25 September 2012

Ride report: the Milton Keynes 600 (or how I became a Super-randonneur)

It seems that 2012 has been (and still is) a good year for me. I have managed to fit in quite a lot of long rides, including 200s, three 300s, one 400 and two tours, with getting my PhD. But my other big objective for this year was to become a Super-randonneur (or SR in Audax terms). For no long distance cycling nerds, that is riding a 200, 300, 400 and 600 events all in one season.

Back in October 2012, Lucy and I gave it a go at our very first 200 km audax event. It was tough, and we did not have lots of time in hand by the time we got back to the finish, but we had been bitten by the long distance bugs. Since then, we have a good number of similar events under our belt, and 200s no longer seem as long as the first one.

My plans had gone ok, but the PhD viva was set just two days after my planned calendar 600. It did not seem to be a great idea to go for it and then have your brain fully ready to be able to respond to questions about your last 3.5 years of research. Fine, important things first. To my disappointment, there were no other calendar events left that I could join, and a DIY 600 seemed a bad idea for a newbie like me.

However, Steve, a nice chap who got the most points on an Audax season ever (riding >40.000 km in one year!), has been running his own DIY 600 from his house late in the season, for people who could not fit a calendar event earlier in the year, or were not fit enough. His aim is to help first timers achieve their first SR series. Great plan. Did not take me long to sign up for it, although back then I was not sure about my touring plans just the week earlier.  May not be an ideal plan to be riding in Scotland for 10 consecutive days, and then, ride a 600 with 4 days in between...but there was no other choice.

I took it very easy during the 4 days preciding this ride, only commuting to work. Started filling the gas tank a couple of days earlier but massively failed to get good sleep. The bike was fully ready on Thursday and I was up in Milton Keynes for dinner with the other participants on Friday night. There were 12 of us signed up for this, and amongst those, 5 of us were undertaking this ride as our very first 600 km.

Lights, GPS, Carradice bag, 2 bottles. Good to go.
After we stuffed our faces with a Sunday roast on a Friday, we all hit our beds by 11 pm for a 4:45 am wake up call. The ride would start at 6 am sharp, with British punctuality, of course.

I did not get very good sleep as it usually happens before new events. Maybe managed to get 3-4 hours throughout the night. I was glad I was not the only one though. Coffee, bacon roll and a few chocolates and we were off after collecting our first ATM receipt, which indicated 6:04 am. We had 42 hours to complete the 630 km.

From Milton Keynes to the Red Lodge Café, we rode the 110 km at a relatively fast pace, averaging more than 25 km/h without putting in much effort. The delights of group riding! The tailwind helped a bit I guess, and we were eating our second breakfast minutes after 10 am. Although this was the longest stretch of the whole ride, it felt easy as we were all fresh, and it probably was the best decision to get all those km out of the way sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, my rear hub started playing up just 5 miles after the off, making an incredibly loud noise anytime I freewheeled, which was also accompanied by a not-to-reassuring vibration of the whole bike. I had had the same problem a few weeks earlier in the Kidderminster Killer, but I thought the problem was gone now. It definitely was not. The bike was still functioning, yet I needed to pedal at all times, which essentially made me ride on a short of fixed wheel. It was not a ride-ending mechanical though, so I carried on annoying my companions whenever I attempted to freewheel. On top of this, my butt was not feeling comfortable on the ride, starting to hurt before we even hit the first 100 km. Not being able to freewheel was not going to make things any easier...

Peloton riding on towards Red Lodge
The next stretch to Eye involved another 60 km of flatness and wind-assisted riding, so we got there in very good spirits. Got a receipt, and carried on.100 miles done, and I did not feel tired at all, except for the sore butt. Again, I believe Audax has a massive mental component, as 100 miles (160 km) out of 400 miles (630 km) does not seem so much.

Steve had planned a proper stop with a sit-down meal near Norwich. It was at roughly 200 km into the ride, which was ideal, as it also coincided with Spanish lunch time. We were still doing a respectable average of 24 km/h and everyone was well, except Jethro, one of the experienced riders, who was having some knee problems.

On towards Norwich, a few of the guys diverted off to the hotel which would serve as our overnight stop. They went to pick up the keys for the rooms so that there would not be any faffing when we got back there at night. The rest of us pressed on for some well-deserved food. Jethro finished his ride here as his knee did not seem up for another 400 km.

