Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Day

Charlotte and I went for a chilled walk on Christmas Day. We were lucky to witness this incredible sky; enjoy and Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Only one finish line

December. 6 am. Pitch black. The horizontal misty rain wraps around me, blown on the blasting but unusually warm south westerly wind. It was far from ideal conditions for a mission over Garburn Pass. But, being a ‘prepare the night before, get up, go, and ask no questions’ type, creates a robotic response that overrides logic and reason; the body acts and the mind follows. Habit is a very powerful tool. Getting out this early on a Sunday morning also stirs magical childlike emotions; a bit like having a midnight feast whilst everyone else is asleep; a deserted Lake District all for me.

This entry could have also been titled, ‘Baptise my Bootleg’ as this was my first big ride on the new team bike; how would we get on...? This entry could have been called many things because riding in the Lakes stirs so many emotions; it empties my mind of the day to day junk and fills me with focused enthusiasm for mountain biking. I just love the type of trails you find here.
Speaking of enthusiasm, my upcoming Coast to Coast attempt has given me plenty to get animated about over winter... what a fantastic challenge! Fitness is obviously a factor but this is hardcore mountain biking. What will prepare me for the challenge? Why, lots of hardcore mountain biking that’s what! (‘Really dear, I would love a lie in but unfortunately I MUST do this bit of reconnaissance...’).

So that was the plan; over Jenkins Crag, Garburn Pass, out to Mosedale and back. Joystick on helmet I scrambled up to Jenkins; half decomposed winter leaves had fallen and formed a thick slimy sludge that made traction elusive. Despite having ridden over this hill a hundred times, the plunging bridleway down past Town End and into the valley bottom was not a route I had used before. My Coast to Coast reccy missions so far have taken me on routes similar to those I’ve done so many times, but added some interesting new twists...

Onto the start of Garburn. First light was just breaking faintly through the mist as I struggled on the edge of traction, kicking just enough to clear another rock maze. The ridge above me started to take shape but as I gained elevation it was clear this was not a good day; the wind swirled and gusted and the rain turned from misty to heavy... By the time I crested the pass the gale was so strong it was drowning out the blasting techno playing on my MP3... and it was time to think soberly about the descent. On a clear day this steep, loose and technical drop is ‘challenging’. In half light, with a river flowing down it and buffeting gales it leaned towards suicidal... Drop your saddle and hang on to your hat; we’re going down! The surefooted confidence of my new Bootleg blew me away. I hit all the lines to the inch and at no point was I in danger of loosing it. The steepest section has some big boulders down the middle that are raised above the rest. This is the fastest but hairiest line. I pinned it and dropped out the other side at full tilt dying to hit the switchbacks.... oh yes; we were going to get along just fine!

Down in the valley I got some respite from the blasting wind up top. Cruising over to Sadgill I rode another track that was new territory; a BOAT with some of the steepest, rockiest hairpins in the Lakes... just what Traffic could you get over there?!?

It was soon after that I realised what a serious undertaking the Coast to Coast is. Bad conditions made me lazy; I should have got the map out again but even in the valley, the map would end up wrapped around me like a big soggy sheet of papier-mâché (The Satmap has many advantages!). I turned right too early and ended up on exposed, marshy and wind swept moor land. I pushed on for quite a while before I realised my mistake.... and I wasn’t even tired. Yorkshire Dales at midnight after fourteen hours in the saddle? This will demand pure focus and concentration.

Anyway, at this point I decided to call it a day; I had cracked another key section of the route. I retraced my steps back to Ambleside.

My schoolboy error on the fell had really made me think. There will be no margin for error on the epic solo ride I will be attempting. There will be no friend to keep me on track when my head goes. No lap times to gauge pace by. No, ‘Is it one or two more laps till the end?’ No pat on the back or words of encouragement from friends and spectators. Most crucially there is only one finish line. How long will it take to get there?

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Insult to injury...

