That’s my girl

Every delightful story – and this may or may not be one – begins with some sort of peril. This tall tale is no different. 

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In the build up to Tour de Moor, both my daughter – my riding partner for the event – and I have been feeling a bit under the weather.  The cold that had felt like it was just around the corner for a few weeks finally turned up on the Thursday before the ride.  My daughter had also been feeling off for most of the week.  However, a few early nights (for us both) and a ‘kill or cure’ run for me on Saturday afternoon meant we were feeling fresh and ready to go on Sunday morning.

I love cycling with the family, it also helps that both the kids love a day out on the bike.  Those long summer days going exploring new horizons, with a rucksack full of food and hearts full of adventure.  I had been waiting what feels like an age for them to become old enough to do this kind of thing, and this year is the year.

Sunday morning arrived, and big bowls of porridge were eagerly eaten.  We arrive a little later than had been planned, but fortunately it wasn’t a problem. 

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Finally, we are off. The first stretch was quite stressful.  The combination of and excited 9-year-old and a load of keen cyclists most trying to squeeze passed through any hint of a gap.  Eventually I manage to manoeuvre her to the left-hand side of the road, which alleviates the stress a fair bit.  This first 4 and a half kilometres are a blur of lanes and mostly rolling downhill.  This didn’t go entirely without a hitch.  While trying to use her hydration bladder, her foot slipped off the pedal causing her to slip onto the top tube of her bike.  Amazingly she somehow manages not to go straight over the handlebars, and rolled into the grass verge.  After a bit of a moment, we decide that maybe we should stop to drink rather than try to drink on the move, just to be on the safe side.

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Shortly after we get moving again we leave the road and enter the estate of Buckland Abbey.  After several hundred pairs of wheels have already been through the surface was quite tricky.  The imperfect combination of hard packed tracks covered in a layer of primeval ooze – the kind of surface that makes it feel like you have about as in control of your rear wheel as you do a 2-year-old with a sugar habit. 

Thankfully this stops before we begin to descend, by now the surface has changed to drier, stonier dual track.  As we drop down through the woods, we take a tight lefthander.  Just as we exit the corner Rhiannon’s bike disappears from underneath her, dumping her to the ground right in front of me with an almighty thud.  I grab handfuls of brakes and stop just before adding the insult of being run over by her dad to the injury of a quick reintroduction to the floor.  After a cuddle and a quick check to make sure she is ok, we decide that the inside line of a blind corner is not the best place to be, so gingerly we continue down the hill and stop again a little further on for more cuddles and a bit of time to compose ourselves. 

For a while the surface consists of churned grassy paths – which neither of us have the traction for.  This section makes for a frustrating cycle of ride, lose traction, and walk for a bit, then repeat.  Thankfully for Rhiannon’s morale we are by no means the only ones.  My stand out memory from this section however, is when Rhiannon almost lost her shit with a guy in front of her.  As she was making a great go at climbing a slimy grassy hill – and almost at the top – the guy just ahead of her simply gives up and stops right in the middle of the track, leaving her no option but to stop too.  I honestly think that if she had the expletives in her vocabulary she would have unleashed them in a verbal wave of frustration.

Thankfully the slippery grass soon subsides, giving way to gravel and then tarmac as we continue to climb out of the National Trust grounds.  Once back on the road we continue to climb back towards the start.  The climb lasts for around 4 km – at its steepest to begin with before easing off to a false flat and by the top it’s time for a quick stop for a drink and something to eat.

Once were going again its across the common, before we join the Plym Valley cycle route – a cycle path we know well.  As we ride along, chatting away happily knowing we don’t need to worry about approaching cars, it really is a lovely way to spend with your child.  This bubble is burst a few minutes later.  As we come towards a gate with a gap to one side – big enough to cycle through single file – I let Rhiannon go ahead.  A middle-aged bloke (note I refuse to refer to him as a cyclist) gets to the gate just before Rhiannon, steams though then barks “Keep left!” – despite giving him enough space.  “Don’t be a dick!” is my instant retort.  It’s a statement that I stand by.  Its that kind of thing that could have really rocked her confidence, but luckily it was over quickly and she didn’t really take on board what had happened. Dick!

