Riding outside in the UK winter is…

…Looking at 5 different apps on your phone before finally grasping it will never actually be 20 degrees and dry in the UK in January

…Dressing to go to the artic then sweating like you have the flu before even putting your    shoes on

…On that note, cursing everything in the world whilst you navigate your latex overshoes    over your cycling shoes

…Wobbling like a toddler when your first head out after months of a stable indoor bike

…Needing a wee within five minutes despite going ten times before leaving the house

…On the flat noticing just how much power you’ve built this winter. Nice one rocket

…And then having your hopes dashed as you hit one of Suffolk’s slight bumps and Thursday’s legs day smarts the whole way up

…Enjoying the burn in your lungs from the fresh air and feeling the beat of your lower heart rate. Thanks Watt Bike

…Loving the sound and feel of the rubber tyres on the tarmac. The hum. Yes, the hum

…Doing an out and back route just to get the benefit of a tailwind on the way home

…Snot everywhere, everywhere, despite the best directed snot rockets

…Seeing a slither of blue in the sky and telling yourself Spring will be here tomorrow

…Being thrown sporadically into the middle of the road due to the wind and using deep    rims

…Enjoying swearing at drivers again. It would seem the British public haven’t developed     their driving awareness over the winter like you have your cycling prowess

…Forgetting about work for a bit, too busy avoiding being flung in the ditch

…Whacking up the volume on your bone conduction headphones and riding like you stole your own several grands worth of bike

…Going the long way home just to go down a good hill at 42mph. Cheap thrills, eh.

…Hoping you beat a few by being out today

…Enjoying a post ride bath a bit too much, knowing in a few week’s time that will be ice     cold and after a brick run

…Looking forward to a lunch of champions before remembering it’s measly chicken and    leaves. Again. The six pack thanks you

…Realising after a quick snooze that you’ve only been 45 miles, still time to do some work and writing

…Having a bright red face for hours after. Horrible wind burn. I’d prefer sun burn

…Being able to walk on a Monday

…Buying a new bike. The January sales are dragging on. Damn. Welcome home #7.

Here’s a little snippet of a memorable tune from my ride as I climbed the last hill home:

“Staring at my empty glass just trying to figure out what to do

And I needed you, to tell me what I already knew

I caught myself around the kind of thoughts I never knew I could have

Show me how to move on, show me what it’s like to be a (wo)man

Yeah, I needed you, to tell me what I already knew

Anyone can tow line, the choice is yours son to live a life, find a way to rise above

Your only here once now

What goes around comes around

Grit your teeth when they kick you down

Find you way, find your love, your only here once now, your only here once now”

Ben McKelvey – Only Here Once.

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On journeying with my turbo trainer: Part One

One Wednesday night in December turned out to be sadder than I expected. That day I lost a friend. Except this wasn’t a human friend, it was a machine, my Tacx I-Magic Turbo Trainer, the crème de la crème in its prime ten years ago and the first “virtual” turbo trainer that meant riders could train to videos (more on that in part two). On that night, “Doctor Bike” (my Dad) had just texted me and said the motor was finished. The worst bit. The lifeblood and the point of no return. As I sat there, with a tear trickling down my face (you all think I’m nuts anyway so admitting that won’t change things), it was a tear not primarily consisting of sweat for a change but one imbued with sad emotions, I was overcome with a flood of memories.

It’s not unusual for an athlete to have their favorite piece of equipment perhaps a bike, racket, a pair of boots or trainers, type of golf ball, and that’s usually the case either because of functionality or some seductive commercialized appeal. However, to be honest this wasn’t about either of those aspects. As it aged, my Dad and I did everything we could to prolong both the mechanism and the bike that I rode on it. It had new tyres, it had updated speed sensors, I invested in different software, it had new pedals, new cogs, new cables, I ditched the headset display etc. It was quite frankly well past its sell and use-by-date years ago and we spent so much money on it that I could have easily have had a shiny new one a few years previously. I say “we” because the bank of Mum and Dad was always open and welcoming.

So why was I upset about this knackered bit of kit going to heaven?

That emotion arose from the journeys physically and metaphorically that I had travelled in and with its life. My tears were filled with the utmost of nostalgic pride. The Tacx trainer was housed in “The Sweat Box” – literally a box room portioned off from the conservatory that permanently reeks and is generally pretty damp and cold, particularly after I have sweated in it. But these few square metres represent one of the closest marriages of my two worlds: being an academic and an athlete.

