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Nine years ago, just as I was starting to get into ‘organised’ cycling events rather than just riding about on my own, I took part in the Builth Wells MTB Marathon. I think it was the first event I did and I bought a new tent and some nice new shorts for it. I think I might have done some training but it was purely an adventure and a chance to ride somewhere new.
I took my one-and-only bike, my beloved Orange Patriot. It was a pretty heavyweight, rough-and-tumble type of bike and while I’d built it reasonably light it was no lightweight. It wasn’t the ideal bike for tackling a long day out in some large Welsh hills in hot sunshine anyway. But I got round and I enjoyed it.
Fast-forward several years and I returned to Builth Wells for this year’s MTB marathon, actually two marathons as I’d entered the Exposure Lights Big Night Out on the Saturday night (40K of steep hills and narrow sheep tracks in the dark) and then the 75K full marathon that would start on Sunday morning. I arrived in the nick of time after some last-minute bike fixing and a 3 hour drive from Manchester, got signed in, ate a small plate of pasta and got ready for the 8pm start.
The bike I’d brought with me was my Niner EMD singlespeed – the one with the Lauf fork that Chipps lent me. It should have been ok but I’d not had time to change the gearing, so I was making do with a reasonably-tall 36:17 ratio. Hopefully the hills won’t be too big or steep….
The hills were really bloody big and some of them were very, very steep. Bugger. I was in trouble. It’s not often that I get off and push up a hill, but I was doing my fair share of it in this ‘ride’.
The flatter sections of trail and road were fine- not too spinny and anyone that grovelled past on the steep climbs were soon caught up and overtaken.
After the first couple of climbs, things settled down and it was a decent ride. Until my chain tensioner decided to literally fall apart with three miles to go, the jockey wheel ending up somewhere near my right crank arm and subsequently my chain came off.
I put the chain back on and watched as it hung limply from the chainring and rear sprocket. Great. I climbed the remaining hills to the finish very slowly and carefully, knowing that putting the chain under too much pressure would probably result in it coming off and sending me, nads-first, into the stem.
19th place I think.
I returned to the car, got changed into some warm clothes, ate some food and set about ‘redesigning’ my chain tensioner. In the darkness I removed the jockey wheel and chain loop thing and turned them upside down. Due to the fact that the spring in the tensioner had snapped it would no longer be able to push down on the chain. Instead, I had to make it push the chain up with the aid of a large zip tie around the tensioner arm and the frame chainstay. I was pretty sure that it’d work well enough for a 75k ride tomorrow but just be to absolutely certain I rode twenty feet along the campsite road and back….
I thought I’d warm up a tin of soup with my stove. It promptly ran out of gas, so no soup and no Pot Noodle either.
I crawled into my tent to get some sleep. I realised that I’d forgotten to bring an extra blanket so I spent the night in my sleeping bag, fully-clothed (including jeans, down jacket and woolly hat) and freezing cold.
Skipped porridge for breakfast because I didn’t have a stove so I ate a banana and a piece of cake.
The 75k marathon started at 10:30am and I’d decided that if I tried to race around I’d have to properly hurt myself on this bike, so instead I was going to go fast-ish but enjoy the sunshine, dry trails and the day out.
I had to push up a few of the climbs but less than I was expecting. I stopped at a couple of the feed stations and had a couple of Custard Creams. I chatted to a couple of mates I saw along the way. I even got a bit sunburnt. I finished in 4 hours-ish (and about 45th ish place) which wasn’t too bad considering the fact that I crawled up anything resembling an uphill gradient towards the end. I was ages and ages behind the guys at the front but I was happy and satisfied that it had been worth the trip. Which is pretty much how I felt the last time I was here with my big red Patriot.
Maybe there’s a moral to this story that involves hard cycling events and unsuitable bikes…(all that climbing steep hills on foot is good prep for the 3 Peaks fell race as well).
Next time though, I’ll bring a bike with gears.
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It occurred to me at the weekend that it’s only a month until the 3 Peaks fell race and only 8 weeks until the Isle Of Jura fell race. I’m doing them both. I did the 3 Peaks last year and while I did ok it was a very uncomfortable experience due to an over-eager start, so this year I’m aiming to finish in better shape than last time even if that means I’m a few minutes slower.
