Saturday, 25 May 2013

Up the Palace

On Wednesday evening I decided to take advantage of the vaguely summery weather with a ride up to Crystal Palace after work. Ostensibly this was with the intention of doing a few hill reps as I have now started following the RideLondon-Surrey 100 training plan, but really it was just an excuse to loosen up the old legs after my London Revolution epic and remind myself why I love cycling in the first place, the sense of freedom, independence and adventure, the freedom to explore wherever the road may lead. 

Important to throw a few fun rides into any training schedule for psychological reasons, a reminder that not every bike ride has to be A BIKE RIDE. No carbon fibre, Lycra, no gels, no Garmin or heart rate monitor - just my trusty bright orange Condor Fratello, a bit of merino wool, a bidon of water and enough loose change for an ale if I the mood grabbed me, which it often does.

Originally I'd planned to ride up via Brixton and Herne Hill to explore some of the little climbs around Crystal Palace, roads I know fairly well from Dulwich Paragon days. The climb up from Herne Hill to the foot of the famous BBC transmitter on Sydenham Hill is one I have used for training before - it is plagued by the usual London issues of traffic lights, roundabouts and bus drivers but is pleasantly leafy and gradual with a bit of sting in the tail near the top.

Keeping things very gentle (this was supposed to be a Z1 ride), I spun up Croxted Road past the velodrome and then up Dulwich Wood Avenue. Have to say that my legs felt bloody fantastic after their 180-mile weekend - the Condor is no lightweight and sometimes I find it a bit of a shock to the system after the superlight Focus but this time it just felt brilliant, my legs powering up the inclines without any complaint, the steel frame absorbing chatter from London's rutted roads. It also felt good to be riding a bike with Campag again (the Focus is a Shimano rig), perhaps it's just the placebo effect of the famous 'winged wheel' logo and all that illustrious history but even the bargain-basement Xenon/Laser mix on the Condor always feels silky smooth even after Ultegra.

I then did a lap up the steeper College Hill, a climb that used to have me panting slightly back in the day but which felt pretty much flat after some of the London Revolution climbs. It was a really lovely evening, almost balmy by the parlous standards of spring 2013, so rather than punish myself with any more climbs I decided to have an explore around Crystal Palace Park. I have ridden past this place more times than I care to remember - most recently on Sunday as the sportive came back into town from Kent but also many times on club rides, often swearing at traffic near the top of deceptively-steep Anerley Hill - but for some unknown reason, I had never bothered to stop and have a poke around the park itself.

All I can say is that I wish I'd bothered sooner. It is a really interesting and pretty little place, full of random historical artefacts and with some stunning views deep into rural Kent. Obviously most people know about the transmitter, you can see it from pretty much anywhere in London and its elegant design is underrated, sometimes compared with the Eiffel Tower although to me it conjours up images of a Saturn V rocket arrowing towards the heavens. The National Sports Centre stadium is also well know for hosting Grand Prix athletics events and the like - there must have been some kind of track and field meet happening on Wednesday night as the floodlights were on. Most people also know how what was once just a quiet corner of Sydenham and Penge gained its modern name after Joseph Paxton's monumental Crystal Palace was moved here from Hyde Park in 1854 after wowing the crowds at the Great Exhibition of 1851, pretty much the zenith of Victorian pomp and bombast. Fewer people realise that the Palace re-erected in the suburbs was almost completely different to look at from the original version, being far more in keeping with the emerging Beaux-arts fashion of the time. Either way, it must have been an impressive sight sitting atop the hill, as this old photo demonstrates. Sadly it wasn't to be a permanent addition to the SE London skyline as following a long decline into disrepair the Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936. Over 100,000 people came to Sydenham Hill to witness a conflagration visible across eight counties. These spectators included a certain Winston Churchill who said afterwards that, "This is the end of an age," implying that he regarded the Palace's destruction as some kind of belated funeral pyre for the Victorian age. Incidentally, television pioneer John Logie Baird had also been using part of the building for his early experiments in transmission and much of his research literally went up in smoke along with the Palace itself. Just think - if it wasn't for the Crystal Palace fire, we may have been enjoying HD TV for ten years now...

There is very little left of the Palace nowadays although one small section of ironwork remains to give a vague indication of how it would have looked. The park is full of lots of other interesting things, though, from sphinxes to the famous dinosaur sculptures that predated the Natural History Museum. Crystal Palace Park also has a history of motor racing, sections of armco are still in place and today the circuit is used occasionally for criterium races. I must say it was great fun to have the little track to myself the other night, the surface is billiard-smooth and there are some nice little hills and hairpins so a good place to practice bike handling. Half-tempted to enter one of the races if I get fit enough one day as it feels like a relatively relaxed environment in which to try crit racing. 

Another thing that caught my eye was the strikingly modern concert stage, designed by Ian Ritchie Architects in 1996. This has an amazing monolithic quality to it, the rusted steel contrasting beautifully with the lake and surrounding parkland to create a decidedly Zen-like, almost Japanese feel in the middle of SE London. I would love to see a performance there one day and bet it looks even more beautiful in autumn as the leaves start to turn.

