Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Stanton Sherpa Review - Weapon At Dawn

I've been mountain biking a hell of a long time now, long enough to see many trends come and go, to witness a niche pastime evolve into the mainstream behemoth it is now.  To see it splinter into ever more diverse categories requiring a litany of increasingly specialist kit.  To slap my forehead at bullshit marketing drives that dictated directions of development.  To watch manufacturers come and go, the brands I lusted over as a teenager virtually all extinct, driven from existence or swallowed by the faceless megacorps.  Today's empires, tomorrow's ashes.

It'd be a lie to claim to have been unaffected by the decades of 'progress'.  I undeniably appreciate that all aspects of bike design are exponentially better than the late Eighties when I commenced my lifelong passion.  The capabilities of equipment and athletes are so far in-advance of our most outlandish predictions from back then that the sport is often barely recognisable, except deep down, no matter what you do, it's still all about tearing around on two wheels for shits and giggles.

Nowadays plastic is everywhere, suspension obligatory, cassettes expanding, bars lengthening, seatposts dropping, stems shortening, axles extending, wheels growing, tyres widening, trade shows trading, retailers discounting, pushing aggressively, sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, buy and dispose.  Wear it out fast, instant obsolescence.  'Last years colours mate, time to move on...'

The 2017 Stanton Sherpa in aggro mood
And yet beyond my cynicism there is a hint of hope.  The craftsmen are returning and companies who covet quality, longevity, individualism and pride are fighting back.  'Outdated' materials are suddenly the hot new thing and shocked magazine editors with short memories are being blown away by designs beautiful in their simplicity.  The right grades of steel and titanium, inherently perfect for biking, are being improved by dedicated experts, wealthy on knowledge and experience, and are once again challenging the space-age wonder composites.

It's against this backdrop that I came across Stanton Bikes.

I've been a fan of Stanton ever since getting schooled by a rival hardtail Enduro racer on a raw finished Slackline a few years back.  The aesthetics of his steed, perfect welds and simplicity of frame layout seemed to scream 'fun', and every time I saw it I had a slight pang of jealousy.  At the time I was piloting an extremely fun but terrifyingly twangy Ibis Tranny but a sponsorship deal with Ragley took me back to steel and then in 2017 a chance e-mail led me to a dream scenario.

Dan Stanton is a bike geek.  I'm not sure if he'd be flattered or deeply offended by the moniker but my first ever conversation with him convinced me of the fact.  I'd tentatively enquired about a possible deal and to my surprise he'd asked me to give him a ring.  An hour-long chat ensued covering all things bike and I was immediately struck by his overwhelming enthusiasm for the seeming mundanities of seat tube diameters and metallurgical properties.  His knowledge eminently dwarfed my thirty-odd years of biking experience and we thoroughly enjoyed putting the industry to rights like grumpy old men venting at the world.  He offered me sponsorship, I danced a jig around my house!

Neat Cabling, Clean Lines, Bright Bars!
Now this is meant to be a bike review, and yet so far it reads like a mix between an industry rant and a gushing fanzine, but here's the deal.  I've been placed under no obligation to say anything positive about this machine whatsoever.  I'm not being given kit as a racer, more as a writer and a coach, someone who's opinion is regularly sought, so I guess Dan was being astute in considering effective ways to spread the word, but that came at a distinct risk.  If I didn't rate the bikes and components then I guess I'd return them and say no more but if people asked my opinion, I'd give them it with both barrels.

So what do I think?

First up, we need to consider another question, why the Sherpa?  As a fully signed up 'Enduro' type, bumbag and all, I should really be showcasing the 650b ripper, the Switchback.  With slacked out geometry, ISCG mounts, internal routing and beefy gussets surely that's the Stanton designed for the likes of me, not their more sedate, more upright 'trail bike' offering?  Except for one thing, all wheel sizes smaller then 29" are dead to me.  No doubt some of you will stop reading right here, stalled by your indignation, off to slag the rapidly expanding list of DH pros who are currently seeing the light I was blinded by two years ago.  Now that geometry is dialled, the big-wheeled machines are more capable in virtually all applications.  They fill in gaps to maintain speed better, roll faster, have more cornering grip, and are more stable in the tech than smaller wheeled offerings.  I've been saying for a while now that by 2020 you'll struggle to find any flagship Enduro models that aren't 29'ers, it looks like DH will follow suit too and XC has long-since made its decisions.  The Slackline and the Switchback both look lovely but I'll not be swinging a leg over either.


With a 67.5 degree head angle and a recommended fork travel of 100-120mm I was always going to be tweaking the Sherpa in a direction it maybe isn't exactly designed for.  140mm Pikes have jacked up the front end, slackening it for the steeps but have also raised the bottom bracket height which isn't ideal for cornering stability.  I've directly contradicted advice in over-forking the frameset but the only qualms Stanton had were over ride-qualities and definitely not regarding the frame's ability to handle the extra leverage.  I've also fitted a bottom-bracket secured ISCG mount having been denied a race victory last year by stupidly placing my faith in narrow-wide rings and clutch mechs.

Custom graphics from hasdesigns.pt

The Pikes themselves have an MRP cartridge fitted, set-up firm to prevent diving but allowing a slightly lower air pressure than my rock-hard preferences, to improve initial-stroke sensitivity.  Pikes are a proven winner, in my opinion still the best mix of performance, reliability and long service intervals on the market and the MRP invites continual tweaking to further enhance the ride.

The groupset is XTR 1x11 with the Trail brakes, a stunning looking and generally faultless performer that although not as light as some SRAM offerings, is still my number-one choice every time.  Trail SPD's have been transferred once again from my last bike, they're simply peerless despite a pile of new competition.

Bearing surfaces are all taken care of by Chris King with an Inset 7 headset, ISO boost hubs and a ceramic bottom bracket.  It's obscenely expensive kit but I've got a CK fetish and find it the perfect antithesis to the dismal quality components used for cost-cutting by most companies in order to pointlessly upgrade a rear mech or other 'visible' part.  I've still got the Classic hubs received seventeen years ago on my twenty-first birthday and thousands of miles and many rims later, they're still like new with just one freehub bearing overhaul.  Class and style.
Boost Chris King and Ibis 941 rims

XTR gearing
Bars are Stanton aluminium in bright orange, initially cut to 780mm, the stem is a Stanton 35mm and saddle is Stanton Ti.  I stopped short of the own-brand grips, unable to depart from ODI Ruffians.  For the dropper I actually parted with my own cash to try a BikeYoke Revive as it seems to address the bobbing issue that has killed my previous five Reverbs.  More on that later.

