London-Edinburgh-London- part 5 to the finish line

Start my LEL journey with part 1 here

At Louth I spoke to one of the staff and she told me about Shermer’s Neck, something that many long distance cyclists have suffered. Shermer’s Neck is a condition where the neck muscles fail from fatigue and can no longer support the head. She told me another rider had already been through with an inner tube threaded through his helmet and under his arms to support his neck. I kind of laughed, in a nervous way, my neck didn’t seem as bad as this. I had done one descent and not been able to lift my head but after this, I was able to ride and support myself, I couldn’t imagine my condition deteriorating this way, to need to do something this drastic but I was completely niave. It is not a gradual ailment, after first feeling the symptoms, the neck will usually give out within two hours. I googled Shermer’s Neck, it was probably the worst thing I could’ve done at the time. Images flashed up on my phone of some very strange, homemade head braces, they freaked me out. I was still 250km from the finish line, a very long ride by itself but given what I’d already achieved it felt like nothing and I wanted to keep moving. We had a break at Louth and David and I discussed the options, the next goal would be Spalding. We knew we had some climbing out of Louth but the roads would start to flatten out and this could help my condition. The woman I spoke to was very well informed and also suggested we tip up my handlebars so I could ride in a more upright position, it would offer my neck some relief but for now, this seemed unnecessary.

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Stuck together through thick and thin ‘The Condor Crew’ CC43 & DD43

 

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She just needed some lube and voila the squeaking gear shifts were fixed

Soon after we left Louth we started to climb, it was a beautiful road and the type of climb I would usually appreciate but the neck pain came on quickly, it was as soon as we started our journey again. I called out to David and suggested we try to tip up my handlebars as recommended at Louth, we pulled over to the roadside and he made the adjustment for me. We carried on for a few kms and I discovered this new riding style woke up a whole new set of muscles in my back and with it came more pain. I was also aware that we had climbed a steep 10% hill going North days earlier and it was nearby, we would have to descend it. I started to feel very anxious, riding down in this new position, with my bars up and my brakes at a peculiar angle made me feel very uncomfortable. Eventually, as the descent got closer I pulled over to the side of the road and asked David to move my bars back, to the original position, I was starting to panic. 

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Roadside stops every 10km to stretch and massage my neck were offering some relief

The next section to Spalding is mostly a blur in my mind, the pain became unbearable. When I was suffering from my knee David would ask me “if childbirth is a 10, how does the pain compare” and I would always reply with an 8. I was now pushing very close to a 10 so we’d make regular stops every 10 km so I could get off my bike and stretch, I’d always take my helmet off and this would give me relief. Sometimes I’d have a massive cry but I was trying so hard to keep the tears at bay. Being an engineer David had already come up with a solution for my neck, to help me continue riding, he passed a lanyard over my head, tied it under my arms, he attached a cable tie to this at the back and gaffa taped my ponytail to the lanyard band. It provided the support my neck needed to keep it up and we eventually made it to Spalding.

The next control after Spalding was St Ives, my family had planned to meet me there and knowing this gave me the extra determination to try and make it, there was 60kms between Spalding and St Ives, under normal circumstances it was an easy ride with only 150m of elevation gain but the wind was blowing hard against us, 50mph gusts were reported. I knew this section of road well, I ride out on the Fens all the time, all year around, I took strength from the training rides I have done here, on my own. I’ve had many battles out there, I’ve wanted to throw my bike away, give up and go home many times but I’ve always persevered and come home stronger.

I had a 30-minute lie down at Spalding, I didn’t sleep but it was a good chance to rest my neck and take the weight off the muscles. My head had become a huge burden, the pain became so unbearable at times I wanted to remove my own head. Someone did suggest I should try riding without my helmet, the reduction in weight would make a difference but this seemed like a step too far. I was finding my limits and pushing myself but I wasn’t prepared to go this far with my own safety. 

The ride to St Ives was much the same as the previous section to Spalding only this time we were riding in the dark, there was fewer cyclist on the road. The tension between myself and David was definitely there now, I felt like my condition was putting his success in jeopardy but he stayed with me and always stopped when I needed too, we were having to make regular stops and I was getting concerned about the cut off time for him. I was trying so hard to make it every 10km but sometimes the pain would only allow me to go to 5km and I had to stop. I wasn’t able to eat or drink on the move so the stops were not only essential for giving my muscles a rest but vital for refueling too. The one time I did try to eat on the move I thought my jaw was going to lock up. Each time I stopped I let my family know how far we’d come and how I was doing. They didn’t know the full picture of my health, I didn’t want everyone to know about my neck, they would worry too much. They were so full of excitement and enjoying the moment, they were all on this journey too, pushing me along with their messages of hope, support and encouragement. They had all stayed up following my tracker, most of the week, they were completely emotional too, I thought this news would’ve been too much. They thought I was suffering general fatigue from riding 1200km, they kept wishing me well and suggesting I could sleep at St Ives and recover there. As we got closer to St Ives I spoke to David and raised my concern, it was about time I shared the truth. I sent a quick text, I felt awful doing it this way but I wasn’t sure if I would make it much further now. As ever they were supportive and still believed in me to keep going, bit by bit. 

We arrived at St Ives shortly after midnight and despite my neck injury, the regular stops and the almighty headwind we had gained time and we now had 30 minutes in hand. It gave us a huge amount of confidence and allowed me a much-needed lie-down. We walked into a very quiet and calm control, I had expected to see and hear my family, thinking they would be there had urged me on so I felt a bit low when they were nowhere to be seen. It was very late so I assumed they’d given up and gone home to bed. David and I got food and I sat at the table in total disbelief that I was even there, we were both quite quiet. I had previously ridden the next section on a training ride, from St Ives to Great Easton 71km and Great Easton to Loughton 48km, I knew the roads ahead and the journey all now seemed really possible. I knew there were a few lumps in the road too but my legs were feeling strong. I had been very careful throughout the ride, I had always watched my power output, I knew I had something left in the tank now when I really needed it.

We finished up our food, I had my eye on an airbed for a 30 minute rest then I heard some familiar voices behind me. My family and my boyfriend, they’d seen my check in show up on the LEL rider tracking and they made their way over to the control. My sister covered my neck in voltarol gel and gave me a massage, my niece told me I should be going to A&E and not back out into the dark to carry on the ride. My daughter had stayed up way past her bedtime and we had a lovely cuddle. Time was now a very precious commodity, we had both been very fortunate despite the awful weather to ride puncture free but a visit from the puncture fairy would be a massive set back in time so we were being careful and checking tyres and pressures at each stop. We started to prepare ourselves for the next leg and as I was saying my goodbyes my boyfriend gave me a Luchos Dilitos guava energy bar, if you’ve never tried one I recommend looking them up.

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My sister massages my neck and I take the opportunity to have 10 minutes sleep. During LEL I learned to sleep anywhere, anytime.

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The Luchos Dilitos that gave me jet power energy for the next section to Great Easton

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David and I preparing to leave St Ives and ride off into the night with ambitions of still making it to the finish line

I had now adopted this strange riding style, my bars were tipped up again to give my neck relief from the same position I’d been in for the past 4.5 days. I was riding with one hand on the bars and one hand on my hip to lift my body and neck and sometimes with my hand underneath my neck. I could feel these lumps which I can only assume were a buildup of lactic acid and if I pressed them it gave me some relief from the pain. We pushed on across the Busway from St Ives to Cambridge, I know this section of the route very well but I’d never ridden here at night, the cycle path has LED lights in the path, they appeared to twinkle, maybe it was my tired eyes but it was very beautiful. 

The massage my sister had given me and the likely overdose of Voltarol gel gave me at least 30 minutes of relief, my legs were riding as if they were fresh (thank you Luchos Dilitos) and we made great progress along that busway. David was beaming, he was counting the extra time we were gaining with each km we rode through. I didn’t take any notice of Cambridge and the beautiful sights we passed by, it was 02:00am, the city was very quiet and we were very fortunate to pick up lots of green lights. David was feeling very tired, I was quite the opposite, I had pulled away from him, I was conscious of the distance between us but something inside me was urging me onwards, I had this feeling that as soon as I got off my bike the pain would stop and that was now driving me forwards. David couldn’t manage much further, I told him there was a garage ahead and we could stop for a coffee. 

