Category Archives: Training

Five…

After a great effort from Charlotte, TRAT Race Director, we’ve got the full complement of eight riders again – the new additions being Phil, brother of Liz who is already riding (bit of a family affair as their father is going to be our chef for the trip too!) and another bloke called Rauri – welcome on board to both of them. Those extra two riders make a lot of difference in a group, believe me – from my Saturday morning Richmond Park rides I have got used to riding in groups of about 8-12, if people drop off the back it becomes noticeably more work as the group shrinks. Eight is a good number, so I’m both happy and grateful.

My bike is now ready for TRAT, so hopefully so am I. I got it back from the shop and all of the various noises and creaks that I’m too incompetent to identify (or fix) have now gone. This is doubly good, as well as the tune-up reducing wear on the components which weren’t in best order, I won’t be annoying the hell out of everyone else on the ride having to listen to the various rattles, creaks and squeaks coming from my bike (they will still have to put up with annoying noises coming from me though).

Yesterday lunchtime I picked up various castors and fixings in order to sort out my bike box, will hopefully bodge those on ok tonight (this isn’t for TRAT, it’s for the Marmotte but I won’t have much time once I get back to sort those out).

Yesterday evening I got interviewed (over the phone) by the Kingston Guardian, so first thing on Wednesday morning they expect me in armour, on a bicycle for a photocall! I hope I got across the key points in the interview about TRAT and how the funding is used. They also seemed to like the Medieval Fight Club idea and what Andy and I do with it – hopefully it will lead to further interest in our show.

Recent new donations have tipped me over the half way point towards my fundraising total; with money pledged offline the total is now just over the £1,000 mark which is brilliant, thank you very much once again to all concerned.

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2008 JoGLE: Part One

TRAT isn’t the first time that I have set out to ride the length of the UK, it will just be the most challenging (and short of riding the same distance on a unicycle, wearing full armour and juggling weasels, I’m not sure that I’ll ever take on a ride this tough again).

I did manage the distance before, riding from John o’ Groats to Land’s End during late winter/early spring of 2008.

This is my account of setting off and the first few days of riding:

My plan was to set off for Thurso by train (via the Caledonian Sleeper to Inverness), then ride the just over 20 miles to John o’ Groats in preparation of setting off south the following day.

My planned itinerary was as follows:

March 22nd: John o’ Groats to Inverness (120 miles)
March 23rd: Inverness to Glencoe (81 miles)
March 24th: Glencoe to Stirling, via Loch Lomond (96 miles)
March 25th: Stirling to Hamilton, via the Forth Bridge and the Falkirk Wheel (65 miles)
March 26th: Hamilton to Thornhill (50 miles)
March 27th: Thornhill to Lancaster, via the Lake District (125 miles)
March 28th: Lancaster to Altrincham (62 miles)
March 29th: Altrincham to Shifnal (60 miles)
March 30th: Shifnal to Hereford (57 miles)
March 31st: Rest day!
April 1st: Hereford to Bristol (62 miles)
April 2nd: Bristol to Plymouth, via Dartmoor (119 miles)
April 3rd: Plymouth to Land’s End, then back to Penzance (105 miles)

Some of those distances are probably a bit odd to anyone who knows those places, I wasn’t riding the most logical straight route as I was diverting here and there to stay with friends and family as much as possible.

The night before the train trip I packed up the bike panniers (Ortlieb roller ones) with a horrendous amount of kit – the two panniers were completely full, so much so that the kit overlapped into a small rucksack. I rationalised it a bit as I didn’t want to wear the rucksack day in, day out on the bike.

The full weight of the panniers, rucksack and contents came to almost exactly 20 kilos, after a bit of work, I got this down to the two panniers only and a weight of 15 kilos.

The weather was predicted as appalling, although having checked it constantly on both the BBC and Metcheck, it appeared to be just about on the right side of possible (based on looking at the locations I planned to be travelling between on each day). The possible exception to this was the for the second day but if I could get out before the predicted heavy snowfall in the Inverness area I might manage to get down south far enough to be in rain and not snow (according to the forecast anyway).

On the plus side, the forecasted wind was in my favour, being at my back for the first few days.

My intention was to be sensible about the weather, reviewing the forecast daily and altering route or distance as necessary. I had a big range of kit with me including spare clothes, waterproofs and a survival bag if things got really squirrelly, also people knew my itinerary and were expecting me to check in.

Just getting to the start was a mission of it’s own – although the UK is a small country it takes a long time to get to either end of it. Taking the sleeper train is definitely the way to travel north (although as I was sitting in a seat rather than a berth it was more Dozer train than Sleeper train.

The train was very busy, with recent snowfalls in the north, a lot of winter sports enthusiasts were off to take advantage. There were a few other cyclists but I was the only end-to-ender as far as I knew.

