In a little over two weeks time the National Road Championships are taking place at Abergavenny. There are various events, including the road race, featuring a stellar line-up. It’s worth heading over to see the circuit; it takes a route through Celtic Manor near Newport and is a tough course. It’s a fantastic opportunity to see the top domestic and continental professionals going head to head for the red, white and blue jersey. On the Thursday evening the time trial championships kick things off. Some of the heroes of modern British cycling are riding; people who have shaped the narrative of the sport, like David Millar: his personal arc of triumph, then earth-shattering fall and eventual redemption contains all the elements of optimism that most cycling fans have clung to over the darker years. Sir Bradley Wiggins is also down to start. I can’t begin to mention how important a figure he is without lurching into hyperbole. He is the reigning Olympic time trial champion.
David Millar is the commonwealth games champion. Both have won grand tour TT stages. They are the zenith of the sport. Also riding for Sky are Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe. Alongside is Alex Dowsett of Movistar, who recently sliced 25 seconds from the National “10” record, pulling out all the stops to record a 35mph ride.
The startsheet is available here. Some time ago i put an entry in. It was fairly speculative and I didn’t anticipate getting a ride. As it happens, I’ve managed to get in. I’d like to reiterate that last statement, it seems a bit Karl Power-esque. Somehow, i’m riding in the same race as the above people and a whole gang full of inconceivably fast people. Since i saw the startsheet this morning I’ve been a state of excitement, anxiety and fear. I hoped the professionals would turn out, but now the concrete, real reality of the race line up has created different emotions; I’m fearful and I am going to be on the receiving end of some fairly hefty time gaps. But it is what it is, and if you’d told me 5 years ago that i’d be on the startsheet for this kind of race I’d have looked askance and questioned your sanity. As it stands; i’ve entered, I was given a start based on the organiser’s belief that i wouldn’t be out of place in the elite race and was deserving of the chance. I want to race. I want to not come last. And i want to throw out the rock horns on the start ramp. (Oh no, please, no, i didn’t even think about the start ramp, if there is one, christ, please god don’t let me fall off).
And i want to savour the moment and look back on it as one of those things that i did within a life where opportunities were taken. Because time trialling, the race against the clock, the race of truth, is a thinly concealed metaphor for the battle against the capricious nature of time itself.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
But at the same time i’m shitting myself in living terror at being caught for 25 minutes by Sir Bradley of Wiggins.
I’ve come to realise over the course of a few years that i’m pretty much an out-and-out tester. This includes hill climbs or any solo race of truth against the clock. I like the romanticism of road racing, but i lack the attributes or desire to succeed in amongst the bronzed continentals. Therefore, I accept my status as a hardcore tester. Despite any initial reticence, I’ve come to embrace this most British of pursuits. Nevertheless, I retain some ambivalence towards the sport. One of the key factors involved in time trialling is, unsurprisingly, time. Success is measured in minutes and seconds; perhaps more so than finishing position. Emphasis is placed on the achievement of benchmark times; initially under the hour for a 25, under 24 minutes for a 10, and then a series of reducing markers to be aimed at and crossed off.
The quicker you get, the harder it becomes to go more quickly. There are lots of reasons why; i’ve been led to believe it’s something to do with how the level of effort involved in overcoming air resistance increases exponentially the faster you go; ergo it’s much harder to add 1mph to your speed if you’re already travelling at 29mph. As a result, the course and the weather conditions become more and more important. The holy grail is a fast course on a fast day, whereupon strange things happen and people suddenly achieve lifetime ambitions. This has to coincide with the right form. Suddenly the variables become a little bit more complicated.
Of late I’ve been going well. ‘Going well’ is often subjective; I know the variables that can lead to a fast time and it might not be as clear cut as simply ‘going well’. Regardless, if you put in a succession of quick times, it’s clear that you are going well. This week I had booked in a prior appointment on a known fast course, the F11-10 near Aston Clinton, a place where the houses looked expensive and the roads were quiet. The last time i rode a fast course was two years ago near Hull, on the super-quick V718. I don’t ride there any more; i’m not a fan of the narrowness of the carriageway or the lines of sight. In fact, i tend to avoid most fast courses unless I’m sure that in relative (and relatively subjective) terms, they are as safe as the other courses I use on a regular basis. It’s not a simple as saying ‘all dual carriageways are unsafe’; but some courses happen to be unsafe and it’s self-serving to suggest otherwise. Anyway, I felt that a relatively quiet bypass road in the home counties with an unblemished safety record that doesn’t lead towards a major continental ferry port with all of the additional freight traffic that might ensue, or have a start point at the very junction that distinguishes it from motorway with only a change in colourway for the signs, might be worth a punt.
