Category Archives: Cycling

The Chiltern Challenge 100

I wouldn’t usually blog about a cycle sportive but the Chiltern Challenge 100 was different for several reasons. It was to be the first time I have ridden 100 miles (lots of 75-85 milers recently but no century) and it was also one of my final dress rehearsals for the bike leg of Ironman UK.

I chose the Chiltern Challenge 100 because of the timing. It took place exactly four weeks to the day before Ironman which would give me time to fit another one in if I wanted to and it was also quite a challenging ride with over 4,000 feet of ascent. I also chose to do a sportive rather than a ride at home because it imposed a “race day” discipline on me. I had to be at registration by 7.30am which meant I had to get up early which all added to the sense of dress rehearsal.

Fast forward to 8.00am and there I was waiting under the starting arch with about ten others listening to a safety briefing and then we were off. I should point out that there were more than ten of us doing this ride, it is just that they set us off in small groups for safety reasons.

The first ten miles were pretty straight forward, a few introductions and a bit of chat but any ideas that this was going to be a six-hour social were dispelled as we hit the first big hill at about 15 miles. It may have been the first hill but it was the biggest hill of the day reaching 12% at it most spiteful about half way up. I was grateful for my compact crank set which meant I never struggled with my cadence while others around me almost ground to a halt – literally.

The climb gave way to a long and satisfying descent which got the average speed back up and was only interrupted by the first feed station at about 20-miles.

Part of my dress rehearsal plan was not to use or do anything that I couldn’t do on race day. I had a slight challenge here as Ironman only gives out Powerbar products on race day and The Chiltern Challenge 100 was sponsored by High Five and so only dished out their goods. I was very keen to see how my stomach reacted to 100-miles of Powerbar and so I had to carry it all with me, including energy drink mix. I lingered at the feed station just long enough to fill up with water and mix a fresh bottle of energy drink.

The next 30 miles or so were unremarkable apart from a long hot climb out of Henley, the appalling condition of the roads, one or two impatient local drivers and a small navigation error which cost me a few miles. Once back on track I was soon at feed station two which was more like a banquet with a full on buffet! I momentarily ignored my dress rehearsal rules and had a spot of lunch.

The second half of the ride was hot but not quite as hilly as the first half and what hills there were came right at the end – thank you organisers. Other than that it was all pretty routine and almost exactly 6.30hrs of riding time after I started, I crossed under the finish arch at race HQ. My Garmin was showing an average moving speed of 16.2mph (26.0kph). I don’t know who measured the route, but my Garmin, which is pretty reliably accurate was showing 106 miles (170km).

The others riders finishing just after me all quickly discarded their bikes and headed for the free massage or the bar, so I got some strange looks as I swapped my bike shoes for running shoes and set off on a 1-mile run around the playing fields in front of the finish area. I was pleased with how easily I knocked off a mile – just the other 25.2 to worry about now!

All in all a good day. My nutrition strategy for the Ironman bike is now decided and I was pleased with how I felt at the end 106 miles on a course that has more climbing than Bolton. I plan to repeat the exercise on another 100-mile sportive this coming weekend, this time in The New Forest. This one has a bit less ascent and I plan to use it as a full dress rehearsal which means I am on my TT bike this time. It also looks as though the weather man, having given me hot last weekend, may give me rain this weekend – so all bases will have been covered – deep joy!!

I’ve given birth to a ginger caterpillar!

So it’s Movember, the month when we are all encouraged to grow a moustache to Movemberraise awareness of prostate cancer. I have an added incentive to join in this year as my good friend Simon was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer. Mercifully they caught it early and he seems to be on the mend.

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Frank Zappa

So once the calendar clicked over to 1 November, my razor was given a month off and we sat and waited. When I think moustache I think Windsor Davies, Frank Zappa or Errol Flynn. What actually began to emerge was more like a caterpillar. Actually an undernourished caterpillar with a hair-loss condition.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. I can barely bring myself to write the words to describe what I discovered next……..IT WAS GINGER. My moustache came out ginger. How did that happen? I have brown hair. My father and mother had brown hair. My sister has brown hair. Ginger is not a concept that has troubled our gene pool.

