Sunday, 22 December 2013

When the opportunity arises ... ride it !

The bicycle for some is simply a form of transporting yourself from point A to point B but for the me its the reason too travel.

The formula I work to is very simple ... Find an event or a spot you want to travel too ... Contact as many local people as you can find .. Ride and sample someone else's local spot.

The cycle (no pun intended) is self perpetuating as the more you travel and the more people you meet the further your horizons are expanded.  Chat to a new rider for 10 minutes and already you have another big stack of possibilities laid out in front of you.  I believe as I travel through life that owning and riding a bicycle has opened up so much possibility and experience I would of otherwise never have had.

With my simple outlook to take hold of any opportunity to travel it was not a hard decision to travel with Grace to a conference in San Francisco.. While Grace furthered her knowledge in her academic field I would expand my knowledge in my chosen field.. path, forest, road etc.  With the destination set all I needed to find were the local riders and local spots to ride.

The event of extensive social media sites has made finding people to ride with easy.  Forget the seven degrees of separation theory as cycling is a much tighter knit community and you will no doubt know someone through only one or two friends.  In this case my nearest port of call was Errin Vasquez in LA, sure enough Errin was quick fire to come back with 2 guys I could contact ... Erik Mathy and Andrew Gentry Law ... and as an added bonus Errin could make a trip to ride too.  A plan was coming together.

On arriving in San Francisco the first point of business was to get hold of a bike and luckily Erik had a Salsa Vaya I could use, only a size too big but it would be fine.  The first taste of riding in SF was the West Bay area.  Kindly picked up by Andrew we made out way over to meet Erik and Errin at Erik's place in Almaeda.  From there the plan was simple .. roll some local tracks and streets and whenever the mood took us stop for coffee, beer, pizza etc.

Straight away the mutual love of 2 wheels and riding eased the conversation along as rides past and present were discussed, coffee was drunk and local small stores were visited.  Later that day we met with Lucas Winzenburg of Bunyan Velo fame and Gabe Ehlert, a local rando rider and talented designer of the Box Dog Bikes Pelican frameset.  A plan for the following days ride was established.

Mt Tam and German Sausage

Mondays ride started at the Ferry Building, Erik, Errin and myself were joined by Gabe and his friend Jake for a trip out to Mt Tam.

The ride started steadily tracking along the bay toward and eventually crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, again another cool moment afforded by cycling.

Mt Tam lays beyond the Marin headlands and as we rolled through the local towns I wondered when the climb was going to start.  Every little town seemed to have provided the inspiration for a Marin Bike name so I tried to remember what each model looked like as a mental challenge.  It wasn't long before we rode through a tree lined road to the start of the Railway Grade trail that would take us to the summit of MT Tam, both east and west summits !

The climb was a dirt road that never really had a huge gradient due to its previous use as a rail track for tourists to climb the mountain, but what the climb may of lacked in gradient it made up for in duration.

We climbed in the sun on dry trails and it really was perfection on a bike.  After a mile or so of climbing we stopped at the first view point, we sat for a few minutes and soaked up the view looking back toward San Francisco and scoured the hillside picking out the great network of trails that exist here.

From our first viewpoint we looked up and could just see the trail we were heading for and the forest service lookout point which was the first summit we would aim for, there was still a lot of climbing to go.

As ever the gradient was always steady, the sun was shining and the view and trail was superb at all times.  Gabe took up the front of the group and steadily we made our way up even opting for the steeper tarmac section to finish the east peak.

There was a a variety of bikes within the group ... a definite lean toward the rando steel set up with the vaya filling the gap between them and Erik's loaner steel singlespeed mountain bike :)

After the east peak there was still more to come with a short descent then the climb up the west peak .. after that though the descending started and it was as long as the climb !!

Swooping turns were coming fast as I tried to keep Gabe in sight, I watched his rear light glow brighter as we dipped into more dense wooded areas the further down the descent we got, always mindful of the drop in temperature and the potential for patches of ice.  Gabe quickly rode away effortlessly leaving us all to regroup at the base of the descent on a dam.

Discovering that at the base of the dam out of the reach of any sunlight a small pond was frozen so like a bunch of kids we spent a while throwing rocks down to listen to the crazy reverberation of rock striking ice.

All that laid before us now was another much smaller climb and a descent to lunch .. a German sausage joint with an entire wall dedicated to bike racks .. bike friendly ? very much so !

Stomachs full we rolled the last few miles to the ferry terminal and travelled back to San Francisco boat assisted.

Time for a final coffee stop was made then a roll back to the hotel ever mindful of the traffic and differing rules of the road :)

A great day out with great people and one that will stay with me for a while.

I love San Francisco

I was lucky enough to manage a few local city rides after that and also a day out just me and Gabe where we travelled south and took in the beautiful coastline not to mention another epic forest and dirt road climb this time with more serious gradient and an even windier descent.

San Francisco really offered me so much potential to ride as with little effort you can be beyond the city and in to some fantastic scenery .. something I am used to in the UK but trails and rides on a US scale are fairly impressive.  New friends were made and more riding memories were stored to be reflected upon at a time when I cannot ride anymore ... such a fantastic place and fantastic people.

