Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Paris Brest Paris - how hard is it really?

I recently had a brief twitter conversation with Michael Hutchinson:

This got me thinking, because I’ve done Paris-Brest-Paris twice. I’m nothing special in ability terms. I’m reasonably fit, yes. I had a fitness test when I was 25 (I’m now 40) which estimated my VO2max as 65. This isn’t too bad for an untrained person, but I was cycling regularly, and I think this is more down to training effect than anything else. I had a more accurate test when I was 37, which recorded a figure of 54.8. I was perhaps a bit heavier than ideal at the time (74kg) and I would score 59.5 when back at my summer weight, if I managed the same absolute.

In 2009 I’d let myself get a bit flabby after London-Edinburgh-London, so I expect the 55 was on the low side. But I was probably not that fit in 2007 when I rode PBP. I had failed to qualify at the first attempt (you need to ride 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km events in specified time windows in the spring). It had all gone to plan, though the 300k had taken 17.5 hours, and the 400k took 25h45 - with a 27h time limit. For the 600k I bit off more than I could chew, chose the Bryan Chapman Memorial 600k, and then took the "Scenic" option. I found myself at Menai Bridge at 01:40, having taken 19h40 to get there, 300km in with another 300km to go, lying on the floor, with an upset stomach, and shivering. I didn’t finish the ride. 

I gave it another go, riding the Border Raid 600k. This was an 'X-rated' or 'shoestring' event meaning there was no support of any kind, so I booked a hotel for some sleep. I arrived there with 5h in hand, and managed to sleep for 30 minutes. The ride ended up taking 38 hours, so I finished with two hours in hand. I was convinced, the next day, that I wasn't up to PBP. The day after that, I entered.

What made it even harder was I then spent 5 weeks sailing with family in the Mediterranean. So I returned to the UK about 4 weeks before PBP with no miles in my legs. I took more than 19.5 hours to ride two 300k events I rode in the following weeks, and then 10 hours to ride a 200k. This was actually my fastest, I think I had a moving average of around 25kph on that one. Paris-Brest-Paris ended up being very tough. I got two and a half hour sleep in the 88 hours or so it took me to ride it. The weather was terrible.

My average riding speed was very slow. My GPS had a moving time of 58 hours, giving around 21kph. I spent 30 hours off the bike, wasting time queuing at controls, fixing a mechanical problem (broken gear cable - unfortunately I couldn't fix it at the roadside and had to ride 50k to the next control on just the triple mech shifter).

Paris-Brest-Paris starts in the evening, so you have to ride through the night; there was a staggered start in groups of around 500. I started at around 10pm. After maybe an hour it started raining. I suppose it was worse for the riders who were still waiting to start when the rain came. I remember leaving the Mortagne au Perche control in the middle of the night, freezing cold and wet. You descend from there, so you get even colder when you get back on the bike. I decided I would give up at 300km.

I rode through the night, through the next day, and the second night I managed to get 20 minutes on the floor in the dining hall at Loudeac (450km). I'd have got more sleep if it wasn't for the mechanical, which occurred at 400km.

On to Carhaix at 525km and 45 minutes sleep in the morning. I slept 20 minutes in the sun at Brest, and I got 1h fitful sleep on the coach at Carhaix on the return. I then rode through that night, and the next, finally sleeping for 15 minutes on the verge on the final morning after I started to see double every time I blinked.

It doesn't take a great deal of fitness. But in circumstances where you aren't that fit, it does take a certain amount of bloody mindedness not to give up. In 2011, I rode again. This time, I qualified with ease, despite riding all the qualifiers on fixed (on the 300k qualifier I had to walk 7 hills, but it only took me 15 minutes longer than my best geared time on that route). On the 400k event I did a PB for that route, and also span out to 199rpm on a descent.

I rode the "non-scenic" - there is plenty scenery, trust me - version of the Bryan Chapman 600k. I finished in about 36.5h, with 10h off the bike including 4h sleep. Again, the cost was 10-15 minutes versus gears. I did injure my left wrist and had some recovery time and physio after qualification.

