A long overdue ‘thankyou’ note…

Although penned as a contribution to a weekly tradition that has emerged on the social media page of a, ahem, ‘collective‘ I used to ride with, it seemed churlish not to recycle the content here too…

“I’d better start with an introduction because I have no doubt that few, if any, of the Dodici will recognise my name. Although a flurry of messages exchanged with the sage Neil Appleby did underline the ubiquity of this situation, a theme to which I shall return in the main body of my text.

Like Hemingway in Paris, or the Beatles in Hamburg, I spent a short but formative period of my youth in Birmingham, albeit in my own case pedalling through my apprentice as a cyclist alongside tottering early steps on my actual ‘day job’ career ladder. As a result, from mid 2005 until late 2006, I did a fair chunk of riding on Saturday mornings, and Wednesday evenings, on routes that will be very familiar to you, the current crop of SD riders. And so, with a heavy nod to self indulgent reminiscing (aren’t soapboxes for ranting chaotically from anyway?), I’m going to take advantage of this platform to wax lyrical about that time in what should be read as a thinly veiled thankyou letter to ‘the 7:12’ and those characters who shaped me in my early days as a cyclist… Also, in a vain attempt to keep in touching distance of the impressive authoring of contributors to date (proof that the SD enjoys Galacticos both of the road, and of the pen), I’ll also be attempting to weave a smattering of pseudo-intelligent cultural & sporting references into my prose, some obscure, some more obvious. I’m genuinely interested in whether people can decipher them all…

My story began, as so many did, with a naive step through a tatty yellow door, quickly followed by a brusque assessment by a lanky Antipodean, of what items I’d be taking home in exchange for a wedge of my hard earned salary, and a parting shot of an invite (was it an order?) to a 7am rendezvous that coming weekend. I get the impression that he prefers the thwack of leather on willow these days, as is a mans prerogative, but undoubtedly we all owe a thankyou to Alister.

It’s useful to reflect on the words of LP Hartley at this point, indeed: “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. And so it was in mid-2005. Cycling itself was in a very different place to where it is found today: electronic shifters were outmoded nonsense from the past, (justifiable?) treachery in Madrid was yet to come, the Boss hadn’t even racked up all his TdF titles yet.

But more notably (and this is the crucial plot hinge) we didn’t have social media: Facebook was yet to be unleashed on the world, GPS was rare and Strava a dream for the future. And so, despite me wanting to say ‘thankyou’ to people who made a great impression on me, I barely know what they are called. At best you might catch a forename but, all in the same shades and helmet disguise, riders were usually primarily discernable by bike (“you know, he’s got ‘Big Leg Emma’ written on the fattest chainstay I’ve ever seen“…), their performance astride said machine and the content of the chat you might exchange as you rotated through the group (“Haven’t seen you out much – but you’re going well though?”. “Yes, I usually spend Oct – Feb cross country running instead of cycling – but when I come back I just tell everyone I haven’t ridden a bike all winter!”).

For me, one particularly moment stands out in the memory from the performance side. When I first rolled out from Bristol Street there was only one ride option – go North. And as a result there was only one place where it counted at 8:50 on a Saturday morning, after a run through roundabouts and traffic lights more frantic than the approach to the Cauberg during the Amstel Gold Race, glory was to be found on the Heartlands Parkway. I was soon to be given a masterclass in bike racing on this stage.

After several weeks of riding the route I’d learned how to best cope with the demands placed by the sojourn across the Wishaw road race course (the short incline always made the legs burn, the drag up to the bridge was always longer and harder than it should have been), and that Fox Hollies Road was not the place to launch ‘a long one’… So, with pride coming before the fall, I harboured hopes of claiming scalps in the final sprint.

In my memory the rundown the A38 and into the last few turns was, on that particular day , punctuated by endless calls for care, pleas to hold a line neatly in the left hand lane, warnings about incoming cars. I’m sure it’s a fabrication, to counterpoint what was to happen, but for whatever reason I found myself in a small bunch, plotting to make a move, but also thinking carefully about doing it within the full bounds of the Highway Code. The last roundabout was navigated, at speed, but cleanly – the familiar reticence in the pace began to signal that the collaboration was collapsing and there was nothing left for me to consider but when to soar away to victory.

Then, hunched low over his bars, Birmingham CC kit sleekly covering his modest stature, the roundhouse was dealt. Outside of Channel 4 coverage of Le Tour I’d never seen anyone attack in the opposite gutter before, and I’d certainly never seen it done on British roads. What genius. It may even have been accompanied by a cry of ‘on the left’ just to throw us further off our guards… We were left trailing in Marks wake, and I was starkly reminded of both how far I had to go physically, but also given a taste of the tactical acumen that I’d need to develop if I were to ever cut it in the heady heights of actual bike racing…

Thankfully I did learn the trade, supported along the way by a range of other characters from BRAT (Him: “Why don’t you try triathlon?”, Me: “Well, I can’t swim”, Him: “Don’t worry – neither can we…”), the highest ranks of international amateur racing (In a shameless plug for my blog you can pick this point up here: https://meandthemountain.wordpress.com/2011/12/07/humility/), the less higher – but on occasion supremely more self confident  – ranks of local amateur racing (Trek 5600 for a winter bike anyone?), and countless others.

