Sunday, 30 October 2011

My first MTB race - Thetford D2D

The oasis for locals who like the mud is Thetford Forest. There's barely a hill there either, but it is full of tight twisting singletrack through the forest on surfaces from sand to flint, with a few bomb holes thrown in. Some of the man made (by Timber) trails have berms and occasional jumps. You can easily piece together an energy sapping 20 mile cross country route that's great fun.

[ Somebody else's video of Thetford giving a flavour of the singletrack ... ]

If you have some capable lights (not as expensive as you might think), you can ride in the dark. Everything looks so different at night, spooky even, with a whole different challenge. You see some fabulous nocturnal wildlife too, and it feels so special as nobody else is there to see it.

Thetford Dusk 'til Dawn

Every year at Thetford, some crazy folks all set off on a endurance race through the night. It starts at 8pm and ends at 8am. The aim is to complete as many laps in the 12 hours as possible. Teams can consist of 1-4 riders and is a relay race, so only one member can be on the course at any time.

A riding buddy of mine saw the start last year and has been as excited as a 5 year old ever since and asked me to enter with him. At the time, it didn't appeal entirely. The two previous years were solid rain, riding through mud, with 10 mile lap times starting at 1 hour and final laps for some were over 2 hours. It sounded like hell. Actually described by someone as the best and worst thing I have ever done.

Not wanting to disappoint, we entered as a pair, and then I found some more local riders to mentor us - they are veterans of the D2D and entered as a mixed four. "A pair ? That's going to be tough". I have ridden with our mentors before, and they are fit and fast. Gulp. Later and luckily, we found a third member to join us. As the race got nearer, the more I warmed to the idea and the challenge.

A rainbow coloured procession of D2D riders
Race Day

Forecast was quite good, mostly dry with a shower in the middle of the night. We arrived in the afternoon. Most competitors pre-rode the course but I decided to save my energy having been a little ill the week before. My team mates rode the course the day before. Somehow, it was decided that I should start the race for our team.

At 6:30pm we all stood in the arena listening to the rules. Race Director on the microphone: "There are bomb holes on the route, I hope you have all pre-rode the course". Err, no ... gulp. What could possibly go wrong riding in the dark in a jostling field of race crazy mountain bikers ?

Thetford's single track can be hard to pass on, and having never raced before I was nervous about holding people up. "Mountain biking is a friendly sport ..." followed by orders not to barge, be aggressive or rude to get past. Phew, that's a relief.

I then briefly saw my family who had come to see me start. You wouldn't believe how inspired my 6 year old son, and 8 year old daughter were, seeing their Daddy enter a race.

The start of the 2011 Dusk 'til Dawn
7:15pm I am alone in the tent, nervous and getting ready, then I hear the unmistakable sound of rain on tent. I decide not to go out early and get wet. I leave the tent a 7:50pm to get to the start, where is everybody ? I hope they havn't started.

7:55pm, I join the queue of riders near the back. I am not a race fast rider so I am happy to start here and see how it goes.

8pm, a bang and some fireworks in the distance signals the start which was a 4km warm up before the 16km full laps. Wow, what an atmosphere, riding with a pack of like minded riders into the night, through a cheering crowd. Audience I thank you, it felt so special !

I didn't see it myself but a quad bike led the hundreds of riders through the arena and into the dark trails. Saying that, it wasn't that dark with so many powerful lights. And what a sight seeing a now spread out stream of riders, illuminating the primary colours of cycling jackets. It was a like a rainbow coloured procession for mass.

Just one minute out of the arena and I saw someone changing a puncture already. The next corner, a faller, no apparent injuries. We are still packed in so speed is low. Once we got to the wider trails where you can overtake, I realised the pace was easy. I sped up, then realised why. I must have passed about 40 riders with glow sticks on their seat tube. These were the solo riders with 12 hours of riding ahead of them. I think I was only passed by two riders on my first lap (when not stopped) and spent a good portion overtaking.

The first technical riding was Tom's Bombhole. I didn't know it and there was a queue at the top. It is a reasonably steep entrance and a steady but sandy climb out. Once one person failed to make it out, a queue of riders behind had to stop and walk out. I had to walk out on all of my laps because of the sand. It was cleaned up after the race and was easy to ride out.

Some rooty single track and then the entrance to the second bombhole - Howie's Run (from the north side). It looked steep with a v shaped channel down the middle requiring weight shifting to balance instead of steering. With riders following, I couldn't pontificate at the top. People before me made it so I went straight in, and made it too. All bomb holes look steeper at night, especially the far side, adding to the challenge of night riding.

Howie's was closely followed by the Double Shocker, already slippery. My tyres were Maxxis High Rollers and not feeling that grippy on lap 1.

