Category Archives: Cycling

Ride the North: The Prologue

I arrived in Inverness with a distinct sense of anticipation, the excitement was palpable, Ride the North weekend has finally arrived (and as an added bonus, it’s not even the weekend yet!).

The train from Aberdeen was filled with people rather like us; small groups of slightly dishevelled looking middle aged men (mostly).  We were the latest in a steady stream of people to make this pilgrimage.

Having placed our precious bikes into the care of the Ride the North support team, we travelled north independently.  All being well, we will be re-united tomorrow morning to start our journey back home, but for the time being each of us will carry a feint sensation that something’s missing.

Bike Wrapped 1

Final preparations, bikes wrapped for transit

Not everyone has travelled to Inverness by the same mode of transport.  A hardy few had cycled up from Aberdeen, a 120 mile prologue to the main event.  I have to admit to a slight tinge of envy.

For some people, myself included, Ride the North represents a major challenge.  We will push ourselves to new levels of endeavour.  How I’d love to be able to do a hard days cycling in advance to prepare myself for the nice sociable cycle ahead.  Next year perhaps?!

 

***

I suspect it’s going to be a couple days of extremes:

  • The weather has already been changeable: a miserable, wet morning in Aberdeen was replaced by a beautiful, warm evening in Inverness.
  • Tonight’s accommodation in the relative luxury of the Royal Highland Hotel will be replaced tomorrow evening with a tent in a field.
  • The cycle will quite literally be a series of ups and downs as we take on the undulations of the Scottish Highlands. I’m sure our ride will be accompanied by a roller coaster of emotions.
  • We’ll be amongst over 600 fellow cyclists, but I’m sure there will be moments when we’ll feel very alone.
  • We’ll all be doing something with which we’re very familiar, but at the same time heading into the unknown.
Royal Highland Hotel

The grandeur of the Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness

***

As subsequent waves of people arrived in Inverness this evening, the city continued to fill with anticipation.  The pubs are resonating to the stories of hills conquered, and those that lie ahead.

In a lot of ways, the extremes will make the event; I just hope everyone ends up in one piece and with a smile on their faces!  Good Luck!

A few last minute concerns

It’s less than seven days until we head to Inverness for the start of Ride the North.  Fort me, this is the culmination of a year of cycling; it started with a tentative 17 mile flat outing (one eye on the road and one eye on the Heart Rate monitor) and will end with a challenging 2 day, 170 mile cycle through the rolling Aberdeenshire countryside.

Overall, I’m surprisingly relaxed about the trip.  I’m relatively confident that I’ve done enough preparation so the miles don’t really worry me.  I’ve done a lot of solo miles recently so I’m very much looking forward to cycling in a group, and I’m excited about taking on the challenge with friends.

That said, with a week to go I have three main concerns:

Concern 1: The first hill

I’ve become increasingly comfortable on hills over the past few weeks. Given that I consciously avoided them until March I feel like I’ve come a long way. I could do with more power in my legs but I’ve learned some tricks to help me along the way:

  • Glasses off (to increase air flow and reduce the chances of sweat in the eyes)
  • Open cycling jersey / top a little (to aid cooling)
  • Sit up (take pressure off my chest)
  • Select a low gear early (don’t start by trying to fight it as there will only be one winner!)
  • Tap out a comfortable rhythm (I’ve found “Twisting by the pool” by Dire Straits works for me, I’ve no idea why because it annoys me, but it works. I have to save it until I hit the hills because if it gets into my mind for more than 10 mins it could drive me insane!)

So, I’m generally OK with the hills, in fact I look forward to them, but the first one out of Inverness is a concern for me.

First Hill

The profile of Ride the North Day 1… and “that” hill!

If you’ve been to Inverness you’ll know there are lots of hills around.  Loch Ness was carved by glaciers, and they didn’t stop with the loch.  As a result, after about 5 miles we have to take on a hill.  It’s difficult to really tell on a route profile, but it looks significant, not the most challenging hill of the event, but it’s so close to the start it’ll be right on us.  It doesn’t really give us much time to warm up… it’ll be interesting.

I guess the good thing with being concerned about the first hill is that I’ll get it out of the way quickly.  If I was concerned about the last hill I’d have the best part of 2 days to worry about it.

Concern 2: The weather

We’ll spend more than 12 hours in the saddle over the course of the event. That’s a fair amount of time in the best of circumstances. Given we’re in the North East of Scotland, it would be naïve to assume we’ll experience the best of circumstances.

Inverness Weather

This weeks weather in Inverness

Irrespective of how much you enjoy cycling, or who you’re cycling with, cycling in torrential rain when the wind is blowing a hoolie is not very much fun.

Having studied a number of different sources, I’ll predict that the weather will be “mixed”. It will inevitably have a major impact on the enjoyment factor of the overall event, so we’ll all have to keep our fingers crossed!

