Roll the dice

Anyone following me on Strava will know my audacious plan for the weekend didn’t work out entirely as planned. I planned for the most optimistic best case scenarios possible, threw in a few ‘that’ll probably work’s and set out knowing there was a very high chance of failure. Working against me were:

  •  A tight deadline (1,000km in 3 days)
  • Unfinished work weighing on my mind and making me keen to be back in time to either work on Monday evening or be up absurdly early on Tuesday
  • No hotels available in all of Devon and Cornwall (seriously, there were 65 mile tailbacks on the motorway from all the holidaymakers) and I had nothing pre-booked
  • A ‘lumpy’ route through Devon  with lots of 10%+ climbs and no granny gear
  • Plenty of un-tested kit

Still, better to roll the dice hoping for glory and at worst come away with a good story.

I set out shortly before 4am on Saturday, relieved that the dynamo I’d only set up the night before seemed to be working perfectly. Under street light, I was a touch unimpressed by the B&M Luxos, but as soon as I got away from the towns, it really came into its own. Not the same light cannon I’m used to with my Exposure lights, but plenty bright enough and an amazing beam spread.

I chose an incredibly dull route away from Epsom – racing down the A24 before peeling off into the quieter roads around Newbury, Hungerford and Marlborough as the traffic began to build up. It was mind-numbingly dull and I got a heavy dose of the dozies as the sun came up, but it passed quickly enough once I’d found my way onto the b roads.

My groove was then ruined by a recently chip and sealed road. Several miles of deep, gravelly shite, sapping the strength from my legs, slowing progress and eventually causing a double puncture. The rear tyre went off like a gunshot and sealant flew everywhere – I continued for a few yards, hoping it would slowly seal, but eventually had to stop at the road side to assess the damage. Sitting the wheel with the gash at the bottom let the sealant temporarily create a seal, but this blew out as soon as I tried to replace any air or put weight on the weel. I cursed my stupidity for leaving the same set of ageing tires I’ve been using for weeks and inserted one of my two inner tubes, before cautiously setting back off and taking the remainder of the chip and seal more cautiously. (It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed one of the spokes had also come completely loose)

I could hear what sounded like escaping air every pedal stroke, but assumed it was just the remaining sealant between the tube and tyre or my mind playing tricks on me, only to have to stop a mile or so later when my front wheel became overly springy and I had to accept I was now indeed on my last inner tube and already facing adversity, despite not yet even having covered a hundred miles. I considered throwing in the towel… thought about going home, getting some sleep and doing a few sensible rides over bank holiday, instead of this nonsense. It took a lot of resolve to keep the bike pointing away from home and trust that a bike shop would materialise sooner or later.

But materialise it did, just as I saw signs for a station and could feel my resolve weakening. Three tubes (and £15!) later, I was back on my way. Almost instantly, everything improved. The sun came out, the scenery improved and I found myself tapping out the miles without a care in the world. Before I knew it, I was at Cheddar Gorge and couldn’t fathom what I’d been so concerned about a few hours earlier. Cars were even giving me a wide berth – a theme that would continue all the way to Cornwall; patient drivers sitting behind me on climbs, smiling and waving when I pulled over to let them pass and crossing completely over the white lines to pass. Bliss.

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Even Devon, where my knees were destroyed, was a delight to ride. Amazing vistas, bright sunshine and quiet roads. Unfortunately, those roads alternated between very steep climbs and long draggy descents. My speed tanked and my optimistic gearing took its toll on my knees. My right knee felt like it would burst every time I got out of the saddle and I had to really back off on the climbs, often resorting to cadences of 50 and below. I really missed having a powermeter to help gauge my efforts… I’m not convinced it would definitely have saved my knee, but it would certainly have helped.

I popped some ibuprofen and managed to beat the pain into submission for long enough to clear Devon and gradually the hills petered out and I crossed the border into Cornwall. It was getting late, but I felt pretty good and decided I would get to my planned early night stop before deciding whether to push on to Land’s End in one go. Everything was going perfectly as I approached Bodmin Moor around sunset.