My overwhelming love of 29'ers does come with an expensive caveat in that I find big carbon rims are indispensable for their lateral stiffness and refusal to come out of true.  The Ibis 941's have been faultless for over a year now and are soon to be upgraded to the asymmetrical 942's.  A Huck Norris is in place within the Maxxis Minion DHR 2.4 Wide Trail as a protection for the pricey plastic and a futile attempt to stop me tearing back tyres on a monthly basis.  Front tyre is a Minion DHF WT with pressures generally run around 18 and 22psi.

Enough talk, how does it ride?

Oh wow.  The first time I rode this bike was on practice day of the Vitus Enduro season opener, in conditions best described as 'testing' and on surfaces ranging from deep mud to grease to loam to exposed boulder field.  It was adorned with a borrowed Talas 140 fork from the years when Fox had lost their way worse than Father Ted in a lingerie department, but despite this huge hindrance I instantly felt at home having been raised on the lithe, whippy feeling of high quality steel tubing.  The Reynolds 853, 631 and 525 that is targetedly utilised throughout the frame has a 'personality' if that doesn't sound too pretentious and even if it does, then I know what I mean and I'll stand by the statement!  It soaked up the chatter and retained a lateral stiffness not apparent on last year's Ragley which suffered from frame to tyre buzz under heavy acceleration.  Despite losing by a miniscule 0.6 seconds on race day I was delighted, I've never felt such instant affinity with a bike and knew that with proper forks I was on a thoroughbred race winner.

At this juncture it's worth mentioning the frame detailing.  The welds are immaculate, and I mean utterly perfect.  Stanton use a factory which insists on a minimum fifteen years of welding experience before they'll entertain a CV and it massively shows in the uniform fishscales.  The curved seat tube and custom drive side yoke comfortably accommodate the big wheels and tyre widths up to large volume 2.4's, whilst keeping chainstays to a chuckable 435mm.

Very neat yoke and no clogging issues with 2.4WT rubber
The frame can also take 27+ tyres up to 3" if that's your thing but having ridden a few fatbikes I can assure you it's definitely not an upgrade in my book.  The seat tube junction is art and the head tube gusset is a lesson in subtlety.  Cable routing is painfully neat with simple external lines clipped under the top tube and down the stays, and stealth dropper routing entering the top of the down tube, leaving to circle the bottom bracket shell before re-entering at the base of the seat tube.  It'd be good to see some sort of included cover for those not running that option and maybe a rubber attachment to prevent water ingress round the cables for those who do. 

Simple cable routing and subtle gusset
The swop-out dropouts are extremely clever, facilitating rapid changes for different hub widths and singlespeed lovers.  A huge unforeseen bonus is the upcoming Boost conversion kit, allowing all Mk2 Stanton frame owners to adopt the new 'standard' for minimal expenditure.  Finishing is superb with classy graphics well lacquered over a shining green paint job.  The stony slop of early rides left a few superficial scratches on the top tube where my shorts rubbed but these have polished out, and the chips from a huge smash in Finale Ligure would almost certainly have happened to any paint coating.  Overall, it's still looking fresh and new, a facet that I certainly appreciate.  The metal headtube badge is a classy touch befitting of a top end frameset.

On familiar trails my instant love affair continued with the bike feeling extremely sprightly, climbing confidently despite an overall 29.2lb weight that reflects a sturdy build.  Descending was a dream, big wheels and quality tubing combining to provide a ride quality that diminishes natural advantages provided by suspension.  A trip to the Italian Riviera would be a perfect opportunity to drive this point home, competing with friends on 140mm bikes down trails that push all aspects of equipment and ability.

The art of welding at its absolute finest

Really neat frame detailing and Swopout dropouts
Finale was a revelation.  Confidence came easily on epic, unfamiliar descents with a distinct lack of fatigue from the juddering of repeat rockiness.  The steel served to smooth the buzz expertly and by day two my brakes were getting a holiday themselves as I trusted the precision of the Sherpa to point and shoot over some serious features.  Day three we were accompanied by a guide who was clearly and vocally impressed by the Stanton as I dropped a bus full of bouncers and held the wheel of his Intense M16 downhill rig.  Of course, the inherent downfall of bikes that demand limits be pushed is the fallibility of the rider, and sure enough the next run witnessed a gruesome smash that has left my left shoulder virtually unusable three weeks on.  Clipping a tree at maximum velocity saw the hardest impact I've ever suffered in a biking career that has already generated seventeen broken bones.  Torn rotator cuff, heavily bruised intercostals, smashed hip and elbow bones, bar some tiny paint chips the Sherpa was untouched.  Solid.

So I clearly love it but it can't be perfect. 

No it can't, and there are aspects I'd change.  At 6ft on the button, the dimensions of the 19" frame suit me well, allowing me to spec my favoured 35mm stem without feeling hunched at all, but it's the longest seat tube I've ever run and I'm left feeling too high up on the bike.  Two photos from Finale highlight this perfectly, both taken at the same spot on exactly the same corner.  My mate Tony on his Orange Five is looking much more poised and attacking despite our technique being virtually identical.  The shock compression clearly helps lower his centre of gravity, stabilising his position and carving deeper into the corner but I look too high and slightly hunched, having to use more body language to gain the same effect.  Part of this is the trade-off of riding hardtails but a lower top-tube would greatly assist positioning.  Being slightly too high also makes rapid weight switching between corners harder as it seems tougher to throw the bike from edge to edge and still retain perfect balance. 
Tony looking poised...

...but me looking a bit upright
Although the swopouts are genius, I'd rather see them held in by chainring bolts like they are on the Switchback than the three small heads.  I'm not a fan of mini allen key fittings as they're more likely to round for ham-fisted mechanics and are also harder to replace if you haven't got spares.

