Sunday, 30 March 2014

Advanced Road Bike Maintenance

I'm reasonably happy with technical things but of a very German persuasion. I like to read the instructions and follow them precisely. I like logic, numbers and measurable certainty. Six turns of that nut, precisely. A definitive click when the plug is inserted into the socket. Angles you can verify and torque you can measure. Chipps belongs much more to the British Leyland school of creative bodging "oh yes, it comes like that but we find it only really works if you reverse the wires there and give it a good shove". He's great at making things work, and knows by feel that that will be tight enough with a thumb and forefinger, whereas this bit you need to give that a good wrench with your fist. I have to admit that I leave most of my bike maintenance to him - he's got years of experience that makes it much quicker.

With this bike though I want to be able at least do the basics myself. Which started with putting it back together after flying it out to Spain for our riding holiday.

So here I am, working my way round the bike, one bit at a time. Return the handlebars to the stem (but not in position yet) and secure the seat post. Then mount it on the work stand. Start with the front wheel in (oh yes, there's the little lever that releases Shimano brakes, just like it says in the book). Then screw on the derailleur. That's scary, hundreds of pounds of Di2 in my hands. But it goes in and screws tight. Then the back wheel. A process of reading the instructions and looking. I've done it hundreds of times with other bikes but with this new bike I feel the need to double and triple check before I touch a thing. The DT Swiss quick releases are neat and clever but not familiar. Wire up the Di2, pushing the cable home with the little tool supplied. Not really difficult. Pedals on, and tentatively turn the cranks. Change the gears. It works. I'm proud and relieved.

Then I can stand the bike on the ground and go round again. Set up the handlebars, straighten out the stem. Secure everything. Check the headset. Undo the wheels to let them settle into place and retighten. They run smooth now. Check everything is tight. But not too tight, carbon doesn't like that. The required torque is conveniently written next to every screw, but we don't have a gauge so I rely on Chipps' rule of thumb. Apart from that I've put it back together myself.

There it is. I read Advanced Road Bike Maintenance on the plane over. Anything to distract me from the fear of flying. And it's paid off. I'd recommend it!

I could have danced all night...

I took no photos on my first ride. Because I didn't want to stop. The bike just danced under me. Over the hills and a great way off. We rode to Ripon. 55 hilly miles starting in Calderdale with the climb up over Oxenhope moor (the reverse of the Tour de France route) and through Keighley (where new Tour de France tarmac was being freshly laid, ready for July).  Then up from Addingham into North Yorkshire and the gorgeous cycling lanes of the Dales.

I felt at home on the bike, climbing with a steady speed I'd never managed to realise before. Waiting at the top of every hill for Chipps - who has started muttering about how he needs a new bike. I suppose that's the penalty for winning the Granfondo, it makes everything else pale slightly beside it. 

The weather turned just as we hung a right, climbing the lonely road towards Pately Bridge into the wet. But the bike was no less happy in the rain and wind. The Green Howe descent into the town is alarmingly steep, but at no point did I feel out of control. Half an hour and we had cleared the clouds, and the sun shone on the last stretch into Ripon.

A chap on a Pinarello breezed past. He was halfway up the next hill before pride won over staying back with a (much less competitive) Chipps. I couldn't let the GF be overtaken on her first proper outing. Off we went. And with a tiny bit of acceleration she sprung into action. Flying along as though we were meant to race. Catching the chap a couple of hills later, I had to explain, slightly pink-faced (with embarrassment rather than exertion), that I was only chasing him to see what my new bike could do. And then wait at the next junction for a bemused Chipps. 

And before we knew it, we were in Ripon. Just a brief outing to look at a new van.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

It's all about the bike

This is the bike I collected last Saturday morning. I was so excited that there was no traditional Saturday morning lie in for Chipps. We were on the train to Manchester first thing before the Saturday shoppers' rush. Before 11am, the man at Evans had said, to beat the crowds.

And here she is…. all the bells and whistles. I am still stunned that I could possibly own such a gorgeous piece of engineering. She's light as a feather, carbon all over. I've never owned a proper road bike so much of her is a mystery. But my first spin, just out of the door and round the block is of speed, put your foot down and she shoots away, wherever you want to be carried.

