Monday, 18 August 2014

2013 - MITIE London Revolution

My first foray into road cycling was not a nice, easy event to get me started.  No, I signed myself up for 186 miles in two days, starting in London and circling all the way around in a mammoth loop amongst two thousand other riders; the MITIE London Revolution.

I didn’t even have a road bike when I signed up for this, but a quick look around resulted in a wonderful second hand purchase of the Specialized Secteur.  My research into the bike was of course minimal:  

  1. Can I afford it?  
  2. Is it pretty?  

Tick, tick and done.  I could not leave it at that though.  The tyres were quickly replaced with some bling Lugano and the valve caps became chrome bullets.  After all, I couldn’t have people thinking I was serious about road cycling.

I also purchased lycra and I am still trying to deal with this in my head, so let's move on.   

Upon signed up I was sent a wonderfully informative PDF with a full on training plan.  I ditched this as it involved me churning out many miles on road and that ate into my off-road time.  I therefore convinced myself that off-road training was going to serve me just as well.  

I did do some road miles, with a ride from Farnham to Brighton and back close to the event.  I also took a ride out with Mark two weeks before the event following him out of Stevington on a tour of the Chilterns by road.  We covered 50 miles that morning and at a set of lights I managed to screw up my clipping in, jarring my knee.  All in, I was in about as good a shape as I deserved to be and before I knew it the weekend of the event had arrived.

Pre-race day

I had it in my head that this was going to be a proper adventure.  I booked the Elliott's into a swanky hotel at the ExCel and we planned to spend Friday exploring London with our two year old son, Henry.  That way I would have them there to cheer me over the line the next day.

Things started well.  The hotel was as sweet as I had hoped and we set out through docklands with the boy in tow.  We travelled on the DLR a few stops and then took a trip on the emirates Skyline over to the O2.  Henry looked so "Street", strolling along with his hands in his pockets like a cool dude...  until he tripped, could not get his hands out in time to stop himself and face planted into the pavement.

My stomach flipped.  I had been close enough to reach out and feel him brush my fingertips but too far to stop him going.  Seeing his little face bounce made me feel sick to my stomach.  We spent nearly half an hour mopping blood from his swelling lip and nose, but fortunately he had not cracked his teeth.  It did however change the tone of the day.  He wanted nothing other than to snuggle into me and be carried from attraction to attraction.  Still, we made it over to Greenwich Market, saw the Cutty Sark, the Observatory (learning about Dark Matter, black holes and stuff), travelled on a River boat, ate lunch at the O2 and returned to the hotel to make use of the bar.

I drank too much.  My arms and legs ached from carrying Henry everywhere and I was also a bag of nerves.  Then I had a less than wonderful night sleep, with Henry finding it hard to rest with his swollen face and waking every hour.

Race-day One  

The plan had been for me to get up in good time, cycle the 3 miles to the start and be a part of the big photo session as we crossed the start line at 7:30 am in one big MITIE team, but my plan to have the Elliott family adventure caused a slight blip.  I rushed down the 4 floors of hotel to get the cup of milk warmed up and then back up to deliver it.  Anna showered while I dressed the boy, then I was able to get ready before popping down for breakfast...  you get the picture I assume.  Time simply slipped away.

The plan had to change as it was coming on for 8:00 am.  I carried the bags out to the car with a cigarette hanging from my lips (always the professional) and was in for another shock.  Despite strong assurances from the hotel that the car park was under constant surveillance, some scrotum had tried pretty hard to pinch my bike off the car.  They had only been foiled by the Thule locking clamp around the frame, but I doubt it would have taken much more yanking before it would have giving up the ghost and left me with no wheels for the race!  I was now far from the perfectly calm state of mind required before taking on something that was already freaking me out.

