The over-enthusiastic cyclist

If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…

Curing the creak

I sometimes think I’d be a happier cyclist if I was deaf. Despite some road safety issues, at least I wouldn’t be tortured by creaks, clicks and other unwelcome noises coming from my bikes. Some riders will happily ride a machine that sounds like farm machinery, but like most obsessive cyclists, I can’t enjoy the ride unless everything’s blissfully silent. (see rule #65 for confirmation of this).

It’s hard enough to motivate yourself to ride up and down hills on a dark winter evening, but my beloved Uncle John had been making such an awful noise every time I got out of the saddle that a night of creak catching was the only option. As any experienced bike fettler will tell you, every noise that sounds like it’s coming from the bottom bracket, as any noise gets transmitted through the frame. In reality it rarely actually is the bottom bracket at fault, so here’s the list that I worked through to bring my bike back into favour:

  • Chainring bolts: I’ve had this before on another bike and was initially convinced this would be the problem. I removed them, cleaned them, greased them and refitted. It didn’t help.
  • Rear quick release / dropouts: I once had an Orange Five that sounded like a supermarket clunker unless I lathered grease round the rear dropouts. It didn’t help with this bike though.
  • Derailleur hanger: A new one to me, but the cracking sound as I unscrewed it from the frame had me sure that I’d discovered the cause. I cleaned and greased both surfaces, but it didn’t help. 
  • Pedals: Usually produces more of a click than a creak, but worth taking out to clean and regrease. No joy this time though.
  • Rear wheel: Last summer I was convinced that my Boardman frame was about to snap in half, but a splodge of grease in the rear hub completely eliminated the noise. If you’ve got another rear wheel, swap it out and see if the noise goes. It didn’t cure this creak though. 
  • Seat post: Even when out of the saddle, the frame is still flexing against the post so it’s worth making sure it isn’t totally devoid of grease. Mine was, but it didn’t solve the problem.
  • Headset: Strange but true, but just like the seat post, the head tube and bearings are all part of the frame. I stripped mine, cleaned and greased it all then refitted it. Lightly grease the  stem/bars interface as well whilst you’re at it. It didn’t help me this time though. 
  • Bottom bracket: If it sounds like it’s coming from there you might as well check it! I didn’t and as it turned out, it wasn’t the problem anyway….

After each of these processes I emerged from the garage and rode up and down the road – that’s the only way to determine what the problem is. Each time my hopes were raised and then dashed as the familiar creak presented itself. It might have given my neighbours some entertainment though, especially when riding with no seat post.

Eventually, I put another front wheel in and the noise disappeared. I rushed back and put the original wheel back in. The noise was still gone.

So after all that, it was most likely a little bit of grit in the drop out or quick release. It’s amazing how much racket a minor problem like that can cause, but the difference is incredible. The feel of the bike is now restored, the confidence and inclination to get out of the saddle and put some power down has returned. It would be easy to get annoyed at having spent so long finding such a simple fault, but the blackened grime that was cleaned out of each part of the bike I tackled means that I’ve effectively given my bike a full service that I probably wouldn’t have got round to.

I just need to eliminate the creak from my legs now…

Sneaky sunshine in Southern Spain

Ok, so I appreciate that my last post was all about gearing up for a winter of UK cycling with all it’s charms and horrors, yet here I am writing about a sneaky week of road cycling in the Andalusia area of Southern Spain. I know, it’s terrible, but I’ll try and pass on some advice to make amends…

For anyone geographically challenged, Andalusia is the Southern most region of Spain and consequently has more inviting temperatures than the rest of Europe in late October. I can’t claim to have gone there purely for the riding, but when the chance of a holiday presents itself you book your bike on the flight and then get the maps out. And that’s where things get interesting. As any Brit with an adventurous spirit knows, our Ordnance Survey maps are the best in the world bar none. Your British road cyclist can spread out a 1:50,000 scale ‘Land ranger’ map and plan a precision ride with few surprises. Unfortunately, Spain involves a little more guess work.