But then the fog appeared. Dark buildings loomed out of the murk, the road disappeared from sight and the chill woke up the anger in my knee. My speed tanked – even if I could will my knee to cope with pushing harder on the pedals, I couldn’t see far enough to go any faster. Those final miles were soul crushing and the run into the service station I planned to sleep at took seemingly forever and I could barely unclip for the agony in my knee. The ride was over. My mind shut down and refused to accept that I was still on target for my more cautious schedule, still had plenty of ibuprofen and could always reassess in the morning.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – my mind goes to shit when I’m tired and the odds are turning against me. I walked straight past an open (and empty) storage shed and laid out my bivy at the back of the car park behind some bushes and settled in for the night. I woke up multiple times during the night – so much condensation was forming inside the bivy you could float a small navy and the clearing fog had revealed that I was sleeping almost directly under a wind turbine, creating ghostly noises and scaring the crap out of me every time I opened my eyes.

I braved it out until 5 am, then went and spent a disturbingly long time in the service station toilets sorting myself out. Even this I messed up. Instead of going into the disabled loos, stripping right down and having a proper clean, I popped into the gents and dabbed pathetically at myself with wet paper towels and spent most of my time staring at the haunted figure in the mirror. Misery begets misery – I knew I had failed and was subconsciously punishing myself.

I went and sat the nearest train station, using the 4 hour wait to try to dry my bivy and generally have a bit of a sulk. Fortunately, the sun coming out broke me out of it and I summoned the motivation to cycle to a station on the correct line, just 10 miles away, and get myself sorted out. It was still a 4 hour wait for a train (FGW’s bike booking policy is a shambles), but there was a little cafe and a warm bench to sleep on, so I spent a pleasant enough morning catching up on food and sleep.

Looking back on it, I could definitely have made Land’s End. I suspect I could also have made it back home within my time limit (my return route was much flatter and my knee wasn’t so bad over the 10 miles to the train station). At the very least, I definitely had time to comfortably make it to Land’s End and then Penzance to catch a train home. I’m telling myself I would rather keep the challenge there to be done properly than have achieved it feeling like a fraud.

It wasn’t a wasted effort, however…

  • I need to rethink my sleeping arrangements. A foggy, but mild night in the bivy was rough. I need to be bolder with finding shelter and not treating the bivy like a tent. The mountains will be colder, so I may switch out my down gilet for a down jacket and take a half bag to sleep in.
  • Foil blankets are AMAZING.
  • I need to get my head on straight. I panic about deadlines and turn everything into a drama. I’ve booked enough time off work to cover TCR comfortably, but I’ll need to think about how to keep my mind clear of other distractions.
  • I need a mount for my phone. I was going to take two Garmins, but the dynamo makes using my phone for navigation easy and reliable. I’ll rely on the 510 as my primary device, but the phone will allow for re-routing on the fly.
  • Don’t be so polite/reserved. Having grotty feet and feeling unclean sucks… get over it and make sure you’re sorted, even if you look like a weirdo doing so.
  • Fit a granny gear. Getting up a climb and getting up a climb comfortably are very different.
  • Make a decision… then question it. Force your brain to work before accepting the first solution that comes into your head – Don’t be a dummy!

 

To the edge and back

Thanks to the weather, my inherent laziness and many other weak excuses, I’m yet to do any multi-day light weight tours and I figure the coming bank holiday presents my final opportunity to do so before the Transcon.

I’ve decided, somewhat loosely, on heading down to Land’s End and back. Why Land’s End? Why not… From my base in Epsom, it’s the furthest point in England I can realistically reach and get back from over the space of the three days.Perhaps cycling up to John O’Groats and taking a plane/train back would be more impressive, but I like the poetry of circular routes more than point to point. Either way, I quite like the idea of riding to the edge of England.

A mini tour is the perfect opportunity to test my TCR kit (minus the parts yet to arrive…) in field conditions and get some insight on what might need tweaking ahead of July the 30th. But how realistic to make this trip? I’m hoping to nail around 400km per day in the main event, but want some flexibility over the coming weekend… while at the same time, knowing a part of me will want to try to keep riding until I fall off the bike too exhausted to pedal. I’ve settled on about 1,000km as a compromise – it’s a manageable daily distance if I keep myself in check, but equally not an insurmountable challenge to get home if I go off the rails and ride straight to Land’s End without breaks and need some time to recover.

