Welsh Sunshine - Margam Madness

I do actually mean sunshine in Wales, not the stuff we usually mean by the phrase ‘Welsh Sunshine’. A couple of weeks ago I went to Wales and it was dry and sunny for five consecutive days (which beat the previous Welsh record for the longest continuous dry period by about four and a half days)



Day two of my trip was spent at the racetrack at Margam, the venue which will of course host the British round of the XC World Cup this year. I was there  to have a look at the track which will used for the Margam Madness race at Easter with race organiser Gareth Hayes and fellow riders Ian Harvey Read and Stuart Goodwin. But when is Easter I hear you say? Same day it always is! (The first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox) This happens to be 20 April this year. The race itself is actually on the Saturday, 19 April. All clear? Good. There are still some entries left so be quick and get yours in.



Ian had his camera with him so we made a short video to show you all a bit of the track, and prove to you that it was actually sunny. This has been edited slightly to remove a) the massive climbs, or ‘proper hills’ as Gareth calls them and b) Stuart failing to unclip and falling off his bike in a rather embarrassing manner. Now that this has been removed no-one will ever know he did it.
Anyway, I had a thoroughly good time and am really looking forward to the race on SATURDAY 19 APRIL. There are 8hr and 4hr options, solos or pairs. Enter over on the XCRacer website.
 
The more observant of you will have noticed that for most of this video I am riding my singlespeed but there are a couple of shots where I’m on Ian’s geared bike, my first time on a 29er. For those of you thinking of riding the event singlespeed it is doable, but a couple of the climbs will be interesting, the short sharp ones rather than the long gradual ones. I was on 34/16 and it was fine for most of the lap.

Find A Gear You Like And Stick With It


I am writing this on a day of great historical importance. Some of you may have noticed, some of you may not. Today something has occurred which has never, ever happened before. I have been in Wales for five consecutive days and it hasn’t rained on any of them!

Friday was spent riding at Afan Argoed (since when I have received lessons on how to correctly pronounce it) It has been a while since I last rode a singlespeed, and I was slightly concerned that the Welsh hills might not be ideal terrain for one, but I was pleasantly surprised. I changed from the 34/14 I use at home to a 34/16 and it was fine, although 4,820ft of climbing in less than 40 miles was still a bit of a shock to the system for a Lincolnshire rider, I’m normally lucky to get 2,000ft in 100 miles!



On Saturday I was riding at Margam, a sneak preview of the course to be used for the Margam Madness event at Easter, more on this to follow shortly.

The trip to Margam had been the reason for coming to Wales, but as always with these things I ended up succumbing to peer pressure and so on Sunday morning I found myself on the front row of the startline of The Goshawk Enduro in Wentworth forest, 400 other riders lined up alongside and behind me. I had never even heard of it until the Wednesday! This was just supposed to be a bit of fun, nothing serious, just a nice ride around the local countryside. So how come I was standing there between Matt Page, former European 24hr Champion and Gareth Hayes, former bronze medallist at the European 24hr discussing who had been doing what training over the winter? What happened to my nice relaxed Sunday ride? I blame Gareth.

The first four or five miles were on tarmac and so the pace was pretty quick right from the off. I got a good start but the limitations of the gearing immediately became apparent when it started to get steep and people began coming passed me.

The course itself was pretty good. It’s not an area of the country I’ve been to before, just somewhere I keep driving passed on the way to The Valleys. There was a good mix of fireroads, singletrack and the odd section of tarmac. Despite the weather over the winter the course was surprisingly dry, there were of course some wet and boggy sections but not nearly as many as I had been expecting. The majority of the course was singlespeed-friendly too, there were a small number of sections where I had to get off and run but most of it was ridable.






Since the first climb I had been riding along quite happily at the tail end of the top twenty, and had passed the first checkpoint in under an hour. However, about 15 minutes later I found myself in amongst the backmarkers. This was a little peculiar. I was overtaking people who I clearly should not be racing, there were two other guys with me with whom I had been swapping places all morning, but the three of us were flying passed everyone else, far more people than should have been ahead of us.

