Sunday, 30 September 2012

720km, 20 Cols, 100hrs

Apologies, this is a long one...

As my tan fades, it seems an awfully long time ago now, but at the start of September I headed out on a flight to Biarritz to hook up with a group of 15 friends to have a crack at the Raid Pyrenees.  In brief, for those that don't know, it's a long standing challenge to make it from the Atlantic coast down to the Mediterranean coast across the mountains taking in most of the famous mountains the area has to offer in under 100 hours.

Day Zero.
All we had to do was get to the start in one piece.  Bike packed, I headed to the airport straight from work to meet a few of the guys.  Unnervingly smooth check in with no one even raising an eyebrow to our awkwardly large baggage regardless of the budget nature of the flight.  Quick coffee then time to board.

Now, I know nice children exist.  I've met a number of them.  Many of my friends have produced them.  Why is it then that none of the nice ones ever sit behind me on aeroplanes?  After a couple of hours of biting my lip we touch down, get the bags (bikes still in one piece) and grab a cab to get to the hotel and meet up with the rest of the group.  5 of us squeeze into a taxi made for 4 and were treated to one hell of a white knuckle ride.  Our driver was a bit over keen to get to his next fare, spanking along the motorway at 120mph and only marginally slower on the minor roads.  Getting to the hotel we necked a few calming beers and caught up with the rest of the guys before assembling the bikes.

Day One.
Breakfast was hearty to get fueled up for the first big day of the ride.  After some degree level faffing we finally got going up to the coast at Hendaye to ritually dip our wheels in the Atlantic and set the clock running.  At 8:38 we officially started the Raid.

In mileage terms this was going to be the longest day at 185km.  But as we were coming in from the coast the early cols were pretty minor.  We ticked off the Col de Saint Ignace and Col de Pinodieta barely noticing them.  Moving further inland the climbs started lasting longer making me ponder how the decided what makes a Col.  Some of the lumps we rode over were without a doubt longer and steeper than the initial two official Cols but didn't have a signpost in sight.  Regardless we moved towards the bigger climbs, the first of which was the Col d'Osquich.  Its only 500m or so above sealevel, but it was a good few km's long and the temperature had risen to the high 20's so a nice way to ease into the more substantial hills.

Our first coffee stop took longer than really needed.  We have a tendency to enjoy sitting about in the sun drinking coffee and chewing the fat a bit too much.  This meant we ended up missing lunch.  France had shut up shop by the time we needed to eat.  Plus it was getting hotter.  In desperation a stop into a shitty little local shop was all we could do to get something to eat.  Whilst I was keeping an eye on the bikes everyone else cleared the shop of the remaining limp sandwiches so all that was left for me was a packet of dried apricots.  Thanks guys.

With hunger at bay for a moment we ploughed onward and upward until we hit the first proper climb of the trip.  The Col de Marie-Blanque is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a swine.  It's only a Cat1, but in hindsight it was in many ways the toughest climb of the whole route.  It's not that long and it's not that steep, but it was definitely a swine.  Perhaps it was the heat, or missing lunch, or maybe because we'd already covered over 160km that day, doesn't matter - it was hard.  I stomped up the first half of the 10km climb with no bother at all in the 52t, but at halfway the gradient raise up to about 10%, then up to 13% for the last 2km, so I found sanctuary with the 36t ring.  I'd liken it to a doubly long UK climb ridden in an oven.  No switchbacks, just straight up unrelentingly.

After regrouping for the customary photos by the sign at the top of the climb, we dropped down the other side to find our next hotel, beers and food.

Day Two.
Didn't start too well.  I went to bed the night before setting my alarm on my phone.  Overnight said telephone decided to adjust itself to local time setting the alarm off an hour early.  My roommate for the night, Jase, was not impressed.

This did allow an early breakfast which was stuffed down to allow us some extra faffing time before cracking off (late) on a shortish mileage day.  Just the 115km to ride, but that included well over 3000m of genuine ascent.  A short warm up before we were on the lower slopes of the Col d'Aubisque.  It's been classed as both a Cat1 and an HC in Le Tour, but I reckon we must have done the Cat1 side.  Irrespective of category it was another brute, climbing up to 1709m.  By the top the morning mist had lifted and we were treated to blue skies and stunning views in every direction.