A lasagna and plenty of bread kept me fuelled for the next stage. By the time we left it was almost 6 pm, and so we had a bit more than 90 min of daylight, and yet another 160 km to cover before the night stop. All in good spirits we said goodbye to Norwich and went onwards to Sheringham, on the coast. I was looking forward to this section of the ride, as it goes through some nice countryside that Lucy and I have cycled in a few times, and it's not as flat as the previous stages. It also meant cycling into the night, which is one my favourite times for being out on the bike.

Sun, tailwind, warmth
Sheringham was only 40 km from the lunch stop, and we got there when daylight was fading. I started to feel very sleepy, having not had very good sleep the previous night, and being more than 15 hours since I woke up. It was not too bad for a stop, so I pressed on with the group thinking about the nice hot coffee that I will down at the next control. At Sheringham, rather than going into town and the shore, we diverted off to the first garage for our proof of passage. I would have liked to have a quick look at the shore, but the clock was ticking. We were also unsure as to whether we would get another feed opportunity at Heacham (the next control) and so I ended up stuffing my saddle bag with bread, cheese and salami. Unfortunately, the coffee machine was out of order, and they did not sell any other sort of caffeinated drink, other than coke. So the third coke of the day it was...

Upon leaving Sheringham we entered into night riding mode: lights, high-vis vest, GPS backlight. All on. A few km later, I had to put leg and arm warmers on, but it was still rather pleasant out. The roads got a bit more rolling, with fast descents and very little traffic. The next control, some 300 km into the ride, was at Heacham, where supposedly Lyndsay, a very kind woman on her weekend off of audaxing, was supposed to be waiting for us with a boot full of delights. However, the last word from her was that she might not be able to make it in the end. With that in mind, we carried on hoping to find something open in case she did not turn up.

Riding into down, some 280 km after our departure. Still 350 km to go!
By 10 pm we hit Heacham, and quite amazingly, Lyndsay was there, waiting for us, in the middle of a dark country lane. Her boot and kindness made our day. All kinds of good audax food was made available to us, washed down with coffee, tea and rice puddings. I could not believe how kind some people are. It certainly made our last stage of the day a lot easier, and surely much faster. She and her daughter also acted as controllers, so no need to pop into the actual town for a proof of passage.

In very good spirits, yet a bit tired mentally, we set off at 10:30 pm for the last 65 km to our night stop. Steve had arranged proper beds and a few hours of much needed sleep.

Night riding is fantastic and I am a great advocate of it. Yet after a long day of cycling it was not as appealing as usual, knowing that our average speed would drop quite a bit, and that I would take us a bit longer to cover those km. I was also ready for bed. I tried to make conversation with my other companions, but I could see I was not the only one who was feeling a bit weary. At times, there was no conversations, just steady red and bright lights going ahead of me.

Just minutes past midnight, Steve started singing happy birthday to Denise, one of the experienced riders of the group. It was her birthday on Sunday, and I thought it was a nice gesture and felt very special. I would certainly not mind having my birthday while on the bike, quite literally!

At 1 am I started to see the blurred orange skies that you clearly see when approaching large towns. It was a sign that we were not too far from Norwich! The last 20 km felt very long and I was so ready for a quick shower and bed. At 1:45 am we hit the Travelodge and quickly got into our rooms. In 15 min I was showered, fed, and asleep. Alarm was set for 6 am.

It did not feel long when my phone started beeping. It had been less than 4 hours since I fell asleep and I was not in the best of my moods or states to continue on cycling for another 270 km. I shared the room with Tom, who has got a few Paris-Brest-Paris and London-Edinburgh-London on his legs, and he reassured me that it is tough but that soon I will be ok back on the bike. A coffee and some biscuits did the initial trick, and by 6:30 we were all ready to go. Quite amazing I thought, everyone seemed happy and ready for another long day on the saddle, having only had 4 hours sleep.

6:30 am, the start of the second day
The first stage of day 2 would take us to King's Lynn, a not particularly nice town on the Norffolk coast. But breakfast there made it look a bit more appetising, and with a slight tailwind we made our way there, hitting the town centre just after 9 am. Initial plans were to go for a full English breakfast in a pub that was meant to be on the route, but after some way finding and faffing, we could not find it. A diversion was made and we went to an OK cafe somewhere in town. I was quite surprised I had made it here without much food since the night before, and so I treated myself to plenty of English delicacies including eggs, bacon, sausages and beans on toast.

With a full stomach, we started to head back down to Milton Keynes. Now the wind was against us though, and would be for the remaineder of the day. It was so bad at times, that we would not average more than 15 km/h even when riding in a group. The next control up was only 20 km out of King's Lynn, but we needed a quick rest.

