Tuesday 31 December 2013

Bye bye 2013!

Seven hours of 2013 left in my timezone, and as I've taken the day off work I thought I'd use the time wisely and eat muffins, crisps (chips for the U.S.A.ers) and chocolate. I also thought I could use some of that time (between handfuls of crisps) to look back on 2013 and see how I did on the ol' exercise front.

In previous years I've written out the stats - you know, "5 hours of running, 35 hours of country dancing". However, given most young people these days have trouble comprehending the written word and instead need "infographics" I've done some simple graphs for the hard of thinking.

First, time spent doing stuff.

440 hours of exercise in total, mainly road biking. This was almost exactly the same amount of time on the road as last year, but a decent increase in mountain biking. What's pretty clear though is how much I did in 2010, which was my Lands End - John O'Groats year. Running this year - non-existent.

Second, distance.

I had a target for the year of 10000 kilometers, which I managed to smash through about a week ago. 10130 km in total. The increase in mountain biking is almost certainly due to my Sardinia holiday - you can rack up a fair distance in a week.

Third, I set myself some goals at the start of the year.

Ride at least 10,000km: Tick!

Enter at least one 12 hour mountain bike solo: Tick! Although my attempt to insert my handlebars into my chest cavity ended the ride early. I also failed completely to blog about it, but I assure you you can find my name under "DNF" in the 12 Hours of Exposure results.

Haute Route again, complete within the time limit and finish top 40%: Vague Tick! I completely well within the time limits but failed to make the top 40%. I put it down to faster people being there and me not trying particularly hard. Hell, I even tried to enjoy myself.

Do a minimum of three (3) rides that I'd consider stupid and worth blogging about: Well, there was the week of procrastination leading up to a January ride, the review of the Sufferfest Rubber Glove and the Longest Day. So, another tick.

Other highlights of the year were the trip to Paris-Roubaix (not as a rider, but as close as you could get), the three day company organised charity ride from Newbury to Manchester, the training weekend in the Pyrenees with Dangerous Dave and Greasy Dave and the Sardinia week. Looking back, not a bad year.

Next year... no Haute Route this time but I've entered the Tour of Wessex (3 x 100+ mile rides), the 300km Dragon Devil and the 24/12 12 hour MTB solo. Lots of endurance needed so I'd like to see 12,000 kilometers in 2014!

I've got some other exciting plans too, but I'm not going to reveal them here...

Anyway, Happy New Year to you all and I hope that 2014 is a cracker.

Monday 11 November 2013

And Winter Fell

It's 4C, raining, windy, I've been out riding for over two hours, my hands and feet are just starting to chill... and I'm loving it.

Generally, I dislike winter riding. There are exceptions - fresh snow, the odd cold and crisp day - but I spent a whole lot of last winter tucked away in my Pain Cave, battering myself into submission on the turbo trainer.

The Pain Cave isn't a pleasant environment. It's bare, stark, harsh and cold. No-one to distract me, no idle chatter to pass the time, just me, a screen and either Breaking Bad or The Sufferfest. For hours and hours and hours.

For extra suffering I stare at the wall, not the screen
Still, I find this preferable to the British winter. All that drizzle, the grit that gets everywhere, the taste of salt in the air, the crushing inevitability of puncturing whilst slamming into the edge of another water-filled pothole. That's winter to me.

So when I awoke on Saturday, and bounded down the stairs like a Spring lamb on catnip (lambs like catnip too - FACT) to be greeted by my outside thermometer telling me it was cold, the weather forecast telling me it was going to stay cold and the window telling me it was... moist... why did I feel excited? Well, it was a first ride. The first true winter ride.

Every Spring I yearn for the first true shorts and jersey ride. This year it was probably about mid-June given how long it stayed cold for. That makes some kind of sense; riding in the sunshine is glorious. But also, variety comes into it. I get to dig out the white disco slippers, the obscenely tight lycra and the tiny gloves. I get to wear the dark sunglasses. I get to start on my tan lines.

Strangely, this variety had overcome my hate of the winter. New toasty neoprene gloves. My favourite softshell. The winter boots that last year, finally, kept my feet warm after many years of icy toes. I revelled in the act of dressing - shorts, tights, merino base, woolly socks, boots, softshell, hat, gloves, helmet, glasses. I choose my bike with glee - the Kaffenback, the heavy steel mudguarded tank. I met the wind and the rain head on, screaming defiance.

At one point, about 90 minutes into the ride, I found myself grinning as I rode. I think I scared some drivers. I certainly surprised some other cyclists as I met their misery with my joy. My mind was full of food thoughts as I pondered what I could eat for recovery. Hot rice pudding? Porridge? Toasted malt loaf? Tea? Coffee? Thick hot chocolate? I don't do that in the summer.

