Falling down the TT rabbit hole

I seem to have inescapably fallen down a slippery, aerodynamic rabbit hole this season. This has partly been fuelled by having a lack of time for longer rides due to work and two small children. But also a renewed desire to improve my cycling performance this year.

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Bad to the bone

There have been various catalysts for this change in focus, probably the mains ones being a lack of time, more regular use of the turbo trainer this past Winter, an improved diet, cutting down on alcohol consumption, reducing my weight, becoming excited by all the resulting improvements and then the subsequent purchase of speedy cycling equipment. The upshot of this snowball-effect being that I am now beyond the point of turning back from the slippery, aero war of time trialling!

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Shit just got real! 

I can still vaguely remember back to my early cycling days and being embarrassed about going out in public dressed in lycra shorts. Since then, experience has taught me to never-say-never with anything cycling. However, having recently bought one of those ‘penis helmets’ (albeit a slightly less ridiculous one that has a very small tail, and which I’m calling a ‘semi’) there doesn’t appear to be many absurd, cycling barriers left to cross. My aversion to aero skin-suits and shaved legs are probably the ‘last stand’ against my complete indoctrination.

Over the last few months I have been steadily improving my average speed on the local club time trail. It’s a non-standard 8.5 mile distance, covering a complete loop of the lake in our valley. It’s also a slightly undulating course with a few sharp turns so not the quickest of courses. Prior to the recent purchase of a second hand time-trial bike I managed to set a personal best around the lake on my road bike. This gave me some justification for the TT bike purchase, as I could satisfy myself that I am now actually quicker over short distances than I used to be, rather than just buying a faster bike in an attempt to keep up with my younger self!

I managed to pick up a frame and a set of wheels from a friend who used to race at a top level. I then picked up various odds and ends second hand like a chainset, derailleurs, brake calipers and gear shifters so it’s ended up being a bit of a mongrel bike. But, it kept the cost down and ultimately it’s just needs to go fast, not look pretty.

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My best average speed on a road bike was 22.5mph, whereas I averaged 24mph this week on the TT bike. My next target is to try and hit a 25mph average which would result in a sub-20 minute time around the lake. This has always been my benchmark for ‘proper-quick’ and should normally result in a top 3 finish in races. My time this week put me in 9th place out of about 35 riders. The club record is 17:20 (average speed 28.8mph) which is quite frankly ridiculous and I’m not sure I could even do that in my car.

This week I managed to overtake two riders who had set off at separate one minute intervals ahead of me. At the finish I heard my two-minute-man telling his friend that he had been overtaken by a rider who had set off 2 minutes behind him. However, he explained “that’s ok – he had a disc wheel”. Suddenly it dawned on me, I had become ‘that guy’.

 

The parallel universe where Zwift almost makes sense

It’s been six months since I last posted, my previous entry coming just before the arrival of our second child. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the first 6 months is hard work. One of my survival techniques was to eliminate all non-essential activities such as blogging, seeing friends, sleeping and eating freshly prepared food. Cycling was the one thing I kept, not so much as a hobby but more as therapy.

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This one stays

I set myself the targets this year of cycling 100 miles a week and losing a few kg’s. In an ideal world, these ought to be relatively modest goals, however as my wife keeps pointing out we currently live a bloody long way away from an ‘ideal world’. Several universes away at least. In our parallel universe, where time and space no longer exist and the world is ruled by illogical infants, it is generally not possible to find 5 or 6 hours of free time a week as well as the discipline to avoid using food and alcohol as comforters after a tough day.

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Commuting remains the most efficient way to keep up the mileage

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Although cycling 100 miles at once is another method  (note – requires some bunking off work)

Despite initially being quite skeptical of Zwift and other forms of ‘virtual riding’ I have ended up quite enjoying the turbo trainer when combined with a screen. It’s similar to playing a computer game with your legs. I would still choose to ride outside in the cold, wind and rain over a virtual ride but it’s a great tool for Winter evenings when your day is wholly consumed by work or child care.

