Monday, 20 June 2011

Fear and loathing in East Sussex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 11 April 2011

Springtime in Sussex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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