To Barretstown and back (with video)

Barretstown Trip from Team Norton Rose on Vimeo.

After a hard week at work (and in the case of Frank, a long drive down from Yorkshire) Dan, Brian and I together with Frank and Phil rendezvoused at Maidenhead train station last Friday morning to begin our first major RAAM format training exercise. The team had suffered a last minute blow with Anthony being unable to take the time off work, but plans had been put in place for Anthony to meet us in Carmarthen in west Wales at approximately 10.30 that night so all was good.

Our base for the trip was a converted van with 9 seats and a load area for the bikes. Tim Westwood had clearly had a hand in its conversion as it also sported a playstation, two drop down tvs and a “massive” sound system, however the chances to use these bits of kit never quite materialised….

The plan was to cycle in relay format from Maidenhead, through the rolling countryside of west England, make the jump through to Wales and continue through the Brecon Beacons and on to the ferry port at Pembroke in plenty of time for the 2.55am sailing to Rosslare in Ireland. Once in Ireland we intended to travel up through the Wicklow Gap and onto Barretstown for lunch and a tour, before departing for the 8.45pm ferry from Dublin to Holyhead and the return trip through Snowdonia and the Cotswolds.

Having set off at approximately 11am we knew that time would be tight to cover the first 260 mile leg so we got stuck in straight away and took 30 minute pulls. The first few pulls passed in a blur of adrenaline and a feeling of finally getting onto the road in a race format. This section was great cycling. We had great weather, lots of energy and free flowing roads. The afternoon continued in good spirits and despite a few teething problems with our race radio systems (we seemed to pick up every taxi company and farmer within a 5 mile radius) we were flying along and making excellent time.

We quickly settled in to a race routine which broadly went something like this:

1. 20-30 minutes flat out on the bike until Phil radioed in for a change over, at which point the support van would blast ahead up the road to find a place to park and get the next rider ready.

2. The changeover would pass in a blur as Phil grabbed our radio, handed it over to the next rider and got them going. In the meantime we would reorganise the bikes in the back of the van for the next shift and then get under way to catch the rider on the road.

3. Once in the van the person who just finished their shift would get their legs elevated, take on as much High5 4:1 energy drink as possible and begin the recovery process.

4. Once the next rider had finished their 30 minutes you would help with the changeover and then begin preparing yourself for the next pull. This meant ingesting copious amounts of energy gel (an acquired taste), prepping your shoes, radio, helmet and drink for the next pull and generally getting in the “zone”.

5. Phil then announced the next change over and you got on the bike ready to set off for the next pull.

This strategy worked extremely well and we soon found ourselves blasting in to Wales with our sights set on Brecon. As dusk fell we were all beginning to feel the effects of the day so decide to take on board some of our caffeinated energy drinks. These worked fantastically and saw us post some of our fastest pulls of the trip through the Welsh valleys and into nightfall.

We had arranged a brief stop off to meet Finola, a potential crew member for around 11pm but due to our excellent pace we managed to meet far earlier than planned and carried on to Carmarthen to meet Anthony. Unfortunately during the next hour it transpired that Finola would be unable to join us on RAAM so we parted company shortly before arriving at the train station full of disappointment but with some excellent advice and guidance.

Once atCarmarthenwe met up with Anthony and began the final pulls of the day to get to Pembroke. The Welsh roads at nightfall were pretty entertaining but we arrived shortly aftermidnightwith approximately 260 miles under our belts and lots of lessons learned.

Anyone who has visited Pembroke ferry terminal can probably appreciate our disappointment when we realised that our “dinner” for the night was going to have to consist of a warmed up sausage roll and a stale sandwich. After eating we boarded the ferry and headed straight for the bench seats for a sleep. After a fitful few hours of sleep we arrived in Rosslare in Ireland at 6am and readied ourselves for the day ahead with a petrol station breakfast. The morning shifts were fantastic with rolling countryside and country lanes being the order of the day. As we progressed through the day we began to steadily climb, culminating in a brutal few shifts which took us up the Wicklow Gap. I heroically opted to save my climbing legs for later in the trip and volunteered to take the shift that took in the descent which was great fun. I topped out at approximately 50mph and despite a few “moments” in the huge cross winds (the deep section wheels I was running act rather like a sail in crosswinds meaning you can easily be knocked several feet off line by a nasty gust of wind) made it down without any problems. From there on in we took a few more pulls until Dan delivered us to Barretstown.

