Ronde Picarde 2017

They say it all happens in slow motion and, truth be told, I did have what felt like a rather long – drawn out – fraction of a second to audit my regrets into a semblance of order as I waited for the inevitable to occur…

  • The training I had not done. Below the radar, or at least without overblown ‘blog based braggadocio, I have actually put in the most consistent year of riding in 2017 since 2012 – which has to count for something? However a sense of complacency since completing a 200+ km ride in early August had led to me skipping midweek efforts in the weeks approaching my own Grand Depart and as a result I approached the Boulevard Vauban with a mild sinking feeling in my heart. And legs….
  • My decision to actually get out of bed that morning. The conditions for the 2017 Ronde Picarde offered a much stronger sinking feeling for the riders who clumped together, like penguins desperately seeking the warmth of a communal huddle, on the streets of Abbeville as the most torrential rain I have ever experienced astride a bike lashed the startline mercilessly and filled the gutters. I should have learned my lessons from the last race I started in ‘less than optimum conditions’…
  • The mechanical preparation I had overlooked. My first trip to buy a tyre specifically for my ‘race’ bike in literally 10 YEARS had been left until less than 48 hours before I crossed the start line but, with the benefit of the weather forecast indicating every filthy flint in France was likely to be washed onto the roads of Picardy, I was determined to minimise the chances of a puncture. This obsession with avoiding flats pushed sensible thoughts about lowering tyre pressures to compensate for even lower grip levels in the wet to one side…

But, with no further ado, the time for reminiscing was quickly over. And I crashed down onto the disappointingly firm French tarmac, slid swiftly into the curb, and settled down in the verge to repent at my leisure. Not the impact I had hoped to make on cycling in 2017….

But it’s probably better to start at the beginning, 9 months ago, when an attempt to focus a return to cycling led me to commit to a place on the annual trip to the Nord led by one of my regular ride companions. I’d started the event 3 times previously, although my 2015 effort had ended ignominiously, so I knew what was required. This has underpinned a long but steady return to training, albeit with a focus purely on endurance and largely made up of 6am starts mid-week to squeeze in miles before work. The joys of parenthood…

This renaissance on wheels was both derailed, and subsequently bolstered by, my diagnosis as an asthmatic in March. This heralded some, initially tedious, trial-and-error experimentation with various steroid inhalers which ultimately proved successful, and an ongoing prescription for heavy duty antihistamines. In the months since diagnosis this seems to have actually addressed some of the post ride ‘sore lung’ symptoms I’ve wondered about for years and, I think, have contributed heavily to the longest period of training without illness I’ve ever managed…

The aforementioned double hundred (cough, “k”) ride was therefore the cherry on the cake of relatively solid prep and solid health and August ended with an honest self-assessment that, although I would not find it easy to ride the Ronde Picarde, and I was likely to act as the sweeper for the dozen or so other riders likely to be on the trip with me, it was certainly eminently achieveable.

And so the preceeding Friday (for the yearly trip to the Ronde now follows a predictable 3 day pattern of drive out + Short ride, LONG ride + beer, possible short ride + drive home) started well with a jaunt across the Channel in a car full of the usual cycling accoutrements: a fellow competitor/peage toll operator in the passenger seat, a boot full of bikes and lycra, and a faint whiff of embrocation in the air. Despite the usual painful experience of watching a troupe of mostly middle-aged men battle with the shelves and aisles of a Hyper-U there was plenty of time for an hour spin around some quiet French lanes, although the state of the roads was apparent. Saturday was set to be a dirty experience.

With excessive good sense I even made the decision to skip the traditional fine dining at Les Tisons and so woke in good time on Saturday feeling fresh. But with my enthusiasm quickly muted by the sound of the rain apparently trying to jetwash away the roof of our gite…

The gentle rollout to the start was far better than 2015 (I was dropped after 3km on a downhill) and, despite the best part of 45 minutes huddling from the rain before the flag dropped, abject terror at what faced me did not materialise, instead I remained calm and relatively upbeat.

