Monday, 23 June 2014

Eastbourne Rovers Pevensy 10 Mile TT - 19/6/2014

My first Time-Trial. But first, a little background!

I’ve come over to Hailsham, which is near Eastbourne (which is near Brighton for those who weren’t too sure!) for the next 8 weeks because I’ve just started a work placement here. I’m working at Enigma Bicycle Works, which is a company that specialise in hand building custom titanium and steel bicycles. The work placement is really a dream come true for me, coming from an engineering background and being obsessed with bicycles, and I couldn’t feel more welcomed within the company as all the staff are so nice and they are all really passionate about bicycles. If you’re interested in titanium bicycles, I highly recommend Enigma due to the quality of the finished product and the relationship you build with the company over the course of the build. For my work placement, I'll be doing a bit of everything, from the administration of the company, promoting certain aspects of their work, and even building my own bike from tubes to a complete bike! I've added a link for them at the bottom of this blog.

For the duration of my stay, I’m living in a caravan, in a campsite just around the corner. While this may seem crazy to a lot of people, living in a caravan is really second nature to me having spent months in it at a time for the first 16 summers of my life in Connemara and for a few weeks a summer in Biarritz since then.

My new home!
So, to the time-trial. I had no idea what to expect coming into it, as I’d never done one before. TTs (time-trails) are completely different to road races because it’s just you vs. you and your ability to get the maximum out of yourself over the course. It’s 25 minutes of finding the line of your maximum sustainable output and blowing up, and flirting with it. And with no one else around you to push you or encourage you, a lot of it comes from mental strength. I’ve read a lot about how to do time-trials and the tricks behind them but there’s a big difference between theoretical and practical, as I’d soon find out.

Pinning on the number.
The TT was run by the Eastbourne Rovers which is the local club and whom I’ll most likely be going for spin with. They were very welcoming and willing to give me some advise about doing a 10 mile TT. My parents were with me as well, as they had brought over the caravan and were just staying the week to make sure I was settled in and as a little holiday for them. So they brought me down to the start of the TT and followed me along some of the route. I signed up for only £4 which seems like quite a steal considering the route is marshaled (more on that later…), you’re timed, and you get a push start (also more on that later…). I was number 16 on the night which meant I was starting at 19:31, as there is a minute between each rider, starting at 19:15.

Not quite pinned on enough, needed Mum's help!
I don’t own a TT specific road bike, but I wished I did after some of the bikes I saw! The success to a TT is to be as aerodynamic as possible. This results in a change of equipment from what you’d normally use in a road race. Ideally, you’d have a TT bike, skin suit, shoe covers, and an aero helmet. All I had were shoe covers and some clip on TT bars, which help make you more aerodynamically positioned. It would have to do!

I warmed up by heading down to the starting line, which was down the road a bit, and just heading up and down the road beside until I felt warmed up and reasonably ready, again not knowing exactly what I was doing. One young guy had even brought his turbo trainer so he could have a proper and structure warm up in the car park, quite intimidating! Once I felt sufficiently warm, I rolled up to the start line and realised there was still 8 minutes till I started and that if I stood around till then, I’d get pretty cold given the chilly wind, despite wearing my jacket for the warm up. So I just went off again down the road for a few minutes and came back with 3 minutes before my start time. While I was waiting I drank most of my sports drink, leaving just a few mouthfuls. I again wasn’t sure if I’d need it and looking around pretty much everyone had no bidons. I decided to keep mine, just in case I was parched, it’s only a few extra grams! I also had a gel that would see me through the TT. Again, it probably wasn’t necessary but I didn’t want to take any chances.

Eyeing up my minute rider!
Eager to start.
One minute before I was due to the start, the rider in front of me went on her way, I was determined to catch her, but again didn’t know if that was possible over such a short course. So off she went and I would be next. At this stage I was getting quite nervous from the unknown, not from the pressure to perform or anything. 30 seconds from my time, the pusher steward holds on to your bicycle so you can start with without having to clip in and the chance of messing it up that comes with it. Again having never done a TT, I had never had a pusher and didn't know the knack of setting off. So when I was eventually told to go, I went to accelerate and the pusher released, the feeling was very weird to me and I panicked and pull my brakes! Thankfully I didn’t fall or anything, I was just slightly delayed, much to my Dad’s enjoyment, who was taking pictures of me starting.

