Monthly Archives: September 2017

Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire hills – lovely, but not quite the alps

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Dragon Hill – again

We got back home from the alps late on Thursday night. Despite too much cheese, bread, potatoes and wine, I managed to return weighing a little over 66 kg which is better than I’d feared.

I got out on the bike this morning despite still feeling a bit jaded – it’s not that I’m worried about a lack of training for next weekend’s sportive, of course.

It was breezy but I went gently, looking for some hills – typically that means heading for the Ridgeway.

First I went up Dragon Hill Road to the White Horse at Uffington – I make that the 177th ascent of it this year after using it as a key training climb in my everesting training. Then along the undulating Ridgeway road, turning off for a climb up Sincombe Hill and a descent into Lambourn (with a lot of race horses out on the gallops).

Climbing back out of Lambourn I rode through Baydon, Bourton, Shrivenham and back via Highworth and Coleshill (which is largely a National Trust village but was also the home of the late, lamented, Sir George Martin).

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Coleshill … er … hill

… and Badbury Hill …

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Looks OK but it kicks up in the trees with bits at 15% and 16%

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Why do hills never look as steep in pictures as they feel when riding them?

Clocking up a few more metres of climbing in and around Faringdon I did a total of 73 km with 1008 m of ascending. It felt pretty tough and I rode it at only just over 24 kph – but somehow managed 36 Strava ‘achievements’. I have no idea how that happened.

I’ve always avoided any product placements or endorsements in this blog but if, like me, you lie awake at night wondering how you can organise your next cycling holiday in Taiwan, help is at hand through ‘Pedal Taiwan’, a company set up by the son of some friends.

The cycling and scenery look spectacular so if you are going to be in the area – or are looking for something just a little different – please have a look at their Facebook page.

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Back to the Alps, briefly

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Back to the Col de Pierre Carrée – this time cycling it from the bottom to the top

Our short trip to the alps was planned some time ago – but did not include any cycling. Strangely, when we arrived in Les Carroz on Sunday evening I found my bike and cycling kit in the back of the car – it seemed silly not to use it for a bit of (low) altitude training for the forthcoming sportive, seeing how it had travelled all that way.

The weather wasn’t at all good on the Monday – cold and raining – but we managed to get out for a run and got only a little wet. The rest of the day was spent on domestic matters, sorting out the apartment for the skiing season.

Tuesday was worse – wetter and just as cold. Walking round the village we bumped in to a friend, Franck, who was complaining that November had come early to the Alps.

At this stage it didn’t look like we’d timed our trip well – in addition to the cold snap the village was undergoing of some fairly major works in the centre putting in new drainage and power systems. Just to complete the feeling of disruption, almost everywhere was shut – we guess that businesses had decided to take their post-summer and pre-skiing break to coincide with the disruption. The two small supermarkets were running on restricted hours and just about no restaurants were open in the evenings – even in November they tend to operate a rota to ensure that something is open every night!

However, we ate in, read and watched DVDs and Wednesday dawned with clear blue skies and warm sunshine even thought the air was still crisp to say the least.

We ran again in the morning and I went out on the bike early in the afternoon. One issue I have uncovered with autumn cycling in the alps is that of what to wear. The village was at a cool but pleasant 11 degrees but first I was heading about 10 km down the mountain to the bottom of the climb up to the Col de Pierre Carrée.

I decided to wear my cold weather gear, including long trousers, with just a compression top underneath, and that looked like a good decision. A lovely descent, and feeling comfortable despite the wind chill.

I turned straight round at the bottom and hit the climb. It’s 21.2 km with a total ascent of 1351 m (or so, depending who you believe). That puts it up there with the two main climbs of Ventoux for length but with 250 m less climbing so it’s testing but not ruinous.

The first half of the climb back to Les Carroz was very enjoyable but I got pretty hot (it was probably 16/17 degrees at the bottom) and I was regretting the winter weight clothing. Riding straight through Les Carroz and upwards towards the top of the col, I went through another spell of feeling comfortable but soon had cold feet. As I climbed higher, pretty much everything else got a bit cold. I thought I was just being a wimp but soon I was riding beside verges with snow on them so I felt rather more justified.

