Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Rhossili is so bracing; NYT

3 days in Wales and 3 sea swims to help acclimatise for the competitions to come. Cold water swimming is such a weird thing... In a lot of ways it's just awful. Pain in the arches of your feet as the water first hits you, then shock as the water gets up to crotch height. And finally, the breath-wrenching dive to become fully immersed. If it weren't for Emily, I wouldn't be there.

But once you're in, it is fun in a muscle-twinging way. You break through some barrier between normal comfortable life, and surviving in a truly hostile environment. The idea of winter biking is to avoid getting cold, but here we have no protection for anything but modesty. Just swimsuits and temperatures that are guaranteed to give you hypothermia if you stay there long enough. So we built up each day: 4 minutes, then 10, then nearly 20. Once you've taken the plunge and ignored the horror, it's actually kind of fun to be there in a place where people really shouldn't be.

Bring on the UK Champs at Tooting and then Finland!

And in other exciting news, the New York Times article is out with words and videos... yay!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bikemagic article is up

Well, the Bikemagic article about the Alaska training school is up. Go read it here.

And today's training ride? 1 snapped chain. 1 standing in water over ankles incident. 85km distance, 2030m climbing, 6h45m time. Completely battered body.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Mr Selle Italia is having a laugh

The Pugsley build is underway and while I was crushing down boxes, I came across this:

In a sunny country villa in Italy, Signore Italia is laughing. But, signore, this is what we do to your saddles with our lack of sunshine...

I don't know why I bother with Ti rails!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Training, iPod, wet

I've found myself doing more and more training rides this year. Today being a perfect example... there's no way I would really want to go out in the pouring rain and ride for 4 hours if I didn't know I had to. If I want to ride the big events I've got to put in the hours on local trails no matter how nasty they are.

So, I finally caved to using an iPod for these rides. I'd always thought they rob you of your connection to the bike. I'd always listened to the sound of the tyres across the ground, the click of the freehub, and in quiet moments the birds in the trees. But when I don't want to be out there, or I know I'm going to be out on the same old trails for a long time then the music helps me to keep going. The right track can make things better... Today I was just wrenching the last pedal stroke out to get over a mud-sucky climb when Bad Religion popped into my ears. It was the perfect liberation as I hit the singletrack coming out of the climb. Sometimes it's all too much though... Reading a leaf-covered trail that's speeding at you whilst Miles Davis is swirling in 10 directions at once or (as today) Steve Reich's phase-shifted drumming is taking up a significant proportion of your brain is pretty difficult. But the same music can be the perfect antidote to long boring straights.

I think that if I'm riding for pure joy, then the music stays at home but for putting in the miles it seems to help. You've just got to see the pictures from today to appreciate that it wasn't a day to stop and smell the flowers. More a day to stop and wring out your gloves. Those are rivers, those are the trails!

Friday, December 12, 2008

After Alaska

Well, my first ride back from Alaska was interesting. The first few metres riding down my road were terrifying... were my tyres always this skinny, was the steering always this fast? I reached the end of my road and nearly popped my eyeballs out as I touched the brakes... Clearly, this wasn't quite the same as riding a rented Pugsley!

Climbing brought breathing difficulties and made my arms feel like over-cooked noodles, flapping away as I hulked up Kop Hill. In Alaska, I hadn't been using this much effort and the air had been dry. Now I was maxing out and sucking down moist air at about 0C. Only 5 minutes in and I had resigned myself to a ride that would hurt but feel better afterwards. 20 minutes in and I was speeding down some doubletrack blinking away the water and mud from my eyes. Ruts were twitching the front tyre around and my attempts to correct were just exaggerating the problem. Then I tried to brake and only set off a massive uncontrolled buck of the bike result in a face/gulley interaction. I needed to find my mud-riding head again.

As the ride went on though, things started to come together. I couldn't yet find that pace inside myself to grind up the long nasty wet climbs, but I was at least getting control back on the downs. Once again, though, I'm in the position where my problems will be solved by more riding so it's not so bad.

Looking back to Alaska, a couple of things were discovered.

First and foremost, they've got a vibrant and friendly mountain biking community out there that was hugely welcoming to me. Billy sorted me out with a fine rental bike and then went way beyond the call-of-duty helping to get me as much riding as possible (more on that later). Tim introduced me to the local night-riding scene that was remarkably similar to our own but whiter and then went on to offer more help than I had any right to expect.

Second discovery was that I will stand a chance of finishing in McGrath staying vegetarian and singlespeed. I left the geared Pugsley in one gear pretty much the whole time to find the right ratio and now I can get that for my own. 22:18, since you asked. That means just a granny ring, but a relatively small cog at the back for where you'd be in the granny on a geared bike. It seemed to work for me, so I don't care if it doesn't look as manly as 32:16.

