That’s my girl

Every delightful story – and this may or may not be one – begins with some sort of peril. This tall tale is no different. 

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In the build up to Tour de Moor, both my daughter – my riding partner for the event – and I have been feeling a bit under the weather.  The cold that had felt like it was just around the corner for a few weeks finally turned up on the Thursday before the ride.  My daughter had also been feeling off for most of the week.  However, a few early nights (for us both) and a ‘kill or cure’ run for me on Saturday afternoon meant we were feeling fresh and ready to go on Sunday morning.

I love cycling with the family, it also helps that both the kids love a day out on the bike.  Those long summer days going exploring new horizons, with a rucksack full of food and hearts full of adventure.  I had been waiting what feels like an age for them to become old enough to do this kind of thing, and this year is the year.

Sunday morning arrived, and big bowls of porridge were eagerly eaten.  We arrive a little later than had been planned, but fortunately it wasn’t a problem. 

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Finally, we are off. The first stretch was quite stressful.  The combination of and excited 9-year-old and a load of keen cyclists most trying to squeeze passed through any hint of a gap.  Eventually I manage to manoeuvre her to the left-hand side of the road, which alleviates the stress a fair bit.  This first 4 and a half kilometres are a blur of lanes and mostly rolling downhill.  This didn’t go entirely without a hitch.  While trying to use her hydration bladder, her foot slipped off the pedal causing her to slip onto the top tube of her bike.  Amazingly she somehow manages not to go straight over the handlebars, and rolled into the grass verge.  After a bit of a moment, we decide that maybe we should stop to drink rather than try to drink on the move, just to be on the safe side.

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Shortly after we get moving again we leave the road and enter the estate of Buckland Abbey.  After several hundred pairs of wheels have already been through the surface was quite tricky.  The imperfect combination of hard packed tracks covered in a layer of primeval ooze – the kind of surface that makes it feel like you have about as in control of your rear wheel as you do a 2-year-old with a sugar habit. 

Thankfully this stops before we begin to descend, by now the surface has changed to drier, stonier dual track.  As we drop down through the woods, we take a tight lefthander.  Just as we exit the corner Rhiannon’s bike disappears from underneath her, dumping her to the ground right in front of me with an almighty thud.  I grab handfuls of brakes and stop just before adding the insult of being run over by her dad to the injury of a quick reintroduction to the floor.  After a cuddle and a quick check to make sure she is ok, we decide that the inside line of a blind corner is not the best place to be, so gingerly we continue down the hill and stop again a little further on for more cuddles and a bit of time to compose ourselves. 

For a while the surface consists of churned grassy paths – which neither of us have the traction for.  This section makes for a frustrating cycle of ride, lose traction, and walk for a bit, then repeat.  Thankfully for Rhiannon’s morale we are by no means the only ones.  My stand out memory from this section however, is when Rhiannon almost lost her shit with a guy in front of her.  As she was making a great go at climbing a slimy grassy hill – and almost at the top – the guy just ahead of her simply gives up and stops right in the middle of the track, leaving her no option but to stop too.  I honestly think that if she had the expletives in her vocabulary she would have unleashed them in a verbal wave of frustration.

Thankfully the slippery grass soon subsides, giving way to gravel and then tarmac as we continue to climb out of the National Trust grounds.  Once back on the road we continue to climb back towards the start.  The climb lasts for around 4 km – at its steepest to begin with before easing off to a false flat and by the top it’s time for a quick stop for a drink and something to eat.

Once were going again its across the common, before we join the Plym Valley cycle route – a cycle path we know well.  As we ride along, chatting away happily knowing we don’t need to worry about approaching cars, it really is a lovely way to spend with your child.  This bubble is burst a few minutes later.  As we come towards a gate with a gap to one side – big enough to cycle through single file – I let Rhiannon go ahead.  A middle-aged bloke (note I refuse to refer to him as a cyclist) gets to the gate just before Rhiannon, steams though then barks “Keep left!” – despite giving him enough space.  “Don’t be a dick!” is my instant retort.  It’s a statement that I stand by.  Its that kind of thing that could have really rocked her confidence, but luckily it was over quickly and she didn’t really take on board what had happened. Dick!

We are back off the cycle route, and going back up hill, before very much longer.  And what a hill it is, rearing up at over 10% from the off.  I give Rhiannon a helping hand for as long as I can, but the combination of my front wheel becoming weightless and the nasty noises the back end of my bike begins to make means I have to stop.  To her credit she keeps grinding her way up for a further 100 metres or more before her cadence slows and she has to put her foot down.  We walk to a left hander where the gradient eases a bit, and stop so I can assess the noise.  Oh a broken spoke. Great!  With not much else to do about it, I wrap the broken spoke around its neighbour and say a little prayer to the velo gods.

While we are stopped I text my wife to let her know we are about 5Km from the finish, in the meantime Rhiannon is back on her bike and off up the hill – I really need to buy that girl a polka dot jersey, she is just relentless.  Shortly after I catch her we break out from the tree cover and the gradient drops off to a false flat, at which point we stop for a drink and a couple of Haribo.

