Crosswind caper

I’ve often thought that cycling, for those unfamiliar with the sport, must seem like a very strange pastime. On a few occasions I’ve made the mistake of using cycling terms in normal conversation and received some rather strange looks. It’s all too easy to forget that phrases such as “I had a massive bonk” and “I’m trying a different sort of lube” may have alternative meanings. I have a few friends who still can’t quite get their heads around the fact that everybody wears lycra voluntarily. I suspect that my love of time trialling is especially perplexing to outsiders aka normal people. Truth be told, I can understand why. Riding along dual carriageways on bikes that usually aren’t easy to steer and don’t brake especially well, probably doesn’t constitute most peoples idea of having fun.

I rode my very first TT on a whim three years ago. I ‘attacked’ the local 5 mile course on my road bike, put simply, it was horrible. Most of the time in road races the pace is very much on and off, either it’s easy or you’re going into the red. TT’s are different ball game, the effort is relatively constant throughout, pacing it correctly is harder than you might think. Anyway, on this particular occasion I got the pacing spectacularly wrong. I started off at breakneck speed, felt good for the first two miles, blew up halfway round and rode the homeward leg embarrassingly slowly. I resolved never to ride a TT again. That was until I saw that I’d only been beaten into fifth place by a handful of seconds. I came back the following week, paced it better, and went twenty seconds faster. From then on, I was hooked.

Since then, I’ve invested huge amounts of time and money in the pursuit of personal bests. I’ve acquired all of the usual paraphenalia; TT bike, skinsuit, aero helmet, deep section wheels, etc. Recently, I’ve been eyeing up a pair of rather expensive aerodynamically optimised overshoes, guaranteed to save a whole ten seconds over a distance of 25 miles. I’ve changed my diet, experimented with various training strategies and even tried out some mental exercises in the name of shaving a few seconds off of previous times. You probably get the picture by now. During the last couple of seasons, I’ve travelled far and wide in search of fast courses. Conveniently, the fastest 25 mile TT course in the country is ‘only’ a couple of hours away in Wales. It was there that I found myself last weekend.

It’s fair to say that the trip didn’t get off to the best of starts. The hotel we’d booked at the last minute turned out to have been the only place with rooms available for a very good reason. It took us several attempts to find the place, with the satnav initially trying to send us along a footpath. We arrived to find something that can best be described as a welsh version of Fawlty Towers. Our room had an overpowering smell of bleach which I suspect was designed to cover up the subtle underlying odour of mildew. Having been travelling all afternoon, we were starving hungry and in need of a good meal. Eons passed before the decidedly mediocre meal arrived. Lastly, we discovered that the walls were paper thin. Thank heaven for ear plugs.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I didn’t get much sleep that night. After an early start, we escaped as soon possible and ended up having breakfast at McDonalds. As pre-race nutrition goes I can tell you that it was far from ideal, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. Just like last year, it started raining shortly before we got to HQ to sign on. By the time I got on my bike to warm up, I wasn’t in the most cheerful mood. After the century last weekend  my legs weren’t feeling brilliant and, to add insult to injury, the skies turned ominously grey again as soon as I took to the start line.If I hadn’t travelled so far to get there I’d have pulled out then and there.

Mercifully, once I got going my legs seemed to remember what they were supposed to be doing. Apart from an unusually high heart rate things seemed to be relatively normal. The first mile of the course was well sheltered from the wind, once I passed the first turning and got out onto the main road it was a different matter. In six years of cycling, I’d never encountered such scary conditions. The 90mm wheel I was running up front proved itself to be a very effective sail, it was all I could do to keep the bike going in a straight line. It’s the only time I’ve ever looked forward to uphill sections in a TT, the reason being that it was slightly less difficult to stay in control at slower speeds. One particularly vicious gust almost put me directly into the path of an oncoming van, apologies to everybody in the surrounding five mile radius who heard the resulting 18-rated scream of terror. I’m eternally grateful that it didn’t rain properly until I’d finished, had the roads been wet I’d probably have retired early.

Suffice to say, the first 15 miles of the course were not especially enjoyable. I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the turning point, knowing that the wind would mostly be behind me from that point onwards. The return leg was relatively easy, by that stage I’d settled into a good rhythm and could just tick off the miles as they came up on my Garmin. I finished, exhausted but satisfied that I’d given it my very best shot. My final time of 53:48 with an average speed of 27.9 mph definitely wasn’t what I’d hoped for, however, crucially it was still a PB. The weekend hadn’t been a total waste.

Inevitably, I’ll be back next year. The maddening thing about time trialling is that there’s always going to be something new to aim for. Personal bests, then wins, then, if you get really good you can start targeting course records. I suspect that I’ll still be hurtling along those dual carriageways in forty years time.

Thanks for reading.

Don’t try this at home.

A fortnight ago, I was sitting in a rather nice restaurant in France, enjoying a spectacular meal washed down with a pint. That day’s ride had been easy, we’re talking that rarest of situations, a flat route with the benefit of a tailwind. The sun was shining, the company was good, and my bike didn’t need cleaning. You get the picture, it was a nice day that had put me in a good mood. Discussion turned to the upcoming club century ride. It’s been going for a few years now and is probably the most popular ride of the year. The route is relatively easy, the feed stations are well stocked and, with so many riders participating, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll find a group going at a suitable pace. Every time I’ve ridden a century, I’ve climbed off the bike at the end and vowed to never do another one. My last one was back in March, therefore, by the time that fateful evening arrived I’d had adequate time to forget how much my legs hurt and had reached a point where I was open to another 100 miler.

