The not-so-festive 500

One of my biggest achievements last year was the completion of Rapha’s Festive 500 Challenge. On paper, it looks reasonably easy to cycle 500kms in the 8 days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. But the reality of completing a 40 mile ride every day in all weathers with all the distractions of the holiday period is anything but simple. But those hard miles stood me well come the Spring and I’m keen to repeat the feat this week.

I’d arranged the first ride with Rob on Christmas Eve. It was a beautiful, mild winter’s day and I was hoping for a good distance. And it did indeed turn out to be a record-breaking ride. This was the heaviest I’ve ever been on a road bike (15st 2lbs). It turned out to be the slowest average ever (18.8kph), and my highest average heart rate (148bpm). I suffered like a dog. Useless.

Rob is a fair bit fitter than me and was keen to show me a new route, which in his words was ‘pleasant enough, not too much of a climb, just a bit of a clip, really’. I should have taken heed of the bad omen when we saw a young calf chasing herding sheep in a field near llandwrog. Such irregularities of nature are harbingers of the apocalypse.

Llandwrog Oaks

Llandwrog Oaks

The route took us ‘over the tops’ (the catch-all term for any high ground in north Wales)  from Glynllifon down to Cricieth. The vista was spectacular as the traffic-free lanes and roads opened out with Snowdonia to our left and Yr Eifals to the right cascading down to Tremadog Bay. We plummetted down to Cricieth in vain search of a cafe.

Castell Cricieth

Castell Cricieth

I was already struggling, and slight inclines felt like mountains. The Dolan is heavy, but it would be churlish to blame the bike when I’m weighing in at over 15 stone. By the time we got to Tremadoc, I was dreading the hills of Snowdonia and considering a pootle home along the flat Lon Eifion cycle path. ‘You usually eat hills like this’, encouraged Rob. Unfortunately, it wasn’t hills that I’d been eating this Winter. I huffed my way through Beddgelert with creaking joints.

Aberglaslyn

Aberglaslyn

I crawled home after 5 hours riding with only 93km under my belt. I’d averaged less that 19kmh. My legs were in bits, and Strava considered the ride to be ‘epic’.

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Christmas Day turned out lovely too, but I wasn’t able to get on the road until about 1.30pm. Still, I managed a quick 90 minutes spin, and sneaked in a bonus extra 20 miles along the Foryd, a beautiful quiet bird sanctuary along the coast from Caernarfon Castle. My legs were still hurting and I spent twenty minutes sitting in a cold bath while listening to a podcast which examined the mindset of elite cyclists. i felt very elite sat on my fat arse in that bath with a yellow base layer clinging seductively across my expanding belly.

Boxing Day was horrible. It started off badly when the scaled showed a new record of 15st 6lbs. Honestly, that’s really heavy to be riding a road bike. I can rarely get out of the grannie ring on my triple chainsetted winter machine. I move like an old rusty tugboat. The day itself was gloomy, dark and glowering.

In Welsh, we sometimes say this sort of weather is ‘ugly’, or ‘spiteful’. Our word for that is ‘hyll’ and when you say it, by putting your tongue on the roof of your mouth and blowing from the back of your throat, you sound like an angry cat. This was angry cat weather. In weather like this, I always aim for the Lon Las and Lon Eifion cycle tracks from Caernarfon to Penygroes and south to Bryncir.

The wind was south-Easterly, which is a real novelty in our area. The effect of this was that when I reached Penygroes, I noticed with amusement that the icy rain was now lashing fiercely onto my left cheek when ordinarily, it would be driven painfully onto the right, westerly side of my face. It was about this time that I approached the seventh set of couples taking boxing day strolls with their beloved pets. Six of them had seen me coming and grabbed their dogs collar, for which I offered a smile and a hearty ‘Diolch!’. The seventh, however, caught me at a bad moment.

The weather was at its worst, down to 1 degree centrigrade and the icy, horizontal rain was attacking me pitilessly as I rode into the wind. I saw the happy couple approaching on the shared use cycle path with three lolloping hounds. Every cyclist will know the drill – a dog approaches, and you look him right in the eye. One quick move and he is coming for you and you could be on your arse with irksome injuries for your trouble.

So my eyes didn’t leave this big furry dark-eyed beast as he made his way towards me. And when his owner grabbed his tail to stop him coming closer, I kept my eyes fixed firmly on the animal as I crept past.  That’s when I heard the sarcastic comment – the heavy ‘thank you’ from the dogs’ owner. Well I’m sorry I didn’t stop to thank you for not allowing your hound to butcher me, but I was a bit pre-occupied.

Dogs

During the week after the tragic death of Rhodri Hughes-Jones, an unknown activist travelled the cycle paths of Gwynedd, painting warning notices in advance of bollards left dangerously in the middle of several cycle paths in the area. If you look at the photo below, you can see one of these warnings sprayed onto the path where a collapsed bollard has been left dangerously horizontal in the middle of the path near Groeslon.