BikeYoke dropper is smooth and ergonomic but still flawed

As previously mentioned, there's nothing included to plug the Stealth holes if you're not using them which means a bit of DIY unbefitting of a £700 frameset.

The BikeYoke dropper is extremely smooth and the lever is superb.  The feature that tempted me to purchase it was the release valve that eradicates any bobbing with a turn of an allen key and compression of the post.  Reading up beforehand they intimated that this process may be needed every three months or so but in reality it's twice per ride.  I'm persevering for now but I'm going to be contacting them to complain.  Yet another flawed dropper post to add to the list.

I've bent a link on the XTR chain causing skipping gears but don't remember any big impacts.  Obviously eleven speed chains are going to be weaker than equivalent price-point ten speed ones but it's been an unpromising start.

Yet another brand new Maxxis rear tyre tore on its second use.  I've tried most major manufacturers and they're all the same, but it's the eternal frustration of aggro hardtailing.  The Huck Norris potentially saved the rim but the holes were too large to plug and so I had to put in an inner-tube.  Unfortunately that meant wrestling the latex covered snake into my bag to pollute the other contents as inner tubes and Huck wouldn't both fit in the tyre.

I've trimmed the bars to my preferred width of 760mm.  They felt good at 780 but trails here are tight and I can't help wondering whether that extra 10mm on the end was the difference between a squeaky bum bar clip and the horror crash that has left me currently incapacitated.  I guess I'll never know.

The Bottom Line.

This is the best put together bike I have ever owned, end of story.  Detailing, build quality, ride attributes and finish are all up with the finest examples of MTB workmanship I've ever seen, it truly is a sight to behold and a joy to ride.  I've had more capable bikes, the Ibis Mojo HD3 being the most notable in thirty years of top end machines, but no others exhibiting this degree of craftsmanship and all round rideability.  At £700 for a steel frame it definitely isn't cheap and without years of experience you may not appreciate the differences between this and the pile of cheaper identikit steel offerings from other companies.  But that's the point of no-compromise products, those who know, appreciate, and those who don't have yet to learn.  I couldn't begin to comprehend the minutiae of subtleties between two V8 engines or differing computer operating systems but bikes are what I do and the Sherpa is worth every penny.  Unfortunately Brexshit has forced a recent price rise and with the UK economy being manhandled by idiots I guess there's no guarantee that further elevations won't eventually be in the pipeline, but in manufacturing the US Dollar is king and a plummeting pound is putting the squeeze on bigtime.

I've mentioned the alterations I'd love to see, a slacker, beefier, internally routed, ISCG mounted aggro 29'er built around a 140mm travel fork would be an approximation of perfection.  At this point you've got to ask yourself why as a sponsored rider I'm not already on top of the range Sherpa Ti?

Maybe this frame was always a stopgap?  With an expected recovery time measured in months, maybe I'll never ride the Sherpa in anger again?  Maybe one of greatest hardtails in the history of MTB is about to drop?  Maybe...

Off the brakes and destroying Finale...

Until it bit back and destroyed me!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Feeling The Burn - The Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultramarathon

It was never my intention to lead from the gun.  I really just wanted some clear space, away from the sound and sight of other footsteps in order to settle into my familiar, trained, tried and tested rhythm.  I'd spent the last four weeks perfecting a pace that covered 32 hilly miles in 3:54:00 and the sooner that kicked in, the sooner I could relax and enjoy my surroundings.
They're behind you!!  Fast early pace.  Photo: Barry Murray
Following the safety car, all 210 Ultra runners dropped down to the bridge that signalled our initial steps on to the beautiful Wicklow Way trail.  I savoured the moment as we began to ascend, the tension of the previous week dissipating as it finally dawned that I'd arrived at the start line fit and healthy despite the usual hypochondriac over-analysis of every recent sneeze and twinge.

Whenever I race, a certain hyper-awareness kicks in, listening for the breathing patterns and strides of my competitors.  I like to be out front which removes the possibility of seeing everyone else's form, checking their features for signs of strain, and so I've learned to form a visual picture without the dangerous pointlessness of looking over my shoulder.  Half way up that initial climb it slowly dawned on me that those familiar sounds weren't in evidence and I was alone.  There was nothing I could do about this, my pace was set and I was basically on auto-pilot, if nobody fancied matching it then I'd have to accept that it could be a lonely few hours ahead.  I crested the summit, stretched my legs along the slight undulations and revelled in the buzz of long-anticipated competition and warmth of long yearned for sunshine...

I didn't plan to run the Maurice Mullins Ultra this year.  Truth be known I had a chastening experience in 2016 and as someone who doesn't hugely enjoy hard packed surfaces and moderate gradients I'd have happily passed.  However, I do love competing for Ireland, being given the opportunity to travel as an athlete and pit myself against the World's best on the biggest stage and as this race was the World Champs qualifier for 2017 I realised I'd have to return.  Last year I came to Wicklow on the back of just three weeks training following a debilitating calf injury.  Fortunately this season my preparations were unhindered and I'd done a specific four week block of trail sessions, focusing on being efficient in movement and pinpointing the perfect pace.  A couple of comfortable 2:54, twenty-five milers over the Tollymore hills had me feeling confident and I fancied my chances of toppling Jonny Steede's rapid 3:56:47 record, particularly after seeing the weather forecast for the 25th March.

This race seems to have been blighted by poor weather in recent years!  Certainly on my one previous experience the high winds and intermittent showers made for testing times on the open mountain sections and lent a certain dankness to the forests.  This year a breathtaking sunrise accompanied the start of my journey and perfect blue skies led down to Glencullen where sunglasses at sign-on were prevalent.  With the early morning rays already generating a soothing warmth and the convivial nature of the usual pre-race banter it was easy to enjoy the last hour before the big start.  I decided to heed the forecast and ignore all my four base layers of differing thickness, opting to wear just the vest instead, a decision I definitely appreciated later on.  Final stretches, race briefing, sip of water and we were off.  Just 32 miles to go!
Stunning sunrise to start the journey
The first sixteen miles were pretty uneventful and at times hugely enjoyable.  From the techy rock drops of the first descent to skipping up Djouce mountain in the sun following the breathtaking beauty of Powerscourt Waterfall that almost stopped me in my tracks.  I passed Crone Wood feed station in 54 minutes and felt really comfortable although the decision not to stop and take on water was foolish given the conditions.  Even worse, I opted to down the 250ml of electrolytes I'd allocated to this section in order to save weight which left me without a drop all the way to the Ballinastoe half-way point.  Last year I downed 500ml at that point but the ensuing stomach issues left me overly cautious this year and I'd only packed another 250ml.

