Salzkammergut Trophy romantic weekend away….

The Salzkammergut Trophy is a funny old race. The main event – the 211 kilometre ‘A’ route – is too hard to be approached in any way other than Very Seriously (if you want to beat the strict time cut-off and/or not end up bery broken indeed) and a lot of the distance is made up of forest roads and minor trails that are ridden twice and in some cases, three times over.

There are some technical sections, the majority of them downhill, but generally what happens there is that the vast majority of competitors dismount and walk/run (barge!) down those or attempt to ride them and immediately crash (and then walk).

This year the conditions were wet and muddy so the downhill mincing was even more prevalent.

Gravelly forest roads. The Salzkammergut region of Austria has got loads of them and the Austrians will happily make you ride up and down them all day long. They love gravelly fireroads. Many Austrians (and Germans it would seem) have got awesome Riding Down Gravelly Fireroads skills.

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To be perfectly honest I find them rather dull, especially if I’m riding them all day long. As long as there’s a view (and you’re actually looking up) then there’s a way of telling one from the other, but mostly they’re pretty much the same as each other.

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Debbie and I arrived on the day before the race, a bit frazzled because we’d driven the 1000 miles across Europe from Manchester. Driving there via the Channel Tunnel with two bikes and assorted gubbins is still a lot easier and cheaper than negotiating airports, baggage carousels and hire cars though, plus we were able to stock up on Belgian waffles on the way back.

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My start time was 5am. How unpleasant. I had just about enough time (after finding the campsite and signing in) for 4 hours sleep, after getting completely ripped off by the Bad Goisern campsite, located at the football club. 36 Euro for ONE NIGHT in a 2 man pop-up tent. This would have been easier to stomach had it not been for the Token Noisy Woman on the campsite. So make that two hours’ sleep. Cheers Token Noisy Woman. Here’s hoping your next poo is a pineapple.

Stuffing sweet cakey treats down my neck on the start line I once again noticed that a couple of hundred riders had snuck in between me and the start line. I reminded myself that I wasn’t actually here to ‘race’, only to get around the course more quickly than I did last year….besides, I couldn’t be arsed to push my way forward cos I don’t know how to say “shift over mate” in German. After the gun, I worked my way through the pack as best I could on the first road section and when we reached the first climb I picked my way through the various rolling roadblocks of granny ring-dwelling riders.

It was going ok for a few hours – I reached the heady heights of 90th place according to the splits in the results from starting in 230th position. I stopped at feed stations only when I needed to (and when they didn’t have The Scorpions blasting out at full volume) and generally felt good. A nice 16mph average speed was much faster than last time…..but maybe it was a bit too fast….

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After 5 hours or so my legs started to fall off. It was a shame really because I wasn’t even halfway around the route at this point. I attempted to recover and back off the pace for an hour or so, making full use of the long, smooth fireroad descents and the occasional entertaining (hilarious) tricky bit. A few freezing cold rain showers didn’t help matters, shivering, I quickly pulled on a jacket…took it off….pulled it back on….took it off….

I never really recovered and just got slower. Maybe an 18 hour drive the day before a hard bike ride wasn’t a good idea after all – who knew!?!

Meanwhile, Debbie was starting her 40k ride at 12pm. I was worried because I knew that she was worried and to be perfectly honest I knew she’d give 100%, but would she really be ok? Would she make the cut-off?

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I continued to ride through rain showers, grovelled up more big climbs and started to lose my sense of humour. A stopped for a couple of minutes to talk about Brexit (of all things) to some Dutch lads in fancy dress at the top of The Steepest Road In The Universe. They offered me beer and cigs. I was tempted but I carried on – ‘not too far now’ I thought….

The last few kilometres are a bit dragged out and slightly ‘down the back of the garages’ but eventually I arrived back in the centre of Bad Goisern, found Debbie and almost cried with relief when she told me she finished her race, wasn’t last and clearly hadn’t had any problems at all.

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In spite of the long periods of fireroad riding and the distance from home, the Salzkammergut Trophy has a certain allure – maybe it’s just the insane amount of climbing, maybe it’s the sheer size of the event (Bad Goisern IS the Salzkammergut Trophy for one weekend a year, you really have to see it to believe it), or perhaps it’s the incredible (INCREDIBLE) scenery in this part of the world that are the actual attractions. Whatever the pros and cons, it’s a stupidly hard race and you really can’t wing it.

