Sunday, 14 September 2008


This will be the final and closing post for this, my Etape Blog.

It started last year as an effort to keep me focused, and has proved invaluable as an aid in the darker moments to remind me where I've come from and what it is possible to achieve.

I'm still a bloke who is fatter than he wishes, though I'm a shadow of my former self, and I'm significantly fitter. I have finished the Etape du Tour in front of the broom wagon (my original target) and without walking a single step of either mountain (an achievement beyond my wildest imaginings at the outset). I have cycled some 9,500 miles in the last 2 years, a number I can still scarcely comprehend.

So, was it worth it?

Even had I failed in France, the answer would still be a resounding YES. I have rediscovered the joys of fresh air and countryside, despite the downside of traffic, and my wife and I now spend a deal of enjoyable time on our bikes. My health has improved, and my energy levels are incomparable, stress is much reduced. And lest I forget, the four first time Etappers raised almost £3,500 for the Stroke Association.

As for the Etape itself, I'm afraid I still find the finish a bit of an anticlimax, maybe because of the weather and the isolated finish. That said, I'm beginning to feel pride in an achievement that most who knew me felt was beyond me. Part of the driver on the high mountains was the voice of a hospital consultant when he was treating me for IBS late in 2006. The conversation went something like:

Do you exercise? Yes.
What do you do? I cycle.
Often? I try, and I will be cycling a stage of the Tour de France in the Pyrenees next July
Good God man! You're far too big for that. Do something more sensible.

With the best will in the world, and with the greatest of respect. Up yours! No-one tells me what I am, and am not, capable of. My wife has remarked, when I have arrived back with bronze medal after bronze medal from every Sportive I've done (bar one) "If they gave out medals for being bloody-minded, you'd get a Gold every time". Tenaciousness, and application are everything. Never give up.

To anyone thinking of doing the
Etape, go for it. But train first. And when you have trained, train some more. It is so worth it, to say "I did that" when the professionals follow. Finally some words of semi-wisdom:

The biggest weight you carry is between your ears.

Thinking about it is harder than doing it.
If there is an ideal Etape bike for a beginner, I has a triple.
Ignore all 'minimum' amounts of required training, only at least twice as much will do.
You are stronger than you think you are, and you CAN do it.

That's it for me and the Etape (until 2012 when I'm in the 50+ age category) but it cannot, and will not, end here. Next year will be London-Edinburgh-London, 1400 kilometers of Audax in under 5 days, and beyond that the Marmotte, Paris-Brest-Paris and too many other good Sportives to mention by name.

Thanks for reading and commenting, you have kept me honest, and helped to get me up the mountains and over the line. The link to next years Blog is on the top right of this page, I look forward to seeing you there.



Sunday 7th September saw the final sportive that I had pencilled in for this year, the SpudRiley Gran Fondo, heading out of Woodford into the Peak District hills.

As has seemed normal since April, the weather was not the best, overcast and misty with variable visibility, if not raining. Since the forecast was not too good I broke out the Carrera, which has not seen serious action since February. It now has a 105 triple on the front (ex-Trek surplus from the 'left-overs' when priming the Trek proper for the Etape) so I was confident I could climb anything. How wrong I was!

Within 3 or 4 miles of the start we came across the first climb of the day "Pott Shrigley" and it became apparent that the mist-laden air was missing a vital component, oxygen. I was immediately right down through the gears and grinding. This set a trend for the rest of the day as the seemingly-never-ending Brickworks climb followed. By this point the new chain was receiving its first stretch, gears were constantly 'searching' and I was not having a good time.

Goyt valley followed, together with the rear derailleur throwing the chain off the big ring on the back at the start of the climb to the back of the Cat & Fiddle. By this time Mark was yo-yoing back and forth as he reached the top of climbs without me in sight and came back to look. Very embarrassing.

The top of the Fiddle climb gave some respite on the plummet towards Allgreave, but this was soon forgotten as the subsequent grind back up to Flash (which they keep reminding us is the highest village in England, as if I couldn't tell) sapped the legs once more.

The best descent of the day followed down towards Longnor, but this only brought my nemesis, Crowdecote ever closer. Once more the chain was thrown at the bottom of Crowdecote, and the hill was tackled from a standing start. Not that I was bothered by this point, and besides I was 0/2 for Crowdecote so far. On the Crich Tramway Audax I had to stop twice to 'take photographs' (yeah, right!) and on the Autumn in the Peak Audax I was so far gone I had to walk from 1/3 of the way up. At least this time I had the advantage of a 30/34 bottom ratio (I do mean 30/34 not 34/30) and ground all the way up to the first feed at the top of the climb.

It was apparent, however, that I would be out until the cows came home (about 5:45 locally) if I did the long course, so for the first time this year I wussed out and went short. Almost immediately the long drag seemed to start back up past Buxton Raceway to Axe Edge Moor, and it never seemed to end. Never steep, it just goes on forever in a solitary, soul destroying kind of way. I had long since dispatched Mark with the instruction to wait for me at the finish.

Descending from the second time off the Cat & Fiddle was a long slither, further slowed by a previous accident involving an earlier cyclist, and the subsequent steep descent back towards Pott Shrigley was gravelly at best. At least it was impossible to get lost here, you just had to cycle downstream following the river in the middle of the road.

I finally arrived back in Woodford in an elapsed time of 4:56, an average speed of only just 11 mph, and a full 25 minutes behind Mark. Memory Map, though, would eventually claim this 54 miles to have almost 2,00 meters of climbing. No wonder I was shattered. Positions were about normal, about 80% of the way down the pack, but I felt terrible.

Whether the coming down off the hype of the Etape has had a very negative effect, I do not know, but I am miles off being the cyclist I was in France. I'm heavier (we're all about 1/2 stone heavier) and the fitness levels are way down. Couple that with pushing an inferior aluminium machine and it was never going to be a good day. Nevertheless, I survived, something I would never have done this time last year.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

On Trial

Since having rediscovered the joys of cycling a couple of years ago, I have been keen to experience as many of its aspects as possible.

As this year progressed, and speed built, it was suggested that I might try a 10 mile Time Trial. I resisted up to the time of the Etape, preferring to concentrate on the ability just to keep going, and not wanting to post a time in excess of 30 minutes. For me, the ability to 'break evens' (20mph average) was key.

With the end of the 'Summer' approaching, a visitor to the 10th August Audax I was overseeing for a Tamworth CC colleague 'invited' me to try one of the Hinckley CRC "Tuesday 10's". Flat course, friendly welcome.

Both correct. I turned up (late as usual) on 26th August, to be 48th off of the maximum 50 riders.

The first unusual sensation is to balance on a bike at the start whilst the chap pushing off balances you. Weird. At the off, I was determined not to go off too fast (I've read that's a bad idea) but that's a little difficult when the road is gradually downhill.

The fellow 1 minute in front was long gone, but the procession of riders on the return part of the out-and-back course is a constant encouragement. Out of breath after the first mile, I dug in and kept the cadence going. The course is advertised as flat, but has lots of draggy bits that really give the legs a workout.

Round the roundabout on the A5 at the end of the out leg, I exited the roundabout as the rider 1 minute behind approached. Game on, head down, don't let him catch me. Focus for the next 4 miles was as much on the speedo as the road, as the expected noise of pedals and wheels from behind never materialised.

Passing the timing car, I yelled my number and warmed-down back to the car, being congratulated by the guy behind for being uncatchable despite his best efforts. Result!

Official timing gave me 27:30, well inside my 30:00 target, and only 48 seconds off my standard time for a 46 year-old. 21.81 mph and a good marker for next year, 38th of 50 starters.

If anyone out there is toying with the idea of a TT, go for it, its great fun.

