Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Remembering how to suffer.

It's an oft-used phrase in road riding, Tour de France commentary etc: "He knows how to suffer". The truth is, everyone knows how to suffer, but a big part of any endurance sport is knowing (or at least learning) how to suffer and yet keep moving; How to accept the suffering and still push forward in spite of it. A skill I think I've possessed at intervals, but perhaps forgotten in the last couple of years. A skill I need to re-learn.

This weekend was one of remembering how to suffer for me. I'm working on getting back in shape, getting some miles back in the legs before Porage in September, getting some weight off and doing myself a few favours. I've built my cyclocross bike up and have been trying to use it more, I've got comfortable with being juddered around on a set of Midge bars, braking from the drops and trying to hang on to my teeth on rough sections. I even took it out for a spin around Llandegla forest's 'True Blue' route on Saturday to shake the legs out and get used to typical man-made trails on it. But Sunday was the real challenge - the Rhinog Raptor Adventure-X event.

The Adventure-X events are a sort of cyclocross sportive, long haul mixed on-/off-road routes designed for 'cross bikes or hardtail MTBs. The Raptor was based out of Coed y Brenin trail centre and had two possible routes, a 62 mile 'Massif' route and a 44 mile 'Mini Massif'. I'd offered to help the organisers (Rather Be Cycling) out with Registration first thing and then have a ride round the 'Mini' as a sweep rider. I'd also seriously underestimated the amount of climbing on route, which, frankly, led nicely to some of the pain I experienced later on. This blog may possibly read like a catalogue of errors, to be honest.

A not-great night's sleep and a 5am start kicked the suffering off nicely. I was on site at the Coed y Brenin centre by half-past and sorting out remaindered signage by quarter-to, and a couple of cereal bars and a coffee served as breakfast (probably Mistake #1). Registration kicked off in a typically laid back fashion and we gradually got people through, sorted and ready for the off, while slowly kitting up and nibbling bits of food ourselves. Just after 9am, Kevin and I rolled down to the start line to get briefed by Chez and set off as the backmarks, he for the Long and I for the Short.

Mistake 2 was probably going out a bit too hard. The first section of the MinorTaur trail is nice, swoopy, Blue-grade singletrack, and easy to push hard and carry a lot of speed through, especially on a CX bike. We cracked along, probably a wee bit quicker than we really should have, out through the early berms and little whoops and drop-offs, enjoying the easy speed, something you don't quite get on 2-inch-plus MTB tyres. Having caught the last two riders, we tucked in behind and settles in for the relatively easy spin down to Dolgellau, chatting away as we bimbled along, punctuated only by one slow puncture on my front tyre (pumped it up and kept going) and one fast puncture for a rider (changed tube quickly and kept going). So far, so funky.

The gentle spinning continued, after I'd taken a couple of minutes at Dolgellau to chat to one of the event medics and change the tube in my front tyre - the slow puncture was getting quicker. A nice spin along the Mawddach Trail, down the river side, and caught up with Kevin and the previously punctured rider sat with yet another puncture. We wandered back to a nearby car park to RV with Gav in one of the support vans to grab a spare tyre, and while waiting and stripping the rear tyre in anticipation we found the issue, a small shard of glass embedded in the casing, which had pushed through as the rider crossed a cattle grid. We managed to scrat it out of the tyre, loaded the spare tyre and tube from Gav into my pack as a backup, tweaked the gents V-brakes for good measure as one was binding, and set off again along the old railway line, towards the sea and the wooden toll bridge at Penmaenpool, across the bridge and a nice roll along to the main road crossing at Pen-y-Bryn.

From here, the pain began. The backroad up to Taicynhaeaf is steep and twisty, and the forestry road above it climbs pretty much endlessly. The next 7km climbed 365m, and my legs ran out of steam trying to wrench a 34-32 low gear up it. The only small mercy was that the track was dry and relatively smooth, so there was less technical thrutching and more sat-down grinding going on. Graham O'Hanlon, an acquaintance from way, way back, was waiting with the event medic at the top marshalling point and we shot the breeze while I stuffed Jelly Babies and electrolyte down my neck to try and recoup some of the energy and salt deficit from the climb. We then powered on, through a wee bit more climb, Graham waiting for me at the summit proper (this became a very much a theme for the day, he's in better shape than me and was on an MTB) and then straight into a fairly raucous 10km of descending.

Another mistake: Maybe the descents were something I hadn't factored into my energy levels. To keep my backside from getting hammered into next week by the saddle, I had to 'hover' over the bike and let it buck around underneath me on the rough sections. I underestimated in a few places how much doing that for a prolonged period takes out of your thighs. I tried to stay loose and not death-grip the bars either, but balancing the available speed with the desire to float over stuff and not pinch flat the 35mm tyres is a skill I'm going to have to get used to, 14+ stone of rider and 'floating' are not things that go together easily, so not only were the climbs beating me up, so were the descents. So much for a 'gentle spin'.

We rolled back into Coed y Brenin, through the underpass from where the old trail centre used to be, the roughest bit of the course so far and too narrow to carry any speed to 'float' over the sharp pointy cobbles. Back into the start/finish/feed station area for water, Jaffa Cakes and Flapjack, a quick natter with Chez to sort out some bits and we were off again. Again, probably a bit too fast along MinorTaur, enjoying the singletrack far too much, and then onto the tarmac and forest road drag up, and up, and up, and up...

If the first major climb was 'endless', I don't know how I'd categorise the second one. There were a few short downs, but the whole thing was mainly up: 8km of pretty much continual climb, average 3% gradient, steepest section at 11% gradient. I ground away on the pedals as much as I could, and occasionally admitted temporary defeat and walked. At which point a blister started developing on my right heel, so when that got too painful I got back on and tried to ride again. A brief stint on tarmac, even a little bit of downhill, and we met up with Gav and the support van, marshalling the point where the two routes crossed each other. I toddled in looking a bit punch-drunk, I suspect, and Gav delivered on his earlier promise of saving me a Breakaway biscuit. In fact, he saved me three. I guess he (rightly) assumed I needed the sugar. I'm not sure whether 'Breakaway' was a cycling-related pun or not.