The most detailed map you can buy is a lowly 1:200,000 scale by either Michelin or Marco Polo. Both are equally fantastic for the touring motorist and equally useless for the touring cyclist. They only show major A roads and the occasional minor road – and don’t be expecting any of those useful contour lines that we’re accustomed to. UK cyclists usually hunt out the yellow roads on the OS maps, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be quiet but properly surfaced. Our A roads are OK to ride on for a while but usually just to take us out to the nice quiet minor roads again. In Spain though, some  A roads are absolutely fine to cycle on, but some are effectively motorways and should be avoided at all costs. For instance, from my tourist haven on the Costa Del Sol near Cala de Mijas, the A-7053 was a great route out of the hustle and bustle yet only a suicidal cyclist weary of life would venture onto the A-7 along the coast. They’re both A roads though.

Using ‘Street View’ in Google Maps can help plan your routes before you go. Even the A-7 looks tempting on these images though so don’t be too fooled, but at least you can get an idea of how wide the road is and even what kind of surface awaits you. At the other end of the scale, Google Maps shows every single track regardless of the surface. A route I planned in this way happily led me down a tatty concrete road that eventually deteriorated to a dirt track – not great with 23mm slick tyres! Maybe I’ll just take the cross bike next time.

So which roads were good? Well, the A-7053 swoops grandly away from the coast towards the hills and despite feeling as wide as a motorway, it had less traffic than a country lane, even on a Saturday. Alhaurin El Grande was worth a miss, but the MA-485/3303 (are MA roads like our B roads?) heading off to Coin was not much narrower but even quieter than the A-7053. This road crossed the A-355 which had the look of a motorway so I was glad I hadn’t planned a route using that road…

If you take the A-366 West from Coin you’re in for a treat (if you like climbing). It takes you up through Alozaina, Yungquera and over the Puerto de las Abejas at 820m and apart from a few small dips it’s a glorious 15km climb. The gradient is mostly nice and steady so I just kept the cadence high and powered round the hairpins (this is how I like to imagine myself, the reality may be slightly different). I descended the few miles down the other side to El Burgo, but having covered 40 miles already I knew I needed to turn around and retrace my route home. This was a shame as by all accounts the section from El Burgo to Ronda is stunning. Here’s my route for Strava fans.

The other road that I enjoyed off the A-7053 was the A-387 to Mijas (the old town on the hill, not the tourist centre on the coast). Despite being an A road, the surface alternates from wide and pristine to narrow and knackered, which makes for an engaging descent on the way back down… Beautiful views though.

So putting cartography concerns aside, is it worth doing some cycling out there? Yes, without a doubt. To give you an idea of the climate, Andalusia’s week long stage race ‘Ruta Cyclista de Sol’ is in mid February and watching it on TV this year it looked sweltering. I really wouldn’t want to ride out there in the height of summer but the 25ºC at the end of October was perfect for me. As an off-season break from the British winter or an early spring tune-up I reckon it’s a winner and I’d love to go back again, hopefully exploring further inland.

Anyway, that’s my fix of sun over with, it really is time to get stuck into the British winter now. Honestly.

The bike taking a selfie looking out over Mijas

Looking out over Mijas

Back to winter again

Like most outdoor enthusiasts, cyclists tend to be acutely aware of the changing seasons. It doesn’t seem long ago that I was raving about the joys of spring and riding my ‘best bike’ whilst exposing my pale arms and legs to the sun. That’s all drastically changed in the last few weeks. After a transitional period wearing arm and leg warmers, the lycra has now been totally replaced by thermal bib longs and jackets of increasing thickness. Short finger gloves have been replaced for long, with over-shoes, buffs and under-helmet hats all brought back into play after a summer at the bottom of drawers.

And then there’s the lights. I often put a set of little LED blinkers on in case I’m late back on a summer evening, but now it’s back to charging up the big light before evening rides. In an effort to embrace the winter months, I’ve given the Planet X Uncle John some attention – it needed some! After a summer of touring with clients and then some big off-road adventures it deserved new cables, bar tape and 25mm winter tyres at the very least. The last thing you want is to be stopping on top of a dark hill trying to fix your bike in the shivering cold.

