Monday, 29 June 2009

Trans Portugal Adventures – A Little Scene Setting...

[Ed. note: apologies for lack of pictures, brain too melted to figure out the links - but damn fine set of accompanying images are viewable here, courtesy of Chris, who also took on the potatoes of Portugal and won...]

The Riders

Having re-read what I’ve already written, I’ve realised I’ve not really set much of a scene. The other riders are such a big part of a race like the Trans Portugal and were really important to me each day. So I’ll create a bit of an interlude by describing some of the other riders.

As well as structuring my riding by when and what I would eat, by day 3 I had figured out that I could tell how well I was riding or feeling by when some of the other riders passed me. As one of the female riders, I was set of up to an hour ahead of the young (under 35) male riders. In between that time, male riders in different age bands would be set off with the oldest being set off closest to my start time.

I was always set off with Shanti and Manuela. I cottoned on pretty quick that Manuela was going to be super quick. Even before we started riding, she had the look of a very quick rider (maybe it was her Merida team kit and bike) and I wasn’t wrong. Every morning she’d stand beside me on the start line and tell me that I was doing really well and that she just knew I’d be able to finish this stage, then as soon as they said go, she’d be off and powering away. I tried to keep up with her but realised very quickly that I just couldn’t ride at that pace for more than an hour. Shanti, and her lovely pink Elsworth, would always slot in between Manuela and I once we started. Despite having a couple of really rough days because of the heat, Shanti always got back onto the start line every morning to try the next stage. I’d generally be able to keep Shanti and Manuela as specks in the distance for the first hour, but after that, I generally wouldn’t see them again unless Shanti was having problems with the heat and had to slow down.

By day 3, I’d realised that Leon and Jan (both of whom were returning for the 2nd or 3rd time to do the race), who were generally set off between 10 and 20 minutes after me, should catch me within 45 minutes to an hour depending on how flat the terrain was up to that point. I’d know they were approaching by the ting of Leon’s bell, so I’d reply with a ting of my bell and make sure that there was space for them to pass. Despite being around 20 years older than me, these guys were strong and fast! Leon had broken his collar bone on day 7 last year, so was determined to finish the race this year.

Then I’d be on my own for a little bit, until about an hour and 20 minutes in when it would start to get busy. Generally I’d hear the whoosh of the 2 lead riders approaching, Frans, the young Belgian who was very studious about his racing, and Joao, the young Portuguese lad who won last year. I’d always get a grin from Joao, but Frans was so “in the zone” I don’t think he even knew anyone other than he and Joao were in the race! Both of these riders amazed us all by just how quickly they were able to finish the stages each day (a sub 4 hour 100k is pretty impressive in my book, but sets a very tough target for next year when the cut offs will be based on those times). Aside from just how quick they were, we were all amazed at just how much food they both shovelled away at dinner each night…a rough estimate would probably be 3 returns to the buffet for each course of dinner and each plate was piled high with food. I knew it was the right thing to eat lots at night, but I just couldn’t come close to matching that amount. A few of us tried one evening, but failed miserably! Joao lost out on his first place because he lost his GPS one day and decided not to go back to find it. This decision cost him dearly and he was penalised by that entire day’s riding being deducted from his mileage and being awarded the longest time possible for the stage. He didn’t seem to mind though and still rode like a demon for the rest of the race. He said he’d only go back next year to win it if his mum would let him.

Frans and Joao were set off last with the youngest group of riders, so by the time they passed me, they’d already passed most of the field. So shortly after they passed me, I’d usually hear Tom Letsinger shout “Hey Jac, how are you doing today?”. Tom is another vetran of the race who rode it on a 3 speed last time but decided to go with an 8 speed this year – he’ d said before the race that if I did it singlespeed he would too, but I wasn’t brave enough. Tom also admitted after day 2 that he sometimes slowed down to talk to me as he passed so that he didn’t have to try to keep up with the fast pack of riders he was with if he feel like it that morning. Since Tom came 9th overall, I’m guessing that after he rested up with me for a few minutes, he must have kept a terrifying pace!

