Monday, 7 November 2011
Ashton Court's Oktoberfest took place on Saturday 15th October, giving me a return to mountain biking racing after a two year hiatus. Somewhat foolishly, and perhaps because most of my mountain biking friends weren't interested in the competition, I decided to enter the solo category: eight hours of laps around a 6 mile course.
I'm not a regular mountain biker, much to the disappointment of my Kona One20 hanging in the garage, but I'd been putting in the odd off-road session over the summer to get some practice in. The most I'd managed was three and a half hours, less than half the racing time of the competition and nothing like the preparation I do for road events, yet still I lined up with several hundred other competitors on a sunny October morning in a meadow in Ashton Court a few minutes before 9am.
My bike, along with everyone else's, was an uphill sprint away at the top of the hill. The infamous Le Mans starts at Bikefest and Oktoberfest are designed to separate the riders before the first narrow singletrack sessions.
The countdown from 10 had barely reached five before the mass charge began. I made a good start, despite the food in my jersey pockets threatening to leap out, finding my bike quickly and getting on the trail towards the front of the pack.
As soon my Kona hit the grass its dual suspension seemed to act like a sponge, sapping my speed and allowing other riders to charge past. Still, knowing the twists and turns of the trail allowed me to pick up speed throughout other sections of the course, powering up the hill sections and picking the right lines through the berms.
Several laps in and I was enjoying the race (despite finding out that Wales lost in the Rugby World Cup semi-final), seeing some friendly faces on the sidelines and enjoying that dog-eat-dog attitude that racing brings.
I covered three and a half hours before my first food stop, which I now know was too long to wait. As soon as I'd eaten I felt so sluggish. Another two laps down and I had to stop again for more food and to ease the pain in my wrists and back.
This time I sat in my van necking Red Bull, eating pasta and sweets and feeling sorry for myself. I must have stopped for 45 minutes before I convinced myself 'just one more lap'.
Jumping back on the bike reminded me just how mountain biking differs from road biking. My undercarriage had taken quite a battering and even just sitting on the saddle was painful!
That first lap after lunch was tough and I almost threw in the towel but seeing the clock at 2pm reminded me that there were only three hours left. I'd raced three hours in the morning without too much trouble. I reasoned with myself that if I could just keep going at a slow pace I could be proud that I'd made it to the finish.
Another two slow laps ticked by, battling for space on the singletrack sections, not caring about being overtaken and barely able to race the singlespeed riders up hill. Who cared whether I was racing people in teams of four or two, or those doing one of the four hour races. I stopped glancing at the category each rider was in when the passed me. I rode my own race from this point and stopped chasing down anything in front of me.
Every time I passed the start/finish line I'd see support teams lined up handing their rider a banana, an energy bar or even paracetmols. I had a few crumbs of fruit cake and an energy gel left in my pocket. With a little over an hour to go I necked both, washed down with a healthy swig of Powerade. Two laps in one hour five minutes was more than possible at the start of the race. Now I wasn't so sure. It was now or never.
I used my usual tactic. Go hard at the start and hang on at the end. I raced the first lap hard, nipping past slower riders where there was barely room, hammering the hills and forcing my body out of the saddle as the gradient increased. Whenever I felt my speed slow I'd check my clock and try and do the maths. The notion of setting out on my second lap only to miss the cut off time was worse than the pain of racing.
You could sense the urgency all around now. Riders were sprinting where otherwise they'd have coasted. Corners were cut and risks were taken to gain a few extra seconds. My back wheel slipped on a couple of occasions but I stayed upright and made it to the start/finish lap with 32 minutes to spare. Then I caught site of a familiar face. Pete had come to cheer me on. "Yeah, go Hillsdon!" I heard.
I had one more fast lap to finish by 5pm. From racing this event in previous years I remembered how that final lap is always one of the fastest. Give it everything you have. Ignore the cramp and the battered muscles. Never mind that your gears aren't shifting properly. Don't worry that you've run out of water, it'll weigh you down anyway!
I crossed the finish line with about two minutes to spare, recording my third fastest lap of the day. I climbed off my bike very gingerly, bowed my head to my handlebars as if I was praying, and composed myself for a few minutes.
By the time Pete and Catriona found me they didn't like the look of my pale complexion and sunken eyes. Another Powerade and a chocolate bar later I was back on form and enjoying celebrating finishing with friends and work colleagues.
With 13 laps complete I was some way off the front runners who notched up a superhuman 16 laps, a good hour and a half faster than me. I later found out that I came 19th out of 59, which I was pretty pleased with. Next year, paracetemols!
Sunday, 6 November 2011
I set out for the event with Pete, not really knowing what to expect. Do they wear lycra or baggies? Will my Bob Jackson Vigorelli be up to the task?
The first chap we saw was dressed in tracksuit bottoms and asked if there was a smokers' category, which gave me the impression this might be a low-key event. How wrong I was! Soon the top riders and their bikes started rolling in, complete with tri-bars and deep set aero wheels. I went to a cafe for a double-shot cappuccino and a huge cake as if to compensate for my inadequate bike.
|Here's me and Pete (fourth and third from the left) at the start line. I've shamelessly stolen the pic from http://traumradfahren.wordpress.com/ - sorry!|
From the Le Mans-style start on the Harbourside, thirty-five of us chose any path we could, racing past surprised looking shoppers and diners at the water front, in the direction of Temple Meads.
I really don't condone racing in shared pavement areas (and I think the organiser could look at changing the start/finish location in future) but this was a race and there were prizes to be had so I traversed the walkers as politely as I could (!) and made it to Temple Meads without incident. Behind me I could hear car horns beeping as riders jumped lights and took risks through the evening traffic. Lucky for me, green lights seemed to be in my favour.
The first hill came at Brislington where my small gear saw me dropping riders, only to be reeled back in on flat or downhill sections, where I was spinning furiously as my fixed gear gave my legs no freewheeling option.