I shared a lift with the Spinkmeister. He was gunning for a 19 but i suspect he dared not mention it in case it didn’t happen. It’s a bit like this when you’re chasing the elusive 30mph ride; until you’ve actually bagged it you dare not even imagine that it might happen. It was quite blustery, by no means floaty, but nothing to really worry about. the faster you get the less you worry about certain types of wind conditions. The wind seemed to be cross, rather than head or tail, which can be significant in that it’s often a faster day than promised. It’s important to not allow yourself ot be beaten before you start; the conditions on a sheltered course are very different to those at the HQ. In the earlier event, the VTTA National Championships, Rob Pears had turned in an 18.53 which is super super quick. I did some mental Maths and surmised that a 19 should be in the bag if i rode according to form. Rob has ridden the 14th fastest 10 mile trial in the history of the sport. Ahead of him are Hutchinson, Wiggins, Dowsett and others.
I did my usual warm-up. This is a well-honed routine which consists of getting the bike out of the car, riding to the start, maybe riding up and down the road for about 10 minutes, having a caffeinated energy gel and then heading to the start. It’s not complicated. Richard said he’d seen some of the big hitters with olbas oil tissues up their noses, locked on the turbo churning out fat watts and clearing their breathing. I saw them, they looked really serious, like they meant business, proper bongo-business. It was quite intimidating. Everyone else’s bike always looks much more expensive and much faster. Usually because they are more expensive and much faster. I try and retain some sort of anti-tester status.Keep it independent, try not to take it too seriously. It keeps me sane and prevents disappointment.
There is one topographical reason why the F11-10 is a fast course: it has a ‘gift hill’ in the middle of it. This is a descent of sufficient length to speed things up a bit without suffering the indignity of having to come back up again. Clever course alignment helps in this respect, althought it’s more just luck than anything. After a relatively quick start I hit the top of the slope and floored it. It’s not a huge huge drop or anything like a ski slope, but it does really boost your average speed after a slow opening and complicated double roundabout thing. Once you’re through and onto the last bit it becomes a case of holding on. I’ve got much better at holding on lately, i think due to the rides at Aust which have consisted of going flat out and holding it for as long as possible. I knew the 19 was on with about 3 miles to go, so it became a question of how much of a 19 it would be. In the end, it worked out as a 19.38; a new club record and PB, heading up for about a 31mph average speed for the ten miles.
I guess with any long distance ride in search of fast times, it makes sense to turn yourself inside out and do the best you can; the worst that can happen is you try your best and fail, which is infinitely better than finishing undercooked and left with a sense of what might have been. Richard Spink also scraped under with a 19.52. He’s the second BSCC rider to break the 30mph average for 10 miles and it was a super ride. If we had a 3rd counter they could have carded a 23 and we would have taken the Club team record. Jon Simpkins, who carded an 18.53 and was a very nice bloke for one so fast, advised going off slowly. I ignored his advice, or so it felt. I managed to sustain the heartrate in a fairly tight upwards line and even hit the highest bits (185bpm) in the run to the finish. I enjoyed the race; especially the sensation of riding very fast for ten miles. It’s good fun. I think i came about 6th, Nick English was 1st with 19.11, a very quick time, then there were 4 riders on 19.30 or thereabouts. I was surprised to be in amongst them, to be honest and I’ll settle for reducing the gap between me and the mighty Wiggo to a mere 1 minute and 39 seconds. I also lowered the club record a little bit which is always really satisfying; it’s great to be a part of the lineage of fast riders for the South. John Legge was magnanimous with his praise. Lower down the field there weren’t that many 19s. I suspect that many people came along with high hopes and went home disappointed.
Normal service is resumed this coming weekend with a hilly circuit in the Cotswolds, where a fast average speed will be somewhere around 23-24mph.
The University of Bristol Cycling Club are organising a couple of races this year. This is impressive – they are a transient organisation, reliant on three year memberships and a constantly changing comittee. It puts to shame many of the longer established clubs and certainly exposes the fickle and shallow smash-and-grab of many sponsored clubs who seem to focus entirely on cladding their members in castelli kit and riding other people’s races; taking lots and giving nothing.
Their first event was a 10 mile time trial on the U7b, or as it’s more affectionately known, ‘the graveyard’; le cimetière de rêves cassé. It wasn’t too windy or horrible today; there was a bit of cross tail action and some blustery showbusiness on the way out, but it did that typically testing thing where it seemed to affect the slower riders much more.
