LEJOG – The Lowdown

For anyone who didn’t see my previous post here is a quick recap. After losing my summer job I made the impulsive decision to Cycle the length of Britain. Riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats has long been on my Cycling bucket list, why not take the opportunity when it suddenly presented itself? I’m sure all readers are desperate to hear what happened having been eagerly anticipating this post for weeks (in my dreams that is).

First and foremost we made it in one piece, though sadly one of our number had to pull out following a crash on day 6 – I wish him all the best in his recovery. 880 Miles over the course of 12 days whilst battling bad weather, mechanical difficulties and just about everything that could be thrown at a group of unsuspecting Cyclists. I’m going to do my best not to bore anyone with this account, though I can’t make any promises. Here goes.

Day 1 – Land’s End to Bodmin (56 Miles).

What in the name of all that’s Holy have I got myself in for?”. The question was circulating in my head over and over again. Following an early start and a three hour bus journey (on which I narrowly avoided throwing up), we arrived at Land’s End. Cornish Pasties were consumed with what seemed like a very deliberate slowness – the weather was not in our favour.

The next four hours proved to be an exercise in suffering. Not once did it stop raining, by the end of the ride we were all completely drenched. Adding the Cornish terrain into the mix, namely steep hills followed by dicey descents with a generous coating of mud and loose gravel made for a baptism of fire. Big shoutout to our ride leader, sticking at the front the whole way and expertly navigating via Garmin (something that is often much harder than it looks).

Upon arriving at the hotel I embarked on what was to become a familiar routine:

  1. Have a protein gel. On a ride like this taking recovery seriously is crucial.
  2. Collect room key – walk my muddy bike through the hotel, negotiating a bewildering numbering system before eventually finding sanctuary – i.e. a warm room with a bed and shower.
  3. Wash kit in the sink, get it as dry as possible using whatever implements were available. Heated towel rails were a godsend, more often than not a hairdryer was pressed into service.
  4. Shower, put on clean clothes and congratulate myself on making it through the day.
  5. Sort out bike. Clean the worst of the mud off, lube chain, check brake pads and tyres for signs of wear, clean out bottles and carry out any necessary repairs / adjustments. Usually get clean clothes covered in cycle grease. Ok, I might have neglected this step once or twice.
  6. Eat. As much as possible, never turn down an extra helping.
  7. Prepare for the worst. Look at weather forecast and lay out clothes for the morning, remember to put a rain jacket in my day bag.
  8. Upload ride to Strava, give kudos generously.
  9. Collapse – drift off to sleep. Only stay up late in very important circumstances (i.e. when Game of Thrones was on).
  10. Wake up, ride and repeat.

Day 2 – Bodmin to Sampford Peverell (86 Miles)

I knew from looking at the route profile that this would turn out to be a very tough day – the longest ride of the trip with the greatest amount of climbing. Keeping the group together was tricky, gaps open very easily on that kind of terrain. I felt sorry for a couple of my fellow group members who happened to have a bad day, legs failing at the worst possible time. On the flat you can just sit at the back but at the hands of the Devon hills there was nowhere to hide.  For me knowing some of the roads only served to make matters worse, I had time to think about what was coming. Lung busting hills right till the very end, coupled with yet more rain from mile 75 onwards.

Rarely have I offered such heartfelt congratulations, both to myself and fellow riders. It takes some grit to get through a day like that, especially when we still had 10 days worth of riding left. Being young, fit and a relatively good climber I probably had it easy compared to a lot of others. By 9:30 I was out like a light, my legs having taken a real beating from hills and crosswinds.

Day 3 – Sampford Peverell to Portishead (62 Miles)

Morning bought a very welcome experience. Sun, flat roads and the knowledge that only a few miles were left after the lunch stop, incidentally a very good Chilli Con Carne. A spanner was thrown into the works by the weather (you won’t be surprised to hear it involved rain), in order to avoid very busy main roads our route took us along a Cycle path. One which was not designed for road bikes, maximum concentration was needed in order to avoid crashing.

It was vital for us to stay positive, on that day and on many more occasions throughout the ride it was a collective sense of humour that made it many times easier to get through whatever was thrown at us. I’ll credit one member of our group in particular here, I couldn’t repeat many of his jokes in polite company but they very rarely failed to raise our spirits. Taking the mickey out of each other in that uniquely British way did a good job of breaking the ice, (prior to the ride quite a few of us didn’t know each other).

