Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Back on the bike

 knee pain and swelling

Two weeks ago I did my knee in. My left one this time. I'm almost to embarrassed to say how. Oh sod it, I'll tell you. I sat on the lav too long and somehow got my left leg twisted underneath me, so when I got up I felt this 'pull' just above the kneecap. I thought at the time: "that's going to be a problem" and it was. A big problem. Over the next few days, that patch of muscle and ligament ballooned up and became super stiff and painful.

The diagnosis was swift. I had succumbed to Old Man's Knee once again.

There's not much you can do about OMK (other than invent a time machine) so you just have to wait for the thing to go away. The last time I took my other knee to the physio (the excellent Terry Newsome in Hemel Hempstead) he poked, prodded, pulled and shook it before saying rather sardonically, "it's old isn't it? Take it home and wait for it to get better. No charge."

Thanks Terry.

So this time I knew what to do. Nothing. Took some ibuprofen and waited.

Annoyingly, I have been really enjoying getting out on the bike so a two week enforced layoff was a bust. My fitness had been improving and there was even some weight loss to get excited about. I really didn't need a dose of OMK right now.

Yesterday, was my first time back on the bike since and I hit my standard '21' route, which is reasonably flat, as a tester. Everything felt OK so I'm good to go again. Fingers crossed, because now that I'm working from home I really intend to ride through the winter and give myself a good fitness base for the beginning of the 2013 season.

Here's that 21 route if you're interested.


Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ready to retro & roll

Oil lamps marking the track flicker in the half-light before dawn. The gravel road winds up through the trees with barely a letup. My legs pump away at the pedals as my lungs struggle to keep up. Finally, the sky lightens and the brooding bulk of Castelo di Brolio hoves into view. I’m up.

To say Tuscany is beautiful is like saying Monica Bellucci is ‘ a bit of a sort’. From the terrace of a classic hilltop villa, or even the safety of a car, Tuscany’s rolling hills are a scene of wonder. Even in early October every turn of the road brings another spectacular view.

On a bike it is a different matter of course. Those hills can be tough and although long grinding climbs can be rewarded by thrillingly sinuous descents, there is always the knowledge that what goes down, must always go up too.

It was Chris who first switched me on to l'Eroica.

After one of his regular one-handed Internet searches he said he'd found a mythical bike race in Chianti, Italy over the old, gravel roads of the region using only 'retro' road bikes. I was sold. The cost of only 40 Euros to enter was too good to pass up, so we registered and worried about how to get there and where to stay later.

L'Eroica (The Hero) was dreamt up as a conservation project. It seems the rough, gravelly white roads of Chianti - the Strade Bianche - were gradually being tarmaced over. This was a bad thing. The people of Chianti like their traditions and to prove that the roads were perfectly adequate as they were, decided to hold an annual ride featuring pre-1987 road bikes: More specifically, bikes that have their gear shifters on the downtube. In its first year, l'Eroica attracted around 200 riders. This year 4,500 enthusiasts crammed the tiny streets of Gaoile - testament to the power of a great idea and an awful lot of Italian passion.

L’Eroica is now much more than a retro bike ride. It’s a pilgrimage for men of a certain age (and waistlines) looking to recapture a time when things were much simpler. The idea of pitting old road bikes with their skinny tyres and inappropriate gearing against the perils of the bianche is ridiculous but it’s precisely the combination of nostalgia, passion and challenge that attracts riders from all over the world.

And Tuscany is a perfect place to be in early autumn. Last year the temperature touched 40 degrees but this time it’s a balmy 24. Chianti glows in the sunshine and the grape harvest is in full swing. Vineyards stretch away in every direction. There’s nothing better than leaving a cold, damp England for a pavement caffĂ© in a charming Tuscan town and waving the world by with a glass of fine Brunello.

Back in Gaoile, the days before race-day are a riot of retro bike culture. The tented marketplace that has sprung up around the event plays host to a growing number of vintage bike merchants.  From original woolen jerseys to the elusive component that will complete a bike project, it’s all here. And all around are the bikes: vintage Colnago, Gios, Casati and Bianchi litter the streets – the cycling equivalent of Ferarri, Maserati, Lambo and Lancia, gleaming in the sunshine. Riders parade their machines up and down Gaoile’s narrow streets; many take care over their own appearance too. Aside from the obligatory retro jerseys, tweed, plus fours, flat caps and moustaches abound.

It’s mainly men of course, but women are making inroads too. Elsewhere, the staccato singsong of Italian is being supplemented by glottal German, American twang and rounded English vowels as l’Eroica welcomes growing numbers of foreign entrants.