The first dozen or so kilometres were the usual combination of absolute chaos blended with a rough approximation of a mass start road race sans dossards but it was pleasing to find I was not jettisoned from the back of the race immediately. My pace was obviously slower than the riders I had started with, as dozens – if not hundreds – streamed past me, so I settled in for a long and steady slog, optimistic that I would eventually find a suitably paced group of riders to complete the course with. By this point I had already decided to abandon any intention to ride the full 187km Gran Fondo and expected to turn off on the ‘short’ 150km Medio route when the appropriate  route split presented itself.

My enthusiasm waned steadily over the next 20km as the early hills on the course proved harder than I had expected and, disappointingly I was still finding that the groups of riders who caught me were tough to hang onto and I continued to slip backwards. Although the weather had eased the earlier cold and rain had left me with leaden legs. Perhaps my decision to keep momentum through the over-square left hand turn off the D25 into the tiny village of Doudelainville was driven by a somewhat desperate belief I should maintain what speed I could, when I could.

And so, in a fraction of a blink of an eye, I had my first ‘sit-down’ in a bike race for years. Fortunately the Assistance Medicale was close behind, my road rash was superficial and easily bandaged, and a firm shake of my shoulders by a moto-riding doctor established my collarbone was intact. Some mangled attempts at French on my behalf convinced everyone concerned that my tete was not damaged (or at least no more than it had to be for me to be out riding a bicycle in a monsoon) and my casque had also escaped unscathed. Initially I pushed on but, as the storm clouds gathered more and more ominously on every horizon, any final vestige of determination was quenched. Post-crash I’d been passed by one of the riders with whom I’d travelled down from Essex who was experiencing un jour sans pour and once the junction was made our collective intelligence quickly concluded that a DNF and a tactical retreat to the gite was the most sensible course of action.

Ultimately this proved the best decision by far, as we turned up the driveway to the Chateaux des Alleux gites the heavens opened with more heavy rain, which set the pattern for the remainder of the day. For my companions who had continued there were varied results: one more abandon, although in that case strong legs were thwarted by terminal tyre damage, 2 riders who featured in the elite selections in the Grandfondo route, 1 who came in equally well placed in the Mediofondo, and a variety of other performances over both distances each earning a designation of ‘epic’ equal to the conditions in which the ride had unfolded. Comparisons to the 1980 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege were bandied about in the B-B-Q and beer fuelled post-ride debrief and, although the parcours had not experienced even a smattering of actual snow it had been, without doubt, a truly horrendous day on the bike for all involved…

Back in England the bruising from my chute is coming out nicely and I am reading up on the best techniques for wrapping new bar tape. After that I am aiming to get back on my bike with regularity and, hopefully, I can carry better momentum from the last few months than I did into that cheeky left-hander…

 

 

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It’s a long way (from home)

The flavour of recent rides has been distinct – long and slow. The ‘long’ has been necessary, the ‘slow’ unfortunate, but in any event the legwork that I have done in the last couple of months has been with one aim in mind: La Ronde Picarde 2015.

A fair few rides which tick the ‘endurance’ box, long in time if not necessarily in distance, have been tackled; a trip out to circumnavigate Hanningfield Reservoir, a grind across North Essex, a brief invasion of Suffolk,  and a couple of more compact sojourns in the greater Colchester area. For the 150km, likely 6 hour +, ‘short’ Ronde course it was probably going to be a thin veil of preparation, but it was better than nothing.

What was most apparent about each of these rides was the fantastic distances which a simple bicycle can take you. Although a sensible approach to training would be to loop around roads near to home, in case a mechanical should require the summoning of the team car, a handy trick to ensure a long ride is completed is to ride something resembling an ‘out and back’ route. If the will begins to waver simple geometry takes care of it, when you reach the halfway point you are a long way from home. And there’s only one way back…

So it was somewhat ironic that, as my companions on the trip across La Manche raced away from the start pen in Abbeville, I was reflecting on the precise distance from the Baie de Somme to the EuroTunnel terminal in Calais and thence home. For whatever reason my body had chosen the weekend of 11/12 Sept to embrace the kind of brief viral infection that contents itself only with a swift purge of the digestive tract. Not exactly the best conditions under which to hunch over astride a push-bike and pummel ones stomach 90 times a second with ones thighs. For a few hours…

