Comrie Cream O the Croft

Comrie Croft is a privately owned trail centre and campsite, with a focus on sustainability and serious green credentials, it is also the home of a surprisingly tough enduro.

The Cream O’ The Croft is a three day bike festival held over a weekend in June, the highlight being a 9 stage enduro race held on the Saturday. Muckmedden Events was the race organiser, their Fair City Enduro being such a fun event and with Comrie being two hours from me. Well, it would be rude not to race.

Arriving on site I was immediately struck by the atmosphere being more like a boutique festival than a mountain bike race. The camp site had as many families and kids running around as hardened racers and privateers. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t a stacked field in attendance, brought home to me as James Shirley’s Radon Factory Racing van parked next to me whilst getting the bike ready. This was going to be a serious day on the bikes.

Registration was a quick affair, no queues here, leaving plenty of time to take in the event village. The festival meant there was plenty of attractions for those not racing. Indoor and outdoor bouncy castles, face painting, Segways and a 60 foot slip and slide were just some of the family friendly attractions. This and the food and beer all added up to make the day a great one for little and big ones.

I was in the fourteenth wave which gave me plenty of time after the briefing to stretch off and warm up before my start time. The waves left like Swiss trains, and without delay we left the village and started up the climb to stage one.

wave set off

After a social climb stage one had the usual queue, people shifting and squeezing tyres. All whilst trying not to make it obvious that they were watching every rider leaving the gate to watch for the best line

Stage One

Starting from the highest point on the trails, and with a big audience watching, it was hard not to go full gas straight from the off. Large exposed slabs of rock were punctuated with water bars, loose rocks and punchy climbs. It was a long stage and the pace of the start was hard to maintain, I’m still not pacing properly on stages!

I made a few little mistakes and it wasn’t long before “RIDER” was being called from behind. Approaching a group of stationary riders and taping, I could let the acid in my legs ease as it was the end, or so I thought. The stage crossed the start of stage two, I was only half way through! Digging in I passed a few people on hardtails on the descent and made it finally to the end.

Stage 2 Enduro Comrie croft scotland

Stage Two

Making my way up to the start of stage two was a quick affair, were I found that I wasn’t the only one caught out by the physicality of the first stage. The banter was drowned out by people coughing loudly and producing substantial lung biscuits at regular intervals.

The second stage was the “XC Stage”, sharing much of the character of the first just with more climbs and prolonged pedaling. This stage had many man made rock gardens of the type that look like stepping stones, the kind specifically designed to rob you of momentum. Keeping light and popping over the water bars the fatigue started to build. I started relying on the bike more and more, and once more, “RIDER”. With a rabbit to chase more depth was found in the legs as I tried to keep him in view till the end of the stage, I failed but I found more speed for the last leg!

Crieff Comrie Croft Scotland Nature
Stunning views graced every climb.

Whilst the day started overcast the clouds soon boiled off and with the mercury rising, keeping fluids up was quickly becoming a priority.

Stage Three

This stage was the blue trail, flowing with small drops, berms and moguls to work through. It was a fast and fun stage, bone dry and easy to wash out in the dust if you let your concentration lapse. I had a clean stage except for one thing, the start. I fumble trying to clip in and took what felt like an age to hear that reassuring click and was finally able to get the power down.

My goals for the day were to focus on body position and ride clean, aiming to land in the top 50% overall. One thing however was becoming apparent, I need to work on my starts. I was losing to much time trying to dib in and get shifting, I was struggling to clip in and wasn’t getting any power down as I was trying not to slip a pedal. Not good, and definitely room for improvement.

Stage four

This was the climb stage, it was a single track slog that led to a fire road grind. It used the climb that was the spine of the days route and I cursed myself for not paying enough attention to where the stage actually ended. This resulted in me leaving to much in the tank, with the end of the stage coming up sooner than expected. Frustrating as climbing is usually a stronger area of my riding, live and learn.

Five and seven shared a starting point, one went left the other right. The site is compact for a trail centre with it making best use of the available hill, but this compact nature meant every stage had a queue. Not necessarily a bad thing as you had plenty time to recover, as long as you kept yourself stretched out.

