Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Gravel Grinding UK: Return to the Dirty Reiver 200

numbers - boring, right?
Whatever happened to the art of cycling? Replaced by numbers, stats, sensors and spreadsheets in the endless quest for marginal gains. The route to success lies in analytics dictates modern sports science but what about those legends of yesterday? Marco Pantani did alright on a healthy dose of Italian passion (we'll ignore the widespread doping back then), and when it comes to riding a bike I prefer not to over analyse. But. Races are tricky, all that adrenaline mixed with excitement, expectation, anticipation and the sheer enjoyment of feeling fresh and fast has a tendency to lead to early over-exuberance which like those festive over indulgences must be paid for later. The closing stages are the flip side of this coin, payback time; we've all been there, running on fumes and pushing harder then we want to remember wishing for deliverance. 200k of gravel race is going to take 8+ hours which is longer than any race most of us will attempt so my survival plan involves keeping a close eye on my numbers.

start line at the castle - photo by San Kapil
This is the second year that Stadium Riders have made it to the Dirty Reiver and this year we have a good group of riders up for the challenge. There's Saul 'singlespeed terminator' Muldoon, Andrew 'nicest man in the world' Beever, San 'once you ride fat you won't go back' Kapil and Mr and Mrs Smith; Clare and Stephen. No one sleeps well Friday night, 5am  on Saturday morning eventually arrives and we're rolling off down the road from Newcastleton, Kielder bound following forced breakfast feasts of muesli, toast and coffee. I have fresh coffee and toasted wild white bread from The Handmade Bakery back home, thickly spread with cashew butter; proper race fuel - I'd take this bread round the world if I could. On the start line down by Kielder Castle the grass is white with frost, the air is a chilly 5°C but there's a bright glowing ball rising above us promising warmth for later in the morning.

This year the start is staggered, groups of twenty or so riders set off at minute intervals on the neutralised road section. The testosterone in the first group is palpable, I'm leaving them to it. A few minutes later our group freewheel off down the hill and despite yawning a minute or two ago I'm already overtaking other riders and winding up for the start proper. Clare Smith offers encouragement shouting 'the road is yours', go on then, lets do this thing. 
Compared to the Pennines this is easy terrain, back home we ride steep gnarly and technical trails but today's route is mostly well graded although there's still plenty of fun to be had drifting both wheels through corners and smirking at roadies dabbing nervously. Despite the lack of technical challenges today's course favours the mountain bikers and cyclocross racers, roadies may have the fitness but slowing down to walking pace through every loose corner will seriously dent your finish time.

enjoying the fast descents
At about twenty minutes in a group of riders merge from a trail on my right, it turns out that the first group out took a wrong turn and have stuck an extra few km on todays route with an excursion out and back into the forest. This group are in a hurry and it seems that a good few speed off ahead. I continue to keep an eye on my effort and push on. The crowds thin out and soon I am disturbing young deer and rabbits, tyres spitting gravel from the trail as I climb the wooded moorland west of the Kielder reservoir. After a few miles I am joined by a couple of riders; Jon, a bike mag editor from California, and Soren, a pro mountain biker living in the Netherlands riding for Stevens. Soren is fresh from a stage race in Ibiza, by contrast I've just survived another Yorkshire winter. Another rider, Dave Hopper joins us, he's a mate of Rich Rothwell who I assume is somewhere up ahead. Dave is kind enough to offer me water as my bottle has fallen out on one of the early descents, he does nearly take us all out though on a sharp right  hander which we all spot too late. Easy done when you are head down and charging as we all are on these fast forest roads. 

I am glad to see the first feed stop, I'm parched. The feedstop crew are still preparing but there's some sliced Soreen out and I fill my Camelback rucksack with precious water. Back down the road and some familiar faces nod as they ride towards the feed stop, it turns out that those are the fast group from the start, now back on track but behind us. I'm surprised by all the closed gates on the next section and we waste time opening and closing them, where are the marshalls? I make it through the river crossing without taking a bath and the rocky descent towards Newcastleton is completed without incident this year, last year I punctured my rear tyre here. This year the knobbly gravel tyres on my Cannondale Slate are soaking up the worst of the terrain with ease. A marshall we pass on one of the tarmac lanes remarks that he wasn't expecting us so soon and we press on to the 100km feed station, taking turns on the front into the cold breeze. 
"How many have been through?" I ask the marshalls, I'm a bit surprised when one replies, "you're the first ones", somehow we're out in front. I thought there were a few riders ahead of us but it does explain the closed gates and half built feed station. There's plenty of time to let the news sink in on the next climb, fellow riders Jon and Soren take off through the forest and I leave them to it, we're only half way and I'm pushing as hard as I should at this stage. I prefer to ride my own race. I reel the pair in a couple of times on the long drag out of Newcastleton but they get away further up the climb. I feel a strange disconnect riding hard up this track, the surroundings are idyllic - flowering gorse and new grass shoots nestling under pine trees, all bathed in Scottish spring sunshine and yet many will pass without noticing, focused on getting to the top. The climb back over to Kielder is a slog, this is where many have their race low point and I briefly question my motivation after thirty minutes of kidney and lower back pain on the climb but I don't race often and there's nothing worse than the disappointment of an aborted challenge.  Fortunately it's easy enough to shut those negative thoughts down and zone out until the descent to Kielder. I'm glad to see Sandra and Francis Muldoon (parents of Saul) marshalling here. Familiar faces and encouragement are much appreciated. In many ways marshalls have the harder day, hours of standing round marking the route offering assistance to exhausted, unfortunate and occasionally ungrateful riders. The next climb hurts but I catch a glimpse of Jon up ahead and it's these glimpses that keep me pushing on up the Forest Drive to the summit. The descent down to the last feed station feels great, down in the drops dodging and hopping potholes in top gear through the dappled light of the forest. I beg WD40 for my dusty chain at the feed stop and grab some flapjack for the final push back over to and round the reservoir. Encouragingly those glimpses of Jon become more frequent on the climbs and I start to feel that I'm making up time. Eight or so miles later I catch him on a climb. He waves me past, later confessing that Soren really pushed the pace after the midway feed station and he was now paying for it. Soren was somewhere ahead, the gap unknown, perhaps I'd spot him on the lakeside trail. 

