Saturday, 27 October 2012

Somewhere beyond the bitter end is where I want to be

What time is it in the world? Hah!

Sometime around now the clocks are going back an hour, yet Google blogspot-world measures time according to someplace in the USA. Whatever time it is I should really be asleep, but as is usual these days I'm finding that, well, problematic. Especially as I had a few hours in the land of nod after I came home from riding this afternoon. Yesterday afternoon.

It has been quite a week, for all sorts of reasons, trains, training sessions, bike rides and just pure unadulterated slog. I rode to work for the first time in a few weeks on Wednesday, played football enthusiastically on Monday, went to London on Thursday and went to see my Dad on Friday.

So despite my immense fatigue at 8AM Saturday, it was an official ACG ride, I was ride leader, and the sun was threatening to shine. Time to be out and at them, the hills that is. And of course it was cold, and windy, and wet and mulchy underneath, with hints of ice and more mud on the road than a seventies revival tour.

But you can't just sit about, after all the only things that are keeping me going right now are Patty Griffin, Paul Whitehouse and riding my bike. So we formed up in the Square, both of us (Dave and I) and headed off into the teeth of the north wind and up Shipham Hill. Then up Long Bottom (thank you!) and down Burrington Coombe. Now if you think you are slow going down hills, I think I have found a couple who are slower than you. Halfway between cattle grids I passed a couple who could have made faster progress by walking. Perhaps they were worried about the threat of ice, or the cavers that crossed the road in front of us.

Dave and I headed into the maze of little lanes around Butcombe and Nemnett Thrubwell. Most of them are steep, and all of them were muddy, but as far as we could tell, none had ice in or on them. With little traffic about it made for a very pleasant change from slogging into headwinds on flat level territory.

We decided to try the cafe by the east side of Chew Lake, and admire the views. I'm sorry there are no action shots, I haven't been on the course yet, so you will have to make do with still landscapes.

And here is the obligatory cake, in this case a nice fruit scone, which I ate, although most of the cream and jam was unconsumed.

I am also on something of a quest and a mission to ride lanes and byways that I have never done before. This is difficult locally but we managed it today. Some of the roads near Butcombe were new, as was the latest climb up the Mendips, Ridge Lane out of West Harptree. Sounds like a racehorse.

So here is our route as recorded by Charlie and loaded by Garmin and here is the route on ridewithGPS. About 40 miles all told, some inaccuracies in recording, but I think Garmin is more accurate. But GPS has gradients, peaking at around 18% today.

Monday, 22 October 2012

it would be so easy if there was no-one left to hurt but me

 “It's a bollocks, this race! You're working like an animal, you don't have time to piss, you wet your pants. You're riding in mud like this, you're slipping ... it’s a pile of shit......... it's the most beautiful race in the world!”

-Theo de Rooij on Paris Roubaix 

Kind of ironic given the events of 2007 and subsequently. But I remembered this quote today, well yesterday actually, amidst the Casheque mud and the blood and the beer, of a stinker of a day.

Thanks to my friends for getting me through.

It's still a good quote though.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

It's not about the bike

Poor old Lance Armstrong. There, I've said his name now. Let that be an end to it. I really hope the story of him having a Google alert for his own name is true. He would need to have an army of people monitoring them, what with Twitter and all. If one of that army is reading, first let me tell you I'm not worth suing. Second, there is nothing about Lance Armstrong in this post that is defamatory, since it is either true or, actually, not about him.

I just wondered if Lance Armstrong has a therapist, a psychotherapist, or a psychology coach, that type of thing. In the absence of any of the said factual evidence, I can't speculate, but it would be interesting to know. I bet he could do with a friend at least right now. And as we all know, a friend is someone who lets you help.

Today, Steve, Jennifer and I went to Bath. Via the scenic route. It is the latest in the continuing theme to boldly go where we don't often go, before, or something like that. Last week we went south-west, this week it was north-east. So it doesn't take a genius to work out where we are going next. As with all my plans they are pretty flexible, but this week we stuck to most of the route, and certainly did the full planned distance, just over 100km in my case.

