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I must admit things have been quiet since the Strathpuffer. I’ve been doing what I probably should have been doing after the 24 hour race before the Strathpuffer, which is taking time out of racing, relentlessly training and stressing over how many calories I’m consuming. (Instead I had a couple of weeks recovery and then immediately started training again, which quite honestly I didn’t enjoy at all).
I’ve been running a fair bit, which is what I normally do in the winter months to keep me occupied anyway. Nothing like the amount of running Debbie does, but quite a lot for me. I intend to stick with it for a few weeks, maybe I’ll do a marathon in the spring or something. So anyway, I’m enjoying that.
I’ve also been ‘just going for a ride’. Which is what most people who ride bikes do, admittedly. I mean riding a bike with no real purpose apart from spending time with friends, riding to places I’ve never ridden to before (such as Grimsby!), just smelling the air…sometimes riding slow…sometimes a bit faster. Just getting the miles in really. Short rides, long rides, very long rides, rides on my own, rides in big groups. On-road. Off-road. A bit of both. Or maybe a lie-in instead. What I should have been doing months ago, like I said.
I did a race yesterday but it was short, I rode a fat bike and I wore bright yellow baggy shorts. I finished 6th in the singlespeed category (on a geared bike….). Then we all went for a meal in a pub afterwards.
What I have started to notice is how much fitness I’ve lost in the past few weeks! Always surprising how quickly a chap’s top-end evaporates :-/
Temporary loss of fitness aside, in contrast to how I felt during the weeks prior to the Strathpuffer where I almost walked away from cycling entirely because it had started to feel like a job, I’m loving it again. A few weeks of not ‘having’ to go for a bike ride and not ‘having’ to knock out a few sets of hill reps when I do has left me full of motivation to get cracking with ‘proper things’ for the big races in the spring and summer….but not just yet. I’m far too busy enjoying just riding my bike and running in the woods for the time being.
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If something performs well and emerges from the Strathpuffer in one piece, you can assume it’s worth having. Here’s the first of 2015’s “Stuff the survived the Strathpuffer” blogs….
It goes without saying that 24 hour mountain bike racing in freezing and wet conditions in the depths of the Scottish winter needs some pretty serious clothing. Clothing that will keep you warm but won’t make you overheat when you put some effort in. Clothing that won’t fall apart if/when you crash and will survive the continual spray of mud without wearing through and/or emerging from the washing machine still covered in brown stains…
I’m lucky to have my winter riding needs taken care of by my friends at Craft UK and Armadillo Merino. But even the best winter cycling clothing needs to be VERY good to stop me getting cold in a round-the-clock race…
Craft took care of the outer layers with Siberian windproof gloves, PB Storm bib tights and PB Featherlight jacket. The final mile of the Strathpuffer lap involved a soaking-wet slither down a hill that was covered in several inches of soaking wet mud. My bibtights basically took a pounding every lap and while they got wet, the windproof panels and the perfect fit meant that they didn’t become baggy and I didn’t get cold. Likewise, when the temperature dropped during the night the jacket kept the chill at bay. My hands, normally the first to turn to blocks of ice when it’s cold, didn’t get cold at all in spite of freezing temperatures and a chilly wind.
After the race, everything spent a couple of days in a bag, rinsed in a bucket and then washed at 30 degrees in non-bio detergent. Everything came out as good as new.
Underneath all of that, I was wearing a pair of Armadillo Merino Commando Socks and a pair of merino liner gloves. My overshoes (cheap, sacrificial ones that I’ve had for years) kept popping off the toes of my shoes, leaving me riding most of the race in summer cycling shoes and socks. It was down to the socks to keep my wet feet from getting cold and I can’t praise them highly enough. I’ve worn loads of wool socks in the past but the performance of these is really quite remarkable. I was expecting cold feet as they were repeatedly exposed to water and wind, but it never happened. The socks themselves were soaking wet but somehow they managed to stay warm. Brilliant. Get a pair.
If it’s tough, warm and well-fitting kit you’re after, my advice is to get something that’s survived a Strathpuffer.
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Sometimes it’s easy to be fooled by the events of the past. Just because something has turned out well for you more than once in years gone by, it doesn’t always mean that you can rely on things turning out just as well in the future. It’s easy to become over-confident, arrogant even, always assuming that you can trot out the same old same old and get away with it.
What I’m trying to say is that I made a pig’s ear at the Strathpuffer. But it could have been worse.
Riding a 24 hour solo race on a singlespeed might sound pretty stupid, but it’s not when you consider that I’d won this particular race twice on this very same bike so it would be sensible to assume that it must be the right tool for the job, yes? No.
photo: Yaz Lapin
Things started ok, I put in some decent lap times in spite of the icy conditions. The past couple of years have been a bit icy, but nothing like the widespread snow and ice of this time so I was using spiked ice tyres front and rear to allow me to maintain traction while climbing out of the saddle. My second lap was the fastest lap of any singlespeeder in the race, which illustrates how well things were going early on. I was concerned about a lower back niggle that I’d been carrying for a few weeks (probably caused by singlespeed hill reps during training) but I reckoned that it’d be ok as long as I maintained good form on the bike, kept my back straight and didn’t start to “scrunch up”.
