A weekend in the Alps

I’ve recently returned from a long weekend of cycling with friends in the Alps. This holiday was long in the planning to give adequate time to negotiate with partners and bosses, and to organise the accommodation, flights, hire car and bikes. Between all of these logistical challenges there was also the slightly more important task of training for such a weekend.

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OCD packing 

The chat in the lead up to the weekend was full of bravado as we discussed the epic proportions of our upcoming Col conquering. In reality, it’s extremely difficult to train for high mountains when you live among low hills, so none of us really knew how we’d fare. I had been to the Alps a few times previously, in particular riding up Alpe d’Huez a couple of times.  Both times narrowly missing out on a sub-hour time (the narrowest being an 11 second margin) so I had some unfinished business.

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Col de la Morte

We took it steady on day 1 with a 70 mile ride over the Col de la Morte and Col d’Ornan, the latter part being the same route that the Tour de France had taken the previous day. Despite roughly translating as the ‘Pass of the Dead’, the Col de la Morte is a fairly comfortable ascent that traverses steadily up the mountain at a consistent 7% gradient for just over 7 miles. With a mixture of cockiness and nerdiness, Will and I instigated a game of “Heart Rate Top Trumps” to try and gauge who was finding the pace easiest.  What do they say about pride coming before a fall?

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Cycle nerds 

After lunch at the top of la Morte we headed down into the beautiful valley for some exhilarating riding, the highlight being a long sweeping bend onto a narrow bridge over a deep gorge. Magical roads. The Col d’Ornan still stood between us and our chambre d’hôte and I decided to test myself a little harder up the final climb. The Ornan is a peculiar climb consisting of a long, straight 6 mile approach with a varying gradient of between 2 – 5% before a series of switchbacks over 3 miles of increasing gradient up to around 8%. It actually ought to be a fairly easy climb, however the difficulty comes in the way that the road is always much steeper than it appears due to the vast and open landscape removing any points of reference.

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Day 2 was to be the litmus test of our pre-trip bravado as we attempted to take on the route of the infamous Marmotte sportive, albeit minus the unnecessary ascent up Alpe d’Huez at the end. 100 miles and over 12,000ft of climbing is surely enough of a challenge for any sane person.

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Early morning ahead of a long day

After an early breakfast we headed up the Glandon, a staggeringly beautiful and long climb. Heading over the Glandon was the point of no return as we dropped into a deep valley on the other side of the highest Alpine mountains. We all rode on. Before attempting the double-whammy of the Telegraphe and Galibier we stopped for lunch. For me this is where it all started to go a bit wrong. I had no appetite and had to force my way through half a bowl of pasta. We made it up the Telegraphe as a peloton but my stomach was beginning to cramp up. At the foot of the Galibier, the “Giant of the Alps” I had to stop and tell the guys to meet me at the top. Ahead of me was 11 miles at 7% average on an empty and cramping stomach.

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I suffered. I forced myself to keep going, only allowing myself breaks at every other kilometre stone. Two thirds of the way up I stopped at a cafe for a Coke and to steel myself for the final few miles of pain. At one point I got off my bike and actually tried to walk, but after about 20 metres I realised the absurdity of trying to push a bike up a mountain in cycling shoes and climbed back on. Several times I contemplated asking a passing car for a lift. But slowly I kept ticking off the kilometre stones until I met Mike at the top who’d also had a bit of a tough time on the way up. Our greeting was an emotional hug. I thought I was going to cry. It was cold and windy so we got a quick photo and then made our way down to the meeting point with frozen faces and fingers. Fortunately all that lay ahead of us was 30 miles of unbroken descent back home. Halfway down I’d recovered enough to start enjoying myself again.

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These stones were my friends 

 

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Emotional

I still haven’t quite decided whether I should remember suffering this hard and ultimately conquering a huge mountain as a sign of my doggedness and determination. Or whether I just rode my bike pathetically slowly for a couple of hours. And walked up a hill, oh the shame! Maybe there’s a bit of everything in there.

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For the final day we all planned to ride up Alpe d’Huez in our quickest times. I felt somewhat better at breakfast and managed to eat a decent amount which gave me enough confidence to try. However, my stomach started to give a few angry reactions during the first few hundred metres of Alpe d’Huez so I reduced my effort and just took it steady all the way to the top. I rode at a conservative average heart rate of 150bpm, getting to the top in 1 hour and 3 minutes. Despite being tinged with a bit of disappointment I was mostly pleased to make it all the way up without stopping.

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Alpe d’Huez – gritting it

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End of a great weekend

Alpe d’Huez – still unfinished business!

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Bikepacking to Brecon Beacons

I’ve just returned from a two day saddlebag tour of the Brecon Beacons in Wales. A friend and I took a couple of days off work for a self-guided cycling mini-break. It was fairly impromptu and with minimal planning. Unfortunately, the Audax Gods were clearly unimpressed by our slapdash approach to long-distance cycling and punished us with biblical downpours on Day 1. Any final hope of receiving retribution must have been dashed by the comment as we set off that “it never actually rains all day”. It did.

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Sheep and rain kept us company

We set off very early on Monday morning in a futile attempt to beat the rains. We took the most direct route to the Severn River crossing via Bristol. This meant fighting our way through rush hour, but despite the heavy rain and traffic it still felt quite liberating to be heading away from it all.

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Severn Bridge crossing – bit of a crosswind 

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I’d opted for my steel frame with pannier rack and bar bag. Mike went new school with his carbon bike and roll-bags attached with velcro and straps. There seems to be a movement towards the latter and I can understand the reasoning – you only need one bike and you can ride a lighter bike. However, if you’ve got a steely then this type of ride is the perfect excuse to rig it up in full tourer mode.

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Old school mapping 

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Drying room at the hostel 

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Pro Audax evening footwear 

Arriving at the hostel after 80+ miles in the rain was a great feeling. We immediately hung up our sodden kit, had hot showers and put on our sandals. Socks and flip-flops or bare-foot and birkenstocks? It’s always difficult to completely nail the audax haute couture style so I like to think we covered all bases between us. The 1970’s carpet definitely added to the effect.

We had a beer, ate a hearty dinner and were both in bed by about 8pm. Not exactly rock n roll.

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We set off early the next morning and headed right up into the Brecon Beacons. The scenery was spectacular and made us wish we’d gone for 3 days to allow a full day of Brecon touring in the middle. We followed the River Usk down to Abergavenny with the sun in our faces and a strong wind on our backs. Combined with the long descent it felt like just rewards after the tough previous day.

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Classic gag

The conversation was free-flowing all day. It’s one of the pleasures of long distance cycling in remote parts – you can ride side-by-side at a relaxed pace and talk. And when the conversation dried up, the more immature member of the group resorted to childish pranks.

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Fortunately the locals saw the funny side and joined in

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map

In the end we covered 170 miles and around 10,000ft of climbing over the two days. It was one of those epic adventures that you wish you could do more often and will remember forever. Great times.

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)