Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Pedal for Scotland Sportive 2013

Yasss! I've just done my first ever road cycling event- the 110 mile (180km) Pedal for Scotland Sportive (from Glasgow to Edinburgh, via East Ayrshire, the Southern Uplands and Lanarkshire).
Lorna and me at Loudoun Hill- about a third of the way to Edinburgh.
I'm delighted to have done it, but I have to be honest and say I was apprehensive in the run up to the event. The distance seemed huge (it still does!) when I'd only managed 75 miles in a day so far.

But fitness was a pretty minor concern compared to worries about the 'good old' Scottish weather. Outdoorsy people know that this is usually the crux of any day out in this country. Strong winds and/ or heavy rain would make the game a bogey. 'No refunds will be issued if the event is cancelled'- the website said. I was skint, so it was with some trepidation that I clicked the 'Pay Now' button. Nigh on £60 duly left my bank account. All I could do was watch the long distance forecasts and hope. Not my usual Scottish sport plan...

Summary of Sportive route
Fast forward a couple of weeks and Lorna was in my garage for a bit of 'light bike prep' the day before the event. We got her wee red machine tuned up fairly quickly, but my steed proved troublesome. A minor epic of mechanical incompetence ensued. Lorna departed home while I struggled on with derailleur difficulties. Why, oh why, did I have to start fannying about with it the day before? I'd been warned by mate Burnsie not to do it... In the end I got to my bed late, and only had two and half hours sleep due to the dog having diarrhoea all night. It was literally a shite start to my Sportive!

We were at the start line in Glasgow Green just as the sun rose at 6.30 am. I felt like a zombie as we chatted to some of Lorna's buddies from the roadbike scene. Lorna and I teamed up with her keen cyclist pal Stuart. Our trio were united by the simple desire to complete the Sportive- a fast time not a priority for any of us. The MC did some crowd warm up routines and at around 6.45 we were off, heading through South Glasgow on the first leg of the journey out to Loudoun Academy (Ayrshire). I enjoyed the sociable feel to riding in such a large group and everyone seemed very excited by the occasion too.

After a refuelling stop at Loudoun we were very keen to get warmed up again. With the wind coming from the East the dry air seemed very chilly and Autumnal. Leaving Galston there was no doubt we were going to be warm, however, as this next 25 mile section of the Sportive really made us work. Three Category 3 climbs came in quick succession, followed by a cheeky chaser of a Cat 4- all before reaching the landmark of Loudoun Hill. The single track B road we were following was busy with fellow Sportive riders, including one tanned European looking chap who dropped us at Loudoun- riding a Brompton folding city bike. He must have been a Tour de France pro on his day off...

Profile of the route- it's hilly!
From here it turned into a slog over some rolling, exposed moorland towards Muirkirk. It was overcast and the slate grey skies reflected the mood at that moment. As the roads snaked along, up and down, they always seemed to bring us into the teeth of the South Easterly headwind. I was starting to wonder if I'd have the stamina to make the 110 target. Was the wind going to stay against us? Were the others finding it this hard?
Lorna & Stuart refuelling at the Crawfordjohn stop
Psychologically, it was a great boost when we arrived at the tiny hamlet of Crawfordjohn. We were all glad to take a break in the Community Hall. This feeding station marked the half way point. It was well equipped with juice, grub, bogs and a resident band. I wasn't particularly inclined to eat anything but, knowing that it would be disastrous if I didn't, stuffed down a sanny, a banana and a couple of Tunnocks wafers. A quick visit to the facilities and we were off on the road again.

We passed underneath the M74 and soon afterwards I got a front wheel puncture. It was annoying as I'd only just fitted 'puncture resistant' Gatorskin tyres the day before. I changed the tube as quickly as I could and we were underway again. By this point the wind had started to come round to the South West and we really benefited from it as we traversed Eastwards over the Southern Uplands. This is quite a spectacular section, made all the more enjoyable by the sun keeking out from behind the clouds. The deserted roads seemed more amenable and it felt like we were winning the fight.

Just before we reached the final feeding station we hit a short, but comically steep section by Carmichael (South Lanarkshire). I'd read from other people's blogs that there was a very steep hill late on in the Sportive, but I wasn't quite expecting the steepness of this little monster. It would make a great sledging hill in the Winter- but maybe a bit on the steep side?! The universal reaction from our fellow Sportive riders, now c.75 miles into the route, was disbelief- ranging from laughter to attacks of Tourettes at the sight of this mean surprise. Cycling races denominate hill climbs based on the French system ranging from Category 5 (the easiest) to Cat 1 (extremely hard), and then the ultimate difficulty- Hors Categorie (HC). In my opinion this hill was one stage harder than the French Hors Categorie. It was Hoors Category on the Scottish scale. While many around us walked, me and Lorna decided to try to cycle it. Dropping into our granny gears, we employed a weaving zig zag approach that eventually saw us summit succesfully. High five time!

Lorna chuffed to have summited the brutal Carmichael Hill
Over the back we went, on a very fast descent off Carmichael Hill. A few miles later we ended up at the final food stop at Carnwath. I'd been looking at the profile of the course on Strava and got the impression that most of the route after Carnwath was downhill to Embra. I took my foot off the gas a bit, psyche- wise, as we set off on this last leg of the journey. Maybe it was just the overall tiredness, but I soon regretted pre-judging this last leg as easy. Contrary to expectations it seemed to go on forever. We had a tailwind but the roads seemed much hillier than expected. At last, cresting a rise, we caught a glimpse of the familiar skyline of Scotland's capital in the distance. Even as a Weedgie, the sight of Embra lifted my spirits. A cheer was required to celebrate the moment!