Out along the A4 the drop in temperature was noticeable. It was a beautifully clear and dry night, and with a few fireworks going off in the distance it provided a great racing backdrop. The flashing tail lights in front of me started to move clear at this point. I caught my breath for the first time and, without the dangling carrot of a rider in front, I eased off the pace just a little, saving energy for the return.
The exertion was causing some pain in my right shoulder and I remembered how people who have heart attacks often complain of a pain in their arm. Putting that out of my mind I noticed that luck seemed to be with me at every roundabout and traffic light. The streets were quiet and my path was clear coming in to Bath. Then, about a mile from the check-point the first place rider came back in the other direction, followed by a few others. I started counting riders, about tenth place I thought. Could I hold it?
The slight rise up to Queen Square in Bath reminded my legs about the lack of gear choices. It wouldn't be the last time that I reached for an imaginary gear lever only to remember that there was only one option: pain!
I lost a few seconds at the checkpoint as I took the pavement instead of the road, then hit the northerly headwind on the return leg, slowing me down some more. I was out of the saddle though, throwing Bob Jackson from side to side underneath me, the tiny frame of the bike making it perfect for out-of-the-saddle power.
Back out through Bath and I just made an amber light as I turned onto the A4. Ten seconds later and out of nowhere came a guy tucked into his tri-bars. He must have jumped the light, bastard! Luckily though, he gave me some shelter from the wind on the exposed A road. He made the roundabout before me and cut through a gap between two cars, forcing me to come to a standstill. I lost him here but soon gained another rider on the long straight to Saltford. I noticed that he was riding a massive gear. With my bike suited to climbing and his suited to sprinting, I suspected that we'd play cat and mouse all the way back to Bristol. I tried to lose him on the climbs and he tried to lose me on the flat but we were pretty evenly matched.
By the time we got back into Bristol the number of pedestrians had thinned considerably but it was still a nerve-jangling sprint through Millennium Square. The rider in front gave me a great line to follow and in the end I rolled in just behind him in 13th place.
We shook hands and congratulated each other on coming away unscathed. Then it took a good ten minutes for me to stop coughing and the sick feeling in my stomach didn't leave for quite some time - probably until the first after-party beer in the Grain Barge.
By the time I got round to checking my phone I saw that Pete didn't get on so well. He punctured and got lost in Bath, so caught the train home, making it just in time for the prize-giving.
This is pretty much the last bike race I'll do in Bristol as I'm moving to Nottingham in a couple of weeks. Between the fireworks, the scenery and the exhilaration of racing, this was a fitting finale to six years of cycling in and around Bristol. I've gone from hesitant commuter to dare-devil racer during that time. I'm still not shaving my legs though!
Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Well it's not quite mid-October yet and Wales is nothing like Italy but this weekend felt like my own Classic of the Falling Leaves.
On Saturday I rode a wind-swept 70 miles to Usk, sticking to the flat roads along the south wales coast for the first 30 miles before heading north through the Usk valley.
The strong south-westerly wind blew orange, red and yellow leaves from the trees and onto the roads. Heading from Usk back to Bristol along the B4253 gave Pete and I an autumnal countryside landscape worthy of a Constable painting. The sun came out briefly too, bringing out the colours out in every bit of foliage, warming both the temperature and the pace of the riding.
In fact, as the wind continued to gust through Sunday and Monday it brought more than just falling leaves. Branches were strewn across Ashton Court and Leigh Woods as I mountain biked on Sunday, and along the B3128 as I commuted back from Clevedon on Monday.
There was something satisfying about noticing the subtle change in weather. Summer is on its last legs, autumn is rapidly approaching and the year is in its maturity. Nature is completing another cycle. It's cool and crisp again and I'm not getting so hot as I cycle around. All too soon the nights will draw in and the mornings will get darker. I'm on borrowed time and need to make the most of the evening light (surely no-one really likes riding in the dark?) so I'm commiting now to at least one long before or after work ride a week. With my new job and long hours it's one of the few things that will keep me sane. It's either that or the dreaded turbo trainer!
Sunday, 7 August 2011
With this in mind, yesterday I took to the woods. I managed three and 3/4 laps of Ashton Court before I needed some variety. I headed across the road to the Timberland Trail in 50 Acre Wood, then on to Ashton Pool Wood and finally to Leigh Woods.
Four hours of biking and 43 miles was a great start to competition training and I'm feeling it today too. My arms and lower back feel like they've been working hard - although three crashes will have no doubt added to the aches and pains.
Tuesday, 2 August 2011
Like a giddy child I couldn't wait to get out on Sunday and Monday evenings, but once chores and work were done it was edging 8pm, only leaving time for 20-30 miles.
Today I had more time for biking. I met Ed Sherwin for a quick lunchtime spin around Ashton Court, following that with an evening ride, "taking the long way home from work".
I clocked up almost two and a half hours today, taking in two laps of the new Ashton Court trails, plus Leigh Woods and the Pill path along the River Avon.
Ashton Court seems like it's getting busier by the day - families, groups of teenagers, MAMILs were all there today - but Leigh Woods is still an undiscovered joy. Routes that wind their way through the woodland with countless tributaries. It's a wooded wonderland!
Sunday, 24 July 2011
Rather predictably, all four jersey winners deserve a mention.
- Best overall rider, Cadel Evans: the yellow jersey provides a fitting finale to a near-perfect career - at the grand old age of 34 too. The two-time mountain bike world cup winner switched to road biking in 2002, picking up wins in secondary stage races and one-day classics before becoming world champion in Mendriso, Switzerland in 2009. With a win in the 2011 Tour on the tricky uphill finish on Stage 4, leading the 10km chase of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck on Stage 18, and almost complete dominance in Stage 20's time trial, Evans is a deserved winner. He is now the oldest Tour de France winner since the Second World War and could quite easily call it a day. However, something tells me he'll be back to defend his jersey next year.
