Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The worst job in running - Feetures socks long-term test

Being my running socks must be one of the most unenviable jobs in sport.  Unlike most courteous running sock owners who bash out the miles on trails and roads, I insist on dragging them through stinking peat bogs, gravelly granite and sodden moorland instead.  If the Buddhists are right then I sincerely hope that when George Osborne and David Cameron pop their clogs they get reincarnated as a pair.  Until then I'll definitely keep using Feetures.
They spend a LOT of time in here!
A couple of years ago I ran for Northern Ireland at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs at Pikes Peak in Colorado.  The fact that the race was 13.5 miles ALL uphill wasn't an issue, but with the finish line at 14,115ft in the crawl inducing, oxygen lacking air I knew that my chances were limited.  Knowing that there was no sensible way to acclimatise I instead focused on preparing all the controllable variables as professionally as possible.  I ran multiple ascents of Slieve Donard back to back, dropped my bodyweight to its lowest safe limit and then started to search for the marginal gains.

When it came to socks I'd always raced in my lucky pair with the orange stripes on.  They'd been with me for 100% of my race wins and so were clearly dripping with lucky charm (neatly ignoring all the defeats they also witnessed).  However, being black and made of heavy cotton I thought they may not be suitable for the thirty degree Colorado heat and so decided to get some 'proper' running socks.  A quick e-mail to 2Pure, the extremely generous Feetures distributors, and six shiny new pairs of Feetures Elites appeared in the post.

First impressions weren't that exciting, after all they're only socks and I tossed them in the garage with my hefty pile of running stuff.  When it came time to try them, closer inspection revealed they were more interesting than initially anticipated.  For a start the socks are left and right specific, and why not?  After all, shoes are totally different for individual feet and they aren't designed to mould to the skin like top quality socks are.  They also feature reinforcement where needed in the heel, sole and toe box whilst being at their thinnest on the top of the foot for some breathability.

Putting them on was a pleasure, silky to the touch they hugged my feet with just a hint of compression and no sign of blister inducing slack spots and once I started to run I became an instant convert to the concept of specific socks for specific tasks.  The inaugural test was a jaunt over the peaks with plenty of uneven, technical ground and a range of surfaces.  What immediately struck me was how much my shoes were slopping around on my feet where they'd never previously felt loose.  The fixed proximity of the sock to my skin highlighted my inadequate lacing, I just never noticed because my socks used to move with the shoes.  Re-lacing my Inov8's generated a whole new level of control that's virtually eliminated the ankle rolls that previously blighted me.

That was eighteen months ago and the six pairs have all had a thorough testing during that period.  From thirty degree heat in Italy to minus ten in Ireland my feet have never felt excessively uncomfortable from the conditions.  Their longevity has been pretty astounding and although the silky feeling is a distant memory they still feel good on my feet and remain very snug fitting.  They are showing no signs of wearing through in any areas despite having been used around sixty times each on average.  Put like that they'd have only cost me 25p per pair per run and are still going strong.  The equivalent would be like a pair of shoes lasting me for over 300 runs and that's definitely a pipe dream!  It's not just the running either, that's sixty washes each too and considering a pair of socks I won from another major running kit manufacturer shrank after just a few spin cycles it further demonstrates the quality of the materials.

Not much else to say really.  Since using the Feetures Elites I've suffered far fewer ankle injuries, no blisters (despite regularly running for up to four hours with wet feet) and feel I have better control in techy ground.  I never expected any of that, I was just looking for some cooler socks.  Spending 15 quid on a pair of socks seems a bit excessive but there are discounted bargains out there and the longevity has been remarkable.

In short, I totally recommend buying some for any running applications, I can't ever envisage running without a pair ever again.  They've been THAT good.

As for the lucky socks, I've taken to wearing them on Saturdays to make Wolves win the football.  A brief look at the Championship table clearly shows I must've used up all the luck already.

Feetures are at www.http://feeturesrunning.com/ and if you want to sell them then contact http://www.2pure.co.uk/.

Disclaimer:
I know I got them for free but I definitely wasn't asked to write this review and if I wasn't so impressed with the socks (and currently injured, and if the weather wasn't so awful) then I'd never have bothered my arse writing this!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Natural Development - Are Trail Centres Killing Technique?

My earliest forays into the world of mountain biking primarily involved dragging and shoving my half tonne, mud caked six gear Emmelle through Exmoor's boggy murk to reach a mile of semi-rideable rockiness that led to the road home.  Over the following few years I hungrily discovered the sheer joys of rooty Devon woodland singletrack, slipping, sliding and crashing my way through my early teens until at seventeen myself and my best friend jumped on a train and blagged our way to Chamonix for an incredible introduction to Alpine riding.  With my eyes subsequently blown wide open I've continued to seek opportunities to experience a whole spectrum of different terrains and biking challenges throughout the world.

In addition to the obvious immediate pleasures and unforgettable memories that these experiences have provided I was recently also pondering their lasting impact on my abilities as a biker. Undeniably I've learned how to crash!  Seventeen broken bones (so far) are testament to that but what about my skills development? As a professional MTB coach I'm afflicted with a constant need to analyse whether I'm still getting better or has age instigated my gradual and inevitable decline?  And the conclusion?  I'm not sure yet, but one thing is certain, I've served a long and fruitful apprenticeship that's gradually and organically shaped my trail techniques.

Times have changed massively since my first rides in the late eighties.  Mountain biking has witnessed exponential growth in terms of both participation and general awareness. Mainstream money has floated in and the results are seen in the plethora of trail centres that have made quick-hit 21st century mountain biking what it is.  Whether this is a positive or not for the sport is a different debate.  My area of interest is whether the introduction of some of these groomed, sanitised and weather resistant strips has been detrimental to the skills development of the new breed of bikers?

