Friday, 17 March 2017

Favourite Places - The Belgian Road

Flanders in Shropshire





With the spring classics in full swing and my two favourite races of the year only a few weeks away, it seems like the perfect time to reflect upon our very own piece of Flanders in Shropshire.

Nestled in the heart of Shropshire between Canyton and Beckbury, this most innocuous 2.5km stretch of badly surfaced concrete road has something special about it. It’s that intangible property which transforms otherwise ordinary roads into something so much more.

It can be ridden either way, but for me it has to be in the direction ridden on ‘The Toothpaste’, Shropshire’s tribute to the greatest one day race of them all, The Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix.

Ignore the sat-nav error signs as you turn off the main road, and as you pass the small cottages on your right, you’d be right to ask what all the fuss is about. But as the fields open out, the landscape is transformed. Wide open, and seemingly always windy; you really could be in Flanders. It’s not difficult to imagine the road being lined with spectators and campervans, as the pro peloton thunders past.

Ninety degree left and right turns do their best to upset any momentum you’ve managed to gather, and the potholed surface means you need your wits about you at all times. As you crest the gentle brow it’s now a drag race all the way to the end. The farm buildings pass in a blur, and with gradient finally in your favour, speed builds almost effortlessly.

All too soon it’s over, and the right hander back onto the road bring you back to earth with a bang. Suddenly normal tarmac seems ever so slightly dull. Every time I turn off the Belgian Road I make a promise not to leave it so long next time.

If you’ve never ridden this beauty before, do it, and I just hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.

Vive la Velo
@936ADL


Friday, 11 November 2016

In Praise of Winter

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Barely a couple of hours after I’d drafted this blog, and as if to prove a point, our regular Tuesday evening ride  endured one of the wettest rides for a long time.

As the saying goes, #Rule9 all the way…..

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Every year’s the same, and yet it never gets any easier. This year it feels like a switch has been flicked, and after a mild October, the clocks going back have co-incided with plummeting temperatures. Winter is well and truly upon us.

This change of season is perhaps the most marked; no gentle warming of the days as winter gives way to spring and summer, no cooling as we leave another summer. More sudden, more definite, all  seemingly exacerbated by the clocks losing those 60 minutes in late October.

But to embrace this change, is to put yourself on the path to enjoying it. Put the summer bike away (although make sure it’s ready to go if the chance to explore one of our oh so rare crisp, dry winter days arises), and make the most of that most underrated stable mate, the winter bike. It’s probably much heavier, and much less shiny than it’s summer loving equivalent, but only a fool judges a book by its cover.

My winter bike is the perfect example. The oldest bike I own, it’s gone through changes too numerous to list. It’s currently in ‘Touring’ mode, complete with incredibly heavy Shimano Alfine Hub. Fully loaded with two panniers, it weighs a ton.
   
The first couple of rides will almost certainly be awful, although this isn’t the fault of the bike. Instead this is a reflection of the failure on my part to adapt; to fail to take into account the extra weight that a winter bike brings. In no time at all the change comes. Instead of forcing things and spending too much time riding against the Garmin, it’s time to relax, change down a gear or two, and just enjoy the ride.

Winter may be unavoidable, but with the right bike (along with decent winter kit – but that’s a blog in its own right) we can keep the wheels turning, topping those base miles in the process. These will prove oh so valuable next year, when as Spring Classics will appear on the horizon, and we can start all over again…….

Vive la Velo

@936ADL

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

North Coast 500 Ride Report - Hitting the Reset Button

Feeling Small

Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to ride in some stunning locations. From the magnificent Shropshire Hills that are on our door step, to the high peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees, each location   offering their own unique cycling experience. Nothing however prepared me for the four days of cycling which I’ve just enjoyed; Scotland’s North Coast 500.

Eleven of us made the trip up to Inverness which serves as the start and finish for the route, 10 riders, and our support vehicle driver, Gareth. We’d all prepared as best we could for the challenge ahead, but as we rolled away from Inverness Castle I for one was feeling ever so slightly daunted by the prospect of what lay ahead.

Much has been written about the route itself, and all I’d add is that it’s everything you’ll ever read, and so much more. From what’s widely regarded at the toughest climb in the UK, Bealach na Ba, to the relentlessly undulating roads of perhaps the remotest part of Scotland. At times, the assault on your senses threatens to overwhelm you, with hour after hour of stunning scenery. With Lochs and mountains for as far as the eye can see, I don’t think I’ve ever felt smaller and more inconsequential. The scale of the surroundings is just breath-taking.

