3 is the magic number

Every now and then, it’s important to do something that scares you, right?

And the idea of Club Des Cinglés scared me a little bit, I’ll not lie.

Taking on a single ascent of Mont Ventoux is something of a “bucket list challenge” for a good portion of cyclists the world over.

Attempting TWO of the famed roads to the top, in one ride, is something that few would even consider.

Saying that you’re doing ALL THREE, back to back, is, as I’ve learned through experience, enough to make even the hardiest of cyclists raise an eyebrow.

Goodness; it’s enough to earn you membership of the Club Des Cinglés – (basically; the “Club of the crazy people”).

Why I wanted to do it is, doubtlessly, rooted in this love I have of searching for my limits… it’s what drives, on average, at least one “weird A-event” each year, for me.

So when a couple of friends, (Gary and Julian) told me they were doing it – and invited me to join them – it was my “horse’s head on the bed” moment… it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

We flew down to the south of France and a hire car completed our journey to Bédoin at the foot of Ventoux, where we’d found a suitable apartment – and where our hire bikes were to be delivered, ready for our adventure.

The day before we were going to take the three climbs on, we went out for a gentle spin – 40 or so miles – which finished with a 1/3rd ascent of the “Bédoin route” to the top of Ventoux.

It was a confidence boosting ride… at least for me, it was.

We didn’t encounter anything which came as a surprise – so I went to bed the night before, feeling positive and raring to go.

Now I could give you a blow by blow account of the ride itself, which we cheerily started at 8am… and finished later that day (having taken in 84 miles and over 14,000 feet of climbing)… such is my recall of events… but, oh, I don’t know, I reckon that would get repetitive.

So, instead, I’ll deal with “themes”.

Relentless hills

In the run up to the event, I’d been likening the task ahead (when trying to explain it to non-cycling friends) to cycling up a local, well known, challenging hill, continuously for 42 miles.

The local hill in question has a similar average gradient so it was a great way of getting the engagement (and gasps of disbelief) from the friends I was telling.

I’m going to level with you, though – I didn’t really think it would be like cycling up that hill for 42 miles.

The local hill in question is quite tough and something in me just couldn’t believe that even Mont Ventoux would be that relentless.

It was.

It really was.

It really really was!

The Bédoin and Malaucène climbs were tougher than the Sault climb but, and make no bones about this, all three of them were brutal.

Each climb is, averaged out, around 13 miles or so in length with 5 or 6 mile stretches at a time where the gradient is continuously at over 10% meant that, when you return to single digit percentages, even 9.9%, you bizarrely find yourself feeling like you’re riding on the flat.

It got to the stage where anything less than an 8% gradient felt positively luxurious.

At one point, on the second ascent, I started seeing double and feeling dizzy. I was needing food but the “marker stone” on the side of the road told me that I had 66km still to go before the shop at the top (that’s 6km if you’re not suffering from double vision).

It was so brutal that you had to suspend the norms in terms of calculating how long the remaining distance before the summit would take; 6 kilometres (c4 miles), even at a pootle, back home, would be 15 minutes max. On Ventoux, you knew that, with those same 4 miles to go, you might even be looking at anything up to 45 minutes!

For me, it was far less about looking at distance or time… and far more about looking at elevation; I knew that each climb was c4,500 feet so I had “elevation” displayed prominently on my Wahoo screen in front of me and was thinking wholly in terms of how many more feet I had to climb.

One thing that did strike me, though, was that I was eternally grateful to myself for having practiced seated climbing over the last couple of months.

I may not be any good at it (and still vastly prefer being stood up)… but my practicing got me used to it and, trust me, there’s no other way to do three ascents of Ventoux other than sat firmly on the saddle.

Difficult descents

Now one thing, in the lead up to the day, I’d been telling myself was that, whilst the ride was 84 miles long, it was only, really, a 42 mile bike ride – the descents wouldn’t really count, right?

Wrong.

At the top of the first ascent, from Bédoin, the wind was unlike anything I’d experienced before (I swear that I could have used my bike as a kite – I genuinely had to struggle to hold it down as I dismounted) and that had a corresponding effect on the temperature.

It was cold!

Bloody cold!

We thought we’d prepared for that, though, and all of us donned our collections of arm-warmers, long fingered gloves and gilets in preparation for the c13 mile descent into Malaucène.

Not having to pedal when you’re lovely and warm is great.

Not having to pedal when you’re shivering so badly that even your bike is shaking and darting from left to right (and back again)… that’s not great… putting in no effort means generating no warmth.

Trying to create resistance to push against, by braking and pedaling at the same time, wasn’t helping me to get any warmth in my legs, either.

Add to that the fact that, for the first handful of miles, you’re trying to fight the huge winds which are hell-bent on throwing you over the side of the mountain and you have a very unpleasant experience indeed!

All three of the descents were much the same (with the possible exception of the last one which, for some reason, seemed marginally more pleasant).

Gary, at the bottom of the first descent, took 30 minutes to stop shivering even though, by that time, we were basking in 24° sunshine and he was drinking hot coffee… that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.

It’s a very odd place to be when you beg for the return of the brutal climbing, just to get some warmth in your body.

Odd… and wholly unexpected.

Views

The summit of Mont Ventoux is anywhere between 1,909 and 1,912 metres up in the air (depending on whether you look at the sign outside the shop at the top… or the merchandise on sale inside).

It’s not surrounded by any other 1,912 metre tall mountains, either… which means that, when you are standing there, bracing yourself against the wind and cold, you feel like you are on top of the world.

