Thursday 9 January 2014

Kerstperiode racing

Even for a cyclocross obsessed nation like Belgium, it is excessive. Six elite races in eight days between Boxing Day and Jan 2nd. Welcome to the kerstperiode.

Opportunities to race to that degree in the UK simply aren't available, but undeterred I set about trying to complete a mini version of my own, to enter into the festive 'cross spirit, so to speak. Actually many committed riders have done something similar for years, travelling around to races and honing form for our early January National Championships with regular Xmas and New Year racing.

No Nationals for me this year, but instead an opportunity to pack in a week of racing, aided and abetted by some fortuitous race dates and a trip to London to see relatives. The scheduling of the classic old-school mudder Todmorden Cyclocross, an exciting new promotion at a Yorkshire stately home and a conveniently falling London League race gave me my 3 part kerstperiode spread over a week. Whilst I love my 'cross as much as the next obsessive, because of the cycling/family teeter-totter I tend to only race fortnightly, on average. Three races, some long distance travelling and all the festive socialising were definitely going to stretch me.

It turned out that my trio of races each highlighted an important lesson in the art of 'cross. The process of racing is demanding on equipment and rider and like many things, 'cross is simple in concept but infinitely nuanced in execution. Todmorden was first up and I tend to view Todmorden as my personal 'nationals'. It's local, the course is traditional to say the least being centred around a big cobbled climb and ensuing woodland descent and it is always stupidly muddy. In other words it suits me down to the ground.

Tod Mud (Pic: Dave Haygarth)

My pit monkey, Mark (Pic: Dave Haygarth)

I had probably my best race since returning to 'cross a few years ago. Conditions on the Sunday on the course were heavy, Todmorden heavy. This necessitated careful consideration of when to ride and when to run. This also meant that momentum was critical too. I'm strongest when there are on/off the bike sections, or at least decisions to made about whether to be on or off the bike. On that day, there were many riders stronger than me who were racing, but few had better technique and so were losing time constantly, getting bogged down or being slow on and off the bike. I started well, kept plugging away and moved up the field all race to what was for me, a hugely satisfying 8th in the Veterans and Womens race. A big part of this standout result for me was down to clean, effective technique - committing early to the running parts and executing the transitions quickly and efficiently. What I lacked in overall speed and fitness, I more than compensated for with flawless technique. It was hugely satisfying.

Two days to recover, wash kit and fettle bikes and on New Years Day I travelled to the inaugural Ripley Castle Cross, also in Yorkshire. There was also going to be more mud here, lots of it, but unlike the heavy conditions at Tod, the shocking forecast of low single digit temps, constant heavy rain and gale force winds meant a different challenge. All the more so as I'd identified this as a promising day out for the family. Faffing around worrying about my wife and children's comfort in the horrible conditions, I contrived to be late to the start and was still stripping off clothing and trying to find super-soigneur Jo Allen with the 'one minute to go' call. No panic then. The course was as superb as the weather was atrocious. I'm told people started dropping out fairly early on, succumbing to low temps and driving rain. In my panic I'd left a buff round my neck and my head fully covered under my helmet. As things got colder and wetter I was more than glad of that. 'Cross is a winter sport, and this went ahead in bad winter conditions. It was startling, like it had been at the 2012 3 Peaks Cyclocross, how some folk had failed to take this into account when they dressed for the event. I had a reasonable race, not as successful as Todmorden had promised but workmanlike nonetheless, after a ropey start. The lesson in dressing for the conditions continued as I rolled over the line - Jo shouted me immediately and I had warm clothes, hat and leg covering withing 30 secs. In the aftermath of the race, I saw many others wandering around, wet through, shivering and looking suitably miserable.

