Beyond five and nine: why we ride regardless.

VecchioJo’s recent piece on just riding was a lovely stab at the business of epic, heroic, and sometimes fictional cycling. Similarly, Gavia wrote a magical piece which captures the serendipity of an enjoyable ride.

However, there are days when even rules 5 and 9 of the Velominati are not enough to stimulate us to ride: just riding when the elements are against us can be motivated by the mythology of toughness, a Belgian disregard for muddy and inclement precipitation, gale force winds and painfully low temperatures.

Rule #5

Rule #9

// If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. Fair-weather riding is a luxury reserved for Sunday afternoons and wide boulevards. Those who ride in foul weather – be it cold, wet, or inordinately hot – are members of a special club of riders who, on the morning of a big ride, pull back the curtain to check the weather and, upon seeing rain falling from the skies, allow a wry smile to spread across their face. This is a rider who loves the work.

Sometimes, more is needed.

Of course, one can make up ridiculously difficult challenges, and publicly commit effort, time, money and others’ work in such a way as to make backing out almost impossible. Mike Cotty’s recent jaunt across the Alps is an example of such admirably impressive folly (the videos here and here are essential viewing). Such challenges have their history in the development of long-distance organised cycling in France and elsewhere, and since the mid-1970s in the UK a small and dedicated band of organisers and riders have dedicated themselves to finding cruel and unusual goals regulated in accordance with Audax UK or Randonneurs Mondiaux regulations.

My first 200km brevet was the permanent version of the Dorset Coast, finishing in Keith Matthews’ back garden with a cup of tea (20 or so years ago). The first 50km or so, including the famous ferry crossing were done in zero visibility, and I will never forget the sight of Corfe Castle emerging out of the fog like some scene from Macbeth. Last week I completed the North-West Passage, which along with the Dorset Coast is the other of the first two AUK organised 200s. Both of these rides would never have existed if it wasn’t for the need to qualify for future versions of Paris-Brest-Paris (the previous year, 1976, AUK was formed and the first Windsor-Chester-Windsor was run as part of qualification for PBP): a full Super Randonneur series was now going to be required (Audax UK/Minter). The North-West passage is infamous for it’s tricky navigation and use of main roads, which in 1977 probably seemed fine. I don’t mind a bit of A-road, but it is unusual to ride down the A6 in daylight for ‘fun’. It is also renowned for its early season weather. In the UK mid-February can bring almost any kind of inclement weather, and this edition came after some of the worst winter storms we have seen for a while (I was stranded in Leeds without transport just two days earlier).

Without my desire to ride Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015 I would never have got out of bed. In order to pre-qualify I need to complete a BRM Super Randonneur series in 2014, qualify in 2015 with another SR, and gain the necessary experience and endurance fitness to ride 1200km without breaking down either physically or mentally. As I rode the 25km to the start realising that I was already colder and wetter than I had ever been on the bike before it was only the fact that this wasn’t just a ride, and the reward was beyond the moment that spurred me on. For me, cycling is part of a tradition, and however atavistic it my be I want to be part of that tradition of long-distance cycling. This does not mean I have lost the ability to enjoy riding for itself: there were moments of sheer joy and beauty to savour: sunset over Lancashire; the sound of tubular clinchers on tarmac; a welcoming control. However, these experiences would never been available to me without the structure of Audax UK and its embedding within the traditions and regulations of organised long-distance cycling.

20 years on (part 1)

Last year I rode for 3 hours in January, having been ill after Christmas, but also because life is, well… busy. 2014 is special though. Amongst many changes I have found the time and motivation to ride, partly driven by the probably foolish intention of completing my first Super Randonneur series: my longest completed brevet thus far is 400km, and only twice, with a ten year gap between rides. Last year I only rode a 200 and a 400, and I did not really prepare sufficiently. A long ride with Emma and Rich in April went some way towards preparation for these but I suffered in both, unhelped by some poor navigation and ridiculous weather.

This year is indeed special. It’s a special anniversary for me and @accidentobizaro and fortuitously linked to the Yorkshire hosting of the Grand Départ of the Tour de France. I also need to prepare myself mentally for next year’s big challenge, the 2015 Paris Brest Paris randonnée, all 1200km of it. Forcing myself to ride more, and to finally risk a 600km ride (weather and health permitting), is all part of something bigger, quite what time will tell. Part of this has been riding more with others, although I still favour solitude. 23 hours and 500km into 2014 feels a good place to be, a base to build on, and I hope the next weeks will be as kind to me. For those of you that have read my other more personal posts on this blog, you will know that cycling is an integral and yet somewhat problematic part of my life, and I hope I may have succeeded in laying to rest some demons in the last few weeks.

