Velo Club Moulin

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Rider

"Good riders?  Bad riders?  You can tell good riders by their faces, bad riders by their faces too - but that only goes for riders you already know."

In the spring of 2015 I was studying a map of France in anticipation of a family holiday to the Ardèche.  Familiar names leapt out at me; Ales, Anduze, Nîmes, Uzès.  Cycling clubs described in Tim Krabbé's "The Rider".

If you're not familiar with The Rider then beg, borrow or steal a copy.  It's a great book which happens to be about cycling.  It describes Krabbé's attempt to win a fictional road race: The Tour of Mont Aigoual.  But the map suggested that this imaginary account borrowed real terrain.  A kernel of an idea began to form.  Was it possible to ride the route described in the book?

A closer look showed that Mont Aigoual lay in the heart of the Cévennes to the east of Meyreuis, the start town of the race.  I had never considered that it might be possible to step into the world described in a work of fiction.  The prospect was exciting.  Would I be able to climb like Kléber, descend like Reilhan, ride like Lebusque or would I be climbing off early like Sauveplane?

Hours spent poring over a well thumbed book revealed enough detail to piece together the two loops of the race.  The first loop seemed to fit the map but I just couldn't make the second loop work.  Had the roads changed?  Were the maps I had not good enough?  Had my plan of recreating a fictional route run into the hard barrier of reality?

Satisfied that I had enough information to ride at least half the route I started to work out logistics.  Meyreuis was about 2 hours drive from where we would be staying so with an early start that would be quite achievable.  I was able to hire a bike in Prades, close to the route, which I could pick up on the morning of the ride.  Now I just had to keep my fingers crossed for good weather, the Cevennes in summer is one of the wettest areas in France.

After arriving in France I bought a 1:25000 map of the Cevennes to complete the route planning.  I was in luck.  The route described in the book fitted the map perfectly, every place name and junction seemed to fit.  This was going to work.  

The south of France was in the midst of a heatwave with the mercury hitting 40 degrees most days.  As luck would have it the day I had arranged to hire a bike was forecast to be the coolest of the week with an overcast start and a strong wind.  With the weather in mind I elected to modify the route slightly.  I would start in Les Vignes at the foot of the first climb.  Hopefully this would allow me to minimise the climbing in the hottest part of the day and would leave me to finish with 50km of descending and easy riding.

Tim Krabbe The Rider
Route planning and daydreaming

After an early start I found myself on a magnificent driving road.  Mile after mile of sweeping bends and no traffic provided an enjoyable start to the day and I arrived in Prades earlier than expected.  I collected my steed for the day, a weighty but perfectly set-up Giant Defy.  Driving though the amazing setting of the Gorges du Tarn I arrived at my starting point.

"Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977.  Hot and overcast.  I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together.  Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafes.  Non-racers.  The emptiness of those lives shocks me."

It was overcast, windy and relatively cool as I started the first climb of the day.  The hairpins of the climb wouldn't have been out of place in the Alps but as I gained height the view back into the Gorges du Tarn was unique.  Six hundred meters abover my starting point I reached the Causse Méjean, a vast limestone plateau.  A remote and desolate landscape even on a fine summers day.  The frequent stone shelters at the side of the road gave an indication of how hostile this environment could be in a winter storm.  Riding here was fantastic with no cars, no people and an amazing sense of isolation.

Gorges du Tarn Les Vignes
Looking back into the Gorges du Tarn above Les Vignes
Causse Mejean shelter
Stone shelter on the Causse Méjean

After a gradual descent I turned onto a slightly larger road heading south towards Meyreuis.  Mile after mile of false flat was eased by the warmth of the sun on my back as the sky cleared and the day warmed up.  The traffic was still incredibly light and it was ironic that I got stuck behind one of the few cars on the road as I descended into scenic Meyreuis.  I took the opportunity to fill my bottles before setting out on the next remote section.

The heat was really starting to build and I was relieved to discover that much of the steep climb out of town was shaded by trees.  Reaching the Causse Noir was stunning and my abiding memory of the day is riding through this amazing landscape with a strong tailwind speeding me along. 

Causse Noir
Enjoying the tailwind on the Causse Noir

Causse Noir view
On the Causse Noir

The race doesn't follow the main road to Mont Aigoual and I turned onto a minor road that passed through Lanuéjols but there was no-one there.  I had barely seen another person since I left Meyreius.  The descent into Treves began.  Krabbé, the self confessed worst descender in the race, struggled here and so did I.  He was overcome by thoughts of flying off the side of the mountain but my worries were more prosaic; greasy roads, gravel, blind corners and the overwhelming sense of being a long way from other people.  Krabbé was dropped here but he quickly regained the lead group on the next climb.  I stepped out of the novel for a moment and stopped for a coffee, une treve (a rest or let-up) in Treves.  There was only one cafe in the tiny village but it was a perfect fit to this ride.  A rustic, quiet place from another decade where I enjoyed an interesting chat with the owner who was was amazed to discover that her village formed part of the backdrop of a well known book.