Some big, important and significant things in my life happened in and around that box. It was my saving grace more times than I remember but some notable ones include: the morning of my PhD viva, the day before an interview for my first academic post, the days before virtually every half or full Ironman I’ve done, travelling to the World Champs to represent Team GB, when I had just put my 15 year old cat to sleep and had one last ride “for Harry”, when I had my first (and second and third) tattoo and didn’t want to bend or train my arms too much, when I put it on the highest climb mode to prepare for the Tour of Wales, when I had my wisdom teeth out and was told not to exercise, when I would leave for an early morning flight and have a quick ride in the middle of the night, when I had more anxiety than was physically possible to contain, when I needed endorphins, when I couldn’t sleep, when I couldn’t write, when I needed to burn calories for a treat for tea and even a decade of Christmas mornings preparing for gluttony. That’s the short version of a very long list.

The message is clear though: it was and still is up there with being one of the most fruitful spaces where I can believe in myself and my two worlds.

Beyond that, it was the place and bit of kit I used to learn to become a cyclist and endurance athlete. I’m too modest but I can at least recognize that it was a huge factor in training to ride for Team GB at the World Champs (2017) and becoming an All-World-Ironman Athlete in 2016.

It might have seemed liked a wussing out option when I didn’t want to face the British weather, indeed, I hate riding in anything below 10 degrees, but the idea of it being an easier option couldn’t have been further from the truth. It just wasn’t cold. That was all. For all other intents and purposes, I trained like a machine and more precisely and harder than I could do outside. It had every level of intensity from recovery ride to endurance training and sprint efforts requiring a bucket. I even won a Virtual Tour where I rode about 15 hours on it in one week in 2015.

It only ever got a bit boring when I was there over 3 hours but even then I liked that it tested my resolve. It taught me how to learn to handle pain, be patient, it taught me discipline, it taught me how to train in power zones, it taught me precision and consistent pedaling, to stay still etc. As the years went on, I also took great pleasure in learning to deal with its “surprises”, namely the gears jumping up and down circa 3 at a time, or its sporadic flat tyre or less than smooth riding.

By being easily accessible at home it also supported me in my disciplinary pursuit of consistency. If I wanted to train, I could. There were no places to look for excuses. If it’s the middle of the night and I didn’t want to be in the dark, put the light on, if I needed fuel, walk ten steps to the kitchen, fifteen more for a wee, if I needed a dry shirt, climb thirty steps upstairs (of course not with your cycling shoes on) etc.

The consistency it afforded me I believe was also fundamental in my improvement. The best athlete isn’t the one who trains exceptionally but not regularly enough, the best athletes in my view are the ones who train regularly, well enough to improve their fitness but more importantly within themselves enough to maintain regularity of sessions. The results come from consistency and navigating life’s challenges 365 days a year. If there’s not enough time, 45-60 minutes on a turbo trainer will do the job. That isn’t just something for a more performance minded athlete, to my mind its resonance travels to the average recreational gym user.

Of course, in replacement I have a new Wattbike Atom now. Spoiler alert: in part 2 I will surely tell you how much I love that. But I really hope I don’t forget how far I’ve come with my Tacx I-magic.

Never worry about having a favourite. Favourites are winners whether they are functional or are your comfort blanket.

On riding for 24 hours: Discipline got us there!

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Two weekends ago I embarked on quite an adventure, even by my endurance athlete standards. A 24-hour solo bike ride around Brands Hatch race course. Before I head into the gory details, the short of it was that the result was 3rd female soloist, over 18 hours moving, 108 laps and circa 20,000 calories burnt. Mileage was 262. And let’s also get one thing straight: this was the hardest thing I have ever done. I went to places I didn’t even know existed. Full Ironmans are a walk in the park compared to this and the fact I still believe that two weeks later is a firm indicator its true.

I had already written in the days before about the enormous military mission that we were about to embark on and so when we arrived at the track, already feeling a little bedraggled, it’s easy to understand why for the first time in my life I had chills down my spine. I have never had that before in a race setting. Immediately I went to my default race philosophy, one also used by the cyclist Geraint Thomas: “Convince yourself that none of it matters, even when it matters more than anything you will ever know”.

I’d been training and looking forward to this since Janaury 2017 but at 2pm on the Saturday afternoon before the 3pm start I just could not get my head around the fact that this was the last hour before I would be getting on my bike for 24 hours. N.B. It was called something less polite than a bike after about 10 hours of riding.

So, here are the high/low lights:

At 4pm (the first hour!) it absolutely tipped it down. Wet and cold rider. First kit trashed and needed to be worn for 5 more hours.

