30 March 2012

Ride report: Dean 300 (Oxford to Wales and back)

On a very damp day in January I decided to go and enter the Dean 300 along with some other events. It was one of those days when I needed to plan something, to have some good rides to look forward to. Maybe it was just another distraction or excuse to not write more thesis?

The truth is, the Dean appeared to be one of the must-do events on the Audax UK calendar. The numbers were quite intimidating though: 307 km, 4000 m of climb, and in March. At the time, I had only one 200 flat-ish event under my belt, so it really looked like a serious challenge.

Came March 23rd, and we were in Paddington Station, minutes before the rush hour, on our way to Oxford. I had managed to convince Lucy to come with me, although she would not be riding the event this time. The Dean is named after the Forest of Dean, where the ride goes through in the first half. It is a loop starting from the North of Oxford, to Chepstow in Wales, and back. For the curious, the route looked like this:

We arrived in Oxford in time to grab some dinner, cycle around a little, and head up to the room. While in town, I managed to spot what it looked like audaxers: mudguards, steel frame, cap, bright lights, all qualify as attributes to long distance machacas. Upon arrival in our hotel, we met a couple on a tandem, who were also doing the ride. Was in bed by 11 pm, set the alarm at 5:15 am and tried to get some good sleep. At 3 am I was already awake, thirsty and nervous.

No need for alarm ring, as was awake by 5:00 am, but not out of bed until 5:30 am. Shortly afterwards I started to hear fellow riders wheeling their bikes out of their rooms. I was running late, as always. Left the room by 5:50 am to find out that the start of the ride was not where I was expecting it to be. And it was very foggy. Luckily, saw a couple other riders who pointed me in the right direction. 5:55 am and I had my brevet card in my jersey pocket. According to the organiser, some 75 hard souls were awake on a cold, foggy Saturday morning, in a random location North of Oxford, ready for more than 10 hours on the saddle. We do this for fun. And it is so much fun, honest. With English punctuality, Andrew, the organiser, waved us off at 6 am.

5:55 am, 2.5 degrees, 307 km ahead. Note the machacas on fixed wheel
Oxford to Stow (44 km)
The first leg of the ride went by pretty quickly. It was rather cold and everyone, or at least the group I was in, pressed on. For the first 30 km or so I averaged more than 29 km/h without putting in too much effort. Had an interesting chat with one of the riders, a PBP finisher, and a five times Dean finisher. He emphasized on the importance of keeping yourself hydrated, and I was more than happy to take on all his advice. After all I am just a newbie in this world. As a consequence of this, I guess, I was soon needing to go for a pee, which dropped me off the main group. Although I tried, I could not manage to get back to the fast peloton, and so I rode the remainder of the 14 km by myself. The sun was trying to come out, and at some point I had a great view over the valley, with the thick layer of clouds at the bottom.

Fog and the sun trying to come out. 7 am
Rolling hills and the fog I'd just left behind
Got to the first garage control, minutes after it had just opened, and in good spirits, although a little chilly. My hands were so cold that I could barely bring the bike to a stop at the garage, and almost had my first fall of the day. Luckily this did not happen. I was soon in possession of a receipt and carried on.

Stow to Newent (57 km)
We were now entering the Cotswolds. That meant more ups and downs, which was good, as I was still a little chilly. Although I started off with two riders, I soon had to let them go, as they were putting a pace that was not realistic to keep up for the whole day. Behind me was Frank, a rider that I knew from other long routes, and another veteran of this long distance thing. It was on one of this hills when I saw a guy riding a frame that I had been looking at in the past. The temperatures were rising now, and the three of us made our way through the Cotswolds chatting about the usual: bikes, rides, and equipment.

When I looked at my computer, I had clocked up more than 100 km in 3h and 40 min, without pushing too much. Group riding makes it a lot easier, and this was my fastest ever 100 km. Shortly afterwards, we stopped at the next control, where I stocked up on water and grab some food. Frank had already left before we even realised. Experienced audaxers do not faff around controls!

Quiet lanes, fog is clearing up now
Newent to Chepstow (49 km)
The next leg involved some little climbs, mostly through the Forest of Dean. I departed Newent with Ulfson, who happened to be my companion for the rest of the ride. We were soon following other riders, and cought up with Frank. A bunch of us navigated our way through dense pine forests. I was quite impressed by this little forest, and reminded me of my travels in Sweden. Despite what we were told, the roads were not actually that steep, or maybe it was because it was so nice that we were not even bothered? The traffic had been pretty much non-existent up until here. 

Entering the Forest of Dean
Already on t-shirt
Unfortunately all the lovely roads were finished way too early. After a few more ups and downs we carried on to Chepstow via some really nice descents. We were officially in Wales. The sun was shining and I was feeling quite warm. Lucy informed me from watching the news that the Chepstow area happened to be the hottest in the UK for that day!

Once in Chepstow, we got a bit lost trying to find a decent cafe with cooked food. We had put in 150 km and were incredibly hungry. We ended up playing safe and had a full English breakfast in a nearby pub, where a couple of drunkards showed interest in our bikes and got confused when we told them that we had cycled from Oxford and intended to ride back as well.

