Saturday, 26 October 2013

Back with a vengeance/ bang/ whimper (delete as appropriate)

 After returning from an ultimately unsuccessful trip to Scotland I was determined to keep banging out the miles in training. I had a vague notion to do a couple of long weekends in the North of England and after writing my last blog post I decided not to sit around feeling sorry for myself but to try and get back on top of the situation. The thing is my body really wasn’t too keen on that idea. My legs were feeling increasingly stiff and tired after training rides and whilst the motivation has been there the body has been distinctly lacking. I think after such a busy and at times stressful year something in the back of my mind decided it was time to go into shut down mode and have a break. I must admit I’ve been going flat out with studying and writing job applications since being made redundant and it feels like my body has decided a change of pace is needed.

To further complicate things I’ve been feeling a under the weather which has knocked my form back even further. It all started with a tooth breaking and needing to be removed. Having a tooth pulled is unpleasant enough (trust me, having a burly Australian elbow deep in your mouth apparently removing a tooth with the same sort of force I normally reserve for removing car wheel nuts is not something I would recommend) but what followed afterwards really knocked me back. Once the anaesthetic wore off I was in agony for a couple of days. I was sort of expecting that but what I wasn’t expecting was that three nights of badly disturbed sleep because of the pain would combine with the fatigue I was already suffering from and leave me open to a viral infection. I guess it left my body’s defences run too low to fight off infection and the virus found itself pushing at a open door. This wasn’t a normal ‘feel bad for two days and then get back into the swing of things’ virus but a ‘niggle away in the background and sap your strength for more than a week’ sort of virus. Riding with any kind of purpose was out of the question.

Feeling unwell has meant I've had to train on relatively flat routes. Using the worlds heaviest bike (AKA the Thorn Sherpa) has compensated for the lack of steep stuff.

After about a week of feeling under the weather I managed to get out for a few training rides thinking that I was over the worst of it but the going was tough with my legs reluctant to turn the pedals; even a short ride left me feeling totally wiped out and the hills were pure, slow speed, agony. Cue a further week off the bike and, despite having lost of whatever meagre form I had, I‘m now feeling back to full health and back to riding with some form of purpose.

Time to stop moping about…

Its just as well I’m finally back on the bike because at the start of November I’m going to be getting back into the 100 climbs frame of mind. I’m attending an exhibition in the Midlands and I intend to use the opportunity of being just over an hour away to finally ride up Jiggers Bank in Ironbridge the correct way. It has always bugged me that a road closure last year forced me to ride an alternative, albeit steeper, route. I intend to put that situation right. If my legs are turning the pedals more smoothly I may even do it on my fixie but I’ll wait and see nearer the time if that is a sensible idea. In fact I know now it isn’t a sensible idea but something just makes me want to try it on at least one of the climbs. And yes, I will be checking the Highways Agency website before attempting it this time. Not making that mistake again.

This book, like me, is looking and feeling a bit battered but I'm not finished with it yet

Before the year is out I also want to ride the Cat and Fiddle and Shibden Wall. For some reason I have the urge to tick those two climbs off the list before the end of the year and so, weather and potential work commitments permitting, I’ve roughly planned out the mother of all overnight hill bagging raids. It is a stupid idea for many reasons, not least because of the mileage involved for just two climbs and I suspect a steep cobbled climb in winter conditions will be difficult to drive up, let alone ride up. In fact the Cat and Fiddle in bad weather won’t be much fun either. The thing is they could be the last two climbs I have the time and energy to complete in 2013 and as I was hoping to have finished all of the remaining climbs by the end of November I feel I need to see the year out with a last big stupid road trip style hurrah before restarting again in January. My plans for the Autumn have gone completely off the rails and I stand no chance of completing the 100 climbs within the timescale I was originally aiming for but that doesn’t mean I can’t be stubborn and keep chipping away a the climbs that remain. I may even break my rule of not riding through December. Watch this space…

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Scotland - Well that didn't quite go as planned...

I’d been really looking forward to taking on the Scottish climbs. I’d booked up the accommodation back in June and spent more time that usual on some proper training rides over the summer. I like Scotland and as it is about five years since I was last there I was keen to get back. It is a shame then that things didn’t work out as planned.

The week got off to a bad start with the first storm of the Autumn rolling in across Scotland and the North of England. The weather was OK on the Saturday as I drove up but the weather was set to take a dramatic turn the next day and sure enough it was very wet and very windy on Sunday morning.

