Strive Surprises & Testing Times

Over the course of the last month, I’ve broken up the monotony of training by entering a sportive* and a couple of 10K races. Having interim goals was always part of the plan: each event acts as a mini-goal and is helpful motivation to train, but also a good opportunity to see where I’m at.

*for the non-cyclists, a sportive is a timed course that is not a race. Yeah, I know. Timed, but not a race. I’m confused too.

Some of these events (Manchester 10K, RideLondon 100) had always been in the diary and part of. the plan. Others, I’d considered, but not taken the plunge for various reasons. The Chiltern 100 fell into this category. Cat had warned me about the Chiltern 100. Quite aside from the fact that at 120km, it was long, it was also “very hilly” and brutal, with some gnarly puncture-risk roads and generally not a lot of fun. So I’d sensibly decided that it probably wasn’t the best choice for my first sportive, and that I’d get more benefit from a long, steady training ride that weekend. Somehow, the day before the race, without obvious company or a route for the following day’s training ride, the Chiltern 100 came back into the picture as a possibility. And as it did, I pondered:

Reasons not to do the Chiltern 100:

  • The 5am Sunday morning alarm call
  • I haven’t ridden this far or this many hills since Strive 2014, and I have no idea if I’m ready to ride this far or this many hills
  • I’ve spent most of the week at a French Chateau on a training course, doing no training and eating my bodyweight in cheese and wine
  • The 5am Sunday morning alarm call
  • The 5am Sunday morning alarm call

Reasons to do the Chiltern 100:

  • I’ve spent most of the week at a French Chateau, doing no training and eating my bodyweight in cheese and wine
  • It’s long, and I need to do a long ride
  • I’m far less likely to get lost on a long ride that’s signposted and has company
  • I may get better at changing tyres
  • However difficult it is, I’ll learn a lot about where I’m at

Readers, I know you’re sharp pencils. I’m blogging about it, so obviously the 5am alarm call was not sufficient deterrent. You’ve figured out that I embraced the spirit of saying yes and did the Chiltern 100. One day I’ll learn to throw a greater element of surprise into these blogs, but today is not that day.

The irony is not lost on me that in the act of being spontaneous and deciding to race** I learned a lot about the value of planning and of mental preparation, and how impactful the right preparation can be, even if it is makeshift prep the night before. Once I’d decided that, alarm clock permitting, I was going all-in on the hills, and with no scope for preparation ON the bike, my thoughts turned to how I could prepare OFF the bike.

** not race. Complete a timed ride

Come September, we’ll be briefed each evening about the following day’s riding, so we know what to expect. When I say what to expect, I mean roughly what to expect, or possibly not at all what to expect. Strive 2014 was infamous for the “Strive Surprise”. Until that summer of 2014, I generally associated surprises with positive experiences, like birthdays and unexpected visitors. Strive surprises are a different beast. They included the marathon with “25% extra free” (because who doesn’t welcome an extra 10km at the end of a MARATHON), the “minor route change” that added 25km to my first ever 100km day on a road bike and the “lunch at 80km” that was actually “lunch at 92km”. Supriiiiiise! And for everything I learnt about myself that summer, easily the biggest lesson of all was that when I know what to expect and steel myself appropriately, I can achieve things I didn’t think possible. Throw in a change to the plan, and things get a whole lot tougher. I lose patience and motivation quickly. This girl likes a plan.

I’ll never forget the briefing the evening before our final cycle day, a 160km jaunt from Neydens (just outside Geneva) to Verbier, “The good news Strivers, is that you only have two hills tomorrow!”

Me: Two hills? Awesome. I can do two hills. We did seven hills today. Two hills? Piece of cake!

Pause.

“The bad news is that the first one is 40km long, and the second one is 8km of brutally steep switchbacks”.

Bugger.

Yet, that day, I had probably my best day on the bike of the whole trip. Yes, as a complete amateur cyclist, no doubt the improvement in cycling fitness helped, but I also knew what was coming, which made it much easier to tackle. They (BTW, I’ve always wondered who “they” are – anyone know?) say that endurance is all in the head, and my experience absolutely endorses that view: on that final day to Verbier, we had the simplest of briefings. Sure, it was a daunting assignment. But we knew exactly what to expect, and that made it a much more achievable exercise.

Alright, enough of 2014. Back to the future, or how to tackle 120km of hills with inadequate training: Saturday night was time to brief myself on what to expect on Sunday’s route. There’s no question that the biggest challenge in cycling is the hills. Gravity is powerful stuff. I’m yet to experience a worse feeling while pedalling than getting to what appears to be the top of a hill, lungs burning and heart rate maxed, only to turn a corner and realise that it is not in fact the top of the hill, and it’s about to get steeper and longer. It’s truly soul destroying, and pretty much guaranteed to induce a sense of humour failure quicker than you can say “sense of humour failure”. So, I’ve found that knowing what to expect mentally is just as important as the hours spent building fitness. When wanting to understand a route, I only really care about 3 things:

How long is it, and where are the pit stops?

How many climbs (>50m vertical ascent) are there, and at what distance does each start and finish?

How many vertical metres is each climb?

With this information to hand, the task at hand becomes infinitely easier. They (them again – seriously, who ARE they?!) say that the best way to accomplish a seemingly impossible task is to break it down into smaller components, and that’s exactly what familiarising myself with the route does. For the first time, I experimented with taping route notes to the top tube of my bike for reference/motivation – it was more helpful than I ever could have anticipated.

So, not-a-race day dawned. I don’t often see 5am on a Sunday, and certainly not having already had my night’s sleep. 5am on a Sunday is painful. 5am on a Sunday is hopefully one of many reasons people will feel inspired as I commence fundraising in earnest, to dig deep and donate to Big Change. Despite bright sunshine, it was a chilly start. I was almost certainly inadequately dressed (you can take the girl out of the North…) Beyond knowing where the hills were, my plan was simply to cling onto Cat & James for as long as possible.

Having good knowledge of what to expect on the route made the WORLD of difference – especially in the latter part of the race, when we were shattered. The biggest, longest most brutal hill of the ride was the 8th of 10 climbs I’d acknowledged, and came at 90km into the route. Without knowing what was to come, it probably would have finished me off. With just a tiny bit of prep to know the length & height, it became possible to measure the effort and keep just enough left in the tank, both mentally and physically, to make it up. The effort was duly rewarded with a reverse Strive Surprise: the finish line came into sight after 118km of pedalling rather than the promised 121km. Trust me, although that might not sound like much, with 117km of hills in your legs, surprises do not get better. The second surprise was that by managing to cling onto Cat & James for the whole ride (second lesson of the day: cycling is a LOT easier if you have a rockstar domestique), we crossed the line together, and towards the front of the field in the not-a-race.

📷Domestique James. We were delirious by this point

So, confidence = well and truly boosted, and lessons well and truly noted. I’ll be doing my homework for each day of September’s route, and praying for not too many Strive Surprises. Amidst the planning, I’ll try and retain the spontaneity: sometimes, there’s no better way to prepare than by believing in yourself, jumping off the cliff and diving in…

ps. Fundraising is in full flow. I’m trying to raise £20k for the incredible Big Change: you can sponsor me at https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/sallystrives