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)

Related posts 

Tuesday 10 October 2023

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 7: Ride to Brighton

My Monkey, standing proud at Ditchling Beacon en route to Brighton

When I got my Honda Monkey 125cc in August of last year I had in mind to ride out to my favourite weekend destinations - places that I enjoy going to on my pushbike, but this time with a bit of motorised assistance. As it happens these destinations happen to be favoured by motorbikers too - Rykers Cafe and Newlands Corner in the Surrey Hills, Brighton, and Windsor.

I must admit it has taken me a while to get round to going to these places though. Lack of time has been the main factor, as I realise that I really need to give myself a good half-day to do these things, and I always found myself so busy in the morning that by the time I got around to setting off it would be 3pm, and I didn't really want to be riding along the country roads in the dark.

I did do a trip out to Rykers in August of last year, and then to Newlands Corner at Easter. Both of those trips were combined with me doing a little trail run. I feel it's sacrilege to go all the way to those places without getting out on the beautiful trails.

At the start of the summer I rode out to Windsor too. Still on the theme of wanting to combine my ride with an activity, I took my rollerskates, in a hope that I could find a patch of land where I could roll around a little. In the end I didn't use them and ended up with an achy back after carrying an extra 4kg on my bike for 70 miles for no apparent reason!

The missing card in the set was Brighton. One day in August I got all kitted out and took some gear with me in a hope of doing a swim and possibly some paddleboarding too. It was around 3pm, but I thought that with the long days I could still do most of the return journey by day and that nightfall would come once I hit Croydon. I set off, again with a loaded rucksack and rack on my bike, only to make it as far as South Norwood, two miles away, before I decided to turn back. A road traffic accident meant the area was totally congested and I would likely face a frustrating ride down to the coast. Instead, I turned back, and battled through the London traffic to head to Docklands where a much-needed refreshing swim at the watersports centre beckoned.

At moments I wondered if I would ever get to Brighton with my Monkey. I was beginning to feel silly and wondered if I really could call myself a motorbiker because my rides were mainly just errands around London. Surely, my mini moto deserved more than that?! Then finally, the day came - one Saturday in early September when the weather was set fair - maybe a bit too fair given the 27 degrees Celsius heat - and I had finished my chores by lunchtime, I saw it fit to make the trip down to the seaside.

As this was a first trip outside of the London/South-East area, and I was going to such a far-off place as East Sussex, I decided to stick to the lanes that I knew, and basically followed the route I take when cycling to Brighton on my pushbike.

That involved heading through South Croydon, Merstham, Redhill, then the country lane to Balcombe, past Haywards Heath and over Ditchling Beacon. Even though I am legal to ride on the motorway, the M23 was out of the question.

With a top speed of 56 miles per hour, the Monkey might blow up if I tried to ride at motorway speeds. Furthermore, weighing barely a shade over 100kg the bike would be so flyaway that I would need nerves of steel and very sturdy arms on a gusty day. Preferring a quieter (and safer) life, I stuck to the country lanes.

It was a very hot day. This was ride would require me to take breaks during the 48-mile ride in order to stand in a shady area and rehydrate. Motorbike riding looks such a cool thing to do, and a great way to get around as you breeze down a country road loving life, etc as you see in glossy adverts. But no one tells you about the reality of the hair dryer effect where you have warm air blowing at you, and where your heavy protective jacket and trousers can have you sweating buckets. Rehydration is important, as well as stopping so that you don't overheat.

I did see a few motorbikers just in shorts and T-shirts. At Ardingly village I even saw a couple of women on Harley Davidsons wearing bikinis. Wow. They are braver girls than me, in many ways!

So off I set, along the A23 past Coulsdon along the dual carriageway. Having two lanes was handy for me, as I stayed in the slow lane while those in a rush to get to Gatwick Airport could steam past to reach the M23. Thereafter, the road narrowed to a single carriageway, though those who wanted to move really quickly were on the motorway, so we slower vehicles could enjoy the scenic route along the A23 down through Merstham and Redhill. 

