Time to get the miles in

This month has seen an increase in cycle training volume as a result of two big weekends of cycling. And the results are very encouraging for the challenges that lie ahead.

Back to back hundred miles

This first was the London Revolution – a two day event organised by the RAB event company Threshold Sports.

This started at Lee Valley in north London, with a 5am alarm call on the Saturday morning to drive around the M25. A few hours later and I was rolling across the start line for a two hour ride through London. An iconic photo crossing Tower Bridge, but lots of traffic lights and built-up conurbations to slow our progress. Made me glad my local roads are in the leafy lanes around the royal county of Berkshire!

Once we hit the green belt the scenery changed to more familiar surroundings as we moved south west through Kent and Sussex towards the Surrey Hills. A couple of nice climbs done and we made our way towards Windsor racecourse with a 100 miles ‘on the clock’. A fanfare arrival to base camp gave me a good impression of what to expect on each day of RAB, but then rather than heading for the chillout zone it was time for a quick pit-stop before the extra 15 miles ride home. As I have the hotel option booked for RAB, I didn’t need the glamping experience of rain showers, rider snoring and being woken by random tents zips in the middle of the night!

Sunday morning was a 6am alarm (a relative lie-in) for the pedal back to Windsor, where seeing a long queue to cross the start line I opted for a cheeky – bacon butty – second breakfast. Refuelled for the day ahead, the route took us over familiar roads crossing the Thames at Marlow before tackling some meatier climbs in the Chilterns. When we get to RAB, the first two days in Cornwall and Devon are the toughest by way of “undulations” and so the repetitive up/downs of Bledrow Ridge and Kop Hill was a good test. I got up them all showing that my winter training and base level fitness has paid off. Following a sunny lunch stop, we made our way north east through some salubrious areas of north London before hitting Enfield with just 5 short miles of built-up traffic to ride through.

Crossing the finish line – to another fanfare – I quickly stowed my bike in the car and grabbed a change of clothes. Barely 10 minutes had passed and I switched on my phone to see my finisher line photos already uploaded to my facebook account. Now this is a seriously cool use of technology. The event photographers must all have 4G cards in their cameras that mean that rider photos can be uploaded in near real time to social media. And both the quality of photos and the accuracy of spotting each ride by the bar code strips mounted to our bikes and helmets was first class. Meaning that everyone at home could follow the progress of the event and know what was happening. And the event company have the same technology on RAB – so you can follow my path across the country.

Make that three

The second event was a charity challenge, over the second May Bank Holiday weekend organised by a TVT member Kathryn Rossiter – to celebrate her 50th birthday. Now most people think of luxury holidays to mark that milestone, but not when you are GB Age Group triathlete. For her it was a multi-day sports endurance event instead!

The day one Saturday was a ride out west from Reading through Berkshire; then day two Sunday was the ‘long one’ with nine and half hours of riding time out north through the Chilterns before looping back through Oxfordshire. And then a third day heading out south-west through Hampshire with plenty of rolling hills. A total of 300 miles over the three days which is exactly what I can expect on RAB.

Only come September I have to do all that again… and again!

What was special about this second May weekend was the group riding aspect, with many riders all used to cycling together. Cue lots of banter, chain-gang style formation riding, and always someone looking out to see that the whole group was sticking together. That management phrase “there’s no I in team” could not have been more apt.

And given that Kathryn is Chef Exec of a local social charity called Thrive, it would be remiss of me not to mention her fund raising efforts. It was a pleasure to participate and contribute financially to this cause over the weekend.

Looking ahead

So with just over 100 days out from the RAB start line at Lands End – and how do I feel?

Basically the answer is good (which is better than the banal “I’m fine” response usually given to such questions). I know mentally that I can ride back-to-back 100 mile rides, and that the longest day of 125 miles is within my capability. There is still three months to go to continue to build fitness, to make minor tweaks & adjustments to reduce soreness whilst riding, and to focus on fundraising.

Giving something back to others who need help – via my charity partner the Princes Trust – is where my focus turns next month.

Spring training

May has now arrived and the lighter evenings start to offer more choice for cycle training. The winter period was often limited to a single daytime weekend ride each week, meaning that strength and conditioning at the gym has been an important way to lay a fitness base. Now that starts to change with additional cycle rides adding volume (and miles in the saddle) to the training schedule.

