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Reflections on the Transatlantic Way Ride 2018 – A tale in two parts. Pt 1

Some months have passed now since I completed TAWR 2018. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the event and what I’ve learned. The time is right to share my perspective.

This is written in two parts as I approached and experienced the race/ride as two distinct phases.

  • Phase 1 make it to the ferry by Sunday night, day 4.
  • Phase 2 make it to the finish as quickly as possible.
Exchanging good wishes with Paul Alderson and Doug Corrie shortly before the start. Photo: Richard Marshall

TAW 2017 was my first ever ultra endurance cycle event and I ended up retiring or “scratching” from the race just 300km from the finish and in an astounding, to me, 6th place. This was due to what’s known as Shermer’s neck whereby your neck muscles become so fatigued that they can no longer adequately support your head whilst cycling.

This condition is very dangerous when descending hills in particular as it becomes impossible to see where you’re going. You’re a serious danger to yourself and other road users. (Another rider in this years TAW and suffering from this ended up cartwheeling off the road into a field. He was very lucky to escape serious injury)

TAW 2018 presented a different set of challenges because race director Adrian O’Sullivan had altered the course to include a ferry trip across the Shannon. I saw this as having the effect of making it two races in one. Those who made it to the ferry before the last ferry on the Sunday (Day 4) night would have about a 10 hour advantage over those behind that missed the last ferry. Race two was within the group that made that Sunday ferry.

The challenge of reaching this ferry really piqued my imagination and inspired me. I knew it was a hard task and looking at my progress in TAW 2017 revealed that I made it to near the ferry terminal on the Monday (Day 5) at around 18:00. Basically I needed to shave about 24 hours off my 2017 time to cover a similar distance. Eeek!

I knew from my 2017 race that I could certainly ride more efficiently and I was also wiser about re-supply options and many other aspects of making progress. So, there it was, my challenge, make the last ferry on Sunday and then secondly make it to the finish.

My technique is to split the GPS route into ambitious but theoretically achievable day length targets. I use RideWithGPS for planning this as it offers me estimated times based on the terrain and my ride history.

The ambitious results look like so:

  1. Dublin to Buncrana – 363km
  2. Buncrana to Ballina – 428km
  3. Ballina to Costelloe – 428km
  4. Costelloe to Tralee – 294km
  5. Tralee to Kenmare – 367km
  6. Kenmare to Kinsale – 390km

I work best with high targets that I may fail to make rather than with sensible targets that I hope to surpass or absolutely have to make. You’ll notice that day 4 is shorter and you should note that Tralee is some 85km further on than the Kilrush ferry; this is the “cushion” in my planning. In hindsight I really think I should have planned more achievable days rather than trying to truly outdo myself!

The end result to the ferry was:

  1. Dublin to Buncrana – 363km, 15hr 28min moving time, 17hr 30min elapsed.
  2. Bunncrana to Skreen – 372km, 17hr 25min moving time, 19hr 44min elapsed.
  3. Skreen to Check Point 2 – 357km, 15hr 50min moving time, 18hr elapsed.
  4. CP 2 to Kilrush ferry – 315km, 13hr 26min moving time, 15hr 13min elapsed.
  • Total duration from race start to ferry including sleep: 3 days 8 hours 30min
  • Total moving time: 2d 14hr 9min
  • Total elapsed time: 2d 22hr 27min
  • Total fully stopped / sleep time: 10hrs 3min
At the ferry terminal, as captured by Richard Marshall

I am pretty proud of this achievement I have to say.

No wonder I looked and felt knackered.

(I also felt extremely content!)

How those 4 days unfolded and my later refections
Day 1.

Coach Martin Burrows had done an excellent job in periodising my training up to the event. I was raring to go with all indications suggesting that I was about 10% stronger than the year previous. It was to be a staggered start organised alphabetically by first name, which meant I was in the first group away, accompanied by race favourites Bernd Paul and Bjorn Lenhard and so it was that I set off directly behind those two and 4th place finisher Aidan Allcock.

