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 descent.....it 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..

...so 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.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

I predict a riot..

..it would have been more prescient if I'd written that last Sunday wouldn't it?  Back to that in a minute.

I was torn about my subject matter this week.  This blog was initiated principally to chronicle four key events, and the preparation for them, for which I was going to seek sponsorship this year.  And yet regular readers will know it's covered more than that, albeit that most of the subject matter has resolved around athletic pursuits of one kind or another.

This week, however, there has been very little that feels blogworthy on that front.  Sure, me & Mrs K have had a very pleasant ride of 16 miles along the Middlewood Way this afternoon, one of those new footpaths and bridleways that sit where once there was a thriving railway line - the Macclesfield to Marple line in this case.  And yes, as threatened at the end of last week, I did get a long solo ride in - 83 miles in 4.5 hours yesterday.  Not quite as far as I might have done, but I did manage to simulate the effects of 'bonking' (depletion of glycogen stores for any non-cyclists; why on earth that word was chosen I don't know, but then again, from an etymological and chronological point of view I don't know for sure that it doesn't pre-date the more modern meaning) by not eating breakfast, and only taking 1 bottle of energy drink and 3 small cereal bars with me.  This clearly wasn't enough, and I crawled the last 10 miles home.  And there were indeed 3 deeply exciting turbo-trainer sessions earlier in the week as I get to within 10 days of leaving home to go and do some Pyrenean riding.  I've also continued the bike prep, with both the Pyrenees and the London-Paris mounts needing new chains, cassettes and bottom brackets.  My wallet winced.  Better safe than sorry though; whether in the mist of the midi-Pyrenees or the flatlands of the Pas de Calais, I really won't need a mechanical.

So yes, there was all that - and then there were the riots.  I'm not going to talk about them directly - there's been plenty of that too, and as the news media loves and needs stories to justify its existence, there's been no shortage of analysis, discussion and debate this week.   Which, frankly, has left me nearly as infuriated as the events themselves - for each individual out there rioting and looting, there's a different combination of factors at play, whether they be opportunity, anger, gang-influences, resentment of authority, a genuine sense of grievance, and probably dozens more.  But it's all too easy to identify the causes, as many have, and come up with instant, easy solutions.  In fact, it becomes a kind of media-entertainment to do so, made respectable by cloaking it with the label of 'analysis'.  It seems to me that a package of changes is necessary to change attitudes and behaviour, and it'll be some combination of those changes that act on each individual in a slightly different, but still positive way.

What really struck me this week was the final manifestation of the breakdown of the covenant that seems to have existed for some decades between the governing and what might loosely be called 'the middle class'.  This is absolutely not party political, as my sense this week was of a disbelief from those on all/both sides of the Right/Left divide that this should be allowed to happen.  It could be argued that for some decades the covenant that has existed has suited many in the middle, whether they be, as I say, broadly Left or Right-leaning.  That covenant was based on the one hand of the 'middle' allowing the governing classes (particularly Tory but Labour too over the last couple of decades) their wealth, their knighthoods, their cosy post-political career lordships, ladyships, quango positions or non-executive directorships.  In return, the Left broadly got a social democracy with the health service and welfare state (though not as strong a model as many Scandinavian countries), whilst the Right broadly got a market-based economy and average levels of taxation and interference in private lives in comparison to similar western states.  Both got law, order and, despite our deeply-ingrained British cynicism, a basic trust in those governing us, whether they be politicians, bankers, civil servants, police or healthcare professionals.

To me, it feels like we're all disappointed and shocked.  We've known for a while that politicians are 'in it for themselves', whether that be petty nest-lining like the expenses scandal, or the professionalisation of politics where power is the only end, where politicians have had no other meaningful career, and principle takes its place at the back of the stage.  The Left is disappointed, or at least it should be, for despite the significant increase in tax take as a proportion of national income that happened under the last government, our great institutions of healthcare and education manifestly lag their equivalents in many other western democracies.  The Right is disappointed, possibly for the same reason, but certainly because it feels that the welfare state is too big and government at all levels lacks humanity and empathy.  And both sides are disappointed, with both our futile foreign interventions (Afghanistan and Libya), our flawed bankers (and they are deeply flawed, believe me, as I saw the excesses of HBOS from the inside), and then, last week, the police, who clearly, manifestly, weakly, failed to prevent disorder and law-breaking.  Police by consent by all means, but primarily  with the consent of victims rather than law-breakers.  I actually heard one policeman comment (don't think it was Sir Hugh Orde, but what a prize ar$e that man is) "if we'd done things differently, a lot more people would have got hurt".  He was referring to the rioters.  Let me just see if I'd have minded.....  and as for Greater Manchester Police, they couldn't have had a clearer warning of what was about to happen if Frank Gallagher himself had turned up at Force HQ on Monday with a megaphone, shouting "it's all going to go off in Salford and the Arndale tomorrow".  And whether you want to choose the excesses of the BBC or the tripling of student fees, there are countless more examples of the middle Left and the middle Right feeling let down.

