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.

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.

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.

 

Climb & Punishment

Hey there folks. At the time of writing I’m looking back over what can’t be described as a straightforward week. It’s summed up very well by the events of Saturday morning.

Hill climbs are a a uniquely British tradition, usually held towards the end of the season in late autumn. It’s just as simple as it sounds, ride up a climb as fast as you can. To all intents and purposes it’s a very short time trial. I hate them. In fact, hate is something of an understatement – loathe, despise, fear and dread were the other four words that came to mind. Back in the day when I still had a skinny teenage physique and weighted 10kg less than I do at the moment I’d have had a good chance of doing well, sadly this is no longer the case.

Why bother entering then? I hear you ask. Motivation is sometimes very hard to come by at this time of year, often the only way I can drag myself out of bed for those training sessions in the cold is to give myself an incentive in the form of an upcoming race. At the moment hill climbs are the only realistic option. When I heard of one taking place a mere two miles from my front door I couldn’t really refuse. So it was that I bought my race bike, skinsuit and best pair of shoes to University with me and prepared for what I knew would probably be one of the most unpleasant five or six minute segments of my life.

Of course it was freezing cold in the morning. And raining. And windy. I just about managed to fit a base layer on under my skinsuit but sadly it was akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight. By the time I reached the event HQ my hands were so cold I could barely change gear. What made matters worse was still having half an hour to go until my start time. Ordinarily I’d have used it to warm up but this time round the prospect of sitting down in the dry was simply too enticing.

That’s how I found myself getting on the bike a mere ten minutes before I was due to start. Just about enough time to ride down the hill and get very cold again, say hello to a couple of people I knew on the startline and set off. I’d had a look at the course elevation profile the night before, my pacing strategy was relatively simple; 0-0.4 miles ridden hard, 0.4 to 0.8 at medium-hard, 0.8-1 hard again and finally flat out for the last quarter of a mile. In a desperate attempt to get the whole experience over with I of course overpaced the first section. As you might imagine the remainder of the race wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.

I mean it when I say I’ve never been so happy for a race to be over. I didn’t even bother to stick around for the results once I’d signed back in and handed my race number back. Suffice to say my time was pretty appalling, the one small positive I can take from that race is that I didn’t succumb to hypothermia. The flu-like symptoms and hacking cough I had for the next two days were I think a sign that I should never do another hill climb ever again. Once I’ve done the one in a fortnight that I entered a while back anyway.

Now, having read that you can draw your own conclusions about the rest of the week. It’s an unfortunate truth that in much the same way as getting the pacing for a time trial or the tactics for a road race completely wrong it’s possible to misjudge people and certain situations. During the last ten days or so I’ve really excelled myself.

Not for the first time I’m immensely grateful for the escape that rides can provide. The countryside that is in reality only about four miles away from the city centre feels like a whole different world. An easy ride gives you time to think about things without the usual distractions and a very hard one can make you forget about your problems all together if you do it right. There is certainly a lot to be said about the mental health benefits of getting out on two wheels, it’s my opinion that they are just as important if not more so than the physical ones.

It was during the last few miles of my ride today that a big home truth popped into my head. This is very important year, during the next few months I’ve got to finish my degree and get round to applying for a Masters. In short, making a mess of it would be a very bad thing. More than ever keeping my health in check is going to be essential. For me this means always keeping some time spare for training, whatever else may be happening in life.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

Job done – Mostly

Hi folks, it’s time for that racing update you’ve all been dying to hear (in my dreams). With the exception of a couple of Hill Climbs the 2018 racing season is now over and done with. I’m following the usual plan of continuing to train throughout September and then taking October off so as to focus on Uni work and anything else that might happen to come along.

I’m sorry to report that the final TT of the season was a complete and utter disaster. I knew from the start that the sub-20 minute time just wasn’t going to happen. My legs were utterly spent, I’ve put this down to an unusually intense last two and a half months. Trying to make up for starting my season so late by competing twice a week had worked well up until this point but sadly the accumulated fatigue caught up with me that day.

I still had some hope of a good showing during the first five miles, my confidence boosted primarily due to that fact that most of it was downhill with a nice tailwind for good measure. Sadly once I’d negotiated the mid way turn my worst fears were realised. I did my level best to get something out of my tired legs but to no avail, truth be told it felt as if I was riding backwards.

In a way I’m glad of what happened next because it gives me the perfect excuse for my exceptionally slow time. Typically, on the one occasion I didn’t look closely at the course before the event I managed to take a wrong turning. Only when a set of roadworks I didn’t recognise appeared in the distance did I realise it, a full mile after the error had been made. At that point there was nothing more to be done but turn around and hope that I could at least find my way back to HQ.

It was tempting to find another event to enter but ultimately I decided to end my season then and there. My form hasn’t been great over these last couple of weeks and my motivation certainly isn’t what it was. It’s fair to say that whilst it hasn’t been the season I was hoping for a year ago it’s been better than I could have realistically expected after such a difficult winter.

I’ll forever remember 2018 as the year in which I realised that my forte within the world of Cycling is most definitely Time Trialling. With a best 10 mile time of 20:01, a 25 mile PB of 54:54 set in apocalyptic weather and a club-record of 10:57 on the local 5 mile course I can look back on the summer with a sense of satisfaction. Hopefully the upcoming off-season won’t be as turbulent as the last one and I’ll be-able to set myself up to better those times next year. Of course a few upgrades to my TT bike may also be in order for the sake of some precious seconds.

I’ll cheerfully admit to being nervous heading into the off-season. Having built up to a good level of fitness again I’d hate to lose it in the course of another winter defined by setbacks and difficult circumstances. I’m going to do something different this time round and use these next few months to focus primarily on Mountain Biking. That particular discipline can be enjoyed (or at least tolerated) in all weathers and the challenge of improving on the trails should provide a good substitute for racing in terms of motivation.

If all goes to plan project gravel will finally come to an end soon – more of that in a future post. With a 1x drive train, disc brakes and enough clearance to fit full length mudguards that bike will be far more suitable for winter training than my trusty Cannondale. Hopefully the poorly maintained Devon lanes will be a bit more bearable, which is to say I’ll manage to motivate myself to get out and ride on them a bit more often this time round.

In short it’s been a good season and I’m hopeful of more to come. I’d like to think that 2019 may be the year when I manage to convert top 10’s and the occasional podium into a few wins. Better still I feel I can finally justify the eventual purchase of a disc wheel, even if fail to attain any PB’s I’ll be doing so in style (don’t laugh too hard).

Thanks for reading.

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.