Zwift – A New Way of Indoor Training

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Zwift Logo

Zwift

So what is Zwift? Well, traditionally Winter cycling saw people putting on layer after layer, braving the cold and wet on a club ride or having to resort to riding indoors on a turbo trainer. The latter was always dull, staring at the four walls out of your mind bored. Some people found relief in watching films whilst riding, I generally had to resort to playing the Xbox. By distracting my brain from clock watching by playing Fifa (driving games didn’t work very well, it’s hard to fight the urge to lean into the corners). Around two years ago Zwift was created to fill in that gap and make indoor training much more interesting.

Mathew Mitchell Zwift KISS (C) 28th November 2016

Leading the group – no helmet, black/blue kit and white/green bike.

Anyone with a bike, a turbo trainer (£100+), a couple of sensors (£50), an ANT+ stick (£10) and a PC can get going. As you ride, Zwift calculates your power in watts and converts that to a speed in-game as you zoom around a couple of virtual worlds. Most people will start off with a solo workout or two before exploring the world of group rides and Zwift racing. A number of pros can be found riding as well, the likes of Jens Voigt, Michal Kwiatkowski, Laurens Ten Dam, Andre Greipel, Thomas de Gendt, Jasper Stuyven, Fumy Beppu and Axel Merckx. I suppose you could play the likes of FIFA and Madden with/against some pros but they’re less upfront about it. On Zwift real names are used and you can even get a notification to your phone if someone you like starts riding.

Mathew Mitchell Zwift KISS (C) 28th November 2016

The lead group has formed, I’m going with it and seeing how far I can get

Zwift works well because of the social aspect. Whilst you can be a hermit and simply ride on a workout passing everyone by with no interaction, the most fun is had on group rides. The well led ones are kept to a reasonable manageable speed. Somewhere between too easy and too difficult where conversation (typing in this case) is possible whilst riding and the chat helps the time spend riding fly by. Facebook groups help established groups get closer and before you know it, you’re fully involved in the Zwift community. A new set of people are asking where you were on Sunday and encouraging you to beat personal bests and improve that FTP (functional threshold power).

Zwift Racing

As a relatively new convert to racing on Zwift I’ve realised I’ve now found the tip of the iceberg. This stuff is serious.
Anyone who hasn’t forked out for a power meter is looked down upon and so is not racing with a heart rate monitor. The efforts required to finish high up are huge, in my last two races I’ve had to lie down straight away afterwards because I’ve put myself into the red so much. A sign of good training! As in real-life, racing is split into categories, this effectively means that in the middle of a mass race you can ignore those marked with an A because they’ll be disappearing into the distance shortly. It also gives newbies a chance to race against each other in the starter D category rather than feeling like they’re being thrown straight into the masses.

Mathew Mitchell Zwift KISS (C) 28th November 2016

Still in the lead group…

My first race was on the Richmond 2014 World Championship circuit. I managed to lose all of the groups and spent nearly the whole thing on my own. Guaranteed to be the slowest way to race, with no draft effect to help the speed. I had put myself in the D category as a beginner but the power I put out meant I got upgraded to 10th (of 11) in the C category. The auto-upgrade prevents people under-representing themselves and winning categories they’re too good for.

I had another go a few weeks later and whilst it was hard work it was much improved. I finished 4th in C category after getting myself into one of the leading groups and then gradually falling backwards as I lost contact with my group on the last lap. Despite that, what was most memorable after this race was Zwift crashing and my PC refusing to reboot. After re-installing Windows I lost all the data and couldn’t upload it to Strava either. Far from ideal.

The last two weeks I’ve been back on it cycling wise and have done 4 races. Two results of 13 and 19 in the B category, and two more of 2 and 8 in the C category. It’s fair to say that I’m somewhere between the B and C categories and that the race circuits heavily impact what I can do. The circuit in London is a favourite, it’s relatively flat with only a blast up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square that causes brief issues. Unsurprisingly this is where I’ve done my B races. I seem to have hit on a strategy of going as fast as I can early on, hanging onto the quickest group for as long as possible and then seeing who I can hold off until the end. Hanging onto the back of a quick group early on does give you huge leads over chasing groups, I just need some more fitness to hang on until the end! It’s been this week where I’ve found out about the work that Nathan Guerra (a top American MTB-er) who has a Youtube channel that broadcasts Zwift races live as he provides commentary. It’s been useful to be able to re-watch the races and see at which point I should’ve done something better or been more active at a crucial point. It also helps me get better screenshots!

Mathew Mitchell Zwift Friday Criterium 25th November 2016

Caught on Youtube – near the start of a race trying to escape with a group

So…Zwift

As a means of indoor training, for me Zwift has made it something worthwhile and actually enjoyable to do. It saves me having to go out into the city to train on dark, wet, cold evenings so I could probably claim some safety advantages to using it as well. Especially because you can’t crash on Zwift, unless you’re particularly careless and fall off your bike somehow. Having group rides and races means that you can choose what sort of ride you want to do, whilst managing to have that social aspect. Being able to race against other actual people makes it that extra bit real and allows the competitive side to come out. It pushes you far more than a winter club ride or than you would doing a workout on your own. By doing more than just riding long rides and doing specific training rides and races, the data has shown that I’ve made improvements despite riding less in the last two months – my FTP is now around 45 watts higher than it was when I first started on Zwift 3 months ago. For me, being able to play on Zwift and ride regularly has definitely been a worthwhile investment.