15925129897_8947e42463_k copyI don’t often  turn back in the middle of a ride but this was very nasty weather, really ‘hyll’. I cut short my ride and got home after 2 1/2 hours with only another 45km towards my 500km target. That leaves me 5 more days to complete another 330km. It’s possible, if I can just avoid the cold, the wind, the rain, the hangovers, and the dogs. The real question, is whether or not I can be arsed.

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My Cycling Year – 2014

2014 was a bit of a mixed bag. I started the year with high expectations of building on the huge progress I’d made throught the previous year. But it didn’t quite work out like that. I’m a fantastic, dedicated, motivated cyclist in my head, and the pathway was clear. I’d get in a lot of  miles during the Spring, step up my average speeds, and get down to about 12 and a half stone. In reality, I never got close. I’ve covered 7,500km, and climbed 89,000 metres. there have been 151  rides, and 357 hours in the saddle. I was hoping for more.

I rode sporadically through January, but at least I tackled my first night rides, and enjoyed the novelty, despite the strong south-Westerly winds that buffet the coast and force regular curses from chapped lips. It’s not the effort that’s the problem, it’s the damned noise. It’s like riding with headphones playing Motorhead at volume 11. If you try to avoid the wind in this neck of the woods, you’d never get out. I did abandon one ride at the end of February because it was just too dangerous at 30mph. I’ve done other rides with winds like that, but this felt stronger, and there were branches falling across the road.

Selfie in Lanzarote

Selfie in Lanzarote

If nothing, this was good practise for a week I spent training in Lanzarote at the end of the month. I say, training, but my wife thinks it was a ‘family holiday’. Yeah, right. But with a hotel in Playa Blanca at the Southernmost end of the island the daily headwind was extraordinary. A 3- hour ride would mean two hours into the most horrible, aggressive gusts that drove fiercely against you along the pitiless flat plains. The return would mean an hour’s tailwind back, with pedalling optional as you flew back to base. Still it give me a decent start to they year, though the all-inclusive restaurant and bar meant that I came back still weighing over 14 stone.

I began commuting to work in march. It’s only 12 miles there and back but at least I was getting out on the bike. My mileage started to pick up, but it wasn’t until Easter that I managed my first century of the year. One of the best rides of the whole season came in May, when Dylan Fernley led me across  some extraordinary, secret, mountain roads from Trawsfynydd to Bala. I was also staying in Bala when I rode the Blaenau 360 for the first time. Now that was an epic 105 mile ride, finishing in driving rain. You could only laugh.

Dylan leading the way across the secret paths to Bala

I did my first Audax ride in June – the Anglesey Lanes. Now that was some experience as we rode effortlessly at 25mph in a full road-wide peloton of 50-60 bikes until I got us lost. I was totally confident and insistent that my GPS was right, until 2 hours later, it transpired that I’d been following the previous year’s route. I still haven’t been forgiven.

By now I was still a hefty 13st 9lbs, but nonetheless I managed a new distance record – a 200km ride around Snowdonia in June – that was a long 10-hour day. I had progressed enough to tackle the Etape Eryri Mawr, after riding the Bach and Canol in previous years. I think that was the first time I struggled with motivation. It wasn’t that it was difficult – it was just an 8 1/2 hour drag. I didn’t enjoy it much, and that was a warning sign of things to come.

Fatty struggling up Drws y Coed. The new CBM kit clashes drastically with my bike.

Etape Eryri – Fatty struggling up Drws y Coed. The new CBM kit clashes drastically with my bike.

I began to struggle badly with energy levels. Whereas in previous years I would regularly go for a spin after work, now I just collapsed in a chair, exhausted and demotivated. I tried everything. I trained harder, I rested more. I ate more, I ate less. I went for blood tests, thinking that my fatigue was related to my blood clot problems, but I just couldn’t shake off the lethargy. Finally tests in the Autumn showed that I had low levels of folic acid. I was prescribed supplements and the improvement was immediate and dramatic.

But that was too late for my now regular trip to ride the mountains of the Tour de France. I had enjoyed a solo late evening spin up the Col de Peyresourde but I was humiliated by my 14 year old son on the steeper Port de Bales. He left me spluttering in the foothills and I even had to stop for an urgent rest to avoid collapse. I badly underestimated that one – showing the unfamiliar mountain a lack of respect.

Col de Peyresourde

Gruff looking fresh as a diasy at the summit of Port de Bales

Gruff looking fresh as a diasy at the summit of Port de Bales

The lethargy and fatigue continued throughout August until at the very end of the month, when a single endurance ride saved the whole season. The Audax Sych it and Sea ride was a blast. A 206km epic across the mountains of Snowdonia and the hills of the Penllyn coast. I rode with my mate Rob, who is  a stronger rider than I am, but we belly-laughed in adversity for the whole 9 hours. I felt like that single ride had made the whole year’s training worth the effort.

Sych it and Sea

Sych it and Sea – Knackered in Aberdaron.

 

September brought tragedy and the loss of a popular member of our cycling club. Rhodri Hughes-Jones was part of our group riding back from Llandudno to watch the tour of Britain. We’d had a great day on the bikes, and he was close to home when an accident cost him his life. A fortnight later, we held a tribute ride in his memory along his favourite route from Caernarfon. Reid Rhodri will become a regular event.

