There is a peculiar tradition that members of the Liverpool Century Road Club inflict upon themselves before the start of every racing season. The Speedruns are a series of four training rides that commence on the last Sunday in January and continue through the next three Sundays in February. They were a key component of Geoff Bewley’s (Century’s legendary coach) means of preparing the Club’s racing cyclists for the road season ahead. The traditional start of the UK domestic road scene is the Eddie Soen’s Memorial Cycle Race which takes place on the old motor racing circuit at Aintree Racecourse in early March. The Centurions wanted to be ready for this important local curtain-raiser, as well as some other races not part of the Star Trophy (more recently know as the Premier Calendar).
Each Speedrun starts and finishes at ‘The Mills’ – The Eureka Cyclists Café in Chester. The format of each ride is similar. Roll out from the Mills at 10:10 in one bunch. After a couple of hours and 40 miles or so we split into two groups, the A’s and B’s. The A’s take a slightly longer route and normally this group consists of the Centurions who plan a full road racing season. From the point of the split the pace lifts steadily until the final hour is contested at full race pace. Of course though, it’s important to remember these training rides are not races.
Each week the Speedruns become progressively more challenging. Week 1 ‘Prees’: 111 km distance & 500 m climbing. Week 2 ‘Nant y Garth': 104 km & 700 m. Week 3 ‘Corwen’: 119 km & 800 m. Week 4 ‘Sportsmans’: 126 km & 1,400 m.
No one has a written copy of the Speedrun rules. Coach Benno insists they are carved into a stone tablet somewhere on a hillside in North Wales, but I can find no evidence that this is the case! The rules, such as they are, have however been passed down through the generations. The rules are however subject to change without notice, consequently, this may not represent an accurate reflection of the rules.
With the exception of ‘Sportsmans’, Speedruns are always contested on full winter bikes. No flash carbon summer race bikes permitted. Full mudguards are a prerequisite. Only as we draw close to the start of the road season are the racing machines allowed out of winter hibernation.
If the ride ends in a bunch gallop (it’s not a race), you can only contest the sprint if you have worked through the paceline consistently throughout the ride. 'Sitting-on' then sprinting is considered shitehouse behaviour, unbefitting of Centurions.
Guests are permitted to join the ride if they observe the rules, however only fully paid-up Liverpool Century Road Club members can contest the finish of the 'training ride'. (Have I mentioned it’s not a race?)
Driving to and from the Mills is frowned upon and loses kudos points. Technically it is permitted, but this does lead to a two-tier scoring system. Riding out and back is what Geoff would have wanted.
The finish line of each Speedrun is a closely guarded secret which is only discovered by actually participating in said Speedrun. Sharing this information amongst non-participants is frowned upon. Even sharing it amongst participants is rare.
Some kudos is gained by ‘winning’ Speedruns 1 to 3. However, the winner of Speedrun 4 'Sportsmans', will be crowned Winter World Champion.
It has to be said that there remains a constant debate about the validity of the Speedruns as appropriate racing season preparation. Riding for six hours in freezing conditions and foul weather brings obvious hazards. Many believe that riding so hard for so long, so early in the year, is unnecessary and can be counterproductive. However, tradition in our club runs deep and many members want to respect this particular tradition – even if they don’t want to race the rest of the year. Participation therefore includes a wide variety of abilities and not all intend to race, they just want to honour the tradition.
But its also true that if you want to race then there will be times when you need to race in foul weather and tricky conditions. Alongside every argument for, there is another against. Former Centurions who have gone on to carve out careers as pro riders, (Matt Brammeier, Mark McNally and Johnny McEvoy I’m looking at yous), often regale tales of their Speedrun days. Did they become pros as a result, or in-spite of the Speedruns – who can really know for sure…?
Speedrun 1: Prees
It’s 07:00 on Sunday morning. I roll over and hit snooze on my alarm. I’ve actually been awake for 45 minutes or so already in anticipation of the alarm. I need not have snoozed the alarm – I programmed another for 07:15 and a third for 07:30. One does not want to oversleep on Speedrun day.
By 07:30 the central heating has been warming the house for 30 minutes and I finally muster the courage to venture out from under the duvet. I peer out of the bathroom window to see that a silvery glaze covers the tiles on my neighbour’s roofs. Then I look out to the front of my drive to see the car windscreen frosted over. Great – ice, truly the cyclist’s worst enemy. But what is actually happening out on the country lanes? It's not so easy to predict that from behind my kitchen window.
I use my phone to check the weather forecast and there is a yellow weather warning for ice until 10:00. The current temperature is 1C. But the forecast on the whole is not bad, dry until 15:00. What the hell, better get out and see for myself.
After my first visit to the bathroom I dress quickly in full winter kit. Then force myself to eat a full bowl of porridge. I’m not much of a morning person, nor a breakfast person, but I need fuel for the long day ahead.
I visit the bathroom two more times before I leave the house at 08:40. The side road where my house sits looks treacherous. I roll-out cautiously and lightly test my back brake. The rear wheel locks immediately, sliding on the slippery surface. Fortunately as I progress on to more used roads the ice has already melted, in the city at least.