I can’t seem to find any figures on this but numerous sources helpfully suggest that we could see for “many many miles”… and we’d chosen a particularly clear day to take on our challenge, too.

The views were SPECTACULAR!

They were more than “spectacular”… we use that word for sporting performances or great TV programmes, after all… so it doesn’t seem right to use the same word to describe the views from the top of Ventoux.

We need another, more powerful, superlative; “Uber-spectacular”!

To the one side, you could see the sprawling Alps in the distance… a slight turn to the right and you were surveying what appeared to be the whole of Provence.

For a moment, you could easily forget that you were being battered by the elements.

And, of course, the views from the bike were equally stunning as you wound your way up/back down… each time you rounded a bend, you were rewarded with a wholly new perspective.

Descending, notwithstanding its own challenges, was, from a “visual” perspective, a particular delight… even the road itself… like a ribbon out in front of you… yet to be attacked… was a “view” to behold.

Summary

The Club Des Cinglés, three ascents, challenge is, without doubt, one of the hardest days I’ve endured.

I don’t want to say “the hardest” because Ironman Sweden brought me very close to tears so that, I guess, claims the crown… but Mont Ventoux certainly pushed me closer to my limit than anything outside of Sweden.

I have rarely experienced the kind of “pain” that I had on the inclines of Ventoux.

Some of you will know what I mean when I say this; it was “good pain” but pain nonetheless.

Mont Ventoux is staggeringly beautiful and the day will live with me forever.

It dragged swear words out of me that I’ve not used for a while and I even found myself saying “God bless” to the Tommy Simpson memorial even though I’m not in the least bit religious… and, being a piece of rock, it has no way of hearing me even if I was!

But it also dragged “determination” out of me in buckets-loads.

That’s what this hill does for you.

Ticking the “Club Des Cinglés” box on my “cycling CV” has given me one mahoosive sense of achievement!

I can’t finish a blog without thanking the two chaps who invited me along and who pedaled up there with me; Gary and Julian.

Both of them are clearly as mad as a box of frogs… which is great… cos you need to be to do what we did. Even other cyclists, on the day, looked at us with bewilderment when we told them what we were up to.

I also can’t end this blog without thanking Lisa, my wife (for those that don’t know – where have you been??!?!!) and Angus & Evert, my boys. Without their approval, I could never have got on the flight in the first place.

To finish off; if you ever fancied doing one, two or even three ascents of Ventoux… do it… you won’t regret a single moment (or should that be a “cingle” moment?)!

Photos below!

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If Carlsberg did bike rides.

I’d go as far as to say that Saturday was one of the best days I’ve ever spent on a bike.

In terms of length, it fell short of being my longest ride by around 140 miles… so that’s not why it will be remembered as a great day.

In terms of speed, it was certainly nothing to write home about… so that’s not why I’ll look back on the day with a smile on my face either.

In terms of my own “performance”, it was okay but I’ve certainly felt stronger than I did as I got back home at the end of the ride… so that’s no reason to feel especially proud of the day, in hindsight.

No – none of these more traditional measures of a good day on a bike are what made Saturday memorable… far more important factors came into play, as you will see.

Saturday was the day of the “Skirting the Cotswolds Audax”; a 100km ride which Russ and I were extending (by way of a ride to and from the start) to 200km (my 5th in as many months – on my way to the Audax RRTY award).

On the way to the start, we were also joined by another long-standing cycling buddy, Gary, but he wasn’t going to be doing the full “make it up to 200km” bit at the end.

As is becoming a habit on this site – you can skip the reading bit and just watch my vlog of the day, below.

For those of you still reading, then, the weather the day before the ride was truly miserable .. it was windy, rainy and hopelessly dull.

But the forecast for the Saturday was far more promising.

And, indeed, we set off in full morning sun with very little wind.

The route we took to the start was gorgeous and took us up the first real climb of the day, through a stunning park, and over the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

A brief stop at the start of the Audax itself gave us a chance to catch up with other friends who were also taking part.

Plenty of people were ready at the start line and, after just 20 minutes or so, we were setting off on the main part of the ride.

The first half of the Audax was expected to be the lumpier bit… and there were certainly a few ups and downs along the way.

Nothing too taxing, though, as we wound our way around mainly country lanes.

The route was scenic, the sun was out, the wind still hadn’t got out of bed.

Life was very pleasant indeed.

The company was great, too.

Not only the people I already knew, either; I met a couple of new faces – one of whom did the Club Des Cingles, Mont Ventoux, challenge that I’m doing next month. He told me that it’s so hard, he thought he was dying when he did it.

I’m choosing to ignore that review (and, for that matter, all of the other online reviews which seem to echo his comments!)

Onwards we rode at a pace which was somewhere between “sluggish” and “speedy”… just genuinely enjoying being on the bike.

It really was just a chat-fest… albeit a very scenic one… where we could just as easily been sitting around a pub garden table rather than pushing pedals ’round.

The first ham-roll and cake stop came at 30 miles into the Audax (roughly 50 miles into our day).  It was a chance for a few of our friends, who we’d dropped a bit, to regroup before we all set off again.

At this point, it became apparent that I’d… err…. “misinterpreted” the route profile a bit. Rather smugly, I did a bit of analysis ahead of the ride and felt sure that, by the time we reached that first stop, we’d be done with any significant ups and downs… I was “nailed-on certain” that the second half of the Audax was flat.

It wasn’t.

