Monday 28 September 2009

some peak performances

Yes it really is that steep!

Looking over to the Howgills from the summit of Whernside, highlighted in a patchwork of sun and shadow, it began to make sense. A little. Cramp still intruded on my brief reverie, but the moment was not lost. If riding, and what's more riding offroad is your pleasure, then riding on this long whaleback of a hill, overlooking the Lakes, Howgills and Dales, is indeed a rare treat.

Sure, there are many other wonderful places to mountainbike, or crossbike but for 1 day a year, the 3 Peaks Cyclocross allows enthusiasts a unique perspective to ride where riding is not normally allowed. To venture where previously only those on foot are granted access.

This is part of the unique flavour of the event - a one-off chance granted by the vision of one man, John Rawnsley, who has negotiated, promoted and sometimes fought to keep the race a regular fixture.

And it is a race, unashamedly so. As I prepared to dive off the flat section of the summit, down through the broken Shale and Millstone Grit bands, I was back focussing on the quickest lines, the smoothest transition from bike to foot and back to bike. Who was I racing? Whilst there were other competitors in front and behind, like most others, I had an eye on the time. My time. Unless you are right at the sharp end of the race, you are racing yourself - your potential, what has been before and what you want to come to pass. With a good time, comes a good place.

Up at the sharp end, the race was by all accounts gripping. Take one 7 time winner and World Sky Running champion, one Commonwealth and Worlds competitor in several wheeled disciplines and throw them together to fight it out against the backdrop of the Dales scenery. Race reports are to be found elsewhere but it was fascinating to see the nearly-man on so many occassions raise his game and master the discipline where he was weaker. Nick Craig can ride hard and descend with the best of them, but until now he has struggled to stay close enough to Rob Jebb when the course went uphill, as it does so brutally in places. Following a summer incorporating some good fell race results, he set about capping his losses once riding became impossible up the final climb to Penyghent, Nick's split time off the summit and down to the finish, catching Jebby in the process, was simply stunning - something which must have been hugely inspiring to watch. I met Nick a few times when racing many years ago, even buying an early version of Rock Shox off him when there were only a couple of pairs in the country. As a new pro he was kind and generous to a young, impressionable rider... He is respected and liked across the offroad community and his win will be welcomed everywhere.

One other who raised his game to new levels was Dave Haygarth. Dave too has put much of his heart and soul into this race, as rider, as team-mate, as volunteer publicist and it all came together on Sunday. Dave has enthused with me and for me over the Peaks and the fortuity of our geographical locations has allowed me to link up with him several times to ride together. The sight of the new 'white sex' shoes and matching Oakleys hurtling down the track was a boost to my flagging morale as the final ascent unwound. My climb was still a long way off being done but Dave had almost finished the descent, clearly on the ride of his life judging by the very few riders that had preceded him. Dave was rewarded with a 3:18 PB and 9th overall.

My rewards came in the form of a crash and mechanical free ride, in a respectable 4:18. Cramp though had chipped away at that golden 4 hour time, on Whernside's slopes and again on Penyghent. Next year simply has to be cramp free and faster. One day on from the race, tired and sore all over, I have already begun plotting, scheming, obsessing all over again. That is the draw that this race can have on you......

Photo: Wig Worland

Wednesday 23 September 2009

bikes 1,2 or even 3;check, survival bag;check, whistle;check

There are some who clearly are suffering from nerves or a similar form of anxiety, some who are genetically predisposed to such processes, and those who want to win (or at least outperform themselves or their rivals).

A trip around the forums representing 3 Peaks riders (3 Peaks site, Singletrack etc) reveals a huge collective angst and obsession with what to ride and how to ride it. Maybe it is the fact that the Peaks can be tantalisingly hard to get into as a race, maybe that it comes around but once a year and takes on a huge presence of its own in the calendar, or maybe that it is simply a brutally hard race and loading the dice in your favour just seem like common sense.

Personally, those who know me will point to a genetic predisposition to obsess, about anything really, not just bikes. But bikes is where I am happiest ruminating, and the Peaks bike or bikes is the pinnacle of such persistant thoughts.

This year then, I be mostly running.........

I would like to say 3 bikes, a la Haygarth but my budget and lack of willing helpers currently denies me this option. Next year perhaps......


Bike 1

Planet X Oom Johan XL frame, carbon forks
46/34 chainset with 11-26 cassette
Race X lite tubular wheels with Green Michelin Mud tread on 32mm FMB casings @60/65psi
Bottle cage on seat tube

This will do Ingleborough and Whernside before being swapped at Ribblehead. Green Michelin treads may seem like a strange choice but I have always found the section from Simon Fell to Ingleborough quite greasy and slippy in the early morning mist that is almost inevitable. The descent to Cold Cotes can also be peaty in places and the extra grip over say Landcruisers doesnt go amiss for me.

