Oh dear what can the matter be?

September 22, 2016

There was a time when throwing up in the middle of the night in a Northern town might have involved drink and drugs. These days I’m better prepared (bivvy bag) but it’s cycling that drives me past the point of physical no return. Two rides in a row now have ended in physical and mental collapse around the 300 km mark. You may think this is normal and unsurprising, but in over 20 years of long distance cycling I’ve only ever quit three audaxes: once through over sleeping and running out of time and the other two this season, in similar circumstances and in close succession.

My most recent ‘failure’ is particularly telling: having ridden 200 or so km to Glasson in the Fylde, and managed to navigate around a closed bridge and a swiftly mended puncture (first this year), I descended into chaotic failure mode surprisingly quickly. I clearly hadn’t eaten enough before reaching Glasson (where I inhaled a burger) and wasn’t functioning properly. I was following a mandatory route and hadn’t really had any navigational issues but my Garmin routed me in completely absurd way following my stop, dumping me onto a bizarre network of minor roads and cycle paths, all in roughly the right direction but none anywhere near my planned route. In a better mental state I might have noticed earlier, but I had clearly gone into ketosis and that state where the body is OK but brain is starved of fuel. 

Hence, Colne at around midnight, opposite a full hotel. 307 km but a fair way still from home. Sick twice and shivering. I was offered help by a lovely taxi driver and a BMX bandido, but by that time I’d called for help from my angelic partner as I was in a worse state than on the Old 240.

Learnings: I’m switching to using my smartphone and ride with gps app for navigation if I ever do this again. I’ve done two DIYs before with no issues but this was a complete navigation disaster. And some thoughts about taking on more fuel (possibly liquid). The main realisation though is that as I get older I may need to reduce the intensity of my training and ride longer distances (there’s lots of good advice from ironman triathletes on this it seems): I’ll let you know how I get on.


A tale of two rides: riding for love versus riding for glory…

August 29, 2016

img_20160827_164148 I’ve had a mixed experience riding long distances, mostly AUK randonneur events – which are a beautiful thing. I had a few inklings last year, on the way to my second Super Randonneur series that all was not well. At time I put that down to poor sleep hygiene before events and the added pressure of attempting to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris. This year was going to be a mammoth year: Mille Pennines (1000 km with 10 km ascent) which I failed to start, and another SR series (looking unlikely now). I think I learnt a few things on the way from three of the long rides I did, and I’m going to share some of these in the hope they help others understand their relationship with motivation and capability…

tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo9_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo2_1280The three rides were very different in all but length, making for an interesting comparison. Two were AUK rides, one a calendar event, the other a permanent ridden with friends. The third was a solo ride mixing on and off-road sections. All were about 300 km in length and involved some night riding. But as you will see they mainly differed in my motivation for riding, and as a secondary factor, British weather.

So then, motivation: I rode a permanent with Gavin and George starting in Kent because I fancied riding in company – and on fresh roads. I started (but didn’t finish) the Old 240 from nearby Mytholmroyd because I fancied challenging myself as an alternative to the flatter Not Quite the Spurn Head 400 which runs the same day (and I’ve completed three times – also it’s the first 400 I ever rode, over ten years ago). The third ride was a solo trip to Brecon from Hebden Bridge, motivated by a sense of familial pilgrimage, with a postscript ride half way back after 24 hours in Brecon. All three of these rides were challenging, but two felt much more genuine. I’m wondering if the near disaster on the third was more about my head than about the physical and meteorological challenges I faced.img_20160703_133517

I’ve written elsewhere about my excellent ride with Gavin and George so I won’t cover old ground. My ride to Brecon, however, hasn’t been covered here despite being in July, and my second attempt at the Old 240 deserves a post-mortem before my mind blocks out the good bits!

tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo3_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo4_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo5_1280tumblr_o9qwk3g0bq1rntaigo7_1280So, Brecon. Literally the land of my father. And his father. It is the site of the Brecon Depot and Regimental Museum of the evolving Welsh Regimental  (South Wales Borderers) and Brecon Cathedral. Also the Brecon Jazz Festival which should be more up my street. My father’s side of the family were unashamedly military, hence a paucity of relations. They carried out the orders of their superiors all around the world, however absurd or horrific. My childhood was full of strange and exotic stories and photographs of foreign lands and exotic peoples. Maybe I’ll write about that in a bit more detail one day. I never met my grandfather, and only really knew my father only as a rather creative teacher of English (who used to try to bring set texts alive through acting them out with his pupils, often outside).

