Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Tumble and Rhigos

Well, here it is, the footage from The Tumble. Not my fastest or smoothest performance on a hill. I struggled to settle into a decent pace on this climb and also went from freezing cold at the start to boiling hot which can't have helped. Still, the cold clear weather did help with the views from the top; The Tumble proved a particularly spectacular place to suffer on a bike.

I found Rhigos a much more straightforward climb. I had a chance to warm up before tackling it and whilst the long straight drag that forms the first part of this climb was a bit soul destroying and boring (I never thought I would find one of the 100 climbs boring) it did at least allow me to settle into a steady pace. I was still lacking some horsepower on this climb for some reason though so it won't rank as one of the fastest attempts ever made. Still, its another climb ticked off the list.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Wild Weekend in Wales

It was a simple plan, take a long weekend off, book into some cheap accommodation in South Wales and knock off 7 of the Welsh climbs over the course of 3 days. Sadly it didn’t work out entirely to plan. The main culprit for this was the weather. Through out the course of the week leading up to my long weekend in South Wales the weather forecast for the weekend was getting steadily worse. The remnants of a tropical storm were predicted to hit the South West of England and then Wales on the Sunday. I knew I would have a clear day on Saturday but wasn’t too sure what to expect on the Sunday. I was prepared to put up with getting a bit damp but when the forecasts from Friday onward started mentioning heavy downpours and gale force winds I began to think a waterproof jacket and a bit of determination wouldn’t quite be enough to ensure I achieved my goals.

During the course of Saturday the weather forecast for Sunday and Monday got steadily worse. I was intending to take on the Black Mountain climb on Sunday and riding up an exposed 7km climb in gale force winds and sideways rain seemed like a pretty foolish way to try and up my tally of climbs. I had learnt on the climbs I rode on the day before that the Welsh climbs are in pretty exposed locations and, with this knowledge I decided that the common sense approach was the best one to adopt and I headed home on the Sunday morning. The rain I encountered on the way home vindicated my decision and as I write this some parts of North Wales and the North of England are still suffering from flooding. Still I was able to tick off a couple of climbs on the Saturday and I have a cunning plan for completing the others that still remain in South Wales.

The Tumble

The first climb of the day on Saturday was The Tumble. Simon Warren describes The Tumble as a much feared climb and as I revved the hell out of my Fiat to reach the top I could see his point. There are a couple of tight corners on the lower slopes that mark an increase in gradient and it isn’t until you near the top of the climb that the gradient eases.

Parking up at the top I got my newly built Uncle John out of the car, saddled up and hurtled down the road to begin the climb. As I managed to get to the bottom in one piece I figured I had indeed put it together properly. Rather pleasingly it seems to handle quite nicely although I still reckon my trusty Cross Check feels more secure through the fast bends.

I made one mistake on this climb and it was this: I got my choice of clothing wrong. It was a simple mistake but I figured that as I would undoubtedly get really hot on the way up I would be better off keeping my layers thin and lightweight. What I didn’t factor in was just how cold I would get descending to the start. It was still relatively early in the morning and there had been a light frost the night before. By the time I’d reached the bottom of the climb I was frozen and as a result started the climb cold. In fact I was struggling to feel my fingers by the time I was ready to get going and trying to get my legs turning wasn’t much fun. The first couple of minutes of footage I shot with my helmet camera is even slightly blurry as the damn thing misted up as the heat rising from the vents in my bike helmet cleared the condensation that had formed on the lens.

Despite the maximum gradient being only 10% (‘only’ he says, a sure sign I know more about gradients than I should) I just couldn’t get into a decent rhythm. Lets just say I struggled on this climb. I ended up being much slower than I wanted to be on the lower wooded section and by the time I reached the exposed upper slopes I just felt totally buggered. When I wasn’t boiling in my own sweat I was freezing cold. Not getting my temperature under control meant that my pacing was too varied and I ended up wobbling up parts of the climb like a tired drunk and then trying to up the pace on the upper slopes without much success.

The stunning view from the top of The Tumble was only marginally spoiled by some pillock parking a bike in front of it

On the plus side the views from the top were fantastic and reaching the top of the climb brought with it a real sense of having achieved something. Albeit slowly.

Having suffered more than I expected to on The Tumble I figured I should pick a slightly easier climb for my next ride of the day. I took the dog for a short work whilst I mulled it over. I was planning to do Llangynidr Mountain next but Rhigos seemed like a better option for riding myself into some kind of form. It would be a bit of a drive to get to Rhigos but I needed to get some confidence back.


Despite being a bit slow on the way up I really enjoyed this climb. I was still a bit rattled by my poor performance on The Tumble and so the prospect of a long gradual climb followed by a couple of sharp uphill hairpins quite appealed. I figured I would be able to sort my riding out and get into a more controlled rhythm than I had been able to on the first climb of the day.

