Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Crash!!

I'm not sure what's going on, but there seem to be alot of crashes happening in the road races these days.
It's a given that road racing carries an inherent risk of crashing . In fact there are certain races like the 4th cat races at Hillingdon or Goodwood where no crash occurring is quite newsworthy!
What is of great concern is the number of crashes that have been happening at places which had been hitherto considered as relatively "crash-free" zones.

Tuesday nights people could choose between Hillingdon or Crystal Palace. Apparently Crystal Palace was favoured by the experienced racers because the technical nature of the course meant there were hardly any crashes, since the standard of bunch riding and cornering was very good. This year that hasn't been the case though. Practically every week the first aid man and marshalls have been kept busy picking people off the ground after crashes. A couple of weeks ago there were so many "offs". I stopped counting after the fourth one! Generally, people end up with a bad case of road rash and a slightly dented bike.
But this year we've seen a few broken bones - and we've still got half the series to go. For the first time ever we had a nasty crash in the women's race too. Sadly the casualty ended up with a triple fractured collar bone.

Even the women's national championships last week were halted for an hour after a pile-up involving 12 riders. Yes, a few of the local girls have had prolonged absences from racing due to significant injuries from bike racing. That's been the downside to the growth in local women's cycling this year.

Furthermore, crashes have not been just confined to road racing. A couple of pile-ups at the track league in Herne Hill Velodrome this season have resulted in riders being left with nasty injuries and no functioning bike. This business is getting very risky and for some, quite costly. Accidents don't just lead to expensive bicycle repair bills, but in some cases, lost earnings from sick notes.

It looks like the growing popularity of cycling racing is resulting in all and sundry taking part. Some folks don't having the required bike handling skills but think they are Lance Armstrong anyway!
Maybe British Cycling also has a part to play in setting up bicycle training programmes - not just training cyclists to commute on the roads safely, but also for those who want to bunch race safely. The drive to get everyone racing is an accident waiting to happen - hell, the accidents are already happening! So how many more accidents are there to be before more is done to upskill would-be road racers? This is definitely an aspect of cycling that needs reviewing.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Final Part

SPOILING THE FLOW

Pressing on through the countryside we passed through a series of more straight forward sections of cobbles. Fortunately, they were not too wet so there was no inherent hazard of riding the stretches - or at least no more than I'd hitherto experienced. What was becoming more evident though was the pain from riding cobbles. My arms weren't aching so much, as I had definitely found that taking the cobbles at speed was the way to experience the least amount of juddering - that technique had paid off. Also having gel bartape and foam on my handlebars certainly helped.

However, I was finding that because of the number of riders on the stretches and strangely enough, a number of naughty drivers who had chosen to take their support cars onto these roads, there was more congestion and I was unable to ride the cobbles as quickly as I wanted. I had to take things down a gear as I found myself at the back of a group of guys who in turn were caught up behind a car or van. Of course this low speed meant I was shaken around alot more, and I also found it more tricky controlling the bike. A few cyclists vented their frustrations on the drivers and a few angry words were exchanged. Nothing like a cyclist/motorist altercation to remind me of home!


PAIN IN THE PEVELES

As we did more an more cobbled sections my fingers hurt as they were getting the brunt of the shaking, given that they were only loosely hanging on my handlebars. Then, as if that irritation wasn't enough we got caught in another shower. The guys in my group soldiered on in the rain, whereas I stopped under a tree to put on my jacket, while hoping that the rain would stop shortly. It was also a pretext to give my fingers and my bones a bit of respite. Luckily the rain didn't last long, and the sun came out again.

Sadly, the sun was not able to dry off the ground in time for us reaching what I felt to be the worst section of the day - Mons-en-Pevele. This section was not quite as brutal as the Arenberg section, but it was challenging enough on my nerves. The cobbles were again higgledy piggledy with holes at irregular intervals. Of course the holes were full of water so it was anyone's guess how the bike would land when you went over them. The road also irregularly changed camber so there was the added risk of the bike sliding around in the damp conditions. In the dry, riders could have ridden on the dirt track verge. However, because this was riddled with holes it became risky using these so we had no choice but to brave this section that was like a mini obstacle course.