Entering Chepstow
Chepstow to Malmesmury (49 km)
After almost 1 h of total faffing, and to our surprise, without seeing other audaxers, we left Chepstow. This town lies on the western side of the Severn river. To get on to the other side, you need to cross the Severn bridge, and that involved a sharp climb that my stomach did not seem to like that much. Got on to the cycle lane and enjoyed a very calmed river crossing.

Crossing the Severn bridge
From here on, I had my lowest moment of the day. I was not feeling good, had severe stomach cramps and found it hard to pedal. I still have to learn that on bike rides I have to be even more careful than usual with what I eat. Fry-ups are not good. Put on the small ring and continued pedalling, although had to relax the pace quite a bit.

Half way through this leg we ended up forming a mini-peloton with two other guys from Dorset. I was quite nice to work with them, and together we battled some slight headwind without a problem. The guys were doing the Easter Arrows event from Dorset to York in a few weeks time, so were happy to do some fast miles with us. Next stop was Malmesmury, where once again we stopped in a supermarket for some food. It had been my quickest 200 km, in just over 8 h of riding time. 

Malmesmury to Membury (56 km)
The Dorset riders had warned us that a few hills awaited us. Although we stuck together for quite some time, we dropped them in the second of the hills. I can adapt easily to other peoples paces in the flat, but find it hard on the uphills, so we just kept going up at a comfortable speed. Sunset was approaching and Ulfson and I wanted to arrive at the next control before it got completely dark. The scenery was really nice in the Malmesmury Downs area, with some amazing descents.

Somewhere in the Malmesmury Downs
And so we did. I knew about Membury since Lucy's grandad, an army pilot for the US army in WW2, had been based there during the war. However, nowadays, I could not see anything from the roads, although apparently the runway remains. Crossing over the M4 and into the service area, we stopped there for some more food and a receipt.

Always nice to see the sunset from the saddle
Membury to Oxford (50 km)
We turned into night mode here. Lights and warmer clothes on. GPS screen backlit. All good to go for 2 h of night riding.

Left the service area in complete darkness at 7 pm. Had spoken to Lucy and agreed to meet in Oxford for some dinner, so food was calling. This last bit of the ride was quite benign, with only a little hill shortly after the stop. It was here where we picked up our first flat tyre of the day. Minutes before we had been talking about how great the Gatorskin tyres are for UK conditions. Oh well. Fixed it as quickly as we possibly could (it was cold when stopped!) and carried on. Frank and the Dorset riders passed us here, and we did not see them again. 

The night riding section went pretty well, with the exception of the flat tyre, and we pulled into the Oxford suburbs 20 min before 9 pm. We pressed on as we tried to complete the ride in less than 15 hours. A few traffic lights slowed us down, and we got our receipts just a couple minutes past 9 pm. Ulfson and I shook hands and congratulated each other on a great ride. It truly feels good to complete this, 2h earlier than I had anticipated. Quite surprisingly, I did not feel any pain and legs were still going strong. Yet.

Lucy was waiting for me in town to go out for dinner. I would not take a shower and would turn up in lycra. Not that we ever go to anything too fancy, but still...

We're known to be crap with directions, so ended up looping around town until we found the noodle bar that we were looking for initially. Ate compulsively all the food they served and Lucy's leftovers as well. When I stood up, everything started to hurt.

The ride back to our hotel room was the worst 15 min of riding that I can remember. Could not even sit down properly on the saddle, the wrists hurt, and I was feeling really tired. Somehow managed to have a shower, write some notes, and collapse into bed. Lesson learnt: no prolonged stopping in long rides, unless is strictly necessary! Luckily, I felt perfectly fine the following morning!

All in all it had been an amazing experience. One of my favourite rides, if not the favourite, with great companions. Weather could have not been better, which definitely helped a lot. In previous years, they had snow, hail, rain, and wind. Some seasoned riders took more than 20 h to complete it, so I was very pleased we did not have any of that. 

The stats for the day:

- Total 308 km
- Moving average speed: 23.6 km/h
- Maximum speed: 63.6 km/h
- Moving time: 12 h and 48 min
- Stopped time: 2 h and 12 min
- Average speed (including stops): 20.1 km/h
- The climbing is a bit controversial. Despite the official 4000 m, I reckon we did not do much more than 3000 m, but still, not a flat route
- 8 water bottles drunk. At least 8 times I had to pee.

28 March 2012

30 Days of Biking

A few weeks ago I learned about 30 Days of Biking, a project that started in Minneapolis, MN and is in its third year. 30 Days of Biking does pretty much what it says on the tin--it encourages you to cycle somewhere everyday for 30 days -- in this case, the month of April. Then you share your story online with all the other people around the world who are participating in the challenge.