So, unfortunately, the longest ride I managed on the other side of the Channel was the pre-ride, ride. Nonetheless, the 30km or so we covered was enjoyable even though I struggled to keep pace with the group at times (perhaps an early indication that things were not right). The less said about the rest of the weekend, the better, suffice to note that, as the other chaps approached the first feedstop, I was approaching the Chunnel check-in, as they rolled over the finish line I was crawling into bed back home in Blighty…

A post (non) race analysis has left me with a fresh resolve. I will absolutely be taking better care of myself during this latest comeback. It’s not the first time illness has put paid to a planned event, but it’s certainly the most frustrating. Hopefully taking a leaf out of the Team Sky book and thinking about some simple steps (a little more sanitizing gel here and there, a few less 7am burgers at EuroTunnel Folkestone) will reduce the chances of this happening again…

Of course, I can also cheer myself with the recollection that, although I had a bad day at the Ronde Picarde 2015, at least I didn’t end up in Amien A&E in a neck brace, like one of the chaps I had gone over with. And to think that he’s the one who tells everyone he was pro for a year…

Going long…

I’d forgotten ‘the look’ that non-cyclists give you…

“So, you still cycling much?”

“Yeah, I did just short of 5 hours this morning.”

“Err….”

With an entry to the Ronde Picarde now paid for, there’s one thing to focus on: upping the mileage. It has been a while since I have done serious miles, and even when I was racing I didn’t often find the need to get in particularly long rides – most races were over within 2 hours, max, endurance was relative…

But the Ronde is a different matter. The ‘Masters’ route, which I’ve ridden on each of the previous occasions I’ve ventured across La Manche, comes in at 187km, even the easier ‘Seniors’ route covers 150km. Add on the 10k or so to the gite and back, and it’s apparent that the second weekend in September will be a test of endurance.

So, for the next few weeks, there is but one real aim – get the long rides in. I’m under no misapprehension that, having done little in the way of quick riding for almost 3 years, the first few hours of the Ronde will be anything but pain – trying to hang on with groups that are tapping away at a steady pace somewhere in the mid 20 mph’s will doubtless hurt – but the real test will be the length of the day. Thanks to the way the mind recalls damaging past experiences, I have little memory that previous attempts took a particularly long time, or were excessively brutal on my legs, but even an optimistic calculation (say a 30kph average for the whole ride) – means I’m staring down the wrong end of 7 hours in the saddle…

So for the next few weeks, it looks like i’ll be going long…

Float like a cannonball

There used to be a time when I was intimately aware of the feedback from my body. I used to be able to ride up a climb able to gauge EXACTLY how much I had left in the tank, how many efforts I could afford to make before I would blow up, when I could go all out to reach the summit without cracking before the crest. Even now, despite not really doing enough to re-establish that connection, I’m still fairly well attuned to how much effort I’m putting out, how quickly I’m covering ground.

But there has NEVER been a time when this has applied to my running. It’s always been a painful endeavour, always feeling slow, perpetually a struggle. I’ve never been able to relax into my pace and think about going quicker, or slower, it has almost always been a case of running hard as I could – for as long as I could – and letting the actual speed take care of itself…

So, as I milled about waiting for the start of the Penistone 10k, I really wasn’t sure what was about to happen. I’d been training steadily, repeatedly shuffling up and down the longest hill in the village, but the inclines of Yorkshire are a bit different to the lumps and bumps of Essex. I had a secret weapon, my Garmin GPS, but my understanding of my lactate threshold is currently based on observations from 2011 and I’ve still not really got a proper understanding of how min/km pacing really feels…

On the basis that I wasn’t going to be troubling the podium, I didn’t push to the front of the start pen – rather loitered at the back hoping that I might get to pass a few people at the run unfolded. Across a sportsfield, then few a couple of short urban streets, then we set off for the quiet country lanes that made for the majority of the route.