An idea popped into my head, in my contented state it was all too easy to let rational thought fall by the wayside, and convince myself that it would be fun to try and ride the route of the club century alone, trying to set a solo course record. Even more stupidly, I let the plan slip to couple of people – making it next to impossible to take the sensible option and back out of the ride the day before. Of course, once I got home from France and had a couple of rides on the potholed, muddy, and narrow UK roads, I realised that the task lying ahead of me was not exactly going to be an easy one and would require careful planning. If you’re a normal person i.e., not a cycling geek then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.

First and foremost, I turned my attention to bike setup. I was torn between an aero road bike and full on time trial setup. The former would have been more comfortable and quicker through the corners but in the end I decided on the latter, opting for straight line speed above all else. So far, the furthest I’d ridden that machine was a mere 56 miles a couple of years back. Earlier in the year during a 25 mile TT, I realised that the saddle needed changing – without going into too much detail, the old one wasn’t doing wonders for my chances of being able to have children later in life. I hoped that the one I found on eBay for £15 would do the trick. The bike was set up with a very aggressive riding position, prioritising speed over comfort. I can just about hold that position for an hour, the prospect of doing it for at least four and a half didn’t bear thinking about so I swallowed my pride and raised the stem by a couple of centimetres. Things were made more complicated by the questionable weather forecast. In the interest of safety, I swapped the 90 mm carbon wheel I usually run on the front for a 45 mm carbon-alloy hybrid.

In typical last-minute fashion, it occurred to me a couple of days before the big ride that the bike didn’t have any bottle cages fitted and offered nowhere to store food. Fortunately, I’d hung onto the aero bottles (yes, that’s a thing) that I used to use for triathlon. I borrowed a top tube bag from my father and found that it would just about accommodate the essentials; four energy gels, pump, puncture repair kit, phone, car key and bank card. On the day, I taped a couple more gels to the top tube just to be safe. If there’s one thing you really want to avoid on long rides, it’s running out of fuel. Finally, I thought long and hard about the best kit for the job. In the end I went with a skinsuit, not exactly flattering to look at but, from an aerodynamic perspective, much faster than an ordinary jersey and short combo. Rather than a long-tail TT helmet I opted for a aero road model, knowing that I’d struggle to hold my head still for such a long period of time and, therefore, fail to reap the full benefits of the former. Anyway, enough of geeky stuff – onto the actual ride.

I woke up early, wolfed down a massive bowl of porridge and loaded my bike into car. I wanted to set off as early as possible, I told my family that this was because I didn’t want to get entangled with any large groups  which would be tricky to get past. In reality, it had rather a lot to do with making sure nobody was subjected to the sight of me in my skinsuit. At first, the signs were positive. My legs felt fresh, the sun was shining and, mercifully, the first 5 miles were almost all downhill. On the main road out of town I was confident that my decision to ride a TT bike had been the right one, riding in the aero position made it easy to maintain a fast pace.

At mile 5, things began to get a bit trickier. TT bikes are infamously difficult to handle and I had to concentrate hard to navigate mine through some narrow, twisty country lanes. Inevitably, I took a couple of wrong turns in the process. It didn’t help that there had been some heavy rain during the preceding few days, leaving mud and debris on the roads. A large stone, well hidden by a patch of mud, put a spanner into the works at mile 25. The 23mm slick tyre I was running on the rear was no match for the stone in question and, inevitably, I punctured. In theory, I was well prepared and properly equipped to deal with it. Sadly, the reality wasn’t quite as straightforward. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a patch to properly adhere to the inner tube. Worse still, I hadn’t had enough space on the bike for a spare one. In the end the only solution was to knot the tube and hope that it would hold. Luckily, the first feed stop was only another mile up the road. I had no choice but to wait there until the groups started rolling in, hoping someone would have a spare tube that could be adapted to fit my deep section wheel. Ever reliable, my father had a spare that worked perfectly. I’m never going to hear the end of that one.

Thanks to that incident, I completely lost the benefit of my early start. Truth be told, I was feeling very irritable. On a more positive note, the roads soon improved and once again I could get to work on raising my average speed. That was, until it started to rain. At that point I came very close to bailing out, I’ll admit that a few close shaves in the past have made me quite nervous about riding a road bike in the wet. Keeping going became a mental test rather than a physical one. I was able to hold off the fast group until mile 50 when they came flying past. Getting caught was inevitable, despite my aerodynamic advantage, a well coordinated group of quick riders would always have been faster. Nonetheless, the sight of the group vanishing into the distance was demoralising. Suffice to say, the first half of the ride had not exactly gone according to plan.

I’ve always found that, from a mental perspective, miles 50-75 of a century are easily the hardest. Your legs feel fatigued from the sizeable distance you’ve already covered but there’s still a long way to go. You’ve got to be careful not to listen to that little voice in your head that pipes up, telling you that you won’t get round. I can say with honesty that that particular segment of the ride was a real struggle. I’d been in riding in TT position for much longer than I’m used to, my neck and lower back were loudly protesting. In typical UK style, by mile 60 the rain had stopped and given way to bright sunshine in the space of about half an hour. This phenomenon was very much a double-edged sword, the roads had dried out but the heat came into play. I only had enough room to carry a litre of water in total, which I was now having to carefully ration. Completing the ride was not a foregone conclusion.

With 3o miles to go, the fatigue really began to kick in. I broke the ride down into 5 mile segments, a strategy I learned during my running days. My nutrition plan had worked relatively well, and I just about had enough energy gels left to get me through the final leg. Small climbs that I wouldn’t have noticed during the first 25 miles now required what felt like herculean efforts. Desperate times call for desperate measures, having not bought a pair of headphones with me I put my phone on full blast. It probably wasn’t the best idea to ride through all those sleepy little villages with heavy metal blasting out of my top tube bag, however, at the time I really didn’t care. Thanks to the combination of heat, tiredness and dehydration, I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. I can’t deny that my grandmother would probably have fainted if she’d heard the language I used when I arrived at any particularly steep climbs.

