Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Ragley Bigwig - End of Term Report

No it's not a fatbike!! The Ibis 941 rims do look chunky though
So I've had a full season of riding, racing, holidaying and coaching aboard my Ragley Bigwig 29er and it's time to sum up what I think of the bike.

It is worth mentioning again for the sake of integrity that Ragley were kind enough to give me the bike for free but put me under no obligation to write this review or actually promote their equipment in any way so it's all 100% my honest opinion.

So what is that opinion?

The nitty gritty of the spec was dealt with in my previous review so I'm not going to go over it in detail here.  To summarise briefly, after a few months on the bike the frame, forks, SLX gears and brakes, Ragley stem and bars were all excelling.  The wheels, Nukeproof dropper post, Ragley grips and saddle, WTB tyres and the front mech and associated gubbins had all been swapped or broken for various reasons.

The addition of Ibis 941 carbon wheels with Maxxis Minion 2.4's set up tubeless along with a KS Lev dropper post and Southpaw lever, my favourite ODI Ruffian grips and a swap to 1x gearing had vastly improved on the original set up albeit with an added cost that doubled the £1550 RRP!

Ride wise, my feelings on the Bigwig were only enhanced during the second half of the year.  This is a remarkably capable bike.  In addition to wrapping up the Vitus Enduro series hardtail category I was away riding the arse puckeringly steep, techy trails of the Tweed Valley and the confidence inspiring nature of the frame just egged me to push it harder.  The remit of the Bigwig was always about producing a big wheeled hardtail that feels like you're sitting on a 160mm bike and in that respect Ragley have succeeded massively.  Having my weight placed effortlessly within the centre of the bike means that I'm constantly poised for whatever the trail dishes out regardless of how steep or nasty it becomes.  It is a downhill weapon par excellence and definitely the fastest hardtail I've ever had the fortune of riding.  I've been encouraged to attack trails to a degree that I've never experienced without some travel out back to compensate and the bike has soaked up the abuse with only an occasional cramping trail leg to make me back off.
The Bigwig is a podium topping machine
So what has changed from my mid-season impressions?

I was initially critical of the low bottom bracket height.  Whilst it obviously makes carving corners a dream and gives the bike a really stable feel, easing you into a low centre of gravity, it also means multiple stalling pedal strikes on the climbs.  Over time I've subconsciously adapted my style to counteract this problem.  I did put 170mm cranks back on and still think that the standard speccing of 175's is a big mistake but it's amazing how you eventually adapt to any bike's attributes.  I'd still rather have it a touch higher but it's not a major issue.

On the flip side I've actually begun to wish it wasn't quite so slack in the head angle.  Now I know this is all the fashion at the moment with 'longer, lower and slacker' seemingly tattooed on the brains of frame designers but there are times when it is detrimental.  I have noticed a slight 'flip-flop' nature to the steering which is a facet of overly slack frames.  What I mean by that is that if you turn it a few degrees from straight, it then wants to continue turning further of its own volition with no rider input. The end result is that on flatter trails I've found myself having to fight the front end a bit to keep it on line.  It's very subtle but has been increasingly notable as I've got totally familiar with all the foibles of the bike.  I could run shorter travel forks to help alleviate the issue but the 130mm Rockshox Yaris have been superb.  It's obviously trail specific and on vertical drops it's great to be pushed back on the bike but given that Ireland isn't noted for those types of trail it almost left me feeling a bit over-biked at times, a feeling I've never experienced on a hardtail.  Perhaps I'm just not hardcore enough for the bike!

Perfect bike for the Tweed Valley trails
The rest of the frame angles feel pretty bang on for me and the bike actually climbs exceedingly well for a slacked out, near 30lb machine.  29ers are superb on the ups and I can't think of many trails I've been unable to plough through without dabbing.  An extra bit of length in the top tube would be welcome but I never felt hugely cramped and adapted by moving the saddle back a bit further than recommended.

What about the wheel size debate?

It's a real shame to me that this still exists.  I know a lot of the memes are tongue in cheek but there are still a fair number of riders out there actively hating on 29ers.  I think it's fair to say that the majority of those have never ridden one of the new breed of big wheeled bikes and would join the queue of converts pretty rapidly if they did.  Here's the facts as I see them.

1) 29ers are faster.  They roll faster, they corner faster, they're much better in really highly technical terrain and faster in speedy technical terrain.  They flow better in rough sections with far less impact from stalling gaps between rocks and roots.  They climb better, grip better, in short, if speed is your goal then you're currently massively missing a trick if you're on any other wheel size.  XC racers use them and I confidently predict that within three years, if their sponsors allow it then most EWS podiums will be filled with riders on 29ers.

2) Their wheels are weaker.  Yep, they're bigger which means more pressure on the rims.  If you want to keep them straight and also a decent weight then you need some carbon rims or some well built aluminium rims with the right spokes at the right tensions.  I think bike manufacturers need to think about the quality of wheels on their 29ers.  I'd like to see tyre manufacturers keep up too and offer some tougher tyres for the big wheels.  I still rip holes in them at an alarming rate.

3) They're not as playful and that can result in them being less fun.  I really enjoy going fast and so the Bigwig has had me grinning from day one but on the occasions where I jump back on to my super light 26" wheeled Ibis Tranny singlespeed I'm reminded just how much fun small wheels are. With the 29er trundling over everything so effectively there's less need to bunny hop and jump sections but there's no doubt that throwing a bike about is a hell of a laugh and so if you value that playfulness over pure rapidness then the big wheels may still not be for you.