I could maintain their pace but I knew that I could not maintain it for more than a few hours so I eased back and let them ride off. It wasn’t long before I was riding alone, then surprisingly Bjorn rode past me, seems I had a better route! Then it was Karen Tostee who whizzed by with a smile. Awhile later she went by again, “I want your route” she said!

I knew that the only way I was going to make my target was to ride the 230km to Derry as close to non-stop as possible. I had 3 x 950ml of water and juice mix plus 2 Cokes and I think a Lucozade, as well as various snack bars. It was hot for Ireland though with temps in the high 20’s. This meant I didn’t have enough fluids for me to do this distance in these conditions but I didn’t want to stop either. As luck would have it I rode past a chap hosing his front garden who kindly let me top up my bottles with barely a pause. Result!

Karen rode past again! She’d stopped to refuel, that lady is quick and if it hadn’t been for some mechanical and other problems she’d have been a serious contender for a win I think.

I made it to Derry as 11th to CP1, I was pretty happy with that. I rode on a bit and stopped at a Spar to refuel and provision for the night ahead. So far so good. It was refreshing to be into the cool of the evening but I was well aware that I still had about 130km to ride to make my days target.

All was going well and I’d already ridden well past my previous year’s bivi stop in daylight when I hit a pothole and my tracker bounced out of its cradle into the long grassy roadside verge. Doh! I spent what felt like a very long hour trudging up and down with my torch until I finally located it. Other riders either flew past or paused to check I was ok. Some helped me look though they probably shouldn’t have according to self-supported rules but either way I did find it myself by treading on it! I stubbornly pressed on to Buncrana and made it at about 04:00 as the sky was brightening and with the challenging climb of the Mamore Gap completed in darkness.

A squadron of midges attack my fly mesh while their compatriots inside torment me at their leisure.

It was my worst ever bivi spot choice though, a midge infested field! My bag has a fly mesh but that doesn’t stop all the sods that join you inside. Never you mind the unpleasantness of the wet wipe ablutions before you get in. The midges were intense on many occasions during TAW 2018 whereas in 2017 I didn’t meet a single one.

First night’s rest was not so brilliant but still I was on the road again at 07:28 with another long day ahead of me. Happy enough though and awake without an alarm,

Day 2

I remember surprising little of day 2 beyond it being hot. My Wahoo recorded a high of 32c. What I do remember however is the infamous gravel section of the route at the Glenveagh National Park. This was a delight because as I reached the lower sections there were lots of teenage school kids ambling along oblivious to my speeding approach. I’d recently invested in a proper old style brrrriiinng brrrrring type bike bell because these don’t seem to annoy anybody and frankly it just gives me a smile.

So to alert the either chatting or phone distracted youths I took to ringing my bell cheerfully and high five-ing them as I rode past. It must have been a funny sight and I delighted in the connection, an old git celebrates the day with the young!  It raised my spirits and hopefully theirs.

This was also the day of a very hot Glengesh Pass ascent.

Glengesh Pass. A long, slow, hot climb in 2018. I had a nice chat and a hug from Adrian O’Sullivan at the top though! Photo: Adrian Crapciu

A lot of riders had passed me in the night but gratifyingly I was slowly moving back up through the field and was back to 12th by late afternoon, though there was a huge and intimidating number of riders very close behind. Again I rode past my previous year’s bivi stop many hours earlier, in bright daylight. I pressed on until about 03:00 which moved me back upto 6th just behind Karen. (I only know this now from re-playing the tracker) That night I bivi’d in the shelter of a timber mill loading bay, midge free.

Day 3

On the road again 07:25, alarm set but again not needed. Operation get to CP2.

At this point in the race I’m physically fine apart from increasingly painful saddle sores but all good elsewhere. Equipment wise my Igaro usb charger wasn’t working but I had a powerful power bank as backup that might well see me through to the finish anyway. So no real problems, though I could feel the fatigue and my slowing pace but that was only to be expected.