Once past Redhill town centre, and East Surrey Hospital the road began to climb and widened to a dual carriageway. This time the speed limit cranked up to around 50 mph, though at least knew I could be out of the way of faster moving vehicles. 

At Horley I then took the B2036 road through the forest to head for Balcombe. This was a pleasant twisty road that I was familiar with, having taken it on my pushbike. Interestingly, when using pedal power I han't noticed the twists and turns much - probably because I was just focused on grinding my way uphill at slow speed. I hadn't had much opportunity to ride the motorbike around these types of roads, so I savoured the curves, even if I probably didn't have the best technique. In any case I was able to take the corners faster than I would in a car, and that already gave me a lot of satisfaction.

The advantage at these moments was that on the single carriageway when there were faster moving cars coming up close behind me, I could easily lose them on the twists and turns given the Monkey's naturally superior agility to any car when taking a bend.  

On we (my Monkey and I) progressed through Ardingly and Haywards Heath, and onto Wivelsfield, where thhere were lots of folks out enjoying the late summer sunshine in this olde worlde village with its network of tight roads. Sadly, this meant a build-up of traffic, much to the annoyance I imagine, of the locals. The situation was compounded by the fact that an actual London to Brighton Bike Ride was taking place that weekend, and it seemed that many cyclists had decided to do a ride-out, and guess what - they were heading for Ditchling Beacon - exactly where we were all going.

I must admit, I had been feeling nervous about going up this climb that rises to 12%, as I was all too aware of its toughness, given the number of times I have cycled up it. Ditchling Beacon is that sting in the tail on the route as you begin to rejoice that you have covered the bulk of the distance and you look forward to the sea soon coming into view. 

Going up hills like this require good clutch control whether in a car or on a motorcycle. I recall a few occasions when a motorist crawling up the hill stalled their car when caught behind cyclists straining every muscle to get over the steep ramp. The road is too narrow to overtake safely, so motorists are obliged to wait patiently and calmly. Would I end up stalling the Monkey, and panicking as I roll backwards?? That was the sort of nightmare scenario I had lurking in my mind. I needed to focus and believe that I could ride this. It's no worse than edging my way up through the traffic near my home on Anerley Hill at rush hour.

In fact, I realised that things were not that bad for me as a motorbiker. Although the road was too narrow for a car to overtake the cyclists safely, there was space for motorcycles. As long as I kept my eyes peeled for oncoming traffic and had full control of the clutch and the accelerator, while being ready to stop, it was not so difficult to breeze by the traffic jam. Once I was at the front of the queue of cars I eased past the London to Brighton cyclists, and gave them a wide berth given how wobbly some of them were on the road. Before I knew it, I was at the summit where I pulled into the car park to enjoy the beautiful vistas over Sussex, and could even reward myself with an ice cream.

The last part of the ride was a case of straightforward descent through Stanmer and Moulsecoomb, and once in Central Brighton I was lucky enough to bag the last remaining motorcycle space right on the sea front, next to the Seaside Fish and Chip shop where lots of bikers congregate.

I celebrated with a little swim and some chips.

The ride home was a direct route from Brighton seafront to Crystal Palace non-stop. There was no need to stop given that it was after 6pm, and traffic was light on the roads. That was just as well really, as I decided to go for it and progress my riding to the dizzy heights of the A23 dual carriageway from Brighton. This road alternated between two and three lanes, and had the feel of being on a motorway. 

There were no trucks, and traffic was sparse so I didn't feel too uncomfortable. It was all about keeping my eyes peeled all around me, particularly behind as vehicles approached at 70 mph and they needed to switch lane once they noted that I was travelling 20mph slower than them. By and large drivers did switch lane, so that was reassuring. Interestingly one vehicle that had overtaken me, an Audi, was later spotted some miles down the road in the central reservation of the A23 after a collision with another car. 

A few motorbikers went past me on their much more powerful machines. They all gave a wave or a thumbs up as they passed. It's great to feel like you're part of a community.

