Winds of Change

“These are the hard kilometers, the ones that count.”

Those were the prophetic words of encouragement from my trainer about the difficulty of training through winter, as the weather slowly deteriorates and there are no organized weekend road races to help focus the mind.

Andri’s advice came back to me this Saturday as I battled against the howling South Easter, known locally as the Cape Doctor. Like all medicine, it’s tough to swallow. As it blows, it blasts away smog and pollution, leaving fresh clean air and draping the mountain tops in thick duvets of white cloud. The beauty is tough to appreciate though when you’re slogging at the pedals to try and get through it.

This training ride was unusual for me for a number of reasons. Firstly, I don’t normally do any road riding after the Argus until better weather arrives in Spring and thoughts turn towards Die Burger. Also, at 95km it’s a much longer route than I normally ride for training. I’ve wanted to ride from home to Franschhoek for a while, but probably due to the longer distance have never got around to it. Now, with the need to keep my training up and do longer rides it seemed like the obvious choice. The final unusual aspect was going riding mid afternoon on a hot and windy day. But over the four or five days of a Paris-Brest-Paris you don’t get to choose the weather, so I need to get used to riding in whatever conditions nature throws down. That’s not to mention the idea of doing the even longer London-Edinburgh-London in 2013, which has only recently occurred to me.

Without the water tables and other support facilities of an organised 95km ride, it’s inevitable that you need to stop at the very least to get extra water. That’s fine though, audax riding is all about self sufficiency, and your target speeds are much lower than road races. A good target speed for audax riding is an average of 20km, which allows plenty of time for stops. So it was an expected and much welcome relief when I pulled into the Pick and Pay car park having battled down the wind into Franschhoek. As it turned out, I should probably also have bought some food along with water and Powerade. I hadn’t really factored in the mid-day ride, and not eating much in the morning. My energy levels seem low already at present, so without enough fuel on board I, paid the price badly on the way back.

All was initially fine as I headed back. A graphic example of the strong wind was the difference in speed as I left Franschoek. On the way in I had been struggling to average 15km/h, on the way out I was coasting along at 40km/h hardly needing to turn the pedals. Trouble set in though around the 70km mark, just before turning opposite Allez Bleu and heading up through Pniel and over Helshoogte again. The engine stuttered and my legs started to cramp badly. I’m not quite sure how I managed to keep pedaling up through the pass. At times, I was on the verge of quitting and calling home for a lift. Fortunately, it turned out to be a considerably easier climb coming from the Boschendal side of the hill, and somehow I crested the top and freewheeled back into Stellenbosch.

I was pretty sure the wind would also be at my face again on the last few kilometers home, so I pulled into a garage for an extra water bottle just in case. My neck and back totally seized up as I dismounted, I guess from being hunched over punching into the wind. Setting off slowly and stretching to try and loosen up, I did at least discover a new favourite cycling snack though: dried mangos. Nice and soft to chew, sweet and tasty without being as sickly as most of the energy bars. It didn’t add enough energy to really help the last painful few kilometers home, but it made me feel quite a lot brighter for a while as I cycled through backstreets of the lovely old town.

The final ignominy was having to get off and walk a hundred meters or so of Yonder Hill, something I haven’t had to do since my first year of cycling. I was beat though, and at least after that I managed to stay in the saddle for the last small climb up Irene Avenue to home.

All in all, a ride that I will remember more for the lessons painfully learned than for being an enjoyable few hours in the saddle. At least my average speed of 18.6 km/h was close to what I need to achieve on audax rides, I just need to be able to manage that over much longer distances, and have enough energy to enjoy the scenery more in the process. Andri wasn’t wrong about these being the hard kilometers.

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The long road to Paris

“What’s wrong with you?”  

This was my brother-in-law Hendri’s short and typically to the point response from half inside the fridge where he was fetching us extra beers.

That was in December 2011, and I’d just mentioned to him an idea that I’d stumbled across whilst reading a thread on The Hub. The gist of the thread was what you were most proud of in 2011. In amongst the training logs and race honours was a post from GuyP about completing 1230km of cycling in the 2011 edition of the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP).

Sorry, what? 1230km on a bike, surely that’s a misprint, or maybe you’re allowed a couple of months to complete it. Nope, you get just 90 hours to ride it.

It was too late for me though – the seed had already been planted almost before I’d finished reading the short post. I was already wondering what it took to complete such a mammoth ride, and whether I’d be made of the right stuff to manage it.

Over the next few days and weeks I devoured every article I could find on the PBP: official pages; rider’s accounts of their events; and endless lists of suggested bikes and equipment for budding randonneurs. They’re not called racers, because this isn’t a race. It’s a solo and self reliant tour. There is no winner, and no one really cares about the time you complete it in, just a list of those hardy souls who manage to drag their bodies into Paris after almost four days of cycling. And I have huge respect for those who do. The adverse heat and wind of a 105km fun ride a couple of weekends ago nearly wiped me out, and gave me a sharp reminder of what a foolhardy and momentous challenge I was slowly luring myself into.

But where would be the fun in an adventure that was sufficiently easy you could be reasonably certain of success when first starting out. And as well as the immense personal challenge, there’s also the thrill of possibly taking part in the oldest organised bike ride still being held, and adding your name to the list of anciens who have completed it since 1891.

The word ‘possibly’ is very significant in that last paragraph. For entering this event requires far more than just waiting around and staying reasonably fit for 3.5 years until the next event is held in 2015. In the preceding 12 months to the ride a series of four brevets must successfully be completed, at distances of 200, 300, 400 and 600km. Even then, a place is not guaranteed as space is limited to around 6,000 riders and if over-subscribed, you suffer the cruel blow of falling victim to your country’s quota after all those endless hours of training. These are realities I guess you just have to accept – neither qualification, entry or completion are certainties.

So there you have it –  to paraphrase Hendri’s words, I must be mad! But mentally at least, I’ve started down the long road which, with a large helping of good fortune, may hopefully see me in Paris in 2015, lining up alongside randonneurs from across the globe, sharing nervous banter before the off.

As well as documenting my thoughts, ideas, training, equipment, and every other aspect of my cycling between now and then, I’m hoping that writing this blog will also act as my conscience: keeping me honest if my focus or commitment wavers along the way.

Finally, I hope above all that there is some mileage left in the mantra I’ve so often chanted to drag me to the end of a ride when the energy has gone and dehydration, cramps, wind, hills or other factors have beaten all but the willpower out of me.

Just keep pedalling ….

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