Pushing on we dropped a little altitude on a steep descent before going back up 2km to the summit of the Col de Soulor (1474m) and then getting out teeth stuck into the long super fast descent back down to the valley.  Not wanting to make the same mistake as day one we stopped as soon as possible for food.  This time we made the opposite mistake and ate far too much, consuming absolutely massive pizzas.  We'd all soon be regretting that.

After lunch we didn't have all that far to ride.  Just a minor Col before the Tourmalet started looming ahead.  It's one of the most iconic HC climbs in the world, but it's not all that steep.  But what it is is long.  20km straight up at an average gradient in excess of 7%.  It also seemed longer as the temperature had crept up into the 30's.  It seemed longer still with the lingering taste of meaty pizza rising in my throat all the damn way.

The markers every kilometre were dead handy, giving the average gradient for the next km, plus how far to the summit.  A great tool for breaking the bugger down.  That being said I really enjoyed that climb.  I do like riding up hills anyway, but the views kept on getting more impressive the higher I rode.  Plus there was a great headwind.  Headwinds are usually kinda miserable things, but this one was ace.  Coming right down the valley keeping things a bit cooler (albeit slower).  The occasional switchback into the other direction suddenly became oppressively hot yet the tailwind eased the pedaling for a bit of a rest before turning back into the wind.

What also made that climb fun was some of the left over Tour graffiti on the road.  Every now and again something would make me smile.  Spotting things like "HTFU," "I wish I could use drugs," Box Hill's easy!" plus a few classic Voigt quotes.  Also there was a couple of hundred metres painted somewhat confusingly with massive err... tadpoles.  Yes, they were definitely tadpoles.  Massive ones.  Everywhere.

I spent a few minutes at the top enjoying the view, then noticed a few tourists enjoying the view of my bike!  After another regroup we made the most of the long descent off the mountain, dodging motorbikes, campervans, cattle and goats.  Stopping at the base and after popping ears we settled in a local bar waiting for the rest of the group and the broom wagon which had our bags.  We supped away on a few local cidres, which were very nice if very expensive.  They refused to sell them to us in bigger glasses.  It was 300ml or nothing.  4Euros per 300ml that is.   After 3 of those we made the financially driven decision to switch to beers.  A couple of grande bierres later everyone had made it down and on to the hotel where we were greeted by a hotelier who must have been Gordon Kaye's inspiration for Rene out of Alo Alo.  His hotel certainly hadn't been renovated since the war - the plastic sliding doors were simply charming.  Food, wine, sleep.

Day Three.
Back to the longer miles.  Another 100+ miles and 6 Cols.  The first of which was straight out of the door with the ascent up to the summit of the Col d'Aspin.  Another Cat1 climb to kick off with, easy in relation to the Tourmalet, but still pretty noticeable without a warm up and a belly full of breakfast,  it goes up 1489m over about 12km, topping out at 8%.  At the top we regrouped for the customary signpost photographs where an over friendly & massive cow lumbered down the hill to see what we were up to.  Rog was the most experience cow wrangler among us and so quite literally took it by the horns.  After a bit of steering it calmed down, but took particular interest in Andy's bars, wrapping its mighty tongue around his tape, enjoying the salty goodness I assume.  Oh how we chuckled, particularly Andy relishing the thought of descending a mountain gripping on to cow spit soaked tape.

Down the Aspin for a cracking descent before promptly turning back uphill to tackle the Col de Peyresourde, another lovely Cat1 back up to 1569m.  The following descent was amazingly good fun, really fast and swoopy.  By the time we'd got to the bottom the temperature had hit 36degrees.  A couple of smaller cols either side of a light lunch before chalking off yet another monumental climb - the Col du Portet de Aspet.  It's pretty long and reasonably steep, yet it's noteworthy as it's the scene of Fabio Carsatelli's fatal crash in the 1995 Tour.  We had a quick stop at the monument commemorating the '92 Olympic champion before getting back to business...  Smashing up to the summit and back down the other side and onto our next over night stop.

