Audax UK National 400k. Dingwall

Every year, Audax UK throws its weight behind a “National 400k”. It started about 20 years ago, and I’m not sure why the 400km distance was selected, although it’s a good test of your average audaxer, requiring some night riding and possibly an overnight rest stop. There was one year recently where we had a whole range of “National” rides: 200k, 300k, 400k and 600k, but the 400 has always been the main one. This year it was an event out of Dingwall, near Inverness, taking in some of the most scenic roads in the very north of Scotland. It was scheduled for the end of July, so an ideal time for me to be testing myself and my PBP kit and also a good way to celebrate my 51st birthday just a few days before.

Work had gone a bit crazy lately and I couldn’t take much time off so I drove up on the Friday to a Youth Hostel in Inverness. A long drive, which I wasn’t looking forward to on the Sunday later.

Audax bike ready to go, complete with new Ortlieb lightweight saddlebag

Audax bike ready to go, complete with new Ortlieb lightweight saddlebag

Saturday dawned clear and crisp and while the rest of the country was battling storms and rain we were blessed with fine weather, albeit a little chilly – I had long sleeve tops on and legwarmers, in July. Some riders were only in jerseys and shorts but maybe they were a bit hardier than me and I was certainly not keen to have my achilles tendons twanging in the cold air. Off the 10am start I had a leisurely hour or so, jumping through a few groups and chatting to some familiar faces. We had a bit of a shower along here, the only rain we had all weekend, and then to the first control at Lairg. After that the roads quickly became even more rural – single track, snaking between magnificent hills and mountains. We were climbing and descending, but mainly following the valleys and the lochs. You’d often go an hour or more without seeing anything more than the odd isolated farmhouse or two. I saw a couple of snow patches up high too – a sign that this hasn’t been the best Scottish summer this year.

After the next control at Achfary, our route took us on a long excursion around the north-west coast, through some spectacular coastal scenery and on to the rollercoaster road to Tongue where I stopped for a hot plate of pasta and Bolognese. The catering on this event was second-to none. We’d paid a bit more than the usual Audax entry fee, and everything was thrown in – I didn’t spend a penny all ride:

The extensive menu

The extensive menu

As I was sitting down to eat my meal, four or five other riders rolled in. I was keen to keep moving and although the next section was constantly up and down and quite wearing, the views across sandy beaches and headlands more than made up for it.

Eventually, after another control at Strathy where I was surprised to find Phil Dyson (from just down the road from me in Didcot but here in Scotland on holiday) ready to stamp my brevet card, we turned inland, across shallow moorland territory. The sun was setting and adding vibrant colour to the sky and the land. Deer scampered across the road in front of me and others watched my passing from high on hilltops around. There was quite a bit of standing water here and I was aware that midges were in the air all around me – I’d better not tarry too long (although I had a midge net in my saddlebag in case I needed to stop)!

I rolled into the hall at Kildonan, and quickly scarpered inside – midges were everywhere. It was nice to stop for a cuppa and some delicious trifle before heading out to tackle the hard climb, south out of the control. This climb, over a place called Glen Loth I think, was the hardest of the route (it’s the spike at 300k on the map profile) and it was good to be able to tackle it in a little bit of daylight to be able to see the rough surface although by the time I struggled to the very top it was dark. The descent on the other side was also uneven, and covered in sheep! I couldn’t afford to take too many risks, they can be unpredictable beasts. Eventually the lane popped out on to the main A9 and I had a smoother passage through Brora (a fair was still going strong) and then Golspie (where I had to put on a bit of a sprint to avoid being snared by the drunks turning out of the pubs).

The route took a right turn shortly after on to the A839, back to Lairg. This road was coated in the roughest tar-and-chip surface I’ve ridden in a long time, and it just sapped all your speed, so I was very happy when I eventually made it to the last little descent into Lairg and a welcome cuppa, at about 12:30am. I didn’t wait too long here, ready to nip outside with an extra layer on for the cold night ride to come. That last section, back to Bonar Bridge and over the Struie, was freezing cold. Rain had clearly fallen earlier and now it was rising from the road in great swathes of fog and mist. My headlight was just reflecting back. It wasn’t until I was on the lower road and heading for Dingwall that I started to feel more comfortable.

I rolled into the finish hall just before 3:30am, to a welcome cuppa and a bacon sandwich. After getting changed I headed upstairs to the quiet room to get a few hours kip before the long drive home. It’d been quite a ride – some amazing views and some fantastic roads. I hope it won’t be too long before I return (and hopefully just as lucky with the weather!).