We met Dee and Bernie from Barretstown and Kate (Kate works at Norton Rose but regularly volunteers herself as a carer) at the gates and began a tour of the Barretstown site. We all had a great time over the next hour and were able to see the entire site, which includes craft rooms, a theatre, the cottages at which the families stay, a fully equipped medical wing and the fantastic climbing frame apparatus which towers over most of the site. After the tour we were directed to the castle for showers and a change of clothes (our first in nearly 30 hours) and then taken to the dining hall for a fantastic and much needed lunch. We were forced to say our good byes shortly after this as the ferry from Dublin loomed, but we would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone at Barretstown for having us and showing us some of the wonderful work that you guys do.

After leaving we had an 80 mile or so hop into the outskirts of Dublin before piling into the van for the trip through the city centre to the ferry port. Passing through Dublin and its myriad bars on a Saturday evening without getting the chance to get stuck into some booze was tough but we luckily managed to resist temptation. We arrived at the ferry port in plenty of time and were again disappointed to discover that decent food was not available. After a couple of hours during which we gave the van a spring clean, got the bikes prepped for night riding and tried to catch some fitful rest we boarded the ferry, had some of the world’s most over priced food (£13 for a dry piece of chicken, 4 new potatoes and some veg) and got our heads down for a couple of hours sleep.

We arrived in Holyhead at midnight and immediately set about covering the 260 or so miles home as fast as possible. We hit some good climbing through Snowdonia and passed through what we all imagine was some pretty spectacular scenery but as it was pitch black other than the narrow beam of our lights we were none the wiser. The next few hours passed without any major drama until we started nearing Shrewsbury at dawn. We encountered more than a few confused petrol station attendants as we all piled into the shops stripping the shelves of huge bottles of water, flapjacks and anything else unhealthy. At this point we were all struggling to adjust our body clocks which wasn’t helped by the noticeable drop in temperature however we soldiered on and soon warmed up thanks to the rising sun and “bumpy” terrain.

The final run in to Maidenhead was great fun as we were treated to fast roads and warm weather. Each of us hit some of the hardest pulls of the trip and ensured that our average speed stayed slightly above target pace for RAAM. Having arrived in Maidenhead we were all able to breathe a sigh of relief having not only survived our toughest test yet but having come out of the other side of it with a lot of lessons learnt and a set of excellent performances. Massive thanks go to Phil and Frank who drove, navigated and carried out seem less changeovers tirelessly – without them the trip would not have been possible.

We are now left with about 8 training weeks until the race and a whole host of admin tasks to get us ready in time. Our intention is to hit training as hard as possible in the run up to the race to capitalise on the work done so far and to ensure we all get to the start line in tip top shape. We are however faced with a number of tough decisions including whether to shave or not to shave (I’m not just talking about my ginger beard) and whether or not to report Dan for crimes against fashion for sporting several sets of 1990’s adidas track suit bottoms!

We will shortly begin the process of selling tickets for our launch event dinner and race night which is being held at Norton Rose on 24 May. Tickets are priced at a minimum donation of £75 (with all proceeds going to Barretstown) which gets you a champagne reception, three course meal and a great nights entertainment. Please get in touch with us if you would like to attend!

Keep checking back on the blog for updates (we will be posting a video of the trip shortly) and please use the link below to donate to Barretstown.

Please donate here

Video of our trip

Edit – Thanks very much to Jo Barnes and her band Spoonfed who provided the music for the video with their tracks Where to now and Pensive.

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Barretstown Training Ride

Tomorrow will see us begin the next stage of our training by taking on a RAAM format weekend ride to our charity Barretstown’s base (about 60 miles south of Dublin).

Setting out from London on Friday morning, we will cycle non stop (apart from two ferries!!) through England, South Wales, Ireland, North Wales and then back into England to arrive in London approximately 50 hours after we set off and with 750 miles in our collective legs.

We are completing the trip with the help of a mini crew consisting of Frank and Phil, who we are hoping will gain some solid experience that they can pass down to the other crew members. We are extremely grateful to both Phil and Frank for volunteering to spend their weekend driving at 20mph behind our lycra clad back sides….

Frank has designed a challenging route for us that takes in the Brecon Beacons (at night), the Wicklow Mountains and the Snowdonia National Park (also at night) so our climbing legs and Magicshine lights will certainly be put to the test!

While we are treating the trip as an epic training opportunity we are all extremely excited about the prospect of visiting Barretstown and getting to meet some of the camp visitors and members of staff that make the charity so fantastic. Seeing the difference the charity makes to people’s lives first hand will certainly provide us with all the motivation we need both over the course of the weekend and during the race in June.

As part of our publicity drive, Phil has been designated as film maker for the trip and will be videoing as much of it as possible so keep checking back as we will publish the video on the blog as soon as possible.

In the mean time, please can I urge any readers to dig deep into their pockets and make their way over to our donations page to get the fund raising ball rolling. Every single penny donated will go straight to Barretstown and enable them to keep doing the fantastic work that they do!

