Tuesday 31 December 2019

Putting 2019 in Perspective

Well a whole year has gone by and I’ve been more than a little tardy in not keeping my blog up to date. My only (rather feeble) excuse is that time spent sitting at the keyboard is time that I’m not sitting on my saddle! Plus, I am only really motivated to write when the mood takes me AND I’ve got something worthwhile to write about. But the flipside of that is that without any posts you might think I’ve been doing nothing. Or worse! Quite the reverse actually. I've had a very busy year and as it’s the last day of 2019 and also my birthday I thought I would check in and tell you what I've been doing since I last posted about that stunning ride up Mount Lemon at the end of January.

After making the 1,500-mile round trip to Arizona for the Mount Lemon adventure, the following week Mary and I made a
Desert riding
1,000-mile round trip to take part in the Tour de Palm Springs. I rode the 100-mile route while Mary and Robin, who joined us in Palm Springs, opted for the 70-mile circuit. It was quite a well-organised event though I found the half-hour wait on the start line a tad tedious. The young kids in mariachi band which played while we were waiting were very entertaining. The stand-up comedian’s jokes were, I have to say, rather corny. And the long list of thank-you’s delivered by a local worthy were – let’s just say it was a long list. But after a quick blast of the national anthem we were soon underway. Despite being in the desert it was actually pretty cold and I was glad of the extra warmth provided by my Castelli Gabba jacket. After a somewhat lumpy start which raised my pulse and breathing rate we turned east onto a long (20-mile) and mostly downhill straight ending at a feed station. This was easy riding and I was able to maintain an average 20mph by barely turning the pedals. Some of the route was familiar to me as I was riding on roads that I last rode on last year on my tour across the USA. I felt quite at home too as I was riding with a group who were all kitted out in British-made Rapha clothing. They were quite taken aback when they realised that they were riding with a Brit. As the temperature warmed up I took off my Gabba to reveal a Team GB jersey.

The final 60 miles back to Palm Springs were gently uphill as we rose from sea level to about 500 feet. Apart from the eye candy provided by the scenery which covered everything from raw, bleak desert through rich and very green real estate to snow capped mountains I had two moments of excitement. First, my Garmin mount worked itself loose and fell off the handlebars. Fortunately the safety cord saved the day otherwise I might have been facing an expensive replacement. Having to then keep the Garmin in my jersey pocket was a bit irritating, especially as I seemed to reset it each time I removed it to see how far I’d gone. So my Strava record for the event suggests that I did four rides. Rather more exciting though was my arrival in Palm Springs. Approaching a junction I followed the signs and barriers round the left turn only to realise that I had entered a live oncoming traffic lane. I’d forgotten that they drive on the right here. The cacophony of shouts and whistles from the marshals and spectators was impressive. I rather nonchalantly bunny hopped over the central reservation into the right-hand lane, looked back over my shoulder and waved to the crowd!

On the Bianchi stand at the Tour of California
I returned to the UK in March and spent the next couple of months reacquainting myself with the Norfolk and Suffolk lanes. It made a nice change to be back on familiar roads. At the beginning of May it was time to head back to Sacramento. Soon after my arrival I spent an interesting Sunday morning watching the start of the Tour of California. Bianchi USA had a stand in the event village, so I dropped in to say hello and discovered that they knew about Passione Celeste – one of the team said he had read it. Maybe he was just being polite!

A beautiful ride!
In early June I set off with my buddy Gene, who I often ride with in Sacramento, to Lake Tahoe in the north-east corner of the state. Gene had told me about a sportive which advertised itself as America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, so I needed little persuasion to go. It certainly was a great ride – about 70 miles with around 4,000 feet of climbing which doesn’t sound too challenging does it? The main physical challenge was the altitude as the start of the ride at 6.500 feet above sea level and the two main climbs certainly had me gasping for air. I could see virtually the whole 70-mile route from the start line as it went right around the lake. The scenery was spectacular – heavily forested mountain slopes with snow-capped summits. This is skiing country too; the 1960 Winter Olympics were held near here. Judging by the signs I saw there was also some pretty exciting mountain bike riding available. This was a great day out and I also got to ride in Nevada for the first time, so that’s another state ticked off, even if I only shaved a corner. And as for the claim of being America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride. Well, it certainly was beautiful. But MOST beautiful? More research is needed. A lot more!

