After what seems like an eternity we’ve almost emerged from another grotty Cornish winter. Race season will soon be in full swing and we’ll no doubt be praying for the off-season to come back around. For me, the Start of a new season always comes with mixed feelings: on one hand I’m eager to get that flying feeling of good form and peak fitness, despite the early morning starts, I do really enjoy pitting myself against others.
Okay, one huge slice of humble pie for me please… In my last article “New Year, New Me?” I wrote:
“if it means sitting on a turbo trainer night after night chasing people around a fictional Volcano and rarely getting out in the “real World” then, quite frankly I’m not that interested. (No disrespect, it’s just not my thing -plus my internet connection is terrible.)”
But then came the rain and boy oh boy did it rain…over and over again, relentless. I physically couldn’t dry my shoes out between rides quick enough, time to revise my anti-turbo stance perhaps. For the record; I’ve never “hated” the Turbo Trainer or those who use online training platforms such as Zwift, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed the group chat banter at the expense of our in-club Zwift users. However, I still don’t see the point of riding on it regularly anytime after March or anytime before November/December. I understand the training rides are very interactive and “virtual doping” aside it’s probably very accurate and very beneficially to your off-season training, but when the sun is shining just get outdoors. The main reason I have for joining the Turbo party is I’ve simply had enough of getting cold, windswept, wet and trashing my kit every single day, I’m no stranger to cold and wet wintry rides but lately…Jeez! I’ve spent a reasonable amount of money on shoes, I even have a dedicated grotty-weather-pair, but I’ve probably spent the same amount of money on overshoes too, I’ve had; Velotoze, Craft, Spuik, Castelli and Giant, unfortunately they’ve all succumbed to the weather in some way or another. So quite frankly I’ve had enough of it.
My “Training” has been going okay, for me this time of year its more about getting lots of base miles in to build a platform of sorts. I’m fitting in as much as I can around work, It helps that I commute 4 days a week to one job and finish earlier the other 2 days on my other job. But its early morning miles and then post-work miles, hard to build any sort of consistent program. As before mentioned; this year i’m going to predominantly focus on my timetrialling, aside from riding on the courses there are very little places to train over that distance and at that pace uninterrupted by traffic, junctions or just being on a dual carriageway solo with no warning notices!
So here goes.. If i’m going to get any seriously productive training done, i’m going to have to swallow my pride and join the Turbo brigade and get on Zwift. These are words that believe me, I never thought I’d ever utter…
What is Zwift? In brief, Zwift is an online cycling and running video game-come-training programme set in a virtual world. You ride as an avatar around a range of maps set in the fictional world of Watopia or in the newer maps located in New York, London, Richmond or Innsbruck. You can customise your avatar by unlocking different cycling kits, bikes and accessories, you do this by gathering “XP” (Experience points) for accumulating miles and achievements, some easier than others, for example: Drafting a rider for 10 seconds will give you XP as will hitting 1000 Watts, I know which is easier!
Zwift was founded in 2014 by Jon Mayfield, Eric Min, Scott Barger and Alarik Myrin in the cycling hotbed of California. It’s currently £12.00 a month for full access to the game, this includes unlimited freeride across the aforementioned Virtual worlds, all the training plans and even the races. Zwift gathers the data from your Power Meter, Heart Rate monitor, Turbo Trainer, Cadence etc through ANT+ or Bluetooth Smart technology to replicate your in-garage efforts to your in-game effort.
I’ve gone the whole hog, I’ve set up a designated turbo spot in the garage, got the floor fan, the towel, the turbo wheel and tyre, I’ve even knocked up a rickety-looking shelf for my iPad to sit on. Technology isn’t one of my strong points (I can hear Stu and Nick laughing!) so aligning and syncing the Garmin to the Power Meter, Heart Rate, Speed/Cadence and Trainer was…interesting..
I’ve recently acquired a Rotor In2Power left hand crank driven Power Meter which I’m seriously looking forward to using this season. Eager to get to grips with it I went straight home to set it up, “Turn the cranks putting 2.5kg of pressure through to wake up the power meter.” I jumped on and started spinning, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes… This wasn’t funny. I flicked back through the set-up pages examining each bullet point, I’d done everything correct so why wasn’t it working? I scratched my head over it for a while before reading the last line on the last page: “batteries not included”. I was that wound up my heart rate was soaring and i’d not even started my workout! I tried to get into the battery slot with my fingers turning the dial from the padlock to unlocked but it wouldn’t go, I grabbed a tyre lever -all the while getting more and more exasperated and attacked it, slipped and took a chunk out of my knuckle on the cadence sensor! Right that does it…I asked my Dad to do it. (Again, Stu, Nick I can hear the laughter…)
Once everything was synced and responding properly I was ready for my first turbo workout of the year and boy oh boy was it tough: what was comfortable and efficient last season now seemed horrendous, how on earth did I push that big gear, how on earth did I sit on that saddle and how on earth did I spent any period of time in that praying mantis position! I started off with an Hour long session including three 10 minute efforts close to race pace. My new toy was up and running with all data fields pouring data out, I set a page on my Garmin dedicated to Power Data but in all honesty it was overwhelming. There was so much different data to look at that I didn’t give anywhere near an accurate reading. I would stare at the power numbers, then look at my heart rate then speed then time left of the interval, It was up and down and far from the smooth line I’d thought it would show.
Rather than aimlessly pedal, a few clicks on the Internet and I easily found a wide variety of free to download power training workouts to follow, including a whole host of week-long plans specifically designed for the aspiring time trial enthusiast. I scribbled down a few workouts that appealed to me, at this point the numbers all meant very little to me, I was just collecting as many relevant workouts as I could find so as not to get bored with repeating the same over and over again. A couple of workouts later and my mind is wandering all over the place, I need some visual stimulation as the numbers make for very boring reading and serious mind numbing. I need something…like Zwift?
I did it, I finally did it. I bit the bullet and against all previous things I’d ever said and written I signed up to Zwift. I fired up my recently upgraded iPad, loaded up the Zwift, Tacx and Trainer Road app and Synced the turbo to it. Easy as that, or so I thought. I started my first few pedal strokes on the streets of London (The London map on Zwift) and I could instantly see the attraction; the like-ness and graphics were very good and pretty accurate. My first thought was “wow thats a lot of people”, the virtual roads were heaving with different riders, from individuals like myself to others in fully fledged pelotons acting out chaingangs and training plans. My first ride was very much experimental, cruising around the streets of London transfixed by the screen, watching the kilometres tick by. This was perfect, exactly what I wanted from it initially, some visual stimulation to take my mind off the task in hand. Once my warm up spin was over I started my efforts, the wattage, speed and heart rate on screen gradually increasing with my real world effort. I was so deep in the interval with my head in my hands that I didn’t see the Watts creeping over 1000! Im a reasonably fit guy with reasonable power but according to my post-ride analysis I’d averaged 550 Watts for an hour!? Didn’t Wiggins average 440 for the Hour Record? Amateur.
Im sure you won’t be shocked to find that it was incorrect; It turns out all the Power, Cadence and Speed readings were being taken from my Tacx Trainer and not from my Garmin sensors or even the Power Meter. The iPad was only picking up Bluetooth and not ANT+, I’d need to get hold of a dongle or an adaptor to make the data correct. Everything on my Garmin display was correct but the data displayed on Zwift was not. Much to my embarrassment I’d even won some virtual KOM and sprint Jerseys by quite a substantial margin, I felt bad so didn’t save my ride and just uploaded the Garmin file instead.