Click here to visit our justgiving page.

Barretstown logo

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No time to waste

A quick glance at the calendar confirms that there are only 10 full training weeks left until RAAM begins. That is enough to set a few alarms bells ringing but I think that if our team can string together a series of good training weeks we should be in good shape come the start in Oceanside.

It’s been a few weeks since our last blog, so here is a brief update of what’s been happening:

– our crew has grown to 10 members and we have most of the required team roles covered. We are still keeping our eyes open for a mechanic, but it might be that we have to deal with running repairs ourselves when we are Stateside;

– we have taken delivery of a couple of Planet X time trial bikes (Stealth models). Planet X have been kind enough to loan them to Team Norton Rose for the race and Brian in particular has taken to his like a duck to water. He currently holds the lead in the 1hr TT challenge;

– Rob is currently off ill (he assures us it is genuine) with a perforated ear drum. Cause yet to be established but fingers are being pointed at his Spinal Tap-esque ipod playlist which he constantly turns up to 11 during his turbo sessions;

– plans are well underway for our cycle trip to Ireland next weekend (April 8-10). We are making the 750 mile round trip for two reasons. Firstly, we are all really excited to be visiting the charity we are supporting who are based in Barretstown, Ireland (about 50 miles south of Dublin). Our firm has been involved with Barretstown for a number of years but none of our team has made a visit to see the work carried on there. When we met with the Barretstown folk in London before Christmas we all came away very enthused so I can only imagine our motivation being sky high when we actually see the camp. Secondly, the trip will serve as an excellent training/bonding exercise. We will not be carrying out changeovers at the same intensity as in RAAM itself, but we are sure to take away a number of valuable lessons. Provided the weather holds, we should be in for an excellent journey.

Finally, I’m not sure how many of you are aware of James Cracknell’s series on the Discovery Channel on Thursday evenings. I watched the first episode last week where James took on the Marathon des Sables (6 days gruelling running through Moroccan desert). For any of you who may have recently eaten, I will spare you the details but suffice to say he suffered during the race. Not for the first time in his career though, he came out on top and managed the best ever finish by a Brit at the MDS. The next episode (which was first aired last night) covered his ill-fated attempt to race across America by bike. Should make for compelling viewing.

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Hell of the Ashdown

In our quest to keep the mileage charts ticking over, Dan, Brian and I entered the Hell of the Ashdown sportive in order to get a fast paced 100+km in our legs.

As is the way with these events I woke to the sound of my alarm at 6am on Sunday morning, had a quick breakfast, loaded my bike into the car and got on the road. Having arrived at Biggin Hill for the start I set about signing on and getting my bike ready for the ride. I met Brian and Dan shortly before we were due to set off and exchanged a few words about the weather (HOTA has a reputation for brutal weather conditions so we had come prepared in our full winter gear) and Brian’s very nice new bike.

Having crossed the start line just after 9am we weaved our way through the village and started the short sharp descent out of Biggin Hill. As we approached the first corner I heard a cracking noise and turned around to see brian hurtling straight on into a handily placed driveway apparently unable to make the turn. Dan and I laughed it off and continued up the road (like all good team mates do). At the top of the first hill we waited for Brian who had seemingly managed to resolve his new bike brake issues and continued on our way. Shortly after that we lost sight of Brian and decided to push on.

The next 80k was a great mix of steep ascents and flowing descents through the Kent countryside and the Ashdown Forest during which Dan and I managed to make good progress through the assorted riders on the road. It soon became apparent that we had massively misjudged the weather forecast as almost immediately the sun came out and began the process of boiling us inside our very nice new Norton Rose training kit. 

Considering that the last few months of riding for me has been confined to the flat topography of Essex, I chose to follow a power based pacing strategy to manage my output on the steep stuff. This worked pretty well until the 90k mark, at which point my lack of hill training was starting to show in my legs. Dan still had some gas in the tank so he flew off up the final major hill of the day and carried on to the finish alone leaving me to do battle with a guy in vintage US Postal Team kit.

Final stats for the day were very encouraging. Dan placed 93rd and I placed 127th out of 750 riders, with times just over the 4 hour mark for the 107km distance. Considering we both had a couple of stops early on to wait for Brian’s mechanicals we are both very pleased.

On returning to the finish we found a rather down beat Brian who it turned out had had a stinker of a morning due to malfunctioning brakes and gears. Luckily this has taught us a valuable lesson when it comes to making sure everything is properly set up and functioning before big events!

