nr's blog

Toughness comes in many guises 13 May, 2014

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 9:34 am

As last year, Sol has also written about his experiences with The Fred Whitton challenge. And as he still doesn’t have anywhere to store it, I’m going to keep it here alongside my own. Thanks dood – it was a great day out. Here’s to our next adventure. The following words, and the title for this post are all Sols:

 

The build up to this year’s Fred Whitton event has been a difficult one: the crap weather this year on every (and I mean every) training ride or sportive; the resultant water damage to the bike’s bearings needing last minute repairs the week before the Fred; poor availability of parts on multiple internet shopping sites; and the last week at work, dragging by, as the keeness to get out in the hills on two wheels builds.

Eventually the car is packed; Neil and I head to the Lakes on what feels like our annual pilgrimage. Simon Curry, together with his mate Rich are joining Neil and I on the ride this year. As first timers they both have an expectation and excitement obvious as we sign on Saturday afternoon.

Simon’s folks live in the Lakes and have kindly offered lodging for the weekend. Saturday evening is filled with conversation and pasta. Conversation rarely strays from “the event” as Simon, his wife, his Mum and Dad, his Sister chat constantly. His wonderfully engaging niece has a minor sulk when she can’t bring the adults’ focus back to her holiday in Ely. It dawns on me how matter of fact Neil and I are about the Fred – it’s our third year. As old hands we are perhaps being unjustly afforded some minor celebrity status. I wonder if we are perhaps occasionally exaggerating the suffering of 10 hours in the saddle for effect and tales of daring do! I make deliberate effort to downplay how hard Hardknott is. Besides, as the conversation moves around the dinner table I drift back to last year, I don’t remember the pain. I try to picture it, but it’s not there – all that remains is a sense of labour, and achievement, of being part of something rather special – the challenge amongst the beauty and grandeur of the Lake District National Park, the shared camaraderie, the bloody awful weather.

“If you can ride Hardknott, you can ride anything!”, Neil offers Simon across the table. It brings me back into the conversation and in that one statement I’m reminded me why we are ostensibly here again. Last year I had, Neil hadn’t. I was back, at least in part to share in the fully expected success of us both completing the Fred again, and for Neil to tick his “I didn’t walk” box.

The following morning, having woken before our alarms, we eat more porridge than it’s possible to eat at 5am. By 6.15am we’re finally there. Suited and booted. Lined up. Sat astride our bikes watching a drone in the sky filming the start. Pulses of bikes heading right from Grasmere off down the road. Sedate pedalling is the order of the day. As we move off together, we soon find a nice tempo. My heart rate is good. I’m warm. Even the drizzle can’t pull at the sense of wellbeing and readiness.

As Simon and Rich pull ahead. I smile. The impetuous of youth. It’s a long way to go … no use pushing harder at this stage. They’ll learn. Neil and I are obviously on the same page as we just plug along the Windermere lakeside content to keep tempo. As we turn left up Holbeck Lane toward Kirkstone, the legs make their first complaints of the day and my heart rate climbs. I ease back a little but still the climb eats away at my comfortable heart rate cushion. As we reach Kirkstone. That lost memory of the discomfort and labour comes back, and in comparison this year seems harder. That climb just seems to go on and on and on! My heart rate shouldn’t be this high. Blimey this is hard! Neil by now is dropping back, but I’m in the zone and we’ll meet on the descent.

As I finally crest the top of Kirkstone and start my descent, I cast a quick look back and see Neil is not far behind. I look down at the descent and smile at the memory of speed. As I squeeze the brakes the first time I know fear. Bloody Hell! I squeeze with all my might and there’s a momentary pause before rims generate some heat and the bike starts to retard the urge of gravity hurling me downward. I can’t let the brake go again. The wet road, the rain, the carbon rims contrive to rob me of a fast descent. It’s all I can do to contain speed to a level that the brakes can cope with.