The ride itself is just one aspect a trip like this. Along the way we shared experiences which we’ll remember for a long time, some good, some not so good. All however, playing their own part in making the trip so memorable. Whilst out twitter fuelled detour to the world famous Attadale Gardens may not have been our best decision, visiting the Tea Room still resisting the march of the Latte most certainly was. The quite fabulous Cullen Skink we enjoyed in Ullapool is also worthy of a special mention.

Our accommodation along the way is also something we’ll look back on fondly. Whether it was sleeping with wild pigs in the Kinlochewe Bunkhouse, drinking fine malt whiskey in The Rhiconich Hotel, or the quad rooms (named Stalag 17 & 18 by their occupants) in John O’Groats, all added to the overall experience.

As the final few miles passed and Inverness came back into view, it began to dawn on me that over the last four days I’d been lucky to experience something really quite special.

A massive thanks to those I’ve shared this experience with. Gary, Mark, SA, Darren, Charles, Dai, Max, Nick, and Simon, I only hope you all enjoyed the trip half as much as I did. Chapeau to you all.

A special mention to Gareth; our support driver for the trip. An absolutely awesome performance, I’m not sure he’ll ever quite appreciate his contribution to the trip. Thanks for allowing us to focus on the riding.

For me this trip has made me re-calibrate what constitutes a great ride, it’s like hitting the re-set button. I’ve really no idea where we go from here……..

Vive la Velo

@936ADL

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The North Coast 500

Doesn't look too bad......
Tomorrow sees us pack up and set off for what’s possibly the most ambitious challenge we’ve ever
taken on, the fearsome North Coast 500.

Months of preparation, and many thousands of miles later, it’s now time; the waiting is over. We’re planning on riding the route over four days, which means we’re facing up to some very long days in the saddle. However, this trip is an oh so rare opportunity to devote whole days to the simple pleasure of riding a bike. Throw in some of the most spectacular scenery the British Isles has to offer, and it’s fair to say that this promises to be a very special few days.

Wish us luck and keep an eye on twitter/instagram etc. for updates as we’re on our travels. You canalso keep up to date with our progress on our very own #MuttonChopTracker………

Vive la Velo

@936ADL

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

SCCA 4-Up Championships – Race Report

Let the pain begin......
After last year’s successful debut in what’s without a doubt the standout event in the county’s time trialling calendar, we were back for more in Sunday’s 2016 SCCA 4-Up Championships. And what’s more, when the start list came out we had a bone fide cycling superstar in our midst, Dame Sarah Storey. It was only after a little more research that I realised quite how much she’d won. 11 time Paralympic champion, 27 time world champion, and the holder of no less than 72 world records. Quite a coup for the SCCA, and to see someone signing on to an event that we were riding in a world champions jersey (earned not purchased I might add) was a vaguely surreal experience.

The exposed north Shropshire plain always seems to be windy, and the forecast gusty weather arrived as predicted. And as is all too often the case, the wind direction was going to make the return leg of the event just brutal. At least it was dry.

Warm up complete, we lined up on at the start. 1 minute…..30 secs…10…5..4..3..2..1…We were off, all clipped in and quickly up to race pace. After a check to confirm that we were all present and correct, it was time to get settled in. Even though our practice session had been short, it was paying dividends from the off and our changes where going smoothly.

One of the standout features of this event is the level of support enjoyed along the route. When the going is getting tough it’s amazing the difference a friendly face and cheer can make. It really does make a difference, so thanks to all who came out to the course to show their support.

The wind really made itself felt at the first turn onto the Hodnet bypass. With a tailwind and slightly downhill to boot, we seemed to be absolutely flying along, seemingly oblivious to what this would mean on the return leg. Our progress was still good as we headed out to the turn, and we were still riding smoothly and sharing the work on the front.

Past the 20 mile marker and we were about to face the toughest part of the day. Less than 2 miles in length, but wide open: into a block headwind, and uphill for the final couple of hundred metres. Suddenly the ease with which we’d ridden this part of the course in the opposite direction a few minutes earlier, came back to bite us. In an instant our cohesion was in tatters as the gradient took its tool. The nature of the event meant we had no choice other than to regroup, and try and recover.

Back as a unit we made the final turn for home, less than 6 miles to go: disaster averted and we were ready for one final push. Past the infamous (on Strava at least) Peplow Pave and we were in the home straight.

