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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Progression – Chasing Form

Often when riding, I get the nagging feeling that even though I’m trying to progress my skills and become a smoother, faster rider. That last year, I was fitter and faster.

Turning the cranks, trying to move forward, deliberately practicing skills and sessioning challenging trails, yet sometimes I feel like I’m just going backwards. Mostly I am sure it is a confidence issue, I lack a certain confidence, not in my ability to ride at a pace but that my current “form” is always weaker than it has previously been.

For me, the doubt was probably always there, but it started to creep in more last year when my wife and I were blessed with our first child. As you can Imagine, towards the end of the pregnancy and for the first few months riding took a back seat with not many miles being clocked and my “form” began to stiffen in my mind.

But how much of these feelings are just that, feelings.

So much of our sport is psychological, intangible feelings of form and flow, yet anything we can measure and quantify needs to be placed within context. The condition of the trails changes with the seasons, meaning comparing any two runs made at different times should only be done with a pinch of salt.

As a tribe, mountain bikers have always tried to go faster, we have always raced, but when your racing yourself we do have some tools to help us measure our progress.

Lets do the math!

Pulling timings from Strava, I plotted the top 10 fastest times for two regular trails in chronological order. The first trail (Roots Manova) is fast, steep and with some proper technical sections to catch you unawares, the second (Log Ride) has less vertical drop and more pedal but still has plenty of teeth to bite you. Both are regulars and I have ridden them a few dozen times each so I know them well.

Roots manova top 10 times

Log Ride Top 10 Times

The trails are both natural in style so have eroded, been dug and have evolved over time. Runs two months apart can be on noticeably different trails, so as I said previously, any comparison has to be with a pinch of salt. All that being said, once the times are plotted chronologically we can see the trend.

The progression is visible as the trend is for the time to decrease, ie for me to get faster, and I would certainly hope so. I have been riding these trails for a good few years, and whilst erosion has made them more challenging, I would hope my skills would have grown to match the evolving trail. I can also see that my recent times, albeit whilst not feeling fully back to pace, are still landing within the top 5 of my times.

You can also see that whilst the trend is saying I’m getting faster, there clearly is a spell in the spring of 2015 when I was faster, on form. Once a level of speed and confidence is felt it is oft remember fondly in the rear view mirror and when the mojo is a little rusty, it can feel like the faster times where faster and you are more off the pace than you actually are.

DCIM100DRIFT

Strangely, I do feel that I am riding cleaner from a technical stand point, cornering better, braking better, hitting technical sections more smoothly. Just without some of the small amount of speed I once had.

Ultimately even without timing we know when we are riding fast and when we are just cruising. Not every run has to be a “YOLO” run, but it is important not to let the gremlins into your head. Once there, target fixation and doubt creep in, thoughts of past crashes and crashes still to come make you jam on the anchors. And that is when it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, I’m off form so I’ll ride conservatively, I used to be faster here and that drop is bigger than I remember so I’ll just roll it, thus making you slower and stiffer on the bike.

Better to ignore past pace and just enjoy the ride and remember.

Its all in the mind.

 

Clachnaben

An iconic Aberdeenshire hill with a wild and punishing descent, a loop of Clachnaben is nothing short of a mini epic.

We all love wild natural rides, big days on big hills with big distances. But sometimes you want the feeling of remote riding and the challenge of truly rugged terrain, but only have a few hours to spare.

Clachnaben Stravaiging MTB Scotland

With its distinctive tor of rock visible from as far as Aberdeen, Clachnaben is a popular hill for walkers and trail runners. It benefits from a well maintained path, with substantial water bars and when required, uneven but substantial stairs. Which comes as a welcome relief as the sustained climb hovers between 15% to over 25% gradient. Once at the top looking down, when that gradient starts being measured in the negative, it becomes one beast of a descent.

It is a modest loop when measured in kilometres, at 15.7km its not that far. But when you take into account the 582m elevation gain, it takes on a much more formidable guise.

Clachnaben loop OS Map
Expect the loop to take two to three hours.

The loop starts in the walkers carpark and rounds the shoulder of the hill. Climbing from the rear so to speak, before topping out west of the summit. Then downhill essentially all the way back to the carpark.

I was blessed with blue skies and temperatures in the 20’s, the ground was baked dry and dusty with a light (for now) wind keeping things tolerable.

Following the course of the river into Glen Dye, the first leg was a fairly sedate and fast spin on smooth fire road. Its not long before I reached the natural rest break of the Charr Bothy. Worth a visit as part of a longer trip, today it merely provided me with some shade before rallying myself for the climb.

