Saturday, February 22, 2014

Good wheels do not make up for poor condition

Since my last sportive a couple of weeks back I've barely ridden. It turns out that I wasn't just running on empty in that ride, I was sick.

I tried to play football the next day, and only succeeded in walking about in defence trying to read the game and play like a late-career Cannavaro (unsuccessfully) rather than - well - running. Towards the end I struggled to even remain conscious. I was sent home from work early the next day for being sick.

I spent the rest of that day and the one following it asleep, only leaving bed to cram food into my face. Went to work the next day, then got sent home again. I managed a full day on Friday.

But that meant I missed last week's sportive entirely (so did Pez and Paul, both also ill). The weather mocked us all by being absolutely perfect. A couple of commutes later and  I was back on my bike this weekend, not a lot could have stopped me. You see, I had new wheels.

The incompetence of Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue meant I had a smallish windfall of a few hundred pounds - naturally I spent it on wheels.

Now I've eulogised about the impact new wheels can have, Pez had already upgraded his and I was jealous. I've been itching to buy some new ones for months.

Rebate banked I took the plunge, ordered some Fulcrum Racing Zeros from Germany (way cheaper than anywhere in the UK) and got so excited when they arrived that I didn't wait to change out of my commuting gear to rip open the box, fit tyres, tubes (light-weight latex, of course), new brake pads (Swissstop), swap the cassette from my old wheels (Shimano RS20s, since you ask) check the indexing and brake cable length, set my old wheels up with a spare cassette, tyres and tubes for winter training, then strongly considered lycra-ing up and taking the bike straight out there and then (at about 9pm).

I mean - triple milling, carbon hub, ceramic bearings, an oversize rear flange (stop giggling at the back), aero spokes, aluminium nipples (I said no giggling) with differential rim height (Stop It!)). Pros use them!*
I just stared at them for a while instead, then spun them to see how long they'd keep going (AGES!). I might have done this more than once.

Counting down the days to Saturday when I could ride them, I was eagerly anticipating 2kph added to my times, a string of new PBs and crushing Pez and Paul under my lightweight, aero, ceramic-hubbed wheels (reviewers said using them was like riding with a permanent tailwind!).

Eventually Saturday morning arrived and I rode out.

But there was a problem, I was feeling rubbish. My legs were feeling the strain early, really early. Just 30 kilometres in I was feeling like I did 80k into the last sportive. My illness and inactivity were telling and people with far worse wheels were cruising by me.

I downed a gel, it had almost no effect. 20 minutes later I reached into my back pocket for another - it was new brand to me (I had grabbed three at random in my eagerness to head out). It tasted like Soda Stream concentrate with what felt like fizz in it. Checking later I found it was well past its use by date and might well have started to ferment. This didn't help.

Another gel (not off) to get me home and I finished up 66k ridden, no PBs and no wiser as to whether the wheels made any difference at all.

In the grand scheme of things, a 3-hour ride will do me good. As will lighter, better wheels. But I need to get back on the turbo this week and step up my riding time. At the moment I'm miles behind where I need to be to even complete the medium Liege-Bastogne-Liege route come April.

*almost entirely for training, although they make an occasional appearance in the peleton

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Too much. Too soon. A warped wheel and a puncture too - First 2014 sportive

20 miles into a sportive is a terrible time to make a decision. Unless the weather's miserable you've got no idea how you're riding that early on.

But that was the point Paul and I decided to ride the 70-mile (112km) route on Sunday rather than the 52-mile version (84km). It was a stupid, stupid decision.

Too much riding, also lumpy
To back-track a little, Sunday was the first sportive of 2014 for us. The Gatwick RideIt. The one Paul described last year as "the worst day of my life" as biting wind combined with single-digit temperatures and constant, unrelenting rain. He couldn't work his brakes by the end and took 20 minutes to warm up enough in the car to drive home (during which he got a speeding ticket). I'd phoned in sick so missed it.

This year, after a final 7am weather check, we called it. We were riding.

The first section went well. We found a group early, although it was a bit slow, so we pushed on past them. Found a second group (including one man in an Etape 2013 shirt), but they were a bit fast and lost them on a hill. We made it up a couple of solid-to-difficult climbs and hit the first food stop early and not really needing it (30km in).