Sweltering in the sun
The following weekend I was back in Southern California for L’Etape California. This was an event organised in close association with the Tour de France and provides amateur riders with the full experience of a grand tour stage. The route was centred on Mount Baldy and on paper looked pretty challenging – 90 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing. The route included two first category climbs and one HC (Hors Category or Beyond Category) climb. Always one for a challenge this seemed like a must do! Or so I thought! The ride itself was hard, very hard. But it was the heat that was the main challenge. At the start the temperature was already into the low 30’s C (mid 80’s F) and by mid-afternoon as I was ascending the penultimate climb it had reached 40oC (105oF). With no shelter I could feel myself frying in the sun. The north-facing curves on the hairpins provided momentary relief from the direct sun but the air still felt as if it had been superheated. This was reflected in my heart rate. Normally on a strenuous ride my heart rate averages about 120-125 beats per minute. Today my average was 150 bpm with a peak of 172bpm. And I could feel it. So much so that I turned back about ½ mile from the top of the final climb as I decided that caution was the sensible way to go. The summit of Mount Baldy will have to await another day. The final 10 miles were all downhill so I was able to gain some much-needed recovery. So much so that I was even able to muster a sprint to cross the finish line at nearly 30mph.

Going full gas through Cromer
I ended the month of June with a ride back in England, in Norfolk. Starting and finishing in Norwich, the course followed the route used earlier in the day for the British Professional Road Race Championships. Although most of the route was on open roads it was very enjoyable with surprisingly large numbers of spectators as we sped through the various villages along the way. Getting a cheer from the roadside does wonders for my ego! One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was the section we rode along the North Norfolk coast. I don’t ride up here very often but when I do I always enjoy it. For about 20 miles the road meandered along, never more than a mile from the sea. With a succession of small climbs and descents it provides a pretty good workout without being unduly taxing. Our return into Norwich was fantastic with the last section on closed roads with big crowds behind the barriers lining the streets. A cold beer (zero alcohol) provided by the organisers was just what was needed as I chatted to some of the other riders that I finished with.

Nearing the top of Pink Hill
Having ridden L’Etape California in June I unexpectedly had an opportunity to ride the UK version in mid-July. It was a good chance to compare the two events. The same Tour de France branding that was very visible in California was here too. I wore my new L’Etape California jersey too which generated quite a lot of interest from other riders, both in the starting pen and during the ride. Apart from comparing the two events I was excited to be riding in the Chilterns, west of London as this was where I lived as a teenager and where started riding seriously. We actually rode along part of the route that I used to ride on my daily journey to school. So there was a lot of nostalgia for me today. The Chilterns boast numerous short, sharp, steep climbs and is where I acquired my limited hill-climbing abilities. The profile for the course looked like a saw blade with over 7,000 feet of climbing along the 100-mile route. Although the climbs were short some were pretty steep, touching 30% in a couple of places. I remembered the climb of Pink Hill well which was where my Dad taught me to hill-start when I was learning to drive. I could almost smell a burning clutch as I rode up it! And what of the two events? Well the California one edged it by the thinnest of margins, a mere tyre width. The weather, scenery and friendliness of the support crew and California Highway Patrol officers who managed the car traffic were the plus points.

Three amigos - a reunion with Greg and Pete
August saw me doing something I last did in 2015, a Land’s End to John O’Groats tour. This time I was the tour leader taking 18 other riders on the journey. They were a pretty diverse group both in terms of age and riding experience, but they bonded well as a team and I was very proud to see them all standing on the finish line in John O’Groats. It was fun listening to them talking about their experiences at the finish. It brought back so many memories of my own ride in 2015. You can read about my 2015 adventure elsewhere in this blog and also in my book, Passione Celeste. This year’s route was very similar to the 2015 one with a few minor differences including a climb through Cheddar Gorge which I hadn’t ridden before and, despite the best efforts of the rain, was spectacular. One of the riders on the Lejog was Greg who comes from Tulsa, Oklahoma and with whom I last rode with in 2018 on my tour across the USA was one of the team. It was great to catch up with him and reminisce about our experiences. I also arranged for Pete, my USA Tour ‘Brother’ join us on one of the stages in southern Scotland. This was a complete surprise for Greg and we rode together from Peebles to the outskirts of Edinburgh. The look on Greg’s face when he first saw Pete was quite something.

