Depending on how you see it – 2020 is either only halfway or it’s already halfway through.

Typically every year has some defining moments, the past 6 months have been world changing with many new and defining moments for us all. I wanted use this halfway point to look back at all the positives in the first year of my ‘Road to RAAM 22’, as well as the things I’ve learnt and how I will take that forward in to the next 6 months and beyond.


JANUARY

January seems like a different life altogether…and probably a much simpler one at that. Goals were set, motivation was high and for me, the first week of January was to set the tone for what 2020 was going to be all about.

On 4 January I rode ‘The Poor Student Audax’ – a 200km triangular route heading out from Oxford to Malmesbury, Chipping Campden and back to Oxford. What a way to start 2020, my first Audax event, an early test for the legs and some great country roads! You can read my blog of the ride here.

During January I also arranged a couple of Social Rides for the Spokes athletes, making the most of Performance Director Pav Bryan being back in the UK. The first in Chester and the second, and more local for me, in Worthing, West Sussex. Joined by Pav, Phil and David, we set off along the seafront out towards Littlehampton and Arundel before coming back via the impressive Ditchling Beacon, overlooking Brighton & Hove. A great ride…well…it would have been had I not taken a spill on a wet roundabout and trashed the new dhb bib tights I’d just been sent.


FEBRUARY

With no events planned for February the focus was on simply keeping the wheels turning and starting to adapt myself and my training to the rigours of what was to come.

After some research and recommendations from the community on Twitter, I invested in a set of clip on aero bars from Profile. So job one for February was to get them on, get aero and get practising. So I planned a century ride to go and see Jake at Precise Performance to get the bars properly fitted, what I didn’t appreciate was quite how physically demanding the ride would end up being. We’d been battered by Storms Ciara and Dennis here in the UK so I ended up riding through ankle deep floods and getting thrown around by the gusts, leaving me quite sore in the neck and shoulders.

With the bike adapted, next came the body and an increase in riding later in to the evening and even an overnight ride. Riding tired is definitely not my friend, however I did find a lot of pleasure in riding in the quite calm of night. I wrote a little blog about it, which you can read here.


MARCH

In March, all hell broke loose as the world began its march in to a quieter, emptier place as we all became locked down.

However, before life changed, I did manage to take in a tour of Kent and Sussex with fellow ultra-distance cyclist Matt Seward. We rode for nearly 240 miles from Broadstairs, following the coast line down to Brighton before heading back North to follow the Kent coast back to Broadstairs. I’m not going to lie that was an incredibly tough ride – a puncture at 4am meant for a freezing and unpleasant morning. I was ready to quit at Brighton, however a slap up breakfast changed the mood and we made it back largely unscathed (apart from being abused by a car driver who was unaware of the highway code and whose insult about my beard was an odd one, considering he had one too – go figure!?).

For me that was the last big outdoor ride and like many, the turbo trainer came out and stayed out. However, talking and riding with Matt meant I learnt a lot for future challenges and how to keep fuelled and motivated overnight, all food for thought as they say.


APRIL

It’ll all blow over in a month…no chance. Lockdown continued despite calls for easing and a return to ‘normality’. Lots of opinions and personal choices about what constituted our one piece of daily exercise circulated on social media. Me, I made my own choice (an hour outside, once a day) and, if you see my feed, I didn’t comment or criticise anyone for their own choices.

The growth of virtual racing has seen some of the most iconic events becoming arguably more accessible during lockdown and Ironman were amongst them (albeit the swim was swapped for a run of the same distance). The schedule worked so I signed up and took on Ironman VR3 – 1.5km swim (run) around my girlfriends garden which ended up being around 150 laps (less fun than I imagined), followed by 12.5miles on Zwift and a 5km run outside.

My training stayed largely virtual, although I did set the trainer up in the garden to at least make the most of the glorious sun. In preparation for May’s challenge I began riding longer turbo sessions on Zwift – either taking on 5 steady hours in Zone 2, riding back to back workouts or completing some of the longer routes like the Uber Pretzel.

I rounded of the month with the 4DP Full Frontal test, Sufferfest’s gruelling FTP test, in order to set the power I’d need to be riding the challenge at. If you’ve never done the 4DP test, I’d recommend it as its different to a standard FTP and the results provide some interesting insights in to your strengths and weaknesses as a rider (based on how you performed). 

My 4DP test results – classed as an Attacker apparently

MAY

While Corona sought to spoil, May never fails to be a good month for me because, well, I start the countdown to my Birthday. And, actually May ended up being quite a busy month.

The first weekend so me storm the castle to become a Knight of Sufferlandria. No idea what I’m going on about – well the Knighthood is a fiendishly simple challenge, taking on 10 Sufferfest videos, back to back. The result – 10 hours on the turbo trainer and you may now call me Sir Guy Stapleford. You can read my blog on the challenge, written for the guys at VeloSkin here. The challenge raised £500 for The Trussell Trust – providing emergency food and supplier to families in need – so THANK YOU to all of you who donated.

The Etape Caledonia is an 85 mile sportive taking in some of the best of the Scottish Highlands, sadly not in 2020. A virtual alternative was however on offer, raising money for the NHS Charities Together and Marie Curie, challenging riders to complete the 85 miles over the month of May. I decided to take on the challenge in one hit, and at least match the elevation of the actual event (4,185ft gain). This is best not done after a night drinking Whiskey Sours – 6hrs, 85 miles and just over 6,000ft of climbing later I was toast.

