Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Athletic abstinence

Most people choose Lent to abstain from their drug, tipple, food or indulgence of choice. I choose December, during which I abstain from the adrenalin and endorphins created by exercise. That's not entirely true - I have done some running recently, but none that's worthy of shaking a stick at.

I have, instead, been engaging in three other pursuits - rock music, Christmas tree selling, and career navel-gazing. Hot on the heels of Hard Rock Hell V (check out the photos, particularly number 37 of this gallery: came Steel Panther, Motley Crue and Def Leppard last weekend. Def Leppard were like master woodworkers confident, relaxed and polished in their product - magnificent. Motley Crue were (to me) pretty disappointing, save for Tommy Lee (he of Pamela Anderson and That Video fame) performing a drum solo with him and him drum kit strapped to a rollercoaster, and going through the full 360 degrees whilst still playing. It's worth You Tube-ing "Tommy Lee drum solo Manchester" - words don't do justice. As for Steel Panther, well it's best not to linger on them as this is a family blog, but in one of their less expletive-laden sentences they did call any parents who'd taken their kids to see them "badass", a word much beloved of sections of the cycling community. Which reminds me, the chorus of one of their songs runs thus:

'Cause my heart belongs to youMy love is pure and trueMy heart belongs to youBut my ***k is community property

They are, as you may have guessed, ironic.

Moving on, the Christmas tree business is looking reasonably sound this year, as we shifted nearly 40 last weekend. Just need to do the same again this weekend, not necessarily to make money, though that's always nice of course, but so that I don't have the nightmare of disposing of them in January.

I am actually entered in an Audax ride this Sunday, but the chances of doing it are pretty slim I'd say. I don't mind the dark, and I don't mind the cold, and I don't mind a 125 mile ride, but I think I do mind combining them.

It feels like the athletic element of this blog is dribbling to a very low key conclusion at the end of 2011. I guess that was always going to be the case, and there might be one more blog before the year end, but I shall return in 2012 revved up, fired up, pumped up and anything else up, having brought to a conclusion that professional navel-gazing I referred to earlier on. If I happen not to, I wish all my readers peace, tranquillity, and a bloody good rest this Christmas.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The undead... what I be dressed as this time tomorrow night, the first night, party night, fancy dress night, at Hard Rock Hell V.  Me and Mrs Monmarduman will be dressed as a zombie bridegroom and bride respectively, and no little trouble we've taken over our outfits I can tell you, even down to drying flowers so that our posy/buttonhole both look dead too.

(Note to potential burglars: the mother-in-law and guard cat [not sure which is the more ferocious] are here all weekend, so don't even think of breaking in - you'll be soap opera-ed and purred to within an inch of your life).

I'm also blogging now as a) there won't be a ride or other athletic activity to blog about this week, and b) I suspect I might be spending Sunday in the recovery position. Actually, there was supposed to be a ride this weekend, as my riding buddy Conrad lives but a couple of Cav sprints away from the very glamorous venue of HRH V (Pontins, Prestatyn), and we were going to have a trundle round Welsh lanes on Saturday afternoon. However, he yesterday acquired two reasons to not ride this weekend: a) a bruising encounter with an idiot pedestrian in London has left him a bit winded, and b) in any case, his doctor has advised him to have a few days out of the saddle to allow some infection in his - ahem - gentlemen's area to clear up a bit. I fear he's got the same issue as a certain Belgian fellow:

So, no riding at all it is. There may be a short run along the seafront between Prestatyn and Rhyl on Friday afternoon (there's only so much rock 'n' roll I can take before sundown), but that's my lot. So this is both mid-week, and short and sweet(ish). We'll finish with some profound rock philosophy:

God gave rock and roll to you, gave rock and roll to you 
Put it in the soul of everyone


Sunday, 27 November 2011

My God, what have I done?

I've been swithering, as our Caledonian friends say, over the last couple of weeks, about whether or not to commit to the "Pro-strength" Coast-to-Coast ride in the Pyrenees at the end of August next year.  But yesterday, I committed to it.

This is quite significant, because it's a heavy duty ride, which means being fit, light and trained, which means finding plenty of time and discipline. I've done that plenty of times before, but I don't think I've ever been as uncertain as I am currently about what the future 12 months might hold professionally. Here is not the place to go into that detail, but I feel like I've taken a pretty big leap of faith. In the end, it was a conversation with Mendip Rouleur yesterday that convinced me. By the way, he does the most marvellous blog dahling, you should check it out:

I'll no doubt write more about the 2012 Pyrenean ride over the coming months. As I say, it's a tough old challenge, but when you're getting mid- to late-40s, these challenges begin to feel like once in a lifetime opportunities.

In the absence of a meaningful ride this week, the rest of today's post is a pot pourri of items:

- I did go for a short ride this morning, but what I thought was a benign breeze was actually a gruesome gale, and cold too, so I didn't linger out there, and was soon back with a copy of the Telegraph to warm my toes. It's the best thing to do with it. You know what I mean. Though it reminds me of the very old joke that 8 out of 10 bishops use fountain pens to sign their names. "Really, what do the other 2 do with them?"

- I did a bike-related job I was moderately pleased with myself about yesterday. I ordered a new tyre earlier in the week to replace the one that inconsiderately blew up on the Etape Cymru, and being both new and of the folding variety I anticipated a challenge to fit it onto the bike wheel, and possibly even a trip to Dave & Dave at the LBS. But no - armed with patience and persistence, I got the thing on in about 15 minutes without too much struggling, which meant that BH got a runout this morning. Which reminds me, I need to go and clean the thing

- Mrs Monmarduman has started the annual Kinsey Kristmas Trees business this weekend, which means that for the next 20-odd days there'll be pine needles everywhere as we flog them to friends, family and other unsuspecting innocents (joke - they are genuinely good trees at reasonable prices). The only relevance of this to my cycling is that they're kept in the garage when they're not on sale, resulting in turbo trainer sessions feeling like they're being undertaken in a Norwegian forest. (Next joke - I wanted to go on holiday to Norway last year, but I couldn't a-fyord it).

- and finally, and a bit crossly, I read this morning that my employer is planning on buying out a target Finance Director of his employment contract elsewhere to join our company. For a ridiculous amount of money. And this only a little over a year we did the same for a CEO, who's now off on long term sick (as it would be termed if he were part of the employed hoi polloi), because he couldn't cope with self-made demands. Why? When will we learn that an organisation's ills are not cured by the hire of the latest Great Panjandrum, but by the hundreds, nay thousands, of other folk who want to do the right thing if only they could, and who resent the imposition of mercenary hired hands? Particularly when it contributes to growing income inequality in society, a pernicious and corrosive influence. Grrr indeed.

So, we've had laughter and politics today. Or maybe that's tumbleweed and prejudice. Either way, time to depart.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Sesquipadalian inadequacies

There must be a word for people like me. Wait, not that one, you've called me that one before. No, were I better read, or blessed with a vocabulary of Stephen Fry-like voluminosity, or both, I would clearly know a multi-syllabled word that captured one of my many failings.

You see, I went out for a bike ride this morning. A perfect ordinary bike ride as it happened - a nice loop round the Cheshire Plain on back roads that I've learned and now love, 52 miles of bimbling, the highlight being a still and autumnal Tatton Park - but one that left me mournful and nostalgic for the good old days when I started cycling. I got out soon after 8, and for the first hour and a half, it was lovely; little traffic and precious few cyclists. But then, omg, wtf, etc, there were cyclists everywhere. I hadn't got caught up in an event, there weren't masses of them together on a club run, there were just dozens and dozens of them around every corner, waiting at every junction, coming in the opposite direction.

So what's the problem? This - cycling is my secret, and only a few other people are allowed to do it. Where's the fun if every other bugger under the sun is doing it too? The irony is that when I started cycling back at the end of 2002/start of start 2003 it was still a relatively minority activity, and I evangelised about its merits. You misunderstood people - just because I was evangelising about it I didn't want you to actually go and do it as well.

I completely realise of course that this is wholly unreasonable and not an attractive characteristic. It first manifested itself at school, where I'd read the music press and listen to night-time Radio 1 in the hope of picking up on slightly out-of-the-mainstream songs that I really liked. I'd then bore my mates senseless with the merits of said song, unless and until it (as a few did) made the charts. At that point it wasn't my little secret any more, and I'd feign disinterest in its fortunes.

To be fair, I'm not indifferent to the fortunes of cycling, it's just that the cliché about it being the new golf felt as though they were being borne out during my ride this morning - there were mates having chats, husbands and wives together (other partnership arrangements are available), people with flat-barred bikes, people with shorts on (on a clearly inappropriate day for it, leading me to conclude they'd spent upwards of a grand on the bike but not £30 on legwarmers/tights), and naturally some Pinarellos - all wholly unacceptable activity. I say again, I know this is my problem not theirs, but where's their connection to the grassroots? Where have they served their cycling apprenticeship? Heaven forfend, they might even see me and think I'm one of them!

