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.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Savoie faire-well

Let's just get one thing clear - going downhill on a bike isn't as easy as it sounds.

OK, so you don't have to pedal, power-to-weight ratio is really not an issue and it doesn't feel like every sinew in your body is about to splutter into uselessness. But it's an art nonetheless and takes a huge amount of dexterity, hand strength for the all-important braking and, above all, a flagrant disregard for what could happen.

Doesn't feel like much in a car on the open road, but hurtling down a mountainside at 40+ miles an hour on a bike along tightly bending roads is good enough for any speed-junkie.

So there you are. Blasting along the greatest descent in Europe surrounded by the stunning Savoie countryside. And you're looking at 100 yards of tarmac ahead of you the whole time. Knowing that a puncture or one lapse in concentration could see you rag-dolling along the road or careering off over the edge into the abyss. It's a situation where vision and line of sight is everything.

Hold that thought. Is it in there? Good.

Now imagine you're gunning it at more than 40 miles an hour along that twisty, turny road when, all of a sudden, someone turns out the lights and you're cycling blind. It's at this point the road gets rough and you need both hands on the bars to keep it upright. The buzz-saw of a million car exhausts is ringing in your ears. At odd intervals, you can just make out the whites of sad-eyed monsters creeping inexorably your way in a game of what is, for you anyway, suicidal chicken.

Welcome to my world in the tunnel before La Grave. I had been warned about it, but even my hopefully nightmarish description above doesn't do it justice. I have genuinely never been more scared on a bike than in the first few moments of the tunnel. There was no lighting to speak of, save a row of smogged-up bulbs overhead that were giving out about as much of a beam as a fading tea-light. I was doing a silly speed and the road began to bobble, so both hands were gripping the bars firmly, which probably didn't help.

Neither, I admit, did the sunglasses I was wearing, but I had no opportunity to remove them, so there they remained. A virtual blindfold I was unable to shed. I couldn't see the lines down the centre of the road. I couldn't see where the tunnel wall was. God knows what would have happened if the road had deviated from the gun-barrel straight. What seemed like years later, a dim light appeared at the end of the tunnel and I pedalled hard for it, hoping above hope it wasn't the light of an oncoming juggernaut.

Coming out of the tunnel was like being born again. I had been given life and it was precious. And I aimed to keep hold of it for a bit longer, so I pulled over and removed the offending sunglasses in preparation for the next few tunnels, which thankfully weren't as long.

Once through them, the road smoothed out and became a joy to ride on. It perhaps would have been even better without the freak, torrential 15-minute downpour that summoned up the road grease like a blackbird tapping up the morning worm.

A quick comfort break and banana stop at the bottom of the descent gave me the chance to stretch my legs and wait for Martin, which didn't take long. We hacked our way further along the valley past a glorious looking dammed lake and on towards Bourg d'Oisans, taking turns in a good, swift group that boosted our progress.

Up until we were stymied by my chain coming off after a routine gear change. Thanks, Shimano. No, really.

But it was all downhill to the bottom of the Alpe from there along nice, smooth roads. So determined was I to reach the timing mat before the cut-off point that I shouldered most of the burden of the headwind on the front of a long line of riders. But I felt strong enough to tow the rest and, as I'd been helped out earlier in the day, it seemed only fair.

The stop in Bourg d'Oisans was confusing, with plenty of people strewn around clearly going nowhere. Could they really be stopping now with just one more climb to go? Our water bottles filled, we made our way over the timing mat and pulled over out of the now searing heat in the shade afforded by a small hedge. Here, we topped up on gels and fruit bars in readiness for the final assault...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Better part of Valloire

And so the slog begins. Galibier is a beast of a climb that drags upwards through a valley for several miles before switching back and upwards into the clouds.

I first heard of the mountain pass quite late in life at a bar in Toulouse while watching Le Tour. The Frenchman describing the next day's stage just said 'Col du Galibier' with such emphasis on the middle syllable that I couldn't help but wonder at its legend.

Watching that stage, and subsequent Tours de France, only added to the mountain's mythology. It was the one part of the Marmotte that I was genuinely afraid of and the highest point too, at 2645 metres above sea level. I've been on planes flying lower than that. When I'd started out at St Michel de Maurienne just before the Télégraphe, I was more than 2 kilometres lower.

If anything, the trail up the valley broke me into it gently and I was surprised at how high I'd already come by the time I reached Plan Lachat, more or less the halfway point of the climb. But it was here I had to stop courtesy of a return of the troublesome stomach issues that had seen me stay at the previous water stop for so long. I got chatting to an Irish guy in a Livestrong shirt while in the queue and asked him whether he'd be doing it again next year. No way, he said, pointing at the ramp that seared up from Plan Lachat and formed the first part of the route up the Col after the stop.