Ripley Castle (Pic: Jo Allen)

Wet (Pic: Jo Allen)

More frantic kit and bike washing and I was off next day to London. The promise of a visit to the London League scene, the first in many, many years saw me toe the line at Royal Bethlem Hospital, a week after Todmorden. Except I nearly didn't make it all. Racing 'cross is kit intensive. Racing 'cross in mid winter is really kit intensive. I'm normally pretty organised, trained up and routined thanks to the experienced Dave Haygarth tutoring me on our previous National Trophy forays in years gone by. But not being at home, and with the distractions of a stay at my parents I got it wrong. Wrong as in no shoes, wrong, left behind in the airing cupboard, drying. I'm not really gung ho enough to ride round on small SPD pedals in a mudbath, wearing trainers so resigned myself to an early drive back North with the kids. But, friend and Captain Cross stalwart, Konrad magicked some shoes and unfamiliar pedals up for me and it was game on. Another great course, more great mud, very friendly folk and a fun race starting at the back (no gridding) and working my way toward the front part of the race. And then a 6 hour drive home.

Moonlighting in the London League (Pic: Dave Hayward)

For several days after my kerstperiode I've been knackered. Racing in bad weather, challenging conditions, lots of travel have all contributed to tax this average punter's constitution. I have no idea what it must be like for the European pros, racing so often in such a short period of time. Sure they have teams around them to help, but still, it has merely increased my respect for those at the top of the sport. Fijne Kerst and veel success for your cyclocross in 2014.

More pics:

Tod cobbles. Pic Dave Haygarth

Pic with thanks from SportSunday

Tod running. Pic Dave Haygarth

Pic Dave Haygarth

Wasted. Pic Dave Haygarth

Pic Dave Haygarth

Flyover! Pic Jo Allen

Jough + umbrella. Pic Jo Allen

Bethlem. Pic Dave Hayward

Pic Jo Allen

Bike change. Pic Jo Allen

Wednesday 8 January 2014

AbsoluteBlack single ring set up

I used to run a single ring, with guards, in the 1990s. I liked the simplicity of concept, it reduced weight a bit but more importantly it helped a bit with clogging. But since then I haven't really bothered to set one up again, mainly as the guards always seemed to rub with the chainline being difficult to set up. Modern re-inventions tended to involve chainkeepers attached to the seat stay, rather than the simple traditional double guard I used to use, and so lost the advantage of getting rid of a front-mech like object, neatly positioned around the bottom bracket area to successfully collect mud and vegetation.

It was with interest then, that I received a test 38 tooth ring (via Dave Haygarth) from Marcin at AbsoluteBlack. This ring differed from stuff I had seen previously, borrowing from the growing mtb market for single rings, and featuring a cleverly milled ring that requires no guard, chainkeeper or any other device to make it stick on. I was initially skeptical but equally hopeful that this could be the ideal solution to dealing with super muddy conditions later on in the 'cross season.

Matched to my On One Pickenflick and it's huge mud clearance, I've been running the ring in training and racing and can now report back. Set up is key to getting this ring to work. It's not hard, it just needs to be done right. Chain tension as well as the teeth profile is what keeps the chain on through the rough and the boggy, and chain length needs to be optimised to gain maximum advantage from the ring. Successfully installed, with clear instructions from AbsoluteBlack, the initial feel through the pedals was instantly positive. Maybe you don't pay too much attention to how your chain feels as you pedal, as opposed to your legs, but I could feel a smoothness that wasn't present on my perfectly good double chainset set ups.

The ring has now done a variety of races, and training sessions and in a variety of conditions and has passed all tests with flying colours. Bumpy tracks don't faze it - it hasn't been possible to bounce it off, though me and Dave have tried hard. It's trained and raced in thin sloppy mud, sticky mud (Bradford) and Todmorden (ie biblically thick) mud and simply kept on going. In many hours of use, I had one small problem at Todmorden Cross when a large, ripped up clod of soil got under the chain and onto the ring and caused the chain to fall off. But, and here is the crucial bit, it was super easy to get back on - no jamming on a chaincatcher, no falling between ring and bottom bracket and sticking, just an easy flick to get back on. Over the period of use and in the conditions I rode it in, I would have expected to drop a chain or have problems on a double set at some point anyway. No system is perfect, but the AbsoluteBlack ring works as well, if not better than anything else I've used.

