Mary Towneley Loop MTB challengeSeptember 7th, 2014
If it involves pedalling then I'm probably into it…
The emotive sound of clanging cowbells and cheering crowds. It was almost loud enough to drown out the screaming coming from my legs as I crested yet another Lakeland pass. Yep, I was riding the Fred Whitton Challenge again. Friends and long term readers will know of my ongoing goal to get round in under seven hours. Would this be the year when everything fell into place?
My training had been substantial. A huge amount of riding and running during the spring had got my weight down to an all time low, with a recent visit to Tenerife to finish off the preparation. The truth was though, I just wasn’t feeling super-motivated leading up to the event. I wasn’t sure whether it was general fatigue or a touch of over-training, or maybe I just wasn’t up for these kinds of events anymore. Touring commitments had prevented me entering any events last year and it was all feeling unfamiliar.
The weather can play a huge role in the Fred. After several years of dangerously cold, wet and windy conditions, everyone had been praying for fine spring weather and it looked like our prayers had been answered. I set off feeling good and my Garmin was telling me that I was saving time on every section of the course. The weather was also presenting the Lake District in all it’s stunning glory, with Ullswater still and misty like a giant water colour painting to my right. No time to stop for photos though.
Some cycling snobs turn their noses up at paying to ride an event on open roads, pointing out that you can turn up and ride the route any time you want. That’s true, but you can’t put a price on the crowds who turn out to cheer everyone on, regardless of whether they know you or not. It really is part of the local calendar now and unlike many modern sportives, all the profits go to charity. Everyone’s a winner.
By 85 miles, I was way in front of my previous best and totally on pace to achieve the sub-seven. And that’s exactly when it all started to unravel. Despite filling both water bottles at the feed stop five miles ago, I’d been playing catch up with my hydration, and now I’d nearly emptied both bottles again. Worse, my right leg started cramping – a worrying sensation as you make your way towards Hard Knott pass. That warm weather I’d been praying for was taking it’s toll on me, and to make matters worse, a hot headwind was blowing hard as the route headed inland from the coast. I’m not great in the heat (thats’ growing up in Northern England for you) and as we approached ‘the big one’ the temperature was up to 25ºc and I really wasn’t feeling great.
Hard Knott pass is never easy, even when you’re fresh. I definitely wasn’t feeling fresh, but having done it ten times before I knew I just had to dig in, ignore the pain and get it done. The first half of the climb was probably the worst 10 minutes I’ve ever spent on a bike. Both quads were now cramping every time I got out of the saddle, but with gradients over 25% there wasn’t really any alternative. I was pleased to survive the first ramps and get to the middle section where the gradients ease off to just plain ‘steep’. I was in trouble though, with diminishing control of my legs and the road about to rear up to 30% again.
I’ve never pushed up Hard Knott pass before (or any other road climb) but on the next hairpin my legs defiantly let me know that they weren’t up for any more of this abuse. With a spasm so violent that I only just managed to unclip and get off the bike, I frantically tried to stretch them out to get them under control at the side of the road. I’d always been a rider who’d battle through the pushers, proudly riding up the steep ramps whilst taking the cheers of the crowd. Now I was on the side of the road, barely even able to push the bike. I felt sick, dizzy, frustrated, but most of all exhausted. I could feel my sub-seven hour ride disappearing as I pushed my bike to the top with wobbly legs. Despite having kept the calories coming in all day, I felt as weak as a kitten and I was in a mess. There was still Wrynose pass to tackle but it was the same miserable scenario. I could definitely kiss goodbye to my goal.
I limited my losses on the rolling section to the finish, crossing the line with a time of 7h 21m. Though initially gutted, as the evening (and beers) went on I knew I’d still done ok and that I am capable of the sub-seven. My time put me 242nd out of 2100 finishers, which is in the top 12%. Better than last time, though if I’d been able to ride the last two passes like I usually do then I would have been nicely under seven hours.
