Hanging in the balance

Shortly after my last blog post, a regular reader of my ramblings asked when I was going to publish one about my Ironman training.

I replied along the lines of; “it’s all Ironman training”.

But I also took the point that, certainly of late, this blog has all been about the bike.

And there have been reasons for that.

In terms of swimming, there’s little to tell, really.

We’re still just a bit early in the year for my open water season to have started so any swimming oriented blog would basically start with; “I got in the pool”… end with; “I got out of the pool”… and have something along the lines of; “I swam up and down for an hour or so” somewhere in the middle.

Not exactly riveting.

Which, in a way, is a good thing.

If it were any more exciting than that, there’s a 50/50 chance that it would be because things weren’t going as planned.

The simple fact is that things ARE going as planned.

Swimming, as some of you will know, comes a very close second, in the enjoyment stakes, to cycling, for me and nothing has happened to change that over the last few months.

I still appear to have the swim endurance that took me to swimming the equivalent of an “ultra-distance” event a couple of years ago… I’m hardly “fast” but I can seemingly just keep going without tiring for, well, as far as I can be bothered to swim.

To conclude, in the same way as the bike stint of an Ironman doesn’t give me sleepless nights, I’ve hardly got any anxiety about my ability to complete an Iron-distance swim and still finish feeling fresh.

If only the same could be said for my running… which has been almost non-existent.

It’s not been for the lack of desire, though – we’ll need to do a bit of time-travelling to find out why.

Almost exactly 11 years ago, whilst I was having physio following my right total hip replacement at age 33, a bombshell was dropped on me by the guy showing me the exercises I needed to do in order to help my right hip regain its mobility.

“We’ll see you again soon, once you’ve had your left hip replaced”

I had no idea what he was talking about… he elaborated and, in doing so, inadvertently became the one to break the news to me that my left hip was “on its last legs”, so to speak.

I had enough to cope with at the time, what with learning how to walk again and all that, so almost pretended not to be in possession of this new information.

I reasoned that, if my left hip FELT okay, then it WAS okay.

Perhaps towards the end of January this year, and for the first time since the day I was told about the condition of my left hip, it started to give me pain.

The pain felt worryingly similar to what I’d felt with my right hip, all those years ago.

I reasoned that it was just my imagination.

I reasoned that, because I could still cycle big distances without aggravating it (where, 11 years ago, I couldn’t even get ON a bike, let alone RIDE one), my left hip MUST be absolutely fine.

I basically tried to ignore it.

But it turns out that ignoring something doesn’t mean that it’s not there.

Who knew?!?

Increasingly, my left hip started to hurt until, in what was meant to be a gentle “test” on our treadmill at home, it started to hurt so much just 13 minutes into a run, that I had no choice but to stop.

I paused… seemingly recovered fully after just a few minutes (which tricked my mind into thinking that I must have been imagining the pain)… and stupidly resumed.

It started hurting again after a further 6 minutes… then, after another pause, went for a third stint… the pain returned VERY quickly, this time.

I got off the treadmill and slumped into a chair, feeling very sorry for myself.

Night-times started to become a case of; “how many times would I wake up in discomfort”.

Day-times started to become a case of; “how many times would friends ask me why I was limping” (I’d lie about the reason, clearly – not even ready to admit it to myself, let alone anyone else).

It wasn’t good.

I finally admitted it to myself during a bit of an outpouring to Lisa… and, honestly, I was feeling quite upset.

So I decided to take some action – but action which is based on the premise that it’s not as serious as I fear (i.e that my left hip really has, finally, given up the ghost).

Instead of going to a doctor, I decided to pay a sports-physio/chiropractor a visit.

I used the one I’ve been to before – a chap called Clive.

He’s really very good.

He wasn’t about to lie to me just to get repeat business out of me, though; he basically said that he’d do what he could but that if I didn’t see progress almost immediately, then he’d reach the conclusion that my left hip had finally decided to have the impact on my life that it had been threatening to have for 11 years… and that I’d be better off in a doctor’s surgery than in his room.

That appointment with Clive was a week ago, now… and, whilst it’s difficult to say for sure (I may just be imagining it), my hip certainly SEEMS to be improving.

The pain appears to be easing and I’m back to getting a full night’s sleep.

On that basis, it is quite possible that, despite the similarity to that dark time in my life when my right hip was starting to fail, I’ve simply injured myself – and a bit of sports physio will sort it out.

But, at the same time, I’m conscious that the improvement over the last week may simply be because I’ve steered well clear of running on it… in which case, the sports physio did nothing at all and my hip is just waiting to be tested again so it can remind me of its condition.

I just don’t know.

I’ll have a few more sports physio sessions to see if the improvements can keep coming.

So all of this is a roundabout way of answering that regular reader’s question about how my Ironman training is going.

If my left hip pain is more akin to an injury that any one of us could pick up, then I’d say that Ironman training is going okay… and it’ll be going a whole lot better once I can get my running shoes on again.

