Mountain biking is a tribe with a vocabulary all of its own.
Gnar, loam, brap, berm, lip, kicker, stoked, flow, table, gap, double, roost to name a few.
Some of those words, like the vernacular of any facet of life, have a tendency to be overused, none more so than the word epic. Epic is a strange one as it is so overused in everyday language, but it is more defined in MTB.
It is both a description of a feeling and of the physical geography a trail winds over. A ride or a trail can be epic because the adrenaline and speed mixed with the accomplishment of cleaning a trail, creates a feeling that can easily (and inarticulately) be described as “epic”.
A trail can also be epic due to scale of the landscape it traverses, the speed, technicality or sheer quality of ride that it offers. The scale and raw beauty of a landscape can be great enough to imbue even a modest trail with that ephemeral epic quality.
We mountain bikers as a tribe seek it out, we actively try and capture that epic quality and feeling. It may be like trying to catch and hold sand, but the experience of it running through your fingers can be enough to sustain you through many a work place meeting.
But one persons epic is an others local loop.
We swap stories of trails and routes, descriptions of the qualities of trails and enthuse over where is riding best. In hope that acts of positive karma will help us find that feeling for ourselves. But one persons epic is an others riders local loop, it is all a matter of location, experience and perspective.
if you eat cake everyday it will just become bread
The local trails you ride, as epic by someone else’s scale they may be, will become just another local loop by your personal measure. If you ride alpine singletrack every week, whilst the landscape will still be awe inspiring at times, you will, in time become accustomed to it and will expect that level of trail for your weekly riding. Likewise if you never ride groomed fast trail centres with man made drops and jumps, when you do it will feel pretty epic.
But ultimately, if you eat cake everyday it will just become bread. So how do we recapture that sense of “epicness“?
Leave your local, venture out of the routine loop and push beyond your comfort zone. The trail may be no more technical than your normal trails, but the unfamiliarity and blind nature of the riding has a habit of heightening the experience.
Does every ride need to be epic? No, but some of them should try to be.
I’ve been a bit quiet of late, and theres some good reasons for that.
Firstly I went on holiday with my Wife and Wee man, I had simply the best most relaxing time. It was the perfect break from the normal routine to spend some quality time with both of them and to leave feeling refreshed and recharged.
Secondly I’ve not ridden as much as the last few weeks I have been a little under the weather, nothing serious but another lesson learnt.
In March I had a fairly bad throat infection that had developed into not quite a full blown quinsy, but still had quinsy like symptoms. This had happened as I had tonsillitis and was a little run down, I had not listened to my body and had not let it rest enough. I had continued my lunch gym sessions and routine as I had the SES round at Pitfichie coming up, a race that I later pulled out of for other reasons.
By the time I went to the doctor I was suffering with headaches, sore throats, difficulty swallowing and even laughing was a little painful. All as I didn’t take the time to get over a simple sore throat.
But had I let myself recover properly in the first instance and taken the time off the gym and the bike then it wouldn’t of progressed to the extent that it had. Lesson learnt. Riding bikes and working in the gym makes you fitter and healthier, but if the engine has a problem when you start, running it wont make it better.
Thats not to say that I didn’t ride my bike, but there were a few rides when I really should of resisted the temptation.
I now feel back to full strength and ready to get back to the gym and riding properly again. Which is just as well as the clocks have changed and the evenings are lighter later. The local trails are also in absolute prime condition, a dry winter and warm April have dried them up a treat (even with the late snows attempts to dampen them down again).
A preview of one of those video projects.
The time off the bike has meant I’ve had less to write about but has also given me time to think of some new projects and posts for the coming months. I’m also going to make some video projects which I hope people will enjoy. But as always, it is something fun to make that I would probably do anyway.
Well heres to a great summer season and see you on the trails.
It was the Saturday evening after his World Championship winning run, they had T-Shirts for sale at the Mondraker pits. Danny Hart on the Front and Redcar Rocket it on the back, they were pretty special and very cool, only being for sale there and then. Thing is, I wasn’t in Val De Sole.
I saw a post he put on his facebook page briefly mentioning the T-Shirts, I thought I would join in with the social media storm and send Danny a short message wishing him luck and cheekily asking if I could buy one of the shirts. I thought little of this and did not expect a reply.
To my complete surprise, a few days after his win, he replied.
I like many other fans watched the live feed with building anticipation and excitement, it was a hard track, one that had taken out some of the sports very best. With rider after rider coming down the hill the tension grew and would surely get to our man. Then Harts run came, the beeps counted down and he threw himself at the course. Equal parts perfect precision and on the absolute ragged edge, it was a run that you couldn’t believe was happening. Then when he crossed the line and the light went green, a cool shirt became a prized piece of memorabilia. And to my complete surprise, a few days after his win, he replied.