I was hoping for a gentle cruise from here but it wasn't to be. There was another major climb to be conquered. From the crossing point we got a brief descent and a gentle meander along the upper reaches of the Afon Gain, then turned right and up again, towards the saddle between Foel Boeth and Moel y Feidiog, across the former Trawsfynydd Artillery Range. Signs still tell you to keep off the moors, the National Parks rushed through an exemption to the CROW Act to stop people getting their legs blown off by previously unexploded ordnance. I don't blame them. I fell into an almost military forced march as I trudged my way towards the high point of the ride, pushing more and more as my legs got worse and worse and the gradient cranked up and up. The last kilometre, a nasty little sting in the tail, nearly finished me off. I finally reached the top, Graham far, far ahead of me and waiting. I’d sucked down an energy gel on the way, and it hadn’t helped at all, I was running on fumes. The majority of the remainder was descent and flat, but there were a few climbs left to go, and they weren’t going to be pleasant.


Many, many sections of 'up'.

The descent down through the forestry road was great, again, giving my thighs a malleting, but good to get some distance in with gravity assist. Far too soon we got spat out at the re-join of the two routes and had a quick chat with the guys marshalling there. Down into the valley, over the Mawddach again, and one last major climb, one I’d probably despatch fairly easily if it came earlier in the ride, but yet again, one that had me grovelling. We eventually summited it, soft pedalling onto the forest road above Capel Hermon and into the final stretches. I started sucking down my emergency packets of Haribo to keep me rolling, and just tried to focus on getting to the line. One little descent finally proved my lack of ability to ‘float’ the bike when tired, and I pinch flatted the rear tyre. We stopped, I stripped the wheel off, sat down and could feel my thighs cramping. I was out of electrolyte so I’d just have to suck it up. New tube in the tyre, CO2 inflator applied, back in the frame and we were off again.

I can’t remember much of the last few kilometres. I soft pedalled, walked, plodded, sucked back Haribo and listened to Graham tell me about the history of Coed y Brenin and the stories behind some of the trail names. My responses were probably reduced to grunts. Eventually, the line hove into sight and I used the last bits of a failing reserve to put in a cheeky little burst past Graham. He swore loudly, kicked again and pulled level with me. We crossed the line side by side in formation. I just about fell off my bike, was presented with a finisher’s medal, and went in search of cake.

So much of that story reads like I didn’t enjoy the day; that would be wrong, I had a fantastic day out. The ride route, while brutally hard for me, was as beautiful as it was painful. I’d ridden at Coed y Brenin before, but only ever on the waymarked trails in the forest itself. To escape that, to see amazing sights like the Penmaenpool toll bridge, to climb out of the forest onto the wild moorland of the Artillery Range, to learn a bit about the area history, to catch up on gossip and reminisce with an old acquaintance; all superb moments of a superb day. Yes, I re-learned what suffering on a bike is like, and I feel like I’m still paying for it 3 days later. But I did it in a beautiful place, on a fantastic event, with a lovely group of people. Definitely worth the pain, definitely worth the somewhat arduous drive home, even worth the huge quantity of coffee and junk food I had to shovel down my neck at a motorway services to get me through that drive home. Another relatively big adventure, and a cracking weekend.

Many, many thanks to all of the event crew, especially Chez and Gav for inviting me over and Graham for looking after me!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Jennings Rivers Ride 2014

I've never done a 'sportive' before. I'm not really a road rider, to be honest. I own a road bike - well, a cyclocross bike with slick tyres - and ride it occasionally for commuting and pottering around, but aside from road stages in multisport races I don't really ride on the road. Same reason as not running on the road a lot, I think: I find it dull. I like the technical challenge of mountain biking, the variance in surface and skill level required keeps it interesting. Road biking doesn't really have that, for me.

So, there was a bit of trepidation in getting ready for the Jennings Rivers Ride. I'm not particularly fit at the moment - I'm a couple of stone heavier than I should be, and while I'm still kayaking a fair amount I'm not getting out to run or bike as much as I should do. I'd been entered to ride with my Dad, but hip and leg problems meant he was out, and I'd not managed to find anyone to take his place. The route I was booked onto was a 38 miler (map below) from Keswick, out to Cockermouth, over Whinlatter and then round the top of Derwentwater, which gives some lovely back roads to ride but one sod of a climb in the middle. I've had my road/CX bike - the Cotic X frame I bought from Wayne at EDS Bikes a while back - built up for a while but not done any longer rdes on it, just the odd bit of commuting. I'm running a compact double cyclocross chainset, but knowing the problems with gearing I had on the road stage of the Scottish C2C (not having a low enough climbing gear), I was hoping the 11-32 MTB cassette would be enough for me. Not that there would be much sense blaming the gearing, the simpler solution would just have been to be fitter...

I dropped in to Keswick on my way up from Leeds on Saturday to register and pick up my number and timing chip, had a quick chat with Chez (the organiser) and got myself sorted out. I was staying at home for the weekend and Mum was away up in Glasgow so Dad and I adjourned to the local for dinner and a couple of pints. After a bit of kit faff, a decent night's sleep (and a slight over-sleep in fact. I'd set my alarm for 6:30 and actually woke up about 7... oops), a light breakfast and a bit more kit faff, I was off towards Keswick to to set up and get going.

The weather forecast was good for the morning but set to deteriorate badly after lunch, so most of the kit faff was around what I needed to both wear and to be carrying. I set off just before 8:30 with bib shorts, jersey, arm warmers, windproof gilet and a Buff on, and with a waterproof jacket shoved in my jersey pocket. The run through to Castle Inn was smooth enough, undulating rather than hilly, and a road I know well enough, having been along it pretty much every day of my secondary school life. The few short climbs on that stretch and along the back of Setmurthy towards Cockermouth were hurting my thighs a touch, so it seemed like I'd dropped my seat a bit low when I was tweaking the bike. The descent towards Cockermouth Hospital was a welcome break and we soon turned up towards the school and the first feed station - 16 miles out of the way in about 1:10, not too bad.

I opted not to hang around too long at the feed stations, Adventure Racer mentality I guess. A lot of people seemed to be spending a chunk of time there, whereas I think I was in and out in under 5 minutes at both stops. Cockermouth was a case of refill my water bottle, strip the gilet, Buff and arm warmers off since the day had warmed up, chuck a couple of chunks of flapjack down my neck and tweak by saddle height, then head off. The next stage was the daunting part, the meandering roll out of Cockermouth to Lorton then onto Whinlatter itself. I've ridden up the pass this way before, on the Solstice Triangle route many years ago, but that was on an MTB. I stuck a gel down my neck at the base and toiled up the first bit of the climb, but was forced to get off and push 50yds of the steepest section. A quick water fill/empty stop when the gradient eased off a bit and I was back on a trogging away towards the top. I managed to ride the rest, which surprised me a bit. A pleasant surprise though!

