Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ride Across Britain - Day 4

Day 4 was racecourse to racecourse, Ludlow to Haydock Park. While Ludlow is a sleepy little place in the middle of nowhere, Haydock is smack between Manchester and Liverpool. The weather forecast called for no rain, but I decided to carry my rain gear anyway. Unlike most people, who are riding road bikes with very limited storage space, I have my eoGear bag set, a small bag and a large bag that fit onto a modified dual bottle cage holder that attaches to the rear of the saddle. The bags are soft and compress down when not full.

The day starts with some climbing to skirt the Stiperstone hills. I realize that my GoPro camera is low on battery because it keeps turning off after a few seconds. Since I have a eWerk charger connected to my dynamo hub (another randonneuring feature of the bike), I have been charging two 2000ma cache batteries continuously. I remove the GoPro from its protective waterproof cover and attach it to the charger. Unfortunately I evidently failed to tighten the bolt back because when I get to the first rest stop I discover the bolt has fallen out. So no more video today.

The rest of the day is pretty flat ride across the Cheshire plain. The bad news is that there is a headwind/crosswind which makes the going slower than you would like. It's also quite chilly.

One of the features of RAB is that the route generally stays away from big towns and cities, so it is a bit strange to come to a main road crossing and see a sign for Manchester. Hard to believe that we've come so far north in just four days.

Then I saw this banner!

It belonged to Mr Gambatte, who had done the ride last year and loved it so much he was moved to created the banner and come out and support the riders. We chatted for a while and he loved the fact that I had come over from California to do the ride.

Shortly afterwards we cross the Manchester ship canal over an old creaky toll bridge (free to bikes!).

Then it was the run into Haydock Park. At which point my Garmin went haywire and started insisting I make as U-turn as I was off course. It had lost the course on a number of previous occasions and then later announced that it had found it again, but this insistence was unusual. In addition, it also coincided with a long stretch without any of the RAB directional signs, so I began to take it seriously. Since we were in a built up area with shops, I stopped and asked someone if we were on the right road for Haydock Park. The news wasn't convincing. The answer was yes, except if I was a car driver the answer was not really, because a car would have taken the left on the main road that we just crossed. Since that was a seriously busy road I decided to continue. After a while, a RAB sign appeared but then I got paranoid thinking it could be a tomorrow's sign leading away from the camp! Fortunately it wasn't and we eventually entered the racecourse through a back door entrance.

Haydock was indeed a much more impressive place than Ludlow, with a huge stand. The tents were across the finishing straight, which had been covered with a walkway to protect the course.

I just barely got to my tent before the shower that had been threatening for a while hit the site, so I stayed in my tent while it blew over, before heading to the shower. The next order of business was to see if Halfords could help me fix my GoPro. Fortunately my handlebar mount had a second plastic tightening bolt that didn't need to be adjusted ever, so I figured if I could get a fixed bolt I could replace the one I lost with that. And indeed Halfords found a suitable bolt, so I was back in business.

The catering facilities were to a very high standard, including actual linen tablecloths and servers dressed in fancy uniforms. The food was pretty good too! The bad news at the briefing was that the weather forecast for the next day was bad; steady rain in the morning, possibly clearing later in the day. There was even worse news about the base camp at Penrith. Evidently, the area had experienced biblical amounts of rain in the last couple of days and the site was currently a swamp. Oh well.

Elevation and Distance

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Ride Across Britain - Day 3

It's definitely easier to roll out of a bed than a sleeping bag in a tent. However, being up four flights of stairs made it a toss up in the end. The fair weather, which has lasted since we arrived ten days ago, had come a week too soon and was on the way out. But only a chance of showers was forecast in the ride area so I elected to dispense with the rain gear.

Today was the shortest day, only 99 miles to Ludlow race course. We descended into Bath, which was basking in the morning sun, and then climbed the hill on the other side of the town.

Bath wakes up to the sun

It was a tough climb out of Bath that early, and after a larger breakfast than I usually have before rides, but we eventually reached a plateau that ultimately descended to the Seven estuary. It was clear that we had left the sleepy south-west behind us; there was a lot of traffic heading to work, probably in the city of Bristol, and the roads really weren't suitable for drivers in a hurry and 500 bikes at the same time. Some of the drivers were clearly quite frustrated.

