Back in the game

It’s some time since I last posted. For about three weeks I was battling with a virus that stopped me training. A drenching first day at the Tour of Wessex brought me down with something. Each time I tried to get back on the bike I could tell I wasn’t up to it.

To say the least, it’s been a busy and exciting time off the bike too. Training has taken a back seat lately, with other more important things taking over. In less than two weeks I’ll be married, so we’ve been spending a lot of time on preparations… On top of that I’ve recently got myself a new job, which has also gulped its fair share of time and effort too.

As usual, after some genuine time off training, I felt pretty unfit getting back on the bike. Because time is short I have been focussing on short rides since then, keeping the intensity really high. In fact, as I often find when illness forces some downtime, I feel refreshed and I can work much harder than before. Longer-term rest really is needed sometimes.

It never gets any easier to spot when I need a that rest though. The only sign seems to be feeling really strong, but then I just want to make hay while the sun shines. With the Haute Route to aim for in late August and a busy few weeks before then, the last thing I wanted was an off-plan rest. Now though, I’m confident that I needed it. Without thinking, I just smashed my PR on a short test climb. I’m back in the game just in time to get a couple of weeks of intense training in before the wedding and some more time off for our honeymoon…

… we’re taking the bikes of course (not even my idea)!

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Race Day

I have only dabbled with racing before. If you can call racing one crit a dabble. Prospects of crash carnage had always put me off. And the one Hillingdon cat 4 crit I have done only stoked my nerves. Riders careering all over the place and crashes everywhere; it was all I could do to stay out of trouble.

But some riding buddies talked me into it and a few of the guys from the shop are seasoned racers. So I thought I should give it a go. The East London Velo summer series at Hog Hill seemed like a good one to go for. Still, I was nervous. The words of José Been, commentating on the recent Women’s Tour of Britain, stuck in my head: it’s going to be gruesome! (I’m thinking blood and guts everywhere.)

The format was simple. One race for cat 3/4s, with a 30-second handicap for the 3s. Starting pace was pretty high, leaving me wondering for the first few laps how I was going to survive an hour and fifteen minutes of it. Especially up the ‘Hoggenberg’… a decent climb for a crit circuit, positioned just before the line. The group would bunch up at the bottom, holding a reasonable pace until the steepest part of the climb, where the mash fest began as others sprinted up to get a good position for the tricky sweeping left-hander that followed. It seemed like wasted energy to me, as each lap it came back together again a couple of corners later. I had good advice ringing in my ears… “don’t be a hero, spin up the climb early on”.

After a few laps the 3s and 4s came together; one bunch. And a break of four went away – but I can’t really recall how or quite when! The pace up the Hoggenberg eased off a bit too. A couple of guys went down after grounding pedals on one hairpin, but luckily didn’t take anyone with them. I think there was a crash in the bunch too, but I didn’t risk looking back. And in the final I pushed from the bottom of the last climb to take something like 5th or 6th place, first of the bunch to cross the line.

There’s nothing like a race to push you hard. This was a pretty hard effort, which is no doubt good training. Having said that, coming into the race my priorities were to 1) not crash and 2) finish (in that order). So I was really happy to get points and left excited about the next week… when I’m sure the pre-race nerves and images of blood baths will make another unwelcome appearance!

Pro score: 3/10 (racing it is, some way to go for a contract)

See my ride on strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/141575959

Hog Hill view back to London

Surrey Hills

After a three-year hiatus, I was riding in Surrey again over the weekend, meeting some friends who I’ll be riding this year’s Haute Route Alps with. We’re all going back for more after riding the event last summer. A few years ago these were my local roads. And they’ve changed somewhat since.

Not least in the number of cyclists. It’s hard to believe unless you experience it yourself. I thought my usual Essex routes were busy, but if there’s an explosion in UK cycling it’s happening right there on the Surrey tarmac! I was blown away by the number of riders out there. Once or twice jams of cycling traffic meant some careful descending, avoiding oncoming weaving riders on their last climbing legs.

