Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The long road to Mille Cymru 1000km 2018

Some rides require more preparation than others, but this one was exceptional. It began in 2009 - over 8.5 years before we’d finally complete it. This blog post is not so much a ride report as a biography of our cycling over this time, and the defining event that bookends this period.

Along the way we did far more than simply prepare for this one ride to rule them all. We’d discover more about ourselves, our motivations, our loves and causes for laughter, pain and sufferfesting, meet many friends, travel to new continents and go so many new places take on challenges and achieve all sorts of things we never thought we’d attempt. I can trace it all back to a day in October  2009, Saturday the 17th.  I was visiting California on a 3 week work trip. I had rented a nice road bike (in lieu of a rental car to commute to the office) and wanted to get some fun rides in. For context, at the time I’d never owned a proper drop-bar road bike so this was quite novel. I decided on that Saturday to cycle up from Palo Alto to San Francisco to see the city. Google Maps said I should just follow HW82 / El Camino Real for the 40 mile ride, so that’s what I set out to do.
Anyone that knows the area will know El Camino as possibly the least inspiring and most frustrating way to get anywhere by bike along the peninsula. It drags through urban sprawl, endless charmless malls, and constantly punctuated by long waits at stop lights on giant intersections, the whole way. After 10 miles I was bored out of my mind and randomly took the next left turn to see where it led.
Long story short, it led me to the San Andreas fault, along Crystal springs reservoir, then up over the Santa Cruz mountains via Highway 92 all the way to Half Moon bay on the coast. I rode the coast rode for a while, failing to find a better route back, so eventually retraced my steps up the 92 to Skyline Boulevard and climbed that higher still along the mountain ridge line until eventually descending HW 84 into Stanford university campus, just as dusk fell, and quickly retreating to my hotel just north of there.
I was mesmerized. I was hooked. I couldn’t believe the quantity of climbing I’d done that day, nor how exhilarating the whole adventure had been.

I started planning my next bicycle purchase. My first road bike. I started researching exciting ride opportunities for the coming season that I could work towards, that would justify the purchase.

Rainbow over Llyn Brianne

It so happened right about that time that Mille Cymru had been recently announced and discussed at length on the yacf forum we follow. It was generating an awful lot of attention. Having got the ‘bug’ for climbing, and knowing Wales had some of the best mountain roads available in the UK, I started following this thread closely. Very closely. Within a month of that fateful day in California, entries were open for the ride and it was filling up quickly. I emailed Emma one afternoon from work:

2009/11/18 Jonathan Dixon
Oh deary me,

Mille Cymru is already past 75% of its 60 entrant limit.
Thanks to online entry, I'm one click away from being in it.


Knowing Emma to be resolutely anti-climbing, even before becoming a tandem rider, in a month of discussing my new obsession she’d only expressed doubt. I thought at best she might volunteer to support the ride should enter it. Instead, I very swiftly received this reply:

2009/11/18 Emma Dixon

I had a thought  - if you're going to enter. I might as well too.....
Love Em

And that was that. A few hours later we were both entered, and committed to a whole new world of focused “training”, something we’d never dared think about before.

Over the winter and leading into the new season we became reclusive to our friends as we pursued a tough regime of challenging and hilly rides. We knew we had our work cut out for us, as not only were we new to long distance cycling (having only completed our first 300km+ ride that summer, let alone never entered anything really hilly) but also were adding additional challenge by intending to ride it on a tandem. And as every cyclist knows, Tandems Can’t Climb.

If I have a single memory of that period, aside from the pain, it was total amazement, awe, inspiration and impressedness at how Emma was tackling this challenge. She Didn’t Like Hills, but there she was taking on mountainous courses in order to get fit and able to credibly reach the startline of Mille Cymru. And somewhere along the way, she started to get a love for the mountains too.

Roll forward to the event, we were fitter and stronger than we’d ever been, entering into our first ever 3+ day event, we didn’t know how it was going to play out but we took everything as it came and surprised ourselves with how capably we were progressing through it. Until day 2, 600km mark, where I developed a nosebleed that would never end, and ultimately forced us to abandon.
It’s interesting to look back now on the various reflections we made of the ride, of of that year. We clearly new we’d been part of something bigger than ourselves, and quietly proud of how far we’d come in it, even despite that massive setback of not finishing it. And I remember just how proud I was of Emma, being the only female to attempt it, and clearly capable of finishing it had my wellbeing not let her down, despite her not wanting to climb even one hill just 8 months prior.