Unfortunately, in a strange parallel to my training regimen, I find that I’ve not given myself enough time to write this Soapbox entry. I’d intended to (half) unveil characters more steadily, across a number of tales of sporting endeavour (or through the medium of their heckling of pretty young ladies from the coffee shop balcony at the Bullring), but TV coverage of Paris-Roubaix is calling. So, like that magical Scottish village, the ‘shop ride’ (as I knew it) will fade back into the fog of my memory, whilst I continue to consider whether I should maintain my search for another ride that has the wonderful camaraderie it held. For, although I have continued to ride since leaving Birmingham and (despite a hiatus enforced by the arrival of a protege of my own) maintain dreams of sprinting to victory, I have never found a group of individuals as inspiring, interesting or enjoyable as those with whom I rode out in the mid-2000’s.

Chapeau gentlemen, and thankyou for the memories.”

As a postscript, and considering I have waxed lyrical about the wonder of other group rides, and moaned about them too – it’s true to say that ALL the cycling groups I’ve ridden with have had their good and bad, and I’m eternally grateful to have had company on tap when i’ve wanted it.

In fits and starts…

As I flopped out of bed at 5:45 this morning, I did take a brief moment to reflect on how lax I’d been in recent weeks about the whole ‘fitness’ thing… Best intentions do tend to fade into the distant memory in the face of a screaming toddler at 2am (which has resulted in a few weeks of broken sleep), or the general malaise brought about by a gloomy autumn/winter transition

In fact, over the last few years I’ve often berated myself for ‘getting lazy’, for no longer springing out of bed at 5am ready to bang in two hours riding before heading off to work. Truth be told, although I’ve begun to turn a corner on the demands on my time, i’m probably not going to be able to stick to a program in a single minded, above all else, sense (probably a good thing, hasn’t really worked out for him in the long run has it…). In reality, it’s probably going to have to be the first thing to give in on most occasions…

A minor triumph was realised this morning though; a victory over all the minor comforts that can seem more appealing than half-an-hour jogging along still-dark footpaths; an early start (alarm bleeping at 5:45) and a run commute into the office. à pied is definitely the most efficient exercise I can get at the moment: 6km each way on the bicycle barely sees me get warm, especially at this time of year, but 12km of running is a worthwhile effort. For sure it seems to have made something of a dint on my Parkrun times, but more on that another time…

Into routine…

I probably should not be surprised, but the hardest thing about getting back into training has been…. getting back into training…

Once upon a time it was easy for me to dedicate time to cycling and running. In the run up to my nuptials (the last time I did any serious racing) it was a welcome relief from the endless invitation writing, seating plan drafting, bunting trimming to pop out on my bike for a few hours. And it was no bother at all if I arrived home from work, then headed straight out on my bike for a couple of hours in the Essex lanes.

But, with a toddler rampaging around the house and a directeur sportif who is pleased to see another pair of hands arrive towards the end of the day, it’s not so easy any more.

I’ve tried a couple of strategies to deal with this – after all – I’ve always been a big believer that there’s more than enough time in the day, if I were pushed to choose a motto for myself I think it’d probably be: “I can rest when I’m dead”…. But sadly, perhaps it is my 30’s really getting their teeth into me, I find it harder and harder to spring out of bed with only a handful of hours sleep and do 35 miles on my bike…

My first strategy was to try and slot in sessions before the rest of the household woke. In summary: turbo trainer sessions starting at 5:30am in October are really for the dedicated. Currently I am not one of them…

The second, and seemingly more successful tactic, has been to build in ‘training’ (manifesting largely as unstructured exercise chunks if I’m honest…) into my commute. And as a result I’ve leaned towards running – the 5k from home to work being a decent distance to regularly run, with plenty of ways to sneak in an extra few klicks if required.

I’m under no illusion that I’m steadily sculpting myself back into an athlete at the moment, but a steady pattern is beginning to emerge (Thursdays is a definite ‘run in AND back’ day, Sunday is the domain of the ‘long run’) and hopefully will begin to bed down for consistencies sake. Because what I am beginning to remember, is that the routine and regularity of exercise can be very self enforcing for me, over time the habit of exercise becomes entrenched, and harder to break, just as the habit of slothing has become a rut.

It’s definitely too early to talk about gains, results or improvements. It’s certainly not the end of ‘getting back into it’ either, it may all fall apart again. But there may be a faint glimmer on the horizon that signals I may be approaching “the end of the beginning” of ‘getting back into it’… And that has to be an achievement surely?

It’s a Killer….

The last few weeks have, against all odds, seen the steady adoption of something resembling a training regime. September/October have largely been earmarked for simply trying to get into a routine of doing some exercise. For simplicity this has manifested as quite a bit of running, although I have squeezed in a few (wobbly) sessions on the rollers….