After several minutes, I saw Martin grinding up the valley, so motioned him to stop. We filled the water bottles, stretched out and contemplated the task ahead while munching down energy bars and topping up the gels.

Once on the ramp, I found the going surprisingly manageable. Maybe it was the altitude, but the further I climbed, the lighter I felt. The scenery was growing ever more spectacular and unearthly. People have compared it to a moonscape and I'd tend to agree in some parts. Except the bits where torrents of melting ice were cascading down the roads.

Higher, further up and along the road I pedalled, feeling inexorably drawn to the feed stop that was waiting for us just one kilometre below the summit. I knew water, gel, food, energy drink and a few laughs would be there, so ploughed on past crawlers and walkers ever closer to the peak.

Snow was more prevalent the longer the climb went on and it was on the other side of a huge drift that I finally saw the Veloventoux van. I guzzled and glugged like a caveman possessed for a good few minutes before calming down a bit and admiring the view. I felt almost overwhelmed by what I saw. Both the distance, height and terrain I'd covered were genuinely awe-inspiring. It was at this point I felt confident I'd finish the race intact. And as if signalling my more relaxed outlook, several loud blasts of wind entertained the gathered flock and many of the passing cyclists too.

Following a quick stop for some obligatory snaps just after cresting the summit, we began the 40-kilometre descent I'd been looking forward to for some weeks...

Friday, 16 July 2010

Télégraphe road

Fortified by a couple of half bananas and a fruit bar, I hacked my way through a jungle of riders to the edge of the abyss - a 20-odd kilometre descent of the Glandon.

What goes up must come down. And down and down and down, judging by the road that sprung out down the mountainside before me like a deranged tarmac slinky.

The race organisers neutralised it - basically turned the timing chips off - so people would go down a bit more steadily. By all accounts, it can get quite hairy and certainly the top is what they call technical. Which means steep and twisty, as far as I can tell.

Martin had already fallen foul of it, puncturing as a result of an inner tube blow-out thanks to overheated rims caused by excessive braking. I tried to stop as I flew past at a daft lick, but it would have been dangerous to do so. Once off the tops, it really was a case of The Long And Winding Road. I lost count of the switchbacks and hairpins negotiated and was genuinely grateful when I saw the signs for St Etienne des Cuines, which signalled the end of the descent.

More fool me. What followed was possibly my worst time in cycling. Approaching 15 kilometres of main road in searing heat and a block headwind the size of Wales to boot. I did my level best to tag on to the end of groups, but they were all moving too quickly, so I wrestled the bike along by myself, feeling every inch like I was being blasted backwards.

I also began to feel the effects of too many energy drinks and bars, which were weighing heavily on the stomach. Cramps ensued, but thankfully respite was at hand in the form of a water stop replete with portaloos. You could say I outstayed my welcome there.

By the time I emerged, having taken an aeon to put my jersey back on, Martin had arrived, so we ploughed on to the base of the Col du Télégraphe in tandem. For the first few hundred yards, I exchanged pleasantries with a Dulwich Paragon rider, but felt stronger after the gel I'd ingested so span on ahead.

Known as being the easiest of the Cols, it lived up to its billing. But what a climb. Forested at the outset, the road snakes ever higher through thinning trees until you can look to your right and see just how high you've climbed from the plain below. An inspiring sight. Cresting the pass without stopping felt like an achievement by the time I got there. But I eagerly sought shade and a comfy seat on arrival.

Fatigue was beginning to set in now and Martin was certainly feeling the effects of little sleep, so we stopped for some time before hitting the descent - a nice 5 km drift down into Valloire. And you can relive that descent vicariously through the medium of internet video below.

Yes, yes, I know it looks slow, but that's just the video. Honest.

But I'd be forgiven for taking it easy over that stretch, as the gruesome Galibier was waiting in the wings...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Glandon the run

A pitifully weak, nagging high-pitched bleep ushers in the big day with the kind of whimper I expect to be emitting by the end of it.

Muesli is eaten. Near tasteless pasta forced down. Coffee deals a gentle nudge to the ribs. Slowly, activity trumps torpor and we're waiting, bug-eyed, at the top of the Alpe.

From the off, Mark plunges down the mountain like a man on rails. I do my best to follow, but wimp out of some of the turns as I've much less confidence in the descent. But bravado or, more likely, fatigue from braking takes precedence and I match him on the lower slopes, reaching the bottom mere seconds after him and a good few minutes before the other two.

This means we start slightly ahead of Martin and Nick, but it's not long before they catch me and I hitch on to the back of the train they're in, heading for the first climb. These first few kilometres are tackled with unnerving ease, but this is shaken away by the sight of the first ramp up to the reservoir. It's a short hike, but it signals the beginning of a roller-coaster of mainly ups, with the odd down mixed in to keep it interesting.

