Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Christmas Post

Every year I have to spend an inordinately lengthy amount of time on Christmas cards. Being the eldest of five siblings, and having a mother who herself was one of five means there is a more-than-healthy crop of relatives to send to, alongside all my friends. I am a slow writer which probably doesn't help matters, but it's always a good couple of evenings worth of work to get the task done.
So, quite why I insist on then hand-delivering cards to my local friends remains something of a quandary.
It was something that my Dad did, I guess. My parents would send and receive literally hundreds of cards every year, so from a postal cost perspective it probably made sense to drive round town and hand deliver cards to local friends. Once I was old enough of course, I used to get sent out on my bicycle to do the necessary.
And it's something that has continued to this day. I cannot bring myself to spend money on posting cards to people that live within a mile or two, so every year there is my now-traditional Christmas postal ride that takes place. It used to be a bit of a drag, but as the family has grown and my responsibilities with it, any excuse to spend time in the saddle is a welcome one.
I usually spread the cards out on the kitchen table and look at who and where I have to visit, planning a logical route. Favourite sections of road are of course factored-in, and it can usually be strung out long enough to make it a fun local blast. It certainly helped when Nik moved a few miles up the road to Harpenden!
When it comes to delivery time, the season dictates that I am layered-up in all my winter finery. The necessity of breathing dictates that some facial flesh is left uncovered, though everything else is a mass of base-layer, merino, thick lycra and neoprene. "Bring out the Gimp"!
For the last few years I've run this errand on my road bike, mudguards keeping me dry, high-powered lights and scotchlite keeping me visible.
A couple of years back December was especially cold, and many side roads had an inch or two of ice upon them. After delivering John's card I ended up in a stand-off with a daft woman driving a large Mitsubishi 4x4. Most of the local highways had been well salted and were relatively clear, but here there was just a pair of ruts up the middle of the road where tarmac was exposed, the rest being solid ice and compacted snow.
We came face to face, me occupying one rut, her straddling both. I tried to gesture and explain that if I ventured off said tarmac I would stand no chance of staying upright on my 700x23c's with 100psi of air inside them. She however, wasn't interested in any such discussion. The windows stayed up, she put her full beam lights on and sounded her horn continuously until I gave up and dismounted. The irony of the fact that she was driving a vehicle perfectly equipped to deal with such road conditions (at low speeds anyway) seemed not to matter. I slipped and fell hard onto my lycra-clad backside as she gunned her V8 engine and slowly rolled away...
This year I think it's going to be a fat-tyred exercise. Nothing against my road bike but I've got a brand new pair of 2.3" knobblies on the mountain bike and I want to know how they're going to perform in the gloop. And there's plenty of that out there right now.
I'll just need to wrap the cards up to prevent them looking like they've been dragged through a hedge backwards en route.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Alps - Part 3

After St Jean d'Aulpes, on the outskirts of Morzine we swung westwards over the river and up toward the Col des Gets. It's a short climb by Alpine standards that starts by winding up through chalets and the occasional hotel. The road is well engineered - there are no steep ramps here, and the surface remained dreamlike in comparison with what we contend with back home.

So far so good - though deep down I knew that this climb barely registered as a pimple against what was to come.

The pace remained steady on the lower slopes, people's work levels slowly ramping up. As we rose out of the valley I saw that the group had fractured - so much for tackling the first part of the day as a collective.

People tend to focus inwardly as the road starts to point towards the sky. I had subconsciously reduced the frequency of my checks on the tail of the bunch and was concentrating on my own breathing and pedal stroke, still slightly anxious as to how I was going to fare in this unknown landscape.

Unless you have specific reason there is little point in trying to keep a group of cyclists together on a climb of any duration. Everyone has their own pace, and performs differently depending upon gradient, bicycle choice and myriad other factors. It makes sense to stay close to a rider who is struggling physically or psychologically, but beyond that it is far more sensible to agree to do your own thing, and regroup at the top.

I had remained with the frontrunners for much of the way up, but as the buildings and meadows gave way to conifers towards the top, the pace was squeezed up once again.

I'd managed to stay on the wheel of Nigel most of the way up, a friend and ex-resident of St Albans who had moved back north to the Pennines several years ago. We used to joke that Nigel climbed and descended at the same speed, his big diesel engine always to be found grinding a large gear towards the front of the group on the ascents. A season snowboarding and the move back home to hillier terrain did wonders for his downhill abilities though and he is a strong all rounder, especially on longer rides.