Gripes about not really sleeping aside, it was a great way to travel, it was good looking up and seeing somewhere new between dozes. Travelling through the Highlands it became clear just how heavy the snowfall had been and many of the passengers had got off by Aviemore, to head for the mountains no doubt.

Following that long trip, the train to Thurso on the Friday morning was also very enjoyable. It follows the coast here and there but heads inland too and is a very scenic trip. You’re also very conscious that it’s a trip that very few people in the UK ever make.

On actually reaching Thurso, the wind was intense (easily up to the predicted 40mph and far beyond that in gusts). So much so that after making it three miles out of town I realised that I was in a lot of trouble – the wind was coming from the north, I was travelling east and was being battered from the side by very powerful winds. I was being pushed into the middle of the road by the gusting and it just wasn’t safe. It probably didn’t help that I had only recently bought the panniers and the only time I had ridden the bike fully laden had been the short ride from Waterloo to Euston station too.

So I stopped at a lonely phone box and got a taxi to take me to John o’ Groats (I hadn’t started the real ride yet so didn’t feel like this was cheating). After checking in to the hotel I went down to John o’ Groats proper – although it was early afternoon/late evening, there was no-one there (and the sign was gone too). The wind was still battering in, driving waves quickly inshore (the Orkney Ferries were cancelled due to the weather conditions.

After a night in the hotel (where I was soundly beaten by locals in a drunken game of pool) I was ready for the big off.

Day One

Just as with ending something like this, the start was a little anti-climatic. It was just me, on my own setting off south.

The first day of riding was hard, for a couple of reasons, weather being one of them, it being my first imperial century since July of the previous year probably didn’t help either. It also being my first day riding with heavy panniers was also a bit of a challenge.

After the first mile I remember thinking, “Right, just need another 1,000 or so of those and we’re sorted”.

A mile later and the driver of a passing car reached out and waved, probably one of the people who I had met and lost to at pool in the hotel the night before. Was a good omen on starting.

The weather that morning was a lot calmer than on the previous day. Although the winds were still strong they were rideable and often in my favour at first. For the first hour or so my average was over 16mph, this slowly dropped throughout the day to around 14mph as I got more tired and lost the wind boost.

All in all I was relatively lucky with the weather. While I experienced wind and some light snow flurries it could have been much worse – there was one nice moment when snow was falling, being blown along at the same direction and speed as me, so the snow was relatively keeping station with me as I rode on – utterly magical.

The coast road (A9) undulates a lot and saps a lot of strength, especially the steep descent and long steep climb at Berriedale Braes – I got asked about that in a cafe in Helmsdale. I actually enjoyed the descent but knew that I would have to pay for it – sure enough it was a long, steepish climb on the other side.

I was doing OK until about 30 miles before Inverness – just started losing energy but was stupidly determined to keep going – I eventually stopped on the climb on Black Isle and rooted through my panniers for chocolate.

It was getting dark by the time I was on Black Isle and was fully dark before I reached Inverness and my guest house. I eventually found a curry after trying several places (all busy and booked up what with it being Easter, I’m sure the head waiter will never understand why I was so pathetically grateful to get served.

High points of the first day included:

1. Sniggering at the place name ‘Mid Clyth’ which sounds like a 1970’s sitcom euphemism: “This week in ‘Don’t Strain the Nation’, Gerald and Sophie are caught mid-clyth by their boss”.
2. Cheese and pickle toastie at the cafe at Helmsdale.
3. The people that flashed their hazards after I waved acknowledgement to them who passed after having to wait patiently. There were actually lots of these, especially in Caithness.
4. This probably isn’t my high point but I saw some herring gulls having their high point pecking the (erm) soft parts of a dead sheep.
5. Seeing a Broch.

The coast is very pretty and it was enjoyable to be riding with the sea in sight for much of the day. I even attempted a haiku:

Sea to my left side
Winter snow cast land to right
The road ever on.

It felt good to warm and fed. I planned a late start tomorrow to let the predicted bad weather sort itself out. I was also looking forward to staying in the one posh(ish) hotel of my ride.

Day Two

This was a tiring day – probably didn’t help that I ate late and got to bed late.

Although I had planned for a late setoff, I was even later than I planned for and didn’t get going until about 10:45. I felt quite tired from the start, my knees hurt a lot at first and the day was generally a bit of a slump.

The ride itself was ok, with fantastic scenery all around, particularly on either side of Loch Ness. The road undulated a lot more than I was expecting and although not as bad as the first day was quite strength sapping.

At Invermoriston I reached the turn off for my possible diversion to Eilean Donan castle. I’ve always wanted to visit there but being tired, was glad to have started too late to even consider the extra (considerable) distance.