A big day for new counties; here we briefly enter Wiltshire.
Then a steady descent to cross the Severn estuary via the Severn suspension bridge. Not quite as impressive as the Golden Gate but in the same league.

Briefly, we enter Wales and hit the first rest stop in Chepstow, which has an impressive castle.

Then back into Gloucestershire, England and a climb up to the Forest of Dean. The weather is deteriorating and sure enough it soon starts raining. Nor does it look like a "shower", its pretty heavy and it looks to be set in for a while. I pull off to put on my vest but I'm ruing the decision to not bring the real rain gear. I get pretty darn wet pretty fast but bike gear is a bit like a wetsuit, so you don't get that cold, which is important. The worst thing is not having the waterproof shoe covers and my feet are swimming. At least I have two pairs of gloves so I can keep one pair reasonable dry.

The rain lasts about 20 minutes, which I suppose counts as a shower. Perhaps it's coincidence but I notice that my fenders are loose. The front is easy to fix but it turns out that the screw holding the rear fender to the frame at the brake has dropped out. I tighten everything as best I can but the rear fender is destined to bounce around requiring periodic re-tightening.

We enter Herefordshire and ride alongside the River Wye. This is a part of the UK that I have never visited before and I have to say that it is very picturesque indeed. We skirt the town of Hereford and then go off into the Green lanes again. One scary moment after rounding a bend to see the entire road covered in sand and mud. Fortunately I'm not going fast.

Finally back onto proper roads and the easy run into Ludlow. Through the town and a few miles on is the racecourse and the base camp. It's quite small but has a nice feel to it. The weather has dried out completely now but I decide it's time to get my fenders properly fixed as it surely is going to rain later in the week. I decide that a small zip tie will hold the rear fender just as well as the bolt did. I also switch the front and back stays fixing the initial assembly error at Lands End. One problem messing with bikes on grass is dropping a small part and sure enough I drop one of the stay bolts and spend about five minutes before finding it!

It's massage day again and also laundry day. There's a laundry service here and then every two days. You can get two jersey and two shorts washed, which means you only need carry three sets of kit. There is also an on-site drying tent and a lot of people do their own washing and dry it overnight.

The catering is being done by the same crew as we had at Lands End and it's just as good. Since I managed to find a seat close to the front I actually get to see the people involved in the briefing, for once. Tonight, Rebecca Romero, Olympic gold medalist in rowing and track cycling, regales us with the story of her attempt to break the LEJOG record non-stop on a tandem with Threshold co-founder James Cracknell. They didn't quite make it, but rode 50 hours before Rebecca's knee gave out. No doubt this challenge would impress some of my more extreme ultra-cycling friends, but the knee issue just reminded me that pushing yourself that hard is insane!

Elevation and Distance
Elevation and Distance

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ride Across Britain - Day 2

Big decision - to put on the bike gear before or after breakfast? Today I chose the latter as I seemed to have plenty of time and knew the routine. Breakfast was packed again and, once again, the porridge pots were all empty. So I started with the full English and then had porridge later. I asked around if I'd missed anything important at the briefing, but evidently not. It turned out that the most important information, about the route, was retransmitted to each group of departing riders in the morning. Evidently today was going to be less hilly overall than day 1, but the hills were, in Andy's vernacular, more "grippy". This, evidently, meant "steep". Strange term really because, as the hill gets steeper, the front wheel gets less grippy and may even lift of the road.

My friend Mike had actually got out of bed and walked up to the start to wave me off, unlike my good wife! I just managed to spot him and call out as I was passing, else I'm sure he would have missed me as he was on the far side of the road with about twenty riders in the group.

A few years go I would have gone out without arm and leg warmers, knowing that the forecast was for a slightly warmer day. However, my knees don't like anything under 15C these days, so I was dressed for cool. Good thing too because, shortly after leaving Okehampton we climbed into the mist and it felt really quite cold and damp, especially as were now riding on a plateau so making a good speed.