What everyone is here for is the ride of their life and there are four routes to choose from: 38km, 76km, 135km and 205km. The latter two are now permanent routes and are way signed so you can do them anytime you like. Most first-timers opt for the 76km version, which sounds like a ride in the park for most club riders, until you factor in the heat and the hills of Tuscany and of course the perils of the bianche.

But first, the rules: l’Eroica’s organisers are uncompromising on what constitutes ‘heroic’ bikes. Aside from the need for all frames to be pre-1987 and equipped with old-school shifters, only open pedals and toe straps are allowed, while brake cables must be visible.

The previous year we had pulled our 'retro' bikes from a variety of sheds, garages and other cobwebbed places in preparation for 76km of l’Eroica. This year we are back to tackle the much tougher 135km and have vowed to be better prepared.

As it was everything once again came down to the wire as our bikes lurched through the preparation process. My Peugeot had been given a full respray and acquired a new set of wheels. That’s right, a bike plucked from a widower’s garage and bought for a glass of wine had been pimped to the max at a cost of over £750. Last year, the tyres wouldn’t stay on the original steel wheels, which is alarming when you are careering down a rutted dirt track, hence the new hoops. Gearing had also been upgraded with a 12-28 cassette on the back allied to a modern 50-34 compact chainset on the front: Nerdy? You bet!

Sunday at 5.30am and we are on the road to Gaoile, joining the pilgrimage in the pre-dawn darkness. At the final turn towards the town we wait for a break in the long snake of riders making their way out onto the 205km route – their lights forming a glittering procession. For us the ride starts with a double espresso before wheeling to the start line as the sky begins to lighten. With our registration cards stamped we’re off, but not before Chris is DQ’d on the line and his number removed for having his brake cables covered by his handlebar tape. It seems the ‘heroic’ rules require cables to arc gracefully up and over the bars in homage to the bikes of yesteryear. Chris shrugs and rides anyway.

The route out of Gaoile winds downwards for two kilometres and then begins its inexorable rise to the Castelo di Brolio over 7km away. As I ride I get a sinking feeling – literally! My seatpost is gradually disappearing into my down tube and my thighs are starting to flame. Fortunately, I've got the right spanner with me and the disaster of riding 135km across Tuscany like I’m on a BMX is averted.

But even with the saddle at the right height, my mechanical problems aren’t quite over. On the first stretch of bombed out bianche the headset – the bit that connects the forks to the frame – starts to come loose. It’s all I can do to continually finger tighten the things as I go along.

The Bianche Strade is a wicked, unpredictable thing. In places it’s as good as a paved road, in others more like a dried up riverbed. Rutted, rocky and home to dangerous drifts of gravel that catch out unwary riders, the bianche is also very, very dusty. In places the surface has been so badly corrugated by farm vehicles that riding over it shakes the fillings from your teeth. It is the most unforgiving surface I have ever ridden a road bike over.

But we continue across hill after hill and towards the medieval town of Siena and the first feed stop at Radi. Despite the contours it’s blissful riding on quiet roads through sleepy hamlets and past achingly beautiful scenery.

As we ride a procession of 1930s/40s cars rattle past – it seems everyone is getting in on the retro act.

With hot sweet tea, pastries, ham and cheese inside us the next leg to the tiny village of Asciana is a breeze. Down here at the southern tip of Chianti the roads are flatter and the landscape more open. We whiz along thinking “It can’t be like this all the way”. We’re right, it can’t.

At lunch, and somewhere around 80km in, l’Eroica gets up and slaps us in the face. The road home is barred by a vicious stretch of bianche that rears up from the feed zone in a series of brutal ramps. It’s a one-way ticket because once you’re on the trail you either ride out or push your bike to the next bit of tarmac over 10 miles away. There’s no shortcut and you can’t exactly call a taxi to come and get you from some unknown dirt track in Tuscany, so it’s time to be a hero and get pedaling. Easier said than done though when the gradient starts to hit 20% and torture for an 18 stone ex-rugby prop like me.

My legs now have all the tensile strength of the spaghetti I had for last night’s supper. My hands are numb from trying to grip the handlebars as I bounce across the ruts and I’m covered in a thick film of dust and sweat. It’s not long before I’m pushing the bike up the inclines, which doesn’t feel much easier than riding. Most of the people around me are in the same boat but occasionally some grizzled hard man of the hills rumbles past, thighs bunching with the effort, eyes fixed on the horizon as he grinds his way up the seven ramps to the top at Monte Sante Marie.