Pic courtesy of Sport Sunday
One of Sport Sunday's photographers was lurking at the top, just to get you when you're at your slowest and sweatiest, and just beyond him a big bunch of people were stopped, eating, drinking and celebrating conquering the climb... Which they hadn't finished. The road dips just after their meeting point, then climbs steeply up to the main road, and continues a gradual grind up to the Whinlatter visitor centre itself. I decided not to stop, just pushed on while I was warm. The short jab to the junction was a sod, but I was soon cranking steadily on towards the true summit.

At the visitor centre I decided it was a good time to have a quick break. A couple of mouthfuls of a Mule Bar and some water, a minute's breather to take in the fact that I'd done the hardest bit of the ride, and I was off again. The descent was fast and furious, and it's testament to the bike build that I was confident enough to get down into the drops and crank it all the way down the steepest bits of the pass. Descending it on the Solstice ride, on a slick-tyred MTB, I'd been hesitant to get the bike leaned over in the corners, but the Cotic felt awesome. I wish I'd had my bike computer on to see my speed stats, but I'd forgotten to pick it up when I left Leeds. I was certainly going fast enough that the disc brakes on the Cotic were getting a good workout, even more so when a very hesitant Volvo driver appeared as we hit Braithwaite and held myself and a couple of other riders up through the narrow section before the second feed stop.

Dad had come out to give me a bit of support, and having missed me at Castle Inn he'd driven to Braithwaite and was waiting at the turnoff to the feed stop. We had a quick natter while I was refilling my bottle and stuffing a flapjack down my neck, but again, I'd decided not to stand still too long. The weather was looking good, though it was clouding over a touch, so I left my waterproof with him and rolled out for the last 10 miles. There was one short sharp shock climb, up the hairpins by Hawes End onto the end of Catbells, but that out of the way, the roll along the hillside towards Manesty was beautiful, sun out and a fantastic view across Derwent Water. Soon, I was at Grange and, just over the bridge, the sign said "Keswick 4 miles": A sight for sore eyes.

I'd been riding fairly close to two guys wearing Iggesund jerseys, Iggesund being the paperboard factory I worked at over summers when I was a student. I hooked into a group with them and a lady who'd been ahead of us and we picked up the pace back down the valley, past Lodore and Shepherds Cafe, having a quick chat about the factory and a couple of characters I'd worked with. Just beyond the Great Wood car park they gapped me on a short climb and I dropped off, looking behind to realise we'd dropped the lady as well, I kep the pace I was at, passing a small group as we came towards the Lake Road roundabout and swept round the corner by Booths onto the main street. The last stretch was in sight, stopped at the traffic lights first, but soon round onto Bank Street for the final short pull up to County Corner, onto Station Street and down to the finish by the Fitz Park gates.

I walked down over the timing mats, stopping the clock at 3:16:47, much quicker than the 4hrs I'd estimated. I'm not saying I'm fitter than I thought I was, but it's nice to know I've still got the legs to get round a ride like that in a respectable time. Dad was waiting at the finish, so I handed my chip in, picked my time ticket up, and we wandered over to get my complimentary tea and cake first, then a quick change and into town itself for a well needed lunch. The weather had held off, and while it had clouded over, the much-feared rain had never hit, although the road back to Torpenhow was showing signs of some heavy showers as we drove back home.

All in all a cracking day. The route was fantastic, well waymarked and planned. All the marshals were great, happy and helpful, whether signposting a split, managing traffic and rider flow or manning a feed stop, and there was a great atmosphere in amongst the riders. We were also very lucky with the weather, which always helps! It's definitely an event I'd happily ride again, not to try and beat a time or go for a longer course on necessarily, but just for a hard-but-enjoyable day's riding. I don't think it'll tempt me to go full Roadie, but I should really get more miles in for my own good, and maybe the road bikes a good way to do that occasionally... Hmmm...


Monday, March 24, 2014

On Progress

'Progress' is a bit of a funny one. Business can talk about 'SMART' aims (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-linked), but in the world of the Outdoors, we don't really do those. We don't normally set aims, we don't really closely monitor our progress, we don't have personal development plans, we don't do increments. So what do we do when we recognise a problem and want a long-term, hardwired, resilient solution to that issue?

The root of my paddling issues I've covered at length on here, so you know the problem. Obviously I needed to improve my technical skills and my confidence, so I started keeping a live log of my river days and making notes: What went well, what went not so well, how I felt on the river, what I think I need to work on. That's coupled with one of my 3 aims from a while back, to pass my 4*, and I have a 4* profiling sheet, so I can look at my progress against the things I need to do. I've still got Kelvin, the coach's, notes from my training, back in December '12, and they're a useful guide of what someone else thought of my paddling, at a time when I was probably beating myself up about it a lot.

My log is into it's fourth year of boating now. What's noticeable? Progression, physically and mentally. It's kind of heartening to see it spread out the way it is, and to look at the issues I had back in 2011. Going from notes like "Generally okay, silly swim on Dog Leg (weight balance wrong, stuck on boil line)" to "Great fun. Chilled out run, nice surfing and steady work on eddies and ferries." The root of it was the club's Wales weekend back in 2011, that seemed to be the time I first sort of pushed myself back into boating and maybe realised how much I'd dropped away. And, perhaps, how much I wanted to get back into it.

One of the interesting things is the number of days paddling I have done over the past few years. 2011, when this all started, I only got 12 sections of river in 11 days paddling over a year. I was training for the Grand Raid des Pyrenees and, while I still did a lot of pool sessions and polo, my river boating days were utterly minimal. 2012 was better, 22 sections over 21 days. Still not exactly a royal flush, but a massively better hand than the year before, but it did include my 4* training which started the next phase of recovery. After that, 2013 was kind of my breakthrough year, 37 sections over 30 days paddling, and probably the biggest single progression impact, the Alps trip. As I said at the time, you can almost *feel* the progression when you can run similar sections day-on-day for a fortnight. The three sections that we ran twice, Upper Guisane, Gyronde and the Briancon Gorge, I felt noticeably better and happier on on our second run even though the two runs were only 5 days apart at most. Partially because of that, I'm going back to the Alps this year and I'll be interested to see what my log says for this time round.