I rode Paris-Brest-Paris on fixed also. I could perhaps have gone faster, but rode with my girlfriend. We took 89h. But where I had slept for around 2.5h, this time I got about 8h sleep, and we even had time to have a nice Italian meal at a restaurant in Brest. Our rolling average was still only around 22kph, and it got a bit tough towards the end as we only got 1h sleep overnight at Mortagne au Perche, and felt a bit pushed for time. Yet we also had time for a 30 minute kip on the verge on the final day. It's not that hard that you need to be super-fit. You just have to be crazy, and willing to suffer a bit.

Here I am resting my head on the table at Dreux:

Friday, 30 March 2012

New Shoes!

I got a new pair of shoes today, delivered from Wiggle. Ever since I first used SPDs (for those who don’t know what they are, here’s an explanation), I’ve used the same make and model of shoe, the Specialized Tahoe. These are a shoe that I can comfortably walk around in, can cake an SPD cleat, and have laces.

Laces are actually a bit of a pain at times in cycling shoes. I always end up eventually with the right hand lace shorter than the left due to chain wheel/lace interaction. I suppose the problem is self-limiting, but it’s annoying to have one short lace and one long. The old pair had also been through a lot - I bought them a few days before the 2010 Border Raid 600 - so have done nearly 12,000 miles with my feet in them, in all weathers.

Lara had told me that her Sidi boots were very good, so I did a bit of looking, and found the 2011 model of the Sidi Five XC shoes on Wiggle. These were quite a bit cheaper than 2012 shoes on offer, so I picked the same size as my Specializeds, and they arrived today.

The most obvious thing about them that differs from my existing shoes is they have a much firmer sole. I had been warned about Sidi shoes being quite narrow, but I found they fit ok for me. They feel more snug than my Tahoes, but the adjustability of the closure is good. These shoes have two velcro straps and a ratchet buckle system that allows you to adjust the tightness of the top strap. I had to read the instructions to work out how to use that - it’s easy once you’ve done that though, but I think this is the first time I’ve had shoes that require you to RTFM!

I fitted a brand new pair of cleats, trying to mimic as closely as possible the same position and alignment as on my existing shoes. Tricky given the difference in shape. When I put them on for the first time, I went over on my ankle a couple of times while trying to balance on one foot whilst putting the second shoe on. The bumps on the sole are much narrower than the sole on most shoes, and this took a bit of getting used to.

There was a bit of adjustment when getting going on the bike - clipping in felt slightly strange with the different shoe. The hard plastic sole also means more care is needed when not clipped in, as a foot can slip off more easily. It was made a bit trickier when riding fixed as you can’t freewheel to clip in. But I got used to it quite quickly.

The feel of these shoes, when riding, is very different to the Tahoes. The hard sole and snugness of the shoe mean that it feels like power is being delivered to the pedal far more efficiently. It almost felt like a new bike, and I was cycling quite briskly. I headed out of from work, through Cambridge to the east and looped via Swaffham Bulbeck, heading south then back home via Six Mile Bottom (hur hur) then through the Wilbrahams and Fulbourn. Probably about 20 miles, and my average speed was probably 17mph. Not setting the world alight, but it felt effortless. My feet felt slightly more constrained in terms of lateral (twisting) motion. I think part of this is that the sole protrudes more so there is some friction against the pedal. This is a good thing from the point of view of cleat life since walking on the shoes doesn’t seem to be damaging the cleat, unlike with the old pedals.

I find myself wondering if my power output is increased with these shoes. Certainly, they feel like they are more efficient. I guess that the more rigid sole should be more efficient, and also the ratchet allows better control of how tight the shoe is. My right foot is slightly bigger than the left and I did feel by the end that it was compressing very slightly at the arch. Hopefully a few more days’ riding and they’ll be broken in. I hope so: next weekend I’ll be riding an Easter Arrow for my Brevet 25,000 award. One reason I bought these shoes this week was that the Tahoes were hardly used at all when I rode the Border Raid 600k, and the shoe was digging into my instep for the duration of that ride, which was very uncomfortable. These shoes don’t feel like that will be a problem, though.

