Wednesday, 23 April 2014

To Di2 for?

"Hello, my name is Beate Kubitz and I am a gear mangler."

Thus begins my confession at bike-wreckers anonymous. My fantasy self-help group who will listen sympathetically to my weekly unburdening that I am a klutz. A seasoned destroyer of finely machined chains and mechs, breaker of derailleur hangers and greatest fan of the power link.

Me? This?
So when I won my BMC Granfondo, once I'd finished squeaking with excitement and delight and utter overwhelmedness, I nearly called them right back to confess to them that I, in no way, deserve a bike with Shimano Di2 electronic gears.

Give me a piece of bling, and I will find a way to chew and snarl it up. I regularly ride with my chain in exactly the wrong position, at full diagonal stretch from front chainring to rear cassette. There's usually a gentle clearing of the throat from behind me to warn me that Chipps is about to commence his reproachful mantra 'darling, did you mean to be in your big ring right now?'.  'Oh no, I was just changing up (or down)' I lie cheerfully, whilst shifting away, accompanied by a horrendous set of clickings, crunchings and crackings as I try to find a more appropriate combination of cogs.

I couldn't quite admit to BMC that I wreak this kind of havoc. So the call wasn't made and the email remains unsent. And I went to Evans to be presented with the Granfondo, looking sleek and smooth and just beautiful. Press on the shifter paddle, and a discreet whirr indicates that you are shifting. Just keep turning the pedals and a new gear will present.

I rode out with trepidation. Expecting to do my worst and have to return to Evans, shame-faced and clutching bits of chain and cog in an oily rag, hoping they would sort out whatever disaster I'd created.

But that's the thing. The gears just work. The little motor shifts precisely so there's no doubt you'll be in the gear you ask. There's no cable stretch because you don't tension the cable. Di2 means that the cable is really a power lead between the switch (the gear shifters) and the motor which moves the derailleur. So I won't be having to change the cable or adjust the gears to allow for changing cable length as it stretches with use (something that has had me flummoxed on long rides before). It won't get harder to shift as the cable wears and is coated with road grime. It'll just keep transmitting a little electrical power surge to the tiny motor, which will make this shift exactly like the last.

So what else do I love about it? It doesn't moan when I put it into the wrong gear and it's by far the easiest bike to correct if I do (wrong gears are always a sign that I'm tired, so this is hugely appreciated). Ooh and you can press and hold the shifter paddles and the chain will skip up or down the back cassette as happily as a spring lamb for as long as you do. Gone are the days of multiple repeats of the shift, click, crunch cycle, and I feel a better woman for it.

Easily removed in a hotel room
Removing the derailleur for travelling is easy - you just unplug the cable before un-mounting the derailleur. And there's no faffing putting it back, it plugs in and the gears work without any adjustment (Well, they did for me. Adjusting them isn't too bad - there's a reset button or for finer adjustments, a YouTube video below). The battery pack needs unplugging when you remove the seat post too, but that's it.

This generation of Di2 is less chunky than the last, the motorised derailleur is remarkably compact with hidden battery concealed in the seat post so there's minimal extra paraphernalia other than a little junction box to be mounted on your handlebars (where adjustments can be made and the charger plugged in) which is the least aesthetic bit. Internal cable routing makes sense - given that it's an electrical cable, rather than a cable which is under tension - so routing round corners isn't an issue. It should be very low maintenance (the indicators are good so far but ask me again in another few thousand kilometres).

If you've always thought that gears were illogical (yeah, why does the same action shift up with your left hand and down with your right?) you can change that now and have your Di2 programmed however you like. All gears going up on the left and down on the right? Yes you can do that. All your other bikes are traditional and you don't want to be confused? You can keep it traditional too.

So, I am a starry-eyed Di2 convert. I already was secretly impressed when Chipps used one of the early models on his 2012 Three Peaks 'cross bike and it rode through the infamous Pen y Ghent headset-deep river which was a 'feature' of that year's race. The gears worked perfectly even after total immersion, and a couple of weeks later when we could finally face looking at our bikes again (it had been the worst race weather on record) the motor whirred obediently back to life as though the bike hadn't just been callously abandoned in a barn.