In previous winters I’ve only ever managed a small handful of turbo trainer sessions. The insanity of pushing yourself to the limit while staring at a wall for half an hour requires an elusive kind of willpower that is easily eroded by the battles of real life. I’m not sure I agree with the Zwift marketing spiel of it being a “sociable, online community of cyclists” but it has certainly turned the turbo trainer into something I now use regularly.

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“Don’t make me use the turbo trainer”

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Nothing will ever beat cycling in the real world

70 – 80% of my riding this year has still been outdoors and despite the most miserable weather seemingly coinciding with my cycling windows I’ve enjoyed the solace of cycling. Dare I say it but I also almost feel like some sort of form seems to be coming. Yesterday I set my fastest time in 4 years up my local, regular climb. I’m not sure whether this can be attributed to the gale-forced tailwind, the little bit of weight I’ve lost … or god-forbid the structured training I’ve been doing on Zwift. Whatever it was, it felt good to set a new ‘Dad-PB’. I’m looking forward to beating it next time.

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You can’t get Belgian tan-lines like these on Zwift

N+1 squared

This past week we’ve been celebrating two new additions to the BikevCar family. The first was a new bike. Well, actually a second-hand beater which will live at my office in Bristol and serve as a city run-around and toddler taxi. Our daughter’s nursery is a couple of miles from my work and on roads that are generally gridlocked at rush hour. So this new bike should hopefully add a bit of enjoyment to an otherwise painful last leg of our commute.

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Jammie dodger

The bigger news this week was the birth of my son. Wife and baby are both well and at home and we’re now adjusting to life with this new addition. Time is obviously scarce so I’ll keep this blog post brief.

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It takes two to tangle

I was involved in a bit of a nasty cycling accident on Sunday. To make matters worse it was my wheel that actually made contact with the guy who went down – a work client no less. If cycling is the ‘new golf’ for networking, I’m not sure of the positive networking effects of hospitalising a work client on a corporate group ride!

I went riding on Sunday with a client I’ve been working for. It was all going well until the two of us got a bit hot-headed and decided to race down someone who’d overtaken our group … boys will be boys. We shot off, and soon after I felt the sensation of a wheel hitting my rear wheel, followed by the horrible sound of a clattering bike and person behind me. I quickly braked and turned around to be met with the sight of a client and friend crumpled in a heap and groaning loudly in the road.

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After some amateur attempts at first aid (luckily no mouth to-mouth) we enlisted a stopped car to take him back to my house which was fortunately nearby. After some further questionable attempts at first aid, I drove him to the A&E walk-in clinic in Bristol to receive some proper medical attention – basically a couple of stitches to the elbow and a hug. We were very lucky it wasn’t anything more serious as my Strava account showed we were doing 25mph at the moment we crashed.

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I felt a bit responsible so sent him some vouchers to buy a new helmet to replace the one that was cracked from the impact of the crash. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, etc. It could easily have been either of us that went down.

Anyway, most importably his bike was ok. And it already seems to be a great story for everyone we work with. Maybe hospitalising a client is good for business … ride safe all.

A fortnight in France

After two weeks in France we’ll be heading home tomorrow, saying au-revoir to freshly baked croissants for breakfast, fantastic wine almost any time of day and glorious weather. And from a cycling perspective I’ll be sad to see the end of quiet roads, smooth tarmac and generous drivers. In two weeks I’d be hard pushed to remember a pothole or aggressive driver.

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This past week we’ve been enjoying a more relaxed pace of life in Les Sables d’Olonnes, heading out to the beach every day along the extensive bike paths.

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Bike & Baguette – when in Rome … 

Previously we stopped for a couple of days in Bordeaux for a mid-holiday city break. My wife went shopping, I toured the city using their ‘V3’ bike-share scheme.

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I tried, but unfortunately not even graffiti can make a bike & basket look cool! 