A few quick messages and a Paypal transfer later and one of the shirts was mine. Now this might not seem like a big deal, it is after all, just a T-shirt but it is symptomatic of a few things in our sport, both very very good and really quite bad.
The level of access between the top players of our sport and the normal rider is almost unparalleled. Events like the Fox Hunts and Peaty’s Steel City Down Hill race are a prime example of this, what other sport can a normal rider rock up to and race the current world champion and other top tier legends? The barriers between the public and the pro’s are so small as to almost not exist. You you can visit the pits and watch the wrenches and support crew prep the racers on race morning.
Now DH is like the F1 of mountain biking and when you compare the access between them it is quite startling, but truly refreshing and something that our sport should be applauded.
And sadly, me buying a shirt from Hart via Facebook is also practically like buying merchandise from the lead singer of a band outside of a small venue gig, except he is the reigning world champion. The fact that our sport is, relatively speaking, cash poor when it comes to the pros salaries and bonuses is a travesty. Even for the biggest names. Now Hart wasn’t selling the shirts to put some money in the meter, he does it because he a humble down to earth guy who takes time for his fans and supporters. But many racers sell similar wares because they need to fund the vans drive to the next round of the season.
I would hope that if downhill was ever televised again and money came into the sport, that it would filter down to the riders, and that the velvet rope of other sports (and cycling disciplines) wouldn’t descend between rider and fan.
Back to work with a bump, sort of. I work at a university so returning to work after my paternity leave during the summer break meant I had a gentle reintroduction to the workplace. With no classes or students to keep the mind occupied I thought I would take the opportunity to get some consistent and planed training done in the run up to the Tour De Ben.
I had a 10 week period in which to build some power and overall conditioning, not a huge amount of time but not so little that good progress couldn’t be made.
I broke the time into two 4 week cycles with a unloading rest week in between and a final tapering week in the run up to race day. Each week gradually built on the intensity or volume of the previous week mixing intervals and weight training to get the most out of the available time I had for training. I predominantly would be getting gym time in during my normal lunch hour, this meant that 45 minute sessions up to 5 times a week would be the back bone of the plan.
Each week has two weight training days spaced 48 to 72 hours apart to allow for recovery whilst getting the best impact for those workouts, with interval sessions on a spin bike making up the remaining three gym sessions. Outside of the gym, I tried to get one or two rides on the bike a week but with the quickly darkening nights these rides were no more than 2 hours tops.
by the time this all added up I am able to get between 6 to 7 and a half hours training in a week. It soon adds up and I have been trying hard to structure the week so I was getting quality, as I wouldn’t have the volume training of longer rides.
The weight training days also incorporated floor and free weight workout routines from James Wilson. James runs a website called Mountain Bike strength Training Systems where you can purchase training plans and workout routines that are specific to mountain biking and specific types of MTB racing. He has been the fitness couch to an impressive roster of riders ranging from US National winning XC riders through to Aaron Gwin. The online part of his business means that the average rider can also get access to a structured plan for training for our sport.
For people like myself who are not able to commit that amount of time, he has a series of 15 minute workouts which he calls his “15 Minute Trail Rider Tune Ups” 0r 15M-TRTU, not the snappiest of titles. These sport specific routines focus on building mobility and working the muscle groups in areas that relate specifically to areas of being on the bike, like cornering and standing pedaling. I am enjoying the routines and I am finding it a fairly easy 15 minutes to add onto normal workouts or when the wee man is asleep.
All said and done whilst I feel I am in better condition for all this, the true test comes on the 24th when I try to beat my previous best time. If all goes well or I’m mad enough to try, I might make my secret goal for the day. The good thing about a secret target is there are no expectations and regardless of your time when people ask if you did you can just say “yes…”.
A evenings ride towards the end of summer, some final days of late northern light to play in, but be sure to be home before the street lights are on.
With the wee man settled and the chores done there was still enough light for a stolen hours or so of riding, yearning for some wilder terrain than the local woods (the local woods has some fairly wild trails mind you) I loaded up the wagon for a raid on the infamous Fungle Road single track.
