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.

If you can’t stand the heat …

It’s a couple of days since the Argus for 2012, and after a gym session and massage, all that remains of the day are a few lingering aches and a ton of great memories. Foremost of those for anyone who took part this year will be the soaring temperatures they were faced with during the latter half of the ride.

Standing in the start chute in the full glare of the morning sun at just past 8am it was already clear that heat was going to play a big part. Once we were underway though it really didn’t seem too bad over the first half of the ride. A bigger factor during those early kilometers was trying not to crash into waves of charity and corporate groups who seemed not to have read any of the pre-race guidelines, and opted instead to spread out across the full width of the road and just stop dead in front of you on a whim. Despite that minor annoyance, there were a few bunches of riders from my TT start group, and also groups just ahead and behind, and we made quite decent progress down the blue route, over the evil stretch of short climbs on Boyes Drive, and through Simonstown.

Coming up on Millers Point my Garmin (now reliable again) was showing close to the pace I’d need for my 4:15 target. I knew before we set off a sub-4 was likely to be beyond me in the expected heat, so I’d already adjusted expectations even before the hold-ups getting through the crowded sections. The new plan was holding up though: my water bottle should last out until the second or third water stop after the climb of Smitswinkel looming just ahead; and my energy drink was only just over half gone, also about right for current progress. How quickly things can change.

As the road turned in to the mountain for the last stage of the climb, there it was, the first waves of real heat that would be mercilessly sapping our reserves for the rest of the ride. As we crossed from the East to the West of the peninsula the heat rose from a manageable 27 to 28 degrees, up to 38 degrees in a matter of about 40 minutes. After a nice fast downhill race from the top I pulled in to a water stop. I wondered about filling both bottles, but the stop was busy and I wanted to get going as quickly as possible. I knew I’d need to stop again, so I figured it was better to hope for a quieter stop further on and then refill both.

Scarborough and Misty Cliffs was the usual brief but refreshing delight of cool misty air mingled with the smell of the ocean as we rode alongside the breakers.Sadly, it’s also a fast stretch of riding so is gone all to soon, replaced this year by a sweat drenching slog over Slangkop and down to Ocean View and Noerdhoek. By this stage, I knew a 4:15 was gone and it’d be a battle even to equal my time of last year. Just before Chappies I took a quick stop, filled one bottle with water and the other Powerade. That’s unusual for me, but I knew I needed more than just water and the energy gels and bars were now just making me feel sick rather than giving me anything usable. Whilst waiting for the bottles I also downed a coke and a powerade for good measure, before setting off into the furnace again.

The next hour and a bit getting up Chappies and the one last hill beyond was honestly the toughest of any Argus I have done, including the storms of 2009. Certainly the closest I’ve coming to bailing, and had it been any other ride I suspect I may have stopped at a bar and called it a day. There’s a magic to Argus day though that demands more from you – and so far, has always found it. Every year, something has inspired me over that last barrier of Suikerbossie, and this year’s arrived in the shape of a rhino. Not a real one of course, but the tandem bike costume was almost as big as a rhino, decked out in Saving Private Rhino logos. My legs found some new strength and I pedalled hard, but the rhino beat me to the top. Hopefully the fate of real rhinos in the wild has an equally successful outcome, unlikely as that seems right now.

After Suikebossie it’s all downhill, quite literally. Apart from the minor bump of Maiden Cover rising up after Camps Bay. Small it may be, but that was where my legs gave up and locked solid with cramp. Luckily the work was done by then and I could pretty much coast to the finish. I crossed the line, greeted by the delightfully welcome sound of Yoli and Ben cheering from me at the line. The ride and I were finished, for another year.

As it turned out, it had been equally hot and unpleasant waiting for us to finish, so I’m not sure Yoli will volunteer again if it’s as hot in future year’s. It was lovely to have a welcoming party though for a change, especially one bringing much needed water.