The road continued Southwest and I carried on past the remnant of Loch Ness (monsterless) -the road frequently crosses the Caledonian Canal over various swing bridges and I would have been happy to have been delayed to see one in operation (but wasn’t). The road then takes you past Loch Oich and then some nice flat bits alongside Loch Lochy (Loch Lochy must have been last in the queue when the Loch names were being given out: “Right, who’s next? Right you can have Loch Ness. Yes I know it’s a silly name but I’ll throw in an imaginary monster for the tourist trade. Right, you at the back, you can be…um…Loch Lochy, yes that’s it.”

After Loch stupidname the road climbs up before Spean Bridge, where the Commando monument looks towards the high range which includes Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. I didn’t stop to take a picture I just looked at it hard and remembered).

After Spean Bridge the road drops into Fort William after which there was a mostly flat run alongside Loch Linnhe to my hotel just after Onich.

The traffic all day was steady but reasonable and I had no problems – I saw a couple on hybrid bikes heading Northeast (toting huge backpacks) and wondered if they were doing the end-to-end. The bloke sort of registered my greeting, the girl just looked unhappy.

Also somewhere on the way, a guy who I had met in the Indian restaurant in Inverness had stopped his car by the roadside to cheer me on. That was a bit of a boost to flagging morale.

The hotel was nice but the manager/head waiter was overly attentive in a not-quite-but-almost scary way. The rooms had odd names as well as numbers – I was in ‘Cosy Cabin III’ which was probably the least silly name – there was also ‘Comfort Crusade’, ‘Dream Corner’ and ‘Nature’s Dawn’. “Nature’s Dawn?” “I read about them in Forbes Magazine”.

Overall I felt good to have finished the second day mostly intact. I took it fairly easy with the hope of recovering a bit from the previous day. I had a great meal then an early night in preparation for another 100 miler the following day.

Again, snow was predicted for the following day – so I took a photograph of the mountains ahead to see if the snowline changed overnight.

Day Three

I had a good night’s sleep (despite some crazy dreams) and woke up feeling reasonably fresh. A quick look out of the window showed clearish skies and no fresh snow on the hills (or at least no increase to the snowline).

I moved into what was now becoming my routine – get up, pack up the panniers, check on the bike and then have breakfast. I oiled the chain today as I had noticed a bit of noise the previous day. After a good breakfast I set off just before half nine. Then began the best part of the ride so far…

The scenery in northern Scotland is stunning and one of the most stunning bits I have seen so far is the pass of Glencoe, I started up this after the six miles or so from my hotel (with amazing views of Kinlochleven to my left). A few miles before I had seen my first road cyclists of the trip, three riders blasting along, giving me a cheery wave as they passed.

The pass climbs at a steady but reasonable gradient – I had the wind at my back for the first bit which was an extra boost. The climb is fantastic, with glimpses into valleys and the snow covered mountains to either side. At one point the road passes between two big teeth of rock, like something from Middle Earth, and the vista in any direction is worth riding 100 miles for. If you go to one place in Scotland go here and ride or walk it. I can’t express how stunning it is.

I stopped about 2/3rds of the way to the top to take photos and drink water (I also made and threw a snowball). I noticed some other cyclists coming up the hill – it was a couple (called Ed & Marsala) also doing the end-to-end. They had started some days ago from Land’s End heading for JoG by the northerly route. They were stopped at Lanark by the bad weather and instead drove up to JoG to ride the last bit back to Lanark southwards. Apparently they had passed me while driving up on the Saturday and wondered if I was riding the end to end and were further told of me at the hotel I started form in JoG.

They were riding supported with a van and were travelling very light (which made me jealous at the time). We took each other’s pictures then they set off – I saw them again later by Loch Lomond as they were switching drivers (originally two of them were doing the ride proper with one driving the van, then the other main rider had knee problems so instead alternated driving duties with Marsala.

I carried on over the top of the pass onto a high plateau, again with stunning views to all sides. It snowed from time to time, the weather showing you what it could do if it wanted to. A fast descent into Tyndrum eventually followed, where I stocked up on alcohol laced fudge at the Green Welly Stop. Tyndrum was very full of tourists and I felt a bit like a cowboy coming into town from the prairies – everyone just seemed so busy.

Traffic on the road became so heavy that I couldn’t cross the road to find the public toilet so I carried on south in search of peace (and bushes). Snow started falling quite heavily with the wind in my face but the road dropped at a steady rate and my speed crept up – I checked the bike computer from time to time and at one point saw that I was at just over 37mph (a new record for the fully laden bike) and I was laughing like a fool.

After a climb out of Crianlarich (still in the snow) the road again dropped steadily down to Loch Lomond, again the snow came on hard but the road favoured me and by the time I reached the bottom of the descent I was through into clear weather and was for most of the rest of the day. It was good to reach here as from now on, the weather only had the power to delay me or make me miserable.

