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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Weymouth 70.3: preview

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping and the sky is blue; all those hard winter months are behind us and – hopefully – the base miles have had the desired effect. Now it’s time for the racing season!

To placate my winter blues I entered a series of events to add spice to training, trial pacing and tactics and generally tune up before the Main Event: Ironman Switzerland. My major race in preparation for this will be the Weymouth Middle Distance Triathlon, Sunday June 6th.

1930m sea swim. 54 mile bike. 13.1 mile run.

I admit that – after The English Channel last September – the prospect of more competitive sea swimming does not appeal. It starts on the beach and we’ll head out in an oval loop into Weymouth Bay. The organisers release competitors in 15-min waves, so hopefully this will alleviate the usual mad-capped first few minutes as swimmers fight for clear water or a useful pair of feet to draft off. Conditions will clearly have a big effect on time here and sighting will be a challenge. My hope is to just emerge unscathed up the pebbles and into T1!

Looking at archived results, the bike leg could be fast. If it’s the same route as ’09 then – at 54 miles – it’s a shade under the standard distance. There also appears to be plenty of A roads on the route up north-east through Dorchester to Bere Regis and back, allowing some good sustained riding. Past participants have referred to it as “flat to rolling”, so we’ll see. It’s always nye on impossible to predict bike times, such is the impact of course profile; but, I’d be delighted with anything sub 3hrs.

The exit from T2 sends runners down some steps – which will be novel in a race – and onto the Weymouth sea front. It’s a two lap course and I’m reliably informed there’s “only one real hill” and the rest is pretty flat. Given the time of year it could well be a warm day; hydration will be important and it will also provide an opportunity to test out race nutrition strategy in general. If all this winter training pays off and I get my tactics right then I’m hoping to put in something like a 1h40 run time, running just under 7.45 min miles. Coach Trew’s question slash statement about Weymouth was: “this one is pretty serious to see where we are, OK?” I felt yes was really the only answer!

Here’s what some people who’ve previously completed Weymouth had to say:

“I like the weymouth race as it’s low key, cheap and easy on the schedule.”Toby Radcliffe, professional triathlete.

“great event. it’s our club middle distance champs so always a good turn out. can often be hot…”Ewan McKay, Crystal Palace Triathletes.

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Al has put together  an interesting preview of my other overseas challenge this year: the Maratona dles Dolomites. Check it out.

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!

Ashdown biking

Cycled this with Al on Saturday: it’s the route of the spring Hell of the Ashdown sportive.

Hell of the Ashdown

We started at Sevenoaks (train from Charring Cross) and headed north to join the route just after Chevening as it crossed the M25 where the first climb of the day kicks in. This ride takes in some lovely rolling country lanes and quiet roads through Kent and Sussex, with some challenging hills – including Toys Hill from the north side, Kidds Hill (aka The Wall), and Groombridge Hill – to test the legs. It took around 4h30 but, without time lost for a puncture, food and drink replenishment and some early difficulties finding the narrow turns, a sub-4hr is do-able. This is a highly recommended ride.

Motivation: La Marmotte 2009

Col du Glandon, 1924m. Col du Telegraphe, 1556m. Col du Galibier, 2646m. Col du Lautaret, 2058m. 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez to finish. This is arguably the toughest sportive out there. Congratulations to Al and Joe on completing this year’s race in amazing times.

Motivation for next year? 

Reigate Sunday Sportive

Michael Fish

British weather is almost as odd as our choice of TV weather presenters (I mean, why not more Ulrika Jonssons?). Last Sunday in the Chilterns the concern was dehydration as the sun beat down; mistaking lightning flashes for speed cameras on the drive in torrential rain to Reigate, the concern was whether this event would even start! But sportive cyclists – I’m learning – are a hardy bunch.

The biggest challenge early on was avoiding a sock soaking from pools of standing water, or from car drivers ‘getting’ riders with pools on their side of the carriageway (to the b%$£*&! in the black Mondeo: I saw you grinning as you gave me an early bath!). Redhill CC were unsurprisingly out in force and – after Al took off with a handy-looking group – they did most of the work, hammering out a 20mph average pace for the main bunch. Through a rolling section a few riders broke away and – after initially missing the break – I fought my way across to the join them. This group contained the yellow jersey – well, a guy in a yellow jersey – and we really worked well together, sharing the work at the front.

Al experiments with a new aero position in the Reigate rain

Experimenting with a new 'aero' position in the Reigate rain

We hit the feed station at 40 miles in 2 hours. Why – though – do people waste so much time at rest stops? Is it just me, or does everybody seem to pull out recliners, put on smoking jackets and light cigars? So I set out solo, and was surprised to see Al’s group behind me: “wrong turn!” I heard over my shoulder. I held on for a while, but lacking power on a short incline I dropped off the back with two others.

Toys Hill – from the easier side – came and went, as did a short sharp shower, and the three of us pressed on to the climb at Chartwell. Three became two once over the top, and all was well until we realised we’d missed a right turn! 10 mins or so wasted, which turned out to be crucial. The run in was fairly pleasant with little to trouble tired limbs, but without a group to work with maintaining a high tempo was tough. Reigate college finally emerged, and my time was 5h18 – 14 mins outside Gold – and 62nd (of approx 142). It would’ve been close without the wrong turn! Al finished in a fine 4h38.

Here’s the route. It’s also worth mentioning how friendly Redhill Cycling Club riders are. Like many, I’m yet to join a cycling club; if more riders were as welcoming as these guys cycling would be a bigger sport in the UK. Great stuff.

Sunny Surrey

I’ve made my first couple of ventures out of London for some cycling over the last week – and it feels great to be back two-wheeling in the sunshine. Catching the train from Waterloo to Epsom, I’ve broadly followed this route down to Rusper in Sussex, then across to Leith Hill and the North Downs, through the idyllic Ranmore Common and finishing with the Alpe D’Huez-like Box Hill bends and a downhill run-in back to Epsom.

Tuesday was a lone ride in windy conditions, whilst Saturday I was accompanied by Matt on his first countryside outing on his new Trek 1.7, basking in the gloriously warm bank holiday weather. The latter ride’s enjoyment was heightened by Jonny chasing us for the duration: he’d started early from Fulham, and called us from Betchworth whilst we were in Rusper. A track style pursuit followed, but I’m pleased to say we kept our distance up the road until he slid off to Cobham and we to Epsom! I added a 12-mile warm-down to Regents Park from Waterloo and around the North London hills on the way home – 75 miles all up at 16.5mph average.

Leith Hill from this direction is a terrifically enjoyable climb, made even more satisfying by the fast decent through Abinger Common. And I also particularly liked the narrow winding lane from West Horsley back into Effingham Forest, with flowing fields bathed in sunlight emerging around each bend through the tall trees and long shadows. 

There are tons of variations around the North Downs for more climbs or longer rides; see Al’s blog for our February/March rides. I’m also tempted to try the double-chevron climb from Cranleigh up into the hills towards Shere soon – my friend Ruth recounted a scream-inducing experience on a recent Forest Man training ride. A rival for Toys Hill?