Keeping the virtual challenges up, I switched from The Sufferfest to RGT Cycling, an alternative indoor cycling app – like Zwift but based on real roads and more realistic graphics. On my birthday I podiumed on the London Calling Crit race (a first for me), then came 5th on the Gran Pienza race a day later. This was let down slightly by the instability of the platform (it’s a relative newcomer, compared to Zwift which is now 6 years old) and a screen crash at the start of the Race to the Lighthouse on day 3. The culmination of my little Tour was to be an unofficial vEveresting of the Passo Dello Stelvio – 8 ascents up the virtual climb to cycle the equivalent height of Mt Everest (8,848m). I’d love to say I completed the full ascent but I ended the challenge at the halfway point – 4 ascents and 4,424m climbed – I’d set off too hard and was playing catch up with hydration and fuel and I was suffering badly with pains in my feet (an issue sorted later in June). With the longer term in mind, I opted to protect the body and stop.


JUNE

My only thoughts in June were about VRAW.

VRAW? Ok, so let’s rewind to late May – entries open for the inaugural Virtual Race Across America, like most events across the world RAAM couldn’t go ahead so a virtual alternative was conceived to be run on the indoor cycling app, FulGaz. I saw this and I’ll happily admit I was intimidated and my immediate reaction was no, that’s just not for me. But, as the days went by and the more I talked to friends and my coach about it, the more it became a possibility in my head. Once I’d seen the VRAW (virtual Race Across the West) option, a shorter 950 mile event, I was sold. On the 24th of May, I signed up, committing myself to this massive challenge.

A quick note of thanks to Jake at Precise Performance who helped me to dial in my bike set up, fit a new saddle, source wide fit shoes and fit me with custom insoles – all issues I’d come across over the previous challenges which we’d discussed and come up with ways to fix this ahead of VRAW.

Bike set by Jake and the kit kindly provided by dhb

The Virtual Race Across the West kicked off globally at 2pm (GMT) on Tuesday 16 June. I managed to cover 720km, half the distance by the end of Thursday, however my IBS flared up and due to the toll that takes I ended up off the bike for 24hrs. Dropping from 20th to 50 odd was a bigger gut punch than the IBS, I honestly could have quit. Long story short, I didn’t, but it did mean having to fit the second half of the race around time with my kids and going back to work. I finished the race in 39th place in a time of 8 days and 6hrs. I’ll be posting a blog specific to this challenge shortly, keep your eyes peeled for that one.

The VRAAM virtual finishers medal in all its digital glory

Disappointing as the result was, I learnt a lot from VRAW and I am happy with how I finished. It has certainly left me feeling confident for future events and challenges.

Progress

Well, that’s 6 months gone.

At the heart of this journey, my goal has always just been to ride my bike more – to get out and do the thing I love. Last year I rode 3,495 miles and in the first 6 months of this year I’ve managed 4,100. If nothing else happens, I’ll be seriously proud of that achievement for this year!

Progress means different things to different people, its not always the tangibles like mileage, or power or speed, but in our mental strength and attitude – what ever progress you’ve made this year be proud of it and shout about it!

What have I learnt?

So that’s it, 6 months gone. Before launching in to new challenges, its a good time to pause and reflect on the bad, not just the good. It’s important to learn, if we don’t how can we expect to ever grow?

So what have I learnt and what will I be taking in to the upcoming challenges in July, August and September?

Saddle – 24hrs in to VRAW and my butt was toast, I was sore in ways I had never been before and was finding sitting in the saddle increasingly painful. We’d only recently changed saddles so there was a hint of lack of testing but overall it just wasn’t the right one for me. So, being that time in the saddle is a critical success factor – the search for endurance level comfort continues. 

Diet – VRAW has shown I’ve still got work to do in terms of what I eat during the ultra-distance events and how I protect my gut. Day to day the changes I made last year to my diet have made a huge difference. Clearly my body is still struggling when it is put under pressure – I know with VRAW there were some contributory factors.

I was taking ibuprofen for pain in my feet and bum, which I know affects my stomach. This combined with the fuel intake and the intensity of the effort means I need to find ways to protect myself from these episodes – easy to manage in the comfort of your own home, less so in the middle of a 3000 mile race across America.

Strength – I’ve been seeing and feeling the benefit of my strength and conditioning work off the bike and as a result I want to do more. So I’ll be upping the number of sessions I do per week and varying the types of sessions, for example I’ve bought a Suspension Trainer (think brands like TRX) to try and maximise the benefits I can get from these home workouts. Ultimately, this is focusing on reducing injury, increasing my flexibility (and therefore how long I can stay aero for) and improving my endurance power.

Why – I wrote about how I was going to take a break from fundraising last year, after Run the Peaks ended early. I wanted to remove the added pressure that this can bring. However, in doing so I feel like I lost something too, some of the sense of purpose, the reason to keep going and push harder. As such, I’m going to give some serious thought as to what I want to do here and how this feeds in to the ‘Road to RAAM 22’.

The next challenge

…You’ll have to wait for my next blog, coming very shortly, to find out more!

Thank you

Just a final thank you to the amazing support I’ve had from my partners – Spokes, dhb, Huckson TriGear, VeloSkin and Reflex (hit the link for discounts and freebies) – as well as all of you who’ve been following my journey here and on social media!!

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