Our first week in France was spent in Provence in the foothills of Mont Ventoux. It was mostly a relaxing week spent by the poolside or out having long lunches in the various market towns. But of course I found the time to have a couple of climbs up the infamous ‘Geant de Provence’.

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Hot climbing in Provence

And prior to our two week family holiday I managed to sneak in 3 days by myself in the Alps, climbing as much as my legs could handle – 23,000ft as it turned out.

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Cold climbing in the Alps 

In total I’ve ridden over 400 miles over the last 2 & 1/2 weeks, about 50 of these were family rides with a toddler on the back on the back of the bike. The only dampener on the holiday is that we’re heading home a couple of days early having been forced to change our return travel plans due to blockades, dock-worker strikes and fuel shortages in Northern France. But hey, no country’s perfect …

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Peppa Pig goes by bike … due to blockades, strikes and fuel shortages (the adapted French version) 

 

Mont Ventoux from Sault

Today is our last day in Provence before we head up to Bordeaux. We’ve been having a relaxing time, enjoying the food, drink and fine weather. However I still fancied one final climb of Mont Ventoux before we depart, so this morning I woke early and headed out towards Sault leaving my wife and daughter still sleeping – two thirds of the family know how to do a holiday properly.

There are 3 roads up to the summit of Ventoux – from Bedouin, Malaucenne or Sault. I’d previously ridden the first two, essentially very similar 14 mile routes at an average of 8%, both with prolonged periods of between 9 – 12%. The Tour de France favours the Bedoin one.

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An overcast morning with the Ventoux summit lost in the clouds

The third route from Sault is the easier route to the top, as it not only starts at a higher elevation but is also longer at 16 miles, so the average gradient is just 4.5%.

After a week of sunshine, this morning was a bit overcast and windy making it difficult to dress for a long climb. I opted for a gilet but decided against overshoes and gloves, a bit of a mistake as it turned out.

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Rainy and sunny morning – perfect rainbow conditions

Whilst the climb from the town of Sault is technically easier – I still had to get there from Bedoin first. This turned out to be 18 miles with 750 metres of climbing. Essentially the equivalent of climbing my local hill, the Mendips 3 times as a warm up. In total it took an hour and 20 minutes to climb the Category 4 Col des Abeilles and race down the long descent to Sault. By this point I was feeling not entirely convinced that this route was going to be easier than just riding the 14 miles straight up the steep road from Bedoin.

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18 hilly miles and a minor Col to get to the ‘easy’ climb

From Sault it was a very gentle ascent, through the damp and cold forest. I passed two riders in head-to-toe BMC kit who were descending to Sault. Neither returned my friendly nod of the head. A few minutes later I saw their team van, thinking to myself that it was quite funny for members of a professional sports team to go out training in full team kit but then ignore people who acknowledged them. My fingers and toes really started to feel the cold, especially with the the temperatures dropping the higher I climbed. With the relatively gentle gradients I also found it quite difficult to get my heart-rate above 140bpm, so was really struggling to warm up.

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After 13 miles the road climbed above the tree-line and met the main route up from Bedoin for the final 4 miles of steep ascent across the barren, rocky landscape that I knew well. The big difference today was the strength of the wind – the infamous Mistral was blowing a strong headwind and then cross-wind as I zig-zagged up the final few miles. It was also a very cold wind and I began to lose the feeling in my fingers.

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Getting a freebie – warming up in the gift shop at the top

I’d agreed to meet my wife and daughter at the top at 11.30am, so I dug deep and slowly crawled my way to the top. I arrived at around 11.15am so immediately ran inside the little shop at the top to defrost. As I warmed, my hands felt like they were burning. Not pleasant. After 10 minutes of pretending to shop,  I headed back outside to wait. I saw the BMC riders had arrived, the first headed inside the shop leaving his bike outside – it had his name on the top tube, Jurgen Landrie … not someone I’d heard of. The other rider was putting on overshoes for the descent so I asked him how their ride had gone. He was so off-the-scale for unfriendliness it was funny. Our conversation went something like:

Me: “Hi, how was your ride up?”

