The over-enthusiastic cyclist

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

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Fred Whitton Challenge number five

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?

Trying to hold it together on hard Knott

Trying to hold it together on Hard Knott…

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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)

It’s the biggest and the baddest: it’s the Bowland Badass!

It used to be that if you’d done the Fred Whitton, you’d probably ridden the toughest amateur cycling event in the UK. Then in 2012, some nutter from the small Lancashire town of Garstang created the persona of ‘Professor Badass’ and devised the Bowland Badass. Most ‘proper’ sportives are around 100 miles and feature about 10,000ft of climbing, but the Badass takes in 168 miles and 18,000ft (that’s about 270km and 5500m for any European readers). All this is folded into an area of Lancashire known as The Forest of Bowland, which features an abundance of quiet roads and tough climbs set to a backdrop of spectacular scenery.

Having cycled some of these roads as a teenager, I talked myself into entering last year. Contrary to the recent outbreak of commercial sportives, this was grass-roots event organising at it’s finest. The £10 entry buys you a well signed route and three transit van feedstops that provides friendly faces and a savoury buffet (name me one other sportive that feeds you onion bhaji’s and samosa’s). You also get regular email links to Professor Badass’s blog, which provides you with a tongue in cheek preview of the horrors that await you. What’s not to like?

Anyway, enough of the free advertising, how did I get on with trying to beat my 10th place and fairly respectable 2012 time of 12h 15m? Not very well as it turned out…

I’d been putting in some decent training over the last month and I was sure that the mountain biking was helping as well. Personal records were coming my way on Strava and things were looking good to achieve my target of under 12 hours. Unfortunately, I picked up bronchitis (again…) leading up to the event and had spent the week off work. In my head, this didn’t matter, I’d ridden it before and I’d ride it again. It would probably help clear my lungs out! It was this mixture of stubborn pride and stupidity that would be my undoing.

Out of the house at 5.15am and ready to ride for 6.30am, I didn’t feel too bad to start with. By that I mean that I always take about 20 miles to really get going and that’s what was probably happening here. By 50 miles I still hadn’t really got going, with every climb producing more coughing and an uncharacteristic lack of power. I’d been so mentally unprepared in the days leading up to the event that I hadn’t even made any notes about how to pace myself. I usually know that I have to summit key climbs at certain times to be on target, or at least know an average speed to stick to. I had to rely on my mental arithmetic for this one, but at exactly halfway round I was at 6 hours – cutting it a bit fine, but could it still be on? I’d been suffering badly so far and the rapidly rising temperature wasn’t really helping, but I pushed on harder with the blind hope of achieving my 12 hour target.

The 100 mile point painfully passed as I worked out that to still be on target, I’d need to be two-thirds of the way round at 8 hours. It looked like I was up on the schedule – the race was on! Then I realised my maths was wrong and I was 5 miles off…. A blow to my morale. I was also out of water and relieved to see transit van number 2 at 107 miles. I stopped long enough to drink a bottle of water, refill both bottles whilst taking on some snacks, but I knew I had to press on. The next climb took me steeply round the Eastern flanks of Pendle Hill, and that’s where it all started going wrong. I was turning the pedals but not really getting anywhere. I felt sick and despite the heat, I felt like I was shivering. Not good, but if I could just get over this climb then I could recover on the descent into Barley village and be ready for the next one. After all, this is what I do – keep eating, drinking and pedalling and eventually I get to the finish and it’s all over. The climb out of Barley village changed all that for me.

The climb from Barley to Newchurch-in Pendle is only half a mile, but it’s 11% average gradient. Not massive by my standards, but today it was the final nail in my Badasss coffin. Time started slowing down, I felt faint and light-headed and strange things started to happen to my vision. I might also have been making some pitiful noises, I’m not really sure. I finally wobbled over the top to enjoy a brief descent, but I didn’t really feel in control of the bike. Then the road went up again.

I then did something I’ve never done before – not in an event or in training. I got off and sat down on a wall with my head in my hands. I realised that I was 55 hilly miles from the finish and that it just wasn’t going to happen. The frantic call home couldn’t really help – I had the car and it was parked at the finish line –  and yes you’re right, I probably shouldn’t have started it. Even taking a direct route back would involve 25 miles of hills.

