So we got back from Kilimanjaro after the adventure of a lifetime and once the dust had settled started to get itchy feet again. The “what next” question came up and we started looking for a follow up trip. For me it was the camaraderie, inane schoolboy humour, but most of all the physical and mental challenge I wanted again. I knew that without that big goal I would not get to the gym or keep up the physical fitness.
The truth is that it is not easy to follow a trip like we had. We considered other treks such as Machu Picchu in South America, but it is a lower altitude and not as difficult. So whilst the scenery is spectacular it is a step down (forgive the bad pun!) from what we achieved. I was happy for more extreme treking such as Everest base camp or something with steeper slopes and ice, but for some reason that wasn’t popular with the lads!
In mid 2011, Richard Pearlman was visiting a friend on the west coast of America when an e-mail was sent “How about cycling San Francisco to LA?” Some of the group were cyslists already so agreed almost immediately, others were just happy to do something staying in hotels, not tents! Others, like me, needed convincing. The friend Richard was visiting, Lewis Sharpstone, used to live locally and emigrated 20+ years ago and his penalty for suggesting the idea was to join in with us but as he is a regular marathon runner, fitness would be OK for him.
After at least several hundred e mails, we agreed to give it a go. The group grew to include 2 more regular riders (completing team Danish (in-joke!)) and Alan Spencer now his lungs were recovered (pneumonia a few months before Kili sadly put an end to that trip for him), making 10 middle aged madmen in all!
However, I still wasn’t sure it was for me. The 8 constant days of riding would be really hard, not that it’s an excuse but really is the challenge! How would I find time for all the training? All that time in the saddle would be so boring. I didn’t mind mountain biking in the forest but a racing bike on the roads – not really for me. I could not commit but said I’d give it a go.
Summer 2011 arrived and some of the group had bought road bikes and started training. I went along one Sunday – but on my mountain bike! If you know about bikes then the difference between them is obvious, if you don’t then it’s like a Donkey keeping up with a Horse, even a thoroughbred donkey would have a problem! The gears and tyres are so different it’s impossible to build up the same speed. Still I gave it a go. We ended up on a 45 mile loop and by 35 miles I was done-in. This was much to the delight of those that struggled more than me on Kili and I’m sure there was a conspiracy to make me work hard that day. I only made it back thanks to Richard Rains very kindly offering to let me use his road bike. I had nothing left in my legs at all!
Anyway that didn’t put me off too much and I met up for some other training rides. As I was still without a road bike, I went for a ride through the forest and met up in Epping for breakfast. Food features a lot in our group! I still wasn’t convinced!
Meanwhile, an expedition company in California was found specialising in the west coast highway ride. They sort out the route, act as our mechanic, move luggage, generally got all the logistics so sound a great option to help us through the trip. We retained them with a sigh of relief. Dates were discussed and early October 2012 was agreed just before half term. I agreed to be “in” provisionally but even at this point still wasn’t convinced I would go.
I needed to get a road bike. Oh my g-d it’s not easy. The choice is immense, frames, gears, brakes, saddles, pedals all have so many options, I didn’t know where to start. So I visited the local cycle shops and picked their brains. Choosing the one I felt the best I got measured for the bike and tried a few in the shop on their static trainer. How did this feel? How was that one? How was I to know?! I’ve got to tell you buying, or I should really say investing in a good road bike isn’t a cheap past time! None of the bikes they had were any good and the one I really liked was out of my price range. So they offered to build me a bike, no obligation, to my specification and budget. If I liked it, then good, if not then no worries. Two weeks later I was back, but didn’t like the bike. It just didn’t look special enough. I ended up getting a great deal on the bike I originally liked and left the shop a lot poorer but happy with my choice.
After the bike, there is the accessories (saddle bags, lights,) the clothing (cycle shorts or long shirt and top layer, shower jacket, helmet, gloves, shoes!). All needing to be colour coded red, black and white to match the bike! Then there is all the energy bars, gels, drinks etc which were also necessary. So I acquired all the gear and was ready for the road. I still wasn’t convinced!
One big new thing on the road bike was the pedal cleats. These are clips that attach the cycle shoes to the pedal with a nice solid click. You are then part of the bike and it makes the pedalling much easier. You can pull and push in a complete circle rather than just up and down. The problem is that to start with its not second nature to release a foot when slowing down, vital for when the bike stops and a foot is needed on the road to stop gravity pulling you and the bike in one piece down to the tarmac! Getting it wrong is dangerous, embarassing, hurts and damages the bike. After a few times of falling off one tends to get the idea and thinks ahead more, but I still feel a bit exposed being clipped in.