A Black Day in the Mountains?

Having returned from France, I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up feeling a little flat and purposeless. This continued to the extent that very little time was being spent on the bike, and something had to be done about it.

Cue a late entry onto the Tour of the Black Mountains Sportive, starting from near Abergavenny. Scheduled for Saturday 26th July, we set our plans, and were joined on the start line by the British Summer (all 1 day of it!).

In truth, this event was (for me) the final confirmation that the Etape weather was in my favour rather than against me. Setting off at about 8:00 in the morning, the sun was already beating down and by the time we reached the top of the first climb of the day, the Gospel Pass, there were already beat-up riders sitting at the first 'summit' pouring perspiration. At this point I was already happy to let people pass, knowing that I would regret it later if I didn't. Somewhere along the road to the Gospel Pass I passed a 110kg Bumble Bee, but more of Howard from Team Cycling Plus later. The final summit of the climb soon followed, and we were greeted with hazy views over the Brecon Beacons before descending to Hay-on-Wye.

The remaining section to the first feed was a mixed success. I was going along nicely sort-of in the company of another rider (losing on the drags, gaining on the flat) when another two riders joined in. 24kmh rapidly became 28. Another 3 joined, 28 became 30. Then a group of 20 arrived and things got going nicely on the flat. 40kmh was achieved, and held........until the next hill. I tried to keep up, got stuck in the wrong gear, and had to haul on the pedals to avoid grinding to a complete halt. HRM shrilly protested 174bpm (never been above that) and a fellow rider said "Crikey mate, you're going to explode!". Explode I did, and the tempting peloton receded into my now less-than-immediate future, as a speed of sensible mid-20's khm was restored. Future experience would show the damage to already have been done.

After a few km on the dual carriageway after the feed, the route returned to the lanes for an uphill drag to Sennybridge, with the attendance of airborne military hardware showing us we were getting closer. As I passed through Sennybridge an Apache attack helicopter landed about 150metres away. And I thought my Trek was an impressive piece of kit!

After the turn south into the Beacons proper the 'real' ride commenced. By this point the full-fat route riders were on their own, and I was very much on my own being amongst the slower riders (as usual). The climbing continued, and the average speed dwindled. This was very tough going.

Very tough turned to 'mental' after Heol Senni and the climb up the edge of Bryn Melin round the so-called Devil's Elbow. From the bottom, this piece of road looks impossible. Once you are on it, it is merely difficult, but at least the second feed is at the top. First impressions are that the top is a cruel place for the feed, but the view is fantastic. The view alone is worth all the climbing to get there.

Leaving the feed, the marshalls let us know that "it is all downhill, until the bottom of the next climb". It certainly was, but the climbs came thicker and faster than ever after that. The road through the reservoirs back towards Pontsticill and Talybont is rarely flat, and it was getting hotter all the time. We rejoined the shorter route on this section, but those riders were all long-gone. Not so the MTB-ers who were out in force on this section, and who wanted to know, after being told the distance of the ride, how many days we had to complete it in. When told they were convinced of our madness.

Feed three was in the most welcome place at the top of yet another hill, but it was largely (steep and twisting) downhill from there towards Llangynidr. The road to Crickhowell follows the canal at this point, so it is flat. Therefore, the road turned off right, up Cwm Claisfer towards Beaufort. Up and up it went, with my exhausted body venting wrath at the cruelty of sportive organiser throwing in gratuitous climbs for no reason. Not so. At the top, a left turn delivers riders onto the road back down to Crickhowell, and what a road! Good gradient, flat surface (cattle grid excepted) and open bends. Yee-HAW!! 50mph, and that included bottling onto the brakes prior to the cattle grid. What a descent.

Through Crickhowell to more hills, and the final few undulating miles to the start/finish, I finally crawled over the line after 9:30 of the hardest effort of the year. In the organisers tent, the Bumble Bee was receiving oxygen and looking particularly peaky. A trip to the local hospital would reveal Howard was suffering from the effects of heatstroke. Despite being as sensible as possible, I don't think I was too far off either. Brett, by this point, was phoning me as he arrived back in Stratford on Avon having finished some two hours earlier. Git!

Looking back, this was a much harder proposition than the Etape, and is a cracking Sportive. Why it is not fully subscribed months in advance, I do not understand. Finally, my fame is complete. I made the photo montage on the Bike Radar review of the event, the photo below being subtitled "Slow and steady was the preferred pace for many riders". Damn right, enough said.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Cols for Cols sake

The morning after the Etape before was, to be frank, a bit of an anticlimax. Everyone was coming down off the buzz of weeks of preparation, and we were faced with the reality of filthy bikes in need of attention.

By lunchtime, the majority of french roadgrot had been removed, and following a light(ish) lunch, Peter and Brett retired to Pau to take in some culture whilst the other three of us took in about 30 miles of roads to remove the remaining aches and pains. It was on this ride that I remembered how easy it is to dislike Mike as he grinned his way past me cycling uphill on just one leg and leaving me floundering.

Tuesday was our last day in France, so we decided it would be rude to leave without checking out a few more metres of climb, eventually deciding on the Soulor and (possibly) Aubisque from the 'easy' side at Argeles-Gazost. Peter came along, determined to at least bag one Col despite suffering the after effects of a stomach bug, and the lingering effects of a long illness that has left him depending on EPO to maintain any sensible semblance of haemoglobin in his bloodstream.

Gone were the weather conditions of the weekend. Mountains beckoned. The planning process had worked on the basis that ascending from the Argeles-Gazost side would give us a nice long warm-up along the Val d'Azun before commencing the Soulor climb proper, and give Peter a gentle introduction back onto the bike. Passing Argeles-Gazost we slowly negotiated market day, which was all-but blocking the through road. Alas, we then noted that the first pat of the climb, an ascent of 350 metres starts in Argeles, and climbs to the Val d'Azun itself. Mike, Mark and Brett disappeared into the distance, myself and Peter ground along, stopping when needed.

We eventually decided that the others would carry on, and I would accompany Peter. Once in the valley we experienced several kilometers of picture postcard alpine cycling before the climb of Soulor proper at Arrens-Marsous. Pretty soon, the gradient was around the obligatory 8% and the odd rest was needed, although steady progress was being made.

Once reaching the 1,000 metre altitude mark, Peter sent me on ahead to catch up with the others feeling, I think, that he may have been holding me up. Quite frankly, I didn't mind, but carried on upward.

About 1km further on, a call from the others informed me that they were carrying on to the Aubisque, and they would see me there (if I made it). I was pleased to note that I only had 3.4km of climb to do before I reached the top, from where they were phoning. At this point, I felt that I was pushing on far more than in the Etape, and the average speed confirmed this as I reached the top of the Soulor averaging 10kmh, a full 25% faster than up the Tourmalet. Mr Trek had his picture taken to prove attendance.

At this point I noticed the road up to the Aubisque, and was stunned. There was no longer any doubt that I would get to the top of Aubisque. This is a road that simply has to be ridden. A proper 'corniche' road, blasted into the mountainside, with tunnels, walls (more of a 'trip-hazard' actually), tunnels, and a thousand foot drop at the side. Outstanding!

I don't know exactly what the Etape did to my hill climbing ability, but I seemed to fly up the Aubisque, arriving at the top to find Brett, Mark and Mike watching the Tour on TV in the bar in the company of Dr David Williams and his companion, two gentlemen I had last met at the end of the White Rose Classic. It's a small world, as was further proven by meeting Rob Ford from the Kelly's Heroes Etape Blog. I gather Alec and Karen were also up there on the Tuesday at some point, though we didn't come across them.