With 10 miles remaining, I briefly pulled over to take my final gel and check on my average speed. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I’d been going more quickly than I’d thought. That quick glance at my garmin, coupled with the thought of a cold recovery drink followed by a shower, gave me the mental boost I needed to make it home. The last 5 miles were almost entirely uphill, in some ways I was relieved because it gave me an excuse to get out of TT position and ride on the base bar – by that point my neck was on fire. The sight of the town sign that signified the start of the final two kilometres genuinely bought a tear to my eye. I’ve rarely been so relieved to have finished a ride. Having been cycling for a few years, I’m used to pushing myself, this ride took it to the next level. I was pleased with my time of 4 hours and 54 minutes, giving an average speed of 20.4 MPH. It wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but, factoring in the puncture incident, rain, and everything else, I decided to take it as a win.

24 Hours later, I’m writing this sat on the sofa where I’ve spent most of the day. I can testify that pretty much everything hurts, including a few muscles I didn’t know I had. I’ll take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped organise yesterday’s ride, without their continued investment of time and effort, it simply wouldn’t be possible for it to take place each year. I’m going to end with the following, just in case you ever think that a solo century is a good idea. It isn’t. Don’t do it. See sense. Save yourself.

Thanks for reading.

Back in business

I’m back. To the three or so people who regularly read this thing and must have been waiting with baited breath for the past several months, in my head anyway, I can only apologise. To say that it’s been a busy time, would be a serious understatement. I’m going to try and sum it up in this post, kudos to anyone who gets more than half way through it without falling asleep.

First and foremost, I graduated, miracles do indeed happen on occasion. After three years of blood, sweat, tears, coffee and beer I came out of University with a BSc in Sports Science. I’m probably going to spend at least the next ten years explaining that it was ‘very nearly a first class’ followed by a series of exquisitely crafted excuses as to why it wasn’t. Like many students, I’ve become strangely fond of the University lifestyle and developed a phobia of getting a real job. To that end, I’ll be heading back in a few weeks time to start a research Masters.  Now that’s out the way, I’ll try to make the rest of this post about important stuff, by which I mean cycling.

I’m sorry to report that no new bikes have been purchased since the writing of the last post on here. In fact, I’ve even managed to sell a couple. Before you judge me too harshly, know that the loss of those bikes has been punishment enough. After six years of faithful service, the time came to say goodbye to my beloved cannondale supersix. Together we shared many happy memories; my first century, completing the ventoux cingles challenge and getting the KOM on a local climb after two years of trying, just to name a few. Unfortunately, with my homemade gravel bike now performing winter training duties the cannonade simply wasn’t getting used. With a heavy heart, I sold it to a friend of mine. Consolation came in the form of the pair of carbon wheels I bought for my TT bike with the proceeds of the sale.

A couple of months later, it was also time to say goodbye to my mountain bike. I’d had a lot of fun on the local trails in the past eighteen months, however, with an off-road biased gravel bike I simply couldn’t justify keeping the MTB. In about twenty years time, when I manage to scrape the money together, I’ll get  a more up-to-date full suspension model. This time round, the proceeds went toward a very nice SRAM carbon chainset, I’ve justified this particular buy on the grounds that it’ll save me a vital two seconds or so in time trials. That’s left me with four and a half bikes to my name, the half being the 1980’s peugeot that’s still sitting in bits in the garage. Fortunately, I have managed to spend a bit of time riding the remaining quartet.

The highlight of April was a week in Mallorca. I’m going to save some time and summarise it by saying that, for the most part, it was much the same as last year. However, there are a couple of noteworthy exceptions. Specifically, I’ve spend a lot of time basking in the glory of having been the first one in our group to make it up a couple of the big climbs this time round. I’ll concede, however, that my victory may be have been partially related to me not having ridden 100 miles the day before, unlike my ‘competitors’. Typically, the trip happened to coincide with the deadline for handing in my dissertation, most of which I characteristically left until the last minute. Sadly, a couple of days of the holiday had to be spent trying to finish it and I missed out on some of my favourite routes.

Thereafter, things took a turn for the worst. The combination of exam season, an unshakeable cold and dominoes pizza probably did a good job of counteracting the fitness gains I’d made in Mallorca. I managed a couple of club 10’s in late April but that was it, my racing season was not set to a be a particularly fruitful one. Having just about survived my last term at University, by the time June came around it was time to try and get back on track.

Thanks to a strict regiment of calorie counting, interval training and long rides with a minimal number of cafe stops I managed to get back to something vaguely resembling race fitness. Beating last years time at a local open 25 mile TT by over a minute provided a much needed confidence boost. My annual attempt to return to road racing went much the same way that it usually does. In my defence, I did get into a perfect position to attack on the final climb – sadly, it was a lap too early. Once again, I’m cursing myself over a lack of tactical awareness / common sense. I’ve reached the conclusion that, if I really want to do better next year, I’m going to have to subject myself to some local crit races in order to hone my skills.

That brings me to a rather surprising event that happened a couple of weeks ago. Already, I’m planning on boring my grandchildren to death with this story at every possible opportunity. It was the end of graduation week, the hangover had only just worn off and I’d only turned up to this particular time trial on a whim. Miraculously, my legs felt quite good. I’d ridden the course the previous week and was at least 90% sure where all of the turns were. It goes without saying that all time trials are hard, some, however, are harder. This particular course was characterised by a hideously steep climb in the last kilometre, set to dash the hopes and average speed of those foolish enough to ride it. If I do say so myself, I paced it to perfection – riding at 95% during the first 9 miles so that I had just enough in reserve to tackle the last climb at full tilt. My final time was only five seconds quicker than that which I’d posted the previous week. However, it was enough to beat the thirty other riders who had turned up and finally bring home that allusive win. I know, it was only a club ten and I only won because nobody faster could be bothered to turn up. Nonetheless, it was a very sweet moment, after six years of riding I’d reached the point of being able to challenge for victory.

