Dorney to the Dolomites: part 2

Sunday 4th July

Breakfast eaten, tyres pumped up, chain lubricated; I donned my cycling gear, clipped in and rolled down the road with a couple of mates. This has become quite a common Sunday morning over recent years. But what laid ahead was just a tad more than my usual Herts, Kent, Surrey or Sussex routes!

Maratona dles Dolomites. 138km, 7 mountain passes, 8798 riders from 42 countries. This was my first ever overseas sportive and – despite my plan to ride carefully and enjoy the day – I was very keyed up as the starters gun went off.

The sheer number of riders fighting for space on the road, elbow to elbow, handle bar to handle bar, made for hairy riding early on. The first climb – Passo Campolongo – did little to break things up and, whilst climbing well, I lost Al and Jonny quite quickly as it was just impossible to follow. The first descent was even worse. I’m normally quite a confident descender – the Pyrenees last summer did much to improve my ability – but lines were hijacked from all sides through each hairpin by crazy risk-takers going full bore. It almost felt comedic, as if we were in an episode of Whacky Races. I was in no mood to jeopardise months of training and backed off, accepting I would lose (quite literally) hundreds of places on every downhill. I was also surprised by how aggressive fellow riders were, even on the climbs: Passo Pordoi saw me forced to stop as one guy squeezed my space so much he actually cut my hand in the process. I did wonder whether those from countries with a stronger cycling heritage actually look down on British riders – maybe me being paranoid! I re-doubled my efforts and started picking people off; my confidence grew.

The next three climbs – Sella, Gardena and Campolongo (again) – went by very smoothly. I’m not a natural when the road ramps up: Al thinks it’s psychological, I think it’s power to weight ratio and anaerobic threshold; it’s probably a combination. But this was definitely the best I’ve ever climbed and I even passed a greying Roberto Baggio at one point (if someone can verify that it was the Divine Ponytail himself I’d be grateful! – his jersey categorically had his name, but he doesn’t appear on the Datasport results listings).

As my confidence sky-rocketed, I turned into what I thought was the big one, the Passo Giau; I stepped on the pedals and started riding past everyone around me. You can imagine my surprise as the road sloped back downwards just 2.3 short kms later. Closer inspection of the handy profile (above) on the reverse of the bike number uncovered it’s true identity: Belvedere di Colle Santa Lucia. By the time I’d read the name my surprise had morphed into concern, which then developed into acute anguish as I discovered my remaining gel had burst in my pocket. It’s a tough climb. There’s no hiding echoed in my mind as the real Giau quickly revealed itself.

Considering it’s only 9.9k I found this climb a great deal harder than anything Hautes Pyrenees threw at me – maybe it was the cumulative affect of the previous five, but 9.3% average brought me nearly to a standstill. I vividly remember the screaming back pain after the first 3k, but little else bar the very very brief respite provided by the flat bridges crossing the river. I sometimes suffer lower back pain – in the Chilterns last year in particular – and it must be to do with how I put power through the pedals on steep hills. I’ve done plenty of core, I can hold an aero position for hours with no issues, but when climbing steep roads of 10% ish upwards….. Alternating from seated to standing made it worse and I even had to stop to stretched it out twice. I finally made it to the top and wearily jostled my way through the water station before descending to the final climb of the day.

Passo Falzarego was a breeze in comparison, starting gently I cracked along at 17-18mph, then slowed down to 10mph as it gradually ramped up. Not long to go before the descent to the finish I told myself. At 2117m I crested the summit to immense relief. I coasted past the final feed station, just a fast downhill and a short time trial back to Corvara left.

30 seconds later my tardy study of the route map bit again. Falzarego turns into Valparola thanks to a sharp left turn at a roundabout and a steep 1.2k takes you further up to 2200m. I was very close to breaking point and it took a real deep emotional dig to turn the pedals as the summit hovered just out of grasp. At the top I stopped again, slumped over the handle bars, relieved to be on level ground; I needed to compose myself.