The results took a long time to arrive. It was as though prior to this moment at the Falfield Village Hall we were in a realm of religious certainty in terms of the meaning of time, epochs and ages. Then the results bringers were like Charles Lyell putting the wind up the Victorians with his tall tales of geological anomolies and how this might mean things took a lot longer that everyone thought; like 300 million years longer. At the beginning It looked like an efficient operation; there were a glut of times inked on the board as soon as I arrived back. However, from that point on we entered ‘student time’, a weird dimensional shift where time and space collapsed in on itself in a vortex of startling strangeness. i held a tantalising glimpse of the inchoate origins of the universe; primordial gravitational waves echoed around the village hall, a faraday cage of no mobile phone signal, no time, no place. The Hall became adrift in a sea of shadows, intermingling with the matter and materiality of the cosmos, waiting the arrival of something finite. Time warped and arced, and each gentle inquiry was met with a further ‘two minutes’, ‘it’s nearly wrapped up’, ‘only a further two minutes’, and as minutes became hours and hours became days i found myself meandering back, metaphysically, to my student days and the collapsing of time that happens when you have one lecture a day and a lot of imbibing to do. Times appeared on the board, were drawn through, redrawn, corrected, amended, moved forwards and backwards. After lingering in the death zone known as ‘we’ve waited this long so we may as well wait longer because otherwise all the other waiting will have been wasted waiting’, the elastic suddenly snapped and Tom and I escaped. He was the driver, and we achieved a centrifugal urgency. The dark matter of Falfield did something funny to his car, the boot wouldn’t open. The electrics had been fried by the twisting of interrelated spheres.
I later found out i came second by 8 seconds; but somehow it seems like the 8 seconds are unimportant. In a parallel universe I was 8 seconds quicker, moving backwards. it’s funny to think that Greg Lemond won the Tour by 8 seconds.
Tomorrow is the road race; i’ll be the one at the back, clinging on whenever the surges happen and cursing the people at the front for making it happen and fracturing the race into tiny shards of broken cyclist.
Yesterday was beautifully calm and sunny. Given that this is officially the worst winter since the quaternary glaciation, it felt like summer had arrived. Which made it all the more inevitable that today’s race would be run off in a darkening, ferocious gale with the omnipresent threat of rain.
Having been frozen out by the weather at this time of year in ice ages past, i again opted for discretion over valour. I wore a full length, long sleeve merino base layer over a short sleeve merino baselayer, with a long sleeve skinsuit, full legwarmers, winter gloves and industrial strength winter neoprene overshoes. I took no chances. I also wore my spangly new helmet, which fits very snugly and weighs next to nothing.
The Severn Road Club use the U17, it’s a tough course with about 1300 feet of undulations. The roar surface is pitted and getting beyond repair. They’ve done that thing where it looks a giant with an enormous tub of gritty black polyfilla has scraped over a huge hole. If you measured the distance and took into account the size of the depth of the fissures and tectonic gaps you’d find the course is significantly further than 25 miles. I think this is known as self-similarity, but i might be misremembering my studies into Chaos Theory.
I took it relatively easy on the way out, emboldened slightly by the mother of all tailwinds, but nervous about the last 9 miles after the turn and the savage assault to come. At 5 or so miles I had an average speed of 32mph. This dropped around the two short loops where the course deviates into the Alveston badlands, but heading for the turn i was up to a tidy 27mph, which i felt was perfectly reasonable given the swirling tornado. By this point my number was flapping violently in the gale, the wind had torn the pins out on one side.
I circumnavigated the roundabout at Slimbridge with a degree of caution. It’s a big roundabout. By the time I’d started to turn into the wind it became clear that things were about to change for the worse. I was using a Hed 3 trispoke on the front. It always raises an eyebrow on a windy day. I had a few spicy moments when a gap in the hedge made me wobble slightly, but generally it was within tolerance, whatever tolerance is. Some people really don’t cope with a gusting crosswind. I don’t mind it too much.
The journey back from the turn was an exercise in damage limitation; i had one overriding desire: to come in under the hour. I haven’t gone over the hour since i used a road bike and didn’t want to start now. I turned the Garmin screen off and clung on, trying desperately to make up time on any sheltered and downhill bits. It seemed just about manageable, but the drag up towards Stone was exhausting. The wind picked up and it was squeaky bum time; the bike was starting to do strange things, flick and twitch. Once through the funnel of doom I pushed to the line and managed a 59.32. It’s by far my slowest 25 for about 4 years, discounting any hilly courses, and shows just how hard a day it was. I scraped a 22mph average for the return leg. Nevertheless, it was the same for everyone and it was good enough for the win, with only one other rider coming in under the hour. There were several 2-up teams out on the course, Ben Anstie and James Cartridge glided round to a 55.30, making the most of company riding with a superlative effort.
