Monday, 25 July 2011

Life's a (pit) bitch

About this time of year I like to go to the Bontrager Twentyfour12. It's in its sixth year and I've been to five of them. The first was held on a reclaimed rubbish dump, where I lost my UK 24 hour virginity with a group of people from work. The year after I did a 12 hour pair with Jon (now known as Little Jonny Fast, LJF) at Cotswold Farm Park, before the event moved to its current home near Plymouth, Newnham Park. That was my first (attempted) 12 hour solo, cut short due to me being so tired I forgot I had caffeine gels to use when I was tired. A missed year was followed by victory in the Torchbearer12 (midnight to midday) mixed pair which brings us bang up to date. The original plan was a 24 hour pair with LJF but due to the snapped clavicle I decided to give it a miss - and pit bitch instead.

Pit Bitch, definition. It's not quite right - it also applies to people helping out other riders at mountain bike events, and you don't have to be female. My preferred definition is "someone who wants an excuse to feel part of an event, but can't be bothered with all that painful riding".

So, here's my guide to pit bitching.

Qualifications required: No formal qualifications are needed, but basic time keeping an advantage. Being able to work out "it was 03:24 when they went out, two laps, averaging an hour fifteen, allow ten minutes in case they speed up, plus fifteen more for you to get ready, means I'll wake you up at X" at 4am after no sleep and several beers is a preferred skill.

Experience needed: Good with zip ties, duct tape, disposable BBQs, super noodles, indexing gears, Dirtworker operation and motivational speaking. I say motivational speaking, what I really mean is the ability to lie consistently about relative race positions and time gaps in order to persuade riders to go out again. For example
  • "You're in fourth, only ten minutes behind third and fifteen off second. Get out there"
  • "Go out hard, and just keep going. Full gas"
  • "Did I say ten minutes? Really? I meant a lap and ten minutes!"
  • "What do you mean it hurts? Just remember what Jens would say!"
  • "Superman wears Jens Voigt underpants. Jens wears LJF underpants"
Equipment needed: Zip ties, duct tape, allen keys, burgers, cable cutters, BBQ sauce, cool box, beer, track pump, beer, comfy chair, coffee, beer. Marshmallows.

Duties: Many and various, but the main ones are
  • Sitting, looking at the weather forecast. Shaking head whilst doing it.
  • Emptying the coolbox.
  • Cheering, the more random the better. If you can get a passing rider to look round and fall off, you get a point. Ten points and you get an extra burger.
  • Sitting, poking meat balanced above some flames.
  • Wearing a silly t-shirt. Home made.
  • Watching the final stage of the Tour De France.
  • Eating ice cream at 9am.
  • Race position checking. Forgetting the race position on the walk back to the pit, making something up at random.
  • Pretending to understand bike mechanics before telling the rider there's nothing you can do. They'll just have to go round with one pedal.
Rewards: If you get all this perfectly right, you'll be rewarded with the reflected glory of podium places. You'll also have an ace weekend, meet some ace people and knock your own fitness back by a few months.

So, how was my performance? LJF and Mark were second in male 24 hour pairs, and Caroline was third in female 24 solo.

I think I did pretty well.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 8: Yes, yes we are.

Hold the wheel. Hold the wheel. Come on, you can do this. You can do this for an hour. It's hurting, but you like the hurt. Oh God, he's pulled aside. I'm in front now. Keep the pace up. Tuck low. Clip the apexes through the corners. Bit more. Pull off, ease up slightly, let them go through. Ah, Dangerous Dave is on the front now. This is really going to hurt.

And...... repeat until there are only four of the group left - three riders, one guide.

That's what happens when it's flat on the final day. It all gets a bit competitive. It was a lot of fun though, and we rattled through the final 90km to the seaside. At the seaside we had ice cream, beer, burgers, more beer, watched the first stage of the Tour, more beer, fabulous food, wine, complaints from the French (naked on balconys), complaints from probable Germans, more wine, dessert, angry Scotsman, unconcious Scotsman, more wine and finally bed.

That was it. That was trans-Pyrenees.

A few random memories.
  • Chaingate, when Greasy Dave dropped his chain on the Col de Souler, I stopped to help (therefore making it not-chaingate) and Dave got so covered in oil he earnt his "greasy" nickname.
  • Paul buying a compact chainset after the first day. Very, very wise move, and astonishing that we were in a village with a bike shop.
  • Vomiting at the top of hills. Good effort.
  • Surly Dave being the most un-surly person I've ever met. He just rode a Surly.
  • Not crashing, or even having a hairy moment, on any of the descents. That's not normally like me.
  • Coke and Snickers. I've mentioned them before and I'll mention them again.
  • The odd hour that felt relaxing.
  • Coke and Snickers.
You know, next time I might go on a holiday.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 7: Are we there yet?

