IMHO) especially when they are bald, which these were. Gridded on the 2nd row Dave managed to ride this slick shod misfit to the point where he was challenging Rob Pugh for 3rd. Chapeau! Then the gremlins struck and just after he had lapped me on the last lap, I came across him struggling to get the chain out from between wheel and cassette. I couldn't fix it either so gave him my bike, carrying the broken bike a half lap or so to my spare. I am 6' 5" and Dave isn't. I was curious to see whether he would try and jump on it - he didn't and just about managed to straddle the top tube and start pedalling. As he disappeared round the corner, hips rocking madly as his legs were stretched to breaking point I had to suppress a chuckle. Anyway, a concerted effort by the Horwich team, on and off the bike, meant Dave only lost 1 place and came in a great 5th. I lost a futher 4 places and drifted in a relaxed 33rd. My own League aspirations died a little while ago with the increase of the number of counters from 10 to 12 races, which I will be be unable to make, so it was an easy decision to put Team before Self.

The only thing missing was my mid race chat with Mick S, who being gridded way above me was then able to make his gentlemanly start and still stay ahead of me. Shame, I liked the social element that the old situation use to bring. No matter, I have persuaded Mick to spill the beans on his training regime - look out for his secrets in a forthcoming post.

Friday 24 October 2008

otterspool park, liverpool

Otterspool, on the banks of the Mersey has had a long history dating back to the time of the Puritans who used it as a fishery before it's pools and creeks became the site of water powered mills including a snuff mill.

Since then it has seen better days and the promenade has become used for slightly less lawful practices, including cruising of an automotive and non-automotive variety......

For years now it has also been used, at least in the daytime, by many of the Liverpool based clubs to promote a NW League race or 3. I have always had a love hate relationship with the place. The course is invariably technical, twisty and with protruding branches, roots and foliage - hence I always struggle to get my lanky and unskilled frame around its twists and turns. It also contains the famous Muur de Otterspool - a miniature Flanders climb complete with cobbles, mud and cursing riders struggling for grip.

However, the place has a certain charm and lends itself to a myriad of different course variations that organisers have cleverly used over the years. Actually the courses are often true cross courses, combining steps, runups that can be ridden if strong, mud plugging, technical sections and much more. If truth be known, I only don't like it because I can't ride it very well.

So it is with trepidation (for me) that the League converges on Otterspool this Saturday for the first of 2 visits this season. The forecast is dire with heavy rain and gales forecast - at least that may have the effect of slowing down the course allowing me to catch my breath and grind into the constant bends and corners at a slower and more manageable speed. See you there!

Tuesday 21 October 2008

nw race 6 - back to boot camp

Sunday's Lune CC promotion took on a military edge with it's new venue, Halton Army Camp near Lancaster. Adi Dalgleish and his team had found a great new venue at Halton, being effectively private land and close to the motorway. The course too was close to the car park and having facilities like heated loos (!) and a food tent really helped as the whole family came this time. The course itself had plenty for the strong rider, some good flowing corners and descents to get right and some bits where running was needed unless you were really strong (a rarity these days, the running that is). Luckily we avoided the assualt course nearby.


The start (with over 80) was a bit more dramatic than usual - a downhill off camber tarmac turn was an obvious hazard to the field coming after a couple of hundred yards or so, and was sensibly omitted by pulling the tape back. Unfortunately no one was aware of the 5ft drop off a grass bank that this course change left. The leading few riders must have had a fit when they had to launch off it into the air but landed (just) and carried on. Paul Wotty and Adam Palmer took flyers off the banking and didn't quite land it, crashing heavily though luckily on the grass. I for once had had a good start and was bearing down on Paul as he slid to a stop sitting on his bum and facing the wrong way up the course. Understandably he looked a little concerned as I bore down on him, but disaster was avoided although I believe others came down behind me. Paul went on to ride a great race and finish 2nd Vet and 13th overall. Adam didn't continue but I hear was OK.

