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Doc on a bike. NHS, Leicester Med School, Cycling Plus Magazine. LFCC Cyclocross Champion (old gits category). Riding's the best medicine. Follow me on twitter @awkwardcyclist

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Schwalbe X One Tubeless Easy Cyclocross Tyres

Decisions, decisions...

Before I got into cyclocross, I spent approximately no time at all worrying about tyre choice. I stuck a pair of Michelin Krylion Carbons on my road bike and basically forgot about them until the profiles turned a bit square-shaped 5 years later. Since getting into the muddy stuff however, I have spent more time obsessing about the pros and cons of various bobbly bits of rubber than any other part of my cyclocross set up. My current race wheels are shod with Challenge Limus tubulars and very pleased with them I am too - they perform excellently in the thick, slippery mud of the local cross courses. I do feel a need to handle them with kid gloves though. After the faff of getting them glued on (with the marvellous help of Nick Walling) I daren't risk damaging those lovely soft side-walls when out training on the rocks and gravel of the local bridleways. Practical they are not.

Tubeless Traumas

I've always been interested in the idea of tubeless for cyclocross. On paper I was attracted to the idea of being able to run low tyre pressures without having to glue various parts of myself to my wheels. I also liked the sound of being able to change tyres to match the conditions without having to invest in a garage full of spare wheels. A couple of years back I tried a set up using Stans Alpha 400 rims coupled with Michelin Muds. At the time there was a dearth of tubeless specific cross tyres, but I was assured this combination would be fine. Here I encountered the first potential drawback of tubeless - getting the tyres onto the rims. Try as I might, I could not get them to hold air. In the end a trip to South Wigston Cycles to take advantage of Graham's massive compressor saw me right, but this did seem to defeat one of the objects of the whole affair. The final nail in this experiment's coffin came after a fairly dramatic "burp" riding down a rocky and treacherous descent that saw me clinging on for dear life as the tyre completely left the rim. After a bit of internet research, it appeared that the Alpha 400s were not really suited to cyclocross tyres and I eventually sold them to a roadie in my club.

Tubeless Easy

My interest in tubeless was rekindled after my experience on the Three Peaks. The top riders all seemed to be riding tubeless set ups, including winner Paul Oldham, who used the Alpha 400s that I had (perhaps rashly) discarded. I found the clinchers I had ridden to be particularly heavy - something I paid for on the long climb up Pen-y-Ghent and was looking for ways to save weight for any future attempts. A timely visit to the Winstanleys Bikes website saw a bargain pair of American Classic Hurricanes winging their way to me - I just needed to find the right tyres. It was then I read about Schwalbe's X Ones. Described as Tubeless Easy, apparently these could be fitted with a simple track pump. Admittedly sceptical after my last experience I decided to give them a try.

The first thing I noticed about the tyres was the design of the bead. As you can see from the photo, this is significantly wider and flatter than a standard tyre bead. Fitting the tyre onto the Hurricane Rims took a bit of thumb power, but was helped by Schwalbe's Easy Fit mounting fluid - basically a slightly soapy liquid with a built in sponge to allow easy application to the beads. After that I was amazed to find that a track pump truly was all that was required to get the tyre mounted:  

After squirting in some sealant, the tyres have held pressure now for several weeks and an experiment in removing and replacing the tyre proved similarly successful. Could this be the tubeless panacea I was looking for?

First Rides

The tread on the X Ones is not an aggressive one - more like a Challenge Grifo than a Limus. I've taken the bike out on some rough bridleways and found handling confident in dry conditions and on grassy tracks but haven't yet had the chance to try them in some decent mud. I suspect they will find their niche in early season courses where I might be tempted to ride them ahead of the tubulars. I will post updates as the weather deteriorates! I am beginning to wonder if this might be a suitable set up for the Three Peaks (should my entry be successful this year), so I'll be giving the tyres some serious hammer over the next few weeks to see how they hold up. Watch this space...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Riding The Three Peaks - Article for Cycling Plus Magazine

I wrote this feature about my first attempt at the legendary Three Peaks Cyclocross Race. With entries for this year's event currently open I thought it timely to share it here. Article reproduced with the kind permission of Cycling Plus. Photos by Jack Chevell.