I didn't start riding because it was a minority, slightly underground activity (clearly not literally, though I bet the massive salt mines near here that provide a high proportion of the stuff spread on our roads every winter are a great riding environment)), but it was like getting a plate of chips with a salad - a welcome sidedish. I've never played a round of golf because I hate the accompanying culture (at least in England; in Scotland it seems to have avoided all associations with class and social climbing), and I just don't want cycling to gather around it a similar culture. That's the serious point of this, and the only one I can come up with that even partly justifies my feelings.

Now back to the only thesaurus to find that elusive adjective.....

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Eureka! 210 Audax

I decided pretty late to give this audax (Latin for 'bold' btw) a go, and I was mightily rewarded; it was a really good day. Some of the fears in my last post were realised, and some of the survival strategies not followed as closely as they should have been, but I made it round - 136 miles in 7 hrs 57 mins of cycling, and 800 metres of climbing.

Route first - basically a big anti-clockwise circuit of Cheshire, taking in Manchester airport, along the north of the county to the Wirral, the unattractive west side of Chester, into Wales down to Bangor on Dee, then back via the castles of Beeston and Peckforton, to the middle of Cheshire, Jodrell Bank and so on, and back to Cheadle. The true genius of this ride, however, is that where others choose the hills and build the route around getting from one to the other, this ride (and indeed many audaxes) puts quiet country lanes at the top of the 'must do' list, meaning we did a circuit of Cheshire on a busy sunny Sunday, and saw almost no traffic. As I say, genius. Hours of planning goes into these routes.

Best laugh of the day was when we were all still riding as a group (60 of us; no more entries were allowed as that strains the soup rations at the end!), and the traditional cyclists' cry of "car back" went up, to signify a motorist wanting to get past. It turned out not to be a car but a Boeing 737 taking off from Manchester airport, naturally leading to one wag at the back revising the cry to "plane back". I know, hysterical in the re-telling isn't it?

Anyway, as I always seem to I got in a fast group early on and had to do the "shall I stay with these and wheel suck at a pace slightly faster than I'm comfortable with, or drop back and plough my own furrow?" calculation. Reader, I chose to stay with the fast group you won't be surprised to learn. We stopped at 112 km, which we covered at average of just under 20 mph. I was shattered, even after chocolate and coke - I guess 5 weeks off the bike takes its toll.

So I was faced with no choice but to bimble my way round the second half of the ride, which turned out to be a very good move. I had a lovely chat with Peter from Rochdale who'd ridden to, and was riding back from the event. That was going to be 175 miles in the day for him, and a club from near Sheffield were going to up that total further by also riding to and from HQ at Cheadle. Proper, proper bike riders, and yes, there was a fair smattering of female riders amongst the 60.

The last hour or so was in the dark, and whilst my lights lit up the road ahead beautifully, I discovered the need for a headtorch to be able to read route instructions on future winter / night time events.

Finally, we knew in advance that when we got back to HQ the usual village hall wouldn't be available because of a booking cock-up. Instead, one of the organisers had a lorry-based horsebox out of which he was serving tea, coffee, soup and rolls, so at 530 on a dark winter Sunday afternoon there was the slightly odd experience of sitting on plastic garden chairs eating chunky vegetable soup served from a horsebox in an urban car park talking about cycling and its place in the modern capitalist society. You don't get that on a dirty sportive.

And really finally, the 'controllers', as those who organise audaxes are known, were going to be in that car park until 10 pm if necessary waiting for the stragglers to come on. That's true dedication, and for that big thanks are owed.

Looking forward to next month's Winter Solstice 200 now.....

Friday, 11 November 2011

Mission: Improbable

I don't normally talk about domestic rides too much before I do them, but I'm making a slight exception here. I haven't ridden my bike, any bike, since 9th October with its (for me) abortive Etape Cymru. However, on Sunday I'm going to attempt to ride a 210km Audax (the "Eureka! 210" - named after the legendary cyclists cafe on the Wirral that we visit, a favoured haunt of Chris Boardman [the ride's actually 213.5km, which is just over 133 miles in old money]).

This is not wise.  No riding for 5 weeks, then that much? Hmm. However, I'm devising ways of getting round. These include:

a) Bimbling - see last post. I'm not going to ride fast just because I can; if I do the chances are I'll be extremely slow indeed as the ride progresses;
b) Analgesics (selection of) - let's face it, bits are going to moan with that length of time on the bike, so some drug-related therapy will be needed;
c) Conversion of my Ribble tourer to a lean, mean Audax machine.  Actually it's not particularly lean or mean with its maptrap, dual front LED lights and battery pack, two rear lights and a big saddle bag.  But whatever, at least I needn't worry when the sun goes down;
d) Adoption of the "well if I wasn't doing this, what else would I be doing" strategy that's got me through plenty of other long days in the saddle. It's best not to answer the question in reality, because it would feature things like "sitting reading the paper in a nice warm room with your feet up", which will seem more appealing at 4 pm on Sunday when I've got plenty of pedal-turning left;
e) Putting the ride in context - and that context is this is the first ride in a four year programme to enable me to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015. I've just received this quarter's copy of "Arrivee", the magazine published by Audax UK, and it features five separate accounts of this year's edition. Suffice to say I'm inspired.

So, all that remains for me to do now is trim my beard and dig out the best socks to accompany my sandals. Joke, Audaxers aren't like that at all any more. Well, most of them anyway.

There'll be a full report on however much of the route I manage to get round at some point next week, as I'm off to London on Monday for a busy few days. Basically, it's a massive circuit of Cheshire that includes quite a chunk of Wales, starting and finishing near Cheadle Hulme. Wish me luck my friends; there may not be hills, it may not be icy, but I sense I'm going to need it.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Is this the way forward?

To bimble: "to amble without real aim, yet in a friendly and harmless manner. It's not required to achieve nothing, though it is a frequent side effect. Bimbling can be made a little more business like with a slight hunch of the shoulders."

It's a definite option. What's the point of flogging yourself half to death in training and events, merely so you can experience a transient and pointless sense of superiority achievement? Could 2012 be the Year of the Bimble? It has its attractions - less devotion to duty, less anxiety and number watching, more taking the world in as it passes by. Hmmm.

Not a lot else to say this week. Still not been back on two wheels since the Etape Cymru, but I have been on two feet a fair bit, running round Hyde Park during my stays in London, and running round the Cheshire hills in this weekend's glorious weather. The winter/touring bike is in the LBS at the moment though getting its freewheel sorted, so I may have to experiment, and have a bimble on it next weekend.  

Monday, 31 October 2011

What do they know of cycling who only cycling know?

With apologies to CLR James; this post's title is a perversion of his much quoted observation about cricketers.

It seems that it's about this time of year that I lose my mojo, not just for cycling, but things in general. I blame early-onset S.A.D. Whereas other folk have got their routine and/or club allegiances to fall back on, I have neither. I like daily routine, but utterly dislike an annual routine - every year must be distinct in terms of memories. And I've never been a joiner, in the non-woodworking sense. I lasted about 3 months at cubs, 6 weeks in the Air Training Corps, and about two rides with Macclesfield Wheelers. It appals me that I've spent my 23 years at work with only two employers. Even now, I think the devil doesn't so much wear Prada, as ensure that our work intranet runs the original Soviet version of that newspaper a close second for mindbending propaganda. The point is, I have no out-of-season support mechanisms, admittedly by choice.

Which means that I get the athlete's equivalent of writer's block. However, if the road is blocked what do you do? Try a different direction or go backwards. So that's what I'm doing, in the sense of doing non-cycling/running/athletic things. Take the last week for example.  Working backwards, I:

- went to Camden Market for the first time since 1990;
- went to see Alice Cooper in concert at the Alexandra Palace;
- went to a civil partnership reception;
- took one of my children's cats to the emergency vets after it was run over;
- had a night out up Edgware Road in London with an old work pal, and ate in a Lebanese restaurant for the first time in God-knows-how-many years;
- started a piece of work that is genuinely interesting;
- reminded myself how much I like my wife and children;
- have said yes whenever anyone's asked me if I wanted a drink

And do you know what? It's been fun. Yes, even taking poor old Sinbad to the vets - mainly because I'd left the kids in Wolverhampton 15 mins earlier, and turned around and hurried back to help, dumping some work meetings in the process, which was very liberating. (Hasten to add I caught up with everything necessary later on, it was just good to get priorities right, which I haven't always).

The highlight though was Alice Cooper. The gig itself was great - all his classics, a couple of new songs which are good, he was of course decapitated by a guillotine mid-set, and there was a 12 feet tall zombie on stage for Feed My Frankenstein - but the highlight was the final encore, where AC sang backing vocals to Arthur Brown (of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown) doing his late-60s wonderful "Fire" - as in "I am the God of Hellfire, and I bring you...........etc"; whilst Arthur alternately sang with a fully-lit brazier on his head, pounced around the stage like an elderly panther, and break danced as only a 69 year old could. Bizarre and brilliant.

Anyway, the point is it feels good to do a few things I don't normally. Some of them I might not have done had I been in the middle of training for something. I'm hoping that it'll all help clear the fog in the next few weeks.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The dark side

Today I have mostly been picking t'youngest up from Plymouth and bringing her back to Wolverhampton, from where I write this missive.

