Saturday, 18 October 2014

Summer Wine, Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

With the end of summer and onset of darker nights, there is always a temptation to cut back on the cycling, but with the Three Peaks looming and some very pleasant weather, September and October have been one of the best parts of 2014.

September started with some reviews of Birmingham City Centre with representatives from local cycling and pedestrian groups to help decide what to try to do to improve something that is often a pretty poor environment due to accommodating the needs of cars (see previous posts).

This was followed by a technical visit to Cambridge with staff from Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Bristol, Oxford and Transport for London. Here we saw the famous cycle/pedestrian bridge by the station, a city centre cycle park where you can ride in and hire a pushchair while you shop with the kids, 'advanced green' traffic lights to enable cyclists to get safely across a junction ahead of other traffic and a 'Dutch style' roundabout under construction. It was traffic geek heaven, and we really did discuss one set of traffic lights for a whole hour!

the cycle counter at Jesus Green

Due to work commitments, we didn't manage a summer holiday this year, but my wife and I agreed that we would meet up in Cambridge and set off around East Anglia and then towards home. Our cycling holidays are distinctly 'old school' in that we do cycle camping, we take some maps and choose roads and campsites that 'look nice on the map'. It can be a risky strategy, particularly as I bought many of my maps in the 1980s (Barthlomews 1:100,000 are just the best ever cycling maps)! However, I am pleased to report that sleepy Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk appear to have changed very little since the maps were drawn.

I had my doubts about visiting the flatlands but as we headed east from Cambridge towards the coast there was plenty of undulation to be had.  The unexpected hills and navigating the maze of minor roads meant progress was slower than I'd anticipated and we certainly weren't going to make the coast after a late morning start. We had a rethink and stopped for afternoon tea at Lavenham, a historic market town at the centre of the mediaeval wool trade. The tourist information office gave us a list of campsites and we headed for one to the north of Stowmarket.  There was not muche evidence of a campsite when we reached the address, and we knocked on the farmer's door with trepidation. A slightly deaf elderly man answered. "Oh I used to offer camping but there's not much call for it nowadays. You can pitch in the old orchard if you like, there's a toilet and a sink in the shed."

Our campfire rice pudding that night was enriched with stewed apples and blackberries freshly picked from the orchard.

In the barn next door there were two army jeeps and a whole museum of wartime and farming memorabilia. We were given the full tour and history of the restoration of the vehicles the next morning when Mr Jubb and his mates, dressed in the full GI uniform, set off for their weekly drive for morning coffee. As the owner of a 50 year old Land Rover that occupies much of my non-cycling time under the bonnet, I had a lot of symapthy for the restoration and the enjoyment of the endless tinkering to keep these vehicles alive.

It was another late start as we set off towards the coast, aiming for Leiston Abbey and Minsmere RSPB reserve just north of the Sizewell nuclear power station. We were soon lost in the myriad lanes, and an old man on a bike caught us studying the map at a junction. It turned out he was just on his way home to Norwich after a three month tour (at the age of 83), taking him through Europe to the Czech republic and back. He was aiming to get home that day and spend his first night in a real bed since setting off with his camping gear in June!

It was a warm but slightly misty day, the sun never quite breaking through, giving an eerie silent quality to the swampy woodland and heathland. After tea and cake at the RSPB visitor centre we ventured off-road to follow a sandy bridleway north across Dunwich Heath nature reserve. I wanted to go to Dunwich because the overnight ride from London called the 'Dunwich Dynamo' is on my 'to do' list when I get the opportunity. I imagine that it must be magical to arrive for a well earned breakfast at the austere wooden cafe next to the bleak pebbly beach at dawn.

Journey's end that day was the genteel seaside town of Southwold, home of Adnams brewery. We were too late for the ferry from Walberswick so we cycled over the footbridge across the marshes and along the ramshackle harbour. This is the sort of 'posh' seaside that features in Famous Five stories, where kids wear 'gum boots' and 'mackintoshes' (albeit from Boden nowadays) and Guardian readers buy beach huts for the same price as a house in the north. It is a far cry from Blackpool, Morecambe and Scarborough where I spent my childhood holidays. There is no denying however that it is charming and pretty, and we had a fantastic meal at the harbour pub, washed down with several pints of Adnams, leading us to throw caution to the wind and pedal into the dunes for a midnight walk along the sands, with the lighthouse blinking from the town.