Explaining cyclocross to a non-cyclist can lead to some raised eyebrows – “so you jump off a moving bike and leap over hurdles?” Tell them about the Three Peaks and they’ll be measuring you up for a straitjacket. 38 miles of the wildest countryside Yorkshire has to offer, 3-5 miles unrideable and 5000 feet of climbing. There’s Simon Fell – the toughest climb in cycle sport - a calf-destroying grapple up a field too steep for even the robust local sheep. There’s insane descents with rocks, drop offs and hidden bogs to contend with. Oh and don’t forget that you have to do all this on a drop handle-barred bike, carry a survival bag and rescue whistle and give a donation to mountain rescue when you enter. You’d have thought all that might have put me off, but I love cyclocross and as Dean Barnett, Three Peaks obsessive and runner up in 1995 told me – the race is the pinnacle of UK ‘cross: Wembley, Wimbledon and Twickenham all rolled into one. June 20th, the email arrives – I’ve got 14 weeks to prepare for the hardest cyclocross race in the world.

In the beginning...

In 1961, 35 competitors turned up for the first Three Peaks. The race was won by John Rawnsley of Bradford RCC, the man who would go on to run the event for over 50 years. Even those 35 racers surpassed expectations. In response to a complaint in Cycling Weekly about this new “mad scramble” across the Yorkshire fells, John replied “we very much doubt if there are 30 riders in the country who will be prepared to climb three 2,500 foot mountains in just under four hours, with a total distance of 25 miles”. The race has evolved over the years – this 53rd edition covered 38 miles and attracted 650 riders. The basic principles remain the same, those 2,500 foot mountains still loom large and strict rules govern the type of bike that can be used. Those competitors from 1961 would have understood the benefits a full suspension mountain bike might have given them, but such technological advances are of no more help to the 2015 field. Only cyclocross bikes with drop-handlebars are allowed. This respect for tradition is one of the things that make the event so special, there is no big money corporate sponsorship here. With entries heavily oversubscribed and riders attracted from as far afield as Pakistan, the US and New Zealand, it’s a tradition that clearly works.
So how do you prepare for the challenge? This is where the great community spirit of the Three Peaks comes to the fore. It may be super-competitive at the top end of the race, but for the rest of us mere mortals there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together. Numerous blogs tell tales of previous editions and give out priceless advice - the excellent “ThreePeaks Cyclocross Blog” collating them all in one handy site. The magic of twitter meant I was able to get helpful tips from Dean Barnett and one of the race favourites Paul Oldham. Most of that advice could be summarised in one sentence: ride your cross bike a lot, ride it on rough off-road and shoulder it as much as possible. Leicester Forest clubmate and Three Peaks veteran Nick Walling was a bit more specific. “Carry your bike up hills so steep you couldn’t run if you wanted to.” Unfortunately, whilst the rolling countryside of Leicestershire provides excellent cycling, vicious gradients are not scattered widely - I was directed to the Iron Age hill fort of Burrough Hill. Steep ramparts built over 2000 years ago to ward off rival tribes provide a perfect training ground for calf-burning hill reps. I got a few funny looks from dog-walkers as I lugged my bike up the embankments time and again - in ancient times I might have been burnt as a witch. Trying to fit in training between my jobs as a GP and an educator at Leicester Medical School and occasionally spending a bit of time with my family was turning out to be a challenge. Finding suitable places to practice became something of an obsession, culminating in numerous visits to the Arts and Humanities department at the University. Not to seek inspiration in poetry or literature, but to take advantage of its 18 floors of stair-climbing goodness.

It's all about the bike

With body preparation well underway, it was time to get my bike ready. Having spent most of the spring upgrading my trusty Cannondale to a fast and lightweight race machine, I had to do a bit of rewinding. A punishing course featuring boulders, loose rocks, raised drainage channels, muddy bogs and 18 miles of tarmac would make mincemeat of my carbon fibre wheels and soft handmade tubulars. The race has been described as the most inappropriate terrain on the most inappropriate bike – I had some work to do. First up: the tyres. Schwalbe Landcruisers – a solid clincher built for commuting and touring – are the most popular choice. I found them to be fairly useless in mud and opted instead for the hardly more glamorous Smart Sams. With rocky descents making pinch flats a constant hazard, I was advised to pump them up to 70psi – a level of pressure sufficient to cause nosebleeds in most cyclocrossers. Cheap and chunky alloy rims with 32 spokes per wheel and my bike was getting positively hefty. To compensate for this I nicked the cassette off my mountain bike giving me the granniest of granny gears - a 36 tooth rear sprocket bigger than my chainring. Cross top levers completed the package enabling me to brake hard from different positions to allow some respite for my shoulders on the long descents.
And so to Yorkshire. Greeted by an unexpected sunny morning as we made our way to Helwith Bridge, it was obvious that this was no ordinary race. A hot air balloon was slowly taking flight by the carpark, mountain rescue teams enjoyed a cuppa and a commentator was getting the atmosphere going with an accent that made Geoffrey Boycott sound like a soft southerner. Signing on, I received my race number, had a small timing chip strapped to my arm and got on with my pre-race faffing. Survival bag taped to the top tube, Camelbak filled up, pockets stuffed with energy bars, I took my place at the start – a melee of riders crammed into the street with barely room to swing a cleat. 