As we left Sutton Bridge, the wind got quite bad along the Lincolnshire flatlands and on to the Cambridgeshire Fens. It was also quite warm again. On a couple of occasions I stopped for a quick pee and found it very hard to get back to the group. The roads were also straight and featureless, and this was probably the toughest and most boring part of the whole ride. The strong guys sat at the front of the peloton and the rest got going behind them.

In Ely we stopped one more time for some more food, being all quite weary after the headwind. My stomach had been behaving itself quite OK during this ride, and it was craving for something sugary and filling. A couple of pancakes arrived on my table, literally swimming in gross Maple Syrup. Took me a while to realise that it's never a good idea to order adventurous stuff in a typically English café, so immediately afterwards I ordered a bacon bap, which was much nicer than the pancakes. With a full stomach, we left for the next control. Still more than 100 km to go, as the whole route was already being over the official stated km.

Lucy had been sending texts from Philly throughout the ride. Although I could not answer them, they did give me the motivation to carry on. Especially this one. My butt was extremely sore by now, and on a number of occasions I was really wondering why I was doing this. But her text saying "go go it's only a 100 km Sunday ride" lifted my spirits.

The next section crossed some familiar territory that I had cycled in one of the 300 km rides, and found it nice back then. The winds eased down quite a bit, and we had an easier ride from here on, yet had to stop a few times for a quick rest. It was on one of those rests, that an ambulance happened to come past us, saw one of the riders laying on the grass, and attempted to stop thinking there was an emergency, only to be waved by us with an "it's all OK" sign. Strange things happen while audaxing!

Having one of multiple rests
Biggleswade was the last control before Milton Keynes. For at least five of us this had already been the longest ride ever, at more than 550 km. More food supplies were needed for the last stretch of roads.

I cannot remember much other than I was again in good spirits, especially after Rob had kindly lent me some sudocream which I had high hopes would help with my saddle sores. The end was also in sight, with "only" about 60 km to go. Not that this feels like much on a normal day, but trust me, it felt like a long way to me on the day. At least 3 more hours or riding, again, into the night.

The last rest stop
I am not sure if the sudocream did a good job or whether I just blacked out my sores for a while, but made some interesting conversations with my companions and the km seemed a lot more pleasant now. Bad thoughts of "maybe I will ride another 600 km again" or "perhaps I should sign up for London-Edinburgh-London next year" sprung to mind again. None of these had even crossed my mind during any of the previous hours on this ride...

Milton Keynes outline started to appeared on the GPS, and Steve took us on some faster roads rather than on the lanes as to get some speed for the final 20 km. I started to feel strong again, and the realisation that I was actually going to make it till the end seemed real. The last few km into Milton Keynes I spent talking about the Bryan Chapman Memorial ride (a 600 km even that crosses Wales twice) with Matt, who almost nearly convinced me that 600 km are the best rides. 

The group dropped me off at the train station by 9:45 pm. Almost 40 h and 630 km since we started on Saturday. We had made it round, still withing BRM time. I was feeling ok, not particularly sleepy or tired, and was very pleased with myself, having had the rear wheel problem and the sore butt all the way. Also, I was surprised I was OK on only 4 hours sleep. 

Shook hands with everyone and thanked them all for being such a great company. Steve did an excellent job of arranging the hotels, route, and stops. It was a great pleasure to ride with a bunch of very experienced (long distance) cyclists and with 4 new Super Randonneurs. Well done to all of us!

After a bit of arguing with the Virgin Trains manger at the station, he let me on the train without a bike reservation. The train had no bikes on it, but apparently it's company's policy to not let anyone on without a reservation. I begged him, explained that I had been riding for 40 h almost non-stop and eventually he opened the bloody bike storage door. 

By 11 pm I was having some pasta at home and thinking where I could get some sudocream first thing on Monday am. My feelings about doing longer than 400 km rides were very mixed up during the ride, but I was now savouring being a new super-randonneur. Even considering doing another 600 km in May. I am now having two weekends off the bike which will probably get me all anxious about long distances again. It had been the most challenging ride for me thus far, not quite physically, but mentally. 

The stats for the even were as below

600 km ride stats

14 September 2012

First impressions of the Western Scottish Isles

I have just got back from my solo trip to Scotland. In 10 days and ~850 km I had all kinds of weather: rain, sun, horizontal rain and strong winds all in one day. Yet I managed on shorts and short finger gloves. Only two days of really bad weather, the rest were a pleasant mixture of all the above. The midges were still out playing, and got a bit annoying on a couple of occasions, when I got bitten a few dozen times.

