Eroica Britannia – the aftermath…

Eroica was my third organised bike ride, and by a distance the toughest. It wasn’t just the hills that were tough, it was the weather too. My Irish genes have given me a constitution that just isn’t comfortable with too much direct sunlight (it rains a lot in Ireland, which is why it’s such a vivid green) and any temperature beyond 30C, and I really had to force more fluid inside me on the ride than I ever thought it possible to take in. 

After the Katherine House charity ride earlier this year (45 miles) I was absolutely all in, struggling to climb stairs and I spent a good three hours just lying down watching TV. Somehow after Eroica I didn’t feel as knackered, but I didn’t really have a choice – the tent wasn’t going to fold itself and walk to the car after all, and I then had some driving to do. I did feel pretty tired when I turned in, but really nothing like as bad as I was expecting. I did have one very obvious discomfort though: Sunburn.

I think the discerning eye may just be able to detect the point at which my shorts stopped… the whole weekend had been pretty unrelentingly sunny and warm, and nowhere on the site seemed to offer a nice cool shaded area. The tents with the bars and stores and so on had very little air circulation and you just roasted, lying in the tent was prohibitively hot as well. There was just no escape, no major breeze, either you got uncomfortably hot or you got the sun on your back. This was before the ride even started! We’d brought some sunscreen but it soon got washed away with sweat, or rubbed off when it got into your eyes, so after a point it was just inevitable. Irish skin burns easy.

My other rather more worrying complaint, though less painful, concerned my hands. I’d had a bit of discomfort in my bottom and in my feet, which had each gone a bit numb at times during the ride, but once I got off the bike it soon stopped and I was really pleasantly surprised at how little discomfort I’d had in these areas. My hands though were not numb so much as tingly, particularly the right hand, and particularly the outer fingers. 

This did not go away quickly, and I would guess that this was a bit of carpal tunnel syndrome. CTS is where the nerves that run to your hand, that runs through a channel containing the tendons that operate your fingers, find themselves without enough space and cease to function properly. I could feel discomfort in my palms when I was riding, and I think some inflammation started to set in that impinged on the nerves. 

I’ve always suspected, having remarkably narrow wrists, that I might be susceptible to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, but until now I’ve escaped without a single episode. Having searched for diagrams I don’t think this was actually related to the carpal tunnel, but it’s a definite nerve issue of some kind that seems to be affecting only areas governed by the ulnar nerve. I was genuinely worried I might have some permanent nerve damage, but writing this three days after the ride it is finally starting to go away. It definitely needs monitoring though, no bike ride however wonderful is worth losing the function of my hand for.

Finally, there was the bike to attend to. Overall the bike had coped extremely well, but I’d had a problem with the bottom bracket during the ride, and as I suspected when I got home I found the fixed cup HAD loosened. In my attempts to fix it I managed to actually slightly break a very solidly-made bottom bracket spanner. So I nursed the bike as it was to the bike shop, resigned to a bit of a financial hit for work I could do myself if only I had the right tools. 

The following day I got a call from the bike shop. They’d taken the cups out and found signs of wear on both the cups and the axle. Perhaps this is what had caused the bracket to loosen? Anyway, I was given three options: refit the existing axle and cups, do a like-for-like replacement, or switch to a modern Shimano sealed bottom bracket. Would this invalidate the bike for Eroica, they asked. I told them it wasn’t really that strict, but I’d know the difference, so I got them to fit replacements the same as they’d taken off. As if my bike would have Shimano parts on it. The very idea… 

I then got another call to say they’d fitted the new parts but were having trouble getting the front mech to work properly. This made me giggle a little – “Glad it’s not just me then!” This is a problem I’ve had before, as it only just about fits in with the rest of the drivetrain and is incredibly fussy about its position. It’s fine for downchanges virtually anywhere, but can seem to jam when changing up and can actually jam if it’s too far out of position. Where the real red herring lies is that poor changes on a stand are nowhere near as bad when the bike’s actually being ridden. It’s a bit clunky, but at no point on Sunday was I grinding away waiting for a change up. It was funny having to reassure the mechanic that yes, it does that, don’t worry, it’s fine… 

He suggested I switch to a conventional front mech, I.e. Low normal. This means with minimum cable tension the mech sits over the small ring, and is virtually ubiquitous save for a select few SunTour models such as my Compe-V, which is the other way round. SunTour pursued this as they thought customers would find it less confusing if both levers operated the same way, and they were right, but they lost the argument. With SunTour’s ratchet shifters there’s no danger (if properly adjusted) of the shifter loosening and autochanging up to the big ring on a climb, but since everyone else only used friction I imagine the Campagnolos of the world would have been rather prone to this if they’d reversed their mech’s action. I like it though, it’s one of the quirks/talking points of the bike and allows me to store it with both cables at minimum tension without crossing the chain over. Another little benefit. It changes fine, why switch?

I still haven’t had the heart to remove the race number from the frame, I think Major Tom’s rather proud of himself so I’ll leave it be for now… I wonder what our next big adventure will be?