But by now my lack of calories was a real issue and the searing heat compounded the problem. I now think that I’ve never suffered a proper bonk, at least not when cycling; what I experienced for the next 30 minutes was like nothing before. Dizziness, hunger, zero strength, seriously wavering concentration (just slightly dangerous at 40+ mph on a tricky technical descent!), a tired over-heating body and a nearly broken spirit. I pride myself on my ability to maintain physical intensity when the going gets tough – it’s what endurance sport is all about. But believe me, this hurt. At one false flat – a section of road I would normal gobble up at 20mph – I struggled to maintain 10mph, and even stopped again to check whether my brake blocks were rubbing! (the mind plays strange tricks on an athlete in distress).The words get a grip burst into my head and suddenly I found strength to get myself going again.

8.07.48 clicked up as I free-wheeled under the finish banner. An unimpressive time, but still an achievement I’m happy with. An easy training ride? Yeah right. Al and Jonny put in top notch performances – read more here.

The Maratona is the toughest ride I’ve done, bar none, and it forces you to respect it. In actuality the lessons it taught me were invaluable and the strength – both physical and mental – will pay huge dividends. This is a brilliant event that lived up to my every expectation of an overseas sportive. I’ll be back!!

aka Team Hammertime

Al, Jonny and me. At the last minute, Al finally saw sense and opted for shoes.

Dorney to the Dolomites: part 1

This season has been all about one thing: Ironman Switzerland. It’s dominated my thoughts. It’s taken over my life. I can honestly say not a single day has passed that I haven’t contemplated some aspect of what ‘doing an Ironman’ involves. But I’m not the sort of person that can focus on just one single objective, setting everything else to one side.  I love to compete – whether against friends, unknown entrants or simply myself. To motivate me in the short term I need periodical targets to aim for. Without mixing in some other challenges, races or events along the way I’m not sure I’d make it through the 8-9 months it’s taken to prepare for my main event!

And so, when two opportunities came up which any sensible person would have considered mutually exclusive, I simply said yes. To both.

Friday 2nd July

I’d been searching for a fast Olympic distance event and the Marketing Industry Triathlon provided the perfect opportunity. Run by Human Race and set in the superb grounds of Dorney Lake, it’s a lovely course: clear water; 8 smooth laps of the lake on the bike; a fast up-and-back 4-lap run.

I got a good start as guest Daley Thompson fired the gun and was quickly into my rhythm. It’s always hard to tell where you are in the swim section, but I could sense I was in a good group near the front and – as we turned at the first buoy – glimpsed just three guys off the pack. Dorney is excellent for swimming as you can site off the rowing lane ropes so maintaining technique is far easier. I lost two of the group on the final straight but exited the water in 28.27 in about 9th place. T1 was straight-forward: 1.34.

I hit the bike hard. Well, the head wind going away from the boat house hit all of us hard, but I’d decided to go for it on the bike and stuck to my plan. I quickly caught several riders and moved up the field. I was feeling really good by lap 2 and focused on a high cadence and streamlined position perched on the nose of my saddle. Feet out of my shoes, steady dismount, I nailed a 1.08.55 split which was third fastest on the day. T2 presented a bit of a Macca moment with the camera man on me: “come ooooon” I said (more reservedly than McCormack of course!) as the insole of my right shoe slipped with my sockless foot for the third time. Fourth time lucky; I got away in 1.08 and onto the run.

I struggled in Weymouth for the early part of the run, and again my heart rate was high, breathing heavy and I felt rubbish. Still, I forced the pace and picked off one runner on lap 1. By lap 2 I was into my running. Positions were difficult to identify but I just kept pushing myself and managed to run 10 minute laps for 2, 3 and 4 and found a little something for the final metres to finish in 42.50. I was happy to dip under the 23-minute mark at 2.22.57 for 5th place. I was surprised to get a Eurosport camera and mic thrust in my face at the finish line; God knows what I said but it felt pretty cool!

Full results here.

This was the second year the Marketing Tri has been run and it’s great to do something social with industry professionals that doesn’t involve booze! The highlight of my day was actually chatting to childhood hero Daley, who is the official ambassador for the event. I hope to see this grow in popularity in years to come.

