Sunday 31 December 2023

2023 over and out - hoping for more in 2024

2023 was not a bad vintage. It wasn’t brilliant, but at least nothing dreadful happened - a positive thing in these unsettled times. I did a few things, though hope to do more in 2024.

So here we are at the end of another year, feeling slightly full up with left over festive food and Prosecco, heading that bit further out of middle age and into older age. My bones and joints are beginning to tell me, as such. Well, I had a sports injury which refused to go away for the first five months of this year. Sure, that happened when I was 26, but back then in 1995 sports injury treatment was a relatively new thing.  Almost 30 years of adopting the various and evolving techniques, my worn out knees are becoming less and less responsive to the typical RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) methods. They just groan, creak, and stay stiff. The wood rot is setting in. That has been quite frustrating. 

Thankfully, after a few physiotherapy and podiatry trips I recovered enough to be able to take part in the Paris Triathlon, Paris-Versailles Grande Classique running race, and the Ötillö Cannes SwimRun, my first such event abroad.

I also got up to Scotland during the World Cycling Championships and swam in Loch Lomond. Then I went on to Edinburgh and swam at Portobello Beach and ran around Holyrood and Salisbury Crags.

I feel blessed to still be able to do these activities and maintain reasonably good health - something I don't ever take for granted.

Through sports I made a couple of new connections, notably at the SwimRun, where I met some friendly women from Lyon, with whom I enjoyed a good time on that glorious day on the Côte d'Azur. I hope to see them again in 2024 at another event. 

Away from the sports field I got more into language speaking, by keeping up my conversation exchanges. There were my Italian partners - Ilaria from Milan and Alessandro from Rome, plus my Spanish contact, David from Burgos. As for French, I became more integrated into my French conversation group and got to know the folks better. I think Michèle had a great idea setting up this group, and I have gotten to know Deborah, John, Monika, Nick, Pamela, Paul, and Sonja a bit better. We have our own little group in South London, and that makes a big difference to have folks to socialise with locally.

Music continued to feature in my everyday life too - more specifically, making music. Although I regularly played my clarinet and my flute, I feel that my level plateaued. I only did one concert in 2023 - at Fairfield Halls, Croydon with my local symphonic band. Then I bombed out of doing the other dates. The concerts with my folk band clashed with other things I had planned, and the concerts with my concert band were hampered by unfavourable conditions for me. I must admit that as much as I enjoy playing in community bands I realise I am not prepared to play in the rain, in the freezing cold, or in blazing heat with no shade! I also like to play either before or after a decent meal. This might sound a bit "I don't do stairs" à la Mariah Carey (!) but I need to keep in mind certain fundamentals. I pay for the pleasure of playing my musical instruments in these bands. So pleasure is what I intend to get. I can't see that happening on a miserable winter's day like what we had between October and December. Also I don't feel comfortable being in a band where the leader thinks it's okay to accept those conditions for its players. So I think 2024 will be a year of new beginnings, and hopefully good progress on the music front.  

Work has been steady, with no new type of project done. That has been remiss of me for not getting properly organised. I did too much coasting along in 2023, and not enough striking out. I hope to do more of that next year. I have always been one to see the opportunities presented to us in the free world we live in, and take up those opportunities. Folks in many parts of the world just don't get the chance to do what we are able to do in the UK and other economically developed countries. So I don't like to pass over those moments. 

Still, I did a few things. My medical copywriting ticked along, and so did the cycling journalism. I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to interview the Amaury siblings at their headquarters in the west of Paris. Jean-Etienne and Aurore between them (with input from their mother Marie-Odile) head up big name brands like the Tour de France, Le Dakar (formerly Paris Dakar) and L'Equipe newspaper. These family directors hardly ever give interviews to any media - French or international. So I was very honoured to have done the interview with them for Rouleur magazine. This came on the back of the interview I did with Marie-Odile Amaury in 2021 for Cyclist magazine. Another person I interviewed, also for Rouleur, was Amina Lanaya, second in command at the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's world governing body. I even got to do a bit of modelling, when I did a photoshoot for Brompton cycles.

Getting out and doing things has become more important to me as I get older. Every second week the newsreaders announce the death of yet another person from my era - people that formed the tapestry of my life - even if I didn't meet them. Of course in 2022 we lost Queen Elizabeth II, which was nevertheless very sad even though it was imminent. At the end of that year we lost Pele, and also Vivienne Westwood whom I did meet - and that trend of folks exiting the world stage has continued with increasing frequency. I was saddened when Friends star Matthew Perry died. (Caveat: I read Friends, Lovers, and that Big Terrible Thing at the start of this year and was so shocked to learn about the extent of his substance addiction I was amazed he was still alive.) He was the same age as me. He's actually six months younger than me, though his co-star Jennifer Aniston shares exactly the same birthday as me. There is something disconcerting about folks of a similar vintage to yourself dying. I felt the same about Sinead O'Connor's passing.

Then there were household names like Tina Turner, Terry Venables, John Mottson, Henry Kissinger and George Alagiah.

In cycling Tijl de Decker aged 22, and Gino Mäder aged 26, died in cycling accidents, and also incredibly shocking and tragic was the death of Melissa Hoskins aged 32, who was killed in what appears to be a domestic incident with her husband.

I was also very sad to see the demise of a fellow local cycle racer, Tabitha Rendall, succumb to bowel cancer in the space of four months - just aged 52.

Reading about so many people of various ages passing away makes me think about my own mortality. I don't want to get too morbid about things here, as I help myself to another glass of Prosecco while watching the Jools Holland Hootenanny on TV. But before we do the 10-second countdown to 2024, I want to just say no one knows what's around the corner, so I just want to do what I can to write that book or do the round the world trip or any other bucket list stuff before exit day comes. 

That round the world trip could even be done on two wheels, as I made progress with my motorbiking when I got my A1 license earlier this year. I even went to a couple of biker meets in Surrey, and next year I hope to go further afield in the UK and even to France. Some say it might be a typical mid-life crisis thing to do, but I say Carpe Diem!

So in short, 2023 was not a bad year. I did a few good things, and there were a few fun moments. I am not one for New Year's resolutions, and just prefer to change habits in an organic progressive way. I do hope to do more in 2024. 

Happy New Year!  

Wednesday 20 December 2023

Operation Etape du Tour: December update

To stay motivated in my Etape du Tour preparation its important to ride often over short distances rather than seldom over long distances 

As soon as I got my place in the Etape du Tour I set about training and establishing a rhythm of getting out on my bike regularly. 

I regularly cycle, provided I am not ill or injured. Thankfully that doesn't happen very often - or at least sports injuries don't often affect my cycling.

The last twelve months have been a little different though. Last summer, after spending a lot of time training and taking part in cyclosportives (Fred Whitton/Lion and Lamb, and Ride London-Essex 100) plus trips to Lombardy and the Côte d'Azur I experienced a bit of burn-out and didn't ride my bike much, apart from for short commutes. I got into motorbike riding too, which required a bit of time and dedication in order to prepare for my tests. That was quite the antidote to sweating it out up hills for kilometres on end.

In the first part of this year I was able to ride a little, but without any real objective. In some ways it was refreshing to not feel under pressure to ride to a particular mileage or speed. Coincidentally, I found I couldn't ride far as I had a prolonged bout of patella syndrome, which kept me from doing cycling or running. Even swimming had become difficult for me.

So after various trips to podiatrists and physiotherapists and following a rehabilitation programme I began to feel an improvement and gradually got back into cycling regularly. 