And where does that lead?  To revolution in many places, but we don't do those in the UK do we, so we'll probably just settle for a good grumble instead.  Which is what this has been....

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Post script...

...to yesterday's exertions.  Today I had planned to do a good long ride - there have been plenty of short sharp rides lately, and no little amount of climbing, but I wanted to remind my body what it's like to ride for 5, 6 hours or more.

No chance.  I am so beaten up after yesterday.  Everything is sore; I genuinely feel like I've been beaten up.  With 1,722 feet of ascent and descent in 7.3 miles, and the underfoot conditions as I described them in yesterday's blog, I guess that's hardly surprising, though not having done any 'proper' running since the marathon probably hasn't helped.  I suppose I could have sat on a bike today if my life had depended on it, but it wouldn't have been much fun.

Instead, I have been preparing my bicycles for both the Pyrenees, and the the London-Paris ride (mustn't forget that's the 'La Manche' element of this blog - what am I going to call it once that's done?), which was the bigger job.  Pedals needed swapping from SPD-SL to straightforward SPDs (apologies non-cyclists), sturdier wheels needed putting on, the rack re-fitting, and the back brake needs sorting out - have had to engage Dave & Dave (Little & Big) at the splendidly-named "Bikes" in Macclesfield to assist with that one. (As an aside, these two guys are so authentically Maxonian that when the Joy Division film "Control" was being shot locally these two were briefly employed to help the actors with the local dialect; they are diamonds of the finest calibre).  I also confirmed that the seat post on the 'best' bike, the BH, comes out too, so that confirms I hope that I'll be able to do the necessary dissembly required to get it in a bike box.

I've managed to do some stretching and some core exercises this afternoon, so the day hasn't been totally wasted from an exercise point of view.  And I did manage a couple of rides round variations of my flattish Cheshire Loop this week, so it's been 7 days of maintenance rather than progress.  Right, am off to plan an interesting 100 miler for next weekend, which is definitely going to be done, rain, hail, shine or indeed fell races.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Teggs Nose Fell Race

Every year the Macclesfield Sheep Dog Trials are held (cue jokes about most of them being found guilty).  They are held just a couple of fields away from our house, and each year we say we really ought to go and support them.  In addition to the sheep dog element there are plenty of other honest country pursuits featured too - corn dolly making, tug-o-war competitions, and ethnic minority lynching.  Ok, I made the last one up, but this is the kind of event much favoured by the kind of folk who think the Countryside Alliance are a bunch of townie do-gooders.  Anyway, there are two staples of the weekend, the Sunday night concert in the Grand Marquee (this year featuring the Grumbleweeds - how are we going to resist that?), and the Saturday afternoon fell race.  Well, this year I decided to support the event by having a go at said race - the Teggs Nose Fell Race.

I made that decision 43 minutes before the event was due to start; the rain was holding off, I decided that the bike-mechanicing currently needed could wait till tomorrow, and so it was on with the running lycra, vaseline and trail running shoes.  Five of my English pounds later I was be-numbered and on the start line with about another 100 or so hardies.  Slightly surreally the man getting us under starter's orders was Nicholas Winterton, though I think he adds a 'Sir' these days.  So, one speech later we were off on the 7.5 mile course.

And it turned our to be the hardest 73 minutes of physical exercise I've had in ages.  Typically, everyone went off at a mad pace, and I was soon to regret it when we hit the first hill.  Let me try to paint a picture.  Apart from the first and last mile, there was literally no flat surfaces.  At its most benign the course took us through thistle- and nettle-dominated farmers' fields, where dodging the cow pats was as challenging as the terrain.  At its most evil, the uphill was like mountaineering and the downhill was steeper than a ski jump.  It was a battle just to stay on two feet, and I don't think many of us managed it, needing the assistance of our backside to descend.  In between the uncomfortable and the benign were the footpaths of Teggs Nose Country Park, twisting, turning, and going through endless gates.  When the sun came out the flies were attracted to us in the same way you see them round a cow's behind, and when it didn't the atmosphere was muggy and repressive. All in all, it was fairly hard work, and there were times I wasn't completely sure I was enjoying myself.  Particularly when I slipped in an especially muddy gateway, caking my lower limbs in an bovine-related digestive by-product.

However, I made it back it in one piece, and it only took about 10 minutes to decide that I'd really quite enjoyed in.  If I have a go next year I'll probably do a modicum of extra preparation.  I think the winners did it in about 53 minutes to my 73, but hey ho, there were plenty coming in still at 93 minutes.  It wasn't cycling, and I'm not entirely sure how much cross-training benefit there was, but it was better than the turbo-trainer!
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