Within these constraints, my winter training has always been effective as for a number of years now I have been a cycle ride leader for my triathlon club TVT. I was even recognised last year with the Head Coach’s Award as a number of team mates have used my winter group as a springboard to future sporting success. It has also been a huge motivation for me that when the weather is cold and wet then there are no excuses to cancel a ride, because there are 8-10 others wanting to go out who are dependent on you. The winter ride schedule sequence is a general ride, with a more hilly ride the next week, then a faster temp ride (over a local Time Trial course) the week after, and finally a longer steady ride. We are out for 2-3 hours each set, which is often all that can be managed before the feeling of numb fingers and feet start to takeover.

As we move towards spring, so the opportunities to extend the ride time start to become more feasible. Back in January I took advantage of a ‘3 for 2’ sale offer from Evans Cycles and signed up for three of their “Ride It” sportives, targeting March and April for my events. I opted for the long course options, which at this time of year is circa 70-80 miles per ride.

The first of these was in the North Downs, starting from the new CycloPark facility in Gravesend in Kent. A great sporting legacy from London 2012, the cycle park facility offers a tarmac and offroad course for everyone to hone their cycle skills. I had ridden from this venue last year, as it works well to stay for the weekend with my wife’s parents who retired to live on the Kent Coast. This year, fuelled by fresh sea bream at a local restaurant on the Saturday evening, I drove 45 mins up the M2 motorway over the impressive Medway bridge to the venue. The weather forecast for the day had been dreadful, but the Atlantic depression coming in from the west was held up sufficiently that we pretty much got away with a dry-ish day. The signature climb was Vigo Hill, which is a short sharp climb up onto a North Down ridge which I managed okay. What I had forgotten from the previous year were some of the technical climbs just before the end of the ride, so I was pleased to see the cycle park venue after 70 miles and complete my final lap to the finish. The venue has good facilities so having showered, I enjoyed a coffee and pastie before the drive back to coast.

In early April was a local event starting from Windsor racecourse. This is one of the larger Ride It events with nearly 1,000 competitors so that meant some queuing at the start on a chilly morning. Once going, the wind proof jacket could be packed away as we crossed the Thames at Marlow and headed into the Chilterns. At one of the feed stops I spotted a young lady ride wearing a RAB cycle top, and soon started up conversation about the event. Her enthusiasm was such that she had completed Lands End – John O’Groats on two separate occasions, because she enjoyed the event, camaraderie and organisation so much. A great confidence boost to meet her.

The final section of the course was on local roads, and with the hillier section now behind us I enjoyed a higher tempo rode with some other Cookham cycle club riders to the finish. Another confidence boost that I could pick up the pace!

The third sportive was the weekend after an Easter holiday, and was pretty much my first ride for two weeks. It was out in Milton Keynes which meant an hour and a half drive to the start. This time I was more aware of waiting around at the start, so seeing a long line leading to the timing point I headed to the refreshment van (without a queue) for a bacon butty and cup of tea. Cheeky second breakfast! The route this day included some nice views over the Dunstable downs, a pretty section through the bluebell carpeted Ashridge national trust and a ride through the Woburn estate. It was 85 miles and was completed in 6 hours of ride time – which for me is a good average pace over that distance. Followed by a protein shake for recovery and a leisurely drive home.

A well earned glass (or two) of wine that evening, as my early season RAB training was definitely on course.

The icing on the cake

After such an epic summer of 2012, and now that the darker nights are drawing in, it is time to reflect on the achievements of the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam and what it meant to be part of such a great event. And what is especially nice, is that my efforts have been marked by me winning an Award. 

As a fund raising activity, the event set a goal of raising £2.012M for the Dallaglio Foundation to fund the Cancer Research UK ICGC project on prostate cancer genetics and for the AF Foundation to build, develop and improve Child Rehabilitation & Physiotherapy Units throughout the UK. The first piece of good news is that these charities will have all the funding they require – as the Cycle Slam event raised a massive total of £2,022,125. Fantastic!

My own sporting story is best captured in a videocast made whilst I was taking part in the event

With a background in triathlon, I did a lot of the training preparation with my Tri Club Thames Valley Triathletes. And last night was their annual awards dinner. Well last year I was recognised as the most improved triathlete, and this year I won again this time in the “Most Impressive Performance of the Year” category. And I was up against stiff competition from Wayne Jones (who cycled to Germany raining funds for Macmillan Cancer) and Simon Fox (who did the 3 Peaks Challenge riding between the mountains and fund raising for the Duchess of Kent House Hospice). I am not sure that my cycling efforts alone quite match the others achievements but I guess the combination of riding, event promotion and beating my personal fund raising target swung it in my favour. Thank you TVT – it means a lot to be recognised by my peer group in this way.