Not quite. Just one 19km climb, up 1281m, straight out of the hotel in the morning. One deceptive climb that advertises as being 6.9% average, but you soon realise is going to be much harder than that after the first few kilometres are only 3-4%. One Hors Categorie, steepening, relentless sweaty climb that goes on and on at 9-10% near the top, never turning, never flattening. Flies were landing on me. Hell, flies were setting up home on me. Port de Pailheres, the second highest pass in the Pyrenees, 2001m. You've got to be suspicious of that "just over 2000m" thing though. It certainly felt like they'd added a bit on the top.

See that twisty thing? We got to ride down that. At the first village we stopped for Coke and cake, waiting for the others. Ah, sunshine. On average, the rest of the tour was downhill from here.

The next climb was livened up by some very childish behaviour, mainly instigated by me. Partly instigated by Dangerous Dave doing his usual van-based goading I launched a sprint, which just happened to coincide with a minor Col summit. This led to all kind of mini-attacks, including the "wait for him to get closer then speed up" game. I'm sorry. It was fun though.

Another fabulous lunch, this time properly homemade, and we only had the Col de Jau, a mere 1500 metres or so. This was it. The final col. Winding through the trees, brilliant sunshine, the odd waterfall and a pair of teenage girls wearing very little. The last bit may have been a hallucination but the others saw them too.

The final big descent. The final mid-descent stop - though coffee and Coke were ignored in favour of a cheeky beer. And then... a recovery McDonalds. We went for milkshakes and ended up with burgers. And milkshake-like ice creams. And fries.

A few more beers, some terrible sub-motorway services food at the hotel "restaurant" and we only had one flat half-day left. How hard can one flat half-day be, which a bunch of mountain hardened riders who can smell, taste and almost touch the finish line?

We'll see. It's not as if we'd treat it as a team time-trial.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 6: Sex and Bonking

That got your attention.

Of course, it should be Seix. That's where we overnighted, in another middling French hotel. My overriding memory of this one was that the bathroom in our room had seemingly been transplanted from a 1970s caravan, complete with the world's most useless shower hose that melted and colapsed under use.

Anyhoo, a 20km flatish start led to the Col de Port (which translates to "Pass pass"). A mere Cat 2, yet somehow the lack of a decent breakfast had got to me and I hovered on the verge of bonking (cyclist talk for running out of glycogen) all the way up. Dangerous Dave was doing his sheepdog impression, shuttling up and down the line of riders handing out snacks and barking at people to keep them on the route. At the top I dug into my secret stash of Torq bars and suitably refuelled plumeted down the descent.

Sunshine once more. Arm warmers off, leg warmers off, sun cream on. We bimbled through a town, adding in a couple of laps of the one way system for added interest, before joining the Route de Corniches. I'm not one for scenery (I've just watched the TdF stage where they descended the Aubisque the same way we did - wow, that would have been amazing if I'd focussed on anything else but the road), but this was spectacular. Breathtaking. I'm sure some of the crew took some great pictures but I was content to take it in by eye. Trust me. It was ace.

Lunch stop. Hot. Sunny. Pate, bread, Haribo (hurrah!), mini-Snickers (double-hurrah!), Coke, cheese, meats, cakes.

Post-lunch, another climb - Col de Chioula. 1431 metres but nothing too steep. Forever known as "Iain's Col". Then, down to Ax-les-Thermes, a spa town where we ate, drank and were merry. Dangerous Dave earned his nickname by crashing on virtually the last corner and arriving at the bar torn, battered and dripping blood.

I think this post needs a pic. Not a Col, but a crepe.

That is a Black Forest Crepe. Cherries, chocolate ice cream, sauce, cream. There may even be a crepe in there too. That's what I call recovery food. And with it, some recovery drink.


Friday, 15 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 5b: Belgium II

My titles are getting increasingly complex.

The climb up Col de Portet D'Aspet was one of my favourites - shortish and sharpish. At the top I met up with my two breakaway companions and after some faffing, texting guides and getting cold we descended to the nearest cafe for coffee. By now things were pretty chilly and this seemed the most sensible option. Plus, it involved coffee, which is always a good thing.

The rest of the group passed the cafe so we paid our bill and followed. We shortly came across the others and the van, and lunch. Hot lunch!