I have a decision to make. So far I have hidden the early ginger scrap of a moustache from the public. I haven’t had to go to the office this week and have been working at home. But tomorrow I have a fairly grown up and important meeting with some people I don’t know well. I don’t think there is any room on the agenda for caterpillars and ginger moustaches. So the fate of my emerging tash will be decided in the early hours.

In other news I did my first winter session on the turbo today – the cycling equivalent of a treadmill. A solid hour of hard work. A lot of cyclists scoff at turbo training but I love it. If the choice is between being out in the dark on a cold, wet, windy autumn evening or being ensconced in my warm cellar with the lights on and music blaring as I stamp on the pedals to Eminem then that is one of the easier decisions I will make this week. The harder one awaits me at the shaving mirror in the morning.

Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote – 5 October 2013

Lanzarote may just be the perfect place for a long distance triathlon. Year-round sunshine, warm sea and challenging terrain for cycling, the spectacular logovolcanic island off the coast of Africa has it all. No surprise then that the second running of Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote attracted a field of 650 from all over the world. For me it was the climax of the triathlon year, the race that I had geared my entire season around.

I flew out to Lanzarote on the Tuesday before the race. Although the event is run by Club La Santa – basically a holiday resort for fit people – I chose to stay about half an hour away in a much quieter part of the island where I could retreat and relax. I was nervous enough as it was and I don’t think it would have helped to be surrounded 24/7 by over-excited triathletes!!

There was plenty to do to keep me busy in the three days leading up to the race. I spent time doing a recce of the swim course in Le Santa’s Lagoon and I drove round the bike course as well as doing a few light training sessions to stop my body from going to sleep. I was joined on Wednesday by my friends Keith and Laine who were also competing.

Saturday morning came round very quickly. I had tried to get an early night on Friday, but not before  I had swapped texts with Cate to tell her that she could track my progress via the live coverage on the Ironman website. She texted back: “Then we’ll be with you”. I banked that lovely thought – I knew I would need it before Saturday was over.

swim pre start

Nervous before the swim start

As is normal for me on race day I was awake before my alarm went off. I forced down a pre-race breakfast of oats and bananas before gathering my belongings and driving to Club La Santa in the dark. Ninety minutes later I was standing on the beach of the Lagoon with over 600 other nervous competitors watching the sun rise over the horizon, minutes away from the start.

The swim

The swim was a beach start – a nice term for a mad dash to the water followed by a free for all of whirling arms. Kenneth Gasque the flamboyant Race Director was on hand to sound the hooter and Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote 2013 was under way.

swim chaos

The crowded swim!

The 1.9km (1.2 mile) swim was a single lap of the Lagoon and was very crowded from start to finish, which meant there was lots of physical contact. My priority for most of the swim was keeping an eye on what was immediately in front of me to avoid getting a stray foot in the head. The best tactic was to try to stay out of trouble but be ready to defend your space if necessary. I wasn’t completely successful at either and at least once had to barge my way through a gap that wasn’t really there.

Despite the crowd and the constant bumping and bashing I didn’t feel uncomfortable at any point on the swim and was pleased with how I handled it. I got out of the water after about 37 minutes, glad it was behind me but feeling OK.

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Swim exit

After a quick dash through the resort to transition I was in the changing tent with all thoughts on the bike leg. By now it was about 8.45am and already the temperature was in the high 70s. I spent a few minutes slapping on the free factor 50 sun cream before heading off on the bike. In my haste to get the lotion on I managed to get it all over my cycling sun glasses – a mistake that was to plague me for the most of the bike leg.

The Bike

The 90km (56 mile) cycle was a big loop around the north of the island. In only a few minutes the built up area of La Santa was replaced by barren countryside and as a taster of what was to come, we were straight into a long hill which took us to the village of Soo. Here we turned north to Caleta de Famara and then across the island via the small towns of Teguise and Tahiche.

