What do you mean ‘the Alps aren’t flat’?

“It’s mostly flat” Ryan told me when we planned our first cycling holiday, a three day tour around Mull.  When Ryan convinced me and Megan to Cycle the 70 miles to Chester, “it’s mostly flat” he said.  You may have noticed if you’ve read the other posts already on this blog that neither of these routes are flat and that therefore….Ryan lies.

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Trying to pretend I didn’t fall off going up a hill and desperately trying to get back on before Ryan could take a photo

Now don’t worry, I may be only an arts graduate but I’m not that stupid that I think the Alps are actually flat, in fact, I am fully terrified about how much hill climbing we’re going to have to do when we get to the Alps.  What’s concerning is what Ryan says about cycling through France…you guessed it, “it’s mostly flat”.  That and “it’s down hill all the way”.

As if the distance and having to cycle for 16 days wasn’t a challenge enough, we also have hills to contend with.  In addition to hills, we have Alpine passes to contend with.  As more of a ‘coasting downhill’ kind of girl I have always known that the hills were going to be my biggest uphill struggle (see what I did there).

My inability to get up hills without dying was brought into sharp focus on our training session last weekend when Megan The Demon Hill Climber was unleashed upon us.  I was incredibly impressed with Megan’s ability, not simply to get up the hills in one piece, but to attack them with all the vigour of a starving man at a buffet (apologies I couldn’t think of a better analogy).  I really struggled to get up the hills last weekend and although I made it up most of them without needing to walk (see above photo for evidence of my only failure) the effort made me so tired the next day I couldn’t have done that 70 miles again.

With this new knowledge in mind I decided I need to do more hill training, which is where living in North Wales would have come in handy.  Unfortunately I live in Oxford where there are a lot fewer hills and most of them slight inclines compared to what I need.  Thankfully Ryan has gone skiing for two weeks which meant I could kidnap his turbo trainer and bring it back to Oxford with me.

Today I sacrificed going on a long cycle ride to have a shorter session indoors.  In order to simulate the hot Alpine summer temperatures I turned the heat up and kept the windows closed, sweating my way through an hour of turbo training.  I downloaded a really basic app which allowed me to set interval timers and alternated between 5 minutes of easy to medium cycling and 5 minutes of steep hill.

I absolutely loved this training session and I think I got more benefit out of it then I would have cycling around town desperately trying to find a hill.  Some highlights were:

– I wasn’t allowed to coast down hill and had to keep up the pedalling and intensity even when I turned down the resistance.

– I tried to keep peddling continuously for an hour which was great psychological training for me as I’m really good at coasting wherever possible.

– I could practise standing up cycling and balancing one-handed without any real threat I was going to fall off and injure myself.

– I could also practise removing the water bottle from the holder whilst pedalling, not something I think I’ve ever done before.

Overall I can conclude from today’s training that I need to get myself a turbo trainer (or convince Ryan he’s lost his and not lent it to me).  I was expecting to be able to do a long stint on the trainer today but in actual fact it’s so exhausting that I think 1 hour on the bike was equivalent to 3 hours or more outdoors.  Because of this I wish I’d done a hill session a few times during the week and gone on an all day ride today, but it was still incredibly beneficial and I learnt a lot.

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The “First training weekend of doom” that turned out to be actually kind of great!

Training:

A few months ago if someone had said that I’d be cycling from Bangor to Chester over 70 miles in one day I would’ve laughed and said yeah right. I mean, before I started training for this Switzerland adventure I’d maybe do 10 minutes on an exercise bike in the gym at a really slow pace and then think ‘hell yeah, go me’. As I’ve always enjoyed running, I put my lack of cycling skill down to having ‘runners legs’ and ‘weak cycling knees’. Very naive of me, because as soon as I’ve applied myself to cycling training, the positive results have been almost immediate.

My training regime has been pretty steady since I’ve started, I always start with a 20 minute run on the treadmill to get my heartbeat up and warm up my legs. Depending on what kind of night’s sleep I’ve had, or what kind of state of mind I’m in on a particular morning, this stint on the treadmill really sorts out my attitude aswell.

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I was cycling at 90 rpm I promise! (I had to slow down to balance and take the picture though!)

I then go on the training bikes with programmed screens that follow virtual cycle routes along varying terrains. It plays terrible music, but It’s very motivating having the crazy robot woman screaming “Push it, this section is going to be tough” through the headphones. I found it easier to train on these machines as opposed to the traditional ‘gym bikes’ because they resemble road bikes with drop handlebars and a slimmer saddle, so it feels like I’m getting used to the posture and stance of a road bike too. The on-screen route, that takes you on long open-road sprints or tough, rocky up-hill climbs is also considerably more interesting than staring at the gym wall.

