Leamington Spa Victoria Park Criteriums #1 – 29th March 2014

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It’s been a couple of months since I last raced, a combination of disappointment and destroying my bike at the last two race attempts affecting the confidence somewhat.

Everyone’s reaction to being told I was racing at Leamington was ‘there’s always a crash there’ and a more inspiring ‘you’ll do alright there’. The Criterium (or Crit) is held in a park in Leamington with the circuit being a slightly wobbly oval – a first glance suggests the circuit is flat but there was a noticeable gradient on one part of the circuit but nothing particularly taxing.

Victoria Park

Victoria Park (Non-race day!)

The day was split into two races of 30 minutes + 5 laps with a decent number of riders (high 40s) from a variety of clubs including some from as far away as Nottingham and Oxford.

At the start of the first race and after trying to keep myself high up the field to avoid the inevitable crash when it came, I averaged around 10th wheel but after an effort to catch onto someone’s wheel as they attacked created an incident where I smacked handlebars with another rider (and luckily just about held the speed wobbles) I dropped back a touch and kept a tight inside line figuring this also meant I was doing the shortest distance. It also made it easy to move up the bunch where necessary and kept me out of trouble.

With the 5 laps to go whistle, everything suddenly became hectic as everyone went flat out and gave no quarter. There was very little room and you really had to be aware of where your lines through corners were going to take you. With 4 laps to go I found myself on the front and going past the 3 laps to go point I was still there, thinking there was no way I’d be able to keep up the power needed, I soft pedalled and dropped back down the inside, ready to move back up the outside where the room suddenly was as people took tighter lines in the corners and to hopefully be in a good position for the final sprint.

After passing a few people easily on the start/finish straight, at the next corner someone overcooked it, went too wide out of the corner, took the rider behind him down too and went flying into a tree. I managed to see it and avoid it thinking to myself that I’d missed the crash for the day. Coming round the outside of the next corner I had loads of room only for the spot I’d given up a few laps before to be the source of havoc.

Clubmate Tim was in about 5th wheel but got closed out on the inside of the corner and edged onto the grass at which point he went down, this then caused a domino effect that found its way across the track to where I was. This is where the brain kicked into slow motion mode and I can remember hearing the crash, seeing the riders go down on the inside, seeing the rider slide out of it into my path and then working out my attempt to go round him was going to see me crash into a metal fence.

Victoria Park

Victoria Park (racing!)

Being able to crash well is a skill and it’s a hard one to get right as not many practice it. I managed to avoid the fence and fall onto the relatively soft landing mat of a human man. A bruised elbow, bruised forearm, chainring spike marks (which looks suspiciously like bite marks) and a bit of muscle damage in the other forearm were the extent of the injuries – carbon bike, absolutely fine. I did eventually finish, riding no handed holding my helmet as a basket with sunglasses/gloves in it, but probably won’t be classified.

Race 2 started with noticeably less riders taking part, some of the ten or so who had crashed obviously had decided to pack up and head home. Tim and I were fairly apprehensive at the start and were usually found milling around at the back of the bunch. I was just on autopilot maintaining contact, not really up for things as my forearm made getting out of the saddle and sprinting hurt a lot. Eventually after 20 minutes there was an attack and sprint for the prime (a mid-race sprint for the mighty sum of £10) and 9 riders went off never to be seen again. Everyone in our group let them go thinking they’d ease off and come back but it just never happened, in the smaller group I found myself with more room and feeling more secure took turns with one other rider to try and bridge the gap but it was clear we were just tiring ourselves out in a lost cause so I sat up and relaxed.

Victoria Park Criterium Crash

Not our crash…but same circuit

We largely followed the same guy for a number of laps with a couple of bursts to push up the pace by me until again I found myself on the front too early (this seems to happen in every race…) so eased back but not as much as in Race 1. Tim was up in this group as well but everything was far too disorganised to actually work together and be useful.