There was no gendarme to wave me down the correct road but it wasn't difficult to find.  The road started to climb into a narrow gorge with a strong headwind funnelling down it.  I struggled to recall the description of this section but it was clear that I had underestimated it.  An hour of climbing on heavy roads that didn't suit me.  Not steep enough to be a real climb but enough to hurt and an ever-present headwind.  I was starting to wonder if I had misjudged the route.  It was now fiercly hot, I was barely half way through the 140 kilometres and I had been riding for close to 4 hours.  I had to trust that the climbing was front loaded and the last 60 kilometres would be fast.

"Another four kilometres to Camprieu, another four kilometres to climb.  Why am I whining about Camprieu?  After Camprieu there are two kilometres of flat road, then an eight kilometre climb.  Camprieu is a fallacy, an overgrown kilometre stone.  Another four kilometres to Camprieu."

With no Lebusque, Kléber or Cycles Goff to share the work I was on my own and it was with a degree of relief that I reached Camprieu.  After an hour of daydreaming about lunch my appetite abandoned me in the heat.   Nothing seemed appealing and I ended up ordering a crêpe au citron and two scoops of vanilla ice cream.  At least it was quick and I was soon back on the road, somewhat apprehensive about the climbing to come.  But even suffering doesn't last for long when you don't have to worry about reality and a combination of smooth tarmac and a strong tailwind meant I was able to make short work of the climb. 

Climb to Camprieu
Climbing towards Camprieu

Mont Aigoual cycling recreating the rider
Looking back towards Mont Aigoual

Mont Aigoual cycling recreating the rider
This is why I ride

Col du Perjuret cycling
Approaching the Col du Perjuret

The descent from the top to the Col du Perjuret was punctuated by several small climbs but rather than feeling like hard work they offered a chance to enjoy the fabulous scenery.  As I rode through this terrain it occured to me that the book reads like a genuine account of a road race taking almost no notice of anything outside the small bubble of the race.  Most of the descriptions in the book deal with how the landscape affects the race and the few comments on the world beyond the road are offered with an element of detachment.  Another dimension which the riders do not have the capacity to be troubled by.

On the long and straightforward descent off the Col du Perjuret I started to slip out of the story.  My ride wouldn't finish in Meyreius and I certainly wouldn't be contesting the sprint.  None the less I kept looking ahead for the 'CULTE PROTESTANTE' sign that marked the start of the sprint but it's long gone, or perhaps it was never there.

Several hours after my last visit I was back in the same shop to top up my water supplies.  The temperature had risen significantly as I descended from the summit.  The Gorges de la Jonte was beautiful but the headwind was strong enough that I had to pedal reasonably hard to make progress on the gentle downhill slope.  The heat in the gorge was incredible, riding into the headwind felt like opening an oven door.

As I suffered in the heat my thoughts were dominated by the prospect of the sting in the tail; 20km into a headwind up the Gorges du Tarn.  Again I was on the right side of the thin line between fiction and reality and when I reached Le Rozier I was greeted by an uplifting roadsign:  "Les Vignes 10km".  I turned into the Gorges du Tarn and it became clear how hazy my recollection of the final part of the route had been, the walls of the beautiful gorge provided shelter for an easy spin back to the car.

Recreating this route was one of my most enjoyable cycling experiences and I've struggled to get the same satisfaction from similar rides.  The blurred boundary between the novel and real life allowed me to become part of the story.  The heroes of this race never existed so there are no fallen idols to cast any shadows.

On a more practical level these were wonderful roads to ride offering lots of climbing in near solitude.  Outside of Meyreius I only saw a handful of people all day, at one point riding for over an hour without being passed by a car.  

After riding this route I discovered that others had made the pilgrimage before me.  CyclingTips wrote an excellent article on their adventure, it looks like they stopped in the same cafe in Treves as I did.  The fantastic InRng blog featured Mont Agioual as part of the Roads to Ride series.

Gorges de la Jonte cycling
Riding through the Gorges de la Jonte

"One more kilometre to climb.  It's so incredibly pitiful that I ever wanted to do this, but now I'm stuck with it."

Sunday, 19 February 2017

A Month Of Cross

As it's prone to do life got in the way and as 2017 ticked over a year had elapsed since my last cross race and even longer since my last good crack at a season.  In no particular order selling our house, buying a 'project', training for the London Marathon, illness and a lack of mojo had conspired to keep me off the bike and away from racing.

When it dawned on me that this was the longest period of my adult life without riding a bike I decided it was time for some shock therapy; the Super Quaich.  I figured that if I missed the first round I would have a month to get myself into some sort of shape before the 'big comeback'.  That didn't quite go to plan and I ended up spending practically every spare hour fixing up the new place.  A couple of cross rides with friends left me in no doubt about what to expect, even my normally easy ride to work had become hard work.