I also completed my longest ride of the year in August – 135 miles. This was a 100-mile sportive and I got the extra miles by riding from home to the start and back at the end. The course took us round much of Suffolk on roads that I am very familiar with. The actual route was not one I had followed before so it was really enjoyable to see the scenery through someone else’s eyes as it were. It was an unusually hot day too and made me think of California which I yearned to return to.

During September I had my longest spell this year off the bike. This was because for a week I crossed over to the dark side and went hiking. This was a momentous occasion since in 2005, together with a college friend, I set out to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path from Minehead in Somerset to South Haven Point in Dorset. We have walked most years in between, usually taking a week in either May or September. Walking speed was definitely not the objective. Quite the reverse. It has been much more about chilling out in the countryside, admiring the spectacular coastal views and meeting an amazing number of interesting and in some cases, eccentric people along the way. We both enjoy a good curry so the other objective was to eat as many as we could. At the final count, after 64 days walking we have consumed 45 curries! It was a strange feeling when we finished and I felt quite disconcerted. Having spent so many years pursuing our goal, finishing it left me feeling quite empty. What next I wonder? Well, we have tentatively thought about continuing to walk eastwards along England’s south coast maybe as far as London. Nothing definite is scheduled though.

This year the UCI World Road Championships were held in Yorkshire and the UCI had sanctioned a sportive which followed much of the road race circuit so this was an event not to be missed. Towards the end of September I drove up to Harrogate and rode the event. Leaving aside the wet weather which prevailed throughout the week of the World Championships the 90-mile, 7,000-feet event was very well organised on what turned out to be a challenging course.

Trying to look happy at the wet
World Championships
The first challenge came immediately after the first feed station in Pateley Bridge. In his climber’s bible Simon Warren says this about the climb of Greenhow Hill. “Here the pain comes in bursts over four distinct stretches of really tough climbing, with brief respite in between each. Attack each hard section, get your breath back, spin the legs, then attack the next.” Well that pretty well sums it up – the pain and the breathlessness parts are certainly accurate! As I rode up the first stretch I could see riders ahead of me meandering back and forth across the road in a desperate attempt to maintain their forward momentum. Nearing the top of this first stretch I was closing on a rider in front of me who looked as if they might grind to a halt and fall off at any moment. As I closed up I could see a man sitting on a bank above the tarmac watching the struggling rider. Then in a thick Yorkshire accent he commented: ”Aye lad, keep going. The toughest bit is yet to come.” Well that did it for the hapless rider who unclipped and stopped, electing to walk for a bit. I was more fortunate and was able to keep moving. Just. And yes, the rest of the climb was at least as tough as the first stretch. But I made it in about 20 minutes. Simon Warren’s target time for the climb is 16 minutes so I was quite pleased with my effort.

Part of the course was along roads that I had ridden in August on my Lejog tour so it was nice to have a bit of inside knowledge about what I was riding into. Nothing too strenuous as it turned out. Apart from the climbing, the main challenge of the day was the rain. Lots of prolonged heavy showers making the road surfaces very wet and muddy. Looking in the mirror when I had a shower after the event I could see the outline of my riding glasses which had shielded part of my face from the spray and dirt. And to think I paid money to do this!

At the end of September it was time to head back to California and in mid-October Mary and we drove down to southern California for the Tour D’Orange. This is an event which is organised by a friend of ours, Robin, and raises money for charity. Robin had recruited us to help her with setting up and running the event. We spent the day before signing the three courses which cater for family groups through to experienced longer distance cyclists. The shortest route enables riders to visit many of the historic sites and properties in the town with each being marked by a specially numbered sign. This is the third year that Robin has run the event so she has a complete mastery of the easiest way to set out the signs on the three interlocking routes. I got quite confused about our geography as a consequence and we didn’t finish laying out the routes until midnight when it was totally dark.

