Letting the hill fitness gel

Map reference: Ripley, Peaslake, Dorking, Woking, scooping some hills on the way. 87k, 1,300m climbing

Carbs and caffeine: The Dorking Deli, 37 West St, Dorking, RH4 1BU http://www.thedorkingdeli.co.uk/, a real treat

It’s three weeks to go now until the Etape Du Tour and I know I can’t really add any fitness. The Dragon Ride has put me in confident mode; that was why I put myself through it after all. But I don’t feel confident about running about with some of my speedy Bike Beans pals, so Keith kindly said he would lead me about the countryside ticking off hills at a less panicky pace. I don’t need to incur an injury trying to pick up Strava bling right now. That said we did pick up a bit of bling and that was pleasing too.

Keith’s plan was for nine hills, and he had a neat list of them as we pre-caffeined our ride at The Nest, Ripley (see my Carbs and Caffeine page for details). The odd number troubled him, but I’m not such a neatnik about these things. As it was, we lost count as we diverted to avoid some traffic works. All I can say is we were certainly going up a lot of the time.

There is a limit to the height of any of these Surrey hills, but the gradient can vary quite a lot, and some climbs introduce cruel twists at the end, just when you think you are finished. Some of the hills were familiar from my 10-hills ride, and in some cases I was going down my normal ups and up my normal downs. Thank you for trying to follow that. It’s been a long week.

After lunch at the Dorking Deli – chicken and homemade pesto baguette for me, marmalade and toast for Keith – I was surprised that my legs didn’t feel nearly as stiff as I would have expected. Is this a sign that I am getting fitter, I wonder? But about an hour into the post-lunch section, I did begin to feel the familiar numbness creaping into my right side. It’s annoying, but I can work with it until after the Etape. There’s no point trying to fiddle too much at this stage.

The one thing I am contemplating fiddling with, is seeing if I can get used to necking gels instead of my beloved fruit cake while on the road. It goes against the grain for someone who likes food, but on the other hand it also makes no sense to add such weight to my pockets. We were riding for 3 hours and 40 minutes – and on the road a bit longer – and I had two gels and four jelly babies to sustain me. It’s not much of a test. I’m guessing, if the fabled gastric issues were to set in, it would be more at the six-hour mark. But I think I will gently ease myself in that direction. Keith is a fan of the Torq brand http://www.torqfitness.co.uk/, so I shall start there. He’s my voice of reason du jour. See how I’m practising my French already for the big day…

Note to Keith: last trip round the Surrey hills before my trip… thank you, it was the confidence booster I needed

Hill reps by the book

Map reference: Hill reps, Staple Lane and Combe Lane Bottom. 51k, 1,269m climbing. Carbs and caffeine: gel and cake

I have had a few excursions since the Dragon Ride, but nothing very notable apart from a slightly irritating 10-hills ride with Jen on Tuesday. We spent half an hour trying to help a youth fix his broken chain (and failing) and then Jen had two major chain malfunctions and we had to limp home from Barhatch. We still covered 115k and 1,363m climbing, so not a waste of time. But irritating, none the less.

Today was definitely an on-the-bike day, but even as I got up, I was unsure what to do with myself. I had to pass through Ashtead, so I popped in for a caffeine fix at Bike Beans Cafe. From there, a large group was riding out and it looked fun. However, with the Etape five weeks away, hill reps were on my mind. It took self-discipline, but I was helped by the fact that second son was playing cricket near West Horsley.

I drove to the pitches and showed face for a few minutes, applying suncream to his freckly face and generally being a nuisance. I then pedalled off up Shere Road, a nice hill – narrow and twisty – although crumbling at the edges. From there I made my way to the junction of Combe Lane and Staple Road, a very familiar spot to me.

Starting with Combe Lane Bottom, I headed towards Shere and then at the main road turned and started back up. At the top I carried on down Staple Lane, past a young woman reading a book in a chair in the car park at the top. I repeated this five times, which sounds dire but actually I quite enjoyed the rhythm. It was a bit like swimming lengths.

After the first time, I did Staple Lane in the big cog to make it a different kind of climb. The reader began to notice that I was repeatedly passing her after about the third round. On the final pass I told her it was last time and she laughed, probably with relief. She had chosen a quiet spot and probably didn’t need me haring past her ten times, my top layer flapping in the wind as I tried to stay cool.

There is nothing interesting to say about this ride, other than I was surprised how much I enjoyed it; brain off, just trying to keep track of my circuits. And I was pleased not to feel too tired. The last Staple Lane was hard in the big cog, but not impossible. I could have gone on if necessary. Husband has extrapolated this out to a fine time for the Etape. Hopefully I have swept away fears of the broom wagon for now.

Note to self: You need to buy a summer base layer… who would have thought a string vest would be on your wish list?

The roar of the Dragon

Map reference: The Dragon Ride, Gran Fondo, 229k, 3,600m elevation

Carbs and caffeine: ‘Human Race’ fodder of salted potatoes, jaffa cakes and jelly babies, plus a few bits of cake from my back pocket

As with our dry run two weeks ago, I’m not sure how I can describe a 10-hour ride and make it interesting. As I think about it now, there are a series of snapshots in my head, interspersed with hours of just plain pedalling, watching the kilometres tick by on my Garmin, sometimes fast and sometimes, going up hill, at an achingly slow pace.