Hilly is probably a bit of an understatement, the route was positively steep in some places, although mountainous is probably something of a stretch. So, after the initial exuberance that saw me cover the first couple of kilometres inside 10 minutes, I started to think about the section i’d already identified as key – the sharp (but relatively short) climb up to the high point of the course. With the summit neatly positioned at just over 5k in it was the perfect turning point – the course literally downhill from there – with just a couple of hundred metres of slight uphill at the end.

Running at a pace that felt doable – but uncomfortable – meant that I held onto the coattails of a group of runners ahead until the bottom of the climb. Then, as we headed skywards, there was the inevitable fracturing of the group – a few gazelle like individuals floated upwards – a couple of leaden legged individuals slowed to a walk – and, puffing and panting like an adenoidal steam engine, I steadily, but slowly, winched my way to the top.

Having focussed heavily on the challenge of the climb, it was a small shock to the system that I then had over 4k left to run. Clearly I had tipped slightly more effort into the climb than perhaps would have been wise. Thankfully I was able to relax my legs and allow gravity to give a hand – especially on the short section of 1 in 3 descent which must have contributed significantly to the fact that the 7th kilometre, with it’s 48m altitude loss, was the quickest of the race.

K’s 7-9 were along the Trans Pennine Trail and encompassed the pleasant surprise of a rubbery, faux tarmac, surface underfoot. I’m not sure whether the softness absorbed my effort, or added a spring to my step, but either way it was something of a relief from crashing downhill, heavy footed, on solid asphalt. By this point I was maintaining that semi-familiar feel that harked back to the few longer time-trials I have done on the bike: hurting, but clinging on.

Weaving back through a couple of turns on the roads back to the start/finish I finally overhauled a 60+ runner who was ahead of me. “I’m glad you overtook that old man at the end” said my mother afterwards…

Initially I’d hoped to have run under 55 minutes, although given the parcours I had decided I would be happy with anything within the 1 hour mark. So, as I entered the final couple of kilometres and began to calculate my likely finishing time, I was somewhat surprised to see I might crack 54 minutes. My heart rate race, steadily creeping upwards in the final kilometre, demonstrates the effort I put in. The official results show a finishing time of 53:49, although thanks to the unfortunately failure of the chip timing system, only me and Strava can verify my ‘start line to finish line’ time of 53:33.

Although my bike racing ‘career’ probably covers somewhere between 60-70 races over the years, I can count the number of running races I’ve entered on the fingers of two hands. So the Penistone 10k represents the 6th time I’ve officially ‘run a race’, and the first time I’ve raced over 10k. It was a pleasing result, on an enjoyable course, with good marshalling and organisation. Encouragingly, I can take confidence that perhaps I have reached a level of fitness where I can manage my running efforts, rather than suffer them. But best of all, I got a free T-shirt. I’m tempted to do more of this…

But for now the focus of my effort needs to shift. I’ve paid my entry fee for the Ronde Picarde – so I had better get pedalling…

Back to my roots…

Well aware that I have not blogged any signs of activity since my last post a few months ago – I thought it was time to share the beginnings of my plans. This time it has been discussed in advance with my directeur sportif so will not provoke the sort of reaction that my recent “i’m going back to bike racing” revelation did….

Somewhere in a distant corner of my memory I have some brief flashes of my earliest involvement in a ‘proper’ sporting event. Not the brief glory of playing a 5-aside game on the hallowed Oakwell turf during the half-time break during a Football League match (although that is probably the closest I’ve ever been to sporting professionalism) but, aged 3, sitting in the back seat of my dads rally car, alongside a real ‘DS’*, leading out the field in a 10K running race.