It was now late summer 2011, the days were getting shorter, colder, wetter and I start to go out for more cycling. A bit mad really. Sunday morning, meeting at Top Golf in Abridge at 8am takes a bit of getting used to! This is when being in a group with a big goal (not that I has committed yet) makes a difference for me.
The big quest for fitness really started although the ride was still a year away. I visited the gym and set up a new routine, although I really knew that most of my fitness would come from time on the bike and not in the gym. A closer target that encouraged me to get fit was our first family skiing trip for many years. We were lucky to have a dry winter and most of the Sunday cycle rides were cold and bright. We had various routes out into the pretty Essex countryside through to Blackmore, which was around 40 miles round trip.
I do remember the mornings being so very cold especially when starting off before your body gets warm. Eventually I worked out that four layers on the top, a hat under my cycle helmet, long gloves tended to do the trick. My feet still ended up as blocks of ice because the ventilation material on the shoes keep your feet cool in the summer and let a lot of cold air in, in the winter! I learnt that the solution to this was to buy some outer cycle boots that keep the cold and the rain out, but because it was so dry – I didn’t bother!
We went skiing in France and my legs felt quite fit. The cycling had helped being fit for the skiing and visa versa. I still wasn’t convinced the bike ride was a good idea!
The early part of the year was difficult to cycle in the freezing cold but I think we did as much as the weather would allow. The rides seemed to be getting longer and the hills didn’t seem so steep.
In late 2011 I developed a small hernia, which I knew would be a problem. I was lucky that the doctor said I could go skiing without having it operated on first, but would have to have it fixed when I came back. So,(after the January tax returns were done!) I saw the specialist and was fixed towards the end of February. It took quite a few weeks before I could go out cycling properly again, so I had really lost a couple of months of training as a result. But we were still a long way from the trip and with summer round the corner I thought it wasn’t going to be a problem.
We knew there were lots of organised cycle rides during the summer and spoke about doing some as more of a closer target. The London to Brighton Bike Ride is well known and a few of us had already done it, but we discovered that for the first time ever, that there was going to be a night time ride. We thought this would be more of a challenge to do because of the dark conditions and colder temperatures (perhaps memories of the ascent night on Kilimanjaro were a factor). We registered for the ride, which was near mid-Summers day and planned our training towards that. As summer arrived so did the rain but we didn’t give into it too many times.
The night ride was great fun (well at least I thought so!). It didn’t however go as smoothly as we had planned due various things happening including……..an hour delay at the start and standing around getting very cold, the group not managing to stay together, someone crashing into Craig and him injuring his knee, Stuart’s light falling off and breaking and Alan and Richard P having to wait an hour for his puncture to be repaired.
Having done the daytime ride a couple of times before, (when I was a lot, lot younger) I was determined to cycle up the very steep Devils Dyke. The total distance just over 60 miles and Devils Dyke is after about 55 mile. I was very proud that I managed to do this even though when we thought we had reached the top and it was ‘all downhill from there’, after another quarter of a mile or so, the second part of Devils Dyke came into view. At that time I was cycling with David and Craig and I remember we all let out a big groan, a few expletives but put our heads down and just got on with making it to the top. The downhill ride from there into Brighton was fantastic! I was starting to think the trip was do-able and gave up saying ‘I wasn’t sure’!
As were now mid-summer, a few months from the big trip we had to step up the training and try to get out as much as we could. We were riding on more hills and getting the Sunday rides up to about 60 to 65 miles. The problem I could see was that whilst we could do that length of ride as a one-off, I had to plan riding over as many consecutive days as possible.
Lorraine had the idea of planning a trip that combined some sight-seeing with cycling in the Summer, so we planned a trip in Oxfordshire that also included a supercar driving experience, which was one of my 50th birthday presents. I cycled around 50 miles a day for four consecutive days, and whilst it was hard work, I was pleased to have got the experience under my belt. As always, Lorraine was very understanding and encouraging.
We carried on with our weekend rides and started to also do as much as we could during the week. We even went out in the torrential rain during the early part of the summer, which was crazy but hilarious. Richard R certainly learned something about moisturiser (you had to be there!). My rain jacket was very effective but I still hadn’t any waterproof overshoes, resulting in it feeling like my feet were going round in buckets of water. I found out that was because my socks had retained so much water, it was moving round as I pedalled!
In August, I was reading a book I received for my birthday about cycle training and discovered it is better to cycle at a faster number of revolutions (cadence) than I had been doing. This is quite sensible because it means you are taking less effort to move the pedals round because you need to be in a higher gear to do so. It is similar to lifting a lighter weight many times, rather than a heavier weight fewer times and therefore you should be able to, on average, do more. So, I decided to change my cycling style, which was very odd to start with, but after a few weeks, seemed second nature. I also changed the front “big cog” on my bike to accommodate this – and it really made a difference.
