Stars and Spokes
Dan’s Top Tips – What we’ve learnt from cycling 7000 km in the past 100 days...
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
Dan here. First 100 days of 2021 done! Training has really taken shape over the last 3 months. Time for some reflection, now that we have many, many hard winter training rides under our belts.
I started my structured expedition training plan in September last year and it was a rocky start...We’d just moved back to the UK from a military posting in Germany, and I had the world’s supply of jobs to do to get the house back to how it should be, so there was little time. Plus, it starts to get properly dark around that time of year as the clocks go back, the temperature drops, the rain starts, and it was hard work - I wasn’t properly bike fit at that point, despite doing a lot of commuting and pleasure riding in Germany.
It was a tough few months, and things got worse before they got better! But now it’s spring, the sun is out, the days are longer, daffodils are everywhere, and I can pedal a bike a good few miles without crying. I’ve learnt a lot and I think the bulk of that knowledge came since the New Year, as I’ve read more on cycling performance, gained experience and have started to see some results from specific training activity.
So what have we accomplished in these 100 days? Personally, I think we’ve done very well. Between Pascal and I, we’ve ridden 7,000 km and climbed 170,640 feet. It’s taken 195 rides, or 286 hours. That’s a lot when you’re holding down a pressurised full-time job and family life.
Looking at our averages - 1.5 hours (or 22 miles) of cycling every single day in 2021 thus far. That’s quite a bit to factor into your daily routine, and doesn’t include expedition planning time, posting to social media, finding sponsors, or bike maintenance. This is an all-consuming task, but I’ve certainly learnt a lot and I thought I’d share it!
So, if you're planning your own next adventure (that may, or may not, involve a bike), here are my top tips:
1. Something will have to give. We don’t have an infinite supply of time or money, you can't do it all!
'Am I going to spend time with the family on the weekend, or knock out an imperial century ride?'
'Do I get out early to catch some daylight or do story time with the kids?'
'Do I buy new super fandangled fast-rolling tyres or put it towards the new door because the draught is enough to blow out a candle?'
Training to a goal takes a lot of dedication, not just by the individual. It has an impact on a lot of others when it absorbs your free time, whether it’s friends or immediate family. I like to think I get the balance about right, but I do get slightly unsubtle suggestions from my wife on occasion, such as it might be nice to do the washing up before going out.
2. Invest in your bike. Your bike may not be perfectly calibrated for the type of riding you do, and you need to ‘understand’ it in order to fix it. Mine (a Specialized Sequoia Elite) is a gravel bike which started with heavy wheelsets and (still has) 700x42 tyres - perfect for trails, but I do most miles on road as it’s a more efficient way to build endurance, and representative of our expected expedition conditions. I’ve had a more flexible seat post donated (cheers Andy!) and put some much lighter wheels on which has made a massive difference. I will change the tyres soonish (see Point 1!) to reduce the weight, but I do like the wide tyres. Cornish backroads often demand them and I love riding a bit of gravel when I can. I have (by necessity) had to strip components off, swap, rebuild, and change, but now I better understand what’s up and how to fix it when things are amiss. Plus, I know if something goes wrong by the side of the road I’ve got a fair chance of cobbling something together to make it somewhere useful.
3. Fuel. I once rode from the origin of the River Danube to Ulm; 127 miles of beautiful scenery and trails, fuelled only by a small selection of cereal bars, made more interesting by not understanding the German language ingredient list! It was poor planning on my behalf and whilst I obviously made it, I wasn’t ecstatic by the end and subsequently demolished half a bakery. ‘Scran (Scran is Navy slang for food) Dan’ as he is now known, our nutritionist from the Institute of Naval Medicine, has provided us with our dietary requirements for training.
Basically, you need a lot going in when you’re out riding for long periods of time, but this also extends across your day. You need to plan it in ahead of time, and also on completion. I seem to eat everything in sight at the moment but it’s reasonably considered in its content for the most part and providing I am keeping the right levels of energy expenditure up, it works out ok. Take on low glycaemic index foods in advance, and top up with high as you’re going in order to keep your energy levels up.