I haven't really mentioned the lunches. The lunches were a real highlight - who can resist a picnic every day with all you can eat local produce, cake, Coke, fruit, tea and coffee? The guides had kindly decided that hot pasta was the order for today which went down a treat. We defrosted, dried out a little and relaxed.

The after-lunch route included the Col de la Core - another Cat 1 climb. Hurrah. Plus, more rain. Double hurrah. I didn't stop to take pictures at the top of this one, but thankfully Iain did. Again, we didn't hang around at the top but descended pretty imediately, found a cafe and tried to thaw out once again.

So, that was our trip to Belgium. I loved it.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 5: Belgium

It was a dark and stormy night....

Really, it was. Very stormy. Those continentals do thunderstorms extremely well. Lightning, thunder, rain, power cuts. A few more clothes than normal went on and we rolled the 20km out of town, over the border... into Belgium.

At least, aspects were Belgian. The chill. The moisture. The combination of mist, fog and drizzle that morphed into clouds as we climbed higher. Obviously the climbs weren't particularly Belgian, but I guess they must have had some kind of cataclysm, throwing up some mountains overnight.

The first col of the day was Col De Mente - 9.3 km long, 849 up (an average percentage of 9.1%) with bits in excess of 11%. I noticed that our reigning King of the Mountains was having an easy day so this was the time.... to attack.

Up ahead, big Iain. Big as in tall, strong, powerful... but heavier than me. He'd also spotted the chance to take a Col and had set off at a fair old pace. I kept him just about in sight, through the trees, around the hairpins. It was certainly a cooler day - I guess both of us liked this kind of weather. Slowly, slowly I started to catch up - I knew there was a fair way to go so there was no hurry. Occasionally he looked round. Did he speed up as he saw me? I my mind, yes. In reality, probably yes.

Then the van came past, with Dangerous Dave at the wheel. Now, Dangerous Dave had a habit of goading riders. He might call it encouraging, we called it goading.

He leaned out the window... "You're not going to let him take this one are you?". "I'm just taking my time... few k to go".

He passed me, and slowed as he drew alongside Iain. Whilst I couldn't hear him I could imagine the conversation. "He's catching you! Don't let him catch you! You've got this one!".

Iain sped up.

I sped up.

I closed in, and sat on his wheel for a few seconds. I'm sure I heard a comment at that point, but it could have been the wind. I attacked, getting a 10m gap. I eased off, to let him catch up. I attacked again, with a slight giggle. There was definitely a comment that time.

The rest of the climb involved me trying to keep the gap safe, and presumably Iain try to close up. He was quicker on the flatter bits, I had the advantage on the steep bits. Gradually I pulled away.

The Col was mine. Not by much, but it was mine. He's a picture of me looking like a muppet. Go on, laugh. I don't care.

At the top, DD was waiting with hot drinks. We needed them. Soon Iain and I were joined by others, and cooling rapidly three of us set off carefully down the descent. At the bottom we found ourselves at one of the most (in)famous Cols in the tour - Col de Portet D'Aspet. Short and sharp 4.4km averaging 9.6% - with a maximum of 12.5%. This was the descent where Fabio Casartelli crashed and died during the 1995 Tour de France, and there is an impressive memorial to him at the foot of the climb. I pulled over, had a wander, a sit, a think. Road cycling is potentially lethal in so many ways. We'd flown down narrow roads at 70kph, on 23mm of rubber, less than a metre from deadly ravines. Dodged cars. Hopped potholes. Had punctures. Slid on gravel. Protected by a piece of polystyrene and a layer of lycra. Sometimes it's good to sit and think. Just don't do it on a technical descent.

My two companions missed the memorial. They thought I was going for a piss.

To be continued...

Monday, 11 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 4: The "rest" day

Normally, my rest days involve not doing much. It's an almost constant factor that threads through them all. What I wouldn't do on a rest day is ride up something like the Col de Peyresourde, 9.8km long, 669m of ascent, an average of 6.8%. I certainly wouldn't start the ride by throwing in an extra 300m of ascent over Col de Shortcut before getting to the foot of the Peyresourde.

I'd enjoy a Coke and an ice cream, maybe, and even a 15km descent into Bagnères de Luchon followed by a pleasant coffee and a wander round a bike shop. Following that with a ride up the Col du Portillon (7.9km, 8.4% average, sections to 14%) into Spain would be sheer madness.

Oh, no. I wouldn't do any of that on a "rest" day.