- Best climber, Samuel Sanchez: once the General Classification was out of reach, the 2008 Olympic Champion switched his attention to the polka dot jersey. He used his strong climbing ability and superlative descending skills to great effect, picking up a win on Stage 12 at Luz Ardiden in the Pyrennes, much to the delight of the strong Spanish support.
- Best young rider, Pierre Rolland: this young French climber on Team Europcar, for many days Thomas Voeckler's bodyguard, outsprinted Sanchez and Alberto Contador on Stage 19 to claim victory on Alpe-d'Huez and the white jersey for the best young rider. With his 11th place overall, 24 year old Rolland offers France the potential of a General Classification (GC) winner in a few years time.
- Best sprinter, Mark Cavendish: a special mention goes out to the Manx Missile for matching 2010's five stage wins and, for the first time ever for a British rider, picking up the points jersey as the best sprinter. Cavendish fully acknowledges that he couldn't have achieved 20 Tour de France stage wins in his career without his highly organised HTC-Highroad team but it takes his daredevil attitude and nerves of steel to finish the job at the end of each stage. Cavendish is now joint 6th in the list of all-time stage winners of the Tour - another five wins next year would put him up to 3rd in that list. If he leaves HTC-Highroad at the end of this season that aim might just be pie in the Sky.
- First up, big Thor Hushovd. The 13-stone Norwegian powerhouse silenced his critics and proved why he's world champion with two stage wins and seven days in the yellow jersey. Thor's exploits did wonders for cycling's popularity in Norway as did his fellow countryman Edvald Boasson Hagen's, who also picked up two stage wins. Thor spearheaded an excellent Tour for Garmin-Cervelo too as the team claimed victory in the Team Time Trial, the best team overall and teammate Tyler Farrar also claimed a win on Stage 3.
- Thomas Voeckler may just have taken Richard Virenque's long-held crown as the darling of French housewives with his heroics in the yellow jersey. For 10 days France held its breath as Tommy summond up strength few knew he had, including I'm sure Voeckler himself. For his final three days in yellow France even dared to believe the unbelievable. But in the end the Alps broke brave Tommy's resistance, but not before he'd won over legions of fans for his courageous displays. If Tommy can better his 4th place next year could France have their first GC winner since Bernad Hinault in 1987?
First off, let's get one thing straight. Being good enough to ride the Tour de France puts a cyclist into the very top echelons of those who race bicycles. The Tour is the pinnacle of many cyclists' careers and it's comparable to only the highest highs of other sports - the Champions League final if you will - so the riders that follow, apart from one, are by no losers in the everyday sense. No, these men simply fell short of the very high standards they set themselves.
- Bradley Wiggins: Our top British rider crashed on Stage 7 and called it quits with a broken collar bone. No-one can blame Wiggo for leaving the Tour, (although it's not always a tour-ending injury - see: George Hincapie, 2009 and Tyler Hamilton, 2003) but his departure deprived Team Sky and UK cycling fans of a GC contender and left Bradley unable to better his 4th place in 2009. Better luck next year.
- Alberto Contador: Bertie blew it. A crash in the early stages gave the two-time Tour winner a knee problem. Was this a convenient excuse for poor form or was Contador a serious contender hampered by an unfortunate crash? He certainly wasn't this year's favourite and the allegations that have dogged him can't have helped him stake his claim to the title. Valiant efforts on stages 16 and 19 came too late in the day for Contador and he finished 5th this year.
- Andy Schleck: I had a t-shirt when I was younger that read 'Second place, first loser'. It seems harsh on Andy, the young pretender to the throne, but with a strong team and so much natural ability it seemed like he was destined to better his two previous second places. His time trialling ability certainly let him down, losing over two minutes to Cadel Evans on the penultimate stage, but perhaps mentally, rather than physically, he wasn't able to make the difference when it mattered.
- Alexandr Kolobnev: A urine test on the Russian, riding for Team Katusha, revealed traces of hydrochlorothiazide, a diuretic which is often used in the treatment of hypertension and congestive heart failure, as well as removing excess fluid from the body and reducing urine output. Kolobnev withdrew from the Tour pending the results of a second urine test. This latest doping scandal adds another black mark to cycling's reputation, which has suffered heavily in recent years. Is Kolobnev simply one bad apple amongst 196 clean entrants in the Tour - let's hope so.
Monday, 4 July 2011
Shame all that good cycling will go to waste with a 7-day trip to a music festival in Serbia. I wonder what the cycling conditions are like around Novi Sad?
Friday, 1 July 2011
During July cycle racing fans will be treated to their annual dose of cycling on prime time TV as the Tour de France returns to our screens.
Now in its 98th year, this year's tour will see 22 teams of riders cover 3430.5km over 23 days - that's 21 stages and two rest days (I know, rest days?!).
For all you folks who want to find out a bit more about the event the New York Times said was "arguably the most physiologically demanding of athletic events" compared to "running a marathon several days a week for nearly three weeks" here's a brief beginners' guide to the Tour.
When does it start and finish?
The race starts on Saturday, 2nd July on a road called le Passage du Gois in Brittany. The road is on the Atlantic coastline and is submerged in water when the tide comes in.
The race finishes with eight laps of the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Sunday, 24th July.
The Guardian website provides a useful interactive stage by stage breakdown.
Where to go for information?
Aside from the Guardian website, one of the most comprehensive places for Tour-related info is www.letour.fr with the race preview page being one of the first you'll want to head to. There you'll find all the teams, riders and another stage by stage breakdown.
Who are the favourites?
The favourites to win this year's race include Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck but we Brits also have some homegrown interest in two top riders, Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas.
The winner of the Tour is the person who completes each stage in the fastest time. Last year's winner Alberto Contador spent an eye-watering 91h 58m in the saddle, covering a distance of 3642km.