Soon the A23 became the M23, and I left the very fast road for a moderately fast road - the A23 back through Pease Pottage, just outside Crawley. Traffic was very light by this point, which suited me. It also began to get dark, but that didn't bother me so much as the route went through little villages that hug the Gatwick Airport area, before I hit Redhill - very familiar territory.

When I reached home it was just after 8pm, so my ride home from Brighton had taken me 2 hours. I hadn't noticed the time go by at all. Obviously, a bike with 4 times the engine capacity could probablly have covered the distance in half the time. But I was happy with my ride on the Monkey - in a car it would have taken longer, just because of the sheer traffic, not to mention the stress and expense of parking in Brighton. I was glad to have been able to do a ride to one of my favourite day trip destinations from London. I never felt unsafe or anxious, which bodes well for a continued future in motorbiking.

I just need to find a way of carrying a paddleboard down there with me next time! 

Related posts

Motorbike problem rectified with a rectifier

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 6: Dropping the bike

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 5: Ride to Newlands Corner

Sunday 8 October 2023

Box Hill Zig Zag is my best fitness test

As a London-based cyclist, Box Hill features firmly among my list of places to go for a bike ride. 

It's not actually that local to me, given that the quickest route there can take almost two hours and there are various other country lanes and hills I could ride on nearer to my home. But the ride out to this famous hill, crested multiple times during the London 2012 Olympics is worthwhile.

Box Hill is significant in my cycling life and is such a massive magnet for cyclists from across the London area that it would be sacrilege to not include it on the list. 

I really like this climb, as does everyone else I know. There is something about that turning off Old London Road near Rykas Café onto the Zigzag that gives me that same feeling you get when you finally see a familiar face among a crowd of strangers - the old faithful friend.

Set within chalky terrain in the heart of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Box Hill towers above the suburban town of Dorking and has a vast country parkland and woodland area where people can admire the views of the landscape below, as they walk or cycling on the trails, or while enjoying a picnic. This is a hotbed of activity on any sunny day, particularly at the weekends.  

In general, when I ride in this area, Box Hill is my final official climb before I head homewards. It's the sweetspot after my previous efforts on the more demanding hills in the area - or maybe the yoga equivalent of shavasana, after tackling the more challenging balancing and twisting poses. 

It is while rolling along this stretch of road on the side of the chalk escarpment, lined with ancient woodland that I can gauge where my fitness is. How my legs feel when climbing Box Hill gives me an idea of whether I am feeling on form or not, or whether I have overdone things during the ride, notably on the earlier Surrey hills that day. It's like an analogue live version of Myfitnesspal.

The friend may be initially slightly demanding at first, as I begin to tackle the opening turns in the road and I feel my legs having to work slightly more than when they were previously coasting along the Dorking by-pass cycle path. But once the Zig Zag car park comes into view I know that I will soon have ticked off the first hairpin, and the gradient will ease off. 

It is usually during this early phase of the climb that many cyclists overtake me as they tackle the hill with enthusiasm and gusto, while I tend to spin an easy gear, gently easing myself into the climb to establish a comfortable rhythm for my legs as well as my lungs. 

Box Hill profile from Old London Road to Box Hill village

Box Hill gradient map

Today, as I rode along I noted that it took me more time to find that comfortable rhythm. My legs felt heavy and my breathing was more laboured than usual. 

On the first bend I spotted the unusual sight of a makeshift cardboard signboard. You wouldn't normally see something so rough and ready-looking in this elegant location. I wondered if it was a political slogan, as people have taken to doing of late, or maybe a sign of encouragement drawn by a child for their middle-aged parent in Lycra. 

As I reached the sign, I noticed two young men, one of them lean and mean, perched against his bike. His more stocky accomplice was holding the cardboard bearing a scruffy inscription in block capitals, "Race me up Box Hill and win £50"! That made me smile. "Maybe not today", I said, while sauntering past. Another rider overtook me at the same time and also laughed. I must admit, if I had been on form I would definitely have taken on the challenge. Winning £50 will pay for a couple of scones at the tea shop at the end of the climb! 