You couldn’t help laughing at the muddy puddles we had to ride through, watched by people on more appropriate bikes who looked at us as if we were completely mad – not that I necessarily disagreed with that assessment. In the end we were rewarded with a pleasant summer evening. A massive portion of fish and chips eaten in a nice restaurant overlooking Portishead marina felt very well deserved.

Day 4 – Portishead to Ludlow (80 Miles)

Another stunning morning. Winding our way along the Cycle paths of Bristol, tranquility in the midst of a very busy city. The odd tree root or broken bottle served to keep us on our toes. We soon reached a major milestone, crossing over the Severn Bridge into Wales. For me this marked the transition from the familiar into the unknown, despite having travelled abroad many times I’d never been quite this far north in the UK. A treat was in store in the form of a long descent into the beautiful Wye valley, a bit of friendly competition was very enjoyable.

Our group was lucky in managing to avoid the rain, our first completely dry day. The afternoon involved yet more spectacular terrain, rolling roads in the sun – a Cyclists dream. By this point I was ready to give the legs a good stretch. I was lucky to be riding with two guys of a similar age who happened to share my love of smashing it on the front and racing up the hills. Throughout the twelve days the three of us formed many a ‘breakaway’ – pointless as it was we couldn’t help pushing each other.

For dinner we ventured into the town centre, I was craving something light after three days of stodge. I’m glad we took the time to do a bit of exploring, adding to the sense of adventure. That night I allowed myself a rare Pint of Guinness, technically speaking I was after all on holiday.

Day 5 – Ludlow to Warrington (82 Miles)

Day 5 began in much the same way as day 4, rolling roads and decent weather. I will forever remember it as the day when we missed the lunch stop. Truth be told it was probably down to riding too quickly, the other groups going at a more sensible pace easily had the last laugh. By the time we realised our mistake it was too late, going back would have involved three miles of dodgy lanes which we were glad to have just escaped in one piece.

We were lucky enough to find a local farm shop at which to refuel. Judging by the feel of the place I suspect the owner had never had such a large number of customers at once – service wasn’t exactly rapid. Upon pulling out of the improvised lunch stop the heavens opened. For the umpteenth time we pulled over to don rain jackets and offered up a silent prayer that it was just a shower. It was, but sadly proved to be the first of many.

A breakdown of communication in what was quite a large group at that point resulted in it splitting up. We rolled into the nights hotel in dribs and drabs, highly demoralised and very much in need of the large quantity of gateau that presented itself at the evening meal.

Day 6 – Warrington to Kendal (82 Miles)

Very much a day of two halves. To begin with the weather was even worse than that of day one. My hardshell jacket covered by another waterproof still wasn’t enough to keep the rain out. Busy roads made the first half of the ride very nerve-wracking, in those conditions your brakes don’t work well and the road surface becomes less grippy. A set of tram tracks bought down one member of our group in addition to several other riders later on.

Thankfully we managed to find the lunch stop this time round, a generous helping of Shepards Pie hit the spot. After a round of extra coffees we set off with a great sense of apprehension. Within five miles we were riding in bright sunshine. Only in the UK could this happen. We soon left the urban sprawl behind, riding instead on quiet country lanes. One final hitch presented itself in the form of a deep flood (for context it came to just below my knees). I spent much of the evening drying out my wheels.

Kendal has to have a mention, by far my favourite overnight stop. A room with a view of the river and the convenient location of the Local Bike Shop made it a firm winner. I finally gave in and bought a clip on mudguard, the prospect of a dry backside trumping the 140g of added weight.

Day 7 – Kendal to Lockerbie (71 Miles) 

The legs were treated to a rude awakening. Shap Fell began as soon as we got out of town, a ten mile climb with some steep sections and a long drag at the end. A familiar three man breakaway soon formed, going against common sense we of course raced up it, I eventually triumphed by a slim margin. Typically, once we got to the top it began blowing a gale and tipping it down with rain. We three were soon freezing cold, desperately hoping our fellow group members weren’t too far behind.

On the following descent I couldn’t afford to hang around, it was a matter of getting out of the wind and rain as soon as possible for fear of becoming dangerously cold. We regrouped at the bottom, soon rolling into the first feed stop – never has a pork pie been so deeply appreciated. Once again we set off into the rain.

A few miles down the road I punctured. “Bloody typical!”. I thought to myself when looking at the state of my rear tyre, I had failed to notice just how much it was worn – not what you’d expect from rubber that was merely three months old. Lockerbie of course had no bike shop within easy reach of our hotel. I am eternally grateful to have been leant a spare tyre that night following some (much deserved) ribbing from fellow group members. A few days later the front tyre would also need replacing, never again will I buy that particular make. In total the last six days involved five punctures, having not previously suffered one since October 2016. Sometimes life can be cruel.