I’d been telling people that whatever my result, I wasn’t entering again and that I needed to leave this Fred Whitton obsession behind. Who am I kidding?
After a long summer of guiding cyclists from Lands End to John O Groats, I was ready for a holiday myself. We were off to Andalusia in Southern Spain again, though further up the coast in the region of Almeria this time. The bike chosen to gatecrash this holiday was my Planet X Uncle John, giving me off-road options as well as the usual road miles. It’s not always easy to find route info before you go, so if you’re heading out that way for some cycling here’s three decent rides that I‘d recommend:
The Ruta TransCabrera
This route crosses the Sierra Cabrera range. The South side is off-road, climbing up from Sopalmo to the top (or descending if you’d rather) whilst the North side is a quiet tarmac road with some steep sections. The locals seem to do the gravel road on short travel hard tail mountain bikes, but my ‘Uncle Juan’ was ideal and made the tarmac less tedious.
I’d been really excited about this and it didn’t disappoint. 8 miles of a winding gravel road with stunning views, what’s not to like? I admit that the first mile with its 10% slopes had me worried, but it slackens off to an average of about 5%.
When you finally get to the junction at the top, turn left and left again to tackle a punishing 25% climb to get an amazing view from the 3000ft summit of the range. It’s been freshly tarmacked and feels a bit like Hardknott Pass, which is great if you’re getting a bit homesick. Don’t pinch my Strava KOM though.
Bedar and beyond
Putting the slicks back on, it was time for some road riding. This time I headed inland and once I’d got off the busy (but totally safe) A370 I was climbing past Bedar on a stunning road with superb hairpins before finally dropping down towards El Marchal. I rode on further to get the distance in, but even if you then just climbed back up and descended back past Bedar you’ll have had a decent ride with a proper climb.
Though much of rural Spain is in a state of crumbling decay, these roads are immaculate. Wide, quiet and flawlessly surfaced in that light grey tarmac that the Spanish seem to produce. On a weekday morning I probably saw one car every half hour, if that. It’s almost like the roads are bigger and better than they need to be, but it makes for amazing cycling so I’m not complaining. In fact I’m already scheming when I can get out there again…
El Cortijo Grande / Sierra Cabrera
Heading out through Turre and up towards the little mountain resort of El Cortijo Grande is a road that has become my favourite climb ever. The road takes you up into the hills and apart from a short section that is more like a farm track, the surface is superb. It’s well signed for ‘Sierra Cabrera’ so just sit back and enjoy the views and intricate hairpins. In an hours worth of climbing I saw one car and one man herding his goats. At one point you climb between a few houses in a remote little village then you’re back in the wilderness again. Eventually you approach the junction of the Ruta TransCabrera so you’re obviously obliged to tackle the extra section right to the top. I descended down the Ruta Transcabrera road to Turre to make a loop of it, though this loop in reverse could be equally rewarding.
Get yourselves out there. It’s great riding and the weather’s far better than the UK…
For a middle aged man, I’ve spent an suspicious amount of 2015 on the scales. Unlike normal people though, us cyclists aren’t obsessed with losing weight in order to look slimmer, although there’s no denying that lycra and beer bellies aren’t a good match. No, for us cyclists losing weight really is about just weighing less. The theory isn’t exactly rocket science: in order to cycle up hills faster you either need to generate more power or gain an advantage on gravity by weighing less. Ideally, both.
Whilst I’m not actually overweight, I’m certainly not lean enough to be mistaken for a pro cyclist. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I’ve spent large sums of money on making my bikes lighter, yet never really had the discipline to make myself lighter. It seemed that my love of food and drink was becoming my limiting factor, so when I started 2015 overweight and out of shape I knew it was time to sort it out.
