Monday, 28 January 2013

A Mere 200 Audax

There was a moment on Friday night, as I drove my car between Ashbourne and Leek, when I wondered if I'd be (in ascending order of melodrama), a) thawed out enough to ride on Sunday, b) sufficiently trusting of the state of the roads to want to ride, and c) alive. Yes, I got caught in the snowstorm from hell - I was the first person along the A53 going west, and it was virtually impossible to identify the road, let alone keep the car from sliding around on it, such was the depth and ferocity with which the snow came down. Just after Leek the snow turned to rain bizarrely (as it was still -3c), but at least getting home was less of a challenge.

Rolling the clock on 36 hours, and I thought things would be fine for the annual running of the 'A Mere 200' audax. There are actually two events run on the same day; the '200' (km) starts at 8 am, and the Mere Century (miles) starts at 8.30. I - foolishly after not riding 100 miles since October, and then in balmy autumnal French sunshine - elected to do the 200km. Or 206km according to the route sheet. Or 210km as it turned out after two diversions, one through a minor map reading mistake and one because there was one flood that defeated even the most foolhardy of us. More of that in a moment...but first, a word on the cunning name of the event. There are many places in these parts that have 'mere' in their name, meaning basically a lake (this proved very prescient in the middle part of the ride), and the ride is a carefully constructed tour of most of them.

Anyway, the ride starts in Cheadle, just south of Manchester, takes a westerly route through Cheshire and Shropshire down to Ellesmere (not Ellesmere Port, just Ellesmere), and an easterly route back from there. Very nice it is too under normal circumstances. And for the first 50km yesterday, we had no reason to believe circumstances were anything other than normal. Then came the twin challenges however - ice and floods. The route, like many audaxes, is predominantly on back lanes, of the sort that don't see much salt and grit when the weather is bad. And the sheltered ones don't see much sunshine either, meaning that despite the above-freezing temperatures, there was about 30km of icy dreadfulness in south Cheshire and north Shrops. It was also windy, meaning that eight of us were working together to get some shelter and respite. That was great, and the group was really good in calling out the ice, potholes and other obstacles, but there were still occasions when your front wheel would catch a patch of ice, and some frantic bike handling was needed to stay upright. Fun, it was not.

And then...after the turn north at Ellesmere we started encountering another hazard: flooded roads. The water must have covered the road a good two dozen times, and on five of those occasions, I was deeper in water than I'd ever been before on a bike. The flood was such that you had to pedal to get through it rather than freewheel with your legs out of the way, and to give you a better idea of its depth, both of my waterbottles were, as it were, under water, as were my knees on the down pedal stroke. It was astonishing, mad, and quite frankly a miracle that I didn't stall, fall or puncture. On reflection, however, unlike the ice, it was fun - there being no danger of imminent collarbone breakage.

There was one flood, however, that did defeat us, at Wybunbury (pronounced Wyn-berry) in Cheshire, where the water was bottom of the ribs-high. I know the area quite well so was able to divert easily, and others followed either my lead or their Garmin's instructions. One hardy soul though, who 'won' the event (you don't win audaxes or sportives, but there is a competitive element to be sure), was out in front on his own without a map, so elected to wade through with his bike held aloft. (He confessed this to me at the end over a hot soup, which had almost never been more welcome).

The wind was a pain in the you-know-what in the morning, but moderately helpful in the afternoon, and I managed to not stop for three hours on the run in to the end partly as a consequence. I was pretty pleased with my overall performance - I did the 131 miles in 7 hours 50 riding time, 8 hours 15 start to finish; just under 17mph average was a fairly respectable effort in the conditions and over that distance. As ever, I felt rubbish quite a few times in the middle of the ride, and dropped behind on a few of the climbs (though my fellow riders didn't have a none-too-streamlined Carradice saddlebag), but kept going and gradually hauled in everyone apart from the Burnley-based, floodwading nutter. The two of us managed to finish ahead of all the 160km starters too.

Anyway, some days challenge your mental stamina, some your physical stamina, or your route following skills, or your bike handling ability, or your get the idea. Yesterday, apart from aptitude at roadside mechanicing, it felt like the lot. But it was all the better for that. A good January runout.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Mopping up...

Realised I missed a few things writing yesterday's post, plus today's exertions.