As I reach the bottom I swear not to use carbon rims again in the wet, and settle to wait for Neil who joins me shortly after. As I start to tell him about how crap carbon brakes are, intent on sharing an understanding I now have as to why he has such a bad time descending last year, I see he’s not listening. He’s pedalling, but he’s not engaged in what we’re doing. His mind is elsewhere.

It might be the fact we’ve ridden together for years. It might be the fact that on the training sportives we’ve done this year he’s struggled on occasions, his heart rates have been comparatively higher than normal. It may have been the fact that I‘d crested Kirkstone ahead of him – I don’t out climb Neil! It may have been that he just looked like shit. Instinctively I think I knew right then that Neil could be thinking about bailing. As innocuous as “You alright mate!” can sound to anyone else listening, it’s the history and friendship behind the hours of stuff we’ve done together that’s hidden in the meaning that counts. I could tell he was struggling, and I knew right then he’d be burdened with the potential of bailing.

He confirmed he wasn’t well. He’d had some chest pains on the climb, and was obviously scared. After a few mins of questions and answers, we agreed to idle, gather our thoughts. He felt a bit better and we continued through Patterdale and as the miles past, we settled to a steady easy pace. With Matterdale approaching – the second climb of the day, I asked Neil again how he was feeling. “Lets just see how we go!”

At this point I wasn’t sure if he intended to dig in like so many times before. I worried, he’d make the effort and ditch further round the course with no way back. But with the exertion of climbing, you just get lost in your own efforts unable to think about anything else. As we descended and rejoined each other we had another catch up, he was non-committal. We worked through our eta to the first feed station, and cut off times. We worked out we could make cut off easily at the rate we were going. But the dilemma we were in was mounting. For my part I wanted to make it, but didn’t want to drop Neil. For his part he didn’t want to bail, but he’d had a definite warning sign. Best to play safe.

Simon’s family had confirmed he was a few mins ahead as we’d crested Kirkstone. We’d travelled at a very easy pace for some miles since then, and no doubt they were further ahead by now. While Matterdale had passed without further complaints from Neil, we had a long way to go.

“Neil mate, I can’t make any decision for you … only you know what’s happening in your head and how bad things are. But you know we’re going slowly and we have a long way to go!”

Keswick was some miles ahead along the A66.  Neil just said, “Come on!” and started ramping up the pace. We worked together down toward Keswick. Jumping groups of riders, and sheltering behind others where needed. Sharing the lead, and swopping back and forth as we individually flagged. I didn’t know it right there and then that he’d made his decision to bail at Keswick (in hindsight it was the obvious place to bail as it’s the nearest place back to the start on the course). As we ate up the miles down the A66 I figured he was kicking his heels in and was making up for lost time.

As we peeled off the A66 and I spotted Simon and Rich up ahead I was sure Neil was with me. But when I looked back to a tail of riders drafting me, I couldn’t see him. I figured it best to reach Simon and Rich, and when I caught them I explained what had happened and asked them to wait. Some 5-10 mins by the side of the road Neil hadn’t turned up. I was concerned, and with no idea whether he’d bailed, or had a puncture, or something else unforeseen, we realised we just needed to get moving. It was pelting down with rain. We were getting cold. It felt harsh. Did I make the right decision? It continued to weigh on my mind.

At the finish line some five hours later, I accepted humbly that Neil, having realised he would bail, dug in on the A66 and decided to help me get back up with the other two? Having spent himself along the A66 he’d seen me pulling up towards Simon and Rich, and had quietly dropped off the back, unable to stay with the group in the final drag to the reunion. A typically selfless Ronketti act – I would have preferred to have had a definite, “See ya later!” as I wouldn’t have worried so much. But in reflection, it’s not his style. I can only imagine the disappointment, and the last thing you need is to be forced into bearing that disappoint to three others who still have some 5 hours of hard cycling ahead.