Eroica Britannia – the final miles

35 miles gone, about 20 to go. Out of the first feed station we descended a small way down a main road which then rose again. It rose, and rose and rose. I was in my very lowest gear, and working hard. I wasn’t the slowest on the hill, but was pulling first 9 mph, then 8, 7, then 6. 6mph is pretty much my limit. I kept going, really getting into a strong rhythm with my breathing and pedalling, determined to tough it out. We must have climbed for several miles, and around each bend I was hoping to see the crest. Then I came round one bend and saw the hill got even steeper…

Oh no, oh fuck no, I thought to myself. There was no point fighting it, so I got off and walked. Below 6mph my efficiency drops so low that it starts to eat away at me. Kingston Hill round the corner at home is as steep, but it’s only 100 yards long so doesn’t take that much out of me. I knew if I tried to stay in the saddle here I’d be seriously into the red, putting my chances of finishing the ride in jeopardy. 

So I walked to the point were the gradient relented and took this photo while I got my breath back. Some way back I’d passed a rather older rider, probably in his 70s, and then I saw him coming towards me, still on the bike, toughing it up the hill! It’s one of the most impressive sights I’ve seen anywhere. I bet he was hard as nails when he was a young ‘un. I gave him a BIG thumbs up, and I’ll never forget how he just angled his head at me in a very British jesture that said “I’ve still got it pal, still. bloody. got it…” 

I started to encounter quite a few bikes that were limping a bit, and one or two making rather a lot of ticking noises from the sprockets. I imagine it’s no coincidence that literally every such bike had Campagnolo derailleurs, but they’d never be convinced. My SunTour drivetrain worked absolutely faultlessly throughout, not a single change out of place, though I did on occasion (and for the first time ever) get confused between the two levers and put it in big/big by mistake. I was pretty tired.

By now the sun had risen even higher and it just kept getting warmer. I hate hot weather with a passion when I’m standing still, this was way beyond my comfort zone. We got to the top and it was just beating down, unrelenting, with no shade whatsoever. There was another descent, and I could feel the copious sweat evaporating from my jersey, and then another climb began. I got back in my rhytmn, kept my pedalling constant, and just kept going, trying to tough it out. At one point I could feel I was in a spot of bother so again, I had to stop to catch my breath. “You OK pal?” Said one passing rider. I was, but if I’d kept going I wouldn’t have been. I got back on but then yet again the road ticked up, my speed went down and this time walking really was the best option. No-one overtook me up that climb, they were riding at walking pace themselves.

This was absolutely the toughest part of any ride I’d ever done, but I got to the top and after another descent, whether by luck or by deliberate design, we happened upon the 25 milers coming the other way at just that point. They so obviously had a different feel to them, less serious, more jovial, many on three-speeds, often kitted out in full tweed or flowery dresses, with baskets and bunting and so on, ringing their bells as they went. It really lifted my spirits and there was a lovely feeling of mutual admiration, we respected the spirit in which they were riding, and they respected our very obvious efforts.

We separated from the 25 milers and then joined the main road again, again going uphill. I had a slightly dicey moment as I met an oncoming car without realising quite in time what was happening, but we negotiated our way around each other and pressed on. Again the road ticked up slightly and again I had to walk a stretch, accompanied by a middle-aged man on some pre-war single speed bike. “You’ve got gears!” He said, to which I replied that I’d also got the legacy of smoking for 15 years, and how true that was. Anyway, it levelled off again and before long we reached the solace of the final feed stop, just five miles from the finish.

The place was a pub that had a band on playing just for us, and the food available was the same as before, with the addition of a free beer for those who wanted it. I ate the banana I’d brought with me from the previous stop, sank another can of lemonade and refilled my bidon, then had a small drop of beer just as a sort of toast to my achievements, texted my fiancée to say I was nearly done, got my book stamped and set off again.

There was a bit of a rise up before we joined a very lumpy gravel path, which I had to walk not because I couldn’t manage the gradient but simply because I couldn’t get enough grip to stay upright. We then rejoined the road, and this followed a river through a small valley. Huge vertical banks of grass either side, with sheep bleating at us. At this point I knew I was nearly there, and starting to get a bit emotional. The scenery just added to it. Those couple of miles felt so surreal, again it was as if I was dreaming it. 

We came out of the valley and were reacquainted with our 25 mile brethren, this time going the same way. We were directed down a very narrow path with bizarre big-leafed plants either side, like something out of Willy Wonka’s factory, and it took me a while before I realised it was just overgrown wild rhubarb! The path we were on had some pretty rocky gravel, and as it started to go down hill it got rockier still. Soon we started to see more and more bikes by the side of the path with punctures, and I started to have problems staying upright again. I got off to walk downhill now, because when all you’ve got on your head is a casquette the thought of a crash is no bloody joke I can tell you. This was the least pleasant part of the ride, walking half a mile over rocky stones, the sun beating down, no shade, and not a breath of wind either. Damn it was hot.

At the bottom I got back on my bike, we went up a little embankment and joined the railway. I knew I was close. I also knew I still had a bit in the tank. I started to press a little, doing about 16mph and passing virtually everyone in sight. I got in the drops and pedalled for home. We crossed over the road, went past the brickworks we’d passed on the way out and at last I knew – I’d only bloody done it!