The climb is a hard one, the sandy track giving little traction with a slow zig-zagging grind being the only option. It starts as it means to continue, with the gradient rarely straying out of the low 20%’s. Gradient isn’t usually a measurement mountain bikers concern themselves with, its a “Roadie thing”, but its something that you come to fully appreciate whilst on this trail.

The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand

The heats oppression was only slightly moderated by the wind that started to grow with the Elevation. The traction slipped away in little roosts of sand with each pedal stroke as my resolve to stay in the saddle started to slip away. My heart rate monitor (a very thoughtful gift from my wife) was not needed to tell me how hard my heart was working, I knew how hard it was working as I tried to breathe through the work.

Stalling out completely on the loose sand, I was glad of the rest and resigned  myself to push the rest of the way. It was not far before a reminder (if one were needed) that the climb is a suitable challenge for even motorised vehicles.

Glen Dye ww2 Plane wreck

Peering over the heather the frame of a crashed WW2 aircraft stands in equal parts of rusting steel and immaculate aluminium. The wreckage, deemed to difficult and costly to remove, has been left for time and the elements to reclaim. Crash sites from this period are a surprisingly common feature of our hillsides, but serve as a poignant reminder of past sacrifices.

The final push of the climb was a more forgiving affair, with slight undulations and short downs giving free speed for the next up. Hauling myself to the top, the view offered a suitable reward for my efforts, literally being able to see my house from here.

My first run of the day is usually a bust. Its not that I’m not warmed up physically, but it usually takes me at least one trail to both sharpen up and loosen off. Not a luxury availabile on this ride, in front of me lay a 2.2km descent that I had to get right first time.

Starting with a technical mine field of rocky steps and water bars followed by drifty sandy trails and narrow steps with genuine exposure at times. All this before entering a rooty narrow wooded section with blind turns that are usually occupied by sheep and/or ramblers.

At this point in a post you might expect to find a POV video of the descent, a short edit of the day perhaps. Due my own ham fistedness, I managed to turn my Drift camera’s lens into portrait mode, smooth. So stills it is.

Breathing deeply in and out, it was time to clip in.

Rolling in slowly the granite steps were an uneven jumble of square edged drops and awkward turns, staying as light as I dared on the brakes, the key was to keep momentum. The grip of the granite slabs became punctuated with sandy trail, the acceleration was incredible, as soon as I stopped feathering the anchors the bike just took off.

The back end let loose on the corners, the rear tyre buzzing the heather as I relied on the bike to find grip. Bunny hopping water bars and looking as far down trail as I could, I rounded the shoulder of the hill. Taking on a series of exposed narrow stairs it was slow in and fast out.

the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons

The brakes were starting to lose their edge, the prolonged descent had steam practically pouring from the pistons as the tree line fast approached.

A robust lattice work of roots encroached on the trail, the game changed as I entered the wooded section that was more within my comfort zone. Letting completely loose the anchors I was popping over the roots and down drops, this short section was over far too soon as it has real rhythm and pace, when dry. All this fun comes to an end when you reach a deer fence, a quick hop over a stile followed by a mellow pedal for the final push back to the carpark.

A clean run, no matter how fast, on this EWS worthy trails always delivers a sense accomplishment and adrenalin that only comes from a mountain bike.

Good times.

Clachers Profile

Progression – Local Loop

Your strengths are those you practice most, and your weaknesses those that are too hard or to rare an opportunity to perform.

A few things have caused my riding to change and progress over the years, one of the biggest influences has been the local loop. We all have a local loop, somewhere we can crank straight from the house or after a short drive, long drives eat into riding time. What the local terrain has on offer and the style of the trails to be had there will dictate the strengths and weaknesses of your riding (unless you travel to ride a broader variety).

Whilst on a skills course aimed at steep and natural terrain I was told that I was riding with an XC style. This didn’t surprise me all that much, as my local loop for most of my time on a bike had been just that, cross country. My strengths on the bike reflected this, as did my weaknesses.

Countesswells mtb stravaiging.JPG

Strong in the climbs, fast on undulating terrain where constant power is needed and trails with climbs or sprints in them. Conversely I was slow on steep terrain, lacking in confidence with jumps and drops, and relied to much on my fitness to build and keep speed.

This started to change a few years ago when after moving house my local loop changed, I went from averaging 160m of elevation in 10km to 260m in 10km. The change of local riding spot had a pronounced effect on my riding, but it was not without teething problems. Crashes, broken bike parts and sliced tyres, as not only did my skill level have to adapt to the more technical terrain but my bike setup had to change too. The challenge was rewarding and riding bike became thrilling again and not just a test of physical ability.