I could write on about the remaining five hours I sweated and laboured up and down fells. Of the challenge of riding on into some of the heaviest rain I’ve ridden through. I could tell you about the air ambulance, which held us up on the descent from Wrynose and the thoughts for the poor soul they were recovering from that descent. Or the pleasure of completing the event for the 3rd time – of not walking the hardest climbs in the country, or the money that’s been raised for charity. There’s no need – it’s explicit. The Fred is always a physical challenge that demonstrates obvious and real rewards for participants. However, it’s the implicit, the hidden, the subtle stuff that the Fred Whitton throws at you each time you’ve done it that draws you back. All that stuff that’s hard to write about. In truth I don’t need to write more – the story’s been told in the preceding paragraphs. Search for it in the difficulties of outwardly riding but inwardly needing to support a mate. It’s what matters. It’s the real reason you should get on your bike and try out something this hard. It’s not just the physical challenge that makes riding the Fred so hard. Simon and Rich now know it … I could see that shared experience and knowing in their smiles and hear it in the chatter at the end. The real story is in the friendship that hours of training build. Of common unsaid understandings.

I know there are many more stories out there born May the 11th 2014. Ours is such a small part of an event this big. Go make your own stories. It’s what makes life such an adventure.

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Hurt 12 May, 2014

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 5:56 pm

BOOM!

Pain shot across my chest. What on earth was that? I looked at my heart rate monitor, it was reading zero, as it was broken.

BOOM!

Another shot. Spots in my vision. Loud whistling in my ears. I look around at where I am, and what I’m doing, the indescribable beauty of the location. I try to understand what’s happening, and every avenue I turn down leads to a dead end.

BA-BOOM!

More. I can feel my chest tightening, and my breath rasping. I’m scared now. Properly scared. I want Faye. I want my girls. I want this to end. Is this it? I don’t want to leave everything here, on a windswept Lakeland pass, there’s still so much left to do. Could this be the end?

But let’s go back to the beginning. Not the end. It’s not a nice place to dwell. I’d travelled up with Sol to the Lake District early Saturday to have another crack at the Fred Whitton Challenge. This is, I’d guess, the most venerated of all UK cycle rides. 180kms, 4000m of climbing, and gradients exceeding 33% in places. But to distill it to bare numbers removes the beauty of the scenery, the companionship on the road of the shared pain, the sharing of food and stories at the end. It’s like trying to simplify the feeling of your first kiss into the chemical formula for adrenaline and endorphins. Sure, that’s what’s going on at a basic level, but there’s so much more to it than just the numbers and data. We got up to Kendal to meet up with Simon, who’s parents were to take us in for the weekend, and treat us like kings. I don’t suppose that Mr & Mrs Simon’s mum and dad will ever get to read this, but just in case, thank you for everything. You made the weekend so much more memorable for me with your kindness and hospitality.

Stage one of the weekend was to get signed in at the new start/finish location at Grasmere. The weather was, well, pretty normal for the Lakes really – wet, windy, and very changeable. This was due to last the whole of the duration of the event, but after last year, anything was to be an improvement. Signing in was quick and easy, and we returned to Kendal, where we were presented with our bodyweight in pasta to eat, and the entertainment was provided by Oscar the cockerpoo puppy chasing Bumble the kitten around like an out-take from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Every five minutes the kitten would be cornered, at which point it would deliver a sharp paw to the nose of the dog, the dog would run away, and the whole process would start again. I’m getting slightly ahead of myself here, but I feel I must also apologise on Sol’s behalf for any trauma caused to Bumble in the course of the weekend – this morning, I was wasting some time just idly playing with the kitten, when Sol released a truly magnificent twelve-second three-octave fart. The cat froze for a split second, looked at me with terror in her eyes, and shot out of the door.