Next, I’d hear a shout of “Good work Jac!” (no matter how fried I was looking and feeling) from Dave the Canadian as he and a pack of very fast, mixed age group of guys flew past. Most days Erik, the soup drinking Canadian, would be amongst that pack and shout some encouragement as he flew by. Erik had really struggled with the heat on days 1 and 2 and had announced that if he lived in Europe he’d be super religious so that he could duck into all the little roadside chapels to get some shade on hot days. He also ran low on energy food so decided to take to take a water bottle of cold soup with him one day. Apparently it worked quite well.

Then things would start to quieten down again for a while. If I was lucky, I’d be able to keep some of the other female riders just in sight. Sandra, who was set off 10 minutes before me in the morning, would usually ride at a similar pace to me, but sometimes I’d manage to catch her and we’d leapfrog eachother for a few hours.

I would usually expect to see the Belgian train after about 2 and a half hours. These were the rest of Frans’ team of riders. Some of them had really struggled with the heat, despite being very strong riders. Sometimes I’d try to jump on the Belgian train and ride with them for a bit – this worked well if we were riding a stage with lots of gates because we’d all work together on the opening and closing the gates (these gates aren’t your usual gates and will get a full mention later on), but most days I couldn’t keep up with their pace, so gradually left them to it as I settled back into my pace.

Shortly after I’d hear the ting of Chris’ bell. Sometimes that was good, other times it wasn’t. If I was feeling bad, riding with a familiar person semed to bring out the worst in me and meant I’d have a good old moan to Chris about how terrible I was feeling, but if I was feeling good, we’d ride together for a while, swap energy gels for flavours we preferred and generally have a bit of a natter. Eventually though, I’d tell Chris to go on and I’d settle back into my own pace.

Some time around then I’d expect Christophe, one of the 2 French riders to catch up with me. I had stopped to help Christophe on day 2 when he ripped his tyre and he was amazed by all the gubbins I brought out of my camelback before I found my tyre boots. Anyway, despite Christophe speaking no English and my French being limited to the very basics, we managed to have a full blown conversation each day as he passed me. I didin’t know what he was saying and I don’t expect he really understood the pidgin French I spoke, but we always grinned and chattered away to each other for a few minutes.

Then I’d hear “Hey Minx Girl!” from Paul and Mack. These two seemed inseparable when they were riding and seemed to work really well together. Paul was always very concerned if I was looking rough and kept apologising for talking me into doing the race and promising me that it isn’t usually as hot. I think he knew that deep down I was secretly enjoying it despite looking like I was about to keel over

Although I was sure that 60 odd riders hadn’t already passed, there were very few riders who passed me after that. Trinidadian Ryan would always catch me at some point and comment on how hot it was. I’d usually pass the Russian riders, although they were set off after me. Because they were really struggling they would often be driven to the first check point so that they could ride a bit of the course. Evgeny admitted to me one morning that he was finding it tough, not only because of the heat and his fitness, but mostly because he couldn’t ride with his specs on, so couldn’t actually see his GPS and usually ended up making up the route as he went along which generally didn’t go well. (After 2 search parties were sent out for him on 2 consecutive days, he was asked to ride with a tracker in his pack so that he could be found if he got lost again.)

What always surprised me was that, although all of these riders were obviously quicker and stronger than I was, they all treated me as an equal. I wasn’t the numpty slow girl, I was a rider just like the rest of them. As far as they were concerned, I was one of them. I think this just emphasised the fact that although the event was pitched as a race, for many of the riders it wasn’t so much a race against eachother as a race against yourself and the elements. Yes, there were a few of the quick blokes who were racing for a podium place or a top 10 place, but the rest of us were just pushing ourselves to see what would happen each day. All of us suffered in some way because of the heat or dehydration and the distances were tough day after day, but we were all in this together, suffering together, and in some bizarre way, enjoying it together. By the end of the 8 days racing, we were all agreed that the race must be some sort of weird communal penance for something we’d all done. We were all chatting quite openly about bottom sores, throwing up at the side of the trail, sore heads because of lack of sleep and dehydration, the bites from unseen bugs. In the same breath though, you’d always hear a comment about how incredible this bit of scenery or that bit of trail was, or about the amount of pave in Portugal (Roman, medieval or modern day, there’s more pave in Portugal than Belgium, but nobody riding it on cross bikes!). We were a hobbling motley crew of funny tan lines, 1,000 yard stares, smiles or grimaces, but we were in this together and we’d make sure nobody was left on the trail in need.