In terms of my preparation for the Etape du Tour, the key is to get out and ride regularly, even if it is just to do modest mileages in this initial phase. Continuity is key. It is better to do four 20-mile rides in a week, than to do one 80-mile ride and not riding for several days.

Not quite Promenade des Anglais, but the Parc du Vinaigrier, in Nice

It's important that I feel a "pull" towards cycling rather than feeling like I am being pushed into doing it. My rides need to be doable in terms of ability and time management, and it shouldn't feel like a slog.

There's nothing worse than that moment when you've been riding for four hours, it's a Sunday afternoon and you pass country pub after country pub where people are enjoying a slap up lunch and you have another three hours' cycling to do! You then have to will yourself along, working hard to stay motivated and keep the pedals at a reasonable cadence - all while trying to convince yourself that this is good for me.

So this month has been about doing short regular rides a few times a week, with one ride being at a faster pace, and another ride including hills. For November I was riding 125km per week and then in December the aim is 150km per week. These are low mileages, but that will make the rides feel more accessible, fun, and quality training miles rather than junk "pootling around to a café" miles.

My faster miles have been around Regents Park, generally latching onto a group that's riding at a training pace I can sustain. I also want to restart regular trips to the Velodrome. That should definitely help.

In the meantime I aim to keep my eye on the target - the start pen at the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, and happy to be there.

Related posts 

Another cycling mission for 2024 - Fred Whitton Challenge 

Operation Etape du Tour - Understanding the challenge 

Rides on the Côte d'Azur - Col de Turini 

Monday 18 December 2023

Another cycling mission for 2024 - Fred Whitton Challenge

I have been successful in the ballot to take part in the 2024 Fred Whitton Challenge. My mission is to cycle 174km (112 miles) around the Lake District, taking in the mighty Honister, Hardknott and Wrynose Passes. It's gonna be a tough day out, but I say bring it on - sort of!

In my opinion this is the mother of all cyclosportives. There may be other challenge rides in the UK that are longer or hillier than the Fred Whitton Challenge, but what really bites about this event is that moment when you pass through Eskdale Green, with its quaint country pub, after 98miles of cycling and you look up high into the distance to see a long line of riders snaking skywards. That's the Hardknott Pass, with its infamous 30% gradients along the one-mile stretch - and that's where you're headed. You have a feeling of dread and your legs go even weaker than they were already feeling from riding over Kirkstone, Honister, Whinlatter, and Newlands Passes. How on earth will I get over that and the 25% gradient of Wrynose Pass straight afterwards?

Few sportives instil that feeling of dread. I have ridden the Fred Whitton Challenge in the past and gotten around it within the time cut (although once I didn't). I therefore know that I have it in me to complete the ride, and I also remember the feeling of elation as I crossed the finish line. So I really want to have that moment again. 

It will be less easy now than when I last did the full monty almost 15 years ago. By the time D-Day comes round I will be 55 years old. Age definitely has caught up with me. While I am still capable of doing lots of sport, I find that I need more recovery time, and am more prone to soft tissue injuries than when I was younger. So as well as the main job of training, there is the added dimension of monitoring energy levels and preventing injury.

Getting a place in one of the UK's toughest one-day cyclosportives is not easy. The ballot opens in early December and roughly 10 days later the draw is done to see who are the lucky (or some might say unlucky) 2,000 riders to suffer the steepest hills of the Lake District.

Hardknott Pass 

I had been in two minds about throwing my name into the hat. Having gotten a place in the Fred Whitton last year, I remember how tough it was to train for the event, how many miles I needed to get in as well as how much cycling uphill. When the big day came I didn't feel entirely ready, and in the end opted to ride the shorter version - the Lion and Lamb ride. I must say I felt quite relieved to have not had to do the ride feeling anxious about riding the most challenging climbs. I enjoyed being able to have my post-ride pasta in a room full of other riders and chat to people. Had I done the full distance it would have just been a survival ride to beat the cut-off and I am sure I would have been one of the last finishers, probably munching my post-race meal in an almost empty buffet tent as the organisers packed everything away. That's not what I wanted. Having said that, I also feel a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) at the fact that I only did 73 miles.

So I entered the ballot in the hope of having the chance to sort out this unfinished business. Many people enter this ballot multiple times without ever having their name drawn out of the hat. So I feel lucky to have gotten a place in the Fred Whitton Challenge. But now, I have to go out train properly, and ride the thing.

Training has already started, given that I also have the Etape du Tour to also prepare for. My 2024 calendar is already looking rather busy.

Sunday 17 December 2023

Sadhbh O'Shea's journalism tales and tips

Sadhbh (pronounced "sive", like hive) O'Shea has over 10 years' experience in journalism, and has been a prolific writer, working across the cycling titles Cycling News, and Velo News, as well as doing a stint at the BBC. 

She previously shared with me how she got into cycling journalism and what she likes about it.

At the Tour de France (photo: Betsy Welch)
Now, Sadhbh is preparing to move to the other side, working in PR for Team Jayco-AlUla professional cycle racing team. 

Before she transforms herself into a suit, she recalls some journalism anecdotes, notably from working at the last few editions of the Tour de France. 

A busy summer 2023

Yes, it’s been a particularly busy summer – more so than recently. I did the last eight or nine days of the Tour de France and then I did the Tour de France Femmes. But with the Cycling World Championships in Glasgow happening so close afterwards, coming home to the Isle of Man, and then going away again was quite arduous. Soon after that I went to cover races in Canada.

Tour de France

This year was the latest I’ve ever come out for the men’s race, which was a challenge, as so much had already happened. So I started working at the Tour from the penultimate Saturday, on the stage into Morzine. It took a little while to adjust to that, and then I left before the race finished because I had to be in Clermont Ferrand for the start of the women’s race, and be able to do the pre-race stuff.

I didn’t get to do any pre-race work for the 2022 Tour de France Femmes. That year I worked the first 10 days of the men's race and then I went home. Because of staffing levels, I had to work on the men's race from home until the final Friday, and then I flew out to Paris on the Saturday. 

This year I wanted to leave early from the men’s race as we already had someone covering it, so I was able to do all the Tour de France Femmes pre-race coverage.

By that time the Tour de France had moved into the Jura, so it was about a three-hour drive to Clermont Ferrand, where the Tour de France Femmes was starting – so not too bad, all things considered. I was glad I left when I did because if I had waited until they were further up, it would have been a nightmare to try and pick up a car somewhere and then drive more and more diagonally across France. Whereas leaving from Bourg en Bresse was logistically a significantly easier drive than it would have been if I had left later.

I was at the Tour de France for the time trial from Passy to Combloux, which was pretty dramatic. We were stood at these gazebos beyond the finish line and there was a TV in there so we were watching the coverage. I don’t think anyone could really believe what was happening. I think people had thought Vingegaard would be stronger than Pogacar, but not so much stronger. 

I don’t think we’ve ever really seen Pogacar look that second hand before. It was still a good race, but in relation to Vingegaard he wasn’t anywhere near enough. We were just shocked at seeing Pogacar looking properly second best. It was an unusual situation to be in. So yeah, it was quite interesting being where we were. There were fans stood on the side of the road near where we were and it was quite the buzz – you could feel the ripples of surprise and shock among everybody.

Race-day logistics

A Tour de France day is almost always super long, unless it's a short stage. Things condense a little around rest days as you don’t have to do as much travelling.