Lorna and me were forced to take on some more food as we approached the city boundary. Though we didn't really voice it, we both thought we could detect the dreaded 'wall' approaching. Thankfully the addition of a few extra calories seemed to do the trick and we were soon on the final, exhilarating zip down through Balerno and through to the finish at Murrayfield. We crossed the finish line in the stadium- delighted and exhausted. What a day out!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Circuit of Arran on the bike

5 am on a Friday and I was up, cramming porridge down my gub and grabbing kit for my big cycling escapade. The dog looked up quizzically from his basket and then curled back to sleep. Far too early for him...
Circuit of Arran

At the start of Summer I got a PB in the Glasgow Men's Health 10k race. Unfortunately, any chance of road running stardom was curtailed by injuries that were still lingering a few weeks afterwards. So I hung up the trainers, dug my old mountain bike out the garage and  started cycling to and from work in a bid to keep the pies at bay. I soon fancied the target of cycling round Arran (55 miles)- once I was fit enough.

So this was the big day. I left the house in the pitch dark and cycled hard for the 20 miles from Kilbarchan to Ardrossan, aiming to catch the 7am ferry. I was aboard my latest acquisition- a second hand Specialized Allez roadbike. It really flew down the road compared to the old clunky mtb. Aye, the roadbike flies but Scotland's second National sport (after drinking) is smashing empty bottles. In the first few dark miles I heard a crunch as I ran over the remnants of somebody's cycle path bevvy session. Thankfully, the dreaded hiss never came and I managed to whip it to Kilbirnie, belt it over the hills of Dalry and got the ferry with just 10 minutes to spare. A puncture would have scuppered my plans.
Arran's Beinn Nuis in Winter
Arran is stunning. It has fantastic jagged granite peaks, rolling hills and beaches. As the old cliche goes, it really is 'Scotland in miniature'. The Cal Mac ferry crossing takes less than an hour. £11 gets you a return ticket with a bike- which is pretty good value.

The internet consensus says the best way is to go clockwise from the ferry and tackle the very hilly South end of the island first. After that, the prevailing South Westerly winds should help in the long flat haul up the West Coast to Lochranza where one final, killer hill is the last hurdle before success.

Profile of hills on circuit
I set off from the Co-Op in Brodick carrying 2 litres of juice in my drinks bladder thingy and a 5 pack of Chunky Kit Kats. The first hill starts immediately. It's a steady 1 miler on a good road surface leading up to a viewpoint, giving a brilliant panorama of the granite peaks North of Brodick.

Rosa Pinnacle of Cir Mhor
A flat out, careering descent then leads down the into the picture postcard village of Lamlash (with views to the Holy Isle just offshore). I was aiming to catch the 13.50 ferry back to Ardrossan so I was unable to stop to enjoy any of the sights.
I pushed on over the next roller coaster climb and flat out descent into Whiting Bay. After that the ups and downs of the South End get more difficult and the good road surfaces of the previous sections are notable by their absence. It seems like the roadworks dept ran out of dynamite after Whiting Bay. The road jinks about, up and down over every wee hummock and round some turns that are very tight- even on a bike...

After a series of tricky corners a sudden monsoon forced me to shelter under a tree at Lagg. I narrowly avoided crashing entering the difficult hairpins and waited 15 minutes or so for the downpour to cease. But it didnae. I boarded the bike and set off soaked and seething at the Met Office's incompetence. Up and down the road continued until I had a wee spill somewhere near Sliddery. This was quite appropriate, as the rain had made the road very sliddery. A warning sign of a tight left hander flashed past and I skidded straight on, my wet brakes no match for the job- luckily no buses were in the way. I was making a beeline for a dry stane dyke but stopped short up a wee grass bank. I couldn't clip out the SPDs and in classic style cowped back over onto the wet tarmac, grazing my elbow a bit. I didn't cry.

Approaching Blackwaterfoot
After that I continued on to Blackwaterfoot where I bought some more juice and ate a couple of Kit Kats. Then it was off up the flat haul of the West Coast. Ironically, this is quite an enjoyable section after the difficulties of the South End. With the tailwind it's possible to make fast progress, and soon I was heading into Lochranza where my puncture luck disappeared. A shard of sharp green glass did for my back tyre. It's a nice spot to get a flat though.

Puncture at Lochranza
Tyre eventually re-inflated, I checked the watch and realised I was going to have to boot it. Leaving Lochranza the challenge of the final ascent is obvious and daunting. It's the biggest hill in the circuit and the hardest. I ground away at my granny gear until the summit eventually came- with views to the mainland and the North- West view of Arran's granite peaks. I could see the ferry nearing the shore from up here. The descent from the summit to Sannox was fast and required concentration. After that it was head down and just grind it out past Corrie back to Brodick.

I reached the ferry with 10 minutes to spare. The circuit had taken 5 hours and 15 minutes. I'd cycled reasonably hard overall, but lost quite a lot of time with waiting on the rain to stop at Lagg, the fuelling up at Blackwaterfoot and a lengthy puncture mending session at Lochranza (tube trouble). Without those stops 4 and half would have been more like it. I've seen internet claims of 3 and a half which I'm sure are possible if you have the legs and are motivated.

It's a great circuit. Go do it!