Like all good award ceremonies, now it is time for a few thank yous!

  • Firstly to Virgin Media – who sponsored me as a customer to take part in a stage of the event – little did I know when I spotted their Cycle Slam advert, on a dark night in January this year, where this would take me;
  • Secondly to the awesome Stage 5 Group 2 riders, who I shared the best moments of the event with (both on and off the bike) – it was great to have the whole team of riders working together to achieve a common goal
  • Thirdly to my TVT team mates – who supported me on training rides and sportives to get the miles in my legs that would mean that I could really enjoy the riding challenge
  • Fourthly to everyone who donated to my personal fund raising activities – a collection of friends, colleagues and business customers who themselves raised money through their own work activities. We had the London Midland office cycle ride (on an exercise bike); the Nottingham City Homes Easter cake sale; and the LV= dress down day. That was really inspiring.
  • And finally to my family – who came to London on the final day of the Slam to see me cross the finish line and share in the glory.

It was a great personal achievement, and I couldn’t have done it without you all!

And so now it is time to draw a close to this blog. Thank you for reading and hopefully enjoying my tales. Until the next cycling challenge – target date 2014 – stay healthy everyone.

Paul.

The Longest Day

After all the training for the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam, it was time to test myself in the Magnificat Cycle Sportive – riding 127 miles in one day – including 9 testing climbs. And the weather forecast for the Diamond Jubilee Sunday was …. absolutely dreadful.

I had taken part in this annual sportive event, starting from Newbury racecourse and covering a circular route across the South Downs, in the two previous years. The first time the 51 mile course, and then last year the 81 mile course – which was all part of my Half Ironman training. But never had I tackled the full 127 mile Magnificat version, which is a true test for any club cyclist.

In past years, the weather had played a major part in my recollections of the event. In 2010, the weather was dry and sunny, but last year a major Atlantic depression rolled in on the day, bringing an inch of rain and some stiff winds. A major challenge, which I have referenced in previous blog entries. However, the event organisers Ken and Barbara Robson, had made a generous donation towards my Cycle Slam fund raising, and so I had willingly agreed to make their 127 mile event, over this Bank Holiday weekend, the final part of my Slam cycling challenge.

I had two weeks to recover from the Slam itself and prepare for the Magnificat, and I was soon able to pick up the intensity of my training. Cycling in the warm weather we had a week ago definitely agreed with me, and I was looking forward to testing myself over the longest one day ride that I had ever undertaken. As the Bank Holiday weekend drew ever closer, then the weather forecast for the Sunday looked increasingly bleak. The river boat pageant in London was definitely going to be a water based event, as rain was forecast for the whole day. So I packed my wet weather riding gear, expecting the worst.

Alarm went off at 5.30am (just like in the Slam) and I picked up a fellow TVT cyclist Simon Fox an hour later for the drive down the M4 to Newbury. The racecourse was a hive of activity – for that early time on a Sunday – with cyclists getting ready for a long day’s ride. We also met up with another friend David Blundell who was training for his fourth attempt at completing the Tour d’Etape, which is the annual opportunity for club cyclists to ride a stage of the Tour de France.

Now the Magnificat route is broken down into three stages – each of circa 40 miles – following an anti-clockwise loop across the Berkshire/ Hampshire and Wiltshire countryside. Each stage had some testing climbs, the first one of which Walbury was shrouded in mist as I led a small group up the climb.

But the rain was getting lighter, and temperatures were rising as a result, which meant that it was soon time to remove the outer layer of clothing. The tempo of the ride with Simon was good, with the first stage completed in 2 ¾ hours. The second stage took us into the most southerly section, with the climbs of Old Winchester Hill and Stoner Hill.

By the afternoon the weather was steadily improving, so I even had the chnace to get my legs were out. Now the reference to legs is one that is particularly relevant to Simon. He was using the Mgnificat as a test event for a charity ride he is doing in August – Three Peaks Two Wheels – where he will be riding 200 km a day between Ben Nevis, Scarfell Pike, Snowdon and then home. His sports therapist has recently recommended a full leg shave, so that some supportive tape could be fixed to him whilst he was riding. Now that is a level of dedication well beyond anything I saw on the Slam. Lawrence and Freddie having their legs shaved so that they can ride a bike – I think not!

