The Rawlinson Bracket

Competitiveness, an urge to do your best, is within human nature, a part of all of us. But in the drive to further yourself, there are steps that you need to take – only the very few are born with a natural ability at any sport, and even for them there’s time to be spent and effort expended  in order to hone skills and enhance physical attributes. Cycling is not immune; indeed, there are not many sports where the amount of time you put in so clearly has an impact in the amount you get out. So it behoves you to spend time in the saddle if you want to improve, and part and parcel of that is that there are boundaries to cross in your long personal voyage of self-improvement.  I’ve just crossed two of them – my first sportive, and my first half-century.

The event was a new one – the Rawlinson Bracket commemorates the untimely passing of Nick Rawlinson, who passed away in his sleep at the shockingly unfair age of thirty. A keen cyclist, Nick was training for the Maratona dles Dolomites and his first season of racing – accordingly, his friends and family put together the Rawlinson Bracket to allow riders to experience some of the roads Nick knew well and loved to train on, but also to raise funds and awareness for Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. Whilst not a county particularly noted for verticality, Warwickshire nevertheless boasts some fairly beastly climbs along the Edgehill escarpment, and although the more leisurely 24 mile Bottom Bracket would give them a swerve, the 50 mile Top Bracket would utilize these and other climbs to the full.

Registered with British Cycling, online registration and entry was simplicity itself, and a couple of weeks before the event, my event number and on-the-day instructions hurled themselves through the letterbox. The day itself dawned grey and distinctly chilly, but at least it looked dry with no precipitation – parking at the Heritage Motor Centre, however, there were undeniable flakes of snow tumbling from the slate-coloured sky, although we were blessed to have nothing heavier fall during the event. Signing on was just a matter of turning up and signing your name in the appropriate place before heading out into the cold to get kitted up, and one thing was becoming very in-your-face apparent; although nothing was falling from above and the roads were dry, it was painfully, blisteringly cold. I was pretty well prepped, but in a moment of jaw-dropping stupidity, I’d left the winter gloves at home in favour of some slightly cooler* handware, cooler in both senses of the word. With Team NTG pedalling nervously to the startline, my fingers first started to protest, then yell angrily, then finally start to fall silent – and numb.

The briefing was cheerily delivered, useful and to the point, and before we knew it, we’d been set free and were off and running. From the start, the key note of interest was our fellow participants zipping past us at great pace and then disappearing into the distance – Team NTG’s scratch squad were a fairly fit bunch but they were carrying a hybrid-mounted  great pudding in the form of your correspondent, and although I had been prepared for Vince, Jon and Steve to similarly make themselves very small on the horizon in no short order, I was very grateful to them for riding at my gentle pace. For the first mile or two, we followed the B4451 towards the amusingly-monitored Bishop’s Itchington and although traffic was by no means heavy, there were a few cars about – once we turned onto Knightcote Road, however, we were into the lanes and the remainder of the ride was blissfully quiet.

It was still flat, though, and digits were definitely on the chilly side. Riding two by two, we pedaled along in amiable fashion, honking about the cold and hoping for a hill to warm us up – Vince was on a box-fresh spanking new Specialized Allez bought only the day before, settling in and reveling in the step up from his Apollo hybrid.

It wasn’t long before we were passing Northend Manor, which meant Burton Dassett and the first serious climb of the day wasn’t far off. Burton Dassett is a lovely piece of parkland that normally calls on you to be shoo’ing sheep out of the way between heavily-gasped breaths – this time there were no sheep in the road as we passed, although my companions made like mountain goats and quickly dropped me. I wasn’t bothered; although tactics hadn’t been discussed, I’d half had it in mind that they might scoot off and ride at their own pace, which wouldn’t have bothered me – I knew that 50 miles would be quite a test for me, and that I couldn’t afford to try and match an unachievable pace, but if they wanted to test themselves, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge them. I also knew from riding with Jon that my modest climbing pace was uncomfortable on his steeper-geared Genesis Croix De Fer, so I was unsurprised that the others would ride away from me when it got steep. What was pleasing, however, was that the others took it steady on the ride away from the top, and it wasn’t long before I was back amongst them.

In companionable fashion, therefore, we proceeded along the way chatting as we went, the next challenge being a climb up through the village of Shotteswell. This led us to the B4100 which runs from Banbury to Gaydon and forms a part of my regular commute, so I was overjoyed to launch myself down the familiar Warmington Hill in spite of the biting wind – by this time, even my trendily-attired fingers were adequately warm…

Turning west before the military camp, I gulped down a gel before we hit the B4086, turning south to aim at Knowle Hill. Knowle Hill is a proper climb, not too long (little more than half a mile), and the guys again worked their way ahead of me as we hit 14% – I’d done a recce a couple of weeks before, as I knew it to be an awesome piece of downhill tarmac, so I knew I was capable of riding up it in the middle ring, but it was still a bit of a shock to see dismounted riders pushing up the hill. My sense of inferiority born of taking a lowly hybrid to the start line against a sea of proper road kit diminished with every revolution of the granny ring.