But cycle touring up there is good, very good. The scenery is just unbelievable. The roads must be the best ones in the whole of the UK, with very little traffic. We have plans to return next year in May, visiting the Outer Hebrides and a bit more of the Highlands. The Cairngorms are also on the list. And a bit of kayak-ing thrown in as well. If you are planning a trip up there, do go now! It's a well travelled route with cycle tourers - I met at least a couple every day!

The full write-up will take me a while, but for now I will just show a few of the pictures...

Kildonan campsite, Arran 

Arran landscape

Beaches south of Fionnphort, Isle of Mull. A few hours earlier I had 50 mph winds and horizontal rain. Now it's sunny.

Isle of Mull 

Deserted hilly roads, Isle of Mull

Loch Na Keal, impressive site. Isle of Mull

Isle of Mull

Calgary Bay, Isle of Mull

Calgary beach at dusk, may as well be the Caribbean?

Tobermory, Isle of Mull

Scenic ferry crossing over to Ardnamurchan

Enough said!

Plockton, possibly the cutest village of the whole trip

Climbing Bealach Na Ba, the highest pass in the UK at 630 m

09 September 2012

Camino de Santiago Day 13: Palas de Rei - Santiago

After getting all packed up (on the late side as had become traditional by this point) we decided to head to a bar in town for some proper breakfast. There were many pilgrims on foot, many of whom had been walking for two or three hours already, and it felt surreal to tell them that we planned to reach Santiago that day -- still several days away for  them.

Just as we were leaving the bar it started to rain lightly, and eventually became more steady as we headed off on the trail. But it was a warm day and there was fairly good tree cover overhead so we didn' bother putting on our waterproofs. There were some climbs at first but eventually we took to the roads for a long downhill into Melide. On our way into Melide we encountered a disabled cyclist who rode to different spots along the Camino and gave people stamps for their credenciales, while raising awareness about cycling for disabled people. We had a nice chat with him before continuing on.

Emerging from the Camino onto a crossing with the road.
In Melide we stopped for a second small breakfast and bought some bocadillos to eat later for lunch. We were passed by a group of four Korean cyclists who we had been hearing about for a few days from some of the other cyclists we'd come into contact with. Despite the heat, they were wearing long shirts and pants and even bandanas over their faces -- quite the sight!

Despite the early rain it quickly got hot now that we were out of the mountains. We had rolling hills the entire way, but plenty of shade, and the camino was nice and wide for the most part, so we made good progress. We had called ahead from Melide to reserve some beds in Santiago so we knew it didn't matter what time we arrived. (We had thought about trying to press on a bit from Santiago towards Finisterre, but decided we wouldn't have time. Plus I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of Santiago a little bit!)

In the afternoon Miguel and I managed to lose Alberto somehow--he was ahead of us cycling through a small town and Miguel stopped to adjust his luggage on his bike. Then we made a wrong turn and Alberto must  have been cycling back to find us just at this moment, so we managed to miss each other again. After about five minutes of wandering around looking for each other and missing each other's calls, we eventually managed to find each other again. Shortly after this, Miguel noticed something weird with his rear wheel. He looked down to see that the quick release was completely open and his skewer was actually out of place! No idea how long it had been like that but glad we noticed it before it caused a crash.

Through the trees, nice wide camino.
We stopped near Arca o Pino for lunch at a table on the side of the road, grabbing some cold drinks from the bar nearby. It turned out the table was covered in tiny little spiders which got all over everything! So it wasn't the most relaxing rest we've ever had, but at least we had shade.

We knew we had a significant hill coming after Arca o Pino which we once again managed to climb in the heat of the  day. After a few more ups and downs I could tell we were getting very close. I started to feel really giddy and happy, and suddenly my legs felt they had all the power in the world. Alberto told me were going uphill but I almost didn't believe him because it felt so easy.  I guess that's why they call this last hill into Santiago the Monte de Gozo (Mount of Joy)--I'm sure I'm not the only pilgrim ever to have experienced that sensation.

We reached the top of Monte de Gozo at around 6pm and stopped to take some pictures, and one east asian tourist seemed to be particularly interested in Alberto. She didn't speak and English but managed to communicate that she wanted to take a picture with him! Miguel and I found this very funny.

Monument at Monte de Gozo (documenting the Pope coming to Santiago in 2010, the most recent holy year).