Yet again, I save my first cereal bar for the bottom of a long climb, wheezing through the oats as I gasp in the air. My fellow Marmottees think I'm in serious trouble and I'm sure they wonder what I'm doing there. But I'm surprised at how easily I seem to be ascending, passing many competitors as I tap away at a fairly decent lick. Good old Westerham Hill has clearly served its purpose. But what's different is that this is like eight of them stacked up in a row, so by the time I crest the first false summit, I know I'm in a bit of a fight.

Luckily, there's a couple of kilometres' dip before the next climb, the bottom of which gives me the chance to shed the gilet. Unfortunately, halfway up the 12% ramp, my load lightens and I'm shouted at by passers-by. I've dropped the gilet, along with several energy bars, so I have to stop. Dismount. Walk jelly-legged downhill. Fold up the gilet and stow it properly. Then try to clip in on a steep gradient. I half pedal at least 100 yards before my left foot finally clips in, but the ire stoked by my stupidity sees me past the most severe slope and on to the steadier incline.

It's at this point I pass a man with one arm and one leg missing. He's cycling up the hill on an adapted bike with one pedal. I'm astounded and amazed. To enter the Marmotte is the reserve of the fairly daft or the braggadocio. But this is real drive and triumph over adversity stuff that puts my efforts into stunning context. I resolve to quit moaning and just get on with it.

And this perseverance is rewarded by incredible views over lakes, mountains, valleys and horizons. The Col du Glandon wheedles its way through daisy-strewn alpine meadows the like of which I haven't seen since Heidi was televised in the mid 1970s on children's television. The view keeps me going and I've practically forgotten the pain as I see the feed stop at the top.

I've conquered one alpine pass. Only two more remain before I scale the Alpe...

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The long dud Friday

Alpe d'Huez is like a Glastonbury Festival of cyclists. They are everywhere, crawling around the place in nervous anticipation with a combined £10 million worth of bikes beneath their legs in preparation for the big day.

Registration and preparation are the order of the day, but Martin and I, along with Mark who's in our apartment, want to get some hill miles in our legs to test the bikes out. We decide on the Col de Sarenne, a 7km pass that skirts around the edge of the 3320-metre Pic Blanc and out towards the Barrage du Chambon.

Once out of the confines of the paid-for roads, however, we discover it's more of a mountain bike route. Mark and I press on, but Martin heads back having seen enough poor road surfaces to know that punctures are never too far away.

The rough road plunges down into a gorge before rising up to its peak of 2,000 metres. It's dreadful, but I need the psychological boost of an alpine pass in my legs, so I graft up the 11% gradient till I reach the summit. Mark has gone beyond and down into the valley, but I stand at the top and drink in the fresh mountain air. It's fairly thin, but feels innately healthy. I see Mark sprinting back to the top up what looks a horrendously steep incline and decide he'll be in a different class come tomorrow's race.

We drift back and prepare to register, which takes none of us anywhere near as much time as we fear. The temperature is rising fast, so we seek solace indoors and watch the football. Given we're setting off to Bourg d'Oisans - where the race starts - at 6.30am, we take an early dinner of pasta at Smithy's Tavern while watching the Scottish Andy Murray lose to Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

Our evening is mercifully brief - we don't even see the end of the Uruguay v Ghana quarter final. A few hours' nervous sleep awaits before our longest day. I'm still totally unaware of how I'll handle the miles and the mountains and the tension is building. With luck, the nerves will be shaken off by a brisk descent from the Alpe in the morning.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The silence of the lambs

Six grown men and their bikes in a minibus head along the péage from Valence to Grenoble, chatting enthusiastically about cycling, the countryside and the weather.

The atmosphere is relaxed, jovial and polite. Names are exchanged; questions are put. Once the minibus has joined the queue of traffic through Grenoble, however, there is only quiet. Terrain has turned from rolling valley to sharp, sheer inclines and craggy ruggedness. We're in mountain country and those of us planning to cycle in it are silenced by the scale of them.

I have to remind everyone that we'll be riding over the passes that skirt and hug these huge rock formations rather than going straight over the top of them, but it's cutting no ice. These things are frightening. We are the lambs to the slaughter and we're rendered silent by the enormity of our fate.

That or we've run out of superlatives to describe our surroundings. Once we're out of Grenoble, it becomes simply breathtaking.

But by far the longest silence is saved for the first ramp of the Alpe d'Huez. Our guide, Craig, from Veloventoux warns anyone who hasn't been here before to close their eyes, though none of us do. A clay-grey wall rears up like a striking concrete cobra as we round the bend and I'm dumbstruck.

It snakes on for hundreds of metres before switching backwards and upwards again, spitting gradients of sickening venom as it slithers skywards. We've come less than a kilometre and I want to go home already.