Our ascent of Edgehill marked an approach on the halfway mark, and the rest stop at the top of the hill gave me time to assess – I felt ok, pretty good after a banana, and in my head there was only one more serious climb left. I’d had a bit of a play along Edgehill prior to the event, and thought I had things covered, but although I felt strong on the restart, once we’d descended into the picturesque village of Tysoe (there’s a great downhill on the way in – I unclipped the inside foot into a hairpin left just to be on the safe side, and my team members were asking if I was worried about impacting the scenery on the outside of the turn. Pff – bunch of old women). Tysoe led us onto Lady Elizabeth Hill which was a comparative long grind, at the top of which I struggled to make the time back up to the rest of the squad – I was definitely starting to lose strength. Just to make things more tricky, I managed to pull out an energy bar on a flat section shortly afterwards, but struggled to open the beast – as a result, I ended up trying to chomp on chocolate and orange as the road swooped up and down, turning the simple act of eating into a tricky prospect.

As we got to Compton Winyates Hill, passing the 35 mile mark, my legs had definitely got it into their collective head that they’d more or less had enough of this pedaling lark. Vince had to stop right at the foot of the climb to locate an errant gel, but came past me at a blistering pace on his way back to joining Jon and Steve – I was indifferent; by now it was all about trying to make the finish, and my legs felt like mush. Trying to generate extra power was like pushing water uphill.

The route then rejoined at the top of Lady Elizabeth Hill, and I sped gleefully down back into Tysoe before rejoining the lads just a couple of miles before Sunrising. I knew Sunrising of old – as a family we’d been driving up it on the way to Silverstone since the Seventies, and since I’d worked in Banbury, Sunrising had been a frequent part of the commute if I couldn’t face the motorway. I’d only cycled up it once, but it was and is the steepest hill I’ve cycled up so far. That was the end of January, and I’d managed to hold the middle ring, but on the day, little more than three weeks later, I had to drop to the granny ring almost as soon as the climb started; it seemed almost endless, but my bloody-minded spinning eventually had me round the top corner and at the apogee of the hill. From there I knew the route home – we’d cleared all the serious climbs. It was an overwhelming experience.

Once atop the escarpment, I put in some effort in aero mode to try and catch the rest of Team NTG, but we were through Edgehill before I rejoined with them. By then we were poised over Edgehill, a hill I’d ridden down a couple of times before and with my gravitational potential energy advantage, I managed to open a small gap on the rest of the team before we started to span the plain to Kineton. Putting in a turn to try and catch a couple of riders ahead of us, I gave it a dig before Vince took over, dragging us past them but also separating the team, the new Allez giving free expression to his prodigious ability. Steve gave vain chase as Jon and I worked our way more steadily home, but there was no doubting who finished with the most ammo in their legs.

Still, 50 miles, done; my first half century, and first sportive. It was a brilliant feeling just to finish the event, and it ranks high amongst my thus far meager athletic achievements. But complete it we did; cheerily run, the event was fun from start to finish and with over £4000 raised for SADS, there was a clear correlation between the fun had and the funds raised. No-one I spoke to had anything but praise for the event, and there was a pleasing finale when Steve and Jon looked to donate. When they went unsatisfied in their hunt for charity buckets, they asked a SADS-t shirted lady who advised them that there were no buckets, but they could leave contributions with her. In jest, Steve asked if they could be sure that contributions left with her would be safe and she smiled as she said that yes, they would be safe, as she is Nick’s mum. I thought it symbolic of the quality of the event that Nick’s family were there to pitch in, a year to the day after his untimely passing.

Nothing that I saw or heard leads me to conclude that the event was anything other than a complete success. I’ve no idea if there are plans to make it an annual event, but if there are, sign me up now!

 

 

*Coolness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but for me, the gloves I wore were as cool a pair as I own.

For more information SADS (Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome) visit: www.sadsuk.org.uk

To learn more about Nick and details on The Rawlinson Bracket event visit: www.the-rawlinson-bracket.co.uk

 

 

 

Douze heures de Brizzel

Bristol Bikefest Image by © Neil AKA FireMonkey (www.iseepeople.co.uk) AKA digphotoneil (flickr)

I’ve been on the periphery of groups of people doing endurance mountain bike racing for a few years now, always on the outside looking in. But I finally got the chance to pop my endurance cherry at the Bristol Bikefest in June as part of a 4 man team going for 12 hour glory. Quite apart from being the event that meant I HAD to buy a new MTB, it was an unbelievable weekend in many ways. Some of them have no words in English adequate to describe them.