I feel very fortunate to have bagged an entry to the Jura race. I know that some people would give their right arm for a place on the start line of this one so I’m very chuffed indeed that my speculative email to the organiser explaining that “I’ve done a bit of fell running but mostly some bits and bobs of cycling in the past” and asking “would I be wasting my time even bothering sending an entry in?” seems to have paid off. I need to brush up on my navigation though. Apparently getting lost in this race means a bit of a rubbish day out. Simon’s advice was “don’t lead the race”, so I’ll be sure to bear that one in mind. I can’t get lost anyway; me and Dave are riding to the start and back again and he’ll be stood around, holding my coat. Probably plonking himself within arm’s reach of the distillery.
Anyway, all this means is that right now, this week (should have been last week but I caught a cold), I need to step up the running by quite a lot. I’ve been running for a few weeks but nothing like the kind of mileage I should be doing if I’m going to avoid dying on my arse. The 3 Peaks is an offroad marathon with three mountains in it. The Jura race isn’t quite as long but it’s got seven mountains in it. In fact, the Jura race packs in a quite staggering two-and-a-bit thousand metres (that’s METRES, not feet) of climbing. Get in :)
Four weeks after the Jura race, it’s Mountain Mayhem. Does long-distance fell running mix with 24 hour mountain bike racing? Will the reduction in bike-specific training in favour of running help, hinder or make no difference at all to my performance in a long mountain bike race? Watch this space and find out.
The rest of 2014 has got loads of amazing stuff lined up, including a bit more 24 hour racing (obviously), a few more local XC races, some summer midweek cyclocross races if I can get away from work on time, a bit of MTB marathon racing, some singlespeed racing and an ace project involving me, a mate and a tandem. I suspect I’ll end up sleeping outside in a bivvy bag more than once as well…
None of this stuff involves me dragging a bike bag through a crowded airport, thankfully.
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Bikes are ace. Heavy bikes, not-so-heavy bikes, light bikes. All ace.
Very light bikes are very ace indeed.
Ok, I’ll do away with the repetitive ace-ness now. But I really like bikes that are very light because they go faster up hills. It’s as simple as that. They’re also easier for chucking over a farm gate when there’s a herd of menacing cows approaching, but anyway.
The problem is, when you go mad and replace all the parts of your already-light bike with parts that are even lighter, quite often you make the bike less fun to ride. And then it breaks.
Luckily, I’m helped in my own quest to make my light bike (bikes) even lighter by Mount Zoom components. Replacing the handlebars, jockey wheels, seatclamp, bottle cage, bar ends, wheel skewers and headset top cap for Mount Zoom ones might sound like fairly insignificant ways to lose some grams but add them all together and it’s actually quite a lot. And they don’t break. And they look cool.
There’s a load of different handlebars on offer – wide riser bars, wide flat bars, narrower flat bars. Bars that are ‘bar end friendly’. All of them carbon and all of them tough as old boots. I’ve not knackered mine anyway, and I’ve done thousands of miles on them.
One of my favourite components is the side-entry bottle cage. Also made of carbon, it solves the awkward problem of getting your water bottle in and out of the cage when there’s not much room in the frame by letting you ‘push’ it in and out from either side. It works and the bottle never falls out. Spot-on.
The wheel skewers are dead easy to use (in a hurry) and weigh less than any other skewer I’ve used.
In fact, it’s all good. Have a look! www.mountzoom.com
Ant White is the man behind Mount Zoom and he knows a thing or two about lightweight kit and rides bikes hard enough to expose anything that’s not up to the job. If it’s good enough for Ant, it’s good enough for the rest of us :-)
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I was sure I’d read somewhere that being blasted in the face at high-speed by sand and being sprayed with salt water was good for the complexion. But then I’ve seen loads of craggy old fishermen with skin like a chimpanzee’s private bits so maybe salt-based exfoliator isn’t good after all. Especially when mixed with sunshine, wind and sweat. I bet those craggy ‘old’ fishermen are only in their early thirties as well. The equivalent of the ‘hard paper round’ bloke who’s really twenty years younger than he looks. Like an idiot, every village has got a Hard Paper Round Man.
I concluded, while I was being blasted in the face by the aforementioned sand, wind, rays of UV and salt that this probably wasn’t ideal if I wanted to keep my youthful good looks. Stop sniggering. The alternative was to ride my bike just a little bit over to the left, away from the spray from the wheel in front, straight into the block headwind that was howling across the beach. I’d be getting sprayed less, but it’d be lonely and quite a lot slower.
Knowing which side my bread is buttered, I stayed in the pack. I knew that this was the chasing pack (in fact, it was the pack that was chasing the chasing pack) but it was moving plenty fast enough. I’d stay where I was for a while until I warmed up properly or at least until later laps where there’d be less people to witness my probable failure to bridge to the next group.