More often than not these days beginners that I coach have their first experience of 'natural' trails in their initial session with me.  For many, the thought of riding anywhere other than a trail centre has never even occurred and increasingly I've noticed bikers displaying a noticeable trail centre style of riding that manifests itself in a few clear ways.
The only people who should ever sit down on descents are those without pedals!
The first is a tendency towards remaining seated on downhills.  I see this as being the fault of smooth, graded trail surfaces which, although punctuated by the odd rock gardens and drops, generally allow descending techniques that would've liquidised my internal organs if I'd attempted them on the rutted, washed out rock fests I originally learned on.  The availability of well priced, decent full suspension bikes has also made this approach possible and therefore many people remain blissfully unaware of the fundamental importance of weight shift. On my local trails here in Northern Ireland there have been a seemingly disproportionate number of broken bones for the amount of usage. Many have been caused by riders pitching over the bars because they don't fully understand where their weight should be distributed.

The next issue I've noticed is a lack of cornering ability. Whilst solid surfaced, banked corners can definitely be a lot of fun, among many beginners I think they can promote a lazy, passive approach to getting round bends. On loose, natural, flat and off-camber corners the fight for grip generates rapid improvements in terms of body positioning and pressure application with pretty immediate feedback from the slippery ground. After a couple of washouts and grazed knees riders tend to find the limitations of their tyres and realise how hard they can push into corners if they're active and aggressive on the bike.  Whilst the non-slip nature of most trail centre corners prevents crashes, it also negates the need to search hard for more grip and as a consequence seems to slow development.

Finally, I often witness an inability to react to unexpected terrain changes. Many riders I meet have an intimate knowledge of every last drop, corner, bump and berm of their local trail centres. They can cruise round half asleep, safe in the knowledge that come rain or shine the trail won't throw up any nasty surprises. All those innate, subtle weight shifts that are needed to keep rubber side down on the roots never get developed and so their first taste of riding on wet mud and greasy wood becomes a total disaster.  I've coached people who've ridden mountain bikes for years who have no idea that leaning a bike over on an angled root will almost certainly end badly and so they're transported back to the realm of total beginner whenever they first leave the gravel tracks.

This combination of a static position on the bike, a passive riding style and the non-development of the subconscious adjustments required to survive wet natural trails has, in my opinion stunted many new rider's development. It's not all bad news though; there are obvious upsides to trail centres. Without them I reckon many of today's bikers would've never initially taken up the sport and I'd always rather see lots of people riding not that well than just a couple totally owning the trails. The other big plus is the growth of pump tracks.  Few things give me more pleasure than seeing the local kids on chainless skip bikes with no grips or brakes doubling gaps and carving corners instead of hanging round bus shelters being bored or staring at their phones.  Our local pump track has become a really popular hang out for people who may otherwise never have bothered getting on a bike.  If they get the opportunity and the inclination to keep riding then we're going to witness a really talented next generation!

My message to anyone who may read this and recognise themselves, please don't take it as criticism! There's a whole world of ever evolving natural trails just waiting for you to take them on so get out there and get grinning, just don't forget the kneepads! 


Monday, 11 January 2016

Ragley bikes make epic sponsorship error!

Shortly before Christmas I received an unexpected e-mail.  It basically went along the lines of blah blah free bike blah etc blah.  Well obviously it didn't but essentially that's what I read!  The long and short of it was that Ragley bikes have offered me a deal for 2016. 

The obvious question is why the hell have they done that?!  There are faster, more stylish riders out there filling up the results sheets who are paying for their own equipment.  The simple answer is that they're not doing it on the right kind of bike!  I spent 2015 as a vocal advocate of the hardtail, dancing my much loved Ibis Tranny all round Europe on epic Alpine singletrack whilst also schooling a few bouncy boys in the Enduro races.  Although I'm no purist and I do own a tasty HD3 my preference has always been for the precise riding style needed without the talent boosting travel, picking lines rather than muscling them.

The funny thing is that I was intending to race enduro on my now sold Nomad last year but decided that the nature of Castlewellan's trails in the first round of the Vitus series would be quicker on a 21lb speed machine.  I enjoyed that hardtail category experience so much that I carried on the series to its conclusion and finished with one of my most fun days ever on a bike smashing through the tech of Donard Woods.

So Ragley were looking for an NI based hardtail enthusiast to promote their superb steel machines and luckily I fitted the bill.  You'd have expected me to leap at the offer and tear their arms off but actually I stopped and considered it for a while.  After all, I've already got bikes I absolutely love and less time to ride them than I'd want.  The deciding factors were pretty simple.  Firstly I was dying to try a Ragley as I've always loved steel frames and they look so totally aggro and secondly because my teenage self would've killed my 37 year old self if I turned down the deal!

The new steed in all her big wheeled, slack angled glory
Given a free choice from their range I went for the Bigwig, Ragley's slacked out 29er.  I've only had one experience of the wagon wheels before and it was extremely positive, tracking closely behind my ex-pro guide in Colorado despite him being on a $12k Pivot and me being on a cheap hire bike.  The big wheels just trundled over everything and felt so planted on some of the most technical trails I'd ever encountered.  However, the problem with most 29ers is that they're angled to suit the XC crowd.  Not the Bigwig!!  This frame looks almost comically slack with a low-slung top tube and super raked head angle.  From the moment I jumped on for the inaugural spin it was begging to be mistreated and I was loving my first outing, confidently hitting saturated gaps and drops in Tollymore until Mexican Brian's untimely collarbone break abruptly halted the session.  Since then I've been tweaking.  The forks needed more pressure to cope with the aggressive style this bike demands and I've been doing what I can with the WTB tyres to force some grip out of this long running mud-fest of a Winter.  My great first impressions are being further enhanced on both the ups and downs with the big wheels feeling rapid on the climbs despite the bike carrying a hefty amount of weight compared to my Ibis Tranny.  Once I point it downhill it flies with a style best described as a 160mm travel bike without the travel.  It actually feels almost identical to my HD3 when I sit on it which suits me perfectly.