But if my left hip pain turns out to be far more serious, such that I’m going to need a left total hip replacement, then Ironman training is non-existent because, in a nutshell, the Ironman itself will cease to feature in my diary.

Whether I turn up in Hamburg or not, then, is hanging in a very fine balance – centred around my left hip.

It saddens me more than I can put into words but, if doing another Ironman means physically breaking myself such that I end up in an operating theatre, then I simply have to close the door on that dream once and for all.

It also saddens me that I deferred my entry from last year due to serious motivation issues – so I’d effectively have two “did not starts” to my name.

But, I have to do what’s right and, let’s face it, the two “did not starts” wouldn’t matter a great deal… because I will always have that “did finish” to cherish.

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Up and down, up and down…

I tend to keep a close eye on the weather forecast throughout the week leading up to a large ride.

We all do, right?

The forecast for Saturday – the day of the “Wells, Mells and a bit broader” 205km Audax was for wind… and lots of it.

Basic wind speed of c25-30mph with gusts of up to 50mph.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’d prefer to chew my own arm off than face a day of struggling into the wind.

But – since chewing my own arm off didn’t seem to be a rational response, I resolved to just get out and ride.

The day before the ride, Russ (yes – the sane Russ with whom I tend to do all of my long rides – and quite a few of my shorter ones, too, for that matter) dropped me a message and happened to mention that he and another chap, Martin, were planning on riding the 20-25km to the start thus, in total, making it a 250km day.

Dammit – how could I NOT do the same, now that he had unwittingly set a new standard for the day in hand?

With a some degree of reticence, then, I pootled off up the road to meet Russ and Martin at 5:30am… trying to convince myself that it was the right thing to do.

As always, the video follows… or jump ahead to keep reading if that floats your boat!

We made good time on the ride to the start and had around 45 minutes of mooching around, chatting, while we waited for the “grand départ”.

Within the first handful of miles came the first “proper” climb of the day.

A cheeky little ramp which gets relatively steep (with gradients of up to 15%) but, equally as importantly, drags on for over 2 miles.

That really set the scene for the day.

When we weren’t descending, we were climbing.

And the only time the road went flat was for the few yards it takes for an ascent to become a descent – or vice versa.

Suffice to say that it was “rolling”. (That is a bit of a euphemism for “bloody hilly”)

And those kinds of rolling routes are draining at the best of times… but chuck in a serious headwind (did I mention the wind? I’m sure I must have!) and you have a recipe for a tough day in the saddle.

Every now and then the rolling nature of the ride gave way to another proper climb… the second of the day was the lane up to King Alfred’s Tower.

In some ways, it reminded me of the final mile or two of Mont Ventoux.

It may have been slightly steeper, significantly shorter and considerably less iconic… but the main reason for it having taken me back to my adventures on the slopes of the French behemoth was because you can see a tower at the summit looming over you… you know that once you get there, your legs can quieten down and just get back to business as usual.

Throughout the day, I was approaching the tougher climbs with endurance in mind, rather than speed… quite happy to get down to my lowest gear and just keep moving forwards.

A brief stop at around 50 miles into our day was welcome, in terms of throwing some flapjack down my neck, but by the time we pulled in to the first “proper” scheduled stop of the day, at around 75 miles, my legs were feeling jelly-like to say the least.

It had basically been 75 miles of fighting, fighting and more fighting, and I wasn’t too sure whether another 80 miles-ish  could be found in my wobbly old pins.

Quite a bit of food went in and it was time for Russ, Martin and me to hit the road once again.

Thankfully, the headwind became a tailwind for a bit – and that helped.

My legs were feeling a little better being assisted, rather than hampered, by the conditions, and we were holding a decent pace.

But it was a very temporary respite as, within the next few miles, we faced the second notable climb.

Batcombe Hill.

Around a mile of climbing with gradients comfortably in excess of 20% (they felt like 40%).

With the thick end of 100 tough miles in our legs already, that wasn’t ever going to be easy.

At the start, it had been the topic of conversation amongst participants of the Audax and some were talking about walking it.

On a normal day, walking wouldn’t enter my head – it simply wouldn’t.

On this day, though, I gave myself permission. I wasn’t going to get annoyed at myself if the wheels ground to a halt and I felt the need to dismount.

I didn’t need to dismount, as it turned out (although another chap who did was walking up it almost as quickly as I was riding up it!).

I got to the top (albeit behind Russ and Martin), stopped, breathed a few heavy breaths, and took in the view.

What a glorious view it was, too.

The next stint of the ride was a bit of a blur if truth be told; more rolling roads, more steep climbs and more winds.

My legs were suffering and, on more than one occasion, I gave Russ and Martin the nod to just leave me at my pace and carry on as a duo.

Trying to hold on to them was getting tougher with each passing mile but they nobly insisted that we’d finish as a trio and refused to cycle off into the distance.

