Pilgrims Progress

I’ve been panicking about the limited training time left before TCRno4 (only 13 weekends left!!) and whether my training is on track – probably driven by my first ever audax DNF and an under-reading powermeter denting my pride/confidence. On the face of it, I’m getting around the long distances quickly, recovering easily and still going fast as ever during in the week… but my power curve looks anaemic, my CTL is stagnating and I keep finding myself bailing out of riding both days of the weekend.

While I wait for my replacement powermeter to arrive and alleviate some of these concerns, I’ve decided to concentrate on thinking about my kit – evaluating what’s working, what might need to be changed and what still needs to be bought. If I can’t get my training in order, I can at least plan the heck out of everything else!

First – the new bike has been a really pleasant surprise. My last aluminium bike was a Carrera that rode atrociously and transferred endless road buzz through the saddle and bars… I was really concerned that the Bowman Pilgrims would similarly reduce my comfort, add further weight and put me in a higher position, decreasing my aerodynamic efficiency. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the look of the bike, the ‘road plus’ ethos behind it and definitely felt it was the best off the peg option available to me, but I was very worried about ‘downgrading’ my comfortable, fast carbon road bike for a heavier aluminium ‘road plus’ bike.

However, from the moment the box arrived, it was clear my fears were unfounded – this is a seriously premium product. The actual build was laughably easy – normally internal routing and Di2 means hours of fishing around and endless frustration, but the cable routing on the Pilgrims is astoundingly well thought out and the giant bottom bracket shell provides really easy access. Running a full outer through the frame for the rear brake also means I’ve (perhaps embarrassingly) realised the rear brake on the RTD was severely hampered by tight angles in the cable run – I actually kept locking the rear wheel up on my first ride because I was so used to having to really heave on the anchors.

During the build I’d noticed a couple of minor imperfections that had me a touch nervous and resulted in reaching out to Bowman for reassurance (normally I’m pretty laid back unless something looks really buggered, but with the TCR quickly approaching I’m being hyper-vigilant). I was very pleasantly surprised when the owner, Neil got straight in touch and offered a call to talk everything through and put me at ease. The following day we had a long phone call where we agreed everything looked good and he even offered to meet up in the coming weeks to check everything over in person… seriously impressed. You often see impressive customer charters like Bowman’s, but it’s rare that a company follows through and offers such a high level of service.

From the first ride, it was clear that the extra weight, slightly more upright position and longer wheelbase has not made this any less of a road bike. It retains that sense of urgency and composition you get with a good road bike and it’s easy to forget the ‘road plus’ credentials (whereas my CX bike always very much feels like a CX bike, no matter how it’s set up or being ridden). I put some bridleways in my route for the first ride (you kind of have to when you buy a bike like this, right?) and was pleasantly surprised to find that, despite the pitch black and deep mud, it continued to handle just like a road bike and flew along the less than ideal surface with no drama or fuss. I ended up abandoning the ride after about 120km as I was feeling rough, but feel confident that the Pilgrims will be almost as comfortable over long distances as the RTD. I intend to test this over the Severn Across this weekend and a ‘road plus’ route of my own devising, following the Pilgrims Way to Cantebury in coming weeks.

During the week, I’ve been really thrashing the Pilgrims on my commute… part new toy excitement and part wanting to find its limits… I’ve yet to phase it – stamp on the pedals and it flies, throw it hard into a corner under late braking and it simply carves a tight line… sit up to catch your breath and it hums along nicely. Bowman have definitely got the ratio of ‘road’ and ‘plus’ right. This is a road bike with a bit added, not a cross country bike with a bit taken away. It’s a real pleasure to ride and I can honestly say that if I was only allowed one bike that had to do everything and anything, this would be the top contender.

