Since sticking our heads above the event organising parapet some six years ago, there have been plenty of people wanting to shoot us down.
Trust us, we've heard every complaint under the sun; events are too hard or too easy, too muddy or too rocky, too hilly, too flat, not enough jacket potatoes and in the case of Nationals 2015...too many line choices. Blah, blah, yawn. When you've busted your balls for weeks, and put your heart and soul into an event the last thing you need is some spineless Facebook botherer dripping about it.
One of the frequently contentious issues across cycling, running and triathlon, are the race categories and prizes. It's a race, we know that there needs to be prizes, but before you publicly state your disgust about the lack of a Vet 75 podium at your local 10km fun run, think about it from an event organisers point of view.
Let's examine MTB XC, and the current plethora of race categories. Even with the ditching of the pot-hunting Masters category, from Juvenile to Grand Vet, top three in each category, male and female comes to.....fifty four prizes! Fifty four! At a South West regional race we are lucky if we get anywhere near 200 entries, so one in four people would go home with a prize! Has one in four people at a XC race really done something that deserves a prize? I doubt it. One of our sponsors in the past compared it to Santa's Grotto. Not far off really, is it? When you get into triathlon it's even worse, with their 5 year age categories. The presentation takes longer then the race, the only people sat there are the prize winners, and they are secretly wishing they were already sat in KFC. I was first Vet 40 at a running race recently, and they had a trophy for it. An argument ensued between the vets, each claiming that they WEREN'T first vet, just because they couldn't be bothered to take the bloody trophy home.
So we'd need to find 54 prizes, even before we've thought about the under 12s. Don't kid yourself that sponsors are falling over themselves to provide a prize for the third place in the Grand Vet category, because they aren't. Even when we've been able to snare a prize sponsor, we still spend countless hours batting e-mails back and forth (usually with the line 'HOW MANY PRIZES!?' in there somewhere), then driving round to collect and sort the stash. It all starts well, but by the end someone always goes home with a XXL t-shirt or another bottle of Muc-Off. And the next day we see the good prizes on e-bay. Lovely. How about trophies? For a worthy trophy that won't find its way directly to landfill, you will spend a minimum of a fiver. Then multiply that by 54, and again by the number of races in the series and you get to the kind of a figure that makes your bank manager wince. And that figure is on top of all the other bills that cascade through the door before the dust has settled on the single-track.
'No battle, no victory.'
So something has to give, and unfortunately you are going to upset someone. The slightly offensive phrase that is bandied about is 'rewarding mediocrity' when it comes to race podiums. At the running race where none of us wanted the 'first vet' trophy, it was because we'd rather be recorded as being in contention for the overall, rather than getting a patronising pat on the head for being old. Is it fair that the person in third place in a category with only three in it gets a prize for turning up, whereas third place in a hotly contested category needed to turn themselves inside out for ultimately the same prize? I don't know. Is the person who is training 20 hours a week, mostly at 0500, as well as working full-time and raising a family, the same as the weekend warrior who happens to fall into a category with no-one in it? No battle, no victory. The people that complain about the lack of podium for whatever category they are in will ALWAYS say "It's not about the prize, it's the recognition." But we know that's not true.
For the past few years, we've focussed our energies on the majority 75% of people that don't win prizes but want a kick-ass event. You'll forget the prize within a week, no-one apart from Rain Man ever remembers who won what race, but people hopefully remember the parts of the course that we devote our time to. Who could forget the number of injuries when Derriford Drop first raised its head? Ask people who won the whatever category at whatever race, and even the race winner himself wouldn't know. Ask people if they remember the Bear Pit / Down to Brown / Nod Off and they will all have a photo of it. I'd rather spend hours trudging round Newnham Park with wellies and hand-tools than talking to sponsors with shiny shoes and too much aftershave. These days, when there is a legacy of some really good event organisers in the South West (I knew Martyn Salt was to blame:) - hard act to follow), people expect professionally run events. Well, events run professionally tend to be run by event professionals, and we need to see a financial return for our efforts. Making ourselves bankrupt by providing all the race categories that you would like to see is a quick way to kill the event stone dead.