There’s also the question of climbing… in my somewhat anal quest to quantify the race, I’ve worked out the climbing ratios of each segment of my route. Switzerland/Italy and Bosnia/Montenegro/Kosovo are going to hurt, with absurd amounts of climbing over very short distances. How much climbing should I throw into my tour to test my conditioning… do the South West’s bumps really compare to Alpine climbing? There are enough lumps en-route to Land’s End that I hardly have to try to bulk up the climbing, but there are options to lay it on really thick. My draft route out is absurdly lumpy, with an easier return… this might change as the date gets closer and nerves outweigh optimism.

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Next – to bivy or not to bivy? On the one hand, it’s finally warming up and a couple of nights under the stars will be good practice (and based on my last experience I’ve invested in an emergency foil blanket). On the other hand, Travelodges (other discount chains are available) offer an opportunity to get properly cleaned up and a better night’s rest… and there’s no point suffering for the sake of suffering. I’m pretty keen to head down the bivy route, but think I’ll need to make a point of having my route regularly pass near as many budget chains as possible so the option is there.

There’s also the question of missing kit – so far my dynamo wheel is yet to arrive and my gearing is limited to 11-28 (I’ve just put a new chain on, so my inner miser won’t let me switch it out for the weekend and I was hoping not to have to pick up the medium cage derailleur until July). I’m not too worried about the gearing to be honest – train hard, race easy – but not being able to set up my dynamo system means no testing the lighting or charging. This is the area that seems to go wrong for most people and I can see myself careening down a similar path. That said, I do have the brick-like battery of endless power and long-lasting lights, so perhaps it’s just as well that they’re being tested ahead of potentially being called into service at the last minute.

I guess the most important part is to make sure it’s fun. My training keeps going off the boil when I reduce the fun in the name of training, so I’ve thrown in some of the best sights I could sensibly stitch together and plenty of coast lines. My TCR route will be endlessly dull in the name of speed and efficiency, so there’s plenty of time to be bored this summer (I jest… I think).

I’ll finish planning during the week, but I wanted a commitment in writing before I talk myself out of it. I’ve already found myself looking into Everesting and other fun, but ultimately not beneficial ways to spend the long weekend, so this seems the only way to force some self-control. I may even see if I can rope in anyone else to join me for the out or return leg as a little extra incentive… preferably someone taller, wider and significantly faster than me who doesn’t mind sitting on the front for hours on end…

The Lonely road

Both my favourite and least favourite part of ‘ultra distance’ cycling is the solidarity. Nothing sets your head straight quite like endless hours with just your thoughts for company. I love switching off and entertaining the random thoughts that enter your head – particularly when you’re too exhausted to apply any kind of filter  to which single thought is going to rattle around your head for the next couple of hours.

At the same time, it can get pretty lonely. There is a limited pool of people willing to ride long distance, fewer who can get regular ‘passes’ and fewer still who want to do it as fast as possible, while minimising stopping time (don’t get me wrong, I love a good cafe stop when I’m not training). I’m usually OK when I’m on the road, but that initial step of getting out of the door can be a challenge when the only person you’re letting down by not riding is yourself.

The internet provides a good alternative – tell enough people your plans and simple peer pressure will usually get you out of bed. Every so often though, it’s very helpful having a supportive girlfriend who happens to race bikes. I doubt I’ll ever get her out for anything longer than 100 miles (although she did once lap Mallorca with me), but regular time on the bike is better than yet another Sunday in bed.

With that in mind, I need to make a suitably stupid statement about the coming bank holiday. It’s the perfect opportunity for a 3 day mini tour… perhaps a 1,000km tour down to Lands End and back via some sights and detours? More thought and planning required, but I think there’s an adventure to be had. I doubt I’ll get anyone keen to join the whole thing, but I reckon I can clue in a few riders en-route to help keep me motivated and on schedule.

What’s in a name?

