My quest to be better at 40 continues…

(part I here)

More skill at 40!

At work I find my that, through teaching, my depth of understanding and therefore my ability improves. This seems to translate to cycling. Writing The Cyclocross Bible helped me think carefully about technique and this year I put that into practice a bit more. In the spring I attended a British Cycling coaching course and organised a number of coaching clinics as part of attaining their level 2 qualification. Developing drills and working through them with other riders hopefully helped them – it certainly helped me improve my technique. For example, one Tuesday I ran a cornering clinic, focusing on keeping weight on the outside pedal and inside bar (try it yourself – ride around a corner with just two contact points: outside foot on the pedal and inside hand on the bar). On the Thursday I won a summer cross race, carrying speed around the corners perhaps better than ever before.

Drills can feel a little alien at first! [photo: Ivan’s Clicks]
Some superb ditch technique at a spring ‘cross clinic [photo: Ivan’s Clicks]

Winning through teaching! [photo: Gareth Jones]

I’m planning on doing some more coaching this year. I haven’t got any firm dates yet but, if you are interested in attending a clinic in the Southampton area, please sign up here for updates.

Sand

My fortieth year seems an appropriate time to tick off the last of The Cyclocross Bible’s “Five Races to Enter Before you Die”: Zonhoven (more about this later). I also planned to ride the World Masters and Zilvermeercross in Mol. Sand riding was clearly going to be an important skill in all these races. I also feel that, although sand is not prevalent in UK races, a ‘proper’ ‘cross rider needs to be able to tackle the sand. To be successful you need power, control and accuracy. To get through a straight sand pit fast, the trick is to pick a rut and float/power your way accurately along that rut the whole way. Any deviation from the line causes sudden increases in resistance, viscous pulls on the front wheel, further power requirements, loss of time, fatigue and failure.

Nailing the rut at Diegem in 2017! [photo: Richard Howes]

Corners are all about patience and accuracy, knowing when to put on the power and when not to. I spent many sessions this year practicing my Wout van Aert figures of eight! Top tip for sand corners (from Mark Adams): push hard on your inside pedal as you exit the corner. This helps to stand the bike up, preventing the rear wheel from washing out.

A bad passage through the sand at a key moment can be the end of your chances in a race while consistently good riding can be the end of your rivals.

Bunnyhopping

I’ve never been a great bunnyhopper. I can bunnyhop but haven’t really had the confidence to do it at speed in races (probably since dislocating my shoulder in a race when I was 19 – I remember taking an aerodynamics exam the next day and having to move my right hand with my left to write). I’d put a bit of work into it this year so was delighted, in the first race of my 40th year, to make time in the Wessex League race at Droxford over a set of barriers at the top of a tough climb. Bunnyhopping – that’s youthful, isn’t it?

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Gaining time hopping (at 40!)

Amateur riders are inevitably confronted with more of a challenge when trying to fit in training around other commitments. Bunnyhopping practice isn’t necessarily a particularly low-hanging fruit when deciding what to focus on. Now (late winter/spring) is the time of year when the ‘cross rider should be resting and re-discovering the joys of riding a bike. I encourage you to use this time to work on your skills. Once you’ve got a bit more confidence, it then becomes easier and takes less time to blend skills into your training sessions later in the year.

Getting the equipment right at 40

One thing has definitely gone well in my 40th year! It’s been my best season ever terms of the performance of my bikes themselves, with no punctures and no mechanicals (not even a dropped chain).

I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit from some sponsorship this year, with wheels from Novatec, helmets from Lazer, tyres from Vittoria, frames from Forme and support in general from Zepnat Cycles. I’m not paid by these guys though so I still feel able to share my views on equipment choice without any bias. Bear in mind too that I chose the products and then enquired about sponsorship – I’m not just riding kit because I’m given it. So, here goes on a few kit recommendations, followed by my thoughts on the pressing issues of the moment: 1x drive-trains, do you really need to bin your cantilever braked bikes, and tubeless vs. tubulars.