My cycle computer confirms it’s 1C as I pick up the pace a little and push on the pedals. The first little rise of Park Road gives me a taster for what is in store later, and by the time I’ve crested the gentle incline and freewheeled down the other side the temperature is showing -1C. I’m soon joined by two club mates, Coach Benno and Hannah. We slip through Chinatown and steadily make our way to the Birkenhead Tunnel entrance. Here we join about a dozen more hardy souls who have forgone the welcome warmth of a Sunday morning lie-in.
I often wonder how many other Club Runs involve cycling under a river. During the winter months bicycles are permitted to go through the Mersey Tunnels toll-free, which saves us otherwise having to take the train, ferry or a major detour over Runcorn bridge. Whilst the tunnel brings relative warmth compared to the outside temperature, it’s not exactly pleasant breathing exhaust fumes. And while the descent to the midpoint is easy, the climb back up the other side to Wirral demands the first exertion of the day.
The effort lasts only a few minutes, but emerging into the daylight is always welcome, as is the return to the crisp fresh air of a January morning in Northern England. Our merry band winds its way to the café without incident, each taking our turn at the front of the group, sticking our noses in the wind. Early chat is dominated by tales of how icy the side roads have been and a collective hope that the watery sunshine that threatens to break through the blanket of cloud cover will eventually melt any ice on the lanes we will later encounter.
The first leg of our ride takes just shy of an hour to complete the 15 miles or so. The more experienced club members often time their progression to the front of the group to ensure they are the first to arrive at the café. This invariably ensures they are at the front of the queue for hot drinks. As we pull into the bike park groups from Port Sunlight Wheelers and Birkenhead North End are rolling out and pleasantries are exchanged between old rivals.
This first stop of the day allows only for a quick drink and (another) toilet visit. As a courtesy to other road users we time our exit so as to ensure there is a decent gap between our group and the others leaving the café that morning. Our destination for this ride is Prees, Shropshire. So we head south to commence what is the flattest of all four Speedruns.
I join the bunch of about 20 or so as the very last man. We form a tidy group with two lines – the outside line for moving up. We each take a turn on the front to share the effort in the wind. Most people spend a few minutes on the front and roll around when they have done their share. Old heads keep an eye on proceedings and occasionally call for a “man-up”. The pace is steady and it’s a great opportunity to catch up with each member of the group and have a little chat.
Some blue sky is spotted in a distant break of clouds, but sadly it’s not in the direction we are heading. We stick mostly to main roads and thankfully there is no ice, despite the near-freezing temperature. A couple of hours or so in we find a safe place to stop, take a comfort break and refuel. Here the bunch splits into A Group and B Group.
Before the start of the day I had settled in my mind that I was going with B Group and the shorter route. I’ve had the best part of two seasons out. I’ve ridden my bike outside once this year – last weekend – when I managed a freezing cold 4 hours. That ride gave me some confidence that I wasn’t completely unfit. But in my mind I’m a long way off where I would normally want to be at this time of year. During those two hours since leaving The Mills I must have changed my mind half a dozen times. As Coach Benno called for the A’s to roll out I instinctively, and sheepishly, tag on the back, waving to the B’s.
There are only six others in the A Group. I make my apologies early – “I’m just going to try and sit on the back, I can’t share the work on the front”. Nobody argued. At least nobody said anything out loud. I’m genuinely concerned that I will be shelled out the back of this little group fairly soon.
We set off on the additional little loop that the B Group miss out and immediately the group start to work through. I’m not the only one sitting on the rear and with just five sharing the workload it becomes clear it’s going to be a long hour. Eventually Coach Benno comes to the back and we quickly agree, if we take a mile off the pace, all seven of us will try to work through.
Where the road remains flat, I roll through the paceline and do my turn on the front. But when the road kicks up, even just the shortest of inclines, I find myself pushed into the red and forced to drop back. I’m not the only one and eventually there are just four again working through.
I settle again into a rhythm that is just about manageable. The inclines sting the legs but I hold on to the back of the group. We swing left and into a headwind. I sense that this might be where someone will try to force the selection. As we enter the final 20 minutes or so at race pace the hammer is put down at the front. The gap goes out, but the elastic doesn’t snap, and although I have to burn one of my matches to get back I bridge across quickly and am able to recover as the pace eases slightly. And that’s the lesson I tell myself repeatedly, if you are suffering, then it’s very likely the others are too. Just dig deep for a short while – they cannot maintain this pace and will have to let up soon.
We slow to swing right across the road but oncoming traffic means we are momentarily halted. I take the opportunity to grab a gel. I look around, and one of our group has dropped off the back. And then there were six.
As we pick up the pace again the same few dominate proceedings at the front. I’m blowing hard just to hold the wheel. I notice Coach Benno going back through the group. I’m shocked – has he blown a gasket? I’m distracted as we approach an S-bend and a small bridge. Joe seems equally surprised and we both sit up for a second. I nearly overshoot the bend and have to brake hard, losing a lot of speed. I look up and I’m fourth wheel, but the three in front are pulling away rapidly. Shit.
I decide it’s now or never and reach inside the suitcase of courage. I know I don’t have a lot left in my legs and I need to bridge across quickly or its game over. I pull as hard as my body will allow, but it’s not enough. I get to within a few metres of the third man, but I’m deep, deep in the red.
“C’mon Trev” shouts Coach as he swings out and comes through. It’s the lifeline I needed and just manage to latch on to his wheel. He jumps across and brings me with him. I glance back, but Joe is toast. Just the five of us left now.
