Thursday, June 30, 2011

Photos from NL & Alps

Here's a few photos from the last few days (not very well editted yet but nevermind)

Merseleo Venray 600 brevet

Joth climbing Col de l'Iseran (highest paved road pass in Europe)

... now off for an evening climb of Alpe d'Huez! Or at least, to a restaurant part way up it.
Collected our frame number today, but not yet decided if we'll be riding it. Emma's cold still isn't 100% gone and the pressure changes on these climbs isn't helping with blocked sinouses.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Merselo-Venray 600; overseas brevet

It was never in our original plans to do an overseas Brevet prior to PBP, but plans change and so we found ourselves signing in at the start of the Merselo-Venray Netherlands 600.
The trip over the previous night had been fairly smooth apart from a 2 hour jam around Antwerp, which meant we'd had a quick camp meal and put up the tent to sleep by 11. The start the following morning was not until 8am, and it was less than 2km up the road to get to the start point - easy to do as it was in a windmill!
The field was made up of over a half Germans, the remainder Dutch save for ourselves - so we got a fair bit of conversation as it doesn't seem that usual to get Brits riding over here.
Another interesting difference for us was the high number recumbent machines, and even one other tandem, but no fixed gear cycles, very different to the average UK Brevet. The other tandem couple had bought their bike specifically to qualify for and ride PBP on, the chap being a PBP veteran but the lady having no prior long distance cycling experience so quite an impressive undertaking.
The first stage went quick quickly, we fell in with a group of 4 quite fast riders and did quite a good job taking it in turns at the lead, heading west into a south westerly headwind. This became a little less fun once the drizzle turned to rain, and all the disadvantages of our companions' lack of mudguards became apparent in the form of splattered road dirt in the face!
We also had multiple instances of missing junctions. Despite at least two of the group carrying GPS units, they seemed to be relying on us to do the navigating. An interesting experience! It was very useful to be able to ride with a group at the start of the ride, as we got to see how the compulsory use of cyclepaths works, and see how the natives ride.
By the time we reached the first control at 98km, we were ready for a break though. Having not eaten a great deal of breakfast, we opted for a pair of lovely omelettes while the rest of the group had coffee and so set off a few minutes ahead of us. Another large group of riders arrived just as we were heading out into the headwind of the next stage.
We passed in and out of Belgium a couple times on our way to the Vlissingen peninsula, crossing land borders mid audax being another novelty for us. Only later did we realise we strictly should have been carrying our passports; this was the first real time I'd ever have found an official national ID card to be far more convenient.
The middle third of the ride headed north-east along the coast conveniently having a strong wind on our backs for much of it. The numerous estuary outlets along the coast create many peninsulas that we hopped between, via some most impressive bridges. Without exception these had great provisions for cyclists, just like the roads and well signposted paths between them, so navigation was easy here and progress good. The scenery here was some of the most varied of the two days, and often quite unlike anything we're used to from home, such as riding along the top or side of the extensive dyke network; riding through dedicated cycling roads winding over banks of dunes; or atop a sea wall looking out over literally hundreds of kite surfers pulling tricks on the waves.
Unfortunately the rain had turned the one lightly gravelled track we rode into muddy porridge, and shortly after our front tyre gave in and punctured (the rear having already failed on the Invicta 600 a fortnight before and been replaced before this ride). We then had a good hour of Murphy Law bicycle repair: both spare tubes were defective, the spare tyre wouldn't seat properly and took a couple inflations, I managed to put the tyre on backwards (FWIW), and assorted related faffage. Quite a few riders we'd seen at previous controls passed us in this period, and defined the position we'd ride the remainder of the ride in. So as it got dark we met up with a group of 4 we'd spend most the night riding with and see on and off to the end: a couple Germans (Gert and ?) and two Dutch including Jan, the ride organiser, on his high wheeled recumbent. This was extremely fortunate as it made navigation through the dark so much easier. Also Jan ensued we had no trouble answering the lone info control, although the excellent English translation crib sheet he'd prepared for us beforehand meant it was trivial for seasoned UK riders like us to answer anyway (quite unlike the UK audax tradition, this ride was apparently rather controversial in daring to have an info control at all!).
The misty rain continued most of the night, and made the 4am dawn a very grey drab affair. As it gathered enough light to read the route sheet by, we reached the northern most point and turned southeast to cross the dyke to Lelystad. At over 27km in length this is a serious construction, and in the bleak dawn twilight, and stiff headwind, and a view of nothing but sea to our left and dyke to our right, this felt a most challenging undertaking - perhaps the most of the whole ride. It's not without its reward though: from now on, whenever we look at a map of Holland, we will see that dyke across the bay and remember our tour of the country.
I had been feeling tired for a while, a short power-nap prior to crossing the dyke had clearly not solved this, so on reaching mainland we sought out a sheltered spot for a proper doze. The marina outside Lelystad was geared up for a regatta, with lots of tents setup for sales displays and  catering. The fancier of these had security guards stood around, looking bored at 6am on a Sunday morning and slightly bemusedly at the slow trickle of weary Randonneurs arriving off the causeway. We pushed on a soon spotted a party cafe/bar with overflow gazebo to one side that made a dry and sheltered spot to lie down. I managed 40mins kip, but Emma was put off by the stale beer smell (which I was too tired to notice!) and so sat and rested outside it for most that time. I probably could have pushed on without sleep and got through the doziness, but my body needed the break and most of all the mind needed the switch off, before being able to find the motivation for another full day's riding.
Later that morning the sun finally made an appearance, as we started the climb into the forested area past Apeldoorn. This made beautiful cycling with the warm sun dappled through the wet leaves and shining on the smoothly paved forest bike paths. We must have ridden for 50 or more km through the forest, the majority on these dedicated paths, which was another complete change from UK brevets. For the most part they were smooth and wide so we could make good progress along them, although towards the end they did become rather tracky and unpaved, and suffering after all the rain.
Midafternoon we had a free control in Nijmegen, which offered a great chance to get our first hot meal in 24hrs, at a pasta restaurant on the busy promenade beside the river. Then all that remained was a 65km weave into and out of Germany and back to the arrivee. It had turned out a warm clear evening as we approached the village of Merselo, spying the  windmill whilst still a couple km away a leading us in to complete the ride, and finally complete our PBP qualification.
Looking back, I will remember many things about this ride. The great warm welcome we received from Jan both by email and when we arrived and rode with him. Spending over 90% of a 600k ride on cycle lanes and paths, which for the vast majority were just as good if not better than the road alternative. Crossing more bridges and following more dykes than I thought possible in the distance - and two ferry crossings to boot! National miller's day meaning all the traditional windmills were working away. Visiting our first secret control - in the garden of the vice president of Randonneurs Mondiux! Stopping at the halfway control in a pub at 11pm and finding our German friends drinking bottles of cold beer - alcohol free! Watching Jan's friend eat a whole bree as a snack at 2am, confirming our belief randonneurs are much alike the continent over.  And much besides...
Yes, overseas brevets - even unplanned ones - can be great fun!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Invicta 600 Audax, 11/12 June