As for my performance, well, I’d treated this as a glorified training session and was generally pleased. But I think I should be faster. The swim can improve, probably through actually swimming the distance (not zig-zagging) and tactical drafting. My bike could get quicker, maybe by a minute or two on a calm day and with more high intensity work. Breaking 40mins over 10k in a triathlon should be possible given my training paces, but car-induced injuries have led to my fair share of disruptions and specific brick work wasn’t timed for this event so I would hope to run stronger off the bike as time progresses. Sub-2h20 next time out!

Drivers’ passengers and cyclists

At the start of May I used up one of my cycling lives when a car turned into me sending me crashing painfully to the cobbled street. It left me shaken, and sufficiently stirred to put my thoughts to – er – blog post. In fact, this was actually the second time this year that reckless driving had resulted in my hitting the deck. February 13th (my birthday, as it happens) a startlingly impatient woman overtook me immediately before a roundabout, then slammed on her brakes – upon seeing a car approaching from the right – veering towards the curb and shutting down all the available road in doing so. On this occasion I faired slightly better: minor bike damage, a bruised arm and a knock on the knee.

Just to complete the hat-trick of  motor vehicle induced falls, last night a pleasant evening ride was brought to an abrupt end in Muswell Hill. I was approaching the roundabout – maybe 200m away – and traffic was moving slowly. I opted to carefully filter on the pavement side between park cars and the queue itself. To pass on the right of the queue would have necessitated crossing onto the wrong side of the road – clearly not an option. As I passed a black Jaguar the rear passenger door burst open into my path: front wheel, chin, shoulder hit the door, leaving me on the tarmac split seconds later. Fortunately the bike was fine; my shoulder is quite painful today, my neck aches and my chin is swollen – fingers crossed a day or two of rest will fix me.

What p*ssed me off was the argument from the driver – thinly veiled in superficial concern for my well-being – that it was my fault for passing on the left of the car. I stood my ground: 1/ I was riding carefully; 2/ the door should not have been opened as they weren’t parked and were in fact in moving traffic; 3/ the passenger did not check behind the car first; 4/ I had to pass on the left for the above reason.

But I was not actually sure whether her assertion that I should be passing on the right was true or not; I took my cycling proficiency in around 1986 so couldn’t quite recall my precise legal standing!

So where do we stand then?

A bicycle is a road-going vehicle within the terms of road regulations and as such is bound by the majority of rules that apply to motor vehicles. There are certain rules which specifically apply to ‘motor’ vehicles – oddly, not using a mobile phone, for one.

The area in this case is ‘Lane Splitting’ (under- or over-taking in a stream of traffic). It’s not a name I’ve actually heard of before and is illegal for cyclists – apparently – in some US States. But in the UK it is perfectly within the rules (for two-wheeled vehicles). I passed my full motorbike license test in 2008 and – once qualified – filtering through slow or stationary traffic is even considered a key advanced motorcyclist skill; safely doing so is clearly imperative, given drivers’ propensity to quickly change lanes in such circumstances and you could be obscured in their blind spot at any time.

I’ve read that there was some uncertainty, in old Highway Code, as to whether cyclists practising Lane Splitting could be prosecuted. Rules 129 and 139 stated that “you should…not change lanes to the left to overtake” and “you should…only overtake on the left if the vehicle in front is signalling to turn right, and there is room to do so…stay in your lane if traffic is moving slowly in queues. If the queue on your right is moving more slowly than you are, you may pass on the left.” It was unclear whether this actually applied to cyclists.

However, the latest version is more clear as it specifically requires drivers to be aware of cyclists. Rule 151 replaces 129: “In slow moving traffic you should…be aware of cyclists and motorcyclists who may be passing on either side.” Therefore this gives cyclists the de facto right to pass on whatever side of the slow moving traffic is safest in order to filter.

Besides the retrospective gratification, this corroborative support for my view on last night’s incident earns me nothing. Nothing, that is, unless my injuries don’t heal by next Sunday’s Ironman Switzerland, in which case I might be reviewing my right to compensation! But – as I wrote in my previous post on this subject – I feel part of the broader cycling fraternity and, as such, if this information helps someone else defend themselves in similar circumstances then I’ll be happy.

Safe cycling.

A marathon training run

Yesterday I did something I’ve never done before: I ran a marathon.