This weekend I took leave of my senses and indulged my curiosity. Since buying the Pilgrims, I’ve been enjoying throwing it around local singletrack and hatched a plan to ride its namesake, the Pilgrims Way – heading out to Canterbury one day and Winchester the next. On expensive, low  spoke count wheels and 28mm road slicks…

The Pilgrims Way has been broken up over time, becoming a mix of roads, single-track and pathways – a perfect ride for a ‘road plus’ bike. I’d no idea when creating the route quite how rough some of the sections would be and assumed 200km+ with plenty of off road would be a perfectly reasonable distance for one day and I could head East on Saturday and West on Sunday.

Hitting the North Downs way atop box, I was grinning ear to ear, bombing down bridleways and generally being a total lout while the paths were quiet. Despite the road slicks, the bike was an absolute delight and turned its hand to gravel, rocks, grass and mud with no loss of composure (although suspension would certainly have made the ride more comfortable).

I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun on a road bike. Time flew and I was convinced I was making good time… only it turned out it was already midday and Canterbury was still quite a way off. Despite picking up a run of top 10s and a KOM, my average off-road speed was only about 22-24kph! It certainly felt a lot faster:

The fun took over and I started getting reckless, pretty much everything attached to the bike rattled loose, I could smell the discs burning and I was convinced it wouldn’t be long until I pushed a bit too hard, lost grip and took a quick lie down in the bushes. It never happened. No matter how hard I pushed, I simply couldn’t make the bike misbehave. It took a massive rock, hit at serious speed, to derail the ride… that horrible hiss and splutter of tubeless trying to cope with a massive gash and the grind of rim on gravel. I really can’t blame the bike, the wheel or the tires – 28mm simply isn’t enough cushioning at that speed and I really shouldn’t have been so complacent.

10 minutes of faffing with latex, a spare inner tube and an overly short valve and I was back on the way, but it was still around 10 miles to Canterbury, nearly 100 home and getting on for late afternoon.Safer to ditch at the nearest train station and take the train of shame home.

I’m not sure what the training value was. The aggressive, bumpy riding did a real number on me, I’d only covered around 120km and I was sore enough I took an impromptu rest day on Sunday. Time to be a bit more sensible and get back to training instead of larking about. That said, pretty sure I’ll be revisiting the Pilgrims Way plan with some more sensible tires after TRC and possibly investing in Bowman’s Footscray for some proper Gnar… still love the road, but can’t deny quite how much fun it was being a yob for the day.

 

Severn Across

This weekend saw me finally cross the 400km mark. I’ve come tantalisingly close previously, but could never bring myself to bother piling on the distance unnecessarily. Quite a relief to have it out of the way, considering this will be my target distance most days of the TCR.

As usual, the plan was to keep it relatively steady, make it around without digging too deep and leave enough in my legs for the following day. The plan was slightly ruined, however, by my knackered powermeter (/random number generator)… I’ve no idea how accurate the numbers are, but my HR data suggests I went very slightly harder than intended. On the plus side, mid-ride, I found out why the PM is misbehaving… when my chainrings nearly fell off coming round a corner! Seems I was in too much of a hurry changing my rings after the last TT and must have left the bolts loose enough that they’ve slowly shaken loose.

Alice had a race in Bedford, so we booked a Travelodge in Hemel Hempstead and I had the luxury of a lie in and getting to the start with less miles than usual in my legs. I arrived with time to say hi to some Wheelers, bump into Paul and re-read the route sheet to check the controls (and warm back up after my utterly freezing ride over). Always nice to see Javier at the start and I need to make a point of slowing down some time to have a proper ride and chat with him!

I set off with a bit of a gap on the main group, hoping to sit off the front and get valuable experience riding 400km solo. However, I soon spotted a few riders quickly approaching over my shoulder, so slowed a touch while they caught up. Jasmijn pulled alongside for a chat and a couple of others tucked behind… by the time I had a chance to chat to the guys behind, there was just the one – who it turns out had missed out on the TCR and was now riding the Wild Atlantic Way. Seems just about everyone at these things either has, is or wanted to ride the TCR!