Stage five

This was easily my best and favorite stage of the day, a sentiment echoed by many of the other riders. Starting in tight trees with narrow rooty and rocky trail with serrated rocky drops and chutes. Before breaking the treeline and opening up onto warp speed trails that scythed through the long grass the before dropping down the hillside to the shared end point with stage seven.

I finally got a good start, clipping in and getting good power down from the off. I went smooth but not full gas, as it was all to easy to clip a bar or get taken out by a sniper rock on the narrow rutted trail. Keeping momentum on the short climbs as the light started to grow, the trees thinned out and I let the bike run whilst cranking hard. The acceleration was immense, few trails combine tight technical terrain and high speed hill side, and this one was just immense.

Dibbing out, I was breathing hard and knew I’d done well (for me) and left little still on the hill, it was onwards and downwards to stage six.

Stage Six

This stage presented a total change of pace and a test of handling skill, a line of table tops joined a pump track. The stage was two laps of the pump track, you could pedal up to the first jump, then it was pump and jump for the two laps of the track. A 15 second time penalty for any pedaling after the first jump kept things interesting.

Stage 6 Pump Track Challenge

I (like a good number of riders) got a few laps in on the pump track before the race briefing, so I was confident that I would be able to make the two laps without penalty. Sprinting hard out the gate to get as much acceleration whilst I could, I was cleanly over the jumps and into the pump track. It went well but I lost some momentum towards the end of the second lap, still, no time penalties.

Blue Skys Comrie Crieff Scotland

By now the sky was a deep azure, with the thick heat and sound of crickets  chirping their song along every trail, you could swear we were racing on the continent. Back up the climb that was a recurring feature of the day and to decision rock.

Stage Seven

Whilst waiting my turn in the line, word came up that someone had crashed at the first feature, a rocky chute with drops almost immediately after the start. This prompted half the queue to go for a short track walk to see what the sapling trees were hiding from us. It was a nasty rock garden with the smoothest line ending on a massive awkward stump waiting to grab your front wheel. Forewarned is forearmed, so it was back to the line to await my turn.

The stage was similar in character to stage 5, it had a big unrollable drop half way in and some sharper climbs but a similar style and mix of trail. I got a good start again and made a clean job of the first few features, they were similar to my home trails and fun to ride. I made a total mess of the first sharp climb, losing all momentum and in a totally wrong gear it was faster to get off and run. Clipping back in for another rocky chute it had cost me time, placing 17th on stage 5 and 25th on the seventh. Still making mistakes that I don’t have time to claw back time on, it was over the drop across the hillside meadow before crossing a stream and over the line.

Stage Eight and Nine

The final two stages were two laps of a duel slalom course, swapping over so you raced both lanes. Randomly joining up in the queue with a female rider with a rather serious looking Giant I knew she’d be quick.

Stage 8 9 Comrie Enduro Duel Slalom

The start was like the run up to the pump track, flowing brakeless jumps, berms and moguls before a series of flat turns on freshly cut grass. I won the first round, it is probably fair to say she won the second but it was close racing both times.

James Shirley and Mike Clyne gave a lesson in dibbing out on the final stages and posted wins in their respective categories.

The party atmosphere was building in the event village with the beer flowing and the side “races” kicking off, like the kids granny ring drag race or the adults balance bike drag race. The weather had played ball and the organizers, sponsors and local producers had covered themselves in glory, top day.

With the racing over it was back to the registration desk to get my times and see where I currently stood. I’d landed at 33rd overall when I checked out, a time I wish I could pretend would stick. In the end I was 71st out of 172 overall.

I’d achieved my goal for the day of being in the top 50% overall and had improved on my previous enduro result. My other focus for the day will still need work, but with new things learned at every race there are always things to carry forward to the next one.

Next stop, Tour De Ben?


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Comrie Croft – Helmet Cams

Everyone loves a helmet cam video, great for reliving trails and for getting an idea of the terrain and features before racing blind.

Here we find six of the nine stages from Comrie Cream O the Croft 2016 for your enjoyment, and for familiarizing yourself with the stages for next time.

All videos are my own apart from stage five which is courtesy of Bob Millar.