Top 10 products from 2018

  1. Vittoria Terreno Dry tubeless tyres
  2. Finishline ceramic wax lube
  3. Forme Calver frame & forks
  4. Novatec CXD wheels
  5. Superstar components narrow-wide rings (only order if in stock – I waited months for mine)
  6. Jagwire sealed cables
  7. Decathlon pumps (mini and track)
  8. Fizik bar ribbon
  9. Kids zip-off warm-up tights
  10. Erdinger alcohol-free beer

Worst bit of kit: DT Swiss wheels. They can’t even hold on a tyre with a tube, let alone seal a tubeless tyre!

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Fizik ribbon – the only stuff I’ve had that could comfortably do two seasons

The great 1x debate

I first road a 1x setup (i.e. a bike with just one chainring at the front) last year on my Trek Farley fatbike (review here) and Jen’s Scott Scale 700RC. Ok – clearly that’s not the case, as I had a single speed (Raleigh Striker) and 1x set up (Raleigh Micron 5) when I was eight years old, but it wasn’t quite the same!

It’s almost always better to err on the side of simplicity – especially when reducing cost, saving weight and avoiding failure. Reducing the number of components and moving parts is good. In cyclocross this is particularly important, given all the bumps, mud and jet washes. After a successful year of 1x on the MTB, it was clear to me that this was the way to go for cyclocross. I’d been having a lot of trouble with my Ultegra 2×11 setup, with multiple chain-drops losing me places in many races last season. The springs in the rear mechs were getting rather long in the tooth and, let’s face it, compared with the beauty and function of the rear derailleur, the front derailleur is a clumsy, clunky and wholly unsatisfactory design. This year my chain came off just once. That includes during all my races and training rides, including the Three Peaks and all the mountain descents I did as preparation. The single chain-off was on a particularly bumpy bit of South Downs Way, where the surface had recently been taken up by mechanical diggers.

1x has actually developed a bad reputation in terms of chain drops. If you simply take off your front derailleur and one chainring, chain drops are exactly what you’ll get. Two key innovations have made 1x possible and now, in fact, more reliable than 2x. The first is the clutch rear mech, where increased spring tension in the derailleur arm stops the chain from bouncing off the chainring. The second is the ‘narrow-wide’ chainring. Such a chainring has alternating narrow and wide teeth to match the width of the inner and outer chain links. This stops the chain being able to shift to the side and then off the chainring. It beggars belief that it’s taken this long for bicycle chainrings to be designed to fit the chain! I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has seen any early narrow-wide rings. Probably it’s because bicycles and cycling are a peaceful endeavour that development has been so painstakingly slow. War has been rather beneficial to aircraft development: from first flight to supersonic took less than half the time it took to develop clipless pedals!

It’s not all win-win with 1x though. There is a negative: friction! This comes from the extra chain tension. Try turning the pedals backwards on a 1x setup compared to a 2x (it takes more effort). For cyclocross this is a small price to pay for the benefits. It does mean that you perhaps want to change your bike a little more regularly in races though, as the build-up of mud in the derailleur increases this friction. You can adjust a Shimano clutch to reduce this friction for smoother, dry courses (ramping up the tension for bumpy, muddy courses). 

Following the Aqua Blue 1x debacle (in short 1x isn’t quite ready or suitable for road racing and this team suffered from that), I was involved in a bit of a debate with Helen Wyman. She held the view that 1x might be ok for amateurs but certainly wasn’t suitable for professional cyclocross riders on tough international courses (and didn’t seem to have noticed the number of pro riders who are indeed running 1x this year). I couldn’t disagree more! We often see developments in amateur racing filter down into professional riding (take for example aerodynamics in time trialing). For now, some of the professionals are perhaps held back by their sponsorship but we are seeing many riders moving to 1x (e.g. Wout van Aert).

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Dan Soete and me on 1x!

A couple of further tips on this: make that single ring oval and you might significantly improve your traction on climbs (it’s a bit like putting the car in 2nd gear to pull away on snow/mud).

