Tuesday 17 December 2013

Peel Park, Bradford - the UK's best 'cross course?

The National Trophy course at Peel Park, Bradford is for me, the complete cyclocross course. It has everything – hard climbs, running climbs, treacherous descents, tricky off camber, barriers and slick corners. Lots of slick corners. It is regarded as the hardest of the current crop of National standard courses and as successful ‘cross book author Simon Burney puts it – ‘it shows up the technical limitations of many.’  As he explains, good technique there leads to  'free' time gains, no extra training required.

I also always look forward to riding Bradford because with its December or January slot in the calendar, mud always plays a big part. Lots of mud. Even when conditions are relatively dry, as they were this past weekend, the mud makes itself felt in the most innocuous of places, where very short sections that are ridden sub-optimally can result in big time losses over the course of a race. When properly muddy is it is the ultimate mudder where you better hope you can get a spare bike, or better still have a competent pit crew.

And then there is the run up before the finish straight. Steep, very slippy and uneven under foot, this too can be a race decider or somewhere a lot of time can be gained with good technique. Try it without toes studs and you’ll be flat on your face. Teammate Dave Haygarth took this great video of action on the run up:

Bradford is also a great social event -  as the main Northern National Trophy round it attracts a lot of people as spectators rather than riders and catching up with everyone is always part of the day. I met up with friends Richard and Jo Allen to prepare for my morning race. As well as being an elite level startline-helper and all-round ‘cross soigneur, Jo is also a prolific photographer of all things ‘cross. She has been snapper-in-chief to the growing contingent of Here Come the Belgians riders for some time now and as over the years documented mine and many others cyclocross related exploits with great insight.

In a shameless fit of narcissism I asked her to do a bit of a feature for me. Her pics below, tell the story of my day and the full set with some great shots of Rich too is here:

Friday 29 November 2013

Introducing the On One Pickenflick

My riding career, 'cross wise, started in steel - good old fashioned 531 and then 653, eventually handmade for me by a NW framebuilder. And great those frames were too - comfortable, light enough for the job and cost effective. As frame technology moved on, so did my taste in frames and a pair of aluminium Planet X Uncle John's served me well for many years. The Dirty Disco and XLS took things off in an interesting carbon direction but until last year, I hadn't ridden a 'cross bike made out of the one remaining mainstream material, titanium.

On One produced a Ti 'cross frame a few years ago - it was light and popular and ridden to winning effect by one of Britain's few 'cross pros, Matt Ellis and to 3 Peaks success by the ever-green Nick Craig, both of whom had a hand in the design. My old training partner had one too, and very nice they were, attaining a bit of a cult status amongst riders in the know. But production only lasted a couple of years and On One has never revisited the wonder material for 'cross.... until now.

Ignore the Planet X frame sticker - it's an On One!

The new On One Picknflick looks absolutely gorgeous - a sleek, Georg Jensen-esque tapered headtube doubles as home-art if your spouse allows you to keep it in the front room , the brushed Ti tubing is understated but beautiful and the tidy welds all give off an air of assured quality. Suffice to say that the frame has attracted many admiring glances and comments when myself and Dave have been out and about on the prototypes, including slightly breathless conversations about availability mid race in both the last two 3 Peaks Cyclocross events.

Formwise, a chunky 1 1/2" tapered headtube gives absolutely rock solid handling on the roughest of terrain, allied to a big beefy carbon fork, and the super clearance, even with a mini bridge across chain stays means that even at a Peel Park, Bradford mudbath, the Picknflick keeps running. In fact it clogs less than the other disc frames I've ridden, and they don't clog at all compared to many current canti offerings. Subtle changes in cross section accross the downtube and toptube allude to performance enhancing design of the tubeset - stiffer and broader in areas of most stress.  A lovely curved piece across the seat stays aids this, allied to rearward disc mounts and befitting a proper do-it-all 'cross bike, it has useful double bottle mounts. The toptube is left rounded rather than flattened and is still super comfy to carry, as many 3 Peaks-style Bull Hill sessions have proven as well as 2 outings in the Peaks itself.

The geometry has been tweaked from other On One offerings, and the overall effect is an extremely calm and compliant ride. The Ti tubing works to kill off much of the low level buzz, but is still more than stiff enough, superb for fast hacking across uneven surfaces, and with impeccable mud manners.

Whilst not a super stiff 'cross crit monster, it's still more than stiff enough to respond to sharp changes in pace and direction and has seen regular duty for me and Dave Haygarth at 'cross races over the last year or so, performing flawlessly in classic mudders at Bradford and Todmorden, as well as drier Yorkshire Summer Cross rounds. Finally, as a 3 Peaks/rougher off road machine it is imperious. Handling, compliance all come together to make it an all day bike on any terrain and the best Peaks bike either of us have ever ridden.


I have received the full production version of the Pickenflick now. Suffice to say that those little improvements that we asked for have all been included. It now boasts a brace between seat and chain stay by the rear disc, beefing up the braking performance at the back, a slightly flattened top tube for easier carrying, subtly moved cable mounts at the rear (away from rear wheel), more 'shaped' tube profiles for rigidity, and finally better clearance. 