I've always thought that you need to work your way up on bikes - start with slightly clunky kit that you learn on and then finesse it over time. And I am wary of over-complication and over-engineering simple processes. But I'm changing.  Di2 has made my riding so much easier - I worry much less about gear changes and therefore am always seeking the perfect gear for the situation - that it's something that anyone who rides a reasonable amount should consider sooner rather than later.

Up, up and away

Monday, 14 April 2014

Wrynose. Not Bust.

This week I came back to earth with a bump. Everything seems to have gone wrong. Two days to sort out a faulty phone line in the shop, hardly denting the enormous pile of admin and Chipps is away so there's no cycling to work whilst I've sole custody of Clover the poodle.

So, what should a girl do to have something to look forward to? Oh, yes, of course. A 112 mile sportive from Lancaster, over the Wrynose pass and then back again. Can't be too bad can it?

The logistics were 'interesting'. A 4am start to walk Clover the poodle before setting off in the mighty Doblo to arrive in Lancaster by 6.30am. I've never done anything like this before on my own, but I quite enjoyed spending Saturday preparing for it. I cleaned the kitchen so that I could set my bike up in it. Popped over to Blazing Saddles for a spare power link for my chain (just in case) and they kindly gave my bike a quick once over and tightened a few bolts (!). Then I set out all the food ready. Got out my BMC bag and organised riding gear and post-ride gear. It was great having a set of kit that all worked together. Perfectly orderly and organised.

At 5.05am I set off for Lancaster. The motorways were empty and the directions all worked. I pulled into the car park. Signed on. Set myself up.  Chatted idly to the chaps in the cars next to me.

"How long do you reckon it'll take?"
"Oh, I'll do it in 7 hours". In a slightly disdainful tone which implied that I most definitely wouldn't come anywhere near that.

OK, so I am in flash new kit with a flash new bike. Maybe I look like all the gear, no idea. Or maybe they're just seeing girl on a bike. Of the 106 entries when I entered, I was one of two women. I wondered why?

I'd looked at the Wrynose or Bust route profile and it wasn't excessive, Chipps and I rode comparable rides in Spain. For fun. I've been over the Hardknott and Wrynose passes before (although I turned the air blue with expletives) and I fancied a rematch on my new bike. I was hoping that the Granfondo would give me wings. I decided I'd rather do it on a signposted route, in a group when there were people around, than on my own, whilst Chipps was away.

So there I was at the start, suddenly feeling that I needed to do it in a decent time just to prove that I was worth my amazing bike and my flash kit, and that it's no big for women to ride, and ride well.

It wasn't a mass start, we just trickled out, one at a time. Not a good sign for getting into a group and sharing the wind. I couldn't persuade my Garmin to work so I just decided to go for it. Found a bloke, chatted to him. Jumped into a little group, couldn't keep up with it. But found another. And so on. Taking my turn if they'd let me.

With nothing apart from a vague memory of the route and geography to tell me where I was or what time it was, it was quite a surprise when we hit the feed stop at 44 miles. This marked the transition from the rolling section of the route to the start of the Lakeland climbs. We'd come a fair way, round the coast and through changing countryside. A nice jaunt, but now it was time for the hills to turn into mountains, capped with fells and scree. Clouds hovering round them, but luckily today, not closing in.

I stuffed down malt bread and bananas and started out when another chap went. I couldn't keep up with him (or rather I couldn't accelerate when he did which amounts to the same thing but is an annoying process). So I slogged out that section on my own.  It took me through the gorgeous Dudden Valley, which rolls through stunted woodlands, and grassy sheep strewn verges. I recalled riding it once, in the opposite direction. And with delight realised that the route would only take us over the Wrynose, skipping its even nastier friend the Hardknott.

A chap caught me and we played tag as he out-climbed me, but I raced past him on the descents. Eventually he overhauled me, and became a marker ahead, a white shape leading onwards, towards the Wrynose Pass.

