Monday 20 June 2011

Fear and loathing in East Sussex

Barcombe mad: The dizzying effects of too much caffeine
kicked in here
With apologies to Hunter S. Thompson, I was somewhere around Barcombe on the edge of the weald when the drugs began to take hold. 

And they needed to, as the previous 30-odd miles had been ridden at such a pace, I could feel the legs stiffening up and losing power noticeably. The drugs to which I refer were caffeine and glucose, of course. Or whatever it is they put in SIS gels these days. They certainly had a galvanising effect on me and probably saw me through the last 15 miles to Seaford.

A mid-August cycle to Paris beckons, so while staying with my parents, I thought I’d run a recce over the last stage of our UK leg, from Maresfield to Newhaven. What I’d failed to bargain for was the distance I’d need to go to get to that point.

So after setting off into a frankly ridiculous wind that almost blew me back into the house, I mashed my way along the back route to Lewes and northwards without ever getting out of the big ring. Big mistake.

I was already feeling slightly tired by the time I pulled over at North Chailey to replenish my water supply. This hadn’t been helped by my insistence on engaging in some Silly Commuter Racing along the A275 with a bloke I’d seen in the distance and was determined to pass. Finally swooped past him at the brow of a hill, but the effort was as unnecessary as it was ultimately costly.

The only saving grace was the screaming tail wind that propelled me along the A272 towards Maresfield. It only lasted the five or so miles, but it gave me the much-needed chance to rest up and conserve my dwindling levels of energy.

A quick once-round the roundabout and I was off the bike for a quick stretch, a banana and a quick bottle-swap. Veolia’s recycling centre provided the backdrop and ensured the stop wouldn’t be a long one.

Only a hundred yards in to the return leg and I was already wishing I’d stopped elsewhere for longer. The wind whipped up and the road hardened and rose. Not steeply or for any real distance, but to the legs it was like I’d stumbled upon an alp in east Sussex.

With legs seemingly as dead as the Piltdown Man I was passing, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the first of two energy gels I’d deemed would perhaps be more than necessary for the journey. Gulped down in a flash, it provided sufficient zing for me to appear sprightly to the slew of racers taking part in the local criterium I came upon. Or was that the pique of pride; I’m unsure.

What was noticeable was the difference between my performance in the sheltered parts of the road and that on the more exposed terrain. So by the gentle slope that ascends into Barcombe Cross from Spithurst, I felt the need for further stimulus and gulped down another gel. A good move because one wrong turn later and I was out of the saddle trying to crest the brief rise of Town Littleworth Road towards Cooksbridge.

From there on in it seemed like damage limitation. I felt like David Millar looked on stage 9 of last year’s Tour de France, save for a blistering descent of Winterbourne Hollow and a wind-assisted tank along the A259. The irony of wincing through Northease and Southease barely escaped me.

But the reward? A 45-mile jaunt at an average of just over 18mph. Clearly there’s some residual fitness in the legs from last year. But it’ll take some serious training to get to the stage where I’m properly match fit and able to reel off three 50-odd mile stages on the bounce. In two months’ time.

Monday 11 April 2011

Springtime in Sussex

Valley parade: Cuckmere Haven offers stunning views and
breathtaking cycling.
The lot of a fair-weather cyclist is not a happy one over the winter months. Hours spent cleaning bikes, tinkering with sprockets and looking gloomily out at the even gloomier weather.

But the second weekend in April sees positively Mediterranean temperatures soak the south coast and I finally decide it's time to get out on the bike again. It's been a long lay-off. The best bike is still in bits in its bag under the bed, but the trainer has been used sporadically on commuting detail, so I hitch it up on the roof-rack and head down to my parents' new place in Seaford.

Sunday morning is a great time to cycle - precious little traffic around and what little there is tends to give you a wide enough berth. So I'm out at the crack of dawn (OK, 9am) and off to test out the atrophied legs along the country road to Lewes and back. It's only 24 miles, but you've got to start somewhere, I tell myself.

Good job it was only a short distance. The first mile seems like several as I battle a pretty fierce headwind along the A259 towards Newhaven. But once on the Lewes Road, there's a bit more shelter afforded and I get up to cruising speed. It's only mild undulating territory, but each uphill feels like a mountain to these rusty thighs. And what was once only a brief tester up Winterbourne Hollow seems like the upper slopes of the Galibier.