Everything about her is optimal, neat, right for a bike that wants to go the miles. I pop up onto a kerb and drop back off onto the road. No worries, we can take the cobbles with the smooth. Her Di2 gears whirr gently and put me into precisely the right gear. Nothing is too much, too difficult. We want to stop here? We stop. We want to go? We go. And we don't stop. It amazes me how well she carries speed. Inject just a little acceleration downhill here and she'll eat the following incline up. Magic.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A journey in pictures

It's not all grim. This week my 'just ride into work and back' training landed on the most beautiful March day. The season is on the turn and this week it was already light when I left. So, no moaning about the weather, saddle up and go. This was a treat of a ride. 

Glodwick as the sun comes up, with the hills beyond.

Charlesworth, and I'm really out of the city.

Above New Mills and the hills of the Peak District ahead.

More Peaks. Amazing light.
Long Hill looking wonderful in the sunshine. Not as Long.

Then obviously, there's the riding home part. Be knackered.
Be surprised that the bike keeps going.
Take advantage of a pretty sundown.

New Mills looking to Manchester.
Then onwards into the the sodium lights and home.
Well, that was a long day. 

Friday, 14 March 2014

Be my hero!

There's been quite a bit of getting on my bike when I'm not quite in the mood lately. Once I've launched myself into the wet, the cold or the dark (and sometimes a combination of all three), I've had time to think about the people who overcome their circumstances, and in some cases, themselves. My heroes.

I'm lucky to have grown up with a couple of genuine, copper-bottomed, real-life heroes. The kind of people who make heroism sound really quite everyday. My Dad tried to escape from Cold War East Germany; succeeding, after several audacious attempts, with sheer, unadulterated, nerve. My Mum's blithe oblivion to temporal and topographical realities and her constant refusal to bow to political realities or the space time continuum made us a family, on this side of the Iron Curtain.

I've known many more - both in life and sports. These are there the people I meditate on, wonder about how they see the world, how they do what they do. There is one single unifying feature; strength of spirit which defies the set of circumstances.

Preparation is one thing but it's the nerve, the audacity and the sheer belief that pushes us beyond what we're sure we can do into the realm of uncertainty and amazing achievement. Where we're both fragile, vulnerable and awe-inspiring.

I was lucky to have sat at the knees of the late, great, John North, drinking in stories of the Three Peaks Cyclocross race, racing in Belgium; the Paris Roubaix and the local 'cross scene.
'Well, I looked round at the top of Ingleborough and the three Swiss chaps were still hot on my heels, so I had to go to plan B'
'What was that John?'
'Well, to run up Whernside as well'.
He was talking about running up the near vertical side of Simon Fell, dropping down the other side and running straight up to the next summit. With a bike on his shoulder. No wonder he won. And the question 'what would John North do?' still prompts an extra mile or an extra push out of us whether training or racing.

Sporting heroes are wonderful (and I have glowed with joy at the achievements of the British women's cycling team) but it's the amazing things my friends and contemporaries do that truly spur me on. Some of their achievements are world-class. Others may seem more everyday. But they're still important. They make me picture myself trying that bit harder. Reminding myself not to be narrow, not to stop considering new challenges and absolutely definitely not to give up.

Jane, who trained and prepared meticulously to ride the famous deep winter Arrowhead endurance race, completing all 135 miles of the trail in extraordinarily cold conditions (down to -55ÂșC!). Tiny and slight, she had to do a series of 10 second sprints just to keep warm. Her description of her ride terrified me, but she rode, and trudged for 34 hours to be the first European lady ever to finish the course. A ride in which more people failed to finish than actually completed it.

Jane's one of a crazy crew of people who think that racing on mountain bikes for 24 hours (or longer) is a perfectly normal weekend activity. I bow to her - and other 24 hour racers I know - like the redoubtable Amy,  irrepressible Jason and genially stoic John Pitchers who recount their tales of racing through long nights, deep mud, hard rocks and all weathers.

They almost make it look too easy though - easy for people who inhabit a world apart. It's the people like Lisa, a woman I normally know as a beautiful and well-dressed customer, devoted mum and supporter of her 'cross riding husband and son, taking on her first 24 hour mountain bike race who make me think. Seeing her standing, make-up-less and full of fear on the handover line but absolutely determined to do her lap, instantly made her into a hero to me.

