Tuesday 30 January 2024

Operation Etape du Tour: January update

In my third month of preparing for the Etape du Tour, January was a bit of a challenge as I had a wobble in my commit to the cause and I ended up playing catch-up to get in the miles - in the dark, damp weather

My ride around South London took me out past Hampton Court Palace

I am beginning to step up my training for this year's Etape du Tour. It still seems a long way off though, and in these dreary winter days it's hard to imagine riding in brilliant sunshine over lovely dry roads through the countryside or National Parks in the UK or beyond. A lot of my riding has been done in darkness or semi-darkness, on damp suburban streets of London, and only venturing into the countryside on the odd ride.

As much as I would rather ride outdoors than in the rarefied virtual world of a smart turbotrainer, riding outdoors still has its challenges and frustrations to deal with. 

So this is how I've been doing my riding in January. Firstly, I ride alone. I find it hard to join in with club runs because my daily schedule is a movable feast. I like to have flexibility in when and how I do things, as well as where I go. 

My cycling club has a system of signing up for a ride via RiderHQ, a platform for signing up to sports events. As it's a big club the rides can sometimes get fully booked as they want to limit the size of groups on a road. That's understandable. So that means for me, that if I sign up for a ride I should commit to going, or go online to remove my name, and thus free up the space for another club member - which I must admit is a palava. The thing is, I just like things old skool - wake up in the morning, see if the sun's shining. Go if it's a nice day, or do something else if the day looks dodgy.

As someone who is generally motivated and a self-starter, I don't need the pull of a group or someone else to get me out on a ride. I've taken myself out on rides since I was in my late teens, so at the age of 54 I'm unlikely to stop doing that now!

As someone who is a bit of a map geek I know the roads around my local area, so am capable of planning myself a route, and maybe discovering new ones too. So I don't need to have a group leader showing me which way to go.

So ultimately, I am happy enough to decide when and where I go on a ride. The whole concept of signing up onto RiderHQ and committing to turn up at the bike shop meet-up point at a given moment on a Sunday morning come rain or shine has all the charm of wearing a straight jacket. My working week is full of appointments and deadlines, so the weekends need to be more chilled and laid back.

So with all that, I do my own rides on my own, deciding the day before, on the day itself, or even during the ride on where to go, and I am happy enough to say hello to other riders that I see along the way. For me, it's freedom and it's bliss!

Spotting other Sunday morning riders at Kingston Bridge

Secondly, I do my rides at slightly unsocial times. As a person who has a tendency to take on various activities, I need to optimise on the hours of the day. I prefer to do sporty things first thing in the morning - like as soon as I wake up. It's the purest time of the day. No one to disturb you, and I feel at my most motivated and energised. So for me, that means 5am - sometimes even before that. So that's when I've taken to going out. 

The London streets are great. There's hardly any traffic - just Uber drivers, a few black cabs, the odd night bus. When cycling through Central London at that time the traffic lights are generally with me, so I hardly have to stop - which is handy for someone who is not a red-light jumper.

You get to see a bit of London life too - the fox community, clubbers tipping out at Vauxhall or Brixton, lovers tiffs, all the action at the 24hour grocers or the kebab shops. During the week, I say hello to the dustmen and I can learn the different days when the different London boroughs do their refuse collections!

In the early mornings  I prefer to ride through London rather than in the country lanes which are unlit and for which I don't have suitable lights. For me, the Royal Parks serve as a great place to do laps - be it the cycle path around Hyde Park, the loop of Regents Park, or the very Royal loop around St James's Park, taking in The Mall, Birdcage Walk, and Horse Guards Road. 

So, even if I did think about doing a club run it'd have to be one that does this sort of itinerary at this time of the day. I am not aware of any cycle clubs that do that.

So that has been my riding I've been doing in January, with a few rides out to another Royal Park, Richmond Park, when I break a habit and decide to ride during daylight hours.

My routine consists of doing a hilly ride on the local hills around Crystal Palace, a fast ride through Regents Park, and then medium paced rides around Cator Park, Crystal Palace, Park or Dulwich Park, plus rides around the Bromley and Beckenham suburbs. The aim was to get in 600km for this month.

The only issue was I did suffer a little wobble in early January and I came very close to deciding not to ride the Etape du Tour and just giving myself a quiet life, tootling around doing leisure rides. Sometimes getting motivated to ride frequently when the weather is rubbish and you get punctures can be demoralising and sucks the joy out of bike riding. As mentioned before, I am not cut out for indoor cycling. But in the end, the fire in my belly wouldn't let me give up on targeting this epic ride through the Alpes-Maritimes, so I got my act together.