This climb started, like most of them do, with a long descent from the car at the top before heading back up. What is great about Rhigos is that the long straight section of road that makes up the bottom of the climb allows you hit maximum speed and push a big gear around without having to slow down for any corners. I arrived at the bottom full of adrenalin and raring to go. Well, raring to go once I’d had a pee. All this cold weather high speed riding had left me feeling a bit desperate so a quick pedal into the industrial estate at the foot of the climb and some furtive peeing up the side of a building was necessary before starting my ride up to the top. There is something very eerie about an industrial estate on a quiet Saturday afternoon and even though all of the units were closed for the weekend I still found myself looking over my shoulder as I took a leak. The start for this climb is also far from picturesque, made slightly less so than the puddle I left behind.

                              It looks like a very long way to the bottom from here...and it was

There is something about a long straight uphill road that some riders would find off putting. I actually quite enjoyed it as I was able to get into a decent rhythm and, even though I still seemed to be lacking horsepower, I made good progress up the lower half of the slope. As the climb gets steeper you are treated to an amazing view of a dramatic cliff face before entering a couple of hairpin bends. It was at this point of the ride I had to deal with some road works. They didn’t really hold me up too much and offered me the chance of a traffic free lane to ride in as I cheekily took to the coned off section of road. I tried my best to man up and push a bigger gear but my speed for the day seemed to be set at ‘Low’ so I just span my way up to the upper portion of the climb before selecting a more suitable gear and pushing on to the car.

Another great view spoilt by some idiot with a bike

All in all I kind of enjoyed Rhigos. I had managed to control my pacing a little better than on the Tumble but I was still concerned that I didn’t seem able to get my speed up. I like to view bottom gear as being a bail out gear, not my default setting, but I was struggling to do without it. I was hoping that things would pick up after some lunch. I was planning to tackle Llagyndir Mountain as the last ride of the day and the write up in the little black book of pain suggested I was going to be riding into a whole world of hurt if I didn’t get my approach right.

Llangynidr Mountain

I’m not sure what happened on this climb. It is a steep brute of an uphill ride and I was still feeling a bit spent from my efforts of the morning which undoubtedly played its part in me not performing at a level that meets even my meagre standards. But, with the weather being so clear it was foolish not to give it a go even though I was a bit concerned that this would be one climb too many on a day that had already featured a lot of driving about.

After a hurried lunch at the bottom I had left the car, my dad and the dog in a car park near the top of the climb and took a warp speed descent to the start of the climb. You know you are facing up to a long climb when you arrive at the bottom with hands like claws after having to apply the brakes so many times on the way down. After unclamping my hands from the brake levers I selected what I thought was an appropriate gear and got stuck in. I was a bit apprehensive as Llagynidr Mountain is an impressive place with equally impressive gradients there was no point in hanging about. I was however worried that my lack of pace was going to be a factor and unfortunately it did.

                                            A majestic view that concealed a world of pain

After about half a mile in the middle chain ring and a mid size sprocket I just sort of slowed to a crawl. Before I knew it I was clicking down into bottom gear and struggling to keep on top of even that. I have low gears on my bike; I know my limitations and try to work around them but when you feel yourself struggling to keep on top of a 28: 34 combo you know you’re in for a long and painful uphill climb. I would like to say I rode through this bad spell but it appeared to be in place for the whole of the climb and I painfully spun my way up the hill.

As I finally reached the first of the tight hairpins after what felt like a life time of slow uphill riding I didn’t so much blow up but shattered. My comedically slow riding ground to a halt as I started cramping up and every pedal stroke became agony. Rolling to a halt with only the impressive view and some very unimpressed sheep for company I realised that my riding for the day was effectively over. I’d lost my mojo in a big way and there was no chance I was going to get it back in a hurry. I got going again but only because cycling uphill with cramp is less awkward than trying to walk uphill in stiff soled cycling shoes. If it is possible to cycle with a limp I’m pretty sure that was what I did on that bit of road. As I passed the last hairpin and emerged onto the slightly easier gradient of the upper slopes I should have been clicking up a few gears before hitting the final hard part of the climb. Instead I was desperately hoping that the bike fairies had secretly fitted a mega low gear that I had not yet discovered. I was wasn’t just pedalling squares at this point I was pedalling rectangles, triangles and every other geometric shape that came to mind in an attempt to keep myself moving forwards. Lets just say it wasn’t pretty.

The really soul destroying thing was that as I reached the car park I knew I still had some more riding to do but every muscle in my legs was screaming at me to stop and, rather dejectedly, I did. I was just knackered and drained and in pain. I’m not happy about it but I could see no option but to climb off as I was in no fit state to complete the final sharp uphill section to the finish.