Back to the main plot. We set alarms for 04:45 Sunday, and crashed out for the night, full of expectation and a certain amount of apprehension. A sign of just how much apprehension is that both Sol and I were awake before the alarm went off next morning. We both climbed into our cycling kit in silence in the darkness, and crept downstairs. And although I knew I had to eat a hearty breakfast, my mouth was dry, and my nerves had killed my appetite. Still, I got stuck in, and forced down as much as I could, along with some coffee. We’d loaded the bikes into the car the evening before, so all that was left to do was make up the drinks for the day, and throw our bags with spare dry clothes in the boot, and hit the road. The journey was completed with animated discussion of what was to come. Sol and I offering advice to Simon, who had never ridden The Fred before, and Simon’s enthusiasm to get stuck in feeding back to us. By the time we reached Grasmere, we were all eager to get going. We’d arranged to meet up with Rich at the startline, and by a quirk of fate we ended up right next to each other in the queue to get in. We unloaded the bikes, attached the race numbers (even though this isn’t a race, they’re referred to as race numbers, and the fastest finisher is traditionally declared the winner, so I’m not about to break this tradition) and queued up at the start line. By 06:30 we were off. Spirits high, we pedalled lightly down through Ambleside. I was apprehensive of the day, as I remembered well the pain from the previous two years, but also incredibly optimistic about the day. Everything was right. The weather was OK. I was feeling good. The four of us were riding well together. Everything was perfect. Everything in it’s right place. I smiled, happily content with the situation, totally in control. We swung off the main road into the ascent to Troutbeck, and then on to Kirkstone Pass.

And this is where things started to go wrong. My legs felt good. And for the first part of the climb, everything felt fine. I could feel my breathing becoming laboured, but nothing to be alarmed about. I mean, it’s a 450m pass. It’s going to be hard, right? I should expect to have to work at it. The next thing I remember coherently was fighting for breath, wondering what the hell had just happened, and looking around to see where I was. I was still upright. Still pedalling, but completely empty. My chest hurt. My lungs were burning. I was, understandably, feeling rather disorganised. Just ahead I could hear the cowbells and cheering and clapping at the top of the pass. I remember thinking “just reach the top. That’s all you have to do now. Just reach the top”. I didn’t have a plan any further than that. I didn’t know if I’d need one. Totally spent, slumped over the bars, gagging for air, I got past the top, and thought about dismounting there and then. I thought about Louison Bobet, abandoning his final tour on the Col D’Iseran.

A little voice at the back of my head was telling me to carry on. Where to? Where was I going? Why was I going there? What would I find when I got there? I didn’t know. But there was only one way to find out. I clicked into the tallest gear, kicked once to get over the crest, and hung on. It’s probably fair to say that I may not have been totally in control in some places on the way down. 75km/h on wet roads, with cold brakes, wearing lycra, and only a slightly fuzzy grip on reality really isn’t recommended. In fact, it’s bloody stupid. It did the trick though. Adrenaline coursed through me, re-awakening my senses. At the bottom I joined up with Sol.

“Bloody hell mate, you look rough. You OK?”

“Um, I may not be up for this…”

We talked about what just happened. Sol is a great motivator, and will always get the best out of a situation. In this case, he agreed that things didn’t sound good, and that I needed to have a think about things. I made the decision that getting home in one piece was more important than anything else. It wasn’t a tough decision. It wasn’t really a decision at all really. The first thought when things were going badly was for Faye and the girls. I needed them now more than ever. I was going to bail out at Keswick, and ride gently back to Grasmere. I was going to abandon. To fail. Of course, like all good plans, it didn’t quite work out like that… I wanted to make sure that we caught Simon and Rich, by now a minute or so ahead of us, so Sol didn’t have to complete the course on his own. We finally caught them just past Keswick, and I slipped gently away. A spent force. I rode some way down Borrowdale until I could no longer see them ahead, then stopped, sat by the side of the road in the rain, and cried.