Into the mist

Rest stop 1 was in the village of Bampton, where we encountered a big traffic jam entering the village. It turned out that a herd of sheep was being taken through the center of the village! The rest stop was just after the barn they were heading for so you can imagine the chaos. Not a good time to be in a car.

Sheep in town

The rest stop was pretty crazy, being on two sides of the road just after a narrow bridge over a river. There were bikes and bodies everywhere but, happily the lines for drink and food moved quickly. Since I had missed the first rest stop on day 1, it was a pleasant surprise to find that "lunch", by way of a variety of sandwiches, was part of the fare.

One half of the rest stop

I met a young girl on the bridge eating my sandwich and asked her how her ride was going. It turned out that she had only started riding in April, and here she was aiming for nine centuries in a row. The optimism of youth!

Sometime after the rest stop, the road surface deteriorated, and these were fairly main roads. Lots of badly worn chipseal made for a very bumpy ride. It seems that UK highway builders use a larger chip than in the US, around 3/4". So when the tarmac in between fails, the resulting surface is much bumpier. Since my left shoulder was also complaining I wasn't very comfortable on the bike. I was trying to keep my left elbow down to keep the trapezium stretched out, but it wasn't easy.

A little further on, we entered Somerset.

We then rode a fairly flat section that we had been advised at the start briefing to recover on. Unfortunately I was enjoying recovering too well and not concentrating on the route. After a roundabout at which I blithely carried on I went off course. My Garmin didn't alert me immediately or if it did, I didn't notice, but eventually I became concerned about the lack of bikes on the road - you are usually catching someone or they are catching you. Checking the map, and noting that the Garmin now said I was off course, I realized I had missed a turn, so back I went. At least it was flat but it cost me about five miles. Not so the correct route. That had been a sharp left turn just after the roundabout and went up very steeply at about 12%.

However, this was just a warm up as up next was the crossing of the Quantock hills.

These aren't very wide but they certainly are steep! The climb up Cothelstone Road was 3 miles long and had sections at 15% or more. A lot of people were walking up, but what goes up must come down and there was a nice descent before heading rest stop 2, which was at a pub with a nice garden. It was pretty warm and I had a wonderful a pint of shandy (Beer and Sprite in America), along with the usual goodies. There was then a long flat section into Cheddar and the big climb of the day up Cheddar gorge. This starts off steeply and there is a lot of tourist traffic but it soon flattens out to a reasonable grade even if it does go on for about six miles. I stopped just before the top for a food break and got on the back of a peloton, or "train" as we like to call them over here. The train rolled along very nicely before it got a bit hilly again and then split into two. I was surprised to find myself hanging with the faster pack but shortly before entering Bath I had to drop off as the pace especially on the uphills was just a bit too much.

We didn't have to enter Bath proper as the University, where we were staying, is on the south side and, feeling pretty good, I rolled into the finish to be greeted by Jenny and Anna again and Bee and Stewart, old friends who live in Bristol. A bit of a panic though, as Anna had almost run out of fuel in our hire car and couldn't get it started! Jenny, Bee and Stewart had also had a frustrating time going in circles and following the route signs for the next day trying to find the finish!

All I wanted to do was get a shower and something to eat, but first I had to get my room sorted. The room was great, quite new with en-suite shower, but it was on the fourth floor and no elevator. My legs didn't really appreciate that.

After the shower, we went off to find Anna and the car and, of course, it started first time for me! These hybrids can be tricky! Apparently Bath is built on an old volcano and certainly the hill dropped off very steeply to the south, where we went to get some fuel. At the garage I spotted a RABer who had sadly taken a wrong turn, waiting for a ride to the finish - he was done.

Another night playing hooky at the pub, with one pint of real ale this time, and then actually back in time for dessert and the daily briefing, and off to a real bed.

