Monday, 16 January 2012

Life, Death and Hills

Some might say that attending a wine tasting (and not the kind with spittoons) from 3 - 8p.m. the day before a long ride isn't good preparation. Others might also agree that Byron burger (and copious onion rings), although being a poetic juxtaposition with last week's recovery food, probably isn't the best thing to go to bed on the night before a long ride. Having done both on Saturday, my 6a.m.-Sunday-self would have to agree with those people. Still, nothing that a cup of tea and a Berocca couldn't fix, and soon I was feeling exactly like this: (well, maybe not exactly like that - there was more lycra involved in my version).

"Red sky in the morning: shepherd's..."
How does that rhyme go again?
A quick look out of the window confirmed that the weatherman wasn't lying about a cold snap - ground frost in Central London is a surefire sign that it's a cold day. Embracing the snot-freezingly cold air that greeted me as I opened the front door, I cycled up to meet Rich at the end of the road. In the spirit of the great Ran Fiennes ("there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing") we had both used our nouse and gone for Assos jackets - probably the best cold-weather clothing produced for cycling. Unfortunately, it appeared that one of the other members of the ride (*cough* Mr Gething) had decided  that these were no conditions to be poncing around on skinny tyres, and much better conditions to stay in bed - he must have read a little bit more about Mr Fiennes, and discovered that he had once cut off his own frostbitten fingers with a Black and Decker rather than pay the surgery bills, so was clearly insane.

In my experience, group rides often start with a comparison of kit choice ("I see, so you decided on the extra base layer and the wooly hat. Interesting.") followed by a lambasting of the BBC Weather forecasting service who are then placed solely responsible for any cold fingers, toes etc. Rich and I were deeply engrossed in such a conversation as we headed along Albany Road, north of Burgess Park, not more than 5 minutes into our ride, when we noticed an Audi A3 coming towards us at something approaching 60mph. Now Albany Road isn't particularly wide, and a parked car on the right hand side meant that the Audi had moved into our lane while moving at this rate of knots. Something wasn't right, and the driver had clearly seen us at the last minute after pulling out so he proceeded to slam on the brakes while turning back in - probably due to his speed and the icy conditions, this didn't have the desired affect, and all four wheels of the car locked up as he drifted diagonally across the road in something that closely resembled that Aston-Martin-wrecking scene in Casino Royale. Fortunately, fate had dictated that Sunday was not to be our end-day, and we were far enough up the road that the car passed just behind us hitting a lamp-post that we had been next to only seconds before. All I remember thinking at the time is "S--t, that car's going to hit us" - hardly the most inspiring thought I have ever had, and I hope that come the day, I can do better than that! Looking back, the car was a total write-off, with bits of the engine strewn across the road and not-good-sounding noises coming from it. Strangely enough, when we turned round to help the stricken driver, we found him leaning back into the car through the window, removing the car stereo and rooting around for anything else he could find - either he wasn't very bothered about his car, or it wasn't his. Either way, he seemed fine and we were keen not to be involved any further, so we went our separate ways...

Running late for our meeting with Paul in Clapham, we pushed on - jumping at every loud noise as our nerves were shot - only to see a fellow cycling struggling with a puncture just north of the Common. When we checked if he was ok, a strong South African accent replied that his pump was broken. Being a cause close to Rich's heart, Saffas In Need is not as well supported as its name-sake for young people, so we stopped and gave appropriate assistance. All this time, Paul had been waiting in vain for us to arrive, and when we finally did the expression on his face said it all (serves him right for not wearing yet another Rapha layer, I suppose). With haste we pushed on to Richmond Park, stopping to counteract the heady effect of a mix of all that early morning rehydration and nervy close encounters of the vehicular kind. It must have been something to do with the cold, but both Rich and I had to stop several times to spend a penny on the ride while Paul stood there rolling his eyes - either he was frozen from the bladder upwards, or his catheter was in full force...
One of many...
One thing to confess on this blog is that although the rides go out with the aim of 'bagging' a certain number of the 100 climbs, the very nature of the geography of the climbs means that the ride inevitably takes in 'non-qualifying' hills - even though these hills are often no less arduous. The photos below are cresting our second climb of the day, although this wasn't Leith Hill, Whitedown or Box Hill:
Rich gets to the top while having an
invisible snowball fight