4) They close the gap between hardtails and full suspension.  The big wheels perform some of the function that suspension does, allowing the bike to stay fast over technical sections that would stall smaller wheels and so on a hardtail they have a huge impact upon the ride capabilities and characteristics.
Treat it like you love it, and I do love it!
For me, I'm a convert and can't see myself opting for a smaller wheel size ever again on my main bike.  I love hardtails and love speed so there really is no other choice.  I've also got over my aesthetic aversion to the wagon wheels and grown to almost love the look of the Bigwig.  I find that the more fun I have on a bike, the more I grow to love all aspects of it eventually!

So what's the final verdict?

Ragley have got a lot of things very right with the Bigwig.  It truly is a blast to ride, always attack minded and seriously fast in all terrains.  It inspires confidence on the downs and certainly doesn't instill hatred for the ups.  As a £1550 package it's well priced and I reckon it's much better than an equivalently priced full bouncer that will have more corners cut spec wise.  The Rockshox Yari forks are pretty faultless and the Ragley bar and stem are brilliant units.  The SLX/XT gearing and SLX brakes have been fantastic.  Given that my usual bikes cost four times the Bigwig's RRP it could easily have felt cheap but actually, bar the odd niggle (and expensive wheel and seatpost upgrades) it actually felt pretty damn good.

It's certainly not perfect.  The Nukeproof dropper lever is poor, the wheels needed a rebuild and WTB tyres are a mediocre choice.  Speccing 175mm cranks and 2x gearing on a bike with a super low bottom bracket and ISCG mounts is just bizarre.  The frame was just about 10mm short for me reach wise and I'd love to see my chosen 18" frame be just a touch longer in the top tube.

Overall I'd have no hesitation whatsoever recommending the Ragley Bigwig to anyone.  It's a superb hardtail that would make a worthy addition or brilliant replacement to a full suspension bike for anyone who doesn't aspire to win Enduro races outright or spend most of their ride time at a bike park.  The 2017 version has addressed some of my complaints with 1x11 gearing and a much better dropper post, and in stealth black it's definitely a looker.

I failed in my intentions to ride a stock spec bike for the year, the lure of carbon wheels and the need for a dropper post that functioned better meant that my Bigwig would actually cost over £3000 to replicate. That expenditure did hugely enhance the ride quality but I reckon that the 2017 version with a set of decent hand built wheels (something like Stans rims on Hope hubs) would be a stunning bike that would give change out of two grand.  I'd more than happily spend another season on that set up which given my previously long running insistence of only using absolute top spec kit represents quite a statement.

Thanks Ragley.  It's been a hell of a ride!

Chimay and Ragley, two great products! Cheers!

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Velotech Platinum - The Love Of Learning

I'm pretty handy with a set of spanners and have always found a deep enjoyment in the problem solving nature of fixing bikes.  I spent my teenage years and beyond working out how to perform sometimes complex mends on less than perfect components using tools that I made or adapted for the job.  Usually that meant a block of wood, something heavy and metallic and some hefty force applied in various terrifying ways, always fearing the destruction of the very bit I was aiming to fix!

In recent years maintenance has got a lot easier.  Luckily I've now got access to a pretty well stocked workshop through Tollymore National Outdoor Centre which means my mole wrench, massive adjustable spanner and small chisel don't get so much of an airing.  The internet has also proved its worth beyond epic edits and pointless memes by providing all sorts of geeky tech docs that can tell you if you're turning something the wrong way before you destroy the internal threads and junk your frame.  I was given the opportunity to formalise my knowledge a couple of years ago by undertaking the Velotech Gold course at Glenmore Lodge, the National Outdoor Centre for Scotland.  It was a really well put together qualification that allowed an in-depth look at the kind of fixes I was already performing but on some unfamiliar machines and componentry.  Ever since passing that course I was itching to complete the top level Velotech Platinum course and a few weeks back I got that chance as part of my job at Tollymore which involves maintaining their fleet of bikes.

There are a few aspects of bike building that I've never really done.  A combination of fear, lack of knowledge and requirement for speciality tools have prevented me getting stuck in to wheel building and frame preparation, leaving frustrating gaps in my knowledge.  The Velotech Platinum covers those subjects and so after thirty years of spannering I was finally able to enter the mystic world of Spoke Tensioners and Head Tube Reamers.

'The Lodge' has several major advantages as a course venue.  Firstly it's located in the stunning Cairngorm National Park with easy access to the forest trails and mountains.  Secondly, it has a purpose built workshop/teaching area replete with the most exhaustive array of tools and finally, possibly most importantly, the food is amazing and cake abundant!  For an off-season athlete it's like being a kid with the keys to the sweet shop.
If you needed any other reason to head to the Cairngorms!
Joining me on the course were John, a professional bike coach and all round two-wheeled expert and Brendan, an offshore rig engineer with a new suspension tuning business.  Combined with my knowledge and the vast experience of course tutor Alex it meant that there were bound to be some interesting conversations and learning opportunities.  I'm glad to say that unlike some courses with ongoing assessment the atmosphere was very laid back and the pace perfect with ample opportunity for learning from mistakes and asking as many daft questions as required.

Day one focused on wheel lacing and building, breaking down this voodoo art into a simple process of repetition.  We ended the day sat in the bar finalising the spoke tension on our straight and round wheels whilst enjoying a chat and a couple of pints.  Day two continued this theme with wheel dishing in the morning before we cracked out the real torture tools in the afternoon, cutting and cleaning threads, chasing headsets and bottom brackets and reaming head tubes.  This was the only time that the room quietened and the beads of sweat began to form on our temples as there truly is no room for error when cutting into frames, one cock up away from a very expensive mistake!  That stressful element complete, day three had us back on the wheels looking at different lacing patterns and reasoning behind them.  I really can't emphasise enough how enjoyable the course was.  As a bike related tutor myself I really appreciate the complexities of creating a casual learning environment whilst also subtly assessing candidates.  Alex did a great job and continually imparted fascinating nuggets of knowledge whilst not being intimidated by technical questions or the sizeable knowledge of us participants in various related fields.
I built this! Straight and round