DCIM101DRIFT

My progression was apparent when I next visited Glentress with my brother, who traditionally I had always been chasing. My new local loop had been beasting me for a few months by this point and I was now out in front, my power in the climbs had also grown as the greater elevation had made an impact.

However I still found myself chasing the pack whilst on my LBS shop rides, when I realised, I was on the groups local loop, not mine. When on home turf you are faster, more confident and have the trails memorised. When on unfamiliar trails its a new learning curve, new challenges and new terrain to master.

Scolty DH 4

There will always be scope for improvement on your local trails but variety is the spice of life after all. I try to mix it up with as broad a variety of trails as possible but time spent traveling is time spent not riding. My local loop has taught me a lot, and has many lesson still to school me. But weaknesses still remain and new ones have been brought to light, and again they reflect my local loop.

So the only way to address those is ride somewhere that forces me to address those weaknesses and gives me the scope to progress those elements of my riding, making me a faster and more rounded rider.

But and hours driving is an hour not riding, its a tough call sometimes.

Tarland

With the spring rain keeping the natural trails slick and muddy a little dry trail action goes a long way.

There isn’t a trail centre in Aberdeenshire, the nearest is the Glenlivet trail centre near Tomintoul. We enjoy a plethora of every style of natural trail, just not a lot of weatherproofed hardpacked trails

The Tarland Trails are a collection of three graded trails and a expansive pump track out in rural Deeside. Its not as big as a full trail centre, but its not a small “bike park” either, it sits comfortably in between. The three trails are roughly 0.5km each starting and stopping at the same place, this gives you great value for time as its a quick winch back to the start for another run. You wont be clocking up any huge miles or big vertical gains/losses, if your looking for that in a ride you have plenty of other options.

pump track Tarland Trails Mountain bike

Tarland Trails Pump track mtb stravaiging
An expansive pump track is a highlight.

Due to the fact that I just don’t ride that sort of trail very often means jumps and getting an aggressive lean in berms is a weakness of my riding. With improving my skills being on the agenda for this year it was time to pay the trails a visit.

The trails were only recently opened but they were badly damaged by flooding in January and have been closed for a rebuild. Back open the drainage improvements and tweaks have set the trails in a perfectly groomed and smooth state.

The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow,

The blue is a ribbon of fast brakeless flow, crafted berms are punctuated by smooth jumps and rollers that encourage you to jump into the turns. It is an unashamed flow trail, perfect for younger or new riders, but the more experienced will still find their kicks trying for that perfect run.

The red has the same fast flow of the blue with added rock gardens and drops. Smooth berms are joined with flat turns that do their best to break your momentum, so you have to keep your concentration for a clean run. Some jumps are armored with hand placed slabs of granite on the up and down slopes, this gives you the added challenge of pumping the jump and bunny hopping a rock garden simultaneously.

The orange has all the charms of the red, only with the rock gardens making way for some impressive tables and the odd awkward double to catch you out.

The big surprise for me was how physical the trails were, unlike the more gradual undulations and gravity assisted nature of a blue trail at say Glentress. The Tarland trails whilst not having the vertical drop turn the trails into an extended pump track that has been beefed up into a full blue or red run. An argument could easily be made that my fitness isn’t what it has been, (having a baby will do that) but the additional pumping and pedaling required really does make for a very physical if short trail.

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On the edge of the village they aren’t hard to find.

If you are looking for something a little different than the usual Aberdeenshire fair, or for somewhere to session some turns and jumps then you could do a lot worse. It might not hold you for a day but for a few hours fun it is worth the visit.

#Ovalthis

There are some things that are constant, they may evolve but can you reinvent the wheel?

I have been curious to try oval chain rings ever since reading an excellent article about them a while back on James Wilson’s site. Now, thanks to my support from absoluteBLACK I have one of their oval chain rings to find out for myself.

Off round chain rings are not a new idea, back in the late 80’s Shimano championed their Biopace system. Seriously flawed, users complained of knee and joint pain. Time has thankfully moved on, and the oval chain ring is not the oval ring of the past. AbsoluteBLACK’s offers gains and benefits over conventional round rings.

