Stage 4 – Alpe D’Huez Time Trial

Time trial day! I'd been looking forward to this ever since we signed up for the Haute Route. I'd never done a time trial before, and this was not just a time trial, it was up the 21 bends of Alpe D'Huez. There really was no trick to doing well here. Just an hour or so of flat out effort.

However the events of the previous day were playing on my mind. I'd had a 'jour sans' as the French say. A day without. The legs had nothing. I was really worried about how I'd do. The climb is straight forwards. It ramps up at 10% for the first 4 turns then is pretty consistently 7-8 for the rest of the climb. My strategy was to go fairly hard at the start and try and keep 230 – 240 watts, then once the gradient lessened slightly to ease right back to 200 watts. I didn't want to run out of gas as I had done on the Madeleine the day before. Then if I had anything left I'd give it some more at the end.

Anyway enough of the strategy, more about the experience. And what an experience it was. Riders went off in reverse order of the GC with the first person out of the gate at half nine. I was out at 11:08:20, Ian and Simon were off at 11:55 with the last person off at just after 12. There was a starting pen complete with starting ramp and a count down. A guy even held you on your bike so you could clip in properly.

Sat in the starting pen the anticipated nerves had been replaced by shear relief that it was dry and sunny. It would be hot for the climb. “812”, my number was being called. Up the ramp, clip in, then you're counted in. “3, 2, 1, allez”.

Bang, off. A quick wiggle through town then hit the first ramp. Wound up the power to 230 – 240 watts. The muscles felt fine, it was the knees that were really hurting. Quite a few people kept flying past me. All I could hope is that they'd come back to me later on in the course.

The steep ramp ended and the gradient eased off to 8%. All you can do at this stage is settle into the hardest rhythm you think you can maintain for an hour. Fortunately I was not having a jour sans. 220 watts felt sustainable. Now it's about managing the pain and the thoughts in your head – have I gone too hard, not hard enough.

Alpe D'Huez is a beautiful climb. I think it's the way you have the constant hairpin bends and that you have the constant reference point of the valley floor so you realise how quickly you are climbing.

It was such a great experience. There were two feed stations where the people would run along beside you and give you water and coke as you rode. It really felt like the pro experience. I was loving it.

The bends tick down. Finally bend 1 comes up and you think you are there. But you've still got 2km to go through the village. By this point I was really trying to wind it up. Coming round the last roundabout it's a steep finish to properly kill you legs. Of course I had no option but to sprint as hard as I could. My legs were screaming in pain. I finally stopped the clock in 1 hour 09 minutes. Not brilliant but I was really pleased given the previous day.

Ian and Simon went at it hard. Finally there were some signs of life in the intra family competition. Ian went off first, Simon followed and caught Ian in quick time. Ian fought to get back on terms but ultimately Simon had the legs and too a total of 48s off Ian, taking him into the lead. Ian did not look healthy at the top. Signs of Casper the ghost making a reappearance maybe.

Our stay in Alpe D'Huez was nearly at an end. We started in the most miserable conditions imaginable and finished with a time trial in the glorious sun. Now onwards to Digne. On paper this looked like a transition day but the rider briefing showed that there would some really painful bits.

Stage 3 – Courcheval to Alpe D’Huez

24 hours on and I'm still trying to get my head around what we went through yesterday. The three of us have done many events were the weather has been bad. Yesterday was by far the hardest day we'd ever had on the bike. It was a perfect storm of the marathon day with 4650m of vertical ascent with driving rain, vicious headwinds, cold when the forecast said it would be warm, and all of this on the back of two hard days riding.

Let me take you back to riders briefing the night before as this really is the start. The weather forecast said rain, gusting winds but not too cold. That had everyone in a quandary about what to wear. Go full wet weather winter kit and you'd get too hot, don't take any wet weather kit and you'd get wet. Eventually all three of us decided to go with normal shorts, leg warmers, overshoes and the ever versatile Gabba.

The next morning began with a 6km ride down the valley to Le Praz, where the start village sat at the bottom of the Olympic ski jumps. The rain was already coming down and hot tea and coffee were being dished out. Sad news was running through the peloton. 8 bikes had been stolen the previous night leaving people unable to ride that day.

The start of the ride was a 24km neutralized section that was done in convoy down to the turn off to the Madeleine. Within 5 minutes I knew I'd not got the right clothes on and judging by the number of shivering arms shaking front wheels I wasn't alone. By the time the race start point was reached we were all soaked.

