Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Eye Of The Beholder

The old adage is undeniably true regarding beauty and the eye of the beholder.  The visual appearance of fellow humans, animals, inanimate objects and everything that we encounter can only be viewed with our own eyes and processed with our own brains.  For this reason it's hard not to laugh at the perpetually inane Pinkbike comment fights that go along the lines of *;

'Oh man that bike is ugly'
'Have you seen your face?!'
'Ugly and expensive... Who the H would pay $5500 canadian for a hardtail?'
'Looks like it'd be a laugh to ride which is what it's all about isn't it?'

*These are excerpts from an actual exchange http://www.pinkbike.com/news/2017-btr-ranger-amp-build-options.html

Now whilst this banter is a touch childish it's really just people spouting their personal opinions on what is essentially a subjective matter.  These aren't arguments that anyone has any possibility or even intention of winning, just bored people having verbal swings at eachother about something that is inherently pretty irrelevant and non-offensive.  And the thread continued in this vein until it strayed on to slightly different territory and at that point my laughter ceased...

The bike that sparked the lively debate.  To me it's ugly as sin, to others it's beautiful but until you look at the welds then don't comment on the quality!
'very Fast and capable bikes, UK hand made to custom spec. Not some Taiwanese off the self labeled up as high quality custom crap'
(misplaced capitals copied from original comment)

Now I'm sure that there were no connotations of racism in the comment and people do seem to enjoy vehemently defending the UK manufacturing industry.  For that I have to commend them but I do take issue with the insinuation that companies are duping customers with sub-standard Taiwanese frames being sold as custom items.  Why does an off-the-shelf  Taiwanese frame have to be viewed as inferior to an off-the-shelf UK produced frame?  For so many years there has been an unjustifiably elevated status afforded to anything manufactured in the UK or the USA within the bike industry.

Times have changed and 'made in Taiwan' is no longer as indicative of poor workmanship as it was undoubtedly considered twenty years ago.  Perceptions do advance, in the same way that I'm sure kids whose parents own a Skoda no longer see it as the badge of playground shame it was when I was growing up.  The fact is that some of the finest craftsmanship in bike frames is now coming out of Taiwan and the quality of the end product is all down to how much time and monetary investment companies are prepared to invest in finding the best factories to produce their wares.  If you want to have a simple comparative check of relative standards between companies then you have to look at the finer details closely.  And so that's what I decided to do.

I've currently got four steel hardtail frames in my garage, two decidedly retro and two very modern.  I thought I'd take a look at the same part of each frame and attempt to spot noticeable quality differences between them in terms of workmanship.  Specifically I was visually inspecting the welds and assessing the key factors that signify good welding.

1) No porosity, cracks or craters
2) Uniform bead ripples (or fishscales)
3) Even bead profile (same thickness, even toe lengths) 

Although in itself this is subjective I do have a fairly trained eye for equipment inspection (as it forms part of my job).

Frame 1

The cheapest frame at £250 in 1998 (inflation adjusted approx £425).  Welded in Taiwan for a US based bike company.  Clear lack of uniformity and excess material particularly around the top of the seatstay to seat tube joint.  Uneven bead ripples and bead profile.

Frame 2

Priced at £549 in 2017.  Produced in Taiwan for a UK based company.  Weld standard is fairly high, small and neat although some variation in bead size and also in profile on the top tube gusset.

Frame 3

Priced at £599 in 2017.  Produced in Taiwan for a UK based company.  Weld quality extremely high with near perfect uniformity of bead size and profile throughout.

Frame 4

Priced at £770 in 1997 (inflation adjusted approx £1310).  Welded in the US for a US based company. High standard of welding.  Small and neat with good bead uniformity and just small variations in bead profile.

So what did I learn?

As mentioned before, clearly this is subjective and although I can weld I'm not claiming to be an expert.  However here are four different frames and obviously differing degrees of visual quality.  Generally the standard of the welding improves with cost with the worst work evident on the £250 (£425) frame.  Next up is the £549 frame which is a clear step up in quality but still shows some variation in bead size and profile.  Second best with some very neat welds but some profile variation is the £770 (£1310) frame and the best is the £599 offering.

Now undoubtedly frame build is only one of several aspects that impact on overall cost and ride quality.  Tubing type, R&D, economies of scale and volumes produced, marketing, paint costs, labour costs, shipping and no doubt other factors come into play but then surely the point of having production in the East is to counteract some of these issues to hit a more palatable price point without compromising quality.

Two points have become apparent to me from this exercise;

1) Frames made in Taiwan can definitely be built to an extremely high standard and the right 'off-the-shelf' Taiwanese frame can display better qualities than a boutique US made one costing over twice as much.

2) That contrary to several moaning comments I've read lately, steel frames aren't exponentially increasing in price along with their recent resurgence in popularity.  The fact is that top quality steel frames have always been expensive, particularly from the really desirable brands.  The likes of Bontrager, Voodoo and Dekerf were happily banging out frames in the nineties that would cost way over a grand now with inflation adjustments.