Beach racing, it would seem, was my new Favourite Thing. After the melee of the first few hundred metres and the first encounter with the beach itself (where the soft stuff that never gets wet had to be crossed before getting to the hardpacked, rideable stuff) I must have been 50 places from the front, but it was still brilliant. ‘Epic’, even.
Only 3k of this then the delights of a scramble up a loose, near-vertical cliff of sand then 10 kilometres of some of the most enjoyable woodland singletrack I’ve ever ridden. There were a few VERY deep puddles but we’ll not mention those on account of them being spectacularly horrible on a bike with tyres that are rather….erm…buoyant.
Lap one done. I’m still miles behind the sharp end of this race but I’m passing people fairly regularly and I’m enjoying myself. I’m racing everyone, whether they’re on cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes or fatbikes, as you do, but I was in a separate fatbike category of like-minded attention-seekers and I knew that there was 4 of them in front somewhere. In actual fact, this was the 2014 UK Fatbike Championship, so I guess that I was the current title holder. It was 12 hours long in my day though…!
Here’s the beach again. Comedy soft sand bit. Now the firm stuff and I manage to get into a group again. Somehow I’m managing to do my turn on the front for a while in spite of my four inch-side tyres with 15 psi in them. Blasted in the face a bit less but it seems to be getting windier. Rumbled to the front a couple more times, head down low, desperately scanning the beach for the flags indicating the near-vertical loose sand scramble and the start of the singletrack.
Moved into 4th place after getting past a fellow attention-seeker. I reckoned that Julian (a friend and someone I’ve raced with a few times in the past) was only a short distance in front. That was confirmed when I finally caught sight of him on the final fun section before the end of the second lap. One lap to go. Close this gap and get past.
Here’s the beach again. Just three of us in our merry band this time. Mel Alexander, Jo Burt and me. We each did our bit and despatched the final slog across the sand without too much fuss. I could see the group that Julian was in about 500 metres ahead. Not long now.
Caught Julian just after the start of the singletrack. He turned his head almost telepathically and spotted me closing in. Then he went faster. Much, much faster. The entire 9 or so kilometres of the final lap was ridden wheel-to-wheel and I knew that the only way I was going to get past safely would be to somehow force Julian to make a mistake and ride into a bush. I had no idea how I was going to force a mistake. All I could do is chase him, Benny Hill-style, through the woods.
An error, forced or otherwise, didn’t happen. Julian rode an absolute blinder of a lap and on the quiet, I had to ride out of my skin just to stay in close contact. Inevitably, the final podium spot was decided on a sprint for the line…..
….and I lost. By about 2 seconds.
Far from being disappointed, that final lap – from the friendly cooperation on the beach to the almost-slapstick battle of the fatbikes and the manly man-hugs and handshakes that followed made the trip all the way to South Wales and back again more than worth it.
Battle on the Beach was universally hailed as a success by all who turned up and raced. Organiser and 24 hour-racing friend Matt Page is quite rightly proud of what he organised and thankfully, he’s doing it all again next year.
Thanks to Shona and Rich (yet again!) for the loan of the bike and thanks to Dave’s Angela for making me a brew when I arrived on the morning of the race, for handing up bottles during the race and making me a bacon butty after it.
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An excuse to go for a ride on a shiny Salsa Mukluk fatbike (borrowed, once again from Keep Pedalling) on a beach presented itself at the weekend. Telling myself that going for a ride on an almost-empty and very-familiar stretch of sand on Anglesey would be ideal preparation for the Battle on the Beach race in a couple of weeks, I dragged the kids and their grandparents (and the dog and a kite) out for a daytrip.
After confirming to various passers-by that the contraption I’d just pulled from the back of the car was indeed a bicycle with four inch-wide tyres, I trundled off down the slipway and onto the sand. As it turns out, quite soft sand and quite unlike the ‘concrete-hard’ sand of the actual race I was preparing for.
While the bike took the conditions in its stride, it turns out that soft sand is pretty hard work if you want to go reasonably fast. Once you accept that you can’t simply mash a tall gear and get away with it then ease off and take in the views, things are a lot more civilised.
Hard cornering is exciting, as is hitting a very soft patch at full-pelt. So exciting in fact that you’re probably going to crash, much to the amusement of your kids.
I also re-discovered that very wide tyres throw up a lot of debris and water in the general direction of your face and your bum. So I got soaked and covered in sand, which would have been ok had I not been riding in jeans and a woolly jumper. Which would have been ok had I had something else to wear in the café later on that wasn’t a pair of downhill shorts and a pair of Fantastic Mr Fox socks…
A cracking day out, then. Do I feel more prepared for Battle on the Beach? Ermm…….