The route I took mixed NCN paths of hugely varying quality and signage with a few sections of busier roads and a majority of minor roads. I had pretty good weather and got horrendously lost through and around Manchester’s supposedly bike friendly routes. I left early but an hour later than planned due to Garmin issues, and hence was against the clock as getting to Brecon in time to reach my guest house was always going to be a push – in the end my hosts stated up specially late after a slightly ill-advised long-cut and Garmin crash! I arrived… knackered – and went to bed after a shower to quell my shivering. The weather had been rather good, unlike my trip with Gavin and George, which I thought at the time to be about as bad as British weather can get…

The following day was all business I guess. My visit to the Cathedral to see the two plaques in the Regimental Chapel was really tough. I cried on my own in a pew and then walked in the beautiful and secluded grounds before a pie and pint and a trip to the bijoux yet extraordinary Regimental Museum. Having arrived purely by force of will felt good, and the trip back to get a train or two from Shrewsbury was fast and broken by tea and scones in Stretton.

img_20160828_155502My second and failed attempt on the Old 240 was a real paradox. Beautiful weather and riding for about 12 hours then turning cold on Yad Moss the gathering clouds turned to torrential rain. I’d been feeling good until then but increasingly cold, sick and weak (couldn’t eat any solid food at Scotch Corner at 11 pm) I ended up climbing Kidstones on foot. Here it was that the Gods of Audax smiled on me and I was caught because fellow rider (thanks Paul) who firstly paced me then when my sorry state became apparent lent me his bivvy bag and pointed me at an audax hotel before setting off for the finish through the rain (he got a brand new bivvy bag in return). Turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling on this ride…

img_20160827_112955I slept a few fitful hours that night just 60 km from the finish in Mytholmroyd in Kettlewell on the bench in the lovely bus shelter (en suite facilities too). I was soaked through and shivering. and the cataclysmic thunderstorm storm right overhead before dawn was pretty terrifying. It might as well have been another 340 – I was done. I still couldn’t eat: after my saviour had left the night before I had tried to eat an emergency gel and threw it straight back up… I have only quit on two audax rides, and this was the second, thankfully not so far from img_20160828_155837home that my loving and understanding family couldn’t rescue me by car.

So – riding for family or with friends is one thing. For a badge another. At least that’s how it seems to me. Yet so much left unsaid…


Men of Kent pull an all-nighter (Permanent Brevet Randonneur 300)

May 26, 2016

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaReceipts

A handful of receipts to be stapled together and posted with a card to a man I have never met. That is the goal. And it is a good one.

Don Quixote – Sancho Panza – Rosinante

Offshore wind farms in the distance make me ponder a future without fossil fuels: throughout the night I am haunted by Mad Max visions of a post-petrol world, the lack of traffic signalling a world dominated by pedal power and wind.

Rain in a park

In a park, on a path, as the rain steadily turns from annoyance into a heavy and unwelcome presence. The riding becomes dirty and sightless. All I can see is reflections from the water droplets on my glasses.

Peloton
George, embedded in the Ashford peloton, deep in conversation as Gavin and I drift on and off the back, enjoying the stimulation but unsure of the pace.

A Thousand Plateaus

After the rain and the joy of an increasingly dry early morning, the gaps in our trio increase. We ride as increasingly silent and isolated units, becoming social only at the controls, but even here it is a grim task eating and drinking.

