Onwards and upwards

You may have gathered that if I do something, I like to do it to the best of my ability. Having taken up cycling somewhat late in life I’m constantly looking for marginal gains which might just translate into making me faster on the bike. With this in mind, I decided that my husband and I should spend Easter at the Laurent Fignon Centre (www.centrelaurentfignon.com) in the Pyrenees for 4-days of training.

The Centre is situated next to to a charming and friendly hotel with an adjoining restaurant where all the meals were geared towards cyclists’ nutritional requirements.

We rode every morning, whatever the climatic conditions. Yes, we all chose to ride in the pouring rain, not wanting to miss any of the trainers’ words of wisdom or training exercises. There were 10 riders and 2 trainers so, based on ability, we were often split into two groups. This of course meant that in my group the ratio of trainer to pupil was nigh on perfect, being 1:1. It’s rare that not being very good at something is a distinct advantage.

In the afternoons we were free to explore the charming surrounding towns and countryside. Late afternoons and evenings were given over to video analysis of that morning’s exercises, stretching and advice on training zones, interval training, nutrition and, finally, our individual report card and training plans for the next 4 months based on our personal goals.

So, did I get a “could do better”? You will be unsurprised to learn that they were impressed with my descending but much less so with my ascending. Yes, I have been squandering my power in too high a gear so I am now spinning along in a much lower gear but higher cadence. However, while they were far too kind to say, it’s clear that the extra 10kg will have to go. Look how well Bradley Wiggins has been climbing in the Giro and he’s only lost 5kg. Now I’m working hard to improve my power to weight ratio.

In conclusion, I feel it was money well spent. I have faithfully been following not only “The Training Plan” but have also taken on board the advice of the two trainers. It’s probably too soon to tell whether it’s working but I believe it is and, frankly, that’s all that matters. I’ll be going back again next year to learn how to tackle some of those mythical cols.

Love of my life

Some might say I was fickle. Less than a year after acquiring my first road bike, an Orbea Diva, I fell in love with another.

It was a true “coup de foudre”. We spend hours together out on the road enjoying the glorious weather and spectacular scenery. I lavish plenty of loving care and attention on it: indeed, nothing is too good for it. We’re rarely parted and it lives in the “Bike Room” aka the “Laundry.”

It won’t be going to Austin. No, I fear that, with multiple plane changes, the chance the love of my life and I might be parted is too great. So I’ll be taking the Orbea to Austin which for the past year I’ve  ridden only on the home trainer.

But, mindful of my slow-motion ascent of that 10% average gradient hill in Italy, I decided to give it, and its triple chain ring, a second chance. So I took it out last week, over a course I ride on a regular basis, in order to compare the results with my recent training rides, diligently noted down in my training log. First off the set up of the bike felt totally wrong: seat too low, handle bars too narrow and too close to the saddle. I won’t bore you with the entire list of faults but suffice to say, despite the additional gears, it was my slowest time on that course for over six months.

The Orbea is now down at my LBS being set up like my BMC. Of course some things won’t change. Most notably its additional weight and handling. Plus, I have Shimano Ultegra group-set and wheels on the Orbea and Campagnolo on the BMC. But the intention is to replicate, as far as it is possible, the feel of the BMC.

Silver linings

Yet another Bank holiday week end in France, hence two sorties with my club mates. I had checked out the parcours on the club site the evening before Friday’s ride: it was the club championship course. We set off from the club at a gentle pace, which picked up as soon as we crossed over the Var. As usual we were riding into a headwind, and with the club’s better riders on the front of the bunch, I was soon distanced. The boys disappeared from view at around 20km. You see, it’s never a question of if, merely when.

As I rode alongside the river, I indulged in a spot of interval training, as per my Training Plan. As the road rose gently, I tried to keep my cadence above 80 for as long as possible. The weather was warm and sunny, the views wonderful and all was well in my world. I passed a few cyclists going in the opposite direction but generally had the road to myself.

Between Tourrettes-Levens and Aspremont, I was overtaken by a triumvirate of pros, including one Thor Hushovd, a member of that favourite, select, sub-set of riders who weigh more than me. We exchanged a few pleasantries but I made no attempt to wheel suck, we were, after all, on an incline. I know my limitations.

After the ride, I had arranged to meet my husband in our usual café. He was looking quite concerned by the time I arrived and wondered whether I’d gotten lost or had a mechanical. No, indeed I thought I’d made quite good time given the distance. It appears that I hadn’t fully read the parcours; the boys had taken an early right turn and cycled a good 30km less than me. Still, if I’d followed them, I wouldn’t have met Thor.

Away days

I have just gotten back from the club’s annual cycling trip. It appears that we never venture too far from home. This time it was 140km up the coast to Alassio on the Ligurian Riviera.