Being held by the pusher, I feel sorry for him having to hold me!

Screwing up the start!
I was off. I had read again and again that you should build into a TT and pace yourself. While I was planning on following that plan, I was having none of it once I had started, partly due to the fact I had a strong tailwind for the first couple of kilometers. I got comfortable in my TT position and started to lay down some power from my large frame. Coming up to the first roundabout, the marshals were ready for me to come though but unfortunately a driver decided to pull out of a driveway just before the roundabout and proceeded to block me from flying through the roundabout and I had to come to a stop behind which was very annoying. I lost precious momentum and needed to spend additional energy getting back up to speed. At the roundabout, I also turned into the strong wind, which was now a severe headwind.

I was following this straight road for 8km, before hitting a roundabout and following it back, so I knew I had to dial back my effort or I’d be exploding very quickly! I found a comfortable cadence and gearing and went about just powering done the road at around 90% of my maximum heart rate. My parents told me later on that my cadence was very high compared to the other riders doing the TT, but it was comfortable to me so I stuck with it. This was where experience would help; in a TT it’s just you. In a road race, you’re riding against other riders, if they cycle a bit faster, so do you, they’re your incentive to push yourself harder. In a TT you just play mental games with yourself all the time, “Is this fast enough?” “Could I go faster?” “Why am I doing this, it hurts.”. It takes real mental strength to get the maximum out of you. As I progressed down the road to the roundabout, I could see I was catching my minute rider, which acted as an incentive to me, like a carrot on the end of a stick, and it made me push harder.

A kilometer from the roundabout, there was a little sharp climb followed by some rolling lumps, nothing serious, but another thing to push up that heart rate close to the red-zone… I took them slow and steady and just worked my way up them, eventually reaching the roundabout and starting the homeward leg of the TT, and with it came a lovely tail wind!

There was now 5km to the finish, as the finish was on the road I had just come down. So I decided to now give it everything and arrive empty. I caught my minute rider a kilometer after the roundabout and continued to power home, thinking if I go faster now, I can stop earlier! My speed along the final straight was up around 45kph, which is scary if you’re holding on to some wimpy TT clip on bars! Gradually, I could see the hi-vis vests of the marshals at the finish line and stood up to sprint to the finish line. At this stage my left calf decided to just seize and cramp up, but I had managed it to the line.

Driving to the line.
A hard effort!
My official time was 24:30 minutes, which put me in ninth place on the night. I was very pleased with this, given my inexperience, lack of proper TT equipment and a few hold ups on the course. I felt reasonably OK physically after it, although two days on I’m feeling it! Hopefully over my 8 weeks here I’ll be doing it every week in the hopes of improving my time trialing, which would stand to me later on in my cycling endeavours.

Very winded!
Thanks to the marshals of the event and to my parents for bringing me down and supporting me.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Tour de Connemara - 24/5/2014

The Tour de Connemara was my first significant ride since my exam period started, back at the start of April. Because of the exams I wasn’t sure how I would perform due to the 7 weeks of stress, lack of exercise, and Centra chicken fillet rolls that accompany 10 Engineering exams in your final year. I had tried to fit in some rides, but they were short and not very intense. This led to some apprehension about the ride!

I had signed up to the Tour de Connemara more from a nostalgic point of view as the route went though many areas I had spent my childhood summers in. For the first 16 years of my life, I had spent some period of my summers caravanning in Acton’s campsite on the coast in Claddaghduff, around a 20-minute drive from Clifden, so I knew almost every part of the route from excursions during these summers. My Mum and Dad also came down for the Tour as they too had spent summers in the Connemara and enjoyed spending time in the West.

The beach of my childhood
The Tour isn’t a competitive race like the ones I’ve been blogging about, but a sportive. A sportive involves a mass start before following a route which has numerous food stops where people can stop and refuel before continuing on, at whatever pace suits them with no time limits to be made. I’ve done many sportives and find them a great way to explore a country, meet new people and developing endurance. For this particular sportive though, I decided to really go for it and try and finish in the front group. I wanted to do this because my fitness needed a good shock to get it back in gear after such a long exam period.