Okay, let me qualify: I’ve actually done that five times before, but what was different this time was that it was on my own, on a local trail called the Downs Link, as a training run. To add to the challenge, it was 30 degrees Celsius, I had to arrange my own aid stations (thanks to my Dad and Southwater Co-Op). Oh and I’d done a long run and a 92 mile ride the day before!

The Downs Link itself is a fantastic multi-use trail following the old railway line route linking the North and South Downs. It stretches for 37 miles from Guildford to Shoreham-by-Sea – my family home is conveniently located mid-route in Henfield, West Sussex. I enjoy running in London: gritty, urban, yet quiet and almost social in the parks, by The Thames and along Regents Canal. But there’s something liberating about running free in the countryside, feeling the clean air fill your lungs, drawing strength from the beauty of the landscape surrounding you.

The run itself was tough. For 2hrs I felt great: low heart rate, easy pace, taking on sports drink (using a Fuel Belt) and making water stop #1 in Southwater just on the hour mark. But as I hit the turn around – mile 13 – at Slinfold (near Horsham) the heat was starting to become a bit of a factor. I’d agreed to meet my Dad by a little hump-backed bridge outside Christ’s Hospital school – 2h20 on the clock and as I saw the car I felt elated. I think I’d been dreaming about water every few minutes or so since about 1h30, not helped by running past a load of kids splashing around in a big water sports lake! Fluids consumed I resumed the mission and trotted off southwards back towards Southwater.

My heart rate remained low throughout, but I must have been dehydrated as my energy levels dropped in the final 45mins and every step felt painful in my calves and quads. It seemed an age before Partridge Green emerged; I had to focus mile-by-mile, landmark-by-landmark to get myself home. Seeing people outside the old Cat & Canary pub in Henfield (where the station used to be before the Beeching axe fell), sipping beers and getting ready for the footie really drove home what a bizarre morning I’d just experienced! If I’m honest, I’d say it was possibly the hardest marathon I’ve run – maybe even harder than my first in Stockholm in 30-degree heat; perhaps harder than my PB run in London last year. I finished in 3h42, average HR 132bpm and a pace of 8.30 minute miles. I lost 5 pounds in weight despite taking in over 3 litres of fluid.

Well, technically that’s my sixth marathon under the belt then. I’m pleased to report no soreness today and as Coach says it’s “money in the bank”. In recent years I’ve been a disciple of Tim Noakes who argues that there are no physiological benefits from runs over 2hrs. But this Ironman training schedule has challenged a number of principles I’d hitherto firmly held. Will I see the benefits from going VERY long?

I’ve put my faith in Steve Trew. I’m not one to do things by halves; in for a penny in for a pound….and hopefully – going into Ironman Switzerland in 4 weeks’ time – he’s absolutely right about how much is in my training bank.

Weymouth Middle Distance Triathlon 2010

This weekend was the first major test of my Ironman training progress and at the same time my third triathlon since moving into the sport last summer. Despite substantial disruption to my training since the accident on 8th May, I’d started to feel like myself again in the last ten days and lined up on the Weymouth beach brimming with confidence (if a little apprehensive about the temperature of the sea!).

SWIM & T1: 7.33am. The hooter sounded and into the water I charged along with friends Ewan and Simmo and the other 260+ competitors. Conditions were calm and far more manageable than the Channel last September. After the usual jostling for position I settled into a good rhythm positioned to the right of the pack, concentrating on steady breathing and a long stroke. The swim distance always looks a long long way from land but I was pleased to hit the turn around fairly quickly; feeling good, I opened up and found myself passing people on the way back in. Up the painful pebble beach and into T1: 34mins by my watch. Despite cramping calves trying to get the wetsuit over my heels, I safely emerged from transition with 37:50 on the clock for 63rd place. Simmo and Ewan were 7mins back.