That big gear of his had proven too much for me towards the top, and as my pulse rose too high to sustain I gave up trying to follow. Tim & Robin stayed in-touch a couple of minutes longer, but Nigel also broke their elastic and powered to the top alone. Tim & Robin were 15 seconds down, followed by myself at another similar interval.

The group rolled-in over the next couple of minutes, and we all set out down the valley towards Taninges. Local knowledge from Chris, an ex-pat living in Morzine warned of some potholes towards the bottom. I have learned to enjoy (some) climbing in the last couple of years, but I'm always more at home when the road points downwards. We took it slightly easy for the upper section, getting a feel for the alpine roads, but soon the adrenaline was flowing and the grins were spread across our faces. The sky had turned a glorious blue and the sun was shining. Traffic was at a minimum, the road smooth and flowing as the crisp, clean air rushed by. This was pure fun, and I arrived in Taninges just behind Tim, potholes duly noted and safely circumnavigated.

Our minibus was parked next to a lovely traditional French cafe on the square in the centre of town. We all dismounted and piled inside, refreshments ordered as we took our seats. The group's linguistic capability ranged from fluent French to slow shouty English, much to the bemusement of the proprietor .

The arrow-straight tree-lined avenue out of Taninges gave way to flowing curves as we enjoyed further descending to Cluses. A short cut across town and down a riverside cycle path meant we almost lost our accompanying courier and minibus, but we eventually regrouped before beginning our first climb of any note, the Col de la Colombiere. Undeterred by falling slightly short at Les Gets, I resolved to make sure that I was hitting the summit alongside my usual riding buddies. I would simply hold a wheel and not allow myself to be dropped. I had done the training, there was seldom more than a few seconds separating us on our regular climbs at home, it was just going to be a case of digging in and pushing on through the pain.

The pace started high, and remained so. Through the wooded lower slopes there was little breeze, and although a chill remained in the air I quickly developed a sweat. I was keeping pace but having to work hard for the privilege. As the landscape opened out to a wide meadowed valley it struck me that I genuinely had no idea how long I was going to have to keep this up for. The Colombiere had none of the kilometre markers that are found on many Alpine slopes, so I tried to cast my mind back to stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France. Thor Hushovd's solo breakaway had hoovered-up most of the day's green jersey points before the GC contenders battled out the stage victory up this very road. I was able to place snippets, but not enough to form a proper picture of what lay ahead. Looking back, this tells me that I was already in trouble. All the information I needed had been pre-programmed into my Garmin, and the press of a button would have shown me distance and estimated time to the top. But the anaerobic stupor was clouding my brain, and I wasn't thinking straight.

As the road opened out into the meadowed valley I had to accept that I couldn't match the pace, and was slowly cut adrift by front men Tim, Robin & Nigel. Ironically the gradient had actually eased off slightly here which should have suited me, but for some reason I didn't quite have the power. I kept-up my effort however, pushing myself hard and clinging onto the notion that I might be able to close the gap further up.

Shortly before the switchbacks at Le Reposoir I remember the seeds of doubt taking root, a hollow voice in my mind telling me that I was no climber, asking why I had come out here thinking I'd be able to ride across the Alps? I'd done nothing more than the odd day in Wales or the Peaks previously, who did I think I was?

By now the gradient had risen again and I had realised that maintaining a heart rate in the mid 180's all the way to the top was neither likely nor wise, so I tried to find a rhythm at a pace where I could still reach the top in a respectable time. I had spotted Chris slowly approaching from behind me, so put on a brave face and tried especially hard to look smooth and unperturbed. He gave me an encouraging nod and a word as he passed, and I think I responded, but my real memory is of the amount of effort it took to smile through the purgatory I'd put myself in.

After he had passed I saw a horizon another kilometer or so up the road. I suspected that it was not the Col, but hopefully guessed that it could not be too far beyond that. The seeds of doubt had blossomed into a full grown war of self confidence by now. Fear and loathing were my companions, I felt weak and was pedalling squares. I pushed on regardless, resolved to make it as far as that horizon up ahead and then reassess the situation.

Thoughts now were just of trying to preserve some dignity. After what seemed like an age I growled my way up another pair of switchbacks and reached the spot I'd seen from a distance. It was a large sweeping right hand bend that gradually revealed a view of the final kilometers and the truth of what was still to come. A near-constant 10% straight drag to the top - at least another couple of kilometers.

