Sprint Duathlon European Championships 2019

This past weekend was the 2019 Multisport European Championships in Targu Mures, Romania, and my first international duathlon race for the Great Britain Age Group team. Since qualifying back in October last year this had been my priority race for 2019 with every subsequent race, training session and avoided beer feeling like a building block towards this event. I’d had a long winter of building my base fitness, commuting to work by bike in the cold and the rain and the dark. And building up the running mileage, either in similar conditions on winter evenings or mindlessly pounding away on a treadmill.

In duathlons last season, running was my weakness so I prioritised this element in my training. It worked, and by Spring I’d set PB’s in two consecutive half marathons. But I suppose unsurprisingly it came at the expense of my cycling power which dropped quite significantly. Multisport races like duathlon and triathlon are a test of your combined speed across all disciplines, so the training cannot be too focussed on any one sport. I ramped up my cycling training and entered lots of local timetrials and crit races to try and bring on some form. By the start of June I was running slightly slower than Spring but still significantly faster than last year, but my cycling was back to the same level as the previous year. It felt like the best compromise.

Collecting my race number

I travelled out to Romania with no real expectations of the race. I was slightly concerned by the possibility of crashing on a draft-legal bike leg – my first duathlon of this format. I just wanted to finish feeling like I’d given it my best and to put on a good show for my wife and kids who’d come out to spectate. And also not to be a neurotic bag of nerves before the race and ruin their holiday! The lack of expectations helped me to stay relaxed in this respect. We had a great family holiday in Targu Mures, spending most of our time at the local outdoor swimming pools. 

You can’t be taken seriously on the international pro circuit if you don’t have an inflatable unicorn!

Opening ceremony – parade & party!

The race was taking place on the city centre streets so I got out a couple of times to recce the course. Unfortunately due to the levels of traffic and stop lights it wasn’t really conducive to do any meaningful training on, but I could see that it would be a flat and fast bike leg, but with a lot of sunken manholes to try and avoid.

Race recce – the day before the race with police escort

Managed to mess up my race number temporary tattoo! Luckily my wife saved the day with a sharpie. Including a rather excellent bat

The race started well and I set off on the first run at fast but manageable pace. After a couple of kilometres I was in a group of about 5 runners and despite it feeling a bit too fast for me, I didn’t want to let them go. I think this is basically the sweet spot in endurance racing – that horrible and painful place that feels neither too fast nor too slow. I think Chris Boardman once said “if you think you can maintain the pace then you’re not going fast enough, and if you think you can’t maintain it then you’ve set off too fast!” 

With a few hundred metres to go to transition I eased off a touch and let the group go ahead of me. My aim in transitions was to be faultless rather than fast so I wanted to give my brain half a chance of achieving this. It worked and I exited transition back with the same group. 

With draft-legal racing at amateur level there’s always going to be an element of luck about who you exit transition with. Personally I think it detracts from the pure form of racing that time-trialling gives, but thems were the rules of this race. Fortunately there were 3 of us in our little group who were immediately prepared to take turns on the front at riding hard. We raced fast and began to hoover up the faster runners ahead of us. Unfortunately some of them clung on to our group, so that by lap 3 of 4 we were a big group of about 15. With only a few of us working. By this point the older age-groupers and women were also all out on the course so it was pretty hectic on the tight city-centre streets. I sat in the group for most of lap 3 to recover, before launching an attack at the start of the final lap. Partly I wanted to put on a show for my wife and kids and come tearing past at the front of the pack; partly I wanted to try and lose some of the wheelsuckers. But mostly my brain just shouted “let’s go” and before I knew it I was giving it full gas and leading out the group. After a minute another GB rider came through and shouted that we’d dropped a load of people. I sat on his wheel until he started to fade and then launched forward again. By this point I was starting to hurt and also worrying that I might be damaging my chances of running hard. I eased off a touch and a Romanian rider came through. We worked together and I recovered slightly, feeling positive that we were down to about 6 riders.