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Birdsong

The volume and diversity of bird song after the deluge, even before the sky changed from black to blue is an assault on my ears. A seagull tells me we are close to the coast again, but I rarely see the sea.

Navigon

Only Garmin could manufacture a device which guides you perfectly along a route until an unpredictable moment where it ceases to do so. It is like a map for spies, designed to destroy itself before capture.

Grimpeur

Early on: a hill. Heart rate reaches 159 never to return. Later undulations register only as minor annoyances, slowing me down but making little impact on my increasingly depressed heart.

Route 2

The joyless disappointment of the National Cycle Network – it is telling that the worst part of the route is dedicated to bicycles: what a sign of British failure.

Mambo Italiano/Mama Mia

Before. Renato Carasone. A Peroni. Ham, rocket and buffalo mozzarella. Chicken Risotto…

No particular order/moment form/mobile/Stockhausen

After. It always comes back to me like a Stockhausen piece. In this case a mixture of Goldstaub and Sternklang. And maybe a bit of Stimmung.

And if you want to ride it:

http://www.aukweb.net/perms/detail/DWI02/

Gavin’s post about it here


Compass Bon Jon Pass Extralight Tyre Review

April 8, 2016

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I don’t often write reviews. Choice of equipment is very personal: experiences of the same component or item of clothing are subjectively variable and I have bought many disappointing items that others love. That doesn’t mean they were wrong, just that I don’t see the world their way. I will however tell you what I think about Compass tyres (tires in US), or more precisely their 700 × 35c Extralight clincher, the Bon Jon Pass.
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Compass tyres are widely promoted in the randonneuring world having been developed by Jan Heine with Panaracer in Japan. They are reputed to be light and supple, are good at low pressures and come in a wide range of sizes (up to 38 mm for 700c; wider for 650b and 26″). They are indeed objectively light and supple, and are available in a very pale skinwall version, or all black.

I chose the Extralight version as I am a puny lightweight and thought I could get away with it. The Bon Jon runs tubeless, but I’m running them with standard butyl tubes because I am a late adopter. They fitted quite tight on the stock rims on my Whyte Suffolk (made by Alex I think) and took a while to seat properly – I inflated to about 80 psi to make sure they were seated and have settled on 40 front and about 50 rear (I weigh 58 kg): I could probably go lower but I think I will wait until I go tubeless sometime in 2020. My first ride was at 60 and 55 which seemed a little high: at the lower pressure I can descend very quickly and confidently although if I climb out of the saddle the front tyre looks absurdly squishy.
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So, apart from excellent descending in all weather, how do they ride? The only time I have regretted being on them in their first 750 km or so was lost on a farm track where the road turned to mud and was upward. Tarmac, cobbles, gravel (big and small) all seem fine. Even a bit of mud is OK if one is not trying to climb or get started! I have done two long rides on very mixed terrain and they were comfortable and felt very safe (and I am awful off road). The lack of side-knobs or raised tread would only bother me in really muddy conditions. On the road they are luxurious and I don’t think they slow me down.
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The main reason I chose the 35c version was frame clearances. They fit my frame with just enough room (the chain stay clearances are unnecessarily tight) for safety, and I can just fit mudguards to keep ride companions happy. No punctures yet and I have removed one sharp flint from the tread; the flimsy sidewalls still seem fine after some rocky path encounters.
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For mixed riding and/or long distances they are quite the best tyres I have ridden. I intend to use them on my next 300 with George and Gavin in May and I’ll report back after that, but after 105 km of awful cycle path, track and chipseal roads yesterday which delivered great comfort I am not expecting to be disappointed.
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You can buy Compass tyres direct from Compass themselves (see Jan’s original blog post about the newer tyres here) or if you are in the UK you can get them Extraquick and Extralight from Velo Vitality in Brighton. They aren’t cheap, but good tyres never are… in my opinion!
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NB I paid for these tyres myself and have no connection with Compass or Velo Vitality other than as a happy customer.


