Monday, 13 December 2010

Bike Skills 3.0 - Clinic Weekender

That's it. Another year's shredding in California under my belt. Filled with up's and down's (figuratively and literally) and many adventures shared with great riding buddies. All good. Awesome, in fact. Physically, I'm reminded of the recent weekend's adventures. My legs are black and blue..... more so than usual. Why? Because I spent the whole weekend elevating my skill levels with some fantastic tutors at a couple of clinics.

Firstly, Saturday am and me and Chris made our way to Pacifica to meet up with Celia and her team for a Mountain Biking Marin organised downhill clinic. The session was to be a small, focused affair designed to arm us with the mettle necessary to tackle the bay areas only legit black diamond runs. Pacifica is not for the fainthearted. Rugged and unforgiving, warming up consists of riding/hiking up the steep, rocky terrain until you hit the trail heads. From there it's straight into downhill mayhem. We caught a glimpse of what was to come as we ascended and it looked terrifying.

Hauling burly bikes upwards, clad in full gladiator get up was one hell of a workout. But looking at the large drops and harsh rocks, we knew we'd be glad of the padding later. Instructor's Celia, Dave and Mike gave us tips on line choice to help our preparation and calm our nerves. The air was crackling with anticipation as we grouped at the top of our first descent; The Crack. My heart was pounding. Equal parts fear and excitement. Trails like this scare the hell out of me, but they're EXACTLY the sort of trails I've wanted to conquer and feel good about riding since attempting Northstar's double blacks. Here and now, was my chance!

The plan was to break the Crack down into sections and session each of it's trickier features. First up was a large drop near the start of the trail. Dave demo'd a nice, controlled line using technical skills to negotiate the drop and making it look easy enough to inspire our confidence. Talking about body position he stressed the importance of getting the elbows and knees out to act as secondary suspension for the bike. This little nugget served me well the whole day as it really puts you in a more commanding but relaxed position when hitting the gnarly stuff. Me and Chris we're first up. My focus tunneled as I bounced down the trail. Just about remembering to move my weight back slightly as I hit the drop, I didn't quite move enough. Luckily the 6 inches of my front fork absorbed my error and stopped me from flying over the bars. The recoil sent me flat on my back though. Cartwheeling overhead, the Nomad landed - saddle first - in the one place I'd neglected to strap on padding. First blood (or at least bruise) drawn and it was time to lose the anticipation anxiety and focus on technique. I'd hit the trail too fast and blundered through. My next run was more controlled. My body position improved and more consciously aware of my technique I cleared the drop no problem. By the fourth run I'd cracked it (pun intended.)

By now we were all getting psyched for the next section; a technical drop followed by an immediate steep S curved section - or, blast through a straighter line and hit another big drop. Kung Fu warmed up a treat, we were hitting the first drop no worries. The S curve was undoing everyone though. Requiring a fearless approach and precision threading, the technical challenge had us trying the straighter line instead. A steep, rocky descent, then a big drop onto more rocks. Doable, but definitely requiring skill and nerve in equal measure. My first shot and I made the drop ok but screwed the landing. I wasn't worried though. In fact I felt elated. Approaching the gnarl, something happened inside my brain. A mental switch had been thrown. Alive with firing synapses I didn't feel worry or fear, I felt great! Excited and overjoyed to be riding such challenging terrain and confident enough in my line and body position to feel relaxed and ready. This was exactly the feeling I was hungry for! Replacing fear with something far nicer - fun! Some of the guys were keen to hit Pacifica's jumps so they split off with Dave and Mike to session. I wanted to capitalise on my embryonic downhill confidence so stayed with Celia and Meredith to continue sessioning the Crack. Hitting the drop again, I nailed it. Time to move on.

Riding the rest of the Crack felt great. New found confidence had me pumping the track where before I'd be dragging my brakes or cautiously picking my way through. Great set up for the next trail: The Mile. Maybe not quite as gnarly as the Crack, the Mile has some long, steep technical sections that require full commitment to line choice. I'd normally be tempted to hike a bike sections like this, but the Crack had awakened a desire and confidence that I was keen to build on. We sessioned a particularly steep, tricky section that had a few line choices. Celia was keen to have us make our own choices and see our own route through. Being able to see the line and imagine taking it gives the mental advantage needed to tackle tricky terrain. If you only see boulders and danger, you'll spill. But seeing a clean line makes the whole thing doable. Convince your brain of that and you're halfway there. The rest is up to good riding technique and plush suspension.

Completing the rest of the Mile took us to the jump park where the other guys were hitting the ramps. Re-grouped we rode the Boyscout trail back to the cars. Muddy and rutted, Boyscout was not ideal for riding, but it gave a taste of what to expect in the Spring. Hopefully Celia and co will organise a jumping clinic there early next year. Then we'll be fully prepped for our planned Whistler trip in the Autumn.

On Sunday I headed down to the Nomad's spiritual home for a skills clinic with Adventure Out. As it happened I was the only person doing the course, so I had a one on one session with instructor Shaun. We started with a quick blast around some of De Laveaga Park's trails. Fun and fast, it was a good chance to warm up and for Shaun to asses my skill level. He spotted cornering was my weak area so we decided to work on that whilst riding one of Santa Cruz's signature trails; The Mailboxes. Though slightly boggy from the recent rains, Mailboxes was a hell of a ride. Santa Cruz trails tend to be beefier and more hardcore compared to the Bay area. This was no exception. Steep descents, Rough Go-esque boulder gardens and northshore style features built by the locals added up to a fun, challenging ride. Glad to be warmed up by the previous day's downhilling, I hit the trail with new confidence. I baulked at some of slippier sections. The thought of sitting on a 10 hour flight to blighty the following day with broken bits was enough to instill a little caution. But the focus was to be on cornering and flow, so we sessioned some of trail's sweeping sections until I was confidently hitting them with good technique and zero braking. Shaun also spent time teaching a tail flick technique. I've seen it done before - Chris does it all the time and it looks tres cool. But putting into practice it's practical application - that of quickly setting up line position - felt great. Shaun also spent the whole session giving great tit bits of info. Both for tweaking body position, ride technique and bike set up and maintenance. Riding fantastic trails with a top notch rider/instructor was an awesome experience. Soaking up as much info as I could, I now need to get out and put the weekend's combined learning into practice for myself. Cement the new found skills and confidence and build on it ready for next year's planned adventures and races. It's gonna be epic!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Fuddy Munsters

Cracking ride around China Camp this past weekend. One of those purely-for-the-fun-of-it jaunts that ends up registering as one of the best rides of the year.... or at least the past few months. Though spared a downpour whilst actually riding, the trails were thick with mud from the previous week's rain. The start of the Norcal winter riding season ; a few hours riding, a few more hours cleaning up afterwards. But China Camp holds it's own in such conditions and rewarded our venture into wintery weather with an awesome ride.