I can’t quite recall exactly where we are and how far is left to go. The effort is clouding my thinking and I can’t focus. Coach Benno is sitting fourth wheel and is not working through. Chris does a monumental effort on the front, no one wants to even try and come through. Maybe Ste and Graham are spent? Suddenly Coach Benno swings out and I realise the 30 sign that signals the finish line is only a couple of hundred metres ahead. I think about trying to follow his wheel, but that split-second hesitation is enough to make my thinking redundant. It’s all over and I roll over the line in fifth position. The wily old coach has done it again with a perfectly timed attack.
Shortly beyond the line we roll to a halt to wait for the others to catch up. I’m not in great shape – coughing and bent double over the bars. Joe joins us, but Alex is nowhere to be seen. We all start on the 20 minute ride back to The Mills with me making all manner of old man noises, grunting and groaning.
As we arrive back at the café the B Group are already finishing their meals. I order beans on toast and a spare – classic Mills fayre. I sit hugging a mug of coffee feeling absolutely battered. The beans on toast is devoured in about two minutes flat.
Oh dear, I've felt better - bottom lip going?
Refuelled and partly recovered, we start to think about the ride home. Andy and Joe kit up, but the other lads all head for their cars. That includes the lads who crossed the line second, third and fourth, who all drove out and are driving home. Just sayin’.
This is always the worst part of any ride, and the primary reason why I’m not a fan of the café stop on long winter training rides. Re-emerging back into the cold air after the warmth of the café is a shock to the system. We have to ride hard to get our bodies back up to temperature. The climb back out of the Mersey Tunnel to the Liverpool side of the water stings the legs. Joe rides beside me “this is proper grovelling”, he says. I grunt my agreement without looking up. As we emerge from the tunnel into the murky grey afternoon the rain starts and I’m glad I’m only a few minutes from home.
So that’s Speedrun 1 done. In the end I was pretty pleased to get around in the front group and complete the distance without blowing my doors off. Sitting here now a few hours after getting home I’m feeling quite beaten-up. Legs are stiff and I’m expecting to need a rest day tomorrow. Whilst I feel encouraged by getting around the first one ok, I’m not oblivious to the fact that the flat route to Prees and back is the most suited of the four to my size and style of riding. I’ve done these rides before and I know they only get tougher. Let’s see what the next one brings.
View Prees Flyby here.
Speedrun 2: Nant y Garth
It’s Goundhog day. 07:00 on Sunday and my alarm has woken me from a pretty solid 8 hours kip. I’m rubbish at getting out of bed and again it’s gone 07:30 before I venture from under the duvet.
There have already been several pings from my phone as our messenger group exchange good morning pleasantries about the mundane aspects of Speedrun prep – what we are having for breakfast and how many times we have each been to the toilet already. “I wish I had a hobby that didn’t require me to eat porridge when I’m not hungry” says Joe.
This week’s ride is once again ‘riding WITHOUT numbers’ thanks to Garmin. I sent my device back after last week’s epic fail to record my ride. After spending 48 hours trying to fix it I finally admitted defeat when Garmin’s customer service suggested the issues might be related to me having a “poor internet connection”. Clearly the intern was on duty at the time. Apparently my replacement device will be with me “within 10 to 14 working days”. Until then I’m managing with my phone and a pretty cool app called uBike, which I highly recommend. I’ve been using it for my turbo sessions and its incredibly versatile.
I rolled out at 08:40 and hooked up with Joe, Andy and Hannah as we rolled up to the tunnel for 09:00. Whilst still cold, the temperature was a few degrees above zero this week, so mercifully no ice to contend with. It was actually a beautiful morning, and as good as can be hoped for in February on the island. The sun shone as we made our way towards Chester, and as we arrived at the café there was no wind to speak of.
The café was rammed, as it always is this time of year. Port Sunlight Wheelers and Birkenhead North End were again out in force. We only dwell long enough for a hot drink and within 15 minutes of arriving we are on our way by 10:10.
The bunch is bigger than last week, up to 30 or so brave souls as we set out on our way to Mold and Denbigh. It’s a shame but whilst riding in such a big group can be enormous fun, with the number of cars on the roads, especially those driven by impatient drivers, the group makes us a target and several drivers make ill-judged overtaking manoeuvres causing oncoming traffic to take evasive action. We pull off the road to split the bunch into two smaller A and B groups. As we are organising ourselves we are approached by a park ranger, and informed we are on private land, so not welcome. There are a lot of grouchy people around on a beautiful Sunday morning! Relax people, share the roads and share the countryside. Peace out.
We set off again within a couple of minutes and are on our way to Ruthin. As was the case last week, I opt to join the A group. This week though there are several more A’s and the group has 14 riders. More than a couple of additional really fit guys who were not available last weekend have made it out this week. I’m worried already.
We start rolling through and off and after just 3 turns I know I’m in trouble. I lurk at the back and it’s all I can do to hold on. I’m not sure how long I hung in, maybe 20 minutes or so. The last time I did this ride two years ago I stayed the distance. My objective is to get over the Nant y Garth pass within touching distance of the leaders, because there is a good descent and an opportunity for us fat blokes who suffer on climbs to get back on. That was my plan – just hang in there. But I didn’t even make it to the start of the climb. There are a few little pimples that kick-up on the way to the climb. The fit guys at the head of the group use these to thin the group and its not long before bodies are getting shelled out the back.