Once on the south coast of the island we ground our way through a ten-mile drag from Tahiche on a busy coastal road, cycling into a building 17mph headwind. This was the low-point of the race for me. Progress was slow and my mind wandered. Eventually I had to give myself a bit of a pep talk. I didn’t need reminding that things were just about to get an awful lot harder.

By now the small problem of sun tan lotion on my sunglasses had become a big problem. The addition of a bit of sweat meant I could barely see through them. At the next aid station I stopped to mix an energy drink and ask if they had a cloth. They didn’t but a quick thinking lady volunteer offered me the front of her shirt. I have to confess that I may have spent slightly longer than was strictly necessary cleaning my glasses as we both laughed at the situation!

Glasses clean and drinks replenished I steeled myself for what was likely to be the toughest part of the day and the part which, for many, would define success or failure.

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Halfway up the Tabayesco climb

The signature feature of Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote is the Tabayesco Climb – a 6-mile unbroken ascent which took us from sea level to a little under 2,000 feet at the Mirador del Haria. From the bottom it is a daunting sight. You can see the road wind its way up the mountain and somewhere in the distance you can just make out the tourist restaurant which sits at the top. My strategy was simple – no heroics, arse on saddle, low gear, high cadence and take it easy. That approach served me well and I passed lots of people on the way up, pausing to exchange words of encouragement each time. The ascent up Tabayesco, which had worried me more than anything, turned out to be one of the highlights of my race.

The view from the top was breathtaking and gave way to a well earned descent. In contrast to the overcrowded swim, I found myself cycling with just one other person – Piggy (her name was on her race number). I kept about 20 yards behind Piggy and followed her line all the way down. It was an exhilarating 15 minutes as we flew down the mountain at speeds between 30-40 mph back into Teguise.

With the worst of bike leg done, we retraced out steps back to Le Santa finishing off with a couple of miles of downhill where it seemed that for the first time all day, the wind was behind us. I rode back into Club Le Santa and transition after 56 miles of cycling and over 5,000 feet of climbing with 3.56hrs on my bike computer.

It was now about midday and the sun was high in the sky and the temperature into the mid-80s. Not the conditions the average Englishman would choose in which to run a half marathon. Once again I invested a few minutes in transition covering myself in high factor sun cream.

The Run

The 20.1km (13.1 mile) run course was a 4.4 mile lap from the stadium at Club Santa to the nearby village of La Santa and back which we ran three times. It was not an imaginative course, but because everyone was somewhere on a 2.2 mile stretch of road, it made it easy for spectators and so there was lots of fantastic support. Another plus of the layout was that by placing just three aid stations on the run we were able to pass an aid station 18 times in 13 miles, or as my one-track mind saw it, we were able to drink and douse ourselves in cold water about once every three-quarters of a mile.

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Starting my final lap on the run

The first lap was fine. I was pleased to be off the bike and into the final stage and my running legs felt good. My strategy was to set a steady pace of about 9-minutes a mile and walk through the aid stations – not to rest but to be certain that I got as much water down me as I could. I had already drunk about 5 litres of fluid on the bike without a single pee stop, so I knew that dehydrating was a real threat.

By the time I started the second lap I had seen Keith and Laine, both still smiling. The first lap through La Santa village had been a bit of a blur, but the second time round I noticed that all the restaurants and bars were full and people were barbecuing at the side of the road – everyone cheering. The atmosphere was fantastic.

The brilliantly organised aid stations became my focal point. The marshals, mainly Spanish, were very animated leaving you in no doubt what they were offering you. I now know the Spanish for water, energy drink, fruit, Red Bull, flat coke and banana!

As I left the stadium in Club La Santa to start my final 4-mile lap I had been on the go for over 6 hours and I was starting to suffer. I knew the next 40 minutes were going to be tough. My hamstrings were getting tighter, my feet hurt and in my haste to cover my head in water over the previous 90-minutes I had ended up with wet feet – running with wet feet is one of my pet hates.