I’ll write more on this special year…

Cycling and depression: two years on

In 2011 I wrote about my experiences of depression, how they interacted with changes in the volume and intensity of my cycling, and introduced some academic literature on exercise and mental health. I concluded that although cycling can play a role in moderating negative mood, and possibly even treating depressive illnesses, it can also contribute to depressive symptoms. A recent paper on exercise and mental health provides a detailed overview of the literature in this area (many thanks to Simon Lamb for the tip).

I have had my ups and down over the last few years, but, partly due to a change in my work role, and some growing up from my children, I have maintained a fairly positive outlook. Another thing that has changed is the amount of time I have spent cycling. Throughout 2012 I rode more often and tackled some longer rides, but managed to talk myself out of entering a number of brevets and sportives, and more irritatingly, entered two 200km brevets that I failed to start. Fortunately, I convinced myself that I was capable of completing the long on-road version of the Mills Hills Sportive, which was a breakthrough in my conversion from self-sabotage to gung-ho risk-taker (a brief ride report for Mills Hills Sportive)!

I am currently riding about 120km per week, three times my 2011 average. All of a sudden, having completed three challenging longer rides (including my second 400km, only 10 years after the first), I can see myself completing Super Randonneur series in 2014 and 2015, and even Paris Brest Paris…

The causality here is tangled. Am I riding more, and more confidently, because I am happier, or vice-versa? I think this is the wrong question…

Almost all my riding is solo, but I have had some fun in the hills with some lovely people: thanks Emma and Tiffany, and the riders and organisers of the events I have ridden. My partner in crime @accidentobizaro has been incredibly supportive and encouraging, and when we get the chance, our velodates are always worth waiting for, whether on the track or in the Pennine hills we call home.

Quick jaunt to the Humber Estuary

Kilnsea bendWhat could possibly go wrong? A week of intense work stress and very little sleep followed by my first 400km Audax (randonnée, brevet) in 10 years. Actually, quite a lot, as it turned out, but little of it to do with my physical condition… after all, I know I can cope without sleep and I have more kms in my legs thus far this year than I have achieved since my 20s.

After finishing the ride (I won’t keep you in suspense) I have quite a lot to think about: some good, some bad, and even some very, very ugly!

Continue reading

Peaks and troughs: a bipolar 200km

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy last randonneur event was over five years ago, before other priorities took over. It travelled out to the Lancashire coast and returned via the Trough of Bowland. On Sunday I completed the Red Rose Ride, a 200km brevet randonneur organised flawlessly by Dave Dodwell as part of the West Yorkshire SR series. Starting in Halifax, it traces a moderately hilly route out via that same Trough of Bowland, returning via flatter roads. In recognition of my adopted county I wore a lovely limited edition Milltag jersey with a white rose design.

I set out after riding to the start on my sonically-challenged steed (rattling mudguard issue) with a fairly optimistic air, and found myself able to ride in groups and even contribute to some pacemaking, having benefited from my highest quality and volume of training in years. Continue reading

Review: Kinesis Gran Fondo Scandium

I celebrated my new job at work with a new frame. The criteria were comfort, mudguard clearance and handling. I have previously ridden steel and alloy, and considered titanium and full carbon for this purchase, but eventually settled on the alloy/carbon Kinesis Racelight Gran Fondo. My decision was strongly influenced by reviews in the cycling press, and price: the titanium version was just over my budget. I built up the frame with a variety of used and new parts.

This is a frame that is almost invisible in use. I was fairly underwhelmed on my initial rides, but soon realised how little this bike needed input from me. This was particularly noticeable climbing.

The ride is fairly firm, but rough roads are accommodated pretty well. The frame feels light and stiff, but not too harsh. Although some say scandium alloys ride more like steel this feels like a comfortable alloy training bike, and the excellent fork and carbon stays probably contribute more to its feel than anything else.

Although the finish may not to be everyone’s taste, it is well executed and distinctive. Be warned, the frame should come with seatpost (nice Selcof) and headset (cheap integrated): mine came with neither, although this was rectified fairly swiftly (I used neither in the end).

The single eyelets on the rear dropouts make fitting rack and mudguards tricky. Clearance is fairly minimal: with mudguards 23c tires are as fat as I would go. The head tube is really too short for a frame if this kind, and even those with better backs than mine will end up with excessive spacers.

As a deluxe training bike this is wonderful. Time will tell whether 23c tires are enough for audax rides on our rubbish British roads.

