Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Jersey 2015 - Island Games Part 1 - XC and Road Race

Life In The Saddle is always more exciting when it is composed of a series of challenges.

Challenge yourself, and you’re able to push yourself further, ride faster and reach new boundaries in the process.

The Jersey 2015 Natwest Island Games was always set to be a challenge. I knew it would be hard to cross-discipline between the mountain bike and road. I knew the standard would be incredibly high: including national and commonwealth champions in both fields. I also suspected that the terrain and courses, for both the mountain biking and road riding, would be pretty brutal.

Now, half-way through The Games, I can pretty definitely say that my predictions were correct. It’s been a tough (but very enjoyable) week so far, and it’s not over yet…

XC Cross Country Race 

Cross country racing demands a unique blend of technical skill, fitness and bike handling. I have a huge amount of respect for XC racers as a result,  and they really are a special breed. Back in 2011, at my last Island Games, I considered myself a dedicated XC rider; nowadays though, my riding and racing is far more road focussed, and I predicted this would have an impact on my technical ability in the cross country racing here this week…

We walked the purpose-built Jubilee Hill XC course on Saturday afternoon, and pre-rode it on Sunday afternoon. Our recon immediately confirmed that we were in for a challenging race. Perched on the edge of the escarpment that Jersey airport sits upon, the course is packed to breaking point with technical single-track, drops, rock gardens, off-camber downhills and lung busting climbs. The ground was as dry as a desert, too; and as a result every corner was super loose and quickly blown out. It was going to be a dusty, technical race, which would leave little room for error.

At 2pm on Monday afternoon, Team Isle of Wight lined up alongside 16 other islands in hot and windless conditions. The flag dropped, and the race began…

I struggled with the fast start, and entered the first section of single-track towards the back of the pack. The first few of the 11 laps were a blur of avoiding crashes, trying to make up lost ground, and getting used to the feeling of having lungs and a mouth full of dust.

By lap three, things had settled down a bit. I was gradually picking up places, but continued to struggle on the more technical sections of the course. I had more than one "off", when I washed out on the loose switchback sections.

To be honest, the rest of the race was a blur, too. My heart rate didn’t budge from threshold for two hours; and my legs, arms and face were coated in sweat, dust and blood by the end. I continued to gradually pick up places, and pulled myself into 20th overall for the finish. It was without doubt the hardest XC race I’ve done.

I was pretty satisfied with 20th, although it was a significant drop from my 13th place in the 2011 Games. I went as hard and as fast as I could though, and it was my bike handling that mainly let me down. As I predicted, if you want to race XC really well, you need to ride cross country… a lot! Time to get an Isle of Wight mountain bike team in regular training!

Onto the road race...

Road Race 

Monday night was spent trying to recover as quickly as possible, in preparation for yesterday's road race. This was going to be another leg-killer of an event, with national champions, commonwealth athletes and stacks of full-time pros on the start line.

Dawn broke on what was to be the hottest June day in Jersey for five years. At 9:30, when our race rolled out on blissful closed roads, it was 29 degrees; by the time we rode back to the hotel, it was 32 Celsius. Scorchio! With more bottles of electrolyte drink made up than I can count, we rolled out...

Having pre-driven the course the day before, we knew that the 2km climb mid-way through the circuit would be the crunch point. The first time over it, the whole Isle of Wight team stayed with the main group, but the attrition rate in the peloton was already high. The second time over we dropped more, then more on the next lap. By lap three, the group was whittled down to around 25 riders, but Sam and I were hanging in there.

On the fourth lap, on the flat section that took us back along the seafront, I cramped up. I've never cramped before in a race, but I expect the combination of the efforts during the XC race the day before, and the heat, meant my muscles were struggling. I had to stop pedalling for a fair while, with the excruciating pain, and quickly shot to the back of the peloton.

It required a flat out effort just to make junction with the group again, after the cramp had subsided. Unfortunately, just after I did re-join, we hit the climb for the fourth time. I clung on for as long as I could, but I couldn't crest the hill with the group. I was dropped.

The rest of the race was a combination of a two-up time trial, with a rider from the Isle of Man; then a solo ride once the heat had taken its toll on him, too. I crossed the line in 22nd place.

It was another fairly satisfying result, although a bit lower placed than I had hoped for. It was an impressive showing for the Isle of Wight team as a whole though, and we all finished in what were super challenging conditions, and in a field of high-calibre riders.

I've decided to sit out of the mountain bike criterium this evening, but will now be racing in the town centre road crit tomorrow; hopefully with better recovered legs. It's been an awesome week so far, and we are set to have two great evenings of racing still to come.

Jersey 2015 hasn't failed to disappoint!

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Review: Spoke 'Flex' Chinos

London based Spoke is a brand that has, and deserves, a great following. Despite their name resonating very strongly with the cycling world, it relates in truth to the "bespoke" nature of their products. That said, their beautifully tailored trousers are something that any cyclist will appreciate, and the new "Flex" model in particular, due to the subtle stretch in the fabric and the contoured fit.