After dry clothes at 6pm (I couldn’t wait any longer) I rode for about 3 hours which was pretty non-eventual really as there was too much further to go. In the zone.

9-10pm I could see our plan was working and I was starting to make progress up the field as others tired so I decided to keep pushing into the night.

11pm brought a big smile, as I left the paddock for my next one and a quarter hours stint my Dad put my freshly charged lights on my bike and said, “See you tomorrow”, as I wouldn’t be back until after midnight. That genuinely brought home what we were doing.

2am. Delirious. I remember going to the toilet, I didn’t need to, it was just something to do rather than ride my bike. The whole thing was all starting to feel a little odd. My eyes were blood shot and stinging, and I felt so spaced out I could barely manage to even open the door handle to the toilets, let alone hold a conversation.

Sometime during the early hours, my dad also joked that “We are going home today!” that made it feel temporarily better too.

3-4am past delirium, now into “The waking dead” shift. The coldest part of the night and pedalling without even knowing I was doing it. After the tenth jam sandwich I realised I never wanted another. I was also approaching the point of never wanting to ride my bike again. Ever.

4.58 am I couldn’t take anymore. Yes, I remember the exact minute! Because my body was spending all my calories keeping warm, I was just getting too tired and could have easily slept on my bike. It was getting really quite manic because of the fog, lack of visibility and slippery track. So I sat in the car with the intension of 20 minutes sleep. After just 5 minutes I got such bad cramp in my legs and was shivering so profusely that I called it a day. “Up you get, back on that thing”. Relentless.

8am – Breakfast! One’s sense of taste and appetite after so much food and sugar tends to go a bit crazy. So I had cold chicken noodles. Delicious and perfect to take us up until lunch.  The fog was at last lifting and so I could dispense of lights and my headlight. Good job.

At about 1.30pm my Mum had managed to work out that if I could do 10 more laps then I would secure 3rd place and that became my mission. Once done I had a brief sleep on a cold concrete floor at 2pm, before heading out for the final time at 2.20pm for 40 minutes of victory laps.

When the chequered flag came down at 3pm that was one very proud moment. In a flash all the bad bits had been forgotten and the gushing moments of pleasure from being an endurance athlete came flooding back. Pure elation and very surreal.

The recovery?

Well, that was all very fun. The legs were a bit sore but nothing in compared to my self-diagnosed “endurance-flu”. I often get it in events more than 12 hours and it goes along the lines of a sore throat, indigestion from so much sports energy stuff, dehydration, sick, headache, groggy, sleep deprived and generally feeling rotten. And Oh My God. Blood sugar crashes like never before. In the three days post riding, I ate the world. Given the calorie and sleep deficit, recovery necessitated a very managed approach with light riding but all is good now!

I won’t lie, I was disappointed with the mileage, a cyclist of my ability should be heading for at least 350 miles. Of course, there are a huge number of factors to take into account but I firmly believe in warmer and flatter conditions then I would get closer to that. I am minded to do another attempt early next summer but I can’t drag my parents through that again. The poor souls! I will be needing a hand. The job description includes (in no order of importance): stay awake for 24 hours, charge Garmin, feed and water rider, pain relief, provide and dry clothes, keep tabs on distance, sort out mechanicals, monitor and charge lights, be visible to me when riding and do the transport stuff. Contact me if interested!

Ultimately, regardless of my moaning about the mileage, this was a pretty big achievement. If there’s one thing that got us to the end, and on the podium, it was good ole fashioned discipline and consistency. I rode for 75 minutes with 5-10 minute breaks for 24 hours. Although the “breaks” were hardly rests, I don’t remember sitting down with a cup of tea chilling during any of those. I was busy shoving a little food in, changing clothes at 6 hours, keeping tabs on battery in lights and garmin, and massaging my feet. However bad I was feeling, we rarely changed anything unless absolutely essential to the performance. No big sprints or efforts, just plod all day long, literally.

I should have done this first but I owe a massive thanks to all of those who dragged me through the night in what turned out to be one of the hardest things I’ve done. You will never know how much those words and support helped me. An equal giant thanks to my parents. If my job was hard, then I feel damn sure they had it harder. I was kept awake fuelled by an inordinate amount of sugar and adrenaline and a bit between my teeth to just get the job done. They just had to drag themselves through the night working their hardest for a cyclist.

That’s almost certainly me done racing until next February/March, I’ll be back soon with something other than race reports and promise to keep developing and updating my page during the darkest months.