Roehampton Gate Cafe at Richmond Park

Once I regained my resolve, that left me with around 300km to ride within around five days. For some, that may not seem an unreasonable distance to cover if your days are free from other activities like going to work and getting on with the every day chores of life. But with full-on days at the advertising agency I was working at it was quite a tall order.

But by putting in place a strict plan of starting rides even earlier than 5am, and fitting in rides at lunchtime and in the evenings, I somehow managed it. There were a few rides done when it was pretty gusty as January seemed to have one gale-force wind storm after another, and there were a few drizzly days too. But my determination got me through. 

I was happy to have gotten in a 100km ride as well, when I did a big suburban ride around South-West London, going past Hampton Court and out to Walton-on-Thames, and then heading into South-East London into Greenwich and Lewisham. It was one of the few days where there was wall to wall sunshine, the day was dry and there was no wind or rain. Lots of cyclists were out too, and there was a genuine feelgood factor, especially at Richmond Park, as always.

My South London ride took me to the South-East corner of London to Greenwich

Achieving the 600km has emboldened me to know I am capable of dedicating myself to quality training rides, and hopefully I will be able to build on that over the coming months.


Related posts

The sound tha sucks the joy out of cycling - the puncture fairy

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

Another cycling mission for 2024 - Fred Whitton Challenge 

Thursday 25 January 2024

The sound that sucks the joy out of cycling - the puncture fairy

Getting punctures can be one of the most frustrating things when out cycling, particularly over the winter months. I had so many punctures that I almost gave up my bike rides. But a hunger to ride the Etape du Tour kept me going.


I must say, I have had a wobble in my preparation for the Etape du Tour. I am normally pretty motivated in the things I do, but my patience has been tested recently. 

Over the Christmas period and in the early part of January my rides have been plagued with punctures. The wet conditions have just led to ride after ride being interrupted, even aborted due to a puncture. 

Punctures: they happen and they're frustrating 

I don't enjoy my rides as I even feel anxious when riding. Every time I go over a bump or see broken glass I feel stressed thinking, this is it - ride over. And of course it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when that heart-sink moment comes, as the bike suddenly becomes sluggish to handle, and I see that the tyre - usually the rear one - has gone down like a failed meringue.

That happened on Christmas Eve while I was out in the lanes at Cudham. After folornly changing the inner tube, I decided I no longer wanted to continue along these damp roads on a tyre with a sub-optimal amount of air. (I am not physically capable of pumping a tyre up to 90 psi with a hand pump.) So, with Dunton Green just being a short distance after Star Hill I rolled down to the station and wended my way home, thanks to Souteastern Trains, via Sevenoaks and Orpington.

I then got another puncture on Boxing Day, this time in Brockwell Park, Herne Hill. With it being local, and in any case having no choice due to no trains running on this public holiday, I hobbled home. Thankfully I salvaged the ride session by picking up my cyclocross and doing a comparatively stress free, albeit more energy taxing ride on fatter tyres.

There had been other puncture incidents in Hyde Park,  and at Elmers End, too. This compares with previous years when I might have had just one puncture a year if that. 

Putting on new Continental tyres for front and rear wheels hadn't made much difference. It's not necessarily a negative reflection on the tyres, but probably more an illustration of the condition of the debris-covered and pot-hole infested roads these days. It's not helped by the fact that our roads are almost permanently damp with all the rain we've had over winter. 

My road bike is a bit "old skool" with no disc brakes, and the wheels aren't set up to hold tubeless tyres. So I may just have to suck it up - which sadly also leads to the joy of cycling being sucked out of me.

Given that there are other sporting activities I like to do like running, swimming, or even ice-skating, all of which are low maintenance and don't require hours of practice, it would be easy enough to ditch the bike for a hassle-free activity. After all, I do cycling for my enjoyment. There's no fun in sitting at the side of the road in the wind and rain fixing punctures.

So I decided not to do anymore riding for the time being. For about a week I felt quite relieved to not have to get out and ride during these dreary winter days, and was happy to hear about my sporting mates' tales of derring-do from the warmth of my home, while looking at their records on the Strava app. I was looking forward to spending Sunday mornings going for a mini run, followed by playing my flute or clarinet, and maybe doing some crochet or reading a book. 

