Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cycling with Lance Armstrong

It started with a Tweet...

A few turned up...

Can you spot him?

Follow the leader...

A bit of video...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

My first 100km

The ride where it all began and the lessons I learned

I'd always been a cyclist and I'd always had a bike. I had been living in Dublin for 10 years and the only cycling I was doing these days was the commute to and from work. In the past few years I had been walking more than I had been cycling. How did this happen? It was time for a change.

This particular weekend my wife had two of her friends staying over and they were planning their weekend activities together. Drinking and dancing were to be involved and as I no longer did much of either, I chose to sit it out. I don't know why I decided to go for a cycle instead though. I could have gone out for a cycle any weekend but never seemed to bother anymore. Looking at the pictures now, the rear cassette looks very clean, maybe I had cleaned the bike the previous weekend and thought it needed to get dirty again. I guess it's not important what the reason was, all that mattered was that I was going cycling again. Proper cycling. But how far would I go? I decided to do 100km as that seemed a significant distance. It would also be the furthest I had ever cycled in one day.

I left the house at 11:45 with the idea of first attempting a particularly steep hill I knew. I had never ridden up it before but thought I'd give it a go. Beyond that I didn't really know where I was going. I reached the foot of the climb after about 30 minutes. Five minutes later I was ready to abandon the climb and go somewhere flatter! Oh boy, I was not used to climbing! My commute to and from work was just 14km each way and relatively flat. On a good day I could cover that distance in 30 minutes. But now here I was I grinding away up a hill so steep, it took all my effort just to keep the bike upright! This was the first time, since buying the bike two years ago, that I had used the small front ring. Even in that gear it was tough. I thought I would pass out a couple of times, my face was the colour of a beetroot. But I wasn't giving up. Lots of cars were passing me and I didn't want to be seen pushing my bike up this hill. I did stop several times but eventually I reached the viewpoint near the top. The view made the climb worthwhile.

Overlooking Dublin Bay. (taken at location B on the map below)

After a well earned rest, I was ready to press on. I carried on up the climb but the steepest part was over and I began to enjoy the ride. Then it started to rain. And boy, did it rain! I hastily got into my waterproof trousers and my jacket which, as I was about to discover, was not waterproof, and I pressed on. Then the wind came, first from one side, then from the front and then from the other side, but never from behind!  It got lonely and bleak up there then. The vision of all the people at the viewpoint sitting in the sun eating ice-cream, was now a distant memory and it was only 15 minutes ago!

Memorial to Captain Noel Lemass. (C)

As quickly as the wind and rain had arrived, it had departed again. The clouds parted and the blue sky returned. This soon became the pattern for the rest of the day. Each time the sun came out, I forgave the wind and rain. It did get a bit tedious though having to keep taking the layers on and off. But I was determined to enjoy the day. Eventually I decided just to keep everything on! The views all around were breathtaking and the descents were fast, if a little chilly. But as every Wicklow cyclist knows, every thrilling descent is followed by another climb. I did wonder, at one stage, why every other cyclist I saw was heading in the opposite direction to me, but there was not turning back now. Besides which, I still didn't even know where I was heading.

The high peak towards the right hand side, is Great Sugarloaf mountain. (D)

At a crossroad sometime later, I bumped into two other cyclists who had both reached that location at the same time as me, both from different directions. They both had waterproof maps and all the gear and looked the part. I probably looked like the amateur I was, but in true cycling spirit we all chatted about our rides and no bike snobbery was evident. The rest of my journey that day was dictated by the decision to pick the road neither of them chose, just to be different. After our goodbyes, I pressed on.

I could have quite happily gone for a dip in there after yet another climb. (E)

After about three hours of constant climbs and descents, I approached yet another inconspicuous turn and was met with what remains, one of the most stunning views I'd ever seen in Ireland - the waterfall near Laragh East taking the River Avoca its journey through this green valley onto the sea at Arklow.

I didn't quite manage to capture the beauty of the valley and who put that bike in the way? (F)

The beauty of the waterfall was followed by and 10 minute descent down into the village of Laragh and then onto Glendalough. Here, memories came flooding back to me, as I used to come here quite often when I had moved to Ireland in June '99. Glendalough was actually the first place I'd visited on my first ever trip to Ireland one weekend in December '98. It had been such a long time since I'd been back here. A shame when it's so close to home. I savoured the memories and pressed on. The Wicklow Gap awaited.