Added to the mix was how to negotiate round slower riders, or stay out of the way of a falling rider - of which there were a few. I attempted to overtake one man, and failed dismally when, to my misfortune, and to others' amusement I careered out of control towards the ditch. Although I'd managed to spare myself from a crash, that was an embarrassing lesson in how not to overtake people. So I spent the remainder of the ride, learning to sit behind people patiently while being bounced to smithereens!

The 3km stretch of Mons-en-Pevele, at this stage of the ride was too long for me to take on in one hit. So half way along the road I dismounted to gain my composure and destress before continuing the rest of the section. Were the guys suffering as much as me, or were they just grinning and bearing it? It felt like I was the only person in pain. Some of the Dutch guys riding this section rode side by side and chatted as though they were on a leisurely afternoon club run! Were they actually human??


LAZY BONES!

Finally, to enormous relief I came out of the other end unscathed! At the Pont Thibaut cobbles I took time out to take a few pictures. An old man who lived at the side of the road came out to watch the riders.

"Oh yes, of course Paris Roubaix." It seemed like he didn't realise it was on. "I rode this about 30 years ago. It was a great ride. Back then, we didn't have the crowds that you have now. The organisers were crying out for entrants. I thought I'd have a go, and it took me 7hours. I was a rare breed from the region because many of my cycling buddies didn't want to do it. They thought I was mad! I bet people think you must be mad doing it. You don't get many women riding this you know!" I guess he made that last statement because he was thinking I'd been so focused, on my drop handlebars, in racing mode that I hadn't noticed the other folks around me! If only he knew about my 2 hours of stoppage time and my extended tea breaks!

As I was taking pics he looked at me anxiously. "Are you sure you should be doing that? The cut off must be in about an hour's time."
"No, they close the finish line checkpoint at around 8.30pm" I replied.
"Gosh, they're very generous nowadays aren't they? In my day we had almost 300km to do and we had to be finished by 5pm. And we hardly had any feed stations. You guys are spoiled. Well, good luck to you young lady!"
Onwards I continued, thinking what a lazy bones I'd been stopping and taking photos and not taking the Paris-Roubaix seriously!


THAT COMING HOME FEELING!

The next significant section was the Carrefour de L'Arbre, which was in fact three sections of cobbles in rapid succession, that made up almost 5km of bumps. The last section was very straight and all the crowds could be seen in the distance during the last kilometre. This was the time to look like you were enjoying it, you were fresh and energetic, and in control of your bike. Not! I was all over the shop, tired and bedraggled. And d'you know what, I was past caring. I was on the edge of my limits, and just focused on holding everything together at the lowest common denominator. Appearances were the last thing on my mind!

Thankfully, for the last set of cobbles in Hem, and the run back in to Roubaix there was a group of guys that I tagged onto. It was just a case of hanging onto their wheel road race style all the way back into Roubaix. Once at the entrance into the Velodrome there were lots of folks cheering us on. It felt quite emotionally finally realising I'd made it through the 173km that I started at 7 o'clock that morning. I felt like Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd all at the same time! It was a great feeling. Even one of the officials from Velo Club de Roubaix who I'd met from the previous day recognised me and came up to congratulate me at the finish. What an honour! What a day!

I'm not really one for souvenirs, but I made a point of picking up my commemorative Paris Roubaix stone, which now sits proudly on the shelf at home. I was just so glad to have survived the cobbles, and in proper "classics" conditions. At the end of the ride me and my bike were a muddy mess. I was glad my hotel was only a few minutes away. Will I come back and do the full 255km? Probably, but give me 2 years to prepare first!