My parents and I had headed out to Connemara the day before the race so we could spend a day setting up the tents in Acton’s campsite and wondering around Claddaghduff. This included a bone-numbing swim (which my Mum and I regretted immediately!), walking along the coast to Sweeney’s pub for a pint, making friends with a cow and enjoying cold pasta bolognaise on the point of Omey Island in the freezing wind!  While all this doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening, I thoroughly appreciated it as it brought back great memories. After our fun evening we returned to tents for the night which, given the blowing wind, was not very enjoyable. But nonetheless, I was eager for the next day to begin and to get cycling.

A cold dip!
Making friends!
Walking to the pub
The next morning came after a restless windy night in the tents but the sun was shining which was a change from last year, where it was incredibly wet and cold. Now it was just cold and windy but most importantly, dry! We had our breakfast, which consisted of a very sophisticated cereal and milk given our setup, before heading off to the race. I had decided to wrap up warm because of the cold wind and if necessary change when I got to the start if the conditions changed. Mum and Dad decided to break down camp after I had started off, which was great for me, as I didn’t have to do it! They would then try and meet me at various points on the route to snap a few photos and cheer me on.

The joys of camping and cycling!
One last look before getting down to business!
We arrived at the Station House in Clifden where the race was starting. The buzz in the start area was fantastic and everyone there was chatty and friendly. Another great thing about sportives is how easily they can be accessed. At competitive races, everyone is lean and mean, and looking at you with an eye of competition, thinking how to get one up on you. At sportives, all shapes and sizes are participating, everyone is a friend, and we’re all there for one purpose, to enjoy cycling in the mesmerising scenery of Connemara. Competition has its place and I relish it, but sometimes just enjoying cycling is so simplistically fun.

Pre-race tactics
The route today was a lumpy 140km anticlockwise loop of Connemara starting in Clifden. We would head down to Roundstone, across to Cashel, up to Maam’s Cross, over Maam Valley, across to Leelaun, along Killary Harbour, pass Kylemore Abbey and finally though Letterfrack before finishing in Clifden. While there were no significant climbs on the route, there were numerous short sharp climbs, but given momentum, could be easily handled. Nothing my large frame couldn’t handle! The wind on the day would be quite significant though. A strong Northerly wind would affect us for a large proportion of the course. Theoretically, since we were cycling in a loop, for all the headwind we’ll have, we should have the same amount of tailwind, but as all cyclists know, it doesn’t quite work out like that!

Ready to go!
After signing in (and receiving a lovely training jacket), I got my gear ready and soon I was standing in the start area waiting for the Grand Départe! As we got closer to the start time, the buzz intensified. Even the inflatable Skoda sign collapsing didn’t dampen spirits, if anything we all got a laugh out of it! After it had been reflated, we were signaled to start. I had wormed my way to the front of the start area, as I knew the fast front group would form quickly and I wanted to be in it. As we rolled out of Clifden, I could see a few riders shooting off at a very fast pace, including Aidan Reade in his Irish National Champion gear. I was apprehensive to jump onto them as they were going very quick, very early and I felt I needed time to warm up. If I pushed too hard too early, I was sure I’d pay for it later on, especially as I hadn’t done a long spin for nearly two months. So I played it cool and waited for someone a little less fast.

An unexpected disaster!
After around 3km, a Killarny rider passed me going at a decent pace so I decided to latch on and we eventually caught the fast riders who had shot off but had since slowed down slightly. So 6 of us formed a nice group that worked well together each taking our turn on the front before someone else coming through. It was obvious that everyone had some racing experience, as it was all very smooth. One of the riders was a guy called Chris training for the Wild Atlantic Way Challenge. Chris had a great and chirpy character and was cranking out the jokes that were a great was to pass the time. I learnt that Chris and group of people were using the Tour de Connemara as a training spin to get ready for the Challenge, which included old rugby legends.

Rolling out
So the 6 of us continued to ride along till we hit Roundstone where we received a warm welcome of applause from the residents, it made me feel like quite the pro! Soon after, we were joined by a very large group of around 30 riders who had caught up with us. This was good as there were now more riders to share the load of riding on the front into the significant headwind we had from Cashel up to Maam’s Cross. Everyone in the group decided to skip the first food stop, which came after 40km, which suited me, as I was feeling good and fresh. Until Maam’s Cross nothing particularly exciting happened, a few riders seemed to be quite excited and every time they came through, the pace would shoot up, but a few shouts from the wiser riders calmed them down.