Climbing the front side, me, Spangles, Aubrey and Chris hit the Nike platform. From there, the usual rip down the backside - Hitler and so on. We finished the ride with China's fantastic front side singletrack. I'd forgotten how much fun mud riding is. Even more so on the Nomad which slips and slides but always digs in and gives you confidence to plough through. My technique is improving too. Using tips from Celia I felt totally in control on the steep (and wet) rutted descents. My cornering and flow was also on form. The whole place started to feel like a dirty big pump track. I even kept Chris and Aaron in my sights for the descent back to the cars. Great fun. And a ride to be repeated a few more times until Spring hits and the mud turns back to familiar California dust.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Turkey Jerkey

As a signed-up vegetarian I can't quite appreciate the whole thanksgiving turkey eating fest these 'mericans enjoy each year. UNLESS it involves a collective jaunt up a mountain - on bikes! So this year me, Spangles, Rosson, Aaron and Lee met up with a few hundred other like-minded folks on a cold and frosty Thursday am in Fairfax. The plan was to ride up and around Mt Tam taking in sections of the Pine Mountain loop and finishing with a spirited descent down the infamous Repack trail. Thus committing to history the 35th Annual Appetite Seminar, or Turkey Ride as some call it.

Wrapped in thermals and full of coffee, we left the Java hut around 8:00am. The whole thing is definitely not a race. More a regular ride with buddies, where you stop every now and again to chat, eat Cliff bars and take in the view/cough up a lung. Except there's about 3 or 4 hundred other people all doing the same thing, on the same trail. Excellent! Starting up the Bollinas Fairfax road we eventually hit the Pine Mountain loop trailhead. The climb was cold and hard. Lee and Aaron set a good pace from the off. Me and Spangles, being slightly older, creaked up the hill until we hit sunlight and the blood started to thaw. From there, I can't recall exactly what trails we did. Some I remember from riding Pine Mountain before. Others were new. But along the way we saw riders and rigs of all shapes and sizes. Retro bikes, clearly more used to commuting, sharing dirt with state of the art carbon beasts. Everyone joined in the common pleasure of hitting the trails with great company in the crisp NorCal air.

After 20 miles (or thereabouts) of peanut buttery mud and rocky climbs, we hit the legendary Repack trail for a fun, roller coaster descent back to Fairfax. I won't go into the history of the trail here. Click on the name for a link to googlepediard and learn all about it. Anyway. With hydraulic brakes and dual suspension - not to mention helmets being de rigueur - Repack is basically a steep fireroad by modern trail standards. But its a lot of fun. Twisty turns, tight corners and big ruts mean you really do have to keep your wits about you. Especially when sharing it with a few dozen other locals. By the time we hit the bottom of Repak our disks were smoking and our faces grinning. Those old hippies from back in the day earning a little more respect from those of us with fancier toys to play with.

The long weekend was rounded off by a ride up and down Mt Tam with Aaron and Scott. Luckily we rode mainly fireroad trails. My brain, pickled in alchopops from the night before, couldn't do technical without inevitable spillage. But we rode some stunning trails that I haven't done before. Fast, sweeping, lots of jumps. And the inevitable stunning views that never fail to impress whenever you take the mellow climb up Tam. The weekend's riding was a great way to end November and definitely the start of a new annual tradition on my biking calendar!

Monday, 15 November 2010

Annadel 11/10

Sunday the 14th November and we were blessed with a gloriously sunny day. The rains, which had blighted riding over the past few weeks, had left the trails tacky and dust free. Perfect riding conditions. So me, Spangles and Chris loaded up Jason's Scooby with bike goodies and headed north to Annadel. We met Rich and Jamie there and hit the dirt for a day's shredding.

We did our usual route of climbing Canyon and Marsh. We then decided to take Lawndale, climbing out along Schultz back to South Burma. For some reason we managed to get a little lost and missed South Burma. But we ended up riding some of Ridge trail instead which was fine. Its been a while since we'd ridden Ridge and I'd forgotten how much fun it is. Heading back down Canyon, after a solid four hours (and 26 miles+) in the saddle, we left totally satisfied and completely knackered. Perfect. A real back to basics ride. No training for a specific event. No worrying about technique or critique. Just me, good friends and a gorgeous, sunny Norcal day on the trails. That's not to say it was a relaxed ride. Spangles, like a mountain goat, kept a blistering pace on the climbs. And both he and Chris rip the descents. And you know what? I kept up - for the most part anyways. Focusing more on the fun and the moment and the joy's of riding meant I actually rode better than I have in a while. My cornering and descending was more fluid and I hammered the rocky stuff. It felt great. Just what I've been needing! Oh, and on one of the many climbs, we made a pact to do the Leadville 100 in 2012.......... Watch this space!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Bike Skills 2.0 - Celia Graterol Clinic

In continuation of my back to basics bike skills discipline, I started to look around at clinics. Google pointed me to Celia Graterol's website (link HERE) After reading one glowing testimonial after another I decided to sign up. I wanted to join those beaming people who's MTB lives had been improved at the hands of this Marin legend. So, after an introductory chat over the phone we arranged to meet at China Camp for some drills and practice. This was to be a precursor to a more downhill intensive session at Pacifica.