Blowing the peloton to pieces!

The final run really hurt. But it was two out-and-back loops of the city centre so I could see the lead runners and realised I was in a much better position than I had been for the first run. We’d overtaken a lot of the field during the ride. This helped with blocking the pain. The first kilometre lasted an eternity but on a positive note, the pain didn’t actually increase. It stabilised. This is often the way with duathlons – the hardest part of the race is the start of the final run because you’re already on the limit and you force your legs to stop spinning and start running again. They can protest against the pain quite convincingly! All I could thing was ‘keep going, the end is in sight’. I refused to let my pace drop.

On the final approach to the line I heard and saw my family cheering. I gave my 5 year old daughter a high-five as I passed. I looked up and saw the clock on 59:45 so I dug deep and reached the line just under the hour.

It was a great feeling to have finished and to be in the sweaty embraces of athletes from all over Europe. I could tell that I’d finished well in the race, but was delighted to find out I’d finished 4th in my age group, missing the podium by just 22 seconds. It also looks like I had one of the fastest bike splits of the race, including the elites who raced later that morning. The icing on the cake was being told that by finishing within the top 3 GB athletes in my age group, I’d automatically qualified for next year’s European Championships. That’s next year’s summer holiday sorted then!

 

Chew Valley 10K 2019

I ran my local 10K race yesterday, the CV10K. It’s a notoriously challenging course with a monster hill of around 100 metres of steep ascent at the halfway point, followed by more undulating terrain and then a steep descent to the finish line.

My PB was 41:12 from 2017 which was good enough back then for 21st place. Each year there are usually 10 people under 40 minutes out of 1000 entrants which says a lot about the difficulty of the course. My goal this year was to go under 40 mins and finish within the top 10. I’d run a couple of flat 37-38 minute 10K’s this year so I hoped it was achievable.

I arrived at the start line about 15 minutes early feeling well prepared. I was the only person in the sub-40 pen for about five minutes while the whole rest of the Chew Valley walked past making funny jokes. Talk about putting yourself under pressure in your own back yard!

Fortunately a few others soon joined me, including a few elite runners who’d travelled two hours to get there. The top 10 goal started to feel a bit more challenging. I focussed on my sub-40 goal.

My target was to arrive at the foot of Coley Hill at the halfway point an average pace of 3:50/km. I was bang on time and feeling fairly fresh in 9th place. I took the hill nice and steady, still remembering 2017 where I’d gone deep into the red on “The Hill” and really suffered (and then slowed down for the final few kilometres). I overtook one runner just before the top.

At the top my average pace had dropped significantly to 4:05/km which stressed me out a bit. It felt like too much to recover. Especially as the next 2km were very undulating. I pushed on, trying to maintain a decent pace but was really starting to hurt on each rise.

I arrived at 8km with my average speed at 4:04/km. Fortunately the final 2km is mostly downhill so I just threw myself down it, much to the angry protestations in my quads! I started to worry they might cramp up. I knew walking later on was going to hurt! By the bottom of the hill and with 500 metres to go I looked at my watch which said 3:59/km average. Success and time to just enjoy the rest of the race and the loud support from the streets. Or so I thought!

Someone shouted at me to say I was in 8th. But after I’d passed the clapping continued. That’s weird, I thought. There was nobody behind me at the top of the descent. I glanced over my shoulder to see two runners closing in. I’m not normally one for aggressive, competitive finishes. I’m normally too tired to have saved anything for a sprint finish. But I dug in and really attacked. I saw a sign saying 400 metres. After what seemed like an age I turned a corner expecting to see the finish line … and saw a sign saying 200 metres! WTF!!

I pushed on, but also glanced back and saw I’d put a bit of distance back into my followers. This somewhat eased the pain. Not long after I saw the line and sprinted over it for 8th place in a time of 39:40.

I stuck around at the line chatting to other runners for a while. And then hobbled back to HQ to meet my wife and kids for the 1K fun run!