We did forgo Draycott Steep, the very, very steep hill up the Mendips, in  favour of Westbury Hill, the very steep hill. It was swirly-misty-early-sleepy Sunday morning, and after only 6-7 miles I was huffing and puffing up it. Unlike Steve, who was doing a fair impression of Joaquim Rodriguez today. As in, breezing up the hills while smoking both of us, never mind the cigar.


Once up the top we took it in turns to haul ourselves across the plateau, before Jennifer took off down towards Chewton Mendip. For once we carried right on, until a right at Farrington Gurney, and then a sharp left, took us into our first sandstone village (town?) of Paulton. For the next few miles the road ran along the top of the ridge, and as the mist slowly cleared, the views were tremendous.

Soon, we took a right, down into the valley that carries the Gem Brook to the Avon, and the lane passed through some delightfully-wooded sections, Warren Wood, Engine Wood, Godwin's Wood, and the gruesome Slittems Wood. The best name of the day was to come, as once through the village of Monkton, we turned left and hit the slopes of Brassknocker Hill.

The route then took us round the south side of urban Bath, before descending right down to river level, and out coffee stop, the Riverside Inn at Saltford. Pretty empty it was too, I would imaging it would be packed in Summer, but as we left the day was turning into a bright and mild one. There was much layering and de-layering but with the wind now behind us, it was definitely a case of being too warm more often than not.

It was also much muddier, and there were more horses, but the names continued unabated. Pretty villages, Compton Dando, Middlepiece Lane, Cocker's Hill (yes really), Publow Lane, and my personal favourite (I have no idea why), the village of Woollard, Something to do with the accent I think.

Rail enthusiasts will recognise Pensford viaduct, which we all went under for the first time today.  Pensford  is actually a fascinating place, as I found out from the link, but  if you can't be bothered to read the link, I can confirm there isn't a railway a-top it now. The village does however have this other Grade II listed farm house, also eponymously named!

I haven't mentioned bridges for a while. If you are a new reader, I have almost an obsession for a great bridge, and we went over loads today, mainly because we were dipping out of these small valleys, each with its own Avon tributary.

Modern bridges just don't seem the same somehow, more thought went into this, for example:

This one is in Stanton Drew, and I have still not stopped to look at the Stone circle there. Shortly after crossing this, we headed back onto more familiar ground through Chews Magna and Stoke, but instead of heading up a Harptree, we climbed the back road out of Compton Martin, known as the Wrangle. Pretty steep and a bit mucky. I was initially sitting down, until I inadvertently pulled a wheelie, forcing me out of the saddle till the road was less damp.
Once at the top we all decided that was enough and so we headed across the top and down the gorge. For once, on a Sunday, I got a clear run and took it at a fair pace, before hitting grockle city at the bottom.
It had been a great ride. Not lightning fast, but then mucky and wet roads put paid to that, along with some chunky climbing. And the best company there is, in the fresh air and the sunshine. Just for one day, a little bit of denial. So Lance, I understand, I really do. Sometimes the real world and the truth are hard to face. But when you do it, after it's all over, you will still have your friends, your family, your health and your bike. You can make a plan of how to sort things, get people to help and support you, people that really care, not the millions of "adoring fans".
Do you need anything else? Really?

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Somethings that mean everything

Ever watched the Magnificent Seven? Sixties movie-making at its finest, and I know it was derived from a Japanese story, but Westerns are so much better really.

There is a great bit where some young kids are starting to hero-worship one of the gunslingers, decrying their own fathers as cowards. The hero defends them by saying he could never shoulder the burden of responsibility that parenthood brings, and that anyone can be a gun for hire.

So it was that it fell to me to assemble my son's new bed, from four, yes four, large (we are talking bigger than me) boxes yesterday. I had procrastinated long enough, about two weeks to be more precise, and could not delay it any longer. I'm not going to rant about it, but it did take me most of the late afternoon and evening of Saturday to get the thing assembled.

