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!