There is little let up in the slope and our collective jaw rests snugly in our chest as we reach the peak. We must climb this after 100 gruelling, mostly uphill miles. It's the first time I genuinely believe I haven't done enough; that I'll fail.

More on the psychological struggle in the next instalment tomorrow...

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,


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 soupçon 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.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Nice one, centurion

I think he wants to know which way up you want to be crucified.

There was a point yesterday when I wondered whether crucifixion may have been a more pain-free option. Actually, there were several; the first being when the knee flared up after a mere six miles on the road. But the experience of the previous week taught me to carry on and it soon responded well to the heat of work.

And work it had to, as I was putting in my first ever attempt at a ride of 100+ miles, cycling to my sister's place near Lewes and back. According to gmaps pedometer, it was a round trip of 110 miles, which is around about the distance of La Marmotte, if not the climbing. Definitely not the climbing.

But knee aside, the outward stage was conspicuous by its lack of incident, save a few annoying chain drops that I'll need to get sorted soon. I passed many cyclists along the way, including a couple of bunches of contestants in the SERRL road race, but besides inconsiderate drivers and particularly poor road surfaces, it went smoothly and quickly - 55 miles in a shade over three hours.

A brief stopover at my sisters to top up the water and sun cream and I was back on the road, retracing my wheels homeward. Now I'm fully aware of the myth of London to Lewes being downhill, something to do with it being further south I expect, but my journey back went a long way to busting that myth, it being predominantly uphill. It was also distinctly hotter and I spent many a mile hugging the hedgerows seeking shade. As I passed an ambling cyclist at Maresfield who was heading for Tunbridge Wells, my chain dropped again and he caught me a short distance later. We chatted for a few minutes before he dropped back to his own pace, a sure sign I was definitely feeling fully capable of making the distance.

North of Maresfield, however, is the Anvil. A spot of brush just out of Ashdown Forest that offers zero protection from the sun and wind, the repeat of which I'd been dreading since I'd noted it on the way down. Yet neither the blazing heat nor the stiff breeze proved my undoing. No, it was a pot-hole. Nothing huge, just big enough to cause a slow puncture in my front wheel.

It was so slow, I only noticed it after I'd passed Chuck Hatch. Presumed it was a full puncture, only to find the inner tube still inflated when I'd pulled the tyre off. To save time (error), I stuffed it back in and pumped up the tyre as best I could with my heavy, use-free pocket pump (must buy a light one that locks on to the valve). I limped down Jacks Hill at a pace unbecoming of such a descent, bimbled through Hartfield and stopped again to administer further air to the chamber.

At this point, my thoughts were of quitting. I figured I could probably get to Edenbridge without wrecking the wheel rim and get a train back to London, but I would have failed, having only clocked up around 80-odd miles. I traipsed off towards Edenbridge with resignation after the third stop in as many 10-minute periods, when I chanced upon a couple of marshals from the cycle race I'd passed earlier. I stopped and chatted with them, mainly to see if they had a track pump I could borrow but also out of curiosity about the race. In stifling heat, they told me there might be a couple of people further up the road with what I was after, so I pressed on with the new hugely flat front. And there they were. Two people sat by the roadside with drinks, toolkits, laptops and, more importantly, track pumps. I hastily changed the tube and inflated the tyre, waving them a cheery goodbye as I sped off with renewed vigour. Huge thanks to them, whoever they were.

From the journey down, I knew I had two obstacles between me and home. Crockham Hill and Westerham Hill. I'd picked up a lot of speed coming down both, so I knew they'd be tough after 90 or so miles. Now I realise neither are exactly Alpe d'Huez, but they're pretty much all I've got in my area. And they're daunting enough as it is. Crockham wasn't too bad once I'd got myself into the shade - I even slipped out of the granny gear into the next sprocket down as I ground out the yards. The reward was a descent over possibly the worst road surface I've seen in a long time and I was highly fortunate not to hit one of several potholes on the way. I stopped at the bottom of Westerham Hill for a 'comfort break' and the last of my energy gels, then head down and ready for the final assault. As each of the metres went by I felt stronger. Then the road ramped up, but I was given a target of the shaded area, so sprinted for it. I just caught it and flipped to the granny gear, climbing steadily and with a reasonable heart rate too. By the time the gradient fell away, I was ready to change down a gear or two and climb out of the saddle for the last 150 metres or so.

And that was that. Long, swooping descent from Biggin Hill all the way to Hayes, next the rolling terrain of south east London, then a long drag up Crystal Palace Park Road and it was easy pickings from there on in. First time over 100 miles in a day. And the real beauty of it? Barely any stiffness at all today.

Good job I changed that saddle.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Rising damp

Bad weather always looks worse through a window.