After Double Shocker the route led north up the hill parallel with Bury Road before sharply turning south again. My main bar light started to fail intermittently, still surrounded by riders but now at two bike lengths apart. Then the track had a 4 foot deep trench, it was pitch black and I went in blind, not reading the immediate steep exit correctly, my weight went over the handle bars and my back wheel in the air. I was aware of the potential for a pile up, and somehow managed to unclip my left foot and hop left with the bike clipped to the other off the track. "Well held!" the following rider shouted as he passed.

 I continued nervously, then one minute later my GPS came off its mount and dangled by its landyard. I pulled over, put it into my rucksack, and also fixed my bar light - I hadn't screwed the battery cover on properly (slaps forehead).

The rest of the lap was a drag uphill (for locals) and I was feeling tired I was glad to be back into the arena to the handover point. A crowd of riders were standing on the other side of a fence waiting impatiently for the wrist band. I heard my name being shouted, and a silhouette coming my way. Handover, then relief.

Lap 0 + 1 (about 12 miles) took me 1h12m. My GPS showed 58m for Lap 1.

Muddy and damp I now had two hours before my next shift. I had a cup of tea, some soup and bread. Earlier in the evening and before the race I eat wholemeal pasta. In hindsight, I should have been eating more fast absorbing calories and should have eaten on the bike according to our experienced mentors.

Lap 2

My second lap (our teams 4th) started at 11:35pm. My inbound and tired looking team mate warned me it was slippery. Their road biased tyres were swapped out for £70 a pair Nobby Nics later while I was out.

The first half was not too bad, reasonably hard packed, but the second half was bad. It rained harder. The worst part now had V shaped channels worn down, 1 foot deep, only just wide enough for pedals. You couldn't get a continuous ride out of the trench due to undergrowth. I nearly slipped over several times because the sides of the trenches were so slippery. I had to stop to take a break to rest for exhausted legs and eat a breakfast bar. Riders were much more strung out now. It was a minute before another rider arrived where I was and stopped to catch their breath. I think this was around mile 6 of 10, still dark, still raining, and after midnight.

I also realised that my rear brake pads had significantly worn down. They were brand new for the race! I had to start to avoid using the rear brake and only use the front in a straight line. Speeds were reasonably low anyway and wrong line could be used to sap speed.

Later, near mile 8 on a long drag uphill after the Double Shocker was a small but sharp elevation requiring a quick burst of energy to get over. Aaaarrrrrg the pain. I had to pull over, unable to straighten my legs. I was bent double over my bike wincing for about two minutes. This I guessed was cramp. I was able to continue but with much reduced energy output. I had only ridden a bike a couple of times in the 6 weeks prior due to illness, it was showing. Also, I guessed that I had not been drinking enough and perhaps not enough salt. The energy gel stall I had laughed in the face of earlier now started to seem like a good idea, even at £1.25 a shot - enough calories and minerals for 20mins of riding.

I dragged myself in after 1h14m at 1am. That was a tough one.

Again I got dry, had a cup of tea, a yoghurt bar and some chocolate handed to me by my team mate. I don't remember eating much else. It was hard eating at night. I climbed into my sleeping bag. So warm and cosy, sooo nice, lovely to see the insides of my eyelids.

I didn't sleep, too much activity with my team mate getting ready for his lap. But, the rest had perked me up. I had to get up in the rain again and start another lap at 4am. If on my own, the motivation would have been hard, but being part of a team pushed me to the handover point. All the other racers were in the same situation so they would be having it bad too.

The arena atmosphere

Lap 3

So I started my third lap, our team's 7th at something like 4am. The bike coral where I waited was a quiter place, with less anxiety and impatience. We had a roof to wait out of the rain at least. I don't recall the changeover, perhaps I was on autopilot.

A mile or two in I noticed I was just pulling in a solo rider, so I thought it might help them if I talked for a bit. It turned out, he was on his 8th lap, more than our three person team ! Knowing how hard it was pushing through the mud and rain, I was in awe of the effort and mental staying power. He looked like he was truly suffering now. Chapeau. The winning solo rider completed 12 laps. The winning team of 4 completed 15 laps..

Throughout the race if I passed a lone rider at the side of the course I always asked if they were "alright?". They always were. The race organisers had placed some marshalls throughout the course but you could easily be a mile or two away from them and help.

The terrain felt easier somehow on lap 3. So much mud had been worn away in places, it was now down to hard pack again. I took the centre line, splashing through all the puddles which paid off apart from the one large puddle I found. My Specialized Defroster waterproof boots were just that. But enough water had made it in down my leg and I managed to pour some out at the end of the lap.

Between laps I had failed to wash my bike. Gear issues crept up on me and on lap 3 I was down to two gears on the rear 9 speed block. At times I was pushing too high a gear. At home I discovered that the cable just required some lube, the mud wasn't an issue.