Reid Rhodri, 2014

Reid Rhodri, 2014

Despite a mild October, I didn’t manage to get out on the bike an awful lot. Certainly not as much as I’d planned. I bought a turbo trainer, and while that has helped relieve some of the frustration brought on by our dark nights and mornings, it just isn’t the same as a four hour spin on the road. Family commitments have taken priority on the weekends, which is only fair, as they hardly see me all Summer.

I received a commission in November to write a short book on cycling for Lolfa Press. The Welsh language book, aimed at new adult readers will be published in February. It’s a combination of my personal experience and enthusiasm for the sport, along with some general information for newcomers. As a result of this, Lolfa have asked me to prepare a longer, English language book. This blog will regularly catalogue my rides next year and provide the core material for that one.

I’m writing this on December 23rd, the day before I begin the Strava 500km Challenge. I’ll be riding every day between Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, and hoping to build up some decent form for the Spring. I have vague ideas about taking on the awesome Fred Whitton Challenge in May, and I’ll need to lose a quick couple of stone to even think about it. At least I’m back in the zone mentally, and ready to make the commitment and sacrifices needed for a better 2015. I’ll let you know how it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Wales Sportive, Etape Eryri and the Tourmalet

After the excitement of my first sportive in Nantwich, the following weekend I ventured south to Tenby where I had booked on to the Wales Sportive, which was being held as part of the Long Course Weekend, including a sea swim and a marathon for loony triathletes. I’d only booked on to the short 40 mile course and was unable to upgrade on the day, so I decided to have a real go at it, and see what sort of time I could manage.

I managed to get myself at the front of the starting group of 150 riders and sprinted away ready to carry out my plan. I knew there were some hills late on the course, so I figured that I’d get as far ahead as I could and latch on to a steady moving group of club riders to ease my path through the first few miles. And if I was at the front, then at least I wouldn’t get dropped completely.

It didn’t work out like that. I stayed in the lead for the first mile! And after ten miles, I was still top five! Something wasn’t right, and I found out that later on in the course that there were some real bitches of climbs out of a couple of bays East of Tenby – no wonder people were taking the early part easy. Nonetheless, I kept going and was astounded to see that I’d finished with the 22nd best time out of 158. Granted, most of the riders were out for a Sunday stroll, but my aim had just been not to come last.

I’ve paid for this pic, but two weeks later, it still hasn’t arrived, so here’s the watermarked version.

I can’t tell you how good the atmosphere was in Tenby that weekend, but if you’re thinking of riding a sportive then that is a great one. The organisation was fantastic, and the locals came out to offer support right through the ride. There was a Grandstand in the town square and thousands lined the route to welcome you home. Superb. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Enthused by my time in Tenby, I started to wonder whether I should upgrade my Etape Eryri ride the following week to the 72m from the 47m route that I’d registered for. The 47m ride was unhelpfully labelled ‘Bach’. That means ‘Little’ in Welsh, and the title did denegrate the achievement a little. “Oh you’re only doing the little one”? I also wondered whether I should ride my new bike….

I’d always dreamed of riding a Bianchi, and I decided to sell my photography gear to buy one. My aluminium Terry Dolan racer was just that..a racer. In my middle age , I needed something more sophisticated, more stylish, more comfortable. And here she is, the second most beautiful thing I’ve ever sen in my life……

My riding has been transformed. The frame is a larger size than you’d expect – I’m 5ft 8″, and this is a 55cm frame – my Dolan was a 49cm. But the effect of this oversized frame is that it rides so much more comfortably. The carbon frame is simply luxurious on the rough, potholed roads that I ride on locally, and absorbs much of the road buzz and bone shattering vibrations. My neck pain has all but disappeared and my hands are no longer numb. I now have no excuses.

The ‘little’ Etape Eryri Bach was tough enough. The route took in over 3,000 feet of climbing including a couple of the toughest climbs in the area, though admittedly nowhere near as tough as the climbs included in the longer routes. The start from the ‘Maes’ outside Caernarfon Castle was staggered and I set off in a group with the local club that I’ve joined, the newly formed, very social, Clwb Beicio Menai. I was a bit concerned with my quickening heart rate from the start and the first climb, Drws y Coed loomed early on, featuring the Etape’s time trial. I didn’t know the climb and to be honest I was a bit scared of it without the insurance of my triple chain ring on the old Dolan.

Climbing Drws y Coed with a false grin for the camera.

I got left behind on the climb and decided to catch up my group on the descent. Now when you’re my size, gravity plays a big part in your riding style. And I climb like  a stone, but I also drop like one, and I hurtled down looking for my clubmates, passing plenty of other riders on the way down. Then I was on familiar ground as I arrived in Rhyd Ddu – this was my local training route, and I steamed down to Beddgelert without catching site of any of my companions. ‘They must be tanking it’, I thought.

As I reached the foot of the Nant Gwynant climb to Pen-y-pass, I latched on to a couple of girl riders from the local Energy Cycles club and asked if I could latch on to their wheel for a while. They were bloody superb, and it was only my stubborn-ness and pride that helped me stay on their wheel as they set the pace up Gwynant. It was then I saw someone I knew and found out that my clubmates had not yet passed. I’ve got no idea where I lost them , but I decided to go for it.

