Autumn

The air bites, not hard, but a nibble nonetheless. The season has turned and the faintest hints of the long cold mornings of winter are beginning to wake from their summer slumber. For the first few miles I ponder whether I really should have worn gloves.

Away to the East the sky is not quite black but full of a heavy navy hue,  imposing, looming. It pushes down hard on a thin line of cyan, as dawn lurks below the horizon. As I ride along a gravelly farm track I skirt a large field which falls away gently to the riverbank. It’s so early that water is only really distinguishable as a flat swathe across the otherwise equally dark but more erratic surfaces of fields and hedgerows.

Autumn is a time of transition, from the heat and light of summer to the cold and dark of winter, from the excitement of the racing season into a long steady phase of training and preparation. Fittingly this polar change is played out in a microcosm during each autumn ride. Rides start in the dark and end in the light (or vice-versa) and shift from cold to warm (or the other way)…

And so, with each minute that passes, the night recedes and I can pick out more of my surroundings. Having started my morning ride negotiating a wooded track in complete darkness, less than twenty minutes later the day is dawning strongly. Likewise the chill of cool air is soon displaced by the warm glow radiating out from inside me.

As I ride a short section across open farmland I can clearly see that, where just a couple of weeks ago the field was roughly ploughed with traces of the debris of harvest still scattered across the top, it is now flat with fine lines rippling the surface. Someone will probably be dining on the harvest of this year for some time, but the seeds have already been sown for the next year…

Back into the woods and as I dive down a sharp descent I find myself atop a section of path corrugated with tree roots and I’m struck by how much grip I find. Once the damp of winter set its they’ll be come highly treacherous, for now i’m still reaping the fruits of The Hottest Summer Since Records Began which has dried most of the earth into a fast hard surface.

A few late blooms of the racing season are still flowering, but personally I’m starting this autumn back at the very beginning of the journey of growth. After all, the slowest ’10’ of my life aside, it’s over 6 years since I last finished a race and I’m still wary of the disillusionment that led me to abandon my racing all that time ago. As a result I’ve taken this turning point in the year as an opportunity to forensically dissect the trails and bridlepaths, carefully tracing the dozens of paths that criss-cross the few square miles of local woods, steadily imprinting the options they  present in my mind, reducing the number of inevitable loops I leave with my GPS trace. It’s not easy when so much of the dense suburban woodland looks the same, or when the shifting of the seasons can lead to areas quickly becoming unrecognisable as the colours, surfaces and undergrowth change. But it does inject some exploration into what I’m doing, a welcome feature when so many years of cycling can sometimes lead to a feeling that precious little is new, and a perfect foil for that time of year when the old is fading away and the shoots of next year are at beginning of their journey…

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Guess who’s back?

Somehow it seemed fitting that, in the same week I hear that Brucie dropped a surprise new album, I should be plotting my own comeback from a lengthy hiatus…

I’ve made a few, abortive, attempts to return to bike racing over the last few years. Ironically I’ve ridden more regularly in the last few years than I ever did when I was racing, but rides have typically topped out at 6 kilometers – the distance from home to work. There’s been a fair smattering of 2-up rides – channelling Anquetil and Altig – albeit with a stoker who never seems to contribute but it hasn’t been much of a training regime.

On top of this a Greek tragedy has been a tedious companion over recent years although, in retrospect, asthma has probably cast a longer shadow over my cycling ‘career’ than I would care to consider. But, with a solid collection of pills and inhalers, combined with stagiaires who have matured to a stage where I seem to be able to string several sleepless nights together on occasion, I have begun to train again. And with the beginnings of a base being established, I decided to pin a number on my back once again.

