Friday, 31 July 2015

Cycling in the Tarn

Ginals, France, July 2015 - 48.5 miles   
Sometimes, despite best efforts, some things just don't go to plan. The French with their love of art, two-hour lunches and wine, also love to push pointless pieces of paper around.....very slowly, so we wouldn't getting our keys when we expected. However, this meant I had more time for cycling in this beautiful part of south-west France  - and that made all of this tardiness bearable!
We were based in Ginals, just outside the incredible market town of Saint Antonin Noble Val and nestled between some impressive gorges,  providing the gift of hills, many hills.... I thought I'd ease myself in with an early start whilst the temperature was bearable (22 degrees at 7AM) and head out to see what these hills would be like on a bike. Luckily for me I'd insisted on bringing the Kuota KOM Air and, with a route plotted on the Garmin, I set out whilst everyone else was still sleeping off the copious amounts of amazing Gaillac wine from the night before.

Right from the off I was into a fairly significant climb (for a man used to cycling in the Midlands) and I'd barely had chance to turn the pedals before I found myself considering moving off the big ring! I'd have liked at least a bit of a warm up but the sun was just coming up, I was the coolest I'd felt for 48 hours and the roads were silky smooth and empty - so little grounds to complain by all accounts.

From Ginals, up into Lardialle and immediately out again I stopped to look back to catch my breath and take a photo. I was already sweating and could have thought I was being chased until I realised the panting noise was coming from me!

Looking back to Lardialle
 The sun was coming up quickly now and the warmth was immediately noticeable on my uncovered skin. It's a strange feeling that's amazing but all the while you're aware it'll make things uncomfortable later. I didn't have chance to worry about it as I was trying to take in everything along the way, scouting for new roads and computing potential additions for next time. With little to no wind, a massive novelty for me of late, pushing on along the long straights of the plateau was a pure pleasure. I wasn't in a rush this morning so could really take my time and lap it all up.

The road to Castanet
 This road was going on into Castanet but I was heading east at the cross roads and down to what was the most incredible descent which would take me to the very base of the Bastide town of Najac. The road down is one of those that is long and sweeping and helps to build your confidence in descending at speed - rather than throwing you in at the deep end with death defying gradients or impossible switchbacks. It starts just before Mazzeroles, which I knew from a previous recce whilst house hunting, so I was prepared for the distractingly stunning view of Najac across the valley. It's a view that shouldn't be passed without stopping irrelevant of how much you're enjoying the descent!

Najac towering in the distance
 The road sweeps down through the forest on good tarmac and the cooler air in the valley was welcomed as I got more cocky with throwing the bike around the bends and risking the racing line into the longer corners. As with all good descents though it's over too quickly and I was surprised to find myself crossing the bridge over the Aveyron with Najac castle dominating the skyline.

On the bridge below Najac
The Aveyron at Najac
 I treated the climb up to Najac fairly seriously but, remembering I was carrying on along to St Andre de Najac further on, I eased off the gas once I felt pushed. This turned out to be wise as it was a longer climb than I remembered and certainly steeper than it looked from the car all those months ago! Despite its length and fairly consistent gradient, I was soon turning off with just a short stop for the obligatory photo of the castle. This would have been impressive if I'd have had chance to capture the small bi-plane that suddenly appeared in the early morning sunlight and began swooping into the valley below - bummer.

The castle at Najac
 The road starts to feel a bit more serious here since it continues to climb out of Najac and onto the road to little St Andre at a fairly constant rate of around 6%. Once through the town, which comes and goes, there's another rewarding and well-earned descent into the valley beyond and this time across the river Viaur. Again the road here was traffic free and I carried my confidence from the previous descent to really feel comfortable coming down at speed. This might sound odd to most but when you live in Coventry, fast and steep descents like this just don't exist and so practice is minimal to say the least.

The temperature down here at the bridge was positively cold given its aspect and the sheer height and steepness of the wooded hills. The chill was welcome again but soon forgotten as the road began to head upwards as soon as I'd passed the pool and the campsite. The road continued to be devoid of cars and I only saw one other cyclist heading in the opposite direction and going up the way I'd just come to Saint Andre - a climb I vowed to return to soon. Rather than head east to Montirat and Mirandol Bourgagnac, I'd opted to head back south-west to Laguepie and along the stunning road that tracks above the river Viaur until it meets the Aveyron and the photo shoot!