After a few laps of the park I turned for home, the increasingly-chilly dusk air requiring gilet to be zipped right up. I never did go for that beer but it was still a lovely ride and proof you don't need to go far from home to feel like you've been on a little adventure. And you definitely don't need to be wearing Lycra.

(PS: Realise I've managed to make a gentle 1.5 hour bike ride feel like a right epic by rambling on so apologies for that. I am now off to Wales for a few days to celebrate my uncle's wedding but am taking the Condor with me and hope to enjoy a few more rides around the beautiful Gower Peninsula. Tempting though it is to prolong my post-Revolution cutback week indefinitely, I need to keep some miles in the legs for Dolomites. Not long to go now!)

Friday, 17 May 2013

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Just a quick one tonight as currently waiting to be picked up by my mate Sanks. We're off to Docklands, where we have the salubrious charms of a Travelodge to look forward to ahead of the first big milestone of my cycling year tomorrow - the London Revolution.

This is a 180 mile sportive run by Threshold Sports, the events company co-founded by James Cracknell which also runs the Deloitte RAB amongst other things. The Revolution is a somewhat shorter affair - day one is 'only' 102 miles, taking us from the ExCeL Centre around to Windsor, whilst day two is a trifling 84 miles, but with more climbing including Box Hill before we ride back to Docklands via Herne Hill Velodrome and Tower Bridge.

In between there is what sounds like a mini festival at Windsor Racecourse, with hot showers, live bands, an indoor cinema showing the Graeme Obree biopic The Flying Scotsman, loads of food options and also some local ales (dangerous). And a vast tented village, pitched in time for our arrival by the Threshold team. The logistics are quite impressive by the sounds of it - we basically give them our overnight bags at the start line tomorrow and they magically (/hopefully) make their way to our individual tents during the day, ready for us to hobble in later.

Tomorrow won't be the first time I've cycled most of the way around London, nor will it be my first century ride as I did a charity sportive called the Ride Around London a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, it will be a useful barometer of fitness ahead of my Dolomites trip in a few weeks' time and a useful chance to ride big distances on consecutive days. Not planning to hammer it but feeling in pretty reasonable form. I've followed the training plan more diligently than I've ever followed any kind of exercise schedule in my life before, missing only two sessions in the past two months, so that will hopefully stand me in good stead. I've also been carb-loading diligently over the past 48 hours, drinking my own weight in beetroot juice and even treated myself to a preparatory deep tissue massage last night with the brilliant Stan at Impact, which hurt like heck at times but has left my legs feeling like new today.

The only thing beyond my control is the English weather, of course. The forecast is pretty 'interesting' for this weekend so no idea what to expect, but stay tuned in the meantime and think of me toiling around the Home Counties whilst you tuck into your Saturday night tandooris and Sunday roasts.

Remind me why I signed up for this ride again?

Monday, 13 May 2013


Entering the final week of training for next weekend's London Revolution ride now. Rode a combined 177km (109 miles) over this weekend just gone, firstly 47 solo miles across the Chilterns on Saturday from my mum's house in Herts. Despite the headwinds and rain I was pleased with how easy the spin up Ivinghoe Beacon felt (kind of the nearest local equivalent of Box Hill and also famous as one end of the Ridgeway) and also made it up Bison Hill, the steep road that climbs up past Whipsnade Zoo. This has a bit of a fierce reputation locally but it wasn't that bad in the end, felt like a smaller version of Ditchling, similar chalky surroundings and false summits but made it up with no real issues which is hopefully a good sign. Although it is quite surreal to be panting up a steep hill with a load of penguins just the other side of the fence.

I followed this up on Sunday with a ride into the Surrey Hills with Sanks, 62 miles with a tidy 1,150m of climbs including such North Downs classics as Crocknorth, Ranmore, Combe Lane and of course Box Hill (data for all these climbs here). Started to get a bit grumpy towards the end and the rain didn't help but a caffeinated Mule gel got me across the line. Also managed to set a load of new Strava PBs on the hills, which was nice. Now I just have a couple of gentle taper rides left before the first major milestone of my cycling year.

Legs feeling a bit heavy today so goodness knows how they'll react to the small matter of 289km (180 miles) next weekend but we shall see, a recovery ice bath may be in order. I have followed the training plan pretty much to the letter, barring the odd session, so fingers crossed. Basically it's the cycling equivalent of a marathon pretty much so just making it around will be achievement enough for a first-timer, I'm not expecting to set any PBs. That said, I would really love it if these pesky westerlies that seem to have been blowing incessantly for the past two months would give it a rest - day one promises to be a bit of a slog otherwise. Rain I can handle up to a point but headwinds just suck, end of. On the plus side, I suppose westerlies will also help blow us back to ExCeL on day two but I would still prefer less of a breeze if poss.