Once fed and watered, Brett and I decided to return to Argeles-Gazost, Peter and the car. Mark and Mike continued back to Pau down the Aubisque through Gourette and Eaux Bonnes. We fair flew down the Soulor beneath flocks of eagles circling round in the Val d'Azun.

Back in Argeles-Gazost, Peter appraised us of his day. Fate, it seems, has a habit of picking on certain people, and must see Peter as an easy target. He was absolutely determined to reach the top of Soulor, some 6km from where I left him. Having gone no more than 500 metres, his freewheel mechanism broke completely, leaving him with no option but to wobble back to the car on an unstable rear wheel.

The drive back to Pau was done over Soulor and Aubisque, during which we noted that we had drawn the short straw returning to Argeles. The descent of Aubsique is MAD! Some 20km of hurtling descent with hairpins a-plenty. It's on the list, I'm going back for that one.

Mark and Mike beat us back to Pau, averaging an enormous speed down the Aubisque, outpacing cars and enjoying themselves immensely. I'm still envious. As a day on the bike, though, it was a fitting end to a great trip.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Mountain Audax

Removing jacket and armwarmers for the forthcoming ascent of the Tourmalet, my calculations were informing me that I had two options:
1. Go out very hard for the finish, hurting lots, and missing a silver medal by about half an hour, or
2. Climb steadily and within myself, concentrate on the descent, and use as much of the 6 hours remaining to me as I needed.

Now, I'm not one for pain at the best of times, even as advertised at the bottom of the Tourmalet.
If silver for my class was 7:10 as advertised (surely it should have been about 7:30?) that gave 3 hours 25 minutes for the remaining 69km. Take away 1:10 for the downhill section, that's 2:15 for the 32km ascending Tourmalet and Hautacam. Not happening, forget it.

Option 2 it was, take it 'easy' and Audax my way round the rest of the course at a more relaxed speed.

Setting off in a low gear out of St Marie de Campan, I was surprised at the fact the gradient felt quite shallow at this stage (probably the fact my legs were rested) and turned the pedals quite quickly up to the Elan Service Station at Gripp where the climb 'proper' is reputed to start. More time gained on the broom wagon.

Conversations with fellow riders dwindled over the next section as we entered the trees and the clouds almost at the same time. The gradient increased steadily to about 7.5 or 8%, but the bottom gear on my triple (30/27) was still not yet needed. I was surprised by Mark on this section, as he enquired how I was as he went past. I thought he was already in well in front as he normally can only contact me on a ride by sending a postcard back down the course, he's normally so far ahead of me. He was struggling with the coat-on, coat-off decision making and regular stops were delaying him. Indeed, he was only 45 seconds ahead at the timing strip above La Mongie.

Bottom gear finally came into play on the sharp right bend 3km below La Mongie, and stayed engaged the rest of the way to the top. Heart Rate on this section was about 155, and stayed out of the red zone all day, maxing out at just 162.

La Mongie was chaos, the melee of riders being almost as ugly as the resort itself. It took me 10 minutes to dive in and recover 2 bottles of water and a couple of bananas. I didn't have the fight in me to go back for butties, so I got back on the bike, plugged in the MP3 player, and span off towards the top powered by 80's rock music. This helped for a while, and when I removed the headphones a couple of km later, the eerie atmosphere of the Tourmalet in the mist was all the more noticeable. As I mentally ticked off the bends from the DVD, and made corny gestures to the photographers, it occurred to me that I might actually make it to the top without walking. Sure, I had pulled over to take a drink a couple of times owing to a wish not to wobble at low speeds in traffic, but the bike was unpushed.

Minutes later, the clouds receded a little, and the uphill disappeared, to be replaced with a ruck of humanity shoving newspapers down their jerseys. I had made it to the top of the Tourmalet, and now it was time for gravity to strut its stuff!

Armwarmers deployed, jacket back on, Mr Trek was launched (carefully) down the biggest descent I had ever encountered. Someone told me later it was only 2 degrees on top of the Tourmalet. I'm not sure it was quite that cold, but it certainly wasn't warm.

By the time the first hairpin arrived, I was settled and comfortable, and negotiated it without alarm or mishap. It was apparent, however, that not everyone was comfortable, and some were cornering with great amounts of brake squealing and lots of wobbling. I noted at this point the road had been swept since the previous day. Gone were the loose rocks, if not the gravel, so the brakes could be left alone a bit.

MaindruPhoto were again in force after the biggest bend (about 220 degrees) at the top, so I tried to put on my best descending pose to make it look like I knew what I was doing. 500 metres later, and I briefly thought someone was shooting at me, as a loud bang came from behind me. A check of the tyres, and a look over the shoulder revealed that it was not me, but another competitor superheating his rims this time.

Over the course of the next 5 km, I saw over a dozen riders changing punctures, all of them rear wheels. At the speed of many of the descenders, a front tyre blow out would not bear thinking about.

As the clouds thinned, paranoia got the better of me and I pulled over to check the heat of my own wheels. Rear was very warm, but not hot. The front just barely warm. Note to self: on returning to England, fit Ashima AirFlow brakes to rear of bike, too.

From this point to Luz St Saveur, the descent was just a blast. I still kept the speed down, and didn't go above 42 mph, but descended swiftly and safely, making up many places round the hairpins below Bareges, which surprised me as I don't rate my cornering ability.

Exiting Luz St Saveur, I was alone and a headwind was getting up. In the company of a single french rider in Toulouse CC strip, I put my head down and went after a group about 400m up the road. 2km later, and nearly on the back, I heard a small noise behind and was surprised to find myself pulling a train of 12 riders.

Arriving at the water station at the bottom of Hautacam, I stopped to remove the layers, and heard my name being shouted, as Karen appeared from the other side of the road. I faffed, while she filled my bottles. Karen, I envy your enthusiasm in the face of your current difficulties. After chatting for a few minutes, I made my exit and headed for the hill, knowing that I now had the best part of three hours in which to complete.

Riders were already descending through the crowds who were lining both sides of the road. I remember thinking that I didn't want to change down for the small rise to the first corner, so I stood on the pedals. The crowd went barmy! They thought I was having a go. I soon sat back down.

Like the Tourmalet, I remember little of the Hautacam, my mind having retreated to a place of relative safety. I remember almost clipping a couple of very slow wheels, and riding on a rocky verge for a few yards as I tired, but little more. By the time I reached 3km to go, and the steepest part over the cattle grid, I still had not walked, so dug in and then managed to change UP a couple of gears. The final two bends encouraged a stand-up sprint and throwing the bike at the line for 8:56:30 and 5,083rd place.

The fat boy had not only finished the Etape, but actually RIDDEN the Etape. I'm still not sure I can quite believe it.

The wait at the top was cold and wet (5 degrees and raining) and the descent slippery and dangerous. On the descent, I got my one and only sight of the broom wagon, threatening the stragglers as they grimped up the final climb.

At the car park in Las Balagnas, I rejoined the others, all successful though a little disappointed with their times. As far as I can see, any finish on a day with such weather is a 'good' time, even if very few riders actually achieved their intended medal times. I have my medal, I care not about it's colour, that's not what this was about.

Obligatory Stats:
4 first time Etappers started
4 first time Etappers finished
Distance 167.5km
Elapsed time 8:56:30
Elapsed average speed 18.7kmh
Average HR 143
Max HR 162
Calories burned 7,234

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

'Lowland' Sportive

Having been worried about getting stuck toward the back of the start pen, particularly Mike who was drawn in Pen 9 with the other 7000's, and taking some stress for faffing en route, the First Time Etappers turned into the Hippodrome Car Park at 5:55 and were directed to within 10 yards of the front of their respective start pens. Result! Either the dire warnings of late arrivals being pushed to the back were wrong, or other riders had looked at last night's thunderstorm, and stayed in bed for the extra half hour.