I’m very happy with these shoes so far, and now I’m wondering why I didn’t try something different sooner!

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Dean 300km, 2010 edition

I wrote most of this in 2010, have only just filled in the second half.

The Dean is a 300km Audax from Oxford out across the Cotswolds to the Forest of Dean and Chepstow, then back via Wiltshire. I had done this ride a couple of times before. In 2007 it was one of my Paris-Brest-Paris qualifiers and I also rode it in 2008.

2007 was a good ride apart from an upset stomach during the final stage which cost me a bit of time and it ended up taking almost 17h. 2008 was a real battle, with the weather being really bad during the second half, and it took me more than 20 hours. As it is run as a BRM event this year that would be too slow, so I was looking for a better performance.

Things started to go wrong the night before, when my rear tyre spontaneously deflated in the hotel room. Investigating revealed the rubber had separated from the valve on the inner tube. I put one of my two spares in, and inflated the tyre, only to then notice a tear in the sidewall. So then I had to change to the spare tyre also. Brand new tyres front and rear, then! I made a tyre boot from the old tyre, jus in case as I now had no spare.

We set the alarm for 5.20, which is pushing it a bit. By the time we left the room it was 5.51 and the ride started at 6. With getting the card off the organiser in the park and ride next door and also having to connect up the dynamo there was no time to say hello to people before we were off.

I'd been training hard, so I expected to hang onto the fast starters and get some time in hand. It didn't work like that though, I felt sluggish and was overheating inside my jacket. So after we'd gone through Woodstock I was dropped and watched them dissappear up the road. "It's going to be one of those days" I thought, and I was also worried that my knee had been a bit achy during the week; I started thinking about where I might be able to pack (commonly used term for abandoning the ride). I was still feeling slow and got passed by a few riders but after about 20km I started to feel a bit stronger and started keeping pace with other riders.

The first stage isn't too hilly and I averaged about 24kph or 15mph for most of it. However it does get a bit harder towards the end as you reach the Cotswolds. The finaly climb into Stow on the Wold is quite hard.

This control is just at a petrol station. There were a few riders there when I arrived. This was a quick stop, I ate a pasty from the petrol station and took my jacket off.

Once I got going again I immediately realised I'd been wrong to remove the jacket, as I was freezing on the descent out of Stow; back on it went. I don't much like the next bit as you head across the Cotswolds. The road has a lot of unreasonably fast traffic. However it's nice and hilly and it isn't too long before we turn off into quiet lanes. I rode this entirely on my own, occasionally catching sight of a couple of riders but never gaining enough to overhaul them.

The biggest climb on the route is Cleeve Hill just after Winchcombe. Being a lightweight, I overtook 3 riders on the ascent. Then I missed the right turn just after the summit but was able to take the next turn about 200 yards later and didn't have to climb back up the hill. The route is then flat for most of the way to Newent. One of the riders I overtook, a guy in a Willesden top, overtook me - being a lightweight doesn't help on the flat. I rode with him for a bit, but the pace was a little fast so I stopped to take my jacket off as I'd warmed up by now. The wind was against so I was working fairly hard, but it was much easier than 2008.

I think I arrived at Newent about 11am. This was another control; in 2007 I'd controlled at the Co-op (i.e. just bought something and kept the receipt as proof of passage). In 2008 I'd gone to the cafe while the rain poured outside, but this had wasted a lot of time and contributed to a very slow overall time. So it was back to the Co-op, but there was a slow queue so it wasn't as quick as I'd have liked. I think I took about 20 minutes to get going, and all the time I was worrying about the bike as I had no lock with me. However, I got away with it.