I guess my biggest memory from the week was non bike related when I finally got the right place and the right time at Yosemite to ask Grace to marry me and she said yes !  A whole new chapter of life started from that point on with more planning, organising and travel to be organised .. but that's what we both love.

Thanks Errin for the use of your images, Thanks Gabe for some good routes and excellent company,  you taught me a lot about raccoons and a huge thanks to my new friend Erik Mathy for the loan of your bike and a few great nights out !!

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Winter Miles, Winter Smiles.

In truth the saying actually goes ‘Winter miles, Summer smiles’ … its popular in my local road club as a mantra of encouragement to get out during the bleak north east England winter as come summer those who have chosen the cosy sofa over the damp saddle will then be put to the sword.

I myself believe that winter smiles are just as important to set up for the coming years challenges. You come of winter deflated and demotivated then that’s the attitude you will take to your goals.

Cycling is such a diverse sport that with a few variations on the theme of a bike you can see out the whole year and keep your riding fresh. Those blessed with actual real seasons seem to make the transition from thin to fat bikes seamlessly as snow descends (annoyingly to those without snow well documented across social media). Unfortunately the weather here at home to coin a Guitar Ted phrase is ‘Consistently inconsistent’.

At best here we hope for dry, bright and cold though our default weather setting from October sometimes as late as April or May is wet, windy and generally bleak.

I could opt for the cosy sofa and pay the summer price, I could grind out the miles senselessly in all-weather at risk of losing all motivation (I often have to) but what I would rather do is look for those winter smiles.

The best way I can achieve my winter smiles is to mix up my riding as much as possible over winter though I don’t really want to wear all my bikes in mud and grit better to have one well-kept do it all machine, reducing time and money spent on consumables is also essential in winter smiles attainment… what I use is a ‘Do it nearly all’ machine.

There is only one choice for me when I come to my garage to go riding… my Warbird.

On the tin it says it’s a gravel bike though in reality it’s so much more than that. Its great on the road bridging sections of trail seamlessly, it rides efficiently enough to cover good distance, off road it adds an extra challenge to trails previously ridden on fatter tyres. These are not just traits only found with the Warbird they are also true of all bikes with some semblance to cyclocross bikes.

The great Belgium sport of cyclocross has bred a whole host of variations on what was initially a road bike with better grip and mud shedding clearance.

Not only can I race cyclocross every weekend locally fulfilling the desire to put on a number but I can also efficiently ride the trails to and from the race. My mid-week night ride is a mix of trail and dirt stitched together through winter weekend reconnaissance rides with friends. The Warbird is my do it all machine for winter.

Every weekend is now spent with an exploratory Saturday ride with friends … we hunt for new and interesting sections of trail and path previously unridden, if we have always turned left at a junction we turn right, if we spot an opening in the woods we go for it .. often with many comic consequences.

Weather and season don’t dictate the level of enjoyment you can have on a bike…. the bike you choose to ride, the people you ride with and the places you ride do.

As we transition from autumn to winter I am sure there are many winter smiles ahead to be had.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Its back !! low tyre pressures and skinsuits .. Cross Season !

A few years back I decided to do some cross racing, mainly just on a whim as it was something I wanted to experience more than anything.  Being an 'Endurance' rider on paper cross really shouldn't suit me.  After a few races and a steep learning curve I could manage a top 10 in local races .. I was hooked from then on.

Before I realised it I was watching Belgian cross races in Flemish while I turbo trained and had bought myself a skinsuit to race in not to mention investing in expensive tub tyres.  My life at the weekend was all about tyre pressures.

The season after my first I managed to race only up to Christmas having to stop to train longer miles for the Dirty Kanza 200, last season I couldn't race at all with Trans Iowa so early in the year my winter was all about the big weekend miles.

2014 is still a work in progress as far as my racing is concerned so while I decide on my race schedule I am taking all opportunity to get back out on a muddy field for an hour plus a lap.

This season I have been lucky enough to enlist the support of All City Cycles in the form of a disc based Macho Man to race on ... after subtracting a chainring and adding some aggressive clinchers the bike is set.

Last weekend saw my first cross race in near 2 years .. a fast and painful experience but one that has definitely reignited my love for the sport.

The race was local, the weather was reasonable and the course was technical in its content ... technical in a cross sense is as many off camber tight cornering as you can squeeze in to a mile long circuit.

My bike handling was dubious but my overall fitness was pretty good ... good enough for a 9th place opener to my season.

The All City Macho Man had seen 20 minutes of use prior to the race and out of the box it felt great ... the steel frame is super comfortable whilst the geometry did its best to correct all my poor line selections.

Looking forward to the rest of the season, getting to know my bike a little better and improving my results sheet :)

Images courtesy of Mark Straughan

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Birkebeiner Race Norway

Looking back through the blog posts I have made I can track a definite progression of my movement away from mass participation events toward more low key intimate events. I guess this is mainly as these smaller events tend to be the most challenging ... the tougher you make something the smaller the number of people who are gonna show to suffer.

So finding myself on a start line with less than 200 guys around me didn't feel out of place ... the fact that maybe 5000 had already started the event ahead of me that morning and over the course of the morning 11,000 more would be joining me was mind blowing.