Cyclists often have "difficult" physiques. We're an odd bunch anyway, but due to the nature of our sport, we can have everything from the bulging legs of a sprinter, to the thin and spindly legs of a climber. In short, it's often difficult to find clothes (particularly trousers) that fit well.

Perhaps I'm getting fussier, perhaps having tested a lot of well-fitted cycling kit, I'm just learning that a great fit can exist. Either way, the idea of a smart, reasonably priced pair of trousers, which actually fitted well, sounded like a pipe-dream. Here enters Spoke...

Fit comes first

Spoke have four motto's that they live by. The first, is that 'Fit comes first' - that's a good place to start! From the moment a pair of Spoke chinos arrives; neatly 'fitted' in a small rectangular box, and tied with a red ribbon, it is evident that care and attention has gone into these. Pulling them on for the first time, confirms they are indeed 'bespoke'.

The fitting tool on Spoke's website is the start of the tailoring process. You are requested to input a whole multitude of preferences, sizes and selections; then the imaginary cogs turn and out comes your 'ideal' size. When you then place your order, Spoke will tailor the length of the chinos to your desired number of creases (your leg length), your build and your waist. It is as personalised as it gets.

The results are satisfyingly superb, too. A lot of testimonials on the Spoke website are from people that have bought a pair, and then vouched "I'll never buy anything else"; I can see why. They are quite probably the best fitted pair of trousers I have.

The fit is especially good with this 'Flex' version I think, which contains a 2% elastane content. That little bit of give means that they feel great when you're moving around in them. Couple that stretch with the fact that they're close fitting around the calves and ankles, and these are in fact better than some pairs of "cycling specific" trousers that I've used. Fit, it seems, should come first.

Clothes should wear in, not out

I've only been testing these for a couple of weeks, so my ability to vouch for their long term durability is limited. That said, the evidence shows that Spoke's chinos should also live up to their second motto, with ease.

Clothes that get better over time are a sign of quality, and demonstrate the craftsmanship with which they have been made, as well as the strength of the materials. The stitching and cotton fabric of these chinos looks and feels as if it should last a good few years, even if you are wearing them regularly. Much like a pair of quality leather shoes, they'll gain character as they age.

Always be testing - Less is more

The third and fourth Spoke mottos demonstrate something that I really value in a brand. Much like some of the best cycle brands, like Chris King and Hope Technology, Spoke vouch that they will constantly test and innovate; but also they won't feel pressurised to release new products too soon, or just for the sake of a "new season". Instead, they believe less is more, and the finished product should be just that. A quality approach.

Be-Spoke greatness

Overall, you can probably tell I've been impressed by these. I rarely wear a suit, but I'm a regular chino wearer, and these are easily the best I've had. 

They are superbly made, they have a great fit and they come from a brand that quite simply 'gets it right'. These factors combine to make these a pretty good value option too, in my opinion, at £80 a pair. This is British tailoring for chinos; providing a cut and style, as well as a brand, which any cyclist will appreciate, both on and off the bike.

View the Spoke-London range at (Link)

Monday, 22 June 2015

Jersey 2015 - The International Island Games - Imminent

It's almost here.

This time next week, I'll be desperately trying to recover. Recover from what will undoubtedly be the hardest XC mountain bike race I have done; ahead of what will probably be an even harder road race the following morning.

The Jersey 2015 Natwest International Island Games is imminent.

It seems everything this year has been geared around this event, for me. From those long winter training miles in wind and rain, right down to taking it a bit easier on greasy corners for fear of jeopardising my fitness and training, in the lead-up to this event. Everything has been focussed on trying to be on top form for this coming week. I've done as much as I can now...

The Island Games is best described as a mini-Olympics, exclusive to small islands from around the globe. Athletes come together from as far flung places as Bermuda, Mallorca and The Shetland Isles; all to compete against each other in a wide range of sports.

The week promises to be a great festival of sport, and a great chance to ride somewhere new, with some of my closest friends.

How will I fare? That's hard to tell. The Island Games attracts world class professional athletes, including the likes of Mark Cavendish (a few years back). Putting yourself against those that are lucky enough to ride bikes full-time, is always a challenge; but I'm hopeful of a decent result, and we have a very strong team, particularly in the mountain bike.

I'm taking part in three events, unfortunately on back-to-back days. I have a two hour mountain bike XC race on Monday afternoon, followed by a road race the following morning; then to finish things off, a fast and furious mountain bike criterium race (in a park!) on the Wednesday evening (I think I'll be ready for a beer after that!). It's set to be a tough few days, but I'm very much looking forward to it.

I'm on taper now, and have cut back to minimal riding as we lead up to the event. A few short, sharp efforts is all that resembles intensity, and will hopefully keep the high-end ticking over, whilst my legs regain some freshness. There is nothing more I can do now, really; except pack, rest up, and mentally prepare myself for races that will no doubt need me to turn myself inside-out. Jersey, we're coming for you...

The 2011 Natwest Island Games. Where it all began for me, including the start of racing, and the start of this blog!