Ride the North: Day 1

As we relaxed after the “all you can eat” barbeque, it was amusing to watch people gingerly rising from their seats and meandering, cowboy-style around the room.  A hard day in the saddle had taken its toll and weary limbs were making their presence known.  Bed was calling.

Day 1 of Ride the North had been successfully negotiated, 89.8 miles down, 81.5 miles to go.

BBQ & Band

Evening barbeque and live music at The Loft, Forres (The disco ball was a little optimistic!)

The day had begun with a clumsy walk across Inverness to the starting point at Eden Court Theatre.  The decision to make the trip on foot rather than in a taxi turned out to be environmentally friendly, and cost efficient but naïve.  Concerns of traffic congestion proved to be unfounded.  The large volume of luggage, including a bike bag and two bicycles, was unwieldy resulting in slow progress.  The walk was however mercifully short and dry.

Nerves at the start line were compounded by a late bike delivery from Aberdeen.  Fortunately for us, the rogue trucks arrived around 15 minutes before our allotted start time and we were able to get away on schedule.

The Start

Supporting the British Heart Foundation… ready to roll!

Logistics and luggage concerns quickly left our minds as we meandered out of Inverness, climbing out of town towards Culloden.  In fact, we should have paid more attention to thoughts of logistics and luggage as we failed to think ahead sufficiently…

A local pack of Cub Scouts had kindly agreed to erect our tents on behalf of the Ride the North participants in advance of our arrival in Elgin.  Unfortunately, our tents were safely hidden in our bags, where they’d be when we arrived at the finish, adding a further minor challenge to our day; tent erection… Joy!

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Refreshment Break #1: Dulshie Bridge

The ride had a tough start. It was a relief to reach the first refreshment stop.  We had only done 27 miles, but they were tough miles and the variety of tasty snacks, energy boosters and drinks were extremely well received.  It definitely wasn’t a time to be watching the waistline!

The route was fantastic; taking us through some of the best scenery Scotland has to offer.  It was matched only by the warmness of the welcomes from the communities we visited during the trip.  The applause from the small crowd in Boat of Garten as we rolled in for lunch was enough to warm the heart before the “fine” soup warmed our bellies.

By lunchtime, anyone who had underestimated the scale of the challenge they’d taken on may well have been regretting it.  A cheeky headwind across the moor had ensured we earned our food.

Ballindalloch Coffee Break

The Coffee Man proved to be one of the more popular guys on the event (this time in Ballindalloch)

The afternoon drifted by. We were in a rhythm.  I was starting to become accustomed to switching my mind off and following the wheel in front, or tracking cyclists further down the road.  When separated from our group, the ride was broken up by brief conversations as people drifted passed… a major part of the experience.  Variable paces meant it was common to pass / be passed by the same people on multiple occasions during the day.

We eventually arrived at the Glen Moray Distillery to, again, be greeted by a warm welcome both for ourselves and our bikes.  Weary and hungry, all that stood between us and the barbeque was the small matter of pitching the tents.

Bike with Whisky

Overnight accommodation… for one of us at least!

As it turned out, tents are a lot simpler than they used to be. Fortunately! The biggest threat to our wellbeing wasn’t a lack of shelter, but the bane of many a Scottish tourists existence… midges!

Tip: Insect repellent, then tent. Not the other way around!

Still dressed in my cycling kit, I have a line just above my knee where the bites start and continue to the ground.

Camping

It’s not much, but we like to call it home… for one night only!

Things could have been a lot worse… we’d safely completed the ride, we had somewhere to sleep, food was being cooked and we’d managed to stay dry all day.  Definitely time for a beer!

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.

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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?!

 

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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

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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!

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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!

Life is an endurance sport

Endurance events look easy when you watch them on from the comfort of your Living Room.  We get used to watching professional athletes performing amazing feats, it becomes the norm.  We tend to overlook the hours of training that go into the preparation and the effort of the event itself.  They make it all look too easy.

Last weekend I watched my first “real” triathlon.  It was a bit different to watching the Brownlee brothers!  It looked much more like the kind of activity I might be able to participate in!

Historically there were lots of reasons why doing a triathlon was a crazy idea, not least the fact that I was a physical wreck.  Having got myself into some sort of shape it seems a lot less crazy now, and given my exercise regime includes both swimming and cycling, I’m almost there as far as the training is concerned.  My most compelling arguments for not doing one would largely come down to my ignorance, so I decided to educate myself.

It all looks a bit brutal to me!

It all looks a bit brutal to me!

The swim held the biggest fear for me (and still does to be honest).  I have never been much of a swimmer.  When I’m in the pool, much of my effort is invested in the avoidance of drowning; little energy is left over for propulsion.  The thought of having to battle with hundreds of other participants for space was a scary one (although this was perhaps naïve, and based on watching too many open water events on TV).

As it turned out, it all seemed rather civilised, down to the staggered start, the coloured hats (to tell the athletes apart), and the polite overtaking (requested by a tap on the foot and offered willingly). I found the range of swimming strokes, techniques and speeds reassuring too. You don’t have to be an ex-Olympian to participate (although I’m sure it would help if you were!).

I was particularly heartened by the over-exuberance of some of the participants that resulted in them going out a bit too quickly on the swim. Some were even kind enough to give us a running commentary on their level of fatigue at the end of each length as they struggled to catch their breath and summon the energy for the next 25 metres. I’m sure some people were caught out by false confidence gained from watching too much TV!

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Having selected a triathlon as the target “goal” for this winter’s training, I plan to balance armchair reconnaissance with some solid physical effort, building on the base I’ve built over the past year or so.

With just 10 days to go until the final big event of the summer, Ride the North, it’s exciting to look to the future again and identify some challenging goals. However, first things first…

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.

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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!

Warning: Hills ahead

The summer has brought a change of routine for me. My established routine was rudely interrupted by a couple of weeks rest and relaxation. Since I’ve been back I have fallen into a new, arguably more balanced routine.

Fortunately I’ve been exercising more regularly than I’ve been updating my blog. Although I’ve not been training at the same level of intensity as I was earlier in the year, I have managed to maintain my level of general fitness and my weight.

Perspective and positive thinking!
My exercise regime has become more rounded again. I have returned to the pool and I‘m combining regular swims with cycling. Unfortunately I’m still a sinker rather than a floater; my break from the pool has not magically resulted in a step change in my buoyancy. I can’t swim any further but I do feel more comfortable; the minor drowning panics have become more occasional. I’m really enjoying the variety and I think it’s better for my body.

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Work has become more demanding, but in a good way. I am travelling more frequently, but not excessively and I’ve been testing the leisure facilities at a variety of hotels.  The days of Club Sandwiches and Fries washed down by a beer seem like a lifetime ago!

Generally I guess I’m just more aware of the various different aspects of my life, and work hard to make sure the “good” ones significantly outweigh the “bad” ones. It’s taken over a year to get to this point, but I feel more relaxed and in control of things.

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Ride the North

I’m really glad that I’ve signed up to the “Ride the North”. The two-day, 170 mile cycle from Inverness to Aberdeen is only three weeks away now. It’s been a target for me since I finished the Euro City Cycle back in May. It’s removed any slight temptation to kick back and take things easy.

Day 1 of the event is 88 miles (further than I’ve ever cycled in a day) and it starts with a challenging climb out of Inverness. I’m a little anxious about the climb. I’d like to take the whole ride in my stride, and I know the only chance of doing that is to keep fit and keep up the miles.

The Suie 1

It’s going to be another exciting few weeks. It’s not quite the Commonwealth games, but Inverness here I come!