Coming up to Maam’s Cross the head wind became particularly strong which cut down our pace. After crossing Maam’s Cross, we had to work our way up the valley that led to Maam Village and the second food stop of the day. The climb was the only significant one of the day so I knew I could go reasonably hard on it and not worry too much. Coming up the foot I found myself coming to the front of the lead group to do my turn. I pulled off thinking the next rider would come through to do his turn, but no one came through! I probably should have slowed down to let someone come through but I was happy to be leading the group up the climb so I set the pace up. Coming up to the top, a young rider from the Nicolas Roche Performance Team jumped away and sprinted to the finish. I presume he had been using the sportive as a training ride and was putting in a decent effort as he soon slowed down after cresting the top. Coming across the top I asked around if we were stopping at the next food stop, which came at the bottom of the descent we were starting, and the general consensus was that we were which I was happy about as I was running low on fluids and bursting for the toilet!

After the fun descent, we pulled into the food stop were I proceeded to rush to the toilet, then fill up my bidons. I looked around and saw everyone was sitting down and getting comfortable with some tea and cakes! I was hoping that people would get going pretty quickly after stocking up and relieving bladders, but it didn’t look like it. I saw Chris getting ready to ride and he said that he couldn’t stop for long as he seizes up if he does. I asked if I could ride with him and of course he had no problem with that. His friend Mike, who was also training for the Challenge, joined us as well. We thought that if we took it easy enough the front group would eventually catch up with us and we’d join up with them.

So off we went. The section we had just started down to Leelaun was again into a severe head wind being funneled down the valley. While we weren't racing along, we weren't taking it too easy either. We were joined by another rider, which helped with the load sharing. There was some spectacular scenery along this valley with mountains pushing up on each side of us. We eventually started the short descent into Leelaun before riding along Killary Habour for a few kilometers. The views along Killary Harbour were once again stunning and beautiful. Our pace continued to increase along the Harbour until we were almost at full pace again, so much for waiting for the fast group to catch us!

Coming to the end of Killary Harbour, we had to do a little climb to get out of the Harbour were Mike and the other rider proceeded to drop Chris and myself. Coming over the top I managed to crawl back onto Mike and the other rider with Chris also eventually getting back on. The next section was reasonably flat as we rode beside Kylemore Lough, we also had a tail wind which helped a lot. At this stage we had joined up with the 80km route so we were no longer the only cyclists on the road. As we reached Kylemore Abbey my Mum and Dad were cheering at the side of the road. My Dad snapped a few pictures and unintentionally snapped a hilarious photo of a rider cycling along eating a choc-ice! Which was well received on the Facebook event page!

The famous choc-ice photo!
We decided to skip the last food stop at Kylemore Abbey as we were only 20km from the end and flying. At this stage we lost Chris and our mystery rider, Chris saying his legs had turned to jelly! So Mike and myself continued to push on and I really had to dig deep to keep up with Mike, especially on the numerous little climbs we had to deal with where he was very strong. With 8km to go, I cracked and couldn’t hold Mike’s wheel anymore. So off Mike cycled into the distance, as I withdrew into the pain cave and worked my way to the end of the course.
Pushing to the end
The last few kilometers were rather enjoyable because as you get closer to the end you get a little bit of extra energy to keep you going! My parents eventually past me telling me to hurry up, which wasn’t well received by me! They went up the road and stopped to take a few more photos just before I came into the finish of the course.

Almost finished!
Rolling into the finishing area was great as all the cars were stopped so that I could roll without having to stop, again making you feel very pro! Upon crossing the line, I received a little participation medal, which was nice, and was given a well needed sports drink. My parents followed me in to congratulate me and take a few more pictures in the finish area. I thanked Mike for the ride and Chris rolled in soon after us and I thanked him as well before heading back to the car and clean up for the trip home.

Overall, I really enjoyed my day at the Tour de Connemara. While it wasn’t competitive, I was very chuffed to be the second person to finish the 140km route, after Mike. It gave me some confidence about my fitness before my return to racing. Hopefully it won’t be too hard for me to regain my race fitness. The general consensus was that it was a great and fun day out. The event itself was very well organised, with rolling road closures, well-stocked food stations and friendly staff. The rain managed to hold off all day, which was great as well. I’ll certainly be back next year!

