Back in gear

It’s been a long winter waiting for audax season to kick back in. I spent October-December working a couple of days a week in Amsterdam and watching my fitness slowly unravel from the endless lack of sleep, lack of training time and days off the bike, so January couldn’t come soon enough. The glamour of international travel quickly wears off after a few 4am starts to hop on the turbo before sitting in a combination of taxis, planes and trains for the next 4 hours.

Christmas was spent churning out hundred milers and some shorter, sharper efforts to wake my legs back up… and perhaps chasing mileage to knock a club mate off the top spot of the leader boards… So I begin my audax season this year at approximately the same level of fitness as last year, albeit now with an Edington number of 97.

So my first audax of 2017 was to be the Willy Warmer – 200km from Chalfont St Peter out to Hungerford and back.  Of course, shortly after subscribing the country froze over and a balmy -6 degrees was forecast for much of the day/route. Still, winter miles = summer smiles and doubly so when it’s wet and/or freezing.

I woke up at 5am and threw on every item of clothing I own. I’ve never rocked the knee warmers over tights look before, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Having wrapped myself up as some sort of absurdist cycling burrito, I headed off into the dark quietly mumbling to myself about how ‘it will definitely get warmer when the sun comes up’. It didn’t.

I also forgot I’d routed to the start before I knew about the freezing weather, so had a few unsalted lanes to contend with and ended up arriving at HQ just as everyone was leaving. Oh well, quick wave to Paul over the road, grab my brevet card and get chasing. Miss a turn at the first roundabout, jump the central reservation and resume chasing. Settle into a rhythm and gradually reel in more and more riders… while wondering why gears are starting to skip and my chain is rubbing the mech…

By Marlow it was obvious that my cranks had worked loose and I’d have to find a bike shop pronto. Fortunately, Google informed me there was a bike shop round the corner. With a name like Saddle Safari I didn’t hold much hope, but they were brilliant – even got the torque wrench out without being asked. Honestly, I’m not ever sure they were even officially open yet, so massive respect. Proper quality local bike shop.

Strava tells me I was only out of action for 5 minutes and I was able to catch up with Paul by the first control point, so it can’t have been as catastrophic as it felt at the time. Still, no rest for the wicked, Paul chivied me through the control as quickly as possible and we set straight back out and started picking up other riders. With the extreme cold and occasional patches of ice, I decided to stick at Paul’s pace and take things a bit more cautiously… turns out riding faster’s a false economy when you encounter a rider like Paul though. I thought I was quick at controls, but he takes the biscuit. The man never stops.

At Hungerford, my post office raid was far too leisurely for Paul who simply grabbed some Yazoo and jumped straight back on his bike, promising to see me further up the road. This theme continued… my bars worked loose to the point where I had to stop to sort them… ‘I’ll keep rolling and see you down the road’! Despite working at speeds an F1 pit crew would be proud of, I was out of action long enough that Paul was several KM down the road before I’d set back off (and of course he later admitted to putting in a dig!).

By the time I finally caught him I was gagging for a pee… only I really didn’t want to stop and have to chase him back down. Again. After internally debating the pros and cons of attempting to pee on the move in sub zero temperatures, I finally pulled over and accepted my fate. Fortunately, the earlier dig seemed to have blunted Paul’s legs a little (or maybe he was taking it easy) and I quickly caught him back up and we rode to the finish together.

Despite the slightly more leisurely pace, I’m not convinced I’d have gotten round any faster at my usual pace. Some serious lessons learnt in the art of not faffing and just keeping on moving. The lesson was further rammed home by the fact that Frank (who’d ridden with us at times, but dropped back on some of the hills) arrived only 15 minutes after us – another rider that just gets his head down and gets it done.

All in all a great day out and an event I’d happily recommend as a nice early season leg opener. Nothing too tough, plenty of nice scenery and great organisation.

https://www.strava.com/activities/839610422

Super Randonneur

A week before the Transcontinental I was knocked off my bike. Two teenage girls stepped out in front of me without looking – one ran when she heard my shout and the other froze. I’d scrubbed pretty much all of my speed by the time I collided with the girl that froze, but my momentum threw me over the handlebars and I landed hard on my head and shoulder. There was a loud pop and an extraordinary amount of pain.

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Long story short, I was sent home from hospital with a sling and advice from the doctor that ‘exercise won’t make it worse – if you can ride, your race won’t cause any further damage or set back your healing’. So that was my mind made up – I was riding the TCR.