The general gist of the whole thing, if I were to plot 'how things went' on a graph, is a nice upwards trend. Things have been gradually getting better, and that's awesome. It's interesting, though, to look at the outliers and blips too, the days when I've felt bad, when I've not bothered, when I've paddled badly. In some cases, like the Tyne Tour and at least one day on the Washburn, it's been beer-related - paddling with a hangover was never my forte in the past, and it continues not to be. In a couple of cases bad days have been kit-related - forgetting the hip wedges for my boat, having a bust drysuit zip. But mentally my worst days have been when I've felt I was the weakest paddler in a group, and when I was paddling new sections. The days, like Sunday just gone on the Lune, when I'm coaching or leading on a section I know well, I'm invincible (well, not quite, but you get the idea). New sections where I'm following, like the Gloy over New year, I struggle. Everything about that river put the shakies up me, even though it was the kind of low-ish volume, fast, micro-eddied technical beck paddling that I quite like. I paddled with Mike and Duncan as a trio, two people I haven't paddled with regularly, if that makes any difference. I paddled at the back, worried, fretted and inevitably made a couple of cockups - nothing major, no swims, no rolls - and generally felt a bit out of my depth. I got down the river but there was nothing stylish or smooth about it, I felt like a complete numpty.

Those are the type of days I said I wanted to avoid, so what could I have done: Not got on the river? I did enough no-boat days over the New Year trip, the levels were ridiculously high and I wasn't happy in my own abilities on flows like that, that's something to work on though. Paddled at the front more? That's a possibility, forcing myself to up my game and lead more might have helped. Paddled with a different group? That shouldn't matter, I shouldn't be deriving my own worth from my perception of others. I've said this for a while, other people's skill levels might define the order we paddle but shouldn't define *how* we paddle.

Why a river within my skill level should affect me so much based on the company I've kept I'm really not sure. I've no definitive answer for that one yet, and I'm not really sure there is one. I'll keep logging my days, looking at my data and, judging by the progress I've made in the past 3 years, I'm sure I'll work it out sometime.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Response & Responsibility


It's been a while since I posted up on here, but some stuff from the past few weeks got me thinking.

'Responsibility' is a bit of a funny word in the world at the moment. There's so many situations where it's both a good word and a bad word, a blessing or a curse. It would be too broad-brush to say that people don't like responsibility, but you do seem to see so many stories in the gutter press where 'responsibility' equals 'liability', equals 'fault', equals 'blame'. Unfortunate things happen, and people look for someone else to shoulder their burden for them, financially at least. Teams of no-win-no-fee lawyers wrangle and twist people's testimony to wring out every last penny, scrying for that tiny chink in the armour/crack in the pavement/missed paragraph in the training document to prod and jemmy until coins fall out. Okay, that's an over-the-top view, and I'd like to believe that the world isn't as full of rabid ambulance chasing lawyers as TV and the papers seem to say, but sometimes it's hard to hold on to that belief.

These thoughts all spring to mind because I'm often in a position where I am, effectively, taking some responsibility for other people. Whether that's as one of the Safety team organisers for the National Student Rodeo, as a coach and river leader with the Leeds Uni Canoe Club, or as a safety and sweep marshal for Rat Race, in some capacity I take some responsibility for other people's wellbeing, as well as my own. Frankly, that responsibility isn't something that crosses my mind very often, because 95% of the time that assumed responsibility never rears it's head. People I come into contact with in the world of outdoor sports are usually very cogniscent of their own responsibilities, they prepare properly, they have the right kit, they are aware of their fitness to take part in whatever event or sport. So my responsibility only arises when something goes wrong, and when that person is, in some capacity, less able to take sole responsibility for their own wellbeing. When zemblanity occurs. When, as they say, shit happens.

So why do I do it?

Frankly, I put myself in that position willingly because, like almost everyone else in the world, I am capable of assessing and judging the risks around me and making a personal judgement on whether I'm happy to accept those risks or not. Because, like most other people again, I'm capable of either mitigating those risks or simply removing myself from the situation if I'm not happy to accept them. Not necessarily because of qualifications or certificates I have (though they have helped), but because of knowledge I have and because of the confidence I have in my own skills and the kit I'm carrying, whether I'm carrying that kit for my benefit or someone else's. It's only a small step up from assessing those risks for myself to assessing those risks on behalf of myself and someone else, assuming that I'm there for a reason and that they're no longer in a position to mitigate those risks entirely on their own.

I don't do it for the buzz, for any kind of power trip or acclaim, though a 'thank you' and a 'well done' at the end of the day is always gratefully received. I sometimes sit at my post on these events and feel genuinely worried for some of the participants. I can manage my own fears and be confident I've mitigated and managed any risks to myself, I can hope they've done the same - contrary to some evidence, in a few cases - and I can hope they get a day of fun, either Type 1 or Type 2*, and feel happy and satisfied afterwards without ever needing my input. If I've spent a day bored, that's kind of fine.

If you're ever a participant in an event and you see the marshals and safety team around, give them a smile, and remember that for them it's often managed boredom. They are sitting doing nothing knowing that if they have to get up and do something, it's because some poor sod's in trouble. If they have to work, it's because bad things have happened, and if bad things have happened to a participant there, bad things could happen to the safety team there as well. They want to be busy, but wouldn't ever want to wish ill on anyone so they can actually do something, because that means maybe putting themselves at the same risk as the first person did. The second mouse isn't always after the cheese, sometimes it's trying to extricate the first one.

And they often do have to extricate that mouse, because a big part of adventure is taking risks. Doing something that scares you is often down to doing something where you're not sure whether you can mitigate every hazard out there, where there is a real fear that shit might, quite possibly, happen. Without the chance of shit happening there is no danger, there is no adrenaline response, there is no excitement. And that is, quite honestly, what a lot of us do these particular sports for. The feeling and the knowledge that we've pushed ourselves, because we've felt that adrenaline response, is what we're after, whether that's at the summit of a mountain, the bottom of a deep gorge, the landing of a jump.