Third time lucky?

February 22, 2016

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I completed my third North-West Passage on Saturday. It doesn’t sound much put like that. Despite a comedy of errors which included forgetting my bottles and phone (only one of which I went back for), I completed it. Moreover, I managed not to get lost on the final run into Rochdale. However, due to the worst wind and rain I have ever endured on a 200, I can confidently claim this was the hardest ride I have finished. So hard that the best bit was the (dry) A6 through and South of Lancaster.

Sometimes arriving is all that is important and a ride is somehow incidental. It is never quite like that because the experience of arriving at a pub you left earlier isn’t the same when the intervening twelve or so hours were like being punched in a cold shower by an Irish classics specialist. But yes, on Saturday I was just content to finish. And then back out shivering into the night for the hour and a quarter home…


Sunk costs and the long distance cyclist

July 24, 2015

20150718_145414Cycling’s most potent mythology is best signified by the death of Tom Simpson: continuation past the point where the returns diminish to zero or less is admired by many even where it is frankly pathological. In order to meet the demands of this myth, it is no surprise that some resort to doping, or make other physically or mentally disastrous decisions. As riders prepare hopefully for Paris Brest Paris, the Race Across America or the Transcontinental (starting tonight in Belgium) they probably hope that they will not have to go beyond the bounds of rationality to finish, but by the very nature of even the shortest of these challenges (no longer a race) demands a suspension of belief even for repeat entrant. The exposure of the body to such sustained repetitive action is unpredictable but always extreme, and even the least imaginative of riders will know that they will have to proceed beyond any normal definitions of plausibility. Such prospective irrationality only gets worse as a rider accumulates time and distance leading to bizarre and sometimes catastrophic failures which could be minimised by stopping hours or days earlier. However, it is almost impossible to judge whether continuing is rational or not: when even starting goes against common sense, how can one decide when to stop? Riders’ accounts demonstrate that successful completion can come despite all the signals to stop, and for supported rides the rider’s team are often better judges, making their decisions based upon more rational bases. Even support teams, however, can suffer from the sunk loss fallacy. If continuing past an obstacle brings failure there is no advantage in continuing, yet riders continue until they fall asleep whilst riding (and crash), ignore injuries that will eventually lead to abandoning, or carry on rising despite the unlikely average speed required to meet a time limit. As the distance increases so does the investment, and the magnitude of the potential loss. Of course, the paradox is that it is incredibly hard to tell where the threshold between a reasonable decision to continue and abandonment lies. Viewed from outside the world of the long distance racer Josh Ibbet’s decision-making on the way to his second place in last year’s Transcontinental looks foolhardy. Judged purely on outcome, however, his decision to ride through pain and exhaustion was successful (if costly). If such decisions were made on irrational grounds, and merely to avoid discarding sunk costs, that hardly matters unless you permanently injure yourself… as long as you make your goals. As an aside, the result of abandoning the investment one has made can be a transfer of that energy into surprising alternate goals. Martin Cox’s extraordinary decisions to transfer his energies from racing to cleaning up the Stelvio and helping out an injured companion of the road are examples of constructive ways of dealing with what might otherwise look like losses.

What does any of this have to do with me? I sank time, money, effort and spirit into my attempt to ride Paris Brest Paris this year. I prepared well, and pre-qualified last year to get an early entry by completing my first Super Randonneur series in 2014. And yet I gave up on my final qualifying ride of 2015, unlike @fabiorandonneur, who endured many challenges and qualified last minute by completing a 400 under extremely painful circumstances. I overslept in the night after a very bad run from Castleford to Mytholmroyd and completely lost my will to continue. Although officially out of time I could have tried to continue with the hope of catching up on the rather flatter final 225 km of the East and West Coasts 600, but after about 10 km of grovelling into a headwind I returned home and slept for about 18 hours on and off. It wasn’t supposed to end this way, but after20150720_113944 tears came resignation and the memory of an enjoyable first section before I collapsed in the night.