Black skies gradually turned grey, revealing no chance whatsoever of breaks in the cloud. The layer of Piz Buin on my arms and neck was looking forlornly optimistic. Mist turned to drizzle, and as the hour to the start ticked down, drizzle turned to rain. Prized Lycra shirts were hidden beneath showerproof and full rainproof jackets, and arm warmers were deployed. Next to us a grizzled french campaigner slept on, stretched out on the tarmac, his helmet serving as a pillow.

Behind us, English voices accompanied similar rain protection, but beneath jackets, the St Georges Cross of Foska jerseys was visible. A quick question revealed that these gentlemen were, indeed, the Etape Virgins, all lined up and ready to go, and in ridiculously good spirits.

Acquaintances were made, and photographs exchanged (bit blurry owing to poor light and nerves), prior to 'race faces' being put on, as the swelling crowd of riders gradually quietened towards the start hour. Perhaps everyone was feeling as nervous as I was.

As the start point approached, and riders quietened, the french announcer was reaching fever pitch. Although my french is reasonable, I could only recognise the odd words..."slippery", "police", "dangerous descent", "tourmalet" amongst them.

Words I did recognise, however, were the countdown, and start. At this point a huge cheer went up, and the rain came down. 10 minutes passed motionless as the pens emptied ever closer, then the barriers were hauled back and we were away! The 13 elapsed minutes were noted as we rolled painfully slowly toward timing mats, finally bleeping our way out onto the soaking road with a 27 minute lead over the Broom Wagon.

At this point 'being English' paid immediate dividends, as a quick switch to the left lane of the divided boulevard put myself and Brett into clearer air. Within 100 metres, he was gone, not to be seen again until the Car Park at the finish. Mark crossed over at the next roundabout, together with many others and the pace inevitably slowed until the first left turn onto the main road. Onto the wide street, and the first casualties of the day appeared. Punctures after less than a kilometer! Please Lord, don't let it be me.......

The swoop through town continued, gradually gathering pace as the river of riders thinned out a little. Signs were good, and with the gestures of rider in front, those behind managed to miss the well-wrapped road furniture, even down the wet slither to the river and under the tunnel. At this point, fully grown men (and women) were whooping and hollering like 6-year-olds making echoes in the tunnel. I refused to enter into such childishness........much.

We seemed to leave town in no time compared to the previous day, and were soon at the turn for Gan, by which time I had my group. It wasn't difficult to find, it just sort-of coalesced into a mass of about 1000 + riders. All the while we were passing casualties of early punctures, and I was left hoping my new tyres could deal with the grit and mess on the road.

Between Gan and Rebenacq the first rolling road of the day appeared, and I found my comfortable pace creeping me up towards the riders in front. I'd been ridiculed by my colleagues in the start pen for consuming a bar and two gels from my extensive collection before the race even started, but I was feeling ridiculously good at this point. The empty left half of the road beckoned, promising elevation by several hundred places just for a few minutes thrashing effort. Not for the last time I resisted.

The narrow turn to Rebenacq revealed a stationary Mark, but my enquiries of his well-being were lost in the melee, which soon became a ruck as the climb through the traffic calming kicked in. I got up at very slow pace, but I'm sure that many others behind would have been forced to walk owing to sheer volume of humanity. I recall a picture of misery here, as a rider sat forlornly staring into the distance, his rear derailleur snapped off and dangling by its cable. In the end the climb of Rebenacq was an anticlimax, seeming much less severe than the previous day, the only difficulty being wet vegetation that had fallen from the overhanging trees. A quick glance back down the valley revealed a bobbing snake of multicoloured mayhem, all bent on escaping the dreaded wagon.

The descent was 'interesting' partially due to minimal traction, but also due to the ebb-and-flow, surge-and-stop effects of the sharp bends. At least the experience of seasoned sportifs meant the shouts of "Whoa!" were loud enough and early enough to prevent serious mishap on the narrowing roads. By the time we had undulated our way out to Arros-Nay, my speedo was proclaiming 30kmh average, I was gaining on the Broom Wagon.

I will admit that, in retrospect, I expected Category 3 climbs to be a little harder (but I'm not complaining). Labatmale came up in front, and the pace inevitably slowed, but I was surprised that there were riders slower than me. Not many, but some, and I kept pace with many. I remember another two casualties here, a guy just sat quietly in a space blanket, and a fellow inspecting a lightly spoked carbon wheel in the shape of a figure 8. At the top, some indication of the day's support was apparent. People had driven out from their homes to stand at the top and cheer us on. Amazing!

Lourdes from Labatmale is mostly downhill, and by now the groups were thinning out. I had to dig in a few times to avoid being lost off the back, and I think this paid dividends later on when there were fewer people around. At some point along here, the Mikey Express shot past, but I never saw him. As we thundered into Lourdes, we were met with a mass of stewards urging us to slow down "Ca Glisse! - It's slippery". Riders had already come to grief. By the feed at 70km, average speed was 27.8kmh against the Brooming Standard of 27.1kmh. I had time to pillage water and sandwiches, parking the bike on the opposite side of the road and joining the free-for-all on foot.

5 minutes later, I was back on the road, shoving sandwiches facewards as I exited the town. Loucrup seemed steeper than Labatmale, but was over quicker. Just over the top we were reminded of the dangers still present in the wet roads, as a lady rider was being recovered by ambulance from a deep ditch on the first downhill corner.

The turn into the valley heralded the start of the draggy climbing, speeds falling off gradually as the gradient increased. We rolled into Bagneres-de-Bigorre, noting that the bunting had been put up since the previous day. As we emerged into the town square, the public were 6 deep on the pavement and the support was deafening. It certainly brought a tear to the eye, a lump to the throat, and an extra 5kmh to the legs. Baudean came and went, the gradient remained. Campan came and went, the gradient crept upward and eventually, just after the 100km mark, we reached St Marie de Campan and the foot of the Tourmalet.

This was my first 'real' checkpoint, the one at which I would know whether I was in trouble or not. Elapsed time 3 hours 45 minutes. A personal best for me over 100km and, more importantly, a gain from the start of 10 further minutes over the Wagon. At this point it was due to slow down, and I could steal some time over the few kilometers before the climbing really started.

I leaned my bike against the cemetery wall, rewarded myself by answering a call of nature in the civilised surroundings of the Public Convenience, then removed the arm warmers and showerproof before setting my head ready for the Tourmalet, Hautacam, and remaining 69km.

Monday, 14 July 2008

The best laid plans.........

During the recce, there were a few surprises in store, not least of which was the hill out of Rebenacq. Now, quite rightly, this is not a King of the Mountains climb owing to the fact that it climbs 'only' about 130 metres (may not even be that far) , and does it over a few kilometres, so the gradient is lessened. Nonetheless, it's bigger than anything round here, and I felt a little conned that this hadn't appeared on any of the dire warnings I'd been reading before the Etape.

Imagine my surprise when the following profiles were pointed out to me today:

1. From the Etape Website

2. From the Tour de France website

Spot the difference yet? It seems that professionals need more warning of 'little' climbs than amateurs.....surely not?!

My greatest worry was not reaching the Elimination point at La Mongie in time or, to be more exact, losing loads of time on the broom wagon by the time we got to the first feed at Lourdes. To maintain any lead over the broom wagon on this section 70km have to be completed in 2 hours 35 minutes, that being 27.1kmh. I have never averaged 27kmh before, certainly not for 70km over unknown roads, including a TdF category 3 KOTM climb.

With the broom wagon slowing down to 17kmh from Baudean at 95km in, and then to 7.5kmh up the Tourmalet from 100km in, I calculated that I could make up a little time on the shallower gradients at the bottom before the steeper stuff kicked in. If I got that far and was still in front of the broom wagon by then.