This was the part of the climb I used for my ‘everest’ in July. I was wondering if I might have spoiled it for myself by doing it 12 and a bit times in July but, happily, no. Despite the cold I loved it.

At the top I took a photo like the one I took in July – an interesting comparison:

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July at the top of the col

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Just 66 days later (the camera on the phone not coping well with the contrasts in light)

The descent, of course, was even colder as it had started to cloud over at the top, but I arrived back in Les Carroz safely and happy. It was a really enjoyable ride – and all the better for being rather unexpected. In all, 43 km and 1385 m of climbing, according to Strava.

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Back to the village – with more snow in the background (and a milk bottle bidon, having forgotten to take one out to France with me)

I had hoped that I might set a Strava personal best for the top half of the climb. I didn’t. I was a couple of minutes faster than any of the ascents in July during the ‘everest’ but one I did last year was quicker. Sadly, it occurs to me that, at 62, perhaps I shouldn’t expect to be getting faster but should be happy if I don’t get slower.

I’m not accepting that (yet) and still aim to beat the 5 hour mark for next April’s White Horse Challenge. What I do have to accept is that I’m simply a one-paced stayer. I’m not blessed with many fast-twitch fibres but I do have endurance. It looks like the planned ride out to the alps next year might be more up my street than setting Strava personal bests.

Giro d’Splott?

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Not the Giro – TdF 2016 but I like the photo and for now it is my stock, all purpose, ‘Grand Tour’ picture

So, the Welsh Government is in discussions to bring the Giro (presumably the start?) to Wales.

On the face of it, a fairly ludicrous idea but surely no more ludicrous than starting the Giro in Belfast in 2014, or the TdF in Yorkshire in the same year – and probably more sensible than the Giro’s start in Israel next year.

Clearly, money talks (or to quote Bob Dylan “money doesn’t talk, it swears”) but if things like this spread the word about cycling in general, and the Grand Tours in particular, I’m all in favour of them.

The Yorkshire start for the 2014 TdF was a great success and has spawned the Tour de Yorkshire as part of what I hope will be a glorious legacy. I went up there for a few days to watch the TdF (and do some riding) with friends and loved it – I would also certainly go to watch stages of the Giro in Wales. Having been to university in Cardiff in the 1970s I have a great affection for the place – and it’s improved hugely since those days when the gloriously named area of Splott still had the Dowlais Steelworks.

One note of caution – when I did the first Velothon Wales tacks had been thrown along a couple of stretches of the route, presumably by locals protesting about the road being closed. Let’s hope they are more accepting of a little disruption in the name of one of the world’s major road races.

I think I’ve viewed the TdF on 14 occasions since 2003 and would not lightly pass up any opportunity to see it, or any other significant race, again. However, from my experience you should try to watch on the biggest hill possible, preferably towards the end of a stage, in order to see the riders going past a bit slower and spread over a longer time.

Alternatively, a time trial offers the prospect of a longer period of entertainment, although perhaps you need to be a bit of an enthusiast to enjoy a succession of lone riders (with the possibility of a catch or two to stir the blood). I remember watching a particularly good TdF time trial around Lake Annecy in 2009 – we were drinking beer sitting outside an elevated roadside café overlooking the course. Now that’s proper spectating.

Rain, wind, puncture – the recipe for a perfect afternoon in the saddle

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From the top of Ashbury Hill – looking down on Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire

The only problem with signing up for the Cotswold Autumn Classic 100 miler on 1st October is that I’ve got to get the training going again and have to lose the few pounds I had started to put on to see me through the rigours of an English winter.

Domestic duties meant that I missed the club ride on Saturday to see the Tour of Britain so a run yesterday with Mrs Omil was followed by getting the bike out this afternoon, despite it being a bit wet and a lot windy.