We cruise along the rolling roads until we reach the point at which the two routes split.  We take the left-hand turn, and back towards the race village.  As we descend for the final time, I am impressed by her road craft.  We are behind another group of cyclists and after I let her know there is a car behind us, she lets the gap in front get a bit bigger allowing the car to leap frog us rather than try to pass the whole group in one go.

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That leaves the final climb to be negotiated, which she does with aplomb. We cross the main road and turn to the event village.  As we get closer to the end, the smile begins to spread across her face.  The sense of achievement beings to surface, enhanced by the encouragement and praise she continues to get as we approach the end. 

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I really want to express my thanks to the other riders who took part in the Tour de Moor.  The encouragement my daughter got throughout the day really made the difference to her, and to me.  When the going, mostly the climbing, got tough there was always a chirpy well done to lift her spirits.  For that thank you.

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For The Love Of Mud

My season – if you can call it that – has taken a bit of a twist towards the end of the summer. For a variety of reasons (the main one being my 8 year old daughter wants to do an off-road sportive with me and I couldn’t afford to enter both) the end of year triathlon I have been eying up has been shelved.

As a – and I don’t want to use the word, but – consolation I entered a trail race just outside Plymouth. I found the Armada Autumn Trail race as I was looking for some races to do over the winter to compliment the cyclocross races I’ve got my eye on. I noticed this race – which happened to be on the same weekend of the aborted triathlon – and entered it at a fairly late stage.

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The race is set in Newnham Park, which is a fantastic setting for this kind of race. The race IMG_0444starts in a meadow, looking out on hills clad in woods – it’s hard to believe that the city of Plymouth is just behind you. As the race begins we run along the meadow past the parked cars and towards a gate on the far side. I start the race a bit further forward than I usually do, but I still spent this meadow section trying to pass people, while being mindful not to go too hard too soon.  Out the meadow we take a left and make our first river crossing. The weather in the build up has been typically wet and as a result the river is going as a fair rate – and also about knee deep. I opt for a brisk walk, rather than run, through the water and get going again on the other side. We then go back along the other side of the river on a gravel fire trail, before crossing it again – returning to the meadow – this time the river is getting up towards my mid-thigh (I reckon if I had fell I would have ended up in the sea before I knew it).

We repeat the meadow stretch; however we turn right (and head up) as we head through the gate.  The first proper climb of the race isn’t too technical as it rises through the img_7167woods, but it is steep enough (up to 25% if you believe Strava) to get the legs working. This climb only really digs for a few hundred metres at most before slackening off again, as we leave the trees we contour across a field above the meadow and the start finish line, gradually dropping down as we cross it reaching the bottom as we get to the far side.  At this point we cross the second river crossing in the other direction and after just enough time to squelch the water out of my shoes the climbing starts again in earnest. As we join an estate road the route rears up right in IMG_0446front of us. Ahead there is a line of people; some who have gone too hard too soon have to resort to walking from the bottom. I move over to the far side of the road and just plod away, concentrating on my breathing – and trying not to look up and see how far from the top I am. This section of tarmac is only about 500 metres long, but that is certainly enough to hurt. As we turn off the road the gradient eases a little. The climbing continues for another kilometre before a slight drop and then further climbing. The surface along here is a combination of hard packed dual track with muddy puddles and muddy dual track with muddy lagoons. As we get toward the top of this section I move away from a fellow runner I have been alongside for the majority of this climb, and enter another section of woods – and mountain bike single track – on my own.

The climbing continues as the single track begins, and I target a group of three runners about 150m ahead of me. As I slowly reel them in one of them goes off the front of the group, just as I get on the back. I run with these two runners as we negotiate the single track, and I try to use the berms to keep as much momentum as I can on the tighter turns. As we join a forest track, the route ramps up steeply for a while and we catch and pass the runner who was with the group previously.  As we top out we pass the second water station – I grab a cup take a quick swig and chuck the rest on my head. At this point our trio becomes a pair, before we begin to descend slightly along the forest trail. Once we leave the woods the path becomes a narrow, rutted in places single track. This is where I begin to struggle. I don’t do a huge amount of trail running, and what I do I tend to concentrate on going uphill, so once the runner in front begins to distance my I can feel myself beginning to get a little tense as I over think what I am doing. Once the gradient lessens I begin to feel a little more comfortable and once back on the gravely fire trails I begin to try to push on again.  We stay on this fire trail for about 1½ km as we drop down towards the meadow for the final time. I try to catch my companion from the woods for the length of this track; I manage to reduce the gap, but never actually manage to get back to him.

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All of a sudden, the route takes a hard left for the final river crossing – this on is deep enough for the supporting mountain rescue team to put a rope ‘hand rail’ across it. Back up a steep bank and a right hand turn and I am back on the meadow. Time to open up the tap and see if there is anything left. There isn’t much, but it’s only 400m to the finish line and I manage to hold on – just.