But when they’ve got the big transitions where you have to jump from one region of France to another region really far away, you end up doing some really long drives during the day. I remember last year when the race dipped into Switzerland for a bit and came back out again, there must have been a two and a half drive from the start to the finish on motorways. 

I tend to work better in the morning – it’s not to say I can’t work better later in the day, but I am not a night owl. I tend to stop working once I’ve had dinner, so in the morning if I’ve got a bit of time I finish off work from the night before. It usually means I do it before breakfast so I can get it out of the way. 

There's usually a point at which we have to leave the hotel, and that is generally to allow ourselves to arrive up to two hours in advance of the stage start. You also want to try to avoid getting caught up in the caravan. 

If it’s an easy way into the media area and you don’t have to cross the course, and you don’t have to mix with other areas to get to the car park that’s fine, but most days you do. So if you arrive just as the caravan is leaving you are stuck for 20 minutes while you wait for them to pass. And then that is 20 minutes of dead time just stuck in the car waiting for the caravan to go through. So it's best to try and avoid that. You’ve also got to account for traffic, so you could be leaving your hotel. So depending where your hotel is, you could be leaving between three and four hours before the stage starts. 

We might stop at a service station and get some food, depending on whether or not there'll be food in the press room. In the last couple of years there’s been a WhatsApp group set up by the Tour de France organisers where they make and announcements and give information to the accredited journalists. One of the pieces of information they send is whether there will be food in the press room. It’s up to the host town or city to put on food. Some cities really want to show off whatever food they’ve got, and keep the journalists happy, so they’ll put on a good press room buffet. Other cities couldn’t care less, so you won’t get anything.

At La Planche des Filles in recent years the food has been quite good, but at the top of Alpe d’Huez, there's cheese and bread and that’s about it. I remember the stage that finished in Saint Gervais de Mont Blanc this year had a decent buffet. Last year at the Tour de France Femmes I remember at one of the stages we were given champagne. It wasn't at Epernay, though when we went there we did get a lot of nice finger food. 

The hazards of reaching the finish line

Sometimes things can go wrong on the day. For example on the stage into Epernay, during the Tour de France Femmes me and my colleague's car had mechanical trouble. We managed to make it to the yellow jersey press conference but we had to skip the winner's press conference so that we could get out in time to exchange our car at the nearest Hertz office. The car was having trouble with hill starts. I live in a hilly area, so am normally all right with hill starts, but I couldn't get the car going. So one of the security guards had to come in the car and floored the accelerator to get it going. He gave it so much welly I thought he was about to steal it! The thing is he had to do that because we were on the course.

On that day journalists had to cut across the course, which was part of a final loop before the riders crossed finish line, in order to reach the press room situated in the middle of the loop. You could only cross the course at a very specific point. So my colleague and I were trying to find where that point was. At the Giro d'Italia you normally get a QR code in the road book so it can give you the exact GPS coordinates. But the Tour de France road book doesn't have that, and we just couldn't figure out where we needed to go. We kept going down these different turnings and then going "nope, that's not it". The car was making weird noises, and then there was a big clunk. My colleague got out to check that the exhaust hadn't fallen off. It hadn't, but we were still on the course and the security guard had to get us off pretty quickly. 

Finish-line flurry 

It is quite stressful dealing with the end of the race. I can feel the adrenaline rising as the race is getting nearer and you have to spring into action as soon as the riders cross the line and especially as I am only 5ft 3 (1m 60). So trying to see over the tops of journalists' heads and find people to interview is quite a challenge. That can be quite interesting!

Depending whether you’re on your own or whether there are a couple of people working for the same publication you might have a chat about who we’re going to aim for and then see what happens afterwards. If you're own your own you have to go on your instincts and try and identify what stories have been important within the race that will be interesting to tell. Normally you are guaranteed some sort of press conference or media moment with the winner after the race. At the Tour of Oman this year, it was just a huddle behind the podium. At that one you didn’t really have to worry because you could also find other people than the winner too. Often it’s a case of running around a little bit like a blue-arsed fly, but with a mission at the same time. It can be difficult.

Interviewing Matej Mohoric in the mixed zone (photo: Ben Delaney)

Getting the best out of mixed zone interviews

How you approach mixed zone interviews is a bit different nowadays, especially with the bigger names where you are guaranteed several journalists will be there. It has changed a little bit, as just reporting that “This rider said this at the end of a stage” is becoming less important because so many people have that quote, and a growing number of websites have paywalls. So if you just write that story that “Geraint Thomas said, ‘I’m very happy’ after a stage” then people will look and say, "Well there’s a paywall there. I’ll go to a different website where there’s no paywall." So it has become about finding themes and topics and packaging things differently. 

So the writing has become less about "I need to get things out as soon as possible" and more about "I need to try and make this as strong as possible" and finding the overall story within it, and it has become less of a rush to get things done. It was definitely like that when I first started – getting all your stuff and then racing to the press room and trying to write as quickly as possible, which can be stressful and quite challenging. Back when I was working at Cycling News, and I was at the Tour de France it was quite testing, as someone who struggles with dyslexia, and it could be quite difficult trying to get things planned out and in the right order. So it is definitely better to have a more relaxed approach to post stage/race writing.

Getting to the press room

Often the the race course does a nice U-shape or N-shape so you can cut from the start to the finish and you’re there a long time in advance of the stage finish. That way you’ve got time to write some stuff up and publish it before the crucial part of the race. So that’s a nice day if you can do that. But if not, sometimes you might arrive quite late so you really only have enough time to get yourself set up, maybe get a bit of food in you and then you’re watching the finish. 

Sometimes the press room, especially in the Tour de France, which is really big, may end up being quite a distance away from the finish line. There was one stage where we drove from the press room to near the finish line. It was the stage that Kaspar Asgreen won (to Bourg en Bresse), and it was a long walk and very hot. So we drove there to save time. 

But sometimes that's not possible, and you just have to walk it. For the Tourmalet stage of this year's Tour de France Femmes it was quite the adventure. It was quite a drive to get there from the previous day’s finish town, Blagnac near Toulouse. It was about a two and a half hour drive to get there, so I missed the start of the Tourmalet stage. 

On some of the really big mountain stages you might as well miss the start because anything you get at the start is going to be completely irrelevant by the end of the day unless you pick up quotes for a completely different thing. If you speak to the big favourites or whatever the whole race could be upended, so there’s no point in doing it. 

If I had gone to the start at Lannemezan I would have missed a lot of other things and it would have taken ages to get up to the finish line anyway. So I set off early for Tourmalet , and checked into my hotel along the way. That took longer than planned because the lady at the reception had disappeared, leaving a note saying “back in an hour”. Well, I don’t know when the hour started, so I just waited - thankfully for not too long, as I still got to the press room early enough. However, the press room was at La Mongie, 4.3km down from the Tourmalet finish line, and there was no organised transport to get there. You could do it by car if you went up the day before, and obtained a special pass beforehand. Alternatively you could get what they said was a cable car. It was not a cable car. It was a chair lift, and for someone who is not a fan of heights it was not a nice discovery! 

I had to walk 20 minutes to get to the chair lift, and get on the right one. The thing is the chair lift stopped working at 6pm, and because the organisers wanted the stage to be on at Saturday prime time television, the stage didn't finish until just after 7pm. So I had to walk down the mountain. I had thought I could just walk off-road a bit between the hairpins of the climb. But it was so misty by the time the stage finished and I probably could only see about three or four feet (around one metre) in front of me. There was no way I could ramble across that and risk ending up in a ditch with a broken leg. So it was a case of walking down the climb, using the torch on my phone to see the way, and then shining it at traffic so that I could be seen. By the time I reached the press room the winner's press conference had long finished and everything was closed.