I'd decided to see if I could stay with Peter today so we set off at a strong pace up the Madeleine. By this time the rain was properly hammering it down. In the back of my mind I was worried I was going too hard at this point, there was a long way to go, but I hadn't pushed hard enough the previous morning so carried on. The Madeleine is a long long climb. 25km rising 1500m. We settled in for the long haul. After about an hour we started to come out of the shelter of the trees and this is where the lack of warm, waterproof clothing really started to get to me. I'm not good in the cold and wet at the best of times and now a strong wind was blowing right into our faces. Peter had ten yards then twenty. I realised I wasn't going to stay with him so backed off. It was now about surviving the day and making it to the finish line. It's so tough when you hit this point and you are barely a quarter into a long day.

The rain continued to batter us as we climbed up. I was getting worried about the descent now. It would be painfully cold and slow. Gerry then came past, upon hearing I was getting cold he offered up his spare gilet. I took it gratefully. By now we were on the final steep ramps of the Madeleine. Then we were over the top and felt the full force of the wind almost blow us back to Moutiers. Everyone was taking the plastic rain capes the organisers were handing out. Most of us couldn't even put them on.

The descent was long, cold and painfully slow. Having made it up to a height of 1990m we then dropped all the way into the Maureine valley at a height of about 500m. It was a case of keep the brakes on and tuck your legs behind the rain cape as best you could to keep warm as you tried not to lose control of your bike due to your shivering. I've never been so cold and wet on a bike. Luckily as you lose height things warm up. Down in the valley it was a good 8 degrees warmer.

It's a small transition from the bottom of the Madeleine onto the Glandon so pretty soon I was stuffing my rain cape in the back pocket and heading upwards again. Another long long climb. 20km long rising 1400m. With the last climb taking 2 hours this one was going to be pretty much the same. Descending the Madeleine it felt like I was the only one on the mountain, but now more and more riders were appearing. All looking wet and haunted. Soon a french guy, Francois, caught up with me and we sat at the same pace, chatting away in a mix of English and French to try and take our minds off the rain. It was working. The ride was actually okay now.

An hour into the climb, everything changed as we came out of the shelter of the forest and into the teeth of the headwind again. By now the wind had risen further and the rain was coming down horizontally. A group of three of us battled away through the next 5km to reach the key part of the whole climb. The last three km goes up at 10%, 11% and 10%, and we could see it looming ahead through the bands of driving rain. There was nowhere to hide. It was pure survival conditions. The switch backs went alternately into the wind then away. When you had the wind at your back you only had the vicious steep slope to contend with. When you turned into the wind all hell broke loose. Waves of water came rushing down the slope towards you and visibility dropped to mere yards. I stopped to put my rain cape back on as despite the gradient I was shivering uncontrollably. Francois carried on to the feed station at the top.

Eventually I made it. It was carnage up there. Wind whipped across the top of the climb. A panal van was set up with people huddling inside for shelter as outside the brave volunteers helped feed and water the riders. Out of the wind and rain came Francois. “My parents are here in the car, come and sit inside and get warm”. I didn't need to be asked twice as we both jumped in and covered his parents car in water. Gradually feeling came back and it was time to venture on down the hill. The next 20km had been neutralised due to the danger of trying to race downhill in such conditions. Not that it helped. You went as fast as you could and it still took 50 minutes to get to the start of the next climb.

One more climb to go, the back way up to Alpe D'Huez. By now the rain was starting to ease off and as I was now 1000m lower down it was warmer with the trees providing shelter from the wind. I had a new problem though. The time cut was now becoming a factor. I still had 2 hours to climb 1000m up to the Alpe but I was cold, tired and my legs just could not put out any power. Whereas the day before I did the last climb of the day at 210 watts I could now barely put out 150.

A thin line of cyclists was strung out across the road as we all went through our own inner battles to make it to the top. A final feed station with 9km to go allowed some much needed coke to be drunk and some banana to fuel the last push. A small road wound across the valley and down into the Huez, just below turn 6 of the normal climb of the Alpe. I now had 55 minutes to do the last section to the finish line. I knew I now had plenty of time so relaxed a little. I started to think about what I'd come through today. I was physically broken but managed to remain positive. My aim of finishing in the top third had probably been dashed today, but I had made it through something that many did not. Keeping this in my head I kept turning the peddles up to the finish line.

The lead event manager was waiting out in the rain to congratulate everyone who crossed the finish line. I collapsed across it almost in tears of joy that I'd made it. The media crew managed to get a few sentences out of me for the camera, not sure I made any sense (I did as I was later on the days highlights clip). Broken but in one piece.

Looking back I have to give a massive shout out to the organisers and volunteers who stood in the wind and rain and cold all day, cheering, feeding, helping dress us in rain capes. They were immense. Also credit that they didn't cut the course. We knew what we were letting ourselves in for and the allowed us the chance to do that. Finally a shout out to all the riders. In ten years time, it is this day that we will all remember, this day that will be our proudest achievement on this Haute Route. Only we know what we went through. Only we will really understand how tough it was. Front to back, we all suffered.