Victoria Park Criterium

Victoria Park Criterium

On the last lap, I moved up a couple of places to be in 5th of our group coming out the corner where we’d crashed, I was on the wheel of someone ready for the sprint only for him to swerve across and cut me up, luckily I was far enough behind him that I could go round but 3 people in front had already started sprinting. I opened up, the legs said no very quickly but sat down I had more speed than two people on my shoulder and then I had another go at a proper sprint to catch the two riders well ahead. I closed the gap but didn’t quite have enough to overtake both and ended up 2nd by half a wheel in our bunch and 11th Overall. The highest place you can finish with no recognition (the same as 4th at the Olympics).

Two very contrasting races, both good for the experience in a way, my first race crash and also my first actual sprint for the line, which also showed I have one. Physically it seems I’ve got the legs to be there at the end, tactically I could use some work to give myself a better chance at getting a higher result. At the moment, I’m knocking on the door of a very good result.

 

samcycling in action at Victoria Park Leamington Spa

I’m not in this picture…

Cotswold Climbs 3 – Larkstoke

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Larkstoke Hill

View from Larkstoke Hill

Larkstoke Hill is found just about in Warwickshire near to the village of Ilmington. There are quite a few different routes up this hill but the climb of interest takes us to the highest point in Warwickshire. It’s a popular one to tack onto sportives to destroy legs near the finish.

Larkstoke has one of those lies of the land that completely disheartens first-timers to the hill. After crawling up one slope, you’re then presented with another longer, steeper slope that’s hidden from you until you’re right on it.

Larkstoke Hill

The start of the climb, doesn’t look much here

A fairly nondescript junction is the start point and you can see the climb wind its way up past a very hopeful bench and out of sight. This first slope is steep but is just about manageable, ranging between 10-15% and can be a struggle if you go into it too quickly and use up your energy too fast.

Once over the rise, your eyes play tricks to make the second rise look far higher and steeper than it really is, you get a short downhill part to build up speed (don’t coast!) and really attack the bottom of this section.

You can see the road kink to the left and it’s here where it eases off into a tired slog to the real top of the hill marked by the microwave dishes.

There’s no real point where you to experience the views, but a cheeky look over the right shoulder on the steep part after the bench shows how far you’ve come already and a quick glimpse on the left hand kink to see your handiwork will suffice.

Larkstoke Hill

View down Larkstoke Hill from second rise

My PB: 9minutes 7seconds (67th out of 843 on Strava)

Larkstoke Hill

View from the top looking West

Cotswold Climbs 2 – Saintbury

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Saintbury Hill

Saintbury Hill

Saintbury is as well revered as Dover’s Hill and it’s a near cert that any local Sportive will go up at least one of them.

The climb is about a mile long and feels like it gets easier as you go up the climb but still has an average of 9%.

Starting at the edge of the picturesque Cotswold village of Saintbury with its distinctive church nestled on the hillside, the hardest part of the climb is going through and out the other side of the village. Struggling up the 15% gradient here is the point where your legs are burning, urging you to stop.

Saintbury Hill

Saintbury Church

Coming out of the village, there’s a gentle hook left and a steady but steep ramp up to the sharp right which touches 16%. This ramp has excellent views to the left and shows how much height you’ve gained in a couple of minutes of pedalling.

After just about getting round the right-hander, you’re covered by the trees for most of the rest of the climb but after 50-100 metres you get some respite with the gradient trickling down to a more manageable 4-5% as you pass the crossroads.

Saintbury Hill

View from the Crossroads

Looking left this is your last real view across the Vale of Evesham as you head back into the trees. This second half generally averages about 7% with a couple of short bites that kick back up to 10% for 10 metres or so. There’s not much to look at during this part just the slightly eerie woods and maybe a rambler.

Saintbury Hill

View from the top

As soon as you come out the trees you can see the golf club entrance on the right and the work is over. You can sprint the 3% finish to the main road junction and look out across the Cotswolds to Blockley Hill the other side of the Cam valley.

My PB: 9minutes 10 seconds – again set last July and something I think I could smash if it I did again properly now (208th from 801 on Strava).