I was still able to get material for my story though, as generally the journalists are quite friendly and help each other out. If you ask someone in advance they can usually give you an audio of what was said in the press conference. 


Cycling World Championships, Glasgow

Going there was relatively smooth for me. I was able to get the boat from the Isle of Man, where I live, to Heysham, just north of Lancaster. For the first time ever I could use my own car in a race, and that made things very chilled, so I didn't have the worry of going to a car rental company and sorting all that out. 

Initially I was going to cover just the road races, but while on the boat I made a snap decision to see some of the mountain biking. It meant that I would have to miss the Under-23 men's road race. It was surprisingly okay for me to have a last-minute change of plan, even if it was a two-hour drive to get to the mountain biking.

As a once every four years event it's a nice thing to have. A lot of riders said they quite enjoyed the atmosphere of a "Superworlds", event though it was quite spread out. It was nice for the fans to have so much going on. But for me to see the mountain bike racing I had to miss the Under-23 men's race, so that race got less press coverage than it might have had in a regular World Championships. Some of the smaller category races may have lost out on some publicity and air time compared to a regular World Championships. 

It was particularly difficult for media organisations that only had one journalist at the World Championships, and was a logistical challenge to figure out what you were going to do, where you were going to go, while making it as easy as possible. I am sure a few people covered the downhill mountain biking in Fort William, but that was really far away compared to anything else. Even Glen Tress, where they had cross country mountain biking was a good trek away. 

For the more niche side of the sport like artistic cycling it did give the public the opportunity to see it where they might not otherwise have done so. The cycle ball and artistic cycling actually sold out. I don't know if it will have a long-term impact but it was certainly a nice moment for those disciplines.

Being a recognised face in cycling media

To a certain extent more riders recognise me now that I am doing a lot more women’s cycling, and Covid video interviews have become more of a thing. In the past it was just telephone calls if you were doing an interview, so the rider wouldn’t know what you looked like until the next time you saw them. It didn’t build that sort of repertoire with them, like it does now. 

Generally as a woman in cycling you stand out anyway as there are so few of us, so riders tend to remember maybe not necessarily your name, but they will identify you as a journalist, and they will probably remember your demeanor or manner more than a male journalist because there are an awful lot more of them. I was quite surprised at a Classics race that a rider had seen me at the end of a cobbled section one day and when I spoke to them two days later they remembered me and said, "Was that you on the cobbles?" And I was like, "Yes it was, me". I was quite surprised that they’d actually recognised me. It definitely happens on the women’s side as I do all the women’s cycle races whereas a lot of journalists dip in and out of them. The women’s peloton appreciate it when they have journalists that are working on their races throughout the year, and they identify with you a little bit more. I wouldn’t say they are more friendly than the men’s peloton, as most riders - male or female - are friendly anyway. But the women seem more at ease with you.

My tips for anyone wanting to become a journalist

There’s no one way of doing it. I don’t think people should think this is exactly what I have to do and if I don’t do it this way I’m never going to get in.

I went through the university route. I did an undergraduate course, then a masters and then after a year and half or two years of applying for jobs I eventually got a job in the cycling industry. 

My main piece of advice would be perseverance, as it's a tough area to get into. Don’t be put off by not getting accepted early on because it has become a lot more popular as a sport to become involved in reporting on. 

For me, perseverance would be the big thing, as I was applying for stuff for two years, and worked in finance before I got a job in cycling. Sometimes it just takes one person to take a chance on you and then you’ve got your foot in the door.

There probably will be a few rejections as that’s the way it goes unfortunately. 

My other big piece of advice would be to keep practicing your writing. If you don’t have the funds to be able to go to university to do a specific course on journalism there are books available and guides on line on how to make a story, how to plan one out. Those sorts of guides will help you. Create a blog, put stuff on line. The more you practice writing, the more you read, the better you become at it. 

Lastly, pitch things to editors. Come up with an idea and send it to an editor. A lot of use have been naïve at the start of our careers and just sent an email to an editor, saying “I’m happy to work if you want me. Please have me.” Editors like to have ideas and a story plan that’s been put together where they can say “I like that, okay – I would like you to do that.” Then they can start seeing how you work. But first of all you have to have the idea to go in. 

Photo: Team Astana/Vitali Abramov

As someone with dyslexia I did not see it as a barrier to making a career out of writing. You'd be surprised about how many people with it write for a living. Don't get disheartened by knockbacks either. Everyone has them - keep trying, and be kind to yourself.

Related posts

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Operation Étape du Tour: Understanding the challenge

Now that I have signed up for the 2024 Etape du Tour I need to consider exactly what the main challenge is - how to stay ahead of the broom wagon even when riding up long steep hills. With 138km and 4,600m of climbing it won't be easy!

So I have signed up for the 2024 Etape du Tour, which will be Stage 20 of the men's Tour de France - Nice to Col de la Couiolle. 

Firstly, I need to keep I'm mind exactly what the task is that I have to face.

I need to train so that I can cover the 138km (the official distance of the Etape du Tour, including the descent to Beuil) and 4,600m of climbing over four categorised mountain passes without being caught by the broom wagon. 

Basically the "end-of-the-race" car and broom wagon set off between 20 minutes and half an hour after the last wave of riders cross the start line, and travels at a minimum speed - around 18km/hour and you have to stay ahead of it.

Riders go into start pens with a specific start time or wave. If you're a strong rider who has done the Etape in previous years in the recent past you get set off from one of the earlier pens so you could get a 90-minute headstart on the broom wagon - maybe more, depending on the start time. So those riders will never have an issue with making the time cut. Even if they were caught in a queue at the feed stations or had to deal with a puncture they'd be okay.

As a slower rider who hasn't ridden the Etape recently, I will most likely be set off from one of the last pens - maybe even the pen immediately before the broom wagon. So I will have very little slack for making the time cut, and that could end up being a stressful ride. That was my issue when I was hoping to ride the 2022 edition, particularly because the route went from Briançon up the Col du Lautaret immediately from the gun. I would have had to do the hill climb of my life all the way to the summit of Galibier in order to remain ahead of the broom wagon, and I didn't feel sure I could to do that.

It is possible to change pen - though generally from an early pen to a later pen. It's harder to get moved forward unless you have a specific reason, like proving that you are a top level rider - I wasn't able to do that in 2022, but I did get moved forward by one pen on the basis of being cycling media. But that only bought me an extra 20 minutes.

Past editions of the Etape du Tour, like that one, involved 160km-long (100-mile) stages or longer, so at least the 2024 event is mercifully short on distance, even if the amount of climbing can't be ignored. 

Also, I have done half of the route already, and I know that from Nice city centre the terrain will be flat to false flat, and there's no significant climbing until the approach road to L'Escarène. So I will get roughly a 10km warm-up where I can stay in a bunch and ride quickly without using too much energy.

The proper work will start at km 14 on the 10km Col de Braus.

So I know I need to practice good bunch riding/road racing skills for that early section, which may be the longest section of flat in the whole ride!

Track sessions at Herne Hill Velodrome will help, as well as joining chaingang circuits of Regents Park. Then of course I can sign up and do a local race - something I haven't done in years. I did one for "fun" in 2021 and I was probably the oldest rider in the field, sprinting after youngsters less than half my age. My heart didn't know what had hit it and I needed a week to recover! Hopefully I can ease myself back in by doing a race with other veterans!

