sportive

A Summer Break

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?

Partly, I was a bit bored of writing about how my shoulder, back and neck were feeling.  Partly I was getting stressed trying to make training rides on country lanes seem interesting.  And partly, I suspected that you, dear readers, were probably a bit bored of reading about the same stuff over and over again, too.

But things are getting (at least vaguely) interesting once more, and there’s a bit to catch up on.  So I think it’s time to put virtual pen to virtual paper again.

It may be a bit of a bumper issue, so you might want to get a nice cup of tea if you intend to wade through the whole thing in one go…

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I’ve been discharged from medical supervision (assuming no relapses), which is nice.  I’m apparently about 20-30% off full shoulder movement, which may or may not get any better.  The broken vertebrae in my back and neck should continue to strengthen with time.  In terms of day-to-day activities I’m about 90% sorted.  I may never again be able to do overhand chin-ups, but since I never could anyway, that’s no great loss.

The x-ray above was taken when I got back to Bristol, a week after the crash, and is (hopefully) the last you’ll hear about the Thai Truck Incident.  It gives at least a vague impression of how many bits were mangled and / or moved about at the time, and how big the impact was.  For me, it’s a nice reminder of how lucky I am to be more-or-less together four-and-a-half months later.

I’m fairly confident that I won’t be bothering you with further medical details because I completed my summer sportive programme on Sunday.  I can appreciate that some people may think that recovering from a major accident by building up to a timed 100-plus mile ride is somewhat masochistic, but it seems to have worked OK for me.  And if I was going to break down physically, it would’ve happened by now.  I think.

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My second sportive (after the one in Newbury which I wrote about last time) took me north to the Peak District National Park.  I wanted to get some proper hills under my belt, which is difficult in the south of England.  The Peaks are also a beautiful part of the world.  And I was lucky enough to ride mountain bikes up there while I was a student, so there was a nostalgic motivation for the ride too.

The ride itself was all a bit different from the Newbury event.  This was partly down to the much tougher terrain, but mostly down to my riding buddy for the day.  If you remember, I rode the first sportive with Luke, who’d only had a bike for a few weeks.  As the faster rider, all I had to worry about that day was whether I could manage the distance.

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To add to my Peak District nostalgia, I was riding with Jon.  He was one of my mountain-bike buddies from Uni, but we hadn’t seen each other for about 20 years (a good reason for writing a blog; he rediscovered me through this site while I was in Indonesia, or somewhere).

Jon’s a thoroughly good bloke, and we got on as if the decades-long gap had never happened.  Unfortunately, as you may be able to tell from the picture above, he’s also at least as fit as he was 20 years ago, and certainly way more than a match for me.

So in a slightly painful reversal of the Newbury ride, I spent most of the day clinging to Jon’s wheel as he nonchalantly climbed pretty much everything in the big chainring.  I thought I was keeping up OK until he decided to ‘have some fun’ on the steeper slopes at the top of Snake Pass (below).  He put at least a couple of minutes into me just in the last mile of the climb.  And I don’t think he was really working very hard even then.

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I’m sure there was a time (a couple of weeks in 1992, maybe?) when I could have done the same to him.  That time definitely isn’t now.

But at least I could console myself with: the three or four other riders who dropped off my wheel on the lower slopes of the pass; a reasonable time (at least by my current standards, and given the amount of climbing involved); and a couple of very decent pints of cider in the sunshine afterwards.  A really good day.

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The drive up to the Peaks reminded me of why I’m looking forward to my upcoming tour up the length of the UK.  Just over three-hours in the car (roughly 150 miles) whisked me from the flat flood plain of the Severn estuary, to the exposed moorland of the Peaks.  From golden stone cottages in Cotswold villages to dark brick terraced towns.  From people who over-pronounce the letter ‘r’ to people who don’t always bother with the word ‘the’.  And that’s just the start and end points; between the two I passed the UK’s second-biggest city, Birmingham, as well as the former centre of world pottery production around Stoke.