But this isn't a treatise on risk management, irrational fear and adrenaline junkie-ism. It isn't comparing what we do in the outdoors to crossing the road in a 'safe' urban area. It isn't a lecture on kit choice and backups. It certainly isn't trying to convice people to turn to me when the excrement hits the air conditioning. It's just a rambling way of saying that, if you see me in the hills or on the river, I don't want to have to take responsibility on your behalf.

But I will do if I have to.


*Type 1 fun - fun. Type 2 fun - fun in hindsight. Type 3 fun - not really fun at all.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

2013: An Alpine Odyssey

This is how it feels
I've been meaning to write this up for a couple of weeks but hadn't got round to it. In all the hubbub since I got back, I've been gradually filtering through some of the stuff that I worked on and trying to process all the learning in amongst the fun. A bit like my camera taking a long time to process a long-exposure shot, it's taken me a while.

So, I went out to the Alps for a couple of weeks. It's not only the first time I had a 'holiday' holiday (as opposed to a working-on-events holiday) in a good few years, it's the first time I'd been away for a prolonged bout of boating in even longer. We headed out for the first two weeks in June, which also meant that, because of event work over most weekends, it was the first time I'd been in a boat in a couple of months. Plus, I was paddling with a bunch of (as I've phrased it before) 'gung-ho kiddies' all a good ten years my junior. Yes, I'm the old man of the group. But hey, it didn't cost anything to put me on the car insurance, did it? Age has its advantages...

I'm not going to go into the usual minute detail of each day and river, those are down in my river log and I've already picked them apart to see what I can learn. But some bits really stick out, at least to me!

The first day was nerve-wracking for me. While Oli, Tom and Simon had had a quick play on the Slalom course next to the campsite on the Saturday evening, Tash, Will and I were all pretty shot-at after the full day drive down from Calais so we'd left it. Sunday morning I had to keep reminding myself that the first run doesn't count, I was that shaky. Alpine rivers are fast, I knew that. Maybe it was the speed, the time off, etc etc. But I was excreting sizeable chunks of masonry either way. It took a while to adjust, but I started getting there - less moments of having my weight on the back of the boat, more controlled carving, faster ferries etc. Nothing revolutionary, but bit-by-bit improvements. All pretty good so far.

We'd talked as a group about what kind of stuff we were going to run, and the 'classics' were definitely on the register. A lot of grad 3/3+, though in comparison to the usual UK grade 3 that's a pretty meaningless number, few grade 3s in the UK have that much volume of water firing down them. The Lower Guil (Mont Dauphine Gorge) was a lovely cruising river, the Sunshine Run on the Durance was a great fun, if gentle, run with the sting in the tail - the Rabioux wave - that caught Tash out. I couldn't have been happier to make it through that one the right way up, knowing my roll was still a bit shaky.

We had a few moments of clashing and confusion on the Guisane - after spending an hour cutting a fallen tree out of it - when the whole 'eddy-hop' concept bypassed a couple of people - but it was a good run anyway. I portaged the S-Bend section, it looked like a lot of pinning potential for not a lot of gain. Though Oli and Will ran it and enjoyed it, my head wasn't there for it, and the walk-round was fine. The Gyronde had me going for every tiny micro-eddy and jet-cross with a massive grin on my face - what all those nights on the Washburn were training for, it seems. After we'd paddled down the lower-volume rock-dodge, the confluence with the Durance and the extra volume coming down the Slalom course was a wake-up call in itself. Lots of work on active blades and paddling aggressively needed to keep the boat running forward and the nose down. The group order had just kind of worked itself out - Tom led, usually Will seconding, Tash and Simon in the middle, then Oli or I bringing up the rear. Everyone seemed happy with that arrangement, and it worked well.


I took Wednesday off - tired old bones, I'm afraid - on the Wednesday and drove shuttle while watching the others run the Upper Guil. I guess that was the day where the group dynamic became visible to me, as I watched it from high up on the gorge wall, looking down at what looked like it could be a tricky, sticky little drop and seeing the guys come down, inspect, set up safety, probe, then run down as an amazingly well organised group. I felt proud, though I'd done little to influence any of it. Maybe it's just the 'being old' thing, feeling happy when the little'uns do a good job. Who knows.

Beth, Jamie and Rhi joined us on the Thursday night, along with Sarah, who's coming to Leeds Uni next year. They offered to run some slightly pushier stuff with us, so the next day we set off for the Briancon Gorge. I'd love to say that this was an awesome hit with me, but in the immediate aftermath it wasn't: It had pushed me, hard. I ran a lot of it right on the outer edge of my confidence and control, sometime a bit too reactively. I came out unscathed, no rolls, no swims, but it had pushed me right to the departure lounge of the comfort zone. Stood in the get-out layby I admitted as much, and felt a touch of relief flood over me, but also a wave of contentment: That was hard, but I did well, let's take from this what we can and keep learning.






Beard wins race.
We headed to the Onde after that, which honestly I don't remember too much of. It was a good run, I'm fairly sure, but tree hazards leading to a walk-off kind of marred it. Such is early-season Alpine boating I'm told. Saturday's run of the lower Claree was the much the same, fun but ended with a walk-off. Somewhere amongst this we did an Inflata-Cross race, paddling rubber rings, kids dinghies and a paddling pool down the Slalom course, which somehow I won, with a bunch of beers as a prize. Another day we drove over to the Souloise, Drac Blanc and Severaisse. I didn't paddle for head and body reasons: it was cold, I was tired and mentally not with it. I half wish I had, but wouldn't have wanted to be a liability and wasn't feeling right.

The second week we started by heading back to some of the runs we'd done already, things we'd enjoyed and, since the levels were coming up a fair bit with the warm weather. A second run of the Gyronde (just in case there was a tiny micro-eddy I'd happened to miss somewhere) was a cracker, including boofing the weir we'd had to portage on the first go. The second run of the Upper Guisane was my kind of 'Bingo!' moment, nailing the S-Bend just perfectly, hitting a nice flare/boof at the bottom. I'd been hesitant at the top - though the extra water meant less of a pinning problem and it looked a lot nicer - but following Tom into the steep lead-in ramp, getting the first two or three moves out of the way, and then the instinct kicks in and everything just flowed, down to that bottom move, time the stroke just right and we're through. The words don't really express the feelings, but take my word for it, it felt awesome.