In fairness, part of the ride quality probably boils down to my wheels and tyres. I splurged on a set of Hunt Aero Light Disc wheels at the beginning of the year and have been blown away with the quality – low spoke count for a wheelset I intend to abuse, but they’re incredibly light, stiff and you do get a faint hint of the deep section wind chopping noise off them that you’d expect off a properly deep wheel. After thousands of miles, I’ve finally had to very slightly true them and I suspect the rear wheel will need a couple of bearings switching out before TCR. I’m also considering switching the front out for a hand built dynamo with very similar specifications… I’ve found parts that meet my requirements and someone happy to build them up for a cost I price I consider good value and the peace of mind from having a dynamo is increasingly striking me as important (not to mention allowing me to stay on the bike longer). I’ll take a decision around late May / early June.

I’m still experimenting with which tubeless tyres will get invited to the ball, but the main contenders are Hutchinson Sector 28s and Schwalbe S-Ones. I intend to ride a pair of each to death and see which is in the best state after 3800km and, if both survive the full distance, which was fastest/most comfortable. Both receive rave reviews, although the Hutchinsons are slightly easier to get hold of. I’ll take a pair of spare innertubes and a repair kit on TCR, but am hopeful that the right tubeless tyres will result in a completely drama free race.

My saddle is another big choice that affects comfort and I’ve been lucky in that one of my favourite saddles has proven itself entirely up to the job. I normally ride a Regale on the road and an Aspide for TT (my god it took a long time and a lot of saddles to get there…) and the Aspide has proven comfortable over long distances and multiple days. There’s no real padding, but it has quite a flexy base and I think the shape has become so ingrained on my under carriage that it just works. I haven’t used chamois cream in years and haven’t suffered any saddle sores or pain. I’ve seen so many riders struggling with saddle choice that it’s a real relief to have this sorted way ahead of time… I’m sure by day 4 or 5, my arse will be black and blue, but I’m pretty confident I’m on the most comfortable and suitable saddle for me.

My luggage is also now finalised – I intend to take very little and the bulk of my kit will be my Bivvy, silk liner, padded gilet and wind/waterproof. With that in mind, I’m going to try to fit everything in my Revelate Designs full frame bag. The less baggage I can have flapping about and positioned in the wind, the better. The frame bag has proven itself over months of testing, with no knee rub, no adverse affects on handling and plenty of space for kit, food and water. I’ll be wearing most of my kit and arm warmers, knee warmers and other lightweight kit can easily find its way into my jersey pockets if space is tight.

If I do go with the dynamo I’m considering, I’ll run a B&M light (with USB charger) up front, otherwise it’s my trusty Exposure Strada – definitely the best battery powered light for road use that money can buy. I’ve not completely decided which rear light will be going, but the two I have in mind are pretty equally specced and I’m just trying to reliably test which has the longer battery life under real world conditions.

Shoes will be Giro Empire SLX… with a slightly odd lacing pattern I found on t’internet that seems to be doing a great job of eliminating hot foot and keeping me comfortable. Gearing will be 52/36 & 11-32 and I’ll be running a Rotor powermeter. I’m planning on using a wrist-based vibrating alarm to guarantee no oversleeping and I’ll have an AA powered personal radio to rely on to keep me awake when energy levels dip. Everything else will be my standard riding kit and a few provisions for rough/wet weather.

As I’ll be navigating with a Garmin 510 (/phone in emergencies), there’s a lot of space on my cockpit and between the aero bars. I’ll be thinking long and hard about the best way to store some easy access food there – perhaps some mesh or bungee cords.

I’ll do a full kit list with photos nearer the date, but it’s handy to get the thinking down on paper and run through everything. It’s not proven so easy to get the training thinking down… every time I plan something, life gets in the way or I get lazy and take a day off the bike!

 

 

Coasting

This weekend, rather than schlep out to the Heart of England audax, I decided to have a little adventure of my own and ride to the seaside. 315km of familiar roads – albeit ones I normally travel in the opposite direction (I might *possibly* have routed with the prevailing coastal wind in mind) and a focus on minimising stopping time. This would also be the longest ride to date with my bikepacking bags attached and around 60% of my TCR equipment in situ.

I faced some pretty rough weather (freezing, hail, rain, wind), but the Heart of England had snow and another friend riding in Scotland faced tough conditions too, so I think I others drew the shorter straws.