Stage 2 – Megeve to Courcheval

Total Distance: 130km
Total Ascent: 3900m
Key climbs: Col de Saisies, Cormet de Roselland, Montee de Courcheval

Team Stage Results
Simon: 4:26:59 – 35th
Ian: 4:27:04 – 37th
Niel: 5:09:47 – 154th
Team: 12th

Team GC
Simon: 8:16:57 – 37th
Simon: 8:17:01 – 38th
Niel: 9:26:08 – 142th
Team: 14th

Today I realised two things. First, we are most definitely racing. Second, it got real today, seven days is not like doing a one day event. Today the pain and suffering started.

I think everyone doing the event is racing to some degree or another. Some might be racing for the podium, others a top 10. Ian and Simon are definitely racing to stay in the top 40 and get as high as they can. I’m racing to get in the top third. Some are racing each other, some are racing themselves, and some are racing to stay ahead of the broom wagon, be that by 10 minutes or 2 hours. It’s what makes this so much fun.

It’s also what makes it so tough. A lot could take their time and go round a bit slower, take our time, enjoy the scenery. But we don’t we’re pushing as hard as we can. Everyone seems to be looking to find their own limits. It’s doing two, three, seven days of that that the pain starts.

My day was painful. It was painful for two reasons. First of all I could not get going this morning. It was quite chilly and I should have put leg warmers on but didn’t. Going up the Col de Saisies I felt I was going backwards. I reached the top in 188th place so I wasn’t wrong. Then on the descent of the Col, which was absolutely stunning, it got colder. I then couldn’t get going on the Cormet de Roseland and that was a long long suffer. Again, stunning climb. Reminded me a bit of the Port de Bales, just with a lake thrown in! It was really beautiful but at close to 1200m of ascent, damn hard.

The last climb was painful because I knew I had to make up time. So I was racing :-). It was a kind of good pain though. I got into a group with a couple of different people I’ve found myself riding with a lot, Peter and Erica and about 6 others. It felt like we all gave it everything on the climb. At the end Peter and I crossed the line together after a great climb. 103 fastest on that climb so definitely better than before. I have to thank the guy from the Novo Nordisk Team who did give a mighty pull on the front for what seemed like an hour. He really set us up for it.

Finally a word about the rest of Team Hurt Route who are involved at the pointy end of things. Another storming ride saw them come in 35th and 37th. How they do it I’ve no idea. There are some very good riders on this event and they are up there with some of the really good ones. The fight between them has yet to properly kick off, however a time gap has started to appear. Either by sneaky racing on Simon’s part or Ian not paying attention, but Simon got throught the timing mat after the last neutralisation 5 seconds ahead of Ian. Of course they then finished the stage together. Simon now leads on GC by 4 seconds!

Right. I now need to go and try and sleep and not worry about tomorrow. It’s a monster. 137km, 4650m of ascent over some fearsome col’s. Oh and it’s going to rain. Full on Gabba day I think.

Haute Route Stage 1 – Geneva to Megeve

Total Distance: 130km
Total Ascent: 3000m
Key climbs: Col de la Colombier, Col de la Crois Fry, Col D’Aravis

Team Stage Results
Ian: 3:37:31 – 42nd
Simon: 3:37:31 – 43rd
Niel: 4:03:18 – 133rd
Team: 11th

Team GC
Ian: 3:49:57 – 40th
Simon: 3:49:58 – 41st
Niel: 4:16:21 – 129th
Team: 11th

Wow what a day. All cycling days should be like this. Beautiful route and scenery. A real mix of riding from a gentle roll out, to 200 people in a fast moving peloton, hard climbs and awesome descents. Then finishing and having your bag of clothes handed to you. Shower, food, massage within an hour of crossing the line. An afternoon sat in the sun with a coffee and a recuperative beer. Topped off with a nice steak and chips for dinner. I think I must have woken up in cycling heaven this morning.

But let’s go back to the beginning….

The alarm dragged me from my nervous sleep at 5:45. Plenty early for breakfast. Except everyone in the hotel had the same idea. 50 cyclists all grabbing bread, cereal, pastries, it was carnage. I think the queue for coffee was 7 deep at one point. Leaving the bags in the hotel lobby it was then a quick clip through Geneva to the start line. Suddenly 450 people is a lot of riders. Anxious faces throughout the starting pen. Ian and Simon were in the first peloton, I got myself into the third wave leaving.

Before we knew it the countdown had begun, 3….2….1…. GO! We were off. Team Hurt Route’s adventure had begun. The 25km neutralised zone became a social affair. Chatting to the people around you about the usual bike stuff. What events you’d done, how long you’d been training, what kit you’d bought.

Crossing the timing mat signalled the start of the real race and everything went up to 11. Pretty soon at least the first three starting waves all combined into one big peloton rattling through the French countryside at 40km/h. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell yourself not to go out too quickly you can’t help but sprint to stay in the group.

