Cycle Derby Spring Classic Sportive 2015: The Hell of the Midlands

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.  After having completed the 80km (50 mile) distance at the inaugural Cycle Derby Sportive last September, the obvious next step was to try and complete a 100 miler. Of the three available reasonably close to me this seemed to be the best opportunity, being considerably flatter than the September event and not in the middle of the tri season, unlike the Great Nottingham Bike Ride.

(Note - this has the potential to turn into a terrible mess of units, so from here on in I'm going to stick to kilometres, chiefly because that's what my cycle computers, Strava account, etc are set to)

I signed up at the end of January, then came down with a cold and didn't do anything for a couple of weeks.  Not the best start to a very limited window for training.  My training log says I rode the bike 17 times between signing up and the event itself.  Of those, twelve were my 25km commute, and one was the bike leg of the Varsity Triathlon - all involving an hour or less in the saddle, so while they probably helped my fitness, they didn't give me much idea of my endurance. 

In amongst that, I managed four longer rides.  The first was utterly dispiriting - I covered 60km, but was absolutely finished by the end of it and seriously doubting that I'd ever get to the 160km distance.  With a bit of time to reflect I concluded it was mostly a complete nutrition failure, and having planned a bit more carefully - carrying enough food, and remembering to actually eat it at regular intervals - I proceeded to rack up two 100km "metric centuries" and one 130km outing. 

My last ride before the event was one of the commutes, which came to a premature and embarrassing end with a slow speed crash which resulted in a couple of broken spokes in my Kinetic One front wheel - on the Thursday before the Easter weekend when we were going away, all the local bike shops were closed or busy, and K1 themselves were closed for refurbishment.  A slightly stressful situation solved by getting the credit card out and buying myself the shiny Planet X 60mm Aero wheels I'd been eyeing up for a while. Oops.

And so the day came around, with an early start to ride over to the Derby Arena velodrome and sign on before taking shelter from the wind behind the registration tent to wait for the start.  Last September, the route passed through the centre of Derby - requiring road closures and therefore starting all the (more than a thousand) riders across all distances pretty close together to minimise the closure time.  This time, departing in the opposite direction, no closures were necessary, leading the organisers to spread the starts out to avoid traffic issues.  This meant the start area was still fairly quiet when the 200-ish 160km riders were set off in waves of fifty from 8am. 

The pace was fairly quick away from the start line, and although I'd entertained the notion of sitting in a group at the start to help with the difference between my training and the full distance, it quickly became apparent that I had a choice.  Either I rode at the sort of pace I was confident I'd be able to sustain on my own, or I rode quite a bit faster to stay in a group, and just hope that I was actually using less energy rather than more.  I opted for discretion and let myself slip off the back.

I did get a nice surge of speed about 10km in, as I was passed by a group of about 20 riders from a subsequent wave who were only going marginally faster than me, giving me several minutes out of the wind and a bit more speed, although that was brought to an end when we all hit a massive pothole, forcing me and a couple of others to stop to rescue escaped water bottles (this is actually an ongoing theme for me, as I try to find some bottle cages for my seatpost carrier which don't either break or allow bottles to fall out when used in this slightly unconventional orientation).  By the time I crossed the M1 and reached Kegworth, I was pretty much on my own.  Still, I consoled myself, triathlon is all about the long solo efforts.

I arrived at the first food station at about 53km, to find that they had run out of everything but energy drink.  Unfortunately, I found this after I had just used my remaining bottle of water to mix up my own, then gone to refill with water.  Not ideal, since I don't like drinking energy drinks constantly, or having the taste of it left in my mouth.

(This is the only criticism I could make of the event organisation.  I'm fine with them having run out of food - I was right at the back of the field, it's hard for them to predict how much people will take, and they don't want to end up with a load left over.  I'd taken enough food with me to get through the day.  But there should be water all round the course.  The energy drink had been mixed up from powder at the food station itself.  It would have been much better, in my opinion, if they had kept the water as water, and just had the powder there for people to mix their own up if they wanted it) 

I seemed to spend less time stationary than most, and so left the food stop back in a group of about ten riders, the pace having slackened enough from the early over-enthusiasm (permit me, the tortoise of the fable, to feel smug at this point) to allow me to stick with them and have a chat.  Notable amongst them was a chap riding an Elliptigo, much to the bemusement of pretty much everyone.

Passing underneath Belvoir (for the non-locals, pronounced 'beaver' - no really) Castle, we came out into the open, and with it a howling crosswind, somewhat alarming at 25mph plus downhill with a deep section front wheel in.  It was almost a relief to make the turn to start climbing the ridge itself - two successive climbs of 10-15%, but well sheltered by the hedges on either side.