Spot the Rapha - yep that's Paul
Something about doing a circular route around our usual training lanes meant that we were all perfectly content to keep a sedate pace and take in the wildlife including roe deer, parakeets, daredevil foxes, a dead, frozen squirrel (grammar fans please note the use of a comma) and the odd mountain biker - none of which I got a photo of: great job, Nathan. We were hoping to catch Clive (who had abandoned us for a ride on the muddy stuff) in all of his baggy-shorted shame, but unfortunately he stayed resolutely hidden away in the woods. Inexplicably, I had never ridden the first two climbs from the approaches described in Simon Warren's book, so it was great have a new perspective on a well-ridden training ground. Leith Hill passed without too much incident, other than a reasonable amount of drag and a few nasty double-digit ramps, and before long we stopped for a photo-op at the bottom of Whitedown Lane:

Up and up and up

The wetsuit look is in this season
It was at this point that Paul chose to share his anecdote regarding a multi-cyclist pile-up that he had the misfortune of co-ordinating an ambulance for some years ago, and so we felt much better for having to go up rather than down this one. This was definitely the hardest climb of the day, made harder by the number of riders trying to squeeze up the narrow road, and a particularly impatient Jeep driver trying to push past - use your little-used low range gearbox you malignant Chelsea tractor! Rated 8/10 in the book, I struggle to see what makes this climb harder than the longer and just as steep Ditchling Beacon, but either way it was another one ticked off.

On to Box Hill, we joined the pilgrimage of weekend warriors making their way up the gentle hairpins of Zig Zag Road - making us ponder why the road builders didn't just go straight up the steep slopes of the hill, as they seem to do in pretty much every other lump in the country. I got an early jump on Rich for the summit, but he managed to claw back to my wheel and pip me on the line. A few quick coffees (thanks Paul) later (plus a bit of bike-porn-gazing) and we were on our way back towards the Smoke to battle through the traffic. Despite the huge number of people who had chosen this lovely brisk winters day to spend sat in the confines of their cars, we made reasonable progress on the way back, with Paul taking time out of his busy schedule to re-educate a taxi driver as to the error of his ways. A lot of what was said is un-printable, but one particularly choice exchange did result in Paul shouting at the top of his voice "Do you want to F--k me?" - probably one of the best rhetorical questions to throw back in the face of someone showing you aggression, nice one Mr B! Overall, a lovely Surrey ride with a few lumps thrown in for good measure

More technological issues recording this ride, as the Garmin decided to split out the ride to Esher, and the progress on the 'course' so producing two files. I'm also pretty sure my HRM slipped down to my stomach during the ride (I didn't fancy standing by the roadside adjusting my 'bra strap' so left it where it was):

Sunday, 8 January 2012

A sunny Saturday in January

Now let's be honest - Global Warming hasn't had a particularly good time of it in the mainstream media. Yes, I'll admit that the idea of a few Polynesian islands (and Norfolk) being swallowed up by rising sea levels isn't great, but maybe the GW guys just didn't stump up enough cash on PR people. I mean, who doesn't like a warm summer's day, right? You'd have thought they'd have an easier sell really, and with the sun shining on a 10°C January morning it's hard not to see some of the benefits for the UK. Indeed I suspect that if the weather this weekend is an omen of things to come then there will be a fair few cyclist converts who start agreeing with those right-wing nutjobs they seem to breed in the Republican party.

But enough on the world's environmental problems and more on cycling up hills...

After a fair amount of toing and froing of emails between friends (it turns out that the offer to go on a 100 mile ride in January leaving at 8am isn't all that popular), I managed to persuade a few hardy souls to brave the elements and inclines with me. These heros included Andy 'Tony' Martin, Chris 'The Silent Assassin' Huey, and Simon 'The Halfway Man' Lee - more on those names later. You'll note that the above list lacks the name of a certain Mr Cox - having perhaps unsurprisingly counted himself out from the ride by text at 11pm on Friday evening, he can consider this a public dissing! Having seen the forecast earlier in the week, I decided that this was a perfectly suitable occasion for my 'nice bike', plus a great time to give my new Campag Shamal Ultras (thanks Wiggle!) and new white Sidi shoes (thanks Selene!) a spin. I know, white Sidis in January. What a queen.