Racing bikes affords me not only the opportunity to suffer with friends new and old but also fulfill my passion for travel ... nothing gets you more ingrained in a new place than being absorbed in to a cycle event.  If you love the outdoors then at some point you will of been alerted to the huge potential Norway offers, a nation of outdoor sport lovers over all seasons this country has a lot to offer.

When I was contacted by Singletrack Magazine about a ‘gravel’ race in Norway I was instantly keen to know more, then when I found out there was the opportunity to travel with a photographer to cover the event I agreed to do it, then when I found out it was the largest mountain bike race in the world with an entry field of 17,000 I was stunned.
17,000 riders !!!!  The Birkebeiner bike race is truly massive !

The event is a 94km race from Rena to Lillehammer using the network of gravel roads.
The trip started on the Thursday before the race with meeting my travelling companion, photographer Henry Iddon (, and 2 hours of wrangling with check in at the airport due to some confusion over the ticket booking as I had at the last minute replaced another traveler.
Having not met Henry we quickly eased into conversation with a mutual love for cycling, travel and general misadventure.

The Birken race organisation had sent one of the organisers, Jean Francois, to meet us at the airport and we were joined by 2 other journalists from Denmark and Finland as well as a representative from Innovation Norway who look after the marketing of tourism and trade of Norway.
Jean Francois took us to the town of Elverum where we would be staying some 30km or so from the start of the race at Rena.  With time to kill myself and Henry took a look around the town of Elverum with its interesting bridges and immaculately presented town centre, the feel of a clean living kind of place was very apparent.

Friday, bikes built up and time to go for a ride.  A leg spinner was organised by Jean Francois and a local route of around 30km was led by the chef of the hotel we were staying in.  We pedaled straight out of Elverum in to the forest that surrounded the town.  The route was mostly gravel with occasional bike path, the weather was overcast but still warm and the whole forest was absolutely silent aside from the sound of tyres rolling on gravel.

In the afternoon after lunch we made a trip to the forestry museum complete with historic chain saw collection and a tracked tractor for felling in the winter, the walls were lined with pictures of seriously weathered woodsman, Norway is a nation of people bred for the outdoors.
After the museum we traveled to Rena, the town hosting the start, to sign on for the race and it was here we got our first taste of the scale of the event and the organisation.

As we parked up on the freshly graveled car park we were told that in the last few years the weather had been bad and the car park had become a muddy mess. In the UK we would combat difficult parking ground by making sure the local farmer was on hand to pull people out but the Birken organisation just bought a lot of hardcore and surfaced the 1000 car parking area !

The Birken team is a permanent staff of 20 organising a number of large events all through the year the biggest being the bike race and the XC Ski event.  The sign on was in a warehouse they own, a team of volunteers distributed the race packs from rows of wooden racks to an endless stream of riders pouring in.
This is no fly by night race organisation the set up is permanent and a masterclass in race promotion.

Race day was as always an early start with another of our party opting for the first group off at 7.00am whereas I had gone with 8.30am. The race due to its size offers 67 start groups at 5 minute intervals.  My start time meant that Henry could start at 8.00am getting far enough the road to find a good spot to set up for a shot of me racing.

As we had time to kill while waiting for out start attention turned to our respective pack weights.  An added element to this race is the requirement to carry throughout the race a pack weighing at least 3.5kg.  This pack weight is a homage to an epic journey in Norwegian history made by the original Birkebeiners who carried a child to safety travelling on dangerous tracks via skis.  Obviously Henry with his equipment was well over the limit, Thomas the Innovation Norway representative was about to embark on his first race so had nervously over packed while the Finnish element to our group Petri had brought weights from his training belt.  My bag however seemed a little on the light side and with a possible DNF on offer if I didn't pass the finish line weigh in I grabbed a cobble from a ditch and shoved it in my Alpkit Gourdon pack for good measure.

The start of the race was textbook, nervous energy a plenty meant the early pace along the first few km’s of tarmac was high, too high for my singlespeed gear.  I was quickly dispatched toward the back of our start group until we reached the bottom of the first long climb.
As tarmac turned to gravel I found it harder to turn the pedals, fortunately so did everyone else in the group and I soon saw myself climbing past and beyond the riders I had started with sighting the stragglers from the group in front.  As the climb continued the weather deteriorated to low cloud and drizzling rain.

The end of the climb was proceeded by an extended period on the flat before descending, with no gearing to push on I was forced to just sit and spin and it wasn’t long before the hum of tyres on gravel could be heard.  I was passed by what seemed like a constant stream of riders. Damn !!

When the descending was loose and fast I had no defense against the faster geared riders .. when a little more care was needed on the descents I couldn’t afford to use any.
Every time we would reach a climb I could turn up the speed having some resistance on the pedals to push against and I would reel in rider after rider though I knew that once I had ridden over 60km then the course trended downhill to the finish and I would again be helpless against cassette and derailleur.

The course was on the whole a tree lined gravel affair but it was constantly punctuated by groups of supporters who had turned out even in the poor weather to offer shouts of support, cook up some meat on a grill and generally have a good time.

As I passed more and more ‘Km to go’ signs a nagging pain in my lower back grew and grew, I would normally expect some temporary discomfort racing hard on these long climbs as you try to muscle the singlespeed gear but this wasn’t shifting and I had decided it must be down to the pack weight I was carrying.