One final stop around 30 miles from the end of the Audax (around 45 miles from the end of our ride) was an opportunity for a bowl of chips, a glass of coca-cola (other cola drinks are available) and a cup of tea.

My legs seemed to pick up a bit in the final push… I was seemingly hanging on to Russ and Martin a little more comfortably and, dare I say, on the steeper climbs (one of which, I swear, was tougher than Batcombe Hill and only a mile from the end of the Audax – nasty) I had a very slight edge on Russ (or he may have just been being kind to my ego – who knows?!).

Either way, it made a nice change from watching him easing away from me!

The route over that last 30 miles was no less stunning than the first 100.. we found ourselves on disused railway paths, gorgeous country lanes and hilltops from which we could see for miles.

It was what cycling should be all about and, given how tiring the day had been up to that point, it was nice to be reminded that riding a bike is hugely enjoyable and rewarding.

We finished the Audax at the garden centre where it had started and gave ourselves a restful 30 minutes or so before embarking on the final 12 miles home.

That trip home can best be described as fast and furious… no mean feat with 150 miles of hills in our legs.

It felt like we were out on a 20 mile chase around local lanes rather than the final stint of a full day out.

In fact, it was so fast and furious that, on one particular Strava segment, Russ, Martin and I were the 3 fastest cyclists of the day – out of the 81 people who’d apparently ridden it – and I was only fractionally slower than my personal best ever time.

But I don’t want to give the impression that my legs were somehow feeling fresh – they weren’t… I was motoring along despite them rather than because of them!

So that was that – 154 miles (give or take a quarter of a mile) of hills and wind.

There were definitely times when I was regretting riding to the start but, on balance, it was an extremely satisfying day on the bike.

And, what’s more, it takes me to 11 of the 12 rides I need for my Audax RRTY award (the criteria for which is that you need to do at least one 200km, or more, Audax ride each month for 12 consecutive months)… I have just one more to go; April.

The “April RRTY” I have planned is a bit of a monster, though – so stay tuned for that!

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Single for a day

As I led in bed at 5am, listening to the rain being hurled at the window by 50mph+ winds… staring at my weather app which was telling me that, as if what my ears were telling me wasn’t bad enough, it “felt like” 1°c… I can’t say that going out on my bike was particularly appealing.

And whilst I’m not given to thinking about other men whilst lying in bed with my wife, my mind did wander in the general direction of my intended cycling buddy for the day, Russ.

Was he thinking the same thing?

It probably would only have taken a text from him, questioning our sanity, to make me think seriously about postponing the 200km ride that we had planned for the day.

But it would have been postponement number 2 (having also done so the week before due to snow and ice) and that would have been a bitter pill to swallow.

The text from Russ never came and, by 6:30am, I found myself cycling up the road, in the best of British weather, to meet him.

Outside of just the weather, it was to be no ordinary 200km ride.

I was on my single speed bike (and Russ was on his).

200km in one gear.

I wasn’t even sure if I had it in me to ride 200km without changing gear… but, you know me, I was going to have fun trying!

As always, the video is here:

Rather than type up a blow by blow account of the ride, now, it might be better to make this blog one of those where I deal with “themes”, instead.

Cadence

Naturally, when you talk about single speed riding, cadence (or how fast your legs are spinning, for those that aren’t familiar with the lingo) is never too far from the conversation.

It’s a fine balancing act… you need to consider just how slowly you can pedal whilst still moving forward up hills with just how quickly you feel your legs can spin whilst hammering along down hills.

And, in between, what will feel comfortably sustainable for the flat bits in between.

For the geeks and regular single speed people out there, I was running with a 75.74inch gear ratio.

Again, for the uninitiated, that means I travel forwards 75.74inches for every full rotation of my pedals.

I may be way off here but my very limited research on this topic suggests that I was running a longer gear than is typical for single speed riding i.e most people I’ve come across seem to travel less far with each pedal rotation – or, in normal language, they run an “easier” gear. So their legs spin faster for any given speed – that means a slightly easier time at slow speeds (up hills, for example) but it also means having to keep up a faster pedaling rate for just about everything else.

I resolutely stuck to my guns on this – I knew I’d be sacrificing any climbing speed but the route, with 4,200ft/1,300metres if climbing, was hardly what you’d call hilly, so I was banking on reaping the rewards on the flat bits.

And that’s exactly how it went, funnily enough.

There were a few occasions (particularly towards the end) where my legs were dangerously close to stalling on hills… but they never did.

Conversely, I was pedaling at a very comfortable rate on flats.

It was clear that Russ, who’s stronger than I am on hills anyway, and who was running a shorter gear, was significantly quicker when we hit a gradient… but I seemed to be able to hold our pace more comfortably than he could whenever the road flattened out.

We change gear more often than we need to

We covered 127miles… a little over 200km… in one gear.