And so it was that, after a tedious dash across the Essex countryside – seemingly finding every possible form of delay possible enroute – I pulled into a rural pub carpark, only 3 minutes later than the advertised signing-on closing time. Thankfully, as the start line was a mere 200yds away, the organiser/pusher-off/timekeeper/finish judge (seriously – these jobs were all taken on by one chap) was still sitting on the tailgate of his car and happy to take my cash in exchange for ‘lucky’ number 13…

Thanks to my late arrival I had only a few minutes to warmup. I rolled up towards the start line to see number 10 at the line, 11 and 12 loitering keenly, so turned back down the road to shake some life into my legs. By the time I returned the road was empty and I had only 30-seconds to my start time… 20 seconds to go was called as I settled into position. 10 to go and I was fiddling with my Garmin. 5, I pressed ‘start’ on my GPS. 3,2…. What have I got myself into here… 1…. I push away hard on my right foot and, ridiculously, my left foot scrabbles to clip in… Clunk, and away…

The course is a sporting one, twisting in the first mile, then rolling before a longish descent (which disappointingly appeared rather more a false flat on the out-leg) to a turnaround with a (rare-ish?) right turn followed by three lefts before retracing my pedal strokes back to the start.

Thanks to my brief warmup my heart-rate was quickly up to something resembling ‘time-trial effort’ and, baring the brief leap to stratospheric heights when a motorbike flashed past – engine screaming – inches from my right knee, leveled at a rate I felt I held reasonably consistently throughout. Admittedly the taste of vomit that surfaced around mile 6 was probably a good indicator that the effort had drifted a little too far at that point but it was no comparison for the hefty retching that ensued after I had sprinted for the finish line…

The end result was almost certainly the slowest ’10’ I have ever raced, despite the caveat that the course is probably slightly over distance. However this was only ever about one thing, experiencing a race for the first time in over half a decade. It was a shock to the system but hopefully the start of something more, in 2019.

Me and the Mont de la Croix der Maple Syrup

Despite it’s diminutive stature, topping out at a mere 233 m, the French saw fit to name the former volcano in the largest city of Quebec Mont Royal  and, having spent some time upon its slopes stretching my legs, it seemed churlish not to write about it…

A work trip to Montreal saw me put up in a hotel practically in the shadow of the city’s namesake and hence I took advantage of the 4am wakeups that I carried through most of the week away (“thanks” time zones…).

Clearly Mont Royal is THE go-to place for the Montréalaise to get their outdoor exercise. Although the hill is dotted with chunky stone staircases to facilitate the ascent of tourists to the Mont Royal Chalet and its panoramic views, a number of wide gravel roads also trail across the slopes and play host to an apparently constant trickle of runners and cyclists.

For me the best access point to the Mont was from the aptly named Avenue des Pins and, truth be told, starting my run here each day meant I swapped running straight from my hotel up the (550 metres at 12%) Chemin de la Cote-des-Neiges for a sedate walk to a more reasonable starting point… The entrance from des Pins led over a brief section of cobbles then onto a mini-Alpine sequence of hairpin bends (Chemin Serpentine), turning the steep slope into a steady but more manageable gradient. Then it was onto the Chemin Olmsted,  commemorating the landscape architect who was responsible for the original (but unrealised) plans for the park on the Mont. With a couple of sharp kicks up this path led all the way up to the Chalet and a junction that allowed me to turn onto the Boucle du sommet. Despite the name this path actually looped round just below the actual summit, and it took some wandering about to locate the most likely ‘top’. But it did take me round to the Croix de Mont Royal on a route that was pretty much false flat throughout and therefore quite a sting in the legs when combined with the constant ascent to the Chalet.

The most welcome feature of the whole endeavour was the presence of water fountains on the upper slopes of Mont Royal. For every run the temperature was in the high 20’s and being able to access cool water from a tap atop a ‘mountain’ was a rare treat.

Unfortunately the context to the 27km that I trotted out whilst 6000 miles from home is that my form has been up and down like a yo-yo since November 2017, due to an ongoing string of chest infections and apparent flareups of asthma. My medication stash is steadily growing and, based on the sub 53minute 10k I managed a few weeks ago, when it works, it works. But the variability, combined with a focus this year on my other hobby, has meant that the vague dream of returning to competition in 2018 was well derailed by February. But at least i’ve managed to get back to a position where, when time and location allows, I can nip out for a run up a mountain…

 

 

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…

 

 

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…