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…

The Ghost in the Machine: underneath the tinfoil hat.

February 2, 2016

I have been struggling for a while to decide how to continue to write about cheating in sport given its state of anomie. Scandal after scandal in athletics, soccer, tennis (and even cycling) have helped normalise the view that sport is actually inherently fraudulent, whether or not that is in any sense ‘true’. Nonetheless, two developments in sporting fraud have emerged which suggest a post-humanisation of sporting fraud. Neither are entirely new in concept, but both engage with human performance in ways which question the boundary between technology and the body, and create a gap between our inquisitive nature and what we can comprehend as either human- or machine-like.

  1. Gene Doping
    The ability of products to manipulate the inner workings of our cells isn’t all that new, and many journalists have latched onto the warnings about dangers (turning something on doesn’t mean you can then turn it off) or the potential for such products to be both potentially undetectable and incredibly powerful. One such product which has never exited testing or been brought to market is Repoxygen, which causes an alteration to cells which then produce higher than normal levels of EPO. Whether this exists as a black market product is unclear but it is certain that athletes, coaches and sporting authorities believe that to be likely. The crucial difference between Repoxygen (or a similar product) and rEPO is that whereas doping with rEPO decreases the production of EPO by our bodies whilst boosting red blood cell production, Repoxygen acts directly on the cells increasing their production of natural EPO. The trick is to do so without creating chronically and dangerously high hematocrit levels. That does not happen with rEPO – which suppresses natural production of EPO and is therefore relatively short lived in effect.
  2. Technological Fraud
    The second development, which although highlighted by recent events at the U23 Cyclocross World Championship event, has been posited for much longer, is the use of small concealed electric motors to boost cycling performance by a marginal, but significant quantum. There is a suspicion amongst some that Femke Van den Driessche used such means to achieve her gains on the climbs at the 2015 Koppenbergcross – a suspicion that may have helped motivate what looked to be a targeted operation to detect the motor using an EMR application in the pits at the World Championships.

What links these two techniques is their invisible testing of our assumptions about what it us to be human. Of course, all cycling is technologically enhanced, but whereas an illegally light bicycle is only quantitatively illicit, the motorised bicycle is qualitatively illicit. We assume the power input which the drive train converts comes from the rider and if this is no longer the case we are watching a motorcycle race, not a bicycle race. With gene doping it is not the undetectability or effectiveness which chills, it is the categorical shift from human to… not human. In both cases there is an uncanny valley effect where in the absence of better preparation, whether natural or pharmaceutical, the athlete goes beyond what is possible for their physiology. The results of doping can look odd to the naked eye, but the result of gene doping or technological fraud create a categorical shift. This is no longer enhancement by degree, but a new sport which goes well beyond the metaphorical Lance-as-cyborg narrative.

Human beings are fairly inquisitive: I’d guess around .7 on the cat scale. Their desire to gather and interpret data is not always matched, however, with the intellectual capacity to come to conclusions that bear much relation to reality. Whether it is rappers thinking the Earth is flat, or the mistaken belief that there is a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine, our desire to explain what we observe can outstrip our ability to interpret. Of course, it’s worse than this: the desire for an explanation may not drive us to seek information upon which to ponder; and it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous. It may drive us to select information which reinforces our existing beliefs; or to reject information gathering and rely upon solipsistic deduction of a kind Sherlock Holmes would be distinctly uncomfortable with. And sometimes, the explanation is so seemingly crazy it can lead to madness…

The detective novel plays with this desire for explanations, and also the pleasure we gain from being just one step ahead of the detective (or one step behind). And although we often look to be searching for the smoking gun, its discovery often disappoints as well as befuddles. The reveal undoes the setting up if explanations, unless through shock (Seven) or unexpected confusion (Usual Suspects) it itself sets up a new set of questions. It takes a deft artist to tell a tale which simultaneously unfolds into a rational state of closure yet still leaves us questioning: perhaps this is why the confusing “reality” of time travel narratives, whether hysterical (Interstellar) or creepily whole (Predestination) are so fascinating.

So where does this leave the inquisitive cycling fan? All sports fans have some degree of fascination with the causes that sit behind winning. However, many of these factors are hidden, either because they are forbidden by law or rule, or because they are too complex for any but an expert to really grasp. These ghosts in the machine of sporting excellence lead many of us to express our inquisitive nature in fantastic, ill-evidenced speculations worthy of the X-Files. The truth is indeed out there, however, and it isn’t our fault that the UCI have to use ghost detectors to combat technological fraud. Who can blame us for retaining our tin foil hats when if turns out that a form of cheating much derided as fantasy turns out to be both actual and invisible, yet needs only the right tool (a free EMR detector app) and a tip-off to find.