Ragley only do hardtails, with the heart of their range being crafted from steel.  Although some see it as an outdated material in this age of plastic it only takes one ride to see why it's the first choice of most artisan frame builders.  It has a unique feel, whippy and forgiving, soaking up trail chatter whilst accelerating fast.  Good steel has character and having ridden on the pinnacle of tubing perfection back in the late 90's it feels great to re-kindle that feeling.

Probably the biggest compliment offered to the Ragley so far is the fact that everyone who I've lent the bike to for a quick spin has instantly understood the philosophy.  They look at it with an air of initial intrigue but as soon as they jump on they feel what a slacked out steel 29er may be capable of.  I can see me having to wrestle this bike back off a few folk over the next 12 months!

If you want to have a test ride on the bike don't be shy.  I'll be at the Vitus Enduro series again as well as usually being found somewhere on the trails in Tollymore.  Come on over and ask for a spin, just be prepared to get your credit card out when you get home!

I'll be reviewing the bike throughout the year and I'll keep it bias free.  Ragley aren't putting any pressure on me at all to race, ride or even be complimentary which I think shows a refreshing faith in their equipment.  Hopefully I can repay their investment by getting the brand out there and providing worthwhile feedback on their bike design.  Watch this space.

Check out the range at www.ragleybikes.com




Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Ride To Remember

The rhythm’s gone completely.  I hack away at the pedals, legs like misfiring pistons using any combination of remaining power and bodyweight to keep them moving, the fluid circles of the lower slopes a distant memory.  I daren’t glance across the valley to known reference points that will end my psychological resistance and force me into my lowest gear, if the 36t doesn’t stay clean then I’m finished, doomed to admit the failure in this session.  My tongue feels fattened, an awkward sticky slug blocking the airflow my lungs crave and the thirst is overwhelming but I’m not dehydrated, the nauseating slop of unprocessed water in my gut tracking my body movements, daring me to sip from my Camelbak again.

I lurch over the road as it steepens again, Tom Simpson without the drugs.  I’d take them all right now if they’d get me to the top of this destructive road.  The heat is overwhelming, drilling down into my back, reflecting off the surface that my head is getting ever closer to, licking the front wheel.  I feel like I’m being boiled alive, my brain shrinking, fluid escaping.  Visions of the electrolytes sat on top of my fridge taunt me, the fridge, cool air, I want to be in that fridge…

A distant rumble of thunder.  Come lovely rain, my salvation from the skies.  No such luck.  The atmosphere like porridge, I’m riding through porridge, am I still moving?  Flies buzz my face, my tormenters victorious, can’t outrun them, can’t swat them, hope they’re not biters, injury to insult.

My head comes up, the circles return.  Where did this come from?  My subconscious knows more than my brain.  I’m nearing the top and defiance drives the body.  You did me on the mid section but I owned the bottom and the top, two-one to Bailey, I’m bigger than this mountain.  Satisfaction tempered by reality, that was close, too close, and I know it.  The training log won’t lie, OK legs, nothing more.

I stare down the start straight, the Skull DH.  A thousand vertical metres of sculpted corners and jagged bedrock, beauty and the beast.  Glasses off as dense foliage and a blackening sky dull the vision.  Pads on, gear selected and snap on the pedals.  Treat this like a race, attack, attack, attack.  This track has no respect for the tentative.  I’m totally under-biked and I know it, 140mm out front and the crafted compliance of carbon hardtail out back but the Ibis Tranny never ceases to amaze, no box can hold this bike, uncategorisable.  A flash and a crack, the storm is closing in fast.  No longer an ally against the heat, a warning shot.  My focus is absolute, totally in the groove and marvelling at the new found flow this holiday has uncovered, bossing lines that should be unattainable, tyres skimming the surface of armageddon.  The first bombs start to fall, initially deflected by the shield of leaves but then breaking through fast, huge droplets, instant impact.  The sky explodes with light again and the deafening rumble is right on its tail, I need to get down NOW.  Fear of crashing, mangling on the rocks seems childish, this is much more primeval, go, go, go, survival instincts honed by evolution driving thirty years of biking skills.
Staring down the start straight and the weather armageddon is about to hit 
Lactic is flooding through me, arms screaming and hands like claws death gripping the bars, right quad in agony, alternate the lead foot, a transfer of skills, practice what I preach.  I never intended to do this in a one-er but priorities have been dictated by a higher force and I’ve no choice, must… get… down.  The bedrock lower section is like ice, limestone slickrock and brakes are no option.  Light on the front end, let it drift and slide, in the air is safest.  The deep clunk of the back rim smashing hard, thirty psi and a cup of Stans, choose your equipment wisely, you never know when it may save your life.  Straight line, full bore off a few small drops and under the finish barrier.  I crack a smile but the danger is far from over.  I’ve done my bit technically but now need lady luck to see my passage back to the safe haven of the valley.