Passing half-way at 1:56:00 I was delighted to be exactly on planned pace and still feeling strong, and the lengthy climb back up Djouce passed pretty quickly with the hundreds of snippets of support and conversation.  Huge thanks to everyone who stepped off the boardwalk, taking the softer line to let me pass.  The 90 degree bend that signals the top of the climb took me by surprise as for some reason I thought the trail went right to the summit and so I was a bit unprepared to commence the slippery descent, small patches of snow serving as a clear reminder how the weather could have been so different.  A few comedy slips on the off-camber mud led to the bottom of the hill and up the steep rise on the other side, temporarily power walking as a creeping nausea started to temper my progress.  To stave off any early cramp, salt sachets were downed and I paced on well back to Crone Woods, pausing temporarily for water this time and allowing a quick time check.  2:57:20, still on record pace and despite the discomfort of the nausea, still covering ground fast.

By now I was getting distinctly bored of my own company but the drifting nature of my thoughts allowed whole sections to pass without conscious input.  I knew my lead was sizeable at half way and given the continued fast pace I was confident it had remained.  This was confirmed at the final feed station where I grabbed some water and settled in for the final climb.  As I jogged up the final jumble of granite boulders I made the fatal mistake of allowing my mind to skip to the finish and the promise of fluids and a cessation of movement.  That thought combined with the still very real possibility of the record prompted me to push on a bit hard on the flat of the ridge and into the descent with the clock at 3:39.  Just two and a bit miles to go, mostly downhill, I figured ten for the descent, six for the road and a finish time of 3:55.  Then it all went badly wrong.

Cramp can come in two ways, the sneaky gradual tightening or the instant jolting shock.  I managed to experience both simultaneously with quads seizing immediately whilst calves spasmed in tickly shots. Mind in overdrive I adopted a bizarre shuffle, contorting legs into any shape that temporarily alleviated the locking.  I'd long since accepted that I'd won the race and now suddenly that was far from a foregone conclusion.  It seemed so cruel that with the bulk of the work done my body could deny me at the last minute but I'd obviously asked too much of it without heeding the messages sent in return.  For the first time that day I started looking over my shoulder, convinced that Barry Hartnett would be appearing on the horizon.

After walking a bit and then ultimately stopping to vigorously rub my rock solid calves I was finally able to re-commence a hobbling jog.  Survival was now the primary concern and I craved the finish or even just the change to the uphill of the road.  Crossing the bridge I allowed myself a lingering look across the valley and back up the track and was quite astounded to see it bereft of runners.  The result was now unquestionably in the bag as long as I could actually reach the finish.  That final section was cripplingly tortuous as I prayed for the GAA club to appear at every slight bend in the road.  Face contorted in pain, I hobbled in, unable to appreciate the joy of the finish line, mentally spent and continuing to seize.

That last two and a bit miles took a whopping 32 minutes for a final time of 4:10:44, a couple of minutes slower than the time I ran last year for third.  My dreams of the record smashed to pieces by inexperience, poor decision making and a body that wasn't quite up to the task.  Watching Barry cross the line a few minutes later it was clear he'd experienced very similar symptoms and given his superior pedigree and experience over this distance maybe I hadn't cocked up as badly as I thought.  Maybe the conditions were always going to be the decisive factor this year, we don't really legislate for it being too hot for March mountain races in Ireland!
Finish line agony after a very tough last half hour.  Photo: Mick Hanney
Post-race saw the usual rush for cheap calories whilst catching up with familiar faces and sharing battle stories.  I'd have loved to have had the option to drink away the aches in the glory of a sun drenched beer garden at Johnnie Fox's but the North was calling and so I fought my way out of the car park and headed for the mayhem of the M50.  Job done, great result and ultimately I definitely got what I came for, International qualification and another very important lesson learned.  Drink early, drink lots and drink often!  I'll keep that in mind as we head to Italy in the height of Summer!
Followed by delight at not needing to run any more.  Photo: Mick Hanney
Huge thanks as ever to all fellow IMRA competitors who make for such happy atmospheres at races and biggest thanks to all organisers, helpers and marshals.  It was a superb event again, really smoothly run and a credit to all involved.  Also massive thanks to the Mullins family who have created such a lovely trophy which looks great on the mantlepiece.  My kids love it!  Now I need to work out how to return it next year without having to run that damn trail again!
Top three Ultra men along with Barry Hartnett and Paul Tierney

Friday, 17 March 2017

My Left Knee and the Germ Factories

My wee boy is ill.  Not just the usual coughs and splutters, this time it's a relentless puking, totally exhausted, heart-wrenching genuine sickness.  He's been awake half the night and is currently laid up and off school.

Now Dylan is bulletproof and despite the obvious discomfort he's remained totally upbeat, so much so that I actually took him out to the park and to Lidl as he seemed like he was well on the mend.  All was good until half way through the shopping when he announced he was going to be sick and promptly puked on the floor.  This was straight after declaring 'I'm not boking in a box' after I'd rapidly shoved an empty cardboard container under his mouth.
The boys not feeling sick!
Now I'm not sure where the logic lies in being perfectly happy vomming up on a supermarket floor but not a box, but then logic and four year olds are often very separate entities.  Anyway, where this is all going is towards the fact that kids are often sick, they're mini germ factories who we shove in close proximity to other germ factories on a daily basis.  Unsurprisingly, the germs have a field day and create combinations of illnesses to flatten our children and in-turn, often flatten us.