We reached the start line and rolled into the drop-off car park and Jack (my planned riding buddy - ex SAS) - was only just ready, so despite being partially late I needed to wait.  I dropped my bag in, registered and had another smoke while I waited for Jack.  It seemed like forever in the coming, but finally we were ready to go.  We had missed the team photo and they were already on the road, but I found myself rolling over the red carpet under the start line at 8:05.  Henry was in my Wife’s arms, looking like a miniature boxer who had tried hard but lost his prime time fight and my wife’s yawn reminded me of my own mortality.

The first hour took us through London traffic as we made our way east into Essex.  Now, I have flown down black graded single track with a bone shattering drop to one side, a wall of rock and trees to the other promising likewise bodily ruin and a steep trail ahead, shredded, narrow, twisting and full of danger, but never have I felt as close to  sh*ting myself as I did on those roads.  Watching a rider ahead slam into the ground as a truck side-swiped him didn’t help, nor did the constant use of horn and general hatred radiating from all car drivers caught behind the plethora of riders.  To make matters worse, at 17 miles, with all the twisting to click in and out of the pedals at traffic jams and red lights my knee that I had been protecting finally "pinged".  The pain made me feel sick, but there was no way I was going to let this take the MLR away from me.  I swallowed drugs, kept the "ping" to myself and pushed on.

I was playing with different positions to stretch it out in the hope to relieve it and came across a revelation.  Stopping for a second, I lifted the saddle by 2 inches, meaning that every time I pedalled I gave the leg an almost full extension and the pain started to ease.  I was however forced to climb using only one leg for a while and had to gain speed gradually rather than slamming it down when I wanted it.  If nothing else, I became very attuned to my gears.

Surprisingly we pushed on at a good pace and soon had the slower riders from the original start time in our sights.  It was fun to manoeuvre around them and gave me a sense of achievement I probably didn’t deserve.  Then the roads reminded me of their inherent danger and a truck driver, frustrated with the long string of riders, decided to overtake.  He gunned it past, saw the one lane railway tunnel too late, swung back in and took the front wheel out from the lead rider.  He went down hard and the truck pulled over.  As all the traffic stopped and while the poor bloke was being seen to by a mass of people, I barked an order for Jack to tuck in behind me and we left the carnage and group behind.

Soon enough we were in a different world, travelling through splendidly rich Essex back roads.  It felt good to roll into the first pit stop which just happened to be in a pub.  I forced Jack to forgo the queue for flapjacks and fresh water and instead took our place in the bar for a good pint.  

This sweet moment, accompanied by a couple of smokes which earned me more than one sneer from the die-hard health nuts, took more time that I had anticipated, but on leaving the pit stop I felt a new man and finally felt a part of the race.

From Epping forest the roads were great, with very little traffic until we entered Hertfordshire.  We were still catching people and leaving them behind, but Jack was finding the pace a touch strenuous.  He also found the pint I had forced him to drink a touch inconvenient and had to stop for close on a dozen “natural breaks” in the first hour.   

The next pit Stop was supposed to be at Potters Bar, but at that 72 mile mark the signs we had been following suddenly vanished.  It was only after we had travelled 5 miles that I called a halt.  We phoned the Route assist team.  It was concerning me that we had neither overtaken nor been overtaken in a while.  Route assist said to wait where we were while they checked our tracking chips.  The advice after nearly half an hour of waiting was to go back the way we had come until we found a sign.  

This added 10 miles to our 103 mile day and I was a touch peeved - but later discovered that a woman had been involved in a head on crash with a car and needed airlifting.  The route signs had been taken down and placed elsewhere as a diversion around the issue.  It transpires that me and Jack passed through between the period of signs being taken down but before the replacement of them on the diversion.