So if we merge your race category because there's only two of you, take it as an opportunity to duke it out with people you've never raced before. The Soggies will be the usual mass start so you'll be battling with riders between 13 and 60, and my money is on the 13 year old. There's your battle, take the victory and enjoy it for the good day out that we hope it will be. Alternatively, rustle up 54 prizes per round for us and we'll start the presentation now.
I kid you not, the very first bit of foliage the Keela jacket came anywhere near ripped a hole in it.
For a Scottish jacket, with all their blue-faced Braveheart cobblers this is not very impressive.
So if you want a tough MTB waterproof, look elsewhere, but if you want a lightweight jacket for fannying around in, like the tourists in Ambleside, bedecked in North Face gear that never leaves the tarmac, this is the fella for you.
I have been trying to drag the last glimmer of life out of an old Gore Paclite jacket for the past year. The poor pink thing (used to be red) is now so thin it is transparent in places, has so many bramble rips that it looks like Edward Scissorhands' pants and above all, has gone from waterproof to absorbent. To replace it would cost over £200! For something I will undoubtedly shred within a week? No thanks.
Singletrack recently highly rated the Keela Saxon jacket. As luck would have it, local boy Colin from Run Venture is currently knocking them out for £50 instead of the website price of £80. So I bagged one, threw caution to the wind and to hell with the consequences. When it comes to risking the amount we usually spend on a takeaway, I'm a proper reckless bugger.
Straight off, you can see this isn't a cyclists' specific jacket, for one, the arms are the dimensions of windsocks. Like most cyclists I have the arms of a tyrannosaurus rex, along with the legs of a sparrow and arse of a baboon. The Keela's arms are roomy enough for the Hulk's bicep bursting potential, which is great for putting it over a post-ride hoody, but a bit flappy on the bike. You can do up the velcro wrist closure things, but that only makes the arms look like the kind of poofy-armed shirt you'd expect Meatloaf to wear. The arms are long enough to accommodate my extensive ape index, and there are those cute little thumb loops to keep it all in place; which serve no function at all on the bike.
It is nice and long in the body, slim-fit, basically bang on the money. It comes with a non-removable hood that is so impressively voluminous , you can get it over a cycle helmet - instant morale with zero peripheral vision or hearing. The zip comes up to just below your nose for the full South Park impressions, again for maximum foul weather morale. You can roll the hood down to get it out of the way but it makes it really uncomfortable and not worth bothering with. Who rolls down the hood on a hoody anyway? Just go and buy a sensible sweater, C&A man.
A major bugbear for me is the zips on 99% of jackets. The Keela has 2 zipped side pockets and none of the zips have storm flaps. I have an amazing ability to wreck a zip a month, and I know these will be full of grit, worn out and the source of much melancholy before summer arrives. I hope I'm proved wrong, and at £50 it's a gamble worth taking.
The reason I've always gone for Gore Tex is for its 'boil it and tumble dry' care routine. None of this 'wash only with mermaids' sweat on a full moon' bollocks. Life is too short to handwash in pure soap. Among the list of Horton rules (never eat anything bigger than your head, don't buy anything you can't run in) is the one that states only buy clothes that an survive grievous laundry harm.
So the Keela Saxon looks good on and off the bike, will fit you even if you grow Hulk arms, is currently waterproof and cost me fifty squids. It pushes most of my buttons, and pushes the 'cheap as chips' button - the big, red, 'cheap as chips' button, with a hammer. Will it survive the Fully Sussed mangle? Nothing ever has, but I reckon it'll easily do fifty quid worth.
Man, we love mountain bike duathlons, of which The Stinger is clearly universally recognised as the finest example.
There's loads of reasons for it, but one of the main ones is that the final positions are never decided until the winners stagger across the line. We've hosted / watched / feigned interest in cross country mountain bike racing for a number of years. Admittedly, the starts are pretty exciting, occasionally a bit too exciting if you're involved in the bun fight, then everyone finds themselves a bit of personal space and that tends to be the racing over for the day. I remember a local rider telling me of the boredom of circuit racing until the last 20 minute chaos ensues. He always wished he could be air-lifted in for the exciting bit at the end. In cross country, we tend to be racing for about the first 2 minutes, and then doing a solo time-trial for the next hour and a half. Still fun, still exciting to be riding your bike at max chat, but ultimately not really racing.