So it was yet another slightly hungover late start, followed with a compulsory swim in the sea and a warm up coffee, then a trip along the pier. Fortunately it was a fast and easy road to Beccles in time for a picnic lunch down by the river, enjoying the unseasonably warm sunshine. We were in Broadland, dissected by attractive rivers, streams and lakes. We crossed the River Yare at Reedham Ferry, heading for a campsite near Horning, just another ferry ride away over the River Bure, or so we thought. It had been a fairly long afternoon, we'd stocked up with food at Acle ready to stop in a few miles. But here our 30 year old maps defeated us. The Horning ferry no longer exists and we reached a dead end, looking enviously at the people in the pub just across the river and the campsite behind it, but over 20 miles away by road. Reluctantly we retraced our steps and headed towards Wroxham, resigned to two more hours in the saddle. Luck was on our side though, a roadside pub on the outskirts of Wroxham had a big field available for camping and caravans and we had a place to stay after all.

It was a chilly night, followed by another scorching day. As we set off we encountered hundreds of cyclists in the 'Tour of Norfolk' sportive. Once we were passed Coltishall and back onto minor roads we probably saw fewer than a dozen cars all day. We ended our day in Swaffham, in the Breckland area. I was once paid to devise some cycle routes in this area, based around the Peddars Way. The brief specified that we had to visit every pub in the area to check opening times and whether food was available. Tough job but somebody had to do it!

There was a heavy, almost frosty, dew when we got up the next morning. A definite hint of autumn. we spent the morning at Oxburgh Hall, a moated manor house before making our way to the Denver windmill and Denver Sluice, a massive flood prevention barrier. Heading west into fenland the landscape is Dutch, a drainage system designed by a Dutch engineer in the 18th century has created this place. Long straight roads follow the foot of dykes. Much of the agriculture was onion crops, and for miles and miles we could smell onions in the warm air, and tractors pulling vast trailers full kept passing by.

Hedgerows stuffed with fruit, sunshine and traffic-free roads, september in Norfolk.

At several points we followed or crossed the National Cycle Network, but it was of little use to us because there were no destinations on the blue signs, just a NCN route number. Very frustrating, particularly as we missed out on a quiet and shorter route over a new bridge on the the River Nene into Peterborough from Whittlesea because it just wasn't signed. I imagine the route cost £several hundred thousand, but even as a cyclist who wanted to use it, it was hidden for the sake of a few decent signs.

A week later I was invited to a cycle industry taster session at the Manchester Velodrome. Its 5 years since I last rode a track bike, but this was at least an advantage over those who had never even ridden fixed wheel. I was a bit nervous since I have some balance problems and riding in a straight line can be tricky at times, but after half an hour we all started to relax and swoop up and down the bankings. I'll never be a Chris Hoy but the 'rush' of plunging down the banking onto teh straight and into the next corner at top speed is addictive. Looking around the track we were all grinning like idiots!

Demonstrating that 'cyclo-cross' position on a track bike!

My daughter (who works at a cycle recycling place) an I visited the NEC cycle show. I have visited cycle shows fairly regularly since working in the bike trade in the 1980s. Its really interesting to see the sheer variety of bikes available now. I've seen the transition from a period where only prestige racing bikes were on offer, then almost entirely mountain bikes, the birth of the 'hybrid' and the rise of city bikes and electric bikes. I hope that this variety is evidence that cycling really is becoming universal and not just for the enthusiast.

The end of september is the culmination of preparation for the Three Peaks cyclo cross race in the Yorkshire Dales. This year we were blessed with the best ever weather, sunshine and barely a whisper of wind, and fairly dry ground on the often boggy moorlands. For five years I have been trying to dip beneath the 5 hour time for this event, and finally achieved that. A good end to a great month of cycling!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Just Grand! How to top the Grand Depart.

It's been such an exciting year for cycling in Yorkshire I worried that the Three Peaks might seem a bit of an anticlimax after Le Tour. Of course, I needn't have worried, it was just as big a day as it always is!

My 2014 Three Peaks was five years in the making, because that's how long it has taken to finally reach my goal of a sub five hour ride. I managed to get fit early in the year to take on the Fred Whitton Challenge ride in the Lake District in May, and the plan was to carry that fitness through the summer and work on the specific requirements of the Peaks. This is mainly carrying your bike up ridiculously steep hills for long periods, and riding downhill on surfaces that challenge even the most skilled riders.

My first race was 2009, but 3 punctures saw me finish in 5 hours 20 minutes. The next year I was too ill to cycle. 2011 I managed 5 hours and 7 minutes, 2012 was a battle for survival in the worst conditions and a 5 and a half hour ride. In 2013 I was still recovering from neurosurgery but going well until a sprained ankle the week before the race saw me on crutches and hopping round the race with a strapped up ankle and a butchered cycling shoe, finishing in 5 hours 18 minutes.