Next up for me is a ride to the south of Spain, disappointingly Debbie has opted to fly there instead……

Rumble in the Jungle – A Sri Lankan adventure

Worth noting before I start to tell you about the Rumble in the Jungle stage race in Sri Lanka that I’m writing a reasonably-long article about the race for Singletrack Magazine. If you think that this blog entry is a bit light on detail, that’s on purpose. I don’t want to ruin the surprise and if you want to know more, you’ll just have to buy the mag…..


I’m a lucky bugger sometimes. I was asked a few months ago if I’d mind awfully popping over to Sri Lanka to take part in a stage race, make some notes and tell the world all about it in a magazine. Obviously an opportunity to ‘pop over’ to a beautiful and (to me) mysterious island in the Indian Ocean, as a guest of the race organiser and their main sponsor (who happen to be an airline) doesn’t happen every day so I think I considered it for all of 3 nanoseconds. The conversation also took place only days after I realised that I wouldn’t be going to the Tour Divide this year, so that was handy too.

The race comprised 4 stages. Each stage wound its way through tea plantations, dense jungle, mountaintop villages, exposed hillsides and manic, traffic-filled roads. Each stage was very strenuous and we seemed to spend all morning climbing – add to that the incredibly hot and quite often humid weather, the amazing curry (for every meal if you, like me, were daft enough) and incredibly efficient organisation and you’ve got everything you need for a truly memorable week’s racing. Totally immersed in the race, all the rider needs to do is race, eat and sleep. Brilliant.

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My race went really well – I wasn’t expecting to finish 3rd (I was 5th really but vets get a time reduction to allow a single category) and I was pleased that I was able to complete my first-ever stage race without making a complete balls of things.

sxscEveryone I met – racers, organisers, marshals, drivers, photographers – were all super-friendly and at times it felt like a proper holiday with like-minded folk and by the end of the week I felt like I’d known some of them for years. Friends who I’ll keep in touch with and who I hope to meet again.

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It wasn’t all plain-sailing – a big crash on stage 2 almost broke my sternum and day 1 couldn’t end soon enough with a couple of annoying and time-wasting mechanicals and a tyre that wouldn’t stay inflated for longer than 30 minutes. I got a bit ‘ill’ on day 3 and spent most of the night sat on the loo but I soon discovered that a 15 kilometre climb to over 2000 metres is just the ticket for curing a runny bottom….

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Some highlights for me were the third stage where I rode with Albert – he was placed only 4 or 5 minutes behind me but by that point we were a pair of weary veterans, happy to call a truce and just enjoy the ride, talk about our lives on opposite sides of the world and just enjoy the scenery and amazing Sri Lankan mountain biking ahead of us.

Watching San ride his fat bike every day, always positive and cheerful and almost transcending the race completely by experiencing more of the ‘real’ Sri Lanka than any of us – stopping and talking to people, letting them have a go on his bike….fantastic stuff.

The old train that transported everyone back to the start. Still in daily use by the good people of Sri Lanka, it wound its way back to Colombo at an average speed of 25Kph, while the incredible scenery passed by the window.

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And the curry. I loved all the curry.

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Thanks to everyone that made all of this wonderful experience possible. Phil and Kate for organising it, LSR for getting us, our bags and our bikes into the right place and for keeping us all safe, Sri Lankan Holidays and Sri Lankan Airlines for looking after me and for the most luxurious and comfortable flights I’ve ever had, Chipps and Singletrack Mag for asking me to cover the race in the first place and to the people of Sri Lanka who never seemed to stop smiling.

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You can see the daily ‘race reports’ I sent by carrier pigeon during the race here, and if you’re interested in taking part next year, sign up here (and I might see you there).

 

 

 

Midweek MTB race and Sri Lanka weatherwatch

It had been months since I’d last been in a bike race. My withdrawal from the Strathpuffer last winter plus more running (mainly in preparation for the 3 Peaks fell race) during the last few months of 2015 and the first few of 2016 meant that I didn’t get up to any of the 2-wheeled winter ‘fun’ that I normally dabble in. I’d been riding my bike plenty in prep for the Rumble in the Jungle in Sri Lanka and the Euro 24 hour champs in Switzerland a week after that, but no cyclocross races or anything else competitive. My last bike race was the world champs back in October.

Something had to change, I couldn’t hide away for ever so I was really looking forward to turning myself inside out in the midweek XC race (round 1 of the Midweek Mountain Bike Madness series), just down the road in Leverhulme Park. Just enough time to finish work, get changed then ride to the start and spend an hour trying to stop my lungs from popping out of my earholes.