My official race time was 4:36, only 7 minutes quicker than last year. The much tougher conditions. though are evident in my best ever race position of 47%, much improved on last year’s 58% and the first time I’ve made it into the top half of the finishers.

Feels like Christmas

I’m a kid again. It’s the last few days before Christmas and I can’t wait to see what Santa has left in my stocking. Except this isn’t Christmas, it’s the week before the Argus, and at 47 I’m hardly a kid any more But that’s about where the difference ends. That same glorious, nervous, excitement has been building for a few days now. And just like that boy from my past, I probably won’t sleep much on Saturday night and I’ll be up early on Sunday morning.
 
One of the many things that makes the Argus special is the the unpredictable nature of the Cape weather. All races have the potential to go astray with mechanical problems, punctures, or a crash bringing down the bunch you are riding in. But those possible mishaps pale into insignificance to the mess that Argus weather can make of your training, preparation and race plans. In my four previous Argus’s we’ve had such extremes as the raging storm of 2009 which pummelled us with gusty blasts from before we’d even crossed the starting matts, to last year’s calm and mild weather which gently coddled us to the finish at Greenpoint.

There are many aspects that makes the Argus a special day: the camaraderie of 35,000 fellow riders; crowds of 100,000 supporters partying, and occasionally spraying water from a garden hose to ease the mid morning heat on our backs; and then there’s the hills, in particular Chapmans Peak. However fresh I feel rounding the corner into sight of Hout Bay, the next glance at the road ahead never fails to put a knot in my stomach. A majestic tarmac sliver winding up the rocky cliff face, filled with a continous snake of cyclists battling their way to the top. You wish you were already at it’s head, but as with every other part of the Argus, even this wonderful torture is over too soon and you’re flying down the other side with one last hill to overcome.

Memories of those previous rides help keep this year’s ride in perspective. I’ve trained harder and longer, and there’s potential to set a personal best time. But in all honesty, although I will push hard, if the day or my riding don’t make that possible so be it. The races I’ve done this season have far exceeded my expectations, with best times and fastest average speeds in every one of them. The Argus is the last ride of the season, time to just enjoy riding closed roads through the most stunning scenery imaginable.

This year too, I have the added bonus of Yoli and my 3yr old son Ben waiting to cheer for me at the finish. He’ll have no idea what it means to me to be taking part in it, but someday maybe he’ll read this and remember that feeling of waiting for Santa.

Pieces coming together

No racing this weekend and only light training now until the Argus on the 11th March, which gives some time to update on progress with the new bike. Or more accurately at this stage, the slowly accumulating pile of pieces that will hopefully all come together successfully in the form of the new bike.
 

The first delivery arrived a few days ago from SJS Cycles in the UK. 

Most significant are the two silver components on the boxes – the dynamo hub and the LED front light that it will power. These small, excruciatingly expensive pieces of German engineering are defacto choices for serious audaxing. I just hope that their reputation is worthy of the cost and distance they have travelled.

 Also pictured are the Brooks B17  saddle, and it’s saddle conditioning care kit. These also appear to be an almost automatic choice amongst long distance riders, but at this stage I cannot fathom why. I’m convinced the saddle would be only slightly harder if it was entirely fabricated from diamonds. I’m told that regular applications of the leather cream, and about 500km of riding will see it nicely softened and formed to my backside (or more likely my backside formed to it). Either way, at this stage I’m rather doubtful that it’s surface and my behind will have anything other than the briefest of encounters.

Another major milestone has been finalising the frame design with Justin Burls. Justin’s interpretations of my measurements and descriptions of riding style were spookily close to Merry’s current dimensions even in his first CAD drawing. A few emails ironed out the remaining kinks: lengthening the head tube a tad for more upright without an unsightly spacer stack; and room for mudguards with longer chainstays and altered fork angle to reduce toe overlap.