I called upon a few of my friends who were more experienced in Zwift than I to say the least, they talked about re-calibration and system updates to no avail. Simon volunteered to update my laptop and Stuart made a “James Does Zwift” checklist for me. I still rode on Zwift I just didn’t save my Virtual rides as before, I did however enjoy customising my Avatar, opting for the Garmin Kit with a much more acceptable sock height and fitting some deep sections to my virtual Specialized Allez.
Turns out my Laptop was un-salvageable so a new plan was hatched; Stuart had recently upgraded his Computer so donated me his old one –what a legend- along with all necessary cables, adaptors, screen and keyboard, my high-wattage problem was soon resolved with ANT+ rectifying all the data to finally read correctly. No more sky-high watts. Unfortunately.
The Zwift display is easy to use and clearly shows all the necessary data in a sort of Heads Up Display. In the top left hand corner; Power, Heart Rate and Cadence. In the middle of the screen there’s your Distance, Speed and Elapsed Time along with your XP bar so you see how far or how close you are to the next level. On the right hand side is a map of where you are riding along with all the “dots” indicating other riders, this is great as you can see prospective turnings and route changes should you want to explore the maps further. Zwifters’ in your immediate vicinity are displayed in an ever-changing column on the right hand side, each riders name shows nationality, watts per kilo and distance they’ve ridden. There’s a leader board on the left hand side of the screen showing you comparative efforts between yourself and others for different sections or segments, such as the climbs or the sprints. One thing I did notice was that there appears to be a lot of riders’ names followed by the team or club name they ride for, I seem to ride for anyone and everyone so I took a diplomatic approach to this and decided upon starting my own; Levy Thundercatz CC… A pretty rad name I’m sure you’ll agree!
In addition to the freeride option there are hundreds of pre-loaded workouts tailored to your FTP, previously I thought the workouts were self imposed or pre-planned with friends and acted out on Zwift. There are Races too, again your FTP decides if you’re a category A, B, C or D. For now I think I’ll do the social rides and the training plans and leave the races for a few weeks just until I get used to it all.
The Zwift companion app lets you befriend other riders, see both your rides and your friends, compare your stats and see how many slices of pizza you’ve burnt! It allows you to send a “Ride On!” which is sort of like a Kudos on Strava. You can arrange to meet up and ride with your friends too and select what type of workout or race to do.
This is in no way a replacement for “Real World” riding, I’ll still do all of my commutes and try to get some longer club rides in too. There are a lot of variables in the real world that are out of our control; weather, traffic, terrain and other road users just to name a few, having Zwift enables me to alleviate these variables and follow a training plan without interruption. Zwift also lets me complete beneficial workouts within tighter time frames, for example if I only have an hour after work I can easily throw on some shorts and shoes and jump on the turbo ready to go, rather than having to kit up which, with the inclement Cornish weather is more of an ordeal than it sounds.
To conclude, Zwift doesn’t replace road riding but accompanies it to enable riding to work for everyone regardless of time available or even ability. If you’re having doubts about jumping on the virtual bandwagon, don’t. Don’t be like me, I poo-poo’d the suggestion of it for a long time without really looking at it in depth, I’d advise you to have a go first. You never know, you might like it and if you do give me shout and let me know how you find it. Thanks for reading,
Now, Just Go Ride!
James Grogan (LevyThundercatz)
2018 has been a bumper year of cycling for me, I’d racked up an impressive amount of rides as confirmed by the “My Year in Sport” feature on Strava. I enjoyed rides in 6 different countries, Won 5 TimeTrials, placed very well in others, with mild success in CycloCross and Crit Racing and I’d only narrowly missed out on my 2nd Cat licence.
But what about this year? What about 2019?
This year I’d like to build on the successes of last season across the board but, predominately in timetrialling. I’ve come to appreciate that it takes a few seasons to really find your feet in this discipline and to consistently do well at it. I also appreciate that to allow that to happen I need to train much smarter than I have done and not just ride my bike accruing all of these “Junk Miles”. I’m in an awkward position really and it’s quite a tough decision, I’m clearly a capable rider and ultimately I don’t ride my bike for the race success or the acknowledgement of my peers – If anything that just adds to my stress levels and has a knock-on effect on my cycling – I do it because I love cycling, If getting the results in races means cutting down on my mileage a bit, then okay I can deal with that, but if it means sitting on a turbo trainer night after night chasing people around a fictional Volcano and rarely getting out in the “real World” then, quite frankly I’m not that interested. (No disrespect, it’s just not my thing- plus my interent connection is terrible.)
I’m sure there’s a good balance to be had between riding for fun and riding for serious gains. Hopefully through a bit of research and advice I’ll be able to strike a healthy balance between beneficial training rides and social rides with others. Do I owe it to myself to give it a go for a season? Possibly. I’m 25 so reasonably young; enough to still be classed as “young” but equally old enough to know that I’m not going to be a professional at the Tour de France. But I wonder if I’d want that anyway, all the stress of having to perform or face unemployment, watching what you eat all the time, not being able to do “normal” things with your friends? na not for me.
Timetrial: I’d like to complete a full season of timetrialling, from start to finish, every race that’ll count towards the Cornish cup and the BBAR. I narrowly missed out by one race last season, frustratingly I would consistently take blocks of time out of the rider who got 3rd in the cup, but spreading myself too thin with Crit racing the day before TT’s meant that I started to lose my gains on him towards to the end of the season. Having looked over the 2019 calendar there seems to be many events on the courses I enjoy, there also seems to be a lot held on courses over the border in Devon, I’ll welcome these new courses as a change of scenery for sure.
Road Race: Aswell as timetrialling I would like to do a couple more road races. I find Criterium races too stressful with way too many variables to manage and ultimately, it always comes down to a sprint, im definitely not a sprinter. I feel I posses many of the attributes of a good Road Racer, endurance, climbing ability and due to timetrialling, an ability to hold a solid pace for a prolonged period of time. Having made the mistake of racing too many consecutive events last year I’ll only consider Road Races if I have a clear weekend. Theyre not really a road race but events such as the RedBull timelaps or the Revole24 really appeal to me, 24hours of relay racing trying to clock up the most distance sounds mega! I just need to find a team of like minded/crazy individuals to do it with me. Cornwall doesn’t boast the biggest road racing scene so inevitably there will be a fair bit of travel involved, but why not give it a go I guess?
Cyclocross: My big goal for this year is to ride the 3 peaks race in Yorkshire, it looks brutal but a seriously good day out in an exciting part of Britain. Check it out here, it’s well worth a look: http://3peakscyclocross.org.uk/course-details/ Apart from that, I’m going to keep on training on my cross bike for a while yet, My Girlfriend is studying at Ashburton at the moment so i’m hoping to do some good exploratory rides over the moors that I’ll no doubt document. I’ve got similar goals for the new cross season, possibly giving the National Championships a go athough it seems a long way off now, it’s not even finished for this year officially. In addition to racing I’d be keen to check out the Grinduro or Gravelfest races if anybody wants a companion for a weekend!
Travel: Having had only a taste of cycling in different countries I’m very keen to get out and see more of the world by bike, this doesn’t have to be through competing, whilst I’m not a huge fan of the whole “Bike-Packing” craze I can see the appeal and I definitely get that its a great way to see more of a country. Aside from the annual pilgrimmage to Mallorca I haven’t got too much planned, but as before mentioned; I’m always keen to explore and in fact there’s still so much of the U.K. that I have never been to let alone ridden around, maybe thats a good place to start?