A few days of dry weather then some rain on the day of the race didn’t completely ruin the cracking little course – a nicely-varied lap of gravelly paths, fast singletrack and root-and-soil off-the-brakes steep descents. Karen and the team from Horwich Cycling Club had everything running like clockwork by the time I rolled up and signed in.

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photo: Chris Meads

The first lap went better than I thought I would. I decided to ride the singlespeed which is probably a little bit under-geared but I was pleasantly surprised at how fast I could spin my legs round and hang on to the lead group for at least 10 minutes until I had to reduce my cadence before my legs actually snapped off.

The steep climbs weren’t very easy with just the one gear (and as it turned out, a rear tyre that was steadily losing pressure) – invariably other riders would be sensibly spinning up the incline while I ran out of momentum behind them, being far too polite to elbow people out of the way😉

Anyway, it was a good laugh and I got a properly tough hour on the bike, followed by an easy spin back home through the woods. It was great to back in the swing of things.

Also back in the swing of things was Budge, taking part in his first race for god-knows-how-long following a serious injury. Good news.

The next few weeks are going to be quite hectic – at the weekend I’m flying to Sri Lanka for a stage race (I’ve never stage raced before, I’ve never been confronted by an angry elephant nor have I ever been to Asia), back at work for 4 days and then a drive down to Switzerland for the European 24 hour Solo Championship. Obviously I’m stressing about tyre choice for Sri Lanka and looking at the weather forecast I’m on the lookout for a waterproof jacket that is usable in 30 degrees centigrade….

 

 

 

 

 

Ortlieb bikepacking equipment

I’ve had mixed experiences with bikepacking luggage in the past. While the ability to carry enough sleeping kit, food and clothing for a night under the stars (or under thick cloud) brings a whole other dimension and level of scope to ‘epic’ bike rides,  sometimes the practicalities of strapping bags of stuff to a bicycle leave much to be desired.

One of the most common (and often most cost-effective) methods involved strapping a standard drybag to your handlebars. Inside you’d put your bivvy bag and if your drybag was big enough you’d be able to fit in a sleeping mat and perhaps a warm coat too. Some improvisation might be needed to stop the drybag bouncing around. You might need to be careful that you don’t snag your brake levers. If you’re really unlucky (like I was once) you might pull your brake hose out of the lever and have to ride home using your feet as a brake. You’ll definitely rub some of the paint off your frame and/or fork.

Similarly, you might use a harness-type of seatpack which allows you to bung clothing and maybe food in another bag and strap that to your seatpost. You’ll need to be careful how much you put in there and strap it up REALLY tight though; a swinging pendulum of woolly hats, spare underpants and pork pies high up on the bike adds a level of ‘interest’ to your offroad handling.

You’ll have fun though, bivvying is always fun if you’re that way inclined.

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I kind of lived with all of these drawbacks and compromises until the first time I used the new Ortlieb seatpack, bar bag and accessory pack. None of the niggles I’ve mentioned above apply anymore – the Ortlieb bags are designed to be completely stable and secure in use, large enough to accommodate everything you might need, have an uncomplicated and unobtrusive attachment system. They’re also 100% waterproof, a characteristic of all Ortlieb products.

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I can fit a rolled-up bivvy bag, sleeping bag and ¾ length self-inflating mat into the bar bag, along with a down jacket. Impressive. The pack isn’t small but the clever attachment  straps place the bag sort of underneath instead of in front of the bars, away from controls and lights so in this position the dimensions of the bag are hardly noticeable. Attachment takes a few seconds and there are plenty of thick pads to protect handlebars and paint. There’s a roll-top closure at each end of the bag which aids access and also makes putting a rolled-up bivvy bag bag inside a lot easier.

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Stability is exceptional, even on very rocky terrain. A few kilogrammes of extra weight hanging from the handlebars is never going to be ‘invisible’ when it comes to bumpy terrain and cornering at speed, but there aren’t any surprises (such as the bag bouncing) and once your brain has adjusted to it, things are fine.

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Attached to the front of the bar bag is the Accessory Pack. Large enough to fit a headtorch, a spare pair of gloves, a phone, some sandwiches and a map just where you want them, it’s also totally waterproof and it comes with an extra strap so you can use it as a bumbag if you like bumbags…

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Under the saddle (and extending quite a long way backwards from the saddle) is the seatpack. This thing is massive – open it up and it looks like a feeding basking shark. You really can get a lot of stuff in there which can he handy for long multi-day expeditions or if you simply can’t leave the house without a dinner suit. Roll it up and close it and again it’s completely waterproof. Handy if it’s going to be sprayed with water from the back wheel for hours on end – it’s also big enough to provide almost complete water and mud protection for your bum/back. There are a couple of reflective patches and loops for lights as well, which is a nice touch.