I wrote most of this over a week ago, but never got around to posting it. Better late than never!

The Audax Men in Black were working overtime last Sunday (the 12th). Normally it takes until at least a few hours after a long ride for the memory of the pain to start to recede and the satisfaction to tempt you into enjoying the thought of the next one.
Not so this weekend. After approximately 620km of a non-stop (if only varying in intensity) subconscious train of thought enumerating all the ways in which I was not enjoying myself, it was with the final 15km of dragging through the rain that I suddenly realised that, actually, yes I would be doing it all again next weekend. Clearly those Men in Black hang out in Tunbridge Wells on their day off, or something.
The ride started out pretty average. A 4am alarm call had us in the car well before 5, and and so the tandem was unloaded and we were happily slurping tea in Seven Oaks Weald scout hut before most of the field rolled up. The route was more or less the same as we had completed 2 years ago, as our first ever 600. One significant difference was the start point had moved down the road from Otford, and this presented the first shock: climbing up Glebe road to join the previous route is quite a brutal way to start out a ride, and within a few hundred meters we were down in the lowest of our "super granny" gears; one of only three outings for her all weekend.
At 16km we had our next concern - a flat rear tyre before we'd even reached Otford. This can either signify a pure random occurrence, or the beginning of the end of a Gatorskin tyre were it has been known to pull itself appart in just a few hundred kms. With over 400 to go before we returned to the HQ and our spare, we wondered if we'd made an error. Fortunately things picked up after that and we were able to settle into a better rhythm for the first few stages.
I was now able to make some observations about how the body was looking like it would hold up to the challenge. I knew from our previous weekend's extremely enjoyable if quite tough 200km in Wales - the enticingly titled Cambrian 2B - that I should now be able to manage the condition of my right knee. On occasion it would tingle or give a sudden twinge of pain, but not the slow creeping warmth building to a sustained hot pain I had before. And I when I notice it, I can concentrate on using my quads in a more controlled and applied manner, and it will subside. So, not 100% back to normal, but bearable, and under control.
More of a concern was the severe crick I'd put in my neck in the middle of last week, that severely restricted my range of head movement in all directions, and could be extremely uncomfortable. This was an unwelcome re-occurrence of an issue from last year that I'd seen an Osteopath about and thought was solved. Ironically, I think this round was set off by swapping to a new pillow I'd bought specifically bearing in mind said Osteopath's recommendations! (That being, to use a firm pillow that supports side sleeping). Don't change your pillow before a big bike ride. This pain in the neck came and went all through Saturday, but I was able to gradually work it out and loosen it up. The biggest gain came on Sunday though, when a mis-executed U-turn after a wrong turning resulted in us almost spilt across the road: the adrenalin rush was like no other remedy I've tried at loosening the muscle and removing the pain. Amazing, wish they could bottle that stuff.
Back to Saturday, we went through the motions of making our way around. The other big change from 2 years ago was a doubling of the number of "information" controls: it now boasts an unprecedented dozen of them. As I joked to Steve the organiser that it's part bike ride, part pub quiz.
We completed about 6 infos in the first half of Saturday's ride, thankfully giving a clear run back to the HQ without the need to find numbers on signposts in the dark. We managed to miss one heading into Petersfield and then miss the turning, going a small 10km out the way and then navigating back into town via the wrong approach meaning we missed the official control point too. This was the peak of faff for the day, and we left feeling a bit weary for it, and with - for us - the toughest stage of the day to come next. Dragging along the north "foothills" of the South Downs is indeterminable in distance in the twilight, and passes some wonderfully cozy pubs as it goes. It was here in 2009 we had to resolutely stare the other way and treat discussion of such hostelries as taboo, lest one of us should fold and we find ourselves abandoning for warm comforts. Not so this time: I brazenly pointed out to Emma that here we were again, and wouldn’t it be nice to just stop and let go all these crazy cycling PBP plans. And then something unexpected happened that defined the ride.