In reality, despite managing to get on the bike, I was still very broken by the time I reached the starting line. Not just my shoulder, but lost form from not riding and heavy bruising across my torso and legs. I’d told myself I’d just take it easy and have fun… the fun stopped the second we hit the Muur and I had to wrestle the bars to avoid coming off. Every bump was a sharp wave of pain and nausea.

Barely past the French border, the pain had taken its toll and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I found a bus stop and took five minutes. A few miles later I found a better bus stop and took 15 minutes. Just down the road I found a sheltered piece of lawn, laid out my sleeping bag and got my head down for a solid three hours. The trend continued – I woke up, rode, stopped in pain and had a rest until around midday when, having thrown up from the pain, I accepted it was time to bail and headed for Paris at a relative crawl.

A week of rest once back in London made no end of difference. Had the TCR started just 5-10 days later, I reckon I’d have made it round. We booked a cottage in Somerset and had a domestic training camp shortly after – my fitness was definitely down and my shoulder still hurt, but at least I was riding again.

Of course, as the world hates me this year, I then took a tumble in the rain and smashed my face in. Fortunately, the rain meant I didn’t pick up too much road rash, but my eyebrow had to be super glued and the doctors are fairly convinced there’s a fracture in my face (I’ve had so many X-Rays already this year, they’re unwilling to subject me to more… particularly as the treatment was likely just to be ‘leave it alone and it’ll heal’).

By this point I was pretty despondent. My season was over with no achievements (other than the fastest Redhill CC 25 TT of the year) and my fitness/form has utterly tanked from so much time off the bike and the various injuries. It took a lot of moping before I remembered that one of my supplemental goals for this year was to pick up my Super Randonneur for the year at the Flatlands 600… OK, so I wouldn’t be able to use aero bars, but it’s an ‘easy’ 600, it’s fairly local and it passes near my Dad’s house and other friends/relatives en-route, so it’s easy to bail…

Having committed to riding, the weather forecast turned foul just to really tighten the screws. Oh well, full frame bag fitted, sleeping gear, waterproof gear and enough bonk rations to feed an army and I was on my way. I didn’t take any pictures as the views were obscured by rain and/or darkness and there are enough ride reports out there, but a few thoughts…

  1. Being first to the only manned control gets you no points, but it gives a nice confidence boost
  2. If your shorts start to hurt at 50km, don’t bother stopping to faff, they’ll still hurt by 550km regardless
  3. Locals will loudly question your sanity if you request three balance print outs from a cash point in the space of a minute (to ensure the stamp matches the control opening time)
  4. The Castelli Idro is handcrafted by witches. An entire day of being pissed on, yet my jersey was bone dry. No boil in the bag despite being a moderately warm day too
  5. Laughing off a local offering you a lift back to Essex at the mid-way point is easy… finding a local willing to give you a lift back nearer the finish is hard
  6. A 600 is a bad choice for getting ‘creative’ with the route sheet for the first time
  7. Gravel tracks near dogging spots at 10/11pm will give you a much needed adrenaline boost
  8. A roads late at night are excellent. Busy A road diversions when the cycle tracks near Cambridge are closed are less excellent. There’s a reason TTs have to be off the A14 by 9.30am!
  9. I get the dozies shortly after midnight, no matter how rested I am. A can of Monster will cure this for approximately an hour. Incidentally, finding Monster after around 1/2am is hard
  10. I am bad at finding places to sleep. The first bus shelter on the outskirts of Sleaford must have been near uni accommodation (I was awoken by a young lady in a onesie) and the second was nowhere near sheltered enough (christ it was cold)
  11. When your arse, knee, shoulder and wrists hurt, just accept that you’ll spend the rest of the ride as follows: 5min cycling on the tops, 5 mins cycling in the drops, 5 mins cycling on the hoods, 30 seconds out of the saddle, no handed as long as the road allows – repeated ad infinitum.
  12. Finishing a 600 is an anticlimax. I filled in my brevet on a bench and posted it through the organiser’s front door. There was no confetti, balloons or cheering. Next time, I’m renting a crowd for the occasion.

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So I’ve now ridden 1,500km of audaxes this year. In fact, it’s a year (almost to the day) since I rode my first audax. Plenty of people get their SR each year, but it’s still an achievement (and a new one for me – newness is always good). Apparently if I keep doing this until I’m 40, I’ll qualify as an Ultra Randonneur, so there’s something to aim for!