Monday, 21 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Part 3

MERRILY ON OUR WAY

From the first check point I made may way along with Jo. Although there were many riders doing this event – around 3000, there were very few women taking part. So the ones we saw, regardless of nationality, instinctively acknowledged each other with a "hi" or a "bonjour". We saw a woman with a group of guys. I’m not sure which club they were from but they were French and looked very stylish in their orange kit. One of the guys kept photographing us, which made me feel like putting on my most stylish pose as I went over the cobbles – not an easy thing to do! The woman in that group had a very lean physique, and looked very fit in her hot-pants and matching jersey. She just glided over the cobbles like it was her regular club run. I couldn’t understand how she was going to embark on a 100-mile bike ride over cobbles when heavy showers were forecast. Surely she’d catch her death! I guess one of the guys in the group was her domestique - lucky thing!

At one point Jo and I caught up with John, Stevie and Mark from Ashwell CC. We rode together, and it felt good to ride with Roubaix savvy folks who had done the event enough times to know the route off by heart.


WATERSHED MOMENT!

Sadly, that happy comfortable feeling soon disappeared when the sky turned black and the rain began to fall. At first I thought it would just be a brief shower, but it didn’t show any signs of going away. Damn, it looked like this would be our lot for the rest of the day! Fortunately we didn’t have any stretches of pavé to negotiate during this time and we soon arrived at the second check point at Arenberg.

As we rolled into the checkpoint at Wallers-Arenberg organisers were hurriedly moving all the refreshment tables from the courtyard into the sports hall. Considering how much food was out there and how many tables and chairs had to be moved they did this pretty efficiently.

I used the opportunity to find the first aid people. When riding over cobbles your aim is just to get to the other end of the stretch any which way, hopefully without falling. You don’t think about anything else. You simply focus on pressing ahead regardless of all the rattling and shaking. You are unaware of any friction on your body, especially in places where you wouldn’t expect it, until later on.

It was after the first six or seven stretches of pavé that I noticed my little finger on both hands were bleeding. What had happened?
When going over the cobbles I was keen not to grip the handlebars too much. I just held the tops of the handlebars lightly. The consequence was that my fingers were shaking all over the place, and my little fingers were knocking against the side of the brake hoods. They’d been knocking and rubbing so much that the friction had begun to take the skin off and they were red raw! It was when I stopped at the Arenberg check-point that I began to feel the pain from them. The first aid group were happy enough to give me plasters for both fingers, though I had doubts about how long they would last, especially given the wet weather.

By the time I’d eaten abit, had my card stamped and received first aid I had cooled right down and I felt too cold to re-start. Not knowing what else to do, I went to the loos. It wasn’t that I needed them, it was just something to do! Those loos were the best thing for me at that time. They were in a new building and the lack of women in the event meant that they were hardly used, so clean. Most importantly, the room was really warm - exactly what I needed! This was definitely the place to be! So there I stayed – not for really long, but about 20 minutes – enough time to warm up.


ARAINBERG!

Afterwards I faffed around at the check-point looking for pretexts to not go out. Why would I want to go out in that pouring rain?? I wanted to enjoy my experience of Paris-Roubaix. If I could avoid a miserable ride over the cobbles I would do so. The check-points were fairly hospitable places with areas to sit, and there were lots of people around to talk to.
As I sat eating I saw various people arriving, all look pretty bedraggled and sodden. No one complained about the conditions - it was just dubbed as Paris-Roubaix weather! People did talk about how treacherous the cobbles had been and how folks were slipping, sliding and falling all over the place. Did I really want to put myself through that? This isn't a timed event so I could take my time riding the course. As long as I left the check-point some time within the next 3 hours I would be within the cut-off!

The folks manning the refreshment tables were pretty chatty. They commented on how they don't often experience bad weather at this event. People still arrive at the check-points in a bit of a state – but they’re just covered in dust and coughing. On a day like this some people were happy to be getting wet rather than breathing in loads of dust!


INTO THE FOREST

After two hours of torrential rain and a mega long tea break (!) I and a number of other riders were back on the road. By now the rain had stopped, the sky was turning blue again and the sun had even come out.
About 100m after the feed-station I reached a level crossing where there were crowds of people and many riders came to a stop. This was the (in)famous section of pavé in the Arenberg forest. Lots of people stopped for photo opportunities with friends and club mates.