Once we passed Cambridge it felt like we were on this gentle and gradual climb that continued all the way to Great Easton excluding a few sharper lumps. David was surprised and questioned where this renewed lease of life had come from, my legs were powering through km after km. I was riding with no style, one hand on the bar, one hand on my hip or supporting my neck but it was working and getting me through it. We were still having to make the regular stops, around every 10km sometimes it was less sometimes I managed to go on for a bit longer.

Ahead I noticed a familiar road, it narrowed to a single lane and passed through a field. On my training ride it had been a really hot day of 32’ and the sun was blazing as we passed through here. I don’t know why but it made me think of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz but today the road looked unfamiliar, it was being resurfaced and had a top layer of gravel. Further along we met a steep incline and I mentioned to David I might not make it, I might have to walk. As we approached another rider was walking. The hills were proving to be a greater challenge for my neck than my legs, being able to keep my head up and see was now my biggest problem. I just trusted myself enough to keep turning the pedals, hoping a car wouldn’t come in the opposite direction as I had veered to the right side of this narrow road. I kept going until we had crested the climb and I was up and over. I knew the control at Great Easton was only moments away now. A member of my cycling club was working at Great Easton as a volunteer and it’s incredible how this kept pulling me along, I knew he would be waiting there and that friendly face would give me some renewed energy.

Sure enough, Will was there, waiting at the gate. We learned we had gained even more time through that section, we had more than enough now in hand and we were feeling confident despite my state. We went through our usual routine, texting loved ones, eating, recharging batteries for our various devices and I went to a quiet room for a 30-minute lie down. I set an alarm and put my jacket over my face, it felt quite refreshing, this would be the last time I had to do this and I just had to keep my neck up for another 48km, the finish line really was so close now. I remember feeling an unusual vibe at Great Easton, it was the penultimate control, only 48km to go but there were very few smiles and no fanfares here. There were a lot of very tired people, riders stuck to their seats, struggling to muster the energy to move on. 

This way to the finish line

I was receiving a lot of messages of support now as people learned of my neck condition. I was getting lots of advice, some were saying there’s no shame in stopping, some said just ride at your own pace, there’s no shame completing it out of time, lots said keep going, you’ve got this. David had boldly said to me we win together or we fail together but as the finish line got close winning seemed to become more important. I’d lost my cool a few times, i started to question myself why I was putting myself through all this pain and suffering. Getting back on time became less important, getting back safe was the most important of all.

The sun was now coming up over the London skyline and with it came a new lease of life and optimism. We stopped at a field of purple thistles to watch the sun for a few short moments, it looked so beautiful. I was in pain but I was also enjoying the ride and moments like this and I wanted to take a photo to remind me of the beauty. I knew this section into Loughton was very hilly and it felt like we were on a merry-go-round, it felt like we were riding up the same road over and over, they all looked the same and it was starting to play tricks with my mind. The constant change in gradient going up and down became very challenging for my neck, I was having to stop more often and David was starting to get stressed about our cut off time. I told him I didn’t care about the time now, getting back safe was my only wish. In the final kms the pain became so unbelievably bad and I’d lost all my ability to lift my head. As we closed the gap on Loughton the roads became busier, it was Friday morning and I was navigating through traffic, riding with 1 hand on my bars to free the other to keep my head up. 

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The sun coming up over the purple field

I could feel my phone buzzing in my back pocket, the whatsapp group was in a frenzy, they knew I was about 3km from Loughton and they thought I was running out of time. At 1400km LEL must be completed within 116hrs 40 minutes but a late diversion to the route added 10 km and an additional 25 minutes to ride times. I failed to inform every one of the updates and they understood my cut off to be 10:10:00. When I checked in to Loughton at 10:09:48 getting off my bike was immediate relief for me but a huge relief for everyone following me, they thought I’d checked in with 12 seconds to spare. 

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2017 LEL finisher

After the shock had settled I managed to celebrate

The end (for now)…..

I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you

London-Edinburgh-London part 3 – I cycled 700km to Edinburgh for dinner

Day 3 Alston – Brampton (South)

Distance covered: 337.90km

Ascent: 2630m

Moving time: 15:35:53

Stopped time: 08:13:01

Average speed: 21.7kmph

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There are some photo opportunities worthy of a stop and crossing over into Scotland was a huge moment with the proudest of smiles


The weather was now really awful, torrential downpours and headwind but it didn’t seem to fracture our spirit, today we were an unstoppable machine. I hated myself for entering this ride yesterday but today I had found my love of cycling again, I was full of enthusiasm and we were on the way to Edinburgh. We were laughing, we were having a really good time, I was calling out to other riders “we’re on the way to Edinburgh” and we urged them on, some jumped on the back of our train but most didn’t stay there for very long. David and I were riding really well together taking turns on the front, charging past other riders and riding with renewed strength and vigor.

David was now really suffering from his stomach bug so we made regular stops, this was the only time other cyclists passed us. Despite his poor health, we charged on. I was riding without glasses because of the rain and suffered what I assumed to be a mosquito sting in the eye. My eye puffed up and my white turned yellow, I took an antihistamine and hoped for the best, I was Miss Optimism after 4hrs sleep. Today we were joined by Kavi, a rider from India. I first connected with Kavi before the event through the LEL Facebook page. I have taken part in major cycling events before but I’ve never experienced something this global, LEL riders came from 54 different countries and we regularly cycled with and spoke to riders from across the globe. 

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We were rewarded with spectacular views riding to Edinburgh

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No Indian summer for our friend Kavi, the torrential downpours kept coming all through Scotland

After the Moffat control, the road went up and we were climbing for a very long time, our pace slowed and the heavens opened once again. We’d created a rule, we only stopped if we were getting really soaked, the wind was so strong it was drying our kit quickly but this downpour seemed heavier than the previous showers so we pulled over and pulled out our rain jackets. We were following the dramatic A701 ‘scenic trail’ to Edinburgh and climbing The Devil’s Beef Tub. You will hardly notice the rise at first as you begin to wind through countless gentle bends. The road sways left and right, never changing direction, just meandering onwards and upwards for around 10km. The hills all around look like giant green pillows and we enjoyed a smooth surface along this section of road. It was noticeable how different the road surfaces were in Scotland compared to England, the tarmac in Scotland is mostly rough and the vibrations were starting to take their toll on my body. My hands were now covered in blisters and my right knee was starting to ache.

Reaching Edinburgh was a moment of euphoria, we were buzzing. I couldn’t believe I had made it this far when I looked back to yesterday and how I felt. The energy at the control was excitable and everyone seemed to be smiling, the welcome from the staff was the best yet. We had taken 51hrs to ride to Edinburgh, we had time in hand but we knew we had to eat quickly and get back on the road, we were aiming to get back to Brampton tonight and it was already 16:30.

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Happy faces in Edinburgh and the satisfaction of seeing 50% of the brevet card stamped

As we started our journey again the euphoria ground to an abrupt end, we were in rush hour traffic, torrential rain and climbing very steep urban climbs. I quickly took the lead position, guiding us down the middle of the traffic. I was desperate to get out of there and onto quieter roads so I kept moving as quickly and safely as I could. Eventually, we came to a right turn and with it came peace and tranquility again but also steep climbs one after another. We met lots of grumpy cyclists, one punched his saddle as he failed to ascend the climb ahead. We kept charging on with the hope that this section would pass by quickly and be behind us.

When we reached Innerleithen we were soaking wet and shivering, I took off my wet kit and wore my sleeping kit and the staff gave me blankets to wrap up. They had lots of beds available at this control and once again I really wanted to bed down for the night but I’d now really learned these are the moments when you have to make the decision to keep going. We ate some food and decided to have a 20-minute power nap but we treated ourselves to a bed, the member of staff was surprised by our request of a wake-up call 20 minutes later and he tried to encourage us to stay for longer but we had to push on for Brampton. I was too wet and cold to really sleep but the rest did some good. As we were checking out of Innerleithen the staff mentioned 600 riders were behind us, still on the road and yet to check-in. That bit of information meant everything to me at that moment, it felt like I was winning, it wasn’t a race but it gave me a massive confidence boost.