My business partner, Nicola, is a crack road runner who has juggled her children, our business and her own fitness. Getting back into form after the birth of her first son was such a challenge. Fitting in training and especially achieving a racing weight. But after a few attempts (and still not clipping below the goal she'd set herself) she won a race for the first time in her life at 31.

They're all there to remind me not to limit myself. Fear and self-doubt are there to be overcome, and it's amazing what you can achieve.

Then there are the people who don't let circumstances stand in their way.

My first landlady, Bridget, in my 20s, who as a teenager recovered from polio to resume training and become a professional dancer. The doctors told her she'd never dance again and would always walk with a limp. If you were very perceptive, you might still notice her slight limp, but dance she did. John Pitchers, the 24 hour racer, who has repaired himself, mind and body, after being thoroughly broken by a driver not paying attention. Another friend Liz, not giving up on life when struck by a severe mental illness and inching her way back to reality and happiness. Lately, my friend Sarah who has got back onto her mountain bike after a severe rupture of her shoulder joint. We ride together with Kat, who wheezes her way up every climb, asthma inhaler in backpack, just in case.

And a friend who only just held onto life after he broke his neck when he fell awkwardly during a bike ride; Michael Bonney. He lives on a ventilator, unable to move from the neck down. Yet he's not given in to despair. He has kept on adapting technology until he can use voice operated computers to work, keep up with friends and squeeze every possibility out of the limitations which have been set for him.

We need these people around us to show use the way to do things - the people who face adversity and deal with it. When every day is a struggle, finding the strength to believe that things will get better and to persevere. That's inspiring.

And closest to home, the person who doesn't crack under pressure. My partner Chipps never loses his head or his sense of humour no matter how hard the circumstances. He seems to draw on special reserves when the going gets tough, cheerily fixing broken things or shepherding broken-spirited people off hill sides.

The people around me set examples - none is perfect but between them they grab life, defy gravity and  push frontiers. A conspiracy of trying, keeping going, keeping smiling; everyday heroism.

As I pedal along, I meditate on this human thing, this glorious web of endeavour and aspiration that provokes one step after another, all our achievements spurring better out of each other.  Each one reminding me that there's a point to keeping on. They all say 'don't give up'. And every little thought that keeps me going past that point or this is important.

I need them, that is you, all of you with your stories, your triumphs and heroics - to help me stick to the plan, persevere and believe that if you all can do it, then I can do it too.

Monday, 10 March 2014

My first century and other novelties

For a person who blithely applied to ride 244km of Belgian roads, bergs and cobbles, I've not actually been very far on a bike. I've never even quite tipped the 160km which makes up an imperial century, for instance. And I've never really had a structured approach to training. So there's a lot of new at the moment.

So far, I've followed The Plan. This in itself is a novel approach to cycling for me. But there's more, besides building up the distance (about which later), first I have embarked on a completely new experience:  intervals.

On Monday, Jason took me in hand to show me the ropes. So brief, so innocuous. Just three mad dashes up a long gravel slope, spinning my legs each time on the way down. Then circling the Philips Park trails for five minutes. And repeat. And again. Then I was allowed out to play on my mountain bike hard tail with the regular Monday Pub Night Ride, where I ambled along at the back with a cheerily deflating rear tyre.

Intervals. Serious face.

The following day I felt, ever so slightly, crushed to a pulp. The plan required that I repeat my efforts on Wednesday. Cheers Jason. I didn't make the mistake of going out for a social ride straight after, but the effect on Thursday was, if possible, even greater. My legs appeared to be made of lettuce.

This seemed to please Jason quite a lot.

Lettuce-legged and ready for the super-commute home on Friday

He instructed me to commute to work, not to do too much on Saturday then get 'a decent ride' on the Sunday. By which he meant at least half the length of the Ronde, or more; two thirds maybe, on a flattish route.

Setting out from Warrington with Si

Nothing, if not obedient, on Sunday I found myself heading out on my first ever hundred mile ride. My fellow travellers were my partner, Chipps, and our friend Si, who planned our route from his home in Warrington. It seemed odd driving out of the valley to find somewhere flat, but it was what was prescribed. It was even odder as we realised that the day had dawned bright and clear and promised to be not only warm, but also, sunny.