The race course now resembled a battle ground as the day’s efforts and the baking sun took their toll. Only age-groupers were left on the course and everyone was stuck in their own world trying to get through it. Many were walking, some were sitting on the kerb trying to regroup and sadly some were being taken off the course by the medical team.

So here it was – my Ironman 70.3 had boiled down to a few very tough miles of running. I tried to think positive thoughts to help me through it. I started by unbanking Cate’s lovely text message. I thought about Matilda – my beautiful 11-year old daughter who had spent one too many Sunday breakfasts without her Dad there because he was out on his bike training for this. If there was no other reason to finish I owed it to her.  Between the three of us, slowly but surely, we covered the ground.

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The finish line!!!

And suddenly I was running back into the stadium at Club La Santa – just 200 metres between me and a hard earned Ironman 70.3 medal. As I ran round the stadium I tried to enjoy the moment but all I really wanted to do was finish and get off my feet! The finishing chute was a welcome sight. I crossed the line, my arms in the air, with the clock at 6.59 hrs – job done!

I was immediately scooped up by the post race system. First a medal, then a handshake and photo with Race Director Kenneth Gasque who stayed on the finish line for four and a half hours and shook every finisher’s hand. Then I was free. I grabbed a drink, sat down by the side of the race track and took my running shoes and socks off – bliss!

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Race Director Kenneth Gasgue…and my medal!!

If you ever want a dose of inspiration, spend an hour or so on the finish line of an Ironman event. I did exactly that and watched a procession of people achieve their ambition. Most impressively I watched Hilary Walker from Serpentine Tri in the 60-64 age group finish (she had kicked my arse on the bike!) and I had the privilege of seeing Peter Norman from the 75-79 age group finish. Both were inspirational.

And finally, in what I discovered is an Ironman event tradition, everyone gathered at the finish to welcome in the final competitor. A minute before the cut off time of 8.30 hours, Joanne Dodd appeared in the stadium to a rapturous reception. As she crossed the line bang on 8.30hrs the noise was deafening – looking around, there were definitely a few wobbly bottom lips going on. I can’t imagine the guts it must take to stick at it in these conditions for eight and a half hours. Take a bow Joanne. Whilst some of the elite performances were impressive, these guys are naturally gifted athletes who are paid to train full time, people like Joanne are the real heroes of this race.

Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote was a great way to end to my season – a real high point. Right now I don’t want to think beyond a few weeks of rest. There is plenty of time to plan what happens next season. For now I am going to afford myself a little time to enjoy what I have done!

If you want to run with the big dogs, you’ve got to learn to pee in the tall grass

As four of us drove back from our first open water swim of the year at Reading Lake in time for a late Sunday breakfast, the driver spoke with the voice of authority.

“People think that by swimming round and round the lake you get faster. You don’t, you get slower”

The voice was that of Dan Mason, a Team GB triathlete in his age group last year – also a member of our triathlon club and a friend. He has just been selected for Team GB again this year, so when he talks I listen. I also listen because Dan is a qualified BTF coach and is helping me with my training this year.

It is a theme I have heard Dan expand before. You don’t get better at something by just going and doing lots of it. You get better in training by pushing yourself. Sometimes that means doing something outside your comfort zone that you don’t really like. Sometimes it means training with people better than you so you have to work harder than is comfortable to keep up. Neither is enjoyable which is why we rarely do it. The sad truth is that getting better involves some suffering!

This discussion is very timely for me as I have now started training for my triathlon season. My first race, an open-water sprint tri, is in June. I am reluctant to admit it because usually when I declare training has started I get injured. So I am writing this with everything crossed.

I have tried to put Dan’s theory into practice by getting out of my comfort zone in training. This week I had two opportunities to show myself that I was pushing it.

The first was last Saturday when our tri club group bike ride didn’t happen. I decided to go out on my own instead and cycled about ten miles to some local hills. If suffering is on the menu then hills are a safe bet! I found a loop that, in a strange optical illusion, seems to be constantly uphill yet still ends where it started – go figure! It was an 8-mile loop which I did twice. Add on the journey to and from home and I got a solid 37 hilly miles under my belt – 1,797 feet of ascent at an average speed of almost exactly 15 mph. It was exhausting and by the time I arrived home my legs were a bit like jelly from the climbing. Not your average fun ride!