When coming down the slabs after Whernside these too can be wet in places and the 'sticky' nature of the tread boosts my confidence.

46 x 11 is fine for the swoopy downhills to Chapel le Dale. The bottle cage doesn't affect my carrying on such a large frame and is sensibly positioned very low down to keep it out of the way.

Bike 2

Planet X Oom Johan XL frame, carbon forks with less clearance
48/34 chainset with 12-28 cassette
Front 28 spoke GP4, rear 36 spoke Mavic tubular rims with 34mm FMB Superprestige Fango tubs (latex walls and latex punture protection strip) @65/psi
Double bar tape
Bottle cage on seat tube

This is the Penyghent bike - fatter tires, lower gears and double bar tape to aid tired and sore hands. The Fangos might be billed as a mud tire but they have a good central tread that rolls well on the road and the tread is not that aggrressive so is well suited to the rocky PYG descent. Latex helps any nasty sidewall tears and cushions considerably over a clincher like a Landcruiser.

I'll take a chain tool, latex sealant and gas cannister (for road punctures) plus gels and get bottles handed up at the bottom of the first 2 descents.

Fingers crossed.

This week has been a rollercoaster one - all was fine till Tuesday and then I started with an inevitable sniffle though not a full blown cold. All 3 of my kids have had recent colds and my wife is full of it too. The spare room has been in use this week I can tell you! No riding then for me either to try and stave off a proper infection - so far so good. I think. loosener on Fri and Sat I hope.

The Peaks messes with your head so much - confidence can ebb and flow dramatically if you don't control it as lurking in your mind is the inescapable fact that it is a huge effort even for the fittest of riders. Anyhow, I am ready now, excited and just wanting to get to Helwith for the start line.....

Good luck to everyone on Sunday!

update: dave haygarth's three bike strategy

I have to confess to being slightly disappointed at the circumspect nature of Dave's reply to a question about bike set up for the Peaks. All is clear now as well as forgiven, as this insightful post was obviously up his sleeve or armwarmer.......

Now, I wonder if I have time to build up a third bike for Sunday and rope in another set of helpers?

Monday 21 September 2009

interview with dave haygarth

Photo: Andy Rush

By way of build up to the Three Peaks Cyclo Cross next Sunday, I thought it would only be proper to find out a bit more about one of the Peaks leading protaganists - Dave Haygarth. Dave runs a seminal blog about this unique event staged in the Yorkshire Dales National Park every year at the end of September. It is the toughest and biggest Cyclo-Cross event in the UK. Period. For Transatlantic readers (who according to Google Analytics currently outnumber UK readers!), think Iron Cross race but rockier and harder with more running/walking. Or so I am told....

I have had a bit of a running joke with Dave about how to address such a luminary of the Peaks - legend, guru, bigcheese, emminence grise have all been tried. We settled on svengali - which is given (by me) in recognition of Dave's commitment, promotion, knowledge and obsession about the race. Dave rides for the Wheelbase team, and as such features in cyclocross races at National level (he was 24th in the last National Cross Champs), as well as being a former overall winner of the North West Cyclcross League. He was the subject a few years back, of a BBC Countryfile video diary about the Peaks and his own preparation, something which helped promote the popularity of the race still further. Dave also rides mountainbikes but had an earlier mishap in the year which left him with a broken clavicle and a bit of a battle to get back to fitness:

How long have you been riding, overall on a bike or specifically cross?

I rode a bike when I was two - without stabilisers I'm told. You had to fit them on separately back then and the story goes that my dad leaned the bike against the garage wall and I just got on and rode it. That's what comes from having an older brother I suppose. Seen it done. My cyclocross days started pretty late - as did my racing in general. My family's background was off road motorcycling so there was no cycling club membership or anything - I found cycle racing for myself really - with friends - about 16, but my first 'cross wasn't until the age of about 23. I was on my Mountain Bike and was in utter awe of riding next to Nick Craig and Chris Young in the race in Sheffield (where I studied). I wanted a 'cross bike so much then but I really had no money left after the booze expenditure.

You ride for Wheelbase – are they the most successful domestic cross team ever? How did you get involved?

