Friday, 26 June 2015

Dartmoor Classic 2015

I cycled the Dartmoor Classic for the second time this year, having entered it in 2014 with my friend Simon as the first ever sportive either of us had done. This year Simon didn't enter due to a jealousy-inducing French cycling trip that almost overlaps the Classic and involves riding up bloody big mountains, so I planned to ride on my own.

Around a month before the event, one of the guys from the cycle club I often go riding with, Ian, said he's doing the Dartmoor Classic too, and conveniently (like me) he was entered into the full 107-mile ride. Ian then suggested that we ride together, which is clearly a good idea.

See, what most people don't realise is that cycling is a team sport, but absolutely unique in that even some of your competitors can temporarily be part of an imprompto "team" you find yourself a member of. When riding in a group, all members of the group get to go faster than what they can when riding on their own, and especially when cycling into a headwind this makes a massive difference. Cyclists

will bunch together, often with only a 6 inch gap between the rear wheel of the leading rider and the front wheel of the rider following behind. This creates a major aerodynamic advantage for the following cyclist, who doesn't have to use quite as much energy as a result, and that in turn simply means they can keep going for longer, and at higher speeds.

Last year I had my sights set on gaining a bronze medal in the 107-mile event, and Simon and I both succeeded in that goal. My official time was 7:48, meaning I'd missed a silver by 14 minutes. While it would've been great to have gotten a silver, last year I simply didn't have the fitness required to go any faster, and I was totally worn out towards the end.

For 2015, I set my sights on winning a silver medal. I'd been putting in the miles, and I knew I'd gotten faster. Now I've never followed any actual training plan, and like last year my training consisted of mainly cycle-commuting with a backpack, with the fairly regular Saturday morning rides thrown into the mix. Some of these rides were of reasonable length, though none came close to the distance of the Dartmoor Classic.

What was different for 2015 is that I'd started pushing myself harder. Especially when cycle-commuting, it becomes so easy to get stuck in a rut, riding the same route at the same pace, day after day. I use Strava to log all my rides, even little ones, and could see my average speed slowly improving. Where once I was chuffed at averaging 14mph to work, or back home, now I was disappointed if my average speed wasn't at least 15mph. This focus on average speed was a good thing, I believe.

I'd also changed the cassette on my bike's rear wheel. The stock cassette was a 12-25, and I replaced that with an 11-28. The difference was huge! My bike has triple chainrings, and I was used to changing to the granny ring to haul myself up big hills, but found with the 11-28 I could ride up those same hills while staying in the middle ring. After a while, I started pushing myself more, and managed to cycle all the way home while staying in the big ring. Given how hilly my commute is, I'm proud of that, even though I was actually slower when I only rode in the big ring.

My co-conspirator for the 2015 Dartmoor Classic is a fast rider, certainly faster than me and I knew I'd have my work cut out for me trying to keep up with him! Ian also has a FAR better bike than mine. You know some tosser who thought he'd won 7 Tour de France races once wrote a book called "It's not about the bike"? Well, he wasn't quite right - the bike can make a big difference!

I ride a B'Twin Triban 500. It's essentially a supermarket bike from a French company called Decathlon. For its price it offer impressive value, but there's simply no escaping the fact that it's a cheap bike, and the stock wheels it came with are really only good enough for rolling it out of the shop. I'd replaced the stock wheels with Mavic Aksiums. These are entry-level "faster" wheels, and I quite like them. They have very low rolling resistance, and I became used to freewheeling faster than most other riders on downhills. They suffer from two major flaws though: there is NO groove to indicate rim wear at all, and the alloy the rims are made from is about as durable as butter in a heat wave.

Four days before the Dartmoor Classic the rear rim gave out. I'd worn it through and it simply flared open, causing me to have a rear-wheel blow-out at around 20mph. Fortunately, this was on a flat, straight road. The fastest I'd ever gone on a bicycle was during the 2014 Dartmoor Classic, where I clocked 53mph coming down Peak Hill. I shudder to think what would happen if I suffered a blow-out down that hill, at that sort of speed!

Careful examination showed the front rim was close to suffering the same fate as the rear one, and I decided to remove the Mavic wheels from the bike. Now the stock B'Twin wheels only last around 1000 miles before the bearings go on the rear hub, and perhaps 1500 miles before the same happens on the front hub. I'd replaced the rear hub with a Shimano Claris hub, which isn't exactly top of the range, but it meant I had a solid, if slightly heavy rear wheel to use. Sadly, on the front I was stuck with the stock B'Twin hub, and the bearings on that had started to give up. Still, it was the only front wheel I had, so it simply had to do the job, even if it wasn't as free-spinning as I'd have liked. I simply didn't have the budget to go and splash out on new wheels.