The latter first. The side roads round here were way too dangerous to cycle on today, leaving me with a choice of mountain bike or running. Running won, mainly because it was easier to get ready. We were out last night for the 6th Saturday on the bounce (we could nearly be accused of having a life), and because we were at my mother's, we were fed royally; five courses indeed, if you count the sorbet. So there was, yet again, some excess to work off, not least the fantastic, homemade sticky toffee pudding.  Um um.

I decided to run for a couple of hours, which turned into 137 mins as I felt ok after about an hour and a half. The stats actually are 14.8 miles run, 2480 feet of climbing, 1969 calories used. That only tells half the story really though. The route I chose is a tough run at the best of times, with two really steep climbs into Teggs Nose country park and Macclesfield Forest respectively. Add in today's terrible underfoot conditions (ice in many places [I took a comedy tumble on black ice on Crookedyard Road] and knee deep snow in the fields), and the wind that whipped across the exposed parts, and it was a real challenge. I really enjoyed it, but I'm not sure I'd have managed a second circuit. It's taken three bowls of hearty homemade pea-and-ham soup, a couple of pints of coffee, and a hot shower to ward off the early signs of exposure. Good training though.

Meantime, back to yesterday. There are a few things I missed. First, why am I doing this - commissioning, spec'ing and paying a small fortune for a steel bike. Having seen the final bill yesterday I'm tempted to say 'I don't know'. I do though. It's a whole mixture of reasons, some of which are good and positive, and others which are less admirable. Of the latter: whilst I love it that cycling has taken on a new prominence in recent times, I'm still turned off by the johnny-come-latelys. I imagine I'm going through the same feelings as the diehard fans of Premiership football clubs did during the 1990's when they saw grounds filling with those new supporters, attracted by success and the newfound glamour, who thought they understood everything of the present, but didn't because they had no sense of the past. My way to re-claiming the past is to not buy a Pinarello, but to create my own piece of cycling history by owning a handbuilt Rourke frame - individually numbered, individually made, and made to fit one individual - me.

As to the other reasons - well, I'd challenge anyone who said this was a mid-life crisis, but it is the equivalent of the middle aged man's shiny red sports car. I don't want it because it'll make me look youthful, or to attract the opposite sex (are women really attracted to men because of the car they drive in any case?), but because I want to own something that's beautiful and individual; it's more like buying a non-reproduction piece of art in that sense. And before I get too pretentious, the other reasons I want it are a) because I want to go as fast as my ageing, creaking body will allow me, and b) because I want to do so in comfort.

In any case, it was a privilege being in that shop yesterday. Yesterday's post had pictures of Sean Kelly's latest bike, one that Tony Pulis (the Stoke City manager) rode Land's End to John o'Groats on (and has paid for he liked it so much, but has yet to collect), a world champ's shirt dedicated to Brian ('Rourkie') from Mark ('Cav'), and one of the frames Nicole Cooke won her world championships on. I didn't have space for Rourkie's bike that he won the UK road race title on, or the photograph of Muhammad Ali being presented with his Rourke bike. There are other framebuilders in England of course - many of them. I hope their order books are as full as Rourke's, for that's the biggest indication that the culture of cycling is alive and well, not just participation levels.

Although...all the boys in the shop yesterday were bemoaning the lack of mutual acknowledgement between cyclists once you get out of the hills and hit the flatlands of the Cheshire Plain. Still, cyclists have always enjoyed a good moan.

And finally, the only moment where I felt truly daft yesterday. We were discussing which bottle cages to add to the bike, and I mentioned I'd never really got on with the Elite ones I currently use. A glance was thrown in the direction of my current bike. "That's because they're on upside down" came the withering reply....

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Brian Rourke: the experience

These posts have in recent times veered off cycling and running subjects. Not this one. This one is, to not coin a phrase, all about the bike, for today I have spent a blissful 5 hours at Brian Rourke Bikes in Stoke getting measured up for a new bike. I've never had a bespoke suit, let alone a bike, so this was a novel and at times, slightly uncomfortable experience. I wouldn't say I felt like Prince Charles, who allegedly has a lackey to squeeze the toothpaste on to his toothbrush, but I did wonder if I was losing the plot a little at the point where I was giving serious consideration to which font to have my name in on the top tube.