What are the prizes?
The person leading the race at the end of each stage gets to wear the yellow jersey the following day.
As well as trying to be the quickest over the course, riders are also on the look-out for points.
Sprint points are available for crossing the finish line first on certain 'sprint-finish' stages and intermediate sprints during a stage. Normally the top 20 riders across the line are awarded sprint points. The rider with the most sprint points gets to wear a green jersey. Watch out for British rider Mark Cavendish in this competition.
Climbing points are available for crossing the mountain passes or mountain top finish lines first. Again, the top 10 or 20 riders also pick up points. The rider with the most climbing points gets to wear a polka-dot jersey.
Prizes are also available for the best placed young rider, the fastest team and the most aggressive rider (ie the rider featuring in the most breakaways).
Where can I watch it?
In the UK, Eurosport often broadcast live footage between 11am-5pm. ITV4 broadcast evening highlights and often show live footage during weekends.
Below you'll find a Youtube trailer taking you around each of the stages, giving a good indication of just how high those Pyrennian and Alpine climbs are.
Sunday, 15 May 2011
"It was certainly a sight to behold, as I’m sure the crowds of slightly bemused on-lookers will testify.
"At 11am on Sunday 17th April over 100 cyclists gathered at the Clifton Suspension Bridge, decked out in their Sunday best, to mark Bristol’s very first vintage costume bike ride.
"The event gave the city's cyclists a chance to dig out their tweed jackets and straw boaters, dust off their treasured tandems, trikes and classic bikes, and take a 10-mile tour of North Somerset’s cycling lanes and country parks.
"A jolly old time was had by all as riders paid a visit to Ashton Court Estate, Tyntsfield Estate and Flax Bourton village hall. Cycle-powered gramophones, ginger beer, party games and the rag-time sounds of local musicians Hot Potato Syncopators delighted the respectable ladies and gents present, all in aid of this September's Bristol Cycle Festival.
"The 10-mile jaunt was organised by Rosie Fairchild and Antony De Heveningham-Smythe, who set out to prove that urban cycling can be stylish, fun and completely safe.
"The event was deemed such a rip-roaring success that participants were already asking when the next one will be. We wait with baited breath!"
Here's my video of the ride...
Sunday, 3 April 2011
At 8.05 on a Sunday morning the rushing wind and the wild yelps of Pixes frontman Frank Black jolt my sleepy head into action. I'm rolling down my street. Change up, change down, look left and right at the junction. "Shit, my sunglasses!" Too late now. 13 miles to Lansdown Race Course to start the Bath 100km and I'm late already.
Forty minutes later my Dad phones asking where I am. Sweat is pouring off me as I climb the mile-long hill on Bath Road one-handed, shouting down the phone so I can be heard over the passing traffic.
I meet Dad at the Race Course and after a quick picture we roll out, heading into Bath. I've warmed up but Dad's just starting so we cruise along the top of the valley for a few miles, finding a rhythm that suits us both. Not too fast but quick enough to make up time on the field - the majority of whom started on time.
We reach the outskirts of Bath and plummet into the old Georgian city. The streets are deserted and traffic-light free. We own these streets. We take twisting corners tight and catch our blurry reflections in shop windows. Our speed looks impressive and for a brief second we feel like early morning city kings.
Outside Bath the climb of Prior Park Road comes. We crawl up it at a snail's pace. We hog the gutters. Gutter snails. Large cars flex their muscles as they pass. Our vulnerable, puny bodies slowly eke out the distance. Metre by metre we ascend. "Is the air thinner up here?" It's so hard to breath.
At the top we catch our breath and also a few of the back markers in the field. We give them a cheery hello. We're both out in the early morning April sunshine, enjoying ourselves. This is our shared secret. This is our diet, our exercise, our mode of travel, our excuse to catch up with friends and family, our escape. This is our reason to be cheery.
Fifteen miles in and we leave the hills of Bath behind for gentle Somerset countryside. The country lanes around Frome become our battleground as we fight others for road space. They have it, we want it. We get there first and it's ours. They have our rear wheels for conciliation. The field seems to be made up of leisure riders who aren't up for the fight. It almost seems unfair that I should be honing in on these unsuspecting victims, yet given the chance they'll swarm all over me too. They want the road as much as I do.
We turn north-east outside Warminster and really start to fly. Must be a tailwind. Or maybe I've found my groove. 23mph on the flat - easy.
We pass the huge white horse on the Westbury hillside and I wonder who put it there. How old is it? I imagine it was marked out by people centuries ago, commemorating the natural wonder that helped shape their land. In years to come, will there also be a giant bicycle or a motor car on these hillsides?
Forty miles in and we come to Box. Its reputation precedes it. I say the words out loud. "Box Hill". But we head down, not up. We hurtle into the village and somehow miss a turn. Not until five miles later do we realise. We're near Bath and we could call it quits. We both know it but no-one dares say the words. We roll on hoping to pick up the course again. It starts to rain heavily and we have a choice of two roads. We vote left and head to St Catherine's, relying on our sodden map print out for navigation. As we weave through tiny gravel-strewn lanes, bordered by lovely houses decked out in Bath stone, we nervously hope we're going the right way.
We come into forest lane and climb, climb, climb. I will Dad on, coaching him up the hills like he did to me years ago. "Turn the pedals, transfer energy through the cleats, sit, stand, short burst to the sign." I'm certain he wishes I'd shut up but I'm cold and need to push hard on the hills to get warm. A grouse wanders around, oblivious to our uphill struggle, and lightens the mood somewhat.
I see the top of the climb and I see riders rolling past at a t-junction. We're back on track, having made a minor detour. We've lost places; we've given the precious road away to other riders. Who cares now. We're 45 miles in and all I care about is seeing that finish line and getting off my bike. My back feels tight and my hands ache. At least the sun makes a brief appearance.