BIKE & T2: after a dicey mount with wet feet slipping off my shoes I got myself down the road to the clock tower (see picture above) and hung a right out of town. I felt uncomfortable for the first 15mins but after the short climb out of Weymouth I found my legs and settled into a good 21-22mph pace, loving the aero position on the new Cervelo P2! The route was largely rolling A-roads with some dual carriageway sections and smooth tarmac; great for fast biking. There were some head- and cross-winds after each turn around point at Bere Regis and Wool but I found my confidence growing as I picked off riders on the windier sections. I saw Ewan flying past on the other side of the road after Wool which was a boost, but what was the time gap? I debated with myself for the next 10 miles! The temperature had really heated up during the bike leg and I’d been rationing 1200ml of drink (an extra bottle would have been nice). I also had to force an energy bar down; I normally like eating but maybe the excitement, adrenalin and heat combined to dampen my appetite. Entering T2 I hit the lap button: 2h35. I also nearly took out a marshal on the tight turn (smiling for my brother’s camera!) – oops. Very thirsty, the extra 350ml of sports drink I’d prep’d for transition was vital. Official time keepers clocked my bike + T2 split as 2:39:12 and 85th place. Simmo had pretty much matched my split whilst I’d pulled out a further 9mins on Ewan.

RUN: Trouble. My left knee was really stiff as I hit the sea front and range of movement was limited. I ran past my folks – putting on a brave face but wincing with every stride – and quickly found a double stitch causing breathing difficulty whilst sweat stung my eyes so much I could hardly see! Those first 15mins were tough. When I go through a bad patch I always have a minute or two where I ask this question: what injury could I suffer that would legitimate a DNF? It’s an odd one I know!! It’s strange how the mind works in times of extreme stress. But it’s whilst I contemplate how painful the wounded pride would be if I failed to finish that I somehow push through my bad patch; it’s getting through these moments that makes you learn about yourself and what it takes to achieve your goals. I went through lap 1 in 50mins and – hitting the beach again – suddenly Simmo appeared on my shoulder (he’d talked down his potential but clearly he’ll be a big rival from now on!). We spoke for 30secs or so before he pulled ahead on his way to an impressive 1h33. Whether it was coming off the injury or the impact of a good bike I’m not sure, but I didn’t have another gear on the run so concentrated on maintaining my own pace. I felt stronger and stronger through lap 2 and found a little something for the final few mins to ensure I came in under 5hrs (1h42 run). The buzz from winding it up down the home straight to the sound of my family and the crowd was something to cherish. 4:59:43 and 79th place. Simmo finished in 4:56:08 and Ewan at 5:10:40 (itself very impressive given that he’s not been training that much this year). Also noteworthy is Ewan’s Crystal Palace Tri mate Selwyn – he’ll be lining up with me in Switzerland – who finished in 5h04; could be close between us over the full distance! Full results here.

Overall I’m delighted. The swim exceeded expectations (for a sea swim) and the bike was strong (although I fancy I can improve here). The run was disappointing, although understandable given the injury. 7 weeks until Zurich so coach Steve will no doubt be working me hard!

Drivers and cyclists

On Saturday 8th May I woke up, made myself a Cafetier and eat a bowl of Country Crisp cereal. Ahead of me was – as usual – a packed weekend of Ironman training. Looking at the bright (if damp) weather and the on-line forecast that conditions would worsen later in the day, I decided I would switch my Saturday to bike first run second. Whilst preparing my gear I checked out the latest sports pages on my phone. I was met with the terrible, sad news that five British professional cyclists had been hit by a driver whilst on a training ride in Belgium (here’s the article). Such news always shocks – in fact, if I’m honest, scares – me. It was only six weeks since elite Ironman Jordan Rapp was involved in a hit and run in the States, very seriously injured and incredibly lucky to survive. Cycling in London is particularly perilous, as illustrated by the ever increasing numbers of Ghost Bicycles standing both as memorials to killed or injured and visual statements to drivers of cyclists’ right to use the roads. Every time I ride somebody causes me to take evasive action whilst they – invariably – continue on oblivious (this applies to pedestrians as well as motor vehicles). Every day a vehicle will pull out from, or into, a side road either without seeing me or – if they physically see me – not registering or valuing my presence as a fellow road user. Startlingly often, drivers cut into space that isn’t there, overtake when there is no room, or even intentionally squeeze my space then gesticulate at me violently when I express annoyance. This – as we all know – is sadly a fact of cycling life; but it’s not right.