The cobbles here are really something else, compared with the other stretches. They are all of completely irregular sizes - some big, some small, some round, some square.....they are not paved in any regular fashion either. The stones point in all different directions and in some parts are very compacted together, then suddenly there are big gaps between them. It's a real botch job of paving! Riding over them was the ultimate bone shaker ride. I could hear my bones rattling as my body vibrated along! Thankfully, I only rode the perfunctionary 100m or so as far as the photographer and then bailed out onto the wide dirt track that ran alongside the paved stretch. I was happy to use this "cop-out" stretch, and so were most people!

Notwisthstanding the difficulty of these cobbles, I'd say that this was the prettiest section of the whole route. I imagine there'll be tons of people there again in a couple of weeks when the Tour de France passes through this stretch.


LIGHT RELIEF

Once over the Tranchée d'Arenberg I felt relieved to have "done" the most challenging section of the ride - or at least as far as I was aware! It was good to bump into more folks I knew, like the guys from GS Invicta, who were out in force. A few of them are accomplished cyclocross riders so they could adeptly overtake riders on some of the later stretches of cobbles that had become a little congested as well as wet and slippery.

Knowing that I was roughly at the half way mark of the ride was a feelgood milestone and I began to feel confident that I'd be able to get through this, even though I still had around 17 sections of pavé still to do! I felt fine, and my arms weren't aching so I was ready to give this my best shot. By this point there were lots of groups of riders so it was easy to jump in with them and get a tow and save energy for the serious business of conquering the stones!

Monday, 14 June 2010

World Naked Bike Ride

Once again I missed out on the chance to ride my bike nude through the streets of London.

Instead of getting into the spirit of the World Cup in a Crystal Palace pub, I could have been joining the free spirits for World Naked Bike Ride day on Westminster Bridge!

Maybe next year I'll be organised enough to join in with this carry-on. It's not as if I'll need to find myself something where! I'll just make sure I use a very comfortable saddle!

Here's what I missed:









Sunday, 13 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Part 2


Race day, when it arrived was quite a straight forward matter, to the point that I wondered what all the fuss had been about! After we boarded the bus at around 3.30am and our bikes were carefully placed in the trailer we made our way to Bohain-en-Vermandois.

The race HQ was a sports hall in a back street of an unassuming small town. Strangely enough there was no fanfare at all - no banner about the event in the street, no P.A announcements, no music. Just a few volunteers doing the sign-on and handing us route cards, with others serving the teas. It was more like a village scout hut - albeit a rather large one. I had to be shown where the ride actually started. There were no signs!

Jo and I started the ride to minimal ceremony, apart from a couple of photos with a friend of hers. Once on the road, it was a case of just following the painted yellow signs on the ground. In general they were easy to follow, although in some cases the paint had faded and on a couple of occasions we missed the turning. Thankfully other riders around shouted to us if we were going the wrong way.The sight of paintings of people's names on the road showed that we weren't too far off course. It was great to ride the same roads that had been graced by the likes of Thor Hushovd, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara etc. OK so, our exploits were not being televised and there were only a handful of folks cheering us on in the streets, but I still got a sense of doing something historic.

Within 10 miles we were on the first cobbled section at Troisvilles. I immediately concentrated myself on the experience ahead, and reminded myself of what everyone had said. Attack the cobbles in the big ring and ride as hard and as fast as you can. Stay on the apex of the road rather than on the side. Hold the tops of the handlebars lightly. That seemed to work, and my first experience of Roubaix cobbles didn't seem so bad. There were a couple of dicey moments I had to deal with. Firstly, as the bike jolted around all along the cobbles I heard a sharp noise on the bike as something appeared to have hit the frame and dropped on the ground. I shrieked, thinking it was my mobile phone that had dropped out of my pocket! In fact it was the lamp cover on my rear bike light that had fallen off. I wasn't going to bother picking that up, so I just continued.

Suddenly the road went downhill and I had to come to a dead stop to cross a main road before continuing to the next cobbled stretch. Having to brake suddenly led to alot of jarring in my head and neck. There was also a sharp right hand turn that I almost missed and had to swerve round very quickly. I didn't have full control of the bike at that point and almost rode into the ditch! Luckily there weren't many people around. But I survived all of this, and felt that as I hadn't come a cropper over this first 2km stretch I could immediately declare that a success!

