Need For Speed

I’m a competitive animal by instinct. I used to be a lot more competitive than I am these days, but the flame still burns bright, even at 67, when I sniff a challenge and a wee bit of a chance. The last seven days have provided an abundance of that, and more.

It all kicked off when Jane booked an apartment in the Old Convent at Fort Augustus to coincide with her mum’s birthday.  Jane hadn’t seen her mother since before lockdown, and rather than park up in her house in Inverness, we thought it would be a nice change for Granny if she joined us down in FA for a couple of nights. That way, we all got a change of scenery.

Naturally, the bikes went, and for me, this was an opportunity to hit real roads for the first time in five months: self inflicted isolation, it’s true, but self preservation for a reason: COVID-19 has the potential to wreck Ride2CureNeuroblastoma so everything I do from hereonin comes with a risk assessment.

For a road cyclist (I took the lightweight Oz bike that I used on Ride2Cure) Fort Augustus is pretty limited in terms of safe routes. The two main routes out are the north/south sections of the A82 and not recommended on safety grounds. Having said that, I borrowed a mile of the leg south to make up a 3.6 mile circuit that I whacked on Strava as a segment, then set a King Of The Mountains time on it for other folk to shoot at. “Who’s this  Ride2CureNeuroblastoma?” they’ll surely be thinking.

But that was merely a warmup act for the main event. Back in the summer of 1995, when Jane and I were still courting, I took my Flying Scot road bike to Inverness one weekend and did a circuit round Loch Ness, starting around half five in the morning. I was back before Jane had got up. Anyway, on that occasion, I did the A82 south first, to get the dangerous side of the Loch done before the traffic woke up. Fort Augustus, which sits at the southern end of the Loch, was halfway. Indeed, I think that was the first time I’d ever been there, albeit that I was just passing through at speed.

I’d had a quick swatch at the OS map the night before, and I knew there was a hill heading back north out of Fort Augustus, I just didn’t appreciate how much of a bastard it was. That bike was geared for speed, not hills, and the only way I managed to get up the hill was to weave the bike backwards and forwards across the road to cut down the gradient. But that just meant I was taking longer and still suffering just as much.

I was concerned that the Oz bike would present me with the same tortuous experience, 25 years on.

The climb comes in three parts: There’s the long, slow drag at the bottom, which is followed by a wee recovery dip, before the road kicks up hard again. That’s followed by a plateau past Loch Tarff before a final mile of climbing up to the viewpoint just before Whitebridge. Those three climbs combine to create a real beast.

I had no desire to do anything other than survive without getting off. So on Thursday morning, I just selected the lowest granny gear I had at the foot of the first climb and turned it. And kept turning it. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t fast, but it did keep me moving forward. When I got the the top of the first climb I thought “Y’know, I reckon I can do this”. By the time I’d carried out exactly the same stunt going up the second climb, “reckon” had changed to “know”. There was then no doubt that I was going to make the summit in one piece.

But all that did was set me wondering, over a beer, how my performance ranked against all the other auld codgers who’d ridden up that hill. I was really only interested in the first bit, because it was a Strava segment in its own right, and the bit past Loch Tarff, because it was a Strava sprint. 5/125 on the first and 16th on the sprint was the answer, and I wasn’t really giving it any welly.

Interesting” thought I. “I can’t give it another go tomorrow because my legs will be too sore” was my immediate reaction: “But I can certainly give those two segments some welly on Saturday morning”. I wasn’t interested in the whole thing, just those two bits.

It was pie in the sky to think of taking King Of The Pensioners on the climb because I was over a minute (in just under a mile) behind top spot, but the sprint was definitely vulnerable: 20 seconds required in half a mile.

The reality was that I emptied the tank on the first segment and was nearly sick when a diesel motor went past, so great was my effort and my breathing. I still missed top spot by half a minute but Ride2CureNeuroblastoma sits second by a good margin. It’s just a shame that we have a saying in our house “Second is nowhere.

The first run at Loch Tarff was nothing more than a sighter. While you only get one go at a climb, you can often manage two or three at a sprint. The first go was shy by five seconds: but at least I knew what I’d to do now, so I went back, rested up for a couple of minutes, then nailed the biggest gear I have and just kept turning it. Result: King Of The Pensioners!

