A few weeks ago the idea was planted in my head to try and ride for a weekend in a manner similar to which I will be required to ride during the Race Across America. I will explain more on this below, but essentially the format for racing during RAAM is very different to your normal cycling road race. As a team we are having to train in a specific way and I wanted to test out what it would feel like to simulate RAAM conditions for a weekend.
I won’t go into too much detail on the basics (Rob’s first post gives a good introduction), but the straightforward premise of RAAM is that in a 4-man relay team each rider will be cycling for 6 hours a day but will not cover those 6 hours all in one go. We will pair up with another team member with each pair taking a shift of 4-6 hours. During that shift, one rider will cycle for 20 minutes before jumping into the support vehicle and tagging in the second rider who takes the next 20 minutes. This pattern is repeated for the duration of the 6 hour shift. Perceived wisdom is that the constant switching of the rider on the road makes for a lower overall time, as you can ride quicker in nine 20 minute bursts than when cycling for three hours at a time.
With this in mind, I planned a testing 11 hours of cycling broken down into bite-size sessions:
– Saturday morning shift: 4.00 a.m. to 5.00 a.m.; 6.00 a.m. to 7.00 a.m.; 8.00 a.m. to 11.00 a.m.
– Saturday afternoon shift: 4.00 p.m. to 5.00 p.m.; 6.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m.; 8.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m.
– Sunday afternoon shift: 4.00 a.m. to 5.00 a.m.; 6.00 a.m. to 7.00 a.m.; 8.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m.
As you will see, I didn’t attempt to ride in the 20 minute shift pattern as the logistics would prove too difficult. But I felt the plan would simulate RAAM conditions in a feasible manner and I could learn a lot from the experiment. After work last Friday I drove up to Derbyshire to set up camp at my parents’ house and grab a short night’s sleep.
Hearing the alarm go off at 3.30 a.m. is rarely a good thing and I can’t say I was best pleased to be up so early, especially as it was raining heavily. Informing friends and colleagues of my plans proved a good motivating factor as the alternative to not getting out of bed on time would be quite embarrassing. I could only manage a few oats soaked in water for breakfast before heading out for my first session.
For safety reasons, the route I chose for riding in the dark was a fairly flat out and back road which although unlit, was wide enough and straight enough for traffic to spot me from a long distance away. The downside of riding the same route over and over is that I saw the same section of tarmac a total of 54 times during the weekend. The lights I was using were from one of our sponsors, Magicshine UK, and I was surprised with how brilliantly they worked. I’ll pen a separate blog to cover the lights later in the week.
The first two hours weren’t easy by any stretch but the novelty of cycling in the dark and the adrenalin that came with getting the riding underway helped keep my average speeds high. I was trying to hit an average of around 18/19mph for this period and managed to maintain that speed for the first two hours. For my third session I veered away from the single hour sessions and decided to make things slightly tougher with a three hour hilly ride. By making things harder at the start, I was probably inviting fatigue to set in even quicker than it should have done – but this was my plan all along. I had designed the weekend to flush out any problems with our proposed RAAM tactics so the harder I made myself work, the more likely I was to learn some invaluable lessons.
After the three hour ride I had a “rest period” of 5 hours. In practice, it was hard to rest properly as I was busy cleaning the countryside sludge off my bike, re-fuelling and readying my clothes for the next session. I think I managed a nap of about an hour but it certainly wasn’t the length of sleep I was hoping for.
Before I knew it I was off and going again. The first afternoon session was much easier than I expected. My body was ready for the challenge and fuelled by the caffeine-rich X’treme Energy Source drink provided by our nutrition sponsors, High5, I clocked my highest average speed of 20mph for an hour session*. Whilst out on the ride I felt like I was pushing myself too hard, but I didn’t hold back anything for the later rides. I figured it was better to learn the harsh lesson that the tortoise always beats the hare now than make the same mistake during RAAM. My reservations were proved right. The remaining two sessions on Saturday evening were a real slog. My legs felt like they were pedalling through marmite. My heart rate was very flat re-enforcing what my brain was telling me – I was cooked. Rarely have I been as happy to get off a bike as I was on Saturday evening.
By the time I prepped my bike for the following day and turned off my brain, it was nearing 11 o’clock. That meant that once again I got less sleep than I intended – this pattern will only repeat and get much worse during RAAM. The alarm blared out again and again it was raining. Getting out at 4.00 a.m. for the second day running was tough and not helped by the fact my legs had not recovered their strength. My average speed now dipped to below 17mph and every hour on the bike seemed to get longer. The final hour was the easiest of the morning, but I suspect that my body was very aware of the fact that it was about to be released from the weekend’s ordeal.
Mid-morning approached and it was time to take stock of the experiment. My legs were heavy and ached a lot. It will take every day of the 122 between now and the race to properly prepare for the physical onslaught of RAAM. But it was not just my legs that were complaining to the owner – my neck was hurting in places that I never expected and my shoulders and back were aching too. The cumulative distance I managed to cover during my 11 hours on the bike was roughly 195 miles (just shy of the distance from London to Manchester). That equates to an average speed of 17.2mph which I am very pleased with given the shift structure I adopted. The “calories burned” figure given out by my heart rate monitor is always to be taken with a pinch of salt – but as an indication of what was required to ride 195 miles at that speed, I burned 11,600 calories (i.e. 5 days’ worth of calories). Repeating this process for a 7 day period is going to be a truly epic challenge.
I must end with a big thank you to my parents and my girlfriend Helen who acted as my support crew for the weekend and without which I wouldn’t have been able to complete the challenge.
* As an aside, it was the first time I have tried the High5 products since the Dragon Ride last summer. I found them easier to mix & drink than other energy products and the X’treme Energy Source in particular works wonders!