Monday, 24 June 2013

Dartmoor classic 2013 : Pull back the curtains & smile

How do I blog a sportive I've done three times before? Last year I started my blog post on the Dartmoor Classic by saying that I was running out of things to say.

Here are some descriptive (ish) blog posts from the past:




There was one thing that all the previous rides of this most wonderful of sportives, by and large (what a great expression, eh Princess?) had in common. Warmth, and sunshine. I know that's two, but it's a cause and effect thing.

Which, in the oblique, or maybe acute, way in which my brain functions, reminds me of what a work colleague said to me on Friday evening. We were on one of those, "let's go for a quick drink as a team" jaunts. A diet coke for me, something a lot stronger for the rest. HR does that to people, really you have no idea. Anyway, as is the way of, um, people who have spliced the main brace, she told me she though I was straight-laced. And no, it was an honest, well-meant comment, but I was taken aback. I thought I was so bohemian.

Speaking of main braces, you'd have had to pack it away completely yesterday on Dartmoor. Windy doesn't really cut it. For the first 35 miles it was like cycling in a wind tunnel while someone throws buckets of cold water all over you. Then roasts you with a heat lamp, all in the space of a minute.

The first 35 miles are the toughest, and also the most beautiful. But all I was looking at was the road. Headwinds do that to you, especially as the sunglasses (don't laugh!) kept fogging up so I couldn't see. So I took them off and the rain shot-blasted my eyes so I couldn't see. And on, and on.

And I was all on my lonesome. Early on I seemed to have a bit of company on the flat. But like many things in life, it was all behind me. But I've been spoiled on recent sportives by the company of Mark and Jennifer, and despite their celebrity status, it is really nice to have someone to natter to, share the work, and grumble about all the things that annoy me. And have them take the piss out of me of course. Mind you, it was so windy that I don't think we'd have heard each other anyway, but it would be comforting to know they are there.

Until it came to the hills, when all was blown to pieces and I really was all on my own. The marshaling and organisation was superb as ever, which given the conditions was pretty vital, and there was a lot of sensible riding too. Which made a pleasant change. We even had a few sheep and cattle moving faster than us at certain points.

Eventually I arrived at the stretch I was dreading, the seven or so miles across the exposed moor from Hexworthy to Princeton. Nice it was not, and by the time I rolled into the latter and the feedstop, I was shivering and a miserable. And, well, bored. You see, I've done the ride three times before, knew what was coming, knew that I would do it, probably in a bronze standard time (again!) and arrive home looking like a teenage dirtbag.

Whereas, if I bailed onto the Medio route, of 68 miles, I'd have a tailwind straightaway, probably an open course with few riders about for the descent to Moretonhampstead, always nice particularly in cross winds. And be back home early for added brownie points.

I haven't counted them, but I think there's 68 there.

So a no-brainer really. I wasn't so much put off by the challenge, more by the boredom and unpleasantness of knowing what was to come. I missed out the 39 mile section in the middle, did the best bits and got home in time for tea.

And did the final section pretty quickly too, ably assisted in part by the wind, and without eating anything either. I had eaten for England the night before so I didn't want to be greedy. It took me 2 hours 53 minutes to get to Princeton and just over two hours to get back, if you discount the 5 minutes I was there.

On the way back I ended up amongst the Breeze riders, all doing a 35 mile taster sportive for women only. It was a bit like being in a Monty Python sketch in reverse.

At the start of the event the field was evenly split between Grande and Medio, but by the finish, 1601 had taken the same course as me and opted for an early bath, compared to 674 hardy souls who did the full distance. I take my hat off to them for sure.

As an added bonus I managed to sneak into the silver category, courtesy of a total ride time of 5 hours and 5 seconds. I'm trying really, really, really hard not to be irritated by those five seconds. But it is difficult. Still, being the 432nd finisher out of 1601 is quite an honour!

Ride with GPS  shows a lot less climbing than my my Garmin route which recorded a total of over 7000 feet of climbing. So tough.

And it's not unfinished business, but I do intend to do it again. This time with a posse, and in the sunshine. Because it's the best sportive, bar none. And I'm not going to debate that with anyone.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Leave them burning and then you're gone

A quiet week on the cycling front, with just one commute, and one solo ride of just over 40 miles today. I'm feeling a bit on the groggy side, so either I'm coming down with Mrs Mendip Rouleur's virus, or I'm worn out from the cumulative effects of the last few weeks. On and off the bike.