Though I’ve been night-riding for a few years now, it still takes some adjusting to. After hammering around on a lightweight carbon racer, hauling the Uncle John up hills with its heavier tyres, full mudguards and a weighty battery felt like hard work. But these rides aren’t intended to trouble the Strava leader boards, they just need to keep me lean and keen till the spring rolls around again. The old-school roadie logic is to just get in a large volume of steady miles over the winter, but I’ll be throwing in some high intensity muddy fun on the mountain bike whenever I get chance.

Despite the heavier bike, freezing temperatures and extra wardrobe faffing about, there’s something quite magical about a night ride once you’re out there. The isolation and views can be beautiful once you get over the spookiness of it, and you quite literally see your local roads in a different light. You’ll see some different wildlife as well. I’ve raced badgers down country lanes (surprisingly fast) and had owls flying right in front of my face (quite frightening).

It was mid-March when I was writing about the joys of spring and I’ve enjoyed seven months of summer cycling wear since then. Whilst not a truly scientific test, it would seem that the winter cycling period is still shorter than summer. I’m going to hang on to that positive thought, as once the novelty wears off it’s going to feel like a long slog through the winter darkness.

It's a bit dark on the hills at night...

It’s a bit dark on the hills at night…

7th time lucky at the Mary Towneley Loop

An event must be doing something right to keep you going back for more pain every year. That I returned for the seventh consecutive year says a lot about the Mary Towneley Loop Challenge. There’s obviously a great 46 mile off-road route with 6500ft of climbing through some cracking scenery for starters. There’s also the appreciation from the local mountain rescue service who run the event brilliantly every year in order to put your £20 entry fee towards saving lives. No commercialism at this event!

I’ve been chipping away at my ride times over the years and though I seemed to have plateaued at around 5h 25m, I still felt that I had a sub 5 hour performance in me. I had high hopes for this year, though the mystery virus of last week (and a few too many drinks on the Friday) left me unsure of my form as I lined up at the start.

Unlike road sportives, it’s a mass start for the 200+ riders. The mountain rescue Land Rover leads out the peloton for a high speed half mile of tarmac, before blocking the road to traffic and leaving the pack to fight for position into the first section of trail. If you’re at the back here you can get held up as the pack thins to single file and an onslaught of gates and mud takes effect. I’d shuffled near to the front on the start line for this very reason, though it did mean I was having to keep pace with some very strong riders. There’s a strategy specific to this event, which requires you to keep within a bike length of the rider in front as you pass through a gate. Each rider gives the gate a good shove to enable the next rider to pass through and shove it open for the next rider. And so on… The gates become less frequent later on and of course the pack thins out after the first few miles, but I found myself sprinting hard for some of the gates. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite skilful and almost fun.

After riding well for 35 miles, the mid-race lull finally kicked in and my average speed started to slip. An energy gel before the final climb of Rooley Moor Road managed to stir up some adrenaline but I knew I needed to put up some kind of fight to finish anywhere near 5 hours.

The next half hour was one of my finest ever on a bike. I made a conscious decision to ‘empty the tank’ to ensure that I beat last years time. My body was screaming and the adrenaline was flowing yet at the same time I was totally calm inside, almost tranquil. All I had to do was keep pushing the pedals round as hard as I could and ignore the disturbing heart rate readings on my Garmin. Each rider I passed gave me more confidence and in my head I felt like I was about to win a stage of the Tour de France. The descent off the top was equally adrenaline fuelled, with the loose rocks feeling like minor inconveniences as my hardtail skipped over them.

All these ‘heroics’ meant that I not only shaved nearly half an hour off my previous best, but I finally broke the 5 hour barrier, stoping the clock at just under 4h 56m. The low-key nature of the event doesn’t stretch to clocks though, just a short stagger into the school building to give your name and number. Here you can feast on the free tea and cake whilst swapping stories with other muddy riders in various states of delirium and exhaustion.

Regular readers of this blog might now be realising that this is the only event of the year that I’ve actually achieved my target in. Trawling through the results indicates that I came 23rd out of 210, which is a satisfying way to finish the summer. Though I’m looking forward to an autumn of riding purely for pleasure, I’ll have the memory of this pennine triumph to carry me through till spring and get me motivated for next year. Under four and a half hours next time?