There were three options for the race, 25km, 35km and 45km, the longer of which was the one I was doing. I just assumed at first that the routes were completely different, even though I had seen no signs indicating where we would split and that our course was merely crossing one of the shorter ones. What had actually happened was that a couple of hundred people had missed a large section of the track and so those of us at the front suddenly found ourselves at the back again! This wasn’t anything deliberate, just a case of one sign not being as visible as it could be and everyone just blindly following the rider in front.

This did however mean that we suddenly had loads more people to overtake, which was a lot of fun, and of course this race doesn’t actually count for anything so no-one really minded, although it was a little frustrating for those of us who had been doing well.

We had no idea whereabouts we were in the race by this stage but having lots of people to chase spurred us on and we kept up a decent pace for the remainder of the race. The weather helped too obviously, it was just nice to be out in shorts in the sunshine again after all these months.

It might sound a bit odd but this race reminded me of how I began mountainbiking fifteen years ago, just going out and riding the local woods as fast as I could, linking up various forest sections with fireroads and country lanes, and the retro bike just added to this sense of nostalgia.

Those who did the shorter routes (the actual shorter routes, not the unintentional one) missed one of the best sections, there was some lovely singletrack at the end before the final road blast back along the side of the lake to the start. This final tarmac section was the only place all day where a singlespeed really felt inadequate, my legs were spinning madly but the guy I was racing just stuck it in the big ring and shot off into the distance

I eventually crossed the line 36th in the long race. However, when I uploaded my GPS data a couple of days later it placed me 9th of those who had done the whole thing, although this is probably equally meaningless as not everyone was carrying one. All in all I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the problems. It was a lovely piece of the country which I have never been to before and I am pleased with how I rode, I’m feeling quite confident about the rest of the season.

Those who did the whole thing should have ended up with something
which looks very much like this. 29.5 miles, 4,364ft of climbing


Monday and Tuesday were also dry and sunny, making the five in a row. I stayed a couple of days after the race to ride at Cwm Carn and then the Forest of Dean, two very different, but equally good places to ride. The new Cafall trail at Cwm Carn was huge fun but it was also just fun to head out into the Forest of Dean and explore, although it would have helped enormously if I could have remembered exactly where I had left the van...

So anyway, why a singlespeed? Aren’t singlespeeds outdated technology which makes what would otherwise be a pleasurable experience needlessly hard and difficult, when there are much better, faster alternatives available? The same could be said of any bike, ever since someone first attached an engine to one the humble pedal bike has been outdated technology. Doesn’t make it any less fun though!

Thanks to Ian Harvey Read for the pictures

This Is Not A Race Report


Today I was supposed to be telling you all about my glorious victory and new course record at yesterday’s ‘Early Hilly 22’ time trail. However, the A153 was shut at Wilsford level crossing for engineering works and so the race has been postponed until May. This is shame because I would definitely have won it in magnificent style, leaving the others all trailing in my wake as I disappeared off into the distance (I can write anything for this bit, no-one will ever know what would actually have happened. To be honest, I suspect it wouldn’t have been that, but you never know...)


Anyway, I am going to have to think of something else to talk about, so this is the first in a series of little snippets of things which have happened to me, or which I have seen, involving bikes but not actually during a race. As my last piece was about bodging mending bikes I shall start with the least well prepared person I have seen at a race.

It was the Scottish Cross Country Series race at Aberfoyle in either 2003 or 2004. I would say it was the one where it absolutely chucked it down all day but that wouldn’t really narrow it down. I had been given a lift to the race by my friend James in the van he had borrowed from his local bike shop.



The Fun category race was in the morning, our Elite race was in the afternoon, so we were sitting in the van hiding from the rain. About 20 minutes before the start of the fun race someone came over to us to ask if we could help, as his cassette was loose. We didn’t like to point out that we didn’t actually work for the bike shop concerned, or indeed any bike shop, and tightening a cassette isn’t a difficult thing to do so we said we would fix it for him.

We removed his skewer and attached the cassette tool and big spanner, the cassette was already as tight as it could be but his entire freewheel was very, very loose. We asked which race he was doing, and he told us he was doing the Fun race in about 15 minutes time.

