Monday 22 February 2010

a good strong dose of northernism

Photo courtesy of British Cycling

Us cross riders are indeed a quirky breed, a fact that was brought home to me at the superbly eclectic Hit the North Winter Sprinter event last Sunday.

Held as part celebration of all things gruff and northern, part younger sibling of a more substantial summer MTB endurance race and part mash-up of off road disciplines, HTN is into its second year and continues to fill a unique gap in the off road event market.

It's more a sportive than a cross race at 2 hours length, but not long enough to be an enduro. Neither is it rough enough to be the sole preserve of mountain bikes, but is definitely challenging enough to keep crossers on their toes.

The coming together of discplines is fascinating - I rode the innaugural event last year at the back end of the cross season and in common with a very few other hardy souls, treated it as an extended cross race. Skinsuit, carbon wheels with tubs - the usual stuff I would take to a cross race - contrasted starkly with mountainbikers with big rucsacs of supplies and provisions, cammo jackets and if I wasn't mistaken, some body armour here and there......

All this heavy duty stuff made me nervous about what might be about to come - for my part, the well prepared MTB brethren probably enjoyed seeing a shivering lycra loon on the start line, like a sacrificial lamb about to get it's due reward.

The event was less epic than I had feared, though there were some descents that were beyond my technical ability, at least lap after lap. Instead it turned into a grand day in the park, albeit an exquisitely muddy one, and the few crossers came to the fore taking the win with Aidy Lawrence and the Vets prize with myself.

Fast forward to this year, and the crossers were out in force this time in the 160 strong field, and not the usual NW cross scene stalwarts either - lots of faces I didn't know, underlining the popularity that cross bikes are currently enjoying.

A similar course, about double the length of a normal cross course was the basis for the 2 hour race format, and once again it was billed as cross vs mtb - which would be faster or more appropiate?

This question wasn't really answered conclusively (for me) despite the first 3 places being filled by crossers. This was more down to a difference of approach more than a suitability of equipment. Don't get me wrong, a cross bike was fast around the course but the preponderance of cross riders toward the front of the field said as much about their racing attitude compared to the laid back riding vibe from many of the mountainbikers. A really fast mountain biker would still have been a really fast racer.

Photo courtesy of British Cycling

For myself, I had my best performance in many years and pushed very hard to take 3rd overall and 1st Vet again (though I benefited from an unwarranted Haygarth double puncture incident that cost Dave the win for sure). Report here on BC website.

Photo courtesy of British Cycling - that's my foot that is.

The 2 worlds may have met once again in Phillips Park and a little entente cordial exchanged between them but judging on what I witnessed, clearly most crossers will go back to their 1 hour slots of pain, many obsessing over tire pressure and the like (not just me surely!), whilst the MTBers seek out relaxed new worlds in which to ride and chat. Each to their own for sure, but if you are up in the North next February, you could do worse than hope that this little gem of an event pops up again to cover you in sticky mud at whatever speed and intensity you choose.

Thursday 18 February 2010

seeing double (or triple)

There was a letter, sometime before Christmas, in UK publication Cycling Weekly. The writer had had an invite to watch the North of England Cross Champs, a traditionally muddy affair in November/December, and was experiencing cross for the first time.

For some reason he came away forming the view that cross was an elitist sport, and that major changes needed to be made to its rules so as to prevent it disappearing up it's own muddy backside and losing popularity amongst those who might be attracted to riding this winter discipline. Or something similar - I paraphrase.

His beef was around the multiple bike issue, whereby multiple bikes and God forbid jet washes, give richer and therefore elitist competitors an advantage. And this set me thinking.......

Though I'm not sure a one-off viewing of an event qualifies him as an interested expert, I'm not actiually arguing that he is wrong - he is in fact right - more that there is a more complex issue behind his (in my opinion) rather naive sentiments.

Should we ban second or even third bikes in cross. And if not across the board, up to what level?