Fortunately, the wind's behind me on the return leg and I blast along in the big ring, only switching to the smaller one up Blatchington Hill, which is really only a slight incline. But it's miles in the legs, which is all that matters to me at this stage.

This morning I decide to tackle a tougher route - the A259 from Seaford to Eastbourne; a much hillier proposition. There's a 14% climb out of the Cuckmere Valley that sees me in my lowest gearing and a gentler but longer rise out of Eastdean to the top of Beachy Head. But as there's an up, so there's a down - 40mph+  into Eastbourne's Old Town if you're wondering.

The return leg is not so simple. The wind is up and the ascent from Meads to Beachy Head is conducted in the smallest gearing possible against a strong, blustery wind that's whipping off the tops. It drags onwards, draining the last vestiges of energy gel out of me and I'm gasping for air as I get to the A259 again.

A new lease of life helps combat the wind as I plummet down into Eastdean again, only to be faced with the 17% sting of Friston Hill. It's here where my hill legs seem to have returned. I grind up the steeper section at the bottom and am practically sprinting by the top. I can do this. The muscles remember how.

If you've been 'following' the blog, you might be asking how this is ever going to prepare me for the Marmotte. Well it's not. I've decided against it this year as there's just been way too much going on. The expense was difficult to justify as well.

But I'll be taking the bike to Sussex again after this weekend. Exhilarating stuff and some truly breathtaking views.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Wharfedale squeakers

Otley disputed: after consideration, I decided
against climbing to Otley
Key to success in any venture is a full assessment of what needs to be done. A quantity surveying, if you will. You only need to look at the Sphinx to see how badly something can go wrong if you don't order enough stone, for example.

So I'm in Yorkshire for an extended weekend and I've taken the opportunity to turn the legs over on the roads that cut grey, mottled scars across the bellies of Wharfedale and Nidderdale. It's a chance to run the rule over my current fitness levels to see what scale of training programme lies ahead. If the two jaunts I've had so far are anything to go by, it'll be a long, hard winter.

A window on Thursday afternoon and I'm into the lycra like a man possessed, slapping on layer after layer against the bracing Yorkshire air. There's a nice 22-mile circuit that takes in a flat back four of Linton, Spofforth, Harrogate and Harewood before settling back into East Keswick along a straight, fast sprint of a lane. Although not a long ride, it takes in a few rises, dales and troughs along its length. Once within a sniff of home, the barrier of Harewood Bank stands brashly between you and your destination; a brusque, stocky Yorshireman, its chest puffed out defying you to pass. To a chippy Lancastrian, this is all the red rag I need and I power up it as best I can in the 21-tooth sprocket and small chainring.

My verdict? I've made the change to a more race-oriented cassette too soon. This is soft, southern gearing, not the kind you need for the harsher highways of the north. But I survived it nonetheless and feel I've carried at least some fitness through from the summer.

Friday morning's ride is an altogether longer, testier affair. I've plotted a route through Wetherby, Little Ribston and Knaresborough all the way up to Ripley, then down through Beckwithshaw and out up it's cruel, malevolent corkscrew towards Otley, Pool, Arthington and Harewood Bank once again. It's just under 40 miles and the terrain is enough to turn grown men into squeaking, squealing mice.

This time I head off way too quickly, overtaking another cyclist on the descent towards the A58 and feeling like I need to hold him off to make the pass stick. It's big chainring stuff all the way to Ripley and I feel I'm averaging around 20mph. Veering on to the B6161 is a sobering lesson and I'm quickly dispelled of any notion I'm Fabian Cancellara as the wind whips into my face and halves the average speed in an instant. It comes as no surprise that I choose this moment to try and eat a cereal bar and end up breathing in small particles of rolled oat as I pootle into the headwind.

The road helps assassinate any myth of my own prowess I seem to have built up on the way to Ripley. What appears a mere bump takes all my strength to negotiate. A 10% gradient sign shows how steeply I'll descend, but fails to warn me of the 15% beast on the other side of the valley and I'm up. Out of the saddle, breathing hard as a rutting warthog and clinging to the mercy of the 23-tooth sprocket that at least allows me to turn the pedals.

It's painful progress, but I reach Pool still in one piece, although in no state to tackle an ascent up to Otley. I shun the climb in favour of a blast along the valley, taking on an energy gel to help with Harewood Bank. I try this in the lowest gear possible (34x23), but soon feel confident enough to grind out the rest on the 21-tooth sprocket. Reassuringly, I'm able to gun it along Harewood Road, sprint through East Keswick and up Lumby Lane.