“Absolute Black oval chainrings deliver power more smoothly to your rear wheel. This means you are better able to generate and maintain, constant cadence. Because oval chainrings reduce the peak loads on knee joints, riders using them get less stress on the joints (knees) and therefore are able to keep certain level of effort for longer. This results in higher average speed.” (source absoluteBLACK.cc)

With the timing and shape being completely different to that of the Biopace rings, comparisons between them are less apples and oranges and more like apples and tuna.

Out of the package it was immediately obvious these were not your average narrow wide chain rings. The oval shape was subtle, but enough to make you look twice if you didn’t know it was not a round chain ring. The asymmetric tooth profile is superbly detailed and shaped to hold the chain and move dirt and oil off of the tooth’s face.

AbsoluteBLACK offer a 30 day trail period, if oval is not for you they will swap it for a round one; as a brand ambassador I was still more than ready to make use of this trial period.

Oval chainring

Fitting the ring was a straightforward affair with the 32 tooth ring having built in threads, once on and with a fresh new chain it certainly scored in the good looks department. One thing to note is if you are running a top guide, make sure to adjust and check the height of it to avoid it hitting on the high point of the oval!

It was time to hit the trails and to see how the theory applied to reality. The initial test ride would be on some newly cut trails that were steep and loamy, hitting them blind would mean drive train worries would need to be the last thing on my mind.

Clipping in I was expecting to feel something very pronounced through the pedals, a pulsing in the torque. Being completely honest, it felt natural, very quickly it didn’t feel strange at all and most importantly I noticed I was losing my fellow riders on the fire road climbs.

It encouraged a smooth, even pedal stroke, but it still felt good even at lower cadences, one thing I was concerned about was that it would have a “sweet spot” in terms of cadence, but it just doesn’t.

When the terrain turned steep it again performed flawlessly, we have all gotten used to not dropping chains thanks to 1X and narrow wide chain rings, in this regard the oval ring performs perfectly and inspires confidence in your drive train. On more pedally trails the extra gains in power and torque led to faster acceleration and less fatigue in the legs.

Finella Steeps Stravaiging

My initial feelings are that I will not be needing the 30 day trial offer, the additional power in the strong part of the pedal stroke provides a noticeable enhancement to performance and encourages a smooth pedal technique. Long term durability is not a concern as the build quality is just so good, with the grinding paste of Scottish dirt doing nothing to take the shine off of the teeth’s anodizing.

I’ll no doubt be returning with some long term assessments once I have a few months of turning oval under the belt, but for now I can certainly recommend them.

Enduro by any other name

“What sort of stuff do you ride?”
“You know, Enduro trails mostly”

We have all had that conversation with someone on the trails or in the LBS, and it is something I am having increasing difficulty with. Now Enduro as a race format, is still evolving with as many variations and permutations as there are events and race series. Fundamentally it is a multi stage gravity mountain bike race where racers access the timed stages (descents) on the bike via untimed liaison stages (usually climbs), similar to car rallying.

For a more detailed explanation of enduro please watch this primer video.

This style of climbing for the downs is more representative of the kind of riding most of us do, unlike Downhill’s single run or XC’s multiple laps. The explosion in popularity of Enduro has led to the cult of “Enduro Specific“, from bikes and set ups to components and kit, this is what I have my issue with.

Enduro is a race format not a style of riding, when you ride a trail and your not between the tape, it is just riding a trail, no more no less. An “Enduro Specific” chain guide still works when it hasn’t heard you dib in, a 160mm Enduro sled still works when it doesn’t have a number board hanging on the bars.

I once saw an advert for an oven, one of the key features was the view of your food through the HD glass. Now HD is a woolly term at the best of times that refers to the resolution of a video it is also another term that has been misappropriated. Unless that oven’s door was a video screen, saying the glass possesses HD qualities is marketing bullshit. The marketeers have borrowed a word with positive connotations and applied them to a product and sphere that it has no business being in.

This happens all the time, this toothpaste advert is a favorite example.

Can someone please tell me the connection between toothpaste and a specific brand of action camera?

I think Enduro racing itself is some of the most dynamic and varied racing in mountain biking, I have raced Enduro style events and will do again. It is the misuse of the word and its connotations to sell that frustrates. Not because they are trying to sell product, but because of the sales pitch the word has been swallowed wholesale into the MTB lexicon and outside of racing it is an essentially meaningless term just like HD.

Support

I am delighted to announce that I am being supported by some great brands this coming year.

ab logo wide-01

Firstly I will be representing AbsolutBLACK as a brand ambassador during 2016. I will be running AbsoluteBLACK chain rings as well as some other components, I am really looking forward to experimenting with oval chain rings and the gains they will bring to my riding.