As for the rest, it's all about good hill climbing strength. 

Hardknott Pass, a featured climb in the Fred Whitton Challenge 
Living in Crystal Palace, South London we have no shortage of hills. I can't cycle to or from Central London without going up a hill. So I will certainly be keeping up my regular hill rep circuit, and even going extended versions of it.

My weekend rides will go either into the Surrey Hills or the Kent Hills. For a bit more variety I could go further out of London and go further South, into the South Downs, or further North into the Chilterns.

Then if I want to be more adventurous I  an ride in different national parks like the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District, or Head into Wales - Brecon Beacons or Eryri (formerly known as Snowdonia).

The hills in these areas will definitely give me lots of climbing practice, especially as they will be longer than the hills in the London area.

However, the trick is to find an event or route that will give me 4,000m+ of climbing. That's not easy to find. One of the hardest cyclosportives in the UK, the Fred Whitton Challenge, takes in a 180km (112 miles) route over the toughest climbs of the Lake District. It's a hard day in the saddle, though only makes around 3,800m of climbing. 

So a trip to France, Spain or Italy to ride up Alpine climbs definitely beckons - where I can ride over 4,000m in a day, but also ride uphill for 20km+. So my preparation will include at least one trip to do these sorts if rides.

So as you can see, my work is cut out for me. Now I just need to get my bike out!

Related posts

Etape du Tour comes to Nice

Tackling Fred Whitton light - (aka Lion and Lamb Challenge)

Rides on the Cote d'Azur - Col de Turini

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Freewheeling: Alpe d'Huez finale for the 2024 Tour de France Femmes could be spectacular

A spontaneous applause rippled through the audience at the Palais des Congres, Paris as Marion Rousse revealed Alpe d'Huez as the concluding stage of the 2024 Tour de France Femmes.

The auditorium, packed, with a couple of thousand people - a mixture of professional cycle racers, cycling industry executives, sponsors, sports associations, local government representatives, governing body chiefs, and sports media - had come to watch the grand presentation of the 2024 Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes routes. 

Discovering that Alpe d'Huez would feature proved popular. This iconic climb which has been a crowd puller since it was included in the men's Tour de France in 1952 has now been included in what will be the third edition of the women's Grande Boucle event, sponsored by Zwift and organised by ASO.

An iconic stage was also included in the previous Tour de France Femmes when the 2023 event included a stage through the Pyrenees with a finish on the Tourmalet, and the 2022 inaugural renaissance event concluded in the Vosges atop La Superplanche des Belles Filles. 

Having these iconic mountain stages in the women's races is great for the sport as it is bound to increase audience engagement in terms of television viewing and social media interactions. It is also a great endorsement from the organisers and sponsors that they would include such stages in the women's race. When it comes to the Tour de France, racing up Alpe d'Huez doesn't get better. Given the abundance of strong riders from the Netherlands in the women's peloton, Dutch corner will be a massive party for the women too! 

Other interesting points about the Tour de France Femmes are the Grand Départ taking place in Rotterdam - the first time the race is happening outside of French territory. With the initial stages being in the Netherlands and Belgium, the riders won't reach France until Stage 5. Considering that the race only has eight stages it's not so much a Tour de France but a Tour de BeneFrance!

On a positive note the areas covered the Hexagon will be well known roads to the cycling fan. Stages 2 and 3 are done on the same day, in Rotterdam, with Stage 3 being a 6.3km time trial. This is practically the same route as the prologue of the 2010 Tour de France, though slightly shorter. As in 2010 the riders will have mini climbs to do up Erasmus Bridge and Willems Bridge.

Stage 4, from Valkenberg to Liège will feature parts of the Amstel Gold race (the Cauberg), as well parts of Liège-Bastogne-Liege (La Redoute, Côte des Forges, and others).

The 167km Stage 7, from Champagnole to Le Grand Bornand, the longest stage will be an extended version of La Course by the Le Tour de France 2018 and will pass by Lac d'Annecy,  though with a preamble over climbs through the Jura. This stage will be a tasty appetiser before the grand finale, from Le Grand Bornand to Alpe d'Huez, passing via col de la Tamié, Col de Glandon, Barrage de Grand' Maison and then from Le Bourg d'Oisans up the 21 hairpins to the most famous ski resorts in cycling history. 

So the stage is set for some royal battles. We just need the actors to play their part. Without wanting to put a fine point on it I think that there is an onus on the athletes to give the fans a spectacle. It is these stories of rivalry and show-downs on the streets of the Tour de France (and the Netherlands and Belgium) that garner more public interest and capture the imagination of the fans. 

While it's great to see Annemiek Van Vleuten type athlete showing up and demonstrating pure dominance at a few races, doing it at every race or all the way through a stage race is not necessarily what engages spectators. Having one other rival is better, but still not that interesting if the rest of the field is so far behind. We remember how Van Vleuten audaciously snatched victory from Anna van der Breggen in the final metres of the race. But who remembers what the other riders did? Third placed Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio crossed the finish line well over a minute behind the two Dutch women.

What is needed is more depth. It is great to see races where it's not a given that such and such a rider will win, or that the winner will come from this really dominant team. (I'm looking at SD Worx here!)

Of course you can't reproach a rider or a team for being so much stronger than the others. We just need to see more challengers coming through. We got a flavour of that in 2023 Tour de France Femmes when Kasia Nieuwiadoma of Canyon SRAM went for it on the Tourmalet climb, and subsequently won the Queen of the Mountains jersey. We also saw that when some younger riders like Yara Kastelijn (Fenix-Deceuninck) won a stage, and also when a couple of riders (other than Annemiek Van Vleuten) from Team Movistar won stages.

Also, with this year's event starting and passing through countries that harbour an avid cycling fan base there is likely to be greater interest than in previous years especially as there will be many Dutch riders contesting the top spots.

Furthermore, the variety in the profile of races means that there is something for everyone - for the Classics rider, the mountain goat, or the sprinter. Considering that this is only a seven-day race, the organisers have cleverly packed in stages that should leave no shortage of drama for we fans over that week in mid-August. I look forward to seeing who will be wearing the yellow jersey at the summit of Alpe d'Huez after seven days and 946km of racing. 

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Etape du Tour comes to Nice, and I'm riding it (hopefully)!

At the unveiling of the 2024 Tour de France route, Stage 20 - Nice to Col de la Couillole was announced as the route for the Etape du Tour. I have been lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a place to ride the 138km and 4,600m climbing from the Cote d'Azur to the mountains in the Mercantour National Park. I really want to do it before I get too old!

It's exciting to know that the men's 2024 Tour de France will conclude with what could be epic stages in the Nice and Alpes-Maritimes region. The traditional ceremonial finale through Paris is being skipped due to the Olympic Games taking place there at that time. Well, Paris's loss is very much Nice's gain, as the World will focus on the riders as they battle over the col d'Eze during the final time trial between Monaco and the capital of the French Riviera. 

This conclusion to La Grande Boucle has the potential to have the same suspense as the climax in 1989 when Greg Lemond won the Tour de France by 8 seconds from Laurent Fignon, after bettering him in the time trial on the Champs Elysées. That was the last time a Tour de France ended with a time trial. So we wait with baited breath to see how things will pan out between Messrs Vingegaard, Pogacar, and AN Other.

