Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lovin' summer

There are a few pictures to go with all these words. Click here.

Back in Canada now where by all accounts the summer was a washout which makes me all the more grateful for the generally great weather that we had in Europe. When we landed in Ottawa it was like walking into a steam room but thankfully the hot humidity has given way to sunny, cooler weather and ideal conditions for rehabilitating my desperately unfit body in time for the autumn cycling and running events.

But what of the last three months?! Since writing my account of the Paris-Nice epic in between dips in the villa pool I have had yet another lifetime of experiences. I have often thought this summer how lucky I am to be able to do all these things in my early thirties – a rare opportunity to change career, study and explore Europe before knuckling down again to the world of work.

If you want to read no further then here is the whistle-stop version: after a few days at the villa in Nice it was back to England for George's stag weekend, off to visit my brother in Oxfordshire and then onto Ghent in Belgium for orientation for my job as trip leader with Venture Europe.

The end of orientation brought reunion after 6 long weeks away from my wonderful wife and a little bit of time together on the drive down to Geneva to pick up the campers. Thirteen American teenagers duly arrived and we spent the next three weeks completing a huge loop of the European Alps, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland and taking in glacier skiing and snowboarding, downhill mountain biking, a 3-day hike, canyoning, wake boarding, summer luge and even a visit to see the Tour de France. All the while we were camping and overseeing our capable cook crews as they scoured the supermarkets and came up with delectable dinners

Once we had dispatched our happy campers back home to the USA and driven the vans up to Ghent Crystal and I headed off to spend our hard earned cash in Venice, Slovenia and Croatia. Meanwhile the Canadian Immigration Service had other ides and demanded my passport in Buffalo. So once we had flown to Venice our first activity was to FedEx my passport back to Crystal's parents who in a display of unreserved parental devotion drove from Ottawa to Buffalo to hand deliver aforementioned passport before couriering it back to me, who is now in Slovenia's capital Ljubljana. While this has all been going on Crystal and I have seen the sights of Venice, dined on the Grand Canal, taken the train to Slovenia, climbed the country's highest mountain, relaxed by the beautiful Lake Bled and I have thrown myself off a rented bicycle – hard and onto tarmac. The tarmac claimed some skin in part exchange for a generous amount of embedded gravel which was duly removed by a very understanding doctor who cheerily remarked “I'm not letting you leave with any of our Slovenian stones!”. I didn't argue.

With hands bound like a boxer and a very sore body we took the train on down to the capital, retrieved my passport, wandered the old town, munched on ibuprofen and indulged in Ljubljana's 12 screen multiplex for a showing (in English) of the Hangover. Very laugh-out-loud amusing and made all the more so because the Slovenian subtitles were slightly ahead of the dialog so our fellow cinema goers got the joke just a little before we did. Then to Croatia for an all too brief island excursion and a night in Split before heading back to characteristically grey and drizzly London.

But fun was to be had up north at my third wedding of the summer with the Leeds hiking society with no less that five couples staying at the inauspicious Durham-Tees Airport Spa Hotel. Good times had by all courtesy of Ceilidh dancing and good old English ale – oh, how I miss thee in

Once done with festivities up north it was finally time for me to be reunited with my second love... one silver-grey full-carbon Trek 5000 bicycle that had been residing peacefully with Tim's parents in Starston near Cambridge ever since I had ridden into Nice way back at the beginning of June. Alas we were not to ride together straight away, not least because my wrists were still quite compromised from the Slovenian fall.

By now our rented Polo was starting to feel the strain and this was before pick ups at my Aunt's and my Dad's. On from Starston to London where we enjoyed the luxury of no less than four consecutive nights in the same bed courtesy of cousin Anthony and Rose. The now annual Hyde Park picnic ensued, a gourmet kitchen session saw my culinary skills resurface after several dormant months and a bit of valuable downtime was lapped up by us both.