The Wednesday was another 'revisit something with a shedload more water in it'. Back to the Briancon gorge. Hmmm. The mindgames started running again: It had pushed me first time round, what would it be like with more water? I was on the edge of control last time, is it too much now? It took some fighting, mentally, but I got on, promptly missed the first eddy (as I had done last time round) and thought "oh Christ, here we go again..." How wrong I was.

Second time round it was an absolute blast. We ran as two groups of 4, and both groups went for the 'minimal eddy hop' option. The slide round the weir was good fun for a little kick of airtime, the landing a lot less bony than our first run. The crux section, where the river steepens and drops around a blind left-hand bend came up quickly, Oli skipped the eddy just above the curve and left me sitting higher up, on my own. Oh well, now for that gut check, then, I guess. I set off down, just trying to drive the boat through the waves and rocks, set up for the turn and the drops, and carve into the eddy at the bottom grinning like a crazy loon. Well worth getting on, well happy with the day, with a tangible feeling of progression. Not often you get that when your paddling days are weeks apart.

We had a rest day on the Thursday and went to do some bits of Via Ferrata and climbing at the crag below the clock tower in Argentiere. Climbing when it's 30+ degrees is a little silly. We spent the rest of the afternoon throwing fluids down our necks desperately trying to fight the dehydration. Still managed to do the small VF and second a couple of excellent shortish 5a graded climbs. But the initial plan to go do a bigger Via Ferrata in the Durance gorge was thwarted, just too damn hot. I did get on the Slalom course to work on some rolling in the current, though, thinking sticking my head into the raging waters of the Durance might help cool me down. It definitely did, and I got in my only rolls of the holiday. Since they were deliberate, they definitely don't count.

Friday was the last day, and the Ubaye was on the hitlist. The levels had been chugging up slowly all week and were headed off the charts, so we headed to the Upper and got on for a big, bouncy, massively high blast down to Jausiers. It turned out to be the grand finale of the week as the Racecourse section was far too high for any margin of safety, but all of us walked away from it with a big smile and pretty satisfied that we'd had an awesome fortnight.

For me, the whole thing was a big confidence boost, a new appreciation of just how good and how pushy some grade 3/3+ paddling can be, and a real boost on both a practical and a psychological level. Hopefully I can keep working on things over the summer, whether that's at the Washburn, Teesside, Tryweryn or, if it ever rains, on some real river. I know there's still plenty to play with, and there's still my 3 aims to work towards. And come the Autumn, there'll be a new bunch of freshers to work with and plenty of paddling opportunities to look for. For now, it's all good...

Cheers!

Pyro

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pretending to be a Roman, part II

After a fitful nights sleep, punctuated by one of our room's occupants getting up to go to the loo, one snoring, one farting and one making the bunk creak every time he rolled over, we got up. At this juncture I should probably point out that we were sharing a 3-bed family room, and let you try and figure out to whom each of those four categories applies.

YHA breakfasts are as they were way back when I worked in the YHA - basic, stodgy, cheap and very much worth it. Geoffrey and I split the last bit of Black Pudding, since apparently the lady booking the breakfasts at reception had got the numbers a bit wrong. Ross got extra veggie sausage, and declined the black pudding - strange that. And there was plenty of cereals and toast available to plug the gaps around the fryup, if so required. We so required, plugged said gaps, donned our best (or second-best) lycra and got the bikes ready for the off. Before we offed, we also donned our best waterproofs, since the morning was, frankly, a bit miserable. Leaving Once Brewed was easy, down the hill into a big dip. Climbing the other side was a bit of a stretch, and led to a wee bit of frantic thrutching, grinding and crunching gears to get up and over and then turn left onto the Stangate towards Vindolanda. This turn marked the start of a long, straight, smooth downhill, which again ended abruptly in a big dip. I think the Romans needed to work on their engineering: They'd mastered straight roads, but they still went down and through some nasty dips. More bridges needed next time, Romans.

The dip at Vindolanda was also particularly rough. It's a shame, as there's good tarmac in one side, a horribly washed out, chopped up, pitted crap bit in the middle, then good tarmac out the other side again. Being the only one with drop bars, I clung grimly on down the rough bit. That said, being the only one with disc brakes, at least I knew I could stop a bit quicker if needed. Anyway, more thrutching and grinding and we were soon up the other side and up to the high point of the ride at Crindledykes. Since it was still precipitating upon us, a continuous heavy drizzle with additional road spray, we didn't stop to take a picture, but plodded on, knowing full well that about 5 miles of continuous downhill was to come. A steady trod alongside Grindon Lough and then the gradient started to decline, and we rolled downwards with ever increasing pace, swiping at the glasses every now and again to clear the spray, and in my case wishing I had brought my waterproof shorts, since through a single layer of lycra my thighs were completely frozen. We finally bottomed out at Newbrough, and tried to ease some life back into frozen fingers, toes, legs and backsides as we started having to pedal again through the backroad to Fourstones, and through another 'Navigator's Choice' route, direct along the South Tyne, rather than loop north-east and come down the North Tyne from Warden. At least it had stopped raining, and once along here, we were back into familiar territory for me, cruising under the A69 into Hexham and across Tyne Green, which doesn't look quite the same when it's not covered in tents, gazebos, and mildly inebriated kayakers.

The first appointed coffee-and-dry-out stop was Tesco cafe. We left the bikes locked up and under the watchful eye of the carwash blokes, in a bike park apparently built to house the entire Tour de France peloton. Ours, oddly enough, were the only bikes in it. The place was just what we needed: cheap, cheerful, has toilets and hand dryers and perhaps most importantly, wipe-clean chairs ("I feel sorry for whoever sits down on these after us" was Dad's considered opinion). After the gap-filling and cooked breakfast, none of us was in need of cake, but a large mug of coffee certainly hit the spot. We trooped to the bathrooms one-at-a-time to try and get some bits dried off and warmed up, then finished up and rolled back out of town.