It was about now that I began to meet familiar faces passing me on the road. Firstly Gavin Dempster, young, fast and friendly. We’d chat briefly and compare notes. He was riding fast and recovering longer I was riding slow and sleeping/stopping less as I just don’t have riding that fast in my bag of tricks.

Then, come Achill Island, I met up with Matt Ryan and we fooled about to and fro right till the ferry. Achill was very different to how it was in 2017 and rather boring by comparison. In 2017 it was a gale of wind, rain, sea foam blown from hundreds of feet below and kamikaze sheep leaping into my path. This year it was a slog more than an adventure!

On exiting the isle I stopped at a little grocers to feed and stock up for the night, Matt also paused briefly but then rode on ahead. This was a long night section to make it to CP2.  Fortunately I love the peace of night riding and find that time just blurs into a continuum but as the hours passed I was seriously ready to rest and desperately trying to calculate the distance to the ferry and how far I had to get before I could back off a little.

Foolishly I hadn’t worked out how far the ferry was from CP2 and in my head I had it at around 250km, a relatively easy day’s ride. It turns out that it’s actually 315km.

Eventually I made it to CP2 at around 01:30 to the unlikely sight of Chris Herbet smoking a cigarette as he and I think David Thomlinson prepared to depart. Adrian O told me that if I carry on now I’ll be in 5th. That wasn’t an option!

I’d planned on another 3hr sleep but I discovered that it was 315km to the ferry rather than my hopeful 250km-ish. Holy cripes! I had it in mind that the last ferry was at 20:00 but I wanted to target the 19:00 one so as to give me some contingency time. All I had to do now was stop an excited Adrian form talking so much and get some sleep. A mere 90 mins lying on a bunk fully clothed and virtually unwashed. This time my alarm dragged me slowly, wearily, to reluctant consciousness and so began my time trial to the ferry. 03:50 am Sunday.

day 4

This was certainly the hardest riding and most exciting ride of the race for me. I felt fully on the mission, go, go, go! Whilst I wasn’t riding as physically powerfully as day 1 I was giving it my all rather than keeping a bit in the bin. It’s very exciting to fully give something your absolute all.

This is a flatter section on the route in general but it is also plagued with some horrendous, cracked, corrugated, saddle sore jarring road surfaces but I ignored it all and basically trashed my neck and hands by spending too long on the TT bars and by taking the weight off my oh so sore backside with my arms and hands.

09:00 had me at Costelloe for my first full Irish breakfast of the trip. The cafe manager smiled and said “you in the race as well? The others left not long ago”, “Indeed I am! Full Irish please and two black coffees” Off I went to freshen up in bathroom. Upon my return a large rotund chap was sat eating a full Irish…my full Irish!!

Don’t they know I have a ferry to catch! The waiter, whom I think hadn’t seen me, just brought it out and gave it to the only customer in the room. Oh well, another was duly ordered and I set about my coffee and catching up with the race on my phone.

One event that I haven’t mentioned was that I’d accidently left my down jacket hanging on a garage toilet door, though I could not say exactly where without lots of battery and time hungry tracker reviewing. My wife had sent messages to race HQ and the media cars were on the lookout which was nice though I knew that even if they found it that they could not return it to me before race finish. Happily, the weather was warm and it was less than essential, even if it did also serve duty as my sleeping bag. I had a few other layers and could keep warm in mid teen night temps.

Breakfast done it was time to crack on! At this point I was once again ahead of Karen, Gavin and Matt and our pack was building a steadily increasing gap ahead to the main bunch behind us. Bjorn and Bernd were in a race of their own well out ahead.

Matt reeled me in at around 15:00 near Doolin and chided me for not stopping long enough at CP2 🤣. Once more he rode off into the distance and I carried on my steady plod. A fatigued while later I stopped for supplies and decided to double check the ferry times. “Ummm last ferry is 21:00 not 20:00, oh fine I’ve got plenty of time then.” I relaxed and bought another coffee.