The Penistone 10k road race was an annual event, coinciding with the annual Penistone Show – with the runners entering the show ground to cross the finish line. At the time my sporting interests were more along the lines of Kwik Cricket so I didn’t exactly follow the finer details of the event and life has subsequently taken me far away from the foothills of the Peak District. However, now that i’ve come to embrace the solitude of the endurance sports, it seemed only logical to tick my ‘home’ running race off the to-do list and, of course, take the opportunity to take my young family along to their first proper ‘agricultural show‘…

A quick bit of research led to the disappointing finding that the link between show and run has now broken, the 10k taking place at the end of June for the last few years. My young son will not get to see shaggy haired cows or the cut and thrust of a rural town homemade-jam-showdown. Nevertheless, I need something to aim at. So, with slightly less preparation than I had anticipated, I have resolved to get myself into decent running shape. A steady schedule of gradually increasing mileage has, just a couple of days ago, topped out at a fairly comfortable and reasonably paced 9.2k, albeit on a parcours so flat that the Romans chose it for a chariot race track a couple of thousand years ago…

So it’s definitely on. I’ll be competing again, for the first time in over a year. And once again, i’ll be racing against my own limitations, rather than anything else. And of course – against the arbitary target of ‘sub-1 hour’ which i’ve always attached to the 10k distance…

Perhaps I will try and get a snap with my boy standing next to the lead car – as I once did. More likely i’ll be distracted by the impending challenge that www.raceroutes.co.uk calls ‘undulating’ but I will of course reserve the right to describe as ‘mountainous’

Here’s hoping the next 5 weeks of training bring a bit more spring to my step – allow a few more pounds to drop off – and make the whole experience a bit more enjoyable. But in any event, it’s good to be back into the routine of training with a goal in mind

In the intervening 30 years i've come to look more like the man with the tie, and I now have my own little blonde chap to accompany me...

In the intervening 30 years I’ve come to look more like the man with the tie, and I now have my own little blonde chap to accompany me…

* After chatting to my dad it transpired that the chap I thought was a ‘DS’ was actually a member of the Penistone Footpath Runners who was operating the big clock that sat on top of the lead car. But he was bellowing encouragement at whoever was leading the race. So close enough I guess!

If you aim for the stars…

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like writing on here. Life has changed immeasurably in the last two years, the once ubiquitous activity of bike riding has shuffled into the margins of my life, unceremoniously displaced by a new son, a new job and a new home. And irregular bursts of sports car construction

It was the task of packing the majority of my belongings for storage whilst moving into temporary accommodation (see ‘new home’ above) that really dragged at old memories. I’d forgotten how many jerseys, gloves, caps, shorts and base layers I owned. How many tubs of electrolyte powder were cluttering the top shelf in the pantry. How many hours I used to spend cycling…

But the thing that really reawakened old emotions was the complete lack of reading material in my new abode. I ended up reading the memoirs of the distasteful Tyler Hamilton and then, thanks to a local clubman advertising a clearout of his own collection of cycling literature, a couple of books on, the now even more distasteful, Lance Armstrong. My interest in professional cycling really grew through the early/mid-2000’s so I remembered watching some of the pivotal moments cited in The Secret Race and Seven Deadly Sins. Never mind that I was reading about them through the lens of doping exposure, in spite of it all it was still the romance of the phenomenal climbing exploits of the Grand Tour riders that struck the strongest chords…

And so it was with a heavy nod towards the drug-addled athletic efforts of some of the riders I *ahem* ‘admire’ the most that I decided it was time to set a few targets. Although life has definitely been getting in the way of my cycling the real crux of the matter has been the lack of something to aim for (to paraphrase another drug-cheat/cycling hero…). Of course this has largely been of my own making, although at the time I didn’t realise that my decision to quit racing would, by default, turn into a decision to (almost) quit riding altogether… And there was me thinking that I wasn’t a particularly competitive person…

And, on the basis that I need to have a goal in mind in order to bring purpose to my riding, I have decided it is time to take on a ride that has been looming in the background for too long. Although it seems hard to remember the time, when I first began to imbue the ethos of cycling, the most successful British cyclist wasn’t a track-rider turned (possible) Classics contender, or The Fastest Man on Earth (TM), but a brutally hard Nottinghamshire lad, who paid the ultimate price for his want to win. From the first time I read of the famous ‘lunar landscape’ of Mont Ventoux it seemed to be a place that embodied the most phemonenal physical performances, inspite of the tragedy ingrained in the place. Subsequently I came to understand the importance of Ventoux to le Tour which only served to underline the esteem in which I held the Giant of Provence.