Blog: I’m still very new to the ever popular world of Blogging, I enjoy writing and I really enjoy riding so it seems to make sense to write this blog. I’d very much like this blog to grow and become something quite special and not just be a space for my thoughts and ramblings. This year I’m planning a few good articles/posts mostly about my local rides. Cornwall is a fantastic place to call my home roads and I’d love to showcase it more on here. Kit reviews and product testing are also very much on my radar, but not immediatly. I’d like to get the Blog established with a steady stream of regular content to a wider audience first. But if anyone wants any kit tested or written about, please keep me in your thoughts!
Aside from competing I’d really like to smash the 200km on a single ride, I’ve done some longer rides but I’ve not yet hit the mythical 200km- that said, rather conveniently the place my Girlfriend now studies at is almost exactly 200km away… To conclude, will it be a New Year, New Me? I’ve certainly got the plans to train more efficiently, but whether i will remains to be seen. I don’t hold out much hope to be honest!
Enough about me, what are your plans for 2019? What do you think of mine? Is there anything you would recommend? all of my plans are fairly loose at the moment so i’m always open to experiences new.
Once again, good luck in your own plans for this year. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you.
Now, Just Go Ride.
Firstly, Happy New Year! I hope you’ve all had a fantastic festive period and if you’re anything like I was, I wish you well in your post-nye recovery!
The end of the year for me was a very pleasant and relaxing time, full of Turkey sandwiches. The period between Christmas and New Year is always a disorientating one where you completely lose track of what day it is. My Girlfriend worked throughout so I thought I’d occupy myself with the Rapha Festive 500 Challenge on Strava, I’d ridden it the last few years and it gave me a reason to get off the sofa and certainly helped to justify the amount of food I’d eaten; “It’s okay I’m gonna ride 500km so I better have another handful of chocolates”
For those who don’t know, the Festive 500 is a Strava challenge to clock up 500km’s of riding in the 8 days between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, it’s not the easiest challenge but neither is it the hardest, provided you have the free time and of course, the weather. Luckily this year, I had both.
When I go out riding it’s usually at a fair pace with plenty of big efforts, sprints or climbs to tackle, so for this years 500 I decided to do something a bit different; I promised myself it would be social rides only, never mind the average speed, never mind going for any “segments”, so long as the distance was there it was good enough for me. I’d make it my goal to try and catch up withall the friends I usually ride with as well as all the friends that I don’t usually ride with, the one rule being; conversation pace only. After all, it is Christmas and having flogging myself for most of the season, it would be nice to get gentle miles in alongside good company, while hopefully not gaining too much of a festive belly.
Day 1. Christmas Eve. 24/12/2018 105.43KM
To kick the challenge off I rode into work the long way, we were only working until midday so I’d fire in some post-work miles out to Penzance, Newlyn and Mousehole, throwing in a loop up to St. Buryan and then Madron to get the ball rolling and make some room for the inevitable Christmas Day feast. Whilst at the shop I stocked up on some essentails for the challenge; Tubes, Lube and Food. I’d had bad luck with Punctures lately so tube stocks were getting low. Lube, I try not to use the real gloopy lube on my chain, opting instead for the lighter stuff, you just end up getting through it a lot quicker! Lastly, Nutrition; Veloforte bars, -if you haven’t tried one, you really must- proper food with all natural ingredients, unlike the usual high-sugar energy bars that always seem to give me gut-rot. I grabbed one of each of the flavours to see me through the challenge. Day one complete, 105.43 in the bag plus a dodgy garmin upload.
Day 2. Boxing Day 26/12/2018 65.32km
I chose not to ride on Christmas day -personally I think its a bit odd, isn’t it about spending time with loved ones? I’m super obsessive about riding so if I can manage to not ride for one day then anyone can-
Tradionally Boxing Day is the Gut-Buster TT, a fun and social race held on a local 10-Mile Time Trial course, typically it’s a road-bike only event with christmas jumpers and Santa hats encouraged, TT rigs, pointy hats and skinsuits very much discouraged. I opted to give it a miss this year despite my promise to be social, time was tight with other commitments ( Thats my excuse and i’m sticking to it ) instead I decided to ride my usual 40 mile loop at a very cruisy pace, it was a nice crisp morning and I wanted to get some dry miles in and definitely not see my breakfast again! The loop goes out to Mousehole from Porthleven, heading over to Hayle and back along one side of the TT course, an aesthetically pleasing triangle on the map. I pulled over at the top of the climb on the TT course to cheer on those racing, seeing the pain faces made me feel quietly smug that I’d chosen not to race. I rode 65.32km taking me up to 170.75km, the #Festive500 was well within reach and I still had 5 days left of riding.
Day 3. 27/12/2018 103.70km
Day Three was where my Social 500 would begin. I’d arranged to meet a friend who had been away at University, we were well overdue a catch-up. Meeting in Marazion we rode out through the quiet backlanes towards Gwithian and the North Cliffs. The conversation topics covered a lot; previous season banter, new bikes, Team Sky, and Christmas presents. As we cruised along the North Cliffs we caught up with another friend, the three of us rode together to mist-covered-Portreath before heading inland to Scorrier and Carharrack, talk drifted from PowerMeters to aeroplanes, endurance rides to podcasts. I’d definitely stuck to “conversation-pace” and it was great, the hours and miles soon flew by effortlessly, lost in good chat with good mates, exactly what the 500 was about. We covered 103.70km in a shade over 4 hours bringing me to 274.45km. Bring it on.
Day 4. 28/12/2018 161.47km
I find the #Festive500 is made a lot easier if you can squeeze a Hundred mile ride in, I appreciate thats a lot easier said than done, but trust me it helps! I had a plan to make it manageable too, I’d break it into three chunks; I would meet a friend for a couple of hours in the morning, another friend for a few hours in the afternoon and then whatever was left over I’d finish off solo. The plan worked, largely. I met Andy at 8 and we meandered down to Marazion and Mousehole before winding back up to Hayle, and cutting back via Praze-An-Beeble to Home, I chucked a cup of coffee down and then went to meet Simon, however he’d planned to do the same route as I’d just done! We rode it in reverse, chatting all things Premier League before stopping for a coffee in Marazion, in keeping with my social 500 we met friends in the cafe and whiled away the next hour, I could’ve all too easily rode home with 70 in the bag, Simon had to get home and I was sorely tempted to follow. I had tasked myself with the hundy so laboriously I turned and rode back the way I’d come, making it almost three laps of the same triangle! I hit my hundred but man, what a waste of a hundred. Cornwall is so beautiful with incredible riding and adventure to be had, instead I chose to follow two main roads. However, the 161.47km brought me very nicely up to 435.92km, well within striking distance.
Day 5. 29/12/2018 38.6km
It was back to work for me on Day 5, I decided to treat it as a rest-day of sorts, I would comfortably complete the Festive500 so an easy day would be welcome. The shop was still on the Festive opening time meaning a much later opening time, I welcomed the extra hour in bed. Having ridden in the daytime for the last week, reverting back to the dark mornings and evening wasn’t fun. Hi-viz and plenty of lights were back on. Recently i’d manged to source a bargain of a bike for my Dad, a 2015 Cervelo R3 Ultegra for £250! It wouldn’t have been right to let him use it without “testing” it out first, y’know…in the interest of health and safety…I rode the longer way in and the longer way back to make it up to 38.6km, the bike handled lovely throughout too. Five days of riding and 474.12km with two days left. The Home straight.