Mixed Weather

The BBC Weather Centre is also predicting mixed weather! (Genuinely!)

Concern 3: Sleeping in a tent

Looking for further adventure (and an easy, late accommodation option) we’ve “opted” to camp overnight while en route (just 1 night fortunately). Unfortunately glamping options were booked early so we’re in good old fashioned, on the ground, “at one with nature”, tents.

As far as I can remember this will be my second experience sleeping under “canvass”.  My previous camping trip was while I was at school, in Snowdonia. On that occasion the weather was glorious and we spent the week outside.  My abiding memories are of beautiful weather, swimming in rivers and lakes and a famous (if you were there) “hands on the A-Poles” wind-up by the teacher in charge.

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What’s the worst thing that can happen?

I’m concerned that for this trip the tent may be one step too far.  It’s a bit of a “double-down” on concern #2: the camping experience will be heavily influenced by the weather.

I suspect sleeping won’t be an issue as we’ll be tired from our day’s exertions, but the recovery from Day 1 and preparation for Day 2 could be challenging!

***

All in all, it’s going to be an short, exciting week for me and the other 600+ people participating in the ride… wish us all luck!

Ride Like A Pro… in my dreams!

Today I had an opportunity to “Ride like a Pro”, a cycling event sponsored by Jaguar UK and Team Sky. I was one of about 40 fellow MAMILs that assembled at our local Jaguar Garage. To be honest it was an intimidating group. As everyone casually milled around waiting for the “Grand Depart” you could tell they were sizing each other up and assessing each other’s equipment. It was all very light-hearted as we finally set off, formed a peloton and headed into the countryside.

Ride like a Pro (Bike) 1

Initially we all stayed together. It was great to cycle as part of a large group; it’s something I don’t get the chance to do very often. I managed to stay in the pack for the first 18 miles or so. I had to work hard to keep up as we were occasionally strung out, negotiating roundabouts and other traffic furniture, but I stayed in the group.

However, it all changed rather quickly when we hit the start of the first climb of the day…

Although I hadn’t cycled it before I was very familiar with the road we were on; it forms part of one of my regular routes but I have always ridden it in the opposite direction. As a result, I knew the hill was the first of several climbs that would come in quick succession. From the other direction it’s a fantastic descent (in fact, it’s the one that featured in my Foul Mouthed Cyclist post) but I knew that any attempts to keep up would be short-lived, and could potentially wipe me out for the rest of the day.

It appeared that many of the other members of the peloton had been cycling well within themselves. They were being polite, cycling in formation, biding their time. The first stiff hill was what they’d been waiting for! I drifted back through the pack very quickly; officially dropped!

I wasn’t the only one. Four or five of us negotiated the hills independently; oblivious to what was occurring ahead or behind. It was a bit of a reality check for me.

Rest Stop 1

A drinks stop provided a bit of respite and allowed us to momentarily re-form a group (technically “re-join” as I think most people had managed to stay together). It was a brief moment. The gloves were off. At the first opportunity, the group took off again. I had managed to keep up for a few miles. Many hadn’t.

I found myself on the road alone. There were people up ahead and people behind, but I didn’t see another cyclist for over 10 miles. To be honest, I thought I’d taken the wrong route but I was on a familiar road with a fair wind behind me so I just kept plugging away.

An impromptu stop about 10 miles from home saw the whole thing repeat itself. However, it did confirm (1) that I was on the right route and (2) that I would pass my house to complete the ride before turning around and heading home again (while cycling along on my own, thinking I had taken a wrong turn the thought of heading directly home had briefly entered my mind).

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We didn’t see much of the Team Sky support car during the ride. It led us out of the garage and for the first mile or so, but having let us pass so it could bring up the rear it must have dropped a long way behind to deal with some stragglers or mechanical issues.

Apparently it then had to set off in search of a couple of riders that had taken a wrong turning, last seen heading in the wrong direction, into deepest, darkest Aberdeenshire. I would have loved to have been able to raise my hand and be “attended to” but I guess it’ll have to wait for another time.

Overall, the ride was a different level of intensity than I’ve been used to. I was very tired when I got home, but I’m sure it’ll do me a lot of good.  It was the type of experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat tomorrow, but next week would be just fine.

***

Despite today’s reality check, I’m keen to keep building on the foundation I’ve established. I have to remind myself that it was just under a year ago that I did my first post-Heart Attack ride: On 18th August 2013 I managed to cycle 20km in 50 minutes along the railway line from Duthie Park to Milltimber and back.  Perhaps in a couple of years I’ll be able to put the pressure on when we hit a hill!

Ride like a Pro

It sounds counter-intuitive, but having a Heart Attack has given me confidence.

My “episode” was the culmination of about 20 years of un-healthiness; relatively little physical activity, an overly relaxed diet, too many cigarettes and too much alcohol.  I have never generally lacked confidence, but having become a lapsed athlete it has been more focused on the office than the sports field.

