Monday, 13 August 2012

Excruciatingly close now

Having spent the last 2 weeks watching the Olympics on the TV, I can tell you that my patience is wearing thin. Watching superb performance after superb performance has taken it's toll on me. That must sound really odd... but it's really just a matter of wanting to get out there and do it myself now. And it's not long off now!

So what have I been up to in these final days before the Paralympics begin? As always – training. Not training harder than usual though. In fact... less. The hard work is already done, so it's a matter of putting the finishing touches on everything. And I can tell you, this is the hardest part of all.

Last weekend I was back in Ireland for the final mini-camp with the entire Paralympic team. The weather was poor – wet most days. Coupled with a stifling hot hotel room and somehow I managed to pick up a cold or the flu. Coughing, sore throat phlegm, etc. Not pleasant. And it's slowed me down a bit. I had to take a few days off the bike to try and recover quickly. With 3 weeks to go until competition begins, it's not critical to train every day. But it IS critical to make sure that the sniffles don't turn into something worse that can harm my chances at gold when it counts.

So I had to rest up a few days and then ease back into the training. It's not easy for someone how likes to work hard, and especially tough as I was coming into some great form before the minor setback hit. Still, with a fair bit of hard work still to do, a few extra days of rest will serve me well in the long(er) run.

I've also now got my mother visiting from Canada for a few days. Before she came I warned her that I had to train/race and she obviously understood this. But just having her around all the time makes it a little bit harder for me to relax, rest up and get my preparations to the point where I am happy.

This all makes me appreciate more so the upcoming holding camp. In a few days we will all fly to Portugal to put the finishing touches on our training. Everyone leaves their friends, family, kids, jobs, and distractions behind and we put our race heads on. Even having these minor distractions to deal with the past few days makes me realize the importance of the camp.

I've also been spending these last few days making sure all my equipment is tested and ready to go. There's been a steady incoming stream of new toys to install and test out and so far I am very pleased with the results. A few more bits are overdue and will have to be forwarded on, but each little thing contributes to the overall package – and ultimately faster times. 

I've been told to manage expectations – to my friends/family/the general public. I don't want to come out and guarantee a gold medal as that would be foolish. Anything can happen and as we have all seen recently, people at the Games are capable of 'superhuman' performances. The favourite doesn't always win. And make no mistake about it – I AM (one) of the favourites.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to win. Not just for me – but for every single one of you that have followed me and are reading this right now. I want to share my success with all of you – because you all help make it that much more special and worthwhile. It's nice to know people are watching, cheering you on and will be genuinely happy for you if you win.

So, even though I want to win – my goal is first and foremost to be on that podium at the end of the day. I'd like to be the one standing in the middle... and I know it;s in my grasp. It's there for the taking. The results I've been putting up just prior to getting sick prove it. I can't control what anyone else will do, but I can assure you I'll be coming hard and with everything I've got. And I just happen to think me at my best is better than anyone else at their best.

So, what is left now? One last training session at the Manchester Velodrome in the morning, then it's home to pack. On a plane for Dublin first thing on Wednesday morning and meet up with the rest of the  team. There's going to be a fantastic send-off party (at Bewley's Hotel at theDublin Airport) on Wednesday night before we all hop a plane to Portugal on Thursday. We will train there for a week before packing up again and finally... head into the Olympic Village in London. 

We then have a week to get settled. We'll get our first training sessions on the London Velodrome and really start to dial in for race day. A few days later and it'll be OUR Opening Ceremonies. I can't wait to walk into that stadium with 80,000 people in attendance and millions more watching worldwide. I hope all of you will be watching too!

And then... 2 days later... it's game on. Years of hard work will be put to the test. It'll be my time to shine. From here on out the communications may be few and far between – but I hope you'll follow on Facebook or Twitter or just turn your TVs to the coverage and watch. Be inspired. Be in awe. ANd for the lucky ones – be in attendance.

I thank all of you that have been a part of this journey from the start and those that have joined as we've gone along. And it doesn't end here either! But for now – I'm off to bed to rest up for my final day of training at home. So - stay tuned?