And that’s what I did. I climbed Pen-y-Pass well enough and from then on, I descended the last 15 miles of the route like a short, podgy, ginger demon. I was eyeballs out, and on the rivet and everything else that Phil Liggett says when someone is giving it everything. I spotted my family waiting at the roadside in Llanrug and took great pleasure in giving it the old Tour de France routine. I stopped for hugs and kisses and threw away my bidon. Just before the finish in Caernarfon, I took off my jacket, and zipped up my Welsh cycling jersey which had never fitted me since I bought it about ten years earlier. I’m not proud of my childish behaviour, really I’m not.

There was something special about finishing the ride on the ‘Maes’ in Caernarfon. My Strava Suffer Score told me later that my effort had been ‘extreme’. I wouldn’t argue with that, and I think my time of 3:08, the 38th best finish from a field of 150 was more the result of my high motivation levels than any bicycling ability. I had spent almost half the ride, 90 minutes in Zone 4, on the threshold of my max heart rate, between 160-176bpm.

Son number Two, scoffing as I scream loudly during the post-ride massage.

So it’s been a really fantastic few weeks for me. When I set out to lose weight in January and start riding again, I never in my wildest dreams expected to make this sort of progress. But while I’m surfing this crest of enthusiasm and motivation, I’ve gone and booked a warm-up for the big one. I’m taking the bike to the Pyrenees to watch the Tour de France in a few weeks. And while I’m there I’m planning to ride both the Col D’Aubisque and the Tourmalet. Are my eyes bigger than my shrinking belly? Time will tell.

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Let Them Eat Cake

My cycling ambition has always been pretty limited. I never wanted to win a race, I never wanted to be a great sprinter or team leader – the role of domestique, serving and helping others in their quest for victory has always held more appeal as an honourable, selfless sacrifice. The truth of it is that I only ever wanted to be good enough to ride with other cyclists on the road – to be part of the peloton as it purred its way around a corner and snaked through a small village on its route to a hillside cafe.

But when I was at my fittest, well over a decade ago, the only way to experience that thrill was to join a club or enter a race. And I did try to join a club – I went out on a ride and they welcomed the new boy by taking him over the Bwlch and the Rhigos on a 72-mile marathon intended to show him who was boss. Well that worked, and I never went back.

But recent years has seen the emergence of a new type of cycling event – the cyclo-sportive, where riders of all abilities complete a course just for the joy of it. There is no race, no competitiveness and enthusiastic new riders have a chance to experience the unique and inspiring feeling of riding your bike in a large group. So as the next step of training on my route to the Alpe D’Huez, I took the opportunity to enter an event organise by Pattiserie Cyclisme and Polocini, around the lanes of Cheshire on a pan-flat 66 mile loop, with a cake stop at the famous Eureka Cafe.

That event took place this morning, and I left for Nantwich at about 6.30am with no real idea of what awaited me. I was surprised to see a full car park at Nantwich Town Football Club when I arrrived at 8am, and there was already a queue for registration and porridge.

Rider no.204 at Nantwich Town FC

The atmosphere was a bit hushed as riders worked on their bikes, greeted old acquaintances, and wondered whether to wear overshoes and yellow specs on a day which promised changeable weather. There was a little nervous tension in the air as there always is at the start of any event.

I had a quick look round and assessed the other riders. Good news – I definitely wasn’t the fattest or the oldest. There were a few young lads in their early teens, and at least a dozen female riders among the very bloody fit looking beanpoles already making their way to the front for a quick start.  Best of all was a family who had turned up with both kids on their bikes, and Mum and Dad on a tandem pulling  the family’s pet labrador  in a bike trailer, complete with his cycling jersey. Even I fancied my chances of not coming last to a labrador.

The first few miles were a little chaotic as people jostled for position and it took about five miles until a natural order was established. I found myself in the middle riding alongside a group of cyclists from Severn Valley Velo club in the Midlands. It was bloody great.

Until you’ve ridden in a large group, it’s difficult to appreciate the difference it make to somebody who normally rides alone. It’s so important to make an effort to catch a group of riders ahead, because once you caught them you can sit at the back in a vacuum. It’s a weird but exhilarating feeling to freewheel at 18mph. But if you drop off the group, you need to work really hard to maintain the pace that they set.

There were several punctures. I realised quickly that a puncture was the last thing I wanted, and was glad of my Gatorskin tyres. Yes they’re big and heavy, but the sight of an upturned bike and a miserable cyclist working to change his tyre while a gaggle of clubmates wait impatiently is enough to make you appreciate the solid pin-proof walls of the Gators. And without a companion it would have been worse for me – if I’d lost ten minutes changing a tyre, I don’t think I’d have got back on the  group which was now travelling at about 17mph. That was a big speed for me. When I started training in February it wasn’t uncommon for me to average 9mph on my 10k circuit, and only recently have I worked my way up to 13mph on a long run.  So you can see the effect that the protection of a large group had on my pace.