At this point, another rider appeared and stopped. He had reached the same sorry state at exactly the same point, having also started the event off colour. At least it wasn’t just me. After a while, we’d both devised plans and concluded that you need to be 100% fit to take the Badass on. We undulated painfully for a couple of miles, then dropped down into Sabden, he to ring a friend for a lift, me to ride 4 miles mostly downhill to the train station at Whalley. My escape plan was to be a train to Preston whilst I recovered, before pedalling an easy 11 miles up the A6 to Garstang to get the car. I like to think of this as a tribute to Maurice Garin, who used this creative method of transport to win the 1904 Tour de France.

So should I have started the event? Probably not. Will I do it next year? Definitely. Will I ever learn? No.

BOBAD 1_0080

The ‘Spud Riley’ Polka Dot Challenge

If you’re not from the North West of England then you might not be familiar with this sportive. Originally started as a memorial to local rider Spud Riley, it’s one of this classic sportives of around 100 miles/10,000 ft of climbing, in this case, around a big loop of the Peak District. It might not have the notoriety of the Fred Whitton with it’s signature climbs of Hard Knott Pass, or even the crowds of supporters, but don’t be mistaken for thinking this ride is easy. It’s also one of the events that aren’t run by money grabbing companies. Local cycling shop/club Wills Wheels took over the organisation from Spud’s brother Dave last year, with 0ver £80,000 raised for charity by the event so far. The organisation is slick and the marshalling is well done, complete with big red flags on the dangerous descents.

I’ve done the event every year since 2009, with the long time (but never achieved) goal of completing within 6h 30m. However, with the new organisers deciding to completely change the route and me not having chance to do a recce, I decided that there was no point in setting a target and going all out to achieve it, but rather to check out the new course and set a marker to beat next year.

This had quite a big effect on my preparation. I didn’t prepare at all. After the mellow 10 mile pedal down to event HQ, I signed on and got stuck into the suffering straight away. Even the climbs that I knew really well were hurting and I was starting to curse the lack of a good nights sleep and the after effects of a decent night out on Friday. I was enjoying the change of route though – even doing roads that I’d only ever done the other way round gave fresh and revealing views and previous hill climbs became fast downhills. Once I got onto roads that were totally new to me I had no choice but to take each hill as it came – no pacing my efforts over well-known gradients, just get stuck in and hope for the summit to come soon. I shared these thoughts with a  rider from Leeds for 25 miles, who was also a repeat customer in at the deep end on the new route, though he’d only found out the night before! I know I criticised road cyclists for being anti-social on here before, but his tales of club runs and foreign training camps got me thinking about joining a local club.

So how does this new route compare against the old one? Well it’s certainly not any easier! It still features a relentless amount of climbing in a way that I think is so much tougher than continental roads. The gradient never stays constant, so just as you get into a decent climbing rhythm the road will ramp up to 16% or worse. And the roads are always in need of repair, unlike the well cared for cols of southern Europe. The scenery of the new route is also just as stunning as the old one, which was enjoyed in good weather for a change. It was the original Spud Riley that taught me some of my favourite Peak District roads and I’m sure today will further broaden my repertoire. Some of the roads were incredible: narrow single track lanes that had views so stunning that you had to remind yourself to keep an eye on the road ahead.

So that’s it really. No major revelations or epiphanies this time, just a good honest hard days riding in the Peak District. If you like these big-day-out kind of events run by decent people then I’d heartily recommend this one. There’s also 30 and 60 mile options if you’ve not quite progressed to full scale suffering yet.

So anyway, what time did I finish in? A respectable but not ground breaking 7h 17m., which should set me up nicely for bettering it next year!

Spud 3

 

The Fred Whitton Challenge

Anyone who knows me and my many cycling obsessions will know that I’m a big fan of the Fred Whitton Challenge. For those not in the know, this is one of the original UK cycle-sportives, challenging riders to a a gruelling 112 mile circuit of the Lake District that racks up 11,000ft of climbing. Since it began in 1999, the UK has become flooded with amateur events all claiming to be ‘classic’ and ‘epic’. Compared to the Fred, they’re not.