I’m breathing so hard by now that I am just focussing on the wheel in front of me. Someone drops off, no idea who, I just note his wheels passing on the inside. I follow the wheel of Ian, who is a good CX rider, coming off a competitive season. He’s sitting on the back of the group and I think to myself, this is a good wheel to have. After a few minutes Ian sits up and looks at me. “B group is beckoning”, he says. I pretend to myself that I picked the wrong wheel and now the gap that is growing would not be there had I jumped on to someone else’s. But that’s stretching the truth. In reality I’m already breathing out of my arse. I fight to close the gap, but its steadily increasing. 5 meters becomes 10, becomes 20, becomes 50. I look back to see if Ian is still there. Maybe we can work together, but he’s gone.
I battle on, in the loneliest of situations. No man’s land. Dangling off the back, not strong enough to close the gap and even the tiniest incline stinging my legs. It’s not long before Alex drops back and we try to help each other taking turns in the wind. “The group is shattering”, says Alex. It makes no difference to me, I can do nothing about it.
We slog up the Nant y Garth pass. We can see the others in the distance, not that far ahead, 100-200 meters maybe. But we can’t make any impression on them at all. As we progress up the winding pass they come in and out of sight. I wish they would just ride away as seeing them so close is pure torture.
By the time we have grovelled to the top we see Joe waiting at the traffic lights. We join up to make a decent 3 and try to work together. Joe is clearly stronger than Alex and I. I am struggling with my right knee and it feels like I can only put power through my left leg. I battle to hold the back of Alex’s wheel as we head back towards Chester.
A few miles on and we are joined from behind by the five from the front of the B group, who have attacked over Nant y Garth and gapped the rest of their group. It’s very tempting to jump in and form a big group to work together. But once the A and B groups are formed its better not to interfere. So we – the back of the A group – let them come through and sort it out themselves. We sit on the back for 5 miles or so getting a nice free ride. Bliss.
But the B’s are splintering; one blows a gasket and another has a mechanical. Alex has dropped off too, so Joe and I jump in with the remaining 3 and ride the rest of the course together. As we approach the finish Joe and I step out of the paceline and let the remaining B’s contest the sprint to the line. The end of the ride is a sharp little incline that really rasps the legs after 70 miles or so.
We regroup following the finish and head back towards the café. We re-join the rest of the A group to get the tale of the tape. Coach Benno led home the A’s once again, sneaking the victory on the line. Imagine that.
I actually felt less beat-up than last week when I arrived at the café. Don’t get me wrong, I was pretty battered, but teaming-up with the B’s and sitting on for a while enabled me to recover from the absolute kicking I took in the approach to Nant y Garth. My knee was already feeling better too. I hate the feeling that I’m not totally destroyed. It makes me think I could have dug deeper to stay with the front of the A's and then got back to the group on the descent. But in all reality I did everything I could in the moment. I just simply don’t have that kind of fitness to attack – recover – attack – recover. And I’m still carrying +5kg more than is ideal, so I expected to suffer on the climb. I was just disappointed to not get there with the main group.
It was only riding back from the café and chatting to Marc when I started to accept my ride was not a disaster. He reminded me I’m only just starting to get back and so need to be a bit more realistic. Of course he’s right. This is only the third ride I’ve done outdoors in 2017. Only the third ride I’ve done longer than an hour or so. It would be insulting to the other lads who are in great shape to expect to be able to rock-up and take it to them straight off the bat.
View Nant y Garth Flyby here.
Also, this week I had a good chat with Coach Benno. We discussed my time trial objectives and started on a plan to secure my LCRC silver medal time for 10 miles. I’ve not done a lot of time trialing. Two years ago I bought my first time trial frame and built a bike from bits and pieces I had in the garage. The plan that year was to work towards The Anfield 100 (a 100 mile time trial). I only got to do one 25 mile two-up that year, and one club 10.
My PB for a 10 is 24:39, done a few years ago on my roadbike at a Wednesday night Club 10. This earned me a bronze medal, for getting under the qualifying time of 25:22. To get a silver I need to hit 23:31 or better. Coach and I discussed the best strategy to train for this. We worked out how many watts we think I will need to put out for 23 and a half minutes to cover the 10 mile distance. We reckoned if I am 84kg or so I will need to maintain 300W. The 20 minute power test I did in early January only delivered 275W. If I want that silver medal I’ve got some work to do.
So we decided to try and build-up to 25 minutes at 300W by splitting the effort into several intervals and repeating weekly by maintaining the amount of power but extending the duration of the efforts. The first week I was assigned 5 efforts x 5 minutes each at 300W, with 5 minute recovery in-between each effort. I did these on Thursday evening. The first effort was good, I felt strong and delivered an average 305W. The second effort however was a slog. I only managed 297W. I thought about quitting, it was horrible. But after 2 minutes of recovery I was already feeling more human, so I committed to the next 5 minute effort and brought it in at 297W again. The fourth effort was the hardest and I only managed 295W. The final effort was 298W. Overall I was pleased with the result. As Coach Benno says, better to complete the exercise at a lower level than to quit and not complete the effort.