What I definitely would do is spend a couple of hours drinking beer and eating tapas, before stuffing myself with a selection of excellent Spanish food, wine, port and beer.

I must have imagined that whole middle section of the day. And faked those Col signs too.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 3: Tourmalet

Off to Wiki again:

"The western side, from Luz-Saint-Sauveur, is 19 km long, climbing 1,404m at an average of 7.4 percent with a maximum of 10.2 near the summit."

Thankfully, Tourmalet, the highest pass in the Pyrenees (at 2115m) was a morning climb. This had been billed as "the big one", mainly because it was, you know, the big one. I did my now usual trick of not pausing at the bottom to photograph the sign, giving me a handy head start. I got into my rhythm, set my mental power limit to 220 watts and started tapping away.

From what I recall, the lower sections were through some little villages, all stone buildings and respite giving hairpins. At some point the trees disappeared to be replaced by Pyrenian pasture (I was going to say alpine, but we were clearly not in the Alps) which meant there was no relief from the sun. There was the odd ski station - a building, a car park - but very little else of interest.

A 19km climb is an exercise in pacing. Some riders can judge their efforts by feel and experience. I use gadgets. Power-meter, heart rate monitor, mental-state-brainwave gauge. Plus looking at the numbers gives me something to do other than looking up, up, up at a road that seems to go up forever.

210w, 220w, 190w. Heart rate 145, not bad. That's tempo. Push it a bit more to 220w average and the HR is now 151. Hmm, OK, ease it back a bit. Gear down. Oh, lowest gear already. Um, pedal more slowly - cadence 58, 55, 57... Gradient for next km 7.6%. Then 9%. Then another 9%.

I'm nearing the top now - well, 3km to go. I look up. I can see a building waaaaaay in the distance, far away and much higher than I am. Surely the pass doesn't go up there? 2km, 1km. Then there seem to be a couple of car-park ramps, 15-20%, 100m long. Right, final push. Top. Breathe.

Our group King of the Mountains was already there. We recovered with Coke and Snickers, then I went souvenir shopping. A cheap bike jersey for 60 Euros, Tourmalet branded.

There were llamas at the top, skittering around and falling off things. I think they were real.

We had lunch, we swooped down the descent, we started climbing again. Col D'Aspin. Pretty, wooded, a bit like Wales. This climb was made harder by not having signs every kilometre - don't ask me why, it's not as if I'd been riding all my life with them. Then again, the biggest climb around Newbury is only 1.5km long, so there would only be one sign anyway.

Then the descent. Slightly technical, lots of hairpins. Not the place where you want to have a front wheel puncture at 50kph. Guess what?

Thankfully it was on a straight section so I eased to a stop, walked back up the road to a shady verge and had the flint removed, tube replaced and tyre back on before the support van arrived. I still got Dangerous Dave to pump it up though.

Well, what else are guides for?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 2

Morning. We emerged bleary-eyed, having been subjected to the local om-pah (um-pah? Ompah?) band for most of the previous night. For some reason this part of the Pyrenees is riddled with them, probably due to the lack of other basic entertainments - TV, radio, internet, badger hunting.

It was hot. Hot hot hot. About 20C in the morning, 30C by midday, and just kept rising through the afternoon. Thankfully I'd packed plenty of white-based jerseys, so I wasn't suffering in black like some of the fashionistas on the trip. After some gentle rolling roads we came to the bottom of the first real climb - the Col de Marie-Blanque. 9.3km long, average gradient of 7.7%. Last 3km are about 11-12%, which is nasty by my standards. Generally a Cat 1 climb in the Tour.

That's the geeky description. The real description goes something like:

Hmm. Bit steep this. Not too bad, we did worse yesterday. I can just about sit down and turn the pedals without falling off. There's a bloke up ahead, weaving all over the road. Oh, he's fallen off. Ah, I see. This bit is steeper. And this bit is steeper again. How can that be? Who build this stupid road? What kind of garlic-steeped, goose-liver stuffed, beret wearing excuse for a road engineer decided that this was a good idea?

Better stand up. 2km left. 12%? Must be a misprint, surely. 1.2%, that's what they mean. Ow. Ow. Ow...

The top. Relax. Take picture.

I know, I know. It's only 1035 metres. But we did start at about 300m.

Next, the good bit. The descent. At this point I realised that I was competent at going down, but not exceptional (insert joke here). I was about 3rd or 4th, but thankfully I never felt like I was going to hurtle over a ravine.