Funnelling into the timing mat at the start of the Col de la Colombiere was like a bun fight. The peloton was still bunched up and being forced through a narrow gap. I saw one guy fall off and in trying to get out of his clips, pulled his cleats from his shoe. I hope the Mavic service car managed to sort it out.

Now we were on what we came for. Hills!! Colombiere was a fairly straight forward climb. The first 6 or so km were about finding your rythmn. Then trying to work out if your rythmn was going to be good for another 6 days! I wont know the answer to that for a while. A lessening of the slope half way up allowed a brief recovery before launching into the second half of the climb. This was more challenging and after a while you came round a corner and see the climb stretching away to the summit. I later found out that on that section I hit a new VAM record of over 1000m/h – 1074 to be precise (rules are, has to be a segment of over 30 minutes – handy that Strava often splits climbs so it takes care of flat sections messing it up!).

My pre-ride strategy had been to fuel at the top of the Colombiere and at the top of the Aravis, after the start of the neutralised section. That would minimise the stopped time. So quick stop for food and water then on down the decent.

The decents never last long enough and are always too cold. I came into the Crois Fry wanting a little bit more recovery and wanting to be a bit warmer. I really struggled with the first 10 minutes or so. My power was down on where it was on the Colombiere. Luckly the warmth came back to my legs and the speed went up. 50 minutes later I came over the top and sped past those at the feed station. Interestingly I climbed the Crois Fry at a lower VAM (989m/h) but did better in the rankings for the climb. On the Colombiere I was 177th, but on the Crois Fry 111th – maybe a few people went out a bit quick 🙂

The Aravis was just a 17 minute warm up and was over before it really got started. Probably a good thing as I don’t think I wanted too much more climbing today. Then my strategy paid off, crossing the timing mat I could then relax and enjoy my food stop without worrying about timings – this is a race after all.

The descent down to Flumet was the best of the whole day. Lots of switchbacks and tight turns meant you could work on your braking and lines through the corners really nicely. All that was left after that was a short sharp ramp followed by a gentle rise for 10km into a slight head wind. A group of us formed up but I think we all showed our lack of practice at running a chain gang as it was pretty disorganised. But by now the sun was shining and the finishline beckened. I crossed the line with a race time of 4 hours 3 minutes. Good enough for 135th on the day and putting me in 129th over all on mens GC. Ian and Simon again rode a strong ride coming in 40th and 41st seperated by metres. I’ve told them if they get to Nice together then they clearly haven’t been trying hard enough. I expect to see fireworks later on this week as they try to attack each other. As a team we stayed in 11th place overall.

Tomorrow will up the level a few notches. The same distance but with 900m more of ascent. I think how I do tomorrow will tell me how today went. Let’s hope I can still type tomorrow evening.

Prologue

Well that’s the prologue over and done. What a painful and intense 13 minutes of riding. The results are as follows:

Ian – 25th place – 12-26
Simon – 27th place – 12-27
Niel – 97th place – 13-03

A fantastic start for Team Hurt Route. We are currently in the rarefied air of 11th place in the team standings. I think there was a lot of sandbagging going on today and we all expect to plummet down the rankings tomorrow. Still, Ian was only 3 seconds behind Emma Pooley, former women’s world time trial champion and I was 8 seconds ahead of Chrissie Wellington, 4 time world Iron Man women’s champion. Where else could you get to ride and compete with world class elite athletes. Awesome.

It was a bit of a strange day. A lot of people milling around, trying not to spend money on kit, spending 11-17 minutes at full chat on the bike, all the while thinking of the next day. At points I just wanted to get on with the big rides. The prologue was great fun though. Well except for the crash I had trying to mount a pavement 5 minutes before the prologue. Doh! Amateur hour. Good job I brought a spare derailleur hanger as the old one got proper mangled. Anyway now major injuries, nothing a good bit of Sudocrem can’t fix.

I have to mention the organization of this event. So far it’s been fantastic. It’s clearly a step above even the best one day events. My prologue time was available on the website within seconds of finishing, team photos were automatically posted to my facebook page within 15 minutes of them being taken. The logistics of getting all our bags from hotel to hotel must be challenging to say the least.

Anyway, the fun of today is now over and tomorrow the real business starts. 130km from Geneva to Megeve. Three cols, two of which look pretty tough and one not too bad. Ian and Simon set off in the first group after their fast rides today and I’ll be in group too. Looking forward to it with excitement and not a little nervousness.

T – 3 days

It’s nearly upon us. In 3 days I will be assembling my bike in Geneva and preparing for the prologue time trial. 10 months of hard training is nearly over. And I can’t wait!

The ten months of training has been really good. I’ve made it this far without getting bored or pissed off with riding my bike. I think it’s helped that I’ve seen consistent progress throughout that time. Having a power meter has really helped me both in terms of managing the effort of a workout and of quantifying the improvements I’ve made.