Saint Martin Laguepie  
Chateau Roc at Laguepie     
Kuota KOM Air Vs Laguepie
Pondering whether or not the KOM was more appealing than Laguepie, which of course it is, my route continued along the south bank and below Chateau Roc which is another must see in the area. It's a hotel and visitor site as far as I know and everyone tells me it's worth a visit. Not today though, as now I was feeling on the home straight and already tasting fresh coffee and warm croissants....a few too many miles too soon.

I knew the route well from here which heads into Le Riols below Varen, switching sides along the train tracks. Here the land is mostly agricultural and it was corn, hay and sun flowers on all sides as the road indicates its part in one of the marked "LeTarn a Velo" routes - one of a large network in the local area. This particular route runs from Montauban to Laguepie and would definitely make an amazing and eventful 85kms.

Varen from Le Riols
 The route back from here heads to the wonderful and picture postcard town of Saint Antonin Noble Val but taking the indirect approach via Milhars and Feneyrols - keeping off the D115 almost entirely. The trip from here is stunning and brings you into the town on the northern bank with the white gorge towering above as an imposing backdrop.

Whilst enjoying the view and waving to a couple who looked to be bicycle touring, I was pondering what lay in wait for me in the long, tough climb back up to Espinas which I knew would be punishing in this heat and especially since I was already out of fluid. I told myself it meant less weight to drag up the climb and got on with business of hitting the climb like I meant it. It was a long drag in the heat and made longer by the false flat that passes along the plateau for what seemed like ages. Its around 6.5 miles from the base of the climb to the hamlet of Espinas and one which isn't a particularly easy one after 40 miles of rolling hills!

Luckily, just as I could feel my head pounding inside my helmet, there's a brief flat followed by a short descent before levelling out again. It is now all downhill back to Ginals and in the heat that was, I have to admit, a very welcome sight. The sun was now high enough to really make things an effort and as I pulled up to the gates I was feeling quite spent. The ride though had been amazing. Great roads, better views and more to explore - I just couldn't wait to get out there again! Maybe less wine and beer before the next one though....

Strava details for this ride is here:

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Kilo To Go: Tour of the Peak

Image courtesy of  Kilo To Go

Feeling the need for another ‘challenge’ to foster a better riding and training regime, I convinced a mate to join me on the 115 mile version of the Tour of the Peak.

Having done a few hilly sportives now, I admit to booking it with a rather blasé attitude and essentially rocked up at the start line not having done any form of hill training – aside from a brief jaunt over to Lickey for a lumpy morning’s ride the week before. The reality started to kick when Joel and I started to look at the profile as we drove towards Bakewell the day before the event but even then I was quietly thinking it would just a long day in the saddle. After all, how bad could 3 main climbs in the Peak District really be?

Some gentle hills early on...

The forecast has predicted a dry day with a nice steady wind of 19mph with occasional gusts of 35, less than ideal but the absence of rain would be welcome given the temperature and distance.

After a terrible night of listening to the snoring of various third parties at the Hathersage YHA, neither of us felt particularly fresh on arrival at the start line in Bakewell - in fact I don't mind admitting that I felt hideous and wanted to get out on the road to stop feeling sorry for myself!

Joel in the background wondering how the hell he'd ended up here, now, on this day...

The event was well organised (parking in large fields at the Agricultural Centre was a gamble for the organisers), with lots of marshalls and signage, and after short wait and a pep-talk from lively woman at the start line, we were off in a large group of 30 or so.

We'd discussed that we'd try and find a reasonably sized group going at our speed and sit in for a bit but we quickly found ourselves moving more quickly than everyone else and certainly faster than we'd discussed the night before. The hills started literally from the off and the sound of frequent gear changes became an early soundtrack. All the while we knew the toughest hill was the first biggie of the day, Wynatts Pass, and nervous excitement was rife - at least it was for me! There were a few quick and technical descents before then and lots to keep us interested - including the amazing scenery. The Peak District does a good line in rolling landscape views.