He was an astute cookie, that Tom Lehrer. Sunday morning's curtain twitch revealed a sight we'd been expecting and dreading in equal measure - relentless rain. Nothing's more likely to drive you back to bed on the morning of a long ride than foul weather, so we helped ourselves to another 15 minutes in the hope that might clear it. No chance.

Martin then ably proved the Duke of Gloucester's assertion in King Lear that the worst is not, so long as we can say: this is the worst. Upon declaring it looked as bad as it was going to get, the heavens conspired and issued forth untold torrents upon the undeserving Welsh countryside. And yet, by the time we crossed the threshold, the rain had stopped. We set off immediately. Five minutes up the road, it started again, around about the time my knee started to flare up again.

"I'll give it until the top of the hill and take a view," I said as we began the first climb of the Black Mountain. It held up OK on the ascent, but after a cold, windy, wet descent, it was screaming at me. I ploughed on, mentally giving myself another 10 miles before I'd really have to bail out. Six miles further down the road and, with the sun finally peeping through the clouds to witness proceedings, the joint seemed fine. Whether this was the extra warmth or the muscles getting used to moving, I wasn't sure, but the knee definitely felt better when pedalling, so I kept going.

From Brynamman, we followed the road along to Hirwaun, at the foot of the Rhigos pass, before heading for Brecon along the extended Dragon Ride route. Utterly stunning scenery. We take a brief break by the shores of a reservoir before heading down a magnificent descent at full pelt. Big ring, smallest sprocket, head down and pedalling. Great fun, but I can't help thinking I should be doing it the other way round.

We're halted further along the road by a 'bike event' - the National Youth Championships - which sees around 100 under-18s sprint past at impressive speed. Huge respect to the lads, which grows even more as we see (and descend) the 18% hill they'd just climbed before they passed us.

Further rain and wind dogs our progress homewards, back towards the Black Mountain and up a couple of nasty little testing hills we'd totally forgotten about on the way out. A well-needed energy gel provides just enough oomph to carry us over the pass and we descend like kings for the last time into Llangadog. At which point, the clouds clear and Mediterranean conditions break out.

So 87 hard miles covered and the knee held out, but I have learned I'll need to change my saddle. The Fizik Arione that came with the bike might be popular among some riders, but for me it was like perching on a sliver of seasoned mahogany. I'm still feeling the effects and there's no way I can countenance spending nearly 12 hours sitting on the thing in July, so I'll switch it with the one on my training bike and test ride that this weekend.

Training has been poor this week. First few days were spent resting the knee, then I made the misjudgement of meeting up with the guys responsible for Caught By The River on Wednesday, an immensely enjoyable evening, but not one likely to advance my cycling cause. This weekend sees my climb aboard the wagon and really start ratcheting up the fitness levels. I still have ever such a long way to go.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Misty mountain hop

I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains
where the spirits go now,
over the hills where the spirits fly.
I really don't know.

Me neither, Robert, but I agree there's nothing like a spell in the misty mountains to get the spirits flying.

So it was with high hopes and a low-weight bike that I set off for Llangadog and the welcoming hearth of Mick and Julie's place, The Last. Dinner and a couple of b-grade Welsh pints took care of Friday night and I'd planned a morning's jaunt over the Black Mountain on the A4069, a road made famous by Top Gear presenters. This I postponed until the afternoon after persuading Martin it was still worth coming down, he having been psyched out by the heinous weather report for the weekend in the area.

On his arrival, we readied ourselves for an afternoon of hill climbing in what would be my new steed's first ever outing. The excitement was tempered by a sense of trepidation and the lingering effects of an unexpected hangover - surely my intake didn't warrant this?

The bike responds admirably to my laboured legs, but I can't keep up with Martin for long and soon find myself out of sight and a good distance behind, even before the climb proper begins. Nevertheless, I stick it out and find my rhythm, my breathing audible many metres away as I find out later. The toil is rewarded with literally breathtaking views across the western beacons in what is turning out to be a glorious sunny afternoon. And once peaked, the Black Mountain offers an exhilarating descent whichever way you climb it, so we head down to Brynamman at great pace.

A swift drink at the bottom of the hill, we turn and head back over the pass to Llangadog. A long, steady drag with a large section of heavy road contributes to the impression the ascent is longer than the first, but Cateye says otherwise - just the three miles as opposed to four and a half. Again, the descent is sweet reward for the effort sweated out on the climb, but with added hairpins for good measure.

We turn round again at the foot of the mountain and repeat the dose before calling it a day and, if anything, the legs seem more willing than they were the first time. But I'm pleased as we roll back into the village and dismount, not least because the saddle on the new bike is beginning to smart.

