Monday, 25 February 2013

I can't stand up for falling down

Coming up with the title of a post can be hard work, so this week I've reverted to the tried-and-tested formula of re-using someone's else creativity, i.e. a song title. Though for a change, it has actually got some pertinence to the subject...

If you're one of those superstitious types who think that things tend to occur in clusters of three (though who knows, statisticians and probability theory experts might tell us there's no superstition involved, and there's empirical evidence to support it as a fact), and I think I might be, then I'm hoping that yesterday marked the end of an unwanted and indeed unwonted sequence - falling down or falling off. In previous weeks I'd fallen over twice when running - the first on ice, the second through a combination of tiredness and clumsiness - and yesterday I made it three, coming a right cropper on, or rather off, the mountain bike.

I was at Llandegla Forest in north Wales with my mate Neil, and we'd decided to do its Red mountain bike run. The Forest is a dedicated mountain biking site, and the trails are excellent. The Black run is seriously technical and quite scary, and you need to be younger/better/more confident/more regular mountain bikers than us to deal with it competently. Blue's a bit straightforward, whereas Red is the Goldilocks' porridge route - just right; some technical bits, quite a lot of 'berms' (which I now know to be banked corners, having ridden hundreds of the things in previous ignorance of their nomenclature), some nice gradual ascents, some brutal ascents, some boardwalk, quite a few humps to provide opportunities for 'getting some air' (hey there kids), some forest and some moorland. Super. And although Neil had ridden the Red many times before, and I had a couple of times before, a new section was opened just before Christmas which has improved what was already a nice and challenging ride.

So having parked just outside the centre because there seemed to be a problem getting into its car park, which we wrongly assumed to be ice as there's quite a ramp to the entrance (it turned out to be just a bit of lateness on the part of the car park opening-people), we started our first climb just after 9. The flurries of snow we'd been having since Friday had organised themselves into something a bit more coherent overnight, and the forest was delightfully white. More icing sugar-dusting-on-a-Victoria sponge than thick layers of white Christmas cake icing, but it had subsequently frozen which made it sound like you were riding on bubble wrap.

Anyway, all was going tickety-boo. One of those nice gradual ascents, notable only for the grouse that flapped out of the undergrowth a few feet in front of me, was followed by the first technical section in the forest. I went for it. But on the first rocky corner a layer of ice had formed that even hefty mountain bike tyres couldn't handle. What made the subsequent crash unusual was that quite often you know you're going to hit the deck, even if only for half a second before you actually do. This time I had no warning; one moment I was upright and the next I was crashing down on my left hand side. For the first time in my cycling life I was glad I was wearing a helmet; it took a fearsome bang on some rock. Had I not been wearing it I suspect the headache I had for 24 hours after would have been quite a lot worse.

I hopped back to my feet and carried on with the other 75% of the route, convinced there was no damage other to my dignity, which seems to have taken a few bashings recently. However, as the day wore on and the adrenalin wore off, the hip, thigh and shoulders started stiffening and now are all throbbing quite nicely, dammit.

What's sobering is that I suspect the first week of the Tour de France, and probably the other grand tours, sees the pros hit the ground as hard as I did yesterday, and they just have to get up and carry on, and quite often chase back to the pack. I'm not sure I'd have fancied a 100 mile ride today. Instead, I can admire the bruises and gravel rash that now adorn right shin, right thigh, left thigh and left hip.

All I can say is that it's definitely time winter moved on and gave spring a chance. The snowdrops may be out, but they ain't kidding anyone; it's still ineffably cold, and you still need your four layers and fleecy longs on every time you get on two wheels. Be banished you evil season!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Male vs Whale Sunrise Express Audax

I love fish and chips. I also love riding my bike. But which one would win in a fight? There's only one way to find out... a vast quantity of fish and chips (I'll describe exactly how much in a moment), and less than 12 hours later attempt to ride a 123km audax. As it happens, the timing of the events was coincidental, rather than planned; we decided to avoid going out to eat in Valentine's Day, and went on Friday night instead. Mrs Monmarduman had been to a posh fish and chip restaurant (it's not necessarily an oxymoron) in Didsbury a few weeks ago, and decided to treat me at the nearer Alderley Edge branch as my Valentine's treat. She also happened to mention that this particular establishment had what it called the Male vs Whale Challenge.

Now, I don't know if you've ever seen Man vs Food on some obscure TV channel, the kind you happen across accidentally when there's nothing much on, but it's basically a programme about one guy working his way through eating challenges at American (where else?) restaurants. I've been itching to have a go at something similar for some time, so given my love of fish and chips, and an event the day after to work off the excesses, Friday night seemed like the ideal time.