Then the thought, “Ummm so how far is it yet? Oh, so I could still just make the 19:00 ferry. Better go for that then”

Now began the really exciting bit with long flat fast sections where I though “Yes! I’ll make it easily if it doesn’t get too hilly” only to then be confronted with a hill. At this point I was on an emotional roller coaster, from crying for no reason other than the emotional release, to laughing, shouting and cheering for the shear foolish thrill of it all, relishing the singular purpose of catching that darn ferry. I even accidentally climbed a very steep hill in my 34×28 gear rather than the 34×36 grandad gear that I usually resort to!

Matt caught up again, he’d had a stop as well, and I kept him in my sights ahead as we completed the final dash. Made it with just minutes to spare! A grinning Pawel Pulawski and an incredibly tired looking David Tomlinson were there as well; having just missed the 18:00 ferry. Photographer Richard Marshall captured some images.

Left to right Matt, Me, Pawel, David. Photo: Richard Marshall

It was gratifying to see how totalled these young chaps looked.

I did it, I bloody did it!

I was going to celebrate with a shower and a B&B on the other side!

Reflections, what I might do differently
  • Go easier on day 1 in particular. Spread my effort so less recovery is required.
  • Plan my days more accurately and efficiently.
  • Relax my bike fit.

Not much else, pace, recovery and comfort are everything as I see it. I made the ferry but to have achieved a better final position I’d have had to pace slower and miss the Sunday ferry. I don’t regret this though. These intense 4 days will stay with me forever,

In part two I’ll cover my steady decline from 9th place to 43rd, a different kind of ride/walk.

In Praise Of The Mini Adventure

Just enough luggage
Glorious mornings
Calm days
Moody evenings
Back roads
Basic shelter from a hedge
Open store shelter
Trails
Quiet canals
Cold winter tracks
Getting ready for bed
Night lights
Well earned breakfasts

There’s a seemingly inexhaustible supply of aspirational features in the media telling of remote adventures into the wilderness or continent crossing epics, of living life beyond the confines of an average adult’s lifestyle.

Whilst it might seem wonderful to indulge in a similar adventure for ourselves practically speaking this is going to be a very big ask for most working adults and, in reality, something only a very few are fully committed to do.

These stories may seem to imply that only such wild, grand adventures are of any importance or benefit. This maybe true if you’re wanting to sell articles, magazines or gain sponsorship but if you simply wish to enhance your life then nothing could be further from the truth.

The Oxford Dictionary defines adventure as:

  • An unusual and exciting or daring experience.”

That’s a broad definition but note the key ingredients are simply “unusual”“exciting” or “daring” and its not hard to find those ingredients.

Balancing the typical adult demands of work and family can make disappearing off for weeks or days on end unacceptably or irresponsibly unusual.

There is no reason to feel too saddened or trapped by any of that as you can still derive great benefit from remarkably fine adventures very close to home, wherever that maybe.

Short bike packing trips can be the perfect mini adventure. Set off alone on a Friday night and ride into the darkness for as many hours as you wish and then camp out before riding home again taking as long as you wish. Riding well into the night is pretty unusual for most cyclists and just sleeping in a bivi or makeshift shelter, is pretty darn unusual for most people period. Riding any distance alone isn’t very common either.

Things happen when you do something like this. Being alone on a bike forces you to confront yourself and listen to your anxieties or inane mind chatter. That can be uncomfortable because you may discover you’re probably a little more neurotic than you ever wanted to believe! The “stuff” that you may normally, subconsciously, avoid facing by immersing yourself in a hectic life with endless distractions can now make it’s presence felt.

No matter, you now get to enjoy all the benefits of adventure therapy out alone on your bike. Riding a bike demands you focus your mind on the road, traffic, navigation, and staying safe but at the same time there is also a sense of space for you to think clearly. I feel it focuses me in two directions.