You can imagine my surprise at finding that the next 10 miles were spent on a road which another one of our group (who knew the terrain well) cheerfully referred to as “the rollercoaster”.

It was up and down… and up and down… and up and down.

Some of the hills topping out at over 17% so, admittedly, nothing eye-poppingly steep… but enough to get the blood pumping, certainly.

But it would take more than that to dampen the spirits as we carried on our merry way!

Still chatting.

Still enjoying the scenery.

Still not worrying about pace.

The organisers had thrown in a second stop in the 100km route and, ordinarily, I think that would have been one stop too many; who needs a stop between mile 30 and mile 60?

As it turns out, the normal rules of engagement didn’t apply and, whilst 99 times out of a 100, I think I would have drifted straight past that offer of a rest and on to the end of the Audax, this was the 1 time when parking the bike up and kicking back in a quaint little cafe / courtyard seemed like the right thing to do.

It just seemed to fit with the mood of the day.

Another regroup of friends – another bit of banter… and another cake (obviously! – this time it was a monster!).

It turned out to be a considerably longer stop than we’d expected; Gary had suffered a bit of a mechanical shortly after that first stop so it was only fair that Russ and I let him catch up AND eat his cake before we all set of again, united.

We had a slight headwind for the remainder of the Audax (around 17 miles) but we didn’t fight it with too much spirit… we just made our way to the end of the Audax itself.

At that point, Gary and another one of our group, Stu, bode their farewells to Russ and I, leaving just us two to press on with the last 40 or so miles.

Knowing you’ve got 40 miles to ride when home is 40 miles away is one thing.

Knowing you’ve got 40 miles to ride when home is less than 20 miles away is a very different animal… given the route that we’d planned, it meant that, basically, Russ and I were going to have to ride past our own home town at one point.

And effectively watching your house go by, out of the corner of your eye, knowing that you’re still some way from actually stopping there, is psychologically quite challenging.

But we did it anyway, in our search for the crucial 200km/125 mile distance we set out to ride.

Despite the rather counter-intuitive route, though, Russ and I plodded on undeterred and, before we knew it, we were finally taking a left hand turn which meant we were homeward bound.

And that was that – we finished the ride at 125 miles… simple, really!

The company, the atmosphere, the relaxed nature of the ride and the cake made it one of my best ever days on a bike… I honestly mean that.

And, to thrown a bit of technical stuff in here, it would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that this was my first long ride on 25mm wide tyres – I’m way behind the curve on this, I know, but I’ve been sticking to my tried and trusted 23mm tyres until now.

So – what’s my verdict of the 25mm option?

They’re meant to be more comfortable. That’s difficult for me to comment on as I’ve never really been uncomfortable but, I guess, if I were pushed to give an opinion, I’d say the 25s did leave me feeling a little less “jiggled around” (technical review, clearly).

They’re meant to roll more freely. The jury’s out on that but, again, if I were forced off of the fence, I guess I’d say that they seem less affected by the “micro-bumps” in the road so, yes, I guess that makes them roll better.

I “think“, therefore, that they’re better… whether that’s in my head or whether they really are better is debatable but, at the end of the day… does that really matter?.. if I think they’re better then I suppose they are.

Put it this way; when I come to replace my tyres, I’ll buy 25s again rather than 23s… so I suppose that’s your verdict.

Back to the ride; it was an amazing day and the 5th of 12 consecutive 200km monthly rides I need to do… my next one will be in France… in a little under one month’s time.

I can’t wait!

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Are you sitting comfortably?..

… then I’ll begin.

A long time ago (in this galaxy, as it happens), I was busy looking for my next challenge.

I stumbled across a documentary on the television.

The fine detail is vague, in my memory, but I seem to recall it being about a determined chap with various physical limitations. He was taking on (and completing) a challenge which instantly captured my imagination.

I instantly knew that, one day, I’d take on (and complete) the same challenge.

Roll forward to the start of 2017 and I was putting the word out there that I was going to do it – asking if anyone else would be interested in joining me.

I had a few positive responses… so the planning started.

Then I broke my wrist.

I broke it quite badly, actually.

So badly that it needed a big old metal plate and some screws to piece it all back together – the metalwork is still in there and always will be… yet another thing to explain at airport security when I fail to get through the metal detectors without setting off the alarms!

A prognosis that I’d be off the bike for 6-8 months scuppered my plans to take on the challenge I’d started to plan… and so the whole thing was sidelined.

I ended up turbo training for a month (including a single session 100 miler) before getting insanely bored and (after an awful lot of accelerated rehab exercises and with the doctor’s permission) I got back out on the road within 6 weeks… but, by then, the challenge for 2017 had already been indefinitely postponed.

And that’s where it stayed… postponed… but ever present on my bucket-list.

A few weeks ago, a mate dropped me a text message asking if I wanted to join him (and another mate) in October, in taking on exactly the challenge that I’d previously postponed.

At this point, I should probably issue a short apology to those with whom I’d originally planned to take the challenge on. I’m sure you understand but, when presented with the chance to “piggy-back” on a mate’s planning, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

Anyway… the challenge; becoming a member of the “Club Des Cingles”… a club which has one simple (but, at the same time, difficult) condition of membership.

There are three ways to the top of the mythical cycling climb, Mont Ventoux (in the south of France in case you didn’t know), and if you do all three of them in one ride, you’re in the club… it’s as simple as that (and you get a medal for your efforts… it’s all about the bling!)

I’ve done a bit of research and the ride is around 85 miles long (137km) with 14,500 ft (4,400 metres) of climbing.