Banner only

I am also pleased to announce that I am part of Riders Company’s Grassroots Program, I’ll be wearing some of their great t-shirts during rides and dig days as well as whilst relaxing off the bike.

You can expect some posts looking into the whole crazy/not crazy concept of oval chain rings and how I use them in my riding and training, as well as looking rather dapper in some fresh tees.

I would like to thank both of these brands for their support for 2016, I am looking forward to working with both of them and for another great year on the bikes.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Stage 4 Nevis Range Race

February

The rains have eased, the waters may have subsided, but the trails are still saturated.

The heavy sodden ground can be a blessing and a curse, the falling mercury freezing the ground hard and fast rolling. As the thaw creeps in and the ground softens, traction is easy to find, but too far into the melt and a mud bath ensues – you can’t have it all.

It was a month of regular rides and of building pace, revisiting old trails, riding them in a way that only served as a reminder of lost speed and gains to be made.

Mostly it was a month of having fun on the bikes.

Stravaiging Enduro Scolty February

Stravaiging Enduro Scolty February 11

Dropping-in-DH

Stravaiging Enduro durris February 3

Stravaiging Enduro durris February 7

Scolty DH 2

Strava, its Complicated

Strava I love you but your bringing me down.

At first you understood, you were new and you were exciting but the longer you’ve been there the more complicated it has become. You made rides exciting and were a reason to explore and to try and better myself on the bike. You made it easy to equate that feeling of speed into actual performance gains, you encouraged a joined up type of riding, of keeping momentum and of going full gas when ever possible. You made me faster.

strava-4

But as time has past, things became routine and the excitement ebbed, and you made me ride differently than I would have ridden if you weren’t there. You changed how I rode for good and for bad, you changed how others (myself included) acted and behaved, you never said I couldn’t ride like before but it was always implied.

A trail becomes a race on the internet, against people you don’t know.

I know the foundation and the driving force of our sports progress going right back to Repack has and always will be racing, but racing is an event with real people. Fighting for a KOM with a stranger on the internet started to feel more and more like trolling.

You took away the exploration, the hard work of the trail builder became exposed by the “social” aspect, of segments and heatmaps. No trail is secret, no trail knowledge is local. If you have ridden it someone has named a segment on it and if the ride isn’t on strava for all to see, then it just didn’t happen.

Strava meme Picard

You changed how I and others rode a trail, parts of a social ride that have been there since the beginning, that in fact made you a better rider were forgotten as the invisible clock in your head was always ticking. Forget the view, forget sublime moments of clarity, forget stopping to shoot the breeze with friends. Forget finding a great set of turns or drops and pushing back up mid trail to ride them again, the clock is always ticking.

Sessioning is not strava.

But you did help make me a faster, fitter rider, you helped me track rides and build on weaknesses, you let me see when I did better or when feeling fast was just cruising.

All of this said I, like Heath Ledger, wish I knew how to quit you, Happy valentines day strava, I’ll see you next time I go ride my bike.


My strava account is still active but a fairly serious affair with Veloviewer has been going on for a while. Strava doesn’t mind as it knows I will always come home to it.

High Burnside

The winter of 2015 has not been a classic winter,

with record rainfall combined with warm temperatures keeping the snow off the high tops and the rain in the rivers, it has been a disaster for many. Thankfully the worst we and our neighbours have suffered is being cut off with road and bridge closures.

That being said, there is no such thing as poor weather just poor clothing, so with the family packed we set off to Aviemore for the annual New Year trip. After an occasionally fraught journey we safely reached Speyside and found a very different weather picture. The northern Cairngorms were significantly colder and drier with the snow staying on the mountains.

There was standing water in some fields but the flooding was incomparable with what was happening in the southern Cairngorms and Deeside. Importantly for us this also meant the woodlands were mostly dry and frozen solid, not the mud baths of my local trails.

With the drive and weather being what they were, I thought it prudent to leave my bikes at home saving the bearings from a fate worse than death, and to hire a bike there. As it transpired, this was a good plan.

The rental was a Hoot
The rental was a hoot

A quick trip to the excellent Bothy Bikes was in order and a Genesis High Latitude was acquired. This steel 29er fitted with Suntour forks, Maxxis Ardents and a 3×9 drivetrain was a weighty beast, but I thought if I was riding a radio rental for a weekend, then why not wagon wheels? My main concern would be how well mannered the budget forks and XC tyres would be on steeper natural tech, but we would have to wait and see.