My 5 year old daughter did a fantastic job on the 1K. She kept going for the whole two laps without stopping, even saying after that she’d started to feel tired but didn’t want to stop. My 2 year old jogged a little, walked a little and then got on my shoulders. We did one lap, getting lapped by my daughter and ending up in last place! As they say, you’re only as good as your last race!!

Chew Valley 10K. Great day out for the family. We’ll be back next year

Castle Combe Duathlon – June 2019

The low-key nature of a midweek local race means you can test stuff without the risk of messing up a big race. One of the hardest things to judge in multi-sport endurance racing is pacing, so my goal this week was to hold back on Run 1 and spread my effort across the whole race.

I finished the first run in 7th place feeling good. Unfortunately I had a bit of a ‘mare in T1 with my visor popping off my helmet and flying off across the tarmac (I’m sure I recently wrote a few words for 220 Triathlon magazine which mentioned having “a simple unfussy helmet” – need to practice what I preach)

I started the bike in 9th place and overtook quite a few people to finish it in 4th. I lost a place at the start of the run to a faster runner but then had the great feeling of putting distance into everyone else behind me. The pacing plan worked well and I had the luxury of finishing a minute ahead of the next person with nothing but empty track behind me

As the A-Team always said: “I love it when a plan comes together.” I just need to execute this in a big race rather than cocking it up in one of the many ways i tend to do. There’s a-whole-nother article in “all the ways I’ve f**ked up a big race” Next stop Romania in 3 weeks for the European Duathlon Championships.

Darley Moor Sprint Duathlon 2019

I raced at Darley Moor today in the Euro 2020 Sprint Duathlon qualifier. We decided to turn the trip into a family mini-break to the Peak District and headed up on Friday for a couple of days exploring the beautiful countryside in the Spring sunshine.

Seemingly, as with every big Duathlon event I’ve done, today’s weather was grim. It was good to have experienced racing in the monsoon of Bedford last year. I learned from that and tried to avoid too much procrastinating while staring at the sky.

“Go Daddy!”

Darley Moor was the race last year where I accidentally did an extra lap on the bike and killed my race. It’s easily done on such a short circuit (8 laps for 20km). My goal this year was to learn from that experience too and to generally avoid any obvious cock ups.

I started at what should have been a manageable pace on the run but began to suffer quite hard. I’m not exactly sure why. Possibly as it was my first Duathlon in over six months. It was nothing catastrophic, it just meant I needed to rein it in a touch.

The bike went well. The track felt slippery so I made sure to keep upright on the corners. I maintained a good speed and overtook quite a few riders while recovering from overdoing it on the first run.

My final run hurt. Especially as I was again going slower than I wanted. I persevered and crossed the line in a respectable time. I think I missed out on automatic qualification for next year’s Euros by just 3 seconds. But a few “roll down” places are offered to the fastest 5 or 6 runners-up over all the qualifying events. I’m currently fastest runner-up over the past two events with one to go so hopefully a roll-down place is fairly secure.

It was great to have my wife and kids along to support and to turn it into a fun weekend away. Despite the appearance of the photo above I think at least one of them had a good time!

Once home and unpacked I took the kids out for a cycle. They both wanted to do a duathlon so they ended up running and cycling and running up and down the street! It was pretty cute

Cat 4 criterium racing

The European Triathlon Union (ETU) have changed the rules of my upcoming European Duathlon Championships race in Romania next month. Despite all of the qualifying races being draft-illegal bike legs (ie solo timetrialling), the ETU have decided to make the actual championship race draft-legal (ie criterium-style road racing). This will change the dynamic of the race, and is also a form of racing I’m unfamiliar with.

Rather than moan about it, I decided to just get some crit practice.

This evening I took part in a Cat 4 (the lowest ranking category of road racing) race at Odd Down in Bath. Odd Down is a dedicated cycling race track, about 1.5km long with about 4 sharp corners per lap.