Not sure yet what next year entails, but it won’t be the transcontinental. There are too many endurance rides out there, too many events I want to enter – TCR can’t take precedence over them all. Sure, I could fit a couple alongside it each year, but it’s an all consuming beast of a ride and I really don’t want to get caught in a cycle of endlessly chasing a single event when there’s so much more to experience out there. I was treating this as a ‘one and done’ – the fact that fate dealt me a shitty hand doesn’t change that. If I’m not too old by the time I’ve worked through my longer list of events (or the format at TCR changes drastically), I’ll revisit it.

I’ve pre-entered LEL, so I think I might focus on events that cross or circle single countries next year… There’s a Swedish end-to-end, Hard Cro and several others that would fit this theme nicely. For now, I just need to stay injury free and try to regain some of the fitness I’ve lost. I might do something audacious for the Festive 500, but otherwise, it’s time to put my feet up and just have fun on the bike.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN

Less than two weeks to go.

Less than two weeks.

It’s getting very real. Every moment is consumed by the TCR, planning, worrying, daydreaming.

Of course, I can plan and panic all I want, but the world’s proving excellent at throwing curve balls and really the whole point of this journey is embracing the adventure and going with the cards you’re dealt (although I don’t think any of us expected those cards to include an attempted coup in Turkey).

This weekend saw my final chance to test my full TCR setup (which now contains almost none of my original kit) over a long distance and iron out any wrinkles. In now traditional style, this meant the weekend started with discovering my rear wheel was dead. One of the nipples had pulled through the rim, knocking it out of true and compromising the wheel. Bugger. I was a real fan of my Aero Light Hunt wheels, but I don’t think I’ll be using them for anything strenuous in future – they’re on Sunday best duty from now on! Fortunately I was able to pick up some nice robust Mavics at short notice… I’ve never been blown away by Mavic wheels, but you generally know what you’re getting and they feel like a safe bet at this point (even if they do concede quite a bit of weight to the Hunts…).

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So – new wheels, new bags (Blackburn seat pack replaces the Revelate frame bag), new sleeping kit (Yeti Fever Zero sleeping bag replaces MSR E Bivi) and a whole bunch of re-jigging. I’m pretty happy with the result – what feels like a fairly light set up that’s quick and easy to access, has spare space and provides a bit more protection for foul weather (the seat pack uses a removable dry bag). I’m pretty certain I’ve got my final kit list nailed (and there’ll probably be an in-depth post nearer the time.

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On to the test ride…

Each year in July when the moon is at its fullest, thousands of cyclists meet at London Fields and ride out to the Suffolk coast in a ride known as the Dunwich Dynamo, or DunRun. It’s not an organised event, there’s no brevet card, no finisher list or even a specific start time. People gather from around 7 and slowly start leaving over the next few hours, arriving in Dunwich any time from midnight through to the early afternoon of the following day.

It’s a ride I did last year on a whim after winning my club’s open sporting time trial and absolutely loved, so obviously had to go back this year. It’s also traditionally been the final test ride for TCR riders from the region, so I knew there was a good chance of bumping into some kindred spirits and a club mate had arranged to come along and keep me company.

Last year we left London around 8.30 and it took hours of filtering slow moving cars and bikes to get to Epping, so we decided to make an earlier start this year, heading off while most people were still enjoying the pubs and party atmosphere at London Fields. What took us nearly 2 hours last year, took around 30 minutes!

By the time we’d hit the lanes I was slightly falling in love with the Schwalbe S-Ones I’d fitted. I’ve been training on a mix of Hutchinson Sector 28s and Schwalbe Pro One Evos, but the S-Ones have been impossible to get hold of in the UK, so this was the first time I’d used them in anger (having finally gotten hold of a second pair this week, which I’ll keep pristine ready for TCR).

The Pro Ones were genuinely some of the best tyres I’ve ever ridden, but I just don’t believe they’ll last the distance (although I do wonder about the 28s). The Sector 28s are also brilliant, but feel like a winter tyre and don’t give as smooth a ride as I’d been expecting (they will, however, take any abuse you throw at them). The S-Ones combine the best of both – the ride quality is sublime, yet fast and after 300km of chip and seal roads, pot holes, gravel and mud there’s not a single mark on them. Tyre nirvana.