With 5km to go we past a XC Ski course and not long after we rode beneath the impressive Lillehammer ski jump, its height and severity of slope testament to the lunacy of ski jumpers.
Directly after the ski jump we rode in to a wide, steep and loose gravel descent.  My brakes hadn’t felt great for the last 20km and as much as the marshal waved his flag with ever increasing panic as I rode toward him I needed all the run out beyond him to make the left hand turn.
A few loose turns later I was done ... the finish village was huge with already thousands of finishers and spectators enjoying the food and drink on offer.  

Parking my bike up in the secure bike park I was in real discomfort as I rushed to undo my pack and get the millstone from round my neck.  As I lifted the pack from the point of my back where I felt the most pain I could feel the shape of my last minute pack edition ... the cobble !! The stupid thing had been nestled in my lower bike the entire race !

After a few trips through the finish line feed station and a shower I was back to normality and able to enjoy watching the elite mens race on the large finish line screen.  The exciting finish of the elite race unfolded as a lone solo rider who had broken away early was caught as he did his best to steer a bike with a flattening front tyre down the final loose descent eventually relegated to 3rd place.

A huge thank you to the Birkebeiner organisation and Innovation Norway for facilitating this fantastic experience.  I got to ride an event I may never have entered and not having experienced it would of been a real shame.  I met new people and made new friends.  I got to take a look at the cycling spectacle which is the 17,000 riders of the Birkebeiner.

Even with poor bike selection, less than perfect weather and a poorly placed cobble I am enthused about this event and already looking at the possibility of taking part in the Ultra Birken.  The Ultra Birken takes place the day before on a 120km course much more technical and exposed to the elements ... sounds perfect J

Thanks to;

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Taking the time to ‘ride’ your bike

Taking the time to just ride your bike ... seems like a straight forward statement but when I analyse how much time I spend just ‘riding’ a bike it stacks up to a pretty small percentage of the time I spend on a bike. 
To offer some clarity to what seems like a pretty dumb statement ‘riding’ a bike is to be free from the constraints of time, structure and pressure of a goal or target.

Most the time my cycling is focused... I know when the next race is and how I need to prepare for it .. this dictates what I ride, how I ride and where I ride ... its not free from joy as no time spent cycling is ever negative in my view as there are always a million worse situations you could be in but to just be on a bike with no agenda doesn’t happen very often.

Weather at the moment in the UK is outstanding ... our summer has finally arrived and after many hours spent in the cold and rain its finally shorts and short sleeve time ... so a long weekend was outlined .. Friday ride west.. bivi ... Saturday turn and ride back east ... bikepacking so no destination was required just a place to throw a sleeping bag down.

The only route planning was an offer of mine to ride a proposed section of a long distance bikepacking race route in UK .. other than that we had a map and a Garmin.
The Friday morning started with meeting Adam Cooke on Newcastle Quayside and from there we set off west.

Any opportunity to stop for a photo or a cold beverage was taken ... without a planned route the ability to impose any kind of expected timescale was impossible and pretty liberating .. even when you try and have an easy ride often it ends in you challenging yourself to complete in a certain time .. we didn’t want that here .. it was a timing free ride and exactly the unplanned nature we were looking for.

The riding was varied .. we explored the offroad trails we hadn’t previously ridden and generally just took a look around at places we would of usually gassed straight through in pursuit of a pre determined time or destination.

When time came to stop for the night we were close to 10pm and still with light we could take our time looking for a good spot to bivi.

The following day took in similar riding as we picked our way home exploring new roads and stopping at cafes we had never visited before.

Safe to say the mood was high due to the weather but I think the simplicity of just riding a bike with no agenda also played some part in the enjoyment of these few days.

I think without trying to offer any degree of forward planning this is the kind of riding I need to make extra time for .. no agenda and the only plan to be outdoors on bikes for a few days.

There is a time for racing and training but sometimes its equally as rewarding to leave the watch at home.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

‘Highland Bail’ forces a rethink

When you know a race or event is going to come to a premature end the mental process of evaluation starts and self questionning begins as to why you are finding yourself in a position no longer able or wanting to continue.

I knew I wasn’t going to be racing the Highland Trail 400 I just wanted to overcome my mental block on riding for multiple days self supported ... I have tried before at Grenzstein Trophy and though the legs are good the mind is always weak.

This isn’t my attempt to blog my efforts at the Highland trail as there really isn’t much to talk about there ... in fact its taken me so long to sit down and write this its kind of irrelvant other than the event forced me to have a think about my year again ... in short the event route I did ride was amazing and I would like to ride more of it.

So why do I think my efforts came to an end in Scotland even at at touring pace ... I can lay the blame at the door of being tired from Trans Iowa but in reality I felt pretty good ... I think I just didn’t want to finish enough.

At the start of the year or even more importantly before that I knew I would be supported by Salsa Cycles in the US .. a real honour for them to take the gamble to support a rider outside the US and a rider who if we are honest doesn’t see a lot of podium top steps .. what I offer is huge variety in my means of suffering.