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Zwift – A New Way of Indoor Training was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling

Cycling Brussels to Cologne – First Touring Experience

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bierborse-logo

Birmingham to Maastricht

At the start of the year we came up with a plan to visit Cologne for a beer festival and combine it cycling somehow. Not wanting to waste time cycling from home we took the Eurostar to Brussels to head off from there. It meant leaving home at 5am to head into town, briefly smashing one of my panniers on a bollard as I misjudged the size of a gap and catching the train to London. The short cycle from Euston to St. Pancras was fine and we dropped our bikes off to be put on the train. As we tried to go round the front to go through security it turned out I’d printed off everything but our actual tickets, I just had a copy of the booking confirmation somehow. Having not brought the card I booked with we couldn’t use the machines to print off so I had to use my persuasive powers to get someone in the booking office to print them for me, crisis averted!

Cycling through Belgium

Cycling through Belgium

We sat on the train watching Southern England and Northern France fly by, before eventually reaching Belgium and Brussels. We picked the bikes up from the cargo area and spent ages trying to put the panniers back onto the bikes, hadn’t quite learnt the routine and our cheap panniers on a non matching rack meant some bodging was necessary with bungees. The Garmin struggled to pick up our location outside the station but once it kicked in and we were facing the right way we started on our way. Leaving the centre of Brussels wasn’t particularly picturesque and the route eventually followed a river through a large industrial area, a great introduction to Belgium – eventually however we ended up punching through and escaping the city into some countryside by the airport. We found ourselves on a very long and very straight cycle path next to a busy main road and had a couple of episodes of stopping to sort out panniers as George destroyed clips and had to re-adjust.

The Albertkanaal near Zandvoort

The Albertkanaal near Zandvoort

At Werchter we turned off the road and followed a path alongside a river that was busy with cyclists despite it being 1pm on a Thursday. We stopped for lunch at an Aldi in Diest, refilled the supplies and pushed on. We joined the Albertkanaal at Hasselt and ended up creating our own fun by racing on the wide traffic-free road alongside, we spent 5 miles trying to out do each other and managed to fly through at 20mph+ even with the bags. The Zandvoort racing circuit of vintage F1 fame was on our left and something was driving round it but the barriers were disappointingly just tall enough to prevent us from seeing. The canal road was nice and flat with the exception of the locks which had a short drag uphill each time.

Lying around waiting for the Garmin to charge

Lying around waiting for the Garmin to charge

We pulled off the canal for the last stretch to our overnight stay and then the Garmin died on us. I hooked it up to the portable battery and we sat down for 20 minutes on a path by some trees to let it charge up. We went through a few small towns before turning off into the forest and a fun descent down to our stop at Sonnenvijver just outside Maastricht. We’d arranged ourselves an Airbnb in what looked like someone’s summer chalet in the forest, by a lake. We chilled, showered and headed out to the other side of the lake to a restaurant for a nice dinner and time to relax before heading to Cologne the next day.

Bikes at the overnight stay in Maastricht

Bikes at the overnight stay in Maastricht

Maastricht to Cologne

It's the Amstel Gold Race windmill!

It’s the Amstel Gold Race windmill!

We set off the next day out of the woods and off into Holland, our first destination was Valkenburg, a detour I’d enforced after looking at the map during the planning stages. Valkenburg is famous for hosting the annual Amstel Gold Race which ends on the well-known Cauberg hill. It has also held the cycling World Championships 5 times and a couple of Tour de France stages. On our way there, we passed an iconic windmill that often gets pictured in the race and took our own. The Cauberg itself is quite short and sweet, just steep. I took it easy at a constant speed, Rich shot off and promptly fell into a stinging nettle bush trying to change his chain from the big ring to the inner ring. George’s knees were hurting him so he pulled over to see what Rich had done and I made it all the way to the top in one go and waited for them to come up whilst eating some waffles. Embracing the Dutch spirit!

The Amstel Gold Race finish line - I won!

The Amstel Gold Race finish line – I won!

Coming off a roundabout I very nearly stacked it, crossing the road with the cycle path I managed to slide a bit going across a concrete gutter which the pannier bags made worse, somehow I managed to hold it and we avoided a crash! We managed to enter Germany without realising it, the route took us down a horrible small lane that had brutal cobblestones and when we came out the other side I noticed that the road signs had changed and the parked cars now had D registration plates – it wasn’t for another mile or so before we saw the first road sign with some German on it to confirm it. We found a Lidl in the next town and sat down for lunch in the car park, getting a few odd looks. Shortly after we’d got going again George managed to break a clip on his panniers which meant stopping for awhile and Rich hiding by a hedge to get himself out of the sun. He’d already got the moniker of Captain Redleg after just one of his legs caught the sun the day before and had gone, unsurprisingly, very red. We waiting for George to finish re-lashing his panniers to his bike and watched him purposely stride across the road onto the left hand side to get going – a quick ‘George mate, Germany’ and he realised what he’d done!

We found the Netherlands

We found the Netherlands

The route kept us on bike paths for the most part, keeping us off busy roads but being able to enjoy their beautiful view to the side. At one point the path crossed sides and we missed it so were on the road coming up to a roundabout. A German driver who had turned into the relief lane took the time to stop and shout out of his car at us. The German was quick and I’d so far only had a supermarket trip with little interaction to think in German so far – the one word I did understand was ‘Idioten’, plainly he thought we should’ve been in the cycle path! On one stretch shortly afterwards that definitely didn’t have a cycle path, Rich had pulled in ahead for some directions, as I came past I told him we were going straight on before slamming on the brakes 50 metres further on. On the ground was a genuine real €50 note! I picked it up and spent it once we’d got to Cologne on everyone’s shopping, spreading a bit of good karma.

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral

We had a brief detour to avoid a bridge it turned out was very much closed and impassable but managed to end up on the outskirts of Cologne before heading into the city through some cycle paths between the fields and in the parks and before we knew it we were at our apartment for the next few days. Quick trip to Lidl later and we were chilled out relaxing on the terrace with a well earned beer. The days of beer festival in Cologne afterwards were also good!