There is no way I’d do that unless I had no choice.

And yet here we were, doing it.

I have no fancy telemetry on my conventional bikes but I suspect that, if I measured it, I average out at multiple gear changes every minute.

And yet, here we were, proving that we just don’t need to.

Going up a hill, I normally find myself in low/easy gears – sometimes certain that I’m going to need to grab an even lower one just to get to the top, especially when I’m a bit fatigued.

And yet, here we were, getting up any gradient in, basically, what translates to a mid-range gear, in the big ring, on my normal road bike!

And that taught me that I (and presumably everyone else) change gear far more frequently than we need to.

We “think” we need to… but we really don’t.

Without the safety net of another gear, we still get by just fine.

Average speed

Even though I’m sworn off of worrying about average speed (see my earlier blog), allow me a few minutes to mention it anyway.

The last time Russ and I cycled the same route as we did on Saturday, it took us 7hrs and 50minutes (riding time – not including cake stops)

On our full road-bikes.

Okay – we weren’t exactly “racing ’round” but, at the same time (and I think I speak for Russ) we still felt relatively “used” by the time we got to the end.

Given the weather, we’d have expected to take longer on Saturday, doubtlessly, irrespective of the bikes we chose to do it on.

We took 8hrs and 5 minutes.

15 minutes longer.

Just 15 minutes.

That’s a 3% difference, give or take.

I think I’d expected a far larger “gap” than that, if truth be told.

Okay, we probably both felt a little more tired than when we finished the same route on our full road bikes… but nothing too significant.

On that basis, I have to conclude that there’s nowhere near as big a difference in speed between the two options – over that kind of distance!

I’ve done a bit of obsessive “Strava” researching and, even on individual hill segments, I was barely any slower on Saturday than I was the last time we did the same ride.

And that’s a surprise.

Aching the next day

As a rule, I get home from a long ride and have a hot bath.

The bath only lasts as long as it takes for the water to cool to a temperature not akin to boiling.

I get out, get dressed and that’s it.

No aching… no ongoing physical reminders of a day in the saddle.

Saturday was different.

The water had gone positively tepid (even colder if truth be told) before I hauled myself out of the bath.

My body still ached.

In fact, it still ached the next day, too!

And that’s unheard of!

Some of the aching will be down to the geometry and material of the bike I chose for the day – a bike I typically only ride a handful of miles at a time.

But, geometrically at least, I’ve matched the key measurements on my single speed bike to all of my other road bikes so, in theory, they all have as good as makes no difference the same riding position.

So any bike-induced soreness can only be down to how the bike deals with road surfaces etc… and I reckon that that’s fairly minimal since it seems to deal with uneven surfaces quite well.

I’m forced to conclude that the majority of my soreness was down to the fact that I was in that one gear all day (and this is where I will appear to contradict the bit above about not needing to change gear as often as we do).

I even noticed the issue during the day itself.

There were countless occasions where I reached for the “gear lever”.

And I’m not just talking about on ascents/descents, either.

Even on flat sections, it dawned on me that, from time to time on the flats, we change gear (either up or down) simply to change our leg speed/effort and “mix it up” a bit.

(I’m presuming we all do it, there… correct me if I’m wrong)

I’m now acutely aware of the fact that, for me at least, this “mixing it up” helps with fatigue!

Without the option to “mix it up”, we’re backed into a corner of adopting a predefined leg-speed… whether our muscles could do with a change or not.

And that, it seems, has an impact on how long it takes to free the muscles of the soreness we build up during the day.

Overall

I thoroughly enjoyed the single-speed adventure.

It appealed to the side of me that likes a challenge.

It gave me an insight into the lives of people who barely ride anything other than single-speed/fixed (and, before you say it, I know that “true fixed” is a step up again in terms of how hard-core it can get).

My geeky side found it incredibly interesting, too.

And, lastly, the sense of satisfaction I felt when I got home was far greater than I normally experience after a 200km ride, certainly.

I won’t make it a regular thing, though.

That’s not because I couldn’t … because I’m quite sure I could… but more because I just don’t have the appetite to.

Simple as that.

Do I feel happy that I’ve “ticked the box” though?

You bet!

And you should tick the box, too, if you get the chance.

My Strava stats, below, for anyone who cares!

https://www.strava.com/activities/2134856168/embed/fff0904a5a47fc858612b83195ff8915b4103421“>https://www.strava.com/activities/2134856168/embed/fff0904a5a47fc858612b83195ff8915b4103421

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Climb every mountain…

This was meant to be a blog about a 200km road ride… with a difference.

But said road ride… along with its difference (which will remain under wraps, for now) was scuppered by snow and ice in the UK.

Consequently, all being well, “that” blog will be hitting these pages next week… keep your fingers crossed for me!

So, having decided against skating around for 200km, it was something of a nice surprise when three of my cycling buddies said that I was welcome to join them for a couple of hours on our mountain bikes.

