Suffering in Suffolk

It only took 55 minutes for the team car to wend its way from North Essex to the race HQ at a small industrial estate in the middle of the Suffolk village of Debenham, but in many ways the journey to my first ‘Open’ time trial since 2012 has taken the best part of 3 and a half years…

I’d always struggled with colds and viruses during the winter months, and even during my racing heyday had complained to my GP about my recurring blocked nose each spring and the fact I seemed to invariably pick up two or three chest infections, requiring antibiotics each winter. About 10 years ago I had even asked “might I have asthma?”, had been handed a peak flow meter, and when I pushed the gauge up to over 600 litres per minutes had been assured there was nothing wrong with my lungs…

Despite the 2011 assertion, it turned they were wrong. This was just the start of the inhaler roulette…

Despite my optimism in the late summer of 2018, attempts to return to structured training over the winter of 18/19 were thwarted by continuing asthma problems, which again resurfaced in late 2019, ultimately leading to my 5th different steroid inhaler regimen in 3 years by January 2020 following an actual asthma attack. Shortly after that, well, I think Spring 2020 is probably best forgotten all round…

And so, the uninterupted training block for the Stowmarket CC 20TT eventually began in around August 2020, charting a steady development from a loose mix of mountain bike rides, turbo sessions, and even occasional core workouts, which solidified into a reasonably consistent post-Christmas weekly pattern based around classic 2×20 threshold sessions mid-week (in homage to Wednesday night 10TTs), big gear strength efforts on a Friday and some sort of base/endurance ride on the weekend. Rinse and repeat on a 3 week cycle with a recovery week in between.

As a result, quiet confidence was in the air – until 2 days before race day, when I decided to recee the course by car, directeur sportif despondently agreeing it was perhaps a good way to try and get the stagiaries off to sleep, in the back seats. The BS33 might well be in the plains of East Anglia, but the course boasts 240m of climbing and, within the first 5 miles, I was highly disappointed to encounter a 12% gradient sign, in the unfavourable orientation and on the immediate exit to a particularly tight bend which would undoubtably scrub off any attempt to carry speed into the incline. In hindsight, it was useful to know the parcour, but I decided on the subsequent drive back down the A12 that sub-1hr would be a fantastic result, somewhere nearer 1:10 more likely, and anything north of 1:10 an excuse to reverse over my bike in the carpark afterwards…

At 2pm on the 17th, 19 minutes short of my start time, I rolled out from the HQ and made an inexpert effort at a short warm-up (definitely an area I could work on). My legs were tense, a comnbination of the stressed rush to pack the car an hour earlier and nervous anticipation as to the agony to come.

All too quickly, #18 was counted away and I rolled up the starters. Behind me I could practically hear my minute-man, seeded ‘on a 10’ and thefore a bonafide ‘fast man’, licking his lips at how quickly he’d catch me. Time was accelerating: “30 seconds”, “20”, “10” and then “5, 4,3” flew by in the time I took to breathe in and then….. a glacial slowing as a heavy wave of fear rose up through my chest to my shoulders…… “2”…… hours passed as I stared vacantly down the road to the 90 degree left-hand bend…….. “1”…………. “Go!” – and I was off, pushing hard with my right foot and then scrabbling ridiculously to clip in my left, not quite into a sprint but pushing the pedals enough to require a dab on the brakes as I leaned into the first bend.

The first mile and a half of the course descended steeply, down to a gravelly left hander opening across a field of potholes and introducing a mile of constant climbing. I’d already hit my peak heart rate, topping out at 171bpm, and the steeper bottom section was especially tough. My minute-man caught me before i’d reached the next crest, but after that the rolling hills felt pleasingly quick, requiring much less the usual time-trial steady state effort, instead a series of short punchy efforts, each followed by a brief respite on a descent.

Just after 3 miles the left hand bend at Pettaugh (not a ‘turn’, as the minor road feeds into the A-road thanks no doubt to some historical road management incongruity) signalled the start of the sharpest series of climbs, nuanced by tight bends and off-camber surfaces, which segued into a remenant of the Coddenham-Peasenhall Roman road, the tarmac uncompromisingly bludgeoning up two drags, arrow straight. Reader, this hurt. A lot.

At the 6-mile point another gravelly left-hand bend heralded the next phase of the course – a long thin snake of a country road, winding through several small villages, including 4 miles of steady ascent and featuring sporadic brutal potholes (kindly highlighted by the organisers with lurid yellow paint). As the headwind erroded by energy several more riders passed – each with generous words of encouragement – with the possible exception of my 11 minute man, who was but a blur as he powered to a course record at an incredible average speed of over 29mph….

An old clubmate had followed me off the start line a few minutes after 14:19, and I’d established the mental aim to keep him behind me until the northernmost part of the course, the final junction at 15 miles. To my statisfaction Occold came and went without a blue and white rider passing me but, despite sometime of a tailwind for the first time, by now any vague indication of souplesse was gone, my legs were stiffening with each pedal stroke and the unwanted catch came with a couple of miles left to ride. The road had returned to the same lumpen pattern as the first section, juddering downwards on broken tarmac, kicking up past a roadside pond and a huge fallen tree, winding over rolling terrain and false horizons, before another short Romanesque dip, down over the River Deben and up alongside a cydery.

