Strathpuffer 2013

“…they might wear classic Reeboks or knackered Converse or tracky bottoms tucked in socks…” sings Alex Turner s as I’m riding across a quarter-mile stretch of downhill forest road, both hands on the bars, concentrating hard as the studded front tyre digs into the thick sheet of ice that separates my bike from the gravel road underneath. I’ve got a normal tyre on the back wheel which means I’ve got to stay seated when the icy trail heads upwards, which isn’t as easy as it sounds given I’d decided in my wisdom to race on a singlespeed.

We’re around halfway through the Strathpuffer 24 hour race and I’m apparently in second place. Also, for the first time in a race, I’m racing with an MP3 player with a fairly randomly-selected playlist of top stuff which doesn’t seem to be giving me much of an advantage in the race itself but I’m probably entertaining a few marshals as I speed past while singing all out of tune…..

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In the previous few weeks I’d pretty much convinced myself that I stood little chance of worrying the solo podium, a lack of time and an uncharacteristically relaxed approach meant that I’d focused mainly on singlespeed-specific physical strength and my core rather than big miles and nine hour training rides. I’d learnt from last year’s Strathpuffer that trying to manhandle a one-geared bike around this course for 24 hours, while it’s not impossible (I’d finished 5th last time after all), was going to involve some hard preparation in the gym so that I’d have some long-lasting power ‘up top’ as well as in the legs.

Only a handful of hours after the 10am start of the race and it went dark – as it does in the far north of Scotland in January. The course had started off slippery in places but mostly had a nice grippy layer of snow however a few hours later the weak sunshine and hundreds of tyres meant that most of the ice had gone. Those riders who had ice tyres were taking them off but I remembered the weather forecast for rain and sleet during the night and figured that this would probably cause the course to get icy again so left my (one and only) studded ice tyre on the front wheel for the duration. There was still some ice knocking around and I wanted to keep my few remaining teeth and sure enough, as soon as ‘proper’ night time arrived so did the drizzle and the sleet which caused large amounts of ice to form on long sections of the course. It didn’t matter to me though, my tungsten spikes were digging in while Ray Keith pummelled my inner ears with old-school jungle.

By now my upper body is really starting to feel the effects of well over 14 hours of hauling on the handlebars and brute-forcing the bike up and over the steep uphill parts of the course while my wrists and hands were starting to complain about the lack of a suspension fork up front. I’m mostly having to stand when climbing, as you do on a singlespeed, however a new problem now is that a long fireroad climb near the start of the lap is so icy that I have to remain seated and try to pedal smoothly (in a gear that’s too high for that sort of thing) to maintain at least some traction from the rear wheel. All I want now is gears. But I haven’t brought any.

Elsewhere in the race, Dave had had a big crash on some ice and retreated to his tent with some painkillers. A short time later, I moved into the lead. The abrasive ‘puffer mud is all over my gloves so every time I wipe my face it feels like my skin is being attacked by a belt sander. This race is tough in ways you can only discover for yourself.

Photo: Budge

Photo: Budge

I don’t know for certain but my head is telling me that there are lads on geared bikes who must be catching me up. I feel like I’m starting to crawl around the course, which was probably an illusion caused by my slow cadence and the reality was that I was extending the gap to second place…. I’m doing sums in my head, as you do in the final hours of an endurance race. How many laps to I need to do? Can I be caught? If I was caught, who would be the most likely rider to catch me and would I be able to respond to an attack? Paranoia sets in. Black Sabbath pops up in my headphones.   I force a Clif Turbo Shot gel down and immediately start to ride faster – the whopping dose of caffeine reigniting my senses and making me snarl a bit. Not long to go now. Stand up. Keep your back straight.

The other riders behind me were busy kicking chunks out of each other while I was doing just enough to stay in the lead with my rhythmic, low-cadence grunting and grinding up the hills and grimacing down again. The ice in some sections of the course was starting to resemble a glacier and some of those riders without ice tyres looked like they were really suffering now. Dave was breaking hearts as he emerged from his tent, remounted his bike and immediately rode a series of very fast laps and overtook a number of riders who had previously crept in front of him and moved himself back into 3rd place.

I was ready to head out to do one final lap to the sound of “Get Ready” by the Temptations, but as I entered the timing tent I was told that I’d done enough. I wasn’t entirely convinced but Debbie, waiting at the finish with a warm coat and a hug, assured me it was all over and that I couldn’t be caught.

I’d won the Strathpuffer with a record number of laps on a stupid bike with one gear and no suspension. What an idiot. It was dead good though because I got to stand on the podium twice – once for the solo win and once for the singlespeed win. I felt like I was on Crackerjack 🙂

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(no prizes for guessing which of these photos is the singlespeeders’ podium)

Dave maintained his position in 3rd place and elsewhere in the race, Phil and Budge had put in a storming effort to claim 3rd place in the pairs. Once again every Team JMC rider had reached the podium in every category they entered.