We started the session by climbing up to the Nike missile pad to session the drops there. Celia went over the physics of downhill riding and how these can be used to keep the bike in control on steep sections. Keeping control means there's no panic so you can ride with confidence. I've sessioned these drops before, but have always rolled to the edge, put faith in the bike and the big, flat open area at the base of each drop and held on. Good for the grin factor but not proper downhill technique. So we focused on keeping the bike under control ; getting the weight over the back wheel and feathering the brakes to control speed. In particular using the front brake's power to modulate speed whilst anchoring the rear with body position to prevent spillage over the bars. Sounds simple, but on a steep descent its a tough discipline. But keep your faith in the physics of it and you should be ok. So that's what we worked on. Progressively hitting each drop and applying the same, controlled, technique. It did feel good to ride the drops feeling like I was actually riding them, not just rolling down them and using the flat bottom to save me. We then went over some drills - manuals, drops, bunny hops etc. All good stuff and the type of skills I don't practice enough. So it was good to work on the fundamentals for a bit.

The rest of the session was spent exploring China Camp's dark side. The regular trails are often described as been quite tame compared to others in the area. However, hit the backside of China Camp and the terrain is an entirely different beast. With names like "Hitler", you get an idea of what to expect. I've ridden some of them before, with mixed success. Having Celia coach me through was fantastic and allowed me to clean sections I would have previously walked. Where necessary we'd stop and session a section until I either got it, or got a better understanding of what I need to practice.

We finished the ride by hitting the 7/11 trail. Those that know it will know why it is named so. The entrance to the trail is awesome. Celia told me to pick up speed and just follow her. Riding down Heart Attack Hill (or the Dyno as others call it) Celia veered to the right, up a near vertical bank! A grin hit my face as I followed, up and over, to the trail head. The 7/11 trail is truly awesome. A hidden gem. Twisty turny single track and steep sections with drops and roots. I put everything into practice as I followed Celia down the trail and started to feel the flow in my riding which has been lacking over the past few weeks.

Having recently done the Bikeskills downhill clinic at Northstar, I knew the leaps and bounds possible from spending time with the pro's. But having focused, one on one attention makes a big difference. Celia quickly assessed my ability and we rode appropriate trails. Taking me to the edge of my comfort zone to make progress, but never out of my league. So the whole experience was extremely satisfying and rewarding. I learned a lot. I'm already looking forward to the Pacifica session. In fact I bought a new full face helmet and body armor in anticipation!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Bike Skills 1.0

I started this year a fairly casual MTB rider. I did it as a way of keeping fit and hanging out with mates. Now I keep fit so I can ride harder and, whilst its still the best time you can spend with your buddies, I want to be a much better rider. I want to be competitive. Not in a bad way. But I want to race with enough skill and fitness to finish somewhere other than near-bottom. I've been watching instructional DVDs and devouring MTB books trying to soak up techniques and tips. When I go out and ride, my brain is working through a laundry list of instructions, processing all the new info I've pumped into it. The result? I've started to suck. Big time. My last ride at Skeggs was a turning point (or breaking point.) I was analysing every nuance of my riding. Trying to stay on the trail, perfect technique and keep up with Chris and Aaron.... Over thinking everything had a hugely negative effect. My cornering was terrible, I was hitting technical sections too slowly and second guessing every move. I had no flow and my confidence collapsed. Not good.

So, I've decided to go back to basics. Reading books and watching videos is all well and good but I have to feel it. It needs to be in my muscle memory to work. You can't do that unless you're on the bike. So, I've decided to do some clinics and practice sessions to up my game a bit. Skills 1.0 was this weekend. I went to Helen Putnam Park in Petaluma. I haven't been before but looking at the map it seemed perfect. Lots of twisty turns to session over and over. I arrived on a very wet, rainy afternoon and rode around until I found a suitable trail section to session. The weather meant I had the whole place to myself. It also made the single track a little more slippery so finding good technique was essential.

The first corner I sessioned was a nice, wide left. I set up the camera so I could watch my technique and make adjustments. The first few runs I did whatever came natural. Breaking on the apex, not leaning the bike. All the bad stuff. With each run I started to introduce a new element : Weight the outside foot, point the inside knee through the turn, push left to go left etc... I could feel the benefit of each, but the most natural technique was to simply look through the corner. Look well ahead, and keep focused on the exit. Looking back over the footage, I could see that everything else was more or less falling into place by itself. My body position seemed good, I was leaning the bike and weighting the outside. The bike had good traction and was railing nicely. Looking at the video below you can see how taking the outside line is also faster. As long as I stay relaxed and focused on the exit, the bike will rail on its own.

The next corner was a tight right. Just before the apex there was a tree. Predictably, my first attempt had me focus on the tree and hitting the brakes to keep on track. Forcing my brain to relax and instead focus on the exit, I quickly improved. The video below shows how, again, taking the outside line is much smoother. Not as quick in this case, but the body and bike position is much better. I could have carried more speed with a few more runs.

Ofcourse, I needed to fall a few times to help feel when things aren't right. This video shows what happens when you turn the bar to try and steer. I didn't consciously do it, but I must've been trying to take the inside line to avoid the tree. Over compensating. Also, this video shows poor body position. My inside knee is pointing inwards so my setup is screwed.

So. Not exactly a RAD shredding session. But an important one. It was good to take time out and just relax into the technique a bit. Also using the camera is a great aid. I now know where my weaknesses lie and what to work on. I tend to weight too far forward, turn the bars into the corner and point my inside knee the wrong way. But if I just relax and look through the corner, things come together. I don't need to run through lists of commands to corner better. I can just focus on tweaking my technique and trust what I learned.