Sadly, by this hairpin, in which the gradient was beginning to ease off, my legs still felt too tired to make the most of the respite as my legs just ground along without finding any increase on my crawling pace. 

Normally I get a second wind along this stretch, but it became apparent that the dial in my energy tank was in the red. My earlier efforts taking the uphill route from Epsom through the Ashtead and Headley, the Ranmore Common climb, as well as Coldharbour were taking their toll on me. I had to accept that I am not as fit as I could be. 

At that point I rolled along and gave myself permission to stop and rest or even walk at the next hairpin, by the Pinehurst care home - maybe someone would take pity on me and offer me some sustenance!

Somehow, on reaching the hairpin a voice inside told me to carry on pedalling, even if my quads hurt. It didn't feel quite right to stop, and I feared that I wouldn't be able to get going again, so I just continued on through towards Donkey Green, passing the Box and Juniper trees with their autumn ochre leaves set against the bright sunshine on this unseasonably warm day.

The final long stretch where the landscape opened out was just a case of hanging on and surviving all the way to the National Trust car park. I focused on maintaining a regular, albeit laboured breathing pattern and believing that I wasn't far from the finish line. I wasn't. The Box Hill climb is around 1.4 miles (2.4 km) up to the National Trust Cafe, with a 120m height gain. 

At this point I only had half a mile (800m) left to pedal, though it felt interminable. Many riders passed me. On seeing me straining along, some greeted me or offered words of encouragement - "Keep going.." "Nearly there..." On the final turn at the car park my grimace began to soften into a smile.

Finally I reached the main refreshment and picnic area, where I rolled straight down to the bike rack. As I dismounted from my bike my leg almost cramped up, though I managed to shake it off as I quickly racked my bike and sank into the adjacent bench.

For around five minutes, everything zoned out in front of me, as I regained normal breathing and recuperated before summoning the energy to queue up for a coffee, sausage roll and almond flapjack - after eating a starter of my packed ham sandwich and banana. There was ice cream on sale too, but I didn't quite have the energy to join that significantly longer queue.

That had been my slowest ride ever up Box Hill. I had basically ridden up the hill on fumes. In the jargon, I had bonked, hit the wall, got the hunger knock. Call it what you will, I had run out of energy. On reflection, that made sense because I hadn't had an evening meal the previous day, and my breakfast was only very light - not great preparation for an 80km bike ride. Schoolboy error!

Once fed and watered, I was able to tackle the rest of the ride home, my energy levels replenished and feeling motivated.

Box Hill is one of my favourite climbs. I can't say how many times I've ridden it in my life - it must be into the hundreds. I know it like the back of my hand, so it makes for a perfect barometer of my fitness and form. It's fair to say my battery was flat. The beauty of the Hill though, is that there are some delicious ways to recharge your legs - once you reach the top.

Monday 2 October 2023

52 Cycling Voices - 36: Sadhbh O'Shea

You will have seen her name a lot in bylines on cycling articles online. These days Sadhbh is based in Douglas, Isle of Man, but in the course of the year she can be found covering professional cycle races in various parts of Europe and beyond, and of course, at the Tour de France. Life on the road can be a real whirlwind as she dashes between the press room, the mixed zone or the podium ready to convert peloton pearls of wisdom into creative words. Aside from journalism, Sadhbh has also been known to drive the team bus of the Cycling Club of Isle of Man racing team in her land of origin at the Rás Tailteann, an international stage race in Ireland.

Sadhbh travels quite a lot, and had a rather busy summer this year, which saw her spend July at the Tour de France, the Tour de France Femmes, as well as doing a tour of Scotland covering the various disciplines at the inaugural World Cycling Championships, and a stopover at the Edinburgh Festival. Oh, and she did a flying visit to Canada to cover the Grand Prix de Montreal.