There's a long, flat aisle laid out before the alter of Wrynose. Which means that, as you look ahead, you see the procession of cyclists that clearly sped before you, suspended on the face of the pass to come. With a few moments observation, it's apparent that they're slowly hauling and winching themselves up and over the pass. And soon it will be your turn.

I took the road that reared before me steadily. It's not quite as intimidating if you keep your eyes down and only look at a section at a time. I was standing in my pedals over the steep bits, sitting every time the gradient lessened. It's always a relief to reach the top. And the air was not blue.

The descent is rapid and twisting, a case of not overcooking the brakes whilst looking looking looking round corners and down the valley for approaching cars, stray sheep and any other impediments. A guy in front of me had blown his tyre. I tried to let my brakes breathe whenever I could see far enough ahead to let rip.

The killer with the Wrynose is not the pass, that's done in the head and with will power. The kicker is the steady climb after it towards Ambleside. It's where the damage the pass has wreaked on your legs is apparent. I could feel the start of cramp. I swallowed a gel. Fumbled for more food. But kept spinning. The battle between relief that the pass is over and disappointment that it's not all downhill from there has to be won.

I was expecting Ambleside at any minute, but the route swung round before reaching the town proper and took us to another timing station (66 miles done) and then towards Hawkshead. I'd forgotten where the next feed station was on the route and was feeling my legs. Another gel helped. A couple of guys passed me at the feed station. I caught one of them and we chatted our way along Windermere.

Someone had meddled with the arrows and there was confusion in the last few miles before the feed station at High Newton (86 miles). I panicked that we'd never reach it and when we did, relieved, stopped a little longer than I should have done, hungry and tired. My companion over the last section left whilst I was still stuffing down an egg sandwich and second cup of tea. I thought there were people with me when I left, but ended up ahead of them and riding alone.

There was a great descent out of High Newton, twisty and steep and rough. Kind of fun. Perfect on the Granfondo, which feels stable and secure even on the steepest bends. But then the route was back into ripping along flat lands and rolling hills. There was a series of climbs which started to put me into the wind. A couple of pairs overtook me, but I couldn't keep with them for more than a mile. If I could settle in behind I was fine, but I need to learn to accelerate. On the other hand, I'd see groups ahead and speed along to catch them only to realise that they were slower participants of the shorter routes. Sitting behind them would only get me home to my poodle at a snail's pace.

Overtaking one such group, I suddenly realised that I'd ridden ninety odd miles and could still outride people who'd done a shorter course. Maybe my training had done some good. I could feel proud.

The last ten miles was howling, and I felt battered by the constant onslaught. I was joined for maybe the last three by the chap I'd played chase with on the Dudden Valley. Funny how things pan out. We chatted and took turns to deliver ourselves out of the wind and home to the blessed relief of the Halton base.

I took 8 hours and 9 minutes to complete the course. 112 miles and 2,800m of elevation. Overall, I was 35th, out of over a hundred entrants. I hope that was respectable enough for anyone who raised an eyebrow at the start not to do so the next time they see a woman signing on.

As for the other lady, she finished last, in 11hours and 14 minutes. But she did it. Where were the rest of us? There were plenty of women doing the two shorter rides run alongsdie, but just the two of us taking the route more epic.

For our pains though, we had a great day out. There was all the cake a girl could eat (if she wanted) and some very fine chaps to chat with on the ride. The event was well organised, sign posted and marshalled. The checkpoints and feed stations were run by jolly, kind and encouraging people - despite standing at their posts for goodness knows how long.

I suppose it's reasonably hard work to see the scenery, but a ride like this is rewarding. Each variation reminds you how far you've come, from the flat lands of the coast, inland to touch the clouds and back, rolling through woodland, then farmland and to within a breath of the sea. There's all that landscape wrapped into the pride and elation of reaching the end of the ride.

Wrynose or Bust
SportIdent times
The beautiful bike

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Big Day

I spend quite a number of rides wondering why I am on the bike, debating with myself the relative merits of a nice sit down with a good book or simply pulling the duvet over my head and rolling over into blissful sleep. 

I can't say that this was one of them. 