Elevation and Distance

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Ride Across Britain - Day 1

It's always hard to sleep the night before a big ride, and being in a tent didn't help. The alarm call (supposedly motivating loud music) was at 5:30am but I was already awake. Ride time was between 7am and 8am and, of course, everyone wanted to get an early start. That wasn't really possible, however, as riders were only let go in groups. So you were either first in line or you got to wait your turn. I found it pretty hard every day to eat breakfast, pack up the gear, haul it to the UPS trucks for transport to the next base camp, get ready to ride, etc., in the 90 minute window. I think I rode out at about 7:30 but I had plenty of company. Breakfast was a bit of a zoo; the porridge (oatmeal), one of my favorite pre-ride foods, was in short supply, but there was a full English cooked breakfast available, various other cereals, toast etc. I eventually stabilized on porridge and the cooked breakfast as my daily fare, but often had to wait for the porridge pot to get refilled.

The weather was good but fairly quickly we entered the mist; very reminiscent of San Francisco fog! The road was up and down, quite bumpy, wet from the mist and there were a lot of riders, so concentration was important. I fairly quickly found a group that seemed to be my pace when I noticed a rattling noise coming from the bike. I'm always expecting something to come loose after I've assembled the bike but was shocked to see the headset bolt rattling around! So I quickly pulled over and tightened it up and checked everything else before setting off again, which proved tricky as the stream of bikes coming down was seemingly endless. Eventually I rode off on the right hand side of the road and just merged in with the stream. Remembering to ride on the left side of the road was one of the my challenges!

It was not long before we entered Penzance, which is the local "big town" with rail connections to London, then we were off into the country with the weather still misty. I wasn't consciously riding in a group but at this stage the riders hadn't separated much so there were always others close by. Shortly we entered the first of the crazy narrow Cornish roads, more accurately "green lanes", basically a single track road with either grass or mud down the center, and a riding lane of about 3 feet. Tall hedges so you can't see what's coming around a bend and really not wide enough for bike and a car to pass side by side. Of course there are occasional passing places for two cars, which requires backing up, but the locals seem to drive on the assumption that they have the road to themselves. Needless to say, putting 500 hundred bikes on such roads caused a few problems!

The entrance to the first green lane was, unusually it must be said, also horribly pot-holed, and a couple riders in front of me collided trying to avoid them and went down. Fortunately, no serious injuries, but a warning that group riding in such conditions was a bit risky so I vowed to keep my distance from other riders.

After many ups and downs, both slow due to the nature of the road, I arrived at the first rest stop at about 37 miles. RAB had two rest stops splitting the day into three segments that were on the long side for a century but typical for the double centuries and brevets that I usually ride. I was a bit concerned about this first stop as it being the first day, everyone had left base camp in a tight time window and the distance wasn't enough to really break up the pack. And indeed, I arrived to see a very, very long line. Since I wasn't out of either drink or food, I elected to go to "rando" mode and continue on, hoping to come across a store in the near future. Given RAB's route through the back lanes this was actually a bit iffy but as luck would have it we soon skirted a town and to avoid a busy road crossing, went down to a roundabout where there was a garage with a mini-mart, where I was able to stock up.

By this time the mist had cleared and the day was warming up, so I'd removed the arm and leg warmers. The ride continued in much the same style to the second rest stop which was much better, being in a large open space, and much less busy. The rest stop food was basically pre-packaged, sandwiches, Cadbury's chocolate, bananas, energy bars and, yes, pork pies, a classic British delicacy. My dad loved them but not my taste even when hungry on the bike.

The ride, which had been hilly enough already, got more so as we skirted Bodmin moor and then started a steady but undulating climb to the destination at Okehampton which was at 1000'. The last 10 miles was an endless sequence of big rollers, each one climbing a bit higher than the last, but always descending first before regaining the higher summit. Finally we descended into the town and then, after a long delay at traffic lights, climbed up to the base camp at the local college. Jenny and her sister, Anna, partner Jim, son Sam and old friends Mike and Margaret, who had traveled a couple of hundred miles down from Sheffield, were there to cheer me in.

Racking the bike at the end of the day

I was pretty happy with my ride time given the amount of climbing and slow roads, but my left shoulder was bugging me quite a bit and I was looking forward to my massage which, although only 15 minutes, was being provided every other day by a group of volunteer physical therapy students from Birmingham University.