Night time at the Cologne beer festival

Night time at the beer festival

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Cycling Brussels to Cologne – First Touring Experience was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling

Cycling up Snowdon on a Road Bike

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Snowdon

I think it’s becoming obvious that I like to set myself a challenge and see what I can do with a bike. It started with various sportives, then a 200km Audax, then London to Paris in under 24 hours, trips across Belgium and now taking my bike to the highest point in England and Wales, Snowdon.

I first mooted the idea to George in the Spring but we couldn’t find time to do it before the voluntary cycling agreement on Snowdon kicked in – it basically says no cycling between May and September due to safety issues with having lots of walkers on the path and bike flying down it at the same time. Fair enough we thought, we’ll do it later in the year.

In the meantime George found himself moving to Chirk which made preparing and travel a little easier, no longer having to leave quite so early in the day from Birmingham we were able to get up at a sensible time and head up at about 9am. We parked up in Llanberis down a side street, pro tip to avoid the parking charges, got ourselves ready and set off up the Llanberis Path to the summit and our first ever HC climb.

Start of the Llanberis Path

The start of the off-road stuff on the Llanberis Path

Climbing Snowdon

The first tarmac section was very steep, I saw 22% on the Garmin briefly, I stayed on but George was forced to walk some of it. We reached the gate off the road which signalled the start of the path and the beginning of the off-road fun. George had a proper mountain bike, front suspension, fat tyres, the works. I was on a road bike with fat-ish knobbly 35s with a very low psi, disc brakes and clippy shoes/pedals.

We ended up going through the gate at the same time as a pair of walkers, we knew if we saw them again before the top that walking was quicker than cycling, as it turns out, we didn’t see them again. The early section was spent getting used to knowing what our bikes and us could handle. I had a couple of very slow instances of falling over, a combination of being clipped in for one and being ambitious the other time. We soon learnt that neither of us were much good on what we started calling giant cobblestones, the gaps between them meant it was too easy to lose a wheel or lose momentum resulting in having to come to a quick stop.

We walked up a few of the short steep slopes with these but comfortably rode the relatively flatter sections with gravel and smaller rocks. Surprisingly quickly we found ourselves within sight of Snowdon’s Halfway House, predictably shut with the Summer season well over. This section was very rideable and posed us no problems. The section after meant we had to walk for around a mile with the bikes. It was steep, had the giant cobblestones and was much too technical for our skill level. Walking up there in clipped shoes and a bike on my shoulder was tough and was probably the only part that caused us both issues physically.

George looking down the Llanberis Path

George looking down the Llanberis Path

Crossing under the railway line, we would’ve been within sight of the top if it wasn’t in a bank of cloud. We also lost the wind protection of the bank that the railway sits on top of and gained a close up view of a steep cliff face, probably one of the few points of possible danger on this path. The steepest uphill section was next, the less rocky surface made walking up it easier for me in my cleats, but I also had my bike on my shoulder as I found that easier than pushing a bike up that wanted to roll backwards between each step. Eventually it flattened out a bit and we were able to ride across a lot of the ridge before the path returned to being big rocks with steps built in. On the upside, this was the final stretch up to the summit of Snowdon, with the bike back on the shoulder I was running up some of this as people coming down made comments on how mad we were.

Our bikes at the Snowdon Summit

Our bikes at the Snowdon Summit

We reached the summit mound in 1 hour 50 minutes, took a photo or two and then ascended the steps to the toposcope at the highest point. Unfortunately due to the mist it was fairly useless, not being able to see further than maybe 50 metres away. As we did the brief descent to Hafod Eyri, the fairly recently built visitor centre on Snowdon, a party of school children (that had come up on the train) seemed particularly impressed that we were up there with bikes and more so that I had a road bike with me. We went in for a well earnt coffee and flapjack and a bit of a breather – we got many looks from everyone else in there, I guess we looked a bit different! Back on the outside to get our bikes (which we’d locked up, although we’d debated if anyone would really be even able to take them from up there), we ended up in a conversation with some Royal Marines who were doing something equally as daft, climbing up with massive packs as part of a training exercise.

Inside Hafod Eyri

Inside Hafod Eyri

Descending Snowdon

We had to walk back down the steps, not being quite good enough to be able to ride down them, blasted across the flatter section we’d ridden across before until we reached the steep section. I was struggling to hold the bike back even with the brakes fully on and the back tyre was moving around, so I got off to walk. George rode it, but as I watched him descend quickly, his left leg ended up off the pedal and it didn’t look particularly controlled. When I eventually joined him, he confirmed that he’d been on the brakes, locked up sliding around a lot and had definitely scared himself a little. We crossed back under the railway line to an unrideable section that we had to walk down. My cleats didn’t enjoy flat sloped rocks and there were a couple of slippages, one resulting with me throwing the bike on the floor and the other with it stuck on top of me whilst crouching and George having to come help get it off.

Once the big rocks went and the gradient lessened, we were back on the bikes. The steady descent meant lots of riding on the brakes, it was surprising how quickly speed got picked up if you didn’t. We were both smashing down this easier stretch of the path, able to ride down parts that we couldn’t ride up and we were back at Halfway House before we knew it. The road bike with its lack of suspension wasn’t finding it too hard going, being able to pull the front wheel up and over the bigger rocks meant it was the back wheel and legs taking more of any hits that happened. Eventually the back wheel hit a rock a little too hard and we had to stop for a puncture. Being a seasoned veteran at replacing these, we were done in 5 minutes and back riding.