It was too far to go there and back in a day however, and though she wanted to show me round some of her new Plymouth haunts, a Ten Tor preparatory expedition yesterday left in need of a small lie-in, leaving me free to have a quick bike ride this morning. I'd chosen to stay in Yelverton, roughly half way between Plymouth and Tavistock, as that meant I could drive north-south across Dartmoor on the way there, which was great - views, ponies, Royston Vasey villages - and there was a choice of short routes for said ride.

It's not a part of the world that's familiar to me, and I ended up doing a loop based on Drake's Trail, essentially a circuit of Durrator Reservoir. And very nice it was too. But - and here's the news - it was on the mountain bike. I enjoyed it; it was nice, modern. That's the bombshell. There is no other news. My field is still lying fallow, though I am thinking about the crops I want to grow in it. Rubbish metaphor, time to end.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A fallow period

Just as soil can't be continuously cultivated without undergoing degradation to its productiveness, so athletes can't train and perform continuously. Soil needs a fallow period, athletes need a rest.

I'm being a bit presumptious in calling myself an athlete at the grand old age of 45, but I do need a rest from bike riding and training. I usually have a rest in November and December each year, having a period of running and core work instead. But most years I know that when January rolls round I'll be keen to get back on my bike, and each year I usually am. And I know that I'll want to be back on my bike because I've got events planned, and I want to be in good shape for them.

This year however, I'm confused. I just don't know what I want to do next year. Coupled with not knowing yet for various reasons how much training time I'll have, I can't plan. It's very unsettling. I've verged between moving up a step in Audaxes, doing 300, even 400 km rides, and concentrating on more sprint-based events, like the duathlon I did earlier this year. Or maybe I want to have another go at marathons, half-marathons, fell races. I've counted out sportives, road racing, triathlons (as I don't like swimming), a repeat of Maggies (done that [4 times], been there) but as for anything else on 2 wheels or 2 feet, nothing's out. The only certainty is that there will be some physical endeavour, health and injury allowing.

But as I say, I can't plan. I don't need to have a plan to govern or even motivate training at the moment, as it's pretty generic. Not having a goal, a target, an ambition, something to look forward to, that's what's hard. If I'm honest, the events I do probably substitute for the feelings of achievement and enjoyment others get in their professional lives, so not having those targets makes me feel like I'm drifting. I haven't got an alternative for a few weeks yet though, so I'm going to have to live with it. What I do know though is there's got to be progression of some sort. Doing the same old same old is just dull, stultifying even.

It's a pity the classic 1200 km Paris-Brest-Paris Audax was this year, and so isn't going to be held again until 2015. Entering that would certainly provide the motivation to do some seriously long rides. There is London-Edinburgh-London in 2013, but for me there's no romanticism in that compared to PBP, from which so much cycling history springs.

So a fallow period it is. There's not going to be much by way of interesting rides to recount over the next few weeks, so the subject matter may wander around a bit. Bear with me, I'll try to make it interesting, and as soon as I know what's next you'll be the first to know.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Etape Cymru reflections

I'm not really sure that 24 hours is long enough for a period of mature reflection, but on the other hand I do want to provide some commentary whilst events are fresh in my mind.

I was quite excited when the existence of the Etape Cymru was announced - a closed road sportive, only the 2nd in the UK, was to be held within striking distance of home on roads that I knew and liked. Despite some misgivings about its entry fee (£65), I spoke to Mendip Rouleur and we decided to bite the bullet and enter. From then until yesterday it's been a trail of disappointment I'm afraid. I appreciate not everyone will share my experiences, but here goes...

The first disappointment was when the organisers announced that registration for the event would only be in person the day before. Now, I totally understand why registration on the day is impractical for a massed start event with 1,500 riders. However, I couldn't make it to register on Saturday, and even had I been free it would have been nigh-on a 4 hour round trip for me to do so. This was not made clear at the point you entered the event, an important omission of a key term or condition that I consider to be close to fraudulent. (For those wondering how I did register, there was the ability to get a friend to do it with a nomination form). There are 2 solutions here: either make it absolutely clear when paying your money that registration will involve being at the event HQ the day before, or more sensibly (though less lucrative for the organisers) send out timing chips and the like in advance. The organisers must have known the plan at the time online entries were enabled - to repeat myself, I think this is deceitful at best and fraudulent at worst.

Second, not a massive disappointment this one, but a bit shabby nevertheless. Two days before the event we received an e-mail from the organisers stating that the gilets that were to be handed over in return for part of the entry fee hadn't been delivered by the supplier.  These were advertised as having a 'recommended retail price' of £20, yet we had the 'cost price' of £5 returned to us in lieu of the absent gilet. Aside from the financial aspects, which can't be argued with, even if again it feels a bit iffy, I simply don't believe the only communications about this between organiser and supplier were on Friday. It feels like a very small part of the truth has been revealed. As it happens I can live without the gilet very easily, but the episode further reinforced the impression of underhandedness.

Third, the choice of roads and the enforcement of their closure was very disappointing. I obviously knew that some of the climbs were on small, single-track roads, but I has assumed that we would be transited between those small roads on reasonable A roads, giving the riders chance to relax and enjoy the fact they were closed. There were a handful of miles that fell into that category, but even there the road closure was only in one direction, meaning there was still an element of danger. However, the majority of the miles were on small, country lanes, which aside from being muddy, rutted and laden with puncture-inducing hedge clippings in several places, were desperately unsuitable for a massed start bike event. They simply didn't have the capacity to accommodate the differences in ability of riders, meaning that when hills were encountered there were terrible bike traffic jams, and no few minor incidents as a result. Some of the big hills came early too, so there had been no opportunity for the field to sort itself out, meaning that staying upright and avoiding weaving riders was at least as big a challenge as getting up the hill. Poor, poor route selection. Unless you were a strong rider at the very front of the field, there simply wouldn't have been the chance yesterday to record the quickest time you were physically capable of.

And there were cars on the course! Not too many, but there simply wasn't the enforcement of the closed roads in places. Some marshals were good (very good in one case), but others just didn't look even vaguely interested in what they were doing. And then there was the missing arrows issue that I talked about in yesterday's post. These things added up to mean that the course management was sub-standard, way below what you should expect if you're paying what turned out to be £60 to enter.

One gripe I don't have personally, but which others did, was the lack of food and particularly water, at the first feedstop, and that's just unforgivable. The amount of climbing on the course was also advertised wrongly (being way under what it turned out to be), and for some reason I haven't yet got my head round the course was shortened on the day, meaning that most people didn't attain the 100 mile target that was promised.  We also started 15 minutes late.

If all that sounds a bit shambolic, well it's partly what we've come to expect at sportives. My sense of outrage is heightened on this occasion because of the inflated entry fee. Compared to other non-exclusively cycling events I've entered this year, sportives represent very poor value for money, and my patience has finally worn out; I'll not be doing any more for the foreseeable. Let's finish on a positive however - there were crowds a-plenty out yesterday on the course, certainly the most I've seen in the UK, and they were almost exclusively good-humoured, banging their pots and pans, cheering, and being clad in fancy dress in a few instances. Bless them for bringing some cheer to what was a pretty miserable experience otherwise for me, and for a few others I suspect.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

I am the god of hellfire

OK, that's over-dramatising things a bit, but it wasn't a great outing today - the day of the 1st (closed road), Etape Cymru. Two of my three personal misfortunes had nothing to do with the organisers, but one certainly did.

Let's start with the catalogue (not comedy) of errors. First, because of another of the frequent examples of poor road discipline in sportives, the people at the front of the group I was in didn't call the fact that one of the traffic cones in the middle of the road separating the closed bit of road from the open had strayed into the centre of the bike carriageway. This led to a mass pile-up, and I was involved - my first 'off' since Barbados in 2004. I just hit the guy on the deck in front of me. The bike stopped dead, I didn't, so up I went and back down I came, landing on left hip and elbow. It was a real doozy of an accident, and I was amazed to find that the bike was fine, and after a bit of gathering oneself, I too was ok to carry on, albeit with bloodied bits.

Item 2: despite the fact we paid £60 for today's sportive, the organisers failed to ensure that all junctions were covered by marshalls, meaning that when the inevitable joker was played by some local dischuffed with their road being closed - the old 'steal a couple of direction arrows' trick - many, many dozen of us went off course. We eventually found our way back onto the right route, but this was a major failure for me and the others affected, losing us 20 minutes or so.

My left side was throbbing at this point, and were I a rider in the Tour de France, one of the mobile medics would have patched me up whilst I was still in the saddle, and I'd have carried on to the finish because my livelihood depended on it. However, I'm not and it doesn't, and I wasn't having fun, the stuffing having been knocked out of me to be frank. So I made the decision to wend my way back to Wrexham. The ride back was largely on roads closed in anticipation of the ride coming through later, so it was actually quite pleasant...

...until, 3 miles from where the car was parked, there was an explosion. My front tyre punctured. However, when I stopped to mend it, I discovered a large tear in the brand new tyre - £50-worth of new tyre ruined. I do carry a tyre boot, and had I been in the middle of nowhere could have bodged a repair to get home, but that close to home I couldn't be bothered, so I walked the last 3 miles. I nearly had a sense of humour failure at this point, but saved it for this post instead.