I’ve shown great improvement in almost all the areas from 30 second power to 3 hour power. Interestingly the one that’s shown least improvement is the 20 minute measurement. I’ve been focussing on my threshold and sub threshold power so this should have shown improvement. However I think that’s due to the lack of proper testing at that timescale (it hurts!). Something to think about for next year.

A lot of the improvements are in what I’d call real world measurements. My PB home from work over a 4.5 month period has dropped from 1 hr 23 minutes at a respectable 27.8 km/h to 1 hr 7 minutes at 34.5 km/h. That’s a speed I never thought was attainable. My best hour power (bearing in mind I’ve not been doing all out time trials for an hour) has gone from 163 watts to 216 watts. My 5 minute power from 268 watts to 300 watts.

The most relevant measure came from a day trip to the alps I did back at the end of June. There I was able to do four climbs over the course of a day (Joux Plane, Joux Vert, Ecrenaz, Ramaz) and on all of them I averaged between 200 and 210 watts. If I look back to the post I did on my objectives for the Haute Route and what that would mean in terms of requires power output I seem well ahead.

My weight loss has also been quite successful. When I started training back in October I was 75kg. Slightly above a healthy weight for someone who’s 170cm tall, but no one said I was big or needed to lose weight. since then I’ve lost nearly 12 kegs and now am somewhere between 63 and 64 kgs (my weight fluctuates a lot!). My body composition has changed dramatically. I now have the shape I used to think I had! Walking up stairs I can see the individual muscles in my legs. It’s a bit scary that.

So I feel ready. I don’t think I could have done any more training. Not without losing a wife anyway :-). It also means I need to revisit my goals. Originally I said I wanted to come top 2/3. Now, looking at where I am top half if the field should be achievable and top 1/3 would be an awesome result.

There just one outstanding question. How will I recover each day. Have I go t enough distance in my legs. I won’t know until day three or four. But I have a target. Now it’s time to go race!

The Fred Whitton

The next big event of the season was the Fred Whitton. This long running UK sportive takes you on a full lap of the Lake District that includes some of the steepest climbs you will find in the UK. Names like Honister Pass, Hardknott Pass and Wrynose Pass strike fear into the heart of cyclists across the land. It also takes place in early May which often means rain, wind and cold weather. A true test for the hard men.

Entry is limited to 2000 people and competition for places is so high that there is a ballot system in place. Ian, Simon and I (now known as Team Hurt Route – more on that in a later post) got our entries in and then waited. Luckily we were all successful. Sadly Neil was less successful but is making up for it by taking on LEJOG instead – nice consolation prize.

The course starts and finishes in Grassmere

Race day dawned with rain coming in across the hills pushed by a strong wind. With low cloud and wet roads it didn't look promising. As we queued up in the traffic to get into the car park the heavens opened, drenching the poor souls who were riding to the start line. We then caught a lucky break as the cloud passed, the sky brightened and we got off to a dry start, rolling down the road towards Ambleside and the first challenge of the day – Kirkstone Pass.

As soon as we turned off and started heading up hill it felt like everyone was pushing on fairly quick. Interesting given what was to come later in the day. I did my best to keep up with Ian and Simon but their pace was a little strong to start with. Bladders soon intervened and I caught up with them about half way up the pass. It was a good climb to start the day. One of the longest that would take us up to the highest point of the day but not too steep that you had to dig too deep. I really enjoyed the climb. Ian and Simon did leave me again but not for long.

The descent was fast and flowing. This was my first proper decent on my new Zipp 303's and all I could think of was the horror stories of rims overheating and tyres blowing off. Coming round a corner to find Ian by the side of the road mending a puncture (he's just fitted some ENVE carbon clinchers) did little to help the situation. Knowing that they would catch me up I pressed on through.

Riders had started to thin out by now so it was in groups of two and three that we went round Ullswater. I'd not been in this part of the country for years and it brought back the memories of my DofE Gold expedition as we came through Glenridding. Ian and Simon soon caught up. I don't have as much of a problem staying in touch on the flat so I tucked in behind as we upped the pace towards the next major climb. Not wanting to blow too early I let Ian and Simon push on as I settled into my own rhythm. Imagine my surprise when around another corner, Ian was fixing another puncture. I handed him one of my two spare inner tubes and carried on. If he had another one then good luck to him. I only had one more inner tube and wasn't jeopardizing my chance of finishing.

After Troutbeck there is a long stretch of rolling road mainly down the A66. Here I had another piece of good fortune as a Scottish cycling club swept past me just as I joined the main road. This was too good an opportunity to miss so I jumped on the back of the train and held on for a roller coaster ride.