A detailed story about Bill and Kathi's school will be appearing on Bikemagic at some point but in the meantime, here's what happened when Billy and I rode around Eklutna Lake...

The forecast didn't look good. Right around freezing point and rain. Snow is fine, but rain sucks. It means pushing the bike through slush and potential disaster with a down sleeping bag. As we drove out from Anchorage I kept hoping it would get colder, but it never did. We were going to ride anyway as Billy is training to ride to Nome and I had to experience as many different conditions as I could in my time out there. The trail started off pretty rideable with options to stay down by the lake on trails used by skiers or go a bit higher up on easier trails where snow machines or quad bikes drive. We stayed low and the precarious singletrack line of packed snow eventually petered out to nothing. So we pushed. And pushed. And pushed some more. In the end it was over 5 hours to cover 12 miles, but the lake provided serene beauty with an almost perfect mirror for the mountains and the sun dipping behind them.

Our conversation petered out a while after the trail did and we just trudged along every footstep sinking calf-deep. It was ok, though, it wasn't going to break us and Billy had eggs for breakfast tomorrow. When we eventually stopped, we had taken the wrong trail - the way we'd meant to go was completely unbroken which would have meant lifting the front of the bike through the snow, an even worse fate than mere pushing. Since we weren't fixed on a destination this was fine and we set up a bivvy to make water, dinner and then sleep for the night. Spirits were high again as we sat warm in our sleeping bags and eventually settled down to sleep early.

Hours later, I heard Billy starting to mess around with his stove. It took a while before I woke up enough to check my watch... 11pm Damn, Billy... it's not even morning yet. It didn't take much discussion to agree to more sleep before breakfast. At about 4am, we were up again and Billy went to his stove again to make breakfast. Seconds later flames leapt a few feet into the air, wildly out of control. To my great relief, Billy threw the stove away from our sleeping bags. "Billy, your hand's on fire." "BILLY, YOUR HAND'S ON FIRE!" He slapped it out on the snow whilst I tended to the stove, controlling the gas to get it back down to a proper blue flame.

After that, breakfast was quite uneventful but tasty. Rain reduced the menu from eggs, gravy, and biscuits (that's American biscuits) to just eggs and gravy as we hurried to get packed up and moving. Pushing back was much easier with the furrow we'd ploughed on the way in and once we hit the main trails we took the high road. That meant more ups and downs, but almost entirely rideable trails that I tore up on my pretend singlespeed.

Eventually we were back and ready to meet Billy's family for breakfast at the Snow Cafe. It turned out to be a nice relaxing final day in Anchorage with Billy's lovely family and my chance to watch A Thin White Line. I can't thank him enough for his many kindnesses... If you need to rent a fat bike out there, he's your man and you can be 100% sure he'll have every detail sorted out for you.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Stepping Towards Iditarod

Well, I took the first step and entered the Iditarod, now it's time for the second step: training. So here I am in Anchorage to see riders, pogies, bivvies, snow, and big fat tyres.

Unfortunately, I didn't realise that today is Thanksgiving for those crazy Americans so my plan to stock up on gear has fallen through. But I got to sort some stuff out and have a wander around. 

The light is really amazing here. It fades in and out really slowly, it hangs low under the heavy clouds and glows brilliantly over the mountains. Can't wait to spend all day in it.

As for the city, it seems pretty friendly and the traffic moves really slowly. Having said that, with all the snow, you see cars skidding to a halt at red lights and skidding away from greens so not that much of a surprise there.

Just a day of wandering about and looking at the light. Soon to be followed by measuring out portions of oats and dried milk. Oh, the glamour...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

On Failure

Yesterday was the second mountain bike race that I've ever quit. It was supposed to be 12 hours solo, but even from the beginning things weren't smooth. Driving down, the deadline for registration came and went as I got lost trying to find an area I'd only ever ridden cross country to. The lazy part of me was thinking that this was a pretty good excuse - if they don't let me in, there's nothing I can do. In the event, I was just in time to sign up with an hour before the start.

I set to work replacing brake pads, brushing the worst of the muck of my bike, and getting ready to go. It looked like I might be in time! The solo riders area was just a part of the camp-site that followed around the edge of the track and I was parked miles away so I was glad to be able to stash my gear with Kathy's excellent track-side position. We joined the start near the back - there's no point in rushing the first lap - but with a couple of minutes to go, I realised that I'd left my keys in my unlocked car. I manage to bounce across the tussocks, grab my keys, lock the car and nearly make it back to the start before the race began at 12pm. Hmm... starting in dead-last.