I travelled up with my Dad and the dog on the Saturday and the overnight stop was at Dumfries Travelodge. Like a lot of Travelodges these days the front of the site was dominated by the ruin of an old Little Chef. The Travelodge itself had recently been ‘upgraded’. This upgrade means that the sofa bed in each room has been replaced by two small chairs and a double bed with slide out additional mattresses underneath it. It didn’t ensure a decent nights sleep.

Travelodge...a crap nights sleep guaranteed

There were some interesting vehicles parked up outside the Travelodge that night as the Tour of Britain was due to start in Scotland the next day. Some of the peripheral staff and a few people working for the sponsors were staying the night which at least meant mine wasn’t the only bicycle to be wheeled through reception that night.

The weather was biblical on the first day of planned riding. The target for the day was meant to be the Mennock Pass but with gale force winds, torrential rain and lack of visible road surface thanks to the water pouring down the hillsides it just wasn’t meant to be. The road through the pass looks brilliant and the length of the climb and the gradients look just right for me. Sadly I’d left my canoe and aqualung at home as that was the sort of kit I’d have needed to navigate it safely. Riding from the top the bottom and then back up again would have ruined me for the rest of the week and would likely have done more harm than good so I decided to re-plan the return journey at the end of the week and hope for better weather in a few days time. Seriously, Noah would have been stumped over what to do so bad was the weather.

After visiting some family the overnight stop on the Sunday was in the Dumbarton Travelodge, yet another tired and faded old building with the rotting hulk of a former Little Chef in front of it. At least this place had a decent second bed in the room as another night camping wasn’t something I relished the idea of . The next day would see me ride the Rest and Be Thankful climb although I wasn’t too hopeful about the weather.

Rest and be Thankful

According to the weather forecast the Monday would see an improvement in the weather conditions. I’m not entirely sure it did as I was pretty sure that the stuff coming sideways out of the sky was rain, and cold rain at that.

Individual rain drops just out of shot

After the usual sat nav confusion and trying to match up the tiny map in the 100 climbs book with the road atlas I had found the car park that marked the end of the climb and had to start the unenviable task of setting up my bike in the pouring rain. That alone was enough to leave me chilled to the bone so it was with a fair bit of reluctance that I descended to the start of the climb.

Having already postponing the Mennock Pass climb I couldn’t afford to pass up on this one whatever the weather so I just had to grit my teeth and get on with it. I was feeling pretty cold and wet and miserable before I’d even covered a quarter of the distance of the descent and my mood was darkened further by a pair of rude drivers. I made the effort to pull over and slow down to let a couple of cars pass near the top of the climb and was disappointed to see that I didn’t get the customary thank you wave from them. Its only a small thing but in bad weather a bit of courtesy for the wet cyclist who has just let you pass on a narrow bit of road isn’t too much to ask. I guess because I was already feeling so lousy this wound me up more than it should do and I decided to retaliate by attempting to pass them back. Not the smartest move in the book but buzzing the back bumper of a Volvo as the driver tries to safely navigate a series of steep and waterlogged down hill bends did cheer me up a bit, especially the way they sped off as soon as the road straightened out a bit in an attempt to get shot of the idiot on the bike who kept trying to pass them. 

Of course as soon as I got to the bottom and I was faced with having to ride back up my good mood started to fade. Put simply I was frozen and my legs were having trouble just turning the pedals. The majority of the climb isn’t really that steep but I very quickly found myself clattering down through the gears as I didn’t have the power to push a decent gear with cold legs. I’m quite sure I was cycling through some stunning scenery but all I could focus on was the road and the front tyre of the bike. I found the climb a real slog although the 16% bends near the top didn’t seem to be too much hassle. I think by the time I reached them I viewed it as a good chance to up my cadence and warm up a bit. The whole climb is a bit of a rain soaked blur with no real stand out points which is a bit of a shame given the surroundings.

The cold and wet view from the Rest and be Thankful carpark

After getting changed in a windswept and still very wet car park it was time to give the dog a quick walk before driving to Perth for the third Travelodge in as many days. The Travelodge in Perth is the old Isle of Skye Hotel which has obviously been bought up and, er, downgraded into a typical Travelodge. One standout feature though is the size of the rooms. The room we were shown to had a large bay window that formed a bit of a sun trap and was ideal for drying my damp cycling kit in.

It was however a bit of a disappointment then to find that the room didn’t have a sofa bed, or even a bed that slid out from underneath the double bed. I had to go to reception and ask for a solution which took the form of a folding camp style bed. This was actually a fairly comfortable option, well it was right up until the moment it decided to collapse at one end at about 6am. I got up, reassembled it and managed another hours sleep before the bed decided it really was time I got up by collapsing again.