I was intrigued by the idea but reluctant to register myself. Although I almost always go on a long ride on the weekend, I am less good about cycling during the week, to get to work or just to get around town. I can always come up with a number of excuses, including:

  • "I'm not headed to work, I'm headed to the train station to go work in some other city today. So I shouldn't take my bike!"
  • "I have to dress nicely today for an important meeting. My outfit just doesn't work for cycling!"
  • "I'm going to the pub after work today. I wouldn't want to drink and cycle!"

...and so on and so forth. But, intelligent minds will notice that these are not insurmountable obstacles. I thought it would be fun to give myself to some motivation to find creative solutions to the things that stop me from cycling more often. 

I was also hesitant because I have some travel plans in April that will leave me without access to a bike for at least a few days. Well, I'll have to come up with a creative solution to that problem as well, because I've become the 1,940th person to register this year! Here's what I wrote in my registration form.
I love cycling and spend nearly every weekend on my bike, participating in brevets or going on mini tours, or just riding around in the countryside. But it's very much a recreational or athletic activity for me - I don't tend to use the bike as much for utility. Today I let all the lame excuses in my head win and took the bus to work. From the bus I saw loads of cyclists commuting in the early spring sunshine and I was jealous of them! I want to challenge myself to ride more frequently and for different purposes.
I'm looking forward to this challenge and will of course be blogging about my progress!

27 March 2012

The King of all long distance events: PBP

Less than a year ago I heard about Paris-Brest-Paris. Unfortunately, back then, it was too late for me to classify for it, but have been reading lots about it since. Next one will be run in 2015 and cannot wait for it! In the meantime, this is one of the finest short videos of the 2011 version. Big achievement just to make it to the start. All participants are hard souls that have completed a Super Randonneur Series on the year of the event, that is, 200/300/400/600 km rides.

23 March 2012

Ride report: Monyash Monster 100 km Audax

This was our third time in the Peaks, but only our second with bikes. We wanted to get away from the Southeast, and head North for some hill (ish) training. Although, again, the UK is not the Pyrinees nor the Alps, it does have some steep and short bumps.

I happened to come across a couple of Audax events starting/finishing in Hathersage, a very convenient location for non-motorised people like us. Sent the forms in one mad day, along with the registration for some other events. We had signed up for 103 km, in March, with 2200 m climb. This meant 2.25 AAA points by Audax UK standards. Great stuff.

Despite some rain hitting our tent overnight, and a very misty morning along with light rain and cold, we somehow managed to get in to Hatersage's Pool Cafe in good spirits, just past 8:30 am. The atmosphere was picking up, and you could see plenty of riders departing already. The official departure was at 9 am, however the organiser allowed a rolling start from 8 am. We took it easy and went for the "full value for money" option. That is, start after the official 9 am kick off and take it easy throughout the ride. English breakfast, and a bacon roll, were eaten within minutes. We're becoming so English, aren't we? Oh yes, we also had the obligatory tea.

Admittedly, Brits win over cooked breakfasts!
Just minutes before 9 am, we were off with a bunch of others. The first hill came very quickly, turned off a main-ish road out of Hathersage and up we went. One rider was already walking here! The hill was actually quite gentle and very enjoyable, again, reminding me of the North of Spain with all the green fields and wetness after a night of rain.

I reckon Lucy's got climbing potential!
Quiet lanes at the start of the ride
Ups and downs followed, with a few step descent sections that we would not like to do in reverse. Which is what, by accident, we did on the following day! The ride had various category 5 (the easiest categorised climbs!) and a couple of category 3 climbs. At around km 40 into the ride, we hit one of those category 3 hills. Oliver, the organiser, was taking pictures of riders going up that hill. I pretended to look cool and strong, stood on the pedals, accelerated, and almost fell in front of his camera. The roads were still wet and as the road turned left, the gradient increased. Not a good combination for my tyres' gripping abilities. Somehow I managed to sit down quickly, recovering the grip and putting the smile back on time for Oliver to shoot at me. Once I got up the hill, I took a few pictures of the people behind me.

Lucy follows Oliver (the organiser) on the way up 
A few km later we reached the half way stop, which was also a control. Brits love their cakes on bike rides (and in every other situation, I guess) as much as we Spaniards love jamón. The pub did not obviously sell any jamón, but the cakes were delicious. Sticky toffee cake, tea, and scone time it was! No guilty feeling here, as there were still plenty of hills ahead that would make good use of all the extra calories that we had just ingested.

Audaxers controlling at a cafe in Monyash
The route continued on heading back North. More ups and downs, though legs were still feeling ok. More info controls went past, where you are supposed to answer questions such as "miles on descent sign" and the like. One of them was strategically situated in the middle of a complicated descent, with gravel, but we were pre-warned on the brevet card. Got the answer and carried on downhill. To just then go back up. Relentless hills here. A sign that reminded us that the Peaks was only made a National Park in 1951 was a cement factory, with its giant chimney, that could be seen from here on until the rest of the ride near Heathersage. Quite contrasting, definitely.

Passing very close to our final destination of Hathersage on our right, we got on a road that circumnavigated our campsite (North Lees area) and went past the famous Stanage Edge, a climbing mecca in the Peaks. Despite the uphill gradient, we were nearing the end of the ride, and the views were spectacular, so we did not mind. 