Then we turned back westwards, into the wind, and the horror began.  Below is a screenshot of the speed trace for the whole ride.  I'm sure you can guess which part was travelling with the wind, and which part was against it.

Here's a closeup of the segment from 80-100km.  The first slow section, around 66km, is the first steep climb.  The second steep climb is around 70-71km.  The entire stretch from 74-78km - during which I'm going just as slow as on those climbs - was pretty much level - but on high ground and very, very exposed.  

It was a surreal experience - the sorts of speeds and gears you might associate with mountain biking in particularly muddy conditions, yet on a dead flat tarmac road.  As one point I stopped to pick up a guy who had been blown into a foot-deep pothole at the edge of the road and gone over the bars.

The second food stop, on the outskirts of Melton Mowbray, came round just short of 100km, and again there was no water, only energy drink, although I did get half a banana this time.  Again I seemed to move off again quicker than most, and there were a lot of people at this stop who I didn't see again - including the guy on the Elliptigo.

At 122km, my old Aim MyTach GPS watch flashed up a low battery warning.  I stopped it recording, turned it off, and set the Strava app on my phone running instead for the sake of having a record, but this left me 'flying blind' in terms of the speed I was doing and the distance remaining.  I was reduced to just watching the time on my heart rate monitor, estimating how far I'd been, and trying to reassure myself that I would get back before they turned the timing mats off at 6pm, ten hours after the start. 

(Incidentally, since then I've bought a Garmin 910XT, which promises a 20 hour battery life as well as a lot more cycling and triathlon specific features than the motorsport-oriented MyTach)

The next 10km or so from there - passing to the south of Loughborough and towards the M1 - was all uphill in terms of the road, and mostly downwards in terms of my state of mind.  My left knee, which had been giving the odd twinge since halfway through the day, was now protesting loudly at the idea of climbing.  I spent most of the time between about 110km and 150km pondering the idea of stopping, but whether it was because I didn't fancy sitting still waiting to be picked up, or if I was just slightly too stupid to act on the thought, I kept moving.

I re-entered familiar territory as the route approached the A42, although this turned out to be a mixed blessing.  I knew the roads and had a feel for what was coming up, but I also suspected that, while I was close to home, I was actually too close for the distance required to get up to 160km, so the route wouldn't be heading directly in.  Probably the cruellest was at A42 J14, turned left, away from Derby, just as the heavens opened - without the wind I'd probably have finished before the rain arrived.

I was saved by the surprisingly cheerful ladies of the final food stop at Breedon-on-the-Hill.  'Surprisingly' because they had been standing around in the cold wind, with only a steadily disintegrating gazebo to keep the rain off, yet were still in good spirits and cheering everyone who came in.  Even better, they had jam sandwiches and plain water, although ironically, while I wolfed down a few of the former, I didn't bother topping up a bottle this close to home.

Re-energised (at least slightly), I set off for the final push, up through Breedon, Wilson, Melbourne, and Stanton-by-Bridge.  More downhill than up, so I was even moving at a reasonable pace for once.  I crossed Swarkestone bridge, then was passed by the Cycle Derby sweeper truck, who pulled in ahead as I rode up towards the A50.  Stuck head out of the window.  "Are you alright?" he said.  "Yes"  I shouted.  "No, I'm really not but I'm not stopping now" I thought. 

Past the turning for home and on towards the velodrome, with that wierd mix of emotions caused by fatigue, assorted aches and pains, but knowing that you're going to make it.  As I turned into the car park there wasn't much left but the timing mats. "Make sure you cross the line, then get in here and warm up", one of the organisers shouted from the Arena doorway.  Followed by "We did have an event village, but it blew away at about 11 o'clock this morning." when I'd made it inside, just under nine and a half hours after starting.

I just about managed to take my own gloves off, but had to ask one of the organisers to unclip my helmet.  "I'll just hang your finisher's medal on your bike shall I?" "Cheers".  Time to grab a hot chocolate and sit inside for a while to warm up while chatting to the other stragglers.  One guy planning a Lands End to John o'Groats ride, another a London-Paris.  I finally pulled myself together enough to ride the few miles home, taking me up to a total of 179.3k for the day - incidentally pretty much the cycle leg from an Ironman triathlon, although rest assured there was no question of me setting off to run a marathon at this point, more like a hot bath followed by inhaling vast quantities of pasta.


It's racing Jim, but not as we know it.