A metric century celebration
I was a ride marshal for the longest, 60-mile route. My role meant that I had to be able to help any riders in difficulty and act as the last rider on the road sweeping up any stragglers. It was quite a strange feeling to ride around the course again, especially on the more rural section which we had signed in the dark. I was surprised to find myself riding gently uphill through a beautiful canyon which I had no idea existed when I was there 12 hours before. Towards the latter part of the event I joined up with two other riders, Royce who had never ridden a metric century (100km) before and John who was a more experienced rider. As we crossed the finish line we realised that we were about 2 km short of the century so we did a few circuits around the town centre to record the requisite mileage. The happiness on Royce’s face and in his voice when he finally crossed the line and was reunited with his family was a total delight. So ‘Chapeau’ Royce! It was great riding with you and John.

I remained in Sacramento until just before Xmas, enjoying several rides on the wonderful American River Trail with Gene. I also made a number of forays into the wider countryside and I am starting to get a few new and longer routes mapped which I hope to develop next year. By the end of the year I managed to get just over 9,000 miles into my wheels which, by my recent standards, represents a quiet year. When I was not riding, I was working on another top-secret project, the results of which I hope to announce early in 2020.

People often ask me what was the highlight of my riding year? Well in 2019 it might have been the ascent of Mount Lemon. Or maybe it was one of the L’Etapes. Or perhaps the Worlds. Well, if I was being totally true, the highlight of my year was being able to ride wherever I was and whenever I wanted to. Long may that continue…

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Mount Lemmon, Arizona – A Peach Of A Ride

Hello Readers! I really must apologise for the break in service. It’s been six months since I last wrote to you and you’ve probably been thinking that I’ve fallen off the bike or worse. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve actually been very busy on several fronts including some superb riding. Following the end of the USA tour I returned to the UK and spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the experience and even more time trying to sort out and caption my photographs. I also wrote an article about the tour which, if you’re interested, you can read here.

Sacramento - on message!
I said I’d been busy so, what have I been up to? Well in August I was back in the USA, in Sacramento in Northern California. While I was there I also headed down to Southern California to ride the Cool Breeze Sportive (100 miles) which was really cool. It was great to be able to experience an American event and compare it to those in the UK. I’ve also done quite a lot of riding around Sacramento which has a fabulous network of cycle trails – some of the best local riding I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. The opportunity to ride on traffic-free, paved routes through spectacular urban countryside is exhilarating. The American River Trail to Folsom is a total delight.

Team Super 6 ready for the off ...
In September, Team Super Six gathered together again and we rode a six-day tour in Italy, from Pisa on the west coast to Senigallia on the Adriatic. Our route took us eastwards through Tuscany before we headed south into Umbria eventually looping back northwards through the Marche region to the coast. This was the complete package with stunning scenery, lovely old hilltop towns and villages and great roads including some Tuscan white roads (Strade Bianche). The ‘domestics’ were great too – fabulous accommodation, including a night in a former royal palace, as well as the very best of traditional Italian cuisine, accompanied by superb local wines. The riding was excellent and it was huge fun riding with Team Super Six again. Although we only get together once a year, when we do meet it feels like we were together just the day before.

Captain Century rides the redwood!
At the end of October I was back in Northern California to do, amongst other things, one of my bucket list rides – the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately smoke from the horrific fires that hit California meant that riding opportunities were severely curtailed. We made up for this with a wonderful trip to the coast to see the giant redwood forests – a truly humbling experience. Riding through, literally a 1,500 year-old redwood tree, was a first for me. From my former career as a forester I have long wanted to see the ancient redwood forests so the opportunity to achieve this was not one to be passed up. By now some of you maybe wondering why I keep coming back to California. Well, let’s me just say that it’s not all about the bike! As I write this I’m on a short trip from Sacramento visiting friends in Scottsdale, Arizona. Which brings me to the reason why I’ve decided to start tapping the keyboard today.

A few months ago an article in Cyclist magazine (Issue 77), which I read voraciously, caught my eye. The article “Raising Arizona” by James Spender really captured my imagination and if you can readers, look it out. It’s well worth reading. I realised that Scottsdale where my friends lived, was only about 100 miles from Tucson. No distance at all in US driving terms as I’ve learned. So Mary and I set off early in the morning bound for Tucson and Mount Lemmon. A couple of hours later we were in a parking lot on the outskirts of Tucson. My Bianchi Infinito (Fausto), who now lives in Sacramento, was rearing to go and so was I. So with a couple of photos to commemorate ‘Le Depart’ I was underway. Mary had agreed to SAG the ride for me so I didn’t have to worry about hydration as she had plenty of spare water bottles in her car.