The ride out was pretty uneventful – I’d picked a relatively quiet route through the Surrey hills and left early enough that there wasn’t much traffic about. I had, however, noticed that my gears were making more noise than usual and changes were nowhere near as crisp and sharp as di2 usually is. Finally, after a down shift so noisy I found myself looking apologetically at the sheep I had disturbed, I stopped to diagnose the issue. To call my front mech misaligned would be kind (I had a more appropriate 6 letter word in mind…) – it was rubbing in just about every direction and looked pretty misshapen. The rear mech hanger was also clearly bent.

I’ve been making a point of riding my TCR bike everywhere (commutes and all) to get the miles in and noticed some heathen has been throwing their bike against it in the bike storage at work… it appears they’ve spectacularly buggered my drive train. Lesson learnt, I’ll be back on the cheap commuter from now on. Fair to say, I’m not a happy bunny.

After a couple of stops, a lot of swearing and some careful tinkering, I finally got the gears behaving again. I don’t anticipate needing to fiddle with my gears on the TCR, but it’s always useful to practice mechanical fixes in stressful environments. I’ll need to take a look before I transfer them to the new frame, but it didn’t seem like there was any lasting damage.

Back on the move, it wasn’t long before I was dropping into Bognor Regis and getting ready to charge along the flat coastal roads with the wind at my back. however, I was quickly reminded that these coastal towns are essentially retirement villages and that the locals, while lacking the malice of London and Surrey drivers, are just as awful behind the wheel. I cannot understand how there is no requirement for elderly drivers to prove their competence and, worse, they are encouraged into bigger vehicles where they’ll feel safer (and do more damage when they fail to react quickly).

I had the heart stopping experience of literally watching the slow motion realisation and reactions of an OAP on a collision course with me at a set of lights – a simple case of him not looking (which would normally result in a quick squirt of brakes and no harm done) resulted in me bunny hopping the curb and a near flattening. If I’m still trying to drive when my reaction times are that slow, I hope my family hide the keys.

Fortunately traffic in the towns was heavy enough that I simply coasted past and was light enough outside the towns that I didn’t encounter too many issues. In retrospect, routing through the towns was a mistake, but I love being next to the sea and a bit of traffic is a small price to pay.

It’s not until the approach to Seaford that the views start getting really impressive and the ride into Eastbourne is absolutely stunning. I had the road largely to myself and got that real sense of escapism that a lot of my recent rides have been missing – big open skies, epic views and a road twisting lazily over the horizon. I normally ride this road in the opposite direction, but the descent is largely spoiled by a ferocious headwind and I found the climb in this direction much more enjoyable.

2016-04-16 13.20.17.jpg

Leaving Eastbourne, the weather turned and I spent a miserable hour or two pushing through the hail, rain and wind, desperate for the turn back inland and warmer conditions. When that turn finally came, it was into the wind and fighting across the relentless lumps of Kent, heading for the Ashdown Forest. I’d have given anything to be back on that pan-flat coastal road, cold and wet as it was.

On the plus side, the Muc Off Hydrodynamic lube I’d been trialling was performing amazingly. I’d had my doubts about its sticking power, particularly considering I’d been too lazy to clean and lube my chain after a week of commuting. Despite the rain, grit and mud, everything was running smooth and quiet. The 4 hour ‘setting’ time might prove problematic on the Transcon, but I reckon this is probably the lube I’ll go with. It’s expensive, but really has proven itself time and time again over the past few weeks.

By the time I’d made it back to Surrey, I was flirting dangerously with the bonk. My efforts to minimise stopping time meant I’d eaten on the move apart from a quick petrol station stop for a sandwich and I was definitely slightly under-fuelled for the day. To make matters worse, all the little local shops seemed to be shut. I had a quick sit outside of the Rusper Village Stores to pull myself together and headed off, committed to attempting to get home before the man with the hammer caught me.

Fortunately, the shop at Newdigate was late closing and I managed to dive in and grab some fizzy drink and sweets before they had a chance to lock the door. I had a long sit outside, stuffing my face and trying to find some sunlight to sit in to banish the cold from my bones. The food did the trick and I set off much stronger, making good time over Box and getting home only a little later than expected.