For someone who doesn't consider themselves particularly competitive, when I look back at my life there seems to be quite a lot of racing.  In my teens it was windsurfing, and latterly (as regular readers will know), it's been motorcycle enduro and rallying.

(photo: Tony Ferrari)

I've loved riding the rallies over the last couple of years, and I'll probably do the odd one in the future, but there's a lot of money, time in the garage, and time away from home involved in doing a full season.  Not really compatible with a new baby, so it's time to find a new challenge a bit closer to home.  I've been toying with cyclocross, and there's probably some of that in the future, but it's a winter sport.  In the meantime, I saw a poster for the Derby City Triathlon in the local pool while taking baby Toby for his first dip, thought "why not", and signed up when we got home.

I've done a lot of cycling this year - 1400 miles and counting - but at the time of signing up, the last time I'd run was a five mile or so jaunt around (the admittedly very hilly) Longleat Centre Parcs with a couple of friends which left me hobbling for a couple of days after.  The last time I swam lengths in a pool was probably at a similar time.  I did manage one go at the distance in each in the intervening weeks.  The run - straight off the bike after cycling home from work - resulted in the usual twinges in my right knee.  The swim - on a busy Sunday morning with no lanes - was fine, but took a minute or two longer than I expected.  We'll call that training then.  It's only Sprint distance (400m swim, 20k cycle, 5k run), how hard can it be?

So the day (last Sunday, 31st August) came around, an early getup, and time for another check of the (surprisingly large) pile of kit I'd collected together before loading it and the bike into the truck and setting off for Moorways sports centre with my father-in-law Alan.  I'd been along to collect my number, timing chip and swim hat the day before, so it was straight to the transition area to drop off the bike and kit for the cycle and run.

We were there pretty early, because I thought it was probably a good idea to go to one of the briefings held on the hour through the morning.  Since I was starting at 1012, that meant it had to be the 0900 one, hence the empty racks around my start number.  With hindsight, it didn't tell me anything that wasn't in the online instructions.  After the briefing, we stood and watched people coming through transition for a while before heading up to the pool.

When I'd collected everything together the day before, Sarah had asked why on earth I had put two pairs of goggles in.  That question was answered when, standing poolside with about ten minutes to go and the first pair pushed up on my head, the strap snapped.  Plenty of time to get Alan to throw the other set down from the viewing area.

Eventually, my wave was called forward, ordered into the pool, and given the starting whistle. I had to pass two people from the earlier waves within the first couple of lengths, then had clear water for the rest to concentrate on keeping count of the required 12 lengths.

Out of the pool, exit through the fire exit at the back, and a barefoot run across the grass to the transition area - reminding myself half way not to sprint and wear myself out.

Out onto the bike, and after a few minutes of feeling a bit wierd (body going "hang on, I thought we were swimming?") I settled into it.  Two laps of a fairly flat out-and-back course, with a leg-burning mile or so stretch into the wind on the way out.  Head down and go for it.

Heading back into transition after two laps, I'd passed a lot of earlier starters, and only been passed by one or two people who weren't on full-on time trial bikes.  Not bad, and I was still feeling fairly good going into the run.  That feeling lasted for about the first hundred adrenaline-fuelled yards before, again, my body noticed that it wasn't cycling any more.  I did get into the swing of it about half way round the first of two laps, but was still being passed by far more people than I was catching.  Back around the stadium bowl for the final time and onto the running track for three-quarters of a lap to the finish, there was still something in my lungs and muscles, but by that time my knee was starting to hurt again.

And then it was over, 1h21:53 after I'd started.  The energy drink they were handing out at the finish was, incidentally, disgusting.

The results came out a day or so later, revealing that I'd finished 190th out of 350 starters.  Satisfyingly for those of a data-nerd persuasion, they are made available as a CSV file of everyone's times, including both transitions as well as the swim, bike and run.  Looking at the three parts individually, I set the 113th fastest time for the swim, 128th for the cycle, and 261st for the run.  So far, not terribly surprising - did I mention I'm no good at running?

More embarrassing were the transition times - 331st through the T1 (swim to cycle) transition, and 344th (out of 350 remember) for T2 (cycle to run).  I worked out that if my transition times were around the average of everyone elses, I would have been more than thirty places higher without actually getting any better at any of the three disciplines themselves.

Something to work on then, and I will be trying to do so next Sunday, having entered the (confusingly similarly named) Derby Sprint Triathlon.  In preparation, I've fitted aero-bars to the bike, and perhaps most importantly, replaced the laces in my shoes with elastic ones.