Arriving at Wynatts Pass in no time, the pace slowed, the volume of people in the way soared and the synchronised panting started. Just as we hit the cattle grid that marked the start of the timed climb, Joel realised he was already out of gears and I couldn't help but help him by laughing out loud. It was going to be a long climb!

Wynatts Pass looking rather flat.

I got frustrated as people weaved all over the road trying trying to lessen the gradient and before long these people become pedestrians, forced to push their bikes uphill. The climb from the grid to the first bend is fine and once in the rhythm I could have tapped it out all day but the hill Gods had other things in store and on hitting the first right hand bend offered a whole new treat. The wind whistles down the rocky shoulder as you pass it and the gradient ramps up almost immediately. This with the combination of the wind meant it was becoming almost impossible to keep the front wheel on the ground. Having decided that there was no way I was getting off the bike so early on, I went against protocol and was out of the saddle grinding squares up to the top. Once passed the timing gate I stopped to wait for Joel whilst deciding that including Wynatts in a ride like this is just for PR purposes as its neither good or enjoyable - its simply a spectacle.

The spectacle of Wynatts Pass.

Once we'd regrouped we looked forward to the descent into Edale, which didn't disappoint, and we rolled along only stopping at 25 miles for a super-quick fluid refill. The first 50 miles felt tough as the wind was blowing quite a bit and letting us know that we'd be fighting all the way around this ride.

Stopping at the feed station at 50 or so miles in Hade Edge was longer than expected: Joel was in need of a hot tea (and I couldn't blame him) and my crank arm needed tightening as it was helpfully deciding that this was the ride to randomly work loose! Luckily there was a set of tools at the feed station, a counter serving tea and coffee and plenty of ham batches to go around! I was getting to the stage where sweet things were getting tiresome and the taste of savoury food seemed to have divine qualities.

Anticipating Holme Moss

After giving Joel a little pep talk, we zipped up, said thanks to the ever-attentive team and got back on it. It was climbing from here all the way up Holme Moss and the climb itself is really nice and almost Alpine-like, as it switches back and forth at a fairly polite gradient.

Holme Moss - our immediate future

Things got real at the summit though, where the wind was brutal at this, the highest and most exposed point of the ride. The wind was so bad, I had to lean over at a silly angle on my right just to stay upright. The descent, which should have been a well-earned prize, was equally as ridiculous and lets just cover it by saying that speed wobble is not funny at 42mph whilst trying to keep out of the gutter.

Once the gradient eased, life was better from there and crossing in between Torside and Woodhead Reservoir added interest and kept the conditions fairly sensible. I'd pressed on ahead of Joel as we ascended Holme Moss so now I was facing a dilemma of whether to wait at the next feed station or to press on. I couldn't see him as I looked back down the road so I decided that the sooner this was over the better and got my head down and dealt with some miles.

From here, through Hayfield, Chapel-en-le-Frith to Macclesfield its simply up and down all the way - nothing to write home about but at this stage every effort now is chipping away at the reserves - much like attritional warfare.

The Peak District does a good line in rolling landscapes for background interest

The Cat and Fiddle would be the last climb and I'd been thinking about it a lot given that it was the final milestone. I have to say that I haven't climbed it before but I'd happily do it again given half a chance. Its a great climb with views and bends and a fairly good surface all the way up. I'd linked up with a chap who seemed to be happy to climb at a decent tempo and share the pace setting so it was over rather quickly at the time. Tempted by a pub stop, but wanting to stop for several rather than one, I had a little word with myself and knuckled down for the lovely rolling descent over Harper Hill and into Alport. By this point I'd decided that stopping again was not for me so I powered on trying to get it done with the help of a younger lad from Sheffield Road Club. Working together we made light work of the last few miles and tried to finish as strong as we could whilst maintaining a bit of chatter.

