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 0 – Nancy – mid-France

Have arrived safely in France and spent the afternoon sorting out my bike and getting ready for the ride ahead. Despite the sunny conditions, tomorrow’s weather forecast is pants, but the motivation we need is an evening visit to a Champagne producer at the end of the first day’s ride. Now if that doesn’t spur me on – nothing will.

The day started with a 5.30am alarm call (which is something I will have get used to all week long) and a short drive to Heathrow Terminal 5. Our group party of 70 Cycle Slammers must have significantly increased the BA passenger yield on the morning flight to Luxembourg and for those business people, who were used to a quiet flight reading the FT, we must have provided quite a shock as the noise levels of chattering and introductions must have made us sound like a school trip!

Bags collected, we boarded the team coach for the two hour transfer to Nancy. Looking around there were lots of guys like me – ‘40 somethings’ looking for a physical challenge – so we all had stories to tell about why the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam was the challenge for each of us.

Tonight’s resting place is the Novotel in Nancy, and the afternoon was spent finding the local supermarket (needed an ATM for Euros), prepping the bike and generally soaking up the atmosphere. The daily briefing showed the sheer scale of the organisation behind the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam event – nine Halfords mechanics; a medical team of five (including a paramedic ambulance); and assorted support vehicles that act as sweeper vans for those finding the going too tough. Hope I don’t need their services, but reassuring to know that help is there if you need it.

Next on the agenda is the carb loading evening meal, and then I am promising myself an early night. The post holiday 7 hour time difference jet lag is okay so far, but I really do need a full nights sleep to set me up for the 160km riding ahead of me tomorrow. Alarm call again at 5.30am; shower;  breakfast and then away on the road in a medium paced group by 7am.

Wish me luck and keep those donations coming in – just £500 left to go to reach target.

 

A tale of two sportives

I like cycle sportives. They allow you to discover new routes, countryside and scenery that you didn’t know existed. And in the past 7 days I have experienced two such events, as part of my training for the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam.

Today was great. A stunning early morning cloudless sky, moderated by a chilly breeze, which woke me up on the ride to the start point at the iconic Eton Dorney venue – home to the Olympic rowing regatta.

Whereas Easter Monday was, as forecast, a wet and windy day as an Atlantic depression rolled in as I drove round the M25 to a start point in North East London. Now let’s get the negatives of this cycling day out of the way first. Yes it was wet, but no worse than I have encountered before. The route explored Essex countryside with plenty of twisty lanes, but all a bit flat and featureless. And then, 50 miles into the ride, the signs ran out. With only a route card provided, that meant orienteering around the green lanes without a map, which led to 45 minutes riding around in a circle to end up at the same point to where we first realised that we were lost. Luckily, the Home Counties are not the Bermuda triangle, so we re-emerged from this minor crisis. But the good news of the day was 75 miles of riding into my legs and 5+ hours in the saddle.

Now onto the positives of today’s ride.  F3 Events are a professional triathlon event company whose triathlon and cycling events have helped me prepare for several of my sporting challenges over the past few years.  So I turned to them as part of my preparation for this years Cycle Slam. The training programme today involved cycling 15 miles to the start point of the sportive; then tackling the 55 mile undulating route; and then completing the loop by cycling home. The significance of the distance is that I wanted to cover at least 80% of the longest stage distance that I would encounter on the Slam. Job done!

The sportive route today was well marked – plenty of clear guidance signs telling us to go left, right or straight on – and whether to exercise caution ahead!  The information provided in advance of the event was equally as comprehensive and media savvy. As a new exponent of the “MapMyRide”application, I can’t wait for my iPhone case to arrive next week from Amazon so that I can securely fasten my phone to the bike so that I can plot my progress as I ride along.

The route was a good mix of country roads – undulating and criss-crossing the Berks/Bucks Chilterns with several cheeky hills, followed by technical twisty descents. The weather was kind throughout – sunny and bright with an occasional chilly headwind. Typical British spring time really; in the sun and sheltered from the wind was lovely, but swap those two variables around and it was less pleasant!

And we made a new friend today. My Thames Valley Triathletes training buddies were Wayne and Tony who were using the sportive as preparation for their fist Half Ironman event in June. Not long after the start of the ride we were joined by (the delightful) Emma, a native of Sweden, who sounded more Surrey than Stockholm to me. She too, was using the sportive as part of her triathlon season spring training. It was the first time she had tackled this cycling distance and, with mutual support, we all covered the distance in comfortably under 4 hours of riding time. For me, that just left the cycle ride home, which following a carb filled peanut-butter sandwich and a cup of tea, was duly achieved.

So does this sound the right type of training event for you? As luck would have it, F3 Events are running another cycle sportive next weekend, on Sunday 22nd April, staring fromHenley-on-Thames.

Join me if you can.

‘Hell of the North’ beckons for Cycle Slammers

The signature ride of Stage 5 of the Dallaglio Flintoff Cycle Slam is day three – when we tackle The ‘Hell of the North’ – a 153km journey over cobbled farm tracks and streets from Paris to Roubaix, a bone-shaking route covered by many iconic bike races over the years.

Today, Sunday 8th April 2012, is the day of the professional Paris-Roubaix race, won this year by Tom Boonen who rode into the record books by equalling Roger De Vlaeminck’s all-time win record of four victories at the event. The 31-year-old Belgian rode the final 52km alone to win by 1:39 over a five-man chase group.

Photo: © Photopress.be

So whilst the Pros were busy battling it, I did some research into what lies in store for us Cycle Slammers. The nickname, ‘Hell of the North’ comes from the 50km of cobbles that are included in the course.   On the full race these are split into 27 sections, each up to 3km in length. The first of the pavés of Paris-Roubaix comes nearly 100km after the start before the sectors become increasingly frequent as the riders snake their way towards the velodrome finish in the Lille suburbs.

Amateur cyclists are equally well catered for, with the race preceded by a sportive that covers the sames course taken by the Pros. The following video sums up the essence of the event, and the hazards that lie in wait for the unsuspecting cyclist – at risk from punctures, broken gears and crashes.

So how do you train for riding on the cobbles? This is what the Pros suggest:

  • You need good speed entering the cobbles. The slower you ride them the harder it is. You have to go fast to smooth out the bumps.
  • Position is important. It is best to sit as far back on our seat as you can so that your weight is on your back wheel. It is also important to hold tight onto your handle bars so that you do not loose control and fall.
  • You need to have the right cadence. If your cadence is too high, you bounce. If your cadence is too low, you blow. But if your cadence is just right, you float!
  • The best way is to ride straight down the middle of the road. It is the hardest, but it is the best. When riders start getting a bit tired or a bit desperate they dive off into the sides or into the dirt because it is a little bit easier there, but that is where most of the crashes and the punctures happen.

So there you have it. Thursday 17th May is when we put theory into practice. Wish me luck!