Quantities suitably surveyed, I've planned a 45-mile final exam tomorrow morning that takes in Darley Head, a climb made famous in the Milk Race in years gone by. If I pass that, I'll feel buoyed enough to really loosen the shackles when I get back to London. Failure will banish me to the turbo trainer for a crash course in interval training. The stakes are high.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

A glutton for punishment

On repeat: that nagging sensation of
unfinished business rears its head
Late October. I cycle back in the wet and dark wearing ever more clothes as the temperatures plummet. Hills I flew up in summer are proving trickier to negotiate now, despite regular practice.

So what better time to decide on another crack at the Marmotte? I've been deliberating for a couple of weeks; ever since the first cold snap bit at my cheekbones and trawled the water out of the sides of my eyes. Thoughts turned inevitably to warmer times in hotter climes and endless climbs.

There is the possibility, of course, that I've just forgotten how painful it was and how much work it took. Perhaps bravado has taken over. Maybe I've just lost a marble or two. But I know I can do it now. And I've been feeling there is unfinished business out there.

So the plan is to start training in earnest this weekend. A long weekend in Yorkshire will see me put in some bumpy miles, mostly to see where I am fitness-wise and assess how much work needs to be done. This time, I'm aiming to do it in less than nine hours, more than two hours quicker than my time last year.

This will be possible, I believe, for a number of reasons. Last year was all about whether I could do it and raising money; neither of which are factors any more. I also spent far too long at feedstops admiring the view when I could have been on the road last year. Then there were the two seated comfort breaks, which put on at least half an hour to the overall time. My descending could have been better too. I also failed to get down to my target weight and didn't put anywhere near as much training in as I'd have liked. Starting in January was possibly too late as well.

It will be different this time. To reach my target, I'll need to be more strict with myself, eat the right foods, structure my training better, put in more base fitness miles over the winter and lose about five kilos. Come July next year, I'm going to look like a toned-up whippet rather than the Labrador I currently resemble. At least, if all goes according to plan.

So I have just over eight months in which to lose weight and add speed, power and stamina. I'm about to board the roller-coaster again. Ups. Downs. Flats. I'll welcome them all.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Higher education

College fees: one of London's earlier attempts
at the Congestion Charge
As with many things in life, what starts out as a lofty, worthy idea can often turn quite quickly into a ruddy millstone round your neck.

So it's proven so far with the hills challenge. I've compiled my list, put in place a plan of action and even cleaned my bike in preparation for the first tilt at the inclines.

But have I crossed any off yet? Alas no. My flat 3.5 mile commute is all the cycling I've done for the past three weeks.

I've thought a good game, mind. The number of times I've relived climbing the cols of the Alps in the recent past is uncanny. And both my bikes are now looking pristine. Yet still the ascents have failed miserably to get off the ground.

Until this evening, that is. A group of cyclists - players of the unspoken game of SCR - have instigated the College Road challenge. A simple, timed ascent of the upwardly immobile toll road in Dulwich, starting at the toll booth and finishing at the top of Fountain Drive. It's not quite a mile long and isn't particularly steep until you get to the top, but it's only a bit of fun.

So I had my first crack at it tonight. And didn't do too badly considering the only thing I've climbed of late is the stairs, recording a time of 3 minutes and 28 seconds. I think I can improve on that as well as I was stymied by a ponderous Volvo and one or two fellow cyclists who were weaving somewhat towards the peak.

And the bonus is, I get to put in 11 miles on my commute home, which is bound to help as I eventually get round to completing a few of the hills.

Next stop... the list.

Monday 6 September 2010

The hills are alive

Bone idle: Skeleton Hill in the Chilterns
might not make the list
Alive with all sorts of history. Of culture. Of tradition. And above all, of inclines that will sap muscles, strain sinews and possibly force confused lungs up through windpipes to see if this new perspective can help them work out what's going on for themselves.

There are hundreds of the things dotted about all over the place. Formed by glacial movements, ancient collisions of tectonic plates and even huge human excavations, hills have defined the British countryside by their beauty, stature and the views afforded by them once you've made the effort to scale them.

And having had a crack at a fair few in the last year or so while training for the Marmotte, I've decided my next challenge is to climb 100 of them in the south east of England in the next year. By bike.