Approaching the finish there was a guy on the trail clapping us in, and he high-fived me as I went past. We turned left, climbed up to the finish line and as I crossed there were some children with outstretched hands, so I reached over to give them a high-five too. I was there! I was home! The ride I’d been nervous about for so many months, my Big Hairy Audaceous Goal was ACCOMPLISHED!

I met my fiancée, who being who she is was thoughtful enough to great me with a bottle of water first and a hug second. We wandered over to the HQ tent, were I picked up my final stamp and a free can of beer for finishing. I drank the (rather warm) beer pretty quickly, and had a somewhat colder shandy too, while I jibbered relentlessly to my fiancée about what the ride was like.

While I was having my beer, I heard a noise that could only be one thing. I know a V12 when I hear one, and I definitely know a Rolls Royce Merlin V12! The flypast! They’d booked a Lancaster bomber but, unknown to me, had had to substitute it at the last minute. We rushed out to watch as a magnificent Mk1 Hawker Hurricane, of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, flew by, turned, and flew back past us again. Always a glorious sight and sound. Lest we forget, the machine guns in that Hurricane were, likely as not, made by a certain Birmingham Small Arms… I must confess I got slightly irritated by the kid behind me who was yelling “Ooh look! A Spitfire! Look it’s a real Spitfire!” No laddie it’s a real Hurricane. What do they teach kids these days? When I was his age I knew the bloody difference! I’m turning into one of those cantankerous old gits…

I took the bike back to the car and headed to the campsite to start getting things ready to go. I went for a quick shower and happened upon the lovely guy who helped us with our bags on the Friday. He’d just had his shower. I was so pleased to see him, he’d done the 55 miles too. We exchanged our war stories and compared notes on how our similarly-equipped bikes had performed. Just before we parted ways he asked me simply “Would you do it again?”

In a heartbeat I would! Hills and sunburn and all!

Eroica Britannia – ride day

So I left us looking longingly at the sunset and thinking ahead to what ride day would bring. Actually before I went to bed I had a little work to do fixing my front tyre! On my little shakedown ride I must have slid down the side of a lump of stone somewhere as on doing my final inspection of the bike I found a bulge in the sidewall, where the tyre had been cut through to, though not actually through the canvas. So I got the tyre off, stuck a patch on the afflicted area and refit it to the wheel (all achieved by torchlight) and hoped for the best. If I’d spotted it earlier I could have gone to the Continental tent and bought a fresh tyre, but they were shut. Well I won’t leave you hanging – it held up ok.

So we were up bright and early at 6am, aiming for a departure time of 7:15. The 100 mile heros had started leaving from 6 and we heard the Tannoy announcing each group as they left. I got my outfit on, which felt a bit like putting on a fancy dress costume. I had a bowl of granola that I’d brought along specially. Then there was time for photos, including this little detail:

I had a generous helping of my own favourite energy bar – Kendal Mint Cake. It’s basically a solid block of minty sugar and I’ve found it makes an excellent old-school way of boosting my sugar levels. I had even more of it in a tin stuffed in my back pocket!

Here’s my outfit. ‘Crack’ is a Belgian furniture company (meubelen is Flemish for furniture) and the jersey seems to have originated in Leke, a tiny town in Flanders with a population of barely more than a thousand. The shorts are De Marchi and made of merino wool with a modern chamois inside, and they cost more than the bike did! The socks are also De Marchi, also merino wool and very comfortable. The cap is a reproduction St Raphael, which I chose to match the gloves. The shoes are Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66 trainers, not ideal and the one weak spot of the outfit but they look about right for an early 80’s cycling shoe, and I saw several other riders wearing the same.

All ready, it was time to go…

I went to the start and got my first stamp, then was urged to take my place on the start line. Would you believe it, the guy lined up next to me (in the Faema top) was riding EXACTLY THE SAME BIKE!!! There was at least a third BSA Prima in attendance as well, a slightly older one with a different cable route to the rear brake.

I had a brief chat with him, and the announcer chatted to us while we waited for our time slot. “BSA, what does that stand for? British er…” to which I snapped back “Birmingham Small Arms”, and resisted the temptation to curse his ignorance! Then in no time at all the flag dropped, and we were off…

We turned right on to the railway trail, past my tent and out into the countryside. The guy on the other BSA was riding with a friend, and another rider surged past us all. “There’s a break on Johnny!” “Chase him down Nev…” It was all good fun. We crossed over a road onto another trail and things started to settle down as everyone got into their stride, some overtaking, some being overtaken. I was very careful not to let the adrenaline get the better of me, and spent a few miles in the wake of a woman in a billowing skirt even though I could have upped the pace a bit.

We climbed gently up a hill and went passed a farm, and I had the most powerful attack of Deja Vu I think I’ve ever experienced. I know I’ve never been to the Peak District before, let alone on a bicycle, so I concluded it must just be that the actual experience of the ride was so similar to what I’d imagined. Breathtaking scenery abounded, all manner of livestock in the fields. At times we could see for over 20 miles, and it was a crystal-clear morning with the sun shining relentlessly down. The first 10 miles were absolute bliss.