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February Statistics

  • Month training time: 43 hours 40 minutes
  • Month training distance: 1,135 km
  • Overall RAAM training time (i.e. from September onwards): 157 hours
  • Overall RAAM training distance: 4,052 km

The key to a very solid February has been consistency. Even though it is a short month I have posted my best mileage total to date and have really seen some results because of that. For each of the four weeks I have managed to tick off at least 250km with one bumper week (during which I conducted a short RAAM simulation) spiking the total a little higher. The weather has been better which has allowed me to get back to the 4-6 hour rides on the weekend. I very much enjoy getting out into the countryside, spending a little time outside of the city. But I don’t treat the long rides as an excuse for an amble round quiet roads, I relish the chance to drive myself over the hills of the North Downs. They may not be the Rockies but they will be my staple training diet until RAAM.

With the RAAM seminar completed, the crew steadily growing in number as well as enthusiasm and a successful Hell of the Ashdown sportive, February has been a very satisfying month.

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A real pain in the neck

There are a range of injuries the typical cyclist will suffer from: tendonitis in the knees; saddles sores; a tight ITB muscle stopping the knee cap from tracking properly; perhaps a bit of road rash from an unfortunate dust-up with the tarmac. These issues are very much par for the course and although you can injury-proof yourself to a certain extent through extensive base training, you’ll have to deal with little niggles and pains on a regular basis.

One nuisance I wasn’t expecting to deal with until the race was a pain in my neck and shoulders. It’s quite obvious now that I have committed a cardinal sin and not built a sufficiently stable set of “core” muscles. The pain is becoming more acute with every training ride meaning a trip to the physio is becoming inevitable. It has highlighted to me the importance of off-the-bike training – neglecting the basics almost always leads to injury.

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Let there be light – Magicshine UK join Team Norton Rose

Of the many pieces of kit we will need to take with us for RAAM 2011, we identified getting a good quality set of lights as a priority. The race doesn’t stop from the moment the starting gun is fired so teams have to contend with the dangers of night time cycling if they are to reach the finish line on the east coast. Descending at 40-50mph is demanding enough during the day, but at night time the chances of coming off your bike at speed are greatly increased. Sir Steve Redgrave suffered a very painful crash whilst attempting RAAM last year which forced him to pull out and leave his team ride to the finish without him.

It was Brian who took the lead role of tub-thumper and on behalf of Team Norton Rose, he put the sponsorship feelers out to a number of companies and luckily for us got an extremely positive response from Magicshine UK, a family business based in Northampton which sells niche products to fellow cyclists. Our contact, Bonita, was very enthusiastic about our project and agreed to join the team as exclusive provider of lights and race radios.

We were very quickly each sent a set of front and rear lights with the promise of more to follow before the day of the race. I had the chance to road test my set during my RAAM rehearsal last weekend. The Magicshine lights are excellent and they lit up the Derbyshire country lanes very well giving me plenty of time to evade the worst of the potholes left behind by the harsh UK winter.

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Update

Things have been moving extremely fast over the last few days, but we are extremely pleased to welcome Laura Parker, Chris White and Robbie Adair to the team. Hopefully we have a few more interested people in the pipeline so are nearly there on the crew front!

On a totally different note, after much searching I have found the perfect turbo training album in the form of “Live on Lansdowne” by the drop Kick Murphys.

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RAAM rehearsal

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!

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High5 – welcome to the team

Training aside, things have been moving very quickly for the team over the last few weeks with the logistical hurdles of booking flights, vehicles and finding a crew all taking our time up (if you are interested in crewing or if you are a physio with a sense of adventure, please get in touch…..).

One aspect of the race that we are all worried about is making sure that we consume enough calories to enable us to hit each session as hard as we can. Estimates suggest that we will be burning between 5000-8000 calories every day during the race, which puts a massive pressure on our diet. Consuming enough real food to replenish this daily loss may seem like a dream job to some people, but due to the nature of the race we will get very little opportunity to eat proper meals as we will either be cycling or trying to get some sleep*. We are therefore intending to place a large amount of reliance on sports nutrition products to make sure our bodies are properly fueled up throughout the race and able to recover from hard efforts.

When it comes to the sports nutrition market there is a massive range of companies and products to choose from, with each claiming to be better than the rest. One company that does stand out above the others due to their independently tested claims, is High5 and it was with great pleasure that we received a really enthusiastic response from High5 offering to sponsor us and offer nutritional support and advice for the team both during training and during the race itself.

After pouring through the tailored nutrition guide that High5 sent us we placed a mammoth order which arrived yesterday afternoon (a small proportion of which can be seen in the picture). Having used the Energy Source Extreme powder before, I can attest to just how good the High5 products are, but the effects of the tailored nutrition plan will hopefully become apparent after the weekend as I have a 3 day mini training camp planned and Dan is bravely taking on a 24 hour race simulation……

Watch this space 

* Having once tried to eat a Big Mac while cycling I can confirm that this definitely is not a good idea.

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