The view on the way down the Llanberis path, almost out of the cloud cover

The view on the way down the Llanberis path, almost out of the cloud cover

We were friendly and courteous to all the walkers, passing them slowly and with a nice shouted warning to let them know we were there. Everyone was kind back, definitely impressed at our efforts or the madness of them. Near the bottom where the path started after passing a small group on a particularly jagged section, I’d just got off to hop down it when I looked up and saw George’s back wheel was a metre or two off the ground, somehow he didn’t faceplant but managed to push it through his legs and just sort of walk off it as his bike hit the deck behind him. Dusting himself off, we we were able to make the short distance back to the starting gate and a fun descent on the tarmac back into Llanberis for lunch at Pete’s Eats.

Strava – 494th out of 1769

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Cycling up Snowdon on a Road Bike was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling

The Great Shakespeare Ride 2016 – 100 Miles

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Great Shakespeare Ride Logo

The Great Shakespeare Ride was the first sportive I ever did in my fledgling pre-lycra, pre-clippy shoes days. I remember it being very hard work with plenty of stops to recuperate and the last ten miles were a huge struggle. In the end I finished 108th out of 134 in 8 hours 10 minutes, whilst people I now regularly ride with finished in the top 10. I also did it in 2014, but chopped off the end to go home after 100 miles rather than do a 15 mile loop to the finish and back again.

The route itself is very hilly, so not something I’m naturally suited to as a heavier rider. Lots of early leg testers designed to tire you out are compounded by the finishing climbs of Sudeley, Saintbury and Larkstoke. In many ways the route was similar to the Liege-Bastogne-Liege Sportive I did in the Spring.

Great Shakespeare Ride 2016 Elevation

The ride started with the Stratford Cycling Club leading the pack behind a car providing a neutralised start, designed to get everyone off the busy main road and through the small lanes safely before depositing everyone in Wellesbourne. What happens once the car pulls over is someone takes up the pace and a whole long string of people follow waiting for the dual kick of Spring and Frizz Hills leaving Wellesbourne – once on the hills, it ends up as free for all as the once cohesive pack turns into smaller groups. I ended up in quite an elite group, happy to let the guys from the Cycle Studio team do the work as they were only doing the 100km route. We followed the wheels and the next ten miles flew past on a pretty much flat part of the route.

I lost touch with the group on the designated timed hill-climb of Lady Elizabeth hill leaving Middle Tysoe, despite taking half a minute off my previous personal best, I was still a minute slower than the mountain goats that I was with. I ended up isolated, with my previous group out of sight and no-one behind appearing to catch me up either, as it was I spent nearly ten miles on my own holding off the hundreds of cyclists behind me before getting caught up by a couple of randoms and Mark, a familiar face from the Stratford club. I sort of rode the rest of the way with Mark, with a few mishaps and unplanned stoppages along the route.

Mathew Mitchell climbing Lady Elizabeth Hill Warwickshire

Climbing up Lady Elizabeth Hill

Our small group might light work of the easier mid-section of the sportive, which was flat after the rolling hills before it and a nice rest before the climbing began again. The section around Guiting Power is a series of 3 or 4 short drags followed by a long 3 mile drag and really eats into the leg strength, it didn’t help that I lost touch with the group as my Garmin came out of its holder on landing as I jumped the bike over a pot hole on a descent. Despite my best efforts to come to a stop, turn around, locate and pick up the Garmin, the group had disappeared and were gone. Again I was on my own cresting the top of the hill before zipping across the valley to the other side and gently climbing up to Belas Knap. The descent has a nasty 90 degree right-hander but this one was in my mind’s directory of local knowledge so I took it sensibly. A club mate managed to break his collar bone going down the straighter parts of the same descent a year or two previously so I made sure to give it some respect. At the bottom is the village of Winchcombe.

The first feed station is in Winchcombe and I fully intended to stop there but somehow managed to completely miss it and had to tackle the steep Sudeley climb with no break. It’s one I really struggle with, the gradient kicks up to 20-22% gradually so you end up really grinding away, barely moving at that point. It didn’t help that my gearing wasn’t too suited to the climb, riding in 52-25 meant lots of zig-zagging to get up (bike tech geekery now over). The upside to missing the feed station is that I was caught shortly afterwards by Mark, I’d managed to undercut him as he stopped and had pressed on. We joined ourselves to a group and ended up blasting down the Stanway descent, a favourite of mine, that was used in a Tour of Britain stage in 2014. The close to two miles long road has lots of gently angled corners that allow you to fly down without having to touch the brakes and make fun controlled swoops.

We followed them to Snowshill (also used on the Tour of Britain 2014) where it all broke up again. Now reduced to steady pace on the climbs, it was a case of powering through the pain and reaching the top somewhat together. The small gentle climbs up to Lavender Fields continued to suck the energy from the legs but a tractor provided some entertainment, waiting behind it at a junction, I ended up drafting behind it up a hill for half a mile and now get to claim 4th place out of over 5000 on that Strava segment. The best part was overtaking other cyclists with the tractor and speeding past whilst using almost no effort.

Mathew Mitchell and Mark Lampitt Hampton Lucy Great Shakespeare Ride 2016

Struggling together up the final rise before the finish. Still plugging away…

We took in Broadway Tower before beginning the descent to Chipping Campden, I had to refill my water bottles in Ebrington, losing touch with Mark as I attacked beforehand to try and create a bit of a gap – halfway up Larkstoke I found him again though. We crawled up it together and kept each other going as first I hit the wall followed by Mark as we both passed close to home and the temptation to turn off and finish kicked in. The final drag back up out of Hampton Lucy nearly finished us off but we got a good photo out of it.

We finished 19th and 20th out of 144 riders and just snuck under 6 Hours with my time of 5 hours, 59 minutes and 31 minutes. The ride finished with a well earned beer.

