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?!
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