Having seen photos of the mudfest at Doonbank in 2016 I decided to keep things simple and race on my singlespeed.  Handily this meant that I could ignore the fact that I didn't have a working geared bike for another week or two.  The evening before the race was spent searching frantically for my race kit which seemed to be spread across every unpacked box in the house.

Arriving at the race I had no idea how I was going to go, I knew it wasn't going to be pretty but just how ugly would it be?  It was great to be back at a cross race and catch up with friends that I hadn't seen for a while.

One advantage of not expecting anything was that I felt really calm on the start line.  I was planning to take the first lap easy but when the gun went I got the perfect start and a huge gap opened in front of me, that never happens!  Left with no choice but to take advantage I managed to get to the bottom of the first climb in a good position.  Half way up it was obvious that I needed to back off and ride a steadier race.

The course was a cracker and really suited the single speed.  Lots of off camber after the lung bursting run ups gave me a chance to recover without losing too much time and I managed to hold it together for a decent result; 42nd.  Better than I was expecting and best of all I had avoided relegation.

Photo by Christopher Hogge

A few turbo sessions and I'd be able to kick on at Foxlake, a course that I know really well and have gone well at in the past.  Well, that was the theory..., no.  That's not quite how it went.  Surprisingly the turbo sessions went to plan, once I'd found  dusty turbo lurking unloved under yet more boxes in the garage.  I even managed to find some tyres for my bike, a Limus for the front (perfect) and a Chicane for the back (I'm sure it will be fine).

The race didn't go so well.  I started near the back, had a shocking start and an even worse first lap and went backwards from there.  I felt like I was running on empty for the whole race and a disappointing 68th was the result.  Luckily I had done just enough to avoid relegation but given the stacked field for Dig In I wasn't sure if that was a blessing or a curse.

Photo by Iona Fisher

A stinking cold followed and that was the end of the training plan.  Suddenly the weekend of Dig In arrived and I was feeling nervous.  A great day of coaching with Helen and Stef Wyman on the Saturday left me feeling more confident in my skills and with plenty to work on.  At least now I only had to worry about the pedalling in between the skills.

Another shocking start and I was at the back of the race.  Man, please don't let me get dropped by the whole race in the first lap.  I knew this was a possibility but now it seemed to be coming true.  Fortunately Bo'ness is a lot more forgiving of a lack of top end fitness than the punchy climbs of Foxlake and I managed to get my head down and grind myself away from the tail of the race.  71st.  Not exactly setting the world on fire but I'll take that.

So goals for next season:
1.  Try and re-discover some mojo and the fitness that follows.
2.  Fit an outside tap.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Keeping VCM Weird - Always Exploring

This was never supposed to be some sort of New Year resolution post, or a pat on the back for rides in 2016, but the reality is that I only ever manage to sit down and type these things in the Christmas holidays.

I'll not claim to be the most adventurous rider (exploits of VCMers around Europe and further afield are far more glamorous) so this is more a call to arms to the local adventurers. A show of solidarity to those who, like me, currently lack the time, the money or the "family passes" to get further afield for their riding.

I've been lucky in having a new backyard since May, so having spent years getting to know the Pentlands like the back of my hand, I now have a vast new playground in Highland Perthshire. Every ride offers the opportunity for a new bit of trail, a new way to link things up, or a bit of "I wonder where that goes...". Evenings are spent hunched over OS maps (or their digital equivalent). Weekends are spent riding my trusty Kinesis hardtail or CX bike (now a combined 10 years old) from the back door with a new horizon over every hill.

Sure, you might get some weird looks in the office on a Monday morning (or from the hill runner who laughed in my face as I slid my CX bike down a section of muddy hillside that it was completely inappropriate for), but I've (almost) never come back from a ride in a worse mood than I left in, and there is beauty to be found in those hills.

Today, despite the 0 degree temperatures and the northerly headwind, I shouldered my bike over a heathery hike-a-bike section to be greeted with one of those "this is why we ride" moments: a genuinely stunning view of the Lawers hills covered in snow set against a blue sky. 5 minutes later I was metres from the herd of deer that had generously formed the "path" I was riding. An hour later, rays of sun between sleety squalls were illuminating stripes of snow covered glen, made all the more striking by the contrast with the surrounding greyness. Even in the gloom of midwinter, there is natural beauty to be found. There is nothing that a few extra layers of Endura kit and a positive attitude can't overcome.

As the ever wise(?!) Chris Duncan often says after his usual Pitlochry based forest loops, outside is free folks. Get out there and ride.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Cross is Here

After the Social event on Mull in July, the Scottish season kicked off yesterday with a warm up at Balloch. It was a TLI event which meant you could choose your race, a "B" race lasting 40 mins or the "A" race for the full hour.

Most of the VCM squad plumped for the A race with Erika and Colin on the front row, Marty and I hung a bit further back. The excuses had been flying beforehand, colds and various infections had interrupted training plans.