This wasn’t rocket science either: cut out the take-aways, reduce the alcohol intake and generally try and eat better/less food. One notable change though, was the addition of juicing. My fiancé had embarked on a strict juice diet and I (mostly) went along for the ride. With the exception of emergency sandwiches, I embraced a juicing plan by the over-enthusiastic Jason Vale aka ‘The Juice Master’. I’m as cynical about fad diets as the next man, but you can’t argue with the idea of swapping burgers for large quantities of natural fruit and vegetable juice.
By April, 4kg had been lost and my third trip to Tenerife was set to be the test of the science. Thanks to the the ingenious http://gniza.org/segments site, my Garmin Edge 810 was going to let me race against my previous all-out efforts on the slopes of Mount Teidi to see whether the upgraded waist line had been worth the effort. The results were almost unbelievable. The steeper the road got, the more improvement I saw. I slashed over 8 minutes off the final category 1 climb from Vilafor to the top. I was now a mere 15 minutes behind Chris Froome’s right hand man Davide Lopez (and another 500 riders) on the Strava leader board. Riding that strongly felt incredible though, more than a marginal gain that Team Sky would look for and more like the advantage that a blood bag would have given the previous generation of pro riders.
Unfortunately, more typical holiday behaviour then took hold, followed by weeks on the road supporting cyclists and eating as much as them regardless of whether I was riding or driving. So whilst I’m not back to January’s podginess, I’m not quite the lean, mean, hill climbing machine that I was last month. But having experienced how dramatic the improvements are, I’m not going to stray too far up the scales again.
So next time you’re about to splash out on the latest weight saving carbon component for your bike, save yourself some money and take a look at your diet.
No matter where you live, you can get bored with the local trails and roads – even in the cycling paradise of Macclesfield. In order to get to anywhere fresh and interesting you have to pedal the same old routes that you use every time, with the return leg of your loop covering equally familiar ground.
Obviously one solution would be to relocate every year or two, but even if you hate moving house less than me you’d have to agree that it’s a little drastic. You might have the option of driving somewhere new to ride a loop, but there’s still a lengthy drive home when all you want to do is make use of your shower and kettle, and if you’re riding off-road then you’ve also got the messy business of getting a muddy rider and bike into your lovely clean car. Much as I like a good loop, I’ve recently had a yearning for a decent point-to-point ride. They somehow have the feel of a proper journey and if you plan it so the destination is home, then what better motivation to keep slogging on than getting to your own home comforts?
So this morning I took advantage of a lift into Manchester with my mountain bike, from where I could spend £5 and 25 minutes on a train journey to Littleborough. This unassuming town just north of Rochdale might have many amazing attractions, but for me it’s proximity to the Pennine Bridleway and the potential for a 50 mile slog down the Pennines back to Mac made it the perfect destination.
I’ve got a lot of love for the Pennine Bridleway. A fully signposted, long distance route suitable for mountain bikers is a quiet triumph of English outdoors access in my books. As well as providing some properly rugged and surprisingly remote riding, many stretches of the route are never too far from a train station – plenty of escape options if I’d over-estimated my fitness. My plan for today was to follow it South towards Hayfield, from where I could assess my energy levels and decide on how far to venture into the Peak District.
After 32 miles, 5000ft of climbing and 4 hours of leaving Littleborough, I parted company with the Pennine Bridleway. Not that we’d fallen out (far from it) but it was veering too far South East into the Peak and away from home for me to commit to following any further. I still managed to make the remaining miles hard work for myself by tackling the Goyt Valley and a couple of stiff road climbs, but at least I was heading for home. The final damage at the end of the day was 51 miles, 7800ft of climbing and nearly 6.5 hours of pedalling time. A proper ride by anyone’s standards.
But it was only as I got close to home that the punchline hit me: my local trails that I’d gone to such trouble to avoid became welcome sights and rather comforting. The unexciting local paths which routinely take me out and back on my regular loops were now massively appreciated by my aching bones and I’d never been so relieved to be on them.
I’d nearly made it, all the way back home!
