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.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Weald oblivion

Confucius said it doesn't matter how slowly you go, so long as you don't stop.

Would that the ancient Chinese philosopher were making the rules for this year's Marmotte, although I'm not sure even an 'open' finishing time would help on the strength of this weekend's effort in Sussex.

If yesterday's jaunt around the low Weald is anything to go by - 46 tortured miles at an average of just under 16mph - I'll make it to the base of the first climb and just give up.

Now there's a list of excuses as long as your arm as to why the ride didn't go so well. But despite the cold, the rivers of farm run-off splattered all over the roads and the relative lack of freshness in the legs thanks to the previous day's marathon turbo effort, the truth is I felt knackered after a mere 30 miles. That's just over a quarter of the distance I'll need to cycle in France and nowhere near the altitude I'll be attempting to climb.

Thankfully, the terrain I tackled on a blustery Easter Sunday is nothing like what I'll be doing in France. The undulating roads thick with mud and, in several cases, running streams are a world away from the smooth, regular, consistent gradient-style routes of the Alps. I honestly couldn't settle into any kind of rhythm and, thanks to some tremendously helpful missing road signage, I often found myself hoping rather than knowing I was going in the right direction.

It got so bad that, once I reached the A26, I cut my losses and ran for Lewes rather than risk more uncertainty on the back roads. This shaved 14 miles off my intended distance and meant I missed out on scaling Ditchling Beacon. Probably for the best as I could barely ride up the drive by the time I finished.

There is a possibility I 'bonked' because I didn't really eat regularly, but I had a whopping great bowl of muesli with extra nuts before setting off and managed a fruit bar while looking for clues at a fork in the road near Mayfield. But if I'm lacking so much energy after such a short distance, I'm in deep, deep trouble.

Clearly, I need to get out more. What's been brought home with all the subtlety of a day-glo anvil is that I haven't got enough miles in my legs yet. With only three months before the big day, I'm massively behind schedule in terms of building up base fitness.

Now there's a fine line to be trodden between building up enough stamina and over-cooking it. I fear I've already missed the opportunity to do the latter.