We were then warned by marshals about quite a steep descent, still on unpaved muddy trails, and we seemed to descend for a very long time under a high canopy of trees before we arrived at the first water stop. We’d done less than 15 miles at this point, and I hadn’t dipped into my bidon at all, so I quickly drank half of it and refilled. Some poor guy unwisely propped his bike up next to a large thistle and heard a sudden “pssssssssssssss” from his vintage tubeless front tyre. There but for the grace of god…

Well I know we’d descended a fair way, and suspected some uphill was now in order, but no. Just to tantalise us the trail from the water stop continued to descend even further. I was enjoying the descent (not going much above 25mph as the surface wasn’t perfect) but all the time a sense of foreboding was creeping in. Exactly what manner of alpine torture was lurking further down the road? The ascent did come at last, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. I was climbing fairly comfortably at my own pace, and even though I did at one point start to approach my limit I got to the top without having to get off. The view once the road started to level out was a sight I’ll never forget, a panorama of a huge horse-shoe shaped valley to our left bathed in sunshine while we rode along in the shade. No photos sadly, there was a job of work to be done…

My recollection of the next few miles is a bit of a jumble, middling ascents followed by short descents, then back up again. Don’t imagine for a minute that the scenery got any less lovely, I think I just got a bit lost in the zone. We climbed up toward the Chatsworth House estate, over a couple of nasty cattle grids, and I remember spending a fair bit of time admiring one bike that looked exactly like the type Roger De Vlaeminck used to ride. There’s another part I remember of a climb past long queues of cars waiting to get into a car boot sale that was happening. Also a long only very slightly uphil stretch were I could just feel we were high up above everything. 

At this point I became conscious of a regular banging coming from my bike, and pretty soon I established it was following the movement of the crank. It didn’t seem very serious at that point and I knew neither I nor any other rider would have the tools to fix it so I pressed on, but it was very annoying. I’d probably been pedalling constantly for an hour by this time, and it was amazing how subconscious it all became. I really was in my own little bubble. I saw the guy I’d started with on his BSA, sadly it seems a mechanical had done for his friend.

At about this point we started to merge with some of the riders doing the 100 miles, who had done a slightly longer route to get to that point. On the long descent down some twisty lanes you could tell that some were more serious cyclists than others, on the whole the ones who really let the bike have its head and who tended not to bother telling you when they overtook. There were a couple of near misses but I didn’t see any crashes. We kept on descending until we were diverted on to the Monsal trail, another former railway. 

There were some non-Eroica cyclists out and about and I got chatting to one local who was riding around to check us all out. I was saying how tough I’d found some of the hills and he said it was hard to make the adjustment from modern bikes to old ones. “Oh no,” I said “this is my daily driver!” And of course it is. Around this time someone saw my shirt and as they rode past chirped “I could really do with some crack right now…” the trail included two rather long tunnels, quite dark and obviously totally shaded, so nice and cool after over three hours of hot sun and sweat it made me think that it would be lovely if future events could be held exclusively inside tunnels.

Finally we rolled out of the last tunnel, over a viaduct and came to a station platform, where the first feed stop was set up. I have never seen so many bicycles in one place! And all lovely old steel beauties too!

So I was 35 miles in and feeling reasonably good. I immediately took my bike to the volunteer mechanics for a look at the bottom bracket. My cranks were see-sawing a bit but maybe only 3-5mm, the next guy to come in had an expensive-looking Alan bike with exactly the same problem, but his was epically rocking, moving a good inch or so. “Yeah I’ve had to nurse it a bit, bloody Alans!” How he managed to get that bike there I will never comprehend! Chapeau!

I got my food while they sorted my bike, they didn’t seem to have the right tool to hand but they found it eventually. At the feed stop there were bottles of Burton’s water, cans of lemon or orange San Pelligrino, sausage rolls, pastries, brownies and bananas. I refilled my bidon with water, drank a can of orangeade and ate a banana, then went to pick up my bike. They’d tightened the adjustable cup, which I wasn’t sure about as I suspected it was the fixed cup that had moved, but they’re the experts… They prompted me for a donation to the Derbyshire Dales Park Authority, whereupon I was a little cold and calculating. I had £20 stuffed in my phone case, but didn’t know if I’d need to donate to the next mechanic, and wanted to hold on to a tenner for any other contingencies. I gave them £5 which seems rather inadequate, but felt like the rational thing at the time.

I picked up a second can of San Pellegrino and gulped it down, conscious of just how much sweating I’d been doing. I also stuffed a banana in my pocket and munched on a few chunks of Kendal Mint Cake. As I had a cigarette the Mavic Peugeot 504 set off down the trail, sounding it’s old klaxon. They waved at me and I waved back, then I finished off the first half of my mint cake, got back on the bike and was off.

to be concluded…

Eroica Britannia – preamble

Last weekend was my big target for the year – a 55 mile ride at Eroica Britannia. The past month has been so busy with real world stuff that I hardly had any time for proper training, so I went in feeling very underprepared. I did manage to get about 60 miles in during the week before, spread across three rides, so I knew I wasn’t a million miles off. The Friday we went I was incredibly busy having to move house, so after dismantling my bed, loading it into the car along with loads of other stuff, driving 40 miles, unloading, reassembling, then doing the same trip again, I had to pack the car ready for the weekend and drive just over an hour to Fiden Grange in Derbyshire.