Pic: Dave Haygarth

As I indicated earlier, the main advantage for me of a single ring is reduced clogging and this positive effect has been clearcut. No bike is clog free, and even if the frame keeps free then the cassette can often stop working properly anyway. But, the AbsoluteBlack ring set up and the resulting simplicity around the bottom bracket area has markedly reduced mud and vegetation build and kept the bike not only trouble free, but weighing less as a result too. Paired with an 11-28 block (10 speed chain, Sram Red rear mech), my 38 tooth ring gives me all the gears I had before and I have never missed the potentially wider range of gears a more traditional double set up gives. From now on, I'll be running this setup on my Pickenflick during the winter season and for me it's a perfect solution to the increasing levels of mud our climate seems to bring u.

UPDATE Jan 14:

I rode the last NWCCA race of the season recdently, starting on my bike with the single ring on. To my surprise, I had a couple of problems with the ring, dropping the chain on both occasions. After consultation with Marcin from absoluteBlack and some careful analysis of my actions and course conditions at the time, I feel fairly confident I've pinpointed the problem.

In essence, both 'drops' were caused by my very rapid changing of gear up the block on transitions from bumpy descent to slow grinding section. According to Marcin, changing 3 or 4 cogs in one movement will result in instability for any chain (on a single ring or otherwise). Ally that to a bumpy section, with no chain guard or front mech to hold the chain on and you have the problem. The solution, a technique which he maintains pro mountain bikers have been following for years, is to shift one cog at a time, rather than the multiple cog, rapid shifts that I was doing. The concession for this is that it takes a little forward planning so as to avoid rapid dumping up the block as the speed slows down. Marcin maintains also that the mtb testers for his single ring have not dropped the chain in testing due to their attention to this technique and that he often finds cyclocross riders are a bit 'gung ho' in shifting technique and could do with refining their actions. Certainly, I have never dropped the chain in thick mud, nor even on a descent - the 3 times I have had a problem have ALL followed multiple shifting into an easier gear before a slow boggy section.

UPDATE 2 Feb 14:

 After some discussions with Marcin from absoluteBlack, it's important to point out that the spring tension on Shimano mechs needs optimising to make the ring work to the best of its capability. Here's what it says on the absoluteBlack website....

Important information for SHIMANO derrailleur users:

In order to get best results we recommend increasing cage return spring tension. New derailleurs are assembled with the spring in the mount that allows the most relaxed position of the spring. However there is another position on the cage which will increase that tension. It is a standard procedure, please navigate to point no.7 in the link. You may also ask your LBS to do it for you.

Sram users are not required to do that as oem springs are already in high tension position.

If you missed it, here's Dave's recent video too:

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Sport Cross 2nd Feb - ride and watch 'cross with The Green Jersey

I love the Ribble Valley - endless quiet lanes, great climbs and some cracking cafes. But it's somewhere I've never really taken a 'cross bike to, aside from the odd run round Gisburn Forest with the kids.

Consequently, I was interested to learn about the forthcoming SportCross event on 2nd Feb. And hooked when I learned about the after event party with beer AND live cyclocross from the World Cross Championships at Hoogerheide. No brainer.

For those not in the know, The Green Jersey is a cracking little independent bike shop, tucked away in a corner of the picturesque Ribble Valley town of Clitheroe. And it also happens to be my favourite coffee and cake stop on my rides North of home. Like many independents, they put a lot back in to cycling with some already legendary film, beer and live screening events.

So their concept of a 30 mile 'cross sportive through the lanes, bridleways and moors of the Ribble Valley area is sure to be a great day out, 'cross season finisher and general all round 'grand event'.

Make sure you get an entry for what promises to be a fab day of riding, socialising and watching the biggest 'cross event of the season.