This is my third club trip. My maiden one, a Tour of southern Corsica, was two years ago. It was the first time I had ever cycled on a road bike. I had ordered the bike back in February in the belief that it would arrive in six weeks, leaving me a further six weeks to be become fully acquainted with it, and all its functions, before the club’s cycling trip. In the end, it took three months for my Orbea Diva to be lovingly crafted by the Basques/imported from Taiwan and painted.

The bike arrived the day before we left for Corsica, too little time to become conversant with cleated pedals, so I rode in my training shoes. Wisely, my cycling was limited to downhill after lunch on the first two days, plus a trip along an undulating coastline, before lunch, on day three. Day four, I sat in the club car and enjoyed the scenery.

Day two was almost, but fortunately not quite, my last day on a bike. As I set off with my husband, ahead of the rest, to descend into Porto Vecchio, the bike “felt strange” and I was slightly nervous about the steep, switchback descent. Rightly so as it appeared the bike shop (not my current LBS) had not correctly tightened all of the screws and on taking an almost 360 degree turn, the wheels and I went one way (straight ahead) and the handlebars another.

Thank goodness I was wearing training shoes. I was quickly able to put my feet on the ground and prevent my imminent, and quite probably fatal, departure down a precipice. Needless to say, I was more than a bit shook up, so we sat on the parapet wall and waited for the others to catch us up.

On seeing us, the rest slowed and stopped. As they did so, M Le President’s front tyre blew out. He would probably have taken that corner at speed and so another serious accident had been averted. Our DS quickly tightened the offending screws on my bike and we continued on our way.

The following day, my husband and I set off up the coast well ahead of the others with me aiming to stay away as long as possible. Lunch was some 75km off and I had calculated that the boys would catch and pass me at around 45km. Thanks to a couple of punctures, they didn’t overtake me until around 70km. It was quite exhilarating being an escapee, though to be fair they don’t usually get a 30 minute head start in the pro-peloton.

The annual club trip is meticulously organised by a member of the committee and for a very modest price. In fact the only thing I buy on these trips is my daily copy of L’Equipe. Though, I didn’t even have to do that this time as the hotel supplied a copy of its Italian equivalent, La Gazzetta dello Sport.

The aim is generally to cycle around 450-500km over the four day trip, one of which will be the “Queen Stage”. Last year it was our ride up Mont Ventoux, this year it was a trip into the Italian hinterland and three cols. I bailed after the second one which had an average incline of 10%, though some bits bordered on 18%.

Although I had set off some 30 minutes ahead of the rest, they had all caught and passed me by the top of the first col. This meant I was rapidly distanced on the second one where I probably set some sort of record for the slowest ascent. At one point my average speed was 3.5km/hr and my cadence 31. Any slower and I would have fallen off. In fact I did walk for about 500m, at 4km/hr, as I was too tired to get my feet back into the pedals after I had gotten off to take a drink and a bite of my energy bar. Yes, when I’m tired, my limited bike handling skills totally desert me and I’ve found that it’s quicker, and safer, to dismount for refuelling.

One advantage, maybe the only one, of going at my average speed is that I have plenty of time to admire the scenery, the vistas and any buildings of architectural note. However, I leave it to those, who can both cycle and take photos at the same time, to record all this for posterity.

After a fulsome picnic lunch provided, as always, by the girls, I was advised that the return would be flattish. I was sceptical and rightly so, as the road turned upwards, I got in the “broom wagon”.

This was not my first trip to the Ligurian coast. Indeed, it was the setting of our first family holiday in Italy. I would have been eight when we stayed in a family-run hotel in Laigueglia. I still have plenty of memories of that trip: the hot jammy donuts on the beach, my first taste of pizza and pasta, pushing my kid sister out to sea in our red and white plastic kayak and the dodgy raffia sunhats we were forced to wear. Mine was pale green and my sister’s pink, white and brown. Incidentally, the hotel is still there but sadly the jammy donut seller is not.

Who’s your favourite?

Non-cycling fans often ask me who’s my favourite cyclist. In much the same way one would ask a football fan which team they support. While a football fan’s support for their chosen team is unwavering, or at least it should be, cycling fans have a whole peloton to choose from. Quite simply, it’s hard to restrict yourself to just one rider or even one team. Support just has to be spread around; after all, they don’t all compete in every race.

For example, take one of the major Tours. You can have favourites for the podium, the remaining jerseys, the overall team prize and, my favourite, last overall. Then there’s a favourite for each of the stages plus the most combative rider each day.

Next you can have favourites by nationality: these have to be weighted given the preponderance of cyclists from certain nations. In much the same way as they are in World Championship races. In addition, you can have favourites in each of the trade teams. Then, one of my favourite sub-sets of riders, those that weigh more than me. Admitedly, this is a pretty select group. Slowly, you begin to realize that throughout the season, at any one time or the other, everyone’s a favourite, even though not everyone’s a winner. Finally, you can delve back in time and have favourites from the various decades.