The next section is through the Forest of Dean to Chepstow, and this is one of the nicest parts of the route. It rained a little bit at Newent, so the jacket was back on, but it wasn't long before it came off again, and I got quite warm climbing up to Aston Crews. The gps route was incorrect here, but I knew about that, and knew the way. The Forest of Dean was lovely in the sunshine, and I caught a couple of riders, one of whom I'd ridden with earlier, and was on his second 300. I also rode this as my second 300 in 2007. I eventually left him behind as we approached Bream as I was pushing the pace a little bit too much for him. The lovely descent into Chepstow took an age to show itself, and the section from Bream across to St Briavels was hard work into the wind, which had got stronger through the day.

In Chepstow, I controlled at the Tesco Petrol station. A quick sandwich, and a chat with another rider, and after 20 minutes I was off again. Chepstow is at around 150km, and it had taken me just under 7.5h to get there, so I was on target for 300km in 15h. We were now about to turn away from the wind, so it should get easier, and I think the second half of the ride is also less lumpy, though there are some climbs that are quite challenging. The first is getting from Tesco back to the main road to the Severn crossing, but I found it much easier than in previous years. I had to stop about half-way to let an ambulance past, though.

Once over the crossing, the route heads across Gloucestershire and then into Wiltshire to Malmesbury, which I was looking forwards to as there was the Summer Cafe where I would have the first ‘proper’ stop of the day. There is one fairly tough climb, up to the Somerset Monument. After that, it’s easy to Malmesbury and the cafe. I found the Things’ tandem outside and parked my bike next to it. In 2008, I and the others I had ended up riding with didn’t get there until well after dark but it would have been about 4-5pm this time, the cafe still open. I had soup and cafe and coffee, and nearly knocked over the Things’ bike. Fortunately I saw it move and grabbed it. When they emerged I joked that ‘some idiot nearly knocked your bike over’ but Joth looked worried so I explained who the idiot was and that I’d caught it. I asked casually how much the bike had cost - it’s a Santana Beyond Carbon frame - and was told ‘£9,000’. This explains the worried expression. I have seen it knocked over since and they seem rather more relaxed about it now, though!

From Malmesbury the route diverts south through Wootton Bassett, then takes you over two significant climbs past two Wiltshire white horses, first at Broad Town followed by Hackpen Hill. These were both clearly visible, unlike 2008 when it was pitch dark, blowing a gale, and raining. This time we were treated to the sun in the sky, though higher than in 2007. From there we headed down of the Marlborough Downs into Marlborough itself for an info control. The question was the same as in 2007, and I knew the answer from memory. I could easily have cheated. In fact anyone with a smartphone could have cheated, since the answer would have been clearly visible on Google Streetview.

Having checked that it really was the same answer in 2007 (it could have changed in the meantime) it’s then off towards Membury, and this being my fastest time on this ride, the sun was only setting as I approached the services, rather than just around the time I climbed Hackpen Hill in 2007, or hours earlier as in 2008. I started to feel the effects of riding for so long and stopped for an energy gel (note: it’s not clever to have to stop for a gel, really they should be in your back pocket and consumed on the move). The rider who had said I was too fast passed me while I did this, but I repassed him proclaiming “It’s just kicked iiiinnnn” as my energy returned.

This was the only time I’ve actually seen this climb in anything approaching daylight. The services offered a chance to have a quicker stop again, and I was keen to keep moving. By the time I left it was getting dark, though, and the final run to Oxford was dark as usual. I was trying to keep the pace up as 15h still seemed on, and in fact for the 300km to central Oxford I was spot on, arriving back at the Peartree Services for my final control and hotel bed. Jo, who I’d shared the hotel room with, was surprised to see me back so soon, he having only been about half an hour ahead. Over 15h you have no idea where people are, if they are 30 mins ahead then you never see them unless they stop for a long time at a control. Nowadays it’s far more likely I’ll see Jo than it used to be, I assume that’s me getting faster rather than him slower.

That ride was a great day out, in beautiful weather. It’s interesting how the sluggish start didn’t materialise into a slow ride, it was by far my fastest time on that event. One of my favourite rides, managing to be nicely scenic without being excessively challenging, and avoiding both significant main road riding and too much laney stuff.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Fighting fatigue

It's the end of the week; feeling a bit tired on a Friday morning is normal, and we look forwards to a rest at the weekend. Except the weekend is my chance to get in a couple of long training rides. The last few days have been hard. Late nights, a long train ride, intervals, push ups and crunches, and last night was swimming club.