But being shown around other people’s well-worn routes usually means seeing the best of local roads. This ride was no exception. I thought I knew this area and sure enough we climbed Box Hill. A smooth-surfaced delight of a climb with a steady gradient and a couple of lovely hairpins – but way too busy for any uninterrupted segments attacks! But we also sampled smaller, less-known roads. Some through verdant forest with stunning views fleetingly revealed through the trees. Quite a ride and quite a contrast to the 25km from north to south London (and back!).

It got a bit racey once or twice too. Another one of the joys of spring, as everyone looks to test their legs before the summer’s events kick in. I’ve said it before, riding with your mates is just more fun! And gives you an excuse for a coffee too…

 See my ride on strava: http://www.strava.com/activities/137724389

Llamas

Haute Route Ambassador

After being blown away by the experience of riding last year’s Haute Route Alps, I applied to be an Haute Route ambassador for the UK… and thought nothing of it for a while. Then I came home one evening to find an email congratulating me on being one of the first Haute Route ambassadors!

My first thought was of the scale of the challenge I’ll be taking in again! Next it rekindled the images of Alpine cols that burned into my brain last summer. One particular shot of the start line at lake Geneva reignited the feeling of rolling over the line with six hundred other riders, all about to experience a week-long adventure through pain, strength and awe.

I’ll be blogging my preparation for the event and on being one if its ambassadors. One look at the iconic cols in this year’s route is enough to get anyone excited. One stage takes in Col de la Madeleine, Col du Glandon and finishes up L’Alpe d’Huez! Bring it on!

London to Norwich

It’s not every day that you can rack up 200 kms. In fact, I’ve never even ridden 200 before. But once I’d planted the idea of riding with a buddy from my place in London to his in Norwich, there was no turning back.

It looked just possible to do it in under 200. But what an opportunity missed that would have been. We rode on the day of Paris Roubaix, so I was tempted to extend it to 257km in a small tribute of our own. But sense got the better of me. Maybe next year (are you reading John)?

Riding out of London gets no better than early on a Sunday morning. The suburban slog being more bearable with little traffic. [If I seem tinged with regret at having to break out of London’s grasp to get a decent ride, it’s because I wrote this in rural France!] But before we knew it we were nosing through Epping Forest and on our way out to the Essex lanes.

As you would expect, Essex to Norwich makes for a flat ride. A few lumps in the first 50kms gave way to rolling countryside. And pan flat riding after our Bury lunch stop. Perfect for a big day in the saddle and it even left something in the tank for a bit of a push into Norwich. 

But it didn’t really feel like such a long ride a after all. This is the joy of a long day in the saddle. With the whole day set aside and no other plans, we just kept on rolling and chatting and rolling some more. There’s a beauty in point to point rides that’s hard to capture. Something about being a journey rather than just a ride. Especially when the same journey takes a couple of hours on a train! That day we really earned our beer and nuts!

 LDNN1  LDNN2  LDNN3

Wildwood CX sportive

As the new year dawned something in my riding roots reared its ugly head. A long-dormant offroad past. Maybe it was collecting the mountain bike of my youth from the garage where it had sat for the past decade. Whatever it was, it made me think that signing up to a cyclocross sportive was a good idea. On my fixie commuter. 80kms of road, firetrack and singletrack. On 25mm slicks. (Let’s see what these Gatorskins are made of!)

As an aside, I’m sure that you, like me, can get a little obsessive with the BBC weather app. (I’m not the first to notice the differences between BBC forecasts and their supposed source, the Met Office.) At this time of year its cheery little weather icons can make or break a day. Hours training in the dark are best kept dry if possible. Hours training indoors best kept to a minimum. But my friend the BBC weather app sometimes has other ideas.

So this week let’s just say I was a little more obsessive. From its first appearance on Monday, this morning’s forecast did not look good. Cold. Heavy rain from 9 am – exactly half an hour after I was due to start. Still, what faith can you have in a forecast? I told myself. Well, come Saturday night, I could have sworn those little icons were a darker shade of grey with larger, more menacing rain drops hanging beneath them. The only time I’ve ever known the five-day forecast to be accurate.