The first lap was typical queuing and the course had degraded a bit even since riding it a few days before. By the end of the lap, I was 21st in solo and feeling ok. The second lap, I got a clean run so I let the bike run a bit and fell twice for my effort. Still, by then I had reached 14th. Two hours in, it was time for a bite of malt-loaf and back onto the course. It wasn't long before team riders started lapping me and on one open corner, I went wide to let a faster rider through. He went wide too, so I was forced wider until my tyre hooked up on the mud on the outside of the corner and I went down hard on my knee. During the remainder of the lap, blood flowed down my shin and, even now, it's a throbbing reminder of how not to corner.

At this point, much of the course was draggy, some hills weren't worth the effort of trying to ride up and there was hardly any free-wheeling to be had. It was going to be a long day. Adam turned up to say hi, which was a good diversion from the unrewarding ride. Eventually, I'd reached 11th place and things were seeming ok. The course had even dried from slop to goop in places. As 7pm rolled around I stopped to pick up my lights. Rather, the Ay Ups I'd borrowed from Tas. But as I went to fit them, I realised that the extension cable was in my car. So, it was back across the tussocks and losing race-time without even resting. At least I bumped into Richard on the way over and had the chance to chat to a friendly face.

With lights fitted, I set off once more. It was light enough outside the trees but I had to rely on using the force inside them. I didn't really know if the lights would last so I bumbled through for an extra half-hour before switching them on. I was well into eating at this point - on the potatoes and fig rolls nearly every lap as mealtimes skulked past. The rain had started again and the course was becoming horrendous. Nearly every part was an effort of dragging through mud, only the steep climbs brought the relief of walking. And my head was going out of the riding. I fell twice in 100m through lack of concentration. I smashed my shoulder into trees by taking ragged lines, I dabbed, I fell, I walked, I came close to falling off the wooden bridge. I saw a kitten on the trail - it turned out to be a tree-stump. This was seriously worrying and I couldn't have been more glad when the 1.5hr lap finally ended. I stopped for some food, feeling cold and in pain. I decided to take break, as I couldn't think of a single part of the next lap to look forward to. I sat on the damp, dark grass, I wanted to pull up my knees and hug myself but my cut knee wouldn't allow it so I just lay back and watched the sky, mulling. Could I do another lap, would I still be falling as much?

Fortunately, one of the Tunnel Hill Trolls took pity on me and invited me over to their camp-site for tea and cake. It helped me to feel a lot better, but when I went back to the bike, I still couldn't do it. 9 and a half hours in, shivering and confused I quit.

So, what to take from it? There are two things that keep you going in that situation - mind and body. I'd got both of them wrong. I had a dry top to put on that would have helped to stay the shivers, but I didn't use it. If I was going to ride that hard, I would have needed to train more and not to have cut so many corners in the run up to the race. But all things are connected and the mentality that had let me cut a 5.5hr training ride into a 3.5hr ride was the same mentality that wanted to feel self-pity instead of grabbing some merino and getting back out there.

I suppose it comes down to why you're doing the ride. There was no joy to be had on the course, or training in The Chilterns so all the drive had to come from inside. From irrational bloody-mindedness. That is something that I have possessed in the past, but seems to have drained away. There plenty of cases where a bit of suffering can be worthwhile to experience something unique, but just going for 12hrs isn't enough any more. I want to enjoy the rides again, to know why I'm doing it. So, I can look back on a 9hr training ride for Iditarod and hope that I won't break the same way out there. At least there will be progression out there and beauty out there. For now though, I can do this last season of riding in circles for hours and then find something more fun to do.

Monday, June 09, 2008


Riding a 24hr solo mountain bike race had been an ambition of mine ever since I rode my first team one more than 5 years ago. So, this year I finally went and signed myself up for CLIC 24, a charity 24hr race in the Mendips. Training for it dominated my riding for months beforehand. Sometimes, it clearly was training - riding when the conditions were awful, grinding out the miles each time my body recovered enough to get back on the bike. And when work took me away from bikes, I hit the swimming pool with the same mentality length after tedious length without the rewards of riding.

So the cliche of such things became true - the training was the hardest part. Riding 10 miles home from work in the dark and rain to swap bikes and hit the "trails"; sloughing through mud so thick that bouncing my entire weight on the pedals wouldn't always turn them; swearing my way up climbs to discover (hoarse-throated) a mist hanging so thick that I couldn't see the ground beneath my light; having a 4 punctures in one ride and riding 3 miles home on the rims. Any time not on the bike meant dunking the worst of the mud off my riding clothes and washing them, replacing destroyed bearings, changing brake pads worn down to the metal, getting my shoes brushed down and into the airing cupboard and then trying to take care of all the normal life things.