I have no doubt though that this effort took a lot out of my legs this week. I’m really so unused to pushing myself to the limit that I need to retrain my body not to reject the effort. This method of extending the duration of these hard efforts has worked in the past. Two years ago Coach Benno instigated a winter training project called P4. We each sought to deliver 2 x 20 minute efforts at 4 W/kg of our race weight. We had a similar approach of starting by building up with shorter interval efforts. I was conducting these at 320W (i.e. 4 x 80 kg). Over the winter I built up from 3 x 3 minutes at 320W to 15 then 17 minutes at 320W.
I do question myself the sense of implementing the rapid increase in volume and intensity of training. I suspect my knee pain on the ride today was a direct result of not being used to the volume. I will take it easy the next couple of days. I have to travel to London and back to will use my train station commute as a bit of easy spinning. I’ve also booked to see my physio Phil Mac on Wednesday to try and iron out any little niggles that are developing before they get too bad.
As work ramps-up next week, so too does my training load. It remains to be seen if I will be able to keep up with it all. Next Sunday is Speedrun 3 – Corwen. It’s more climbing than this week, but its more rolling which normally helps me. Lets see how we get on.
Speedrun 3: Corwen
Ok, we know the drill by now. 07:00 alarm. Bucket of porridge. Dress in every piece of kit owned. Get ready to hit the road. I place two bidons in my bottle cages, clip my recently arrived replacement Garmin on to the handlebars and open the garage door. Brrrrrrrr.
One way to reduce the odds of getting dropped in the middle of North Wales is to ensure your bike is well maintained. The last thing you want when the hammer goes down is to find yourself coasting to a stop in the middle of nowhere, tinkering with a dodgy derailleur with bare fingers in 0C, and then limping home alone. Whilst cleaning my bike after Nant y Garth I discovered a broken spoke in my rear wheel, drive side. Thankfully these old skool 24 spoke wheels remain true enough if just one spoke has pinged. I stripped the wheel and took it up to the guys at Quinns on Edge Lane. They fixed it up in under 24 hours, replacing the busted spoke and re-tensioning the others. With the cassette off the hub I took the opportunity to give it a proper clean before rebuilding. Two weeks earlier I had stripped the chainset and bottom bracket to give it some love and attention. As I wheel the bike out into the chilly morning it purrs like a kitten.
And it’s not just the bike that needs regular maintenance when the volume and intensity of training gets to this level. On Wednesday I had been to see Phil Mac of Sports Therapy Liverpool, who managed to revitalise my legs after 2 punishing weeks. He was confident there is no damage to my knee, it’s just the various muscles shortening and tightening up. That man manages to find pain in places where I don’t know I have places. But those hands have rubbed the hallowed skinny ankles of none other than Sir Brad himself – so he knows what he’s doing. I lay back and dream of Sportsmans glory as Phil pummels my quads into submission. It’s nice when it stops, but I know that this body maintenance is essential at this time of year, and every penny of the cost will be repaid on the roads of North Wales at the weekend.
I bimble up to the tunnel entrance at 08.58, disappointed that I’m a whole two minutes early and have to wait around in the freezing cold for just over 120 seconds. Numbers are thinner than last week, a mixture of the poor weather forecast, fatigue and illness already taking their toll. We are only 8 in total. The 45 minute spin to the Mills is pleasant enough, despite the temperature dropping from 3C to 1C along the way. Although the temperature is as cold today as it was 2 weeks ago, I don’t feel it the same. Acclimatisation? Perhaps.
Upon arrival at the Mills we find a similar number of Centurions who have driven out to the café. A quick brew and we are on our way again, destination Corwen. The legs feel good. We are rattling along at a fair old pace. Too good to be true? As we are exiting the urban areas we soon realise a strong tailwind is pushing us along. A few snowflakes start to fall as we head further in-land from the coast and the temperature drops below zero as we gain altitude. This week our route out is the opposite to the final stretch of last week’s run-in. The road to Llandegla is mostly uphill and we climb about 1,000 feet in 10 miles or so. As we crest the summit we see snow lying on the frozen ground. We keep a steady pace, not least to keep warm.
I eat and drink regularly. Although I typically find it difficult to take on fluid when the temperature is this cold, I keep in mind a recent study I read that claimed people actually dehydrate more in winter than they do in summer, because they still sweat even though they don’t always notice the need to drink the same amount. By the time we split the group into A and B I’ve already had 2 bars and one bottle.
This week 10 of us opt to do the big boys ride. I’m still apprehensive about my form after last weeks kicking, but am welcomed into the A’s with the words, “just sit on if you have to”. We get moving after a very brief stop, just enough to stuff some more food inside. Still chewing it, we set off and we are soon organised into two lines of through-and-off. One of the old heads identifies the wind is coming from the other side and quickly switches the direction of the rotation so the inside line is working through. I take my turn in the line and work up to the front, repeating several times. But I’m already creeping in to the red zone. Most of the others are working through. I miss a turn and sit on. But I recover soon enough and jump back in to the paceline for a few more turns. And so it continues for a while until the road starts to sneak upwards and I rapidly find myself getting to an uncomfortably uncomfortable place. I slip to the back and sit on. Again.
I’m joined by a few others as well. The biggest of the big boys are smashing each other, keeping the pace high as roughly half the group at any time are finding the pace a little too hot to handle. As we head away from Ruthin, Damo has a mechanical and as a group we all sit up. Blessed relief. Within a minute Damo is back on, nothing serious, just missed a gear change and the mech sorted itself out as quickly as it fouled-up. It only takes a few seconds pause to lose the wheel and create a gap too big to close alone. But as we ease off he quickly closes on us and then goes past to take his turn on the front once again. And so it continues.