My spirit finally broke and I wobbled slowly to a halt at the side of the road. I was not even going to clear the climb without having to stop for a rest. As someone who considers himself a fit and fairly accomplished cyclist, there is almost no greater affront to one's ego. The mountain was teaching me a lesson and I was humbled.

Although lunch was only a few hundred yards up the road I necked an energy gel and sullenly chewed on a cereal bar. I had gone far too hard and damaged myself, my stubbornness and bravado refusing to listen to my body. The doubt and dread that had accompanied me for much of the climb was a sign of my blood sugar plummeting - I had pushed right through 'normal' levels of bonk.

My fear of being passed by everyone was unfounded, only Gary grinding past whilst I stood there giving myself a talking-to. Another brave face put on briefly to mask the misery as he passed. After a couple of minutes I had the wherewithal to remount my bike and continue on upwards. Even with a few calories inside me and an end in sight the final haul to the restaurant at the top felt brutal, and at the Col I collapsed from the bike once again, a sweaty haggared mess.

Really not happy at the summit. image by Cycle-High

Tim had taken this climb in 1h08m, with Robin almost exactly a minute later, and Nigel at 2 minutes. I'd covered the ascent in 1h15m in the end - not that I'd really cared upon arrival. I was just relieved to be up there.

I found my friends seated at an outside table, and pulled up a chair next to them, getting very cold and not really able to say much, apart from some jibberings about this being another Holme Moss, the only other place I've put myself through such misery on a bicycle. I had the sense to realise that I needed to wrap up, and after placing my order I made my way over to the van to put some layers on. The food came eventually, but barely touched the sides. I bought a chocolate bar to follow which helped a little, but I was still cold and uncomfortable. I wanted to get moving, but as we finished eating there were still people from our group arriving at the top. I was evidently not the only person that had found the climb hard.

putting a brave face on outside the restaurant

I kept myself warm and busy with photos and faff, and after what seemed like an eternity we got the all-clear to roll on down to Le Grand Bornand. Cold and still tired I didn't descend especially quickly, riding through the town with a few of the others. We stopped to fully regroup and once again met up with the vans. I was by now feeling a little perkier, but knew that I was going to have to be sparing with my efforts for the rest of the day.

At the last stop we had let some of the sensibly-paced riders of the group ride on ahead, so as we set about the climb of the Col de l'Aravis I knew there were people ahead that I could target and hope to slowly reel in. The early ramps were not pleasant, the hurt of the Colombiere still fresh in my legs, but with a steady pace and a regular supply of food and water I eventually settled into a groove.

Smarting from the self-humiliation of the morning I didn't try to stay on anyone's wheel, and did my own thing, acquiescing to the demands of the road. I kept a careful watch on my heart rate, never letting it rise much above 170bpm, and was able to use this level to slowly pick my way through some of the field. The blue skies of the morning had been wallpapered over by ominous high cloud, and the chill in the air was slowly deepening. At one point I felt myself slipping ever so slightly towards doubt again, but a timely banana offered up by our courier Mike from his van banished those thoughts, and I fixed my sights upon the purple jersey of the next rider up the road.

Russ, a tall and likeable Australian, was the elder statesman of our group and one of the people I hadn't met previously. He'd done his fair share of racing when younger and moved his Specialized Roubaix along at a fair lick with a classy pedal stroke, decades of experience showing through. I knew I was slowly making progress towards his rear wheel, but reckon it must have been half an hour between setting my sights and making the catch. I had been so tightly focussed on my breathing and effort levels after the events of the morning that I decided not to put in the work required to pass him, and so we hit the top together.

Robin had taken this victory, followed by Tim and Nigel both within 50 seconds, myself rolling in about 5 minutes down. I didn't care though - I'd looked after myself a lot better on this climb and arrived at the top feeling positive. I might actually be able to get through the week after all...

The descent to Flumet (or Plummet to Flummet as Nigel christened it) was enjoyable despite the nip in the air, and we waited by the bridge over the gorge before the final climb of the day.

The lower slopes of the Col de Saisies are steep and constant, but we'd had the warning earlier in the day so kept things steady. Nigel was feeling his earlier efforts a little so had opted not to try to follow Tim & Robin, instead pounding out a steady tempo with me. Notre Dame de Bellicombe gave a minute or so of respite, before the gradient pointed upwards one last time.