Arriving at the hotel we found that the only beer they had on draft was Leffe.  You can only imagine how disappointed I was.  A couple of cheeky Leffes were sunk before food, some nice local wine with it followed up with a reasonable slab of cake.  All good stuff.

Day Four.
Day four ended up being the most eventful day of the trip for me.  The inevitable morning faffing meant that I left the hotel after everyone else with just one other, Rob, for company.  Once again we ere on a major climb straight away.  This time it was 3 Cols squashed into one; the Col du Fort which merges into the Col des Caoughans, which goes straight into the Col de Port.

I thought that the others in the lead group were trying to get one over on me on a climb.  I thought I heard the sound of a gauntlet being cast to the ground, so stuck it in the big ring and rode like a manic spazz all the way up at race pace, counting everyone off as I passed them.  Only once I was at the summit of the 12.8km climb did it become apparent that I'd miscounted and had been chasing down a non-existent cyclist for the last 3km.  Balls.

Hey ho.  It was a great spot.  So nice I decided to stop early on the descent to take a few photos of the guys riding down and off into the distance.  I did this, but probably for a bit too long, getting separated from the fast end of the group.  Once off the mountain there was an open drag down a main road for 25km before the the next coffee/pain au chocolat/faff stop.  I thought it'd be clever to try and ride across to the fast group on my own.  I rode full gas again for seemingly ages, knowing full well that they'd all be working together whilst I was sat in the wind on my own.  Finally caught them after 20 joyless kilometres.

Once the next set of coffee/pain au chocolat/faff was complete we headed off in the wrong direction (just to get some extra climbing in) and then the right direction to deal with the HC Port de Pailheres.  It's certainly worthy of the HC rating.  It goes on for 18km, ramping up in gradient all the way to the top to the slightly dubious altitude of 2001m.  Once again we got some amazing views and even more amazing descents as a due reward.

The descent off the Pailheres was only short, but a laugh.  The next summit (Col de Trabesses) was less than a kilometre away and only 80m lower at the top.  Basically the two peaks sit right next to each other with a dip in between.  We thought it only right to see if we could freewheel down one and up to the summit of an official Col without pedaling.  Yes, it is entirely possible.  The descent off the Trabesses was excellent though, very tight switchbacks early on, then opening up into some full throttle open turns and straights lower down.

The roads rolled on for a while and our beautiful 30degree blue skies started to turn black.  Incidentally, this was the only day of the trip that I didn't check the forecast in the morning.  Getting a tad complacent with ace weather I didn't bother sticking a jacket in my pocket.  It started raining.  All I had extra to put on was a pair of arm warmers.  It started raining more - a full on mountain storm really.  Heads down we plugged on until we stumbled across a little boulangerie/patisserie in a small otherwise dead village.  We took refuge as the storm continued and the thunder & lightning got bigger.  Chomping down on bread based products and some rather fine cake we watched the rain bouncing off the road and eventually seem to ease.  Seeing our opportunity we headed back out.  Half a mile up the road the rain got really heavy again.  Sheltering under a tree on the side of the road I was starting to get really cold and shivering heavily.  The four of us decided to keep moving as a better way of staying warm.  The road was open and reasonably flat for a few km's so we could push on and keep the body temperature up, regardless of the depth of the standing water and the piles of hale stones on the side of the road.  We dropped Jase and so huddle under a building for a minute to wait and I got cold again straight away.  Soaked to the skin and having a low bodyfat percentage I was getting properly cold.  I would have probably warmed up again if it wasn't for the fact the road was about to go downhill for 20 miles.  Usually a 20mile long descent would be amazing, but on this occasion my skinny wet body didn't mix well with the now wintery temperatures and 40mph windchill.  Early on the descent I had to pull over as I was shaking so much that I couldn't hold the bike in a straight line.  One of the guys kindly gave me his jacket and I pulled back onto the road.  But the damage had been done and I was getting worse.  It was just stupid for me to try and ride in that state.  Into the next layby and I was in bits, shaking violently and hyperventilating.  Remarkably moments later a German couple pulled into the layby (nothing dodgy, there was a great viewing platform of the valley) and saw I was in trouble.  The chap gave up his jumper and jacket so I could get out of the wet kit and then sat me in his car with the heaters on full blast.  The others called for the broom wagon which took over half an hour to get to us.  All of that time I was seriously cold but slowly thawing out.  I've honestly never felt cold like it.  It was quite, quite horrible.  I can't thank those mysterious Germans enough.  Without them I reckon we might have needed an ambulance.