Maybe I was too effusive and/or smug in my last post. Maybe it was just one of those days. Maybe I did offend the god of hellfire. Whatever. There are some saving graces. One, my Assos bibshorts are damaged, but haven't actually got a hole in them - I was fortunate in that I went into the sky and landed with a bump rather than doing a bit of tarmac-surfing. Two, my tyre could have exploded in the back of beyond instead of somewhere reasonably safe. And three, there was nobody around at the end I had to try to be nice to.

My thoughts on the organisers of today can wait for another time, as right now they're not kind thoughts, and I think they need the moderating influence of time. However, I think I can confidently say it will be a long time before I do another UK sportive - rubbish riding, rubbish roads (even when they're closed), rubbish value-for-money.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Saw the police and they rolled right past me...aka Rourkie's Cat & Fiddle Challenge

Today didn't augur well. It was a route predominantly on A roads and ones that I ride a lot. I haven't felt on top form for some time. I woke up with a sore throat and tickly cough. I had to go to Stoke. And yet I had a magnificent ride....

Yes, I rode the Cat & Fiddle Challenge, which starts and finishes at a community centre adjacent to the very famous Brian Rourke Cycles in Stoke-on-Trent. Officially it's course of 55 miles (Stoke to Kidsgrove to Congleton to Macclesfield, up the Cat & Fiddle, down to Buxton, up Axe Edge, to Leek and then back to Stoke via the Brown Edge climb), and Sean Kelly rides it. Unofficially, it was only 53 miles and no-one I spoke to had seen Sean in the 3 years they'd be riding the event.

In view of my bodily grumblings I'd resolved to have a nice little pootle round at 7.30 this morning. Then we started riding just after 8 and in the first couple of miles a group from Audlem Cycling Club shot past. I thought that a couple of miles of wheel sucking might be in order just to see how things were now I was actually on the bike. Hmmm...just under 2 hours 50 mins later I was back at base, having raced those buggers the whole course. I don't often put stats on here, but I averaged 18.6 mph today, which given the climbs we did and the number of traffic lights we had to go through into and out of Stoke is just extraordinary (for me). But that's not the best of it - today I achieved a holy trinity: fantastic ride time, achieving a long held ambition (setting off a speed camera), and a new lifetime maximum speed - 56 mph, smashing my previous best of 52 mph.

The story of the ride is fairly simple really - a group of 8 of us chainganged from Stoke to Macc (and many thanks to the guys from Audlem CC; we worked together really well for that part of the course), the group split, predictably, up Cat & Fiddle. There were 3 of us together at the top and though we were joined temporarily by a 4th, he'd cooked himself to join back up with us, and so we were soon back down to 3. The new max speed was set on the A53 between Leek and Buxton where I'd set my previous best. (The difference today? Staying fully on the drops rather than covering the brakes. Plus, probably, the huge pressures in my tyres). The 3 became 2 on the Brown Edge climb, and 2 became 1 (me!) on the final rise to the finish. I was first back out of the 500 or so that started, but I don't think my time of 2:50 was the fastest - a pair of riders who started a little after me finished in 2:40-ish I think. But I'm chuffed with my efforts, partly because I really didn't feel I had the legs at the start of the day.

A couple of other things to comment on. First, I knew it was a good day even more after the ride because of this; I dropped one of my water bottles about 5 miles before the finish, but decided not to turn round and pick it up as it was bound to be damaged by following cars. Where I dropped it was on my route home, and conveniently there was a bus-stop to park in briefly directly opposite. Not only was the water bottle still there in the gutter, it was completely undamaged. Given that it was £8-worth of Camelbak bidon, I was almost as pleased about that as I was about the ride.

And finally, I had a good look round Rourke's bike shop before I left to come home, as the next bike I acquire will be based on one of Rourke's steel frames. Not that I'm copying  Robert Penn or anything (see "It's all about the bike" by said author on Amazon. Other booksellers are available), but it seems to good an opportunity to miss out on when such a legend of frame-building is just down the road. If I wasn't convinced beforehand I am now. Apart from the fact that the shop is about the size of a small B&Q, it's got a bar. That's right, a fully-functioning, bike ephemera-cluttered, integral bar. So after you've finished being measured up you can celebrate your imminent arrival with a small tincture. How cool's that?!

Friday, 30 September 2011


Father Ted: Now concentrate this time, Dougal. These
[he points to some plastic cows on the table]
Father Ted: are very small; those
[pointing at some cows out of the window]
Father Ted: are far away... 

(with acknowledgement to the writers)...

See, that's perspective. I've been thinking of it in a different way this week, and particularly yesterday. I spent the day helping to resolve an issue for someone else, and t'eldest daughter also spent her day doing something very similar, and the contrast between the inputs and outputs is too great to let go by uncommented on. 

To elaborate, without going into any of the gory detail, I'm currently the investigating manager in a case of alleged harassment at my employer. Whilst the alleged victim of that harassment has undoubtedly been affected by what's happened (regardless of what did actually happen and the reasons for it), the HR consultant handling the case and I have now between us spent at least 8 full working days, with probably the same again to come, working on this case. We're doing things properly, morally and technically, as indeed we should be. But at the end of the case the costs to the employer of the absence, the investigation, and the outcome will be substantial. I can't put a figure on it, but if I were to it would comfortably have five digits. 

T'eldest, meanwhile, this week started work as an advisor at Citizens' Advice (you don't do the Bureau bit these days). After one and a half days of training she was thrust into dealing with her first live cases, totally unaccompanied save for a panic button under the desk. She's allocated 20 minutes to deal with each client. Her first three cases were, respectively, someone whose soon-to-be-ex-wife is denying him access to their child, someone who's being denied their final month's pay by a rogue employer they resigned from, and a drug addict who'd had his benefits withdrawn and so hadn't eaten for 4 days. I've over-simplified those cases, but you get the idea.

I have no doubt that she dealt with them coolly and calmly, and by all accounts they went away happy. But these were people with serious life problems turning to the very last line of support (and possibly the only form of support) available, and getting 20 minutes of time. The contrast with the time and effort expended in my case on an essentially professional-based problem just seems extraordinary. And so, when I was bemoaning the fact I'd endured 6 hours of difficult interview yesterday, and no few tears (not mine I hasten to add), it was a reality check to listen to what Daughter 1 had been dealing with. (I'm very proud of this by the way).

Back to the banal - riding a bicycle. (That said, I do think if more people rode bicycles just for the hell of it there'd be fewer problems in the world - I've solved countless previously-intractable issues in the saddle). Only one outdoor ride this week, on Tuesday night, but I packed many, many hills into the 100 minutes I was out before darkness descended. Weird this week, by the way, having mega-temperatures into the evening but it still being dark by 7 pm; like being somewhere equatorial. I've felt a bit rubbish since actually - think I'm going to ease off the high intensity training for a bit after the end of next week, there's been too much for my poor old man's body this year.

It's the Cat & Fiddle Challenge on Sunday, not a long ride, nor indeed a particularly interesting one, but I'm going to do it anyway, and the first reports will be here.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Should I get a set of white wall tyres?

Too late, I already did, to use a modern idiom. Not sure they chime with the rest of the bike, and they almost certainly and depressingly break Rule 8 ( - I love this, as much a anything because I disagree with a fair few), but they are made by Vredestein, they were hideously expensive, and they will enable me to ride like cycling deity.

They have a minimum, yes read that again, minimum recommended pressure of 115 psi, so I've taken the back one up to 130 and the front one to 120. Haven't got the cojones to get anywhere near the maximum recommended number of 175. So tonight I've taken advantage of a fairly pleasant late summer evening, and tried them out on the hills of Macclesfield Forest. Unsurprisingly, imperfections in the road are transmitted through your body like you've just had 50,000 volts put through you, but the climbs were discernibly easier and the descents definitely scarier. Though having fairly worn brake blocks enriches that sensation. There may have been one or two whoops of delight tonight as I reached what felt like terminal velocity (Cern particle accelerator creating the fastest speed matter can travel on Earth? - Pah! - Middle aged bloke with no sense on a carbon bike on a forest road I say). No one was there to see it, it wasn't recorded for posterity, but at my advanced years it was still rock 'n' to me.

In case you think I've become a tyre geek, fear not, the subject ends there. I can definitely feel some flex in my wheels though, which might set me off talking about them. It's not new, but it does scream "wasted effort" at me. Time for bike wheel fantasising action methinks, and no little thigh rubbing to boot very possibly.

What else? Yes, this post is earlier than usual in my blogging week. I do hope to get some riding in this weekend, as well as tonight's ride, but I'm also helping my mother-in-law move house, which may curtail opportunities, will certainly be tiring, and may mean that whatever free time on Sunday is spent catching up with the men's World Championship Road Race in Denmark rather than with a pc. C'mon the Brits.

That'll do for now. I'll end with an apology; viz. for stealing a blogging device much beloved of a fellow blogger. To him, it won't happen again, just couldn't resist tonight. And no, I didn't cruise the miracle mile, I freewheeled it like a nutter.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Whither Monmarduman?