Finally, and I quite rightly say this every time, results like this are impossible to achieve without the devotion and tenacity of a solid and well-organised pit crew. Debbie, Angela and Wayne looked after all of us and our bikes throughout the entire race and catered for our every whim without hesitation. Actually getting to the race and having somewhere for pit crew to keep warm wouldn’t happen without the support and resources of Team JMC and being able to compete at this level is made possible by the amazing help I’m given by my sponsors Exposure Lights, Mount Zoom, Teko Socks, Squirt Lubes, Rolf Prima Wheels and Clif Bar. You guys all rule.

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The first 24 hour solo race of 2013…

Not long to go now. In a week’s time I’ll be making the 7 hour journey north to the Strathpuffer for the 3rd time* and while I’m not quite ‘summer race-fit’ I’m in reasonable shape and for once I’m very relaxed. This almost-horizontal state of calm isn’t exactly what I’m used to the week before a 24 hour race but like I’ve said before, for me January isn’t the time of year to be getting all fired up and wearing a full-on race face, while using up all my motivation for riding when the weather gets better (because it will get better!).

My slightly chubby and wind-blasted, partial race face will have to do for now.

Finally I pulled my socks up and got the race bike ready. I’ll be riding my trusty old Scandal – one of the original scandium-framed models which has been to every race with me since I bought it many years ago, admittedly as a spare bike in recent times.

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Cutting a long story short, there have been some changes to ‘the deal’ which has resulted in me no longer being an On-One sponsored athlete – I can do nothing but thank them for their support over the years but in life things change and we move on, so for the time being at least I’m slightly more self-sufficient than I was a few weeks ago.

Anyway, I’ve done a quick singlespeed conversion and the Scandal is now good to go. It was pretty light anyway but now that I’ve removed all but one gear I’m pleased with the lack of mass 🙂

As well as the lack of gears, a full carbon rigid fork, a liberal use of Mt Zoom components and the rather ace Rolf Ralos 9 wheels drive down the poundage even further. We won’t go into the extra pounds the rider is carrying….but at least I won’t feel the cold as much as the skinny lads. The 17 hours of darkness will be ridden with the help of a few of the finest lights available from Exposure.

The light weight has meant that I’ve given into temptation (and also means I’ve clearly not learnt any lessons at all from last time) and I’m running a relatively tall gear. It’s a pretty tall gear for 24 hour solo racing on a reasonably hilly course anyway although I’m sure that for general ‘just going out for a ride for a couple of hours’ duties 34:17 on a 29 inch wheel is absolutely fine.

If my back/legs/arms/toes/eyelids start to play up because of the ratio then I can always swap onto the lower-geared spare bike. But that’s quite a bit heavier. But it’s got a suspension fork. Maybe I’ll MTFU and won’t need to use it. (I’m seriously trying to ignore what happened last time).

Don’t worry – the gears will be back in use in time for the next 24 hour race in the spring.

The weather? Who knows. It’s the Strathpuffer. Maybe we’ll have snow. Or ice. Or wind. Or rain. Or sunshine. Probably all of them.

The slightly terrifying ice tyres are all ready to go, just in case…

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*it would have been the 4th time if that dozy pillock hadn’t crashed his car into me in 2010

A weekend with the van

It’s been donkey’s years since I rode the Marin and Penmachno trails in a single ride. I remember that it wasn’t particularly long at around 50 miles but it wasn’t easy either – I mainly put that down to the fact I was riding an Orange Patriot with heavyweight tyres and a lot of suspension. God I loved that bike. I did the ride on my own in the daylight and the weather was pretty bad. Even 5 years ago it was raining in July.

Fast forward to last weekend and Phil, Dave and me finished work, I picked them up in the van and off we went to Betws-Y-Coed to do the ride again, this time in darkness.

Arriving at around 8:30 in the Marin trail car park at Gwydir Forest we faffed, got changed and set off down the road through Betws and along the climb to Penmachno, some 9 or so miles away. It’s been really warm for January and that night was no exception. Hitting the top of the long ride up the road jackets were removed and we started the long first offroad climb of the Penmachno trail.

I’ve decided to race at the Strathpuffer on a singlespeed again so I was trying to keep up with the other two lads with one (pretty tall) gear. 34:16 on a not-very-light 29er isn’t much fun when you start riding it up long, steep North Wales hills but I was getting to the top…just. I made mental notes about gear ratios for my pre-Strathpuffer bike prep.

Beautiful, rocky, fast singletrack was ridden at silly speeds, we were anticipating a four or five hour ride which would mean returning home just in time for breakfast so none of us was keen on messing about.

Lighting up the forest with our new Exposure Six Pack lights (thanks guys) we polished off the 20-odd miles of steep climbs and fast singletrack sometime after all the pubs had shut and made our way back along the road to the van. A quick change of lights and water bottles and we cracked on with the Marin Trail.

A fair bit shorter than the Penmachno trail and a quite different ride – even though the Marin is man-made, it’s been there so long that it’s about as ‘natural’ as many other ‘natural’ trails out there. The amount of climbing that it packs into its modest 11 miles is enough to give anyone a good kicking and perhaps as a result it’s one of my favourite man-made trails. It was even dry in places – very dry. Dusty, even. The first time any of us had ridden dry offroad trails for months and it was the middle of the night in January. The weather really is broken!