Once the Broom arrived I was still cold but back down to regular shivering and chucked on fresh dry kit.  Lots of it.  New base layer, jersey, a fleece, a windproof, a waterproof, a cap and a borrowed pair of winter gloves that someone far less optimistic of the weather had packed.  On a normal day this particular descent would have been breathtaking, but as I was having such difficultly hanging on to my breath it was simply a case of getting down in one piece.  The rain had stopped though and I could feel the air warming the further down we rode.  It was another half an hour before I felt back to normal.  Thankfully this coincided with us rolling up to a bar near that night's hotel, time to drink a few pints and eat chips.  More food and booze was consumed back at the hotel just to make sure I was back to normal.

Note to self:  Always check the forecast, dickhead.

Day Five.
After the many ups and downs of the previous four days it was pretty straight forward finish.  Just 100km, mainly downhill to the coast at Cebere to finish before our cutoff time of 12:38.  We kept the whole group of 15 together as best as possible, one of us dropping back to pull things back together if we up'd the pace a little too much and caused some gaps.  Plain sailing all the way, feeling good, no lasting effects of the previous afternoon's drama.  Once the sea was in sight and the roads were rolling nicely we started to up the pace, mess about and make the most of the last few km's of the trip.  Across the group there were a few crazy efforts and sprints for random signposts as we tore into Cebere.  A quick stop to get our accreditations stamped to confirm we'd made it in plenty of time and a cheesy group photo.  Officially finished at 11:33, could've had an extra hour in bed.  Then it was down to the beach to dip the wheels again so that we had genuinely made it from the Atlantic to the Med.  Me, being a fool, rode straight into the sea.  A great photo opportunity, but the salt water has now destroyed all the bearing in my bike.  Surprisingly beer, wine, nasty local brandy and food finished off the trip nicely.

Quick Stats...
Total ditance covered, 718km
Total ascent, 12,132m
Actual riding time, 29hrs 37mins.


Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Eastern League 1 2 3 and other notes

Right, Cross is on. Three Eastern League races plus the Thetford Cross Enduro and it's not even the end of September! All good so far, top courses, high level of organization, close racing- job's a good un.


A slightly different start to the cross season this year- the 3 hour Thetford Cyclocross Enduro. Pretty good fun really, nicely in the lead group of 5 till a flint ripped a big gash in my tubeless tyre- rubbish. A further puncture ended any chance of the podium but all in a nice day out and good to get in a solid 3 hour race effort ahead of the main job at the end of the month.

1st Eastern League was blazing hot, nice up and down course round a park in Basildon. A front row grid spot and 1st into the first bend was a nice bonus but the legs weren't quite there to keep on it for the full hour, happy enough with 6th at the line. 2nd round a bit steadier of the line and caught up in a few skirmishes meant the leaders were away but a nice race with Martin Carter for 6th spot was good fun. 3rd round; pretty nice and consistent throughout, again still not up with the leaders but a cracking course round Hoghill was great fun to ride and another solid top 10.

A big thank you to all involved with the Eastern League, the first three races have been great and I'd recommend the League to anyone who fancies some cross action in East Anglia.

Some other (random) thoughts:

The Cambridge CC chaingaing is fun and a good workout.

Tubeless tyres aren't great for cross. I was hopeful tubeless might be a good way forward but so far I'm not convinced- burping problems at 30psi suggest tubs are still the way to go. Looks like you can now get a Schwalbe Rocket Ron tubular, keen to try these, should be the business.

TRP CX 9.0 brakes are fantastic, if you want better brakes but don't want to change to discs get these, night and day better than cantilevers. Discs for cross? Could be a game changer, not so much for the braking power but for the ability to run one bike for a whole muddy race with no clogging issues. At a pro level this isn't such an issue (as these guys have multiple bikes and a pit crew) but for the amateur on a budget one nice super light disc equipped bike could be a viable alternative to needing two bikes and a pit crew- I'm tempted.

