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.