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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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!

Chasing the dragon ride

Dragon Ride logo

The Dragon is the UK’s leading sportive, and it’s easy to see why. The Ride combines stunning scenery, long alpine-esque winding climbs, rolling roads and fast technical descents. The administration is impeccable, and the scale of the event – relative to other British rides – is something else.

Car parking congestion meant we were late starting. Matt and I teamed up with Mike – Jonny’s mate – letting Jonny and Will shoot off on a pretty hot pace. The route from Pencoed took us straight into the hills, and on to Bwlch mountain within the first 40k. Early on, finding groups to work with was tricky: not that – with over 3000 riders – we were short of people, but we found we caught and overtook each small bunch. As a result – and despite all three of us climbing really well – I was disappointed with the time at the first rest station at the top of Rhigos.

Matt dropped back on the descent from Rhigos, so Mike and I pressed on. I found the longer steadier climbing suited me far more than the severe 15% ers in the Chilterns, and we kept passing people with exhilerating frequency. By mid-race we also managed to get into some handy groups and picked up the pace on the long flat to rolling sections. Arguably the length of the ride could be shortened – something discussed during post-race debriefing – but personally I enjoyed getting more experience working with some good riders, and inparticular the Fred Baker Cycles team. If the route were shorter it would be fun to have a good go at the climbs; but on the other hand the overall challenge is in the testing length and thus it brings tactics to the fore.

We wound our way through beautiful valleys until Bwlch mountain reared up again for the return pass. Mike dropped me, but nobody else passed me as I settled into a rhythm until 100 miles ticked on my bike computer and I crossed the summit. Once over the top we soon realised that – with under 17 miles remaining – a sub-7h30 was on. The descent was very fast, and – bar one short climb – it was mostly flat to the finish. In the last 10 miles we really put the hammer down and this was probably the hardest part of the race.

If you keep up with my posts you’ll know my time! Here’s the route. And here are the photos.

Would I do this again? Yes, although I’d want to ride with a team to avoid spending more time looking for groups than actually working with them. There aren’t many rides in Britain that have long climbs like this, so it’s an ideal step on the road to an overseas sportive. It’s definitely one to get on your palmares!

Dragon Ride: the results are in

The provisional results have been posted. My time? 7.29.38, narrowly sneaking under the 7h30 mark. Jonny came in at an awesome 6h27, whilst Matt – in his first ever sportive – finished in 8h26. Full write up to follow soon.

Now for 10 days of hard-earned beach action on holiday before the build up to the New Forest 70.3 starts in earnest…..

Dragon Ride

Jonny, Matt and I will be tackling 120 miles in the Brecon Beacons this Sunday. Not sure I like the look of Bwlch2 at 160km in. At least the ‘heavy showers’ forecast from earlier in the week appears to have changed to ‘sunny intervals’.

www.dragonride.co.uk

Brecon Beacons 

Dragon Ride Route Profile

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?

3 weeks later

Recovering from the London Marathon

A lot can happen in three weeks! My plan post-London was to rest up for a few days, consuming lots of protein, vegetables and a modicum of alcohol to sooth mind and body, before easing back into cycling, swimming and finally running. The first two days were spent hobbling around with pretty sore quads: struggling to disembark the 38 bus or climb the stairs at Highbury & Islington tube station; opting for the office lift when my desk is only two flights up; perfecting the embarassed sideways glances when knee inexplicably buckles mid-stride in a busy thoroughfare. I once read a book by Ultra-Marathoner Dean Karnazes advocating running as soon as possible – ideally the next day – after a major event; I’m sure his wisdom is sound, but I prefer cross-training at best coupled with proper relaxation over beers with recently neglected friends!

The next key phase of my build up to Ironman 2010 is a series of sportives at the beginning of June, so on the Friday I hit my Hills of North London route – feeling surprisingly strong. The focus for weeks one and two was to flush out the marathon toxins, rebuild my damaged muscles and keep fitness loss to a minimum during recovery.

I then enjoyed – or rather, endured – an unusual type of cross-training over the bank holiday weekend: moving house! I wasn’t moving far: the other side of a cross-roads. Lugging boxes, sofas, matresses, wardrobes, bikes – you name it – across two roads and (Vietnamese style) through streaming traffic into my newly purchased flat was both physically and mentally exhausting. Here I’ll add that this – not laziness, drunkeness or diminished enthusiasm for this blog – is the reason for a 3-week hiatus in posts. Broadband takes so long to set up!

A few more 2-hour rides have followed – one with my uni friend and close mate Fordy, the latest member of the triathlon fraternity – mostly around London, mixing hills with some flat out work around Regents Park. I’ve also encountered several riders during these rides who are embarking on triathlon for the first time this year; it’s great to feel part of a growing sport. I’ve run for the first time: a 45 minute tempo run at 7.15s, my heart rate slightly higher than pre-London – although that’s to be expected, as my steady runs are normally at a lower pace within a training zone after 2-3 weeks off running – and I’ve been in the pool for an easy 30-minutes. Week 3 marks the return to daily training, and then tri-specific work through to the London Triathlon August 2nd.

Meanwhile in other news…

Al endured a very tough Fred Whitton ride, whilst Fordy competed in the Stratford triathlon and Jonny battled through a wet and windy King of the Downs Sportive; Protesters sabotaged the Etape Caledonia with carpet tacks, and Tom Boonen potentially sabotaged his career with recreational drugs.

Yep, a lot can happen in three weeks!