Strava data is HERE, map of the route and altitude profile:

2015-07-25_Natl400map

Shaftesbury CC 50-mile TT 1:52:23

Another warm day for this fast 50-mile TT on the Newmarket bypass (the A11/A14), although maybe not quite as warm as last year (and certainly not as windless). I needed to get a decent 50 under my wheels, for completeness sake, if nothing else.

It wasn’t the best of days, a bit breezy, and quite a few DNS’s on the board but I gave it a go. I don’t think I really had the confidence to push on having missed a few key training sessions with my achilles problems, so my time wasn’t too bad considering. I’d been the 23rd fastest entrant and ended up 27th. I definitely struggled to hold a good power on the way back from Red Lodge, into the wind, but still managed to have little dig for the last 5 miles.

Thanks to Davey Jones for the photo

First turn at 4-Went-Ways, 5 miles done

Hereward the Wake 300k audax

As a faster audax rider once the clocks change I don’t get much night riding experience and even less of riding groups at night, or navigating. I can finish a 400k ride with only an hour or so’s night, if that. It’s something worth practising before PBP, as the first two nights (and the first night especially) will have a very large number of lit riders on the road.

Before PBP 2011 I did a YACF FNRttS (Oxford-London, leaving Oxford rail station at midnight) but that was a fairly easy, informal ride with quite a few stops. Nevertheless it got me accustomed to riding in close company with others for a few hours through the night. The dynamic changes – other rider’s lights throw shadows across the road (sometimes of yourself, which has the effect of making your own lights seem less powerful – they’re not – it’s just an optical illusion) and speed drops (if you’re aiming for a pace target, you consciously need to “push on” once night falls).

So all in all, this audax, starting at 9pm on a Friday just as dusk was falling, and traversing some benign roads, looked ideal so I signed up. In the end quite a few PBP-ers did the same and we had quite a decent bunch of about 80 riders heading north from Great Dunmow, in the general direction of Cambridge and beyond. A light tailwind pushed us out to Whittlesey. There seemed little point in trying too hard here and I settled into a group of 8 or so that cruised to the first control in Cambridge. On the way in we were delayed by a few traffic lights, and on hearing the click of a pedal behind, glanced over my shoulder to see we’d been caught by a 20-strong bunch.

Out of Cambridge things split up a bit and there was a bit of leapfrogging, but other cyclists were not far away and I rolled into the garage control in the first half dozen riders. The VC167 tandem was already here having made good progress on the flat roads. We had some fun trying to order stuff through the hatch at the garage, and just as the guy behind the counter gave up and opened the doors for the large peleton that had just arrived, I headed off, back out into the night.

I pushed on a bit here, aware that we had a slight headwind and keen to get to the next “corner” of our route at Newport Pagnell M1 services. The rest of the ride was a quiet affair, just cruising through the night and collecting my info controls as I went along. I stopped at the services for a coffee and a sandwich, and donned my gilet as it was getting cold in the early morning air. I really enjoyed the cruise back to the start, some nice roads, familiar from previous events old and new. I made a slight navigational error at one point which cost me a kilometre (and an early morning ride down the A505), but apart from that it was a great ride. I even started to get a bit hot in the early morning sunshine.

I was back at the village hall soon after 8:30am, in time for a couple of coffees and a bacon sandwich, ready to stoke me up for the drive home (after which I promptly fell asleep on the sofa!).

Garmin connect data HERE

National 100-mile TT 4:12:55

It’d been a few years since I’d entered  a national CTT time trial. In any “national” I usually finish well down the field on a fairly mundane course and it seems like a bit of a waste of my time. However, this year’s national 100 fitted in nicely with my plans and was likely to be on a decent course in South Wales DC near Raglan, which turned out to be not quite so decent, but still fast enough for some good times.

Although we had some reasonable conditions for riding a 100 (cool, not too breezy) except for the later (seeded) starters who got a soaking, I never really got up for it and after about 25 miles parked my effort and cruised to the finish just to get the miles in. My achilles was a bit sore all day, which hardly helped my demeanour, and I dropped a half-full bidon at about 30 miles. With a 2-litre camelbak I still had plenty to drink on an overcast day.

Photos: 1. Shortly after the start

2. A brief flash of sunshine at a roundabout.

[Results. 61st of 145 starters]

Grafman Middle distance (and English championship) triathlon

My achilles wasn’t feeling too bad and I’d managed a couple of 10km jogs, although my calves were generally a bit tight after the previous weekend’s ECCA 100. I was confident of a decent-ish result at the Grafman, but probably not an age group win, especially as Roger Canham was on the start sheet. Assembling my kit before the start, I heard he’d dropped out with illness, so that sort of threw the over-50 age group wide open.