For me, the course was only half of the reason I wanted to get a few days up in the Highlands!  With the Ragley in the van and the lights fully charged it was my definite intention to get out training and exploring on the plethora of surrounding trails.  What I hadn't banked on was John being not only keen to get out twice a day but also being Scottish National Time Trial Champion over distances from 10 miles up to 100 miles!  So my days began at 5:30am with a pre-breakfast tempo session up to the ski station before squeezing in a longer ride in the couple of hours between course end and dinner. With John on his beautiful carbon Focus Cyclocross bike and me on my Bigwig with 2.4 inch tyres at low pressures I was always going to be up against it on the gravelly tracks regardless of the fact that John is a total machine.  Luckily, I've been training on the bike loads since being rendered unable to run six weeks ago and I managed to keep John chatting constantly, getting in the open ended questions on the steeper sections whilst I desperately gasped for air.  Being out for sunrise daily was a beautiful experience and by a total fluke the weather remained unbelievably calm and settled throughout the three days, only breaking as I headed home, guaranteeing some interesting driving and a choppy crossing back to Belfast.

Icy mornings and wooden boardwalks made a fun combo
It's easy to forget how enjoyable learning can be, getting complacent about generally having the knowledge required to do my job and share my abilities with others.  The Velotech Platinum really re-kindled my love of exploring the gaps in my abilities, even within a field where I already have masses of experience.  On top of that it was brilliantly delivered in just the right style using the proper tools and equipment.  As a total bonus I met some great people and even countered the 30,000 calories of cake and biscuits consumed by getting beaten round the hills by a dauntingly fit bike coach.

Oh, and I passed too!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

And Darkness Descended...

I finished the session a little bit tight, particularly in the left calf but wasn't worried at all.  I've been training plenty and a bit of muscular tiredness was to be expected.  Unconcerned, I went about my business through the day and into the evening, vaguely aware of the further stiffening.

The next morning brought moderate alarm bells.  Both calves were stiff with a familiar sinister sensation of feeling full up, as if they could cramp at any moment.  The realist side of my brain recognised the symptoms from the long-term injury that blighted early season preparations, but unlike last January, this time I had the sense to cancel a scheduled tempo session.

Wednesday brought optimism, no pain, nothing abnormal and so I threw myself into a crucifying turbo trainer session, over 35 minutes maintaining a 180+ bpm heart rate, rivers of sweat on the floor and legs feeling great.  Blip over, I felt fit and raring, if still a little nervously to get stuck into the next day's run.

Thursday, I got 500m into the Forest Park, body feeling really good, savouring that finely balanced sensation of 'in the moment' fitness.  But the calves were all wrong and less than three minutes later I was stretching against a fence before trudging back to the van.  Injury confirmed, darkness rapidly descended, mood blackening with the sky as I drove a funereal pace to work, mind rushing with the consequences.

Emotions were in turmoil but dominated by utter disappointment at the possibility of missing an upcoming race.  I really want to race but much more importantly I need to run.  I suffer constantly from anxiety, a debilitating mental and physical illness for which mountain running is my only medicine, alleviating the build up of the pressure in my head and the pains in my stomach.

Anger follows, why me, why now?  I've worked so fucking hard this year, transforming my mindset, accepting the protracted pain of longer effort, embracing and on occasion even excelling.  If I'd overtrained, fallen, twisted or got sick then I could handle it but this just seems so innocuous, an eight mile training run on easy terrain at a relaxed enough pace bar a couple of unscheduled efforts.  A hot bath and some foam rolling should've seen off any resultant tightness.

This sums up my last week, turbo trainer and deep tissue work!
I defy any athlete to not suffer mentally at this juncture.  When emotional wellbeing is so closely intertwined with physical effort a dive in mood is an inevitable consequence of injury.  I don't want to be this person, shorter, snappier and surlier but a sense of burning injustice is pervading the background of my subconscious and I can't break clear of it.  Already formulating apologies to those closest who have to bear my disappointment I now wait for the blissful time when the darkness rises and I become human again.

When the simple process of rapidly putting one foot in front of the other attains such redemptive powers the need for self-regulation is vital.  As long as I train hard there will always be injuries and sadly they're going to be ever more frequent unless I temper my behaviour to counteract the opposing forces of increasing age and increasing volume.  Maybe I should just stop competing and enjoy the health, the fitness, the sheer joy of mountain running without the pressures but I understand, I'm a competitor first and foremost and without that personal challenge the rewards will never be as fulfilling.

All is not lost.  I can still train on the bike and for that I'm hugely grateful.  Sanity and fitness can both be preserved and it's only a few days until the start of the taper period anyway.  Physio and rehabilitation are in full swing and the eternal optimist in me still believes this injury may just disappear as rapidly as it arrived.  If I can do the race I'll be truly delighted, it's a brilliant event and a great opportunity to pit myself against better athletes than me.  More important though is to recover fully and ensure that sometime soon I'll be moving through the Mournes peaks again, battered by the wind and rain but loving every minute.

The only medicine for me, as long as I can get amongst them!
I only discovered running five years ago and am amazed how much it has come to mean to me.  It brings fun, health and relief from a sickness that has tried to blight my Thirties.  The competition aspect may well go by the wayside at some point but I want it to be on my terms, not enforced by permanent damage.  In the meantime I have to treat this recovery period as a learning process, mentally preparing for a possible time when the rehab is tougher, because recovery, just like training starts in the head.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Curse of Egotism

My Garmin bleeped at me signalling the first mile completed.  Glancing down I quickly absorbed the information, a 6:18 mile, heart rate 149, mostly uphill, all in order for a steady effort.  Rounding the corner the trail steepened and I should've backed off to compensate but instead without much conscious input my chest leaned forward slightly, knees rose and weight transferred to my toes as I upped the tempo and increased the pace.  Maintaining a casual, effortless facial expression I breezed past the lady sat on the boulder with a cheery 'hiya', the lack of heavy breathing despite the almost sprint speed highlighting my physical prowess.