 

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When I entered this race I wanted to use it as an indicator of my fitness, or lack thereof. After a summer of holidays and long days at work covering other people’s holidays my training had taken a bit of a hit and I wasn’t expecting too much. So much so that I forewent my usual prerace meal of pasta for pizza and a movie with the family – I did however stop short of having a beer.

The only problem with this plan was that I’m not too disappointed with my time.  I’m capable of going quicker, but with how disjointed my training has been – that and the associated holiday/long work day dietary decisions.  All in all I really am not too disappointed with 58:43 (good enough for 36/272).

 

Credit where it’s due: Photographs 1 & 3 Plymouth Sports Gazette (plymouthsportsgazette.com), photographs 2, 4 & 5 Louise Shipton (via Armada Athletic Network’s Facbook page)

Hard Day’s Night (Remastered)

It’s not often I return to an event or race. London Triathlon and L’Eroica Britannia are great examples of races/events I have done – and loved – but have little intention of going back to do again.  Some races I do intend to do again, Battle on the Beach for example is high on my to-do-list for next season – but that is mostly down to a mechanical related DNF.

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Darkmoor is different.  It keeps me coming back.  I have now returned and ridden three of the four years it has been on, having missed the first one.  This year was a little different.  A new route meant that it is now the full 100 miles, so no more extra loops to top it up (If you’ve been up all night riding 90 odd miles you may as well keep going for another 30 minutes).  Also the company I was keeping had been added to.  I still had my go-to wingman with me (my dad) but also had an old friend, Kash, joining me.

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For the first time, we actually arrived with a bit of time to spare – which is an unusual occurrence in itself.  We set off at just after 9, and as the swing bridge that represents our IMG_1377easiest way away from the bars and pubs in the area is closed for repairs we have to pick our way between the drinkers and the quayside.  Once we break free and are on the open road we make our way to, and then through, Saltram House grounds on our way to the Plym Valley cycle path – which forms part of the national Cycle Network.  This part of the ride is wonderfully easy as I ride next to either my dad or Kash chatting away in the middle of the peloton barely having to do a pedal stroke.  This continues for most of the first stretch of traffic free path.

At the end of the first stretch of traffic free path we find two more Darkmoorites (I have just made that up, and I’m running with it) outside the Skylark pub just outside Yelverton.  As everyone dismounts and heads inside for a cheeky pint, the ‘older limbs’ express concerns about having just got warmed up, so we make our apologies and head off into the night alone, forming the nights breakaway.  We make our way across Yelverton and onto the second stretch of traffic free route to Tavistock.

I ride this section of the route a lot less than I ride the earlier section, for no other reason than logistics – I tend to ride these routes with my children and if I’m going to load the car and drive to ride our bikes we may as well go somewhere more exotic than Yelverton.  It feels like it’s mostly downhill from Yelverton to Tavistock (where this section ends) with a beautiful viaduct and a Victorian railway tunnel along the way.

The first real climb of the night comes as we leave Tavistock.  The steepest section comes early on – as we go under a railway line – it’s never a brute but enough to get you out the saddle.  Its second ramp goes over 15% in places but soon drops off to little more than a false flat.  One of the advantages of going at an easier pace is that you notice more.  A startling example of this was that I noticed the chapel on the top of Brent Tor.  Just to emphasise, that’s a chapel on the top of a rocky outcrop, on its own and it took me three years to notice it.

After around 6km of climbing and false flats, the road drops away – bar a short raspy 10% bank – towards Lydford, and then we start climb again.  Its kicks off with a short sharp IMG_1385ramp – touching 20% – before easing to a drag before turning off for the last traffic free section up to Okehampton.  I have ridden this section in the daylight a few times and section of it really are pretty – the viaduct at Meldon, with views of the Dam to your right, being a case in point.  Being an old railway means that the miles tick away with minimal fuss.  Its all good quality surfaces, with the exception of about 200 metres off permissive path – which is basically a track cutting through some trees.  Having decided to ride my cyclocross bike this section is great fun carving through the trees, with the dark giving a false sense of speed.

We leave the traffic free route for the last time, and drop down into Okehampton. We ride through the town as the night’s merrymakers begin to make their way home – I assume they are heading home.  One thing that seems to catch me out every year is how long the climb back out of Okehampton is.  It isn’t steep, nor that long, but every time you think the top is approaching it just banks up again.  The climb finally finishes as we cross the A30, and we reach our ‘breakaway’ goal of getting to our coffee stop before being re-joined. We stop for about 30 minutes with a coffee and a few bits of flapjack – what more does a man need when out on a bike at half one in the morning 60 odd miles from home.

Once we are sufficiently re-caffeinated we shock the legs back into action and head for Moretonhampstead.  The road to continues to climb for a while before dropping back down again.  Moretonhampstead is the last town before we head on up onto Dartmoor proper.  The climbing starts just before reaching Moretonhampstead and we chat away as we spin up the easier lower sections where the gradient is only up to about 4% at its steepest.  When we reach Moretonhampstead the climbing begins to get a bit more taxing.  As soon as you reach the other side of town the climb ramps up.  The climb is essentially three banks at over 10% stitched together by false flats and dips.  On the steeper sections, we can’t really ride together, we just have to tap it out at our own pace and regroup at the top.