As we passed through Epping and out of the suburbs, I’d left my Wahoo Elemnt charging off the dynamo while there was still sunlight, keen to ensure it had a full battery before it got dark and I needed to turn the screen back-light on. I’ve not used the dynamo much in the dark yet, so wanted to make sure I was covered if there wasn’t enough power to keep me lit AND charged. I was pleasantly surprised to find I needn’t have worried – as darkness fell, my lights came on and the Elemnt stayed fully charged. The front light was maybe a few percent dimmer than if the Elemnt was unplugged, but it was fine running even on high power mode while still providing charge. Sure, the ride was very flat and fast, but it’s reassuring to know that all but the hilliest stages should be fine. I’m using this as an excuse to scale down to a slightly smaller battery pack for the TCR, to save a bit of space and weight.

Being so far ahead of the majority of the ride, Matt and I made pretty good time and had few real incidents of note – just a fast, enjoyable ride out into the countryside. It was only in the final third (having taken a leisurely stop at one of the pop-up catering points) that we encountered many cyclists and started playing leap frog with some of the faster groups. In the really dark, narrow lanes, I realised I’ve got my dynamo light angled a little too low – it’s more than enough to see by, but having a view of a few feet further up the road would be reassuring and the light is clearly strong enough to cope.

About 15 miles from Dunwich (at another rest stop), Matt got a case of the dozies and we ended up having an extended stop. I was keen to push on and have a proper sleep on the beach, but I also know how quickly the dozies can come on and would rather Matt felt safe covering the final very dark and twisty section of the route. We lost about an hour in total, but still made it to the beach for around 3-4am, ahead of the vast majority of the ride.

I found a nice flat section of beach, laid out the sleeping bag and put my head down for a couple of hours of truly blissful sleep. Such a difference from sleeping in the bivi – no condensation, proper warmth and even some added comfort from the minimal padding. The bag has a 30 gram penalty over my bivi (which was already one of the lightest bivis available), so it’s a compromise I’m more than happy to make. It claims to be ‘weather resistant’, but I think I’m limited to finding sheltered spots to sleep in on the TCR – no setting up in puddles or anywhere rain might get blown into.

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Matt and I had intended to ride back home from Dunwich, but by the time we set off my stomach was doing somersaults and I was really struggling to hold food down. I think the burger I’d had the night before was under-cooked and had upset my stomach. I could ride, but not particularly fast (although we still averaged 29kph) and I had to stop a couple of times when the waves of nausea got too much. Not good. We decided to bomb down the A12 to Ipswich and see if we could blag our way onto a train.

Fortunately we were early enough that they agreed to squeeze us on the next train and we had a nice straight forward run back to London, before cycling back up to Epsom. Job done. I feel bad about bailing on the return leg, but this close to TCR, there’s just no point running the risk of injury or long term damage.

So there we have it. Kit finalised. Training complete. Two weeks to go. Two weeks. Two.

I’ll try to get a kit post out before the start, but work’s pretty hectic while I clear the decks before disappearing for a couple of weeks and much of my free time is being eaten by panicking about the TCR… more so if I have to create a second route to the possible ’emergency’ end point…

 

 

OOPS

When I lost my mojo earlier in the season, I decided to stop tracking my CTL and ATL and just enjoy riding for a while without worrying about training stress scores and hitting the right hours in each zone. This coincided nicely with the weather gently improving and a number of my longer training rides through May. By early June I found myself fighting niggling injuries, constantly exhausted and generally a bit out of love with the bike and the whole idea of the Transcontinental.

After floundering for a couple of weeks (power good, but energy very low) I finally checked back in with the numbers… and the problem was immediately clear. I had a big week before Severn Across and felt I’d pushed a bit harder than I should of – the numbers agree wholeheartedly. I jumped to 150 CTL (yay!), but racked up the highest fatigue of my entire cycling career and knocked my stress balance deep into the negative.

CTL

With time before TCR short and my general gung-ho approach, I simply carried on riding and building CTL (topping out at 158) while never letting my stress balance recover. By the end of May, I was probably the fittest I’ve ever been, but exhausted. I’ve piled on the weight, developed a twitch in my right eye and generally been grumpy, sleepy and sick of riding.

Fortunately, there’s a few weeks left to turn it around. That elevated CTL will come in handy for TCR, so I’m keen to maintain as much of it as possible. The fatigue and negative stress balance needs to go though. I’m going to focus on high intensity efforts, while bringing my mileage back down. I’m hopeful I can maintain a CTL around the 140-150 mark, while starting TCR with a nice positive stress balance and happy legs.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m simply not good at ‘training’. I like riding my bike, but setting goals changes my mind set and turns riding into a chore. I’ve entered a few TTs to give me short term goals that will hopefully distract me from the TCR and I expect group rides and some general mucking about will feature in the next few weeks!

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.

route profile

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…)

 

 

 

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!