I was very heartened today when I saw that Mark Cox, Cox Creative and Somerset cycling re-tweeted and re-posted on Facebook, a link to my justgiving site. As you know, I'm taking part in Ride London in August to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Care, in memory of my parents. It was a lovely gesture and I'm very grateful. If you haven't yet, and you feel so inclined, please sponsor me via the link to the side. Thank you.

I'm bored of complaining about the weather, but it helps to set today's ride into context. Yesterday I had family duties to attend to, and then when I could ride in the late afternoon the wind was blowing like the breath of dragons. Only without the heat. And with the threat of rain. And with no mates to shield me from this summer breeze I didn't fancy it.

So I looked at the Internet weatherman. I was due at a luncheon engagement with the family for Father's Day at 12, in Bristol. Joy of joys, the forecast indicated no rain in the morning. So an early night, and an early start gave me the time to do a 40 mile jaunt around the Mendips on my own. The wind even abated a little, and the first spots of rain arrived as I docked in the shed at 9.45.

But still. Gilet, leg-warmers and arm-warmers in June? Not that fast (although to argue with myself I recorded my fastest spot speed of the year to date, 46.5mph, as I came down Shipham Hill), but I was enjoying myself, the very open roads and the lack of much traffic. On this route there was also a lot of wildlife about. The near-ubiquitous cows and sheep of course, as well as a deer, pheasants, lots of other birds, (some of which seemed intent on eviscerating themselves so close did they come to the front wheel), rabbits, squirrels, and a rat.

Quite a bit of climbing too, and some splendid views, with only the sound of birdsong in my ears. And my thoughts in my head. Mostly about why people take so much,  that is so inconsequential, so seriously, and ignore things that really are important.

There has been a force four on Twitter recently about the rules. I like them. I like them for one simple reason. But it's a really important reason. Because they are funny. In what turned out to be one of the last conversations I had with my Mum before she died, she said (knowing she was dying) that she had had a great life but wished she had known more laughter. Remember that.

I nearly decided to drive to work on Friday, so much was my disdain for the wind and the wet. And whilst it didn't really prove anything to anybody that I had my fastest ever ride in, mainly because I was directly in the way of a massive tailwind, it did prove something to me about my character. I'm pleased with myself, and if that is reflected in Rule 9, then that makes me smile even more.

Life is not a competition, we get to carry each other remember? Oh dear, I'm on that soapbox again. But the rules? It's like a beard. They are always funny, but they hide an essential truth which secretly we all aspire to, just like the profound message in this song. You may not understand this yet. But you will. One day.

Time for the bees, to calm everyone down.


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Union met in secret on the dark side of the hill

I've got a theory about something. I was having one of those jokey text exchanges the other day with a good friend. I shan't name him because I don't want to expose him or his anarcho-capitalist views to ridicule.

Anyway, last Sunday I rode the full Monty of the Grand Fondo of the Dragon Ride. All 131 miles of it. If you want a detailed description of the climbs etc.,  you can find it here. It's last year's report but much the same.  The route was much the same, no, exactly the same, but my time was slightly longer, riding and total. It was sunnier and dare I say hotter (considerably), drier (even more considerably) and windier (much).

I am very, very, very grateful to have the privilege of riding with Mark, aka the velopixie. (Also available to follow on Twitter).

This picture was taken at the lay-by, just below the top of the Rhigos climb. We were both pretty knackered by this stage, and had been taking it in turns to feel rough and tow each other in equal measure. What a great jersey he had on though, put my dull red and black to shame.

I should have known it was hard, I had re-read my description from last year after all. But just like I imagine having a baby to be, the memory of the pain fades and the joy of the finish remains. So it was this year, the further away last Sunday gets, the more enjoyable a ride it was.

So back to my theory. South Wales is extraordinary. The scenery of much of the ride was breathtaking on Sunday. With no clouds, azure-blue skies and wide open views, you could see mile upon mile of gorgeous countryside. The climbs were challenging without being super steep (except for one!) and the descents fantastic, unless you were one of the four or five people taken to hospital in an ambulance after various crashes.

But in between all that, there was a lot of urban riding, much of it dull, and much of it populated by, err, characters. At 8.15 on a Sunday morning there is something disconcerting about a man taking a pit-bull for a walk with a can of Stella in his hand. The man not the dog.

Or the massed ranks of teenage girls looking like they are auditioning for a part in a kitchen-sink drama. Or the crowd of boys (probably aged about 10) actually chucking stones at us at the base of Glen Neath climb. And hit one rider's bike.

Fifty years ago these valleys were full of proud working men, labouring all the hours to dig coal out of places like this. That wrecked piece of infrastructure is all that remains of Tower Colliery, the last working deep coal mine in South Wales, which closed in the last decade.