The pace is then relentless. A couple or more are shelled from the group and I’m finding the gap between my front wheel and the back of the group is starting to get wider. The elastic stretches and I fight to get back on 3 or maybe 4 times. I take a gel that I literally had up my sleeve. It’s almost impossible to fish one out of my rear pocket, under my gilet, while wearing winter gloves and negotiating the terrain at race pace. I get most of the gel inside, a significant amount on my glove, and a fair bit on the handlebars. I spend the next 2-3 minutes trying to get the empty wrapper back in my pocket and eventually settle for stuffing it under the front of my gilet. Chopper.
The fatigue is kicking-in now and my mind starts to wander to how long is left. I think to myself, it must be less than 10 miles. Within seconds Coach Benno drops to the back of the group and takes out a gel. He seems to opt to consume all of it, rather than my self-styled wearing of it. There really can’t be too far to go now if coach is prepping for the finale.
The pace starts to vary a little now from full-on slog to attack-recover, attack-recover. Doug decides it’s clearly not hard enough for him and makes a suicide attack off the front. No one reacts as he gaps us by 200m or so. I say no one reacts – but what I mean is our collective reaction is not to react. No one says a word but its clear everyone is thinking – lets leave him out there for a while and he will cook himself.
Sure enough the gap very gradually gets wound in without any noticeable increase in pace. It takes a couple of minutes, but no one panics and without any drama Doug is caught and passed. He drops silently to the back of the group. The road then kicks up and Dave sees his chance to put the hurt on. He winds up the pace, Chris and Dan in close attention, and Coach Benno never far away. My legs are burning as I dig-in once again and close the gap.
And then, as we crest a little incline the move of the day goes clear – 4 or was it 5? I don’t recall as I was breathing through the wrong end of my body at the time. I guess we had about 5-6 miles left to go. Doug is a spent force, but he still manfully tries to chase down the break. Damo is cramping badly and cannot accelerate. I’m in a similar position – I can maintain a constant hard pace, but there is nothing in the legs to react to the sudden change of pace, and the group are away for good.
Damo and I work together, taking turns in the wind, Damo perhaps benefitting more from my 86 kg frame, than I am from his 65 kg. We see Doug out in front a couple of hundred metres ahead, and the others disappearing out of sight. “Lets get Doug” I optimistically suggest to Damo, and we set about dragging him back. It never happens, even though he slows dramatically to cross the finish line, we still are nowhere near his wheel until we are past the Mold sign.
We freewheel up to the roundabout and onto the garage forecourt where the others are already buying drinks. We re-group and roll back to the Mills together. I glance down at my replacement Garmin, that has been performing exceptionally throughout all the action. The screen is blank. Surely the battery cannot be flat? I press the ‘on’ button and it springs in to life. Odd. I later find the ride data is lost. Thanks, again, Garmin.
I ride back chatting to Dave, a strength and conditioning coach. “A proper recovery for you, or an evening of sofa and cake?” I ask. “Definitely taking the sofa/cake option” he grins. As we arrive back at the cafe the B’s are already home and hosed, having taken a shorter route back over the Bwlch (more of next week). Beans on toast with a spare has rarely tasted so good. I offset the Mills Classic order with a dangerously hipster ‘flat white’ to wash it down with.
I was dreading the 45 minute bimble home in cold and wet clothes, with rain forecast. But within 5 minutes of effort I was already warming up. I’m definitely acclimatising to this wintry outdoor weather. Even extremities were dealing with the freezing conditions well. Maybe with enhanced fitness better circulation brings warmer fingers and toes?
Another week and another decent training block in the bank. My 10 mile TT training didn’t go so well on Thursday. I’d progressed from 5 x 5 minutes to 4 x 6.15 minutes this week. Horrible. The first interval was ok, but I knew within one minute of starting the second interval that I was in trouble. I really wanted to abandon, but decided to try and embrace the hurt. I ground it out but it was nasty, and I missed my 300W target by 5W. The third session was worse, down at 290W average. The final interval was truly awful. I scraped in at 280W and almost threw-up twice. We’ve decided to try start the next block of 3 x 8 minutes at 280W next week and see how we go, upping the power if possible during the session.
I’m definitely starting to feel a little fitter. A few kilos have fallen off and I’m noticeably skinnier in the mirror. The recovery period after these rides is also getting shorter. My resting heart rate is getting lower, high forties some mornings and in general I’m starting to feel a bit more human. Lets see what Sportsmans has in store next week. Last time I did that course 2 years ago I took a proper kicking. I expect no less again this time around.
View Corwen Flyby here.
Speedrun 4: Sportsmans
I crawl up the street to my garage door, dismount and press the stop button on my Garmin exactly 8 hours, 7 minutes and 2 seconds since I pressed the start button and rolled out. Sportsmans is done for another year, and good riddance to it. 178 km covered (just over 110 miles) and 1,856 m of climbing. I fumble in my pocket for my key and open the door. I lean the bike up inside against the garage wall without even a thought of cleaning it. I peel off my kit and leave it in a bundle on the kitchen floor, creep upstairs, run a bath and climb in. Thank God that’s over.