We are back off the cycle route, and going back up hill, before very much longer.  And what a hill it is, rearing up at over 10% from the off.  I give Rhiannon a helping hand for as long as I can, but the combination of my front wheel becoming weightless and the nasty noises the back end of my bike begins to make means I have to stop.  To her credit she keeps grinding her way up for a further 100 metres or more before her cadence slows and she has to put her foot down.  We walk to a left hander where the gradient eases a bit, and stop so I can assess the noise.  Oh a broken spoke. Great!  With not much else to do about it, I wrap the broken spoke around its neighbour and say a little prayer to the velo gods.

While we are stopped I text my wife to let her know we are about 5Km from the finish, in the meantime Rhiannon is back on her bike and off up the hill – I really need to buy that girl a polka dot jersey, she is just relentless.  Shortly after I catch her we break out from the tree cover and the gradient drops off to a false flat, at which point we stop for a drink and a couple of Haribo.

We cruise along the rolling roads until we reach the point at which the two routes split.  We take the left-hand turn, and back towards the race village.  As we descend for the final time, I am impressed by her road craft.  We are behind another group of cyclists and after I let her know there is a car behind us, she lets the gap in front get a bit bigger allowing the car to leap frog us rather than try to pass the whole group in one go.

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That leaves the final climb to be negotiated, which she does with aplomb. We cross the main road and turn to the event village.  As we get closer to the end, the smile begins to spread across her face.  The sense of achievement beings to surface, enhanced by the encouragement and praise she continues to get as we approach the end. 

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I really want to express my thanks to the other riders who took part in the Tour de Moor.  The encouragement my daughter got throughout the day really made the difference to her, and to me.  When the going, mostly the climbing, got tough there was always a chirpy well done to lift her spirits.  For that thank you.

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Finding Treasure

We all carry with us those most precious childhood memories, be them winning the Under 14s cup final, going to Disney World, or causing chaos with your siblings. For me it’s cycle touring – or more accurately cycle touring with my dad. From the age of about 20150202_19222310, until the endless summer after sitting my GCSEs when I was 16, we would head off on our bikes usually in the direction of mid-Wales. Unfortunately in the 19 years since we last loaded up our bikes and disappeared over the horizon together most of the memories have merged into one trip or a series of snap shots, but a few memories still remain as fresh as ever – making hot chocolate on a train station platform using a brass methylated spirits burner, a night spent sleeping in a bracken patch in a wood, a misjudged moment to ask to stop to put on more clothes to protect my modestly before getting home (a word from the wise; NEVER ask to stop to add more clothes – even if to hide horrendous multi coloured cycling shorts – at the top of a bloody great hill, you won’t be allowed to forget it), the name given to our first trip – ‘Operation Church Stretton’. These memories truly are some of my most treasured possessions.

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That is what made this weekend so incredibly exciting for me. Not only was I going to be able to have a nostalgia laden mini tour with my dad, but my son was coming too. There were no grand ambitions of going to mid-Wales or the like – my son is only 6 – merely a night in the wild, with bikes – but more significantly, for me, a test run for what might be possible later this summer and beyond.

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The loose plan was, and in my family its only ever loose plans due to the poorest of poor time keeping (much to the despair of my mum), was to head over to a local campsite and set up a basecamp from where we would head out. We ended up getting to the campsite a bit later than I think was initially intended, and after a bit of faffing, loading the bikes and a bit more faffing we are finally ready to leave. Before setting off we had our dinner (it was about half five by this point) and headed out at about the boy’s usual bed time.

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We head off along a bridle path which runs along the top of the campsite with a general IMG_1308idea of where we are headed, this didn’t mean we didn’t have to stop to check the map to find our way back to the woods we intended to camp in. With plenty of daylight left we explored woods, passed fields of cattle and followed gravel tracks with sweeping switchbacks before cutting back onto out original track and retracing our tracks a bit to set up our satellite camp for the night.