Despite the desperately early start. Being ready to leave with bike, back up bags, organised food supplies and wearing the appropriate clothes by 6am was a challenge. I'm rubbish in the morning and this compounded my fear that I wasn't properly prepared or would screw up by forgetting something essential. I arranged my sink so with everything I needed to do around the edge. Spread clothes out on the floor and wrote a series of notes in block capitals. Do I really need to be told to brush my teeth? Yes I do.

Fill bottles, brush teeth, drink beetroot… etc


BMC had arranged cars to get us to the ride and to meet us with food and spares along the route. It was still black when we loaded up, clutching croissants from the deserted breakfast buffet, and an eerie quarter light when we unpacked into the Bruges square. The police were moving cars on fast and we fumbled, flustered and scurried to get wheels on and kit sorted. Squeezing gels into my pockets and hoping it was enough. Wriggling into last minute leg warmers having underestimated the pre-dawn chill.

Then we were ready, the light was clearing and we made our way to the inflatable arch which marked the start. I was glad to be with the BMC group - guys who'd ridden the Ronde many times and some who'd done it as pro riders as well as us, the six lucky Granfondo Experience winners. I was so nervous I just needed to follow the group.

But that's the thing. As soon as the cranks turn and the wheels spin, it's all familiar again. The timing beep sounds as we scoot over the line and then we're bowling through Bruges streets in the early light. It's started. A great big rush of joy starts at my toes and ends in a grin. That hardly departs all day.

We are stopped at a bridge being raised to let a large boat sail downriver. I look at the guys round me in BMC jerseys. The first ear worm of the day wriggled awake: I'm sticking to you, because I'm made out of glue. I don't think Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were really into bike riding but this incongruous 70s number fuelled my magnetic attraction to the BMC jerseys and wheels in front of me.

The group was to stay together for the first 100km. This was a mixture of major and minor roads and bike lanes. Some of the bigger roads were really exposed and a couple of guys from the BMC Concept store made it their mission to keep me out of the wind, making sure I was protected by being in groups and that I didn't drop off the end at junctions and traffic lights. I watched the speed on the Garmin. 35, 36 even 39 km per hour. And the distance counter ticking up at a hitherto unimaginable pace.  Peloton riding is fun. 

The riders in the Granfondo experience were a mixture of the uber trained and the more mortal. Davy from Belgium belonged in the former category and rode rings round us - literally.  Dropping back to make sure we were all there and then accelerating forward to span the whole group with good humour. He gave me the second ear worm. We're nearly there, he quipped, at about 45km. And we all roared with 'Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies'.

Kathi and Frank, her partner who came along for the ride.
Christoffe in the foreground and Steffan in the back.
At 100 km he roared off to meet the cobbles singing 'Here comes the sun', only (we heard later) to be beasted by fellow Belgian, Steven, whose brainchild the Granfondo Experience is. The next group was also pretty fast -  ex-pro riders Christoff and Stijn on the front with super fit athlete Fiola keeping them on their toes whilst shepherding Alex and Peter from Brazil and Sweden respectively. I could catch the BMC train and stay with it for a while, but I didn't dare accelerate when they went off. I wanted to have enough in my legs to climb the cobbles and I worried that blasting off would use them up. I was, compared to Peter, Alex and Davy, very underprepared. They were all aficionados of the 200km+ ride. I'd never ridden this far in my life.

So I let them go. There were three stops when the van met us though, and each time I found that I wasn't really far behind. The youngsters (as I like to think of those under 30), Joe from the US and Kathi from Germany would roll up a little behind me. Kathi, determined to take it at her own pace was honing a special range of German expletives to describe the cobbled climbs.

Positive Vibrations

I loved riding the flat and rolling pave, pulling out the stops to overtake everyone in front of me, thrilling at the whirr when I reached the magic speed at which it seemed to smooth (a little). Then on the roads I'd judiciously sneak into groups and sit behind bigger riders until my mind was filled with a jumble of club jersey names from Belgium and Holland. I wondered what van Meesters did and mused that surely Mulder should be accompanied by Sculley. Sometimes we chatted, sometimes not.

Find a big bloke and sit behind him...