After finding my tent I went off to experience the portable showers, of which there were 14 in all. The line was surprisingly short and, even though we were requested to keep the shower to 4 minutes (500 riders, do the math), it was enough to wash off the sweat of the day. Time was rather tight as I wanted to meet up with Jenny and friends in the pub later, but I wanted some food asap as I was starving. I had scheduled the massage for 6:15 hoping to get food immediately the service opened at 6:00. On this day (only), they were late starting, but I just managed to scarf it down in time for the massage. Later I had a second dinner in pub!

My foray to the pub meant that I missed the "mandatory" daily briefing, and I struggled back up the hill to a very quiet camp and settled down for the night.

Elevation and Distance

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ride Across Britain - Arrival Day

Getting Ready

Jenny and I arrived in the UK early Friday morning, a week before the ride, picked up a rental car and headed for Northampton, where Jenny grew up and her family still mostly live. Doing RAB on jet lag would be no fun, hence the week to acclimatize and do some family visiting. One big event was our 30th wedding anniversary party on the Sunday at a nice pub on the Grand Union Canal, with most of the family present. Time flew by and Wednesday saw us heading down to Devon via a night at the Pudding Club in the Cotswolds. The plan was for me to pick up one of the coach transfers arranged by RAB from Exeter Airport to Lands End on the Friday, while Jenny stayed with her sister who lives nearby. They were then going to do some traveling, meeting up with me at a couple of the base camps.

The weather during this first week was outstanding, but I knew it couldn't last and rain was forecast for the middle of the RAB week. One item I had failed to find at home was my RainLegs, which are a really cool design by a Dutch company. I tried without much success to locate a dealer with some stock and amazingly the only one I could find was actually really close to Exeter. So we picked those up on the way. I realized I also needed some straps to attach the sleeping bag to my rucksack and stopped off in Newton Abbott for those, collecting a parking ticket as a bonus.

After final packing my (too small) rucksack, we departed on Friday morning for Exeter Airport, where I picked up the coach.

As you can see we had our own branded coach!

After months of website interaction, it was fun to finally meet some fellow RABers in the flesh. Everyone was a bit apprehensive as we chatted about our experiences and expectations. It's interesting that during the ride I seemed to regularly run into a lot of the people I met on on the bus - I guess we were together long enough to recognize each other quickly - Richard and Vicky in particular. Richard managed to write a real-time blog each day, which was way more than I could manage.

Finally after several more pick up stops, we arrived at Lands End. The weather was absolutely gorgeous. Evidently in previous years this has not been the case and I was happy that I would be able to assemble the bike in such nice conditions. After getting my tent number (a daily ritual), my roll-up air mattress and my Powerade bottles, I found my tent and dumped my bag.

Part of the tent city

Now it was time to assemble the bike.

The bike in it's suitcase - is it really all there?

Several people were amazed that a real bike could fit in the regulation sized S+S suitcase, including Hugh Webb who stopped by early in the assembly. It was good to finally meet Hugh who like me, had been quite active on the RAB web site (known as the rider hub). As always it took me longer than I would like to put the bike together. I also made a couple of mistakes, one of which required installing a new front derailleur cable because I hadn't paid attention to the cable routing when installing the fork. I hate adjusting front derailleurs, so made good use of the Halfords support team to do this and adjust it properly. I also realized that I had put the fender stays on the wrong wheels (they are slightly different lengths), but decided to live with this (for a while at least) as the clock was ticking and I had to get my photo taken at the infamous signpost, and then eat.

At the signpost, without bike unfortunately. Note the clear blue sky!

Catering was in a huge marquee, although not quite huge enough. It was a tight fit to get everyone in, especially for the daily briefing. The food, however, was outstanding, something that would be true each and every day. After dinner we had the briefing, starting with some inspirational words from "Mack", one of the founders of the organizers, Threshold Sports, and a big driver behind the RAB idea, who was riding the whole ride for the first time. This day we also had some spiel from Deloitte, the main sponsors, and then a lot of logistical information, finishing with a weather forecast and words from the route designer, Andy Cook, about tomorrow's route. The medical team were very focused on getting us to use the hand sanitizers which were everywhere around the camp as, evidently, they had a terrible "tummy bug" outbreak in the first year that spread like wildfire. Then it was off to bed. Returning to the tent, wearing the all important headlamp, I was amazed how quickly the dew had formed making the grass soaking wet.