Further reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15157120 (paywall – a review from 2004 of the state of the art in gene doping in sports)

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/sports/playmagazine/0603play-hot.html?_r=0 (NYT from 2007)

http://www.wired.com/2010/02/gene-doping-detection/ (WIRED from 2010)


http://cyclingtips.com/2016/02/cyclocross-motor-scandal-belgian-rider-blames-mix-up-claims-bike-belongs-to-a-friend/ (Two CYCLINGTIPS articles on the Van den Driessche affair)

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:


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.

Land of My Fathers (what do you want to go back to that shit hole for boyo…)

April 21, 2015

My first foray into cycle camping was a mixed experience: a week of scorching weather, fine company and challenging terrain followed by the twin insults of biblical weather and a stupid crash. Mix in a heroic rescue and a comic British Rail cameo and it sounds a story worth retelling one day. Caersws plays a minor role, a tiny settlement close to the route of the Plains 300 Audax: site of our dishevelled rail-transported return to London. Having arrived by bike, crossing into Wales via the Forest of Dean and having traversed Wales via Brecon, returning by train felt quite deflating. Not that we could have been much more punctured by fate. Read the rest of this entry »

Allure Libre

January 29, 2015

Last year’s 600 Brevet back from the organiser (who has been a little busy as President of AUK). Reading the control details reveals that I had completely forgotten a whole section of grim night riding in the Mirfield area. Bonkers.One of the things I like about cycling is its relationship with improvisation. As a younger rider I rode long distances solo with lightweight camping equipment and no real plan. The day was spent riding from one camp site to another, with only wind and terrain governing my path. The two traditions of Audax, one where all ride together led by a captain (Euraudax), the other allure libre (where one might only meet other rider at controls or choose to ride as a group), are different distances from these roots. Although the “free” riding of the latter allows me to embrace uncertainty to an extent, there is a part of my psyche that craves a rejection of the safety in rules that allure libre audax presents. Audax riding is a pragmatic compromise for me, however: it provides a temporally and spatially contained opportunity to ride with or without others which is coherent with family and work constraints.

gibier3000:</p> <p>Paris Brest Paris 1931.

Four recent stimuli have made me reconsider my dedication to the collection of brevets: the first is the change that a clear goal (Paris-Brest-Paris 2015) has brought. This was the stimulus that drove me to finally become a Super Randonneur in 2014, an achievement I have avoided for many years. It is also the impetus that is currently overcoming the inertia I might otherwise have experienced after finishing my final brevet of last year, and drives me towards another SR and PBP. That drive, however has an opposing force: PBP itself exerts an influence on long distance cycling. The Audax Club Parisien designed the SR series as a way of training for PBP, and ensuring that entrants were suitably prepared. That doesn’t mean that there are no other valid motivations for riding an audax: but it does mean that PBP is an implicit as well as explicit goal whether we as riders acknowledge this or not. Although I have yet to experience it, all accounts I have read suggest that PBP is about as far from improvisation (and the x-rated Audax UK rides I have come to love) as one can get whilst having a card stamped. Its roots in racing are still apparent, and there is a huge mismatch between the versions of self-reliance it presents and those of local ACP-validated qualifying rides. That segues neatly into the second stimulus, which has been incubating for about three months: my final brevet of 2014 was a DIY event as I had missed my calendar 300 due to illness. The route, although validated by AUK, was designed by the lone rider, and evidenced purely through two gps files. Although I found my other SR rides enormously satisfying in their different ways, this was a completely different level of self-inflicted challenge, and although driven by the desire to complete my SR, actually reminded me of the role self-direction plays in my love of cycling. The final stimulus was encountering a number of articles about the trip taken by Gus and Lachlan Morton across the Australian Outback (Thereabouts). Although supported by a car and one-person support team/driver, there were aspects of their approach that spoke to me and reminded me of one of the books that haunts my cycling (Journey to the Centre of the Earth): the journeys are very different but there is an attention to people, places and the interaction of inner life and environment that resonated. Lastly, the Transcontinental Race provides a different way of negotiation freedom and rules, resulting in some extraordinary stories (especially Martin Cox’s 2014 ride) where the constraints of the race battle with an authentic sense of ethical purpose (see especially this and this).

So, although I enjoy the balance between security and self-reliance of Allure Libre I also long for the bottom-up joy of “doing it myself”. In 2016 I think I might aim to ride more DIY Audaxes, and maybe think about some more radically individual challenges. But first, there are many kilometres to ride to get to Brest and back, most of which will be ridden on fairly familiar roads.

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