Monday, 18 October 2010

Cross about cross

(courtesy of Cross-Crazy by LCS)

Yesterday was my first cyclocross race since last February. In the throes of hillclimb-cum-off-season, trying to cling to my five-minute max power from road race season while letting go of the endurance and threshold a bit, I found the race a lot harder than anticipated. Halfway through I started to fade badly and if I hadn't put in a fast final lap I would have finished even further down than 7th in the women's race. Nobody to blame but myself though; I'm caught in that self-induced mix of off-season dwindling fitness, lack of motivation to push myself and rusty cyclocross skills. And stuck with a bike that's showing itself more and more to be below the level I want to ride.

This was driven home in particular by the performance of CJ Boom yesterday, who's racking up an impressive run of good results in her cross racing. A perusal of her blog shows why: she's serious about it and is putting in the effort accordingly, both in her gear (hand-built tubs) and her attitude. As someone who was handy to measure my performances against last year in cross and this year on the road, it's pretty inspiring to see her doing so well and really driving her racing up a level. The result is she's dropped me like a 4th cat newbie. And I will admit to not liking this one bit!

So that leaves me with two choices:

I can get a lot more serious about cross, as I have with road racing. Make a point of practising those mud/sand/grass handling skills, mounts/dismounts, run-ups, gear selection, etc. outside of races. Get a much better bike, more wheel and tire choices, race more often and on as many courses as possible, get some results so I can be gridded. Train to start faster and more aggressively, go back to threshold workouts to bring my 40-60 min power up again.

Or I can forget about all of that and go out to race and have fun. Try not to crash too much and hope that my skills improve by coincidence or consequence. Enjoy myself on a day out with lots of other cyclists (cross is after all the most inclusive, welcoming and social of all races in my opinion). Keep riding my same old bike and clincher tires. Start happily ungridded, unstressed, and towards the rear of the field and see how many I overtake during the race. And most importantly, not bother to train for it and not care!

Not that these two choices are entirely mutually exclusive of course. In fact, the top-end crossers get just as much fun and enjoyment out of racing as the lanterne rouge Go-Race guys I'm sure. And I find it really hard to keep from being competitive when I have a number on my back, no matter what my pre-race intentions are. But at the same time, I'm a bit worn out from racing non-stop since March and I'm dying for a break mentally if not physically.

So in my typically half-assed way, it's going to have to be choice number three for now. I will upgrade my bike to something lighter with better components (if only to have a more enjoyable ride) but I won't do much different about wheels and tires. I will race when and where I feel like it -- and when I do, vow to make it count -- but not be too bothered if that doesn't happen too often. If the weather turns crappy and I want to ride but not on the road, I'll get the cross bike out and practise a bit. Once the national hill climb is over and I've had a few weeks off, I'll re-evaluate where I am and what I want to accomplish over the winter and whether cross is something that's important enough to me to train for specifically. And I'll still have fun! Not sure I can ever quite give up cake though...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Catford and Bec Hill Climb reports

Living in London means that popular local events are quite well-attended, and the iconic Bec CC and Catford CC (oldest bike race in the world) hill climbs yesterday didn't disappoint. Soaring temps of nearly 20 degrees and full sunshine helped, I'm sure!

Edit: the Guardian has since showcased a cool Catford audio slideshow and London Cycle Sport featured a video by VC Elan rider Mat Pennell.

Catford climb on Yorks Hill

First up was the Catford climb, which starts with a draggy shallow bit and steadily ramps up and up to the final 200m which is grindingly out-of-the-saddle steep. I'll admit I was quite nervous before the start as the top woman's prizes were a good haul (Rapha softshell jacket and Condor-donated Mavic Huez shoes worth about £500 total). But in my good intentions to rest this week hoping for strong legs on the day, it appeared that I had actually over-rested as my legs felt terrible within the first few seconds. Ignoring the powermeter and everything but the road ahead (well, I did sneak a few looks at the elapsed time and distance before the road turned upwards), I just gritted my teeth and tried to hang tough.

As it was my first time at this race I hadn't realised just how much energy you get from the screaming Tour de France style crowds in the final minute. I'd held back just a bit too much before the finish, but when I saw the finish line with 20m to go I realised I had something left in reserve and managed to put together a good sprint for the line. In the end, this made the difference as I finished in 2:49.5, a mere 0.6 seconds ahead of the second-placed woman Juliette Clark. She wasn't to go for half an hour after me though, so that made for some nail-biting moments waiting for her result, as I was sure I hadn't done enough to win it. I was quite relieved to find that I had!

With the mini-camera mounted to my handlebars I managed to video my trip up Yorks Hill and capture the essence of the event: the narrow road, the huge crowds and my own agonised heavy breathing. Many thanks to all the supporters especially the dozen or so Kingston Wheelers who rode out to watch. At the time I could barely focus on anything but the road directly in front of my wheel, but looking at the video I realise how cool it was climbing through all those people.