On the subject of stages of the Tour de France, I am very pleased (though also slightly apprehensive) to have bagged a chance to ride in the Etape du Tour event.

This challenge ride offers lesser mortals like you or I to be a pro for the day and ride a designated stage of the current year's Tour. Amaury Sports Organisation, who run the Tour de France have chosen stage 20 (Nice to Col de la Couillole) as the stage. It definitely is quite a challenge. It would have been much easier to just ride something shorter, flatter, and with lots of opportunities to stop for snack and take photos. But something in me just likes a push myself, and I guess it has to be done before I get way to old to put my body through it.

Having taken part in the Etape on previous occasions I know what a great event it is - around 12,000 riders from countries all around the world line up with their road racing bikes to snake over cols and along valley roads, in exactly the same wheel tracks that the pros will ride a few days or weeks later. 

There had been speculation as to whether this really would be the route for the Etape du Tour. Locals with their ear to the ground had suggested that it would be a Nice stage, on the basis that many hotels were already fully booked for the first week of July. Furthermore, Nice were very keen to host the Etape du Tour given that the last time it was due to take place, in 2020, the event was cancelled due to Coronavirus.

However, other folks could not believe that the organisers would choose a stage that finishes right in the middle of the remote Mercantour mountains, leaving thousands of cyclists with either a torturous trip back to Nice, probably in the mother of all traffic jams or riding 110km back to Nice, or maybe even having to bed down in a field if they can't get digs in one of the handful of gites and Bed & Breakfasts in the nearby hamlet of Beuil.  

But it seems the organisers were not put off by that prospect, and have nevertheless chosen this as the stage for we amateurs to ride.

I must say that I am not fazed by the logistics at all, and managed to hit the reserve button for a room in a rather nice hotel at Guillaumes, about 10 miles from the finish line.

That aside, it must be said that the route will be a beauty. Like the original attempt to hold the Etape du Tour in 2020, the feature climb of the day will be Col de Turini - a climb that I got to know very well last year when I visited the Cote d'Azur. The route will go up the climb from L'Escarene village and over the Col de Braus - exactly the route that I took last year (though I had to turn back a few miles after Moulinet because of the fading light).

L'Escarene village

What I have seen of the route is absolutely spectacular. Riding up the 10km of Col de Braus and 20km+ of Col de Turini will have us suitably entertained - which we will need as we round the 101 hairpins!

I know that the descent from Turini to Bollene Vesubie will be a little technical, as I recall from my previous visit. Thereafter, this will be new territory for me - and probably the hardest part psychologically, as I will still only be about half-way through the route and there will be another two long climb to do plus lots of gentle lumps and bumps. The pros will have this stage as a summit finish, while the official Etape du Tour finish will be in the valley at Beuil. I like to think that the descent into the village will be neutralised.

As mentioned, I have ridden the Etape du Tour in the past - the distant past being 20 years ago! I rode a stage from Pau to Bayonne, going via some not-very-well-known Pyrenean climbs. I got through the ride, but it was still touch and go, and the preparation for it became a 24/7 thing.  These events can't be taken lightly. 

Unlike some of these amateur rides along the route of Classics races like Paris-Roubaix or Tour of Flanders, the Etape is treated as a race by the organisers. The winners are garnered with public acclamation and get their 15 minutes of fame in the local media. Others can compete to achieve gold or silver time standards, and unnervingly, there is a minimum speed. If you get caught by the broom wagon/end-of-the-race car you are eliminated from the race. Your timing chip is unceremoniously removed, your bike is put in a truck and a waiting bus drives you and dozens of other failed riders back to the finish where you do a walk of shame past the guys receiving their medals. 

That has also happened to me - when the Etape du Tour was a 250km through the Massive Central over the Puy Mary many years ago. I was not enjoying the ride at all, and after 160km (100 miles) I just got slower and slower like I was half hoping to be caught. The annoying thing is that the point where I got into the broom wagon, unbeknown to me, was about half a mile from a big descent. So I could have just about made an escape if I had had more faith. Instead I endured an interminable, demoralising coach trip through the back roads of the Cantal region to reach Saint-Flour.

After that sorry episode, I vowed never to be caught by a broom wagon, so it is with this in mind that I do my training to ride the 138km and 4,600m of climbing from Nice to Col de la Couillole. Knowing the climbs definitely helps mentally, so I plan to visit the area a couple of times between now and the big day.

I must also mention that this will be Etape du Tour Take 2. I had a place in the event last year when the stage went from Briancon to Alpe d'Huez - another area that I know well. I trained a lot for the event, but in the end I just didn't feel I quite had the fitness. This wasn't helped by the fact that I had been ill during my training. Judging by the results, I now believe that I probably would have made the cut to get through the race, but I think more miles and more Alpine trips in the run-up to the event would have given me more of a can-do attitude. 

I like to think that I will have it on July 7th next year. Keep an eye out for updates on my preparation.

Related posts  

Riding up the Col de Braus

Riding up the Col de Turini

I'm doing a cyclosportive!

Monday 23 October 2023

Swimrun on the French Riviera - part 2

The start gun fires and we go hurtling along the beach at Cannes for the Otillo Experience SwimRun. This was my first swimrun event outside of the UK. Although I had done a few events before, I had felt a bit of trepidation about how things would go. It turned out to be a great event and a fun day.

From the start gun we all ran as fast as we could, with varying degrees of skill, negotiating our way through the thick sand of Plage Zamenhof on the Cannes Croisette. 

My body was incapable of moving much quicker than jogging pace due to how challenging it was to take strides in a straight line. I wasn't drunk, honest!

Beach running was something I had not thought about, let alone practiced during my training preparation. How could I have totally overlooked this aspect of the race, knowing full well that it was a coastal swimrun? My bad.

As the mass of runners sailed off into the distance leaving me behind, I immediately realised my main goal would need to be revised from finishing on a target time, to just finishing - hopefully without it being painfully slow. That may be easier said than done. 

The Experience and Sprint races didn't have any cut-off times, so I had almost all day to complete the distance - but then again if I did take all day I could forget about seeing Emmanuelle and Juliette this afternoon. Hopefully I could meet them for dinner!

Mind you, after all said and done, the great thing about this race were the views. Running along the beach with the sea washing over your feet, set against a backdrop of Regency architecture and palm trees was certainly not something to complain about. I could put up with that all day!

Although things were slow-going for me, I wasn't in last place. As the bay curved round to the right, I looked behind and saw that there were folks slower than me. This included a few older men and women, plus a man paired with a boy, who looked around 10 years old - maybe his son.

The father had the build of a very experienced athlete as he ran smoothly and comfortably. Meanwhile the little boy was putting in every effort to run as fast as he could along the beach, as one often sees with young kids starting out in competitive sport, only to have to slow down to a walk and take a breather. This meant I, with my slow and steady tortoise pace managed to gain ground on the pair.

Just when I began to think I couldn't continue for much longer through this sand, the course took us onto tarmac, and things became much more straightforward than the previous 10 minutes.

Gathered crowds and marshals cheered us on and applauded as we left the beach, albeit still giving that "rather you than me" look.

Soon after came Swim 1, but not without climbing over a rocky bank. I followed the line of the woman in front of me, though she was clearly hesitant about where to step. Not wanting to take risks and try and get past her, I preferred to stay behind and wait while she made up her mind. Not a very competitive mentality, I know, but I was intent on staying safe.

Consequently, I lost a few places as the athletes overtook us. I was content to take my time in order to feel comfortable for this swim. 