I’ve also pretty much settled on an Ultegra groupset. The luscious Italian lines of Campagnolo Chorus had me mesmerized for a long time. In the end though, the need for a special £200 tool to link or repair the 11 speed chain was a deal breaker. Not just for the ludicrous cost, but also the impracticality of carrying such a bulky item on a long ride. You can be sure the one tool you don’t have is the one you’ll most need, and that made the risk just too great. The chances of being able to find spares for and repair Shimano out on the road made it a much simpler choice even without the incentive of cost saving.


The use of mudguards and Kinesis DC07 forks also helped in the Shimano decision. The best choice for the long drop brake calipers that are needed to fit around mudguards looks to be the Shimano R-650s. These would look so badly wrong on a bike with an otherwise Campagnolo groupset – Nike sneakers poking out under an Armani suit. Although I’ve yet to source the Ultegra components, I found a great deal on the calipers from Buy Cycle, so with luck these should be here by the end of the week.

All positive strides towards the new ride and something to look forward to after the Argus.

During the Argus though, I’ll be one of many cyclists who pedal just that bit harder up Suikerbosse in memory of South African cycling legend, Ertjies Bezuidenhout, who passed away today.  

Broken

I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of collecting my new P group start letter as we lined up at the start of this weekend’s Wellington Lions ride. Maybe it was the dim morning light, but the majority of riders and bikes around me somehow seemed more serious than my previous start group of S. In a very literal sense, I felt a bit out of my league. I tried to dispel the idea, putting it down to the earlier than usual 4am start to pick Marleen up and be here in time to sort out the new race number.

It wasn’t long though before those initial doubts were confirmed. Not the usual relaxed cruising when the starter let us go, but a frantic surge of sprinting bikes carrying N, O and P jerseys all around me. I burnt a lot of gas over those first few rolling kilometres just hanging on to the bunch at the front of our start group. Gone was the loose and fast feeling in my legs and lungs from the 99er two weeks back. The bad omens started early too, we hadn’t left Wellington before my rear water bottle broke free and catapulted out of my tri-bracket. For a brief second I looked back at it bouncing off the road and wondered about collecting it. But even in those few moments, the group was already slipping away. Sod it! I decided to get back into the group and resigned myself to more water stops. Not a great start for what promised to be a hot day in the saddle.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first or last casualty of the day. The bunch was positively charging down the R44 heading towards Hermon.  Occasionally I was comfortable, but most of the time I knew the pace was way too hot for me. My Garmin had developed a nasty erratic behaviour, flickering between believable speeds, zero, and a few Km/h. So I had no confidence in it’s figures, knowing only that the average speed it was showing of around 20Km/h was wrong for sure – at my best guess, we were averaging close or even above 30.

Three years had dulled my memory of the tough outride from Wellington, but my leg muscles reminded me as we came within sight of the day’s big climb, Botmaskloof. Standing to stretch, there was suddenly a gap of 10 metres from me to the back of the bunch. I changed up, and pedalled hard,  but the gap stayed the same. Eventually, I had nothing more to fight with, and they slowly slid away just before we turned off the R44 and started the first ramps of the climb.

Feeling broken and drained, my inner thighs cramping painfully, I wasn’t convinced I would make it up Botmaskloof without walking. It even flitted through my mind that I might not be able to complete the ride at all, and would have to pull off to wait for the sag wagon. Needing to mentally regroup, I sat up, looked at the stunning scenery of the Riebeek Kasteel vineyards, and realised it was time to abandon my race plan and dreams of a sub 3:30 time. I needed to back-off, work through my cramps, and slog out the next few kilometres until I recovered from those early hectic salvoes. I decided to ignore the aptly ironic message of the sign for Allesverloren (‘everything is lost’), pushed past it and on into the pass.

Slower and slower the pedals turned as I struggled up the steepening gradient. I made a bold decision, shifted up two gears and stood up to climb. Normally for me the standing motion triggers crippling cramps, but to my surprise the pedalling became light and pleasant. I could even enjoy the antics of a troop of baboons passing alongside us in the kloof. Alternating seating and standing, and taking in the glorious views, the hard work was over almost too soon and the welcome sight of the hilltop water stop came into view. I hadn’t planned to stop here, but with one water bottle down I needed to keep topped up.

