On a roll at Rapha Supercross 2015

Back for the usual packed programme of racing, cowbell, foodie and beer fuelled action, 2015’s edition of the now iconic Rapha Supercross, now organised immaculately by Emma Osenton, headed to Shibden Park, Halifax for it’s Northern leg.

Using the large slope, no make that hill, below the Hall of the same name, the meandering course mimicked many features of the legendary Koppenbergcross – swinging off camber turns carving downhill, a bit of tarmac, the mother of all climbs (for a lapped ‘cross course) and all repeated multiple times until sick, dizzy or both.

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Even recceing the course had it’s challenges. Whilst it was worth spending some time looking at line choice round a number of the corners, weighing up wide vs tight and running vs riding, after 3 laps I was feeling quite tired. No matter, a drink, some food and a decent period of rest before warm up and the combined Seniors and Vets race was lining up. Slightly startled and embarassed to be gridded front row (accroding to a criteria of whose name seemed familiar), I acceded to the heckling and muttering from behind from a number of grizzled Yorkshire League veterans, and moved back a bit, off the front row. I shouldn’t have done, as shortly after the whistle went a rider in front pulled both feet out of the pedals and surfing on his top tube, provided an unhelpful mobile chicane for me to get round, losing quite a bit of ground.

Onto the tarmac after a short uphill climb from the start, the speed went up considerably. And a big crash unfolded in front – more delay in getting away cleanly. By now I was much further down the field than I wanted to be, but with such a selective course there was no need to panic as overtaking opportunities on the climbs and wide flowing sections would be plentiful.

My legs had other ideas though, perhaps through a lack of in-depth warm up, perhaps through fatigue from recceing. Either way they felt spectacularly heavy.  I opted to dig in the for the long haul in the hope that they came round a bit.

After a lap, things were looking up and I had been picking off riders around the course, including on the climb. Dropping down into (another) off camber left just after the finish line, I bobbled on a greasy section and dabbed, grinding to a halt. I haven’t done it for years now, and never whilst actually riding, only when crashing. But a rolled tub is a rolled tub and you’re going nowhere fast, especially with lots of downhill to come straightaway after, and that peppered with more off cambers. So that was it, game over. I had elected to leave my spare bike safely in the car – at the time when I wanted to dump it in the pit, which was on the furthest remotest part of the course, it had felt uncomfortably empty with no friendly faces, and in a park open to the public I just didn’t want to take the risk. Perhaps gluing it up fresh the day before at 5am wasn’t such a good idea…

By way of silver lining, my wife and youngest had popped over in a surprise visit so to ease the disappointment I was able to hang out with them, drink coffee and watch Nick Craig destroy the rest of field in a controlled display of powerful riding. The invitational Elite race afterwards was also well worth staying for, with a big battle at the front between the old guard of UK ‘cross, Hope’s Paul Oldham and his younger teammate Jack Clarkson, on flying form. The contrast in styles was mirrored by the contrast in lines and technique through the more technical corners as they each sought to gain an advantage. It’s always good to watch riders at the top of their game and pick up inspiration and tips on how to ride smoother.

Pic below: Jo Allen

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All other pics: Alan Dorrington

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Guest blog – 10 things…. Michael Burdon/Laatste Ronde

Michael Burdon has been riding and racing ‘cross for a few years now. And like the rest of us, he’s still finding new things to learn,  every time he races. We love a list at FiC, and this is an especially good list of tips to improve your ‘cross…. Reproduced from Michael’s Laastste Ronde blog.

Cover pic: Neil Hendry

Cyclocross –  an apprenticeship

Someone with talent –  I think it was British National Women’s Champion Helen Wyman  – said that racing cyclocross was an apprenticeship. I agree with her, although I wish she had said how long the apprenticeship lasts because I’ve been racing cyclocross for five years and I’m still right  at the beginning of the arc of learning.

During that time, I’ve made loads of mistakes. I’ve done the wrong sort of training, used the wrong sort of equipment, prepared for a races badly and made every sort of mistake that it’s possible to make during a race.

But I’m beginning to learned from my mistakes. Here is a top 10 of what I’ve learned (So far…)

1. Fitness

All other things being equal, the fittest person wins the race. Being fit isn’t enough though. You have to be cyclocross fit. That means being able to suffer at or near your limit for up to an hour. It means going deep and putting in sharp digs of power and being able to recover quickly enough to dig again. And again. For an hour.

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2. Measure your effort.

Fitness is one thing. Knowing how to use it is another. If you know what your threshold heart rate is, you should be at it for all but the first minute or so of the race. They say that the sprint in a cross race is at the start. Train to recover from a hard initial 30-60 second effort back to threshold. Your rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 1 to 10 should be :- 9 at the start, 8 for the duration of the race with digs of 9 when required. A one off 10  may be required at the end if you are sprinting for position. If you go below a 7 on a section that wasn’t freewheeling downhill, and you aren’t lying  in a crumpled heap at the end of the race with a spittle flecked face, you weren’t trying hard enough.