With my kit prepped the night before, I woke up at the relatively late time of 6.30 to scoff down some food before heading out into the breaking dawn. Unfortunately I was still full from the previous evening's (delicious, if I do say so myself) home-made pie, and couldn't face my usual pre-long-ride porridge and instead opted for finishing off a loaf of week-old bread that had been lingering in the store cupboard. About half way into my third slice I noticed an unusual odour coming from my breakfast - one that definitely wasn't the butter or honey - and with my early morning blur-vision noticed that I had been munching down on some lovely blue-mould. Leaving that last half aside, I opted to finish off breakfast with a banana instead and hope for the best - Penicillin is medicinal after all, and what doesn't kill you...

Making my way down through Peckham and the (surprisingly hilly) Forest Hill, I met the guys outside the main entrance to the Horniman Museum (great name, great Walrus: Having paid our respects to the totem pole on display (not a euphemism for anyone in particular in lycra before your filthy minds kick into action) we set off South through London suburbs towards our first target: White Lane in Surrey (number 16 of the 100).
Spot the pole
During the idle chatter that followed, I foolishly ignored the Harry-Potter-esque 'He-who-must-not-be-named' rule of cycling and remarked to Simon that as we weren't doing a circular route then we weren't expecting any headwinds at all en route. Fortunately the conversation didn't stray onto the topic of punctures (or lack thereof), lest we anger the cycling gods any further. Needless to say, we did encounter a fair bit of the blowy stuff.

Making good time, we emerged out into the quieter lanes around Biggin Hill and only when hurtling down Titsey Hill at 30mph did I notice the small lane heading back up to the left. Too late to make it with feeble calliper brakes, I resolved to having to climb back up - and extra bit of climbing for the 100 I suppose...The hill itself wasn't too bad (only a 5/10 according to the book). Fairly short, with a crumbling road surface, it kicked straight up a very narrow lane, before flattening and kicking again at somewhere around 20-25%. Nothing too strenuous, but enough to get the heart racing (to about 170bpm, apparently) and a nice little ramp to start the list on.

At the top (flat) bit of White Lane (#16)
After a lovely rolling section along Pilgrim's Way, the next hill up was the iconic York's Hill (#15). As featured in the annual Catford CC Hill Climb, which claims to be the 'oldest continuing cycle race in the world', this is a beast of a climb with two 25% sections and an average gradient of 12.5%. Not only that, but the surface is covered in mud, stones, twigs and all the usual winter detritus - probably not ideal conditions for those slick 23c tyres and 25-12 'race' gearing. The few minutes it takes to climb feel like an age when you're on the road and at points it's an effort to keep both your front wheel on the ground and your back wheel from sliding around on the muck. Great fun. By this point, Chris was clearly feeling strong and set off on a stormer, taking the lead at the top of the climb and then smugly waiting at the top as we arrived (he'd get his just deserts later).
Simon reaching the top

Spirits were high at the top, although I appear to have
lost the index finger of my right hand
A second descent out of Ide Hill was our reward for slogging up the climb, and 40+mph on the way down was a great way to refresh the legs. After this, we faced rolling roads and a steady headwind as we progressed South-West towards the coast. Forming a pace line, we took turns sheltering from the wind as Simon decided that enough was enough with this sub-20mph pace, and increased the speed every time he got the opportunity. As we approached the East Grinstead though, it became clear that we weren't all towing the same line as Mr Half Way Man announced that he would be getting a train back from Gatwick - no wonder he'd had a sudden spurt of energy! With our legs feeling the strain of a quick 30 miles, Andy's ironman pedigree started to shine through as he began to resemble his name-sake, the metronomic world time trial champion. Still, at 60 miles through, we were making reasonable time, albeit with worrying signs when Chris realised that going into the red up York's had filled his legs so far up with lactic that the power was not coming back. A coffee stop was needed, and we pulled over at a Spar in Handcross to refuel. We seemed to have chosen the only shop en route that was running down it's stock for refurbishment, so after cheap instant coffee (decanted into a bidon to give extra 'energy drink' flavour), a toxic-waste coloured unknown-brand energy drink and never-seen-before large chocolate stars, we were ready to roll again.
Everything must go -
even things you've never heard of before
Approaching the South Downs, Chris felt some energy return and we persuaded him that he shouldn't bail at this stage. At Fulking we turned away from our final destination in Brighton and started on the Westward loop into Steyning and the 5/10 climb of Steyning Bostal. This was the longest climb of the day so far, but with gentler slopes we all got up ok (albeit with some moaning, groaning and a bit of cursing). A quick respite to take pictures was followed by an atrocious descent on gravel-covered farm tracks - during which Chris checked the durability of his iPhone for a second time by bouncing it on the floor again.
Top of Steyning Bostal