The lost time turned me into a bastard and the dirt trail monster in me, accustomed to churn and pain, chasing the light, set fire to my pace.  I refused Jack the chance to stop at the second pit stop and instead pushed on into the Chilterns.  Suddenly the rolling back-roads became a series of fast descents into cruel, lengthy, arrow-straight climbs.  Despite the knee I was hitting a lot of these out of the saddle with the gears ticked up a couple rather than being in the granny ring.  This somehow seemed easier than trying to hold the weight over the front to counter the gradient and pedal at the same time.  It felt brilliant to go past so many walkers, but poor Jack, taking my lead as an example, had to have 15 minutes time-out at the top of one particular hill to empty the entire contents of his stomach.

The Chilterns to Windsor were nothing more than a series of roundabouts, busy roads and a few pretty views, but none as delightful as the finish at Ascot Racecourse.

9hrs 20 mins riding over 113 miles (103 of the course).  Avg speed 12.1.  Rolling speed as per the Cat eye was 14.8 mph

Race-day two

I made a mistake in the night and decided to strap my knee.  Some might consider that my immense drinking session might also have been a mistake, but I say live and be damned.  I woke up in my cold tent at 4:30 am with a dry throat and a leg that would not bend.  I quickly unstrapped it, elevated it on my bag and prayed for it to ease up.  By 6:30 am I could bend it again so went for a walk around the grounds, swallowed drugs, drank coffee, ate breakfast and breathed a sigh of relief when it started to feel a little more normal.

I was not sure whether I would have Jack with me because I had "Beasted" him (his words) and had been taken to a hotel nearby to sleep rather than suffer further in a cold tent.  I was actually surprised when he arrived at just gone 7am.

We were on the start line at 8:00 am, but the organizers staged the roll out.  We finally started at 8:45. 

The first 24 miles were on great ground, but Jack was struggling.  He needed a “natural break” every ten minutes.  At the first stop break I told him we would be in and out, but then he realized he had left his keys to his car at Ascot.  We lost nearly an hour while he arranged with the organizers to collect them and to deliver them to the finish line.

We rolled out of the first pit stop - everything arranged and too much time lost - into the Surrey hills.  I told Jack that I wanted Box Hill at my own pace and would meet him at the top - thinking this was going to be the true challenge of the full event.  Having tasted the Chilterns the day before I was setting myself up for facing a true beast.  

What a shock to find the gradient barely challenging and being free enough to click up a few gears and ride the last stretch out of the saddle.  Jack joined me a lot later and after just 5 minute rest I had him rolling again.  This led us into some awesome descending and in my head the rest of the day was going to be a breeze...

We reached the second pit stop and had a pint, but I limited time to 30 minutes.  Back on the road we suddenly hit the North Downs.  Tandridge Hill turned out to the be the hidden beast amongst the route.  The amount of people walking up this was astounding.  I am proud to say I did not but this hill nearly broke me.  It was false summit after false summit that happened so often that I didn't believe the real summit when it arrived and failed to wait for Jack before tearing down the other side,which turned out to be the longest descent so far.

Box hill was put to shame once more as we had to climb Herne Hill.  The road up into Crystal Palace was a real head screw and with traffic coming back into the equation, added to growing fatigue, I was beginning to feel the weight of the challenge MLR represented.  This point in the race also had a flavour of fun as we got to ride 2 laps around the velodrome.  I have to say it was hair raising as the sides are so steep and the wheels on my bike seemed way too skinny to be able to do what they were doing.

The last 10 miles of route put us back into the heavy and terrifying traffic on the streets of London proper.  We finally rolled over the finish at 6:00pm.

VERDICT:   Despite an awful journey back home and not getting in until almost 9pm, I woke the next morning feeling capable of another day or ridding.  The knee, if anything, felt stronger than it did before starting the race so I surmised that the "ping” had needed movement rather than rest.  The race itself was well organised and was more of a challenge than I had given credit for.  It was not however anything like the South Down’s Way which had been used as a training event.  Those two days in April were the hardest and darkest days I have ever spent on a bike, so if you want a challenge, enter the MITIE London Revolution.  If however, you want to enter the deep, dark realms of the truest pain cave you will ever know…  South Down’s Way on a wet weekend is your ticket.

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