Crossing the border into Scotland marked the passing of another big milestone. For the first time I allowed myself to think that the end was in sight, all manner of bad luck had thus far failed to stop us – we were going to make it. So I hoped.

Day 8 – Lockerbie to Edinburgh (68 Miles)

One of the major highlights of the trip. Mostly dry with only a couple of light showers, the Scottish scenery was a revelation. Standing in sharp contrast to the densely populated areas we had gone through over the course of the last couple of days. Almost eerily quiet in places, a background of harsh looking mountains. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to cycle that route in the Winter.

Following the lunch stop the roads got interesting. Sweeping descents with some tight turns, a tailwind made it all the more enjoyable. We couldn’t help pushing the pace, if I had to try and explain to someone why I love riding a bike then those last 25 miles would be the starting point. There is nothing else quite like the sensation of going fast under your own power, pushing 30MPH downhill and holding on for dear life round the corners.

Day 9 – Edinburgh to Pitlochrie (74 Miles)

A good start to the day, winding our way out of Livingstone on quiet backroads reminiscent of those encountered on day 8. Many of our number had visited Edinburgh the night before, resulting in a fair few hangovers. It was therefore decided that this would be treated as a ‘transition day’ – taken at an easy pace with sightseeing the primary aim. We soon passed another icon, crossing over the Forth Bridge.

It was then that it began to go uphill, we took it easy at first but after the first feed stop I couldn’t quite ignore my competitive instincts. Once again the three of us went clear, trying to break each other on the short steep ramps that started coming along in quick succession. The descent that followed almost felt alpine, another opportunity to get low on the drops and go as fast as my nerve would allow.

Pitlochrie ought to have a mention, it’s certainly a place I would visit again if the chance presented itself. One of those picturesque small towns tucked away in the middle of nowhere. It’s only downside being the eyewatering prices in the Local Bike Shop – I’m sorry but fourteen quid for a standard inner tube really is taking the mick.

Day 10 – Pitlochrie to Aviemore (59 Miles)

This was the day when my legs really started to feel the effects of the previous nine days worth of riding. My quadriceps and knees stubbornly ached for the first ten miles, perhaps smashing it on the hills and doing long turns on the front hadn’t been the best idea. Today the terrain was even better, we took advantage of disused roads turned into Cycle ways – the lack of traffic allowing you to relax and really take in the surrounding scenery. Given the choice I would certainly go back there, perhaps on a bike with some off-road capability to allow for some deeper exploration.

A considerable portion of the ride took place on gravelled cycle paths. Therein I discovered a new type of riding, despite being on an inappropriate bike I greatly enjoyed tackling the technical surface. My fellow riders did not share my opinion, not that I can blame them. Looking back I perhaps ought to have exercised more caution, it was the gravel that did for my front tyre – a rather spectacular split that would have made it unsafe to ride on.

After the lunch stop things got competitive again, this time it was about trying to bring up the average speed. It’s amazing what the legs can do when you know there aren’t many more miles left, there were times when we topped 30 MPH on the flat. Looking back we may have got a tad carried away in places, splitting the group is rarely a good idea.

Day 11 – Aviemore to Tain (70 Miles)

A day I would love to forget. Shortly after sitting down to eat dinner the night before I began to feel unwell, I’m still stumped as to what the cause might have been – perhaps ten days of living on stodge finally caught up with me. Without wanting to go into much detail I spent most of the night in the bathroom. At 3AM on day 11 I was seriously questioning whether or not I’d be able to carry on. Luckily my bout of illness passed almost as quickly as it had begun, I did at least manage to grab four hours of sleep.

On the bike I felt terrible, I suspect this was due to not having absorbed much of the food taken in the previous evening. Rather than spending time on the front I was hanging off the back, struggling on even the slightest of hills. It’s a big shame as once again the roads and scenery were spectacular (can you tell I like Scotland yet?) had I been on good form that day would probably have been a big highlight. After the lunch stop I started to feel slightly better, reassuring given the challenges I knew the final day would present.

Day 12 – Tain to John O’Groats (85 Miles)

This was always going to be a tough one, the last leg of our long journey. We set out along a coast road, in the UK that tends to mean two things; hills and rain. For the first fifty odd miles it was all up and down, once a hill was crested you would be-able to see the next one looming in the distance. Everyone’s legs were protesting by this point, so near yet so far. Cold and heavy showers punctuated the suffering. One thing was for sure, this was no day for leaving people behind. We had to work as a team, stopping to regroup when necessary and making sure anyone struggling was given a wheel to hide behind.