The next stage of the route was a gentle, undulating roll along easy and well surfaced back roads, via Corbridge (a little bit confusing, signage could be a touch better/more frequent), Bywell (Ross: "I recognise this bit: Last time I drove along here we had to wait for the floodwater to drop") and then absolutely parallel to the river to the first of the 'Tyne Crossings' at Ovingham. Unsure of the signage at the narrow Ovingham bridge (there's a "Pedestrians Only, No Horses" sign on the footbridge, and the vehicle bridge is only just a single car width) we fired across the vehicle bridge and waved to the nice man who'd stopped to let us across. A sharp right just after the bridge and we were into car-less trail in the Tyne Riverside Country Park. Nothing exceptional to reports from here, a couple of short-steep climbs of the 'where the hell did that appear from?!' ilk, then over a lovely old metal railway bridge and along the old lines through and beyond Wylam, birthplace of George Stephenson. That probably explained the railway, then.

After a little navigational dispute ("The pub's thataway!" "Yes, but the NCN Signs says thataway!"), a bit more riverside gravel track and our first bit of dog-dodging since Carlisle we arrived at Feed Station 6, otherwise known as the Keelman Inn, Newburn, home of the Big Lamp Brewery. Dad had been raving about this place since we left Hexham, and he's a fan of both his food and his beer, so we assumed it'd be alright. Credit to the staff, they didn't bat an eyelid at a trio of grubby blokes in lycra standing at the bar on a busy Sunday lunchtime, though they did look relieved when told we were sitting outside. Two stotties full of meat (with chips) and one Mediterranean veggie wrap (with chips) and a pint each and we sat in the sun, enjoying the day and watching the lady in front of us's dog chew its way through a half pack of paracetamol it had found. We obviously weren't the only ones getting anaesthetised.

The Keelman was a bit of a turning point, in a way: We knew that at the YHA, most of the weekend's climbing was done with; we knew that, from Hexham, we had no more big descents; and from Newburn, we were more-or-less off the pleasant, leafy backroads and gravel tracks, and into the urban streets and concrete. After Newburn you start hitting the industrial estates that line the Tyne, and while a good effort effort has been made to put cycle lanes in, make dual-duty pavements, make crossings easy, like a lot of urban cycle infrastructure it's very stop-start. Riding along the dual carriageway through Scotswood might be intimidating and dodgy, but it's more flowing than having to skip backwards-and-forwards across at the traffic lights to follow a cycle path that isn't sure which side of the road it's supposed to be. Things got better as we got closer to the centre, and the Quayside path started, taking us off the busy main roads, and rounding the long corner to the famous view up the Tyne, past the famous bridges - Redheugh bridge, Edward VII rail bridge, Elizabeth II Metro bridge, High Level, Swing bridge, Tyne bridge and the Gateshead Millenium 'blinking eye' - gave a fantastic view. The traditional Quayside Sunday Market was just starting to close, a tradition that even the old restrictions on Sunday trading couldn't stop, and it's been going since the 1700's. There's a temporary restriction on cycling through the market, but instead of following the proscribed detour signs we just dismounted and walked through the crowds.

Beyond the market was the place I'd been raving about since the Keelman - The Cycle Hub at Ouseburn. I first came up here for a 'bike jumble' a while back, and thought it was a cracking little place, part bike shop, part hire joint, part cafe. It seemed to be well timed on our route for the afternoon coffee stop, so stop we did. We locked the bikes up outside and wandered in, ordered coffees and cakes, had a bit of banter with the staff, Dad wanted to know "who do I see about a pot of arse lard?"; Ross, settling into the sofa just asked "I wonder how much they charge for an hours sleep here". I spotted the three-person bike suspended up above the doors and wondered if that would be a good solution for our next tour. We re-sorted ourselves eventually, gathered our belongings and wits about us, and set off once more. We were all wincing at getting back on the bikes at this point, bums a bit sore from the previous miles, but onwards we wandered. This final leg was actually one of the least pretty of the whole ride, a mix of industrial estate, housing estate, glass-strewn cycle path and urban pavement, with a short stretch that looked like it had been the scene of this year's annual 'burn-out-a-car festival'. Not quite the same as the big views and open sky up on the Wall itself, but a necessary evil, and probably better in general than trying to ride along the main roads would have been.

Soon we were at another landmark on our ride, albeit a not-very-scenic one: The Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnel. The escalators were closed, so we looped round to the lifts, and wheeled our way through the deceptivel short tunnel to the far side of the river and into Jarrow, then through more urban streetwork, though a bit better signed, through old terraces of housing and around the port area into South Shields. One more obstacle, though, a split in the signage, two different cycle routes, and obviously, we took the wrong one. Rather than follow the signs for the Tyne Ferry (since, y'know, we'd just used the tunnel) we followed the Route 1 signs, which took us up and over the ridge upon which South Shields sits, then started to turn Southbound. Knowing that that wasn't quite right, we stopped to ask a couple of people if the knew where Arbeia, the famous (or at least, fairly well know) Roman fort was. The first one: not a clue. While I know we all take our own locality for granted to an extent, not knowing that there's this whacking great Roman fort in the middle of your home town? Crazy. Fortunately, the second one did, and it wasn't that far away. For future reference, it's on Fort Street, surprisingly enough.

We wearily climbed the last hill, having failed to spot a certain Blue octavia pulling across the junction just ahead of us, and spotted the Fort Street sign. Turning the corner, I spotted Mum climbing out of the car, camera in hand: Time to pose as a team. Geoffrey arrived at the summit, we formed a rolling roadblock, and cycled slowly in to the finish.

The end - Centurions Armer (Jr), Armer (Jr) and Hendry



All in all, we had a fantastic weekend of riding. Nothing majorly taxing, around 90 miles total (42 on Day 1, 49 on Day 2), plenty of coffee and cake stops (no need for energy gels and bars on this one!), lots of chat, and excellent company. We weren't racing, just enjoying a couple of days of pushing ourselves a little bit, and getting in some lovely scenery on the way. Thanks to Ross and Dad for planning, sorting and being part of the ride, and to Mum for dropping us off, picking us up, and providing the pink fizzy stuff to rehydrate with at the end. I've my eye on a very different coast-to-coast next, but Hadrian's Cycleway was a (mostly) lovely way to get one under the belt.

Thanks for reading!