After another speed sapping S-bend a simple road sign provided the penultimate shot in my arm as it declared: “Debenham 1“. I gritted my teeth and pushed on as the road wound along the river. With less than hundred yards to go a gaggle of visi-vests emerged into view on the left from behind a hedge and I committed a cardinal TT sin of a final ‘head-down’ effort; looking up at the last, and just in time to jink right and avoid taking out the time keeper.

The result: 1:01:20, sore lungs and 24 hours of aching cough. Without question, this was a painful experience. And also vindication of the ambition to return to racing, a benchmarch to work from and the establishment of a big window for improvement. I’m way off having a realistic tilt at my bête noire being as it’s only a few weeks award for the 2021 running, but I was almost pleased to hear that the 2021 edition of the Buxton CC ‘Good Friday’ Mountain Time Trial has been postponed to early October. Hopefully that will provide the coda to a gradual year of improvement and allow me to reprise the hilarity of my 2012 experience at the race this autumn.

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.

That moment when you know you’ve won…

I don’t tend to take myself too seriously so when I was once asked by a friend of the directeur sportif: “have you won lots of bike races then?” I wasn’t too upset that my answer had to be: “no, none, in fact i haven’t ever won anything”. Which was a bit of a lie actually, as I’d once won a prime in a crit. But I wasn’t going to go through the tedious process of explaining what a prime was….

After I’d got over the temporary enjoyment of seeing someone try to extract their foot from their mouth I began to think about how people looking in at the sport must view us amateur cyclists. It’s fairly clear that sport is about winning, what else would be the point. And for the most popular of amateur sports there is always some margin for victory – hence the national infamy when a sunday league football or village cricket team manages to develop a season long winless streak.

But in cycling ‘winning’ in the strictest sense is something that is usually reserved for a fairly elite few. A prime example is available in my own club: one of the most active riders, having raced for around 20 years, moved up through the categories to ride in some of the most prestigious amateur races in the area, and posted time-trial results I could only dream of has a palmares that reads:

1 win.

Two decades of hard training, endless expenditure on bikes, nutrition, kit, entry fees, rising earlier on Sundays than any other day just to get to the start on time for an event in some far-flung corner of East Anglia, punishing training sessions over and over. And all for one solitary victory. For sure, there are a lot of other placings – several 2nds, more 3rds and so on down to endless top-tens. But, in layman’s terms, he won one race in 20 years.

By design this is more expected in the field of road racing where those finishing in the top few places usually earns licence points and, sooner or later, are required to compete in races against better and better riders. And in the mad sprint that usually ensues at the end of an amateur road race there is often little to divide the first few riders, apart from a few metres (at best) and quite possibly a fair share of luck.

But contre-la-montre, where the outcome is far more likely to be determined by the individual, the same scenario occurs: a handful of familiar names inevitably top the results and for the majority of the field each event becomes a personal challenge, either towards recording a Personal Best, or beating another middle-order rider. Of course this attitude makes sense to friends or family in other, more familiar, scenarios: the vast majority of  marathon runners in any given event are easily understood to be doing the best that they can in the circumstances. But from the outside, looking in, the strange creature which is the club cyclist with inexplicably expensive equipment and skin-tight racing suit littered with sponsors names cannot be viewed in the same light as a ‘fun runner’. Of course, any marathoner will tell you that 26.2 miles on foot can in no way qualify as ‘fun’ and often by the end, if not before, there may well be miles that are not strictly covered at a ‘run’. But nevertheless, it begs the question: why take it all so seriously if you won’t win. After all, it’s not the taking part. Not once you’ve left school and you don’t have to do it…

For me, the urge to race has stemmed from the vague notion that first prompted me to start cycling back in 2003. To race a bike was to be the ultimate cyclist. Just being on a start line, primed to compete, showed that the rider in question was undoubtedly at the peak of physical fitness. For me the personal challenge was simply to be on the start line, at which point I naively thought I would be competing for victory.

To get to the start line took me some time, and certainly wiped out any illusion that I would become an elite athlete. I’ve managed to reach the very bottom rung of the ladder, but have climbed no further. I’ve become competent and capable, but am under no illusion that I’ve become strong or successful. By the benchmarks of the sport I’ve achieved very little: two handicap awards in ‘middle-marker’ time trial events (where the fastest riders are prohibited from entering), a prime in a criterium for 4th cat riders, a second place in a race where my main competitors were veterans and youth riders…

For the last few weeks I’ve been agonising about my decision to set some more goals for 2012. To summon up the determination to train hard and, even moreso, summon up the nerve to risk serious injury or worse in the melee that is lower category racing. I realised that what a former clubmate once said to me might accurately describe just how I felt: “I like the fact that I race. But I don’t actually like doing it…” Yesterday evening underlined the decision for me. Sitting at work, waiting for 5 o’clock to tick by so I could head off to the last of the Trinity Park Criteriums, the heavens opened. My only thoughts were whether it would turn the innocuous entry-level Go-Race event I’d be riding into 30 minutes I’d just be trying to get through in once piece… Hardly the mindset of a winner.

So, I didn’t go to my race. I went home. The roads were wet and Le Tour was on the TV. I hung my bike back up where it nestles against the fridge at the bottom of the kitchen and went and did something cycle related that I actually enjoyed: watching Bradley dish out the pain and Cadel haemorrhage time….