A brief bit of maths tells me that that’s a little over 42 miles of climbing, cumulatively.. or 3 climbs averaging around 14 miles apiece… with each one ascending through nearly 5,000 feet.

5,000 feet in 14 miles.

Then you do it again.

And then once more… for good measure.

I don’t know what you’re used to when you head out on a ride… but that distance/elevation ratio seems quite challenging to me… hence the fact you get a medal, I guess!

Now, I live in an area of the country where we can have a nice flat ride if we want it… but where we can take in some pretty challenging hills if the mood takes us… we’re lucky to have choices, here.

So, as far as I can in just 7 weeks, I need to make sure I get some hill climbing practice in.

That oversimplifies things a little, though.

What I really mean is that I need practice riding up hills at a pace, effort and technique that I could keep up for the whole of Mont Ventoux… times three.

And therein lies the challenge.

My default on hills is to stand on my pedals, push my heart rate up through the roof and mop the blood out of my ears at the top of any given climb 10 minutes later.

That might be fine for local roads but I’m not sure that’s a very practical approach to 3 lots of 14 miles that I’ll face on the roads of Mont Ventoux!

So I need to practice staying seated and controlling my effort. In so doing, I need to acknowledge (nay – “embrace”) the fact I’ll be slower for it.

I need to practice not giving so much of myself on climbs that I have more of a need for a doctor at the top than a swig of water.

And that’s why my last couple of rides have taken in a few of the local hills.

It’s why, on said hills, I’ve stubbornly resisted the urge to stand up on the pedals and push, choosing, instead, to keep my backside firmly stuck to the saddle, to drop down through the gears, and to spin (or, more accurately, grind) it out all the way to the top.

It’s why I’ve started wearing my heart-rate strap again on the road (for the first time in ages) – I feel that a more scientific measure of just how much effort I’m putting in would be useful.

Staying seated and keeping effort low is far easier than I imagined, as it happens… I always assumed that my tendency to stand up and push is simply because I’m just not strong enough to get up hills any other way.

It turns out, however, that, as long as I accept that I’ll go slower, I can stay seated and, from an effort perspective, in relative comfort, on gradients which exceed anything I’ll face on Ventoux… so that’s encouraging.

So, having established that I can do what’s necessary without much thought or preparation, where’s the challenge, then?

Well – don’t be mistaken… the challenges remain:

I’m still new to the technique, for starters… and I’m hardly likely to become an expert in 7 weeks!

I have no idea whether I can make it work for the kind of distance that it’ll need to work for on the day.

Also, and whilst accepting that speed is not the goal, I don’t want to be almost at a standstill up the three climbs, let’s face it. I want to feel like I’ve gone as quickly as I can rather than just settling for a snail’s pace…. If nothing else, I’ll be with two others so there will be at least some pressure to stay broadly in touch with them. (Competitive urges to “beat” them will need to be curtailed, too).

And – there’s the effect of descending.

I was chatting about this with one of my “challenge buddies”… if you just roll down the hill before starting the second or third ascents of Ventoux, it’ll be the equivalent, for your legs, of stopping for lunch and then immediately expecting your muscles to be lively enough to tackle a monster of a climb as you turn around to start again.

That won’t do at all… so even on the descents, we’ll need to be mindful not to let the legs relax and cool down too much… and that’s quite tough when you’re faced with a 13 mile downhill stretch.

Trying to work the legs, to keep them warm, when the road is telling you to just freewheel until your heart’s content is going to be interesting.

All in all, then, becoming a member of Club Des Cingles poses quite a few questions which I still need to find the answers to.

And I’ve got around 7 weeks to find them.

Exciting!

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Four seasons in one day

A few months ago, I embarked on what is effectively my A-race for the next 12 months.

It’s an A-race with a difference, though.. it takes the full 12 months to finish.

Gaining “RRTY” (Randonneur Round The Year) status in the Audax organisation means you need to ride at least one 200km (or longer) event/approved route every calendar month for 12 consecutive months.

Having started in May, my August “RRTY”, on Saturday, was the 4th of the 12 I need.

In the absence of any “organised”, suitable, Audax events nearby, I got pre-approval to ride a route on my own.

I say; “on my own” when I really mean “with my regular riding buddy, Russ”.

I’d have done it on my own, of course, but having company is always so much nicer over distances of 200km!

If you like videos… you can watch my highlights of the day here.

Now; if you’ve got to this point, you either didn’t watch the video OR you fancy some more detail… either is fine!

We set off at an earlier than usual 7am for two reasons:

1) an early start makes for an earlier finish… and allows for some contingency in the event of mechanicals etc

2) the weather forecast was for deteriorating conditions as the day went on and we wanted to maximise our chances of avoiding the worst of it

As for that “weather forecast” thing… you’d never have believed the dubious forecast if you’d just trusted your own eyes at 7am; it was a gorgeous morning.

Blue skies.

Barely any wind.

Sunny.

Within the first handful of miles we were treated to the sights of hot-air balloons (loads of them) taking off from the Bristol Balloon Fiesta.

On we rode, pretty much underneath them all, into Bristol… where we were due to pick up the Bristol-to-Bath cycle path… a lovely dedicated cycle path which follows the route of what used to be a railway-line for miles and miles, past both urban scenery and countryside alike.

It even includes a stretch where you go through the “twin tunnels”… around a mile and a half of railway tunnels where having lights on your bike is highly advisable!

