Duracell Bunny vs Haute Route Pyrenees

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Lillian and another friend have nick-named me the Duracell Bunny. I don’t think it is entirely meant as a compliment but hopefully I can prove worthy of the name in the Haute Route Pyrenees which I will be starting on 20th August. With seven back-to-back days of racing in the mountains it will be the toughest bike ride I have attempted. This post is about how I prepared for the Haute Route.

After finishing the Morzine Haut-Chablais sportive (see Link) feeling completely drained, I asked Dan, who was the strongest of my fellow Dynamos and who managed to come 35th in the Haute Route Pyrenees last year, how the two races compared… he said that every day on the Haute Route was as hard. So the question was, how to get into shape for such a challenge?

Following our trip to the Alps in early July, Lillian and I spent the summer in London so my plan was two-fold: to work on my one hour power/fitness with some bike racing and to top-up my stamina and adapt my body to multi-day riding with a three day bike tour through the British countryside. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the latter and this post is mainly about that ride. However, the racing has not been without its memorable moments.

Most of the races I did were either short circuit races or handicap races on the open roads. The circuits would be familiar to anyone who has done any bike racing in London and were good as interval training. My highlight was clinching a second and a fourth place at Cyclopark which gave me my Cat. 3 licence. For someone like me who has a poor sprint, obtaining this was a real challenge. In both the Cyclopark races I managed to get into breaks. The first time it almost happened by accident. I pushed the pace up the hill trying to split the field and was surprised to find myself with another guy off the front! I worked really hard for the break in the other race, making multiple attacks and finally got away a lap from the end. I was caught by three people but thankfully not the bunch. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to break and stay away in Cat. 3 races!

I also tried a couple of Masters races at Dunsfold Aerodrome and Hillingdon. You have to be over forty years old to enter but don’t be deceived; they were hard races with lots of attacks. The photo below is from the Dunsfold race.

Surrey League Dunsfold Masters

(Photo credit to Glyn D.)

Another achievement was to complete a Crystal Palace Criterium in the bunch; that may not sound like much but I find the circuit really tough. It includes a sprint out of a hairpin bend and an all-out 30 second effort up a hill. Actually it is more of an incline rather than a hill but feels a lot steeper than it is when you go up to at 40kph! Each lap lasts two minutes so it doesn’t take long – a couple of laps – until one’s heart rate is at max and you’re wondering how long you can hang on for. The photo below is from a race where I got dropped (I did three in total).

Crystal Palace

(Photo credit to Petros D.)

As an aside, Lillian and I chose probably the rainiest English summer in years to have off work. At the time of writing, half of the Crystal Palace Crits (8 out of 16) had been cancelled due to rain!

The handicap races were held out on the open roads and were generally about 50km. As the slower riders (Cat. 3 Vets like me) have a head start over the Elite and Cat. 1, 2 and 3 riders, it is a fast and intense chain-gang to try to stay ahead of the chasing groups. We never succeeded in doing this but nevertheless I got a couple of decent placings in an uphill finish (an 11th and a 12th). More importantly it was probably the best training for the Pyrenean climbs being around an hour’s effort at FTP.

My final race (a week before the Haute Route) was a 80km road race. Here’s a photo of my team mate Mike leading from the front as we approach a gentle climb (I’m at the back).

Surrey League Road Race)

(Photo credit to Glyn D.)

I did move up and managed to get in a break (see the photo below). Unfortunately we were caught after about 15 minutes and I ended up finishing in the bunch.

Surrey League Road Race (in the break)

(Photo credit to Glyn D.)

So that was the shorter stuff. My three day tour took place about two weeks before the start of the Haute Route and was through the British countryside with Wales as my target. It had the added bonus of being able to visit and stay with my parents on each night of the ride. My Strava heat map below shows where I went. (The lack of a trace heading east from Hay-on-Wye is because my Garmin failed to record… I will resist the temptation to have a rant about it here!)