Now that you know a little bit more about who I was riding with (well, for parts of each day), my next instalment on my adventure might start to get a little bit more into context.

More soon….



Wednesday, 24 June 2009

I rode my bike

Bless me Minx, for I have sinned, it has been nearly seven weeks since I last rode my bicycle. I have my list of excuses, "I've been doing a lot of running" this is partly true. I have been doing some running as I'm entered in the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon, but not so much running that I couldn't find time to ride. "I've been very busy, finishing of my degree," again, true, but not so busy I couldn't find time to ride. The truth is I've just been too lazy and today, spurred on by comments on a friends blog, about not being the woman who became obese through not being able to stand the sight of yourself in cycling shorts, I donned my lycra, dusted off my road bike and went out in the sunshine.

I'd like to wax lyrical about no noticeable lack of bike fitness, how I became one with my bike and cut through the country lanes like a hot knife through butter. That, however, would be about as accurate as your average MP's expenses claim. Oh, God, I'd forgotten how much it can hurt, every turn of the cranks a cruel punishment for my slothful ways. This is the start of a summer of returning to riding fitness, I've done that first ride, I just need to continue to step away from the cakes and onto the bike!


Thursday, 18 June 2009

Trans Portugal Adventures: Days -1 to 2

My earlier blurble should have prepared you a little bit for the story that’s about to come, but it might be useful to give a bit more background to put the whole thing into some sort of context.

I’ve never done a stage race before, but from what I’d been told, this was a good one to try. There was no slumming it by having to camp or share a gym hall with a thousand other smelly, snoring riders. Instead, the TP organisers arrange 3 or 4 star hotel accommodation for the riders each night, transport all your bags so that they are in your room by the time you get to the hotel, organise evening meals, massage and mechanics. So the comfort stuff was all taken care of. I felt okay about all of that before we left. What I felt less okay about was the actual riding. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the terrain; I was pretty certain the other riders would be gnarly and scary; I wasn’t sure how my body would cope with the sun and heat (given that 20 degrees counts as a baking hot day in these parts); but most of all, I wasn’t sure whether my body, particularly my legs, would do it day after day.

On the technical race side, I knew we had to be self-supporting from the time we left the start point each morning until we got to the finish in the evening (or had to call for help from one of the checkpoints). I also knew that the cut off times were based on the fastest finishing times from last year (I think the sums go like this: fastest finishing time x 1.67 = checkpoint closing time).

I tried not to spend too much time analysing the race before hand because I knew it would just turn me into a bag of nerves (even more so than I usually am before a race), so I just focussed on riding my bike as much as possible and toughening up my bottom so that I wouldn’t get terrible saddle sores. The only real analysis I did was to try to figure out the route. Since we couldn’t get OS maps for Portugal, this meant getting 3 road maps – Portugal north, Portugal centre, Portugal south – and trying to match up some of the place names we’d been given with the tiny specs on the maps. A 3 map ride is usually a biggie, but when the 3 maps cover 1,000km, that’s bigger than the average 3 map ride!

The whole adventure sort of split itself naturally into four parts for me, so I’m going to try to put it down on “paper” that way to try to make some sense of the jumble in my head (yes, even a week after coming home, I’m still trying to sort through all that I experienced!)

Day -1

Edinburgh – Braganca

Quite a few km

Dark Chris and I had an early start to catch the red eye down to the chaos that is terminal 5 to then catch a connection on to Lisbon. That’s a bad start right there. Our flight from Edinburgh was delayed by 45 minutes, which meant it was going to be tight for us to get from T5 to T1 to catch our connection. After a sprint to catch the bus between terminals, we made it just as our fight had started boarding and settled down on the flight in the knowledge that it was very unlikely that all of our luggage would make it.

