rob

Aug 032014
 

It seems like a long time since I did anything good on a bike. This year I decided to complete something that’s been in consideration for ages. Ever since I met an old-time TT racer named Terry Thomas back in 2009. He was a bit of a crazy guy (sadly he passed away in 2010) but he inspired me a lot to ride my bike, and in particular to get fit again and win several big mountain bike races in 2010. So I wanted to do something in memory of Terry, and it seemed fitting to look at the time trials of his day – the place-to-place time trials from that era of our UK racing history. I needed this ride for my own soul, and I wanted to do this for Terry, and the inspiration he shared, thanks old friend…

About to Start - Photo by Oliver Herdsman

The roads are almost empty, and the sun is up, but the air is still cool to the skin. I’m zipping through the outskirts of Yeovil on fresh legs, enjoying the early start, when it hits me: I’m riding Around Somerset! Oh Boy! But it’s far too late to be nervous and there’s no time to stop, the clock was started and all I have now is the task ahead: to finish the course.

Heading for Wincanton - Photo by Oliver Herdsman

All of my prep had been sudden. Thorough, in the form of bike and kit, but left to the last moment by design. I’d bailed out of this ride once already, last year before I’d even pushed the first pedal, so this time around I hadn’t even given myself the chance to think about it. After 5 months, during which I’d been completely off the bike, I climbed back on in early December with just one goal: get riding.

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Then gradually the miles built, and everything else steadily followed. By March I was back to riding 250 mile weeks, I’d lost a bit of weight, my legs felt OK, my legs had stopped burning on every climb, and I started to think that maybe I should resurrect my goal of riding Around Somerset against the clock?

Heading for Frome - Photo by Oliver Herdsman

So I started endurance mountain bike racing again! nothing like a little but of something else for taking your mind from the inevitable. And that’s what riding a long distance is for me, it’s all about blocking my mind from the fear, the unknown (or the known = it’ll hurt) and then focusing purely on the task. I left my request to go for the record until the last possible moment, whilst slowly prepping all my kit for something I told myself I probably wouldn’t do. I helped load the van, we drove to the start, Phil the timekeeper counted me down. Simple.

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So I’m riding out of Yeovil with fresh legs, on a cool early breeze, thinking nothing of it. Keeping my head down and turning the pedals as smoothly and as powerfully as I can, without doing anything I think I may not be able to repeat for another 12 to 13 hours. I had no planned stops, no planned rests, very simple food hand-ups and no distractions other than the road.

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My pacing strategy was simple: I’d be riding to feel with an average speed goal of 19mph for the first hundred miles, but only if my legs felt good enough to hold it. Then after that first hundred I know the real race starts, and I’d better not be done when I get that far, because I’m done for if I am! I always slow down, it’s inevitable when you don’t stop for breakfast, lunch, or tea, and bits of your body start to hurt from the effort, the pressure or from abrasion. It’s easy to tell yourself you’ll not stop at all and you’ll keep the hammer down, but when you’ve worn a few holes in yourself? Well, I can tell you that just sitting on the saddle becomes monumentally painful! So 19mph first half and then maybe 17mph for the second? I’d done the training so there was nothing left to do but put it to the test and find out.

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The checkpoints came ahead of time and I kept my mind purely on the task. No doubts allowed, no creeping worry, just task: pedal, climb, descend, corner, drink, eat, think ahead to the next junction. I’d memorised the entire route so any distraction I may have had from a map or a GPS screen was removed from the equation. I still took my gps: I wanted the stats, but keeping my eyes on the road would allow for a safer and faster ride once I got tired and my brain began to lose the plot. I drank one 750ml bottle of energy drink per hour, and one gel per hour. The odd sandwich or bar was only by request if my stomach felt empty. The miles rolled by and it seemed pretty good, even the pain: left shoulder at 50 miles seems about right, lower back at 80, ball of left foot at 95…

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And then I was there with that first one hundred miles in the bag in just a bit over five hours and now?… it all begins; this is where I make it, or it breaks me! This is where the other two thirds of the climbing begins, where all the steep gradients make their appearance, where hurt takes over, where mind either bends or breaks. But I’ve already decided: I’M NOT GOING TO CRACK TODAY, I’m going to just crack on, unrelenting, unstoppable, even if I slow: pedal, climb, descend, corner, drink, eat, think ahead to the next junction.