Happy to have found his legs again
The next 20 miles was a drag back to Ditchling (including a short, and technically illegal, stint along the A23 in full motorway mode) during which I found that I had quite a lot of energy left (that gel probably had something to do with it too) so I did a fair bit of work on the front - it did help that this was the first section for some time when we had a headwind. Unfortunately we had all been up the last climb, Ditchling Beacon, many times before and so knew exactly what lay in store. Though it turns out that my memory of the climb isn't exactly photographic: I put in a sprint finish around the last bend in the climb, only to see the road kick up and round again and subsequently died on my arse...
A broken man

Typical hill-climb success poses: Chris does a 'brap'(he's
so street) while Andy demonstrates his 'out and
proud' pose...
Making to Brighton at 2.58, I managed to jump on the 3.04 to London Bridge and also grab a pasty on the way, which was consumed in world-record time as I headed home. The ride had taken 99 and a bit miles, and so to get the overall century I switched the Garmin back on for the ride home from the station. Technically cheating, I suppose, but I think five and a half thousand feet of climbing makes up for that...It does seem to have messed up the timing a bit though, as we had at least half an hour worth of stops during the ride and we definitely didn't trundle around at 13mph (or at least my legs don't feel like we did!)
The train pasty: up there with the train beer in the
pantheon of ultimate travelling food

And finally having got home, Selene and I went out for the mother of all recovery dinners at Hix (she had been cycling too...) - boy was it worth it!
Recovery food of champions

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Challenge

The statement "I'm planning to ride 100 hills in 2012" is normally met with looks of confusion from those who don't know me well. As challenges go, it's not the most original - I remember reading about someone who was fund-raising in memory of his son, and Simon Warren must have been up and down a few times in researching his mini-tome (more details here). But for the satisfaction of being able to say I've 'done' what the UK has to offer in cycling terms (cue arguments about all those hills in Norfolk that mysteriously didn't quite make it) as well as being a good way of structuring a few rides with friends, I will be documenting the trials and tribulations of my almost-completely-pointless endeavours as this almost-completely-devoid-of-sports year passes by.

So, less than 24 hours since the NYE carnage at Chateau Grunwerg and the planning has begun...
A sensible evening's planning

A hungover and very wet trip into Central London on New Year's Day resulted in £8 left behind in Stanfords, and a large wall map showing the physical relief of the UK being strategically placed in my flat - I have a hunch that the inspiration is going to be much needed to get organised for all of these trips. Nothing says planning quite like WWII-style map pins sticking purposely out of an over-sized map - now all I need are some mini battleships and one of those roulette rake things and I'll be able to recreate the D-Day landings.
That's a lot of pins
The planning has also taken shape online. While many slept off their festive food comas by hibernating in front of the Christmas TV and a roaring fire, I chose to use those calories mapping out all of the climbs in the book on one convenient Google map. Boring, tedious and long-winded, the Christmas viewing schedule bares many similarities with the process of finding on a map unnamed climbs on tiny roads in the middle of Dartmoor. However that process is now over and I can share this map with you - you'll still want to get hold of the book if you want to ride these without me as it's got a good amount of detail in, but when someone says "I climbed Fleet Moss" at least you'll know where that is...

View 100 climbs in a larger map
I've also been shopping - new blinging wheels for the nice bike, and panniers for the tourer/CX bike mean that I literally have zero excuse not to ride. Bring on 2012!