I say "bed", but it's more of a live-in bunk cum-desk-futon station. Don't ask, suffice to say it was a late and very grumpy me that finally got round to planning the route for today's ride with the ACG. I had planned an alternative Sunday, involving 92 miles in Worcestershire, taking in the Malvern Hills. One of my lifetime ambitions is to cycle there, it dates back to my time with Britannia.

Every time I drove up and down the M5 to and from Leek, I would see them poking out of the flatlands in the distance and think that would be a great place to go riding. So when I saw a CTC ride there I thought that might make a good place for a quiet ride to contemplate life, the universe and everything. But it would involve a very early start, early night and that was probably incompatible with the flat-pack bed situation.

So when Steve e-mailed a reminder about an ACG ride, it didn't take much to persuade me, although I did fancy something different, and he suggested the Quantocks. Missus. Open goal, sorry. The ride I suggested was this gem. I did say that it was a flexible plan and so it proved.

With all the seven pistoleros assembled in the Square at 9AM, it some pretty dense fog and significant chill, it was apparent that not everyone had time for 75 miles. By the time we had got over the levels, up over the Polden Hills and into, and then around, Bridgwater, and up the not inconsequential Enmore Hill, I knew I didn't have the legs or lungs, for Crowcombe either.

We all contented ourselves with the lovely views of the landscape, the slightly quirky proprietor, and the bacon sandwiches in the Pines Cafe at the top of the hill. Martyn, who I inadvertently called Bryan last time I was out with him, even met up with some other cyclists he knew.

Sorry there are no action shots, not too good on the iPhone camera on the go. But the views from the hills were great, and the colours of the trees are also just starting to come into their own.

I haven't been riding much since France and my Mum's death, and I have also had a nasty lurgy which refuses to totally leave my lungs. I went to see the Asthma nurse (this is not the start of a joke BTW) and she increased my steroid dose for a few weeks to see if we can kill it off.

All of this means I am short of cycling fitness and lung capacity. So by the time we had descended to North Petherton and starting bombing across the levels again, it was all I could do to just hold on. We headed along the road next to the river as far as Burrowbridge, during which time a few of the group seemed intent on turning the ride into a team time trial.

We eased off a bit after that, for the sake of me if no-one else (oh the privilege of being a ride leader!), and rode in a line all the way to Pedwell, where we fragmented a bit before coming together on the other side of the hill.

Martyn and Trevor peeled off at Westhay, leaving Steve and Figgy to lead us over Mudgley Hill and play rabbit-chasing through Clewer and wait for the three of us slow-coaches at Sharpham Road. And that was pretty much that, by the time I got home I'd done just over 64 miles, at an average of 16.1 mph. Charlie gave up the ghost after the Quantocks, but we broadly followed the route above.

I sure am tired, and it can't be from over-training. It was a lovely day today, after the mist cleared and the sun came out to play it was nigh on perfect cycling weather, Goldilocks and all that. And the company was great too. As you can see from the pictures we are all knocking on a bit, and have considerably less olive oil than we used to, and certainly less than him.

But the company was great, the riding good and the scenery a bit different. Let's do more of that over the next few rides. Chepstow anyone?

Thursday, 4 October 2012

How bad can it get?

I am having a theoretical rest. Certainly it's a rest from cycling, not been on the bike for 7 days, when I joined our works outing, aka charity fund-raiser. We raised over £30K for Care International, and thanks to those that helped me do my bit and raise my contibution. The day was great, I met people from all the different international offices of our organisation, all brought together on two wheels and a bike. Lots of them, people and bikes.

The ride was OK. We did most of the Olympic road race route, except without the crowds or the closed roads. So whilst the London parks and a few bits of Surrey were rural and picturesque, especially Box Hill, the suburban stuff was full of traffic and never-ending parades of shops and houses. No wonder Team GB didn't win, I'd have been bored to death riding it too. To relive the real professional experience we got to cycle multiple circuits of the Box Hill loop.

After my first two, which as you know breaks my law of never going over old ground on a ride, I rebelled and rode the loop in the opposite direction. Then, instead of completing my 4th, and penultimate ride before the lunch stop, I saw the clouds coming over the hill, and headed for soup and a sandwich pronto. Unfortunately the rain continued all afternoon in a drizzly fashion, and seemed an appropriate metaphor to the way my cycling season has fizzled out of any enthusiasm.