When we got there we discovered the campsite was quite a considerable walk from the car, about half a mile over lumpy fields and paths rather crudely made of large lumps of limestone. We decided to pitch the tent first, as the light was fading, then had a look around the festival site. We got a green plastic wristband for the campsite, and I got a beautiful Union Jack coloured ribbon which said RIDER. It made me feel pretty special. After such a long day I fancied a nice cool gin & tonic, and my fiancée had never tried it before, so we had one each at the Hendrick’s Gin bar as the sun began to set. It was so very nice.

We went back to the car to retrieve everything else, and were struggling a bit on our way to the campsite when a very nice man indeed offered us a hand and then absolutely insisted he help! This made things a little easier, and after unpacking we settled down and I made some tea on the camping stove. We were hoping to turn in, but hadn’t reckoned on the music coming from the festival, which was a stone’s throw from the tent. We discovered with some horror that this wasn’t due to stop until 2am… see that marquee behind the tent? That’s where it was coming from.

The following day we had a bit of a lie-in to compensate for the booming music keeping us up, then I collected my bike from the car and wheeled it over to the tent. Conveniently there was a pole right behind our tent to lean the bike against. Here’s my mighty steed all ready to go, only the computer and the saddlebag spoiling the vintage aesthetic.

We went into the festival site and found some breakfast – I had a crepe with lemon and sugar, and a butterscotch milkshake. Everything at the festival was crazy expensive, but to be fair the quality was excellent. My fiancée’s main preoccupation was getting to the show ring in time for best-dressed dog, whereas I was obviously more interested in the bicycles. This little chap was her favourite:

We had a good look at everything, then decided to split up for half an hour so we could avoid boring each other. She sought out the cake marquee, I checked out the bike jumble. There was all sorts there, in all states of repair. If you needed anything for virtually any old bike, no matter how obscure, you could probably find it here. I took particular interest in one old seat post and a SunTour BL rear derailleur, but resisted temptation. The rear derailleurs on the bikes on top of the old Mavic neutral support car caught my eye. The car was a perfectly preserved Peugeot 504, and it looked amazing.

Next we headed over to the ‘headquarters’ tent and got a drink. I lined up to sign on, 9 desks arranged each servicing 500 out of the 4,500 riders who would be taking part. After registering, which included signing a disclaimer which said I was allowed to ride without a helmet at my own risk, I was handed an envelope and a musette full of goodies. The musette contained:

  • A small bottle of Jagermeister
  • A can of Jameson Irish whiskey mixed with ginger and lime
  • A small bottle of Hendrick’s Gin
  • A bottle of Double Dutch tonic water
  • A Danish pastry
  • A 500ml bottle of Buxton’s water
  • A pin badge advertising Jimmy’s Iced coffee
  • A pot of Rump bottom rub
  • A sachet of Swish To Go powdered tooth cleaner
  • A chunky guidebook to hostels in the UK

The envelope contained:

  • A page of instructions, information, hints and tips
  • A road book to be stamped during the ride, folding out into a map of the three routes
  • A race number to be put on the bike, with two pieces of string
  • A race number to be put on the rider, with five safety pins
  • Stickers to attach to the race number indicating 25, 55 or 100 mile route

My number was easy for me to remember as 12/8 is the day I’m getting married, so all I had to remember was the 6! I did um and ah a bit before finally deciding to put the 55 mile sticker on, I was pretty nervous about what lay ahead both for me and the bike, and I knew I was going to be a little short of sleep on acount of the nearby music. This is probably the main reason why my tent was so far away from everyone else’s!

I did go for a little ride to see how I was feeling, down the former railways that were part of the routes. Last week I’d done a 38 mile ride, about 25 miles of which was down one particular railway line. Given how flat it was I thought it was pretty poor training, but it turned out that experience on unsaved trails was perfect! What was interesting was that that on my 18 mile shakedown ride I encountered three or four subtly different types of gravel that each felt different. Some smooth, some tending to potholes, some bumpy and very tricky, and some just very slippery, like riding on ball bearings. The views though, the views were AMAZING. It really helped me stop feeling nervous and actually look forward to the ride.

So I got back, got showered and changed (the showers and toilets were very good by the way) and we went back to the festival to eat dinner – a large pot of chicken chow mein which I forced myself to eat every last bit of – and then we sat around the stage to see 1980s band ABC. They weren’t bad. We headed back to Hendrick’s for a nightcap, a lovely pink thing with ginger ale in it, and we got invited into a room where some peculiar gentlemen got us to make music using cucumbers, before handing us another Gin and tonic free. I didn’t drink it all, as I knew I needed to go to sleep sober.

Before we headed back to the tent we watched the sunset behind the start-finish area. It was a lovely sight, and it filled me with all sorts of emotions as to what lay in store.