Surprisingly the good start left me in the top 10 and latching onto a good size group chasing the 1st 4 riders who had already broken clear. Interval sessions, the turbo, less booze and the previous 3 races conspired to produce actual racing legs in me and I hung in there for the whole race only giving way to a few faster riders who had not had such good starts. The usual mid race meeting and brief chat with Mick Style took longer to come than usual as he carved his way through the field to 1st Vet again. Mick must have the cross equivalent of an Ice Truckers turbo diesel engine - takes ages to rev up but when it does it just keeps on pulling and pulling. Even Chris Young doesn't start that slow before crushing the field! Mick, watch out for a crossjunkie coaching post soon on Starts....

crossjunkie cruises(!) the main climb

Pic from British Cycling website courtesy of Ian McVety

After a consistent race, no crashes and with steady riding, I ended up 19th and 5th Vet - result! Even mrs crossjunkie seemed vaguely impressed and was kind enough to offer up a shout and a bottle each lap that I politely declined. It was nice to race with 2 internationals, Ian Bibby and Johnny McEvoy who took the top 2 spots respectively. It's what I like about cross - a grassroots sport where you can rub shoulders (literally) with riders at the top of the sport. Rob Pugh was the best of the rest and is having a consistently good season. Dave Brailsford was challenging but was unlucky this time, puncturing and then having a mechanical on his spare bike and failing to finish. Martin Woffindin took 1st junior and Sue Clark rode strongly for 1st woman - apologies to her if she felt I was a little too slow at conceding the racing line as she came past half way through. Misunderstandings between riders seemed to be a theme of the race as I overheard a few slightly heated interactions between people - I was guilty of not giving as clear instructions as I should have done a couple of times, but we can all race together without too much friction I am sure, particularly given fields are getting larger this year compared to last.

Pics and report on:

Wednesday 15 October 2008

epic rides - tour of flanders sportive 2008 part2

After the mayhem of the Koppenberg, with Gary riding high after his successful run up through the masses, there was a brief interlude as we dropped down off the hills and on to the Steenbeekdries. Whilst I had obsessed enough to know the exact order of the climbs from memory (for which I got much stick), I hadn't worked hard enough to grasp the exact meterage between them and was caught unawares by a sharp left onto the flattish cobbles that run up to this next horrorshow. Trying to eat a gel and ride Flemish cobbles may be possible for those born and raised in Flanders but it was beyond me and after the choking fit had subsided, I was able to enjoy the gentler gradient up the Steenbeekdries before the monumentally rough cobbled descent down the other side and over the railway line. Having seen crashes there in the race in previous years, a cautious approach paid dividends although cross handling skills must have helped as I was overtaking a fair few, despite not being known for my skills downhill.

A quick burst led on to the Taaienberg 3km later, past the invisible traffic island that was to catch out Angel Gomez in the pro race the next day, leaving him with a broken leg after a sickening crash. The Taaienberg is a lovely climb even in the wet and mud, being tree lined, less steep and with a more relaxed feel. I took to the smoother gutter near the spectators, Flanders hero style and promptly nearly ground to a halt as it was full of mud. Local knowledge must play a big part in the pro race, as most of the local pros know each and every cobble and line on the bergs, having grown up with them.

From then on, there was a long section including 6 tarmac bergs on the way to Geraardsbergen and the Muur, that have the effect of wearing you down somewhat in preparation for the final 2 cobbled climbs. This passed without incident, though the pace lifted somewhat when a Quick Step pro (Steven de Jongh?) tooled by warming up for Sundays pro race. He sat up long enough to admire Gary's Belgian style Rapha winter hat, seeming impressed by his style and panache. He muttered something like 'Chapeau' or whatever the Flemish equivalent is. Wannabes jumped on his wheel while we let him go by and up the road. After 4 hours of rain, and wind the sun came out and the rest of the route was bathed in sunshine, allowing us to dry out somewhat and efffectively baking the Flanders grit on our clothes and faces into a crust.

The run into the Muur in Geraardsbergen is lovely - typical Flanders countryside giving way to the urban build up before the famous motorway bridge that takes you into the bottom of the climb. With no contact from Winkie, even by phone (he had stopped for one of his famous leisurely cafe breaks) we pressed on. Unfortunately the sportive route takes a diversion from the race route at this point taking you by tarmac back roads in to the top of the cobbled market square and onto the cobbles at the point where the attacks tend to go. Nonetheles, it was mighty impressive looking up at the Church at the top and wondering how you were going to get up there. I was suitably psyched by this point, wanting to get up the Muur and Kapelmuur in style and went 'a bloc'. Gary promptly dropped me as he had on every climb so far, though I kept him more in sight than previously. A few dicey moments with the day trippers on shopping bikes and green greasy cobbles and I was powering alone up the final ramp to the church and onto victory - in my mind at least.