We're taken to an authentic old Welsh front-room pub in Llandovery for evening refreshments and I'm happy to wind down in hospitable surroundings with 40 miles of good, honest riding in the legs. Deep down, however, I know the next day holds the more serious challenge in potentially grim conditions.

More on that in the next instalment tomorrow...

Monday, 10 May 2010

Cooking on gas

California tumbles into the sea
That'll be the day I go back to Cannondale.

Huge apologies to messers Becker and Fagen for that one, but it's what I've been singing in my own head ever since I'd heard of the bike brand. And now it looks like that poor, unsuspecting western US state has done just that, as I am now the proud owner of a Cannondale SuperSix, decked out in the eye-catching/garish/delete as applicable colours of Italy's Liquigas team.

The drivetrain elements aren't much to write about - Shimano's mid-range 105 groupset and Mavic's lower end Aksium Race wheels are reliable rather than top performers - but the frameset is sublime. Hi-modulus carbon fibre frame, carbon forks and steerer and oversized BB30 bottom bracket (fnarr) all add up to a terrific ride. Massive thank you to my parents for stumping up the cash for this fantastic bike, which I'm very much looking forward to putting through its paces in Wales this coming weekend.

In preparation for that training camp, I put in a solid 85 miles on Sunday in the North Downs. Another inclement day saw me tackling some hefty climbs, including the brutal Yorks Hill, scene of England's oldest hill climb. Coming after 35 miles, it's a mere slip of a bump at only 707 yards, but most of those are skywards, with it clocking up an average gradient of 16% and two morale-battering 25% sections. The first of which had me out of the saddle and breathing like a wheezing bronchial whale. The second saw me crawling along at a blistering 4.3 mph, the bike inching along in two-second shifts as each pedal stroke transferred the awesome power of two already weary legs to the rear, traction-losing wheel. A group of three riders taking a water break at the top said they'd heard me from around 100 yards away after I'd asked the bravado-laden question: "Bit of a tester that, isn't it?" I'm surprised I could muster anything comprehensible.

The rest of the climbs were piddling in comparison. Titsey Hill was dispatched with relative ease and Westerham Hill barely registered - I could have sworn it was longer than it turned out to be. Yet again, Biggin Hill proved difficult to descend due to the wind, so I turned round at the bottom and decided to be blown back up it to put in some extra miles.

Only issue is my knee. It hurt like mad after 10 miles and nagged on for the rest of the ride. It's still tender today, so I'm resting up until it clears. As it's hardly reared its head at all during my nearly five months of training, I'm hoping it won't become a serious impediment, but it'll need checking out, so a visit to the doctor is in order. Need to get my medical form signed anyway, so I'll get it looked at then.

Next up, Wales, the Black Mountain and a circuit of the Brecon Beacons.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Come hail, rain or shine

And it's a hard, and it's a hard, and it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rains a-gonna fall.

Thanks for that insight, Bob. I wish I'd taken some notice yesterday morning when heading out on my weekend distance ride, because it rained very hard indeed. And at a few points, the rain itself was hard. Hail, to be exact. Nuggety, ice-cold, stinging hail. In your face.

It all looked so promising a couple of days before when the sun shone on my repeated ascents of the Col de Crystal Palace (or Dulwich Wood Park/College Road, as it's more widely known). I managed to put in 12 reps of the Col, and this after the brutal climb of Sydenham Hill, in nothing higher than a 23-tooth cog. Phase two of the three-pronged Bank Holiday weekend training regime completed successfully and just the distance ride to go.

But if experience has taught me anything so far on this journey, it's to take advantage of the fleeting bouts of good weather. And although only marginally overcast, the omens didn't look good for a dry outing.

So it was to prove. Having been a few minutes late to meet BassjunkieUK, the guy accompanying me on the trip, I was struck by the sheer strength of the wind. It remained stupidly blustery throughout the day, but the warning signs were already apparent as we left the relative shelter of London's suburbs and ventured into more open countryside. Or 'Keston' as it's named. It was, to borrow a phrase from Test Match Special, "Looking a bit black over Bill's Mum's."

Sure enough, the first pitter-patters of rain began to fall as we descended into Farnborough before the climb up Cudham Lane North. My short-fingered gloves were already feeling woefully inadequate, but unpredictability ruled as the sun came out and bore us up the hill. Wet weather duly returned to dampen our spirits just after we'd climbed and descended Toys Hill, although even that wasn't without incident as poor old Mark hit a rock on the way down and punctured. He also had another spoke work lose as a result, so once he'd caught up and we'd found some shelter, we decided to cut the ride short and head back. I was all for this, as I'd only just recovered from the coldest rain imaginable freezing the muscles off my face.