Heat Map

I started the ride in Andover. My legs were already hurting from one of the Masters races that I had done the previous night so I considered this Day 2 of the training ride. After about 65km I crossed a very tiny River Thames.

First Thames Crossing

When I eventually crossed its floodplain, surprisingly big considering how small the river seemed in its upper reaches, and climbed into the Cotswolds it was time for a late lunch in the pretty village of Bourton-on-the-Water. This consisted of quiche and quinoa showing that I do sometimes eat healthy food (see my Day 3 lunch below).

Bourton Food Stop

Bourton is a picture-postcard English village… complete with lots of tourists in the summer.

Bourton

From there I continued west, leaving the Cotswolds and heading to the Malvern Hills. I am approaching them in the picture below. My parents’ house is on the left side of the hills.

Malvern Hills

Having spent several months recently in New Zealand I was surprised how some bits of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire reminded me of that trip. The vistas seemed much bigger than those in Surrey where we normally ride. Most of the backroads were empty too and those drivers I did meet generally gave me a wide berth. The strong wind that assailed me from the south-west also reminded me of New Zealand although the crosswinds there seem much worse. Maybe it is because New Zealand has fewer of the hedges that you often get in England which give some shelter from the wind.

On Day 3 I set off for Wales aiming for the Black Mountains which I had seen in the distance many a time from walks and rides along the tops of the Malvern Hills.

On the way I came across some cycling trails marked with clear blue signs that happened to lead me along the quiet roads I had been planning to follow.

Cycle Routes
I have since found out more about them and would recommend anyone planning a similar ride to check the sustrans.org.uk website (Link).

By good chance my chosen route took me over the highest paved pass in Wales, Gospel Pass (542m), which was reached by a climb up an idyllic valley, the Vale of Ewyas. I stopped at the start of this for a snack… in my defence of the choice of food, there were limited options in the service station where I went shopping for lunch.

Vale of Ewyas

From the pass there was a fine view of the long descent to Hay-on-Wye.

Gospel Pass

In Hay I stopped for a coffee and Welsh cake (when in Rome…), but had I known that my winding route back to my parents’ house was still another 80km I would have eaten more.

I crossed the River Wye for a final time on the way back home.

River Wye

One of the nice things about these bigger tours is that one feels connected to the topography of the land and it is satisfying to think that travellers hundreds of years ago would have crossed the same major rivers or navigated between the same ranges of hills.

The Wales loop was 170km with 2800m of climb. Coming on top of the previous day (161km, 1850m climb) it meant that I started Day 4 with my legs feeling heavy. However, they felt better once I began riding which I think that means that the training ride was a success. I did notice however that my power was about 10W lower between Days 2 and 4. This was my final day, heading back towards London, which as well as being shorter (127km, 1130m climb) also had the benefit of a tailwind for some of it.

The crux was Cleeve Hill which is well-known for being a steep climb and I can confirm it deserves its reputation.

Cleeve Hill

It averaged 16% for 700m and was 22% at its steepest. It wasn’t easy with my 5kg rucksack. I also suffered a puncture at the very top which was good timing… I guess. The sidewall of my tyre had a big split in it and luckily I had something to fix it with.

Puncture

I finished the ride at Didcot where I caught the train back to London. Shortly before reaching there I crossed the Thames again. It was a lot bigger than when I crossed it previously and was a nice way to end the tour.

Second Thames Crossing

The ride made me want to do something similar in the future; there is so much beautiful countryside to be explored within easy reach of London. However, whether it was enough to get me around the Haute Route remains to be seen… If you want to find out what happened click here: Haute Route Pyrenees 2016.

As a coda to section on UK racing I did two road races when I returned, two and three weeks after the Haute Route respectively. In the first, a Cat 3 race on the Milland Hill circuit, I came 7th and in the second, the Surrey League Handicap Championships (E/1/2/3/4), I was the first Cat 3 (though 19th overall). So the Haute Route helped the racing too. A nice way to end the season.

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