Helen Putnam Park is somewhere I'll be hitting on a regular basis over the next month or so. It's great for practicing skills and has some lovely twisty turny sections. In the meantime I have a couple of classes coming up. Next weekend its a session at China Camp with Celia Graterol (see her website HERE.) After that I have a skills course in Santa Cruz. I'm looking forward to the accelerated learning that comes from having a tutor. But I'm also looking forward to a few more practice sessions at Helen Putnam with the camera. Watch this space for (hopefully) lots of progress!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Tahoe Weekender

Our planned end of September Tahoe weekend had been anticipated for a few weeks. A day of downhill madness at Northstar followed by a XC look at the Hole in the Ground trail. As lady luck would have it, Northstar was playing host to BikeSkills that weekend who, in turn, were offering various clinics. One in particular was almost too good to believe : Downhill Techniques with Steve Peat, Cedric Gracia and Gregg Minnaar! A full day's training and tutoring from world class MTB royalty! The class was an advanced clinic, but this was too good an opportunity to miss. I might be out of my element, but at least I'd be able to explain my broken bones by telling people I'd done it riding alongside Steve Peat ;o)

We arrived at Northstar, padded up and grabbed our steeds. Rosson, Spangles and In Soo were off to hit the trails for the day while I rode, nervous but excited, over to the Bike Skills tent. Our hero's were running late so I took to Livewire to get a feel for the bike and warm up. I'd swapped the standard flats on my rental Glory for a set of nice, new Crank Brothers Mallet pedals. With a big, flat bed and spindle they seemed a good mix of security and downhill practicality. They did a fine job and definitely helped with my confidence on the jumps.

Back at the camp and those of us taking the course got chatting while we waited. The clinic was to be lead by Karl Rogne. A really nice guy and excellent, patient teacher. Karl guaged our ability level as he chatted to us. For an advanced clinic, I was pleased to see a few others were more intermediate or cross country biased. Once Steve, Greg and Cedric arrived we hit the trails for our first lesson.

Lesson 1 : Cornering. After introductions and ride position basics, we sessioned a section of slightly burmed trail to work on cornering technique. I was all ears as this is an area that I really want to improve. We took it in turns to hit the corners, trying each time to incorporate the guy's advice. Keep your weight in the pedals, not the bar. Keep your centre of gravity over the bottom bracket by dropping the outside foot and weighting it. This keeps the bike pushed into the dirt. Also, lean the bike, don't try to lean the body into the turn. I've always tried to lean into turns, like you do on the road, but Greg explained you don't have the same traction or speed as you do on the road so it's much safer and easier to lean the bike and let it rail.

After a few runs at the corners it was time to head back to base via the Karpiel trail. Karpiel, which starts as a single black and ends as a double, is a lot of fun. Burms, jumps and big, rocky sections. I struggled to keep up on the rough stuff but Steve Peat had good technique advice. We learned about unweighting the bike ; When approaching rough rocky sections, pump the suspension and let the bike recoil and lift. Use this elevation to skim over the rocks, chose flat areas, or rocks, to pump again and unweight. Not really a bunny hop, but more a way of gliding over rocks rather than hitting them with blunt force - which is what I was doing. This is a great technique and one I kept employing. It makes rock gardens much safer and, crucially, faster! You almost don't believe it will work, but then you brace yourself for rough, and you sail over it with no dramas! This clinic was awesome!

Lesson 2 was jumping. We found a quite trail and sessioned two of the jumps. Again, our instructors demo'd and then gave feedback as we took turns hitting the jump. "The lip is your friend" repeated Cedric over and over. I asked Cedric about technique. I've always had problems trying to dictate the bike's path on a jump, but the opposite is really what I should be doing. Let the bike take a natural arc. By itself it won't screw up, so let it do it's thing. The important thing is to let the bike come up to you as you crest the jump, and push the bars down gently as you hit the downside. This advice, and my clipped in shoes, made the jumps much more fun and less intimidating.

We then took the morning's lessons and put them into practice on Livewire. Bikeskills had a camera crew on hand and, fortunately, I managed some sweet jumps whenever the lens was pointed my way. I was clearing table tops with way more confidence than before, but was still struggling with the bermed corners. Whenever I'd try to push it and not brake, I'd understeer. My front wheel would dig in and I'd fight to keep upright. So I couldn't help but brake on the corners - not good form. A laundry list of instructions were rattling around my head : drop the outside foot, lean the bike in, keep the arms light, weight in the pedals... A couple of times I nailed it and really REALLY felt the difference. The bike felt like it was on rails and a little moment of eureka was had.... but I couldn't quite get the muscle memory to hard wire it. My default would kick in and I'd be back to bad technique. On the last run, I took one of the steep left corners and, determined to rail and not brake, wiped out. My front wheel disappeared from under me and I overshot the corner - head first - into a boulder garden. Taking a dizzying whack to the head, I was thankful for my sturdy helmet saving me from the unthinkable.

After lunch we hit Livewire again to work on our jumping and cornering technique. I was completely dusted (as Steve put it) covered in trail dirt from my fall. By the end of the day most of us looked the same. Battle weary but grinning. I asked Karl about the cornering and how my wheel was understeering. He pinpointed the problem - I was turning the bike into the corners, not steering it. A big difference. "Push, wait and let the bike turn.." I'd been turning the bars rather than letting the bike lean over and steer itself. I still struggled with the technique, but tried to focus on pushing with my inside hand rather than my outside... This seemed like a good way of making sure I steered rather than turned. I still have a way to go, but I feel armed with the theory now. I just need to put the graft in until I successfully commit it to muscle memory.

The last lesson of the day was line choice through challenging terrain. We picked a section of the Sticks and Stones trail - a double black diamond. Steve, Greg and Cedric all demonstrated their line choice and made the steep, rocky descent look effortless. Most of the group had a crack at this section and did a great job of getting down it. I had a go, but baulked. I crested the top and all I saw were huge, bone crushing rocks. My brain wasn't processing line choice or pumping backsides for extra speed, it was wondering if my Kaiser would cover the inevitable spillage. So I walked it. It would've been a great end to the day had I cleaned it, but some things can't be taught in a day, and confidence on double blacks is something I'll have to work at and earn - for now.

We took the rest of Sticks and Stones back to camp. Karl followed me and gave tips on my riding position. I always keep my knees really bent to keep my centre of gravity low. But Karl showed me how awkward I looked compared to a straighter legged, more commanding stance. Great advice and much needed as we descended the rest of Sticks and Stones.