We had a nice two-lap swim, with an “Australian exit” after lap one, something I’d never done before (you run out of the water, around a turn, and then back in for lap two). The water was a reasonable temperature so I had none of the problems I’d had at Bala and managed to get out of T1 fairly high up in my start wave. From then on it was just a question of putting as much time into my rivals as I could on the bike, knowing my running was going to be compromised.

I'm in the white hat on the left

I’m in the white hat on the right

I really laid down some power over the first 20 minutes to get clear of the packs and then settled down to work at my own pace. It rained quite a bit on the second lap of the bike course, but I was still putting time into the chasers. At each turnaround I could see groups of 10 or 15 riders together – there were sure to be some fresh legs cruising along at the back of those, waiting to take me down on the run. I didn’t see any draft-busters either which would’ve been handy on such a fast, flat, bike course.

Working hard in the first 20-minute out-and-back of the bike course

Working hard in the first 20-minute out-and-back of the bike course

Running into T2

Running into T2

After turning off the main loop we had a few lumps and bumps to negotiate and then I was into T2, the announcer calling me out as first over-50. I reckon I had about a 2 or 3 minute lead over the next guy in my age group at this point. I quickly settled into a steady plod, never seeming to be able to lift the pace at all. At least the rain was easing off. I got run down by the first over-50 (they were easy to spot with high race numbers) after about 5km, and I could see two or three more going after me. Only 16km to go…

I enjoyed the run course – quite varied, if not the fastest, and you went past the start/finish pretty regularly. With about 1km to go I was passed by the next guy in my age group and I was powerless to resist his challenge. The lack of run miles was telling and it was all I could do to plod to the line, happy to get my bronze medal and a cold pint of Erdinger alkoholfrei.

Grafman_finish GrafmanMedal

Result: 4:37:11/51st, 3rd M50 [results PDF]

Swim 1900m/30:23
T1 1:50
Bike 88km/2:21:54
T2 2:04
Run 21km/1:41:02
(splits taken from my Garmin 910XT – there was quite a long run into T2 that the official timing mats missed)

ECCA 100-mile TT 4:01:44

Another week of very easy miles on the bike, plus a bit of swimming, seemed to revive me and I had more confidence going into this 100-mile TT, although a bit of me was doubting why I was bothering since my BBAR challenge was likely off without a 12-hour. Nevertheless, I got up for this super-early starting 100-miler and felt like I had a pretty good ride. Maybe a bit quick for the opening 40 miles, but I still had something in hand for the last tricky 8 miles of B-road back to the timekeeper. Unfortunately, right at that point I got bad cramp in my left calf and I struggled with it all the way to the finish (I’ve often had problems with cramp in long distance races, but forgot to dose up with the tonic water that usually cures it in the days before this 100). It probably cost me a 3:59 clocking, ah well. Tejvan Pettinger won it it 3:41, and there were quite a few strong performances this year so I was well down the field in 26th place. Nevertheless a good rehearsal for the National 100-mile TT in two weeks.

10 miles in, a full camelbak on my back. New Python RT skinsuit. I didn't bother with overshoes so as not to irritate my achilles

10 miles in, a full camelbak on my back. New Python RT skinsuit. I didn’t bother with overshoes so as not to irritate my achilles

Newbury 12-hour TT DNS

The week after Bala I just felt tired all the time, not my usual self at all. I struggled to get any training done and in fact had three days off, felt like I was fighting off a bug. My left achilles was still very sore which wasn’t helping my confidence at all, and I wasn’t sure whether it would stand up to being pounded for 12 hours.

Coming into the weekend I hoped I’d be fresher, but it was not to be. On Saturday I went through the usual bike prep, and filling numerous drink bottles and getting some snacks ready for the day, but as soon as I got up on Sunday morning I knew I was too tired and went back to bed. I managed an easy spin around the local lanes a bit later in the morning. It was shame, because the weather was fairly benign: overcast and not too breezy. I’m not sure I’ll have time to fit in another 12-hour TT now, there are so few on the calendar these days and those that are left clash with other things I’m planning on doing. Looks like no BBAR for 2015 for me, never mind there’s plenty of other stuff to enjoy this summer.

On reflection, I should’ve taken a very easy week after the 600k audax, as I’d just done 6 weeks solid work leading up to it, but of course, trying to tease out a bit more training for the VTTA 10 and Bala Middle Tri just pushed me over the edge. 15 years ago that wouldn’t have been a problem – I’d have soaked up the overload OK. At least I know where the limit is – it’s still pretty high.