As I look back on one of the ramps I notice lights in the background, it would seem our day IMG_1392in the breakaway has come to an end.  As we regroup atop the second bank the lights in the background become two fellow Darkmoorites, they stop for a quick chat before they push on.  Once regrouped we carry on at our group pace, continuing to climb out our own pace and regrouping when the gradient eases.  This formula continues all the way to Princetown, except when the excitement gets too much and a little bit of racing ensues, the last one of these is ended abruptly by a few sheep stepping out in front of my dad and I – luckily for me as I was starting to run out of gears and watts as we raced up a false flat.

We reach the town square in Princetown to find two Darkmoorites already there.  One is a member of the duo that passed us on the climb onto Dartmoor (his riding companion had gone home), the other is a rider who passed us riding long the top, not too far from Princetown. After a short while the solo rider headed off – planning to cut back to Plymouth along the cycle route.  The other guy was waiting for the main peloton to see if anyone was planning to ride the full route, and at his point we weren’t sure what the plan was, so we continued confident the others couldn’t be far behind.

Just after we leave Princetown I have to stop to put on my waterproof – there are a few IMG_1394quick descents off this side of the moor and you can feel a chill on the warmest of summer afternoons never mind stupid o’clock in the morning.  I catch up with Kash in time to see my dad racing off into the gloom.  After being given my leave by Kash, I drop the hammer and try to wheel in the old man. I reel him in over the series of rises and drops, and annoyingly he sits up just before the last little bank before the biggest part of the descent into Dousland.  We regroup – again – at the top of this bank.

I genuinely love the descent down to Dousland, its steep enough to get up a decent lick without being so steep that you must constantly be on the anchors.  It also has a few well engineered sweeping bends to throw your bike around (Mum, if you’re reading this I don’t go any faster than 10 mph, honest).  Dousland represents the split point – turn left for the full hundred miles, straight on for 85miles.  We barely make eye contact to confirm, we are taking the left-hand turn.

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The route now takes us away from Plymouth again, as we head for Burrator.  I do love a lap of Burrator, even if you’re being generous its only rolling but you are on the pedals the whole way around with three laps pretty much making 10 miles – which is great to testIMG_1405 yourself.  The route takes us three quarters of the way round before we turn off and ride into Sheepstor.  Once through the hamlet, we approach the climb up towards Cadover Bridge.  I will admit I had a little trepidation about this climb. I had never climbed it, but I have climbed the road it joins further up, and it’s a brute, and I assumed this would be the same.  It’s not, it’s a beautiful climb.  It’s at its steepest at the bottom, but after crossing the cattle grid and taking a right the gradient drops as the road contours around the hill.  It is at this point the sun breaks free of the horizon and we are bathed in glorious sunlight.  With views to my right of Burrator reservoir and Sheepstor, it was a wonderful place to see the sun rise.

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Once we get to Cadover Bridge I’m back on familiar roads, and we roll past Lee Moor as we make our way to Lee Mill to cross the A38 and into the South Hams.  The South Hams makes for beautiful cycling, with rolling climbs and patchwork fields – it’s the rural England of your mind’s eye.

Daylight is a funny old thing.  The limbs that were struggling to get up the climb out of Moretonhampstead are now power climbing 10% banks in the big ring. The bloody big ring. Where were those climbing legs in the early hours of the morning?

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By this point I have had to turn off the navigation on my Garmin Edge 800 to try to preserve the battery.  The downside to this is that although I know where I am and how to get back to Plymouth, I don’t know the official route.  As a result, we take the main road back into Plymouth and head towards Cap’n Jaspers (where it all began all those hours ago), but there is not a soul there – in lycra anyway.  We decide against a cuppa tea – based on the both our attire and our odour.  Due to missing a dog leg on the road back into Plymouth, so we do a couple of laps of the Hoe and the Barbican to get the mileage up to the full 100 miles.

Writing this has taken a bit longer than I thought it would, but it feels appropriate that it did.  When cycling overnight time seems to change.  Minutes become longer, hills become steeper, but the satisfaction becomes greater.  I’ve said this before, but try it at least once.   Try an overnight ride with hundreds of people, tens of people or on your own, but try it.

Finding Treasure

We all carry with us those most precious childhood memories, be them winning the Under 14s cup final, going to Disney World, or causing chaos with your siblings. For me it’s cycle touring – or more accurately cycle touring with my dad. From the age of about 20150202_19222310, until the endless summer after sitting my GCSEs when I was 16, we would head off on our bikes usually in the direction of mid-Wales. Unfortunately in the 19 years since we last loaded up our bikes and disappeared over the horizon together most of the memories have merged into one trip or a series of snap shots, but a few memories still remain as fresh as ever – making hot chocolate on a train station platform using a brass methylated spirits burner, a night spent sleeping in a bracken patch in a wood, a misjudged moment to ask to stop to put on more clothes to protect my modestly before getting home (a word from the wise; NEVER ask to stop to add more clothes – even if to hide horrendous multi coloured cycling shorts – at the top of a bloody great hill, you won’t be allowed to forget it), the name given to our first trip – ‘Operation Church Stretton’. These memories truly are some of my most treasured possessions.