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Warming up at Innerleithen control

Luckily for us, as we were due to depart it stopped raining so I put my insulated jacket on and we started our journey towards Eskdalemuir. It was a short ride away, just 49km but this was a long and dark road, with a lot of climbing. David was still suffering a very unhappy stomach and there were very few opportunities to stop along this road. For the first time since we met the mood seemed to change a little, we were tired and not in good health. My knee was suffering the effects of the poor road surfaces and the cold, wet weather for the past 250km. I hadn’t raised this with David so far, I was applying Ibuprofen gel and taking tablets whenever I could.

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Preparing to go back out into the night at Innerleithen control

Despite my knee problem I was riding well and felt strong, I had to keep my own pace under control for us to stay together. David showed incredible strength and endurance to keep going, his poor health throughout the ride would’ve broken many. The weather often made it incredibly difficult to stop, there were many times when I needed to stop myself but held on for fear of getting hypothermia but he had no choice.

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The 49km of darkness between Innerleithen and Eskdalemuir

Eventually, the red arrow signs appeared, they notified us the control was close and they always lifted our mood. I usually let out a ‘whoop whoop’ and we’d start to think about what food we’d be eating soon. Eskdalemuir was a very small control but well managed, I remember being told to sit down and a man made us take off our shoes, he placed them in a carrier bag and he put shoe covers over our socks, it was a well-drilled scenario as if he’d already done it 1000 times. As expected all the beds were full so I put my jacket over my head, put my head down on the table and closed my eyes. We weren’t planning to stay long, just another power nap but we slept through David’s alarm and stayed about 30 minutes longer than planned. Brampton was another 61km away, at least 3-4hrs riding at night. It would mean arriving at 5am but we assumed everyone would be leaving as we arrived so we could get a bed for a few hours then start again.

I was becoming more aware of the pain in my knee as we got ourselves ready to leave, I asked the controller to remind me of the route between there and Brampton. I know it’s my responsibility to study the route but my mind was not functioning at full capacity. He suggested it was rolling hills up to Langholm, about 12km away and after there it flattened out. I thought my knee could manage that so I rolled on. After Langholm, those hills just kept coming and my knee started to get worse. We passed the Welcome to England sign with no fanfare, it was in total contrast to the moment we had arrived in Scotland. I told David my knee was really bad, I wasn’t sure if I could keep going on much further. He suggested we start counting cats eyes, we counted 30 at a time, it made the time and distance go by, then we tried getting to the next sign post, next 5km, the next 10km all without stopping.

David had to stop for a comfort break, he told me to keep riding, once I was on my own the tears started streaming down my face. If we’d seen a taxi in Gretna Green I would’ve flagged it down but it was 04:00 and everywhere was quiet. The only way to get back to Brampton was by myself so I kept turning the pedals.

 

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Outside the Brampton control North to Edinburgh and South to London – this sign received a cheer from us as we passed by on both occassions

 

We checked in to Brampton and allowed ourselves 4hrs off bike time, riders were checking out as we arrived so getting a bed was no problem. During the training camp, they taught us to save the big decisions until after sleep. I remembered seeing a sign for ‘massage’ at Barnard Castle, it was the next control South so if I could nurse my knee with ibuprofen that far maybe there would be help there. The mighty Yad Moss stood between us but I kept my sights firmly fixed on getting to Barnard Castle and seeing the therapist. I went to sleep with a plan and decided today would be a new day (it was already 05:00). 

At breakfast, David looked surprised to see me, after last night he thought my ride would end here at Brampton.

Day 4 Brampton – Pocklington

Distance covered: 213.05km

Ascent: 1223m

Moving time: 10:54:08  

Stopped time: 04:57:57

Average speed: 19.5kmph

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Rolling again, towards Alston with Yad Moss on our minds and in the distance

We stopped in Alston, the control was closed now but we stopped in the village, my knee was weeping with pain. I visited the local chemist and excitedly asked the women behind the counter for a magic potion that would get my broken knee back to London. I promised someone I would give those Alston cobbles my best shot but this wasn’t the time for heroics, it was pouring with rain, they are steep and I was trying to get my knee to Barnard Castle. Without shame, I pushed my bike to a safe place at the top and we continued on our way towards Yad Moss. 

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The famous Alston cobbles, without shame I pushed my bike to a safe place

Although everyone said getting back over this side of Yad Moss was harder, it was steeper, I didn’t fear the climb. I was on a mission, to get to Barnard Castle. I wanted to get my knee fixed. I was angry at myself for being negative on Tuesday because now my spirit was so strong and I wanted to complete this ride. As we climbed the wind blew hard and the rain started to pour, there was a constant stream of cyclists heading in the same direction as us. I remember seeing some children horse riding on on the moor and it really made me laugh. Savannah does weekly horse riding lessons, they take place in a beautiful meadow, it’s calm and peaceful, these children were up here getting battered by the elements and taking no notice of the weather. 

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Yad Moss in all her glory

We carried on turning the pedals until we came across a small white van parked on the side of the road where other cyclists had stopped. To our surprise it was an LEL cafe, a road angel, a known Audaxer. Drew was serving tea, coffee, mugs of Coke and what he called magic flapjacks to LEL riders. He had been there throughout the ride day and night but we’d only seen him now during the daylight. We pulled over and enjoyed some friendly chat, a mug of coke and one of those magic flapjacks. This was a welcome rest for my knee and the surprise gave us a real boost to our spirit. We’d heard tales of this being common place during Paris-Brest-Paris but out here on the wind swept, cold and wet moor it seemed like a mirage.

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Magic Flapjacks and mugs of Coke from Drew the road angel really was magic

We had another 3km before the summit so we finished up and started our journey again. Clipping into my pedals and pushing off was becoming much harder now, my bike felt heavier and heavier each time I tried whether the road was flat or on an incline. As we rode away the weather took a real turn for the worst and an even bigger and more mighty downpour drenched us. The wind was howling but we just kept turning the pedals, the bad weather was surprisingly good motivation to keep going. I definitely found it easier to climb Yad Moss in the daylight, without those red lights flickering ahead, we didn’t stop again. When we reached the summit David let out a whoop with delight but I knew the battle wasn’t over, the wind direction remained the same and until we reached the cover of the tree lined decent we were still going to get battered.

Eventually, the trees appeared and the relief was instant, the wind was on our tail and we were descending fast. The road was covered in vast puddles of standing water, I resisted my brakes and rolled down that hill at great speed. When we reached the bottom my knee was really hurting and I had to stop, the pain had become unbearable now. It may have been difficult to distinguish my tears because of the pouring rain but I was a blubbing like a baby. David offered me great support but I was starting to think he really should leave me now.  It was still another 20km until we’d reach Barnard Castle and there were no certainties the massage therapist would be there or could help me. 

To continue reading part 4 of my LEL journey click here

I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism, if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you

 

London-Edinburgh-London part 4 – I think we’ve gone the wrong way

I arrived at Barnard Castle and I met the physio, he’d traveled from Italy to offer his services as a volunteer to the riders. He gave me a pot of cream, it was down to the last dregs, so many other riders had been before me. He told me to rub the cream all over my knee, it would bring down the swelling and he continued to treat another rider. After this, he would tape my knee and this was my best hope for getting back to Loughton. I was full of ambition, hope, happiness, and strong will. I had made it over Yad Moss in really bad weather to get to him and now I had a chance to keep moving further. 

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My hero Mauro, taping up my knee at Barnard Castle

 

By the time I got fixed up the rain had stopped and our kit had dried out. On the way North this next part of the route was my doom day and everything seemed difficult but now with my knee taped up and my strong spirit I was managing to dig in and ride with renewed strength. It wasn’t easy but I was climbing hills and getting through the ride, I was even enjoying it. I laughed at myself for how my mind had become overwhelmed on day 2 but I was proud of myself for sticking with it and carrying on.