The course was a fast flowing pretty flat affair with one dismount section and little mud. On the start line I noticed that my front brake cable hadn't been attached properly, oops. A quick bodge and we were off when Jammy shouted bang........
Marty, Erika and I found ourselves in the same position at the first corner so worked together along  to the first twisty grassy section and then down to the muddy slight downhill section.There were a few mechanicals and fallers in the melee of the first couple of laps before things settled down properly.
At the pointy end of the race the young guns were setting a ferocious pace which bodes well for the future of the Scottish scene.

Erika won her race, a great result since she has been ill, Colin was well up there and Marty and I weren't.

A good fast course, with good weather and will set us up in good stead for the first series race at Falkirk. All in all a grand day out and good to see the familiar faces not seen since Mull last December.

The new Endura kit really stood out and was as usual faultless. The Challenge tyres (tires) did a great job, I only wish I had used the chicanes as there was very little mud even at the end of the hour.

Big thanks to Michael Martin for the photos.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Old man strength ~ Wilderness 101, 2016

Before this years Wilderness 101 - a  ~101 mile back country mountain bike race which highlights some of central Pennsylvania's best singletrack - I stocked up on spare tubes and energy goop in Freeze Thaw cycles. With old friend Harry, Justin and the guys who work there we shared a laugh about my lack of preparedness and the fact that, at the end of the day, 'old man strength' would get me through.

I think 'old man strength' is another way of saying pertinaciousness. In other words, the lack of fitness, small number of miles in the legs and poor acclimatisation to the heat and humidity could be overcome by resolve and experience.

I was to put this theory to a harsh test.

It had been many years since my first flirtation with the rocky and demanding trails in Bald Eagle and Rothrock State Forests which form the core of the W101. Years that have not treaded lightly. At the time, I never rode anything other than a singlespeed. I rode tall gears on improbable grades and trails as often as I could. Fitness was not the result of training, just a by product of riding far and often.

Nevertheless, at the time I had never ridden 100 miles off road in one go. I was also nervous of how my rigid bike (with new fangled 29er wheels consisting of crap tyres and Open Pro Mavic road rims and tyre-roll preventing über high pressure) would treat me.

It was tough, but I finished in a respectable time.

In 2016, I had decided to ride a geared, but still rigid bike (albeit with a 29+ front wheel) and although my preparation was relatively poor, I retained confidence in my ability to finish having done several 100 mile races in the USA and UK in the intervening years. This was the experience bit.

The weather in Pennsylvania was hot and humid (95°f and 90% plus humidity). I had ridden early in the a.m with my friends Frank and Sean, but we were generally done by 10.30 a.m, missing the heat of the day. Come race day, I knew that I needed to get as many miles under my belt as possible early on, otherwise I would suffer. I had all I needed to stay hydrated - 2 bottles and a 1 litre bladder (minimising weight on my back) and my bike was sorted. I had minimal stuff stashed in the 2 drop bags allowed for aid station 2 (which then went to aid 4) and aid 3.

A 5 a.m wake up was less harsh than it could have been due to jet lag and we headed to Coburn park with little time to spare before the start at 7 a.m. Daisy, Trina and good friend Buck waved me off and I tried to just remain calm and in the moment as we pedaled through Coburn and then onto the first forest road of the day.

[The following is my memory of trail name and events and I admit it may have some inaccuracies. The course had changed since I first completed the race and due to it being one big loop, you ride a *lot* of different trails. If there are any glaring errors and you happen to spot them - please let me know!]

The first ~20 miles are on rolling forest road. No difficulties or hard gradients. The weather was warm but as it was so early the humidity hadn't built yet and despite having to stop twice for a loosening bottle cage, I kept the pace up but well within my abilities. Aid 1 was a simple bottle fill and after this I made sure I started to eat some food.

Longberger, Spruce Gap and the Three Bridges Trail brought back memories and I enjoyed the technical riding. A photographer - Derek Bissett - snapped a picture of me still looking pretty lively as I cleared Three Bridges.

Then it was time to climb Laurel Run road and turn onto the Little Shingletown double track descent. Fast as.

The last couple of miles into Aid 2 were on firm road - I cannot remember if it was forest road or even sealed road: I was just glad to have completed the first ~40 miles in 3 hours.

I knew from reading others' reports that there was a monster of a climb out of Aid 2. Seeger road delivered on this threat, no doubt! Up and up it went. the heat and humidity were stifling and the harsh gradient sapped energy from my legs. Keep calm, spin, eat and take in fluids.

At the top of the climb, we turned onto Croyle Run Trail - the first of the really rocky descents. It was clear that I was handling my bike like a sack of potatoes. I struggled to focus on one thing - my eyes were darting to and fro and I was breathing fast and shallow. Noticing my arms were completely dry - no sweat whatsoever - I stopped riding and pulled to the side of the trail in some slight shade and sat for a minute on a rock.

Sometimes my day job can be pretty useful for bike riding and my diagnosis? early heat stroke. I knew I was well hydrated, with electrolyte and I knew I had been riding (just!) within myself. In that sort of humidity, being bone dry while exercising is a clear sign my body's thermometer wasn't registering correctly. Much more of that and things would go south, quickly.