OK, we need the fastest ever rebuild of a freewheel. We can do that. This being 2003, or maybe 2004, it was an old fashioned cup and cone rear hub, so the freewheel was removed, followed by the cones, axle, bearings, springs and pawls. These were all hastily degreased and cleaned as best one can while hiding under a large umbrella. The umbrella was doing it’s best to induce a Mary Poppins impression in the guy to whom the wheel belonged while he was holding it over us as we attempted to keep the water out of the freshly greased bearings.

The others were all starting to assemble on the start line so he was sent to ask them to delay the start for a few minutes, the commissaire was happy to do this but the other competitors looked less than chuffed, as well as very cold and very wet.

This picture is just for illustrative purposes, we didn't quite 
need to go as far as taking the hub out of the wheel!

We got the hub back together, it felt much better and the freewheel stayed where it was put, which was good. We put the cassette back on and the wheel back into the bike.  This being an old fashioned cup and cone hub the axle had not gone back in exactly the same place it come out of and was a couple of millimeters over to one side. Some people, including our new friend, still had V brakes in those days and so this was now rubbing on one side and was miles away on the other, and we had also upset his gears.

So we had to adjust the gears. This would have been a lot easier had part of his outer not been split and the inner wasn’t poking through. He was again dispatched to ask for another delay to the start, much to the annoyance of his fellow competitors. We recabled his rear gear system while he held the umbrella over us as best he could in the wind.

We then moved on to his brake. This was of course also in a sorry state, but luckily we had spare pads in the van so we gave him some of those and fitted them while he went to ask for just a couple more minutes, avoiding all eye contact with the field of sodden and frozen bikers standing on the grid waiting for him.

Finally his bike was deemed fit to race, we gave it back to him, he took it and ran to the start line, taking his place at the back of the pack. The commissaire shouted “GO!” Everyone else shot off into the forest while our friend put far too much power through his badly worn and corroded chain, snapped it, and was left floundering on the start line. Needless to say he wasn’t the kind of person to carry a chain tool and with the race now underway outside help was forbidden. His first ever race lasted 3 feet.

Beginners Guide To Trailside Bodging - Drivetrain



We’ve all been there. Everything is going well, you’ve got the line through every corner spot on, every gear change, every braking point, passing people up all the climbs, enjoying every descent. Then your rear mech explodes amid a shower of expensive carbon fibre and chain links which have turned into a wide variety of interesting shapes. Now what do you do? Near the end of a lap running back to the pits for the spare bike is obviously an option. Halfway through Keilder or the Manx 100 the idea looks less attractive and it is pretty much a non-starter when you are in the middle of nowhere and 100 miles from civilisation. You are going to have to fix it.



When I’m racing I carry a multitool, which has the usual selection of hex keys along with a chain tool and a couple of Torx bits. I also have a spare chain connector and, rather less usefully for drivetrain issues, a tube and a gas canister held onto my stem with the handy Mt Zoom strap thingy. I always wrap some tape around my canisters as they get very, very cold during discharge. It is also a handy place to keep some tape. My chain tool is probably the piece of kit I lend to people most often, and not just in races, I am amazed how many people will go out riding without one. Everything below can be done with this little selection.



We’ll start with the very basics. I have seen people new to biking who have had something as simple as a chain come off and not known how to put it back, pulling at the chain in vain. The rear mech does two jobs, it moves the chain from one sprocket to another but also provides tension in the chain, and this tension must be released to allow you put the chain back onto one of the rings. Use your shifter to put the front mech into the best position, the smallest ring if your chain has come off that side, and to the big ring if it’s gone that way.



Front mech moved to little-ring position

Then push the rear mech forward to release the tension (if you have a mech with a clutch put the lever in to the off position to do this) and replace the chain. It's the pushing forward bit which appears not be obvious to newbies. Give the cranks a couple of turns by hand to make sure it’s sorted.


Push the mech cage forward to release the tension in the chain


For removing foreign objects from a mech it is often quicker simply to remove the jockey wheels than to spend ages pulling at it and trying to get little strands out. Just removing the lower one is usually sufficient to get the chain out but if clogged as badly as the one below you may need to do both.


One particularly unpleasant incedent I had was after I had run over a dead rabbit, I ended up with a cassette full of tendons, which are surprisingly strong and stretch forever rather then break when you pull them. Cleaning that lot out was not a lot of fun.