Cotswold Climbs 1 – Dover’s Hill

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Dover's Hill

Dover’s Hill

As hills go, Dover’s Hill is very well-known. It’s the site of the famous ‘Cotswold Olympicks’ or Dover’s Games held every year on hill followed by a torchlight procession down in Chipping Campden and a general town-wide level of drunkenness.

From a cycling perspective however it’s interesting as the site of several British National Hill Climb Championships. People like former Cervelo TestTeam rider Dan Fleeman, 1980 Olympic Cyclist Jeff Williams and 5 time Hill Climb winner Jim Henderson have all conquered this climb.

The hill itself is 1 mile long with a little bit of tenuous climbing from the road junction up to the real hill. Once you reach the tight left-hander, it’s go!

Dover's Hill

The hill gets steeper…

The hill ramps up slowly for a hundred metres or so before getting steeper as you go round the sharp right hand corner. As you climb in the near dark from the thick tree canopy (I often take off the sunglasses for this climb) you’re in a battle where the hill is getting harder and you’re getting less strong. Eventually by the farm on the right you get a brief respite before starting again.

Dover's Hill

The view from the top looking down..

This is the first point where you can see the top and all you have to do to reach it is one last blast up the steepest part of the climb, around 12-14% at this point. On the upside the trees disappear from the right hand side of the road and (especially in the Summer) get a great view of the Cotswold Edge extending down to Cheltenham and Cleeve Hill very visible.

Battling through, out of the saddle, you go back into tree cover and finally reach the top after around 6-7 minutes. The car park entrance on the left being the peak and a fun, speedy roll down to the crossroads junction and into Chipping Campden to get your breath back.

My PB – 7minutes 5seconds – 151st of 683 on Strava
I did this back in July and I’ve only ridden it once since, taking it relatively easy but only 7 seconds off this time. Very tempted to have a proper go at it soon…

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Preview

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Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

The Spring is here! At least in cycling terms that is…

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the start of the Belgian cobbled Classics season and it’s probably one of the most hotly anticipated years ever. I’ll be doing a full write-up for the Spring Classics so for now I’ll just focus on Omloop Het Nieuwsblad which takes place on March 1st 2014.

Omloop traditionally has a history of being won by Belgians but a recent run of only two wins in the last 7 races shows that the race is finally becoming more international in the new millennium. The big news for this year is that the iconic Kapelmuur is back on the route.

Kapelmuur

Kapelmuur

The race is effectively a warm up for the Tour of Flanders later on in the Spring as it uses a lot of the same short sharp cobbled climbs. This makes the race perfect for those targeting the later race such as favourite Tom Boonen.

Tom Boonen

Tom Boonen

Boonen in fact has never won this race despite his glittering palmares, four top ten finishes shows he has been repeatedly close. He has come out this week saying he’ll try to win this year but that he also doesn’t need to win it – I understand this as he doesn’t want to get injured taking risks here as he searches for higher prizes.

There are five different previous winners lined up for the race this year and each can still be considered as a contender. In chronological order -

Nick Nuyens won this event back in 2005 and has won events at a similar level since. He won the Tour of Flanders somewhat out of the blue in 2011 but hasn’t featured the last couple of years. Hard to rule out but probably not a winner this year.

Thor Hushovd won in 2009, he’s certainly lost top end speed and moved away from sprinting into focusing on the Classics. He will see this as a good warm up but his win in 2009 was possibly a peak – he’s finished in around 30th place in the years since.

Sebastian Langeveld

Sebastian Langeveld

Sebastian Langeveld won in 2011 and has struggled with injuries or bad luck since then. Very much a classics specialist he felt at GreenEdge that he wasn’t getting enough support as it was a squad not build for these races. Moving to Garmin, will hopefully help this. He came 44th in this race last year but then came 23rd in a brutal Milan – San Remo and top 10s in the E3 Prijs, Tour of Flanders and Paris – Roubaix. He’s very much a contender this year.