Then onto the tour of the south – Granny, Auntie Anne, Mummy's grave (for the first time since Alistair and I buried her ashes in January) and the weekend with Daddy and Elizabeth including a ferry trip to the Isle of White and tour of the new sailing boat. Finally onto Alistair's to dispatch my worldly possessions to be shipped to Canada and then home to 590 via Ottawa airport's immigration service where I landed as a permanent resident of Canada.

On second thoughts, even if that is the whistle-stop version I think it may be enough! Suffice to say, amazing summer full of every type of activity and experience I could hope for. I have done way more traveling than anyone deserves to do in a lifetime and it keeps getting better as I refine the activities that I want to do and get more and more out of it all.

Enough said, except to thank everyone who was so hospitable, welcoming and kind to us over the course of the summer.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Lovin' summer - the pics

Sorry they are a bit all over the place - I will get to label them at some point but they do fit in somehow with the text bit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Videos from Alps adventure 2009

1.  Day 1 - Leaving Paris; 0m:41s

2.  Day 3 - Champdor campsite video diary; 2m:13s

3.  Day 3 - Accidental video!  Nice scenery... 0m:05s

4.  Day 3 - Climbing Col du Glandon; 0m:52s

5.  Day 4 - Summit of Alpe D'Huez; 0m:37s

6.  Day 4 - Accidental video on route to Col de Sarennes; 0m:05s

7.  Day 6 - Heading towards Col de Cayolle; 1m:43s

8.  Day 6 - The support car; 0m:52s

9.  Day 6 - Enjoying the gorge; 0m:38s

10.  Day 7 - Approaching Nice; 0m:29s

11.  Day 7 - Descending toward Nice; 0m:44s

Monday, June 8, 2009

An Alpine cycling adventure - Part I

If I hadn't spent 59 hours and 50 minutes of the last 7 days perched on my saddle exposed to the elements I may be sitting by the pool soaking up the Cote d'Azur sunshine. But as it is the farmer's tan will stay intact while I reminisce on the most spectacular 7 days of cycling that I've done.

Day 1 - Paris to Vezelay, 244 km (152 mi)

Still struggling to get over my jet lag from Canada after a week of late nights and late mornings made the 4.30 am alarm (3.30 am UK time!) uncomfortable to say the least but we were on the road by 6 am as dawn broke over Paris.

Somehow we had managed to coincide our departure from Paris with some sort of French holiday so we enjoyed a remarkably peaceful roll out of the city and on to the beautiful Fontainbleau. What a difference a following wind makes and although we didn't make it into camp at Vezelay until after 9pm we had 244 km under our belts and were feeling pretty good going into day 2.

Day 2 - Vezelay to Champdor, 278 km (173 mi)

Another big distance day but almost unimpeded by hills and again we were lucky with a generous tailwind and the occasional boulangerie.

The day did however have a sting in its tail as we neared the end and were faced with a climb over the 903 m Col de Lebe. For me this was the low point of the trip as my legs and energy system went on strike leading to over an hour and a half of will-sapping stroke-by-stroke pedaling. Crawling into camp just before 10 pm in almost complete darkness after just short of 10 hours in the saddle left me wondering just whether yesterday's optimism was woefully unjustified. Recovery protein/carb drinks and dinner to the rescue.

Day 3 - Champdor to Bourg d'Oisans, 204 km (127 mi)

Cols passed: Col de Glandon (1924 m); Col de la Croix de Fer (2067 m)