Back at base and I had to rush to catch the final gondola home. Missing a picture op' with the guys - damn. But the memories from that session are far more valuable than digital snaps. Solid pieces of concrete advice from the sport's best exponents. Riding a trail, with Steve Peat right behind giving critique, really is quite a surreal experience. But I intend taking all the info that was absorbed that day and applying it as best I can to the trail.

Day 2 and we hit Hole in the Ground. A beautiful, scenic loop on some of the best trails I've ever seen. Superbly well maintained and carpeted in places for longevity, this is a dirt lovers dream. The terrain is mainly rocky, with some steep technical drops and rock gardens. The climbs aren't severe, but the altitude is a killer. The first few miles of climbs were brutal. It felt like I was riding with a girdle. The thin air mixed with heavy trail dust left our lungs burning. But the trail is totally worth it. In Soo dropped behind while the 2 Jason's motored on ahead. I did ok, but for some reason my heart wasn't in it. My mojo has been lacking for the past few weeks. I need to get my Downieville self back somehow. Long hours at work and not enough quality time in the saddle have taken their toll physically and mentally. So I really didn't ride my best, which was a shame given these were some of the finest trails in Northern Cali'. Ah well. The whole weekend taught me there's a lot still to learn. Or at least, a lot to practice. But I'm in the best place in the world to do it. I need to shake myself out of this funk and enjoy the trails. Make some progress and feel good about my riding again. Thanks to Steve and the guys, I at least have the knowledge to take my riding forward. Once the movie I'm working on finishes, I'll have the time too. I can't wait!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Monkey Business

What will likely be the last race of the season for me, was the first race at Annadel for almost 25 years. Another Bike Monkey organised event, the race started at Spring Lake and took a winding, 25 mile route through Annadel's signature, epic trails. The locals turned out in force to make the most of racing some of the finest dirt in the area. Me and Spangles met up with Chris, a new riding buddy who I shared a few tortuous miles with at SoNoMas. Rosson was also there with the rest of the Zeitgeist crew. Riding singlespeed, Jase did another fine job coming 7th in his cat. Race report from him on the Zeitgeist page to follow. We all set off at 9:00am sharp. A couple hundred riders kicking up golden illuminated dust was an awesome sight. I wanted to pause to take pictures, but there was racing to be done...

Unbeknown to us, last week's pre-ride was pretty much on the money. We'd managed to ride most of the trails picked for the race. Starting up Canyon we worked our way to Lawndale. Based on my last couple of rides I was extremely worried about my performance. I really wasn't in good shape at SoNoMas and suffered badly. Last weekend's ride was tough and a clear sign I need some downtime. Since then, I've been working long hours, not resting enough and eating chips with everything. Not ideal race prep. But as we started the steady climb into Annadel State Park, I felt pretty good. My heart rate (always a good indicator as to how a ride will pan out) was in the low 170's where last week I'd been pegged in the 180's. Lawndale was it's usual wide-grin fun. Fast, flowing and, for the most part, shaded, it was a great test of my new Julbo Dirt photochromic glasses. They performed excellently. In fact I barely knew I had them on most of the time.

At the first rest stop I met Chris. We rode together for a few miles until we hit South Burma. Feeling fairly strong, but sleep deprived, I appreciated the pick up in pace to get me through the tough, technical climbs. I don't think I've ever ridden South Burma as fast as I did on the race. Double fisting both grips for extra support I pointed the Nomad south and held on. Such a fun trail, both me and the bike were in our element! Once we'd done South Burma it was onto the final stretch to Rough Go. By this stage I started to wane and lose focus. A couple of rough rock spills and Gu shots later and I was back on track. Ready to hit the crazy boulder garden for one last shred.

I came in (according to Garmin) a whisker over 3 hours. Spangles did another fine job coming in around 2:40. Chris was a little after, and ahead of me. Could I have done it quicker if I'd not been so wrung out from work? Possibly.... But only by a hair, if that. My climbing pace was a little off, but I honestly don't think I've ridden Annadel as fast as I did on race day. My cornering speed was better, I hit the rough stuff with confidence and pumped the track for as much flow as I could get. Still room for lots of improvement. But as a finish to this season's epic racing fun, I'm totally satisfied with my efforts. For now, its back to the usual routine of riding for fun, not preparation. But there's always the cyclocross season coming up.... Rosson assures me I'll like it. And there's nothing quite like the buzz of meeting up with a field full of like-minded people and strapping a race bib to the bars... ;o)

Garmin route and info HERE

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Anticipating Annadel

Next week it's the Bike Monkey organised Annadel 2010 race. 25 miles around our home turf. Details of the course are sketchy. We know there's a descent down Rough Go to the finish, but the rest will be revealed on the day. To prepare, me and Spangles took a trip up Santa Rosa way to hit the trails and get prepped for next week's fun.

We took the familiar climb up Canyon and then Marsh. I reckon this will form part of the race as it leads to the main trail heads... My guess is it'll be the first real climb. We then hit Lawndale. Unlikely to be on the race course as it dead ends, but its too much fun to miss. We looped back to the top of Marsh and then hit South Burma. I have a feeling we'll do both South and North Burma as part of a figure of 8 route.... We'll see. But I hope they have South Burma on there. Such great variety and some excellent rock garden goodies to test the mettle (and suspension.)

We finished the ride down Rough Go. Bike Monkey has pre-warned people about this finish and it's easy to see why as soon as you hit it. Technical doesn't quite do it justice. The singletrack is not steep - it'd be lethal if it were. But it's littered with so many boulders and rocks you have to make the route up on the fly. And fly you must. One small loss of momentum over those big rocks and you'll ruin your whole day. Great fun though. Threading through this weird, alien looking landscape, daring to keep looking ahead and ride faster, relying on latent skill to deal with the immediate terrain. This will certainly be a tough end to the race.... Not a trail I want to attempt riddled with cramp and carb crashes. Hopefully my prepping this week will offset that handicap. Watch this space for a race report!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

From The Archives

Found this while looking through some pics from recent years. Bob's Commencal on the left, Jim's Kona Kula on the right (since been half-inched) Sexy Stu's Scott front and centre, and my Orange (styling "fenders") up top. Taken after me and Jim rode from Brizzul to Bradford Upon Avon to meet up with Stu and Bob for a fellas night out, and then a little Sunday leg stretch. We stopped off at The Lockside Inn to grab a massive plate of fried veggie goodness with extra chips. The booze and food to riding ratio was never going to get our race weight sorted, but what a great weekend!