So with a new sponsor to impress I went at my events calender like a hungry man at an all you can eat buffet .. with no reservation I piled on as many big events and rides as I could ... I trained hard and in all weathers .. when Trans Iowa came around I felt great .. I swallowed that big helping of Iowa gravel and came home feeling good ... but my appetite had been reduced so when I showed up in Scotland for the Highland Trail I was near full already.

After a few days of riding progress wasn’t fast ... trails were good and riding companions entertaining but I had ridden enough and with a new event in Portugal to ride in August I decided to just come home and reset ... no schedules or agendas ... just riding for fun .. its an absolute must and the only way anyone I believe can sustain an appetite for these events.

After a month or so of time away from focussing on events I am refereshed and freshly enthused by those I know tackling some huge riding challenges of their own.

Looking forward to Portugal in August and satisfying my renewed appetite for racing.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Trans Iowa Experience

There is no easy way to describe the motivation for wanting to ride a bike for 300 plus miles on gravel in Iowa, you either get it or you just plain don’t. One of the great motivators for me to come to the U.S. to do these ultra events is that I get to hang out with people who when told about an endurance race involving large amounts of suffering don’t question “why would I want to do that?” but instead ask “where do I sign?”

In my eyes, Trans Iowa is the pinnacle of gravel racing simply because of the quality of racers that it attracts. I have to admit though I was fascinated by thoughts of exceeding a triple century worth of gravel and the physical and mental challenges that it would put me through.

Months of the usual preparation were invested in this event; travel, accommodation and on the ground logistics are as big a challenge, if not bigger, than the race itself. After all turning pedals is the easiest thing in the world, whereas hoping that the guy loading the bags at Heathrow Airport remembers to put my bike on the plane before his lunch break is just down to pure chance.

Although I had no control over getting my bike to the U.S., thanks to Guitar Ted I was to be adopted into the Fuller family from my arrival in Des Moines, Iowa until my departure. Steve Fuller is a gent and an awesome host, his family made me feel welcome and without them life would have been a ton more difficult.

Different continent or not, the pre-race deal is pretty similar when traveling to a race: unbox bike, dial it in as best as possible, eat as much food as your can and rest as much as possible. This time was no exception with just the slight addition of traveling to the start in Grinnell, Iowa the day before the race for a pre-race meeting and meal.
I was so happy to meet so many people that I felt, through hours of online chat, I already knew, including the friends I had made from the Dirty Kanza the year before. I was feeling really relaxed about this event, with no pressure to do anything but turn the pedals for as long as I could and see what would happen.

Still, no matter how relaxed you are, I think the anxiety of just wanting to start gets to everyone. You have everything ready to a point where nothing can be changed and you are ready to go but yet a night's sleep is still in between you and the start. Luckily Guitar Ted. in an effort to reduce this period of limbo, starts the event at 4:00 a.m. in the morning! It was barely worth my head meeting pillow.

The Start
With 325 miles of gravel in front of us, you would think the start would be pretty steady; a lot of chatting and social riding for a hundred miles or so before the task of racing took hold. That is what I would of liked. Instead we started with a neutral roll out, drafting Guitar Ted's truck though the streets of Grinnel before hitting gravel a few miles later and immediately taking off as if it was a 100 mile race! Pace lining fresh gravel from the offset.

A little over fifty mile in, not far from the first checkpoint my Salsa teamate Tim Ek got a flat. I was quick to eject from the crazy front group and stop to help. This race is LONG and I wasn’t gonna burn myself out in the first few hours. While fixing Tim’s flat we were joined by DK200 race director Jim Cummins and our first group of the race was formed.

The Groups
The trick to surviving the Trans Iowa for most (including me) is to get in to a good group. This can be difficult as everyone has their own pace and race agenda but for the sake of sanity it is a must for me.
The trio of Tim, Jim and myself was great and we were riding at s strong pace. Tim has finished Trans Iowa multiple times and Jim was ploughing through fresh gravel like he was riding tarmac. We were making good progress and quickly began picking up more riders. Some were passed, some joined and soon our small group grew to 7 or 8 riders strong.

The dynamic of the race mean’t that the group constantly changed as we filtered in and out of convenience stores to resupply, but the constant was that Tim and I had decided to see this thing through together, so when he flatted for the third time I was with him again. With the same tire giving him so much trouble it looked like his race might be done. After what must have been the 10th check of the tire between us, Tim’s eagle eyes spotted a tiny piece of flint barely pushing through the tread and must have been scratching a hole over hours in the tube. Tim’s Trans Iowa was back on again!

The Night
As darkness fell and the temperatures dropped the group had consolidated into what would be its final format; Myself, Tim, my Iowan host Steve Fuller, Jay Barre, Ben Oney, Charles Parsons, Mike Johnson, Paul Carpenter and silent most of the time but always there Chris Wells. An eclectic mix of novices and finishers that came together through chance but were solid through the whole night.

The temperature took a few racers by surprise and as I would find out later resulted in the retirement of the other Brit in this crazy race, Vin Cox. He was simply too cold to continue even after raiding recycling bins for insulation. Tim managed to gather up some spare clothes from the group and when the final convenience store was reached he went all out and bought himself a Mountain Dew sweatshirt to see the rest of the cold night out through.

