The Tumble

Wales is a popular destination for cyclists from Bristol. In my usual awkward way, I have tended to stay south of the city, looping around the Mendips. My brief forays to the principality tend to involve a blast up from Chepstow to Tintern then back via Devauden. My main issue is that you have to trek along the Portway and then over the bridge and it means at least 40 miles of the ride is a bit grim. Nevertheless, this week I set out to try some new roads, heading up to the Tumble for the first time on a 100 mile round trip. 

The bridge is the fun bit and I bumped into one of the GBDuro 20 riders, heading to John o’ Groats as part of some intense off-road race thing. It’s the same race Lachlan Morton did last year – I interviewed him for the new book – and is the preserve of lunatics. The rules this year are extreme; they have to carry all their food with them and if something breaks and they can’t fix it they are disqualified. Personally I think these are a bit excessive, or shit. Adventure is one thing, being a fascist about it another thing altogether, not to mention enhancing, rather than minimising, risk. Why not insist they stuff their faeces in an apidura turd sack all the way to JoG and have done with it.

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It’s quite a hectic set-up. 

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I took a left at the top of Chepstow and immediately found myself on the good stuff, empty lanes, curving up and down across the Wye Valley then up into Shirenewton. I had an unscheduled bit of gravel to contend with which meant walking down a 20% scree slope with a furious tiny dog barking  through a wire fence. The main roads were very quiet, in contrast to Bristol’s clogged arteries of rage.

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Serious gravel

The Tumble is an iconic climb, primarily because of height gain. It’s 512 metres at the summit and it takes a good while to get up. It is also visible from  a long way out, so has that demented foreshortening effect that all good climbs have, looming  over you from twenty miles away, a nudge and a wink, a threat. It sits on the edge of Abergavenny and is in the ‘steep and unrelenting but not too terrifying’ category. It is long though, and took me (in gentle mode) getting on for twenty minutes from bottom to top. I notice the Welsh Championships are on there this year so may even revisit. The views are beautiful, out towards the Sugar Loaf and across to the hills above Blaenavon. It was worth the trek. The top is vaguely surreal. Just as Alpe D’Huez is a bit like a tacky seaside resort at the top of a mountain, the Tumble has its quirks. For one, there is an ice cream van at the summit. The strangest thing was a murky pond – and people were swimming. It was bizarre.

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It’s a great climb, right in the middle of a 100 mile ride. 

I dropped down into Blaenavon – I’ve been there touring before – and then across along the tops, before a very technical descent into the valleys. I hurtled around a corner and bumped into the GBDuro chap again. It made me smile. We had a chat and I wished him well for the terrors that lay ahead.

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Adam was fixated on eating; he was literally counting the minutes – 20 – until he was scheduled to eat again. 

There is one other nasty climb out of Usk which caught me by surprise. With 70 miles in the legs it had me vowing yet again  to put a compact on the front; I’m still rolling with a hubris-inducing 39:25.

It was a super day out, 100 miles on the dot, about 6,200 feet of ups. One particular highlight was rolling through Mamhilad, where my grandfather was born in the 1920s. I never met him, he survived the war as a Royal Marine Commando, getting injured in the Battle of the Scheldt, only to die a few years later in a tragic accident. I didn’t feel like riding through Mamhilad was a deeply resonant experience – it’s not that nice a place, more a sort of industrial and commercial zone on the edge of Pontypool, but I thought of him, maybe supping in the Star of an evening, and my Welsh heritage.

The benefit of doing all this on a Monday is it means your mileage for the week is all but chalked off. But of course, you then think ooh maybe I can chip off a 200 mile week… and so it goes.

Adam Colvin’s stories on instagram, and the thread of his ride, are well worth a look:

https://www.instagram.com/airborneelvis7/

Benefits of Lockdown

There are some silver linings to this anxiety filled and unprecedented crock of shit that is Lockdown. I have been getting out on the bike more, or at least, I have been doing more of the slightly longer rides and less of the commuting. It is nice to have a bit more time in the mornings and not try to wrangle everyone out the door, fed, washed and shatted in about 6 seconds.