I big thank you to my parents, Peter and Wendy, for all their work and support over the weekend.

Stava File

Monday, 31 March 2014

Ben McKenna Memorial Race - A3 Race Report

Big Ambitions!
I had big ambitions for the Ben McKenna memorial race this weekend. I had decided to treat this as my first big target race since moving up to A3, more to see how I could perform when I put the best preparation possible into effect and what I was capable of. Having consulted our in-house pro rider Andrew Stanley about how to best prepare for a race in the week leading up to it, I was feeling confident, fresh and strong on the day of the race. I was feeling particularly de-stressed because my brother, Simon, had agreed to drive me to the race and watch. Simon isn’t the biggest fan of watching live cycling as I once dragged him along to watch the Vuelta a España when we were on holidays in Biarritz. As he describes it, “You just stand around for 2 hours in 40 degree heat on the side of a mountain, then the peloton whizzes by and that’s it!” It was amazing I managed to convince him to come out to our race!

Getting ready to race
The course consisted of 4 laps of a hilly 19.5km circuit. It was considered hilly because of the final hill up to the line, at 2.5km with a 4% average gradient, it would be substantial for someone of my stature… Within the hill, there were a few significant ramps where the gradient kicked up for a few 100m, requiring a standing effort and an expression of pain. Other than the hill the course was relatively flat and easy for me to deal with. I knew that in the finale that I wouldn’t be able to feature as the mountain goats would come to the fore and simply ride away from me on the hill. I had decided to go for a different goal: try and win the combativity award, which is awarded to the most aggressive rider of the day. This would require much attacking by me and trying to instigate breakaways from the peloton for the majority of the race. I had set my eyes on this prize earlier on in the week and was feeling both mentally and physically ready for the challenge. The weather had been showery that morning but by the time the race was starting, the showers had gone and the sky was clearing up.

I was riding with Bennett Thomson and we had discussed many tactics before agreeing on one. The race started on the finish line, so at the very top of the hill before rolling out and shooting down the descent. We had agreed that when we were arriving into the bottom of the climb on the 1st lap, we would attack and hope that the 2 of us could work together get a gap and then work our way up the climb, maybe bringing a few guys across with us and try to hold a gap over the peloton. How naïve we were!
Bennett and myself ready to race!
When the peloton rolled out, Bennett and I were initially in bad positions, starting near the back of the group, which would result in extra effort being made by us to get to the front of the bunch. By the bottom of the decent before the flat section of the course, I had managed to get to the front of the bunch and was ready to win that combativity award. So I decided to immediately to attack, throwing our pre-discussed tactics out the window in the process! With numerous Juniors in the bunch, the aggression was very high, as they were all vying for selections into development squads. This meant I had some riders to work with as we all tried to get something going. I couldn’t believe the strength of some of the Juniors, riders who were half my size were easily keeping up with me or simply powering away from me, unbelievable stuff!

This continued until the base of the hill. Bennett popped up on my shoulder and our pre-race tactics were ago. We drilled it into the bottom of the hill, and then everything went wrong. We simply couldn’t hold onto the pace we had set and then everyone else starting creeping past us. I lost Bennett and proceed to withdraw into the world of suffering that is climbing at your limit. It said that to be a pro cyclist you need to be able to suffer with the best and then suffer some more. I never participated in a sport that requires so much consistent pain in order to succeed. And even if you get fitter and stronger, you just go faster and the pain is still there. I often ask myself why I’m doing this when you’re struggling up a climb and hating every moment, and yet I find myself coming back for more. I could just about see the skinny Juniors attacking off the front of the peloton as I proceeded to slip down the bunch till I was dangling of the back of the group. I really gave everything just to hang on by the skin of my teeth.