I had feared that since we broke our unblemished 100% finish rate last year, we might become soft to this. I’d managed to put the Mille Cymru DNF down as a one-off, and unavoidable as I was literally at the point that if we continued and my nose bled became any worse, we’d need to call an ambulance as breathing was getting problematic amongst the warm red rush down my throat. However, April’s second DNF, on the Brevet Cymru (see the pattern in the ride names yet?) was fully elective. Sure my knee was hurting, but at 30km it wasn’t that bad. We could have gone on until 150km and it became completely intolerable. Or who knows, perhaps it would have most improbably disappeared? Anyway, we’re now no strangers to just deciding to pack a ride as it’s not going right, and so maybe we can do it again. Maybe even make a habit of it...
Back to us on the road outside Amberly in the fading dusk, Emma replies: “Yes, we could. But I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t finish this ride”. There. She enunciated the other half of the unspoken contract we each hold the other too: if you give up, I have to give up too. I don’t know how solo riders get through their dark moments like this - even more so those most hardy folks who ride completely self organised (“DIY”) events of this distance. I don’t think I could do it. I know I don’t relish finding out. But on the tandem, there you have it: a partner to support, encourage, entertain, provide solace in these moments. And when necessary, employ guilt to bind you to continue. I was so grateful for it then, and only now realise how important this was.
We were glad to reach the Pyecombe A23 services, which proved to be a challenging shopping experience. It claimed 24 hours, but service window only and the man was not interested in serving the dozen riders coffees who had got there just before us. Oh that we’d been a little quicker on the previous stretch we’d not have been passed by them (for about the 7th time in our hare-and-tortoise progression that day) and got through before them. It turned out for the best though, as their de-facto group leader (alas we picked up no names) asked us if my GPS could confirm a more direct main road route to Turners Hill, avoiding some dark lane navigation at night. We know the route well enough from FNRTTC, and coupled with the GPS could led a good peloton up through Burge’s Hill and Hayward’s Heath.
At Turners Hill we let the group head on; we fancied a stop for a sandwich and felt we’d be happier completing the final stretch back to the night stop at our own pace. Reaching Sevenoaks Weald, just after 400km, was a very welcome sight just before 3am. We managed to not hang around grabbing some food and managed a good 3 hours of sleep in the back of our car. I had worried that it would be a cold night, but if it was I didn’t notice it sleeping solidly from the moment I hit my bed.
In contrast to twilight struggle past Amberly, there was never any question we would not set out again Sunday morning. It’s amazing just how recovered you can feel after a few hours sleep! This often seems to be the hardest part for folks - leaving the comfort of the hall and proximity of their car and heading out for a second day of riding, but I didn’t find it so bad: knowing you “just” need to ride a 200 to make the previous day’s 400 count seems a reasonable trade.
The early stretch out to Sittingbourne went without too much problem; we know this loop well from several prior rides so knew to expect the Stede Hill climb. The soup laid on there was as amazing as ever it was, and we were saddened to hear this is the final time the Phoenix Centre will be used as the controller is retiring to the North.
After that the day continued much as it had 2 years ago! Rolling terrain out to the Whitstable bay coast, interesting and old familiar sights as we went. A difficult to find info control at Reculvor (a question I’m sure we’d had before, but the cottage had changed name and no-one could find the correct answer!). Then the long drag over Wingham towards Ashford. At this point we were right into the headwind, and it started to spot with rain too, but we knew once we turned at Ashford we’d be on the home straight and with the wind behind us. We took a longer break at the Westenhanger services, knowing we had sufficient time in hand, and then indeed got a very pleasant tail wind most of the way back to the ArrivĂ©e, more than making up for the more persistent rain that set in as we worked our way back.
So it was likely this smooth run home that put me into elevated spirits, such that before even getting there I’d already changed my mind around fully and was starting to think through what needed doing to prepare for the following weekend’s 600.

As it turned out, Emma developed a cold in the following week, so we weren’t able to ride our final qualifier last weekend, and instead are now planning to head to the Netherlands for the Merselo-Venray 600 this weekend instead. But that’s a story for another day!