The road is quite narrow alongside the first part of Loch Lomond but traffic was quite forgiving, this was less true as the road broadened out later. After a place called Luss, the traffic was mostly backed up all the way from Alexandria and I passed many, many vehicles (trying not to look too smug).

After this I turned right onto the A811 towards Stirling (which is a rotten road for much of the way).

Tiring by now I was glad to reach my sister Mairi’s house in Cambusbarron where I had a great meal and a good night’s sleep.

This was a fantastic day, definitely the best so far and one of the bits I was really looking forward to – Glencoe & Loch Lomond in the same day. Good stuff.

With this day over, I was out of the Highlands and starting in to the central belt of Scotland. Although the weather had been bad at times over the first three days, it was never bad enough to prevent me riding – the roads were always clear of snow and the snow that did fall never fell for long enough to settle.

I had also got used to the heavily laden bike by now and the panniers were no longer causing me problems. I was still getting pain from my knees but it wasn’t debilitating, I think it was just the new strain of carrying all the weight on the bike.

In three days I had covered approximately 300 miles which at that time was the furthest I had ridden in that short a time period.

My plan for the next day was to set off for a long loop east to go over the Forth Bridge and then travel back to Hamilton via the Falkirk wheel.

Six…

On Saturday I did my last training ride (on the road at least) in Richmond Park – was a good four laps and I was happy both with my average speed and the fact that I felt reasonably fresh at the end of it.

With a party on Saturday night (and a wobbly tandem ride home) and lots to do yesterday, I decided against the Sunday training ride.

I’m still not sure that the training I have done overall has been the ‘right’ sort of training in that I’ve really picked up my speed on the flat but possibly not done enough distance work (in fact I know I haven’t). Anyway, it’s too late to worry about that now and I shall be taking it reasonably easy for the rest of the week. I might do a last turbo trainer climb on Tuesday but that will be my last actual training ride.

I’m still much heavier than I would like for climbing too but there’s nothing I can do about that anymore – I’m stronger on the bike than I have ever been so I’m going to have to hope that brute force and ignorance will get me through compared to gazelle like climbing grace.

I rode to work today at what I thought was a deliberately gentle pace (I had to stop myself from latching on to the wheels of people overtaking me). Despite that, I still managed a 14.3mph average, which I would probably have had to work for at the start of the year after getting out of condition.

So fitness wise, I’m in very good shape I think. Mentally I’m committed to it to and sure I’ll get through, although I expect the first few days to be a real shock to the system. I think what I’m looking forward to most is getting to the end of day two – for one, I will see some of my family, but mainly because I will hopefully have got through the first two days ok and know that I will be able to continue.

My bike is at the shop having a grown-up give it some care and attention, fortunately the chain and rear cassette didn’t need changing this time and the mechanic has given the bottom bracket some tlc. Hopefully the gears have been smoothed out nicely too.

I pick it up tomorrow morning as I’m on my other bike this evening (need to make a delivery of some maps and leaflets over Ealing way). A broken spoke on this bike that seems to have appeared from nowhere added a few logistical woes to yesterday, especially as they are bladed spokes on a wheel type that I have even less of a clue than normal how to fix.

Fortunately I do have a spare wheelset, so I swapped the rear cassette over (it had an 8 speed on it previously and anyway, for smooth riding and even chain wear I’m told that you should always use the same cassette with the same chain. This is one mechanical task that I can do (it needs specialist tools which I already have) so that wasn’t too difficult. It does remind me that I need to learn to do a whole bunch of other bike maintenance stuff – I can replace a brake cable but I’m hopeless at indexing gears so these are fairly basic tasks that therefore cost me money by having to get someone else to do them.

This week I’ll be packing to make sure I get everything ready before Saturday – I have already found and washed most of the kit I will take with me (except my armwarmers, must look those out). I kind of have to get ready for the Marmotte at the same time, as I will only have two days after I get back from TRAT to prepare for the long journey to Grenoble (which reminds me, I must buy the new castors for the bike box).

So there’s lots of little things to do, not least of which is attend a publicity photoshoot on Friday with John Snow who is patron of the Bishop Simeon Trust as well as his other roles.

At the moment, I’m starting to feel the twitchy, nervy excitement that will build and build until the moment before the off.

Only six days to go now…

Progress so far

Hi all

With just over a week to go before the start of my attempt at ‘The Race Against Time’ (TRAT), thanks to all of you I’m already nearly half way to the £2,000 total that I need to raise! This has been through a combination of online donations, offline fundraising and pledges so far).

Thank you very much to all those who have donated, given their time to support me and helped publicise the event on the internet.

It all helps motivate me to get out and train and (hopefully) to complete the event.