I can totally accept this, being contaminated by your offspring is part and parcel of being a parent and I often play the bug lottery, watching the latest strains work through my family, hoping fruitlessly that I'll somehow avoid the lurgy and be able to power on.  I remember when my older boy was a baby, thinking that the cold he had probably wouldn't effect me because he was tiny and I was big!  As a result I carried on as normal, letting him slobber and sneeze all over me, with the upshot that I got it worse than he ever had and spent the next three weeks coughing my lungs out.  This startling lack of medical knowledge no doubt had Louis Pasteur turning in his grave and taught me a vital lesson the hard way.

Being sick is often little more than an inconvenience to most people.  You feel a bit rotten, deal with the symptoms and largely carry on with life until it passes.  Being sick as an athlete can be pretty devastating, particularly in the run-up to a big event.  It can ruin months of careful preparation and effort in one fell swoop.  At present I'm just coming to the end of a very tough four week training block and everything is going brilliantly.  Times are getting faster despite no increase in effort and recovery is coming easy, the very definition of improving fitness.  My first big race of the year is in a week and everything feels like it's falling into place.  To get my body in this situation has taken a lot of hard work, overcoming injury, adjusting plans, dieting hard and getting out in some testing conditions.  Training to peak for a big event is pretty formulaic and has always worked well for me unless the spectre of illness has appeared to f**k it all up.

I remember reading Brad Wiggins' book and empathising with his obsessive attempts to stay healthy during the Tour De France.  Using hand-sanitiser literally every time he touched anything may seem a bit ridiculous but when you work so hard for a singular goal that can be ruined so easily then it's understandable (a lot more so than using TUE's to gain an unfair, drug-fuelled advantage anyway!). The human body is so fallible and weak, it takes so little to knock it out of kilter and athletes are even more susceptible than non-athletes.  Systematically battering ourselves, breaking down muscle to allow it to rebuild also temporarily downs our immune systems, leaving us more open to attack.

As a teenager, my Mum could never understand why I was constantly sick.  She thought I was a hypochondriac but I was actually just someone with an immature body and a poor understanding of recovery periods.  I'd hammer myself in training and then smash myself in races on freezing Winter days, without ever really backing off until the inevitable cold came along to force some much-needed rest.  These days, I'm a bit more savvy and have learned the necessity of allowing my body to rebuild but there's no controlling the spread of illness and if it's going to get you, there's little you can do.

Having said that, I do all I can.  The week before a big race often sees me becoming a Vitamin C junkie as that familiar hyper-awareness of every single bodily feeling kicks in.  I'd love to know if other people count down the days on race week, delighting on waking every day without the tell-tale tickly throat or heavy lungs?  I certainly do!  Another, more regrettable facet of race week is often putting up a metaphorical shield between me and the kids.

I'm normally really huggy with the boys, and on top of that they're constantly trying to attack me, squash me and beat me up as all small boys should with their Dad!  This means that we're in close proximity a lot of the time which is usually a total joy.  All of that changes at race time as I hold them at arms length, keeping the coughs and sneezes away, desperately struggling to retain a healthy distance.  There is a ton of associated guilt, it's hard to explain to the lads that I don't want a bedtime kiss until after Saturday, but I guess that it's just another part of the selfishness that pervades the attitudes of competitors.

Now, on to my left knee.  For some bizarre reason it has some kind of medical clairvoyance and every time I'm about to succumb to any stomach related problem it aches incessantly.  It's not a knee problem and it dissipates as soon as the gut is fixed but it's come to serve as a handy early warning system.  This morning, a few minutes into a steady 16 miler I felt a couple of twinges and immediately went into panic mode, extrapolating that Dylan's bug must be about to strike. Fortunately, it went as soon as it arrived and a few hours later I feel absolutely fine.  I live to train another day without contracting this particular bug.
My magic left knee and entirely ordinary right one.
Anyway, I'm not entirely sure what the point of this blog is!  I guess I'd like to know whether anyone else alters their parenting routine and becomes hyper-aware of bodily feelings when their big goals are approaching?

I'd also love to hear that my behaviour is sort-of normal, and that temporarily avoiding my kids is acceptable, if only to assuage my own guilt.  The only massive upside to it all is that much like enjoying a rare post-race beer and sugar-fest, being able to go back and have a fear-free squish fight with the boys is an incredible joy and makes the temporary germ avoidance tactics feel almost worthwhile.

As a postscript I'm delighted to say that Dylan is now well on the mend.  Stay healthy everyone!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Power Of Certainty

I wake groggily, the weak grey light forcing through a crack in the curtains.  Gusting wind driving rain at the window in sheets, flexing the perspex and sapping my will to rise.  Slipping back out of consciousness I shelve the planned early morning session, later, later...

The next time I'm truly aware of what's going on is about 45 minutes later.  I feel myself rejoining my body, vision becoming clear and I'm no longer in my bed.  Heart rate is pumping and hamstrings a touch tight, I'm a quarter of the way into my eight-mile testpiece and moving well.  Obviously I know how I got here, I was vaguely aware of slipping on the Skins and Inov8's, downing a cup of tea and driving to the trailhead but none of it involved much cerebral input.  There's a deeper power at work, an internal drive that supersedes conscious input, I call it the power of certainty.
Living in Ireland, for every training day like this there are twenty in the drizzle!
I'm not always a big trail running fan, not compared to the wildness of the mountains where technicality of terrain adds excitement and a sense of space is all-encompassing.  Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy it but there's little to deflect the pain and so I get lost in internal monologue, self-conversing and emphasising suffering.  The four week trail running training block I'm currently undertaking is just praying for excuses to skip a session.  Today they included;

- A tough and successful week already completed, surely an extra rest day would be beneficial?
- A slight tightness in the hamstrings that may be exacerbated.
- A tough work day yesterday with a four hour commute and the mental strain of delivering a course.
- It's Sunday, how's about a lie in?
- My god, that weather sounds shocking...
- I'll delay until later and enjoy breakfast with Anna and the boys... 

Any one of those in isolation could've derailed the session if I'd stopped to think but the power of certainty overrides almost every time.  So what is it?