I used the word ‘protection’ carefully. There is a feeling on a ride like this of community, of togetherness and mentoring, with more experienced riders often sitting on the outside, guiding their mates, girlfriends, children, and even complete strangers along the route. There are regular calls and traditional, established cyclists warnings about oncoming cars (CAR!), traffic at junctions (CAREFUL!) potholes (point to the side) and advice on the crossability of an approaching crossroads (CLEAR!). It can be a lonely and intimidating environment for a cyclist on busy roads, but in our group of 30 we had equal billing for once, and it felt good.

I hadn’t been sure how to approach the ride. I’d ridden 50 miles a week earlier, but this was 66, and I hadn’t ridden that far for a decade. I wore a heart rate monitor and checked it regularly to make sure that I left something in reserve for the return leg. It was going much better than I’d hoped for as we approached the cafe stop at 35 miles. I even took a few turns on the front of the group, and felt better about doing my bit.

I learnt a few things about my riding too. As a big bloke, I lose a lot of time at corners, as we slow down and start up again. Once we’re rolling, I’m OK, but it’s the climbs where my extra weight makes a real difference. To compensate for the extra load that I carry up hills, I usually bomb down descents and sprint half way up the oncoming climb before staggering over the top. It works well on a solo ride, but I may have caused a few problems as I hurtled down past more careful descenders.

The feed station was arranged at the renowned Eureka Cafe, claimed as Britain’s oldest cycling cafe, and regular haunt of Chris Boardman. The cake stop was promoted as an important part of this very social ride, with the warning that ‘if you’re averaging over 15mph, you haven’t eaten enough cake’. But as our group arrived some 30 minutes after the quickest riders, there was already a long queue, and I decided to forego the cake for an early start back.

It soon became apparent that I’d received some assistance from the elements to reach my average speed of 17mph at the half-way stage, and I decided to wait for company as I rode into a blustery headwind.  I was soon joined by a couple of my new friends from Severn Valley Velo, and we worked together along the now-busier dual carriageways.

As we reached the lanes we had some occasional protection, but strong cross-winds soon split us up, and I latched onto the wheel of a fit looking rider who was driving pretty well. After taking a breather, I shared some of the work for about 10 miles, and felt good about that until he forced a pace that I just couldn’t manage.

We were about 15 miles from home when I was passed by a couple of ladies wearing pink ‘Chester FAB’ shirts. My masculinity was affronted and I bridged the gap back to them. And from there I sat on the back of their small group all the way home. The growing collection was led by a heroic green-shirted mountain bike devotee, who passed and picked up riders at his impressive speed, and drove a long train of about ten of us into the wind for the remaining fifteen miles. Never mind burying yourself at the Tour de France, his was an epic ride. I was just glad to be able to tag along with my heart rate at about 165 for the last hour.

And the with the finish in sight, the speed picked up even more, and I rolled in feeling surprisingly fresh, mainly thanks to the handfulls of ‘biofreeze’ that I slapped on my shoulders, back, and knees at the cafe. I’ve searched for months for an alternative anti-inflammatory to brufen, as my medication won’t allow me to use the usual ipobrufen-based sprays, rubs and tablets. ‘Biofreeze’ did the job well.

So that was it, and as I put my bike on the rack before collecting my food, I became a bit choked up. I’m not sure why that was – it wasn’t an iron-man tough challenge, or even one of my recovery targets. I think that I’d just been able to live out that dream of many years ago, and felt instinctively proud of my small achievement. And when I thanked the organiser, Louise from Patisserie Cyclisme , I could tell she was wondering why I was making such a big deal of things. And that fellow rider who sat at my table as we munched our corned beef hash must have thought I was a bit of a weirdo when I filled up as I bored him with my story.

But when I was lying on that hospital bed last March, one of the main things I regretted was that I’d never been able to experience the thrill of riding in a peloton. Serious racing cyclists might not understand such low ambition, but the pure joy of taking part in something like this is very real and shouldn’t be taken for granted. It took a serious illness for me to get here, and I’m genuinely grateful to those two blood clots that went on tour to my lungs. I only hope that as my training continues, that other sportive events will feel this special.

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How I lost 60lbs in 5 months

It’s been a very long time since I updated this blog, and there’s a good reason for that. Mainly, just over a year after I started writing this thing, I’m still not able to go back and read those first posts from my hospital bed. It now feels like somebody else wrote them – it feels like they were written in a different era, by a different personality, and I’m pretty acutely embarrassed about baring my soul like that. Nonetheless, I think that maybe everybody should go through some form of life-threatening illness to gain some perspective on the important things in their life.

Dyffryn Ogwen, near Bethesda.

The past year has been pretty productive for me in all respects.  I finished the book I was writing, I got a new job and I’ve lost 4 ½ stone since Christmas. I’ll repeat that – I’ve lost 4 ½ stone since Christmas. I expect some of you will be wanting to know how I’ve done that, so here it is…

I downloaded the Weight Watchers app for the iphone, and used that to control my diet while I also began training for the holy grail of the Alpe D’Huez. The app allows you to input your food consumption and it calculates the amount of weight watcher points you use. It calculates and provides you with a daily points limit to enable you to lose weight safely. (You’d be surprised at some of the points totals – a pint of lager is 7 points from my intitial daily allowance of 50 – not bad eh?)