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Go oval for a bit more traction! [photo: http://www.richardhowesphotography.com]

Also, keep your shifting smooth with Jagwire cables.

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Jagwire cables are the best I’ve used.

Discs

I’ve been using disc brakes for cyclocross for a year now and I can confirm that they are more reliable, give greater stopping power and the better clearance helps in muddy races. However, the benefits are not so great that I’d advise you to ditch your cantilever bikes now. Downhilling in the Three Peaks was more pleasant but no faster on discs. And in normal ‘cross races, tyres certainly make more of a difference than the brakes. Two cantilever bikes with a few tyre options will stand you in better stead for a season of cyclocross than splashing out on one new disc bike, with no funds left for tubulars.

Wheels and Tyres

For a really muddy cyclocross race I don’t think anything can beat FMB Supermud tubulars and these have gone very nicely on my Novatec R3 Tubular Disc wheels. A little less mud and I have been getting on very well with the Vittoria Terreno Wet tubulars. Tubeless technology is coming along and I hope to be trying out some new Novatec options in races next season. The problem is: the smaller the tyre the tighter the tolerances need to be to stop burping being an issue at low pressures. While you can run 4psi on a fat bike, 20psi is an issue for a ‘cross bike.

Tubeless is a revelation to me in training though. My favourite setup of the year has been 40mm Vittoria Terreno Drys on Novatec CXD wheels. I have ridden all year on these without a single puncture. I wax lyrical about the versatility of the Forme Calver and these wheels here. Gravel riding gets a bit grim for me in the winter so I fit some nice big slicks to the CXDs. That’s a great thing about riding a ‘cross bike on the road, you can get in massive tyres. 32mm is the new 28mm for me. Why ride narrower at night when potholes come at you out of nowhere?

Tubeless tyre and rim manufacturers still seem to be a little inconsistent in terms of getting a consistently good seal (not my sponsors – Vittoria on Novatec is fit-and-forget!). While I swear by tubeless for road, gravel and mountain biking (basically anything where super low pressures are not required), I know a few people who have been completely put off tubeless with all the faff of sealant, air compressors, burping, … Things are getting better though and I’m hopeful that I’ll be running low pressure tubeless tyres in ‘cross next year.

Fun at 40!

I got to the end of last season feeling tired, ill and pretty low about most things; in dire need of rekindling the joy of cycling. Worry not – I’m not about to pontificate about how to have fun on a bike. I’m sure we all do that and should try and do it more. I have, however, found I’m managing to do so more this year, especially on my mid-life crisis fat bike and Forme Calver. Below I’m just including one thing I’ve done this year to punctuate my racing with a bit more meaning and enjoyment.

Within ‘fun’ I’m including too all the non performance related stuff that makes cycling inseparable from life, family and friends. A big part of this is The Cyclocross Bible and, in particular, the Ride for Charlie special print run. Ride for Charlie helps support young riders go and do what Charlie Craig inspires us all to do. We were inspired to go and ride Zonhoven and use this as an opportunity to raise money for Ride for Charlie.

Shortly after Charlie tragically died, Tom Pidcock, Dan Tullet and Ben Turner rode to an outstanding and emotional 1-2-3 in the World Cyclocross Championships. Balint Hamvas took a great photo of Tom on his way to victory, which he kindly let us put on the front cover of a limited run of 50 books which Tom Pidcock signed at Zonhoven. While these books are all sold (with all profits going to Ride for Charlie), you can still get a standard copy here and donate to Ride for Charlie here.

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The Ride For Charlie Cyclocross Bible
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Charlie’s friend and Current World Champion Ben Tullet signed some books too

Zonhoven

I must confess to including this race in my book as one of the “Five Races to Enter Before you Die” having never ridden it. Based on watching some incredible races (e.g. 2013 https://youtu.be/aGGk-rIOnnE and 2014 https://youtu.be/NWE2a1xwxpI), it had to be in there though. It didn’t disappoint! For me, this race is neck-and-neck with the Three Peaks for the title of ‘greatest ‘cross race’. Clearly they are very different races so you should definitely ride both! I’m not sure how many riders have done that. I know Richard Groenendaal has. perhaps we should have a society and go out for a meal once a year?! Do get in touch!