The ride back to Grasmere was something I’ll never forget. As I’d already gone past the turning from the A66 I had to ride back the wrong way along the course for a few miles. Hundreds of Fred Whittoneers rode the other way. Some waved. Some asked if I was OK. I couldn’t answer. And I’m sorry for that. Really, if you were one of the good people who asked me if I was OK, and I ignored you, I’m truly sorry. You deserve better than that. Truth was, I wasn’t OK. But I couldn’t get the words out. By the time I got back to Grasmere I’d composed myself somewhat. I rode back over the startline, reported my number to the startline marshal so he could record my finish rather than send out a search party when I didn’t arrive at the first checkpoint, and tried to apologise to Lofty, the organiser of the event.

“Don’t be so bloody daft lad (it always makes me laugh when I’m referred to as “lad”. I’m nearly 50). I’m just bloody glad we didn’t need to send out a rescue for you”

As I didn’t have the car keys I had to sit in the tent for a few (well, five and a half actually) hours to wait for the arrival of the other three. And slowly, the tent began to fill up with finishers, and as I spoke with many of them, I started to realise that of course, I’d done the right thing, and of course, the event will be there next year. There was also a steady stream of walking wounded coming back in, victims of the brutal descents, particularly Hardknott and Wrynose. And then something more worrying. An air ambulance was required to lift someone off of Wrynose, a faller on the descent, with head injuries. This was about the time that I was expecting the other three through. It’s fair to say that Simon probably wasn’t expecting the big hug he got when I saw him cross the finish line. As I write this, I’ve not heard anything on the condition of the fallen rider. Fingers crossed.

It’s easy for me to get overly analytical about my performance. I thought I was ready for The Fred, but I guess I’m lacking fitness. First port of call for me will be to see a doctor before I take on any more strenuous rides. I don’t know what happened on the way up Kirkstone Pass, but obviously it wasn’t good. More profoundly, it was the first time that my body has let me down, and prevented me from doing something I want to do. This is a big moment, psychologically, for me. And I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle it. I’m OK at the moment, but remember what I said earlier about plans? I still have them. Lots of them. And I don’t want to lose them yet.

Oscar, the dog, had a far more succinct view of my performance on the day however, and decided to show me this by leaving me a little present on my cycling jersey after I had got changed:

IMG_4591

I’m just glad he chose the jersey rather than the helmet next to it.

 

Postscript. As of 14-May, we’ve reached our £1000 target for MacMillan Cancer Support. http://www.justgiving.com/fredwhittontake3 – thank you all, you’re all lovely lovely people.

 

If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you 2 May, 2014

Filed under: Cycling — nr @ 11:48 am

Forgive me. I don’t often quote Nietzsche. Mainly because I don’t understand a lot of it. But I like that one, and it seems to make sense right now, as I’ve spent a lot of time searching within myself for the strength I’m going to need next weekend on for the Fred Whitton ride. And the longer I gaze into this particular personal abyss, the more I realise that I’m searching for something more fundamental than whether I have the strength to complete a bicycle ride. But that’s enough of the philosophy for now.

In purely practical terms, things are actually looking pretty good. We’ve got accommodation sorted out (cheers Simon), I’ve got the Monday booked off work for the journey home, and the bike is all set up and ready to go. My personal training is pretty much done now, I’ll probably just pop out for one more longish ride this weekend in order to just keep my legs turning over. I guess that now would be as good a time as any to mention the last training ride too, as it had it’s ups and downs, but was a pretty good day out all in all.

Sol, Simon and I had agreed to use the annual Cambridge 100 as a good way to get a few extra miles in our legs in the lead up to the Fred. Sol and I did this ride last year, and kind of misjudged our pace a little… We got a really good tow around the first half of the course courtesy of some chaps time-trialling their way around in preparation for an iron-man competition they were doing. These guys didn’t want us to do any work at the front, as they’re not allowed to do this in the ride they were training for, but they were cool with us riding in their group. However, keeping that pace killed us for the second half of the ride, and we both suffered rather. This year, we were determined not to do the same thing. Besides, I was struggling with a recently broken rib, which didn’t bother me most of the time. Only when bent over, or breathing deeply. Dammit.