I seem to be out riding more consistently at times when other people are out riding, as opposed to crack of dawn raids on Clutton and Hallatrow, where the god-fearing people have  yet to see a bicycle and would likely summon the local druid to expel the iron horse of witchery should one appear. This means I am seeing more cyclists, both new and old. I feel obliged to include a disclaimer right now, before I say the offensive stuff.

IT IS A GREAT AND JOYFUL THING THAT THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE ON BIKES RIGHT NOW.

OK and on with the show. I notice even fewer club jerseys than ever before. Instead I see way more Rapha than I thought possible, head to toe, in matching bikes. I see people who have gone to enormous lengths to recreate a club jersey with their own logo, shared amongst three male friends. The logo is either comedic “SLOW OLD BASTARD CC” type thing, or some kind of faux-praux logo or acronym. The bikes are shinier and more aero than ever. So many people are riding such a lot of bike. I miss the old days when you had to ride a piece of awfulness made of cast iron for at least 15 years and then maybe someone might let you have a second hand Raleigh 501. The pro look is so current, but it’s a warped simulacrum of a pro-look, and it’s a bit disturbing. Sort of like being a bit mullered at a party and not being able to fully recognise someone because they look somehow not like they should. It is big wraparound glasses and long tesellated socks and long arm sleeves and all the irregular striped patterns and chiaroscuro.

On Sunday I was riding up 2 mile hill, near the bottom when i heard a dreadful wheezing and clanking from behind. It wasn’t me, unusually, but it was a nouvelle-vague ‘roadie’ in some kind of demented colourway, reaching for my wheel like it was the last rolo in the packet. What with the Covid, I let him go past, and because genuinely I thought he was going faster than me and I am slow these days. He duly went past like a wobbly pantechnicon overloaded with timber, and wheezed out a thank you. I think he realised his error quite quickly. As did I, when I saw he was in the bottom sprocket and the gradient was about 4%. I sat tight for a few hundred yards as everything slowed down, then had to hoof it around him on the fixed gear and put in an unseemly effort to get on up the road. It was all a bit weird. It seems quite typical really. I would say ‘don’t you know who I am?’ But I only my mum and three other people can answer this question with any certainty. Maybe I should say “I once went quite quickly up here before you were born, it was the KOM but is now 156th on the strava list, Even the Spinkatron is down at 54th.”

The exception to this wave of curmudgeon is the number of women on bikes. There are lots more, riding together, doing their thing. This is brilliant and great for cycling. Anything that reduces the excessive maleness of this sport is a good thing.

Today I went out super early, didn’t take the dog, but did take the certifiably ‘old skool’ (c. Clutterz) Giant TCR TT bike. It’s fun to ride a TT bike. I miss it, sort of. I think when I ride one there is a moral imperative to at least ride fast, to put in an effort, so it has a distinct training benefit. Hence I managed 40 miles at 20mph. I hurtled past a raphanaut on the way out of Bristol. He was full garbed. The bike looked like it had been freshly shat in a wind tunnel. I began pondering whether a TCR from 2001 is faster than a new aero-bongo road bike. I suspect the bike is less slippery, but the position is a lot more helpful. I have it set-up with a rivendell friction shifters, an old campag record chainset and various other mismatched bits. I took the winter wheels off the Mercian. I do have some racier wheels, but they might stay in the cupboard in case one day I actually do a race. The saddle was from my Decathlon gravel bike. This was a bad decision. I think at my advanced age I need something that has a gentler conversation with the goochular region, as opposed to a bar-room fight with a broken bottle.

It was a lot of fun; the roads are still quiet. Yes, there is traffic, but riding in the rush hour is not like it was. It is getting busier all the time and for the first time I encountered a bit of a queue on the way back into Bristol. I miss the quiet times.

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Frame from a friend, borrowed for now. Everything else bar the shifters from the parts bin or cannibalised.

 

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Rivendell Dia Compe shifters, lovely ratchet motion. Good fun to spend time between gears, trimming, listening to that rattle.