Strava

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The Great Shakespeare Ride 2016 – 100 Miles was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

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The Dunwich Dynamo and I have a fair amount of history, until this year I’d set off 4 times from London Fields in Hackney and had so far only made the beach at Dunwich in Suffolk a single time. For a variety of legitimate reasons, ranging from a glut of punctures using up all the spares to the early symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, somehow getting to the beach was a struggle.

The Dynamo is an overnight 110 mile ride leaving East London at about 8pm on the Saturday in July closest to the full moon and arriving at Dunwich shortly after dawn the following morning. The route is gently rolling with no proper hills, just a couple of leg warmers every now and again. All sorts take part, the club cyclists rush past early on, the decent roadies following them shortly afterwards and then onto a myriad of contraptions as varied as an antique butcher’s bike advertising a pub, a fleet of stepwalker bikes and some guys on a vintage singlespeed tandem.

Dunwich Dynamo Route

Dunwich Dynamo Route

The last one was us as it happens in 2015, an Ebay hunt last year made us find this tandem that looked like it had been in a barn for at least 20 years being somewhat generous. My friend George who joined me on the tandem, handed it over to his dad who shot-blasted it and painted it black (I believe there was only one colour) whereupon we got it back in bits and put it back together. The idea to build it as a singlespeed (that’s one gear to ride in, but not fixed) was partly out of laziness as it’s just much easier to build and a lack of time before the off last year. We managed to ride around 50 miles of the Dynamo before coming across an issue where the rear wheelnuts didn’t hold the rear wheel in place anymore so we had to keep getting off and re-tightening, only for it happen again shortly afterwards. Our night ended in the luxurious surroundings of Colchester railway station waiting for the first train back to London.

2016 Dunwich Dynamo

Onto 2016 – new wheelnuts to avoid the previous issue were in place, a test ride highlighted an issue with cranks but tightening some bolts sorted that. To start the day off, I had to ride the tandem on my own from home to Stratford upon Avon station, not a problem but you do look a lonely soul riding a tandem on your own, to meet up with my tandem-mate George and Rich, who was riding a sensible bike. To look the part, George and I had forgone the regular cycling apparel and instead had donned waistcoats and flatcaps, presumably in an effort to audition for Oliver on the West End.

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

Just will not take a photo properly

We were in high spirits as we left Marylebone station, only to find that Rich’s front tyre had decided to give up the ghost after being put on public transport. A new tube was put in but then George’s pump had an argument with the valve on the new tube where it unscrewed the valve and let all the hard-earned air out of the tyre. Some swearing and more pumping and eventually it was alright. We encountered the next issue straight away, in preparing for the ride, I’d put the Garmin GPS’s SD card in my laptop to upload the route…and then left it in the laptop at home. No route and no map is not a good situation, so we ended up taking the SD card from Rich’s phone and going to a friend of George’s who lived conveniently round the corner from the starting point in order to borrow a laptop to download UK maps and the route file onto the SD card to then put in the Garmin. This in itself was trouble, the Garmin is highly strung when attached by a cable so when an accidental touch happened, 25 minutes were spent trying to get it to connect again. Eventually, some food was had and we were good to go.

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

The strategy we had meant leaving at 7pm, before the majority, as we knew we were booked onto a Midday train from Ipswich the next day, this meant cycling the full 110 miles and then doing another 35 miles on top – 145 miles within 17 hours – in theory manageable, but fearing the worst and being comfortably the furthest George and Rich had ever ridden, some leeway was wise. Rich successfully made it past the 50 metre mark which was far as a friend of a friend got last year before trashing his chain to pieces and we were soon heading out of London with a loaf of Soreen falling out of a pocket at some traffic lights the only mishap. This whole stage was smoothly navigated, with not many people out yet we weren’t held up in traffic or at lights so much and the miles ticked by.

He won't take one properly either...

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

There are a number of pubs en-route and once outside of London, there are some nice village ones which are aware of the ride and set themselves up to cater for cyclists. Normally by the time I’ve arrived at them, so has everyone else and they’re rammed. This year however, we coasted up to the pub in the village of Moreton and were able to easily claim a table outside to relax at with a briefly earned pint after 20 miles. We ended up chatting with someone for a while who had slogged round on the butcher’s bike last year, which when shown a picture George recognised, this year however he’d chosen to ride a more sensible bike.

We trundled on, recognising places as we went from last year, each one was a mental tick of progression. The previous year we’d had to fix a puncture in Great Dunmow, this year we just sailed through it without a problem, other than missing the turn but realising the error within 20 metres. There were a couple of tealights out on the pavement which are an unofficial route guide and only seem to exist on this early part, in the dead of night you’re fully on your own. Our next pub stop was in the village of Great Bardfield which again is normally a very popular stop but we were able to go straight to the bar. Last year it was here that Luke waited for us when we’d had to stop, so it was very familiar.

By now it was around 11pm, properly dark but we passed the point where we had both got sick of the tandem as it became unreliable the last time. Past the point where we called Luke to say we were bailing and then past the point we turned off the route for good on our way to Colchester. Before we knew it we were in Sudbury, where Luke was (20 miles ahead) when we gave up. We were into uncharted territory! Incidentally the descent into Sudbury was where we managed our max speed for the night of 36.9mph, freewheeling at that speed on a heavy bike and two of us was fun and a real test of trust for George behind that his driver could handle it (obviously I could).

We had two stops close together around 80 and 95 miles in. The first was a food stop, a chance to eat a gel or two and replenish, as well as a chance for my hands to get a rest – despite my best efforts the handlebars were like a pair of crutches, all your weight going through the soft part of your palms. The second was a relievement stop, mixed in with some amateur photography to keep the spirits up. Figured a sturdy fence to lean the camera on with some time delay of passing cyclists and their lights might create a nice picture. It wasn’t too bad for a phone camera, but a proper camera would’ve done it more justice, that and some fancier more colourful lights passing us there.