Day 6. 30/12/2018 104.6km
Having raced most weekends throughout the season I’d missed most Club Rides, as I was keeping things social I thought it was high time I caught up with my friends from Ludgvan CC, during the week I’d gone along to their christmas do for a few beers and general catch up, It was great seeing everyone again and I promised to tag along to a club ride soon. Despite the grotty weather it didnt seem to put the Ludgvandrians’ off with a good number turning out for the social. We rode coastal up to Porthtowan before cutting in through Chacewater to the Bissoe for Coffee and tasty Gluten Free Cake, the group split up with some having a wife-imposed curfew and others on a free-pass for the day as is normal for sunday club runs. I enjoyed seeing everyone and meeting new members of the club, the same old tear ups on the downhills were always a good blast too, Ludgvan I promise I won’t leave it so long before another club ride! 104.6km saw me crack the festive500 with a day to go. 579.12km in the bag.
Day 7. New Years Eve 31/12/2018 52.1km #Festive631
It was back to work again for me on New Years Eve, with the Rapha Festive 500 well and truly completed I thought it would be rude not to push on for the 600. I commuted in the longer way going out towards Gweek and the Lizard and then pushing out a few extra miles on the way back to sneak in a little 52.1km ride before the end of the year.
I’d finished another Festive 500 and with it, another year of riding my bike. I’ve enjoyed this season more than any other i’ve done. I’ve had mild success accross a range of disciplines, I’ve ridden and raced with and against some good freinds and characters along the way too. If you’re planning on undertaking the 500, I would definitely recommend doing the Social and not the Solo, I had so much fun and got lost in some really engrossing conversation on my rides which was stark contrast to the 2017 edition of the 500 where I slogged it out mostly solo, that was a toughie.
So grab your mates and take it on, it’s a fun challenge to do and one that’ll stand you in good stead for the new year too. The challenge had taken my total to 19,819.6km for the year; over 437 rides and 719 hrs 26mins. Thats from here to New Zealand!
#Festive500 by numbers:
Kilometres Covered: 631.3
Active Days: 7
Hours Ridden: 22
Meters Climbed: 5,740
Friends Ridden With: 10
Turkey Sandwiches: 7
Thanks again for reading, it’s not the best post i’ve ever written but it seems pointless to go to the efforts of social riding if one isn’t social afterwards!
Good luck for all your endeavous this year,
You’ve read the post, Now, Just Go Ride.
Spend any time on social media towards the end of the road racing season and you’re sure to stumble on the #CrossIsBoss and #CrossIsComing hashtags on your news feeds. At the end of a long season, racing Cyclocross is probably the last thing anyone would want to do, much preferring to indulge in some well-earned time off the bike and start work on that dad-bod physique. But not me. I’m pretty obsessive about riding my bike, possibly down to a fear of losing fitness or putting on weight and having to put in a lot more effort to shift it, or maybe i’m just happiest when on two wheels, whatever the answer racing a season of Cross is sure to keep you in shape and (in theory) will act as a nice stepping stone for good form next season, plus its a damn sight more fun that sitting in your garage for hours on a Turbo Trainer!
Last season I borrowed a friends CX bike just to have a go at a couple of the local races, unlike road racing there were a few races practically on my doorstep. Initially It took a bit of getting used to with the wide, nobbly tyres feeling pretty odd and I couldn’t quite get my head around riding a kind-of road bike, off-road! After a few rides on some of the local cycle trails I was hacking around the more demanding mountain bike runs and exploring the ragged coast paths quite comfortably, what a fantastic and versatile bike this was proving to be!
Now that I’d honed my (very basic) cyclocross skills I entered my first race, still very much unsure of what to expect from it. Surprisingly I found I didn’t suffer with the pre-race nerves quite so much, maybe because I was an unknown and nobody expected me to do well, I found this quite a nice feeling compared to the pre-race nerves I usually battled with before TimeTrials or Road races. The Newquay round of the SWCXL (South West Cyclo-Cross League) would be my first ever ‘Cross race so that morning I did a last minute YouTube browse to see how the remounts and dismounts were done! Nothing like leaving it to the last ey? I packed my usual race kit and away I went.
It was a baptism of fire on a super muddy course with a lot of running, my first ever remount took place in the race and i’m glad to say it went a lot smoother than expected-thank god for YouTube! I started at the very back of the pack and spent the duration of the race trying to battle my way up to were I should have been to start with. It was like nothing I’d ever done before; a maximum effort for an hour, there would be no let up and certainly no “pacing” involved. Age was by no means a advantage, I was probably one of the fittest riders there, but my CX bike handling certainly left a lot to be desired for with the smoother guys proving that whilst slow and steady wouldn’t necessarily win the race, it was an effective way of using your energy more efficiently. In the end I surprised myself and didn’t do too badly; beating a fair few seasoned CXers and finishing in the top half of riders. I was completely exhausted and very muddy but I’d absolutely loved it and I was hooked. Cross could well be boss.
Whilst I was enjoying the races, having great fun and a getting a serious workout, it was more the cross riding I was doing outside of racing that was proving to be the most fun. Previously I’d be out in all weathers trying to force the miles in, slogging it into a howling headwind or getting drenched in the torrential Cornish rain, I wouldn’t particularly enjoy these rides, I just saw them as “necessary”, whereas in truth I wouldn’t be getting too much out of them other than a cold. I could go for a CX ride at a solid pace for a third of the distance and be sure to get way more out of it, plus I’d have a lot more fun.
Having an off-road bike allowed me to explore the places and paths I’d only previously ridden past but never ventured down, Cornwall has got loads of designated cycle paths and some pretty ace mountain bike routes to tackle, but they’re mostly through woodland and around lakes, so a CX bike was a great tool to explore with rather than battling with a bulky Mountain Bike. I’d ride on parts of the well-established trails then I’d hike myself and my bike over fences and fields to make my own routes and create different loops. It opened up a whole new world of cycling right on my doorstep that was previously unavailable to me, among other CX adventures I even found myself on an old disused airfield once where my inner explorer came out to play and I took the chance to “Surf” a Canberra Bomber!
I entered a few more local races and got progressively better at the technical side of cyclocross, my dismounts became much smoother and I began to stagger or gallop a lot less when running into my remount. As I rode and raced more I began to steadily start climbing the results list until I was inside the top 10 regularly. Being a “Roadie” who had previously only really dabbled in the dark arts of Mountain Biking -and not since I was younger- I found the handling of the bike and the way it would react in different situations quite foreign. I tried to get out at least once a week on my cross bike on a steady loop with mixed terrain, to try and teach myself how to react to changes in terrain whilst still trying to put down power. The muddier and more slippery it got, the more fun/challenging it became to try and put down power without the back end sliding out, or trying to not “dab” with my foot. It resulted in a lot of muddy spills and a lot of boil washes!
For 2017-2018 I hadn’t pre-registered for the SWCXL as I thought i’d only do one or two of the rounds, this would backfire as you could only be “gridded” if you had pre-registered. The gridding process is still a mystery to me today, the idea is that the 40 best riders start at the front with the rest of the field filling in behind, this ensures that the riders who are going for the series overall don’t get held up behind the riders -such as myself- trying it out for a round here and a round there. I only found this out afterwards unfortunately as I quickly discovered I would be beating 25-30 of the gridded riders but yet each week I’d still start off behind everyone again, frustrating to say the least!
