Sunday 16 December 2012

Bikes are ace!

A couple of months ago I picked up a new full-suspension, geared mountain bike. Thankfully I'd paid for it first, otherwise this would be a completely different story. After the initial fiddling and tweaking I took it for its first proper off-road ride.

"This bike is brilliant!" I said to myself, much to the consternation of a passing dog walker. It tracked through the singletrack like it knew where I wanted to go, the suspension soaked up the roots and rocks and the 2 x 10 drivetrain was faultless. Wow, a new favourite bike.

I got home and hosed off the worst of the mud, squirted oil on the most important parts (grips and tyres, I find) and hung it up on the rack.

Fast forward a week or two. Time for a road ride. The weather had been pretty crappy and the roads were scattered with puddles that could be considered minor lakes, grit, gravel, mud, leaves and various dead things. I grabbed my winter/cross/steamroller road bike - steel, heavy, full mudguards and disc brakes - and headed out. As I plowed through what passes for roads around here, bouncing over potholes, ignoring the muddy water splashing up and the cleanish water coming down, laughing at the God of punctures, I thought to myself "This bike is brilliant!". I was confident it could take the punishment, pleased it was so much faster than a mountain bike and most of all happy that it made me badass for riding in the rain.

Badass rain bike

I got home and threw it in the garage. Meh, the chain was so thickly coated with oil that it'd take a Greenpeace clean-up team to make any difference.

Another week. I'd not been out on my singlespeed for ages. It was still wet out so I dressed in full mud-proof armour. Waterproof 3/4s, softshell, winter boots. The bike, as well as being gear-free, was wearing Mud-X tyres (which, as a slight aside, are awesome) and a neoprene front mud-catcher.

I slid and slithered around, balancing traction and grip, thankful I had no complex mechs to clog and grind. I thought to myself "This bike is perfect! Brilliant! I'd rather be on this bike than any other!".

Singlespeed with beer holder

I got home and washed off just enough mud so that I could tell it was a bike, dribbled some lube on the chain and hung it up.

Yesterday I went out on my good road bike, the one that I lovingly polish after ever ride. You can guess the rest...

All bikes can be ace, at the right time. For my 1.5 mile trip to work my cheap, knackered, never cleaned or serviced rat-bike is perfect. I'd rather not ride it up an Alp, but given the choice between that and walking I'd give it a damn good go - and I'd probably look back and grin at attempting it after the event. So maybe that needs rephrasing - all bikes are ace, at any time.

The best bike, for any situation, at any point in time, is the one you're on.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Old School

When I started mountain biking I'd mostly go out with friends and just ride local trails. Nothing technical, nothing quick. Nothing that even came close to "training". We got muddy, wet and tired and ate Snickers bars, Haribo and jelly babies.

Somehow that concept morphed into solo road rides, energy bars and gels and a constant watch on the powermeter. They say you can't go back - but clearly, they are wrong.

A few days ago the stars aligned and Darren and I both had a spare morning. It's been so wet recently that most of our local routes are underwater - so Darren suggested a trip up to the Ridgeway. This has been in use since prehistoric times and follows a line of hills just North of where we live. Along the way there are several ancient monuments and our planned route would take us by the Uffington White Horse and Wayland's Smithy. You can't beat a bit of Bronze Age followed by a bit of Neolithic. Two of my favourite periods. Certainly in my top 10. The Ridgeway is wide and open, rutted in places but generally ridable at all times of year.

The Ridgeway has a couple of redeeming features. Firstly, it's pretty high and exposed. There are very few trees up there, which means that any wind and sun can dry the ground. Secondly, they've now banned 4x4s and motorbikes during Autumn and and Winter. Our ride up to it was a test of sloppy ground handling skills, combined with tyre selection skills. I certainly won the second (Mud X vs Racing Ralph) which gave me a slight advantage in the handling. However, once on the top the tyres were less relevant - the track was the closest I've seen to "not underwater" for a while.

Trail goes up, trail goes down. Undulating is the perfect word here, not just because it's fun to say. There were a few slidy sections of chalk and the odd puddle but nothing that led us to walk. We stopped and admired the view, we ate jelly beans (and Torq bars - old habits die hard) and chugged along past the white horse and the smithy. Both were hidden from us, as they require a diversion from the main track to get to them. Believe me though, they were there.

Near the end of our Ridgeway section Darren knew a section of woodland that would give us some variety. I posed for some staged pictures - I think my vacant distant stare is coming along nicely - before we did the last little off-road section.

I almost ride the correct line for the picture
So, 35km off-road done in two and a half hours. Time to hit the road - tarmac all the way home. With a tailwind and a touch of two-up time trialling we doubled our speed. Fifteen minutes later we were in Lambourn, and three minutes after that we were tucking into coffee and bread pudding.

Although Darren felt the need to call his stylist about the mug he'd been given.

That simply left an hour spin along the road to our respective homes. I hosed myself off, I hosed my bike off and did what any casual, social mountain biker would do.

Recovery tights.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Put me back on my bike

It's started. 2013 planning.

After the single minded focus on one event this year (the Haute Route, Alps version) I decided that I'd mix things up more and do lots of different rides. Looking back, having such a narrow range was mentally difficult. I struggled on occasion to motivate myself as the prospect of another lonely five hour training ride using the same routes I've used for many years really, really didn't appeal. It was a shame that my usual training buddies were doing other things - adventure racing, working too hard, being ill...
Mixing up events made sense - some more mountain biking, some more social rides, some more idiocy. I could still do a tough multi-day stage event - say, the Haute Route Pyrenees (HRP), but as one of a list of goals. The other items on the list would have more variety and keep things fresh.

Of course, there was another way to keep motivated for training. Another way to ensure I'd have training buddies for a big, major goal.

Get them to enter too.

People, it looks like we've got the band back together. Specifically, the BADAJAPADLEJOG band. Darren, Jon, Phill and Dave are all joining me for the highs, lows and mediocrities of the HRP. We've even added to the band as Dave's partner, Sarah, is also coming along.

Include the Dulwich crew from this year - David, John, Christoph, and maybe some others - and I won't be short of people to wheel suck.

What this should mean is more group training rides. Motivation will be better, routes will be more varied, chat will be with real humans rather than imaginary ones. I won't need to talk to the roadkill either.

Other events
In the spirit of mixing things up:

  • I really want to do 24/12 next year. Mountain bike races are much more fun that road riding. Maybe a 12 hour solo again?
  • An "easy" mountain bike holiday to somewhere that's about the people and destination rather than being a physical stretch. Costa Rica? Ecuador? Cuba? Mongolia?
  • Something on the cross bike
  • The odd sportive - I've already entered the Cheshire Cat.
  • Some social mountain bike rides, with pubs.

I think that's enough to be going on with.

Monday 15 October 2012

The Great Post-Haute Route Celebration Pub Cafe Bike Crawl

Every big achievement needs to be celebrated - to draw a line, to allow you to move on. Some may think that an official end-of-event party followed by a frenzy of stolen wine, cheese and ice cream is the way. They are wrong. There is only one way to celebrate a seven day bike flagellation across the Alps, and that's with The Great Post-Haute Route Cafe Hill-Climb Cafe Pub Pub Cafe Pub Curry Pub Pub cycle ride.