Stanage Edge, and Lucy

Myself and the rock in the background
Soon that last hill was over and we joined the downhill back into Hathersage. I particularly enjoy this, hitting the maximum of the day here at 68 km/h.

5 km to the end, all the way downhill. Lucy merges with the sheep
Back in the Pool Cafe, we handed over our brevet cards to Oliver. I think we completed the ride in just under 7 h including stops and faffing, at a moving average of 16 km/h or so. Pretty slow, but it was a hilly one. And Lucy's got her first AAA points. I now need to persuade her to do more of these bumpy rides. She seems to enjoy the hills after all. And she's pretty good at it, not walking a single one this time. Some more food at a local cafe and a great view of the rainbow over the Edge was a nice end to a perfect day of cycling.

Lunch at 4 pm, never losing my Spanish traditions!
Hathersage, bottom right corner. Stanage Edge ont he left.
The route looked like this for those interested. Definitely recommended, especially if done clockwise. Much steeper if anticlockwise!

21 March 2012

Our weekend in the Peaks

Mid march might seem like a strange time to go on a camping trip in the north of England, but that's what we did last weekend anyway...

We decided to head up to the Peak District National Park to take part in the Spring in the Peaks 100km audax and get some hill training in. We did some cycling in the Peaks last year, and have done some hiking there as well. The area has great hills, quiet roads, cute towns, and is not too hard to get to from London -- pretty much a perfect combination!

We had previously stayed at a lovely campsite in Hathersage, where the audax started from, so decided to head there again -- this time with warmer sleeping bags. Still, I was pretty apprehensive when the forecast called for rain all day Saturday and snow flurries Saturday night! Our bike touring capabilities are a bit of a work in progress -- we don't actually have racks for our road bikes, so we had to use our big hiking backpacks which we quickly discovered were impossible to cycle in! Luckily, the campsite is walking distance from the village.

After leaving London on a packed Friday afternoon train, we reached Hathersage about 7:30 pm. We headed to the campsite and pitched the tent in the dark. We've practiced pitching it before indoors, but this was the first time we had done it properly. After that, we quickly headed back into the village for some dinner, and then back to 'home' -- our tent -- to get some sleep before the audax. As I say, we were worried about being too cold, but actually we were both too hot and had to unzip our sleeping bags during the night! What a great feeling that was!

Cosy reading before bed
The audax on Saturday was great, but we'll leave that for a separate blog post. But on our way back to the campsite we were treated to the most spectacular full rainbow above the famous (amongst rock climbers) Stanage Edge.

We encountered some snow flurries as we left town on Saturday evening, but knew we would be warm and toasty in our sleeping bags! Almost as soon as we turned in for the night, however, the flurries turned to rain. It rained all night long, and when we woke up at 7am the next morning it was still raining. We took that as an instruction to sleep in and by 8:30am the rain had stopped! I guess we have learned that the tent is indeed waterproof! So we decided to head out on a shorter route of 70km on Sunday, due to the late start.

The route took us out of Hathersage along familiar roads, taking the same climb as we had in the audax the day before. We then headed through the cute town of Eyam and past Foolow to Litton, where we stopped for tea and cakes to round out our cold breakfast of the early morning. We recognised some of the roads from the day before, and others from our cycle ride here last year -- but it was interesting to see all the different ways that they connected. The weather had cleared and we enjoyed some lovely morning sunshine.

After Litton we headed through Tideswell and Peak Forest, cycling up some of the very same roads that we had cycled down the day before! After a short stretch on the A6187 -- the only road with any traffic to speak of of the whole ride -- we passed by Mam Tor and rode down the fabulous descent into Castleton. The thrill was short-lived as we immediately began a long climb up again. We were averaging much lower speeds than we ever have before, but eventually we looped back to Foolow and soon afterwards enjoyed a long descent back to Hathersage. It may have been a 'short' ride but it was intense!

We got back to the campsite, packed up the tent (which had fortunately dried during the day), and made our way back to Hathersage for a final meal and our train back to London. It had only been two days, but something about the combination of cycling and camping really made it feel like an escape. We'll definitely be looking forward to our next opportunity to get away like this.

19 March 2012

Ride report: Invicta Grimpeur 100

 We got home at 10 pm from our first 200 km Audax of the season. I was quite looking forward to an easy night, dinner and good sleep. But I had entered the Invicta Grimpeur a few weeks ago, a rather lumpy 100 km ride taking place in the North Downs. This event had 1700 m of climbing over 100 km, that's why the "grimpeur". Audax people love to use french words for their rides and all Audax related stuff.

So, time to stuff my face on yet more pasta, get the bike oiled up, fix front derrailleur, get clothes ready, double-check routesheet, train times, weather...all the usual routine, but this time right after having finished a long ride. Managed to get in bed by 1:30 am, so not that bad. Luckily, the start time was a rather relaxed 9:30 am, so alarm set at 7 am. I was not too scared about this ride, as we've done much lumpier routes, but not after more than 10 h in the saddle just a few hours ago. My excuse was to get some hilly milles in before our trip to the Peak District, do two rides in a row in preparation to longer routes, and to gain my first AAA points.