                                                        A slope too far...I shall return

As I took the dog for a brief walk in an attempt to get my legs working I was able to appreciate the stunning views from the top. It was just a shame I’d put myself through hell in order to admire them. The dog seemed quite unconcerned about the pain and suffering that had just been played out on the steep road and seemed more concerned with trying to eat sheep droppings but then he had been cooped up in my car for some time and probably thought I was a massive idiot by the time I came limping back to the car.

As I appeared red faced and broken back at the car his first thought was undoubtedly "Finally now we can go eat"

I can’t say that I’ve completed the climb up Llagynidr Mountain. I’ve ridden it but not reached the very top and so, like the Terminator, I’ll be back.

The footage of the climbs will follow on shortly. It is taking a while to edit them but watch this space

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Autumn Campaign Begins

Well sort of. I’ve been offline for a while but now I’m back and getting stuck in to the preparations for my second stage in tackling the 100 climbs. Taking the summer off was initially motivated by my desire to avoid having to deal with tourist traffic and hot weather. In the end I managed to avoid one of the wettest British summers on record. The traffic volumes would undoubtedly have been lower because of the weather but I’m not sad to have avoided constant sideways rain whilst trying to pedal up steep hills. All in all I think my move to spend my summer getting some training rides in and building up a new bike was the correct one.

So, what have I been doing? Well, there has obviously been the obligatory cycling up hills in a vain attempt to make the hills of South Wales, which I’ll be tackling in a couple of weeks, feel flatter. My training hasn’t been helped by the appalling weather, and after a while cleaning my bike almost daily got to be tedious, but I’m scaling some of the local climbs faster and in higher gears than I have previously so it hasn’t all been bad. I’ve even done the odd training loop on my mountain bike in a half baked attempt at strength training. Not sure what the people of North Devon made of the portly red faced bloke riding very enthusiastically but ultimately very slowly uphill on knobbly tyres but I think I can feel the benefit.

Apart from dodging the rain I’ve been busy swearing at things in the garage as I attempted to build a new bike that would be a bit lighter and more responsive for the rest of the remaining climbs. Initially I was going to rebuild my old Bianchi but the finished product fell down in a few areas. After years of riding with V brakes and disc brakes I found road bike calliper brakes just don’t impress me any more. I’ve got used to being able to almost stand a bike on it’s nose when slowing down. I’ve also got used to the advantages that fatter tyres can offer; mainly a more secure feeling of grip in damp conditions and better ride comfort on rough roads. Most of the climbs I’ll be tackling are in fairly exposed areas and in the 20 climbs I’ve ridden so far I’ve experienced a range of different road conditions, most of them rough. I also had a problem getting my desired gearing choice to work on the Bianchi and ended up with a chain line from hell that I couldn’t resolve. Because of these issues I decided to settle on a cyclo-cross frame as the basis of my new bike. I could fit big brakes, as many gears as I want and use fatter tyres than a road bike frame will allow.

After much head scratching I bought an Uncle John frame from Planet X and teamed it up with a Kinesis CX Disc fork. Both of these give me the option of running disc brakes if I want to in the future but for now I’ll be using Vs and the wheels off my Surly Cross Check. I’ve fitted it with my usual combination of mountain bike gears as even I’m aware that my summer of training won’t have left me so fit that I can fly up hills in top gear; I’m a low gear spinner and probably always will be.

The build wasn’t without its problems and the bottom bracket shell needed facing by my local bike shop to an extent that they’ve never seen before (it was on the wonk so much you could see it). I’m also struggling with a headset that is either too tight or too loose and I suspect a new headset will be needed at some point if I can‘t get the current one running smoothly. In addition to this the lovely metallic blue paint only needs you to look at it and it will chip. God only knows what being slung in and out of the car over the coming months will do to it. I’ve learned to live with the fact the wonky bar tape and an uncut steerer tube is the signature mark of all the bikes I build. Actually the alloy used on the Kinesis fork is so thick I’d probably need an angle grinder to shorten the damn thing and I’m not sure my neighbours could take the swearing. Apart from a few niggles I am happy with the bike. It feels faster than my Cross Check and it is a hell of a lot lighter. I can’t necessarily say the same about me but a lighter bike is at least a start.

Not a traditional road bike but surprisingly effective

My faithful Surly Cross Check is still going strong but the lighter stiffer ride offered by the Uncle John means the Surly will be relegated to being my spare bike. Besides the Cross Check needs a complete respray after three years of hard use which I’ll probably sort out over the winter.

The new bike will be getting a full workout in a couple of weeks when I spend a long weekend taking on seven of the Welsh climbs. I’m aiming to do no more than three climbs a day in order to limit the fatigue that builds up by the need to travel between the climbs. My trip to the Peak District also taught me that if I try four climbs in one day I’ll end up grovelling up every single climb the following day and now that I’m having to travel to increasingly far flung locations to take on the climbs I can’t risk not being able to complete the targeted climbs. More to follow on my Welsh adventures.