Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Burning all your matches

In September last year I rode Haute Route Dolomites – by the end of it I was in, if not the shape of my life, then pretty bloody close.

This year was meant to be about getting back to basics after making continental jaunts the centre-pieces of my past three years - some British sportives, social rides with friends and commuting. Then I decided to move house, the road bike and the turbo went to live with my parents and I've barely pedalled at all.

Until this weekend – when I somehow ended up in a 24-hour race around Brands Hatch as part of the Sportive.com team.

It was, to put it mildly, a rude awakening.

Fat lad at the back

It's been years since I've been slow. I mean, I've never been that FAST on a bike either, but slow is something that hasn't been true for a long time.

After Haute Route I rode a 7:29 time up Box Hill – putting me in the top 15% of the 66,000 people who've logged that climb on Strava. That's faster than the best times of five of the six other people on my team – with the seventh member not having a time logged.

This weekend I was by far and away the slowest person on the track.

There were some things I could still do – my bike handling was fine. My descending OK. But with no power in my legs and carrying 6kgs more than last year, I wasn't taking enough speed INTO the descents, or able to keep any speed that I did built up going on the flat.

I also had no endurance.

We were (mostly) running half-hour shifts, but the one time I extended that to an hour my times collapsed – I bonked after 35 minutes, putting in lap times an astonishing 3:30 slower than my fastest one as I lost the ability to push the pedals.

Last year the thought of a 100-mile ride barely registered, I rode the London-Surrey 100 as base miles. Now I couldn't do 40 minutes.

But while I'd lost fitness, power, endurance and leg speed – and gained weight – I hadn't quite lost everything.

In my final stint of the 24-hours I was determined to do better. To see if I could do what everyone else had been doing all day, and get a timed lap that started with a 7 (mine were split between 8s and 9s, with a couple of 10s thrown in).

That would mean laking a full minute off my average time, and knocking quite a few seconds off my best time so far (when I was towed round three different sections of the course by faster riders, before using them to slingshot into descents).

Blowtorching the matchbook

Any rider can push themselves too deep for it to be sustainable – what cyclists and coaches sometimes call burning a match.

When you start each ride you have a specific number of matches with you, the theory goes, each time you push beyond your limit one goes up in flames. You can train yourself to make them burn brighter, to need them less often and to carry more at the start of a ride. But when they're gone, they're gone.

I threw my matchbook into the bonfire.

Every Single Hill saw me go harder than I thought I could. Then, once it was finished, I went harder than I thought I could on the flat. Then pushed again on the descent.

My heart was thumping in my ears, my breath coming in frantic gasps... and then I pushed again, pushed harder, and drove on into the next hill, along the next flat.

Every corner was taken at the best line I could, as fast as I could, my body hunched over the bars – chin to stem – to eke out every fraction of a kph I could from my effort.

As the line approached I dug again, pushed again, forced my legs round faster and my chin lower. I had no clue if it was enough.

I rode into the pit garage at the end of my stint with nothing left – and asked if the times were in yet. They were – I'd ridden my last full lap in 7 minutes, 55 seconds.

A terrible time for most of the team, but enough for me to beam from ear to ear (and faster than three of Jason Kenny's 60-odd laps).

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