The deluge is indescribable as I hit the road, blinded by the droplets, eyelids like windscreen wipers on the highest setting, a lost battle.  Inches of rain on a flat road and I veer to avoid a car out of nowhere, lights on, horn blaring.  Praying that my route choice is still taking me down.  Out of the saddle and fighting hard, drawing energy from empty reserves, I’ll be glad to pay for this if it means I get to see tomorrow.  Redemption comes in the form of a bridge, huddled figures and a raised hand from a biker as I skid to a halt.  Cars are seeking refuge here too, nobody dares head out into this abomination. 
Glad to be under the bridge when these started smashing down!
The hailstones begin to smash down, jagged marbles bouncing off every surface but the danger has passed and I’m a mesmerised observer, the sanctity of the bridge distancing the threat, like watching the storm in a zoo.  I let out a whoop and an uncontrollable grin spreads over my face.  The other cyclists under here are bone dry, I know they’ve missed out as I squeeze my saturated gloves, water flooding out, I wonder if they feel the same way.  Twenty minutes pass and the oppressive blackness begins to lift as I start to shiver.  The storm remains but it’s said its piece and we all know who maintains the real power, mother nature has to let off steam sometimes too.

The road is still a river as I hammer down the last section, two foot deep puddles on the cambered inside of corners stop the traffic but I plough in laughing manically.  The pain subsides as I sweep through the last corners towards home, the familiar whirr of freehub finally drowning out the drumming of rain.  This one will last in the memory for years to come, I feel very alive.

The Costs of Learning...

A few years back I had my personality neatly pigeonholed by an unerringly accurate multiple statement test.  All I had to do was read a series of sentences and decide which ones sounded most like me and it came out with a pretty clear and extremely detailed portrayal of my likes and dislikes.
One of my key discoveries was the fact that I'm really bad at being a beginner.  In fact I actively hate it to such an extent that I've little interest in ever seeking new spheres in which to learn.  A good example of this is that unlike my friends who practically ran to start driving lessons on their 17th birthdays I waited until the government were threatening to bring in the theory test (yep I was driving that long ago!) before I pulled my finger out.  It wasn't only the crazy expense of the lessons or the fact that my mates were stood at the college gates baying for me to stall the motor, it was more a reticence to have to be crap at something new.

Whilst this moderately common personality trait does mean that I have limited interests, therefore making me the worst person to get sat next to at a wedding, it does manifest itself in a huge depth of knowledge and attention to detail in the subjects I am interested in.  Coaching and bikes obviously being the best example of this!  I wonder how many other people watch all the edits from EWS and DH World Cup races and ignore the soundtrack and seeing who won in order to focus in slow motion on each rider's techniques?

So all of this rubbish so far has been a long winded way of saying that some types of people really need ways to progress rapidly if they're trying something new otherwise they'll lose interest and give up.  The first time I ever went snowboarding I was equally non-plussed about the idea of being the biggest kook on the slopes.  I could've skied, something I was already fairly proficient at but this was around the time when boarding was the new, anti-authoritarian alternative to skiing's posh uppityness. Baggys, beanies and beers versus all in one tight dayglo suits and glasses of fine wine.  I was young, punk loving and a capable drinker at the time so I opted to strap one plank to my feet instead of two. Whilst my look in the bar was all 'boarder dude', unfortunately on the slopes it was more 'boarder gimp'.  If I was to save my image and develop a love for the sport then I'd need some lessons.  At the same time, Tom, a mate who was with us (who's name hasn't been changed to protect the innocent) was also in the same boat.  A natural high achiever in business and sport he was an even more extreme version of my personality.  Deciding to eschew the lessons he headed straight to the top of the steepest slopes.  On that first evening he boasted of having boarded the blacks whilst we were being taught to link turns on the baby slopes.  I have slightly guilty fond memories of seeing the roles reversed on the final day as we jumped on the lift and looked down on Tom, his confidence as shattered as the arse cheek he'd continuously landed on that was now protected by a load of pipe lagging stuffed down his trousers!  It was such a pitiful sight that we didn't even take the piss... much.

Given the lack of pistes in the UK and Ireland, getting away to the slopes is generally a once in a while pleasure.  As a result of that I never got the opportunity to practice and become really good on the snowboard.  However, by committing to lessons I was able to get good enough to be enjoying the blacks and attempting to hit some drops and even the halfpipe by the end of the week.  And herein lies the point to this rambling.

Mountain biking is different.  One of its many strengths is that there's no specific time of year, conditions or even terrain that is best to enjoy it.  I've had as much pleasure sliding over greasy roots in the lashing rain in Ireland as I have tearing down the dusty slopes of the Alps (it's just the cleaning that sucks).  As a result of this, we can do it anytime that we aren't weighed down by other commitments. For some lucky people this means every day, for others a cheeky evening or weekend every now and again.  The point I'm making is that even the busiest or least committed bikers will manage more than a week per year!  So why is it that it's the norm to get ski lessons but rare for people to seek bike coaching?
Coaching in action!
Yeh, yeh, yeh.  This is a blatant advert for my services (other coaches are available!) but I'm really just trying to ascertain why more people don't seek lessons despite virtually everyone wishing to be more skilled?  Like snowboarding I believe mountain biking to be a really easy sport to learn.  Once people are comfortable with the concepts of weight shift and braking they can learn to corner, hit drops and ride the steeps with confidence and yet so many riders shy away from the interesting terrain through fear and lack of technique.  I'm fortunate enough to get to coach many people from total beginners to experienced (in terms of years biking) riders and in many instances there is very little to tell between them after just half a day of coaching.  So many people seem to take up mountain biking and treat it like the daily commute with knobbly tyres, permanently sat down, clipping pedals and getting rattled to bits until they're forced to get off by a step or drop.  I'm afraid trail centres have to take a large proportion of the blame.  The gentrified, all weather with no variation facet of your average man made trail has spawned a generation of people who can 'just about get round the red in one piece'.  Back when I were a lad natural trails were all we had so when it rained we crashed lots and improved the hard way via smashes, snapped bones and A+E departments.