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Every single section of the second half becomes a love-hate affair. If I’m tucked on the flat then I’m looking forward to the climb so I can get myself up off this saddle and straighten my back. If I’m on a climb I’m gritted teeth looking for the top and some flat for respite. I’m dodging cramp on every other pedal revolution for the final 50 miles, I’m turning inside out, I feel dizzy, sick, slightly spaced-out. BUT, I’ve been here before, I crack on.

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Then suddenly I’m climbing up towards the Holy Tree, the sign says Stoke-sub-Hamdon, I flip the screen on my garmin: the ride time says “game on” and then nothing left to give, becomes no time to waste; I’m on the gas like I’m racing a ten! Flat out to town, I’m totally autopilot, racing mode, I’ve done this a thousand times before. I finish as fast as I can, and even when I cross the line and the clock stops my lungs keep going and cannot be stopped. I stand there, in a whirl of emotion, surrounded by friends and family, just marvelling at the rate my heart is beating in my chest.

After the finish - Photo by John Loasby (Large)

I grip the bars to my helmet, my heart starts to slow and the past 10 hours and 48 minutes are now allowed to melt into my subconscious. I keep my eyes closed for just a few more moments, and savour the taste: I did it, I rode Around Somerset. I feel supremely strong, yet completely exhausted, all at the same time. WOW! it feels good, so good, one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever known: knowing you did what you set out to do, not knowing if you could.

Many thanks to my on-the-road support crew: Simon Beard and John Loasby, YCC Time Keeper: Phil Clements. Paul at Rock & Road for the loan of his van, Dave Notley, Dave Driver and Martin Wills from Yeovil CC for their behind-the-scenes support, my wife Jen for all her love and support that made this possible, and last, but not least, Terry Thomas for the inspiration, thanks.

The New Around Somerset Route

The official time splits:
Yeovil (start)
0:49:46 – Wincanton
1:38:06 – Frome
2:06:48 – Radstock
3:03:07 – Bristol Airport
3:31:31 – Clevedon
4:18:04 – Weston super Mare
5:06:32 – Bridgwater
6:32:27 – Dunster
7:33:31 – Dulverton
8:22:28 – Wiveliscombe
8:45:24 – Wellington
9:49:54 – Chard
10:48:15 – Yeovil (finish)

Distance: 193 miles

Elevation gain: 11,975 feet

Previous Record: 10:49:19 (Brian Rice, 1961)

My stats:
Power:
Normalised: 205 watts
Max: 780 watts
TSS: 476
Zone 1/Active Recovery: 3:26:12
Zone 2/Endurance: 4:15:55
Zone 3/Tempo: 2:11:41
Zone 4/Threshold: 38:56
Zone 5/Vo2Max: 9:13
Zone 6/Anaerobic: 4:59
Zone 7/Neuromuscular: 1:15

Heart Rate:
Avg: 137bpm
Max: 166bpm

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Jun 082014
 

“A cross-country race is a time trial that starts with a field sprint” – Ned Overend

The sun is out and I’m sat in the grass; ice cold can of coke in one hand and a burger in the other. Usually I’d be pretty happy right now but today I’m just disappointed. Bikefest is still happening, and the race is gonna Finish without me. I’m disappointed because I’m a loser, not that I lost, just because I’m a loser. I’m a loser because I let my ego get the better of me, I’m disappointed with my attitude, the outcome, and the coke in my hand; it just tastes sour.

I flunked out of my own sport, the sport I love, and have lived for two decades. 5 out of the last 6 races I entered I didn’t even get out of bed for. Bristol was the 6th! the nail in the coffin. A proper loser’s attitude. Time to quit. Summer 2013.

And that was how it happened. It wasn’t because I had nothing left to prove. It was because I had nothing left to give. Totally burnt out, a shell. So I went away, and I went skateboarding, and I broke my arm, got it rebuilt. And then started to feel something inside for the bike again. At first I denied it but eventually succumbed to the call. I started riding again, I started riding every day, I started riding further than I’d ridden yesterday. I found a little bit of fitness and then started to think about racing – the usual dreams and big ideas, all the stuff that unwound me in the first place. I needed rules, restrictions, and I started with performance related goals – no race entered unless I reached such-and-such performance marker.

Back at Bikefest a year later…

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The horn sounds and I start as standard – lets find out where I am. The answer: the engine is good. Into the lead group and comfortable, very comfortable, and my easiest Bikefest start to date. Then the singletrack and… oh, not so good! Usually my strong set but the left hand is already struggling and control is an issue. Reign it in and stay rubber-side-down, check my ego at the door. The goal is to finish, I absolutely must finish. I settle into a pace, based on not binning-it in the singletrack.