Our hotel for the night was about half-way up the Col de Saisies, and was a very welcome sight when we eventually arrived. Bikes and riding kit were put in the boot room, luggage and room keys distributed, showers had and protein shakes drunk. We all met up for beers in the bar, swapping a little banter with a group of Dutch cyclists on a similar itinerary. We then sat down for another fantastic dinner and the day 2 briefing. We ate hungrily, asking for an additional platter of pasta and basket of bread which were duly served and devoured. Despite an espresso I was overcome with a wave of tiredness shortly afterwards, so took myself off for a final protein shake and a good night's sleep.
It had been an epic day's ride - one in which I had learned a lot about myself and my capabilities.  In terms of bragging rights for the trip, the writing was on the wall already. I was not going to be picking up much in the way of climbing palmares this week unless I found my legs quickly. And if I was not warmed-up yet, then nor were other people.

As I lay in bed I had started looking for reasons why I'd not been able to hold the pace. With my steel frame I was giving away a kilo or two to most other bikes here, and my light wheels weren't quite so light as some peoples....

No. I checked myself.

My kit was perfectly good. The cold hard truth of the matter was that I'd trained my backside off for a year, and then carelessly stacked half a stone back on at the last minute whilst on holiday with the family. It was my own fault and I was paying for it.

Overall however, I was content. I had given myself a big scare on the Colombiere, and it wasn't a lesson I was going to forget in a hurry. Given the state I'd been in at lunchtime I was heartened that I'd finished the day tired, but by no means broken. Tomorrow would be a new day, and one that I would tackle with new energy and a wiser head.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

All Things to All Men

The bike below is the Stumpy that was almost mine, thrilled to see it in nearly unadulterated form almost 15 years later.

We all want a mountain bike that just does 'everything'. Yeah, sure I want to be able to ride it to work. And to the shops. And on my local xc loop. But sometimes I want to go a bit further afield, up and over the Peak District or the Welsh valleys.

But I'm kind of getting into a bit of dirt jumping, and I've just raced in the British Universities Students Union downhill nationals. What if I want to do more of that? I quite liked it, even though my backside was kicked by by a girl - Tracey Mosely I think her name was...

It was the spring of 1998. My first MTB, a Claude Butler Miura had been upgraded well beyond its worth. The Shimano Altus groupset had been gradually worn and replaced by LX, and the cheap hi-tensile steel forks bent and swapped out for a very snappy pair of pre-Kona Joe Murray Project 2's, that still hang in my Mum's shed.

I'd returned from my Uni placement year in the Purbecks to a final year full of study, but still manged to carve out plenty of time for fun, the Wednesday afternoon University of Hertfordshire (Hatfield Poly to any older readers) MTB club ride being a sacred fixture in the diary.

Claggy Hertfordshire flint & clay is a serious come-down after a year of cutting your fat-tyred teeth on the chalky Purbeck ridge, but persevere I did, and I was introduced to other sides of the 26"-wheeled coin. We would regularly ride out to spots where people had got to work with shovels and would take turns in seeing who could jump the furthest, or the highest. Bernards Heath in St Albans, Panshanger Lake in Welwyn or Pig Woods near Stevenage were the favourite haunts. Big single jumps and fast steep runs were the order of the day, the idea of 'trails' or 'flow' still to make it to our shores.

One morning, literally 'just riding along' on my way to college I both heard and felt a ping, which led to a somewhat sloppy handling bicycle. The cheap metallic turquoise Tange steel tubeset had finally had enough and separated from itself just behind the bottom bracket.

Roy Pink Cycles in Newport Pagnell from where the bike had originated were very good, honouring the fact that the frame had failed whilst simply travelling from A to B, despite its erstwhile adventures. They sorted me out with an alloy replacement frame under warranty, transplanting most of my upgrades across.

This new beast saw me right for a few weeks, including those student nationals, until a day out riding at Chicksands, Woburn and Heath & Reach in the Easter holidays. We stopped outside a bike shop in Leighton Buzzard on the way home and a couple of members of the local scally family (who were later charged and convicted though I was never compensated) nicked it, along with my brother's bike off the back of a friend's car.

I scraped through the summer term on a mate's Marin Palisades Trail (black & fluoro pink) that was a size too big, and by the end of the academic year my Dad had managed to get around £350 each from the household insurance towards a new bike for my brother and I.

The plan, at this crucial point in my life, should have been to get a job. A proper one, something to do with my degree, that paid enough for me to be able to leave home and stand on my own two feet.
But frankly I just wanted a new bike and a summer to ride it in before taking such drastic measures. I think I told my parents as much, who, in retrospect, should have given me a kick up the backside - but they seemed happy for me to move back home and sign up for temp work with an agency whilst daily scouring the national press for serious work. I had a token amount of rent to pay, but beyond that it was every penny towards a new bike, with an occasional exception for a Friday night beer.

