More Epic Base Miles Featuring a Veritable Harras of Horses

I have been building up slowly in anticipation of the New Year and the epic miles to come. Today I managed 34 miles and was just nudging 14mph for the totality of the ride. It was a blustery and damp morning and a visit to the Mendips was in order. The sun emerged at one point, startling the landscape and animals queuing up for paired tickets into the big wooden boat moored at Dundry.

The view from Dundry across towards Chew Valley Lake

There was a staggering amount of water cascading down from the hills, forming  torrents across the roads and pouring out of hedgerows and eddying in newly formed plunge pools in the tarmac. The road surface of many of the narrower lanes had been scoured by the abrasive action of endless rainfall, taking away the topping and leaving instead silty gravel traps at the bottom of hills. The damage seems far worse than any winter I can remember, with the edges of the roads being eaten away at an alarming rate and pot-holes forming everywhere. Several roads were closed.

Rain related chaos near Butcombe

The random and infinitely strange world of the early Sunday morning bike ride made its presence felt on a narrow road near Butcombe. I was descending gingerly, trying to find a line between the run-off and the gravel and not doing a very good job, when I came across 5 ponies happily chewing the hedges. My training as an agricultural farmhand at Truro cattle market back in the late 1980s suddenly came good (truefact). I helped a lady (who seemed to be on first name terms with the herd) to get them back in the field. I used my Mercian as an impromptu gate across the road (might have been better using a Baines) whilst she somehow snuck past them further down to drive them back up. The exercise took about half an hour. We were going well until some utter schmuck drove up the hill and scattered the wild beasts all about, rather than stopping and offering to help or even blocking off the road to stop them from heading straight into the Augean gloom of Blagdon and eating the locals. Maybe the dumbass in the massive silver car presumed I was some kind of livery expert, what with my horseherd’s uniform of lycra, red jacket and Mercian bicycle.

It’s a warning, it’s in every tongue. Gotta stop them crazy horses on the run…

One thing i noticed is that Horses descend steep, damp, tarmacked hills about as gracefully as I do, which was strangely comforting. Their hooves skittered and skidded across the surface and they looked really jittery.

 

After the unscheduled pet rescue I opted to head straight up Blagdon hill. I regretted this immediately but pressed on, breaking into the 27t sprocket I save for very special occasions. After about 15 minutes of pain and suffering I made it to the main road where I stopped for a banana. A couple of gents came up Burrington and stopped to chat for a while. They asked me if I knew the climb, said it was a tough one. All humility went out the window and I told them I knew it quite well having won the open hill climb on there riding a 65″ gear a few months back. I would be hard pushed to get up it in under 10 minutes at the moment, such is my wheezy, corpulent and christmassy form. One of the other chaps rode for the Clevedon and we talked about Argos bicycles. I mentioned that the Argos was a popular choice amongst the South, to which he replied, ‘I do believe Ernie Janes’ young lad rides a nice low pro’. I’m sure Allen will be flattered.

Young lad Allen’s tidy low-pro

My chance encounters weren’t quite finished for the day; descending Harptree Hill I came across the Severn Club Run. They are attracting big numbers at this time of year; there were two of them. One of them was the National Hill Climb Champion, Neil Blessitt. The other one was John. I imagine there might have been some waiting at the top of hills.

Neil pauses to catch up. It’s unusual to see him outside of September or October.

Maybe, just maybe I might break the 40 mile barrier before the holiday period ends.

Holme Moss and Jackson Bridge (Try Hard 2.0: Try Harder)

Holme Moss is a bit of a humdinger. It’s one of those long and gradual (some might say Alpine, they’d be a bit wrong though) northern inclines which are almost entirely pleasurable to ride up in the right conditions, but almost entirely revolting to race up in any weather. However, the Hill Climb gods were smiling down benevolently at the hardy competitors and apart from the inchoate chill of late autumn, it was a lovely day.

the children of the north are forced to carry their bikes uphill before they earn the ‘privilege’ of riding them.