To be continued…

Go home karma, you’re drunk…

I’ve been taking it easy this week, after last Sunday’s long ride and also because I’m busy with real world stuff, basically sorting out where I’m going to be living for the next few years. Anyway, I did pop into town on the 3-speed yesterday to drop off the one cash donation I got for my charity bike ride. A Boy Scout does a good deed every day, and all that. So I come floating out of the Katharine House charity shop feeling fully engorged with pride, only to find I’d got my first puncture of the year. The rear, it had to be the rear!

A record April ends with a bang

Yesterday was the Katharine House Hospice cycling challenge, which they do every year to raise money for the Hospice, which is a stone’s throw from where I live. This year I got kinda talked into it by my fiancée and some of her many uncles and aunts, as they do it every year. There’s four routes, two of 8 & 20 miles mainly on cycle paths, and two of 45 and 65 miles on roads. 45 miles was the bowl of porridge that was just right for me, longer than I’ve ridden before (previous PB was a little over 30 miles) and I didn’t feel the 65 mile one was a reliable possibility. It cost £7.50 to enter which covers their costs, and you’re encouraged to raise a bit of money for the Hospice on top. I got £50 in, which seemed a bit inadequate but I suppose it all helps. (Anyone who wants to donate a bit more can do so here)

With my week off over Easter I’d done a lot of miles on the bike, so I was fairly confident of having the legs for it. None of those rides were over 25 miles, so there was still the possibility of some unknown creeping in. The only thing I did to the bike was to oil the chain and check the tyre pressures the night before, I’ve settled on the 40-52 chainring set-up as my front derailleur doesn’t seem to cope as well with the 53, it takes ages to find a tooth changing up whereas with the 52 it just slots right in. Mine wasn’t the only old lugged steel bike on show but as you might expect more modern bikes proliferated. Most were using clip-in pedals, and there were a few who probably would have been better off with simple flats – I saw at least two fall off and a significant number struggling to clip in at times.

Here you go, you finally get to see what I look like! I’d bought some new bib shorts the day before, and I did a short 10 mile ride to check I got on with them. They’re a little better made than my other pair, and seemed to do the job OK. I was a little concerned that my kit wasn’t going to be warm enough, as the forecast was for fairly consistent 20mph winds, but in the event I was fine. I had a rain jacket in the back pocket just in case, but there wasn’t any rain. When I did the 25 mile sportive last July I wore everyday clothes (I was on the three-speed of course) so at least this time I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. It’s curious how there’s a critical mass of cyclists beyond which Lycra ceases to feel quite so embarrassing. Sadly this photo reveals to me that the reality doesn’t quite match what I imagine I look like in the full regalia!

I made sure to have some pasta the night before, and some granola in the morning. I also had Kendal Mint Cake in my back pocket, which is essentially a solid block of minty sugar. I had a couple of blocks before I set off, and more as I stopped along the way. It’s a good little old-school energy bar, and does the trick for me – it might be a bit of a placebo effect, but I definitely get a boost. As well as the bottle in the cage I had a second bottle in my back pocket, as I didn’t really know what to expect, didn’t know whether or where I’d be able to refill, and didn’t want to risk running out and getting dehydrated. As it turned out I still had a drop left when I got back. 

I reinforced the corners of my number with cellotape and pinned it very neatly to the back of my shirt:

This was taken after the ride, so it held in place pretty well! On the reverse of the number I had to write down next of kin contacts, known health problems etc, which was a bit grim but obviously necessary. It was nice having a ‘race’ number, sort of made me feel part of something. As I got round the course I also took a selfish delight in seeing numbers that weren’t fixed on as neatly and robustly as mine…

The ride started by heading down Weston Road, on to Beaconside and the back into town on the Sandon Road. I’m familiar with these roads, though there were stretches of the roads through town I would have avoided given the choice. It’s different riding on you own though, there were lots of cyclists on the roads and drivers tend to be a bit more on the ball than when it’s just me. Through town there was a couple of nasty roundabouts to deal with, the main challenge being to keep tabs on traffic while simultaneously watching out for poor surfaces – particularly where two sections of tarmac meet. Then it was out through Doxey, and on to the lanes. (this is last year’s event, just after departing)

The lanes to the west of Stafford are quite a useful discovery for me, there’s millions of them and one could devise a route to incorporate all manner of distances and difficulties, the only limitation being that there aren’t any genuinely mountainous areas. I’m on the east side of town, and here the lanes are much more limited, which is rather curious how two parts of essentially the same area could be so different. It’s safe to say future training will probably incorporate a lot more riding on the far side of town. I notice they’ve improved the rail-to-trail route out to Derrington, so that gives a good shortcut to the main business, without all the traffic lights and roundabouts.

I was familiar with the first part of the lanes, and I’ve found on my two sportives that it does help to be familiar with the beginning for building confidence and not going off too quickly, and the end so you are in a familiar place and don’t need to think too much when you’re at your most tired. We turned right towards Ranton, and from here I was relying entirely on the signs marking out the route. At Ranton the Village Hall had been opened up for us to use the loo, replenish bottles, have a sit down and they also had some cakes for sale.  A couple of miles before Ranton someone had dropped their map, so I picked it up and gave it back to them at the stop. I resisted the cake but did use the loo, as I wasn’t sure where the next one would be available. I drank half a bottle and set off again.