My aim was to hang in the lead bunch to gain experience of racing in a tight pack. And not crash. With a Duathlon qualifier this weekend for next year’s Euros, a crash would be very bad.

It was a 45 minute race. The basic format being that you ride for 40 minutes and then you get a countdown for 3 final laps. About 40 of us started the race. Within a couple of laps there was a lead group of 20 riders. It felt fairly comfortable riding / drafting in the group. I did a couple of long turns on the front but went a bit too deep the second time around and was almost dropped when the pack rode over me. I had to go even deeper for another lap just to cling on. This was a good learning experience: Don’t be a hero!

I hung in the pack from then on. After my first stint on the front, a guy came up the outside and said “on your right”. I thought he’d said “are you alright?” So I replied “yeah I’m good. You alright?” He got a bit funny and asked if I was being sarcastic. He later beat me in the sprint so I guess he had the last laugh!

With a lap to go I was still there. The pace had really lifted so it felt physically and tactically very difficult to move forward in the group. I probably could have been a bit more aggressive on the final two corners and gotten nearer the front, but in the end I had to settle for a hard sprint for about 10th place. All in all a success and a great learning experience.

It was a good physical workout. My power meter says I spent 11 of the 45 minutes at +400 watts which was mostly sprinting out of every corner. And my heart rate was at threshold for about half an hour. I also hit my max heart rate of the year so a good training session. Time now to rest for Sunday’s Duathlon…

Paris-Roubaix Challenge 2019

I travelled down to France at the weekend to ride the Paris-Roubaix Challenge with a few friends. 175km and over 50km of the infamous cobbles. I had no idea what to expect.


We arrived at the Roubaix Velodrome on Friday afternoon to collect our race numbers. The organisers were busy hand-painting the advertising signage on the track – it was like a scene from ‘A Sunday in Hell’ and seemed magically grass-roots and low-key for such a famous monument of cycling races.

It was a cold and early start on Saturday for our event. But once the sun came out it warmed up – we couldn’t have asked for better conditions really. Paris-Roubaix always seems a better spectacle in the mud and rain, but I was pretty happy to be riding it in good conditions. It can rain next year!

There were 3 of us from Chew Valley CC taking part. Unfortunately we were down to 2 after a couple of hours. A snapped spoke the cause of an early retirement. The brutal cobbles take no prisoners.

The cobbled sectors lasted much longer than I’d expected. There are 29 sectors of “pavé”, covering over 50km. I think in my head, after watching the professionals fly over the cobbles I was expecting the sectors to be about 500 metres in length. If I’d done the maths I could have worked out that their average length is 1.7km. Some of the sectors were up to 4km and felt like they took all morning to get to the end!

Before the event, people I’d spoken to had recommended hitting the cobbles at top speed and trying to maintain that momentum. Initially this “momentum” lasted around the halfway point of a sector before my speed started to drop. But by the end it had declined to the extent that I was bouncing along at a snail’s pace, like Superman exposed to Kryptonite. Fortunately my fitness is good at the moment so I managed to get back up to speed between the sectors and finish the event in a fairly respectable time.

We’d made a pact to ride down the centre of all the cobbles. “We didn’t come all this way to ride in the gutter” etc. etc. It turns out that this macho BS approach is very British … and also very foolish. By the end of the ride I was unashamedly riding in the gutter with everyone else. The cumulative effect of hours on the cobbles takes its toll on your body. At the end I confessed to this sin within the confines of the Velodrome and was granted forgiveness by the monks of Roubaix!

I rode 28mm tyres at about 90psi. It was like holding a jackhammer for hours. Lots of people were riding wide-tyres gravel or full-suspension mountain bikes. Initially I thought they were cheating. But by the end I realised they were smart!

Things that hurt the most: my hands felt like they were on fire; my biceps felt like they were about to be torn from my arms; my head felt like I had a splitting hangover from being shaken around so much. My bum and legs also felt the pain.

Finishing in the stadium was a great climax to a long day in the saddle.

It was a good experience … but possibly only needs to be experienced once.