Surprise, surprise, after waiting in the baggage reclaim area of Lisbon airport for nearly an hour, we gave up and went to report out bikes missing. Luckily, a few other riders had had the same problem, so the guy at the lost luggage told us that Patricia, one of the race officials, was going to be picking up a bunch of other bikes later in the day and would be able to pick up ours which were expected to arrive on the next flight.

There really wasn’t much more we could do, so we went out to meet Patricia, who put us in a taxi and sent us off to Hotel Barcelona in central Lisbon, where all the other riders were meeting up to be collected by the bus taking us all up to Braganca. (I had to take my cardi off when I stepped out of the arrivals hall – it was baking hot, but quite pleasant after a chilly start in Edinburgh).

Most of the riders were already at the hotel by the time we arrived, including Paul West, our friend who had persuaded us to do the race. Paul introduced us to some of the riders he knew, which was great but unfortunately it set me off into panic mode….they were all so experienced! The excited chatter (which I usually try to avoid pre-race) was about how the race went last year and the targets for this year, the other races folks had done over the last few years and the races coming up after this one. There were a lot of experienced riders – Cape Epic, Trans Alp, Trans Rockies, BC Bike Race, Trans Wales, Race Across America, Race Across the West.

What was I thinking – I couldn’t possibly ride with people like this!

Luckily the 8 hour bus trip to Braganca was so hot that most of us dozed off for most of the trip and by the time we arrived in Braganca, we all just checked into the hotel and went straight to bed.

Day 0

Braganca – Braganca


After a strong coffee at breakfast, Dark Chris and I ventured out to the hotel carpark where all the bikes were being unloaded to see if our bikes had turned up. Luckily they were both there and after building them back up, I was pleased to see mine looked to be unscathed. The same couldn’t quite be said for Dark Chris’ – a small crack had appeared in the seat stay, but it was decided that the seatpost would hold it all together, so nothing to worry about.

After bikes were fettled, it was off to register, get GPS’ set up and have the first race briefing. Then we had time for lunch, before another race briefing, followed by a GPS session, then we were all encouraged to go out for a test ride to the first village of the race to make sure we, our bikes and our GPS’ were working.

By this time it was 7pm, so I figured a little pootle would be quite nice in the evening. Unfortunately, it was still around 30 degreed when we venured out of the hotel, so Dark Chris and I just rode along to the first hill after the village and decided to head back (along with a lot of other riders, who were all commenting on how scarily hot it was).

After a quick shower, we all had our first dinner together before the final race briefing where we were given the vital statistics for day 1. These daily statistics proved to be crucial for me each day since they showed the places where we could get water during the day – this turned out to be far more important than I thought!

Day 1

Braganca – Freixo

139km, 3,878m climbing

Cut off 20.33

Because of the handicap system, I was set off at 08.10 in the morning along with the 2 other youngsters (yes, really, I was one of the youngest female riders). The other 2, Manuala Vilaseca and Shanti Tilling, looked pretty capable, so I decided to just let them go and I’d ride on my own. When it was 30 degrees at 08.10 in the morning, I didn’t really have much choice!

I don’t remember very much about day 1. I remember coming across Shanti at the side of the trail some time between check points 1 and 2. She was feeling pretty unwell because of the heat, so had called to be rescued. Since her husband was with her (he had passed me some time earlier and had caught up with her), I plodded on.

Since I was out on my own, I decided I needed to structure my day a little bit…I had set my HRM on when I started, so every hour, I’d have either an energy bar or a gel, every half hour in between, I’d have a sweetie. I also started focusing on how much I was drinking every hour to make sure I was having enough. Unfortunately, this proved to be a problem. By late morning, the temperature was up in the high 30’s, so I’d had to slow right down and it was taking me much longer to reach the water points than expected. So I had to start conserving water.