At one point, someone came alongside me shouting a cheery 'congratulations'. I realised that probably quite a few people around me had entered the Granfondo competition. I countered with 'it's the hardest prize I've ever won' and he pedalled off, laughing. 

I rode for a while behind a chap from Witham Weavers. I asked where that was (Lincolnshire) and we rode along discussing where we'd come from and the utter splendidness of the day.

Once we hit another cobbled climb I went steady.  My gears were just perfect and before I realised it I was up the Koppenberg. It has an interesting and distinctively steep section with wheel-catchingly wide gaps between the cobbles half way up. But the bike climbed over them smoothly and I used the descents to make up places, loving the bike for letting me blast out of corners and storm past people on the long straights. Which is how I would catch the train a last time.

The BMC bus with Joe, Fiola, Christoffe, Peter and Steffan
I was in the BMC train when the Garmin clicked past 180km. I was now riding the longest distance I have ever ridden. It was sunny though, the lanes were lined with new green foliage, the light was glorious and I was happy. It was great to share the moment.

Then more cobbles and I let the train go. There were several bergs beginning with K before the final climbs of the day and the names - on a convenient sticker on my top tube - had begun to swim before my eyes. I didn't really storm up any of them, letting Fiola and the other fast guys do that for the team.

The penultimate berg, the Oude Kwaremont at 223km was my real nemesis. The climb itself is not too bad, but it's followed by a mile or so of flat cobbles which I had to take with no momentum and tiring legs. That was my only real moment of earthy German expletives.

Smile or grimace? A bit more tired now.

Then just the Paterberg. I'd caught up and then lost Pete from the Witham Weavers a few times, but this time he waited for me at the top. It was short and steep but over quickly. Relieved that we'd effectively done the Ronde, and without stepping off on any of the climbs, we chatted our way back to Oudenaarde, sitting behind a Belgian cycling club who kindly took the wind. My feet were pretty sore, but that could not damp my elation.

The faithful BMC van was waiting at the finish, there was beer. And frites. And a strange feeling. There were times that day that I didn't want it to end, the streaming sunshine, the speed, the warm air and the laughter. It was almost hard to finish, but good. A warm feeling of completion and pride. And I was still smiling.

Brilliant bike!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

With these hungry eyes

From this...

To this…. 

In just a hundred and eighty kilometres

'Hungry eyes' isn't awful as ear worms go. It was definitely on repeat in my head as we started out. We'd decided to go big with our first ride in Spain, and put together a huge loop, as long as we could string together. Travelling out north from the flat we are borrowing, out along the coast for nearly 50km before heading inland and up into the mountains that crowd the Costa Blanca.

'Now I've got you in my sights' as I kept my eyes on Chipps, not letting go of his back wheel. Drafting is a skill I have to practice. We were bemused that our 'flat' start climbed 800m before we even hit the first climb into the mountains. It was the hottest part of the day and suddenly seemed very quiet, stifling and I felt slightly sick. 

I had ordered lunch at 50km, deciding early that we needed to supplement the bars we were carrying. The dish I ordered turned out to be cold potatoes thickly coated in a delicious aioli. So much for my Spanish. Not plain boiled potatoes then. Also, so much for my cycling nutrition. Delicious, maybe, but heavy? Definitely. I am sure I read somewhere that fat makes carbohydrate more difficult to digest and slow to use. 

Perhaps that explained why, two and a half hours later, I still felt leaden, lethargic and nauseous as we wound up hill and into the mountains. The agriculture changed from orange to olive terraces, then downhill and back into pollarded cherry trees, thick with blossom.

Still smiling… how that would change!

The roads changed to high and rolling rather than continuously up hill. I tried eating a bar. We carried on, passing towns, contained to little islands hovering over the orchards. We lurched into one, Vall de Alcala, low on water and hot, and combed its little streets for a cafe. It's the only time I can drink Coca Cola, as my legs start to empty and at the onset of dehydration. We chased it down with coffees. With sugar. And with hindsight we'd have used our last 5 euros for extra provisions. But we didn't. 