There’s also an elasticated strap on the top of the bag for securing a jacket (or anything else you want to put there, really).

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In spite of its capacity and potential size, the huge Velcro and webbing straps (which have locking buckles) that secure the bag to the saddle rails and seatpost do an admirable job of keeping swaying and weight shifts to a minimum. I also didn’t have to re-tension any straps at any point during a long offroad ride.

The standard of manufacture – the straps, closures, buckles and fabric – is probably the best you’re ever likely to see. You’re not going to wreck them in a hurry unless you’re exceptionally unlucky/clumsy. They come with a 5 year guarantee anyway.

Ortlieb have clearly only released these bags once they were certain that they were absolutely perfect – there’s no doubt that it’s a range of serious outdoors kit. There’s a frame pack scheduled for release next year – I expect that will be just as good.

I’m going to hammer these bags in a few local and not-so-local long-distance rides this year –  and I’ve already sold my old drybags and straps.

 

 

3 Peaks Race 2016

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The last two times I’ve taken part in the 3 Peaks Race it’s been painful and in some respects a quite miserable experience but at the same time one of those races that’s so tough that it’s very addictive.

In previous years I’ve trained for it, in fact the first time I was under no illusions as to the magnitude of the challenge so trained quite hard for it. The second time I was far too distracted by cycling and was pitifully underprepared; as a result my first attempt was the time to beat.

I thought that this year I’d trained properly. I’ve run further in the first 4 months of 2016 than I’ve ever run in any year, ever. Ok, it’s only a few hundred miles and I’ve been fitting it in among all the other cycling hours I’ve had to do but it’s been ok. I’ve even managed three or four half marathons – one of them was quite hilly too! Perfect.

Or was it?

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Not really. I reckon I’d put in the hours and the miles and my ‘marathon’ pace is quite quick nowadays, for me anyway. What last weekend’s race did expose however was my woeful lack of hours running in the ‘proper’ hills and my crappy descending technique (I already knew about that one to be fair).

After surprisingly starting even further back than I normally do, I got to the top of Pen Y Ghent quicker than usual. I’ve never been bad at running uphill (in fact the steeper and longer the climb the better), but my memories of intense thigh pain caused by trying to bomb back down again in previous years meant that I seemed to be subconsciously adopting a weird speed-limiting and eventually muscle-damaging disposition on the way back down. There was a lot of snow and slush near the summit and there was a weather front closing in rapidly but the first mountain passed underfoot without too much trouble at all.

Regardless, I soon made it to the bottom of the descent and across the moor – I still felt strong by the time I reached Ribblehead and the start of the second peak where Dave, Angela and Debbie all bestowed gels upon me.

I hate the term in a racing context but I reckon I SMASHED the Whernside climb (a friend who was watching the online split timing told me that I’d overtaken 80 people, in fact) and somehow found the spare breath to encourage a few other lads who seemed to be struggling. It was a near-vertical wall of snow and mud, to be fair to them. Once at the top I dibbed my transponder and enjoyed the high winds, horizontal hail, snow, ice, mud and near-darkness while I trotted along, trying to get my (by now, purple) legs working properly again, in shorts. Madness.

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Things started to fall apart on the Whernside descent. It’s rough at the best of times and this time it was covered in ice, snow and wet, slippery mud- halfway down my thighs had started to get pissed off (but at least I didn’t slip and fall on my arse like a lot of other folk were doing). Reaching the foot of Whernside with lactic acid squirting out of my toenails I tried to ignore the pain until I met Deb again at the Hill Inn for another gel. “Don’t worry, you can have a chippy tea later” I thought to myself as I squirted the sickly goo down my throat and got cracking with the final climb to the summit of Ingleborough.

I like this climb normally. It’s a relief to my quads as they’re being used differently and aren’t being torn apart by my comedy descending. The trouble was, I was stuck in a fair amount of traffic now and due to the slippery, wet conditions there weren’t many safe opportunities to overtake. Where there was a chance to get past other people I did do, but mainly I settled into the procession. The descent was agony, as was the last 5 or so miles across the rock-strewn moor to the finish.

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pic:Simon Fox

I crossed the line after 4 hours 15 minutes, 17 minutes slower than my previous best time in spite of training harder. Granted the conditions weren’t conducive to a record time (but that didn’t seem to slow the ‘proper’ runners down) but I know what to work on to get faster and in spite of my grumpy muttering as I approached the finish, I’m sure I’ll be lining up at the start of the 2017 race. Addicted, y’see.