Mercifully the weather today was pretty mild for the time of year. More or less 7C throughout, which felt positively tropical in comparison to 2C with a wind chill of late. I even decided to chance my luck without my polar explorer gloves and did not regret the call.
Numbers were down again this week. We gathered at the tunnel entrance with some notable absentees. Coach Benno had announced late last night that he had not recovered from a cold, and so would not be joining us. Having “won” the three previous Speedruns, Benno was the clear favourite to seal the Grand Slam and be crowned Winter World Champion. His enforced absence opens the door for the young pretenders to fulfil their pre-season potential and much of the early banter as we roll to the Mills is focussed around who will take the coveted crown.
The only incident of note on the journey out was when Chris P, on the front of our little group, exited a roundabout and lost the back end on the greasy, damp surface. I’ve never seen a bicycle jack-knife before, it was quite a sight. What was more remarkable was the catch. Somehow Chris kept it upright despite seemingly going backwards at one point. Thankfully his lightening reactions saved the whole group from coming down in the middle of a busy junction.
We arrive at the café for our first stop of the day and already inside are the rest of the gang. The “drivers”. I counted 16 of us in total, considerably down on previous weeks. The legend of the Sportsmans has already claimed its first victims, those who suddenly remembered that had family events to attend, kitchens to paint, dogs to walk and many other barely plausible excuses. Most of the chat as we leave the café is around our weapons of choice. Many have opted to give their summer race bike its first outing of the season. I however stayed with my winter bike, its “heavy” aluminium frame and 28 rear sprocket. Damo, who has driven out and is on his summer bike, eyes Doug’s deep section carbon rims - “I’m claiming a new category – summer bike, but with training wheels”.
We re-trace our route from previous weeks out along the Mold-Denbigh road. I’m going to claim this as this grippiest surface in Europe. There are no cobblestones, but you might be forgiven for thinking this was a stretch of Flanders, such is the wobbledy-bobbledyness of the rutted and pitted tarmac. It’s absolutely energy-sapping. Not a pleasant experience at all, and an unwelcome prelude to the climb of Sportsmans.
Over a distance of about 18 km we gain around 400 m altitude and our little peloton is smashed to bits. There are bodies all over the road, as the fast skinny guys set a decent tempo. I latch on to the back of them for a few km, but am going well in to the red. I opt to ride the climb at my own pace and slowly lose the wheel in front. My HR recovers a little and I settle into a manageable rhythm, grateful for the 28 sprocket on the steepest sections. Within 1 km of the top I hear a little gaggle of riders come up behind. Tony comes through and I sit on the wheel for a few seconds. But I’m immediately disrupted by not setting my own pace, so accelerate around and go to the front again. As we arrive at the top the others have sat-up and waited. Very civilised.
We quickly eat something and get on the move again. The temperature has dropped to 5C and there is a light drizzle in the air. No one is keen to hang around so we set off again all together. We settle into a nice bit of through-and-off, as the road continues to gently climb. There is no need to split into A and B groups this week, our bunch will be thinned soon enough. I take my turn when I’m able to do so and am content that I’m pulling through more than in previous weeks. Eventually though the elastic starts to stretch again as the skinny boys put the hurt on at the business end. I catch a glimpse of the Brenig reservoir on my left and make a note to self that it really might be an idea to ride up here in the summer, at a more gentle pace, when I might actually enjoy it.
We crest the summit and start a long fast descent. I know I can concede a little on the climbs because gravity becomes my ally once over the top. I can see the leaders only a couple of hundred metres ahead and I close a lot of that on the descent to Cerrig where my speed tops 70 kmph. I’ve picked up so much pace that by the time I hit the tight left-hander that takes us to the Clocaenog Forest I totally overshoot and lose all my momentum. I have to correct my line and start again, in way too big a gear.
I’m with Damo and Rik and the front group are escaping. We follow for a short time but Damo is the voice of reason. “Let’s not turn ourselves inside out chasing them, there’s still the Bwlch and Loggerheads to come”. We settle in to a little bit of through-and-off between the three of us, and for a while we make steady progress. We are soon joined by Geraint who has dropped off the front group and we make a decent four for a while as we wind our way towards Ruthin. As we cross the little fjord at the bottom of a sharp descent there is a virtual dead stop and 90-degree right-hander. Having to brake immediately before a sharp 10% climb is demoralising and forces us all out of the saddle in an attempt to generate some forward momentum. We slog up this next section, all climbing at our own pace but within sight of each other.
There is another super-fast descent with wide sweeping bends, which sees me move to the front of our little posse, my old foe gravity switching allegiances again. I do my best to pick the smoothest line and keep the legs spinning as much as I can without pushing in to the red. Every few seconds I glance down under my arm and behind to see someone’s front wheel is still within contact behind, and then push on. No one comes through for several minutes. I don’t mind, I’m happy to make some kind of contribution for a change instead of grovelling on the back letting others drive the pace.
As we near Ruthin the others close up. Everyone is exhilarated by the pace of the descent. Ste says he was contemplating the Chris Froome top tube balancing act at one point as he threatened to lose touch. By now Geraint has dropped off, later citing a mechanical issue with his wheel. The four of us, me, Ste, Rik and Damo, commence the climb of new Bwlch together. Immediately Damo’s 65 kg frame moves ahead. I don’t even try to react; I just need to grind this one out. Ste follow’s Damo and Rik is somewhere between Ste and me. Around halfway I close the gap on Rik and he waves me goodbye as I pass him at a snail's pace.