Him: [slowly looks up and stares at me] “Ok”

Me: “I saw you guys at Sault, are you riding up any other routes today?”

Him: [Waits to finish zipping up a shoe. Then looks at me as if he’s considering saying F-off. Finally speaks] “No.”

I decided to forego any farewell formalities and just walked off. Fortunately my wife and daughter arrived in the car shortly afterwards. Even more fortunately I’d put some cold-weather cycling kit in the boot for the descent so I quickly put on a long-sleeved top and gloves.

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We headed a few miles back down to the Chalet Reynard cafe at the Sault-Bedoin junction to warm up with hot chocolate. I spoke to a couple of Swiss cyclists and told them about my encounter with the BMC riders. They said it must have been a lower-rank cyclist as the top pro’s are all generally chatty and friendly.

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From Chalet Reynard I raced back down to Bedoin with my own team car in hot pursuit. Back at the gite I uploaded my ride on Strava and saw that I was the fastest rider of the day to the summit from Sault, ahead of a certain Jurgen Landrie by 5 minutes! Unfortunately a quick Google search revealed that he’s just the team mechanic for BMC so not a significant scalp to take. However if the other rider who I’d spoken to was a pro and had ridden up in the same time then no wonder he was so bloody grumpy. Drafting up a mountain behind your mechanic and being beaten by some overly friendly English holiday-maker.

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Having now climbed Ventoux 5 times, 3 from Bedoin and once each from Malaucenne and Sault, I can confirm that the Sault route is much easier. But with the obvious caveat that it kind of depends how you get to Sault.

Mont Ventoux from Bedoin

After a few days in the Alps I drove to Marseille Airport to pick up my wife and daughter before heading to our gite in Provence. The location of our gite is a bit ridiculous – not only in the foothills of Mont Ventoux, but you can actually see the observatory from the back garden. Fortunately Bedoin is a cute French town that happened to have its big weekly market today, much to the delight of my wife. Hey, if you can’t be good, be lucky!

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“Mont Ventoux? – I never realised.”

After a morning at the market and lunch back at the gite, our daughter needed an afternoon nap and my wife was keen to join her. Which leaved me with a couple of hours to kill … couldn’t have planned it better – time to climb le Geant de Provence!

Drawing on my experience from the Alps my intention was to stick to a manageable heartrate of 160ish bpm and take the climb at a steady rate. However, the lower roads through the forest were beastly with constant periods of 12%+ being the norm. I was massively under-geared with a 39 on the front and my biggest cog a 25 on the back so slowly churned my way up in the hot sun with my heartrate pumping far higher than I’d hoped.

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I passed a lot of riders on the way. Enough to naively make me think I was a half-decent cyclist. Then a couple of petits French riders flew up past me, both out of the saddle with tanned, stick-thin legs like a pair of fleeting sparrows. My slow, pedal-mashing, butter-churning technique was quickly brought back to reality. In the end I decided to let them go!

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The first 8 or 9 miles are a steep slog through the cedar forest, with the odd tempting glimpse through the trees of the observatory to keep the spirits alive. It was also baking hot, so I hung my helmet over the handlebars and tied a buff around my head to keep the sweat from pouring into my eyes. Rocking the wild ginger look!

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After 10 or so miles, the trees finally gave way to rough, scraggy rock. It quickly became a totally barren landscape with no respite from the sun. The only consolation was the mile markers counting down to the looming observatory.

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In the end I completed the climb in 1 hour and 50 minutes. I pushed it as hard as I could for such a prolonged assault, but riding solo it was sometimes difficult to stay focussed. Certainly a different experience to the last time I rode dressed as a bear!

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The descent was a different matter altogether. It took about 20 minutes flying by cars, motorbikes and cyclists on a satisfying rush back down to Bedoin for a well-earned dinner and beer. Overall it took less than two and a half hours to ride top to bottom – fairly non-intrusive for a family holiday so hopefully I’ll find time for another ascent or two this week …