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.

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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.