There are some awesome bikes around these days! Seriously tempted to get a shortish (100mm) travel 29er like the Specialized Camber or Santa Cruz Tall Boy, in one go you have a bike you can race competitively in xc and enduro events and ride fast on pretty much any trail in the UK- what more can you ask of an mtb?

Important things for cross season are: some good cd's for the car journey to the race; a slow cooker so you can get a tasty meal on the go before heading off to the race and have tea waiting when you get in- winner! Aims for the season are; to win a round of the Eastern League and get round a National Trophy without getting lapped!

Looks like plenty good cross races on over the next few months, hopefully see some VCM  folk at a race or two somewhere around the UK and with some luck up home at an SXC round- looks like it should be another strong season in Scotland- pedal hard!

Well, nearly time for the biggest, baddest cross race of them all. Come on weather do your worst, it's going to be EPIC!












Tour de Ben

No Fuss events Tour de Ben is billed as a 'must do' race. I will not go into too much detail about it as the details are on No Fuss' website. Let me just say that i was looking forward to a long loop race in challenging terrain: i've had enough of the 'multiple little loop' endurance races for a while. The concept is one big loop with 4 special stages that make up a points race within the overall. This adjusts the standings once it is all added up. So, after a cold night under canvas in the Glen Nevis campsite i popped various food products into assorted pockets and wee bags, not forgetting a tube or three, and set off for the start line.
I had signed on the evening before in the Nevis Centre which gave me the opportunity to chat to Greig and sort of compare notes. I know the area pretty well from a riding point of view, though i havent spent much time around the Mamores or Grey Corries for a couple of years. Essentially you drop south from Fort Bill, joining the West Highland Way and then take one of the choppy descents down to Kinlochleven before climbing back up towards Loch Eilde Mor and returning by climbing over and cutting west into Leanachan forest. The mystery for me was the reported hike-a-bike from the Abhainn Rath up and over into Lairig Leacach. At 10 am we were led through the high street by a posse of pipers before the hammer dropped. I hung around the first bunch and made good time on the tarmac climb up from town. It seemed from the chat that the pace was perhaps being pushed pretty high, pretty early, in comparison to years past, but you can't read too much into these things until the race establishes itself. Continuing in the top 10 group Greig and myself shared a few more words before we hit the rocky trail south to the old shielings on the WHW. Unfortunately, as i flew through a water bar i square edged a sharp rock and blew my front tyre out. This early in the race, that was a bit of a bummer: I had sort of expected the possibility of a puncture at some point, but not before we hit the rougher stuff. I knew my choice of a rigid bike was a little at odds to the smorgasbord of full bouncers around me and it would cost me on the techy descents, but i had hoped to offset this on the climbing. Hmmm!
A quick fix with extra psi added courtesy of a C02 canister got me going again and i overhauled a few of the folk who had courteously checked my well being as they passed before the descent to Kinlochleven. This was rougher than i remember and the lower section was essentially a stream. I knew i was losing time on this special stage, but as i passed Iain Nimmo battling with what looked like a shredded tyre and a couple of other riders with mechanicals, i was happy enough with my conservative approach. The next climb gave me the chance to catch a few other riders. It was amazing how swiftly some folk were ascending on their tiny stemmed/big travel bikes. On flat pedals even! However, i knew the fast guys were well away by now. The trail around Loch Eilde mor is quick and it takes you back into the heart of the mountains. The sun was still shining and despite some puddles, you could be forgiven for thinking it was summer. The last time i crossed the Abhainn Rath, i lost a sock in the fast flowing, cold waters that inspired a barefooted, yelping run down the river lest i be blistered and limping. This time, rather than removing my shoes, i just waded through and assumed the position for the hike-a-bike. It actually wasn't too bad. Certainly i've done more irritating portages. All too soon, it was time to tackle the trails down the Lairig Leacach. At first it was really rocky and broken. I was still pretty concerned with puncturing and i was getting a little beaten up on the rough, water damaged trails, but i made it down without losing too much time and as i entered Leanachan forest it was time to engage the afterburners. I had taken in calories well and 4 hours of riding meant i was pretty warmed up. Other than a boggy (ok, VERY boggy) section in the midle the dry smooth trails let me hunt down at least 5 fellow racers before the Blue crane descent and a short run in ended the race. I was relatively pleased to come in at 4.39 and some change, as 14th rider over the line. I knew that once the points were added up i would drop places due to my DH mincing, but i'll admit a smidge of disappointment to lose 7 places. Oh well, the message is clear - the DH counts on this one. I was also gutted to see Greig who came in a few places in front of me seemed to have missed a dibbing point on one of the special stages that had left him way down the standings - a most unfortunate situation that doesnt do justice to his very strong ride. Will i be back? maybe! it *is* a must do event and we need to have more like them. I would like to see it a bit longer though - not just because it plays to my (imagined?) strengths, but there are better trails that could be added in potentially if it could be pushed out to 100 or even 140km. As it stands, for the 400 or so entrants, this was a great race and a jewel in the crown of No Fuss for sure.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