There are two ways a chain can break. Occasionally you will get a nice clean break, with both ends still nice and tidy and you can just put a new connector straight in. However, a clean break like this usually only happens at a join, where a connecting link has come apart for example (this should be obvious as if this is the case there will be no connector remaining elsewhere on the chain.)


Whilst this is nice and convenient and means that a repair will only take a few seconds it does indicate that you probably didn’t connect it properly last time, don’t make the same mistake again! There is a definite feel of things clicking into place when you get it right, so you should know when it is done correctly. Give it a good tug and a twist just to make sure. To take it apart again, squeeze the two parts of the connector together, in the 'across the chain' direction and then push them together in the 'along the chain' direction.

A less clean break will require the damaged links to be removed before it can be repaired. A chain tool basically consists of a couple of plates to hold the chain still and a peg which pushes the pin of the chain in or out when the handle is turned. To repair a messy break such as this you need to remove the damaged end(s).


If you are using a quick link such as the SRAM Powerlink you need to end up with both ends of the chain terminating in inner links and if you are using a pin such as the Shimano joining pin you will need one end terminating in an inner link and the other in a outer link. Place the chain in the tool lining up the peg with the pin you wish to remove and turn the handle to push it out. It is usually stiff to begin with but gets easier. Remember when you reconnect everything that the chain will be a couple of links shorter than it was so pay particular attention to the gear ratios you choose and make a particular effort to avoid big/big sprocket/chainring combinations, which can cause a whole load of other complications with a chain which is too short.

To reconnect with a SRAM Powerlink place the links into the two ends of the chain, insert them into each other and then pull them apart until you feel the click. The Shimano pin requires the tool to insert, the pointy end goes in first as a guide, then the tool is used to push it all the way in until the back is flush with the chain.

You will see that halfway along the pin is the groove where
it is designed to snap.

When it is in the pointy end will be sticking out the other side, snap this off with the chain tool.

It snaps off really easily, just twist the chain and/or tool


Test the join to make sure it moves freely, if it doesn’t you may need to push the new pin slightly back and forth with the tool. As you can probably tell the Shimano pin is a bit more time consuming to fit, I tend to use this for workshop repairs as it is a bit more secure and carry a Powerlink for trail side fixes. All of my chains have a Powerlink to make them easier to remove for cleaning and general maintenance.

If you don’t have a spare pin with you it is possible to reuse an old one, although it will create a weak spot in the chain. It will usually need to be one link back from the damage. Start to remove it as you would normally but stop when the end of it remains in the outer link, if you fully remove it it will be a real pain to get it back in again.

Note the absence of the pointy end you get on a nice new
pin, this blunt end is much harder to get in properly.

Also, pay particular attention to keeping it straight. Remove the damaged section and line up the clean end ready to put the pin back in. It will go through the centre section easily but watch the other outer plate, unless you have it lined up absolutely spot on it will attempt to push the plate outwards, bending it in the process. Press the plate against the tool to stop this happening. If it goes a bit awry don't be afraid to turn it around, push the pin back and start again. When you do get it seated it will probably be a little stiff, you may need to use the tool to push it back and forth slightly until it moves freely.

Probably the next most common problem is a snapped gear cable. Prevention is easy, before a big race put a new one in, it only takes a couple of minutes and is quite simple to do. In a long single-lap or point to point race such as the Manx 100 or Transvesubienne I will carry a spare cable and a mech hanger, but few people carry one in short XC races. If you have a problem with the cable the mech will default to the smallest sprocket or smallest chainring, neither of which are ideal. Shimano’s ‘Rapid Rise’ rear mechs have the spring in back to front and they naturally default to the largest sprocket. These are much less common but the fix is the same:

First, remove the gear cable, or at least tie the end off or tape it to the frame (a use for the tape wrapped around your gas canister) this is to stop it catching in the wheel or drivetrain. You won’t be able change gear so select one you will be happy in for the rest of the race, usually the smaller end of middle (you can always change it if you make the wrong choice or for example if you tire as the race goes on and want a smaller gear) Use the limit screw to move the mech up the block to the suitable gear.