Why is it that the first thing anybody asks me following Sunday’s pussy action is, ‘So how was the cat?’

‘Lucky to be alive’, I reply…

‘If it hadn't scarpered, I would have finished the little b*****d off!’

(Animal rights activists need not apply).

Sunday, 14 December 2008

When Animals Attack.

Today was to be an early one and a morning spent on my CX bike. Heading into the Northumbrian hills as the sun rose and the snow radiated its own eerie light was a very special start to the day. The snow got gradually thicker and it became apparent that a great deal had fallen over night.

I was struck by my attachment to Northumberland; it may not have the grandeur and scale of the Alps or the Greek mountains for example, but it is incredibly atmospheric, unspoilt and peaceful and that’s why I love it. I am sure many cyclists feel similar emotions when they ride their patch. Perhaps this is because when on a bicycle we have the time to notice the nuances of the landscape around us; to explore at a speed that allows us to see so much and at the same time absorb it all...

The winter weather was doing some extraordinary things. There were patches of freezing fog that would suddenly be punctuated by an unexpected gap exposing electric blue sky. Temperature inversions produced thick swamp like clouds that wallowed in the valleys below me whilst snow flurries drifted across the silent fell tops. Wish I’d had my proper camera! Well, turned out to be a very good thing that I hadn’t brought it...

The snow got too thick to continue deeper into the hills so I changed tack and headed out to the East towards the coast. This way I could check the surf... recently the East coast has been getting some the most consistent quality swells it’s ever seen.

The road had cleared by this stage and I congratulated myself for negotiating some pretty treacherous conditions...

Mr. Tiddles lay by the fire, stretched, licked his balls and thought about the exciting things he would get up to today. Life on the farm was fun and Mr Tiddles told his brother just what lucky cats they were to live in such a beautiful place. ‘How about we go and explore the woods over the road?’ Mr Tiddles suggested. His brother thought this was a splendid idea on a crisp winter day; ‘But we’ll need to be careful crossing the road’.

‘Bollocks’, said Mr Tiddles, ‘Let’s pin it as hard as possible, not taking a blind bit of notice of anything. What are you bro; a cat or a pussy?’

‘OK, Mr T. Let’s do it...’
I had about 2 nanoseconds to clock the cats because I was going about 30mph... not even enough time to pull a kitty-hop. One of them smacked into my front wheel and flipped it from under me. There is something particularly horrible about road bike crashes. It’s the suddenness, the no time to respond and the downright hardness of concrete.... add to this a 10 meter slide on my hip and you’ve got a recipe for pain. I lay there for a while wondering if I’d broken anything. Yes I had! Flippin STIs, mudguards, mobile phone, torn clothes... and I had some pretty nasty gravel rash...

Oh well, only forty miles from home... unusually for this time of year I was not looking forward to getting into a hot shower...

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

I am Northern. I am weak.

Pack your shorts; we're heading South! It's Team Training Camp II; the Bristol edition.

After a white knuckle Steven King style drive from Northumberland (freezing fog / zero visibility) I arrived late on Friday night and installed myself in a boozer round the corner from Rob's until he turned up (it was purely to keep warm you understand). Rob resisted the cold clutches of 'The Fish' (a nickname that I personally feel is completely misleading) and it was time to hit the hay for an early start on Saturday. Tomorrow was Christmas Day. Well sort of; it was '09 New Ironhorse Team Bike Day which is much the same thing. The team was also doing a photo shoot... and it was going to be cold.

The whole team hooked up and we headed over to Ashton Court to meet IH Martin and our New Friends. My personal New Friend is called Bootleg and out of the box the bike looked spot on for me. The elegant single pivot design combined with some well thought out colour coordination make the Bootleg one slick looking machine. (Watch this space for pics of the bike after I have complimented it with some personal spec choices).