It's all go!

Looking round I struggled to imagine how we could all get going without a mass pile up. It was all fairly amiable though and my nerves settled as I got chatting to my neighbours. When the start did come, it was significantly less dangerous than my last league race and flying along the fast rolling road to Gill Garth I began to think that this could be fun. Hitting the first off road section a grunt behind me marked the first crash of the race and reminded me of the need to take things seriously. I was going well as we hit a succession of short climbs punctuated with treacherous boggy sections and I made up a few places. Suddenly, there was Simon Fell to bring me down to earth – a string of riders disappearing up a tussocky cliff. Battling my way up the iconic climb it was noticeable how quiet everyone had become, pained heavy breathing replacing the previous chit chat. Not daring to stop for fear of toppling backwards, I pulled on the grass, gritted my teeth and dug in. Finally the gradient started to ease and I risked a look over my shoulder to be greeted by a magnificent view. Low cloud clung to the valley far below as bright sunshine shone on the seemingly endless procession of riders making their way to the fell. 

Fantastic teamwork from cheery marshalls got me and my bike quickly over the style known as Rawnsley’s Leap and a bit of post-Simon Fell euphoria set in. Not that it lasted long. It soon became clear that the climbing of Ingleborough was definitely not over, as another summit reared up out of the peat bog. Bike back on the shoulder, a rocky clamber in unsuitable shoes and the welcome sight of the checkpoint - I’d cracked it! One peak down, two to go and time to experience my first Three Peaks descent. Before the race, it was the descents that gave me the most anxiety. Technical downhills have never been one of my strengths, and the prospect of ending the race in my orange survival bag seemed all too real. Riding across the plateau, I tightened my brake cables and prepared for the worst. I needn’t have worried. After an intial, unrideable plummet, a rough track gave way to a wide expanse of moorland. Following the line of previous riders I started to pick up speed. This was actually enjoyable. I’d obviously bought a winning ticket in the Ingleborough Bog Lottery and stayed upright all the way down. Several riders were less lucky – somersaulting dramatically into a muddy bath as their front wheels sank deep. Laughing a little manically I careered towards the marshalls and the gateway off the moor.

Over the top

Back on the smooth tarmac I took the chance to refuel, shovelling in energy bars. A group ahead was making good progress and I worked hard to get on the back, shamelessly drafting to the foot of Whernside. After the rigours of Simon Fell, I was hoping the worst was behind me - the endless stone steps up the fell had other ideas. This was a real grind, and every rider fell into their own pace – for every rider that passed me another cramped up at the side of the path. Reaching a false summit it was back on the bike before an ungainly encounter with a kissing gate – the less said about that the better. Past the summit, another checkpoint and it was time for best descent of the whole race. Famous for its stone steps, raised drainage channels and boulders a-plenty, the long and fast rattle down the mountain requires constant concentration, but is no less fun despite that. Against the odds, I stayed upright again and on reaching Ribblesdale Viaduct and the welcoming crowds I allowed myself a “weeeeee” as I shot down the final grassy slope. Two peaks down, just one to go!

The road to Horton in Ribblesdale provided another chance to refuel, spin my legs out and take a turn at the front of a small group, trying not to notice Pen y Ghent looming ominously ahead. Off the tarmac, onto another rough track, my granny gear found its niche as the gradient increased. Fast riders were coming down from the summit and constant concentration was required to avoid a collision. Through a gate the gradient finally won and I started the laborious shuffle to the summit. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, the final peak was bagged and it was downhill all the way! A moments relaxation, a loss of concentration and I was grovelling on the gravel – my first crash - right at the end.  No serious harm done, though my saddle was now pointing at a somewhat alarming angle – not that I was spending much time on it. I don’t remember much more about the descent - it was rough, it was rattly and there were moments when I was hanging on for dear life, but I made it down and onto the best bit of tarmac I have ever ridden. 4 hours 21 minutes after that hectic start, the commentator was still in fine voice – a Yorkshire accent never sounded so good. I had survived my first Three Peaks in one piece, my survival bag and whistle unused.