A successful test for riding with the bags – no knee rub, plenty of room for the kit and easy to access food and water while riding. I’d even averaged almost 20mph for the first 100 miles without overdoing the watts. I think my body is slowly adapting to long days on the aerobars too – while my back and neck definitely still ache, I find myself being able to stay locked in position far longer and I get no residual soreness the following day.

I had hoped to put in another 300km on the Sunday, but bike issues put an end to that plan. Next week perhaps…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing Times

The premature death of a Schwalbe Pro One (on the turbo, no less!) is the latest in a run of kit woes that have me questioning my approach to the Transcontinental. My ethos thus far has been to plan for the lightest, fastest, most ‘race-like’ approach possible – a race bike, fast rolling tyres, light weight wheels etc. and this has worked perfectly for long days in the saddle and individual events… it is, however, proving less ideal long term.

All of the kit, at a minimum, has to make it 3,800km, including some pretty rough roads in the more remote parts of Eastern Europe. Longevity and comfort need to be balanced carefully with speed – and that balance seems to lie closer to longevity than I had previously banked on. I’ve hollowly repeated phrases like ‘you don’t have to be fast, you just can’t be slow’, but my inner time-triallist has stubbornly refused to yield outright speed and some of my original kit choices were overly optimistic. But this is why we test. Without riding my preferred kit to destruction before looking elsewhere, I’d always be asking ‘what if’. Time to kill off a bit of the blind optimism and surrender to reality.

I maintain that the RTD-90 is a great bike for this type of challenge and, with a few compromises/changes in my kit, would cope admirably. However, the compromises I would need to make involve using inferior kit or carrying more spares than I’m comfortable with, and I’m lucky to be able to take the more expensive approach to fixing the issue… it’s time for a new frame.

All of my previous considerations remain – I’m not switching out a race bike for a tourer or anything that sticks me bolt upright and steers like a barge. The replacement simply needs to be a race bike… plus a bit more (big clue there as to what I’ve gone for!). Turns out this is surprisingly hard to find and I spent hours poring over the options… custom steel (a dream, but I’d want to do it properly and get something far too beautiful to abuse with a challenge such as this)… titanium (everything was either too heavy, too ugly, not available in my size or too relaxed geometry)… carbon (one or two options that fit the new bill… but eye-wateringly expensive)… or…. the Bowman Pilgrims.

It’s not absurdly expensive, not absurdly heavy, not absurdly upright… as their marketing says, it really does appear to be a ‘road plus’ bike. A bit of faffing with stems and I should be able to set it up to my standard race position, while fitting more sensible (but still very fast) rubber and solving the various niggles the RTD-90 has thrown up. Importantly, being aluminium, it’s also about equal in price to a cheap carbon import like the RTD-90, so I’m not too worried about damage and coddling it across Europe. Anything it loses in outright speed to the RTD-90 should be made up for in not having to stop to fix/replace/repair kit (…what would Ultan’s race have looked like without that long walk down the Assietta…).

I’m kicking myself for not having had a closer look at Paul’s Pilgrims at 3 Down, but confident (having looked at literally every frame within budget) that it’s the best ‘compromise’ available. I was sorely tempted by a Mason, and titanium efforts from Kinesis and Enigma would have been in contention if they were available at short notice, but I think the Pilgrims would have narrowly won regardless – the road plus ethos just says it all.

Hopefully this is the final big kit change – there isn’t much time left to run more components through a full 3,800km test cycle!

Cross-Training

This weekend saw a break from cycling – my Dad invited me, my brother and my sister to the Lake District to join him in hiking up to one of my Mum’s favourite peaks on her birthday – the same peak they climbed last year. I toyed with cycling up and back, but knew my head would be all over the place and decided to take the train and have some time off the bike.

My life has become so centred around cycling and my bike that I honestly don’t walk very far and my most recent experience of hiking was several years ago when I was overweight, so my walking kit is old, doesn’t really fit any more and (it turns out) no longer very waterproof.