Made it to the hall just past 9 am. Plenty of cyclists were already there, getting caffeinated and stocking up on cake. Got the brevet card and off we went exactly by 9:30 am.

Plenty of bike porn at the start, 9:28 am
Leaving Otford, we encountered the first of the hills. I took it easy and got up to the top without much problems. The second (proper) hill came up shortly after a sharp downhill. I climbed it up with a guy on a fixed wheel, who seemed in so much pain, but who did it ahead of many others, including me. I stuck to his rear wheel and observed how he coped with it. He used his body weight so that all of it went down on each pedal stroke. Interesting, but painful, technique, no doubt.  I later found out that he had made it up all the hills except the last one. Hats off to this guy. Just after 10:30 am we reached the first manned control, but as it happened, no one was there yet even though it had officially opened at 10:20 am. What do we do now? Just write the time by hand and check with the next controller. That was the advice from other, more experience, audaxers.

Ups and downs through nice woodlands, similar to our Dorking ride, we passed a couple info controls and stamp control. At this point I was feeling fine, no pain. That's until we got to Yorkshill Hill. We knew this was the last proper hill of the first lap, but the sight of other cyclist already walking was not so encouraging, especially since they all looked pretty fit. I somehow pressed on with another companion, standing on the pedals and battling with the rear tyre which was skidding at times. At the top of the hill we had an enforced break in the form of control. From here on, it was mostly downhill until Otford. I worked together with a couple guys and we were back just over 2 h since we started.

Yorkshill Hill 
At the Hall the organisers had plenty of drinks and food ready for us. Sandwiches and some cake were eaten, and 20 min later we set off for our second loop. I met a rider from the Ramsgate fnrttc who I rode with for the remaining of the route.

The second part of the Audax was much easier than the first one. Not sure if it because it actually was more gentle, or because I took it easier. I kept a conversational pace throughout. I chatted with one local rider that informed me about the storm that hit England in 1987. Apparently most of the roads we were cycling in were badly hit by the strong winds, snapping lots of trees, remaining closed for quite some time. A lot of the vegetation that surrounded us was only 25 years old!

After 50 km of more ups and downs, we eventually reached the end of the ride. It was just past 3 pm when we reached the HQ. The sun was shinning and the temperatures were quite pleasant. Cannot really complain about this year's weather so far!

Overall, I had lots of fun on this ride, and am now looking forward to more of these bumpy routes in the southeast. However, I realised that I need to do better prepping for the day before the audax, or else, carry the routesheet visible. I found it quite hard to find the info controls as the waypoints that I got on the GPS were only approximate.

As for the stats: 105 km total riding from Otford, 4 h and 30 m of riding, with an average of ~21 km/h. Another ~45 m of stopped time/feeding/drinking. I topped 60 km/h in some of the downhills, and drunk 4 bottles of water.

13 March 2012

First Friday night ride of the year (to Ramsgate)

Things have been quite quiet in terms of riding at night. Well, that's not including that most days I ride to and back from work at night. But it is in London, so it does not count.

The Friday night ride to the coast (Fnrttc, Brits love their acronyms!) has been hibernating since December, when they rode to Southend. For us, our last ride with them was to Brighton back in September, and we have been looking forward to the next one ever since.

The first ride of the 2012 season was set to be an almost non-stop ride to Ramsgate, in the Southeast of England (in the Kent county). The distance to cover, over 80 miles, with a midnight departure from Hyde Park Corner (or HPC!) in Central London.

I got the bikes ready over the week: lights, batteries, back lights, tyres free of glass, working brakes, gears, warm clothes and all the usual tools, checked. Weather was supposed to be below 10C and misty. Not too bad for this time of the year, as long as there's no rain. Left work on the early side and got a 2.5 h siesta, which really made a difference! We did not manage to get any sleep prior to our night rides last year, meaning sleep deprivation sometime during the night. But this time it was awesome, felt so awake without the need of caffeine.  Siesta it is for all the future night rides!

Past 11 pm and we were on our way to HPC. Roads were relatively quiet from home, although the drunk crowd in Camden made us realise that it was a Friday night. On to Baker St, crossed Oxford St and more drunk folk, via Hyde Park cycle lanes and arrived by 11:45 pm at HPC. We checked in and without further delay we were off with 25 others.

It's normal for people to shout at us asking what the hell we are doing on a Friday night with all those stupidly bright lights and lycra. But this time it was a bunch of Spaniards that were asking each other "éstos están locos! dónde cojones van? deben de ser un club, joder, qué ganas!!! - these guys are mental, where the hell are they going to, they must be a club, what motivation!!!" I replied with a simple "vamos a la playa! - or we're going to the beach". They did not know what to reply. Moments after this encounter with Spanish fellows, we cycled literally cm past Javier Bardem as he walked on a zebra crossing in Green Park at that time of the night.