Did I say clearance? It is now absolutely massive, when it was merely brilliant before.  If I had to have one bike (and not just one 'cross bike either), this is the bike I would have. It simply covers all the bases, and has a real 'wow' factor about it to boot.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Rapha Super Cross - Broughton Hall

Pic: Ed Rollason

The Rapha Super Cross series has been in many ways a game changer for UK cyclocross. My first introduction to ‘cross was in the fields outside a windswept farm near Macclesfield in the 90s and the course, facilities and atmosphere were consequently somewhat agricultural. To be fair, my next race was held in some slightly more salubrious Northern parkland but the concept of small, facility-lite, muddy races around non-descript bits of grassland and watched under (usually) leaden winter skies by a faithful band of willing and more likely, un-willing spouses and kids was pretty much what you got in standard League ‘cross. They call ‘cross ‘Veldrijden’ in Flanders – field riding’ – and this is where most UK ‘cross seemed stuck (even at National Level where it wasn’t much more exciting either).

Except in Belgium and Holland it’s different despite the field riding origins. Frenzied crowds of 20,000 are common at big races especially over Christmas, beer tents are everywhere along with ubiquitous frites vans and there’s a pumping euro-techno soundtrack much of the time. ‘Cross is big business there. And so, with a nod to the Euro scene, some of the elements for the Super Cross series were born, adapted subtlely for the slightly less rabid UK ‘cross fan.

This year’s Northern Super Cross weekend was hosted at stately home Broughton Hall, nr Skipton and the following day, within sight of the Velodrome in Manchester. A series finale is next weekend in Alexandra Palace, London. On offer this year was racing for regular weekend warriors, followed by the UK’s finest riders slogging it out in teams for the Eilte race, the usual beer/frites combo, a Spiral of Doom, bands of various description, and a foam wall over the course and the ever-popular tequila shortcut for the fun race. And lots of atmosphere with plenty of spectators coming simply to watch and not participate.

I opted to ride the Broughton Hall round on the Saturday (heading to spectate at the Manchester round on the Sunday) and my front row gridding for the Vets race ensured that maximum effort would be required at the start on the rolling but tough course in the grounds of the Hall. What it lacked in technicality it made up for in off-camber, greasy corners. Low tyre pressures would be critical to avoid being dumped on the outside reaches of many of the bends. Seeking out alternative lines became important later in the race as the course cut up and muddied significantly – it’s always good to remember to look for how the course evolves over your race, especially if you are one of the early races on the day. A quick bike change toward the end and I rolled over the line in a reasonable 16th. Normally a swig of water suffices at this point, but this being Super Cross it was a treat to have a large glass of Belgian beer thrust into my hand, obtained from the beer tent we had just been racing through.

Not all ‘cross races are like Super Cross and nor should they be. Grassroots ‘cross is still about volunteers putting on great races in local venues, on a shoestring budget. But for a couple of weekends a year, a little taste of Belgian ‘cross really does the trick.

Friday 11 October 2013

The Helper (my helper)

Very remiss of me not to post this earlier....

Dave Haygarth followed Mark, my ever faithful 3 Peaks supporter around on race day. Here's his short film about Mark and those other 'backroom' folk that make it all happen for riders like me...

Friday 4 October 2013

The loneliness of Penyghent Lane

Hands down my favourite shot of yours truly at the Peaks this year. Geoff Waugh has form with the Peaks already, though he is best known as a multi award winning photographer specialising in mtb and pro road cycling.

His dark film of 2012 superbly captured the epic conditions of last years race and contrasts nicely with this sunny, though somehow lonely, shot of me on Penyghent Lane shortly before Crampgate. Geoff concurred about the loneliness, commenting that he felt it was a 'solitary race with lots of riders'. Sure feels like that...

Monday 30 September 2013

3 Peaks Cyclocross 2013

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”

 - Francois de la Rochefoucauld

That should be my 3 Peaks maxim from now on. I messed up this year, despite dishing out supposedly learned advice only the week before.

It all started well - a personal best by minutes over Ingleborough and in a good-for-me 75th place too, a clean descent to Cold Cotes and a quick timecheck dib and bottle pick up and onto the road. However, I then made the mistakes that when compounded would cost me a trouble free and potentially personal best ride.

The gel tasted good in the shop out the squeezy sample bottle but when breathing out of one's proverbial after the climb out of Ingleton, trying to stay with a fast group, it was more akin to ingesting an acrid fruit concentrate. Result, a little gagging and some coughing and the group rode away. Lesson 1: try your gels/drinks in race-replica training situations and NOT on the day. Then my brain switched off and with hindsight I simply didn't drink enough. I'd had a vague notion of drinking water late in the race as it tastes cleaner and goes down easier when tired than a sugary carb drink. I hadn't communicated this to Mark who, on my instruction handed me this 'unloaded' bottle at Cold Cotes. My mistake, not his. Lesson 2: even your most trusted support crewer is not a mind reader.