 

Leading the way / trying not to get overtaken

Leading the way up Gorple Rocks

The annoyance of being ill

It caught me by surprise to be honest. One day you’re completing another epic mountain bike ride and feeling strong as an ox, then a few days later you can barely turn the pedals. I’d anticipated that getting back on the road bike for a quick evening hill ride would feel refreshingly fast after all the off-roading, but instead it just felt really, really hard. I carried on of course, assuming that the burning heaviness in my legs would ease after a few miles. But it just got worse. I made it up to the Cat and Fiddle Inn at the top of the climb, but at a bizarre leisurely pace. It wasn’t like I was sweating and gasping for breath either – quite the opposite. It was like I couldn’t put any effort in, like my heart rate was restricted. Something wasn’t right.

By now I was mentally reviewing my recent cycling history. Had I been overdoing it? Had I fallen into the over-training trap? Admittedly, I had been doing some long days on the MTB, but three days ago I felt great, not a scrap of fatigue. I had woken up tired and grumpy after a terrible nights sleep, so maybe I was just tired. By the time I got home, having pretty much just freewheeled down the hill, I felt like I’d just finished the Fred Whitton, absolutely broken. The following day’s 54 mile MTB ride was instantly shelved.

The next day, things were no better and it started looking more like I was suffering with the virus that had been working it’s way round the household. I’ve had viral conditions before and my symptoms were very reminiscent of when I had shingles: fatigue, apathy, dizziness and a dose of the blues, which all leaves you unable to do anything useful. Including pedalling. I knew there was no point wasting my time or the doctors, I’d just be told that it was a virus and that I should take it easy till it passes. If I were a top level pro then the team doctors would be running blood tests on me in order to find the exact problem so that I’d be back on the bike as soon as possible. But I’m not, I’m just an over-enthusiastic amateur like the rest of us.

Something that all cyclists have in common is that we’re rubbish at being ill. If my body’s not working well, my mood plummets and I know that I’m a nightmare to be around. I was initially annoyed that I’d paid to enter the Manchester 100 on the Sunday but realistically wouldn’t be able to take part. Beyond that, I’d already started getting prematurely anxious about the upcoming Mary Towneley loop the Sunday after – which was the reason I’d been doing so much mountain biking!

I still went out for some short rides over the weekend to cautiously gauge my health. It’s odd to struggle so badly on your local roads, with so many riders overtaking you and walkers looking at you with pity. I resisted the urge to explain to people that I was usually faster than this, that I was actually ill. I suppose this is how non-cyclists would feel if they attempted to ride up and down hills though some people still wouldn’t be able to able to do 15 miles of hills at any pace. Maybe we feel the affects of these virus’s more as we’re used to being able to drive ourselves hard, whereas the average couch potato wouldn’t notice any difference in their sedentary life.

So all I can really do for the moment is take it easy, try and get plenty of rest and hopefully feel like I can put in a decent effort at the mary Towneley Loop in seven days time. It’s just really annoying.

Trails in the Dales

For a Lancashire lad now residing in Cheshire, I seem to have spent a lot of time in Yorkshire lately. With ‘Way of the Roses’ crossings, working on events based on Tour de France stages and then back to watch the actual tour, I feel like I’ve been there every other weekend of the year. The mountain biker in me couldn’t ignore all the public bridleway signs that crossed the roads and checking the map revealed a vast network of bike friendly off-road routes across the Yorkshire Dales national park.

Despite being the Dales being closer to Greater Manchester than the Lake District, this was only the second time I’d taken a mountain bike up there. Without a car, I used to catch the train to ride in new areas, but with our governments shortsighted refusal to spend even a fraction of the proposed HS2 budget on reopening a 12 mile trans-pennine route, the Dales weren’t practical to get to. Now armed with a car, it was time to check out what they had to offer.