After a few days, it was time to set off for the second cycling holiday of the year, a week in France. I could easily have dedicated an entire post to that trip but in the interests of time (laziness) I’ll keep it short. You really can’t beat the roads in that part of the world; smooth, grippy, quiet and pretty much devoid of dangerous drivers. After a hectic few months, a few days spent riding along at an easy pace was exactly what I needed. Due to my competitive nature, that didn’t happen. You can take the man out of time trial season, but, you can’t take the time trialling out of the man. Inevitably, one day I decided to ride solo and complete the sixty mile route in as little time as possible. As you might imagine, this made the final two days of riding rather hard work.

I was further rewarded for my impulsive smashfest by getting dropped on last sunday’s club run. I didn’t even have time to tell everyone about my sensational time trial victory before they were several miles up the road. True to form, I’ve spent this past week recovering and contemplating my decision making skills. As I’m writing this, it’s blowing a gale outside and tipping it down with rain, which makes the club century ride on Sunday a particularly unattractive prospect. In short, it’s situation normal.

Thanks for reading.

Here Comes the Sun

It’s Spring. Finally the long winter seems to have come to an end; it’s hot enough to wear shorts on the bike, the roads are clearing up and it’s nearly time for the racing season to begin. As always happens at this time of year I’m breathing a sigh of relief.

In comparison to the shambles that was last years off-season training this time round it couldn’t have gone much better. Getting the balance right is always a challenge, there’s a fine line between getting yourself fit enough for a season of competition and overdoing it to the point of burning out. In previous years I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. The 2017 season didn’t get off to a fantastic start due to having spend most of the winter doing monotonous endurance rides that did very little for my speed or motivation. In 2018 I had the opposite issue, I’d have a strong start in races following a lot of high intensity work but crack later on due to a lack of stamina.

Finally I think I’ve found the right formula, aiming for four sessions per week. Two interval sessions, starting off with very short ones and building up the length plus an endurance ride lasting at least three hours. In order to help break up the structured training I try to make the 4th session a fun one; if I’m feeling good I’ll ride hard and try for some KOM’s, if not it can take the form of an easy cafe ride. Time permitting I do my best to get in a couple of weights sessions as well, keeping my upper body in decent shape and building core strength. That leaves one rest day on which to get other things done.

Off-road riding has become a key part of my training, it’s something that I couldn’t recommend enough. It’s inevitable that you’ll end 95% of rides covered in mud due to the condition of the roads anyway so why not hit the trails instead? Unfortunately I’ve had to sell my Mountain Bike but my homemade gravel machine is doing the job very well in it’s place. This bike is perfect for winter riding; big grippy tyres, disc brakes & decent mudguards make it fun and more importantly safe to ride in all weathers. Indoor riding just isn’t my thing. In previous years there’s often been no other option but to hop on the turbo trainer and put myself through hard interval workouts that I haven’t remotely enjoyed. Now I have a much better alternative.  From a mental perspective I find off-road sessions much easier to get through , time files when you have to keep your mind wholly on task for fear of falling afoul of a wet root or well hidden tree stump.

The question is what to do with this unexpectedly decent level of fitness. I haven’t completely given up on trying to qualify for the National 10 and TT’s will certainly be the big focus. Sadly the final year of University has to take priority for a while and I won’t be-able to fully commit to racing until early June when my exams will be over. Until then it’s going to be a matter of finding the time to do the occasional mid week club 10 and possibly a few crit races to keep things interesting. The thought of an impending trip to Mallorca in a few weeks time is currently what’s keeping me motivated. Whilst I loved riding over there last year my low fitness level made it impossible to make the most of the training opportunity, hopefully this time round I’ll be better prepared.

In short, it’s all going pretty well for a change. Hopefully I’ll finally manage to take it up a level this year.

Thanks for reading

 

Never again, again.

Hey folks, welcome to the latest installment of my two wheeled adventures. Truth be told nothing much has happened since I wrote the last post. After a long winter I’m very much enjoying the gradual improvement in the weather and quality of the roads. In other words I can start taking my road bike out on a regular basis again. Don’t get me wrong, I love riding my gravel and mountain bikes but nothing quite compares to the thrill of flying along on a carbon fibre thoroughbred.

I decided to mark the end of my Winter training with a new challenge. The century is one of those rights of passage for every cyclist, the idea of riding 100 miles seems completely absurd to most people and honestly I think they have a point. Why on earth would you want to sit on a bike for about 5-8 hours, gradually getting more and more fatigued and hoping you can make it home where a hot shower and massive amount of food awaits? I’ve spent years coming trying to come up with an intelligent and logical sounding answer to that question. It won’t surprise you to learn that I haven’t managed it yet, I come to the same conclusion every time – you want to do it simply because you can. Well, that and it makes for good bragging material.

I’ve done several of these rides throughout my Cycling career. My first one was an experience I won’t ever forget; I was 16 and still carrying a lot of extra weight having only been riding for about six months. Fortunately it was a flat route and we were well supported with feed stations. As century rides go it was probably about as easy as it gets. Of course I didn’t think that at the time – in fact the strongest memory I have of that day is that of an overriding desire never to to do it again.

Of course, after a while I forgot how much it hurt and decided to do another one. Before I started racing I’d usually have a long sportive as my season goal. This culminated in riding the three day Tour of Wessex a few years back, 330 miles covered in three days. Without a doubt I can say that the last stage was one of the hardest rides I’ve ever done. 108 miles on an uncharacteristically hot day, featuring 8,000 feet of climbing and a bike equipped with a 53-39 chainset making it much better suited for flat terrain. That’s one event I won’t be doing again for a long while yet.