Anyway, back to the start. Brian R himself, an ex-UK road race champion, has been making frames, and had a shop in Stoke, for 40 years. He's semi-retired now at the age of 74 (though he wasn't in the shop today as he's cross-country skiing in Austria at the moment), and it's his son Jason who's the actual frame builder, and who features in the marvellous Made In England (see here: I saw Gareth, who does most of the measuring up now. And is a very patient man. He has to be, with the likes of me around, though I don't think I can be blamed for not knowing which headset I wanted, which must have taken 10 minutes debate.

The Rourke approach to measuring you up is a unique one. There are no theories, no computer programmes, no jigs and no measuring - it's all about starting on your existing bike and adjusting the fit till it's perfect. In my case, that meant fitting new handlebars, and changing the saddle angle and position, but nothing else; my fit was reasonably good. That said, the trial-and-error that we went through took nearly 3 hours with seemingly infinite combinations of angles, heights and hand positions. Writing up the results for Jason to work from in the construction of the frame took another half hour.

Then it was on to discussing components and colours. The saddle choice took half an hour, though Rourke offer a no-quibble exchange policy if you're not entirely happy with the one supplied, as their core aim is to provide the most comfortable bike possible for the money you're prepared to spend. Which brings me to that difficult subject. I'm not going to divulge what the damage is going to be to my bank account, and I'm not even going to reveal my choice of wheels and groupset, because that will give clues. I'll say two things. First, this ship ain't gonna be spoiled for a ha'porth worth of tar. And second, I've gone for the Reynolds 953 steel tubing, the canine's genitalia for frame making. If you're going to keep it real, you may as well keep it mighty real. Oh, one more thing; I've always wanted some Mavic wheels, and they will indeed feature.

The worst bit now - apart from the paying - is the waiting. Mid-July is the delivery date, which I've got mixed feelings about. On one hand, I'd love to have the new beast to go play in the Pyrenees with in July, when Mendip Rouleur and I are there. On the other, I'd be petrified of Easy Jet damaging the thing on its first outing. At least with the BH I'll be able to relax.

Finally, a selection of photos of famous customers: their shirts, frames, or current bikes.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Bonk rations AWOL

Well, what a fine 24 hours. A little snooze in bed at teatime yesterday was followed by a most excellent night out at friends in Macc (including some particularly competitive quiz playing), 6 hours alcohol-aided sleep, a 3 hour ride, the annual harvest of Jerusalem artichokes (a bumper one I'm pleased to say), and now I'm writing this in front of the log burner while it starts to snow outside. Forget Christmas, I just wish it could be weekend every day.

And to think I nearly didn't ride this morning. Not because it was below freezing, with the forecast for it to rise no more than a single degree above. Not because I had a slightly thick head from last evening's merriment.  Not because I'd only had that 6 hours sleep.  Not even because I've managed to exercise on 10 of the first 12 days of January. Nope, it was because I nearly went running instead - I'm a bit cautious about going out on potentially slippery roads - and the hills looked really enticing.  However, it's been reasonably dry round here recently, so the roads seemed ok. I also ate the best part of an entire box of Thornton's chocolates last night and some long slow miles seemed just the ticket to work them off. Finally, I wanted to try out my cold weather kit, just in case it's as cold as today in a fortnight when I'm doing the audax.

On that note, it was a small thrill to find out that my insulated drinks mug fits rather snugly in my bottle cages thus:

Despite this morning's cold, it kept my raspberry infusion pretty warm for the first hour, which was a nice little treat.

Raspberry tea and orange squash apart, today's circuit of mid-Cheshire (another 50 miles) was done non-stop and with no sustenance, reasonably deliberately. I'm not sure that was completely wise, but sometimes it's worth reminding your body what it's like to deplete your glycogen stores. Horrible, in a word. The last half hour was pretty slow, and every little rise felt like the Eiger. Had I taken bonk rations I'd have delved into them, but I didn't, so I couldn't.

There's not a lot else to say. Cheshire was looking gorgeous in the watery, wintery sunshine, with swirls of mist over the fields. The cattle have finally retreated indoors, leaving just the sheep in the fields and the crows in the leaf-less treetops. I didn't regret riding than running. It's all going quite well really.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

100 up...