We cross the A420 and round Dyrham - the most northerly point of the course. The beauty of the fanciful estate and the ancient manor house looks in sharp contrast to the carbon fibre and lycra filing past.
Five miles until the finish and I know what's approaching. I rode this way 4 hours ago. Dad's slowing down and his legs are empty. How's he going to make it?
The climb of Prior Park Road starts and he's out the saddle and in his second easiest gear. I offer words of encouragement but they seem to be falling on deaf ears. He has nothing to offer. He doesn't want the road and he gives it to someone else. A ginger-haired women in her 20s slowly climbs past him. He offers a few cheery words but I know it must be hurting him. She gains 5 metres on us, then 10. Don't give up that wheel though. She stays out at 10 metres then slows a little. It's a war of attrition this one. The road steepens and Dad changes up a gear. It's his last and most easiest gear. "Turn your legs faster," I shout. Bit by bit he gains. A steep switchback on the hill catches the women infront unawares and Dad's back in front. Can he hold it to the top? I can feel the pride radiating off him, he fought back and already feels like a winner.
I drag him over the top and shout to keep it going. Keep pushing, a mile to go and there are two people just up ahead. We can catch them. Head down and keep pushing now. Give it everything you have old man. You've won that road and two more places by the time you cross that finish line. Pint and a pub lunch on me.
Sunday, 20 March 2011
Anyone keen on Welsh indie bands circa 1995 should recognise that lyric. Riding this week came with several doses of nostalgia.
After a week of working late, I finally managed to get out early enough on Friday for a decent post-work ride. 29 miles to Clevedon and back, trying to chase Pete down who got out 15 minutes before me. Despite getting my head down and ploughing a big gear, I just couldn't make up enough time - he'd clearly found his legs!
As I skirted the outskirts of Clevedon I passed the local Comprehensive school, with its playing fields smelling of wet mud and damp grass. The smell was evocative of rugby games at school and the lack of hygiene that 13-year old boys have - not that this 28-year old was smelling particularly fresh after a frantic day of work and 15-miles in 45 minutes.
Further down the road I caught up with Pete, who'd pulled in the wait for me, and we rode bit for bit towards Portishead along the northern edge of Walton and Weston moors. As the sun set, mist rose rapidly from the moors creating an eerie sight. I wondered how many people had ridden across those moors on horseback in times gone by. Pete and I however were futuristic travellers, I thought, dressed in tight fitting space-age clothing, riding carbon fibre horses. The delirium of hard effort and tiredness had set in.
I woke on Saturday with the feeling that my body was doing its utmost to stay in bed. It was a battle of wills. My head won. I agreed to meet Pete for a ride. 43 miles this time, out towards Wotton-Under-Edge. Saturday was the warmest riding day of the year and I soon regretted my four layers. By the time we climbed the 250 metres of Coombe Road (B4058) towards Stroud I was roasting. The smell of heat and warmth was all around. Even the tarmac smelt warm.
The ride back was a gentle canter as we chatted about this and that (talking is always a sign of an easy ride!), giving chase to each other's bursts now and then. Post-ride stats showed the distance was ridden with 16.2 mph average, slow by normal standards but it seemed wise to listen to our legs. Friday night's miles were weighing heavy.
I hadn't planned to ride on Sunday but needed to call in to Halfords and see about a cracked rear wheel. I rode the 6 miles to the store, got the wheel sorted with the minimum of fuss (a shout out for the great service at Halfords Brislington) and took the long route home through some new lanes on the outskirts of Bristol. I rode through Stockwood and Whitchurch to find East Dundry Lane. It's surprising what you find when you're prepared to explore. Dundry is high above south Bristol, offering excellent views of the city on one side and Chew Valley lakes on the other, along with some beastly climbs. Although this was close enough to the city, it was definitely countryside. The smell of fresh, moist cowpats hung heavily in the air - another smell closely linked with spring. I smiled, but not too much - shit brings flies! From Dundry I coasted downhill towards Bedminster Down, making a mental note to try the 170-metre ascent one night after work.
163 miles for the week. My biggest total to date and my calf muscles, hamstrings and lower back all feel tight. I must become friends with Mr Stretching this week...
Sunday, 13 March 2011
Having ridden the Spring Challenge several times in the past, I was expecting a challenging test and felt like I might be able to place well, having come 7th in 2009. My early season training was going to be put to the test and I was looking forward to seeing how those winter turbo miles would pay off. So with some excitement, Pete and I set off at 7am this morning, leaving Bristol and heading northwards to Kyre Park, near Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire.
Rain followed us all the way up but no sooner had we arrived than the clouds lifted to reveal a bright and sunny spring morning. The temperature was still cool enough to make clothing decisions difficult (most, including me, went for too many layers, regretting it within a short space of time) but the sunshine was most welcome.
We set off at 10am, with the sound of countryside church bells ringing in our ears. The first 15 miles or so took us through a roller-coaster of countryside lanes, mostly full of mud which soon splattered faces of anyone unlucky enough to be riding behind anyone without mudguards (apologies to my fellow riders!).
After early jostling for positions I found myself in the lead group of three riders. We were an awkward mix though as they raced down the hills they knew well, showing little regard for pot-holes or slippy roads, whilst I eased myself down them at a slower pace, still smarting from my recent crash, but made up time on the uphills.
Soon enough our group was broken by a flock of sheep being herded along a lane. We came to a standstill and were soon joined by a couple of other riders. I stopped briefly to make an adjustment and was caught napping as the others took advantage of a widened road and some nifty shepherding, which lost me about a minute on the group.