For those who haven’t sponsored me yet or would still like to, please click on the ‘Sponsor me’ link on the right hand side of this page to be redirected to my JustGiving site.

The Auction page has been updated this morning and has some details on the goods and services already donated for us to auction, any further donations are very welcome!

Don’t forget that the Medieval Barbecue and charity auction is in Kingston on 1st August, and more details can be found on the ‘About’ Page. Check in early next week for photos and an account of the last Medieval BBQ (it’s worth looking in just to see the fire breathing and fire juggling photographs).

The other important side of preparations is getting me ready for the ride, I think I’m mostly there – my bike has new tyres and brake blocks (and a grown up is going to look over it just after this weekend to make sure it’s in perfect working order).

I do my last two proper training sessions at the weekend – a group ride in Richmond Park on Saturday and then a club run in the Surrey Hills on Sunday.

Finally, if you would like to be added to my TRAT update list, please send your email address to ihtrat at googlemail dot com and I will send out updates throughout the ride as and when I am able. This is an email address created specifically for my TRAT ride in 2009 and I will not share your email address with any third party.

Best wishes,

Iain

Etape du Tour 2007: Foix to Loudenville

After all my training and Sportive riding in 2007 by mid July I was finally ready and set off for France to ride the Etape. The event was a public event over closed roads, following the route of a stage of the real Tour de France that year. The route started in Foix and continued over more than 100 miles and five Pyreneen mountains to finish in Loudenville.

Bryony and I, with my bike in a bike-box, flew out the Thursday prior to the event in order to give me time to acclimatise to the weather and to hopefully relax (no chance).

I put the bike back together on Friday morning and rode a leisurely 45k or so, just to make sure the bike and I were ok. There was a heavy tailwind on the way out so it was a very fast ride for no effort in the outbound direction and a bit of work on the return.

The next day I had to go to Foix to register; public transport being non existent in the area and having no access to a car at this point, I had to cycle there (the round trip was 96k) which wasn’t ideal but did no damage. The Etape Village in Foix was great, registration was quick and easy with much free crap handed out along with the race transponder etc.

I met up with several other riders from my work and we had a good lunch before I rode back. The wind was very strong by now so the ride back was more work than I really wanted to do two days before the race but as I said, no harm was done.

The hotel was filling up with cyclists, some English, some French (including an older guy to whom the hotel owner said “Well, you’re not here for the Etape, I can tell”. On speaking to the bloke on Tuesday morning, he told me that it was his eighth Etape!). Two English guys who had arrived on the Saturday were badly let down by British Airways who mislaid their bikes (they eventually turned up, just in time, but must have been a huge amount of added stress).

My nerves were building now and I slowly got more mad over the weekend. Months of training and preparation leading down to one day, as well as providing focus, tends to build it up to an insane degree. I had to check with Bryony at one point that the flies buzzing around my head were real.

With both Bryony and I being non-drivers, the logistics of the Etape were a nightmare (especially the ending up nearly 200km away from where you started). Fortunately a good friend agreed to fly out and help us. My friend Rupert came out on the Sunday, picking up a hire car en-route, so all was set for the big day. Except my stomach/alimentary canal which showed evidence of some of the stress I was suffering – I won’t go into details.

A big pasta meal the night before the race set me up before an early night – it was noticeable who was drinking alcohol and who wasn’t. The two French riders that would finish in sub eight hour times were drinking water. I drank both wine and beer.

An early night was followed by a ridiculously early morning, getting up at 3.30 (2.30 UK time). A shower followed by breakfast and we were off just after five. I was even more grateful than before for Rupert being there to drive – my fallback plan had been to cycle from the hotel to the start if necessary, not realising that it would still be pitch black at that time (being that much further south). On the way there we saw cyclists riding in the dark, with no lights, on the hard shoulder of an unlit dual carriageway – could have gone very badly for them.

On reaching the outskirts of Foix, more and more cyclists appeared until they were almost a constant stream – we stopped and I got set up to ride the last bit to the start. I had to promptly stop and find a quiet spot as my previously non-functioning lower alimentary canal decided it wanted to resume function with a vengeance. I’ll spare you some of the horror, suffice it to say that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England (well Scotland, but you get my point).

Feeling somewhat better, I made my way to my start pen and met up with the other riders from our company. Tension, excitement and nerves were all building together, you could feel the jittery, jumpy enthusiasm everywhere. Just before seven, Greg LeMond said some words, none of which I heard (I didn’t realise at the time but he rode it also. He beat me, obviously.) Then we were off, with our pen being released very shortly after the first.

I was completely overwhelmed by the experience and rode nervously among the bunch, quickly losing touch with my team. It was awesome though, the crowds at the start seemed as big as anything at the real Tour and the cheering and clapping was very moving; it felt very much like you were part of the Tour.