We headed to the Arenberg Forest the next day to watch the pro race. We walked the full length of the 5* pavé before the race. The cobbles were terrifyingly uneven. It was hard work just walking along them. If I’d done this as a recce before our ride I would have had nightmares about riding on them!

We had a bit of time to kill before the race arrived. In preparation for the cold weather I’d brought some thermal tights. I decided to go for a run in them, also wearing my cycling jersey and cap. It seemed like the Euro thing to do! Plus they had a handy little pocket in the front to hold my phone!

The atmosphere was great fun. Loads of singing and cheering. And when the race arrived and the pro’s hit the cobbles at full gas it was incredible. An exciting end to a fun (and very tiring) weekend away.


Chew to Kew

It’s always a great sense of accomplishment to travel somewhere far away by bike. Other than commuting to work, my cycling usually involves travelling in loops from home to home. So it’s always fun when the opportunity arises to use the bike as a genuine mode of transport.

On Thursday I rode from the Chew Valley (Someset) to Kew Gardens (London), a distance of 132 miles / 213km. I left at 7.30am and arrived just before 5pm. Total riding time was 8 hours, plus regular stops for coffee, pasties, sandwiches, chocolate and more coffee.

7:30am start – 21st century “bike-packing”

I was going to ride the steel-frame touring bike, but a friend lent me his seat-pack so that I could ride the carbon fibre lightweight bike. I reckon this probably saved about an hour on the journey time compared to the heavy old steel frame plus rack and panniers. When you’re staying in hotels and buy all your food with a credit card you’re basically cheating at proper touring anyway, so you may as well go the whole hog and ride a race bike!

It was fairly mild when I left, but then I entered a thick cloud of fog which seemed to cover most of Wiltshire. For at least an hour I rode along saying “f**k it’s cold” on repeat. Travelling light has its limitations on kit so I just had to man-up and ride on.

Fog angst – this innocuous, mildly inclement weather resulted in some persistent swearing

I ended up riding through parts of Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, Surrey and London. I stuck to quiet lanes and B-roads so it was like a trip through the lost lands of middle England; places unvisited by the fast-paced A-roads and motorways. With the sunshine it was blissful. A land of fields, tractors, thatched roofs and the raw smells of manure!

Pewsey White Horse on the hills in the background (Wiltshire)

The roads were quiet and I hardly encountered any bad driver incidents, which was good. I think the worst moment was a lorry driving too fast down a dusty lane. I pulled off the road and we exchanged un-plesantries as he passed. He was quickly followed by an old gent driving a TVR who looked just like Michael Caine, who shouted “don’t mind a bit of dust do you fella!” and sped off before I could explain that it was the out-of-control, 10 tonnes of metal that I’d minded rather than the effing dust. I spent the next ten minutes thinking that it definitely had been Michael Caine, and the next ten minutes deciding that it definitely hadn’t been Michael Caine. This is the kind of petty, repetitive nonsense that goes on in my head during a long ride. Which is a nice change from the stresses of normal life.

“Was that? It definitely was! No, surely he wouldn’t be driving a bloody TVR… “
With great views comes great amounts of climbing!

The last hour was a bit of a slog through the never-ending suburbia of Greater London and then Central London. 7 hours of quiet countryside, followed by an hour of traffic lights, cars and pollution so thick you can taste it. For all its positives there’s a lot about London that I don’t miss – traffic being one of them. I’m not sure whether I’d cycle if I lived there now. Maybe I’m just not used to the stress and intensity of that type of riding any more. It felt dangerous.

Crossing the serene Thames in Kew (f**k-loads of traffic everywhere not in the photo)

I arrived at Kew at 5pm. Timed perfectly for beer o’clock. My wife joined me the following morning, having driven in the support vehicle so there was fortunately no need to cycle home again. A great adventure and nice to put the fitness to practical use.

“Pint of Camden Taaan, guv” – Looks authentic, but was actually a pint of Cornish ale!