Worth the pain?

So did it live up to the build up? Was it worth the obsessive preparation, the mysterious bruises, the “Three Peaks shoulder”? I’ve had some fantastic experiences on my bike down the years, but the atmosphere, the views and the brilliant riding mean this one definitely tops the lot. I’ll be back next year – I just need to sort out my kissing gate technique.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Orange is the New Bike

At the start of 2016 I took the massive decision to leave the GP practice in South Wigston, where I had worked as a partner for 18 years. I was offered the opportunity to work at Lakeside Surgery in Corby where I could devote more of my time to the teaching of medical students. It was a tough decision, made tougher by the fact that commuting by bike - something I had done regularly for 7 of those 18 years - was going to become nigh on impossible. Early starts, a large practice area and limited time for home visits meant that the 26 miles of travelling to get to work in the morning were going to have to be by car. Less awkward cyclist, more frustrated motorist. Salvation was at hand though, from a seemingly unlikely source.

Fold Comfort

I'd always liked the look of folding bikes. This was partly based on the fact that most owners rarely have a bad word to say about them, but also the ingenuity of their designs appealed to my inner nerd. Living 4 miles from my place of work and with plenty of bike storage when I got there, I couldn't really justify the expense of another niche bike. After the move to Corby was confirmed however the seed was planted. A bit of railway timetable studying and a change to my working arrangements at the University and suddenly I was interested in folding pedals, retractable seatposts and tiny little wheels. A trip to a local bike shop was organised and the chance to test ride a couple of models. First up the Tern Eclipse P18. A great bike, you could almost forget it was a folder. Familiar SRAM gears and 24" wheels led to a smooth ride and I was almost tempted. Unfortunately, those large wheels translated to a pretty bulky object when the all important fold was put to the test. Next up, the Brompton M3L. Now here was an unmistakable folder. Tiny wheels, narrow handlebars, Sturmey Archer gears. All very quirky - within 5 minutes pedalling I was hooked. This is a bike that genuinely puts a smile on your face. Collapse it down and it truly remarkable in its compactness - the simplicity of the folding itself being almost addictive. All that remained was to choose the colour.

Brompton a l'Orange

And so I took delivery of my newest and most eccentric steed. The happiness of that first test-ride has persisted and I still smile every time I take it for a pedal - especially if I catch sight of myself reflected in a shop window. After getting used to its twitchy steering and occasionally clunky gears, I found myself getting quicker and more daring on my short commute to the Medical School. That journey to Corby still needed conquering though. On a sunny afternoon in May, I took the plunge. 

A train to Kettering, with the Brompton on the luggage rack, so far so smooth. A quick dash across the platform, another luggage rack utilised and I arrived in Corby. Bike stored snugly under my desk, a surgery completed and it was time to ride home. 

Avoiding the business of the A426 and the A6, I opted for a cross-country route through the quiet countryside I know well from my road bike forays. This is not a flat route and it was with some trepidation I approached the climbs out of the Welland Valley. I needn't have worried. The lowest of the 3 gears proved to be just low enough as I ground my way up the infamous Goadby and Noseley hills. 

No Strava segments were ever in danger, but the gentle pootle I was committed to turned out to be one the most pleasurable rides of the year. I have the feeling that this could be the start of a beautiful friendship. I wonder if I could use it in a cross race?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Going Round in Ovals - AbsoluteBlack Chainrings Update

Racing in the Central League at Corby. Photo by Jack Chevell
I've been very impressed with AbsoluteBlack's oval chainrings. After fitting one to my cyclocross bike, I went on to obtain my best ever results in the last three races of the season, with two top ten finishes in the Central Cyclocross League. A total of £15 in prize money for the season may not be enough to build a career as a racer, but it certainly paid for the post-race bacon sandwiches. There are many factors that go into good form of course - training, fitness, preparation - but I've always focussed on those areas in the past, without the dramatic improvements in my finishing positions. There's no doubt that using the oval chainrings gives a feeling of more power through the pedal stroke and feeling strong in a race increases confidence (always a good thing). No matter what the reasons, I'll take the improvements and will be sticking with the oval! I've noticed there's been a sudden surge in my clubmates shopping at AbsoluteBlack which might scupper my chances of retaining the Leicester Forest CC Veterans Cyclocross trophy.