At home I peeled off my sodden outerwear and hung my trophies on the radiator to dry.

I showered, ate (porridge!) and stretched, content in the warm glow of a ride well done.

Well, that's my winter fun over for another year. Back to the misery.

Monday 21 October 2013

Three days as a professional cyclist

About eight weeks ago I got an offer I really, really couldn't refuse.

"Would you like to spend three days riding your bike? Working days? Paid working days?"

Um... yeah... What's the catch?

"100 miles a day for three days!"

Well, sure. That's not too much of a stretch.

"Fully supported, catered, good hotels, transport back from the finish?"

I said yes didn't I?

"In October. It'll almost certainly be terrible conditions. Wind, rain, fog, cold."


"Free jersey!"


"And you can use it as a way of raising money for your favourite charity and publicising the very excellent JustTextGiving service!"

Double yay! (I apologise at this point for the use of "yay" in what's generally a vaguely intelligent blog. However I feel that it's justified this time to represent how excited I was by this opportunity.)

Some background. The company I work for supports a service that allows small charities and members of the public to take donations in the form of a text message from a mobile phone. So if you want to raise money for say, Air Ambulance, and you're doing a bike ride from Newbury to Manchester you can set up a personal code that will allow people to donate to your cause simply by sending a text - with the donation being paid via their mobile phone bill or prepaid account.

Like this.

UK Mobiles Only 
For the past two years we've been encouraged to set up a personal JustGiving page and ask people to use the text donation service - with the incentive of a company donation of £100 if we manage to raise £100 through text donations. Last year people did all kind of crazy things but there wasn't much organised to help people who couldn't really think of anything to do.

This year, some bright spark came up with the idea of the Big Bike Challenge - a company organised ride with options for all abilities - 30 miles, 100 miles or 300 miles. It would take in five company locations: Newbury, Bracknell, Newark, Stoke and Manchester. Three hundred people signed up to the challenge, including me.

I may have been first to sign up. Top 5 at least.

There were training plans published, encouraging emails, chatter on the internal forum and a general frisson of excitement leading up to last Wednesday. For me, and about 80 others, we had 300 miles ahead. For more normal people, a single ride of 30ish miles or 100 miles. Our office was buzzing with riders resplendent in their new (free) jerseys, slightly petrified at the apocalyptic weather conditions that had appeared that morning. However, we were distracted from our fear by the addition of Formula 1 driver Jenson Button.

Jenson was meant to be riding but a slight hand injury meant he could only wave us off. Quite frankly if he'd sacked off due to the weather we wouldn't have minded, it being mid-season and everything.

Gilets, arm-warmers and jackets were pulled on, Buffs buffed and we set off, with us 300 milers getting the honour of leading the ride out. The usual sportive activities took place, with most people pretending that they weren't trying to get to the front and some sizing up of everyone around. The first section, 30 miles to Bracknell, was mainly memorable for my inner turmoil regarding whether I should put on my rain jacket.

I hate rain jackets. It has to be really, really, really wet for me to put one on. I'll suffer in a gilet and arm-warmers for a long time before submitting. By that time I'll normally be so cold that I'll struggle to get it on and will spend the rest of the ride cursing my idiocy.

Thankfully it was only really, really wet.

We whizzed through the first feed station at Bracknell, stopping only for a flapjack and a whizz, and cracked on. Our little group was close to the front - there were only two people ahead - and we set a perfect pace to stay exactly under the worst of the rain. Exiting Marlow we spotted the ex-leading pair fixing a puncture and after pausing momentarily to check they weren't seriously in trouble we chugged up the only climb worthy of the name that day.

We were now down to three, and I just about hung on to the other two. Time passed. Legs burnt. Lungs exploded. Cycling in the rain isn't very exciting to write about.

The finish! We were greeted by the ever cheerful support team and were directed to the showers, coffee and cake that were provided. Sod that. There was a bar.

Guinness is a recovery drink
Others rolled in, with tales of suffering and daring-do. As is often the case with these events it was much tougher for the more casual riders - some were out 9-10 hours and had really done their sponsors proud. Punctures everywhere, bruised bums, aching knees and the odd minor crash.

Bus, hotel, showers, all you can eat buffet and a couple of pints. Two days to go.

Friday 11 October 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part... oh, I forget. The last one anyway.

And lo, it came to pass. The final stage. The last time I would drag myself up at some ungodly hour, wolf down whatever the hotel thought of as breakfast, go through my eleven stage kit routine and ride off praying that I wouldn't crash into a Frenchman. Or worse, a triathlete.

This stage had another bus ride to the start so I was careful not to drink too much at breakfast in order to avoid the bladder clenching of stage one. The bus also kept us warm and dry... for the day had brought proper, rainy rain. All through the ride people were looking nervously out the windows hoping for one of two things.