I recce’d Holme Moss beforehand, using a 64″ cog. It felt tall. In fact, i doubted my ability to race it up there, so i geared down to a 60.5″. On the way up in the race I remember thanking the Lord that I’d made the switch. Bad things would have happened if I’d tried to turn the bigger gear over. 65″ is for winter base miles, it’s not for a hillclimb up the side of Holme Moss.

Richard Lilleker near the top of Holme Moss.

Since i’ve put the geared bike away i’ve really enjoyed my hillclimbs. Although i use the word “enjoy” cautiously, insofar as there is any enjoyment to be found in the lung-ripping splendour of a time trial uphill. I like riding the Bob Jackson, it feels lovely. I like not having gear anxiety – but only once i’ve got it rolling. Opting for the correct cog beforehand is a bit like trying to choose a cake from a particularly well-presented trolley; you only get one shot and if you choose the wrong one the experience is somehow tainted. You still get through it, just, but with a gnawing sense of regret that things could have been so much better if you’d gone with the one you first picked up, rather than getting sidetracked and tempted by a racy little number served up on a frilly doily.

Today’s events both had a strong field. Matt Clinton was riding. I suspect he fancies his chances this year at the Rake, and with good reason. He was on form. Also on the startsheet was Josh Teasdale, last year’s junior National Champion, currently riding for Omega Pharma Lotto and doing his training rides in classics country with Tom Boonen. That’s cheating. He was a very nice chap though.

that’s cheating, that is.

There were also a whole hatful of northern hill people, including Sam Ward of the Otley and some other chaps. They were all ferociously fast and stick thin. It made for a real bunfight on Holme Moss. Well, behind Clinton anyway. Teasdale came in a second under 7 minutes, Ward was 7.03 and I managed 4th in 7.13. I was pleased with this, and also happy with the gear choice.

My main reason for riding up North this weekend is because the second event was the “Granville Sydney Memorial” race. It’s held in honour of the 6 time national champion who died in 1973. My reasons are largely sentimental, as was my decision to ride fixed. I’ve been fully immersed in the history of the National Championship for quite a while now, researching and interviewing various people, and the Star Wheelers are a really important part of that landscape. I was lucky enough to meet Graham Sydney earlier this year and his name is the first etched on the trophy that honours his brother’s contribution to the sport. Andrew Pearson is doing an amazing job in running this event and attracting a decent field. He promotes it actively and the club were out in force to support.

Jackson Bridge is a real armripper of a climb. I opted for a 57″ gear. Conditions were great and i think i paced it well. However, there were 5 seconds between 3rd and 8th, and i ended up 6th, so have a vague sense of what could have been. I was out of the saddle pretty much the whole distance and stopped the timekeeper’s watch at 4.50. The gear felt absolutely perfect and as much as it hurt i really enjoyed this climb. The height gain is quite pronounced with a fantastic view out across the valley and to Holme Moss and it’s definitely snuck into my secret list of top ten climbs.

the view out over Jackson Bridge

Ian took some fantastic photos, in particular the one below which wins the prize (so far) for best hillclimb face of 2012. It is up there with Luke Smith’s epic ouchface from last year’s National.

Early contender for PainFace 2012.
Winner of “Painface of 2011”, Luke Smith.

Next weekend sees the Burrington Classic. I’m now calling it a ‘classic’ in a shameless piece of club promotion and mythmaking. It’s worthy of the name though, this year there are more than 70 riders heading to the Coombe in the pursuit of glory. That makes it a very big field, second only to the big league of events like Catford, The Horseshoe Pass and Monsal Head. On a side note, there are a staggering 28 Bristol South CC members on the startsheet. This is fantastic, Bristol South is an active and exciting club.