Up to mile 7 wasn't a great problem, a little slower due to fatigue but feeling ok. Then I slowed a lot. Then mile 8 where at the very same obstacle I got cramp - again. Bent over double yet again, but for less time. I had been careful to use salt in my water and drink more this time. The last two miles were done at such a slow pace they seemed to go on forever. The classical music played from a speaker at mile 9 raised my spirits as did some joyous motivational rider and the chaps wearing flashing skull masks on the backs of their helmets. There were other riders going my pace too, but some still flying as fast as lap 1.  But, before I came in, I had already made the decision that this would be my last.  I kept quiet about this.

My Lap 3 (or teams 7th) took 1h42m. Very inconsistent compared to my first lap of 58m and only 30 miles completed in total.

I climbed into my sleeping bag again, this time sleeping, while a team mate battled the course for 2h20m, arriving at 7:55am. Our third team member was able to go out again and do another lap meaning we all did three laps, and thankfully, there would be no time for me to do another. He arrived back an impressive 1hr35m later at 9:25am with us greeting him. The prize giving had been and gone, and so had the night. The only busy part of the arena was the burger bar but we cheered him in all all the same. A real victory for us lasting the whole time, the terrain hadn't quite beaten us.

As D2D virgins we came 31st of 57 in our category, way better than we expected. Just one more lap would have bagged us 17th place. Oh no, that temptation means we have already convinced ourselves to enter again next year.

If there is one thing I agree with, it is both the best and worst thing I have ever done. Best of all, was being able to ride amongst some amazing riders, but in a very inclusive event. And, it can't rain for a fourth year in a row, surely !

I am looking forward to entering in 2012, but can't quite pin down why I need to do this.

Drivetrain the morning after. Thetford sand eats them.

Detailed lap times here. We were the Falloffalots.

VC Rutland have put together a great video here.  There is a little onboard footage towards the end.

Monday, 17 October 2011

12 year olds' route to school, UK style.

I was cycling my way into Cambridge, passing over the A14 then going past Orchard Park.

[ If you don't know the area or the UK, Orchard Park is a new housing development, fairly typical for modern edge of town developments.  I bet you are imaging some lovely houses nestling in an orchard of fruit trees.  Well that is some cruel joke, there is no orchard, it is just something dreamy to put in the marketing material. Housing estate names are often related to what was bulldozed to make way for concrete and tarmac. ]

As I was pleasantly riding though the apple trees dual carriageway, I noticed I was following a school boy on his way to school. He was using the tick-box cycle facility - a wide footpath next to the road.  He arrived at the Kings Hedges Road junction.  A truck was at the lights waiting to turn left.

Next to Orchard Park, Cambridge.  Click to view in Google StreetView.  

What happened next, sums up very nicely cycling in the UK and what behavioral traits the current road and cycle design practices breed.

So, you are 12, wanting to cross a side road, that consists of 5 lanes of traffic and three separate pedestrian crossing stages.  He came to the obvious conclusion that waiting three times over is very inconvenient. So while the truck is held at a red light and his crossing phase is also red he might as well cross to save some waiting time. He dithers then goes for it.

Meanwhile, Mr Truck driver is watching his red light, it goes green, he floors it to be immediately faced with gambling-boy crossing, and then pulls an emergency stop, skidding, wheels locked up, drawing a one foot long black stripe on the tarmac.  Mr Truck then angrily shouts at a 12 year old boy.

End of witness statement.

If it isn't obvious, although the cycle and pedestrian facility is reasonably safe, it is massively inconvenient.  Waiting at lights in a car is inconvenient too, but you have the advantage of a high top speed to offset the delay.  Pedestrians and cyclists take a big hit on their journey time with each delay. Personally, I get round the waiting time by jostling with the traffic and only waiting for one set of red lights. I am odd though, its far more convenient and safer to drive or to be driven to school.

For a careful driver it was plainly obvious that a dithering child next to a crossing is a hazard that needs to be watched. My observation of the typical British driver shows that hazard perception and prediction is not well practiced unless it appears directly in front of them - they drive with a tunnel vision.  The vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians is not a consideration.

I could let my observation pass, but I see the Cambridge Cycling Campaign constantly fighting against these kind of defacto standard cycling and walking provision at new developments. It should be the job of the planning departments to look out for the future 12 year old boy and his route to school, and protect him from the unobservant modern motorist.  Otherwise, we continue to approve and build car centric communities.  No wonder the congestion charge was opposed, we need our cars.

Also of interest in this area is the Cambridge Cycle Campaign's proposed Ring Fort Path, trying to create a convenient route for residents of Orchard Park rather than long detour.