The decision is made: no more road racing. Quite possibly no more time trials either. I don’t want to put in 20 years and look back at my prime and my 2nd place as the pinnacle of my career. But I know that I’m not going to be able to summon up the enthusiasm to train as hard as would be necessary to take myself any further, and that even if I could I wouldn’t be enjoying myself…

Thankfully, along the way I’ve had an enormous breadth of options and activities opened up to me: club runs, continental cyclo-sportives, sports science testing, mountain bike racing, weekends away with the bike, epic long distance rides, commuting under my own steam, building and rebuilding bikes, club Christmas dinners (complete with raucous hot-towel flinging sessions), race organisation, the list is endless… So I certainly won’t stop riding a bike – there’s too much fun to be had. And I will look back on my racing career with pride: considering where I started out, 16 stone and getting off to push on the hills, barely able to ride 20 miles in one go, I’ve come a long way. I feel like I’ve won, even if I never made it to the top step of a podium…

Refocusing

Primarily this was supposed to be a blog about my personal struggle with the mountain. But with the journey fairly well disrupted by a badly timed bout of sniffles and the big day itself undermined by apocalyptic weather it’s time for a re-evaluation.

Thanks to a very understanding Directeur Sportif it looks as though I have earned a stay of execution on my bike racing career. Perhaps it has been the dedication I have shown over the last few months, more likely the 3 weeks off the bike in mid-March were a reminder of how much I get in the way when I’m not out ‘training’. In recent weeks precedence has been given over to the other ‘big day’ I had planned for 2012, which will be followed by some well-earned R&R in the Mediterranean, and after the crushing disappointment of failure in the Malverns it’s going to take a little while to regroup my enthusiasm. But I’ve already started to hatch some plans for the rest of the year…

My fascination with mountaineering remains intact, and as such the Speedwell Bicycle Club Mountain Time Trial is already writing itself in as an end-of-season target. However several other goals already lurked around the edges of the ‘to-do’ list at the beginning of the year and, in lieu of an epic domination of my ‘early season’ goals, it’s time to wheel them out, whilst retaining the delusional parallels with epic sporting greatness though the ages:

The Hour: Not the superhuman endeavour of riding as far as physically possible within 60 minutes, as demonstrated by the legends of cycle sport: Merckx, Coppi, Boardman, Obree, but the somewhat more realistic of riding a 25 mile TT in under an hour. A serious stretch of my ability, considering my current best is over 5 minutes off that benchmark, but a result which, for unfathomable reasons, I would consider a mark that I had finally ‘arrived’ as a bike rider. To add an additional hurdle, I am loathe to search out a ‘fast’ course to tick this one off…

The Win: There’s a whole blog post worth to be said about the concept of winning, but that’ll have to wait. Despite my reservations of road rash and shattered bike componentry, mass start racing is the daring and exciting side of racing that provides to the substitute to following my father into the costly world of motorsport. Time-trialling can easily be reinterpreted as racing against yourself, but with road racing there is no such misunderstanding: you are there to beat the other riders, plain and simple. Crossing the finishing line, arms aloft, the fastest man on the day, is the pinnacle of racing, the ultimate achievement. Last year, despite focussing more on running than cycling for most of the spring, I twice came close to tasting glory, pipped on the line by a team-mate in one race, and soloing the best part of 1000m towards the line only to be swept up in the finishing sprint in the last 100m of another.

For now shifting a chronic cold so that I can clearly say ‘I do’ before heading to sunnier climes is the priority. But at least I’ve given myself something to aim at when I get back….

Criteriums in Ipswich, circuit races at Dunton, breaking the hour for a 25.

A line in the sand

Finally, a few weeks later than I had intended, I’ve managed to get on the start line for what is, quite simply, the bread and butter of my bike racing season. Quite unbeknownst to most people Wednesday evenings during the summer months see club cyclists all over the country flock out to their mid-week chance to time trial – almost inevitably a 10 mile event run in the most basic of ways: signing on using a clipboard on the bonnet of someones car, a nominal entry fee, marshalls and course signage often considered a luxury and no whiff of a prize list.

For some riders the mid-week 10 is the pinnacle of their season, the only competition they take part in. For others it is neither here nor there, a weekly outing which can conveniently fit into a training regime yielding a result that barely registers on their palmares. For me it sits somewhere in between: I’ve probably raced more mid-week 10’s than any other kind of event and so it feels like the backbone of my season. Encouragingly, in previous years I’ve always improved my times with each mid-week time-trial I’ve ridden, so it is also a helpful gauge of my own progress as the training for more serious events is undertaken. The first 10 of the year is therefore a line in the sand, a benchmark to work from…

It was with all this in mind that, clad in club colours and pointy hat, I weaved through rush-hour traffic to get out to the course. A quick stop off at a cash machine to withdraw the entry fee drew a few strange looks from bemused shoppers and sniggers from small children as they gawped at my ridiculous outfit.

Despite living in the area for several years I’d always managed to miss events on one of the two courses that my local mid-week 10’s use. A weekly alternating pattern meant that events on the Langham course had always clashed with a series of 4th cat circuit races I’ve targeted in previous years. With my big day only a few weeks away I’m currently steering clear of mass start racing for fear of having to explain why I will be walking up the aisle with a broken collar and road rash.