Descending towards Santiago.
Eventually we headed down the final hill into Santiago. We located our albergue since it was on the way to the  Cathedral and checked in. It was pretty much a dump, in the bottom of a block of council flats and with a really weird hippy vibe inside. But as it was the only one that listed a number so we could call ahead, we hadn't really had much of an option.

After checking into the albergue we quickly headed to the Cathedral with all our luggage still attached to the bikes. We felt that we really had to arrive there, with everything we'd been carrying for the whole journey. Most of the walkers had arrived earlier in the day but we seemed to be in the prime arrival time for cyclists. It was great to watch other people arrive as well as we took the obligatory pictures and revelled in the moment.

In front of the cathedral
As we were walking around the plaza in front of the cathedral we bumped into Tim, the Kiwi, who had basically done the whole day without stopping at all and had arrived several hours before us. We made arrangements to meet later for some food and headed off to get our comostelas (the certificates that all pilgrims get upon producing the credencial with all the valid stamps). Miguel and I both ended up with the proper ones which you get if you've done the route for religious or spiritual reasons, where they write your name in Latin. Alberto didn't want to say he'd done it for spiritual reasons so he ended up with a less exciting looking compostela.

Miguel and some the spread of our food at Orella
We enjoyed lots of great food at a restaurant called Orella that Miguel had looked up and discussed whether or not we should head to Finisterre the following day. We weren't that convinced that we could make the 90km in one day, as we had heard it was very hard, but although my goal had always been to arrive in Santiago, Alberto had his heart set of Finisterre. Miguel would stay behind as his girlfriend was meeting him in Santiago for the weekend, so Alberto and I went to bed still not 100% sure if we'd actually attempt the ride the following morning.

We forgot to write the stats down before deleting them, so these are the estimates:

Odometer: 75km
Moving average: 10.9kph
Overall average: 7.9kph
Moving time: 6 hours
Stopped time: 3 hours 40 mins

05 September 2012

Regents Park Laps

I don't really like going on 'training' rides. I prefer to plan rides that I'll enjoy, in a sensible order that enables me to build up my abilities as I go. But with Alberto gone on his Scotland tour, and facing a few weeks off the bike when I go visit my family in the states, I decided to give training a try.

View Larger Map

I headed to the outer circle of Regent's Park, a popular spot for cyclists to train in London due to its relatively flat loop of about 4.5km, with only a few traffic lights to interrupt your flow. Despite the fact that we only live a few kilometers away, I've never really done any training there. I've only ever tried to train there once before, but found it so busy with people crossing the road that I didn't really feel comfortable building up any kind of speed.

This Sunday was different, though. I got a late start, so there were plenty of pedestrians and cars around, but it wasn't too busy. There were also plenty of cyclists so I felt safe on the road.

Regent's park is popular with triathletes and other competitive types, which is a side of cycling I generally don't enjoy. I have to admit that chasing down guys in front of me and trying to avoid being passed by those behind was good motivation to keep my speed up!

More cyclists head into Regent's as I get ready to head home.
I finished with 30km on the day, with no accurate gauge of my average speed since Alberto's taken my GPS to Scotland with him. Still, I know I got a work out, which is all I was really after. I think I'll be incorporating more trips to Regent's Park in the future!

01 September 2012

The Western Isles & Scottish Highlands

Ever since I moved to the UK, I have heard good things about Scotland. A few years ago I became interested in the cycling possibilities of our neighbour country, and so I started doing my research.

After so many thoughts thrown at possible routes, and quite a few consultations with other cyclists, the Western Isles (Inner Hebrides) seem a good starting point. It would also be the perfect holiday for finishing my PhD. September is also recommended as a good time to go up North, with relatively mild temperatures and chances of decent weather. I will be, for the first time, touring solo, as Lucy will be on the other side of the Atlantic spending time with her family. If I like it, I sure will take her with me next time.
I will train it to somewhere near Ardrossan, ferry over to Arran and up North onwards to the cycle utopia that the Isle of Mull appears to be, perhaps on to Skye and eventually East to Inverness. I have 10 days and have not planned much. I will be wild-camping as often as the Scottish weather (and midges!) allows me to. I have even packed my swimsuit and perhaps I can even get a tan in one of the beautiful beaches along the road...?

A very rough route is shown below...but it is possible that I avoid Skye in favour of more Highlands if time isn't too tight. 


This is what I am (hopefully) expecting to see. Picture taken from the superb travel blog of James Trickey's
I will be happy to hear your comments or suggestions if you've toured around any of the areas I am planning to touch on.