I soon clawed back the distance on the two rear markers but the front two were off and away. I chased hard for five miles but couldn't seem to make headway into their lead. I was just settling into a lonely ride to the finish when I caught them on a blind corner. Joining them only seemed to spur them on as I could just about hang on to their back wheels for several miles. 'Epic Cycles Jersey' and 'Blue Jacket' were their only distinguishing features until I caught my breath. Once I drew level I saw that Epic Cycles Jersey was a young lad of around 20 and Blue Jacket was a sunken cheeked racer, skinny, wiry, in his mid-30s and probably fit as fiddle.
Their pace was demanding but pride forced me to take a few turns at the front, always trying to reduce their pace a little to save something for the closing miles. I knew I was begining to hurt but what about them? Was Epic Cycles Jersey young and inexperienced? Did Blue Jacket have enough food inside that beanpole frame to make it to the finish? I was about to find out.
The organisers' pre-race information described Ankerdine Hill as 'legendary' and I'd heard a few riders mention its name with reverance. As we drew nearer Epic Cycles Jacket asked if I'd ridden it before. "No," I said, "have I got a treat in store?" His mumbled reply suggested something quite ugly was awaiting. A disgusting gradient was just around the corner, enough to make several riders dismount and walk, so Pete later told me.
We turned off an A-Road, passed by a pub, rode across a bridge over the River Teme, and came to a steep ascent with a 17% gradient sign. We rounded the first corner together and I saw what looked like a wall in front of me. I let out some expletives and watched my two compatriots ride off towards the sky. The climb lasted less than a half a mile but its effects were long lasting.
As I coasted the climb, with my lungs fighting for oxygen, I was treated to great views over two valleys either side of the road - Worcestershire in one direction, Herefordshire the other - but faced with an almighty chase back to the leaders on the road. Unfortunately the elastic had well and truly snapped and I couldn't claw them back a second time. Another monster climb a mile or two further down the road, longer this time but with a much shallower gradient, took the strength from my legs and I monotonously turned the pedals in the sunshine, enjoying the warmth but despising the effort the climb was extolling on my weary frame.
The miles slowly ticked by and, as my speed had dropped considerably, I kept checking over my shoulder for the fearful site of a peleton bearing down on me. With less than 10 miles to go, I saw a train of four approaching. I eased up until they were upon me then joined their chuffing, panting, cereal-bar fueled locomotive heading for the finish. My enthusiasm for riding hard picked up once I was on their wheels and I knew I would remain with them until the finish. However, it wasn't plain sailing. Local knowledge clearly helped as some riders, especially those in shop jerseys, instinctively knew where to put the hammer down and how to take blind corners.
As the finish drew nearer, we each took shorter turns on the front, not wanting to lead out the finish sprint, but perhaps, in the spirit of a reliability ride (or indeed a 'Corto Fondo'), the finish ended up as non-contest as we rolled in together, with handshakes and congratulations all round.
I finished joint third, posting a time of 3hrs 2mins 23s for the 55 mile route. Blue Jacket was the winner, coming in 5 minutes before us, getting the first choice of cakes and sandwiches in the clubhouse, the adulation of the very sparse crowd (mostly staff from Epic Cycles) and the glory of knowing he was the best on the day.
So the Epic Cycles Spring Challenge certainly lived up to its name. Epic, challenging and bathed in luke-warm March sunshine. It also robbed any evening 'spring' from my tired limbs!
Saturday, 5 March 2011
Saturday, 26 February 2011
It's funny how an ipod's shuffle facility can pick songs to match the conditions. I lost count of the songs that mentioned rain, mist, the cold, the wet and a number of other adverse meteorlogical conditions: Misty Mountain Hop (Led Zep), Red Rain (White Stripes)...
Yesterday's ride to Abergavenny and back took place underneath a wet blanket. A douvet of drizzle. A poncho of precipitation.
The rain started 15 minutes after leaving the house, in defiance of the forecast that promised rain much later in the day, and followed me to Govilon, just outside Abergavenny. Crossing the Severn Bridge proved to be a death-defying entrance into Wales as the wind tried to blow my bike out from underneath me.
The route up to Raglan normally provides a stunning view across the valley; this time the hills were shrouded in clouds and the 15% descents were taken with extreme caution.
At least the A40 provided a bit of 'fast and flat' before getting to the lunch stop with Mum, my sister, auntie, uncle and cousins.
The route back several hours later was even worse. By now the misty drizzle had turned to rain, plus the fading light made for a nervy 42 mile ride home. Coming to Devauden I could barely see 20m ahead and I was pleased to make it home in one piece.
No Rain by Blind Melon would have been welcome.
The conditions for Sunday's ride were much better, although it was anything but calm and sunny. A strong south-westerly buffeted me around Chew Valley lake but I found a nice new hill to Burrington Combe and a new route between Kennmoor Road and West End, Backwell.
With an 85-mile ride and a 62-mile ride, I feel like I've turned a corner. I'm feeling fitter, sharper and spritely on the hills, in good time too - my Epic Cycles 50 mile challenge is two weeks away.
In other news...
- Boneshaker issue 4 launched at Cafe Kino in Bristol on Friday. I have a lovely new t-shirt (detail pictured) and a great read waiting for me...
- A Garmin Edge 800 is coming my way, split 50:50 with my Dad.
- And after two punctures on my fixed wheel road bike, my mountain bike has a new wheel and slick tyre on order. Nelson lives again.
Sunday, 20 February 2011
Hunger-creating, fitness-making, hangover-clearning, adrenaline-charging, skill-honing, mud-caking fun
An early start on Saturday took me over the Severn Bridge to Magor - the midway point between my house and my Dad's. He rode to meet me and we caught up for half an hour over a coffee and a bacon sandwich. The shared interest we both have for riding bikes means we get to catch up like this regularly, no doubt boosting the takings of east Wales village cafes!
The route profile was pretty flat and normally I'd be flying along those roads but I struggled in the second half of the ride, perhaps suffering the after-effects of my crash. I was hungry, out of food and low on energy but I forced myself to add 5 extra miles so I could hit the 60-mile mark by the end of the journey. Then I ate myself silly later that afternoon - another perk of cycling!