Monday, 30 August 2010

So No Mas

What with Northstar, work and a bit of much needed R&R it's been a good 3 weeks since I last rode cross country. Might not sound like much, but bike fitness is measured in dog years. A couple of weeks out of the granny gear can make a big difference to bike strength. This, I found out in style, at So No Mas this Sunday. Organised by Bike Monkey, the race is a 35 miles (or 50k depending on what side your bread's buttered) romp around Lake Sonoma. 35 miles is a fair old slog. Times it by 8000 feet of climbing and you wanna be in tip top shape to even fill out the registration form. But I was up for it. As was Rosson (riding singlespeed!?!) and Spangles. I spent the whole week leading up to it knocking back electrolytes and looking forward to a full day's shredding in the sun.

Come Sunday, we got up at ridiculous o'clock and drove to the race meet. To quote Spangles, "bike monkey? more like brass monkey!" Yep, it was cold and foggy. Like Howell a few weeks before, the fog began to burn away as we took shape for the mass start. The race website boasted the race was "35 miles of get tough." This was bolstered by the pre-race briefing. The course was to be hilly, steep and unpleasant. Sipping coffee and eating free oatmeal, it was hard to put any tangible meaning to this. Skip ahead a few hours and the Bike Monkey's solemn warnings were echoing around my frazzled head.

We started, en mass, at 8:00am. Contenders were due to finish around the 3.5 hour mark. I reckoned on a solid 5 hour finish time. That, I'd be pleased with. The first couple of miles was a road climb to the trail head. I felt pretty good. Bike felt solid. A mile or so into the dirt however and things weren't right. My heart rate was jacked a good 10bpm over the norm and I was pretty sure I was about to spray my bars and Garmin with oatmeal. Everything felt like a much bigger effort that it should have. Shades of the Tamarancho race, except I had over 30 miles to go. After 8 miles or so, things settled down. My heart rate dropped below the red line and breakfast decided not to hit eject.

For the next 3 or 4 miles I felt pretty strong. I hit a few of the steeper climbs that had others bike hiking - no problem. The descents were also fine. A couple of spills over ruts but nothing major. But it wasn't to be sustained. Sometime around mile 12 my body started to suffer. The familiar stabbing cramp pain took hold of my quads and my energy levels kept hitting zero. The climbs were brutal. Frequent, steep and soul sapping. My legs were getting no chance to recover on the flat or downhill reprieves. It didn't take long before I resorted to frequent rest stops to either try and settle my squirming thighs, neck more sugary goop or just recover mentally before the next assault. The scenery was epic. Quartz lake far below and beautiful blue sky. The singletrack too was fantastic. But I couldn't appreciate it. Each fleeting grasp of flow was met with an immediate series of punishing, anaerobic climbs.

My mind was willing, but my body wasn't. Me and a few other poor souls gradually spent more and more time out of the saddle pushing, than spinning. On more than one occasion I looked down at the granny convinced I was grinding the big ring. No such luck. Each gear shift down made it even more remarkable that Rosson was somewhere far ahead with just the one cog! By the time I hit the late twenties, I was totally done. Each rest longer than the last, each spurt of cranking less than before. Finally, I hit the home stretch. Crossing the finish line I was glad it was over. A hollow victory and, pushing the 6 hour mark, hardly a convincing performance. Spangles did a great job having finished an hour before. Rosson got somewhere around 4:30. Sterling work!

So, I'm not sure what went wrong. Too much food in the morning? not enough the day before?.... Not enough rest? Too long out of the saddle? Probably. Who knows. I'm in two minds about doing the race again next year. Yes, they said it'd be tough. That's the apeal. But it has to be rewarding too. So No Mas left a bitter taste and a sense of set back - especially after Howell where I felt pretty strong. Still, we have Annadel in 2 weeks. A chance to get back some pride. Until then, I'm living like a vicar and hitting some steep dirt to get set.

Garmin info HERE. I think the tree cover clouded the Garmin's little brain as it measured 6000ft of climbing, not 8000ft. Also, you can see how jacked my heart rate was for the first hour. Urgh, not fun.

Monday, 16 August 2010

First of the Northstar

This weekend, it was time to try something a little different - downhill at Northstar. I'd always planned to ease myself gently into a trip like this. First, I was going to do one of the skills courses on offer at the park and then segue into a nice weekend's riding - probably on the Nomad. Well, that plan evaporated when Rosson idly talked of taking a trip up there this Sunday to join his buddies Rich and Derek. No sooner was the seed sown and I was online, booking myself a lift pass, armor, full face helmet and a bad-as-you like Giant Glory! With dual crown forks and 8 inch coils this bike is built for one thing : Going downhill... Fast! With Spangles also onboard, the 3 of us met up at ridiculous o'clock in the am and made our way to the mountains.

We parked up and met with Spangles' mate, In Soo. We then took the gondola to pick up our rigs and hit the slopes. The Giant Glory is an impressive beast. It's clearly built to run on the right side of gravity and take anything mother nature can throw at it. It aint built for anything like climbing though. We decided to warm up on some blue runs. Coupled with the armor and high altitude, riding the Glory up the slight incline to the trail head was no mean feat. I wouldn't be suprised if the double butted frame tubes were reinforced with concrete. Point it downhill though, and suddenly it all makes sense.

Our warm up blue run started with some nice, sweeping burms and technical singletrack. But it ended quickly. With either black diamond routes or green trails (read : fireroad) back to the lifts, we opted for the red pill. Our trail of choice was FlameOut. Nice and technical with big boulder sections and drops, it was a great way to get a feel for the new rides. We rode the chairs back up, and sessioned FlameOut a couple more times. To the casual observer, downhill might seem like the lazy man's version of mountain biking. Have all the reward of the descent, and let the ski lift take care of the ride back up. However, keeping some sort of control over a 3 stone rig, whilst trying to soak up what an 8 inch spring can't - is one hell of a workout. After a few runs it was time for lunch and re-group.