Although folks were certainly competitive, as you would expect in a race, there was still an atmosphere of camaraderie among the participants, with folks pointing out any unexpected hazards to one another, or giving each other words of encouragement. 

A fit, lean woman did a U-turn on the rocks as though she was about to leave the race. "Are you okay?" I asked her in French. "No, I've lost my goggles." A little puzzled, given I could clearly see them on her head, I asked, "Do you have two pairs then?" "No," she replied. "Only one." "Well, they're on your head - you haven't lost them!"

Putting her hand on her head to feel they were still firmly in place, she then laughed with a mixture of embarrassment and relief. "Ah, I was convinced I had dropped them. I'd forgotten I'd put them on my head. What a relief, thank you." Then she got in the water and swam away rather quickly. Racing nerves makes you play tricks on your mind, as well as being forgetful.

My own goggles in place, and pull buoy secured between my thighs, I slowly lowered myself in for the first swim of the race, the section where I generally feel the most apprehensive. In fact, when I hit the water it felt pretty pleasant. 

Sighting was very easy, since I just needed to follow the mass of swimming hats in front. Furthermore, the water was lovely and clear, making it easy to see other swimmers through the water. As long as I had a pair of legs in front of me I didn't even need to stick my head out of the water to do sighting - provided those swimmers were going the right way! 

The only thing was that because many people were racing in pairs it meant that sometimes one person in the pair would swim a little and then suddenly slow down to wait for their partner to catch up. The rule in swimrun is you can't be more than 20m apart when running and 10m apart when in the water, so strong swimmers didn't have the chance to swim too far ahead if their partner was slower than them. That was quite handy for me, as it gave me the impression of constantly overtaking swimmers, which was motivational. 

In fact, I was quite surprised at how many people I caught up with in the water, considering I was one of the last to get going. I am by no means a strong swimmer, but it's amazing what using a big pull buoy and hand paddles can do to improve your technique and speed! 

The 750m swim took us back to the start/finish area of the event, where an even larger crowd had gathered, there was pop music, and the MC was commentating on what was going on. 

This was also the place to fuel up at the feed station with a selection of dried fruit, energy bars, energy drinks and water. I made the most of the supplies, but then remembered I only had about 4km of running left to do, and given that I already had energy gels on me I was probably overfuelled!

Running past the spectators along the Zamenhof plage was uplifting, as I was accompanied by the sound of "Allez, Bravo" and avid clapping. A few volunteers who had been staffing the sign-on desk recognised me and gave an especially big cheer.

Then it was onwards to a residential area of Cannes, where the road went uphill. That was the only part of the race where there was a proper hill. Thankfully it was only brief.

Swim 2, a 500m stretch, was beautiful as I spotted various schools of fish. It was something I hadn't expected to see. You don't often get that in the London Docks, my usual open-water swimming venue. So this was quite a novelty.

Swim 3 was the part that Emmanuelle had warned me about - the one where you jump into the water from a pontoon. Jumping into water is something I never do - it's my total bugbear. I don't know how to dive, and I have also been conditioned to associate jumping into water with potentially getting cold water shock. If there had been any possible way of lowering myself into the water gently, I would have taken it. But that option was not available at all. So I took my time preparing myself, and particularly making sure my goggles were firmly in place. Nearby, the lifeguards on paddleboards watched me carefully, almost as though they were anticipating some sort of drama. After a couple of deep breaths in and out I took a graceful plop into the Mediterranean, ready to breath out and blow out any water that might enter my nose or mouth. With the water at 23 degrees Celsius there really wasn't anything to worry about, and anxiousness was over before it began. Then I swam along again, enjoying the sight of more schools of fish, some pretty looking algae, and various pairs of legs.

Throughout the race there were a couple of lone athletes, like myself with whom I played cat and mouse. I was probably a quicker runner and swimmer than them, but I was very slow at the entry points into the water. I was slow at adjusting the pull buoy to between my thighs, slow at putting on my hand paddles, and I really deliberated when getting my goggles in place. Plus, whenever the terrain looked slightly dicey, like over shingle or rocks, I slowed right down to a walk and would even spend time procrastinating about the best/safest line to take. Once in the water I would overtake them and make up some good ground, only to lose it all again at the next transition. It's a good job I wasn't feeling so competitive!

Swim 4, the final leg of the race, at 600m, was the second longest swim, and also the hardest for me because I was beginning to feel tired. The fatigue was mainly in my upper arms and pectoral muscles. Hand paddles are really good at improving your speed in the water, but they do work muscles that bit more than without them. I had done regularly training with them, though clearly not enough.

However, I was motivated by the sight of the event village in the distance. At this point there was no one in sight ahead of me, so I would have to do some sighting and pick the racing line. But I wasn't sure where the racing line was. All I could see was the event village, spread over about 75 metres across the beach, with no clear sign of the finish gantry. So I just swam in the general direction of the event area, and hoped that the actual race route and finish line would eventually become clear. 

By the time I neared the beach my swim route had taken me a good 30 metres off the racing line! On exiting the water to reach the finish gantry I suddenly did get a bout of competitive spirit, as a swimmer I had previously overtaken, and who did follow the shortest line when swimming was about to cross the finish line ahead of me. I wasn't having that! So my legs managed to find the energy to spurt through the sand, and I just snuck in front of her - which I like to think was fair enough in a racing environment. I'll take even the small wins!

Crossing the finish line, I was really elated to have gotten through my first swimrun abroad. I hadn't been sure if it was a prudent thing to do, as a swimrun newbie, especially as I hadn't done any events this year. But I think this event in Cannes proved to be the right decision, and the best option when doing a first event on foreign soil.

After the finish line buzz, and making the most of the post-race nibbles, I got showered and changed at the nearby beach huts.

While gathering my things together I got chatting to different people, including a couple of folks from the UK who were employees of VivoBarefoot, one of the sponsors of the race.

Soon, Juliette and then Emmanuelle came up and chatted to me and we had our post-race lunch in the buffet tent together, reminiscing over that tough beginning on the beach, the daunting first swim,  and who spotted the lovely starfish on the sea bed. 

We also talked about our results, which we were happy with. I finished in just over 1hour 30 minutes, while Emmanuelle and Juliette, who raced as a pair, took just under that time  We all resolved to go 10 minutes quicker next year. Yes, we had already decided to return here next year.

They had no intention of doing any of the longer distances at the Cannes SwimRun, and wanted the emphasis to be on having fun. However, Emmanuelle later mentioned that her husband is an elite swimrunner and was in contention in the full-distance Otillo World Series race, which had begun at 9.15am on the Ile Sainte-Marguerite. Who knows, maybe his competitive spirit will rub off onto her and she might do a more challenging swimrun distance next year.

Sitting in the autumn sunshine, enjoying the sea view, while listening to the animated commentator, with pumping pop music in the background added to the feelgood factor of being on the French Riviera. 

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the time came for me to pack my kit and ride back to Nice, where I would then prepare to take my flight back to London.

It had been a fun day, and I was on a real high all the way home. A swimrun definitely enhances a holiday on the French Riviera!