On the Saturday I drove us up to Newton Abbott to register, and on the Sunday morning Ian drove us up for the start of the ride. Riders were setting off from 6am, but Ian and I both felt that was too early for us, and we arrived in time to set off at 7am. The skies were cloudy and there was a slight chill in the air - a marked difference from 2014, when it was a scorcher. Ian parked at the rugby club and we cycled to the start where we were pretty much the last 2 cyclists to joing a batch of riders about to set off.

Our strategy was simple: find other riders going at about the pace we wanted to ride at, and stick with them. Right from the start we fell in with a group wearing Royal British Legion jerseys, but as soon as the hills started after Bovey Tracey, their speed nosedived and we left them behind as we rode on. Before long we hit the first of the serious climbs where this year there was a Strava King/Queen of the Mountains segment (my time was 6 minutes 43 seconds, way slower than the KOM time of 4 minutes 4 seconds!). Soon after that we crested Haytor, but I'd forgotten how steep the next climb was.

Holne Chase had some riders walking their bikes, while many more were slowly wobbling their way up the hill, making the task of getting past them more tricky than it should've been. Many people say the worst of the Dartmoor Classic climbs are within the first 30 miles. Those who say that obviously haven't done the Grande route, but after Holne Ian and I knew there were no major climbs for a while.

There was an almost direct headwind that made progress slower than I'd have liked, and harder work than anyone liked. Still before long we started the climb to Princetown. Things were going pretty smoothly, until Ian's chain came off. Still, that was a momentary annoyance, instead of an actual problem, and soon enough we rode into Princetown. Of course, the feed station is set up in Princetown and the timing scanners were at the feed station. Ian had earlier suggested that we don't actually stop, but just ride on through, and I'd agreed with that. You can so easily lose lots of valuable minutes in the feed station, as I discovered last year. To the Medio riders, Princetown is the turning point, after which they start heading back, but Grande riders will visit it again a second time.

Because it was quite a mild day, I still had one full water bottle. Before setting off I'd squirted an energey gel into each water bottle, and I swallowed down two more gels while cycling to Princetown.

Last year I'd baked flapjacks to power me through the day (I make rather yummy flapjacks!) but this year I ran out of time and simply bought flapjacks from a supermarket.
That was a BIG mistake! The flapjacks were disgusting, stodgy, tasteless and hard to eat while cycling and trying to breathe enough oxygen to keep going. I'd go as far as to say I'd sampled better-tasting cardboard in my life.

Leaving Princetown I had only two gels left, both with added caffeine, and really I was saving those to get me though the last 25 miles, which includes a nasty climb. I was feeling fine though, and happy to not stop at the feed station.

We were still fighting the headwind and coming down Peak Hill the best I could manage was 45mph, far slower than last year's personal record of 53mph. Soon enough we turned towards Horrabridge, with a sharp climb just as you leave the village. A steady uphill had us slowly gain elevation until we turned to Tavistock where the descent was all too brief. The climb out of Tavistock I know well - it also features on the Darkmoor ride that I organise - but I wouldn't classify it as particularly brutal. Despite this, some riders were miserable and complaining as we passed them on this hill.

Ian, for some obscure reason, was lagging a bit along here. This is most unusual for him and typically, if he wanted to, he could leave me for dust. Still it wasn't too long before we descended into Chillaton. I was really glad, as that meant the water stop at Lydford wasn't too far away and by this point in time both my bottles were empty. When we finally rode into Lydford I was pleased, then shocked to discover there was no water point. I'd foolishly expected it to be in the same place as last year. Hoping that the water point would be in North Brentor, we rode on and was soon out of Lydford Gorge.

I was *really* glad to see the water point was indeed in North Brentor. Both Ian and I filled our bottles and set off again as soon as we could. There's a sharp little climb after leaving North Brentor, but then things level off before descending to Mary Tavy, where the route takes the A386 for a while. Ian had recovered and was speeding along this section and soon after we hit the turning for Peter Tavy, then headed up Batteridge Hill. Now Batteridge Hill isn't overly steep, nor particularly long, but it is narrow and congests very easily. As we were riding up it, along a slightly wider section we were overtaken by a Tesco delivery van. Soon afterwards, the van stopped, faced with no less than 5 cars coming down the hills.