I don't want to get too self-contemplatory, but I need to decide over the next few weeks what happens to this blog. With all the events in its title complete, my options are stopping it altogether, renaming it, or keeping the title and just carrying on in much the same way as at present. That last option doesn't feel very viable however. Views from my small but beautiful readership base would be welcome. Particularly the Latvian section.

I can at least keep going with vaguely meaningful things for a few weeks yet. On 2 October I have the Cat & Fiddle Challenge, a 55 mile ride charity ride (for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust) starting and ending at the infamous (in the world of cycling) Brian Rourke cycle shop in Stoke. Sean Kelly's participating in that. And then a week later there's Wales' first closed road sportive, the appropriately-named Etape Cymru. Mendip Rouleur and (I think) the Cycling Mayor are coming up for that, which will be great.

Going back to the first paragraph, I can't see me doing any formal running events next year, or at least not to the extent they warrant an equal billing with cycling. I enjoyed them this year, but that itch has most definitely been scratched for the time being. My mind is already drifting to events in 2012 - what haven't I done before? What looks exciting / challenging? What would add to my palmares? What would I enjoy? What would motivate me to get better? I'm not going to be able to answer though questions definitively until a few other questions about work have been answered, but it's escapist fun to contemplate them in the meantime.

Anyway, as to this week's riding. Working backwards, a couple of highly disciplined, very intensive sessions on the trainer in the garage this weekend (yesterday because it was peeing down, today because my BH was finally getting its new bottom bracket fitted), hugely effective but fairly boring, a shorter leg-spinning session on Friday night, and I actually managed a road ride on Wednesday - two hours round one of my standard Cheshire lanes circuits. I can't think of a single notable thing about the ride other than nearly being unshipped from the saddle by a particularly vicious bump on the A50 near Knutsford.

Right, I'm off to look at my chopper. Or rather, Mrs K's Chopper. Mrs K's mother is moving house in 10 days' time, and we've been at hers sorting things out. As a result, there's an original but pretty decayed version of the Raleigh 1970s classic now in our garage. I hear they ebay for good money these days, so an assessment of just how much restoration work is needed is next on today's exciting agenda...

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Day 4 - Chambly to Paris, Paris to Lamballe, Lamballe to Ploeuc sur Lie

I'm beginning to bore myself now, so God knows I must be boring you. There will, therefore, be very little in this post about routes and the like, and more on reflections.

This was a day of three parts for me - bike, train, bike. Bike Part 1 was riding from Chambly into the centre of Paris. It turned out to be nearly 50 km. To summarise, first part much easier than expected, second part much tougher. Much tougher. I worked out at one point I was trying to do four things simultaneously: navigate, keep an eye on the road surfaces (which weren't up to the usual French standard, perhaps unsurprisingly), ride deliberately defensively to minimise the chances of getting knocked off by the bonkers Parisian drivers, and keep a group of mixed abilities together. My little brain was frazzled by the time we reached Arc de Triomphe. And then, having spent all morning successfully stopping any incidents occurring, what do my three fellow riders decide to do? Ride a lap of the Arc de Triomphe / Place de Charles de Gaulle (whichever is the more accurate), that's all. It's hard enough to drive round it - and I've done that several times - but cycle with panniers? Bonkers. This was one particular test of macho-dom that I didn't feel compelled to join in, much like, for example, how many pints of beer you can drink in 20 minutes. It proves nothing other than you're an idiot.

So I calmly walked round to the top of the Champs Elysee, for obligatory further photo-opportunities. We did have one casualty of the Arc madness - Dylan's sunglasses, which came off his head half way round and were soon in a squillion pieces, crushed by a hundred tyres. Personally, I still think they had a lucky escape (the riders not the sunglasses that is).

My train left Paris a couple of hours before the others left on Eurostar, so we rode down the Champs Elysee, crossing the Place de la Concorde, and down to Gare de Montparnasse. It's often-said, but chapeau to the pros for what they do on the final day of the Tour de France - the Champs is steep and its cobbles rough; I really wouldn't fancy racing round that for an hour or so.

I managed a quick celebratory glass of champagne with the boys at a delightful little restaurant at Montparnasse, and then it was onto the TGV for a couple of hours to Rennes, and from there a few stops to Lamballe, the nearest station to our house in Brittany. The TGV journey was remarkable only for the facts that I had an entire compartment to myself and my bike, which felt incredibly restful and rejuvenating after the previous days of activity, and that the train conductor was a track cyclist who rode for France in the 1996 Olympics. He also knew the small town near our house, so we had a lovely little mixed-language chat. He was a genuinely Nice Bloke.

From Lamballe came Bike Part 2 for the day, the 40 km ride from Lamballe to Ploeuc. I'd envisaged this being a lovely little warm-down ride through bucolic Breton surroundings, liberated from the responsibility of being part of a group. It turned out to be not quite like that - it was certainly bucolic, but another headwind, and failure to refill my water bottle at any point in the afternoon meant it was damned hard work, 90 minutes of damned hard work in fact. My compensations were rich however - Mrs K knows my post-match routine very well by now, and had laid out for me, bless her, in order, a chilled For Goodness Shakes, a cold beer, smoked salmon blinis, a hot bath, sausage and lentil stew, and a nice Merlot. My contentment knew no bounds.

So 12 days on from finishing the ride, reflections. Well, overall it was great. Seeing new places, riding both intimately in a group but also doing extended stretches alone, the craic associated with reflecting on the day's events, the re-discovery of the immature humour that can be derived from near-constant belching and farting (it's not a sad man-thing dear reader, just the effect that a carb-rich diet and extended periods of exercise have on the gut), and the slightly pious knowledge that what you're doing has helped raise a few quid, which in turn might make a few lives better, all combine to make it an event that really imprints itself on your stock of stored and shared experiences.

What else - well, if I were to do something similar again I might go to even more trouble with the ground rules than I did this time. Groups almost inevitably proceed at different speeds, and a greater understanding how that would be managed out on the road would probably prevent frustrations arising throughout the group. Either that or make sure everyone's evenly matched, but that can be tricky to achieve. Also, when choosing places to stop for the night, don't disregard how you're going to feed yourselves. What I mean by that is check out where the hotel, B&B, whatever, is in relation to the nearest town, restaurant etc. Having nowhere to eat nearby can be a real balls-ache. Another lesson learned is really confirmation of something that worked well this time - route planning. Whether you use maps, GPSs or route sheets out on the road, they're only as good as the effort that has gone into planning the route in the first place, and ours worked well I thought - plenty of back roads, particularly in France, but not so many that navigation became a faff.

The over-riding feeling I'm left with, even two weeks on, is that of an appetite whetted. I've decided that I love touring, just like I love blasting up and down mountains, and I'd love to take to the bike for a full fortnight or more, but possibly averaging fewer miles each day, giving more time to stop off at places and really enjoy them. I'd like to think I won't have to wait till I'm retired to do that, but who knows? In the meantime, normal service will resume on here, but I also need to think about where this blog is going to go now that the Monster, the Marathon, the Duathlon and La Manche have all been completed.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Day 3 - Abbeville to Chambly

Time to fess up. This was the morning I got frustrated with a lack of progress, and it really was my problem and not that of the team. I was ready to start riding at 8.30, kitted up and raring to go. By the time two of the party had returned from a mission to find fuel for the day (fearing a dearth of restocking opportunities in rural France on a Sunday - not wholly unreasonable), it was 8.55. Then Andy had a puncture and we paused to let him re-join the group. Then he had another puncture, and there was no way I was going to let him go further without a spare tube, so I waited again. By 11.20 I had been available for cycling activity for nearly 3 hours, and done precisely 65 minutes of pedal-turning.

The day felt materially different to Day 2 in many other ways too. We were riding through the south of the Somme area, obviously most renowned for its bloody battles of the First World War. That knowledge obviously brings some sobriety to the riding, but the nature of the landscape reinforced that feeling - it was sparce, open, much harder countryside than the previous day. It was also cloudy, though still quite warm, again helping to create an entirely different feel.

We searched in vain for somewhere to have lunch, and ended up spending the early afternoon battling a headwind on a 7 km slight uphill drag in some very exposed countryside. Clouds were gathering ominously too, and as they began to disgorge their contents I arrived with judicious timing in a village called Le Crocq. Now it just so happened that was the day of Le Crocq's annual fete, which meant - this being France - there was a local 'character' on the main street with a microphone giving a running commentary on the event's animations, which included a strong man competition, lots of brocante, and vast quantities of food and drink. By the time Dylan and Neil arrived I'd decided that some of the local cider would make an ideal stiffener for the rest of the day's ride, and they were happy to join me. A few cartons of chips went down well too, eaten whilst we sheltered from the downpour.

After half an hour there was still no sign of Andy, so I sent the other two on their way. It turned out that Andy had been on the same nightmarish piece of road as we had, and had decided when the heavens opened that this was what constituted cycling hell. In his own words, it was at that moment that God said, "Nah, this is cycling hell son", followed by the unmistakeable sound of a tyre deflating. Yes, it was his third p***ture of the day, and he had to change it on a remote French road in the pouring rain. Man up I say, it could have been at night.

