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.