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That is what made this weekend so incredibly exciting for me. Not only was I going to be able to have a nostalgia laden mini tour with my dad, but my son was coming too. There were no grand ambitions of going to mid-Wales or the like – my son is only 6 – merely a night in the wild, with bikes – but more significantly, for me, a test run for what might be possible later this summer and beyond.

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The loose plan was, and in my family its only ever loose plans due to the poorest of poor time keeping (much to the despair of my mum), was to head over to a local campsite and set up a basecamp from where we would head out. We ended up getting to the campsite a bit later than I think was initially intended, and after a bit of faffing, loading the bikes and a bit more faffing we are finally ready to leave. Before setting off we had our dinner (it was about half five by this point) and headed out at about the boy’s usual bed time.

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We head off along a bridle path which runs along the top of the campsite with a general IMG_1308idea of where we are headed, this didn’t mean we didn’t have to stop to check the map to find our way back to the woods we intended to camp in. With plenty of daylight left we explored woods, passed fields of cattle and followed gravel tracks with sweeping switchbacks before cutting back onto out original track and retracing our tracks a bit to set up our satellite camp for the night.

With a favourable forecast our sleeping arrangement comprised of a den kit (tarp) thatIMG_1310 my son had for Christmas – this was a bit of a highlight for him as he’d been itching to use it since he got it, complete with a great bit mallet lathed down from a tree branch which had to come too. Once an ideal spot had been found and cleared we set about erecting the tarp, sorry the den kit, and lit a small fire to cook some sardines, make Ovaltine and roast marshmallows – just because we are in a wood doesn’t mean standards have to slip. At about 11pm we turned in.

I was the first to wake properly at about half five to the birds in full voice, this is a much IMG_1315nicer way to be woken rather than the horrible noise my phone makes. Once we are all awake we make our first round of breakfast – a somewhat dirty sounding combination of two Ready Brek sachets (not even real porridge) and chocolate custard sounds so wrong but tasted so right – and a brew. Once done we take down our nights’ accommodation and set about insuring there is no evidence of our visit – cover fire, sweep our sleeping area to get rid of the flattened patch and put our seating area back as it was. Leave only footprints – and not even that if you can help it.

With our camp cleared we head back to the bridal path and on to base camp. The boy has obviously enjoyed his night under the tarp – the near constant “why haven’t we done this before?” and “when can we go again?” are clues – but he is also going up every IMG_1304gradient we hit with the vigour of an excited antelope (I assume excited antelope have some vigour), this is stemmed somewhat when we get to the field of cattle. A herd of 20 or so bullocks are about 15 metres from the gate we are about to go through, and slowly approaching. I will admit at this point that I find cattle a bit intimidating, granted they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they are big buggers. We quickly get through the gate while we can and slowly walk towards them, at this point; predictably, they turn and head off in the other direction. Slightly annoyingly they go along our path so we have to get off and walk again after they stop in another pinch point. Once past this, they run off into the field and we are free to get cycling again. Once across the cattle grid that’s on the far side of their field we stop again remove the deposits of fresh cow pats from our legs – when I say ‘our legs’ I mean my boy’s as he has managed to cover the backs of his legs via his pedals.

Once Cow-gate is dealt with it’s simply a case of retracing our tracks along the bridle path – apart from a planned detour to show me the shelter they built when up here the week before. We get back to basecamp just in time for second breakfast – this time a far more acceptable combination of proper porridge and fresh fruit – and a cup of coffee, which was very welcome. l

So, when are we going again? Soon, very soon hopefully. The summer holidays aren’t all that far away and with Dartmoor on my doorstep and mid-Wales on my parents’ doorstep the possibilities are abundant. Luckily I have plenty of room where I keep my treasured memories, because I’m hoping for a lot more.

Changing lanes

The alarm buzzes annoyingly. Its 6am, it’s a Sunday, and its race day. Like any other race day, I get up feeling a bit nervy; wake up the rest of the family. Then flap about, eat porridge, drink coffee and leave the house about 20 minutes later than I had hoped to. Except this isn’t like any other race day, I’m not racing, my 8-year-old daughter is. It’s her first race without me, and the nerves are just as strong if not worse than if it was me racing. But as I tell her ‘if you’re nervous it means you care about it’. And, I certainly care about it.

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We arrive at The Hoe with a few minutes to spare, and find her classmates. I think this is the point it 20170423_074258sinks in that she is running without me and begins to get some doubts. Luckily this doesn’t last long, and the excitement takes over. Photos are taken and she is taken with her group into a massive holding pen. Part of me remains relieved that I wasn’t asked to help with the schools’ challenge; the noise coming out of the pen – containing something like 300 excitable 6-10 year olds – was unbelievable. Must have been like trying to herd cats on amphetamine at a rock concert – but less fun.