The rest of the cycling day was fairly forgettable, apart from the moment when I suddenly realised only 10 km from our destination that our chosen route was about to take us on to a motorway - the 110 km/h speed limit signs gave it away. A hurriedly replanned route was chosen and communicated to Andy. It was eventually 7.15 by the time we'd located the hotel, worked out how to open the front gate, checked into smoking rooms as those were the only ones they'd let us keep our bikes in, and begun to dry out our wet clothes. Spirits weren't high, particularly when it became clear that if we wanted our food tonight we had no choice but to get back on our bikes.

Initial investigations of Chambly, a dormitory town of Paris, didn't do much to raise spirits either - it was perfectly pleasant, but something of a restaurant desert. Our only option was ordering pizzas from a predominantly takeaway place, so we were reduced to pushing together a couple of metal tables and waiting. We made up for it however with sheer weight of pizza - we got through two mega pizzas, which we measured at just under a metre in diameter (each), plus one large one at a disappointing 40 cm. A couple of beers at a nearby bar preceded a hideously dangerous ride back to the hotel - we misjudged the route, and ended up doing a km on the same stretch of motorway avoided earlier.  Oops.

So, a mixed day, but we were now only 40 km from the centre of Paris...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Day 2 - Coquelles to Abbeville

As close to the perfect day touring as you're ever going to get this one.

Having breakfasted like kings on our 3.90€ Formule Une special (muesli, orange juice, coffee, apple puree, unlimited French bread, marmalade and Nutella - what more do you need?) we hit the route south. A gorgeous late summer warmth greeted us. The first few km's were Quite Interesting (at least to someone with a passing interest in trains, which I'm duty-bound to have, originating from Crewe), taking us over and around the Eurotunnel freight terminal, but it was soon on to the open roads of the Pas de Calais. If I say so myself, the hours spent route planning paid dividends today - for the most part we were on lovely, smooth, quiet back roads. At one point only about 10 km south of Coquelles the road was closed for a stretch for resurfacing, but in the absence of any actual road improvement activity we rode down it anyway, giving us chance to pedal along side-by-side in a cycling version of the Reservoir Dogs famous sequence. There was one period just after that when I was bowling along on my own through the lovely agricultural landscape, alone but for my thoughts, enjoying the motion of the bike and the heat of the sun, when I really did wonder whether it was possible to be more contented. Sorry to come over a bit bathetic, but it was that good. 

A late morning coffee at Desvres was notable only for the fact that it was served to us by a scraggy 60 year old man wearing Kevin Keegan-style 1970s football shorts and a stained white vest that looked as though it had been on his back since the 1970s. Nice. The coffee was disappointing too by continental standards. We continued.

Now, the back roads made for great cycling, but they also bypassed anywhere that could sell us anything by way of lunch, or indeed water. By now the temperature had risen steadily, and it peaked at 33c mid-afternoon. I rode from Coquelles to Hesdin (about 80 km) on 750 ml of water - just not enough under the circumstances. When I arrived in Hesdin, avoiding the manic wedding party hurtling round town in convoy, horns a-blaring, as is customary in France, I downed 850 ml of Yop yoghurt drink, a can of coke and 500 ml in water in 15 mins. I then felt quite ill as it coagulated, separated and was digested. The other 3 weren't as lucky as me, in that they were so warm they were reduced in one case to knocking on doors for water, the other two making use of a standpipe on a campsite. To be fair, we did ride through an area known as "The Seven Valleys" (translated of course), and those valleys were traversed individually. They weren't astonishingly difficult, but with the heat and full panniers they were sapping.

I got the benefit of an hour and a quarter in Hesdin as we re-grouped, refreshed and redoubled our resolve. The time in the shade was welcome. The sector from Hesdin to Abbeville was on a slightly busier road, and it was head down and just get on it with riding for the final couple of hours, but the effort was worth it. Approaching Abbeville from the north you're afforded the most wonderful and dramatic view of its cathedral's twin steeples. Our F1 hotel for that night was on the far side of town, so we also had a cooling descent as we rode through the town.

Our evening meal was probably the most satisfactory of the trip. We were too far from the centre to walk in (and not all the party could face hopping back on their bikes), so we missed out on the characterful backstreet bistro we'd envisaged, but we did get the choice of plenty of chain restaurants. I was dying to try the Buffalo Grill, but in due deference to the vegetarian in the party we ended up somewhere more able to accommodate his needs. It was good too, my highlight being my pudding - tarte tatin flambeed with calvados. Whilst we were stuffing ourselves at the back of the restaurant we began to wonder what the flashing lights were outside. Great crashes of thunder alerted us to the possibility that it might be a touch damp. And so it proved. We lingered hopefully with coffee, dragged our feet asking for the bill, went to the loo several times, all waiting for the rain to abate, but it never did, leading to Abbeville being treated to the sight of four Brits running dementedly across a retail park back to their hotel, one of whom (me) stripped to the waist for a bit in the vain hope that I could keep my t-shirt dry that way. Epic fail. A good night though. And a good day. It alone made the effort and planning worthwhile.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

La Manche - Part 1

I had toyed with the idea of writing a single post covering the whole of the London to Paris trip, but on reflection I think there's simply too much to cover over the 4 days, so I'll divide it up and do it a little at a time.  It'll also - I'm afraid - be in diary format, but with only a couple of sportives left this year there won't be too many more examples of that.

So, the trip started for me at 1.15 pm on Thursday 1st September, when I locked the front door, and set off on my fully-laden bike (rear panniers anyway) to Macclesfield railway station. Apart from the absence of Mendip Rouleur, it was hugely reminiscent of the start of the journey to Cornwall to start Land's End to John O'Groats two-and-a-bit years ago, the same kind of sunny, breezy day, and huge sense of anticipation.  The journey to London passed in a flash as it tends to on the Pendolinos, and then it was the ride from Euston to the Novotel at Waterloo. Oh my goodness. Even taking things extremely steadily it was the scariest few miles I've covered for a long time, and I include descending mountains in the Pyrenees in wet weather in that. Other cyclists, mopeds, white van men and women, and bus/cycle lanes that stop abruptly leading to left turns that simply invite motorists to cut across your path - they all contributed to a really tough little journey. Talk about needing to have eyes in the back of your head. I was mighty relieved to get to the hotel.

The 4 of us doing the ride rendezvous-ed over the course of the evening, and shared the inevitable Italian meal (carbs and beer).  The roll call besides myself was Neil (riding for Save The Children, recently of Lloyds but now of Dell), Andy (also Save The Children, Lloyds) and Dylan (riding for Help For Heroes, works for Computacenter). We'd previously agreed to a 7.30 am photocall at Lloyds' head office on the morning of Friday 2nd, so that meant an alarm call at 5.45 am. That's not right on your holiday. We eschewed the £15.65 continental breakfast option at the Novotel in favour of a backstreet caff (almond croissant and cappuccino in my case, £2.40, bargain). We ate outside, a delightful Polish waitress taking the first of many team pics.  It was a lovely morning, and choosing that option rather than the hotel for breakfast added a je ne sais quoi. Which was just as well as we were en route to France, needing some savoir-faire to negotiate the London traffic, and requiring more than a soupcon of courage. That's right, Franglais took hold early on in the group.

The photocall at Gresham Street marked the start of a few inglorious episodes for your writer. First, I managed to fall off my bike directly under the Lloyds sign that is always shown when there's a news item on the organisation.  Not sure how I did it, but there was no real damage done, other than to my dignity. Second, and no more than 10 minutes later, crossing the busy Bank junction I passed an amber light (it really was, not red) without realising how far it was across to the other side, and consequently garnered a whole load of abuse from a motorcycle courier and a lorry driver for delaying them by, well, it must have been nearly as much as 2 seconds. Third, having carefully plotted a route down Borough High Street, we found it was then closed, meaning we had to walk with our bikes down crowded pavements for half a mile. It was now nearly 2 hours since we'd gathered at the hotel reception, and we were still in central London.

The rest of the route out of London was fairly straightforward however.  Busy, but straightforward. Bermondsey, New Cross, Blackheath, Welling, Dartford, south to the A20 was the chosen path, and a hell of a lot easier than navigating into Paris. But that's a blog for a different day. There's not too much to recount about the actual ride itself. Neither Maidstone nor Ashford were entirely without incident as far as staying on the right road was concerned, but I prefer to put that down to the fact that signs for the A20 disappeared temporarily in each, rather than any failings on my part. Greggs (the bakers) did good business in Ashford as far as luncheon arrangements were concerned for some of the party (though I preferred M&S, putting in another sterling performance by having to call Dylan from the till to get him to bring my wallet).

Stopping briefly just before Hythe for a photo-op (and why wouldn't you when the place is called Pedlinge; ok it's probably pronounced with 'j' sound at the end rather than a 'g', but a judicious hand over the 'e' on the sign took care of that problem), we ran along the coast to Folkestone. Till then it had been a sunny and pleasant day, but the haar and fret were rolling in mightily, and visibility became practically zero for a while (slightly bizarre on a summer's afternoon, but I guess it's a regular occurrence around the coasts). The single most testing, ie steepest, climb of the entire ride was encountered between Folkestone and Dover, and a proper legwarmer it was too, necessitating a bit of shank's pony for my fellow travellers.