Anyway, back to the present. One thing I hadn’t yet attempted before last Saturday was a solo century ride. I’ve always had at least one another person with me. It’s a long time to be alone with your own thoughts, as much of a challenge for the mind as it is for the body. It was with that in mind that the idea popped into my head. It’s an uncertain time at the moment for various reasons and truth be told it’s taken a toll on my mental health. This ride was about proving something to myself. Few things will challenge your resolve as much as 100 solo miles in the hilly Devon terrain.

Inevitably my bike was in need of some attention beforehand. Cutting short a long story which I’ll discuss in another post it’s needed a new BB and rear brake. Bearing in mind my trusty Specialized is now 5 years old I can’t really complain. I toyed with the idea of going home and getting my race bike to tackle the ride but decided against it. For all its good points that machine is not ideal for long rides, the position is too aggressive and I’m deeply afraid of it getting damaged. My old faithful on the other hand is perfect for the job.

As per usual there was a mad dash to get everything ready the night before. With rides of this length you need to be well prepared. I made sure my light was charged, loaded the course onto my GPS, packed my saddlebag with the essentials, checked my tyres for flints and finally stocked up on gels and bars. After a surprisingly good nights sleep I awoke to the sound of my alarm at 7AM signalling that it was time for it to begin.

After wolfing down the mother of all bowls of porridge I set off. The first 15 miles were on familiar and fairly straightforward roads. My legs felt okay but far from their best, having only recently finished a three week training block this wasn’t unexpected. Unsurprisingly the weather was a bit of a concern, for the first half hour or so it looked as if some serious rain was on the horizon. It’s tricky to describe the magnitude of  the feeling of relief I experienced when the clouds finally cleared.

Soon it was time to turn off, having plotted the route using some fairly rudimentary software I had no way of knowing what the roads ahead might hold. As it turns out, potholes. Between miles 15 and 30 I longed for my comfortable gravel bike with it’s 35mm tyres and disc brakes. A particularly nasty surprise came in the form of a long, steep climb which turned out to be much worse than it had looked on the route elevation profile. Heavily exerting yourself too early on in a long ride can spell disaster but when you’re presented with a 25% gradient you don’t have much choice.

I’ve always found miles 25 to 75 the hardest from a psychological standpoint. You’ve gone far already and can feel the tiredness gradually creeping in but don’t yet have the consolation that there’s not far to go. My favourite strategy is breaking it down into five mile segments, thinking only about those next five to as greater extent as possible. This is also where the boredom tends to set in. You can never tell quite what’s going to pop into your head. This time round it was a variety of thoughts and feelings; everything from surprisingly intense anger about something that happened a few weeks back to trying to come up with the ultimate takeaway pizza order (texas BBQ with extra jalapeños and a stuffed crust if you’re interested). Focusing on these thoughts rather than the ride in question sometimes helps, making you forget the pain in your legs.

At mile 60 I hit a spot of bother. It had been a while since I’d covered any decent distance on a Road Bike and my back was seriously protesting. It was a slightly surreal experience, stopping in a lay by and spending five minutes doing stretches to try and get everything back on track. That, alongside taking on some extra food seemed to do the trick. The next ten miles were some of the most challenging of the whole route, more narrow and poorly maintained lanes. Progress felt agonisingly slow at times, every time I crested one hill the next one came into view. It’s the small, sharp rises rather than the long climbs that really take it out of you.

Mentally, the real test came along at mile 72. At this point I could have very easily cut the ride short by 15 miles and taken the straight, flat road home. Somehow I managed to avoid the turning, I’d made a point of telling a few friends about this ride in order to give me a degree of accountability. I didn’t want to have to explain that I’d given in. What came next was a serious physical challenge for my tired legs, two long climbs that I hadn’t quite fully anticipated when planning the route. It was the perfect storm, a strong headwind coupled with what would have otherwise been a very manageable gradient made it much harder going. Fortunately, having cycled up a fair few european mountains I knew how to pace these kind of efforts. In my head I broke the climb down into kilometre long segments. Rather than using power or heart rate I rode on feel alone, the only fields I kept an eye on were distance and cadence – trying not to let the latter drop below 80 rpm so as to spare my knees.

Once I crested the top of the last big climb things got a bit easier. The weather brightened up at precisely the right moment which did wonders for my mood. Being a Saturday afternoon the roads were relatively quiet by this stage and mercifully they’d flattened out. I ended up taking a wrong turn and riding on a busy main road for a few miles, fortunately it had a decent hard shoulder and disaster was averted. Miles 85-98 were relatively painless, returning to familiar surroundings. Unfortunately there was a sting in the tail, a steep hill that was completely unavoidable aside from the option of a long detour to get back into Exeter. Going up the other side of it at mile two was very easy, at mile 99 it was a different story. It took an age to summit and I had to tap into the very last reserves of strength remaining in my legs. Nonetheless I just about managed. Never has getting home felt so good.

Having had a while to recover and take stock I’m feeling quite proud of myself. It’s taken a lot of work to get myself to the stage of being physically and mentally capable of taking on such a task. Having a ride like that in my legs will certainly help when it comes to racing season which at the time of writing is just around the corner. As per usual I’ve promised myself I won’t ever attempt a century again, I give it about three months before I forget how much it hurts and start thinking about the next one.

Thanks for reading.

Welcome back

Hey folks. It’s been a ridiculously long time since the last post, you can thank a combination of Uni work, training, stress from various sources and of course the usual dose of laziness. During the last couple of months it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to call it challenging would be a spectacular understatement. The main positive to take from it is that somehow or another I’ve gotten myself back into decent shape.

