Monday, September 29, 2014

3 is the magic number...

Today's blog is brought to you by the letter P and the number 3. But it's not kid's stuff.

There are three distinct stages in the life and times of a cyclo cross racer. There's before the 3 Peaks, during the 3 Peaks and after the 3 Peaks. Let me assure you, the place where you want to spend as little time as possible is the middle one, it's by far the hardest of all three. I am now in the third one, and having completed the course I am now fully qualified to dispense random advice about how to conquer this race. That said, if you're hoping to get yourself under 4 hours I'd suggest you find yourself another blog. I didn't even manage my goal of under 5, but we'll get to that later.

Let's rewind the clock to that other slightly worrying state, before 3 Peaks. I've blogged about my preparation already, so no need to bang on about all that. What I didn't mention was that I'd also spent the last year or so, well exactly the last year, asking anyone and everyone for advice about how to race this event. Fortunately for me, our club and team have huge experience in this department and are happy to share. To mention just a few, let's start with the DS of course (Steve), then there's Edwyn who despite his tender years is rapidly becoming an expert, Sarah who bagged the U23 last year, Tony Mills (York Cycleworks), Ian Caswell, Tim Evans, Paul Lehan (all Harrogate Nova), Simon Pateman (Saddleworth Clarion) and Phil Ingham (Pedalsport). Alongside these veterans of the race I've enjoyed long conversations with other newbies about gear and strategy. Put it all in the mix and I kinda knew what I was in for, I just didn't realise quite how challenging the reality would be (very, no make that ridiculously). Technical bike details at the bottom.

Fast forward now to 'during'. So I'm on the start line with 650 cyclo cross riders. Yes it's a MASS start. Off we go, I've been warned that the first road section is fast, as all the riders are trying to get to the first pinch point like, you know, first. Just like a regular 'cross, only with 650 of 'em! Crashes are also a hazard here, and we had some, but the squeal of canti brakes was ample warning to avoid these from mid pack where I was. I offered to pull team mate Joanna along but she soon got bored of that and let fly on up the road. Next time I would see her would be on the last descent after an unplanned over the handlebars incident.

Then left turn, onto the dirt and up we go: peak #1 Ingleborough. Following some great advice I took a look around me. A long string of riders (now walkers) carrying bikes up a very big, and very steep hill. How steep? I needed to pull myself up using the farmer’s fencing and dry stone wall. The strangest thing is the silence, all you can hear around you is deep breathing, no gears, brakes or shouts. It was probably one of the hardest ascents I've ever done (with a bike on my shoulder), and worryingly only one of three. As the Spanish say, poco a poco was my method, and bit by bit I did finally get to the first checkpoint. 

A big, steep hill
[Photo: Jack Chevell  @jackchevell]
Riding the bike again after such an effort is tricky, but you need to keep your wits about you 'cos there's all sorts of hazards. Nonetheless after a rip roaring descent (I think I was smiling at this point) I reached the Racing Team support crew at the base. Slick is the best way to describe this, a bit like an F1 pit stop I was fed, watered and off down the road chomping an energy bar and doing 30mph when I was stung on the leg by an insect of some description. I pulled over but the creature was long gone leaving a searing pain in my left leg. I re-joined the race, hooking up with the eventual Dad and Daughter winners for the road section to, you guessed it, peak #2 Whernside.
Happy days (Photo by John McCann)
Well, they say it's not as steep, but it's longer and the endless stone steps make it harder. Poco a poco once again, I made it to the top. It was not good though, I was slow. On the plus side the searing pain in my leg took my mind of the pain in my legs. On the downside the insect bite seemed to trigger a severe bout of cramp, and I had to stop at one point on the way down as dismounting my bike became impossible. Lots to remember on this descent, I think I used the Caswell escape routes once or twice, and best of all the DS was on hand to wave me away from the lethal stone steps where I would surely have perished. Another F1 pit stop, this time Heather dug out a life-saving bag of crisps as I thought salt would cure the cramping. 
Tireless (tyreless?) CXM support crew: Heather, DS Steve, Alison 
[Photo: Jack Chevell @jackchevell]
Back down the road I found some more riders to work with, but dropped them before Horton for the start of peak #3 Pen-Y-Ghent. This one is different in that it's the same route up and down. Different in this case equals danger with riders flying down at 20+ mph occasionally in control, but mostly not. But now you get a sense of how you are going as you see all the riders you imagined you might be close to come flying down knowing that you're still 30-40 minutes from the top. This is where I saw Joanna, and she tried to tell me she'd crashed but all I could see was a rider on her way down while I was still on my way up. By now I given up on my dream of sub-5 hours and set about just finishing. At the top one last gel and away I went, me too on the last downhill. A tricky one this, stone drainage ditches, loose surface rocks all make for an engaging time, but finally I reached the bottom where the support crew had sportingly stayed on to check I was OK.

I pinged off on to the tarmac and chased down two riders ahead, got on the wheel only for full blown cramp to set in on both legs and forced me off the bike a couple of times and pedalling with one leg at others. But after a few very dodgy moments when I thought I may not be able to ride on I found myself at the finish where Tony was changed and ready to greet me. Job done. Time? 5:04. '04! First question of course was about next year. Regular readers will know this was a one off. But '04! (?)*

Always an upside to everything, finishing a little further down the field meant the queue for the bar was acceptable so with pints in hand we politely applauded this year winners but of course went crazy ape for the U23 female winner, once again from Racing Team, this time Joanna Rycroft. A super nice way to end the day.

Joanna mildly concussed and blissfully unaware she's about to be called to the winner’s podium  
[Photo: Jack Chevell  @jackchevell]
So now I too get to bask in the glory of being a cyclo cross racer in the 'after 3 Peaks' phase of life. This is a pleasant place to be, the huge effort behind me, so my advice is to put all your efforts into the phase before, and train properly. Forget your bike, you need to be able to ascend, that's what'll get you (me?) round in the magic number: under 5.
Clutching that all important timing chitty: 5:04:12
[Photo: Jack Chevell @jackchevell]
* Weather conditions this year were perfect: warm, cloudy and best of all almost zero wind. Course times need to be factored against this.

Bike details:
Scott Addict CX carbon
Hope pro3 hubs, 28h Mavic open pro rims, handbuilt wheels
Shimano dura ace 10 speed old style shifters
Mix of TRP mini V front and Avid rear brake, Swisstop pads
Shimano 105 triple chain set using only the 30 and 39 chainrings
11-32 rear cassette, 105 short cage rear changer
Vittoria cross XG 34mm tyres, Conti 'cross inner tubes, 70psi

Spare bike: Unused
Punctures: None

Marks out of 10 for bike: 10
Marks out of 10 for rider: 7

Discs or cantis? With all the attention at the moment over brakes I'll share my thoughts. At no stage on this race did I feel I could have gone better with different brakes, they simply were not the defining issue for me. But it was dry, mostly. I'd put it like this, I'd happily have a disc brake equipped bike if it was not one single ounce heavier. That'd be my trade off benchmark. It's the deadweight going up that defined this event for me. You may be different. Yes you, get yourself entered and start a new phase in your 'cross life.

Clearly a massive thank you is due to the support crew of Alison, Heather and Steve, the many advisors and supporters both trackside and other competitors out on the route. 
Finally a quick thanks to the guys from OTE and Zipvit who took pity on me at the bike show when I mentioned I was doing the 3 Peaks and sent me back to Yorkshire with a stash of energy bars and gels. And to Jack Chevell and John McCann for the nice pictures. All much appreciated.

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