Bec climb on White Lane

With the awards from the Catford race running late and my start at the Bec climb being early, I was in a rush and got to White Lane less than an hour before I was due to start. No time for a structured warmup on the turbo trainer, I headed out for a quick spin on the roads (praying for no tire punctures!) then went down to the start. This time I was determined to go off harder knowing I could dig deeper towards the top through the crowds. This climb was fairly steady at ~12% with only a steep bit in the final 100m or so.

About halfway up I was feeling the effort and stalling a bit but soon afterwards I saw Jim standing alone yelling and that spurred me to work harder. Up ahead I could see the streamers strung across the road and hear the crowds and the announcer saying I was headed their way. In my addled state (again, never having done this race before), I figured that was pretty close to the finish so I gave it as much as I could only to find that the finish was further.. and even further... and much further than I thought! After what felt like an eternity I saw the checkered board and limped across the line totally spent. But I felt 100 times better than in the morning race and knew I'd given it my all.

Again, though, I had to wait a bit to find out if I'd won, and again I only managed to snag first place woman by 0.6 seconds! This time to Deborah Percival, who had come third at Catford. Pleased with my performance and with my new power records (and hearing my name and time announced on the loudspeaker over and over as the leading woman until no other women were left), I got a nice prize packet of Rouleur hat, book,t-shirt and magazine. Oh yes, and a lovely subscription to Elle Magazine which I haven't decided yet what to do with.

Maryka Sennema #27
Where's that finish line? (Bec pic courtesy of Sylvain Garde from Addiscombe CC)

And the stats and graphs for those who like that stuff (btw, I believe the timekeeper was a second slow on the Catford climb, for everyone of course!)


Duration: 2:48
Work: 57 kJ
TSS: 9.2 (intensity factor 1.407)
Pw:HR: 10.46%
Pa:HR: 34.92%
Distance: 631 m
Elevation Gain: 79 m
Elevation Loss: 1 m
Grade: 12.5 % (78 m)
Min Max Avg
Power: 0 482 340 watts
Heart Rate: 124 181 168 bpm
Cadence: 61 115 81 rpm
Speed: 3.8 25.7 13.5 kph
Altitude: 117 195 156 m
Crank Torque: 0 64.1 40.5 N-m



Duration: 2:41
Work: 56 kJ
TSS: 9.6 (intensity factor 1.466)
Pw:HR: 5.03%
Pa:HR: 24.75%
Distance: 616 m
Elevation Gain: 81 m
Elevation Loss: 3 m
Grade: 12.7 % (77 m)
Min Max Avg
Power: 0 501 349 watts
Heart Rate: 132 178 170 bpm
Cadence: 52 103 81 rpm
Speed: 1.3 22.6 13.8 kph
Altitude: 170 247 207 m
Crank Torque: 0 88.8 41.0 N-m


Thursday, 7 October 2010


Seen this summer on a fellow racer's bike:


Sadly I'm not hardcore enough for this to work for me, and the truth is, I'd probably laugh out loud mid-race if I put this on my bike -- it's that cerebral side of me. But "stop messing about and get it done" is a bit too long to fit on the handlebars.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Hell Climbing, I mean, Hill Climbing Joy

(courtesy of clubmate Nick Hussey)

I sort of fancy myself a climber, though in reality I'm more of a pint-sized rouleur than a lightweight grimpeur. Still, when the road goes up I tend to do well, so what better way to top off a fine racing season than to try some hill climbing time trials?

Mistake #1: hill climbing is nothing like climbing a hill in a race. Following wheels, attacking off the front, marking others' attacks and setting tempo on the front are all completely different from the all-out lung busting effort that is a typical UK hill climb (more or less five minutes at ~10%). Rarely will you find me at my all-out 5-minute power for longer than a minute or two in a road race unless it's the final few minutes. And most importantly, the pyschological distraction and stress of other riders makes climbing at that intensity in a road race quite a bit more tolerable.

Mistake #2: pacing is pretty crucial. Going out even a bit too hard will be repaid in a thousand agonies. If the race is a short two or three minutes, you might get lucky; at least it's over quick. But for anything longer than five minutes, pacing is really important.

Mistake #3: underestimating how badly it will hurt. I've done three hill climbs now and I feel I've learned a huge amount between the first and the third, but the one thing that hasn't changed is how awful it feels while you're doing it. Proper pacing makes it manageable but that wheezing chesty cough still happens after every one. I have yet to puke at the top so maybe I'm not going hard enough though?

So what is a hill climb about? It's the most intense experience of time-trialling that exists. It's all you and nothing but you out there. The clock is ticking somewhere far away, but in the here and now it's just you... suffering, hearing your own ragged breathing, struggling to turn over the pedals, thinking how badly you're doing, wondering when it will end. If you're lucky you'll see someone ahead of you floundering even worse and use it as mean motivation; if you're unlucky you'll be overtaken by your minute man which only serves to dampen further any enthusiasm you have for hill climbing. The final seconds are a sweet respite as the sight of the finish line promises relief that this will finally be over.