I was just over 50 miles in and the bulk of the hard riding was still to come.

I mulled over the options and in truth there were precious few: call it and give in or find a way to keep moving round the course. The latter was clearly more attractive and a streak of obstinacy (old man strength, remember) acted as an emotional and mental anchor.

Beidlehmeimer, then Bear Meadows roads, before more climbing on Stone Creek and Seeger road led into Aid 3 and a welcome refreshment of fluids. I was still able to take in calories at this point, but most climbs and some of the narrow gauge trails that required a lot of effort meant I had to stop for up to 5 minutes at a time and allow my breathing to slow and the heat to dissipate a bit. It was disappointing as  basically this was not a race for me any more - it was akin to survival.

Climbing Pigpile and then Sasspig and Sassafras trail were next and we were soon in Coopers Gap. I climbed Beautiful trail (it was) and then No Name trail before Lingle Road and Aid 4.

By this stage I could not tolerate electrolyte or food - a worrying sign. My energy levels were dreadful - any effort was draining me. I could feel hot, hot air in my mouth with every breath: I just wanted to cool down.

After Aid 4 I walked up Sand Mountain road as the gradient required too much physical output even in a 32x42 gear and it was only when we continued onto Lingle Valley and Siglerville Pike that I could start pedaling again.

My original aim had been finishing in 9 hours and some. At this rate I would be lucky to come in under 12 hours.

All around me there were racers suffering in the heat. One racer noted the temp on his gps as 100°f (40°c) and I can well believe that.

With a race this long, there are always going to be multiple stings in the tail and although the next trail, Panther Run, wasn't the last it was the most painful. A slight downwards gradient but an absolute mess of sharp mobile and immobile rock. I can't quite describe the intensity of this trail. It got to the stage that I could not control my bike in any meaningful way - fast or slow. I simply let off the brakes and pedaled up to speed and sucked up the impacts, relying on my bike to not break under the onslaught. This went on and on. I stopped and rubbed feeling back into my hands then went again. And again.

I was bellowing without meaning as we finally dropped on to Poe Valley road.

Aid 5 signified 12-13 miles still to go. The old Mingle road climb with it's multiple false summits took  an emotional toll and the Fisherman's trail by the river was barely walkable let alone rideable in my state.

The railroad grade back to Coburn saw me sitting, somewhat petulantly, with my back to my bike, muttering to myself 'I can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore'. Of course, I knew that I could, I just needed one last chance to slow down, calm my mind and breathing and cool myself as much as possible in the shade. I got going after a brief fit of dry retching.

Why I didn't jump in the river is anyone's guess and probably another sign of my poor physiological functioning.

On returning to Coburn I heard Daisy and Trina and friends Frank, Gareth and Teri urging me into the finish. A welcome home from the race organiser Chris Scott finally penetrated my consciousness that the day was done. 11 hours and 37 minutes. A terrible time compared to what I had hoped, but the number of DNF's and the shell shocked bodies all around told the tale of the day - the heat had made everybodies efforts a real test of metal. Expectations had gone out the window and survival was the goal for all but the hardest of racers.

For me, old man strength got me through. Just.

(With thanks to Derek Bissett and Trina for their photos. )

Friday, 5 August 2016

Out of gas on the Galibier

Two days into our summer holiday in Bourg d'Oisans and I've got a hire bike sorted and a full day to enjoy it.  There's surely only one route for today; Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galiber. Most of the route of the Marmotte although I'll save the final ascent of L'Alpe d'Huez for another day.  160 kilometres and over 4000 metres of climbing.

By 6:30 I'm heading out into a chilly but fine morning.  My plan is to try and climb the Glandon before the heat starts to build.  The first few miles up the valley to Allemond are cold and my rain jacket and fingerless gloves aren't quite enough.  Once I get onto the climb my shivering soon subsides and I can enjoy having one of cycling's most famous cols more or less to myself.  At this time in the morning there aren't many people around and the few vehicles that pass give me plenty of space.

I'm slightly unsure about how my legs will cope with a big ride.  I've only managed three substantial rides this year and two of those were off road.  With a lot less miles than normal in my legs I take it steady on the first climb.  The majority of the climbing comes in the second half of the ride so it's easy to forget that the Col du Glandon is a 24km climb which tops out at almost 2000m.  It's such a long climb that I welcome the unexpected descent half way up, a good way to tick off a couple of easy kilometres.

Allemond from Col du Glandon
Looking back down the valley towards Allemond from the Lac du Grand Maision

As I break into the sun towards the top the scenery changes.  I've left the confines of the valley to emerge into a alpine meadow straight out of a film.  I'm lucky enough to see a golden eagle circling high above and a marmotte in the meadow alongside me.  What a wonderful place to ride.