We got back to the van after the epic final descent, grinning, sometime after 3am. Dave and Phil chucking Jaffa Cakes and strong coffee at me, I drove the van back to civilisation and dropped them off – I got home just after 6am a little bit tired….

As a continuation of my current “riding my bike for fun because it’s winter” Strathpuffer training strategy, I met up with Phil, Budge, Simon and Guy Martin (yes, that Guy Martin – starting his 24 hour solo ‘career’ with the Strathpuffer) for a ride in the Peak District near Macclesfield on Sunday. Not everyone wanted to ride for hours and hours so I fiendishly (or lazily) devised a route that was pretty much a classic. Up into the forest, down Charity Lane, Cat & Fiddle, Three Shires, Cumberland Clough, Macc Forest and then back to the van. Those that wanted a longer ride (Phil, Guy and me) would then go and do the whole thing again. Which we did 🙂

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I’d learned (or rather re-learned) some painful lessons about singlespeed gearing on the previous ride so I’d fitted a different cog to the bike that gave me an easier gear (34:18 this time).

The trouble was, I’d forgot just how bloody steep the climbs are around Macc Forest so it was even harder this time (having said that Friday’s gear would have made my back and knees explode).

The big uphills were more than rewarded by the utter quality and fun offered by the rocky downhills though – Macclesfield Forest and the White Peak really is one of the best places to ride a bike offroad in this country and I’ll be making regular trips there from now on.

The Strathpuffer build-up and the Festive 500

The last few weeks of Strathpuffer24  training have been a bit ‘loose’. There’s been a plan, as without The Plan I’d probably find myself slacking or I’d be almost-constantly wondering what kind of things would be appropriate, beyond ‘just going out and riding’, to be doing at that point.

It’s not easy to fit everything in  – working, family, mending broken bikes – as well as training for 24 hour solo racing  so for me The Plan is pretty important.

The downside is that it’s a drag at times. It’s hammering down with rain and this thing here is telling me I must go out and ride my bike for six hours AND somehow fit in some hill repetitions. Or when I just want to spend my lunchbreak at work sat down eating my sandwiches this thing here is telling me I need to go and throw weights around in the gym.

It works, but it’s a right pain in the arse sometimes. Motivated by the fear of being crap and at the same time seeing (and feeling) improvements keeps the motivation levels high but one needs to relax every now and then. Ideally at this time of year, I’ll put the work in, but relax the structure and remember to enjoy it. No point in giving myself a proper kicking now. There’s plenty of time for that later in the year.

The Plan has been merely a rough guide this time around. Sure, I’ve (mostly) done the hill reps and the turbo sessions that I should be doing and I’ve been getting out on the bike early and late to fit in the volume around a day job but as for doing it as and when directed….? No. Entire ‘hard’ weeks have metamorphosed into ‘easy’ weeks because the weather’s been especially crap.

Easy weeks have become not-so-easy weeks because the week before I didn’t put the effort in. Two hours on the bike has on a couple of occasions become one hours of off-road running (because you’ll never see me running on the pavement).

Sessions in the gym at midday have become half an hour of weird core exercises in front of the telly after the kids have gone to bed.

It’s been bloody great. The outcome of the Strathpuffer24 will tell me whether I’m going to pay dearly for this lack of discipline (on top of the  standard “paying dearly for doing the damn thing in the first place”) but up to now the power numbers have been going in the right direction and I feel great – certainly better than I would normally do in December. I’m not as light as I’ll be in the summer but that’s fine too. It’s winter insulation 😉

The past week I’ve been enjoying taking on the challenge of the Rapha Festive 500 – nearly 15,000 people worldwide put their names down and attempted to ride 500 kilometres between Christmas Eve and New Year.

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I’ve been working throughout the festive period with only Christmas and Boxing day off work, as well as spending time with family doing the usual Christmas stuff so it’s been far from easy – despite this I somehow put in a reasonable shift and managed to ride 507 kilometres (that’s about 317 miles in real money) in five separate rides as well as getting out for a run a couple of times. It’s neutralised the festive food and drink excesses and it’s given me plenty of useful riding time.

I’ve deliberately avoided riding flat routes for the Festive 500 as I’m using it as an excuse to get me into some kind of race-ready fitness. The big downside to this strategy though is that the past few days have been windy and wet – one ride in particular where I rode over Holme Moss and Saddleworth Moor was cut short after it basically became The Worst Ride I’ve Ever Done™.

Huge gusts of wind sending me into the middle of the road and forcing me to apply all my strength to the pedals just so that I didn’t come to a complete stop with horizontal sleet making it virtually impossible to see where I was going. And it was dark. And by the time I’d ridden down the hill I was almost hypothermic and as such I cut the ride short – my 120 miles planned became 70 miles, leaving me with some remaining unplanned kilometres to ride on the final day of the challenge….

In contrast, the final ride of the challenge was quite pleasant and unlike the previous day’s ride, it didn’t make me consider taking up snooker as a hobby.

Happy New Year!