nr's blog

Power is nothing without control 27 September, 2010

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 10:43 am

Well, I did it. I entered, and completed my first cyclosportive event, a hilly (well, hilly for the South East) 150km route around Essex, advertised rather wistfully as the ‘autumn leaves’ sportive. While this brings to mind images of pottering through idyllic country lanes, with dappled sunlight shimmering through a riot of gloriously autumnal oak trees, what it actually turned out to be was a draining grind through high wind and heavy rain while trying to dodge the homicidal Essex tractor drivers.

My original target for this year, when I got my bike, was 75km in a day. This came and went pretty quickly, so I upped that target to 100km in a day. This took a bit more effort, but again, on the flat fen roads, it didn’t take a particularly strenuous effort to achive this. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve popped out just for a quick ride early on a Sunday, and done just this. I wanted to enter a 100km sportive before the end of the year, to see if I enjoyed the organised aspect of riding a preset course, that had been designed to test the riders. Only I couldn’t find a 100km ride near me before the end of the year, and so I entered, rather optimistically, the Autumn Leaves event. I was to be joined in this endeavour by Ironman, marathon runner, accomplished triathlete and semi-regular riding partner Andy. So, that was one place conceded before I even started…

The day of the race started, um, too early. It was still dark as I left the house at 05:30 to collect Andy. Which was just as well, as in the dark I couldn’t see the overbearing clouds and general gloom that was set to characterise the day. I could feel the high winds and heavy rain though, neither of which filled me with any particular optimism for a happy day ahead. We passed the time on the journey to the start by playing tunes on the rapidly failing gearbox of my moribund Fiat. Quite how it made the day without leaving us stranded at the side of the M11 I have no idea. Piece of Italian junk. Anyhow, the start was to be a mass start of somewhere around 200 riders, which proved to be quite daunting. i’ve never ridden in a pack on the road before, and there’s definitely an art to watching the movements of the riders about three ahead of you rather than the one directly in front. A few kilometres in, and the course was still flat, which meant that the pack was still largely together, and the pace was fast. Had I been riding through a sunflower field in the sunshine I would have felt pretty cool at that time, like my own little Tour de France peloton experience. Instead I was ploughing through a monsoon on the outskirts of Billericay. Soon, we left the town, and headed into the coutryside. This would have been pleasant, but it was filled with tasteless, huge, mock tudor houses with spiky gates, CCTV cameras, and German 4x4s with personal number plates parked outside, sometimes four to a house. Many of them had bored looking stone animals parked unhappily on plinths by the gates, and one particularly gaudy house had a pair of what looked very much like stone pit bull terriers. I was glad that I was cycling through at a pace, so I wouldn’t have to endure this for very long. It’s probably the most depressing part of England that I’ve ever seen. Every house seemed to be shouting “Look at me! Look at my wealth! Now **** off and don’t come any closer, peasant!”

After about 10kms or so, we hit the first big hill. And, surprisingly, I scampered up this, probably making up about 20 places or so. It looks like losing a few kilos has definitely helped me this year, as one of the hallmarks of a good climber is a strong power to weight ratio, rather than outright strength. I tagged onto the back of a small group of about eight riders with Andy, and we sat there, unsure of the etiquette of when to ride to the front to give everyone else a break. It didn’t matter very much, as a few kms later we hit the bottom of the next, even bigger hill. This strung the riders out a bit, with Andy a couple of riders ahead of me, but still riding as a group. At this point I made the cardinal sin of shifting gears on a hill, and my chain jumped off the chainwheel. Andy, not seeing this, played Contador to my Schleck, and happily pottered off into the distance. I reckon I spent maybe a minute, maybe less, refitting the chain, but the damage was done. I’d lost the group, and spent the next 10kms burying myself into the headwind trying to bridge the gap. Of course, it was a futile effort, and at about 25kms or so I gave up, acutely aware that I was using a lot of energy, and this was only the start of a long day. By 40kms, I was suffering a bit, with the interminable headwind and hilly nature of the course, and so set my goal as the food stop, at 50kms. I find the best way to deal with a large physical endeavour is to break it down, and give myself small goals to work towards, else I get overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of what I’m attempting. As mentioned in an earlier post, I know my place, and rattling off 150kms without worrying about it is certainly not it. So, I got my head down, gritted my teeth, and kept going. I got to the food stop, and re-joined Andy, who had been there about two minutes before me. 50kms down, 100 to go…

We both stocked up on energy drinks and gels, and after about six or seven minutes got going again. I think it was obvious that given the conditions, today was going to be about survival and completing the course, rather than looking for a good time, so taking the time to rest and rehydrate properly was time well spent. I was still feeling good, and Andy and I set off as a pair, and worked well together, swapping the lead every 5kms or so. I was therefore rather disappointed to pull up at a junction after about 80 kms only to have about fifteen people pull up next to us. They had been using us as a windbreak for the past 30kms. I fully understand that this is the easiest way to survive the distance on a day like this was, but I still found it bloody annoying that not one of them offered to give Andy or I a break for a while. And even when we left the junction, the majority of them just pulled in behind again. At about 85kms my legs, which had taken a real pounding on this section started to cramp and complain. I backed off, and just span easily for a few ks behind the group to give them a bit of a breather. Well, I think that’s fair. At just after 100kms, we hit the next food stop, and as well as refilling my water bottles and stash of energy gels, I also wanged down a banana to try and stave off the worst of the cramps that I could feel starting in my thighs.