The road flattens out as we dispense with the Bwlch, even drops a little, giving me the opportunity to close on Ste. I go straight past and he jumps on. He asks where is Rik, but I don’t have the answer “Lost him on the Bwlch. Where’s that skinny bastard Damo?” I ask. “He’s long gone”, replies Ste. We work together a little until we get to the short climb at Loggerheads, where my legs are screaming for mercy and I once again slip back a few metres. But we are soon over this final test and descending in to Mold together.
There’s a bit of traffic in the town and we arrive at a set of lights on red, where we find Damo waiting patiently. No one has much appetite for racing each other at this stage and we move along together at a steady pace. We establish that the finish line is not far ahead and agree to roll across it together. As we get to within 50 m, Ste puts the jump on both Damo and I and comfortably beats us. I tried to urge one final effort from the legs, but I was cramping badly and was forced to let him take the glory.
We crawled back to the Mills where the front group were all tucking into food and hot drinks. Dan was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat, having given Chris and Doug the slip in the finale. Of the 16 on the road, I think 6 came in ahead of us, then there was us 3. Rik messaged to say he was stopping at Subway for a steak and cheese melt (the previous year he stopped in Ruthin for pie and chips). Shortly behind us we were joined by Geraint, Tony, Joe, Kate and then Alex. John was last seen grovelling on the Sportmans climb, and is possibly still out there.
And with hot coffee and food inside we all start to feel a little more human. As we re-live the epic ride each takes their turn to claim victory in their own unique category. Dan of course - outright Winter World Champion - winner of The Sportsmans Speedrun (let the record books show he rode a summer bike and did not drive out to the cafe). First summer bike on deep section carbon rims with tubs went to Doug. First winter bike – Chris. First old man on a summer bike was Mick. Kate, first (only) female. I’m claiming a top ten overall and first old man, who rode out and back, on a winter bike. I’m probably top five in the overall standings of people who did all four Speedruns, but I really cannot be arsed working that out.
Damo offers me a ride home, but I politely decline. My Garmin is showing 95 miles and that annoying voice in my head wants three figures in the final distance, not two. “Come on”, says Joe, “the bus is leaving”. We look up and those that are riding back are putting helmets and gloves back on. We say our farewells to Anne and the girls of the Eureka Cyclist’s Café and venture out once more into the cold for the short hop back to the other side of the river Mersey.
Watch the Sportsmans flyby here.
We assemble later the same evening at The Dovey (Dovedale Towers) where tales of our day are exaggerated and embellished with the addition of a few recovery beers. We are joined by Terry, who’s first Speedrun he tells me must have been around 1976 as a junior. I enjoy listening to his stories and the lengths at which he used to go to in order to avoid being available to do the Sportsmans, one year driving to Kent instead and doing a ride there.
Whisper it, but I genuinely remain unconvinced of the validity and sense of this traditional training regime that has dominated the Liverpool Century pre-season for more than forty years, at least in terms of making us better bike riders. There are a few juniors that have participated this year, although tellingly it was largely Veterans dominating the Sportsmans. And we old men are under no illusions. We are not expecting to set the racing world alight. We don’t think we have some edge over the guys we will race against this year – some secret formula for success. So why do we do it? Why do we push ourselves so hard in ‘meaningless’ pre-season training rides?
For me the answer is sat around the table in The Dovey. There must be 20 or more of us gathered for a few beers on a Sunday night, bidding farewell to the weekend and to the Speedruns for another year. Ok, it’s also Hannah’s birthday, so it’s a joint celebration. She didn’t do the Sportsmans today, but she did at least two of the other Speedruns. There is a huge amount of camaraderie around this table. Some haven’t done a speedrun for 20 years or more, other’s who have just had their first experience of this famous tradition. There is a warm, fuzzy glow emanating from our group. Perhaps a sense of achievement, no matter how small and insignificant, reinforced by a sense of pride and of belonging. Or maybe its just the booze.
In light of more modern training theory, the Speedruns might seem a bit crazy and out-dated. And the nutritional sense of five ‘recovery’ pints remains questionable. But whatever you might argue about there being more effective means of prepping for the season, the bond that comes with collective suffering is strong. I’m absolutely convinced then when you’ve battled along the Mold-Denbigh road with some of these lads in 0C, snow and a block headwind, you know they are solid and can be confident they will have your back in a road race. Or indeed away from racing altogether.
I’m also reminded of that Sean Kelly quote about it being impossible to tell what the weather is like only by staring out of your kitchen window – the only way to really know is to get your kit on, go and do your ride, then tell everyone how freezing cold it was afterwards. Without the Speedruns I have no doubt that on at least two occasions these last four weekends, as the 07:00 Sunday morning alarm sounded, I would have been very sorely tempted to just switch it off, roll over and go back to sleep. Speedruns might be a peculiar tradition – but they are our tradition, and it’s impossible to imagine a time when they won’t feature as a major part of our pre-season road racing preparation.
My racing season starts in two weeks time with the Nova 25 2-up. This will be the first outing of the season for the TT bike. We’ll also get some idea if the Speedruns have delivered more than just nostalgia. With four consecutive 100 mile rides in the legs I can at least be confident I’m not completely under-cooked.