The next day I was at the tri club weekly swimming session. On the agenda this week, in the middle of a 2k workout, was a 400 metre time trial – 16 lengths of the pool against the clock. I occasionally do a 400 metre time trial alone to try and gauge progress, but with no-one watching or timing me, it is often hard to distinguish my 400m time trial from an easy 400 metre warm up. When the rest of your training lane sits on the end of the pool and watches and one of them has a stop watch in his hand, it’s an entirely different proposition – the pressure is on.

My lane partner this week was Chris Oliver. He is a stronger swimmer than me. He has a fluid and deceptively powerful stroke. He gave me lots of excuses about taking it easy and not being too bothered about his time. He then promptly nailed a 6.30 mins 400m. Turns out he did care about the time after all!!

Then it was my turn. I set off and straight away felt out of breath. Must be in the head – even I can swim two lengths without falling apart. I tried to keep it easy while I got a few lengths under my belt. At halfway I heard Chris shout 3.40 – I tried furiously to do the maths in my tired head underwater! Was twice 3.40 under 7 minutes or not? No it was 6.80 – what does 6.80 mean? I gave up and focused on swimming.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Helen Hunter in the next lane. Helen is tall with long levers which she uses to great effect in the pool. I tried to keep up with her – no chance – but it made me push myself.

By the last 50 metres things were hurting but I knew that in about one minute Chris was going to read out my time for all to hear and that kept me working hard. I put in as big a finish as I could without blowing up. Eventually I made it – 7.30 mins exactly. Not Michael Phelps but a full 16 seconds inside my PB.

I still have work to do if I am to get under 7 mins by October, but it looks like Dan was right. You get better by training with better people than you and by pushing yourself.

If I want to get really good perhaps I should go and swim in the fast lane at training where our winner on the night did 400m in 5.02 mins. Well done Sam Wilson who beat all the men!

Happy in the Herd

Finally after nearly three weeks of patient cross training in the pool and on my bike I got the all clear from my physio to start running again after my shin-splint problem.

I was very excited to be running again and after a long and careful warm up I set off on a very gentle 3.5 mile run. Now here is where several threads of my recent running past come together. Quick recap – I bought new running shoes not understanding they had changed and were more minimal, got lots of calf pain, went back to old worn out shoes, experienced temporary relief followed by shin splints. Got it? So now I am on my 3.5 mile comeback run wearing brand new running shoes. Not ideal!

Remarkably everything was fine. There were a few aches and pains but nothing I wouldn’t expect after a run in new shoes. Being cautious I took a rest day before repeating the exercise. A careful warm up and another very easy 3.5 mile run – but this one was different. Almost straight away I felt a sharp pain shooting up my calf. Not wanting to take any risks, I stopped and walked home. But I was pretty fed up. I was bored with not running and I had looked forward to getting back on the road. I wanted another setback as much as I wanted a Tesco hamburger and I wasn’t great company when I got back to the house. In fact I was in a gloom for the rest of the day which was only lifted by a couple of export-strength Carlsberg’s in the evening.

The next day was Saturday and although I still felt grouchy I had promised myself that I would go out on a group bike ride with my triathlon club. As a club we are trying to get more people out cycling together and this was the first day of a new ride we were trying. I was keen to be a good club member and support it. It was a lovely dry sunny winter’s day and we got a great turnout. Twelve riders turned up.

We spent about two hours riding round the beautiful country lanes of Hampshire and over the border into Wiltshire (yes, it was an inter-county ride) all in the winter sunshine. There were lots of familiar faces on the ride but lots of new faces too which I always like. Cycling like this is quite a social activity and I spent time chatting with as many people as I could and made a point of introducing myself to as many of the new faces as possible. I remember how welcome I was made to feel when I joined. Well now it was my turn to be the welcoming face of the club.