I always knew this last 50kms was going to be hard. I’d agreed with Andy that at any time if I was holding him up that he should just go, and I had a feeling that we’d be using this clause at some point in the final 50kms. We’d just turned the corner at the Northermost point of the circuit, so the prevailing wind for the next leg would be behind us, but still climbing back onto my bike with cramping legs, knowing that there was probably another two hours to go was pretty disheartening. So, instead of counting down in 10km chunks, I started counting every five as my personal goal. 105, 110… I was still with Andy, but really starting to suffer now. At 125, my legs just failed. I could keep them spinning, but couldn’t generate any power with them. I gulped down another energy gel, but the sticky sweet gloop just made me feel a bit nauseous, and didn’t stop my legs hurting. So, instead I resorted to mental arithmetic to keep my mind focussed elsewhere, and just let my body look after itself. At the same time, I started counting my personal goals down in single kilometres. 23, 22, 21, all the time doing stupid stuff in my head like working out prime factors of the distance left. (This was pretty easy at 21km, it has to be said…) The one thing I didn’t do was calculate how long it would take me at my current miserable average speed. I didn’t want to know how much longer this would take.

And then the hill came. I knew it was there, at 140kms, like the upturned sting in a scorpion’s tail. At 138kms I emptied two more sachets of gel into my complaining stomach, just to give me a chance of getting to the top. I put my bike in the lowest gear possible, and just tried to blank it all out. The rain, wind and road just didn’t matter any more. There was just Me and The Hill. And bloody hell, I was going to get to the top or literally fall over trying. And it was a close run thing, as a couple of times I came close to stopping and toppling over. My personal goals had now come down from kilometres to metres, and nearing the crest of the hill, pedalstrokes. Finally, there it was. The road levelled off. Six kms to go, with the first three or so downhill. I could stop counting the pedalstrokes, as I just coasted, slowly, and easily. I was passed by a good ten or twelve riders here, but really, didn’t care. I’d made it. I knew now that barring an unexpected event, I was going t make the finish. And, eight kilometres later, the finish gate made a beautiful noise like a 1980s Casio calculator as I rode over it. I barely had the strength left to unclip from my pedals. I checked in. Elapsed time was 6:19, putting me in provisional 81st place.

Andy, however, had different ideas, and decided that 150kms wasn’t hard enough. He ended up taking the scenic route when he put his head down to grind out a few fast kms, and missed a signpost at 135kms, and eventually finished in 7:25, after completing over 170kms. A victory of route-finding over pure power I think.

Despite the pain of the last 25kms, I really enjoyed the day. Will I do it again? Yes, I think I will. But next time I’ll try and pick a sunny day and avoid South Essex.


The accidental soloist 1 September, 2010

Filed under: Outdoor climbing — nr @ 3:32 pm

With reference to climbing, the term ‘free solo‘ is quite easy to define. It is the act of climbing without a partner, without a rope, and using only your hands and feet to move across the rock. You’re not allowed to hang onto anything that you can wedge or hammer into a crack in the rock. It gets slightly complicated with the inclusion of ‘bouldering’ and ‘highball bouldering’ into the system. Essentially, bouldering is making moves without a rope very close to the ground, where a fall usually results in a sheepish grin and a bit of banter from your mates. Highball bouldering is a bit more serious. You could be several metres up, and a fall could result in some bruising, maybe a snapped ankle, and a bit of genuine concern from your mates (along with the banter). Above this, you’re free-soloing. A fall cannot be allowed to happen. If it does, it will be what our American cousins would call a ‘life changing experience’. In all probability, it will actually be the last life changing experience you’ll ever have.

Somewhat trickier to explain is the mental aspect of this style of climbing. Some see it as the ultimate expression of climbing. Freedom to move without the encumbrance of ropes and a harness. Freedom to critically assess every risk, and to decide on a plan of action. Freedom to accept the full ramifications of making a bad decision and the effect that this will have on the rest of your life. It may well be that the rest of your life in this situation will be very exciting, and measured in seconds, but it’s a personal choice to put yourself in that place. Top exponents of this style of climbing, for example, Alex Honnold, have made some audacious and celebrated ascents of staggeringly long and technical climbs, where both physical and mental abilities are pushed to extremes. On the other hand, some see it as unacceptably selfish. It may well be that the climber makes the choice to climb without protection, but ask the people that had to identify the remains of John Bachar or Derek Hersey whether they think the risks are acceptable, or purely selfish.

Personally, I think that it’s up to the individual. But you’d never catch me doing it, for two reasons. Firstly, you need to have an exceptionally cool head, and an ability to think clearly when faced with an imminent and painful death. This is not the mindset of a normal person. Secondly, I’m just a big scaredy-cat. I struggle with leading anything above UK grade HS, which is pretty much kindergarten level climbing.