The trail levelled and my watch insistently warned me of a deviation from the specified heart rate zone, the delayed reaction of technology catching up with the noticeable beating from my chest.  I admonished myself angrily, what was I doing?  Why the hell had I pushed hard like that?  This was meant to be a recovery run, entirely fuelled by my aerobic system, minimal effort and an opportunity for my muscles to actively recover from the previous day's intervals hell.

Recovering my composure and dropping the effort allowed time to analyse my bizarre reaction to being observed.  It certainly wasn't a primal, alpha male mating call.  I wasn't showing off my running capabilities as a weak effort at being attractive.  In many ways I wish it had been, at least that could be excused as a natural process, driven by the evolutionary requirement to attract the opposite sex, to secure a mate and guarantee the survival of the species.  Sadly it was something much cheaper, dirtier and indicative of an inherent lack of maturity, I'd accelerated past the walker because of ego.

These days I'd like to think I'm not massively egotistical.  I certainly used to be, breezing through my mid-twenties on a wave of financial and sporting success whilst located in the South of England where brash overconfidence is lauded, made it an inevitability.  Since then, a decade in Ireland has mellowed me.  The Irish have a mistrust of success to some degree and whilst they're still quick to congratulate, they're even quicker to ensure that nobody is allowed to take themselves too seriously, cutting egos down to size before they begin to grow and mutate.  I've embraced this mindset wholeheartedly, preferring to seek self-satisfaction over external admiration to the extent that I'm a bit embarrassed by praise, but on occasions that egotistical side can still fight through and become the dominant force again.

Winning breeds confidence, confidence breeds ego, ego breeds expectation and expectation breeds the fear!
Ego is a curse.  In running terms it has cost me the purity of racing for racing's sake.  I occasionally jealously watch competitors coming over the line together, way down the field but with smiles as wide as their faces, eschewing the sprint in order to share the final moments with their friends.  I'll have always finished way before, gnashing my teeth in a fast finish, often simply against the clock to put more time into my rivals and sew more doubt in their minds next time we line up together.  Don't get me wrong, I love to race, to compete and push myself, to move rapidly through technical terrain.  I delight in the camaraderie, sharing that indescribable pain of extreme effort and its unique bonding qualities that make lifelong friends out of new acquaintances, but I also love to win.  Winning fuels the ego and with ego comes expectation.

I'll rarely start a race unless I feel in peak condition because my ego won't allow me to lose.  I'll dig deeper, hurt more and grind out results rather than admit defeat.  And so I usually expect to win, but expectation can only bring disappointment as victories are anticipated and defeats are doubly gutting.  As a result I've probably missed out on some wonderful experiences and also probably further success because I was unwilling to take part for fear of losing.  This is ego and ego breeds the fear.

Often the races that I enjoy the most are the ones with no expectations, ones where I flog myself to death with no possibility of winning.  This season has seen me virtually undefeated but my favourite race was the Worlds where my body fell apart and I fought beyond the pain to just dip into the top forty.  For once I was the runner crossing the line way down the field, the relief of finishing far overriding any egotistical need to excel.  Perhaps I should only do International standard races?!

Shattered and satisfied despite defeat, the Worlds is no place for ego
Back to yesterday.  The unwanted sprint on unprepared muscles tore deep into my calves.  A pinpoint burning was a precursor to a wider tightening that developed throughout the rest of the session.  By the evening I was limping slightly and by morning today's scheduled tempo session was shelved.  Now I'm staring at a potential injury, disruption to my preparations and worst of all a possible inability to get into the mountains.

I'm hugely annoyed at myself for the frivolity of my actions.  Why would I care if someone saw me running slowly?  Why didn't I have the maturity to just maintain the correct outputs, keep the legs turning over and the heart in the right zone?  Why, at 38 do I still feel the need to prove myself to total strangers who don't give a damn whether I can run fast up a hill?  The power of egotism is strong and to maximise recovery, appreciate the truly important facets of life, avoid injury and guarantee my long term participation in the sport I love I need to keep taming its urges.

I'll think back to this blog next time I round that corner, and then probably still kick on regardless!

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Form Is Temporary...

Saw this semi-literate graffiti when driving home from a race last year.  Captured my mood perfectly.  Why is my mind so weak when it comes to self-belief?  I can really be my own worst enemy!  I was a bit sad when the council replaced the sign.
I'm worried...

I've not had a decent training run in what seems like forever.  I've lost that sparkle, the one that drives me on and convinces me I'm making constant progress.  My last PB is a distant memory.  Is this the start of my inevitable decline?

But what are you talking about?  This is periodisation.  Your last race was only five weeks ago and it went really well.  Since then it's been all about long and slow, building the miles again.  It's the same plan as ever. 

But the PB thing... I FEEL slow.

And so you should!  The PB's should come again after two weeks of speedwork, then you taper, then the next race.  It's always like this, why are you beating yourself up?

But that last long run, I had to actually stop and take on fluids, I'd nearly ground to a halt.

But you've just answered your own question you idiot, you were chronically dehydrated.  Getting your fuelling wrong was daft but that doesn't mean you're losing fitness.

But I feel so tired, sluggish.  There's no spring in my step.

Look at your diary, you did over 8,000m of ascent last week, and even more the week before.  And didn't you just win a mountain bike race at the weekend?  Relax, recover and start the speedwork as planned.

But that was mountain biking, this is running and there was no real competition, it was a gimme.  And I ache, what if the speedwork doesn't show results?

Hang on a minute, you've been sneezing, you're snotty and your resting heart rate was up this morning.  You're ill, and possibly overtrained.