I caught up with Sadhbh in between her busy schedule and she talked me through her career, and what she likes about her work.

Sadhbh O'Shea (pronounced Sive, like hive), aged 35

From: Dublin, Ireland

Lives: Douglas, Isle of Man

Cycling journalist for Velo-online/Outside

I was born in Ireland, then when I was seven my dad got a job in Douglas, the Isle of Man and lived there for nine months before we moved over to join him at the dead of night on New Year's Eve that year. Nowadays I live in a house about 30 seconds from the place where we first moved.

I’ve always enjoyed writing. As a child, I wrote fiction stories for myself - I was a proper nerd. I remember quite clearly when I decided to become a journalist.  I was about 14, and it was the early part of my GCSEs when we did an assignment for our English class, about writing a news story. I really enjoyed it and felt like this was something I could do for a job.  

When I was applying for university courses – in fact when I was doing my A levels I picked my subjects on the basis of me wanting to do journalism. I was also toying with the idea of doing law because there are a few lawyers in my family and so I thought that would be interesting. So I applied for a mixture of law and journalism courses at university. 

I had chosen five courses and needed to put down one more on the form. Then I saw the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN), Preston, was offering a course in Sports Journalism and I thought, “Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t considered that that would be an option." So I picked that, and got offered a place to do that degree. 

UCLAN Preston was one of the first few universities offering sports journalism courses at that time. The year I joined was the third year of the course at UCLAN, and was run by Charlie Lambert who had done the radio commentary for the Isle of Man TT motorbike festival. He was my head lecturer, and I learned a lot about journalism. When we started learning commentary he would put on this "radio voice", which was vastly different from his normal voice. I was really impressed. Just the whole essence of his voice - the pitch, the pacing, it was all different and quite a fascinating thing to see.

I then did a year-long Masters course in Madrid, which was run by Eurosport - Rob Hatch had done it two years before me. It was multi-media sports journalism in depth, with television and website stuff, and included a three-month internship at Eurosport in Paris. It was just around early May 2010, the start of the Giro d'Italia that I went to Paris, and stayed there through the Tour de France, finishing my placement around September. 

When I returned home to the Isle of Man I applied for every job under the sun and ended up with an administrative role working for Zurich Life insurance company for a year and a half. 

The finance industry is big in the Isle of Man, and pretty much everyone in my family has worked in finance at some point in their career. I was still applying for journalism jobs regularly, knowing that insurance admin was not what I wanted to do. 

My other passion had become teaching, and I thought that would be a nice career to get into if I couldn’t get a journalism job. So I applied to do Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and got accepted onto a course in Spain. It was also at that time, in early 2012, that I got an interview with, and was offered a job as a staff writer with ProCycling magazine, based in Bath. I did a half day on my final day at the insurance company, then got the boat to Liverpool that afternoon with my dad. 

We'd packed everything that we could into the back of my dad’s minivan and drove all the way down to Bath. It was 10 o’clock at night by the time we got there. We unpacked everything and then I started my new job on Monday. I am still amazed now that they took a chance on me. 

The editor was Cam Winstanley, who had taken the role following an internal reorganisation. He wasn’t into cycling at all and knew almost nothing about it. Apart from a handful of high profile riders, every time we pitched something we had to explain to him who the riders were. He then left the post when we became part of Immediate Media, and Ed Pickering became the editor. 

By that time, three months into my job, I was offered the role of deputy editor of Cycling News HD, their digital magazine - which was a baptism of fire. With the then editor, we did what we could with the very small budget, which was quite challenging. We survived about 18 months before the management decided to close it and I got moved over to Cycling News towards the end of 2013. 

After six or seven years of the fast-paced environment reporting and writing for Cycling News I’d become a bit fatigued. At the beginning of your career you want to do anything and everything and prove yourself. You want to just work. I was working well outside of working hours and I had exhausted myself; I needed a break.  