I’m no mountain biker.

I have a mountain bike.

That’s as far as it goes.

The three other guys (let’s call them Simon, Martin and Dan – for those are their names, after all) who I was joining have a foot in both camps – “mountain” and “road” cycling.

And, what’s more, they’re good at both.

It was some degree of reservation then that I pedaled off down the road to meet up with them.

Was I going to feel like a bit of a burden?… Someone for whom frequent stops were going to be required – just to let me catch up? Or worse; would one of them be called upon to rush me to hospital?!?

Add to that the snow and ice making for extremely tricky riding condition, and I’m sure you can imagine how I was feeling.

The reality is, though, that I would be doing the other three a disservice if I painted them as people who wouldn’t be anything other than supportive of a newbie.

And supportive they were.

We started by basically heading for the nearest hill – at the top of which sits the mountain biking trail we were aiming for.

We took, naturally, the off-road route and my lack of experience showed immediately.

These guys are faster than I am up hills on the road and it came as no surprise that they pulled away on the track.

But this was different.

The extent to which they pulled away was startling.

As well as stronger legs, they seemed to have more grip on the snow and ice.

I was all over the place – my back wheel spinning and skipping uncontrollably.

They were having no such difficulties.

As I got to the top and rejoined the other three who’d stopped to wait, Simon helpfully checked my rear tyre pressure and, after letting out almost half of the air, told me that I’d probably have more grip as a result!

It worked… the bike immediately felt more sure-footed on the slippery surface.

We headed off down narrow, winding, tracks… punctuated with humps (where I desperately tried to “get air”) and sudden drops.

Mud, ice, snow, banked corners and a tree that, without warning, leapt out in front of me (I didn’t hit it, incidentally, but I came mighty close!)

I was loving it!

Sure, I felt a few pangs of confusion as I watched the others pulling away whilst, simultaneously seeming to put in less effort than me… but, actually, there were a few occasions when I found myself hanging on to the wheel of the person in front quite happily.

The scenery was gorgeous… made better by the snow and sun.

Not having to think about “that car/truck” I could hear bearing down on me from behind was refreshing… all focus was directed to the act of just riding a bike.

The whole relative “newness” of mountain-biking was invigorating – as was being able to ride over terrain that would have seen me lying in a heap on the floor within seconds if I’d tried it on a road bike.

I remember loving my first off-road ride on my mountain-bike but this was a different level altogether.

I was pushing myself quite hard.

I was way out of my comfort zone.

And that felt good.

So my first off-road ride with people who know what they’re doing was a success… and a success to be repeated.

In wider “Ironman training” news, I’ve started to up my swim distance a little bit and, last night, drifted up and down the pool 100 times (2.5km).

I’m sure I’ve said this before (and people who know me in person will have heard it already) but swimming, in terms of enjoyment, really does come a very close second behind cycling, for me.

Even in a boring old pool, swimming gives me the chance to switch off my mind. (“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream”… for the anoraks out there, that is a deliberate nod to the Beatles… or “Tibetan Book of the Dead”… whichever takes your fancy)

In fact – I’ve been known, in the past, to switch off my mind whilst swimming to such an extent that I’ve swam 2 miles rather the 1 I set out to swim… just through shear lack of awareness… that’s 64 extra lengths of a standard pool… without even realising!!! How’s that for mental absence?!?

I didn’t do that last night, granted, but I did thoroughly enjoy the 100 lengths that I did get done.

And there endeth another blog.

What a successful week… I’ll have a few more of them, if that’s okay with you!

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Wish it had been a little ‘otter

One of the problems with having an 11 year old, very keen, gymnast son is that, from time to time, his full day (we’re talking 9 until 4) training sessions will take place at a location which is just too far from home to consider driving back and forth twice whilst he’s doing his thing.

That’s a problem because his “full day commitment” becomes your “full day commitment”

One of the positives of having an 11 year old, very keen, gymnast son is that, from time to time, his full day (we’re talking 9 until 4) training sessions will take place at a location which is just too far from home to consider driving back and forth twice whilst he’s doing his thing.

That’s a positive because his “full day commitment” becomes your “opportunity to spend some time in a new location”.

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Sunday was one such day.

He was due to spend the day at a centre in a town called Barnstaple… a full 1hr 45minute drive from home.

It would have been plain rude not to take my bike, right?

A half-hearted plea, via Twitter, for the company of anyone I know who lives near Barnstaple didn’t really bear fruit so a solo ride was the order of the day.

One of my pals, however, in the same breath as telling me he couldn’t join me for a spin, did recommend a route – the “Tarka Trail”.

The Tarka Trail is something I’ve been meaning to ride for ages… it’s a traffic free cycle-path that happens to run through Barnstaple… and I’ve often eyed it as a “caravanning holiday family bike ride” kind of day out.