But there was still joy to be had on a bike. Not every ride was a solo Chilterns beast designed to toughen me up. Bracknell with Adam and James held twisty singletrack, starry nights, pointless racing, and plenty of laughs. Wales weekenders with Kellie and Tas provided rocky singletrack, speed, beers, and cakes. All riding as it's supposed to be - fun!

So after the months of good and bad, it was a relief to see CLIC approaching. Soon I would be able to do other sports again and maybe, if I wanted to, no sports at all. Just imagine that! In the weeks beforehand, the sun finally came out and the local trails became almost laughably easy. After-work rides were stretching to 3-4 hours and still not having the gut-wrenching harshness of winter. Those slippery knots of roots were now just a high-speed jump and a dusty landing. All was looking good for the big day.

Armed with Emily to keep me fed and watered, and the longest break off the bike I'd had in months the first few laps of CLIC were a doddle. The course took in genuine bridleways with flowing singletrack, rocky sections, and one dirty-great climb. Like a sessioning freerider it was possible to refine my lines indefinitely. Each lap faster and smoother descending, then lock out the forks and crank from the saddle up a long fire-road, unlock before the steep sting in the climb and a loose rocky finish to the road. Also each lap, a bite of food and a kiss and cuddle from Emily. This thing seemed pretty good and even as night fell, I felt incredibly strong.

Then a surprise visit from Adam made for an awesome lap as he took Emily's tiny bike out in his sandals and rode round with me. We chatted and whisked along, me feeling like I was showing him my local trails, him feeling like a kid out riding with his dad due to the 15" vs 20" difference in bike size. We nailed the descents with confidence born of riding much scarier, steeper, and pointier stuff in the Dyfi Forest the week before. We passed other riders like statues until we reached the final climb. Part-way up the climb and mid-conversation, Adam pointed out that he was panting and I was just chatting away. Well, I was warmed up :) Then as he dropped back a bit there was a crunch of gears, an oof of breath, and a lack of light from where he had been. He bid me to carry on so I rode out the lap hoping that nothing too serious had gone wrong (his gears had slipped causing the battery cable to get pulled out).

But the laps after Adam were where things took their toll. Suddenly, I wasn't on autopilot anymore. It was that damn corner again and I know there's that stupid loose climb and the annoying mud to come after. I don't even like night riding - I keep missing the lines. How many more times round? I checked my watch more often. I began to notice that I'd got sun-burned during the day. Tea and encouragement from Emily helped, but it wasn't long before I decided to take a break. I hadn't planned to sleep but something needed to change or I couldn't carry on and if I was going to miss some riding, it made sense to miss it in the dark.

So, stinking, I lay in my sleeping bag for a bit and felt the aches. My mind was just static, though, and I don't think I reached anything like sleep. We'd set an alarm, but I don't remember now how long I'd given myself. I just lay there are pondered how pointless this whole thing was. I'd done a good few laps and could just have a good sleep now. I know this place though. That ugly voice inside and how it makes you feel afterwards if you come back to yourself and discover that you gave in without good reason. But I felt like bouncing off the bottom so I let my teeth chatter from the cold (and it was cold), I tried to get Emily to talk me into going back out there. In truth, I didn't need (or get) forced to leave. I just needed to dip before I could rise. And without fully accepting that I was doing it, I was soon putting on fresh clothes, sorting out my Camelbak, and preparing to go.

My teeth chattered all the way along the start line and all the way up the first climb. My mind half slumbered down the first descent, but eventually I was back in the groove. Going round in circles, knowing that the sun would rise. Still, I'd come around and Emily would be there. Endurance racing is a particularly selfish thing. It feels strange to be waited on but, in truth, it really is all about you for that 24 hours, that ironman, that channel crossing or whatever the challenge is. From a karma point of view, we help each other out and your supporter knows it's about keeping the pedals (or equivalent) turning. I like that simplicity of life for a while, I like to be able to accept the support for once, and I try to be sufficiently grateful (that includes to random people who help without even knowing you).

Sunrise is something I've always loved at Mountain Mayhem (team 24hr I've done loads of times). The warmth and light coming back into the world, the dew being baked off and the trails getting fast. It was oddly unemotional for me at CLIC. Perhaps because it merely signalled another 6 hours of riding to come. For now I just concentrated on my aim: to reach 20 laps.