I raced a few more events, including an especially muddy one at a Farm in Saltash, the course took you through the farm, skirted the cattle shed, through a sandy equestrian pit and onto the boggiest field i’ve ever tried to ride through- It quickly turned into a running race with many riders pulling out due to mud-induced mechanicals. I managed to finish the race but with only a few gears left. I’m still not sure if it was mud we’d ridden through or…
Once my first season was over I kept riding cross semi-regularly throughout the dark and muddy months at the start of year, before returning to training on the road again. I primised myself I’d buy my own CX bike and take the league more seriously the following season, I would pre-register and hope to prove to myself and others that the mild success I’d enjoyed wasn’t just a flash in the pan and I could push on and better myself in the new season.
Fast forward 9 Months…after a largely successful season of road racing and time trialling, the familiar “cross is boss” and “Cross is coming” hashtags were starting to appear on my news feed, just like the previous year it had crept up on me yet again! I quickly set to work finding all the kit I’d stuffed in a box at the close of last season and with the help of my Local Bike Shop, I managed to get my hands on a 2019 Giant TCX slr, a tidy upgrade from last seasons’ borrowed bike. The TCX had hydraulic discs as apposed to the Cable brakes I’d previously run, Tubeless tyres and a Sram Rival 1x 11 groupset. I was excited to try the tubeless tyres out, the idea of running at a much lower pressure with no risk of a pinch flat was surely a cyclocrossers’ dream. I was also curious about getting to grips with the 1x groupset, I’d run a double chainset last season and never once used the”big” ring so it made sense to me to bin off the double.
For the 2018-2019 season I pre-registered for the league, five whole english pounds. This meant I’d be eligible for gridding among the top riders and not waste too much energy battling to get into a good overall position, I also swapped out my Stock Giant wheels for some lightweight, racey looking Mavic Kysrium wheels, this would give me a spare set to put in the pits incase of a mechanical. Marginal gains and all that.
Unfortunately, in Cornwall we have a limited number of races with only so many people -understandably- willing to do the organising of events, usually each cycling discipline has it’s own dedicated few that will host semi-regular races. This is great and they do a fantastic job, hats off to them I couldn’t do it, however the dedicated few seem not to communicate with one another or check apposing race calendars, this means that there’s nearly always a few weekends where there are no races and then other weekends when there’s a criterium or road race on the Saturday and then a TT or CX race on the Sunday, with the ever longer racing season this is becoming more and more of an issue. I may be slightly out of line writing this as I’m one of the few riders who race multi-discipline, most of the people I compete against only race in one discipline, either way I missed out on or did poorly in plenty of races due to calendar clashes and CX suffered the same; sadly I didn’t get to ride the first few rounds of the SWCXL due to finishing off my TT season. Annoying.
My first race of the 2018-2019 CX season would be a hilly course, a long drive up and over the Cornish border away in the grounds of Escot Park. My legs felt horrendous in the warm up and on the course recce but seemed to feel okay in the race, don’t get me wrong, they still hurt, but they never got any worse. I would be gridded for the first time ever albeit near the back. The race started with a long dragging climb to the very top of the park before weaving back down through the turns to start the first full lap, It was a bit of a shock to the system having not competed in cross for a year, with my heart rate soaring and my lungs burning throughout, a flowing course helped me to find my feet in the tight turns again and my race fitness ensured I could overtake many on the climbs, I surprised myself by riding every technical section of the course no matter how challenging and despite being gridded near the back I still managed to sneak into the top 10. For my first cx race of my season I called that a pretty good result.
The bike was fantastic, a real upgrade from the bike I rode last season, the hydraulic discs gave me much more confidence on the technical parts and allowed to me brake a lot later safe in the knowledge i’d slow down! I got to grips with the 1x fairy quickly, I’d previously run a double chainset but only once got into the big ring, so binning off the double seemed a wise choice. My tyre pressures were still too hard but I was sure that as the season went on and my confidence in the tubeless system grew i’d start running them lower and lower.
The next round was an especially windy course, once again up over the Cornish border, this time in Coxleigh Barton. The course would be relatively flat with long straights between patches of tight turns and hurdles, at first glance it was an unimaginative course with very dry conditions, but with the strong winds blowing, it turned out to be quite interesting. Despite the bitterly cold wind I was looking forward to the race, I was gridded much higher this round but wouldn’t benefit from my competitors lack of climbing like I had in the previous round. I tried to make the most of my positioning by going super deep from the gun, I’d narrowly missed the tail of the lead group by misjudging an off-camber turn, this would prove to be crucial as once I’d started losing ground I found myself in no mans land and got torn apart by the wind. The groups I’d previously passed started creeping up on me and I battled to hold my position. I ended up finishing way outside of the top 10 in 20th. It had been a tough course but a worthwhile experience in going to hard and paying the consequences! Onwards and upwards.
The Falmouth round came around quickly -finally a Local round- and would be held on the Cornwall 4X track, this meant an interesting ride over the burms and around high banked corners to the bottom of the field before the inevitable long hike back up to the start to do it all over again. It was certainly a “Marmite” kind of course with a few disgruntled riders saying it wasn’t a ‘Cross course, but I was determined to make the most of my forever improving gridding position despite the previous weeks implosion. The race was solid and definitely one of the tougher ones I’ve raced, I enjoyed the long dragging climbs, spinning up them passed the guys on Mountain Bikes, but succumbing to their superior braking and traction on the technical downhills, burms and jumps. 16km and close to 500meters of elevation later it was over. Another largely successful outing in the Giant-Helston colours saw me hang on for yet another top 10, not bad for my first “proper” season. Roll on Regional Championships.
I had fond memories of last seasons’ Redruth CX round so I was looking forward to this years offering, not least because it was also to be the Regional Championships. Being the “Champs” meant that each age category would race individually; U14’s, U16’s, Juniors, Seniors, V40 etc… so it would be easy to see who you were racing against and not get caught behind the sea of other riders. Unfortunately the numbers were down a bit for my race, maybe it being the Regional Championships had put a few off, or maybe it was the torrential rain that had helped turn the course into a full on mud fest!
Although the Juniors only race a section of the course, I watched on making mental notes of the lines they were choosing to ride and looking to see the potential problem areas. Their race now over, it was time to peel off my warm DryRobe and get into my skinsuit ready for a course recce on the torn up surface, there were a few changes to the course from last year, notably a short sharp climb through the trees, the exposed roots would mean running too lower pressure would prove uncomfortable. Also new for this year was an off camber switchback climb, this would be a tricky one to navigate.
I was gridded as 9th, just one row behind the leaders, the closest to the front I’d been so far. We got underway with a sprint out of the blocks, I got off to a good start along the back straight before the first tight corner, the leaders in my sight. Having had such a good run of dry races this season, the wet, muddy ground was proving quite tough going, the corners and turns became danger spots where you could gain or lose position quickly. Previously the courses would get progressively wetter as the season went on, but not this time, it was bone dry to slop, just like that.
As the race went on, the gaps began to appear with the pack breaking up into loads of small groups and pairs. The leaders group contained three, another group of two and then me in my group of two. I wanted to do well and had aspirations -albeit small- of a podium place, I was up against a crop of strong riders, namely my friend Steve Lampier, formerly of JLT-Condor and Nick Blight who had recently raced the masters championships in Belgium. The conditions ensured this was the hardest CX race I’d done to date, I kept glancing down to my mud-spattered Garmin to check my Heart-Rate, I can safely say it reflected my effort, soaring well over 185+. As the course got torn up more and more, the climbs became more ragged until the only option was to shoulder the bike and run. After a long tussle with one rider I thought I’d succumbed to the strong pace being set, finding myself being distanced over the laps. I kept riding at a solid pace keeping calm and slowly reeling him back in before finally capitalising on a mistake my ever-tiring opponent made with three laps to go. Once clear I now found myself alone between groups, the fatigue was really setting in now and I knew I had to dig deeper than I’d gone before, I could feel the rider behind me trying to catch back on so kicked with what little I had left, determined not to be caught. If I could see my next marker up ahead I was confident I’d have a reasonable chance of clawing my way back on to his wheel.