I dearly wish that back in 1988 someone had taken me aside and taught me how to ride.  It could've been me pulling a front flip off Edinburgh Castle and getting fifty million YouTube hits!  As it was, the first time I was ever coached was during my Trail Cycle Leader training course and it was a total revelation!  I learned that SPD's had robbed me of the opportunity to do a proper rear wheel lift and as a consequence a decent bunny hop.  I loved being observed and personally fed back to, even if it was accompanied by a mild embarrassment that my skills were so rudimentary for someone with so much supposed experience.  I lose count of the amount of riders who have since said the same to me following the coaching day of their own TCL training.  I love the fact that I've had so many potentially really good riders who I've been able to help with just the slightest tweaks to take their biking to a whole new level.  Just the other day I got an e-mail from a fella who is now manualling a hundred metres instead of two from just a couple of pointers.  Likewise, seeing the face of a sixty year old man who has just popped his first wheelie or a nervous beginner who has nailed a drop that has been taunting them makes my job eternally satisfying.

I think that the other reason that people shy away from formal coaching is because 'it's like riding a bike innit!'.  The belief that mountain biking is no different to general pootling on a bike means that because people can perform the function of pedalling and balancing they don't realise that they're lacking other fundamental skills.  Many of the people I do get to coach are under the impression that hitting techy trails, drops and gaps will always be beyond them and they're blown away when they realise there's no voodoo tricks, just a bit of teaching which breeds the necessary confidence and ability.

Times are changing, I'm getting much busier be it through word of mouth or sheer numbers of bikers now in the sport. Perversely I've actually had a fair bit of work because of the amount of serious injuries to out of depth newbies on the trail centres.  Many people have realised the potential dangers of MTB when they hear of other's misfortunes and so they seek professional assistance to prevent them having the same mishaps.

The message is clear, I need to eat and so do my kids so come and pay me to make you ride a bike better!  If that's the message you take from this then so be it but my real message is this.  You spend a a small fortune on a bike, kit, fuel to get to trails and maybe occasional accommodation.  You may take your bike away on holiday necessitating bike bags, excess baggage and bolstered holiday insurance.  You enviously watch others who are more talented than you and secretly wish you could emulate them.  If any of these statements are anywhere near to you then do think about getting some coaching, you'll never regret it.

Advert over, see you on the trails and you'd better be stood up on the downhills!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Burning Soles - The Snowdon International Mountain Race

I was recently fortunate enough to have the honour of captaining the Northern Ireland International mountain running team at the World famous Snowdon race, here's a report I knocked up for various publications.

Team Northern Ireland were as always invited to the annual Snowdon International mountain race on July 18th.  The event, celebrating its 40th anniversary forms the highlight of a week long festival in Llanberis, the 'outdoor capital of Wales' and is attended by the cream of European mountain runners as well as a fair few 'ordinary' folk.  Team NI were in confident mood, boasting strong squads in both the male and female races.  The men's team consisted of NIMRA and Hill and Dale champ Seamus Lynch, Slieve Donard winner Ian Bailey, UK based Gavin Mulholland (currently third in the British series) and Mourne Runner's Sam Herron fresh back from success in the Mont Blanc marathon.  The women's squad were also looking powerful with NIMRA champ Shileen O'Kane, Slieve Donard champion Diane Wilson and long distance expert BARF's Jackie Toal.

The course itself was reverted back to the original 1976 route, adding an extra kilometre of road running to the usual tortuous ten miles which climbs to 1,085 metres, the highest point in Britain outside the Scottish Highlands, before plummeting back down to the centre of Llanberis.  This event truly feels unique for several reasons, the huge and vocal crowds, the brutality of the man made track surface and the buckets of water on hand at the finish line to cool the runner's blistered soles.  It's definitely one for the bucket list of any runner and for us NI Internationals it's a chance to compare ourselves to the legendary local hardman Robbie Bryson whose 1985 ascent record still stands.

Conditions didn't help in the search for fast times with a strong and blustery wind battering the competitors with increasing force as they gained elevation.  Nevertheless, the pace was predictably brisk through the town and up the 25% gradient road to the Llanberis trail that forms the majority of the route.  Rhythm is everything in this race and so our team members tucked in and ground out the ascent in their own styles, mindful of the need to keep plenty in reserve for one of the toughest descents in British mountain racing.  For the NI men, Gavin turned at the summit first followed by Seamus, Sam and Ian.  In the ladies race Shileen again showed her climbing prowess, topping out before Diane and Jackie.  The top half of the descent allowed our mountain expertise to shine against others in the field who were a bit more selective about their foot placements.  Split times for the descents show near four minute mile averages down the steeper sections giving an idea of the technical abilities as well as steely mindsets of our Mournes honed athletes!  After a quad pounding five miles and in front of a vociferous and already half cut crowd the NI runners made their ways home.  Gavin (11th), Seamus (22nd), Ian (31st) and Sam (36th) finished well in a men's field of nearly 500.  Diane (10th), Shileen (13th) and Jackie (17th) showed very well amongst 125 female athletes.  Not quite enough to secure team medals but a very creditable effort in such high quality fields.
Post race smiles!
As is traditional, team NI then went on to show their prowess in the bars of Llanberis with a couple of medicinal drinks to soothe the rapidly stiffening joints.  Massive credit to the ladies who managed to get out for a loosening run the following morning.  The men were more set on enjoying a rare fried breakfast as a reward for their efforts, especially Sam 'double sausage' Herron.  Other weekend highlights included Seamy losing his boarding card in the terminal and nearly not making the boat, the ladies 'accidentally' ordering double portions in Pete's Eats, a cafe already notorious for its large portions and Team Ireland's Ian Conroy being whisked off by customs never to reappear!

