Wednesday, 30 June 2010

And we're off

So that's it, then. Bag packed, training done, last-minute panics had. All that remains is the journey and the race.

I've borrowed a tiny digital video camera with which I hope to record some of the suffering and upload edited bits on to the blog after the event. Big thanks to Piers for answering the extremely last-minute call.

And a huge thanks to everyone who's coughed up their hard-earned so far. At the time of going to press (heh), I'm 88 per cent of the way towards achieving my upwardly revised target of £1,500. It really has been a source of inspiration to see the money mounting up, so thanks again to all of you, who are thankfully too many to mention. Although I might well post up a roll of honour if I ever get through this thing. There's still time to get your name on there as well - just follow this link.

That'll be it now until I return, so thanks for reading and following the ups and downs of what's been an interesting six months. There's no way of knowing whether I've done enough, but whatever happens, I'm a damn site fitter and thinner than I was at Christmas.

Stay tuned for next week's blow-by-blow account of what is more than likely going to be the hardest thing I've ever done.

Pip pip,

Ben

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Box Hill cavalier

What goes up must come down
Spinning wheel got to go 'round.

I have Blood, Sweat and Tears to thank for Sunday's earworm that accompanied me on my Father's Day jaunt to Box Hill.

Nestled on the east side of the Mole Valley, Box Hill is a delightful place and provides the Surrey cyclist with the merest soup├žon of an Alpine climb. Averaging around a 5.5% gradient over its 2.5 km, the zig-zag road takes you from a roundabout on the A24 to a dizzying 172 metres above sea level. And a lovely little cake shop at the top is your reward.

But not for me the temptations of National Trust sponge slices. My aim was to do as many repetitions of the hill as I could in the measly hour and a half I had at my disposal. Thanks to the generosity of some early leavers, I procured a free ticket for the parking area at the summit and rolled my gentle way downhill to the start, admiring the stunning scenery as I descended.

Managed six ascents before having to call it a day, which equates to almost one full alpine climb. OK, maybe around three-quarters of the first ascent on the Marmotte, the Col du Glandon.

The good news is, I knew there was plenty more left in the tank. I'd barely broken sweat. The other tremendous thing I discovered was that I can fit my bike, sans wheels, into the boot of our tiny Renault Clio, which meant I didn't have to have my heart in my mouth as the lightly clamped bike swayed in the wind while pinned to the roof-rack.

On a slightly irksome note, my left calf muscle seems to be somewhat tender, but given I'll be more or less resting up over the next week and a half, it should settle down in time for the big day.

It certainly didn't stymie my SCR on the way home this evening. A guy on a Trek hybrid gave me the hurry-up from Tower Bridge Road all the way to Cold Blow Lane and I'm pleased he went his separate way as I'd had a bit of trouble shaking him off. Legs were juddering and the lungs were screaming as I dismounted, but the grin on my face was visible for some distance, I expect.

And I'm actually beginning to look forward to Saturday week now. I'll try a few more hill reps over the coming week and will simulate a two-hour alpine climb on the turbo, but other than that I think I'm as prepared as I'm going to be, so I may as well enjoy what's coming.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Bunce boost

If a week is a long time in politics, it's an equinox in football.

Stuart Hall, possibly the greatest summariser the beautiful game has ever known, once brightened up a fairly dismal Saturday afternoon of mine many years ago with the above pearler.

Making a difference this week was Dr Em, one half of global party beatsters Funky Jim and Dr Em, who added much-needed impetus to my fund-raising effort this week. Just some well-placed words on the internet was all that was needed to push the amount collected over my one grand target. Chapeau, squire, and much appreciated.

Much like the Marmotte, though, having reached one peak, there's another just on the horizon. I decided to up the target to £1,500, which may or may not be achievable, but you've got to give it a whirl, haven't you?

Training's been practically non-existent this week, partly due to prudent planning and partly a result of the hammering I took in last week's Magnificat. The legs didn't feel up to anything at all up to and including Wednesday, so I allocated the following day to be my first cycle commute of the week.

And it was all going according to plan until around 6am on Thursday, when I was woken by an intense stabbing pain in my left shoulder. This spread to my chest and I've seen those ads on telly with the middle aged bloke having his chest crushed by an imaginary belt, so I immediately thought heart attack. A call to NHS Direct elicited precious little reassurance, especially as I was put through to the London Ambulance Service to book in for a quick trip to A&E.

Several prods, listens and ECG tests later, I was given a clean bill of health and dispatched to the streets of Lewisham two paracetamol to the good. Gotta love the NHS. Breathing was still slightly painful, though; a sensation amplified by my cycle into the bike shop to get the gearing sorted out. As well as having heavy legs, I found it insanely difficult and uncomfortable to breathe deeply.

Friday's commute in was more painful than usual, although some of that might be down to my pride forcing me to 'drop' the guy drafting me along Great Dover Street. The return journey was better, but it's still a worry. Nurofen seems to have done the trick, though, and there is now no pain to speak of. I'll be giving it a good work-out tomorrow at Box Hill, where I'm planning a few repetitions to keep the sharpness in the legs.