The icy course was nice and smooth and fast and I had plenty of the all-important momentum to get me to the top of the short-but-steep climbs in the second half of the lap.
I finally caught up with Keith Forsyth around the 8 hours mark who at that point was in the lead. I didn’t want to pass him just yet so tailed him for a lap or so before I made my move. I now had a grand plan to quickly eat some hot food and then consolidate my lead and create a gap.
Unfortunately for me, around this time the temperature appeared to rise just enough to make the icy course softer and quite slushy in places. I was immediately having to properly put maximum effort into keeping moving and momentum was suddenly in short supply. My lead lasted all of a lap-and-a-half as Keith came tearing past and rode off into the distance and I grimaced, grunted and made a meal of things.
A rear tyre swap alleviated things a little bit, but what I really needed was a set of gears. Still struggling to stay on top of my gear and maintain a comfortable cadence, my back started to give out. I progressively got slower.
A few hours of trying to muscle a singlespeed around the now quite muddy and ‘heavy’ course followed. By the 16 hour point I was pretty broken and was ready to chuck in the towel, when Deb (just doing her job) gave me a right bollocking. She knew a result was still possible as long as I stopped moaning about how much pain I was in and kept moving. I rode off with a flea in my ear but deep down I knew she was right.
I kept going and put in some really slow lap times – by now the pain in my back was preventing me from riding up anything remotely steep and I wasn’t too hot at descending either.
With 3 hours to go, just at the point where I was as in as much pain as I can remember, I started to believe that the singlespeed category win was in the bag and perhaps I could hang on to an overall podium place. I was still in second overall in spite of the fiasco of the past 9 hours but I knew Guy was catching up.
When he did we had a brief chat and he rode into second place as I pushed my stupid bike up another hill. By now the ice and slush had all but disappeared, but I had almost nothing left.
Somehow I’d done enough (in spite of my over-confident and somewhat foolhardy bike choice) to secure 3rd place on the solo podium behind Guy in second and Keith in first – both of them riding brilliantly and consistently throughout the race – and I also took the singlespeed category win for the 4th time, which was nice.
Will I be back (with gears) next year? What do you think?
pic: Niall Wallace
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The past three months or so of preparing for the Strathpuffer have been a bit of a struggle. Not a struggle physically, I’m more than capable and fit enough right now to cope with the training I should have been doing – nope, my struggles have been with motivation to get outdoors in the cold, wet and dark to put in the saddle time. It’s always harder to get the miles in during the dark winter months but this time has been different – I’ve thought about it carefully because at one point I was ready to walk away from cycling altogether, but I’ve simply come to the conclusion that I need a break from cycling as I’ve not had an ‘off season’ for over a year.
I don’t mean a long break, just a few weeks. A few weeks to have some rest and devote some time to other things. The house needs some sorting out and I’m mad keen to start trail running again.
The 6, 7, 8 and 9 hour rides that I’d normally do in prep for a 24 hour solo just haven’t happened. OK, I’ve done two or three big rides (I even managed to put in a 22 hour week a couple of weeks ago) but I decided after a major wobble when I almost withdrew from the event some weeks ago that I’d get my head down, tough it out, do the rides and the training that I actually felt like doing, stop whining and go and do the race. Just one more race….how hard can it be?
Luckily for me I’m riding the Strathpuffer on a singlespeed again (bear with me). On a normal bike ride, singlespeeding isn’t that much different from riding with gears. It’s just pedalling. But the longer the duration of the ride, the bigger the differences become. There’s just nowhere to hide – you can’t slip into an easier gear and ‘ride easy’ for a while when you start to ache all over and your body is screaming at you to stop – once you hit any sort of gradient you’ve got to commit 100%. My choice of gear is quite tall for 24 hour racing too – I don’t want to lose too much speed on the easier parts of the course so my bikes are set up so that I can match the lap times of other riders with a full complement of gear ratios. It seemed to work ok at the hilly Todmorden cyclocross race a couple of weeks ago….I didn’t get completely humiliated anyway ;)
It can be done, but the training needs to be different so rather than concerning myself with hours and hours of saddle time, I’ve been focussing more on short (if you can call three hour rides ‘short’) intense training, specific singlespeeding techniques to preserve my lower back and also spending more time lifting weights in the gym – building my upper body, core and altering my body composition. If I’m taking part in a race where I can expect to be stood up out of the saddle for three quarters of it, I’m going to have to toughen up.
In some ways it’s ideal winter training. Not being outside for too long, turbo training, lifting weights…not quite winter hibernation but certainly not the adventurous, epic, fast bike rides in horrible weather of years gone by. Most of the rides I’ve done have taken place within 3 miles of my house. Will it be enough? I’ve no idea.