I climbed the Fawler and Blowingstone hills and dropped into Lambourn (as far as I could see the horses were too sensible to be out today) and back over the Ridgeway via Ashbury – struggling to hold 15mph (24kph) on the flat into a headwind of at least that speed.

I thought at least I might be rewarded with some Strava PRs on the downwind sections. In the end I got 9 and 23 ‘achievements’ in all – but for being so shallow the cycling gods punished me with a puncture in the pouring rain, and then the realisation that the spare tube I’d taken with me fits Mrs Omil’s hybrid but not my Rose.

The ignominy of being picked up by Mrs Omil in the car ended another perfect afternoon in the saddle. Nearly 50km in 1h 45min with 461m of climbing.

I’m sticking with the tri bars at the moment. Learning so far:

  • they do help you go faster
  • they are not great in big crosswinds
  • your neck does stop hurting (quite so much)
  • your hands are a bit of a way from the gear levers (not too bad if you think ahead)
  • they are also not near the brakes (a big issue if you don’t have any thinking time)

On balance, I really like them.

Chapeau Chris, adiós Bertie

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Chris Froome on the way  to winning the 2016 Tour de France – taken from the roadside, watching stage 19

This afternoon saw the largely processional end to La Vuelta 2017 and the crowning of Chris Froome as winner. I thoroughly enjoyed the race which – as usual – involved more up and coming riders than the TdF and so threw up new names in both teams and riders.

Froome took the leader’s red jersey after stage 3 and never relinquished it. A dominant performance and one that means he becomes only the third man to win the Tour de France and La Vuelta in the same year (and the other two did it when the Vuelta was a two week race, with much smaller fields and was run in April/May, before the TdF). It’s a truly great achievement but one for which I fear he will get inadequate credit.

Why? A number of reasons. Partly because Team Sky handled the Therapeutic Use Exemptions matter badly; partly because Sky win too much for many people’s liking; partly because many don’t like Sky’s ‘marginal gains’ philosophy; and partly because people often view Chris himself as bland and boring.

Of course, some of these are justified – it’s a win that is not likely to stir the blood but this is pro cycling, not a bullfight. What others see as a boring champion, I see as a very modern, professional cyclist who is respectful, modest and generous to his teammates and rivals.

Perhaps a major part of the problem is that Sky have the single aim of winning the GC rather than entertaining – but I certainly won’t blame them for that.

It will be interesting to see if he ever attempts to win the Giro to complete the Grand Tour ‘set’. I believe that he has only competed in it twice – he was 36th in 2009 and disqualified in 2010 (when he held on to a police motorcycle to get a tow to the next feed station in order to retire with a knee injury). Presumably the TdF will continue to dominate his thoughts for some time to come as he heads towards 5 wins to put himself level with Hinault, Anquetil and Merckx – or a 6th to move beyond those greats?

Chapeau Chris – a man who should certainly be Sports Personality of the Year (recognising that the two wins by Andy Murray puts the emphasis on achievement rather than personality).

In contrast, we saw the final appearance of Alberto Contador. Another divisive character in many ways – not least because of his associations with individuals and teams with mixed reputations and a ban for doping after his 2010 Tour victory. The ban for a finding of Clenbuterol in his system came as a real shock at the time and he has always strenuously denied the allegation of doping, claiming that it was accidentally ingested from contaminated meat.

The amounts in his system were minute and the drug would not be one that would be likely to be used during a Grand Tour but the fact is that he was banned and stripped of a number of wins, including the 2010 Tour itself.

In contrast to Froome, Contador could rarely – if ever – be said to be boring. While Froome plays the percentages and often grinds out wins thanks to his time trailing ability, and (in part) the strength of the team around him, Contador has been something of a maverick and a showman – always looking for the opportunity to attack and win with style.

His stage victory on Saturday was almost the perfect way for him to finish – out in front on his own, on one of the most fearsome climbs in Grand Tour racing, on the last competitive stage in his career. It would be hard to write it any better.

Goodness knows what Contador would have won if he’d had a team like Sky around him – assuming he could have accepted the Sky philosophies!