In exactly two weeks' time, I will have completed the challenge. Or failed. It's now so close I can touch it. I'm actually genuinely scared, having spent the evening viewing pictures of each of the climbs. But the surge in sponsorship has definitely provided a timely tonic, so thanks to everyone who's chipped in.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Rough riders

I feel so broke up today
I feel so broke up today
Lord, I feel so mash up today

Likewise, Prince. Likewise. Sunday's last long-distance sortie before the big day saw me tackle the 127-mile Magnificat on the variable roads of Berkshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire.

While the scenery was beautiful, breathtaking even, the terrain was rough. Save a relatively flat section after the first three climbs, almost the entire course was a series of annoying, morale-sapping ups and downs. This provided little opportunity for getting into a rhythm and tapping out the miles and instead made for a frustrating afternoon. After a 20-mile stretch of just such undulating terrain, I laughed at the ridiculousness of yet another crest and slough. Through gritted teeth, of course.

And despite the weather doing its bit and staying dry and fairly warm, a blustery wind did its best to hamper. But nothing - nothing - hurt more than the road surfaces. Dreadful. It was almost like I didn't have any tyres and was riding on rims of pure granite. With an iron seatpost. And an anvil for a seat. The great Sean Kelly would no doubt describe them as 'heavy roads' and I wouldn't disagree for a second.

Then there were the mechanical problems, with the front mech proving unreliable again. This meant having to scale the odd hill in the big chainring as well as riding the last 10 miles on the small chainring when I could have done with the speed afforded by the bigger one. I thought this had been sorted out by the bike shop at the beginning of the month, but alas no. So straight back it goes on Thursday. If there's one thing I'll need in three weeks' time, it's the certainty I can switch reliably between the two chainrings. It'll be bad enough climbing more than 5,000 metres as it is, without the added anxiety of potentially unsuitable gearing.

But despite all this, I did the 127 miles. Those hard, rough miles are in my legs. They're in my backside. And my hands. Feet. Ribs. Bones. All the slog and pain is now firmly implanted in my body's memory, where it'll need to stay up to and including 3 July. When my brain is ordering me to stop and is threatening to shut down various bits of my body halfway up the Alpe d'Huez, it'll be that memory I'll be calling on to remind my mind to mind its own business.

And that's pretty much it for the distance training. I know I can do the miles now, so there's no longer a need for that kind of exertion. Certainly not with the race so close anyway. I'll be carrying on with the silly commuting racing, though. And will be getting some early morning hill repetitions in as well to maintain sharpness on the inclines. A sharpness I definitely felt on the ascent of Stoner Hill near the aptly named village of Steep.

So all that then remains is to get out there and do it. And to hit my target of raising £1,000 for Macmillan Cancer Care, which is looking more likely than it was two months ago. By the looks of things, I think the amount raised is as good a barometer as you'll get for how ready I am for the Marmotte.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The incredible Bwlch

We'll keep a welcome in the hillside
We'll keep a welcome in the Vales...

And so they did, as more than 4,000 eager cyclists pounded the streets and mountain passes of south Wales in the Dragon Ride. Literally tens of people lined the avenues to cheer on the bicycling faithful in surprisingly seasonable weather last Sunday, a heart-warming and strengthening sight to witness from the pain and discomfort of the saddle.

The event was my first ever 'sportive' and, having completed the 190 km course in a shade under eight hours (7h 55m 16s, to be exact), I'm taking some encouragement into what is the final month of training before the big day. While not in the same league as the Marmotte, the Dragon Ride is nevertheless a challenge, so finishing in a respectable time after what's been a difficult couple of weeks is no mean feat.

So do I feel more confident? Not particularly. Yet again, the knee went weird after 10 or so miles before easing off at the 20-mile mark. Great timing for tackling the Bwlch (pron. bulk) from the Ogmore Valley side, but not so good for taking on the mighty Col du Glandon, which begins after only 12 km of the Marmotte. And again, as time wore on, discomfort and fatigue began to take their toll.

But the crumbs of comfort I do take from the weekend just gone are in a way much more relevant. My climbing and descending really came together. After 100 miles, I still felt strong enough to blaze up the Bwlch from the Afan Valley side in marginally less than 15 minutes. Coming down the other side saw me reach speeds in excess of 45 mph, which was pretty exhilarating. It was only in the 'rouleur' undulating territory that I struggled a bit. And the good news is, there isn't any time for that in the Marmotte, because it is literally all up and down.

Next weekend, I'm taking part in the Magnificat, which covers just such rouleur ground. It's not ideal, but at 127 miles long, it'll certainly help with endurance. Then there are just two more weekends before the big day. I may or may not put in another long ride in that time, but more likely I'll be working on the turbo trainer or doing early morning hill repetitions.

Whatever I end up doing, it's mere tinkering now. The bwlch of my training has already happened.