I read a really good statement recently that said if you want to get fit then relying on motivation is futile.  I think it related to the frantic post New-Year droves seeking gyms, detox, weight-loss, fitness and all the other resolutions that rapidly fall by the wayside.  The fact is that motivation alone isn't enough because it fluctuates so rapidly and readily.  Even for the most driven of competitors with clear goals and a burning desire to achieve, there are plenty of times that the will to skip a hated session is almost overwhelming and the impeccable logic of excuses seems indisputable.  If you want to be your best you have to have a strategy to overcome the lack of motivation so I use organisation and fear tactics.

Planning my diary well in advance I decide on the sessions for a whole block, considering the specific gains I want to make based on the attributes of my next race and the dates I want to peak.  Once those sessions are in my head, that's it, they're set in stone and only very extreme circumstances relating to family, work or injury will allow alterations.  At this point I've mentally begun to accept the guarantees of future struggle, the likelihood of freezing, the certainty of burning lungs and tired legs.  All the excuses are dissipated long before the allotted day and so when it comes to it the run begins on auto-pilot.  At some juncture during every effort I do become aware of how I've duped myself again but by that point I'm already out and the battle is won.

The fear aspect is provided by the knowledge that if I do decide to skip a training session then a domino effect could be instigated, easing the cancellation of future efforts, allowing the spurious excuses to gain a foothold.  The power of this knowledge is enough to tip the balance on the occasions my consciousness is alerted before the exercise is commenced, usually when I've been unable to train first thing and allowed time to dwell.

The key to this approach is realistic planning.  If your training blocks are too ambitious then you'll either get injured or exhaust yourself attempting to stick to a debilitating schedule.  You need recovery, savour it and the strength it provides.  You also do need a small degree of flexibility, the ability to read your body and respond to its messages decisively, but once the re-arranged session is planned then you must instantly set that in mental stone as there's still no room for excuses. 
And if you want to reap the rewards, you have to find a way to make the sessions happen!
Motivation is great, sometimes I'm chomping at the bit to hit the mountains again just hours after getting down.  Training can be amazing fun and we all know that the aftermath is almost universally positive, particularly after completing the toughest of sessions.  In reality though, the times it feels best are usually when the hard miles are already logged and you're reaping the benefits.  Without the power of certainty I'd never again reach that state and so this trick of the mind will always remain a vital tool.

Friday, 24 February 2017


I sat in the van this morning shivering.  Not through cold or even the prospect of my imminent ejection into four degree heat in shorts and short sleeves.  Instead it was the nervous energy that usually precedes my hardest race efforts, a combination of fear of pain, desire for a result and a rare injection of caffeine from the huge mug of tea that was my breakfast.

Stepping out into a beautiful crisp Winter morning I rapidly stripped off my tracksuit and lobbed it on the passenger seat, the early morning frostiness drawing instant goosebumps on my forearms, the hairs bristling like an angry cat.  A t-shirt was a pretty daft choice for such a February day but I felt the need to wear my Garmin Mourne Skyline 2015 top today, the reminder of one of my best performances giving a bit of mental fortitude to help allay my fear of this session.

So why the hell was I so nervous of what was hopefully going to be less than 28 minutes of effort?  Well, this double lap tempo effort around Castlewellan lake was the very session that confirmed a recurrence of my calf injury last October, an injury that instigated three months of pain, annoyance, physio and hospital appointments and some serious soul searching.  Doubts creep in easily over the long Winter months and although I was enjoying some tough turbo trainer sessions the nagging feeling that my running career may be over was never far from my consciousness.

Sometime around Christmas I changed tactics and started putting in some serious strength training.  It wasn't really a structured tactic to aid recovery, it was actually with a view to bulking up a bit and looking better on the beach this coming Summer!  The body of a mountain runner, although muscular, tends to look more malnourished than beefcake and I figured that if I couldn't run then I may as well muscle up.  This shameless vanity had an unexpected side effect as a tentative early January effort in the mountains revealed that the excruciating knots deep within my Soleus muscles had dissipated and I was able to run again without pain.
Very icy run out over the Mourne Skyline!
A four week block of purely mountain running saw the legs return from initial wobbling wrecks on the long climbs and descents to their usual comfort on the steeps.  Session length extended gradually until I finished the month with a return to my usual Skyline Prep route, taking in all the major peaks of the Skyrunner route on a laughably slippy and icy day.  The constant fear of injury had slipped from my subconscious and over time I managed to head out without over-analysing every little sensation from my lower limbs.  I went into my recovery week feeling positive, a holiday in Cornwall with some delightful clifftop jogs squeezed between a general excess of delicious beer and pasties.

A while back I made a tentative inquiry to the IMRA selectors to see whether I'd be able to skip the selection race for this year's World Long Distance Champs on account of my showing at last year's race in Slovenia.  The Worlds this year are at an incredible looking race called the Giir Di Mont in Italy and I badly want to make the Irish squad again to get the opportunity to take part.  Whilst they didn't exactly say no, they also didn't say yes, indicating that the principal selection criteria would once again rest on performance at the 33 mile Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultramarathon.  I don't want to leave selection up to chance and so my mind was made up for me, I'd have to face my biggest trepidation and get back to trail training as soon as possible to prep for the Ultra.

There's a world of difference between proper mountain running and mountain trail running and my body definitely prefers rock fields, impossible gradients and peat hags to well formed tracks that happen to lead through the hills.  It's the longer stride pattern, increased heel strikes and hard impact of trail running that has triggered my calf problem twice now and I was hoping to avoid having to encounter that terrain this year.  Nevertheless, needs must and if I'm to perform down in Wicklow then my next four week block would have to focus on increased distances, hard packed surfaces and better leg speed.
Proper mountain terrain!

I started on Monday feeling mentally tired following a fun but exhausting weekend of work.  Session one was a casual 16 miler in Tollymore Forest, nice and hilly and at a retainable pace.  All went OK but I felt the metaphorical weight of potential injury heavily along with the extra 7lbs of muscle I'm carrying from the strength work.  Lap one of the forest was comfy enough, probably a bit too pacy but I found myself cruising through miles 11-13 and starting to enjoy myself.  Unfortunately a lack of fuel caught up with me near the end, running on an empty stomach, and I was pretty faint and nauseous by the conclusion.  Lesson learned, I actually think my heavier body is demanding more calories than I'm used to, I'll be addressing that by shedding the weight over the next few weeks.  1:54:19 for the 16 was OK but I definitely couldn't have maintained that pace over double the distance as I'll need to on March 25th.