We set off into the woods and found some choice locations for some photos. After several 'One more times' we got the shots we were after. Can't wait to see the results. But I didn't say it was cold, did I? My kidneys were actually vibrating by the time we got back to Ashton Court cafe for greasy burgers and lashings of tea. Oh well; I don't think anyone noticed and my 'Hard Northerner' persona survived another day. Back to Rob and Zoe's for a 'Team Talk' and some top scran courtesy of Zoe. Clive and I then hit boozer and I once more demonstrated that a Geordie can actually visit a Public House and leave without getting mortal (just).

Early start; I've never been to Afan before and I was really looking forward to it. But boy it was cold! I had to change my stem before I set off and I felt like that bloke in Touching the Void; you know when he's hanging trapped on the rope and he has to try and use the little loops of cord to climb back up the rope but his hands won't work? It was kind of like a bike mechanic's version of that... Anyways, it was quite a big group that set off up the climb. Well, I say set off; what I really mean is tore off up the hill like monkeys after coconuts. Leading the charge was Martin, proving yet again that downhillers also go up! We stopped at the top for a breather. It was then that I realised Martin is actually an alien from planet Zarg... he was wearing shorts and a short sleeved top! Oh my God! It was about minus five!!! (I was wrapped up in the finest thermal swag along with Diver Style neoprene overshoes....) My kidneys were again on the critical list and it took my best efforts to not to whinge like a small child. Some of the girls that were with us also had short sleeves on.... (I must tell them about the Bigg Market...). It was then that I realised; I am not a true Notherner. My genetic make-up is all wrong.

When we got moving again, (my enthusiasm was probably a little obvious) we did some great traversing and descending. It was only a small portion of Afan but enough to make me want to return one day. The Bootleg was spot on for this type of trail; fast and flowing with the odd lip to pop off.

So after a Gullivers Travels size portion of Welsh Rarebit I headed off in The Volvo of Truth back to sunny Northumberland. Never again will I make jokes about Soft Southerners!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

[Insert ‘cross-training’ wordplay here]

Yep; it’s that time of year when ingenious ‘cross’ titles appear in magazines and websites everywhere! Well, no not here! No siree! But I have started doing ‘It’ and for good reason. Too many road miles, a gait like a guerrilla, and the realisation that a good Coast-to-Coast crossing will depend on far more than just spinning the cranks, have released me from ‘repetitive training syndrome’. With a series of severe bike carries on the Coast-to-Coast, I realised that I have to strengthen the muscle groups that we don’t use when seated on a bike. You know the ache you get in your lower back when you have a severe push / carry? Well, I need to mitigate against that; I must finish this section relatively unscathed if the sub 24 barrier is to be a possibility…

So what do you do? Take one big steep hill and a backpack with 8 kilos in it. Go for a nice walk! A few of these and lo and behold; I can feel the strength developing in my legs and lower back! It’s also a great way to spend the day with humans who are not obsessive compulsive (that’s Charlotte, that is!).

Another great activity for countering the negative physical impact of being hunched over bars is surfing and I’ll be doing plenty this winter. Pulling your shoulders back, arching your back and paddling all perfectly counter the impact of bike posture. Flexibility is key and comes naturally whilst surfing. Most importantly though, it’s flippin’ brilliant fun! Surfing is one of those activities that massively boosts your fitness, but you never feel like you are doing ‘exercise’. Winter is the season (!) in these parts and perhaps growing up surfing in The North Sea has contributed to my tolerance for physical discomfort….

Press ups, sit-ups, static stretches…. a bit of that too; it’s all good. Grab a couple of minutes here and there and it’s amazing what you can fit in. The sheer variety of my new ‘training’ approach has been thoroughly liberating; the massive rides are no longer routine and I’m feeling stronger all the time.

Oh, and last but not least there’s the CX bike I’ve just ordered…. Can’t wait to get some big half on / half off-road rides in during the endurance building phase.

See! Not a single bit of dodgy wordplay in sight!