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

Could be better…

We were now on the last stretch to the beach, the night sky was turning into an inky navy rather than the outright black of night, dawn was coming. We found ourselves in a bit of a back and forth with 3 members of West Suffolk Wheelers, on the flat and in particular the descents we’d come flying past only for them to come past on any uphill part (our lack of gears starting to hurt the later into the night we got). I also had a technique at T-junctions of cutting up the outside because no car lights shining clearly meant no traffic, whilst we did repeatedly overtake a lot of people it also meant we didn’t have to come to a complete stop and begin our starting procedure. The very final stretch I recognised through the dunes above Dunwich and upped the tempo, we went flying past them for a final time, round a couple of bends and then descended down to the beach and the finish. As we took our gloves off, the first sliver of sun appeared above the sea on the horizon.

A café on the beach opens very early and I took the chance to have a sausage roll and a bacon roll, absolutely perfect and very well earned. After eating we took a stroll to the beach itself and lay down amongst the other cyclists. We all nodded off at some point and had a very short nap. Being still though meant the cold had started to creep in and with a train to catch, we had around 7 hours to do the 35 miles to the train station. Should be easy.

Getting home from the Dunwich Dynamo

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

Actually at the beach for the first time in 5 years!

The climb up from the beach was hard and we’d gone 10 miles when the Garmin said it had low battery. This meant an enforced stop in the village of Snape where we could sit down for a bit and let it charge from my battery pack. We all took the chance to have a nap on benches, looking like extremely well dressed vagabonds. 35 minutes later we on our way and didn’t stop again until Ipswich. We had a bit of a navigation error, where it wanted to take us onto the dual-carriageway A12 and I didn’t, so we ended up on a grass road behind some houses until it eventually ran out, we ended up cutting through an estate and onto a cycle path to Ipswich. We had only our second get off and walk moment up a steep hill out of Woodbridge, but we made it with plenty of time to spare. Helpfully the train staff allowed us to get onto an earlier train and we all slept on the way into London.

Dunwich Dynamo 2016

It just just about fit on the Stratford train

Cycling across London we had our final mishap, someone put too much power through his cranks and a bolt apparently came off from the cotterpin holding them in place. This was right outside Kings Cross station, I had to cycle the last 250 metres or so with very very offset cranks – instead of a 9:15 clock hands position, they were now at something like a 1:15 which felt very odd. They didn’t come loose so we managed to finish, I was the lucky one who then had to solo ride the tandem (with its unintentional new setup) the 7 miles home from Stratford station. I tried to stay awake, repeatedly failed, burnt a pizza by falling asleep and then eventually slept 12 hours that night.

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Dunwich Dynamo 2016 was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling

Warwickshire Wanderer 105km Audax – 21st May 2016

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An early start after sleeping on Rich’s deflating airbed saw Rich, George and I head down to Birmingham New Street to catch the train over to Hampton in Arden. Breakfast was acquired on the way (sausage and bacon rolls are excellent for cycling) and we rolled out for the short ride over to Meriden for the Warwickshire Wanderer 105km Audax.

Warwickshire Wanderer

I did this Audax in 2015, but the longer 160km version, however this time I was using it to help build up the miles for George and Rich ahead of this year’s Dunwich Dynamo and a planned trip to cycle from Brussels to Cologne in September. We made it to the start at the church hall, had a cup of hot brown, picked up our route cards and were on our way.

The beauty of the Audax is that most people are sensible, don’t rush off from the start and quietly plod along on their way at a leisurely pace enjoying themselves. There is a little bit of a climb straight away from Meriden however and despite trying to sit in the wheels, ended up dragging the guys with me through the groups (albeit still being sensible) until we found one going at a speed we liked. The route meandered through the Birmingham/Coventry gap before working its way past Hatton and into countryside that I recognised the look of – this naturally meant I ended up speeding up a bit before taking it easy to make sure we were all together again.

Norton Lindsey Windmill

The first control was in Norton Lindsey and was a simple matter of reading a road sign as we went past, later on seemingly everyone else was asking the answer as they’d missed it whilst making the turn out of a junction. The next stretch was windy and we’d ended up in a group that was spaced out quite a bit which meant keeping track of both the guys was difficult, I ended up losing them briefly on a descent before picking them up again the other side of the A46 after having a bit of a chat with another rider as he went past. We were heading for Wellesbourne and the road was kind and in our favour, allowing us to pick up speed for a bit. We entered the village and looked for the next control (a proper village hall, tea and cake stop) but after turning off the road we weren’t sure where to go next, until 30 seconds later another rider went flying past down a driveway, that confidence convinced us to follow. It had turned out we’d been the first riders to get there (just) so it wasn’t obvious with no-one else to follow (we were also spot on the earliest time of arrival allowed). We put a sticker in our card and treated ourselves to cake.

We allowed ourselves a leisurely break before setting off again, now properly into a stiff headwind. We took the back way out of Wellesbourne to Kineton rather than going over Spring/Fizz Hills and then started heading towards Edgehill. I teased Rich about us maybe having to go up the impending climb, knowing full well we were going to turn off right at the bottom of it, eventually I put him out of his misery. It was along here that someone ahead somehow managed to crash going over the railway lines that go from one part of the Temple Herdwycke army camp to the other. He seemed alright and turned down the offers of help from us so we left him to it. We began to see the Burton Dassett beacon and I let the guys know that we were definitely going up this one and that once it was done, we’d done the hardest climb.