Now, the entrance to the port, queuing up on our bikes alongside the cars, lorries and motorbikes, and then riding up the ramps actually on to the ferry itself had been the single part of the journey I'd been looking forward to the most.  I've seen plenty of other cyclists at other ports do it, and frankly, been very jealous. A car is very practical, functional and sensible, but it doesn't imply free-spiritedness, or some sense of being an adventurer, a pioneer even, someone not bound by convention. To me, if no-one else, it just looks so damn cool. In the event, I was pretty disappointed. Dover itself is a pretty grotty place these days, the port reflects that, check-in was in a grim shed where the truckers present their paperwork, and the ride onto the boat didn't have an audience. I was pretty tired after the early start and navigating down some busy roads to get there, and that might explain things a little, but really, it wasn't the experience I was hoping for.

Onboard it wasn't a lot better. I've probably been spoiled by Brittany Ferries on the crossings to France, which run excellent, clean, comfortable ferries that feel like the seafaring equivalent of travelling business class. P&O to Calais is more like Easyjet. They're not as bad as Ryanair though, and to be fair, the vast quantities of fish and chips we consumed in the restaurant were perfectly palatable. The food of the gods didn't really revive me however,  and I was more tired on that ferry than at any other point on the entire trip.

I was a bit worried about the final bit of navigation for the day, the - as it turned out - 10 km to the hotel in Coquelles. It was dark, we were tired, we weren't quite sure which part of the vast ferry terminal we were exiting, so orienting ourselves wasn't easy, but to my very pleasant surprise we made it to the hotel without a single wrong turn. Better than that, the air was warm, the roads were smooth, we rode well as a group, and the bit of Calais we saw looked surprisingly salubrious - though maybe Dover has lowered my expectations. The mood felt almost ecstatic by the time we arrived at our luxurious garrison for the night - the Formule 1 hotel at Coquelles. I shall ruminate further on the joys of the Formule 1 in a later post. Anyway, that was Day 1 done - the longest, hardest, and most particulate-inhaling of the four, but then, you didn't expect anything else when it was a day spent on British roads did you?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

When routine bites hard, and ambitions are low...

These were my thoughts on Sunday when I got out of bed.  I could hardly be bothered to go to breakfast, let alone go bike riding.  MR wasn't on top form either.  But we were there, in the Pyrenees, the sun was shining, and we were going home the day after. It had to be done. So of course we went, just as I shall hop on the bike this Sunday morning too in Abbeville when, in all likelihood according to the forecast, it'll be raining and miserable. You do it because there's no alternative your conscience can live with. And it's nearly always worth it. Last Sunday the weather was glorious, the climbing serene and the descents exciting. This Sunday - with a bit of luck - even if we get a bit wet, the showers after will be that little bit more rewarding, the bonds forged on the road that little bit stronger. Deliberately seeking difficulty and discomfort is, in my opinion, a little perverse, but deciding to do something worthy or interesting or challenging, and then keeping going when it gets a bit tough - the payback nearly always outweighs the inconvenience.  It's sometimes tricky to remember that when you're frozen to the bone and something's hurting, but that doesn't make it any less true.

We stayed with a company called Pyractif, whose base (complete with workshop and cycling memorabilia on  every wall), location, catering, advice and general set-up were all superb. To anyone planning a cycling break in the Pyrenees, look no further.  Slightly bizarrely, we established that a) the owner (Chris) was once the trainer on a course attended by my sister in 1992 when both he and she worked for Lloyds Bank, and b) the young whippersnapper (a fellow guest) sitting opposite us at dinner the first night was, despite his initial diffidence, an MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament), a Conservative one no less (1 of only 15), and in the face of his denials, a putative leader of the Scottish Tories. He's 35, and is training to run a sub-3:30 marathon as well as doing mad cycling. I suspect he has more ambition in his little finger than many of us have in the rest of our personage. Going back to Pyractif, special mention for Pete, who not only gave us sound route advice, but also encouraged, cajoled and praised our efforts, and bore three nights of cycling chat round the table with good humour.

Thanks to Mendip Rouleur too, who did the vast bulk of the organisation of the trip, which all went like clockwork. We sometimes bicker away with each other, but I reckon that's the sign of true friendship. Riding with him is a pleasure too - we don't always go at the same speed, but his pace and riding are predictable. I like that.

Focus turns now to the London to Paris charity bike ride, which starts for me in just over 4 hours time when I shall board a train to London with a fully laden touring bike.  The ride-proper starts at 7 am tomorrow, when we shall leave the Novotel at Waterloo for a photocall in Gresham Street, prior to making our way down to Dover. We're spending Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in the less-than-glamorous surroundings of Formule Une hotels (they make Travelodges look like the Ritz), in Coquelles, Abbeville and Chambly respectively, before riding the last 30 miles into Paris on Monday morning.  From there my fellow 3 riders come back to the UK, whilst I hop on a TGV to Rennes, then on Lamballe, and the 20 mile ride home (French home, never tire of writing that!) from there. So, there'll be a break of a couple of weeks now, with a full account of La Manche ride - the final one of the 4 events in the title of this blog - to come after that. The weather forecast - as hinted at above - doesn't look brilliant, but hey ho, what can we do but get on with it. We've collectively raised £2500 or so for Save The Children and Help For Heroes, and when we are wet and uncomfortable we'll be reminding ourselves that our discomfort is as nothing compared to the beneficiaries of those worthy charities. A bientot, mes amis!

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

When Saturday Comes

The weather last Saturday did at least dawn brighter and drier than Friday.  We had planned an absolute belter of a day, at least in terms of climbing.  The charge sheet of cols was to read: Port de Bales, Superbagneres, Hospice de France and Portillon.  We only managed the first two in the end, but they're still "HC" (Hors Categorie = beyond classification = as hard as you can get) climbs.

The Port de Bales was a superb climb, alternately shaded, twisting, wooded, open, and donor of lovely views of mountains and lush farmland.  I loved it, despite an aching back towards the top and an aching knee all the way up.  It was also 19km long.  The P de B is best known perhaps for last year's incident on the Tour de France when Schleck the Younger's chain unshipped itself, leaving Bertie Booster free to build a lead that, with wry coincidence, was his margin of eventual victory.  That chain came off allegedly because Andy was preparing to attack, and so selecting a bigger gear.  Attack!  On there!  These boys aren't human.  Still, we made it to the top in a reasonable state.  The descent was nice too, but then again I love virtually all descents in the dry, being a lot more circumspect in the wet.

We reprised last year's luncheon arrangements in Luchon (we stopped there on the Raid Pyrenean), viz. a slice of pizza and a can of coke, from the same shop too, on the very pleasant tree-lined main boulevard of Bagneres-de-Luchon, to give it its full title.  And then we tackled the climb of Superbagneres, a 16km pull up to a ski-station, a cul-de-sac.  That didn't augur well, as neither of us are big fans of the up-and-back.  From the moment we hit it, neither of us seemed to have our mojo.  Mendip Rouleur's greater discomfort was on the ascent (I won't go into detail, but let's just say I now know that it's not only bears who repair to the woods for that particular activity), whilst mine was on the descent.  As climbs go, it was ok, views, switchbacks and the like, but it just didn't have the magic of other ascents.  We managed a coffee and hot choc respectively at a pretty exposed summit cafe, and then came the was fast, sweeping, dry and should have been fun, but halfway down I knew something wasn't right.  I was unfeasibly cold given the number of layers I was wearing, and I was feeling lightheaded to the point I was worried about blacking out.  Now, descending a mountain on a bicycle at speeds up to 80kmh and with unprotected corners is not a good time to lose consciousness, even for a couple of seconds, so I stopped for a few minutes to eat and drink, and carried on.  MR and I reconvened in Luchon where the temp was 19c and I was still freezing.    

A piece of Gateau Basque was hurriedly consumed, but did nothing in the short term, so I had to sit behind MR on the 25km back to base.  At the time, I thought maybe the previous weekend's virus-type thing had returned, brought on by the exertions of the 2 HC climbs, but now, looking back, I realise it was a classic case of 'bonking' - blood sugar drops to levels where you can't maintain power output.  Cold, shivering, energyless, I should have known really, particularly as when we got closer to home I perked up a bit (the Gateau Basque hitting the system!).  Thanks to MR for escorting me back at speeds approximately half of what I'd normally expect along what was basically 25km of fairly steady downhill.  I thought I'd eaten plenty, and probably had a moderate amount during the ride itself.  However, I'd been woefully short on the carbs front in the previous evening's meal - it just goes to show, you really can't mess with these mountains.

Sunday was our equivalent of a leisurely round of golf - we planned to do just two cols of any significance, the Hourquette d'Ancizan and the Aspin.  The weather was a notch up again on Saturday, making it a superb day to be out on a bike, and even better, we had a good run on the flat (45km) before the first climb of the day, a leg warming distance denied to us the previous two days.  We even had a quick stop in Arreau for no particular reason other than that we fancied it.  After some debate, for neither of us were over-burdened with energy at this point, we decided to stick to our original plan and take the eastern approach of the Hourquette (10km at 10%).  And boy, were we rewarded for that decision. It was superb, the best of the 3 days for me.  On the lower slopes we were brought to a halt temporarily by a "Tour Pyrenean de Volants Anciennes" - old cars driving over various cols, including (cars not cols), Citroens from the '50s, restored La Poste vans, open-topped Mercedes that would be the vehicular equivalent of ladies-of-a-certain-age, and the inevitable 2cv's.  What a great moment that was, good humour all round.