This is one of the best bits about doing popular sportives. I was in a group of about 20 people with some strong riders pulling on the front. Drafting about 7 or 8 places back you roll along at 40km/h with little effort. You start to feel like a proper bike rider! This carried on for about 20km. I was really getting into the flow of the ride. Legs were turning over well and we were eating up the miles. Then Ian and Simon swooped past again and I knew I had to at least show willing and jumped onto their coat tails and accelerated away towards the next climb.

Honister rears up and kicks you hard before you even know you've started the climb. An opening pitch round a left hand bend sees the gradient go almost immediately up to 25% and there is little let up from here to the top. Already people were walking and I'd engaged my secret weapon. My secret weapon is an SRAM WiFLi rear mech and a 12-30 Ultegra cassette. Not as silly low geared as a 12-32 so doesn't change the spacing too much over my normal 11-28. In fact it replaces the 28 with a 27, takes off the 11 from the bottom and puts it at the top with 30 teeth. It makes just that little bit of difference in helping to turn a higher cadence. I much prefer climbing that way and I think I'll leave it on throughout the summer to give me a few more options on the long climbs of the Alps. Here it was helping me just keep the cranks turning as my legs screamed with pain and my lungs gasped down air. At one stage I really thought I'd be off and walking and this wasn't even Hardknott. I dug deep into my reserves and clawed my way over the top. Looking back at the carnage with people walking and zig zagging up the hill I realised that I hadn't done too bad. Not long after, the welcome signs of the first feed station came into view.

And what a feed station! A fine spread lay before us. Sandwhiches, malt loaf along side the normal mix of jelly babies and sugar. Downing a few sandwhiches and filling up with water we carried on. Straight into the next piece of suffering. Newlands Pass. Steep at the start and steep at the end. By now I was settling into a rhythm on the climbs. Stand up and give it everything when it got really steep then ease off and try to recover using the low gearing when it got a little less steep. The weather was holding off thankfully.

Why is it that there always seems to be more up than down. It seemed like a minute passed before I was onto Whinlatter Pass. Ian and Simon had already disappeared up the mountain somewhere and I was just ploughing on at my own pace. My goal coming into the event was to beat 8 hours. A respectable time I thought. By this stage I was well over half way and 7 hours 30 was starting to look possible. Then the inevitable struggle started. You know the one where the wind is in your face, you aren't really going up or down but rolling lumps kill all momentum. You can't seem to keep the power going and the pain starts. That was how it felt from the bottom of Whinlatter all the way to the next feed station at Calder Bridge.

Again the food station was excellent. Sandwiches, sweets, gels, cakes, all laid out in a village hall where we could warm up and sit down. Oh and they had hot tea and coffee too. Just what I needed as a downpour 20 minutes earlier had chilled me to the bone. 5 minutes drinking a warm coffee and eating sandwiches and cakes was very nice! What also struck me was the amount of food still all wrapped up. I realised it was because not many people had come through the feedstation yet. This gave me a massive confidence boost. In previous years I'm usually in the latter half of the field and the food stops sometimes run out of water. To get there when most of it was still wrapped in clingfilm showed the training had been working!

All thoughts turn to Hardknott after the feedstation. Still ten miles away I tried to keep my legs spinning to prepare myself. I actually didn't feel too bad. I hooked up with another guy and we shared the workload as we headed down Eskdale. You could see Hardknott from miles away. The sky was dark and grey. Every 10 or 15 seconds a flashlight would go off as photographers captured the pain on the faces of those who could cycle up. Many couldn't and resorted to walking on the two steep sections. My second objective (after a sub 8 hour time) was to ride all the way up Hardknott. With 95 miles in the legs I wasn't too sure about it.

All you can do is give it everything you have left in your legs. If that's good enough to get you to the top then your good. As you cross over the cattle grid at the bottom it soon ramps up very steep. Standing up, I just tried to keep the peddles turning over. This was the steepest climb I'd done. After a couple of hundred meters the gradient eases off and you can get some much needed recovery. Soon, however, you are rounding a left hand bend and into the second steep ramp. Now it was really starting to hurt. The road was glistening with damp after the earlier rain, meaning grip was hard to come by. I did not want to give up though and kept grinding away. Fortunately a photographer was there to capture my pain and suffering!!!

And then round the right hand bend and it's done. Gentler slopes lead you up to the top. Only the descent and Wrynose then I'm practically at the finish line. Some descent mind. Steep, wet, no grip, scary!!! I think later in the day there was quite a nasty crash there which involved the air ambulance. Thankfully the braking on the carbon rims was not as bad as I thought it might be and I safely negotiated my way to the bottom.

Coming down after Wrynose I suddenly realised that a sub 7:30 time was on the cards. Way better than my target. So I started to really hammer it down. Where I summoned the strength from I don't know but finally I was sprinting up the last little ramp to the finish line and across! The timer stopped at 7 hours 22 minutes. In fact I was quicker than anyone expected as my cousins told the rest of the family that I'd be at least another hour yet and so they stayed inside eating buns! No one was there to witness my glory at the finish line.