 
On a conventional mech turn the top limit screw clockwise. On a rapid-rise mech it will be the bottom screw, but turned in the same direction, to move the chain down the block. Remember how many turns of the screw you make to make it easier to put it back to how it was when you put the new cable in.

A front mech will default to the smallest chainring. If you have a double this may not be too much of an issue if you have suitable ratios, but if you want the larger one, or the middle one of a triple you have two options. The limit screw can be used in the same way as for a rear mech but it is also possible to wedge it in the desired position using a small stick or stone. This can be quicker if a suitable size one is immediately to hand, but also means that the screws are already in exactly the right place when you replace the cable.


You can either place the object inside the mech body to move it or wedge it between the cage and the seat tube, the spring should be easily strong enough to hold it in place. You obviously need the chosen object to be large enough to move the mech to the desired position but just make sure it doesn't catch on your foot.

If the rear mech is damaged to the point where it no longer functions as a chain tensioner, or if the hanger is snapped you will need to build a singlespeed. The mech hanger is actually designed to be a weak spot, it should break before the frame, protecting it from damage.

Replaceable mech hanger snapped: frame fine

Not all frames have a replaceable hanger, and the twisting forces of a mech-related problem can cause the frame to deform. These can be straightened again if you know what you are doing. There is a tool available, which basically consists of a large metal bar with a thread on the end which screws into the hanger, allowing you to twist it back into shape. I have done this and it has been fine, but there is always a slight paranoia about creating a weak spot in the back of one’s mind while it is being done.

Non-replaceable hanger not snapped: frame badly damged

Anyway, to build a singlespeed choose a gear ratio you feel comfortable with. 2:1 is a good rule of thumb, so if you have 32 tooth chainring that would be the 16 tooth sprocket, the 34 ring would be the 17 sprocket and so on. For flat, fast races go a little bigger and for steep climbs a little smaller. Remove the rear mech and cable. In a race it is quicker to just tie the flapping bit of the cable to the frame, or strap it there if you have tape or a zip tie with you, it saves messing about with the little grub screws on the shifter. Wrap the chain around your chosen gear and measure how long you need it to be.


 Trim it to the appropriate length using your chain tool and reconnect it as described above.



You may get lucky here. Singlespeeders have something they refer to as the ‘magic ratio’. Very occasionally everything will just fall in to place, your chainring size, your sprocket sixe, your chainstay length, even the amount of stretch on the chain, and a whole number of links will fit perfectly, giving you exactly the right length chain. The right length by the way is that when it is all connected up you should be able to depress the centre of the lower part by about half an inch. Anyway, because magic ratios are pretty uncommon Singlespeeders have come up with a variety of ways of making the bikes work, chain tensioners, sliding dropouts, eccentric bottom brackets, half-links, etc, etc. You are unlikely to be carrying any of these items as a spare during a race so you are probably going to have to put up with a chain which is very slightly too long. Be careful with your pedalling, as a slack chain is more likely to come off. Try not to freewheel, use your pedalling action to keep a bit of pressure on the chain at all times.

If you have a full suspension bike you will encounter another problem; compression of the rear suspension. On bikes where the chain shortens as the suspension compresses (most single-pivot designs for example) the chain will slacken dramatically as the chain compresses. Worse is ones where the chain lengthens as the suspension compresses, at best the shorter chain will prevent the suspension compressing, at worst it will cause all sorts of other damage. Even the sag due to the rider's weight can cause issues. If you have a lock out use it!

Not all mech problems will be fixable by the side of the track, indeed some are going to require new components. In situations like this you are going to have to go for the singlespeed option above.


However, some problems are not as terminal as they first look. There is a problem I have only had once, and which took a while to figure out the solution to, but once you know how to do it it is surprisingly simple, in theory anyway, it can be a three-handed job to mend. The main tension spring in my rear mech somehow popped out and I was left with the mech cage flopping about uselessly below the mech. I have recreated it here in the warmth and comfort of my garage. The one in the example is a Shimano XTR M972 Shadow, but most will be fairly similar.


You can see the problems a lack of spring tension causes.