But it's just a head cold, I've been on Google and read up, unless it hits my chest it shouldn't effect my training.

But listen to yourself, you've been doing big miles, loads of ascent and you've got an illness.  Hardly a recipe for feeling sprightly is it?!

I suppose you could be right, but what do I do?

Stick to the plan!  Couple of days rest, let the cold clear and then on to the speedwork and don't forget to rest and rest properly.  A decent nights sleep wouldn't go amiss.

Ok, ok, Mr Sensible, I'll do what you say.  You know best...

Damn right I do, you've been following this cycle for years and it nearly always works.  Why are you so insecure?

I don't know, it's just that I really want this next race.

I know and you really wanted the last race too and what happened there?

Yep, you're right, I know you are, it's just hard sometimes.  I get the fear... I'll try to keep the faith...

2 Days and One Decent Tempo Session Later

That was awesome, I'm back!  Can't wait to get back out, reckon I could squeeze a mountain session in later tonight.

Wait a minute, what about the recovery?

Yeh, whatever, did you not see my splits?

Give me strength!  Do you learn nothing?  Rest hard, train hard.

Nice idea, but I think I'd better capitalise on this form whilst I can.  Maybe some hill reps...

LISTEN TO ME!!  You need to recover.

Aye OK, maybe later, now where's my X-Talons...


Friday, 2 September 2016

Five Go Wild In The Tweed Valley

Every movement seemed laboured as I became aware of adjustments that normally pass unnoticed, fatigue forcing them into my consciousness.  Head turning on weary shoulders and hips forced to drive the bike into the steep and perfectly crafted turns.  My back tyre was skittering across the flinty surface, an oh-so satisfying intermittent ripping noise before I released the brake, just a touch earlier into each corner, daring myself to squeeze out more from this trail.  Finally I got it wrong, my front wheel drifting too wide on exit and leaving the sanctity of the berm.  Instinctively I hauled it back but the back end was already too upright, my sudden body movement destroying the equilibrium of cornering style.  The bike kicked one way and then pinballed me the other, explosions of opposing forces.  Realising the inevitable I relaxed and tried to pick a decent crash line but a large immovable stump stopped the bike dead and hurled me over the bars into the trees.  My worst fears were realised as my right foot stubbornly stuck in my clipless pedal, worn cleats refusing to disconnect, twisting and tearing at my previously damaged right ankle.  Shots of pain tore up my leg and the sudden silence was punctuated by expletives.  The mental stocktake began instantly and all quickly seemed alright except for the ankle which I still couldn't free.  Through the awkwardness of my position, head down below my feet and trapped beneath the bike I was unable to move and so I lay there wedged until Andrew arrived to assist.  A few more deep breaths, some painful steps and I was good to go again.  To be honest, on a trail that incredible it would've had to be a serious injury to stop me.

The crash was no surprise.  After five full days of the most mind blowing trail riding and having explored virtually every riding area throughout the Tweed Valley our bodies were pretty spent.  The sensible thing would've been to back off on that final morning and heed the warnings of the alarmingly common close shaves but the natural competitiveness and inherent confidence were too powerful and so we attacked to the last.  Reaching the bottom of 'Flat White' the smash was briefly dissected before we raised saddles and commenced the long fire road climb once again.  We were going to eke out every last ounce of energy before finally dropping the curtain on one of the best riding trips ever.
Davy shredding a perfect berm
Scotland has long been recognised as one of the World's best biking destinations with a perfect mix of amenable morphology, motivated and dedicated trail builders and some clever and targeted marketing placing it well on the MTB map.  It may lack the weather and elevation of Alpine regions and the glamour of Whistler but it offers incredible scenery, great riding variation and well thought out facilities for anyone prepared to make the effort to seek them.  With it being so close I really should've managed more than my two previous trips but the draw of the sun has always been too strong as I've chosen instead to explore many of Europe's other classic destinations.

This trip largely came about due to the overwhelming enthusiasm of Davy whose rapid transformation from paddler to biker over the last few years and recent move to near Edinburgh had brought into clear focus the need for another visit.  Having mentioned that I had a free week in August, Davy hit me with an irresistible barrage of YouTube edits highlighting the plethora of local trails and any resistance was rendered futile.  A crew of Northern Ireland's finest biking guides and one Dublin based architect were quickly assembled and squeezed into the van before loading on to the extortionate Stena ferry and making the short trip across the Irish Sea.
'We go that way!' Pointing down the epic Gypsy Glen descent
Day 1
A 5am start did nothing to dampen the excitement as myself and Brian collected Tony and Andrew who were already sat on their wall awaiting the pick-up.  The journey was pretty straightforward with the only challenge being keeping my eyes open for the duration as we cruised through the increasingly picturesque countryside towards the Scottish Borders.  The Kailzie Bunkhouse was our destination which proved to be both perfect accommodation and also ideally located between Peebles and Innerleithen in the heart of the Tweed Valley.  Davy had a suitable warm up loop planned for us, a steady two hour jaunt around the Gypsy Glen and so after a quick unpack we were straight on the bikes and up on to the open moorland.

Not bunkhouse facilities!

Unfolding the legs after a lengthy spell in the van is always a joy but in combination with the stunning views and steep, techy open mountain singletrack it put us on an instant high.  Trying to stay upright in the deep and sloppy ruts was challenge enough, especially with some lung busting rises but also attempting to simultaneously take in the vista made for some comedy slips and slides.  I savoured the increasing anticipation that accompanied the long climb, safe in the knowledge that we'd get our reward.  And what a reward it was, a high speed, rock clattering, bunny hopping sprint down a beautiful ridge line.  Like kids let out for playtime we whooped and hollered as we dived back towards the valley floor, tempered only by a burning throat from an ill-advised summit slug of poitin from Andrew's hip flask.  I'll have to learn to not be such a sucker for the ceremonial drinks!