Straight off the bat, things were not looking good. Stuck in work at Banbury until six on the Friday evening, Luke, Jon and Steve had long been on site before I could even set off, they had first hand experience of the shocking weather conditions that I didn’t want to know about. Rocking up at eight after McDonalds (race fuel is important, right?) and a long drive, Ashton Court was blustery and wet. The rain had largely stopped, but the ground was wet enough that the toilets had had to be left in a separate field and duck planks laid down to give vehicles a chance to make it into the camping field. I wouldn’t say morale was rock-bottom, but neither was it at it’s adrenaline-filled peak, either. What with hydration being as important as race fuel, I’d optimistically brought a rake load of Kronenbourg, but no-one was in the mood for much more than an early night and good sleep.

The early night bit went off as planned, but the sleeping bit wasn’t great, with gales giving the tents some gyp. With the race kicking off at nine, we were all up and about by half seven, popping to the Luff Bus for bacon rolls and a hot drink – as preparation goes, it wasn’t ideal, but the others had at least had a wander down the day before and seen a few lengths of trail. Preparation, after all, is about more than just hydration and fuel.

After scientifically formulating our riding order (by going “who wants to go first? Who wants to go second?” etc) , Luke was the man to step forward for the important first stint. Following the rider’s briefing, a horde of riders meandered over the horizon to await the nine o’clock start time out of our sight, and when the clock finally struck nine, an endless stream of two-wheeled lunatics came pouring past us after the Le Mans-esque run to the bikes and mad sprint up the hill that starts the event. For the most part, the riders that flooded past were composed and happy-looking – some of them, however, looked pretty gassed straight off the bat. Hard not to get carried away at the start of a race like this, I guess, but the last thing you need is to be knackered 30 seconds after the flag drops on a 12 hour race.

It was, I found, easy to be a smart-arse before I actually took to the track. Scientifically placed at random in the number three slot, I started my stint in glory by not being in the transition area when speedy Steve turned up for the changeover. That hiccup overcome, I rolled out onto the track for the first time, down the hill through the pits, then dived into the woods for some blisteringly fast, flowing single track. And guess what – about 30 seconds in, I was gassed.

It was incredible. I’ve not been to a modern mountain bike facility on a modern mountain bike since, ooo, forever, so finding myself on pristine manmade single track under race conditions was astonishing, a really liberating experience. I flung myself (in relative terms) down the track as fast as I dared, carving arcs through a beautiful green cathedral of trees for a minute or two before a nagging doubt began to creep into the back of my mind – had I missed a turn somewhere? There was nowhere that I’d had any moments of doubt about which way to go, but even looking on the brightest of bright sides, it was unlikely that I was on the pace of the fast folk, nor was it likely that said pace was the same as the folk at the back of the field. Nevertheless, I swear I must have battled through the woods for fully ten minutes in solitude, doubt growing with every turn of the wheel, but the path was so cool, I was loathed to turn back. As I made my way downhill however, eventually I heard the sound of freewheels and chain slap slowly growing behind me. If I was lost, at least it wasn’t just me – cool.

Bristol Bikefest Image by © Neil AKA FireMonkey (www.iseepeople.co.uk) AKA digphotoneil (flickr)

Of course, I wasn’t lost, I must have just popped out into an unusually large gap, because most of the rest of my day aboard the bike was spent looking for places to get out of the way of faster traffic. Almost without exception, from the first to the last, they were all achingly polite, asking if they could come by and thanking me when I found enough trail to move to one side, which not only blew a personal pre-race misconception out of the water but cemented the point by proving what nice folk mountain bikers are. If ever you’ve wanted to do a race but have been put off by the fear of being out off your depth, fear no more – based on my Bristol experience, as long as you make an effort not to hold people up, they’ll all be nice to you on the way by.

So I cracked on, and I took it steady, knowing there was a long way to go – not taking it easy, running at about 90% instead of flat out, The track had moments of awesomeness, many great lengths of swoopy sweepy singletrack, most of it wide enough to allow faster traffic through, although there was the odd painful climb – a particular standout was the fast downhill hairpin section, very Alpine, that led into a quick righthander before climbing up… And up and up, through a horrible rising righthand hairpin, all wet roots, then a long rocky stretch, nice and damp, horrible and bobbley so you could never relax. It was nasty, and it wasn’t the only bit of track that hurt, but beyond any shadow of a doubt, the bits that stung were nothing compared to the good bits. This track rocks.