One lap at a time, it came to pass. Nothing dramatic, just keeping on riding and eating and not stopping. With a few hours left to go, I was there and it was time for potatoes and a bit of a break. (Potatoes with olive oil and pepper are my treat for endurance riding. They fill, they taste good, and they're cheap) As often happens in these circumstances, I try to figure out how little riding I can get away with doing before the end. Fortunately, rear tyre damage comes to my rescues. The inner tube is not quite escaping through the cuts, but you can see it in places so I err on the side of caution and time-wasting.

Eventually, I squeeze in another couple of laps and they're actually pretty enjoyable. When you can see the finish and you know you can make it, everything seems loose and easy. There's no rush, just a final few chances to perfect those descents. And when it was over, it felt like an anti-climax. The training had worked - I'd done it and I hadn't suffered horribly. The training, the support, the $150 shorts, they all did their job. So bring on the next challenge, I guess.

The facts? About £500 of sponsorship raised, over 200 miles ridden, and 2nd place (but it's not a race, right?). And it's not too late if you want to add some post-event-sponsorship!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Swimming With Crazies

The May bank holiday means a lot of things to a lot of people. To mountain bikers this year, it meant the Dyfi Enduro and SSUK - I partook in the former. To Channel Swimmers, it meant the start of their training in Dover Harbour. For weeks and weeks until their crossing, they head out from the pebbles and endure the chilly water for hours at a time. They build up physical and mental strength against the cold; they face boredom and discomfort; and they have their own community bound together by the innate looniness of their endeavour.

So for a mountain biker and a channel swimmer together it meant driving from Machynlleth to Dover for some endurance sport cultural exchange. The Dyfi was, as always, great fun. Laid back people, hard technical riding and a good vibe. For me, the scary event was the next day... My first cold-water swim accompanied by a plunge into a whole different subculture.

Arrival in Dover was extremely pleasant as the sunshine melted away what had been a brutally early morning to get there in time. Freda, the matriarch of channel training, seemed nice enough but her hard edge was clearly there inside. As more people arrived, they all seemed too nice to want to dive into that opaque chilly water. But as the time approached, swimming hats were donned, assignments given by Freda, and Vaseline applied. She'd given Emily and me 2km to swim and now the deal was done. I was really going in.

We walked down the beach hand-in-hand and I couldn't help remembering a similar situation in Goa, except that time the warm water welcomed us and we played around in the surf. This time the water was drawing back its palm, ready to deliver a slap. Putting thoughts aside, I got in and went quickly into a few strokes. Salt water hit mountain biking wounds. Cold water hit stressed muscles. But it was actually invigorating. My breath was shortened and it felt like a thousand tiny combs were being drawn over my muscles, but there was also a freedom. And with that freedom a liberating sense of the ridiculous - we could be comfortable but we'd rather be challenged.

As we swam out to the harbour wall, I concentrated on a small world. The strange feeling around my body and keeping in step with Emily. Sighting would have expanded my concentration beyond this little intense world that I could cope with, and into a larger one that I couldn't. So along I swam, enjoying the sun the novelty and Emily beside me. We reached the wall, exchanged a few words and turned back to our second target before the cold could reach bodies that dared to slow down. This leg felt more like a swim. I noticed how little I could see, thought about my stroke a little, and probed those weird muscular feelings with my mind. Some of the fear had subsided - it didn't look like everything was about to spasm and leave me helpless.

Finally we reached point two and just had to get back to the beach. End in sight, the strokes became monotone. A trudge, a thought about lunch, a mouthful of salt-water. But soon it was shallow enough to stand, so I did. And stumbled. And stumbled some more. As the blood rushed from my head, I flipped from feeling strong to disoriented and weak. Many hands helped me along and I tried to push them back a little - so used to coping alone. But this wasn't something to cope with alone. I can't even remember how much I dressed myself. Not much, I think. Minutes later, wrapped in many layers and still shaking from the cold, I could really appreciate why people come down here. They need each other to face these challenges, they're bound by something most people will never experience, and they're just damn nice folks who enjoy hanging out together.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

India - don't try to make sense of it

The facts are these: I spent the 11th to 28 January backpacking around India from Bombay to Goa, Kerala, and then back up again. It was awesome.

The trip consisted of many tiny fragments and many special moments, all churning together to make a delightful state of chaos. Even if I wanted to, I don't think that I could draw these events together to form a coherent narrative. So what follows is a collection of the fragments. They don't fit together like a jigsaw, they just exist as a reflection of the tumult. Nothing that we tried to do in India ever went exactly to plan, but since everyone else's plans were also shifting around us there were always way though. Like a rickshaw on a busy street, we didn't try to go to fast, we worked with the flow, and somewhere in the gaps we found ideas and adventures.