With a favourable forecast our sleeping arrangement comprised of a den kit (tarp) thatIMG_1310 my son had for Christmas – this was a bit of a highlight for him as he’d been itching to use it since he got it, complete with a great bit mallet lathed down from a tree branch which had to come too. Once an ideal spot had been found and cleared we set about erecting the tarp, sorry the den kit, and lit a small fire to cook some sardines, make Ovaltine and roast marshmallows – just because we are in a wood doesn’t mean standards have to slip. At about 11pm we turned in.

I was the first to wake properly at about half five to the birds in full voice, this is a much IMG_1315nicer way to be woken rather than the horrible noise my phone makes. Once we are all awake we make our first round of breakfast – a somewhat dirty sounding combination of two Ready Brek sachets (not even real porridge) and chocolate custard sounds so wrong but tasted so right – and a brew. Once done we take down our nights’ accommodation and set about insuring there is no evidence of our visit – cover fire, sweep our sleeping area to get rid of the flattened patch and put our seating area back as it was. Leave only footprints – and not even that if you can help it.

With our camp cleared we head back to the bridal path and on to base camp. The boy has obviously enjoyed his night under the tarp – the near constant “why haven’t we done this before?” and “when can we go again?” are clues – but he is also going up every IMG_1304gradient we hit with the vigour of an excited antelope (I assume excited antelope have some vigour), this is stemmed somewhat when we get to the field of cattle. A herd of 20 or so bullocks are about 15 metres from the gate we are about to go through, and slowly approaching. I will admit at this point that I find cattle a bit intimidating, granted they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they are big buggers. We quickly get through the gate while we can and slowly walk towards them, at this point; predictably, they turn and head off in the other direction. Slightly annoyingly they go along our path so we have to get off and walk again after they stop in another pinch point. Once past this, they run off into the field and we are free to get cycling again. Once across the cattle grid that’s on the far side of their field we stop again remove the deposits of fresh cow pats from our legs – when I say ‘our legs’ I mean my boy’s as he has managed to cover the backs of his legs via his pedals.

Once Cow-gate is dealt with it’s simply a case of retracing our tracks along the bridle path – apart from a planned detour to show me the shelter they built when up here the week before. We get back to basecamp just in time for second breakfast – this time a far more acceptable combination of proper porridge and fresh fruit – and a cup of coffee, which was very welcome. l

So, when are we going again? Soon, very soon hopefully. The summer holidays aren’t all that far away and with Dartmoor on my doorstep and mid-Wales on my parents’ doorstep the possibilities are abundant. Luckily I have plenty of room where I keep my treasured memories, because I’m hoping for a lot more.

Racing Firsts

I have wanted to ride Battle on the Beach for a few years, but unsuitable dates and inappropriate bikes have meant that this is the first year I have managed to enter.  The race is Britain’s only beach race, and the course is designed to be rideable on Fat, Mountain and Cross bikes with sections being unsuitable for each bike, it’s a real melting pot of cycling cultures.

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Battle in the Dark:

There were a whole host of firsts ticked off in 10km on a bike: first time trial, first race on the beach and first ride off-road in the dark – what could possibly go wrong?

Riders are set off at 10 second intervals; I start middle to back of the 100 plus riders.  I set off, but I’m off again after 200m to run the 150m of soft dry sand at the top of the beach.  I IMG_0661lose a big chunk of time to riders on fat bikes and fattish mountain bikes, but once on the wet sand I’m back on the bike and off.  I put down the power in an attempt to get some time back.  I settle into what feels like a sustainable effort, looking down I am pleased to notice I’m sitting at over 32kph.  I pass the people that had me while I was running, two of whom are treating it as a two-up TT, and also my 10 second man.  I keep the power on until I notice a rock groin across my path.  I slam on my brakes, dismount and shoulder the bike – in my mind this is one fluid elegant motion but in reality I expect to looked like a drunk giraffe ice skating.  I pick my way past the first line of rocks over the soft sand centre and back out the other side of rocks.  Back on the bike and back on the rivet – again.