After a few more cheesy night clubs along the southeast of the river Thames, we got to Bexley and Dartford, none of which looked particularly nice at night. The route ran alongside the A2, with occasional visits to the actual highway. This was a completely new experience for us...but luckily being in a big group and at 2-3 am made things easier. The shoulder was massive, but still, lorries passing by at 60 mph was definitely not the most pleasant experience.

Regrouping at silly hours
We encountered some bumps on the way, which is always nice when is cold at night. I particularly enjoy the view of other bright lights coming up the hills while in the middle of the countryside.

One of the very few hills on the ride
Past 6 am and daylight was back. The final road into Ramsgate was probably one of the best bits of the whole ride, although the fog did not allow us to enjoy the promised vistas of the cliffs as you enter the town. Oh well, next time maybe?

Wide and flat roads, 7 am or so

Lucy's pressing on for a well-deserved brekkie!
Shortly after 8 am, we reached the cafe on the seafront. English breakfast, as is tradition in this latitudes, was eaten within minutes. Having sampled quite a few of these, I have to say this one scored amongst the top with probably the first ever sausage that I've actually enjoyed in such breakfast.

Some seasoned machacas always head back to central on the Saturday morning ride back to the smoke. I decided to join this time as I felt very awake and capable. However, 50 km into the ride I could not keep up  with the guys and the roads at this time were not particularly nice, so got on the first train from Faversham and was home at 1:30 pm for lunch.

Overall, it was great to be out on a night ride, despite the route not being our favourite, with little (if any!) countryside and fast roads. I managed to clock up 180 km for the day (or night), at an average of ~22 km/h, 60 km/h max speed and 7:30 h in the saddle.

11 March 2012

Ride report: Up the Uts 200km Audax

Yesterday we completed the Up the Uts 200km audax, only our second 200 ever and coming much earlier in the season than last year's. I have been anxiously anticipating this event ever since we signed up in January, knowing that if I could make it through comfortably then I could start to think about longer rides such as the Green and Yellow Fields 300 that we intend to ride in late April! The route consisted of three loops, two East of Ugley, and one West of it. They can be found by clicking on the links below:

Up the Uts stage 1 (108 km)
Up the Uts stage 2 (46 km)
Up the Uts stage 3 (49 km)

We were attracted to the ride because it was based out of the Comrades Cycling Club HQ, one of the famous 'Uts (Huts, but pronounced with an East London accent!) in Essex. The 'Uts are a group of bungalows belonging to different cycling clubs that have been around since the 50s, when the clubs were given land to build clubhouses on--the condition of the gift being that they could only be used for cycling clubs! We have been intrigued by this ever since hearing about it on a podcast of The Bike Show. We also thought, being Essex, that the route would be relatively flat, which it was, although not as flat as we imagined.

Comrades CC bungalow in background. Me looking weird in foreground.
At the start of the event we met up with Paul, a rider who had posted online looking for company on the ride as he didn't want to have to cycle alone in the dark (at our pace, the last hour and a half or so was ridden after sunset). We got our brevet cards stamped and enjoyed a hot drink inside the bungalow, and then headed out on the first 100km loop that would bring us back to the HQ, several info controls and a cafe control later.

Inside the club HQ
It was a really lovely day, with temperatures in the mid teens (upper 50s Fahrenheit) and patchy sunshine. We rode along the very quiet lanes of Essex and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere. At the cafe control in Sisted we met Tom, the guy organizing the Green and Yellow Fields, so we're now very excited to do that ride! We fell in with these members of the Willesden Cycling Club for a little while, riding upright trikes:

Just before we reached the control at 109km into the ride I could feel the telltale hunger pangs and my first instinct was to push on as hard as possible to make it to the control and get some food... but I remembered from our previous 200 that you have to overcome the psychological tendency to treat each control as if it is the end of the ride -- if you sprint towards the end of each control you end up paying for it in the next stage! So I had some Haribo and kept an easy pace up -- we were back at HQ by about 2:00 and tucking into a bacon butty and warm apple pie with custard by about 2:05! I tell you there is something to be said about cyclists cooking for cyclists. The food was exactly what I needed, not to mention the outrageously cheap prices and the speed of service!

The cooks!
After lunch we headed back out into the lanes to do a 50km-ish loop. The field had gotten more spread out by then, and we only encountered a few other groups of cyclists out on the road. But we kept moving at a comfortable pace and before we knew it we were back at HQ again, having a quick snack from our own provisions and preparing for the night ride that we knew would come soon. We also had the disheartening experience of watching several riders finish the whole 200 while we were there resting, just 75% through. Those guys are machacas!

Los machacas riding the 200 (courtesy of PloddinPedro from YACF)
The last loop consisted mainly of B-roads rather than tiny lanes, which was probably good given the darkness. I think those roads are a bit faster, and the hills a bit gentler, which is exactly how you want it for the last stage of a 200. Although I could feel the miles in my legs, I had no trouble keeping up the pace we had set all day (a bit over 21kph) and could hardly believe it when we passed the final info control in Elsenham at 198km into the ride. Paul remarked that we were very close to finishing in under 11 hours, only for us to be stopped at the level crossing 500m up the road! After making it through that obstacle we sped back to the HQ and got our brevet cards stamped with exactly 11h! A big improvement from last year's 13:35.