Over the 4 months (approx.) training that I’ve been doing I’ve built up from doing a 10 minute jog to warm up and a 20 minute cycle (and then the spending the remaining time on other equipment and weights) at first, to now doing a 20 minute sprint to warm up and either a 40minute up-hill , high energy gym cycle and weights training or a 60 minute long-endurance cycle with occasional up-hill training. I’ve really started to notice a massive improvement in my distance stamina due to this way of training too. I think running contributes to my overall fitness and strengthens my legs.

Spin classes have also been incredibly beneficial for building the muscles in my legs and strengthening my knees. I try to vary my cycling training so that I can condition my body and fitness to cope with long-distance rides.

Training weekend: 

This type of high-energy sports training really prepared me for this first long-distance cycle from Bangor to Chester. I felt prepared for up-hill climbs, imagining some crazy spin-class lady shouting “go , go , go”, and my own will power went into autodrive and I concentrated on counting my breaths instead of how much farther I had to go. I found that I had to attack hills at a fast pace to get to the top, and if I began to slow I would lose momentum and feared I would stop.

Initially I panicked about the looming training weekend, thinking that attempting a 70 mile ride was ludicrous when my personal best was currently a 5mile trip up the road.

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My personal achievements on RunKeeper: 3 distances achieved, that vary quite dramatically.

I really thought that I was in for a rude awakening, and that my training so far would’ve hardly scratched the surface. However, my fitness has improved so much so that I didn’t struggle with the distance too much. I found the hills challenging but not impossible, and I loved every single minute of the ride…Although my enthusiasm did start to falter when we reached yet more hills even after Ryan promised me there were no more!

What did make the hill climbs worth it however, was getting to the top and seeing how high we’d climbed from sea level, and seeing views like this:

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We started on the cycle path 6 meters from the water and climbed to this height! Definitely rewarding!

The biggest challenge of the ride on Saturday was towards the end of the ride when the sun set and it became freezing. It was a very strange sensation, being absolutely frozen, with numb fingers, toes and feet whilst I was throwing what was left of my energy into a sprint along a long, pitch black cycle path with nothing but a small LED bike light that lit up about 3cm infront of me. The final 10 miles in these conditions were certainly character building to say the least, and my confidence got knocked down a couple of pegs. The extreme contrast between me sprinting along the coast paths in lovely sunshine, to later on averaging at 8mph in the freezing cold, just goes to show that the whole experience was a roller coaster of emotions.

From it all though, the most important question that I had to ask myself after the whole experience was, could you do that for 12 or more days straight, albeit in warmer weather, steeper hills and longer distances… and I thought hell yes! So the dark tunnel of doom didn’t completely put me off! yay!

Overall, the ride taught me a few good things:

-My training so far is on the right track…I’m not behind on training like I feared.

-I’m good at attacking short 200 meter (ish),steep hills at a fast pace, but need to improve my up-hill endurance in order to be able to tackle longer up-hill climbs at a steady pace that I can maintain.

-I need to gain some confidence on downhill descents, and become more comfortable with faster speeds without slamming on the breaks all the way down. Partly because my break pads will disintegrate if I do this in the Alps, and because it makes your hands resemble something like the Claw after a long time. (Especially when its cold- this is extremely uncomfortable and painful when they start to reheat).

-In moments of doubt, despair and exhaustion all I have to do is catch up with Ryan and get him singing Spice Girls covers. Instant mood lifter!

-I didn’t suffer from the common “sore saddle ASS” (as Ryan likes to call it). I like to accredit this to 2 things: I train on horrible, hard, standard issue saddles in the gym for lots of days straight (Although not all day long, granted) So my ASS is accustomed to sitting on a rock hard saddles. Secondly, when purchasing my road bike, the lovely people at Merlin Cycles advised me to get a women’s specific saddle, that can only be described as a super comfy, bike-sofa. My Tush was Cush to be honest, but I can only be optimistic about longer rides over several days, fingers crossed!

-My legs weren’t too sore the next morning. Jen and I did a very thorough “stretching-off” session once we got home. I mean, really all we did was imitate lots of animals: praying dog, Sphinx Cat, standing like a flamingo and Luke’s really fantastic stretch, the Frog. This was particularly entertaining.

The first training weekend has motivated me to train harder and I’m really excited about getting out and doing some long-distance routes of my own. The next training challenge is to be able to do the BangorChester-ness 2 days straight! So I need to get training to improve my stamina and endurance…and maybe pack warmer clothes as well next time! Training weekend numero deux come at me!

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Auntie Ann and uncle Ernie have been super relatives and sent some awesome thermal socks in the post in aid of team pedal’s training weekends! 2 pairs of nicey warm socks … So next time we don’t have to worry about losing our fingers and toes to frostbite !
So thank you very very much to Ann and Ernie !!!! X

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The first ‘official’ Team Pedal training weekend

We’ve reached the end of Team Pedal’s first official training weekend. In fact it was a weekend of firsts, not least being the first time we’ve all cycled together and the first substantial trip for Megan’s new bike.