The warning signs were there…

Having been physically “broken”, I’ve had to re-build my strength and fitness almost from scratch.  At the same time, I’ve had to re-build my confidence to do every day things that I used to take in my stride.  After being at such a low level, the only way was up, and increased awareness has meant every step forward has been a conscious one.

Along the way I’ve given myself many challenges.  Some of the challenges may appear more significant than others, but they’ve all been important.

Whether it was getting on a bike for the first time or heading out for a solo ride, cycling back up to my house or cycling from London to Brussels (via Amsterdam), they’ve all mattered.  They have each required a level of confidence to take them on (often combined with a healthy dose of nervousness), and each has been rewarded with a major sense of satisfaction and a confidence boost.

Tomorrow I’m heading out with a group to “Ride like a Pro”, a promotional event organised by Jaguar.  On the ride we’ll be accompanied (“supported”) by a “Jaguar XF Sportbrake in full Team Sky livery”.  It’s another step into the unknown, but I’m excited about it.  At 50 miles it’s within my range, but whenever you go out with a new group it introduces a number of unknowns.

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In my mind, we’ll be in a large peloton, eating up the roads as we roar through the Aberdeenshire countryside…

I really hope that I don’t lose contact with the group so badly that they call the support car through; having set out to “ride like a pro” I may well end up being “just a guy taking a ride”. Either way, it should be fun… and it’ll definitely be another step in the right direction!

Not all rides are made the same

Although the route may be the same, not all rides are made equal:

There are many variables that determine how a ride turns out.  The weather is always a major factor and heavily influences many others, but is by no means the only one.  My physical condition and state of mind play significant roles, as does “the rest of the day” (what has gone before and what is to follow).

Thursday’s ride was a good one.  The sun was out, but the wind had a chill. It was warm enough for shorts, but cold enough for arm-warmers.  My ride took me off the beaten track and into the countryside proper.  Having spent a day sitting behind a desk in a small office, it was great to be outside in the fresh air.

Mother Nature did her bit too; the fields are full of skittish lambs and inquisitive calves.  The birds were out in force at all altitudes. Small birds danced through the hedgerow as a lapwing called out overhead.  A pair of pheasants proudly strutted their stuff down the centre of the road until they realised they were being watched, at which point they disappeared in a flap.

This field of cows were particularly inquisitive. Have they not seen a man in Lycra before!?

I turned a corner and found myself face to face with a small deer, quietly minding its own business in the centre of the road. We exchanged pleasantries before it ducked back into a copse of trees.

It was all going on, and provided a perfect backdrop for my ride.

***

Rides are not made equal, and the same goes for roads:

As a driver, I pay little attention to the roads I travel along.  Unless there is a significant issue, a deep pothole, or loose surface, it’s really of little relevance to me.  As a cyclist however the roads are much more of a factor.  This is understandable given I can quite literally feel the road through the seat of my pants, and because the speed of movement (or lack thereof) there is plenty time to reflect on it.

When asked about most roads, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind for most cyclists is the condition of its surface.  Cycling on a smooth piece of tarmac is bliss; resistance is eliminated as every stroke of the pedal is fully rewarded.  Unfortunately this is a rare exception.  The roads I frequent tend to offer up more than their fair share of hazards; potholes and bumps, uneven surfaces and sunken grates.  Look around at your peril!

Occasionally, an optical illusion makes a climb deceptively easy, providing the sense that I’ve suddenly developed super-strength and stamina.  There are a couple of routes that I regularly follow that have such hills; they never fail to delight, providing moments to savour.

Of course the general surroundings, the scenery and wildlife, make a big difference too.  There are some stretches that just feel good.  If I’m honest, a sense of achievement also helps with the “feel good factor”, whether it’s a building sense of momentum on a gradual descent or cresting a challenging climb, the surroundings can never be considered in isolation.

There are variable factors too.  As my mind drifts, a thought might enter my head and occupy me for a few miles.  If that’s the case, even the longest, most soul destroying stretch of road can pass in an instant.  As my mind wanders, the miles roll by and time evaporates.  It takes time to cycle long distances, but it often doesn’t feel like it.

It sounds a bit sad, but as I’ve wound around the Aberdeenshire countryside I’ve discovered one road anomaly that gives me particular pleasure:

From time to time, a road will disappear into the distance and (at the same time) re-appear in the distance, seemingly unconnected to the stretch of road I’m on.  It’s only some time later that the route becomes joined up, “whole”.  Usually I only catch a fleeting glimpse as I roll along. Blink and I miss it.

A prime example of the “orphaned road” anomaly.