Related posts

SwimRun on the French Riviera - part 1

Bewl Water SwimRun by As Keen as Mustard

VivoBarefoot minimalist shoes for swimrun

Friday 20 October 2023

Swimrun on the French Riviera - Part 1

I had been doing swimming and running training during this year, so it was time to do a Swimrun event. I took the plunge and headed to the South of France to do the Otillo Swimrun, Cannes

Last year I somehow got through the whole 12 months without taking part in a single swimrun event, despite having done regular training. I didn't want 2023 to go the same way. Sadly, the year didn't start as well as planned as I suffered from a bout of patella syndrome, so doing any race was the last thing on my mind. I wasn't confident that I had the fitness to make a decent account of myself so didn't enter any races of any sort in advance. 

Eventually, once my knee healed and I began to resume training, I sent off my entry for the Grafham Water SwimRun, organised by the As Keen As Mustard crew. However, when race-day came I didn't feel confident that I would race in the way I wanted, and might end up feeling disappointed with my comeback. So, not believing I was strong enough to make the trip up to Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, I opted to stay put in London. 

To be honest, after looking at some of the pictures of the windswept landscape providing the backdrop for bedraggled competitors crawling out of the vast, choppy reservoir, I was comfortable with my decision.
Mind you, I was less happy to have lost £53 for my no-show at the event! So with that, I resolved to only enter events when I felt absolutely sure that I would go - even if it meant paying a premium entry fee for entering a few days before the event. It was better to do that than to pay an early bird "cheaper price" which was not actually that cheap, and then lose the money for yet again another no-show.

Doing things this way meant that by Autumn my racing season had consisted of just two triathlons, Swim Serpentine open water event (deferred from last year due to the state funeral of Elizabeth II), and the Paris-Versailles Grande Classique running race. Some might argue that my season was on a roll, but this is a far cry from the old days when I would do between 15 and 20 events per season. 

In any case, a swimrun was was noticeably absent from this assortment of activities, so beckoning. With the season-end fast approaching, I needed to get my rear into gear pretty damn quick and put on a swimrun bib.

Well, very handily I had a choice of two events, both of them in one of my favourite places, the French Riviera. In late October would be SwimRun Cote d'Azur in Nice; a week earlier, Ottilo SwimRun would be contested in Cannes. My gut reaction would have been to take on both events.

However, my competitive eyes were bigger than my racing stomach, and I felt it more prudent to pick one event. 

Cannes was the preferred choice as it is part of the most famous franchise in the world of swimrun, and arguably the reference standard among these races. There would likely be a large, international field as opposed to the Nice event which seemed smaller in organisation and with mainly local French participants. Although this event cost a little less than the Otillo race, flights to Nice in late October were more expensive than for the mid-October Cannes race due to it happening at the start of the half-term school holidays. So I booked a mid-October flight to Nice, all set to race in Cannes.

As swimrun events involve constantly alternating between running and swimming over a set route, the headline event information is given as the total running distance and the total swimming distance. You then look at the route in more detail on the event website to see the breakdown of the number and distances of the runs and  swims as well as the route for each section. 

Ottilo Cannes offered a choice of three distances: the full distance - 33km run/8km swim; sprint distance - 10km run/3km swim; experience distance - 5km run/2km swim. 

I opted for the Experience distance, so my race wouldn't be starting until 10.30am on the Saturday morning, which seemed a civilised time to start a race, and made a change from a 7am start for the triathlons I'd done.  

From my lodgings near Nice St Augustin station, I caught the 8.15 train to make the hour-long journey to Cannes. Then with my hired bicycle I cycled a mile to reach the Juliana Hotel to register, before following the waymarked route to the event village on the nearby Plage Zamenhof.

Along the main drag, known as La Croisette, there was a buzzing atmosphere as hundreds of wet-suit-clad athletes wearing race bibs were milling around the promenade with friends and family, or in front of the gazing eyes of the locals. The area was a sea of orange and purple bibs and hats, with folks wearing trail shoes, minimalist or barefoot shoes all in varying styles and colours. 

These are the shoes worn for swimrun, as events generally involve running on trails or other off-road areas. Minimalist shoes work well (if you can run in them) as they are light and won't weigh your legs down so much when swimming - yes, you swim with your shoes on.

Wetsuits are specially made for swimrun. They just come down to your knees and zip up at the front. There are one or two pockets to allow you to carry things like a compass and whistle, a first-aid kit, a collapsible cup, and a couple of refreshments. The neoprene is a similar thickness to a triathlon/open water wetsuit but with a lot more flexibility to allow you to run in it - yes you run with your wetsuit on. 

Many people had short-sleeved or sleeveless wetsuits given the particularly hot autumn temperatures, though I was still happy to wear my wetsuit with long sleeves. It is unheard-of for me to get too hot during an event involving open-water swimming!

Among the crowds a wide selection of languages could be heard. Naturally, there was a predominance of French, but German, Italian, English, and Swedish were also spoken by significant numbers of athletes, to reflect the global appeal of this sport which began following a bet in a pub in 2002, between some friends, to see how far they could swim and run across the Stockholm archipelago. 

Folks had travelled from as far afield as the US or South Africa, and I also saw folks from back home. I even noticed a woman in Tri London kit. It seemed that many local residents had come out to see the spectacle after having seen the adverts for the event, and perhaps had watched it over the years since its inaugural edition in 2018.

Even though I felt sure I could cover the distance, and I felt comfortable in my environment, having made many trips to the Côte d'Azur, I felt a sense of nervous anticipation, when looking at these seriously finely tuned male and female athletes - swimrun veterans. Of course, I was fit, and agewise I probably was a veteran - though not in swimrun terms, given I didn't have the experience to match my advancing years. 

Oh well, I just needed to reassure myself that the distances I was doing were less than what I'd done in training sessions back home in London. Furthermore, I had been swimming in the Mediterranean every day for the previous four days, so this should not hold any surprises. At the worst case scenario my French was good enough to flag down a Good Samaritan and catch a lift back to base if things totally belly-flopped! 

My main concerns were that my shoes wouldn't come off while swimming, and my untested goggles purchased just the previous day would not be too loose and fill with water. Oh, and I hoped I would't lose my timing chip, or find myself alone all at sea, not knowing which way to swim. My head was filled with a lot of thoughts, but I was determined to stay in control - sort of!

After dropping off my rucksack at the bag drop, all Sprint and Experience distance athletes gathered at the start gantry for a warm-up and pre-race briefing. 

Surprisingly, the briefing was done only in English, which seemed strange given that we were very much in France. Regardless of the language the official spoke, I and the rest of us rang out a welcome cheer on hearing that the sea was free of jellyfish. 

Briefing over, we had a final opportunity to acclimatise to the water, so I used this moment to dunk myself in the sea and check that my new Speedo goggles were doing their job. They felt fine. 

Then I rejoined my fellow athletes to anxiously await the start gun. "The water's a really nice temperature isn't it?" I said in French to two women with whom I stood alongside. "It's super," replied one of them, smiling. 

We then continued our conversation, talking about where we were from and our experience in swimrun. They were two friends who had travelled down from Lyon. Like me, they were newcomers to the sport.

Emmanuelle had done this event the previous year as her first ever swimun race. This event was therefore her second swimrun. Juliette had done just one previous swimrun near her home. They would be racing as a pair for the first time. It was reassuring to meet two people in the same boat as me.

After Emmanuelle gave me a few tips on what to expect along the course, and us joking about meeting up at the finish some time before nightfall, the countdown to zero began, and at the gun we sprang forward to the whoops and cheers of the spectators. 

Our first challenge was the roughly 1km run along the camber of the beach. This was already pretty taxing on my legs as I ran along the beach  like I was drunk - and my shoes were filling with sand. This was going to be more complicated than anticipated.

(See link below for Part 2)

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