 

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I can’t recall why I had an 11 speed carbon chorus RD in the bin. I think it had something to do with not putting a bike together properly in the Alps about ten years ago, then using great big pliers to squeeze the parallelogram back together, and then buying a new one when I got back.

When is it training?

Last year wasn’t exactly fallow in cycling terms, i managed about 3000 miles with one super long ride from Land’s End to Bristol, a bit of a hike up North and some general soft-pedalling. However, one of my new year’s resolutions was to try and ride a bit more and be more disciplined about it.

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There are a couple of reasons for this, but the most searingly obvious one is that I feel better when I ride more. it’s good for my mental health. It doesn’t work on its own, there is also a need to try and get things in balance and all sorts of other stuff, but on a fundamental level, a decent and regular blast on the bike has a significant impact. I also start to remember all the good things as fitness returns; the enjoyment rather than sufferance of hills, the way time passes separately to the experience, outside of it, and the crazy things and animals seen in the half-light of an early morning or the evening twilight.

Thus far in January, I’ve done 450 miles, and I’m aiming for roughly 500 a month. This has cued up several comments on the stravasphere about ‘secret training’. There is a grain of truth in this insofar as it helps having something to aim at, but on the whole I’m just working a bit harder and riding a bit further. There has been some weight loss which is also a good thing. I have fond memories of the ‘bantz’ copped at Burrington when I turned up a few kilos over my racing tonnage. I recall something Bradley Wiggins mentioned (not to me, this was in print, not when we were racing together), that people would say to him, ‘you’ve put on weight’ when the reality is he is now a normal weight and before he was at a ridiculous and unhealthy weight. Such is cycling, professionalism, eating disorders and mental health. 

I have to fit it around all the other things that happen, so it involves more long rides to work and a regular weekend ride. It was the weekend ride that had disappeared. And yes, in terms of aims, I am planning a long long ride but it is very much weather dependent and i shouldn’t be planning it for this sort of time year (i.e arctic cold and wind) and it’s not really long in comparison with the stock bun-run of the ultranutters, but it is on the cards.

The book is fast approaching completion of the first draft. I think 10 days, give or take. Then it will be rewrites all the way, redrafts, up until the deadline in April. I was in a total hole with it but have written my way out of that one. I took the advice of a fellow writer (that’s a weird phrase to write, ‘fellow writer’, because it implies I sort of see myself as a writer at the same time) who said ‘write every day’ and I did some writing every day and low and behold it started to move through and the mental quicksand ebbed away.

Lastly, someone tweeted about the hill climb book the other day. This was nice to hear. If you like a book someone has written, let them know. At the risk of sounding completely new-age and not cynical, if you like anything someone has done, book or not, just tell them.

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Slightly Hilly Legtester

When the weather has been horribly stinky for such a long time it seems almost anomalous to be out in glorious sunshine. I’ve taken to using my rain jacket as the default piece of cycling gear, but today was able to wear a soft shell. Even then i felt slightly overdressed. By way of overcompensating for the absence of horrible conditions i opted for a horrible route, including several of the steepest and nastiest climbs in the Mendips. Most of them began with the letter ‘D’; Dundry, Deer Leap, Draycott…

The silver strip in the middle is the Levels; an inland sea
Priddy amazing signpost
All chick-hens accounted for

The first race of the season is on Sunday; it’s a 25. I tried the time trial bike yesterday; it seemed to still work, which is more than can be said for my ageing legs.

Wet and wild

Winter training is beset by anxiety and obstacles. This year the chief obstacle has been the incessant rolling in of storms from the Atlantic, like tumultuous tumbleweed. There have been lulls between the frontal lows where the wind has dipped to a gentle 35mph.

In previous winters, the fear has always been the invisible evil of ice. This year has been comparatively ice-free, but the ferociousness of the wind has made up for any palpable absence of danger or worry. I rode out by the airport first thing; later on the planes were having fun. Here are some clips of yesterday’s gnarly crosswind action.