The end of the beach leg is marked by a series of stakes with red lights on the top, off again to run up a steep, deep ‘v’ section cut between the dunes and back onto the bike about 55m later.  Here the more technical section of the route begins, and where the night aspect of IMG_0668the race begins to change the dynamic.  On one level being in the dark is a hindrance, not having an idea of what to expect much more than 50m away – making gear selection and speed into corners a bit of creative guesswork.  On a more positive note, not being able to see too far ahead meant that I was less likely to bottle it on the more technical sections (I’m not an awful off road rider – but by no means great – but I tend to run out of bravery before ability).  The first half of the technical section is quite close to the beach, so there are a number of areas where the path gives way to sand pits, being on a cross bike I try to skirt around the edges of these keeping on the grassy peripherals where at all possible.  Where I can’t do this I keep pedalling and try not to fight the handlebars and let the bike find a route.  One section in this area is particularly tricky, for a man of my abilities, it involves a short but sharp decent on soft sand into a tight right hander.  I don’t notice it until the last moment – as I overtake another rider – but manage to use the side of the sand pit as a berm missing most of the sand on the descent.  Rather lucky, but duly noted for tomorrow’s race.  Then it’s into the forest, with a series of diggy little climbs and steep rutted descents. Not long into this section I am either caught by or catch another rider on a mountain bike, and I try to keep up with him using him as a route finder for the best lines in this unfamiliar territory.  Before I know it, I have come out of the pine forest and out onto the grassy lawns of the country park.  I decide it would be bad form to dive past my pilot now, and follow him around the final corner and roll over the line.  It’s at this point I realise there is a third rider behind me.

I finish in one piece; pleased that I have put in a reasonable effort without ruining my legs for the main event the following day.  I finish 66th out of 124 riders – I’ll take that.

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Battle on the Beach

IMG_0659Having registered the night before, it’s a rather relaxed morning for a race.  No early alarm, no mad dash to get everyone in the car to get to register hours before it closes, only to faff with a last minute ‘something’ and get to the start line moments before the race is due to begin – or even after its begun on one occasion.

 

Lap 1:

I make my way to the start line about 20 minutes before the race is due to start, which is IMG_0657probably 20 minutes too late, as I am so far back I can’t even see the beach – never mind the start line.  We start to walk forward; I assume we have been called forward to the start line.  As the beach comes into view I can see people cycling and running across the beach.  I then realise the race has started, but there is nothing I can do until the 100 or so ahead of me can get going so we just shuffle forward until we can really start to race.

Like the previous night’s time trial I had to run the bike across the soft sand before I could start racing.  Once on the bike all I could see in front of me was a mass of cyclist snaking its way all the way to the horizon.  I make my way to the left hand side of the mass of cyclist (the sea-side – that may even be a deliberate pun) and try to give myself a bit of room to react/avoid other people.  I see the aftermath of a collision, I didn’t think it looked too serious but I hope all involved are OK.  As I get a bit more confident, I move closer to the pack to get a bit of shelter.  As I come towards the end of the 6km beach straight, I move to the right hand side of the mass of fellow racers so I can assess the route off the beach without being squeezed.

Off the bike, to cross the soft sand, and back on again.  The next section of the route starts with a stretch of sandy, grassy dual track.  It’s not especially technical, good surface with the odd smallish sand pit.  It is reminiscent of a BMX or pump track with lots of little rollers – which will burn the thighs if you have gone too hard on the beach.  Along this section I notice how quiet everyone is, usually you get a bit of banter between riders, but for whatever reason whether it was back of pack nerves or just concentrating on the shifting sands of the racing surface chatter is a miss.  This long straight continues for a while before a few gravel fire tracks before we hit the first single track.  The group I’m in file down and we tick over in single file until someone ahead either falls off or stalls as we grind to a holt and have to resort to walking for a bit until we get past a steep sandy bank.  We are now on the bit of the route that is covered by the shorter night route.  The pattern for the rest of the lap follows this template, single file and flowy but likely to find a bottle neck at the more technical sections or steep climbs.