Barring mechanicals (not so common these days, but as no-one fixes anything any more, game over when they happen), crashes (pretty common at our races), or loss of the will to live (cyclo-cross) once the first lap is completed you can pretty much print off the final standings, do the podiums and start taking in the arrows.
The Stinger was not like that at the weekend, and the first to finish the run is rarely the ultimate victor. Plymouth's Farrer brothers were racing head-to-head, and while Ross was first of them to finish the first 5 km run, as soon as he jumped onto his bike (borrowed) and we spotted that he was using flat pedals the writing was on the wall. In this particular niche sport, it's ALL about the bike. Ross finished sixth in the end while his bro Ben, having served his penance this winter racing 'cross, left him for dead to take the win, despite being 3 minutes in arrears after the run.
So for mountain bikers, a whole load of overtaking is the order of the day, and you have the buzz of banging in flying lap times compared to all the Ron Hill Trackster wearers in front of you. This is the point in the conversation where MTBers generally say the classic "I can't run!" cop-out. Come round to our house, I'll get a bottle of something highly combustible and a box of matches and prove to you that you can run. Guaranteed. If you count yourself as a semi-serious fit cyclist, or even worse a competitive cyclist, but can't muster up a 30 minute jog you should be ashamed of yourself. Bike Motion's Alex Dawson classes himself as a running-hater, but took his man-up pills and watched the whole world run away from him at the start. During the reckoning of the 20km bike leg, he wiggled his way to 2nd senior and took home the goodies, along with several kilos of Newnham Park mud.
We love the planning and preparation of The Stinger. The participants are generally not serious triathletes and don't make us suffer the sight of them running in tri-suits, which always looks like a man doing keepie-ups with a button mushroom. The amount of kit carted into the transition area varies between those clearly packing for an Arctic campaign to those who go for the intimidating policy of travel light, move fast, blow up after an hour. Our favourite has always been the Grand Vet XC racer who carries a shoe horn into transition to help him change footwear 'quickly'. Unfortunately most racers are actually undone by their OCD need to do double knots in their laces, shoe horns be damned.
So how do you carry your stuff? Do you fill your pockets with your spares and snacks as usual, only to have them bounce out as soon as you break into a jog? Do you stoop to a camelbak or (heaven forbid) a bum-bag? The evidence would suggest that you don't ride on flat pedals if you want to be Top Cat, but do you run in SPDs, which Rob Lee chose to do a couple of years ago? I think he'd had a bit of a brain fart to be honest, and the fact that he also ran in cycle helmet and gloves indicated that someone else probably packed his bag for him.
Transition at a duathlon tends to be a hysterical place to be. Prior to the race, it is a beautifully regimented space, with everything lined up ready for kit muster. Riders pace out the distance between the entrance to the zone to their bikes, making 100% sure that all their gear is to hand. Then the race starts, they enter transition for the first time, all sweat, snot and swearing and put their cycle helmet on backwards. They fumble with their buckles, can't get skin-tight gloves on over sausage fingers, forget to take any tools and go the wrong way out of transition on someone else's bike. The once orderly zone now looks like the shoe table at a jumble sale, and while it is reasonably easy to spot your bike in transition when the red mist is down, try to spot your muddy size nines after an hour of red-lining it on your MTB. As I write this there is still a man in Newnham Park, wandering round in a muddy tri-suit, trying to find a left foot Salomon.
There used to be a reasonably sizeable group of folk who used to 'specialise' in MTB duathlons, but as the number of events have declined over the years, so the number of hard-core MTB duathletes has diminished. This is no bad thing and leaves the events wide open for an unexpected winner. No-one loves a pot hunter, and the English love an underdog. MTB duathlons may be the last place where the underdog can finally have his day.