The path is well used, too… by cyclists of all genres… families, commuters, people just out for a pootle and a chat, people running errands who simply need to get from A to B, speedy types… and those doing longer distances… like Russ and me.

The route we were riding was essentially two rides; a 56 mile out-and-back to Bath followed by a 76 mile out-and-back to Glastonbury.

At the 28 mile point, then, Russ and I were doing an about-turn on the cycle path to, effectively, retrace our wheel-tracks back towards home.

A few miles later and we were stopping for a quick cuppa.

The weather was still holding… and the legs were feeling fine.

A drink (and a doughnut) later – we were on our way.

By the time we got back towards home, the weather had started to show the first signs of turning… a now-overcast sky and few spots of rain signalled what was to come.

We stopped for a very brief period, at what was a few miles short of the halfway point of the ride, before pushing onwards with Glastonbury being the next destination.

At 60 miles in, with around 35 to go before we reached our planned lunch stop in Glastonbury, we were fighting a nasty headwind and fairly persistent drizzle.

I was grateful to have worn my base layer – sure; it was getting wet… but it was at least stopping the cooling effect of air hitting wet skin as we zipped along.

I “think” Russ was feeling the same as me with just a handful of miles before lunch… a bit fatigued by the relentless wind (although at least the drizzle had stopped).

For those last 5 miles rolling towards Glastonbury, I really was just “riding to Glastonbury”…. by which I mean that I’d parked all thoughts about the 35 mile trek back home… and was just focussing on getting to the place where I could shove some nutrition back into my legs.

Lunch was welcome.

A panini.

Cheese and ham (I wanted ham and cheese but they didn’t have that).

And a hot drink.

As is often the case when you stop… getting back up off the chair was as big a challenge as the riding itself.

But.. Russ and I hauled ourselves back into our bikes and out of Glastonbury… homeward-bound.

The rain returned… but this time, it wasn’t drizzle… it was proper, bona-fide rain… bordering on torrential for prolonged periods.

But Russ and I were up to the challenge!

Assisted by what had now become a tailwind, we made good time over the journey home.

And even the rain… well… that was heavy enough to remind me that, actually, I quite enjoy the whole satisfaction of getting wet but pressing on anyway. It adds a certain “je ne sais quoi” to the whole achievement of the ride, don’t you think?!

And, aside from the rain, there’s little else to say about those final couple of hours… they passed broadly without drama; we were holding a fairly decent average speed… we didn’t have any mechanical issues… and even the motorists seemed to be behaving themselves as they were overtaking us in the poor conditions.

Before we knew it, Russ and I were back in our home-town and going our separate ways having decided against our usual “end of ride chat by the side of the road” in the pouring rain!

We ended the day with 133 miles on the clock and I’d successfully ticked off another 200km Audax (as had Russ, who now only has 2 more months to go to get his own RRTY award).

What a great way to spend a rainy August Saturday!

And, before I go, I have a wee bit of exciting news about a new entry to my calendar… taking place in October… but I might just keep you in suspense as to what that news might be!

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Three come along at once…

You know the saying; spend ages waiting for a bus then three come along at once.

Well that saying applies, it seems, to inspiration for blogs.

I’ve not had a reason to blog for a little while and then, all of a sudden, three topics presented themselves simultaneously!

So this blog will be a bit of a mixed bag!

I’m going to start off with some bad language, I’m afraid; “mountain-biking”.

There.

I said it.

As a committed road cyclist, I never thought I would say it.

But I have.

What’s more; I’ve discovered the pleasures of it since my last blog.

That’s right… you heard me!

My ever expanding bike collection now includes a mountain bike (as do the collections of both my boys… and my wife!).

An opportunity to buy such a bike came up and, having often wondered what the off-road world was like, I jumped at the chance.

If this were a blog wholly about mountain biking, I’d have the available word-count to bore you with the finer details about the handful of off-road expeditions we’ve done to date but since I have two other topics to cover, I’ll spare you.

Suffice to say, though, it’s very different… “good-different”… but different all the same.

I think I’ll always be a roadie at heart but I’ve really enjoyed my first few forays into the rough.

It’s really very satisfying to whip down paths which are, at best, only as wide as the bike, dodging trees, bushes and continuously weaving from left to right as if you were in some kind of slalom event.

There’s even some satisfaction in occasionally not dodging the trees and bushes… those scrapes you get on your legs and arms are more like trophies than they are reminders of how rubbish you are!

I’m sure some of the new skills I’ll develop will translate to “on road” riding.

Hills tend to be steeper, too… and that’ll be good for the legs!

The amount of grip you have on surfaces that would normally fill me with dread takes some getting used to… as does the fact that you can seemingly ride straight over ridiculously large obstacles, without drama… trusting the suspension to take care of the situation.

Not having poorly driven motor vehicles, with impatient motorists behind the wheel, passing within inches of you is also an added bonus, especially when you’re focusing on the safety of your wife and kids!

Lastly, riding only a handful of miles at what you’d normally consider to be an absolute snail’s pace and still feeling like you’ve done a workout is a bizarre thing.

All in all, my mountain bike has slotted in very well to the stable and I’ll enjoy getting more acquainted with it.

Moving on and, since my last blog, the review of a 300km ride I did at the beginning of July, I’ve been out with another mate and slotted in a 200km ride.

This isn’t a review of that ride, though – you can watch my vlog if that below, if you fancy:

Without wanting to labour the point, though, anyone who knows me well will be aware of the fact that my mojo for long rides, having gone AWOL earlier in the year,  is well and truly back.