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Taking in the Tour

As a partner post to my review of LeDomestique Tours and their Pyranees base, this post is all about my experience of seeing the Tour de France up close and personal. Please see my other post (Climbing to the Top with LeDomestique Tours) for details of the rest of my trip.

It's always been a dream of mine, probably since I first watched the Tour de France as a teenager. Seeing the crowds that line the sides of the roads on the big mountain stages, pushing in on the riders until barely one can pass through the middle of the heaving masses has always made me yearn to be there and experience it in person.

Several years ago I was in Paris for the final day of the Tour, but due to some scheduling problems, all I managed to see was the peloton whiz by me at high speed. They were gone in a flash and that was it. It was all very disappointing. But to be at the top of a steep climb, late in a stage and be able to watch the riders coming up in dribs and drabs and be able to see the pain on their faces as they slowly pass by is worth travelling to France for. As is riding up the climb yourself first to get to the top before they do!

And so recently, as a guest of LeDomestique Tours, I spent a week in the Pyrenees mountains, riding the big climbs and taking in 2 days of the Tour de France. The first day I arrived at their base and managed to get out for a quick ride, but the main action was to take place over the next 2 following days.

I awoke on the second day full of excitement and energy. Today we would be riding out to one of the big climbs and we planned to place ourselves near the summit to see the riders go by. We wanted to be at one of the steeper locations so we could see them go by as slow as possible. However, as this trip was more than a cycling sight-seeing holiday for me, I wanted to also make sure I got some quality training done each day. At breakfast I asked if any of the other cyclists wanted to join me for a ride before we headed out to the Tour.

After some cajoling, John (who had been there for over a week already) agreed to join me on a 'quick' spin up the nearest climb – the Col d'Azet – which we could see clearly from the house. It was almost across the road from our base and looked easy enough, although the road did disappear out of sight into the clouds rather quickly. Nevertheless we hopped on our bikes and pedalled out to the base of the climb no more than 10 minutes away.

The climb is around 7.5km in length and has an average gradient of 8.3%, gaining 2035 feet in elevation. At the time this didn't mean that much to me. We hit the climb at a steady pace and the road quickly headed upwards. The first 3km of this particular climb are quite hard. I soon found myself out of the saddle and my heart rate, along with the road, headed north steadily. At each kilometre on the climb there is a sign to tell you how much further to the top and the average gradient of the next kilometre. As the signs counted down from ten to five I could feel myself start to struggle. I was already drenched in sweat from the effort and having left home without a bottle (thinking I wouldn't need one for such a short ride), was also starting to feel the effects of mild dehydration.

We hit the halfway point and the road flattened out a bit before ramping up again steeply. As we came up to the sign for 4km to go, I saw the next section had an average gradient of 10% and I decided to throw in the towel. I was already wrecked and the thought of carrying on, and still having to do the climbs later in the day to get to the Tour, was enough for me to have some sense and turn back. I didn't want to end up getting stranded on a mountainside later int he day because i had blown my lights before lunchtime!

So we descended back to home base and I retired to my room to lick my wounds and get some fluids into me. I was not off to a stellar start. A short time later the whole gang assembled for the ride out to the Tour. Despite the failed ride of the morning, I was greatly looking forward to this. We set off down the road and as we cruised steadily along the valley I felt great once again. After a few miles we turned off the main road and started up the first climb of the day – the Horquette d'Ancizan. Some of the stronger riders immediately came to the front and started to tap out a steady pace up the climb. I tried to follow but within minutes realise they were going at a pace I couldn't possibly hope to sustain. I dropped back and carried on at my own pace knowing that I would get up the climb…eventually.

And for the next hour all I did was suffer. The road just went up, and up and up. At least this time I had fluids with me but the hot temperatures meant I was going through my bottles at an alarming rate. The other riders were long since out of sight and I was getting a little upset with myself for how slow I was going. Like the previous climb of the day, there were signs at each kilometre to tell you how much further to the top. With 1km to go I dug in deep and made the push for the top. I crested the final bit of road and nearly collapsed in a heap, much to the enjoyment of the other riders.