And the rest of the climb continued in the same vein.  It was narrow, quiet, well-paved as usual, shaded (which was welcome), had the most unbelievable views at the top, but the best thing for me was that my legs started working for some reason.  Whereas all my previous climbing had been fairly laboured, all of a sudden it was, well, if not easy as such, then certainly pleasurable.  I put it down to the entire packet of jaffa cakes i consumed in a 10 minute period the previous evening, after a 3 course meal where I'd had two helpings of main course.  Hardly surprising I guess - just doing some maths and assuming an average hourly calorific consumption of 700, I needed 5 days worth of extra food to fuel those 3 days of riding.  God knows how the professionals keep it up for 3 weeks at a time.

Anyway, the descent of the Hourquette was fast and furious, calmed only in the last few km by hundreds of daytrippers, and after a quick ice cream we started the Aspin, the bases of each being only a few hundred metres apart.  Climbing form was maintained up there, but it wasn't novel, having covered the same ground on the Raid.  That time, however, the descent was in the wet, whereas this time it was dry, and if the Hourquette was the best climb of the trip, this was head-and-shoulders the best bit of downhill - long, clear bits of road to really build up some pace, corners both tight and wide to keep it interesting, and vehiclar overtaking opportunities, which I particularly love.  I don't think the speedometer dropped below 50kmh at any point, and sat between 60 and 70kmh for a lot of the time.  C'est magnifique.

We celebrated by finally managing a civilised lunch at a lovely cafe in Arreau, galettes and salad all round.  From there it was a 45km cruise back up the D26 valley road to Bertren, on an archtypal lazy summer, Sunday afternoon, to complete the riding for the trip.

This post is already too long, so I'm going to leave it there, and put one more on tomorrow that picks up a few final reflections on our 3 days.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A golfing weekend

So me and Mendi Prouleur (as I prefer to read his hashtag) have just returned from three days of riding in the Pyrenees.  We both agreed that we're boring both ourselves and our select and small (but beautiful) audiences with posts that consist of little more than a route description, so this one is going to be, well just that.....but this is the Pyrenees for goodness sake, not Somerset or the Peak District.

I will, however, divide the account into two, and resist telling you, for example, detail of the content of our pre-flight sandwiches on Thursday.  The riding started on Friday morning, having managed to assemble our bikes on Thursday night.  I'd been tracking the forecast all week, and it had been one of those occasions when I'd been hoping it was going to prove inaccurate.  It didn't.  To be fair, when we left Bertren, it wasn't actually raining, merely damp and misty, but a warm kind of damp and misty.  So warm in fact that when we started our first climb of the day just after St. Beat, the Col de Mente, I had to stop after a km to remove my base layer (a term we cyclists/runners use to unnecessarily glamorise what is basically a vest).  The sweat was pouring off, and not having done sufficient research on that particular col, I overcooked it on the lower slopes. I did, however, settle into a rhythm, and we wound our way to the top. As we congratulated ourselves, looked at the various signs and plaques, and had a feed, the rain started to fall increasingly hard, and with every extra 30 seconds we were there, an extra layer of clothing was added, mindful as we were of the descent.

And a jolly wet descent it was too, more wet than jolly truth be told.  And directly at the bottom the ascent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet starts, which, whilst clearly not easy, isn't the beast it's sometimes made out to be. Far out it ain't.  Obligatory photos for the second year running at the Casartelli memorial, and a rest at the top to delve into our very capacious, sensible saddle bags (which, let's face it, would get an admiring glance or two on an audax) in a search for more layers of clothing, prefaced another wet descent, a merciful few minutes of dryness, and then a wet sprint along the valley floor to St. Girons.  Our vision of lunch had been something like: seated at a characterful roadside cafe in the middle of town, doffing our cycling caps to all those murmuring 'chapeau' as they wandered past on their French way, ordering a cheeky croc-m'sieur and a couple of slices of strong coffee whilst the sun bathed us in its rays of bright light (it's its height in the sky you know).  The reality: a sandwich and coke wolfed down at the front of a supermarket, lingering as little as possible so as not to freeze too much.

The weather in the afternoon changed......for the worse.  It was bouncing off the road, necessitating a short period of respite in a bus shelter that had clearly seen less innocuous activities than waiting for public transport if the assortment of medical items on the floor was any guide. We got on our way, and bagged another couple of minor cols before finishing the day's climbing off with the Col des Ares.  I achieved a minor and rather sad ambition here of getting to the top of a not-insignificant col in the big ring of my bike. I'm sure my knees will take their revenge later in life.  At the top of the Ares we commented how ironic it would be if, when we dropped into the next (home) valley the sun were shining and the roads dry, and our hosts greeted us with increduality when we recounted our tales of storm and cloud.  And guess what?  Irony ruled, and we did have a final dry couple of miles home.  However, the black-streaked faces, dirty kit and general air of being pulled though a hedge backwards convinced those at base of our war stories.

I'm going to leave it there for now, and pick up Saturday's story later.  The weekend might even be a tale of three posts, and I shall explain the title of this one in due course.  Let's end on a note of me being an ar$e. Brain was definitely in neutral when I was unpacking for the day, and could I find the cash and credit card I'd taken out with me?  Could I heck. They weren't anywhere to be found, so we had to drive back over two cols (and this on a day when we had to go down 25km to Luchon in search of our evening meal anyway) in search.  They weren't there.  That's because they were on the floor of our room, around 1 metre away from my bed.  Still, greater humblings were to come the next day...

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Calm before the storm

Events have conspired against any meaningful riding this weekend. Those events have been the non-return of BH bike (the mythical bottom bracket not having yet appeared, and I must confess I'm getting a tiny bit nervous given I've got to have the thing back by Tuesday lunchtime at the latest), and some sort of virus or something that's left me feeling achy and energy-less.  I'm interpreting this as fate telling me to have a rest before the exertions that are coming.

So, it's a short post this week, in anticipation of two pretty meaty ones over the next couple of weeks.  On Thursday Mendip Rouleur and I fly to Toulouse and then travel on to the Pyrenees for 3, possibly 3.5, days riding up Pyrenean hills.  The temperature at our base in the valley was 36c yesterday, and it's still forecast to be upper 20s next weekend.  Can't wait.  The biggest challenge is picking the right cycling gear, as although it might be warm in the valleys, the weather at the top of the higher cols can be quite, quite different.

We're back on Bank Holiday Monday, so next update on here will be a week Tuesday, just two days before I depart again on our London-Paris jaunt.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

There ain't no way but the hard way.. get used to it.

Had BH been available tonight I would have hit the hills - it was sunny, reasonably warm, and the number of opportunities to go out after work are dwindling rapidly.  (Partly because I'm on hols for the best part of three weeks v soon, so it's not the worst situation in the world).  However, BH wasn't available, still being at the bike hospital, because it has an unusually small bottom bracket, and the bike Drs. Dave and Dave (Big & Little) are currently struggling to find a donor.  They tell me they've put out a special appeal, and they're confident we should be well on the way to recovery by Friday night. (I'm bursting to use a smiley emoticon here, but I've resisted through all previous posts, so I'm not going to succumb now). I almost asked to see the patient, but realised just in time how sad that would have been.  So I didn't.

So to the garage it was for today's dose of exercise, and the turbo trainer therein.  I'm not entirely sure why the word 'turbo' is used in their description - essentially they're static trainers with a magnetic flywheel being used to create resistance against the back wheel of the bike, so simulating being out on the road with its wind- and rolling-resistance. Anyhow, with the Pyrenees only 8 days away now, I decided it was time for one of my copyright sessions for Improving Your Climbing.  It's probably not that unique, but sometimes it's nice to think you thought of something.  Here's the recipe:

-several phone directories under the front wheel to create an upward angle between rear and front wheel of about 8%.  I know it makes no difference to the resistance, but it replicates the body shape you're in when you climb
- biggest gear, good resistance on the trainer so that pedalling at about 70-72 rpm produces a power output of about 90-95% of functional threshold of power, or if you don't know that, about 85-90% of maximum heart rate
- 10 mins warm-up, then hold the above for 45 mins
- watch as small songbirds fly into the garage to bathe in the puddles of sweat that have now gathered all around
- pretend that you're chasing the leaders of the Tour de France up an Alpine or Pyrenean climb of your choice  as a slightly pathetic means of staying motivated (the most modern virtual reality trainers can now either be pre-programmed to reproduce classic climbs by altering the resistance and its duration, or you can download routes from your satnav that you've previously ridden, and again they'll be re-produced by the trainer and its software. When I win the lottery...)
- collapse into the shower utterly exhausted, but knowing that only 60 minutes in the torture chamber has produced some genuine gain. And indeed a loss - 909 calories in my case tonight.

Ok, it's not as interesting as a real ride, but it's efficient, and just occasionally efficiency beats beauty.
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