If at first you don’t succeed …

The 99er has been my nemesis race since I first attempted it two seasons ago. Both past attempts have seen me finish cramped and walking, and driving home deflated and spent.

So the Friday before this year’s ride was always going to be a nervous time. The extra 15km added to this year’s ride really didn’t help. The brutal Vissershoek climb seemed more daunting than ever – I just could not envision staying in the saddle with a tough 115km already in my legs.

As it turned out, facing that reality proved to be the essential step in slaying the ghosts of those past attempts. Along with my usual pre-race preparation, I also crunched a few numbers to try and determine an optimal race plan. The interesting part was that walking up Vissershoek and Odendaal Street didn’t have a disastrous impact on my overall race time compared to climbing up them slowly in the saddle – although steep, neither are particularly long climbs. On the Tour de PPA in January I went off very hard from the start to try and catch a reasonably fast bunch to help ride out the rolling hills and wind with a decent average speed. I cramped at the end, but had already done enough work to finish with a satisfying time. It seemed crazy to be considering a similar strategy for the longer and tougher 99er, but numbers don’t lie. Every way I re-worked the plan, my best race time came down to starting fast and hanging on as long as I could, even if it meant some walking on the final hills. Putting in a fast 60km as I managed on the Tour de PPA, would give me a chance at a similar race time to last year despite the longer course. Every kilometer further I could hold the pace would get me closer to a 5 hour time, which seemed far too elusive to dream of achieving.

Apart from having a much more tangible race plan, I made a few other changes to my usual routine – peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches were on top of my cycling kit on the passengers seat as I left the house at 4:45am to head to the race. Normally I can’t eat much so early in the morning, but that costs energy in the latter stages of a race – so I munched away on them during the drive. I’d also only packed Perpetuem, favouring two plain water bottles and just one of energy drink, but mixed stronger. To replace the other energy drink, I’d also packed two energy bars and two gel packs. Hopefully the food and drink changes would help avoid the energy depletion I’d suffered over the last 25km of the Tour de PPA ride.

It was still dark throughout most of the time I was registering, getting ready, and visiting the typically disgusting toilets that always accompany races. Having a race plan definitely gave me something to focus on as we filed into the start chutes. Get to the front, go off hard, stay with the whatever other riders that also started off fast, and work to try and either form a bunch or catch one of the earlier groups. Being at the tail of the start times in group T doesn’t give you many chances at finding a bunch – realistically there might be one or two in your group or groups behind, but miss those and you’ll be battling the wind and rolling hills solo. Dark heavy skies greeted us as we headed out of Durbanville onto the first sets of rollers. It seemed to take forever to actually settle into a group. After 25km I was still pushing a punishing pace for such a long ride, but as we swung onto the R304 and sheets of rain started falling I finally managed to catch up with a group that stuck together. It was nice and fast too – my computer was clocking a nice average of between 28 and 30km/h, although the wet roads and falling rain made it seem like we were doing that in a shower cubicle.

As we approached the 66km water stop, I realised my plan was going to need some hasty patching. The cool riding in the rain meant I still had plenty of water, and so far the legs felt good despite the pace. Energy drink was another story, almost out. I knew ahead lay tough rolling hills, and quite probably wind. If I stopped to refuel, I’d lose this bunch – and most likely there would be no more behind me. Feeling very relieved I’d over stuffed my jersey pockets, I reached for the first energy bar and decide to make do with gels and snacks.

Several times over the next few kilometers the bunch nearly split as it passed riders, turned corners etc. It really took concentration to see the splits and make sure you accelerated to bridge the gaps. Finally, just after we past the third water station around the 90km mark, I was done – a split happened, and I had nothing left to fight back with. I sat up, took a proper look at the lovely views of rolling farmland, swapped my water bottles over, had another gel, and relaxed into the last few solo kilometers of the ride. I was smiling though. My race plan had worked better than my most optmistic calculations: 90km clocked in not much over 3 hours; 100km came up in well under 4 hours; and I passed the argus distance of 108k in 4:06, even having stopped for that water and energy drink top-up. Even walking up Vissershoek didn’t diminish my smile – this year it was part of the plan you see.

I finally crossed the line in 5:05, not a fast time by any standard, but for me an extremely satisfying result – 15 minutes quicker than last year despite being 15km longer. Next year my race plan will include cycling up those last two hills … maybe.

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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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The madness begins

I guess like all good stories, one should really start at the beginning. In my case, the cycling madness began back in January 2008, with the somewhat unexpected acquisition of my first (and still current) road bike, “Merry“:

It might seem more correct to say the trouble actually started in September of the year earlier when my brother-in-law entered me for The Cape Argus bike ride, but that wouldn’t strictly be true. At the time I was living in the UK, with just one bike: my trusty and much loved Marin soft-tail mountain bike which would soon be crated up with our other belongings for our move to Somerset West in the Western Cape. I really had no plan to do more road riding than was strictly necessary to be fit for the 108km ride, after completion of which we’d get back to the traffic free trails and mountains. Fate had other plans though and through a combination of shipping & customs delays, our container including said mountain bike were quite literally stuck at sea. With less than eight weeks remaining to train before the ride, something had to be done. I bit the bullet, went into the nearest bike shop, and asked them for something entry level to train for the Argus on. As luck (or good salesmanship) would have it, they had a 2007 model Merida 903 on offer and in my size – Merry. As I left the shop I fully expected it to be a short lived relationship, ending up either gathering dust in the shed or being sold on Gumtree. Half an hour later, as I was dismounting for the third time to walk up yet another hill, I was even more certain road bikes were not for me. The gearing was killing me. Even standing my legs and lungs just couldn’t push me up even the smallest of my local hills. And that was bad news – because where I live we’re surrounded by hills, most of them anything but small. It was beyond my comprehension why anyone would build a bike like this – where were all those easy gears that let you spin your legs into a blur to fire up even the most brutal slope. No, this road bike lark really wouldn’t be my thing.

Ha! Famous last words, little by little over the next few weeks with a steady flow of kilometers under Merry’s wheels, an unexpected thing happened. I started to look forward to my evening rides, and, even more bizarrely, I started looking forward to those hills. They still killed me, but I found myself walking less and less, and eventually hardly at all. Instead, a puffing flushed sense of triumph greeted me at the top of each hill. The bug had bitten. Road biking would be my thing after all. And all because our shippers couldn’t deliver on time. There are still times when I curse that, but overall I guess I should thank them for their tardiness. 

Anyone looking closely at the above picture will notice that Merry has had a few modifications since her initial purchase:

  • SRAM Rival 50/34 compact crank – because even though I’ve come to love road biking, I still miss spinning those easier gears on hills
  • Tri-bracket – what can I say, Cape summer’s are hot and I sweat a lot. Two bottles are very often not enough, and I don’t like backpacks when out on the road. They seem to get in the way of that wonderful light and free feeling you get when belting down a hill at 70kph.
  • Easton wheels – total extravagance both on a bike and rider of my level, but one day maybe I’ll be able to do them justice. Until then, I’ll enjoy how light they are and how quickly they spin

These are pretty minor though compared to the whole raft of changes planned for Merry once this summer’s road rides are out of the way and winter training begins. Check back for details of the changes and the reason for them in future.

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