Things didn't augur well when we took our seats in the restaurant - there were three late teenage boys having a go at the challenge, and failing miserably. And looking quite ill. The challenge is this: eat the following in 45 minutes: 1 large portion of chips, 1 medium portion of chips, 1 large pot of mushy peas, 3 slices of bread and butter, and a 25 ounce battered cod with tartare sauce. To give you an idea of its size, a regular cod is round about 8-10 ounces. It actually doesn't look too bad when I write it down, but on a platter the size of a dustbin lid, it was quite daunting. The fish I managed quite easily, ditto most of the mushy peas and bread, and frankly, all the warm chips. However, by 30 minutes the remaining chips were getting tepid at best, cold at worst; not the most palatable of things when you're hungry, and frankly quite disgusting when you've basically got three portions of regular fish and chips inside you. So, I'm afraid I failed, though I did keep going till the clock ran down, unlike the teenage lightweights, who were pushing their plates away with seven or eight minutes to go. The £20 voucher and t-shirt will have to wait for my next attempt.

Reader, I'll spare you the ordeal I endured for three hours after I finished the challenge, though its better bits did involve kneeling down, rocking gently and emitting low moaning noises.

And so when the alarm went off at 5.22am yesterday (I can't set an alarm for 'round' times like 5.30 or 7.00; not sure why; never have done), it was with no great vim and vigour that I rose to drive to Hartlebury in Worcestershire for the Sunrise Express audax. Breakfast was out of the question - a pint of squash and a small mug of coffee (for intestinal management purposes) was the best I could manage.

So, a quick word on the Sunrise Express. It's actually one of two events (the other being the Snowdrop Express)  run on the same day by the same people, that both start and finish in the same place, on the same route. In fact the only differences are that the Snowdrop starts half an hour later than the Sunrise, and goes round the course anti-clockwise to the Sunrise's clockwise. Which makes for some good banter at the controls (as the scheduled stops are known on audaxes) and lots of waving at people going in the other direction. It takes in the towns of Evesham, Pershore and Upton-on-Severn, and lots of pretty Worcestershire villages.

The first hour yesterday was, it has to be said, not very enjoyable. It was very foggy (which constantly condensed on my riding glasses), it was -2c, it was wet, and despite trying I couldn't hold the pace of the fastest few, particularly up the hills, where my legs howled at me. It was one of those days, however, where the longer you were out the better things got - it warmed up, the fog burned off, and best of all my legs started working. Having got in a group of seven club cyclists (from a variety of Birmingham clubs) I spent miles 22 (where I picked them up) to 48 just hanging on for dear life frankly. But then in the last 25 miles I'm not sure what happened - maybe the benefits of Male vs Whale were coming through, or maybe the effects had just worn off - but when we hit rises in the road I seemed to work my way up the group another position until I was at the front. For the last 20 miles or so we held a chaingang-type paceline with me on the front all the way. We never caught the fastest three riders, but it was still really nice to have a couple of the others ride up alongside me in the last half-mile, shake my hand and say thanks. And 4th out of 260 is ok. (Repeat after me, it's not a competition, it's not a competition...)

The downside of riding like that is you don't get your head up and take in the countryside and surroundings as much as perhaps you should do, but equally for a non-club rider like me it's great to get in a group of mature, experienced bike handlers and experience the joys of riding as one unit, and much faster than you would on your own. Nearly as great in fact as when we got back to base and getting a choice of bacon sandwich, beans on toast, or cake, all with tea or coffee (proper coffee). Given that base was a really nice garden centre cafe, the £6.50 entrance fee represented stunning value for money.

Audaxes are definitely changing. There are still a few beardy weirdy types, but the majority of participants yesterday were not of that ilk; they were regular club or strong leisure riders. Quite a good proportion were women too, which hasn't always been the case on audaxes. Anyway, yesterday, with my knackered old Ribble bike and route sheet pinned to the my bars rather than a Garmin beeping at me, I felt quite the Luddite myself. I'm pleased I've finally ordered my Charlie/Laurens/whatever name I bestow on said unit when it arrives; I'm less pleased it's taking Wiggle forever to despatch it - guess that's the price you pay for ordering a new model just after it's launched.

There's only one question remaining I think: would I juxtapose an eating challenge with a cycling challenge again? Hell, yeah.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The good, the bad & the ugly

It was raining when I woke up this morning. It's still raining now. And after yesterday's exertions today is definitely not a Rule #9 day (, and it's too cold for the garage, so a bit of stretching and core work later will have to suffice.

It was no less cold yesterday, and I'd done a Coggan 2x20 minute special on the trainer on Friday, so I decided to run rather than ride. This is where the good, the bad and the ugly start.

The good first:

This was the view about half an hour into my run, looking across towards Macclesfield Forest. At home there wasn't a snowflake in sight, but I only had to climb up a few feet up the first hill to cross the line where Friday night's rain had fallen as snow. It was slightly bizarre really, running through puddles and greenery one moment, and then thick cloud and untouched snowfields just a couple of miles further on. It was very pretty though, and through a combination of the cold and the fact it was a Saturday (rather than a Sunday) the trails were deserted, which suits me just fine.