Love him or hate him, Alberto Contador has been one of the greatest cyclists of his generation and I for one think that the sport will be all the poorer for his retirement.

I’d thought that 2017 was over for me and cycling – happily I was wrong

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Yes, the grass does need cutting

With my main goals for the year being over by the end of July, and plans under way for 2018’s challenges, I thought I’d probably got to the start of winding down for the winter.

Then I realised that the Tour of Britain is coming within about 30 km and my club has organised a trip out to watch it for our Saturday ride. So to keep things ticking over I got out today for a solo ride. I wasn’t feeling 100% so was planning on a steady pace just to test out the adjustments I’d made to the tri bars.

After Saturday’s try out with them I had a slightly sore neck and shoulders. I decided that I should do some exercises to help, but on Sunday and Monday the pains were worse. Of course, now I didn’t know if I was hurting from the ride or the exercises – so that worked well!

By way of adjustment, I’d moved the armrests wider and back, and extended the bars although, frankly, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

As so often is the case, the competitive juices got flowing once I started so I pushed hard for a flattish (but breezy) 35.8 km. To my surprise I clocked an average of 32.1 kph. The tri bars do seem to be working (and were much more comfortable) as I’ve never managed faster than 30.9 kph before.

Happily, I’ve also had an email from a friend who said that he had entered the Cotswold Autumn Classic Sportive so I’ve signed up too. At present I think there are now 4 of us taking part.

It’s on Sunday 1st October and the current aim is to go for the 100 mile route (with 2005 metres of climbing) which starts in Cirencester (Gloucestershire) and heads up through Bourton-on-the-Water to Broadway before returning via Winchcombe.

Last year another friend (a very strong rider) did the 100km distance and got silver so I guess that there was terrible weather or other bad conditions last year. It’s not a ride I’ve done before and I don’t know what the target times are for Gold, Silver, Bronze awards and I don’t know if they are age-related but I suppose the aim (without any confidence) must be for a Gold Award.

Tri bars are discouraged rather than banned – I’ll stick with mine for a while and then take them off for the sportive itself.

It all means that I’ve got to keep up the training for another few weeks which will be fun if the weather holds – and miserable if it doesn’t. I’ve ordered some new bib shorts that should be OK for longer rides, so at least it will be good to test them out.

Roll up, roll up – free kph?

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My bike, complete with tri bars, looking out at the garden

I bought a set of tri bars a few months ago but didn’t fit them at the time as I was mainly cycling up hills in preparation for my trip to the alps and the ‘everesting’. With the prospect of a long ride out to the alps next summer it seemed sensible to dust them off so this week I fitted them and decided to take them for a test ride today.

I wasn’t expecting great things as I’ve not done too much cycling since July. This week I’ve been out running a couple of times with Mrs Omil and had spent a hard day of manual labour in the garden yesterday – so pretty well everything ached this morning. I wasn’t sure it was going to be a good day to test the tri bars as it seemed entirely possible that I wouldn’t even be able to bend low enough to get down to them.

I opted to do my usual test route (45.1km with around 300m or so of climbing) – to my surprise I felt better on the bike than I had walking round the house so I decided to push on reasonably hard.

To be honest, I was a bit of a wimp coming back up to the hoods whenever the road surface got bad (which was frequent) or when there was a bit of traffic.

I felt a bit of pressure in the forearm and my neck took a bit more strain than normal (Shermer’s neck, here I come?) so the bars certainly aren’t set up right yet. I think they need to be set longer, tilted down a bit and the saddle might need to be moved forward and tilted down a little.

Despite all that, I matched my pb for the circuit at an average of 30.9kph. The previous pb ride was in back in early July when I certainly felt fitter.

So, not exactly proof that the tri bars made me quicker – but on the basis that I was expecting to be slower, there’s is certainly some cause for optimism. From what I read they could add up to 2mph to my top speed because of the improvement in aerodynamics and cycling position, but they don’t help much at lower speeds or going up hill.

As I build up a bit more fitness, it will be interesting to see if I can improve on that pb.