As I entered the second to last lap circling around the top playing field, it was clear I wouldn’t be catching back on, I couldn’t see the rider ahead but also I couldn’t see the rider behind, I was well and truly in no-mans land now. With podium ambitions very much scuppered I dug in again just racing to finish with a good time now, my heart was still pounding and my lungs were burning more than ever. Halfway around I heard from one of the Marshalls that Lampier was chasing hard and I was probably going to be lapped, I kept looking over my shoulder and sure enough there he was. We entered the far field together, I battled onto his wheel holding it for a while and trying to match his pace, we took the corners together dropping down to the lowest of the three fields before he proved way too strong and dropped me on the climb as he powered on to take the win by a long way. I crossed the line shortly after with my head high to take 5th, a fair result on the day.
There were fist bumps and high fives aplenty at the finish, with myself and my opponents relieved to have finished the punishing parcours. The talk quickly turned into a course-digest, we discussed the tricky parts and laughed at the crazy amount of mud there was! The event had been well organised with hot food and drinks available and Redruth school even opening up their showers and changing rooms for us; I half-heartedly rinsed off the worst of mud before heading up to watch the podium ceremony and hen to cheer on the Veterans race, if the course hadn’t been torn up before, it certainly was now, I didn’t envy them one bit having to tackle the course now.
With the Regional Champ’s done and dusted it would have been time to turn my attention to the next round at Mount Edgcumbe, however this round was to be cancelled a week before, there was no real explanation either, it was just posted on the CX Facebook page. Including Edgcumbe, that meant that there had been 4 rounds of the series cancelled, i’m sure they all had their valid reasons but it was annoying that -as before mentioned- the earlier rounds clashed with other races and now towards the end of the series there were a number of empty weekends. But like I said, i’m sure they have their reasons and i’m not going to dwell on it too much.
That leaves only one more round in the series, once again over the border at Torbay on the 6th January, having had a longer than preffered lay off from CX racing I think i’ll see how I feel nearer the date, for the time being I’m quite happy getting out and about on the trails and enjoying care-free riding, who knows I may even “accidentally” stumble on the airfield again. Off the bike I’m quite looking forward to over-indulging in Christmas and trying to eat my body weight in Cadbury’s Heroes, with the Quality Streets finishing what the Heroes cannot!
If there’s any sort of conclusion to this installment its this; Cyclocross is one of the most friendly and social disciplines to be a part of, everyone involved is always so encouraging and supportive of new riders. The organisers do a grand job of running the events and designing courses, but they need riders and volunteers alike for these races to go ahead, so why not give it a go in 2019? Sign up for a race or just participate in the “have-a-go” sessions usually ran between the races. If racing isn’t your cup of tea then fair enough, there’s so much fun that can be had “off-the-road” on a cross bike. One of the local clubs I ride with now runs a Cross-Bike club ride two sundays of the month instead of the usual mud-guard clad road bike ride. My attitude is that you’re probably going to get covered in mud and soaking wet on the road over the winter anyway so why not embrance it, have a bit of fun and go ‘crossing, after all, Cross Is Boss.
N+1 and all that…
Thanks for reading my latest installment, I hope you’ve all had a great Christmas and I wish you all the best with your endeavours on and off the bike in 2019.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Now, Just Go Ride…
This is the Third part of my European roadtrip, if you haven’t read the previous posts then find them here Journey to “The Worlds”…
The morning after the race before:
Now that the Gran Fondo World Championships was done and dusted, a massive weight had been lifted I could relax and enjoy everything now without the burden of a big race weighing heavy on my mind. We ate our final Italian breakfast whilst poring over the road map, plotting our return route, we’d largely stick to the same roads but with a detour thrown in for an overnight stop and another potential stop in Belgium. We packed the van up, complete with plenty of snacks, water and sandwiches for our long drive, we were aiming to get up as far as the French-German border for our overnight stay, planning to get up early and head towards Belgium. I was super excited about this part, if verything went to plan and we had no hold ups or delays we’d have some time to kill before the ferry, so all being well I’d get a ride in Eddy Merckx Country.
We passed through Italy quickly and over into Switzerland through the seriously impressive mountain roads and tunnels. -Switzerland is definitely on my bucket list for laces to ride with it’s epic switchback climbs and breathtaking scenery, but i’ll save that for another trip perhaps- not least the Gotthard Tunnel, cutting straight through the heart of the San Gotthard mountain for a mega 11 miles! I’d recently read that the road that goes over the top of the mountain was voted the #1 climb in the country by a number of magazines. After 4 hours of terrible radio it was time for a tea break, the Swiss aire’s are famously scenic places to stop, they offer picnic tables, free toilets, showers and overnight camping is encouraged. We took advantage of these facilities knowing as soon as we crossed into France we’d have to pay to pee! On went the gas kettle for our tea as we enjoyed our sandwiches and snacks in the seemingly rare sunshine.
Full of food and Cornish tea we pressed on for the rest of the day, creeping up the map page by page towards Strasbourg and neighbouring Germany. It had been a long day but a beneficial one with a solid chunk of the journey behind us, the light had that early evening feel to it and our stomachs were reminding us it was getting close to feeding time again, we started searching for places to stay the night. After stopping in Phalsbourg we quickly found that nearly everything was closed on a Monday and only the very expensive hotels were open however, a quick Booking.com search threw up a few nearby places to stay, we decided that Chez Josephine, only 6 miles away at Metting would be ideal; cheap and cheerful and close enough to the motorway for us to be able to get up and go in the morning.
We drove the bizarley undulating 6 miles to Metting where we were met by our hostess for the evening; Josephine Pfieffer. Imagine your Grandmother, your very German Grandmother and you get the idea; Josephine welcomed us in but only spoke French and German, we could more or less get by in French, but struggled with German,we’d had such a long day we would have probably struggled with English. She brought us regional beers and offered us sandwiches, I struggle to explain what Gluten Intolerance means back home in Cornwall let alone in Italian, French or German! Josephine sat us down and in her German/French and our terrible English/German/French we told her about ourselves, and she in turn, about herself. She’d told us she had lived here her whole life and that pre-war it had been a part of Germany but in the aftermath had been reclaimed by France, she considered herself German but accepted that she was now officially living in France and was technically French.
I’d been cooped up in the van for most of the day and I really wanted to stretch my achey legs out with an easy quick spin, the 12mile loop to Phalsbourg and back was like nothing I’d ever ridden, to say it was rolling is an understatement! There was next to no flat riding at all, the road just hurtled down steep ramps before rising sharply over and over again, absolutely crazy!
I arrived back at Josephines’ to find my Dad still in the front room with 4 other guests and the digger driver from across the road! Fortunately the other guests spoke very good English and could easily translate our hosts’ stories. We chatted away over coffee with cream before making our excuses and droving to the nearby town of Saverne to search for somewhere to eat. Much the same as Phalsbourg, most of the townwas closed with the only thing open being a Carrefour Metro, we weren’t too fussy so stocked up on the typical french picnic fare of soft cheeses, cured meats and antipasti, I even maged to find some Gluten Free bread! We drove part of the way back to Josephines before pulling over to lay-by looking down the valley to eat our picnic-style dinner before heading back to Metting.