Several month's worth of devout MBUK readership had left me in no doubt that there were only two bikes that would fit the bill for my by-now incredibly diverse riding needs. Full-suspension was interesting, but was expensive, unreliable and inefficient for all-around use (although the legendary Marin B17 was rapidly changing that). Disk brakes had also become established, but they required special frames, forks and wheels, and were again not fully proven.

No, it was to be a compact hardtail with v-brakes and decent suspension forks. Something that could climb, pin woodland trails fast, but also descend well and take a beating. And everyone knew there were only 2 bikes that fitted this bill - the GT Zaskar and the S-Works M2, the latter to be run JMC-style with a short (think 90mm) stem and riser bars. Some would add the Cannondale Beast of the East and the Killer-V to this category, but they couldn't compete in my mind.

I wanted the S-Works, but this working for a living was delivering a serious reality check. So, eventually I revised my plans and decided to settle for the S-Works' little brother - the mango coloured Stumpjumper pictured below. I figured that at the rate I was earning I'd be able to afford it and still have a few weeks of summer left to ride. I knew exactly what size I needed, and not having a Specialized dealers close-up, I trawled the magazine ads to find the cheapest place I could buy it. The anticipation was building, only another week or so before I could place the order...

In the end, the story turned out quite differently. I am sure I would have loved said Stumpjumper, and it would have served my needs superbly. Except that an elderly auntie had passed away and I unexpectedly received a sum of money in excess of anything I'd even thought of spending. It should have gone towards something sensible like a house deposit, but around the same time a new breed of hardtail had emerged - the Santa Cruz Chameleon at its forefront. And everyone knew that the only forks to fit to a Chameleon were Bomber Z1s. And it would have been churlish to put anything lower than XT spec on such a fantastic chassis...

I still have the Chameleon, and I love it dearly. It doesn't often get ridden, and isn't even the same colour as it once was, but is a part of who I am as a rider. It has raced downhill, it has 'caught big air - dude'. It has taken me on rolling all-day epics, many blasts round the woods and has jumped long flights of city centre steps.

But I don't forget how much I wanted a Stumpjumper back then, and am sure it would have given me just as much fun and pleasure. And it always makes me smile to see one in near-original condition like this. Just put some fat tyres on it, eh?

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Alps - Part 2

...continued from Part 1

We'd opted to have our bikes and luggage collected and driven over to France, meaning we could fly to Geneva with only hand luggage and no worries about expensive mistakes from the airport baggage handlers.
We'd also figured that a key part of getting through the week was going to be eating properly and recovering well between each day's ride. Three of us had chipped in together on a bulk purchase of energy bars and gels and 2 big barrels of protein recovery shake - one for straight after the ride, and a special 'slow release' formula to drink last thing before bed. All of this was in my luggage, and I also had a wheelbag containing tools and (strangely enough) a spare set of wheels.
My deep section beasts that aren't the lightest but are fabulous on flat and rolling terrain, and pretty good on gentler climbs too.
When the van arrived on Thursday evening the size and weight of my kit raised a few eyebrows, but it all fitted in without much ado.

The Saturday morning flight from Luton was uneventful, and we started eyeing-up other people that looked like they might be cyclists, trying to work out who else might be riding with us. We'd soon spotted the people that we didn't know who were on our trip and acquaintances were made.

When the courier arrived to collect us from the airport we were greeted with the news that there'd been an accident with one of the two vans. It turned out that our lead courier and joint proprietor of Cycle-High had been involved in a coming together with an HGV on the drive over, and had rolled one of the hire vans at high speed. This had happened on the Friday and the van had been reduced to scrap, but miraculously our courier had escaped with only a few minor cuts and bruises.
A replacement van had already been sourced, and it was fortuitous that it had been the empty vehicle. Otherwise both our trip organiser and our bikes would have almost certainly come off a lot worse.
Our lead courier's friend and business partner had flown over at short notice to assess the situation, ensure our lead courier was OK and to help with contingencies. Through a combination of good fortune, fast thinking and quick work on behalf of our organisers the incident was addressed and our trip was to go ahead on schedule. We were obviously glad of that, though I really could not have blamed anyone of they'd decided to call it off - the accident had sounded bad.