But of course there was the small matter of the Etape du Tour which I had entered and paid for, along with all the other logistics, and more importantly my friend Angie with whom I had organised to do it with. I didn't want to let her down, particularly as I was the one who had been going on about what a great event it is.

Deep down, I wanted in. I wanted to be part of that massive merry band of 10,000+ riders wending our way through the Alpes-Maritimes, one of my favourite parts of the world. 

Also being in my mid-50s you don't know how much longer you will be fit for. There are lots of illnesses or other things that can suddenly generate from here on in. Sadly, a few people I know have even died suddenly. 

Without wanting to go any further down the morbidity road, I'll just say the whole carpe diem spirit began to wash over me and I realised I do want to ride the Etape du Tour and give it my best shot. So I will get in some miles for January.

What I decided for January and February would be to ditched the road bike and do all my rides on the cyclocross bike.

So that's what I've been doing. It's not ideal given the sluggishness of the bike on the road, but it's better than nothing, and is probably making me stronger - which isn't a bad thing.

Related posts 

Operation Etape du Tour: December update 

Freewheeling: Why I'd rather ride outdoors than use Zwift - even in mid-winter

Operation Etape du Tour: Understanding the challenge 

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Freewheeling: Why I'd rather ride outdoors than use Zwift - even in mid-winter

It's that time of year when the all we want to do is curl up in a ball and hibernate until March.

The Christmas holidays are a distant memory, and we are too far away from Spring to have things to look forward to.

Things aren't helped by this freezing weather. We've been shrouded in this cold blast from the north, as the mercury barely rose above zero. 

So, for many folks based in the Northern hemisphere that would only mean one thing - Zwift. That form of e-sport cycling in which folks ride their bikes while hooked onto a turbo trainer and smart app simulating an outdoor ride has been a mainstay for millions of riders.

Initially folks could follow training intervals and do cadence/power reps. This gave rise to Zwift Academy in which folks could do a series of rounds of speed and power tests with the ultimate winner getting a professional racing contract with Canyon-SRAM (for women) or Alpecin Fenix (for men).

The app also simulates various well-known cycle routes and climbs so you can get to ride routes like Alpe d'Huez or the World Championships course without ever going there.

Zwift came into its own during the Covid lockdown when riders could do the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia virtually. Then local races were set up between more average riders. To add even more authenticity, folks have avatars of themselves racing on their computer generated bikes. If you don't ride or race along a known course you can go for a ride in fictional places like Watopia and the Makuri Islands.

And for a star-studded experience you can attend one of the many social bike rides with famous pro cyclists like Geraint Thomas, or even with the whole of the SD Worx women's team.

This e-sport cycling has become so commonplace that the Union Cycliste Internationale, has established the World E-Sport Cycling Championships, and have introduced regulations to prevent against cheating.

The whole set-up sounds great. Why worry your head about getting your gear on, braving the elements, maybe having to repair a puncture or even get into a "discussion" with an irate motorist when you can stay in the comfort of your own home, watching these avatar racers and listening to your favourite music? You can have that for the price of your favourite designer winter cycling kit - Le Col, Rapha, Pas Normal Studios etc.

It's really handy isn't it? Well, I must say all this indoor cycling isn't for me really. 

I am very much a firm believer in riding outdoors. True it can be challenging trying to find a decent day to ride when your fingers and toes don't go numb. Furthermore, the chance of punctures shoots up when riding on damp debris-covered roads you get a lot in winter - and frustratingly I have had a few. 

But despite all that, I must say I like the feel of the road under my wheels. Even if Zwift can replicate routes and gradients, it can't quite simulate the feel of a rough road, a head wind or street furniture, and of course other road users. I feel if I spent time on Zwift I would lose the ability to deal with that.

For me, all those rough and ready elements are part of the fun and adventure of cycling. It also improves my road craft when riding - be it when commuting or racing.

A couple of people I follow on Strava ride exclusively on Zwift. Then there is the odd day when they attempt to cycle outdoors, only to abandon their ride because they were terrified of the traffic. That's clearly the downside to riding in a virtual world. So for me, that can't be a great advert for Zwift. I would definitely avoiding that rider if they turned up at a road race or group ride I am doing as well. They'd be too much of a liability.

So, as much as Zwift provides the benefits and fun moments I mentioned above, I will always opt to keep my cycling firmly in the real world!