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder and whilst others would certainly disagree I personally always viewed the white frame as a workhorse and the black frame as a touch ugly.  The orange one is a work of art with some lovely touches and the green one looks incredible.

Quality however is in the trained eye of experts and there is a definite variation in standards on show.  Unsurprisingly the workmanship generally improves with increasing price but not necessarily and it's very clear that a mass produced Taiwanese frame in 2017 can easily hold its own against UK or US produced offerings.  I'm definitely all for buying local as long as it makes sense in terms of price and quality but I'm definitely not a believer in compromising my ride experience just to support our manufacturing industry or in slagging companies because of the origin of their equipment.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Finished Article

I was watching the football recently and drifting off as tedious commentators reeled out a barrage of cliches to fill in the gaps of a lacklustre nil-nil draw.  Their observations were largely washing over me until one of them used the well worn line;

'well he's not quite the finished article yet' 

And that set me thinking, what the hell does the finished article look like?

I've been training for about 29 years now, initially for football, then tennis before, at the age of fourteen making some serious, if misguided forays into physical conditioning for cross country mountain biking.  Even during the booze laden university years I continued to push hard on the bike and occasionally jogged through the picturesque suburbs of darkest Swansea.  Since then I kept fit for a decade before finding mountain running and seriously ramping up the commitment and intensity in order to compete at my current level.

As well as training harder I've also become a lot more clued up on the other essential aspects of diet, mindset and running technique and searched hard to find those marginal gains that may keep my ageing body ahead of my rivals.  To maintain this degree of focus takes a dedication and mental fortitude which is always motivated by that search to become better.  But where does it ever stop?

I always thought that the onset of my thirties would signal the beginning of a decline with metabolism slowing and fat appearing in previously toned areas but in actuality the opposite occurred with the discovery of a new sport where malnutrition (or at least minimal non-essential calorific intake) is par for the course among top competitors.  As I approach the exit to that decade the scales are informing me that my default weight is now a stone lighter than ten years ago.

So I'm lighter, fitter, better technically and faster than I used to be but only the totally deluded would consider me anywhere near a finished article.

2015 Mourne Skyline Skyrunner win.  Certainly one of my better days but I still could've gone faster and subsequently have so no finished article there!  Photo Credit: Jayne Bell
So what about true masters, Pele, Beethoven, Kasparov, were they the finished article?  Certainly at a point in time they could all have been considered the pinnacle of human achievement within their extremely narrow fields but to consider they were incapable of further improvement would have been insultingly misguided.

So if true legends, the all time top proponents weren't the hallowed finished article then can it be achievable?

Well, yes possibly it can but you need a high degree of specificity and very clear goals.  To narrow the field and have stated aims at least allows you to be the finished article at one point in time and one very specific achievement.  For example, I hold a couple of record times which I specifically aimed to set whilst racing.  By beating a target set by myself but also all previous competitors I can convince myself that on that day and at achieving that aim I was indeed the finished article.  But it doesn't mean that others can't be infinitely better.  You can only be your own finished article.

I'm not foolish enough to believe I'll ever be the World mountain running champion. That particular boat probably sailed years before I even discovered the sport.  However, at some point I will be my finished article within mountain running, the best me I can ever be.  It may have already happened, my best ever performance where it all felt effortless and flowing may be behind me, I'll find out too late, when the times do get slower despite the effort remaining constant.  A facet of always believing you can get better is the fact that ultimately you'll be wrong, barring a premature retirement or untimely death you will start to naturally deteriorate.

Which could be a pretty depressing thought....

Except it's not at all because you can always be improving at something, working towards being your finished article all over again in a totally different field.

I've been unable to run for twelve weeks now due to injury but have been given a reprieve from mental torture by my incredibly generous physio who lent me his cyclocross bike.  Instantly I set about a new training regime of high intensity turbo training, 'ugly fifteens' and two wheeled drifts round grassy corners on a bike that's definitely not the best designed tool for that kind of behaviour. The learning curve has been seriously rapid and massively enjoyable.  It's so bizarre taking a pastime that is seemingly so close to my comfort zone (as a mountain bike coach) but actually in many ways is miles away.

So a few weeks ago I sped around a local trail centre feeling far too upright with bars too narrow and brakes that barely functioned.  The 80psi in my tyres to ward off pinch flats gave my hands a beating that'd reduce a jackhammer operator to tears.  Initially I tensed up, slid, over braked and did all the things I coach out of beginners on mountain bikes, but pretty rapidly I found the boundaries and started launching the drops and letting it go on the corners before inevitably the front tyre did blow out on one less than finessed landing.