The course itself is as simple as it gets: a single carriageway road leading to a roundabout, with no junctions to negotiate on the way. Ride out, circle the roundabout, ride back. The course features a straight flat section of almost 2 miles – so on both the out leg and the return leg almost a quarter of the course is visible.

It was only as the starter began to count “5-4-3-2-1” that I realised that I didn’t actually know exactly where the finish was, and wasn’t sure what markers to use to gauge my efforts. Given that my approach for these sorts of races is usually: start hard, hang on to the effort throughout and then really dig deep in the final mile or so, not knowing when 1 mile to go was suddenly seemed like very poor preparation! In the event it made little difference, the first few miles seemed agonisingly slow and I didn’t really feel as though I’d got moving properly, possibly down to a nagging crosswind and low temperatures. As I approached the turn on the course things seemed to click into place and I picked up the pace despite turning into a headwind. At roughly 6 miles I was caught by the rider who had set off a minute after me but he was unable to sustain his effort to pull away from me. As a result we traded places on the road, whilst trying hard to continue to ride ‘alone and unassisted’, whilst catching and passing two more riders ahead of us. Then, almost unexpectedly, I crested a short rise and ahead of me was the chequered board of the finish line. With heart rate well above what I could sustain for longer than a few seconds I clicked through the gears and powered across the final metres to the line.

I’d managed to surprise myself: for the second half of the course the faithful measure of effort – the heart rate monitor – had been showing a beats per minute that I hadn’t thought I could sustain. After some initial uncertainty about my finishing time, I’d forgotten my usual pre-race practice of starting my heart rate monitor stopwatch a minute before my start time, I realised i’d clocked a reasonable result: 26:38. In previous years I’ve started off the 10 season with much slower times, sometimes over 28 minutes, so to be solidly in the 26’s was a welcome result after the ignominy of abandonment in my last event, and a painfully slow 25 time a couple of weeks before that. A welcome injection of belief just when I needed it….

A damp squib

I’m not saying that it was wet at the Beacon RCC Little Mountain Time Trial this weekend but I swear I saw a man building what could only be described as an ‘ark’ and lots of animals milling about in pairs…

Thanks to torrential rain this was not a unique sight on the course…

Rain itself isn’t too much of a problem, despite usually making for fairly miserable riding, but on this occasion it was teamed with bitterly low temperatures and horrendous winds. Hardly the ideal conditions for a record breaking ride.

Truth be told, I was already feeling less than positive about my chances in the race. The goal of breaking the two hour mark for the 39.5 mile course seemed to have frustratingly slipped away for another year before I even packed to make the journey across the country, directeur sportif wedged into the car alongside wheels and lyrca stuffed suitcases. Waking to a ‘feels like’ temperature of 4 degrees, 30+mph winds and torrential rain I drove out to the event HQ with every expectation that the race might be cancelled. In the event the decision was left with the riders although the fact that around half the field decided not to start demonstrates clearly how bad conditions were. Having targetted the race since October last year, focussed all of this years training on it (albeit with derailments to my best laid plans) and travelled just short of 200 miles to be on the start line I really felt I should give it a go. I was also well aware that the route, which comprises of an initial ‘flat loop’ and a second ‘hilly loop’, presents a convenient opportunity to abandon as it passes the HQ after roughly 18 miles before the toughest section of the race begins.

Lining up to start I felt surprisingly positive. The wind appeared to be firmly at my back as I was given the count down and a hearty ‘good luck’ as I was pushed away. The rolling first couple of miles were covered at a decent pace and warmth began to creep into my limbs. Down to the first junction on the course and, tentatively leaning the bike over, I used most of the road to negotiate the turn. Tree debris and standing water was rife and road markings looked ominously slippery…

As I headed out to the second turn on the course I began to sight a competitor ahead. I must have been less than 8 miles into the course when I passed the rider in front of me who had set off no less than 3 minutes before me. The gusting wind, although coming across my shoulder at an angle, still seemed to be aiding my progress. It was as I made my second turn, beginning the return leg to pass by the HQ, that the ferocity of the wind hit me. Weaving up and down narrow lanes the gusting effect swung the front of the bike around, I was forced to come out of the aerodynamic position on the tribars and grip the handlebars and brake levers to maintain control. It was as I took the third turn that the brutality of the headwind became apparent. Suddenly I was grinding the pedals as though I was climbing simply to maintain progress on flat sections of the course. Brief rises in the road were magnified, short descents were nerve jangling as the wind pushed and pulled the front wheel from left to right. Even taking a hand from the bars to swig some fluids was unsettling. Worst of all the driving rain sapped the heat from my body and numbed my fingers and hands.

The only consolation was that as I passed the HQ the road began ascend and the hilly section of the course began. Expecting to work some warmth into my body I dropped through the gears and began to attack the incline. I had planned to wolf down the first of two energy gels at this point but knew there was no point in even trying to reach into my jersey pocket, my fingers were so numb there was little chance of it getting to my mouth before I dropped it.

The road rolled under my wheels as I steadily worked towards the summit. Progress was far slower than I would have hoped for, but the biggest disappointment was the complete lack of any warming effect. I had expected the exertion to flood my muscles with heat, push my heart rate up and lift my spirits. Instead my legs became leaden and hard with cramp, my clothes sagged on my arms and chest as the fabric filled with water, my hands ached as the cold penetrated through my gloves.