Col du Glandon
Looking downhill at the start of the alpine meadow on the Col du Glandon

After a quick stop at the top to put my jacket back on I set off down the descent to Saint Etienne de Cuines.  It starts off very technical with tight hairpins and lots of gravel on the road.  Aware of my relative isolation I take it easy at first but the further I descend the faster and more flowing the road becomes.  This side of the Glandon is frequently climbed in the Tour and was the scene of Armstrong's famous bluff which was followed by 'that look' on the slopes of L'Alpe d'Huez.

The Maurienne valley is initially scenic but I'm soon in amongst the industry it is known for.  The surrounding hydro-electic schemes provide the power required for the multitude of aluminium smelters and chemical plants.  I'm struggling to follow the route, the GPX file I downloaded seems to just be a straight line down the valley and constantly tries to take me onto the autoroute.  After an unplanned detour through the center of Saint Jean de Maurienne I decide it's time for the first cafe stop of the day.

The roadside bar I stop in has wifi so I'm able to sort out my route to Saint Michel de Maurienne.  I enjoy a coffee and read the paper to catch up on the previous day's Tour stage.  While I'm inside someone flicks a switch on the weather, I step outside into a wall of heat.  It's almost 10 degrees warmer than it was half an hour ago.

The next section is straightforward.  A friendly local falls in with me and we talk for a while but he's a bit too strong for me today and I let him ride on.  From Saint Michel de Maurienne almost 2000m of climbing awaits in the space of 35 kilometers, quite a thought.  I spin up easily, taking advantage of the low gearing fitted to my hire bike.  There is barely a cloud in the sky and the sun beats down ferociously, almost directly overhead.  There isn't much shade but I greedily ride through every patch I can find feeling grateful for the respite it offers.

Close to the top the view opens up and I stop to take a photo, the first time I've stopped climbing in over an hour.  I felt fine when I was riding but I get a shock when I stop, my legs are fine but I feel light headed and a bit dizzy.  Luckily I'm soon at the top of the Télégraphe where I had planned to stop for lunch.

Col du Telegraphe
Not too shaky!

I pick a table in the shade and enjoy a massive baguette followed by apple tart and a coffee.  I'm probably at the furthest point from home and I still have well over 1000m of climbing to get over the Col du Galibier.  I need a plan to make sure I keep this ride enjoyable.  Right now it consists of eating lots and trying to cool down.  I accept that I'll need to ignore my ego and ride as easily as I can over the Galibier and take regular stops to cool down.  The temperature is well into the 30s and I'm struggling with it more than usual today.

Refuelled and rejuvenated it's time for the fun descent to Valloire.  After only a few minutes I've reached the ramp at the start of the Galibier.  For the next 18 kilometers the road climbs with absolutely no shade.  The scenery is spectacular and the traffic is very light.  I'm riding well within myself but the heat is overwhelming.  I stop at an abandoned building and drink in the spectacular view hidden for a few minutes from the sun.  A group of cyclists see me and do the same.  From here to the top I'm continually yo-yo'ing riders as we stop in what little shade we can find.

Col du Galibier climb
Spectacular views on the Col du Galibier

Col du Galibier climb
The only shade for miles but what a view, spot the parked cars for a sense of scale.

Plan Lachet
A coke with a view

I'm happy to reach the cafe at Plan Lachet and stop for a well deserved coke, my third cafe stop of the ride.  The final 8 kilometers from Plan Lachet to the top are considerably steeper but suit me better.  I'm gaining height more quickly and the steep ramps and constant changes of direction are easier mentally than the unrelenting straight ramp on the first part of the climb.  The scenery just gets better and better as I climb into the high mountains.  I have to stop a couple of times to cool down, once in a culvert where a stream runs under the road and then in the tiny slither of shade offered by a parked car.  A final steep section and I reach the top at 2642m.

Above Plan Lachet
Hiding in a culvert above Plan Lachet

Col du Galibier summit
Almost there

Col du Galibier VCM

I can't really say I climbed the Galibier, I simply made it to the top.  I try my best to appreciate the view before tackling the descent.  It's incredible.  8 kilometres of sweeping bends take me to the Col du Latauret, passing motorbikes and cars along the way.  A cafe stop for a quick espresso and I'm back on the road.  50 kilometers separate me from Bourg d'Oisans but I've got almost 1300m of elevation to lose, hopefully the engineers who built the road used it well.

Col du Galibier descent
The descent from the Col du Galbier is pretty special

Col du Galibier descent
Who knew the B in BMC stood for banana.

The first 20km are unbelievable, the descent is super-fast and so much fun that I've already forgotten the suffering on the last climb.  The main road past the Lac du Chambon has been closed for over a year because of a massive landslide and I'm re-directed onto a bizarre temporary road that has been bulldozed along the other side of the lake.  The next part of the descent is brilliant but it's obvious that I'm losing height too fast.  A short climb followed a draining headwind section provide an appropriate sting in the tail.