Lac du Bourget on the way to Aix les Bains

Perhaps tackling Col de la Croix de Fer from a starting height of 452 m and via the most difficult route having already cycled 100 miles was ill advised. Nevertheless, having discovered that the Col du Galibier was closed after a winter of big snow fall in the Alps we decided to take on Croix de Fer and end our day in Bourg d'Oisans, positioned well for Alpe d'Huez on day 4. The Col de Glandon is around 1.5 km before Croix de Fer so really this evening was all about Glandon. 1472 m of vertical ascent over 21.4 km of road meant an average gradient of 7%. On legs that had done some 600 km in the previous 3 days this was a challenge. I remember thinking that this is spectacular but very, very hard. Tim at one point ate 3 energy bars in one hit washing them down with his remaining gulp of water. We had not started the climb until 5.30 pm and despite grinding it out without a break except for 10 minutes to mend a puncture, we didn't make Glandon until gone 8 pm. Tired, cold and hungry our support crew (Tim's dad and sister) were a welcome sight to say the least. After a quick stop to grab some food, water and extra clothes we made the final ascent to Croix de Fer before heading down the other side of the mountain and into Bourg d'Oisans. Despite the semi-darkness I recorded my fastest speed of the trip here at 73.3 km/h (45.5 mph). The packed campsite in Bourg at this early stage of the season should have given us a clue to the day ahead but this was far from our minds as we once again dragged ourselves through the shower, shoveled food into our weary stomachs and hit the pillow.

Day 4 - Bourg d'Oisans to Briancon; 98 km (61 mi)

Cols passed: Col de Sarenne (1989 m) via Alpe d'Huez (1850 m); Col du Lauteret (2058 m)

The 10 km ride from the campsite to the start of the Alpe d'Huez climb was barely enough to get the blood flowing through the legs again before we hit the 21 famous hairpins up to one of France's oldest ski resorts. But all feelings of fatigue were forgotten when we rounded the corner at the foot of the hill to find several hundred Dutch cyclists going up and coming down. In a highly organised display of charity cycling these men and women of one of the world's flattest but most cycle-crazy countries were taking on the climb up to six times during the day. We weren't to find this out until we reached the top so we were pleased with our progress as we steadily overtook all who stood before us. At every hairpin dozens of Dutch fans cheered on their weary compatriots and handed out bananas and energy drinks. The carnival atmosphere certainly did nothing to dent our morale and the climb was great fun on a sunny Thursday morning.

The party at the summit, complete with DJ and euro-pop was the icing on the cake before we headed off to quieter climes and the beautifully remote Col de Sarenne.

Col de Sarenne was one of the highlights of the trip and a good warm up for Lauteret.

Lauteret itself was a long climb but by now nothing compared to the nightmare on Glandon and besides it was early afternoon, we were making good progress and the weather was great. At the top of Lauteret you have the option of continuing up to Galibier so it was with some regret but not a little relief that we passed the turn-off and the 'ferme' sign. Summit photos with stunning mountain back-drop taken we descended to Briancon via my favourite descent of the trip.

Descents are either highly technical with lots of steep sections, narrow roads and hairpins or are wide open, flowy and fast. This was the latter and by late afternoon we had arrived in Briancon with time at last to wash some clothes and re-group after 4 days of hard riding.

Day 5 - Briancon to Barcelonnette, 101 km (63 mi)

Cols passed: Col d'Izoard (2360 m), Col du Vars (2108 m)

Refreshed from a shorter day 4 and excited for Col d'Izoard, our highest so far, we set off in positive mood despite the threatening sky and enjoyed the long steady climb to the Col through classic Alpine scenery and along perfect, quiet roads to the barren, snowy col.

Climbing to Col d'Izoard

One down, one to go for today. A long, cold descent that left me with a stiff neck, sore shoulders and aching back brought us down some 1300 m and set us up for the big climb back up to over 2100 m and the Col de Vars. On the way down however we stopped in a lay-by and got talking to a local who in the space of 5 minutes changed months of planning by informing us that Col Agnel, Col de la Bonette and Col de la Lombarde were all closed. Not to be daunted we carried on with a pretty good idea of how we would change the plan and buoyed by descriptions of the new route as the most beautiful in the area. We weren't to be disappointed. As we started the climb to Col de Vars the weather became more and more ominous before a light rain turned to a steady downpour soaking us to the skin by the time we reached the 2108 m col where the air temperature was 8 degrees and the wind chill significantly lower. A quick change of clothes and as fast a descent as possible in the torrential rain gave way to the run in to Barcelonnette, France's highest city and a hotel room, the product of a bail-out plan hatched to ward off hypothermia and a miserable night's camping. We happened upon a cycling friendly hotel complete with drying room, bike storage and walls adorned with photographs of the sport's legends through the ages all for the princely sum of EUR 70 for a room for the four of us. The best EUR 17.50 I've spent in a long time!