And so the race goes: I’m the most comfortable I’ve ever been on the Bikefest climbs but I’m the least adept that I’ve ever been in the singletrack, on the UK’s most singletrack-heavy race course.

At about an hour and a half in I start to wonder if the hand will survive the test. It’s a lot of pain. Pain I can handle. The lack of control though mmm… it’s stressful. I absolutely must finish. A DNF is not an option. I keep racing.

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Lap ticks off, lap ticks off, lap ticks off. I’m still really strong. I’m still really in danger of a crash. Then it rains, I crash, I finish 6th. Joint 6th with Nick who catches me at my crash but says he’s not going to sprint it out. A gent. He could have dusted me, he didn’t, I appreciate the sportsmanship.

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I’m done, I fell like I got hit by a car, I bypass the coke stand, the burger stand, I’m not disappointed, and I’ve got a big grin on my face. Race analysis all the way home, a list of things to work on, performance goals that I want to hit.

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 Posted by at 8:31 pm
Jun 022014
 

Ok so this is the deal: divide all my food for the ride into 4 piles; leave 3 on the table and put the rest in my back pockets. 2 bottles: same carb solution in both; exactly measured for body-weight and projected duration of lap. That’ll take care of lap 1 and there’ll be 3 more laps to come, hence 3 more piles of food. The lap is about 50 miles long, and has around 2500 feet of climbing, so it’s all kept simple: 4 laps = 200 miles and 10,000 feet.

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Today I’m riding on feel, so the powermeter has been taken off the bike. Why ride to feel when you own a powermeter? If I’m ever going to race again the chances are it’ll be on mountain bike, and I don’t have a powermeter on my mountainbike, so whilst I’d use a powermeter on the road I don’t have that luxury offroad. I need to remind myself how to pace myself. Maybe I should buy a powermeter for my mountainbike? Mmm… no time to think about that now, I’ll ride today on feel.

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Halfway around lap 1 and I’m travelling faster than anticipated. Engaged with the task at hand, riding comfortably, fuelling as planned and feeling good. It’s early morning, so it’s not yet warmed up properly, and I’m dressed up snug. Faster than planned mmm… should I slow down? It feels ok, manageable, let’s stay on it and see what pans out.

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Approaching 80 miles and the miles start to tell. Not much, but enough to know about it, over the main climb at mile 83 and it’s distinctly harder than it was on the first lap. Pace is still the same though and I’m approaching the hardest pit – 100 miles – will I drag myself back out the door for lap 3?

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110 miles, yeah I made it back out the door, and the test now begins. 100 miles on-pace takes focus, 200 miles just covering the distance takes persistence, but 200 miles on pace? I have to ask myself a few questions! Hungry now, and distracted, neck a bit sore, healing left arm very sore, stay focused and stay on schedule with my feeding. I’m wobbling over the energy precipice, trying desperately not to look down. “push one pedal down and the other comes back up” I stay on focus and ride the hunger storm, 115, 120, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 150… JUST ONE MORE LAP!

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The shortest pit-stop of the day as I know I’m right on a tipping point. If I sit down I’ll simply not get back up. Change my base layer, it’s starting to cool down outside and the one I’m wearing is damp. More chamois creme and pockets refilled, out for another lap, a mere 50 miles!

Still on pace, still focused, the miles pass under my wheels like clockwork. The last big climb stings all the way up, the view at the top seems greater than it was the last time I passed, and I’m the most pushed I’ve been for a very long time. The last remaining miles are all stomping, swaying, spinning and smiling, then suddenly I’m home, stage one of my training complete, endurance checked off the list, my test exceeded, feeling like I might just become a bike racer again…

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 Posted by at 1:00 pm
Mar 052014
 

“all his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.”

– Master Yoda

If I died today what is it I’d wish I had done this morning? What should I have done, but not, could have done, but squandered the time? So much talk, would like to, can if I want, might if I get round to it. I’d have wished I’d ridden my bike, that I’d taken the time, time we forgot, time we never get back, time that no one else cares if we used it or not.

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“What are your goals this season?” He asked. My goal is to live today. He nodded, but his eyes said he did not understand. I asked him his goals, so he told me, then he told me he had better start training next week. Exactly, I said, my goal is to live today. Next week, next month, tomorrow, they never come. He started to understand, as I do.

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past are certain to miss the future.”