A long straight road, gently rising upwards, took us out of Tucson through scrubby desert. Ahead of me I could see the lower slopes of Mount Lemmon, defined by a long ridge of rock crossing in front of me and rising from the plains. With each turn of the pedals I drew closer and began to get an inkling of the scale of the challenge that lay ahead. Then as I rounded a right-hand hairpin the ‘proper’ climbing began. Ahead of me lay about 25 miles of riding with nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. Game on!

Not even halfway up ...
Looking to my right I could see the valley floor that I had just ridden across. What surprised me was how many houses were tucked away amongst the desert scrub with the Saguaro Cactus trees poking through the undergrowth. Although I had never been here before this was a landscape that felt very familiar from watching episodes of The High Chaparral as a kid. I could almost see Big John Cannon, Buck and Blue galloping across the land with a cloud of dust trailing behind them. The landscape is harsh and I guessed that during the hot summer months this would be a brutal place to live.

As I made my way ever upwards the road twisted and turned through a series of sweeping curves with views back down to the road I had ridden along several minutes before. The succession of rocky ridges and shoulders meant that it was difficult to gauge my progress. Cresting each ridge revealed another ridge with hints of the road snaking upwards. My progress was marked by a succession of viewpoints and I struggled to balance the need to keep riding onwards and upwards with the temptation to stop and soak up the magnificent views. I think I managed to achieve the right balance. From time to time, Mary caught up with me so I was able to refill my water bottle. The importance of finding water to stay hydrated on the climb was something I had noted in James’s article so today, at least, that was less of a consideration for me.

Nearly there!
As I headed ever upwards I could feel my breathing was getting slightly more laboured and my heart rate was higher than usual. Reaching the road sign for 8,000 feet altitude explained this. I had passed the 4,000 feet sign about 90 minutes before so I had climbed 4,000 feet over about 25 miles. Despite the rarefied air I felt pretty good, although my legs certainly knew they had received a workout. The landscape too had changed dramatically.  Gone was the scrubby dessert vegetation which had been replaced by pine trees with the heady smell of resin in the air. Gone too was the dessert sand as I was now surrounded by the remnants of some fairly large snow drifts. The other main change was a significant drop in temperature so I took off my lightweight short sleeved jersey and replaced it with my windproof Castelli Gabba jacket. Cycling readers will understand what I am referring to here. The rest of you – well take it from me that I was snug and ready for the last leg to Summerhaven with, according to James, the promise of an excellent cookie. Sure enough, the Cookie Cabin was easy to find and, better still, open. I opted for a 7” oatmeal and raisin number which, given the calories I had burnt on my ascent, I felt quite justified in chowing down.

Is it a lemon or a peach? No it's a giant cookie!
I was now ready for what I confidently anticipated was going to be the reward for my climbing effort. The  return leg. The prospect of riding about 25 miles downhill on a smooth, largely traffic-free road with open sweeping curves had me drooling. And I was not disappointed! The descent was the best I have ever completed. I freewheeled most of the way down and my speed never dropped below 30 mph and I topped 40 mph at a few points. (Mary clocked me at 45 mph on her car speedo at one point so I’ll take that.) If I had known the road better and with higher gearing I reckon I could have been much, much quicker. My ascent took me about 2.5 hours (riding time). By contrast I was back in Tucson, complete with a lovely sunset, a mere 70 minutes after leaving Summerhaven.

What a ride! Definitely not a bitter lemon; more like a sweet peach! I can confidently say that it was up there with the best. Sitting in the car on our drive back to Phoenix I was buzzing and full of that warm glow that readers who ride will recognise after a great and demanding day in the saddle. I would love to do it again one day. But like JoJo in the Beatles song “Get Back” which James quoted in the introduction to his article, I’ll soon be leaving Arizona for California. And as for the why, you’ll just have to watch this space readers …