I did spot him later, just a few minutes ahead but I was now in endurance mode, after six and a half hours any significant effort was short lived. I focused on getting to the castle counting down the lakeside miles until the final sprint up to the finish line where I slumped forward on the bike to be told 'that was really quick' by the marshalls. Yep, we set off at 7am and it wasn't yet 3pm. One marshall hands me a receipt printed with my result which I shove in my back pocket. I push my bike to the grass, peel off sweaty outer layers, rub my sweat encrusted face and collapse on the grass. Horizontal feels good. It's only after a couple of people ask me what time I completed in that I reach into my back pocket for the now sweaty and crumpled receipt; 7 hours 34 minutes bags me second place two minutes behind Soren Nissen. Maybe those numbers do matter after all. 
Route of the Dirty Reiver

An hour later I get back on my Slate and spin back towards Newcastleton, it might be a couple more hours before the rest of the Stadium Riders are in and I'm getting cold. The next morning four of us have a gentle spin round Newcastleton trail centre on CX bikes under glorious blue skies. The perfect ending to a great weekend.


Thanks to:

Velofondista for bike preparation
San Kapil for photos and enthusiasm (his Indian Fire trail blog is well worth a read)
Saul Muldoon for sorting the arrangements
Focal Events for organising a top event


Cannondale Slate Ultegra, as standard except for wheels (front Stans Flow shod with tubeless Surly Knard and rear Hunt Adventure Sport wheel with tubeless Schwalbe G-One tyre)

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Huddersfield - Brighton Marathon

"Making the unattainable attainable", isn't that the point of training? You get plenty of time to ponder the point of the anti-social endeavour that is endurance riding on a ride to Brighton from Yorkshire.

That ride from Huddersfield to Brighton was pencilled in several months ago when Holmfirth Harriers Cogs and Rosie signed up to run Brighton marathon with my wife Jen, I wanted to go and support but didn't fancy sitting in a car for hours to get there. I've always preferred point to point rides anyway and riding due south through England until the road runs out appealed. I've planned a few big rides for 2017 so getting a big training ride done in April could only be beneficial. Bike preparation was going well the week before, I fixed my dynamo and replaced all the on bike wiring, the drivechain was swapped out, brakes tweaked and tri-bars fitted by Velofondista. Unfortunately the day before I was due to set off my crankset fell apart forcing a re-plan; I dragged my neglected summer bike from the back of the shed. Those tri-bars and a large saddle bag were fitted, tyres pumped up and there was time to point some lube at the chain before I fell asleep.

I woke before my 4.30am alarm on Saturday morning, kit was already out and a breakfast of muesli and yoghurt was followed by sourdough toast and fresh coffee; foundations for a good day in the saddle. Free-wheeling down the hill to the Milnsbridge traffic lights the cold night air stung my face, I was wearing everything I was taking on this ride - gloves over mitts, gilet and a full set of limb warmers were still not enough for the freezing temperature. Fortunately the air above the valley bottom was a few degrees warmer making the climb out of the Holme Valley past Hepworth more pleasant than usual. Over the top to a quiet Fox Valley and I was in Sheffield in no time, the twisted steeple of Chesterfield was my next landmark soon followed by quiet lanes through the east Peaks into the centre of Derby.

On the Fosse Way, roads
don't come much older than this
Oxford University
From Derby I eventually joined the Fosse Way to reach Banbury and the centre of Oxford. Riding through these ancient towns and cities was great for seeing the sights of Olde Englande. Unsurprisingly Oxford was full of tourists unlike my next landmark; Reading, which I crossed as quickly as possible on the A33 trying to stay in front of wheelsucking white van man. I was now 180 miles in and in need of some proper food, the best I could find was a MuckDonalds where large fries and coke were consumed in an attempt to restore blood sugar levels. 

The route from Reading through the Surrey hills was scenic and quiet, very enjoyable but I had one eye on the time as I tried to beat the sunset. Sixty miles remaining from Reading meant no chance. Lights and limb warmers were dragged out for the final twenty miles into Littlehampton via the town of ancient Arundel. My destination the Travellodge for a cold Peroni and big sleep.

HHAC runner Damo
coming in to finish
Reflecting the next day over a few beers with the marathon runners from Holmfirth Harriers we try and agree on "why", that is "why do we do this?". This turns out to be a very personal question with different answers from everyone, but having a personally valid answer to that question is essential if we are each to get up and out the door, to do what we do. Some are happy to run on a treadmill all winter to achieve their personal goals whilst for others simply getting out on the local moors is the the goal. Some need to to measure and analyse every variable whilst others are happy to have the wind in their hair and cold rain on their face.

I'm happy exploring the world one map tile at a time inspired by legendary riders like Mike Hall who tragically died racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race this year, he will be sorely missed by many.  RIP Mike, we're all trying to #bemoremike in our own way.

Gear Used

Cannondale CAAD10 with Q rings
Large Ortlieb saddlebag
Exposure lights
Komoot navigation app on iPhone