I’ve barely touched my road bike since last November. The condition of the roads in Southwest England seems to get worse every year; we’re talking potholes that you could learn to swim in, half-inch thick mud coating the lanes, deep floods and on one memorable occasion a load of snow & ice. For that reason I’ve trained mainly on my trusty gravel bike.

                                    

It’s in bad conditions that off-road inspired tech really comes into its own. Disc brakes that work in the wet, wide tubeless tyres that can be run at low pressures to enhance grip without the risk of a pinch flat and 1x drivetrains that are easy to clean & maintain. Add mudguards and you’ll have a machine that can cope with pretty much anything. I’m proud of having only had to resort to the turbo trainer once this winter, putting that bike together was a big investment of both time and money but it’s very much paid off.

Traditionally I’ve done my long winter rides on the road but this time round I’ve taken to long MTB sessions instead. At the risk of offending all the roadies reading this I have to say that personally I find these much easier to get through, it’s very hard to get bored on the trails – if you switch off you’ll probably end up falling over a tree stump. My £375 hardtail is a very long way from the high end mountain bikes  you see on magazine covers but as a winter workhorse it’s done a brilliant job. If nothing else when you’re used to climbing on a 15 kg bike with knobbly tyres and small wheels it feels amazing when you get back on a carbon fibre thoroughbred.

Somehow or another I’ve still managed to squeeze in a couple of gym sessions each week. Following my initial skepticism I’m very much a convert to weight training and would suggest it to any fellow Cyclist. I’ve worked on my lower back strength which lets me ride in the drops for longer, trained my core to improve power transfer on the climbs and finally gotten full strength back in my right shoulder having injured it a couple of years ago. I have to admit that the aesthetic effects are also very pleasing, I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger but have succeeded in putting on some upper body muscle which means I no longer have the physique of a stick insect.

With all the time commitments that come with the final year of University I’m focusing on quality over quantity. Realistically I don’t have more than about eight hours a week to train, the key is making the best possible use of it. Unfortunately it means a lot of hard interval sessions, like the majority of sane individuals I can’t say that I always enjoy them but there’s no doubting how good high intensity training is for your fitness. PR’s have been coming thick and fast and with the time trial season starting soon that’s very reassuring to see. This newfound fitness coupled with the carbon wheels I’ve managed to get hold of having sold my old winter bike should hopefully lead to some decent results.

It’s very likely that these words will come back to haunt me but I’m optimistic that we’re through the worst of the winter. Already the roads are starting to dry up, it’s just about warm enough to ride in shorts and it won’t be long before the evenings are light enough to head out without fear of having to get home in the dark. That brings us neatly to the very memorable ride I had yesterday.

If I’m honest then there’s no getting around the fact that the few days preceding it had been very difficult. I won’t discuss the details on here but it can be summed up as series of unexpected problems of both personal and professional nature. There’s something uniquely comforting about waking up to sunny weather, especially when it happens as rarely as it does in this country. That morning it was particularly stunning; blue skies and a warm breeze. I decided to take my Specialized out for the first time in well over a month and head to the beach.

In my experience the best rides tend to be the ones you decide to go on at the last minute, this one took things to the next level. I’d forgotten how it felt to ride a light, fast & nimble road bike – powering up the climbs and descending as quickly as my nerve would allow. Unusually for a Saturday morning the roads were quiet, the sun stayed out and the traditional block headwind didn’t manifest itself. It was warm enough for a mid-way cafe stop. I felt happier than I had in a long time, sat there eating a very nice slice of carrot cake whilst looking out over a calm sea. It bought on a feeling of calmness, a sense that everything was going to be alright and that my bad week was very much in the past. I could talk all day about the fitness benefits and competitive side of cycling but in reality it’s the thought of that feeling that gets me on my bike.

Thanks for reading.

Not another one

I’m back, which is to say I managed to survive the first term of my final year of University. Having unpacked, eaten at least double my bodyweight in chocolate and survived the hangover resulting from the obligatory end of term night out I can finally turn my attention to Cycling.

Truth be told I haven’t given a great deal of thought to the 2019 race season yet. I know better than to put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well at this stage, much like last year I suspect the best races will come towards the end of the season once the University year has ended. Realistically my original goal of qualifying for the National 10 might be a step too far. I’ll be happy with going under the 20 minute barrier in a ten mile Time Trial and hopefully winning some mid-week club events. I’ll do a few road races if I feel like it but they won’t be the priority.

Over the last few weeks my training has been inconsistent to say the least. Bad weather and deadlines are not especially conducive to getting out on rides. On the flip-side I haven’t struggled with the repeated colds that made last winter such a disaster. I’ve done what I can; gone running when I haven’t had time for a ride or it’s been too wet, made time for two weight training sessions every week and done my best to get some riding in when circumstances have allowed. My overall fitness level isn’t bad but there is still a lot of work to be done on the bike in order to get racing fit again.

My homemade gravel bike has well and truly proved it’s worth. I’ve had some bad experiences with Schwalbe tyres in the past but can’t praise the G-One enough, the 35 mm tubeless setup hasn’t missed a beat so far. Somehow these tyres manage to be fast rolling on the road but grippy enough to handle muddy bridleways and even stand up to being taken down the odd Mountain bike trail. At some stage I’d like to make the switch to hydraulic disc brakes but for the time being the trp spyre cable operated ones that I bought second hand on eBay have done a perfectly decent job. I’m not convinced that 1x drivetrains are the future for road bikes but for gravel riding they make perfect sense. The clutch mech on the rear paired with a narrow – wide chainring has performed flawlessly, the chain hasn’t come off once despite all that’s been thrown at it. Investing a considerable amount of time and money to put that bike together to a very exact set of specifications has turned out to have been a good decision – winter rides are no longer a chore.