And.. whilst riding the 200km ride in the video above, I think I discovered (that should probably read; “remembered”) one of the techniques I use to get ’round the mental challenge of a long ride… so I thought I’d pass it on to you (it will work for any endurance stuff, I’m sure).

Why I forgot this little nugget, I just don’t know… I used to do it EVERY time when “going long”… but still.

I think that the key is essentially based around breaking the event down into chunks and just riding each chunk as it comes.

I can hear you now, though; “that’s hardly insightful, Phil – we all know that – thanks for nothing!”

Well – that’s true – but the secret is not so much in the “breaking it down into small chunks” – the thing I suddenly remember was the “how to break it down into smaller chunks”

It would be very easy, and therefore tempting, to see a 120 mile ride in chunks defined by distance.

Okay – so you start out with 6 rides of 20 miles to do, shall we say?

But, having done that, you still spend you’re whole time thinking in terms of mileage… as a result, you struggle, I think, to ignore the bigger picture if you’re focusing on anything involving mileage… I think that’s what I was doing when I had my couple of DNFs earlier in the year… I was thinking about the fact that, with 60 miles to go, I still had “3 lots of 20 miles” to ride… thus defeating the purpose of breaking it down in the first place.

So, instead of mileage, I think it helps to define those chunks around something else… for me; that “something else” needs to happen every hour but you’ll find your happy “period of time”.

Every hour, I tend to grab a gel, a handful of jelly babies or an energy bar… and a swig of fluid to wash it down. For me, then, it seems natural that I break my long rides down into “food intervals”.

As a result, I’m only ever riding until my next jelly baby… which, at most, is an hour away… and an hour is nothing, is it?!?

Before you know it, you’ve had 7 or 8 “food intervals” and you’re rolling into the finish of a 200km ride!

It really is that simple!

I’m so glad to have remembered this tip (despite still being confused as to how I forgot it) and will definitely be using it going forwards.

It’ll certainly help me in terms of the third and final topic that this blog will cover.

You all know that I deferred my Ironman Hamburg 2018 entry by a year.

As it happened, Ironman Hamburg 2018, which I should have been at, took place a week or so ago and I was immeasurably glad that I did defer, with the benefit of hindsight!

Water quality (due, I presume, to an unusually long heat-wave causing bugs to breed) meant that the organisers cancelled the swim and replaced it with a 6km run!

It became a duathlon.

I’m not going to mince my words, here; I’d have been totally devastated to know that it wasn’t really an Ironman triathlon… or even a triathlon at all…

Less devastated, I’m sure, than the first timers who would be faced with that bizarre quandary of deciding, after the event, whether they could, hand-on-heart, tell people that they’d completed an Ironman Triathlon.

But devastated nonetheless.

Anyway… shortly after the event, when entries for the 2019 version were opened, I received the expected email.

“You deferred your 2018 entry so here’s your chance to enter 2019 for free, thus taking up your deferral option” (I’m paraphrasing, of course).

I took up the option so, once again, my name appears on the start list of Ironman Hamburg!

It’s on the 28th July 2019.

As it stands, I’m once again filled with the same level of excitement about that as I experienced when I entered for the 2018 event.

So that’s positive.

But if, like I did back in March, I find that it starts knocking the enjoyment out of my swimming, cycling and running then I’ll simply not take up my place on the start line.

Life is too short to focus on something as ridiculously challenging as an Ironman unless said challenge is overflowing your excitement levels such that it makes you want to run out into the street, jump up and down and tell the world about how great it’ll be… especially since, having done (and thoroughly enjoyed) one Ironman already, a second won’t really add anything to my list of achievements.

Having said that, I don’t want you to think that I’m going into this year with a preference “not” to be there.. or even a sense of “I’m not bothered either way”.

Right now… I AM bothered… very much so… goodness I’m bothered!!

I yearn to be there.

I so hope that it continues to keep me interested me for the whole year, right up until I cross the finish line… just as Ironman Sweden did.

Anyway, I think that’s brought everything up to date! Thanks for reading!

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Mad dogs and Englishmen…

A few months ago, you may recall that I was genuinely ready to throw in the towel on cycling and, no doubt, had I done so, I expect I’d also have stopped swimming and running, too.

I’d had two consecutive DNFs at 200km distance and, given that both were wholly due to simply “not enjoying the ride”, I reached the conclusion that cycling wasn’t doing it for me any more.

Don’t underestimate how genuinely close I came… I was poised over the “delete” button for my beloved Strava app!

And then I had a bit of a moment where I consciously thought about how to get my mojo back.

And it fits better with this blog if I leave you in suspense re just how I did get said mojo back until later… but I’ll just say that, since that “wobble”, I’ve done two 200km rides, a 300km ride (only a couple of days ago) and, in terms of my day to day riding, I think my “year to date” total mileage covered is higher than any previous year except 2015 (when my 1,000 miles of John O’Groats to Lands End ride tends to skew the figures a little).

So, anyway, Saturday’s 300km ride, then;

I wasn’t really sure what to think when, in conversation with my dependable cycling buddy, Russ, the idea of entering the Rough Diamond 300km Audax came up.

I don’t even know which one of us suggested it!

I think it was a case that it suggested itself and, because I was feeling buoyed at having just nailed a 200km ride, adrenalin had the final decision – and it decided to go for it.

300km is quite a long way.

I’ve not done too many 300km rides (and only once have I ridden significantly further than that in one day) so we’re not talking about entering an event which I could “bang out in my sleep” here.