– John F. Kennedy

I never speak about my broken arm. I broke it skateboarding, at age 40. A foolish undertaking, for a man of my maturing years: skateboarding, or all things. It was a lesson in “today”. F*** everything you think you know about folly and throw it out the window, while I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, that one thing burning a hole in my desire, what were you doing? What would you have wished you’d have done had you died that day? Did you do it? or did you sit there thinking about the good old days, the days you used to skate yourself, or ride a bike on a long Summer evening?

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Breaking my arm, on a skateboard, age 40, was one of the best things I ever did; it woke me up, it brought me back to reality, back from the trap we have created for ourselves to avoid living, breathing and enjoying life today.

“If you died right now, how would you feel about your life?”

– Tyler Durden

That little box you currently hold in your hand is actually your death! Or maybe it’s a screen, on your desktop, who cares: the outcome is the same. Social media is the end of your life, the end of living, the end of all your dreams, and the only thing left is your past. Let it go, put it down, go for a ride, or a skate, try life, today, instead, you might enjoy it. I know I will.

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 Posted by at 7:18 am
Nov 292013
 

 

The pain running down through the back of my leg is hard to describe. Kinda like a trapped nerve or being crushed by something large. Tense, try to relax, try not to scream! It’s hard to hold down, yet difficult to ignore. Difficult? No, impossible. I’m “being stretched” by my physio and he’s a strong guy who takes no nonsense: just the type of person I need to work with. So I breathe in deep and try not to tense, it is all for a purpose, I try to think of something else: how did I end up here?

It’s fair to say that I’ve spent the year near-invisible. A brief step into the light to collect my UK MTB Hall of Fame trophy before slipping out the door quietly and disappearing from bike world. Gone. More or less forgotten, the way that racers are just as soon as the next crop of hopefuls make their mark and repeat the cycle.

It’s been interesting to disappear, almost enjoyable, comfortable, inevitable? I don’t think so, more a matter of choice and internal interest: nothing quite feels right. The energy has gone, the hunger subsided and the near-addiction to training has (almost) passed. Mostly though everything just needed a rest, reboot and potential to rebuild.

20 years of pushing myself in cycle didn’t come straight from zero. Before that came skateboarding, cross-country running and an athletic propensity combined with an unabashed competitive nature and desire (unacknowledged at the time) to push to, and beyond, my limits. The past 25-30 years have literally scared my body.

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When I broke my arm skateboarding some of the reaction came as a surprise – too old to be skating, should know better, what was he thinking – all comments, mostly second-hand I heard banded about. In my life though, one I’ve dedicated to the pursuit of sporting achievement and athletic endeavour, nothing comes without occasionally crossing the line and coming unstuck. I have too many trophies to display, too many memories to forget, and too many thank-you emails from athletes I’ve helped to another level to believe it’s any other way.

And for every success there are at least as many failures or mishaps to mirror them. Just take the breaks: left ankle, right foot, right ankle, left wrist (twice) right collarbone (twice) both thumbs, two other bones in my left hand, left elbow, too many ribs to keep count, cheek bone and nose! It’s quite a list for non-contact sport and an athlete who prides himself on playing it safe more often than not. And that’s just the bones. Imagine the scars – the run across, but mostly through, my body, joints and between everything else that’s been torn or broken.  Even the mind cannot escape unharmed when you push so hard that everything in one moment hinges only on success in that moment.

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So I’ve gone from cycling, for now at least, and the skating was a perfect remedy for two decades of training. Regime: binds me, made me, destroys me. It was time for a spot of mental rehab and the arm was worth the cost. It gave me a new focus and a fresh positive environment to rebuild some passion. The arm took that away, but from the ashes I re-found cross-country running and again learnt what it feels like to really try, not just be 20 years good at a sport, but really try and sweat and bleed. Turn myself inside out just to get through the session.

But running, ah running… and that competitive nature? Yeah I’m broken again. Well not again, just found out, you see: I’m 40 years old, I’ve done nothing but push myself my entire adult life, and the scars just run through everything. A crossroads for me, a point of no-return: fix it or lose it. No decision to make. I’ve stepped out, but it’s nothing permanent, it’s the point in a big-hit race when the letters DNF take on new meaning: no longer Did Not Finish, we move to Did Nothing Fatal. And that’s me right now, right back at the start, the foundation, no excuses, no ego, nothing to prove. Just the desire to do it all again, in whatever sport or discipline I fancy, refuse to be stopped or broken by time and my ageing body. Repair, rebuild, rinse, repeat.

The pain running down through the back of my leg is hard to describe. Kinda like a trapped nerve or being crushed by something large. Tense, try to relax, try not to scream!

 Posted by at 6:14 pm