Effectively, I had to split my ride in two. A sportive-like blast over the section to the Tourmalet (with its two category 3 climbs) and then a grind to the finish over two mountains separated by a screaming descent. I needed to go hard from the start, but not too hard, and that meant taking advantage of the peloton effect, something I had never experienced before.

What I needed was a plan. The plan went something like this:

1. Find a group
2. Hide in it
3. When reaching a climb, go up at own pace until reaching the top.
4. Repeat stages 1-3 as often as necessary.

With the mind set on what I had to do, and feeling unable to plan or worry about anything else, I retreated to bed, and actually went to sleep fairly quickly...........

Until about 2 a.m., when lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and the heavens opened. This continued for about 2 and a half hours, until the storm rolled off into the distance, still flashing occasionally, and leaving everything drenched in its wake. Total sleep, about 3 1/2 hours, perfect preparation.

Getting up at 4:45, I cannot remember what I ate for breakfast, just that on exiting the gite at 5:35, we discovered it was still dark, and I was the only one with a light. A strange procession ensued into Pau with the other 3 following my flashing rear light the 5km into Pau to the start.

As we reached the outskirts, there were cars drawn onto verges everywhere disgorging their cargo of lycra clad lunatics. The 'biggest day yet on a bike' was well and truly begun.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Stage fright

Saturday arrived overcast (again) and a morning of considerable faffing meant we were later starting than we wished. Bikes were dumped in the Parc-Ferme at the start, and we were off through Pau, in pretty rough traffic.

It seemed to take ages to exit the town, but the route to Gan was still a promising straight, slightly downhill road. After Gan, the rollers started, and I started to think about how much this was going to slow me down.

And then Rebenacq arrived. This village merits not a mention in any DVD reviews, and doesn't make it to the Etape profile at all. However, the Rapha review promises that this is the point where 'the peloton with blow apart'. Nearly right (more later), but it does have one of those 140m climbs that seems to go on forever when you're in the car. Labatmale follows, Category 3 K-O-T-M climb, and long. Doubts surfaced about my ability to make it to Lourdes with any lead over the broom wagon. We made it to Lourdes, tired and fractious. Food was needed, McDonalds obliged.

Slightly more upbeat, we headed out over Loucrup, Category 3 K-O-T-M and more immediate than Labatmale. The next few miles drag gradually uphill to St Marie-de-Campan and the promised Tourmalet. At another 17km of distance, and 1300 meters of climb, this would be the longest, highest climb I had ever experienced. At least I would be doing it in the car. Some 5 km up the road, we reached the cloud line, and visibility dropped to under 15 metres. Sometimes it was almost impossible to pass bikes going up, as we couldn't see far enough to tell if anything was coming down. Gradients seemed immense, and unrelenting in the fog. We almost saw La Mongie, but both sides of the road were hidden in the mists, and 4 km later we arrived at the summit, and parked up. By this time, my head was spinning, and knees wobbling. Getting out of the car, I looked over the edge.
Big mistake. Head spinning turned to nausea, knees failed completely, and left me clinging to the car. My old friend vertigo had returned. I had no choice but to phone my wife and inform her that my completion of the Etape was impossible. Even if I got to the top, I could evidently not descend the mountain.......and live.Thankfully, she gave me a good talking-to, and raised my spirits a little.

The descent was helped a little by not being able to see the drop-offs, and by the time the cloud abated we were back amongst the meadowlands further down, but I was no longer under any illusions of what lay ahead, and I didn't like the thought of any of it.

By the time we reached the Hautacam turnoff, we no longer had time to drive up and back down. Hautacam would have to remain a surprise.

Parked up, caught the bus back to Pau, Pasta-partied, and returned to the Gite for a night of failing to sleep. One way or another, tomorrow was going to be one hell of a day.

On further arrivals, registration and general hotness

Mike and Mark arrived slightly late on the Friday, having been delayed on their Paris stopover, which at least gave me time for a stunning cup of coffee, whilst I was waiting.

A quick al-fresco meal in the sunshine, and we all departed by bike for the 4.5km ride to the start village. The gite really was in a perfect location for the start, even if I can't take full credit for it's location having booked on a 'best guess of where the start will be' basis.

The Etape village was already buzzing in the afternoon sunshine, and registration achieved quickly, accompanied by a splendid (and unexpected) goodie bag, in the form of an Etape/Mondovelo backpack including an event T-shirt, many of which were in evidence over the next few days.

After a quick tour round the stands and the associated bike-porn, we decided a small ride, on a small roundabout-route ride back to the Gite for well deserved rest. I will profess to disappointment at this point. The personnel on the Trek stand were friendly and well knowledgeable, but refused what I thought was a perfectly reasonable request to test drive the top-of-the-range SSL road bike round the Etape course on the Sunday. Never mind. You can't win 'em all.

The 20 mile ride back to the gite revealed 2 things:
Firstly, the clock/thermometer on the local JCB dealership was showing 43 degrees centigrade! If that persisted on the Sunday, we'd be in trouble. We discussed the preferability of rain (be careful what you wish for)

Secondly, Pau is surrounded by 100-150 metre climbs that are not marked on maps.

Further proof that I 'don't do heat' was evidenced by having to visit the Intermarche for water on the way back. I had drunk more water in 20km, than I had in the first 50 miles of the Circuit of the Cotswolds. Rain was definitely preferable (be VERY careful what you wish for)

An early night, with limited beer/wine was had by all. Tomorrow was the Recce.

On arrivals and orientation

After considerable faffing, and a mighty fine leg massage, the Datameister Etape Tour finally got started almost on time on the pre-Etape Wednesday. With a clear run to Stratford-on-Avon and picking up the other two car passenger/part-time drivers, the front end was pointed channelwards and the 925 mile grind to Pau began.

Its at this point I have to thank Mrs Mike for the loan of a Tom-Tom, which made the whole process enormously easier, with the exception of a dubious bit of direction finding in Rouen which was only corrected by a left turn of dubious allowability. Eurotunnel allowed us to travel an hour early and arrival in France was greeted by a stunning sunset and shower driven rainbow. An omen perhaps? If so, I couldn't decipher it.

As night fell, the toll motorway dragged us interminably towards the South, and driving stints became ever shorter. At about 3 a.m. all three of us called it a day for about 45 minutes of fitful rest before setting out into the gradually lightening morning.

As timing would have it, Bordeaux appeared at the same time as morning rush-hour which was thankfully not one of truly UK proportions, and soon put the city behind us. About 2 hours later, the toll motorway from Bayonne promised Pau in 20km, and a stunning Pyreneean view to the right........right! Another omen, only clouds, no mountains.

A quick trip to the Hypermarche and onto the Gite for unloading and napping, 'only' 18 hours after leaving home.

Waking in mid-afternoon there was only one thing to do, build the bike and go explore. Navigation was poor, but we eventually found the 'no parking here on Sunday' signs leading us out of Pau toward Gan, and cruised out of town at about 30kmh on the gradually downhill road, noting even at this point that french roads seemed to 'roll well' under the tyres.

By the time we got to Gan, time was getting on, so we cut across to the river over a couple of climbs that put everything local in the UK to shame, and these weren't even marked on the map. More omens for Rebenacq (more on that later). These weren't overly steep, but went on for ages. Great climbing, and first real enjoyment of trip.

During the ride back to Pau, the different attitude of drivers in the area, which had been peripherally apparent, was really brought to our attention. Going through a village, we came across a father with two small kids (about 8 and 6, I estimate), no stabilisers, riding slowly up the main road through the village. A queue of cars swiftly formed and, due to the road furniture, remained behind the riders for about 200 metres at 6-year-old-on-a-bike pace. No horns were sounded, no windows wound down, no yells of derision hurled, no 'hand signals' used. As the family turned off, one driver even waved! Clearly, we had driven too far and arrived on another planet.