The first climb of the day had nearly broken me. The next climb nearly killed me! Looking back I realise that I was in no fit state to attempt that climb and I really could have gotten into a lot of trouble. As I had not properly planned my ride that day, I didn't have any food with me, not even a banana. There is a gorgeous cake shop in Laragh but I hadn't brought my wallet. As the eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed, the bike doesn't have any bottle holders on it. I was attempting a 100km cycle and I had not even brought any water with me! This was the first and last time that ever happened!

The steepest part of the Wicklow Gap climb is in the first few hundred metres up to a small car park on a sharp bend. After that, the climb is gradual but constant and once you round that bend, you can see the rest of the climb ahead of you all the way to the summit. The cars and coaches at the top were so small or was it that they were just far away? Halfway up and I really began to struggle without food or water. I had to keep stopping and drinking from the small streams that were flowing down the hillside. I tried not to think about all the sheep and deer that lived up there and just what I might be drinking. I was a desperate man. One piece of advice that has served me well over the years though, as this was not the first time I had drank from a stream, is that, if you must drink from a stream, make sure it's flowing!

The foot of the Wicklow Gap climb, with appropriate signage! (G)

Several streams later, I had reached the summit, almost a broken man. I wish I could say it was worth the effort but, to be honest, it wasn't! It was cold and grey once again and I was soaked in sweat. I could not stop too long to get my energy back as I was freezing. To make matters worse, there was a gale blowing at the top which I had been protected from on the ascent. I had to press on and head down the other side as quickly as possible. To add insult to injury, the wind was so strong on the descent that I had to keep pedaling all the way down. If I had attempted to freewheel I would have come to a complete stop or been blown off, which in this instance, was not welcome. My mind started to wander to what might be on television at that moment and whose stupid idea this cycle had been! If there was to be a next time, I had to be better prepared.

The summit of the Wicklow Gap. At last! 450m above sea level. Technically not a mountain but it sure felt like it that day! (H)

Something else which started to play on my mind as I was descending, was that the summit had only been the halfway point. It had taken me about 3 and a half hours to get there and all I wanted now was to get home. This was supposed to have been an enjoyable day. As I had never been this way before, I had no idea what climbs may lay ahead either. All I could do was press on in the hope I was closer to home than I thought. I wasn't!

The camera rarely came out after this point as it was taking me too long to get the gloves on and off and to get the camera in and out of my pocket. Besides, if I stopped for any length of time I started shivering uncontrollably, not because of the cold weather but because I was in such a bad state and I needed sustenance!

At a junction in Garryknock, I had a tough decision to make. Hollywood beckoned but I was too tired for all that glitz and glamour. I just wanted to get home.

Hollywood beckons. (I)

An abandoned school in Granabeg. Maybe this is what a hedge school is? (J)

Valleymount, I discovered, is where some of Braveheart was filmed according to a plaque that happened to catch my eye as I sped on! (K)

Time passed slowly and it was a lonely journey but eventually I made it back to civilisation. After 90km I was nearly home. I knew this road and the majority of the last 10km was all going to be downhill. Bliss! (L)

Tallaght had rarely looked so appealing! (M)

I arrived home at 18:45. It had been a seven hour round trip, six and a half of which were spent in the saddle. It felt like a lot more! What started out as a potentially fun and exciting day soon turned into a bit of a struggle and eventually, even the stunning views were not enough to make it enjoyable. I now realise that 100km was far too ambitious for the level of cycling ability I was at. I was maintaining good physical shape because of the commute but I should have increased the distance gradually rather than jump from a 14km to a 100km in one hit! That ride was a real learning curve for me and has dictated every ride I have undertaken since.

I discovered more about my body than I had done on any previous cycle. I learned a lot about distance cycling too. I realised the importance of planning a ride properly. Even to have just a rough idea of where you are going is more important than no idea at all. Every time I leave home now, I always make sure I am carrying more than just enough food and drink with me. I never again want to experience such physical and mental exhaustion in that way. The right clothing is important too. It doesn't have to be the most expensive but it has to do the job you want it to do. I also carry my wallet with me all the times now and make sure I have some cash with me and not just for food. Anything can happen when out on a cycle miles from home. If the bike breaks you have to be able to get home. I always carry a phone these days too, so I make sure it's fully charged before setting off.

Looking back, I guess I needed to experience what I did that day in order to understand just how my mind and body works. Since that ride I have regularly cycled routes of around 100km, a distance which is now often a minimum rather than a maximum. In April 2011, I cycled 218km in one day (my current record) and found I still had a lot left in the tank at the end of the day. One day I will try for 300km but that will have to wait until the daylight gets longer.

Happy cycling :)

Route map of my first 100km cycle.