 

Lap 2:

Back onto the beach, and back on the throttle.  By now I have realised that I can get a bit of recovery over some of the single track so I can continue to give it some on the beach – also making the most of where the CX bike is at its best.  As on the first lap I continue to pass riders along the beach section, trying to pick up a bit of a draft as I approach groups before swinging out to pass them.  This is one of those rare occasions where you feel like you are in fast forward when everyone else is playing at normal speed – probably a bonus effect of starting too far back. Again I drift to the right as we approach the exit from the beach.

Off, run and remount.  By now the riders have thinned right out, so I pick off and chase down solo and small groups of riders across the rollers and the gravel roads and join a IMG_0646small group as we hit the single track.  I’m at the back of the group and we rattle along, as we approach the sandy climb that I had to walk in the first lap I hear the clanking of gears – we are going to have a go at getting up this and I change gear accordingly.  We get two thirds of the way up and a rider in front has an issue and stops.  I brake, but seeing a gap I go again.

I don’t go again.  After a nasty noise, no more drive.  I look down – expecting to have dropped my chain. No such luck.   I’ve only gone and broke my bloody chain.  At this point I don’t feel angry, or upset, or anything for that matter. Just empty.  And here’s the rub – as I had forgotten my pump I decided not to take my saddlebag as ‘I would just be carrying an inner tube for the sake of it’ with not a second thought to the multi tool which is the inner tube’s bed fellow. Fuck!

So I embark on the long walk back.  I have no idea how long the walk took, but it felt like a while.  As I walked and began to get bored I had two songs, or lines from songs, going around in my head: Inspiral Carpets (This is how it feels to be lonely, this is how it feels to be small…) and upon seeing a photographer or GoPro Newton Faulkner (Don’t take my photograph, cos I don’t want to know how it looks to feel like this).  This was occasionally broken when passing riders offered their condolences.  This makes me feel better for a moment, but only a moment.  As I approach the start/finish line I cut through a gap in the hedge and cut across the camping field to get to my car before the lap is over – I can’t face crossing the finish line.

 

Lap 3:

There was no lap 3.

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After I put the bike on the car, it’s off to find the family. Once I find them I go to give my timing chip back with the kids.  The chip box is right next to the IMG_0630marshal giving out the finisher’s medals.  That stung a little.  After chatting to him for a minute, I go to leave and as I do he very generously gives my kids a medal each.  They both put them on as we head over to some space to have our picnic.  It is at this point that my son (who is 6) misinterprets my disappointment about the afternoon’s proceedings as being disappointed about not getting a medal and after giving me a hug tries to put his medal on me.  Then comes the awkward moment trying to tell him that his wonderfully thoughtful gesture just makes me feel worse.

I did however find one of the 25 missing rubber ducks, meaning I got a spot prize of a Lezyne rear light, a pair of Surly socks and a Surly hanky.

Despite its premature end, I really enjoyed my day out at the Battle on the Beach.  The mixture of packed wet sand, dry sandy tracks and forest single track offers something to challenge whatever you’re riding.  I found the wet beach sand the perfect environment for the CX bike, just get low and get pedalling.  The sandy single and double track was great too, trying to pick a route so that you don’t lose too much momentum in the sand pits and the BMX style rollers.  But where I struggled was the rutty sections within the forest.  I wasn’t brave enough to really attack it, and struggled with some of the descents where I wanted to be on the drops for the extra braking power but on the hoods too to get my weight over the back of the bike. It wasn’t so hideous to make it feel unbearable, but certainly a challenge.

I will be back. Hopefully better. Hopefully finishing.

Mud, sweat and gears.

Picture the scene, if you will.  It’s a cold November evening, the fire is on and I have a cup of tea in one hand and the British Cycling website on the laptop.  The enter button is clicked, and I will be racing ‘cross this season.  Fast forward a number of weeks and I’m stood in a cold, damp field in Gloucestershire about the give cyclocross racing a go at Lovecrossed, set in the grounds of Chavenage House near Tetbury.

The course

As I am about to set off for a test run around the course I over hear – actually I am down right eves dropping- a marshal and an elite looking racer talking and the phase “definitely not a course for novices”, which is great as novice is exactly where I am at.