The afternoon was spent riding Northstar's finest roller coaster - Livewire! Irrigated to keep the dirt tacky, this rolling, insanely burmed bobsleigh run has one speed - fast. Taking this at anything other than break-neck speeds simply results in fried trigger fingers. And that's exactly what happened. At run's 2 and 3 I hit the sweet spot where growing confidence met enough endurance to ride fairly hard. I was clearing a few table tops and even had Rosson in my sights for most of the time. But my last couple of runs destroyed what grip I had left in my withered arms. I was beat - but buzzing!

After a full day's riding we returned our gear and headed back to the city. I'd had a couple of spills and scares but without doubt we'd had a fantastic day's shredding. Downhill is a very different aspect to the sport and one I'm keen to keep my hand in. Rich had told me once that it's great for skill's training and he's not wrong. You can't fight gravity. So dealing with speed over sketchy terrain is something you have to get used to very quickly. It also sharpens your wits - like when to bail when you're well out of your depth on a double black diamond run! All skills I'm keen to develop and take to the trails. The next day I woke feeling like I'd been beaten up. My whole body has been punished and one of my feet feels like it probably needs medical attention. The mountain demands a price for all that vertical fun. Still, totally worth it. In fact we're already planning the next Tahoe trip. Livewire withdrawals are hard to fight ;o)

Monday, 9 August 2010

Howell Mountain Challenge

No sooner had the excitement of Downieville mellowed and it was time for another race. This time we were on familiar ground. The Howell Mountain Challenge took place in Angwin, Napa, the same place as the Napa Valley Dirt Classic (see April's blog entry for that one.) The difference this time was the course was set up as a multi loop race (2 x10 mile loops for cat 2) rather than the NVDC's 22 mile circuit. But it took in much of the same trail network. Me and Rosson were hoping for much sunnier, dryer conditions than April's race. But as we drove along a cold, drizzly 101 deja vu started to make itself apparent. Spangles had planned to join us but it turns out last weekend's ride had broken his carbon stumpy frame as well as his face. So he had to bail. Hopefully he'll get himself sorted for the So No Mas race at the end of this month.

I'd decided to change tactics a little on this race and experiment with my setup. At previous race meets I'd taken note of other's little tips and tricks for lighter, seemingly more race friendly kit. Given the Howell' challenge was only 20 miles, with water stops, I decided to ditch the camel sack in favour of a bottle and have a seat mounted pouch for essentials. I even taped Gu to my crossbar for ultimate efficiency (although a steep switchback malfunction ripped this clear and sent it into the wilderness.) I'd previously tested the seat pouch to make sure the gravity dropper still worked fine - which it did. The pouch held a tube, co2 canisters and valve, tyre levers and a cool little multi tool. The water bottle was a trickier problem to solve. I didn't trust using jersey pockets, and the Nomad is too bad-ass to rock bottle cage braze-ons. So in the end (and after much 'net research) I decided on a headset bracket on which to bolt the cage. I figured it wouldn't bias weight when steering and should be pretty stable given it uses the headset thru-bolt.

In truth, I'm not 100% convinced the change in setup improved my performance that much. I didn't get the sense of freedom I expected from not carrying a camel sack. I also felt slightly distracted by the big grey bottle in my peripheral vision. But it all worked fine and survived the few scrapes and crashes that I had. I might use this setup for Annadel, but I'm definitely using the 'sack for So No Mas....

So, the actual race. By the time we'd cleared the hike a bike section and hit the first loop proper, the mist started to burn away leaving a clear blue sky. Conditions were perfect. Dry and dusty but loose enough in sections to test the mettle. The course took in many of the highlights of the Napa Valley Dirt Classic but seemed to be much easier on the climbs. A true XC race, the ascents - although at times steep and challenging - were well spaced out and gave way to some outstanding descents. Nothing too steep, just long and flowing. A good mix of rutted fireroad and sweeping singletrack. One section I remember clearly from the NVDC has rider's hitting a 3 dip roller coaster. I'd previously ridden these - albiet tentatively - on the Orange. Now I wanted to hit them hard with the Nomad! Steep and rocky on the descent and equally so on the immediate climb... I elected to keep in a high gear to prevent my chain coming loose and just crank up the opposing face as far as possible. Great fun - a lot like the flumes at China Camp, but much much wider so you can really let the bike fly and enjoy the grin!

Results have yet to be posted, but according to my Garmin friend, I came in around the 2:15 mark... something I'm extremely pleased with as it shows clear progress over races earlier in the year. There's definite room for improvement, both in terms of skill and fitness, but I'm heading in the right direction. I hooked the Garmin up to it's website to check out the stats. This is a feature I haven't used up to now, but its cool to see the course and how I dealt with it - in terms of pace and heart rate. I rode the Howell' with pretty much the same sort of stats as Downieville. Looking back at Tamarancho its clear something was not quite right that day. Pace was slow and, more significantly, my heart rate was jacked way higher throughout the whole race. Some lessons to be learned and applied for sure. The link to the Howell race Garmin stats is HERE.