We continued. At the bottom of the descent (which was pretty awesome) was a little town, which we explored in order to find water. Then on through another little town (using a rare "flat bit") before we started climbing again. These were the lower slopes of the Col D'Aubisque. We had lunch in Eaux-Bonnes, which meant that we had to do our first Hors Categorie (i.e. frickin' hard) pass in, oh, 40C heat. On full stomachs.

Wikipedia says:

"On the west, the climb to the Aubisque starts in Laruns. From there, the Aubisque is 16.6 km and rises 1,190m, an average of 7.2%. The first kilometres, to the spa resort of Eaux-Bonnes, are fairly easy [dislocatedMTB says "yeah, I could actually spin my legs for this bit]. After the Cascade de Valentin comes a section at 13 per cent. [13%? Probably, I had my eyes closed]From there to the top, the climb is 8 km at eight per cent average, passing the ski resort of Gourette at 1,400m.[Ah, the ski resort. I wanted to stop for ice cream. It wasn't open]"

"The Aubisque is one of those hors catégorie cols that make the legend of the Tour. The climb is in three parts. The first is fairly easy. The road is good and the specialists use 39 × 19 or 53 × 21[Odd, I was in 34 x 19]. Then, at Eaux-Bonnes, you [stop for a long lunch and the] turn left and get to the real climb. This part, as far as Gourette, is a lot more difficult. The hardest part swings between eight and ten per cent from the seventh kilometre until Pont-du-Goua at the ninth kilometre and you need 39 × 21[No, you need 22 x 34, the lowest standard MTB gear. Unfortunately I only had 34 x 26]. Then, after 300m of flat in Gourette, a hairpin goes up to the Hôtel des Crêtes Blanches. Riders use 39 × 17 over four kilometres before going into 39 × 16 in the last two kilometres [No, they use 34 x 26. It's all we've got. We also pedal really really slowly, about 60rpm]"

By the top I was dehyrated, shivering and baked in the sun. I needed a Coke, a coffee, an ice cream, a couple of cereal bars and a massage. I didn't get the massage.

I did get a picture though.

The descent went on for ages... it was ace. The only scary bit was the melting tarmac, but hey, it probably makes it stickier.

Next. The big one.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Pyrenees... part 1

I've just come back from the Saddle Skedaddle Pyrenees Road Cycling tour. I've just about recovered enough to write about it...

I think I mentioned that my bike was packed in the Evoc bag. On arrival unpacking and reassembling the bike took about 5 minutes, compared to the usual 20. I can't recommended the bag enough - it was even easy to drag around the airport. I was enjoying it so much I asked to take it with me as hand baggage but despite repeated attempts I couldn't get it to fit in the little sizing cage at check-in.

So, bike unpacked, fellow riders met. All by themselves. One Canadian woman. One Australian woman. One man who flew over from Saudi (where he lived and worked). Six other assorted men. Bikes ranged from a Surly Long Haul Trucker, with co-ordinated accessories, to a rather tasty Cervelo. Two guides - big Kevin (who I was convinced was called Steve for the first 2 days) and Dangerous Dave. Dangerous Dave was merely Dave at that point...

We ate, we drank, we talked. We girded our loins for the next day. Mountains? How hard could they be?

Fast forward 12 hours.

Oh. My. God. I. Need. Oxygen. Must. Slow. Down. Or. Fall. Off. 14% for next Km. 12%. 12%. 7%. 5Km to top. Ow. Ow. Ow.

Looking back, the first climb was always going to hurt. Nothing to do with the length, or the gradient, or the heat. All to do with it being the first climb of the trip. This was where we started to sort out "the order".

"The Order" is the unspoken King of the Mountains competition. No-one admits they are trying, no-one talks about it before it starts, but once that first big climb of the trip comes up gears are shifted, pedals are stood on and heart rates go to maximum.

I hit the steep start hard, putting 20m into the second placed rider. Then I realised that this wasn't a 500m Cotswold climb but lasted 8Km. Oh. A few hundred metres further on and I was now the second placed rider. Bah. I was also in a lot of pain. Somehow I got it under control and vowed two things.

1. To respect my position. I wasn't the best climber.
2. To never hit a big mountain climb that hard again. The new tactic was to start slow, and continue slow.

The first Col.

Only 1135m. Only! The highest point around here is 230m. It was also one of the steepest of the whole trip with some very nasty sections.

The second Col, which although was higher was much less steep.

We had lunch at the top, where we were amazed to discover that was it for the climbing - the rest of the day was downhill to flat, pretty much. Which was nice.

Tomorrow - some Cols you may have heard of.