Whilst I’m doing nothing more interesting than slogging up and down hills in the cold, here’s an unpublished piece from last August to remind us that winter won’t last forever!
The word epic gets over used these days. We’ve probably got Hollywood to thank for that. But when it comes to mountain biking it’s quite subjective, as one riders’ epic is another’s standard ride. Remoteness and spectacular scenery can help to tick the ‘epic’ box and living by the Peak District provides me with plenty of opportunity.
20 miles of Peak District riding tends to suffice for many riders. The trails here are tough going and even the descents feel like hard work. So what led me to take on an 80-mile loop with enough rough stuff to keep many riders happy for a few days? Certainly the training would be useful, but I was also in need of a skills boost: too much time mincing about on the road bike had given me fitness at the expense of technique. But more than that, I wanted the journey of an epic ride and (assuming I survived it) the satisfaction at the other end.
Given that I would be out for over 10 hours, I left home in Macclesfield early and headed out into the Peak District. Within seven miles I’d gained some decent height but also a healthy sweat, partly due to the extra weight in my pack. I know riders who’ll happily turn up for a ride with just a multitool and a pump, but you’d be wise to carry more on an epic. Spare brake pads, chain lube, spare clothes and plenty of food and water are minimum requirements for this kind of caper.
At this stage, I was plagued by doubts and questions. Can I do the full route? Should I do it? Why am I doing it? It’s best to ignore such questions and just get into the rhythm of the ride. The usual niggling aches and pains gradually eased and after 23 miles I felt I had enough behind me to stop for a quick sandwich break. I’d already done 3000ft of climbing and ridden what some people would class as a decent ride, but there was plenty more to do.
Skirting round Mam Tor gave a sense that I’d arrived at ‘the good stuff’. Not that I’d been short of trails so far though, as my carefully plotted route cunningly avoided tarmac wherever possible. The only rain shower of the day coincided with my only mechanical, but it cleared by the time I dropped in at Fairholmes visitor centre for more sandwiches. The place was typically busy with people who’d come to pootle round the reservoirs. I love to see people getting out and riding, but my mud splattered face and bike marked me out as someone who was here on a very different mission.
The Cut Gate Path epitomises ‘epic’ more than any other Peak trail. It doesn’t lend itself to short loops, so any crossing leads you into epic territory by default. Even an out-and-back crossing would make for a fairly hefty ride. After the push/carry/grind up Margery Hill you finally reach the Cut Gate path. It’s not everyone’s bag, and if you’re a trail centre fan then there’s a fair chance you won’t appreciate it at all. That’s because it’s the antithesis of a trail centre: there’s no obvious line to follow and you’re forced to think several moves ahead to keep some momentum as you pick your way down what feels like a riverbed. If you attempt it in winter or early spring then it actually is a riverbed. I’ve tackled it in all seasons, from blistering heat to winter blizzards (that really was epic…) though for me, late summer wins hands down. With mellow riding temperatures and the hills resplendent in purple heather it really is worth the trip.
With the glorious descent off Cut Gate and down Mickleden Edge dealt with, I was starting to feel like I’d broken the back of this ride. The GPS disagreed though, revealing that I was only just past half way…
After 60 miles I’d reached the usual point in an epic where things start to get weird. My body had long since passed through it’s peak period of performance and was now just hurting. Any previous high heart rate enthusiasm had now given way to just simply slogging it out. Short rocky climbs that would usually be relished suddenly required exaggerated commitment and audible grunting. I cursed my route planning that stubbornly avoided tarmac. Did I not realize how I’d be feeling? Each chocolate bar gave precisely 40 minutes of burn time before my body reverted back to running on empty. I was into the end game.
Counting down the last 10 miles I was feeling the full effects of the epic, in areas of my body that don’t even usually suffer. It was ten and a half hours since I set off that morning and I was totally spent – which is exactly how I intended to feel. Not everyone ‘gets’ the idea of an epic. Some might say that it’s too much of a good thing and that the last half isn’t even enjoyable. But it’s going beyond your usual limits that makes it for me, and I know I’m not the only one. Even as I write this on the day after, with aching neck and stiff legs, I’m already planning a route and excuse to get out and go through it all over again.