It started at a cafe, somewhere in South London, at about 9am. A crisp autumnal day, blue sky and fluffy clouds above.

That's a cappuccino and a pain au raisin. And a David. Note the funky HR shorts, and if you look carefully the HR Finisher jersey. This ride had a dress code. To right of shot were John, Keith and Christoph, also HR finishers.

The plan was to ride 80km or so, taking in the Dulwich Paragon club hill climb event and a couple of cafes, pubs, whatever. As John said, this ride wasn't about choice of cake, it was about selection of cakes. An "and" ride, not an "or" ride.

A moderate pace took us out of the city, into the lanes of Kent. Lots of people out, some of them heading our way. The hill climb was attracting a crowd. At the top of the course we chatted and joked, and when the man asked "who's competing?" we were first in the queue. We had no plans to do well, but if you've turned up at a hill climb you might as well take part.

I was slow. My rear wheel was rubbing, but not enough to make a difference. Sprinting the first 15 seconds probably wasn't the best plan. David was quick, though he'd done it faster before. Those extra end-of-year kilos (and being on a cross-bike) made a difference.

John elected to do the climb on foot. At least, that's what the photo shows.

Haute Route experts will note that he's not got the finishers' jersey on, just the normal one. He claimed it was somewhere in the USA, but can you trust a man who does a hill climb on foot? We were careful to ensure the timekeeper noted "no bike" against his time.

"No bike penalty, plus 5 minutes"

At this point we'd cycled for 25km, tasted blood from the hill effort and displayed our funky shorts to the world. Time for cafe number 2.

For the cake spotters, there's an apricot and almond, a lemon-lime drizzle, a scone with cream and jam and my magnificent selection - coffee and walnut.

Good cake.

Next, pub. To be accurate, next ride up the big hill, get caught in a shower, then pub. The beer was merely adequate so I refrained from photos. So that's two cafes, one pub.

From the pub we went to the pub. This one had much better food on offer:

It's easier to photograph the specials board than to try and remember it
It also had much better beer.

That's sunlight glinting through an Adnams Ghost Ship. We had soups, mains and a couple of pints. We held off dessert, as there was a highly recommended tea shop fifty metres away. In a tea shop, you drink pots of tea and have very English cakes. I remember there was a ginger cake, and I had a chocolate cake, but I think my mind was starting to get over saturated with calories. I even forgot to have tea, ordering coffee instead.

It was starting to get late now so we headed back - interrupted by my first ever road bike fall. Having your back wheel pop out while climbing a 25% incline generally leads to more annoyance than injury, thankfully.

Back in London and we were down to to three for the evening - David, John and me. The bikes were left at David's (where we also showered and changed into normal person clothes). A pub, a curry, another pub, a taxi for John and another pub.

The Haute Route had lots of numbers - hours on the bike, distance cycled, metres climbed. The GPHRCPCBC had numbers too.

  • 1 pastry
  • 2 cappuccinos
  • 2 slices of cake
  • 1 americano
  • 8 beers
  • 1 red pepper soup
  • 1 beef stroganoff
  • 1 mixed curry selection, side dishes, naans, popadoms
  • 3 cafes
  • 5 pubs
  • 0 energy bars
  • 0 energy gels

Why aren't more road rides like this?

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Haute Route: The final verdict

It's been about ten days since completing the event and I'm well into my recovery holiday - no cycling involved, but I seem to be eating as if I was still riding six hours a day. Let's see how well this hindsight thing works....

I entered the event as I needed a big challenge. In 2009 I was doing 12-hour solo mountain bike races, in 2010 we did Lands End to John O'Groats in 8 days (960 miles for those not familiar with it) and in 2011 I bimbled through the year. The Haute Route looked like the perfect antidote to bimbling, something that scared and excited me in equal measure. Well, let's put it at 95% scared, 5% excited. It certainly worked as a motivational tool as 6am pre-work winter bike rides were started by chanting "Haute Route, Haute Route" to get me out of bed. Maybe I should have recorded that as my phone alarm tone.

Training went as well as I could have expected. No injuries, no illness, no accidents. I was completely focussed on the one thing to the extent I stopped riding mountain bikes from February onwards. That's going to change in about 5 days time. The week in the Dolomites was perfect preparation, as much from a mental point of view as physical. Knowing that a climb like the Stelvio was harder than anything in the event gave me a lot of confidence. To anyone planning on riding the HR next year, get a trip to the mountains booked in preparation.

The event itself... well, what stands out?

  • The organisation and logistics. There were a few tiny, tiny glitches but quite frankly the organisers did an incredible job. Moving that many people, with all those bags, start and finish villages, motos, medical teams, masseurs, catering, food stops, road controls... the thought, planning and execution was brilliantly done. A public thank you to everyone involved.
  • It was far more fun at the time than I ever thought it would be. The early starts meant that I was finishing early/mid-afternoon (as part of the mid-pack obscurity group). This gave time to relax, recover, chat, wander and watch the Vuelta. I've done proper bike holidays that had less leisure time.
  • On the other hand, it's not a holiday. It's hard work. It's harder for those that are less fit. You need to either be very fit already or prepared to get into decent shape. I was no slouch as a rider, but I still put  in nine months of sacrifice in order to give myself the best possible chance of getting through it.
  • It does give you a taste of the pro-experience. Sometimes the hotels are crappy, sometimes the food is crappy. It will hurt, you will suffer. However, when you stop for a piss in the neutralised section and chase back on to the peloton through the event cars - including the Mavic service cars - you'll have a huge grin on your face.
  • The descents... oh, the descents. And the feeling when you're in a chain gang in the valley, all working together, moto leading the way, flying along, sweeping up other riders...
  • Unless you're in the top 20, you have to ride at your own pace for the week. Your training will determine your pace. You won't suddenly be able to "attack" a 20km climb. If you try, you will suffer badly.
  • At may points in the week you'll be in pain. My problem was hot feet. Hot, painful, agonising-at-every-pedal-stroke feet. Yet when you get to the stage finish the pain will be replaced with a glow of achievement. Another stage done.
When I started the event I was convinced I'd finish thinking "never again". The fact that I finished thinking "maybe, maybe again" is testament to how good the experience was.

There are some more points and discussions on the excellent Inner Ring blog - with comments from me, another rider and Mark from the organising team.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Haute Route: Eating like a stage-sportiver

One of the key parts of my training for the Haute Route involved food - both eating a lot of it and understanding what worked for me. I experimented with an all-sausage diet, only eating green things and even existing on pure smugness but in the end I fell back to the accepted wisdom of lots of carbs, some protein and a bit of fat. Oh, with some beer mixed in too.

The eating side of the event fell into three distinct categories - pre-bike, on-bike and post-bike.

Each day before riding it was important to get the fine balance between "not enough" and "too much" right. Clearly I failed most days but at least I had a plan. The biggest difficultly was the early starts, and the need to let breakfast digest before the racing began. I figured that liquid calories might be easily absorbed and would also help with hydration so in the absence of facilities for my favourite Frijj Chocolate Shakes I resorted to using recovery drink powder - in this case For Goodness Shakes powder sachets, banana flavour. This was consumed pretty much the moment I woke up. With an oaty cereal bar on top, that was breakfast one.

Breakfast two was hotel supplied. The main element of this was coffee. Coffee has certain effects on the digestive system and this was essential to minimise weight at the start of each stage. I'd add in a ham roll or two but nothing major - starting riding on a full stomach would be a bad move for me. Plenty of water though.

The one time we skipped the hotel breakfast (Risoul) we improvised coffee using a Clif coffee energy gel and hot water. It was surprisingly successful, although blisteringly sweet.

I'm a big fan of Torq energy products - drink, bars, gels and recovery. Nothing dodgy in them - no colours, sweeteners (why do some energy drinks contain sweeteners?) or artificial flavours. My stomach likes them, as do my taste buds (although certain substances in the recovery drink make it an acquired taste).

Each day I took 2 made-up bottles of energy drink, 1-2 spare canisters of drink powder, 3-4 bars and 2-3 gels - including caffeine gels. I had some Clif bars to for a little variety - no matter how tasty a bar is, after you've eaten four a day for a week you start to lose the desire for more.

I also went through 2-4 bottles of water and the odd handful of something from the official feed stops. They provided a reasonable range of food - dried apricots, cake and salty crackers were my picks, along with a glass of Coke or two.

Eating on the bike was definitely forced and constant - I wasn't waiting until I was hungry. Again, there was a fine line between under and over eating that I managed to ride successfully... ish.

Once the ride was over I unleashed my special skill - speed eating. Firstly, Torq chocolate-mint recovery drink. Then on to the supplied lunch. These consisted of some kind of salady starter (think rice/couscous salad rather than greens), a main and a dessert.

The mains were either meat/fish with potatoes and veg, or a meaty pasta - tagliatelle with meatballs, lasagne. They varied from adequate to downright tasty - the lasagne at Alpe d'Huez I'd have happily paid for. My judgement may have been slightly clouded by seven hours of riding in 35C heat though.

Desserts were flans/pies/tarts/cakes, or a yoghurt. Who'd pick a yoghurt in these circumstances? Oh, David did.

Then back to the hotel for more water, maybe another energy bar or Haribo to tide things over until the biggest challenge of the week - the evening meal.

I think I need another section.

The Evening "Meal"
If you're a restaurant owner in a ski resort that's playing host to 600 hungry cyclists and maybe 150 crew do you:

a) Get a couple of extra staff in and ensure you've got supplies to cover full tables for the evening?
b) Create a set menu that gives the cyclists an easy option and you an easy way of serving?
c) Pretend there's nothing special happening, give most of the staff the night off and yet still allow people to sit down and order?

Alpe d'Huez, Risoul and Auron, j'accuse. Megeve and Courchevel, you're off the hook.

In Alpe d'Huez we sat in a hot, stiffling room for an hour before the manageress let us order - and only because we asked what would be easy for them. Salads. So while we waited for the salads we went two doors down and ordered pizza takeaway for our mains.

In Risoul, they couldn't cope with the half full restaurant ordering basic meals. It's not as if we'd asked for goat on toast or anything - some pasta, a couple of steaks. And this was a place decorated with signed cycling jerseys and photographs that revelled in the fact that pro-teams had eaten there. No wonder teams have their own chefs now.

In Auron... oh, Pierre et Marie. I really don't like naming and shaming the very worst service I've ever had in a place that claimed to provide food for money as a business, but in this case I'll make an exception.

We'd booked the table for 7pm, and we'd ordered by 7:30. Our concerns were first aroused when the man taking the orders (Pierre?) kept zoning out and staring into the middle distance, halfway through someone telling him their order. This wasn't a language thing either as we had a couple of fluent French speakers with us. He was simply spaced out.

Time passed. There were shuttle buses to catch for one of our party, and we were all going to be up at 5am. After repeated demands for some bread to keep us going, and questions about where our food had got to, the starters appeared at 9:30. By this time we'd sent out search parties looking for a kebab shop but to no avail. The starters (salads!) were wolfed down and half of our table left to get some sleep - eating late is never a good thing if you want to sleep and rise early.

As we approached 10pm we made further, slightly more vigorous enquiries as to our steaks and pizzas - made more vigorous by us spotting they were closing down the kitchen. We gesticulated, we questioned, we pleaded... and it turned out they'd not bothered to cook the rest of our order.

A flurry of activity, and at 10:15 we had our simple, basic, quick to make meals. Of course, half the people who wanted them had left and the rest of us had lost the will to eat but hey, good job Pierre et Marie! They then tried to charge us for everything which we negotiated down by the simple tactic of just paying for what we'd eaten - no way were we paying for meals when the customers had left an hour before, tired and starving.

Auron continued its crazy approach to mass catering at the hotel breakfast. I know, I've got 60 people here who want to eat quickly and get out... I reckon taking table-by-table, individual hot drink orders is the way forward...

Some other points to note
The food and drink at the post-race party was excellent.One table did steal several half empty bottles of wine though as the place emptied out and the caterers were packing up. Shocking.

The food at the pre-race pasta party in Geneva was barely edible. Congealed, cooling pasta. Apple tart was better.

As the week goes on, more and more alcohol gets consumed each evening. Day 1 - nothing. Day 3 - a glass of wine or two. Day 5 - wine, beers...

Ice cream is good. Again, more gets consumed as the week goes on. The final day I had a total of 5 big scoops, David had seven.

I finished the 780km bike ride weighing pretty much what I started. I think that counts as successful eating.

Well done me.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Haute Route: Ride, rinse, repeat

05:15 Do dooby do, de do doo... Do dooby do, de do doo...
05:15 and 15 seconds. Grab phone. Swipe off the alarm. Time to move.

Departure for the first stage was at 07:15, which meant that breakfast at the hotel was from 05:15. Early eating was essential if we weren't to start the stage still bloated with stuffed-in croissants, coffee and carbs. My personal strategy was to start with a recovery drink the moment I woke up, to get the first major dose of calories into the system with the minimum of chewing. Chewing wasted energy.

05:25, leave the room (full of banana flavour powder and water) and get to breakfast. The ten minutes between the alarm and going out also included dressing (normal clothes) and applying sun tan lotion to the head. This was probably the most important thing I learnt on the whole trip. Get your lotion on early to allow it to absorb, cutting down on the chances of sweating it out and into my eyes later on. Breakfast was either coffee and a small ham roll (for me) or coffee, muesli, yoghurt, juice, banana, croissant with ham and cheese, coffee, pain au chocolat stuffed with ham and strawberry jam, coffee and coffee (for David). That boy can eat. He also takes around 5 coffees to get fully concious, which provided many moments of amusement over the week as he kept bumping into walls and forgetting exactly why he was in France.

06:00, back in the room. Apply arse lard, dress in bike kit, make drink bottles, sun lotion rest of body, stuff jersey with pre-selected snack selection, pack day bag with recovery drink and sandals, pump tyres, attach Garmin, pocket route cards, phone and cash, put on helmet, gloves and sunglasses.

06:40, leave for the start.

06:45, arrive at the start. Hand in day bags, which would be available at the finish. Mill around. Chat. Try and sound confident. Look for fat people. Fail.

David and Tony were confident enough to join the self-selecting "elite" group on the first day. On subsequent days this would be limited to the top 75 riders. On the first day, anyone who felt they had a chance of the top 75 could join it. Half the field chose the elite group.

07:15, unleash hell. Or rather, unleash heck as we rolled gently out of town, Europop ringing in our ears. We left in groups of about 50 people, initially led by a moto. Over the first 20km or so the groups would compress and expand like a bicycle slinky, crushing up to near stationary at corners before expanding into longer lines on the straighter sections.

There were two starts to each stage - the first section was always untimed and therefore neutralised, with no racing allowed. This meant that we avoided any frantic action when people were tightly bunched up at the beginning. Everyone had an RFID tag on their bike so we were timed individually from when we each crossed the timed start line to when we crossed the finish.

Of course, once we realised that any faffing before the timed start didn't affect our times, something happened just before the line. The mass piss. Bodies everywhere, weapons in hand. I feared for the vegetation. I pitied the women who had to observe this and find somewhere slightly more discrete (behind a Mavic service car seemed to be popular).

On the first day, as we hit the first categorised climb (Col de Romme, 9.5km at 8.8%), you could spot the UK riders who'd never been up a real mountain. They attacked as if they were hitting a 200m Cotswold lump, and suddenly found themselves in a little trouble when it carried on... and on... and on... David told me that in the front group, someone who'd overestimated their ability was walking 250m into the climb. Oops.

I geared back (lowest please!) and settled into a rhythm. Admittedly, I was slightly excited too and probably went harder than I should have. I overtook plenty of people but I wouldn't climb as hard on any other day. Over the top of the climb I quickly topped up my bottles at the feed station and swept down the descent.

Mmm, swoopy.

Argh, crampy.

Another lesson. When you've climbed quite hard, you'll build up all kinds of crap in your muscles. If you let your legs cool on the way down, when you want to use them again they won't be happy. Almost everyone I spoke to after the first day complained that they were cramping on the inside of their thighs, near the knees. Almost everyone had never had this before. The solution? Pedal hard downhill whenever you could. The cramp never came back.

120km and three Cols after starting I arrived at Megeve. Another routine to learn.

Finish. Stop moving.
Finish plus 5 minutes, start to move again.
Finish plus 10 minutes, find the bike park. This was secure and also contained our day bags. Store the bike, grab the bag. Put on sandals. Find some water, make the recovery drink. Drink.
Finish plus 15 minutes, fail to stretch. I can do that later.
Finish plus 20 minutes, get some lunch. Each stage finish provided hot food - some kind of salad, some hot protein and carbs, veg and a dessert. The lunches varied from tolerable to "I'd pay for that in a restaurant", no mean feat with mass catering. Find team-mates and co-riders, eat as if I'd not eaten for a week.
Finish plus 40 minutes, find the hotel.

After day three this routine was pretty much nailed. There were variations - sometimes some gasping on the floor was involved, sometimes an extended volley of abuse at the course designers. Once I felt fine.

The rest of the day consisted of washing, eating, sleeping, failing to find the Vuelta on the TV, failing to get a decent wifi connection and failing to find a decent restaurant. Actually, in Megave we found one of the better ones of the trip. By 10pm we were back in the hotel room, pinning numbers on jerseys and getting food ready for the next day.

Set the alarm for 05:30.

Ride, rinse, repeat.

Monday 27 August 2012

Haute Route, the real part 1

(I admit I did have plans to write some posts during the event but a combination of tiredness, poor wi-fi and can't be arsedness meant that I've saved things up to write about now. Hindsight will add perspective. Probably)

Ah, November 2011. I was young(er), carefree and up for a challenge. 2011 had been a "meh" year in terms of events so somehow I let myself be convinced to enter the Haute Route 2012. It'll be fun, a stretch, a target to drive me through the dark training days of winter, when my only other motivation would be getting through series 3 of The Wire whilst on the turbo trainer.

The months ticked past, the tedious turbo sessions sucked, the training events came and went and I found myself at Heathrow airport on the morning of the 18th August, bike bag in hand and leg hair freshly trimmed. The previous week I'd been playing mental games to move my feelings from trepidation to anticipation. The result of the games was a no-score draw so it was with mixed emotions that I boarded the plane, team-mate (and instigator of this whole idea) David beside me. We'd spotted a few possible other riders in departures and even taken the step of talking to one. I felt slightly better at the sight of them, as they looked... normal. Well, normal for cyclists.

At arrivals it was more of the same - further conversations reassured me that not everyone was a Cat 1 racer and that I probably wouldn't be last in the event. Accents were mixed - South African, Kiwi, Australian, British. The language of the peloton would be as close to English as those from the colonies could get.

Taxi, hotel, wander to the event village. Get photographed, issued with giant kit bag, rucksack and lycra uniform. It was like we'd joined the army, albeit an army that dressed in figure hugging monochrome with a jaunty flash of yellow.

I looked like this:

Yes, the top's a bit tight. Extra small. Very Euro. Those aren't the race shorts, I was in public without a bike.

We ate, we met the rest of Team Infrared, we had more photos done, we went to the initial briefing. It wasn't brief. We ate some more then retired to the hotel to get everything ready for the morning - it was going to be the first of many early starts, 0530. Preparation was everything. Numbers pinned on the jersey, minty arse lard close by.

I tried to sleep. I failed. It was going to be a long ol' day...

Sunday 19 August 2012

Haute Route Day -1

I'm a little tired after the first stage (245th out of 600 - very happy with that) so here's a video from the start village yesterday.

And here's what I looked like in my team kit.

As you can see, they've given me a proper Euro cut jersey... I could barely get into it.

Today was hot, hot, hot: 40C claimed one rider on Twitter. I felt... reasonable, apart from getting cramp at the end of the two longest descents. 2700m of climbing, 125km in about 4:45.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Have we got a video?

Yes we have!

Off to Switzerland Saturday for the Haute Route, and I'm taking a netbook to try and do the occasional blog post. Inspired by a couple of Google+'ers I might even do a few little videos. So, here's a test... mainly involving the contents of my bag.

Thursday 9 August 2012

10 days to go, panic ensues

What links the following mountain passes?

Col de Romme, Colombiere, Aravis, des Saises, Courcheval 1850, Madeleine, Glandon, Alpe D'Huez (x 2), Sarenne, Lautaret, Izoard, Risoul, Vars, Bonette, Auron, Couillole, St Raphael, Vence.

Well, both figuratively and literally, the route of the 2012 Haute Route cyclosportive. Which I've entered. And it starts in 10 days.

Just to add to the fun of all those climbs, there's a total distance of 780km, with a total ascent of 21,000m. That's like riding from sea level to the top of Everest, two and a half times.


I'm currently mediating a dispute between my rational mind and sheer terror.

ST: 7 days with an average 3000m of climbing? 21,000m? Are you nuts?
RM: The Dolomites climbs were steeper and higher. You'll be fine.
ST: Ah, but the Dolomites trip was only 15,000m, and shorter distances too!
RM: Well that was a holiday! And six weeks ago! Think of the fitness gains since then!
ST: Plus, there are 600 people doing the Haute Route. It'll be chaos!
RM: No more chaos than something like the Dragon Ride. You'll be fine.
ST: Arrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
RM: Gulp.

What I know is that I've trained harder than ever before for the past nine months, I'm at the lightest I've been since I was 16, my powermeter tells me I'm fitter, I've got a nutrition strategy, a new saddle that fits and extra comfy shorts.