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Bike Prep

So much preparation can go into one race, training, strategy and of course bike preparation.

When it comes to race prepping my bike, the first thing to decide is which bike is most appropriate for the race. I don’t have the most extensive quiver but I have a XC bike and the big all mountain bike. Is it an enduro or endurance event? Are the trails natural or man made, will the racing be mostly gravity, cross country or a mix? Youtube and Strava are great tools for scoping out the potential terrain and helping to guide the decision, which ultimately boils down to – hardtail or full sus.

Bike chosen its time to get a cup of tea, hit the shed and get the tools out.

A clean bike is a happy bike, first thing to do is get the bike on the stand, get the wheels off and give it a good deep clean. Cleaning the bike usually red flags any potential maintenance issues that have gone unnoticed, as well as making sure everything is running free and clear.

Now we have a sparkling clean bike to work on, it’s time to check the torque on all the bolts. Starting from the top and working down the bike, make sure to adjust the torque wrench to the correct torque for each bolt in turn. If you suspect a bolt has been over tightened, loosen the bolt with an allen key (never loosen a bolt with a torque wrench) then re-tighten the bolt to the correct torque. Don’t forget to check disc rotor bolts as they are sometimes easy to forget.

Once all the bolts are checked, I break the bike down into key areas, making a list of jobs needing done for each.


Drivetrain
  • Fresh gear cable and index deraileur
  • Fresh chain
Cockpit and brakes
  • Fresh brake pads
  • Bleed brakes
Suspension
  • Fork lower service and oil change
Wheels and Tyres
  • True and tension wheels
  • Fresh tubeless sealant
  • Service hubs and bearings

Drive Train

Slipping gears aren’t acceptable on a race run and a snapped chain (unless you’re Aaron Gwinning) will end your day, so a smooth drive train is vital.

Fit a fresh gear cable then check the high and low limit screws to make sure the deraileur can’t shift off the cassette. A fresh cable will stretch a little as it beds in, so you will need to repeat the indexing after a few rides to get the deraileur shifting well again. Or, you can pre-stretch your new cable so you don’t have to re-index the deraileur, good news for race prepping.

To stretch your gear cable, shift to the innermost sprocket, then whilst turning the cranks pull the deraileur cage outward so you shift the chain into the middle of the cassette. When you let go of the mech the chain will shift back to the innermost sprocket. Repeat a few times and the shift will become slower. Re-index the cable and you have a pre-streched gear cable and a crisp gear shift.

If you’re unsure how to index your deraileur, Park Tools have a excellent guide.

Fitting a fresh chain is usually pretty high on the list of priorities when prepping for race day. If a new chain is going to fail it will usually be fairly early on in its life. Therefore I try to get a few rides on a new chain to make sure it won’t fail and that it’s bedded in.

Make sure the chain is properly oiled and any excess has been removed.


Cockpit and brakes

Racing burns through brake pads like nothing else, with the heat of the moment you’ll brake harder and more aggressively than normal. Pads also pick up all kinds of contaminants in normal use, so as with a fresh chain, it is always best to race on fresh pads. Just remember to bed them in properly in advance.

With fresh pads I always like to give my brakes a quick bleed, not necessarily a full fluid change, just a quick bleed to make sure they are at their best. If its my Avid brakes (yes they can work!), a quick lever bleed will usually suffice.

The other thing to ensure is that your brake calipers are properly aligned to ensure the discs aren’t rubbing and slowing you down.


Suspension

Nothing is quite as nice on a bike as a dialed fork. Sadly, just like all of the components on a bike, their performance slowly deteriorates over time, we just don’t notice this as we ride them all the time.

One of the easiest ways to refresh your fork is with fresh seals and servicing the lowers. This is the kind of job we know we need to do to maintain our forks performance and prevent damage, but it’s very easy to forget.

TF Tuned Box Suspension service

An event is a great reason to make you service your fork and remind you that it’s a straightforward job that doesn’t take all that much time.


Wheels and Tyres

Pros and serious racers will race on fresh rubber, for privateers and casual racers that can be a little pricey. If your tyres still have plenty of tread on them, then some fresh sealant and ensuring they are properly seated is the thing to do. Some people go as far as applying fresh rim tape (Gorilla tape) before reseating the tyre, but this isn’t strictly necessary.