I crested the climb and free wheeled a few yards before, with a sick, empty, feeling in my stomach, I pulling on the brakes and brought my bike to a halt. I stepped off the bike and agonised: this wasn’t how it was supposed to end. April 29th 2012 was supposed to be the triumphant return to defeat my nemesis but any semblence of competing had disappeared from my riding. At best I was riding to complete the distance, without being able to eat my gels on the move there was every chance I’d run out of energy before the finish. If I had to stop to eat I wasn’t racing any more, I was surviving…

Ashamed and frustrated I turned my bike around and headed back down the climb. Any remaining heat quicky disappeared and back at the HQ I had to ask another rider to pull my gloves from my hands, the fingers within rendered to white, lifeless, stumps by the conditions. As I handed my race number in it became apparent I’d been in the minority even starting the race, over half the field of 120 riders were listed as DNS – Did Not Start. The provisional results show that of the 54 riders who did complete the distance only 9 managed to dip under the 2 hour mark, although maximum credit is due to the winner, Dean Robson of the Somerset RC who clocked 1:45:52 – a time which would have been good enough for a podium finish in many of the recent years. More telling perhaps is the gap of over 5 minutes to second place…

In spite of a truly crushing feeling of defeat I shall try to find some solace in the wry words of a fellow competitor: “The first half of the course was against the wind, and the second half was against the tide!” If there had been any glimmer of chance that I might succeed in my aims it had been completely snuffed out by the conditions.

The madness of racing in those conditions was underlined by some of the sights that I came across on the drive back to my hotel, twig and leaf debris strewn across the tarmac, several snapped branches, a handful of fallen trees and, against all probability, a domestic garage, detached from its base and deposited in the road adjacent to the owners house…

In hindsight, perhaps abandoning the race was the best thing to do after all…

All that is left is to dwell on the pervading sense of failure that this weekend has generated and then, hopefully before too long, dust myself down, set some more goals, and get back to work. There’s always another event to look forward to and, as for the Beacon RCC Little Mountain Time Trial, there’s always next year….

Back down to earth

After the relative glitz and glamour of the Buxton CC Mountain Time Trial,  a race in the clouds including onboard coverage of which has even cropped up on Youtube, today saw racing which was strictly back to traditional time-trial roots. I was back down to earth in altitude terms, organisational terms and, it would transpire, performance terms. The day delivered a promoting club that has barely entered the internet age, a standard distance: 25 miles, an early start: first man off at 8am, a HQ in a secluded village hall and a startsheet made up of local club riders. Welcome to the Elite CC 25 mile TT…

After the absolute battering I took on Good Friday I had spent a couple of hard sessions on the turbo trainer in the week. On the menu was the standard serving in the time-triallists training diet: threshold intervals – 20 minute bursts at an intensity best described as ‘unpleasant’ with the aim of raising the overall level of intensity I could ride at for a sustained period.

These sessions had certainly taken their toll, by the time Friday came round and I had the chance to get out for a longer ride I was fairly well exhausted and the 2 hours bashing up the nearest thing Essex has to hills was quickly revised to a steady ride in some rolling terrain punctuated with mild drenchings thanks to the changeable weather… If I’d been looking for a stellar performance today I’d have rested up more than I did, but the big race is only two weeks away now so training is the main purpose of every ride. Looking to improve on PB’s can wait for later in the year…

Just like the Chelmer CC Hardriders a few weeks ago the temperature was bitterly low in the HQ car park and once I rolled out onto the roads for a quick warmup it was apparent I would be facing a howling northerly wind for much of the ride. Yet again the temperature played havoc with the heart-rate monitor, so the first 5 or 6 miles were ridden without the benefit of any kind of performance feedback, apart from the screaming agony relayed through the nerves in my hips and thighs. In hindsight this may have been an indicator that I had started off a little more briskly than I had intended…

The course itself was on rolling roads, through quiet villages and mostly tree-lined, with only the occasional stretch of road bordered by open farmland. Neither were favourable, the tree-lined sections funnelled the headwind into a constant wall of resistance for the majority of the course, the open sections allowed the cross winds to batter away at my aero helmet and wheels. The route itself was rather unusual, taking the riders 6 miles north-east of the start to a roundabout before retracing, back past the start, and heading off 6 miles south-east to another roundabout before finally turning for the final leg back to the finish. Although the altitude changes were fairly marginal, the road dropped towards both roundabouts, a short sharp descent to the first one, a drawn out rolling descent over 5 miles to the second one. Teamed with a strong headwind the last 5 miles of the course, returning to the finish was guaranteed to be challenging.

After what was probably an over ambitious first 5 miles I turned back towards the start/finish for the first time. Where the first stretch of the ride had been a rough struggle, battling the blustering wind, pedalling suddenly became effortless, clicking down through the gears and accelerating up the road with the wind at my back. The one small victory of the day occurred after 8 or 9 miles, catching a rider ahead of me. Turning south-east towards the second roundabout this victory was tempered by the realisation that I was loosing time hand over fist to the faster riders as two riders effortlessly blasted past me.