One big advantage of being off the drugs that I was taking up until last year is that I have lost weight, down to 67kg from 70kg, which must make a big difference up the hills. I've been logging many of my rides on strava this year and this does seem to confirm that I'm climbing better.

Preparation has not always gone smoothly. In late August I managed to get tendinitis in my forearm, so painful that I couldn't grip the handlebars and the only cure was to rest for a fortnight, right in the middle of what should have been the most intense training. Not even the dreaded turbo trainer was allowed. The last two weeks before the race also coincided with a hugely busy period at work, and what should have been a 'taper' and rest before the race ended up as a week of staying up until midnight to get various things finished.

This sort of thing can really shake your confidence and my one comfort was that strava was proving to me that I was riding as fast as ever by my own standards and also that I was doing some of the local hills as fast as some of the Yorkshire cyclo cross league regulars who regularly beat me in races. So I reached the start line on Sunday morning feeling tired but confident in my own ability.

One thing about the 'neutralised' section of the race is that it is run off at a stately 30mph, so it pays to be warmed up on the start line, and I went off up the road as far as the turn off to Simon Fell and back to open up the lungs before lining up at the back of the race. Everybody jostles to be at the front, but I don't have enough speed for a fast start, and hate being overtaken anyway. You lose time as everyone rolls out, but its easy enough to pick your way up through the field on the road and lower slopes of Ingleborough, at the same time boosting your ego by passing lots of people, and in any case the front of the bunch is a very 'twitchy' and hazardous place on the road to Horton in Ribblesdale, bringing some riders to a premature finish.

The approach to Simon Fell was lovely and fairly dry and rideable this year and for once the leaders were not even on the hill when it came into my view. I knew then that I must be doing OK, and I was managing to stay on my bike and ride lots of sections where others were off and walking. I took it steady on Simon Fell, go too hard and you end up grovelling on the next easier and more rideable sections. This tactic paid off and I had a good ride up from Rawnsley's Leap to the summit.

Over the rocky summit and jump off to pick my way down the steep grassy slope onto the footpath. Fell running pays off on this section as its a bit easier to run along until the stony track gets smooth enough to ride before diving off over the moors towards Cold Cotes. I managed two falls on the way down, one at the peat ditch that gets me every year. When will I remember its not rideable!

Another slight change of tactic, I freewheel along the lane from Cold Cotes, stuffing down flapjack and a gel and having a good drink. This means I can concentrate on riding up the valley towards Whernside. I pass a few riders on the climb out of Ingleton but then I'm on my own and as they catch me again we share the work to the turn off. There seem to be more cars than ever on the roads and we get stuck in traffic a few times along the way, hugely frustrating.

Last year I got stuck in a very slow moving queue of people walking up Whernside so I pass as many people as I can on the approach to the climb and on the wider steps at the bottom before hitting the inevitable bottleneck on the steepest section. At the top of the steps the wind is blissfully absent and its actually a relief to get on the bike and ride up to the summit, with a magnificent view down to Ribblehead over my right shoulder. Dib in, shove down more food and gel, and away down the hill.

Whernside is the descent that everybody loves to hate. The top section starts innocently enough, but then there are steps, rideable with courage but not for the fainthearted, followed by slabs punctuated with yawning gaps and boggy ditches off to the side. When that horror is over a section of rocky path awaits, with massive boulders waiting to rip out spokes and bend derailleurs. Only when you have negotiated these terrors are you rewarded with a lovely smooth gravel track to Ribblehead. I am a coward by nature, inclined to bottle it at every opportunity! I have spent much of the summer forcing myself to ride down all the worst most slippery, steep and stony paths in Calderdale to prepare me for this. I am happy to say that I rode everything except the steps, and that was mainly because there were some walkers (well that gave me an honourable excuse to dismount!). I cant say that I brought much style or panache to the descent, but I did it my way! I even passed quite a few people. One minor fall and that first twinge of cramp as I got up.

More food at Ribblehead and onto the road. I feel pretty good, but as soon as the road starts to go up the cramp starts and I'm pedalling in squares. I try standing up on the pedals but that makes things worse, so I push on and wait for the next downhill to try and get my feet out of the pedals and stretch the muscles. This happens every year. Its so annoying. I still feel good but my legs are protesting. I take the opportunity to recover a bit on the run in to Horton In Ribblesdale and then give it everything on the climb up Pen y Gent lane. My legs settle down again into a bit more of a rhythm as I get to the flatter section. I'm doing OK, passing a few more people. Everything is telling me to get off my bike, to stop the pain but I know that this is one of my 'good' sections where I am usually able to ride faster and further up the hill than some of my fellow back markers. I keep going until the path gets too steep to ride and start the steady trudge to the top, leaning on my bike for support until the steep corner that means its just a quarter of a mile more to climb. All the time I'm focusing on the rider just in front. If I can catch him before that rock. Mission accomplished. If I can get her by the top of the grass. Another one down. Just keep thinking about these small achievable steps, don't think about the distant summit just yet! Soon enough that final hill is climbed.