On arrival back at the gite, our 'little look around' had amassed 65km of very enjoyable riding. Time to crash out prior to the other guys arriving on Friday.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

5 sleeps 'til the big one!

Miles last week 72
Longest Ride 36 miles

Total UK pre-etape miles 8,369.

Last post until it's done and dusted, since we're off the La Belle France tomorrow for the long drive to Pau.

The First Time Etappers Tour Bus (well, Ford Galaxy) will be fully laden with bikes, so if you see us on the way to the Pyrenees, don't forget to sound your horn in encouragement. We'll be plenty conspicuous, promise.

The bike is finally cleaned and packed away into the bike bag (and that took some doing this evening), so tomorrow should mostly be a matter of packing, though I suspect I'll be pretty busy in the morning.

Good luck to all fellow competitors, and thanks to all of you for your invaluable encouragement.

Game on! Let's 'ave it!!

Monday, 23 June 2008

Last big training ride done.

Weighing in
This week 100.0 kg
Effectively no weight loss since the start of the year, but no gain either. The first time in 10 years my weight has not been going up over time.

Miles last week 225
Longest ride 102 miles

With the Etape now being just 13 days away, I'll not be concentrating on how lardy I am any more. There are more important things to sort out now.

Yesterday saw a very windy Circuit of the Cotswolds with trees at the side of the road bent almost double in places.

At least over the course of the day, the sun mostly shone, and the wind shifted to be with us for about 50% of the ride. I'm still learning a few things, but yesterday carried some really good lessons.

After the Lark Stoke climb (about 60km in) I caught up with an older gentleman in Reading CC kit (greying hair, legs that looked as if they'd seen more miles than a London Taxi) and whilst talking he pointed to a guy about 30 metres in front and said "that's the wheel to be on". How did he know? 30 metres up the road is usually considered by me as "past and gone", but on this occasion I dug in and got on. At this point his 3 team mates in MidOxon gear arrived, and I struggled to hold the last wheel for about a mile whilst oxygen returned to my bloodstream. Once it did, however, the group kindly dragged me all the way to Snowshill a full 10kmh faster than would have otherwise been possible. Thanks guys, whoever you were.

Later, on Cleeve Hill, I learned that riding all the way up a 1-in-4 is not always the best policy if it's going to kill your legs for the rest of the ride. So, for the first time this year, I chose to get off. Usually, I get off at the point of surrender or collapse. Many others were pushing too. On the next two climbs, I passed those who had been riding Cleeve, as they were walking. Net gain.

Feeling unusually strong, I left the last control with the wind behind, and leathered it as hard as my slipping chain would allow (must get that fixed before the Etape) only for my "fastest target time" to be cruelly snatched away by 5 (count 'em, 5) red traffic lights in the last 3 miles.

The obligatory stats:
Distance 164km/102 miles
Average speed 24.1kmh/15mph
Max Speed 71.6kmh/44.5mph
Ride Time 6:49:30
Elapsed time 7:01:52

And then today the results were published. I had a suspicion yesterday that the organisers might have been generous with the time standards, but apparently:
22% got Gold
20% got Silver
23% got Bronze
35% got finishers medals, so it's not 'too' generous.

I was gobsmacked! I finished 120th fastest of 345 finishers, and got my first ever Silver Medal. I'm so chuffed I could burst! (perhaps after the Etape)

Monday, 9 June 2008

Exit, Stage Front!

Weighing in
This week 98.5kg
Weight loss this week 1.9kg

Now that's what I call dehydration!

Miles last week 148
Longest ride 115 miles

75% of the First Time Etappers headed off the White Rose Challenge, the only absentee being Brett, who was spending another weekend in the company of his good friend, Beer. OK, he did have a wedding to attend, but we have his measure. (It's a half-pint, or perhaps a 'short')

A beautiful day was forecast and duly arrived. We registered fairly swiftly, and after faffing about for a bit too long, got started at about 7:45. The first sections are tough, but not too harsh, and Grassington was reached in a decent average speed (Mark & Mike were both well gone, though, by this point on their way to Silver and Gold respectively).

I gather that the upper part of Wharfedale, above Buckden is referred to as Langstrothdale, and it is without doubt one of my favourite places, and epitomises Dales countryside. It also gives me chance to test the new cameraphone, thus:

It's easy to let the average speed drop in such places, just to give yourself more time to look around. But with work to be done, Fleet Moss is soon upon you, and HRM's get noisy. On this occasion, for 3 minutes less than the Etape du Dales, result.

After Hawes, the WRC cuts across to the Coal Road, another climb I first experienced on EdD. I matched my 21 minute ascent, but that's where the good news ends. On the descent, I lost a contact lens near the top. Deciding to renew bi-focal vision at the bottom, I continued down, trying not to brake too hard or long and heat up the rims as badly as last time.

Rounding the second of the three sharp bends at the bottom of the Coal Road, a loud PHUT! and 1 second deflation of the front tyre announced my lack of success. I had a choice at this point, try to corner downhill on a flat tyre (impossible), crash in the road (painful) or attempt a semi-controlled crash landing on the grass verge/bank (the least unattractive of the three options). I managed the feat, leaving the bike over the handlebars and perfecting a forward half-somersault by landing on a combination of head & shoulder. The GPS says I slowed to 11kmh before this happened, I'm glad it was no faster.

25 minutes later, I was re-contact lensed, the Trek was re-shod and the chain re-loaded, and I was back on the road, all hopes of Silver now gone. The rest of the day is a blur (thankfully) of cramping legs, caused by a combination of not drinking enough, and strained back as a result of the fall. I think I experienced my first real 'bonk' on the hill out of Stainforth. All forward motion ceased amid dead legs and cold sweats in the 24 degree heat. I'll try not to repeat that one, thanks.

By the finish I had a top speed, cramp-free, of a massive 15 kmh and couldn't even walk up Langbar without stopping, but at least that gives good photo opportunities:

In the end I crossed the line in a fraction over 9 hours 28 minutes, at the end of a very "bad day at the office". I just have to convince myself that its not all bad, and is still inside Etape pace despite all mishaps.

For weeks now, we have been discussing how it would only take one accident to ruin 2 entire years of training. Sunday was the day of that accident. I am fortunate in many ways to have got through it relatively unscathed (nothing the chiropractor cannot fix) and am still going to France, hopefully the wiser for it. Certainly I shall be running less pressure on thicker rim tapes (the inner tube had punctured where it had pushed into the spoke holes on the rim).

One milestone of note, somewhere around the Langbar climb/walk, I passed through 8,000 miles of training for this Etape.

More details on WRC are on my 'Sportive' blog on

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Four get plenty wet!

The weigh in

This week 100.4kg (Oops!)
Weight gain 1.0 kg

Miles last week 149
Miles for May 644
Longest Ride/Day 107 miles

After 2 attempts that were only 75% successful, the first time Etappers finally had a 100% turnout on a Sportive event last Sunday, when we all got to the start of the Polka Dot Challenge. Not only that, but our 'team' jerseys from the Cycle Studio with company logos in place had arrived, so we looked the part. On the down side, 'team' attire does make you feel somewhat conspicuous, especially when you're not that good.

