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.