The kms to Thirsk rolled by and we spent a good few of them with Ivo, we had ridden with him on a number of occasions throughout the LEL journey. He mentioned an alternative route from Thirsk to Pocklington and said quite a few riders were planning to go this way. It cut out the Howardian Hills and this was very good news for my knee. This route was the 2013 LEL route, along the A19 to York. It seemed like a brilliant idea so when we arrived at Thirsk David and I discussed it and we agreed to follow this route. We didn’t have a GPS to follow but we had instructions and a hand drawn map, what could go wrong. 

We headed out from Thirsk and the sense of relief, knowing I wouldn’t have to climb those hills with my injured knee was massive. We charged off, chatting away and quickly found ourselves on a very busy A road with large lorries flying past. I clocked the road name and called out to David, “I think we’ve gone the wrong way”. We had been riding for about 20 minutes in the wrong direction. We had to double back and my heart sank, I began to think we might spend the whole night going wrong, losing time in our quest to make up time. We turned around and found ourselves back on the 2017 route but this time heading for the A19. The A19 was a different kind of pain and I’m still undecided if it was the really the easy option. The first section to York was 33km of straight road in the dark. It was like a double time trial with a 1000km warm up. Every time we passed a sign I prayed it would say York so we could turn off and give our legs and my head some relief. David did an incredible job of driving us on from the front, I was hanging on at the back.

York eventually appeared and we slowed down to pass through the city center, we stopped at a 24hr hour petrol station and met some other LEL riders who had also chosen to follow this route. They had the same hopes as us, shave a bit of time off here, get a bed for a few hours at Pocklington then it was the big push for the finish line, riding around 360km on the last day. 

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Trying to find our way through York City center with no route or map, Heather another LEL rider joined our train

We arrived at Pocklington with some time in hand so it gave us an opportunity to sleep there. When we woke we changed into fresh kit, topped up our packs with new snacks and recharged our batteries for the final big push to Loughton. We made the decision not to shower, it was in the interest of saving time, it was going to be a long day and night and maybe another day but time was now something we were watching very closely. 

Day 5 Pocklington – Loughton

Distance covered: 359.76km

Ascent: 1963m

Moving time: 18:50:16

Stopped time: 08:27:30

Average speed: 19.1kmph

The route from Pocklington to Louth was long, almost 100km and from my memory of the way North it was another tough section. The wind was blowing strong and again it wasn’t in our favor but we were full of optimism again, we had overcome so much to get here and this was carrying us up and over those climbs. We reached the Humber Bridge, and again it was a proud moment, we were really going South again. I did a Facebook check-in to notify family and friends who were now on tenterhooks, waiting by their phones for any snippet of news on our progress and how my knee was holding up. I was surprised to see an LEL rider fast asleep on the bridge, he was in a safe place but he was being battered by the wind and loud traffic was passing very close by. 

The next stretch of road along the Lincolnshire Wolds can only be described as grinding, this is how I remember it. The combination of the wind and hills made the going very slow and tough, we’d go up and we’d need to keep pedaling to go down again. The climbs were long and draggy and mixed up with some very steep ones, it was punishing on our very tired bodies. Up until now, my bike had performed perfectly well but my gear shifts started making an awful noise each time I changed, I was convinced my cable would snap at any moment. I called out to David, explained the problem and he advised me to be very gentle. I was nursing each shift with the slightest of touch and trying not to shift at all which was increasingly difficult amongst those hills.

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Fighting the wind as we rolled through the Wolds

I noticed a sign for Caistor ahead in 4 miles, it appeared to be a big town and I suggested to David we take refuge there, just 10 or 15 minutes, maybe we could find a bakery or somewhere to get coffee and have a quick break. My knee was OK, I was pushing with my left leg up the hills to compensate and the taping was doing a really good job but the wind was bearing down on me and I finally needed that emergency caffeine hit. It turned out Caistor didn’t run directly through the route and we didn’t want to detour so we continued on, I felt a bit deflated, I was ready to stop but just as we were about to ascend a climb we spotted a big cafe sign off to the left. 

They’d run out of cake but they made us some toast with jam. We spoke to the staff and customers, they were intrigued by all the bikes passing by and they asked what we were doing.

 

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A short break from the wind and hills

 

As we set off on the next stage towards Louth, we continued to climb and we continued to feel strong and confident. A man leaned out of the passenger window of a passing car and applauded us, he shouted out “Great Work”. At that moment in time, despite all the pain and suffering, it felt like the world was on our side, my knee was OK and I finally dared to believe I could complete this.

About 20km from Louth something unusual happened to me, I was descending on my drops and as I tried to lift my head back up at the end of the descent I had nothing, no strength there to lift my head back up and I almost lost control of my bike. The descent came to a gradual stop and I pulled over to the side of the road, I called out to David and tried to explain what just happened. I had no idea what had really happened, I said to David I could descend on my hoods, I was comfortable doing that, let’s press on to Louth.

To continue reading the final part of my LEL journey click here

I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism, if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you

London-Edinburgh-London part 2 – your legs will be the least of your problems

Day 2 Louth – Alston

Distance covered: 280.95km

Ascent: 2678m

Moving time: 13:07:37

Stopped time: 05:00:15

Average speed: 21.4 kmph

You can read Part 1 here

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We found fresh kit, showers, and pie, chips and pasta for breakfast in Pocklington

The wind direction had changed, it was now against us and gusting hard. We cycled past a sign that read The Lincolnshire Wolds, the signs you see along the way usually do a great job of injecting new energy, they show great progress but I felt heavy today and I’d lost the spirit I had yesterday. LEL today wasn’t about my legs, it was on my mind and I was on the road to a dark place. This section across Lincolnshire is hilly, I would usually enjoy riding through here, I like climbing hills but I didn’t appreciate those contours today. I was visualising the hills on the return leg to London in 2 days time, with 1000km in my legs, it just didn’t seem possible and I started to lose belief. We were riding down long descents and I could only see them on the way home. I tried to think of other things but the fog had set in and David was a few meters ahead of me. I received professional coaching during my training for Lands End to John O’Groats last year and I learned how to manage myself using a power meter. I was keen to stay with David but I was going to burn out at this pace so I stayed back and remained at my pace, I accepted that my journey from here may be on my own. I’d entered LEL on my own and I was always comfortable with that but yesterday I was in this safe place, riding with someone, we had become a little team, The Condor Crew, we were supporting each other and the company ticked away the kms. I stopped myself from suggesting to David he should ride away and leave me, I avoided the awkward conversation, we met on the road and there was no obligation to ride together. 

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Crossing the Humber Bridge was a real moment of glory, when we first spotted those beams high in the sky we were both smiling and kept calling out each time we’d spot them again. We were now up North and really on our way to Edinburgh.

By the time we reached the control at Thirsk I thought I was broken, upon arriving I didn’t want to leave the control. The Howardian Hills had been very beautiful but the relentless and constant up and down had given my mind a further battering. I didn’t share my feelings, I feared letting out what was going through it might make it become something I may later regret. I looked around and I could see many other broken souls at Thirsk and it reminded me of a ride in Yorkshire when the wind blew at 40mph and we finally reached the summit of Tan Hill. Before the ride I created a whatsapp group for friends and family to follow my progress, we called it ‘Where’s Nicole’ and this connection became very powerful. On the road to Thirsk I felt like I was falling apart, quitting actually became a thing in my mind but telling them I was digging in and carrying on helped me do just that.

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Getting beyond Thirsk seemed impossible but a wise woman told me to eat if all else was failing

David and I were very much a team at Thirsk, we talked about the distance between us on the road earlier today and he said he could’ve ridden away but chose not to. He suggested we have a 20-minute power nap, we found a space on the floor away from the dining area and he set an alarm. We both closed our eyes and immediately fell into a deep sleep, this was my first sleep since I’d got out of my bed on Sunday morning. After 20 minutes I awoke to feel surprisingly fresh and prepared to try again. I was going to stop thinking about the journey home and focus on the one ahead, one control at a time. I remembered back to my training, Emily shared what happened in the TCR and the small steps she had taken to climb Mont Ventoux when it otherwise seemed impossible and remembering this story gave me back renewed belief.