Now, speaking of bikes. It’s time for something of a confession. With a mountain bike, TT bike, road race bike, winter road bike, summer road bike / spare race bike and finally a gravel bike I’d decided that enough was enough. The N+1 rule had reached its limit. Maintaining all those machines has been a real headache at times, both financially and logistically. I’d even toyed with the idea of selling one or two of them.

That was before I made that classic mistake of having a casual look on eBay.  I couldn’t help but see it. A very unloved 1980’s Peugeot; down tube shifters, threaded headset, 5 speed with 27 inch wheels – the works. Worse still it was only £35 and located 10 miles away from where I live. I repeatedly told myself that it was a stupid idea. Restoring this bike would probably cost more than the worth of the finished product. It would involve a lot of elbow grease; stripping the frame down having to remove various seized components in the process, painstakingly repainting it and finally having to source compatible parts to complete the build. Overall a bad idea. The bike is now of course sat in my garage awaiting the overhaul it probably should have had 10 years ago.

I’m now in the process of making up various excuses to justify the purchase. It’s hard to beat the look of a classic bike from a time when power meters hadn’t been invented yet and nobody had heard of aerodynamics. With time and patience there’s no reason why the bike can’t be bought back to it’s former glory. Hopefully I’ll learn a few new skills along the way which might well come in useful at some stage in the future.

So in short it’s all business as usual. A slow start to my winter training, continuing to discover the joys of gravel riding and taking on another project bike. There’s a distinct possibility I won’t get round to writing another post till the new year so to that end I wish all readers a happy Christmas and good 2019.

Thanks for reading.

All Access

Hey folks. As per usual let me take the time to apologise for how long it’s been since the last post. It turns out the final year of a University degree is actually very difficult in more ways than one. It’s taken a full two weeks to get round to properly composing this post after the original idea came into my head. Anyway, lets get to it.

Here’s a photo I posted on Instagram a few days ago (@jl1297 on the very slight off-chance that anyone is interested). I decided to take the gravel bike on a mini-adventure. No time limits, no training plan and no Garmin to look at. It was one of the most enjoyable rides I’ve had in a while, despite a few very dicey bridleways. Being of my generation I of course felt obliged to put it out on social media. My news feed on various platforms is full of photos of a similar ilk. People riding in exotic places, showing off new bikes, winning races, shredding trails, etc etc.

That gravel ride was in actual fact the sole high point of the week for me. What went on during the rest of it? I had a horrendous head cold for the first few days which made it next to impossible to get any Uni work done. The remainder of the week was therefore spent madly trying to catch up on everything I’d missed, not forgetting the three important deadlines approaching. That, coupled with some slightly tricky personal circumstances which I won’t go into on here made for a fairly torrid week.

At the moment the real picture stands in stark contrast to that glossy photo. You know what – it’s been bloody hard. Difficult to try and fit in any training at all around the pile of work I have building up. Tough being single when most of my friends are in happy relationships. Next to impossible to get enough sleep and eat healthily if I also want to have a social life. To be 100% honest with you all, I’ve just about had enough of this term.

My goal of qualifying for next year’s National 10 is starting to look less and less realistic. Finding the time and motivation to ride is becoming increasingly difficult. There’s no point whatsoever in trying to come up with a structured training program at the moment, the best I can do is fit in whatever I can on the rare days when it’s decent weather and I can afford to give myself a break from studying. At a stretch I’m doing just about enough to maintain my fitness; two or three rides a week plus a couple of gym sessions and the odd run. Not bad in the grand scheme of things but nowhere near what it would take to start the process of taking my performance to the next level.

In short it’s not exactly been enjoyable recently. I’ve spoken on here before about some of the past struggles I’ve had with Mental Health. Depression is one of those conditions that can creep up on you and sometimes make it very difficult to get on with the life you’re trying to live. Truth be told it’s well and truly started to rear it’s ugly head over the last couple of weeks. If it wasn’t for the medication I’m taking it would be hard enough to get out of bed in the morning let alone train or study. When this semester ends in three weeks I’m going to have to take some time to focus on my wellbeing in order to get back on track again.

So there we have it folks. Probably not the most cheerful thing you’ll read today. Nonetheless I hope that it helps to drive a point home. It’s incredibly easy to paint a rose-tinted picture and pretend to the outside world that everything is fine when in actual fact it can be a very different story behind the scenes. Mistakes, failures and setbacks are an inevitability in Sport and in any other aspect of life. If times are tough take heart from the fact that there’s no way you’re the only one. Oh, and it’s also completely okay to talk about it.

Thanks for reading.

Gravel bikes – What’s the point?

Hi folks. Firstly, let me apologise for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. I blame a combination of high workload (yeah, turns out the final year of a degree is very hard) and procrastination. There’s not much to write about regarding training at the moment, entirely due to that fact that I haven’t really done any. Three weeks into the off-season and I’m getting the hang of it; eating what I want, only doing short rides when I feel like it and having some truly spectacular lie-ins. For that reason I’m going to go with an opinion post. As always feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Gravel bikes are very much in fashion at the moment, for anyone who doesn’t know these essentially bridge the gap between road and mountain bikes. To give an example, here’s mine. For more on this bike read this post. It’s got drop handlebars, disc brakes, a 1x drivetrain and 650b wheels coupled with 33c gravel tyres. I’ve seen a lot of machines that fall under the gravel term – everything from an aerodynamic pinarello  to a full suspension offering.   Mine probably sits roughly in the middle of the spectrum.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room – doesn’t this sound very similar to a Cyclocross bike? Well, yes. But there are a few subtle differences. CX Bikes are designed for racing, they tend to have aggressive geometry and ordinarily won’t come with mounts for racks or mudguards. Gravel bikes on the other hand are normally made with longer days in the saddle in mind. My answer to the question of whether or not it’s just a fancy marketing term used by the bike industry is therefore a firm no.