Most surprising moment of the day (apart from the size of Winkie's bladder) was the drop off the top of the Muur and through a bizarrely ornamental garden before picking up the road to the Bosberg and last climb of the day.

Whilst the Bosberg is not steep it is still cobbled and is a killer after all that has been before. Photographers wait to catch your 'death mask' grimaces as your legs finally give in and it becomes a battle in your mind to get to the end of the trees without grinding to a halt. I had given my all on the Kapelmuur and the sorry remnants left just about got me to the top without embarrassment. The run in toward Ninove and the finish is fast and twisty and me and Gary enjoyed picking off slower groups in a final push to the end. A drag up through the official finish and grandstands topped off a superb ride of around 6 hours or so. Epic indeed.

Next day we bailed out of the early start and group coach slog around the pro race (good call Winkie) and took a more leisurely train ride to Geraardsbergen to catch the action. Souvenir stalls, frites and mayonnaise and a walk up the cobbles to relive the previous days action led to the inevitable Flemish smoky bar and a grandstand view of the action on tele. After meeting a loquacious Italian on our shared table, whom we nicknamed Asterix, we got into the action on tele and absorbed the atmosphere of watching the biggest race in Flanders, in Flanders and in a bar on the race route. As Stijn Devolder did his thing on the Eikenmolen and went clear, we rushed outside to see him him power into the market square and on to the Muur proper. Back into the bar for the nailbiting 'will he wont he' finish (my legs hurt in sympathy watching him grind up the Bosberg) and his triumphant ride up the finish straight in Ninove. A bar full of Flandrians (and a couple of Brits and Italians) went mad for a Flandrian winner who had appeared the strongest all race, eclipsing even his team leader and Belgian demi-god, Boonen.

Asterix by now was so pissed that he tried to gatecrash the VIP tent opposite, which was full of haughty models and suits, armed as he was with an enormous bottle of potent Italian homebrew/potion of indeterminate origin under his coat. He had previously tried to engage us in the drinking of this potion, a feat we politely declined. The final hurrah of the day came as we staggered onto our tour bus, stinking of booze and fags and only 15 mins late for the rendevous. Yours truly had to do the walk of shame down a packed bus to the only seat left on the back row, past a sea of less than cheerful souls who had been up since god knows when and simply wanted to get home and off that sodding bus. Shame personified.

Monday 13 October 2008

bits and bobs and no racing

I had to sit out the double header of NW League races this weekend - it was a Significant Birthday Celebration both days for mrs crossjunkie. No riding and a rather messy cocktail party can't have helped form, but were fun nonetheless. At least J got in his first Cross-Country race (illegally under age at 7) and was flying in the under-11's. I missed racing though and will looking forward to fresh legs on the 19th.

Race reports are over on the British Cycling website

UPDATE: Congrats to Rob Pugh who knocked out a win at Boggart Hole Clough against some classy opposition following a 3rd the day before to Scott Thwaites and Richard Wilkinson. Must be nice to have youthful legs that recover overnight to race the next day. I can but dream.........

Rapha cross kit - it was almost inevitable that I would succumb, despite complaining about the concept

I can report back that the 3/4 bibs that confusingly they call shorts are really rather nice. Plush thermo-roubaix cossets and supports your thigh, they are a sensible length and the insert 'chammy' pad from Cytech feels even better than Assos (at least for my anatomy). Acid test of any short is the 'forgot I had on new shorts' moment which arrived several times during the first couple of road rides. The only downside is that they feel remarkably slippy on the saddle, which can be slightly unnerving offroad and when jumping on, but is great for road rides. I think I'll just use them on the road to avoid testing the durability issue.............

They have also produced Belgian Knee Warmers knee warmers over at Rapha. The blog is already legendary but is now franchising it's own products. Cool. Any offers for crossjunkie clothing perhaps - maybe a fetching cardigan or cloth cap?

Talking of Rapha, I came across Velo Dramatic - a beautifully artworked blog with an eye for expensive kit among other things. Check out this post

How anyone can spend $40,000 on bikes and kit in 2 years is beyond even me but I am willing to give it a go!