Strength sessions on Tuesday and Thursday with a promising 1:31:32 trail and mountain twelve-miler sandwiched in-between led me to today's session.  I don't really like tempo sessions.  The pain of pushing up to my 173bpm heart rate threshold and then holding it there has an immediacy that isn't experienced in longer efforts.  The worries emanated from that certainty of impending pain, coupled with the very real possibility of injury recurrence and I definitely feared the session.  As it was it passed without a hitch barring having to hack my way around a huge fallen tree on every lap, the relief of a short recovery tempered by then having to force the pace hard to raise my heart rate again.  Sometime in my second lap, as the realisation dawned that I'd complete the run I almost even began to enjoy the experience, not quite though!
Blood, sweat and ended fears. 27:21's not quick for a 5 mile tempo effort but it's a solid start.
Session over, I jogged the few miles back to the van, coincidentally bumping into my physio Robbie who had helped me retain focus and sanity through the weeks of frustration.  Stretching off on a wall with the sun on my back I felt a lightening, a combination of a premature promise of Spring conditions and the firming up of previously speculative plans for the year.  Weight is dropping, fitness returning and most importantly injury being held at bay.  A long-yearned positivity is eeking it's way back into my mindset and it feels good.  Bring on 2017, the Wicklow Ultra, Iceland OMM, selected NIMRA races and hopefully the Giir Di Mont.  Redemption feels great, long may it last...

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The Eye Of The Beholder

The old adage is undeniably true regarding beauty and the eye of the beholder.  The visual appearance of fellow humans, animals, inanimate objects and everything that we encounter can only be viewed with our own eyes and processed with our own brains.  For this reason it's hard not to laugh at the perpetually inane Pinkbike comment fights that go along the lines of *;

'Oh man that bike is ugly'
'Have you seen your face?!'
'Ugly and expensive... Who the H would pay $5500 canadian for a hardtail?'
'Looks like it'd be a laugh to ride which is what it's all about isn't it?'

*These are excerpts from an actual exchange http://www.pinkbike.com/news/2017-btr-ranger-amp-build-options.html

Now whilst this banter is a touch childish it's really just people spouting their personal opinions on what is essentially a subjective matter.  These aren't arguments that anyone has any possibility or even intention of winning, just bored people having verbal swings at eachother about something that is inherently pretty irrelevant and non-offensive.  And the thread continued in this vein until it strayed on to slightly different territory and at that point my laughter ceased...

The bike that sparked the lively debate.  To me it's ugly as sin, to others it's beautiful but until you look at the welds then don't comment on the quality!
'very Fast and capable bikes, UK hand made to custom spec. Not some Taiwanese off the self labeled up as high quality custom crap'
(misplaced capitals copied from original comment)

Now I'm sure that there were no connotations of racism in the comment and people do seem to enjoy vehemently defending the UK manufacturing industry.  For that I have to commend them but I do take issue with the insinuation that companies are duping customers with sub-standard Taiwanese frames being sold as custom items.  Why does an off-the-shelf  Taiwanese frame have to be viewed as inferior to an off-the-shelf UK produced frame?  For so many years there has been an unjustifiably elevated status afforded to anything manufactured in the UK or the USA within the bike industry.

Times have changed and 'made in Taiwan' is no longer as indicative of poor workmanship as it was undoubtedly considered twenty years ago.  Perceptions do advance, in the same way that I'm sure kids whose parents own a Skoda no longer see it as the badge of playground shame it was when I was growing up.  The fact is that some of the finest craftsmanship in bike frames is now coming out of Taiwan and the quality of the end product is all down to how much time and monetary investment companies are prepared to invest in finding the best factories to produce their wares.  If you want to have a simple comparative check of relative standards between companies then you have to look at the finer details closely.  And so that's what I decided to do.

I've currently got four steel hardtail frames in my garage, two decidedly retro and two very modern.  I thought I'd take a look at the same part of each frame and attempt to spot noticeable quality differences between them in terms of workmanship.  Specifically I was visually inspecting the welds and assessing the key factors that signify good welding.

1) No porosity, cracks or craters
2) Uniform bead ripples (or fishscales)
3) Even bead profile (same thickness, even toe lengths) 

Although in itself this is subjective I do have a fairly trained eye for equipment inspection (as it forms part of my job).

Frame 1

The cheapest frame at £250 in 1998 (inflation adjusted approx £425).  Welded in Taiwan for a US based bike company.  Clear lack of uniformity and excess material particularly around the top of the seatstay to seat tube joint.  Uneven bead ripples and bead profile.

Frame 2

Priced at £549 in 2017.  Produced in Taiwan for a UK based company.  Weld standard is fairly high, small and neat although some variation in bead size and also in profile on the top tube gusset.

Frame 3

Priced at £599 in 2017.  Produced in Taiwan for a UK based company.  Weld quality extremely high with near perfect uniformity of bead size and profile throughout.

Frame 4

Priced at £770 in 1997 (inflation adjusted approx £1310).  Welded in the US for a US based company. High standard of welding.  Small and neat with good bead uniformity and just small variations in bead profile.

So what did I learn?

As mentioned before, clearly this is subjective and although I can weld I'm not claiming to be an expert.  However here are four different frames and obviously differing degrees of visual quality.  Generally the standard of the welding improves with cost with the worst work evident on the £250 (£425) frame.  Next up is the £549 frame which is a clear step up in quality but still shows some variation in bead size and profile.  Second best with some very neat welds but some profile variation is the £770 (£1310) frame and the best is the £599 offering.

Now undoubtedly frame build is only one of several aspects that impact on overall cost and ride quality.  Tubing type, R&D, economies of scale and volumes produced, marketing, paint costs, labour costs, shipping and no doubt other factors come into play but then surely the point of having production in the East is to counteract some of these issues to hit a more palatable price point without compromising quality.

Two points have become apparent to me from this exercise;

1) Frames made in Taiwan can definitely be built to an extremely high standard and the right 'off-the-shelf' Taiwanese frame can display better qualities than a boutique US made one costing over twice as much.