Training for MC1K set us up to train more intently for longer rides, such as Paris-Brest in 2011 and California Gold Rush in 2013. Training for and succeeding in longer rides set us up for being invited to, and being able to rise to the challenge of, our greatest achievement -- racing RAAM in 2015. RAAM opened the door to so many wonderful friendships and new confidence. And through the whole process we racked up a dozen or more 1000km+ rides in various continents, as well as going touring in some amazing places such as Patagonia and the Andes, that we’d never have dared think of doing just a couple years before.

But despite it all, there remained one “monkey on our shoulders”. Unfinished business. An appointment with a dragon.
Having relocated back to UK early 2018, when Mille Cymru 2018 was announced we were all ready to enter as soon as entries opened. This was going to be the year to finish unfinished business. But first, we’d need to get back fit enough to attempt it.
This was no small task, as moving countries and jobs and a bunch of other events made the training difficult, but with our improved experience we didn’t panic so much as 8 years ago, and just worked to get as fit as we could manage for the start line. As I’d summarized from our previous DNF - being 10% less fit really wouldn’t matter so long as I was 90% less unwell with a cold this time.

The saying goes that half the challenge of long distance riding is mental. While physical strength and fortitude requires continuous effort to maintain, mental strength follows a different decay curve. Having been so overwhelmed with worry about attempting MC1K in 2010, we’d gone to unheard of lengths to prepare. Training! Entering Alpine sportives! Riding the hilliest brevets on the calendar, with extra days of our own riding added on for good measure! Pre-riding and even driving parts of the MC1K course to demystify the horrors of the route. While we’d arrived at the start line quietly terrified, we took a long time to understand how well this prep had worked for us. On the second day, early in the grey misty and somewhat dreary morning, we’d passed numerous solo riders that had set out then soon turned back to the HQ control realizing their heads were not in the right place for 3 days of this. We’d silently passed them, not even wanting to acknowledge their passing to each other, for fear it would unleash our own thoughts of following suit. For years after this became an unspoken rule of ours: when feeling low don’t mention it! In audax a mental problem shared can quickly become a problem doubled! Nevertheless, we pulled through this tough start, and pulled through perhaps the most physically challenging section - along the Pembrokeshire coast - and as the day wore on we felt stronger and happier, knowing that we could do this! That was our lasting memory as we were forced to abandon and for the years after. Incredibly tough, but we could do it!

Approaching Snowdonia  - photo by Max

So roll on to 2018 we were far less nervous hitting the start line. We didn’t push so very hard on the first day, and didn’t cut short our sleep quite as ruthlessly on the first night, having a quiet confidence that yes, this was tough, but we could do it. And day 2 was much the same: unrelentingly tough, but as the day wore on we found there was nothing we couldn’t do. Slowly, again, we got to the point of enjoying the riding more and had a cracking last couple hours along the River Tywi valley.
So on day 3, when we caught up with our friend Max, the San Francisco Randonneur power house, we were a bit shocked and surprised. We’d really not expected to see him again after the start. He had suffered quite hard, especially on day 2, due to steep hills bringing on knee pain he’d never known before, and also finding it difficult to find food he was familiar and comfortable with in the British controls. But also, and no doubt in no small part because of those setbacks, he was evidently struggling quite a bit with the mental aspect of the ride. He said it had been a quite lonely ride for him so far -- which for us was most notable due to the fact we knew Max had successfully completed longer and tougher rides solo, but riding on your own is when mental challenges are the toughest. It was no difficulty for us to hook up and ride with him: riding with solo bikes can be very tough on the tandem, and not something we’d actively looked to do on this already challenging ride, but we knew Max is a solid strong and above all steady rider that makes a superb compliment to our tandem speed. Our climbing rate could get frustrating slow for him but it was always his call whether to stay with us and for the next day and a bit he always chose to, as a good way to keep the knee pain in check, and to keep the company. Riding with him through to the end made an rewarding ride even more special, as it slowly dawned that we had extra mental strength banked up in reserve specifically for this one ride, and we could do some good in sharing it.