So I rolled out of N1 and headed up the very familiar Tottenham High Road. Familiar because it’s my main route to Hertforshire, but also because it is bracketed by the hallowed paving slabs that lead to my beloved Tottenham Hotspur. As I passed Seven Sisters Tesco on the right I overtook a stopped bus, then moved left back into the bus lane to the curb; a silver BMW passed me on my right. Seconds later – having not gone much passed my front wheel – the car turned left. Time slowed down; I braked hard and remember hoping the driver would see me before entering my lane; but in reality his front left wing quickly collided with my front wheel and right leg, sending the bike to the ground and me into the air. I remember landing hard, on the cobbled side road he was aiming for, then leaping to my feet, concerned about how much damage had been done to my bike. The driver got out and was quick to state that he “hadn’t seen me” – despite having just overtaken me.

It’s funny how pain works. It built like a wave in both hands, my left knee, right elbow and below my right shoulder. But it was several minutes later that I saw my right little finger – inside my glove – pointing downwards and inwards, immoveable and oddly numb. The police and ambulance arrived and I spent the rest of the day on a cocktail of drugs and gas (the latter was actually wholly pleasant!). X-rays revealed a dislocated finger which required re-setting (thankfully the bones were intact) and severe knee bruising, but luckily only minor scrapes otherwise. The finger x-ray looked a lot like this image only the middle phalanx was below the proximal phalanx (instead of above).

10 days on and I’m getting increasingly frustrated with my inability to train properly. My finger is stronger (although 2-3 months could pass before full flexibility returns) but I’m still icing my knee to reduce inflammation and fluid on the bursa on the kneecap (Prepatellar Bursitis), nursing a strained coracobrachialis muscle in the upper arm and a bruised elbow. The knee is my main concern as it’s only 2.5 weeks until my first major event (Weymouth) and I can’t see me riding or running this week. I’m swimming to maintain fitness and doing plenty of core (seeing as I have the time). My bike is faring better, despite costing almost £400 to repair (hopefully the driver will settle this though). But I’m constantly questioning whether my Ironman is still on, how much fitness I’m losing and remembering the great form I was in up until 7th May. It’s so gutting.

I realise – though – that I was one of the fortunate ones. Even if the worst happens and my knee doesn’t recover quickly, my loss is merely time. The Ghost Bikes show just how many people are killed in our cities thanks to careless and often dangerous driving. We all make mistakes and accidents do happen; but what makes me mad is that a large percentage of drivers are aware of their reckless risk taking behind the wheel, they know they are living dangerously and that a collision could occur at any time. Moreover, the abuse drivers give to cyclists shows the lack of respect and often contempt they have. “I f’ing hate cyclists” was shouted at a friend once, unprovoked; James Martin, “celebrity cock”, to borrow a phrase from Brad Wiggins, highlighted what’s wrong with the attitude all to clearly in his infamous article in the Mail.

Something has to change. Mandatory tests every X years and advanced driving courses? Yes, if it improves skill levels. But will it make those mindless drives think, and think twice, before manoeuvring?  Will it change the attitude? Okay if one rationally thinks ‘car collision with bike’ they see injuries. But it’s not just the physical pain at the time, as bad as that can be; it’s also what’s lost as a result of the injuries combined with the slow and difficult recovery process for the victim that’s needs to be considered. Reading about the hundreds of small steps and soul-wrenching dedication it can take to recover from serious injuries is a real eye opener. Jordan Rapp’s deep and stirring writing on his blog is one example of how tough this can be. I think the only way to get the message across is to drill this home through whatever means and forums necessary, whilst continuing initiatives like the Ghost Bikes to visually remind drivers of our presence on – and right to share – the road.

Despite serious injuries, Jordan is recovering and putting his life back on track and the British cyclists – Hannah Mayho, Lucy Martin, Katie Colclough, Emma Trott and Sarah Reynolds – are all getting better and will ride another day. It sounds trite, but emerging relatively unscathed from an accident does make you appreciate things more. But it also makes you feel guilty: guilty for feeling lucky; guilty for feeling angry about lost training; guilty for that renewed appreciation for life despite only suffering a relatively minor accident; guilty that you are okay when others are not.

Puddles

And we think cycling conditions in the UK leave a lot to be desired. Come hell or high water the Giro d’Italia always delivers on excitement (Stage 9 of the 2010 edition).