So, when the Directeur Sportif and I made the 200 mile trip “oop North” to see family, I thought I’d take my running shoes and take advantage of the unique locus of my parents house. That was my first mistake…

Perched atop a rocky promontory, which is straddled by the Staffordshire / Cheshire county boundaries, Mow Cop towers above much of the surrounding countryside. I call it ‘the last hill in the Pennines’: to the East there lies the Staffordshire Moorlands and the Peak District, to the West there is the ‘Cheshire Gap’.

This unique aspect means that there is one truth about Mow Cop: all roads go up. None more so than the approach from the West, which is notorious in cycling circles, and which has also hosted a frankly murderous running race over the years – known as ‘The Killer Mile’… Gulp…

After a measured lunchtime fuelling session (fish & chips) and a steady warm up (playing with toy cars with my son) I pulled on my trainers and headed off. Simply jogging round the village to reach the dreaded road was tough – running around Essex has spoiled me… The descent was hard, running down steep hills is no picnic, but the slog back up was without parallel. I had expected to find it tough, but hadn’t expected to be brought to a standstill. 3 times…

GPS courtesy of Garmin and segments courtesy of Strava reveal the vital stats:

I ‘ran’ for about 500m before I cracked, the whole ‘Killer Mile’ actually comprising 1.5km (over a mile…)

It took my 16:04 to complete the ‘mile’ – I averaged 10:37 minutes/kilometre. I think this qualifies as ‘walking’, or possibly even ‘crawling’…

The ascent is something resembling 165 metres of climbing – averaging roughly 1 in 10 across the climb overall but with not a single level step over the whole mile, and at it’s worst 1 in 4 for about 50 metres…

I might think twice before having another go….

Testing times…

Improvement is hard work. But it starts with some basics:

1. Decide on some targets. Without these you are completely aimless. It can be a benchmark time at a distance, or an event with a pre-determined date. Either way, you need at least one of these.

2. Work out the calendar. This is more important if you have an event in mind – but even if you don’t – you still need to have some kind of structure to what you are doing to make the most of your efforts.

3. Find out where you’re coming from. This means testing. Which hurts. Errr, which way is the exit again…?

1. Is easy for me – I’d like to ride the Little Mountain Time Trial in 2016, ideally in a sub-2 hour time. I’d also like to get inside 1hr for a 25 mile time-trial next year. Both are going to be hard work – and will take me beyond what i’ve achieved in the past. I will also be trying to do this on a road-bike, rather than the dedicated time-trial bike I had in the past. On the LMTT this probably won’t be such a hindrance, the challenge for me there will be loosing weight and improving my climbing. The sub-hour 25 may be slightly more hampered…

2. Is also fairly straight forward – the LMTT will be at the end of April 2016. The 25 I can do anytime, although i’ll probably want to seek out an event on a fast-ish course and, unwilling to trek about the country to do so, I may need to scan the East Anglia events list for 2016 carefully.

3. Now, this is REALLY simple. All I need to do is ride as hard as I can for 30 minutes – and record my average heart rate for the last 20 minutes. And I don’t mean ‘a bit out of puff’ or ‘ooh – I might feel that a bit in the morning’, I mean properly hard. As hard as possible. ‘Probably going to vomit when this is over’ hard. Because there’s no point in fooling yourself, and when it comes to race day – that’s how hard I will try.

The intention is to establish the heart rate that relates to my Lactate Threshold, which is an important number in working out what sort of intensity my training sessions should follow. Over the last few years training using heart rate has been somewhat surpassed by the use of power meters (which measure the actual power that a rider is producing, rather than the rate that their heart is beating). But I am not interested in spending more money on technology, I know that following any sort of structured regime yields results for amateur athletes like myself, and – if heart rate based training was good enough for Big Mig – it’s good enough for me.

So this morning I rode steadily out to the start-line of a local ten-mile time trial course. I held a brief track-stand for a few seconds, just before the line, then pushed on. Thanks to the proliferation of GPS into mobile phones I had Strava recording in my back pocket all the way (so i’d find out my ‘actual’ time over the 10 miles too) and after about 5k I pressed start on my Garmin to capture the 20 minute effort.

It was hard work. Within the first few corners i’d completely misjudged my line, been ruffled by a patch of sand inside a bend and run wildly onto the wrong side of the road. Luckily nothing was coming. From there on I concentrated on pushing the pedals and keeping on my side of the road. One of the commonly cited flaws of heart-rate based training was evident, a steady tailwind pushing me up the road for 8 or 9 minutes, then a hard headwind back the other way – and my heart rate did fluctuate across the effort somewhat. But, evidenced by the extensive and violent retching that I did after passing the ‘finish line’, I did lay down something close to a peak effort. And I got the data – average heart rate 167bpm. Armed with this knowledge I can sit down and do some planning to work out how to pace some of my training sessions over the next few weeks.

The real joy of the matter is, lactate threshold responds to training. So it shifts. Which means I need to do some more testing, probably the same again in 6-8 weeks time.

Great.

Can’t wait….

P.S. Of course, the number I was really interested in seeing was my time over the 10 mile course. For a course with something around a 22-minute record, I managed a forgettable 30:27 / 30:34 (depending which of the 3 different Strava courses I take the time from). Looks like that training is needed after all…..

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…