Taken from the same spot as this:

Is it all about perspective? Am I being too harsh on the people who now live in those places? At the time of the strike, those fighting for their jobs claimed that pit closures would destroy their communities as well as take away their livelihoods. Now, most people accept that money and economics should prevail and that the state or the taxpayer shouldn't support failing industries.

Unless they are Banks of course. Or Universities, after all, how much do they cost? Or Hospitals, with all the money they absorb, and why can't the Army generate some of its own revenue?

Your money, my money, it goes where the politicians dictate,  and the values of the strong seem to win out over the values of the weak and poor. I don't like it. But I don't know what to do about it. How to respond?

Feral children, wild teenagers and drunken old men. That is some of what I saw, so maybe those strikers were right, after all, is that a community? But then again, perhaps that is the exception, and most people in those valleys are happy with a consumerist, materialist, modern culture, who am I to judge?

You see, one thing my friend didn't spot, and unfortunately I think is probably true, is that the only people nowadays who actually want real change, a revolution if you like, are nice comfortable middle-class kids like me. Unlike in the 1830s, 1840s, 1890s, 1920s, 1970s and 1980s, no-one really feels like challenging a depressing status quo.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Exam time

This week has seen Junior Mendip Rouleur taking on the challenge of the Year 7 exams. Which for an uncomplaining but very stoic lad with dyslexia is actually quite a challenge.

I managed to get hold of three questions from this years G.C.E (General cycling Exam) Philosophy, for you to ponder on. See if you can better my answers.

1. Is it Summer Yet?

This is not as easy as you might have thought. On the one hand the sun is out, which in northern countries like England, usually prompts all sorts of inappropriately strange behaviour. Such as the buying of copious quantities of ice cream, wearing clothes that reveal far too much of what should not be revealed, and having barbecues.

From a cycling perspective you see dozens of people decide that going for a bike ride would be a great idea, often after leaving bikes unattended and uncared for in the shed for well over 9 months. You also see the appearance of commuteraris cyclismas.

Lots of people decide that cycling to work would be fun, only to give it up again as the wind starts to blow, the hills become steeper than they seemed in the car, and the natural order of the British weather reasserts itself with a downpour of rain.

Despite all of this there are better tests to determine if cycling Summer is really here. I can definitively say that time has not arrived for three reasons. No-one is yet complaining about the heat whilst out on their club run, gilets and rain capes are still being taken on rides by proper cyclists "just in case", and I wore arm warmers to work on my commute on Tuesday.

2. What should you do if you see a large can of unopened premium quality cider in the road whilst riding to work?

Clearly this indicates that you are not riding in England because no self-respecting Englishman would discard or lose such a valuable commodity. But let's say that if this did happen theoretically, there would be a natural visceral reaction to stop and retrieve the can.

But there are many valid reasons why you should not do this. First and most importantly, unless you had specifically planned your attire with the express intention of capturing and stowing a very similarly sized and shaped object, there would be a disastrous impact on the appearance of your jersey pockets. The symmetry would be ruined and quite frankly, you would be in danger of severe ridicule from all and sundry.

Second, the act of stopping and picking up the can could render you the prey of Yobbus Citroenussaxos, a well known species on the roads of Britain, always on the look out for cyclists, with a view to passing at speed or throwing things at them. Usually inane insults.

You should eschew such inducements mainly because they distract you from the awareness and experience of cycling your bike at speed.

3. Is cycling an art or a science?

Many, many people have successfully applied discipline and rigour in their attempts to get better at riding their bike. And for most of them, they have become faster, stronger, leaner bike riders, capable of going up hill at speed, or cycling 117 miles much, much faster than they used to.

Power meters, marginal gains, indoor magnetic trainers, training plans, gym work, scientific analysis have all brought huge improvements in performance of all types of cyclist, from Bradley Wiggins to Mrs Miggins.

But there is also essential truth in the phrase : "it doesn't get easier, you just go faster".

Most people think that this is some kind of paen to the virtues of training. It isn't. It's a reminder, that just as orange should only be worn on a bike by the Dutch or the Basque, and that a challenge is actually a prelude to some kind of combat, cycling is not about winning, fighting or even going fast.

It's about beauty, and about joy. It's about form and looking the part. And freedom and fun. And pain and suffering of course, but only at the right point, and only inside your own head. Not on Facebook, Strava or Twitter. Or a blog.

Just as the bee exists mainly for the benefit of procreation, so the bike exists to make us look and feel good. It is for the betterment of our souls.

Cycling must always remain, and always will be, primarily, an art form of the highest order.