Two hugely enjoyable hours and 25 miles flew by and suddenly we were back where we started. As I loaded my bike into the car I noticed something. I wasn’t in a grump anymore! My mood had been lifted by the wonderful morning I had spent taking exercise with a group of friends. As I drove home my minor niggling calf pain was forgotten as I relived my bike ride and thought about some of the new people I had met and go to know. Two hours of exercise, some great company, plenty of laughter all sprinkled with a few feel-good endorphins and suddenly all was good in the ‘hood!

Let’s Rock…..or not?

Your leg muscles are screaming at you as you go for one last rep. You’re not sure you can do it. Exhausted you call on your body for one last effort. Then something extraordinary happens. The music in your ears changes and on comes Thin Lizzy – it’s “The Boys are Back in Town”. Suddenly you are energized and your legs are fresh. And as the thumping guitar rhythm takes hold, not sure if you are Bradley Wiggins or Phil Lynot, you push yourself to one last mighty effort!

Is music a driving force that fuels your workouts or a racket that disturbs the solitude of exercising? Used at the right time and place I think music is very motivating. If you get the right thumping beat in the middle of your workout, it’s difficult to stop it driving you on.

I am choosy about when I use music. I never run with an iPod or earphones. I find it very distracting. I like to listen to my breathing and the sound of my footsteps on the road. I also like to think my own thoughts which is not easy if you are competing with a rock song played at the same decibel level as an aircraft landing.

I use music most when I am cycling on my turbo trainer. My turbo lives in my cellar and however much I love my own thoughts, staring at a cellar wall and thinking for an hour is not my idea of entertainment. So I stick in the earphones, crank up the volume and get my cycling on.

But beware! There is an art to creating a playlist so that it compliments what you are doing. There is no use starting off a gentle warm up with Metallica pounding through the headset and nothing is more certain to kill the momentum than starting the hardest rep of your workout only to hear Karen Carpenter calling occupants of interplanetary craft in your ear.  And as someone pointed out about one of my playlists, a sure fire way to undo all of the feel-good endorphins that you get after a hard workout is to warm down listening to Adele’s semi-suicidal heartache.

This morning I was on the turbo at 6.00am for an hour before work. It was a tempo session – 10 minutes warm up, 45 minutes with heart rate over 135 and 10 minutes warm down.  So building a matching playlist wasn’t too complicated. Here is what I listened to this morning:

Warm up:
Sail On – The Commodores (cheesy start I know but read on – it gets better)
Heroes  – David Bowie
Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) – Green Day

Main Set:
The Man Who Sold the World (Live) – Nirvana
Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) – Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel
Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Na Na Na Na Na – Kaiser Chiefs
You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet – Bachman Turner Overdrive
Bad Romance – Lady Gaga
Rosalie/Cowgirl’s Song (Live 1976) – Thin Lizzy
One Vision – Queen
Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin
Stop – Spice Girls (don’t know what I was thinking – maybe that I was going to a Zumba class!!)
Vindaloo – Fat Les
Seven Seas of Rhye – Queen
Lido Shuffle – Boz Scaggs

Warm down:
Me and Tennessee – Tim McGraw & Gwyneth Paltrow

I am slightly embarrassed to confess to the final track on the playlist. There is no proper justification for listening to music like this, especially when you are exercising,  but my excuse is that it reminds me of some good times when I was young!

I Did What I Did for Maria – Tony Christie

Playlists have a short shelf life. They quickly get stale and need to be refreshed. So I would love to get some ideas for my next one. What is on your current playlist?

Headwinds, crashes and flapjacks. The Plain Cycle Challenge

It’s October and that means that the triathlon season is all over bar the shouting. The regular stream of emails that I receive from other Andover Tri Club members asking “Who is cycling tonight” or “Anyone doing a good Tri this weekend” has been replaced with emails about the AGM, Prize Giving and the Club Christmas Curry. The Ironmen have gathered on the Big Island and the ITU Elite crew are in Auckland for their end-of-season world championship show piece events and that’s it for another year.