If you want a mountain bike guidebook to an unknown area, then the UK bibles are by Vertbrate Graphics. Their ‘Dark Peak” edition was my companion many years ago when the Peak District was an unknown territory and though I bought their ‘South Dales’ edition at the same time, I’d only used it once. I must have become much fitter/dafter/more enthusiastic over the years as this time when I pulled the book off the shelf I thumbed straight to the back to find the longest routes. I settled for the penultimate route of 30 miles that started from Settle, taking in Malham Tarn and Arncliffe.

I had it in mind that the riding would be less brutal than the Peak District and less ‘epic’ than a similar Lakes route. Wrong. Maybe it was the heat that was uncharacteristically heading towards 30ºC or the fatigue from the previous days road-riding stupidity, but I was glad I didn’t pick the final 50 mile route from the book. The long ancient drovers routes lined on each side by classic limestone walls were easier under wheel, though the mix of grass and limestone would be slippery as hell in the wet. Some might say that the riding isn’t technical enough, but whether it was the heat or the idyllic setting, it was just fine for me. I was also conscious that with a Lands End to John OGroats job starting in a couple of days, I shouldn’t risk a crash. I found myself switching the Garmin’s screen away from the usual information to get concerned about, such as average speed, heart rate, elevation etc so I could enjoy the stunning views and take it all in.

And that’s what made the day really. Having not been there previously I had no previous times to beat, Strava had no prior data to punish me with. It was just going out and pedalling up hills to see what was on the other side – just like when I started mountain biking! I’m not saying the route was a easy (and the long slog up from Arncliffe had me totally cooked) but the countryside and weather made this a four hour holiday for me.

If you’ve followed the tour from Yorkshire into the Alps and Pyrenees you might expect a return to the Dales to be disappointing, but they have their own unique beauty. They’re drawn from a slightly lighter colour palette from the Lakes or Peak District and the trails also had their own geological quirks to keep you on your toes. The frequent hollows and dips were new to me and involved a quick fire game of  ‘pump or pull’. And that’s got to be a good thing, as the wider variety of terrain you can ride, the better.

So another enthusiastic thumbs-up for Yorkshire, but also for the simple pleasure of getting out and riding a bike somewhere new.

The locals were friendly

Same bike, different county

The locals were friendly

The locals were friendly at Malham Tarn

 

A toast to Yorkshire!

It’s not every year that the Tour de France begins in your own country. When it last did in 2007 I was only just rekindling my love of professional cycling, though I’d have had no appetite to visit our capital anyway. But as a proud northerner, the short journey over to Yorkshire was inevitable and highly anticipated. And what a weekend it was.

Yes we all know that Cav crashed out in tragic style at the end of stage one, but viewing those last few kilometres in front of a big outdoor screen in Holmefirth was amazing. The audible gasp at the crash was a moment of collective dismay on a scale I’d not experienced before. (Football fans must go through this every Saturday, which might explain their frustration and outbursts of verbal abuse.) It wasn’t an elitist crowd either; lycra-clad cycling geeks mingled with novices who were probably destined ask how Marcel Kittel wouldn’t win the Tour despite winning the first stage. It really didn’t matter though, it was just brilliant to see that level of interest.

The main event for my party though, was being up on the ‘Cote de Holme Moss’ to see the race pass by on the Sunday. Pedalling up in the morning was rather different from any previous visit and certainly not a day for Strava ambitions due to the amount of people heading up on bike and foot. The atmosphere was great though, reminiscent of my years at Glastonbury, but with a lot more bikes. The range of people tackling this category 2 climb was impressive: kids as young as five, pensioners on tandems, a suit wearing man on a Brompton and a surprising amount of mountain bikers.

You could have a hard time justifying watching a bike race to a non-cycling fan. The idea of waiting five hours to watch the fastest cyclists on the planet pass by at high speed doesn’t sound great on paper, but the atmosphere and sense of anticipation creates enough excitement until the riders do eventually arrive. From the first police motorbikes through to the wackiness of the publicity caravan, you’ll be so delirious with excitement that you’ll be cheering and clapping anything on wheels. After that’s all passed, the entertainment comes from latecomers pedalling up the road, who unexpectedly find themselves in a mock Tour de France scenario complete with cheering crowds and crazed fans running alongside them. If the embarrassment gets too much and they decide to dismount then the good natured boo’s from the crowd are equally embarrassing. The young children pedalling up got a genuine and deafening roar from the crowd that they’ll never forget.