3. Racing cyclocross is a skill.

Being fit will only get you so far. You need to have a comprehensive list of skills which have to be performed flawlessly for lap after lap. You need to be able to corner efficiently, ride short climbs or adverse camber sections efficiently, dismount and remount your bike efficiently (from the left and the right), run over barriers, run up steps, shoulder your bike properly. The list is endless and perfection (in my experience) unattainable. Practice makes perfect. Find a piece of land which has the right type of features and practice until your strava ride map looks like the demented doodling of a small child.

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4. Kit

A road bike is only suitable for benign surfaces. A mountain bike can go anywhere but generally has at least front suspension and is forgiving to ride. A cyclocross bike is expected to go everywhere and is not particularly compliant to ride, so you need to ride your cyclocross bike all the time to get a feel for what it can do and how it handles. On road and off.  In all types of conditions. If you become proficient at racing cyclocross and want to further your success, buy a tubular compatible wheelset and cyclocross tubular tyres. Experiment with tyre pressures on different types of surface. The improvement in compliance, grip and therefore lap speed really is a game changer.

5. Preparation

Simple, but perhaps the most overlooked. Arrive at the venue fresh, with a bike that you have already checked to make sure is  working properly. Arrive in plenty of time to register for your race, ride the course a few times, go back to the car to tweak the bike/ kit/ tyre pressures, ride the course a few more times  and do a warm up appropriate to the race that you are about to do. You will invariably need twice as much time as you think you do.

6. Tactics

Be aware of what is going on around you in the race. Work out what you are good at and what your weaknesses are and how that fits in with this particular course. On your ride around the course before the race, think about where the  good passing places are and  how the racing line may change as the course cuts up. If you are technically proficient, you may want to overtake competitors before a singletrack section and force a gap  behind you. In dryer flatter conditions, it may benefit you to sit in a group to recover, or work with a group to bridge up to riders in front or increase the gap to riders behind.

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7. Momentum

Cyclocross isn’t just about bike racing. It’s about going the fastest you can at any given time in any given situation. There aren’t any prizes for riding as much of the course as you can. Constantly assess the course and the riders around you to determine whether it is faster to ride a particular section or get off and run. Don’t be governed by what the rider in front is doing. Don’t be too up his chuff on a climb, because he might bobble and stall. His loss of momentum will become your loss of momentum. Watch the Pro’s racing and  notice how their dismounts and remounts are so seamless that you often have to rewind and fast forward a couple of times to see when they did it.

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8. Keep Going.

Every so often, during a race, you might just not be feeling at your fittest or you might make a stupid mistake which costs you time. In both situations the riders who you were racing with will dance away from you. You may be dispirited and in pain. Never give up. Try and bridge back to them or keep going at a sustainable pace. Riders in front may crack or fall. You need to make sure that you are able to take advantage of it if they do.

9. Mental strength.

People who are at the limit of their mental and physical capabilities can make mistakes, or crack. Assess the riders around you. Are they at their limit or composed ? comfortable on the bike or all over it ? How do you feel in comparison to how they look ? Could they stay with you if you attacked ? If you attack with confidence and get a gap of 4 or 5 seconds, it may be enough to break their spirit. Conversely, if they attacked and you were able to winch yourself back up to them, that might break their spirit. Or at least put them off doing it again.

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10. Enjoy yourself

If everything I’ve written sounds a bit serious, don’t forget that racing cyclocross is supposed to be fun. The atmosphere and camaraderie at races is wonderful and the heady mix of endorphins and adrenaline after the race always makes for lively discussion. You have actively made the decision to race rather than go for a gentle ride. You have therefore voluntarily put yourself under a degree of physical strain and mental anguish. Embrace the pain, Enjoy the suffering. It all makes sense.

On the subject of cyclocross disc brakes. And pads.

Discs in cyclocross are the ‘love ‘em or loathe ‘em’ Marmite product of the last couple of years. Enthusiastically adopted by some, fiercely rejected by others. And only partially embraced by the professional end of the sport.

At Fluent in Cross we’ve tried them all. From single-moving piston BB7 type mechanical systems, through hydraulic compromise systems like V-Twin and Parabox, into cable operated hydraulic caliper systems like Hy/Rd to full on hydraulic systems from the likes of SRAM and Shimano.

And they all work to varying degrees of success and performance standards. We won’t go into the pros and cons of each system here, let alone the full debate about cantilever vs disc – we’ll leave that for another time. Instead, this article will focus on the biggest issue affecting disc usage amongst first time users – that of pad wear.

This writer’s email inbox, twitter feed and anecdotal feed (gabbing on) has been full of the same story over the past year or so. An enthusisatic disc virgin whose hopes of a miracle cure for their cyclocross braking woes have been dashed, by the apparent failure of their lovely disc brakes within a single long ride, or even 1 hour cross race. The complaint is always the same – that of pad wear so great as to render the brakes useless within X timeframe.