With my off-season (or ‘gluttony period’) coming to an end, it’s time to think about what I want to achieve on the bike next year. I know I’m not a racing cyclist, but I’ve always set myself targets as a way to ensure that I drag myself off the couch and put the miles in. The amount of times over the last few years that I could easily have got home from work on a cold winters evening and festered in front of the TV, but have instead headed out to the hills to prepare for another attempt at getting under seven hours at the Fred Whitton (or whatever painful target I’d set myself…)
There’s been a lot of these targets over the years: the Etape du Tour, Mary Towneley Loop, Polkadot Challenge – they’ve all given me a motive to train hard and eat (reasonably) properly. Success has been sparse and relative, but the overall achievement has been a level of fitness that’s way above most blokes in their forties. So what’s the goal for 2015 then? Well, here’s where my plans have had to change…
A recent career change has seen me give up the day job of teaching teenagers in order to take on more cycling related work. This is definitely a good thing. However, the touring work I’ve gratefully committed to with the marvellous Peak Tours all clashes with my regular sportives and any other decent event up this end of the country. So I’ve been redefining what a ‘challenge’ could be. I’ve realised that it doesn’t necessarily have to be an organised event, but it still needs to be something that I can commit to achieving (and will get my arse off the couch).
So here’s my ideas so far:
So there’s a few ideas to keep me going. There’s also the bucket list of hike-a-bike mountain bike routes in the Lakes that I keep trying to get round to, such as the Black Sail Pass etc. And then there’s my annual claim (and failure) to do regular core exercises and stretching that would help me achieve such goals. If there was a competition for reading and ignoring good advice then I’d be on the podium every year.
Plenty to think about and I’m excited about 2015 whatever I decide to do, but the first target is to cut down on the food and drink…
Christmas can be a mixed blessing for us over-enthusiastic cyclists. On the one hand, it’s usually time off work which means time to get plenty of riding in, but there’s also a world of temptation and social obligation to distract you. Even before I got as far as the big day I’d already over indulged at a variety of work do’s, leaving do’s, weddings, but generally just using any excuse to continue eating and drinking like a medieval king. If I carry on like this I’ll end up with the figure and life expectancy of a medieval king, but I’ll deal with that in the new year.
But why shouldn’t I let myself go a little? It’s standard practice for the professional’s to have an ‘off-season’ in order to kick back and relax. Whether you’re a grand tour contender or just a keen amateur like me we all need to let our bodies and minds recharge before we start doing it all over again for yet another year. With the ongoing globalisation of the sport, the off-season now only lasts a few weeks for most professionals and by December they’ve already had their break and are attending the team’s first training camp. When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, his training began on November 1st 2011. Compare that to the late 1990’s when Jan Ulrich would still be gorging himself on gateaux well into early spring and then arrive at the first races grossly overweight and you can see how much the sport has changed. I suppose it’s encouraging to see that proper training is now the priority rather than the pharmaceutical preperations that Jan, Lance and co were using back then…
Looking back, maybe I should have taken a break long before Christmas. With the amount of riding I’ve done this year and everything else that’s been going on in my life, I now realise that I’ve been fatigued for months. I’ve still been getting out and enjoying riding a bike (when is this ever not the case?) but at times it’s been a challenge to actually get myself out of the door. Even though recent rides have been more of a leisurely slog than an assault on the Strava leader boards, I dread to think what would have happened to my fitness without these rides.
So I’ve given myself to January 1st to eat and drink whatever I want whilst still getting out and enjoying some winter riding, then it’s down to business again. I’m not too sure what I’m going to be training for yet, but I know that I need to be fit.
Right then, time for more wine and chocolate?
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.
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.