Clubmate Jo Knight took the women’s prize with a 1.14, an incredible effort in the circumstances. She was going to ride home, a piffling 19 more miles into the teeth of the headwind; i gave her a lift.
It’s peculiar to take a win in the first event of the season. The pressure’s off, I guess. It’s also good to be racing and seeing the familiar faces coming out of hibernation.
Next week the hilly season starts, with the Chippenham Hardrider. I am silently hoping for benign weather.
Whilst there does appear to be a fairly momentous stage race happening somewhere on the continent at the moment, i’m in no doubt that the most significant cycling event for British Cycling is happening in and around the small Welsh town of Cowbridge over the weekend.
The Etape De La Defonce is a 3 stage, 2 day race. It kicks off with a team time trial, then has a couple of hilly road stages over the two days. To say i’m nervous might be something of an understatement. My road race experience this year has been pretty poor. I had grandiose plans of an epic training block beforehand, taking in the Dursley Hardrider, Dursley 10 and the Colin Carfield Road Race, along with my normal mileage, leaving me ready to rip it up for the Strada Road Team. Unfortunately, all the races were cancelled and the ones that weren’t cancelled were knocked out of my calendar by work commitments. Meanwhile, the rest of the team were riding the Ras De Cymru, a 5 day monster of a race in the Welsh mountains, so no doubt will be ready to blow the race apart, and me with it, tomorrow. Which leaves me with option B, enjoy it and try to cling on. I’ll end up looking like Thomas Voeckler, but without the speed and fitness.
This was Voeckler’s second stage win in the 2012 Tour and the fifth of his career, and it was won with great panache. The 33-year-old Europcar team leader is not a stylish rider — his head rocks back and forth, his position on the bike lacks elegance, he pulls outlandish expressions as he rides, he mutters constantly to himself, to rivals, to spectators and to the scenery, and with his helmet too far back on his head and his jersey flapping open, as it was in high temperatures, he looks like a harassed commuter on a Brompton trying to get to a meeting in the City for which he is already 10 minutes late. But he never knows when he is beaten and he enjoys nothing more than giving his home crowd something to cheer, which they did with fervour as he came home en solitaire.
I’m sure i’ll be coming home en solitaire, but at the wrong end of the bunch.This description appeared in the Guardian this week as part of their front page approach to cycling. Amazing.
Chew Valley Lake is a popular circuit for training; it’s relatively near Bristol for one thing and you can nip down, do as many laps as you want to get to the relevant distance, then nip back again. It’s an undulating circuit which adds an element of difficulty. The only issue is getting there and back involves chew hill and dundry, two of the more beastly ascents north of the Mendips.
The Classic League uses the lake for the bulk of the summer months and on Wednesday i managed to make it back down for the first time this season. In my last ride of last year i scraped under the 19 minute barrier with an 18.59, which works out at a 26mph average. This year i aimed to improve it by a little bit. It wasn’t a particularly fast evening, there was a minor headwind for a bit then cross with a nice tailwind section that helped keep the speed up. The course is short, only 8.3 miles. However, with the hills it’s a curious effort to judge, there is around 300ft of climbing crammed in. This doesn’t seem like a lot but it’s definitely a sporting course.
You have to stay resolutely focused and make sure that at every turn of the pedals you are putting through as much power as you can. There is no room for any drift, those points in the race where your mind wanders and you start thinking about dinner, or where those things might have got to that you are sure you left in the bike tool box but have now disappeared. It’s a tough one, but i managed it. After about 6 miles i realised i was on for a pretty quick time and should go under 19 minutes without too much bother, so i stepped on the gas, but I also eased off on the deadly corners in bishop sutton, and still had enough to stop the clock at 18.25, shaving 34 seconds off last year’s PB. I managed to bag 18 points in the handicap competition because i’d put so much daylight between me and the other riders, in this case beating Andy Legge into second by around 45 seconds. It’s my biggest points tally in ages and it didn’t even need a comp record. I was 15 seconds off the course record set by Rob Pears (who else?) about 6 years ago.