There was a bit of contention on the route choice, and part of my winning argument included the fact that there’s generally a good tailwind on the route. For Megan this was going to be a big step up: going from a previous personal best of 6 miles to 70 is no small undertaking, and similarly Jen hadn’t tackled more than around 35-40 before.

Despite this I was optimistic and kept repeating the vital statistics: even if we travel at 10 mph it’ll only take 7 hours. 7 hours is enough to do it entirely in daylight, and we’ll probably be aiming for more like 23-15 mph average. Definitely. And pushing for 70 miles gives us a good idea of how we can hold up to the sort of distance we’ll be covering on the big ride and how we’ll feel on day 2.

Let’s do it!

Feeling good and ready to ride

Feeling good and ready to ride

Inappropriate shoes!

Inappropriate shoes!

So we set off at 10am, a little after sunrise (and then some), but it made sense to get a good night’s sleep after late arrivals from Jen and Megan. There were a couple of initial hiccups, including Jen’s realisation that she’d forgotten her trainers so had to do the ride in casual runners and stopping to raise Megan’s saddle about 6 inches, but soon we were underway, and the progress was good. We rode with Dave and Steph, who turned up in significantly warmer attire than we’d chosen, particularly me in my 3/4 length thick lycra, cycling t-shirt and thin windproof. Although it started off as a pretty brisk morning, the sun was soon out and it was almost like a spring day. Good clothing choice. Win #1.

One of the nice things about the North Wales cycle route is how much time you spend on completely flat ground right by the sea. We undertook a couple of ascents, the first one up through Colwyn Bay and the second cutting inland after Prestatyn. Both hill climbs were on quiet roads, and as I said previously the improvements to the route for cyclists has been great in the past few years. Only Shotton high street remains as a busy on-road adventure, but hopefully that can be phased out in the near future.

Cycling by the sea

Cycling by the sea

It was only when were neared Shotton that I realised there was no way we’d make Chester before dark. Initially I thought this wouldn’t be a major problem, after all we had a few lights between us, but with the sun went the warmth. Once we joined the cycle path down the old railway line into Chester there were no streetlights, and our puny front lights meant we couldn’t go above 7-8mph (with the exception of Dave, who brought a portable star!) so we settled into a slow, cold grind for the last hour.

I can’t say the last section was particularly pleasurable, but it did teach me a valuable lesson: always assume the worst and take an extra layer, or at least gloves and shoes not designed for summer racing!

When we got ourselves to Chester station we were in a bit of a state. Too cold to stand around, Jen was shivering too much to talk properly, and Megan’s face said it all. They ran off to Costa to order hot chocolate as I went in search of train tickets. Now it’s a little off-topic, but I’ve got to say that £20 each to get from Chester to Bangor is a massive rip off, and anyone trying to promote the use of public transport in government should really be able to see that people won’t choose to jump on train to go 70 miles when it costs almost a full tank of fuel for a car which could take you 500.

Finally there!

Finally there!

How many tickets?

How many tickets?

Well deserved hot chocolates. Try to smile Meg!

Well deserved hot chocolates. Try to smile Meg!

Once we’d figured out the Virgin cycle ticket process (one for you, one for your bike, one for you for your bike) we settled in while the train covered 70 miles in the time it took us to cover 10. We talked about things we’d learned, how we felt about it, what we’d eat when we got in, but mostly how much we’d enjoyed the trip. Yes, even with the cold harshness of the final few miles.

Overall I was really impressed with both Megan and Jen. In the past few months they’ve put in a lot more effort than I have and it really showed. Megan was fearlessly attacking hills and generally took the ride as it came. Jen didn’t have to stop on a single hill and kept her average speed even though we doubled the mileage. All good pointers, and good motivation to keep on improving on the (long) road to being ready for the big ride.

A big thank-you has to go to Luke, who very kindly picked us up from Bangor train station and saved us the ride home. We also got in to discover dinner was already prepared and ready to go. You can’t beat that when all you want to do is sink into a chair and fall asleep!

Day 2: clean up

It took a bit of proddling, but we got out on a quick ride for day two of the training weekend, just to see what it felt like. At 4.5 miles it was nothing to worry about, and we were back in under 30 minutes. This time though, I took my own advice and wrapped up a little warmer. With mountain gloves, a thick jumper and a waterproof jacket I was at just the right temperature. That all changed when we reached the hill to Rachub and I realised it was a segment in Strava. It only took a minute of sprinting for me to have the jacket open, pulling at the Buff on my head thinking “extra layers are stupid”. There’s just no pleasing some people.

Ready for day 2

Ready for day 2

Megan getting the derailleur really clean

Megan getting the derailleur really clean

What weekend would be complete without a bit of cleaning! After all those miles I figured it was the perfect excuse to give Megan a lesson on bike maintenance. I think I got away with getting Megan to clean my bike as well. Jackpot.