We arrived at Barnard Castle in daylight, smiling and still on schedule, hitting both of our daily targets. The food at Barnard Castle was some of the best, pasta and fresh vegetables, pudding with custard, it made us feel good. I was sat at a shared table with some cyclists from Dulwich Paragon CC and we spoke for a while. I also recognised Alastair from the 2013 LEL film, we started chatting and I was getting comfortable and warm. They had beds at Barnard Castle and I dared to suggest we sleep here for the night to David, Alastair was planning to and it seemed like a lovely idea. Through the conversation Alastair said to me “things can start to happen if you make it this far” I had no idea what that meant but it spurred me on, to get back on my bike and go out into the night. We knew there was a storm brewing up on Yad Moss, Britain’s highest B road but passing over this tonight and aiming for Brampton would give us a really good head start for Edinburgh tomorrow.

 

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The Condor Crew enjoying the evening sunshine just a few kms away from Barnard Castle. Thank you for the photo Ivo 🙂

 

David was now suffering the same ill fate as me, the stomach bug so we stopped in a town just before the Yad Moss climb to use the facilities in a pub. David also suggested we wrap up, so we added on extra layers. I put on my insulated gilet under my race cape, leg warmers, shoe covers and full finger gloves. It was the last night of July, it seemed crazy, I was wearing winter kit and we were boiling hot for quite a few miles but this change of kit would later save us on the summit of Yad Moss.

 

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Climbing out of Barnard Castle and towards the Pennines, the tranquility and beauty were perfect. As we climbed higher this was all set to change.

 

We started the ascent, it was a beautiful, gentle climb, through a tree lined road. We were really enjoying this climb until suddenly we crested the road and were out onto exposed moors. The calm and tranquility quickly changed and we were being pelted by rain and strong wind, it was as if we were in the firing line of a hostile attack. Ahead we could see a stream of red bike lights, as we reached that place of light we looked ahead and the darkness was filled with more flickering red lights that were even higher and further away. This pattern kept repeating itself and this climb became the ultimate battle for the mind, not our legs. We approached a cyclist struggling to replace his back wheel in the strong wind after repairing a puncture. David kindly stopped to assist him and I stopped too, I shined my light on them giving further assistance, it was so dark up there. We started to see white lights approaching us, it was LEL riders on their return journey to London, incredible athletes that were hours ahead of us.

Eventually, we were descending and the wind was on our tail, my speed recorded 60kmph but it felt like 100kmph. With only my front light to guide me and the wind pushing me down that hill I was terrified, I was tired, it was raining, it was dark and I had no idea what the road surface was like or the contours. By the time we reached Alston we were both exhausted and I suggested we stop here. The Alston control isn’t mandatory but we agreed Brampton would probably be full. It was 23:30 the weather wasn’t getting any better and sleep would do us some good. They had run out of food at Alston, they had been overwhelmed by people stopping, probably like us after a battle with Yad Moss but they managed to rustle up some beans on toast and it was perfect. We booked a 04:30 wake up call, we allowed ourselves 4hrs of lying down time and I rewarded my legs with my usual recovery ritual of Muc-Off amino recovery balm rubbed into my legs. I pulled on my skins compression tights to sleep in and this familiar feeling helped me drift off into a lovely, deep sleep.

The next day we were on the road early, we were both feeling strong and excited about the prospect of getting to Edinburgh. We had to ride 34km to Brampton and here we would find another set of fresh kit, more snacks to top up our rations and what felt like a new lease of life. Brampton did exactly that, we showered, we ate more food, we put on new kit and we set off for Edinburgh.

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4hrs sleep and an overdose of carbs, dry, fresh, clean kit and I was ready to take on the world again

To continue reading part 3 of my LEL journey click here

I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism, if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you

London Edinburgh London part 1 – it doesn’t begin on the start line

I had no previous experience cycling unsupported for any great distance but this year I entered myself into London-Edinburgh-London (LEL), the UK’s longest Audax at 1400km. Some say it’s the toughest and the 2017 DNF (did not finish) rate of 34% would back that claim up. In previous years I’ve set myself big challenges compared to my experience, returning from post pregnancy to ride my first 100 miles, entering the very hot and hilly 2015 L’Etape du Tour with no previous mountain climbing experience and last year I completed Lejog in 9 days but with full ride support it felt like a holiday compared to LEL. I hoped my strong will and determination would get me through the parts where my lack of experience might otherwise let me down.

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2015 L’Etape du Tour on the final ascent with an accumulation of 5500m across 5 peaks

I’d followed the Transcontinental Race (TCR) for the past 2 summers and I’d been seduced by the adventures those cyclists were having. They were incredible endurance athletes, covering huge distances through the day and night on unknown roads, sometimes in hostile places and most if not all athletes also had day jobs, this really inspired me. I had dreams and ambitions of riding my bike further, putting packs on my bike and going off on solo adventures but my experience of doing this was zero. Taking part in TCR seemed like a step too far for me, I’m not a racer, I’m a single mother with considerable responsibilities but LEL offered me an opportunity to do something similar, with the same spirit of adventure, a good level of difficulty but with some sense of safety and support. The seed was planted but I was still not fully committed to signing up.

In January I spent a week in Girona with The Adventure Syndicate on their adventure racing training camp. Organised by TCR 2016 winner Emily Chappell, we spent the week surrounded by like-minded women, being led by Emily, learning from her vast experience of riding unsupported. I met other women that were signed up for LEL and it was a good opportunity to compare myself to them. I met women with TCR places, I met women riding road bikes for the very first time. The atmosphere was incredibly inspirational and motivational, I came home buzzing and the following weekend LEL went on sale. LEL is a Grand Randonee and only takes place every 4 years, it was as if my destiny had been written for me.

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After a week riding in Girona with the Adventure Syndicate training camp, I dared to believe I could take on LEL

I spent the winter on my Wahoo Kickr, training indoors as I always do. It’s a routine I have come to love, I build up my fitness doing hard interval sessions so I can enjoy the time cycling outdoors when I have the opportunity. I get up early, I train while Savannah (my 4yr old daughter) still sleeps. It’s hard in the winter, to drag myself out of bed when it’s dark but once I’m on my bike and the music is pumping in my headphones my bed is quickly forgotten. I did intend to ride further than 220km before LEL but unfortunately, those longer rides didn’t go to plan and the training time ran out. I learned during my training that preparation for longer rides (especially if you plan to ride at night) takes a lot more time and consideration than the average rides I had done before. A beautiful 150km ride to Whitstable was perfect during daylight hours but reversing it on ridewithgps didn’t make it a rideable 300km, I only learned this as I cycled along and failed to find a 24hr petrol station, a place to buy food or drink for the return leg so we bailed for safety and took the train back to London.

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During the training camp, we were encouraged to embrace our failures. The memory of a failed 300km ride was quickly replaced with the best fish n chips you might ever taste in Whitstable, Kent.

I agonised over my LEL steed for months, I considered buying something new but I was already making a considerable investment into the event. The new equipment, kit, food, travel to training rides very quickly adds up and my bank balance was being drained each month. I loved riding my Condor Baracchi over the 9 days of Lejog and we have plenty of history together so eventually, after lengthy conversations and lots of advice from Condor I decided this was my bike for this adventure. Condor fitted a Schmidt SON Deluxe dynamo to a H Plus Son Rim so I could power lights and charge on the go with an Igaro USB charger. We settled on the Schmidt Edelux II High Power LED light because it had a superior beam over lower rolling speeds. When it came to bike luggage my small 49cm frame limited my choices but I enjoyed riding with the Apidura saddle pack, top tube pack and feed pack.

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My go faster bike was ready to go further.


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Learning the hard way, in the Kent hills how bike handling changes with luggage

When it was time to stand on the start line for LEL I had mixed feelings of excitement and nerves. I felt fit, I had amassed 8000km of training so far this year, I had ridden with my packs on every training ride to get used to the feeling of how my bike handled but LEL was my very first Audax.

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Feeling as ready as I ever could at the start line for LEL on July 30th 2017

Day 1 Loughton – Louth

Distance covered: 243.75km

Ascent: 1153m

Moving time: 09:20:43

Stopped time: 01:44:22

Average speed: 26.1 kmph

I’d mapped out a daily plan for myself, originally aiming for Pocklington on day 1 but as the event drew closer it dawned on me this would be too ambitious with a 13:30 start time. I assumed most riders ahead of me would be aiming for the same control so I adjusted my plans and aimed for Louth at 242km hoping I might get lucky and get a bed there instead.