Burton Dassett Climb

The climb up to the beacon

I’ve done this one a few times, the climb starts by going across the cattle grid before gradually rising itself up into a double figure gradient on the turn, a brief respite gives the legs chance before the short final kick up to the beacon. I’d gone at a fast but reasonable pace and figured that’d be enough to beat everyone, near the top I could hear Rich’s gears and breathing making a racket as he’d taken on the challenge of catching me up. On the top bend with a car for cover, I spun up the legs and across the top to the next cattle grid distanced him properly. I then had to go back because I’d missed the answer to the next control question which had been on the bend where I shot off. I told the guys to carry on and caught up with them again shortly afterwards.

We were now out of the worst of the headwind and plodded on quite happily together, eventually reaching the next proper control in the village of Harbury. Just like last year, they’d put on a good spread and we spent 40 minutes there relaxing out of the worst of the oncoming drizzle. Plenty started ahead of us so we’d given up on thinking we’d be one of the first pack and found ourselves attached to the back of 3-4 riders going at a decent sensible pace for the final part of the ride. As the legs began to tire, Rich was quiet and I presume heavily focused on following the wheel in front of him – he turned down offers to do his turn on the front. George found himself fine on the flat but each time the road gradually rose up, found himself dropping back, keen to keep the group together and it only being small moments of struggle, I helped by giving him a push up the gradients to keep his speed up so he could then stay in the group and hide out of the wind on the flat. Later on one of the older guys in the group queried George as to why I was helping George when he was much older – the best response seemed to be to suggest that the older guy was a better rider.

The traditional centre point of England

The traditional centre point of England

Having kept myself sensible on this final stretch and knowing the last short climb before the finish, I let George know my intentions and zoomed off out of the group to blast up the hill and then down the descent the other side. Surprisingly one of the group tried to come with me but I crested the climb ahead and stayed in front. Rich wasn’t far behind and George had taken it easy arriving about a minute later. The card was checked, had our paid for beans and toast and then we went down the pub.

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Warwickshire Wanderer 105km Audax – 21st May 2016 was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling

Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge 2016

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Liege Bastogne Liege Logo

So three years ago now (time flies) I did the Paris-Roubaix Challenge which went well (sort of) and frankly it was time for another challenge.

This time of year is the Spring Classics in Belgium and the Netherlands, with several iconic one day races. I chose Liege – Bastogne – Liege largely because it doesn’t have cobbles (done them, see link above) and because once you’ve ruled out the Tour of Flanders for that reason, it’s the next best race anyway.

Liege – Bastogne – Liege (from now on LBL out of my laziness) is known for its hills. There are plenty of steep, reasonably long climbs to negotiate with a spate near the finish which normally sorts out the men from the boys on race day. For the amateurs, there was a choice of doing a 76km taster route, a 158km route covering most things or the full race distance of 273km – I did about 273km cycling London to Paris and personally I reach a point after about 6 hours where I get bored more than anything and wished I was doing something else. I chose the 158km route, basically 100 miles, perfect.

Liege Bastogne Liege Col du Rosier

I was staying about 5 minutes cycling from the start point so I was able to almost fall out of bed and be there. This time nothing was forgotten unlike the infamous Paris-Roubaix debacle, I had pumps, tubes, the kitchen sink and filled water bottles. The weather however was just rubbish, it had rained all night, it was still raining and I was in shorts with no overshoes, I was definitely going to get wet so had to suck it up. Now I’m pretty sure if you google ‘how to get through a 100 mile sportive’ every result will tell you to take it steady to begin with, don’t over do things too early – I however like to blitz the first 30 miles if I can and get through a large chunk before the hurt starts…it’s also probably down to showing off. We departed our start and by the time we got to the ‘Depart Pro‘ 8km in, I’d gone past lots of sensible people and it turned out we were going straight into a solid unmentioned climb. I found a group I could sit behind that were pushing the pace along and zipped along with them past lots more sensible people.

Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge

The early first climb in the wet

I did learn a few things on the ride, early on I learnt that I am about as effective as Bradley Wiggins descending in the wet, a combination of brakes that seemed to work less well than others (note to self, upgrade the brakeset when I get home…and don’t be a cheapskate) leading to a couple of hairy moments where they suddenly dropped their speed and I was still ploughing on; as well as seemingly having a bit more self-preservation and cautiousness on hairpins whilst on the wrong side of the road. It meant that I lost the initial group I’d been with, but there were plenty more wheels to follow, that is until the split between the 158 and 273km routes happened, when all of a sudden there was hardly anyone. An unspoken alliance was formed as three of us began to ride together, rotating turns on the front. An American who didn’t speak and turned off at the first food stop (42km in, too early for me), a Frenchman and myself. Mr FDJ (all of the kit and even the team’s actual make of bike too) and I rode together for around 40km, him being better on anything steep but me being better on the flat so it always evened out.

The first marked climb was L’Ancienne Barriere and it was a long long drag, it felt like it went on forever. As was typical throughout the ride, you would descend from the top of one side of the valley, over a river bridge and find yourself with a solid climb to get back up the other side. This climb was 3 miles long averaging 4.7% (a relative baby on this route) but the length was the issue. We got overtaken by someone better and Mr FDJ went off with him only for a mile later to be back within sight. The next mile was spent reeling him in and we rode the last mile or so together with my pidgin French breaking the ice (c’est longue!). The descent over the other side of the summit was surprisingly dry, more or less, and it turns out I become a fearless descender in the dry, wooshing through corners on the racing line and barely tapping the brakes. At the bottom of the valley however, I found myself on the front of our twosome going into a headwind. We’d been overtaken by someone tanking along and the easiest way in my mind to get out of the wind was to speed up and reel this guy in, which I did by putting the power down. I hadn’t checked on my new friend but a couple of miles later I realised I’d dropped him, not being an actual friend I didn’t sit up and wait.

Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge

I took a tow from this new rider to the next food stop in Stavelot, I definitely wanted to stop here, the food on offer was amazing (waffles, honey cake, stroopwaffel, wine gums, bananas, all sorts). I was happily munching on a well earned waffle when Mr FDJ appeared and gave me a bit of an earful in French – I understood the gist, he wasn’t happy I’d sped up and dropped him but all’s fair and that. I don’t recall seeing him again after this point. Coming out of the food stop was a shock, second waffle in mouth, straight onto a short, sharp, cobbled climb – but I thought there were no cobbles! Once that was over it was time for the second named climb – Col de Haute-Levee. really steep to begin with (making me definitely not suited to it) and then a drag as it slowly began to flatten out. I didn’t do it especially quickly.

Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge

Not looking happy here…

The route went back into the hills and valleys, 10km further on was the Col du Rosier which on a sunny warm day is probably beautiful. Not too steep but very long, there was a switchback section that was like it had been designed for bike riding, with the forest around you and the fog in the trees; I even caught a glimpse of a deer lurking in the trees, a sure sign I wasn’t putting too much effort in and was wildlife spotting again. The Rosier got hard near the top, with the legs already drained it got nasty. The descent on a newly tarmac-ed road was amazing and the lower down you got the drier it became. Long wide easy hairpins made for great fun leaning in. I was about 45 miles in at this point and absolutely frozen, my feet were wet and felt twice their normal size (not that I could feel them) and my left hand had gone numb. Frankly I was miserable, cold and on my own. This was my mental wall of the ride, where I had to really dig deep to plough through – the lack of any alternatives is a good motivator, but when a group of 6 came past I sat on the back of it down the valley and before I new it the left hand worked again and we were 10 miles further on.

The next bit of drama was in the town of Sprimont where the event route signs caused something like 50-100 riders (just from what I saw) to go the wrong way – we’d reached the middle of a figure of 8 and this is where the split was earlier. Lots of us followed the signs again for our route only for it to start looking very familiar – I had a quick check of the Garmin and realised I was about 3km into doing another lap of what I’d already done, sod that! I turned around, tried to point people back but most ignored it, can only guess at what point they put two and two together. Almost straight after the island causing the problem was the Col de Redoute, containing the steepest sections of the route and it was an absolute killer. I’m honest that steep stuff is something I’ll never be quick on, but I know I can grind through it – there were plenty of people walking up the sides, including a 5 year old girl (who I’m guessing wasn’t on the 158km route), those walking were going the same speed as her, a harsh comparison to make!
Being a popular climb, there was a flotilla of caravans and motor homes on the lower slopes, all proudly declaring their support for riders and teams, mainly Belgian, but there was a definite Team Sky fan too. With so many people milling around and clapping, it gave a flavour of what it would be like the next day when the pros did it. Halfway up, with each pedal stroke barely moving me forward, my Garmin decided to start acting up going into test mode and moaning that it had an incorrect adapter fitted. I thought it was something to do with it getting conflicted with something on another rider’s bike (I did overtake a few) so turned off my heart rate monitor to give it a chance. Despite resetting it over and over, it kept throwing its tantrum and went into test mode – after cresting the Col, I decided to give the thing a blow through thinking maybe some of the gallons of rain had worked its way inside. It seemed to do the trick, with a few warnings continuing to pop up throughout the rest of the ride and 24 hours later it sorting itself out.

Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge

The look of a broken man not enjoying things any more

Another fun dry descent followed and a short bit of flat before the next named climb of the Col du Roche-au-Faucons – this turned out to be steep, long and after getting to the top was followed by another steep part to the real peak where Carlos Betancur had a stab at attacking the next day. This one was timed by the organisers so we could all see how we did compared to others, I was in something like the 66th percentile so not amazing, but my back was killing (core muscles need more work!) and the legs were not happy either. I don’t remember too much of it, just the start and end so I must have been spaced out trying to cope.

We began to hit the outskirts of Liege, apparently past the Standard Liege football ground although I didn’t see it (based on the aerial shots in the pro race, it’s because I was head down chasing down a group at that point). Through a lovely picturesque industrial estate and we were onto the Col du Saint-Nicolas, not the nicest of areas and certainly no reason for tourists to normally go there. This was more my sort of climb – nice steady 6-8% where you could stick it in the one gear, stay seated and just work up a good rhythm up to the summit. Passing a guy in the World Champion jersey was a highlight.

A decent sized group had formed as we negotiated city streets and traffic lights, when all of a sudden there was a cobbled stretch (them again!). Everyone else seemed to slow down, whereas I clicked up a couple of gears, upped the power, sped over them and created a gap – the Roubaix experience clearly giving an upperhand on knowing what to do!
The group came back together on the final drag to the finish, a solid mile of 7% on which I just about hung on before having a race back down the hill (on a cobbled descent of all things, turns out all my best Strava times were on the cobbled sections) with the World Champion jersey rider all the way back to the start point where we finished.

Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge

A wry smile of sorts at the finish line

My reward for completing it, was a medal and a t-shirt and by handing in my race number (with the timing chip on it) I got a proper sized pot of sports drink. I paid up for a proper hot dog and a glass of Leffe – very well earnt. On my way out, ready to get back and go to bed, I was accosted by two guys who had spotted my Stratford club gear and gave me a welcome from the Solihull club. They’d both done the 76km ride and we had a chat about how tough some of the climbs had been and a shared acquaintance and happily parted ways. Once back, I did nothing but lie in bed.

All in all I’d done just over 100 miles with the brief diversion in 6 hours 53 minutes.

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Liege Bastogne Liege Challenge 2016 was originally published on Me vs. Pro Cycling