I arrive in Bourg d'Oisan and find my waiting family just about to go for an ice cream, perfect timing.  I haven't returned my bike yet so I'm claiming it, a 5 cafe stop ride!

Col du Glandon signs

Col du Telegraphe summit

Col du Glandon summit

Friday, 29 July 2016

Roads to Ride: Col du Sabot

Hairpins on the Col du Sabot

The title of this article has been shamelessly pinched from the Roads to Ride section of the Inner Ring blog.

I recently had the opportunity to climb Alpe d’Huez and it left me feeling underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong, if this climb was in the Lammermuirs you wouldn’t be able to tear me away from it.  In the heart of the Alps though the bar is a lot higher.

It may have a lot of racing history but even it’s history is flawed to my eye.  It represents the ugly side of the Tour.  The wrong sort of spectacle where the focus is the spectators rather than the racing.  When the Tour visits it feels like the racing is suffocated by the over-exuberance of those standing in the road.  

Climbing the Alpe reveals a major flaw that means it can never be a great.  There is no clear finish.  Great climbs have a denouement. That moment when there is no question that you’ve reached the summit.  The view is suddenly dramatically different, the road starts to plunge downward, there is nowhere left to go.  That moment never arrives on Alpe d’Huez.  You reach the start of the village.  The tourist finish is marked but you know that the Tour stages finish higher up, but where?  Somewhere near the ski lifts isn’t it?  But once you get there you can’t see a sign and there is a tarmac road which continues on to Lac Besson.

Luckily only a few kilometres away there is a climb that meets this criteria in the most blunt way.  The Col du Sabot used to be the main route from the Romanche valley to neighbouring Savoie.  When motor vehicles started to take over it was too steep for the new technology and a new route took precedence, the road to the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Croix de Fer.  The Col du Sabot has been left as a dead end which stops abruptly at 2100m.

It’s higher, harder, steeper and a lot wilder than the Alpe.  The first half climbs a well surfaced road through several villages to Vaujany.  It’s a steady gradient which is never too hard with regular hairpins to break up the climbing.  A kilometre after Vaujany the nature of the climb changes as the road narrows dramatically and the gradient becomes steeper.  The previously fast rolling surface becomes broken and lumpy and like most minor roads in Scotland momentum is hard won.

As you climb higher it feels more remote, this road doesn’t go anywhere.  On the day I climbed it I was passed by one car above Vaujany and I only saw a handful of other cyclists who were climbing as I descended.  The road simply stops at the top.  This is the col.

Col du Sabot summit
The end of the road.

I enjoyed every part of climbing the Col du Sabot.  It’s harder, quieter and better than it’s brash young sibling.  The Alpe symbolises carbon wheels, aero bikes and overpriced jerseys with a stripe on the sleeve.  This climb reminds you of a simpler way; just you and the road and that’s what makes it great.

So much for the climbing, what about the descent?  It’s rubbish!  Everything that makes the ascent special; the narrow bumpy road, the gravel, the mud on the corners, the cows standing in the road conspires against you on the way down.  I’ve never taken so many photos on a descent, mostly because I was going so slowly that I had plenty of time to take in the amazing view.  Once you get below Vaujany and the road improves it becomes a lot more fun.  

If you want a great descent there’s always Alpe d’Huez just down the road.

Col du Glandon from Col du Sabot
The view from the top, the new road to the Col du Glandon is just above the lake

Cold du Sabot descent
Descending hazards, part 1

Col du Sabot descent
Descending hazards, part 2

Col du Sabot below Vaujany
On the fun part of the descent, below Vaujany

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Cycling the Southern Upland Way - Melrose to Cockburnspath

Scotland's Best Signposted Field

It's been a while since I've written anything for this blog.  I missed most of the 2015 cyclocross season through illness and I spend the first 4 months of 2016 training for the London Marathon.  I haven't got any racing planned in the immediate future so I thought I should come up with something else to blog about.

Over the last month I've managed to fit quite a few long rides in and have started to feel a bit like a cyclist again.  Inspired by the dusty trails and perfect conditions that Graeme Warren and I enjoyed riding Glen Tilt and Glenfeshie I was keen to get out for more of the same the following weekend.

My plan was to take advantage of the dry trails to ride the final quarter of the Southern Upland Way from Melrose to Cockburnspath.  I really struggled to find any information online about riding this section so I thought it would be worth making some notes on what I found.  This might be a bit dry but hopefully it'll be useful to someone planning a similar ride.

Unfortunately the long dry spell had broken in the last few days.  After looking through lots of forecasts I finally found one that looked good enough and decided to go with it.

Newcraighall to Tweedbank

This ride was made much simpler thanks to the newly opened Borders Railway.  50 minutes after getting on the train at Newcraighall I was underway.  Until the line was re-instated the Southern Upland Way followed a path along the old line so the route starts from the end of the platform.

Space for 8 bikes according to Scotrail.
Dusty trails looking less than likely.

Melrose to Lauder

Almost straight from the train station the route dropped into a nice little singletrack section down to the bank of the River Tweed.  After crossing the river the route turned back west along a fun rooty path.