I'll lay my cards on the table straight away - I have 2 bikes, though not usually access to washing facilities mid race. I have spent reasonable money on my bikes (mostly on tubs!), but I do not race other cycling disciplines, don't have a mountain bike and only have a cheap road bike. Cross for me is where I choose to splurge - and I have gained some advantage (probably slim) in a few races where a change of bike kept clogging down to a minumum.

I race at local level, rarely threatening even the Vets podium, and here's where the argument falls down - I am regularly beaten by those with one bike and simply more talent....

Any sport at elite level gets expensive. Cross is no different, and yes to compete at elite level requires 2 bikes and a pit crew washing. However, I would argue that if you are good enough to get to that level, you will get there on 1 bike at first, before making a commitment to splurge and boost your chances, or by attracting sponsorship or other support.

I actually think cross is quite a cheap form of cycle sport to get into - look at road racing, where good wheels are more than useful and cost a fortune. You can afford 2 cross bikes for the price of one bling wheelset and don't even get me started on team car support and the like. Or mountain biking where a full suss bike will cost you the equivalent of 4 cross bikes.....

So would I ban spare bikes and pitting up to regional level, say, allowing changes at National Trophy and elite level? Well, no - good riders will always come through the ranks and will find the necessary equipment as they do. Part of the skill in cross as I have explained before, is in making the most of machine and conditions to ensure smooth forward progress. If this means running more to avoid clogging then so be it. Alternatively, a judicious decision to pit, or not pit, are part and parcel of cross tactics at the higher levels, which need to be learnt at lower levels first.

I find cross hugely accessible at grass roots level, and whilst cycling is arguably a more capital intensive sport than say football, rugby or swimming, cross can be ridden competitively for no more outlay than other forms of cycle sport.

Besides, I like messing around with my twin bikes - twice the geeking about tubs and equipment. I wonder if I could stretch to three next season?

Wednesday 3 February 2010

post worlds fall out

Local boy done good!

Stybie did what we all knew he could and destroyed the field with a controlled and skillful race, staying upright more than anyone else, and putting the hammer down when it would count most. For me, he is now the complete cross rider - blazingly fast in crit style races, strong in the grinding mud,, fleet of foot and technically fearless in the ice. Combine that with a relaxed but focussed mental attitude and you have a winner for years to come.

It was good to see Klaas Vantornout go close - after Nys, Albert and Stybar are discounted he is consistently the 'best of the rest'. Not the most flattering of appellations perhaps but indicative of a huge talent nonetheless.

I was hoping for Kevin Pauwels to be in the mix but it wasn't to be. Instead, Heule, Bina and Zlamalik took the fight to the massed Belgians with Mourey coming from a long way back toward the end.

To Richard (who commented with his predictions) - your thoughts may have been Orval fuelled but give yourself a pat on the back! They were pretty prescient, all things considered. Stybar did come good and I was very happy to share his victory with a thousand other Czechs (remotely of course), Bina was up there for much of the race getting his deserved 4th and the Czechs and Poles particluarly, were awesome in the other races.

So, is Belgium no longer the force it was once in world cross? Or will it be business as usual at Zonhoven, Voselaar and Oostmalle, the traditional season finale? Well the Worlds is always a bit special, a bit different. I suspect that a few individuals will continue to break up the Belgian dominance at the top, but overall it will be Flemish speakers to the fore once more. And we await the full development of Tom Meusen's talent too......

What happened to Albert? Not much to glean from the press, but an abandonment after 6laps implies either injury or illness, or perhaps something more sinister - a bad attitude. There were many riders there, with no hope of the podium who rode their hearts out, in the colours of their particlular country, just because it was the Worlds. Sure the course was difficult in the extreme, perhaps favouring a so called 'specialist' like Nys or Stybar. But, there was a job to be done for all. It seems unlikely from past exposure in the media, that Stybar possesses such mental fragility, or temperamental vicissitudes. The jury for Albert (for me at least) is out on that one..........

My nice man in the Lowlands, Ed Raket, posted this on the new Diablo ice tires through alt.binaries - check out the willfull skidding and braking whilst turning! Nys looks like a kid with a new toy. Glad he, and anyone else couldn't use them though - the race would have become a crit like Treviso.....