Having spent 8.5 years preparing, our minds remained strong to the end. It surprises me to this day that at no point did I consider the idea of giving up. On these multi-day challenges it’s normally a thought that bounces through the mind and then I push it back. But on MC1K it was never a flickering of a thought. We knew it was tough, but we knew we could do it.

At the arrivée - Things, and with Max

Sunday, June 24, 2018

So Long Roberta, and thanks for all the rides

Last weekend we had a wonderful 600km ride with Kingston Wheelers. Towards the end we heard a bang from the rear wheel, but everything seemed fine afterwards so assumed it was a stone thrown up and hitting the frame.
Unfortunately it looks like it was a more fatal failure.


This is a recurrence of the compete frame crack we had in Texas in October. It took months to repair and respray, and we've only managed 3 rides (1200km) since then. With this failure rate, it's time to thrown in the towel and retire this bike from service. 3 frame failures in under 2 years. It's unfortunate to be our newest and most expensive frame that's the first to pass on beyond viable use, but as a friend said "If you live on the bleeding edge, occasionally there will be blood".

RIP Roberta

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Colombia day N-1: Leaving Amazonia; the journey home.

Flying back to Bogotá from Amazonia feels like returning home from a foreign land. Partly because we've been in Bogotá several times now so it's starting to feel familiar - especially the hotel apartments we're staying in - but mostly because our Amazon experience has been one of the most unfamiliar experiences of our lives. There's little I've done that I can liken it to.
Being in the jungle is no doubt a memorable and unique experience for all that go there, but what really defined our trip was the decision to stay at Casa Gregorio in the indigenous village of San Martin de Amacayacu. It's hard to get one's head around the life story of this village, and even harder to capture in words. Let me try giving the context though. Just 50 years ago this Tikuna tribe were living deeper in the jungle in a single "Maloka" hut: 6+ families under a single palm leaf roof building with no internal walls. Now they have family houses with electricity (8 hours a day), satellite TV, village WiFi internet (maybe), mobile phone towers and of course smart phones for the older children. Yet no city water system, minimal sewage and many house lack a flushing toilet. Only half of houses have a front door and none at all have glass in the windows. 
If you feel your generation, or that of your parent's, saw huge social and technological changes just try and wrap your mind around how much this tribe has had change thrown on it. 
So, while we were in the Amazon to spend 4 nights discovering and absorbing the jungle, this was in fact more of a backdrop to the experience of learning how people that have lived and loved and breathed the jungle for as far back as their aural tradition goes. 
Our hosts, Heike and José (Dutch and Tikuna respectively) organize more than just board and lodgings but laid on transport and guides and teachers and a couple activities a day, walking in the jungle, traveling the rivers and lakes, spotting animals, learning about the native agriculture, fishing, pot making and other handcrafts, and so on. These were all enjoyable (save for the ever present mosquito bites) but the agriculture tour was a particular highlight. This really brought together the core of how the Takooma people live and work the land day to day. The plants grown in argicultral plots and harvested from the secondary forest provide a large portion of the food source for a family, obviously, but also provide building materials, paints, decorations, tools, transportation (i.e. boats), weapons, medicine and clothes.  The most versatile and crucial plants are palms (or many and various sorts) and yuccas.
Between the exploring and learning we also had a good relaxing time. With no internet at the accomodation (and barely any in the village) and few hours of electricity a day, it's a good unwind from all our usual habits and distractions. We seemed to spend a lot of time eating, none at all drinking, and grew a new appreciation of fresh pineapple. I never liked pineapple in the UK, and I think this will have redoubled that position.
We now fly to Bogotá for one night, dismantle and pack our tandem for the long haul flight back to London, where we'll arrive Friday all being well. Always so sad when such a eventful and fulfilling trip is coming to an end, but we're fully grateful for having had the time and opportunity to spend here in Colombia, and feeling a lot more reset and recharged for the next chapter of tandeming things - whatever thay may bring!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Colombia day 21: The last leg