An Alpine cycling adventure - Part II

Day 6 - Barcelonnette to St Dalmas, 123 km (76 mi)

Cols passed: Col de Cayolle (2326 m), Col de la Couillole (1678 m)

Despite the brooding skies we left Barcelonnette cheered by dry shorts, confidence that we were within touching distance of our goal and enjoying the atmospheric effect of the wispy mist, high clouds and soft sunlight.

Our hopes for the newly adapted route were met and surpassed as we wound our way up a stunning gorge towards Col de Cayolle.

Despite a brief hailstorm as we approached the col we stayed dry and enjoyed a pit-stop and blankets amongst the snow pack on the col before negotiating over 1500 m of patchy wet descent to Guillames at 793 m. The high Alps now behind us we climbed back up through the ski resort of Valberg and on to the Col de la Couillole up at 1678 m and rolled back down to 500 m where we expected to spend the night. Our ever-supportive support team had other ideas however and let us know by way of text message that they had found a fantastic campsite but that it was up "a bit of a hill". One and a half hours later and 800 m higher we did indeed find a fantastic campsite and promises of another route alteration that would allow us to continue up to a col and to rejoin our route without detour.

Day 7 - St Damas to Nice, 74 km (46 mi)

Cols passed: Col St Martin (1500 m)

Despite being rather hillier than we had anticipated this was an easy day by any measure and a very pleasant roll into Nice with coffee stops aplenty and brilliant sunshine all the way to the famously blue Cote d'Azur which more than earned its name today.

Tim's family and friends greeted us on the sea front and a toe dip in the Mediterranean sufficed in lieu of a full swim on account of the head height waves and very strong winds. Being swept out to sea seemed an ignominious ending to a trip that had seen us descend many thousands of meters of Alpine mountain roads on less than an inch of rubber with little more than a layer of lycra between us and the (generally immaculately maintained) tarmac.

Tim's dad Peter in celebratory mood

In summary...

We set out to do 700 miles of cycling in 7 days and to take in 7 of the high cols of the Alps in the process. Those with a keen eye for the maths will have noticed that I fell two miles short. In my defense I forgot to restart my computer a couple of times and Tim, who matched me mile for mile recorded 702 miles. Despite the closed cols we amassed several big climbs and the seven that I will claim for the purposes of this challenge are as follows (in order of appearance):

1. Col de la Croix de Fer (2067 m) via Col de Glandon (1924 m)
2. Col de Sarenne (1989 m) via Alpe d'Huez (1850 m)
3. Col du Lauteret (2058 m)
4. Col d'Izoard (2360 m)
5. Col du Vars (2108 m)
6. Col de Cayolle (2326 m)
7. Col de la Couillole (1678 m)
(8. Col St Martin (1500 m))

I am in the process of working out the total ascent but in the meantime here are the other stats:

Total distance: 1124 km, 698 mi
Hours in the saddle: 59 hrs 50 mins
Calories burnt up while in the saddle (according to bike computer heart rate monitor): 17,522

Yes, I would go back and indeed I would love to ride the high cols that we missed out on. We worked really hard for the first 4 days and this bought us enough time to pace ourselves through the rest of the Alps. We could have done more but we were lucky to have generally benevolent weather and not a single injury or health problem. Mechanical issues were also kept to the everyday so we can claim no delays. Given other commitments we both did a good job of training and found our endurance meant that we got stronger as the week went on. We had good luck and decent preparation as well as a huge amount of help from our dedicated support team. Thank you Peter and Clare!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jolly England