Plus, I'm in a team. I've never been in a team before.

Team InfraRed/Jewellers for Children. I even like the design of the jersey. It has a watch on it too, I like watches. That's a lucky omen, I hope.

I have some goals.

  1. Finishing. Goes without saying
  2. Finishing within the time limits on each day, so I get an official finish position
  3. Finishing top half. Slim chance of this, I can only hope that lots of unfit people were inspired to enter so they'll come behind me
  4. Having fun at the time. I'm sure it'll be fun looking back, but it would be amazing if I actually enjoyed the experience at the time.
So, 10 days of tapering, heathly eating, last minute planning and packing.


Monday 30 July 2012

Classic and New Olympics

There should be two Summer Olympics.

I've come to this conclusion after at least twenty minutes of deliberation, whilst cooking tea (herb-crusted haddock). There are events that belong in the classic Olympics, and events that clearly don't. I'm not one to go round upsetting people, so the events that don't belong will get their own version of the games - the Neo-Olympics. Unless of course they don't belong in either.

Classic events need to meet the following rules.
  • Individual sports. No teams or relays. Relays are just another way of getting more medals for the same type of events.
  • No expensive equipment needed.
  • Have a vague link to the Ancients.
  • Can be done successfully outdoors.
  • Could have been done by me, as a child.

What's in the Classic Olympics, in alphabetical order, with caveats.
  • Archery. Traditional bows only. Archers have to make their own bows too. No "team" event. Automatic gold medal for the first archer to shoot one of their arrows with another arrow, Robin Hood style.
  • Athletics, excluding relays and the triple jump. If you like jumping far, do the long jump.
  • Boxing. Hitting each other is pretty traditional. None of the judging malarky either, last man standing wins. Tae Kwon Do-ists can do this one too. No kicking though.
  • Canoe racing, home made dugout canoes only. All other canoe sports go into the Neo-Olympics.
  • Diving, but more like the Red-Bull cliff diving contest. Off of cliffs.
  • Fencing, or duelling as it will be called. First to draw blood wins.
  • Gymnastics (artistic). Renamed Gymnastics (the real one, not the poncey one with ribbons)
  • Swimming, obviously. No relays, but medleys will be included. They have to do one length with a float between their legs too.
  • Weightlifting. Nothing is more Olympian than lifting heavy stuff.
  • Wrestling. Two types, dry and oiled. People who'd be doing Judo can do this instead.

What's on the edge:
  • Trampoline. Might fail the expense test. It is cool to watch though, which probably saves it.

What's in the Neo-Olympics:
  • Badminton. Needs skill, energy, reflexes. Also needs to be indoor, which disqualifies it. When I was a kid playing badminton outdoors was close to pointless.
  • Basketball. Team sport. U.S.A banned forever though, as they're too good.
  • Beach Volleyball. I'd love to include it but it's just about a team sport. Oh go on then... it's back in.
  • Slalom canoe. Not everyone has access to the rivers, the funny poles and the funny canoes.
  • Cycling, all types. I hate to admit it, but not everyone has access to the bikes, the velodromes and baggy shorts for BMX.
  • Equestrian. You need a horse. I never had a horse. Many, many people don't have horses either. The horse gets a medal too.
  • Handball. Gets in over football because I reckon going to the 'lympics is a big deal for handballists.
  • Hockey. See handball.
  • Judo, Taekwondo. Both to be done on an angled wooden platform, like in Bloodsport. Bolo Yeung will almost win both events, yet somehow Van Damme will struggle back from the breaking of three limbs to defeat him with a flying-spinning kick. Yes, even in Judo. The judges let it go.
  • Modern pentathlon. Close to being kicked out completely for being made up, but at least it requires expertise in very different disciplines. It's like they drew the events out of a hat. I might add in "even more modern pentathlon", which consists of Call of Duty, cake decorating, bog-snorkelling, laser tag and streetdance.
  • Rowing, sailing. They can stay, but let's cut down the number of different classes. In rowing, singles and eights. In sailing, a little boat and a big boat.
  • Shooting. Like archery for people who can't make a bow.
  • Synchronised swimming. With sharks in the pool. Not hungry ones, that would be cruel.
  • Table tennis. Gets in over tennis, again because it must be the pinnacle of the sport.
  • Volleyball and Water Polo. I might combine them though, volleyball in a foot of water. 

Out completely, no medals for you:
  • Football. No-one cares except the winners. Women's football might survive, but with men in goal.
  • Tennis. Really, with multi-millionaires playing and four Grand Slams a year, kick it out.
  • Rhythmic gymnastics. You might as well have ballroom dancing.
  • Triathlon. Swimming, cycling, running. Pick one. Get good at it.

Monday 16 July 2012

Italy Part 8: It's all downhill from here

Of course, "here" just happened to be the top of the third pass of the day. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewind.

The previous entry on this blog ended with some people going for coffee, ice cream and beer in the sunshine whilst others went to do another mountain.

In some ways, there was a risk that the beer drinkers would regret their decision. Generally, when I've seen splits like this happen both sides insist that they'd made the right choice and had a truely excellent time. As we stumbled back to the hotel after our relaxing afternoon (damn, I may have given away which group I was in) we came across Tony outside the hotel.

"How was it?" we asked.

No words were needed. Sunken eyes, a 1000-yard stare, a mumble. A shake of the head. The odd distinguishable word: brutal, horrible, killer, ridiculous. Ah. This was from one of our top two climbers. There was little point asking the other one though, as he'd been drinking beer in town. Catching up with the others led to more shaking heads, tales of weaving across the road, rolling trackstands. They'd all made it though - chapeau.

That night there was a small matter of a football match (Italy - Germany, Euro 2012 semi-final) and Massimo had magically got us a table, in front of a TV, at a local Pizzeria. The atmosphere watching the game was intense and thankfully Italy won. We also had pizza.

It was much bigger than it looks.

Fast forward to the morning. Three passes to go.

  • Passo Falzarego, 15km long, to 2115m
  • Passo Valles, 20km from our low point to the top, at 2032m
  • Passo Rolle, a mere 6km to 1989m
Falzarego was dispatched with ruthless efficiency - excluding Phill who had to nip back to the hotel to pick up his heart-rate monitor strap. Call it ruthless inefficiency. Again, another blisteringly good descent.

Valles. Or, Passo Hateful, to give the English translation. The first section was merely hellishly hot - a fountain in a village square was a lifesaver. Two bottles emptied over the head then one filled for squirting on the climb, one filled for drinking. The middle section 10%+ for a few km was brutal. Everyone suffered, weaved over the road, ground out the revolutions to make achingly slow progress. As the gradient eased near the top we came out of the trees - so we had added sunshine to cope with.
Welcome relief. They sold ice cream. There was even a troll up there.

We had lunch, we dropped down the mountain like stones. The last climb started fairly high up, so it was more a bump in the road than anything noteworthy. And then... was all downhill from there.

In San Martino di Castrozza, our finishing town, they also sold ice cream. 

What else could we do?

The final scores: 576 kilometres of distance, 14697m of ascent. Lots of passes, lots of beer, lots of pizza, lots of ice cream. No crashes. Mission accomplished.

