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.

As sweet as Ti

“Be a Measurer”

Came the words of amused encouragement from Yoli, shortly after we moved in together. We’d bought a blackboard from IKEA for the kitchen in our newly rented apartment and I was busy hanging it, spirit level in hand. She wasn’t used to anyone actually making sure things were level or centred, and to this day enjoys poking fun at me whenever I reach for the measure to a DIY task.

It was payback time this week though, when I appointed Yoli chief measurer – of me! I’m not sure she had ever held a spirit level before, and the irony of her doing so wasn’t lost on either of us after that fondly remembered proclamation all those years ago.

Measuring for a bike frame it seems is quite a lengthy process, eigth steps in all each needing to be done a few times to get a good average. Yoli did a patient and sterling job, aided by the excellent instructions at Competitive Cyclist to ease the process

Next step was feeding all these in and getting some actual frame geometries.

Competitive Fit (cm) Eddy Fit French Fit
Seat tube range c-c: 53.9 – 54.4 55.1 – 55.6 56.8 – 57.3
Seat tube range c-t: 55.6 – 56.1 56.8 – 57.3 58.5 – 59.0
Top tube length: 54.5 – 54.9  54.5 – 54.9 55.7 – 56.1
Stem Length: 11.2 – 11.8 10.1 – 10.7 10.3 – 10.9
BB-Saddle Position: 73.4 – 75.4 72.6 – 74.6 70.9 – 72.9
Saddle-Handlebar:  53.2 – 53.8 54.0 – 54.6 55.7 – 56.3
Saddle Setback: 5.2 – 5.6 6.4 – 6.8 5.9 – 6.3

At this stage, I have to confess the above are something of a jumble of numbers to me. All I can really say is they feel “not far off” i.e. some of the key dimensions, like BB to Saddle top aren’t that far off my current frame. That’s where I hope the skill and experience of my frame builder, Justin Burls, will step in and save me from my own ignorance. A long conversation with Justin today has certainly eased my nervousness at translatiing the numbers accurately into a a design that matches my ideas.  
You see that is the point of this whole excercise – a beautiful, hand crafted bike frame that is totally customised to my dimensions and aspirations. And not just any bike frame, a Ti frame built and welded in Russia by former submarine engineers. I almost feel like it should come etched with some bold iconic soviet symbols to celebrate it’s birthplace – a hammer and sickle maybe?
As I type this my email box has just pinged at me, and I see that Justin has already come back with his first draft design. The PDF has hardly loaded before I’ve already mentally translated the CAD outline into metal form, mounted up and am imagining racing down the kilometers
Patience will have to rule for now though, before we can take that inaugural ride together there’s a lot to be done, and first up I need to print out the design and go compare it to Merry. Time to be a measurer again.

Feed Me Seymour!

RIP Die Wingerd Breakfast Ride. Gone but not forgotten

I heard with sadness this week that there will be no Die Wingerd Breakfast ride this year. Not only was it the closest PPA organised ride to my front door, but it was also the first timed fun ride/race that I took part in after we moved to South Africa. My fond memories are not just losing the convenient pleasure of being able to cycle to the start of a ride. Nor are they, as a fellow hubber commented, just because I’ll miss the after-ride burgers included in your ride fee, although damn they were good. But that does at least get us towards the point of this topic: food. And that is at the heart of why I will miss the Die Wingerd ride.   

I’d been riding the road bike for about a month into 2008, but somehow had failed to pick up on the vital concepts of adequate hydration and nutrition. The 40km mark of the Die Wingerd Breakfast Ride handed me my ass in a big way and cured me of that oversight forever. God knows what I was thinking only putting one water bottle on my bike, and not filling up at the second water stop, but as we turned into the strong Cape South Easter with 20km to go everything died. It seemed an eternity to the water stop 5km or so from the finish, and I can still remember pretty much every agonsing and slow pedal stroke it took me to get there. My speedo never clocked above 12km/h over that stretch. To put this in context, the next year I barely dipped below 30km/h down that same stretch in similar conditions. It’s not a tough stretch, I just did not have the energy to turn the pedals.

My buddy Niels, who I’d been cursing for talking me into the ride for most of the last few kilometers, found me slumped at the end, mumbling incoherently into my Coke. He scooped the bike and me up into his bakkie and drove me home, I think he may even have felt a little guilty at the state the ride had left me in. I passed out on the bed for hours, so long in fact that Yoli had to cancel our evening dinner with friends. I was also badly sunburnt too, another obvious thing I’d failed to consider was sunscreen.

At this stage, I was thinking, and Yoli was saying “how on earth are you going to manage 108km on the Argus in less than a month if 60km does this too you“. And that is the real reason I’ll miss Die Wingerd. Glinting in the surface of my first great cycling failure was an unexpected gem, my first great cycling lesson. It sent me back to the drawing board, made me work out what I did wrong, and figure out what was needed to fix it.

The next day, I went to my LBS (local bicycle shop) and asked them to help me with what I did wrong. I left the shop with a tub of Fast Fuel and an assorted selection of Gu gel packets. I was inducted into what probably every cyclist and athlete knows, but as a confirmed couch potatoe I’d never learnt. Hydration isn’t just about drinking enough water, it’s also about replacing electrolytes. And even with that, you’re not going to get very far or very fast if you don’t also put some fuel in the tank, which in general means carbs. The energy drink formula, I was clutching that day, and every other drink I’ve tried since have a decent helping of both. The transformation was amazing, every training session got quicker and easier, that less-than-month-away Argus was actually fun, and at just under five hours was way quicker than I’d dreamed of.
 
I’ve switched brands a few times since. For a while I was searching in vain for a cure for crippling cramps that have dogged my riding the last couple of years. I’ve come to understand my body better through training though, and with that has come the realisation that they are more about lack of condition and over exertion than electrolyte depletion. There’s no quick fix for that in my energy drink, sadly.

My latest fuel of choice is Hammer Perpetuem Caffe Latte. Like most of them, it tastes pretty dreadful, especially after four or five hours of just that and the occasional super sweet energy gel or fruit bar. But the energy boost seems pretty good. I say pretty good because the most recent ride had some similar elements to that first Die Wingerd ride. A tortured last few kilometers, and me lying helpless and exhausted on our bed. Except Yoli’s comment this time was “how on earth will you manage 1230km of Paris-Brest-Paris if 105km of riding does this to you“. And as on that first ride, those same thoughts were also going through my head. Except this time, I knew what to do – analyse, assess, and fix.

My first attempt at the “fix” part will come in two weeks time on the 99er. An even more brutal ride, and so a very good test. I’m planning to drop the Hammer Heed spare bottle I usually carry, mix the Perpetuem double strength, and have at least one extra water fill up en route to counteract dehyrdation. I’m also going to see if Race Caps or Anti Fatigue additives make any difference (I needed to bump my web order up to get free delivery so figured why not give them a try).

My big nagging doubt is how this would work over a 4 day ride, where there is just no way to carry the weight of typical per-hour quantities of these wonderful rocket fuels. One step at a time though, that’s a problem for a different day.

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 ….

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.