In the afternoon the weather took a miraculous turn for the better, the skies cleared and the sun beat down, warming our knackered legs. With fifteen miles to go we had the final feed stop, those chocolate florentines had never tasted quite so good before. The final push was anything but straightforward, one last three man breakaway – racing up what seemed like an endless string of short hills, preying that each one would be the last. Cresting that final ascent and seeing one of our support vans in the distance almost bought a tear to my eye, we really were just about to make it.

We waited by the van, congratulating other riders as they came in one by one. Some of whom had encountered far greater challenges than myself. In particular, special mention must be given to a rider in our group who completed the last five days of riding with a broken rear mech, leaving him with only two gears – how he managed it I’ll never know.

In the end we rolled into John O’Groats as one big group, thirty seven in total if memory serves. Celebratory champagne went down very nicely. Soon it was time to load the bikes onto the lorry that would take them home. I’ll never be-able to part with my Specialized Tarmac now, a (mostly) faithful steed that saw me through the toughest ride I have ever done.

There was of course much merriment on that last night, without the prospect of riding the following day we could afford to relax. I think it is perhaps best to say that what took place at John O’Groats probably ought to remain there.

The Lowdown

Hmm – how to finish this post without boring readers to death? I could go on and on about what I took from the experience. Places that I would never otherwise have visited. People who went from strangers to friends I’ll be eager to keep in touch with. A new perspective on Cycling and a rediscovery of the love of the sport – it’s not just about going fast.

A mention must be given to the support crew and organisers, always willing to go the extra mile. Let me tell you, arriving at your hotel to find your suitcase has been dropped off in your room meaning you don’t have to carry it up a flight of stairs is a truly wonderful thing. Homemade cake at the feed stops was a godsend, a welcome change from the usual gels and energy bars. Without them none of it would have been possible. I am eternally grateful, as I suspect are all my fellow riders.

I’ll end on this. If you should ever get the opportunity to go on a similar two wheeled adventure then please grab it with both hands. It will hurt and there will be moments that make you want to give up, yet at the end when you can look back on your achievement it all becomes worth it.

Thanks for reading.

 

Photo credit: Various

Day 1 – A rather grim view from Land’s End.

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My faithful steed. In black and white to hide how filthy it was.

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Day 6 – That infamous flood.

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The three musketeers. Probably off the front racing up a hill when this was taken.

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Only Tartan for the last day – Clearly looking forward to the challenge.

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Day 4 – Trying to make sense of some actual nice weather.

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Day 7. The rather bleak view from the summit of Shap Fell.

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A rare photo of the whole gang – following a particularly nice lunch stop in Carlisle.

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Over the border! Please excuse the terrible choice of kit.

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The view from Pitlochrie dam. See why I enjoyed Scotland?

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The last day – we made it!

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A Challenge awaits.

Over the last few weeks I have been grappling with a tough decision. Much as I still greatly enjoy Cycling I have been tempted by a new challenge. Last year I briefly took up running, with the aim of building endurance through cross training whilst injured. Fun though it was, there was no way I could have carried on and performed at my best in bike races whilst also focusing on another sport.

Racing has been a fantastic experience, I’ve pushed myself more than I ever thought possible in both training and competing. However there are aspects of it which I haven’t found especially enjoyable, namely the chaos and the crashes. It’s hard not to worry about the potential consequences of incurring another injury, not the most helpful thought to be having on the start line.

Unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that I lack the fearlessness that is needed to do really well in bike races – you won’t ever see me descending at 60 mph or really pushing my luck through tight corners. My tactical ability could also be called into question – in fact a lack thereof probably cost me a win in the penultimate race of the season. To this day I’m not quite sure what possessed me to attack with four laps to go rather than three, had I not faded on the final straight I wouldn’t have been caught by a sole rider. Of course I must remind myself that hindsight is a wonderful thing – it was still an awesome experience to stand atop a podium for the first time.

I have committed myself to a few races already, to that end I’ll follow my current training plan up until May. The question that I have been asking myself is this: What to do next? Triathlon is the obvious answer, I have some background in Swimming and Running, Cycling is certainly covered – I’d like to think I have something of a head start. I’m searching for an Olympic distance event to do in September or October, before that it will be Sprint triathlons. In some ways it will be back to basics, yet in the end surely worth it.