The 2012 winner Sepp Vanmarcke is a contender for all the Spring cobbled races. Winning here in 2012 was a springboard to just losing out to Fabian Cancellara in Paris – Roubaix last year. Barring bad luck I would expect a top-ten here and to see him competing at the sharp end of the rest of the Belgian season.

Luca Paolini

Luca Paolini beats Stijn Vandenberg to the line in last year’s Omloop

Luca Paolini was last year’s winner and the closest rider to match Boonen on paper in this race. After four attempts at this race, Paolini’s worst finish is a 12th place in 2012 and he has two top 5s as well. Not quite favourite, but I’ll expect him to be involved at key moments.

And the rest….

Jurgen Roelandts has a top ten previously here but has started the season strongly with a 3rd Overall at the Tour of Qatar and should be Lotto’s main focus.

Stijn Vandebergh came 2nd here last year and was in the champion breakaway in Paris – Roubaix but unfortunately crashed out. Based on last year he can be involved again this year.

BMC on Cobbles

BMC on Cobbles

Greg Van Avermaet has three top-5 finishes here, including the last two years. He’s very likely to be involved in a two prong attempt with teammate Taylor Phinney. Last year’s top-10 in Milan – San Remo was the watershed that showed Phinney could be useful at this time of year. He’s being groomed as a TT and Classics rider, expect him to have a go here.

If they have a good day…

These riders have the talent but will require some luck or be released from team duties to perform strongly here.

Sky have Edvard Boasson Hagen leading and it feels like years we’ve been saying he’s a great talent. Sky seem to have not got the best understanding on how to win Classics but with Ian Stannard being groomed to take up the Classics challenge too it will be interesting to see who does the best for Sky.

Sylvain Chavanel has rarely done well at this race but this may have been due to performing other duties whilst at Omega Pharma-Quickstep. He has one top ten and as leader at IAM Cycling he stands a good chance of repeating this.

Zdenek Stybar announced himself with 6th at Paris – Roubaix but was riding in the top 3 until he clipped a spectator. This result makes him a contender but it depends on how much freedom he’s allowed on the OPQ team.

Look out for Boom, Sieberg, Mondory, Farrar and Eisel if you want to follow a real outsider in the race on Saturday.

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Chris Horner – Do we believe in miracles?

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Unless you somehow missed it, anyone remotely into cycling will have noticed the media storm surrounding Chris Horner’s win at the Vuelta Espana in September 2013. Now, nearly 6 months on, many of us are still at a loss as to how a 42 year old defied accepted wisdom and came through to win a Grand Tour.

It’s the age that has most people filled with doubt that they’ve seen a genuine clean win. The theory is that someone of Horner’s age is of the old generation and desperate for one last bit of glory (think of Di Luca in last year’s Giro) he takes a hit and hopes for the best. Having had the Armstrong case settled by Armstrong’s admission (and the admissions of nearly all the high-level American cyclists from that period) and Hesjedal‘s admission that he had doped earlier in his career, North American cycling had been very much tainted in 2012 and 2013.

Chris Horner

Chris Horner during the FDJ days

Signing his first full contract at Francaise de Jeux at the relatively old age of 26 he spent 3 seasons struggling in what would’ve been a peloton full of EPO. Struggling in that climate points to Horner racing clean. Eventually Horner went back to America and raced successfully there.

Coming back to Europe with the Saunier Duval team in 2005 (who would later take a punt on a returning David Millar) before moving to the Lotto team for two years and then onto Astana.

It wasn’t until 2010 where he started showing good results in the Overall classification in European races, with him now at Team Radioshack. He won the Overall at the Tour of the Basque Country over Valverde and finished in the top ten in a number of the Spring Classics, the Tour of California and the Tour de France.
2011 saw him winning the Tour of California but crashing out of the Tour de France.

Chris Horner

Horner wins the Vuelta

More top tens followed in 2012 and when injury struck at the start of 2013 it seemed that it was over. Announcing his return to the peloton by coming 2nd in the Tour of Utah, 3 weeks later he took on the Vuelta…and we know what happened there. Winning two summit finishes and becoming the oldest ever Grand Tour winner.