Part 2 of Flanders soon - call back for the gritty climax.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

epic rides - tour of flanders sportive 2008 part1

In these days of economic gloom and dire predictions, I find I am turning to pleasant memories as an insurance policy from the sense of depression and helplessness that can take hold if one listens to the news too much. By way of celebrating events removed from the day to day hum drum and worry of modern living, this series of posts looks at epic rides that still retain that glow, lingering in the memory and sustaining me through the fatigue and stress of earning a living and keeping things going generally. I can think of no better explanation of what I am talking about than a post on Belgian Knee Warmers entitled 'Clarity' from June 2008

Rooted in the complication of Western society, our daily lives lack the now of our ancestors. Days pass into weeks of restrained existence; days spent where our most definitive stroke may be command-S. Tens of thousands of years of descent with modification in our sapient brains tell us this isn’t what life is meant to be. So we go on vacation. And what do we do? We look for the defining moment. Something to restore life to our life.

And so I found myself in Ghent last April with a couple of friends (Winkie and Gary), a bike and a dream that had been hatched some years before almost as soon as I got back into cycling after a 12 year break. Lacking the pioneering spirit of my youth, I had plumped for a package tour to ride and watch the Tour of Flanders, cosseted by organised travel and accommodation arrangements. It was also a good excuse to celebrate my fast approaching Vet status and the official beginning of middle age (not my official definition!) with my 40th Birthday.

Forsaking more than a cursory few Belgian brews the night before (Barbar, Leffe Brune), an early start saw our trio mingling with around 18,000 others at the start in Ninove, lining up to ride the 140km event. If you haven't experienced the organised two wheeled chaos at the start of one of the great European sportive events, it is something to behold.

Baffingly, we missed the official start thinking we were simply riding toward it with a steady stream of others. Gradually it dawned on us that we were already on the course - it didn't make much difference as I felt like a child at Christmas, riding on hallowed roads in the motherland of cycling. Winkie stopped for what goes down in history as the longest pee ever - I swear me and Gary were close to getting the bonk just standing around waiting (Winkie does nothing in a hurry, except running up mountains). The numbers started swelling as large groups coalesced on the road and the pace began to lift a little. The arrival of most of the Sunweb Projob Team livened things up somewhat - only in Belgium would you get the Team Car flying down the centre of a very wide boulevard, all the team members drafting behind with a gaggle of wannabees frantically trying to hang on in the slipstream.

It was on the way to the Molenberg, first climb of the day that the true scale of the numbers became apparent and it was definitely right there in front of us when we turned the sharp right into the cobbles and half of the cycling fraternity of Europe was rammed into the narrow street, grinding to a halt and cursing. I added my English profanities to the collection as I hadn't travelled for over 24 hours to walk my way up the climbs of the Ronde. But walk we did and then the weather started. It pissed down at that point and my mood went from euphoria to something very black indeed.

From then on, the weather for the day was truly Flandrian - all four seasons in a 6 hour period, including sleet, snow, driving rain, drizzle, gales, grey clag and blazing sunshine! With my own clouds darkening my mood we pressed on through the Wolvenberg where we lost Winkie never to be seen until the finish (we did wait honest) and through to the first long section of cobbles.

There is a longish cobbled high street in the gruff Lancastrian town where I work, but they are mere baby cobbles compared to the huge bruisers that the Belgians use. If you have not ridden Belgian cobbles before then you may be forgiven for thinking that graphic reports of their violence to machine and body are exaggerated but you would be wrong in that assumption! Given that I was in a foul mood at this point and needing to vent some nervous energy, I went ballistic on entering the cobbles - a quick look at my pulse meter showed I had hit a new max heart rate of 178, higher than that seen in a cross race. Brutal.

On we rolled, through Flandrian lanes and streets and toward the Oude Kwaremont (steady ride and relief that it wasn't blocked with riders), through the really narrow lanes to the Paterberg (steep as, but ridden with panache) and to the Koppenberg. Like Hardknott in the Fred Whitton, the Koppenberg is simply hardcore and nags away in the back of your mind, increasing it's presence in your mind until the picture gives way to reality and it rears up in front of you.

This was the scene that greeted us (except it was still pissing down for us at that point):

The cobbles were packed, greasy, muddy and very uneven and quickly I had to walk. Incredibly, Gary stayed upright, pinballed off a few beefy Belgians and made it to the top without a foot down. Chapeau, King of the Koppenberg!

The initial major hurdles were overcome and we journeyed on toward the climax on the Muur.........