The trip was organised by Saddle Skedaddle - a custom version of their Dolomites itinery. I'd describe the trip as flawless and I'd highly recommend them.

Friday 13 July 2012

Italy Part 7: Hot, hot, hot.

The most excellent book "Mountain High" describes our opening pass of the day, Passo Fedaia, with a few choice quotes.

  • "probably the hardest climb in Italy" - Gilberto Simoni, 2 time Giro winner.
  • "definitely one of the hardest climbs [in professional cycling] - it's like someone's horribly steep driveway" - 1988 Giro winner Andy Hampsten.
  • "The Fedaia is compelling in the same way as a horror movie from which it's somehow hard to avert the eyes" - the author.

It has 3km where the gradient never dips below 12%, and it's 18% at worst.

Nasty, nasty climb.

Of course, if you go up the other direction, like we did - it's a frickin' awesome descent. I bottled out slightly at 85.73 kph, but I'm sure David saw at least 90kph. At the top of the pass, also known as the Marmolada (after the glacier by the pass) there is a stunning Dolomitine (is that a word?) lake. Here's me, looking a bit... European.

I apologise for the leg angle.

We ended the descent at Caprile where there was obviously another coffee stop. We were getting good at this - first ones down found the cafe, grabbed the best tables and lined up the waiter for a round of triple ristrettos. It was around 11:30 by now, and things were hotting up. Perfect - just in time for Passo Giau.

10km, and average of 9.1%, up to 2236m. That's half the story. Add in 30C+ temperatures, blazing sun, a lack of water, a surfeit of idiocy and five days of riding already in the legs and you have all the ingredients... for pain.

I started with just one full bottle, which I admit was slightly dumb. I wasn't riding hard - I couldn't - just grinding it out. I was even (whisper it) overtaken by three or four others. The official start of the climb is at Selva di Cadore, where I saw Christina. I mentioned that I was low on water, and she told me that the van was near. Cool, I thought, I'll get a top up when it comes past me.

A few km further on I was in water conservation mode, with no sign of the van.

A few more, and the van came straight past me. Oh, I guess he'll pull in ahead.

A few more, no van, almost out of water. Some nasty looking pipes at the side of the climb had trickles of liquid coming from them but I really wasn't sure if it was drinkable. I was cursing the van driver.

One more kilometre... and relief. A water fountain. Clear, cold, glorious life-giving mountain water. I glugged, slurped, doused and steamed. I filled one bottle - there were only a couple of km to go now - and carried on refreshed. Of course, it wasn't magic. My legs were still heavier than Slipknot.

Reader, I suffered.

Those last two kilometres were a struggle. If it hadn't been for the people ahead of me walking, I may have ground to a halt and crawled into a ditch. But walkers (with bikes) are an amazing incentive - I will not stop... I will not stop.

At the top I met the van. I met the others. I had another overpriced Coke in the cafe and soaked up the sunshine. Christina made it to the top and wandered over.

"Did you not want water from the van?"


"It was parked round the corner from where you spoke to me. You rode straight past it".

Doh. In all my confusion I'd completely failed to spot the slightly obvious team vehicle, trailer attached, on the right hand side of the road. Idiot. Still, nice weather vane on the top of the pass.

From Giau it was pretty much straight down to Cortina d'Ampezzo. 25 minutes to lose 1000m of elevation. I was starting to enjoy these descents more and more, and even getting less likely to crash.

At Cortina we regrouped at our hotel - the plan was to have lunch there, and continue to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. We lounged:

We lazed:

We thought about the heat, the climb and the fact we were on holiday:

And you know what? The brave carried on to do the Tre Cime. The beautiful went for iced coffee in Cortina.


(We went here)

Monday 9 July 2012

Italy Part 6: Gods, Liquigas and the Sella Ronda

On the rest day, I took a wander into town in the afternoon. As I was coming back to the hotel I noticed a woman unloading some road bikes from a van. I thought little of it. I barely even looked at what the bikes were. If I had, I might have spotted that they were slightly special.

Pinarello Dogma. Campag Super Record EPS groupset. Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels. Huge saddlebag. That's not a cheap bike. Still, anyone with a saddlebag that big must be a bit "all the gear, no idea". Look at those stem spacers!

There was a matching white and lilac one, and a white one too.

Clearly a family who enjoy cycling. Probably here to bimble up the passes in the sunshine. Based on the rest of the hotel guests, probably German.

At breakfast the next day I noticed this tall kid, about 14 or 15. Skinny. Looked a little lost at the buffet. Again, thought nothing of it. Scoffed some food, went to the room to get kitted up. Wandered down to the lobby with my bags. We had a transfer that day but we'd be riding straight from the van at our destination in the heart of the Dolomites.

Most of the crew were there, beaming. Either they'd had an especially good breakfast or something else was up. Massimo broke the news.

"Miguel Indurain is staying in the hotel. I'm going to find him and ask for a picture!".

I grinned too. Although I'd not got into following professional cycling until about 2006, I'd done my best to catch up on the history. Big Mig, five times Tour de France winner (consecutive years), time trial master and holder of one of the lowest resting heart rates this side of a pachyderm. Someone, with better knowledge than I, had spotted him at breakfast with his wife and son. We dashed to the bike room to take some pictures...

This tour company was good. Ace routes, brilliant hotels, fabulous lunches and now a superstar on the side. We hung around the lobby, taking our time to load the luggage into the vans. His wife appeared in cycling kit. Massimo has a word... it was on - he was happy to meet up and pose for a picture. We started bouncing with excitement.

Miguel appeared, also in cycling kit. He shook our hands. He chatted (in Italian). He posed with the Bath CC riders, holding a Bath CC jersey. They were very happy with this. Then a picture with all of us.

He's the tall one in the middle, in the black and white. I took a sneaky pic myself.

If you look carefully, and maybe zoom in on his legs, you'll notice something. The next time your shaven legged roadie friends tease you about your hairy legs you can tell them - Big Mig doesn't shave. Big Mig's a real rider.

After all that, what else could the day bring? Well, a two hour drive to start with, made shorter by frantic texting, Facebooking and tweeting. We were off to do the Sella Ronda - three or four passes, known as a ski loop but also famous from the Giro. It's a true circuit and we'd be riding down the first part of the first climb once we'd completed the loop. We started with a 20km downhill/flat to warm up, where we were passed by a couple of Liquigas riders or very good wannabes - full 2012 team kit, bikes, legs and descending skills.

We paused for a snack at our hotel - we were riding past it before the main loop - before setting off to the first pass, Passo Sella - summit at 2214 metres or so.

Once again, a beautiful climb. Tight hairpins through woods led upwards until the trees cleared, leaving magnificent views. Not that I was really paying attention - I thought I'd put some effort in on this one, even managing to stay with Tony for 200 metres when he passed me. A glance at the Garmin showed an unsustainable (for me) 280w so I let him go and eased back a little. Not too much, as I was still passing people all the way up. I'd pay for that later. The view from the top was...

...and the descent, chasing buses and cars, was just as good.

Next, Passo di Gardena, about 2110m. I didn't enjoy that one, due to a combination of being worn out from the morning effort, a full stomach and a lack of carbs. A Torq caffeine gel got me to the top. I was riding with David - he too had smoked himself up the first climb and was set on an easy day. I was happy to help hold him back.