Anyway, I am rambling on but this post wasn't supposed to be about me. I actually wanted to write about something rather different I did this morning for work. Basically, the agency I work for has been supporting a Paralympic athlete called Claire Lomas on a 400 mile charity handcycle ride around England. Claire if you've never heard of her is an ex-eventer who was paralysed from the chest down in 2007 following a riding accident. She has since gone on to become the first paraplegic to complete the London Marathon in an amazing 'robotic' exoskeleton suit and also lit the Paralympic cauldron last year in Trafalgar Square in front of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Seb Coe. So a pretty inspiring character basically.

Today was the last leg of Claire's challenge and basically they needed someone who knows London's road well to act as ride leader for her and her entourage. As a known cycling bore around the office I was nominated and wasn't about to refuse, certainly beats a morning spent pushing papers around my desk.

Here I am looking like a right herbert just before the start with Claire's bike...

The ride itself went pretty much like clockwork. The weather gods smiled and I met Claire and her team of supporters at Chelsea Academy first thing this morning, guiding them on a route past some famous London landmarks where we'd set up photo opportunities for the media: the Albert Hall, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Palace of Westminster etc. The riding was actually the easy bit, especially at handcycle speeds - trying to corral people for the photos and broadcast footage less so, a rare glimpse into the world of the publicist, fun on occasion but not something I'd necessarily want to do every single day.

Here's Claire pausing for photos in Hyde Park with Dan Lobb (he of ITV Daybreak fame, apparently) who joined us for the final stretch. This was the first time he'd ever tried using a handcycle, he's quite a big unit but judging by the grunts and groans, it is a lot tougher than Claire makes it look. The thought of 400 miles on one with English hills and headwinds is sobering. They also have really wide turning circles, which makes junctions a bit squeaky bum.

We were also joined for the final part from Trafalgar Square down to the London Eye by one of Claire's celeb supporters, Melanie C AKA Sporty Spice, which was quite funny. She seemed very nice but not quite as nice as her bike, a Seven Cycles iD with Ksyriums and full Dura-Ace gruppo, tasty machine, here is some photographic proof...

Despite all the interruptions for photography and the like the whole experience was inspiring and seeing Claire cross the finish line at Southbank in front of a big group of supporters was a great moment. Ever the good sport, Gary Lineker even put in an appearance to help bolster media coverage, which was nice of him though reinforced the vague feeling of being trapped in a budget version of Madame Tussaud's. Here's Gaz, look... (he is not actually that short in real life incidentally, the camera crew were just really tall).

Anyway, I wanted to post about this today as all my bike riding is one thing but seeing someone who's overcome such life-mangling injuries taking on such inspiring challenges and using their bike to raise awareness and money for such good causes really put any worries I might have had about the London Revolution and Dolomites etc into perspective. Chapeau, Claire!

You can still donate to her charity here, incidentally.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Marginal gains?

A good few days on the bike of late, helped no doubt by summer putting in a temporary appearance. Ducked out of Saturday's training ride as had chores to do and needed to get up to Oxon to visit friends for the long weekend but made up for it with the 75 mile Classic Oxfordshire charity ride on Sunday morning. A pretty route starting from the research park at Harwell, conveniently just a couple of miles down the road from my friends' place. The fact this was a charity ride rather than a sportive as such meant there was no fiddling around with timing chips or any of that nonsense - it was very much a case of turn up, sign in and ride, which was very refreshing. Lack of formalities also attracted a pleasing cross-section of cyclists, from young families on budget MTBs to gnarled old veterans on steel audax machines and only the occasional MAMIL on a £5K Pinarello. I meanwhile was riding with my trusty cycle buddy Sanks and his mate Drakey, one of the guys who'll be doing the MITIE London Revolution with us later this month.

The route took us out for a tour of the Oxfordshire Thames and Vale of the White Horse, passing through towns like Wallingford, Faringdon and Wantage along with countless pretty villages. First half was really quite flat and pretty quick as a result with some good group riding - second half less so as the course climbed up and over the Berkshire Downs around Lambourne and the self-styled 'Valley of the Racehorse'. Very pretty cycling country, this, made even more so by the sunny weather, which resulted in my case in a nice pair of sunburnt wrists. Unfortunately there was also a fierce headwind to contend with for much of the route, but beautiful cycling country nonetheless. Somewhere I would like to return to with a tent and a proper touring bike so I can explore a few of those lovely village pubs without worrying about Strava segments of what-not. The stretch past the famous Uffington White Horse was particularly bucolic, all classic English chalk downland, distant Ridgeway vistas and blue skies, whistling excerpts from The Lark Ascending to myself in between climbs and thinking of the paintings of Eric Ravilious which I also love. At one point we were even overtaken by an old couple in a beautiful Jaguar XK120, just as we were passing a village cricket match - the scene could hardly have been more English, it was like some period drama, I swear, all that was missing was a solitary Spitfire describing victory rolls across the azure Oxfordshire sky. 