Armed with a decent level of fitness and a very small modicum of specific CX ability I than set about taking on my first race.  Like an idiot I was conned into doing the 'A' class before seeing that the majority of rank amateurs go into the 'B'.  The great thing is that I didn't care!  Obviously I tried to bury myself physically but found that I actually struggled to burn myself out because my lack of skills on the endless sharp bends gave me too much time to recover!  Not being 'gridded' and starting at the back denied me the chance to have a brief flirtation with the quick lads at the front but really it was a lack of technical ability that saw me forced back into a respectable but unremarkable 19th place finish.  When it comes to cyclocross I'm currently so far from the finished article that I'm barely an article at all!
Cyclocross.  Just riding bikes around a field, how hard can that be?  Actually pretty damn challenging!
So the moral of the story for me is that far from being dismayed at the ultimately doomed search for unending improvement, maybe we should instead just focus on being our own finished article every time we compete.  Clear goals allow us the satisfaction of success whilst accepting that another, harder target is then required to motivate us to push on.  When finally we do succumb to the natural decline through age or injury then we can accept it and either keep competing at a lower level or really excitingly take up something new and work towards once again becoming our personal finished articles.  Cue a lifetime of new experiences!

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Stanton Bikes Sponsor Ian for 2017

Stanton Bikes
Click the logo to check out the range

This is really exciting!!

When Ragley Bikes approached me last year to act as a brand ambassador I must admit I was a bit hesitant. For a start, I had my incredible Ibis Mojo HD3 sat in the garage waiting to become weapon of choice for 2016. Secondly it meant stepping away from riding my usual hand picked choice of components and thirdly, and I only found this out after I agreed to the deal, Ragley aren't the small scale UK rider owned company that I saw them as, they're part of the great Chain Reaction/Wiggle acquisitions conglomerate. Whilst there's nothing wrong with that, the purist in me always wanted to ride for a small company where the exposure I can get them might actually make a difference and also where I could get a chat with the fella who designs the frames to get all geeky about materials and seat tube diameters.

Now I'm taking nothing away from Ragley here, they were good to me and the Bigwig is a ripper of a bike so once again many thanks to them.  However, I must admit that when Dan Stanton offered me a deal for 2017 I didn't pause for thought.  There's a few reasons for me jumping at this opportunity so wholeheartedly.

1) I'd just got off the phone from having that exact hour long conversation where Dan was able to describe (in great detail) the evolution of Stanton frames over the last few years.  I instantly got the sense of a massive bike lover with a bubbling enthusiasm for producing the best hardtails in the World.

2) Titanium!  As a youngster I drooled (probably literally) over Merlins, Litespeeds and the other US produced titanium exotica that filled the dreambikes sections of MBUK.  They were so far beyond a pipe dream even for a teenager who had three jobs on the go and I couldn't ever really envisage a time when I'd be able to ride a top end Ti frame.  In recent years I've had my head turned by the plastic bike revolution with a couple of Santa Cruz's and a couple of Ibis's but that long dormant desire for the smooth lines, brushed natural finish and mythical whippy ride quality has never left me.

3) Stanton Bikes.  I've been a massive fan of the aesthetics of their frames for a while.  They've been at the forefront of the 'hardcore hardtail' revolution producing the bombproof and slacked out framesets that have left me questioning the need for rear suspension.  I was tempted by a Slackline a couple of years ago and every time I see one of their bikes I do stop and stare.  They have that ability to look fun from a distance, you know full well that if you swing a leg over the top tube you're in for a serious grinning session!

4) Wooly Hats.  Stanton make a really cosy looking one!

5) Race Support.  In sponsoring the hardtail category of the British Enduro Series and backing it up with some pretty amazing prizes Stanton have shown a solid commitment to the development of the race scene.  I love racing and definitely want to ride for a company who share that passion.

6) Steel.  Whilst I never got on to titanium I was fortunate enough during my XC racing days to ride some really classy steel frames.  I've still got my Voodoo Bizango from 1997 (when Voodoo were a pretty high end company) and love the springy nature of the material.  The Ragley had some of these qualities but I'm really looking forward to getting on some Reynolds tubing to bring back the memories and recall why it is so perfect for making bikes.

7) Future Developments.  Through chatting to Dan I've learned of all sorts of really interesting upcoming developments in their frames and their rapidly expanding component range.  The bike I plan on racing in 2017 doesn't actually exist yet but it sounds incredible on paper!

So for this Winter I'll be getting in the miles on the beautiful Reynolds 853 steel masterpiece that is the Sherpa 29er and then hopefully by Spring will be getting all aggro on a brand new Ti bike.  Kit choice will be a mixture of Stanton components, Shimano XTR, Chris King, Rockshox and I'll be continuing my links with Ibis through their industry leading 942 carbon rims. Timescales are a bit loose but the frame arrived yesterday so there'll be some shiny build pics coming soon.
It looks stunning in the flesh and really oozes quality.  Can't wait to get building and riding!
As ever, if you're interested in getting a test ride don't be shy about coming and saying hello at the races or on the trails.  I'm more than happy to let you have a spin and begin your hardtail conversion! The longer I coach and the better hardtails get, the less I'm convinced of the need for full bouncers at all outside of top end Enduro and DH racing. For beginners the rear suspension tends to mask and allow poor technique whilst for experts it overly sanitises trails, removing the joyous link between rider and terrain.  I love the precision required for fast, techy hardtail riding, as much as I enjoy reading the results sheets and seeing the bouncy bikes trailing in my wake!

It's going to be a fun 2017!

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!