Let's off road

With the cyclocross season over, it was time to get the mountain bike out and start preparation for the XC season, in particular the Friday Night Summer Series. In truth, this preparation mainly involves having a bit of a laugh off-road, but I have been working on my technique amongst the fun and frolics. A few trips out to Wakerley Woods to practice on a series of berms has seen me get a bit smoother and faster. It's not the most challenging course, but for a mountain bike newby like me, it's perfect for a quick training session. Another AbsoluteBlack oval now adorns the mountain bike and again I have seen an improvement in my speed on the non-technical sections, particularly uphill. 

Hell of the North Cotswolds

Speaking of challenging courses, they don't come much harder than the Hell of the North Cotswolds. I was recommended this event by Leicester cycling legend Steve Hill. Described as the original and classic British endurance cycling event, this year would be the 32nd edition of the HONC. Riding my mountain bike after a 3 week no-cycling holiday, I knew I was under-prepared. Unfortunately I hadn't anticipated how tough the ride would be - 63 miles of continuous hills over some pretty rough and muddy ground. Seven hours later, I had climbed 6300 feet, crashed, got cramp in every muscle in my legs and generally decided that cycling was not for me. Time dulls pain of course and within a couple of days I was already thinking of entering again next year. A really well organised and friendly event with great food and a great atmosphere, it should be one for everyone's diary. 

The oval chainring behaved itself throughout, despite some thick, heavy mud and rattly decents. My chain stayed firmly in place and the drivetrain never let me down - it was my legs that caused the trouble!

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Faffing Continues - AbsoluteBlack Oval Chainring

I've blogged in the past about the efforts I had gone to in an attempt to improve my bike and hopefully improve results. Upgrading, of course, is an integral part of the cycling experience and when AbsoluteBlack launched the cyclocross version of their oval chainring, my faffing sense started tingling. I had been impressed by the performance of the round chainring that I'd adopted in my single chainring set up, but liked the sound of lighter and faster (who wouldn't). After a bit of ebaying I had a SRAM CX-1 chainset and thanks to the excellent AbsoluteBlack website, I was soon set up with a direct mount 38 tooth oval chainring. Very lovely it looks too...

Important though looks are, it's peformance I'm really after and here the chainring doesn't disappoint. My first test ride on the road and I was sure I could feel the difference - like riding with a gentle but constant tailwind. Get the bike off-road and that benefit seems to persist - a feeling supported by a mate who borrowed the bike for a quick spin. The pedal action seems to be smoothed out, less bouncy. The acid test really comes in cyclocross races of course, where I can compare with previous performances against my regular rivals. 

This season has been something of a damp squib, with family and work commitments leading to quite a few missed races. My first chance to try the chainring in anger came in the Notts and Derby CX League race at Markeaton. A muddy course with lots of twists and turns, I didn't do as well as hoped, although I noticed I was doing better than my rivals on the one long climb. An even muddier race at Darley Dale saw me improve significantly - the course featuring long drags in thick mud and less of the technical stuff. It seems the benefits of the oval are more pronounced when I can ride with sustained power and not worry too much about technique. The latest test was in the West Midlands League at Mallory Park  - a race that also stood in as my club championship. Lots of draggy, thick mud and lots of off-camber. This was my best performance in a cross race ever - 6th in the V45 category and winner of the club veteran trophy. I felt really strong throughout and was able to ride sections that others were walking. When I did need to run the lightness of my new set up really helped, with the weight of my bike now down to an impressive 7.5kg.

Photo by Shaun Campling
Some of that will be due to the training I have been putting in, but I'm sure the chainring contributed. I had no issues with my drive train despite three of the muddiest races I've ever competed in. The AbsoluteBlack oval chainring definitely makes faffing worthwhile.

Eagle-eyed readers may also notice that I have some new brakes - more about them next time.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Three Peaks - how did it go?

What a fantastic experience! Best cycling event I have ever entered. It was tough - the climbs in particular - and occasionally a bit scary on the descents, but I got round in 4 hours 21 minutes with a smile on my face at the end. I finished 246th overall, which was better than expected.

Full concentration on my descent of Whernside

I wrote a blog for Cyclocross Magazine on the lessons I learned: http://www.cxmagazine.com/3-peaks-beginner-guide-andy-ward-2015-cyclocross-race. Hopefully I will get to put them into practice next year!