This effort really affected me mentally. This was only the first of 4 ascents up the hill and I barely hung on. How was I going to hang on and make it to the end? Was I having a bad day? Was my fitness up to the standard of A3? I also knew that there was now no way I could win the combativity award. Going over the top of the climb the whole peloton was lined out in front of me. I knew if I could get back into bunch I could shelter and rest until the next ascent. On the descent down to the flat section of the circuit, I really had to floor it just to get back onto the bunch, reaching speeds of 70kmh, thrilling stuff! I didn’t know what happened to Bennett as I was too focussed on my own situation to think about him. After a few km and with a few other riders, we managed to get back onto the bunch. I stayed sheltered in the bunch for a while and recovered from the horrible effort of the climb. I found that in no time, I was feeling good once again, both physically and mentally, and willing to do some work on the front. I was told a group of 6-7 riders had gone up the road on the climb and had a gap on the main peloton. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do anything on the climb when we arrived to it, so I decided to use the flat section of the course as some practice for other races.
Pulling the peloton along
Having mentally recovered, I decided to be aggressive once again, as there was nothing to lose from it. So I hit the front again and attacked before being reeled back in. This continued until the second ascent of the hill. I tried to be near the front again so that I could slip down through the bunch as they crawl past around me. I once again entered to the pain cave and just rode and rode. I was feeling slightly better this climb, but it hurt nonetheless. Again, by the time we made it over the top, the bunch was strung out and I was dangling off the back. I managed to once again get back onto the bunch on the descent and recover surprisingly well. Once I was recovered I made my up to the top of the peloton again and continued to attack and pull the peloton. I should have been keeping my powder dry for the efforts up the hill but I thought what’s the point if I’m just going to be spat out the back anyway? So I attacked and drove on the flat section of the course to see what I was capable of and how far I could push myself. I once again led the bunch into the base of the hill so I would have some space to slide down the peloton as we climbed up the hill. This ascent was the worst of the day as I was feeling the efforts I’d been putting in on the flats and I had to dig deep to survive this one.

I got a stich near the top of the climb which felt like an exploded kidney! With me dangling off the back again and having a searing pain in my side, I was close to calling it quits. I was also overheating as the sun had decided to come out and I was wearing a base layer which, at the start line, had seemed like a good idea, but was now a poor choice. I again found the mental strength to push on and not give up, probably due to my pride. So I bombed it down the descent and got back onto the tail of the peloton. I was surprised again by my recovery as I was feeling ready to attack again. I knew that on the next ascent up the hill I would blow up, so I decided to give everything up to the bottom of the climb before peeling off and working my way to the top. So I gave a really big attack and had a gap for a while but eventually the peloton caught back on to me, why couldn’t they just let me go?! I knew then that attacks wouldn’t work so I decided to work for the good of the peloton and try to catch the breakaway by giving my all to the base of the climb. We could still see the breakaway around 30 seconds up the road. So I got into my aero position and put everything I had into bridging the gap. I’m sure some riders were confused at my actions but I might as well be nice before I blow up. So at the bottom of the climb I peeled off having down what I could and proceeded to lightly cycle up the climb, which was much more enjoyable for me! (It turns out the group of riders in front of us were dropped riders from the A1/A2 race, which started before us, so all my effort was for nothing!)
Reaching the finish line at a cruise!
When I got to the finish line Simon was waiting for me with a look of confusion: “Where were you?!” I explained what had happened and my actions and he seemed to understand. I was thoroughly f**cked from the days effort. In hindsight, I should have seen that the hill would have been too much for me to handle in a race and that I should be targeting flatter races with smaller more numerous climbs which I could handle. I learnt a lot about my mental capacity and recuperation while discovering that I had encouraging recovery abilities after serious efforts. The fact I could hold on to a peloton on the hill also gives me encouragement for the future. If I can lose some more weight, maybe I could be attacking on the climbs.

Bennett had exploded on the first ascent of the hill but continued to complete the course with a small group of riders, coming in 5 minutes after me. In fairness, he had cycled out to the race and had to cycle home unfortunately. Simon’s car is minuscule and could barely fit me and my bike!

I’ll take a rest for the upcoming week as I’ve been racing for the last four weeks and could do with an extended break. I also have some serious exams coming up which require studying so it might be a while before I’m back writing race reports. Thanks to everyone for the encouragement and comments on these write ups, I didn’t know I had it in me.

Please check back in a couple of weeks!

Reasonably satisfied with my race.
Technical Information:
Canyon Aeroad CF 7.0 Di2

 Base layer
Waterproof Shoe Covers
‘Lucky’ Bandana

Special thanks to my brother for the lift out, taking photos and being around to help out.