There is one event that has always been on my radar – a big part of my sporting bucket list. Some call it the ultimate test of physical and mental endurance, I think it’s fair to say that anyone who chose to participate could be described as a bit mad to say that least. For some reason this only makes it appeal to me even more. This evening I finally decided – my ultimate goal is to complete a full Ironman triathlon. 2.4 Mile swim, 112 mile bike and a marathon to top it all off – for anyone who doesn’t know.

It would be foolhardy and unrealistic to think that I could train in time to compete this coming year. 2018 is however a possibility and as such it will become my target. I haven’t got as far as finding a specific event yet, mainly as the dates have yet to be released. At present Ironman Wales sounds appealing – being relatively local and involving a hilly course, well suited to a smaller individual such as myself.

It’s time to put all my sports science training into practice. If I am to meet the demands of this challenge it will require a great deal of investment, in terms of both time and finance. I’ll have to be more disciplined than ever – continuing my teetotalism and bidding goodbye to some of my favourite foods. Daunting as it may be my motivation has been reignited and I can’t remember the last time something filled me with such excitement.

I realise that switching my focus may serve to make the title of this blog redundant. I’ll still write Cycling specific posts and I don’t plan to stop competing in bike races – especially with many shorter Triathlon events now being draft-legal. Admittedly however, from May onwards I can predict that much of the writing will centre around my triathlon training and journey to (hopefully) become Ironman. Judging by past experience it is set to entail many amusing misadventures, hopefully alongside a few successes. As always I’ll do my best to make my writing entertaining and informative.

To finish with – if anyone reading this happens to have completed an Ironman, any tips on how to avoid common pitfalls would be much appreciated. I can read all training manuals I like yet experience has taught me that things are often different in practice.

On that – goodnight.

 

From Sportives to Racing – tips for a successful transition.

It’s likely that when you started Cycling, a Sportive was your first event. Being non-competitive they are accessible to all riders and are a good place to start. Perhaps you then moved on, longer distances completed in steadily quicker times. For me, there came a point when Sportives stopped being a challenge. I knew I could get round pretty much any course with a gold time as long as wasn’t stupid with the pacing. At that point, I turned to racing. I suspect there are many in a similar position – wanting to take part in more competitive events. Here is how to make it a success.

I’ve said before that sportive times are not a good predictor of Race performance, read that post here if interested. The demands of racing are very different  to those of sportives in an number of ways. Don’t be surprised if your first few races don’t go well, even if you have achieved gold times on tough sportives – to a certain extent you may have to ‘start again’. Take it from me it is truly worth it, doing well in a sportive does not compare to the elation that accompanies a good race result.

Firstly, sportives are completed at a more or less constant pace, taking into account variations in terrain of course. In races it is a different story, the pace very rarely remains the same for any length of time. You’ll need to be-able to respond to surges in pace caused by attacks, sprint out of corners and bridge gaps. Importantly, you need to be-able to recover quickly enough when the pace does (usually briefly) drop in order to do the above multiple times throughout a race.

Secondly, races do not require as much Endurance. You may be in the saddle for 6 hours or more when riding a hilly century, contrastingly closed circuit races tend to last for around 40 minutes and road races just over two hours. Don’t get me wrong – you still need to do the odd long ride, but during the competitive season you will be looking to maintain endurance rather than increase it.

Thirdly, bike handling skills are far more important in racing than in sportives. Anyone who has read any of my other posts will be fed up of this message by now – I still can’t stress it enough. You must be comfortable riding in a group before entering a race – otherwise you will be a danger to yourself and others around you. The best way to learn this skill is simply to join a Cycling Club, that way you can learn group riding skills in a safer (that is to say slower) environment. British Cycling have produced a very useful series of videos on how to race safely, click here to take a look.

Finally, this may sound obvious but it certainly wasn’t to me when I first started racing. Races are not as well supported as sportives. Don’t expect to find mechanics at Closed Circuit races, food isn’t usually provided. Road Races do tend to be more supported but the message still stands. Pack something to eat and make sure your bike is mechanically sounded before heading off to a race, otherwise you may be caught out.

Here are some quick tips on transitioning from sportives to racing, these should all make the process easier. Most of this is covered in more detail in other posts, take a look at the Racing Advice section.

  1. Intervals are key

Races, as I have already mentioned – are shorter than Sportives, ridden at a faster and ever changing pace . You should try to replicate this in training, it’s ok to reduce volume in order to compensate for the increase in intensity. You’ll have far more success in races if you train 6 hours per week at a high intensity than with 12 hours ridden at endurance pace.  I found this article on interval training very useful and informative, it’s the first part of a series – all of which make for good reading.