The first thing to do is to remove the chain, if you don’t have a Powerlink the easiest way is to remove the lower jockey wheel. Actually this will have to come off anyway so you may as well do it this way even if you do have one. Then remove the cable from the mech and the mech from the hanger. Unscrew the bolts which hold the jockey wheels to the cage and take them off. 

The jockey wheels here are obviously not the original XTR ones,
I have upgraded to the lovely Mt Zoom Speedwheels, pretty much
indestructible and only 5.6 grams each.


This is the bolt which holds the cage to the main body of the mech, when you unscrew this the cage will come off and you will be able to see the spring inside. Pull this out.


There will be a largish washer-type thingy inside it (sorry to go all technical). As you can see the spring has a narrow end and a wide end, as does the largish washer-type thing. Place the largish washer-type thingy into the spring, narrow end to narrow end. 


On the main plate of the cage is a peg which stops it rotating all the way round, unscrew this.

You will need to keep the main body of the mech open as far as possible. This is because when it is in this position the arm where the cable attaches is out of the way for a step which is coming later. This can be done with one of the limit screws but this would mean resetting them back to the correct place later, much easier is just to open it up by hand and then wedge it with something, say a small stick, as I have done here.

 

Inside the main body of the mech from where the spring came is a very small hole. Put the spring in narrow end first with the peg on the end of it in the very small hole, this will leave the peg on the other end of the spring protruding.

 


On the main cage plate are two small holes, the peg on the top of the spring will fit in either.



Looking at it from the cage side, away from the body, placing it in the one furthest round in an anticlockwise direction, to the right in the picture, will give the greatest tension in the rear mech, placing it in the other will make the following steps slightly less difficult.
Place the cage onto the body of the mech with the peg of the spring in the chosen hole.


Holding the body with one hand use the other hand to turn the cage as far as it will go in an anticlockwise direction, pushing down really hard to keep the spring compressed.

This is very difficult to show without my hands getting in the way
Use your third hand  to screw the bolt back through the main body and into the cage, this should be done up pretty tight. (those of you with fewer than three hands will either have to find something to wedge it with or ask a friend to help you)



This all sounds very simple but that spring will be flying everywhere many times, taking the cage, bolt, largish washer-type thingy and bits of finger with it, before you finally manage to get it to hold it together.

All back to normal


Replace the little peg back into the cage and then remove the stick and replace the jockey wheels and the other half of the cage. Then put the mech back onto the frame, the cable back into the mech and away you go.

Never underestimate the humble zip-tie. Somehow this
managed a lap of Dalby after the threads in the mech
 hanger were stripped.

One last piece of advice I will give is practice before any of this happens in a race. You can take your time in the relative warmth and comfort of your shed and get the hang of things before you have to do it for real. If you have any old chains or mechs lurking in the spare box get them out and have a play. Chances are if you have spent time and effort to learn how to do something you will never have to do it for real, sod's law can be turned to your advantage!

A big thank-you for the pictures, some of which I was loath to recreate in my garage for obvious reasons, goes to:
Euan C
Evil Joe
James
and Mackem

NEWS!


Well this is all very exciting. As I am sure some of you know I have been writing for XCRacer for the last few months but I am now delighted to announce that it has been made all official and I will be a member of the team for the 2014 season.

http://www.xcracer.com/


The details of all of the team riders can be found on their website.I know most of the team already, and am really looking forward to working with them, they are all thoroughly nice people. There are also a couple of new (to me) faces, Katie and Paddy, let’s hope they don’t show me up by beating me too often!

http://www.scimitarsports.com/
 

Along with a new team come a variety of sponsors, old and new. Scimitar clothing have the title role (oddly enough the full team name is XCRacer/Scimitar).We will also have excellent support in the vital area of food and drink from the lovely chaps at Accelerade, and I am very pleased to be able to continue my association with Mt Zoom, I have been with them since 2011 and have been using a variety of their gadgets and gizmos both on and off the road. And last but no means least we have Exposure Lights, watch out for them at the European and World 24hrs and the Gorrick 12hrs.

 

However, as always with exciting new things something has to give and so it is after three years I have to say a fond farewell to Dave and co at Bikefood. Thanks again guys, I really wouldn’t be where I am now without you.