The ride was a treat - not quite flat but definitely more rolling than we're used to. Si had found a sequence of the quiet kind of lanes, mainly lined with hedges and trees, that are one of the defining characteristics of the English countryside. We rolled southwards through farmland, arable and dairy, in which Spring was definitely springing. Nantwich and Crewe were to the east, but we were oblivious to them as we skirted towns, and avoided traffic, chatting about rides, and road surfaces and bikes and events.

Chipps and Si on the lanes

Our destination was The Old Priest House Coffee Shop in Audlem, a cafe famous with cyclists. Our stomachs grumbling that bars and gels eaten on the hoof (or should that be wheel?) were not proper food, we stacked the bikes and sat down for the treat of the day; a quiet lunch of Staffordshire oatcakes - an oatmeal pancake served warm (unlike the Scottish variety) - rolled around eggs and bacon. With a pot of tea, quickly and sympathetically refilled, it was a perfect stop.

Rested and refuelled, we pressed on. After turning east for a few miles, we began to work our way northwards. I realised that our route crossed and recrossed the M6 motorway. Come this far and we'd usually be dodging juggernauts and weaving through traffic on our way to or from visiting friends or some far flung mountain bike event. But the little lanes had - almost deceptively - coaxed us fifty miles in the sunshine, left here, right there, freewheeling down hills and straining in the pedals to crest little ridges. We had left Cheshire, almost touched Wales and were beyond Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire whilst scarcely noticing the distance.

Emergency pie

The afternoon set in as we passed the Jodrell Bank observatory. A quick stop for a snack whilst admiring the view. It's an amazing construction, bright white in the sunshine against the blue sky - and for a second a couple of russet pheasants posed in a bare field in the foreground, creating a postcard scene.

Dusk started to fall as we spun the last ten miles back into Warrington, with Chipps encouraging me to practice sitting on his wheel, a vital energy-saving skill on a long ride. Somehow a hundred miles had slipped by, a hundred sunny miles, easy and sweet.

So, that's training so far. The things you think will be hard will be easy. The things you think are easy wipe you out. Your legs are sore, but you get used to it. And it's not (thank heavens) always raining.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

A short Tour de Yorkshire

It's only March and we're already gripped with Tour de France fever. The Grand Depart, departing from Leeds and the two stages that wind through some of the best cycling in the world has more than just my cycling friends chatting in pubs. There's genuine excitement at the spectacle breaking through our traditional reserve - not to mention that (grudgingly) we've come to realise (with a string of medal-winning Olympians and two consecutive Tour winners) that Brits are not too shabby at sport on two wheels.

So it was not so surprising to see a steady stream of cyclists - loners and club groups - in the Dales at the weekend. We were visiting and riding out with our long-time mountain biking friend, John Pitchers, at the  Mountain Bike Livery  in Appletreewick. "You're lucky the conditions are good" he said, as we plunged, hub-deep, into a bog. After traversing the 'softer' ground, our stiff climb out of Kettlewell and hard work over the moor was rewarded with a flying descent down a little-used track to Starbottom, taking in rocks, grass and entertaining slither.

A typical Dales bike ride - a couple of hours to climb and descend 600m. Fantastic but not quite the training I need, so the following day I decided to ride the 60km home, taking in some of the Tour route. 

Sunshine and showers in Kettlewell

In just a few months the Tour will speed out west from Harrogate, through North Yorkshire, then wind its way the down through the narrow lanes of the Dales. It will pass through this green, farming, landscape, divided into neat fields with drystone walls, punctuated by stone barns for hay and grazed by sheep. Look up, and the moors above the fields are just bare and craggy enough to add a feeling of remoteness, and when the clouds cluster darkly about them, warn that this is not an entirely benign territory. 

When I set off from Burnsall, it wasn't quite damp enough to count as truly raining but it was a long way from dry.  And this is the thing with cycling in Britain. It may not be at the extremes of anything, but it's definitely not gentle either. Our landscape is beautiful, but it is always ready to throw a curve ball; a midsummer hailstorm, a rolling blanket of fog or a gale force wind, just for fun.

I wondered about the Tour de France riders - I hope they'll get at least some sun for their stages in Yorkshire. It's beautiful in the sunshine but sapping when the weather turns.

My route took me through Addingham (a nice chap let me jump on his back wheel for a few miles of company - they're a cheery lot, my fellow riders) through Silsden to Keighley. I thought I'd follow the Tour route via Haworth but my cyclocross bike was seduced away by the cobbles of the main street into a quick detour.