I've always admired (or is it thought slightly mad?) those hardy souls who do 100 mile time trials. I can't particularly see the fun in them, ploughing up and down a dual carriageway. And yet I fear that my small but dedicated band of readers have had to show the same levels of endurance and suffering to get to this, my 100th blog post. But onwards.....

I rode my bicycle today, just over 50 miles as it happens, and I shall return to the subject later on. I just didn't want you to think I was going to come over all self-indulgent when I start talking about last year, this year, and indeed the next couple of years.

2012 was a year when things influenced me, rather than the other way round. Some couldn't be helped, like getting sciatica for a while. Others I wouldn't have had any other way, like being around to provide what little assistance I could to Mrs Monmarduman as she nursed her mum through her final weeks during September and October, and spending more time with my kids than I thought was going to be possible. But there were others still which maybe I let influence me more than they should have - starting a new job for example. It's easy to think I didn't ride because of the travelling involved in the new job; the truth, I suspect, is that the travelling persuaded me to not enter events, and not entering events is a surefire way of me letting my training become erratic.

2013 will, I hope, be quite different. It's perhaps easy to say that when I haven't had to travel anywhere with work for nearly 4 weeks now, but I've resolved to make minor changes, like insisting on staying in hotels with a gym for example; it's not getting out on the road, but at least it's limiting the damage. But there are other reasons too, like....

Death. Cheerful, huh. I'm not sure whether I'm at that mid-life stage where it's inevitable that people you know directly or indirectly die, but there does seem to have been an awful lot of it around in recent times. I'm finding myself connected obliquely to it all the time. Today, for example, there was a news story about a Scottish guy who died yesterday when his parachute failed to open over Perthshire. I hadn't seen him for perhaps 3 years now, but 8 years ago I worked with him quite closely on a project. And last week, the Plymouth schoolboy who jumped off a ferry on new year's sister-in-law was on the ferry immediately behind, and he and my youngest had 17 Facebook friends in common (though I'm not sure that's saying a lot when all 16 year olds seem to have about 500 Facebook friends). Anyway, the point is there seem to be constant reminders about our fragile hold on existence. And in that light, and this isn't meant as flippantly as it sounds, it seems daft not to ride my bike as much as possible. It's what I like to do, after all.

2012 was, however, the year I discovered that running and cycling could co-exist peacefully, a revelation in my little mind akin to finding out that when humans aren't looking cats and dogs play scrabble together in a spirit of mutual admiration and co-operation. So it wasn't a complete write-off.

2013, however, is already shaping up to be better. I've resolved (again) to ride more with others this year, and have already entered 5 events with other people, starting with the Mere Two Hundred audax 3 weeks today (that's 200 km. Blimey. Better do some training). They may not all be big events, the Kidsgrove Loop De Loop at the start of March for example certainly isn't, but they will, I trust, be fun.

My biggest goal is now two and a half years away, and so within sight - Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015. I want to do it for a number of reasons. First, it's mental - 1200 km non-stop, or as non-stop as you can manage. Second, it's the oldest long distance cycle race in the world; older than everything, including the Tour de France, which gives it an alluring authenticity in my book. Third, it goes through parts of Brittany I'm now really familiar with (and love), and within 20 miles of our little cottage there. And finally - it's a great target to keep in your mind when you're slogging your guts out on the turbo trainer - under 1000 days to go.

And so it was that I took to the road today on another tiny step towards Paris, though the misty lanes of east Cheshire and north Staffordshire felt a world away today. They made for good riding though - my 50 miles had 3000 feet of climbing in them, which isn't astounding, but provided a bit of a test after a good few months mainly spent on the flatlands. In fact, I accidentally went up Mow Cop the difficult way - aka "The Killer Mile" - which isn't quite as difficult as folk make out when it's warm and you've got some fitness, but under-trained and in January, it's definitely a leg-warmer and chest-wheezer. Fun though.

And little cycling world was brightened this week when my tweet recommending The Cycling Anthology Volume 1 was re-tweeted by Lionel Birnie, one of the co-editors. I'm not sure how he managed to do it, as I didn't use a hashtag (I'm sure regular Twitter-ers could enlighten me), but do it he did. And he's now following me. Must be my wit and erudition innit.

I was hoping to squeeze in some Hasselhoff jokes having seen him in panto yesterday, but my energy is low and this is too long already. Oh yes it is.
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