While your tyres are off, it is the perfect time to true and tension your wheels. You can do this yourself with a little patience and some basic tools, but if you’re unsure or short of time then a trip to the local bike shop will sort you out. This could take some time, so remember to factor that in as your bike may be out of commission for training rides while the wheels are in the shop.

There is a comprehensive guide on Pinkbike for truing wheels on the bike.


Final touches

Lastly I like to wipe the frame down with a silicon spray or detail it with a coat of car wax. This prevents mud from building up on the frame as well as keeping the frame looking box-fresh come race day.

Like with washing the frame, it’s wheels off as well as pads out, after all no point changing pads just to contaminate them! There are various brands of silicon spray – some like WD40, some prefer bike specific products. Whatever you use, ensure you keep the wheels and pads well out of the way.


 There you have it, that new bike feeling and ready to race.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014

Dad with bike – Will Race

The countdown is on to my first proper race of the year, the Cream O the Croft Enduro.

For past races I’ve put in a reasonably structured gym plan complimented by a more haphazard “time spent on the bike plan”. With no access to a gym and time on the bike being my main source of training, a slightly different approach to race training was needed.

Being a stay at home dad, any training comes second to looking after the wee man. But when I started trying to work out a basic training plan, I realised that he was far from hampering, he was maintaining my base fitness. Using the Garmin Vivofit my wife got me I discovered I was covering upward of 70km on foot a week, that is some serious base miles right there. With time spent on the bike in the evenings it started to add up to a reasonable amount of training time.

Training has been happening in three ways, walks, short evening rides (30-45 minutes) and bigger weekly rides. With the space to train identified it was time to structure it a bit more deliberately, I broke my training down in to a few rough parts.

  • Base miles – these are made up of walks with the wee man.
  • Intervals, to be done as an evening ride.
  • Longer ride with skills focus

Base Miles

The base miles are a fairly straightforward affair, at least once a day I take the boss for a hours walk. To make that time useful for training and more importantly, engaging for him, a lot of those walks happen in the woods, going uphill. A fairly typical walk can involve a track walk of a downhill trail or exploring new hills whilst getting the boss out in nature.

Trailwalking
4.2km 215m elevation

Intervals

The interval rides are taking the place of gym work, where previously there were circuits focusing on building strength and recovery, now I’m beasting myself on the bike instead. Knowing there would be a climbing and more XC orientated stages at the race meant sprinting and prolonged efforts on climbs would need attention.

Climbing Intervals

Interval rides aren’t that exciting, but they work, I can get a 30 – 40 minute ride in the evening, ideal for some intervals. I divided the intervals into climbing and sprinting sessions. The climbing was a straightforward smashing up a steep short climb and recovering on the descent, then repeat.

Sprint intervals
A bit all over in the middle…

The sprints are a block of 30 seconds full gas 30 seconds recovery for 5 minutes, 5 minutes recovery, repeat. There are plenty of philosophy’s and ways of structuring intervals and I’m no expert, but I tried to base them on race conditions. Sprints will benefit a enduro style stage as well as an XC stage, if a stage has a climb mid stage it probably wont last longer than 30 seconds and probably wont be as steep as 10 – 15%!


Main Bike Time

These rides are the main time I get on the bike, each ride as well as being time getting back to pace also has a skills focus. For example, on a recent ride at Tarland the focus was braking before corners and features as well as improving jumps. Tarland is a great place for honing some skills as you can session a whole trail pretty quickly.

The main areas that I’m trying to work on are;

  • Body position, stop riding like its a 1990’s XC race, straighten my back, hips back, shoulders low and elbows out.
  • Brake properly, finish before corners and features, slow in fast out.
  • Be smoother and braver, to not startle at drops and blind lips.

I have started mixing my local loop up so that it forces me to tackle these weaker areas, making me deliberately practice and session the features that are hard.

We all have commitments, other priorities on our time, making time for fitness or skills training can be hard. Sometimes looking at it a little more creatively will reveal space to train that you didn’t realize was there, and every KM is one more than everyone sitting on their couch.


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