Hence I have resolved to make an attempt on Mont Ventoux. Not necessarily in 2015, as I will try to incorporate the trip into a family holiday to the South of France, which may be better done when the aforementioned new son is a little older. But preparation will be in order if I am to make the most of riding a Tour climb, and as a result there will be purpose to each session on the bike.

There are also a few other goals which I’ve also decided to take on. Enough time has elapsed that the memory of the things I disliked about competing has faded and I am inspired once again to take on some local races. So in no particular order I will also work towards laying some ghosts to rest in the following: criteriums, time-trials, distance runs, some muddy stuff and, it goes without saying, the Mountain… Not necessarily all in 2015 but all of these will have specific targets attached to them. Of course I don’t have much hope of emulating the pro’s, but as they say: If you aim for the stars, you might just end up on the moon…

I remember this…

Written back in December, before it all changed (but more on that when I can find the time)….

The night creeps in stealthily, before 3pm the skies begin to darken and the garden begins to drift into a dreary monochrome. Still air begins to chill, suddenly, and as I stand on the patio the tendrils of cold reach across the ground and up into my body. It’s Sunday evening – in the morning i’ll be back at my desk, too busy for cycling – so it’s not a hard decision to make – “I think i’ll pop out on my bike for a little while this evening darling, that OK?”….

With fatherly duties half discharged it’s 5pm before I retrieve my bike from the garage. Night has fallen now, and outside the road is a dusty grey, with an orange aura from the street lights highlighting the imperfections in the tarmac.

Through a lack of repetition the ritual of preparing for a ride is gradually deserting me, I sometimes find myself heading out  for a  ride without inner tubes, or water bottle, and on this occasion it is my eyewear that I have forgotten. It’s a strange feeling to have the air against my eye – having spent the last 25 years wearing glasses for everyday use and always teaming contact lenses with clear lens glasses – it’s like riding without a helmet, or without clipless pedals. Strangely I feel closer to my surroundings – more in contact with the elements…

As I head into the country lanes I fire up my bike light. Not the flimsy, pathetic glow, of the bike lights of my childhood, but a blazing modern LED lamp. The beam bounces from road signs two or three hundred yards up the road and illuminates my path perfectly. Unnervingly the beam is so intense it casts a heavy shadow in my peripheral vision, giving the constant impression of a gloomy figure pacing me throughout the ride…

As I toil up the first incline the beam sways and weaves across the road in front of me. My gaze focuses close to my front wheel – watching out for potholes or debris. As the road levels out I lift my head and begin to scan my surroundings. Riding near the coast limits the view in certain directions, but the strange paradox of night is that distant flickering lights belie the existence of hitherto unknown settlements. Across the estuary, hours away by bike, they seem so close I could almost reach out and touch them…

Steadily I  grind onwards, occasionally crossing busier routes where the steady stream of cars provides a pool of light,  but largely riding through silent,  darkened country lanes…

It’s incredible how awkward the body feels when doing something unfamiliar. And shocking how that can apply to something previously so intuitive. Previously I would throw the bike into a bend – a supreme confidence in my ability to navigate the turn – but now the subtle feedback from the changing road surface makes me nervous and cautious. Contact points with the bike become sore and ache far more quickly than they used to – the soreness of leg muscles progresses in tandem with aching neck and forearms.

In spite of this I have incredibly lucid moments of connection with a time that seems long ago. A clarity of recognition as I recall winter rides from previous years. The smell of the cold – the sting of cool drizzle on my face – the eerie quiet of a rural lane. Most satisfyingly – the biting chill of cold air into the lungs every time I make an effort up a climb. There’s nothing more satisfying than making an investment in training. For all that cycling can be a thankless master – never allowing you to be as quick as you’d like – it is fair in the rewards it provides: put in an effort this time, you’ll go a little quicker next time…

Call it sentimentality, call it nostalgia: being out ‘training’ feels good. It’s not enough to take me back to racing – or even to club rides (which is a whole other story) – but i’m certainly becoming more inspired to ride.