Fortunately, the forecast changed at the last minute to a relatively clear morning, with heavy rain sweeping in as we were due to be finished. There was heavy cloud cover and the air was wet and cold, but the initial climb was easy enough and I found myself bounding ahead of my family, stopping every few minutes to take pictures and let them catch up. It seems that climbing fitness on the bike transfers nicely and I even kept pace with some fell runners for a short while.

2016-04-12 10.01.26.jpg

We made good time to the summit and set about finding the spot that Dad and Mum had stopped the year before. She loved watching the boats on the water and we stopped for a while to have a quiet reminisce and process our thoughts. Unfortunately, cloud quickly enveloped the view and we were left alone with our thoughts in a cold, damp mist. Mum would have found the weather appropriate and Dad later found the photograph from the summit a year ago, with Mum looking suitably windswept and cold. It’s nice to know there’s another place I can go to feel close to her and somewhere any future grandchildren can visit to get a sense of who their grandmother was.

10847572_10205579757469794_3606574177638396783_o

With the view lost and the weather turning, we decided to crack on and complete the hike, setting off into the milky haze. The path kicked up again and I think we all quietly felt we might have bitten off a bit more than we could sensibly chew, but we’d started and there had to be a downhill eventually. It was oddly fitting and it felt like something Mum would have approved of.

2016-04-12 11.18.58.jpg

When the path did eventually level, we were all fairly tired from the 600m of climbing and scrabbling over loose slate. With no visibility, and a mix of smart phones, written instructions and a paper map, we found our way across the top and set about trying to find the wooden fence that acted as a way marker for the descent. After trudging around in circles and scrabbling down steep, slippery slopes, the haze momentarily lifted and we spotted the fence to our left – right where it should have been and just hidden from sight in the gloom.

2016-04-12 11.39.44.jpg

Of course, we optimistically assumed this meant the tricky part was over and we just had to amble down the side of the hill and back to the hotel. Only, the path down was via an old slate mine and the surface was loose, wet and slippery. Our pace slowed to a crawl and I found myself gravitating toward the rear, worrying (completely unnecessarily) about my Dad and the potential for him to lose his footing… of course, he’s a far more experienced walker than I am and I probably should have been focusing more on my own footing…

2016-04-12 13.20.45.jpg

We eventually made it down and spotted the hotel just as the rain really started coming down. It was as if the weather had been waiting for us – sure, we were soaked, but we hadn’t needed to endure the discomfort of heavy rain. A longer walk than I think my Dad had expected, but probably what we all needed – long enough to give us some time alone with our thoughts and tough enough to be cathartic.

While my body held out well for the hike itself, I’ve been in bits since! My upper body is typical of a cyclist and carrying a (fairly light) backpack for hours on end has left my shoulders sore and parts of my legs that I don’t normally use feel tight and ache. Descending, in particular, seems to put extra stress on the knees and a whole range of stabilising muscles that don’t see use on the bike.

I had hoped to get a long ride in on Wednesday to clear my head, but my body simply wouldn’t let me. I’ve been suffering a light cold and between my sore head and broken body, I spent much of the day in bed recuperating.

I’m toying with the idea of doing an 800km round trip this weekend to take advantage of the positive stress balance I’ve built up and practice multiple 400km+ days on the trot. Hopefully this pans out. Otherwise, there’s a 300km audax in Kent the following weekend that I’m eyeing up and (if I remember to get the entry in…) there’s the Severn Across at the end of the month. I’m acutely aware that the race is quickly approaching and I’m yet to really test my equipment under race conditions and see how my body reacts to the stresses it will be under.

3 Down: starting to come together

This weekend saw another impromptu TCR London meetup, this time at the 3 Down audax. I’d arranged to ride out with Paul Buckley (a TCR vet and 2016 entrant) and it turned out at least 3 other riders have previously ridden TCR… Darren also put in an appearance, bombing around the first half of the course to catch us on the return leg.

3am starts aren’t my favourite, but are certainly good practice for TCR. On the plus side, the roads are gloriously quiet and skirting London to reach Datchet for my meeting with Paul was quick and peaceful. Paul took us on a quick diversionary lap of the outskirts of Slough, but it gave us a chance to chat about his experiences racing last year and confirm that a lot of my thinking about the race is on track with the reality.