It’s now an exercise in survival: of getting to the finish. There’s no other way because the sneaky l’Eroica crew have arranged it so you have no choice. The bastards will make heroes of us all. Finally, we break out of the backcountry and back to the tarmac. The final feed stop promises rest and recuperation. Home is only 32km away but in the shape I’m in it might as well be the moon. But on we go and thankfully it seems the worst is behind us. Only the final slog retracing our route back to the Castelo di Brolio stands between us and glory and as we stand at the top looking back down the road we grunted up over 10 hours ago, we realise it’s nearly over.

Back down the dirt track and out onto the road – 6km of glorious tarmac stretches out downwards. In seconds I’m cruising the curves and busting through the turns as the effort of the day is lost in gravity’s embrace. At the bottom it’s a scant mile to the finish but with triumph in our hearts and the small of beer in our nostrils it’s a breeze. We roll into Gaoile and accept the good-natured applause of the onlookers.

As we sit and swap war stories over a cold Moretti or two we bask in the glow of a challenge accepted and completed. Sure, we had to walk a bit, but we made it, in one piece and without a puncture between us. One thing's for sure; you really do need to be a Hero to finish either the 135km or 205km routes of L'Eroica. Even the 76km is tough enough and bike prep and practice is a must.

Will we back? You betcha! For the rest of year, we will talk incessantly about getting back to Tuscany. It’s an amazing place even if you don’t want to ride bikes but add in the retro feel-good vibe of l’Eroica and it’s just magical. All you need is a mouldy old 1980s racer and you're in!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Fiftieth Fixie

It had to happen sometime: I hit 50. Not downhill on a bike, or in a cricket match, but 50 years of age - yikes!
Anyways, I celebrated watching the last games of the Six nations down the pub, which was good enough. But then, my mates presented me with a bike! And what a beauty; a sweet singlespeed with a flip/flop hub so I can ride it fixed if I want to. Add in a Brooks saddle, deep rims and chrome forks and it looks the bizzo. Best of all, it's been branded Luigi 5-0, so it's even got my name on it.
It's already proving perfect for my commute to work down the A41 and everyday I throw my leg over the saddle puts a big smile on my face.
Thanks guys, I love it.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Red Rooster

Despite the darkness of the commute home, I got back on my bike during the week. I really need the daily boost to my heart rate and metabolism to keep the weight moving in the right direction. IE ... down.

So having kicked off last week with a 43 miler on Sunday, I added another 30 miles getting to the office and back. Even with my basic maths, a 30 miler on Saturday would top 100 miles for the week. The only thing in the way was Friday night.

A confession. I haven't had a drink for six weeks. It's been part of the plan all along, ever since I got back from Italy I've pledged not to drink until my nephew's 18th on December 10th. To be honest, it's been easy - all I've had to do is not go down the pub. I've had a couple of close shaves along the way, but mostly I've found it easy to say no.

But the end of last week was the toughest moment of all. I really, really wanted a pint, the rugby's on down The Boat and the Guinness is flowing. Somehow - don't ask me how - I managed to stay strong and stick to the soda and limes. But watching the boys downing those beers took me to breaking point, I can tell you.

The good news is that I feel great on Saturday morning and head off for a regular 30 mile route with two biggish climbs book-ending a fast, flat section in the middle. The final climb up to the Beacon is a tough slog, but worth it when I top out on the highest point of the Chilterns.

Having toughed it out on Friday night, I'm back on the straight and narrow for Saturday evening watching the rugby and enjoying 40 pence pints of the dreaded soda and limes, while watching the boys descending into degeneracy.

Sunday, we have a group ride planned with Me, Chris, Kevin, David and Ali. I have a new route mapped out and everyone's keen: until Sunday morning that is. Incredibly, Ali is first to bail out with a text at 5am saying he is still on the sauce. Chris is next - unable to unglue himself from his bed. David's attendance is tenuous at best and is another no-show. Which leaves me and Kev.

Kev hasn't been doing much riding recently but he weighs 10.5 stone, so it makes no difference, plus he's a natural rider, so I'm always playing catch-up. But through the early morning mist we crank out the miles to Redbourn and then on to St Albans in a big loop that goes under and over the MI.

Disaster strikes near Apsley as Kev endures three punctures, but with his last tube we make it up to Bovingdon and the last few miles back into Berko via Whelpley Hill. Fortunately, we're going down Whelpley Hill, because it's a steep bastard. Unfortunately, it's a greasy, slippy death track as I discover when Kev locks up his rear wheel in front of me and I hang on the brakes so hard that I'm pitched into the crap on the wrong side of the road before losing my battle with adhesion and gravity.