The next International fixture is the Home International on August 22nd in Betwys-y-Coed.

So that was that!  As a postscript to the article, three days later I'm still hobbling around with stiff quads, blistered feet and heavily bruised toenails which will no doubt fall off again.  I've also been to the doctors to see about a chest problem that has hindered me for the last few weeks and it's a relief to know there's a reason why I couldn't get going on the climb accounting for my disappointing finishing position.  I'm looking forward to getting fixed up and back into the Mournes and a possible Seven Sevens debut.


Friday, 29 May 2015

The Most Important Bike Related Study In History

Now I'm the first to admit that when it comes to technology I'm generally a total luddite.  I could not give a shit about your latest phone, I have no apps and my TV is still deeper than the screen is wide. I find nothing more tedious than having to listen to 21st century bores extolling the virtues of the shiny and new, except that is when it comes to bikes.  For some reason it's my one weak spot where the latent consumerist tendencies boil up in me and I involuntarily find myself emptying my Paypal account because my stem is 5mm too long or my helmet is the wrong colour.

I've been biking for a loooong time now and it was whilst gathering bits together for a retro project build (disguised as a new bike for my wife to ride) that I realised that nobody in history has done a proper in-depth comparative study between the old school and the modern.  It's probably because the writers of the world are too scared of the evil superpowers of the corporate biking behemoths who'll ruin their lives if they threaten the inevitability of 'progress'.  Or perhaps it's fear of the realisation that they've essentially wasted thousands of pounds on kit that's made them no better riders whilst simultaneously ruining their spousal relationships and denying their kids the chance of a Third Level education.

However, I'm not afraid.  My kids are still young and my wife knows I squander a fortune of our retirement fund.  So I'm going to face into the epic task and produce the World's first definitive bike technology study and answer the question that everyone needs the answer to, 'is new bike technology a bit shit?'  Before I start can I make it clear that this isn't a discussion, everything in this entirely objective piece of work is FACT.  You can disagree but you're wrong, deal with it.

So here goes, wish me luck...

Back when Bontrager wasn't just part of the Trek corporation
Frames - 
So back in the day (you'll hear that at least 100 times in this piece!) frames all looked the same. They were made of steel and had 89 degree head angles and were all welded and had bottle cage mounts and some even had rack mounts for 'touring'.  Some were truly things of beauty (Bontrager, Chas Roberts, Fat Chance etc) but the similar appearances made it too hard for punters to tell that you'd spent a fortune on one which definitely limited your chances to look cool.  Then came titanium, aluminium, magnesium (Kirk Revolution anyone?!) and carbon and everything went mad.  Without even mentioning suspension (until the next section), slacker angles, integrated ISCG mounts, tapered head tubes etc have all incrementally improved the beating hearts of our bikes.  Frankly, if you'd shown me my Nomad C back in 1988 I'd have imploded.  Frames are lighter, better handling and displaying previously unimaginable degrees of versatility and so it's definitely a point for the new school.

EXCEPT...

Back in the nineties you bought a new frame and transferred all your old parts, easy.  Kids these days would laugh at that concept.  'Oh no, my forks have the wrong steerer, my headset isn't integrated, my bottom bracket has threads, my seatpost is a 30.9, my disk mounts are wrong', pass me the pills!! Gone are the delightful days of being able to waste hours in your garage plugging together a new build, replaced by hours of poring over CRC and BikeDiscount.de to save a few quid on extras you'd not budgeted for.  New builds are now a protracted succession of minor disappointments of incompatibility that leave you hating your new frame long before it ever tastes dirt.  The alternative is buying a complete bike but that often means a migraine inducing Euro colour scheme with matching hubs and tyre logos.  No thanks.  So it's actually a point for the old school and if you disagree, one word, 'E-Bike'!!  Or is that two words?

Old School 1-0 Technology

Suspension -
Hmmm, £1,300 you say...
The REAL RS1's
Oh how I lusted after those RockShox RS1's.  Not the £1300 upside down, 29'er only abominations, the beautiful half-inch travel, neon-stickered originals.  Yes, early suspension was terrible until some Italian motorbikers with an excess of orange paint changed the world forever, but its possibilities have always been apparent.  I must admit I was a bit hostile towards full suspension in its early days, the XC racer in me was afraid of being morphed into a big hairy downhiller using terms like 'rad' and 'sketchy' but I wasn't hairy until years later and by then I'd seen the light.  Nowadays I own a 28lb, 160mm travel dream machine that allows me to hit drops and gaps like I actually know what I'm doing.  Surely an easy point for the modernisers?

EXCEPT... (tedious theme developing here)

In the 90's our bikes were so rigid that getting up to any kind of speed involved a rattling that could liquidise your kidneys.  That self regulation meant that although our crashes were regular they were never too serious.  Sure, we broke the odd bone or three but it was normally because we'd drilled holes in our 130g handlebars which then snapped in two when we hopped off a kerb.  Suspension has meant that we can all hit maximum velocity in the nasty stuff and when the talent runs out and the travel can't save us it's a one way trip to the morgue.  So on the one hand suspension makes me look like I know what I'm doing and on the other hand it's exponentially increased our chances of a chat with the reaper.  Only one winner then, suspension.  Did you not hear me right?  It makes it look like I can ride.