This weekend is the Bristol South CC Road Race. I’d be lying if i said i wasn’t nervous and anxious about this race. I have very little road race experience and also have a 100% crash record. I haven’t raced at a distance over 34 miles yet this year and rarely do more than 18 miles in training. The race is about 55 miles. It does have 8 ascents of Stowey Hill though, which is sure to test the legs. I’m currently undecided as to whether to ride the C-Bomb or the ‘Austin Allegro-Brown Condor’, as Simon Williams recently called it. The Condor is making funny noises, again. I’m thinking that it’s going to be the C-Bomb. It’s what it’s designed for, after all.
On a different note, several generations of the Keene clan were out in force on account of it being George’s 80th birthday. George is an inspiration to all at the club and has been riding for just about all of his 80 years. His name is on several of the club cups from the 1950s right through to the present. And he is still riding.
Normal service was very much resumed today after my brave midweek excursion to the darkside of road racing. I dusted off the TT whip and skinsuit, found some matching overshoes and headed out to the U7B for the Bristol South Open 10 Mile Time Trial. I didn’t ride this event last year, i can’t quite remember why. I rode the year before and came 7th, with a 22.37. It seems like a very long time ago. It was about 24 degrees that day and i remember my mouth being all claggy afterwards from dryness and sweat. It wasn’t very nice. I seem to remember Belle sunbathed on the grass verge next to the main road whilst the mad cyclists went out and rode their bikes in the sultry afternoon heat.
I rode out today because i didn’t have the car. I always feel really odd when riding through the centre of town on a Saturday afternoon in the full TT get up. It didn’t help that i was soft-pedalling to save energy. At one point i saw another chap also in full TT regalia, disc and aero bits much in evidence. We gave each other a nod of understanding. I hope so anyway, and presume that he was riding to a race as well, rather than just TTing up and down Coronation Road which would be strange indeed.
There was a headwind all the way there, about a 21 mile ride, but it wasn’t too bad so i felt optimistic about the race. I knew on paper i stood a chance of winning the event and in truth i really wanted to win. I’ve been close this season a few times, but usually the winner has been substantially faster. This time it was going to be squeaky bum time, the other fast rider was Peter Georgi who is very quick early in the season but seems to slow a bit later on. I was wondering which Peter would turn up. I resolved to ride my best race and then what happened would happen.
The headwind wasn’t enough to knock me off my stride. It becomes a question of mental fortitude when there’s a bit of a headwind. Generally, and I am generalising, slower riders tend to allow moderate headwinds to get on top of them. The quicker riders just ride though it, dig a bit deeper and hold the big gear, knowing that the turn offers salvation and respite and a much more rapid experience. It’s strategic thinking. i rode quite hard to the turn and knew that i could make time up on the way back, which is precisely what happened: 27mph to the roundabout and 30mph back, including the climbs. I nailed a 21.22, a couple of seconds away from my PB set last year and pretty good given the conditions. I then had a nail-biting few minutes waiting for Peter’s time to go up on the board. I beat him by ONE SECOND. i was speaking to Ed afterwards – who had upped the gear inches and suffered a bit because of the wind and the hill and having no bail-out gear – and we talked about the need to concentrate all the way through, to not let the mind drift and the speed tail off slightly. A ten is such a short event, comparatively, that you have to smash it all the way. Whenever i try to pace it things tend to go wrong. When i just go out and ride as hard as i can things seem to go right. The latter was in evidence today. I feel chuffed to bits to get the win, but also feel really pleased that it came in a Bristol South CC event. We took the team prize with Sam and Danny turning in quick times. There were 18 club members of the startsheet. Just a few years ago you’d be lucky to get 4 or 5 riders. On a slightly separate note, i was wearing my BSCC skinsuit. it’s seen better days. today the zip got stuck and i had to pin it shut at the top before riding. I then couldn’t get it undone and had to cut myself out of it when i got home. It was that or just keep it on all night ready for tomorrow’s race.
The nature of progress and hard work is a very strange thing. It’s incremental and you make the gains over time, sometimes without noticing. But right now, having read back the previous post linked above, i feel aware of the progress i have made in 2 short years. If you’d told me after my ride in May 2010 that i would be winning the event in 2012 i would have laughed long and hard.
And finally… the BSCC 10 is also a counting event for the Classic League. I get handicapped to DEATH in these events. This is a good thing, it makes the contest wide open and ensures those who improve and keep improving get a shot at the trophy. But as a demonstration of the level of handicap for the scratch rider, see the photo below.
In order to win the classic league today, beating George Keene and defeating the mysteries of the chairman’s handicap system, i would have to have ridden a competition record for 10 miles. And not just a comp record, but a long 16, which equates to a 35mph ride and is about a minute quicker than Wiggins. ON THE U7B. Maybe in two years time i’ll link back to this post and laugh…