Over the weeks I’ve developed some rules around this:

  1. The ride has to cover both sections of road. If you don’t cycle along it, it doesn’t count.
  2. You have to be able to see the road surface. Simply seeing a vehicle on a road in the distance isn’t enough.
  3. It has to be the same road. There can’t be any junctions between the sections.
  4. The further away the “orphaned” section of road is the better.

Seeing these orphaned sections of road reminds me how lucky I am. I can’t imagine they exist in urban settings as buildings would get in the way.  The anomaly generally requires changes in elevation and a winding road, both of which make riding more interesting anyway.  I’m fortunate to have such beautiful and interesting surroundings to cycle in!

I’m sure there are places in the world where the phenomenon occurs more regularly, but to my mind the infrequency makes it even more “special”.

***

As I said, Thursday’s was a good ride!  Hopefully there’ll be many more as the summer unfolds!

A disappointing outing

Saturday’s ride was intended to be a strong. solo challenge.  The plan was to combine a couple of stiff hills into a new route of just over 70 miles.  I was familiar with the individual legs of the route so I was comfortable with what I was taking on.  In fact, I was more than comfortable, I was looking forward to it.

Intended Route

The intended route… a solid solo outing

 

As it turned out, it was a less pleasant experience than I had hoped.  I guess the writing was on the wall when I hobbled out of bed to get ready for the ride…

My pain had begun on Wednesday when I went to the gym rather than cycling to “break in up a bit”.  I’m keen to get back to some balanced exercise rather than only ever going out on the bike, so I did some aero exercise on a Cross Trainer and some light weights.

I never feel like I’m working particularly effectively when I’m at the gym.  I either feel like I’m pushing myself too hard and unable to maintain the effort for very long (which is really not very good for me!), or I feel like I’m too comfortable and not really getting a huge amount of benefit from it.

Wednesday felt like the latter.  I worked up a sweat, but that was about it.  On Thursday morning, however, my calves let me know that I’d done something different.  It wasn’t anything serious, they only hurt when I tried to stand or walk.

Having been able to continue about my everyday business, including an hour on the Turbo Trainer on Thursday, I assumed that my legs would loosen up once I was out on the bike.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

Despite easing myself into the ride and stretching at every opportunity my legs wouldn’t cooperate.  They were tight and painful.  As I approached the bottom of the biggest climb of the day I had to make a decision; My outings generally have a number of “opt out” options, points at which I can choose whether to turn for home or continue on my way.  [Generally these serve as a psychological boost as I head on feeling good about myself.]  The climb would have taken me out into the countryside and also committed me to a second stiff climb.  So the decision was:  Should I ignore my legs and plough on, or not?

I decided “not”.  I like to think this was a grown up decision rather than me just wimping out, but I didn’t feel very good about it.

As I limped home I started to feel the cold too.  It shouldn’t be like this in Mid-May… it’s time for the sun to shine and to be enjoying rolling through the countryside bare legged and in short sleeves.  As it was, omitting to wear overshoes proved to be an error.  Both my feet started to turn into blocks of ice.

As the misery set in, my first “large-bug-in-the-mouth-at-speed” incident capped off a disappointing outing.

At least I made it home in one piece.  Time to put my feet up for a couple of days methinks!

The perfect end to a perfect ride!

The same, but different

This week has seen a relatively gentle re-introduction to training.  Having spent four days cycling into the unknown, I’ve returned to the old familiar routes.  For one reason or another however I’ve approached some of the routes from the opposite direction for the first time.  Having felt like I’d exhausted my options for relatively short rides close to home, the experience has opened my eyes to a whole new range of possibilities.

What I found most surprising was how different the hills feel when approaching them from the opposite direction.  I know this sounds obvious, of course they’re different; the “Ups” are “Downs” and the “Downs” are “Ups”.  However, even taking that into consideration, the hills were quite different to what I was expecting; a long, fast descent doesn’t necessarily mean a difficult climb from the other direction, insignificant descents can become sharp, punishing ascents and long straight slogs can turn into an easy roll.  Perspective and context are everything.

It's all a matter of perspective!

It’s all a matter of perspective!

The scenery looks totally different too,  It’s like I’m cycling along roads for the first time, they are far from familiar.  I know people say that in order to get to know an area you should get out of your car and cycle or walk around it, but I would suggest that you do this from both directions to make sure you don’t miss anything.

I’m sure there are lots of lessons that could be applied to other areas of my life from this experience:

  • If you think you’ve exhausted all your options, look at them again from a different perspective
  • Things don’t have to be difficult, it depends how you approach them
  • If you want to try something new, try something old, differently
  • etc.
Perspective and positive thinking!

Perspective and positive thinking!

This new perspective has provided a nice distraction as I settle back into the next phase of my rehabilitation.  The next month promises to be one of consolidation as I prepare for the next of my three Summer events, a gentle 54 mile roll to the South Coast as part of the British Heart Foundation’s London to Brighton Bike Ride.  Keep on pedalling!