I’d previously ridden the section from Loughton to St Ives as part of my training, it was the day I clocked up 220km. My boyfriend and I followed the route North and then South crossing over to Cambridge once we reached St Ives.  It was comforting to feel that familiarity as I set off on this ginormous adventure, knowing the roads ahead for the first few hours, helped me settle in. About 40km from St Ives I was running low on water, it was a warm day but I knew there was a petrol station coming up so I made a quick stop to refill. I’d built 10-20-minute stops into my plan between controls for comfort breaks and water, I drink a lot and I knew managing my off bike time was just as important as managing my riding time if I wanted to be successful. We had learned the importance of this during the training camp which included a timed race around a supermarket.

As I set off again I noticed a familiar rider, we had spoken in the food queue at Loughton, he recognised my pink socks. It was David, he was also riding a Condor and we quickly established we were quite well matched for pace so we stuck together for the ride into St Ives. As we approached St Ives I knew my family would be waiting, they moor their river boat here and had a cheering point for my impending arrival. I originally told them I wouldn’t stop due to fear of time slipping away but knowing my 4-year-old daughter was there it was impossible not to, I said goodbye to David unsure if I’d see him again and I pulled over to have a hug with Savannah.

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A quick roadside cuddle wouldn’t hurt, I had 117hrs to complete this

David and I departed St Ives together and as we cycled along we discussed our plans ahead and it became apparent we had mapped out something almost identical. David started at 13:45, his drop bags were also in Pocklington and Brampton. David had ridden quite a few Audaxes so when I told him my previous longest ride was 220km his reaction was one of shock and I expected him to ride away at the first opportunity, I thought he would drop me. We chatted away and the kms ticked by, we were also enjoying the only sustained tail-wind we would experience for the whole 5 days. I ride with an InfoCranks power meter so I was watching my output and made sure we weren’t burning ourselves out with this aid on our tail.

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Beautiful, quiet roads and a tailwind – the Condor Crew were flying high

Spalding seemed to arrive in a flash so we treated ourselves to a nice break. The food offerings were quite limited but I was very hungry, I went for the pudding first because the savory dishes were ringing alarm bells in my head. My head was saying “no don’t have the curry” but my tummy was saying “yes you need it”, my tummy eventually won.

Louth was now in our sights so I started to push on in the hope that I could get off my bike quicker, my stomach was very unhappy. We approached a sharp incline, the sign read 10% and I attacked it as if I had fresh legs, the road was narrow, dark and littered with cyclists walking up the path. I kept pushing and could sense I was opening up a gap between myself and David, I decided to keep going and wait at the top. David was suffering the dozies, I hadn’t heard of this term before but I would hear it over and over again in the coming days. He was suffering fatigue but we were so close to Louth stopping for a roadside sleep seemed like a bad idea to me. He said he was going to have an energy gel but I knew Louth was really nearby so I offered some other food to keep him going through the final kms. We’d been traveling at quite a pace all day and made up some really good time so we took it really easy from here, we stayed together and cruised into Louth at 00:30.

Arriving at Louth we learned that all the beds were full, the control staff suggested we should eat and try again later. My stomach was in knots, I was suffering a very poorly tummy, it was either a bug or the curry I had eaten in Spalding or a combination of all the food I had eaten that day. I tried to eat and also drink as much as I could but it was really hard work. David started to fall asleep at the table so I joined the bed queue. By 02:00 I had 2 post it notes with 2-bed numbers, I excitedly woke David up with the good news and we trundled off to this giant sports hall filled with loud snores (and other noises). I found my bed already occupied so I had to go back and find a member of staff and another bed, luckily there was another bed free. We booked ourselves a 04:30 wake up, a whole 02:30 lying down time. I wasn’t ever going to call it sleep because it would be too distressing and negative if I didn’t get to sleep. Before the event and in my mind I planned it as off bike time, it was a lie-down and if I managed more it was better than I’d planned. I used to have a boss that always dressed up and looked her best when she had a hangover, I was thinking in the same way.

As expected my stomach problem, the adrenalin pumping around my body and my first-day nerves added up to no actual sleep. I pulled on the damp kit of yesterday and dreamed of my fresh kit and a shower 100km up the road in Pocklington. I applied a fresh application of Muc-Off chamois cream, the scent reminds me of holidays, this lifted my mood and soothed my skin. We had porridge for breakfast but I refused the offer of coffee, I was trying to limit my caffeine intake because any opportunity to sleep would be banished with caffeine in my system, caffeine was reserved for emergencies only.

As we pulled out of Louth my legs felt dead but David shot off out of the control like a spring lamb, the distance between us was immediately noticeable, he was dropping me on all the climbs. I knew I had to maintain my own pace, this was only day 2 and if I tried to stay with him at this pace I was fried.

To continue reading part 2 of my LEL journey click here

I’ve taken on a number of cycling challenges this year to help raise money for Ambitious About Autism, if you’d like to make a donation you can here thank you

Fixed fears

I was on my commute home from work, scrolling through Twitter and I noticed a Tweet from British Cycling. Without hesitation I found myself clicking through to the registration page and before I’d even had time to stop and think I was signed up for British Cycling’s South East women’s track skills session at Lee Valley Velodrome. I’d been told by cycling friends riding track was a great way to become more skillful on my bike but until now fear had got in the way of me trying this discipline.

I’ve never ridden a fixed gear bike before and I was very nervous about riding a bike without brakes. My biggest fear was forgetting to pedal (freewheeling) which can result in being thrown off the bike and I couldn’t stop thinking about this, track cycling wasn’t my idea of fun. However the more I ride my road bike the more I want to get better at it. I’ve improved my fitness and now I want to craft and perfect my skills. I shared the news of my next adventure with the women of Ampthill RCC and 2 of them agreed to join me.

Before the session, I spoke to my cycling coach Mike Charlton and I asked him for his top tips for riding the track. His immediate response was “I love coaching track, it’s the single most rapid advancement in rider skills” which reaffirmed why I was putting myself up for this. He went on to give the following tips:

  1. The angle of banking at the bottom is exactly the same as the top so if you can ride on the datum line you can ride up the wall.
  2. Push down more on the left leg.
  3. Pedal in perfect circles to stay smooth and straight. If you’re a stomper you will wiggle all over the place.
  4. Look over your shoulder BEFORE you move in either direction.
  5. Don’t try to freewheel !!!!

Tip 1 immediately set my mind at ease, that high wall looks so steep and I had visions of myself sliding down it and ending up with very large, wooden splinters in my bum. Tips 2, 3 and 4 were very practical so I parked them in my mind and decided they would be put into practice once I arrived and tip 5 sent my mind into overdrive, forgetting to pedal was my recurring worry.

This was a women only session, the group was of mixed ability, some who had and some who hadn’t. Those that had were set off on the track. Jen and I were complete novices so after an initial briefing that covered bike checks and kit, entering the track, starting, stopping on the rail (this worried me) and looking over your shoulders we headed for the safety of the track center with our new bikes under the guidance of our coach for the day, Terry. He introduced himself as one of the old school and we should be prepared to be pushed, I immediately liked him. He explained how to mount the bike and we were on our way, initially letting go of the rail was like taking my very first step but once I allowed my legs to take control of the situation (instead of my head) I was riding around a carpeted course, feeling quite happy and getting a feel for the bike and the way it handles. Terry asked us to ride towards him and bring the bike to a stop and unclip, immediate panic set in my mind, my palms went clammy and I was shaking. As I rode towards him I was controlling the bike and slowing it down, I learned very quickly these bikes are quite simple and very responsive. My perceived fear of having no brakes now seemed stupid, as I reduced the effort and slowed down the bike stopped, I unclipped, and everything was fine. Terry declared “you’ve all presented yourself to be competent cyclists, we’re off to the track”. Jen and I looked at each other, slightly scared, slightly excited, this was it, we were actually going to ride on the track. 