The next few stretches were quite similar, except that there was one section at Quievy that was almost 4km long. The terrain was not nominally challenging. It was just gently rolling, but when you have to do that over bumpy roads littered with large erratic stones thrown together with a bit of cement, it aint that easy. I found that I was quite out of breath when riding over these sections. It was partly due to the physically demanding situation, and also a certain nervousness that I hadn't quite overcome. I did my best to stay relaxed by letting my jaw hang open so as to keep my faced relaxed, and also to keep my wrists limp.

Riding over the cobbles definitely jiggles you about. It's not just a jostling bike that you have to deal with, but anything and everything that's slightly loose on your body. I could feel all those loose bits of flab on my dinner lady arms, and my flaccid calf muscles. I was just glad that I had no loose teeth and was wearing a firm bra! It still didn't stop my internal organs shaking. There was something in my chest that was suffering a bit at first, and I was worried I might end up with internal bruising!

In spite of all these thoughts I pressed on and was still intent on enjoying myself, and admiring the views over northern France in the early morning sunshine.

Very soon we were at the first check point/feed station at Solesmes. There wasn't the bun-fight that you sometimes get at popular cyclosportives, so it was very easy to access to the copious amounts of sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, fruits and other refreshments. As we were in the playground of a sports centre there was lots of space to hang around and chat to other people as they arrived. I bumped into John from London Cyclesport at this station, who was in good spirits and really enjoying himself on his bling bike with the electric gears. I didn't have electric gears but I was quite happy with the wheels he'd lent me for the ride. They were bearing up very well!

During that time I began to realise just how many people from Britain were at the event. I saw jerseys from London Phoenix, Kingston Wheelers, Manchester Wheelers and various other cycling clubs. This event is definitely popular with Brits. Given the various languages I heard - German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish it was also popular with people from other countries too!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Surviving the Cobbles - Part 1


I'm just back from another fun-packed weekend in northern France - the Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix to be precise. It certainly was north, but even with the rainy muddy conditions that we experienced I find it hard to say that it really was hell. It was a celebration of cycling.

When we first arrived in northern France I'd been feeling a little apprehensive - from the staff at Lille train station to the local chemist, there was a hint of fear for us in their voices as they bid us "Bon Courage" - whatever do these two young ladies think they've let themselves in for on the pavés that even we, as cyclists won't ride??

A trip down to the legendary velodrome in Roubaix made me feel more reassured. My friend Jo and I had decided to ride to the stadium on Saturday afternoon to recce the route to get there later at 3am when catching the bus to the startline.

Coincidentally we arrived there when the organising team from Velo Club Roubaix were doing their event briefing and getting ready to travel to the different start towns for each of the routes.

We spoke to a few of the club members, who were very excited about the whole event. For them it was the culmination of a year's preparation, and they were really looking forward to the coming 24 hours. Mind you, they weren't going to be riding the cobbles!

Marc, one of the guys was really impressed at the size of the British contingent. They'd had 350 pre-entries from the UK, which was a record number. They'd also had 2300 pre-entries in total and were anticipating a final number of around 3000, including on-the-day entries. Seven coaches had been laid on to take riders to the different start towns, and tens of thousands of sandwiches, cakes, biscuits, fruits etc were prepared for the four feed stations.

Another guy gave us tips on how to ride the cobbles, what pressures we should put in our tyres, how to pace ourselves and an idea of the weather forecast.

These guys were not just jobbing event organisers. They were people who were really passionate about cycling, and all the history behind it. Their club house has photos of all the previous winners of the Paris-Roubaix professionals race, though some of them were abit dubious about this year's winner and his bicycle tactics!

Apparently plans are afoot to build an indoor velodrome in the same sports complex, adjacent to the current outdoor velodrome, along with a hotel. This will be ready for 2012 when it is intended for use as a training base for London 2012 Olympic athletes from various countries.

It was good to hear some of the stories behind this legendary event.