My plan for the day was to ride at a ‘sustainable’ pace and test my theories around the power I can comfortably sustain without damaging my performance on subsequent days. Few TCR riders ride with power meters, but there’s some data out there and it’s handy to have a number to aim for… I struggle with reigning myself in and I’d forgotten my heart rate monitor, so I settled on aiming for a pace that felt easy and expecting this to fall around 210-250 watts normalised over the day.

The plan somewhat went out the window when a fast train of riders caught me early on and put out a ferocious pace. I sat in the wheels, but stubbornly refused to ease off and then chased a fast solo rider to the first stop, arriving before it was officially open. Fortunately Paul caught me at the stop while I was still enjoying my coffee and we both pushed on at a more sensible pace, having let the whippets race off down the road.

Paul’s a relentless metronome, but his average pace is marginally slower than mine, so I found myself alone on the road and finally settled into riding at what I’d dubbed ‘TCR pace’. The miles flew by with some beautiful scenery and a very welcome pause atop a steep hill while an endless flow of horses crossed the road.

2016-04-02 09.01.37

Shortly after, I was caught by a pair of riders and spent much of the ride in Ciaran’s company, chatting about audaxes, TCR, the Wild Atlantic Way and cycling in general. He was a good sport, leaving me to get on with it on the long straight stretches, dropping into the extensions and pulling away and regrouping further down the twisty lanes where the aerobars felt like more of a liability than an aid.

After a fairly long stop at a bakery (Ciaran’s top tip for audax stops), we bumped into Darren and Paul and eventually the pace eased while Darren and I chatted about our progress toward TCR. It sounds like we’ve both largely figured out what we’re doing and the ‘big picture’, although I’m very jealous of his planned test excursion to Bilbao! There are a few minor differences in our planning – mostly around me being a bit gung ho and planning for overly optimistic best case scenarios. Hopefully he’s twigged that I’m being overly optimistic to trick my body and brain into performing better and is taking my advice/thoughts with a very large pinch of salt.

When we finally got back to the start, it was raining and I decided to forgo riding home to save my health (and because I’m a massive wimp) and ended up chatting to the various TCR vets in the room about their experiences and how they would approach the race this year. Fortunately almost everything lined up with my current thinking and plans (apart from the nutter that took no sleeping kit!) and I came away pretty enthused.

More importantly, I’d spent the day testing my kit and pacing over the type of distance I expect to be averaging for the TCR and everything performed perfectly. The tubeless (Schwalbe Pro One) tyres, despite only being 23mm, were obscenely comfortable, my position on the aerobars was low and fast and I averaged 229 watts NP without damaging my ability to ride the next day. I still need to do some longer rides with my frame bag attached, but everything’s aligning perfectly so far.

For the actual race I’ll be using 25mm tyres, but they’ll definitely be Pro Ones. I was sceptical of the benefits of tubeless, but they were easy to fit, roll beautifully (I honestly didn’t expect the upgrade in comfort considering the quality of the tyres I was riding previously) and simply don’t puncture… or rather, if they do, you probably won’t know about it until you get home and find sealant on your frame.

I’m also going to need to expand my gearing. I don’t doubt I can get up anything the race will throw at me with my current 28 sprocket, but over such a long duration and with the extra weight on the bike, I think a 32 would be wise. I don’t like fitting a granny ring as once it’s there, you inevitably use it too much, but I also don’t want to risk blowing out my knees by Italy and ending my race. This sentiment was echoed by many of the veterans, so I think I really have to follow the wisdom of the crowd.

This week will need to be sensible mileage as I have a target 25 mile TT on Saturday, but I’ve got Sunday, Monday and Wednesday to make up for lost time (I have time off work to join my Dad scattering my Mum’s ashes on her birthday, so I think I’ll need the time on the bike to clear my head and escape the world a little bit for a few days). I’d love to enter the ValleyCat later this month, but just can’t make it fit around work, so my next long event won’t be until the 30th for the Severn Across audax.