It was time to empty the tanks and leave it all out there on the road. Thankfully the final few hundred metres were downhill, across the line, and suddenly it was all over. I think we were all pleased with how things had gone on what was a really very difficult course, made all the worse by the wind.

What followed was a very gentle return to race HQ for coffee and cake (a crucial part of post TT tradition), and soon after came the official results. Dame Sarah’s team were pushed into second by the oh so impressive local team from Rhino Velo, but where did we end up? 14th on the day, and although we missed out 1:20 target by 55 seconds, I was pleased with the time given the conditions.

Although riding in society colours, all of the team this year were also Wrekin Sport CC members and so we were also riding for the club’s prestigious ;¬) 4-Up Championship Trophy. What’s more we won it! Amazing……

Vive la Velo

@936ADL

Friday, 5 August 2016

Respect The Jersey

It was as we turned the corner that we caught our first glimpse of him. A lone cyclist, perhaps two or  three hundred metres ahead of us on the road. Like us, enjoying an August Tuesday evening ride. As the road ahead rose ever so slightly and the gap closed, it became clear that all was not as it seemed. There was I thinking that Peter Sagan was in Rio for the upcoming Olympics, but no, there he was up ahead, resplendent in the unmistakeable rainbow bands of the World Champions jersey. And the gap was still closing fast……..

Hang on a moment, where was the #ManBun? As we got closer it became clear that it wasn’t Sagan after all; it was none other than the #ManxMissille himself, presumably reminiscing about his time with Sir Brad and Team Sky. He certainly looked different in the flesh; much taller than I’d expected.

As we caught him, the illusion was shattered. No it wasn’t Cav, it was someone guilty of what is in the eyes of many, a cycling crime. That is, to wear a Jersey you’ve not earned. This is a hot topic in any cycling group, and one that almost always generates a lively debate.

Absolutely agreed that people can wear what they like, but to my mind respecting the Jersey, perhaps the very essence of what makes cycling such a special sport, is something which we should all do.

Vive la Velo

@936ADL

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Unfinished Business – Mont Ventoux

We made it.....
Epic is an oft overused adjective, but the focal point of this year’s Tour de France trip is fully worthy of its use. Folklore and myths surround Mont Ventoux, and these only serve to increase its magnetism to cyclists. As soon as the 2016 route was confirmed, the deal was done.

Two of us had unfinished business with the ‘Giant of Provence’, having come so close to making it to the top in 2009 only to be thwarted by the closure of the road as Armstrong (remember him?), a pre Vegetarian Contador, as well as our very own Wiggo approached.

We’d learnt a valuable lesson in 2009, and this time our plan was to avoid the melee of race day.  Instead our plan was to attempt to ride it on the day before; as things turned out this was a very wise decision indeed.

We may have avoided the race itself, but as we rode across to Bedoin at the base of ascent, it was clear we’d another challenge to deal with when making our ascent. Ventoux was living up to its name, but having come this far, there was no turning back now.

Much has been written about the climb itself by those far more eloquent then I, and all I can add is that it’s an absolute brute. Unrelenting, the gradient gives no rest bite on the way up. No false flats or hairpins to give you a moment, or even to snatch back a precious gear (before almost always giving it back again), just a constant grind.

It was only when leaving the shelter of the lower slopes’ wooded section that the severity of the wind started to become apparent. Passing a flagpole snapped clean in half, I began to fear for the worst. Surely I wouldn’t be scuppered for the second time, would I?

Less than 5km to go and it was getting worse. Safety barriers were being blown over, and turning one corner I came about as close to stopping as I think it’s possible to do without actually coming to a halt. Fortunately the road soon turned again and I managed to regain some momentum.

As the final corner approached I could hardly believe my eyes. People were off their bikes and pushing, and one chap was on his hands and knees seemingly clinging on to his bike for dear life. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. Somehow this sight gave me one last boost, and from somewhere I’m not sure I knew existed I summoned up one last effort. I swept round the corner, and suddenly the wind was gone; the shelter offered by the weather station at the summit making the last 100m or so perhaps the easiest of the day.

Finally, almost 7 years since I first set out to tackle this most iconic of climbs, I was at the top. Another one of the big ones to tick off the list. The weather had added another dimension which I’d not planned for, and it limited time at the summit to a minimum as the cold conditions bit hard. After a couple of pictures it was time for the descent of a lifetime, but that’s another story……

Vive La Velo

@936ADL