Right from the off I tried to hook up with a group of riders who, it transpired, were very strong, and I arrived in Macclesfield just about on the back of the group with my legs barely still attached. The Cat & Fiddle soon sorted that out as I went backwards pretty quickly, despite knocking 6 minutes off my best time bottom to top. Windproofs/Showerproofs-on was the order of the day as the weather closed in and deteriorated rapidly, soaking everything for the next 2 hours or so. Long Hill was, well, long, but thankfully mostly on the downhill side. Chinley and Chunal Heads were vicious but short, Snake was venomous. By the top of Snake, I had the backache from hell, but this eased on the 20 miles without a climb that followed. The next pass, though was Winnatt's. 20% for far too long, this was a feast for the senses:

Sight: green grass and rocky crags

Sound: Sheep, birds and cyclists' muttered expletives

Smell: Car clutches burning out as they came past.....

Feel: That you'd really rather be doing something else. Anything else.

Taste: The taste of success arriving undismounted at the top.

Winnatt's Pass. Please note other passes are available. 'Weather' is guaranteed, but past results are not an indicator of future performance. Weather is regulated by a Higher Authority who recently does not seem to get on with cyclists.

The top arrived none too soon, and was followed by several miles of 'undulations' prior to a proper ascent of Axe Edge all the way from the middle of Buxton. Fitness is building, I've never had enough left on Axe Edge to change back up the gears until the very top, on Sunday I managed it from half way up, and in a ratio higher than the other bike (first time up Axe Edge on Mr Trek).

Then, the bit I had been waiting for. The Datameister attack on the land speed record on the descent past the Roaches. Lining up the cyclist in front, who had passed on the ascent, the brakes were feathered to ensure overtaking occurred after the first bend, then 108kg of Kamikaze Sumo Cyclist and bike were unleashed downhill in their full enormity.

What I hadn't counted on was that every bike (I am told) at a certain speed (different for each bike) has a tendency to develop a 'speed wobble'. I have discovered that for my Trek Madone, this occurs at 52.9mph. Some say that such speed wobbles can be corrected by balance distribution, centre of gravity, wheel balance and many other things. All I know is I'm unsure whether I wish to find out. Thankfully, it developed at the start of the 'roll-out' at the bottom, so didn't last long enough to get serious, but I nearly bought shares in the dry-cleaning sector.

Gun Hill was subsequently dispatched, and the remaining 30km ground out back to the finish without further mishap, only to find that the other three had been waiting for AGES for me to get back. I was pleased with my time, I guess they must be delighted with theirs.

Compulsory Stats:
Ride Time 7:13:11
Elapsed Time 7:20:00
Distance 164km/102miles
Climb (Memory Map) 3042m/9980 feet
Average Speed 22.8kmh/14.2mph
Max Speed 85.1kmh/52.9mph (never again, until next time)
Average Hr 144 Max 171
Calories burned 6,078

Now that the results are out, we can see how good our rides were. OK, I know it's not a race, and we weren't racing, but just going out to do the best we could.

Nevertheless out of 269 finishers (from left to right):
Mike 6th
Clive (the only one NOT wearing the team corset) 181st
Brett 17th=
Mark 57th=

A Grand Day Out, and another one inside Etape pace.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

First Time Clearance

The weigh in
This week 99.6kg
Weight loss 0.3kg

This weeks miles 149
Longest Ride 120 miles (Gran Fondo Cymru)

And what a longest ride of the week it was. A ride of both mind and backside numbing proportions.
I made it 194km on the bike computer. Memory Map made it 4212 metres of climbing. That's 25km more than the Etape, 700m more climbing than the Etape, and I finished in 9:26:10, more than 1/2 hour inside Broom Wagon pace. I'll settle for that as a first time clearance of last weeks raised bar. Up it goes again. Let's aim for under 7:15 at the Polka Dot Challenge next weekend.

I'm getting to think that all the Etape can now throw at me is altitude. I hope I'm right. Certainly Wales threw everything else this weekend. Howling wind and stinging rain at least, and I'm sure the kitchen sink was in there somewhere. I have posted a full review of the ride on in an attempt to leave this blog more readable. I'll leave it to say that I really don't know where the inclination came from to carry on along the Gran Fondo route when the Medio finish was only 25 minutes away, but looking back I'm glad I did.

Only 149 people finished the full fat option, of whom I was 132nd. I'll settle for that. How hard was it? BRUTAL! Would I do it again? Hell, yes!!

The obligatory stats:
194km/120 miles
Climb 4212m/13818ft
Target Time: 10 hours
Elapsed Time 9:26:10
Ride Time: 9:06:37
Average speed 21.1kmh/13.1mph
Top speed 66.4kmh/41.4mph
Average heart rate 147
Calories burned 7,945

I'm getting fitter and faster, not only do I now stand on pedals early on in a ride, but I can also raise a grimace for the photographer at the top of the last climb, with 185km in my legs, and 2 pints of water inside my waterproof socks!

Monday, 19 May 2008

Raising the bar

First the bad news
This weeks weigh in 99.9kg
Weight gain 1.1kg
Mostly due to the fluid intake since yesterday helping to support my swollen muscles.

Miles last week 144
Longest ride 110 miles

Why are the muscles giving me some stick? Yesterday was the Etape du Dales, that's why.

Right from the start, the Etape du Dales has been the yardstick event on which I intended to measure my progress towards the Etape itself.

It has:
Slightly more miles
The same amount of climb
Enough riders to have some group riding (though it turns out, not too much)

Has more descending (Etape finishes on a mountain)
The Etape proper lacks oxygen on the big climbs

The predictions for the Etape du Dales were about 8:30 actual riding (if I was going well) plus stops, so I was aiming for a time of 9:15. By my calculations, with 7 weeks to go, this would equate to an Etape ride of about 9:30 including all stops/interruptions, well inside the Broom Wagon schedule.

On arrival at Grassington, my fellow riders informed me that Silver Standard was 8 hours. I had assumed it would be much less. Without any real hope of achieving this, I set off in the company of Mike and Brett towards the first climb at Fleet Moss.

Half way there my HRM started throwing a real wobbly. Shortly after maxing out on a short, sharp climb, it began to register a rate of about 230 per minute.

Either a) I have Karen's problem or
b) It's stupid

I did the only sensible thing and retired.........NOT!!

After a 2 minute stop to remove the errant electronics from my person, I set off again through the most beautiful morning and countryside to the base of Fleets Moss, and the start of the day's purgatory. The climb was hard, the following descent mind-blowing. I admit I bottled and braked at 45.8mph...sorry. Others went past as if I were standing still.

The feed station followed. Shortly afterwards I found out that you cannot tackle a major climb with the handlebars in one hand, and a butty in the other.

By the time of the second feed at Tan Hill it was already apparent I would not make the Silver Standard, so I set myself a target of 8:30 and decided to give it a real go. For the next 40 miles I went just about as hard as I could (including a guest spot on cyclosport TV) coming perilously close to bonking on one occasion, but taking a gel 'blind' in the nick of time without any knowledge of the coming climb up to Newby Head.

Shortly after Halton Gill, and the foot of the descent from the days last climb, a large yellow sign proclaimed "10 miles to go".

"Bridge to engineering. Warp factor nine". "The engine cannae take it Cap'n". "Give it everything anyway".

On the drops and pounding for the whole distance back, I reeled in about 20 riders in that 10 miles, and in the words of Mr Cotty on the Etape Reconnaisance video "left it on the road".

By the time I arrived at the finish, there was absolutely nothing left. Nothing at all. I was gutted to the point of tears to learn my time was 8:30:13, just 13 seconds outside the 8 and a half hours. All lost behind an ambulance on the way out of the start within 2 minutes of actually starting.

The journey home was one of many navigational disasters, mostly due to the state of my brain, which was completely gone. There really was no way I could have given anything else. Looking back, I'm no longer gutted, but delighted at beating my expectations by 45 minutes, and setting an Etape expectation below 9 hours.