In swimming, technique is critical, but I'm still fairly poor. Compensating with fitness can only take you so far, particularly when your main sport - cycling - requires muscular legs and a relatively light upper body. My arms and shoulders still lack strength, and the heavy legs make it harder to stay flat in the water.

Last night, it really hit me. As soon as I started the warm up, my arms felt heavy. I'd done my hardest ever interval session on the bike the night before, producing 5-minute power/weight that puts me in the cat 5 racer level (nothing special!) - a personal best. I'd also done the latest instalment of the push-ups and sit ups programmes. I struggled through the entire session, and by the finish when we were doing pull (arms only front crawl) breathing every 7th stroke (!) I was worn out, and in some kind of hypoxia-and-endorphin induced "zone". Then we went to the pub, and then I had to cycle home (quite slowly by now).

This morning of course I was tired. My hr sitting at my desk was 90bpm. Normally I'd expect my resting hr to be no more than 60, and sometimes below 50. Today is a rest day: I cycle to work in a gale, walk to the cafe (where I'm writing this) at lunchtime, and hope that the wind has dropped a bit by hometime. Tomorrow's training will be lower intensity, unless my hr remains elevated, in which case more rest is indicated.

Overtraining syndrome could ruin my season, so I'm monitoring my fatigue levels carefully. It's normal to be fatigued after hard training. When the fatigue continues day after day, it's time to take action.

- Posted using BlogPress for iPhone

Location:Milton Rd,Cambridge,United Kingdom

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Went for a bike ride

Yesterday I decided to get some more miles in as part of my training for the Mille Cymru in July and the Mille Miglia Italia in August.

Although these roads are familiar from years ago, it's not very often I get to cycle around here and it makes a nice change of scenery. When I head out for a ride from Cambridge there are few options. It's rare that I would head out into the Fens. Mile after mile of the same arrow straight near perfectly flat road gets old very quickly. Add a headwind for the full effect.

So generally I head South, East or West so that it's more interesting, buy you have to do 10 miles before the first climb of note (and many would not note this climb, having been to Wales). If you head south or west it takes even longer.

By contrast, heading from the Clyde coast over the old Dalry Moor road (single track) starts at sea level and within 6 miles or so I was crossing a 247m summit, in bright February afternoon sunshine. Pausing to look back on the ascent gave a spectacular view across the Firth of Clyde, which sparkled in between the islands the like a millpond.

Although the Moor road was not gritted, once in Dalry there was grit under the wheels and I could ride with confidence even when the road looked shiny. Contrast this with back home where virtually none of my route to work is gritted - I came off on black ice three weeks ago, bruising my hip and knee.

I headed back towards West Kilbride but soon realised the ride would be well short of my 2h target so I turned left onto the B780 to Ardrossan which I'd never cycled before. This was a nice cycling road, not too much traffic and not too hilly. I was trying to stick in an aerobic training zone so on the Dalry Moor road with it's pair of single chevrons I had to go very slow - and on a steep descent I can't pedal either so my HR drops too low.

Once I'd descended down to sea level in Ardrossan I headed back along the A78 coast road towards West Kilbride. There is a cycle path but I didn't use it - nor did any other of the several other cyclists I saw. Planners take note.

The ride was still too short, so I diverted up through West Kilbride, back down to the main road, then down towards Hunterston. That was a mistake so back to the main road and finish by returning via Third Part farm. The road here is signed as a cycle route. Of course this road was 75% mud, 20% pot hole, 5% manure. Unsurprising to see no other cyclists here.

2h, 26 miles of glorious cycling. I'm told the weather has been like this all week. It was the same today. When I go home I'm going to steal some of this weather. They still won't be gritting though, will they? I hope to get out there again before I head back.

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Location:North Ayrshire