All the cyclists had to dismount and we found that by walking our bikes on their rear wheels ahead of us we were able to just squeeze past. Several riders continued walking their bikes after having cleared the congestion, but most cycled on to the junction with the main road, where we turned left towards first Pork Hill, followed immediately after by Merrivale.

I followed Ian's lead and drank enough water, then dumped the remainder as we started up Pork Hill. Again I was glad for my granny ring that allowed me to spin up towards the top, and I actually set a Strava personal record for going up the hill. Pork Hill is steeper than Merrivale (in places) but at just under 2 miles it isn't a very long climb. Merrivale always seems to go on forever, with many false summits along the way. Fortunately I was prepared for that, but I could tell several of the riders we passed were deeply disappointed to discover the "top" they'd reached was just another false summit.

With a climb like that the best thing is simply try and get into a rhythm, keep that going and not over-cook it while still quite low, and that's pretty much exactly what we did. Soon enough we turned into Princetown again and this time we did stop at the feed station as I needed gels, and both of us needed to refill our water bottles again. I had one gel there and then.
There also was powdered additives for our water bottles, turning the contents into some type of rocket fuel (or so I hoped as I scooped it into my bottles) and within a few minutes we were done and back on the bikes.

From this point onwards we were starting to pass Medio riders, who were doing the shorter 67-mile route and same as last year I found it to be morale-boosting when we overtook them. Not long after we were past Two Bridges and zoomed through Postbridge, with not that many big climbs ahead. By the time we finished the climb to the Warren House I could see that we were going way too slow for me to get a gold medal. Still, my target was a silver, so I was happy with our pace and I knew that barring a mechanical or similar event, we were both on track for a silver medal.

There's a final climb before a lovely, fast descent into Moretonhampstead, but I remembered quite well from last year what still lay ahead: Doccombe. The climb at Doccombe is pretty steep in places,
going up to 14% and it drags on. We passed quite a number of riders walking their bikes up there. I was lagging at this stage, despite having had several gels, including a caffeine one, but Ian zoomed up the hill as if it was flat.
After some time we crested the top and started the brilliant, speedy descent. Our descent was only marred towards the bottom when we were caught behind a car that in turn was caught behind two Medio riders who were wasting a good descent by going slowly. Once the driver found a safe gap to overtake, we could overtake them too and I had to pedal like fury to try and keep up with Ian.

We encountered two other riders going at a similar pace, and the four of us formed a chaingang that was eating up the miles. Despite the benefit of being in a chaingang, I could feel myself struggling and even small inclines were tough. When I took my turn at the front it was really hard going, but before long we entered Newton Abbott.

Ian was slightly ahead of me when I got caught by a set of traffic lights, but in truth I wouldn't have been able to close the gap between us even if I tried, so I was glad for the enforced break while waiting for the lights to change again. A minute or two later I turned into the Newton Abott racecourse and my Dartmoor Classic was over for 2015.

My final time was 7:06, which meant I comfortably qualified for a silver medal and missed a gold by 21 minutes. It was a 42 minute improvement on the time I took in 2014, when I rode the Classic for the first time, and I'm well happy with my achievement.
My crappy B'Twin front wheel's bearings had been making a noise for almost half the route, which partly explains why I found it so hard to keep with Ian on descents, with him tucked and freewheeling and me pedaling like crazy and I'm convinced that wheel added many minutes to my overall time.

Still, I'd comfortably achieved what I set out to achieve and I'm happy with that.

Next year I want a gold medal and I'm under no delusions about how much I need to improve to achieve that. I will need to follow an actual training plan, as opposed to simply cycle-commuting and going on Saturday moning club rides. That means I will need to use a heart rate monitor, which in turn means I simply have to get something like a Garmin Edge 500. Additionally, I'll make absolutely sure I have half-decent wheels on the bike! Light wheels make a huge difference on climbs, and having smooth-rolling bearings makes a huge difference everywhere.

One thing I learnt about the Classic is an oddity about the medal times. Basically, Medio medals are far easier to get than Grande medals, which is really strange if you think about it. This year I averaged dead-on 15mph over the 107 miles, which got me a silver medal in my age group. However, if I was riding the Medio instead, averaging 14.88mph or faster would've landed me a gold. So Grande riders not only have to ride an extra 40 miles, with several big climbs thrown in, but they also have to average a faster speed. I'm unsure whether this is a good thing or not a good thing. Perhaps the best strategy is to not think about it and accept it as it is?