Having realised that I had probably started too quick, and desperately trying to hold something back, I looked in vain for the second roundabout. I seemed to be inching towards it agonizingly slowly until finally the road crested and I turned back into the wind. At the halfway point I had decided to hold back some effort until the final turn, then smash the final 5 miles as hard as I could. Sadly, thanks to the toll that the rolling roads had taken, this wasn’t the epic final few miles I had anticipated. Having been caught for 3 minutes at the final roundabout I haemorrhaged time as I ground away at the pedals and watched the rider who had passed me edge further and further away from me. The sight of the chequered flag allowed me to summon a final surge and then, thankfully, it was over.

Vague, pre-race, thoughts of a finishing time of 1 hr 5 or 6 minutes had been revised to perhaps 1-10 on the start line. Back at the HQ the truth became apparent: 1-13 was not the outcome I had expected and was somewhat adrift of the majority of the field. Some solace was delivered, only 2 riders went under the hour mark, times across the field were slower than usual and this race was more for training than anything else.

Only two more competitive outings stand between me and the mountain, midweek club events that will serve as last-minute preparation. With 14 days to go I am trying to stay positive, but rapidly revising my dreams of breaking the 2 hour barrier to a simple hope of improving on my personal best…. Let’s hope that these punishing sessions on the bike will pay dividends in the meantime…

The laughing man…

Following an inauspicious debt two weeks ago in the Chelmer CC Hardriders 25TT Good Friday was the opportunity to make amends. After a week that saw an unexpected snowfall in Derbyshire it was only late on Thursday night that I had confirmation from the organiser that the Buxton CC Mountain Time Trial would be going ahead.

As I drove out from my overnight stop in Mow Cop, well known in sportive circles for the brutal ‘killer mile’ climb that features in the Cheshire Cat event, it was apparent that a cold day was on the cards. The snow coverage steadily increased as the roads ascended towards the race HQ in the tiny village of Longnor, from small mounds where driveways had been cleared to long stretches clinging to dry stone walls and deep drifts where, only two days earlier, the roads had been closed to all traffic. In my minds eye it would be like the stages of the Giro d’Italia where the riders ply their trade on roads ploughed clear for their passing.

In the back of my mind was the reality of my situation. A long steady build up towards a block of competition had been undermined by three weeks of sniffles. With only a few weeks to go until the big goal every event has become a training session as opposed to the relative (!) show of strength it was intended to be. Wary of making the mistakes of two weeks ago, a quick run around the course in the car before the start was undertaken. In my naivety I had hoped to perhaps record 1hr 45, or 1hr 50, for the event. The reconnaissance made it clear that this would, at best, be optimistic. It was rather more likely that survival would be the over-riding theme of the days pedalling and there was every chance that, at 33 miles and 1031 metres of climbing, this was going to be a massacre…

A bittersweet parallel with the world of professional cycling was obvious, albeit requiring some background for the uninitiated. In cycling riders are often divided into three broad categories:

1. Climbers: the riders who relish ascents and whose lightweight frames lend themselves naturally to devouring inclines at an unbelieveable rate. Not necessarily the best time trialists. Typical example: Alberto Contador.

2. Rouleurs: strong men, often stocky and muscular, who can power through the miles. Possibly the nearest to ‘all-rounders’ within cycling, often good time trialists, usually happiest on short, sharp inclines, rather than out-and-out mountainous terrain. Typical example: Fabian Cancellara.

3. Sprinters: the ‘fast-men’ of cycling. Inevitably the biggest, heaviest, pro riders are the sprinters, their bodies tuned to travelling 400 metres at 60kph. Their playground is anywhere the road is flat, hills are not kind to these riders. Typical example: Mario Cippollini.

This hierarchy is starkly illustrated on any mountain stage in a Grand Tour. Leading the way up each mountain climb will be the climbers – dancing on the pedals seemingly effortlessly. Over and over they will attack one another, surging up the road as they attempt to break away. Behind them the race will be spread out, the climbers on a bad day and the rouleurs who can climb, a long metallic snake winding steadily up the road. Long behind the head of the race will be a sorry collection of riders – those who are simply trying to make it over the climbs and reach the finish within the time limit. Cycling nomenclature gives this group a number of names: the ‘gruppetto’, the ‘autobus’ – often with a more experienced rider setting the tempo and labelled the ‘bus driver’ but perhaps most ironically ‘the laughing group’. There are no smiles in the laughing group – the rictus grin that can be seen on the face of a rider is pure agony as they fight for survival. In the ‘alone and unassisted’ world of time trialling there is no place for a ‘laughing group’, but it was fairly obviously that, if there was to be a day where I would be the ‘laughing man’, this would be it.

The course itself was three laps of a triangular 11 mile circuit, starting and ending in Longnor. 50 metres after the start the road turned sharp left, plummeted down through an s-bed, then began to rise on a minor road. A sharp kick developed into a longer drag, a rolling section that continued to climb  and culminating with a tight left joining the main Leek-Buxton road. A steady headwind added to the toll on the legs. Moments after starting my heart rate was over 170bpm, usual for a 10 mile TT for me – not the ideal start to an event with over three times that mileage to cover. Despite best efforts to bring my heart rate back under control there was no choice – the only way to make progress was to turn the pedals. Brutally, out of the saddle efforts were out of the question on the steepest sections as the cold wet road surface guaranteed a lack of traction and several times the rear wheel spun underneath me. There was no choice but to sit down and grind away.