Whernside went OK, well as OK as one might expect whilst being blown all over the shop by a mean spirited crosswind that actually dumped riders from on their bikes into a heap a little way downwind from their take off point. Being tall with a large gate-like bike to boot did nothing to improve my mood as it tore into me as I walked/jogged, pushing me around so I looked like a Friday night drunk weaving my way home.

I was hungry coming down into Ribblehead, hungry as in it would have been nice to sit down and have a nice pie and chips, or something equally comforting. A friend commented after that I looked grim making the change to the Penyghent bike there - truth was I was bloody starving and panicking a bit about getting enough food down. There's nowhere you can really eat on that descent so you have to wait till the road down to Horton. My wife's legendary Aga-baked flapjack tastes like heaven at all other times, but was simply too dry and sticky to get down easily whilst trying to push on, on that road section. I got it down eventually, not a pretty sight chewing and breathing at the same time. Cue another slightly less acrid gel and a reasonable amount of liquid.

But the damage had been done with the lack of fluids I suspect, being the prime suspect. I started slowing toward the top of Penyghent Lane and felt the first twinges. Cramp is a funny thing - it can tease, flirt with you and think better of it and bugger off to wait another time. Or it can decide that today is the day, it's having you and there's nothing you can do to escape its unwanted attentions. By the time I was approaching the turn right onto the final bit of the climb, it had done its worst and my quads were ballooning into Robert Fosterman-esque creations. In my mind at least.....

They locked solid and that was that. Cue the following rigmarole: sit down, look at the view for a bit, swear blind you were never coming back to do this bloody race, snivel a bit, try and stand up, fall over again, curse. Eventually they unlocked enough to affect a half-hearted shuffle and upward progress resumed. But my impetus had been lost and it was hard to pick up the pace, waiting for that 'laugh-in-your-face' twinge that signalled a return to a seated position.

I made it to the summit, disheartened to have seen riders I was racing only a short time ago, already well on their way back down. But I finished, not too far outside 4 hours, but still a way short of my target time and position.

The positives? My pair of simply wonderful On One Bikes Ti disc Pickenflicks were totally controllable, dependable and never missed a beat. And for 2 Peaks at least, I was going well and on target. As ever there is next year.... I think.

Thanks as always to my pit crew Mark for being there for the 20 seconds of contact time we had during the race.

Friday 20 September 2013

Planet X Pro Carbon XLS - team bikes 2013

I'm fortunate to be riding two new Planet X bikes this season, both Pro Carbon XLS disc bikes.

I rode the sample XLS last season and found it superb for flat-out racing - click here for my initial review. This year's builds are Ultegra based with some dedicated Shimano 'cross equipment in the form of top-pull front mechs and 'cross specific chainsets.

The frame at the heart of my XLS is a full carbon monocoque, hand-laid up to optimise strength and stiffness in the areas that count. It has a tapered headtube, wider at the bottom than the top, that makes a big difference to the handling in bumpy or technical sections, allowing you to ‘point and steer’ much more than with a conventional ‘straight’ headtubed bike, which can allow you to be knocked off line more easily.

The bottom bracket area is beefed up with extra carbon and also in size, and you can really feel this stiffness when putting pressure on the pedals and in technical riding. Whilst coloured paint finishes look great, the glossy black 12k weave finish on the XLS helps hide the inevitable scratches and scrapes that a season of muddy cross races brings. One of my favourite aspects to the XLS frame is its top tube. Flat on the top and bottom, it makes for really easy grabbing and very comfortable shouldering during the running sections of a race. Additionally, the cables are internally routed through the top tube – less maintenance as they are protected better from water and grit and contribute to less scratching of the frame in that area.

 As with many new generation ‘cross frames, the XLS has disc mounts to allow full disc braking throughout. The debate on whether discs are better than cantilever brakes for ‘cross still rages. Certainly they are more powerful, but do you need the power? Some say yes, some no, citing a little extra weight for disc systems as a negative. For me the debate is less about the braking power, weight, or feel, but about two main advantages over cantis. Disc brakes mean no rim braking, and in ‘cross where rim and brakepad are covered in a fine coating of grit or mud on a constant basis, this means no rim wear. Which means your nice (expensive) wheels don’t get trashed every time there is a muddy race and don’t need replacing so frequently – a big advantage to the cost conscious ‘crosser. Furthermore, discs give clean lines around the fork and seatstays where on other traditional bikes, the cantilevers are sited that cause a big build up of mud and vegetation. In certain conditions, I have ridden disc bikes that kept working for longer than their cantilever rivals due to the reduction in build up of clag in those places. For someone with one bike only, or a lack of willing pit crew, a disc bike can be crucial in getting to the end of the race without grinding to a muddy halt. Whilst there are newer and pricier part- or full-hydraulic systems on the market, the mechanical Avid BB7 brakes make for super easy maintenance, predictable modulation and if used with harder sintered pads, great wear even in the worst of conditions. For 1 hour ‘crosses, I personally don’t feel the need for anything more complicated.

With crisp white graphics against the laquered carbon weave of the tubing, my 'crossjunkie' edition bikes should look fairly smart. For a lap or two, at least.