Toothy grins and wide-eyed fist bumps were shared at the bottom along with hundred mile an hour recalls of sketchy moments experienced by all.  There was definitely no notion of calling it a day and so we took the short ride over to Glentress to take in the best of the trail centre.  Regardless of your views of man-made trails it's hard to deny that the 'Spooky Woods' into 'Super G' combo is a stunning piece of design.  Dropping in fast I took advantage of my Ragley's big wheels forcing Tony to pedal more than he wanted to keep me at bay.  We kept dualling through 'Matrix' and into 'The Bitch' before getting our first taste of the twisty 'off trail' routes on offer in the valley with 'Ponduro'.  Tight and slippery it was the antithesis of the sure surfaced sanctioned tracks and a perfect appetite whetter for the challenges to come.
Bunkhouse facilities

The early start dented our social plans for the evening although we did get out for dinner where an extremely inebriated chef managed to rustle up some decent nosh at the local steakhouse.  Back at the bunkhouse where we had the whole place to ourselves we didn't make a single dent in the beer collection as exhaustion sent us to early beds.

Day 2
This was the day I'd been anticipating so eagerly.  The reputation of the Golfie preceded it, no longer a locals only secret spot, the EWS and some extremely useful trail apps have made this previously hidden gem accessible to all.  All, that is who like their trails unbelievably steep, off-camber, rooted, rutted and physical.  The climb to the top was pleasant enough, initially trekking through the trees at an easy gradient with eyes bulging at the amazing looking ends and beginnings of various trails, it then steepened out on to the open moorland past an old concrete reservoir.  Views from the top were predictably breathtaking and we padded up whilst the boys discussed which route to tackle first.  With hindsight 'Nae Spleens' was a bit of a baptism of fire, rooty corners on to seriously steep drop-ins weren't for the faint hearted but we loved it and were chomping at the bit on the next climb just to get to more of the same.  Over the next three hours we span the climbs and sprinted the descents, chasing eachother hard and picking up the pace as we regained confidence on the uber-tech.  Crashes were surprisingly few despite continually clipping bars on trees and feeling the front wheels slide on the steep roots.  Ultimately Andrew came down on 'Flat White' and from my position right on his tail I couldn't prevent myself ploughing into his Cotic which had managed to block the entire trail.  No damage done we dusted ourselves off and resumed the race to the end.  Seven stunning trails, thirty kilometres and over a thousand metres of ascent and descent ridden, we were happy souls as we re-crossed the golf course and splashed the bikes in the river, pausing to laugh at Brian as he fell in before commiserating as his Garmin was lost to the current.
Look where you want to be, practicing what I preach!

A ceremonial post-ride beer was followed by several others as the Kailzie BBQ got an airing and we happily recalled the highlights of a truly incredible day.

Day 3
Davy inexplicably cut all the corners on the steep climb up Innerleithen's lower slopes whilst the rest of us opted for the mellower zig-zags.  Perhaps he wanted to burn off the thousands of calories of consumed meat or maybe with his prior knowledge of the day's ride he was just dying to get into the descents.  Natural order was restored as I burned him off towards the summit of Minch Moor, pausing to take in the view and the living art installation before stopping again at the top to savour yet another sun drenched landscape.
Glorious Minch Moor
A living installation
The initial trail centre burnout was deceptively tricky with a narrow, pedal grabbing rut tracked at warp speed with serious consequences for slipping off line.  We'd been joined for the day by Gordy, another Scottish ripper who helped keep the pace high through the trail centre jumps of 'Make or Brake' before the brilliant twists and turns of 'Green Wing'.  The trails on this slope seemed more reticent to drain than others and despite the recent dry spell they were axle deep in places, particularly on one bog of a trail that Davy tricked me and Brian on to.  The other lads had wisely opted to relax in the sun and eat pies whilst we drowned in the gloop.
The Inners slop!
 A couple more superb natural trails set us up for the most daunting and technical trail of the week, the infamous 'Too Hard For The EWS' which is literally what it was.  The rumour goes that the Tweedlove organisers decreed that rider safety would be compromised if the World's best were set loose on this vertical rock fest.  Andrew and Tony both had prior experience of the trail and through their descriptions I was a touch apprehensive.  They certainly hadn't painted a false picture and I took a battering through the severely committing drop-off corners, 'yeoooowing' with delight at each one successfully navigated.  Ultimately I blew out two of them and found myself tumbling down the hillside sans-velo, the inability to stop sliding highlighting the sheer angles involved.  Riding the rest clean and finding some flow through the most technical section I redeemed myself and shared in Tony's delight at his first clean run in three attempts.  Next time...
Tony enjoying cake at No.1 Peebles Rd

Buzzed up by surviving that challenge we somehow dragged ourselves back up to ride the bottom of one of the Innerleithen DH lines, a trail that matched huge compressions with floaty tabletops and entertaining rock drops and guaranteed more smiles as we headed off for a top class feed at the immensely welcoming Number 1 Peebles Road Cafe in the village.  That evening we celebrated Tony's birthday with another meat fest and the traditional Tesco Caterpillar Cake, a true classic of our time!

More cake!!
Day 4
Bodies and minds were clearly starting to degenerate as a sluggish start was punctuated with monosyllabic grunts on the drive to Yair Forest.  Luckily Davy's eternal motivation raised the spirits as we ground out the standard first climb, lost in our own personal struggles.  By the summit my mood had lightened significantly as I checked out the striking 'Three Brethren' and stared into the mist, hoping it would lift soon.
One of the impressive Three Brethren
Yet another quality trail awaited us, a delicious mix of moorland looseness and woodland singletrack.  The heavy water vapour splashed from heather disturbed by our carving wheels and made for slippery corners as we dived into the darkness of the forest.  Riding trails 'blind' always adds an extra frisson of excitement, braking late and decisively over unknown rises and rock drops, blowing out bends that became visible too late for tired reflexes.  I can vaguely remember a gem of a trail called 'Yair Man' and a general feeling that the forest was less developed and visited than the other areas.  It certainly has acres of potential!