We were meeting with family in Aviemore and riding was planned for two days. The first day would be a gentle XC jaunt round Loch An Eilen with my brother-in-law (Jonny) and his partner, the rest of the group (my wife, wee boy and mother-in-law) walking the route with me joining the walking group part way round. The second day would be Jonny and myself exploring the natural trails behind Aviemore in High Burnside.

Loch An Eilien Cairngorms Winter Landscape Scotland Cross Country

The Genesis, as I expected, was an XC mile muncher with the spin from Aviemore to Loch an Eilen passing quickly and easily. I was surprised by how well the Genesis handled rooty climbs and at how easily it maintained speed, albeit being slower to accelerate.

Round the loch the larger wheels were starting to make sense, as when on pedally sections the bike flew with Jonny’s Zesty 514 being easily outpaced. Although not a fair comparison between an XC and more all-mountain bike it was certainly an eye opener.

Cairngorm Golden light Dawn Winter Snow Clear Sky All Mountain Enduro SCotland

We had planned a dawn raid on Burnside and were greeted with a stunning morning and incredible views. The bikes had been left outside as there was nowhere to keep them indoors, not a problem, but we hadn’t thought about the minus temperature overnight.

My drive train was frozen solid as were the pivots on Jonny’s Zesty, a little persuasion with some hot water and GT85 was in order to get the bikes moving again. This may have delayed play but was a good omen for the trails higher up and a preview of what we could expect.

Having been given a comprehensive trail map by Bothy Bikes we had decided to take a suck it and see approach. We quickly gained height with the fire roads being frozen solid with only the occasional sheet of ice to keep you on your toes.

We reached the first trailhead (which transpired was Richards Down) taking a walk downtrail to look before we leaped. It looked a little water-logged to begin with, but no worse than we expected.

Jonny mcconnell Riding Enduro Trails Lapierre High Burnside Aviemore

Rolling into the wet and stacatto start, the flow soon kicked in as a tight sinew of trail with roots and drops wove its way through the trees. The further in we got, the drier and more frozen the mud became and the faster the trail rolled.

The 29er was still making sense, even as the trail steepened with little chutes and wooden kickers providing plenty of scope to be playful on the bike.

Winter woodland frozen landscape

Buoyed by the flavour of the first trail we took a quick gander at the map and headed further up and into High Burnside. The plethora of trails was abundantly clear as we passed trail after trail ending and crossing the fire road as the road climbed higher.

We were surprised by the number and the quality of some fairly substantial park style jumps, they were cunningly hidden and immaculately dug into the edges of the fireroad, a few were hucks too flat, but not what you normally expect to find on a jaunt into natural trails.

Finding the next trail we dropped our saddles and let gravity take over, starting with a similar feel to the first trail, it soon provided a little spice with punchy little ups and exposed rock that was slick with ice. Not to mention the deer skull nailed to a tree at the end of the trail

High Burnside Deer Skull Scotland Mountain bike Enduro XC DH Trail nature
The trails have eyes.

Strava is a wonderful thing and Strava is a terrible thing, it turns every ride into a race whilst giving you a scale to measure yourself and your progress against. It also discourages certain behaviours on the trail, such as sessioning and stopping for a social or to allow a group to reform if it is strung out on a trail.

Ignoring the Garmins, we decided to stop if we found a good techy section or series of turns to session and see where we could improve. Standing at the start of Christ Almighty it was plain to see that this was going to be the steepest trail so far with the trees sharply disappearing on the down slope.

It wasn’t far into this brilliant trail that a series of steep rocky switchbacks appeared, the perfect place to session some turns, there was even a push up path. After smashing out some turns the differences in the handling and turning speed of the 29er HT over my usual 26er were becoming apparent. With more time on the bike you could adapt your riding style, but this steel XC machine certainly needed some nursing over the techier sections.

With the temperature still hovering around zero my front deraileur also needed a little persuasion from my foot to move and change gear. With a solid block of frozen mud immobilizing the mech I was reminded of why I love 1X drivetrains so much.

Having worked on line choice and braking it was time to move on and see what the rest of the trail had in store. Cleaning the switchbacks one more time I followed Jonny down the trail, the gradient eased off and a more flowing and relaxed character emerged. It was the sort of trail you could really enjoy a cruise down or if the mood took you, absolutely cane it on.

Back on the fire roads and with time moving on, we made our way back to the house, knowing full well whilst sampling the flavour of what was on offer, we had barely scratched the surface of the full riding potential of High Burnside.

Jonny McConnell Enduro MTB Mountain Bike

Burnside Profile