BSCC Hillclimb, Burrington Combe

the club hillclimb has been in the back of my mind since last year: back then it was my first open event and i rode to 5th place on fixed wheel, with little or no awareness of how it happened or why. looking back, i’m still none the wiser. it’s felt like an erratic boulder.

a year further on and everything looks a bit different; i’ve ridden quite a lot and raced numerous weekends, it’s been a bit of an exponential learning curve.  and yet all year long the club hillclimb has been lurking beneath the surface, it sits in my subconscious, a horrible big fish rising up to meet me in the  shallow shadows of a murky pond. it’s the cause of self-doubt, the interminable worry that i might never go as quick again.

in preparation to go as quick again, i spent the weekend with my feet up, eating bread and cheese, drinking squash and watching the pro peloton get covered in rain and mud in la classica delle foglie morte. I offered silent thanks to no-one in particular for the promised clear skies here in albion. this morning was indeed clear and beautiful, but also by some distance the coldest morning of the autumn thus far; the kind of cold that creeps malevolently with icy grasping fingers, through the interstices and into the house. intense effort and intense cold are not comfortable bedfellows; it invades and assaults the lungs and chest. but those are the breaks; as if riding uphill fast wasn’t painful enough…

i’ve had plenty of time to think about this one; and on the morning of the race i felt quite calm and unperturbed. the sun warmed the higher slopes of the coombe, but the ascent was shrouded in shadow, and a lot colder. i got to the start in good time, within two minutes of the push, thus staying as warm as possible for as long as practical. it makes an enormous difference knowing the climb; judging the effort becomes more instinctive and much more effective. at three or four key points where the gradient kicked up i rode more softly than i would instinctively, not kicking on and standing up in the pursuit of seconds, but sitting down, maintaining cadence and riding through the short ramps. On Burrington this is the important thing, and it’s a climb that rewards a seated, regular effort –  each sharper section is linked by a longer drag during which you can press on and move up through the gears, gaining in pace and speed. beyond this, i didn’t overly analyse it, but just went for it, riding hard and pushing it as close to the edge as i could. i had no sprint at the top, i just pursued the same relentless cadence as my aching legs propelled the bike forwards. a sprint at the end of a hillclimb sometimes strikes me as the pursuit of time already lost.

it was an exercise in suffering, but unusually i wasn’t waiting or silently begging for the finish, or fighting the demons; both the cartoon devil chastising my lack of pace, or the angel urging me to ride more cautiously. the deafening inner monologue was strangely quieter than usual, replaced by a repetitive focus on breathing and cadence and a sense of distance – almost from myself. i was still accelerating over the line, but had no sense of time to go on, and no way of knowing. it felt quick, but as per usual, on the descent a few riders seemed to have infinitely more souplesse, rode more effortlessly and danced across the camber of the sweeping uphill curves.

i knew i wanted to get under 8 minutes; anything else would be a disappointment; last year i managed 8.01… i felt quicker and lighter this year. the top end of the field was packed with featherweight thoroughbreds, including rob gough, james dobbin, tejvan pettinger and luke dunbar. i came fifth in 7.45. i have a feeling this might be a new club record on this course. i am over the moon and this afternoon i have eaten carrot cakes made by belle; they tasted even more delicious than usual.

1 Tejvan Pettinger 7’10
2 Rob Gough 7’27
3 Luke Dunbar 7’29
4 James Dobbin 7’36
5 Paul Jones 7’45
6 Robin Coomber 7’57

 

graham, riding his beautiful 1950s cantiflex bates to a quick time

 

 

derek on the warm-down

 

Mountains of the Mind

i knew at some point i’d get round to writing about hills, the thought and the intention has been there since i started to write these tentative pages, and today is as good a day as any, having got it right on belmont and experienced the euphoria of accelerating over the crest, knowing i judged it perfectly. i seek them out when on the bike – and feel unfulfilled if out riding with someone leading and and there is a palpable absence of ascents. i get edgy, and feel as though the day has been wasted; but become excited when hills appear, sensing from the layout of the landscape that at a key moment the terrain will shift and the battle with the contours will begin, the road rolling upwards in short shifts in the way english hills tend to do.

some of my favourite hills in the UK include: toys hill near westerham- a nasty and very steep climb i used to ride up with chums when living in london; ditchling beacon near brighton – a bit of a mecca and the nadir (paradoxically) for pootlers or bromptonauts on the annual L2B run (or chaos on bikes).