Once the climbing was complete I turned onto the main road that formed the shortest side of the triangle. The benefits of the fast road were minimised by the strong sidewind, this was a course with nowhere to hide. Entering the second turn, a tight hairpin left, I enjoyed the one small victory the day would deliver. Having started number 51 I caught and passed number 47. The context to this was the numerous riders who caught and passed me in the remainder of the race. The final section of the course was a phenomenally quick descent with at least two chances to get airborne. Speed was tempered by caution, a road with no grip to climb out of the saddle was the kind of road where the bike could easily slip out from underneath you…

As I approached the start for the second time I glanced at the rider waiting for the off. Still hoping for a lap time close to 30 minutes I was shocked to see number 91 receiving their 10 second countdown. 11 miles had taken me 40 minutes – case closed: I was ‘the laughing man’.

The second time up the main climb in the course was horrendous. Riders who had just started streamed by: true climbers who pedaled smoothly and effortlessly as they blasted past, rouleurs who stamped on the pedals as they ground up the road quicker than I could manage. Again the slipping back wheel meant I had to stay seated on the steepest sections, zig-zag-ing across the road in a pitiful effort to minimise the gradient. Again my heart rate soared to the level I’d see during a 10 mile TT. Slightly emboldened from the first lap I pushed a little harder on the descent, but remained cautious where traffic had begun to pull snow across the road and on the steepest section where the road resembled a farmyard. On the first lap I’d watched a farmers pickup scrabbling for grip as it headed up the hill towards me and a broken collarbone wasn’t on my ‘to-do’ list for the day.

Time-trialling past deep snowdrifts made for an unusual, although somewhat enjoyable, experience.

The final lap was both agonising torture and an almost enjoyable run in. I knew the pain that the climbs would deliver and they failed to disappoint. However the finishing line was in sight, metaphorically at least, which made the last 11 miles far more bearable. In contrast to the previous laps I struggled to push my heart rate up and my ascent to the high point of the course was correspondingly slow. In contrast the crosswind on the main road section was a little less draining and the final descent saw me throwing caution to the wind and cornering faster than before. Crossing the hump-backed bridge at the lowest point of the course I left the bike in the big chain ring and sprinted doggedly up the final 200 metres towards the finish line, cruelly tucked out of sight around a steep bend. Slowly the chequered flag edged nearer as I gasped for breath and my field of vision developed an unerving tunnel-like quality, a vivid patch of road before me and all else fading through a grey haze to a deep black surround.

Approaching the finish: Knowing it will all be over in a few seconds usually allows you to get something extra out of your legs, it was only when I started sobbing as I crossed the line that I realised I might have gone a bit too far this time…

Despite flagging severely on the final climb my lap times had been far more consistent than I had expected despite my climbing display on the last lap feeling like snails pace: Lap 1 – 40:04, Lap 2 – 42:31, Lap 3 – 43:21. My finishing time of 2:05:56 was pitiful in the context of the overall standings, the event was won in 1:26:34 by domestic TT hardman Matthew Bottrill, but at least I was spared the ‘lanterne rouge’ prize which fell to Christopher Wilkinson of Manchester Wheelers with his time of 2:27:45.

Thanks to a mixup in posting entries I will not be gracing the startline of the Bishops Stortford CC Hilly TT on Easter Monday, instead a hard session on the turbo trainer will be in order. The next chance to ride in anger will be the Elite CC 25TT in a weeks time.

Err… which way to Finchingfield?

After a frustrating string of weekends that should have seen me building on a winter of training, but instead have yielded snot and coughing and some overdue mechanical attention to my bikes, I have finally managed to kick off the 2012 racing season.

With what I am pretentiously referring to as my ‘early season calendar’ entirely geared towards my attempt at the Beacon RCC Little Mountain Time Trial at the end of April, the first morning of British Summer Time saw me taking to the start line for the Chelmer CC ‘Hardriders’ 25.5 TT. The preceding days had not been the best possible preparation as, aching to make up for several weeks of missed training, I had ridden further and harder than I would have in other circumstances. A ‘steady spin out’ with clubmates on Saturday morning was still heavy in my legs as I loaded the car, the time lost thanks to the clock going forward had removed a much-needed hour of recovery.

After several balmy days, and the apparent onset of spring, arrival at the race HQ yielded more unfavourable conditions. Although the temperature was set to rise to well into double figures by early afternoon there was a real chill in the air, a quick glance at the car dashboard broke the news: 4 degrees C… Skinsuit was quickly teamed with leg warmers, arm warmers and gilet to provide some protection from the cold and, after a brief warmup, I was off the start. I had intended to gauge my effort with my heart rate monitor, but the cool morning air precluded me sweating enough for an effective signal to be transmitted from the chest strap.

Expectations were fairly tame for the race, at best it was going to be a good training session, a chance to try out the time-trial bike in anger for the first time since last summer. I was hoping to average 20 mph or better so, when I caught my minute-man after 8 minutes, I was rather pleased with the way I tackled the initial hilly section of the course. Being passed myself by 2 riders within the first 5 miles put this in perspective and at times the seemingly innocuous climbs taxed my legs more than expected, but I forged ahead: crouched low on the tri-bars, the tip of my new aero headwear tapping between my shoulder blades.