So, I guess you know what’s coming next. Yes, I got myself so far out of my depth that I scared myself silly. I feel a complete arse for doing it. Actually, I feel a completely selfish arse for doing it, as had things gone wrong (and they very easily could have done) it would have involved Faye & the girls watching me being scraped up and dumped into a rescue helicopter. So, let’s go back to the start…

“Blimey…” I thought “…I wouldn’t fancy going over there” as I strolled along the cliffs ringing the stunningly beautiful Polurrian Bay near Mullion in Cornwall. From the top, it looked steep, unforgiving, and more than anything else, a bloody long way down. Still, I enjoyed the view as I pottered along a few miles of the South West Coast Path. It’s still an ambition of mine to complete this walk one year – maybe when I’m older and wiser and have a bit more time on my hands.

“Hmmmm…” I thought “…if I go up that crack, I reckon I could boulder my way up a couple of metres there” was the thought process two days later as I stood at the bottom of the cliff. From the top, sea-cliffs are scary places. All the forces acting on you are out of your control, and will try and kill you. From the bottom, it’s a different perspective. Your own ability and confidence come into play, and what was once an undefeatable foe becomes a personal challenge. The rules under which you accept this challenge are a personal choice. You can set up a top-rope, and complete the climb in (relative) safety. Or you can get a willing partner, and lead the climb, again in relative safety, but with a bit more spice. Or you can go for complete freedom and free-solo the climb. I had no real intention of doing any of these things. Just some harmless bouldering above the beach on good rock, with the sun shining on my back. A perfect end to the summer holiday. And so it began. My walking boots weren’t ideal for this kind of climbing, but I just got on with it. I traversed left, and up, each move feeling fluid and confident. I was in no danger at all – not because of the situation, but because I simply knew I couldn’t fall. Everything felt perfect, like a string of 1:15 laps of Snetterton without breaking sweat. I looked down at my feet. I guestimated five metres up. Really above my normal comfortable limit, but the landing was soft sand, and all the moves were easily reversible in my current frame of mind, so I looked up, and saw a nice ledge about three metres away, and made the instant decision to climb up to it.

At this point, even though I didn’t know it, I was free-soloing. To get to the ledge I had to make a couple of dynamic moves that I knew at the time I couldn’t reverse easily, if at all. But I was climbing so well within my limits both physicall and mentally, that I didn’t consider that a problem.

About four good moves later, I stood on the ledge. It wasn’t as big as I thought, but that wasn’t my major cause for concern. The rock in front of my face, and from here on upwards had turned from solid dependable compact rock to that dreadful loose shale that the South-West coast is famous for. I looked up, and saw just more of the same, for maybe another seven metres, followed by three metres of sloping grass up to the top. I looked down to my feet. The hold they were on was good, but the next step up was loose, crumbly, and only had room for one foot. I looked up for a solid handhold, and grabbed a good flake. It fell off in my hand and went clattering to the beach, maybe ten metres below now, shattering on the jagged boulder now directly below me. I looked below my feet, and realised that I was now completely committed to completing the climb, as I couldn’t reverse my position.

I now realised that I was free-soloing. The next few minutes would directly affect the quality (not to mention length) of the rest of my life. My leg started shaking involutarily, in a movement known to climbers all over the world as ‘Elvis Leg’. I was physically comfortable in my current position, so I rested, and realised what an immense cock I was for getting myself into such a predicament. I had two choices. Carry on, or call for a rescue. Both options carried with them the distinct possibility of inconveniencing several people, notably the Cornish Coastguard and the surgical team who would have to put my legs back together if I survived the fall. Because I’m English, I decided that I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss, so I thought I’d carry on. I put my foot on the next hold, and tested it with some body weight. It moved, but I judged that I could stand up on it, and reach a flake high above me. If the flake held, I would be safe. If it fell off like the last one, I would fall. Simple as that. My life condensed into one move. And the fact that I’m typing this without resorting to employing the services of an ALAN (AfterLife Area Network) means that the flake held.

I breathed. Deeply, and rhythmically. The next move meant pulling on the flake, until I could get two fingers of my left hand into a deep, and secure pocket, and from there a flake line ran upwards, that I could layback off, for about three or four metres or so. It was scarily loose. Before committing any weight to each move, I would test the flakes, and I reckon nearly half of them just came away. My Elvis Leg was subsiding now, but I was deeply scared, and completely out of my depth. The rock was nearly finished now, and all I was left with was a 60 degree slope of thin grass in dry soil.I hauled myself over the edge, about twenty metres above the beach, and looked at my hands, bloodied and scarred by the sharp edges left as the rock crumbled. I looked over the edge at where I had come from. “Blimey…” I thought “…I wouldn’t fancy going over there”.

This wasn’t climbing. It was pure luck. And I’m a complete arse for getting myself in that situation. I should have known that the rock would be rubbish above where the sea reaches. I did know that. I just forgot about it in the euphoria of the moment. That bad decision forced me into a series of actions that could so easily have profoundly affected the rest of my life. I walked back around to the beach, sat down, and looked up at the cliff again. My perspective had shifted.


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