And, come this morning, for the first time ever, the forecast was exactly right. A 6:30 alarm got me to the start line for 8:30 am. Kitted, booted, bike prepped (yes it has a working brake), cup of tea warming my belly from the kind lady behind the teapot. I’m ready. It’s on. And there are quite a few of us on the start line.

But not as many as expected. Those who didn’t turn up missed out on a whole lot of fun. The route wound its way around the Chilterns, mixing up smooth surface with, well, the very bumpy. At least it felt like it to me. When you’re used to riding on the road it takes a little time to get used to the bike sliding around underneath you again. Throw in the torrential rain that begun after 10 minutes of riding and it got pretty tricky in places. After a few minutes I decided the best tactic was to ride through puddles in the hope of finding hard-packed ground in their depths. Better wet legs than a muddy face plant.

And after a while I settled into things. But this was a hard ride. Today my strava suffer score does not tell the whole story. Those chiltern climbs can be pretty steep, making a fixed gear a quad-wrenching choice. This takes early-season work on force (see upcoming posts on my training plans) to a whole new level.

But today every section of the ride was hard. The joy of cresting each climb tempered by knowing that without the option of free-wheeling, each descent was a battle against spinning legs and building up too much speed to control (good for leg speed though!). And the off-road sections demanded total concentration at all times, to thread a line through the mud, puddles and stones.

And so eventually after 40kms the inevitable happened – I punctured. A thorn, it turned out. Through the middle of my Gatorskin. Well, it was a big ask for a road tyre. But fixing it killed me off. I sheltered under a tree in the hope of finding a dry spot. Instead I found myself feeling wetter under the shower of larger drops falling from it. Drenched. And by the time I’d fixed my puncture, very cold. Fingers so numb that I had to pull out the thorn with my teeth. Time to head home, despite my ambition to complete the longer 80km route.

So I finished after 50kms, cold, but feeling OK. Sometimes it’s only later that you realise how cold you were. It took a long time to warm me up. Three cups of tea, an hour driving home with the heater on full blast and half an hour in a hot bath. Only after all of that did I begin to feel warm again. Maybe it was the right decision to call it a day early!

And it’s all left me wanting more! I definitely earned my dinner tonight. And I absolutely loved the riding. Even at my coldest, once I’d turned for home I enjoyed those last 10kms. Earlier on I’d had one of those moments, peering out from underneath my cap, rain blinding me, a gale blowing against me, cadence probably 30. Despite all that, I just thought, I love riding my bike. And sometimes, that’s all there is to it.

CX sportive bike

Fixed

What is it about riding fixed that gets on everyone’s nerves? Maybe we have Shoreditch hipsters to blame. But thankfully they moved on to other more trendy things some time ago. No more deep v rims weighing more than the rest of the bike put together, painted in a neon rainbow of colours. Not now that neon is so very mainstream (one tone only please).

Anyway. I digress. Unless I’m adding training miles to my commute, I’m riding fixed to work and back. And while we’re at it, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, I have a brake. I have no wish to end up beneath a car or worse.

It took a little getting used to. Inevitably there was the odd time when my legs stopped and my pedals didn’t, leaving me bucking forward and looking like a prize idiot. And yes, I have a flip-flop hub, so could easily switch.

So, you might ask, why do I do it to myself? You won’t find pros riding fixed. What grabs me? Well, you might just gain power from all those low cadence starts from the lights. Without doubt it gives you a smooth pedalling style, especially when descents force your cadence higher than is comfortable. The simplicity of it appeals too, and a fixed steed is a clean contrast to a road bike.

But that doesn’t quite encompass the best reason to ride fixed. Maybe you have to try it, to feel it, and in a city. It teaches you anticipation. Everything slows down. You are connected to the bike, your every movement reflected in where you place the rubber of your tyres.

Every minute of riding fixed seems to help when back on the road bike, when reacting to a change of line in the group, or to a slip of a rear tyre on a greasy winter road. Maybe that’s because it makes you alert. It forces you away from absent minded miles. It’s involving. You’re learning how things move. Cars, cyclists, pedestrians, trucks; each as if on the string of a mobile with a predefined arc but an unpredictable twist. Anticipation is everything. This is cycling efficiency. On London’s roads, this is staying alive.

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Pro score: 3/10