So 80 miles in and I was very pleased to get to the end of  Stage 2 feed station where the tea and cake was most welcome. And still a final stage of 46 miles and over 2,000 feet of climbing to go.  But apart from the odd stray shower, the weather was holding up, so with renewed spirits we pressed on.  One of the most interesting sights of the day was the way that some of the villages had been decorated. As part of the Jubilee celebrations, several Hampshire villages had covered the roadside with scarecrows, dressed up as topical characters. Along with bunting, this certainly made us feel like this was a special day for a ride, which again lifted the spirits as fatigue threatened to set-in.

With 18 miles to go, at the final drinks station, I stuffed some Jelly baby sweeties  into my cycling pockets ready for the final ups and down into Kingsclere and Ashford Hill. I was now back on more familiar roads which certainly helped me believe that the full distance was now truly within my grasp. After the final drag past Greenham Common, we began the last descent into Newbury – to cross the finish line some 9 hours and 40 miles after the start. And no punctures!  Excluding the stops, that equates to an average speed over 14 miles an hour. Perfectly respectable for us all – and well within the bronze level cutoff time. Job done.

Day 3 – experiencing the Roubaix cobbles

Stage 5 day three was an 80 mile cycling stage, following the course of the famous Paris Roubaix cycle race, including a couple of sections of cobbles, finishing at the famous velodrome.

Another 5.30am alarm call – this time because our timings for the day meant that needed to arrive in Roubaix by 2pm to get our opportunity to ride the velodrome, before being coached to Lille to catch the Eurotunnel train back to the UK. It was a chilly but bright morning, and as the forecast showed a declining wind strength, I took the opportunity to ‘get my legs out’.

But it didn’t take long for the strength of the spring sun to take effect and we were soon enjoying the rolling French countryside. And today we had a second birthday in our group – it was Chris Board on day one and now Malcolm Davidson on day three. Birthday boy enjoyed a glass of bubbly at the morning pit stop and the pace soon picked up as our group chain-ganged our way through the sleepy French villages. Why so quiet – well, it was actually a bank holiday!

I must tell you the story behind this photo. The official Slam photographer Rob Cox would pop up everywhere – even hiding in a field as he was when taking this fantastically evocative group shot. Nice one Rob!

So the first 70 miles passed surprisingly easily, so we soon found out what this famous cycle race is all about. The cobbles! Now I am not talking about the traffic calming measures that are used in some UK towns, these are like riding through an earthquake, so much so that your whole body shakes with the movement of the bike. Riders were soon diving left and right to the side of the road for a small degree of comfort. And the professional racers do 50 km riding cobbles like this – no way!

But everyone in our group survived, amazingly without a puncture. Riding into Roubaix our destination was the banked velodrome where we were all allowed to do a couple of flying laps before posing for the obligatory team photo. Our whole group had stuck together (like limpets) for nearly three hundred miles, and it was most noticeable that this was the distinguishing factor. Every meal time, someone grabbed enough table space for the whole group to sit together – 100% inclusive.

After sampling the historic showers at the velodrome (where each cubicle has a plaque marking the achievement of a Paris-Roubaix race winner) we had time for some souvenir shopping (the French cycling hats were the best seller) before boarding the coach for the short journey to Lille. Amazingly we had some free time, so a hot lunch of sausage and chips, washed down by a couple of beers was the order of the day. A quick power nap on Eurostar and we were back in ‘blighty’, getting ready for a night out courtesy of Pizza Express in Ashford. And the service was excellent – starters on the table as soon as we arrived and they just kept bringing pizza until we could eat no more. The ‘end of tour’ speeches were very poignant, and Dave Butler graciously commended all of the “awesome” group 2 riders on how well we had performed over Stage 5. It would have been unfair to pick out any one rider based on their cycling contribution, so Dave awarded the ‘yellow jersey’ to Yogi (aka Jolyon Lockyer) for raising nearly £30,000 against his personal target. That is 1,000% – wow – and very deserving.

So another memorable day on the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam was drawing to a close. Just one more day – the glory stage to London – to go.