Passo Campologno was a mere 1877m, which then descended to the foot of the final climb of the day. By that time I was just grinding out the pedal strokes, chugging along. No zip, no pizzazz. Tired. Very tired.

Passo Pordoi tops out at 2239m, and I felt every one. There's a memorial to Coppi at the top, not that I noticed. He crested the climb first in three straight Giri, 1947, 48 and 49, again in 52 and once more in 54. He obviously liked it. It's the highest pass in the Dolomites (Stelvio is the Alps) and so it's often the highest point of the Giro. The Cima Coppi prize is now awarded to the first rider over the highest point.

Coppi may have liked the climb, but I loved the descent. Adored it. All those hairpins through the woods that we'd ground up earlier, we now flew down. I was even getting faster - I could just about keep David and Tony in sight. My right hand turns were now almost as good as my left hand turns (almost certainly better because of riding track). At the bottom I may have whooped. I apologise.

That night I had double pasta, and ice cream. I deserved it.

Route here. 88km, 2149m of ascent.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Italy Part 5: Stelvio, take 2

Rest day. Well, kinda. There was no big ride planned for the day as we were staying in the same place - Prato allo Stelvio. As well as being pretty close to Switzerland we were also pretty close to Austria and there was a distinct German feel to the town. The road signs for example, and the other guests in the hotel - all German. We also had the novelty of a bike shop to visit, a hotel with a pool, sauna (naked) and steam room.

Various plans were put together the previous evening, over dinner. The enthusiastic Bath CC were planning to ride up Stelvio, continue down the other side to Bormio, then hang a left to ride up Passo di Gavia. They were then going to come back down to Bormio and probably hitch a lift in the van.

The slightly less enthusiastic people were planning to ride up Stelvio, then either come straight back down or loop the slightly longer way back via Switzerland. I was in this group - at best.

The sensible, recovery minded Phill (who was suffering from a knee twinge) planned to do very little - maybe a flatish ride along the river to Austria.

My personal motivation depended on the weather. I failed to mention that the descent of Stelvio to Prato allo Stelvio the previous day was slightly terrifying. 48 hairpins, fast, steep and soaking wet. Did I say cold? It was so cold my face froze. I really didn't want to be riding in the cold and wet again.

Morning came. Sun, clearish skies with the odd little fluffy cloud bumbling along. Bah. I guess I'd better go out and ride.

Three of the Bath crew (John, Pete and Rob) had set off super-early for their "recovery" ride up Stelvio and Gavia. That left myself, Tony, David, Graham and Christina the guide. Graham, Christina and I set off, expecting to soon be caught by David and Tony.

The "classic" side of the Stelvio has 48 hairpins, handily marked out for you so you can either be motivated or demotivated depending on how you react to "31 hairpins to go" when you are already knackered. I just closed my eyes and concentrated on the next rider to overtake - yes, amazingly, I was overtaking people all the way up. I can't believe there were people who could ride more slowly that I was, but to be fair plenty of them had rucksacks and mountain bikes.

As I climbed higher, the sunshine gave way to cloud. Low cloud. Cloud so low that we were in it. Rain came, visibility dropped to 30 metres and I once again did my trick with the gilet. The lack of visibility didn't bode well for coming back down - this was a really busy road with motorbikes, cars, campervans and trucks  all squeezing past the tortoise-like cyclists. Hmm.

Describing a climb up a mountain that's shrouded in low cloud is difficult. I won't even try.

The summit. Cold again, so straight into the cafe. I actually felt better than the previous day and did my best to warm up with coffee and strudel. Graham was already there, but curiously we'd not been passed by Tony or David. A couple of minutes later Tony appeared, panting like a man who'd just sprinted up a 25km climb. After a few minutes he was able to talk and explained that David had broken a shifter (SRAM - not a good make to break in Italy) and the resulting delay had meant they hadn't started for ages. David was now on Massimo's bike - without David's not-so-secret 11-32 cassette. He wasn't far behind Tony though.

I still wasn't warm, mainly due to being soaking wet. So, I did what any other cycling freak would do in that circumstance and bought my second souvenir jersey of the trip with the excuse of "it'll warm me up". After trying on the pink and black "Cima Coppi/Stelvio" version, and noting the odd cut, I went for the white and black version. Good job, the pink one was the girls cut...

Christina arrived and told us that lunch was ready in the van. We huddled inside and consumed calories, watching the clouds alternately surround us then drift away. There were three options from here.

  • Go with the van to pick the nutters up from Bormio
  • Ride the longer way back via Switzerland
  • Risk the Stelvio descent one more time, in the low cloud
Something came over me, probably a desperation to get back to the hotel. I waited for a break in the clouds, and announced I would head back down the mountain. Tony felt the same and before my bravado could subside I was over the top and accelerating towards hairpin 1. At least I think I was - it was difficult to see.

Call it more confidence, bravery or stupidity, but somehow I was 3 minutes faster down to Prato than the previous day.

Stupidity, I reckon.

Route here. 25km up, 25km down.

Friday 6 July 2012

Italy Part 4b: Slight Return

I mentioned that today would have the theme of "touching greatness".

I was wrong. I've lost a day. Somehow, in all the excitement I forgot the rest day. The rest day consisted of either

  • Climbing Stelvio and Gavia
  • Climbing Stelvio
  • Spinning to Austria and back

To confuse things even further all that will be documented tomorrow. Instead I give you a picture from the first climb of the Stelvio, courtesy of Pete.


Thursday 5 July 2012

Italy Part 4: Stelvio, take 1

After the single climb of the previous day, that eased us into the big mountains, there was something a little more interesting on the plan.

  • Passo Bernina, 2310m
  • Passo something else, 2286m
  • Passo Stelvio, 2758m. That's a bit high.
  • Total distance, 117km
  • Total ascent, 2881m. That's a fair bit of climbing.
  • See the route here!
The day dawned hot. Clear sky, blazing yellow-white thing hanging in the blue. Hot wasn't something I'd experienced this year, as the UK had donated its summer to the USA. Sun cream was carefully applied - factor 15 to arms and legs, factor 30 to the neck upwards. Special attention to the back of the neck, and the ears. Burnt ears aren't much fun.

Bernina was a grind, only enlivened by an oh-so-typical Swiss train. Phill and Christina were held up by it, they claimed. For some crazy reason, the train went through the pass slightly lower than we did. Unfair.

Coming off Bernina was a blast, on the oh-so-typical Swiss tarmac. David and Tony were enjoying it so much they decided to continue down it, instead of turning left towards Livigno. There was a wry smile that passed our lips as we sat down for a mid-morning espresso on the outskirts of the town. They'd have to climb all the way back up - another 800m of climbing or so... 

Rolling out of town it was just getting hotter. Flies were relaxing in the shade. Lizards were wallowing in mud pools. Englishmen were out in the midday sun. Only one thing for it... grupetto.

The grupetto ("little group", I guess) is the pack of riders who trail the main bunch up the big mountain climbs. Although we only had eight on the road, three of us hung back slightly and took it easier up the next ascent. It was almost tolerable. We chatted. We exchanged snack foods. We tried to look Italian and stylish, a tricky exercise to pull off with legs as hairy as ours.