Monday, 17 November 2008

Thirsty work

Here we go for another weekend in the lakes. It was serious stuff; The Team was in town! I arrived about 7 ish to meet Rob and Clive in Sienna's for a bite to eat. Thing is, I'd had a long hot day in the office... so the first pint didn't touch the sides. And erm, neither did the 2nd, 3rd, 4th ... To cut a long story short, it was a late finish...

Up at the crack of oh, ten ish, we drove through to Ambleside area and set off over Claiffe Heights. Nice rolling descent down to Hawkshead and then over to Knipe fold; some fun rock slabs to skitter across with the back drop of some great scenery. We then headed through Hodge Close, batted through 'Machine Gun Alley' and headed over past Tilberthwaite; it wasn't the first time I was impressed by Clive's technical climbing skill. (Well, I suppose it is just DH in reverse!) We then headed back round on the road to Ambleside and called it a day.

Dave pulled up in Keswick around seven, we had a good dose of my dad's chilli, Clive headed off for an evening in Manchester, and we headed (back) to the pub. Again the occasion got the better of us and we all ended the night fully hydrated... (well, we had to drink Josh's share as he was at home 'doing homework' apparently!)

Day two; the classic Skiddaw loop. The weather was perfect, the trail is a classic that I never get bored of. We headed up Dash Falls, past Skiddaw House and then hugged the right hand side of the valley. Once again Clive showed how great bike handling skills can apply to the ups as well as the downs by clearing the maze of rocks up the right side of the valley. We turned left at the Skiddaw car park, dropped through the ruts to the East of Lattrig and then headed back across the face of the hill on some fun woodland singletrack.

Plenty of tea and apple pie later (no really!) we went our seperate ways. The next 'training camp' is in two weeks... let's just keep it away from any pubs shall we?

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Grand Day Out

Just had a corking long weekend in the Lakes in the good company of Genesis rider Paul Errington. The idea had been to make it a Big One and do some reconnaissance for the Coast to Coast. I know the Lakes well but the idea was to ride a large section of the Lakes Coast to Coast as it will be done on the day of my attempt; something I hadn’t done before.

However, Friday was an eight hour meander around Claiffe Heights, Hodge Close, Grizedale, Tilberthwaite….. etc. etc. A sort of ‘pick and mix’ of some great low level stuff (this was deliberate as the weather was ‘borderline’). Saturday was forecast to be clearer; perfect for going ’over the top’!…. (Which we royally did!).

We set off from Coniston, up the wall like climb that takes you to the start of Walna Scar Road. We were going for an out and back along the Coast to Coast route dependent on time. The descent down Walna is an absolute screamer; smooth and flat out for about a third of the hill and then you hit the gnarl at full tilt! And it’s looong! Classic stuff! Across the dodgy slippery stepping stones on the Duddon River and up and over Dunnerdale fell… boggy and slow going (we were going ‘against the grain’). Past the bottom of Wrynose Pass…. (Not today thank you!). Up behind Boot and on to Burnmoor tarn, where we stopped for a bite to eat and took the chance to soak up the stunning view of Wasdale Head. The air was clear with the northerly winds and there was snow on the tops…. Autumn is the best season! It had taken us four hours to get this far…. We turned around with the unspoken knowledge that we were going home in the dark…

Incident No. 1. On Dunnerdale fell, like particularly stupid lemmings we both rode into a freezing bog and ended up to waists in freezing water…. And the sun was going down….By the time we started descending into the Duddon valley it was lights on.

Incident No. 2. My old Nite-Rider light bulb blew! (I stopped making jokes about being eaten by bears at that point). Luckily Paul had two lights and we plodded on through the murky boulder strewn forest… The climb back up Walna is a beast…. And we were freezing; the northerly wind was howling by this point and as we were wet we really had to keep moving.