Today was our final day cycling in Colombia. It's been a truly amazing experience, everything we'd hoped for and more. 
The day started unsurprisingly with some climbing to get us up and over the ridge into the Bogotá plain. We had originally thought that we might finish our tour in Honda and get a taxi to transport us and Dobbin back to Bogatá, as we'd heard that the climbs back up were heavily trafficked and uninspiring. In the end it was easier for us to cycle back, and with the help of Strava heatmap chose to climb up most of the way on a secondary road. This worked perfectly, the climbing yesterday was on one of the least trafficked roads we've had here, and the views were, of course spectacular. Being slightly off the main tourist and trucking routes also takes to smaller towns with a more authentic feel. The first hour today continued on the same road, where we had a couple of different cyclists ride with us and attempt to chat. Our Spanish is improving, but general conversation is still not really possible. We've got quite good at guessing the questions people ask about us and our trip and giving an appropriate response. Most of the time we have no idea if we've just answered the question asked though.

The last part of today's ride was on the busy autopista, and on a mixture of large roads and cycle paths into Bogotá. Standard fare for cycling into a major city, and while it seemed chaotic in places it's not that dangerous as everyone is moving along at around the same low speed. The segregated bike lanes (also segregated from the pedestrian paths), made a nice change from the chaos on the road.
We had a little change of plan when we turned up at the airport hotel we'd booked. They really were not happy about allowing bicycles inside, and insisted that it needed to be left outside. Given we were planning on leaving the bike at the hotel while we go and see the Amazon for a few days, this didn't seem like a sensible plan. Instead we made use of the free cancellation policy and rode in towards the centre, to stay at the hotel we stayed at when we first arrived in Colombia. About 10 minutes away from the hotel it started raining. Really, really heavily raining. Apparently it's been quite wet in Bogotá over the last few weeks, so it makes us feel good that we've been lucky with the weather. We pulled up at the hotel soaked through, but still received a really warm "welcome home" from the staff who quickly checked us in and found Dobbin a safe a dry place to sleep. 
We'll be resting tomorrow then fly to Leticia Saturday for 4 nights staying with an indigenous village in the jungle! This will likely be the last blog post of the trip, we'll aim to put a few photos and things on Facebook:

Colombia day 20: from bogs to Bogotá

The trick with long distance riding in lumpy terrain is keeping in mind the total climb in the ride, not the absolute altitude you're heading towards. This is a mindset I learnt when randonneuring, but turns out it applies pretty well to cycle touring too.
Reason I mention this is that our day consisted entirely of climbing into the Andes for the third time, on the home stretch towards Bogotá. Our stretch goal for the day was Guayabal de Síquima, which sits at a sweet 1630m elevation, 1400m higher than we started the day. If that's all there was to it, we'd have reached it just after lunchtime. However, as the road topology works here there was a sharp 500m drop immediately after hitting that target elevation, and then we got to spend 2+ hours of the afternoon regaining that height sweltering meter by meter, in 28C heat. The Relive video actually illustrates this pretty nicely:
Had we just been focused on getting to 1630m we'd have had a shock, but fortunately we'd figured out today had at least 2000m of total ascent so keeping that in mind it's much easier to track progress to the goal. 

Anyway, the day could have gone very differently indeed. It started off at about 5mins past midnight with Emma rushing to the bathroom with upset stomach. Something we ate last night hadn't settled well. Possibly the impossibly large fruit salad hadn't been prepared with the cleanest of water. Or maybe just the long day of riding into the heat had unsettled things. Combined with the insanely hot and humid room we were sleeping in (drawback of being back down by the river at 250m - along with the bugs!) it wasn't a restful night. Fortunately come sunrise at 6am Emma was feeling more settled so we were able to get up and out for an early start - if only to get out into cooler air before the sun really got going. Breakfast was tentatively eaten by Emma, but she found eggs and rice went down we'll, and at 7.45 we started the riding - that is to say, climbing - for the day. The temperature was soon at 29C, but happily the higher we crept the cooler it got.
The climb went back through the layers of vegetation and fauna we're now used to seeing with elevation change. There's the coffee plants. Now butterflies - including a second sighting of a huge 6" wingspan electric blue Morpho butterfly. 