We were clearly briefed before each track session and we were also led out by Gemma, a club cyclist training to be a coach. Her input into the session was so valuable, there’s a lot of information to take in so having someone to follow made a big difference. We did a couple of warm-up laps around the apron then Gemma led us up onto the Cote D’Azur then the red and blue line, we were always looking over our shoulders before making a move and the importance of this was really reinforced throughout the session. The track feels flat when you’re riding it, that aggressive slope seems to disappear, it’s a strange sensation.  I was also surprised at how relaxed I was, I felt at one with that bike, my legs just naturally kept spinning, I never thought about my fear of freewheeling.

We rode around on a fixed route, following Gemma until Terry instructed us to come in, slow down and ride up and stop at the handrail. It surprised me again how easy it was to slide my hand along the rail and come to a controlled stop. Terry had given us the tip to take in a good deep breath or 2 before we unclipped to dismount, to allow our legs to settle and this was a good tip. My legs were teaching me that track cycling is a very intense workout, we were doing sessions of approximately 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off and during the off time, I was ravenous. Luckily we had a picnic of food in the car for the journey down so we quickly fetched this at the next opportunity and munched our way through pancakes, bananas, and coconut milk rice pudding.

This was a skills sessions and I could feel the learning curve increasing, each session on the track pushed us that bit further and taught us something new. On the next round Terry instructed us to ride right to the top, to the black line and it was incredible how much force and power goes through your legs to stay up there. I felt a few wobbles and Mike’s tip to pedal in perfect circles came into my mind, I tried to relax and make my pedal strokes more fluid and the wobble went away. We rode through and off, in a group of 4, as we approached the corner the front rider peeled off, up the wall and dropped to the back. We started to learn how to use the banking to control our speed. The team I was in quickly adopted brilliant communication, calling “all on” each time the rider was back in line and it was poetry in motion to ride in a group with these 3 girls I’d never met before.

Space and pace pushed the skills further, forcing us to slow the bike down and maneuver around obstacles, Terry instructed “use your hips” and the next laps when I came around I stopped trying to steer the bike with the handlebars and I used my body instead and I immediately felt the difference. On the next lap he’d moved the obstacles and made the angles more aggressive, it felt like I came close to the wall but I slowed the bike down in time and around the obstacles, I was learning fast. As I came around the track for another time Terry instructed me to stop, at the top of the wall, on the outside rail. This was way beyond anything I was really prepared for, I slowed down and held on to the railing, looking down on the track below. The velodrome was filling up now, a kids session was happening in the track center and the cafe was buzzing with people. My bike slipped from underneath me but fortunately, I managed to unclip in time to prevent any further incident. I got back on my bike but my legs were shaking, I was at the front of the group and I felt conscious the riders behind me were depending on me to make a good start. Terry instructed us to start riding and it was, without a doubt, the biggest challenge of the day for me, dropping back in from a fixed point near the bend but as with everything else, I did it and I didn’t fall down the track. Terry instructed us to ride around back to the same position, he wanted us to try that again but this time we should ride off together in a line, this added to the pressure that I had to make a good start. Letting go of the railing and applying maximum power to the pedals ticked the box of being pushed way outside of my comfort zone during that session, I struggled to let go but I forced my fears aside and went for it.

The session finished with an Italian pursuit race, starting from the outside rail again. The accredited riders and novices like myself were all mixed together and we were set up in 2 equal teams. Terry and Alsion the coaches explained the rules of the race and we decided our starting order. This final challenge brought together all of the skills we’d picked up throughout the day, pacing, communication, observation as we cleared the track and finally the last riders put in a great sprint and finished with about 3 meters apart.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

  • Riding on the track forced me to be more skillful on the bike, skills I have already transferred to my road bike
  • I didn’t freewheel or think about freewheeling
  • Stopping is much easier than you think it will be without brakes
  • Track bikes are simple to ride and you can learn to control them quickly using your body and the track bankings to either increase or decrease speed
  • It’s a great way to improve pedaling techniques and velocity
  • Track cycling offers a very intense workout, bring lots of food and hydration tablets for your water bottle. I was exhausted after the session and I slept for 3hrs when I got home that afternoon 
  • As with all types of cycling, the more relaxed you are the easier is will be
  • I gained a lot of confidence from this session
  • The session took us to the equivalent of level 2 accreditation and we were awarded level 1 accreditation
  • Track cycling is exciting and fun, I can’t wait to go again

The British Cycling South East series has now finished but The Lee Valley Women’s Track Skills Series commences 23rd April 19:00 – 21:00. More information here: http://visitleevalley.org.uk/en/content/cms/london2012/velo-park/track/#skillseries. To book, log in using your Lee Valley membership number, click on Lee Valley Velopark, and then find ‘Women’s Specific Track SkillSeries’ in the menu. 

Track riding isn’t just indoors, Herne Hill Velodrome has one of the most thriving women’s track cycling scenes in the country. They run a women-only track race league once a month on Saturdays, with the first round on 15th April. More information: http://www.hernehillvelodrome.com/womensleague/ They also run their women’s training sessions every Sunday evening 17:00 – 19:00. Herne Hill also has its own accreditation system. More information here: http://www.hernehillvelodrome.com/whats-on/training-sessions/pathway/

 

Hills Are Not The Enemy 

I made a mental switch to start appreciating the challenge of going up, I learnt to love hills and it made a big difference to my cycling. I’ll be chatting to a group of women at Rapha CC Spitalfields on Thursday 16th March about my experiences. I’ll include how I train, coping mechanisms, what I eat and how I recover. I’ll talk about how all of this helped me achieve success in L’Etape Du Tour, summit Mont Ventoux and complete Lands End to John O’Groats. If you’d like to join it’s free and there’s drinks from 18:30, the chat starts at 19:00. 

Sign up here 

I’m looking forward to meeting you. 

Nicole 

You can teach an old dog new tricks

As I cooled down after this morning’s training ride I couldn’t help but smile, I’ve been on a really big journey for the past 12 weeks and in the last 30 minutes as I completed my final training session those 12 weeks flashed through my head. I’ve been training for my biggest cycling adventure to come but this time, I’ve really been training, I’ve not just been out riding my bike as I’ve done in the past. For the first time, I’ve followed a customised training plan and I’ve had the benefit of riding with an Infocrank power meter that Verve Cycling kindly supplied for me.

My first experience of road cycling in 2009 was possibly like most other peoples, I just jumped on my new bike and I rode a few miles with no understanding of how to really ride other than turning the pedals and pulling the brakes. I bought my bike in the Lake District and I enjoyed a lovely ride around one of my favourite places there, around Lake Coniston. When I returned to London where I lived at the time I took my bike to Regents Park, I had no idea this was a place for London cyclists. I lived in North London and it seemed like an obvious place to enjoy quieter roads. When I arrived in the park I was surprised to see so many cyclists doing laps of the park and I soon found myself looping around the park too, chasing the group until the sun went down.

This style of riding, all out until you drop was a type of riding I just adopted from the beginning and it stuck with me. I rode with the boys, often in my red zone without any awareness of what this actually was or what it was doing to me. I never warmed up, I never cooled down, I kept up with the group but it was my determination that got me through those rides more than my fitness and I was always exhausted by the end. As I reflect back today on how much I’ve learnt with the addition of a power meter and 12 weeks of coached training I’m not even sure I would’ve survived past day 3 of Lejog in my former skin. The organisers of Deloitte Ride Across Britain advise participants to ride within themselves and to be honest, I didn’t really understand what this meant before now, I always used my mental strength to get me through the tougher rides. Before my 12-week plan started I had this bright idea that I would train at my threshold limit and then arrive at the event and just turn off the speed, slow down, hoping my body would feel all the better for it. I had no idea that I would probably arrive exhausted from the experience of training like this and I had no idea how hard it was to turn off the speed.

Learning to adapt to a different style of riding has taken me time, practice, frustration, effort, more practice, more frustration and even more effort. I’ve spent the last 12 weeks going through a process of transformation which started with getting almost everything wrong, finding it very hard to let go of old habits but then suddenly the penny dropped and I became a perfectionist riding in my zones. I didn’t want to ride with friends, I wanted to ride on my own and perfect my skills. I tried to ride with friends but I got carried away and my old habits came back, chasing the group down, riding on the front pushing the pace, in the red, smashing it up hills, I went so far backwards from one ride and it took me 2 weeks to recover from the fun I had that day but it was part of the learning experience and as I reflect today I can really laugh at myself. There is no way I can ride over 100 miles a day for 9 consecutive days if I get carried away like that so I have to remember this day.