The final miles of the course took their toll to the extent that, as a small flourescent sign hoved into view on the roadside proclaiming ‘5 Miles To Go’, my head dropped and I tried to summon up a final surge of strength. In doing so I promptly sailed past a left turn and took myself off-course. Having never ridden the course before it was several miles before this became apparent, by which time any sense in completing the race had disappeared. Unfortunately by the time I had retraced my steps back to the missed turn, by now well behind the last rider on the road, the organisers had efficiently removed a number of the signs marking the remaining turns. As a result the next hour was spent exploring the quiet lanes to the east of Saffron Walden, culminating in the ultimate in embarrassment: interrogating queueing customers at a petrol station as to how I would navigate my way back to Finchingfield whilst skittering about the forecourt in cleated shoes, clad in a skinsuit, with a bonce topped off with a silly pointy hat.

To compound things I had, for the first time in 3 years, tempted my directeur sportif to accompany me to a time-trial, with the promise of an afternoon of picturesque villages and cream teas. Having only taken the minimum of food along, only expecting to be spending 75 minutes on the bike, by the time I located the HQ all sense of humour had deserted me and the ‘bonk‘ was looming. Thankfully I was greeted with concern rather than a fit of apoplexy by my DS and the inevitable post-race cake soon helped to rebalance the blood-sugar levels.

At some point this week I’ll need to map out exactly where I did end up before I realised I was hopelessly off-course to see exactly what sort of pace I was riding. During the sporadic periods when my heart rate monitor decided to function it was clear I was pushing reasonably hard without over reaching myself so as far as effective training goes it can probably be considered a succesful ride. In terms of actually clocking a result to add to my palmares, less so…

Hopefully I’ll have got a seasons worth of bad luck out of the way in one go. The next competitive outing is going to be the Buxton CC Mountain Time Trial on Good Friday. Another course I’ve never ridden, I’ll probably pay more attention to the course map for that one…

Mountaineering…

So, the major target is set, the long winter of base training and preparation has been followed through with only minor diversions, and the shock of switching back to some serious hard work has been confronted.

Now, like any good cyclist, it’s time to start thinking seriously about the races that i’ll be taking on as I build up to the main event on 29th April. Just as Wiggo and Cav might ride the Giro as warm up for le Tour, or the Vuelta to fine tune their legs for the Worlds, I need to find some events that will act as stepping stones to the mountain.

The whole principle of training and preparation hinges around the principle that replicating any given action and repeating it over and over is the way to improve it. Practice makes perfect. Logical therefore dictates that the best preparation for the Little Mountain Time Trial will be participation in other events with terrain that bear a passing resemblance to the parcours that will face me in the Malvern Hills. Given the fixation in a large chunk of the time-trial fraternity with dual carriageway based courses and quicker and quicker personal bests over standard distances of 10, 25 or 50 miles, and the needs of event promoters to respond to this demand to attract entrants to their races, it is therefore no mean feat to  construct a calendar of events that builds towards the crescendo of a 39.5 mile race through rolling countryside and incorporating at least 3 savage climbs that could easily stand-alone as hill climb events in their own right…

Thankfully I am not alone in my quest to race in challenging terrain. Within the niche of time-trialling a masochistic subculture exists, riders and event promoters who delight and revel in the kudos that comes from taking on a race that is perversely difficult. The moniker ‘Mountain Time Trial’, albeit slightly duplicitous a label when the altitudes are compared to the Alpine or Pyrennean mountain stages of the Grand Tours, lays the cards on the table fairly clearly. Elsewhere the slightly subtler, but equally intimidating, ‘Hardriders’ tag indicates that this won’t be racing for the fainthearted. Equally so the prefix ‘Hilly’ almost certainly indicates an event which, in comparison to the usual fare, will leave legs stinging and lungs heaving to an inordinate degree.

Mountaineering, therefore, is out there for the cyclists who wish to take it on, there’s just the small matter of finding it. This is where geography begins to play an important role. The wilds of North Essex, where I usually grind my pedals, is not noted for its altitude but thankfully the Essex/Suffolk border is slightly lumpier than one might expect and, as such, hosts a handful of events which will have to form the basis of my preparation. Thankfully I can also justify some trips further afield to visit family which can be neatly timed to coincide with races in the Peak District and in Wales.

And so, the grand plan leading to April 29th 2012 is as follows:

4th March: Sudbury CC Mad March Hilly 35km TT

10th March: West Suffolk Wheelers Hilly 21 mile TT

11th March: Lea Valley CC 25 Mile TT

18th March: Maldon CC 18 Mile Hilly TT

24th March: Plomesgate CC 10 Mile TT

25th March: Chelmer CC 25 Mile Hardriders TT

31st March/1st April: A light hearted club Peak District ‘Training Camp’ (Not competitive but ascents of Holme Moss and Snake Pass along with other less well known climbs should help hone the legs…)

6th April: Buxton CC Mountain Time Trial

9th April: Bishops Stortford 28 Mile Hilly TT

15th April: Fibrax Wrexham Road Club Mountain TT

All leading to M-Day…

29th April: Beacon Roads CC Little Mountain Time Trial….

And so, after some initial posts which have constituted vague ruminating about  what i’ve been up to on a sporadic basis, there’s a very real danger that updates of this blog will start to pick up some regularity and begin to reflect the ups and downs of my performances, rather than just  waxing lyrical about the ethos of cycling. Now I just need to dig out the cheque book and some envelopes and get those entries posted off!