Of course, if you insist that I choose just one, then this man would be it. Yes, it’s my long-suffering, better-half, clad in one of his many Xmas presents (pictured above). Now there’s a man who looks good in lycra (Rock Racing’s Tour of  Great Britain strip).

Why oh why?

Many have asked why I’m doing the Livestrong Challenge. The answer’s simple. Because, I can. I’m doing it as part of Team Fatty. The Fat Cyclist is a two-time award winning blogger who writes mostly about cycling. Quite by chance I came across one of his entries a while back which was a very amusing, an open letter to Assos poking fun at their advertising. Since then I’ve been a regular reader.

Fatty’s wife Susan is fighting metastasized breast cancer and, in early December 2008, he proposed that his readers should band together and ride in support of Livestrong. So I thought, why not? Like most of us I have lost family and friends to cancer but equally importantly, I have friends who have survived. So, given that I’m in a very fortunate position, I would like to be of some, small assistance to those who are not.

My mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s so many are surprised I’m cycling in support of the fight against cancer. Frankly, I am happy to raise money for any good cause, and there are plenty of them. But if I were cycling for Alzheimer’s my mother would inevitable hear about it and it would upset her. She knows she has Alzheimer’s but never acknowledges it. Any mention of the disease distresses her, so we never talk about it in her hearing. Why would we upset her unnecessarily?

Even though I haven’t been cycling for long, my mother remembers that I cycle. Indeed, she watched on TV the entire Women’s Olympic Road Race in Beijing, won so magnificently by Nicole Cooke, hoping to catch a glimpse of me on my bike. I’m touched that while my mother has lost so much she hasn’t lost her faith in me.

My LBS

Every cyclist needs an LBS. Now I can see the non-cyclists going “L=little, B=black, S= slip, shoes?” No, it’s a Local Bike Shop.

Mine, like many, is run by its owner, pictured here, and we’ve become good friends over the past year or so. I pop into his shop most weeks to while away an hour or so conversing in English, for his benefit not mine. In return, he imparts some of his encyclopaedic knowledge of cycling – fair trade.

Now, I know my limitations and my bike has only to make the slightest unusual noise and I’m straight down to my LBS to get it sorted. I wouldn’t want you to think I’m either clueless or helpless, but my bike deserves the best. I limit myself to keeping it spotlessly clean, tyres at the correct pressure and chain suitably lubricated. I can deal with a puncture, but fortunately have never been called upon to do so. Whenever it’s happened there’s always been someone around who can do it so much quicker and better than me.

Whenever I pass another cyclist in distress I always enquire if they need my assistance. They do not. However, not long after my husband allowed me to go solo, I saw an elderly gentleman struggling to replace his inner tube. I hopped off my bike and went to his assistance. The poor chap looked so mortified that a woman had come to his rescue until I pointed out I wasn’t going to actually do anything. No, the next bloke to come round the corner was going to do it.

I sent him off with my bike to sit on a nearby bench and I waited. No more than thirty seconds later, six cyclists came around the corner, halted, leapt off their bikes and proceeded to sort out the puncture in record time. As they took their leave, one of the sextet gave me back the bike. He looked at me and then looked at the bike and said “This isn’t your bike”. “Well spotted”, I replied, giving him one of my megawatt smiles. “It belongs to the old chap on the bench. No one stopped to help him, so I just gave him a helping hand. But I have never, ever had to change a tyre because Frenchmen are so charming and chivalrous.”

A twosome no more

Last year I rode La Louis Caput all on my lonesome, ownsome until I joined up with the 150km tail-end Charlies at the feed zone. This was partly my own fault as I had deliberately started right at the back, then stopped for a comfort break (and a hot chocolate), before heading off up the Col de Vence.

This year, it was a good 10km into the ride before the main peloton disappeared from view (progress?) and I was left in the company of six chaps: 3 twosomes. One of whom sucked my wheel all the way to the foot of the Col de Vence. That’s a first. Thereafter, a pattern was established. One by one they would overtake me on the uphill slope and I would swoop past them going downhill.

We all met up again at the half-way point feed zone and exchanged a few words of encouragement.  It’s at this point that our paths crossed with those doing the 150km course. This year, I was pleased to note that the better riders were still passing through. One of the twosomes set off first and I tucked in behind a larger group, hoping to get some shelter from the cold headwind we’d faced for most of the ride, but they left me trailing in their wake. C’est la vie!

My blood chilled as an emergency vehicle sped past me, lights flashing. Had someone had an accident? I was on a fairly benign stretch of road heading towards the final descent to the finish. As I reached the crossroads with 40km to go I met one of the motor bike outriders who told me the emergency services were dealing with a cyclist who had suffered a fatal cardiac arrest and the road was now closed.