It didn't matter though. I was so pleased with how I'd done. This is an event that a few years earlier I would have feared and worried over. Now I'd just finished in 7:22. A riding time of 7:05 at an average speed of 25.1 km/h. For 180km with 3400m of climbing. I was pleased. This was the best performance I'd ever achieved and I really felt that I was on the right track with my training for the Haute Route.

Paris – Roubaix

It’s been a long time since my last blog post and a lot as been happening on the cycling front so time for a series of updates – starting with the first event of the season, Paris – Roubaix.

Paris – Roubaix, the Hell of the North, one of the five monuments of cycling. The words conjure up images in my mind of mud covered cyclists attacking over bone shaking cobbles with crashes and broken bones commonplace. So it was with some trepidation that I began scanning the weather forecast with a week to go, looking for the faintest glimpse of sun and a following wind.

The Paris – Roubaix Challenge takes place the day before the pro race of the same name. Whilst the pros cover a staggering 260km, we were only riding for 173km. However that included all 28 sections of pave, or cobblestones for those from the UK. These sections of cobbled tracks criss cross the countryside in the North East of France. There are 28 sections of cobbles numbered from 28 down to one. They range from 300m to 3.7km and are graded from 1 to 5 stars depending on their quality (read – depth and pain causing qualities).

I was doing this event with Neil from work and my two cousins, Ian and Simon. We left on Friday afternoon and headed down to the tunnel and over to France. So far the weather was good and the forecast equally so. Staying overnight in Douai, we did the obligatory bike fettling and beer then headed out for a feed. I’m trying to go overboard on the carbo-loading pre race but I still managed to eat what can only be described as a Calzone pizza with a steak in the middle!

The morning of the race started with a wake up call at 4:15am. Why can’t these things start late like the pros do? Driving down to the start it was really misty, damp and cold too. Kit choice for the day: arm and leg warmers, Assos shorts, Mavic top with a Gore-tex waterproof to keep the damp out. The start was very low-key. It was a staggered start so there were not thousands of riders all milling around. Timing chips and race numbers were acquired and fastened to the bikes.

After being promised by my cousins that we’d be going at a steady pace between the cobbles we promptly set off at a pretty fast pace. Visibility was around 50m and the mist was dripping of bars and noses. It seemed like a normal ride, just with a bigger group than normal. Half an hour later that all changed.

Nothing can prepare you for the first section of cobbles. You see the sign coming up and everyone gets a bit nervous and the speed increases. Then you hit them. Bang, you put power down that you know can only last 5 minutes and then the rattling causes you to lose vision. Your mind tells you it will be impossible for the bike to take this. It goes on and on and on. Then it ends and you are left looking around wandering WTF just happened. Did I really ride across that without suspension, on a super stiff carbon race bike. Wow!

The next three hours is just a blur of fast roads, rattling across cobbles and a massive grin appearing on my face. An altercation with a muddy puddle followed by a swift over the handlebars into a nettle bush cannot dampen my enjoyment. Even the puncture that follows soon after due to a bit of adrenaline fueled pace is met with a rapid change of inner tube.

After about 3 ½ hours you hit the Arenberg Trench. This is the first five star section of pave. By this time the sun was out and it was a glorious day. Hundreds of camper vans were parked up as we swept down the hill towards the entrance at some speed. Fortunately for us there are some barriers nearly all the way across so your speed is slowed as you enter the section. The pro’s have no such worries and hit the section at upwards of 60 km/h. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

The pain in your legs as you put down as much power as you can is overwhelmed by the pain in your arms as you desperately seek out a smooth line. A futile exercise, there isn’t one. Up ahead I see Ian. I’m surprised as he should be way ahead on this section. Looks like he had an off straight into the wire fence. The damage did not look good.

We regrouped at the end and took pictures in the sunlight whilst someone oiled my chain and told me it needed replacing. It then came to me that this was one of the finest bike events I’d ever done. The atmosphere, the history, the pain of the pave. What a ride. I will never forget that 10 minutes of going across ‘the trench’.

But we were only half way through. It was getting more and more difficult for Neil and I to chase back onto the wheel of Ian and Simon after each section. Then a mechanical meant we were down to three. My original aim was to try and stick with Ian and Simon for four hours then crack as they disappeared into the dusty distance. When we got to 5.5 hours in I realised I was going to be with them to the end. This was a major achievement for me and proof that the hard miles over the winter had paid off.