Jake, Rose and Wilco came over on Saturday afternoon for the Mogwai gig that evening. So Sunday morning came with cloudy heads after a few too many beers. By the time more bacon sandwiches were quaffed we were just about feeling human enough to take the mountain bikes over to Cwmcarn, along with Bruce.
The recent rain made the technical uphill section slippery but it was still good to ride. It was steep and long though, so much so that Jake and Phil both threatened to be sick through the effort of the climb. They held it together though and we made it to the windswept start of the black trail.
The downhill starts with a sewer-pipe ride-through and some fun berms and table tops. We rode that section three times before moving on down the valley. The ribbon-thin route continued, parallel to the road for a few hundred metres, then wound up and down through the trees with some more technical sections.
The mid-section included a long, energy sapping climb before we could let rip downhill through the trees. Jake's hard tail took a battering at this point as our full sus bikes allowed Phil and I to eat up the rocks and boulders as the ground dropped away beneath us. My Kona rarely gets used to its full potential and when it does I wonder why I don't do it more often. I had to admit I was having a lot more fun than Saturday's solo road ride.
The end section wasn't long but it was fast and furious; a great, 20mph twisting and turning descent back to the car park. Time was against us so we had to leave after just the one lap. I'm not sure my mud-caked gears would have thanked me for a second lap anyway.
So next time I'm looking for some socialable, hunger-creating, fitness-making, hangover-clearning, adrenaline-charging, skill-honing, mud-caking fun, I'll try and repeat this weekend!
Thursday, 17 February 2011
Yesterday I fell off my bike in pretty calamitous fashion. The night before it had been raining heavily and there was a greasy sheen on most of the roads. But with my new resolution not to let inclemental weather put me off, I went for my planned early morning pre-work ride around The Downs in Bristol.
Although I was cautious to begin with, there wasn't a frost on the roads and I'd made it four miles without the slightest incident so perhaps I became a little cocky.
But as I rounded a sweeping corner on The Downs' Circular Road, my front wheel slipped out from underneath me and I graciously deposited myself on the tarmac.
Within a flash I was up again, dusting myself off and moving my bike out of the way of the car behind me. A few people turned, looked and asked if I was ok. "Yes, yes, fine thanks," I said, secretly cursing under my breath.
My primary concern was for my bike, which now displayed permanent scarring on its brake hoods and gear levers, and for my clothing, which carried new badges of honour.
At the back of my mind, I knew my body was stinging but adrenaline took over and it wasn't until later that I saw the three inch burn on my hip and cuts to my knee and elbow.
Still, that discovery wasn't to come until I got to work, and I still had three further miles to go through city traffic. I nervously remounted and edged down the road, gripping on for dear life at the corners.
The workplace showers revealed the full extent of my cuts and bruises, and the workplace first aid kit helped me cover them up, but I couldn't disguise the limp and my wincing face as the day wore on.
I woke today feeling stiff, but with an errand to run before work, I had to cycle nine miles before getting to the office. The riding itself wasn't a problem but I nervously approached every corner, fearing a fall.
I'd completely lost my nerve, and I think it'll remain hidden until the gashes on my left hand side disappear. Looks like it's back to the turbo trainer for a few weeks then!
That's quite a shame as I was beginning to really enjoy my early morning rides, getting three in last week, and had been feeling fitter, stronger and faster than at any other time this year.
Questions going round my mind at the moment include: How do you regain your nerve? Would better tyres have stopped me falling? And how do the pros remount and continue racing day after day?!!
Monday, 7 February 2011
Windy as it was, during work on Friday afternoon Pete and I planned a short, hilly Saturday morning ride. I was doubting whether it was going to be enjoyable but Pete's apparent keenness spurred me on. Saturday morning came round and this time Pete was having second thoughts. Luckily, by this time I was dressed and ready so headed out nonetheless.
Perhaps knowing he'd feel guilty if he didn't ride, Pete changed his mind and we met at midday as planned. I'd already put in 10 miles before meeting, so felt suitably spritely on the hills, even managing some "Pantani-esque" bursts of speed up Belmont and Tickenham hills. (Forgive me for comparing myself to a professional riding, I've just finished The Death Of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell and am feeling a little inspired.)
The wind made cycling in any vaguely south or westerly direction a real slog so we concentrated on short, hard bursts, taking time to catch up and chat in between. After an hour and a half we called it a day and I rode back to north Bristol, clocking 36 miles for the morning.
Sunday morning's ride followed a Saturday afternoon rugby beers and a Saturday night birthday celebration. With a hazy memory of the evening's events, miraculously I felt well enough the following morning to head out. I took the Severn Road Club 10-mile time trial route, clocking a disappointing 26m 50s. Although it's almost two minutes slower than my PB, I didn't feel too disheartened. It was a battle to race in that wind and to keep my mind on the job in hand. Plus I felt pretty sick when I finished, so either my hangover was kicking in or I'd been working at near maximum effort, or both.
After riding 10-miles to get to the start, plus the 10-mile TT, the returning 12-miles to home were taken at a snail's pace as I pottered around the lanes, barely picking up the pace for the hills. A cramp in my foot, my hangover and the now constant headwind defeated my morale. However, I clocked 32 miles in 1hr 46m, with an average speed of 18.1mph.
On Monday I took the day off work so I could stay up late on Sunday night and watch the Super Bowl. So, with a free day on Monday and nothing planned, I used the opportunity to get in three consecutive days of riding. Pete also had the day off so we took our fixed wheel bikes out and to ride from Bristol to Bath along the railway path. The smooth surface and very gentle uphill gradient on the outward journey made it the perfect route to for steady, sustained speed... but that's a bit boring!