The story didn’t end there, however. Unlike Martin Cox I didn’t manage to sublimate my drive into anything selfless. I did, however, complete a similar route last weekend in 37 hours (validated by GPS), an hour quicker than last year, to complete my SR series for 2015. It was alone, unsupported and beautiful, leading to no glory in Paris, but the return on my investments was just right, thank you, including fish and chips at 500 km.

Follow the much more invested riders of the Transcontinental, including Martin Cox on his second attempt, here:

http://www.transcontinental.cc/


Feeling the pressure

June 11, 2015

I tend to avoid fixed, singular goals. I spread risk to mitigate disappointment. A lot of academics find solace in the short term shifting of attention from one priority to another, and become frustrated when they are managed too directly or become unable to do this due to sheer volume of work. Last year I committed to completing a Super Randonneur series – and when I failed to start my 300 I filled the gap with a late-season DIY by GPS ride. This season has thus far proceeded in a more orderly fashion, pointing threateningly but inexorably at the start (or end) of Paris Brest Paris in August. Although each ride on the way is an achievement in itself there is a tendency to subordinate these successes to the larger and more singular goal. Anything apart from success starts to look like failure.

640px-No-DozUnderstanding cheating on a personal, rather than an academic level, requires immersion in the high stakes of goal oriented behaviour: cheats become blinded to the larger consequences of their actions because their focus on outcome and often seem surprised by the impact of their dishonesty on others. For them, doping is a personal thing: for others it is an attack on the order of things, calling into question the assumed truths of competition. So, am I becoming susceptible to the temptations of assuring myself through the abuse of medication? And would it matter? On my last qualifier I took a few caffeine gels with me and attempted to deploy them in my battle with my prior lack of sleep. In retrospect I should simply have prioritised my sleep before the event but I have a busy job and family life – it’s easier to pack a few gels than manage my sleep. Of course, there are in fact no anti-doping regulations for PBP (EDIT – see John’s comment below, I am mistaken) AND no testing (although doping is illegal in France) but for me caffeine gels crossed a line (over which are caffeine tablets and then almost anything goes…) regardless of any written rules or laws (I have written elsewhere about doping and medication in randonneur events). I should have taken my own advice from last year:

I finished my first 600km Brevet on two cups of sugary tea (the only caffeine I ingested), water, caffeine-free sports drinks, gels and energy bars; I may have had a can of coke, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Real food: cheese sandwiches, fish and chips with mushy peas, flavoured milk… and a vegetable samosa. After the ride, I took some ibuprofen to calm the inflammation affecting my shoulders and hands, but not for long, because it makes me feel vile. I am still in pain four days after finishing, and suffering from altered sensation in both hands, although I am now much improved. It may be that my approach is unnecessarily puritan, or not puritan enough (get rid of the space food) but it wasn’t really considered: like the lovely guy riding a Pashley roadster I just did my own thing. You may choose a different path…

More importantly, my recent experience of sleeplessness has led me to question what I am willing to sacrifice. On the Monday morning after my 600 at 0900 I will be serving on a disciplinary panel – I’m not willing to let this affect my ride but that’s going to be a challenge. I start PBP (if I qualify) straight after a torrid week at work but that’s not yet led me to back out. I am proud of my new ability to avoid self-sabotage but there’s some danger of heading the other way and risking my health or safety (or my competence as parent or manager) by being too goal-focused. I will try to employ common sense and prepare to work around adversity, but as I noticed in my last qualifier the lack of stress can be a factor in my performance – I need a fair amount to be optimally aroused and alert and a few disasters on a ride seem to perk me up. With that in mind, my 600 is on the very last weekend for PBP qualification. No second attempts. I could really do with a load of support to ensure I get round, and if I fail, to deal with my disappointment. Fortunately I have that at home but every extra bit helps.

And I may not even like it if I qualify….

Here’s the link to the AUK calendar page for the East and West Coasts BRM600 which I will be riding on the 20th and 21st of June.


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