So, we got away smartly at 7am, and immediately settled into a nice routine, swapping the lead, enjoying the beautiful scenery and morning stillness as we rode out from Cambridge towards Fordham. I guess that we were doing a pretty good job, as when I looked over my shoulder I also noticed the other 18 riders lined up behind us, steadfastly refusing to take a pull at the front. This went on for quite a few miles, and eventually I rolled off the front, and went right to the back of the group, just to see if anyone else fancied doing some of the work. Nope. Sol and Simon kept swapping the lead, and not one other bugger would do anything to help out. I mean, it’s only a bike ride, and not a race at all, but still, it’s pretty bad form to just sit there, and not even offer a couple of hundred metres with your nose into the wind. I rode back past the line up to the front, and could sense that Sol was also getting a bit fed up with this, so we had a quiet word with Simon, pulled out of Isleham onto the Prickwillow road, and went for it. 10kms later, we’d dropped our chasing pack. Sadly we’d also comprehensively knackered each other in the chase, but it was good fun while it lasted. The rest of the first half of the ride was pretty uneventful, other than the stark beauty of the scenery. I know I’m in a minority of about three people, but I really do like the bleakness of the Fens.

Just before the halfway point I had a bit of a wobbly leg moment, probably due to trying to keep up with Sol, but also, I like to think, because my ribcage was properly bloody sore now, and I was struggling to maintain a constant breathing rate. This, happily, coincided with the first rest stop, so we took the opportunity to sit down, have a cuppa, and I wanged down some Nurofen to try and take the edge off the pain. Once we’d finished the tea, we set off again, and had a lovely few kms with the wind right behind us, and sun was now getting up, and the road surface was good. We span along lazily, holding about 40km/h with ease. Until Simon’s saddlebag exploded, which gave us another short break while we recovered bits from the road and bodged it all back together again. A few miles further on, into Outwell, and we caught a group of four chaps from a local cycling club. Being the polite chap I am, as asked if we could sit with them for a few miles.”No problem!” came the cheerful answer.

74.2 metres up the road, and the miserable git turned around, and spat “are any of you going to come to the front then?” at us. My normally placid attitude kind of snapped a bit at this point, and I just rode to the front without saying a word. Sol, considerably less placidly than me, decided that the best thing to do was just to drop them, and get on with our own ride. (I later noticed at the end of the ride when we were sitting down with a cuppa and some food that the same group were pointing at us, and talking to their clubmates. Hopefully we had transgressed some unwritten rule of the cycling club. If there’s one thing that bugs me about cycling it’s the stupidity of the unwritten and unspoken rules on the club run. Have a read of Richard Smith’s excellent book ‘recycled’ for a withering appraisal of why an awful lot of road cyclists are complete knobs).

Anyway. Where was I? Oh, yes, Just coming into Ely. I like this bit of the ride, as there’s a really good atmosphere in the city as it’s one of the major foodstops on the green in front of the cathedral. And also, just because it’s an absolute pleasure to ride through such a beautiful city. The ride out the other side is also a real laugh, as the ‘serious’ 100 mile ride meets up with the route of the shorter fun ride, and suddenly, it’s just like being a kid again, riding out with a bunch of mates on a Sunday afternoon just for the fun of it. That said, there’s still a good 10 miles to go. Most of it into the wind. Some of it uphill. And on one memorable occasion, accompanied by a massive crash that sent one hapless rider headfirst into a drainage ditch, and had Sol and I skidding sideways up the road trying to avoid the wreckage.

5’57 mins after we started, we crossed the finish line. Which wasn’t a bad time at all, give that we were stopped for 30 mins in total, drinking tea and rebuilding Simon’s luggage. In terms of preparation for The Fred, that’s pretty handy, as I reckon that I’ve finally got some strength in my legs. My rib is a bit of a worry, but I’ve still got a few days, and it’s getting less painful every day. A few painkillers, and I’ll be just fine.

So when I see that abyss on the day, I’m going to give it a damned stern talking to, and ask it what it’s staring at.

 

 
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