Also on this ride I had the chance to try out my fancy new GPS, which Alberto says was necessary as a backup in case his ever fails, but I am starting to think was all part of his cunning plan of never having to wait for me at junctions again! I also rode for the first time with the handlebar bag that I won from Travelling Two before Christmas. More detailed reviews will follow after a few more rides but they both performed admirably over the 200km!

At the end of the ride with my new handlebar bag
All in all, a great ride, with a moving average of 21.2 kph and an overall average of 18.3 kph. I reached a max speed of 66kph which is a new record for me! Including our rides to and from the station we ended up with 235 km for the day.


08 March 2012

Am I an Athlete?

Pondering life's big questions...

I've never thought of myself as an athlete.

I've been a relatively active person for most of my life, alternating between dance, yoga, pilates, and the like, but I never practiced these a particular amount of intensity or dedication. During my 'pre-cycling' years, I viewed injuries as pretty much an act of God, like a hurricane, or an earthquake -- and the method of dealing with them was similar to that of a natural disaster: lay low and wait for it to pass. Suddenly, my attitude to injury has changed, and it has made me realise: I might be an athlete.

Somewhere along the way last week I picked up a minor ache in my knee. I think it started last Monday when we cycled 30km roundtrip to Hammersmith after work (on our commuters) to see a play. My commuter bike really isn't set up for those kinds of distances; the seat is too low. My right knee (the one that always makes the first pedal stroke when I set off from a traffic light) started bothering me on the way home, but I didn't think too much of it. To be honest I didn't really take much notice of it over the course of the week; I have vague memories of it bothering me slightly, but not enough to stop me from two runs and a few days of bike commuting.

But after our Friday Night Ride to Ramsgate (which I am sure Alberto will be blogging about any day now!), my knee was quite achy and remained that way for a good 24 hours. I had noticed it a bit on the bike, but it hadn't really troubled me until we finished the ride. As we recovered (read: attempted not to fall asleep) on Saturday, I decided that I should take a few days off from both cycling and running to try and let it heal.

Now, back to the original point of this post: the realization that I needed to take some time off from my normal activities was actually troubling to me! I had been contemplating spin class on Monday and certainly going on several runs in order to keep up my fitness; this weekend we have our first 200km audax of 2012. (The idea of skipping the 200 was completely out of the question!)

Not only was the anticipation of missing all these activities upsetting, but I found the week without physical activity quite challenging mentally. I have been feeling pretty sluggish all week, and this morning the minor setback of having to retrace my steps by three minutes to get my wallet which I had left at home  had me near tears! I decided to go for a run today after work as my knee felt better (and I just couldn't take  the emotional turmoil anymore!) So far so good, but we will see how it holds up on the 200.

In the meantime, I am left wondering... am I an athlete now?!

02 March 2012

A loop of the North Downs

We needed to put some hill-ish miles in. Our upcoming trip to the Peak District to gain our very first AAA points (i.e. points awarded by Audax UK for riding hilly routes) means that we "southerns" are going to experience some pain. The UK is not a particularly hilly country compared to other European destinations, but it does have some ridiculously steep, yet short, roads. In the Southeast, the best you can get is across the North and the South Downs.

The North Downs are close to central London, just on the outskirts of the M25, and we have cycled through them quite a few times already, but always on our way to somewhere. So this time we decided to do a loop to take in some of the most famous bumps (including the infamous Box Hill!) that overall totalled over 2000 m climb in 120 km. Although this may look quite significant, it really is not, as the climbs are never longer that a few km followed by nice descents. Nothing compared to climbing 2000 m in the Pyrinees or the Sierra de Guadarrama in Madrid (yes, we do have mountains down there!). The route was originally used by a chain of cycle shops in one of their outings, and looked like this:

We got to Dorking just after 9 am, and headed straight into the first climb of the day, to the west of the town. The traffic was very light, something to be expected on a Sunday at 9 am, but surprisingly, it remained this way for the rest of the ride. The first 20 km were very scenic, passing through very narrow country lanes and farms. It really felt like the North of Spain, with the green fields, rural cottages and farmlands. Crossing the busy A24 via a cycle path underneath the highway, we entered the zig zag road that takes you to Box Hill. This road will be used by the machacas of the Olympic Road race in the summer, but unlike us, they will climb it 9 consecutive times. Truth be told, this hill is probably the easiest of the day, and we were atop it without much delay. I felt much better than last time I was here in January, when I struggled a bit to keep up the pace with the other riders (too much turrón after Christmas I reckon!). The view from the top is really quite nice, and was already busy at 10 am with other fellow cyclists.