I think Ace RT probably are in terms of history. Wheelbase are getting there though. I moved up to the North West from 7 years living in Cheltenham. I'd been very closely involved in Club life at Cheltenham & County CC (co-organising the National Trophy race there as well as a round of the national women's road race series for many years). I just fancied a break from a 'club' when I moved up here and was starting to get a few half decent 'cross results, so I just asked Stuart [Reid - Wheelbase rider and then staff member], and he said he'd sort me out with a jersey. That was it really - we have a lot of fun together in the 'cross season.

Team mate Lewis Craven tries a novel solution to the spare bike issue at the Peaks!

You're always looking at equipment tweaks for the Peaks. What is your ultimate no expense spared Peaks setup – bikes, tire choice, gearing, wheels etc? All the geeky stuff……….

Yep. It's no secret I love the race. I could always go further but try to keep a cap on things. Those SRAM 10 speed MTB groupsets look tidy for a race like that if I had £1500 per bike to spare.

(I note that Dave gave very little away there..... I'll run down my equipment choices later in the week.)

What gets you out of bed at daft o’clock to ride or run? Future glory at races or communing with nature?

Having to fit training round a family life. I never did any early training rides until I had children. If I want to spend time with them - which I certainly do - I have to work out a time to train. It's my only option!

How do you balance work, family, music projects and performing at elite, though maybe not quite Top 10 UK racer level (according to Singletrack magazine!)?

I just do. Most of it's down to very sturdy coffee. I'm not 'that' elite - I just have the balls to ride all the national trophies, that's all. Plenty of 'chipper' riders would beat me if they turned up!

When is someone going to make a classic film about the Peaks – like Sunday in Hell for Roubaix?

You mean that the Countryfile video diary wasn't it?? Sadly, it'll probably never happen. I had a good chat with the people from Fridge Productions who made those three videos (now DVDs) in the late 90s / early 2000s, and they said that it just takes so much money to do properly - they never approached covering their costs. Sad, but there's a certain reality to profitability.

Predictions for Sunday? Record for Jebby, you to improve on your best ever time and placing?

I think Rob's going as well as he ever has and it's dried out a good deal in the last 16 days. Lots (of crap weather) could happen between now and then though. Course records come from being pushed. If Rob knows he's got a four or five minute lead on the top of Penyghent, he'd be mad to push hard down there. If two or three riders were on a leader's tail. then we'd get a fast time.
As for me, I'll be happy with knowing I've ridden the best I can. I had a couple of crashes last year - one of which kicked off a cramp attack and lost me a place and some momentum - I want to keep upright and fast this year. I suspect I'll be about the same time as last year going on all the signs in my training [3:22] - but positions are another thing!

Any other background info about you that people should know?

It's my last season as a senior. I'm maturing in January.

Photo: Leanne Thompson

Watch out for Dave in his new all-black Wheelbase strip next Sunday - his descending skills are a joy to behold (until he disappears from view), combining that warp-speed the best descenders have, with effortless style. I think I offended him when, describing him once as a 'lunatic' going downhill, he gently corrected me with the assertion that it was confidence, not mental health deficiency that allowed him to go down so fast......

Friday 18 September 2009

man down

Bart Wellens is not so well, I hear. Diagnosed with the 'brother' of glandular fever, Cytomegalovirus, he's going to miss a chunk of the season. Still, look on the bright side - Neils Albert missed a good part of last season, came back and at the Worlds, destroyed a Euro field tired from endless racing across Flemish and Dutch veldrijd with the odd French inondable like Nommay.

I love Wellens - from the preposterous Wellens en Wee, his own weekly reality TV show, several episodes of which I have had the pleasure of viewing (!), to his karate shenanigins at Overisje, he always turns it on and then turns it up, to an adoring and beered up Vlaamse crowd (with one exception as you will see in the vid):

He's a fighter, a showman, a natural player - the foil to Sven Nys's seriousness. And the Belgians love him. Some of the Here Come the Belgians think he's great too, including myself.

Sadly there is simply no British equivalent I can think of, though Molly Cameron does her best over in the States to fly the flag of character at a cross race near you. Well, over the pond if you are in the UK. And when visiting Euroland once a year - Bravo Molly!

So enough idle and daft fan based adoration - come on Bart, get this biological nasty sorted and come roaring back to entertain us once again.

Monday 14 September 2009

counting down....

I went out for my last hard off road ride before the Peaks yesterday - it wasn't designed to be a particularly long one, more a shakedown ride with some hard Peaks specific efforts and a conscious effort to get into a flowing off-road riding style, one that will bear dividends come Peaks day. I am convinced that one of the secrets to a good Peaks time is being smooth - fitness helps too naturally(!), but being able to transition on and off the bike without losing momentum and at the right point can save you minutes. It's that experieence of knowing when to keep riding and when to bail out walking or possibly running. And linking it all together in a seamless fashion. Ahem.