This was my perfect chance to get some miles in whilst judging, for myself, whether it would, indeed, make a good family expedition.

What’s more, the end of the Tarka Trail, in a place called Meech, is 25 miles from Barnstaple.

What a perfect distance!

A 50 mile, gentle, there-and-back route (where I couldn’t get lost even if I tried) would be a perfect way to lose a few hours.

As the day approached, I became increasingly aware of the weather forecast; 50mph winds and a “bit nippy”!

(And, in fact, I was reliably informed by another gym-Dad, who went to a driving range to lose those same few hours, that the local golf course was registering gusts of over 70mph so the forecasted 50mph was positively tame!!!).

Ever the optimist, though, after dropping Angus at the gymnastics centre, I dragged my bike out of the car – not at all phased at having nearly been blown off my feet just walking across the car park.

I set off in search of the Tarka Trail.

As is so often the case in the UK, these designated cycle paths aren’t exactly well sign-posted (it’s almost as if the authorities don’t want to encourage cycling… perish the thought!) but a bit of guidance from a fellow cyclist who “looked local” (whatever that means) saved the day and I was away!

To say the wind was “fierce” would be like saying that the Beatles enjoyed “moderate success” in the 1960s.

It would be like saying that the Sahara summer sun is “a bit warm”.

It would be like saying that “Brexit” has gone “a bit pearshaped”.

You get the picture.

My first 5 miles was effectively into said wind and I can’t honestly recall any occasion where my legs managed to force me through 13 mph…  but I can recall plenty of occasions where I struggled to stay above 10mph.

It was made worse by the fact that there is little to no shelter from it at all.

You’re cycling alongside open water so, whilst visually rewarding, there’s nothing to dampen the gusts… nothing at all.

With a slight change of the Tarka Trail’s direction, those headwinds were now hitting me side-on.

I was leaning into the wind at a comical, physics-defying, angle – genuinely concerned that, at any moment, my wheels would be swept out from underneath me – trying so hard simply to keep the bike from steering itself straight off of the path.

My thoughts pondered how daft I was being and how Lisa really wouldn’t be happy with me taking such a risk.

It was hard going.

My predicament wasn’t helped by the actual Tarka Trail itself, I have to be honest.

It’s not really a cycle-path, per se… it’s a “shared path” meaning you spend lots of time slowing to a walking pace to go past dog-walkers and runners (not criticising them, incidentally, just being factual).

The surface is not quite what the online guidance promises, either: sure, it’s “generally” tarmac but it’s old and the resulting cracks and bumps frequently make for a bone-rattling ride.

As well as the quality of the tarmac itself, debris strewn across your path (probably due to the winds, in fairness) threatens punctures at every turn of the wheel.

You spend as much time looking at your front wheel, picking the “least worst” bits of ground to aim for as you do looking significantly further ahead.

The miles ticked by, nonetheless, but, as I approached 12 miles, my mind started to wander towards turning around and going back to the car – thus making it a 24 mile ride as opposed to a 50 mile ride.

The surface wasn’t improving and the temperature wasn’t getting any warmer.

Whilst these things wouldn’t usually bother me, they were combined with those dangerously high winds and my sensible side knew that cutting the ride short was probably the right thing to do.

But my sensible side rarely wins on occasions like this – my determined side tends not to let it.

You know what I mean, don’t you!?

Against my better judgement, then, I carried on.

It was with some degree of relief that, half a mile later, on rounding a slight bend, the path in front of me was entirely blocked by a fallen tree.

Could I have got through?

Maybe… (and only maybe).

It would have been a real challenge to drag my bike trough the thick, 10ft high, “hedge” that the fallen tree had effectively formed… and going “around” was even less of an option.

Did I want to get through?

Not really – for starters, I knew that if I did it once, I’d have to do it twice (I would be coming back the other way a couple of hours later, after all)… and that didn’t appeal.

So I took it as a “sign from the cycling gods” that my sensible side should be allowed to triumph – I turned around to retrace my route back to the start.

The return journey was no less eventful… still being blown all over the place whilst weaving around people, dogs and other obstacles … but I made it in one piece.

Now – this review doesn’t paint a particularly good picture of the ride.

You’re probably thinking that I didn’t enjoy it, right?

Well there were certainly moments that I didn’t enjoy – the ones where I thought the wind was going to win the metaphorical arm-wrestling competition I’d unwittingly challenged it to!

But…

And it’s a big but…

I had an absolute ball, truth be told.

I loved it.

That mindset I described in my last blog, where I’m not concerning myself with my average speed, came into full force and so, all of a sudden, having to go slower for all of the reasons I’ve explained above did not represent an issue.

I was in no rush.

I had all day if I wanted it.

I stopped to take photos (see below).

And, surprisingly, everyone I encountered was wearing their smiley face, despite the weather.

I even stopped altogether to engage in happy conversation with a few passers-by… the topic of conversation was generally the wind and, oh how we’d laugh about how silly we all were to be out in it (silly or determined… two sides of the same coin).