I completed lap one with a smidge in reserve, but decided lap two was party time. I went out and gave it everything, from the first turn of the pedal all the way through to the desperate, breathless crossing of the line. Depressingly, it made almost no difference whatsoever, the scant seconds I saved as likely to be down to knowing the course as to the extra effort expended, but it meant that, by the end of the lap, I was almost done. Stint three was an exercise in survival, treading the line between cracking on as fast as I could and keeping a little something in reserve for a final lap four, but by then an eerie spectre had arisen, that we might just – JUST – be able to sneak an extra lap in for one of us. It was a most curious feeling – if Natalie Imbruglia thinks she knows something about being torn, I can tell her she can think again. The extra lap might make a difference in our overall position, but we were all as close to having given our all as to make the prospect of an extra lap, even on this brilliant track, a truly scary prospect.

I put myself forward for the fifth lap then hit the track, running stint four as quick as I could muster, knowing I had Jonno to follow and, if the clock smiled on us, that meant about 35 minute’s rest and the dread lap would be on me. Making the changeover to Jon as swiftly as possible, I trembled out of the changeover area on wobbly legs to check the clock – Luke and Steve were on the job, and the news was… We were JUST out of time to do another lap. Gutted. Relieved, but at the same time, gutted.

The level of competition was an eye-opener (NTG MTB finished 88th out of 95, beaten even by the appropriately-monikered Team Inappropriate Bike, who really were on some shocking equipment), but the atmosphere was cracking, the event well run and everyone was just so friendly. But it was the track that was the star for me – first time out on my first mountain bike in 16 years, I had an absolute blast, even if the hurt lasted a long time. Roll on Oktoberest and the 8 hour endurance event at the same place – see you there…

For more information on both the summer Bikefest and forthcoming Oktoberfest, visit www.bike-fest.com

 

 

What a difference 30psi makes…

Bike Tyre - Image ©Copyright Paul * (Flickr)

I’m a very happy man today – when I got the bike out of the back of the car this morning in preparation for the cycle leg of my commute, I spotted my trusty footpump nestled cosily amongst the pasty wrappers and empty milk cartons.  Whilst I wasn’t exactly early, I wasn’t late, either, so I thought… You know… What the heck – let’s check the pressure in the soft rear tyre. Crazy, I know.

It’s been awhile since I cycled regularly, and I never cycled that regularly even back then – if I had to guess how many miles I’d ridden in, say, the last five or seven years, I think it would barely average a couple or three hundred miles a year on my old slick-shod Orange mountain bike, if that. In the last couple of years, commuting from Birmingham to Banbury, the average had fallen further still – to all intents and purposes, I was an ex-wannbe-keen cyclist. That, let me tell you, doesn’t count for a lot.

We went crazy last year – my lovely Lucy and I took the plunge and opted for the cycle to work scheme, ordering bikes and even booking our summer holiday in the bike-friendly Ile de Re. Her Giant turned up, as it were, whilst I had to press-gang the sixteen-year-old mountain bike back into two more weeks of servitude. Come October, and a mere four months after I committed to the scheme, our company took the plunge and released the funds, and my new Kona hybrid was released from captivity.

It was a revelation. No serious off-road tool, it was happy enough dabbling with minor dirt track adventures, canal tow paths and little more serious than that, but the road ability was something else. I’d always fancied my rigid Orange, with slicks at bursting point, as a compromised but reasonable road tool – the 29” hoops on the Kona changed all that. It flew – the road miles that Orange nibbled at with unskilled enthusiasm, Kona bit great chunks out like a hungry orca. Makes me wonder what a real road bike would be like…

So in the spirit of fair play – after all, the Cycle To Work scheme is intended to be used for purchasing bicycles to cycle to work – come November I took the plunge and decided to take a crack at using the to ride to work, at least part of the 40 miles. It was, however, not a success -putting a hand in my pocket for a big wedge of cash for a train ticket from my nearest railway station to Banbury was a painful  way to start, and the amount of time it added onto the working day was just intolerable. Sorry – for me, at this time and with this commute, the train isn’t going to take the strain, it’s just going to add to the stress. For me, it seemed, the cycle commute was over.

But I had a brain wave about six weeks ago, and I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before – on investigation, the recent purchase of a new and slightly larger car means that I can just about bend the Kona’s gangly tubes into the back with the front wheel out without too much hassle, and a new concept was born; drive part of the way, cycle part of the way, it couldn’t be much simpler.

So this brings us back to where we started – day one, having barely spun a wheel since the end of the train experiment in November was agony, the miles that slipped effortlessly under the Kendas in November were a chore, it felt like I had to fight for every inch. The site of my trusty footpump peeping out at me from the boot litter on day two sparked a revival that blew a breath of fresh air into my whole cycling world – having your boots blown up to bursting point might make the ride a little lively, let’s say, but the pain in the backside that you get from rock-hard tyres is considerably less of a pain in the backside than the extra effort required to rotate flabby rubber.
 
 

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