The Fungle Road is an old drovers road that links Aboyne and northern Deeside with Tarfside and Glen Esk, it is a classic stretch of natural trail mixing rough LRT with single track, fast descents and steep, persistent climbs. but when people refer to the Fungle singletrack, they mean a ribbon of perfect natural trail that nestles between Ballochan and Aboyne. It is the kind of rare naturally occurring single track that perfectly blends flow, speed and light tech with some drops to keep you sharp. It is the kind of trail that when you have a clean run, it instantly becomes your new favourite trail.
Parking up at the Forest of Birse Kirk I set off with Sven for a hardtail mission, this ride was about attacking the climbs and getting some pace on a prolonged natural trail, it certainly wasn’t going to be volume training but it would be a fun jaunt. The sky was showing the first signs of dusk as the hillsides darkened with slithers of golden light streaking illuminated ribbons across the heather. It wont be long until the get you home lights will be mandatory kit once more.
The south climb from Birse castle is very much the lesser of the two options, it may only be a cat4 climb, but on a very sandy track which only adds to the effort. Thinking ahead to the climb out from Mamore lodge in a few weeks time, I concentrated on keeping my weight balanced and the power even, ground it out and focused on the work. Once your elevation is earned its a quickly sprint to the trailhead, the sky’s where still light but the ground was quickly darkening as the late evening light was starting to pale out.
Dropping into the trail I rode within myself to begin with, having not been here in over a year, a lot might have changed in that time, would it still be passable or even worth riding? I soon forgot these question and let the bike run as the trail was exactly as I remembered it. Speed was easily gained with a narrow heather dodging rut giving way to rocky stream bed followed soon after by a root strewn, drop filled wooded trail. The bike was flying, a full sus would of been faster but the connection of a hardtail on natural terrain is just indescribable.
that deflating feeling, like the battery is just running out as the bunny claps the cymbals lethargically one, last, time.
The sensation of every once of power, every hip shift, wrist flick all having a direct and instantaneous output on the bike as you feel the trail through your hands and feet. Looking ahead and working as one with the bike to make the trail as smooth and fast as possible. A full sus may of been faster, but the connection of a hardtail on natural terrain is just indescribable and whilst a well set up full susser can feel like this, those who know, know.
But like all those who “know” know, that deflating feeling, like the battery is just running out as the bunny claps the cymbals lethargically one, last, time. Tubeless fails can happen to the best of us.
Sorting the puncture took more air than I would like and far more time to seal than I had. CO2 carts’ and mini pumps combined as I resorted to walking out of the trail hoping that by shouldering the bike and leaving the pierced section of tyre at the bottom of the wheel would bath it in enough sealant to stem the leak, I hoped. Reaching the landrover track the hills where dark and the sky threatening, the hiss from the rear wheel had ceased but the tyre was almost flat, pumping it back up to road bike pressures and cursing my misfortune I was ready to try pedalling. The air seemed to be holding and some how my phone had signal, I sent a message to my wife asking her to still love me when I got home much later than I had promised and tentatively saddled up and slowly built my speed to make sure things where as they should be.
Soon I was careening down what I had just climbed, skipping over water bars and dancing round rocks, trying to stop myself having to much fun incase the sealant failed and the rear gave way again. Cautions aside I was soon passing Birse Castle and scaring the livestock as I made it back to the carpark. What was meant as a short training ride had escalated into more of a training exercise than anything else, however practising remote servicing in anger is never a bad skill to keep sharp.
That said I got a unexpected personal best on the climb landing a 20 out of 196, and whilst I wasn’t going to be PB’ing the singletrack on the hard tail, I was feeling fast and the bike was running smooth, silver linings and all that.
Standing silently behind Clachnaben, Mount Battock looks a innocuous little peak behind its more popular sibling.
Not one to be underestimated, it is nearly 200m higher than Clachers and enjoys unbroken views in all directions. Sometimes, all you need is a proper hardtail hoof, a stiff climb and to go 40-50km on the way back down.
On these sorts of rides I like to listen to music, tunes help me keep a good rhythm in the climbs and off the anchors on the way back down. But a playlist on random can be a funny thing, when your going full gas and Belle and Sebastian’s “The Boy With the Arab Strap” comes on, it is a little incongruous to be on the attack, if you know what I mean.
So heres the soundtrack to a ride, a great climb (almost) up a stonking big hill and a fast charge back down.
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.
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
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.
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!
Whilst the day started overcast the clouds soon boiled off and with the mercury rising, keeping fluids up was quickly becoming a priority.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fresh gear cable and index deraileur
Cockpit and brakes
Fresh brake pads
Fork lower service and oil change
Wheels and Tyres
True and tension wheels
Fresh tubeless sealant
Service hubs and bearings
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Assymetric tooth profile.
Impeccable CNC machining.
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.
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.