From the top of this climb we dropped quickly back down through some twisting roads, stopping only once briefly to avoid a herd of wild donkeys that were crossing the road. Another quick climb and then I was treated to one of the best descents I had ever experienced. The road swopped left and right but we barely had to touch the brakes. We found ourselves hitting the 40mph and almost 50mph mark in spots. It was breathtaking.

A short ride later and we were at the bottom of the Col d'Aspin - the second last climb of the day's Tour stage. It's actually a fairly easy climb in comparison to some of the others I had already done – just an easy 6km to the top from where we were. As we rode gently up the climb, navigating our way through the throngs of people that had come to line the side of the roads and cheer on the riders, I was 'treated' to the constant jeering of "Cavendeeesh" by many of the spectators. This due to the World Champs kit (my own) that I was wearing. You would think that these great cycling fans would know the difference between a TT World Champs jersey and a road World Champs jersey! However, the brighter people in the crowd and other riders on the road, once they saw the carbon leg, did the math and realised I was a Paralympic rider. I got applause and congratulation and encouragement from these folks - and it was heartwarming.

Once we reached the top of the Col d'Aspin I had many people come up to me and ask about the jersey and the leg. In my broken french, I was able to explain who I was and about the Paralympics. SOme had photos taken with me, others offered beer or drinks to me (I declined) and all promised to watch for me in London. It turns out cycling fans are fans of all aspects of the sport, once you give therm a chance!

For the next few hours we parked ourselves on the side of the road, about 100m from the top of the climb. If you haven't been to see the Tour before, there is a publicity caravan that rolls through for about an hour well before the riders come through. It's a series of cars, floats and promotional vehicles that hand out all sorts of 'souvenirs' to the crowd. Everything from keychains to hats to chocolate milk mix. It's a good distraction to help pass the time.

After another hour's wait the helicopters started to appear overhead signalling the approach of the first riders. Looking down the road we could see the people suddenly close in and it was clear someone was com in cup the road. As the lead motorcycle opened up a hole in the crowds for the rider to follow, we caught sight of the rider who had broken away early in the stage. It was Thomas Voekler – a French fan favourite. Despite the steepness of the hill, he still flew by us rather quickly. It is then you start to realise how much better these guys are than yourself. The fact they can still fly up a climb like this, despite already having ridden over 150km, faster than you could if you had just started your ride!

And he was soon followed by more riders – some on their own and some in smaller groups. It wasn't long before the Yellow Jersey group of Bradley Wiggins came floating up the road. I leaned out in front of each group of riders, shouting encouragement (and trying to make sure the folks back home could catch a glimpse of me on the TV!). It was electric.

Another 20 minutes or so passed as the slower riders came past before the 'autobus' finally came grinding up the hill. This is the last big group of the day, usually comprised of sprinters, non climbers and riders that may have worked hard early in the stage for their team. It was followed by a vehicle indicating that there were no more riders on the road. Then came all the team cars and a host of other vehicles. And then… just like that… it was over. Fans began to disperse and the long traffic jam of caravans and cars that had driven up to watch the stage started their very slow descent off the mountain.

We hopped on our bikes and picked our way through the cars, making the long descent back down in to the valley. All told, it still took us an hour and a half to ride back to the house. We were tired, sunburned but it had been worth every second of pain and toil to get up there to watch. An everlasting memory was made this day.

The following day we did it all again – this time riding from our base, up over the Col de Peyresourde and down into the start town for the day. We found a cafe and sat in the cold eating omelettes and drinking coffee while we waited for the stage to start. At just before 1:00 they rolled past our vantage point and out of town for the second big climbing day in the Pyrenees. We retraced our steps back up the very long climb back up the Peyresourde. The riders would hit this same climb much later in the day so we were able to get up it before the road was closed. Once again, I found the climb incredibly difficult and at times didn't think I would get all the way up. I even had to stop to catch my breath a few times. But eventually made it up to our vantage point, about 1km from the top of this climb. The riders would be ending he stage only 6km from where we were so we expected to see some fireworks from where we were watching. We were also able to see quite far down the mountain as the road snaked it's way up from down below so we would catch some great views of the riders.