None of this will surprise anyone in the UK.  But there are so many countries where you can ride a bike for weeks without seeing that sort of variety of landscape, accent and culture (the American mid-west and Australia, for example).  150 miles is only two or three days’ cycle touring, so riding the whole length of the country for a month or so should be really interesting.

But I was getting ahead of myself.  I still had Sunday’s ‘ton’ to come.

This was the big test of my fitness to get back to touring.  I reckoned that if I was reasonably comfortable doing 100 miles as a one-off ride, then touring more slowly at 50-70 miles a day should be fine.  If Sunday went wrong, then the UK tour (and eventually getting back to Asia and finishing the round-the-world trip) would have to be put on hold.

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I needn’t have worried, as it turned out.

The Sodbury Sportive starts and finishes just a few miles from home, and is distinct from the other events I’d ridden, as the profits go to charity (it made nearly £19000 last year), rather than fattening corporate wallets.  Volunteers, organised by the local Rotary Club, made it run like clockwork.  There were a pair of enthusiastic pensioners pointing the way at almost every turn, and semi-professional cheerers (with cow bells!) and a steel band at the finish line to welcome the riders in.  A really good event.

Most importantly, from my point of view, the weather was spot-on for cycling; not too hot, not too windy, and no rain (always a bonus in this country).  And, with a thousand, mostly local, riders on the road, there was plenty of friendly company.  I even ran into Graham, who I went to school with, and Nev, who I used to work with.  Which makes the whole thing sound a bit more parochial than it actually was, but still…

It would be pushing it to say it was easy (though the first sixty or seventy miles, which included all the main climbing, felt surprisingly good).  I was hanging on a bit at the end, if I’m honest.  But 103 miles (166km) in 7 hours 30 minutes, including food stops, is not too shabby.  I missed the ‘silver’ award time by about five minutes, but I didn’t know what it was until after I finished, so can’t be upset about that.

The bottom line is that the distance and the time were fine.  My back and neck were not too battered at the end.  So the return to cycle touring is on.

The Beastlet is currently tucked up in a local bike shop, getting its wheels and mechanicals rearranged for touring purposes.  I just need to get the racks bolted on when it comes back, and it’ll be good to go.  And I’ve got a detailed plan for the UK tour, starting late next week, and running to late September.  But, in keeping with my severe procrastination habit, I’ve not actually booked any of it yet.

There should be updates on the bike and the route over the next few days.

And then I’ll be back into touring mode.  The full length of the UK in four-ish weeks.  It’s not exactly India or Iran, but it should be a lot more interesting than broken bones and training rides.

Can’t wait…

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Type 2 Fun – The First Sportive

It’s after four on Sunday afternoon, but it feels much later with the glowering black clouds cutting the light down.  Driving rain lashes Newbury racecourse, as it has, intermittently, for most of the day.  And it’s chilly, even for the fickle English summer.

The Wiggle Magnificat Sportive is drawing to a close.  Think of it as a mass-participation marathon on wheels, without an elite race in front.  Hundreds of damp, tired cyclists have completed their choice of 44, 85 or 128 mile rides.  They shelter in the cafe and bar, easing their pain with alcohol or warming up with steaming cups of tea.

Maybe a few of the nicer ones among them are sparing a thought for the stragglers still out on the course.

A couple of miles away, two of those stragglers are finally rolling down the last hill towards the finishing line, and carefully negotiating the slippery white paint of the mini-roundabout on the last corner.  One of them is trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent his teeth from chattering as the cold wind cuts through his soaked clothes.  This is me.  The other can’t quite believe that his legs, which stopped working properly over an hour ago, are actually getting him to the finish line.  This is my friend Luke.

Few would argue that this is conventional, Type 1, instant gratification fun.  But we finished.  It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t pretty in places.  But that really isn’t the point.  We’ve been there, and (literally) got the T-shirts:

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And, at least for me, as a protein-rich dinner and a couple of pints of cider mingled happily in my stomach a few hours later, it retrospectively became so much fun that I signed up to do another one in a couple of weeks.

Luke may take a bit longer to convince.  But I’m sure that, eventually (when he can sit down again without a soft cushion), he’ll agree that it was fun too.