  • More rain, thunder and lightning. This would mean that the first climb would be cancelled and we'd be riding a flat, shortened stage.
  • Less rain, clear skies and a sudden increase in temperature. This would make the day far more pleasant.
As it was, things stayed about the same. Quite rainy with occasional breaks. We heard that the first climb was staying in and that rain jackets we recommended. Ah well, at least we British were well prepared and equipped for the conditions. No plastic bags taped on the feet for us.

We started. The heavens opened. We grimaced. We hit the final categorised climb of the week - the Col d'Ahusquy. The stats don't do it justice, 14km long at an average of 5.6%. All I know was it was damp, drizzly, cloudy, steep in sections and seemed to go on for ever. No-one seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the fact that no-one knew where the top was didn't help. The feed station was at a minor summit - everyone thought it was the top - with a good few km to go after it. Misery.

And after misery and rain, came enjoyment and gain (OK, I'm struggling for a rhyme here). We bimbled the neutral descent (rough, wet, broken tarmac and poor visibility) and took a break at the bottom to form a group. I was with Darren, Dave B and Kirsty at this point and we were soon joined by a few others all riding with the intention of keeping the group together.

It's odd how certain sections become highlights, and the last 50km of rolling country to the timed finish of Camo-les-Bains was one of them. We worked for each other, we kept the pace sustainable for everyone and the strong took care of the weak. I'm almost tearing up at the thought of it. Much of this was due to our road captain, "Spartacus", who was one of the crazies who'd also done the Haute Route Alps a couple of weeks earlier. He told us when to ease back, kept the turns short and generally marshalled us to the finish. Only in the last few hundred metres did anyone try and drop the others but by then the objective had been achieved - we'd all finished.

We got our medals, finisher polo shirts and engaged in a round of hearty handshakes, hugs and photographs. Job done.


You see, a couple of tasks remained. Getting fed in the piss-ant town of C-l-B and getting to the coast for the official event finish. C-l-B simply couldn't cope with the demand and we were once again treated to bar and cafe owners getting angry at having customers to serve. How dare we want to give them money in exchange for food and drink. Bastards, the lot of us.

The ride from C-l-B to the event finish at Biarritz Anglet was just that little bit too long and little bit too rolling to be enjoyable. It took about and hour and a half, which when you've mentally completed riding is not what you want. The finish line was outside the ice rink on some windswept peninsula of Anglet (not Biarritz... apparently things were changed late on in the planning) with a few bemused locals out walking their dogs looking on. This didn't really have the same feeling as rolling down Les Promenade des Anglais in Nice, with full police escort and 100's of tourists taking photos. To be honest, it was underwhelming and a massive anti-climax.

I was a bit grumpy by this point and just wanted to get to the hotel.

I stayed briefly for a team photo, then used the navigation feature on my Garmin (first time ever!) to route us the 5km to our hotel.

At the hotel, my grump left me. Party time!

One thing I can say about the Haute Route people - they can put on a good after-party. It was here.

Posh hotel/casino
And had a free bar.

Beer from the beer sponsor, naturally
And even had a Greg LeMond to entertain us.

He's a very very nice man
What more do you need?

Sunday 6 October 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 7: It's the little differences

Stage 6 was slightly different to the others as we were now nearing the edge of the mountains and actually included a long, rolling section. One big climb (Aubisque from the Soler side), 100km, 2200m of climbing.

We also had a difference in the weather - the top half of Soler/Aubisque was under low cloud, with very poor visibility. There was a sensible, late decision to neutralise the descent, the only issue being that the first 100 or so people over the top didn't know this - the cloud closed in during the morning and the change was made during the stage. This meant that some people raced the downhill and first flat section whilst other (like me) could take some time to recover.

Still, those not in the top 100 probably needed the recovery more.

Anyway, once racing started again on the rolling section I managed to pick up a group of about 15 people (by virtue of waiting until they caught me up). It all got a little fighty from that point. The route was like Southern England - rolling shortish hills, sharp little punchy climbs, even some UK standard terrible tarmac. It was a case of "sprint up the climb", "recover for a minute", "sprint up the climb", "get spat out the back", "chase back on", "get dropped again".

Yep, I was dropped. 20km or so to go, but at least I had a handy Frenchman who'd also been dropped. His mates were in the group - I heard him shouting at them ("don't leave me you bastards!", probably). We were sensible enough to work together the whole way to the finish, swapping turns at the front every minute or so. I quite enjoyed it, through the taste of blood and tear-soaked eyes.

We finished in Pau - a city of 85,000 people. It had shops, buses, bars, humanity! I think this was the main difference between the Alps last year and the Pyrenees event. In the Alps we were staying mainly in out of season ski villages. Very few shops, bars, restaurants. Getting fed in the evening was a major challenge that we barely scraped through.

In the Pyrenees we stayed in little towns. This was mainly positive - the afternoons and evenings could be spent chilling out watching the Vuelta in a bar, hunting for ice cream or exploring a series of fascinating museums and art galleries. Eating every night was simple. Wander around the town. Read some menus. Pick a restaurant. They all had food, staff and even special "cyclist" deals.

The possible downside was that we often finished the timed stages either at the top of a nearby mountain, or some distance out of town. Almost every stage had an untimed section at the end - either rolling down the mountain we'd just raced up, or a gentle 10km of flat. For me this was a positive. Rather than a sudden transition from maximum effort to stopped completely there was the chance to cool down with a gentle 30-60 minutes of riding.

So, Pau. That evening we dined on giant burgers, beer, desserts and cognac. The end was in sight. We'd also found out that due to bad weather the organisers had decided to change the route of the final stage - thunderstorms were predicted. The first big climb was cut and there was a chance the second (and final) one could go as well.

Fingers crossed. For the shorter route, obviously.

Wednesday 25 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 6: How to ruin a rest day

After four stages, the fourth one being a monster, it was definitely time for some recovery. This started on the evening after stage four with pizza, beer and ice cream, and the next morning even allowed a lie in. This was because stage 5 was as close to a rest day as the Haute Route got - a mountain time trial up a HC climb: Hautacam.

I'd like to show you the stage profile using the official graphic, but they seem to have disappeared from the Haute Route site - so instead you get to see the full glory of my Garmin trace.

It goes up.
That's about 16km long with around 1000m of ascent.

There are a couple of ways to treat this - if you are racing the event, or interested in how fast you can ride up a mountain, you can go what commonly known as "full gas". If you want to recover a little from the previous night's pizza, beer and ice cream you can go "economy gas". Guess which I did?

Economy gas was still hard work though - on the very odd occasion I overtook other riders and they spoke to me my response was a mixture of panting, whimpering and dribbling. Imagine an overheating St Bernard. That was me.

At the top I stayed to watch people come in who'd put far more effort into it - there was the odd vomit on the line, some mild collapsing but thankfully no need for medical attention. It was warm and sunny and the view was stunning.

Check out the disco slippers
It was even pretty good without my legs.

Eventually I ran out of excuses for sitting in the sun and had to ride back down the mountain with Darren, just as the leaders were coming up. We waved to the people we knew - for some reason they failed to wave back through their tears of pain - and were soon back at the event village. We ate, we did some light shopping and ambled back to the holiday camp. The original plan was to make use of their pool and waterslides but somehow even that seemed like too much trouble. Sun bathing and sleeping were just about all we could manage to do.

So, five days of riding in glorious sunshine... and two stages left.

What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday 22 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 5: Control the force, you must.

(Cue ominous music)

Slightly scary voice: "Peyresourde, 939 metres of elevation gain"
Slightly scary voice: "Col d'Azet, 7.5km at an average of 8.2%"
Scary voice: "Col d'Aspin, nearly 800 metres of gain"
Very scary voice, the kind of voice that is normally threatening to kill you: "Tourmalet. The giant of the Pyrenees. 17km, 1277 metres of gain, summit at 2117 metres..."
Slightly scary voice: "Each by themselves a challenge. All in one day... suffering like you've never suffered."
Very very scary voice: "And we've run out of chocolate brioche for the feed stops"

Not your usual evening briefing. They do like a bit of drama on this event.

Honestly, how hard could it be? I've done Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde before, admittedly with a long lunch and an overnight stop breaking them up. I can ride slowly, for ages. All I need is control, pacing and eating.

Let's have a look at the route.

Five feed stops!
And the stage profile.

I like the little cyclist going up Tourmalet
Not much flat in that one is there? Due to safety reasons there were a couple of neutralised sections - the Col d'Azet descent (rough, narrow, sheep) and the Tourmalet descent (road washed away by terrible floods). This meant that we could have a bit of a rest at the top of the Azet (after crossing the timing mat) and the timed stage ended at 99km. Still, 4000m of climbing wasn't to be taken lightly.

My strategy for this stage was to ride it like a 12 hour mountain bike race - and I don't mean quitting after three-quarters of the time... Essentially, keep my heat rate down, don't get excited and don't chase people up hills. The trace from my Garmin surprised me when I uploaded it.

Red line is the heart rate, green line the elevation. You can see I stopped recording at the top of the Tourmalet, and you can see me taking it easy between the top of the Azet and the bottom of Aspin - the untimed section. What you might be able to make out is my heart rate didn't get above 140. That's mad. The average was 125. I'd like to say that I was riding within myself and felt fresh as a daisy at the end.


The reason that my heart rate didn't get above 140 was mainly because it really, really didn't want to. My legs didn't want to go faster, my whole body was washed out, eroded and telling me that the speed limiter had been set and nothing was going to break it. I ground my way up Aspin and Tourmalet, legs barely turning over. I even let a funnily dressed German overtake me in the last hundred metres.

At the top, relief and photos.

Beat the giant silver man
Oh, and chocolate brioche. They'd managed to source some more.

All that remained was 33km to Argeles-Gazost. The Tourmalet descent was astonishing, in that when I rode up it a couple of years previously there was a road and villages along the way. Huge amounts of it was gone, to be replaced with vast gorges where the flooding river had ripped out everything man-made. We rolled along gently, open mouthed at the destruction. It was incredible that the road was open - a huge amount of work must have been done very quickly to make it passable and there was still an enormous amount to do.

Finally, we reached the town. There was some initial confusion as the official finish was in a different location to the food and massages, and our holiday camp accommodation was a short ride away too. It was great when we got there though, as every pair of people had their own little wooden cabin, with a sun deck too.

Only one thing for it. Washing!

Friday 20 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 4: Cold, hot, hurty.

Stage 4 brought a few new challenges.

  • In the morning, it would be cold, cold, cold.
  • In the day, it would be hot, hot, hot.
  • During the stage, we would ride through Luchon twice - which is where our overnight stay was
There was also the usual challenge, this time 120km with 3300m (ish) of climbing. Col de Portillon, Port de Bales and Superbagneres.

You can see from the map that we passed through Luchon after Col de Portillon, before looping round to climb Port de Bales, back to Luchon and up to the finish at Superbag (as it swiftly became known).

Tempting to hide in Luchon

See that downhill bit at the start?
We had a 7:30am stage start, so assembled from 7am. It was mildly chilly as we stood around, although some had arm-warmers, jackets, thicker gloves. I had a light gilet. There was a 14km downhill before the first climb which was controlled and untimed - so pretty much freewheeling for half an hour. There is a simple sum to do here.

(Cold (9C) - windchill (30kph) + effort (0, freewheeling) + extra clothing (light gilet)) x 30 minutes.

The answer? I couldn't feel my hands, feet or face and my teeth were chattering like this.

We were almost thankful for the first climb to begin. Happily it was one of the best of the trip - I'd done it from the other direction a couple of years ago and I remembered it was tight, twisty and not too tough. The descent was a real rush, and I managed to overtake a fair number of people, with an older Frenchman hanging on my back wheel. When we got to the valley he even gave my descending skills a "Tres bon!" and a thumbs up. Either that or he liked my bottom.
That was during the first pass through Luchon. I hooked up with Darren, Kirsty and a few others and we had a good group working through the valley until the start of Port de Bales. I can't say I enjoyed PdB, but at least it was pretty - lush woodland, rocky outcrops, stunningly quiet roads only interrupted by the curses of cyclists wishing they'd fitted that 12-32 cassette on the back.

Or was that just me?

I can't remember the descent, I do remember coming back through Luchon again (and deciding that I should really have hidden in a cafe for two hours)

And then the climb to Superbag. By now the temperature was in the 30's and no-one was looking chirpy. The climb was a real drag - it went on and on and on with no noticeable let up in steepness. I remember a feed stop, the American/Finnish couple on Orbeas (go team Orca!) and then the final few kilometres where the trees fell back and you could see the top and it wasn't getting any nearer... Oh, that last km, still at 10% or so... and then the ramp to the finish line, seeing Phill taking a picture and Darren leaning against the railing.

Relax. That. Was. Tough.

We took our time at the top. Nic arrived, and she had the presence of mind to suggest some photos on the way back down (yes, another ride down to a town at the end of a stage).

Which is why I have this fantastic picture.

The bike must be very, very light

Luchon was another great place (note - can these towns be moved to the Haute Route Alps?). We'd had some tips from the locals and somehow ended up in the bistro they recommended. After a hard day, with another hard one to follow, we had to be very careful what we ate and drank.

Meat sticks and beer people, meat sticks and beer.

Thursday 19 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 3: Into the swing

After the first, shortened stage, stage two was more in the classic mold. Get up early, wolf down some breakfast, get kitted up, get on the bike, ride for 5-6 hours, recover, sleep, repeat.

The route for stage two went something like this.

Wiggly 120km line
And the uppy-downy view went like this.

Up, down, flat, up, down, up.
As usual, the first climb was cycled with a little more zip than was sensible. We were riding with Kirsty, who was representing A Quick Release, the most excellent mountain bike holiday, coaching, guiding and racing company. Darren and I know Kate and Ian who run AQR, and Darren had been told to look out for Kirsty (and Matt) at the event. It didn't take long as I spotted them at the start of the second stage in their very obvious team kit. It turned out that Darren and Kirsty rode at pretty much the same pace for the whole week, and I was just about able to keep up when I was feeling sprightly.

My main memory of the climb was Darren attempting to injure me again - after his success in the velodrome and at the UK 12 hour championships he thought he'd try for a hat trick. This time his approach was to drop a bottle in front of me, get Kirsty to run it over and ping it into my path...

Ha! Missed me. Clearly that plan was too complex to succeed and it resulted in Darren having to ride back down the mountain for a hundred metres before he could retrieve the escaping bottle.

The second climb was, quite frankly, a bitch. Steep, mildly desolate and with a vicious headwind. I did all I could to try and reign Darren's excitement in, telling him that he had to conserve energy for the week. My energy, obviously, because I needed someone to ride in front of me in the wind.

I told him to go ahead for the last climb to Plan de Beret, and sucked down a caffeine gel myself. The energy conservation must have work because I actually felt (whisper it...) quite good. I even overtook a couple of people, something that never happened on a final climb last year.

As it was a mountain top finish, and as it was the Pyrenees, that meant just one thing - a ride back down the mountain to the nearest town, in this case Vielha. It was close to 30km more riding but as it was pretty much downhill it actually served as a decent warm down.

Vielha was a lovely little town, and we were in a hotel right in the centre. Once again we struck lucky with a restaurant, finding a three course menu with wine for only 12 Euros. This was after a post-stage recovery session involving beer, churros, hot chocolate, ice cream and watching the Vuelta.

We were getting the hang of this Haute Route thing. Roll on stage 3.

Sunday 15 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 2: Today, we ride

After the shuffling of bikes and bags the previous day, it was a relief to have a simple schedule. Get up, get breakfast, get the day bag packed with post-ride gear, get most bike kit on, put bike shoes/gloves/helmet/glasses/GPS in the day bag, put on something for the bus ride, pack the main bag, take it down to reception, check-in with the bus monitors, get on the bus.


Oh no, not today. Although the race officially started in Barcelona, it actually started in Solsona. This was a good hour and a half bus ride away, and it meant that the normal routine of leave hotel, get on bike and ride was a little disrupted. We'd planned ahead for the bus journey, packing extra drink and snacks to eat on the way, but we'd failed to take account of Jon's excitement - he spent most of the trip bouncing up and down in his seat, desperate for a wee. We should have brought an empty bottle.

At Solsona we disembarked, collected our bikes (which had come by truck), suited up and then did what everyone does before a big race. Found a place for some cool pictures.

Rule 80: http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/#80
Rested, excited and slightly nervous, the tension built. Greg LeMond was led to the front of the start lane - he was riding the first stage - the music got louder, the start hooter went off.... and we crept forward at about 2 kph. Start, stop, clip, unclip. We did a ceremonial lap of the town, exiting through a tiny medieval gate, and we were properly off.

It was a short stage to start things off - and by cunningly stealing pictures from the official Haute Route site I can show you. 

Click for biggerer

The first three climbs were really one moderate one, with three little peaks on the way. On a stage race it's important to pace yourself for the week so obviously we rode far harder than we should have, feeling great, legs all zingy. When you haven't really done much for a week it's almost impossible to not take advantage of that fresh feeling.

I can't remember much of the ride - there was some work in a group in the valley, Darren and I kept together for the whole time - but the descents were fun. Rough broken tarmac, steep sections, hairpins. It was like mountain biking on a road bike and we even managed to overtake a few people. I was definitely ahead of the curve on the downy bits, and probably behind the curve on the uppy bits.

At the finish I slipped back into routine - recovery drink, riders' meal, stretch, find the others, chat. We rode to our hotel, showered, relaxed. Dinner was at the hotel - we'd avoided the mistakes of last year and pre-booked - and we even managed to entice a few other people to join our little group. Dinner is always more fun with more people.

Oh, one other change from last year - we were on the recovery beer from day one. Marginal gains, it's all about the marginal gains.

Thursday 12 September 2013

The Haute Route Diaries Part 1: Logistics, logistics, logistics

Travelling with bicycles can be a wonderful thing. When they are in bags, have to get to an airport, on a plane, to a hotel, to another hotel and onto a truck it's less wonderful.

Logistics Part 1 - Get everything onto the right plane
The Haute Route Pyrenees started in Barcelona. We started in Newbury, England. Thankfully our flight wasn't too early so I was picked up by Darren and Becky at 6.45am. Part one of our logistics relied on two full bike bags, two big luggage bags, two small rucksacks and three people all fitting into one Audi A6 estate. Astonishingly we pulled this trick off with relative ease and we were soon on the road. Check-in went well, the other members of our party all turned up and we even managed to meet a few more HR riders in the departure lounge.

Part 1: Tick.

Logistics Part 2 - Get everything to the first night hotel
Arriving at strange airports, in strange countries, with six people, six bikes, six big luggage bags and six small rucksacks could have been hell. No taxis, chaotic buses, language issues, stampeding rhinos. None of these happened as we'd actually planned ahead, and booked two giant taxi vans to take us into town. We picked up our bags/bikes/rucksacks, sauntered into arrivals to be met by our drivers. They organised us, stuffed all the bags in one van and all the people in the other and whisked us to the delightful Husa Illa.

We did fill reception though.

And we noticed that we could have cut down on our luggage lugging by using the hotel bikes.

Plenty of room for snacks
The rooms were even big enough for bike assembly.

Darren inflates his frame
Part 2: Tick

Logistics Part 3 - Get empty bags, assembled bikes and people across town with the minimum of taxis

The next day we had more of a challenge. We were the other side of town to the event registration and village - about 7km. We had a few things to do.

  • Get the assembled, working bikes into the bike part of the event village, where they'd be safety checked before being trucked to the start of the first stage.
  • Get empty bike bags to the event village, where they'd be taken away to be returned at the end of the race.
  • Get empty luggage to the event village, stuffed into the bike bags.
  • Get us to the event village.
  • Register for the event and pick up kit, official luggage, day bags, freebies
  • Attend the pre-race briefing and paella party
  • Get back to our hotel with official luggage, day bags and freebies, and pack our stuff into the official luggage.
The movement of us, bikes and empty luggage to the event village was like a version of the chicken/fox/farmer problem. We wanted to use as few taxis as possible and we didn't want to have to arrange any big vans. After some thinking we came up with a plan.
  • Send Darren and I, riding our bikes, to the event village.
  • Get Phill and Jon to book a single taxi, and load all the empty bags onto it... with no people.
  • Give the taxi driver clear instructions as to the destination, and make sure he isn't paid until he gets there.
  • Phill and Jon then ride their bikes to the event village.
  • Darren and I meet the taxi driver and unload the bags, before paying him.
Genius huh? It worked like a charm, with everything ending up at the right location and only one taxi needed!

Bike bags and empty luggage were handed in.

Bikes were checked and racked for loading onto the Norbert Dentressangle truck.

Orbea waits with Cervelos
And after registration we went for the first of several carb-loading beers.

Drink of athletes
Logistics Part 3: Tick.

The whole process was exhausting. At least we could spend the next day relaxing, riding bikes up mountains for a few hours.

Sunday 25 August 2013

So here I go again...

...on my owe-oo-own...

So sang labradoodle-haired rocker David Coverdale. Except this time, going again on the Haute Route, I'm not on my owe-oo-own. This time I'm going with lots of people.

There's the LEJOG (Land's End to John O'Groats) crew from 2010. That's Darren, Jon, Phill, Dave and the special additions of Sarah and Andrew. Together we are "Team Tastic"

Then there's most of Team Infrared from last year's Haute Route. That's Tony, John and David (I don't think Bernard is doing this year). They're not special enough for Team Tastic, so they've formed their own team: "Pitpass Chainreaction Cycles Elmer the Elephant". They've also roped in a few more people for a serious assault on the overall team prize.

Then there will be all the random people who I met last year on the road - hopefully they'll have the same names on their numbers so I can recognise them.

I'm feeling pretty relaxed about the whole thing, especially compared to last year. Having done it once I'm over a couple of mental barriers - firstly "can I do it", and secondly "I don't want to fail for a random reason". As I ticked the event off last year random failure will be just one of those things, rather than a soul-crushing disappointment.

Of course this year the route is different. I've made some handy cut-out-and-stick notes on each stage.

You get the idea. I'm also about the same fitness as last year but this time I'm almost 8lbs lighter. I clearly find it easier to not eat than I do to train harder. I've no idea if it'll make much difference but it can't hurt - plus it'll make my face-stuffing challenge after the race far more exciting.

On the subject of training, good ol' Training Peaks tells me that so far this year I've done

  • 6456 km on the road bikes, in 250 hours.
  • 878 km on the mountain bikes, in 57 hours.
  • 1 hour 16 minutes in the gym. Poor effort there.

So it's a week to go, all the work has been done and I just need to finish packing. I've started though.

And here's the full shot of the energy products - mainly Torq bars (Organic Mango, Pineapple and Ginger), Torq gels (Raspberry Ripple, Banoffee Pie with Guarana), Powerbar Rides (Peanut and Caramel), Torq Recovery (Chocolate Orange), Torq Energy (Orange) and For Goodness Shakes recovery (various flavours, for use on waking up, pre-breakfast).

Sugary goodness
I just hope I can resist eating them all before the actual race.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Cor, it's been a bit quiet on here

Wow, that was a bit of a break. For some reason the urge to write has been missing, and to tell you the truth I'm not really sure it's back. I've still been doing the same things but I don't feel the need to tell the world about them.

So, time to tell the world.

My last post was back in June, when I did a longest day ride. Since then I've done a few things that in previous years I'd have written about.
  • A long weekend training in the Pyrenees, with 42C heat, a couple of H.C. climbs, fabulous food, swimming in cycling shorts, the world's worst cheese and ham toastie, a kitten, a minor bonk riding up a climb that almost had me rolling over the edge whilst trying to eat a gel, an astonishing thunderstorm, discovering the secret tunnel in Heathrow terminal 5 and learning that my new bike shoes don't cause me immense pain whilst riding in hot weather. Which is nice.
  • Buying a new frame at a massive discount and turning it into a very posh "winter" road bike that's probably lighter than my summer road bike.
  • Doing some gentle early morning rides with a group from work, including a few newbies.
  • Nearly, nearly dropping Jon on a short climb. Except I didn't.
  • Training, lots and lots and lots of training.
So rather than writing, here are some images.

Bespoked, our hosts in France.
Bikes, poised.
Frame, naked.
Cake, unpurchased,
Dangerous Dave, our Pyrenees guide.
Lola the kitten, who turned out to be a boy.
Oh, I mentioned training. Two weeks to go until stage 1 of the Haute Route Pyrenees. Gulp.

Saturday 22 June 2013

The Longest Day = Do something silly

For several years I've had a hankering to do a "Longest Day" ride on June 21st, the Summer Solstice. I normally remember this around June 22nd so it's never actually happened. This year I somehow thought of it a good four days before the day so I had a fair chance of the ride taking place.

In my imagination I wanted a clear, warm sunny evening, an off-road ride where I'd be somewhere high up as the sun set. I could start after work - maybe about 6pm - and ride through sunset to do some real Summer night riding. There would be clear skies and a bright moon and that long lustrous twilight that you only get as a golden sun dips below the horizon.

Wow. Poetic. I'd also need another idiot to join me.

"Hey Darren, fancy a long ride after work on Friday? Oh, you're flying back from San Francisco that afternoon? Ah. OK, sure".

That was a yes then. The plan was set. All that needed to happen was good weather, flights to be on time and both of us still having the motivation to ride for four hours after long tiring days. Of course, the weather was the main risk - we've not been blessed with summer the past few years so the chances of that were slim.

Thursday, I checked the forecast. Warmish, maybe showers, maybe sun, maybe cloud. These weathermen like to hedge their bets. The one promising sign was the wind - from the West. My planned route took us out due East before looping back. A tailwind blowing us home would be most excellent.

Friday, I checked my email. Something had arrived overnight from Darren in the USA. He was just boarding the plane and still up for the ride. Every better news was the forecast had clarified, and clarified in a good way. 18C, mainly sunny with a magical tailwind.

Friday, 2pm. Darren was off the plane, and still keen to ride. Jet lag? Where we were going, we don't need jet lag.

Friday, 6pm. "Is Darren coming out to play?"

Of course, Darren was still doing work calls. There was twenty minutes of getting changed, filling bottles, fitting lights and generalised faffing and finally we were off.

The first half of the ride was only memorable in that it seemed to go on for ages. Riding mountain bikes on the road into a headwind for 35km doesn't excite me. At least Darren let me go in front for most of it, he's told me that the person riding in the wind gets extra oxygen and therefore it's easier for them. Thanks Darren!

After 90 minutes or so we reached the turn - the junction with the Ridgeway. Known as "Britains oldest road" it's been in use for over 5000 years. Hopefully it would hold out for another three hours. At the trail we started on the photos. I took one of Darren...

...as he took one of me.

It was that kind of evening. We started riding and soon discovered that the ground was bone dry, and as it is chalk based, it was like riding on concrete. The wind caught us and we were rolling along at an easy 18 mph. Uphill. We stopped for pictures.

And sometimes didn't stop for pictures.

We stopped for snacks, and kept one eye on the sun.

By 9.15pm we were 60km into the ride and there were distinct signs of orange around. Time for more pictures.

Sleeping bike
Magazine cover star
Purple grass
 We were even being followed by the shadow bikers. Always a good sign.

Right hand one looks cool.
Right, pictures done. 20km to go, and probably an hour of riding. Time to get going again. We hammered along as fast as our tired legs could take us, losing height as we dropped off the ridge.The trail turned from wide and open to narrow, overgrown and rutted. Concentrate, concentrate was our mantra as we balanced speed against the need to stay on target, in the eight inch wide channel. Now the sun was down we fired up the lights as we entered the trees, roots casting shadows like pythons, dips in the trail deepening in the gloom. By now, Darren was feeling the effects of being awake for 30 hours or so and was starting to bounce off the sides of the track. Not far now... only a few more kms.

Glorious road. Rear lights on, we could relax slightly. Talk turned to recovery drinks. Cider in particular.

10.30pm. Back at Darren's house. Four hours including stops, 80km.