We woke early, aiming to be on the road by 0730. Josephine however, had other ideas and insisted we stayed for breakfast; She’d laid on quite a spread with freshly baked breads, pastries, cured meats, boiled eggs, homemade jam and yogurts. Again, the Gluten barrier was proving quite tricky! Luckily I still had some of the bread from last night so I filled up on Jam sandwiches while sneaking the pastries and bread presented to me to Dad when she turned her back!
Back on the Road…
Once we’d said our goodbyes to Josephine, the other guests and the roadworkers who turned up for breakfast we finally hit the road. Dad and I ploughed up the map towards Metz, covering page after page of the map before eventually making our way through Luxembourg. We were making good progress so a ride in Belgium was looking increasingly likely, as was a visit to the famous Centrum De Ronde cycling Museum in Oudenaarde, I was so excited. After a quick mid morning truck-stop coffee to perk us up after our belly full of breakfast we had Brussels in sight by Midday, the trusty satnav wouldn’t take us around the outskirts but instead opted to take us straight through the heart of the city, but actually it was great! A small but beautiful city, with fantastic architecture, lots of bikes and typically metropolitan coffee shops on every street.
We passed through Brussels reasonably quickly, it was nothing like any cross-city drive in the UK, much more photogenic and hassle-free. On the way I’d been googling potential rides that would include the Paterberg and Kwaremont, two of the most famous cobbled climbs in the spring classics. I struck gold with cyclinginflanders.cc who had a number of download-able route maps that could be synced straight to my Garmin. Due to time constraints and “Value for Riding” I opted to ride the 50 km “Eddy Merckx Route” . This would start and finish in the small town of Ruien- where Merckx claimed the last of his incredible 525 victories- not far from the Centrum De Ronde Museum.
The sleek and modern looking “Centrum De Ronde” museum stands in stark contrast to the gothic cathedral in the cobbled centre of Oudenaarde, surrounded by bustling cafes, rows of shops and full of the usual hubbub of a european town. I was so excited to finally get to see the museum I’d seen in my cycling magazines at home, I love all cycling history, from the more recent modern rivalries and scandals to the epic battles of the 50’s and 60’s, but the Belgian classics, especially the Tour of Flanders, are such iconic races, the riders who participate are more like gladiators that cyclists.
The visit didn’t dissappoint as at the entrance of De Ronde, is Merckx’s old Molteni team car gleaming in its’ iconic orange, behind the car spanning the whole length of the museum are the Cobblestone trophies given to the winners of De Ronde Van Vlaanderen, one of, if not the most famous of one day races. I looked at every single one from the earlier era of Rik Van Looy, Tom Simpson, Merckx, De Vlaeminck and the two wins by Goodefroot 10 years apart, to the Legendary wins by Cancellara, Boonen, Devolder and Sagan era. I would’ve paid money just to look at the cobblestones.
We paid our 12 Euros entry and were given our English translation booklet as all the displays and articles would be in Flemmish. The current exhibition looks at the role of champion cyclists during the first world war as messengers and spies, the bicycle being the perfect mode of transport for covert operations, this was followed by a Virtual Reality experience of wartime cycling on a static bike. The rest of the museum had everything a Flandrian Fanatic could ask for; Greg Van Avermaets’ winning BMC Team-machine bike, Tom Simpsons’ actual jersey, (his actual jersey!!) it even had The Lion of Flanders’ himself; Johan Museuws’ Mapei Colnago C40.
I was in heaven. In the next room was the legendary Flandria team car, complete with spare bikes and tannoy system exactly as it would have been in Freddy Maertens time. More memorabilia fills the room and everywhere I look I see more and more history such as Lizzie Armitsteads’ S-Works tarmac, Pauline Ferrand-Prevots’ Rabobank World Champions jersey, a whole wall full of bottles from different teams over the years and life sized cardboard cut-outs of recent winners. Once through the museum we passed through the gift shop, I buy some bottles and a PDM Cassettes race cap, I had to buy something! We use our entry ticket to get a free coffee or Kwaremont beer in the adjoining cafe. I’m a big time fanboy, I’ve read tonnes of cycling books, watched films and old race tapes so I feel I sort of know who’s who in the sport, so I’m pretty sure it was Freddy Maertens sat at the bar with his beer watching the Cycling on the T.V!
With De Centrum de Ronde ticked off my bucket list It was time for me to have my own taste of the famous cobbles… we drove a few miles down the road for me to start the Eddy Merckx route, as well as the route on my Garmin there would be route markers along the way keeping me on course, in fact there were a number of route markers taking you on different loops in the area including the full Ronde course the professional riders would race, over 200 km!
Unfortunately Dad didn’t fancy it, understandably he couldn’t see the appeal of riding on the cobbles but was happy to drive around and watch at various points along the way with his cuppa. I set off on my ride barely able to conceal the huge grin on my face, I was going to be riding on on famous roads! I’d opted to ride my Ritte Vlaanderen with its more classic frame shape and more comfortable geometry, over the stiffer and less forgiving Cervelo S5. Aerodynamics weren’t going to be a factor today, besides, the Ritte was actually called the “Vlaanderen”, if I was going to ride it anywhere, this was surely the place.
The Ritte was equipped with Sram Red, Ritchey finishing kit and Mavic CXR 60mm tubular wheels which was hardly ideal, but at least I wouldn’t get a pinch flat. How harsh could the cobblestones be anyway?… Turns out, pretty harsh!
I started a little past the official route start so I began by staring at my Garmin in fear of making a wrong turn, I needn’t have worried as the route markers were pretty consistent and easy to see. I eased myself into the ride by coasting along the concrete Belgian backlanes before quickly being met by the first of the famous climbs; The Oude Kwaremont. At 2200 meters long with an 89 metre gain It averages just 4% to begin with, then builds to a maximum 11.6% in the middle where it eases to the summit. The gradient wasn’t an issue compared to the Italian slopes and the short sharp nature of it reminded me of Cornish climbs, it was the surface that was the issue. I’d heard the “cobbles as big as babies’ heads” before but dismissed it as hype and scaremongering, but man, these were crazy! I’d ridden on cobblestones prior to this ride, even in Italy but nothing like this, this was an assault on all the senses, I fought hard to keep the pedals turning as the hefty cobbles shook my hands and arms violently around, throwing away any sort of rhythm I had. The gaps between the stones snatched at my wheels, and the vibrations seemed blur everything momentarily.
I remember watching Cancellara attacking Chavanel and Sagan after the third time up the Kwaremont in the E3 Harelbeke, he seemed to float over the cobbles, his head staying perfectly stable and his legs hammering away like pistons on the pedals, powerfully yet smoothly, basically the complete opposite of whatever it was I resembled!
Sure enough Dad was at the top, camera in hand, documenting my happiness. Once the Kwaremont started to flatten out near the top the ferocious cobbles gave way to smaller, polished and much smoother stones where I could regain my momentum and composure again. I Weaved through more of the peaceful lanes before turning onto a long concrete road which was painted with the names and dates of each winner of De Ronde. As I rode by each of the names I tried to guess who would come up next, I didn’t get the highest score. I dutifully doffed my cap at Tommy Simpsons name and stopped at the first of Cancellaras’ wins before passing Boonen, Devolder and Sagan.