As the hours pass you can find clarity about other challenges in your life and learn to quiet the nonsensical ramblings of the mind. You feel more exposed riding alone at night but you also feel an increased sense of freedom. You experience a heightened sense of your vulnerability but your also get a greater sense of your strength. Sleeping in a bivi bag can feel claustrophobic or safe and snug. Every experience can feel good or bad, being alone on the road heightens your every sense of this, and continually challenges your resolve to choose to make the best of everything.

Or maybe not, you may hate it and swear never again but either way you’ll be far wiser and than if you’d never left…

 

Saddle Quest ~ In Search Of Enduring Comfort

 

In this post I share what I’ve learnt about saddle comfort.

I’ve been cycling since I was a kid as a way to stay fit or get about locally. It is only in the last year that I’ve been riding regularly for several hours at a time or even days on end. My biggest single challenge with any of this has been dealing with saddle discomfort.

The cycling industry doesn’t like to put newcomers off by dwelling on this but it can take months to fully acclimatise your sit bones to the demands of sitting upon a bike saddle for hours on end.

As a new cyclist you have to begin slowly in order to accustom your bum to the saddle experience; no matter what brand or design of saddle. Just complete very short rides on alternate days to begin with, there are no shortcuts, it simply takes time for your tissues to develop and adjust to this new demand.

A gradual process is fine for acclimatising your sit bones but if you’re also experiencing numbness and tingling in your soft tissues then something else needs to be done as you can never acclimatise to that. Such tingling or numbness can lead to longterm issues and needs to be taken seriously. (One long five day endurance trip I took lead to months of discomfort but fortunately no lasting issues.)

Some things I’ve learnt..
  • Tilting a saddle down to reduce perineal pressure tends to place more weight onto your hands as you stop yourself sliding forward. This can lead to nerve pressure resulting in numb fingers or cyclist’s palsy.
  • Saddle width needs to be matched to sit bone width. Wide (130mm+) sit bones on a narrow saddle particularly cause soft tissue pressure.
  • A professional bike fit is money very well spent. I had an in depth hour long fit and follow up fit with Kernow Physio that included video analysis and physiological measurements to get an optimum starting position. A follow up session some months later further refined this. The whole process gave me an understanding of the dynamics my bike position, ideas on how I can improve aspects of my strength and flexibility as well as insight into how I can make further micro adjustments if necessary. Get a professional bike fit, no online article or video is any kind of substitute. Scott at Kernow Physio say this about the importance of also combining physiotherapy assessment with a bike fit. “…Full Physiotherapy assessment: This is a key asset to Kernow Physio as one of the most important aspects of a bike fit is understanding how the client moves. And experienced Physiotherapy knowledge certainly helps this. Kernow Physio is one of the few bike fitting companies to be run by a fully chartered Physiotherapist. Key assessment areas include flexibility, true leg length discrepancy, restriction of hip, knee and ankle movement, and a footbed assessment if required.” It worked for me.
  • Even just a few millimetres of adjustment (of many different components) can make a significant difference.
  • What feels comfortable for 4 hours may not prove so comfortable on much longer rides.
  • Good core strength stabilises the pelvis and back which aids comfort. It’s necessary to cross train and combine other exercises beyond cycling to support longterm cycling comfort and endurance. With strong, flat abdominal muscles your pelvis tilts forward less and reduces perineal soft tissue pressure.
  • There is no one size fits all solution. Seek the best advice but also trust your judgement; only you really know what is right for you. Very few experts in bike fit or coaching actually have much experience with unsupported ultra distance cycling.
Saddles I’ve tried – in order

Selle SMP Extra

Used on my previous bike. I had high hopes for this but try as I may I couldn’t get a comfortable position with it.

 

 

 

 

 

Stock Genesis saddle

This came with my Datum bike but didn’t work well for me.