My weekly routine has been to weigh on Friday mornings, relax with a few glasses of wine on Friday evening, and eat out and sink some beers on Saturday nights. The rest of the week I ususally eat porridge, salad, ratatouille, tuna, chicken, and fresh veg. I also eat tortilla wraps and pitta breads instead of normal loaves. So from my startpoint of 19 stone, I’m now about 14 stone 5lbs, which is the same weight I was in college about 25 years ago.

And then there’s the cycling. I started off in January on the exercise bike in front of the whole six series of ‘The Wire’ –watching an episode a night. At first I couldn’t manage more than 20 minutes without feeling pain from my knees. But my physio friend Becky insisted I was using my knee problems as an excuse and that it would get better, so I perservered.

Penrhyn Quarry

Before too long I was out on the mountain bike. I started off cycling around the lanes near my house. The first rides were six miles long, then ten. By March, I felt ready to tackle Nant-y-Garth, a steepish hill about a mile long. It went fine – I was gasping and panting, but I managed it, only to feel sharp and consistents jabs of pain in my chest for days afterwards.

This was a bit scary, as I knew that the blood clots had damaged my heart, and I immediately went to the GP and was sent for an ECG. Thankfully, no damage was shown, but it was felt that I should have a stress test. This took several weeks to come through, so in the meantime I bought a heart rate monitor and began training safely with slow and easy rides. A meeting with my thrombosis nurse then put me a bit more at ease – the pains I felt were more likely to be scarring from the clots as I increased my lung fitness – and so I started training more seriously again. I had the stress test on my heart and passed with flying colours – my heart is in perfect working order.

Mynydd Llandygai

I felt born again – like I’d been given a second chance. I took to the bike with the enthusiasm of an annoying evangelist. As I dropped to sixteen stone, I took my road bike out of the shed, cleaned it and fell back in love with it.  I rode it every day, before work, during my lunch hour or after work. In April I rode the 6 miles to Llanberis to assess the road over Snowdon, which has always seemed to unreachable. An hour later, I found myself elated at the top of Pen-y-Pass wanting to tell everyone about my achievement. I’d completed the second of my targets and the best thing was that my knees didn’t really hurt. In that one ride, Alpe D’Huez became scarily possible. I’ll be honest with you – when I started writing this, I chose Alpe D’Huez because I thought it was an unattainable ambition. But now I suddenly felt under pressure to actually do the bloody thing.

I’ve never been someone who believed in the idea of gaining inspiration from someone else’s achievements. In fact, it’s usually been the opposite for me. And I remember last year when the Welsh runner Lowri Morgan was completing her super-marathon runs that I avoided her television programmes. I didn’t want to see somebody else being smug about their sacrifices and their success, when old lard-arse here sat shamefully with his feet up drinking wine and eating chocolates.

View across Anglesey from Ceunant in the Eryri foothills.

But when the series, called ‘Ras yn erbyn Amser’ (Race aganst time) was repeated in this spring, I switched it on. And I was blown away. Somehow Lowri managed to convey the feeling of physical training as it really was – tough, gruelling, sore, boring, and bloody uncomfortable for hours on end. She was humble, not smug, and I was genuinely moved in a way that I’d never been by another athlete. She had a twitter account, so I sent her a quick message of appreciation. To my surprise she replied with support and advice. I admit that I was inspired by her words, and as I trained and ached around the foothills of Snowdonia they often rang clear in my head. ‘Pain is temporary, success is permanent’. If it hurt – so what?

Another milestone was reached last month when we spent a weekend in Tenby. I popped into a High Street clothes shop one afternoon and tried on a pair of 36” jeans. I couldn’t believe it when they comfortably fitted me – I just can’t remember the last time I wore size 36”. This opened a whole new world for me. Of course, I bought the jeans immediately in case they were the only pair of 36″ jeans in the whole world that would fit me. No more High and Mighty – I’m now on my second ebay wardrobe clearance and am replacing the new clothes I bought after the initial weight loss in March.

This High and Mighty shirt was sold on ebay for £1.64. Hard to believe it fitted me 5 months ago.

I’ve become addicted. The ten mile rides became thirty, and that Pen-y-Pass climb became a regular training route. No hill in the area now holds any fear for me, and I attack climbs with glee that I used to approach in trepidation. I’m in the best form of my life, and completed my first 50-mile ride for a decade last week. I’ve joined a club, the newly formed ‘Clwb Beicio Menai’ and have entered a few sportives – organised long distance rides with no race and no winner.

My first of these is on Tuesday. It’s a 66 mile route around Cheshire lanes called ‘Let them eat cake’. And on the weekend I’m riding the Wales Sportive in Tenby, an easier 40 mile route which I rode for fun a few weeks ago. I’ll be riding this on Transverse Myelitis Awareness Day instead of the over-ambitious planned trip to Cardiff. And by the time I attempt my local sportive in a fortnight, the 47 mile ‘Etape Eryri’ over familiar hills and mountains, I hope to be sitting atop my dream bike, a Bianchi Infinito which I ordered yesterday. I know it’s a lot of money, and I probably shouldn’t have, but trust me, life’s too short.