Bikes were thrown back in the van and we made the short trip to Thornilee, an area that none of us had prior knowledge of.  Parts of it reminded me of some of the Northern Irish riding with a smaller elevation gain and some twisting and pedally sections.  There was no disguising the Scottish steepness at the bottom end of the trails though and we twice dropped into one of the best sections yet ridden, a confidence inspiring dream of a track with shapely catch berms that allowed an aggressive approach to the steepest of drops, slamming into the apex and being handily redirected towards the next drop with minimal rider input.  Feeling like heroes we trekked up for yet more fun before Brian's front brake decided that enough was enough.  Rather than admitting defeat, Brian discovered the benefit of riding with four qualified Mountain Bike Leaders as we all reached for well stocked toolkits and bags of spares, changing the pads and fitting a longer caliper bolt in an attempt to alleviate the issue.  Sadly a leaking piston was diagnosed signalling game over but by that point exhaustion was hitting hard and a trip to the pizza shop was calling.
How many MBL's do you need to fix a torn tyre?!
Day 5
We couldn't believe it had come around so fast, the hallmark of a great time being had!  We'd slipped into a daily routine of top class biking and laddish interaction followed by huge feasts and quality beers.  This last day required a bit more organisation as time was limited so we finished the last of the sausages for breakfast, packed up, cleaned up and were back in the Golfie before 9am.  The plan was simple, a high speed two hour smash and grab of our favourite trail selection.  We were definitely suffering the combined effects of upper body trail battering and leg tearing climbs from over five thousand metres of combined ascent so far and although we still felt fast, the boy's Strava times said otherwise! 
Taking it serious on the last day!
We managed to get in '3G', 'Community Service' and 'Flat White' twice before the tentative glory run on 'Final Fling' back to the van.  Miraculously despite the tiredness in our movements and Brian riding on just one brake and excepting my own ankle wrenching moment we got away with very few crashes, experience creating luck right up until the end.  Cheesy handshakes and man hugs signalled the end of the biking and all that remained was to wash the bikes, pack the van and head for home, the warm glow of an amazing shared experience keeping the smiles etched on our faces.

Returning to polite society following the mickey-taking atmosphere of the trip was like a decompression session and I was glad of the tinted van windows and loud radio to drown out the social commentary from the kids in the back!  Amazingly we were still all on good speaking terms right up until the end when we threw out Tony and Andy's kit at 11pm, another surefire sign of a successful trip.  Brian and I headed for my place and were unable to resist new found habits, horsing into the Doritos and last of the Belgian beers before collapsing, the comfort of my own bed guaranteeing the commencing of the recovery process!

Huge thanks to all the lads for a superb trip.  Davy, Tony and Andrew's guiding was impeccable and Brian's ability to design an office space at will was always reassuring!  Massive appreciation also goes to Ragley Bikes for producing a 29'er hardtail that excelled in all of the huge variety of trails we encountered.  I never once felt under-biked and although my trail leg took a battering my overwhelming love of the hardtail never wavered.
Clean it like you love it, the superb Ragley Bigwig
If you haven't been to the Tweed Valley and you class yourself as a very good Intermediate to Advanced rider with a decent level of fitness then get yourself out there now.  By my reckoning the riding was every bit as good as the Alps with the added bonus of a really positive attitude towards bikers from literally everyone we met.  It was great being able to walk into a cafe or shop covered head to toe in mud and no doubt smelling like death and be asked what trails we'd hit rather than shuffled out the door as quickly as possible.  Scotland is a beautiful and heavily underrated country and even if you don't share our luck with the weather you'll still get to ride World Class trails before chilling out in purpose built, biker friendly accommodation.  What are you waiting for?
Glorious Scotland!
Oh and just for the lads, I Googled 'worst band ever' and it definitely is Maroon 5, told ya so!

Loving the mud

Unsociable mushroom on Tuesday

Became party mushroom by Friday!

The diet was varied

Cheers lads!!
Steamy bog drying rapidly

About to get Enduroooooo

Disastrous half day closing at the butcher on Wednesday meant a Tesco raid!
And finally.... What the hell is going on here?!!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Emptying The Tank

I just broke a record.

Not, as sometimes happens as a by-product of a battle for the win between athletes at the top of their game.  Instead this was totally calculated, planned meticulously, specifically trained for and executed effectively.  It was one of my key season's goals and I achieved it with time to spare.

My 3:36:04 clockwise lap of the iconic Seven Sevens race took exactly two and a half minutes off Stevie Cunningham's ground shattering 3:38:34 from 2010.  I really coveted this record simply because Stevie's time was so unbelievably quick.  To put it in context, only a handful of runners have ever been under four hours on this course and only two in the slower direction.  Four hours remains the benchmark time to aspire to and in most years is also enough to guarantee the win on the epic 19 mile assault on the Seven Mournes' peaks over 700m in elevation.
Some FAST splits there but some average ones too
I should be delighted so why do I feel so flat?

As is often the case I've been left bereft of the emotions you'd expect to attach to such an achievement.  For the sake of therapy and future understanding I've decided to try to explore my psyche to seek an answer.  Here are the possibilities.