After Foix things started to settle down a bit, although faster riders still swept through – I probably lost time here as I was trying to avoid a crash, something that happens very easily in those conditions, and the road went up and down a bit before joining the dual carriageway south to Tarascon. It was here that I caught the first of the riders from my team; he would pass me again later until I retook him again on a later climb. I saw my first rider with a puncture and thought (not for the last time), “Glad that’s not me”.

At Tarascon the ride turned west and into the hills. It started climbing almost immediately – although the first mountain itself is only classed as 11k of climbing, you’re climbing for roughly 20k as the build-up to it is quite lengthy. The climb helped steady me and I rode it at as even a pace as possible – the gradient was manageable and quite steady which enabled me to keep up a good rhythm. While I got passed by a lot of riders on this ascent, I was passing a reasonable amount myself – imagine that there are four lanes of traffic with the one on the right being slowest, and the ones getting progressively faster towards the left, if so, I was alternating between the slowest and next slowest lanes (it’s not exactly like that but does as a rough comparison – the convention is that slower riders ride on the right uphill).

I took it easy and enjoyed it, helping to settle down my earlier nerves. Sadly after reaching the top, my nerves were blasted again by the long descent. I enjoyed this one least of all the descents, I don’t know why as the others were probably worse (they were all very different so it wasn’t a case of getting used to it). I lost time, confidence and road position on the descent and reached St Girons about twenty minutes outside my planned time, which was massively dispiriting.

As previously planned, Bryony and Rupert were waiting there and gave me food and water, which saved me from the time-consuming melee of the first feed station, and I was on my way in less than five minutes, sandwich in hand. Sadly the other two sandwiches fell out of my jersey somewhere, which was a blow when I realised later on reaching for one. Lots of stuff got dropped on the road, caps, food, bidons and some every expensive looking (broken) sunglasses.

Having lost planned time, I was extremely concerned that I wouldn’t finish; when Bryony had asked me how I was doing I was very negative – I only had an expected margin of about an hour over elimination and I had lost twenty minutes of it in the first and easiest 70k of the race. I didn’t see how I was going to finish in the allotted time but was determined to keep going. The next 25k or so were mostly flat and I attacked them with the intention of gaining as much time back as I could. I chased down group after group, breaking from each to the next until reaching the next climb – Portet d’Aspet. This one was deceptive, the long lower part was easy, the top half very steep. It, like the one before it was a Category Two climb, but had some of the steepest sections of this year’s Tour. Despite this I did ok, feeling strong on the climb and I was in good shape by the summit. At the top I was only seven minutes down on my planned time and considering I felt ok after two climbs, I now had some hope of completing.

After the summit was the descent, the one I was fearing. Partly because of the gradient 17%-19% in places, and partly for the shadow that the death of Fabio Casartelli throws over it. As it was, I didn’t find this too bad, possibly because I was expecting much worse after the previous one. Personally it was my second favourite/least worst. The bends were mostly ok, with the most dangerous bits clearly signed, so I did alright on that one. I still got passed by a lot of people, people who I had overtaken on the climbs but descending well is part of riding so I knew I would need to improve on this in the future.

Casartelli’s monument is quite stunning; some riders were stopped there, but I continued on as that seemed the thing to do to me – it’s saddeningly so close the bottom and shows how close he was to the end of the descent.

Immediately following the descent of Aspet, we rode straight onto the foothills of the Col de Menthe, the first Category One climb of the day. Bryony and Rupert did make it here but we later worked out that they had got there shortly after I went through; it was apparently a good place to view the riders, swooshing down one hill, then starting up the next with big grins on their faces.

Apart from the top third, I actually enjoyed climbing Menthe, possibly because my confidence was back and my nerves gone; it felt like a ride by now, not an impossible task. Other people were visibly suffering too which helps; from now on I would see riders coming back down the hill the wrong way or lying down by the side of the road. Numb faces watched riders continuing, some were doubled over their handlebars retching, others looking resolutely away. It’s cruel but I fed off their suffering. Every one of them in pain made it easier for me to keep going and showed me where hard training pays off. I was suffering too – I’ve seen the official photos and I’m in pain but I’m keeping going (the photo sites were quite funny in a twisted way, there was usually a sign giving 50 metres warning and we all noticeably tried that bit harder for the camera, and then noticeably slowed down afterwards – they should have done a shot 50 metres later to show the before and after, it would be very amusing to contrast the out of the saddle, confident cyclists becoming wheezing pedestrians 30 seconds later).