If Whernside is the descent that I fear, Pen y Gent seems to have the opposite effect. I once read an interview with Rob Jebb where he said he didn't use his brakes all the way down. I haven't quite reached that standard yet, but there is something about the wave of relief and the non-technical nature of the downhill that means I do always really go for it on this bit. It's not logical, because a high speed crash here would hurt far more than a lower speed crash on Whernside. Improvements to the path last year have made this whole section incredibly fast, and being towards the back of the field there are not that many riders still coming up so it is pretty much a free run. What an adrenalin rush!

Shaken up by the downhill but buzzing from the excitement of it, its a blessed relief to reach the tarmac. I'm soon brought back down to earth by the dreaded cramp, but the end is in sight and I'm soon rolling over the bridge and into the finish funnel in a time of 4:42.

OK, so Rob Jebb was at the summit of Pen y Gent by the time I got to the top of Whernside. I am no champion. But the great thing about this race is that every rider, whether in first or last place, has overcome a massive physical and technical challenge using skills, courage and sheer will power. This is the essence of the event, only a handful will ever win a prize, but everybody can achieve their personal goals.

The other thing that is so fantastic about the race is the atmosphere. A few times I felt almost tearful at the support from the crowds and the encouragement from fellow riders (well, I was pretty tired and emotional!). It is a friendly event. The organisation is fantastic and efficient but never officious. The marshalls and mountain rescue are always cheerful whatever the weather. The people on the podiums are an eclectic mix of elite riders, stars of the past, everyday club riders and thankfully an increasing number of younger riders who will keep this Yorkshire tradition going into the future.

Time to start planning for next year. What better way to celebrate being 50 than a sub four and a half hour ride.........

A Sunday in Hell - Three Peaks 2012

2012 marked my third attempt at the Three Peaks and I had a simple ambition to beat 5 hours. My first year (2009) in fairly good weather I just missed out despite 3 punctures, finishing in 5-20 after faffing around for ages trying and failing to repair my last flat on Pen y Ghent. 2011 saw my second attempt - worse weather but I was going well until I cramped really badly on the road from Ribblehead, didn't eat enough and ended up walking on some of the rideable bits of PYG, finishing in 5-07.

This year I was determined to do well and started training in March doing some fell running. This quickly confirmed I'm definitely a cyclist. My knees don't seem to have any 'springs' in them and after a while I shuffle along like some sort of weird peg man. However, I stuck with it and I can run at least 8 miles across the moors if I really have to! In April I was lucky enough to get some work (designing cycle routes!) in the Lake District which gave me a chance to ride some classic road climbs and Grizedale MTB course on my cross bike. I even managed to do two hours at Grizedale followed by the evening cross race in Todmorden park one day! Almost a professional! I was laid low by the drugs that I take for a long term illness that I have in June, but did some serious miles on the road throughout July, riding every steep local climb, seeking out all the nasty slippery cobbled climbs as well as regular cross-bike rides across the moors. At the end of July we did the Mary Towneley Loop one afternoon, a tough 40 miles with steep climbs and technical descents. All going well! An expedition to ride down through the Outer Hebrides with full camping gear in August kept the fitness going and gave us lots of headwind practice! Onto the start of the cross season and a painful reminder that I really must learn how to jump on and off my bike properly - good job I don't want any more children!

I'm lucky to live quite high up on a big hillside so its hard to avoid uphill training. My daily commute home from the railway station (with bike, bag, laptop etc) in September started to include a run up the 'Hundred Steps' in Hebden Bridge (there are actually 105) followed by a run/ride up the steep cobbled Buttress and a second set of steps towards Heptonstall village, a ride up the cobbled high street and finally get home on the edge of the moors about 600ft of climbing later!

I was pretty certain on the start line that despite the dire weather this could be my year to beat 5 hours. It didn't take long to shatter that illusion - even before the start of the climb proper at Ingleborough there was a 'new' stream crossing and soon after we were all pushing/carrying/sliding across fields that are normally rideable. So here's my account of the race.