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The Training Begins

When I first started writing about my pulmonary embolism, I looked around the web for blogs written by fellow sufferers, in the hope that I’d be met by dozens of tales of people conquering the condition and continuing to lead a normal life. What I found was a few blogs written by people immediately after they suffered the attack, and then silence after a few weeks recovery. What happened to these people? Were they dead? I wrote to them and found that they weren’t dead, they had simply stopped writing as they recovered.

And that’s what happened to me. I wrote for a while, but as I returned to normality, I began to realise that the early blog posts were simply a form of therapy. They were painful to write, and now I can’t bring myself to look at them. It seems like that was a different person who was able to share that raw emotion, and thankfully I’ve returned to my default status of internalising Welsh bloke who is deeply uneasy about sharing anything that may reveal a weakness.

But when I did write that blog, I was struck by two things. Firstly I was blown away by messages of support by all manner of acquaintance, and secondly I was humbled and shocked by the number of private messages I received from boozy, forty-something football lads who shared their own private health problems and deep, personal fears about their health. Us boys don’t normally talk about stuff like that, see.

And so here I am nine months later, meeting that commitment to chart my recovery, as I aim to achieve my life-long dream of riding a bike up the Alpe D’Huez.  There’s a reason why I haven’t posted anything for six months. It’s easy to be public about your intent and aspirations, but when you fail to meet your promises and targets, you feel like you’ve let everybody down. And when I weighed in at 18 stone 12 lbs at Christmas after sitting on my arse feeling sorry for myself during the Autumn, I felt more than a bit ashamed.

Yes, I have barriers, but I was using them as an excuse for not achieving my goal. Let me list them here and get them out of the way.

1. I’m overweight (BMI of about 37).
2. I have two torn cartilages
3. I have a rare neurological condition called transverse myelinitis.
4. I’ve got 2 blood clots in my lungs

The order of those barriers is important. By far the biggest issue stopping me from climbing to the Alpe D’Huez is the 7 stone extra weight I’m carrying on my bike. You give Alberto Contador a 100lb trailer and I reckon he might struggle a bit to get up there. But that’s great news. I can do something about that – and in 5 weeks since that Christmas weigh-in, I’ve lost 23 lbs, and now take the scales at a svelt 17 stone 3 lbs.

I was called into hospital last month to undergo surgery on the torn cartilages, but after discussions with the anaesthetist, we decided to call off the operation. There remains a danger of clotting during the procedure which could be life threatening, and I think there are other things I can do to ease the pain in my knees before taking that risk.

The transverse myelinitis is a hidden barrier. It’s been 17 years since the attack that sent my lower body numb and I’ve forgotten what it feels like to have normal legs. Yes, my legs often feel heavy and fatigued, and my spine is stiff,  but that may be the case for every other 44 year old bloke carrying too much weight. I’ve ridden 100 miles before now with these lumpy legs, so that excuse can’t be readily given.

The good news about the clots is that I don’t seem to have suffered any damaging scarring which causes pain during activity. I haven’t pushed myself to the edge yet, but I’m confident that the clots won’t be a barrier. The only thing I have to worry about is the effect of the warfarin that I take daily. My blood is thin, and any crash on the bike would be awkward. A head injury could be fatal.

So here we go – from now on this blog will catalogue my attempts to train for that ride up the Alpe D’Huez. It will be self-indulgent, egotistic and narrowly focussed, but I don’t care. Part of the reason that I’ve been able to get back out on the bike and even consider the possibility of completing the challenge was the public peer pressure I felt after making so many promises back in March. And this blog will help me carry on towards the goal when I might otherwise retire quietly.

After a month watching The Wire, and 24,  while sitting on on the exercise bike since Christmas, I ventured out on my old faithful 1994 mountain bike, an Orange C16 which I’ve often tried to replace, but have been unable to find anything which suits me better. After a 6km circuit completed solely in the granny gear, I’ve progressed slowly to a 15km undulating ride, which  has been really encouraging. For the first time, my thighs have been hurting more than my knees, which shows me the Alpe D’Huez is a real possibility.

I include the stats from today’s ride not as a matter of pride – the timings are embarrassing – but to show how far I’ve got to go.