I actually started to get a little nervous about the whole thing, the day before.

Two weeks previously, I’d done a 200km ride at a pace which left me feeling, truth be told, pretty spent – did I really have another 100km in my legs?

The start was at 6am from a location a clear hour’s drive away from my home.

I like to get somewhere like that a good hour before the start.

I also like to give myself a good hour for breakfast and general “waking up”.

A mathematician will have already worked out that I needed to be out of bed at 3am to get my day off to a good start.

I met up with Russ, and a couple of dozen other audaxers at 5am and, before we knew it, we were lined up at the start being given our pre-ride briefing.

One of the things I love about Audax is that you get such a huge variety of people and bikes taking part.

There were what I can only describe as “stripped down racing bikes” (although I know I’ll sound old by saying that), full on touring bikes with panniers and even a big, heavy looking, tandem with a recumbent front half and a more conventional rear.

I think it’s fair to say that Russ and I were “somewhere in the middle”… clearly riding bikes that were more used to being lighter and speedier but, for the occasion, had let us hang some bags off of them.

A blow by blow account of the next 192.2 miles would probably take you the same amount of time to read as it took us to ride it (12 hours, by the way – not including stops for food and drink)… so I’ll spare you that.

Suffice to say, though, that it was characterised by the weather; we’re currently having a hot spell, here in the UK and yesterday saw temperatures of over 30°c being maintained for most of it.

I’d taken, as I normally do on longer rides, copious amounts of gels and energy bars but I ate literally none of them – the heat was suppressing my appetite like you wouldn’t believe!

Even at the stops, I ate very little.

But my; did I drink!!

The first 60 miles, before the sun had really found its feet, was business as usual; I had a few swigs from my bottle but not anything out of the ordinary.

The next 130 miles were basically spent drinking anything I could get hold of.

And, because I was only interested in taking on fluids, I needed to rethink the fluids I was ingesting… electrolytes were fine, but I wasn’t about to get any sense (false or otherwise) of energy from them.

So I did things I’ve never done before on long rides (driven by the choices I was seeing others around me make, I should add).

I was throwing Coca-Cola down my neck at a rate that almost certainly will see the share price of Coca-Cola rocket. (That’s a stock tip for free!!)

I was filling my drinks bottles with energy drinks (as well as electrolytes tablets – odd taste but acceptable).

At around 140 miles, I even went into a shop to buy a protein milkshake.

If it was liquid, my body was craving it in a way unlike I’ve ever known.

From a pace perspective, Russ and I were, as usual, pretty much identical.

There was one occasion where he pulled away from me, on a particularly nasty hill at around 125 miles, but he waited at the top for me.

Having someone who rides at broadly the same pace over that distance is a huge positive.

It pulls you along.

When your energy ebbs and flows, as it inevitably does, you find it within yourself to keep up the pace… if nothing else than to make sure you can carry on chatting!

We did have a “third spoke” to our wheel – a chap called Justin joined us at around 60 miles and rode with us all the way to the end. He typically stayed a few bike lengths off the back but wasn’t shy of mucking in at the front if Russ or I slowed – so that was nice. He seemed a lovely chap.

Outside of going into boring detail about every climb, descent, flat, straight road and twisty bit, there’s little else to add, really – except to say that the views we were treated to throughout the day were stunning.

As we rolled into the village hall where the ride finished, both Russ and I were pleased to see a 16mph average speed (rounded down to 15.9mph by Strava – damn you, Strava)…. not least because 16mph was where we had wanted to be at the end of the (quite hilly) 192 mile route.

We were even more pleased with that average when we took into account the fact that a huge portion of the last 25 miles was spent either at a snail’s pace on a gravel/stone canal tow-path or at an even slower (almost pedestrian-esque) pace negotiating our way through Gloucester (seriously, Gloucester… you might think you’re “cyclist friendly”… but you’re not… sort it out!)

So let’s return to that thing I mentioned before; what did I do to get my mojo back?

Well, firstly, I deferred my Ironman Hamburg 2018 entry to 2019. The “pressure” it was putting me under was counter-productive and it needed to go.

Secondly, I joined the Audax organisation. Sure; I’d done countless Audax events before but never as a “member”. Being part of the club changes the dynamic of taking part in their rides. I feel more at home – more welcome… and I’m accumulating “points” towards the various Audax statuses that are there to be attained. It’s nice.

Thirdly, and most importantly,I resolved to enjoy not just the “pedal pushing side” of cycling… but to also appreciate the scenery I am riding past. I now give myself permission to stop when I see something really worth looking at (especially when I’m riding solo); a lovely view, a field of cows, a swan in its nest by the side of the road. Before, I think I was too “head down” to even notice any of that.

As a natural extension of the above, I also make sure that, for most of my rides, I take photographs. People who follow me on Strava may have noticed that I now upload pictures far more frequently than I ever did – I’m lucky to live in a gorgeous part of the world and cycling through it is a pleasure to be captured/shared.

I also take my go-pro with me more often – and upload the results to YouTube. On solo rides, in particular, it’s almost the next best thing to having company (Lisa astutely pointed that out) and, for all rides, it’s nice to watch the resulting video back and relive moments that, at the time, I clearly thought were worth preserving.

And on that note; here’s the video of the Rough Diamond 300km Audax!

I hope you liked that and, until the next time – keep enjoying what you do!