View from Box Hill, at 226 m over sea level
Roads out of Dorking, very quiet and scenic
After a few stretches of A roads (again, very quiet) we headed east and then south towards Gatwick, where the roads seemed much flatter and extremely wide for UK standards. After some quick miles the tarmac began to get a bit steeper - we were back in the Downs. Somewhere en route we saw quite an usual sight in this part of the world:

Can we pass you Sir - I shouted
Lucy climbing out one of the many short steep hills, but still smiling
The roads remained bumpy for the rest of the ride. Up and down all the time, through narrow stretches of country roads. Some of them we had already used in the past two Audaxes organised by "El Supremo", but unlike those times, after a descent we would head back up again and again. Peaslake, a cute town embedded in the forest, appeared at the end of one of those descents, along with mountain bikers everywhere. I knew this was a popular area within the southest mtb community, and promised myself to return with the wide tyres sometime soon... Although I wished I had my mtb with me, the lanes were so lovely to be ridden on skinny tyres that I soon forgot about it.

It really felt isolated near Peaslake
The hills were relentless, and we were feeling it. All the bumpy miles seemed to be packed in the last third of the ride, with the steepness increasing gradually as we approached the 100 km mark. Past the 100 km Lucy was allowed to complain (or that is what I was told, apparently) so I wasn't looking forward to it. However, she handled all the hills extremely well and she had an smiley face throughout the ride. Maybe the new cassette (a 12-27 in cyclists language) I had fitted to her bike helped here?

Approaching the end and she's still smiling after 2000 m of accumulated climb?
After a long-ish descent, we got to Dorking and back to the train station before it got dark. All in all, it was probably my top ride in the Southeast. Very little traffic, nice roads, and excellent weather. Lucy's getting fit, no complains about hills nor km left on the ride!

The stats said: 6 h 15 min moving time, 55.7 km/h max speed, 20.5 km/h average, 1 h stopped, total of 127 km (plus another ~20 km door to door). 4 bottles of water were drunk, and only weed twice!

01 March 2012

Eight Ingredients of a Brilliant Cycle Ride

On Sunday Alberto and I went on a fantastic ride, one of the best rides I've ever been on! So I thought I would break down what it is that made it so wonderful!

1. Motivation
I haven't been able to go on a long ride since our 100km audax back on January 29th. It's been all short rides, spin class, and running for me since then, and I've been dying to get back in the saddle! Plus, with our first 200km audax of the year coming up in two weeks and I was really concerned I wasn't fit enough yet -- so I was really motivated to have a good ride.

2. A good route
We found a route on RidewithGPS that we thought would be suitable, and was it ever! It was the long route from an Evans Ride It event (organised by a chain of bike shops here in the UK). We're skeptical about sportives organized by the big chains but the route looked pretty interesting, with plenty of options to cut the route short if necessary. It started in Dorking (gotta love British place names) which made it relatively easy to get to. The route turned out to be very well chosen -- avoiding any major towns and taking us on a nice tour of the North Downs.

3. "Good" hills
Which brings me to the next ingredient in our cycle ride...the hills. We deliberately chose a hilly route to try to catch up on our training, and the hills of the North Downs were perfect -- challenging but doable.

Hills, hills, and hills

4. Great weather
We had a high of around 13C (55 F) and bright sunshine for most of the day. It's February, and we rode without jackets! It was also the first ride of the season where we were able to stop for food and a bit of a rest without starting to freeze as soon as we cooled down.

5. Quiet roads
This is also somewhat connected to the quality of the route, but it has to be said the roads we were on were some of the best we've ridden. Very quiet; even the A roads that we expected to be quite busy were actually fine, and for the most part very respectful drivers. It was a pleasure to ride and we never once felt stressed about traffic.

Lovely lanes

6. A new skill to practice
I have said that I wanted to get better at hills this year, and an integral part of that is gaining confidence with standing on the pedals. I have been practicing on my commute, and in spin class, but I didn't expect it to actually work! Turns out, within the first thirty minutes or so of riding, I was able to stand up on the pedals much more comfortably than I ever have been before. I practiced on most hills until around km 60, when I started to notice that doing so was making me much more tired than just pedaling up the hill. I guess my standing muscles don't have the same endurance as my other ones yet! But it was nice to feel a sense of accomplishment.

7. Fellow machacas
It is always nice to know you're not alone in your crazy desire to go out for a bike ride in February. Our route took us up Box Hill, which has become a mecca for road cyclists ever since it was announced that it would form the centerpiece of the Olympic Road Race route this summer. Then later on in the ride we went through Peaslake, somewhat of a MTB mecca. Both spots were absolutely full of cyclists, and we passed many more throughout the day. It was so great seeing everyone else out and about! (NB: Box Hill is easy!! I made it up without engaging my lowest gear and without really even breathing hard. I even passed one guy. And I am not even very good at hills!)

Crowds of cyclists in Peaslake

8. The company!
Of course, I have Alberto's great company on nearly every ride I go on. But when you are on one of the most enjoyable rides ever, it is so nice to share that experience with someone else. Also, although normally Alberto and I have to negotiate to find a pace that works for both of us, on Sunday we didn't seem to have that problem! The only time he had to wait for me was on the big hills. So the company was even better than normal!

Machacas at the top of Box Hill