Given our various physical issues and relative lack of preparation (basically, find a sportive training guide online, tear it into tiny pieces, and replace it with a few sporadic short rides, beer, and darts marathons), I reckon we did OK.

85 miles (136km) and 1366m (nearly 4500ft) of climbing in a day is a decent ride by most standards.

In a straight line, the 85 miles would have taken us from Newbury (pretty much in the middle of southern England) to Newport in Wales, or Birmingham in the midlands.  And the climbing was a little more than going from sea level to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

For me, it was really about continuing my rehab after the accident.  I was pretty sure I’d be fine with the mileage after touring halfway round the world in the last year (the same Sunday in 2014 saw me rolling off from Greenwich to start my still-unfinished circumnavigation).

But, with my shoulder, back and neck still in pieces, it was a test to see if my body could deal with a whole day on the bike.  It can, which makes me very happy.  I’d struggle to do it for several days in a row, though, so I’ve still got some recovering to do before I get back to touring in a few weeks.

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For Luke (above, climbing one of the countless small hills in a rare non-rainy moment), it was a different sort of challenge.  He only bought his bike a few weeks ago, and his training’s been limited to laps of Richmond Park in London.  Which means that Sunday was his first ever ride over 40 miles, and the first time he’d gone anywhere close to that level of climbing.  Forcing his exhausted legs over the last few hills and miles was a proper result for him.

So, a cycling first for both of us; sportive number one completed.  An achievement, if not quite on the level of what Team Sky just did to the rest of the Tour de France this afternoon (Tuesday).

Was it worth it?  I’d say ‘definitely’.  But then, I’ve made hard riding a bit of a habit over the last year.  Luke might say ‘maybe’.  Or something unprintable.  The countryside was lovely, if damp.  The riding was fairly tough, but not outrageous.  The organisation was excellent.  The weather was shocking, and the course designer was a bit of a sadist, throwing stacks of stinging little climbs into the last few kilometres.  But in the end it was good, if definitely Type 2, fun.

And it hasn’t put Luke off cycling.  He’s talking about putting some bags on his bike and joining me for a couple of days on my UK tour in a few weeks.

Assuming he can bear to sit on a bike again by then, of course…

The Magic Shrug

There’s a stage when recovering from an accident hits a plateau.  One week, you have nice, morale-boosting day-to-day improvements (more movement, less pain etc).  The next, you’re frustrated with the apparent lack of progress on the problems that remain.

In my case, the frustration’s been all about my back.

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While the most obvious visible damage – the collarbone and the shoulder-blade – has been improving nicely, my time on the bike has been severely limited by the slower-recovering cracked vertebrae.  I got to the start of last week unable to push past about 15 mile (25km) rides.  The riding itself is pretty much pain-free now, but having to stop to relieve the ache in my weakened back every twenty minutes is, erm, a pain.  And after an hour or so, the weakness seemed to spread around the rest of my body, forcing me back to the sofa to recover.  For a couple of days.

Some might say that it’s unreasonable to expect to be back to full speed two months after damaging your spine in a serious road accident.  That may be true, but it’s very, very irritating, to say the least.

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Still, I managed to get out and about for short loops, continuing my rediscovery of the local country lanes.  And I was climbing better than I was while riding the same hills last year (before the trip).  Clearly, cycle touring does get you fitter.  And it takes a while to lose all the improvements while convalescing.  Which is nice.

Then there was a breakthrough.  I was back at the physio last week.  And it turns out that he’s a genius.  He did his usual routine of a couple of minutes’ visual inspection of my shoulder.  He nagged me (again) about my posture.  I had a bit of a moan about my back.  And so he taught me the Magic Shrug.

I didn’t know it was magic at the time.  But I performed it a few times, as instructed.  The next night, I went to sleep on my front for the first time, as my back seemed more comfortable.  I woke up late.  I woke up without an ache for the first time.  The magic was happening.