We made good time to the first control, briefly said hi to Paul as he was arriving and we were leaving and the lumpy terrain quickly whittled the group down to two – me and Jasmijn. As the hills grew gradually longer and steeper, gaps started opening and Jasmijn waved me on to head off alone… only for me to get caught at lights almost immediately, bringing everything back together.

I’d gained a couple of minutes by Tewkesbury, but Jasmijn caught up while I was looking for a lunch stop and we decided to raid a One Stop to keep the stopping time lean. I’d missed a call from my sister a while back, so let Jasmijn head in first while I returned the call… and found out my sister had just gotten engaged! She was over the moon and amusingly was on her way to Gloucestershire for a spa weekend with her fiancé, so a bit bemused to find out I was already nearby.

After the second stop, the terrain levelled off somewhat and we made good time to Symonds Yat. The steep climb once again saw a small gap open up, but with the extra weight on my bike and the extreme gradient, I was pretty happy to back off a notch and give Jasmijn time to catch up – she seemed content letting me sit on the front and a bit of company helps ease the miles (also helpful to have someone else keeping an eye on directions!).

On the way into Chepstow, we caught a brief rain, hail and sleet storm and foolishly thought that was probably our bad weather for the day. The sun quickly resumed shining and we had a luxurious extended break behind a Tesco petrol station before heading off for the Severn Bridge (where I quickly abandoned the road in favour of the bike paths… it really is taking a long time for my nerve to come back around heavy traffic).

Once back in England, the warning signs of wet roads and cars with their lights on started appearing. I told Jasmijn now much I hate riding in rain and she told me she’d take rain rather than hills any day… so of course it started pissing down and the road got lumpy. It wasn’t completely horrific, but certainly enough to really dampen my mood (and utterly soak my shoes… I HATE soaking wet shoes, particularly when I’m planning to ride the following day). By this point I pretty much just wanted the ride to be over and my motivation crumbled away.

When the rain had finally stopped and we’d reached the final checkpoint, we considered bombing back via the A road route, but decided the traffic would probably still be a bit heavy and committed to following the back roads. At the time this felt like a fairly tough decision, but in retrospect the lumpy route was great fun and the A roads would have been an awful way to finish such a scenic ride. It got pretty dark and cold toward the end and my knees started complaining, but we made it back for about 10.10 (10.20 by the time we got receipts), so really can’t be too unhappy with that!

To further enhance the TCR training value, I then decided to bivvy outside the community centre until the organiser arrived at midnight… it seemed easier than trying to keep my bike in sight while sitting in a pub and I haven’t yet tried the bag and silk liner. I don’t expect temperatures to be quite that cold on the TCR, but I’m seriously considering taking a foil blanket based on how cold I got. Even sleeping in the hall later that night wasn’t particularly pleasant!

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This is also the first time I’ve stuck around after the event and I really enjoyed seeing everyone come back in. Paul made great time, as usual, and Javier and the Wheelers weren’t too far behind. I was a little surprised, however, to see riders still arriving at 8.30am as I was leaving the hall! Must have been a cold, lonely ride through the night!

I had planned to cycle 180km up to Alice’s race on the Sunday, but my battery let me down. I think the cold weather caused it to discharge faster than usual and I was only able to put enough juice into my phone to find my way to a nearby train station to get home (and the Garmin had maybe 10% left). Off the back of this, I’ve ordered the dynamo wheel I’ve been eyeing up. I probably could have found my way to Bedford (and despite being more sore than anticipated from riding a bit too hard, I was still riding fine), but I can’t risk a similar issue on the TCR… if the battery drains rapidly in the alps, I don’t want to be fiddling around with paper maps or waiting for hours in cafes and petrol stations for it to recharge.

I’ve been working on getting my stopping time down on rides like this and am pretty happy with the quick stops Jasmijn and I managed to take. I reckon we could have been even leaner on stopping time, but keeping my TCR hat on, there’s no point pushing to extremes that you can’t replicate several days in a row. 15 hours moving and 17 elapsed should leave plenty of time for sleep and slower days in the mountains. I’m tempted to compare my draft route with service station locations in advance to help ensure there’s a suitable 10-15 minute stop every 100km or so (and perhaps remove some of the towns too…)