(Not our photo)

Cambao had also been awash with stray dogs, mostly docile but we had to deal with a persistent begger while we were breakfasting. Poor thing obviously had a litter of pups somewhere, but seemed wrong to encourage it in someone else's town. Anyway all the way up the climb we saw regular ferrel perros ducking in and out of the undergrowth. Majority were tame but occasionally a pack of 3 or so mught take too much interest in the strange double headed tandem beast passing by and come barking and chasing us. Happily Emma has finessed her loud "NO" with teacher quality finger point, which does wonders in stopping them in there tracks (if occasionally nearly causes me to leap off the bike in shock).

We climbed slowly in order to not stress Emma's belly, and it seemed to work as she got stronger as the day went on. We were rewarded with great views, and a great lunch.

Our hostal tonight is one of the more unusual arrangements. The first hotel we stopped at wad locked up and banging the door gave no answer. Same with the second, but this time a hand written note said to call a number. I have it a go and got through first time. The guy that answered seemed a bit surprised, got the gist of what I was trying to ask in Spanish, then thankfully realized English would be easier for us both and he could speak it. And then he got a friend to come around and open it up for us. So we don't just have a room but a whole hostal to ourselves, including the front door key to come and go as we like. It's a very nice building with a roof terrace overlooking the town square. Interestingly the rather eccentric chap who cooked a burger for us at the nearest hole-in-the-wall eatery also spoke great English. This is in no way a tourist town so I guess just a sign we're getting back close to Bogotá.

Speaking of which, only about 65km remains to get back to the airport, with about 1000m of climbing. So we should be there sometime tomorrow afternoon! Can't believe this amazing tour is coming to a close, but it will leave us a few days free for the next chapter of our Colombia adventure, which Emma might write a bit about tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Colombia day 19: Ups and downs, lots of downs!

Today has been dominated by Nevada del Ruiz. Last night we were staying in a hotel with hot springs provided by that volcano and this morning we cycled up over the closest road pass to it before descending almost to sea level where we passed through the ghost town of Armero. This poor town was destroyed in the the eruption of the volcano in 1985. Unfortunately we didn't get to see the volcano today due to there being a lot of cloud this morning. 

We started out a little late having been unable to resist spending some more time feeding the hummingbirds and mockingbirds at the hotel. That was one of the most amazing and unexpected pleasures we've had on this trip. After a 500m climb taking us over 4000m altitude while cycling for only the second time - the other time was on our previous South America trip. We then had to descend before climbing to the Letras pass which was 300m lower than our highest point. There were a number of other climbs of 100m or more on the first half of the descent. Overall, it was definitely a day of descending though.
Due to our ever changing plans, we departed from our originally planned route on the descent and then turned South at Mariquita. This town marks the official start of the Letras climb 'the longest climb in the world'. There were plenty of bike shops in town which enabled us to pick up an spare chain in case of more failures. It took a couple of attempts to find though as the first shop we visited didn't carry anything so old fashioned as a 9sd chain! This road also took us through Armero. I remember covering a little bit about the tragedy there in Geography in school. A disaster which claimed 20 000 people out of a population of around 29 000, and occurred through a tragic combination of circumstances, miss-communication and lack of resources. There were several more thousand killed elsewhere in the same eruption, most notably in Chinchiná close to the coffee farm we visited a couple of days ago.

Our target destination for today was Cambao, a distance of 152km. A long day, but we made it into town as the sun set behind the mountains behind us. Tomorrow we start the long climb up to Bogatá.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Colombia day 18: getting into hot water via buckets of cold water

Today's ride went up. And up. And up.

Getting out of Manizales was exciting, as they don't do shallow inclines in the slightest. We plummetted down to the main road to Letras, the famous high pass to the west of the city as featured regularly in Veluta Colombia and known as The Longest Climb In The World. That's with regards to the Eastern side, which we'll have the joy of descending tomorrow. But first we had to summit it. 