And in almost all cases, the cause is the same. It’s something mountainbikers have initially suffered from too, then learned to work with and now have mastered completely. Those cyclocross disc newcomers from outside of an mtb background have usually neglected or at least underestimated, the importance of pad compound and pad bedding in. That is not to say that there haven’t been instances of complete pad wear within a few laps or few miles in particularly challenging conditions – think US Nationals in 2012 – but mostly the solution is simple.

Many new users of disc brakes are unaware that there are different compounds out there ranging from soft organic to fully metallic sintered, with several gradations in between. And it is also not always known by the first time user that original factory products are almost always issued with the soft organic pads. Partly on grounds of cost and partly that most producers aren’t located in the high rainfall, high silica and grit geologies that we have here, at least in much of the UK and in particular NW England.

Put simply, an organic pad in a normal UK winter is unlikely to last long, especially in bad conditions, and needs to be swapped out pretty much straight away for a semi-metallic or better still fully metallic sintered pad. Equally pads that are not bedded in will simply shred through in double quick time, even to some degree sintered compounds as well. Bedding in with heat allows a crust to form on the pad, that then protects from abrasion, as well as spreading pad material onto the disc rotor to allow stronger ‘meshing’ of pad and rotor and consequently, more powerful braking.

So, unless you live in a dry dusty area, make sure you always run semi- or full-metallic pads and bed them in properly. Bedding in can be done by repeated runs (in the dry) down a hill utilising hard braking efforts to get heat into the pads, and allow the glazing process to work. Dragging the brakes also gets some heat in but it is those hard braking efforts that will really set your pads up for longevity and performance. Enjoy.

End of season blues…

February is a bitter-sweet month for cyclocross riders. The season reaches it’s pinnacle with the World Championships in early Feb and other season long race race series in Europe come to a head too. Domestically, however it marks the end of the season as most UK leagues are done and dusted early in the month.

And the relief this brings is something to look forward to. Relief from the rigmarole of getting multiple changes of kit ready for racing in bad weather, relief from endless bike cleaning and preparation, relief on the part of your washing machine from the return of all that kit muddied to within an inch of its life. Racing ‘cross all winter, even relatively sparsely, is demanding on body and equipment and there is only so long before the multi-hour postrace clean up routine begins to drag…

For those riders like myself, who basically only ride ‘cross and for whom other racing is but a mere distraction or preparation for the real stuff in the winter, this feeling of relief lasts about 2 weeks before the pining starts. ‘Cross is addictive and even the smallest time away from the rhythm of weekend races results in a feeling of loss. Luckily, in the 21st Century help is at hand. In many areas, it’s only a couple of months before Summer Cross starts, and given our increasingly wet climate, the opportunity to have a winter season all over again.

But this hiatus in the ‘cross calendar is an important one. A time to recharge the batteries, fix battered drivetrains and bikes and give the washing machine a much-needed service as well as restore mud-stained relationships with long-suffering spouses and loved-ones . Importantly too, it can be a time to reflect. Reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and which technically-induced riding incidents you hoped no-one noticed out there on the course.. ‘Cross is highly technical in nature once you start delving into it a little deeper. It is also the branch of cyclesport in which, perhaps more than all the others, significantly measurable gains can come from tweaking technique and not training longer or harder. Some call it ‘free’ time gained – getting tyre pressure, cornering lines, mounting technique right and so on, to save say 10 seconds a lap. Or more. You don’t have to train harder or longer – just put aside a little time to work out what things you do well and what things you hope others don’t witness, and then find somewhere private to practice the un-witnessable bits until you feel confident to unleash them on an unsuspecting world. And of course with Summer Cross coming up soon, you have the chance to put your new found technical competence into action all over again.

It’s probably a good time to take that hard-worked ‘cross bike apart (or get someone else to do it for you). After the winter we recently had, no bike that was ridden regularly in the swamp like conditions most UK ‘cross courses found themselves in, will be working smoothly. Get those cables, pads and mud-splattered parts changed or serviced. Tubulars too will probably need at the very least an inspection – the best glue jobs can break down quickly when constantly submerged in highly organic water (aka slop). Every year, the first corner of the first Summer Cross race sees some poor unfortunate whose now unglued tub parts company from their wheel, depositing them unceremoniously on the ground.

But perhaps more importantly, this time of year can be a good time to go and have some fun away from the demands of blasting round an 8 minute lap. I ride on a ‘cross bike often still, as the weather seems to remain firmly oriented in bad-weather mode most of the time. Explore those woods near you that you’ve been meaning to check out for ‘cross training, get out on higher ground on the ‘cross bike, link some road sections with nice bridleways, go and let your hair down, if not your tyre pressure.

Before you know it, it’ll be time to prep the bike(s), pack the spare clothes, fiddle with tyre pressure all over again. But at least you’ll know you’ve moved things on a little in your quest for true Svenness