2. Incorporate skills training

Working on technical skills can make a massive difference – a deficiency that has little effect on sportive performance will likely present a large problem in races. If, for example you tend to ride at a very low cadence (say below 75 rpm on average), work on increasing it. This will make it easier to accelerate quickly so as to respond to changes in pace.Cornering at speed is another common limiter for new racers – though this is difficult to practice safely on open roads. Once again, I’ll mention the virtues of joining a club – a fast group ride is the closest it’s possible to get to a real race, there is no better way to improve bunch riding skills.

3. Follow a plan.

Ultimately races are harder than sportives, in order to do well you may need to follow a more carefully structured training program. It is true that many riders do not have a written training plan and still have very successful racing careers – however they are in a minority. Find 2 or 3 races in which you would like to do particularly well and build a plan around them. My post on training goes over this in more detail.

It is very important to include rest periods within your training. As a rule of thumb, halve your usual weekly volume and leave to any hard interval sessions every fourth week. High intensity training is very fatiguing, especially if you aren’t used to it. Overtraining should be avoided at all costs.

4) Use data – test yourself.

Click here for a post explaining this in more detail. It’s likely that you already record your rides on Strava or similar, but do you take much notice of the information on the screen? You don’t need a power meter to be-able to train ‘scientifically’, nor do you need to spend hours sifting through data after every ride. As outlined in the link above, just paying attention to a few key numbers is enough. Regular testing is important, making it much easier to gauge progress or detect the early signs of overtraining.

To finish with, here is one final word of advice. Don’t lose heart if the first few races go badly. I’ve said many a time that this is the case for most of us. Nothing quite prepares you for taking to the start line for the first time – it will get better from then on. I felt as if I’d taken a big step back when I first started racing, having gone from gold times in 100 mile sportives to being dropped on the start line. I went on to have a successful season, achieving my 3rd Category license. Just be patient.

As always, stay tuned for more.

Alpine Adventure

The question that first comes to mind is simple: Where to start? Its been a very busy few days. Last Saturday I embarked for the second time, on a week long cycling holiday to the French Alps. Just to cap it off, the day after returning from holiday it was time to go back to University – yet another adventure. I’m going to try and avoid waffling on too much (though I can’t make any promises) and hope this post provides some mild entertainment.

It’s surprisingly tricky to organise a cycling holiday – simply transporting bikes proved to be a significant challenge. The price of hard bike boxes put them out of our range, for now at least, fortunately a friend lent my Father & I a pair of soft carriers – these would hopefully do a good job. I opted to bring my training bike, its not flashy or expensive and as such I wouldn’t have to worry about it picking up some minor damage in transit. My Father instead went for his best lightweight bike – transporting this was going to be nerve-wracking.

Never before have I seen such an acute case of paranoid overpacking – bubble wrap, industrial quantities of insulation foam, bags of old clothing and even (luckily empty) egg boxes were utilised. In some ways it was actually rather impressive, it would take far more than a careless baggage handler to scuttle our plans.

In addition to the bikes themselves, we had many other essentials to bring – you can probably imagine. Spare tubes, nutrition products, tools and just about every piece of cycling kit that either of us possessed was carefully packed (that is to say thrown into a suitcase that had to be sat on in order to zip it up properly). On our last trip, around a year ago, the food in some of the French Hotels had been questionable in some cases – large quantities of protein snacks were therefore also thrown in.

The flight itself was mercifully uneventful, aside from the inevitable screaming child and sitting next to a rather large gentleman whose shower may have not been used on that particular morning. Upon arrival, we were strongly reminded of the shortcomings of foreign airports – to cut a long story short there was much time lost and frustration levels were high to say the least.

Having escaped the airport, we were introduced to to the other members of our group, with whom we would be riding for the following six days. As is usually the case, we were composed of a wide ranges of ages and abilities, everyone seemed friendly which is always a major bonus. On trips like this, around 75% of the enjoyment is dependent on your riding companions.

It was a long drive to our overnight stop. A small alpine chalet close to the top of the famous Col du Telegraphe. Having unpacked the bikes we all sat down for the first meal of the trip, much like those that were to follow, it was very large and satisfying. One of the great highlights of Cycling trips is that of guilt free eating – its crucial to try and replace the calories you have burnt after a long day on the bike, in order to avoid what cyclists refer to as ‘the bonk’ (running out of energy and having to climb into the van).

The riding over the next few days was truly spectacular, if I tried to paint the full picture I’d be writing for several days – which wouldn’t be conducive to a good first week of Uni work. To that end, I’ll try to keep it to a few highlights.