The plan was to get out early on my own but I dragged fellow Belgian Mark with me too at the last minute - he's not riding the Peaks but I sold him a line about a nice offroad ride on our cross bikes. Rather cruelly (for him), we headed straight for Thievely Pike above the Cliviger Gorge via Dean Scout - well known to local fell runners this is a steep, straight up climb, unrelenting on the calves for nigh on 1000ft and with 90% carrying on foot. Pretty similar to Simon Fell then.........

We rolled down and onto the Mary Townley Loop, a semi-classic off-road circuit of nigh on 50 miles around Lancashire, Calderdale and Rochdale, and then over onto Hambledon Hill, famous for - err, a weather station.

At the top of the steep off-road climb up Hambledon, I had the pleasant realisation that I was flying. Not just going OK but actually riding at the top of my (modest) game. A moment of panic ensued then - the Peaks is 2 weeks away and how do I keep this form till then without overcooking or undercooking things?

It was then that the wise words of Wiggo and Shane Sutton came into my head in a bizarre Yoda-like moment - easy, just do a week of steady endurance to protect your form, and then taper as normal. Research has proven it. Really.

A slightly jaundiced reader might at this stage point out that I am so far from a professional athlete, let alone an Olympic Champion that it may be argued that I am getting slightly ahead of myself, carried away even........

But, hey - the Peaks is important to me, emotionally as well as physically and I want to do as well as I can, even if I won't be troubling the top 50 or anything much below 4 hours.

Armed with the satisfaction that I had got myself to the point where I could race the Peaks rather than survive, I promptly punctured. Just a little reminder that the Peaks is never entirely straightforward. We rolled around Hambledon for a bit and headed home for a shower. I know Wiggo wouldn't have, being the consumate pro and all that, but I allowed myself to partake in a pre-celebratory bottle of red that evening. There's good anti-oxidants in wine I hear, good for recovery.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

off to the races

We came, we saw and err....... we enjoyed ourselves. The Belgians were out in modest numbers at our first cross race at Pignut Hill in Team colours - Duncan, myself, Mark and Mark (The Barber).

I'd forgotten what packing up and preparing for a cross race was like - other than being reminiscent of a military campaign. It took 2 days beforehand to assemble kit, prep bikes, faff around and get some semblance of order with things. One can only hope it will get easier with subsequent races.....

I had forgotten what a friendly scene cross was. Well, not forgotten, just missed it since the end of last season. All ages, all abilities, all lumped into one vaguely homogenous group intent on enjoying the challenge of the course and the craic along the way. If cross doesn't become one of the fastest growing types of cycling within the burgeoning two wheeled culture, then I will eat my tub (an old knackered one).

As for the racing, it was intense. As you might expect from cross. Strangely though, for the first race of the season, it wasn't that lung searing battle of mind over body. I actually felt good, sharp even. Even more gratifying was my desire not to hang on, but to actually race. To bridge gaps, to attack riders around me. This was relatively new territory for me really, a blast from the past when I used to be at the head of races rather than attempting to bring a modicum of style to the mid pack. 13th overall from 85 finishers was something to settle for gladly, and confusion over whether I or an ex team-mate graced the Vet podium melted into the post-race glow that only a good hard cross race can bring. I only planned to do a few races this season, but I can feel myself getting drawn in to a few more that I hadn't planned on doing..................

Monday 7 September 2009

September's mismatch

Guest post over on Dave Haygarth's seminal 3Peaks Blog

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

team business

By way of bringing things full circle, closing the circle, drawing lose ends together and any other metaphor or cliche for getting it together if you haven't already noticed elsewhere........

Team Here Come the Belgians is here!

The slightly off the wall lovechild of a short but intense internet relationship between crossjunkie and Duncan Here Come the Belgians, the team is a response to our mutual longing for an outlet for our cross and cobble obsessions combined with a gap in the market for a team that is not a team. An anti-team in fact. Something that represents fun, connection and a practical solution to getting out and riding (and not just racing) our bikes with others. We are anything but an elite team (as those of you who have seen me ride will guess) - and we are not regionally based either, though a Northern accent helps. No, the great interweb will serve to keep our kindred spirits connected across veltrijd and kasseien. We will meet up from time to time too.........

So, aided and abetted by friends and riding colleagues with similar though undoubtedly more balanced interests, Team Here Come the Belgians is at last a proper entity, with tribal identifiers like jerseys, caps, stickers and slightly bizarrely, beer mats.

Come and see for yourself over on