As with the previous day, we were first treated to the publicity caravan before the main event began. The wait was much shorter for us this time though and it wasn't long before the lead rider, Alejandro Valverde) came up the hill. He didn't have much of a gap though from the Wiggins group that came chasing soon after. In the end he would win the stage by a scant 40 seconds.

And so, my Tour experience was over. I had been treated to some up-close-and-personal action and seen the Tour firsthand. I had been close enough to the riders to reach out and touch them if I had wanted to (but didn't as I can't stand the spectators that push and slap the riders as they go by). Even when the stage was over, we saw many of the riders heading past us as the rode back down to where their team busses had parked. It just makes you realise how accessible a sport like cycling is to the public and how easy it is for fans to engage with the riders (to some degree) if they want to.

I am in debt to LeDom Tours for having me along and allowing me to experience all this. And my trip was far from over. I still had several days of riding and climbing to come! But that's a different story!

The Tour de France. Live. My week in the Pyrenees with LeDomestique Tours.

Earlier this year a company in the UK called LeDomestique Tours ( got in touch with me and asked if I would like to do an event with them in the UK. Due to some scheduling  problems the event never materialised. 

A view from one of the mountain tops
However, LeDom (as they are known to me) also graciously invited me to come to their base in the Pyrenees for a week of my choosing to check out their facilities and do some riding in the massive hills that surround the area. After consulting my (rather busy) schedule, I selected their "Watch the Pros" week. It fell at the end of my track camp in Majorca and I would be in need of some long road rides so it seemed like a perfect fit. And of course, there was also the chance to view 2 stages of the Tour de France up close and personal as they rode through the area!

LeDom is the brainchild of soon-to-be husband and wife, Rob and Laura. Just over a year ago both were working for a law firm and realised they wanted out. After a lot of thought and planning, they handed in their notice and headed for the hills of southern France and began running cycling tours out of their base in the Pyrenees. A year later and the business is starting to pay dividends.

They have a very simple yet effective set-up. They collect you and your bike from the Toulouse airport (2 hours away) and house you in their spacious chalet. Tours are generally between 3 and 7 days but they can accommodate virtually any length of stay that you want. They house you, feed you and provide guided and fully supported rides through the local mountains. Or you can go off and explore on your own if you choose – packages are available to suit any budget.

Laura takes care of the house and does all the cooking, whilst Rob drives the support vehicle. It's incredibly convenient as you can pack all your gear in the car and refill your water bottles or collect food at any time. Rob just drives up the road ahead of you and is never more than 10 minutes away. On certain days he'll even drive you and your bike to some of the climbs further afield that may be out of riding range. In all honesty, the level of support provided is greater than I normally get on a squad training camp!

I was met at the airport by Laura and settled in for the 2 hour drive to home base. Laura was incredibly inquisitive about my cycling exploits, asking loads of questions about my preparations for the Paralympics. This is one of her charms – distracting me from the long drive by forcing me to talk about myself for 2 hours! But it's always a pleasure to chat with interested parties.

We arrived at the house and after a quick tour of the spacious premises, I very quickly built up my bike as I was keen to get out and explore some of the local countryside. Rob soon arrived and agreed to take me out for my inaugural spin. But rather than do so from the comfort of the car, he joined me on the road on his own bike. Rob, despite his protestations, is an accomplished cyclist on his own having ridden the Race Across America (RAAM) last summer as part of a team from his former law firm. It was probably on this trip that the idea for LeDom Tours first was born. 

Rob and I spent the next hour climbing up one of the easier local climbs. And yet it was longer than anything I had ever done in the UK. It was a great way to tickle my appetite for the days and climbs that lay ahead. At the top, Rob turned for home, and I descended down the opposite side of the climb and down into the valley below. I was able to trace part of the route that was to be used in the Tour's visit the following day. Camper vans lined much of the road on both sides – a constant reminder of the festivities that were to follow in less than 24 hours.

Me and some of the other guests taking in the Tour
Returning to the house, I was introduced to the rest of the guests – a mixture of riders that had been there for a while or just arrived as I had done. Some had been there for over a week, having participated in the Étape du Tour while others had just arrived for a couple of days in the hills. All-in-all, a very good and fun bunch of guys.