So off I go, up the main straight over the finishing line and is followed by a drop and climb into the woods.  This section is tight, twisty and technical. It’s also narrow and occasionally rooty. To get out of the wooded section there is a steep drop – with a rut at the bottom – followed by an equally steep climb and a tight left hander before the first un-rideable section – a steep, muddy off camber drop – right hander – steep muddy climb combo.

Once back on the bike and into the open grassland, a couple of left handers a hairpinimg_0363 around a tree and then on to the hurdles.  After that, a spaghetti bowl of lefts and rights leading to the second steep down and out before a long off camber out and back with a huge, steep – and quite frankly horrible –  terraced decent with a few off-camber corners and a bloody steep run back up the get back to the off-camber return.  After that the long drag of a climb back to the start line.

By the time I finish my practice lap the Women’s’ and Veterans’ race is about to start, so I grab a coffee and enjoy the action.

The Race

After the Women’s and Vets are done there is just enough time to attempt a warm up in
the in field.  Once onto the course,20170129_130902 the gridded riders are called forward, then the rest are called forward.  I hang back and take up a position right at the back – much at the annoyance of my two kids.

The klaxon goes – I think it was a klaxon, but it may have been a whistle, or even just some fella yelling “go” – and we are off to the soundtrack of shoes clipping in and crunching fullsizerendergears.  As the back of the field finally moves on, a gap opens in front of me, and instinctively I go through it.  Within the first 200 metres I had already noticed how much the surface had deteriorated. It feels like I continue to pick up places as we drop down and then climb up into the woods.  It’s all going well until a moment of inexperience.  The rider in front of me has a wobble and I instinctively grab a handful of front brake, as I do it washes out the front wheel and I just about manage unclip and catch it before I fully spill it.  Having chatted to another racer on my recon mission earlier in the day, I had been advised to consider running down the technical hills if its crowded.  That wasn’t img_5652necessary for the down and out at the end of the wooded section, but it was a very definite case of holding my line and hoping for the best. Once out of the trench it was a case of following wheels and trying to keep out of trouble.  Once past the traction free, gravity multiplying off camber slime bowl, it is a hard push to the hurdles and then on to the first technical decent, which is now stupendously muddy.  I’m still in a crowd, but again I try to ride it having got past it on the practice lap.  Once again my inexperience is plain to see and after seeing 20170129_132236-1riders in front slide about I hanker onto the brakes and away I slide. Again I don’t completely fall, but I do feel the warm embrace of the nettles at the edge of the course.  I run back up again, remounting without losing too much time.  Once out past the off camber out section I have finally given up hope of effortlessly descending so dismount for the final decent of the lap.  Once I’m down the hill that grip forgot, it’s a run back up before the steady climb all the way to the finish line.  This section of the course seems to suit me as I drop the rider on my wheel.

And on to another lap.  As the field spreads out it gets easier to pick lines and find areas where there is more traction.  It would seem the couple of weeks’ panic watching YouTube
screenshot_20170131-181325videos has given me at least some idea of what to do.  One thing remained a constant for the remainder of the race is that I ran the two steep technical descents.  If truth be told I may have run them even if it was backed dry and had a modicum of traction, but with it quickly becoming the land that friction forgot there is no way I was going to ride them.  I was, however, lucky enough to be lapped at the point I reached the last of these descents.  Watching this guy just glide down a hill I could barely walk down was unbelievably impressive.  I can’t believe I just wrote that I am lucky to have been lapped. That really stings the ego I like to pretend I don’t have.  The point being these guys have a grace on a bike that I can only dream of.

screenshot_20170131-181417As the laps tick by a pattern emerges where I pick up places or close gaps while I’m on my bike, particularly the long drag up to the finish line.  But I am losing them on the technical descents, which tells a story of where some work is needed.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day out at lovecrossed, and I am totally hooked on the sport.  When the results came out I was a little disappointed – 39th out of 49.  On reflection it gives me something to work with, and having started flat last that’s a gain of 10 places.  I just need to work on my bike handling, running with the bike and do more intervals work and I could be a contender – well maybe not a contender but certainly quicker.