Old School 1-1 Technology

Wheels - 
Oh piss off.  If you want to discuss wheel sizes go and read the troll fest at the bottom of any Pinkbike post.  Yes, 29'ers roll faster but they're less fun than 26" and 650b is a total con (they're not 27.5"!!) and frankly any more talk about this will guarantee a change in the laws on 'assisted' suicide spearheaded by me.  I've got a garage full of tyres that'll probably never get used because I had to get bigger wheels.  I've also got the same Chris King hubs I got for my 18th birthday in 1996 and the bearings have never needed changing so hub technology clearly hasn't had to advance at all.  And since when is it ever morally justifiable to charge two grand for a set of carbon wheels that broke in virtually every bike magazine test in 2014?!  The old school not only wins, it's dancing away down a dusty trail into the sunset with its fast accelerating, brilliant in the tight tech 26" glory whilst the twisted faces of the new school glare at their computer screens pouring vitriol on anyone who dares question their supposed superiority.

Old School 2-1 Technology

Headsets and Stems - 
Ok, ok, so the modernisers just took a pounding on the hoops but can they strike back when we look at componentry?  Hands up who remembers threaded headsets?  Keep your hands up if you could tighten one whilst on the trail.  Nah, thought not.  Any component that requires not one, but two huge spanners to tweak it is inherently a bit flawed and they always seemed to work their way loose when you were in the back of beyond.  And as for quill stems, what... the... hell?!  The only surprise is how long it took someone (was it Tange?) to invent something that bolts directly on to the fork steerer. Even minor crashes used to result in the old front wheel between the legs, haul on the bars to straighten routine.  Some fella has just invented a laser guide to get your stem straight.  Back then we were happy if it was within 30 degrees after we near snapped our bar ends off getting the wheel re-aligned!  The other huge improvements have come from the ongoing shortening.  The only people who benefited from our old 150mm stems were chiropractors.  Steering was so slow you had to pre-empt a corner whilst the bike was still in the shed.  Mondraker may be going a bit far, we'll be on negative length stems next like this dude but generally shorter has meant funner, safer and sharper handling.  Better control, allen keys to tension and tighten, a firmer grip between stem and steerer, the modern day wins by a mile.  Now if they could just standardise the sizes of the allen bolts!

It took a lot of paper rounds to afford this 135mm back destroyer!
Old School 2-2 Technology 

Handlebars - 
My old mate Greeny used to have bars so narrow that by the time he'd got his brake levers, XT thumbies and cork grips on there wasn't even room to fit a novelty bell.  That set up was pure lightning... in a straight line.  As soon as he tried to corner the gyroscopic forces involved meant that he needed a physics degree to work out how to not deck it into a tree.  Bars have got wider, swoopier, and thanks to the joys of the black stuff they've got stronger too and it's revolutionised the handling of all our bikes.  I thought bars less than 740mm had been banned under EU law until I went to Lake Garda last year and found that the German tourists there must've bought them all up in the late 90's. To top it all we used to stick bar ends on too, and not just stubby ones, huge cow horns that made our bikes look like Boss Hogg's motor.  So to summarise, we had bars that were far too narrow, made of paper thin aluminium which we then made narrower and stuck bits of metal on the end to maximise leverage and guarantee catastrophic failure.  And then we drilled holes in them to save weight.  In defence of the old school, some kind (but misguided) individual did give me fifty notes on E-Bay for an old set of Pace RC Sub-130's I found in the garage but that's hardly going to sway the verdict.

Old School 2-3 Technology 

Seatposts - 
In the nineties the only time 'bleeding' and 'seatpost' came in the same sentence was when my teammate Nick Mock snapped his USE in half (didn't everyone over 4 stone in weight?) and attempted DIY stomach surgery.  These days that static tube of metal has taken on a whole new life. Now don't get me wrong, most of my bikes have got dropper posts because I'm just so damn ENDURO but really, at what point could we no longer be arsed to flip open a seat QR?  Yes, they're convenient and yes isn't it amazing how often you use them on the trail but £250 for a glorified office chair?! Plus points include not having to swing my leg so high to get on the bike and having the public saying 'oooh, what will they think of next'.  Downsides include more handlebar tat, weight, cost, getting hit in the knackers after you bleed them and forget about the rebound speed, ugly cable routing, annoying 'stealth' routing and trying to persuade an E-Bay seller in Hong Kong to honour the warranty when they inevitably break.  I'd be prepared to forgive all this because they truly are amazing except for one key factor.  Me and my mates used to ride fast to the top of the hill and then take a twenty minute break under the spurious premise of dropping the saddles for the way down. During that time we ate, drank and solved all the World's problems.  Nowadays we push a button and crack on without stopping.  End result, we're hungrier, thirstier and the World is totally screwed.

Old School 3-3 Technology

Bottom Brackets and Chainsets - 
I've got a great idea.  Let's take the set of bearings that are most exposed to the elements, low down near the mud and the mire, feeling the full weight of the lardy arsed rider bobbing away side to side and let's put them on the outside of the frame where they're much more vulnerable.  Whilst we're at it lets get rid of the threads that have worked perfectly for 100 years and make them press-in so they're much harder to replace, oh and did anyone say creeeeeaaaakkkkkkk?  Now the old square tapers and internal BB's weren't perfect.  Sometimes we all had to rob a piece of scaffold pole, stick it on a foot long spanner and get three mates to help remove a seized internal BB, but that was character building and that fella would've probably fallen off next door's scaffold even if it was fully intact.  Imagine a time when you could remove any set of cranks and bottom bracket with the same couple of tools. Granted, those tools weighed more than your bike but they worked.  Then it went all Octalink, ISIS (won't be chasing that breach of copyright), Race Face, BB30, External, Megadrive, Hyperlink, Uberchav, SPAM, Splined, blah, blah.  And what knobber decided to switch from five bolt to four bolt and make my spare chainrings and old cranks obsolete?  Technology peaked at Royce titanium square taper BB's and Bullseye cranks with maybe a nod to the Middleburn RS3's.  Since then it's been a gradual downward spiral towards a hellish mush of incompatible bits and bobs.