These bikes have come out of the US where I’m told (correct me if I’m wrong) they have a lot of unpaved roads, not suitable for Road Bikes but not quite MTB territory either. That’s not the case in the UK but speaking from extensive personal experience I can say that a lot of roads over here aren’t kept in good condition. Years of experience have conditioned me to dread the Winter which consists of riding muddy lanes covered in debris from farm vehicles, very often they haven’t been resurfaced in years and sport potholes that can easily ruin a good wheel.

Why not just use a Mountain Bike in the winter then? Anyone who rides both road and MTB should know the answer to this question – it’s boring. If you’re lucky enough to have a trail centre within easy reach then it’s probably a viable option but that’s not the case for most of us. On the road my 13kg MTB is extremely cumbersome, even the worst road conditions I’ve faced don’t demand suspension and a dropper seat post. I do accept however that this might be different with a higher end carbon XC hardtail.

I hope that you can now see why a gravel bike could come in very useful. These machines are light enough to handle decently on the road but have a bit of additional capability that means they can handle the rough stuff if required. So, what’s it been like to ride one for the past couple of weeks?

Bloody brilliant. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most fun I’ve had on any bike in a good long while. Familiar road routes have taken on a whole new appeal simply because riding them is now a lot easier. Disc brakes are far superior to the rim variety especially in the wet and the larger tyres do a brilliant job of smoothing out the ride when the surface turns rough. Better still I can mix and match, breaking up a road ride with a couple of off-road sections. Fire roads and bridleways that are easy on an MTB become more technically challenging and therefore interesting to tackle on the gravel machine. Another thing, it’s very nice to be-able to switch off and get away from the traffic from time to time.

Now, with that said there are a few drawbacks. This bike is considerably heavier than the carbon road bikes I’m used to and can be very hard work on the climbs, though from a training point of view that’s no bad thing. The smaller wheels accelerate very well but aren’t quite as fast rolling, I certainly couldn’t keep up on a fast group ride on this bike. As for the gearing the 1x drivetrain (38t up front paired with an 11-42 cassette) is perfect off-road but a bit lacking on road descents or even flat sections with a tailwind. I will point out that all of these are issues with my particular bike, it’s perfectly possible to get lighter models with 700c wheels and 2x drivetrains that will be more suited to the road.

To summarise, if you ask me then gravel bikes are definitely worth considering. If you want one bike that can do it all then look no further, with such a wide range to choose from I’d go as far as to say that theres one out there to suit just about everyone. Above all else, they have a serious amount of fun factor. Haven’t you always wondered where that track that you’ve ridden past hundreds of times on your way home actually goes?

Thanks for reading.

In with the new

It’s over. After a hectic few months of training and racing encompassing all the usual highs, lows and laughs the 2018 season has come to an end. By my own admission the very last event of the year was something of a disappointment. Body and mind had both had enough, all I could think about on the startline of that Hill Climb was the tantalising prospect of going home, climbing off the bike and putting my feet up. My rather embarrassing finishing time reflected this attitude.

Fortunately, earlier that week I had received some encouraging news. After hitting a rather worrying 74kg in April I decided that something had to be done. I certainly wouldn’t recommend a calorie controlled diet for everyone but by this stage I know I have a tendency to overeat and that the best solution is keeping a very close eye on my intake to ensure that doesn’t happen, too often anyway. I was pleasantly surprised to step on the scales and see a much more hill friendly 68kg. Next up came a VOMax test, the kind of thing you’re lucky enough to get for free if you’re doing a Sports Science degree. Once again the results were promising, 64 ml.min-1.kg-1, marking a 10% improvement over the last nine months. No doubt there is still work to be done but it’s reassuring to see quantifiable proof that my training has worked.

All of this has got me thinking about the prospect of next season. My main goal is a bit of an ambitious one but I’m hoping it’s going to do the trick with regards to keeping up my motivation over the winter once training starts again. Before this year attempting to qualify for a National Championship would have been laughable. However, achieving some good results in TT’s on what I have to admit was often a less than ideal training regime and whilst being significantly above my race weight has given me some hope that with some hard work it might just be possible. I’ve decided to dedicate myself to setting a time good enough to get a starting slot in next years National 10 (that’s national 10 mile TT champs for those not familiar with the UK scene).

This is going to mean taking everything up a level. More hours on the bike, structured training sessions, regular testing and being disciplined with my diet amongst other things. On the plus side it’s given me a fantastic excuse to bring out the inner bike tech nerd and look into getting some new equipment that ought to gain me a few precious seconds – looking cool obviously being a mere secondary concern… honest.

A lack of riding last winter meant that endurance was by far my biggest weakness. Blowing up prematurely ended my hopes in two road races and my performance in shorter TT’s was much better in comparison to longer ones. Unfortunately there’s no substitute for miles in the saddle. In order to motivate / scare me into getting up early for those long rides over the winter I’m considering taking on a challenge in the Spring before the TT season really begins in earnest. Typically it’s something really brutal that’s attracted my attention. When you see a survival blanket and emergency whistle on the compulsory kit list for an event it’s hard not to take notice. As it stands an attempt at the Dirty Reiver is in the works. It doesn’t get much tougher than a 200km off-road ride in a remote forest, my homemade gravel bike should be up to the task but I can’t yet vouch for the bloke riding it.

My immediate future is not going to consist of hard training. It’s time to rest my legs for a month and focus on other things – namely making sure I don’t fail my degree. Much as I love Cycling, a break from the mental and logistical strain of training and racing is very much needed at the moment. I’ll still ride but only if and when I want to, no hill reps in the rain for a good long while. On that I’ll sign out – time for some cake.

Thanks for reading.