Day 2 – group riding at it’s finest

Stage 5 day two was another 100 mile cycling day, heading north from the champagne region, skirting east of Paris to finish in St Quentin. Another headwind day, so a perfect opportunity to hone the group riding technique – with the ‘awesome’ Group 2 riders.

The day started with a 5.30am alarm call – so just 4 ½ hours sleep following the Bollinger champagne reception and dinner the night before – then a quick breakfast before the rendez-vous in Challons. Never one to turn down a media opportunity, did a video piece with Taylor Murphy (the Slam Insider) whose angle was that, as a triathlete, then this cycling lark was easy. I put him straight, as the following video shows.

Today’s ride had less time pressure than day one, and more hills, so that meant more opportunities for stops. The groups set out in reverse order i.e. slowest group first; and we were the penultimate group to set-off. The first stop was back at the Bollinger champagne house in Ay, not for a ‘hair of the dog’ but more for a photocall. Each group in turn had their photo taken on the steps.

 

Leaving Ay, the hills started. Now those that have visited wine growing regions know that vines need well drained land to grow – and that comes naturally from hillsides. So we soon had a double climb as we left the wine growing valley behind us, only to be passed by Graeme Le Saux and Lee Dixon on the Pizza Express tandem. To add to the occasion they were dressed as wine waiters and Graeme (at the back) was carrying an open bottle of champagne. As competitive ex-sportsmen that didn’t stop them from working hard on the hills – respect guys!

The second stop was in a pretty French village that had a boulangerie – where the group bought their choice of freshly based cakes and savouries (mine was a pate en croute!) Nice to sample the local produce. To make up from some lost time our group became more organised, and under Dave Butler’s instruction, we started chain-ganging. With the 12 riders riding two abreast, in close formation, our peloton only took up the same space as an artic lorry. The outside line of riders moved forward one at a a time, taking a 30-60 secs turn on the front, tackling a modest headwind, whilst the rest of group tucked in to take shelter from the breeze. By the time we approached the lunch stop, we had the riding technique perfected, and noticed a helicopter buzzing around overhead. Assuming this to be the Discovery Channel doing some filming, we had no better incentive to ride in tight and controlled formation to the rest point. And as a club cyclist, that felt really great!

The afternoon was a continuation of the group riding, with plenty of banter to keep everyone on their toes. That night, I found out that I had a new nickname – Mouse. Why, because I had a bike that squeaked, following the previous days rain and road grit that had caked itself on my machine. Following the afternoon refuelling stop, where Catermasters provided a lovely cup of tea (and more cake!), our route led until the much larger town of St Quentin where we battled with the rush hour traffic to get to our destination.

So, another long day in saddle – nearly 8 hours of riding – but a deep sense of satisfaction at what we had achieved.

Day 1 – Three seasons in one day

First day of Stage 5 ride completed – 103 miles covered in 7h 23 mins riding time – so a full day at the office. And I needed to use the mechanics in the support crew to fix my bike. At to top it all off, the last two hours of the ride were into a terrible headwind, which picked up in strength with thunderstorms that swept through central France. So quite a baptism to Stage 5 of the Cycle Slam.

The day started early with a 5.30am alarm call (it wasn’t even light) and we assembled outside the hotel and departed in group order. My group of 12 was led by core rider Dave Butler and included Mr and Mrs Flintoff. The first problem struck just an hour into the ride when the bolt connecting the rear brake caliper to the bike became disconnected. Arrangements were made to meet the mechanic support crew at the first scheduled stop – and problem was duly fixed. Thanks guys – and I had only had the bike serviced the week before the event. Morale of the tale should have gone to Halfords!

So far the weather had been dry, but that quickly changed as the rain showers moved in and the temperature dropped. Much more like ‘April showers’ than France in May would normally expect. But there was much worse to come. During the afternoon the weather turned much for the worse – thunderstorms, hail backed up a string northerly wind. And you guessed it, our direction of travelling was north so we were travelling straight into a headwind. The group of riders, all evenly matched and with excellent biking skills, starting riding much more tightly as a group, with different people taking it in turn at the front to shelter those behind. Freddie Flintoff also had the novel idea of giving an interview to the Discovery Channel TV crew who are covering the Slam, whilst cycling along, being sheltered by the van. Smart thinking!

With some relief we pulled into the town square in Chalons – a good day’s riding at a surprsingly good tempo given the conditions.

Note my real need to start stretching as soon as I got off the bike!

Oh and did I mention the rain?