Simon Fell is usually the scene of a 'biblical' procession of colourful riders stretching to the top, but this year all is grey/green with visibility just a few yards. Despite being on a vast hillside the overwhelming sense is of being shut inside an angry vortex of howling wind and driving rain. The only view is the feet of the person slipping in front and looking for somewhere vaguely solid to grasp and stand on for the next step. There is no queue at the famous stile this year as already the field is fragmented (mostly well in front of me!). I shout my thanks to the two heroic helpers who haul bikes across here every year. Some of the next part is rideable, but trying to steer and balance in the screaming wind is nigh on impossible. Ahead, I see a woman's bike literally blown out of her hands as she tries to shoulder it! At last we reach the grim rocky summit. On a good day the descent of Ingleborough is a real blast, bouncing over tussocky grass and charging down the steep banks. This year it is yet another torture of trotting and grinding through bog after bog, but as we emerge from the cloud there is at least a view to the bottom.

After the now traditional face plant into the mud at Cold Cotes I'm 30 mins down on my schedule. Shovel down some food and an energy gel on the downhill road. Already my legs are cramping in the cold and its actually a relief to start the climb out of Ingleton. I pick off quite a lot of riders every time the road goes uphill, and I try to jump on the wheel of any fast riders who come past. The gale force tailwind has been a help getting to Whernside and I start the rocky steps feeling good. Back up into the blackness and we're in a frustrating 'traffic jam' of idiots trying to carry a bike up a mountain! I can sense time ticking away but there isn't much scope to pass and people are constantly catching handlebars and brake levers in spokes as we crowd together. Off the steps and onto the track, which is rutted single track punctuated with big rocks. I've practised on this sort of terrain so much that I know I can ride this stuff where lots of people walk. I set off on my bike - only to be quickly blown off it again! Back on again and its the same story, but this time I land heavily on my thigh and struggle to stand up. This weather is serious and not the place to get hurt (my wife was airlifted off here in last years race!). I resign myself to a bit more pushing and carrying towards the top! It's a similar story slithering along the top part of the descent. For once however the rain has an advantage because the 'terryfying steps' and stone causeway are being constantly jetwashed by driving rain and are a lot less slippery than usual so I manage to ride most of the way and cross the drains without punctures. All is well until another rider doesn't quite move far enough over to let me pass and I plunge off the edge of the causeway and over the handlebars! Oh well, par for the course and no real damage done. Ribblehead seems a long time coming and is a welcome sight! To finish in 5 hours I need to get from Ribblehead to the finish in 1.5 hours, last year it took me that long to get from Ribblehead to the top of Pen y Ghent.

A nice person from Zipvit shoves an energy gel into my hand, reminding me that I must eat! I gobble the gel and then a banana and some flapjack. I suffered like a dog on the road to Horton last year. This year I take it in my stride, trying to control the cramp in my legs by pedalling heel down and concentrating on catching one rider after another. As Sean Kelly would say I am suffering big time. There's a bloke in front going roughly the same pace as me so I close the gap and sit on his wheel for the last couple of mile to Pen y Ghent to try to give myself a break.

I panic when I see the ford at the foot of Pen y Ghent but someone shouts keep left its rideable and for once they are not lying to get a good photo and I stay upright! I love climbing Pen y Ghent, it suits a road climber and I manage to pick off a few people on the way up and ride further up than most. Eventually the gradient gets too much and its off the bike. I can barely carry it - all that wind blowing has been twisting my back and its killing me. I push as much as I can, but the wind keeps catching the back end and blowing it across the track! I can sense myself shutting down and each step is a becoming a real challenge as my strength ebbs away. Summit at last! The cheerful marshalls congratulate me - but they are the real heroes stood there for hours on end.

The top part of the descent is on the grass and I find myself sliding uncontrollably as it gets steeper and steeper. There's no dignified way to stop so I throw myself off before I hit the rocks! A quick trot down the steep stony bit and then its onto the track. I remember reading that Nick Craig doesnt use his brakes on this bit and dare myself to do the same - but I don't have his guts or talent! I manage to pass some more cautious people, and in no time I'm back on the road. There's a sense of elation as you hit the tarmac but still a few miles to the finish and I push on as hard as I can. Every undulation brings searing pain and cramp but at last I drop round the bend and over the bridge to the finish.

It's impossible to say how you feel after such a self inflicted ordeal. Relieved and elated to finish in one piece. A sense of 'mission accomplished'. Results wise I got my best ever placing but my worst ever time. It's all irrelevant however. The real story, as for most people in the race, is knowing that I couldn't have pushed myself any harder and I survived one of the tougest years of the toughest race.