With the clocks about to go back and the prospect of a long winter of training ahead of me, I was definitely in need of a lift. I found it in the Plain Cycle Challenge, a cycling sportive around Salisbury Plain in aid of Naomi House, a local hospice which does excellent work for our community. I got the call from my great friend Alex Porter who had been dragooned into a team organised by Spear Electrical, the areas leading provider of electrical contracting services. Their ever enthusiastic managing director, Brian Comley, had set a target of Team Spear collectively doing 1,000 miles on the day. What a great idea. I was delighted to help out.

Alex’s small sub-team consisted of me, Alex and Alex’s brother Mark – three 50-somethings whose athletic peak was some years ago but who are all determined to keep fit and keep pushing the boundaries that we can.

R-L Alex, Paul and me

We were joined by Felix, Mark’s 18-year old son who looked every inch the touring cyclist with his tall wiry frame and Eddy Merckx cycling cap with its upturned peak. The final team member was Paul, Alex’s brother-in-law who was the eldest of our group. Paul was every inch the Corinthian, but the thing you notice first about Paul isn’t his cotton shorts, rugby shirt and hybrid bike, but the fact that he always has a smile on his face.

We gathered at the Wellington Academy in Tidworth at 8.30am on Sunday. There was the usual mixture of pre-race activity. Some were pumping up tyres, others discussing the finer points of deep rimmed wheels, one or two earnestly stretching, but most were eating the excellent bacon sandwiches on sale in the coffee shop. Most prominent amongst the gathered cyclists were the Andover Wheelers huddled together around a table studying the map looking like an explosion in a paint factory. Their garish team uniform made me grateful I was carrying my shades. In all there were about 100 cyclists.

There were three different courses; 20k, 60k or 100k. Discretion being the better part of valour, we had collectively opted for the 60km course – 38.5 miles – meaning that we would contribute 192 miles to Team Spear’s 1,000 mile challenge. By 9.30am we were fed, suited, booted, briefed and on our way.

I started about 30 seconds behind the others as I fiddled around setting various watches and timers to track our progress.

On the move L-R Felix, Paul, Mark and Alex

As I raced to catch up I came round the first corner to see Mark lying across the road with his bike on top of him. Someone in the crowded peloton had feathered their brakes in front of him and in the ensuing panic he had come off. Not an auspicious start! Mark was back on the bike quickly insisting everything was fine. It wasn’t until after the race that he let on that he had taken a battering when he fell – his thigh and shoulder were bloodied and bruised.

The 60k course was a tour of Salisbury Plain mainly on quiet roads. It was a beautiful chilly autumn morning with a light mist in the low lying areas. There was plenty of moisture in the air and little wind – great for cycling. Most important it looked as though the rain would hold off. The only drawback of the conditions was that the roads were wet and you had to take care cornering if you weren’t to feel your back wheel slide from under you.

Now you would be forgiven for thinking that with the word “Plain” in its name we would be dealing with an expanse of predominantly flat ground here. That’s what I had thought, but Salisbury Plain is surprising hilly and the first hills came almost straight away. The effect of the hills was to stretch the peloton out. The steeper the hill the more the gap between first and last rider extended. I was riding with Alex. Paul and Mark were somewhere behind us and Felix had disappeared over the horizon sometime ago.

As we set a steady pace of around 15 mph, Alex and I passed all kinds of riders – a man on a hybrid who was in much too high a gear making his legs look like a blur; two girls whose priority seemed to be a jolly good chat; a gnarly old tourist whose best years were behind him but who would finish ahead of many younger than him and a big strong cyclist who flew past us on the down hills but struggled on the up hills where we were able to make up the lost ground.

The Andover Wheelers hunting as a pack

Alex and I were separated after about 8 miles and I rode with the big guy almost to the halfway station, swapping places depending on whether we were going up or down. This showed me very clearly how much hill climbing is affected by weight. This guy was 3-4 stones heavier than me and whilst that gave him more power on the flat, he had to drag that mass up every hill.