Riding home from work yesterday i was blown to the side of the road on a couple of occasions. it was quite entertaining. At one point i attempted a ninety degree right turn into the extended claws of the gale. I didn’t dare lift a hand to signal in case a gust threw me to the floor. I couldn’t clip in because i didn’t have sufficient momentum to get the pedal stroke going. It was quite entertaining for the car drivers waiting patiently (and I was grateful for them waiting patiently). I made it home in one piece. Windy weather always reminds me of this clip that went viral a couple of seasons ago.

The first race of the season beckons. I’m hoping the weather calms down a little bit. At some point before next Sunday i should perhaps have a look at the TT weapon and think about riding it.

When base club becomes tempo club

After two weeks of not doing very much I’ve had a better week and managed to get out on the BSCC base club ride. It was great to catch up with club mates; they’ve been putting in the hard graft all winter and are now slowly turning their attention to the race season. The club road race is ridiculously early, at the end of March. This creates a feeling of pressure to have some semblance of form by then.

The pace increases with these rides as the real racing approaches. Up until now i’ve been doing them fixed, but have now reactivated the winter geared bike. it’s a Mercian 531c and I like it very much. it copes well with the inclement weather. I’ve also fixed a longer mudflap on the back using a 4 pint milk carton and a rivet. I’m quite please with myself.

Today was pretty hilly,a  short savage shock. It ended up being around 45 miles with several nasty climbs. I factored in a few extras, Chew Hill, Limeburn and Providence Lane. It was hard, but the miles are in the bank. We also avoided the worst of the weather; a miracle in these meteorologically miserable times.

In other news, i’ve resolved to stop shouting at motorists or cyclists with poorly-angle lights, or anyone who i deem to be somehow antisocial or worthy of a lambasting. It’s not healthy.

There’d be no distance that could hold us back

Firstly, Happy New Year. I hope last year was good and this year will be even better. My year has been amazing for reasons entirely unconnected with cycling.

I’m going to wait here until Dad gets back from Base Club.
OMFG Dad, I’m so tired just watching this hill climb.

In many ways cycling has been a secondary endeavour. I’ve still tried to squeeze it in and I’ve managed a fairly healthy racing calendar. For this I’m indebted to the support of Belle, who is amazing. It’s all well and good to say, “I’m only going to do local races”, bike racing requires time, energy and commitment. I can argue that it makes me feel better, it’s good for my mental health, I keep fit, it stops me going loco, but these are all ultimately self-serving arguments, and family comes first. I feel incredibly lucky that I have been able to race and fit in some training around family commitments, and it’s nothing to do with what I want to do, or however many sacrifices I feel like I’m making, it’s everything to do with working together to make things right and ensure that time is sacrosanct. And I’ve got it wrong at some key points this year, but generally I’ve got it right. If i had to offer a few key tips to anyone whose life is about to change enormously and wondering how they might manage to ever ride a bike again, then it’s this:  

1. Family comes first

2. Ride when you can: this means don’t make plans to go out at 8am with friends, it means ride on your own in the 2 hours you’ve got in the middle of the morning or whenever the window opens

3. Make use of rollers, sometimes the window is small

4. Insist your inlaws move to a location approximately 50-70 miles away on the other side of an escarpment of hills; visit them regularly en famille: cycle there.

In line with point 4, I cycled to the inlaws at the weekend. In these enlightened times where everyone’s a cyclist and everyone has an opinion about cycling, people are less and less surprised by the strange endeavours of the long distance wheelman. I rode to Cheltenham from Bristol, a 65 mile jaunt over the old Severn Bridge and via the Forest of Dean. I dropped this into a pub conversation and it caused a murmur of disbelief. ‘You did what? CHEPSTOW? You’ve been to Wales? ANOTHER COUNTRY?’ I felt vaguely nostalgic for the days when every Monday was marked by similar conversations as non-cyclists attempted to suspend their disbelief at my heroic exploits around lanes of Kent. Maybe it was a peculiarly atavistic weekend, after all, I saw only two other cyclists in the four hours in the road and I traversed the Forest of Dean where the locals eat their young.