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Don’t come back until it’s done

The last thing Lisa said to me before I set off on Saturday’s ride was; “Don’t come back until it’s done”

Russ (my erstwhile cycling buddy) and I were entered on a 100km Audax which, given that we were cycling to the start and back, was going to be “rounded up” to a 200km ride (c124 miles)… which is what I needed it to be in order to open my “RRTY” campaign of one 200km ride each month for 12 consecutive months (click here for more info on that).

It would be Russ’ 7th consecutive month for his RRTY so he’s quite a way ahead of me on that front.

That parting shot from Lisa was a reference to my last two 200km attempts, both of which had been fails – the second of the two getting dangerously close to leaving me never wanting to cycle again!

On neither occasion had I been physically broken, though… it was just that, by the time I’d reached 80 miles or so, I just had this overwhelming sense of simply “not enjoying riding my bike”… on both occasions, that had come as a shock… I’d never felt like that, before.

So it was with a little reticence that I headed out on Sunday… but I parked that reticence behind a significantly larger chunk of positivity… and Russ and I cycled off up the road full of intent.

The ride to the start of the organised part of the day was without drama.

The weather was gorgeous (if still a bit cooler than I’d like in May!) and there was barely any wind.

We were even treated to the sights of a few hot-air balloons and life felt good.

The initial feedback that my legs were giving me was positive too.

We rocked up at the start around 21 miles later.

Quite a few people (who’d generally driven to the start) were carrying out final preparations to their bikes whilst Russ and I signed on.

I’ve done countless Audax events before but the fact that this was my first as a bona-fide “Audax club member” just subtly changed how it felt.

I’ve never really bothered with the Brevet card before, for example, but, on Saturday, I needed to.. and that made me feel more “part of it” rather than someone who was just tagging along.

We all set off at around 9:30am.

Russ and I found ourselves towards the back of the group so much of the first 30 miles was spent “drifting past” the others, intermittently slowing to chat with those whom we knew, before picking the pace up again.

The route was best described as “rolling” rather than “hilly”.

There were a couple of tougher climbs, sure, but I’d be lying if I said that it was just one climb after another.

It wasn’t.

The toughest of the climbs came at the second “Audax control point” (where, for the uninitiated, they verify your arrival as evidence that you are completing the route rather than “cheating”), I’d say.

Russ and I were c60 miles into our day and the control was at the bottom of a steep descent, around a mile long – a descent that we’d then need to climb back up once we’d had our Brevet card stamped.

We grinded up it rather than going for glory… probably sensible with another 70 miles to go before home!

That control was at a pub… a pub serving food… and Russ and I were hungry.

But the queue at said pub was loooooong and we’d have been there for hours, I’m sure, so we agreed to push on and stop at the next cafe we saw.

There was no cafe.

Thankfully, though, the final control was at another pub (where the queues were much more manageable) and we got to that quicker than I thought we would.

By now we had only around 15 or so miles of the Audax remaining (around 55 miles left of the day as a whole) so a slightly more prolonged stop with food and a cuppa seemed like a good idea.

A bowl of chips and a cup of tea later and Russ and I had a renewed spring in our step as we pushed on.

Another rolling 15 miles and we had finished the Audax!

Simple as that.

It really was pretty stress-free cycling on what remained a lovely day to be out and about.

All we needed to do now was get home!

That’s not strictly true, actually.

Home was barely more than 20 miles away but, to get to 200km for the day, we needed our homes to be 40 miles away… so our plotted route to get there was a “longer than strictly necessary” loop, taking in some of the countryside around where I live.

We headed off with around 90 miles in our legs and our pace was surprisingly quick!

I think we covered the next 10 miles at over 19mph average.

By this point, of course, we were on very familiar roads… and I always think that helps to make the miles feel shorter.

I’ve no doubt we could have made that last 40 miles in one hop but neither of us were under any real time pressures so, with just 13 miles to go (and after a particularly nasty little climb to test the legs!) we pulled into a cafe, well used by me and the family, with views of the sea and the beautiful Victorian Clevedon Pier.

And that was that, really… the remaining 13 miles were pan-flat and incident free.

Russ and I had around 129 miles on the clock, taking in c6,000 feet of climbing, as we pulled in for a final “go our separate ways” chat just around the corner from my home.

My legs still felt good and, mentally, I was buzzing!

A video of the day is below:

What a huge difference from the last, failed, 200km ride (and the one before that)… I was in love with “going long” again and had no trouble finding enjoyment in being on the bike.

Why the difference, then, I hear you ask.

Well, I think it’s a whole number of things to be honest.

I tried to make sure I ate appropriately – both during and in the lead up to the day. That helped.

I set off with the mindset of not thinking about “how far we’ve got to go” and, instead, just enjoying the scenery (something I’ve been doing generally, of late). That helped.

Likewise with average speed. I set off not caring about that at all. That helped.

Having Russ’ company (and draft, I should add) helped, too.

I guess I also need to credit near-perfect weather conditions as well – there’s no doubt that it made the day more pleasant.

Lastly, I had broken the ride down in my head into very manageable chunks: I wasn’t out to ride 130 miles at all… I was riding 20 miles to the start of an Audax. Then I was riding 20 miles to the first control point of the Audax itself. Then another 20 miles to the next control point and so on… you get the idea.

At no point was I thinking about the big miles… for all but the last few miles, I didn’t even have my bike computer on a view where I could see how many miles we’d covered… or our speed for that matter… I spent the whole day just looking at a route display.

All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day… and immensely satisfying to put those last two long rides behind me!

My RRTY account is open that feels grand!

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