I thought the descent back to Coniston would be an exercise in caution and reserve. But something magical washed over me… I rode better on that descent than I have done in years (even on a warm sunny day!). It’s a long, steep, fast plummet with some gnarly tech problems thrown in. But I was just placing my front wheel to the millimetre…. picking through rock mazes at speed… dropping of slabs; lights pointing skyward leaving a big black void under me… (Have you ever had that feeling that you couldn’t crash if you tried?) I forgot I was on a bike; I was just flying through boulder gardens like I was on air. Miles below us fireworks exploded from a bonfire…. The surreal view just added to the intensity of the experience. These were some of the most incredible moments I have ever spent on a bike. We dropped in Coniston, both of us literally shaking from the adrenalin! Back to Keswick for a curry and a pint of Cobra… perfect!

Respect to Paul for turning up with an ‘OK, whatever you fancy’ mindset… That’s the spirit!

Steppping into the void

My non-24hour racing friends, (and surprisingly, that is most of them!) cannot get their head around what us 24hr racers do. Who can blame them? It’s ridiculous! Most importantly, you’ve really got to want to do it… ‘and why would you want to do it?’ they ask. I explain, that for me the main attraction is completing something that you were unsure that you could do before you started.

Well, I now know that I can ride laps for 24 hours. Endurance racing will always be fun and challenging for me. I know I can go faster and harder. But I know I can go the course.

The Coast to Coast in under 24 hours? I just don’t know if it’s possible. I don’t know what it will feel like. And that tingle of excitement, that uncertainty and ‘awe of the undertaking’ is something that I haven’t felt since completing my first 24hr race last year. And it’s so good to have that feeling back.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The birth of the Stupid Idea (SI)

From a young age I’ve been afflicted by SIs. Often, as people get older, (and frequently their physical ambitions becomes dulled by too much driving, TV, booze, comfort….) their SIs seem to diminish in frequency and scale. I consider myself exceptionally fortunate; nowadays I’m getting hit by SIs on an increasingly regular basis and, (as a result of 24hr racing?) the size of the SIs is also increasing.

One particular SI has been lurking in the shadows for a couple of years now. Something on the back burner that I might get round to eventually. Until now, I hadn’t considered giving it a serious shot…. But suddenly…


The timing of The Urge has also coincided perfectly with Rob’s 7DSs project and the direction of The Team and it’s this:

The Coast to Coast (the hard core Lakes, Dales, Moors one) in one sitting. Daunting! In under 24 hours? Who knows! Up for it? Damn right!

The planning has started!

The highs and lows of '08

It’s been a bizarre year – euphoria one day; despair the next. And my first ‘real’ race season. It went something this….

Signed up to Ironhorse-Extreme. Hurrah! Face planted the tarmac from the road bike… Doh! And Oooowyaah! Broken jaw… liquid diet… right in the middle of the key endurance building phase in my training. First race for Ironhorse-Extreme… pairs with Rob… great fun… whistling just inches past the trees in Sherwood Pines in the dark…. Not what the Doctor ordered! Wildboar…. Wildly Boring but met some cool characters. Mountain Mayhem…. intense, funny, hairy. 10 @ Kirroughtree… fun-tastic… punishing. Sleepless in the Saddle… like Mayhem but without the danger elements… and (even) more ‘bike walking’. Married the lovely (and extraordinarily patient) Charlotte. Tropical island honeymoon… surfing… lounging... relaxing. Came home… house sank in flood. (Saved the bikes though). Back to the drawing board in so many respects.

Ideas and opportunities blossom at the strangest times. The crazy year that’s just passed has truly been one of exceptional highs and ‘out of the blue’ lows. Fortunately though, the turbulence of recent times has bucked me off a slope I was slipping down…. Doing ‘what we’ve always done’ can be a dangerous thing. Imagination can be dulled and ‘riding to become a better mountain biker’ can so easily turn into repetitive and ineffective training (and even worse it becomes plain ‘training’ rather than Riding). So I’ve started to mix things up and I’m noticing the benefits already, both mentally and physically. Some crazy ideas that have lurked at the back of my mind for a long time are now jumping up and down in front of me. This time they aint going to go away unsatisfied…. ’09 starts here.