By now, the heat was up and more and more riders were walking; I would do so later but stayed in the saddle for Menthe. I did stop here and there for water and ‘comfort’ breaks, fortunately nothing like early in the morning. At the top of Menthe I was still only seven minutes behind, although like everyone I lost time in the resupply at the second feed station; these really are a mad scrum – there had been an unofficial one at the top of Aspet, a big trough marked ‘drinking water’ although I’m not sure how drinkable it was after riders had dipped their helmets in it. We drank it anyway. Water wise I went through a considerable amount – I started with three litres and ended with about one – through resupply I must have drunk about ten litres of water in total, a third of which were heavily loaded with electrolyte powder.

The descent of Menthe was the only one I can say I really enjoyed; it consists of lots of hairpins – having reasonable trust in my brakes, I could build up speed and brake quite late before the turn. It felt good to be three climbs in, especially being up and over my first Category One climb. I had passed another two of our riders on the way, in fact the hairpins on the climb were great as you could look back and see the scale of the event because as far as you could see, there was a steady stream of cyclists making their way upwards.
The organisation involved in the Etape was stunning, there were motorbikes riding through constantly which were in touch with support vehicles. I know of one rider who had a wheel buckled in a crash, and within minutes, the Mavic service vehicle was there with a replacement wheel – what would have been the end of his ride in a UK event became just another experience of the Etape and one a bit closer to the real Tour. There were care vehicles, ambulances, and doctors, all there to assist as required, and it made the task of riding a lot simpler.

After Menthe we rode into a headwind, making a mostly flat part hard work. We rode through a few villages; at one just before the start of Port des Bales Bryony and Rupert were there with the crowds cheering, which was a good sight – I was still only about 7-10 minutes down by now and felt fairly certain of making it.
The crowds on the day were brilliant, at the start, finish, in villages and on the mountains. Clapping, cheering and shouts of “Allez, allez!” and “Courage!” really helped, especially towards the end, so big thanks to all of them.

The Port des Bales was a killer, although the first eight kilometres were ok. After that it got steadily steeper, a short respite and then back to steep before finally levelling out at a little at the top. This one broke a lot of people, most certainly me included. A twenty kilometre HC (Hors Category) climb. It was brutal and the sun was out in full force; I rode through melting tarmac under a blazing sun and understood what it is that makes a Tour rider and that I don’t have it. I kept going up the endless slopes but I was walking here and there – once you start doing that it’s hard to stay on the bike at all but I had to as much as possible or get swept up by the broom wagon.

The melting tarmac stuck to my tyres and I was worried about getting a puncture as all sorts of crap was picked up by my tarry wheels. I can’t remember where it was exactly, Menthe I think, where someone’s inner exploded while climbing – about fifty of us heard it and it was immediately followed by an “Ooooh!” of sympathy from fifty voices (all thinking “Glad it’s not me…”).

I was in a lot of pain before the end of Port des Bales but eventually it ended. It’s hard to recall just how much it hurt but it was a proper bastard. After a short stop at the final feed station at the top I started the descent, which was another bad one. It was steep, narrow, unfenced with very steep sides and a dodgy rain gutter on the other side. If the surface wasn’t so new I think this could have been a lot more dangerous – watch out for this one on future Tour de France stages.

Straight after this descent we were on the last climb, the Category One climb of Peyresourde. It’s the one I have ridden lots in simulation on my turbo trainer, although never after such a hard day before reaching it. I found this one very hard too, although I think on fresh legs it would be very enjoyable.

I passed lots of riders who had cracked – more vomiting, lying by the roadside than on the previous climb even, and the ambulances seemed to be doing more work too. I knew what I was waiting for, the hairpins that finish the climb can be seen for some way and I had been looking forward to reaching them and looking back over the view. It’s the one on my turbo trainer DVD as mentioned and it was on the recce DVD I bought, a long sweeping look back down the valley, to the east and over the many miles already ridden – you can also look down and see the long line of riders making their way up the valley. The supporters were great here too and they helped propel me up the final slopes – I raced (a bit) for the line knowing it was the last real climb of the day; stopping to put on my windproof for the final descent, it almost wasn’t just sweat I was wiping from my eyes.

Barring accident or severe mechanical problems I had done it, I was over the Etape, just the fast descent to Loudenville (and a short but nasty little kicker of a hill before the downhill sprint for the finish). I descended alright on this one, it probably helped that it was one I ‘knew’ from my training DVD but it was also a good fast, straightish road.

After the fast descent, a left turn and then into the final climb, adrenaline pumping through me, I attacked the last hill, overtaking some riders struggling on the unexpected ascent. I felt good and was determined not to be overtaken by another rider from this point on and I wasn’t. The quick descent started and I went down it aggressively, not giving up the line and overtaking all I could – I saw the Flamme Rouge, the sign that there was only one kilometre to go and went mental, putting everything into it, overtaking a last few, one right on the line which felt great.