Unfortunately the good riding didn't last too long and the route swung north to follow what was shown on the map as doubletrack.  The Southern Upland Way is obviously not a heavily used trail.  Most of this section was heavily overgrown and it was hard to see an obvious path in a lot of places.  It didn't take long riding in this terrain before I was completely soaked.

As the route headed north it was dominated by the sheer number of gates.  Some fairly uninspiring riding on tracks, over fields and through muddy farmyards punctuated by dozens of ropey old gates.  Everyone seemed to have a different style of latch and be broken in a slightly different way.  In the end it was easier just to lift my bike over and climb over.

As I approached Lauder the route turned into a field of knee high grass with no sign of any path.  Fortunately there was a route-post randomly sited in the middle of the field.  It was a actually quite a fun descent but by the end of it I was thoroughly soaked.  This sums up the Southern Upland Way pretty well, it's essentially Scotland's best signposted field.

A quick blast off Staunchly Hill in the pouring raining and I was in Lauder.

In need of a bit of respite from the weather I headed straight for the Flat Cat Gallery.  Despite the fact I was plastered in mud the staff couldn't have been more friendly.  After attempting (and failing) to make make myself look vaguely presentable I realised that the only person who was worried about the mess was me.  Two slices of cake and a coffee later and I was feeling far more positive about the rest of the day.

Chain Bridge over the Tweed in Melrose.
There's a path under there somewhere.

Lauder to Longformacus

From Lauder an odd mix of great paths and sheep tracks took me through the grounds of Thirlestane Castle to the A697.

A tarmac farm road turned into nice doubletrack as I quickly gained height.  Just as I was starting to think this section might be better the route promptly turned left into a field.  The next hour was back to fields and gates.  An unexpected descent down a fast bumpy section helped to break the tedium of the gates.

As I climbed into the mist the character of the ride had begun to change.  I was onto fast flowing tracks uninterrupted by gates and able to make some progress, albeit hindered slightly by a stiff easterly wind.

The last part of the climb up to Twin Law was on a great path although a look at my Garmin left me alarmed at my relative lack of progress over the first part of the ride.

The descent from Twin Law was the highlight of the day.  3 minutes of bumps and natural doubles.  Maybe not the best return for all the climbing but as fun as it was unexpected.

From there a mix of doubletrack and minor roads allowed some fast progress to Longformacus.

Crossing Blythe Water.
Twin Law.

Longformacus to Cockburnspath

Riding on the minor road towards Ellemford Bridge brought back painfully memories of suffering on my road bike.  Today's pace was more sedate and as you can see a 29er is probably more suited to this road than a road bike.

Painful memories of the Tour of the Lammermuirs.
The route turned off this road and struck up the hill on the right.  From the road it didn't look like the path would go as it was so overgrown.  It turned out to be ok, albeit a slog up a steep field of sheep.  A nice path over the top of the hill was short lived and I soon found myself slogging up a churned up muddy sheep track.  This was probably the least enjoyable section of the day but it was all ridable.

Crossing the Whiteadder at Abbey St Bathans.

A blast down some fast doubletrack brought me out on Duns road just south of Ellemford Bridge.     Over the road a steep gravel climb was waiting followed by a more gentle climb.  A lovely looking singletrack descent was ruined by 3 or 4 gates in the space of a few hundred meters.

Some muddy miles brought me fairly quickly to Abbey St Bathans where it was time to sit down for 10 minutes to have something to eat.  One problem with this route is a lack of water.  By this point I was even looking for an outside tap on a house but I didn't see anything.  In the end I didn't find any decent water source after Lauder.

A nice riverside path got the final stretch underway.  It wasn't long until the route descended back into fields and gates, pretty wearing by this stage of a ride.  An hour of easy, if uninspiring, riding brought me to a fast tarmac descent to the A1.

A really nice track through Penmanshiel Wood would have made a good finish to the ride but there was a sting in the tail.  The Southern Upland Way goes through Pease Dean Nature Reserve.  It would be a good place to walk but not when you are carrying a bike.  20 minute of temptingly good singletrack constantly interrupted by steep slippy steps and treacherously wet duckboards was immensely frustrating.  It would probably be more fun in the dry but in the wet it was by far the least ridable section of the day.  A quick spin round the coastal path at Cove brought me to the finish at Cockburnspath.

A tricky ride to sum up.  Only a few genuinely good sections but I don't think that is what this sort of ride is about.  It's much more a big day out and a bit of an adventure.  But even on that measure it's hard to reach a judgement.  It's a remote route with only one town on route and it barely crosses any roads but it doesn't feel that remote.  The landscape is agricultural and heavily shaped by farming and feels far less wild than other areas of the Lammermuirs.  It would be a good route but for me there are just too many gates to let it flow.

By far the best section of the route is through the Lammermuirs from above Lauder to Longformacus and it's the only bit I'm likely to repeat.