A long time coming.

Tour de Ben this weekend coming. I see some other VC M names on the start list.


It has been a year since i raced at least. i've been spending a little time out n the road bike and towing Daisy on the xtra cycle, so i'm not expecting implosion. The legs are not as strong as previous years, the resolve patchy like the weather, but prepping the bike and kit today lit a fire somewhere deep inside.

Yes i will give it everything i have. Looking forward to lining up...report to follow.

Good luck to my team mates.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

cross is coming




ride tough
party tough

there will be winners 
there will be losers

bikes will be broken
bikes will be loved

curse
curse again




Thursday, 6 September 2012

3x3


Three weekends and Three time trials.  I've never done so many time trials in my life before.  Anyway first off was the Black Isle grand prix.  This event is not your average tt with a distance of 38 miles involving four crossings over the spine of the Black Isle.  There was no gentle breaking in either as the start was straight into the climb up the Fairy glen taking riders to the furthest East point at Cromarty.  Next was Mount High and at over two miles distance this is a mean climb.  Third kick was a very short but steep Mount Eagle.  A well needed descent over the other side to Culbokie had me overtaking the commisaires car as he hadn't quite realised my speed on the descent!  The last climb over Knockbain had me cramping up which wasn't the best but thankfully I managed to get rid of it pretty quick.  All that was left was to gun it along a slightly uphill stretch to the finish in Fortrose.
 

This was my first time at the BIGP but it all seemed to fall into place for me on the day and I was good enough to take 8th place and a cheeky wee win in the handicap.
 
 
The following weekend was the Iain Longbotham Memorial 25 mile tt.  Iain was a Firefighter with me in Inverness and a very good time trialist. Sadly Iain passed away eight years ago with a rare form of cancer.  I've always said I should ride this race because of the link but I've never got round to it until this year.  Quite shocking but I'm no flat time trialist as I was about to find out.  Conditions on the morning were glorious with not a breath of wind on either leg which didn't make things easy.  I turned in a 1.05.15 for my first ever flat 25 which I suppose isn't too bad considering the other eighteen riders in front of me were all on tt bikes.  It's not my scene though,  Too painfull!

 
As is customary now is the presentation to the fastest Inverness Firefighter and this year I managed to take it by the very smallest of margins(only two seconds in it) from my old gaffer Ross Nixon who took great delight in presenting me with the Highland Firefighter polystyrene cup.
 
It was back to the Black Isle for my time trial farewell at the Munlochy two up.  I paired up with my usual time trial partner Donnie Macdonald.  We were pretty evenly matched after only seven seconds seperated us at the recent BIGP.  The course was two and a half laps around the Munlochy area giving a distance of 21 miles.  Again we were lucky with the weather it was cool with only light winds and this no doubt made for good going. 
 
 
We kept it steady to finish in 6th place behind winners and former Commonwealth games riders Kenny Riddle and James Millar and there was another bonus waiting for us in the second handicap prize.
 
It was good fun and hopefully good training for the upcoming cross season but I'm back to riding the dirt now and thankfully I've not experienced any withdrawal symptoms yet.
 
See you out on the trails...........