It's busy being on holiday. After a whirlwind trip to Scotland for my cousin's wedding, two days cycling the Surrey country lanes and a couple of days in Southampton at my Dad's I'm back in London ready to head off to France on Sunday for the start of our cycling epic. Here's a few photos and a couple of videos from the last two weeks:

Bagpiper at the wedding

New Forest pony and foal

Video 1 from the New Forest

Video 2 from the New Forest

Breakfast with Tim and Damien at Damien's in London

A herd of deer halt the traffic in Richmond Park

A turtle (I think?) in Richmond Park

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Crystal and Simon go for a bike ride

Saturday was 27C, Monday was 30C so we went for a ride Sunday when it was showery, windy and topping out at 11C. I would say mad dogs and Englishmen but that would be to do my wife a disservice. The positives were two and a half hours on the road enjoying two-wheeled marital bliss and a season's first foray onto the Gatineau Parkway.

In the summer the Parkway is closed to vehicles every Sunday morning - until then it is closed to vehicles full stop. Imagine that, a hilly, tree-lined, tarmac road winding through the beautiful Gatineau Park and accessible only to bicycles. Strange but wonderfully true. In fact Ottawa and its Quebecois neighbour, Gatineau-Hull, deserve never ending praise not only for the Parkway road but also for the endless bicycle/pedestrian pathways, particular the many, many kilometers stretching along the banks of the Ottawa river.

Ignore the grey skies and relish the blacktop (click on the pics for full size):

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Summer's knocking

The hottest day of the year so far saw the leg warmers come off for the first time much to the excitement of, well, me. I went out on my own today and tried to push it a little which saw my average speed up to 28.1 kph for the 118 km loop. That pushed my HR to an average 149 for the 4.5 hours that I was out and gave me distinctly wobbly legs for the rest of the day. But in my unscientific training world I am sure that those hill bursts close to max HR will be adding some strength to my legs.

So, I often read The Original Big Ring's blog for two reasons: (i) it's a good source of info for riding routes and general biking inspiration and (ii) it's just a very entertaining read! Big Ring's wife works with my wife Crystal hence the connection. Anyway Big Ring rides with the intriguingly named Vegan Vagabond so as I am climbing out of Wakefield I think I recognise aforementioned Vegan (whose real name at that point I do not know) at which point I will let her pick up the story... "Are you the Vegan Vagabond?"

And here is the route:

And finally today it is confession time. I think I am a closet Lance Armstrong fan. This goes against all my instincts: brash Texan, egocentric competitor etc. But the guy is fascinating and if you take his story at face value it is one of the most extraordinary in sport. Add to that the Tour de France, drugs aside, is possibly the greatest sporting event on earth and I am hooked. So my daily surfing routine now includes Lance's twitter feed complete with nauseating "hey y'all"s and a blow by blow account of his nightly dining habits. But some great pictures and a fascinating insight into the comeback trail of a 37 year old 7 times Tour winner and cancer survivor.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Long and wet

From the beautiful hills of a sunny day in Quebec to a hard slog out west. A strange thing happened to me today. 2 minutes out of the front door at 7.30am my shorts were wet which in itself is not unusual as the road spray kicks up. What was different today is that the water came with grit and for the next 7 hours my sandpaper shorts proceeded to injure me quite painfully. So much so that there was blood on my shorts. Not a pleasant experience. I have photos to show the damage but thought it best not to pubish for everyone's sake! I think the combination of dry weather recently and the city street cleaners pushing the winter dirt around led to my predicament.

In short Ottawa to Jo-Anne Mandy's parents place in Golden Lake; 181 km; 7 hrs in the saddle, 8 hrs of heart rate monitor activated, during which avg. HR 140, cals burnt 5248.

Was it worth it? Training aside, after a rainy Saturday riding, we woke to this today: