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.