Once transferred to the hotel at our start-point in Thonon-les-Bains, we unloaded and prepped the bikes ready for the next morning. After a little fettling it was back inside to the bar for a beer and the trip briefing, where we gathered as a group for the first time, and ground rules and protocols were established.
Dinner was excellent, steak if I remember correctly and there was a spectacular cheeseboard that did the rounds afterwards. As ever in France, the wine was good too - even 'basic' table wine was on a par with something we'd pay £10 a bottle for in the UK.
We'd opted not to bother spending money on the single room supplement, so we shared rooms most nights. It was a partial lottery who we were put with, so it was a case of just getting on with it and accepting the flatulence and snoring of others - and there was plenty of both, the former amply fuelled by bulk intake of energy and recovery foods throughout the week!

I slept well and awoke with anticipation. Breakfast was busy - I counted at least 4 different groups of cyclists down there. Stocking up well on cereal and pastries, I followed that with a couple of slices of ham and cheese, as is of course compulsory on the continent.
The week's routine was established that first morning:
- Wake up
- Cycling kit on
- Breakfast
- Ablutions then application of chamois creme - the order of these two important!
- Fill water bottles and jersey pockets
- Pack luggage and daybag into the vans
- Ride

That first morning it was suggested that we start at a steady pace and aim to crest the first climb and descend for coffee as a group. We gathered for photos, and then rolled out.

image by Cycle-High

We had all been given a detailed route card for the day, but those weren't needed to start with. Two of our group (although British) lived up the road in Morzine and knew exactly where we were going. Several others and I also had the route loaded into our Garmin computers, so we navigated our way easily.
The early September air was crisp, but we were all suitably layered-up, myself with arms warmers and a windproof gilet over my standard summer kit. As we took those first few pedal strokes through the town the chill was quickly forgotten, replaced by excitement to be finally moving.
I was riding towards the front, keeping the pace low at around 14 or 15 miles per hour, though remember feeling slightly frustrated that there were gaps being left and people were not forming up into a group behind.

I am a member of my local cycling club, Verulam CC, and although I don't often make it out on Sunday mornings I have ridden enough club runs to know how to ride safely in formation - some time spent on the track also helping. I quickly realised that those of us with that experience were in the minority. However, it turned out that this wasn't really a problem - the roads were quiet that morning, as they were through most of the week.

We quickly settled into a rhythm, tapping out an easy pace up the gentle valley climb toward Morzine. The group eventually gelled, the pace ebbing and flowing between 15 and 18 mph, depending who was on the front. There were a few of us that were keeping a watchful eye on the backmarkers and communicating well between us, so when the pace lifted too high the frontrunners were either asked to ease off a little or one of us would simply move to the head of the group and gently squeeze the pace down.

I believe you can tell a lot about a person by the way they ride a bicycle. Cycling is a sport of complex dynamics and interaction, requiring both fitness and thoughtfulness to meet your objectives, whether you are racing or tackling a recreational ride of any substance. There is a time to cooperate, and a time to put the hammer down - the beginning of a hard week in the Alps is definitely the former. That first couple of hours gave a lot of clues about our protagonists and how the week ahead would play out.

Before we started riding I had subconsciously started guessing at people's ability and experience based upon their physicality, their appearance, their bikes and their kit. The first few miles confirmed and dispelled a few of those assumptions.

Quickly apparent, there were those of us who were concerned with the group as a whole, building the team as it were. That is something I usually find myself doing, and you quickly spot and establish an unspoken link with others doing the same.
Fitness and physical capability also started to become evident. Aside from the speed people ride at, you observe how smooth they are, how hard they are working to achieve their speed and how 'at ease' they are on their bike. The term souplesse sums this up, and I'm sure I'll write more about that at some point.
Behaviour in the group is also significant. Some rode towards the front, jockeying to establish a place in the hierarchy of the week. The makeup of the first few places on the road changed often in those early miles, and with the steady speeds those positions were not at all indicative of people's abilities. A few people naturally found themselves there, through local knowledge, or fitness, or character or a combination of all of those, but others (admittedly myself included) were making a subtle statement of intent.

"I'm here, I've done the training, and I'm not just making up the numbers. I'm going to do my turn, and even if I'm not the quickest in the group there's a point I'll be looking to prove somewhere along the way".
Friendly rivalries were starting to be played-out after months of training and it was fun to guess who would be marking who up the bigger climbs to come.