Old School 4-3 Technology

Pedals - 
I exposed my fledgling teenage knee joints to the original floatless SPD pedals.  I haven't walked without a limp ever since.  No further questions m'lud...

Yeh, thanks Shimano for not thinking about 'float'!
Old School 4-4 Technology

Gears N' Stuff - 
Everyone used to know that more gears equalled cooler bike.  In 1992 if someone asked me how many gears I had I could proudly say '21' and know that I was instantly rad to the power of sick.  In 2015 my Nomad and my Ibis Tranny only have 20 gears between them, not very impressive!  But wait a minute.  Who the hell actually needs a big ring?  And whilst we're at it who needs a granny ring either? (answer; roadies and people too fond of pies).  I'm running a 30 tooth ring and an 11-36 cassette and it's more than enough for Alpine riding.  I happily scaled the steep sides of the Chamonix valley last year and only span out the 30-11 combo when chasing some Belgian mates down the road to Lake Garda after I'd already been waiting for hours on the techy bits.  Even better, new school ratios have finally canned off the worst of components, the front mech.  Less weight, cleaner lines, less clutter and unhindered suspension designs.  The mech is dead, long die the mech.  I do still very occasionally hanker after the beautiful simplicity of thumbshifters in friction mode when fighting with one of the many bikes that get thrust at me because I'm 'handy with the spanners' but advances have resulted in gears that work stunningly well at all price points.  On top of all that, clutch mechs and narrow wides have made dropped chains a real rarity so we don't even need to shell out a ton to E13 or MRP.  Happy days!

Old School 4-5 Technology

Tyres - 
Aaaah, the Onza Porcupines
Aaahhh, the halcyon days.  Onza Porcupines, Panaracer Smokes, amber walls...  Hang on a minute, halcyon my arse.  Tyres used to be too thin, too flexy and I know the lighter walls are creeping back but boy do they look terrible.  There have been huge advances in compound technology and tread design.  Super Tackys have saved my bacon on plenty of occasions when pushing to the limit on the loose.  The super wide rims on the Nomad have allowed me to safely run pressures as low as 12psi and tubeless technology has changed everything.  Imagine, we used to get punctures!  How prehistoric is that?  On the sizeable flip side, the tyre companies have been totally complicit in this whole wheel size debacle.  They knew what they were doing when they embraced the expanding diameters and I bet the smug gits can't wait until the decent 26" tyres become endangered species and they can shift them from bargain basement to retro item.  I bet I end up handing back that pile of loot I got for selling those hideous elastomer stuffed Rock Shox Judy's to help pay for the last High Rollers in Europe.  My heart rate is doubling and my face burning with the injustice of it all.  Despite all evidence to the contrary I'm handing this one to the old school.

Old School 5-5 Technology

Brakes - 
Disc (why not disk?) brakes - Amazing modulation, brilliant stopping power, can run with buckled rims BUT can't be bled on the trailside.
Cantilever brakes - Just rubbish power, needed 6 hands to get them set up right, still had to be accompanied by a foot on the back wheel to stop in the wet.
Maguras - Who are you?  Hans Rey?
V-Brakes - Great power, super light, easy to set up and fix, Avid levers were pure jewellery.  They needed straight rims to not rub which was a bummer but if your wheels are bent then get fixing!
I know disc brakes are the best but who ever lost a fingertip setting up V's?  Who amongst you has had to suffer the ignominy of never ending squeals because you accidentally got 0.05ml of any chemicals near your pads?  Who is slightly perturbed about having to explain to the in-laws why there are syringes sitting on your draining board?  Don't be blinded by their superb performance and obvious superiority over rim brakes, discs aren't all that and so the V's win.  What do you mean this study is rigged??

Old School 6-5 Technology

Saddles - 
Selle Italia reintroduced the 'classic' Flite Titanium twenty odd years after I refused to run anything else on my bikes, only this time they were quadruple the price.  Ignoring the pointlessness of I-Beam and the 0.6 gram saving of carbon rails they're really just somewhere to park your arse, just like they always were.  This one's a draw.

Old School 7-6 Technology

And so that's the final result!  Undeniable, incontrovertible evidence that whilst some technological advances have definitely been to the benefit of all, the overall balance points towards old school bikes being the pinnacle of MTB creation.  It's a shock to me but you'd struggle to deny the impartiality of this most rigorous of studies.  When this goes viral I'm afraid the ramifications for the wider bike industry could be catastrophic as the enlightened turn their backs on senseless consumerism and start to just enjoy riding their bikes again.  Forum monkeys and trolls will have to reconnect with the real world and some may even eventually talk to someone of the opposite sex (or the same sex, whatever floats their boats).  Corporate greedmongers will cease from attempting to force their lust for change on to a savvy new breed of technophobes.  And as for me, well I've been writing for a long time now and so I'm off for a spin.  I know now that my hydraulically braked and suspended, perfectly indexed, super lightweight, superbly balanced, frictionless bearinged, big wheeled carbon dream machines aren't the answer and so I'll take out my 20 year old steel hardtail instead.


Well I would, but it's just a bit shit isn't it...