More filthy conditions and the first bout of vicious hail dogged our trundle along the A25 after an extremely pleasant descent of Ide Hill. It was around then that the first bout of swearing kicked in. By Westerham, the sun had come out again, so we decided an assault on Westerham Hill was in order. Now I've been down this one on a few occasions and tipped the speedo at well over 40mph, so I knew it'd be a testing climb. And I have to admit I sought the refuge of the granny gear for a couple of hundred yards of it, although in my defence it does kick up to 12% at that point.

Nothing was to prepare us for the downward trip on the other side, however. I have honestly never had to work so hard to go downhill as the wind lashed into our faces like a lariat-wielding cow-hand from Laramie. At one point, just after Biggin Hill airport, I had to change down into the small chainring to keep the momentum going. Utterly ridiculous. There was no let up or change in direction all the way back to Crystal Palace, where Mark went off to tend to his rear wheel.

Knowing I needed the miles in my legs, I decided to make up the distance with a few reps of the Col. It was still windy, but the sun had begun to win its tussle with the clouds, so swooping descents and gutsy climbs were the order of the day. But just as I'd notched up five satisfactory climbs, the rain returned, soaking my descent and massively dampening my spirits. I soldiered on, even when, feeling left out, the hail joined in for good measure, causing me to make almost an entire descent with one squinted eye open.

Still, it had all dried out again by the time I scuttled off to Denmark Hill on my way home and I finished the 75-mile jaunt in a shade under five hours, which given the conditions, I was mightily pleased with.

Feet up tonight as I allow the muscles to recover, but positivity has returned once again to the Onemoregear household. Next weekend, I'll approach 90 miles with renewed vigour before the first of my South Wales training camps the following weekend. The weekend weather's antics have, I feel, prepared me for that trip better than I could have hoped for, so instead of dread, there is only anticipation.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Nine and a half weeks

Nine and a half weeks. Doesn't get any better on repetition.

And the same can be said of the film. When Mickey Rourke first instructed Kim Basinger (pron. Bay-sing-er) to take off her dress in the frankly risible eighties art-core porn film of the same name, he probably knew how unkindly posterity would smile on the scenes he then committed to celluloid. But he could never have known the amount of suffering that banal flick inflicted upon a waiting world would be roughly equivalent to that I'll be submitting myself to in the same two-month period. At the present rate, the ending will be just as disappointing.

So with a woefully inadequate amount of time left before the big day, how far have I come in my quest? I suspect not far enough. I haven't ridden more than 60-odd miles in one sitting. I haven't cycled up anything approaching a mountain. I don't have thighs the size and density of a tree trunk. I haven't got down to my 'race weight' yet. I haven't managed to buy a spare wheel for my bike to make the turbo training swap-over easier. I still don't really have a bike that's entirely suitable for the task in hand, nor any real chance of procuring one before the big day since the housing market is as flat as my impending route profile isn't.

And all the while, demands on my time seem to be mounting like the gradient of the Alpe d'Huez. To get anything like the amount of training in that's required, it looks like I'm going to have to start getting up at five in the morning. Meanwhile, work gets busier and I'm required to stay later. Pressure, pressure and then some more in case I haven't got enough.

But let's look at some positives. I've still got my health. I can get up hills easier than before. I'm way better at changing tyres. I can now fit into that new pair of Edwin jeans I bought around six years ago but rarely wore due to my expanding waistline. And I have raised hundreds of quids for charity, which is pretty much the whole point really.

So I'm resigned to it being something I'm unsure I'll manage. There is no time to get myself into the shape I'd need to be to approach it with quiet confidence. It's anyone's guess whether I'll get round in one piece, never mind if I'll quick enough to avoid the broom wagon or the closure of the last climb. All bets are off. From here on in, I'm dealing in unknowns.

At least, as Don Rumsfeld would say, it'll be something I know I don't know.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Commuted welcome

I'm deadly serious. And don't call me Shirley.

Training's been a lot less than serious recently. In fact, it's been downright silly for the past few days after I discovered a secret society.

Silly Commuting Racing, or SCR, was set up in around 2008. It's known as the 'unspoken game' and pits commuter against commuter to make what's already a pretty dangerous pursuit that much more edgy.

I'm hooked. Although sadly, the Old Kent Road along which I travel has been pretty devoid of any competition of late. And it's been something of a wind tunnel - in both directions. Yep, whether I'm going to work or coming home, I have a headwind to negotiate. All good for the legs, no doubt.

The crux of the sport is to pick a fellow cycle commuter who's higher in the 'food chain' than you are and, well, beat them along a stretch of road. But you have to make it look like you're not really racing, so there's no straining of facial muscles or heavy panting as you pass. Oh no. A nonchalant whistle is best, or perhaps a joyful hum as you scoot past a cyclist on a much better bike than your own.