The Finish
As dawn started to break again we must of only had 25 miles left. The thought of the finish line, the realization that it was going to happen and the lift in spirits by the rising sun meant that peoples spirits soared and the pedals seemed to turn a little easier. Every hill now was a little race between myself and Jay Barre. While Tim eased back with some nagging knee pain, the miles went by easy as Jay, Steve, Paul, Charles and myself continued to play. Then just as we were playing on another one of what must have been hundreds of climbs this race includes, BOOM! Tim comes past absolutely on the gas. He had lifted his saddle a touch which had instantly cured his knee and he was set on getting the race done as soon as possible.

As we rolled up to the finish line barn we were handed a well earned beer and then the previous 325 miles didn’t seem so bad. The good thoughts prevailed, burying the bad moments– out of sight and mind.
In their fury to finish and race each other Tim and Steve had hooked a wrong turn as they finished a few minutes after to again more beer and congratulations, both well deserved.

My Trans Iowa experience could not have been a better one. Steve Fuller really looked after me, the weather cooperated and was fantastically warm and dry during the day and mercifully dry during the night. The people I rode with inspired me to come back over and over again. The group I was part of was rock solid and everyone of those guys contributed to me being able to finish. The Salsa Warbird I rode for 325 miles in Iowa and countless training miles in the UK, I could not of asked for a better bike for the task.

It's difficult to truly appreciate the enormity of Trans Iowa. Even having ridden the event I find it difficult to quantify the experience to anyone. I guess the experience is one you have to try for yourself.

A huge thanks to all those who helped in completing this phenomenal challenge. From Guitar Ted (Mark Stevenson) organizing this thing, and his helpers performing a great job manning the checkpoints, the Fuller family for looking after me so well while I was in Iowa, Salsa Cycles for not only providing me with a great bike (a Salsa Warbird) but also making me part of the Salsa family and allowing me to ride with great racers like Tim Ek and every single rider I met on course showing me that there others out like me willing to suffer to be rewarded by achievement.

Photos by  Imaginegnat

The complete version of this story and additional photos will appear in the next issue of XXC Magazine due out early this summer.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Ronde van Vlaanderen ... Cobbles and Bergs.

When people ask me about my Salsa Warbird I generally tend to tell them its a cyclocross bike .. its easier .. how do you explain about gravel racing when you live in a country that doesn’t have any.  The reality though is that its not just a gravel racing bike as its merits lend themselves to so many surfaces.

When a group of friends decided that riding one of the road spring classic sportives in Belgium would be a great way for a break and that the classic decided on was the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) there was no doubt that I would be riding the Warbird .. firstly as so close to Trans Iowa every mile I could ride on it would help my cause but secondly as the course is littered with many sections of cobbles covering climbs, descents and the flat.

The RVV starts in Bruges taking a fairly flat and fast route to the outskirts of Oudenaarde where at this point the fun starts ... the route circuits the city taking in as many cobbled ‘bergs’ as possible ... short sharp climbs some seeing gradients of 22% and mostly cobbled.
Our ride preperation was not ideal .. our hostel room the night prior situated above a bar with a DJ on till 4am with what seemed like most of Bruges taking advantage of the loud music and strong beers ... music variety was good it just would of been better without the prospect of 260km to ride the next day on what ended up being 2 hours sleep.

7.30am we rolled down to the main square in Bruges ... the weather was cold hovering just above 1 degree celcius ... like most sportive style rides the start is between certain times so no mass start ... we pedalled through the start and began our spring classic experience.
The pace was initially brisk hovering around 18mph as we bounced from group to group up the road catching the riders that started earlier ... we would just settle into a group that felt like about the right speed then we would arrive at a feed station ... out the feed station the pace would be up again as we again looked for the group that fit us the best.

As we hit the outskirts of Oudenaarde a quick look at the computer showed the first 80 miles had been an average of 17.5 mph ... a reflection of this flatter section of the course.
The second half of the course was far more ‘interesting’ as we started to tick off the climbs.
At the foot of every climb there was a sign board telling you the name of the climb, how long it is, the average and maximum gradient... 

...with a CX chainset on the warbird ... 46/36 ... my game was then how many of these I could climb in the big ring.

The first berg of note was the Koppenberg ... if you know of the spring classics then you know the Koppenberg .. I have riden this climb twice before so I knew it was a leg stretcher ... as we approached the climb it came just after a left hand bend and just before the bend you could see the gradient and the cobbles of the climb .. 

on this occasion unlike the previous climbs up it I got rode into by another struggling rider ruining my 100% record early on in the day ... a quick few steps and a cyclocross remount saw me ride to the top.

This then set the precendent for the rest of this ride ... the bergs and cobbled sections then came thick and fast ... disc brakes and 38c tyres were a god send as my progress seemed alot less laboursome than those on skinny tyres and superlight carbon bikes.
I managed to tick off near all the steep climbs using the 46 ring until almost the last which I knew would not be possible ... coming at around 135 miles in you hit the Paterberg .. a max gradient of 20% which comes in the last half of the climb... at only 350m ish long its short and sharp and I was glad of the 36 inner option on this one.

The final 15km or so again became relatively flat as we strung back out into a paceline riders dreaming of being Boonen or Cancellara riding toward a career defining win J
158 miles had been covered to the finish.