Back in 2010, whilst training for the Etape du Tour, I blasted round in a time of 7h 15m. Anyone finishing between 7 and 8 hours can be classed as a ‘Pretty Decent’ cyclist, enough to hold your head high in the company of most amateur roadies and I’ve enjoyed that status ever since. However, I wanted to join the category of cyclists who get under 7 hours, who could rightly be classed as ‘Bloody Good’. I’d tried and failed in 2011, suffering from bad weather and a lack of training due to injury. This year, I was planning to settle the deal.

Rather than make you read to the end, I’ll tell you now that I came in at 8h 01m (into the ‘ok’ classification…), so let’s get some excuses out of the way first:

  1. I’m a few pounds heavier than 2010 (serves me right for boozing too much and not dieting sooner)
  2. Other people had really expensive deep-section wheels so I probably needed some. (No, no, no. I’m not going to turn into an ‘all the gear and no idea’ kind of rider)
  3. I’ve not trained hard enough. (True, despite riding further and higher than previous springs, I’ve not been going as hard as I should have)
  4. Tragically wet and windy weather (Yep, this is probably the main reason!)

Rather than a boring hill-by-hill description of the suffering, here’s a concise account: I started well and stuck to the carefully prepared schedule that was precariously taped to my handlebars. After the first three climbs I was on schedule for my record time. However, hitting a strong headwind at 30 miles down the A66 and into Borrowdale, I slipped back 15 minutes. It also started raining. The rain started getting really heavy. Then the heavy rain continued till I crossed the finish line 6 hours later.

I had a quick sulk whilst hurtling down Newlands, but once I’d come to terms with being unlikely to achieve my target time, I got settled into ‘survival mode’ and kept slogging away through the cold and rain. Here’s a few thoughts from the parts of the ride that I haven’t erased from my memory:

  • Even in the pouring rain there are crowds of people standing around to shout encouragement, clap, wave cowbells and generally implore you to stay on the bike and keep going. When you’re soaked to the skin and in a bad place this can have a profound effect.
  • People who push or carry their bikes up roads like Honister Pass should probably enter a different event. Had they not looked at the profile? Hardknott Pass, the steepest road in the UK at 33% makes an appearance at 100 miles into the route, making Honister just a warm up… (also, people entering the event to walk up hills should be respectful and make way for actual cyclists)
  • The event is entirely run by volunteers, yet has the slickest organisation, best marshalling at road junctions, great medical back-up and the support of the Lake District community. It has also so far raised over half a million pounds for charity.
  • Worse than any other year or event, I saw far too empty gel/energy bar wrappers on the road, what seemed like every few hundred metres. Even the pro’s get fined for this now, so those cyclists fantasising about being professional need to do their homework and put the wrappers in their pocket.

Anyway, what I came to appreciate this year, more than ever before, was the concept of the ‘challenge’. I’m usually so consumed in what I interpret the challenge to be (breaking the 7 hour barrier and becoming ‘Bloody Good’), that I don’t appreciate the bigger picture. Some riders finish the day at over 12 hours even in good weather and that’s their challenge accomplished – and that’s just as valid as mine ever is. Today, the challenge for me had become getting up and down the steep hills and back to the finish without coming off and needing the increasingly busy ambulance service. To complete the ride with good sense of spirit and the motivation to continue with the pursuit of cycling was a worthy aim.

As I got wetter and wearier, I also became more determined and started passing more riders. Sometimes a conversation was struck up, though often just a glance between exhausted riders conveyed all that needed to be said. The words to adequately describe the desperation and bleakness of the situation were somehow hard to find. The second feed-stop at 84 miles resembled a temporary military shelter at the scene of a catastrophe: there was confusion, hysteria and blue-lipped traumatised riders sitting around shivering in foil blankets. I knew that I couldn’t stay there. I pressed on and found that the worse the situation got, the more determined I became. I was forced to dig deep and come out fighting.

And that’s the essence of the challenge. Clichés like “it’s character building” and “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” turn out to actually be true. You need to occasionally put yourself in these scenarios in order to claw your way back out. It might only have been a bad ride in the Lake District for eight hours, but it does give you hope that if you needed to, you’d have the strength to deal with whatever life throws at you.

Anyway, entries for 2014 will be open in January and I’d better step up the training now if I’m ever going to become ‘Bloody Good’.

Hardknott Deets