That was meant to be it for pushing the boat out in terms of effort, but then I saw an advert on social media for a bit of software called RGT Cycling, or Road Grand Tours to give it its full name. RGT is virtually cycling in 3D in the comfort of your own home. RGT is cycling in the gazebo in the back garden when it’s pishing down outside. RGT is a whole new world that I never new existed. I’d heard of Zwift, which is a competitor, but I’d never experienced any of them in anger.

Everything in RGT is virtual. If you’re riding a real road, then it’s a virtual reality copy of the real thing, and all of the riders are avatars unless some proper folk have also signed up from around the world. I ride as Von Schiehallion, my Twitter handle, not least because it conjures up thoughts of continental cycling.

Of course I arrived at the RGT party in the middle of the R2C2 Virtual Tour Of Iceland, and it was my desire to convert my life from one of following a SatNav type image, which is what I had been doing, into the full 3D experience. To do that, you need a feature that RGT call Magic Roads, which costs six quid a month. That’s only a couple of pints of beer so I can stretch to that. What Magic Roads enables you to do it create a custom route in Garmin Connect, eg Stage 40 of the Icelandic Tour from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere, then export that route as a .gpx file and email it to the magic roads email address at RGT. That then engages the route creation process on the server, and five minutes later, the 3D route appears in the library on the app on your smartphone. The phone app connects to the corresponding screen app on your PC and away you go: you’re riding in 3D with a load of robot riders as I call them, for companions. The avatars come with a range of abilities, so when RGT advertises a ‘Group Ride’ what you get is a virtual hand grenade chucked into the peleton at the off, and it’s up to you to find a group of riders that you feel happy to bunch with. I’ve learned very quickly not to mess with anyone that that can ride at 4 watts per kilo over a long period: they’ll destroy you at the very same time that you’re busy destroying yourself trying to keep up.

By default, you get 20 robot avatars in every group ride or race, so there are 21 of you out on the road. My early experience suggested I was good for the middle of the pack, albeit that the pack is usually splintered by about fifteen minutes from the front to the back by the time you get to the end.

Then yesterday, I was signed up to do Stage 39 of the Tour of Iceland. It had 5,400ft of climbing in it, which I’ll freely admit filled me with dread. That’s 5,400ft in 32 miles. Anything above 100ft/mile scares the shit out of me if I’m being honest. This was 168ft/mile, serious lactate territory. Anyway, what happened was that I inadvertently found myself, quite unintentionally, in the lead group going up the first serious climb, and as the peleton blew apart, I clung onto the back of second and third before I had to let them go at ten miles. But by then I’d built a nice cushion over fifth, and despite that guy repeatedly trying to come back at me every time the road went down, I destroyed him every time the road went up. I got fourth.

But when I fell off the bike, I knew there was no way I was doing another 5000+ft of climbing again today. That was slated for Stage 40. So I took a timeout from climbing. I jumped onto Garmin Connect, made a ten mile race down Alpe d’Huez, all 4,670ft of descent of it. But the sting in the tale (sic) is that those ten miles also carried a payload of a thousand feet of climbing by virtue of several intermittently placed 20% climbs: short, sharp beasties. I did say that the robots don’t climb well: I soon discovered that if you can switch from 40mph downhill to 400 watts of power at 20% going uphill, you can steal a march on these guys…

Ride2CureNeuroblastoma was crowned King of the Alpe by half a mile.

Armed with that success, I thought it would be nice to have a second wee blast, this time down Ben Nevis: 5 miles and 2000ft feet of descending for just a measly 100ft of climbing. Loads of hairpins and loads of close company: until I decided that enough was enough. Once you have the gap, you have the gap, and robot man can no longer enjoy your slipsteam…

Ride2CureNeuroblastoma won that one too.

Virtual 3D cycling is the future of this coming winter: no more going out and getting smashed by the Scottish winter. Been there and done that too many times. Now I’m just going to put my body on the line against riders from around the world in 3D…

I’ve discovered a need for speed.

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