There were others content to sit back in the group. Older, wiser, more experienced? In retrospect, yes. Those with several decades of riding or feats bigger than the one we were undertaking under their belts did not show themselves early that morning, and nor did they need to. These were the riders that I couldn't be so sure about, the ones who had kept their powder dry and may or may not be looking to play some big cards cards later in the week. The games had begun!

But for now, we were finally underway. Spirits were high, the road surface was fast and smooth and our adventure had begun at last.

To be continued...

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Alps - Part 1

I've ridden mountain bikes in the French Alps a couple of times - weeks spent in Morzine, mostly catching uplifts. The downhill courses and bike parks are well and good, but my preference is for the longer routes, where you'll catch a lift to a strategic high point, and then spend half a day picking your way along the high-mountain trails, eventually descending for lunch or beers.

These rides have inevitably involved some climbing, but with the bulk of the work done by cable car those weeks have never been taxing in terms of metres climbed.

Over the past 4 years my riding buddies and I have migrated largely from dirt to tarmac, and as we've grown in fitness and shrunk in waistline, the feats and challenges have become ever greater. Quick 20-mile blasts gave way to regular 50 or 60 milers, sportives have been dabbled with (although I'm still not convinced of the attraction), and day-long epics involving complex car and rail transport arrangements have been nailed. The dubious pleasures of centuries and brevets has been experienced, each of us secretly trying to outdo the others in terms of speeds, times and sheer toughness.
This transition to the dark side has also coincided with the advent of the GPS cycle computer, so all the rivalry has been additionally fueled by Garmin and Strava stats.

About a year ago, the appetite for a big challenge arose and someone suggested we ride across the Alps - trip of a lifetime kind of stuff. Miraculously, wives and significant others agreed, and the research and training began. A fully supported trip with vans carrying luggage and inexpensive hotels was agreed as the favoured approach, and we quickly settled upon the Route des Grandes Alpes with Cycle-High. Timing was set for the first week of September, to avoid school holidays and the arrival of an impending baby. Not mine...

The group was to consist of myself, 4 friends, a further 6 friends of friends, and 5 other Cycle-High customers that we didn't know.

Then followed 9 months of hard work. And all the "necessary" bike and kit upgrades of course.

One of the most worthwhile bits of preparation I did was to get my bike set up properly. I am a fettler by nature, so had already done a lot of research and tweaking of my riding position, but was still getting some neck pain on most rides more than a couple of hours long. I went to see a professional bike fitter, and after a couple of sessions, a layback seatpost, shorter stem and custom insoles I was riding faster, stronger and in more comfort.

We set an interim fitness target - to put in a respectable time at the Chiltern Hundred Gran Fondo cyclosportive at the end of May. It's a 110 mile route with a fatiguing saw-tooth profile. Lots of steep climbs, though none of them especially long. This kept us grafting through the winter and spring, heading out at first light for 50 to 80-milers on weekends and packing the bike commutes in during the week.

I was struck down with a nasty virus a week before the event, but got myself just about well again in time. I completed the ride in 7h25m, which wasn't quite as quick as I'd hoped, but given the illness and unexpected 30 deg C heat I wasn't too disappointed. If I'd pushed it any harder I'd have gone too deep and done myself some serious damage. Importantly I was no more than a few minutes down on the quickest of my friends. We were on-track.

This was the distance and base-mileage part of the training done, the idea being to focus the summer months on climbing and riding on consecutive days. The weather didn't help matters, but we soldiered on with lots commuting and hilly mileage around the Chilterns and other local undulations.

In July we organised a meet-up ride with some of the friends-of-friends. They were mostly Kent-based, so the Surrey hills seemed like a decent middle ground. I drafted a 70 mile route out of Dorking that culminated with a haul over Leith Hill followed by a lap of the Olympic Box Hill loop as the finale.
Come the day the weather was torrential. This combined with punctures and new bike setup niggles for one member of the group, meaning we had to cut out the final 20 miles and the 2 main climbs. That was disappointing but we'd had plenty of laughs and banter, especially with one of our group who'd adopted the practice of taping a digital radio to his stem and riding round to the dulcet tones of Smooth FM. What started with astonishment and ridicule soon gave way to acceptance, and I actually started to look forward to the idea of scaling the Galibier accompanied by a bit of French jazz. Sadly the radio met its end before the big trip, so that was one unique experience that never materialised.