Once they are in the pen we scamper over to past the start finish line for a good view as she comes past. All the runners have been given the same red top, so picking out individual children is nigh on impossible – in fact I know people who didn’t see their kids at all. I resort to trying to spot her teachers, then who is running with them. It works; I see her teacher from last year and there she was running next to her chatting away. We cheer, take lots of photos and then try to get across to the other side of the route for a second shot. This time we are less successful as we can’t get very close and don’t want to miss her crossing the finish line. Missing the second photo opportunity we dash back across the finishing straight. As she comes into view she is still with the same teacher – beaming from ear to ear even if she is chatting a little less.IMG_0915

 She crosses the line and disappears into the hoards past the finish line. After a few minutes, we find her school’s spot in the pen, sat with her mates – medals around their necks rummaging through the goody bags. I can confirm that goody bags at kids’ races are also full of crap that no one wants.  After what feels like an age, the schools begin to file out.  We head around to the drop off point to scoop up my running champion.  Once the crowds disperse we find a patch of grass with a few of the other parents.  The kids run around for a while enjoying the late morning sun. 

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As our parking runs low, we head off and go for a celebratory brunch.  It feels right to make a big deal of her accomplishment and she is overjoyed when the waitress takes an interest in her medal and how she got it.   

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My grasp of the English language fails me when I try to describe how proud of her I am.  It’s not that she ran the mile.  Its far more than that.  Running isn’t something she finds easy or that comes natural, but she persists at it and works hard.  She has a stubborn streak in her – not always in a good way – and a stoic determination that even if she has to walk she will get to the top of the hill.

 

Racing Firsts

I have wanted to ride Battle on the Beach for a few years, but unsuitable dates and inappropriate bikes have meant that this is the first year I have managed to enter.  The race is Britain’s only beach race, and the course is designed to be rideable on Fat, Mountain and Cross bikes with sections being unsuitable for each bike, it’s a real melting pot of cycling cultures.

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Battle in the Dark:

There were a whole host of firsts ticked off in 10km on a bike: first time trial, first race on the beach and first ride off-road in the dark – what could possibly go wrong?

Riders are set off at 10 second intervals; I start middle to back of the 100 plus riders.  I set off, but I’m off again after 200m to run the 150m of soft dry sand at the top of the beach.  I IMG_0661lose a big chunk of time to riders on fat bikes and fattish mountain bikes, but once on the wet sand I’m back on the bike and off.  I put down the power in an attempt to get some time back.  I settle into what feels like a sustainable effort, looking down I am pleased to notice I’m sitting at over 32kph.  I pass the people that had me while I was running, two of whom are treating it as a two-up TT, and also my 10 second man.  I keep the power on until I notice a rock groin across my path.  I slam on my brakes, dismount and shoulder the bike – in my mind this is one fluid elegant motion but in reality I expect to looked like a drunk giraffe ice skating.  I pick my way past the first line of rocks over the soft sand centre and back out the other side of rocks.  Back on the bike and back on the rivet – again.

The end of the beach leg is marked by a series of stakes with red lights on the top, off again to run up a steep, deep ‘v’ section cut between the dunes and back onto the bike about 55m later.  Here the more technical section of the route begins, and where the night aspect of IMG_0668the race begins to change the dynamic.  On one level being in the dark is a hindrance, not having an idea of what to expect much more than 50m away – making gear selection and speed into corners a bit of creative guesswork.  On a more positive note, not being able to see too far ahead meant that I was less likely to bottle it on the more technical sections (I’m not an awful off road rider – but by no means great – but I tend to run out of bravery before ability).  The first half of the technical section is quite close to the beach, so there are a number of areas where the path gives way to sand pits, being on a cross bike I try to skirt around the edges of these keeping on the grassy peripherals where at all possible.  Where I can’t do this I keep pedalling and try not to fight the handlebars and let the bike find a route.  One section in this area is particularly tricky, for a man of my abilities, it involves a short but sharp decent on soft sand into a tight right hander.  I don’t notice it until the last moment – as I overtake another rider – but manage to use the side of the sand pit as a berm missing most of the sand on the descent.  Rather lucky, but duly noted for tomorrow’s race.  Then it’s into the forest, with a series of diggy little climbs and steep rutted descents. Not long into this section I am either caught by or catch another rider on a mountain bike, and I try to keep up with him using him as a route finder for the best lines in this unfamiliar territory.  Before I know it, I have come out of the pine forest and out onto the grassy lawns of the country park.  I decide it would be bad form to dive past my pilot now, and follow him around the final corner and roll over the line.  It’s at this point I realise there is a third rider behind me.

I finish in one piece; pleased that I have put in a reasonable effort without ruining my legs for the main event the following day.  I finish 66th out of 124 riders – I’ll take that.

https://www.strava.com/activities/917608840/embed/f6d2970ce2e02ec7950eafd970a2822952069b86

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Battle on the Beach

IMG_0659Having registered the night before, it’s a rather relaxed morning for a race.  No early alarm, no mad dash to get everyone in the car to get to register hours before it closes, only to faff with a last minute ‘something’ and get to the start line moments before the race is due to begin – or even after its begun on one occasion.