I was soon on my way again, and the descent was a welcome relief, occasionally the Garmin gave me a number I could believe, 40km/h, 50km/h, even flicking up to 60km/h at one stage. The speed and cooling wind breathed new life into my ride and as we leveled out I pedalled on solo with a new determination.

‘Klim saam’ …. (‘climb on’)

Or something close to that hailed the leader of the one of the remaining bunches as they passed me a bit further on. The gracious offer was an attractive one down the long windy stretch of road. For a few moments, I did think about it. I looked at the range of hills, uncertain whether it was the Perdeberg or Rhebokskloof. The difference between those two meant 20km or more closer to home. I was pretty certain the 50km reading on the Garmin was out, but I decided the risk wasn’t worth it. We had at least 30km to go, my legs felt good and I was making good speed, pushing that bit harder though would almost certainly trash them again.

That was the last bunch to come through, the rest of the ride was all solo – but no less enjoyable for it, despite being slower. The day was glorious, sunny and bright. A dusty heat haze spread  over the rolling farmland interspersed with the little glinting mirrors of farm dams here and there. I’d long ago lost count of the kites, buzzards, goshawks and eagles also out enjoying the day. The privilege to be out riding on such a beautiful day was more than pleasure enough.

Finally I recognised a gradual rise before a short pine woodland from my last time doing this ride. The spot is significant for two reasons: firstly because this was where I cramped on the last attempt, walking every uphill for the rest of the ride; and secondly because I knew it was close to the end. I slogged up the slope past the my previous dismount spot, through the wooded section and down to the left turn at the start of the short vineyard detour loop the ride takes before home

’12km to the end’

Shouted the water stop marshall as we went past. The only figure I could trust on my Garmin was the time, and this was reading 3:08. Crikey, maybe I could make 3:30 after all. But some quick mental arithmetic and a memory of the undulating contours on the detour made me realise I would miss it, but only just. As it turned out, I also slowed a lot over the last 6km or so. My water bottle had gone, the Garmin was stuffed, and now it was me who was out of gas, both mentally and physically.

But the day’s drama wasn’t over. As I swung left into Piet Retief Street for the last 500m of the ride a crack like a rifle shot came from somewhere behind and under me. Immediately, I was wobbling around the road amid cracking and groaning noises.A rear spoke had gone, and it was all I could do to get over the line. After everything else, the bike was now broken too. I was cursing my expensive, sparsely-spoked, Easton race wheels as I carried the bike through the 3 or 4km neutral zone back to the start. The road surface had been especially potholed and harsh, and I guess they’d had enough too.

Rob, Rob, told you I’d beat you back. Ha!’

I was wandering blankly along, as Marleen shouted at me from the parking lot. She and Jakes were by their car. As it turned out her ride had not gone to plan either. She got a puncture at 42km, and although a fellow rider stopped to help her his efforts came to naught. The local bike shop had given her the wrong tube. Needless to say, she was not a happy customer. As she and Jakes both said though, better to find that now than on the Argus in two weeks. I reflected on my broken spoke, and realised the same was true for me.

In a different way to the 99er, there were plenty of positives from the ride. At 3:42, it was my fastest pace for a 90-something kilometer ride, 6 minutes faster, 2km longer and a considerably tougher ride than Die Burger. And despite punishing my legs early on and cramping badly, I managed to stay pedalling up Botmaskloof, recover my legs and keep a decent pace for all but the final few kilometers. I am absolutely certain I had nothing more to give physically or mentally, but there is still a tinge of disappointment at not getting under 3:30. An unrealistic goal it may have been, but I got damned close even riding solo for more than half the ride. I’m sure I’ll be back another year to try again.

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.