The obligatory numbers:
178km/110.8 miles
Ride time 8:17:20
Elapsed time 8:30:13
Average ride speed 21.5kmh/13.37 mph
Max 73.7kmh/ 45.8mph

Finishing position 432 of 666 starters.

Unsurprisingly, my slowest section was the one with most climbs, the best the one with most flat/descent.

The bar has now definitely been raised, but I'm determined to take it higher still. Next year I'm going back 10kg lighter. And I'm having that Silver Standard.

Chapeau! to both Brett and Mike, who both got Silver.

Monday, 12 May 2008

8 weeks left!

The weigh in

Weight 98.8 kg
Loss this week 0.4kg

Miles last week 187
Longest ride 132 miles

Let the long rides commence! Once my entries are confirmed I will have an event every weekend for the next 6 weeks (though I may be resting in the middle of some weeks) up to 2 weeks prior to the Etape, and a gentle fortnight up to the event itself.

For now, sensible weekday rides will suffice. 11 miles tonight in the company of my wife, who has returned a personal best for the 11 mile loop. She'll be doing 100km Audaxes before long......

Sunday, 11 May 2008

FoD Results

Counting the late entries on the day, it seems that 695 individuals were daft enough to sign up for this one, of whom 202 either did not start, or cut short their days activities once the hills became too steep and too frequent.

I finished =369 of the 493 people to successfully haul their bikes over the finish line, some 2 hours and 13 minutes slower than the leader. and 2 hours 11 minutes ahead of the lantern rouge, who was in (and possibly out of) the saddle for a mighty 8 hours 53 minutes. Chapeau!

I cannot therefore claim to have been in the top half, even if I count the non-starters/non-finishers, but I'm getting closer. Half an hour would have gained me over 100 places, so I appear to be in the position I often found myself Orienteering, just about hanging onto the back of the bulk of the finishers, but not quite competing on their terms. Redouble the training efforts in the next 8 weeks, methinks.

I have been warned against overtraining (me, overtrain? The very thought!) which for a born-again ex couch potato will be a new phenomenon.

Next weekend sees the Etape du Dales, the benchmark against which I have been intending to measure my ability to finish in the Pyrenees. 170km and 3,500 metres of climbing, almost exactly the same as the Etape itself.

I know it's bike-to-work week, but the last time I did the commute (40 miles each way) in a day was 3 days prior to the Lakeland Loop, and I suffered towards the end of the day there. Commuting will be postponed to a more suitable time. Especially given how tired I am after yesterdays 132 mile ride.

Depending on how I feel by Friday, my late entry for the Gran Fondo Cymru may be submitted as the website this space.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Don't Panic!!

But there's less than 9 weeks left. 9 weeks!! Where did the other 25 go?

Weigh in
This weeks 99.2kg
Loss of 0.8kg

Miles last week 147
Longest ride 85 miles

April total miles 549

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the opportunity to go out and 'go the extra mile' for 550, but that's just another number, so who cares?

More importantly, Mark commented after the Wales weekend that "these climbs will redefine the ones at home", and so it proved. On Tuesday, I hit the road with Brett for a 'gentle' 15 miles which was completed in a decent 47 minutes and included the not-so-infamous Col de Loxley.

The Col de Loxley is the closest hill of any size to where I work, and gratuitously forms part of the local triathlon course (just because its there). Normally, I crest this hill wheezing and red-faced in my bottom gear (30/27) owing to the 10% pitches at bottom and top. On Tuesday I had 2 cogs to spare, one on the cassette and one on the chain-ring, hence getting over in 40/25. How chuffed was I? Especially since I could still breathe.

Yesterdays Forest of Dean Spring Classic was mucky because of the intermittent rain, but a great course, and very tough event. At least, that's how I found it. The website doesn't do the course justice, not pointing out the 14 named climbs en-route. It was on the first of these that I passed "Team Cycling Plus minus One" on their nice new FELT bikes. Karen doesn't need to be told how good the climbs were, but I'm sure she'll be back soon, better, stronger, faster. Won't you, Karen??

Route information and report will follow, but the obligatory stats are:

Distance 134km
Climb 2,773 metres
Predicted time: 6:25 (recast from 6:39 after Wales, see below)
Ride Time 6:25 (happy!!)
Elapsed Time 6:42
Average speed 20.9 kmh
Top Speed 67 kmh
Average Heart Rate 149 (despite maxing at 172 on the day's first climb)
Calories expended 5,758

Predicted times are drawn from a simple formula on Memory Map, where you input your "on the flat" speed (28kmh), add on some time for every 10m of climbing, and take some off for every 10m of descent (6 seconds). The addition for 10m of climb started at 1 minute in January last year, and speed at 25kmh. The climb penalty was down to 30 seconds by the Cheshire Cat this year, and another 3 seconds down to 27 seconds for this weekends FOD prediction. Since I hit that target, I'll keep it for now.

Most importantly, those predictions result in an Etape of 8 hours 15 minutes (plus stops). Keep up the effort, the training and the weight loss, and I might never see that Broom Wagon.

Monday, 28 April 2008

A Heavy Weekend

Weigh in first
This week 100.0kg
Weight gain 0.7kg

In my defence, the scales have determined that my body water content is 51.6% this week and not the usual sub 50% figure, therefore I determine that I am properly hydrated for once. Body fat % is below 30 for the first time (albeit only 29.9%). This is probably consistent with me emptying bidons far more rapidly than normal for the entire weekend, which is a good thing in anticipation of the potential hot weather that may be imposed on us come the Etape.

This weekend, as the title suggests, was a biggie. The four first-time etappers headed to North Wales in the early morning light of Saturday, to congregate at Betws-y-coed YHA for a 9 a.m. start. Unfortunately, route finding, traffic, and the inevitable pre-start faffing about meant that the eventual start was something after 10.

Mark had planned routes for both days, and they were belters. Lots of open road pacing, both into and with the wind, together with a lot of quieter roads over more 'inhospitable' terrain. It ended up looking something like this:

Whilst there are some differences of opinion between Memory Map, Polar HRM and MapMyRide, we are going for the following stats:

Predicted Ride Time 7:26
Actual Ride Time 7:19
Elapsed Time 8:38
Climbing 3,529 metres (MORE THAN THE ETAPE!!)
Calories 6,409
Average Ride speed 20.9kmh
Top Speed 71kmh

That's a ride 10 miles less than an Etape, with an Etape's climbing, in 8:38. Game On! Mr Etape, the Datameister is ready for you now!

Saturday night's recovery involved Steak & Kidney Pud, Red Wine and Ibuprofen, together with about 8.5 hours sleep. Sunday 'dawned' grey, with the realisation that, 'if this was how the professional stage racers felt, I'm happy to be an accountant'. Everything ached, and Sunday promised another 57 miles of pain.

Breakfast offered some respite, as did a 20 miles drive to Corwen, and a rematch with the Horseshoe Pass (had me off the bike last time) followed by the "Road to Hell" from the Dave Lloyd Mega-Challenge. Horseshoe was conquered, as was the far-too-long 17% section along the road to hell, the route looking like this:

The obligatory stats:
Predicted Ride Time 4:18
Actual Ride Time 4:08
Elapsed Time 5:36
Climbing 1,747 metres
Calories 3,282
Average Ride speed 21.7kmh
Top Speed 63.6kmh

Again inside 8:30 Etape ride-time pace. Happy!!

We all survived the weekend, despite Brett threatening to demolish a LandRover Discovery in another SMIDSY moment (again descending at 30+mph). Why do they always fail to see HIM?!

And somewhere around the Bwlch-y-Groes/Lake Vyrnwy on Saturday, I passed 7,000 miles of training.

If you got this far into this monster missive, well done! You probably have sufficient stamina to finish an Etape.

Until next week, and the results of the Forest of Dean Spring Classic, have a good week.