Tuesday 7 October 2008

nw league race 3

The forecast for Saturday was dire - torrential rain all day with strong winds. Luckily the rain stayed away and conditions in St Helens were surprisingly mild and clement - it warmed up on the way from 8.5 degrees at crossjunkie towers to 13 degrees at the course!

A new course greeted riders at Sutton Manor - fast, gravel based with a couple of muddy but rideable stretches and 3 hard climbs. Comparisons with the Treviso World Champs course from last January were perhaps a little far fetched, but it was clear that this would be a hard, fast course suiting those with superior fitness and power rather than technical ability. That was me out on both counts then.........

After a couple of laps, the crossjunkie tire pressure formula (see below) was beginning to show its limitations - what tire pressure can rail mud and smooth gravel track, as well as dealing with stray rocks and bricks on the surface? I plumped for 34mm Rhino tread and hoped the puncture gods would be appeased by running at 45psi!

An interesting(!?) start, narrow and with a wooden bench and marshall in the middle led straight into the first climb which luckily had the effect of stringing the field out before the dicey plunge down the gravel into a mini and muddy bombhole. One of the good things about cross racing at this grassroots level is that other riders are almost exclusively respectful and easygoing with their fellow competitors and everyone seemed to negotiate the potential bottleneck in one piece. As an ageing family man, I was most appreciative of this....

My race went surprisingly well - a brief flurry with the group containing the top 3 vets, before a graceful and considerably less tragic (than previous) slide down the field. Only 3 came past in the last 20 mins so that has to be considered a result compared to the last race! You see, one has to take whatever positive one can in these situations. I ended up 22nd at the end and 8th Vet, having suffered to lighter and more nimble riders on the 3 steep climbs each lap. But, I was racing rather than surviving, and beginning to get used to the gut-wrenching effort over the hour. Those turbo sessions must be paying off, and a brief break in my relationship with alcohol based substances in the few days before helped too. Some work to be done still though.

Keith Murray lost out in a sprint to a Wilkinson from SIS (Ian or Richard??) with Rob Pugh in third. Back to the glory days of cross when 'amateur' roadies rode the Saturday races and disappeared on Sundays to leave the specialists to nurse their egos? The Horwich boys and girls were well placed overall but a challenger has appeared in the woods for the team prize ........... It is going to be long and hard fought season for overall team honours I suspect. None of which I will be able to influence directly, but one can live in hope.

Sorry no photos or links are available yet.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

the science of tire pressure explained

I've been working on this for a while now, and I believe I have come up with the definitive answer to that thorny problem that taxes crossers everywhere - what pressure to run your tires at?

Pressure P = √ y(m/s) x δm ± NA/¥

y = wind speed in m/s
δ = electrical conductivity of mud in S m-1
NA represents Avogadros constant (6.022±0.00000030)x 1023 mol -1
¥ = the amount of Belgian beer drunk in the previous week

Unfortunately this relationship does not hold true for those running clinchers, but I am working on a different formula for those not yet fully surrendered to the dark art of tubs.

Actually it is amazing to see (or rather feel) the difference in pressures in evidence at a local cross race. From the 'I run'em at 50psi all year round' group to the obsessives striving to geek out even further with a reduction from 28psi to 27psi (just me then), there are lots of contrasting approaches to the same problem - get through the terrain as fast as possible. Without puncturing.

Euro PROs like Nys, Wellens and co, reputedly start recce laps at 27/28psi and reduce as they learn the course and conditions, going down to as low as 24psi in some cases. A hand held pressure gauge and pump allows variations of 1psi. Younger, but awesomely talented riders like Lars Boom and Niels Albert have gone on record to say that they do not have the experience yet to run that kind of pressure, but presumably they are working on it. Check out the flat front tires of the riders in particular Vantornout (on the far right) going up the climb on the Koppennberg Cross, a course with a lot of muddy off camber and sweeping descents.

Either way, it is a case of how low can you go on many courses - bottom out the rim at least once a lap and you are in the right ball park pressure zone.

This brings us to the notorious Otterspool Park (cardiac arrest time for Wellens and co) and some of the other slightly rougher NW courses........

Those relationships simply don't hold true when avoiding broken glass, rocks, tree roots, discarded road cones, stolen cars and other debris including stricken riders. Clinchers begin to sound pretty tempting all over again - at 60psi.