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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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.

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.

Pro cycling

I admit it: I’m addicted to reading. If ever I find myself with spare minutes I immediately reach for my book (I’m rarely without one), phone (how did I live before smart connectivity?), newspaper or magazine (I draw the line at free sheets and their mindless editorial copy though). This technologically advanced age fuels my desire to constantly be absorbing information, articles, tweets and blog posts and I simply don’t like doing nothing. Multiple IM champ Mark Allen and Brant Secunda wouldn’t approve of my inability to “quiet the mind” – although I do have their book and will read all about doing it I’m sure! So today, finding myself at lunch with time to kill and nothing to read- well…thankfully a WH Smith was located near my lunch spot. The saviour: the new design Pro Cycling.

I’ve always preferred Cycle Sport and sister title Cycling Weekly, but I have to hand it to Future Publishing: the new design is terrific. Clean crisp artwork, a wider page layout and heavier paper stock; bold, elegant and sophisticated; echoes of Wallpaper’s style, Creative Review’s innovation, National Geographic’s powerful imagery, even hints of Dazed & Confused’s edgy cool. It looks fantastic.

It’s hard for a monthly title to break news (that’s what cyclingnews.com – in the same stable – is for), but it certainly can provide depth of analysis, probing editorial strength and unique feature-led values. What Future Publishing have done here is create a blend that gives us cycling fans the insights into the pro world that we crave together with a sense of cycling viewed through an artistic eye. The unique beauty of the sport is its ability to fuse spectacular landscape vistas with fascinating race action; Pro Cycling mirrors this through it’s design and structure. Regular sections such as ‘Folio’, ‘Insiders’, and ‘Retro’ are simple yet stylish, but the content remains strong: ‘The Interview’ (with Cav), ‘Profile’ (Carlos Sastre), ‘Preview’ (of the Giro) and ‘Race Tech’ (chainrings) all hit the spot.

It’s refreshing to see Pro Cycling doing something different. And if it can really deliver on substance as well as style, with some hard hitting comment and analysis that holds the elite cycling world to account, then this could be a winning formula. The cover price is a bit steep (£4.99? Seriously?). In this instance my urge to feast my eyes on the written word overcame my desire to retain a crisp five pound note; but substantially more favourable pricing through a subscription is de rigueur in the print publishing world these days. Pro Cycling is currently available in all good news agents! Check it out.

Which TT Bike?

Yep, I’m looking to make that big triathlon step. I love my road bike, but to maximise my potential over short- and long-course triathlon I know I need to get myself into a fast, aerodynamic, energy-saving position. I’ve considered getting clip-on bars for my road bike (this no doubt works well for a lot of people) but – for me – the solution is in investing in the right equipment and bike fit. There really is only one option: buy a Time Trial bike!

So the question is: which TT bike?

I’ve canvassed opinion, read stacks of reviews, spoke to bike shops, and listened to people on Twitter and blogs; but the choice is tough. An Ironman Pro told me he loved the Trek Equinox (great power transfer yet road bike-esque feel), hated the Felt B2 Pro (terrible unresponsive handling), felt comfortable with the Scott Plasma (good for long distance, handled like a dream) – amongst others rides. Having ridden several Treks I automatically lean towards the brand, but when I look at value for money and pedigree of performance I’m struggling to see past Cervelo. I always perceived them to be expensive and only for the pros, but the specs on their TT bikes are impressively good value. There are numerous others to consider: Specialized Transition Pro, Cannondale Slice, Argon 18 – to name but a few. But I’ve narrowed my choice down to two, based on a combination of what I’ve read and available specs.

Cervelo P2

OR, Trek Equinox 9.5

Both are available as custom builds (Trek offers tons of customisation and personalisation via their website), but also offer a standard set up generally with a SRAM Rival groupset. Royles bikes offer the P2 with Mavic carbon deep rims, whereas Bontrager’s Race Lite Aero on the Equinox 9.5 doesn’t provide carbon deep section aero features. Both bikes have a proven pedigree amongst the pro triathlon and cycling ranks and benefit from technological and design elements from the respective brands’ flag ship TT frames (Trek Speed Concept and Cervelo P4).

It’s a hard choice! I need something that enables an aggresive position for maximum speed over short course tris, as well as a more comfortable set up for Ironman. Decisions decisions. If anyone has any views, comments or experience I’d be very grateful! I’ll post more once I choose, naturally!

We’re in!

The draw for the 2010 edition of the Maratona dles Dolomites has been made. Today I was delighted to discover that Al, Jonny and I have been successful and will be flying out to test ourselves against some of the hardest climbs Italy has to offer on July 4th 2010.

First raced in 1987, the event now attracts thousands of fans and cyclists and is one of the pre-eminent sportives on the Italian and European calendar. 4,190m of climbing over 7 major passes covering 138km of roads through the Dolomites; this promises to be a tough, tough ride… and for me, ideal preparation just a few weeks out from the Ironman!

Trek Speed Concept Bike

trek_speed_concept_tt_profile_600

Check out this vid highlighting Trek’s innovation in their latest TT bike, as used by Chris Lieto in Kona last weekend. This was publicly launched by Contador at the Dauphine, followed by the Astana team at the Tour (read Bike Radar’s write up).