1) I'm just a miserable person

Very possibly so!  I'm a complete perfectionist by nature and am unbelievably hard on myself.  So far this year I've been left utterly gutted with a third place in my first ever Ultramarathon (despite successfully hitting the World Champs qualifying time) and pretty annoyed when breaking my own record on Slieve Donard at Ireland's most prestigious race.  Unless I feel I've got everything right then I'm unable to shake a deep-seated discontent.  Bizarrely, the only race I was truly satisfied with this season was the Worlds where crippling cramp and extreme conditions battered me severely and cost me untold time.  The pleasure in that case came from destroying my legs to get a result and also allowing myself leeway as a relative newcomer at International level.  The intention with the Sevens was to put in the first ever sub 3:30 time and so 3:36:04 fell some way short.  I guess this was a disappointment even though training showed me that it was virtually impossible for me lapping in this direction, with required splits that would be ambitious for a team running it as a relay.  Nevertheless, I went all out and managed to stay on target for the first third of the distance before inevitably fading and having to consolidate mid-race.  It was a gutsy performance that saw me actually get back on to 3:30 pace for some of the later interim sections between the peaks despite the headwind and increasing heat.  Plenty of reasons to be satisfied!
Record breaking but unsatisfied on Slieve Donard
2) It wasn't a real race

Well, as a round of the Northern Irish NIMRA series it very much was a real race with plenty of people out to push themselves hard.  The problem for me was that, at risk of sounding like an arrogant prick, I knew that barring injury I was going to win comfortably.  I'd been training specifically for it since June and had been round the whole route four times in the preceding three weeks, more than most Irish runners manage in a lifetime.  I kicked hard off the start line and probably effectively sewed the race up before we'd even run the length of the football pitch that it started on.  I knew that nobody would be silly enough to come with me, borne out by my winning margin of over 31 minutes. 

There's little doubt that competing against people is fun!  The camaraderie, tactics, panted snippets of conversation and extra motivation that come from running in close proximity to your rivals can't be understated.  The temporary bonds of mutual suffering are powerful and racing against split times, stealing glances at my watch at key predetermined moments definitely lacked that poetry.  As a result there wasn't anyone to share my experiences with whilst collapsed at the finish line, instead I had a quick chat and then headed to the pub to watch the Olympic Steeplechase.

3) Post achievement blues

This is a pretty common phenomena when you become so focused on a particular goal that it can't help but be an anti-climax once it's all over.  I did get fairly fixated on this race, dragging myself out on some awful days to scope the route despite zero visibility rendering the recce almost entirely pointless bar the physical aspects.  The completion, satisfactory or not of an all encompassing target can leave me feeling empty until the next one is ascertained.  In this case though I already know my next goal and therefore lack this excuse, in fact I can get away with viewing the Sevens result as a stepping stone towards greater achievements, something that makes subsequent training easier to handle.

4) The shitty diet blues

As previously mentioned I'm a perfectionist and leave nothing to chance when seeking to achieve a goal.  I simply don't see the point of doing things half-baked and won't bother doing a race unless I feel I've prepared 100%.  That doesn't mean that I don't sometimes toe the line carrying injuries, or feeling leggy from recent efforts but I'll never sabotage my performance through poor nutrition.  What this means is that I eat a very regulated diet, denying myself the 'treats' that most people take for granted, the upshot being minimised weight and constant training without dealing with sugar lows or hangovers.  Unfortunately the human brain has a cheeky and self-destructive side that demands childish rewards despite knowing that they're toxic.  Like the Olympians that posted pictures of post-competition McDonalds binges I can't resist having a spell off the wagon after meeting a big goal.  For about a week after I'll ride the sugar rollercoaster with ice-cream, beer and buns back on the menu.  Needless to say this leaves me sluggish, sleeping worse and therefore mentally drained and low.  It's not long before I feel satiated and the logical part of my brain regains control but in the interim I can definitely experience post-event diet related mood swings.

5) Emptying The Tank

This is a big one and probably the most important discovery in this mini spell of soul searching.  Most athletes will have heard people talk of 'emptying the tank'.  It's associated with pushing the physical boundaries, often resulting in diminished performance or if timed right, cramping and collapse at the finish line.  I'm very familiar with stretching my limitations, taking for granted the pain, dizziness and occasional hallucinations that go hand in hand with extreme exertion.  From the physical perspective the regenerative properties of a good meal, hot bath and a gentle spin on the turbo trainer are pretty remarkable.  It never ceases to amaze me that even at my advanced age I can go from limping geriatric to near full recovery often in little over 48 hours.  What I've never previously considered is the psychological damage of digging so deep and putting such excessive pressure on my body.  There was a period about eighty minutes into the Seven Sevens that required a huge injection of mental fortitude.  I'd come over Slieve Lamagan absolutely flying, on 3:30 pace and surviving well.  The subsequent half hour saw me pick an awful line, nastily turn an already damaged ankle and then fade badly in the deep heather on the short cut to Binnian summit.  Hitting the top at 1hr 41 instantly put the nails in the coffin of my 3:30 dream and with my quads unexpectedly feeling the strain I could see my record attempt falling off the rails too.  At times like this you can either give up or raid the brain's precious chemical supplies.  I always opt for the latter.
Tank emptied, body and brain at their limits at my first Ultramarathon
The positive links between exercise and mental well-being are heavily documented and indisputable but I can't recall reading much about the potential damage of digging so deep during races.  Following the Wicklow Way Ultra at the start of 2016 I suffered a deep mental and physical fatigue that left me drained and demotivated.  Undeniably pushing hard whilst unwell accounted for the bodily tiredness but disappointment at my performance almost certainly prolonged the symptoms.  With body and brain being so ultimately symbiotic it's surely unarguable that over-extending physically will negatively impact mentally and vice-versa.

So What's The Verdict?
The post-Sevens funk has left me already.  I've just enjoyed a brutal session on the bike and celebrated with a largely healthy meal.  Of the five explanations I've considered I'd say that on this occasion numbers 1,2,4 and 5 conspired to deny me my righteous sense of delight.  It's definitely been a useful experience digging deeper into the reasoning behind my post-race blues.  I'd be really intrigued to hear whether other people ever experience this phenomena.