Day one began with ascending the last 3km of the Telegraphe. It was an early start – the empty road coupled with the sunrise and a fresh pair of legs made for something truly special, made better by the surprising lack of mechanical problems. The first big climb was that of the Col du Galibier, easy for the first few kilometres, then getting steadily harder, culminating in a steep finish. Being unacclimatised to the high altitude, this also worked to make it a tough one – it was disheartening to see how low my power output was, for a very high perceived exertion. If nothing else, this week was set to seriously improve my fitness.

The thrill of descending mountains is difficult to put into words – your life is truly in your own hands, go too fast or get the line wrong going into a technical corner and its a long, steep drop which will at the very least result in serious injury. Couple that with gusts of wind and you have a serious adrenaline rush.

That day also involved two other climbs. Firstly the Col d’izoard (the clue is in the name), with a lunch stop at the summit, followed by another descent. Finally the Col du Vars, not one most people have heard of – yet it turned out to be truly savage, 17km of climbing, much of it steep. The suffering was made greater by an unusually high temperature (around 30 celsius) and the fact it came after two large climbs earlier in the day – the large bowl of pasta for lunch didn’t do much to help either. Cresting the summit bought a real sense of achievement, spurred on by the thought of a recovery drink and hot shower – it wasn’t long before I reached the hotel. For various reasons, I finished the day on my own – ahead of all but one member of our group (more on him later). It made a nice change to be the quick one, on flat UK roads I’m not the most rapid but up in the high mountains my small size gives a useful advantage.

Day two was shorter, only 110km as a pose to 170. Beginning with an ascent of the Col de la Bonette – which was, at one time, the highest paved road in Europe. The scenery was remarkable, above the tree line its possible to see for many miles – though the view consists almost entirely of other forests and mountains. The climb itself was more straightforward, less steep and sporting a few tight hairpins which provided brief moments of rest. Only in the last kilometre, when the gradient rose sharply, did the legs begin to protest.

My riding companion for this day, and as it turned out, the remainder of the week was a Frenchman, an ex-Pro ski racer, this man was seriously fast – I was told he had barely ridden his bike during the summer, truly one of life’s natural athletes. Luckily, he had ridden the same routes during another instalment of the trip earlier in the year – his sense of direction proved very useful on many occasions. In the high mountains, my Garmin regularly lost signal, coupled with poor map reading skills this would have rendered me totally lost!

The day ended with another tough climb I had never heard of, the Col du Cuiolle. Rising through a gorge and passing through a small village set into the mountainside, it made for a fitting end to a spectacular ride. Yet again the temperature was high, it took many energy products and regular water stops in order to make it to the top. At one point I came very close to cracking – the support van would have been unable to reach me and as such this was a big worry. My only choice was to carry on and hope it would cool down towards the top of the climb. Thankfully it did – reaching the Hotel that day was a big relief.

Day three bought a welcome break from the high mountains – 140km consisting of mainly undulating terrain and a few minor climbs. The lunch stop was a big highlight, nothing like a large Pizza as a means to refuel for the coming day! Today did bring up one minor concern, during an ascent of the Cole du Buille (3km at 17% gradient – the one climb during the week that resembled those that can be found in the UK), my right knee began to throb. By the end of the day both knees were hurting – I fond myself hoping the pain would pass and that I would make it to the end of the week. My mistake had been a characteristically stupid one, bringing a bike fitted with a 52-36 chainset coupled to an 11-28 rear cassette (for any non-cyclists, this gearing copes easily with anything in the UK but isn’t the best for European Cols, ideally you want a smaller chains or an 11-32 cassette).

Day four was the one ‘flat’ day of the week. I was initially worried when looking at the road book, seeing that the route involved several main roads – the type that I would avoid at all costs if riding back home. Fortunately my concern was unfounded, French drivers are far kinder to cyclists – giving you a wide birth and often warning you of their approach. We had initially decided to ride as a group – going at a ‘steady pace’. Of course, in practice, this didn’t happen – we Cyclists struggle to resist the temptation to go hard & fast, and as such a three man ‘breakaway’ soon formed. The three of us then began to test eachother, putting in hard turns on the front and occasionally sprinting away from the others when the urge came. By the lunch stop we were already exhausted, with around 60km still to ride we had well and truly paid for our antics. Suffice to say, during the latter part of the day the group stayed firmly together.

It was towards the end of this ride that one member of the group spotted something in the distance – the top of the legendary Mont Ventoux, which we were due to climb later in the week. This was the primary objective of the trip. The mountain seemed to grow larger and larger on the horizon, striking fear into our heart. It has featured in the Tour de France many times – with much triumph, tragedy and just about everything in-between having taken place on its slopes.