It was lovely!

Plus, if we really are going full “triathlete” and demanding a training benefit from every ride, those winds made even the flat bits feel as tough as any hill I’ve ever ridden up – so my legs and lungs definitely got a workout!

Would I recommend the Tarka Trail?

Not if you want an “eyeballs out” training ride… definitely not. I’m afraid that, once again, I have to say that, as a cycle path for training on, it falls into the vastly over-subscribed category of “well, local authority, I guess you tried”.

But it’s not, and was never intended to be, a cycle path for training on… so if you want a pleasant meander either on your own or with your family, with beautiful scenery and no cars skimming your handlebars, then head to Barnstaple.

It’s perfect for that.

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Easy does it…

The end of 2018 saw the back of that little “annual cycle mileage” competition I was embroiled in with a buddy – I referred to it a couple of blogs ago for those who read this page regularly.

It’s end paved the way for me to pick up my swimming and running again, ahead of Ironman Hamburg in July.

So focused I was on “winning” the aforementioned little competition that I found myself cycling to the detriment of the other two disciplines… after all, if I had scope in my schedule to run, for example, I would deem it more fruitful to get on my bike and add to my mileage tally!

I’m a bit competitive like that!!

Now that thoughts like “I simply can’t lose this competition” have left my head, I needed to make a concerted effort to get back to a more “rounded” regime.

Having said that, I also need to do so in a sustainable way – I remember last year that a focus on “pace” in all three disciplines absolutely robbed me of any enjoyment I was deriving from them.

As you’ll be aware if you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, the enjoyment disappeared to such an extent that, not only did I pull out of Ironman Hamburg 2018, but I was dangerously close to pulling out of swim/bike/run altogether.

If there’s one thing I don’t want to happen this year – it’s that.

I need to remember the mantra that I chant so righteously at everyone else but which I seemingly forgot to adhere to myself, 12 months ago.

That enjoyment is king.

Nothing else happens unless you have enjoyment.

With that in mind, I start this year without any real focus on my pace when swimming, cycling or running.

I reckon that speed will come as a by-product of “enjoying” doing all three disciplines… but, right now, I’d do well not to make it about that.

Last week, I went out on my first run for what must be 6 months.

True to my word, I set off at an “enjoyable” pace… rather than a “what in the name of all that’s holy are you doing to me?” pace!

I also didn’t set myself the target of simply upping and running my regular 5km route either.

Again, I figured that, having had 6 months off, it’d be far more pleasant to cut the first run or two a little shorter.

And that’s exactly what I did – I “short-cutted” my normal 5km route by something around 1km and arrived home feeling as fresh as a daisy.

I fully expected my pace to be slow – clearly – but, given all of the factors involved, it wasn’t actually quite as slow as I imagined it would be.

It was, admittedly, significantly slower than the pace I was running when I was doing it more regularly, obviously, but that didn’t bother me.

In fact – it excited me a little, I have to be honest.

It excited me because I felt good about having ran… not bad about having ran slowly.

Roll forward a few days and I was in the pool, employing the same strategy.

And again, my “mile” swim took a couple of minutes more than the “norm”… and I was around 5 minutes shy of what would be deemed quite quick (for me, that is).

But, again, I didn’t fret.

I’d set out to achieve enjoyment and the smile on my face as I got out of the pool was enough to tell me (and anyone else watching this beaming idiot hauling himself over the side) that my mission had been successful.

And, if you’ll permit me to focus on pace for just a moment, the funny thing is that both my run-pace and my swim-pace for those two sessions were faster than anything I was capable of doing back at the start of 2014 – the year of my first full Ironman.

I’ll tell you something else, too.

The lack of concern for my average pace on my bike has freed me up a little to try different routes.

Whenever pace is a focus, I tended to look towards flatter routes which return a higher average speed.

That’s a vanity thing – pure and simple.

I admit it.

It’s wholly artificial – but you can’t argue with the average speed showing on Strava!

When my average speed is no longer important (particularly for the last few rides), I’ve felt more comfortable to head for hills.

Yeah – my average speed is slower, clearly… but I enjoy hills and it’s nice to have them back!

(And, let’s face it, it’s through training on hills where, ironically, I’ll find “genuine” pace – so it’s a “win-win” situation, really).

So it’s been a very “smiley” Phil who has been swimming, cycling and running his way into 2019.

And, I’m quite determined to find myself still enjoying my sport throughout the year, too.

Sure, if I project to how I’ll be feeling as I get closer to Ironman Hamburg, pace may become a bit more of a focus but, until then, I’ll just let my speed slowly improve as a result of enjoying getting out there in the first place.

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I’m just a poor boy…

Saturday was the day of the “Poor Student” 200km Audax.. which started and finished in Oxford.

As has become the norm – you can either read on – or watch the video, here (or both, obviously!)