The thing that was very different from my experience of the Medio last year, was it was a very lonely ride. The Medio was a big challenge to me at the time – and at 153k with plenty of climbing, still nothing to sniff at – but there are more riders and much more chatting. This time I struggled to find anyone to talk to, or more importantly anyone to draft.

As any cyclists will know, drafting (riding close to a rider in front) can save you 20 per cent of your energy. Get it right and you can feel like you are freewheeling, especially at pace. Usually the deal is you draft for a bit and then take your turn at the front. If you are lucky enough to be part of a larger group, a peloton, you can achieve amazing speeds this way. I don’t know whether it was because I was in the first group to start, or whether the crowd is just thinner for the full distance, but this time I found very few suitable candidates to attach myself too.

There was a triathlon group at the beginning, but they were going too slowly, so after a brief chat I moved on. And there were a couple of blokes in black who were happy to have me hanging on for a bit, but dropped me on a big hill. And so it went on until the first stop after two and a half hours. After that the pack thinned out still further and I mostly rode alone, sometimes not even in sight of another cyclist. I upped my search for a companion as I rode along the uplands after Penderyn, where even on a low-wind day, there is a gale in your face. I spoke to a young guy who was cycling alone and who had an odd pedal stroke. I had hoped I could tag along with him, but he was clearly struggling with an injured knee, taped up with lines of elastoplast. He had forgotten his painkillers. Luckily, I had overpacked my own stash and was able to hand him a strip of 8 Ibruprofen. He was very grateful, and being able to help gave me a lift too, but I had to move on.

The only other successful drafting came on the A4067 as we headed back up to the A40. I had a bit of a surge and could sense someone hanging on behind. For several kilometres I was shadowed until I began to slow, and then a lovely chap came round me, thanked me for my tow and offered me his back wheel for the A40. We chatted enough for me to point out my father’s house as we were passing (we both waved) and we kept together to the next feed stop, after Trecastle. And that was the extent of my human interaction. I did try to draft one woman, but she became strangely irate. As we moved together round a man, she asked me what I was doing. I said I was hanging onto her back wheel because I was flagging. She sort of tutted and carried on for a while and then suddenly sat up and stopped pedalling. I had no choice but to pass her, but it was very odd behaviour. The underside of her flapping race number revealed that she was riding alone, and frankly with that kind of behaviour it was hardly surprising.

Amid the hours of grind there were some memorable little scenes of the gorgeous Welsh countryside, unbelievably bathed in sunshine the whole way round.

There were occasional clusters of families cheering us on, or the odd person just stopping whatever they were doing to wave. It all helps, it really does. The food stops were amazing. I spent 40 minutes at three stops, which was too long. I was flapping. Undecided whether I needed to pee or not; whether I wanted food or just water. Last year I was much more efficient, probably because I was having more fun.

The most picturesque scene was a bride heading to church on a horse, holding a yellow parasol above her head. She looked lovely, I ducked under the camera as I went by. I hope I didn’t ruin her pictures.

Unnervingly, I also passed an ambulance team nursing a motorbiker on the road, holding his neck and talking to him. There was bicycle on the road too. I felt very unsettled for a while after that. The roads are so twisty-turny in places and it’s a temptation to all road users to push the limits. I found myself shuffling uncomfortably on the bike as I hoped that the crash scene looked worse than it was.

I had a pretty clear map in my head of the route. We did the Devil’s Elbow between stops two and three, so fairly early on. I knew it was the steepest climb, but I also knew I could do it. It hurt, but I got up. It felt good, knowing that the worst ‘half’ was over. The Hill With No Name, very familiar to me, felt harder than normal as it came late in the ride.

At the third stop, I repacked my food to make it more accessible, as I knew I would likely skip the fourth stop. I dumped a couple of rice cakes I didn’t need. This fiddling ate into my time and I had to skip the last food stop anyway if I was to make it under my 10-hour mark. The last 30k were a beast. I knew it would be but, with the minutes ticking by, I had to really push. Riding alone, I touched 40k/hour on ‘flat’ terrain (obviously nothing is ever totally flat). And there’s a long last hill 20k from home. I knew it was coming, but it really is a horror, coming so late in the day and winding through a built-up area of Neath. Riders puffed and cursed their way up, and finally I found I had a little more pace than many. It’s a terrible thing in human nature that I gained strength by seeing that others were finding it harder than me. Time was now ticking far too fast. I shot along the last 10k, flat sections of motorway mostly, hardly daring to hope that I would make it in time. My efforts paid off, but I had less than three minutes to spare. The timings show I was 17th woman in, and fifth in my age group… although I have my doubts about someone ahead of me called Mike.

The last photographer at the gates of Margam park will have a priceless picture of me as I roared at a car that was blocking my way into the gates. I swerved around it and with a final dizzying surge of adrenaline shot through the line at a, frankly, silly pace for the crowded area. Sorry everyone. It mattered to me more than anything at the time.

Note to Jen: You’re coming with me next year. I need company

More on drafting etiquette here http://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2011/aug/25/cycling-commuter-drafting-etiquette