So I decided to have time off the bike. That's the "rest" bit, the rest of the rest is as busy and frantic as ever.

It didn't help that I was already a week into what is now turning into the longest-running bout of manflu ever known to, well, man. Obviously I suffered on the bike, and riding 90 miles in the damp on a Friday in London was not conducive to total good health, but this pesky virus seems to have taken up residence in my respiratory system and is not leaving till it gets what it came for.

I can see everyone around me all buoyed up by the thought of next year, and I'm lacking a certain joie de velo. Still, times have been worse, particularly when it comes to the weather. One of the posts above relays Day 5 of this year's trip to the Pyrenees, and I have decided that gets in at number 6 in my all-time worst cycling weather moments.

Number 5 was also from 2012, step forward this year's Mad March Hare. Another terrible rainstorm, one that lasted all day and was joined by gale force winds, freezing temperatures and a lovely blizzard at the top of the day's main climb. My comfort levels were not helped by inadvertently leaving the vents of my rain jacket wide open. I only discovered this after buying an expensive replacement a couple of days later, an action that guaranteed us the next few weeks' dry weather.

Number 4 was also a day of unrelenting rain, the first day in the Pyrenees last year (see photo below of a rather disconsolate bike next to a soggy bus shelter and a rain-peppered road). The great thing about that day was how the sun came out and the wind died down at almost the exact moment we finished riding.

The third worst was the infamous Exmoor Beast 2009. It did rain most of the day, but the worst of it was the wind. People were blown over on a regular and frequent basis, the mist was swirling around like the dry ice at a Mission gig, and no-one could see a thing. Once or twice I found myself blown onto the wrong side of the road as I cycled past a westward-facing gap in the hedge, catching the full blast of the hurricane in the process.

The organisers cancelled the 100 mile route and defaulted thousands onto a truncated version, leading to crowded narrow lanes, and much accompanying cyclist ire. And a few more crashes on the slippery cattle grid and foaming ford. One to say that "I was there", and never go back. Which of course Stuart and I ignored by signing up and completing the full distance in slightly better weather in 2010, although the extra bits tagged on are a bit dull really.

It was a close call, but the second worst weather took place during 25 minutes of what was generally a tolerable to pleasant day. Day three of 2010 Raid Pyrenean, coming down the Aspin. Again rain was the culprit, but hard, driving, thunder-strewn mountain-bouncing-upwards rain. Climbing up from Campan had been a bit damp and misty, but generally OK. On reaching the col Stuart and I nearly had our legs ripped off by the storm, as torrential rain swept in from the east.

The descent to Arreau is about 12km, losing around 800m at an average of around 6.5%. On a dry day it's a sublime ride, long straightS with great hairpins and wonderful views. On that day it turned into hypothermia from hell, as slowly I lost contact with toes, then fingers, then nose and then reality. There was so much surface water I was reluctant to pedal to warm myself up, for fear of taking a tumble. This only prolonged the agony as I freewheeled down to the base of the mountain, to find the storm passing, and all my sopping wet clothes starting to steam in the heat.

But the prize, if there was one, for the worst weather on a bike, is also one of the most significant days I have had in my life, never mind a bike. Day 9 of Land's End to John O' Groats, April 2009. Connel (near Oban) to Inverness, a distance of just over 106 miles, in one direction. Up the Great Glen, largely on the flat, in the wind. The 30 mph headwind. The only respite was on the few climbs, when at least you expected to be slow. The wind was so fierce I had to pedal to gain momentum on the downhills.

Crying, raging, cursing my sore knee, thinking of giving up. At the end of that long, long day I knew that if I could get through that, I could get through, and more to the point, I could actually accomplish anything I set my mind to do.

So of course, how bad can it get? Possibly worse than all those days, possibly worse than yesterday when I raged about the idiocy of Norman Tebbit, the fatuousness of celebrity, the ineptitude of the Health Service, the pettiness of duvet covers and the uselessness of my lungs. But that's all normal for this stage, one month on. Early days.