 

Lap 1:

I make my way to the start line about 20 minutes before the race is due to start, which is IMG_0657probably 20 minutes too late, as I am so far back I can’t even see the beach – never mind the start line.  We start to walk forward; I assume we have been called forward to the start line.  As the beach comes into view I can see people cycling and running across the beach.  I then realise the race has started, but there is nothing I can do until the 100 or so ahead of me can get going so we just shuffle forward until we can really start to race.

Like the previous night’s time trial I had to run the bike across the soft sand before I could start racing.  Once on the bike all I could see in front of me was a mass of cyclist snaking its way all the way to the horizon.  I make my way to the left hand side of the mass of cyclist (the sea-side – that may even be a deliberate pun) and try to give myself a bit of room to react/avoid other people.  I see the aftermath of a collision, I didn’t think it looked too serious but I hope all involved are OK.  As I get a bit more confident, I move closer to the pack to get a bit of shelter.  As I come towards the end of the 6km beach straight, I move to the right hand side of the mass of fellow racers so I can assess the route off the beach without being squeezed.

Off the bike, to cross the soft sand, and back on again.  The next section of the route starts with a stretch of sandy, grassy dual track.  It’s not especially technical, good surface with the odd smallish sand pit.  It is reminiscent of a BMX or pump track with lots of little rollers – which will burn the thighs if you have gone too hard on the beach.  Along this section I notice how quiet everyone is, usually you get a bit of banter between riders, but for whatever reason whether it was back of pack nerves or just concentrating on the shifting sands of the racing surface chatter is a miss.  This long straight continues for a while before a few gravel fire tracks before we hit the first single track.  The group I’m in file down and we tick over in single file until someone ahead either falls off or stalls as we grind to a holt and have to resort to walking for a bit until we get past a steep sandy bank.  We are now on the bit of the route that is covered by the shorter night route.  The pattern for the rest of the lap follows this template, single file and flowy but likely to find a bottle neck at the more technical sections or steep climbs.

 

Lap 2:

Back onto the beach, and back on the throttle.  By now I have realised that I can get a bit of recovery over some of the single track so I can continue to give it some on the beach – also making the most of where the CX bike is at its best.  As on the first lap I continue to pass riders along the beach section, trying to pick up a bit of a draft as I approach groups before swinging out to pass them.  This is one of those rare occasions where you feel like you are in fast forward when everyone else is playing at normal speed – probably a bonus effect of starting too far back. Again I drift to the right as we approach the exit from the beach.

Off, run and remount.  By now the riders have thinned right out, so I pick off and chase down solo and small groups of riders across the rollers and the gravel roads and join a IMG_0646small group as we hit the single track.  I’m at the back of the group and we rattle along, as we approach the sandy climb that I had to walk in the first lap I hear the clanking of gears – we are going to have a go at getting up this and I change gear accordingly.  We get two thirds of the way up and a rider in front has an issue and stops.  I brake, but seeing a gap I go again.

I don’t go again.  After a nasty noise, no more drive.  I look down – expecting to have dropped my chain. No such luck.   I’ve only gone and broke my bloody chain.  At this point I don’t feel angry, or upset, or anything for that matter. Just empty.  And here’s the rub – as I had forgotten my pump I decided not to take my saddlebag as ‘I would just be carrying an inner tube for the sake of it’ with not a second thought to the multi tool which is the inner tube’s bed fellow. Fuck!

So I embark on the long walk back.  I have no idea how long the walk took, but it felt like a while.  As I walked and began to get bored I had two songs, or lines from songs, going around in my head: Inspiral Carpets (This is how it feels to be lonely, this is how it feels to be small…) and upon seeing a photographer or GoPro Newton Faulkner (Don’t take my photograph, cos I don’t want to know how it looks to feel like this).  This was occasionally broken when passing riders offered their condolences.  This makes me feel better for a moment, but only a moment.  As I approach the start/finish line I cut through a gap in the hedge and cut across the camping field to get to my car before the lap is over – I can’t face crossing the finish line.

 

Lap 3:

There was no lap 3.

https://www.strava.com/activities/917608894/embed/6f3f65dd227d184341045074f067f614d5d1fdc9

 

After I put the bike on the car, it’s off to find the family. Once I find them I go to give my timing chip back with the kids.  The chip box is right next to the IMG_0630marshal giving out the finisher’s medals.  That stung a little.  After chatting to him for a minute, I go to leave and as I do he very generously gives my kids a medal each.  They both put them on as we head over to some space to have our picnic.  It is at this point that my son (who is 6) misinterprets my disappointment about the afternoon’s proceedings as being disappointed about not getting a medal and after giving me a hug tries to put his medal on me.  Then comes the awkward moment trying to tell him that his wonderfully thoughtful gesture just makes me feel worse.

I did however find one of the 25 missing rubber ducks, meaning I got a spot prize of a Lezyne rear light, a pair of Surly socks and a Surly hanky.