Horner’s career reads of one of being ‘the nearly man’ for many years, clearly full of talent but either riding clean in a dirty peleton or being injured at key times. Arguably the cleaner peloton has given him the chance to shine in his later years. Where the issues for us as cycling fans lies is do we believe this result will stand the test of time?

Chris Horner

Chris Horner wins for Saunier Duval

I’m willing to accept that Horner was much less fatigued than all his rivals, he was the only one who hadn’t done another Grand Tour that year and therefore the only one for who the Vuelta was a primary focus. You had to go down to 9th place to find the next rider who hadn’t ridden in any Grand Tours and that was the also surprising result of Leopold Koenig who annouced himself to the cycling world.

It seems a particularly difficult parcours at the Vuelta, without lots of TT miles and several hilly or mountainous finishes, his rivals previous efforts and a particularly brutal Spring gave Horner the extra 5% or so that he needed to get past Vicenczo Nibali in the overall standings, simply because he was fresher.

I’m willing to give Horner the benefit of the doubt but plenty aren’t, with talk of him being the redacted Rider 15 mentioned in Levi Leipheimer’s confession within the USADA Report into Lance Armstrong and with the difficulty in which he found a new team over the Winter, before eventually signing for Lampre-Merida.

But finally the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the sceptics. I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.
- quoted from the 1993 World Champion

Sometimes the fans just don’t want to get hurt following the wrong guy.

Chris Horner

Chris Horner

Commuting to Work on a Bike (My Way and the Better Way)

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I live in the countryside, bordering the Cotswolds and have to get into central Birmingham everyday for work. I’ve managed to put off learning to drive for many years and only now am I getting there, but I’ve not taken the test as yet. This means that regardless of the weather, I have to use my bike every day!

This winter we’ve had some…interesting weather. I’ve cycled in cross winds, driving rain and some of the calmest dry evenings as well. It’s been quite rare for it to be properly cold though, only a few mornings has the Garmin gone below 0 degrees, far better than last year!

I’m sure I manage to do all my commuting completely at odds to most people, but that’s the source of my individual style!

Commuter

This person is very happy commuting by bike…not sure why they’re on the pavement though

1 – I ride my full carbon bike in every day because I like zipping around on it. It gets dirty, it gets rains on but I can get to the train station very quickly if I feel like it (I averaged 25mph with a tailwind into town today for instance). Now I know this flies against all accepted wisdom but riding’s about enjoying yourself!

2 – wearing the right gear is important, I spent all Summer cycling in wearing a suit (no blazer) with rolled up sleeves on an old steel racer. Sure I looked good but it was fairly impractical. These days it’s the full proper cycling get up with the bib tights for winter and the bag on my back with the work clothes. I just need to think of a way to get ride of the work bag now…

3 – Give yourself plenty of time in case of mishaps to reach the train station (if work is your destination, you can just be late…missing a train is far worse!). In the last year I’ve had a couple of mishaps…a crank arm has fallen off, various punctures, brake stuck on and I’ve still usually made my train by giving myself 10 minutes spare. The crank falling off meant I had to cycle back one-legged for 2 miles to do get the tool to tighten the crank arm to then carry on, I did miss the train that time…

Umbrella

Umbrella, not wise

4 - Getting wet, can’t get away from it, no matter what you do or wear, just harden up, save some money and take it.

5 – Lights, get the best front light that you can afford, do not be a cheap skate about this one piece of kit. Expect to spend about £65-100 or more for a decent one. Rear lights, something reliable and without AAA batteries in it will be perfect. Avoid Halfords and Poundland.

6 – Mudguards, yes! No doubts here.

7 – Hi-vis stuff, optional, depends entirely on how competent and confident you are as a cyclist.

8 - Finally, ride to work a couple of times a week and you’ll see a huge improvement in your cycling. Cycle each working day and you’ll have a healthy amount of base miles to work with before you even do proper training rides!

Commuting

The problem with driving to work…