But it's cruelly deceptive, as the first few seconds after the race is over are nearly more painful than the race itself. Gasping for breath, legs jellified, skin tingling, brain insisting that you never do one of these again! All of which disappear in the next minute or two leaving you feeling exhilarated and full of adrenaline. And those feelings last long enough to sign up for the next one.

Me climbing through cowbell corner at the John Bornhoft Memorial Hill Climb (courtesy of clubmate Rich Allen)

Saturday, 2 October 2010

2010 Team Series Wrap-up

Two weekends ago was the final race of the Team Series, and with a hilly course suiting my strengths and several of the series' best riders away in Ireland at the Ras na mBan stage race, I was looking forward to a good result. So with a team of four strong riders we were off to Coalville to race on a chilly and windy but thankfully dry September morning.

We rolled out of the HQ, across the road and 400m later past the lap/finish line: 6 laps to go, 14.5km per lap. This was a longish race Team Series standards, but that was fine with me. Leona was behind the lead car as it pulled away, and with all the Motorpoint girls (juniors, nearly every one of them) chatting away about school, boys and whatnot, I casually made my way up the group to sit beside her. And then picked up the pace just a bit. And then decided to ride off the front ever so slightly... peeked behind and the bunch was somewhat noticing but not really.

All of sudden Emily came flying past me and I let her get a gap of 30m or so. Nobody reacted because it was so early (2km into an 87km race!) and I'm sure they thought she would come straight back to us in a minute or two. Then MaxGear's Anna Fischer -- one of the best domestic riders in the UK right now -- flew past on her way over to Emily and I decided this was a wheel I needed to jump on. I did, and we quickly reached Emily who was able to grab my wheel and the next thing I knew we were away with a massive gap. And so it stayed for the next 85kms.

First lap we pulled out a minute, second lap another minute, by the third lap that seemed to be holding (Anna's teammates policing the bunch with Leona's help, and Motorpoint not able to get anything going) and by the fourth lap there was word that two riders were 2 min behind us and the bunch was not chasing. At that point, even though we were slowing down from our original lap-times (not helped by the wind picking up), I knew we'd stay away from everyone as long as we kept working.

But my legs were not good. Emily was having a really great ride, I had been worried at first that she'd get gapped on the sharp hill before the turn into the finish-line draggy straight, but she hung on. And did more than her share on the flats and into the wind. Anna did quite a bit too, in fact I felt like I was the weakest of the three of us at times, struggling a bit with an upset stomach from early that morning and legs threatening to cramp up. Frustrating, but I could live with it.

In retrospect Emily and I should have been attacking Anna on the last lap, taking turns at it, but in the moment we didn't really have our plan organised and frankly I wasn't convinced we could beat Anna anyway. Emily selflessly sat on the front most of the last lap and when Anna attacked going up the hill before the final corner I went with her for about 5 seconds til my legs said "no way" and my brain stupidly said "2nd place is fine" so I came in about 100m behind her with Emily another 100m behind me. Not a bad result really, though of course now I'm annoyed with myself for giving up the win without a fight!

Coalville 2010 break
Looking rough at the halfway point (from left: me, Anna, Emily) (courtesy of race organiser Nick Horner-Maddocks)

But the best was yet to come... after the finish we turned around to go back and watch the other riders come in. I was curious who the 2 riders between us and the bunch were and much to my delight it was Leona with a giant grin on her face, having outsprinted her break companion to come 4th! Mathilde ended 11th, rolling in with the next group as the bunch had split again at some point. So that meant top team was us, Surrey League. All in all a pretty successful day and a satisfying finish to the end of my road race season. Great rides by Emily and Leona made for 3 happy girls on the long ride home.

Coalville 2010 bridgers
Leona and her break partner Maxine Filby working together (courtesy of race organiser Nick Horner-Maddocks)

Later we learned that with our strong finish at Coalville, we managed to leap over the Rapha Condor team in the overall standings into 3rd. A nice way to end the season and it showed that consistent performances are just as important as stand-out performances when it comes to a season's overall results (see the series report on British Cycling's site).

Friday, 1 October 2010

End of Summer Vacation

Okay, so I haven't written for a while... call it a summer vacation. It's now well past summer as a glance outside at the dark pouring rain would show, so back to blogging.

Lots of news to share, starting with the London Women's Cycle Racing League prize presentations last night. It was a great event, hosted by Look Mum No Hands of course. We, the Kingston Wheelers, did quite well with teammates Sabine and Emily picking up 5th and 7th place respectively, with Emily also getting the Most Combative Rider award. Having held on to my 1st place through July and August, I won the overall and KW as a team finished in 3rd. We all left with more cash than we arrived with, and some nice prizes too. All in all a pretty successful night!

From left: Emily, Lise, Maryka, and Sabine (Hillary absent) (courtesy of Dave Hayward and London Cycle Sport.)