That evening we arrived in the small town of Bedoin, close to the base of mountain. The hotel was a real find, off the beaten track yet the perfect place from which to conduct the remaining rides. The rooms were large and cool, the food generous and filling and the bike storage secure. During dinner that night, the conversation grew ever more grim – I doubt there was a single member of our party (aside from our hosts and those who had done the trip before) who didn’t experience degree of apprehension, even fear, regarding the upcoming challenge.

It was with Ventoux in mind that I decided to take the next day off – in order to recover as much as possible. An emergency trip to a local bike shop was also necessary, fitting my bike with easier gearing so as to spare my protesting knees. The remainder of the day was spent eating and resting, attempting to conserve as much energy as possible.

So it was that the big day dawned – I found myself prolonging breakfast for as long as possible, preying that my legs would be up to the task. We set out from the hotel as a group, no early attacks today. Soon after the foot of the climb we all separated – the only way to tackle these long climbs is to ride at your own pace. My French companion and I had soon lost sight of the others.

That first ascent was surprisingly pleasant, the mountain was busy which provided a welcome distraction. The lower slopes were forested, which made for a perfect temperature – the road was littered with graffiti, the names of various TDF riders coupled with the odd political slogan. Once above the tree line the sunlight hit, the surrounding landscape now almost white – the summit now visible, just one long and winding road along which to proceed. I made the mistake of looking down, just being able to make out Bedoin, now seemingly very small. Making it to the top bought a sense of relief, yet there was little time to take in the achievement – after all, it was only a third of the work done.

The next stage involved descending the other side of the mountain, down to the town of Malaucene. Yet another spectacular descent, though not helped by the motorbikes insisting on passing very closely. We soon reached the bottom, turning round and beginning the second climb. It began easily, yet with around 12km to go the gradient increased, remaining between 8 and 12% for the next 6km if memory serves. It was now that I realised a mistake had been made, I’d forgotten to refill my water bottles. This had the potential to be a serious problem, the midday heat could easily have resulted in dehydration which could in turn of lead to abandonment of the climb. Fortunately a Cafe situated 5km from the summit provided the necessary relief. The last section of the second climb was thankfully straightforward, an easy run up to the summit. “Two Down”, I thought – “only the last climb to come.”

Following a longer descent we arrived at the base of the last climb, the small town of Sault. By now the temperature had risen strongly and my legs were beginning to feel fatigued. The third ascent may not have been steep but made up for it by being 27km long (as a pose to 20 for the previous two). The first few kilometres were fully exposed to the heat, making for an uncomfortable 30 minutes or so. Fortunately we soon found ourselves engulfed by forest once again, providing a very welcome break. The gradient was very friendly in comparison to that of the earlier climbs – making for a fast time.

We soon reached the junction that marked the point of 7km to go (that between the road to Bedoin and that to Sault, the final part of the climb is held in common between the two approaches). With the end in sight we pushed on, my legs tiring yet keeping going. I’ll never forget what it felt like to reach the summit for the final time – it was quite crowded, music playing and a few market stalls set up to provide food & drink to the many cyclists giving the famous mountain a go. I had done it – Ventoux 3 ways, in a reasonable time of 6 hours 40 minutes. Photographs were taken and celebratory energy bars eaten (sadly I hadn’t thought to bring anything else with which to mark the occasion).

The descent back to Bedoin is known for being a fast one and today proved not to be an exception. Just as the traffic on the mountain began to decline, it was possible to see for many miles – allowing for some serious fun to be had in order to round off what had been a truly remarkable experience.

Dinner that night was something of a celebration, though not a very lively one oweing to the days efforts. Champagne flowed (all of one glass) and the chocolate cake tasted better than ever. Special mention must be given to one member of our group. In his mid fifties, with little time to train, he had completed the three ascents in around ten hours (thats a very long time to spend on a bike), rarely have I seen such determination and perseverance.

That, as they say, was that. It was time to pack the bikes up and say our goodbyes to France. I have to say it was one of the best, if not the best cycling I have ever experienced. Good food, good hotels, good support and most importantly a friendly group of people to ride with – what more can you ask for? Its even made me consider the option of living and working in France at some point in the future, how could you ever get bored when that kind of cycling is on the doorstep?

Now of course, its back to reality. Time to start thinking about the upcoming year at University, and of course the last road race of the season. Just in case anyone is interested, here is a link to the website of the company that organised the trip, I’d give then a 5 star recommendation: http://www.colconquerors.com/index.php.

On that I’ll leave it.