4. Actually plan things. What does the weather look like? Maybe do the turbo trainer session on the day it’s actually raining, rather than when trying to make up some miles at the end of the week? Don’t take farm tracks on a whim and end up knee deep in a bog, maybe just follow the route you planned? Maybe remember to charge your bike lights more than 10 minutes before you're about to head out, or adjust the brakes not when you’re about to leave, trying to catch the light? I’ve got routines better established now but sometimes you just have to learn the hard way…
5. Take the right kit. I had a thoroughly miserable ride around New Year’s, down to the Lizard Peninsula on the south coast then back up on the north. It was a good 75 miles and the forecast looked ok, although I was probably going to get a few showers. I had a lightweight cycling jacket, perfectly equipped to deal with light showers. However, it actually hammered with rain as soon as I was too far in to turn back, and although I was encouraged as it looked like it might stop any moment, it definitely didn’t. All of me was soaking, all of me was freezing, there was a headwind everywhere I went and everything was uphill. It would have been immeasurably improved by decent gloves, waterproof booties, a buff, better snacks… or a car.
On another memorable occasion my saddle came loose when I was exactly 50 miles from home and required the only Allen key size that I didn’t have in my tool pouch. Riding that far on a wobbly, unstable saddle was awful. I couldn’t put much power in, hills were a nightmare, and it was extremely uncomfortable.
Taking kit along for the reasonable worst case scenario is the approach I now take.
6. Route selection. A few things go in to route selection for me - destination, distance, riding surface, but also profile. I’ve found the hard way that a route which has a saw-tooth profile, (i.e. loads of ups and downs in quick succession) is much more energy sapping than a route which has lesser gradients but over a longer stretch. Technically I suppose multiple climbs are good for training purposes but they’re miserable in execution! I rode from Newquay down to St Ives not long ago, and although absolutely stunning, you’re forever up and down through steep-sided little coves which saps the strength incredibly.
7. It should be enjoyable. A lot of it hasn’t been. A lot of it has been dark, cold, wet and dangerous. I’ve been skidding down impossibly dark country lanes, plastered in filth, lit by little more than a candle, or been jostled by angry London traffic, also in the dark. Halcyon days of gently rolling through sunny countryside with a basket on the handlebars hasn’t really featured much unfortunately. You may see a lot of nice photos on social media...but really, who is going to stop and take a picture in the dark and in the p****ng rain? And of what?! A lot has been grimly venturing out in the dark because the schedule needs me to, and in fairness it’s paid off. I’m faster and fitter and can ride a bike further. However, many a night I haven’t really wanted to go, and to be honest I’ve impressed myself with my own dedication. I’m at the point now however that I feel I can judiciously decide on what is going to be best - keep the long term motivation or knock out another 30 miles for the sake of it. Luckily, Tim the expedition Physical Training Instructor has some thoughts on this - there’s no substitute for actually riding a bike at the end of the day, and we need time in the saddle for an endurance event. However, there is a tune to be played using turbo trainers and the like.
Recently, I’ve been riding more to explore new places and take unknown trails rather than mile-building… and I love it again. Get a sunny day and plan a route to take in some stuff you’ve never seen even though it’s on your doorstep, and boom, there’s an extra 1 MPH in motivation right there! If it makes you want to get out and ride, then it must be the right thing to do.
8. People make the difference. Finally, I’ve been really touched by a lot of the responses and support we’ve had so far. Loads of people have been willing to bring their own unique skills or experience to help us, and every one has a unique story to tell. People have given up their time, money or expertise to help us out- because they think what we’re doing is valuable, and they’re just good eggs! We’re doing all of this because of people. The RNRMC does such amazing work in helping those who need it most- people who may have lost everything, or need some help to get back to being the best they can be. Service men and women who served the Royal Navy loyally but who now need a boost.
Last week was the 3rd anniversary of the death of one of my best mates who died whilst in Service. The RNRMC were immediately forthcoming with amazing support to his family, and for his close friends it made a real, tangible difference to see their unquestioning good will and generosity. To help us get the help to those who need it, head to www.justgiving.com/starsandspokes
If Pascal and I can help pass on any measure of this invaluable support to others in similar need then it’s definitely worth a few miles in the rain… and any time I see someone by the side of the road prodding their derailleur with a sad face I stop and see if they need any help - they might have 50 miles to ride home and be missing a 4mm Allen key!