Ride Time: 1:06:05
Stopped Time: 8:10
Distance: 15.74 km
Average: 14.29 km/h
Fastest Speed: 49.90 km/h
Ascent: 209 meters
Descent: 215 meters
Calories: 770

Her are the stats for the Alpe D’Huez:

Bends : 21
Departure : 716m
Arrival : 1,859m
Difference in height : 1,142m
Length : 8.89 miles
Average steep : 7.9 %
Highest steep : 14 %

My Targets:
March 1st, 2012 : Under 16 stone and progressing from mountain bike to the road bike.
May 2012 – under 15 stone – ride over Snowdon Pass
W/E June 9th 2012: Ride (Bangor to Cardiff?) to celebrate National Transverse Myelinitis Awareness Day July 11/12, 2012: Tour de France bypasses Alpe D’Huez – my 1st possible attempt
August 2012 – more realistic date for Alpe D’Huez attempt

http://www.preventdvt.org/
http://www.myelitis.org.uk/

 

 

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My 1994 Tour de France adventure

My fascination with the Tour de France begin in the mid 1980’s when I saw a documentary on a rider called Robert Millar, a Scotsman who had finished fourth and won the King of the Mountains jersey. I remember being captivated by his skinny white body and his dark brown arms as he described the daily torture and suffering of a tour rider.

My interest in cycle racing was restricted by my obsession with football and music during the 1980’s. I rode quite often but I was more of a tourer than a racer, and nobody else I knew was into cycling. But when the start town of the 1994 race was announced as Portsmouth, I decided to catch a train down to the South Coast and experience the Tour de France for myself.

I loved it. I positioned myself at the stage finish, and to be honest the cycling was gone in a blur, but I hadn’t realised that the whole race would be led by a 2 hour procession of noisy and colourful promotional vehicles which threw out gifts and mementoes as the tension built up. I wanted more, and when I got back to Cardiff I followed the race on television intently. As the tour approached the Alps, I made a snap decision to book a flight to Paris, and make my way to Geneva.

Stage 18, July 21, Moutiers – Cluses

I flew out on Wednesday 20th, intending to travel by train to Cluses, via Geneva in time to catch the stage as it finished in the Alpine village on Thursday July 21st. Unfortunately, I made an ‘acquaintance’ on the flight across to Paris, and decided to stay in the French capital for the evening, eventually arriving at Cluses train station on the following day about an hour after the stage had finished.

This turned out to be a huge stroke of luck in adversity, as I decided to make the most of things by walking around the tour vehicles which were parked behind the finishing line. And it was there that I came across a rider sitting on the steps of the doctor’s caravan. It was Marco Pantani. I asked him for his cap, and he swore at me. How was I to know that he had smashed his knee earlier in the day, before riding heroically to claim third place on the stage? But I had met the great Marco Pantani, and I fell in unrequited love with a rider who would become my hero over the next seven years.

Stage 19, Thursday July 22, Cluses-Avoriaz (Individual Time Trial)

My vague plans were disrupted further when I discovered that there was no train out of Cluses that evening, and nor was there any accomodation available. These were the days before the internet, and I hadn’t been able to research or prepare anything. I decided to hitch-hike the 25 miles to Avoriaz where the following day’s time trial would finish. Again, I was stuck for accomodation, but managed to find an emergency bunk in the village school alongside other intrepid tifosi.

The following day, I rose at dawn and walked for hours up the hillside toward Morzine, finding a place about 5 km from the summit alongside a party of Miguel Indurain fans.

The Miguel Indurain Fan Club

A mountain time trial is one of the best ways to get a close up view of the riders, as they ride individually, passing you every few minutes in various stages of suffering. One of the first to go by was the Georgian sprinter, Djamolodine Abdoujapourov, another favourite of mine.

Djamolodine Abdoujapourov

Then I met my old friend Marco Pantani again, sharing a few warm words as he passed.

Marco Pantani

Then came the snivelling toad Richard Virenque, wearing Robert Millar’s precious polka dot jersey. I shouted abuse.

Richard Virenque, the most despicable man in cycling history

Indurain rode past as the fan club went mental, on his way to another Tour win.

Indurain, the machine

Stage 20, Friday 23 July, Morzine – Lac de Saint Point.

At the end of the stage, I descended quickly and caught the train back to Geneva, where I spent the night in an hotel at the side of the lake, before catching a local train to the small town of Annemasse where the tour would pass through once again. From there, I travelled to Paris by train.

Indurain rides through Annemasse

Stage 21, Saturday July 24th, Eurodisney – Paris – Champs D’Elysee,

After a night in gay Paris, I made my way early to the Champs d’Elysee as I knew it would be difficult to get a place near the front of the barriers.

The Champs D'Elysee

While scouting around for a good spot, I saw a familiar face. It was Phil Liggett, who presented Channel 4’s race coverage. “Hello Mr Liggett!”, I shouted, and he gave me a cheery wave.

Phil Liggett

I was right about getting there early. I found a spot just beyond the finish and settled down for a few hours. It was tough, and the worst thing was that I couldn’t leave to use the toilet. I was on my own, and had nobody to keep my place.  Agony!

Crowds on the Champs D'Elysee

The peloton on the Champs D'Elysee

The most impressive thing about watching the tour on the Champos D’Elysee is the noise made by the huge body of bikes as it passes at incredible speeds of about 45 mph. But in my opinion, it doesn’t really compare to a mountain stage. It’s an interesting element of the tour , but not the best one.

Djamolidine Abdoujaparov wins the stage

Ghosts of the peloton

And that was it – my first experience of the Tour, and looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to get round to the final four stages using only the sporadic train service around the Alps, and with no accomodation booked in advance. I didn’t even take a tent.

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