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Encouraged, I went on a nostalgia trip the next day.  The run out to the old Severn Bridge and back was one I used to do a lot when I was a kid (after I realised that 20 miles on a bike is really not that far – even on a five-speed clunker, as it was in those days). It’s roughly ten miles each way.  I made the return trip with no problems.  I didn’t need to collapse into a comfy chair when I got back.  And the next morning?  I could have done it again.  Except that the English early summer was doing its thing (driving rain and high winds).

So, with the Shrug working its magic, I feel like I’m back on track.  If 20 miles isn’t a problem, then why would 40 be?  Or 85?

Well, 85 is the number.  I’ve finally signed up for my first sportive ride; the Magnificat at Newbury on 12th July.  Appropriately enough, that’s a year since my departure from Greenwich to ride around the world.  So, about six weeks to get myself together for 85 miles in a day (just over 135km in new money).  Hopefully, an achievable target on the way back to full fitness.  And a return to loaded touring later in the year.  And maybe, just maybe, a return to Thailand to finish the ride…

With the Magic Shrug in my arsenal, what could possibly go wrong?

The Invalid

I’m having touring withdrawal issues. For nearly nine months, I was outdoors almost every day, staying in a new place pretty much every night, seeing the world and covering hundreds of kilometres a week on the bike.  This was good. 20141130RTW_8 Roli For nearly three weeks now, I’ve been (with the exception of a couple of days’ travelling) indoors, sitting or lying in differing levels of discomfort, getting fat, and covering maybe a couple of hundred metres a day shuffling around the house (or hospital).

It’s a bit of a shock to the system.

Now that the relief of being alive after the accident has bled off, it’s being replaced with frustration.  Being stuck in the same place with no exercise and a non-functioning arm is not working very well for me.

I met an ancient Frenchman in New Zealand who’d been on the road for five years.  He said he was just going to ride across North America before returning home and ‘stopping’.  I remember wondering how he’d be able to adjust when his trip was over.  I wondered how I would. Now I’m finding out.  It’s hard. 20141129RTW Christian No regrets, thankfully, as I gave the trip my best shot.  Having got close to covering 10,000 miles, I know that I was physically able to complete the circumnavigation.  I thoroughly confounded the unkind expectations of a few friends who thought I wouldn’t get past France.  And there was nothing I could do about the way it ended.

But I need a plan to avoid stalling.  I need to feel like things are moving forward again.  And I really need something to distract me from the tedious, gibbering nonsense of the ongoing UK general election campaign.  And daytime TV.

I need targets. So, what’s next? Well, I need to get better.  I’ve got the operation to put my shoulder back together tomorrow (Thursday).  Assuming that goes OK, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back out on a bike within six weeks or so.  With a bit of luck, I may be able to get on a stationary trainer a couple of weeks before that.  There will be an awful lot of fitness to regain.

That gives me a few weeks to sort out Beast II.  I think it’ll be a little lighter and faster than the original Beast.  Maybe more of a Mini-Beast.  Or a Beastlet.  Mainly because I felt the Beast was probably a little overbuilt for the conditions I faced on the ride, and I can’t see myself hitting the rough dirt roads of the Andes or Alaska for a while.  I’ve found a few suitable candidates.  And most of them are actually British brands, as a little bonus.  Hopefully, I’ll have it on order fairly soon, to give me an incentive to recover quicker. 20150122RTW_23 Then I need something to do with the new bike.  My current thinking is to get myself fit enough for a sportive (semi-competitive day ride, usually between 75 and 110 miles) or a charity ride sometime in June.  And then aim to do a two or three week tour in the summer with the bags back on.  Maybe the length of the UK (Land’s End to John O’Groats – around 900 miles), or a similar distance in Europe.  It would be nice to pick something I can actually finish.  And I’ll need to work up gently to anything more energetic, I think.

So there we are; a loose plan to get back on wheels for the sake of my sanity.

Things are already looking up a bit.  After their triumph in the FA Trophy, which I reported on from Thailand, Bristol City won 6-0 last night to confirm their promotion to the second tier of English football.

So, good things are still happening.  I just need to make sure I focus on them, rather than the fact that I’m banged up at home for the next few weeks. It’ll be a good trick if I can pull it off.

Photo Credits:  Top photo – Roli Merz.  Second photo – Christian Zenker