So now we’ve lost the people who only wanted to watch the video, get yourself comfortable and read on.

This ride was to be my 9th consecutive month of completing a 200km (or more) Audax ride – just three more to go to hit 12 which, in turn, will earn me my Randonneur Round The Year (RRTY) Audax “award”.

The fact that it started in Oxford, a significant distance from where I live, had its positive and negative points, truth be told.

On the one hand, it meant that I’d be cycling on roads which were new to me – rather than on the same ones that I ride day in/day out. That’s nice.

On the other hand, though, an 8am event start time is an awful lot easier if you don’t have a 1 hour 45 minute drive just to get there.

So, always one to build in way too much contingency time, my alarm went off at 4am with a view to leaving the house by 5:15am.

I arrived, as hoped, by 7am so I had a good amount of time to just “relax” ahead of the off.

Three of my cycling buddies were also on the start list so, at 8am sharp, Russell, Simon, Julian and I (along with a good number of other intrepid Audaxers) drifted away from the Park And Ride car park – which we wouldn’t get to see again for 126 or so miles.

It was quite cold being that the temperature was hovering around zero degrees (which, incidentally, it pretty much did all day) but I was well dressed for that so can’t really say it was an issue.

The first few miles were steady, verging on slow, as we found our feet.

Then, having broken free of a few guys whose pace we’d been broadly matching, the four of us gradually increased our speed to something resembling the norm.

I could tell that my legs were still feeling the impacts of Christmas which, for me, were two-fold; barely any time on the saddle (deliberate, I should add) and far too much time with my face buried in the snack cupboard!

Nonetheless, we drifted along quite happily – chatting and taking in some really quite pretty scenery.

In terms of where I was in the country, I was effectively lost but for my gps map in front of me… and that felt lovely, as it happens.

The ride was a proper “hard-core” Audax.

Aside from someone at the start to tick your name off as having turned up, there were no designated stops, as such – you just had to pick up shop receipts from three towns (including Oxford at the end) to verify that you’d been there – said receipts were to be posted to the organiser who then marks you up as someone who did the ride.

The need for receipts, then, rather than specific cafe stops, broke the route up into three stints – the first of which wasn’t flat but, in all honestly, didn’t really qualify as hilly either.

Let’s say that it was “rolling”.

That being the case, when the first stint ended in Chipping Camden (after c40 miles), the legs were still feeling fresh – but a receipt for some kind of purchase was required so that’s as good an excuse for a cup of tea and a piece of cake as I can think of!

All 4 of us were still together and spirits were high.

Whilst eating our snacks, we were joined by a couple of other Audaxers – one of whom had ridden to the start line from Bristol and, by the time he was due to get home, he would have covered around 266 miles. I’d say that’s quite an achievement for a cold day in January!

Off we set again for the middle stint – broadly the same distance as the first.

In music terms, this second stint was like the fabled “difficult second album” that artists who produce a great opening anthology have to struggle with.

Let me be less cryptic; the second stint was tough.

On paper, the amount of climbing over the course of the whole route (at c7,000 feet in 126 miles) didn’t seem too onerous.

But the majority of that elevation came in this second tranche of 40 miles.

It was up and down.

And up and down.

And up and down.

And up and down. (You can sense where I’m going with this)

And up and down. (Let’s call it a day there, shall we?)

Quite a few of the gradients were comfortably exceeding 10% – some above 15% – and I know my cycle computer claimed 20%+ more than once.

Our little group of 4 broadly stuck together although, and I’ll not lie, there were a couple of occasions where I felt like I was a few pedal strokes away from losing contact with the other three.

Thankfully, though, that never happened – but the same legs that took me up Momt Ventoux three times in one day in October were now struggling to take me up the far less famous hills that were in front of me.

Malmesbury, the town at the end of the second stint, couldn’t come quickly enough.

We had a “proper” lunch there (if you count a panini, some chips, a Mars bar, a can of Coke and a cup of tea as “proper”) and I was feeling revived again.

We knew that the last 50 miles contained no hills to speak of so we set off fully expecting to get it done in under 3 hours (which we did, I should add).

In fact, at times, it felt like all 4 of us were on a bit of a mission to see how quickly we could get to the end!

Prolonged periods of riding in a single-file train with our heads down and legs pumping. (Or at least that’s how it felt to me).

It was fun.

Hard work

But fun.

Before we knew it, we were riding through the streets of Oxford and on to the end where, again, we bought a cup of tea and a cookie (just so we had the receipt to prove we’d finished, of course) and chatted our way through a debrief of the event.

And what a lovely event it was, too.

Notwithstanding that hilly middle stint, the route was glorious; quiet roads, pretty villages and lovely countryside.

The company made the day into a nice memory, too.

So there you have it – my first big ride of 2019 and another step closer to that RRTY tag that I’ve been aiming for.

Happy New Year, indeed!

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