At last, the top. Still sunny, but at 2300m it wasn't hot any more. The wind was getting up and we were cooling rapidly. Lovely view though.

In addition to the view, there was possibly the worlds best cafe/hotel/restaurant - at that moment in time, for us. It did thick hot chocolate.

Even better than that, when we started pointing out the plates of mini-profiteroles, the barman gave us a couple of platefuls. Free. He was also fairly relaxed about charging us for coffees - clearly impressed by our withered, sweaty bodies and minor feats of mountain climbing.

David and Tony still hadn't caught us, but they were on their way. The guides started preparing lunch and as we dived into another picnic we spotted David and Tony on the road... as they plummeted over the top of the pass and started down the other side. Oops. We screamed, shouted, whistled, waved. David noticed and turned back to join us for food, Tony didn't. I think he was enjoying all the extra climbing.

Clearly this was the case - as we descended off the mountain (through some disturbing rain showers) we spotted Tony... coming back up. I was starting to realise why he was so quick. At the bottom of the descent we stripped off all the extra layers we'd put on at the top and considered the final climb of the day - Stelvio. The "easy" side, apparently.

35C. 20km of distance ahead. We were at 1300m, so only 1400m more elevation to gain to the top. How hard could it be?

I started slowly, and got slower. As I got higher, I got colder. I think there was a stretch of about 2km where the temperature was about right. Above that, the wind hit, the rain hit. I demonstrated supreme riding skills by managing to get both of my arms through the correct holes in my gilet without stopping. Obviously I had to stop to zip it up. I'm not Danny MacAskill.

Finally, the top. Cold, raining, cloudy. Hence no pictures of the iconic wiggly road. However:

You'd think they'd clean the stickers off.

Tomorrow - touching greatness.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Italy Part 3: Switzerland

Every trip to the Italian Alps and Dolomites needs to include a jaunt to at least one other country... just because you can. Switzerland is especially good for this because you'll discover that your money doesn't work any more, although given everything is three times the price of Italy that's probably a good thing.

We started our first real riding day as all good rides should - with a ferry ride across a millpond-still lake.

That's the ferry right there. The wobbly thing it's floating on is the lake.

After half an hour or so, which included replacing David's tyre, we arrived on the right hand side of Lake Como. The first 60km or so were flatish, so we let Massimo sit at the front and tow us all along. Well, what else are guides for?

We chugged along in the gradually increasing heat until we reached Chiavenna, which just happened to have the perfect combination of picturesque town square, ice-cold water fountain and shaded cafe. Espresso, Coke and bananas were taken on in preparation for our climb of the day - the Maloja Pass. This started as we left the town and only went one way - up. As it was the first climb with the full group (we now had the foursome from the Bath Cycling Club - Graham, John, Rob and Pete) I felt I'd actually try on this one. I set myself a wattage target with the aim of keeping it constant the whole way up. Soon the Bath CC crew were drifting behind me...

Clearly, it didn't last. I managed about 55 minutes - halfway up - before the sensible side of me reminded the excited puppy side of me that this was the first climb of a long week. I backed off slightly and the inevitable happened, with Bath CC coming past me after half an hour. Darn it.

It got harder at the top - we were now over the border and clearly the Swiss engineers enjoyed a steep switchback or two - so I paced myself to the summit at Maloja. Everyone was relaxing in the sunshine so I lay down on the grass, enjoying the rest right up until the point my leg started to cramp up. Oops. Stretch.

I wasn't the only one with cramp - Phill had suffered in the heat and called for the rescue van - and once we were all back together it was a short downhill spin to lunch, the usual picnic of local meats, cheeses and breads.

Thankfully it was more or less downhill to the hotel too - just past St. Moritz, in the hotel dominated village of Celerina. We hid the bikes in the bike hole, settled in to our rooms and did the normal post-ride activities: posting how awesome we were on Facebook, scraping off the oil marks on our legs and emptying our pockets of energy bar wrappers.

There were two things we had to do that night. Eating was the obvious one, to be followed by watching some football. We were English, our guides Italian, and fate had conspired to schedule England-Italy that night. It was a blessing we'd be watching in neutral Switzerland.

Dinner was pleasant enough although no-one really worked out what the chicken sausage wrapped in leaves was meant to be. It also managed to be almost completely without carbohydrates... a clever trick to play on hungry cyclists. The water was more expensive than the beer, and the cheapest bottle of wine was £50... which we declined.

Watching the football was less pleasant, at least for the English. When it went to extra time most of us made our excuses and left the bar we were in, with only Phill remaining to suffer the Italian celebrations when England lost on penalties.

As revenge, we took the little ring of off Massimo's bike. It was a shame he never used it though.

(I think this should give you the route. And this was yesterday's.)

Monday 2 July 2012

Italy Part 2: The Pilgrimage

Cycling has a spiritual angle. Professional road cycling, with roots in Spain, Italy and France, has a religious one. There are many places that have significance - legendary climbs, memorials to fallen riders, stretches of cobbles and finishing straights. On our first ride of the trip we visited two of these places - the church of Madonna del Ghisallo, and the Muro di Sormano.

We'd arrived on the tour a day early for three reasons. We wanted a more relaxed start to the holiday, to get an extra ride in, and the flights were slightly cheaper. We'd had the relaxed start the day before and on the Saturday morning, as the other guests were sitting cramped in cheap aircraft seats, we kitted up and rolled out of the hotel.

If you ride South out of Bellagio and bear right slightly, you start the Ghisallo climb. This has been mainly used in the Tour of Lombardy, the last "monument" of the road cycling season - also known as the "race of the falling leaves". It's also been used frequently in the Giro d'Italia. The climb is a bit cheeky at the start - 8, 9, 10% - before a short downhill section and then another kick at the end. The steep beginning gave David and Tony a chance to show their climbing skills and they soon dropped me. Thankfully, I'd dropped Phill, so I didn't feel too bad about it.

The Madonna del Ghisallo was an apparition who appeared in medieval times, and the church is dedicated to her. It's a shrine to cycling and cyclists - there is an eternal flame that burns for the fallen, memorabilia from the history of cycling and a daily mass for cyclists too.

The Coppi statue:

There's also a museum of cycling, that was built to house part of the collection of items donated to the church. It's cheaper to get in if you have cycling kit on!

An Eddy Merckx bike
A few pink jerseys...
We paid further respects with coffee and Coke in the cafe, before heading off to our second place of note - the Muro di Sormano. This video gives you an idea of it...

Now, I can't say I wheelied up it... but given there were sections at 25% my front wheel did pop up on occasion.

It was brilliant. More a challenge than a proper climb, it should be on every cyclists to do list. The road was retarmaced after falling into disrepair, and was painted with quotes, time splits and elevations.

At the top we recovered with more coffee and ice cream. We were assured that it was all downhill from here, but you know what guides are like...

Surprisingly, in this case, correct. The descent down to Lake Como was one of the best I've ever experienced. Tight and twisty, through villages and woods, all with the lake in the distance. There were a few pedal strokes to accelerate out of corners but nothing that counted as exercise. The occasional oncoming car added some spice too - it seemed everyone wanted to use both sides of the road that day.

At the bottom we spun along the lakeside before returning to the hotel to meet up with our other four riders. Dinner, beer, wine and ice cream were taken on board to prepare us for the first real day of the tour.