Speed and distance: the Andy Wilkinson paradox

I did my first turbo session of 2012 today. To be more accurate, it might be my first session of indoor sensory deprivation torture since January 2011: I can’t say I took up cycling to ride indoors. I can’t go out on Tuesdays during the day as my youngest son is at home with me, but the opportunity is there for indoor training whilst he is having a nap. Given that I don’t race, the wisdom of turbo training is a paradoxical one. The received wisdom of long distance preparation is slowly building a base; gradually increasing the duration if rides to match the distances encountered in competition. As with marathon training, there is an upper limit: it is probably not a good idea to prepare for PBP by gradually increasing training distances to 1200 km: a diet of long day training rides and events of up to 600 km is the sort of regimen suggested by Doughty (or Burke and Pavelka). Continue reading

It’s been a good year… for blogging

Prior to joining twitter and starting to post here I became a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the clinic, over on and hence my outlook was dangerously skewed towards the effect doping was continuing to have on both professional and amateur road racing. However, over the past year I have written about music, about depression, and most recently about my own cycling efforts and ambitions.

I started this blog for two reasons:

  1. to learn how to use Twitter and WordPress to reach an audience; and
  2. to contribute to online discussion of cycling.

I wonder how I did? Continue reading

Audax fail: but fog + hills = fun


Failed to start the Eureka 210 today due to a sick primo: couldn’t justify being away for nearly 24 hours when he was so ill (was planning to stay near the start last night). However, did manage to get out today. 55 km, lots of hills, and about 45 minutes trying to pump up a tire with a defective mini-pump. Very foggy today, high winds too: good training!

Over Saddleworth and back by spandelles at Garmin Connect – Details.

“Training” for Brevets

When I started aiming for long distances (200km + at randonneur pace) I used to ride about 150km + per week. Much of that riding was fairly challenging, as I lived in Sheffield, itself built on seven hills, and embedded in the ‘scenic’ Peak National Park. Scenic is a word much beloved by the UK randonneuring cognoscenti: it translates as leg-breakingly hilly. Audax UK, who oversee randonneuring here, even have an audax altitude competition (AAA) giving points for scenic rides based on a formula. I even did interval training (the A57 into Sheffield from the West is great for hill intervals). My partner lived over the Snake Pass in Manchester, so many weeks I would supplement mid-week rides (I only worked 50% for much of this period) with 2 trips over one of the most challenging climbs in the area.

My level of fitness was high I guess, and I certainly could ride quite quick at times, although that never really translated into fast times for the events I rode, as most were so extreme that maintaining the average speed was a challenge for many. Although I am quite light, I am not that great a climber, and I have always struggled to maintain a high average speed on hilly rides. An organiser once expressed surprise that I was so close to the cut-off time, because I looked absolutely fine and organised on the bike: well at least I looked good!

As I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I struggle to find time to train much now. I have recently started to ride more than once a week again, but the maximum distance I tend to do is about 60km (although I sometimes ride to work and back in one day, two lots of 40km). Most of the rides include significant climbs, although I do have one ride to Hollingworth Lake which is relatively flat (and the final climb to the lake is good for intervals).

I own two books on training to ride long distance events. One is from the US, penned by Burke and Pavelka (The complete book of long distance cycling) and the other is Simon Doughty’s The Long Distance Cyclists’ Handbook. The latter is more to my taste, and presents some more realistic training plans; the former is aptly described thus by one of the Google Books reviewers, Ted:

This book made me tired by just reading it. However, it has some good tips on building endurance and how to avoid getting a sore ass from being on a bike so much.

I can safely say I have done little that resembles the structured training described in either book: moreover, I think if I had attempted to do so I would never have completed even a 100km brevet populaire, let alone a 400 at randonneur pace. I have neither the time nor the dedication to build slowly towards the longer distances, and hence suffer enormously during longer rides. However, I have never failed to complete a ride, although I have failed to start on occasion. I am probably risking my health by stressing an under-prepared body, but part of my plan for the next few years is simply to ride more often, and to ride more events.

My main shortcoming during longer distances has in the past been my abysmal average riding speed, although I may be basing this on the hilliness of my event choices. Although I have finished a 200 in around 10 hours, my experience at 400km was increasingly desperate: I did not ride fast enough to sleep, and had not accrued enough experience at long distances to create a plan for my ride. Hence, I was not even sure if I needed to sleep or not. This created extra stress, and one thing I really need to explore more is how to structure my riding in events. I actually managed on no sleep pretty well for the 24 hours it took me to complete 400km, but I am sure that for a 600km ride I need to ride fast enough to do more than power-nap. Hence I need to start working on my pace once I have a few more miles in my legs: this will probably involve intervals and the dreaded turbo-trainer, not something I am looking forward to.

Sunday’s ride is a fairly flat 200km, so I guess I will find out where I am starting from.