Up until this point I’d been making pretty good time, as the wind was mostly behind us. Now we started to face into the wind a little, and I was conscious of needing to save a little for the final 10 miles which would be straight into the wind. There’d been a story on the front page of the local papers about a series of potholes that had injured a string of cyclists, so my eyes were a bit on storks when I reached that section. They were very bad on one particular corner, but I managed to see them coming and navigate around them. I did hit one pothole quite hard with the front tyre and immediately resigned myself to fixing a pinch flat, but was relived to find myself a couple of miles further down the road with the tyre still full.

Around this point a cyclist rode up alongside me and started chatting. “I seem to have stumbled into a sportive” he said. I explained to him what we were all riding for, and also about my ride in June that I was preparing for. He said the Peak Districk did indeed have some pretty challenging climbs. He also said it was his first ride of the year, which I didn’t quite believe as he seemed very fit and fresh, but I suppose he might have a trainer at home. Anyway, he gave me a cheery “good luck” as our paths diverged, possibly quite relieved I couldn’t bore the pants off him any further, or maybe he knew what was ahead of me…

As usually happens after about 25 miles, I started to notice a bit of discomfort in my feet. I’ve noticed I tend to not place too much weight on the saddle when I’m riding the racing bike, I’m usually pressing on the pedals so much my bottom sort of ‘hovers’ just in contact with the saddle. This is very comfortable for my behind, but not so much for my feet. This brings me on to shoes:

These are the shoes I wear on the bike, and they’re really not ideal. They’re pretty standard trainers, not particularly firm, but they fit ok and from a distance look a lot like old-school cycling shoes. I looked into getting some proper Vittoria cycling shoes, but the bike shop don’t stock them, they could get a pair in but couldn’t accept a return if they don’t fit, and given how unpredictable Italian sizes can be it’s just as much of a lottery if I seek them out online myself. I like these Onitsuka Tiger trainers a lot, so my ideal would be these exact shoes but with a firmed up sole. I can’t really afford any proper cycling shoes at the moment, so these will have to do for now. However, the flex in the sole does mean a degree of foot discomfort, which gets worse when strapped in because they’re fixed in a single place. This is partly why I rode without the straps yesterday.

Back to the ride, I started to consciously take the weight off my feet. Every now and then I’d lift each foot off the pedals in turn to get the circulation back, it’s not ideal but it is manageable. A few miles more and the road ticked up a little. Then I was confronted with, quite simply, the steepest, longest hill I’ve ever seen from a bicycle, which having looked to route over a few times took me completely by surprise. Immediately I bailed into the smaller chainring, then down a gear, then down again to my very lowest gear. I could just about keep going but it was very tough. I saw a few who’d stopped on a little false flat half way up, and someone else walking their bike up, and to be honest I don’t blame them. Anyway, I made it, dammit! I was quite pleased with myself, but it was definitely about time for a little break. Shortly after we reached Norbury Junction, and there was a canalside place with seating and ice cream where a few cyclists were resting. This was at about mile 29, so I pulled over. 

I had a nice 20 minute break, popped to the loo, had a cigarette and a few more blocks of Mint Cake, and finished off my first bottle. I was slightly nervous that I might encounter an even worse hill later on, but thankfully I didn’t. As I got past 32 miles I was into uncharted territory, and I had to change modes on my computer as the mileage was distracting me. My bottom did start to ache a little, probably just from not having ridden for so long before, and it wasn’t too bad really. The wind was increasingly in my face, and my legs were feeling the miles, but I kept going at a slightly diminished speed and just ground out the miles until I got through Church Eaton and back onto familiar roads. I stopped, very briefly, at Red Lion Farm for some more Mint Cake and a bit of a drink, then I set off on the final stretch.

I knew all along this last stretch was going to involve a 20mph headwind, but that didn’t make it any easier! At this point I knew I had enough in the tank but I was still nursing myself to the finish a little, dropping down a gear or two when the wind was really fierce. I got to Doxey and started to encounter more traffic again. On the lanes there’d been a few cars, and a few trains of cars, but only sporadically. For much of the ride we had the lanes utterly to ourselves. I knew there were traffic-free ways of getting back but I wanted to respect the route, which took me on to a couple of busy roundabouts. By now though I had a bit of ‘Road confidence’ built up (I’d been on the roads for nearly three hours by this point) so I was ok, and the traffic fell nicely thankfully. As I got onto the Sandon Road again I caught up with a couple of reasonably experienced looking riders, obviously riding as a pair, so I decided to just stick with them to the end. I was surprised when they opted for the path rather than the road down Beaconside but followed them anyway. I got back to the Hospice where rather pleasingly a family was camped out to clap everyone in. 

There were a lot of cyclists about in various states of disrepair. I turned Strava off, 45.1 miles at an average of 14.4mph, over 1,000ft of elevation gain. Not bad! I reported myself as having returned, and they gave me a little enamel badge as a memento. I sat about for a couple of minutes, then realised there’d be nowhere on the hospital site where I’d be allowed to smoke, so I finished the last of what what’s in my second bottle and headed the half mile home. Then I drank another bottle of electrolyte, did a few stretches, lied down on my bed and watched Bottas take his first win in the Russian Grand Prix. I was quite knackered but not totally finished, and in truth I possibly could have just about managed the 65 mile route, but that would have finished me off.