After the pleasant but brief relief of a concrete road, its back on to the winding, dusty lanes typical of the region, skirting around the fields before thankfully having to descend the Rampe -another famously hard cobbled climb- rather than ride up it, I think its actually easier going up the cobbles rather than going down, at least you have some sort of control overthe speed and the rattling, trying to pick a line down the cobbles is quite something.
Having tackled the Rampe in one piece, an easier and mellow ride on the stunning, tree-lined Keuzeligenstraat was my reward. I still couldn’t believe I was riding in such an incredible place, the grin was well and truly on. As I started to relax into the narrow and windy lanes I turned right and the then sharply left where I was met with the colossal wall of the Paterberg. I couldn’t believe it, it was so sudden and unexpected, one minute I was on a normal road, like somebody’s driveway and then the next minute, boom, there’s the legendary Paterberg! Topping out at 20.33% with an average gradient of over 12% for a total of 43 painful metres, it’s one of the toughest climbs in the region, mega steep and mega cobbles! My heart rate soared and my grin changed to more of a grimace as I rattled up the climb. But where to ride? in the middle or in the gutter? It didn’t seem to matter, it was bumpy as hell everywhere and my legs were taking a beating.
With the Cobbles done for the time being it was back onto “proper roads” for the Hotond-Hoogberg ascent, a 2.7 km long drag but on comfortable Tarmac without a single cobblestone in sight, I saw the first riders i’d seen all ride in the distance so pushed on, wishing it to be a older De Vlaeminck or a recovering Philippe Gilbert, turns out it was neither and just a guy out for a ride, not knowing the climb I’d pushed on early and now had to hold my pace for the rest of the 107 metres, oops.
The remainder of the ride took me on a speedy but relaxing cruise alongside the River banks of The Scheldt. I passed a few more riders, not really knowing whether to say Bonjour or Hello, I probably should’ve read up on Flemmish greetings prior to the ride. Interestingly all the riders’ i’d seen had been riding either Merckx, Ridley or Colnago, each one with it’s own ties to the region. I weaved through the industrial town of Kerkhove, passing cement works and various other factories before finally crossing the line of the Eddy Merckx route on the smooth, cobbled street in Ruien where, 40 years and 352 days earlier, the Cannibal himself had crossed the line hands aloft.
What a great ride, it may have been short and sweet but it certainly crammed a lot of things in, the climbs were savage but knowing the riders who had previously ridden them, I really enjoyed them. Cycling is one of the only sports where you can get so close to the professionals and ride the same roads as them, imagining you are them, you can’t play football in the San Siro or Rugby at Twickenham so I think cycling can feel much closer and more real.
Obviously the race itself and the build up was very exciting and now that its over I can say I enjoyed it, but the Eddy Merckx route was definitely one of my highlights. My only regret is that I didn’t push my Dad enough to ride it with me, the ride we did back in Mezzomerico was so special I wished I’d shared this with him too. But, I guess it gives me an excuse to come back again, maybe this time I’ll do the driving!
A bike re-pack and quick change later, we made the final advance to Dunkirk ferry terminal, we showed our passports and boarded the ship. Doing the very British thing we drifted through the duty free before heading to the restaurant deck to wolf down some hot food before buckling in for the long haul with playing cards. Farewell Belgium, Hello Great Britain.
I always feel the journey always takes twice as long on the way home, the ferry crossing was quite a rolling one and we were quite happy to back on terra-firma. It was starting to get dark as we left the terminal for the last leg of our adventure, summer was on the way out and Autumn was on the way in. we filled up with fuel ready to tackle the last hurdle before home, driving on the right side of the road made everthing feel more familiar, surely the home-stretch would be the easiest bit?
Our first issue arose with the closure of the M20 between 11pm and 6am, pretty much the time we’d be travelling. Bummer. We battled with the satnav for a while, taking the scenic route through many unmemorable towns before coming back on the A303, we were both pretty tired and despite my efforts to get Dad to share the driving he wasn’t keen and tried to get me to sleep. We stopped off a few times for emergency supplies; Coffee, Jelly babies, Tangfastics and even a Redbull!
As we came across and overcame more roadworks and road closures the miles soon started ticking by, we debated stopping the night somewhere, but once it had got past 2am we didn’t really see the point. Travelling at that time of night is a weird feeling, there isn’t any scenery or anything to look at, there’s hardly anyone else on the road apart from the occasional lorry, you’re driving through different counties and regions reasonably quickly so the radio stations are in and out too. (The Vans’ radio is pretty shitty too) The end of a trip is never fun and exciting, it’s just a necessary journey to get back to reality. We crossed the Cornish boarder as the sun was starting to rise, conversation had run dry too, we just wanted our beds. 6am came and went, a text from Mum asking when we were due back was all the pick-me-up we needed as we stopped for the last time just outside Truro. The home straight.
I’d driven through Truro at this time of the morning loads for Time Trialling on the A30 and the S6 but this felt different; everyone going about their daily commutes and morning routines, why didn’t they know where we’d just driven from? Why were the traffic lights not guiding us home with green lights all the way? Tiredness was at an all time high.
7:27am. Home. Finally.
Porthleven, we’d done it, home at last. We pulled onto the drive, switched off the van and just sat there for a second, relieved. What a drive, what a trip! The bikes could wait ’til later on, right now I just needed my bed. Mum and the Dog had other ideas and wanted hear all about the trip. Shattered, I flopped onto the sofa and drank my cup of tea, home flavoured tea, from my kettle, in my mug. Bliss.
I’d thouroughly enjoyed my european adventure, I’d brokn it down into three parts; the getting there, the race and then the journey back, each part was fun in it’s own different way. The race is what I would call “Type 2 fun” as in, it was fun but only once i’d finished it, i’m not so sure I had “fun” during if that makes sense?
The highlights for me would be the climb up the Mottarone in Italy, I had the whole mountain to myself and a full scale mountain at that! The feeling of flying along in a big peloton during the Gran Fondo race was fantastic too. The Flandrian cobbles and the museum trip was definitely up there aswel, I was like a kid at christmas and I still talk about it constantly. But number 1 on the list would be the pre-race ride around Mezzomerico, 20miles of zero-effort, flat land riding with my Dad. As before mentioned, i don’t get to ride with my Dad too often, and to do so in a different country through such a scenic part of the world was so special.
A massive thankyou to my Dad, as far as travelling companions go he’s awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to share the whole experience with. Another shout out to my local bike shop and JD the mechanic for sorting every cycling related issue i’d have and supplying me with all the tasty Veloforte bars and Torq products I could need.
And lastly, thanks to you guys and girls for reading..
Now, Just Go Ride.
My European roadtrip in GB colours.
This post is part of a three blog series following on from my Journey to “The Worlds”… check it out if you haven’t already…
So I’d qualified for The Gran Fondo World Championships in Varese, Italy and I was stoked! I’d never raced in another country and only really ridden on the “wrong side of the road” a few times before.
Being Gluten Intolerant and visiting the home of all things deliciously Gluten-full was also a concern. My recently retired Dad said he’d like to come with me and that driving the van down would be a good roadtrip, it also allowed me to take a few bikes and not have to worry about luggage limits or costs incurred by flying. The van stocked with Gluten Free bread, pasta, noodle pots, porridge, Cereal and beer, we started our route; Porthleven to Dover, Sleep, then Ferry to Dunkirk, Eat, Dunkirk through Belgium, Luxembourg, down to Strasbourg, Sleep, and then the final push down through Switzerland and into Italy 1,090 Miles…with no radio, and a lot of rain…