I'd started seriously watching my diet and beer intake after the Chiltern Hundred, and by August had dropped 4 inches round the waist and around 2 stones in weight compared with when I'd started to get serious about road riding a couple of years previously.
A family holiday in Dorset saw a couple of careless kilos go back on, but did get me a fantastic training ride the full length of the Purbeck Hills and back again.

With a final couple of hilly blasts and a few days of rest we were as ready as we could be. We'd had the route details for months and had seen some scary numbers, but my lack of alpine experience meant I had no way of quantifying them. On one hand I knew I was in decent physical shape, but on the other I knew there was going to be a big psychological battle to win.

I was looking forward to it hugely, but with a big dose of nerves.

To be continued...

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

First Post: Chute!!! As they say in France.

I live about 25 miles from my office, and at least once per week I aim to commute in and home on the road bike. We're lucky, having good shower and changing facilities, as well as secure cycle parking. There's no excuses really, unless the weather is particularly bad.

Yesterday I charged up the lights, packed my rucksack and donned a bit of garish-but-probably-wisest hi-viz, and set out just before 7. The weather forecast had shown nighttime temperatures hovering a couple of degrees above zero, but once out onto the lanes there was a lot of frost, and after a couple of miles, on a fast straight descent, I felt my rear wheel drifting off into the gutter.

I am not what you'd call one of life's graceful people - I have my fair share of knocks and bumps, but when it comes to cycling I can usually keep it rubber side down. Lots of practice I suppose.

Instinct took over and with a small shift of body weight and a tweak of the bars I had control again, running straight and true. Disaster averted, but I'd received the warning loud and clear - I was going to have to keep the pace steady and my wits about me.

The next lane is a particularly treacherous one in winter, always wet from farmyard overspill. A friend of mine hit the deck down there a couple of winters ago, and was sporting a purple and yellow pancake-size bruise on his hip for weeks.
Keen to avoid a similar fate, I nursed the bike down that hill, taking it slow with a neutral position, feathering the brakes on the dry sections and rolling gently across anything wet or frosty looking.

Safely at the bottom, the A1 footbridge comes next. This is always ridden slowly in a low gear because
a.) the ramps are steep
b.) it has tight hairpin turns
c.) it is covered in moss and horse poo - an ideal surface!
The frost made it even more slippery than usual, I span the rear wheel with too much power a couple of times, had a slight slip on one of the bends, but kept things upright.

After the bridge is the final lane before the northernmost reaches of London's urban sprawl. There's an initial bend, and then it's a straight mile or so with a short sharp climb, a slightly longer descent and then a gradual climb into the outskirts of Barnet.
The descent and lower part of the long climb are usually wet from an adjacent quarry and yet more farmyard outflowings, but the frost had subsided here, and subconsciously I relaxed a little. A van passed me as I started the descent and I let the pace rise, cruising down after it. The van got to about 100 yards ahead, when suddenly it's straight path started to wander. As the brake lights illuminated the wandering accelerated into a fast spin, which was then followed by a crunching and splintering as it ploughed along the verge. Fragments of headlamp and bumper were strewn across the road before the vehicle came to rest with a final gravelly crunch in a gateway.
At some point early in these proceedings, my brain sensed the danger and flicked-open the adrenaline valve. I watched the whole thing in perfect slow motion, taking in every last detail whilst simultaneously assessing my own situation.

- Lots of time and space to react? Check.
- Any other traffic around me? Check - I hear cars behind.
- Is my road surface safe? Check.


One second I was squeezing the brakes gently to scrub off some speed, the next I had hit the deck and was sliding along on my right hand side, coming to a halt 20 yards down the road. The front wheel had locked up on black ice and instantly slid from underneath me.

Should've seen that one coming.

Fortunately the traffic behind had kept its distance, and slowly crawled by as I peeled myself off the road and assessed the damage. The rear light on my rucksack had been grated to pieces, and the bar tape, pedal and saddle picked up some scuffs.
Physically I got off lightly, with a slightly sore right arm and a dead left leg where the handlebars had whipped round and jabbed me. But nothing serious.

After gathering up the remains of the light and retrieving my water bottle I remounted and pedalled on. The van's driver had climbed out, and we exchanged a couple of words, neither of us seemingly too shaken. He'd seen my slide after he came to rest, probably taking some solace that he wasn't the only one caught out.
I pulled out the BlackBerry and cancelled my 9 o'clock meeting, and took it easy for the rest of the ride in.
I wussed out of the ride home and took the bike on the train. It was colder than forecast and I didn't fancy risking another "Chute".

Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.