2) That contrary to several moaning comments I've read lately, steel frames aren't exponentially increasing in price along with their recent resurgence in popularity.  The fact is that top quality steel frames have always been expensive, particularly from the really desirable brands.  The likes of Bontrager, Voodoo and Dekerf were happily banging out frames in the nineties that would cost way over a grand now with inflation adjustments.

Beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder and whilst others would certainly disagree I personally always viewed the white frame as a workhorse and the black frame as a touch ugly.  The orange one is a work of art with some lovely touches and the green one looks incredible.

Quality however is in the trained eye of experts and there is a definite variation in standards on show.  Unsurprisingly the workmanship generally improves with increasing price but not necessarily and it's very clear that a mass produced Taiwanese frame in 2017 can easily hold its own against UK or US produced offerings.  I'm definitely all for buying local as long as it makes sense in terms of price and quality but I'm definitely not a believer in compromising my ride experience just to support our manufacturing industry or in slagging companies because of the origin of their equipment.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Finished Article

I was watching the football recently and drifting off as tedious commentators reeled out a barrage of cliches to fill in the gaps of a lacklustre nil-nil draw.  Their observations were largely washing over me until one of them used the well worn line;

'well he's not quite the finished article yet' 

And that set me thinking, what the hell does the finished article look like?

I've been training for about 29 years now, initially for football, then tennis before, at the age of fourteen making some serious, if misguided forays into physical conditioning for cross country mountain biking.  Even during the booze laden university years I continued to push hard on the bike and occasionally jogged through the picturesque suburbs of darkest Swansea.  Since then I kept fit for a decade before finding mountain running and seriously ramping up the commitment and intensity in order to compete at my current level.

As well as training harder I've also become a lot more clued up on the other essential aspects of diet, mindset and running technique and searched hard to find those marginal gains that may keep my ageing body ahead of my rivals.  To maintain this degree of focus takes a dedication and mental fortitude which is always motivated by that search to become better.  But where does it ever stop?

I always thought that the onset of my thirties would signal the beginning of a decline with metabolism slowing and fat appearing in previously toned areas but in actuality the opposite occurred with the discovery of a new sport where malnutrition (or at least minimal non-essential calorific intake) is par for the course among top competitors.  As I approach the exit to that decade the scales are informing me that my default weight is now a stone lighter than ten years ago.

So I'm lighter, fitter, better technically and faster than I used to be but only the totally deluded would consider me anywhere near a finished article.

2015 Mourne Skyline Skyrunner win.  Certainly one of my better days but I still could've gone faster and subsequently have so no finished article there!  Photo Credit: Jayne Bell
So what about true masters, Pele, Beethoven, Kasparov, were they the finished article?  Certainly at a point in time they could all have been considered the pinnacle of human achievement within their extremely narrow fields but to consider they were incapable of further improvement would have been insultingly misguided.

So if true legends, the all time top proponents weren't the hallowed finished article then can it be achievable?

Well, yes possibly it can but you need a high degree of specificity and very clear goals.  To narrow the field and have stated aims at least allows you to be the finished article at one point in time and one very specific achievement.  For example, I hold a couple of record times which I specifically aimed to set whilst racing.  By beating a target set by myself but also all previous competitors I can convince myself that on that day and at achieving that aim I was indeed the finished article.  But it doesn't mean that others can't be infinitely better.  You can only be your own finished article.

I'm not foolish enough to believe I'll ever be the World mountain running champion. That particular boat probably sailed years before I even discovered the sport.  However, at some point I will be my finished article within mountain running, the best me I can ever be.  It may have already happened, my best ever performance where it all felt effortless and flowing may be behind me, I'll find out too late, when the times do get slower despite the effort remaining constant.  A facet of always believing you can get better is the fact that ultimately you'll be wrong, barring a premature retirement or untimely death you will start to naturally deteriorate.

Which could be a pretty depressing thought....

Except it's not at all because you can always be improving at something, working towards being your finished article all over again in a totally different field.

I've been unable to run for twelve weeks now due to injury but have been given a reprieve from mental torture by my incredibly generous physio who lent me his cyclocross bike.  Instantly I set about a new training regime of high intensity turbo training, 'ugly fifteens' and two wheeled drifts round grassy corners on a bike that's definitely not the best designed tool for that kind of behaviour. The learning curve has been seriously rapid and massively enjoyable.  It's so bizarre taking a pastime that is seemingly so close to my comfort zone (as a mountain bike coach) but actually in many ways is miles away.

So a few weeks ago I sped around a local trail centre feeling far too upright with bars too narrow and brakes that barely functioned.  The 80psi in my tyres to ward off pinch flats gave my hands a beating that'd reduce a jackhammer operator to tears.  Initially I tensed up, slid, over braked and did all the things I coach out of beginners on mountain bikes, but pretty rapidly I found the boundaries and started launching the drops and letting it go on the corners before inevitably the front tyre did blow out on one less than finessed landing.

Armed with a decent level of fitness and a very small modicum of specific CX ability I than set about taking on my first race.  Like an idiot I was conned into doing the 'A' class before seeing that the majority of rank amateurs go into the 'B'.  The great thing is that I didn't care!  Obviously I tried to bury myself physically but found that I actually struggled to burn myself out because my lack of skills on the endless sharp bends gave me too much time to recover!  Not being 'gridded' and starting at the back denied me the chance to have a brief flirtation with the quick lads at the front but really it was a lack of technical ability that saw me forced back into a respectable but unremarkable 19th place finish.  When it comes to cyclocross I'm currently so far from the finished article that I'm barely an article at all!
Cyclocross.  Just riding bikes around a field, how hard can that be?  Actually pretty damn challenging!
So the moral of the story for me is that far from being dismayed at the ultimately doomed search for unending improvement, maybe we should instead just focus on being our own finished article every time we compete.  Clear goals allow us the satisfaction of success whilst accepting that another, harder target is then required to motivate us to push on.  When finally we do succumb to the natural decline through age or injury then we can accept it and either keep competing at a lower level or really excitingly take up something new and work towards once again becoming our personal finished articles.  Cue a lifetime of new experiences!