Friday, 6 August 2010

'Rancho Night Ride 8510

Went over to Fairfax with Rosson last eve to meet up with Rich and Derek for some nocturnal Tamarancho adventures. I always seem to forget how disconcertingly difficult night riding is until I'm there, wide eyed, trying to negotiate technical dirt with a couple of lamps for guidance. I had one or three topples on the tight switchbacks and rocky sections, as is usually the case with me. It's especially frustrating as the very same sections in daylight are cleaned without drama. Still, its all good skills training. Hanging out with these fellas is also good incentive to ride that little bit harder and faster too, even if that means a few knocks and bumps along the way. And there's always the post ride Brewco session to look forward to :o)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Downieville 'Ratzied

I'm normally behind the camera so don't get to post many pictures of my fizzog on here. However, Rocky Arroyo Photography were snapping at the Downieville XC race this year and I couldn't help but grab a copy of this one. Look at that beautiful frame contrasting with the searing white rock .... (the Nomad, I mean) ;o)

Monday, 2 August 2010

Pine Mountain

Its been a couple of weeks since I headed out in search or dirt. I did the SF Marathon last week. I've been guilty of putting riding before running. But as it turns out bike fitness can get you through 26.2 miles of pounding pavement. Still, I was itching to get back onto the fat tyres so, this first weekend in August me and Spangles hit Pine Mountain. Seemed fairly straightforward. No tricky singletrack or technicals to contend with. Just a fireroad slog in the Cali' midday sun. We have the So-No-Mas ride on the horizon so wanted a hot, exposed ride with grueling climbs to help us prepare. Pine Mountain took our request and raised it. We were soon to discover she's a vicious beast indeed.

We decided on the classic Pine Mountain loop. This part of Marin is steeped in mountain biking lore. It's where the pioneers of the sport first realised that bikes + dirt trails = fun! Those early shred enthusiasts clearly liked the rough stuff. The loop is fairly short at just over 13 miles but you hit a lot of steep, rocky climbing. Its so loose under foot that a couple of particularly technical sections have earned the nickname "The Bitches." But this was ok by us. This is what we came for. The descents were pretty much more of the same - steep and loose. There's no single track here, its all fireroad. But its fast, sweeping and, in one memorable section, a total roller coaster. This was fun!

Once we hit the San Geronimo trail it was time for another beastly climb. Both me and Spangles are getting fairly strong at the climbing but the heat - and maybe residual marathon fatigue - took its toll on me. It wasn't long before Jase pulled ahead and out of sight. The next time I was to see him is an image I won't forget in a hurry. At around the 8 mile mark the trail gives way to a fairly steep, but insanely rocky descent. Big baby head rocks constantly shifting under the Nomad's tread. The long travel and slack head angle soaked up any nerves and left me enjoying the ride. Forcing myself to keep my eyes ahead and let body and bike deal with the immediate vicinity, I spotted Spangles waiting patiently halfway down the trail. "That's a weird place for him to let me catch up, his bike is parked all funny, man this suspension is plush, that rock looks like it'll give me some decent air, hey Jase what's occurri.... HOLY SH*T!"

"Ere mate, do you have your first aid handy?".....

Luckily, I did. And the poor fecker needed it. Standing, dazed and wild eyed, staring through a T-zone caked in bright red ooze. Moments before, on his much lighter S-Works Stumpy, Jase had buckarood himself, orbit first, into one of Pine Mountain's finest skull crushing rocks. We both kept calm and went through all the proper procedures ; assess damage, clean the wound, apply dressing, take a picture for Facebook... Ah, exposure not quite right, take another picture... Now try one with a thumbs up... Smile! Within 10 minutes he was back in the saddle claiming "ah, its only a face..". What a trooper!

A few miles left to go and then we were back to the car. Leaving Pine Mountain with some much deserved respect and a little DNA. After a couple of hours in A&E Jason was right as rain. Plus he'll have a scar to prove his mountain biking stripes. A couple of lesson's well learned though. We're planning a Northstar trip in the very near future. Suddenly those nice full face helmets don't seem overly extreme after all..

Friday, 30 July 2010

Tubeless Tinkering

My good friend and riding compadre, Jason Spangles has been busying himself making all kinds of useful bike kit out of spare bits of metal. In preparation for our upcoming races he's gone all tubeless using an antique extinguisher to pump his rubber. Check it out....

... Here!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Annadel - 71810

Bike Monkey Magazine recently announced they’re organising a XC race to be held at Annadel in September. Another race on home turf! We decided to prepare by hitting Annadel State Park this past weekend. We, being myself, Jase, Aaron and Scott. We also bumped into our old riding compadre Jaime in the car park who joined in for a while. Our last ride here was a complete wash out – literally. We hit the top of Marsh and the heaven’s opened. Our riding gear was totally inappropriate so we cut the ride short. Skip forward a few months into the baking heat and the whole place is dried to dust. Perfect!

We started out climbing Canyon towards the base of the Marsh trail. A relatively gentle climb made tough by the blistering heat. We continued up Marsh and made our way to Lawndale. A varied trail with a good mix of technical, rocky sections but always fast and sweeping. We had to spread out from each other to stop the dust clouds masking jeopardy. As Jason put it “at one point all I was doing was chasing dust and a shadow.”

After the grin inducing Lawndale we hit some more technical climbing towards Ridge. It’s been long enough since I’d ridden here to notice I was hitting these sections with far more confidence and skill than before. I put that down to time well spent climbing Tamarancho’s technical sections. Ridge trail was, once again, epic and sweeping. Very rocky in sections but the Nomad, as always, ploughed through where a delicate line couldn’t be threaded.

We finished the ride with a spirited blast back down Marsh and Canyon towards the carpark. Always a great way to end a day’s shredding at Annadel. One of the many things I love about the trails here is the descents. They’re long, fast and rocky with plenty of up-ahead visibility. You can hit the cranks and leave off the anchors with full abandon. The climbs are satisfying too – blistering heat aside. They never get that steep and the payoff seems to go on for miles. I’m coming to really appreciate the all-mountain geometry and set up of the Nomad too. It’s made for trails like this and eats them up when I have the confidence to let it.

The day’s riding was satisfying and fun, but not without its casualties. Scott’s front tyre was near to disintegrating the whole time. Haemorrhaging tubeless goo we slipped a tube in there, but he still had to ride with caution. Which pretty much meant the Trail Genie rode at a pace closer to us mere mortals. Aaron’s bike switched to single speed halfway through as his derailleur cable broke. I too had gear issues, but a quick lesson in bike maintenance from Spangles and they were good as new. I did get heat stroke though. A wicked combination of not quite enough water in the camel sack and the Santa Rosa sun cooked my brain to a medium rare. Still, good conditioning for the upcoming So No Mas ride….. 35 miles and 8000ft on shadeless trails in 100 degree + heat!??!? In a sick way, I can’t wait!