Eventually the helicopters arrived and we knew that that riders were approaching. The drama of seeing the first three riders making massive efforts up the steep road whilst all anxiously looking behind them was impressive, but nothing compared to the peloton that was right behind them. I thought I was well out of the way, then in a moment they were upon us and despite a hurried step back they flew past only inches from me. Strangely, they all seemed bigger than expected, though I’m not sure why. I recognised a few riders such as Geraint Thomas and the yellow jersey of Marcel Kittel, who was already slipping off the back but they were so fast it was a blur of lycra and wheels. I honestly didn’t expect it to be as exciting as it was, but the atmosphere, anticipation and crowds made for a kind of temporary sensory overload, leaving a surge of adrenaline in the crowd.

Once back down at the big screen, even a downpour whilst watching the last 12k couldn’t dislodge the field of fans. Unlike a football match, there ware no overall favourites, more that we were just enjoying an exciting race. Niballi got a huge cheer as he crossed the line first, but so would any of them. Just like the rain, it really didn’t  matter.

Riding back on the Monday through some other towns that had hosted the race reinforced the scale of the weekend. The Northern weather will soon wash the names from the roads and all the yellow painted bikes will eventually find their way to the rubbish dump, but the memories will live on. Will the British public treat cyclists any differently on the roads? Will more people ride their bikes or follow the sport? I don’t know. I’m not even sure that the new fans will follow the race’s progress to Paris but chapeau to Yorkshire, you did the race proud.

This actually happened in England

This actually happened in England

Braving the elements

With a day of rain forecast, a less enthusiastic cyclist might have resigned themselves to a day on the couch. But for me it was an opportunity to get back on the mountain bike, which had become sidelined by all the recent dropped handlebar fun. I don’t mind getting wet on a mountain bike ride, maybe due to the amount of wetness coming up at you from the trail and with the lower speeds it often seems less of an issue.

But getting wet whilst already out riding is one thing, actually starting your ride in the pouring rain is another. I admit that I spent some time sulking at the window, fully dressed to ride but reluctant to actually begin. But once I started, I never looked back.

The thought of mountain biking whilst wearing the lycra of a road cyclist would have offended me in previous years, as surely it’s not the style of the mountain biker? But experience has taught me that the last thing you need when you’re soaking wet is some cold wet baggy shorts flapping around your legs. Better to go with the sleek cross-country racer look and just wear a waterproof over the top half. In this mild wet weather that we grudgingly call ‘the British summer’ if you keep your top half warm and reasonably dry then it doesn’t matter too much about your bottom half.

And so I emerged from the safety of the garage and pedalled off into the rain towards the first trail. The transition from “Argh, I’m getting wet” to ” Sod it, I’m wet now” is a quick one, as the cold and damp spreads through your lycra clad legs and backside. The next milestone moment is sometime within the next hour when you discover how ineffective your ‘waterproof’ boots are, so it’s worth getting a decent distance from home to avoid the temptation wimp out with damp feet. If you make it this far then you’re committed to a big ride: you know that once you get home again it’s going to take at least half an hour to restore your bike and belongings to a state where they can be used again, so there’s no point just going for a quick spin.

There are other angles to consider when heading out for a wet ride like this. Rocky trails are as rideable as ever, just a lot wetter, but anything involving mud or grass is worth avoiding. All you’ll do is get frustrated, clog your gears up and ruin the trail for when/if it does eventually dry out. If you’re embarking on a wet ride with others, be careful with the personnel. Every mountain biker knows that with each additional rider, the amount of time spent stopping and faffing increases exponentially, until you reach a critical mass where any progress at all is impossible. This isn’t the weather for big group rides. Either head out solo or choose a riding partner of well matched pace – you’ll not be wanting to stop and chat.