As there was nothing I could do to assist, I rode off along the diverted route. To be honest I don’t really remember much about those final kms. I kept thinking about the dead chap’s wife, sitting at home waiting for her husband to come back from his latest sportif and bore her silly with tales of his derring do. Now, he was never going to do that again.

It turned out that I had ridden with the deceased, he’d been part of one of my twosomes.

L’Antiboise

I was awoken by flashes of lightening and loud overhead thunder at about 04:30am this morning. Now I generally sleep like the dead. Once my head hits the pillow I’m out for the count for 8hrs minimum. So, if anything wakes me up – it’s loud, really loud. My bedroom windows overlook the sea and, since we’re not overlooked, I see no reason to cover the magnificent view with curtains. The bedroom was lit up like the Blackpool illuminations by the thunderstorm.

When the alarm went off at 06:00am, I could hear the rain so turned over and went back to sleep: no L’Antiboise today. Yes, once again rain has stopped play on a Sunday. I had planned to do the 150km Brevet today thereby garnering maximum points for the club and putting in some valuable Livestrong training mileage.

Last year I had ridden the 100km with my husband. The course starts in Antibes,  goes along the coast to Agay, then turns into the l’Esterel hills before returning back along the coast via La Napoule. The longer route takes you past Lac St Cassien and over towards Grasse before returning to Antibes via Valbonne. Both great rides in good weather.

It’s not that I’m afraid of getting wet but, as I found out in the Pyrenees, my brake pads need replacing. They’ve been ordered and will be fitted next week. We rode in the pouring rain in the Pyrenees over Easter. On the Saturday I was able to demonstrate “how to perform an emergency stop” to the rest of the group. My brakes failed as I was rolling down a hill to catch up with them. They were waiting for me by the side of the road. Noting that they were next to a grassy patch, and my husband was at the back I hollered “my brakes aren’t working”. My husband caught my arm, thereby slowing me down somewhat and I flung myself over to my right and onto the grass. Both the bike and I came away unscathed, though I did have some rather spectacular bruising to my right knee and elbow.

Now, I’m a pretty good descender, largely thanks to my bike. I had thought that it was due to my superior bodyweight but if my husband and I descend at the same time, I go much faster than he does and he’s a good 20kg heavier than me. 

By 10:00am the rain had stopped and the roads were starting to dry out. So I went for a ride with my husband, meeting a number of club members en route. Let’s hope the weather will be fine for the Louis Caput sportif next week end.

 

Look no hands

I still remember the warm glow when I found the two-wheeled, red bike Santa had left for me in a nearby park the Xmas I was five. But I have conveniently forgotten how long it took me to shed its training wheels. When I was nine, I got a pale blue and grey Raleigh, but I was not allowed to ride it on the road, only in the garden and not on the lawn which took up about 85% of our garden.

At university, I once borrowed a friend’s bike and ran it into a parked car. I dimly recall I rode to work during the late 80s, early 90s on those few days when all forms of public transport were on strike. I also indulged in a spot of mountain biking in Austria. Though, lest you get the wrong impression, this consisted of me cycling down the hill from the hotel, along the valley and back to the foot of the hill whereupon my husband went to get the car to convey me and the bike back up the hill.

So, not exactly an auspicious history on two wheels even though my father was a keen cyclist, frequently cycling from Birmingham to Portsmouth (and back) to visit family, and my maternal grandfather made bicycle frames. Indeed, family and friends continue to be bemused by my very recent love affair with two wheels.

When I first started cycling my husband would not allow me to ride unaccompanied. If only you could have seen me, you would have understood why. So for the first 6-9 months I rode only at week ends or on the home trainer. Once I had my first road bike, it took me almost three weeks to master cleats and pedals, not realising that the latter could be loosened to make it easier to disentangle the former from the latter.

Pushing off on my left foot, I would cycle around the gated domaine where we live, then position myself handily near to one of the flower beds as I attempted to kick either one of my feet free. If I failed, I would just keel over into the flower bed. During this period, the gardeners wisely postponed putting in the summer bedding plants and I do believe that my miserable attempts to cycle provided them, and my neighbours, with some amusing moments. But they were hugely supportive and gave me a standing ovation, when I finally triumphed.  And, even now, they exhibit a lively interest in my cycling wanting to know how many kilometres I’ve covered and where I’ve been.

I’m now endeavouring to employ those same flower beds to cushion the impact as I try to cycle hands-free. I watch enviously as fellow cyclists ride along nonchalantly, answering their mobile phones, taking off or putting on articles of clothing without ever once wavering from the straight and narrow. Of course, when I ask them how they do it they all reply that they learnt when they were young. Is it simply a case that I’m too old to learn new tricks? Who knows? But I’m not giving up; not just yet anyway.