Because of the way the job was, I wasn’t getting to see my family very much. There was always a rigmarole when travelling home to Douglas. It was so expensive that I was spending most of my spare cash on getting up to my parents a couple of times a year. I hadn’t seen my niece growing up, so I decided I needed to get a job at home, that didn't involve me travelling quite so much. 

Then one day while covering the Tour of Flanders, running down the road to the finish line st Oudenaarde for the post-race interviews, I got a text message from my dad saying there’s a job advert for a role with the BBC Isle of Man. There wasn't much time as the deadline for application was in seven days, so I had to apply some time between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix race, while I was still out travelling.

The job interview ended up being on the Tuesday afternoon after Liege-Bastogne-Liege. So I had to get from the Ardennes straight after the race on Sunday evening, to a pub in Douglas for the interview, with the help of my sister. Fortunately I got the job and started in June 2019, working on the news desk. 

Life at the BBC was good but it was very different to writing sport stuff. News is drastically different from working in sport. 

The BBC is such a massive organisation, and they wanted to show that the whole of the website had the same voice – which is not the same as when you work on a small cycling website where there is still an opportunity to put in your own style. That was not possible with BBC journalism which is quite strict. 

Although I learnt a lot while I was there, it really jarred with my dyslexia and I struggled to write. It even became a bit of a mental block when I would write. Everyone I worked with was lovely, but that super strict way of writing really didn’t work for my brain.

Then by coincidence, Fred the editor of VeloNews at the time reached out to me. He’d seen my work and thought that I would be a good fit for Velonews, so asked if I would like to work there. As with Cycling News, I wasn’t actively looking for jobs at the time, but I was open to it. So when the opportunity came along I took it. 

I think me and Fred were talking for around six months figuring out what he’d like me to do, before I signed a contract. I eventually started at Velonews at the beginning of April 2021.

It was quite nerve-racking coming back into cycling and I wondered if I’d be able to do it. Velonews had a different style to Cycling News so it felt like a tough couple of months to find my feet and start writing in their style, including writing in American English. But now I feel very comfortable with what I do.

At Velonews we try and take a wider view of things and not write stuff immediately post-race, as it tends to get lost in the ether and it has less intrinsic value to it. We know that other people have got the same quotes, so we try to hold some stuff for later, or the following day. Then we try and take a different approach to the news, with more analysis and what the story means, going forward. 

As well as the journalism I turn my hand to other things. I am on the board of a cycle racing team, Cycling Club Isle of Man, and I went with them to the Rás earlier this year. This was the second year that we got the team into the race, which was really cool. We've got a team manager, Conor Davies, and I was there mainly as a general dogsbody - soigneur, bus driver, press officer, and various other roles. 

The Rás is relatively low key, but there are a lot of teams. It’s really friendly, with all the teams chatting to each other. Last year we stayed at an Air B'n'B in the middle of nowhere so we didn’t really get an opportunity to meet up with the other teams post-stage. This year we were following the race, so we saw the other teams in the hotel. 

This race is notorious for what they call the night stages, where the support crew on a lot of the teams get drunk and have a bit of a raucous night while the riders are getting their sleep! I didn't get involved in that though - I wouldn't have been in any fit state by the end of the week otherwise!

At the Tour de Yorkshire in 2018 I somehow got involved in working from the lead car, announcing over the megaphone to the spectators what's going on in the race. It was very much outside of my comfort zone as I don’t normally like having to do public speaking. When the race finished I didn’t have to do anything else though, so I could actually enjoy the end of the bike race without running around like a blue-arsed fly interviewing people and writing stories. It’s nice to work from a different side of cycling.

Sadhbh interviews Danish National Champion, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig
But when it comes to story-writing, I’m like a kid in a sweetshop. I love being able to see different stories and listen to different people - I want to write about so many things. That's what I like about journalism. 

X (formerly Twitter): @SadbhOS 

Other Cycling Voices

Kimberly Coats

Pauline Ballet

Emma Wade

Monica and Paola Santini

Rebecca Charlton

Rochelle Gilmore

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig

Giorgia Bronzini

Emily Chappell