Here’s my badge (actually about 2cm wide!), a nice little tangible reminder that me and my bike can do some impressive things. More importantly, it means a few precious hours of care for someone who really needs it. I think I’ll be doing it again next year.

So here’s a few learning points to take forward:

  1. Remember to actually ENJOY the ride. As nice as it was to find myself in a complete bubble at times where it was just me, the bike and the road, I don’t think I spent enough time soaking up the countryside. It’s beautiful out there, but most of it passed me by.
  2. Knowing the first and last sections of the ride helps me a lot. If possible I should probably try to ride these parts of the Eroica course on the day before.
  3. My night before and morning preparation, and my immediate recovery, was pretty good I think, it worked. I need to do the same again in future.
  4. I can get up some pretty nasty hills. Just take my time, trust that I’ll get there and be a really stubborn bastard (HTFU).
  5. Mint Cake and electrolytes. Take plenty.
  6. For the love of God, remember to take some damn photos next time!!!

A week is a long time…

So I set myself a mini challenge: 20 miles a day, every day for a week. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to manage it, and at times maybe I should have taken it easy, but it’s Sunday now and I’ve done it. Given that up until now the most I’ve ridden in a week was 77 miles, and I’ve now more than doubled that, I’m pretty chuffed.

Why did I do this? I suppose because it was there. I had a week at home, it was achievable, and all I had to do was get on my bike and put the miles in. I’ve been a little unnerved by the fast approaching reality of a 55 mile ride in the Peak District, especially when a relative of my fiancée spoke of ‘such-and-such pass’ being particularly tough. I’ve heard that as a rule of thumb if you intend to do X miles in a single run you need to be able to do that mileage regularly per week, so I’ve ticked that box, handsomely. I learned from cricket that the most important preparation is not just the technical side but also the banking of large reserves of confidence, and I feel I’ve done that.

I’m pretty impressed with myself, I really didn’t know I had it in me. Obviously the first couple of days weren’t too bad, as I was pretty fresh. As the week’s gone on, I can’t pretend I haven’t felt it a bit, but on Friday night I went out knowing I was 10 miles short on the day, feeling pretty tired, but I still managed to get the miles in and I still found myself pushing myself up hills at quite a clip – my heavy old three-speed, doing 20mph uphill, even after 130 miles of cycling! There was a bit of a tailwind, I admit, but previously I would have reckoned 16mph to be rather strenuous up there. 

Then yesterday I rode out to Church Eaton, which is about a 19 mile round trip. Stafford Cricket Club is my local team, but over the winter a lot of my team-mates have jumped ship for one reason or another and gone to Church Eaton, so I thought I’d pop in and say hello. It was a pretty warm afternoon but I felt pretty good, I made good time on the way out, and it was just a perfect day and a lovely route. There were a few cars but they were all pretty considerate, and I’m gaining a lot of road confidence now. I stayed to watch a few overs, but I’d missed by all accounts a rather comical diamond duck* for the new captain, who was good enough to let me use their toilet before heading back. 

Just shy of 160 miles in a week, and over 125 miles on my road bike without any problems. I did pick a small sharp flake of stone out of the back tire today that probably wasn’t far from penetrating through, so that’s a bullet dodged… other than that everything’s working just fine, and I’m now very at home on the bike.

There’s one elephant in the room though – my left knee. It’s been barking a bit the last few days, although curiously it seems to settle down when I’m actually riding. It’s not to do with fit, as I’ve had my saddle higher, lower, forward and back and have settled on what feels right, and while it tends to happen more on the folding bike (where the saddle won’t physically go quite high enough) there’s no difference I can detect between my two other bikes. It’s also not hurting where I would expect poor fit to normally manifest itself. It’s towards the inside, not quite at the back of the knee and in my upper leg. I have a suspicion, just a suspicion, that it’s to do with very short-lived overstressing when starting off in too high a gear, which is then exacerbating longstanding issues that arise from historic cricket injuries** and driving a manual car. Like I say, once I’m a mile or two into a ride it vanishes, then comes back after I’ve finished.

Anyway, I’m back at work tomorrow so the knee will have a few days to rest up. I’ve entered myself in a ride next Sunday in aid of a local charity, a hospice called Katharine House that cares for the terminally ill. If you’re feeling generous (and it’s a brilliant little charity) the Just Giving page is here. The ride itself is 45 miles, so about 50% further than my longest ride to date, but also a good little tester before the 55 miles of Eroica. I’ve mainly been talked into it by my fiancée, who wants a little reassurance that 55 miles isn’t too much for me. The route is mostly out to the west of town, fairly flat apart from the odd short climb here and there. Wish me luck!

*diamond ducks are quite rare in cricket. A duck is getting out without scoring a run. A golden duck is out first ball. A diamond duck is getting out without even facing a ball, usually because your partner has run you out. **cricket’s a very one-sided game, and if you bat and bowl right-handed (like me) you can put a fair bit of stress on your left knee. As a spin bowler there’s also a rotational aspect that makes this worse.