By mid afternoon, I hadn’t seen another rider, or person for that matter, for hours. I was feeling pretty unwell because I was so hot (I think the thoughts that were going through my head were something like “can a person really be cooked alive?”, “how will they find me if I collapse?” “I’d better just keep plodding until I get to the next checkpoint because they’ll never be able to get down this trail to find me”). I felt pretty bad and was really anxious. Eventually I stopped in a village called To so that I could fill up with water. I sat beside the water fountain and just poured the water over my feet. I just couldn’t get going again. I managed to get along to checkpoint 4, which was at 102km.

Although I was within the time cut off, I was now riding so slowly that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the end, so I decided to call it a day.

So, Jose came and picked me up in the van, along with Nuno, one of the Portugese riders who was struggling in the heat, and drove me to Freixo with the bike in the back of the van.

I arrived in Freixo to find a pretty motley crew of broken riders collapsed around the outside of the sportshall that was being used as race HQ for the evening.

So, on day 1, of the 69 riders, 8 of us didn’t manage to finish because of the heat. That meant that we were awarded the slowest time for the day, but the distance we had covered did count towards our overall placing. The stage winner, Frans Claes, managed to complete the stage in 5hours 35 minutes.

A very downcast Dark Chris met me at the finish and said that his bike was “gubbed”. That crack in the frame had got a lot worse and now went all the way around the seatstay and top tube. It wouldn’t last even the smallest of bumps, so it wasn’t safe to ride. Antonio, race director, and Jose, race mechanic, reckoned they might be able to find a new bike for him to buy, but it wouldn’t be until day 3 unfortunately.

There was just time to get to our very nice accommodation on the outskirts of town, quick wash of kit, eat dinner, check start time for tomorrow, get race briefing with crucial water info, then bed.

Day 2

Freixo – Alafaites

115km, 2,351m climbing

Cut off 18:03

It was a slightly later start for us youngsters on day 2 – we were off at 09.28.

Shanti was still looking pretty wobbly after day 1 and I was already starting to feel like I was cooking, but Manuela (who is from Brasil, by the way) set off as strong as ever. Just like day 1, I decided to let them go and do their own thing, but I managed to hang on to them until the bottom of the first climb, where chain suck meant I had to stop and fettle with my chain to get it sorted and ended up having to push the sort sharp climb. Luckliy I managed to catch sight of them again and was starting to close the gap a little bit (I even saw one of the girls who was set off in an earlier bunch than us!), but I managed to misread my GPS and rode off on a parallel track for 10 minutes and ended up at a dead end with a 10ft drop to shimmy down to get back to the right track – don’t tut too loudly, the GPS didn’t show 2 tracks, so I followed the one with the most bike tracks on it, but obviously I backed the wrong horse!

Not to be beaten, I dusted myself down, picked the thorns out of my bottom and got back on the bike. Luckily, the climb wasn’t too long before it reached a fantastic mountain road which snaked up and down for a few k (I almost wished I had a road bike!). The road then turned into a dirt track which then petered out into a bit of wide singletrack, then it started dropping down into a gorge. The track turned into pretty jiggy cobbled / rocky / exposed descent that was just like the stuff I love in Spain, so I giggled all the way down – passing the race photographer along the way as he shouted “Be careful. Very Dangerous”. To which I think I replied “Can we have more of this please?”

I managed to make some pretty good time down that section (I later found out that I was one of only a few riders who rode it) and managed to catch sight of some of the other girls again. A bit of a push back out the other side of the gorge spat us out onto another mountain road which wound its way down to the Douro river (the natural border between Spain and Portugal).

From the river, we then had a 27km climb through olive groves which then turned into scrub land and then into desert. I was passed by the race leaders and the quick guys part way up this climb, but then the heat started to take it’s toll again. By the time I reached the desert, I was pretty much out of water. I managed to spill half of my reserve water in my panic, so I was running pretty much on empty. Again the temperatures were up in the high 30’s and my body was starting to bake. Just as the climb started to level out, we crossed a stream, so I laid my bike down on the other side and had a wee bit of a paddle to try to keep cool. Luckily, Sidi’s retain water quite well, so I managed to keep my feet cool for a bit.