It was a rubbish break stop, no loos (I needed one) - basically just a van parked on the side of a road with some food on a table outside it. We left quickly and immediately after hit the split between medium and long rides. We called long and rode on.

It was an awful decision.

I'm in no condition to ride that far. In the last six weeks the furthest I've ridden in one go is 50km (30 miles-ish), and aside from some 7.5km commutes through traffic and some time on the turbo (not longer than 1:30 in one go) - that's it.  I don't have the legs to ride 70 miles.

This was achingly apparent about 40-45 miles in, my legs were empty and Paul's weren't fizzing either. We stopped for some food.

We got back on the bikes and rode on, slower and slower as our legs flatlined. The break stop was nowhere in sight. Still, 80kms in it wasn't there (more than 50km from the last stop). I badly needed a decent break stop.

"We're going really slowly," Paul noted while I was taking lead. "Sorry!" I replied and forced my pace up. "No! It's good!" Paul shouted back. I slowed back down.

That wasn't the end of the trouble though. It wasn't raining (much) at this point, but there was standing water on the road. Paul hit a massive pothole completely hidden by a puddle (puddle doesn't do it justice, it was 20cms deep covering entire road for about 15 metres), came off in the middle of traffic and into the puddle/lake - puncturing his front tyre in the process. I was luckier, just getting drenched by passing cars and being shaken by the pothole (presumably I only hit the edge).

Fortunately, puncture notwithstanding, he and the bike were unharmed, but he was seething (and drenched). There was no way to see it. He repaired the puncture at the side of the road, got back on, and promptly slipped his chain.

Oh, and just to add to the fun, the wind was gusting well over 20mph. It was all day. Any exposed flat or descent saw us riding at about 25kmh putting in the effort to do 40. Or knocked sideways. Or both.

We somehow kept going and eventually hit the second break stop 90km into the ride - a full 60 from the last stop. My legs at this point were mostly gone - hating every incline, with even bottom gear too big to spin in in that condition.

This break stop was no better than the first, another van in a lay-by, with the dregs of the food left and a marshal who told us several other people came off in the same pot-hole as Paul. He said he thought about a caution sign, but decided against it. He seemed amused.

But, after all that - wet, tired, angry and a little scared - we decided to finish the ride. It was only 15 miles (24km) to the end.

We rolled out and the sun went away and the wind picked up again. Then the hail started. My hands and toes started to freeze. The hail stung my face. After a course marker pointed straight up when the choices were "left" and "right", we hid in a bus shelter (for the second time in two years for Paul) to find the printed map and try to work out where we should go.

We rode on.

It was at this point I heard brake rub on Paul's rear wheel. A stop to check and we confirmed it had been knocked out of true by some pot hole or other along the way. He opened his rear brakes and we kept going.

The final few kms were, to be fair, fun. Mostly flat/downhill allowing me to try a solo breakaway and time-trial to the line. I dropped the man we'd been cycling with (he looked overweight and awful at riding - knees all over the place, bad position on the bike and a pedal-stroke about as smooth as the pot-holled road -  I assumed we'd breeze by him on the flat or at the next climb. I was wrong, our exhausted condition meant he stuck with us for about 10km) and was gloriously making a dash for the stage win when Paul bridged to me.

"You've ruined my solo breakaway!" I shouted over my shoulder, he shrugged, saying he didn't realise that's what it was. Fortunately I won the sprint (uncontested).

There was, naturally, no hot food left by the time we arrived at the event centre - with only four people left on the course behind us. I forgot to get water for my recovery shake. There were functioning toilets at least.

The rain returned as we rode to the car to get home. It was the worst sportive I've ever been on - cold, windy, hail, rain, confusing course markings, badly spaced and rubbish feed stops, a course split too early, no loos, dangerous roads. Paul rated it second worst, the same event last year alone in surpassing it.

More crushing was the knowledge that if we'd swapped to the 50-miler then we'd have hit the second feed stop feeling fine (although wouldn't have avoided the hidden pot-hole), been on the road for almost two hours less and finished ahead of the hail with time for me to get home in the daylight (riding back from the station in the dark, exhausted, through London, is deeply unpleasant). The misery was largely self-inflicted.