Across the line and into the finish pen, they took my transponder away, gave me my medal and sent me off for a bag of free food and bowl of pasta. It was over. I had done it.

It’s hard to describe how it felt, even shortly after I could hardly hold it in my mind. I knew it was a big achievement for me but having done it, it already felt smaller, although not undiminished. I suppose when something becomes achievable from having once been improbable, then the scope of it changes.

There’s a bit I’m fond of in the Ken Burns TV series about the American Civil War/War Between the States that I always remember. The historian Shelby Foote is quoting a Southern author (might have been Tennessee Williams) who wrote about the moment before Picket’s charge at Gettysburg – the moment is still unwritten, it hasn’t happened yet and so there’s this moment where anything is still possible. In a very small way being on the start at Foix was like that; it was an unknowable moment for me that can never be repeated, yet will always be there.

In reality I finished just over twenty minutes over my estimated time at 11 hours and twenty one minutes.
It’s important to add that it wasn’t just my training and preparations that got me through – there were the spectators on the day, my family who offered support, particularly my sister Mairi in training up for and riding with me in the Etape Caledonia. There were my friends whose interest and enthusiasm helped motivate me through the winter months when the Etape was an impossibility.

Especial thanks go to Rupert and his incredible selflessness in coming all the way out to drive endless miles in the hot sun.

Finally thanks to Bryony for her support throughout this – for her it meant some sacrifices in personal time (i.e. I was often never around, off cycling somewhere) and lots of stresses and strains.

I couldn’t have done it without any of you.

London to Canterbury

Before France and the Etape there was one final cyclosportive to ride – The London to Canturbury ‘British Sportive’. This ride closely followed the route that Stage One of the 2007 Tour de France would take a week later.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

After getting up at about 3.30, I was at the start sometime after 6am – Bit annoyed by a few club types who came across as quite self important at the start line, shoving their way to the front – including one from my local club who barged past quite aggressively then propped his bike against the fence and went for a pee.

I didn’t like the opening bit to Gravesend, and having ridden this bit before last year knew it was fairly rubbish. Having said that the traffic was pretty light at that time of day and I was surprised how quickly Rochester came up (the previous year I rode it with Barry Mason from Southwark Cyclists, who took us on a wildly diverging route taking in far too much of NCN 1, apart from the lovely bit through the marshes which is worth a sizeable detour).

The wet conditions had most people fairly damp early on and made me really, really wish that guys would not wear white cycling shorts. In the wet they become transparent and quite unpleasant to look at, especially with a muddy stripe up the middle. I swear I pushed hard in the early stages just to avoid transparently naked arses.

I was flogging along with a fairly fast group, some of whom were aiming for a six hour time and I was keeping up fairly well (I knew I would probably lose this pace at some point but at 50 miles I was optimistic of doing somewhere between 6.20 to 6.40 by the finish, a good pace for the distance)

A visit from the puncture fairy at 61 miles dropped me from the fast group I was with and lost me a fair bit of time – a lot of water had got in and the adhesive rim tape got screwed up as I took the tyre off – it left about four spoke holes exposed which I couldn’t get the tape to unravel enough to cover – fearing further punctures, I patched these with super patches (I knew I carried them for a reason) and the bodged wheel held up for the rest of the ride.

I tried to make up ground a bit and passed a fair few riders but I think I lost a good number of places due to puncturing (I’m sure I wasn’t alone though). I only stopped at one feed point which turned out to be the one with only water. Fortunately I had most of what I needed on me so just refilled on water for a very quick stop.

Cheers to the spectators who were out, especially the ones with the cowbell and the ones at Farthing Common – most spectators seemed more like onlookers though, and bemused ones at that.

I didn’t have a lot of power left at Canterbury and was almost glad that the finishing stretch was too narrow for a sprint. My rolling time according to my bike computer was only 6.25 but the actual time taken was 6:51:50.

It was interesting comparing it to the Etape Caledonia which I did the previous Sunday, which was much faster and better marshalled I thought (with better warning of dodgy turns). The closed roads in Scotland made it a much more enjoyable experience, with better surfaced roads too.

Overall I was happy with the British Sportive and was happy with my time. A fortnight later was France and the Etape!

Setbacks

Two riders have sadly had to drop out before the race, must be gutting after all those months of training & fundraising, which leaves the team two short. This means that if we don’t get some new members then we are all going to have to work that much harder.

Eight is a good number – it means either a single line of eight or a double paceline of two pairs of four. It’s big enough to give good drafting benefits but not too big.

The brother of one rider has fortunately stepped in at the last minute to take one place (cheers Phil!) but this means that there is still a vacancy in the team.

So if you are reading this and are interested, there is still time to join up, although you will have to do so before the registration deadline on Monday 15th June.

Click on the ‘TRAT Webmistress’ link for more information.