Erik Bakke, one of the Canadian riders, caught up with me at this point and he was in a pretty bad way. Erik is a strong rider, but he was stopping and lying down at the side of the trail every couple of hundred yards. I managed to keep going until we got to a road and had to shoot off track to find a petrol station to get some water. The nice lady in the petrol station looked pretty concerned when I asked for 3 big bottles of water, but wished me luck when I headed off again. I caught back up with Erik when I got back on the trail and rode with him for a bit, but he decided to stop in the village along with 3 or 4 other riders who were hiding in the shade.

The official water point was a fountain in a village park, so when I reached there, there were more riders hiding in the shade or pouring cold water over their head. I stopped and did the same for a few minutes because I knew there was another big climb coming up.

A big push up to the hill top village of Castelo Rodrigo got me to checkpoint 2 and another welcome fountain, before heading back down the other side of the hill onto the plains below.

This is when the riding changed. I was able to make pretty good time on the plains, and felt I was going okay. I came across lots of riders lying by the side of the trail looking broken. Offers of help and food were generally met with tearful smiles and assurances that they’d be okay and they’d just make it to the next checkpoint.

I was surprised to find that I made it to the next checkpoint in plenty of time (even after stopping to help one of the French riders who’d managed to rip his tyre….emptying my entire camelback on the trail brought giggles from all the male riders who’d stopped to help, but none of them had jelly babies and tyre boots!).

The next section of plain was very, very, very hot with very little shade, so again I started to slow down. I had managed to get to around 90k with about an hour to go and tried desperately to pick up my pace so that I would make it. But then, another incident of chain suck saw my chain get completely tangled in my chain rings, so I had to pull over, break my chain, unstuck it and fix it again. Although this didn’t take a huge amount of time, I felt like it ate up so much time. Just after I got going again, all that water I’d been drinking was suddenly too much and I had to find some bushes (I later found out that when women do Iron Man races, they just wee on the go, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it). This all cost me too much time and a tiny spec started to appear in the distance and slowly catch up…the sweeper. We rode together to the final checkpoint at 102k, and I then jumped in the van with Jose again whilst Rui the sweeper went off in search of Evgeny, the missing Russian rider whom I’d passed at checkpoint 3, but hadn’t been seen since.

So, although day 2 was much more optimistic, I still didn’t manage to finish and felt pretty down by the time I got back to the hotel at the end of the day. Luckily, Jose the mechanic, took my bike to try to sort out the chain suck and Cassie, one of the masseuses, gave my legs a good pummelling, so I went to bed feeling slightly more optimistic about what day 3 had in store. Oh, and Dark Chris’ new bike turned up, so he was a bit cheerier too.

I was also reassured to find that 20 other riders hadn’t been able to complete the day’s stage either – mostly because of the heat, but again the distance I had covered counted towards my overall position. Oh, and I still wasn’t DFL!


To be continued...

Friday, 12 June 2009

High noon.

Tour Divide starts tomorrow. Can't help but feel a little like I want to be there; it does get under your skin.

Time moves on.




Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Tee Pee Day Three

Well, our intrepid adventurers should by now have completed day three of their Trans Portugal experience. Occasional text updates from Jac reveal that they had a tough time of it on days one and two. Chris's frame broke on day one but thankfully managed to source a new steed so is back in the running. Jac struggled with heatstroke on day one and like many other riders was forced to abandon the stage after 110km but, showing the mettle we expect, she still lined up for more on day two. How does climbing cobbles in temperatures of up to 40 degrees, wrong turns that lead to a "shimmy down a cliff" and a course described as "undulating" (uh-oh...) sound to you? Yes, you can stop moaning that the office doesn't have air conditioning now. Take a leaf out of the Supertravissia book and "endureça a foda acima"... or TTFU, to use the more common racer parlance. Well done Jac, keep it up. You are doing the jersey proud :-)

Updates available on Sleepmonsters for the rest of the week. I'm off for a needed holiday...