The ride had started and finished cold .. at one point touching minus temperatures but importantly had stayed dry ... the hard work of the first 80 miles had really been worthwhile getting to experience the later part of the course .. many waffles were eaten and that evening strong beers drunk.

Was this good training for Trans Iowa .. who knows but it certainly was another great day on the bike and the take home message was certainly that a Warbird is not just for gravel .. its for road, dirt, cobbles, etc J

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

'When i'm 64' ... my first AUDAX.

It has a route, a time limit a start and a finish but it’s not a race or a sportive … so what is it ??

…. its an AUDAX.

Since I started looking at longer and longer rides I have always had an eye on Audax as maybe not my main source of events but definitely as a means of getting in some good long rides and exploring routes I would normally never have chance to ride.

The events are relatively low key on the whole attracting a hundred or so riders ... there are bigger events like the London – Edinburgh – London and Paris – Brest – Paris but on the whole it’s a more relaxed affair.  The entry fees are modest somewhere in the region of £5 which in this day and age of liability and blame which has driven other events fees through the roof to cover insurances etc is a very small sum of money.

The principal is very simple … the routes are long distance which Audax UK classifies as generally over 200km … you navigate via route card or GPS … you visit controls which may be someone part of the organisation to stamp your brevet card or simply purchasing good and retaining a time stamped receipt from a specified town … and there are many awards to aim for in relation distance of events ridden, cumulative distances and cumulative climbing … it’s a beautifully simple system.

Audax is latin for ‘bold’ and those that were among the riders at my first Audax experience could certainly be described as bold.

My first Audax was to be the 200km ride ‘When i'm 64’ ... so named as it was ridden on or near the birthday of race organiser Nigel Hall.

The start was the small village of Aldborough St John and registration as I imagine is common amongst most Audax events was conducted in the village hall.  At registration a quick look at the bikes outside and the riders inside I quickly realised the disparity between the people at this event and those at my more usual race orientated affairs … there was very little form over function and peoples attire and bikes were all very purposeful .. and on the whole looked to have seen many an Audax mile.

The days weather was best described as consistently poor … we rolled out at 8am into rain and on the whole it would stay that way for the day ... on occasion it stopped raining.. as it was snowing !

I was amazed at the initial pace as we barrelled along wet roads everyone settling into the days ride and getting to know one another.
After only 16 miles I punctured and had to stop .. I had been slightly off route with the front guys as they were avoiding poor condition back roads (minor detours are acceptable) so after fixing my puncture I was forced to cut back across on to the official route and allow my GPS to earn its keep.
I was only riding for another 12 miles or so before the first control … all the days controls were ‘Free’ indicating no set control simply purchase something and retain the receipt as proof you were there.  In this case it was a Tesco filling station and I met up with riders from the Hambleton Road Club … leaving the filling station I stayed with these riders and would do so for the rest of the day.

Having good company and conversation was the order of the day as the poor weather robbed us mostly of the magnificent views of this part of the country … plus having 6 wet riders storm a cafĂ© on a Saturday lunchtime is slightly less embarrassing to the individual than venturing in on your own and being the only wet cyclist there J

As it turned out the guys I was riding with on the whole had ridden many Audax events so were an excellent source of info as to what to use and which events to ride.
I managed to take no photographs during the day so have to thank Paul John Manacourt for letting me use his images .. I think the following few shots capture the day .. cold riders huddled outside a convenience store after collecting their control receipts around the half way point.

.. and the Warbird taking a well-deserved rest on a railing J

We finished the ride in the dark … it took near 12 hours start to finish but was a hugely enjoyable day and I left with a massive respect for these very tough Audax riders.

I have decided to try and complete a Super Randonneur this year which is comprised of a 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km ride so first one down only 3 more to go !!
Thanks again to Nigel Hall for this excellent event and the guys from Hambleton RC for the good company for the day.

More info on Audax here. 

(Note: I apologise for any inaccuracy in my interpretation of Audax and welcome all comments to amend factual content J )

Monday, 25 February 2013

Hit the North 2013

There is nothing I like better than sitting at home with a cup of coffee trawling the net for new and interesting events I can travel too... I don’t let geography limit my selection of what I want to go and ride and I am constantly amazed by the creativity of events in their format and location.

With this desire to ride new events all the time its no surprise that I very rarely go back to the same event twice .. this is no reflection on how good these events are its just that with finite time and money and a ‘must do’ list of events ever increasing its difficult to ever repeat anything.

There are however a few events that I will continue to go back to as long as the organisers give up their time and usually money to put these events on ... Hit the North in Manchester is one of these events.
Hit the North falls early in the year in February .. the weather can be blizzards of snow or glorious sunshine ( February in the UK is a strange one) ... the course on the whole remains mostly unchanged ( this is no bad thing) and the format is very simple race for 2 hours and you ride a CX bike or a mtb or if you are fancy you have both just in case.

The course is so devised that the split between whether a CX or Mtb is a better machine is a close call and it literally comes down to the weather on the day .. if its muddy the CX boys will love it.. if its dry then the descents will favour the Mtb riders.