We decided not to crawl up the main road but instead take a secondary road, that passes by some thermal spring areas on the edge of the volcano range we were hiking on 2 days ago.
We were encouraged at first to see a group of 8 road cyclists heading up past us: suggests paved roads! An hour later we passed them again coming back down. They'd reached the end of paved roads no doubt. Indeed at 13km mark the road gave way to gravel, which we'd be on for the remaining 12km to our destination for the day. The maths is pretty simple from here: 12km across and 1200m vertical assent, so a 10% average grade. Fortunately it didn't fluctuate too much, a few flatter bits and a few ramps in the 13-15% area but otherwise very constant.

By 15km the mist had turned to light rain, and another km it got heavier. Only the second time we'd needed to don rain jackets this tour, which is not bad for 18 days in rainy season! At 20km / 3000m elevation, there was a short flatter bit where water was really starting to pool up in giant muddy puddles, then it went steeply up again. As I shifted back into lowest gear there was a BANG and the pedals went limp under us. Broken chain. Fortunately we'd packed spares for such an eventuality so was only a few minutes job to pull out the mangled link and put in a quick link to replace it.
As we crept upwards we could feel the air getting thinner and breathing more difficult. The temperature also dropped to 7C, along with the heavy rain we were starting to get pretty cold if we stopped. Keep moving to keep warm! Thankfully the rain never turned torrential - not enough to form rivers in the ripio - so it was quite manageable even with occasional patches of slippery muddy sections.

At last the Termales Ruiz hotel and hot springs came into view! A glad sight. Just as we were checking in, a large group of French pensioners rolled in. The same group we saw at the coffee farm doing a tour yesterday afternoon! We're clearly still on the gringo trail then, despite our adventurous routing choices of the day. We'll try the springs and sleep here today, then head over the top of the pass tomorrow at about 4000m! The highest point of our tour, and all down hill from here to Bogotá (except we dipn below its height and will need to reclimb 4500m back up to it...)

Colombia day 17: Coffee break

Today we learnt why the coffee you get to drink in Colombia is generally poor. The big cooperative which the vast majority of the coffee is sold through only exports the highest quality beans, keeping the second and third class beans for domestic use. Coffee is probably the most popular hot drink we've seen, but hot chocolate (made with water or milk) has always been an option for breakfast, and herbal tea and aqua de panela (made with sugarcane) are often options. When coffee or chocolate are made with milk, they seem to be served scoldingly hot. 
After a relative lie in we had time to squeeze in a hot breakfast provided by the hostel before the jeep transporting us to our coffee farm tour arrived. It was a pretty tame 45 minute journey compared to yesterday's epic adventure. The tour group was pretty big but worked pretty well. It was almost an even split between the British, Canadians and French with a couple of Greeks and a German to complete the mix. The first part of the tour was learning about the history of coffee and the processes used to make it. Central Colombia seems to be a bit like the Goldilocks of coffee. Not too hot (or cold), too wet (or dry) or too high altitude (or low). Being close to the equator means that they harvest beans year round, although there is still a peak season for berries. We learnt a lot about the way coffee is grown in Colombia with the vast majority of producers growing only one or two hectares. The farm we visited was one of the largest in Colombia with 120 hectares of coffee plants. Colombia still manages to be the third largest coffee producer in the world however. Like almost all the coffee plantations we've seen on our travels here, coffee plants are mixed with other plants like plantains to provide shade and additional soil nutrients. 

Producers can sell direct to markets but most choose to sell through a cooperative which will guarantee a sale. Price is broadly set by the central coffee market prices (for Colombian coffee this is in New York), but is adjusted for quality and transportation costs. The cooperatives also fund research into more pest and desease resistant plants as well as more efficient machinery for processing the coffee beans. Due to the wet climate, beans here are wet processed. The fermentation part of this process has caused the smell we've frequently found on our travels. The beans we've seen on grids and on sheets on the road have been the final part of the process before the beans are bagged and sold. The cooperative generally then performs the final shelling process before the beans are ready for export. This farm sells a proportion of its beans to the tourist trade locally so has a roasting facility here. As coffee beans are best used within around three weeks of roasting, the vast majority are shipped before roasting.

After an exhaustive morning learning about coffee it was time for a relaxed lunch, before some serious hammock time before traveling back to Manizales. Much more restful than yesterday!