Before we knew it we were in the outskirts of Roubaix with the speed rising as we all prepared for the sprint finish. Coming out onto the Velodrome was awesome. So many people were there cheering us on. It was a fantastic way to finish. It didn’t matter that we’d been cycling for 6 hours 50 minutes. We all started sprinting like we were Mark Cavendish. All that was left to do was collect our medals, take the obligatory finish line photo and get a beer. Yes a sportive event with a bar at the end. It doesn’t get better than that.

Warm up events

Other Events in 2014

Just the act of entering the Haute Route in 2014 meant that this became a year of focussing on cycling. Events have conspired to make this not just a year of cycling but a year of only cycling (albeit with the odd ski holiday thrown in). Whilst the Haute Route was the first event entered, a number of other entries and ballots have all come good so now it looks like a packed diary of events. In order, the current schedule looks like this:

April 12th: Paris – Roubaix
May 11th: The Fred Whitton
June 1st: Chilterns 100
June 8th: The Dragon Ride
August 10th: Ride London 100
August 24th – 30th: Haute Route

That's a packed schedule! However I think I've got it about right, through luck rather than judgement mind. I've got a number of events fairly early in the year to get some more experience doing long, hard sportives. Then I've got a good period of time with nothing on to recover from the early season and do some hard climbing miles in prep for August. Then a tune up race a couple of weeks before the main event. Let's go into the races in more detail and talk about my goals for them.

Paris – Roubaix. Hell of the North. I'm really excited about this race. This will be my first effort at a sportive linked to one of the five monuments of cycling. One day I'd like to do all of them so this is a good start. My aim is just to get round. I want to enjoy the event, the cobbles, the whole atmosphere of it, but I'm not targetting it as an event I'm training up for and am going to taper off for. It will be just another long training ride, albeit a tough, long and hellish one.

The Fred Whitton. Pain and suffering. Surely this is the most difficult one day sportive in the UK? Anything that has Hardnott and Wrynose pass after 100 miles has to be up there with the really difficult ones, and given the numbers that apply for entry it's a difficult one to get into. This is my major spring target. The training plan is going to involve a lot of steep intervals in the 8 weeks leading up to the Fred. I grew up going on holiday here many easters and bank holidays. It always reminds me of my dad so it will be great to go up there and take this on. My target is sub 8 hours. If I can hit that, or near enough, then I think I'm well on track for later on in the year.

The Chilterns 100. I've been roped into this one by Hal. Should be a fun ride but coming a week before the Dragon Ride I'm using this as a long training ride. It will be a good test of how I've recovered from the Fred.

The Dragon Ride. I've done this before back in 2009. It's a really tough ride. I' doing the 158km ride with my mate, other Neil, and my cousins (although they have opted for the 225km ride). The route has changed since I last did it but I still expect a day of cross winds, narrow welsh lanes and brutal climbs that are almost alpine like (the Bwlch anyone?). Similar to the Chilterns 100, I'm not targetting this as a major event of the year. A good, long, training ride in the Welsh hills.

Ride London/Surrey 100. I'd forgotten I'd entered this. Out of the blue about 3 weeks ago I got a letter through the door saying I was successful at getting in. With 24,000 people riding this in 2014 it is going to be the biggest event of the year for me in terms of participants. It's a fairly flat course with just 3 or 4 short sharp climbs. Simon did this last year and finished 7 minutes behind the winner. If I can finish within an hour of the winner I'll be amazingly happy. However this is just two weeks before the Haute Route, my training should be hitting a peak before tapering off. I've got a lot of recovery time afterwords. So I can aim to hit this full gas. Let's see how close to Simon's time I can get!

Then it is two weeks of tapering and recovering so I can hit Geneva in the form of my life. That's the plan anyway.

The one thing that does occur to me on reading all of this and understanding the amount of cycling I'm doing this year, is what an understanding and supportive wife I have. Let's hope she's still that understanding come August. It will be fantastic to have her there at the finish line to welcome me across.

Finally Some Sun

Finally some sun and a ride with no floods

At long last we seem to being seeing an end to the miserable weather that has been the English winter so far. My ride on Sunday was actually sunny! It made such a pleasant change from the gale force winds an driving rain that was my ride home from work on Saturday.

Mind you, it was still very cold and windy. So cold I had finally had enough of feet like blocks of ice. So I went and bought these:

The weather will, undoubtedly, change for the better now. You can all thank me in advance.

Meanwhile, weekday training is very much focused on the turbo trainer. I'm trying to build up as much base as I can before the first event of the season so I'm focussing on aerobic endurance levels for an hour with one 2×20 tempo session a week. My all out 20 ,impute effort has not shown any improvement, mainly due to the first repeat benign done when I was I'll and the second repeat being done in miserable cold wet weather which was less than motivating. However at endurance and tempo levels I have seen around a 10-20 watt increase for the same perceived effort. Two weeks to go before a holiday so I'll push on through and test again properly when I'm back. Then it's only two weeks to Paris – Roubaix, the aforementioned first event of the season.