The last big milestone we had to pass was a very long ride, longer than the 85 miles we would be doing on the first day. Stuart, however, had completed a London to Paris ride earlier in the summer, doing an amazing 100+ miles for 3 days in a row. An incredible achievement and one I am still very in awe of! The rest of us needed to do a long ride and found there was something called the Essex 100, which surprise, surprise was an organised 100 mile ride. Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment I couldn’t join in, but was still determined to do a big ride on the same weekend. So I went out on my own on a cloudy late summer day. I wanted to do at least 86 miles as our longest day in America is 85 miles! My route took me to Blackmore then through Great Dunmow past Thaxted. When I got nearly home at 80 + miles I was feeling good, so decided to go for the 100. I went up to Epping, back to Woodford and then home totalling 102.12 miles averaging 15.2 miles an hour. It felt such an achievement and I was really pleased to have done it, especially on my own.
The whole thing therefore took me nearly 6.75 hours actual pedalling – about 8.5 hours altogether!!! For the first time ever, whilst cycling, I was listening to music, although I only the earpiece in one ear, so I could still hear what was going on around me. This helped spur me on, although I did have to apologise to quite a few people gardening at the front of their houses and a few other cyclists because of my awful singing!
Whilst I was really pleased with the 100 + miles achievement I don’t think I ate properly afterwards because the next day I felt really drained. That was something I will have to do better in America!
Those of the guys that did the Essex 100, all completed it and like me, were glad for the experience and achieving that milestone.
Summer was drawing to a close and we were all trying to avoid injury, whilst at the same time getting as much training in as we could. The emails about arranging weekend rides seemed to subside in the last few weeks, as it was taken for granted that we would be cycling Saturday and Sunday and whenever possible.
I decided to once again take the opportunity to raise money for two charities, The Stroke Association and Redbridge Jewish Care, which are both much in need of funds and close to my heart at this time. The charity pages can be found at www.virginmoneygiving.com/neildriver.
It is now a week before we go and I have really done all I can do to be ready. One can always do more training but I feel I have put in as much time as could reasonably be expected alongside my work and family life. I don’t really feel at a physical peak but having just done two 45 mile rides this weekend, am confident I could do them 8 days in a row, if necessary. I also compare the recent rides with those of 4 to 6 months ago and can appreciate how far everybody in the group has progressed since then. The hills seem flatter and easier, I am far more aerobically fit and my legs are as strong as they have ever been.
The flights are confirmed and booked. The bike boxes to transport our precious two-wheeled friends are ordered. To take our bikes on the plane we have ordered specialist hard-shell bike cases. On Thursday they will be delivered and the ‘bike-box mechanic’ will remove the wheels, straighten the handle-bars, probably take off the pedals and pack them up safely for their long journey (the mechanic in America has been lined up to do the reverse the night before we set off……..you honestly didn’t expect us to do that ourselves did you?). Actually talking about this reminds me that most of us went on a cycle maintenance course at the beginning of the year to learn about punctures, brakes, gears etc., but watching and doing are very different! I can’t mention the course without thinking about the lunch we had which has to go down as about the worst meal ever, I didn’t realise freshly fried fish and chips could be so oily and disgusting!!
All the cycling gear and nutritional supplements are in place, so I guess we are about as ready as we will be. Before today I was saying that it was getting very exciting with the trip only a week away but I wished there was longer to prepare. As I am writing this blog I have completely changed my mind. I am glad it is nearly here, it has been a long slog, lots of training and 1820 miles pedalling equalling 130 hours in the saddle plus gym work etc. I am not complaining at all and am really looking forward to the experience, but now wish it was starting tomorrow!
It wouldn’t be right to leave without thanking my nearest and dearest for their understanding and encouragement over the last year or so, supporting me with this latest hair-brain adventure. Lorraine, I know you don’t want me to say anything, so I won’t! To my 9 fellow cyclists (Alan Spencer, Craig Goldman, Daren Feld, David Black, Keith Crossman, Richard Pearlman, Richard Rains, Stuart Bookatz and of course Lewis Sharpstone in America) thank you for the great times we have had preparing for this mad-cap trip and good luck to you all. As with Kilimanjaro, we all have reasons for doing this, but right now it doesn’t feel quite as daunting. Perhaps we are better prepared, perhaps thi sis the 2nd adventure, perhaps because we are staying in hotels!
But saying all that, this will undoubtedly be a massive challenge and have ups, downs, good and bad moments. Whatever happens we will pull together and I know we will have an incredible time with many memories and stories to bring home. The only question is …….what next?