So that was the good...I was out just under 2.5 hours, covering 15.5 miles and 3,500 feet of ascending. It was hard work though, and on just a couple of gels and some water, I got quite tired. Just a couple of miles from home there were a couple of dogwalkers (with dog obviously) occupying the whole pavement, so I nipped on to the road to go past. Unfortunately my lack of energy had an impact on my co-ordination, and as I tried to leap back on to the pavement I caught my foot on the kerb, and went the proverbial A over T, landing for maximum humiliation at the bottom of a hedge, having done a bit of tarmac surfing on my right leg to arrive there.

The bad, therefore. As well as embarrassing myself (made worse by the middle aged lady dogwalkers genuine sympathy), I ruined my lycra running trousers:

Still, it gives me an excuse for a trip to Decathlon....

And so to the ugly; I didn't feel it until I got home, but under the ripped trousers was a bruised knee and rather ugly hole in the leg:

That stung a bit in the bath. And to think that part of the reason I run is to avoid falling off the bike on icy roads...

Unlike last Sunday's mountain bike ride though, the bad and the ugly didn't spoil the good. It was a cracking run; it probably didn't do anything for my climbing abilities on the bike, but it was a hoot in the hills and the forest slipping and sliding around in the snow. Winter's not all bad it seems.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Errors in profusion

A few years ago there was an outdoor equipment shop in Ambleside, run by a slightly mad and certainly quite stroppy Welshman, which advertised its wares using homemade signs in the window. My favourite was "anoraks in profusion". You can imagine a Welshman with a fondness for words and Dylan Thomas, but a head for retail, coming up with that. Today, I could have done with one of his anoraks. As it was, I made errors in profusion in planning and executing my mountain bike ride.

I decided to go out on the mountain bike partly for a change, and partly because I'm riding it three weeks today round Llandegla in North Wales with Neil, and seemingly every time I ride with Neil something breaks or falls off the bike, so I thought I'd give it chance to fail today so that I had time to get it mended if need be. I planned to do my normal 22 mile route through Macclesfield Forest, up to the Cat & Fiddle, across moorland and down to Wildboarclough, back through the Forest and home. I looked at the weather forecast last night, and it said it would rain overnight and be cloudy and milder by this morning. I then didn't look at the forecast this morning. Error number 1.

Error number 2 was failing to remember that whatever it's like down here at 600 feet above sea level, it's quite a lot worse nearly 1000 feet higher at the Cat & Fiddle. So there were no overshoes, no rain jacket, a bandana rather than fleecy skullcap, and thin gloves rather than heavy-duty winter ones. It all started fine - the rain was only a fine drizzle, and I was climbing rather then descending so working quite hard.

But then came error number 3 - forgetting that if there's any meaningful snow and ice down here, it can take up to a fortnight for it to disappear up there. Charity Lane is a mile long stretch of gradual ascent and descent along a rocky, rutted and hard-to-stay-upright-at-the-best-of-times kind of path. Today, however, the streams of water that flow gently in each direction from its summit were frozen, meaning that I had a choice: walk on ice, or ride on ice. (OK, there was a third choice - turn round and go a different way, but that was never going to happen). I opted for a bit of both, and after about 10 minutes of staggering around like a lamb that's learning to walk I exited unharmed.

Then came the climb to Cat & Fiddle, and there weather hell truly began. It was raining hard, the wind was piercing and still the paths were strewn with ice and cold puddles.  Error number 4 - going out without clear lenses in my cycling glasses; I could hardly see a thing for the muddy water being sprayed into my eyes. Now I was beginning to get cold. The rain intensified, everything I was wearing was wetter than it would have been in the washing machine, and I was on the downhill section of the route. I can honestly say I've never been more uncomfortable, even on some of my wet descents in the Pyrenees.

I changed route, sticking more to the roads in an attempt to pedal harder and warm up, but to no avail. By the time I got back to Macc Forest, my hands were indescribably cold. I did something I almost never do - I cut my planned route short and headed home. Again, it was downhill, and you know what it's like when one part of you gets cold; the rest of you gets cold as the body tries to divert blood to retain what little warmth it's got. But I made it back, and was in the shower with 90 seconds of walking through the door, and the pain of the warm water on my hands as they thawed was like the worst kind of pins-and-needles.

Quite often on here I talk about how marvellous a run or a ride has been, indeed sometimes I think I sound like I'm protesting too much. Today, however, the ride wasn't marvellous or even enjoyable after the event, as some can be. It was miserable, horrible, and without any virtue at all as far as I can see; I don't even think it was worth much in training terms. Still, I've got no-one to blame but myself. Back on the road bike I think next weekend.
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