Even more pleasing was the fact I was feeling pretty strong on the bike, possibly helped by the fact my saddle was no longer killing me. I had taken advantage of Specialized's saddle exchange scheme to swap out my new but crippling Romin Evo Pro for the oddly-named Toupe Pro (who makes this stuff up?), which quickly proved a much happier fit with the old posterior. It was really good to feel all the recent training pay off, though - I am not a quick cyclist by anyone's standards but still, 75 miles is a decent distance to ride a bike, especially in that headwind, so I was really quite pleased with my average speed of 25.4 km/h (15.8mph). Even more pleased with the massive BBQ blow-out that ensued afterwards but recovery meals as I've said before are very important. Joking aside, my legs were definitely feeling it the day after this ride, despite my usual borderline OCD-esque dedication to stretching etc. It was a nice sort of burn, though, suggesting I had pushed just hard enough for a good training ride. Important to keep these things in perspective as well - 75 miles would have been a very long way to ride a bike but a few years ago, now it feels completely doable which is a nice feeling. 

This pleasing feeling that at last the training is paying off was reinforced last night when I cycled off after work to the SW London cyclist's favourite haunt of Richmond Park for a couple of quick laps before sundown. 'RP' if you've never been there is basically like cycling around the grounds of a stately home, complete with roaming herds of wild deer. It is very beautiful and all the more so given its proximity to Central London and Heathrow. It is also a great place to train, with pretty smooth roads and couple of useful little climbs. Unfortunately it also suffers from nose-to-tail traffic over the weekends but the best time to ride there is weekday early mornings or dusk in the summer time when the gates are closed to motor traffic, creating a fantastic car and traffic light-free circuit for cyclists. As long as one remembers to observe the strict 20mph speed limit, of course

Last night it was just beautiful there anyway, balmy enough for short sleeves in the evening sunshine and lots of deer about. This was supposed to be a steady 1.5 hour training session but buoyed by Sunday's ride I decided to give it some beans for a couple of laps before pegging it home to Nine Elms via the South Circular. Felt like a bit of a time-trial towards the end as I battled through the traffic lights to keep my average speed up but was quite chuffed to get home with an average speed of 26.1km/h (16.2 mph). Again this is all relative and I'm not going to give Wiggo any sleepless nights but by standards this is a pretty tidy speed and further evidence that all those freezing cold weekend rides and sweaty early morning turbo sessions haven't been in vain. 

A particular highlight was being overtaken by a trio of riders from Westway CC coming down the steep bit of Broomfield Hill (I will never be a natural descender), managing to tag onto the back of their group for a mile or so before pulling out of their slipstream and skinning them on the long drag up Sawyer's Hill. This sort of thing never happens to me - I'm normally the one being spat out the back of the bunch on club rides! I was also used as shelter a couple of times by some seriously quick triathletes on TT bikes, which I took as a compliment given they usually just blat straight past me without a second thought. 

Now we are approaching the first 'monument' of my 2013 season, the London Revolution which takes place across the weekend after next. In the meantime I have one more turbo interval session, a couple of long, steady weekend rides and then some tapering next week. Also hoping to book a sports massage with these guys as a special treat after all my training. It's still early days but really pleasing to feel the training make a difference and starting to feel like, well not exactly quick but borderline-respectable at least. Now I just need to make sure I don't fall off and avoid the usual office bugs for the next two weeks and we shall have a better indicator of how I'm doing ahead of what promises to be an Dolomites trip in June. 

Friday, 3 May 2013


This week's post was almost a grovelling admission for not following my training plan very diligently. After weeks of not missing a single session, something seemed to snap this week, a combination of too many evening commitments perhaps and what felt like a bit of a minor ear infection. Missed Tuesday's recovery ride as a result and was also in course to miss yesterday morning's turbo intervals as just couldn't muster the motivation to get out of bed when my 06:00 alarm went off.

Luckily the diary fairy intervened and yesterday's night out with the boys was cancelled, leaving the evening free and me without any more excuses. Did the full 1h30m session in the end, which was quite amusing as it was pretty late by then, I'd forgotten to turn on any lights in the living room and by the end I literally couldn't see my hand in front of my face, the only light in the room was the eerie luminescent glow emanating from the Garmin which was quite surreal, I felt like I was pedalling in space towards the end. Pretty sure that's not what David Millar had in mind when he wrote Racing through the Dark

Anyway I am feeling back on track after this momentary blip in self-discipline and looking forward to putting some decent miles in this weekend in what promises to be the best cycling weather of 2013 so far. Off to Oxon to see some friends and turns out there's a nice little sportive happening at Didcot on Sunday so that's convenient.

The whole week has got me thinking again about the importance of recovery, though. I felt good last weekend but by Tuesday it seemed I had been pushing myself a bit too much. The lesson sadly being that 36-year-olds can either have a busy social life or a training regime but the two aren't particularly compatible at this age sadly.