Pyro

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Pretending to be a Roman, pt I


It's been a good while since I did anything in the way of long-haul cycling. There's been a fair bit of commuting to work, but that's only a handful of miles each way. There's been a few short MTB rides over the winter. Aside from that, the last time I did any serious riding was the 12hrs of Exposure and since then, I've just been bimbling. So when Dad came out with the plan to ride the Hadrian's Cycleway, it seemed like something that would probably kill me. The full route is 174 miles, Ravenglass to South Shields (or Glannaventa to Arbeia, if you're pretending to be a Roman), but with only a weekend we decided Bowness-on-Solway (Maia) was the better start point. Apparently, this is the actual western end of Hadrian's Wall itself, and the rest down to Ravenglass an extension, the Western Sea Defence, plus for our purposes, it brought the first distance estimate to a nice round 100 miles. And cleverly remembering the old adage that 'misery loves company', I roped in Ross to suffer along with me. It seemed like the best idea.

The appointed weekend came, and we gathered in Torpenhow on the Friday night, faffed with kit, deliberated about weather forecasts and tried to work out what we needed in terms of clothing. It became obvious that it didn't really matter, so we gave up on all of that, had a beer and relaxed. Saturday morning came and after more faff and a short drive we were at Bowness unloading and getting ready to ride.

Our bike choices all varied: Dad had gone for his MTB with slicks, rather than the higher gearing of his road bike; Ross opted for his flat-bar cross-inspired Cube; I, being a geek about these things, had rebuilt my old singlespeed up into an off-road drop-barred, hybrid-tyred, fully rigid 69er mongrel. Since we were YHA-ing for the night we didn't need much kit, so I'd restricted myself to my 15l OMM Pack, Dad had packed his small rack-top trunk, and Ross seemed to be carrying the kitchen sink. Still, as we pottered along the Solway coast, none of that mattered, it was sunny, we were on bikes, and another little adventure was on the go. The roll along to Carlisle was utterly uneventful, a little bit of tweaking saddle heights, a little tweaking of brakes, a lot of chatting, and a solo breakaway by Geoffrey (only to be reeled in on the next climb) and we were soon through Burgh by Sands and passing Ratlingate Scout camp at Kirkandrews-on-Eden, the scene of my first Cyclocross event many many years ago. We were soon over the Carlisle northern bypass, off the tarmac and onto the gravel and mud round Bitts Park and pulling up for our first appointed coffee stop of the weekend at the Turf Tavern. Large coffees all round, no muffins available but Mum had given up a Tunnocks Wafer each before we set off, so the refuelling commenced.

With the 'flat bit' of the first day out of the way, we knew the gradient was going to start going upwards as we set off again for Brampton, through the riverside parks and then backroads to Brunstock. After a short spell on the main A689The 'official' route takes a somewhat circuitous route through a bunch of little villages, which our official routeplanner had decided was 'too much of a faff', so we pacelined it along the main road. Not sure what the copper with the speed camera thought as we chuntered past:
Pyro: "He'll have a speed gun."
Ross: "Nah, I bet he's just pulled over for a snooze!" 
< pedal-pedal-pedal *peek into van* pedal-pedal-pedal >
Pyro: "Nope, he's definitely got a speed gun. Alright"
Officer "Alright."
But he didn't pull us over, so we must have been doing less than 60. One quick stop for a jimmy and a handful of Jelly Babies and we were off again, heading straight into Brampton itself with lunch in mind. After a bit of faff (the Farmer's Market was just shutting up shop, the pub that had outside tables wasn't serving food, the pub that was serving food didn't have outside tables, neither did the obvious tearoom) we found the Off the Wall coffee shop, grabbed the two little tables outside and parked ourselves. Toasties, wraps and a brew (and the only salad of the weekend), a nice sit in the sun, some funny looks off a gentleman on a mobility scooter and the world set almost to rights, and it was time to get going and get the legs ready for some proper hills. Oh joy.

From Brampton it was all fairly gentle to begin with, then just after Lanercost Priory, it started to rise. The climb up to Banks is a steep little so-and-so, and due to tuning issues, neither Dad or I could get into the 'Granny Ring', so it became a game of muscle. Through the hamlet and onto the scarp top things eased off, but it was the first properly out-of-breath moment of the weekend. The long undulating run to Birdoswald (Banna) was pleasant though, and one of the few bits that actually runs alongside the wall itself. We stopped for a quick picture on a section of the wall, then commenced descent, dropping down to Gilsland just as the sky darkened and a hailstorm started. We hit the T-junction as a group, Ross and I breaking right, Dad breaking left. "Where are you two going?" he yelled after us, as the hail started to fall. "Tea shop!" we replied, pointing out the chalkboard sign at the junction. We parked the bikes up and dived inside, found comfy chairs by the fireplace and ordered our coffee and teacakes for that vital mid-afternoon refuel.

Rising, sated, from our comfy chairs, we returned to our marginally less comfy saddles for the last leg of the day, the final 8-mile stretch to the YHA (and pub) where we were staying. The gradual rise out of Gilsland and over to Greenhead was okay, steady and undulating again. A nice little track diversion took us round over the Tipalt Burn and along the back side of that and the railway. Coming into Greenhead, we had the option of crossing back over the burn by bridge or ford: The ford looked more interesting, but discretion being the better part of valour, we all chickened out. And with good reason, the one bit of the ride we'd sort of been fearing (well, the next bit after the climb to Banks): Greenhead Bank, a quarter mile of 1:4, then 1:10 to the summit at the turnoff to Carvoran. Sustrans have done a great job of putting in a gravel cycle path set back off the road, but there's only one small hitch with it: Turning off the road and up through a bike barrier (presumably to stop motorbikes using it) robs you of any momentum you might have wanted for the early - and steep - bit of the climb. Since two of us were having front mech issues, we decided that walking is just another gear, and proceeded to engage that one.

From the top we had another 'Navigator's Choice' route, and deviated from the official Route 72 guide. The main route descends back down from beyond Carvoran to Haltwhistle (supposedly the 'Centre of Britain', but the Ordnance Survey and a farmer from Dunsop Bridge disagree), then follows the valley to Bardon Mill before climbing the same height back up to the Stanegate, just south of Once Brewed where we were staying. Instead of playing this game of drop-and-climb-again, we gave small thanks to General Wade and pacelined along the old Military Road, undulated along at some pace, fuelled by the knowledge of impending shower and food, and soon saw the big green triangle come into sight. Shower, clean clothes, pub dinner, a pint of liquid anaesthetic or two, a little light conversation and an early night and we'd be all ready to do it all over again tomorrow!

(Pt. II to come soon!)