in the five years since moving to Bristol and 30,000 miles or so ridden I’d not made it over the bridge by bike until yesterday. Belle managed this feat some years ago. I ignored my normal Cotswold lungbuster in an attempt to squeeze in a few more miles. Riding over the bridge is fun. It opened in 1966, which isn’t all at long ago. I imagine it was heralded as a new economic dawn and anglo-welsh success story, destined to link the two shorelines in perpetuity. Instead, traffic tripled in 20 years and a new bridge was completed in 1996. I wonder how long it will be before another bridge is mooted as the solution to ever-increasing numbers of vehicles.

The Severn Estuary: a total bore
Heading into Wales for about 5 minutes

Before the bridge there was only a ferry at Aust. Some of the signage is still there and the crossing is marked by Passage Road.

Under construction; an anachronistic image of what was then the future
Under the railway bridge in Chepstow: last resting place of the Severn Princess
No Direction: Home
the times, they are a-changin’

The climb up and out of Chepstow is terrific. It heads upwards for around 4 miles or so, then the road sinuously reaches up towards the Forest of Dean. Come the high season I’d like to get fresh and take the C-Bomb up there for a bit of bike-on-hill action. There are several other tasty climbs, including one beast of a ramp up to Speech House. I enjoyed it and a 68″ was just about right, apart from one or two slightly tall ramps where I had to honk it a little bit. The run into Gloucester and Cheltenham was rapid and terminally dull, apart from a nice stretch around the lanes somewhere. I have been using the ‘breadcrumb’ mapping capacity on an old Garmin 500. It’s really simple; you map the route on bikehike or similar then upload it. As long as you keep an eye out for turns it works perfectly.

The Forest of Dean: here indeed be Dragons

My arrival was heralded by a chocolate cloud cake. It was amazing.

The chocolate cloud cake baked by Belle of Bristol. Amazing; light, perfectly formed and subtle; the C-Bomb of cakes.

The following day I rode back from Cheltenham to Bristol along my normal route; straight up and over the Cotswolds. It was cold and beautiful, but also horribly icy. By the time I’d realised just how icy, it was too late. I came round the corner near Painswick to a perfect tableau of a car, gently rocking on its side and a static sea of surface ice. Luckily a fellow cyclist had warned me near the top of the descent of ice on the road so I’d taken things extremely carefully on the way down. As soon as I saw the run-off across the road i started walking.

Something not quite right with this picture

Mercifully, no-one was hurt, although moments later the Cheltenham CCC club run came rolling down the hill and went down like nine-pins. there were a couple of dicey bits and if i wasn’t doing an A to B ride I would have turned round and headed for home. As it was, I took it steady and stuck to the main roads wherever possible. I made it back in one piece.

I had a vaguely self-satisfied feeling that comes from ratcheting up the miles over the festive period. I managed a few decent rides. However, everyone else has been out doing a passable impression of team sky, busting out back-to-back 100 milers and other insane feats, including 21,000 feet of climbing in 2 days. (J’accuse Ben Davis et aussi Tom Ilett). Oh well, no prizes for having a shedload of form in February. Unless your target for the season is the Frome and District Wheelers 10 Mile Open Time Trial. Which it isn’t.

Riding Fixed With Chickens and Yarg

I apologise if you’re one of two people who have been waiting for a new post. it’s not for want of trying, more that the blog has been collateral damage in the relentless surge of Christmas and work and tiredness. I have been riding, mostly in the early mornings. I stop occasionally to marvel at the Stygian gloom; or sometimes to observe the curious goings-on at stupid o’ clock of an Advent morning.

He’s here! at Failand! Stockpiling tangerines!