Despite its premature end, I really enjoyed my day out at the Battle on the Beach.  The mixture of packed wet sand, dry sandy tracks and forest single track offers something to challenge whatever you’re riding.  I found the wet beach sand the perfect environment for the CX bike, just get low and get pedalling.  The sandy single and double track was great too, trying to pick a route so that you don’t lose too much momentum in the sand pits and the BMX style rollers.  But where I struggled was the rutty sections within the forest.  I wasn’t brave enough to really attack it, and struggled with some of the descents where I wanted to be on the drops for the extra braking power but on the hoods too to get my weight over the back of the bike. It wasn’t so hideous to make it feel unbearable, but certainly a challenge.

I will be back. Hopefully better. Hopefully finishing.

Doing her dad proud

My 8 year old daughter has recently signed up to run a half marathon – of sorts. She will be running the schools’ half marathon challenge in Plymouth and will be running a mile a week with the final mile taking place on the half marathon weekend on the Hoe (where the main event starts and finished).  This has really caught her imagination, and has reignited her desire to come running with me – which I am obviously overjoyed about.

Despite the looming threat of ‘Storm Doris’, an after school family run was all but img_0537demanded. So after school, we pop home to get our running kit on and head over to Saltram House (a local National Trust property), however not all of us are quite so keen to go for a run in the Plymouth mizzle.  So the two of us head to Saltram for a run around the grounds and down to the river. Despite the threat from meteorologists it’s a lovely night for a run, a bit cool but not too cold or windy and the trees protect us from the worst of the rain.

She is noticably excited as we set off – she skips, bounces and grins like a cheshire cat.  I try to calm her down a bit – without wanting to piss on her parade – and we jog around the grounds while we chat and generally just be silly.  Running as it should be, fun.

We make it as far as the river, before having to turn back for failing light.  It’s been a whileimg_0544 since we last ran together, and I honestly can’t believe how much more resiliant she has become, she is able to run much further and was able to push herself much harder, wanting to get to pointmarkers despite obviously working hard.

Famous Danish beers don’t make running buddies, but if they did she would be it.

Do you even gym, Bro?

I was recently asked by a friend what gets me out in the winter, and I’m often met with derisory comments from work colleagues for leaving the house at 6am to run to work in inclement weather.  Essentially wouldn’t it be saner to join the gym? This got me thinking, why would I join a gym? The obvious reason is that they are relatively expensive for something that I don’t really enjoy, but there are more nuances to it than that.

I can see the advantages to the gym, I can, and this is in no way an attack on people who use them.  They are warm, dry and have a myriad of different bits of kit for me to embarrass myself on, and there’s the crux of it. They are warm and dry because they are indoors and I like to be outside.

IMG_20160115_175824Running outside offers me so much more than just a cardiovascular workout. IMG_20151122_183914 During the week I tend to run on the road and watch the world going about its business as I go about mine.  I love the visual impact as the sun goes down and the lights come on.  At the weekend I try to get out the city landscape and hit the trails.  This doesn’t always mean leaving the city, I’m lucky living where I do that I have a number of nature reserves and wooded areas within a couple of miles of my front door.  These little pockets of ‘wild’ offer the trail running experience without having to drive all the way out to Dartmoor.  Dartmoor is an incredible, beautiful place which offers amazing running options and is worth the drive but it isn’t always a viable option.

When running on a treadmill with nothing to look at but a magnolia wall – or IMG_20150926_102349worse a mirror – I feel I’m missing something.  Early morning runs offer so much visual stimulation, from the changing tones of the sky to the chance of a – brief – sighting of the cities shyer inhabitants, most notable for me a fox darting across a graveyard and one summer I had the privilege of seeing an adder basking in the mid-morning sun (admittedly the adder was some way out of Plymouth).

The only indoor training I do is cycling on the turbo trainer.  I don’t particularly enjoy the turbo but if definitely has a place within the winter training arsenal.  I IMG_20160211_214838have blogged about using a turbo trainer before (which can be found here: http://wp.me/p4NbsO-1g) and won’t go into that again.  What I find with the turbo is I can get two hours’ worth of real riding into an hour on the turbo.  Having said all that given a choice of a two hour ride out in the cold (or even the rain) and an hour on the turbo I would take the two hours on the road.  I actually rather enjoy cycling in poor weather for a couple of reasons; one of them is that I genuinely feel it makes me a better bike handler.  There is also a feel good factor from getting back from a ride in bad conditions.  Provided to can keep yourself warm and dry these rides have a true feel good factor. The feeling that a lot of people will have had a look out the window and gone back to bed.  To quote Sean Kelly “To know if the weather is too bad for training, get your kit on and go train, you’ll know when you get back”.  I particularly enjoy riding in crisp cold conditions.  The type of day where it’s so bright you have to wear sunglasses but so cold you wouldn’t even consider leaving the house without having your ears covered.

Other than the physical and technical benefits to cycling and running outdoors, it also gives me a chance to de-frag.  I think I am a better person as a result of the time I spend outdoors.  I have more patience and generally I think I’m more fun to be around.  In fact when I’m being a bit snappy with my wife she’ll ask me if I need to go out for a run!