There is so much out there about recovery that I won't regurgitate it all now, but here are a few top tips I've learned in recent years. I've ordered these in pretty much the order that they should happen after every ride to be most effective. Most of this is obvious but still surprises me how many people neglect these steps and then get ill/injured further down the line: -

  1. Recovery begins on the bike: I'll write a more detailed piece about cycling nutrition soon but in the meantime, know that by making sure you eat and drink enough on the bike, you'll be ensuring not only an enjoyable ride but getting a head start on recovery afterwards as well
  2. Get it down you: Make the most of your recovery by chugging back a recovery drink within 20 mins of the end of your ride. This is the optimum window for refuelling muscles and getting carbs back into the system. Without getting too technical, look for something that offers the optimum carbs:protein ratio of 2:1. Plain old milk works pretty well, low-fat chocolate milk even more so. If you've really pushed it or are on a multi day ride where overnight recovery is particularly important, there are some good commercial products out there, my personal favourite of which is For Goodness Shakes, ideally in bottled form although the instant powdered version tastes surprisingly good too. 
  3. H2O: Also a good idea to knock back a pint of water whilst you stretch to kick-start the rehydration process, again if you've drunk diligently on the ride you should already be in a good place hopefully
  4. Stretch: I've done long multi-day tours in the Alps/Pyrenees, I've done century sportives and it never ceases to amaze me how many people overlook this vital step. Possibly because cycling is a low-impact sport and you don't get the same muscular pounding as runners do, say, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't bother. Stretching has a whole range of benefits, obviously aiding recovery and mitigating the onset of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) but it can also assist with muscular development as well as keeping you nice and toned and supple of course. Stretch all your major muscle groups, not just your legs, and ideally hold each stretch for a combined total of 20 seconds, the first 10 of which should be gentle, the second 10 a bit more intensive as this will help to improve flexibility etc. Stretching can feel like a chore but it makes a real difference.
  5. Eat: One of the best things about cycling is how it enables relatively guilt-free eating. Within a couple of hours, make sure you have a hearty meal, by hearty I mean balanced and containing a good range of macro-nutrients of course. If you've just finished the Marmotte you can definitely eat that entire pizza without guilt but don't go crazy, chances are your tummy is still feeling a bit delicate anyway and even if it isn't, junk food is generally exactly that. Aim for a decent balance of protein, complex carbs, vegetables and healthy fats, I find that burritos can work quite well but don't go crazy on the cheese/soured cream.
  6. Sleep: The magic ingredient and again an area often overlooked or compromised upon by busy people who have to hold down adult responsibilities alongside training. The magic really happens whilst you're asleep, this is when your body releases powerful stuff like human growth hormone (HGH). Learn to see the fabled eight hours a night as a bare minimum rather than an aspirational goal. You'll always meet people who boast they can survive on four hours a night like Margaret Thatcher but that's just it, they are merely surviving rather than thriving, so do yourself a favour and get as much of the good stuff as you can. It makes a big difference and you'll feel like a whole new person, trust me. Ditto recovery days, make sure you take one after your weekly long rides or harder turbo sessions, again then is when your body adjusts itself to training load and improves. 
Most of this is common sense and I don't profess to be an expert, let alone a coach or doctor. I've just found that following these steps religiously makes a lot of difference to how I feel the day after a long ride or hard turbo session, though. They can be quite a satisfying part of the ritual as well. See how they work for you and by all means use the comments tab to add any tips of your own. 

Happy riding,

PS: You will read plenty about the benefits of new-fangled things like compression socks as well and it's true that elevating the legs after a hard ride does help to drain the lactic, I have just tried to angle these tips more towards the common man who doesn't particularly want to spend Sunday afternoons wearing what are effectively women's tights. Ditto for ice baths, which again work well but are also unpleasant and not something I'd recommend unless you've just finished Ironman Kona.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Thames/Chilterns Ramble

In the spirit of trying to maintain rediscovered momentum, I am going to try and post blogs on consecutive days this week. Only if I have something interesting to say, though - blogs that talk about nothing are pointless, right? Isn't that what diaries are for?

Anyway, the old legs are just recovering from my Sunday ride, which is always the longest of the week according to my London Revolution training plan. This week's long ride was a loop of the Thames Valley and Chilterns with my good buddy, Sankey. He lives down in Egham on the edge of Windsor Great Park, which is a useful spot for striking out west or down into the Surrey Hills. A crucial part of training I find is to vary routes as much as possible. Riding the same circuits week in-week out can be a useful yardstick to progress but can also get dull quickly, whereas varying routes keeps cycling feeling like an adventure which is one of the main attractions for me.

The training plan stipulated a four hour Sunday ride of low intensity this week. As usual, the focus is more on maintaining steady pace, decent cadence and consistent effort than on breaking any speed records, which suits me fine. They even stipulated a 15 min cafe stop this week, which was nice. Through the wonders of Garmin Connect, I found a 70 mile loop starting near Egham which looked like it would fit the bill nicely - closer to five hours than four at current average speed maybe but good to have something to aim for.