I also like burrington combe and any of the Mendip climbs – cheddar gorge, blagdon, belmont, backwell, dearleap – with their varying degrees of savagery. whilst visiting my mother up north i have tackled lots of west yorkshire beasts; these tend to be sudden and very sharp indeed – chat hill road, hebden bridge, widdop, trawden being prime suspects. the mendip climbs in particular have had an effect on others; most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an early moutaineer (see robert macfarlane’s fantastic book ‘mountains of the mind‘) who wrote about the sublime, the profound feeling emerging from being on the precipice; of mountains and the effect on the soul (when not busy taking liquid opium and destroying himself). He even wrote about Brockley Coombe, a sub-mendip climb – now quite a shallow and steady road that runs up to the bristol airport, but then a stony ascent through woods.

With many a pause and oft reverted eye
I climb the Coomb’s ascent: sweet songsters near
Warble in shade their wild-wood melody:
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o’er precipices browse:
From the deep fissures of the naked rock
The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs
(‘Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white)
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest: -and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.

I think of Coleridge when riding up the Coombe, it’s funny to think of him ascending by foot, possibly on one of his perambulations from nether stowey to bristol. my preferred gear when riding for ‘pleasure’ is round about 72″, which is perfect for Brockley, and i regularly do training rides in and around the mendips on a fixed wheel, building stamina and leg power. this year i rode the burrington hillclimb and geared down to a 65″. i was one of four riders riding fixed in a  field of 60 and came 5th overall. the climb was won by tejvan pettinger, a slip of a boy with quite a pedigree, riding a gossamer-light bicycle.  i beat the national men’s v4 champion by 4 seconds, the national woman’s champion by over a minute (for what it’s worth, i was pleased anyway) and was the first bristol south rider across the line – gaining my first ever trophy. tejvan was a further 40 seconds ahead of me; i shall endeavour to narrow the gap for next year, at which point i will be aiming to build form solely for the nationals, which i think is in gloucestershire, and hope against hope for a top thirty finish.

this summer i spent some time in the alps, riding up mythical tour climbs which alternately blew my mind and tore my legs off. the galibier, lautaret, alpe d’huez and les deux alpes. it built a degree of strength though, and i think next year i shall aim to tackle the tourmalet and a few of the pyrenean monsters – but i am also drawn back to one particular mountain: Ventoux. i tackled it two years ago on an incredibly beautiful spring day in April with no wind at all – unusually for a mountain frequently ravaged by winds in excess of 150mph. the weekend before the mountain was closed by heavy snowfall, which left high drifts on the side near the top and added to the other-worldy beauty of the landscape.

Before it had even entered the imaginative realm of cycling, it became an eye-opener for Petrach; who climbed it in the 14th century. He had this to say:
‘the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes. It is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. It was a long day, the air fine. We enjoyed the advantages of vigour of mind and strength and agility of body, we had no other difficulties to face than those of the region itself… but as usually happens, fatigue quickly followed upon our excessive exertion, and we soon came to a halt at the top of a certain cliff.

At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance.

I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and reflected on the universal instability of human conduct. I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of the mediterranear, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.

Petrarch finished by describing the revelations that came to him:

men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not. We look about us for what is to be found only within. …. How many times did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation?”
The mountain in effect led to him to realise the real size of human imagination and our capacity to do achieve the infinite and transcend our humble origins. It opened his mind. Some 700 years later, Mont Ventoux retains its power to intoxicate, overwhelm and also destroy. It is famous now as one of the most difficult tour de france cycling climbs, and particularly as a mountain that has ended many cyclists hopes of winning the overall race. It holds a mythical place in cycling history, the Everest of bike racing. It appeared again this year for the 13th time, and is more dreaded than the fiercely steep Tourmalet, which has featured in the Tour 67 times. A common view is that whilst the Alps create drama, Ventoux creates tragedy.

In 1955 the Swiss veteran Ferdi Kubler attacked in scorching heat at the foot of the 14 mile climb. Raphael Geminiani warned him in no uncertain terms: “Beware, Ferdi, the Ventoux is not a climb like the others.” Yet Kubler, wearing a cotton racing cap, unaware of the perils of hubris, the visor turned up like a challenge, replied: ” I’m not a rider like the others.” In the stifling and heavy heat he fell like Breughel’s Icarus; the arcane and dangerous rules on water bottles no doubt sealed his downfall… the Ventoux was suffocating. Geminiani saw Kubler weaving around on his bike, heard him swear; he zigzagged, his nose dipping toward his handlebars, curled over his frame, with his cap now turned askew. At one point he accidentally went the wrong way back down the mountain; such was his mental and physical exhaustion. He left the tour that evening and never rode again.