Then heading back onto the route on to Penistone Hill I hit 'real weather' as the wind and rain decided to drive the message home.

At this point, barely able to see and so soggy that I felt as though that was my substance to the core, I could think of nothing I wanted to do less than the long exposed climb out of Oxenhope over Cock Hill.

Miraculously I rediscovered the bottom gear, I've no idea where it had been hiding but it was a welcome moment! And at the top, seeing our own valley ahead spurred me on. This is a beautiful landscape, bleak and windswept, but lovely.

Pedalling downhill into a headwind just to get a bit of speed was annoying - on a still day, the descent from the top of Oxenhope Moor is one unending and exhilarating swoop, picking up more and more speed as it slips off the bare moorland, down into the valley into the shelter of green woodland and the town of Hebden Bridge.

Once in Hebden I turned off the Tour route (which carries on up Cragg Vale, our local hill climb and the longest continuous climb in the country) and towards home. On the way there was just one little errand to do. Visit the Makepiece sheep:

They were grazing quietly, so I tiptoed into the field with a feed bucket before pedalling the last few miles.

Home at last!

Despite the weather, I can't wait to get back out. We really do have some of the best cycling in the world - and it's brilliant that more people are going to see it.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

So, this training thing...

I like being fit. Fit enough to nail a climb and still focus on the descent. Fit enough to take on a big day out and come home smiling. Fit enough to line up at the start of a race and put in a creditable performance. And mostly, that's what I am. I'm not particularly focussed about what I do, I just like to be able to ride whenever, wherever and whatever I like.

But this Tour of Flanders, this is quite a ride that I've put myself up for. And I want to do it well. I'm honoured that BMC are giving me the chance to do it and completely overwhelmed at the Granfondo bike I'll have to do it on. So I probably need a bit more focus.

The route is varied. The first 100km runs on what look like A roads cutting in from the flatland of Brugge (or Bruges) to Oudenaarde where the hills of Eastern Flanders start. This is where the fun begins; the cobbles and the 'bergs. I have been poring over this year's route. The names of the towns and villages it passes through. Waardame to Ruddervoorde. Zwevezele on to Egem. Flemish names. I love the sound of them.

I am a fan of Belgium in general. It has both an inclusive and friendly biking culture and great beer. Earlier this year we spent a happy weekend in Antwerp with our bikes. We spent a day riding the network of Fietswegs (low-traffic and off road bicycle routes) to the Trappiste Abbey (and brewery) of Westmalle. In the Abbey cafe they'll pour you a 'half and half'; half Westmalle Dubbel, half Trippel. A delicious, isotonic sports drink that it is. Honest. And the miles fly by on the way home!

From the flat(tish) north of Belgium, the Tour of Flanders route winds south to south east until it reaches Oudenaarde and the onslaught of the 'bergs. There are fifteen climbs taking in the Koppenberg,  finishing on the Paterberg. That's the bit I've done before.

I just need to be fit enough to get the first 100km out of the way then let my mountain biker's legs really enjoy the cobbles and the 'bergs. Last time I managed to weave my way up all the cobbled climbs between various walking, struggling and painfully slow riders without putting a foot down. It was a dry day though and I need to be prepared for it to be wet - it is Belgium after all.

Getting out isn't a problem. I love being out on my bike, but there has to be a bit of focus now - training rather than just riding - with 5 weeks (and counting down) to go. I have help though, in the form of Jason Miles, elite 24 hour racer and all round nice guy. Otherwise known as Terrahawk. I like to think I'm following The Terrahawk Training Plan.

He's advised some decent road miles 2-3 times a week - that's where my 40 mile commute to work comes in handy - and intervals twice a week. 'Don't worry if they don't even take an hour' he emailed, cheerily. 'If you like you can come over on Monday. See who can make themselves vomit first'. Then at least one five hour ride at the weekend to mind meld with the new bike.

Then Chipps and I are off to Spain at the end of March for a bit of warm, dry riding, I can use that week to ensure that I get some really long rides under my belt. Then it's just tapering until the big day.

At one and the same time it seems eminently doable and totally terrifying.

"You'll crush it" says Jason. I'll keep that in mind.