For various reasons we didn't end up leaving Egham until 14:00ish, one of those various reasons being that Sanks had only just picked up his summer bike from its winter hibernation up in Kenilworth. It's a Giant TCR Composite that I call the Stealth Bomber because it's black and quite evil-looking. He'd also just taken delivery of a new rear wheel and swapped cassettes so his flat was strewn with various oily bits when I arrived.

We set off across hallowed Runnymede (famous for the Magna Carta of course amongst various other historic sites including the JFK Memorial and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's very moving Air Forces Memorial) and into Windsor. Riding past the castle is always quite spectacular although also hazardous with so many tourists wandering across the roads, fixated on their viewfinders and not the traffic. Crossing the Thames via the Eton footbridge, we then picked up a section of Sustrans National Route 4 (NR4), which these days runs all the way from Greenwich in SE London to Fishguard on the Pembrokeshire coast via the Thames Valley, Bristol and South Wales. I am a big fan of Sustrans and would love to work for them one day. As an aside, I think every cyclist in the UK whatever their stripe owes it to themselves to support this organisation as it's doing so much good work building and maintaining a proper national network of often traffic-free cycle paths across the country, all of which will hopefully encourage more cycling and reduce reliance on motor transport in the long run. You can make one-off or regular donations here.

It is always such a pleasure to be riding on traffic-free cycle paths after dicing with cars through somewhere as bustling as Windsor. This stretch of NR4 was no exception, using smooth gravel paths that are perfectly navigable on skinny tyres and idiot-proof waymarking to quickly bring us to Dorney Lake, Eton School's reassuringly-upmarket rowing lake, now enshrined forever as a host venue for the glorious London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, of course. Swinging onto the lake's apron road, I could almost feel my bike accelerate beneath me - I originally bought it back in 2008 for the Eton Supersprints triathlon at Dorney and it was enjoying the opportunity to ride their roads again. One slight irritation was managing to reset my Garmin by accident whilst trying to locate the route, which would cock-up my stats for the day but not the end of the world. GPS is a fantastic thing for the travelling cyclist and without Garmin Connect we'd never have stumbled upon this lovely route out of Windsor along the river, so not the end of the world. Ironically, despite Sankey living down this way for years and having often ridden around here with him, we'd never managed to find this route before so there is a lesson in the benefits of sat-nav. Mention must also go to Sanks managing to negotiate his bike Martin Ashton-style over a particularly technical switchback Thames footbridge without falling over in his clips - a challenge I set him based on the promise of me picking up the cafe bill later on. His bike-handling skills (or should that be frankly worrying willingness to do anything for free cake?) are vastly superior to my own ham-fisted efforts and I decided not to follow suit as almost certainly would have embarrassed myself in front of the ramblers. This whole riverside stretch was really lovely, though, evoking two of my very favourite books The Wind In The Willows and Three Men In A Boat despite not being the fastest terrain for a road bike. I am so going to get me a proper tourer one of these days and do more of this kind of riding, especially now I have the other essential accessories of a beard and CAMRA membership.

From there we ducked south of Maidenhead, still using NR4 and passing through a succession of idyllic Thameside villages including the gastro-mecca of Bray, where Heston was doubtless hard at work concocting his Waitrose ready meals. Another advantage of Sustrans routes is seeing the kind of places you'd easily miss by car - the background hum attested to the number of vehicles speeding obliviously through this area on the nearby M4 and I was reminded again on Hemingway's famous quote about seeing the contours of a country best from a bicycle.

Crossing the Thames again we soon started climbing up into the southern part of the Chilterns, my local hills in many ways as I grew up on their lee slope up in Hertfordshire. The chalky lanes definitely felt familiar, as did the succession of short, sharp climbs now facing us, nothing like ratcheting up a 20% incline to get the lactic going. Passing Twyford and Sonning just NE of Reading, we then reached Nettlebed where decisions had to be made. We'd been battling into strong headwinds all the way from Egham, rain was forecast for later and if we were going to attempt the full route we would definitely end up riding far more than the plan recommended. So after a quick conflab we decided to forego the long climb up from Watlington to Stokenchurch and instead turned back east towards Henley.

We were both starting to feel the effects of battling that nasty headwind by now and conversation had kind of descended to a series of grunts but swinging east the tailwind compensated for the fact we had now left the sanctuary of the lanes for the busy A4155 road into Henley. A civilised town not just in Royal Regatta week of course but given the need to press on we elected to postpone the promised cafe stop until Marlow so we could get a few more miles under our belts first. We'd ridden this road before but managed to forget the stiff little climb up past Danesfield House, which was the proverbial straw to the camel's back. It was time for a coffee. There are probably much nicer places to stop in Marlow than Costa Coffee - I normally try to avoid big chains as much as possible - but needs must at 5pm on a Sunday. The baristas were very accommodating to our carbon fibre weaponry and kind enough to refill our bidons whilst we tucked into the obligatory cake (my old service station favourite the raspberry and almond slice, fake them here) and amusing ourselves at some new age traveller types across the street who were apparently walking all the way to Glastonbury with their stuff in wheelbarrows and asking Costa's staff for some leftover sarnies despite also being exactly the kind of people who (commendably I should add) recently stopped the company opening a branch in hippy Totnes. Funny how one's standards slip when peckish but we're all guilty of that at times I guess.