Instead we raced, egged each other on, rode in slip-stream formation and exhausted ourselves over the 34-mile out and back journey. We both felt beat as we came back into the city, struggling up the final climbs to our respective houses.
So a hill climbing workout, a time trial and a fixed wheel training ride made it 100 miles in three days. Great to get more miles under my belt, especially something a bit different, but it's about time to work on stamina and longer rides I think. I'm already looking forward to this coming Saturday.
Sunday, 6 February 2011
For now, dark mornings and evenings and February's wet and windy weather still limit our time spent in the saddle.
I'm hitting the turbo trainer three times a week and fitting in rides on the weekend when I can. Their length tends to be dictated by the weather - last week's cold, icy conditions restricted me to two and a half hours on Saturday; this weekend's blustery gales sent me on hard 30-40 mile bursts, rather than long, soul-destroying rides into roaring headwinds.
My first 'event' of the year is coming up in March - Epic Cycles 50-mile Spring Challenge - which is sure to test my early season fitness. The route includes 1772ft of Clee Hill, the highest point in Shropshire, which always guarantees a tough slog to the top. My best place in this friendly sportive was 7th, in 2009, so I'll be hoping that last year's 6450 miles and this year's early season efforts will see me place even higher (especially if I don't take a wrong turn, miss the first wave and get caught at traffic lights again!).
I'm also considering entering some 4th cat races, having read some interesting pieces on road.cc and Bike Radar websites. My nearest races appear to be at Castle Coombe or Ilton airfield near Taunton - both between 40-60 minutes by car from my house. But it seems like there's a quite a few steps to take before turning up and riding - racing licence, riding etiquette and honing my group riding skills. Thursday, 5th May will be the first chance I get to check this out - the date is marked in my diary, whether I'll simply spectate or take part is yet to be answered.
Friday, 21 January 2011
Their ubiquitous blue bikes seem to be creating quite a buzz around cycling in London with the scheme attracting an average of 18,000 winter weekday trips on their 5000 or so sturdy, lumbering bicycles.
Walking around their compound I was able to take in the sheer scale of their operation, which employs 170 staff and mans 360 docking locations. Statistics quoted claimed that the scheme attracts 20-25% 'non-cyclists' (ie people who don't consider themselves 'cyclists'), which is commendable as it gets people out of cars and buses and onto a healthier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly form of transport.
The scheme does appear to have its critics, although these accusations tend to be concerned with the limited geographical spread of the project and how it is being financed. Whilst there's obvious public interest in the scheme being seen as value for money, surely there's a bigger picture here when the public purse is considered.
If London manages to raise its modal share for bicycles from 2% to the 4% of several other major UK cities, that's around 150,000 people getting fitter, saving money, reducing the strain on the health service and doing so in an environmentally friendly manner. I understand that this project needs to show value for money but how do you put a price on those benefits?
Amendment: No more than an hour after posting this I saw a fairly damning piece on the 10 O'Clock Show about Serco. Lauren Lavern made reference to Serco's reluctance to give accurate financial and performance information about a host of public sector projects, including work in the hospital and prison sector. Indeed, that may explain why my follow up emails about the financing behind the bike hire scheme have gone unanswered. Undoubtedly, a bike hire scheme for a city of 7 million people is a good thing and, from what I saw, Serco are running a tight and efficient ship. It's just a shame that the management of the scheme becomes the story rather than the bikes themselves. Still, that's the news industry for you.
Wednesday, 19 January 2011
It feels like my bikes have spent more time in the workshop this winter than I've spent on them. No sooner have I fixed up one bike has another shown signs of fatigue.
In November I became reacquainted with my boyhood bike - 'Nelson' of Nelson Cycles in the Brecon Beacons.
The bike came back to me bloodied, battered and bruised, and in dire need of a makeover. Brakes, gear levers, derailleurs, cables and wheels were all stripped off and replaced, and all other moving parts were removed and cleaned. The naked frame was sanded, buffed and resprayed. I gradually put it back together with the same diligence. The finishing touch was some lovely new Nelson stickers for the frame.
That project gave me the desire to fix up another bike so I converted my day-to-day bike (otherwise known as Bob Jackson) back into a fixed wheel, making full use of its track dropouts and narrow stays.
December's heavy snow forced me to abandon Bob Jackson in favour of Nelson. But after several weeks of use, combined with the salt on the roads, some of the parts on Nelson suddenly failed. On the way home from the pub just before Christmas, my rear brake locked on, forcing me to stamp on the pedals, which in turn snapped the chain as I was half way up Bristol's Park St. Falling off in front of a crowd of Christmas revellers is always guaranteed to bring a laugh (even I could see the funny side) but I had a long walk back home, pushing my bike along the snowy pavements.
Over the Christmas period I had the time to take out my other bikes, riding my Kona through the Ashton Court snow and my Boardman over to Wales as soon as the ice had cleared.
I hoped the new year would allow me to stop spending money on my bikes but, having recently started riding Bob Jackson again, now it seems that the rear brakes are failing on that bike, plus the right hand combination pedal is creaking badly and probably needs to be replaced.
But instead of spending on Bob Jackson, yesterday I bit the bullet and I finally got round to buying a new rear brake caliper for Nelson. After installing the new caliper and setting the brakes perfectly I noticed the left hand arm was a little wobbly. I tightened the bolt even further and then heard the dull crack of metal snapping. I'd broken off the V-brake mount. Then I heard the sharp barking sounds of someone swearing. I cursed loudly, several times, then called it a night.
I'll need a mechanic to let me know if it's replaceable - if not it will be curtains for my recently restored Nelson mountain bike.
Tonight I thought I might finally get a chance on the turbo trainer. I left work at a reasonable hour, factoring in some free time before my other evening duties. I was looking forward to a quick blast to blow the cobwebs away. Instead I found myself in the garage with tyre levers and patches. I punctured on the way home and had another long walk.