 

 

 

 

Brooks Cambium C15 Imperial

I so wanted this saddle to work for me. I love how it looks and initially it did seem very comfortable but after over 1000+km of testing I had to give up on it. It was Ok when riding up on the hoods but in the drops or on TT bars my nether regions went to sleep (I think the non cutout version maybe better as it should result in less sagging in the middle)

 

Ergon SRS-M

This at first seemed like the solution to my problems but again I couldn’t get a fit that allowed for comfort and blood flow in an aero position using the drops or TT bars without tilting the saddle nose down. Any nose down saddle position had me putting too much weight on my hands to stop me sliding forward. This then lead to nerve constriction and numbness and tingling in my fingers.

 

 

Selle SLR 

This is the saddle endurance cycling supremo Kristof Allegaert uses and having watched him cross Australia on one during the IPWR I thought it was worth a try. Once again I had the same issue of needing excessive downward saddle tilt to maintain blood flow in more aggressive riding positions which lead to excess hand pressure.

 

Infinity Seat N series

Aside from perineal pressure there is also the issue of saddle sores where your sit bones make contact. I haven’t suffered particularly badly with this but it’s something I’d idealy avoid. I read many glowing reviews about the comfort of this saddle and it’s design intrigued me. Sadly, my sit bone width at circa 130mm resulted in my sit bones resting, very uncomfortably, exactly on the edges of the cutout rather than within it. I could also tell that even if this wasn’t the case that I was still going to have perineal pressure issues. Another one for eBay and a real shame that  http://infinitybikeseat.com don’t provide better pre-purchase sizing guidance.

 

ISM PN 1.1

Success! This is the saddle I rode the 2017 TAW race on with virtually no blood flow or nerve issues and only mild saddle sores. I find I can move around a lot on this, but still stay comfortable, depending on whether I’m on the hoods, drops or TT bars. The pressure on my pubic rami bones took a few weeks to get used to but then I was set. It’s not quite perfect but certainly the best I’d found until I upgraded to the new PN 3.0.

 

ISM PN 3.0

This is a seriously good saddle for my needs. Virtually zero blood flow issues riding in any position. Compared with the PN 1.1, the wider back offers more pelvic support and allows me to sit back onto my sit bones if I want. The slightly different to curve to the top of the saddle fits my anatomy better. Small changes compared with the PN 1.1 have resulted in even better comfort. There maybe more comfortable saddles to be had but I’m content with this and no longer looking elsewhere. My focus now is on managing friction and eliminating saddle sores. Check out ISM’s design theory here.

 

Thanks for reading, I hope you’ve found this useful and wish you happy, comfy riding.

WGC Day 2 – The silly one

Day #2
Distance 160.1 Mi, Moving Time 15:03:55, Climbing 8,061 ft, Ave Temp 6c 43F

Day 2 dawned and I awoke happily warm and, remarkably, somewhat drier than when I’d wriggled into my little bivi cocoon 5 hours or so earlier.

My weather check the day before had suggested that sunshine and unfavourable northeasterly winds were to be the order of the day. Right now though it was bitterly cold and anything but sunny.

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An introduction…

Greetings!

My name is Chris Jackson and I’ve entered my first ever cycle race at age 57.

Not your average event however, it’s-

The TransAtlanticWay race is a 2500 km, one stage, self-supported road bike race between Dublin and Cork via The Wild Atlantic Way.”

I made this decision and signed up on the 29th September 2016 and then marked the occasion by riding my longest ever ride of 170km with 2100+m of climbing the following day.

Why you may wonder? Well, I’ve had a lot of challenges and uncertainty with my business over the last couple of years and really felt the need for a change, for a totally different kind of adventure and focus.

This style of solo self supported cycle racing really inspires me, aside from the weather and the vagaries of whatever may happen on the road I’ll be solely reliant on my wits and preparation to succeed; there’ll be nobody else to fault or rely on. It’s a truly personal challenge.

I’m writing this blog as part of promoting the fundraising side of my entry but also to encourage anybody else who might be considering a similar adventure particularly if they’re at the point where age 40 or 50 is starting to feel quite some while ago.

I’ll be posting regular updates about my training, nutrition, equipment and general tales from the scenic roads here in Cornwall as well as anything else that inspires or seems relevant.