Base club has been continuing with and without me. Today we went out on an extended jaunt into the Mendips. I opted for fixed. I say ‘opted’, I have yet to ride gears this winter. The others all had multiple cadences and weightings available to them. It was an oscillating experience, I was on and off the back more times than a Cat 4 mixing it with the 2s and 3s for the first time. Tom was the only one with full mudguards and a mudflap. My mudguards lacked the floor-to-ceiling face saver. This is because I have been riding on my own for such a long time that i didn’t bother duct-taping a homely solution. As a result, Tom seemed to get far filthier than anyone else, although we all looked like we’d been liberally pebbledashed by a loose-ringed norovirus sufferer. It was grim.

Tom tastes the grit and sludge from the moorland

We did around 50 miles with some tasty climbs. By the end my legs were complaining vociferously which i take to be a positive sign. It would be nice sometimes to have the luxury of gears, on the descents or flat tailwind sections perhaps. Long descents hurt in all sorts of ways; arms, shoulders and neck remain tense and tighten, the derriere chafes through the saddle-bouncing motion.

At the end of the ride I had to nip to North Street on an errand which involved the purchase of two free-range chickens and a wedge of Yarg. By that point I was beginning to hallucinate through hunger. I bumped into some chums after purchasing the Yarg and they looked at me quizzically. I attempted to convince them that my stock training method is to grab a slice of yarg and head out into the hills for 3 hours on a fixed wheel. Once I’d picked up the chickens i then had to make my way back across Bedminster like a chopper coming back from Asda, carrier bag dangling precariously from the handlebar. It was going fine until one of the chicken corpses stuck a leg into the spokes and nearly took me out. It would have been a hard one to explain: i crashed after a dead chicken in a carrier bag stuck a leg into my spokes. We made it back in one piece, just about. It surprised me how heavy two chickens could be. I’ve never bought a chicken and haven’t eaten any for about 25 years. Like computers and time trial bike design, a lot has changed in the world of chickens since then.

I am contemplating the purchase of a turbo trainer. The simple reason is the specificity of the interval session. sigh. If you are one of the previously mentioned readers, then you will know that this is something of a turnaround. In fact, it’s on a par with the volte-face taken by the liberal shitocrats when they decided that power and a lust for office was singularly more important than any sense of principals, morals or ethics. Belle has cautioned me against doing such a heinous thing. In fact, her words were:

“You told me that if you were ever considering buying a turbo trainer that i should do everything in my power to prevent this from happening’.

I found myself fumbling and dropping words like a dyspraxic in a button factory. I tried to suggest that the specificity offered by the turbo was the one thing i needed, but there was a hollowness to my pronouncements and I knew she was right. I shall simply find a shallow and consistent gradient and wallop it in steadily increasing gaps of time until my eyeballs bleed and lungs collapse in on themselves.

Hill awaits

The roads were quiet this morning. People were either sleeping or racing I imagine. the weather was strange.

Luminescent bank of cloud over Blagdon

Up in the bank of cloud
Burrington

I’ve been cramming in as many hills as possible. 

On fear of racing after a lengthy lay off and a sense of not knowing

A startsheet popped through the letter box today. This is a rare occasion; rarer than finding a Rhode Island Red with a mouth full of molars. In days of yore the CTT would send out all startsheets by carrier pigeon upon receipt of 5 shekels. Nowadays it’s all techno techno techno with online entry and results being the norm. It’s quite refreshing to receive a bona fide artifact.

It’s also a rare occasion because I haven’t done any races since the beginning of July where I managed two in three days. These were a blip, with the previous race being at the end of May. It’s been a frugal time. My last race was disappointing, i was resolutely off the pace and decided to stop and have a breather (after the race, not during). I had been struggling to manage any longer distances and felt that there was no point flogging a dead horse.

As things currently stand, I’m gearing up for hill climb season and have been training fairly studiously. Ultimately it doesn’t count for anything until you line up for a race and see exactly where the legs take you. This is partly because I train on ‘feel’. It’s an anachronistic approach, very much in keeping with posted startsheets. I have a race next weekend but have no idea what sort of form I might have. This makes me nervous and fretful. I have been working hard and my weight is where it should be. I feel as though I’m climbing well. My first hillclimb is next Thursday, followed by a couple of short distance time trials. I’m optimistic, but nervous.

 

 

 

 

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