I went to the event this year with no expectations .. I would of normally had a season of cyclocross in my legs but as I am going to Trans Iowa and it falls relatively early in the year I have concentrated on just being on my bike as much as possible for as long as possible.
The start line gridding is one for riders honesty .. if you genuinely believe you are ‘Nick Craig’ fast or actually Nick Craig then you take up the first few rows .. then the speed of rider filters back .. I decided first half of the pack seemed appropriate for an unknown level of fitness.

The race started as I was casually looking the wrong way not on my bike with a jacket in my hand J  Not exactly textbook.  All that meant was that I had a lot of people to ride with for the entire race.
The course was perfect for the Salsa El Mariachi singlespeed ... alot of flowing stuff with a few short sharp climbs which weren’t too bad ... I felt great flowing round just picking up places as I went ... even the horrible muddy ‘field of dispair’ .. a long muddy push ... allowed some mid race banter between riders.

There is a lot to be said with racing with no expectation or goal .. it was a very enjoyable experience and I think my final race position benefited from my relaxed riding ... as I looked to eat a gel at what I though was an hour in I had been racing for 1:50 Hours !!

I was caught and lapped by Nick Craig 500m from the line on what was then my last lap .. no shame as the man is getting nothing but faster and is a total gent while racing.
Final standing was 21st from 240 finishers and a fantastic day out on the bike was had.

Huge thanks to the race organisers for yet again putting on a fantastic event and I will be back next year ... and the year after ... and the year after ... J

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Winter motivation ... El and Back

Winter for a cyclist is traditionally a time for laying the foundations for whatever grand plans have been schemed for the forthcoming year … time has to be invested into miles and miles of riding and from this investment comes the success in whatever challenges we have chosen to undertake.

The only difficulty is that here in the UK winter brings a whole host of challenges to hinder our forward progress testing the motivational skills of even the most hardened riders … whilst our American counterparts seem to effortlessly switch from autumnal rides to great adventures on ski and fatter treads in picturesque snow we get dealt endless days of rain. When temperatures begin to fall sufficiently enough for the rain to cease we are left with trails of endless sticky bike ruining mud and roads coated in black ice ready to pull the tyres from under you.

When an opportunity comes along to break up the winter slog with something a little different … a challenge not a race… a chance for people to gather and enjoy riding no matter what the conditions may be then you take that opportunity … for me this was a bike packing event called ‘El and Back’.

El and Back, based in Wales and named as it involves riding into the Elan Valley,  is one of many great events organised by Stuart and Dee Wright who amongst other things are the people behind the UK bikepacking forum

The event is beautifully simple and effective … there is no set course… you have a set of checkpoints with only one of those being compulsory (just so happens it’s the furthest from the start) and some suggested spots for overnighting … you plot your own route and ride at your own speed whether that be solo or in a group … there are no prizes and the only rule being if you do choose to sleep then it must be done outside whether in a tent or a bivi.

I rode the event in a group of four .. myself, Steve Wilkinson, Alan Goldsmith and Paul Pomfret … our machinery covered a wide spectrum … 2 fat bikes 1geared and 1 singlespeed .. 2 29ers 1 geared and 1 singlespeed…. I was singlespeeding a Salsa Mukluk all the way.

I must profess that in regards to route planning I was merely a passenger .. too many cooks etc so Alan set the route and that formed an informal starting point with alterations made on the fly as the weekend progressed.
The route we took for the 2 days saw us moving over varied ground .. mostly very wet and muddy ground but varied … feet were wet but the mood was good … rain subsided and was replaced by snow which eventually gave out to a clear sky.

The first day we covered a mere 70km though everyone seemed hard fought as defined trails on the map were non existent on the ground as we hauled our loaded bikes across tussocky fields and up steep hillsides.

The overnight stop was at a high point on a hillside utilising a phone transmitter mast as a windbreak … again the group was divided by chosen shelter with bivi bags, a tarp and a tent being used… our group for the evening had swelled to 5 with the chosen spot already having a tenant ... as chance would have it a friend and also sponsor Nick from

The night sky was exceptionally clear and allowed for excellent stargazing … the temperature dropped and sleep was fitful as choices in sleeping gear were in some instances quite wrong.  I woke to the sight of Alan defrosting his boots with his gas stove and Steve running up the hillside trying to warm up.

I made a coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag having left my stove nearby the night prior … then the unwelcome task of getting out into the cold and packing up every strap and buckle on the bikes luggage now frozen.

The second day was a much easier affair … we utilised familiar tracks and roads to the group so the day was near entirely rideable back to the start to find Stuart and Dee treating the finishers to coffee and cake.... 2 days totalling a meagre but thoroughly enjoyable 110km.

The conditions of the weekend were typical of the UK winter ... on your own you would find riding and training in them a laborious task but as a group with an event to complete the whole affair was a lot more pleasurable.

A big thanks to Stuart and Dee for this event .. a great winter motivator … a taste of what the year can bring.

I came away certainly more motivated and also with a desire to sleep out more this year … not to mention with a sizeable bikepacking gear shopping list !!

February brings a polar opposite event in Hit the North .. 2 hour MTB vs CX bike event .. a totally different flavour of riding but no less motivating to get out and train and make the most of every opportunity to ride … no day on a bike is a bad day.

Thanks to Paul Pomfret for capturing the experience with some great images whilst my camera curled up and died in the cold.