Finally, it felt so natural riding in zone 2, the endurance zone that I barely had to look down at my Garmin to check I was riding at the right effort. There are so many benefits to this new way of riding, it’s not just improved my cycling but it’s also improved my general well-being and lifestyle. I’m more efficient on my bike and I’m more powerful, my fitness grew faster with fewer miles so I had to train for fewer hours, my FTP increased 15% within the first 7 weeks and I recovered from every ride quickly so I could ride day after day with very little impact on my busy lifestyle as a working Mum.

I know there will be suffering, I’m about to ride 972 miles over some of Great Britains finest hills and dales but I understand how I can monitor and control my performance each day by keeping my effort reigned in. The education process that I’ve been through has given me the insight to be able to thrive rather than survive each day on the adventure to come.

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Daily training rides with my session stuck to my top tube

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While on holiday in Mallorca I got up early and incorporated daily 2hr rides in to my plan. With a hire bike and no power meter I trained with HR zones and cadence with great success.

 

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Standard text message exchange during my training phase

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On week 11 I had the opportunity to climb the Giant of Provence. Riding with a fixed plan and aiming to stay in zone 4 all the way I achieved a time under 2hrs but most importantly I recovered well and rode for the next 2 days.

 

When riding becomes training

Last year I spent hours on my bike and turbo trainer training for L’Etape Du Tour, this week I’ve learnt I wasn’t really training, I was just riding, I was possibly making myself more tired with ‘junk miles’. I never warm up and I never cool down, I just go out, ride and put the miles in.

This year I’ve signed up to Ride Across Britain from Land’s End to John O’Groats (Lejog) in September, it’s an epic journey of 969 miles going from the southern tip of England in Cornwall to the furthest tip of Scotland in the North. It’s one of those bucket list rides that a lot of cyclists aim to tick off.

I’ve been out clocking up the miles over the winter, I’ve ridden 3500 miles this year but with no fixed plan. With my busy life that includes a lot of travelling and commuting to London I thought a training plan wouldn’t suit me so I just ride, eat well and maintain my fitness to the best level I can. I enjoy riding, I love the freedom cycling provides, it’s in those quiet moments that I piece together what’s happening in my life or I’m just free to escape from it. I find those moments of solitude so cleansing, it’s like a form of meditation especially when it’s raining. I don’t want to think about what interval is coming next, what zone I should be riding in, I just spin with good cadence but this week I’ve discovered some extra equipment and a bit of education can make a big difference.

When Verve Cycling invited me to join their #mypower team to Ride Across Britain I was excited about the opportunity but I had no idea where to start and how to train with power. I didn’t know what zones were, I’d never done an FTP test, I didn’t know how to do an FTP test and I didn’t know what to do with the results. Functional Threshold Power (FTP) represents your ability to sustain the highest possible power output over 45 to 60 minutes, depending on whether you’re a trained athlete or not. As a result 95% of the 20 minute average power is used to determine FTP. None of this interested me before, I was just riding my bike and enjoying the adventure and doing OK with all of the challenges I entered.

On Thursday morning I completed my first FTP test and I think I was feeling quite nervous about it because I had a bad nights sleep. I woke at 3am and I never really got back in to a deep sleep again. When my alarm went off I wanted to reset the timer and stay in bed but knowing I had a coach waiting to see my results upload was incredibly motivating so I got myself up and ready. The FTP test was a sequence of intervals to warm up, an all out 20 minute section where I had to give it everything and a cool down at the end. I wrote the sequence of intervals on to a piece of paper and stuck it to my bike. I found following the short intervals quite difficult, I’d never done anything like this before and I’m certain my cadence wasn’t accurate for almost all of the reps. I missed a set of reps, going straight in to the next one so I had to go back, it was chaos. I found it hard to concentrate, turn the pedals at the right RPM, hit the power and switch between the intervals. An FTP test at 06:00am was starting to feel a bit ambitious but in the morning, before work is my only time to train during the week.

When the 20 minutes started for the proper test my cadence was all over the place, I was spinning way too high, over 110RPM, I couldn’t get in to a nice rhythm. I eventually settled in to a hard pace at 100RPM and the power was hovering around 180-200W. After 7 minutes I really felt the pain, I was plugged in to Zwift and my rider was climbing the mountain, even though I had no resistance on my trainer it felt like I was going up that mountain too. The patio doors were completely steamed up by now and I’d drank a full bidon of water. I was listening to music on headphones, this definitely kept me going. When I reached 15 minutes I knew I would make it through the test but at 17 minutes the pain became so intense that it felt like the clock was stuck and the minutes didn’t seem to change. Eventually the time rolled over to 20:00 and I was able to slow down in to the cool down phase but when this finished I kept spinning, it was like my body was in shock, I was physically shaking and turning the pedals felt quite comforting.

To the other extreme of this FTP test I went out on my bike today and completed a 30 mile ride, my goal was to maintain zone 2 (I know what this is now) for the full distance. My riding style is not steady when I’m riding solo, I go out and hit the ride as hard as I can, I love powering up hills so it felt very abnormal to hold myself back like this. There’s a section on the ride after 8 miles, it’s lumpy, and it always challenges me because I’m never warmed up. I always get better when a ride develops, after 50 miles is when I’m stronger than ever. Today riding along this stretch I felt good because I’d ridden in zone 2 all the way to this point and surprisingly my average speed was 16.5mph. When I entered Lejog I set myself a goal of riding each day at 15mph or less, I thought this target would give me a solid pace to get through each day, without destroying myself. Today I learnt riding to power zones is the most effective way to control effort, I know the numbers I can ride at for a set distance and stick to them. This is without doubt the most efficient way to tackle long distances.

It’s 12 weeks until Lejog, over the coming weeks I will be sharing my experiences of learning to train with power.

 

 

 

Braver Than The Elements

On Saturday 12th December, Rapha invites women around the world to clip in for a wintry ride, whatever the weather. Join one of over 40 rides leaving from Rapha Cycle Clubs or organised by ambassadors throughout North America, the UK, Europe, Japan and Korea.

I will be leading a ride from my hometown of Ampthill, the route is 42 miles and goes North through the Bedfordshire villages alongside the River Ouse. The route is mostly rolling with a couple of my beloved hills, I couldn’t design a ride without them. I enjoy riding through winter, the sunshine of summer is guaranteed happiness but the rain can bring wild adventure and unforgettable rides that give you a real sense of satisfaction.

Even if you’re unable to join an official ride, we still hope to inspire you to ride on the day. If you share your images of winter riding on Instagram and use the #braverthantheelements hashtag between now and the ride date of 12th December you could be chosen to win some beautiful women’s winter kit. Please see the Rapha BTTE website for full T&C’s.

If you’d like to sign up for my ride you can find out more details here Ampthill BTTE ride sign up

Looking out on to Ampthill Square on a wild, wet and windy day

Looking out on to Ampthill Square on a wild, wet and windy day

Choosing the right kit will make a big difference to your enjoyment during winter rides

Choosing the right kit will make a big difference to your enjoyment during winter rides

As winter sets in, many of us change the way we ride. We might ride a bit less often, or our distances may become shorter. I like to include a hill in every ride, all year round so come spring I still have the legs to get up them.

As winter sets in, many of us change the way we ride. We might ride a bit less often, or our distances may become shorter. I like to include a hill in every ride, all year round so come spring I still have the legs to get up them.

We forced ourselves out in 40mph wind and rain, it was a memorable and enjoyable ride

We forced ourselves out in 40mph wind and rain, it was a memorable and enjoyable ride

During the winter months we change the format of our ride, stopping at the end, rather than the middle. It's can be difficult to get going again if you're wet and cold. Cake and coffee is always a good motivator to keep the pedals turning.

During the winter months we change the format of our ride, stopping at the end, rather than the middle. It can be difficult to get going again if you’re wet and cold. Cake and coffee is always a good motivator to keep the pedals turning.