The good thing about a lot of climbing is that you eventually get to the top and if you are lucky there is a good view. We were very lucky. As we rode along the ridge at the top of the valley, a road known locally as the Chute Causeway, the view was stunning. We were treated to a carpet of mist punctuated by a string of small Wiltshire villages along the valley floor below us. This view went on for several miles before it was back to business.

A few miles before halfway we climbed the hardest hill of the ride – it was the only time I had to get out of the saddle all day. I was up on the pedals for a couple of minutes which really hurt and when I got to the top my companion was nowhere to be seen. It hadn’t been my intention to drop him – we weren’t racing, but as he didn’t appear immediately and as I wasn’t sure how long he would be, I didn’t wait.

A few minutes later I reached the half way feeding station at Collingbourne Ducis village hall.

Flapjacks and muffins at the halfway feed station

My watch said 1.15hrs. Time to refuel. As I rode in to the car park there was Felix as cool as a cucumber sitting on a bench eating a muffin watching the local village football team. He had cycled away from us early on and had been at the feeding station for 10 minutes and looked no worse for wear from his effort. After a delicious muffin, some jelly babies and chat with the other riders, including my companion who I had lost on the last hill, I filled up my water bottle and got ready to set off again. Before I left I saw Paul, Mark and Alex arrive so there wasn’t much between us. I offered my apologies for not waiting for them but I was starting to cool down and if I waited much longer I feared everything would stiffen up. I was the only one to leave when I did so for the second half of the course I was going to be on my own – a time trial!

When I had entered a cycling sportive in aid of a local charity I had glossed over the word “Challenge” in the title. But the second half of the course lived up to the name well. There were fewer of the brutal quad-burning hills of the first half but in their place a headwind had picked up which got stronger as the ride progressed and at times threatened to blow you to a standstill. There was no alternative but to grin and bear it.

Cycling alone into a chilly headwind is not good for morale. I cheered myself up with a steady stream of flapjacks, energy gels and drink all of which kept my energy levels up as the clock ticked on past the two hour mark.

My morale was lifted further by the road sign telling me that Tidworth was just 4 miles away.

Me getting mobile

Twenty more minutes and I’m done. But these things are never that straightforward. The finish at the Wellington Academy was the other side of Tidworth from where I was and as I was to find out the road out of town was a long slow climb. It wasn’t steep and it wasn’t going to break anybody, but it seemed to go on and on. And in one final ignominious twist I saw the only cyclist that I had seen for the last 20 miles as he zipped past me on the final hill with a cheery “Good Morning”.

Finally the hill came to an end and the finish was in sight. If I am honest the finish was the only disappointment of the day. There, where I thought the finish line was, were four people and a dog! Two of those people were Cate and Matilda, my wife and daughter. I don’t think I was expecting the finish of the London Marathon – but I had envisaged more than this. Nevertheless I had finished and in a time of 2.36 hrs – an average speed of 14.9 mph.

I changed into some warm dry clothes, grabbed my free Mars Bar and a drink and went back with Matilda to swell the numbers at the finish. Does six constitute a crowd? Soon enough Mark appeared, quickly followed by Felix and Paul. There was then some confusion about Alex’s whereabouts. Felix had punctured with Alex in front of him and had not overtaken him since. We quickly concluded that he had gone the wrong way. He didn’t keep us in suspense long. Over the crest of the hill in front of us appeared his blue helmet bobbing up and down in a steady rhythm making its way to the finish. All five of us home safely and all in good time.

I would like to think it was an admin cock up but I am sure it was one last sadistic addition to the “Challenge” that we had to climb a long flight of stairs to check in at the end of the ride. But on the plus side the de-registration desk was right next to the bar which was serving coffee and flapjacks.

So five of us all present and correct had done our bit for the 1,000 mile challenge and most important we had raised some money for Naomi House. After a well earned coffee and a rest we headed home basking in a glow of satisfaction for a well earned Sunday lunch sparing only a brief thought for Brian and the other members of Team Spear on the 100k course who still had a couple of hours left until they could do the same.