My local route round Macclesfield Forest and the Goyt valley was ideal and I was so engrossed in the ride that I didn’t really notice the gradual change from the heavy rain I started in to the bright sunshine that I finished in. This might have annoyed some riders, but I didn’t care and I wore my coating of mud with pride. Whilst I’d passed many like minded mountain bikers in the worst of the weather, it was only now the rain had stopped that the road cyclists emerged, which further validated my choice of ride for the day.

With bike and rider hosed down and the washing machine busy on a ‘sports intensive’ wash cycle, a well earned beverage was enjoyed. The only remaining evidence of the adventure was the dull ache of well used muscles and a smug feeling that I hadn’t let the weather beat me into a day inside. People as annoying as me will often remind you that skin is actually waterproof, but it’s true. Hard as it sometimes is to start, you know you’ll feel better for it by the end and if nothing else it will make you appreciate the good weather riding. Get out and ride!

A busy month

After a relatively successful assault on the Fred Whitton two weeks ago, I took on the Manchester 10K run a week later, followed by the Spud Riley Polkadot challenge to complete a trilogy of painful Sundays. These events are usually much more spread out, which would have been appreciated this year as my legs were only just recovering from the Fred as I set off to try and beat my previous best 10K time of 49m 02s.

I’ve been trying to do a run every week and was finally getting to the point where I was actually enjoying doing a few miles at a moderate pace. It turns out that this is quite a bit less demanding than running 10k flat out. As soon as I set off I knew I didn’t have my running legs on and once I’d passed my family supporters clubs at 200m it all started to get a bit painful… It was actually hot weather for once and and I spent the remainder of the event summoning up all my will power to not stop, much like when cycling up Hardknott Pass – just for much longer. After an overly fast start, I watched my pace tumble and eventually finished in 51m 18s.

I wasn’t too unhappy about the result, but it was the start of a very frustrating week. My legs felt stiff on Monday morning but I still managed a recovery ride to keep them moving. By Tuesday morning, my walking was laboured, painful and somewhat comical. Even riding down the road to the train station was agony, with my left leg struggling to get the pedal round and getting out of the saddle physically impossible.
By the end of the week I could just about walk without raising attention from concerned passers by, so was beginning to feel that I could attempt the Polkadot Challenge. I was hoping to put my dalliance into the world of running behind me and get back to my preferred discipline of pedalling up and down hills for a hundred miles.

If the wet weather forecast hadn’t raised suspicions, a bad nights sleep and a lack of butter for my morning toast should have been recognised as a bad omen for the day. I pedalled the seven miles from home to the start line in hope of getting a useful warm up and set off in suspiciously fine weather. Within an hour the rain was battering the roads and riders and the waterproofs were on. More worrying though, were my legs: I was getting up the climbs ok, but it just felt harder than it should have done. I tried to keep with other riders to pace me up , but there were more passing me than I was passing – a bad sign indeed.

Having recently read Sen Kelly’s autobiography, I tried to summon his famous resilience to foul weather, but all I got was the sound of his mumbling irish commentary in my head, describing how I’d “blown big time”. Here’s how I downgraded my ambitions throughout the first half of the event:

  1. Get under 6h 30m
  2. Get under 7 hours
  3. Beat last years time of 7h 10m
  4. Get under 8 hours and just try and enjoy it
  5. Ring my fiance and persuade her to come and pick me up

I progressed from steps 3 to 5 at an alarmingly rate. I’ve been slogging out these eight hour events in the rain for years and I usually rise to the challenge in a manner that Sean Kelly might at least acknowledge, if not actually be proud of. Today, I realised that it wasn’t just my legs that were tired: my head was too. All my previous performances in such events rely on my mind pushing my body way past the point when it would rather stop. As my head and legs got themselves in a vicious circle of defeat, my average speed started dwindling towards mountain bike efforts. Without any proper effort going on, my body gave up the fight against the cold and rain and I knew it was game over.

A long hot shower went a long way to restoring my morale and also gave me time to reflect. I reckon my weekly runs have improved my fitness this year, but pretending to be Mo Farrah doesn’t seem to suit my legs at all. There’s probably a lot to be said for sticking to what you’re good at and I’m sure that if Mo attempted the Fred Whitton then he’d wholeheartedly agree.