Racing in Belgium is so wonderfully relaxed. Going on to the course at a National Trophy in the UK feels a bit like crossing the wire in The Great Escape. At Zonhoven the family could all have a really good play on the course the day before the race. After months of training in the sand it was rather galling to have the kids rock-up and nail De Kuil first time:

The training seemed to have paid off though and I was making it around the key tricky hairpin bend (only needed 12 takes to get it right).

More importantly though, the photocards were ready! If you’re racing in Belgium, yes, do some training but, more crucially, get some photocards!

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This year’s photocard, with image by Bob Barber

On the day of the race we woke up to a blanket of snow over the Belgian tundra. Cyclocross, family, kids, sand, snow! it doesn’t get much better than this!

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Nothing could have prepared me for the atmosphere of De Kuil on the first lap. The sound is absolutely deafening. I approve of the tunes too: A remix of Bad Wolves’ cover of Zombie by the Cranberries:

Imagine what it must be like leading the field into that! Zonhoven isn’t all about De Kuil though. The whole lap is a blast…

After the road start, there are a couple of hairpins and a bridge, followed by a gradual drag (over the only vaguely muddy/slippery bit of the course), before entering a sandy left-hander into De Kuil. After the first tricky descent is a run-up that some riders can make it up without dismounting. However, if you watch the 2018 footage you’ll see that Mathieu van der Poel went faster by dismounting than van Aert, who just managed to heave his bike over the lip of the climb. The next descent is a bit steeper than the first and is followed by a real slog of a run-up. After that, the fun escalates, with a fast descent that includes a jump for the show-offs, followed by a tricky turn over a hump where the leaders of the women’s race came to grief. After that a rutted left-hander onto the main climb of the race. This starts with what would usually be quite a tough section of sand (see 2013 and 2014 videos) but, after the snow, was really fast if you could hold your line. The climb steepens round a right-hander, where the surface also gets more gravelly (it feels a bit like the New Forest out on this bit of the course), before dropping down to the infamous sandy left-hander. The nature of the sand changes for this part of the course. It becomes sticky – a bit like the kind of sand used for making moulds to cast metal. In some ways this makes it easier, with ruts flattening out more nicely, but it’s game over if you stall or come out of the rut. Once to the top of the run-up (or ride-up if you are one of the top three riders in the world), the fun starts again, with a long flowing descent to the finish. It’s punctuated by a few sharp corners and the odd sand trap. The corners develop quite viscous ruts which aren’t apparent on the TV. I followed Dan Tullet down this descent and it quickly became apparent that he’d done this kind of thing before!

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The Zonhoven course (The Cyclocross Bible page 217)

I always come home from Belgium reinvigorated to brush-up my skills and start really nailing courses. Following a pro round on a warm-up lap gives real insight into the skills needed to get to the top of cyclocross. I recommend getting out there and having a go, particularly for younger riders. Read more here and here.

I was quite pleased with my performance in the race. I came in 40th out of 51 starters. Mathieu van der Poel destroyed the opposition again. Only 18 riders finished on the same lap as the leader, with Ben Turner the last rider not to be lapped! I eeked the most out of the experience, with a spectacular crash on my final lap!

I even put in a brief cameo on Wyn Masters’ video:

And what a wonderful reception in the pits:

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Kids aren’t all hard work!

This was supposed to be my last international ‘cross race. Forty years old seemed like a good time to call it a day. I’m not so sure now though. I think I’m still too mad for it to stop!

Coming up in Part III: Fitness at 40!

Let’s finish this post though with an image of my wife Jen: an image that pretty much sums up her season. She’s had a really tough time of it this year, having been off the bike with a long drawn out virus since October.

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Battling through! [photo: Bob Barber]

Maybe a more positive note is required… Looking forward to seeing her back on the podium where she belongs in 2019!

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Winning Jen!

One thought on “A Different Cyclocross Season (part II)

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