It's not too bad. A bit of a graze and a big, dirty smear down my left side, but it could have been worse - there could have been a car coming the other way.

Back in the pub I refresh myself with a pot of tea in the company of David, who has finally shown up and bask in the self-righteousness of starting the new week with a solid 30 miles under my belt.

I've called the route Red Rooster because it goes through Redbourn and it was an early start. Plus, Little Red Rooster is a top blues choon, so there.

Here's the details:

Sunday, 13 November 2011


There are times when your mind really lets you down.

On a three hour bike ride, you'd think my idiot brain would choose a song like American Pie, Like a Rolling Stone or The Long and Winding to stick in my head all the way round. Hell, even Bohemian Rhapsody would do at a pinch.

But no, instead I get Abba's Supertrooper looping through my bonce, hence the title of this blog post and the ride. I can tell you, the only thing worse than thinking of Bennie or Bjorn singing "oom pah pah, oom pah pah" was the growing feeling of pain and fatigue from my legs. Close run thing though.

I'd been wanting to do this ride for a while. It's in a different direction to our normal rides. Usually we end up cycling westwards towards the Vale of Aylesbury but this 44 mile jaunt aims north east to Welwyn Garden City before looping back under the M1 near Luton.

Out past Harpenden and Wheathampstead there's one of those classic, forgotten bits of English countryside: hemmed in by main roads but like another, older world. Here there are meandering lanes and signs to Ayots St Peter and Ayots St Lawrence and you can smell the old money behind the electronic gates as you cycle past. But its beautiful as only England can be in the low slanting Autumn sunlight.

I don't know why, but I really started to run out of power about three quarters of the way round. Near Luton Hoo, my legs stop responding and the remaining hills become a major trial. Maybe it's the fact I haven't been on my bike all week, or perhaps I'm just tired, or maybe I didn't fuel properly before I left. Whatever the case, by the time I got to Studham I'm calculating the easiest route back, because to be frank, I'm shagged and it's getting dark.

Back home, with a cup of tea in me, the memory fades. Until I try and walk up the stairs and I realise someone has stolen my legs.

Here's the stats:
43.31 miles
Avg Speed: 14.8mph
Calories burned: 2,800 (or thereabouts)

Here's the route:http://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/57729668

Saturday, 5 November 2011

It's dark out there ...

Monday evening, 5.20pm: The clocks have gone back and my commute home has changed from pale grey to squid ink black.

It wasn't so noticeable getting out of Apsley and Boxmoor, with enough ambient light to see the holes in the road by, but as the old A41 twists upwards from the Complete Outdoors to the church on the corner of Little Heath Lane it's like being plunged into tar. There's a crest of a hill here and beyond that a void where the road pitches down onto the flat, half mile run to the gates of Berkhamsted.

The speed limit changes from 30 to 60mph too, so the unlit road ahead might as well be the Mulsanne Straight at two in the morning. As I roll up to the crest, silhouetted by headlights, all I can hear is engines shifting down as drivers prepare to punch through the next 500 yards as quickly as they possibly can.

'Scary' is the word I would use, or 'fucking scary' if I'm allowed two words, because although I'm lit up like a christmas tree there's a nagging feeling in the middle of my back that someone in too much hurry is going to to make a mess of things.

I don't mind riding in the dark usually, but it's the way this bit of road twists and surges up towards the blackness that unnerves me.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

A good start to the week

It's good to start the cycling week on a Sunday. Starting on a Monday is a real temptation when you have even a small commute but not kicking things off with a good chunk of miles under your belt is a shame.
Last Sunday I had a great ride with The Chris in the October sunshine. Those 33 miles really set my week off and with the 40 miles from commuting and another 33 miles with Milord yesterday, my total over 7 days topped 100 miles. I'll take that.
So I was determined to get my Sunday miles in today, really determined. In the end though, I watched the rugby, did some tidying up outside, went down the tip, did some shopping and before I knew it it was gone 4pm.
It would have been easy to let it go: let the sofa take the strain, but instead I had a rummage in the HTFU locker and pulled on the lycra and hit the road.
I chose a route I'd been planning for a while too. A longer commute, which I wanted to check for distance and time. You can see the details on MapMyRide below.
In the end it was just 24 miles but it was great to get out there, even with the brutal headwind for half of it. I'm definitely feeling stronger - all I need to do is shed some of the bastard pounds.
Tomorrow's commute will feel better for today's ride, for sure.