Refuelled by Bakewell slice and caffeine we headed over to Bourne End and up the steep Hedsor Hill climb, which despite only being about 0.5 miles actually averages a bit more than Ditchling Beacon. It's a useful yardstick as Sanks and I really used to struggle up this one when we first explored these roads, on one infamous occasion I actually managed to detonate my entire rear mech on this hills necessitating evac by car, this time it felt if not painless at least steady which was a nice feeling. Recovering our breath past beautiful Cliveden, historic seat of the Astors set on its spectacular bluff above the Thames, we were soon freewheeling down through Taplow before crossing the busy A4 and rejoining our original loop at Dorney. The final run across Eton Wick with Windsor Castle looming majestically in the background is normally a highlight but by now the pesky wind had managed to wheel around 180 degrees to a chilly easterly that was right in our faces yet again. I love how the wind often seems to veer around like that in the UK, well I say 'love', actually when I'm on a bike I loathe its propensity to do so, give me light drizzle over headwinds any day of the week. At least we had to stop to let a herd of cows cross the road which gave the whole scene a rather bucolic aspect despite being within earshot of the M4 and right below Heathrow's flighpath.

Soon we were back in Eton just as a whole generation of future Tory leaders and (perish the thought) potential Prime Ministers streamed out of the chapel in their famous tails. Having been lucky enough to go to rather a historic (if rather less magisterial) school myself, I'm pretty confident none of the spotty youths fully appreciate the architectural splendour around them at their age but if I'm anything to go by, they'll return in 20 years time and be quite awestruck in retrospect at how beautiful their surroundings were. It is one of the great ironies of life that hindsight is almost always 20:20.

Passing back into Windsor, we picked up the road across Runnymede and I temporarily managed to shell Sanks out the back of the peloton in my keeness to stem the rising pain from my buttocks, which were acclimatising themselves to a quite uncompromising new saddle. We shall have to see how that one goes but suffice to say I have retained the receipt and might yet have to take Specialized up on its generous no-questions-asked saddle exchange offer. There is nothing like a sore bum for encouraging a sporting finish to a ride, however, and before long we were regrouping back in Egham for tea and medals or in this case post-ride pizza which Sanks offered to share in typically gentlemanly fashion. Guilt-free pizza is one the foremost reasons I ride a bike in the first place so he didn't meet much resistance.

Piecing together my fragmented Garmin stats I see that we ended up riding almost 101km in about 4h20m, so an average speed of around about 24km/h which isn't going to set the world on fire but it was supposed to be a low-intensity session and with the windy conditions and hills I will happily take that. Always satisfying to make triple figures, whether or not one buys in to the whole purist school of using km over miles.

All in all, a pleasant jaunt around the Thames reaches and lower Chilterns, which would have been made a lot more pleasant without that infernal breeze but can't have everything I suppose. At least the forecast showers held off. 'Train hard, race easy', or something like that...

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Back from the brink (of apathy)

Impressively, I note it's been almost two years since I updated my cycling blog! I've had some good adventures in the meantime, both on and off the bike (Etape Cymru, Dragon Ride etc), but just haven't found the time to settle into regular writing. I guess blogging is one of those things one should do regularly or not at all, so I am going to try to be more self-disciplined in future. As an aside, the rise of Twitter and micro-blogging in general has also provided an outlet for the thoughts and ideas that seem to flit across my mind with great frequency sometimes, so much so that I haven't really felt the need to write any longer blog posts. Given the rather epic summer of cycling I have planned for 2013, though, I am going to try and change this situation.

So, the 'monuments' of my cycling year in 2013 will mainly be as follows: -
  • MAY: London Revolution (180 mile sportive across two days)
  • JUN: Dolomites tour (Belluno-Como) with the LVGs (see previous blogs)
  • AUG: RideLondon-Surrey 100 (closed-road century sportive from Olympic Park)
  • SEP: Spain: Sierra Nevada and Pico de Veleta
All of these opportunities have come about mainly through serendipity. London Revolution was a suggestion from my good friend Sankey who rode the Deloitte RAB as part of British Airways' employee team a couple of years ago. It is run by the same outfit (Threshold Sports AKA James Cracknell) so will hopefully be organised equally well. I am planning to use it as a test event and if I like what I see about Threshold, I might think about doing the full RAB in 2014 with them. In the meantime, I will be riding the Revolution with Sanks and a few of his cycling mates. It sounds good fun as the overnight camp in Windsor is all taken care of - they transport your kit bag from the start and set up your personal tent ready for arrival, there's also a mini festival that night with live bands and adventure lectures etc.