You work out where you are on the food chain by consulting the calculator. I'm down at a lowly 11 with my old, heavy MTB on skinnies, flat pedals and baggy clothing. This is great as it allows me to tackle many more people out there ostensibly above me in the food chain but in reality considerably lower down. I've notched up an enviable number of scalps so far this week already.

None of this is disguising the fact that the training is going slightly slower than planned. I've done some long, arduous sessions on the turbo, but didn't get out on the 75-miler I planned for my birthday last week. Some days you just need a lie-in, I believe.

But it's definitely giving me the added impetus to get out there on the bike and keep the pedalling cadence up, which has to be a good thing even if it's only a fairly flat four-mile dash.

Big weekend coming up, though. Few laps of Richmond Park on Saturday followed by my extended North Downs run on Sunday. Genuinely looking forward to it after the fun I've had so far.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The Hell of the North (Downs)

Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low,
Through the streets on a bike I go,
None of the lassies say hello,
'cos I'm wearing lycra troosers.

With apologies to Andy Stewart. The wind was certainly giving it its best shot yesterday as I tacked the North Downs again. As the elite of the cycling world tackled the Queen of the Classics itself - the Paris-Roubaix - a race dubbed 'the Hell of the North', I knuckled down to some proper mileage and climbing training.

Should have known it would be a bit breezy after my mum called to warn me of strong winds in the south east just before I left. A gentle waft troubled the branches of the trees outside the window, so I decided against going out in just shorts and pulled on the lycra tights instead. The kind of sensible choice I'm not famous for making, but one I was pleased with after leaving the shelter of the front yard.

I knew it would be bad when I had to change down a gear or two while descending to Penge from Crystal Palace. Clearly I would be in for a long day.

But despite the draughty conditions and the wrong turns and the diversions, I still managed to put in 62 bumpy miles at an average of 15.3 mph. And it's a terrific route too - up and over Crystal Palace via Sydenham Hill, down to Farnborough Village, up to Cudham, down a steep, twisty, mottled hill to Baxted, up the long two-mile drag to Toys Hill, round and over Ide Hill, through Westerham, along the wind tunnel that is the A25 until Limpsfield, up the 'mountainous' Titsey Hill, through a delightful valley to West Wickham, then back over Crystal Palace via Anerley Hill. And for good measure, I scaled Herne Hill and Dog Kennel hill too, still having the legs to burn past a hybrid rider on the latter.

The only downsides were the frequent occasions I didn't have a clue where I was or which way to go. Obviously I know the route now, but I did make at least six or seven errors that had me reaching for the badly printed and slightly damp map I had stuffed in my back pocket. Probably lost a good 20-30 minutes over the course of the ride through navigational errors. I also learned it's best not to try and eat a chocolate flavoured cereal bar when you're just starting out on a two-mile climb.

So the plan is to try again next week but cut out the mistakes and add a couple of laps of Crystal Palace at the end. Ideally, I'll keep on riding 10-15 miles longer every week, but we'll see how this week's turbo training goes.

Who knows - the weather might have improved to the extent that I can ditch the tights next week.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

One from the heart

Let's get to the point, get to the heart of it
Strip down to the bone and get to the heart of it.

A call to arms in 1986 from Easterhouse's Andy Perry, a band so far to the left they dismissed the then pretty lefty Labour Party as a bunch of imperialistic splitters.

But getting to the heart of it is exactly what I've been doing tonight. Yes, I've finally dug out the heart rate monitor from its packaging and read the instructions. It's fairly complicated, but not too bad to pick up the basics, which is all I need. Bit fiddly to set up and there's a fair amount of fannying around involved as you have to moisten electrodes and fit a transmitter strap to your chest. But it's only mildly uncomfortable at first and after 15 minutes, you barely notice it's there.

It revealed a chilling truth, however. Looks like I've been under-training. What I thought were tough efforts at around 85% of my maximum heart rate have been less intense, clocking in at around 75-80% tops. This is potentially bad news. On the other hand, it might mean I've become much fitter in the last three months or so to the extent that what would previously have been a harder effort has become easier. I'll get the chance to test that theory tomorrow as I head for the North Downs again.

And it looks like it'll be a decent day for it. Sunny spells, temperatures of around 13 degrees and little wind. Brilliant combination. I'll be aiming for long, steady grinders of hills rather than the short, steep shockers I encountered last time. And crucially, I haven't over-done it on the turbo this evening, so hopefully the legs will hold out and not be too fatigued like I think they were last weekend.

There are encouraging noises coming out of the estate agents too, so fingers crossed the flat might sell before the big day. Looks like bike choice will be based on what's available in a short space of time rather than what I'd like ideally, but I can't complain. Whatever it is will be lighter, comfier and more fit for purpose than the current steed, which is still serving me well even though it creaks a bit too much under stress.