I'd kept nibbling at the bars I was carrying but they were diminishing. We were back onto roads that we recognised from last year.  Familiarity might have cheered us up, but did not reduce the number of calories we needed for the climb up the pass from Benasau towards Confrides. We passed some stragglers who'd fallen off the back end of a train of cyclists that had passed us earlier. I exchanged a conspiratorial smile with one, but then got my head down and keep going. At least we knew how far it was and were bent on getting to the other side. 

It was slowly occurring to me that 'Hungry eyes' on endlessly in my head was telling me something. Urgently. I finished the last bar and launched into the descent. It's fast and winding and flashed past. Chipps is much faster than I am downhill but on my new bike I could keep with him by half a bend (rather than losing sight of him). 

There's a brief steep kick of a climb into the town of Confrides, and I stood up in my pedals to crest the hill. And realised that my pedalling was erratic. Somewhere in that last few miles, and unnoticed, all my last energy had been spent. I felt wobbly. And now that I noticed it, slightly sick.

'Come on' said Chipps, in a doubly, extra cheery voice. 'We're nearly at Benimantell'
'I'm hungry' 
'Yes, I am too' he said, redoubling the cheerful, making-an-effort voice. We pressed on. At Beninmantell, I looked sideways. But the cashpoint is in Guardalest. 'Another couple of miles. Then I can get some extra money and we can buy lots of food.'
'I feel sick'
'Yes, that's because you're hungry.'

He was holding out for Guardalest because it's a proper tourist town. A pretty fortification on top of a craggy plinth almost inaccessible to enemies. In the daytime, sunlight glints on gilded domes.  There are cafes and cashpoints right on the main road. There's even a snack vending machine on the roadside. With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder how many broken cyclists collapse across their doorsteps. The proprietor was amazingly understanding as Chipps ordered hot chocolate and tortillas and I sat with my head in my hands. The idea of just closing my eyes was so soothing and comforting. I could blank out the pounding in my temples and the weird nausea and feeling of seasickness that was closing in.

'Don't go to sleep' said Chipps. 'Drink this.'
I still felt sick, my head was hot. Everything hurt.

I sipped the chocolate. Even in my dreadful state it tasted good. Thick as custard and warm. I tried to eat. But the tortilla tasted too strange and strong so I tried nibbling the bread that came with it. I've never struggled to eat, but chewing seemed almost impossible. I had no saliva and the bread was (to me) dry and hard. Chewing the tiniest bit seemed to take hours. I collapsed back, head in hands, taking comfort in the dark and hoping that something would take effect and I'd get the strength to eat more.

How could I have got into such a state so quickly? In truth, you don't ever really get into a state instantaneously. It's the product of too few calories for too long. Not packing enough bars. Perhaps the indigestible potato aoili had not helped. At any rate this was a proper, full on, road riding tank emptying bonk as I had never quite experienced it. 

Yet the chocolate was working. I got through it and, as the bread was such an effort, ordered a second chocolate. Probably two or three hundred calories per cup. I hoped. The spoon almost stood up in it. Ruminating on the writing on the rim which seemed to indicate that it was fair trade and organic. Win win. After two chocolates each and when Chipps had wolfed his way through his tortilla with apparent ease, we thought we'd better get on our way. It was dark. He pocketed the remains of my tortilla and we set out.

I can't quite believe that we made it home. But once I got back on the bike everything seemed to work again. Fifteen miles flew by. I thanked the heavens that the bike seemed to know what it was doing, twisting round the bends of the descents at speed and taking every bump in the dark in its stride. We rolled down towards the sea, counting off the little climbs until we hit the coastal road that took us back to our door. 180km behind us and 3,000m of climbing.

Back home and a couple of slices of easy pizza before sliding into a very welcome bed. I couldn't eat too much but by 5am whatever metabolic processes had worked themselves out and prodded me until I was wide awake and had to acknowledge that I was starving. The leftover tortilla was found and scoffed. Followed by a banana and some rice pudding I'd luckily thought to buy and leave in the fridge. 

I am trying to avoid ever humming 'Hungry eyes' again.

As a post script, I have bought a stash of Spanish gels to ward off this kind of disaster. It was a very unpleasant lesson. But it's better learned today than in ten days time on the Tour of Flanders.