Whatever happens, it’s a good starting point for the rest of the year and I have to admit I’ve enjoyed working hard in the gym and I think I’ve even started to like interval training. It’s done and dusted in a couple of hours and that’s probably the only reason I’m still on the Strathpuffer start list. I even lost weight over Christmas.
As usual, I’m fortunate to be heading up there in the Team JMC van with some brilliant kit – an ace bike from Niner, proper warm clothing from Craft and Armadillo Merino and 17 hours of darkness-busting Exposure Lights.
The all-important weather forecast? High winds and snow….
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I know it’s a cliche, but good grief that one has flown by. In accordance with tradition, here’s a 100 mph sprint through the highlights of the year (there’s been a few let me tells ya)
The year kicked off like it did in 2013 with a Strathpuffer24 Solo win. I was dead chuffed as you can imagine. Not least because I could eat normally for a while and I wasn’t compelled to go out training in the cold, dark and wet mornings. Vowed never to do the Strathpuffer again but then entered the Strathpuffer again the following November.
Celebrated the win and the subsequent weight gain by flying out to Tenerife for some quality suffering on the road bike in nice weather. In spite of the nice weather, there was more snow in Tenerife than there was in Scotland a couple of weeks previously. Flew back and started to film a TV programme. As you do.
Then I was brushing my teeth one morning and suddenly remembered I was running the 3 Peaks Fell Race in a few weeks. I prepared as best I could – I even managed a 20 mile trail run – and lined up like I did the year before. This time however it hurt a lot more. I didn’t do any more running for long time afterwards…
I rode a fatbike competitively for the last time in April in the brilliant Battle on the Beach race. There wasn’t much battling (not what would pass as ‘battling’ around here anyway) but it was on a beach. I’ve a feeling 2015 will see a bit more fatbike action, in spite of the entire world and his dog owning fatbikes nowadays…
Almost snapped my knees and lower back riding a too-tall-geared singlespeed at the Builth Wells marathon double-header to round off April, before spending a week or so in Fort William with Dave and the No Fuss team. We spent the week riding bikes a lot, unsurprisingly. Some more days were spent filming for the telly…
June was a corker. We did some more filming, me and Dave had our faith tested in a frustrating 12 hour mechanical-and-puncture-fest at the Bristol Bikefest 12 hour race. We narrowly missed out on a podium after yo-yo-ing up and down the top ten as the gods took the piss out of us, basically. I ‘celebrated’ by taking part in the 6 hour race the day after, hanging onto the back of Chipps’ tandem. We came third.
I indulged in some local midweek cross country racing and didn’t get my arse handed to me on a plate by anywhere near as many people as I thought I would.
The week after I won Mountain Mayhem solo. At last. As a reward I was presented with a medal by Princess Anne, which was nice apart from the fact I said “YER WOT” instead of “excuse me?” when I misheard what she said. I was tired.
Filmed some more telly and did some more XC racing in July. Also, I sailed across to the Isle of Man for the Manx100 race. 100 miles of unsupported, cramp-inducing, climb-infested suffering. It was a good day out, but after the 6th puncture and the 2nd wrong turning I was glad to be on the boat back to the mainland. Maybe one to try again next year.
Arrived home, grabbed 3 hours sleep then Guy picked me up in the van for some more filming – by now things were getting serious with the ‘telly job’ – the tandem was built and we were spending a couple of days testing it. I’d also spent the late spring and the summer so far training on a single-seater recumbent on a track in Preston. I was loving it.
August was the big one. Our attempt at the human-powered 24 hour record. I don’t need to go on about it here, it was on the telly.
A couple of weeks later me and Phil did the Ruthin marathon. Phil crashed and broke his collarbone. Retrieving him from the hospital at 3am the next morning was an adventure in itself.
I’d been training and focussing on the World 24 Hour champs for the 16 weeks before the race itself in October. With many things that we focus and plan for weeks (even months) on end, things can often play out as you didn’t expect them to. The main thing is to be prepared for the unexpected and not give up and that’s pretty much what happened. Not feeling very well at all (sorry Scotland, I made a mess in your forest), I had a shocking start, a mediocre middle bit and a final 8 or 9 hours where I pulled my finger out and made the most of it. The race didn’t go competely tits up, but it could probably have gone better. I finished 6th in the elite category, which at the very least won me enough to pay for the diesel there and back and I did get to spend another weekend riding my bike. Hopefully I’ll make it to the WEMBO World Champs in 2015. It’s not in Scotland though, it’s thousands of miles away in California…
An all-too-short rest after the 24 Hour Worlds (which included the screening of the Speed with Guy Martin episode. Mega!) was followed by me entering and starting to train for the 2015 Strathpuffer, which sort of brings us back to where we started.
Thanks to everyone that has helped me, encouraged me and have given me opportunities to do ace and cool things in the past year. Thanks to all the people who have kindly agreed to help me (and to those of you whose help I might appear to take for granted!) in 2015.