The Dolomites tour I am a bit more nervous about given some of the climbs involved. We will be tackling legendary passes including the Stelvio, Gavia and (particularly worryingly) the Mortirolo, which Lance Armstrong described as the toughest climb in pro cycling (and he as we now know wasn't just operating on Jelly Babies). Still, I am very excited at the prospect of cycling in one of my favourite countries and somewhere I have family roots. I like France and the Pyrenees/Alps rides were spectacular but Italy is another level altogether in my opinion so I'm really looking forward to it. It will be good to ride with the LVG guys again as well and hopefully revisit some of the climbs where Wiggo will have recently (fingers crossed) clinched the Giro.

Next there's the Ride London 100, the inaugural edition of what it's hoped will become the cycling equivalent of the London Marathon and centrepiece of Boris Johnson's new annual festival of cycling. It starts and finishes at the Olympic Park in Stratford and rather uniquely for London will take placed on closed roads, tracing a similar route to that which the new London-Surrey Cycle Classic race will use a few hours later. I was lucky to have my number come up in the ballot (apparently 50K people applied for 20K places) for what should be a great event and something I can hopefully look back on in 20 years' time when it's still happening and think 'I was there for the first one'. I was particularly lucky to be picked having had to pull out of London Marathon training a few weeks previously due to a knee injury, so the Ride London event should hopefully be the cycling equivalent.

The final part of this plan is perhaps the most ill-advised. At the end of August I will go going to Andalucia for a few days with a few cycling mates including my ex-colleague from freuds, Will. We will be taking in some great Spanish roads with an ex-pat outfit called Vamos! Cycling, watching the Vuelta stage finish in Granada and most importantly attempting to cycle to the top of Europe's highest paved road, the Pico de Veleta. A bit intimidating as the last few miles aren't even paved at all and the mountain has also been deemed too extreme for the pros to use on the Vuelta. So it could be quite 'interesting' shall we say, especially if high winds are blowing, but quite an adventure too. You can read more about Veleta here.

So it promises to be quite a summer of cycling if all this goes according to plan. In preparation I have been training with more focus and discipline than I ever have before for any kind of sporting challenge. To start with I have been following the generic London Revolution training plan which has been devised by the renowned coach Andy Cook so hopefully it will stand me in decent stead for the first part of my cycling challenge. It's a good plan as the amount of riding involved is pretty manageable and realistic for someone who also has to hold down a regular job - something I've found is not always the case with other plans.

The big difference with London Revolution to many other sportives of course is the need to ride fairly big distances (90 miles or so) on two consecutive days, so the emphasis of the plan is very much on this element. Saturdays and Sundays are both riding days, based more on time than distance and prioritising steady pace over setting PBs, building up to five hours or so as the event gets closer. There are also recovery rides every Tuesday of around 1-1.5 hours and turbo interval sessions every Thursday. Mon/Wed/Fri are rest days every week so plenty of time to recover and minimise any risk of over-training.

So far I must say I have quite impressed myself with how diligently I have stuck to the training plan but I think this is as much the hallmark of a well thought-out plan as anything else. Unlike other regimes I've tried to stick to in the past (triathlons etc), the sessions on this one seem spaced out well enough to prevent that dreaded Groundhog Day-style training boredom setting in and also look like they were planned around somebody who actually has a life and doesn't want to dedicate literally every waking hour to sport like some Ironman obsessive. In fact I have rather surprised myself with how I have bounded out of bed on dark winter weekday mornings to jump on the turbo so there is clearly some kind of method in the madness. I managed to miss very few sessions throughout the icy start to 2013 and now the weather is a bit milder and the clocks have changed, it's a pleasure to be able to do some of my midweek rides around London's many parks before/after work rather than being chained to the turbo constantly. My blatherings about training on social media, Strava etc also seem to be having a psychological effect as I've even had certain LVG members (mentioning no names) emailing me privately to get a copy of my training schedule, which never happens normally.

All the training also seems to be helping a bit. I have never been the fastest cyclist (as you can tell from the name of this blog) but can now feel myself edging towards respectable pace and it's a good feeling. One of the things I like most about cycling is that at amateur/recreational levels it doesn't really involve sporting talent and tends to reward application in pretty linear fashion. Sure, some people are just born with bigger engines than others but it's not like golf for instance where you can dedicate hours to polishing your swing and spend a fortune on clubs but if like me you aren't blessed with much hand-eye coordination, still really struggle around the course and have a miserable time. Privately I suspect this is another reason for the recent explosion in MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra) as cycling definitely rewards hours invested in a way I haven't felt with many other sports.

So this has turned into a bit of an essay but I just wanted to share my cycling plans for 2013 and provide a few insights into my training. I will be doing plenty of other cycling in between, I'm sure - I really want to try some lightweight touring this year and also maybe have a go at the velodrome if possible. In between all this I'm also planning to move house this summer so that will add to the training complications but change is often a good thing. So I hope some of you will enjoy reading my ramblings and maybe feel inspired to take on some similar cycling challenges yourselves or share experiences of the rides you'll be doing this year.