The most famous British cyclist ever, until the current glut of worldbeaters, Tommy Simpson, rode up in 1967 in stifling heat. He was under real pressure to improve on his previous placing of 6th overall in the tour, but had been suffering in the run up with a debilitating stomach complaint. Nearing the top, past Chalet Reynard, he began to weave wildly across the road before he fell down. He was delirious and (alledgedly) asked spectators to put him back on the bike, which he rode to within a half mile of the summit before collapsing, still clipped into his pedals. Simpson was transported by helicopter to the Avignon hospital where he died that evening. There is a memorial to Simpson near the summit which has become a shrine to fans of cycling, who often leave small tokens of remembrance there. i recommend Vin Denson’s autobiography, as well as Put Me Back on My Bike, for a moving – and honest – account of his death. In 1970, even the cannibal, Eddy Merckx, the most famous cyclist of all, rode himself to the brink of collapse while winning the stage, as did Andy Hampstein.  Merckx received oxygen, recovered, and won the Tour. In 1955, it forced Rick Van Genechten and others to abandon the race and even Lance Armstrong never won on ventoux.

Even before i got to the Ventoux, it had embedded itself in my psyche, the knowledge lurking that i would be tackling the climb in a matter of weeks, then days, then hours, a knowledge underscored by the awareness that it was a possibly beyond me. I had no way of knowing until I tried. The day before I was anxious, and even on the climb itself was constantly worried that it might be too much. Knowing, after 45 minutes, and 7 miles, that I was approaching halfway and had done the easy bit did not help. I did not overdo things, and was not racing, but even in april the heat and the effort required to cycle for nearly 2 hours uphill was extreme.  I made it in 1hr 40mins – the record is about 55 minutes by Iban Mayo – and on the way back down stopped to pay my respects at the Simpson memorial, a man who paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of glory and personal achievement. David Millar, Wiggins, Wegelius and Cavendish all did the same in this year’s race.

As to why i sought out a version of burrington coombe, but 7 times longer; i’d instinctively say that i don’t know the answer – but in truth, I do. It sought me out, and was always there, waiting; a tantalising figment of my imagination and a myth to be constructed and composed in my own words, rather than the quotes of others. And when I rounded the final bend, turning past the weather station to see the top, the sense of achievement, the view, the sense of escape from everything, was entirely novel. And now, when talking to others about cycling, about rides we have done, or the tour de france, the conversation inevitably turns to Ventoux – it featured in this year’s tour for the first time in 8 years, and I casually mention that I have ridden up the mountain, the giant, and it was difficult, but incredible. And that fact that I have done it is enough – the achievement is permanent.

the video below sums up the mythic nature of the climb, through a lovely, lyrical phil liggett commentary: “for one hundred and seventy one young men, it would be the place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness“; although the idea of a contre-la-montre up ventoux seems to be the devil’s idea.


Going back to Coleridge for almost the last word; he saw hills and mountains as an escape, a way to move further away from the suffocating claustrophobia associated with family life; his passion for climbing hills and scaling mountain peaks has an imaginative link with his internal desire for escape. The panoramic view from a peak often brings moments of intense vision; the atmosphere seems thinner, distance reduced, the air itself bracingly alive. He was, in effect, climbing out of civilisation, reflecting a longing to free himself not merely from the restraints of domesticity, but from the world. We climb to escape, but also to broaden our view and open our minds.

and this is probably the central truth, i ride uphill because at some point, somewhere along the line, everything is left behind, my body and mind soars higher, far away from the everyday. the struggle becomes transcendent, the metaphor of the mountain ceases and the moment becomes all that there is, the only compassable reality, the point where you hold eternity and truth in your hands, and pedal onwards and ever upwards.