I now have even more respect for pro cyclists, especially the stage racers whose powers of recovery are every bit as impressive as their performance on the bike. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself though – that’s their job and the top teams have experts and carers to manage every detail of their riders lives to ensure that they perform well in every race. And that’s a world away from the rest of us, who manage our own training programs whilst still existing in the real world of stressful jobs and family issues.

Anyway, time to get back to the important business of just enjoying riding my bike. At least I’m good at that.

Running: a lot to answer for

Running: a lot to answer for

Fred Whitton time again

After last years efforts to break the 7 hour hour barrier went astray, I had high hopes for 2014. I’d put in more miles and climbing than any other year and I was knocking decent chunks of time off my regular climbs. I felt that with good weather and a little bit of luck, I could finally get under 7 hours and get on with the rest of my life without having to suffer on the Lake District’s hardest roads every May.

But the problem with luck and weather is that they’re both out of your control and whilst I didn’t suffer any bad luck this year, the weather was up to it’s usual tricks: wet, windy and cold. It wasn’t quite as bad as forecast, but with the roads wet for most of the day descending was never going to be as carefree and fast as I’d have liked.

So how did it all turn out? Well I didn’t break the 7 hour mark so I’ll have to be happy with 7h 30m. But with hindsight I think I am actually happy with my time for once. I felt good round the first half of the course, setting a new personal record over Whinlatter Pass and generally getting stuck in. I didn’t seem to have as much cooperation from other groups as I have in the past and so rode the majority of the day on my own, which maybe makes the result fairer and more of an achievement.

The Hardknott/Wrynose Pass combo was as torturous as ever, but it’s also something that really epitomises the nature of the event. After 95 miles/6 hours of hard effort in adverse weather, you’re confronted with a ridiculous road that rises up at gradients of over 30%. If you haven’t put yourself through this ordeal then it’s hard to describe the severity of the situation. You’re battling against gravity to carry on turning the pedals when your body and mind is screaming at you to get off and stop the pain. It’s sometimes only made possible by the support of the crowds who’ve turned out to shout encouragement at the bedraggled riders. The Lake District loves the Fred Whitton Challenge, with Hardknott just one of the favourite spots for supporters. There’s really nothing like it in the UK. For example, the Etape du Dales route is every bit as challenging as the Fred, but local support amounts to nothing more than a few quizzical looks from bemused Yorkshire folk.

The Fred Whitton supporters really are appreciated. You can hear the cowbells and the cheers coming from high above as you grind the pedals round, whilst trying to ignore the pain in your legs, arms and lower back. I suspect that without that encouragement I might have got off this year, I really was hurting that bad. I knew that I couldn’t forgive myself if I gave up though, and with the summit finally crested there was just Wrynose Pass to conquer before the flat-ish run in to the new finish at Grassmere. By this point I knew that even beating my previous best of 7h 15m was unachievable so my target shifted to getting under 7h 30m and my second ever best time, which I finally managed by a matter of seconds.

In an effort to soften the blow of not getting under 7 hours (again) I looked back through the results sheets of previous years. My golden year of 2010 positioned me just outside the top 20% of finishers. This percentage had gotten steadily worse until this year, where I found myself ranked within the top 14%. The new route is now actually 112 miles – which it has always claimed to be, but was previously always a few miles short. Usually there’s a few fine specimens who get  well under 6 hours, but this years best was 6h 02m, which further made me realise that I’d trained hard and ridden well.

So will I be doing it again? Is the quest for sub the 7 hour ride still on?
At various points of the ride I decided that I’d never do it again and I get the sense that family support may be waning (“Do you have to do it again next year?”) but I’m reluctant to leave it alone. If nothing else, gaining entry gets me off the couch and into the hills several times a week, even through the depths of winter. And I reckon I’m in better shape because of it. I was getting worried that my  age was starting to impact on my performance but I’m fitter now than I ever have been. There were even two guy’s in their seventies who got round the course this year, so I should be good for a few more years yet.

Maybe one more year?

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier. (Photo: Steve Flemming)

Hardknott Pass: not getting any easier… (Photo by Steve Flemming)

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