Dinner was served to the group by Laura who, it has to be said, puts on a good spread. The food is plentiful and tasty and provides the right mix of fuel you need for the long hours in the saddle. And there's even a tasty desert to satisfy the sweet-tooth. After dinner I was able to sit around chatting with the other guests until it was time to turn in. I had one of the bigger rooms all to myself in the upstairs of the house. Each floor actually has it's own kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities just in case you need them, however if you drop your dirty clothes with Laura at dinner time, they are washed and dry for you the next day. That's service that's tough to beat.

The next 2 days were spent watching the Tour. I have done a separate write-up for this as it was an event in itself). See my post "Taking in the Tour" for details.

After the Tour had left the area there were still several days of riding to enjoy. A new set of guests arrived as most of the previous group departed. During these last few days I got the advantage of Rob's first-class guidance. We did some of the local climbs first before jumping in the car and driving out to the base of the Tourmalet for one of the biggest days of climbing. In fact, it was to be the single hardest day of climbing I've ever done!

Top of the Tourmalet
On this day we traced part of the route that the Tour had followed a few days before. Climbing the Tourmalet was a daunting task, especially as we drove over it before actually riding it. The sheer height and length of it was scary at first, but once on the road it was a lot easier. It's a long climb – almost 20km in length – and it took me an hour and 45 minutes of non-stop riding to reach the summit. But slow and steady wins the race. This is the secret to many of these big climbs – pacing. Just picking a pace you can manage for the length of the climb. Definitely useful to have a power meter for this!

Reaching the top we stopped for a quick bite to eat before starting the epic descent down the other side. Much of the road is sweeping and the bike easily approaches speeds of up to 50mph. Good descending skills certainly help, as does good judgement. It helps to know where to brake and how to corner (whether sweeping or hairpin) in order to minimise speed losses. But the descents are what make the climbs worthwhile.

Top of the Aspin
From the bottom of the Tourmalet, it's a short trip along a valley before the ascent of the next hill, the Col d'Aspin. We had actually ridden the climb on the Tour day so I knew what to expect. The nice thing on this day though, was with much less traffic on the road, the descent on the far side was much faster and unhindered by slow-moving cars.

The final (7th) day of climbing nearly broke me. Rob and Laura (both in the lead car) took us up an even bigger climb than the Tourmalet. But by this point I had reached my limit. The other riders (who I had easily left behind me on the climbs on the previous days) pedalled away from me with ease. Each time I reached the car I wanted to climb in and go home. And yet, up and up I went. And it was worth it. At the top of Lac de Cap de Long is a huge lake and hydro-electic dam. The views are stunning also. And the satisfaction of knowing I had made it all the way up under my own power was the ultimate reward.

That was it for riding for me. Myself and my 2 fellow riders spent our final afternoon in the local town of St. Lary – a pleasant village full of cafés, fresh meat and cheese shops and souvenir spots. You can tell it's a hopping place in ski season, but equally enticing in the summer.

And so, it was time for me to return home. I had done over 38,000 feet of climbing in 7 days. As someone who used to fear going uphill (because of the effort required) I left with a sense of security, knowing that I had ridden up some of the harder climbs in the world. And what has it done for my fitness? Well, after taking off one day to rest up, I hit my local 10-mile time trial course and rode a personal best time on it. Followed by another one a few days later. It seems all this slow uphill stuff can help you go fast on the flat too!

All in all, if you are a cycling enthusiast and relish the challenge of riding some big hills, with little pressure and in a relaxed atmosphere, I can't recommend LeDom Tours enough. The service they gave me was second to none. There is little doubt in my mind that the benefits that just one week of riding with them has given my preparations for the Paralympics is enough to put me over the top (pardon the pun). I was able to push myself beyond what I though possible, for days at an end, and came away a better rider for it.

I have promised Rob and Laura proper thanks should I win any medals in London. But I'm not waiting until then – I'm saying it now: THANKS!!!

Now... bring on London!