It's taken just over a month to compile the list, which I realise is the easy bit. It's by no means a comprehensive one. Doubtless there will be some obvious omissions that I'm happy for people to point out in the comments section.

But these are the ones I've chosen. The criteria were that they are in the south east, so south of Watford Gap and east of the Solent. I know there are more impressive and challenging hills available in Wales, the north west, Yorkshire, the Peak District, Scotland and Cornwall. But all these places are too far away, so I'm not even going to try. Besides, someone's already listed the 100 best climbs by bike in the UK, so if that's what you want, buy that instead.

Other criteria were that they were around 100 metres or so in height gain, were conspicuous in some way, had a good pub nearby or had a daft enough name that it appealed. I've been helped in putting the list together by some kind people on the Bikeradar website and the Kent Cycling Association, so huge thanks to them for their assistance. They'll be credited as I go along.

Just got to pluck up the motivation to get started now, especially as the weather's on the turn. Time to head to the Downs for the first of the ups.

Monday 9 August 2010

Huez wally?

Twenty-one switchbacks to go, as So Solid Crew may have rapped if they'd been into cycling at all. And been at the bottom of Alpe d'Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends that lead you to the top.

A wholly unlikely scenario, I'll grant you. But then if you'd asked me this time last year if I'd be bowling up the first of the Alpe's ramps after 100 miles in the genuine belief I could make it, I'd have blinked and inwardly questioned your sanity.

As it was, I began to question my own in the sapping, insistent heat. Climbing hills, and ipso facto mountains, on a bike is both physical toil and a huge mental test. Your legs are in pain and they're telling your brain to stop, get off and push. Your lungs tell you there is no more oxygen left and that you should stop, get off and push. The limbs you've bent over a bicycle all day complain like a clutch of bored teenagers on a trip to a church of interest in the picturesque Breton countryside with their parents. And they too advise you to stop.

Then your mind chips in. Why are you doing this? Can't you see this is damaging? Stop now while you can. Look. Other people have stopped. Some are walking. So can you. It's so much easier that way. You haven't got the strength. You haven't got the energy. You are not cut out for this. Stop. Get off. Push.

But a small part - one that's been honed over the last six months of training - blocks out the common sense and drives you ever forward. Marshals the lungs to gulp in air, chivvies the leg muscles to carry on contracting and expanding. Tells the limbs they're fine. Shouting down its larger, more insistent brother.

And it wins. We count down the hairpins as we climb. I had wanted to make a note of who each corner was named after, as each bears the name of a previous winner of a Tour de France stage that's finished at the top. But my mind was too busy telling me to stop or urging me on, so that just didn't happen.

At the village of La Garde, a saint had rigged up a curtain of water across the road to douse the baked as they ascended. We stopped at hairpin 11 to take on more energy gels and bars. Then again at turn seven where the water stop provided much-needed liquid and a soaking from a French army private armed with a hose.

By turn four, I needed to take on more energy, so stopped under the shade of a minute tree for the last energy gel I'd secreted away for just such an eventuality. The last few switchbacks barely registered as we neared the summit and I felt I could put in a sprint by the time we saw the roundabout before the finish.

And so, it was done. Sheer elation on crossing the line, followed by a healthy stretch and the polishing off of water. An obligatory photo at the finish line, then back to soak in a bath and head out for a celebratory beer or two.

More than a month later, I'm finally finishing the blog as well. Much has changed since I set out.

I have lost about a stone in weight, most of which is still off. I have a swanky bike that's way too good for me, but which I need to grow into. I've developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hills around north Kent/south east London. I've used up an awful lot of brownie points that I'm keen to pay back. I'm considerably fitter and healthier. I've become quasi-addicted to quinoa and a dab hand at making flapjacks. I have no fear of any hill.

In practical terms, I've raised more than £1,500 for Macmillan Cancer Care and just over £100 for Coral Cay Conservation. That's thanks to some lovely and generous family and friends, without whom, etc. I am genuinely amazed to have raised so much, so a big thank to everyone who coughed up. If that wasn't you, I'm delighted to say you can still do so by visiting my Justgiving site.

And I did what's generally regarded as the hardest sportive in the world. I am, justifiably, proud of this.

I am also wondering what the next challenge will be. Would I do it again? I'm not sure. I'd like to post a competitive time, but I'm not sure I've earned the right to train that hard again.

Perhaps I'll leave it another year and see.