The Cairnwell

Leaving Perth on the 17th I had about an hours drive to the top of the climb. The weather was still pretty cold and although the rain had largely cleared there was the chance of the odd heavy shower. Sure enough, as I drove along the valley from the Spittal of Glenshee I could see dark clouds looming over the mountains ahead.

The weather at the top of the Glenshee ski centre was freezing and less than inviting. After struggling into all of the warmest cycling gear that I had with me it was time to descend to the Spittal of Glenshee to begin my customary grind back up to the top. The descent began with a wide open downhill corner with a 12% gradient. A long straight’sh 12% descent is usually an excuse to ignore the brakes, switch off my brain and go for a personal land speed record. On the Cairnwell however I hadn’t long left the car park before I was being buffeted by a squally shower and I was very quickly being blown all over the road and chilled to the core. It was a relief to get to the valley and out of the wind to try and warm up before heading back up to the top.

As soon as I started climbing back up through the valley I knew I was going to suffer. The early part of this ride is actually relatively flat as the road tracks along the valley but I had absolutely no power. No matter what I tried I just couldn’t seem to get my legs turning with any real purpose and after forcing my pace up for a short while I just started to drift towards a lower speed and gear. I didn’t seem to have anything in the tank. What was more off putting was the fact that I hadn’t even reached the main steep section of the climb that was slowly looming out of the grey conditions before me; the 12% final ramp up to the top. I think it is fair to say I wasn’t havening a good day on the bike.

It was halfway up this 12% ramp that I had a sort of depressing epiphany; I was not going to start going any better on the climbs anytime soon. My form had disappeared completely and after creeping up to the top of this climb and swearing at various bits of cycling kit as I tried to get changed with numb hands I had another hour and a half drive to the next climb ahead of me where I would, almost certainly, make a pigs ear out of trying to ride uphill for the second time in one day. This would be followed by a miserable drive to Inverness and yet another bloody Travelhovel and another day failing to ride well and wasting the opportunity to enjoy the Scottish climbs. Bugger it I thought, time to bail out, figure out what went wrong and go home, which is exactly what I did. For whatever reason I had become locked into a cycle of increasing crapness after a poor start to the trip and the only way to break it was step away from the situation, regroup and come back stronger.

As soon as I reached the car at the top I informed my dad we would be going home. Whatever was affecting me wasn’t going to be helped by another night of rushed food and disturbed sleep in a Travelshack and the weather forecast for the rest of the week wasn’t looking too peachy either. There then followed a ten and a half hour drive back to Devon with frequent stops for the ever miserable dog to empty his increasingly upset bowels over various service station forecourts.
This is my happy face

Little Freddie is getting too old to like travelling and I’ve honestly never seen a dog look as happy as he did when we rolled up to the front door at midnight. He rushed into the back garden, peed all over it, ate everything we gave him and then promptly went to sleep. I kind of knew then I’d made the right decision.

Next steps

As I write this my legs still feel a bit rubbish and even though I’ve been out for a few training rides I still feel a bit below par. I’m still not sure if it was fatigue or even some sort of bug that sapped all of my strength and energy in Scotland but I think it may be my last big road trip of the year. What with travelling for work and the various trips away to try and complete the 100 climbs I’ve just had enough of slogging up and down the motorways this year. As I drove up to Scotland on the Saturday I noted the road signs for the Lake District on the M6 and instead of feeling enthusiastic about driving up to tackle the remaining climbs in the North of England I just felt sort of weary. Just to complicate things further I was also made redundant a couple of weeks ago and my main focus right now needs to be on sorting out some form of work. I have a few things in the mix but getting myself sorted is undoubtedly going to take up a lot of time and energy over the next couple of weeks. Quite simply I seem to be running out of steam and options for completing the 100 climbs this year which is disappointing and frustrating. Hopefully I will have the chance to tick off another couple of climbs before the year is done.

My initial plan when I started out last year was to complete all 100 climbs in one and a half years. Whilst I may get a chance to tackle one or two more hills before the end of the year I think it is only sensible to extend my timescale by another six months. I certainly think that when I return to Scotland I’ll be taking a different approach to the travelling and accommodation arrangements. Having to repack the car every morning, change accommodation every night and drive hundreds of miles in between all of this AND having to cycle up steep bits of countryside just isn’t sensible, not for me at any rate.