I have to admit that seeing the signs for Bakewell and the finish were very much welcome but didn't drag as much as final miles can on a long ride like this. We approached the finish to claps and children with cow bells but it felt like there had been a mass exodus at the grounds. Clearly a lot more folk had taken the sensible decision to do the shorter route and had already left - which meant queuing for a much needed coffee, cake and a hot chicken & stuffing batch was much more bearable. As I sat waiting for Joel I got chatting with other lads, all of whom had stories of mechanicals, punctures, injuries and heriocs but all agreed the day had been, somehow, a pleasurable challenge. I couldn't agree more and sat there waiting and plotting my return whilst Martin Johnson (Ex England rugby captain) crossed the finish line (in a very good time for a man of his size). All in, a great day and food for thought for a return trip for Holme Moss and the Cat and Fiddle climbs...

Monday, 1 June 2015

Lily Camera Drone: For Cycling Selfies?

If we're all being honest, its pretty hard to make take interesting cycling footage with a GoPro, no mater what DIY or new fangled accessory you've got. Hurtling down a moutain pass with a camera positioned on your chest, bars, forks or stays is just not going to be that joyful for anyone else but you to watch!

Short of convincing your video enthusiast mates to drive along side whilst filming or piloting a DIJI for really cool shots, as a cyclist what choice have we got?

Well, up to now that was pretty much it and with some editing skills you can make these things vaguely watchable but they don't tell a story and the shots are not very dynamic! Then Lily came along.

Lily is different to everything else because its self piloted and works using a GPS tracking device that is worn by the film star  subject. This makes for intelligent hands-free filming so you can hammer along that 50mph decent without having to pilot your DIJI or be chased down by a brave mate in a car!

Its got it limitations though I'm afraid - probably the biggest being that its not good at avoiding objects. So, if its following you along an alpine road getting a side tracking shot at 20mph and a truck, bridge, power lines or a travelling circus (more likely) happens to whiz past in the opposite direction its likely that Lily will meet an unfortunate death! There are various tricks that can be performed but the limitations on distance from the subject and height are the other things to consider. Bear in mind that its early days for Lily which is currently on pre-order for the bargain price of $500. Perhaps these issues will be tackled in later versions...

I think with some forward planning and a bit of luck these issues could be overcome and Lily could go on to make user-generated cycling footage a lot less mundane. I want one and have got just the scene for it....

Monday, 25 May 2015

Cycling Food - DIY Energy Bars

Lets keep this simple: We all need energy of some sort to fuel our rides and the simpler the better. Those right there are two pretty good facts. Another fact is that many of us will spend a lot of money fairly frequently on various branded products, but what are the other options? What can be done in your own kitchen and at what cost?

I generally eat some form of high carb, low GI cereals with a slice of toast or malt loaf to fuel a half decent ride (be this pace or distance or both), along with a gel if I'm working hard. Gels are great but after a while they become a bit much and I often feel empty and want to feel like I've eaten something solid. This is easily solved by eating some form of energy bar, flap jack or even a wedge of malt loaf but I find this hard to eat on the bike whilst working hard and panting in a way similar to child-birth.

For me, I want something with a bit of substance, it has to be moist but not messy and easily stored and accessed. Some pretty basic research brings up lots of options but I wasn't always convinced by the ingredients or the potential energy values so decided to have a play around. In the end after a bit of experimenting the following works really well - just throw it all in your food processor:

  • 300g stoned dates
  • 300g prunes
  • 5 x dried whole figs
  • 150g mixed nuts (almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts
  • 150g whole oats (more or less if you want to play around with the consistency)

I then just pressed this into a baking tray and put in the fridge to harden a little before  cutting into squares and wrapping in foil. This lot makes approx 16-18 'shots' of a reasonably sized portion. These are more like little squares or 'shots' than bars.

These then get stored in the freezer until I need them but given that we're working with largely dried ingredients - these things last a very long time just in the fridge. I wrap them in the same way I saw a chef for a pro cycling team do hers - you simply fold the foil back on its self to create a little tab that can be pulled to started easily unwrap the shot using just 1 hand.

There's a fair amount of carbs and protein in these little guys but bear in mind that nearly all the carbs is from sugar so I prefer to limit my intake if I'm out all day. You can play around with adding more or less oats, more berries or other dried fruits. The trick though is to get the consistency just right because too soft makes them hard to eat without making a mess and too thick or dry makes it a chore to eat. The ideal consistency is squidgy when pressed but holding its shape.